29 August 2017

Top Ten: Tom Hiddleston!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in ranked order...

Our Top Ten Tom Hiddleston Shows!

7. Thor

Please see our Tom Hiddleston tag for yet more pictures or our Shakespeare label for further theatrical analysis! 

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


27 August 2017

The Night Manager

The Night Manager Brings Cinematic Espionage to the Small Screen
by Kristin Battestella

The Nefertiti Hotel's night manager Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) receives documents implementing arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) and is later recruited by International Enforcement Chief Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) in Switzerland to infiltrate Roper's criminal organization. Pine builds his rap sheet in Devon as Jack Linden before becoming the injured Thomas Quince welcomed into Roper's island fortress in Mallorca. There, Pine becomes Andrew Birch – the front man in Roper's latest shell company buying and selling chemical weapons. Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape, dalliances with Roper's girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and suspicious right hand man Corky (Tom Hollander) put the operation at risk as Pine is cut off from his handler and falls deeper into this lavish but deadly enterprise.

BBC and AMC's 2016 co-production of John Le Carre's The Night Manager is an impressive six hour adaptation brimming with sophisticated espionage and cinematic flair thanks to Emmy winning director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) and screenwriting nominee David Farr's (MI-5) update on the 1993 novel's Caribbean cartels turned contemporary Mediterranean arms. The Night Manager begins with the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, intercutting the hotbed protests in the street with video clips of our corrupt entrepreneur. The luxury hotel isn't much safer with complimentary cocktails, seductive clientele, and confidential documents, but early conversations layer what the audience needs to know – naming the bad boys, our titular employee's history, and redacted weapons manifests. There's a buttoned up formality in the nighttime bustle accented by unique through the water fountain camera angles, and zooming in on the eyes brings us closer but not within the eponymous inner workings as breathy lips near the phone receiver escalate the room service flirtation. This desert subtlety is well framed as silhouetted men walk through door frames or archways, entering deeper as critical information goes to the wrong source. Interfering with weapons deals, swapping rooms, and having a little hideaway romance leads to bruised faces and consequences while bureaucratic paper work prevents the outdated government agency with no lift or heat from pursuing its quarry. Warning phone calls come too late, and fatalities linger into the chilly present with mysterious packages and testy confrontations as our hotelier must make his choice. Unfortunately, the island luxury, continental travel, and sailing to fancy dinner parties turns into family terror. Although this second hour's opening hostage exotic is somewhat Bondian, there's relationship drama, female character developments, and depth to the ruses with disturbing give a sip of wine to the young boy and see if he likes it then give the kid a rifle and watch what happens jokes. Indoctrinating speeches and spy placements take The Night Manager back six months, and as the eponymous blank slate steps into the out of focus field office, the camera angle and his new identity become clear. This agency needs the perfect psychopath performance, and rules don't apply to the good guys if they need to get the bad guys. Infiltrating the Devon underground with motorcycles, slapping around pimps, bad drug deals, bar fights, and bloody crime scenes trump up a legend as broken bones take the put on violence too far – leaving our asset injured with the enemy seeing to his care. MI-6 and the CIA go back and forth on if they are playing ball or stonewalling each other, and each hour of The Night Manager builds its own well paced narrative with the overarching mission details and the play within a play questions on who's off the undercover script, cut off, or in too deep, thus intertwining the at home drama amid the slight of hand espionage.

Family consequences and fatal fractures come for the middle man by Episode Three, for there's a price to pay in being friendly with the worst man in the world. Business dealings are done at children's parties with the magic tricks, and tennis, beach side runs, and infinity pools come along with hefty threats – you are not a prisoner so long as one abides the house rules and doesn't tug on the leash. The bodyguards come along when going out for ice cream, and kids are used in making covert handler contact as veiled conversations say one thing and mean another amid house alarms, stolen phones, secret rooms, and keys hidden in the peppermints. Information passed outside goes back inside, creating a wedge at this Tudor-eqsue court with whispers on the balcony, deals disguised as entertainment, and strolls planting the seeds of doubt. Revelations lie behind every closed door, scorned women know too much, couples are tested, and new dalliances made – thinking about the ladies keeps a man up at night but the transparent politicians offer a different bribe in this multi-level game played with bedroom intimacy and continental meetings. The snooping gets damn risky as code names, client lists revealed, new signatures, and company facades bring our insider to the forefront. Truths said to be told in anger and spread as manure are believed by one where others are dismissed as a smear campaign when they are just as true. The circumvention almost seems too easy, but sweet selling speeches on how to win by keeping the losers guessing are said directly to the camera. Anonymous partners don't know what they are buying and selling and don't care so they can sleep at night, but paper trail leaks and revealing nighttime encounters upset this perilous balance. Kisses create complications, officials are strong armed with roadside perils, and details on the big money operation are given to the audience with envelope drops and innocuous park bench chats. Our hotelier's smoothing over panache comes in handy for the illegal trade alongside decoy cargo ships, tapped phone lines, and exposed eyes only materials. Who's double crossing whom? Rogue agents and collateral assets get caught in the complicated crossfire while handshakes and quips about the contraband remain as simple as a briefcase full of money and looking the other way on the wink.

