Sunday, 12 March 2017

Jordan Vogt-Roberts - Kong: Skull Island

An acclaimed Director of documentaries and TV short films since 2007, Jordan has hence far directed two feature length films, "The Kings of Summer" in 2013 and "Kong: Skull Island" in 2017. Here are my spoiler free appreciations of both.

As with all of my film blogs they are written from the perspective of a genuine and sincere fan of the medium of cinema and rather than providing endless trivia, fact tracks or more importantly spoilers, I always aim to provide 5-10% of the film as a whole as a taster to perhaps whet your appetite to see the film under review. Please feel free to visit my archives but more importantly I sincerely hope you enjoy my take on Jordan Vogt-Roberts debut film, The Kings of Summer and his eagerly awaited follow up, Kong: Skull Island.

The Kings of Summer (2013)

"It's a classic kidnapping. They took our children and our canned goods and pasta"

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directorial debut is a beautifully enchanting ode to the joys of childhood escapism, the bonds of friendship and a summertime of sunshine freedom surrounded by nature. This deeply affecting coming of age tale is also a debut screenplay from writer Chris Galletta and his writing paints far more than a simple teenage drama of adolescence and the frustration of overbearing, controlling and out of touch parents smothering their offspring. This is the simplistic through line of the film, however Galletta's writing is also caustically and sardonically funny as well as charming as he creates many uniquely different characters all coming to terms with their lives in middle America. Supplemented by a brilliantly eclectic mix in the film's musical soundtrack, from "Cowboy Song" by Thin Lizzy over the film's opening titles, "The Youth" by MGMT as the boys finally throw off the shackles of their parents and a number of songs from The Skywalkers, together with Ross Riege's (at times) Terence Malick inspired cinematography and you have a film that may charm you and please you, raise many smiles and laughs before staying with you long after the final reels of the film.

Saturated in wonderful and joyous slow motion shots of the characters and surrounded by the cinematography capturing the slow moving nature of the woods in which the teenagers build a ramshackle escape from their parents, we find best friends "Joe" (Nick Robinson) and "Patrick" (Gabriel Basso) who along with "Biaggio" (Moises Arias) resolve to become "men" away from their parents, their lives, their troubles and their adolescence. The school age teenagers all have varying reasons for their existence in the woods and by their own written charter, resolve to keep their secluded hideaway a secret. Whilst Biaggio's reasons for running away remain distinctly unclear, Joe's and Patrick's are more easily and clearly defined with Patrick escaping from his goofy and out of touch parents as they talk in distant and patronising soundbites as evidenced by "These hormones are a'raging". However it's Joe who has most to gain from life in the woods as he drives the original idea and coerces his best friend to accompany him as he needs release from his overbearing Father.

"Joe" (Nick Robinson) Struggling to come to terms with the death of his Mother and now home alone with just his strict and controlling Father, this is a brilliant, often melancholic portrayal of teenage angst amid a determination to be heard above the white noise of life. And to be loved.
"Patrick" (Gabriel Basso) Encouraged by his best friend he is reluctant at first, before rising to the task at hand and relishing their self made hideaway in the woods.

"Biaggio" (Moises Arias) A modern day "renaissance man" who with his quirky, off kilter performance also delivers the funniest and most awkward lines of the film. Biaggio is the film's hero and this narrator wishes he had just a little of his craziness! A brilliant performance from Arias.

The main supporting roles fall to Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson as Patrick's strange yet innocently so parents, Alison Brie as Joe's sister "Heather" and Erin Moriarty excels as the girl stealing Joe's teenage heart "Kelly". Minor cameo roles are noteworthy as they see many of the film's most acerbically funny lines with Kumail Nanjiani on the receiving end as simply "Delivery Guy", comedian Hannibal Buress pops up as "Bus Driver" however it falls to Thomas Middleditch as "Rookie Cop" to supply many of the film's laugh out loud moments as he's torn to shreds by Joe's exasperated Father "Frank". Latterly excelling in The Founder and particularly, the TV adaptation of The Coen Brothers classic, Fargo, Nick Offerman is outstanding as the frustrated, over bearing and still grieving Frank. Despite his darker character traits, Offerman is superbly comedic with his dry, sardonic delivery "He took the monopoly too, to spite me obviously" as well as his subtle eye rolls and sideways glances of exasperation at his errant son Joe.

