Skull Island: A Review

Grumble in the Jungle

Spoilers!!!

Skull Island is a new twist on King Kong.

I’ll just say it: If I were Kong, I’d sue for defamation of character. Written by screenwriters, Dan Gilroy (Night Crawler, The Bourne Legacy) and Max Borenstein (2014’s Godzilla), it is the second film by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer). This new Kong is not the 1930’s beast beguiled by beauty or the misfit ape competing with Jeff Bridges for Dwan (Jessica Lange), nor is he the monster intrigued by Naomi Watts’ soft shoe. On Skull Island, Kong, who walks upright like Chuck Norris, is Clint Eastwood’s get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon of Grand Torino.

Cover image Skull Island

IMDB Skull Island image

When old enough, I often stayed up late to watch the 1933 version on Saturday nights.

Despite the wooden acting, the surreal jungle and Kong’s terrifying entrance always pulled me in. The sexual undercurrents of Kong’s attachment to Dwan is all I remember of the eighties version. I found Peter Jackson’s effort moderately entertaining, especially the Jurassic Park dinos. I enjoyed it more on DVD; the huge bugs weren’t nearly as gross.

On Skull Island, it isn’t Kong who loses his freedom; there’s no tragic fall. Instead, humanity might fall.

Waiting within the earth are monsters that can wipe us out. It begins with a WWII dogfight. Planes weave and dive above a sandy shore. When two crash, pilots, an American and a Japanese, struggle out of the wreckage. As they fight, something huge rises on the other side of a cliff; it’s Kong.

The scene fades into 1973. The Viet Nam War is ending.

Monster hunters Randa and Brooks (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) plan a trip to a mysterious island. Randa believes that someday, monsters will emerge from the earth and kill us all if we’re not ready. And oh, yes—they’ll need a military escort.

In Viet Nam, Lt. Colonel Preston (Samuel L. Jackson), who hates to lose, prepares to leave.

A mission to a dangerous island could take the sting out of defeat. Along with tracking specialist Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer, Weaver (Brie Larson), Preston and his men board a ship and sail to the island. Nearing the island’s mysterious clouds, the explorers pile into helicopters to scout. More helicopters will meet them later.

Ala Apocalypse Now, ‘70’s music blasting, helicopters drop bombs. Testing the depth of the island, they discover Randa’s “monster.” It’s Kong who reacts with a “who left the screen door open” glower. Unprovoked, Preston attacks and bullets fly. Kong bats the choppers away like giant flies. When they all crash, soldiers die. Preston vows revenge. He and his surviving men will pursue Kong on foot.

Conrad’s group (Weaver, researchers, etc.) looks for the rendezvous site, wandering through arid terrain that pales in comparison to the dreamy jungle of the original or the bug infested nightmare of Jackson’s movie. The American pilot (John C. Reilly) of the opening scene, a chatty eccentric, appears and introduces them to the locals, a National Geographic tribe of mutes who taught him how to avoid the island beasties.

Don’t mess with Kong, he warns; Kong fights the monsters. It’s all a misunderstanding, you see. Like Walt, the old man in Grand Torino, Kong defends the neighborhood by removing the undesirables.

While Preston seeks revenge, Conrad’s group, including the pilot, scramble for safety. Flesh-eating wildlife dine on several before the rest are rescued. Preston’s plans do not go well, especially for Preston. Kong lives to grumble another day.

Despite its A-list actors, I was glad to leave Skull Island. I didn’t care who got eaten.

And the monsters? I’ve read several reviews of this movie. Many describe them as innovative and scary. Maybe it’s just me; I couldn’t connect to the story enough to be scared. I missed the sticky hot jungle. I wanted dinosaurs, not a weird buffalo, giant daddy-long-legs or skeletal things that looked like dead possums. I wanted a huge wall hiding terrible things.

There was one thing I liked. I’ve always wondered where Kong came from, meaning: did he have a family?

Was there a Mrs. Kong, a Kong clan? Skull Island takes us to the Kong family plot. Kong, we’re told, is the last one. Is this the last of Kong? I hope not. If not, lose the daddy-long-legs and bring back T-Rex or even Godilla. Bring back the stop-motion charm of Faye Wray’s lovesick ape. Most of all bring back the mystery; bring back the wonder.

Get Out: How a Popcorn Movie Became Food for Thought

Get Out: A Review

Some spoilers 

 

Get Out cover from IMDB page for Get Out

From IMDB page for Jordan Peele’s film, Get Out

Get Out, the directorial debut of Jordan Peele (Keye and Peele) who also wrote the screenplay. Starring English actor, Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, Get Out is a horror movie satire focused on racism. Borrowing elements from films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Get Out skewers the pretensions of “white wine sipping” liberals by using the generational conflict between Boomers and Millennials. Get Out is also about identity and the importance of belonging.

It opens on a dark street lined with large houses behind well-trimmed hedges. We hear the tinny sounds of a song from the early twentieth century as a young black man emerges from the shadows. Looking over his shoulder, his phone to his ear, he asks, “Why meet here?” Like the music, the man is out of place; he knows it and so do we as a white sports car pulls up. He turns away as a figure exits the car, knocks him out and loads him into the hatchback. The music changes to something edgy. There’s danger ahead.

