Kong: Skull Island

GONCUks

2017

Legendary Pictures/Tencent Pictures/Warner Bros.

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Produced by Thomas Tull/Jon Jashni/Mary Parent/Alex Garcia

Screenplay by Dan Gilroy/Max Borenstein/Derek Connolly

Story by John Gatins

Based on “King Kong” by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

I’ll say this for KONG: SKULL ISLAND: It wastes no time in getting down to business. The movie knows good and damn well we’ve come to see King Kong and we do see him in all his towering glory in the first few minutes. But that’s only because we won’t see him again for a while because we’ve got to get the introductions of the human characters and necessary plot exposition out of the way. But that’s okay because thanks to the talented cast and energetic direction, you won’t be bored, trust me.

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Although KONG: SKULL ISLAND is designated as being a sequel to the 2014 “Godzilla” it starts off with newsreel footage that reminded me more of the beginning of the infamous 1998 “Godzilla.” And that’s not the only thing it’ll remind you of as you watch it. Pay attention and you’ll see numerous shout-outs, call-backs and homages to the 1933, 1976 and 2005 versions of “King Kong” because this is a reboot of the character and you need to take it on that basis because there’s no explanation of how Kong survived falling off the Empire State Building or how he got back to Skull Island. To steal from Marvel Comics, consider this to be Ultimate King Kong, combining elements from all the previous versions of Kong to create something new and surprisingly fresh.

It’s 1973. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) work for a secret government organization named Monarch that investigates monstrous creatures that used to roam the Earth and Randa believes they still exist but hide in remote places like Skull Island. He secures a military escort to take him and a scientific expedition to Skull Island to prove his theory. The military escort is a wildass helicopter squadron known as the Sky Devils commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard jumps at the chance for the mission to snap him out of his depression about America pulling out of the Vietnam War.

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Also along for the trip is former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and award winning photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larsen) who has suspicions that the so-called scientific expedition is merely a cover for some sort of illegal and unethical secret military operation and she intends to uncover it. She uncovers something but it sure as hell wasn’t she thought it would be.

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Skull Island makes The Land That Time Forgot look like Coney Island. In the words of Seth McFarlane ; “everything that is not you wants to kill you.” Although not as totally and utterly frightening as Peter Jackson’s Skull Island (which gave me bad dreams for two or three nights after I saw his “King Kong”) there’s still enough beasties on this Skull Island to make our desperate band of heroes realize that they have absolutely no business being here. After a devastating battle with Kong that is apocalyptic in it’s savage carnage, our heroes are separated into two groups. They have to make their way to the north end of the island in two days where they hope to be picked up by pre-arranged transport. Of, course, the trick is to stay alive until then.

Did I say apocalyptic? I did. And I did not use that word by accident because much of KONG: SKULL ISLAND is going to remind you of “Apocalypse Now” believe it or not. John C. Reilly shows up as a character that owes much to Dennis Hopper’s crazed photographer from that movie and like Hopper, Reilly’s character lives with a tribe that worships Kong much in the same way that Hopper’s tribe worshipped Colonel Kurtz.

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The cast is first rate with John C. Reilly easily walking off with the movie’s MVP award. I wouldn’t dream of telling you the background of his character as it’s one of the most fun elements of the movie, which has all the excitement, feel, style and downright snap, crackle and pop of classic 1930’s and 1940s adventure movies. Samuel L. Jackson surprised me in this one and for an actor whose career I’ve been following as long as I’ve been following his, that’s not easy to do. Jackson manages to get in some social commentary about the military view of The Vietnam War without being heavy-handed or slowing down the plot the least little bit. John Goodman looks and sounds better here than he has in quite a while and appears to be having a ball. His first line in his very first scene got a big laugh from the audience I saw the movie with as he obviously means for it to have a double meaning as he looks directly at us and does everything except wink to make sure we get the joke.

