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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Fast & Furious 6: High Tech Lemonade

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Fast & Furious 6 – 2013

Director Justin Lin
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson,Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano, John Ortiz
Screenplay Chris Morgan

Into the void of PG-13 summer action sprang forth the 6th film in the Fast & Furious franchise.  There is a point to all of this speed and fury, I am sure of it.  To date, the most interesting point in the series happens in the credits of this film, which harkens back to the 3rd, seemingly throwaway episode, Tokyo Drift.  The rest of the films have been a progression from “…stealing DVD players, trades up, ends up heisting over $100 million in Rio,” as stated so eloquently by the film’s generic bad guy, Owen Shaw, played with almost no memorable traits by Luke Evans.  Evans has the ability to be great in films that should be mediocre (The Three Musketeers) as well as the ability to hide his charm completely (The Raven).  Here he is all charm no greatness.  What he does have is a fast, flat car with tires that don’t pop when flipping bigger cars.  The car doesn’t slow down at all, either.

That’s the movie, though, isn’t it?  Muscle cars, and musclebound guys.  Both facets are most capably represented in the form of Vin Diesel, who is at home in all the glorious hogwash.  He rips through the clichéd script and action sequences with a beautiful smugness that shows he is in for the ride of his life, even if it comes in 20 parts.  Judging by the struggle he’s had to make Riddick into a practical commodity, it make take 20 parts to keep his other projects going.

Truth is, as powerful of a supporting cast as is present in the Fast & Furious series, none of the other cast, outside of Johnson, have the ability to carry a film.  In this way, it’s kind of a supporting actor’s version of The Expendables.  That might be cutting it a little or a lot short.  The latter series is a continued act of desperation to salvage the career of Stallone, whereas, the Diesel series feels more homogenous, and like there is an overall plan, even if the scripts are rip offs of films like Point Break, The Italian Job or The French Connection.  At this rate, the next theft should be Citizen Kane.

Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster look like an awesome runway couple.  It still doesn’t look like she’s had a baby, and I haven’t seen either of these kids in anything outside the series since it started.  Walker get’s his own sequence inside the clink here, and even if it is a bit superfluous, it still looked cool.

Gibson has the Transformers series going for him, and he may be approaching Samuel L. Jackson numbers in the next decade if his luck holds out.   My favorite scene in the film occurs when he and Kang get their asses kicked by one bad guy.  It takes a confident pair of actors to not be the swiftest onscreen and still keep smiling.

Chris Hayes doesn’t do much this round.  He’s there to figure stuff out on computers and exuberantly remind the rest of the crew when things are not going well.  I’ll take that.

Michelle Rodriguez is back, with the requisite memory loss required for many characters who die off-screen.  There is a pleasure to behold when she goes up against MMA fighter turned actress, Gina Carano.  The first one is a draw.  I will give you one guess who wins the rematch between the girl Girl Fight and the mentor from Fight Girls.

Dwayne Johnson doesn’t do much here but glower, trade clichés with Diesel and fight the big guys.  That leaves Evans for Diesel in the end.

Let’s be frank, this stuff is crap.  The amount of tough guy language uttered in this film make Die Hard 2: Die Harder look like Bard.  For all the talk of family, going it alone, and this one’s on me, there is the feeling of comfort food.  It makes you dumber, bit by bit, but it also feels good.  I haven’t tried watching any of the films twice, though.  I don’t want to risk Cabin Fever in my homey utopia.   

I will leave you with some of the coolest dialogue in the film.  It’s verbose, but concludes with perhaps Diesel’s best delivery in the series:

Owen Shaw: You know, when I was young, my brother always said, “Every man has to have a code.” Mine: Precision. Use what you have, switch them out when you need to until you get the job done. It’s efficient. But you? You’re loyal to a fault. Your code is about family. It makes you predictable. And in our line of work, predictable means vulnerable. And that means I can reach out and break you whenever I want.
Dominic Toretto: At least when I go, I’ll know what it’s for.

I can’t wait for the next chapter.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Silver Linings Playbook: Who says crazy can’t be funny?

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook – 2012

Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, Shea Wigham, John Ortiz, Brea Bree

Pat: How old are you?
Tiffany: Old enough to have a marriage end and not wind up in a mental hospital.

I can’t be serious about this film.  The movie is incredibly funny, and it deals with some really serious stuff.

“Why,” my wife grins and asks early on, in the relationship between Pat (Cooper) and Tiffany (Lawrence), “Would you set your sister up with someone who is so deranged?”

Unsurprisingly, I had no wisdom to give, “Well, maybe it’s because the sister is a nut…”

My wife then looked at me quizzically, looked back to the screen and laughed once more.

Tiffany: I was a big slut, but I’m not any more. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that. With all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself fucker? Can you forgive? Are you any good at that?

The conversations between Pat and Tiffany, in their cadence and vocabulary, are unlike anything we have heard in recent memory.  They go all the places anyone who’s ever loved and lost might want to go.  And then they change their mind.  In the midst of the lunacy, we are gifted with the most unlikely of romances.  It’s so unlike anything else in the field of romantic comedy, it deserves to be remembered.

Pat is on his way back after a brief stint in a mental health facility.  His wife’s infidelity led to a breakdown that left her suitor in a hospital and Pat diagnosed with a bipolar disorder.  The thing is, some of the things that he notices, like the positioning of the pictures of he and his brother, are things that anyone might notice.  Or, maybe it’s just me.

He is introduced to Tiffany, the sister-in-law of his friend.  She lost her husband recently, and her job even more recently.  Their introduction acts as a powder keg, with the potential to destroy a lot of lives.  So, of course it works.

Pat Sr.: Yeah have Ernest Hemingway call us and apologize to us too.

Joining Pat and Tiffany in their journey is Pat Sr. (DeNiro), whose OCD tendencies have caused issues for Pat’s poor mother Dolores (Weaver) long before Pat had his breakdown.  Pat Sr. gave all the attention to his older brother.  He knew his younger son had problems all along, but who the hell knows how to deal with that, especially when he has issues of his own?

Dolores spends most of her time trying to negotiate between father and son.  Their lives are a whirlwind that swallows her up and pushes her to the side.  She gives it everything she’s got.  That is not even close to enough, and she knows it.  She knows what normal is, and she wants everyone to meet her there.  Instead, they drag her ass over to the other side.

Then there is an assortment of Eagles fans.  All of them nuts, including his therapist.

Tiffany: Humanity is just nasty and there’s no silver lining.

The basic components to the film are as contrived as any comedy:

Will they get together?

Will the Eagles win?

Will they make the big dance?

The glory of Silver Linings Playbook is how the acting and script color the basic premise and make it an original masterpiece.  Cooper and Lawrence elevate their game to an incredible height, more than a match for DeNiro and Weaver.  More importantly, they are perfectly matched on screen, living out a chemistry that is visceral, funny and scary as hell.

DeNiro is back to acting, after many movies that made money but squandered his talent.  Weaver shows that Animal Kingdom was no fluke. Even Chris Tucker, making a return after a 5 year absence in which no one missed him doing Rush Hour movies, makes an indelible mark. His talent for handling Russell’s dialogue like a master linguist and still making him human is a pleasant surprise.

The ending is a wonderful, real performance that is even better because it is feels real. Imagine, a romantic comedy about insanity that is better than all the straight films out there. David O. Russell has never been considered a stabler director, but skilled work like this is almost impossible to find.

“I like this,” my wife says as tears escape her eyes, “I can understand now why it won so many awards.”

It won my wife’s approval, and that’s even harder to do.

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