Next, we’re in a bakery. We see a tray of donuts as a young woman named Rose (Allison Williams) makes her choice. She and her lover, Chris, a successful photographer, are taking a weekend trip to meet Rose’s parents. Between kisses, Chris and Rose discuss her parents. “Do they know I’m black,” he asks. She tells him no, but as old-fashioned liberals, they’ll make him feel welcome. Rod, (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent and Chris’s best friend, warns him not to go — something doesn’t feel right.

But Chris goes and welcome him they do. Waiting on the steps of their comfortable New England home on well-tended acres, Dean, the neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), Rose’s psychiatrist mom, greet Chris warmly. But soon, we know that Rod is right when Chris sees the Stepford Wives behavior of the two black employees. After the veneer of geniality cracks when Rose’s obnoxious brother challenges Chris to a fight, Missy insists on hypnotizing Chris and gives him a command that can render him helpless.

The next day, despite Rose’s protests, Missy’s club, a collection of creepy old people, (see Rosemary’s Baby) meets in the garden. The only black club member is young, wears clothes that scream nerd and has a way of talking at odds with his race and age. Chris thinks he knows him. He’s the man kidnapped in the opening sequence. When inquisitive club members (one squeezes his bicep) treat Chris like a prize Pekinese, it’s time to leave. And what about Rose, nurturing, supportive Rose? Or is she? Chris isn’t sure and neither are we. But Rod is; when Chris calls him, he urges Chris to get the hell out of white wine-land. Then, things go south during a bingo game. Recalling the kidney auction in the movie, Coma, the game ends when a blind photographer who envies Chris’s talent, wins Chris.

The story kicks into full scare mode with Rod’s rescue plans and Chris’s efforts to escape. Missy’s command leaves Chris unable to resist the horror movie science of those who intend for Chris to no longer be Chris. His predicament reminded me of The Skeleton Key.

When he presents his “sex slave” theory to a trio of black cops, Rod’s pride in being a TSA professional suffers. Stung by their reaction, Rod takes matters into his own hands. Friendship and betrayal come into play and the movie becomes a gore fest. The ending is cathartic and satisfying because we care what happens to Chris.

The plot of Get Out is full of holes, most having to do with risks taken by the villains, but the racial satire aspect gives this film an unexpected bite it wouldn’t have if Chris were white, and Daniel Kaluuya’s ability to draw us in keeps us invested. His friendly, open face allows us to see his pain when it dawns on him that the woman he trusts and loves may have betrayed him.

As the parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are good actors doing their best to round their flat characters. Allison Williams is effective as the enigmatic Rose, but it was hard for me to buy her transitions in the end sequence. Lil Rel Howery as Rod is a welcome comedy contrast to the creep factor. His energy gives the film a needed boost.

I enjoyed this movie, but I wondered about the title. Is the message, “Get Out” meant for Chris or for Boomers (and those older) who refuse to leave the stage and join the audience? As for me, I’m already seated, popcorn in hand, looking forward to the new cast and the next story.

The Why of Denise

My short story, “The Why of Denise,” has been published. http://strangefictionszine.com/the-why-of-denise/

It’s a story taken from my second book, Tales from Babylon Dreams, a novel about the pros and cons of living after death in virtual reality, and how a man’s custom paradise becomes his living hell.

I recommend Demon Knight: Tales From the Crypt

Spoilers

Demon Knight. This 1995 release was connected to TV‘s Tales From the Crypt.

"Demon Knight" cover

Cover for “Demon Knight”

It stars Billy Zane, William Sadler and Jada Pinkett with CCH Pounder and Thomas Hayden Church. The director, Ernest R. Dickerson has directed episodes of The Walking Dead and Treme as well as other high profile TV offerings. I had seen Demon Knight several years ago and what stuck with me was how much I enjoyed Billy Zane’s performance. So last night, I decided to take another look. Zane plays a demon and this little devil really enjoys his work. Zane, like Routh, has a handsome face, but he hasn’t let it slow him down. His performance is Demon Knight puts his melodrama-villain turn in Titanic to shame.

If the Zane of Demon Knight were on that boat, Rose wouldn’t have given Jack the time of day. This film was a spin off of the TV series, Tales From the Crypt, and the series was inspired by those comics–the lurid, wild-eyed, bloody, bony stories we loved even though reading them let to many a night light. Demon’s story is simple. A man with a secret hides out at a hotel out in the middle of nowhere. He’s being chased by a demon who wants something the man carries with him. It’s one of seven keys and if the demon gets it, there’s lights out for all mankind and we’d better get used to a lot of slime and cackling. The man and the hotel’s few occupants are under siege as Zane and his army of zany demons, try to get that key. Each guest is tempted to hand it over. Among the group, there’s plucky little Jada Pinkett’s character, a convict on work release, CCH Pounder as the cynical hotel manager, Thomas Hayden Church’s sexy lout and William Sadler, an actor who usually plays a villain as the mysterious, weary guest.

