Richard sits in with CTV NewsChannel anchor Marcia MacMillan to have a look at the big weekend movies, the great ape flick “Kong: Skull Island,” the Shirley MacLaine dramedy “The Last Word” and the animated “Window Horses.”
Only two things are sure about Skull Island. First, it is home to Megaprimatus kong a.k.a. King Kong and a menagerie of prehistoric creatures. Second, as Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) says in this weekend’s Kong: Skull Island, “We don’t belong here.”
The latest adventures of King Kong take place almost entirely on the island but what, exactly, do we know about the place?
Not much, because Skull Island is uncharted and changes from film to film.
In the new movie, a digital map image suggests the island derived its intimidating name from its gorilla skull profile shape but originally the isle wasn’t called Skull Island. The best-known versions of the Kong story, the original 1933 Merian C. Cooper film and the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis production, never mention Skull Island.
The first movie and its subsequent novelisation describe a “high wooded island with a skull-like knob” called Skull Mountain while the ‘76 film refers to Beach of the Skull. It wasn’t until 2004’s Kong: King of Skull Island illustrated novel that the name was first used. Since then the moniker has stuck.
The same can’t be said for its location.
Over the years it’s been pegged everywhere from the coast of Indonesia and southwest of Central America to the Bermuda Triangle and the Coral Sea off the east coast of Australia.
In reality many places have subbed in for the island. In 1933 several locations were pieced together to create Kong’s home.
Outdoor scenes were shot at Long Beach, California and the caves at Bronson Canyon near Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Everything else was filmed on a soundstage in Culver City using odds and ends from other sets. The giant Skull Mountain gate was later reused in Gone with the Wind’s burning of Atlanta sequence.
De Laurentiis spared no expense bringing the island to life in 1976, moving the entire crew to the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The shoot began at the remote Honopu Beach, a place the crew were told was deserted. Arriving in four helicopters laden with equipment they were greeted by a honeymooning couple who, thinking they had the place to themselves, had slept nude on the beach.
The impressive stone arch seen in the film — “Beyond the arch, there is danger, there is Kong!” — was natural and so huge years later when an episode of Acapulco Heat was filmed there a helicopter flew underneath it.
Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong reboot used a combination of New Zealand’s picturesque Shelly Bay and Lyall Bay as Skull Island’s “jungle from hell.” In the film’s closing credits the director paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to all the stars of the 1933 movie, calling them, “The original explorers of Skull Island.”
This weekend’s installment was shot in Vietnam, Queensland, Australia and Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii, where giant sets were built near where Jurassic World was filmed.
The scenery, as John Goodman’s character says, is “magnificent,” but there was also a practical reason to shoot in these exotic locations. The Hollywood Reporter stated the production shot in Australia to take advantage of a whopping 16.5% location offset incentive — i.e. tax break — offered by the Australian government.
Kong: Skull Island describes the isle as “a place where myth and science meet.”
On film though, it’s a spot where the imaginations of Kong fans run wild.
Set in 1973, the “Kong: Skull Island” is unrelated to the Kongs that came before. There’s no Empire State Building, no Jessica Lange, no romance between damsel and beast.
John Goodman is Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist William Randa, a man with some wild ideas about an uncharted island in the South Pacific. “This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.” With government funding supplied by a senator (Richard Jenkins) Randa leads an expedition to prove his ideas about certain life forms on the planet. Along for the ride are a military helicopter squadron, a handful of scientists, U.S. military commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), former British soldier turned mercenary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and antiwar photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Arriving at the island they are greeted by the tallest King Kong ever. “Is that a monkey?” gasps Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell). Some monkey. At over 100 feet he dwarfs his cinematic brothers—1933’s Kong was 24 feet, the 1976 version was 55 feet while Peter Jackson knocked him back to 25 feet for his 2005 adaptation—and easily knocks many of Randa’s helicopters from the air.
The survivors hit the ground running, only to meet up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II fighter pilot stranded on the island for decades. “You’ve probably noticed a lot of weird things on this island,” he says in the understatement of the century. As they try and brave the treacherous landscape to meet a refuelling team at the north end of the island the motley crew soon realizes Kong isn’t their only or even biggest problem.
At its furry heart “Kong: Skull Island” feels like an anti-war movie. At least half of it does. The opening section, roughly half the movie, suggests the unintentional and deadly consequences that come from dropping bombs were you shouldn’t. “You didn’t go to someone’s house and start dropping bombs and less you’re looking for a fight.” It’s a timely message about unleashing powers we don’t understand in the name of war wrapped in a Vietnam allegory. “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you show up at his doorstep,” says Cole (Shea Whigham).