Game faces, questions asked but answers not given, and call outs on who would betray whom come to a head in Episode Five as The Night Manager's bait and switch suspicions put the viewer in on the game being played. Refugee camps cover the deals really happening – some aide given for the ironic photo op provides a heartbreaking realization on how much these millions could do if they were really done for good. Instead, crooks move into the vacuum created by a country's chaos with spectacular demonstrations of the fatal weaponry for sale. It's an impressive fireworks display, for war is a spectator's sport and napalm looks pretty at night. Though only eighteen months old, it's a bit creepy these days to watch this shrewd, timely update waxing on mercenaries, privatized warfare, false flags, and conveniently created coups. Risks and tensions rise while the on edge entourage points fingers at each other – warrants come and funding goes thanks to lies on the fly, deliberate power outages, and violence at home. The technicalities of the snare are well explained as interrogations escalate into your word versus mine silence. The luxury hotels and exotic veneer are less lush by the final hour as The Night Manager returns to the desert where this escapade began. Global enmity folds into government inquiries, potentially false intelligence, and mothballed agencies amid private vengeance and local drug lords hung out to dry. It's time for the millionaire transfer and final client exchange, but a cowboy and a pregnant woman are all that stand beside our ex-manager against the close calls, combinations to the safe, decoy parcels, and clues at the roulette table. Cover blowing confrontations have everyone looking over their shoulders as the lose ends are caught in the expensive, explosive just deserts.

Pine, Linden, Quince, Birch – executive producer Tom Hiddleston's (Kong: Skull Island) former soldier doesn't miss warfare but he doesn't know who he really is, either. Pine hibernates in the cold anonymity of hospitality, a relatable every man willfully hiding in a luxurious shadow with nothing but a backpack and a spartan room. He has a formal, controlled facade for every situation, but when he does stick his neck out against the morally wrong weapons trade and pass along information to his former military friends, the consequences isolate the newly cut to the core Pine even further. He uses that emotion to get Roper when he has the chance, gathering useful intel while keeping his cool on the fly and thinking fast with the right smile or wink. Up close signatures are different names but the same tell tale cursive, and the name tag uniform, leather jacket, and tailored suits match each persona as Pine plays spy in Roper's world – a lavish playground for his many sides to maneuver. “Linden's” happy he can summon a fake passport, “Quince” roughs people up to make it look really authentic, and “Birch” clearly enjoys everyone calling him handsome. A guy can get used to this deception, and the camera plays to Hiddleston's strengths – panning up as he struts across the screen and fills the whole canvas with his close shaves, shirtless muscles, steamy sheets, and piercing blue palette. Pine has a soft spot for count 'em three fallen women but ultimately ends up using them as well. He's the perfect front man with his debonair answers tricking people into speaking freely, unaware he is the dark horse topsy-turvying Roper's household. He gives bitter info about his father – it wouldn't be a Hiddleston role without daddy issues! – while playing chess with mentor Roper as he likewise puts the smolder on Jed. The cracking cat and mouse worsens as half alive Pine embraces the brutality of Roper's organization and has nothing left to lose when staring at the end of the gun barrel. The double crossing roles add to the life imitating art wink, and since he's again wearing his own wardrobe, Golden Globe winner Hiddleston can seem like he's just playing his blue steel self. While Loki requires a full transformative appearance, the performance in The Night Manager has merit enough to move Hiddleston beyond the Marvel wig. Ironically, he didn't need to try so hard with that summer tabloid fiasco said to have already cost him a chance at being the next James Bond. Could he be 007 in the same gritty vein as Daniel Craig? No. However, if the franchise returns to the lighthearted charm of the Roger Moore era, than yes. After all, Pine drinks martinis, too.

We hear tell of fellow EP and Globe winner Hugh Laurie's (House) charismatic “worst man in the world” Richard Roper before we meet him thanks to his rah rah videos – his photo ops say one thing and mean another, never mind that it isn't really farm equipment his shell companies are transporting behind the jolly good, what fun lifestyle. His dry wit and cool entourage stay at ease so long as one doesn't cross Dickie, but he will test or toy with people for his bemusement, talking to Pine as a paying custom to a subservient manager before taking to his English moxie. Roper pays the bills, so he gets to draw the map, and there's almost an admiration for his self-made if illegal hard work. He's calm when his son is threatened, expecting that what he says goes, yet Roper sentimentally repays Pine for his heroics, embracing him as someone not content with life who could be worthy of his operation. Roper can groom Pine in his own image, but warns him of what will happen if you don't follow daddy's rules. Dickie sees that the world is rotten and a truly free man embraces the cruelty to stay on top – a bleak but sadly not wrong notion. He doesn't lie, just merely says the right things until you don't notice the truth isn't one of them. Such shady work comes before Jed and his little Danny, but Roper can impart his tactics on the “young prince” Birch. While he's aware one shouldn't trust a man who has no appetite or vices and keeps some of his business mysteries from Andrew, he's almost impressed by one who might outwit him. Roper sips tea during some nonchalant bathtub torture, but mistakenly believes his own cheeky hype in this caper, calling his privatized warfare one big happy kingdom where he is Caesar sitting back as others do the violence for him. However, he dislikes being double crossed, and when Roper says it is borrowed time for anyone who betrays him, we believe it.

