Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

You’ve got a giant ape movie? I’ll take it. I’m there. The ticket is sold. I don’t even question why. More than anything I’m surprised when people aren’t as quite set to go see it by default. When they ask me why I’m so interested? Interested? How on earth do you not want to just go along and see what they’ve done with Kong this time. It’s not going to be awful. Probably.

Sure, it’s probably going to be cheesy. They’re pop-corn movies! Almost a perfect trope of the cinema going experience. The continual evolution of the story of a giant ape and how he is portrayed and what technical tools, budget and feats are utilised in this portrayal. In the same way that Jaws changed cinema and Jurassic Park after it Kong is a sort of watermark which bobs along in the wake of these films.

The original King Kong is a sort of model T ford of movies. It’s mainstream and it’s problematic but it’s also something that was revolutionary in its way and integral to the course of film history. Peter Jackson’s version may not be nearly as important but it was a well-constructed vehicle for Kong which paid probably too much adulation to its forebear’s story and concentrated too much on added extras and style without examining the essential problems of the Kong story. It was just another Ford. Another family sedan. Far advanced from its model T predecessor but essential the same beast with more power.

In this latest version directed by the relatively unknown Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Universal Studios is attempting to build a monster universe franchise in the same way that Marvel/Disney has done with its properties and DC/Warner Brothers is failing to do with theirs. To be cynical it seems as if they’re doing a relatively poor job at it and following the DC/Warner Brothers model rather than that of Marvel/Disney’s. The 2014 Brian Cranston Godzilla, we’re now told, was supposed to be the start of this epic ‘MonsterVerse’ while the box office flop Dracula Untold, also released in 2014 though no one noticed, was the start of another monster universe (I don’t really know if they’re under the same name of slightly differentiated) which is going to be rebooted with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy this year (2017). This sort of blind floundering and large missteps in a universe doesn’t seem too positive. Then again as much as Marvel may like to make out as if they had all of their moves planned it still seems as if they were lucky with Iron Man (and Robert Downey Jnr) and have continued to play off of that luck and goodwill ever since.

As such this film is designed as an origin story for Kong to bring him into the modern monster universe. Kong is not fully grown though he is massive! In this film, he does not leave Skull Island and he has his own sort of agency and mission. His relationship with the natives of the island makes a little more sense than in other depictions. He is also, even as a teenager, seemingly much bigger than ever before on the big screen.

The film really doesn’t need too much else for me to be happy, which is lucky, as what else is shoehorned into the film is superfluous at best. The film as a period piece faintly plays off of the turmoil in America as the country struggles with withdrawal from the Vietnam war and domestic political upheaval. Yet at the same time the film isn’t interested in exploring any sort of racial tension between the soldiers or scientists and as such most of the characters are pretty two dimensional with very little real chemistry or character development. Brie Larson is fine as the inevitable love interest to Tom Hiddleston who himself manages to pull off (just) being some sort of shadowy military type. His casting also begs the question as to whether Hollywood, in casting Adrian Brody and Tom Hiddleston, look for thin men with angular features in Kong films. Perhaps in some way intending to cast male leads who look as unlike the ape as possible? Two examples aren’t the best sample test but it will be interesting to see what happens in the Kong versus Godzilla movie and who gets the call up. Anyhoo. Meanwhile Samuel L. Jackson chews the hell out of the scenery and makes the best of a character whose sole purpose is irrationally propelling plot. The real highlight of the film, other than Kong, is John C. Reilly, who seems to be the only one on set who understands and enjoys what he is doing with his character and lights up the movie for the time he is in it.

Ultimately, I liked this as a standalone film. Even if it was a little weak on plot and afraid to lean into the true troubles of its period. As an origin film, I think it is moderately successful as it shows why Kong is willing to be humanity’s hero against the other monsters. Sadly, though I’d be very surprised if Universal manages to do much better with their next film. It’ll probably, again, merely be ok. There is foreshadowing in this with Kong’s attraction to Brie Larson that they may once again take Kong to New York by using the bait of a girl and shoe horn that played-out story into the fight against Godzilla or one of the other monsters.