Corey Hawkins I know from “Straight Outta Compton” and “24: Legacy” and he shows a definite gift for disappearing into different characters as there’s nothing of his other roles in this one. As for Tom Hiddleston…if the guy ever decides to go for being a straight-up action hero I would say that based on this movie, he can pull it off with no problem. If some smart studio ever gets their act together and makes a decent Modesty Blaise movie he’d be a perfect Willie Garvin.

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As for the star of the show himself, Kong is portrayed as what he should be, frighteningly majestic with a air of savage, yet sad nobility. I always like it when Kong is hinted at being more than just an animal and we get that here. Although this Kong doesn’t have a fight here that I would say tops the one in Peter Jackson’s where his Kong took on three T-Rexs, his final showdown with the gruesome Alpha Skullcrawler is deliriously satisfying in it’s sheer destructive spectacle.

I saw KONG: SKULL ISLAND on a day where it was cold and snowing like mad but for 118 minutes inside the theater I felt like it was summertime. Because that’s exactly what KONG: SKULL ISLAND is: a fun, goofy, pulp-inspired summer blockbuster that’s not afraid to be what it is; an adventure ride designed to do nothing but thrill and entertain and it does that the full 100%. Go see and enjoy.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

PG-13

118

And P.S…DO NOT LEAVE WHILE THE END CREDITS ARE ROLLING. Just like the Marvel movies there’s a scene after the credits are done that promises more to come.

 

 

The Legend of Tarzan

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2016

Village Roadshow Pictures/RatPac Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by David Yates

Produced by Jerry Wentraub/David Barron/Mike Richardson

Written by Adam Cozad/Craig Brewer

Based on the character “Tarzan” created by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Before I get into the review of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, a bit of personal history. Some of you have heard this story before so bear with me a bit for the benefit of those who haven’t. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was in Junior High School but it wasn’t through his Tarzan books. I devoured his John Carter of Mars books, his Pellucidar and Venus series and historical novels such as “The Rider” “The Outlaw of Torn” “The Mucker.” I read his Tarzan much later on, mainly because they were reissued with gorgeous Neal Adams covers.

Once upon a time in the 1970s, I’m riding on the ‘G’ subway train home from school, reading a Tarzan novel. To this day I can’t recall which one it was even though every other detail of what happened on that train is still as fresh as if it happened today. Three grown men I didn’t know sat down next to me and demanded to know why I was reading a Tarzan book. They described it as “white man’s bullshit” and “racist garbage.” And that’s just about the only part of their descriptions I can relate to you and still keep this review clean. Just trust me when I say they were very colorful. One of the men was particularly vexed at me and loudly expressed his view that at the next stop he and his companions should bodily escort me off the train and give me the thrashing I so richly deserved. It was actually a lot more profane than that but again; I’m trying to keep it clean. I didn’t get thrashed but I will tell you this: it was a long time before I read a Tarzan book in public again.

But I did keep on reading Tarzan. Because I loved the way Burroughs told a story. Yes, I realized the racist elements in his Tarzan stories. But I also realized that if I cut myself off from his books I would be depriving myself of some truly excellent stories and characters. So I had to make a decision about how I would approach reading material (and movies and other works of art) that were created in a supposedly less enlightened time. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

So what has all this to do with THE LEGEND OF TARZAN? Because it’s a Tarzan movie that is rightly set in period and it’s kinda hard to do a Tarzan movie without Tarzan being The Great White Savior. It’s just that simple. The very DNA of Tarzan has racial biases and assumptions that have to be dealt with and not simply ignored. But I think that by putting Tarzan in a story where he mainly has to save Jane sidesteps the awkwardness of having him save African warriors who most certainly don’t need a Tarzan to save them. But I also do realize the image of Tarzan as such is still a polarizing one so a lot of people have no use for a Tarzan movie. Believe me, I understand.

In fact, when we meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), he doesn’t even want to be called Tarzan anymore. He’s fully embraced being John Clayton III aka Lord Greystoke and living in London with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). He’s asked by The House of Lords to return to Africa on a diplomatic mission on the invitation of King Leopold of Belgium to inspect the development of The Congo. He’s got no interest until he’s informed by the U.S. envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) that there’s a strong possibility Belgian mercenaries are enslaving the Congolese. Williams persuades John to accept Leopold’s invitation and take Williams along so that Williams can find the evidence needed to stop Leopold. John agrees and of course, Jane goes along as well since unless we have her kidnapped by the bad guy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) we don’t have a plot.

