Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind.
Kong: Skull Island directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (hitherto best known for indie hit The Kings Of Summer) is from the producers of Godzilla and fans of the latter will recognize the ominous phrase “Project Monarch.” The prevailing philosophy of both films is that humans are insignificant little insects compared to the massive, ancient, nearly god-like creatures of legend who haunt our nightmares. This is as it should be; what’s the point of a monster movie where humans can contain the monsters by being ‘alpha’? (I’m looking at you Jurassic World.) The primal appeal of monster films lies in the fact that we cannot control nature and it is folly to try.
What I didn’t expect was that Skull Island besides being a great, example of B-movie monster making, would also owe so much to stories about man’s inner darkness. The intro takes place in 1944 just as WWII is starting to wind up with a battle on the beach between a Japanese pilot and American one, which ends when everyone’s favorite giant ape crashes the party. Kong is animated by Toby Kebbell of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes who plays a great secondary character in the film as well.
Flash forward nearly 30 years to 1973, in the last days of the Vietnam war, an expedition is authorized to explore Skull Island primarily so the Russian’s won’t get there first. Geo-politics in this movie are as much a character as the subterranean lizard abominations are. A number of the visuals of Vietnam era choppers exploding napalm seem right out of Apocalypse Now. Our main hero, former RAF pilot turned mercenary tracker (Tom Hiddleston) is named Conrad in a clear homage to Joseph Conrad author of Heart of Darkness. The Colonel Kurtz figure here is Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) a veteran soldier embittered by the notion that the U.S. is ‘abandoning’ the fight in Vietnam. He blames the media and war photographers like Mason Weaver (Brie Larson of Room) for the loss of public support. Packard craves a new battle and new enemy and he finds one in Kong.
John Goodman and Corey Hawkins (Photo credit: Church Zlotnick)
We also get a ton of other great supporting characters as well, from John Goodman’s scientist obsessed with proving monsters are real, to John C. Reilly as the WWII crash-landed American pilot trapped on the island for thirty years, to Corey Hawkins as Yale-educated geologist whose work is crucial to Project Monarch, and many, many more. It’s not that Skull Island skimps on the action or set pieces; far from it! But they spend a remarkable amount of time establishing their characters personalities and dramas, which makes their fates far more engrossing on screen. Rest assured this is a monster movie with heart, and it is worth sticking around to see the after-credits stinger.
As you can see the facial mask simply slips off the skull.
So says surgeon Robert Laing as he performs an autopsy on a schizophrenia’s brain during the first ten minutes of High-Rise. Yep they really do show him slipping the skin right off the skull and that gives you an idea of the mixture of horror and artistry this movie regularly hits. High-Rise directed by Ben Wheatley begins with Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston at his sexiest) adjusting to what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Mad Max style dystopia in a concrete high rise. We flash back three months prior to when Laing moved into the newly constructed tower block which architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) designed specifically to be its own self contained society. It has its own store, its own fitness center, a pool, and even a rooftop garden complete with a horse where Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) plays Shepherdess just like Marie Antoinette.
Of course like any society there are also class stratifications as well. The lower floors house the poorest residents and those with children, like documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). The middle floors tend to include the professional classes like Laing and his lover Charlotte (Sienna Miller), while the top floors house Royal and other elites. In case we fail to see the symbolism already they make sure that Laing gets thrown out of a penthouse party where everyone else is dressed like the court of Louis XIV. The building, Royal explains, is experiencing ‘teething problems’ like frequent power outages and clogged garbage chutes. As these problems escalate pre-existing tensions become ever more violent.
Wheatley isn’t aiming for subtlety here in his adaption of J.G. Ballard’s novel but he certainly delivers great cinematography. The movie often feels like a collection of beautifully photographed vignettes. As a film itself it feels rather well…flat. Because everyone here are stock figures and representations rather than real people you can warm up to. I was reminded a lot of Snowpiercer another visually brilliant allegory about class warfare. While Snowpiercer’s storyline was even more outlandish than High-Rise, I wasable to invest in the people on screen, something I did not feel this time around. Ultimately High-Rise the movie feels like its titular structure; stylistically impressive but lacking in a solid foundation.
I want one of your many selves to sleep with me tonight. You can choose which one.
John LeCarré’s master of the espionage novel has always been obsessed with the fluidity of identity. Spies by definition have to take on so many roles for so long that they frequently lose themselves altogether. Titular Manager Johnathon Pine (Tom Hiddleston in some of his best work to date), fortunately was already familiar with having to change skins like a chameleon to please the needs of his guests. He learned the arts of invisibility and deceit long before being recruited by intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman of Broadchurch) to take down international arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie best known for House.) As Johnathon uses extreme methods, including deliberately provoking a particularly horrific beating on himself to infiltrate Roper’s organization, he becomes involved with Roper’s mistress Jed as well (who Elizabeth Debicki plays with surprising layers and vulnerability).
The series is gripping, tension laid, and exciting. We benefit from truly gorgeous sets, to the point where the series feels like travel porn but never forget the underlying stakes thanks to great writing and uniformly excellent performances. Tom Hiddleston’s Johnathon Pine can convey more with his eyes and tension in his upper lip than most actors could with pages and pages of dialogue and he has a worthy on screen foil. Hugh Laurie makes Roper affable one minute and repulsive the next. His congenial manners, a thin mask for the cruelty that lies beneath. He’s a man whose glamorous and beautiful lifestyle of champagne and skiing in Zermatt or cordial family gatherings on islands near Mallorca is founded on unbelievable acts of horror and brutality. As one percent, Roper waxes lyrical in interviews about the need for freedom of capital. You realize that this is clearly a villain for the 21st century and it gives The Night Manger a feeling not just of drama but immediacy to our modern day and age.
The Night Manager airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on AMC.
Top photo: Left to right: Olivia Coleman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Laurie at the The Night Manager Premiere Screening at the Directors Guild of America on April 5, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA/Bigstock images