Kong: Skull Island
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein
Produced and distributed by A24
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney
Produced and distributed by The Weinstein Company
Directed by Garth Davis
Screenplay by Saroo Brierly from his memoir, A Long Way Home
Compared with its predecessors, Kong: Skull Island is a rather dreary reprise of the original King Kong film. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts discards the original’s venerable plot, which gave Kong its lasting appeal. The entire point of the 1933 movie was to introduce a Brobdingnagian creature into the precincts of a Lilliputian civilization and let matters take their rambunctious course. In Gulliver’s Travels, the lesson was that the supposedly civilized Lilliputians were far more savage than their oversized counterparts. Vogt-Roberts ignores this homily. Instead of thrilling us with scenes of Kong wading recklessly through the streets of Manhattan, his film places all its action on Skull Island, somewhere west of Vietnam in 1974 at the sorry end of our ill-fated war to protect that country’s peasants from the jaws of communism, an effort that cost the lives of 50,000 of our troops and three million rice farmers. This grisly Vietnam allusion seemed to me jarringly tasteless in a fantasy movie. I suppose Vogt-Roberts wanted it to be the basis for the film’s half-baked allegory concerning the perils of unchecked aggression. This exemplary message comes to its climax with a standoff between Kong and Samuel L. Jackson playing a colonel still smarting because he was ordered to “abandon” the war. In a series of montage shots, we get screen-filling close-ups of Jackson and Kong, each furiously flaring his nostrils and menacingly clenching his fists. Admittedly, this is great fun, but I much prefer Peter Jackson’s 2005 version. Peter Jackson had the wit to have the big lug go sliding on Central Park’s frozen lake with his inamorata, Naomi Watts, after which he climbed the Empire State Building into what must be one of the most beautiful skies ever committed to film: a quattrocento dawn of ineffable blue appointed with glorious pink and gold clouds. Still, there are some pleasures to be had in Vogt-Roberts’ largely colorless remake. Among others, we get to see the etymology of the island’s name courtesy of its gigantic lizards who, after having made a meal of some luckless humans, vomit their indigestible skulls in close-up. Did I mention that you should leave the children at home?
The actors have little to do but look skyward with expressions of terrified amazement. In an updated version of Fay Wray’s role, Brie Larson shows up as a fearless war photographer. One of her duties is to make sure we know that, beneath Kong’s chest-thumping, his heart is in the right place. She proves this when she reaches from a cliff ledge to pet said chest. The scene should have had a cautionary subtitle: Don’t try this at home when you come upon, say, a black bear rummaging through your garbage.
For those who care, the film ends with a coda of sorts after an interminable credit crawl. I’ll only say it intimates that Godzilla and Mothra may be coming back to go a few rounds with the King.
Speaking of rounds, I wonder why one or more of the Black Lives Matter leaders haven’t put on their gloves to take swings at Hollywood for honoring Moonlight as the best picture of 2016. This vision of underclass life in Liberty City, Florida, could hardly be more insulting to black lives. The people who reside within the city’s shabby, untidy precincts seem never to consider changing their circumstances. As far as the film indicates, the population comprises addicts, their drug dealers, and, as collateral damage, their neglected children. The only somewhat honorable character is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer who pauses from the exertions of his trade to take in Little (Alex Hibbert), an eight-year-old waif he finds on the streets. This is, of course, an act of kindness for which pushers are justly famous. The boy has been abandoned by his mother (Naomi Harris, Miss Moneypenny herself) who, not incidentally, happens to be one of Juan’s crack-cocaine customers. But what can you do? A man’s got to make a living, doesn’t he? Juan’s really a decent sort. You can tell because he takes Little to the beach one day to give him a swim in the waves. You’ve no doubt seen the publicity photo in which Ali gently cradles the tyke to make sure he doesn’t sink below the water. Touching. Juan also says just the right thing when he discovers Little is being called a faggot at his school, an entirely undisciplined institution in which teachers do their best to stay out of the way of their rampaging charges. Juan explains that it’s a word meant to make gays feel bad about themselves and adds thoughtfully that Little needn’t worry about it now. “You’ll know when you know.” Wisdom worthy of a doctor of psychology. The boy will know just a few scenes later when he’s become 14 and played by Ashton Sanders. Little is now named Chiron for reasons unexplained. Possibly, Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the original story as a play, and director Barry Jenkins neglected to check the origins of the name in Greek mythology, where Chiron is depicted as the wisest of the centaurs who has the responsibility of guiding the young of the breed. Our Chiron, however, neither teaches nor guides anyone. He’s a shy, timid outsider victimized by his peers for his difference.