Universal hasn’t reinvented the vehicle. This isn’t a hybrid, electric or flying car version of Kong. It doesn’t portray the ape more effectively or much better. It’s just another Ford with a shiny new paint job and some retro throwback sixties features. The building blocks were there for this to have been something better and for a real sort of drama play out underneath the Kong story. Instead it’s more of the great ape and spectacle while puny humans scurry to and fro beneath him.

Vader – Vol 1 (2015)

Kieron Gillen

A surprisingly good story which covers the period between Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. There are several such volumes which I assume cover the same period from different characters’ perspectives. In this, Vader, in the wake of the destruction of the death star is investigating exactly who Luke Skywalker is and what lead to the Death Star being destroyed. The book also covers the deteriorating relationship between Emperor Palatine and Vader and the chess like moves each begin to make.

As a kid, I read and enjoyed a lot of the Star Wars novels. Now, I hear, a lot of them aren’t considered canonical in the Star Wars universe. Still they were great because they explored these characters around and beyond the central Saga movie story lines. These books seem to take the same deep dive. Based on this volume I’m really impressed and would read more. The story is threaded very tightly between the events of the saga films and the new characters which the book brings in are ok (if probably disposable) while existing characters are used well.

Having said that this isn’t the best comic I’ve ever read but merely a good start. The art, as with a lot of Marvel books, is a little too cartoony and I’m still suspicious that the story is going to veer off into Scooby Doo style adventures or simply collapse under its own weight. If, however the book maintains the current direction and can lean in more on the evil and by any means necessary tone of this first volume I’ll be happy to read on.

All the Light we cannot See (2014)

Anthony Doerr

The book was the runner-up to Phil Klay’s Redeployment in the 2014 National Book Awards. Redeployment was one of the best books I read last year. All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s second novel is also on that list. As much as I love Redeployment I would hate to have to declare which of the two is a better book.

I was probably interested in this book because it had won the Pulitzer. Looking back, I’m surprised I read it as the plot doesn’t sound like something that would necessarily appeal to me. Doerr ties together the WWII experiences of a French girl and a German boy and their interested in architecture and radio technology and experiences in occupied France and the Hitler youth. The novel shoes the bystanders in each country and describes the seaside French city as the blind protagonist learns to navigate it. There is the moral confusion of the German boy in the Hitler Youth and his complicit guilt as his technological expertise spares him the cruel punishment meted out to his classmates. In some ways, the story shouldn’t work and Doerr does almost seem to come dangerously close to overusing central set pieces but never seems too weighed down by his various themes.

Within storylines that should seem obvious at times and themes which should jar Doerr builds incredibly subtle characters and relationships just as he also slowly creates and establishes the set pieces, city and world of the 1940’s French city. The most complimentary thing I can say is that Doerr’s book and the world within it is almost painfully immersive and as, such, the climax, is as hard to bear not just for the fate of the characters but also the inevitable destruction of the city Doerr has created and the architecture, buildings and secret spots I came to know within it.

Yoga Hosers (2016)

Kevin Smith

This is a hard movie to like. Even as a massive Kevin Smith fan and, on occasion, apologist. I admire his mantra of creation for creations sake as well as the merit value of the unusual creation.

I respected Tusk for its uniqueness, consistency and serious tone while dealing with otherwise ridiculous material. Yoga Hosers, by contrast, doesn’t apply the same consistency. The movie quickly abandons its light-hearted bubble-gum sense of fun and is distorted by the more recent tropes of the view askew universe and smodcast network. Such tropes in Tusk (other than the plot) were sidelined or hidden as Easter eggs.

Yoga Hosers becomes confusing as it references not only the early View Askew films but also the real world of Smith’s podcast network as well as also attempting to establish a new ‘true north’ universe. It’s a lot to pile on top of a movie not driven by a strong story. Instead Yoga Hosers is more about the central characters. Lilly Rose Depp is confident and great and Harlequin Smith has her own sort of charm as she nervously tests the waters of acting alongside her childhood friend. The girls’ chemistry brings a strange sort of meta dynamic to the movie. Meanwhile there are a range of great cameos including Tony Hale, Natasha Lyonne and Adam Brody.

Kevin Smith’s disclaimer to the bubble-gum colour palette, soundtrack and light-heartedness of this film is that it is aimed at teen girls. Unfortunately, though the third act becomes almost self-indulgent and extremely referential to Kevin Smith and Ralph Garmin’s Hollywood Babble-on podcast. This isn’t really a podcast anyone could expect teen girls to be familiar with. Also, the charm of that podcast is that it is recorded live and so is relatively spontaneous and chaotic. Scripted it feels contrived, static and robs the movie of momentum.

