Simian dan­ger stalks land of the gi­ants

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

“Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Wash­ing­ton!” So says ec­cen­tric sci­en­tist Bill Randa (a splen­did John Goodman) as he jumps out of a cab on Capi­tol Hill. That may make some peo­ple chor­tle to­day, but it wasn’t as funny back in the early 1970s, the set­ting for Kong: Skull Is­land. The Viet­nam War was shut­ting down and Water­gate was open­ing up. A bob­ble-headed Richard Nixon doll grins on the dash­board of a military he­li­copter.

This film is a re­boot of the King Kong cin­e­matic fran­chise, which is clos­ing in on a cen­tury. It pays par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the land­mark 1933 orig­i­nal, with Fay Wray as Ann Dar­row, the young woman the great ape likes. The story was re­made in 1976 in a con­tem­po­rary set­ting with Jes­sica Lange in her de­but, and by Peter Jack­son in 2005, with Naomi Watts as the girl in the palm of Kong’s hand.

Un­like the ear­lier movies, this one un­folds in Kong’s home, Skull Is­land, where he is far from be­ing the only un­usual beast. He does not end up in New York to climb the Em­pire State Build­ing or the World Trade Cen­tre. The film was shot in Viet­nam, Hawaii and Queens­land, where the cast re­port­edly ar­rived ter­ri­fied by the prospect of be­ing at­tacked by Aus­tralian snakes and spi­ders.

The fauna on Skull Is­land is far more dan­ger­ous. We ar­rive there thanks to Randa con­vinc­ing an in­flu­en­tial sen­a­tor to back an ex­plo­ration mis­sion. Randa says it will un­cover re­sources the US needs, but his real in­ter­est is in mon­sters. The is­land is “a place where myth and sci­ence meet”.

It is also per­ma­nently sur­rounded by a fe­ro­cious storm, so Randa and his team need a military es­cort. This is soul-lift­ing news for hard nut Lt-Col Pre­ston Packard (Sa­muel L. Jack­son), who is dis­ap­pointed the Viet­nam War is over and the US sort of lost. He agrees to cor­ral his troops, most of whom were look­ing for­ward to going home, and lead a he­li­copter squadron through the tem­pest and on to terra firma.

Also on the mis­sion, at Randa’s re­quest, is for­mer Bri­tish spe­cial forces of­fi­cer James Con­rad ( Tom Hid­dle­ston). The sci­en­tists first see him shoot­ing pool in a bar. There’s an ar­gu­ment, he snaps his pool cue and beats up his an­tag­o­nist. “Now, there’s a man worth talk­ing to,’’ Randa ob­serves. And be­cause it’s no Kong movie with­out the likes of Wray, Lange or Watts, the mis­sion is doc­u­mented by pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ma­son Weaver (Brie Lar­son).

The long scene where the he­li­copters face the storm is ter­rific. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the chop­pers make it through — we wouldn’t have a film oth­er­wise. But wait­ing on the other side is Kong, and he isn’t happy. How many sol­diers and sci­en­tists make it to ground is some­thing view­ers can find out. Their ac­tions, es­pe­cially Packard’s, show the war isn’t over yet, at least not in their minds.

It’s the in­clu­sion of his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, and lit­er­ary ones, that make this film en­gag­ing, de­spite its faults, which in­clude a pedes­trian script. It is the sec­ond fea­ture from Amer­i­can di­rec­tor Jor­dan Vogt-Roberts. His de­but, com­ing-of-age com­edy-drama The Kings of Sum­mer, was well­re­ceived at the 2013 Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val.

The name of Hid­dle­ston’s mer­ce­nary is a nod to Joseph Con­rad and his novel Heart of Dark­ness. Put dif­fer­ent peo­ple in a strange place and see what hap­pens. The di­rec­tor has said the book, and Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s Viet­nam War-set film in­car­na­tion of it, Apoc­a­lypse Now, were in­spi­ra­tions. Jack­son at times does look like he’s chan­nelling Apoc­a­lypse Now’s Robert Du­vall, though he has noted an­other fic­tional Kong: Skull pre­de­ces­sor, com­par­ing Packard with Cap­tain Ahab from Her­man Melville’s Moby-Dick. Who­ever he is, his stare-down with Kong is hi­lar­i­ous, even if it’s not sup­posed to be.

Ahab pur­sued a colos­sal crea­ture for re­venge, en­dan­ger­ing his life and ev­ery­one else’s. Packard is in the same boat, though he is armed not with a har­poon but with na­palm. His aim is to re­group his men, gather the sci­en­tists and the pho­to­jour­nal­ist and make it to a pre­de­ter­mined res­cue point on the is­land. He has three days. Oh, and he also wants to blow Kong to bits. Here we might also think about the on­go­ing trauma of war, as well as top­i­cal mat­ters such as our treat­ment of the en­vi­ron­ment.

