What do we talk about when we talk about monster movies?
The year's second major creature feature is here (I'm not forgetting about you, Monster Trucks!) and it has landed with a giant ape-sized wallop. Those of you who are interested in it are going to see it, and those of you who don't care aren't going to bother. So why am I writing about this anyway? Is there really anything to discuss? Short answer: I think so.
There is nothing new about the monster movie. And we keep gravitating back to them. Kong himself now has at least 4 features as a solo act, beginning over 80 years ago with his classic debut. So why can't we let him go? Kong: Skull Island answers this question, in part, in its own way.
The most obvious draw of the monster movie is the sheer visual spectacle. Think back to the 1933 original. Without that film's groundbreaking visual effects, where would we be today? There would be no Godzilla, no Jason and the Argonauts, Wallace and Gromit, Terminator, or, one could even argue, contemporary CG visual effects as we know them. It is difficult to overstate that film's impact. But it was originally produced as a piece of pop spectacle. Its poignant story certainly made it resonate, but its phenomenal effects made it a classic.
The visual elements are also what shine in Jordan Vogt-Roberts' new film, and, indeed, are what make it worth watching for the most part. In an age dominated by grayscale monoliths from Marvel and friends, the film's vibrant yellows and greens certainly stand out. The film is compositionally distinctive as well, mixing careful symmetry with off-center, floating shots to create something almost dream-like at times. The visuals are what sell its comparison to Apocalypse Now, although I find that comparison to be more than a little strained.
Story-wise, Kong is quite simple. It transplants the action to the days following the United States' abandonment of the Vietnam conflict, and depicts the exploratory expedition of the titular island, recently discovered thanks to satellite imagery. Here the movie, so controlled in its visual storytelling, might get a little lost in the woods with its human elements. It's not that it doesn't work: Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and company are all perfectly enjoyable. But it runs into the old monster movie dilemma of not quite having enough time for all of its characters. This doesn't make it deficient as a monster movie, but does leave one wanting a little more given its topical setup and superb visuals.
And about that setup: why make a Kong movie so flavored with Vietnam? It is an interesting flavor, to be sure, especially given the relative homogeny of other Kong films. It does also function as a motivating factor for many of the characters, but I don't think it really rises above that. Again, it doesn't mean that the film doesn't work. Kong's answer as to why we love monster movies is that they are just fun. And what we have here is a really fun, funny, spookily beautiful monster mash (with a great soundtrack and score, by the way.) So I say just go see it and enjoy yourself for a while. And anyway it is most certainly better than Beauty and the Beast is looking.
Kong: Skull Island features Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly, and is rated PG-13 for savage monster beatdowns and some swearsing (mostly from Mr. Jackson, naturally.)
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Well, folks, it's that time again: time to come together with hesitancy and trepidation to decide whether another M. Night Shyamalan film is worth another go. He is a filmmaker of unique ability that, sadly, derailed his career while at its zenith and has spent lo these last dozen years trying to make it back. 2015 saw The Visit turn a tidy profit and convince some that he was returning to form. This writer was less enthusiastic, (see the September 2015 column in these pages) but was nonetheless encouraged. However Split, another collaboration with horror producer Blumhouse, has convinced me that one of my favorite directors is indeed staging a sneaky comeback.
Split is the story of 3 teenage girls (led by Anya Taylor-Joy) who are kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) with 23 distinct personalities. On the surface, it looks like a fairly typical hostage horror flic, and its January release date and much of its marketing material do little to refute this. While it does share certain elements with that particular genre, its heart and head are often in a much different place. It is, like Shyamalan's better work, an interior examination.
THOSE WISHING TO AVOID SPOILERS WOULD DO WELL NOT TO READ BEYOND THIS POINT. JUST KNOW THAT I RECOMMEND THIS FILM, AND WAS DELIGHTED AND SURPRISED THEREWITH.
Much of that examination takes place with Kevin, embodied by James McAvoy, to whom this film really belongs. I know many members of a contemporary audience would be uncomfortable with the villain of a film being a man with a mental disorder. But the film never really makes it that simple. To begin with, he and his other personalities are never really unsympathetic once we meet them. He is winning and charming and vulnerable and troubled, and even in menace there is more to be pitied than hated. It is complex role for a fine actor.