There are moments to like but the movie is too many different things jammed together. What could have been a sweet character based coming of age film driven by a fun sense of chaos is lost underneath all the other noise bursting in from around the film.

Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)

Ray Carney

What’s my take on Cassavetes?

Well I first heard properly of the man not as director or from realising who he was in Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby but from the Le Tigre song (lyrics below).

I picked up this book almost as a joke. 500 densely packed pages would surely help inform me properly as to what my take on Cassavetes would, could or should be. This was around the same time I started my ill-fated non-fiction, guilty-pleasure and punishing literature simultaneous reading plan. The basic idea of this plan was that I would read 10 pages of each book each night and so slowly work through varied readings. It was a fine enough plan that was perhaps the only reason I was able to finish Infinite Jest. Cassavetes on Cassavetes was the non-fiction, James Joyce’s Ulysses the punishing literature and Phil Klay’s Redeployment the guilty pleasure. But there’s nothing guilty about redeployment. It’s brilliant! And made me want to read more contemporary brilliance which I did in reading Holly Child’s No Limits before I was snowed under by work and school. In the meantime, Ulysses languished (it still does) under a pile of comics and Cassavetes on Cassavetes was picked up and read reluctantly over the course of eight months of being both busy and quiet but also joyful and bored in the reading.

This is a textbook rather than a biography and as such all credit should go to Ray Carney for the sheer depth of research. Carney is a fan which, like in the Updike, acts as a double-edged blade. He revels in every detail of Cassavetes’ life but sometimes this goes too deep and for too long, though, again, this is a textbook.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the book is the choice Carney has made in its construction. Rather than a straight biography with quotations Carney has stitched together what feels like (and could be) every interview Cassavetes ever gave. His own input is used more to provide a chronological and subjective flow to these excerpts of interview. As such, and as the title implies, this is a book which details the life and work of Cassavetes in his own words. From a scholarly perspective, it is very effective. Cassavetes was very articulate and philosophical in his interviews. His voice is clear and consistent throughout. The problem is that Carney is often repeating or pre-empting what Cassavetes says and so at times the text feels repetitive.

Carney’s other choice in construction was to divide the book into sections based around each of Cassavetes’ directorial features. There is a section for his early life at the start and his later life at the end. In between each chapter doesn’t so much cover his life as the film or films he was working on. This is an effective move considering the book is a textbook designed for arts students. It would be valuable to study the intricacies of a film in a sectionalised manner like this. In terms of reading the book as biography it isn’t too bad as so much of Cassavetes’ time, energy and passion was poured into each film and often, always, also included much of his friendship group and family.

I would love to have read a more conventional biography of the life of Cassavetes but having now read Carney’s book I can’t imagine what any other author could possibly hope to contribute that I haven’t already learnt. The duel voices of Carney and Cassavetes himself effectively portray the passion and belief Cassavetes had in his art. There are the stories of self-sabotage, sabotage and extreme manipulation. Carney avoids, in part, too deeply examining the ramifications of Cassavetes characteristic anger and passion early in the book even as the actor and budding director buts heads with studio heads as a director and, as an actor, various directors, including Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the book much of this passion and anger has worked hand in hand with lifelong alcoholism and a perhaps unhealthy compulsion to his art.

There is too a marked lack of perspective from Cassavetes wife Gena Rowland or his family. In this way, Carney almost seems to be enabling Cassavetes and his acolytes into still placing his art above all else in his life even when it is to his, or this books, detriment. But, like Carney’s other choice, maybe this is the most accurate representation of the man.

Truth be told I’m no more sure of what Cassavetes was now than I was before reading this. Confusing, interesting, self-destructive, inherently creative and artistic, joyous, spiteful generous and yet also mean, counter-productive and almost oddly possessive of his various creations.

What’s my take? Messiah? Yes, apparently for a lot of people. Misogynist? Maybe, maybe not. Genius, yup. Alcoholic, definitely.

 

 

Le Tigre – What’s Yr. Take on Cassavetes

 

We talked about it… in letters. And we talked about it on the phone

But how you really… feel… about it… I don’t really know

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Genius, misogynist, alcoholic – Hey, where’s Gena?

