Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus

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Dinosaur


Dinosaur

Aladar enjoys the easy life

(2000) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Max Casella, Hayden Panettiere, Julianna Margulies, Joan Plowright, Peter Siragusa, Della Reese, Samuel E. Wright, Zachary Bostrom. Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton

Dinosaur represented a technical advance in animation that raided the bar for future generations of animated movies. It looks so terrific that even big people were stunned at the scope of it when it came out a decade ago. That said, its groundbreaking technical advance is not matched by its storyline, which is typical Disney fare. For that reason, it remains somewhat forgotten among Disney animated films.

Set back in the age of dinosaurs (no duh), we follow the adventures of Aladar (Sweeney) who as an unhatched egg is transported from his nesting site to an island where the thunder lizards aren’t really kings of the jungle. It is where fledgling lemurs, led by the cautious Yar (Davis) and the maternal Plio (Woodward) rule the roost and where the evolutionary facts of life are ignored – primates and dinosaurs? I don’t think so.

Plio prevails upon Yar to help raise the young hatchling Tarzan-style (anyone see a tie-in here?) which they do, transforming the young dashing dino into a sort of big plaything for his much smaller and younger…ummmmm, primates.

Their frivolous games are interrupted by a rather inconvenient asteroid shower, which devastates the island something awful. Aladar swims the surviving lemurs over to the mainland where they find an equal amount of devastation, but join with a herd of dinos heading for the fabled Nesting Ground, led by the brutal Kron (Wright) and his right-hand reptile Bruton (Siragusa), with Kron’s comely sister Neera (Margulies) providing the love interest. Do these sound like Pokemon or what?

Aladar espouses a philosophy of teamwork in order to get the entire herd through the long and dangerous trek; Kron is more of a Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest kind of guy (kind of ironic when you think about it). Inevitably, the two come into conflict, and with a couple of carnivorous Carnotaurs prowling about, well, let’s just say things look a bit shaky for the herd.

Visually, this is eye candy to the extreme. Everything looks completely real, from the rippling muscles of the dinos to the wind-blown fur of the lemurs. The backgrounds were filmed around the world (including Seminole County in Central Florida, where This Writer and Da Queen currently reside) in order to add realism to the feature, and man, does it work. The asteroid sequence is one of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen in an animated feature to this day, which is saying a lot. The CGI animals react to and interact with their real environment which was filmed with early High-Def cameras and still looks pretty sharp.

Although the storyline is strictly for the birds you’ll be completely entertained for the hour and a half you’re in the theater. Using a species which eventually died out to illustrate the value of staying together and never losing hope doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me – my sense of irony only extends so far.

For a more, shall we say, realistic look at dinos in a format just as visually impressive, may I recommend the Discovery Channel’s “Walking With Dinosaurs” which is available on DVD pretty readily and will be the subject of a feature film in 2013. It’s an expensive purchase, but it’s well worth it.

As for the Disney version, great for the kiddies, wonderful eye candy, but in the end, just The Land Before Time with a better budget and a more ambitious visual sense. It certainly does engender a sense of wonder that makes it worth the price of a rental, but in the end it would have been better served to go with a DisneyNature-style narration rather than with the storyline of the doomed species working as a team to survive. The message becomes “no matter what you do you’re still going to be extinct.” Not exactly what I want to pass on to children, y’know?

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing visuals. The asteroid sequence is one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen in an animated feature.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is dumbed down for children and creates too much irony in having an extinct species tell us the value of teamwork in order to survive.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a bit too intense for the way little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Aladar’s name was originally supposed to be Noah but it was thought that would alienate Christian members of the audience so the filmmakers went with Aladar instead.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Two-Disc DVD edition contains an amazing amount of features, including a trivia track, a couple of games and a herd of hidden features (that can be accessed by clicking on a dino logo that appears in several of the menus) including an old Disney short on the history of animation and another short cartoon featuring dinosaurs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $349.8M on a $127.5M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sicko