What We Learned This Week: March 5-11

LESSON #1: THE SUCCESS RATE OF INDIE DIRECTORS STEPPING TO BLOCKBUSTERS IS IMPROVING— Other than Marc Webb stepping up from “(500) Days of Summer” to the ill-fated “Amazing Spider-Man” double bill and “Moon” director Duncan Jones bombing on “Warcraft,” the recent push of larger studios’ farming of indie directors to helm blockbusters have gone pretty successfully.   All of the greats started small (take Christopher Nolan going from “Memento” to Batman), but the trend is swelling lately.   Colin Treverrow turned “Safety Not Guaranteed” into “Jurassic World” and J.A. Bayona will be moving from “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls” into the dinotastic sequel.  “The Kings of Summer” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts cashed up to “Kong: Skull Island.”  This list goes on and on, and 2017 is full of more.  Rian Johnson flips “Looper” for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and Taika Waititi goes from “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” for “Thor: Ragnarok.”  Jon Watts of “Cop Car” hopes to not pull a Marc Webb with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

LESSON #2: BIGGER IS BETTER— Speaking of “Kong: Skull Island,” the head honchos at Legendary Entertainment found the easiest and most irresistible route to selling a new Kong film: Make him bigger.   The powers that be have smacked an invisible label on the cinematic Cheez Whiz jar that reads “now bigger than ever,” jacking up the normally and plenty-imposing 25-foot gorilla into a gigantic 100-foot bipedal behemoth.  That changes everything when it comes to the monster’s capacity for destruction and man’s impossible chances of opposition.  Go see the film.  It’s a blast.

LESSON #3: KEEP AN EYE ON THE SXSW FILM FESTIVAL— For nine days and 125 features this month, Austin, Texas becomes the center of the independent film scene with the annual South by Southwest Film Festival that is starting to rival January’s Sundance Film Festival for exclusive films and a Hollywood-level red carpet.  This year, you’ll get the premieres of the latest films from Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”), Terrance Malick (“Song to Song”), and Ben Wheatley (“Free Fire”).   SXSW’s merger of the arts is becoming a hot ticket with good gets.

LESSON #4: THE WHITEWASHED CASTING OUTRAGE IS STARTING TO SMARTEN STUDIOS UP— I think the combination of warranted complaints,  butthurt rants, and internet courage-fueled protests are starting to work.   Movie news reported this week that director Guy Ritchie will seek Middle Eastern lead performers for Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” re-imagining and Niki Caro looks to be doing the same for “Mulan.”   If you look past the animated curtain and beyond all of its inherent entertainment value, “Aladdin” is one of the worst perpetrators in film history for white-washing.  I’m intrigued to see something different and call these active attempts an initial victory towards improved diversity.

LESSON #5: LET’S MAKE UP A NEW WORD: “BRITWASHING”— Piggybacking from Lesson #4, race relations also have a national vs. international bend to them from time to time.  Samuel L. Jackson just stepped out in an interview to criticize the casting of black British actor Daniel Kaluuya to play an American African-American guy in “Get Out” and wonders about missed opportunities.  Honestly, the man isn’t wrong and, as I coin the term, “Britwashing” has been a quietly unsettling trend when you see the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Henry Cavill, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Oyelow playing real and fictional American heroes.  One has to wonder if there is a talent gap between the Brits and the Americans.  What do you think?  How do you feel about foreigners playing American figures and heroes?

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current President of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

Minisode 16: Kong: Skull Island

Don Shanahan joins the show for a discussion about the return of Kong to the big screen. This latest monster movie provides plenty of thrilling, towering action sequences that are worthy of the King. We talk about the different style of creature features over the years and whether or not character development is necessary for a good blockbuster. So push play on this episode and find out why we think Kong is back and here to stay.