Genius!

Misogynist!

Messiah!

Alcoholic!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on…

CASSAVETES?!?

 

[Dogs barking]

Green Hills of Africa (1935)

Ernest Hemingway

It’s difficult, in 2017, to stomach a book about the simple pleasures of big game hunting in Africa written from an only vaguely self-aware post-colonial perspective. Yet that is essentially what this book is. The up’s and downs of one of the Hemingway’s big game trophy hunts in Africa in the early 1930’s. This is considered Hemingway’s second non-fiction book, the first being Death in the Afternoon which is about bullfighting. I haven’t read Death in the Afternoon. I wouldn’t rush to read it above the many other books stacking up on my shelf. I didn’t mind the descriptions of bull fighting in The Sun Also Rises as they added an interesting backdrop to the character drama. But that was a work of fiction whereby the plot necessitated that many other acts of writing had to be committed other than just a dissection of the art and skill Hemingway found in the sport of fighting bulls.

This then forms part of the problem with this novel. It is non-fiction. The writing is plain. Even for Hemingway. Yet the book is also very similar to his fiction work. Just as The Sun also Rises and A Farewell to Arms felt like fictionalised truth this novel feels like reverse situation and another potential novel that has not been allowed to float off into the freedom of fiction and is instead steadfastly moored in real life events and very much based upon description and dissection of stalking, killing and skinning rhinos, kudu, lions and sable.

I was willing to find some sort of macabre appeal in the content or grant some sort of romantic conceit based upon Hemingway’s passion for and connection to hunting. It’s hard though when he again and again describes the crack of bullets against various bones and seems almost removed from the actual hunting and still, as in his fiction, worried more about his interactions with his fellow hunters. As a result, the slaughter of various animals very often seems both joyless and pointless.

The asides are the real value of this book. Hemingway’s views on literature and fellow modernist authors are particularly interesting including his various encounters with James Joyce. Similarly, Hemingway’s struggles with envy, jealousy and his views of his fellow hunters and guides provide a sort of subplot and, ultimately, Hemingway does what Hemingway does best by providing, in the conclusion to the book, a simple little poetic twist doesn’t necessarily redeem the writing but which nonetheless hints at what this book could have been had it been more focused upon acting as a work of fiction. And perhaps this forms part of the books value also. A two-fold insight into who Hemingway was or at least how he sought to portray himself and also in how his writing operated and the indecision and doubt that paradoxically seemed to operate side by side with bravado and ultra-confidence.

This 1990 edition has a throwaway cover but does include some nice woodcutting style illustrations throughout. Grafton seemed to have done the complete Hemingway in this style with similar covers but of the two other Grafton editions I have only Green Hills of Africa has illustrations.

greenhills woodcut

 

David Brent: Life on the road

Ricky Gervais

Yet another movie that would have benefited from avoiding a heartfelt moment and instead aiming squarely for laughs. There was always the risk with this film that it would simply come across as an extended episode of the tv show and it does but, unfortunately, the episode it most resembles is the Christmas special. Except this movie isn’t a Christmas film and, unlike the special, doesn’t benefit from being a much-wanted bumper to the original series.

The humour, genius and tight one-set setting of the series is sacrificed primarily in establishing the character arc of David Brent. The movie focuses more upon making the audience feel sorry for Brent and so he occupies a strange no man’s land of offensive and pathetic. In this film, Brent, hasn’t progressed much in life. He is a traveling salesman who in a kind of mid-life crisis is staking all his savings on rebooting his nascent musical career which was briefly touched upon in the original series as a side-joke.

Not an awful or even bad movie but very much painted by numbers. No original actors or characters return. In so much as David Brent has a universe or canon this instalment doesn’t particularly add anything to the original series other than diluting the central character with this unrealistic and not very interesting attempt at a contemporary update of his story.

I would have been far more interested in a film where David Brent is again in a position of power and back in an office. This film seems to shy away from really wanting to place David Brent in a contemporary setting. Though it’s possible and likely that there are contractual problems relating to the rights resting with NBC or perhaps the feeling that the American version fully mined dry the concept of the office setting.

Even so it would have been nice had this film and Gervais been as willing to let the character shine fully once again.