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.

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.

We’re All in the Same Swan Boat

A Review: Welcome to Me

   welcome to meToday I watched a movie that had a brief run in theaters in 2015. I discovered it buried in Netflix’ Independent Films. Welcome to Me stars Kristin Wiig (SNL and Bridesmaids) as Alice Klieg, a woman who wins an 86 million dollars jackpot in a California Sweepstakes Lottery. Prior to the big win, Alice’s income was a monthly disability check from the State of California. Alice has borderline personality disorder, a serious mental illness that makes it difficult for her to regulate her moods, leading to impulsive behavior and fear of abandonment. Alice’ self-absorption and inability to let go of past traumas limits her perception of reality, herself and the world around her.

Directed by Shira Piven (Fully Loaded), written by Eliot Laurence (The Big Gay Sketch Show) Welcome to Me has a great, though underused cast including, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsten and Tim Robbins.

Before her big win, Alice spent most of her time in her cluttered but color-coded apartment, watching old VHS tapes of Oprah shows. Her eyes glazed, Alice mouths Oprah’s lines as Oprah delivers them, nodding her head. Alice is joyful in her certitude of how the world works. Despite her isolation and inability to focus on anyone but herself, Alice (Kristin Wiig never descends into parody; she is a wonder in this role, truly impressive work) has a long-term and loyal friend, Gina, an amiable ex-husband and a concerned therapist (Tim Robbins). Convinced that she can regulate her disorder through restricting the carbohydrates in her diet, and much to her therapist’s dismay, Alice is off her meds.

After claiming her reward at a televised-event where she announces on camera that she self-soothes through excessive masturbation, Alice attends a taping then hijacks her favorite local protein product cable show. Soon, she decides to produce her own reality show, a show called Welcome to Me. “Me” is Alice, and not only is she the star of the show there will be no guests. She, Alice, is the only topic. Oh, and she wants to enter by riding on a swan (a cart made to look like a swan).

As his studio team shoots nervous glances at each other, the production company owner (James Marsden) flashes a big smile and takes Alice’s 15 million dollar check. Alice sobs while recording her theme songs as local actresses line up to appear in show segments, re-enactments of the traumas in Alice’s life. The show is not all about trauma, cooking segments feature Alice making her favorite low carb high protein recipes including a cake shaped meatloaf covered in frothy mashed potatoes.

Predictably, Alice’s unfiltered revelations, outbursts and the bizarre premise of the show, which tops the most exhibitionistic, exploitive of the competing reality programs, make Alice a minor celebrity. One student fan tells her that she has created a new genre: the narrative infomercial. As the show gains more viewers, Alice funds upgrades in production, the show gains viewers, Alice’s narcissism shuts out even those loyal few, including her new lover, Gabe (Wes Bentley) the cable host. Hi-jacking Gabe’s protein powder infomercial was Alice’s first on camera experience.

The story continues to follow a familiar formula: A star is born; a star is corrupted; a star pays the price for bad behavior by being exposed (literally in Alice’s case), deserted by those who loved her for her regular-person-self. Star realizes her wicked ways and makes amends. All is forgiven and humbled star, no longer a star, goes back to her old life.

I hesitate to call this a spoiler, though I suppose that her extreme behavior could have led to even more celebrity ala Andy Warhol, enabling more, even flashier ways of exploring the sad inner life of Alice (perhaps a movie or an HBO Special, better yet, Amazon and Netflix have a bidding war to create a “Me” series), ending in a close up of Alice’s shining tears and her lips trembling with the message, “I made it happen and so can you.”

What is this movie trying to say? Mental illness can be compelling entertainment? When it comes to the world of reality TV and the self-involved, Welcome to Me is not that bizarre? If that’s the case I must plead ignorant. I’ve never watched any of The Bachelor, American Idol, no dancers, no Ice loves Coco, none of the Housewives, no Kardashians, and certainly none of the addiction and teen mother ones. A lot of people do and perhaps by seeing others struggle, their own problems are easier to bear. I don’t know.

Life, however short or long, painful or pleasurable, with fame from accomplishments or with none of it, is fleeting. We’re but a tiny blip on the timeline and we yearn for it to mean something, anything—any mark that says we were here. By dramatizing her traumas, Alice insists as Willie Loman’s Linda did, “Attention must be paid!” My pain matters; I matter.

Because of the severity of her illness, Alice fails to see the pain of others and she fails to see that she is more than her pain. She does finally, catch a glimmer of truth, and her future may not be as bleak as it was before her windfall.

We engage the world through our interests, the roles we play, and our connection with other human beings. We are complex beings in a complex Universe, but we are not unique. And who would want to be? How lonely.

Like Reality TV, the Internet brings out the best and the worst of us—an endless selection of opinions and facts, plus the opportunity to explore the world of whatever you choose. I’m a sci fi geek, I read Mad Magazine till well into my twenties, I dance like no one’s looking (I’m usually right; they’re not), I love tech and all its implications and consider myself a futurist, but most of those tech results will happen long after I’m gone. I hope I live long enough to see us on Mars. I love a good horror book or movie, the same with history; I love to write and to design. I love to opine whether suitably informed or not.

Today’s marketing reality concerns reinventing yourself as a “Brand.” Some people are really good at this; others, like me, not so much. What I’ve discovered as I explore the work of my fellow bloggers and material related to their posts, is that I have remained to true to myself, a self I more fully see as I “like” and comment, tweet and share. So in a sense, my blogging, likes, comments, tweets and shares have become a “Welcome to Me.”

We are all Alice.