REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

7 03 2017

“Am I the story of the Negro in America?” asks a German major in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as he tries to guess the name written on a card affixed to his forehead in a bar game. He gets a resounding “no” after running through a series of questions that could just as easily describe the importation of slaves. But he quickly pivots and rattles off, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.”

Traditionally in cinema – and fiction as a whole – our monsters mean something. They reflect the deep fears and anxieties of a society, ones that might not obviously rear their heads but can find vicarious expression through metaphor and transitive representation. In 1933’s version of “King Kong,” Tarantino saw a deeply symbolic tale about race in America. It’s too bad that “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest spin on the giant ape, arrives at a time of no racial tension and the complete absolution of prejudice based on ancestral origin. (Ha.)

But what kind of monster is Kong in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film? At first, the behemoth primate seems to be something between a colonialist allegory given the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a cautionary tale for human overreach in a technology-heavy era. The longer the film goes on, the more these aspects reveal themselves as clear offshoots of Vogt-Roberts’ key touchstones, “Apocalypse Now” and “Jurassic Park.” Then the real question of “Kong: Skull Island” arises. Is it worse if the filmmaking team (which includes four credited writers) have an undercooked meaning of the monster … or if there’s just no meaning at all?

We get the answer – it’s the latter of the two options – in a post-credits zinger. No spoilers about the contents of the scene, but Warner Bros. deliberately robs King Kong of any allegorical meaning to strip him down to pure commercialism. He’s now just another branded property, another franchise toy who can be trotted out in any number of series without being weighed down by cultural baggage. The ape who loomed large in the American imagination is now just another large CGI creation in a veritable zoo created by the VFX wizards that be. The whole film amounts to a less neon-bathed “Avatar,” a creature feature full of empty spectacle (and even less politicization).

Kong’s presence in the film is practically nonexistent, too. That includes implied appearances, a method to which Spielberg acolyte Vogt-Roberts fondly makes homage. The majority of “Kong: Skull Island” consists of a ragtag band of people who have been in too many action movies (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and those whose careers could use an action movie (Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell) trying to make it to the top of a mountain for rescue after a military mission goes south. Their journey has its enjoyable moments, but who really buys a ticket to a King Kong movie for pithy banter between photojournalists and cagey war veterans? B-

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REVIEW: Cop Car

14 08 2015

Cop CarJon Watts’ “Cop Car” opens with a familiar scene for anyone who escaped lower school: two kids tossing around swear words like a hot potato.  They do it not as an organic reaction to any sort of stimulus; they do it just to wield the power of the taboo.  This is the first of many examples that demonstrate just how well Watts and his co-writer Christopher D. Ford understand the mindset of kids.

Their two pint-sized protagonists, Travis and Harrison (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford), hardly fit the bill of the typical precocious on-screen youngster.  They are just pre-pubescent pinheads engaging in the same dumb stuff everyone does around the age of ten.  Here, they take it one step too far when they decide to go joyriding in an apparently abandoned police cruiser.

Because “Cop Car” is a movie and not the punchline of a Jeff Foxxworthy “redneck” joke, the vehicle obviously has an owner.  Unfortunately for them, that man is the crooked Sheriff Kretzer, who is played by Kevin Bacon, the prolific actor perhaps best known for the “Six Degrees of Separation” game often played with him at the center.  This is the first time Bacon has really cashed in on his iconography like Liam Neeson has in recent years, and he does it here to play gloriously against type.  This role sees him sporting a full-on porn star ‘stache and a protruding gut that undeniably comes from convenient store beer.

Sadly, Kretzer gets precious little time to menace.  At under 90 minutes, “Cop Car” never really lets him develop as a dynamic force.  The film is meant to be told from the kids’ perspective and from their eye-level, to be sure.  But that simplicity of spirit ultimately winds up working against the film as the childlike viewpoint just becomes little more than a downright childish caper.

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