Olivia Colman's (Broadchurch) Angela Burr may be such a super role because the character was originally a man, but the pregnant actress makes it all the more juicy and numerous awards followed. Burr uses the personal against people with no qualms because she is in the right to do so, and she pushes Pine out of his element as both a maternal figure tapping into his duty and the devil on his shoulder playing his emotion over Roper. She likes that he is a clean slate she can muck up with a fake dossier and tests Pine with his father's past – casually saying she didn't know it meant that much to him, which he counters yes, she did. Angela jokes that being a pregnant woman is the perfect cover but as an Englishwoman balks at the idea of carrying a gun. She lays her plan to infiltrate Roper's circle on thick while insisting Pine eat a cookie, and Burr turns another asset by preying on his Catholicism with her pregnant woman guardian angel Madonna veneer. Only she can wash the blood from his hands with this deceptive womanly warmth, and though her condition adds to the tough travel, hot temperatures, and stakeout waiting; the entirety of the woman's existence is not her being with child. Huzzah! Angela admits to not really loving her decent, understanding husband and may have been a little naughty along the way it seems. Upon first viewing The Night Manager, her still unmistakably pregnant despite the timeline skips may be confusing, however we can forgive the film making trickery because she has to be fresh, pushy, and loud to get her way regardless thanks to nasty bureaucrats who don't want Burr digging further. She's always one step behind Roper, and this off the books operation is a risky venture that brings consequences close to home. Angela's scared, but she won't concede to an ignorant, stay a home life, giving the reason why she despises Roper in a stunning, heartfelt scene done with nothing but one woman retelling a terrible witness to another.

Perhaps Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E) is an unconventional beauty to Hollywood standards, but she's a lady as tall as her men with an edgy haircut and sexy slip in or slip out effortless, elegant styles. Her Jed is initially blissfully unaware of Roper's ways – but she's not afraid to show her body to keep up the heated pools, lavish furs, and tubs of champagne. The subtle camera pans suggest what the men are thinking without being mere titillation to make the audience drool, and maybe it takes a woman director to know the difference. Jed has a family history that doesn't match the lingerie and satin robes brochure, and she won't let anyone see her tears, taking pills to cope and staying so cool on the outside as angry calls from home risk revealing her baggage to Roper. She's deluded herself into thinking this is a loving relationship rather than another one of Roper's arrangements, telling Pine knowing Roper's business would drive her mad and dropping dress to test him with her body because maybe that is the only way she knows how. However, Jed's doubts do blossom with Jonathan there to help her escape. She objects to being just another employee in Roper's shady deals, getting pissy and finding it more and more difficult to play along in keeping him happy. Jed becomes emotional – being in love makes her slip up, and she isn't as good at this covert fine line as the boys and her pretty face pays. Though at times the camera is too obvious in the lovebirds' stolen glances, that mirrors their increasing notice to others, and Tom Hollander's (Rev.) Lance “Corky” Corkoran sees Pine for exactly what he is. Initially, Corky's rare loyalty and ruthless skills are worth any bemusing faux pas. He enjoys getting under everyone's skin, flirting with Pine to gauge a response while remaining suave in his threats. Corky suggests big deals go down at family parties and seems unfettered by potential harm to the children, but he's rightfully suspicious of the employee from Switzerland with an international rap sheet posing as a chef in Mallorca who rescued the Chief's kid. His own vices, unfortunately, become an embarrassing liability – Roper can only overlook the $100 a pop “uncorking” expenses for so long until Corky's left home and pushed out of the business in favor of Birch. He warns him to back off romancing Jed and sobers up to confront Andrew. Unfortunately, there isn't room in Roper's court for both of them, and it is ridiculous that Hollander won the Supporting Actor Bafta yet received no other nominations.

The Night Manager has fine support all around, including David Harewood (Homeland) as Angela's likewise red taped American ally Joel Steadman. She needs him under the rug and on her side, and the implication of a past fling and his still having a soft spot for our hard dame is a wonderful touch contrasting the snobby smooth of Alistair Petri's (Rogue One) Lord Langbourne. He enjoys the viola in doing Roper's deals, liking Pine's suave front even if a simple hotel man raised up can't have the same elan as his aristocratic self. Sadly, Natasha Little (Another Life) as his wife Caroline is aware of the trade secrets and patting on the young nanny's bottom, gossiping to Pine because she wants to talk with someone else who sees everything. She dislikes him becoming Roper's “acolyte,” but Dickie humiliates her into reporting on Jed. Young Noah Jupe's (Suburbicon) Danny also factors into the plot as needed with Pine using Roper's son for information and connections – an unenviable situation for the only genuine and innocent person in this world who just likes having Jonathan as a friend. Aure Atika's (Mademoiselle Chambon) Sophie is also a bittersweet, trying to be brave, classy dame in with the wrong crowd both saved and ruined by the men around her. Frisky and Tabby bodyguards Michael Nardone (Rome) and Hovik Keuchkerian (Assassin's Creed) are sardonic but appropriately violent, while Douglas Hodge's Rex Mayhew (Penny Dreadful) is a good politician screwed over, and man, River House bad Tobias Menzies (Outlander) is once again so shady and smug, belittling Burr's agency as nothing more than her personal obsession with Roper, GTFO.

