Kong: Skull Island (****) great taste and it’s sort of fulfilling

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Kong: Skull Island 2017

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

I was 5 years old when they released King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I saw later as part of  a drive in double bill with Orca, The Killer Whale. I must have thought enough of it then, because I got a lunch pail of the movie and carried it to school for half of my elementary school years. Watching it now I wonder how much the film must have been a torture for my parents to watch. It’s unbearable and quite impossible to imagine how it was nominated for any awards. It is quite easy to imagine why Lange took 3 years off before hitting the big screen again.

It was this film that was in my mind when I watched Peter Jackson’s overzealous 2005 take. I loved the film on the big screen, but it’s easy to overlook that unnecessary 1.5 extra hours when you are not sure when the next fight with another monster will occur. The effects were as excellent as one could expect. The dialogue, story and acting for everyone outside of Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody were all pretty bad.

When 2014 brought a new Godzilla and Legendary pictures moved the Kong franchise from Universal to Warner Bros., it was finally revealed that there would be a Monsterverse which would eventually bring Kong and Godzilla together after a few films.

So far, so good. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was the best version of the film in our generation, even if it wrought so much destruction as to be numbing. Now Voght-Roberts has made an accessible Kong without dragging the big ape’s ass back to the mainland. The best thing about it is, we know it can’t happen for at least another 40 years in cinematic time.

Kong’s Skull Island is the desired destination of Goodman’s Bill Randa, Special Government agent in the Monarch division. After convincing a senator (played by Richard Jenkins) to help him piggyback on an expedition to the secluded island, he also secures the services of a military unit on it’s way back from the freshly completed Vietnam action lead by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson). Then after securing Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Forces guide and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, an “anti” war photographer, Randa and his partner Brooks (Hawkins)  head out.

Good God, those are a lot of characters. And that isn’t even the half of it. Even so, Gilroy, Connolly and Borenstein are able to successfully weave them into a story that is cohesive, comprehensible and doesn’t even skimp on the monsters.

That’s because we don’t waste that much time getting to the action. Everyone knows that they have to float to the island. We all know it’s shaped like a skull, sort of. Everyone knows there is an atmospheric cloud preventing the outside world easy access. Let’s get in there and start throwing bombs, dammit!

What we find out after the bombs fly is that big monsters don’t like bombs, and this island has a hollow core that hides things. There is some science behind it which makes sense to Randa and Brooks, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take long after they start knocking for someone to answer the door in a bad mood.

This rough reception puts Kong at odds with Packer, who just lost one war and damn sure isn’t in the mood to lose another. The cast is split up though. So while Jackson and his military brethren try to recoup one of their lost compadres (and the weaponry nearby) the rest of the team goes about finding more about the island.

The first thing they discover are some natives. They all have paint on their faces and look like they haven’t bathed in a while. Reilly’s Marlow, a pilot shot down in WWII has gone even longer without bathing. Fortunately, he still speaks English enough to give Conrad and Weaver the lowdown.

In layman terms, Kong is good. Skullcrawlers bad. In case you have a hard time remembering, the latter have inset eyes that are almost invisible and Kong’s peepers are so deep and wide, one can almost imagine he’s going sing a sad song.

From here, we know the good guys have to find their way to the proverbial “rendezvous” point and there will be at least two or more attempts on Kong’s life, because…revenge.

It’s a good, if predictable movie about giant stuff in a lost world. None of the characters embarrass themselves and for such a large cast, we really get a sense of a lot of them, even if the growth is minimal.

If anything, we don’t see enough of Kong. After an amazing start, he is mainly around to drift in and out of the scenery until the last 15 minutes.The animation is quite remarkable, though, and thank God he doesn’t feel the need to start climbing when the bullets fly.

The true highlight of the film is clunky old Reilly. His inherent goofiness is a huge positive in that it brings out some personality in everyone else, including Hiddleston, who by now must have forgotten what it is like to play Loki.

The scenery is breathtaking, even if there is no real sense of direction in the film. The people cover so much terrain, one never knows if they are aware that it might be easier to always stay in near the boat.

There are many stories strewn throughout the wasteland of Skull Island. There is a point near the end, where we see a collection of ships that have been left abandoned there through hundreds of years. What happened to all of those people?  It would be nice to get a hint of just a few of those stories.

This one is going to have to do for now. It’s a good enough start that doesn’t overstay its welcome. This alone makes it the best one yet.

