Going Ape For Kong

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Maybe it was just me but I wasn’t completely psyched for a new Kong movie. Large CGI mammals whether they are singing jazz in Jungle Book or surviving ship wrecks in Life of Pi look either too fake or too cheesy. I’m always hyper aware that they’re not real and I’d prefer filmmakers to use an actual tiger. Now there’s no 100-foot ape Warner Brothers could have pulled as a practical Kong but the key phrase in the title Kong:Skull Island would be the latter half. While Kong is the center piece of this lost island in the South Pacific, there’s so much more there than the titular ape. The military and science expedition that arrive may have been welcomed by a fierce swipe of Kong’s hand wiping out most of the team but there are far worse species lurking in the jungle that they must worry about and that’s where the fun begins.

It’s hard not to notice the huge push to distance this adaptation from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. Jackson’s goal was to remake the film from his childhood and make it a rightful epic. It’s truthful to the 30’s setting but has the edition of all creatures on the island namely dinosaurs as Kong’s adversary at least until man proves to be the real foe. There’s the odd woman/ape romance with the blonde heroine which elongates the plot into this 3 hour plus narrative. Skull Island first move is to scrap the time period that character is so entrenched in. It’s 1974 and Vietnam is wrapping up. It’s blatant that the filmmakers are going full Apocalypse Now with the visual imagery of the rising sun, helicopters dropping bombs and Samuel L Jackson’s war hungry Colonel Packard is a clear Kurtz parallel. Besides being the breath of fresh air by including the new decade that has funky ties and classic rock, Kong is a perfect allegory for Vietnam as this expedition, well intentioned or not is ill-prepared and unable to stop the force of the ape. This is also a movie that moves at a clip. They deliver a tight 2-hour action movie that wastes no time, giving you visual confirmation of Kong in the first five minutes. It’s a welcomed decision in my opinion because I don’t need a drawn out story. It’s an island with monsters, most of these people won’t make it out alive and I’m here to see their fight for survival. The downside of cramming in all these set pieces as well as characters (if you’ve seen the amount of actors’ names they fit on the poster you know), any emotional growth is thrown to the wayside or when attempted, doesn’t work. The few times to breathe and allow these character moments between the hired tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Weaver (Brie Larson) comes off as pointless. The ones who come out best are the biggest swaths of performance like Jackson or John Goodman who plays the crackpot scientist Randa who initiates this mission.

I may be saying the writing is a bit hollow but that’s not why you go see a blockbuster such as this. You’re there for the spectacle and Skull Island definitely delivers. With DP Larry Fong who is the real star here, creates breathtaking 360 battle sequences like Kong taking down helicopters, giant bamboo spiders that squash unsuspecting soldiers and the Skullcrawler attack in the elephant graveyard. The pristine special effects make the action such an immersive experience, something I can’t wait to see again and oggle. I, of course, am drawn to all the bizarre creatures designed to inhabit the island. While I can take or leave a mammal, I love me a CGI reptile because dinosaurs are forever. Moving away from the traditional T-Rex look Jackson went for, here it’s a Cloverfield, skeletal beast that charges at people on its two legs. Weird as hell but fascinating to behold. Even when not in the trenches the neon lighting choices of Vietnam, accentuating the cool British ruggedness of Hiddleston are much appreciated. From costumes to production design to special effects, all beautifully recreates both a specific time as well as a whole new place that time forgot. I’d hope you’d get something this good with such a massive budget.

This is a studio movie through and through. It moves and sounds like one with its protest rock soundtrack and obvious build up to a sequel/Marvel-esque world building. It has the pitfalls of film by comity, lacking a distinctive directorial drive but goddamnit if it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to watch. We got the auteur Kong already and while you can feel the ambition, it’s still a slog. I’ll sacrifice a romantic storyline for well-shot explosions and beast battles. The anti-war, pro-environmental message come through naturally without the grand statements. The setting and scenario are strong even if there are too many characters to rightfully establish a lead. The movie knows how to have a good time. It’s comedic, it’s dark and it promises me more Godzilla in my future which is all I’m asking from any movie. I could care less about superheroes, this is the cinematic universe I’ve been asking for.

