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Movie reviews: Guardians, a Russian superhero movie, is charming and also unintentionally funny

Kong has many leads with nothing to do, while Guardians' team of superheroes are unintentionally hilarious

The sprawling reboot that is Kong: Skull Island(PG13, 118 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) tries to steer away from everything we have come to associate with the movie monster. 

Kong fights aircraft at the beginning of the movie, not the end. He does not fall in love with a human woman. The 30m-tall ape fights beasties worse than he is to protect his native land, not because he has fallen for a blonde.

In 1933, and again in 1976 and 2005, King Kong embodied the fear of the African male - Kong was strong, wild, hyper-masculine and had a thing for white women, but in the end, was no match for white men and their superior weaponry.

This update, a studio-driven project that will integrate Kong's world with that of a larger monster franchise, attempts a politically correct revision by making the story explicitly about the clash between the war-mongering, tech-obsessed  West and the natural world.

 Skull Island's ensemble cast includes Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston (both above).
American Honey stars Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf, while Kong: Skull Island's ensemble cast includes Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston (both above). PHOTO: WARNER BROS PICTURES

It replaces the old stereotype of the screeching, woman-sacrificing native with the newer Avatar (2009) stereotype of the serene, Earth-loving forest dweller.   

In 1973, an expedition guided by former commando James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) enters the island, ostensibly to conduct a geological survey. But shady executive Randa (John Goodman), aided by a team that includes scientist San (Jing Tian) and soldier Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), has more sinister motives. 

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a relative newcomer, does what he can with a tonally muddled screenplay. In the first act, there is "heart of darkness" warrior philosophising in the vein of Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), followed by the standard survive-the-wilderness adventure.

Hiddleston is billed as the lead, but his presence is tiny. This is an ensemble piece - it is necessary, given the number of actors (and we have not mentioned what Brie Larson or John C. Reilly do).

In the usual monster horror fashion, the supporting players are meat for the grinder. But that still leaves many leads with nothing to do, including Jing Tian, whose main job appears to be running.

The production is saved by interesting action sequences and strong creature effects, but it is unfortunate that a story that tries to wrest Kong from his racist roots is as tangled as its jungle setting.

(From left) Sebastien Sisak, Anton Pampushnyy, Alina Lanina and Sanzhar Madiyev star in Guardians, an attempt at kick-starting a Russian superhero franchise.
(From left) Sebastien Sisak, Anton Pampushnyy, Alina Lanina and Sanzhar Madiyev star in Guardians, an attempt at kick-starting a Russian superhero franchise. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT

Another monster terrorises Moscow in Guardians(PG13, 90 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars), a Russian attempt at kick-starting a home-grown superhero franchise.

As if realising how ridiculous such a venture would be, the studio goes for broke and the result is gonzo fun.

The Americans have the Hulk, but this team of budget heroes assembled from the former Soviet Union has a man-bear (of course).  You have Magneto? Here is a man who makes rocks fly. There are also a Black Widow knock-off and a Winter Soldier clone. Sadly, there is no Captain Russia wielding a shield adorned with a hammer and sickle.

The plot is bone-headed and the quality of the visual effects is terrible, but there is a pure, unironic sense of purpose in this film that is utterly charming and, at times, unintentionally hilarious.

 Skull Island's ensemble cast includes Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston.
American Honey stars Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf (both above). PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

There is plenty of purpose in American Honey(R21, 163 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4.5/5 stars, showing only at The Projector), the story of an Oklahoma teen girl who falls in with a "mag crew" - teams of young people who ride from town to town selling magazine subscriptions. 

Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), escaping a sexually abusive father, is recruited into a mag crew by older guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf). The outfit is run by Krystal (Riley Keough), who lets her charges party as hard as they like as long as they follow the iron rule - earn or be kicked out.

British writer-director Andrea Arnold - who has helmed the television show Transparent and the racially reinterpreted Wuthering Heights (2011) - has created a visually beautiful coming-of-age story propelled by a great rock and dance soundtrack. It has picked up a Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize and a Bafta nomination for best picture. 

Arnold explores the shifting power dynamics inside a group of hard-living nomads  - this is Lord Of The Flies (1990), with the sexual turmoil of Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013) and the rock-band-on-the-road vibe of Almost Famous (2000).

It sounds like a mess, yet this film is anything but - Star's journey, hustling across an America split by the rich-poor divide, is the most lyrical trip you will experience in ages.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Superhero knock-offs, monster muddle'. Print Edition | Subscribe