Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cat's Away: Because also new releases

This is the fourth night in Cat's Away, a cheekily named series of nightly viewings I'm doing while my wife is in America.

Now, on to the one trait this is shared by almost all films in almost all film festivals: actually being new.

Or, comparatively new, anyway.

I'm not flipping over my viewing calendar to focus on 2017 releases until next week; you may recall I divide my viewing year into new releases (August to January) and older releases (February to July), with plenty of overlap from the other in each. But I couldn't let the Friday night of my festival pass without a good 2017 popcorn movie.

I just didn't know how good.

Yes, I loved Kong: Skull Island.

After hearing good things about it, I was cautiously optimistic, which is why I downloaded a rental from iTunes last week and programmed it in this time slot. But emphasis on the word "cautiously." You can find someone to say something good about nearly every event movie of a given year, with the possible exception of Transformers, but I'd already been pretty disappointed in the likes of Alien: Covenant and John Wick: Chapter 2, among others. I didn't know if I had any reason to trust the good word of mouth on Kong more than any of these other movies.

But this movie had me from its opening seconds, its audacious style immediately grabbing me. It starts with a crackerjack prologue in which an American pilot crash lands in spectacularly absurdist fashion, his plane nose-diving into the desert sand as his parachute follows suit moments later, landing closer in the same frame. Jordan Vogt-Roberts -- remember this name, people -- immediately announces himself as a visual stylist with a whipsmart wit, and everything else just continues in the same vein. This film is replete with unconventional camera setups in small moments, finding that perfect balance between calling attention to themselves and blending seamlessly into the narrative.

I think I might get breathless, or my fingers might get tired, if I tried to tell you everything I liked in this movie, but let's just touch on a number of them here. Tread carefully, as there may be some spoilers.

1) The Vietnam War era setting really worked for me. It's become an increasingly common strategy to set big budget brand movies in other historical eras -- Wonder Woman, the recent X-Men movies -- but I don't think I had yet seen one that was so influenced by the familiar beats of a Vietnam War movie. In fact, this felt kind of like a mashup of a Vietnam War movie and a summer blockbuster, and I'm always a fan of a good mashup if done right.

2) What a wise decision to make this movie rated R. Not only did it allow some truly unbridled carnage -- I'm thinking of a couple people being torn limb from limb, and a soldier getting lanced by a spider leg down his throat -- but it also allowed John C. Reilly to say a thing like "It sounds like a bird, but it's a fucking ant." Interestingly, we never did actually see that ant, but that's okay, because this movie showed us so much else that we didn't need it. It was stronger for leaving some things up to our imagination.

3) But when it did offer us a big set piece, it didn't scrimp on it. Kong vs. the helicopters is one for the ages, but that's not what I'll focus on here. Instead, that scene where the soldiers have to take down the 60-foot? 80-foot? spider is one such an example. They had to work really damn hard to level the thing, not to mention to avoid getting stepped on by it -- which, it should be said, may not have been a thing the spider was even trying to do. I get the sense it was just strolling along and happened to squash some soldiers, just as we might unknowingly crush a bug. I loved moments like when the spider's stomach is perforated and it unleashes a torrent of guts on the soldier below, which reminded me of my beloved Starship Troopers.

4) And speaking of throwaway set pieces, what about when Kong fights the octopus and then eats it, its appendages still writhing as he shoves them down this throat? I messaged my friend at that time: "This movie is the best."

5) The cast was something I uniformly liked as well. I'd heard there were just entirely too many characters, and sure, not all of them got a proper character arc. But there was enough development dolled out to each that I was grateful for the large size of the cast, rather than resentful of it. In fact, the large size of the cast reminded me of a type of entertainment that was common to the era in which this film is set: the all-star cast disaster movie. With the number of famous faces here being whittled down by attrition, the movie put me in mind of movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Which is most assuredly a good thing.

6) If I weren't covering this movie as a Cat's Away post, I might have devoted a solo post to the topic of Brie Larson's recent trend of appearing as either the only or one of the only women in a movie filled with men with guns. I would have called that post "Brie Larson, Sausagefest Queen." Larson is literally the only woman in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire from earlier this year, and here she's one of just two women, though the second is so underdeveloped that she might as well be the only one. Interestingly, both films are also set in the 1970s, when that gender dynamic would have just been a reality.

