Sunday, March 12, 2017

Film Reviews - 'Kong: Skull Island'


The big new film from Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, and Tencent Pictures, “Kong: Skull Island,” is not to be confused with “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” a trackless ride at Universal Orlando Resort, in Florida. But why not? The two of them beg to be confused. Both are designed to thrash your prefrontal cortex into submission. Both may be enhanced, for your viewing pleasure, with 3-D spectacles. Both entail—not to give the game away—a large primate who has made absolutely no effort to meet with his therapist. And neither the ride nor the film will be content until you go, in the richest sense of the phrase, ape shit.

That brief is fulfilled, pretty well, by the first forty minutes of the movie. We start with a prologue set in 1944, “somewhere over the South Pacific,” in which two pilots, a Japanese and an American, land by parachute on a deserted island—presumably after a dogfight—and duke it out with pistols and a sword before being rudely interrupted by the film’s title character. From now on, any duking will be handled by Kong.

Jump ahead to Washington, D.C., in 1973, and to a fellow named Bill Randa (John Goodman), whose job description I never quite caught. His area of interest, however, is exact: a Pacific island (guess which one) that he depicts as “a place where myth and science meet.” It has never been mapped, and now is the time. And so to an airbase, in Vietnam, where Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men, including Major Chapman (Toby Kebbell), are preparing to ship out and head home. Instead, they are given the chance to explore the island—one last mission, which Packard accepts with suspicious alacrity. Squaring up to Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an “antiwar photographer” who’s been cleared to come along, he declares that the Vietnam War was not lost but abandoned. You can tell he’s still spoiling for a fight.

As Packard’s helicopters near their target, punch through a “perpetual storm system” that girdles the island, and discover a paradise of unravished greenery, the movie lays out its credentials. There’s a tracker named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) on board, who possesses “unique expertise in uncharted jungle terrain,” and, soon enough, we even encounter a Marlow (John C. Reilly). Plus, for good measure, a blaze of burning napalm. Got it? I’m frankly amazed that nobody brings along a bulldog named Kurtz. In short, what this movie yearns to be is a pop-culture “Apocalypse Now,” with the human foe removed, the political parable toned down, and the gonzo elements jacked up. The excellent news is that, for a while, that goal is met. The U.S. choppers are now in Kong’s domain, and he treats them in the way that a ravenous but slightly messy diner would approach a lobster special—wrenching them apart and cracking open the shells to get at the meat inside. The seafood motif returns a little later, as Kong grapples with a giant octopus (or, rather, by my count, a dodecapus) and slurps one of the legs down like a noodle. Yum. Heaps of fun, and you don’t have to go to Florida.

The director of “Kong: Skull Island” is Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose calling card for the task was “The Kings of Summer” (2013), a wistful teen-age pastoral, wittily handled and, if memory serves, entirely gorilla-free. It probably cost about as much as Kong’s right paw—even less, in fact, since at one point the paw gets a crucial scene, in which a drowning Weaver is plucked from the water and laid, as gently as an infant, on the leathery palm. We are meant to recall “King Kong,” from 1933, when Fay Wray was similarly cradled, and other flickers of that film emerge: the finding of a lost tribe, and the hearty disagreements between Kong and his next-door neighbors—prehistoric monsters, which in this case pop up from underground. Nothing can supplant the charm of the original Kong, who, thanks to the film’s stop-motion process, bore a touch of the tremulous and the hesitant to go along with his chest-thumping might, and Vogt-Roberts is smart enough not to try. Instead, he turns the trip to Skull Island into precisely that: a trip.

Thus, in no particular order, we are offered the following attractions: balls of fire reflected in a soldier’s mirrored shades; another soldier transforming the bleached skull of a triceratops into a machine-gun emplacement; Conrad using a curved sword to swipe at pterodactylic assailants, releasing gouts of purple gore; and Kong, in all his majesty, proudly framed against the setting sun. Then, there are the visual rhymes: an early clip of President Nixon, announcing the cessation of the conflict on TV, is echoed by a closeup of a Nixon figurine on a pilot’s dashboard, nodding madly as the helicopter dives to its doom. Note also the use of “just as” moments: one guy, trapped on the ground, is stamped on by a foot the size of an R.V. just as he is about to be yanked free; and a tail bats a prospective hero sideways into a cliff just as he is about to pull the pin on a pair of grenades and save the day. The over-all effect is to compound the comedy of peril, and to suggest that our mortal initiatives, however brave, will usually be humbled and outwitted by the less subtle devices of the brutes. Sounds about right to me.

