Film Review: Kong: Skull Island

I love the original King Kong, ever since I picked up a cheap VHS copy. While dated, it told a simple story  very effectively and movingly. I’ve always been a sucker for stop-motion effects. I’ve never seen the ’70s remake but I remember being psyched when Peter Jackson released his, although this was ollowed by crushing disappointment as a wealth of CGI and Jack Black couldn’t cover the fact that it was bloated and boring.

One of the things that I always loved was the mysterious Skull Island that Kong calls home until he’s stolen away to New York. The island is home to other monsters, and you always wonder where Kong came from. Was he part of a giant ape race? Or a singular freak of nature?

This movie focuses on the island and gives Kong a fresh backstory. It’s not a retread of the original, and a new approach to the character, which I think is the way to go.

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The movie kicks off in 1944 when two pilots crash on the same beach, one Japanese and one American. They try to kill each other and chase each other through the jungle, until their fight is interrupted by the arrival of a massive ape.

We then jump almost thirty years forward to 1973, and two representatives of an organisation called Monarch are trying to get support for a mission to an uncharted island. The senior official, Randa (John Goodman) is fearful for the organisation’s future and wants to get the mission set up before the Vietnam War ends. However, the senator dismisses his theories of “monsters” and only agrees when Randa’s assistant Brooks (Corey Hawkins) points out that as they know little of the island there is no telling what is there and that if they hesitate the Russians might beat them to it.

Randa requests a military escort and is provided with the Sky Devils, a helicopter squadron about to ship back from the war. Headed by Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) they will fly the scientists to the island which is surrounded by a perpetual storm. Also recruited is James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) a former SAS Captain noted for his skill in jungle survival and expertise in uncharted territory.

Rounding off the group is photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) a photojournalist who clashes with Packard who blames the media for negatively effecting support for the war back home.

They arrive at the island where the scientists plan to use explosions to map the geologic nature of the island, which turns out to be hollow beneath the bedrock. Unfortunately the explosions anger Kong, a giant ape who attacks the choppers and brings all of them down, scattering the survivors across the island.

Conrad leads Weaver, Brooks and a handful of others through the jungle seeking the rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Packard leads the majority of his men and Randa towards one of the isolated pilots, Chapman (Toby Kebbell). Packard gets the full story from Randa, who holds to the “hollow earth” theory that there are pockets beneath the earth’s surface where monsters dwell.

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Packard wants some answers

Intent on revenge Packard aims to reach Chapman’s chopper and use the weapons and explosives to kill Kong.

Conrad’s group run into the local tribespeople and are introduced to Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), the American pilot who crashed there at the beginning. He has been taken in by the locals and explains that he befriended the Japanese pilot who was killed by another monster years earlier. Marlow explains that the native population worship Kong as a king or god, as he protects them from what he dubs Skull Crawlers, vicious beasts that try to eat them. Kong’s race have long held this role, but as the last of his kind the locals are fearful that when Kong dies the Skull Crawlers (henceforth known as SCs) will run wild, having nothing to fear. The explosives dropped by the group will have roused some of the beasts, although they suspect that “the big one” will remain underground.

Marlow shows the group his boat, made from debris of the fighter planes and other vehicles that have crashed at the island. They head for the rendezvous but find Packard, who insists they head on for Chapman. The group are attacked by a SC, and after suffering heavy losses manage to kill it. When Packard’s plan is revealed Marlow objects, supported by Weaver, who Packard draws his gun on. Conrad cools the situation and leads the civilians to the boat, however, he decides he needs to stop Packard and with Weaver and Marlow returns.

Packard’s men attack Kong and while many of the men are killed, Kong is injured. Then the Big SC arrives. Kong battles it, but is weakened and the nasty chases the humans. Conrad, Weaver, Marlow and the surviving members of the Sky Devils make for the boat but following Conrad’s instructions Brooks has left at dawn. Attempting to escape on foot they use their meagre weapons on the BSC but their weapons don’t seem up to the task.

Does the battered Kong have the strength to bring it down? If he can’t what happens to the survivors and the monsters?

Okay, here’s the thing I really loved this movie which delivers pretty much from the jump. The 1944 prologue was a nice touch and the character of Marlow provides a neat way to provide exposition and Reilly’s performance as the slightly unhinged survivor is charming and entertaining, stealing most scenes he’s in. Reilly should be praised for balancing humour with genuine emotion, with the frazzled, lonely man talking about what might await for him at home being quite touching and tying into the film’s theme of whether soldiers can ever truly come back from war.