Rom is working with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) leader of a savage tribe guarding the location of the fabulous diamonds of Opar. Mbonga agrees to give Rom diamonds in exchange for Tarzan since Mbonga seeks revenge on Tarzan. So once Rom kidnaps Jane, we’re off and running since the movie’s taken a considerable amount of time setting up the situation and the relationship between the characters so we can get into the jungle action, right?

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Right. There’s a considerable lot of it that comes our way. With the kinda stuff we expect to see in a Tarzan movie: Tarzan swinging through the trees, hanging out with apes. I would have liked to see Tarzan fighting a lion or leopard, though. Or riding an elephant. And it’s unforgivable that not once does he let out with the classic Tarzan yell. Oh, we do hear a version of it, but c’mon. Tarzan’s yell is like Batman’s Batsignal or Superman’s ‘S’ symbol. It’s who he is.

Alexander Skarsgard is solid as Tarzan. He does interesting things with his body language and the way he holds his arms and uses his hands that I’ve never before seen an actor in a Tarzan movie do. And I like the way that as the movie goes on, John Clayton sheds more and more of his Western garb as he reclaims more and more of his savage heritage. In fact, the movie could easily be subtitled; “How Tarzan Gets His Groove Back” since it quickly becomes obvious to John Clayton that maybe he’s allowed himself to become too civilized and he’s got to get back to what he really is in order to save his wife.

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Margot Robbie is a lot of fun to watch as Jane and she and Samuel L. Jackson strike the right note with their characters and realize they’re in a jungle adventure movie so they should be having fun while doing so. Jackson’s character is based on the real-life soldier, lawyer, adventurer and journalist George Washington Williams and is an interesting enough character to deserve his own movie. Especially when you do your homework and find out that Williams actually did expose Belgium’s exploitations and slavery of Congolese natives and resources. It’s grating indeed to see him as the comedy relief when you know the background of the real-life Williams and Jackson’s performance takes a little getting used to as he’s pretty much playing a modern day black man in the 19th century but since he’s Sam Jackson, we forgive him. And in a movie that takes itself so seriously, a laugh here or there is badly needed.

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If there’s a major disappointment here acting wise, it’s Christoph Waltz. This is his second performance as a villain that has bored me. There’s nothing particularly memorable about Rom who doesn’t seem very interested in his own plans and schemes and if the villain can’t get excited about his own villainy then why should I?

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So should you see THE LEGEND OF TARZAN? Only if you’re going to see it purely as an action-adventure movie. Because the movie works it’s money-maker off to be just that. It does it’s best to give us a Tarzan that is true to the spirit of the character Edgar Rice Burroughs created while still being sensitive to modern day audiences. It’s a noble effort for what is just supposed to be a summer action movie. I enjoyed it but I fully realize that most people can’t say: ‘It’s just a movie,” and go with it. It has amazing locations, impressive action sequences, excellent special effects and plenty of Alexander Skarsgard’s truly impressive musculature that the ladies will no doubt enjoy.

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Rated PG-13

110 Minutes

 

 

 

 

The Jungle Book

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2016

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Jon Favreau

Produced by Jon Favreau and Brigham Taylor

Screenplay by Justin Marks

Based on “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling

I am honestly not a fan of 3D at all. I consider it a novelty, a gimmick. Most of the time it’s distracting me from what I really want to do. Which is to get into the movie and enjoy it. I don’t get the fun of having things flying off the screen at me. On top of that, I wear glasses and I really don’t like to have to wear another pair just to watch a lousy movie. And I’ve really been pissed the past couple of years with what I perceive as a deliberate effort on the part of movie theaters to force people to see a movie in 3D. You know the scam: a theater will schedule multiple showings of the 3D version of the movie that you want to see and relatively few showings of the same movie in 2D (is that the correct term?) Nine times outta ten I opt to walk away from the movie or go see something else rather than be forced to see the movie in 3D.

