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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Popcorn Flicks: The Great Wall, Kong: Skull Island, and Life


This is the time of the year for excellent independent films, action films with good franchise potential that are testing the waters, and "B" pics hoping to sell popcorn in a slow time for the industry.  Guess which ones we have here.

The Great Wall
On Oscar night, Jimmy Kimmel ridiculed Matt Damon: “He handed an Oscar-caliber role over to his friend and made a Chinese ponytail movie instead,” referring Damon's decision to reject the lead in Manchester by the Sea (a role that earned Best Actor for Casey Affleck).  That "ponytail movie"  was The Great Wall, the story of a Middle Ages-era European mercenary (Damon) who travels with his Sancho Panza-esque sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal) to the Far East in search of black powder.  On the way, they run into some scary reptilian creatures and barely escape with their lives, only to be captured by the royal army guarding the Great Wall of China.  There, they meet Lin Mae (Tian Jing) the beautiful but deadly commander of a brave female unit--and soon to become the leader of the entire garrison--and the ever sleazy Willem Dafoe as another Westerner who traveled East for nefarious reasons.  We also learn an alternative history that the Wall was built to protect the Imperial City from the creatures, who have recently risen from their decades-long hibernation, each awakening bringing a smarter and more dangerous enemy.  Director Yimou Zhang mounts a colorful and impressive CGI-display, but the writers' wooden dialogue and increasingly preposterous developments are difficult to defend, even in good-natured fun.
6 out of 10

Kong: Skull Island
We never were fans of the Kong oeuvre after the 1933 classic.  Each retelling sucked me in, each one disappointed.  Only the entreaties of dear friend Ambrose Woolfinger, Ph.D., an expert in gorilla behavior, got us to the theater.  Pleasant surprise: K:SI had thrilling action, imaginative CGI, and most importantly, it isn't another tired remake but rather a re-imagining, a barely-veiled mashup of Jurassic Park and Apocalypse Now (is it a coincidence that Tom Hiddleston's character is named "Conrad"--as in Joseph, the author of Heart of Darkness,  source material of Apocalypse Now?).  At the end of the Vietnam Era, shady DC operative (John Goodman) convinces the government to fund an expedition to a mysterious cloud-shrouded island where ships and planes disappear.  The team consists of the requisite heroes and victims: a bureaucrat (John Ortiz), a lethal tracker (Hiddleston), a spunky Liberal war photographer (Brie Larson), a couple of scientists (including Tian Jing again, nerdy, not heroic, this time), and an air cavalry unit led by war-loving Col. Wild Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).  Almost immediately, they meet Kong, who carries himself not so much as a great ape as he does a 100-foot tall NFL linebacker who uses palm trees like javelins.  Kong is also a total ass-kicker, which is good because he's not the wildest of the wildlife in the neighborhood.  They also run into John C. Reilly, a downed WWII pilot who has become somewhat of a leader of the aboriginal tribe on Skull Island.  He is the veteran tour guide and comic relief who asks the requisite anachronistic current events questions ("Have the Cubs won the pennant yet?").  Together, the ensemble of cookie-cutter characters crumbles under the mortal threats the island poses, but eventually, the good guys are separated from the bad, bad the guys are separated from their constituent body parts, and we left the popcorn flick having had loads of fun.
7.5 out of 10

Life
A claustrophobic, Alien hopeful with better lighting and neater gizmos but less soul.  Aboard the International Space Station, a diverse crew of six attractive scientists banter and bond, each with just enough backstory to be a caricature: David (Jake Gyllenhaal), a doctor whose record for time in space betrays a wish to stay there because of what we do to each other on Earth; Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), the security specialist with a secret; Rory (Ryan Reynolds), the daring wiseguy tech-mech, Hugh (Ariyan Bakare), the paraplegic scientist who loves the zero gravity that erases his disability; Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), the computer whiz and brand new father; Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya), the brave Captain.  They are studying soil samples retrieved from Mars and find a one-celled creature; they bring the little cutie and its wavy flagella to life, creating a worldwide sensation.  An elementary class wins a contest and names it "Calvin," after their school: Calvin Coolidge Elementary (which should have been the first warning).  Using a safety glove inside a reinforced glass case, Hugh nurtures Calvin and the creature grows rapidly. A biological analysis shows that Calvin is  "all muscle, all brain, all eye" (now really, is there any chance this is going to turn out well?), and it shows curiosity and no fear (and, as you may have seen in the trailer it has a strong handshake--haven't these folks seen The Blob?).  As expected, things quickly go downhill.  Life has two surprises-one is a shocker; the other telegraphs its punch.  In the end, it's a neat space horror flick and Calvin is coolly creepy, but the paint-by-numbers storyline wastes a very good cast.
7 out of 10

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