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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Crimson Peak (**1/2): Feeding on Butterflies

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Crimson Peak – 2015

Director Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Screenplay Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, Lucinda Coxson

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Del Toro. I will give him the kinds of breaks that I would not grant others. For this reason, my reviews of his films should be viewed as words of someone who aspires to pay tribute to real cinematic art, who enjoys Del Toro’s variation of this art. It’s not that I think Del Toro is a completely comprehensive filmmaker. He errs on the side of visual art and lets the words fall where they may. The resulting visuals are often so overpowering as to render the weaknesses less noticeable. This time, the weaknesses are harder to overcome.

Del Toro’s primary weakness is in his scripting. It is often so telegraphed, one has to shut down part of the brain to avoid knowing what is coming down every thread of the story. Here we have the tale of a newlywed couple who come together despite the protestations of the bride’s father. When the patriarch ends up dead, the couple moves back to the groom’s native Cumberland, England, to a place Allerdale Hall. The place goes by another name in the winter. Two bits to the first one to guess the name.

The groom, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston, giving a strangely earnest performance) has a sister Lucille (Chastain) who shows a peculiar interest that things are just so with his brother and his bride Edith Cushing (Wasikowska). As Cushing, Wasikowska is playing naïvely against type. Chastain’s Lucille is so transparent, it almost amazes that this is the same actress who moved to the forefront of her field with her work in The Help and Take Shelter.

Still, we fight through all of these red flags just because we want to see the house, in all of its expectedly grotesque glory. The house, with a few exceptions, doesn’t disappoint. There are many allegories represented with each hole, crack and all of that seeping red clay. As if this isn’t enough, we discover that the home is literally sinking into the sanguine substance. Thomas has a dream to make something of the resource, and one can feel a battle of the wills that he pull it all out before it pulls him and all he loves within its depths.

Then there are the ghosts. In all, they are lovely creatures. Each one of them with a distinct purpose, and if, like the rest of the script, they are obvious about it, Del Toro definitely gets every dime out of the budget. The pace and build are excellent for the first act. There is not as much attention paid to consistent buildup for the rest of the film. It is almost as though he has so much to show, he wants to get it in before he runs out of film. It feels wrong that The Hobbit is three bloated films and this one can’t afford to give each sequence just a little hush to pull in the audience.

In this less sweeping form, without giving the viewer’s eyes a chance to wonder, we are instead given more time to wonder how much longer until the next obvious card is turned. This portrayal makes Del Toro’s skill seem sadly inadequate for his incredible vision. He deserves better.

What could help get him there? Ultimately, better writing. Coxson is uncredited, and one wonders if it was by her choice. Robbins and Del Toro did much better work in rewriting others material for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. That, plus the remarkable Hellboy films makes one wonder if Del Toro should stick to adding his own flourishes to other people’s work. It’s not that he can’t do great, original work, as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth show. Even if written just after the release of the latter, there are not enough layers or surprises in this story to pull in anyone.

Still, I follow Del Toro because it is obvious he loves movies as much as anyone on the planet. He has a visual palate like no other and a macabre innocence that Burton has tried but never convincingly displayed in his own, more successful career. Once he finds the right collaborator, there is no doubt Del Toro will create a slew of memorable images that would leave a beautiful mark on cinematic history.

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

CPE, Em & El: Thor: The Dark World: More Loki, anyone?

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Thor: The Dark World – 2013

Director Alan Taylor
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
Screenplay Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

It’s no surprise that Loki is one of the first characters that you see after the prologue of Thor: The Dark World.  It’s a short scene, with a scolding from father Odin (Hopkins) and a wayward look from his mother Frigga (Russo).  It feels like a tag along scene, after the events of The Avengers.  We already knew he was going to be locked up, so why do we need to see it played out this way?

The answer is obvious.  Hiddleston, the big surprise from the first film, is so good as the villain, the film struggles to move forward without his gracefully devilish grin.  For this reason, we have many scenes with him locked up, even seeing a bunch of other goons broken out of jail.  He even helps the bad guy (Kurse, played unrecognizably by Akinnuoye-Agbaje) escape, while he remains behind.

