Heart of dumbness: The King-sized fiasco that is ‘Skull Island’

What I looked like yelling at the screen about midway through ‘Kong: Skull Island.’

I defy anyone to find 90 second of continuous dialogue in Kong: Skull Island that make even a tiny bit of logical sense. For that matter, I defy anyone to find 90 seconds of continuous dialogue. The filmmakers seem so unsure of their storytelling abilities, that they inject explosions as often as possible to mask the total absence of ideas or reason.

We’ve seen bad movies like this before, overloaded with scene after scene of pointless, repetitive and confusing action set pieces — usually we call them “Transformer movies” — but somehow it feels much more offensive when done under the brand of King Kong.

Skull Island does a huge disservice to the Kong legacy, which got its start with 1933’s essential original film and lovingly updated in Peter Jackson’s faithful but ambitious 2005 remake. Both of these films were divided into three acts: The Heart of Darkness-esque journey to the island; the aboriginal monster adventure once they get there, and the cross-species love story and tragedy of Kong’s demise in NYC. This film bears no resemblance to its source material at all, and the muddled result is nonsense. It’s neither prequel, sequel nor remake; indeed, it does not appear to exist in a world where prior Kong lived.

The prologue takes place in 1944, near the end of WWII, when an American and a Japanese pilot both crash-land on Skull Island, the first outsiders to encounter the land that time forgot. (There’ no indication they know of the events of 1933, which should have been known to them, which erases the original from the film’s timeline.) Cut to 30 years later, and the U.S. is involved in Vietnam. A kooky fringe scientist (John Goodman) gets military funding to investigate the newly-discovered Skull Island, and a group of Army commandos (led by Samuel L. Jackson) and civilians (Tom Hiddleston joins Goodman & Co.) delivery them to the atoll where nothing goes well.

If you didn’t pick up on the heavy-handed ‘Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now’ allusions already, here’s a shot that does the lifting for you.

Of course nothing goes well: The soldiers are lied to (why?), the scientists appear to not be interested in actual science (why drop incendiary device instead of landing) and Kong — now about the size of the Empire State Building — destroys the invaders in an over-long attack sequence that is impossible to follow. (How many helicopters are there? How many men die? And how does a strapping 20-year-old soldier expire on impact while a morbidly obese 65-year-old Goodman gets off with barely a scratch?)

If you sensed that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had the least amount of affection for Kong, or the characters, you might overlook some of the confusing carnage, but he’s clearly got a hard-on only for the special effects, which he wields like a toddler with a Tommy gun. This is pretty derivate war movie detritus at its best, like those rip-off Rambo movies of the 1970s, where the film may be in color but everything else is in black-and-white.

Even the screenplay’s lame efforts to enrobe the plot with the aura of legitimacy — HiddlestonHeart of dumbe’s character is named Conrad and John C. Reilly’s is Marlow, in a clear evocation of Apocalypse Now (the poster art connects the dots for anyone too dim to pick up on the allusions) — backfire, as this effort is half-hearted at best, and merely reminds you what a fiasco this is; it’s never a good idea to remind audiences of better films.

Hiddleston appears to be a charisma-free zone, whose body acts like a black hole of personality, dragging all enthusiasm into its gravity well and condensing it into an inky, micron-sized molecule of concentrated boring. He makes everything around him look bad.

The lone exception is Reilly, as the surviving flyboy from 1944 finally given a shot at getting off the island. His wacky comic energy (the role was originally intended for Michael Keaton, and you can feel Beeltejuice’s hands all over it) entertains when everything else does not… which is mostly all the time.

Post-credits, there’s an add-on scene (which you can probably figure out if you pay attention to the credits, which give Tokyo’s Toho Studios their due) where you finally realize why the filmmaker shat all over the Kong brand: It’s in service to a new Cinematic Universe to leverage properties into one mega-movie that goes on forever. It doesn’t matter whether the ape survives until the end — Warner Bros. killed him in the conception.