Like a comic book, Demon Knight is in vivid primary colors. Dickerson trusts his actors to breathe life into the narrative and with a cast like this, you can’t go wrong. Even so, Zane is a stand-out. His career doesn’t reflect his gifts–I think because he’s a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man. He shows us the sexy allure of evil, how it dazzles and obscures the facts, and the lies, which he gleefully admits. If for no other reason than Zane’s performance, take a look at Demon Knight. It’s on Netflix. On a Saturday night, a friend or two, a bowl of popcorn and Demon Knight, you could do worse.

“The Darkest Hour” is mostly a dim bulb.

SPOILER ALERT!

image from the Russian movie, "The Darkest Hour"

Cover for “The Darkest Hour”

I watched this movie on DVD rather than in the theater so perhaps that’s why I feel a tad more charitable than the critics. Rather than experimenting with genre like “The Cabin in the Woods,” an experiment that fizzled, stinking up the lab, “The Darkest Hour,” a joint Russian/American production directed by Chris Gorak and starring Emile Hirsch, is a paint-by-numbers alien invasion film.

Rather than the US, the invasion is shown from the Russian side of things. We follow the imperiled twenty-something Americans who number among a handful of survivors after Earth is invaded by balls of light that chase people down and shred them into pixie dust (check out Night of the Comet–a much better film with red-pixie dust former people and zombie department store stock boy geeks). As they run from building to building, hiding from the x-ray vision of the light balls, the Americans (okay there’s also one Australian and a double-dealing Swede) luckily encounter English speaking Russians.

It makes you wonder if a few more education dollars ought to be devoted to us learning more than one language. When they encounter an old lady who shouts in Russian and tells them they’re all going to die, I was surprised to recognize a couple of words from those long ago two years of high school Russian. However, too much science knowledge would probably get in the way when they make it to the American embassy and discover a recorded message sitting in a birdcage. Yes I said a birdcage. The message is “There’s a Russian sub coming up the river in a few hours. Get there or be left behind.”

Next they meet an old man named Sergei who is a plumber. Sergei has put together what looks like a paintball gun, but instead of paint, it shoots microwaves. The light balls don’t like microwaves. This totally went over my head, but . . . okay. Being from the Russian point of view led to some great early scenes in Moscow, portrayed as an ultra-modern city with great nightclubs. Like here in Los Angeles, you have to look camera-ready to get in. The Russian perspective led to lines like “Eat this Russian bullet” and “I’ll stay here (a good guy Russian cop); I have all of Moscow at my back.” Russian exceptionalism. All in all–mildly entertaining.

Cloud Atlas: Six stories in search of Ovaltine

A book review:

Spoiler Alert

If you plan on reading the book or if you plan on seeing the movie, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Book cover for "Cloud Atlas"

“Cloud Atlas” book coverThe movie, Cloud Atlas is due to be in theaters on October 26, and the trailer looked very interesting, so I decided to read the book and compare it with the movie. The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting. Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century, his inventiveness in terms of language, and detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive. Five stories are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories. After story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order, with story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resuming after six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is written ala Herman Melville (the story takes place around 1850) by a thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing. We are introduced to Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. There’s been a shipwreck and along with Ewing, we meet his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). All of this is revealed as Ewing witnesses a Moriori being flogged. When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces. Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium. A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work. Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions. There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one. Three is the only one of the six written in third person. It’s the 1970″s and we know this because Disco music plays. Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s gets stuck in an elevator with Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable talking. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant–an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island. And so the killing begins. First, Sixsmith, and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her, and we leave the story as her car is plunging off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with a murder. A reviewer who panned a book is thrown off a balcony by the author. Oops, better be careful. Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and when the story breaks, Cavendish, courtesy of his sneaky brother, is trapped in an old folks’ home with a Nurse Ratched running things. This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey, randy reminisces of past romances and Mitchell’s use of a florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world. The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves her on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha and we encounter the first “author’s message,” when a nun explains the meaning of the symbol. Whenever I see an overt message in fiction I always think of Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas, or maybe it was Take the Money and Run, (I’m not sure but I do remember the joke ) where during dialogue the words “author’s message” keep flashing. This was the first story I actually enjoyed, but I noticed elements of other sci fi. The layered corruption and Asian setting evokes Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose brings to mind O’Brien’s speech in 1984. And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!” Before her execution, Somni asks to finish seeing a movie, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a connection imposed on the story, rather than an outgrowth of plot or character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five. As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story and I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish story. The only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music, a device I believe could have been used in the other stories effectively and also, Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Frobisher’s suicide in story two made me shrug because he was so unlikeable. I read part two of story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” with the expectation that Mitchell would lock in a piece that would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. I couldn’t find it. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

The last two pages were pure “author’s message” and I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story. It’s 1939’s Middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a b-bee-gun to be under the tree. Ralphie is also a fan of Little Orphan Annie, and he has sent in all the boxtops to get a decoder ring. When it finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message, only accessible to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Then, he locks himself in the bathroom, ignoring the wails of his younger brother who has “to go.” As he huddles in the bathroom, defiant and decoding, the secret message Ralphie discovers is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Disgusted, Ralphie feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.