From Cairo and the Pyramids, Swiss resorts, or Mallorca palaces to British countrysides, London skylines, and Turkish hideaways; wherever The Night Manager roams there are sweet, sweet locales. Title cards giving time and place add to the assorted languages as sweeping overhead shots and wide lenses make people small against the scene setting grandeur – be it Spanish churches symbolizing guilt and repentance or snowy mountaintops touching the humbling night sky. Click click snapshots match spying camera views of SUV entourages while up close photography draws the viewer into the heist action. While the steeped in the plot technology will be dated soon, such security scanning, encrypted messages, retina recognition, and voice transfers are high tech enough to be slightly fantastic yet believably slick. So what if sliding tablet screens and thumbs poised over the green send call button aren't the slammed receiver from the days of old – criminal satellite visuals and night vision screens contrast the less tricked out official outfits using fax machines, older televisions, and big computers. Interiors are likewise warmed with fire lit glows or sunny island windows for the lavish compared to frigid government offices. The brief nudity is sexy but demure, however brief ghostly flashes are unnecessary thanks to better editing and photography already reflecting internal character angst. Pine also smokes in one scene purely to show his willpower against Roper, but it is such a fine mano y mano moment we can allow it. The Night Manager is shot like a film, and while some viewers may find the stylish transitions irrelevant, it's nice to have a series setting itself apart with visual flair looking more expensive than it actually is. The haunting melodies and simmering music fit this beautiful but dangerous edge, and the excellent opening credits sum up the series perfectly with a mirage of bombs, firepower, and explosive clouds merging with alluring diamonds, champagne, and crashing chandeliers.

Although the stateside AMC airing of The Night Manager made slight editing and censoring changes – international screenings also changed the series from six solid hours to eight, forty-five minute episodes for some markets – there are behind the scenes features and bonuses available amid several uncut video releases and streaming options. In contrast to that other MI-6 agent, The Night Manager combines the individual spy, larger mission, team at hand, and female characters better than Spectre without sacrificing any extravagance. I still say Spectre's formula of MI-6 getting the job done largely without Bond can be a 008 Netflix series in between movies, but The Night Manager works as both one cinematic binge or an episodic pace. It's great on the first viewing for all the surprises, but the allure grows the more times you watch all the slight of hand, drool worthy people, and pretty places. Though not a totally faithful adaptation for novel purists, the miniseries ends well with awards acclaim and continued success necessitating rumblings of a follow up season. I'd love to see more, but a sequel has to be as good as this debut, and The Night Manager is difficult act to follow. Rather than weekly flash a minute, for the cool fake outs, The Night Manager updates Le Carre's espionage into a contemporary, relevant, and well balanced but no less enticing potboiler.

22 August 2017

We're Hitchcock Certified!

We're Hitchcock Certified!

Hitchcock Certified – or is that Certified Hitchcock?

Either way, I Think, Therefore I Review has it thanks to my participation in Turner Classic Movies and Ball State University's The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock

Over 16,000 students participated through the Canvas Network. I wasn't super active on the Twitter front or in the TCM forums, but it was amazing to read new insights on Hitchock's films with so many other movie fans and rewatch Sir Alfred favorites as well as less familiar Hitch pictures with fresh eyes. 

Thanks again to Professor Richard Edwards for a course that wasn't super collegiate pace pressure to complete the weekly badges yet had plenty enough lectures, videos, and multi media to make the course both thought provoking and fun. 


Whether you are a writer and film enthusiast or one who just likes to keep enjoying classic cinema, I highly recommend you keep an eye out for more opportunities like this from TCM. I know I will! 


20 August 2017

More Writers in Peril!

More Writers in Peril
by Kristin Battestella

Once again it's time to ditch pen and paper as these vintage novelists, retro reporters, and contemporary screenwriters face murder, ghosts, aliens, and writer's block. You know, the usual.

Black Butterfly РThis 2017 thriller opens with handcuffed to the chair foreshadowing before vintage typewriters and booze for bearded, graying, and stressed screenwriter Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro). The picnics and missing women are a little piecemeal to start with a driving montage because of course, but the pleasing greenery, misty dew, aerial photography, and log cabin pans build the Denver outskirts, no reception isolation. This for sale but messy bachelor pad is in need of repair, our writer can't pay his tab at the country store, angry phone calls from his agent want him to go along with script changes or else, and Paul spends more time hunting Рprocrastinating since his wife left him in this secluded writing retreat. The fifteen year age difference between our leading man and lady is clich̩, but lunch with realtor Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) strikes out before radio reports of murdered women and unexpected road rage. Instead, Paul offers mysterious drifter Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) a hot shower for his act of kindness, lulling the viewer into a casual tour of the home amid older jadedness versus young cynicism quiet burn chats. Our guest cooks, cleans, and makes repairs for free, but saws, axes, and guns suggest an ominous РJack swims in the cold pond, his tattoos are part of the plot, and Meyers is always at his best in such ambiguous, half-crazed roles. The camera moves with the cast rather than creating an unneeded, false hectic, but the outdoors are traded for increasingly congested interiors with filming through railings, windows, and doors questioning who is on which side of the threats, slaps, or paranoia. We're suspicious but this handyman is actually helpful in telling Paul to pour out the bottle and write Рa well cast irony with Meyers' past addiction problems adding to the meta instead of trite twenty-somethings battling unrealistic frights. This frank play within a play addresses how dismissed writers often are with only the title kept as their story changes into cinematic veneer, winking but not underestimating the audience as our drifter suggests Paul's write their story with the regrets, embellishments, and surprises needed of course. Was their meeting pre-planned or are these hostage threats merely script fodder? Where does what's suppose to be on the page and the secrets we see diverge? It's just a story and nothing happens unless the writer says so, right? The ending is what you make it, isn't it? Natural sounds, blank laptop screen glows, gunshots, and failed escapes play into the jokes on film fakery Рthe ease in hot wiring a car, the time people have to plead for their lives, inconvenient deliverymen arrivals, or a girl hurting her ankle on the run. That broken glass to cut those binds is certainly convenient, and the pieces keep us guessing with attacks behind closed doors, screams we thought we heard, and gunshots we thought we saw. The upfront twists don't pull the rug out from under the audience yet we're invested in the game being played. It's sad that this impressive cast and its winking frights need a dozen different film by who, production of, in association with titles at the beginning because such small thrillers are so financially strapped when they are often better than mainstream releases. Some things here may be obvious to shout at the television viewers, but that overkill is part of the dark satire, keeping this an entertaining thriller on the art of deception and that onscreen hiding in plain sight we love so much.