Begins previews tomorrow night in wide release.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Cliburn Competition identifies 30 finalists

Rachel Cheung

Almost since its inception more than a half-century again, the quadrennial Cliburn International Piano Competition — founded by (and named after) the legendary Fort Worth maestro Van Cliburn, who wowed the world with his interpretation of Tchaikovsky so impressively, he won a Russian-based contest at the height of the Cold War — has been a crown jewel in the world of classical music. It has also focused a lot of attention on North Texas as an arts hub, which ain’t a bad thing.

This morning, the Cliburn Foundation announced the names of the 30 finalists for the 15th competition, which will take place this summer. Nearly 300 pianists submitted applications, and 141 auditioned live in five cities from Budapest to Seoul. Sixteen nations are represented (including, of course, Russia) by the contestants, who will range in age from 18 to 30 (as of the final day of the competition). Nine women and 21 men will compete.

Cliburn died 0n Feb. 27, 2013, just as the 14th festival was about to announce its competitors, making this year basically the first to be finalized entirely after the gay maestro’s death.

Philipp Scheucher

Here are the competitors. The competition will span May 25–June at Bass Performance Hall.

Martin James Bartlett, United Kingdom, age 20

Sergey Belyavskiy, Russia, 23

Alina Bercu, Romania, 27

Kenneth Broberg, United States, 23

Luigi Carroccia, Italy, 25

Han Chen, Taiwan, 25

Rachel Cheung, Hong Kong, 25

Yury Favorin, Russia, 30

Madoka Fukami, Japan, 28

Mehdi Ghazi, Algeria/Canada, 28

Caterina Grewe, Germany, 29

Luigi Carroccia

Daniel Hsu, United States, 19

Alyosha Jurinic, Croatia, 28

Nikolay Khozyainov, Russia, 24

Dasol Kim, South Korea, 28

Honggi Kim, South Korea, 25

Su Yeon Kim, South Korea, 23

Julia Kociuban, Poland, 25

Rachel Kudo, United States, 30

EunAe Lee, South Korea, 29

Ilya Maximov, Russia, 30

Aloysha Jurinic

Sun-A Park, United States, 29

Leonardo Pierdomenico, Italy, 24

Philipp Scheucher, Austria, 24

Ilya Shmukler, Russia, 22

Yutong Sun, China, 21

Yekwon Sunwoo, South Korea, 28

Georgy Tchaidze, Russia, 29

Tristan Teo, Canada, 20

Tony Yike Yang, Canada, 18

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Moonlight’ is already a success; now it can become a hit

MoonlightOf the nine films that were nominated for the best picture Oscars this year — Arrival, La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Lion, Hell or High Water, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures and Moonlight — the one that has made the least amount of money at the domestic box office is the winner: Moonlight. Before the awards, it had logged in about $22 million — nowhere near the frontrunner Hidden Figures (with $152 million), or La La Land ($130 mil) or even Arrival ($100 mil). It shared the same range as Hell or High Water ($27 mil), Manchester ($46 mil) and Lion ($42 mil).

But those facts don’t tell the full story. Hacksaw Ridge, which took in nearly three times as much as Moonlight ($66 million), also cost about $40 million to make — when you figure in marketing and distribution expenses, it probably hasn’t broken even yet. And while Hidden Figures was a bargain at only $25 mil to make, earning six times its production cost, even it doesn’t compare to Moonlight. That film cost only $1.5 million to make, so its gross is already 15 times its cost.

Profitability isn’t the only story, though. You want eyeballs on the screen as well. And so, the Ar-House-Queer-Black-Indie-Film That Could is expanding tomorrow to 1,500 screens. That’s an amazing roll-out, and shows a lot of hope that audiences will turn out for a movie because of the acclaim and the accessibility… even if the subject matter is on the edge.

Here’s to more people seeing the best film of the year.

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘When We Rise’ star Rachel Griffiths: The gay interview

 

Early in her career, she stole our queer hearts as Toni Collette’s freewheeling yang in 1994’s buddy comedy Muriel’s Wedding, but before long, Rachel Griffiths became one of our most passionate allies both on- and off-screen.

