A Halloween Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (dir by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

You may have noticed that, in the title of this post, I specifically referred to Kong: Skull Island as being a Halloween film but not a horror film.

That was very much intentional on my part.  Kong: Skull Island is really not a horror film.  (I think you could argue that the only King Kong film that can legitimately be considered a horror film would be Peter Jackson’s version and that’s just because he tossed in a few scenes that were obviously inspired by the old Italian cannibal films.)  I watched Kong: Skull Island a few months ago and I really can’t say that there was ever a moment where I was scared or even uneasy.  It’s just not that type of film.

At the same time, it is a fantastically fun and entertaining monster movie, one that has a good sense of humor about its own absurdity.  Halloween is not just a time to get scared.  It’s also a time to have fun and, for that reason, Kong: Skull Island is a perfect movie for October.  In fact, I think that it was actually a mistake for Warner Bros. to release the film in March.  They should have released it during the first weekend of October.  It could have provided a counterbalance to all of the depressing films that have been released this month,

Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to the gleefully absurd monster movies of the past.  Just so we don’t miss that point, the film starts with a 1944 prologue before then jumping forward to 1973.  (Significantly, not a single scene takes place in the 21st Century.)  Samuel L. Jackson plays Lt. Col. Preston Packard, the tough, no-nonsense commander of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron.  The Sky Devils are finally on the verge of leaving Vietnam but they’ve been asked to carry out on more mission.  They’ve been asked to fly an expedition over a newly discovered island.  The official story is that they’re going to be mapping the island but everyone knows better than to trust the government.

Kong: Skull Island is very well-cast, which is a good thing because the majority of the characters are thinly written.  Among the civilians in the helicopters: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  Of course, they’re all playing characters but, for the most part, you’ll spend the entire movie thinking of them as being Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  For that matter, you never think of Samuel L. Jackson as being Preston Packard.  He simply is Samuel L. Jackson.  When they eventually discover a castaway living on the island, it doesn’t matter that the man’s “name” is supposedly Hank Marlow.  He’s played by john C. Reilly and that’s who you’ll always think of him as being.   They’re all charismatic actors so you certainly don’t mind watching them but, at the same time, the film understands that the main reason we’re all here is to see the giant gorilla.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take long for King Kong to show up.  This is not one of those films where things are dragged out in an unnecessary attempt to create suspense.  (After all, the audience already knows that King Kong’s on the island.)  Almost as soon as the helicopters breach the airspace over Skull Island, Kong shows up and starts knocking them out of the sky.  The survivors end up stranded on different parts of the island.

Of course, it’s not just Kong that they have to worry about.  In fact, from the start, the audience is smart enough to know that Kong is actually one of the good monsters.  However, Skull Island is also inhabited by bad monsters, like these giant reptiles that Kong keeps having to fight.

Early on, there’s a scene in America where, in regards to the Watergate scandal, John Goodman says that Washington, D.C. is never going to be more screwed up than it is at that moment.  That line pretty much epitomizes Kong: Skull Island.  It’s a lark with a knowing sense of humor and it is not meant to be taken at all seriously.  At it’s best, Kong: Skull Island satirizes some of the most pompous monster movies of the past.  Whenever someone says something portentous, you can be sure that the film will quickly find a way to puncture the somber mood.

And it’s all terrifically entertaining.  Watch, enjoy, and don’t worry too much about whether or not any of it makes sense.  A trip to Skull Island is a trip worth taking.

Playing Catch-Up: The Great Wall (dir by Zhang Yimou)

Remember The Great Wall?

The Great Wall came out in February.  Before it was released, I saw the trailer and I thought, “Well, that looks like it might be fun.”  However, I never actually saw the film when it was in theaters.  I think I was still recovering from Fifty Shades Darker when The Great Wall was released so I put off going to see it.  I thought to myself, “That’ll be around for a while.”  Of course, I was wrong.  The Great Wall played for two weeks and then it was gone.

That may not sound like a big deal when you consider the reviews that The Great Wall received.  If not for the fact that Fifty Shades Darker was released a week earlier, The Great Wall would have been the first critical disaster of 2017.  Seriously, the critics hated The Great Wall with a passion that took even me by surprise.  The comments went beyond the usual snarkiness to outright hatred.  Suddenly, The Great Wall — which, to judge from the trailer, looked like a harmless little monster movie — was being held up as an example of everything wrong with modern filmmaking.

The film was even attacked for starring Matt Damon.  As I said before, I thought the trailer looked like fun but, apparently, other critics watched that trailer and found themselves asking, “How dare Matt Damon appear in a movie that’s set in eleventh century China!?” And you know what?  I get it.  Whenever I’m watching a movie about aliens invading the 11th Century, my immediate concern is whether or not the film is historically accurate.  It’s bad enough that Americans are being taught that Matt Damon could survive on Mars.  Do they also have to be told that Matt Damon saved China from the space lizards!?

Even though I missed The Great Wall when it was playing in theaters, I knew that it was a film that I would see eventually.  Whenever a film gets totally slaughtered by the critics, I feel like I have almost a duty to watch the film and judge for myself.  Some of that’s because I don’t trust the majority of critics.  And some of it’s because, as a natural born contrarian, I’m always hopeful for any chance to go against the consensus.  Last month, I finally watched The Great Wall and you know what?

It’s not that bad.

Now, it should be understood that being not that bad doesn’t necessarily mean that The Great Wall is a good movie.   It’s a deeply silly movie and, occasionally, it’s also a profoundly dumb one.  Matt Damon plays a European mercenary who is sneaking around China, searching for gunpowder.  After he is captured by the Chinese and brought to the Great Wall, he is enlisted to help battle a bunch of space lizards.  Apparently, the space lizards attack the wall every 60 years but, this year, they’re arriving early.  Or something like that.  I really couldn’t follow the mythology of the space lizards and that’s probably for the best.  The Great Wall is not a film that demands or benefits from a good deal of deep thought.  This is one of those films where the best plan is to not ask too many questions because the answers probably won’t make any sense anyway.

As dumb as The Great Wall may be, it’s an undeniably entertaining movie.  Under the direction of Zhang Yimou, The Great Wall is a visual feast, full of epic landscapes and swooping cameras.  When a seemingly limitless number of space lizards appear out of nowhere and suddenly charge the wall, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the exciting silliness of it all.  When the Chinese army takes their positions on the Great Wall and prepare to repel the invasion, it doesn’t matter that none of the characters are particularly fleshed out.  Instead, you’re just overwhelmed by the vibrant colors of their armor and the determined fierceness of their expressions.  The Great Wall is shamelessly over the top and nicely self-aware.  This a movie that knows that it is ludicrous and occasionally incoherent and you know what?  The Great Wall is perfectly fine with that.

For all the criticism that he received for appearing in the movie, Matt Damon is ideally cast.  Whenever Damon is on screen, it’s as if he’s entered into a conspiracy with the viewer.  Matt Damon is one of the few actors who can maintain his balance while walking that thin line between drama and parody.  With every arched eyebrow and slightly sarcastic line reading, Damon is saying, “Sure, this is all kind of stupid.  But aren’t we having fun?”

When The Great Wall eventually shows up on the SyFy channel, it’s going to be fun movie to live tweet.  Some films were just meant to be watched and appreciated with a group of your snarkiest friends.  The Great Wall is one such film.