Sunday, March 26, 2017

A leisurely South Seas cruise...to Skull Island, redux.



It's a good time to be a King Kong fan. Peter Jackson's King Kong is still fairly fresh in memory, and now Kong: Skull Island comes along to tell the tale of the big ape from a different perspective. Not to mention a clash of kings on the horizon: King Kong vs Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, coming in 2020.

Now, I'm a lifelong King Kong fan. Something about gorillas, giant or not, involved in adventure tales has always intrigued me. But they have to look like real gorillas, or like a reasonable offshoot or mutation, or like they share a common ape ancestry. If they fulfill that one stipulation, I'm there. So when I began seeing the promos for Kong: Skull Island, I was instantly jazzed. He didn't look like a gorilla, true, but something fascinatingly different; possibly an ape of his own ilk, with similarities to gorillas, chimpanzees, and, hauntingly, perhaps a dash of proto-human? Turns out: Yep.

Of course, along with Kong is his home of Skull Island, a location every bit a character as the ape. I wrote an overview of a book the Weta Workshop published about Peter Jackson's version of the island, which details it to such depth that it seems tantalizingly real. This new iteration may not have as much detail worked out - Jackson's Skull Island had a complete ecosystem worked out for it, for cryin' out loud - but it's a big, foreboding presence in and of itself.

The trailers and posters for the film had it all: a mysterious island; big, nasty monsters; enough characters that you knew the body count would be high; a surprisingly high-powered cast; all kinds of helicopters getting swatted from the sky; and, of course, Kong himself. And what a Kong! At least a hundred feet high, and as full of piss and vinegar as you'd want in a giant ape.

So I was excited to see this flick. The monster kid in me awoke from a long slumber. It's becoming less and less frequent for something to capture my imagination in a way that dredges up that long-gone kid hunkering down with dinosaur books and comics on quietly late Ohio nights. It now feels like an event to take note of when his ghost walks in on me, a grizzled old man.

I'm going to be delving into SPOILER territory, so if you have yet to make your own trek to this iteration of Skull Island, be warned from here on.

They don't skimp on Kong in this movie. Maybe 20 minutes or so of establishing the who, what and where of the expedition, as well as an opening dash of World War II mayhem. Then a jump ahead to 1973 for a whirlwind of scenes in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., Da Nang in Vietnam as US forces are drawn down, and neon-lit Thailand. Soon enough, though, our favorite simian star is duking it out with a crack helicopter squadron, fresh from duty in 'Nam. That's just for starters. They don't skimp on the action in this flick, either.

That cast I mentioned rates a bit more discussion. Sam Jackson is here, bringing his trademark badassery to the role of an army colonel who broods about the end of a war he seems to have wanted to keep on fighting. John Goodman is a scientist withholding some damned important information about the expedition he's trying to mount. Tom Hiddleston is a retired British SAS officer hired on as a civilian guide and tracker. John C. Reilly is a good-natured but slightly off WWII pilot stranded on the island since 1944, half-crazed, but still sane enough to warn everyone where not to go (but, of course, they go anyway, with Reilly bitching in an amusing and wholly realistic way). Brie Larson is a photojournalist, suspicious of the expedition's purpose. It's almost a stock roster of characters, really, with the traits and motives moved around a bit, but it works. Round it out with a platoon or so of soldiers and a small think-tank of scientists, and off we go into the wild.

The film helpfully scatters it cast all over the island during the Kong-vs-'copter brouhaha, so we get to see a decent cross-section of the place. Beautiful scenery: check. Appallingly violent and often disgusting fauna: check. Mysterious lost civilization with a giant wall: check. I say "check" in a flip way here, but these are things I think are essential to a King Kong story. But this story is not exactly like those that came before it.

That native civilization doesn't fear Kong; that wall is to keep out the nastiness he battles on a regular basis. He's a god to them, but a protector, too. Plus, according to Hank, the WWII pilot, these folk seem to be immortal.

And Kong is still growing.

This flick throws a lot at its audience, from the aforementioned tidbits about immortality and a giant ape who hasn't hit his adult height yet, to the hollow Earth and an almost-assuredly misguided dismissal of extraterrestrials. I love this, this willingness for a film to trust its audience to not be overwhelmed by an influx of high strangeness. So many movies, before the comic book film genre exploded, doled out their big concepts with a tight fist, limiting them to one, maybe two, as though the audience would have its collective mind blown by too much brain-bending. Not so now. Hollywood relies too heavily on remakes and well-worn concepts in this era, but even within those stifling confines you'll still find references to quantum theory, time travel, and the multiverse tossed out without the proceedings being ground to a halt to explain everything to the viewer. Depth has taken up a bit of the slack lost when breadth was diminished.

There's a lot to like about Kong: Skull Island, but it has flaws, for sure. Characterization suffers due to the size of the cast and the relentlessness of the action. Sam Jackson and John C. Reilly have strong enough screen presences to connect with the audience. So does John Goodman, but his role recedes during the course of the film. The rest of the cast acquits themselves well, but the sheer scope of Skull Island and its inhabitants dwarfs them by comparison.

But, man, this is a fun movie. It bodes well for future monster flicks. And there will be more. Which leads me to say: stick around for the credits and wait for them to end. I mean, in this age of post-credit scenes, I know it can get tedious. But if you're a giant monster fan, it's worth watching until the house lights go up. It bummed me out a bit to see the admittedly small audience I saw it with early on a bitterly-cold Thursday morning bail as soon as credits began rolling. There's a bit of heartwarming early on, then a bit of ooooooooo at the end.

I wish there was some way to toss a note back to that kid version of me, so long ago and getting even further away in the time stream, receding from my sight, some of the memories now blurred and getting even more murky, just to say "hang on, buddy, you'll get more of those monster movies." I suppose I could better use that time-traveling note-throw ability by saying something like "don't answer that message from [name redacted]" or "pick a different major" or "don't fear losing one job so much that you don't look for another." But, hell, maybe just knowing a kick-ass Kong movie was coming might have sparked something, made me think about the future differently. Probably not. But it's nice to think.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Endless Black Ribbon: Truck Driving Music from Beyond the Grave



Truck driving music is something I grew to love early on, and still retain that love today. When I was a kid, country music infused the world around me. My mother and father were both from deep in Appalachia, and the twangy strains of honky-tonk and jangling rush of bluegrass the main soundtrack of their lives. Bluegrass had a primal feel to it, its narrative deeply rooted in a hardscrabble culture. This was a genre of music that rose out from the coal mines, thickly-wooded mountains, and farmlands, carrying the laments and prayers and humor of that people out across the hills and hollers. The truck driver subgenre shares a lot of its family tree with bluegrass, and bluegrass is, or at least was, notoriously fatalistic. Both genres paint a bleak picture of life. The truck driver sub-genre is interesting because it deals with a very specific career, something not often done with an entire type of music. It's a music about unending hard work, and the danger inherent in that work.
Even the most humorous songs depicted life as a ceaseless struggle. In Give Me Forty Acres by the Willis Brothers, simply trying to maneuver through a big city, in this case Boston, becomes an Odyssey:
In Nitro Express by Red Simpson, the lonely, unheralded, and Herculean effort to avoid disaster that often confronts drivers is played almost for laughs.
Overloaded Diesel by Jimmy Griggs demonstrates another kind of danger; this time in truck stop hook-ups.
The trucks themselves became characters, as companions, partners, occasionally antagonists, and, ultimately, avatars of the truck driving life. Sometimes it's expressed in a rollickingly funny way, as in I'm a Truck by Red Simpson:
Or it's expressed in a melancholy, "high lonesome" way, the ceaseless errantry of the truck driver an effort to outrun heartache, with the uncomplaining truck a reliable companion, as in Eighteen Wheels Hummin' Home Sweet Home by Mac Wiseman

And, of course, Phantom 309, by Red Sovine, where the faithful truck follows the driver into the afterlife.
Probably the most common theme in truck driver music is the passage of time and, ultimately, the futility of life, exemplified by Six Days on the Road by Dave Dudley:
Looking at the World Through a Windshield by Del Reeves puts it into a slightly more light-hearted perspective:

The ultimate, in my opinion, is White Line Fever by Merle Haggard, always a troubador for the working man:

The truck driving genre is pretty much dead. Long dead, really. Sometime in the early '80s, country music in general began to move away from this type of music. Certainly roots-oriented country music, including bluegrass, still exists and is being created everyday, but it has lost its prominence as far as influencing mainstream country. But it still has a power, a mystique, that wafts in like a memory of long ago, an audio artifact of a culture that is slowly fading away and being supplanted by another. Still, though, the trucks keep roaring along the highways, the endless black ribbon stretching forever into the distance.