Then Reilly enters and with him comes a new shift. What was once a message movie is now a story of survival and giant beasts. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts pivots at this point, staging a series of action scenes with cool creatures, and it works as pure creature feature entertainment. It’s cool to see Kong tossing military helicopters around as though they were Tonka Toys and another scene will make you think twice about sitting on an old hollowed out log. Fans of bigly beast action will be more than satisfied with the final battle between Kong and a massive subterranean people eater.
“Kong: Skull Island’s” social commentary doesn’t fade away completely but Kong’s mighty roar does drown most of it out. Just below the roar, almost out of earshot, is the idea that displays of force aren’t always the way to deal with conflict, a rare sentiment for an action movie laden with WMDs. Mostly the flick provides a fun romp with some big budget beasts and (secondarily) an Oscar winner or two.
Richard and CP24 anchor George Lagogianes have a look at the weekend’s new movies, the Ice Cube high school comedy “Fist Fight,” the Matt Damon white saviour flick “The Great Wall,” Dane DeHaan in the incomprehensible “The Cure for Wellness” and “My Scientology Movie.”
Richard sits in with CTV NewsChannel anchor Erin Paul to have a look at the big weekend movies, the Ice Cube high school comedy “Fist Fight,” the Matt Damon white saviour flick “The Great Wall,” Dane DeHaan in the incomprehensible “The Cure for Wellness” and “My Scientology Movie.”
“The Great Wall” is not the story of Donald Trump’s relations with Mexico. It’s a $150 million historical epic from Chinese director Zhang Yimou that garnered a lot of criticism for the controversial casting of Matt Damon in a major role.
Detractors called the choice an example of a “white saviour” from the West appropriating Chinese culture and stepping in to save the day. Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat” voiced her disapproval, accusing the film of “perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” adding, “our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”
Zhang fought back. “Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor.”
“As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics,” he said in a statement, “I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision.”
More on that later, but having seen the film, a more blatant criticism would be the generic, formulaic filmmaking.
On the run, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured at a Great Wall outpost by a band of Chinese soldiers called the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). The interlopers are due to be disposed of until they offer up a claw Garin separated from a mysterious beast days before.
Turns out, the creature is a Tao Tie, a nasty breed of beast that attacks the Imperial Court every sixty years. The walleyed creatures look like a smooth green werewolf- Komodo Dragon hybrid and are very difficult to kill. When the Tao Tie attack days earlier than expected Tovar and Garin’s bravery earn them privileged spots in the battalion—“We’re honoured to be honoured,” says Garin.—but the pair are secretly only interested in the local “black powder.” “It turns the air into fire!” they gasp. If they can smuggle the gunpowder out of the battalion it will make them rich men in the West.
It’s a great plan until Garin opts to leave his mercenary ways behind join forces with General Lin (Jing Tian), the only female English-speaking commander at the outpost. Her bravery turns his head, reminding him of why he became a soldier in the first place. “Let me fight with you,” he says. “If this is where you choose to die, good luck to you,” scoffs Tovar. If the Tao Tie breach the wall, we’re told several times, nothing can stop them.
“The Great Wall” uses every epic monster film trick in the book. Cameras sweep and swirl, flames lick the screen, there’s slow-mo galore and loads of Zhang’s unique wuxia style action but despite the grandeur and the lushness of the cinematography and costume details it is all rather dull. It’s “Lord of the Rings” without the engaging fantasy and “Game of Thrones” sans the lusty carnality that keeps people watching between dragon conquest scenes.
There is some humour between the battle scenes. Garin and Tovar are awfully quippy for a pair of Song dynasty soldiers. “I’m the one saving you,” Tovar jokes on the battlefield, “so I can kill you myself.” It’s “Hope and Crosby on the Road to the Imperial Court!”
As for Garin as the Saviour from the West, I have to agree with Wu. There are several heroes in this movie but Garin eats up the most screen time and in the end is instrumental in (SPOILER ALERT) keeping the nasty beasties from having their way with the Emperor. Damon is an agreeable actor, although here he dons a flat and ever-changing accent that simply amplifies how completely out of place he seems in ancient China.
“The Great Wall” feels more like an exercise in marketing than it does a movie. The size and spectacle of it appear geared to appeal to an audience used to avenging superheroes, while the casting of a white American star at the heart of another culture’s tale looks to be a blatant attempt at creating a tentpole film for a world audience. What they forgot about was including compelling characters and story.