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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They finally get Godzilla right, but does it really matter?

Godzilla-2014

Godzilla – 2014

Director Gareth Edwards
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston
Screenplay Max Borenstein based on Godzilla by Toho

The world’s been destroyed so many times in so many worthless films that when watching the previews of Godzilla, there is a fair amount of exhaustion at the prospect of having to go through more decimation.  No matter what they do to justify the existence of these monsters and how likely it is that all this destruction could happen, be hidden and then happen again, it’s going to be labored through once again.  The willing suspension of disbelief to the Nth degree.

One of the big surprises for me was they roped Bryan Cranston into the mix.  After spending years doing great work on Breaking Bad, it’s amazing to think that the would place all of his earned capital into Godzilla.  It’s like blowing your life savings on pull tabs.  Thankfully, his screen time is limited, so the amount of damage to his career is minimized until he does a superhero film.

The story: 15 years after a disaster at a nuclear plant claimed his wife, Joe Brody (Cranston) calls his son (Taylor-Johnson) back to Japan to prove his contention that the events were not accidental.  He proves this concept, but not without a cost.  A MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) is released and starts to make itself across the ocean.  This beast is NOT Godzilla.  It is, however, something that Godzilla hunts.  Therefore, in another part of the Pacific Ocean, Godzilla starts tracking the monster.  From here, government types do their best to trap one then both beasts, and of course they do not succeed.  The last half of the film sees a third giant.  The purpose of all 3 makes sense in the plot.  The actions of the humans, for the most part, do not.

Taylor- Johnson and Olsen exist primarily to be where the monsters will show up.  Indeed, each of their jobs seem specifically configured to make them necessary. It’s an old trick, and not all that fun once you realize every disaster film will have to have someone who works at the hospital but never calls in sick when they are missing a loved one.

For those who looked forward to having a genuine Japanese actor in a Godzilla film, we have Watanabe, who plays a scientist who is generally along to be the one saying the things that make sense and are therefore ignored.  He looks very concerned, and has some good guesses when the lead military guy (Strathairn, looking clueless), asks questions.

Ultimately, though, this is not a movie for us to watch people trying to stop beasts.  So big are these monsters, there is seemingly nothing we should be able to do. The wisest choice the makers of Godzilla do is to get out-of-the-way and let the animated MOTU fight it out.  The result is very cool to watch, even if it is somewhat depressing to imaging the amount of humanity expiring with every missed tail or landed stream of fire.  The only difference between this and the Man of Steel is that one would not expect Superman to kill people with his collateral damage.

If you did not care for Godzilla (and who could if you only have seen the films of the last 20 years), this film will not likely bring you to a great appreciation.  If you enjoyed the tradition of monster films from the 50’s until about 10 minutes before the Devlin Emmerich turd was released, this will give you at least some of the fascination.

Stuck somewhere between, I have never been a huge fan.  It’s easy to appreciate the way they went about it this time, but it’s really hard to figure how they could justify another one.  That won’t stop them from making one though.

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