Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly

When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.


Straight Outta Compton

Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff

It is often the case that when musical biopics are made they will seek to depict the lives and works of their subjects without attempting any deeper insight into their psyches or using their stories to depict a greater, overarching narrative. What results is effectively a ‘greatest hits’ story that, while often pleasant and even entertaining, does not leave much of a resounding impact on the viewer, nor does it challenge or inspire them in any profound way. I think this is why I enjoyed watching Straight Outta Compton so much; because it isn’t merely a story about five famous musicians who started a famous band with some famous songs, it is an exposé about a band of rebels who found a unique and belligerent voice and overcame the odds and adversities that they faced to deliver a radical message about challenging authority and being true to one’s self and one’s roots. Whether or not you’re a fan of rap music isn’t the point. This isn’t a film about Dr. Dre or Ice Cube or even about N.W.A, this film is about the statement that they made together, the antagonistic forces that stood in their way, and why that statement matters.

Straight Outta Compton depicts the lives of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the five Compton boys who together created the band N.W.A., one of the most significant and revolutionary groups in hip-hop and rap history. Growing up in a dangerous neighbourhood in which poverty, drugs, gang violence and police discrimination are ever present, these young men find themselves in a state of disgruntlement and frustration and seek to vent and express their anger and aggravation through music. Following their successful debut the group catches the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a big time music manager who undertakes to take them to the top. The band wins much popularity and notoriety for their hardcore beats, aggressive lyrics and provocative subjects as they seek to deliver a confrontational message and kick off a social revolution that will reverberate throughout the country and forever change the face of rap music.

One thing this film gets absolutely spot on is its main characters. The five members of N.W.A. are perfectly cast and share a dynamic chemistry that is both substantial and believable. Given that I wasn’t very familiar with this group or its music prior to watching this film I cannot account for its authenticity. However I do think that what the film presented worked very well in its own context and I found these characters to be fully relatable and interesting. At the centre of it all is Dre, the aspiring musician who shows a strong talent for the craft and a keen aptitude for the business and who remains the level-headed voice of reason in the erupting feud that threatens to break up the band. Eazy-E is the cocky, charismatic hustler who, upon discovering almost by accident what a gift he has for rapping, embarks on a wild journey that sadly ends in tragedy. Ice Cube (played by his staggeringly identical-looking son) is the hard-as-nails rapper with a strong presence and a fiery temper to match the band’s scorching songs. The downside is that these three characters stand firmly in the film’s spotlight while DJ Yella and MC Ren are unceremoniously brushed to the side. As much as I enjoyed watching the exploits of the three main characters, it would’ve been nice if the other two had been given more prominent roles and were allowed to leave a more lasting impact.

To me what really set this film apart is the way it addresses the social issues that the members of N.W.A. faced and how they set to combat those issues by speaking out through their music. Early on the film presents the audience with examples of the hardships these young men and many others like them have had to endure their entire lives; violence in their neighbourhoods, low-income jobs, hostility from the police and a hundred other obstacles that threaten to suppress and engulf them. These five are frustrated, enraged and pissed off and they have decided not to take it any more. Through their music they are able to express their hardships through brutally honest lyrics about violence and aggression that reflect the harsh world they have to live in. Songs like Express Yourself and Fuck the Police are loud, explicit and confrontational because that is what it takes for their voices to be heard. There is something intensely raw and authentic about this film’s mood that makes it an astonishing viewing experience.

Although this film is produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, it doesn’t feel like a vanity project. While the film may not necessarily be the complete and utter truth and parts of the story were likely tweaked to deliver a more positive spin on the main characters, I still feel like the film’s spirit is nevertheless true to the message it is trying to deliver. While the film does make a deliberate attempt to portray the members of N.W.A. in as positive (possibly even heroic) a light as it can, the light is nevertheless imperfect. These men understand that they are not saints and make no claims to be such. They only claim to be telling the truth, nothing more and nothing less. Their flaws and vices are important parts of who they are and reflect where it is where they are from and what sort of lives they have had. They are not trying to tell anyone what they should think or how they should live their lives; they are simply five men from Compton who have a statement to make and they are damn well going to say it whatever the consequences. The result is a provocative film with a powerful message that remains relevant today.