Now, I say that to say this: if you can, then see THE JUNGLE BOOK in 3D.

As a baby, the man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is found wandering the savage jungles of India by the majestic black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who acts as his teacher/mentor. Bagheera gives Mowgli into the care of a wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and his mate Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mowgli is raised in the ways and laws of the wolf. But try as he might, Mowgli cannot quite keep up with his wolf siblings and has to resort to his human ingenuity at building tools to even things up.

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During the dry season, there is a truce called during the seasonal drought. This means that all the jungle denizens can gather at the local watering hole to drink in peace without fear of being eaten by the predators. It is here that the viciously bloodthirsty Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) learns of Mowgli’s existence. Shere Khan hates all men since they know the secret of making fire, which the animals call The Red Flower. Shere Khan’s scarred face is the result of his being burned by men. Shere Khan vows to keep the truce but only until the drought is over and then he will kill Mowgli.

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Not wishing to place his adoptive family in danger, Mowgli elects to leave on his own. Bagheera volunteers to escort Mowgli to the nearest village of men where he will be safe among his own kind from Shere Khan. But the wily tiger has anticipated this move and follows the pair. He ambushes them and while Bagheera holds off the tiger, Mowgli escapes. While waiting for Bagheera he falls under the hypnotic spell of the giant python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Mowgli is rescued by Baloo the bear (Bill Murray). The two become fast friends and Mowgli agrees to stay with Baloo. Life is good until Bagheera shows up and convinces Baloo that he can’t protect Mowgli from Shere Khan. While they bark and bite over the fate of the man-cub, Mowgli is kidnapped by the Bandar-log (monkeys) who take them to their leader, the Gigantopithecus ape King Louie (Christopher Walken). The panther and the bear set off to rescue Mowgli. But even if Bagheera and Baloo can save their human friend from King Louie and his army of monkeys, Shere Khan is waiting for his opportunity to take his revenge…

You wanna know how much I enjoyed THE JUNGLE BOOK? Would you believe I actually forgot about the 3D? For one of the very few times I was watching a movie where the 3D did the job it’s supposed to do and pulled me into the movie and immersed me and enabled me to truly get lost in the story. And the CGI is spectacular. There’s just no other way to describe it. Visually this is one of the most impressive imaginary worlds I’ve seen on screen.

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Neel Sethi is a wonderful young actor. Although I’m sure he must have been reacting to a lot of things that weren’t there, this young man sells it without blinking an eye. He’s charming and looks as if he’s having a lot of fun and his expressive face works with his dialog in communicating to us at all times exactly what Mowgli is thinking and feeling.

I’m curious as to why such a big deal was made of Scarlett Johansson’s role as Kaa since it amounts to nothing more than a glorified cameo. Idris Elba steals every scene he’s in as Shere Khan and makes the character a truly terrifying, unpredictable force to be feared and reckoned with. And even though the movie isn’t a musical, I mean, c’mon…how can you not have Bill Murray sing “The Bare Necessities” and Christopher Walken sing “I Wan’na Be Like You”? Some will complain that the songs throw off the tone of the movie but I don’t think so. They’re lighter, whimsical moments that are nice homages to the 1967 animated “Jungle Book” as well as giving us a break from the more serious, darker elements of this version.

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So should you see THE JUNGLE BOOK? If you’re a fan of the original (and breathes there a living soul who isn’t?) then don’t waste anymore time. Go see it. People BMW about remakes but if they’re done with as much respect for the original as this one and with this level of technical, artistic and creative talent they can truly be a joy to watch and great way to spend an afternoon at the movies. Enjoy.

106 Minutes

Rated PG: But parents, be advised…there’s still some stuff here that might frighten the little ones, especially the scenes with Shere Khan. But then again, kids are pretty jaded these days and watch far more violent stuff at home so what do I know? Anyway, just thought I’d let you know.