Heart of darkness

Updated: 2017-03-10 07:18

By Elizabeth Kerr(HK Edition)

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On the surface it would seem that the Oscar-winning, game-changing great American filmmaker Martin Scorsese's Silence and short film and YouTube content creator Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island couldn't have less in common. After all, one is a bloated tale about church men who venture into uncharted territory, are confronted by unwelcoming natives and wrestle with personal demons, while the other is a bloated tale about military men who venture into uncharted territory, are confronted by unwelcoming natives and wrestle with personal demons-and giant killer monkeys.

Okay, admittedly, just one monkey, but both films are also fragments of larger wholes. Silence is the third in Scorsese's so-called Faith trilogy (following the superior The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun), while Kong is an essential building block in Warner/Legendary's emerging monster-verse, which includes Godzilla and will feature the two classic kaiju battling each other in 2020. One has artistic ambitions, and one is out to make a boatload of cash. I'll let you puzzle out which is which.

In Silence, Andrew Garfield pays Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest, who travels to Edo Japan to locate Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a priest who's rumored to have renounced God. While there, he comes into conflict with the local inquisitor Inoue (Ogata Issei, the film's highlight) and his interpreter (Asano Tadanobu), who are on a mission to banish Catholicism, which compels Rodrigues to re-examine the fundamental nature of faith-his own and others', largely via the self-preservationist Kichijiro's (Kubokuza Yosuke) devotional waffling.

Heart of darkness

Skull Island slathers on the Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now imagery in thick layers while dispensing with basic evolutionary theory and geography to craft a delirious creature feature. Shady scientists (really, enough of this) Randa (John Goodman) and Houston (Corey Hawkins), photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson), former SAS mercenary Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, an unconvincing action man), and a squad of marines led by the angry, trigger-happy Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, in full psychotic mode) set out on an exploratory mission to a South Pacific island in 1975. Long story short: they discover a mysterious American resident, Marlow (John C. Reilly), a lost civilization, and a 50-metre tall ape.

Based on Endo Shusaku's 1966 novel, Silence is as meditative and deliberate as expected, with Scorsese weaving themes of belief, theological perception and sacrifice into a historical drama centered on one man's struggle over the seeming absence of his lord when that presence is most desperately needed. It was a personal book, it's a personal film, and therefore it's a personal viewing experience. Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks never tread into moral or religious absolutism, but Temptation's nuance and economy of storytelling is sorely missed. Nevertheless, Scorsese and regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Argo) make the most of the Taiwanese locations, creating an almost otherworldly space for Rodrigues' private crisis and Japanese Catholics' perilous piety. It's not Scorsese's best film (which is still better than most) but it's without a doubt his most invested, and one that very nearly crystallizes his entire oeuvre.

Conversely, Skull Island is as outwardly loud and tumultuous as Silence is internally so. Some may call it a fault, but Vogt-Roberts' decision not play coy with Kong is a plus. We know there's a gargantuan murderous primate on Skull Island, why wait to show it? Things get off to a quick start when two WWII pilots crash on the island, and shortly thereafter our not-so-intrepid heroes' helicopter brigade faces Kong's wrath after firebombing his home. All set to a requisite Vietnam-era soundtrack, Skull Island (like 2014's Godzilla) unsurprisingly drops the ball with its human characters but delivers the goods when the fluid, motion-capture Kong throws down with massive killer squids and deadly bipedal lizards. Here's hoping they get it together before 2020.

(HK Edition 03/10/2017 page1)