We are treated to the obligatory “If you betray me, I will kill you,” scene before his brother, Thor (Hemsworth) lets him out of his imprisonment.  After this, we get to see this same sequence repeated ad nauseam with seemingly every supporting character down the line.  This scene is a waste of time for any actor, but at least Hiddleston seems to enjoy the attention, no matter how it is received.  Thank goodness for that.

Thor’s second time out may not be Shakespearian masterpiece that the first film almost was, but it is not bad, in any sense.  It suffers from the strength of its superhero, who we discover from Odin is not actually part of a race of Gods, but rather just a strong race of individuals who can endure for 1000’s of years.  If he is not unbeatable, that hammer sure is.  The thing about Loki is that he doesn’t use his brawn.  Up to this point, the filmmakers of the Thor films have not had to worry real hard about creating a nemesis.  This method worked well in his first two appearances.  Now, as we see Thor’s foes, Kurse and Eccleston’s Malekith, we anxiously wait for him to find a reason to do something other than swing that huge hammer.

Sadly, any thought that is required of the good guys comes in the form of the same braintrust that they had in the original.  This means plenty of face time for Portman and, more unfortunately, seeing Skarsgård in various states of disrobe.  Supposedly it helps him think more clearly when he acts like a loon.  Portman is a little less annoying this time through, even if she still is not a believable genius.  Dennings is still more than capable comic relief as an intern, this time with one of her own (Jonathan Howard).

The screenwriters and Taylor tone down the Hamlet this time, of course that story has been told.  Taylor’s talent for utilizing characters employed so effectively in Deadwood works on Asgard.  Russo leaves a mark in her brief turn, and it is a nice surprise.  Hopkins seems more baffled with each movie, and that suits the aging Odin just fine.  Thor’s band of misfit warriors are briefly used once more, but at least they seem to have a place in Asgard as something other than merry men (and one stoic woman).  It’s nice to see an expansion of Alba’s Heimdall, as his one action scene is an intense moment.  

The weakest part of the story is the megalomaniacal nature of the foe (is there any other in Thor’s universe?).  The plan to take over the “9 realms” has more to do with timing than anything, and the convenience of it all gives nothing at all as grist to the plot.  It all leads to a battle that is loony toon to the point where one wishes the hammer could end it all.  Instead, we get to see the puny humans run around looking frail, weak, and even worse, like Skarsgård.

There is a new mcguffin in the form of a red liquid called Aether.  That, with the Tesseract +3 other elements will get you something in a future film, no doubt.  Do we get more Loki?  If we do, we’ll definitely be entertained to an extent that he is on the screen.  Hemsworth has shown a capability to wear Thor’s wig and not look too much like a fool.  He needs more than what we’ve seen as a supporting cast on Midgard to make it work.

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

El’s Review

I thought THOR DARK  WORLD  was fine I liked the  funny parts.  The  next  one will probably be better.  Part 3.

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

Em’s Review

I liked Thor Dark World.  It was really funny.  It had the right amount of action.  I did not like the things what were creepy, though.  The dark elves.

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

CPE and Em: War Horse, or Em’s most eagerly anticipated film of the year

War Horse – 2011

Directed by Steven Speilberg
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston
Screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall based on War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

From the first time a commercial for this film happened upon our screen, Em has bugged her mother and (especially) me to let her watch this movie.  Being that it took place during one of the bloodiest wars in human kind, we were not too eager to head into the theater expecting National Velvet.  International War Velvet, more like.  Still, Spielberg had to know what the audience for this movie would be, and we were pretty sure we knew enough to expect by the time it arrived on video.  Ultimately our sources at Common Sense Media allowed us the comfort of knowing that not only was this a safe movie, it was actually a pretty good one for kids just north of our oldest child’s 9 years.  So one night, after our youngest went to bed, we let our young, intrepid reviewer soak in everything that Spielberg wanted to show us about the cruelty of war to a horse and his boy.