For me, all these con­nec­tions make the film in­ter­est­ing. There is hu­mour too, though not al­ways where the film­mak­ers in­tend it to be. Some of the planned jokes fall flat. The fun­ni­est mo­ments come from a vet­eran sol­dier named Hank Mar­low (an­other name from Heart of Dark­ness, the nar­ra­tor). He’s played by the su­perb John C. Reilly, who is the high­light of the film. It would be un­fair to say more about this sol­dier’s back­ground; it’s some­thing for view­ers to find out.

As has been the case all along, Kong has a soft side. This comes in handy on the is­land when other gi­gan­tic an­i­mals start to make trou­ble: spi­ders, snakes (see, they don’t only live in Aus­tralia), squid and, worst of all, ravenous lizard-like ma­raud­ers. The fights, be­tween mon­sters and mon­sters and be­tween mon­sters and hu­mans, are thrilling (and hu­mor­ous at times, such as what Kong does with a ten­ta­cle). The size dif­fer­en­tial is well con­veyed, par­tic­u­larly in quiet mo­ments such as Kong wash­ing his wounds in a river. My 11-year-old liked all of this a lot, and I think he is in the main tar­get au­di­ence.

Kong is good in a fight be­cause he’s so big. He’ll need this in the com­ing films in this fran­chise, which will fea­ture Godzilla. Yet his main ad­van­tage is ex­actly the same one that makes the tiny apes who have in­vaded his home such a threat: the op­pos­able thumb. This sim­i­lar­ity and dif­fer­ence comes to­gether at a lovely mo­ment where Kong sees the mer­ce­nary and the pho­to­jour­nal­ist to­gether. He looks at them hard, a bit jeal­ous, but his jaw soft­ens and you know he’s think­ing some­thing like, “Sure, I’m huge, but then you are Tom Hid­dle­ston.’’ Jes­sica Chas­tain is not in the simian saga, but in the po­lit­i­cal thriller Miss Sloane she looks just like the Ann Dar­row I painted in my 1964 Au­rora model kit of King Kong. I so wish I still had that. She’s beau­ti­ful: slim, pale-skinned, red­haired. She also holds up this movie, di­rected by English­man John Mad­den ( Shake­speare in Love), with a com­mand­ing per­for­mance as a dom­i­nant yet vul­ner­a­ble woman. We’re in Wash­ing­ton again, where El­iz­a­beth Sloane is a for­mi­da­ble spe­cial-in­ter­est lob­by­ist.

We first see her face-on to cam­era, so­phis­ti­cated, calm and assured. Lob­by­ing, she says, is about be­ing one step ahead of the op­po­si­tion and know­ing how to use your trump card — he’s there again! — just af­ter your op­po­nent uses hers. She’s pre­par­ing for a Se­nate com­mit­tee hear­ing (a stern John Lith­gow is the chair­man) into a deal she or­ches­trated in In­done­sia. “They want you be­hind bars,” her lawyer warns.

But this is the fu­ture. We go back a few months and the film proper be­gins: Sloane is ap­proached by the gun lobby to head a cam­paign to kill a pro­posed law man­dat­ing uni­ver­sal back­ground checks. She not only says no but leaves her firm, tak­ing four col­leagues, and joins the cam­paign op­pos­ing the law. The Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion sees guns as fe­male em­pow­er­ment; the other side sees guns as lethal to women. Chas­tain presents Sloane as a woman who is hard to fathom. Is there a gun tragedy in her past? In the present she runs a ruth­less cam­paign, lives on up­pers and down­ers and hooks up with a gigolo named Forde (an ex­cel­lent Jake Lacy). She’s strong but also full of frail­ties.

Miss Sloane raises im­por­tant is­sues but loses fo­cus, which is un­for­tu­nate for a film about lob­by­ists. It’s also over-writ­ten in an Aaron Sorkin kind of way (as it hap­pens, two of Sorkin’s The News­room stars, Sam Water­ston and Alison Pill, are in the cast). But it’s worth watch­ing for Chas­tain, who adds this role to her im­pres­sive re­cent turns as women not to be messed with, in­clud­ing the Osama bin Laden hunter in Zero Dark Thirty.

Is­land,

Tian Jing, Brie Lar­son, Tom Hid­dle­ston and Thomas Mann in

above; Jes­sica Chas­tain and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Miss Sloane

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