In 2001, the Aussie actress starred as Brenda Chenowith, the enigmatic, gender-subverting girlfriend-turned-wife of prodigal son Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) in HBO’s Emmy-winning landmark series Six Feet Under, out creator Alan Ball’s gay-inclusive, darkly comic rumination on life and death. A year after Six Feet Under concluded in 2006, Griffiths made the leap from the Fishers to the Walkers, the family at the center of ABC’s Brothers and Sisters, also celebrated for its LGBT representation.

Now, Griffiths is taking her longtime queer advocacy to the next level with When We Rise, which began airing Monday night and pick up for three more installments tonight. (Read our interview with the show’s writer/director here.) The miniseries seeks to connect with the heart (not the politics) of Americans through real family stories, something Griffiths’ gay-affirming résumé certainly reflects.

Our Chris Azzopardi spoke with the Emmy- and Oscar-nominated actress about her involvement, and her identification with the queer community.

Dallas Voice: In When We Rise, you play Diane, who’s raising a daughter with women’s rights activist Roma Guy, portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker. What are your thoughts on bringing the lesbian-led blended family dynamic to audiences on a mainstream network like ABC?  Rachel Griffiths: Brothers and Sisters was on ABC at the same time as Modern Family, and we had Will & Grace [on NBC], so I didn’t have any kind of surprise it was on a network, because ultimately it is about family — it’s about the “we” of gay, lesbian, transgender lives, not the “they” or the “others.” So, for me, to move these people’s lives away from the premium cable niche — I love that by not being on a niche network, there wasn’t a pressure to be noisy in a more sexual way. We’ve kind of moved past having to explore that.

That’s there in other shows if you want it, particularly with women’s lives. We’ve had The L Word, where the women are identified first off in the show by being lesbians. But Roma and Diane’s trouble was, first, [being] women — 51 percent of the population — then the gay/lesbian, then it was understanding the power of how those two movements can come together.

Your roles on both TV and in film suggest that you appreciate portrayals of social and political issues that are reflected through a personal lens.  I absolutely love that. I think if people aren’t living in a wider sociological space, they’re in a bubble. Growing up, my favorite movies actually were World War II movies — get motor bikes and outdo the Nazis. I was just really primed by seeing political moments intersecting with personal and moral choices, and the drama of that.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Texas is out as host for Gay Games

baseballThe Federation of Gay Games has released its short list of three cities still in the running to host its 11th event in 2022, and Dallas — and Austin — are out the running.

As of this morning, the finalists have been whittled down to Guadalajara, Mexico; Hong Kong; and Washington, D.C. Other semifinalists whose cities didn’t make the cut are Denver, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. San Antonio also put in a bid, but was eliminated in the first round.

The 2018 games will take place next summer in Paris. The 2022 location will be finalized this May. (Personally, I’m pulling for Guadalajara because it’s closest!)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

BREAKING: DTC’s 2017-18 season sets the model for future years

Brandon Potter, who stepped in as a last-minute replacement as LBJ last year for the joint Alley-DTC production of ‘All the Way,’ returns to the role next season for ‘The Great Society.’ Photo by Karen Almond.

In a free-wheeling discussion about the arts scene and his plans for the future, Kevin Moriarty announced the lineup of shows for the 2017-18 season at the Dallas Theater Center — his tenth since taking over as artistic director of the company.

Four shows — Hair, Frankenstein, The Great Society and The Trials of Sam Houstonhad already been announced, though their run date were not known. We now know the schedule: Hair, at the Wyly Sept. 22–Oct. 22; Frankenstein, at the Kalita Feb. 2–March 4, 2018; The Great Society, the follow-up to last season’s All the Way, back at the Wyly March 9–April 1 (with much of the same cast from All the Way, including star Brandon Potter, returning); and the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s The Trials of Sam Houston, about two important but largely unknown facts about one of the founders of Texas, at the Kalita April 20–May 1. In addition, as usual A Christmas Carol will return as an extra no including in season tickets. That will return to the Wyly Nov. 22–Dec. 28, with Lee Trull directing.

The three un-announced mainstage shows will alternate between the Kalita and the Wyly, including the Wyly’s smaller Studio Theatre which will be expanded to accommodate up to 150 patrons. (Its current capacity is 99 seats.)