(**** out of *****)

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Nightcrawler (*****) is the best kind of throwback

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Nightcrawler – 2014

Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Eric Lange

This is the kind of film that keeps me watching movies. The acting, the cinematography, the script and the promise of making an unforgettable experience with a small amount of overhead. This is the type of work the new Hollywood of the early 1970’s envisioned before it was derailed by greed, drugs and STD. If Paul Schrader could have stayed straight, this might be something we would have seen from him.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a thief and a sociopath, doing whatever he deems necessary to move forward in life. Many have indicated that he is merely a vehicle to showcase how far down our society has fallen in the age of 24 hour news. Really, though, he’s more an example of how streets crowded with sheep do a good job disguising the wolves. He comes across an accident on a freeway and he just pulls over to look. He sees Joe Loder (Paxton) jump right in with a camera and film the grisly details. Then he learns Loder can get paid for this and decides to steal enough metal products and high performance bicycles to get himself a camera and a police scanner.

After an early success, he hires Rick (Ahmed) to be his navigator and second camera. The negotiations show much about Bloom. He sees Ahmed as a tool to get to the next step. There is absolutely nothing there for Lou on a human scale.

His early work is all negotiated with Nina, the news director for the lowest rated overnight news in Los Angeles. His increasingly daring work pays dividends for both and he pushes the envelope with her. This leads both of them to take even more risks and the resulting demands exact a toll on everyone but them.

Much of Nightcrawler exists in a bubble that encapsulates Lou Bloom. His reality is shaped by high intellect and a low threshold for morality. This viewpoint finds a comfortable niche in local news of Orange County. The viewer must have a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the things we see. There is a consequence for some of the things that he does if they were to be done by normal people in the real world. I have never seen the type of graphic shots that he takes on my local news. Taken in context of the character and this story, however, it works. By the time we’ve reached the conclusion everything comes together perfectly.

Gyllenhaal is not only one of the best actors of this age, but his capacity to pick interesting material is unmatched. I would love to see him work with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon on anything. His ability to express chameleon’s range of expression with a detached void behind the eyes gives Lou Bloom the most horrific visage since Michael Meyers.

Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue.

Lou is the kind of person who is forever learning what he can do, but not whether he really should do it. His character is the very definition of a means to an end. According to IMDb, in 116 minutes of screen time, Bloom blinks only 4 times. No sleep for dreaming. The interactions with his supposed superiors in contrast to the way he treats his employee, Rick gives great insight into the mind of a sociopath. Society is not filled with fellow travelers: only obstacles and equipment to avoid or use. Gylenhaal deserves recognition for this role.

I have missed Rene Russo. She’s always been one of my favorite actresses, with a deceptive range. Her return in the Thor movies did not count so much as this much meatier and sleazier presentation as Nina. Allowing her character to be emotionally undressed by the sociopath that is Lou Bloom, Russo allowed herself the appearance of a mountain being dissolved from within. It is played perfectly by her director-husband Gilroy. Only someone with the talent of Russo can be motivated to play broken at one moment and go back to playing whole the next scene.

What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?

Ahmed gave a remarkable lead performance in the film the Reluctant Fundamentalist. His performance as Rick is the exact person that one might see answering an ambiguous advertisement from sheer desperation. His slow build from “too hungry to complain” to “something is not right” gives the viewer the most identifiable character. His humanist character is a startling contrast to Gyllenhaal’s lack thereof.

Gilroy shows an incredible eye for the beauty of the twilight of Los Angeles. The visions of beauty contrasted with the gruesome visage tracked down by “nightcrawlers” brings it home for the detached watcher. We can identify with a Rest Area being watered at night. Seeing what is just out of reach of the sprinkler is disconcerting. The car chase scene in the last act is as riveting as anything I have seen since The French Connection. That it is slowly built up from a stake out to a set up 911 call only makes it more amazing to watch. I don’t know what Gilroy’s been doing between screenplays, but his is a talent that needs to be further explored.

Nightcrawler is a landmark kind of film that should give filmmakers hope. It is possible to create tightly wound stories with great characters, plot and visuals within a tight budget. That this is the best film that has been released since Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is not an accident. There are true artists out there with something worth saying. I don’t fault Hollywood for missing them. I am thankful we live in a time where it’s possible to find them, the way Lou Bloom finds things…or people.

(***** out of *****)