The Nesting – A mystery writer moves into the spooky mansion of her titular novel with cluttered bookcases, a typewriter, and tea on the balcony but this 1981 psychological slow burn lays on the fearful staircases, distorted city streets, paranoia, and agoraphobia. Up close camerawork and out of body overlays reflect tense therapy and warped dreams as relaxation cassettes don't help against visions of glam parties, saucy soldiers, boas, long stem cigarettes, shattering beads, sweet jazz, and gunshots. Are the familiar mirrors, candlesticks, verandas, perfumes, and visions just deja vu or something more? Phantoms bangs, noisy pipes, no phone, and electricity in only one room add to the stunning architecture alongside ominous orange lights, great silhouettes, and maybe maybe not outside looking in windows. There are vintage station wagons and roadside perils, too. You gotta roll up the car window faster, girl! Storms, flashlights, old fashioned lamps, and four poster beds make the patina tangible as objects dreamed of are found thanks to attic footsteps, dangerous spires, superb rooftop suspense, and fatal twists. Morbid birds, quality shocks, and lighthearted jokes alleviate the simmering mood with a cranky handyman and kooky grandpa John Carradine (Bluebeard), and there's nudity of course – a lady has to feel herself up in front of the bureau you know! Unfortunately, Robin Groves' (Silver Bullet) therapist thinks ghosts and any quantum physics versus paranormal debates are a bunch of hooey. Is this hysteria or an interconnected phenomena? Although the phantom whooshing, stereotypical town creeps, and fiery ghost fake outs can be laughable amid evident brothel history and old people who were there scoops; the rough assaults, bloody surprises, and lakeside terrors invoke wicked ghostly responses. This won't be anything new for old school horror viewers, but the now doubled nostalgia accents the eerie mystery atmosphere. The ghostly ladies of ill repute are out for revenge, and all kinds of shady pieces in this sleepy inlet puzzle are brought to light. Lengthy chases lead to creepy farm buildings, pitchforks, sickles, and impressive gore with freaky spectral revelations coming full circle for a violent finish.

Could Be Better

A Kind of Murder – Fedoras, typewriters, newspapers, and record players invoke a seemingly classy mid century time for writer Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring) and his realtor wife Jessica Biel (The Sinner) in this 2016 Patricia Highsmith adaptation further accented with retro skyscrapers, vintage travel, neon lighting, and a sweet mod house. Unfortunately, there's talk of murders on the radio, the bookstore sells nefarious brown bag magazines, and back alley stairs lead to segregated jazz clubs. Cigarettes, swanky melodies, and husky mellow voices fittingly contrast the pearls, white gloves, pillbox hats, and concern about fancy shoes getting wet in the snow for an interesting mix of the changing times. Our would be novelist is feeling the new sixties with his mod turtlenecks and wanting to do it in every room in the house – but his cold, porcelain doll fifties wife won't see a therapist and belittles his stories in favor of his real architect job and Frank Lloyd Wright references. The Mrs. wears pink and white like a little girl, and Biel looks out of place in the fifties dress up, which may be intentional thanks to the character's diva fakery with a giant bun, false eyelashes, and making bitchy jealous accusations out of nothing in a rocky four year marriage. The colorful lighting, bright snow, and interior patinas are well done schemes reflecting each mood, but the choice reds to signify anything saucy or scandalous are a little too obvious. The tale also intercuts between an obsessive, Dragnet dry detective making us too aware we are watching a picture emulating a specific cinematic era and the more interesting writer using the wife killer crime in the news for inspiration. Is he fantasizing about how to kill his wife or just writing a story? Sleeping on the couch, suicide attempts, and divorce threats lead to guilt tripping traps, suspicious deaths, juicy alibis, lying phone calls, and too many did he or didn't he coincidences. Whom do we trust in this murder or suicide shady? Although the audience might enjoy figuring out how these crimes don't add up, the uneven pace plays it's hand by revealing the suspense and drawing out boring casework. The “they know that we know that they know that we know” yadda yadda loses viewer interest as our would be writer cum murder suspect chills with his martinis, lying to cover up his illicit and giving a different story every time he tells it. He'll act weird but won't get a lawyer because that would mean he has something to hide, and the cat and mouse drags on until everyone is chasing their tails. Just because he wanted his wife dead does that mean he killed her? Or if he walked away from helping her is her death his fault? The plodding speculation underestimates the audience, and the who killed their wives and why details, blackmail confrontations, and questions about whether it is proof or doubt that seals the deal build to a showdown that runs out of time. This has a fine noir mood complete with well filmed silhouettes in dark alleys and a Hitchcockian double chase finale raising tension. However, the mystery remains run of the mill despite the period flair, and the ending doesn't quite give viewers the finish needed.

