Out on Friday 10 March
Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson face a giant ape. Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert are at the top of their game. Samantha Robinson mesmerises as a witchy, seductive sociopath.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Kong: Skull Island, Elle, The Love Witch, Rules Don’t Apply, Dancer, Catfight, The Creeping Garden, The Chamber, and I.T.
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Kong: Skull Island
When it comes to movie monsters, Kong is king. But in Skull Island, the Eighth Wonder of the World has competition from a tropical paradise full of mythical man-eaters. Not just the latest Kong re-imagining, Skull Island is also the second instalment in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which will see Merian C. Cooper’s hirsute anti-hero throw down with Godzilla in 2020. In other words, there’s a lot riding on the mighty monkey’s shoulders.
Following a frankly bonkers prologue, the action jumps forward to 1974, where government officials John Goodman and Corey Hawkins assemble a ragtag party to survey the uncharted Skull Island.
Among the recruits: a former SAS tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a photojournalist (Brie Larson) and a helicopter squadron led by the crazed Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). The intrusion doesn’t go down well with the island’s protector – 100ft ape King Kong. But with something even deadlier stirring in the earth, Kong soon becomes the least of their concerns.
This isn’t the film you think it is. In contrast to its ultra-serious first trailer, Skull Island is fun – pure matinee pulp masquerading as modern blockbuster. At a time when producers have more franchise clout than ever, Kong is a rare director-driven effects movie.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kings of Summer) keeps proceedings energetic and fantastically absurd – the first time the island is glimpsed, it explodes on screen, obscured behind a Richard Nixon bobblehead. The action is slickly staged and thrillingly kinetic, with a pleasing tactility to the effects work, while the exotic location shoot pays dividends.
It’s a satisfying repositioning of Kong as monstrous lonely god. The first time we see him he’s framed to fright. But he’s also a sympathetic beast, Terry Notary’s mo-cap and ILM’s artistry working effectively in unison. Besides, there are also giant water buffalo, serene log creatures and Skull Crawlers – killer critters Kong has gargantuan beef with. If anything, more indigenous island life would have been welcome.
Likely there wasn’t time, given the enormous ensemble cast. Practically everyone gets solid screen time, even if it’s never enough to care when they die. Jackson is suitably intense as the Ahab-like military man, but it’s John C. Reilly’s stranded WW2 soldier who gets the most compelling arc, a heartfelt story underpinning his fruit-loop insanity.
Toby Kebbell draws the short straw with a character who may as well be called Private Cliché, while Hiddleston and Larson are curiously underserved by straight-laced dialogue and a noticeable absence from the action. The film also takes a few too many of its cues from Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Coupled with the Now That’s Vietnam Movies! compilation soundtrack, it never entirely forges its own identity.
Kudos, however, to a franchise film that doesn’t go to agonising lengths to set up its sequel, outside of a crossover-teasing post-credits scene. Though with Kong and Godzilla existing on opposite ends of the tonal and aesthetic spectrum, reconciling the two will first require a battle of the behemoths behind the scenes.
THE VERDICT: Derivative and a little dumb but consistently fun: there’s personality and panache to spare in this monster blockbuster. With reservations, Skull Island is a swinging success.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts; Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary; Theatrical release: March 3, 2017
Paul Verhoeven’s double-Golden Globe winner – his first feature in 10 years – starts with a rape. Just the sounds of an assault over a dark screen: cries, blows, the smashing of glass and crockery. The first image we see is the face of a handsome dark-grey cat, watching impassively. Then we see Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), prone and half-exposed on the floor of her sitting room, and a man all in black wearing a ski-mask.
Once her attacker is gone, however, she doesn’t weep or call the police. She sweeps up the debris, takes a bath – and calmly phones for a takeaway. Michèle, in short, may have been attacked, but she’s no victim. Anything but. She makes no attempt to curry sympathy – ours or anyone else’s.
The videogame company she runs with her close friend Anna (Anne Consigny) features princesses being penetrated by multi-tentacled trolls; when an employee accuses her of being too “literary” she retorts, “Maybe we’re two bitches who just got lucky.”
At a dinner party, her much-face-lifted mother announces her plan to marry her toyboy; Michèle waits for the polite congratulations to die down, then asks, “How do you manage to be so grotesque?” In between rapes – yes, there are several – she’s pursuing a loveless affair with Anna’s husband Robert. Finally coming clean to her friend, she matter-of-factly explains, “I needed to get laid.”
