Opening this week:
Skull Island—In 1973, just as the U.S.
is bugging out of Vietnam,
the Military-Industrial Complex mounts a secret but really obnoxiously
intrusive expedition, via a swarm of helicopters, to the title island. Within
minutes of arriving, the invaders find themselves getting the crap very
justifiably beaten out of them by the title resident.
The survivors of the initial attack then squabble and try to regroup, and to
survive further attacks by this skyscraper-sized primate as well as other gargantuan
abominations. Notable among these are the “skull-crawlers,” a species of
voracious reptiles that resemble two-legged monitor lizards with squalid,
skull-like heads. The party also encounters human natives, and an American
airman stranded there since WWII.
The original 1933 King Kong is my
favorite movie, and giant monsters have been cinematic comfort food for me
since I was a small child. So when I tell you that it’s been a while since I’ve
had this much fun at a movie, I’ll understand if you take it with a grain of
salt. Nevertheless, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun at a movie,
and many people around me at the screening seemed to have the same response.
American popular moviemaking has been on a bit of a roll recently—two
weeks ago we had the chiller Get Out,
last week brought us Logan, and this
week we get this boldly preposterous saga. It would be great if we could count
on entertainment at that level every weekend.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stages monster action with a true
Brobdingnagian grandeur, and he and the special effects folks offer us a Kong
who is brooding, irritable and lovable. Part of the pleasure of the movie is
that he’s so much more sympathetic than the human visitors that one feels little
compunction about wholeheartedly rooting for him.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek nerviness to the script, and the cast is full of
character vets that can handle it. The supporting soldiers and researches are
forgettable monster fodder, and the nominal hero and heroine, Tom Hiddleston
and Brie Larson, seem to have been cast for their ability to look great in
t-shirts. But John Goodman, as the contractor leading the search, and Samuel L.
Jackson as the Army Colonel who goes all Captain Ahab toward Kong, and John C.
Reilly as the marooned pilot, ensure that the movie isn’t just an empty
spectacle devoid of personality.
Kong: Skull Island is not, I
suppose, a movie of particularly mature or wholesome sensibility. But it can’t fairly
be called dumb, either—it’s made with skill, wit and imagination, and it
has moments that could be called magical.
Ottoman Lieutenant—Call the title character Ismail, a dashing young Turk in the Ottoman army. He's played by a Dutch actor named Michiel Huisman, previously unfamiliar to me but very appealing. Our heroine, played by the Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, is Lillie, a high-minded nurse from Philadelphia who goes to work in a clinic in Anatolia in the early days of World War I. She and Ismail fall in love, even though he's a Muslim and she's a Christian, even though the dull doctor at the clinic (Josh Hartnett) also loves her, and even though the Armenian Christians she cares for are in big trouble from the Turks.
This star-crossed interfaith romance tries to be sexy and swoony in the manner of a check-out line romance novel of the old school. The direction is by that excellent journeyman Joseph Ruben, who back in the '80s made three classic thrillers in a row: Dreamscape, The Stepfather and True Believer. The poor fellow hasn't been able to get a script worthy of his abilities since, but that doesn't stop him from bringing the best out of what he has to work with, like efficiently staging some exciting action scenes here, or from capitalizing on the expansive scenery.
Ben Kingsley easily nails his few scenes as another American doctor with whom Lillie bonds, a sick and bereaved man who labors on in spite of despairing doubt that life has any meaning. But crisp direction and a strong supporting turn can only take the movie so far, especially when there may be an unspoken agenda beyond the mild love story.
With its insipid dialogue and nagging, generically epic music, The Ottoman Lieutenant comes off as trite but watchable and harmless enough, on the surface. It would be remiss, however, not to note that the film, a Turkish-backed production, is grotesquely evasive about the Armenian Genocide that started in 1915, in which about a million and a half people perished.
The movie doesn't exactly deny the event, but it treats it obliquely, in bland passages from Lillie's narration like "the Ottomans took measures to stamp out the Armenian rebels, and the Armenians fought back," or "...some Armenian men were taken from their homes and conscripted to serve in the Ottoman army, while the round-up of Armenian women, children and the elderly had begun..." She never quite spits out what those "measures" were, or what the people were being rounded up for.
It's true that we're shown a small number of Ottoman soldiers massacring some Armenians on a country road. But there's no sense of the scope and sanction of the horror from this scene, the real point of which is that our valiant hero Ismail intercedes on the Armenians' behalf.
To be fair, this probably isn't much more outrageously disingenuous than, say, the classic John Ford epics are toward the real-life genocides of the American West. Still, behind all of The Ottoman Lieutenant's pieties and platitudes and tender longings and noble sacrifices, it's hard to miss a distinct whiff of whitewash.