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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Feelin’ It: Kong: Skull Island Review

Rating:

The hype surrounding Kong: Skull Island had a decidedly Apocalypse Now feel to it. Based on the trailers and posters we’d seen, it appeared that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was going to do his best at a Francis Ford Coppola impression. Were we truly about to see the merging of a dramatically brilliant war film with the unapologetic campiness of a monster-focused blockbuster? In a sense, we did. And what’s really crazy is… it worked.

Where Vogt-Roberts draws inspiration, however, is not from the dramatic human stories we see in war epics like Apocalypse Now. Instead, he focuses on using the beautifully shot landscapes, often bathed in fire or backed by a burning sun, to give the adventure on Skull Island a Vietnam flare. The colors, especially red and orange, are bright and the island itself is incredible to look at on a big screen. With its lush jungles, towering mountains, and various unique animal species, there is never a moment where we do not feel in complete awe of the locale. Additionally, he takes cues from classic Vietnam pictures in the way his action is shot. Often it has a horror feel to it, with blood splatters and the loss of limbs displaying the true terrors of a fight against something so much more powerful and primal than our characters have ever seen. The action is fast-paced and has that blockbuster intensity that gets blood pumping. And it is in this stylized action (brought to us by long time Zack Snyder cinematographer Larry Fong) that we begin to really understand what kind of film Kong: Skull Island is supposed to be. 

Above all else, this monster movie is meant to be FUN. If you’re expecting this A-list cast of award-winning actors to wow you with incredible dramatic performances, you’re going to be highly disappointed. If, however, you like your monster movies classic style, with a dose of campiness and a focus on the monsters themselves, you are in for a treat. Our main characters are mostly given back stories, with the inexplicable exception of Tian Jing’s biologist (?) who hardly is ever even noticed, and they fulfill the roles required of them with aplomb. Essentially they seem to serve as varying viewpoints on how the discovery of Kong and Skull Island should be handled. Samuel L. Jackson, for example, is perfect as the commander who just isn’t ready to hang up his rifle and is willing to lead his unit into harm’s way to hold on for one minute more and one last fight, regardless of any logic that may say otherwise.  This movie is about Kong, though, and by keeping the character stories from overpowering the narrative Vogt-Roberts allows us to never get dragged down into the drama, instead simply using the humans as a means of getting us from big action sequence to monster fight in an entertaining and often humorous manner. Not much is felt for the ones who perish and that is by design, because this isn’t really their story. It also would have been easy to let Brie Larson’s character become a love interest of the ape, for old time’s sake, but the restraint shown here instead paints a more “realistic” picture of two species trying to understand each other via non-verbal communication and then protecting those who’ve protected you.

Thankfully this is a story about the island, about Kong and its other less friendly inhabitants. They are rightfully the star of this picture and every scene with Kong in it is incredible. Particularly, his shining monster vs. monster moment is worth the price of admission alone and the creature design throughout is stunning, the perfect mix of creepy and amazing. Also of note (though not a beast) is John C. Reilly who steals every scene he’s in and serves as much more than just a comedic side note, but rather the heart of the human component in the film.

After suffering through Hollywood’s recent attempts at more serious monster movie fare, it was absolutely refreshing to sit with my 12-year old son, mouth agape, ooh’ing and aah’ing as a gigantic towering ape did the exact things a gigantic towering ape should do in this scenario. It was just over-the-top enough to hit the right notes without becoming a drawback. From the looks of the post-credits scene, it appears that we’re in for a connected world of monster films with some A-list stars continuing forward. So while Kong may not quite have been a perfect film, it’s a solid effort and serves as a fantastic starting point to build around, much like Marvel has accomplished with its comic book universe.

Emotional Takeaway: EXCITEMENT
Not only for its big screen thrills and frantic, stylized action sequences, but because Kong ushers in a new era of monster movies for this generation to enjoy. Here’s hoping we embrace these films with a childlike passion and let pure blockbuster fun reignite our over-dramatized movie-going souls. See it on a big screen, let yourself go, and just enjoy the ride. The King is back.