Tag Archives: story telling

Review: Kong: Skull Island Box Office Blockbuster Falls Short

Kong: Skull Island continues to hold its own at the box office, generating $164 million in domestic revenues after seven weeks in theaters and $395 million outside the U.S. The film is definitely headed for a profitable ride, thanks in large part to the Chinese market. It’s persistence at the box office justifies a review, even if late, with a few comments about the story and its execution.

The film, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts,  has a fine cast, and a plausible premise (as far as King Kong monster movies go): Bill Randa (John Goodman, Raising ArizonaMonsters, Inc.), a government scientist, has discovered scientific evidence of a strange creature on a remote island that requires investigation. Set in 1973, the waning days of the Vietnam War, the movie  enlists an expert tracker (the Thor film franchise’s Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad) to help hunt the animal, a team of scientists to study it, and a military helicopter escort commanded by the aggressive Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp FictionDejango UnchainedThe Hateful Eight). To counter balance the testosterone is a pacifist photo journalist (The Room‘s Brie Larson as Mason Weaver).

The digital effects are first rate. Many reviewers have commented on the exceptional attention given to animating Kong, one even going so far as to say the digitized gorilla steals the scenes from the live action actors. For the most part, I agree. That’s part of the problem with the film.

As a viewer, most people will connect more with Kong than any of the 13 actors and actresses listed as “stars”.   The CGI artists create more believable action a tension between Kong and his underground nemesis Skullcrawler, who is inadvertently roused to the surface by indiscriminate fire bombing in an attempt to kill Kong. One by one, the platoon of non-stars and co-stars is picked off by either Kong (who is a misunderstood hero) or the skullcrawlers.

This points to a second problem: the cast is simply too big. Although Kong: Skull Island is within the larger King Kong franchise, the characters are not recurring. As such, viewers simply can’t get close enough to the characters to care much about them. This probably for the better, even intentional, since they all pretty much die. In fact, the character viewers are most likely to care about, forgotten World War II aviator Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, Boogie NightsTalledega NightsGuardians of the Gallaxy ), enters the film half way through. Brie Larson’s character survives, but her character doesn’t have much depth—she begins as a pacifist, and finishes as a pacifist basically able to say “I told you so, peace is good.”

Third, much of the detail surrounding the actualization of the monsters appears to have been forgotten. For example, a major fight scene between Kong and Skullcrawler takes place in a lake. As they thrash about trying to kill each other, characters watching on the edge of the lake never experience unsettled water or a wave that would be inevitable from such a fight. In another example, somehow twelve helicopters lead the team in the island even though they are transported on a ship capable of carrying six.

Fourth, the humans are plot devices, not characters that drive the story. All of them are expendable, and none have a meaningful arc. The movie is really about the monsters (and to its credit doesn’t seem to forget this). All the players do is position themselves to be killed by the monsters. Sometimes, as in the case of Bill Randa’s demise, the acts seem implausibly suicidal. This isn’t unusual in a monster film, but the best movies in this genre use the story as social commentary. In the original King Kong movie, viewers are left to wonder who is the real monster. We use the story to reflect upon ourselves. Skull Island adds nothing new.

The plot holes, transparent plot devices, and careless squandering of acting talent combined to make a weak movie. That said, if someone is looking for a lot of great digital effects, a really cool rendering of a giant gorilla, and some fantastic supernatural fight scenes in an exotic jungle location, Kong: Skull Island is hard to beat.

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Jason Bourne and visual storytelling

Jason-Bourne-movie-posterI once read in a book on writing screenplays that movies are 80% visual, and this is one reason why movies are so successful at connecting with audiences. Humans are visual animals, and they interpret their surroundings based on sight. All the senses are important, but when it comes to identifying or assessing threats, or devising strategies, we rely on our eyes more than any other sense.

I was reminded of this while watching the most recent Jason Bourne film based on the Robert Ludlum character and novels. The film is a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s aptly titled because the story in this movie is really about Jason Bourne trying to uncover his true identity. The entire cast–Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, relative newcomer Alicia Vikander and others–does a great job save for Julia Stiles playing Nicky Parsons (whose performance I thought was rather wooden). The plot is fast paced with two extended car chases, which should be enough to keep teenagers in age and heart more than engaged. In other words, Jason Bourne is an example of a big-ticket action film that’s also well produced on a big budget.

But that’s not what really impressed me.

Rather, the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film seemed like a masterful example of visual storytelling. We must have been five or ten minutes into the film before any meaningful dialogue was spoken by the main characters. Yet the entire story was essentially set up with visual cues and action.

The opening scenes have Nicky Parsons (Stiles) hacking into the CIA’s database to download files on the covert assassin programs run by the agency’s director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). All she says, in effect, is the password to get into the warehouse were a platoon of hackers is working in a wikileaks manner to uncover dark secrets held by government. We immediately know she is active in trying to identify and expose the covert CIA assassin programs–Blackbriar, Treadstone–when she discovers a new program Iron Hand which is the surveillance programs of all surveillance programs. She also uncovers files that identifies Bourne’s father as a key player in setting up the initial Treadstone program. All this is done through Nicky’s actions–her expressions as she discovers different components, her fingers as she works the keyboard, the computer monitor as files and file folders appears–as movie goers look over her shoulder as she hacks away. She clicks on folders, opens and scans files, downloads them, and then escapes after the CIA identifies the hack and shuts the operation down. Thus, we, as onlookers, put the pieces together. We discover that the CIA is active in its covert program, the agency is more ruthless than ever, Nicky is hot on the trail and scared, and she still is doing a lot of legwork for Bourne. She cares.

In another highly effective exercise in visual storytelling, driven in part because Jason Bourne is a man over very few words, the director (Paul Greengrass) establishes that Bourne is alive and well, but living under the radar. Visual scenes with very little dialogue other than crowds yelling words depict Bourne in underground, presumably illegal, fights in Greece. That’s how Bourne now earns his living–cash in a cash society so nothing can be traced. No words are spoken by Bourne, but we know he is living a gritty, exhausting, meticulously low profile existence. And he’s tough and fit.

These are just a few of the sequences that depict a talented director and filmmaker practicing the art of “Show don’t telll.” For those interesting in film as visual storytelling, and thinking outside the box for ways to “show don’t tell” in narrative fiction writing, studying the first 15 minutes of Jason Bourne is well worth the effort.

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