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Reilly in scene stealing form

This is touched on in Conrad, Hiddleston’s calm and collected action hero, who is recruited by Randa who observes that men go to war in search of something, and Conrad’s continuing presence in Vietnam suggests he is yet to find whatever that is.

It’s most evident in Jackson’s powerful performance as the vengeance seeking Packard. During his first meeting with Weaver where he blames the media for effecting support and moral for the war in Vietnam, she asks him incredulously if he is blaming them for losing the war. His response that the war wasn’t lost, instead “abandoned” shows an insight into his psyche and his dogged pursuit of a fight with Kong shows that he is not ready to come home yet.

Jackson is always watchable and here he is on fine form as the tightly wound soldier who slowly unravels and becomes obsessed. He’s mesmerising on screen.

Tom Hiddleston is pretty good as an action hero, even if he does look a little clean cut and smooth for an SAS officer who spends time alone in the jungle saving POWs. That being said, his quiet performance is well done and he has moments where he charms. He also handles the action sequences like a boss.

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Hiddleston and Larson in action

But it’s hard not to feel bad for Brie Larson who while capable enough has an underwritten role as the photojournalist accompanying the mission.

The period setting works wonders for me as it handily explains how Skull Island has remained undiscovered until the movie and means the humans have older, less sophisticated weapons for their fights. It also means that the movie has a belting soundtrack of ‘Nam era songs (Bowie, Black Sabbath and Creedence Clearwater Revival), and borrows heavily from the imagery of that war- fires engulfing jungle, helicopters flying low and the look of the soldiers. The film looks fantastic and the mash up of Nam movie iconography and giant monsters works for me, unsurprisingly.

The monsters here are fantastic, as is all of the island. The native tribe and their walled village is well done as is their temple to Kong, replacing the African style tribe of the original with a more Asian vibe fitting the Pacific setting. The island location is beautiful, with mountains, dense jungle and panoramic views of the landscape being worth the extra IMAX charge alone.

This is only the second movie I’ve seen in IMAX (the other being Doctor Strange) and it is proving to be worth the money, and vastly superior to normal 3D. This is the kind of epic movie that warrants the big screen and enhanced visuals, and it delivers throughout, both in the titanic smackdowns and in the scenes on the groud amongst the trees.

The movie succeeds where the Jackson movie stumbled by putting Skull Island front and centre and we get to see plenty of the island’s nature. Alongside Kong and the SCs we also get supersized versions of spiders and water buffalo, a reference to giant ants and some seriously vicious pterodactyl style critters. The island is set up as a dangerous place to be and the action sequence are uniformly well executed throughout.

It’s a relentless thrill ride and has some solid performances, and a sense of fun to proceedings, making it considerably more enjoyable than the most recent Godzilla movie, which this will apparently cross over with. Hopefully the monster mash will lean more towards this, which is more fun and has better human characters. The romance between Hiddleston and Larson’s characters might be underdeveloped, but aside from this the major players hold the attention and the director knows that this is secondary to letting Kong do his thing.

I’ve always preferred Kong to Godzilla because his ape features are more expressive and that in every incarnation he has moments of gentleness. The backstory here of him as the island’s top dog and protector is a nice touch and I felt it delivered.

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Hail to the king

A big, action packed blockbuster, this is gorgeous to look at, filled with nice moments and just plain fun. It might lack the emotional punch of the original, but it’s still kept me involved throughout.

Verdict: The ’70s setting is a nice touch, the cast do well with what they get and the movie knows that it’s main strength is Kong and lets him cut loose. Hugely entertaining. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Movie Review: Trouble With The Curve

Apparently this is the first movie Clint Eastwood has appeared in without directing since Casper. This is pretty surprising, mainly because I’ve seen Casper and totally blanked Eastwood’s appearance (I’m guessing it was just his voice?)

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Anyway, here we see Clint continuing his streak of playing gruff, grumpy old codgers with Gus Lobel, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves, who’s eyesight is starting to fail. Grumpy and alone he spends his time drinking or at games, and has a strained relationship with his lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams).

Mickey finds him hard work, their only shared interest being baseball, as she’s inherited his love of the game. On the verge of a major presentation which could lead to a partnership her firm but she seems overly closed off, struggling in a relationship with a random suit dude. She feels like Gus abandoned her as a teenager, and is emotionally distant.

The pressure is on as at his club his boss, Pete (John Goodman) is under pressure from an ambitious colleague Phil (Matthew Lillard), who feels Gus is passed it and that analyzing player stats on a computer is a better way to go. With Gus’ contract due to expire it all rests on his next scouting trip to investigate an amateur player, who Phil is interested in pursuing. Phil sends his own man to see if Gus can still hack it.

