Monday, July 11, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan, The Purge 3, Swiss Army Man, Tickled Reviews

The Legend of Tarzan
Dir. David Yates
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The vine-swinging, poo-flinging Tarzan is certainly no stranger to the film medium. Nearly 105 years after the publication of Edgar Rice Burrough's original novel, which itself spawned 14 sequels, we have seen well over 50 adaptations of the loin-clothed man-ape for the big and small screen, going back all the way to the pre-talkie silent days. So with such a deep, rich (and not-so-rich) well of material to work from and try to make fresh, David Yate's The Legend of Tarzan feels pretty pointless. Haven't we seen enough of this tale already over the past century? Although the studios apparently didn't think so, audiences have, as Warner Brothers spent $180 million for a film that will struggle to break even. The Legend of Tarzan is a boring, lifeless, unnecessary, too-familiar re-hash of the Tarzan story that proves that brand-recognizability alone won't make people automatically flock to see a film.

The Tarzan introduced in The Legend of Tarzan is "so over" his jungle roots. He's acclimated to British society, refers to himself as "Lord Greystoke," and no longer wants to be seen as that celebrity ape-dude by the public. He drinks his tea with his pinky out. But the audience knows that his inner-gorilla is teeming to come out sooner or later. Tarzan (a stone-faced Alexander Skarsgard) and Jane (Margot Robbie) reluctantly return to Africa after being tipped off of a supposed Belgian slave trade in the Congo by their fellow adventurer, Samuel M-f'ing Jackson. The three together globe trot back to an African village where Jane and Tarzan spent some considerable time in their past. In the process, "Lord Greystoke" slowly sheds his aristocratic cloaks and monocles one article at a time until he's half-naked, frees slaves, saves Jane from kidnappers, punches a gorilla in the face (in slow motion of course), and stops the Colonel Sanders-lookalike villain, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), from enslaving a population all for his precious diamonds.

The Tarzan myth was written over a hundred years ago, and clearly gender and racial roles have changed dramatically since then. To modernize the story, Yates and Co. use both colonization and the "superhero" genre as ways for audiences to connect with the story. The colonization story has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately, as is sadly the case with many mainstream films featuring racially oppressed characters, the Africans are all simpletons and pretty much do nothing the entire film; even Djimon Hounsou, playing a tribal leader who wants revenge on Tarzan makes no lasting impact on the story other than to gave a lame, brief fistfight in the rain. The film also clearly is trying to make Tarzan a superhero - he can talk to animals, he swings on vines exactly like Spider-Man, and most importantly, he's got rock hard abs. All that's missing is the cape. The film clings to "superhero" tropes in an attempt to revitalize the myth, but comes across as desperate.

What's most unforgivable about this movie is that it's plain boring. Skarsgard makes the same dumb smoldering look the entire film, Waltz sticks to his "deranged but sophisticated" persona that he's done in practically every role (and better in all of them), and Jane is unfortunately useless eye candy. At one point, Jane says a line to the effect of "I'm no damsel in distress." One scene later she's handcuffed to a boat and kidnapped the entire film, waiting for Tarzan to save her. If that's not a "damsel in distress" I don't know what is. The only character I semi-enjoyed here was Sam Jackson's George Washington Williams, who had an occasional funny line and an interesting (but unexplored) backstory which makes his Congo trip a redemption story for some shady actions in his past. But largely, The Legend of Tarzan goes through the motions and is a slow slog to the finish line.

The film does have beautiful cinematography (featuring some great aerial jungle shots), and the fact that most of the film was shot in a studio in the UK is kind of incredible - between this and The Jungle Book, I think we're at a point where CGI environments are completely photorealistic. But despite its "updates," The Legend of Tarzan is a humorless, generic, forgettable chore to sit through.

Rating: C-

The Purge: Election Year
Dir. James DeMonaco
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Kind of like in a real election year, The Purge films bring up a lot of interesting ideas, but never follows through with any of them. James DeMonaco's third of what's sure to be a longer series of Purge films, Election Year is another entry in this exploitation saga where for 12 hours once a year, murder and crime is legal in America. This time, Senator Charlotte "Charlie" Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for president on an anti-Purge platform, claiming that the Purge is just a way for the elite to get the lower classes and minorities to kill each other. This year, the New Founding Fathers - the mysterious organization that runs the government - establishes a new rule for the latest purge night, allowing high-ranking officials to be killed, and subsequently sends a squad of white supremacists to take out Roan. Luckily, an ex-military aid (Frank Grillo) is there to save her from the skinheads, and eventually they team up with deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his loyal employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a woman named Laney (Betty Gabriel) who drives around during Purge night, helping the injured.

While it's nice to have a mixed-race cast, the film does have some face-palming racial stereotypes, mostly coming from Joe (who refers to their situation as "sitting in front of these Negros looking like a bucket of chicken"). There's also one instance where the crew is faced down by a murderous gang, but then it's revealed that Joe just happened to be in a gang in his pre-deli youth and uses his "street knowledge" to get the gangsters on their side. It's mighty convenient, and honestly seems like a joke on paper, but is played straight. Yup, all black people apparently used to be in a gang, way to go, Purge. The movie skirts with some interesting ideas, reflecting how our gun crazy, violent culture could possibly lead to such a "holiday" as the purge, but between its juvenile sense of humor, its uncomfortable handling of race, and its somewhat hypocritical trigger-happy characters, The Purge: Election Year feels like wasted potential, yet again.

The dull and thin story might have been passable if the movie lived up to the insanity of its premise, but it's like DeMonaco is afraid to explore any truly horrific situations. Think what you want about them, but I believe this series needs someone like Rob Zombie or Eli Roth to up the stakes a little bit. There's a sequence in Roth's Hostel where Jay Hernandez is brought through the torture compound and witnesses one horrific scene after the other through each door, a direct reflection of the "stripper rooms" in Amsterdam he was having careless fun in the night before. You'd think on a "Purge night," where these rampant psychos aren't limited to an underground compound - Washington DC is their playground of death - there would be more mentally scarring stuff going down. When I watch a horror movie, I want to be mentally scarred! As is, The Purge: Election Year is a decent, but tedious summer b-movie that is extra disappointing due to its great - if illogical - premise.

Rating: C

Swiss Army Man
Dir. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
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Swiss Army Man has a pretty insane "elevator pitch." It's essentially Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie's. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island, ready to commit suicide, when he spots a man floating to the shore. The body belongs to a gassy, farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. Hank soon realizes that he can take advantage of his new "friend," and literally propels himself off the island via its farts, riding Radcliffe's corpse as a makeshift jet-ski. This all happens within the first five minutes of the film. The feature debut from the directing duo "Daniels," Swiss Army Man is an unapologetically weird and audacious film that unsurprisingly had a number of walk-outs during its Sundance premiere. Strangely enough, beyond its amusing concept, the Daniels also made a film that tackles bigger concepts like loneliness, body shaming, and even in a perverse way, raising a child. While it didn't work for me at times, there's no question that Swiss Army Man is one of the most original films of the year and refreshingly doesn't give two farts about whether or not the audience is on board.

Soon after finding the shore, Hank begins talking to the corpse, who he names "Manny." It remains ambiguous throughout the film if his conversations with Manny are real or fantasy, but either way, the film remains an interesting character study. Manny doesn't remember who he is or where he came from, so, like a child, he remains naive about everything around him, with Hank having to fill him in on topics ranging from the theme to Jurassic Park to the etiquette of farting. Hank is clearly unstable, and it becomes obvious that even before he became stranded he might have had some mental/social problems, and it's through his friendship with Manny that he learns to accept his weirdness and look at the world fresh again. Swiss Army Man, in a way, directly confronts the things that we all treat as disgusting or socially unacceptable - flatulence, poo, death, all the discarded trash that Hank makes use of in the woods - and attempts to "undo" shame, unafraid to show the things we all deal with behind closed doors.

Nothing in this film would work if the performances weren't great, but Dano and Radcliffe deliver. Dano has that certain desperate, lonely quality that really fits Hank, and Radcliffe, proving himself a talent beyond the walls of Hogwarts, truly commits to his slack-jawed corpse role. Dano constantly has to move, prod, and manipulate Radcliffe's body, and the physical performance from Radcliffe is what sells the relationship (though it's unclear to me just how much of the film was Radcliffe or a dummy). While I did have a few issues with the film, to say it's a "gimmick" movie is selling it short: these actors give genuine performances, the Daniels have serious things on their mind, and they actually shot this film as "beautifully" as a farting corpse movie could look.

Despite its inspiring originality, which really makes me want to root for this film, I personally found its strange blend of fart jokes, self-serious "humanizing" philosophy, and magical realism to be slightly off-putting at times. Had its tone been a little more consistent (the film ranges from a bizarre comedy to an attempted poetic elegy within the same scene) maybe it would've "clicked" more for me. However, I can't not recommend you see this movie, which if nothing else, is like nothing you've ever seen before. The final lines uttered in Swiss Army Man is appropriately enough: "What the fuck."

Rating: B-

Dir. David Farrier & Dylan Reeve
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On the surface, the documentary Tickled is about the world of online competitive tickling, but as you go deeper down its rabbit hole, the film becomes much more than I, and likely even the filmmakers, had originally anticipated. New Zealand's David Farrier (who, according to an opening montage clip, is NZ's favorite pop culture reporter) comes across a mysterious competition online, hosted by "Jane O'Brien Media," where young men from around the world sign up for monthly 'endurance tickling' matches. They're promised free travel expenses, and a top prize of $1500. When Farrier attempts to get an interview with some of the contestants, he is immediately sent various homophobic warnings from Jane O'Brien Media, claiming that they don't want to be associated with a homosexual journalist or pornography in any way. Intrigued by their violent reaction (surely there's something fishy going on here), Farrier essentially turns his amusing side project into a full-blown investigation, uncovering the dirty secrets behind this company and these "tickle sites."

This is one of those movies where writing a review is difficult because it's best to go in knowing nothing, finding out bombshell information along with the filmmakers. The investigation covers everything from "revenge porn" to the dangers of sending out information to the world, and Tickled feels very much in the same spirit as HBO's incredible The Jinx, with "Jane O'Brien" revealing to be just as manipulative and crazy as Robert Durst. This film might make you look at the "actors" in online pornography differently (not that I'm assuming my readers look at that...who am I kidding, yes I am), and how it can literally ruin people's lives. Quite troubling, informative, and tense - Tickled is a great documentary that you shouldn't dismiss just because of its initially strange subject matter.

Rating: B+

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