An Unfortunate Skip

The Dark – Reporter Cathy Lee Crosby (Wonder Woman before Lynda Carter was even Wonder Woman) kind of sort of teams up with a psychic and a detective to solve some serial killer mutilations in this 1979 alien mishmash with a hokey opening scroll warning of animal defense mechanisms and extraterrestrial chameleons. Passe music, laser eye beams, and poor voice effects add a slow to get going old TV movie feeling while that titular near black screen makes it often impossible to see the back alley attacks. The gay jokes are lame, the case exposition's wooden, and a white bearded old boss jumps out shouting “Boo!” just to get his kicks by scaring our lady reporter. Old lights, green hues, and colorful skylines going dark build better ominous as a young girl is said to be beheaded in the creepy morgue as family gags over the unseen victim. Retro video designs, projectors, and forensic evidence accent elevator scares, flashlights, and zombie or vampire conjecture – but wow, fifteen cents for the newspaper and needing to put another quarter in the payphone before the operator interrupts! The streets and pool halls look even seedier because of the low budget Los Angeles realism, but white cops less interested in black crime with the jive and epitaphs to match their “38 caliber justice” is unfortunately not dated. One obnoxious ass asks if color can be told by the alien blood samples, and cranky cops disbelieve the medium even when they have nothing else. Today audiences are so accustomed to investigative dramas that this law enforcement seems particularly stupid – although a captain more worried about family pressure, public panic, and avoiding media scandal remains all too common. Wise people counter that obscuring such freedom of the press is wasting time while the killer strikes again, but the tacked on alien connection ruins any would be statements. Everyone is so dry and too much time is spent away from Cathy Lee when she should be our viewpoint anchor. Choppy editing doesn't know where it is going between attacks, culminating in a logistically nonsensical shootout. The fantastic clues and psychic visions are underutilized, and the drama is better when the spooky, journalism, and law come to a head. This had potential – I kept waiting for this ninety minutes to get going – but there's not enough science fiction, horror, or procedural actually happening.

18 August 2017

Top Ten: Star Trek!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten Star Trek Favorites!

Please see our Star Trek tag for more or our Science Fiction label and Television page for further analysis!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review

15 August 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Despite Narrative Flaws, Kong: Skull Island is a Rip Roaring Good Time
by Kristin Battestella

Without a doubt the 2017 MonsterVerse cum 2014 Godzilla prequel Kong: Skull Island has its flaws. One shouldn't expect perfection or deep thoughts with this fun jungle ride brimming with action and big monsters. But heck yeah let's over-analyze the shit out of it, shall we?

Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to join the secret government group Monarch's expedition to the elusive Skull Island alongside Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard's (Samuel L. Jackson) elite helicopter escort. Landsat officials and mission science teams use seismic charges to map and study the island – awakening ancient monsters friend and foe, government conspiracies, and personal vengeance as the team rescues crashed World War II veteran Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) from the fantastic isle protected by King Kong.

Kong: Skull Island's opening World War II crash transitions to newspapers, archive footage, and period photography on the mysterious Monarch organization as audio quotes from Truman and Kennedy lead to bleak 1973 DC protests and ironic quips about the screwed up time in Washington. Monarch needs funding to mount this satellite mapping expedition and its under the rug search amid ominous whispers of ship eating monsters and Bermuda Triangle fantastics surrounding this uncharted Pacific island. Fiery explosives reflect in the aviator glasses, animals flee the seismic bombs, and distorted music is drowned out by the destruction. People who think they are so big are made small by Kong's giant hands and teeth – an excellent introduction with superb monster graphics and motion capture. Warped gunfire and thumping helicopter blades add foreboding to the mighty monster silhouettes as separated civilians, stranded scientists, and angry military argue who takes orders from whom. Nixon winks, geek references, and “Hold on to your butts!” keeps the old school cool coming early and often alongside minute to minute action montages with diegetic classic rock, first person shooter video game angles, and intriguing camera shots. Skull Island is an embarrassment of riches with too much to see in one viewing thanks to wild giant spider impalements and more well done personal horror vignettes with blood, gore, and brain splatter nods to Cannibal Holocaust and Evil Dead. Slow motion over the shoulder fears, creaking animal approaches, that giant log come to life – aren't walking sticks bad enough?! The rush to repair a salvaged airplane turned riverboat adds more flying monsters and aerial fatalities to the adventure. Kong is an angry mother, but he didn't do anything wrong in protecting his home from the dangerous creatures man has stirred, and the mission only has its bombing in the name of science to blame. Fortunately, culture shock jokes create lighthearted fun, since it's more of a cold war with summers off, a man on the moon is eating Spam after sipping Tang, and The Cubs are never going to win the World Series. Likewise the excellent graveyard sequence combines all Skull Island's divided and united people with scene stealing visuals, action, and monsters. Retro picture flashes and rewind clicks accent gritty zooms and intense monster filming with green gas heightening the sense of smelly vomit, skulls, bones, and gas masks. Deadly cigarettes, flames, lighters, and fumes add to the swords and machine guns poised atop the triceratops skull as man comes to regret the cruel and violent destruction he has caused.