The season kicks off this summer with Miller, Mississippi, a world premiere from playwright Boo Killebrew, spanning the Civil rights Movement as seen from a white family and their African-American servant. It will be in the Studio Theatre Aug. 30–Oct. 1. Following Hair, and concurrent with Carol, they will return to the studio with Fade, about a Latina writer hired on for a TV show, who finds herself more drawn to the studio’s Hispanic janitor than that bullpen of white male writers. It plays Dec. 6–Jan. 7.

Next up will be Frankenstein, Great Society and Sam Houston, and the season will end with White Rabbit Red Rabbit, one of the most controversial and mysterious plays in the world today. Why? Because no one is allowed to talk about. The author, Nassim Soleimanpour, is Iranian and now living in exile. He wrote the allegorical play, which does involve, at some level, a rabbit or two, to comment on Iranian oppression. The secret is, no performance is exactly the same. Each show has a different act cast in the one-man show, and that actor has not seen the script or know anything about it before it is handed to him when he walks onstage. He (or she!) is then required to perform everything in the play until the end 80 minutes later. The audience is also deeply involved. (Think of The Crying Game meets Groundhog Day set in a puzzle room.) That will be in the studio May 30–July 1.

In addition, DTC will continue with its Public Works Project, which seeks to perform Shakespeare with a mix of professional and community actors in a series of free performances. The first such show in the project, The Tempest, will take place this Friday through Sunday; next season it will be The Winter’s Tale, Aug. 31–Sept. at the Wyly.

13-Norton-Headshot-copy

Jonathan Norton

Moriarty maintains that this line up should set the standard for the next few seasons: Seven mainstage productions in the studio and Rose Hall of the Wyly, alternating with the Kalita; and as many as three bonus/add-on shows outside of the subscription for a total of 10 productions a year. Moriarty also wants to include a family-friendly musical to be staged each summer at the Wyly. (The world premiere Hood will probably fit that bill this summer; nothing is yet scheduled for 2018.)

In addition, queer playwright Jonathan Norton (Mississippi Goddam) will have his specially-commissioned piece, Penny Candy — about his childhood in Pleasant Grove — as part of the 2018–19 season, probably arriving around October 2018. Two other local playwrights, Matt Lyle and Steven Walters, are also working on commissions.

For more information, visit DallasTheaterCenter.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WaterTower will produce ‘Hit the Wall,’ a play about the Stonewall Riots

Last May, WaterTower Theatre announced its 2016-17 season lineup, which culminated with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George. But the company’s newly-appointed artistic director, Joanie Schultz, has made her first major course-correction, and it’s a doozie: On the heals of Moonlight‘s historic victory at the Oscars, she has revealed that she will be replacing Sunday with a production of the play Hit the Wall, which tells the story of the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern gay rights movement.

Described as a “play with music,” the rock-propelled historical epic — written by Ike Holter with music by Dan Lipton — was first produced in Chicago (Holter’s home base) at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2012; Schultz came to North Texas from Chicago earlier this year. She will also direct the production.

Set at the famed Christopher Street bar on June 27 and 28, 1969 — just after queer icon Judy Garland died — Hit the Wall follows a fierce collection of friends and strangers, allies and antagonists, as they party, mourn and eventually rebel in rioting that brought national attention to the oppression of LGBT people and began the “Pride” movement. Among those profiled: A black drag queen, a funny gay couple, a homophobic cop and a butch lesbian, as well as others.

“I’m proud to be directing this inspiring plat as my first production at WaterTower,” Schultz said. The piece “captures the spirit of a movement.”

It’s a clarion choice for Schultz, who is an unknown quantity for most theatergoers in North Texas. It certainly signals her commitment to diverse and edgy work by and about black, gay, radical subjects and artists. (Holter himself is gay and African-American.)

Ironically, in an interview last year with Playbill, Holter identified his favorite artist of all time as… Stephen Sondheim.