Unable to defend himself, Chiron finds solace in the homoerotic attention given him by a classmate, the easygoing, conventionally named Kevin. To Chiron’s dismay, he later comes upon his lover having quick sex with a girl in a school staircase. Kevin brushes this aside, saying it’s no big thing. No, it isn’t. It’s just adolescent life in the ghetto.
Upon entering into his 30’s, Chiron is transformed into the strikingly muscled thug played by Trevante Rhodes. He’s become a hardened, emotionless drug dealer named Black, sullenly wary of whatever trouble may come his way. Then, in the closing section of the film, Black reconnects with Kevin some 15 years after they were classmates. After recalling their former relationship, they cuddle once more, and Black confesses that he hasn’t been touched by another man since their original intimacy. How chaste.
This is just the kind of sentimentality white middle-class liberals can have a good cry over, all the while flattering themselves for being so understanding of their lower-class brothers. It’s also quite preposterous. Would a drug-dealing gangster who has customers and criminal associates in his thrall have remained celibate for 15 years? Not likely.
I don’t know much about McCraney and Jenkins, but I suspect they know their white audience and are giving them what they want. This makes Jordan Peele’s Get Out all the more impressive. Peele’s unmasking of the hypocritical dynamic between middle-class blacks and liberal whites gives the lie to dishonest productions like Moonlight. And there’s another issue. Jenkins hasn’t hesitated to involve child actors in this lurid story. He seems oblivious to the effect it’s likely to have upon their lives. Art must be served, I suppose.
Lion is another film that could be said to play to the bien pensant audience, except that here the people who played key parts in the nonfiction story are themselves the bien pensants. The film is an account of the adventures of Saroo, a five-year-old Indian boy who by the kind of mischance that haunts parents daily is irretrievably separated from his mother. He’s subsequently adopted by a childless Australian couple who bring him back to their home in Hobart, Tasmania, where they lovingly rear him in very comfortable circumstances.
As a young man of 20, a chance memory of his origins makes him long to find his birth mother and siblings, and he begins planning to return to India to do so.
This is a very well-made film graced with fine performances. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, playing Sue and John Brierly (Saroo’s adoptive parents), are the very portraits of devoted guardians. The child playing Saroo at five is irresistibly cute. As the 20-year-old Saroo, Dev Patel proves his work in Slumdog Millionaire wasn’t a flash in the pan. He’s winning in every one of his scenes, funny one moment, distraught the next, and, at times, an obnoxious brat. He’s always convincing as a young man who finds himself in an impossible situation, torn between the adoptive parents who’ve given him everything and the memory of his birth mother whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years. He loves them all, but obviously in different ways.
Now for some unpleasant duty. You may not want to read the next two paragraphs. If you’re sensitive, what I’m about to say may offend you. My remarks are also not for those who think narrative surprise is sacrosanct, for I’m about to give away a crucial piece of information the director carefully conceals until, as they say, the third reel.
When Saroo attempts to console a weeping Kidman, who’s not thrilled at the prospect of his returning to India on what may turn out to be a pointless and possibly dangerous journey, he attempts to mollify her by pointing out how much he appreciates her role in his life. Further he understands his role in hers, a woman who couldn’t have her own children. Until this moment, Kidman has been teary-eyed. Suddenly, she stiffens and shoots Saroo a look not quite of reproach, but certainly of displeasure. She frostily explains that she and her husband could have had children of their own, but had decided that they would prefer to adopt a child. The world, she explains, already has too many people. They wanted to give a disadvantaged and specifically brown-skinned child a chance at a better life. A very noble gesture. Too noble for me, I’m afraid. First, why assume that Saroo’s life in India wasn’t going to be satisfactory? Isn’t this a First Worlder’s racist, imperial presumption? Second, why would adopting Saroo preclude the Brierlys from having their own children?
I don’t mean to belittle their generosity, but I can’t help thinking that their goodness was compromised by an exclusionary racial agenda.