Of course, Skull Island is also a very messy movie with an uneven dual focus. This should be either a Vietnam, horrors of war, military monster Apocalypse Now with a photographer and a scientist OR the scientific monstrosity adventure a la Jurassic Park with one ex-SAS tracker but not BOTH plots giving nobody their fair share. The us versus them scientists in blue and military in green sitting on opposite sides of the briefing is never capitalized upon but redundantly introduces everyone by name after the port of call arrivals already suffice. Likewise, conflicting, convoluted information dumps on hollow earth inklings, monsters exist proof, nature taking back the planet subtext, and more conspiracies are lost amid who's doing the suspicious underground mapping or using dangerous seismic charges – and none of it is as important as the visual destruction despite precious little time to enjoy the awe-inspiring views. Increasingly intrusive hip highlights and filler montages distract viewers with busy, loud hyperbole, and fine jokes aren't needed to alleviate tension because intercutting between separated characters walking to and fro for action fodder never leaves the audience with anyone long enough to appreciate their peril. Casual wonder, superficial dear family letters, and featherweight Icarus speeches can't keep up with the up up up piecemeal quest, soldiers rightfully spazzing over the giant monkey are paid dust in favor of repeated clicks west or evac north fluff, and one trek in the wrong direction for a dead man proves pointless on top of unnecessary revenge. What should be somber shipwreck history and ancient monster worship become tossed aside double talk, and the science dialogue, monsters, and mission objectives change as people act stupid from scene to scene as needed. Littering the narrative with so many excuses that we just don't care how each group of people and their monster attacks tie together is incredibly annoying because there is so much more potential to the friend or foe ominous and native people glossed over with photos and peace signs. Slo mo hold me back man tears turn laughable thanks to all over the place point of view voiceovers with no time for a breather properly addressing the nonsensical. Quotes about an enemy not existing until you make one get squashed between more meandering, on the nose rock montages while blow torches are convenient in one scene but forgotten the next. Our two women never talk to each other, and Skull Island can't stick to telling its story well because it's so desperate to appeal to as many bang for its buck viewers as possible – leaving the World War II radiation and ancient cave paintings hodgepodge to do nothing but set up the inevitable sequel.

All the people should have been listed in the blurb at the bottom of the Skull Island poster because no one character is fully developed – least of all top billed Tom Hiddleston as tracker James Conrad, who spends more time giving repetitive exposition on clicks, radius, or distance and unnecessary let's go, no time to waste obviousness. It's also noticeable that the character concept was changed when T. Hiddy was cast – perhaps in a Legendary twofer contract with Crimson Peak or during filming, for the grimy shirt jaded and gritty bearded wanderer is traded for a sunshine blonde matinee idol buff. It's like a different guy shows up for the mission! When meeting Conrad in the bar, he's ruthless with a cue stick. However, on the island, he's the team negotiator, going from a rugged bad ass asking for five times the mercenary money to...Tom Hiddleston. Viewers see him as himself in Skull Island and The Night Manager rather than his Loki visage – maybe because it looks like he's wearing his own clothes again onscreen – but someone should have been in charge of his eye candy fitness as his increasing muscles or shrinking wet shirt vary throughout the adventure. The mysteriously decommissioned tracker also suddenly cares, sneaking into restricted areas to check out the bombs and question the mission even though Conrad never gets to use this seemingly new found good guy muster. His great line, “I suppose no man comes home from war, not really,” and brief mentions of his lost father – Tom, please, no more characters with daddy issues! – go unredeemed save for dad's handy lighter to rectify a lifetime of searching for something you can never find. Instead of calm, problem solving Conrad challenging Packard, our expert tracker gets lost and seeks higher ground before taking charge anyway after useless self sacrifices. Despite his name, there's very little Heart of Darkness to Conrad, yet the character remains overly serious and that divine accent feels out of place – taking longer and prettier to say his exposition in a different, formal rhythm amid all the fast, casual slang. Although he has the best gas mask glory moment in Skull Island and some of the samurai choreography is reminiscent of the first advance in 300, our would be hero has no winking Indiana Jones moment nor does he take off his shirt. Why hold back when you can go all the way? But hey, those biceps aren't enough to forgive the fact that Conrad wears a gun in a shoulder holster and never uses it!

With our rugged man and Brie Larson (Room) as anti-war photographer Mason Weaver, Skull Island feels very The People That Time Forgot. However, Weaver doesn't cry out for her camera's safety or click away as much as she perhaps should. She never runs out of film and such gear perils or mishaps could have been an ongoing gag, but Conrad seems to look out for her camera more than she does. There is rightfully no overt romantic plot further crowding Skull Island with unnecessary saccharin, yet their feeling each other out banter should have been utilized more – Weaver interrupts Conrad's hero zoom by motioning for him to move over on the helicopter seat and he does. All these charming, award winning thespians have so little room to breath, leaving Weaver with lame one liners and nothing to do. The “Bitch, please!” retort for her to have several seats isn't the right response, but her trite platitudes won't get all these macho men pointing guns at each other to stand down either. Fortunately, her outfit isn't uber skimpy, and Larson's modern earthy look is perhaps the most seventies style in the cast. Weaver goes from skeptical equals Pulitzer to island believer saving injured animals too quickly with no depth to her island connections if any before ending by saying she will expose their information rather than keep this precious ecosystem secret. She could have been a hippie tree hugging activist woman alone in tune for peace with Kong, but Weaver's touching moments with the ape are too few and far between. Whether there is some kind of native spirit and island good to counter the evil creatures below isn't explored, and while all the scientists pick up guns, Weaver shoots with her camera only – a nice statement that just leads to her getting rescued by Conrad in every dangerous situation. A brief moment of her refusing a gun and more of her resourceful ingenuity as with Conrad's handy lighter would have added better character strength and humor. Sadly, Skull Island has both Weaver taking pictures to expose Monarch and John Goodman's (The Big Lebowski) underutilized Bill Randa recording film for his secret organization's posterity. What is the point of having both such rival documentarians on the trip when they never even have the chance to object to each other onscreen?