The production will run from July 28–Aug. 20. Tickets (which range from $20–$40, plus a pay-what-you-can performance) can be purchased here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Moonlight’ won the best picture Oscar… no, seriously

Going in, the Oscars had been cast as a face-off between Hollywood insider romance La La Land and tiny queer gem Moonlight. With 23 awards handed out, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway walked out to present best picture. Moonlight, with two wins previous (best supporting actor Mahershala Ali and adapted screenplay fir director Barry Jenkins and Tarel Alvin McCraney), was a longshot, since by then, La La Land had six, including best actress Emma Stone, best director Damien Chazelle, cinematography, song (“City of Stars”), production design and score. Beatty seemed to vamp about what would win. He showed the card to Dunaway who declared the winner for best picture: La La Land. The team rushed the stage. Three producers gave acceptance speeches… until one of them revealed the horrible, horrible mistake: The real winner was Moonlight. People seemed to think he was just being gracious. The he turned the card to the camera, and without a doubt, the sole winner was Moonlight.

It was awkward it was terrible, it was unconscionable. No one knew if they should applaud. It seems like there’s time for a new hashtag: #OscarsSoSteveHarvey.

It wasn’t the fault of Beatty, or Dunaway, or the La La Land folks. Someone backstage seemed to hand Beatty the wrong envelope; it did say La La Land… and the name Emma Stone.

But when it was all sorted, this $1.5 million art picture was the night’s biggest champ, if not in number, then in prestige.

It felt like Election Night all over again. Was Putin to blame? Had James Comey been talking out of school?

It’s too bad the end of was shit show, since host Jimmy Kimmel and the performances were overall pretty good, even though politics were largely ignored. Manchester by the Sea took home original screenplay and best actor for Casey Affleck. Viola Davis won best supporting actress for Fences. Even Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge won two (sound mixing and film editing). Arrival‘s eight nominations netted one win, for sound editing; best picture contenders Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures and Lion went home totally empty-handed. Some on social media were appalled that the panned Suicide Squad gets to claim an Oscar victory (for makeup). Zootopia won best animated feature, as expected. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Then won for its costumes. The Jungle Book took best visual effects. But all most people will remember was the night the winner wasn’t the winner. And the real winner was awesome.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Kurios:’ Holy chitty-chitty bang-bang!

The cool thing about Cirque du Soleil shows is they are all completely different and totally the same. There are costumes and contortionists and clowns, music and musclemen, jokes and juggling. But what sells each show is not just the energy and the style and the wow-factor, but the talents of the individual artists. Think you know how to spin a Yo-Yo? Watch someone who gets paid to do and you’ll probably feel like you’re auditioning right after Meryl Streep.

The latest from CdS, Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities (now through March 26 at Lone Star Park) is as dazzling as you’d expect; if the gauge the successful of a show is how many times you shout out “Holy shit!” then this one is NC-17.

The concept is glamorously retro — a steampunk street fair populated by men (and, I think, a few women) with pencil-thin moustaches and Brilliantine-slicked hair, aviator-goggled daredevils and women in long gloves and velvet gowns (including one who stands barely 2 feet tall). It’s like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil come to life onstage.

Holding it all together is a protean master of ceremonies, who conducts a flea circus or invisible acts, woos a woman in the audience with animal impersonations (among them a T-rex — and he weighs about 90 lbs.) and generally goofs like the reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin.

He’s a wonderful ringmaster, but hardly the only delight. There’s also the tandem Russian strap artists (two well-muscled acrobats whose act is beautiful and kinda sexy), a quartet of contortionists who, paradoxically, seem made of both rubber and steel; trampolinists who soar so high they could be regulated by the FAA. There’s a lot of creativity at work here; the chair-climbing act (a staple of Cirque) is modified so that the artist not only climbs up, but another climbs down; a hand-puppet act that makes clever use of the camera; and inventive sound effects. There were only a handful of acts that didn’t astonish me, and they were mostly early on. But it’s the entire experience — the big top, the popcorn, the red carpet — that set Cirque du Soleil apart from an ordinary performance. It really does feel like magic.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Preview the Oscar contenders tonight at the Magnolia

The Academy Awards will be presented next Sunday, and you probably have your favorites. But what are their chances with the only people who matter — the academy voters? Once again, the Magnolia Theatre in the West Village is hosting a panel discussion of the likely winners in all the major categories. And it’s all free. Just show up by 7 p.m. at the Magnolia and sit n. Oh, and I’ll be one of the panelists!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones