Rage-filled monsters are currently rampaging across movie screens, and making a lot of money in the process. A live-action version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast? Check. Logan, Hugh Jackman's reportedly final appearance as X-Men mutant Wolverine? Check. And the towering granddaddy of them all, King Kong, is appearing for the first time since 2005.
Kong: Skull Island is an unusual prequel/reboot in that it delivers a serious, consistent anti-war message while showcasing impressive special-effects mayhem. Set in 1973, the titular home of the giant primate is discovered thanks to first-time satellite surveys of our planet. Shrouded for centuries by its own permanent storm system (upgraded from the giant fog bank seen in earlier Kong films) the mysterious land mass beckons a research team headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman). He and his associates are convinced Skull Island could be a haven for MUTOs, those Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms introduced in 2014's Godzilla remake. (Yes, Kong: Skull Island is the second chapter in a planned, connected series of "monsterverse" epics.)
With the US pulling out of Vietnam, Randa is granted the support of a squadron led by a still combat-hungry colonel played by Samuel L. Jackson. No sooner do their helicopters make it through the violent atmosphere then they begin showering the island with depth charges. An unhappy Kong quickly appears and makes mincemeat of the battalion. The scattered survivors, who also include a war photographer (Oscar winner Brie Larson) and a hunky jungle scout (Tom Hiddleston), have to find their way to one another and their mutual rescue point while evading Kong as well as some nasty reptilian critters out for blood. They also cross paths with John C. Reilly as the film's most interesting human character, a World War II fighter pilot marooned on the island 30 years earlier.
All eventually learn, even Jackson's gung ho military leader, that violence and weaponry only lead to more violence. Kong is protective of the human natives on Skull Island, and he takes on the vicious "skull crawlers" when they go after the new arrivals. Larson's pacifist makes a personal connection with the big ape that endears him to her without going as all out romantic as Kong did previously with Fay Wray, Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes an impressive leap to the big budget league following his low-budget 2013 feature debut The Kings of Summer. He strikes a fine balance between monster battles and more human moments, even as the film's Apocalypse Now allusions prove excessive. Perhaps needless to say, Kong: Skull Island is a vast improvement on producer Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong (1976) and its even worse 1986 sequel King Kong Lives. And be sure to stay through the film's end credits for a sneak peek at future movie mayhem to feature Kong, Godzilla and other kaiju classics.
Gay director François Ozon's Frantz, now playing in southern California and NYC, also explores the damaging effects of war. Set in Germany in 1919, it initially explores a family's grief following the combat-related death of the title character in France during World War I. Frantz's fiancée Anna and his mother and father are generally coping well until a young Frenchman, Adrien, arrives to town and begins leaving flowers on Frantz's gravesite. Soon after, he shows up on the family's doorstep and introduces himself as their late loved one's longtime friend from Paris, although, oddly, Frantz never mentioned Adrien to his family.
While Adrien proves to have a darker agenda related to his wartime experience, he doesn't prove to be a monster. Things get complicated as Anna falls in love with him and must eventually choose between Adrien and a local man eager to take Frantz's place. Being an Ozon film, the intriguing story plays out in unpredictable ways and includes a few homoerotic moments. This is also Ozon's first true period piece and its a visual stunner in this regard. Cinematographer Pascal Marti shoots most of the film in black and white but several flashback scenes "bleed" into full color.
Frantz is frequently reminiscent of a 1940's post-war melodrama, and its actually a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 Broken Lullaby. Joan Crawford or Bette Davis would not be out of place in the role of Anna but modern-day actress Paula Beer makes the unfortunate (though not tragic) character her own. Pierre Niney, recently seen in the title role of Yves Saint Laurent, volleys appropriately between tortured and desirable as Adrien. Watch for a brief shot of him in see-through underwear following a swim. Anton von Lucke is great in several scenes of remembrance as the sadly short-lived Frantz. They all make this film an ultimately hopeful, anti-war morality tale.
Virtually all gay men can attest to the internal war we find ourselves in as we struggle to accept our sexual orientation while coming of age. One is lucky indeed to make it out alive. Three films newly available on VOD/DVD serve as vivid illustrations of this rite of passage. Bromance (TLA Releasing), by Argentinian writer-director Lucas Santa Ana, is the weakest of these offerings but serves as a semi-autobiographical time capsule. Set in pre-cell phone 1996, three best friends take a trip to a secluded, beach-side campground. One of them, Daniel, brings along his video camera to record their memorable moments. These end up including Daniel's coming out to his crush, Santiago, and Santiago's conflicted reaction. The arrival of a nubile young woman doesn't help matters. Whereas Bromance ends up affirming Daniel's conviction and bravery, it does so at what struck me as an uncomfortably excessive cost having been there myself.
Departure (Wolfe Video) and Being 17 (Strand) are both, in addition to being French-made, more contemporary yet still envelope-pushing gay coming-of-age dramas. In the first, Alex Lawther (who played young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) gives a remarkable performance as Elliot, a teenager who embraces his sexuality while helping his mother (the always great Juliette Stevenson) close up their longtime summer home. Elliot is quickly drawn to a local motorcycle aficionado (a dreamy Phenix Brossard) and finds his attentions returned to a point. Andrew Steggall, who previously helmed the award-winning gay short The Red Bike, makes a strong feature directorial debut. Note: one may never look at carrots in quite the same way after watching Departure.
Being 17 is the latest masterpiece by longtime LGBT-interest filmmaker Andre Techine (Wild Reeds). He receives an insightful assist here from co-screenwriter Celine Sciamma, the developing auteur behind such recent faves as Tomboy, Girlhood and Oscar nominee My Life as a Zucchini. High school students Damien and Thomas are both gay but don't get along at school. We eventually learn that Thomas' mother is seriously ill and he is taking his anger out inappropriately on Damien. The boys are forced to get along better (and how) once Damien's mother invites Thomas to stay with them while his mother recuperates. All ends happily once they've made it through their numerous trials and tribulations. A must see.
Kong: Skull Island- B+
Being 17- A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.