The personalities McAvoy illustrates for us are the chief backdrop of Shyamalan's inner investigation regarding the effects of suffering, specifically abuse. Of course there is a substantial WHAT IF speculation about the causes of multiple personalities and what their limits are, but then this is a fantasy. It all serves Shyamalan's greater question: what of good and evil comes of pain?
So in this sense Split is much more a Shyamalan film than The Visit, which dealt with its deeper themes in a more secondary way. In this film they are the primary focus. There is far too little action and too few jump scares for it to fit appropriately within the straight-up horror genre, which was always what made his good films so great.
OK REALLY NOW YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.
I had heard rumblings, prior to seeing the movie, of a really actually good twist, which Shyamalan is of course quite famous for. I was intrigued, but also skeptical, because these things are often artificially hyped for the sake of clicks. As the film progressed, I kept searching about for potential hints, but nothing satisfied me or panned out.
But when it came (personally I recognized a musical cue before the scene laid it out, which makes me feel more clever than I probably should) I wasn't sure how I felt at first. But as the credits rolled, I thought, that's the way to do it. To give an audience an authentic experience introducing an antagonist into an existing world, they can't know they are in that world. For the antagonist truly inhabits a separate place, one completely foreign to the hero. And to understand him and come to truly sympathize with him, we must live in his world without thought of another place. Now, I'm not holding my breath for some colossal cinematic smackdown in the nearish future, but it was a fun, if somewhat devious, way to reintroduce a story closed for 15 years. And to (possibly, hopefully) signal the re-emergence of one of our more unique mainstream filmmakers.
Split features James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula, and is rated PG-13 for hostage horror elements and gross stuff, mature material, and some swearsing.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
One of reasons we tell stories to each other is to, in some way, deal with tough questions. The world can be an uncertain place, and we are constantly confronted with challenges of some nature. Even our basest comedies have at their base some real question to deal with; in their case, the issue is abstracted to the ridiculous in order to be more manageable. Other stories take their questions more head-on.
One notable exception is, perhaps curiously, religious stories, especially films. These are often bereft of any real conflict, and therefore storytelling effectiveness, because conflict looks very much like faithlessness to some extent. And if one is producing a film for a religious audience, the introduction of doubt may not pay off in ticket sales. People come to have reaffirmed what they came in with, and affirmation often comes at the cost of insight.
Silence, by Martin Scorsese, is absolutely a religious, or at least a spiritual, film. But it is not like its compatriots of the Christian cinema ilk. It sets out, very intentionally, to ask some very difficult questions, and to challenge unexamined faith. The resulting meditation on religion and spirituality is a beautiful and reverent experience I would rank among the best of the director's work.
The film tells the story of Rodrigues and Garupe, two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find their mentor Ferreira, who has forsaken the faith. The two encounter almost constant persecution and have to come to terms with what the faith means for them and their followers.
One of the most striking qualities of the film is how measured it is in its observances. In its subdued way, it really only chronicles events without influencing or editorializing them through extra-diagetic elements. Although it is the Jesuits' story, the film doesn't really take sides. And this is where it succeeds where other films about spirituality often fail. By maintaining a certain level of compassionate objectivity instead of proselyting, it is able to consider its subject more truthfully, resulting in a more satisfying and effective storytelling experience.
I don't want to talk too much about the film because I think that it just needs to be experienced on its own terms. But I say that it is absolutely a rewarding watch, regardless of your personal level of spirituality or religiousness. Its soul-searching is universal and its craft exquisite. And while asking difficult questions, it also offers considered and considerate answers.
Silence features Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, and Liam Neeson, and is rated R for violence.
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Do work or politics or general wintertime gloominess got you down? Then do I have the remedy for you. It's called La La Land, and I want each of my seven loyal readers to go out and see it immediately. It is indeed the perfect antidote for whatever January blues you might have.
La La Land is the musical story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), two Los Angeles dreamers who meet and of course fall for each other. What follows is a real cinematic treat and truly the purest and most positive form of escapism we are capable of producing in this century.