But why you gotta be mean like that to Kong, Nick Fury? Despite the Vietnam withdrawals underway and orders to head home, Samuel L. Jackson's Colonel Packard isn't ready for the war to end. He wonders what this the fight was all for – accepting this final mission without considering the families and day jobs waiting for his Sky Devils stateside. Packard resents the camera and the media's influence on the war as more dangerous than a gun, and objects to calling the battle lost. He's upset at Kong for destroying his helicopter team, blaming the ape and demanding payback when he's the one who ordered them to fly through the island's nonsensical storm front. There's room for more psyche, but other plot contrivances compromise Packard's fanatical. His insistence on taking out Kong instead of the more deadly skull creature continues even when his reason for pursuing one over the other is proven more fatal, and Packard gets around the island just fine without the obligatory SAS tracker, gutting any tension the two are apparently supposed to have. After aimlessly walking for half of Skull Island, Packard needlessly divides the group when they actually come together, and any deeper hates the monster because he hates himself guilt about man's supposed superiority is never fully explored. Certainly the Lieutenant Colonel did nothing wrong in ordering his men and defending his homeland from the horrors of war, but he takes the extinguishing the wrong monster too far and doesn't learn from any of the mission's bureaucratic stupidity, ultimately using napalm to flush out more creatures than he can handle. Likewise his soldiers – family man macguffin Toby Kebbell (Control), headband wearing Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and letters to his mama Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) don't listen to local information on avoiding island perils. At once they decide it's all for one and one for all while telling others they will be left behind if they don't like the plan, and none of them go against the Colonel even when he is wrong and the chain of command has broken. Although dead pan Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) eating in the face of giant apes is good levity, the too crowded Skull Island keeps these military men stereotypically hip with shirtless photo sessions and no questions asked until after the fact rather than developing any killer edge e.g. Predator.

There are simply so, so, so many superfluous people in Skull Island that you can argue almost anyone doesn't really need to be here. Landsat fraidy cat John Ortiz (Fast & Furious) deserves more than ticking the Hispanic check box with his own personal homage to Jurassic World. This looks like a diverse ensemble with representation from all walks of life, but it isn't diversity if each monster fodder minority has five cliché lines while the white people save the day. Geologist Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) and biologist Jing Tian (The Great Wall) look like they filmed their scenes separately from everyone else. Their brief conversations happen with no one else around and they don't really interact with anybody on the island – simultaneously missing the opportunity for statements on the struggles of a well educated black man with a radical theory while nonetheless desperate to appeal to Asian markets with an intelligent but meek biologist who barely speaks. Hawkins' Houston Brooks objects to the titular craziness with almost the exact same words as Mann's Slivko, and eventually, the scientists are told to go back to the boat – which they easily find and operate without Conrad holding their hands. The post-credits scene likewise has them repeating Randa's words on the monsters to come while again telling us not much of anything on Monarch's intentions. Fortunately, John C. Reilly's (Chicago) kooky World War II castaway Hank Marlow is the most dynamic character in Skull Island. He's happy these new found people are real because he's more than ready to get home to beer, hot dogs, and the Chicago Cubs, becoming the only fish out of water in this crazy habitat that receives any narrative payoff. I also dare say Marlow's opening cross cultural duel turned bond with Japanese singer Miyavi as Gunpei Ikari and their subsequent hear tell eight attempts to leave the island during their forced twenty-eight year sabbatical may have been the more dramatically interesting tale – “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and all that.

Fine gunfire, brief World War II designs, aerial action, and impressive photography also pepper Skull Island. A variety of cool ships accent the beautiful, tropical, misty, hot locations from Hawaii, Australia, and Vietnam amid lovely waters, deadly swamps, and killer jungles keeping everyone good and sweaty. There are dangerous rocks, mountains, vegetation, and animals, too – but that giant water buffalo thing has a cute nose! Unique patinas, golden sunsets, neon, bright blues, red lighting, and choice zooms set off every frame in Skull Island, and a fiery haze makes the night time battle with Kong befitting of the island's devilish face shape. However, despite all the old school touches, Skull Island doesn't feel as aged as it could be. A 1973 Life Magazine and a record player don't a la the past when everybody looks so today. The money here is rightfully spent on the badass ape kids will dig, but younger audiences probably won't notice the early computers, retro televisions, dark room photography, old reel frames, slide projectors, or rotary phones and period references. Fortunately, these creatures are so big that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) must pull the camera back – we can see the well choreographed rumble without hiding behind panoramic swoops and hectic editing. Kong breaking free from a shipwreck's chains is a fine homage, and the deleted scenes with more platoon camaraderie and a bristling introduction between Conrad and Packard should have been kept. Of course, Skull Island is available in different video editions with seller and regional behind the scenes exclusives. An official comic book also continues the adventure, but I wish the background material or what happens next wasn't relegated to extras or waiting on another picture in the franchise. Although, ironically, Skull Island might have made a great limited television series with fulfilled episodes dedicated to our mad military man, lost tracker, photographer, castaway, or scorned scientists.

Kong:Skull Island seems like it began with storyboards of cool things for Kong and company to do with everything else as filler to meet the feature length duration. There's no time to stay on Skull Island and explore its myths or monsters, and this does indeed feel like one mere stepping stone toward the inevitable Godzilla vs. Kong anticipation in 2020 thanks to postscript MonsterVerse revelations. Though entertaining, the forties bookends are abrupt and in between viewers are spoiled for choice of eye candy. Skull Island is meant to be a monster money maker and it shows with this sweet but shallow action. It wants to be man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself, but superficially potlucks all the deep possibilities. Thankfully, Skull Island is not a film meant for critical eyes and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Despite its narrative flaws, there's just so much fan service that Kong: Skull Island was bound to be an enjoyable success.