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

Forrest Gump


Forrest Gump

Life is like a box of chocolate.

(1994) Drama (Paramount) Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinese, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Conner Humphreys, Margo Moorer, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan J. Fallon, Hanna R. Hall, Marlena Smalls, Geoffrey Blake, Dick Cavett, Nora Dunfee. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Every so often a movie comes along that simply connects on a nearly universal level. It becomes a cultural touchstone, referred to for years after its release and most people will understand the references to it.

Forrest Gump is such a movie. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hanks (his second Oscar in a row after Philadelphia). Catch phrases like “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is like a box of chocolates” made it into the lexicon, not to mention “Run, Forrest, Run!”

Forrest Gump (Hanks) was born in Greenbow, Alabama to a mama (Fields) who rented out rooms in her large house to boarders, one of whom would turn out to be Elvis Presley. In fact, Forrest would have encounters with a number of historic, political and cultural figures of the 20th century throughout his life but he only has eyes for Jenny (Wright). She, however, had the rotten luck to be born to an abusive father and spends most of her life running away in one form or another whether that be through drugs or through a succession of skeezy men.

Gump isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier – in fact, he might well be the dimmest – but he attends the University of Alabama on a football scholarship and ends up going to Vietnam after his college days are over. There he meets Bubba Blue (Williamson), a fellow soldier who like Forrest is a bit on the slow side but Bubba still has big dreams – running a shrimp boat of his own from his home in Bayou LeBatre, Louisiana. They are under the command of Lieutenant Dan (Sinese), whose family has a history of sacrifice in war.

Things being what they are, Gump gets wounded in Vietnam and while convalescing discovers ping pong and turns out to be rather good at it. He goes on a goodwill tour of China and upon his return home goes on the Dick Cavett show along with John Lennon and inadvertently supplies the former Beatle with the lyrics of his most iconic song.

He also follows through on his promise to Bubba, buying a shrimping boat and taking on Lieutenant Dan as a first mate, is blessed with the good fortune of being the only surviving boat in Bayou LeBatre after a hurricane decimates it’s shrimping fleet. This enables Forrest to buy more boats and with Lieutenant Dan’s business acumen leading the way, becomes wealthy.

But all his wealth, all his fame mean nothing to Forrest Gump. What matters is his Jenny, the love he’s carried his entire life but she is damaged goods. Can she ever love a man who isn’t very smart?

Zemeckis has in many ways created a movie that captured America during its most tumultuous phase, from the 60s through the 80s. It is a country in turmoil, rocked with anti-war protests and a wide racial divide. America is growing up on its way to 200 years old, going from the self-confident 50s to the troubled 70s, from JFK to Nixon and beyond. Most of the major events of the era are touched by Forrest Gump in some way, whether directly or indirectly.

Hanks gives a performance that is going to forever be one of his most strongly identified. Hanks will always be Forrest Gump to a certain degree and justifiably so – while Forrest Gump is intellectually challenged (slow is how they used to term it), he has a good heart. He is in many ways the ultimate American – not book smart maybe, but hard working and kind. These are for the most part attributes that Americans admire, particularly these days when education is regarded with suspicion in some quarters.

There are those who have analyzed the film and criticized it (and the Winston Groom book it is based on) as promoting an anti-intelligence mindset, which I think is a bit harsh. Many have called it an embrace of conservative values and an indictment of the failure of the counterculture and liberalism in general. Forrest, who embraces traditional American values, is successful. Jenny, who embraces the criticism of those values, becomes a drug addict and the victim of abuse throughout her life; she only finds peace and contentment when she is with Forrest. Conservative politicians have often cited the film as an affirmation of their political ideals.

I do believe that the movie was meant to be more apolitical than it is now believed to be. Regardless of whether you believe this to be anti-intellectual and/or anti-Liberal, I think we can all agree this is wonderful entertainment and a terrific movie. It is most certainly one of the best movies of the 90s, and one of Hanks’ most memorable performances ever – reasons enough to check it out if you are one of the few who hasn’t already.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the classic movies of the 90s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to celebrate heart over smarts.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some drugs, a little bit of sex, a touch of violence and a modicum of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The legs of Gary Sinese were wrapped in a special blue fabric so that they could be digitally removed during the post-production process.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a trivia track that covers most of the music (hosted by Rolling Stone contributor Ben Fong-Torres) and a Q&A session of Zemeckis, Hanks, Sinese and producer Joe Roth at the University of Southern California on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the movie’s release. There are also some audition tapes as well as a plethora of featurettes on the special effects and sound of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $677.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was as big a blockbuster as it gets.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zelig

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go