Yes, La La Land is a musical. But it is not the Rogers-and-Hammerstein, spectacle-over-substance, song-and-dance cavalcade many think of when they hear "musical." No, it is more of what might happen if Truman Capote and Duke Ellington wrote a musical together: smart characters, smart music, keen drama, and more than a little nostalgia. I do not know of another musical with which I can accurately compare it.
So let's talk about those elements. Our characters have what many musical characters lack: that is, meaningful substance. Yes, they have fairly simple motivations when it comes down to it, but underneath that are traits that really resonate, that make them stay in your mind. You could tell me more about the characters than they have told you, and I think that really says something.
The music, composed by Justin Hurwitz, does owe much the great jazz composers, to Gershwin and Ellington, but never feels dated. Like all good jazz, it simply exists, outside of time, while being fully able to transport the listener anywhere it pleases. There are great, hummable tunes, as well as more subtle, expressive material. And it all wonderfully helps to shape the movie, acting at times almost on its own, as its own entity. It is music that brings Sebastian and Mia together, and it continually shapes their relationship. And Hurwitz' score is more than up to the challange.
Finally, much of what makes La La Land what it is is a fair helping of nostalgia. But not the kind that merely pines for what no longer is (or necessarily was)--it is more the Capotian variety, where one is convinced that what is longed for still actually exists somewhere. It manages somehow to look back and to the future in one breath. The film's color-saturated Los Angeles is LA as the dreamers know it, a place still capable of flight and fancy, of redemption in rejection. It is as fervent a love letter to that city as Manhattan is to its, a kind of elevated magic realism that can only be truly accessed in a dark theatre illuminated by the celluloid image. It is a wonderful experience.
La La Land convinces us, almost from frame one and despite our cynical 21st century tendencies, that dreaming is okay. It more than any other right now is the film most ideally suited to counter the negative around us. It is what great escapist cinema is: more than just a release from your troubles for a couple of hours, a release that offers a renewed perspective and the idea of what could be possible. With the added bonus of songs to whistle on the way home.
La La Land features Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and John Legend, and is rated PG-13 for a little swearsing.
I think we can all pretty much agree: 2016 kinda sucked all around. This writer, for one, will not be terribly sad to see it go, in part because 2017 looks like it holds some pretty good potential, movie-wise. So let us all give this year one final "good riddance" by having a little look at 4 movies I'm looking forward to next year.
John Wick: Chapter 2
2014's John Wick was a wonderful little surprise. It claims to be nothing more than straight-ahead action-flic, but like a good straight-ahead, no-frills rock song, sometimes that's all you need. Its action sequences were fun and inventive, and it managed to have a genuine sense of humor, something lacking in many contemporary action movies. Hopefully the next chapter continues in that direction.
John Wick: Chapter 2 comes out February 10th.
Kong: Skull Island
I know I'm the last person to be excited about another expanded franchise film, but the trailer above kinda sold me hard. It's a great cast, and the colors and other visuals have really been appealing to me. It's also directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who brought us The Kings of Summer, one of my favorite films of 2013. So that's more than enough goodwill to get me in line.
Kong: Skull Island comes out March 10th.
(The only trailer I can find right now is a red band one, FYI.)
I know a lot of you weren't totally impressed with 2012's Prometheus, and while I have issues with it I still enjoy it more than most. But certainly Michael Fassbender was one of the better elements of that movie. This looks to be more in line with Alien than many of the other entries in the series that followed. Hopefully it does have some original cards to play as well, though, especially as an expensive summer release.
Alien: Covenant comes out May 19th.
Blade Runner 2049
This film, of the rest on this list, holds the most promise for me. It is based on one of my favorite films from the early 80s, Blade Runner, and directed by Denis Villeneuve (who just gave us Arrival) and shot by master Roger Deakins. So I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a film as engaging as its originator, and not a legacyquel with great production design like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. But at this point, I am confident of something quite satisfying.
Blade Runner 2049 comes out on October 6th.
That does it for this list, which I just realized has nothing that is not now part of some franchise on it, for shame. So I'll mention I'm also excited (to one degree or another) for Split (1/20), A Cure for Wellness (2/17), Life (3/24), and Dunkirk (7/21), to name a few. Happy viewing, and I'll see you next year!
by Chase Harrison