Realizing his eyes are getting worse Pete asks Mickey for help, and she goes up to North Carolina to join her father on the scouting trip. It’s clear she wants to help and rebuild fences, but Gus’ stubbornness causes problem. Attending games by day she struggles to stay on top of the work she has to do for the presentation.

On the road they meet up with Johnny (Justin Timberlake), and ex-player scouted by Gus, who was forced to retire from injury. He respects Gus and is attracted to Mickey, who he helps to let her hair drown and encourages her to try again with Gus.

Gus (Eastwood) ruins a moment for Mickey and Johnny (Adams and Timberlake)

Gus (Eastwood) ruins a moment for Mickey and Johnny (Adams and Timberlake)

The player seems fine, but Gus realizes that he’s got problems with curveball pitches and advises the Braves not to sign him, telling Johnny to pass on him too. However, Phil disagrees and the Braves sign him. Johnny’s decision to pass lands him in trouble and he leaves, annoyed at both Lobels.

Is Gus going to lose his job? Has the trip cost Mickey the partnership? Will they be able to fix things with Johnny? And were they right about the player, and if so, how can they prove it?

This movie is extremely predictable, if you can’t see where it’s going by the half-way point I can only assume you’re unfamiliar with traditional narratives. There are zero surprises along the way and in places the cheese is a tad overpowering.

What stops this from being utterly terrible is the strength of the cast. First off, it’s Clint Eastwood.

I’m a huge Clint fan, the dude is a screen icon and has made some boss movies in his time. While this is far from his best, it still shows the gruff, laconic charm that made him a star. Nobody plays grumpy better than Clint, the only person who comes close is Tommy Lee Jones.

He makes Gus a believable character- a tough, hard drinking man who like many blokes of a certain age is unwilling to accept or acknowledge his health problems or discuss his feelings. His affection and pride for his daughter is clear, as is his compassion for the players he scouts.

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Clint: No one better at being grumpy

There are no massive outbursts, but that’s never been Clint’s style and it works. It means that as the film progresses little chunks of the granite surface fall off to reveal a core made of slightly softer rock. His revelations are understated and come from him finally confessing his fear about not being able to raise Mickey right.

Mickey is the other strength of the film, as Amy Adams continues to impress. Adams manages to capture the tough, steely and focused lawyer but does a fine job of suggesting this is just a front. The character is well written and it’s realistic that the qualities that infuriate her in Gus are ones she possesses too. Adams convinces in the bar scenes as someone who’s grown up around men and is comfortable shooting pool and drinking with the guys.

Adams: Impressive

Adams: Impressive

She’s also wonderfully sweet in the moments where the character let’s her guard down and captures Mickey’s resentment about her abandonment and hurt. The other thing that raises this film is Adams’ chemistry with Timberlake, they sparkle together and bounce of each other like the best on-screen couples.

I have to say Timberlake impressed me. I’ve seen him in other movies, but in this he managed to convey some of the easy charm he appears to exude in interviews. Timberlake makes Johnny an immensely likable presence, slightly goofy and incredibly laid back.

Adams and Timberlake: Great chemistry

Adams and Timberlake: Great chemistry

The supporting cast do well and all the boxes are ticked, but the movie is still a little disappointing.

One of it’s major failings is the fact it’s all done in extremely broad strokes. Early on we see the polite, quiet son of the motel maid being told to study instead of playing baseball, while the player Gus is sent to investigate is cartoonishly obnoxious.

Similarly, Matthew Lillard’s obnoxious suit is extremely two dimensional. Although it is to see he’s still working, but dude, he’s looking old.

Lillard, who looks so old!

Lillard, who looks so old!

All these one note characters kinda make it even more cliched and sap some of the dramatic tension out of the plot, but it’s watchable, easy fare and fairly entertaining.

Verdict: An accomplished cast carries a cliched and simple plot through and emerge with an entertaining if not demanding movie. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: Flight

Denzel Washington is a phenomenal actor, capable of playing incredibly flawed character with such powerful charisma and gravitas that whatever they do you still stay on side with them (see American Gangster’s ruthless Frank Lucas or the corrupt police chief he portrayed in Out of Time). There are few who can match Washington when it comes to playing dodgy but mesmerizing, engaging on-screen presences. It what won him an Oscar for 2001’s Training Day and saw him nominated for this movie, although he would ultimately  lose out to Daniel Day Lewis’ work in Lincoln.

It’s not hard to see why he got the nod for this film, because the entire movie hangs on his character and performance.

