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The King Kong cinematic machine is cranking again with Kong: Skull Island, an entertaining-enough new take on the big ape that delivers action, but lags a bit when the titular gorilla isn’t onscreen smashing things up.

Of the Kong incarnations, this one has the most in common with the 1976 take on the classic story, basically because it’s set just a few years before, in ’73. While there is a beautiful girl on whom the big guy gets a small crush (Brie Larson as a photographer), the story eschews the usual “beauty and the beast” Kong angle for more straight-up monster vs. monster action. Unlike the past American Kong films, this one never makes it to Manhattan, and instead stays on Kong’s island—thus the title of the film.

Kong himself is portrayed by motion-capture CGI, and he’s a badass. He’s also tall enough to be a formidable foe for Godzilla, a mash-up already announced for 2020. In the few scenes in which he interacts with humans, Kong seems like an organic creature rather than a bunch of gigabytes. He blends well with his human counterparts.

There hasn’t been much mention of those human counterparts yet, because, with the exception of John C. Reilly as a fighter pilot stranded on the island during World War II, most of the humans are bland. Tom Hiddleston might make a decent James Bond someday, and he’s a lot of fun as Loki, but he just doesn’t work here as a rugged tracker/action hero. His presence constantly suggests that his character might turn bad mid-mission and feed his friends to the monsters—or, alternatively, that he might stop for tea and biscuits every 5 minutes. He’s too much of a pretty boy for the role.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film the bursts of humor it needs. His castaway is a wild card, like Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. Actually, the whole movie, with its post-Vietnam setup and Nixon-era themes, plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong. When Reilly is onscreen, it plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong meets Talladega Nights.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the psycho military commander who still holds a beef about the war, while John Goodman is on hand as the explorer who thinks “something” is on this strange, uncharted island. He’s essentially this film’s Carl Denham (one of the main characters from the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake) without being named Carl Denham. The likes of Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and Richard Jenkins round out the cast.

As for Hiddleston and Larson, one gets the sense their parts were supposed to be bigger, but then director Jordan Vogt-Roberts looked at a first cut and realized they sucked, so he replaced a lot of their screen time with Kong action. Indeed, Kong gets plenty of time to destroy things. He battles helicopters, strange dino creatures and, in one of the film’s greater moments, a giant octopus that results in an eating scene that’s a direct homage to Oldboy.

How does this stack up against past Kongs? I’d say it’s the weakest of the American Kongs. (I am a sucker for the ’76 Twin Towers/Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange one.) Oh, wait, it’s better than King Kong Lives, the ’86 sequel to the ’76 Kong, during which he got the heart transplant. That’s actually one of the worst movies ever made. It’s so bad that I’d mercifully forgot it existed until this paragraph of this very review. Kong: Skull Island is also better than the loopy, strangely enjoyable Japanese Kongs, although it owes much to those films in spirit.

As you must do with Marvel films now (with the exception of Logan), stay through Kong: Skull Island credits. There’s an initial sequence during the credits that I won’t give away, and a scene after the credits that I also won’t give away.

Kong: Skull Island is a shallow enterprise, but a fun one. It’ll be interesting to see how they bridge the time gap between this excursion and the present-day Godzilla. Kong ages well, so they’ll probably just leap over a few decades and get to the good stuff.

Kong: Skull Island is now playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Actor John Krasinski’s second directorial effort is a decent film with a first-rate cast. Krasinski stars in The Hollars as John Hollar, a man working a dead-end job for a publishing company when his girlfriend (the always-great Anna Kendrick) informs him his mom (a terrific Margo Martindale) is sick—and that he needs to fly home to see her.

Once there, John has to deal with his weird brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), the oddball nurse who is also his old girlfriend’s new husband (Charlie Day) and his weepy dad (Richard Jenkins). The script goes through some familiar territory, but the performers put new spins on the situations—especially Martindale, who takes the part and really runs with it.

Krasinski does a good job of handling the script’s many mood swings, and the relationships feel real … that strange kind of real.

The film manages to get laughs, even when the subject matter goes to dark places. It deals with the lousier side of life without getting totally depressing—something that could’ve happened easily. Krasinski makes it all work.

The supporting cast includes Randall Park, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Groban in small but memorable roles. The soundtrack is stellar, featuring Josh Ritter, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Wilco.

The Hollars opens Friday, Sept. 30, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews

Kurt Russell essentially transplants his character from John Carpenter’s The Thing into the Old West as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a lawman looking for some kidnap victims, in horror-infused Western Bone Tomahawk.

The victims are in the hands of a cannibalistic tribe that’s ready to give Hunt and his cohorts a truly sick time. Those cohorts include Richard Jenkins as his clumsy deputy, Patrick Wilson as a hobbled man looking to rescue his wife, and a never-been-better Matthew Fox, along for the ride and offering swift justice to those who dare to approach their camp.

Writer-director S. Craig Zahler makes a very impressive debut, crafting not only an authentic Western, but a truly memorable monster movie. Russell, as he so often does, owns his part and makes Hunt one of his best roles in years. Jenkins seems as if he’s made hundreds of Westerns before; he’s right at home in dirty saloons and by the campfire. Fox makes his best effort since getting his face licked by a dog in the Lost finale.

Watch out, because some of the things that happen in the film’s final act are the stuff of nightmares.

Bone Tomahawk is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Skip Tom Cruise’s latest offering in theaters, the so-so Oblivion, and watch him kick mortal ass as the title character in Jack Reacher, the adaptation of Lee Child’s popular novel One Shot.

There was a lot of griping that Cruise didn’t fit the physical mold of the character of Jack Reacher, who is 6 1/2 feet tall in the novels. No problem; Cruise brings a sinister, evil edge to Reacher, a super-intelligent former armed forces cop who finds himself investigating a mass shooting in Pittsburgh. Hey, Cruise might be less than 6 feet tall, but he will most certainly kick your ass if provoked. (Well, he will in the movies, at least.)

The ridiculously pretty Rosamund Pike is on hand as the lawyer who joins forces with Reacher in a search for THE TRUTH. She’s good here, as are Richard Jenkins as her district-attorney dad, Robert Duvall as a very helpful gun-range operator, and Werner Herzog as a super-creep.

To attain super-creepiness, Herzog basically talks in his normal voice, which is indeed creepy, and wears a cloudy contact lens to make it look like one of his eyeballs is messed up. When I read that Herzog would be playing a villain, I thought it was weird. Then I saw the movie. Good casting.

There’s a decent mystery at the center of the film, one that kept me guessing until everything was revealed.

As for Tom Cruise films, it falls somewhere safely in the middle—all of the Mission: Impossible movies are better than this one, while this one is better than Top Gun and Days of Thunder. It is certainly worth a rental. This comes out on home video Tuesday, May 7.

Special Features: A Tom Cruise commentary with director Christopher McQuarrie is pretty damned cool, as is the featurette “When the Man Comes Around,” detailing how Cruise got involved with the film. You also get a composer commentary, a look at the action sequences and an interview with Lee Child. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing