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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Beautiful Creatures is a sterile experience

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Beautiful Creatures – 2013

Written and Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson
Based on the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

First things first.  I hate the accent applied by Ehrenreich.  Normally bad accents don’t serve as much of a distraction, but this one sure does.  The actor is from Los Angeles, and not Gatlin, South Carolina.  Near as I can tell, his accent is from the belief that if you say anything fast enough, people will assume you know what you are doing.  The aggravation normally lessens as time goes on.  In this case, one could only imagine why the person wasn’t told to bag it and go with what got him the part.

Second is the story.  It’s a sped up version of Twilight.  I am sure it ran a little slower on the printed page, but it feels like we hit the end right about the time we find out that Lena (Englert) is a witch.  This is not just because it is predictable, we have several flash forwards, disguised as flashbacks to tell us what is bound to happen.  And then it just happens.

The South is reduced to a religious, ignorant and bigoted character with no room for nuance or differences.  The narrative even narrows the type of person down to ‘either too dumb to leave or too stuck to get away.’  There is another character, with panache and color.  They are, of course, witches and warlocks.  They have elegant clothes, nice decoration and a bigger vocabulary.

Even witches are divided into good and bad.  Who and why they split is not as relevant.  The important thing is that we know Lena is teetering on the precipice of good and bad and seemingly has to make a choice.  Is there a middle ground?  Not really.

As for acting talent, the script really does not need much.  Having Irons and Thompson present adds very little.  They are capable of great work, of course, but they can arrive for the paycheck as well as anyone.  They leave no real impression to the viewer who hasn’t seen them in something better.  Viola Davis does have some consistently effective moments in a pivotal role.  Her eyes are quite powerful, and they make up for a lot that isn’t present with the rest of the story.

As half of the featured couple, Englert is actually quite good in one of her first major roles.  She carries the relationship of Lena and Ethan, with Ehrenreich coming across as not much more than a horny rube who likes to cut covers off box and put them on a map.  There is a reason he does this, but it’s not all that poignant as it is goofy.

There is nothing all that bad about Beautiful Creatures.  The story is something one would expect from the teen genre from which it derives.  Whereas Twilight put its emphasis on hot romance, this film takes the story and makes it palatable for those who don’t want their kids to see a man’s bare chest before he turns into a Werewolf.  There is nothing here that is too offensive, but neither can we expect it to win any awards.  It’s from the familiar place of romance.  To quote Tracy Ullman: “They don’t know about us and they’ve never heard of love.”

But we have heard of this before.  Quite a few times.

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

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – Finally, a fairy tale that’s rated “R”

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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – 2013

Writer and Director Tommy Wirkola
Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stromare, Pihla Viitala, Derek Mears, Robin Atkin Downes, Thomas Mann

Hansel and Gretel as children look to be less than a year apart.  When we see them as adults, in the forms of Gemma Arterton (27) and Jeremy Renner (42), one has to wonder where the time went for Gretel.  It’s the first detail I noticed in watching the trailer some time ago.  The second thing I noticed was the automatically firing crossbow held by Gretel.  That was the kind of thing they had in Hugh Jackman’s version of Van Helsing.  At the time it seemed an ingenious idea to blend into a film that took place in the late 19th century.   After watching that film, and countless others since, it is obvious that it’s only because the film makers want to blow crap up without having to be too creative.

A lot of ugly broads get shot, stabbed, beaten, burned and otherwise inconvenienced in by Hansel and Gretel.  It should be something other than comically entertaining.  For some reason, Wirkola forgets that women have charm that might be used to accomplish their goals of general survival.  That Janssen portrays the lead should have lent some ability in this area.  The erstwhile Xenia Onatopp does nothing here to entice anyone.  Instead, we get cracked gray faces along with bodies, heads and other things blown asunder with no thought or common sense applied whatsoever.

To say that Hansel & Gretel is an awful film is to diminish from it’s power.  It is more than awful.  Funny when it tries to be serious and sobering when it tries to be funny, it offers absolutely nothing in the realm of a lesson, like the fable it is based upon.  It is still mystifying the number of horrible films being made from stories by The Brothers Grimm is staggering.  These stories were meant to enlighten children on the dangers of the world, and they do this by scaring the hell out of them.  Here, we see Hansel getting it on with a chick that he helped to save from sure death in the “healing waters” of a pond under a large tree.  The only thing we discover here is he likes red heads.

In the next scene we have Mike Honcho (Stromare) beating the hell out of Gretel until a very large Ogre takes pity on her and puts his foot down.  The Ogre looks somewhere between a cartoon and a dude wearing a Jay Leno mask.

Enough about the good stuff, though.  The only film of Wirkola’s I had seen before was the foreign language, but promising Dead Snow.  One could have watched that film with the sound down and got better dialogue than we get here.  I could listen to Janssen all day when she speaks in her native (Dutch) tongue, or even that decent Russian accent that she used in GoldenEye.  Hearing her punishing English pound out the plot details that anyone could have guessed would make me want to pull a knife on her, too.

So now Renner has his massively crappy film under his belt (and a sequel to be made, too), and Arterton is in just another loud film (Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia) with cartoonish special effects.  It is important to remind oneself that all of these actors are capable of doing good work.  And this stuff…

So you see nudity, and you get plenty of gory violence, oh, and the F-word.  At least they did not make it PG-13.

But the important thing is we learned that in this big old world, there is more than one type of Witch.  Knowing this helps, especially when you need to know which direction to point the massive machine gun.

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