The game of monopoly plays a larger role in the film than would be immediately apparent, for with one glance at the "Go to Jail" square Joe sums up his current angst and the predominant theme of the film. Joe needs to escape, escape from the jail his Father Frank has metaphorically smothered him in, escape from his memories of his Mother and equally an escape from himself as he grows into a man in the company of his two friends in their secluded wooded hideaway. The Kings of Summer is a true triumph of a film and a phenomenally accomplished achievement from first time Director Vogt-Roberts.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

"You're as beautiful as a hot dog and a beer. At Wrigley Field. On opening day"

My son was a mere babe in arms when Peter Jackson released his re imagining of the classic King Kong story in 2005, and so it was last night that I excitedly accompanied my now 13 year old son to our local picture house to see the latest incarnation of the story on the Eighth Wonder of the World. Prior to last night I had restricted myself to just the teaser trailers of the film and whilst boyishly excited, I was full of trepidation entering the cinema as the trailer appeared overly bombastic and too heavily influenced by the obvious military threat posed by the island invaders. But boy were my fears assuaged! And from the very first frame of the film! With the pulsing sound of a hail of bullets over the film's creative credits and distributors (reminiscent of the sounds made by the fighter planes attacking Kong as he clings to the top of the Empire State Building in the 1933 original film) and then within five minutes we have our first glimpse of Kong, breaking with the long held tradition of saving full exposure of your creature monster until well into the film and both my fears had subsided and the realisation struck me that Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong film would be very different from any that had preceded it. Twenty minutes later this realisation was further enhanced as we see King Kong in all his statuesque glorious, towering over Skull Island, an island where the indigenous people regard him as a "God" and the island's "Protector" and here he protects his home from the multitude of invading army helicopters in a style reminiscent of the 1933 original atop the Empire State Building but the like of which we've never seen him before in a dazzling, visceral and epic first action set piece of the film. Prior to reaching this spectacular face off we go from Washington to Vietnam, from Bangkok to Thailand assembling an expedition task force including Vietnam army veterans, Government Agents, scientists and conspiracy minded sceptics as well as a war time photographer and a former member of the British SAS. Ostensibly tasked to map out the geology of the island, they are in for a huge surprise!

Suffice to say, I absolutely adored Kong: Skull Island and following the blueprint set with his previous film, Director Vogt-Roberts collaborates brilliantly with everyone involved either in front of or behind the cameras. Brief character dissections follow but the four writers all deserve initial praise for their overall story (John Gatins) and the superb screenplay from Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly which is bright, not overly exposition heavy and more importantly full of verve and wit. Larry Fong (Batman v Superman, Super 8, Sucker Punch) excels as Director of Photography and the vast ILM Visual Effects teams have brought a brooding if explosive Kong to brilliant realisation. There are one or two small glitches in the special effects but these were incredibly minor and in no way detract from the glorious overall spectacle. The Director, in collaboration with Henry Jackman has also followed the template from his previous film by setting the tone with his musical selection. With the film set in 1973 and against the backdrop of the Vietnam War drawing to a long awaited close the soundtrack choices reflect both the era the film is set in but more importantly the fun, verve and vitality wanted by the Director and by using tracks from Jefferson Airplane, The Hollies, Iggy Pop and The Stooges, David Bowie and Black Sabbath he achieves this in spades. As "Paranoid" from the aforementioned Black Sabbath plays, the film is particularly evocative of the films that have clearly inspired the Director, be it Oliver Stone's 1986 Oscar winning "Platoon" or more specifically Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Oscar winning "Apocalypse Now". Kong standing tall against a blood red sun in the background is both a pleasing image as well as seemingly a nod to Coppola's classic.

In front of the camera is a veritable who's who of modern A-List films. John Goodman excels in a relatively minor role as Government Agent and fixer "Bill Randa", receiving the sign off on the expedition from Richard Jenkins as "Senator Willis". I'm biased but any film with Richard Jenkins normally gets my instant vote of approval! Samuel L Jackson plays highly decorated, forthright and bombastic "Lieutenent Colonel Preston Packard" particularly well and is ably assisted by Toby Kebbell as "Major Jack Chapman". Tom Hiddleston is excellent as former British SAS Captain "James Conrad" but whilst the performance is very good the background to his character seems a little out of step with the remainder of the invading force. Both Tian Jing as biologist "San Lin" and Corey Hawkins as geologist "Houston Brooks" are underdeveloped characters and whilst there are many more important roles to acknowledge, the final two characters of real note are yet another stand out performance from John C Reilly, here as "Hank Marlow" and Brie Larson as "anti war photographer" "Mason Weaver". Stranded on the island since 1944 and living amongst the island's indigenous people, John C Reilly brings much levity to the film and his innocence at the world that has left him behind is both well written and brilliantly realised as he asks "who's winning the war" to which James Conrad replies "which one?" before Reilly chides his would be rescuers with "You shouldn't have come here" and a final chilling remark "Kong's a pretty good King. Keeps to himself mostly. But you don't go into someone's house and start dropping bombs, unless you're picking a fight".

And picking a fight with King Kong has never been so beautifully realised on the big screen. My son was far less impressed than I was but just taking him to see the Eighth Wonder of the World on the big screen was enough for me. But make no mistake, Vogt-Roberts Kong tale here is well worth two hours of your cinema time.

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