The thing that breaks the back of this movie, and makes the second half so much less prodigious than the first, is a simple matter of geography. Once the combatants are split up and scattered around the island (Packard here, Chapman there, Conrad and Marlow stuck in their own heart of darkness), the story loses focus and even starts to drag. As occurred with last year’s “Star Trek Beyond,” you soon get bored with one party and itch to get back to the others. The same goes for the dinosaurs and the other humongous throwbacks—creepy enough, in their skeletal fashion, but no match for Kong. To be honest, his only rival in the film is Samuel L. Jackson, who has a high old time. When it’s suggested that the remaining troops should get out and call the cavalry, Packard solemnly replies, “I am the cavalry.” More than once, the screen is completely filled with the glaring eyes of Kong, and Packard, granted the same treatment, glares right back. The sad truth is that the place ain’t big enough for the both of them, and so an opportunity is lost. If they joined forces, they could rule the world.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ revives ‘King Kong’ with 70s-era style and welcome wit

By Ann Hornaday
March 9, 2017

‘Mark my words. There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”
Thus speaks Bill Randa (John Goodman), a scientist who at the beginning of “Kong: Skull Island” arrives at the Capitol in 1973 to secure funding for a mission to a mysterious island in the South China Sea, perpetually shrouded in thunderstorms, hitherto un-mapped and unexplored. His mission: to locate one of filmdom’s most iconic characters and make him relevant for audiences inured to the usual ho-hum of crashes, car chases and explosions of solar-level size and ferocity.
And, against all odds, he succeeds: “Kong: Skull Island” is a big, noisy B-movie infused with moments of wit and sprightly visual sophistication, anchored by what surely must be the most enormous version of King Kong since the giant ape made his screen debut in 1933. (After being on all fours in Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong,” now the big ape is back up on his feet again.) Liberally borrowing imagery and story points from Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now,” this tale of ad­ven­ture — with a less-than-subtle subtext about the perils of heedless human interference in the natural world — doesn’t necessarily tread new ground. Nor does it revisit the original film’s famous climax atop the Empire State Building. But there’s a commendable level of artfulness to the overheated spectacle, rewarding viewers not just with the expected tableaux of the title character swatting away helicopters and bullets with irritated ferocity, but also with one or two genuinely memorable human characters and some welcome panache.

The best decision made by the team behind “Kong: Skull Island” was to set it immediately after President Richard M. Nixon’s “peace with honor” speech, when troops in Vietnam are readying to go home. Randa, having secured his funding back in Washington, is in need of a military escort to the island, meaning the presence of a ragtag group of seasoned fighters, led by the bellicose Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also along for the ride: a photographer named Weaver (Brie Larson), a team of Trekkie-looking scientists with a NASA outfit called Landsat and a British tracker pointedly named Conrad.

That plummy gentleman is played by Tom Hiddleston, who’s always improbably and unnervingly well-groomed, no matter what the occasion. But he’s an outlier within an otherwise scruffy team of misfits who make sure to pack a reel-to-reel tape player on one of the several helicopters they take to the ­cloud-encased redoubt. The Vietnam War setting gives “Kong: Skull Island” lots of opportunities to evoke the period in pyrotechnic explosions and yellow-tinged clouds of toxic gas. It also, not incidentally, allows for choice cuts from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival; the promiscuous use of machine guns, hand grenades, flamethrowers and napalm; and snippets of macho vocab like “two clicks to our north” and “Roger that, Fox Five.”

And make no mistake: “Kong: Skull Island” is a macho enterprise all the way. Larson manages to hold her own with very little to do except take up her camera when bizarre things begin to happen, but a scientist played by Jing Tian barely makes an impact, save as a sop to the Chinese market. When the monstrously huge title character makes his first appearance to the exploratory crew, it’s both gratifying and terrifying, and as the story deepens we discover that his rage has an altruistic purpose. What’s more, he’s not the only scary creature on the island, where Our Heroes soon meet up with supersized versions of a spider, a water buffalo and, in the film’s gruesome and seemingly endless climactic scene, a screeching, slithery-tongued lizard.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous film was the indie coming-of-age film “The Kings of Summer,” does a good job of doling out the requisite number of wowsers and whammies, engaging in gratuitous mayhem and destruction, but along the way creating a rich sense of atmosphere and detail. (There’s a lovely shot when a flotilla of helicopters give way to one dragonfly hovering in midair.) As most directors will tell you, casting well is easily 90 percent of the job. Vogt-Roberts has made several good decisions in that regard — the supporting cast includes the wonderful Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham and Corey Hawkins — and one flat-out brilliant one: John C. Reilly steals the movie in his funny and poignant portrayal of a Kurtz-like figure living in an exotic redoubt, populated by an ancient tribe called the Iwi. (Reilly’s character is named Marlow, in another painfully obvious Conradian nod.)
If Reilly’s presence gives “Kong: Skull Island” its playful, gonzo edge, it’s the title character himself who gives it soul, morphing from a monster into a brooding symbol of the colossal folly of military belligerence and hegemonic hubris. With its band of interlopers destroying the island to study it, the humans of “Kong: Skull Island” quickly begin to personify the real heart of darkness, becoming far more frightening than the fearsome, regal, ultimately sympathetic figure at its center. As ape movies go, this one’s big, all right. But not necessarily dumb.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief strong language. 118 minutes.

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