Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guest Post: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

[Editor's Note: Today, we are fortunate to have a second look at Kong: Skull Island here on the blog, and an alternate viewpoint of the film from experienced movie critic Jonas Schwartz. Enjoy!]

Remaking a Classic: The Good, The Bad and The Beastly, Part I, Kong: Skull Island

By Jonas Schwartz

The latest Kong remake is a wild-ride adventure with exciting visuals and a realistic ginormous monkey. Unfortunately, it feels merely like a placeholder, a prequel to the big game being released soon, Godzilla Vs King Kong Vs Mothra Vs Rodan Vs every other creature over 50 feet tall. Therefore, the passion for this story feels stale, a block piece on the edge of a puzzle, not a full-fleshed film.

During the last days of the Vietnam War, a secret organization funded by the government journeys to a newly discovered island in the South Pacific. Randa (John Goodman) believes there are ancient monsters ruling this island and brings a geologist (Corey Hawkins), a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a military battalion led by a blood thirsty Lieutenant Colonel (Samuel L Jackson) just looking for a fight. Lucky for him, there's something very large and very hostile on the island who doesn't appreciate being disturbed.

People pay money to see the beast and in that way, Kong: Skull Island delivers. Unlike Rick Baker in a furry suit in the 1976 film or the heavily CGI enhanced zeros and ones of the 2005 film, Kong here never feels fake. The visual effects artists give the title character the illusion of reality, at least as real as a 104-foot-tall creature can appear. The facial expressions, body hair movement, how he runs and pounds  enemies are all credible.  The other visual effects are subtle with flying embers, twigs and bugs swimming in the foreground of shots.

The tumultuous year of 1973 has been strikingly captured by the art direction, production and costume design. The location supervisors found island spots that look untouched and dangerous. Instead of the boilerplate songs found in most late '60s/early '70s films, the music supervisor found some rarer numbers for the soundtrack from The Hollies, Black Sabbath and The Stooges.

It's not accidental that the long grass and swamp land of Skull Island resembles Vietnam. The correlations between the famous war photos of soldiers sneaking through the rice fields of South Vietnam and the scenes of Samuel L Jackson's men lurking through the fields in the film are far from subtle. The script finds interesting motivations for the characters due to the harsh shame of losing the war. Jackson's character goes full Rambo on Kong because he can't handle losing to another enemy. The script also tries to draw parallels to today's political chaos with protestors shouting in the streets of Washington D.C. and Goodman's character stating "Mark my words, there'll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”

The script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly has witty dialogue but the story loses an empathetic string by dropping the bizarre but touching love story between the beast and the beauty. Larson's quick touch of Kong's cheek and his scooping her up to safety are sweet but lack the punch that the lump of clay and Fay Wray managed in 1933. Being 140 feet makes for a climb up the Empire State Building less a feat, but that iconic scene in the '33 film is more special than any of the non-stop action scenes created here.

Newcomer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts forms some clever action moments and visuals. One that stands out are the flashbulbs of a camera going off in the dark as a reminder of Kong's latest lunch, but the editing is so rapid-fire that all the victims' deaths become non-descript. One is never sure who died in a past scene until you've taken a headcount in the next sequence.  Because the brigade separates after the first attack, each cavalry seems to follow the same marks in their own locations which becomes repetitive and drags down the pacing. The final action scene between Kong and an ancient beast seems too reminiscent of Jurassic World with beast versus beast while the humans sit around, dazed. 

The acting is never embarrassing but no one seems to notice others are being pulverized next to them. No sadness or terror registers on anyone's face. The script gives stars Hiddleston and Larson little to do, but the always reliable Jackson and Goodman have fun with their over-the-top roles. John C Reilly steals the film as a loopy former pilot who had been stranded on the island since the '40s. Manic (who can blame him when he's had very little companionship for thirty years) and wise (after surviving a prehistoric danger zone), Reilly rises above the material. He manages to be both comic relief and the film's heart.

A diverting two hours, Kong: Skull Island will whet people's appetite for the main course coming in several years, and hinted at during the post-credit teaser, but at almost $20 a pop, films should be more than just hors devours and this film is only a starter.

Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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