7) It always impresses me when films walk the line between comedic and tragic, and this one does it terrifically. Some of this movie is insanely funny, though you also really feel the moments of loss. Anything John C. Reilly says is a riot, but Shea Whigham is actually quite funny as well, among others. In fact, Whigham may embody this delicate tonal balance more than anyone else, because SPOILER ALERT AGAIN his death is actually one of those solemn moments. It's also a moment that undercuts our expectations. He's ready to sacrifice himself by by letting a giant creepy crawlie eat him and then pulling the pins on a couple grenade to blow the thing up. But in another one of those moments like the spider randomly squashing the soldiers below, the creepy crawlie does not choose to eat him, but rather flicks him into the side of a distant rock face with his tail, where the grenades detonate harmlessly. The moment struck me as a comment on the senselessness of loss in war, as even when this guy is trying to be a hero he is robbed of that chance by random occurrence.

8) The visuals look great in this film, no better example than in Kong himself. I remember being impressed with the way Kong looked in Peter Jackson's film, and I'm sure he still does look good. But 12 years later, this Kong looks magnificent. More than anything I was impressed with how he seems to occupy clear three dimensional space and carries with him a specific weight and tangibility. That's been a big problem with digital creations in general, but it is no problem here.

9) How is it possible that this director only made one other film that has gotten any attention, and it's the 2013 coming of age comedy The Kings of Summer, which I have not even seen? This is like Colin Trevorrow going from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World, but even more so, as this film is far more visually assured than Jurassic World, and I'm a Jurassic World fan. In fact, this film operates like a Jurassic Park movie in a number of senses -- the encounter with the giant water buffalo is like the first discovery of the brontosauruses -- only it does it in a way that does not overtly reference dinosaurs. Unlike, unfortunately, Jackson's King Kong, which has that very problematic middle section.

10) They are making more of these movies, which excites me. Please please please let Vogt-Roberts direct.

If this were a weeknight I might be done. But it being a Friday night, I watched a second movie, which was this:

Oof, I bet you didn't expect this to be intruding on your Kong: Skull Island post! Sorry, what a punch in the nuts.

Spoilers to follow.

If you don't know Irreversible, it's the movie that contains a ten-minute scene of Monica Bellucci being brutally raped, and a guy getting his head bashed in with a fire extinguisher, the result of about ten separate bludgeons. For many, it is a consummate one-timer.

But this was my second time seeing it. Gaspar Noe's films have a way of burrowing into your brain, and Irreversible joins Enter the Void as films of his I've seen twice and cannot shake. Third, fourth and fifth viewings may eventually be forthcoming for both.

As I have already written a lot today I am not going to give a full "review" of Irreversible, though if you follow the tag for Irreversible you'll find I've referenced it twice on this blog previously. However, I will tell you that it's so much more than a movie reverse-engineered around a ten-minute rape scene, and I'll also say that having watched it twice now does not make me a bad person. You know how they say that many supposedly anti-war films end up glamorizing war? That's not the case with this rape scene, which is one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen in a film but is not even remotely titillating in the way war can titillate you, even when the filmmakers are not intending that. The scene is agonizing and sickening and upsetting, and it absolutely serves a function in making us think about brutality and its consequences -- which the entire film contemplates quite effectively, even more so for being told in reverse chronological order. That decision, executed so smartly, is reason enough for many cinephiles to watch the film, and then you've also got the audacious cinematography (most of the film is composed of long takes and there are many instances of vertiginous, swirling cameras) and the haunting score (a queasy dirge that sounds like a hazardous materials siren that's running out of batteries). Well look, here I've gone and tried to jam everything I like about this film into one paragraph after all.

But the most profound moment of this film requires its own paragraph. Irreversible finishes in an incredibly warm place, with Bellucci and her boyfriend (Vincent Cassell) lovingly intertwined in bed hours before her brutal rape. As Roger Ebert pointed out, the arc of the narrative is toward greater morality, forcing you to confront most of the awfulness in the first half. The very last scene is of Bellucci lying on the grass, reading a book, as kids dance around a sprinkler and Beethoven plays on the soundtrack. We pull in on the sprinkler and it becomes nearly indistinguishable behind a strobe light that fills the screen for the last 20 seconds of the movie, both a punishing and enthralling visual exercise, as the distant sprinkler looks kind of like a view of the cosmos.

And once the strobe light ends, the movie ends, with only these last words on the screen:

"Time destroys all things."

And in the spirit of Gaspar Noe, I will also end without a further word.

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