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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The Kings of Summer is two jacks and a dunce

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The Kings of Summer – 2013

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Actors Nick Robinson, Moisés Arias, Gabriel Basso, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
Writer Chris Galletta

The intended strong point for The Kings of Summer is quirkiness that falls somewhere between Stand by Me and Napoleon Dynamite.  Taking the coming of age cliché and making it an extended camp out, the 3 erstwhile kings of the title, Robinson, Basso and Arias offer a few moments of levity, a few groans and some real ingenuity.  Our 3 young men, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio have their own reasons for absconding from their homes and taking pieces of the town from everywhere and building a house out in the woods.  Joe (Robinson) is just bristling with tension with a terribly dry witted father (Offerman, in a role not too far from Parks and Rec) as they both try to deal with his being a single parent.  Patrick (Basso) is mainly a follower of his less popular friend Joe.  That his parents are idiots just push a maybe to a full-blown “yes.”

Standing off to the side – just there to be weird – is Biaggio.  He is there mainly to add to the Napoleon Dynamite quotient.  His character is not so much annoyingly played as he is poorly written.  It’s a shame, since Arias has a very distinct presence on the screen, but he is offered little to go on here.  That they give him a thought process that includes believing he is homosexual because he has symptoms of Cystic Fibrosis and that he thinks the word for snake in Italian means “demon’s cock” is indicative that they put too much thought and not enough belief in his character.  They throw a blank eyed girl his way at the end of the film to give watchers a sense of happiness for the character.  Why then do they have him willingly living alone in the abandoned house after the credits?

It’s really kind of cool seeing the kind of place they create with all that stuff they lifted from other places.  The random stuff they do in the woods is innocent and wonderful, especially the rhythmic drumming routine they find themselves in at the open and the middle of the film.  Who wouldn’t want to hang out with their friends somewhere where they would not be found for as long as they wanted?  We had a spot like that called the Frog Pond when I grew up.  One of my brothers built a log cabin, and then someone tore it down.  Later another brother found a pot field and destroyed it.  So I guess it wasn’t somewhere others couldn’t find…

The rest of the film is standard stuff.  Boy likes girl.  Girl literally steps over boy to get to his friend in a great scene.  Boy dreams about girl, and then finds another boy in his place in the same spot.  Girl speaks frankly with boy.  He settles with being in the friend zone and reconnects with his buddy in the end.  

Did I ruin it for you?  I highly doubt it.  Nothing can outpace the disappointment any normal person would get at the poor handling of Biaggio.  Just try to explain how his character benefits from being in the story.  Contemplate how none of us ever really knew someone who had that much loyalty but was witheringly dense at the same time.  I don’t think that Galletta intends to have his comic relief displayed in such a way.  His very existence, as displayed, is no more than a gimmick, poorly executed.  If they’d just spent more time feeling the character out and tried making him more realistic, the film and the viewer would benefit.

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