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From the moment we’re introduced to his character, Whip Whitaker, we know we’re in familiar “dodgy” territory and this is a guy in need of redemption. Whip is seen waking up in a hotel room, hungover with a naked young lady, Trina (Nadine Velasquez, of My Name is Earl fame), for company. After an argument on the phone with his ex-wife about his son who won’t talk to him. In a rush, he rolls out of bed, does a line of coke to even himself out and heads off to work.

As an airline pilot.

Whip’s in charge of a flight from Orlando to Atlanta, and despite seeming to be rough as ten bears, he manages to get the flight through some heavy turbulence and a smoother flight. Trying to shake his lack of sleep and hangover he doses up on coffee and Aspirin and then uses three Vodka miniatures to provide some hair of the dog, before dozing off as autopilot takes the strain.

Whip wakes up just before it all goes to hell, and the film is sent into a perilous nose dive. Whip then corrects this with an incredibly risky and highly unorthodox maneuver, but has to crash the plane.

Waking up in hospital he discovers that he’s being hailed as a hero, having saved 96 of the 102 people on board, although Trina, who was one of the stewardesses hasn’t made it. His union rep, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) an old friend is on hand to offer support and a lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), has been hired to defend him in case the airline or manufacturer try to blame him for the crash. Lang’s already shot down a blood test taken which would reveal Whip’s intoxication. Lang is confident of their chances but urges Whip to keep his nose clean until the hearing a few weeks down the way.

Charlie, Lang and Whip (Greenwood, Cheadle and Washington) on their way to the hearing.

Charlie, Lang and Whip (Greenwood, Cheadle and Washington) on their way to the hearing.

Whip escapes the hospital with the aid of his larger than life friend/dealer Harling (John Goodman) who takes him to hide out at his father’s old farm. Whip approaches the survivors of the crew to investigate what they’ve told the authorities and hides out, although he does develop a tentative relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who he met in the hospital after she suffered a heroin overdose and he helps her get a job and invites her to move in with him.

However, Whip’s self destructive side soon starts to cause problems. The tension builds as the film progresses as the evidence against Whip mounts. Can he avoid prison for his actions, and more importantly, should he?

I kinda dug this movie, you can sort of see where it’s going, but Washington’s performance is so utterly captivating that you get caught up in the ride. He makes Whip an extremely flawed and damaged character, who you can’t help but warm to despite him frequently testing the patience and sympathy of the other characters and the audience.

Washington on fine anti-hero form.

Washington on fine anti-hero form.

Washington plays the character in a fairly low-key way for much of the film, with Whip being a quiet schemer who’s trying to save his own ass, but he does enough to suggest that at some level, despite his protestations there is some lurking conscience and that he does feel some responsibility for his actions. However, he’s on a downward spiral he can’t pull out of and doesn’t seem capable of

The movie does a great job in splitting what the audience wants from the denouement, because part of you wants Whip to get away with it because you don’t want to see the guy in trouble, especially as there’s a nagging doubt that he only pulled off the daring move on the plane because he was too loaded to feel afraid. But as the movie progresses you can’t help that think he needs his comeuppance in order to force him to deal with his issues and get himself together.

With it being such a character driven piece, and with Washington in blistering form, the rest of the cast have very little to do aside from giving him someone to bounce off. That being said, Greenwood and Cheadle do a good job of capturing the frustration of the guys quickly losing patience with Whip’s decisions.

The stand out in the supporting cast is a scene-stealing John Goodman as the swaggering, motor-mouthed drug dealer. From his strutting, Rolling Stones soundtracked entrance on he’s a breath of whirling fresh air into the flick and gets a few laughs along the way.

Goodman as the larger than life Harling

Goodman as the larger than life Harling

The other cast member deserving a mention is Kelly Reilly as Nicole, she does a sensational job in conveying this really tragic fragility and loss of hope in the addict character. She’s extremely endearing in the part and has great scenes with Washington, and the moments when she starts to realize that Whip has his own problems and isn’t the road to happier life that she was hoping for are genuinely moving, and Reilly should be applauded for delivering a performance which never slips into junkie cliche.

Reilly as Nicole, a revelation

Reilly as Nicole, a revelation 

Robert Zemeckis is an accomplished director and is on fine form, with the crash being extremely unsettling especially for nervous flyers like myself and he shoots it with verve and keeps the pace moving, while also doing a good job of handling the changes in tone well enough and there are even a few laughs along the way.

Verdict: Worth seeing for Washington’s amazing central performance. Few surprises, but an accomplished character drama about addiction and redemption. The supporting cast do their jobs well too, even if all are overshadowed. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.