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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Keanu (***): Trouble with the cute stuff

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Keanu – 2016

Director Peter Atencio
Screenplay by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens
Starring Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Luis Guzmán, Nia Long, Will Forte, Jason Mitchell, Rob Huebel

I’ve tried keep up with Key and Peele. It’s alright, but I haven’t seen anything that kept me going back consistently. The first time I saw the commercial for Keanu, however, I knew we were in for something special. Absurdist comedy is hard to pull off. There are far more MacGrubers out there than there are Anchormans. It’s really hard to drag a sketch comedy out too, especially when the sketch makes its debut as a film. But it’s a kitten. How can one turn down a kitten?

Poor little Iglesias. As the baby cat of the minor boss Diaz, he scrambles at the conclusion of a massive gunfight brought on by the Allentown Boys. They kill Diaz last, after kissing the little kitten. Then, by the miracle of being at the start of the story, he escapes while the last blood is spilled and makes his way through much of Los Angeles until he ends up on Rell’s (Peele) doorstep.

Rell is depressed, after a breakup. His cousin Clarence (Key) has arrived to cheer him up. He finds Rell is out of his funk and back to doing what he loves: photography. The photos are varying poses of his new cat, now called Keanu, in movie scenes. As if we needed more reasons to love this little kitty.

Well, for reasons that don’t need to be explained, the cat is absconded. Rell and Clarence try the police, but all they get from them is a blanket. They have to give the blanket back, too. So guess who has to go into the drug underworld to get their cat back?

There are many story paths that feel bound to cliche in Keanu. All I can say is most of them are pleasantly surprising. We get to see a lot of crap we’ve seen in other fish out of water stories, but Peele and co-writer Rubens are too smart to let the viewer step on the same rakes we’re used to seeing in other films.

There is nothing here I want to see again, other than that damned adorable cat. There is a little too much inconsequential violence to become a comedy classic, but it’s definitely worth a look for the older kids in the family. It’s easy to appreciate the comedy duo taking an unexpected first step for their first feature film. The cost of failure is not much. The benefit of breaking slightly ahead like they do means they likely will get another shot.

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