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The New Stepford: The Influences of Get Out

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Brainwashing, body snatching, experimental procedures, what have you, there’s a lot to fear from the power of affluent white people. That may sound crazy but science fiction ulterior motives are almost more comforting to believe in than a grand evil scheme concocted by white upper class than age-old racism and sexism. Get Out has made a huge splash as being one of the most woke horror movies ever made. It brings the subtext of oppression and otherness that past genre films have alluded to and made it literal text. The story of a black man Chris (Daniel Kaluyaa) going on a weekend vacation to visit his white girlfriend’s parents devolves into a conspiracy of modern day slavery and exaggerated cultural appropriation. Sure it is a heightened scenario of a white community luring black people to be used as body surrogates since they are superior physical, artistic and intellectual beings but there are many other smaller interactions that director Jordan Peele tackles of modern day racism such as a black man being followed by a car in the suburbs or the excessive need for the white people Chris meets in this upstate neighborhood to prove they’re not racist by stating how much they like Tiger Woods. Get Out couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for America where the conversation on race has come to the forefront. Now being a white person, I’m not the right person to talk about the importance of Get Out or the black experience in any way but Peele has expressed that his inspiration for the movie came from 1975’s The Stepford Wives, that premise being a similar affluent suburb of Connecticut has men turning their wives into subservient robots. The female experience being something I’m more familiar with, I decided to double feature the 70’s horror film as well as it’s 2004 comedy remake to see where Peele drew his influence and how I can tangentially talk about Get Out.

I’m first inclined to believe that Peele derived from both incarnations of Ira Levin’s novel. Obviously tonally he’s going for the thriller elements of the 1975 Wives which was also a slow burn build up as Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) move to the town of Stepford from the big city and during her four months stay, she notices the abnormal perfections that are the women of the prim and proper suburb. Yet Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives is a richer satire as well as being a broad comedy which has some time to shine in Get Out which supporting actor LilRel Howery brings in the third act. The thesis statement in those films is that the modern woman is becoming too independent and free-thinking so their boilerplate, vanilla husbands invent a way to replace their partners with identical looking fembots whose only desire is to please whether that be sexual or dedicating their time to a clean house and home cooked meals. This obviously derives from the 50’s idyllic homemaker which is more pronounced in the remake. Not subtly shown in the opening credits montage are vintage household appliance commercials being modeled by ecstatic women then once actually in the town, everyone is made up in the dresses and hair dos presented in the aforementioned ads. The real biting satire comes from the fact that all the transformed Stepford wives were career women, CEOs and novelists whose husbands were left inferior and therefore compelled to “upgrade” their women into big breasted cyborgs. The motivations in the ’75 version are much less warranted where our lead Joanna is not the creative director for a television network but a stay at home mom with a budding photography interesting. The fact that her schlub of a lawyer husband Walter feels the need to change her because they sometimes argue is way more disturbing.

Stepford Wives is examining the gender gap of “boys will be boys” and “women belong in the kitchen” stereotypes which in Get Out translates to the gap between the long-standing racial divide in America. Both have a storied history in these McMansion neighborhoods. Peele is examining how going back to slavery, blacks were viewed as either the help, seen at the Armitage estate with the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) or as sexual beings like former Brooklynite Andre (Keith Stanfield) standing as arm candy for a much older woman. Chris and Joanna are witnessing these reductive molds being forced on their peers and know that no one does this willingly. Just as Joanna sees her slobbish, eccentric friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss and Bette Midler respectively) transform into trophy wives, Chris similarly sees the phony exterior of Andre and the haywire mechanism triggered by either a camera flash or slight trauma proves that their humanity is somehow vacant. All films are tales of humans using advanced technology to simplify one’s identity, the funniest instance is that of in ’75’s Wives it’s an ex-Disney Imagineer who is the proprietor of the Mr. Lincoln-esque fembots. It’s the paradox of no matter how far we improve in science and technology, there’s the need to hold on or revert to the past, in this situation the oppressive former ways of life.

Peele gleans a mix of small details (the heroes being photographers because they have the eye to see the truth) and the larger arcs (rich white people shouldn’t be trusted) to make a more relevant version of Ira Levin’s work but with the less often shown perspective. As a white person, even watching the 2004 Stepford Wives I couldn’t help but be taken aback at how upper class and removed that environment feels. It’s a prerecession America and all those husbands now are the 1% who have a hard-on for Paul Ryan and his tax cuts. The film doesn’t even address the lack of diversity, their chosen statement of inclusion is a gay couple and an obviously self-loathing one at that (Roger’s partner apparently hates his flamboyant nature). At least the 1975 version addresses the fact that the neighborhood has been strictly caucasian until the local busybody giddily informs Joanna and Bobbie that a black family is moving in and that Stepford is the “most liberal town around.” In Get Out whether you’re black or not you relate to the uncomfortableness of the opulent lifestyle. Millenials distrust of old money and those wealthy people that placed us in our current political and economical predicament informs the tension of the film, even if they say they would have voted for Obama a third term. They probably didn’t vote for Hilary! I digress, all this is to praise Peele for making a more identifiable movie for my generation. Just as Moonlight was the movie that needed to win Best Picture, Get Out is the horror movie needed to start off this year. When the world turns sour, in response, the best art is born.
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For brief reviews of Get Out, The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Stepford Wives (2004) here.