This is not, Verhoeven has insisted, “A rape comedy… There’s rape and there is comedy.” There is indeed, often of the blackest kind: witness the scenes between Michèle’s hopeless lunkhead of a son (Jonas Bloquet) and his awful girlfriend (Alice Isaaz). But equally there are moments of sly social satire – as when, at the start of that sophisticated Parisian dinner party, a devout guest asks if she might say grace. The reactions of her fellow guests, a mix of embarrassment and scorn, are a delight to watch.
As you’ll have gathered, Elle is no conventional rape-revenge thriller. Even after Michèle discovers who her rapist is – and you won’t have much trouble guessing – the relationship continues, growing ever more tortuous. We get a hint of an explanation for her emotional dysfunction when we learn about the horrific crimes committed by her father when she was a child. But here again the film doesn’t invite pity, and nor does Huppert.
It’s hard to think of another actress who could have played the role so fearlessly, and it seems Verhoeven initially planned to make this an American film, but could find no US actress who’d dare consider the role. It’s no loss. Not only is Elle among Verhoeven’s best films, it enshrines one of the finest performances Isabelle Huppert has yet given. And that really is saying something.
THE VERDICT: A complex film that sidesteps every cliché. Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert are at the top of their game.
Director: Paul Verhoeven; Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet; Theatrical release: March 10, 2017
The Love Witch
This note-perfect homage to ’70s occult pulp combines sly satire with a sharp horror edge. Samantha Robinson mesmerises as Elaine, a witchy, seductive sociopath whose potion-toting, spell-casting search for love takes deadly turns that get townsfolk running scared.
Writer/director Anna Biller never lets deadpan fun drop into crude spoofing. Prepare to be bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
Director: Anna Biller; Starring: Samantha Robinson; Theatrical release: March 10, 2017
Rules Don’t Apply
Warren Beatty’s passion project about Hollywood billionaire Howard Hughes is more snapshot than biopic.
For one thing, Hughes (Beatty) is a supporting player in a sleek but scrambled ’50s romcom following the cute but flimsy romance between newbie actress (Lily Collins) and her ambitious driver (Alden Ehrenreich). Beatty’s fine, but this is no Hail, Caesar!
Director: Warren Beatty; Starring: Lily Collins, Haley Bennett, Taissa Farmiga; Theatrical release: March 10, 2017
A blunt satire of America, as trophy wife Veronica (Sandra Oh) and struggling artist Ashley (Anne Heche) engage in repeated fistfights that devastate each other’s lives, while TV bulletins tell of a new president going to war in the Middle East.
The violence is cyclical, no one learns anything, and any points gained for absurdism are lost by landing too many punches square on the nose.
Director: Onur Turkel; Starring: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone; Theatrical release: March 3, 2017
The Creeping Garden
Playing like a high-end school science video, this documentary dips into the curious world of plasmodial slime mould. Biologists and artists share what they’ve learned from working with the relatively under-explored near-fungal substance.
The genuinely fascinating result should be required viewing for ideas-seeking sci-fi writers. It’s a grower.
Directors: Tim Grabham, Jasper Sharp; Starring: Mark Pagnell. Heather Barnett, Bryn Dentinger; Theatrical release: March 3, 2017
Debut director Ben Parker’s submersible survivalist thriller is an efficient plunge into tight-spot cinema. Characterisation runs thin, but the tension thickens as Swedish mini-sub pilot Johannes Kuhnke and a US black-ops crew get into trouble near North Korea.
Aiming straight for mounting dread, Parker gets the job done aggressively. Chances of him resurfacing with bigger projects look solid.
Director: Ben Parker; Starring: James Artaius, Christian Hillborg, Johannes Kuhnke; Theatrical release: March 3, 2017
Another blot on the CV for director John Moore (The Omen remake, Max Payne, A Good Day To Die Hard), this ludicrously overwrought techno-thriller sees Animal Kingdom’s James Frecheville use, yes, IT skills to drag the perfect life of Pierce Brosnan’s aviation tycoon into the wastebasket.
Set in a smart home but sincerely dumb, its only hope is that people buy tickets expecting a clown.
Director: John Moore; Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Anna Friel, James Frencheville; Theatrical release: March 3, 2017