The movie is, in a word, engrossing.  Emily did not move during the entire thing.  She didn’t speak once either.  From the time that farmer Ted Narracott (Mullan) stubbornly purchases the horse that his rival and landlord, Mr. Lyans (Thewlis) wanted, we get to see this rather lucky purchase transform his son, Albert (Irvine) and give to him a sense of purpose.  This sense of purpose, nice as it is, is quickly interrupted by the sad reality of a sharecropper in the UK in the early 20th Century.  Soon enough the horse moves from farm hand to the War Horse of the title.  The events that lead to this are improbable, to be sure.  One is going to have to get used to extreme coincidence.

Every bit of War Horse is well acted, meticulously directed and drenched in sentimentality.  Special mention must be made for Hiddleston and Irvine.  Spielberg is an expert at making material palatable to all audiences, and terribly real at the same time.  Anyone who saw Jurassic Park knows what this means.  Shocking events happen as the camera pans, or something like a windmill blade obstructs the view.  The result accomplishes traction in the storytelling, without losing anyone in the process.

What does one learn while watching War Horse?  I am not sure.  Most people living in these times have been touched by war.  One of Spielberg’s lesser films, A.I. comes to mind when watching this movie.  The theme to the film was, near as I can tell, “man’s inhumanity to robots.”  It resonated not one bit.  In this one, there are lots of good humans around, who would like nothing more than to help the horse, Joey, and his erstwhile partner, Topthorn.  Then war gets in the way, of course.  This message did not make as much sense to me, but should resonate with lots of horse lovers.  It’s a matter of a skewed perspective that I can understand in the abstract.  A horse to me is outranked by humans.  I would not condone cruelty to them by any means, but then, I would go back and save a person first when it came down to it.  There are people out there, plenty of them if you look at the worldwide receipts for this film who would go for the horse first.

My daughter might be one of them.  She drank in the images of the film, and spoke to me only when the horse was going through tough times or good times.  The rest of the characters were only important to her if they were kind to the horses.

In this way, Spielberg hit the right notes with War Horse.  This film, if directed in the same way another director, would likely be a landmark movie for that director.  As it stands, it is one of the better films of his own career.  I have had my issues with Spielberg the director and more with Spielberg the producer, but let’s just say I am happy that the film took place in a time before most of today’s advertisers would have a way to get their products placed.

This movie should be good for anyone in the family who is 13 and above, 9 and above with parental supervision.  There’s no kidding here, folks.  Spielberg really has made a movie that kids can watch, learn from, and not have nightmares by.  If your kid loves all things horses, and you are not afraid to broach some more difficult subjects with them, this movie is well worth your time.

Em’s Review:

So was War Horse as good of a movie as you thought it would be?

Better.

How was it better?

About the horse, how pretty he was.  And some parts weren’t as good.  I have a passion for horses.

So what do you mean some parts  weren’t as good?

The part where they shot the 14-year-old and 16-year-old to death (for desertion).  The Germans were mean.  

So tell me what you think about Joey, the horse?

I think he was a really pretty horse, and the right choice for the Albert’s Dad to pick him.

Wasn’t he too expensive for a horse that wasn’t a plow horse?

Yeah, but they were bidding.  And he wanted that horse.  He was probably drunk.

So did the Dad’s drinking upset you?

It kind of scared me because I thought he would die in the movie.

What about when he almost shot the horse?

It was really scary.

So it is kind of scary when people drink too much?

Uh huh.

Did you like any other horses in the film?

I liked the black one, what’s his name again?

Topthorn.  What did you like about him?

He had this blaze on his forehead.  Black is my favorite horse color.  And bay.

Would you recommend this movie for other kids your age?

If their parents let them.

What do you give this movie?

9 and 1/2 out of 10.  If the Dad didn’t drink I would give it a 10.