Review of “Kong: Skull Island”

It’s 1973. An agreement to end the Vietnam War has been announced. Bill Randa (John Goodman) with the Monarch Project is trying to get a US Senator to approve an expedition to a previously unknown South Pacific island. Randa, and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), sell the expedition as an opportunity to discover new resources and to get to it before the Soviets do. Reluctantly, the senator agrees to piggyback Randa’s project with a survey by Landsat to explore the island. Also going on the trip is a military escort led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). He and his men are fresh from Vietnam and are diverted from going home to go on the mission. Others in the group include a former British Special Forces soldier named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to act as a tracker and hunter, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist that formerly worked in Vietnam. The island is surrounded by constant electrical storms that cut off communications with their base ship as they fly in on helicopters. To conduct the geological survey explosive charges are dropped from the helicopters and their vibrations through the ground are picked up by sensors. After a few charges are dropped the fleet of helicopters is attacked by a 100-foot tall gorilla. Swatting all of them out of the air and killing several soldiers and researchers, the survivors are split up and must survive in the jungle while dealing not only with the giant gorilla, but the massive insects and lizards that want to eat them for a snack. Conrad, Weaver and a few others run into a group of natives that live on the island as well as a WWII fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who was shot down by the Japanese. Marlow tells the group that the ape is named Kong by the locals and is treated like a god. He protects the natives from the other animals on the island that come from caverns underground. Lt. Col. Packard wants to kill Kong in retaliation for the deaths of his men and is willing to risk the lives of the other survivors to get the job done.

“Kong: Skull Island” is the second film in a series that plans on bringing giant monsters back to theatres over the next several years. The invasion of the giants began in 2014 with the “Godzilla” reboot and will culminate with a battle royale featuring Kong and Godzilla in 2020. In the interim we’ll see a second Godzilla film where he likely takes on other kaiju from his past including a giant moth and a three-headed monster. While fans of the Japanese “Godzilla” films weren’t thrilled about the latest reboot, the film made over half a billion dollars worldwide. Is the big, hairy ape reboot worth your hard earned money? Read on.

“Kong: Skull Island” delivers on the action front with several encounters between Kong and the numerous massive creatures on the island. We also get a very early look at Kong in a flashback that starts the film. While the CG is a bit flat at times (I saw the 2D version) the digital creations look amazing and the artists are able to keep Kong’s size consistent relative to his surroundings throughout the film. The other monsters on the island, including the big lizard that gives Kong the most trouble, are all creative inventions. Some are based on known animals while others are totally new. It was good to see some other creatures instead of the usual dinosaurs that are the bad guys on Kong’s home turf.

The various monsters are far more interesting than any of the people in “Kong: Skull Island.” Other than Samuel L. Jackson’s intense and insane Army man and John C. Reilly’s goofy marooned pilot, the characters are all pretty cookie cutter and interchangeable. Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins and John Goodman are largely wasted in clichéd and underwritten roles that are mostly good for exposition and little else. While each gets a brief moment when the character is spotlighted none of it is interesting enough to make the audience really care what happens to any of them. The supporting players are mostly used as monster kibble so don’t get too attached to anyone even if some of them are far more intriguing than the top-billed players.

What is far more interesting is the struggle Kong has to survive not only his natural enemies but the two-legged variety that shows up uninvited. The audience is meant to root for Kong against the island creatures and it isn’t hard to take his side against the humans. Jackson’s Packard is a seething hate machine that is looking for redemption after the feeling of betrayal by politicians in Vietnam. He wants to fight a war he can win and believes he is just the man to cut the massive ape down to size. The fact that Kong is the only thing keeping the giant lizards at bay and possibly spreading over the rest of the world isn’t enough for him to end his fight. He’s obsessed and won’t let common sense or the fate of the world deter him from winning this time. I’m sure there’s a political statement in this character somewhere but I was too interested in the outcome of the final battle to figure it out.

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence/action and brief strong language. While most deaths aren’t shown we do see Kong smash several people with his paws. The lizard monster consumes a few people. One character dies when impaled through the mouth. We see various creatures burned and ripped apart. Several human characters are shown with blood from injuries. Kong is shown with a large gash on his arm. Kong and another monster are shown being shot by machine guns. Several creatures are shown being cut apart by a sword. One character is carried away by flying creatures and is shown getting an arm ripped off. Foul language is widely scattered but one “F-bomb” gets dropped.

The climactic battle between two massive creatures was surprisingly thrilling despite it being two monsters completely created in computers. Both Kong and the giant lizard are made with very robust personalities. While they are just pixels molded and shaped by various talented artists and engineers they are also extremely well made. I actually cared about how the battle would turn out even though I had a pretty good idea which beast would come out victorious. Even though the human characters are mostly bland and forgettable, “Kong: Skull Island” has monsters with far more personality and they make the movie entertaining. I think next time it would be a better movie if it just had the monsters and used the puny humans as just extras to be crushed under foot…or paw…or claw…or tentacle…or whatever.

“Kong: Skull Island” gets five stars for the monsters and the fights, not for the people.

P.S. There is a brief bonus scene at the end of the credits. It teases what’s to come but should you need to go pee or whatever and miss it, it won’t be a catastrophe.

This week at the local multiplex it’s a tale as old as time along with survival of the fittest. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Beauty and the Beast—

The Belko Experiment—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her fiancé after an argument. While driving down a dark country road, Michelle has a traffic accident and wakes up sometime later in a concrete block room, hooked up to an IV and wearing a knee brace that is chained to a pipe on the wall. She soon meets Howard (John Goodman) who tells her he found her on the side of the road in her overturned car and brought her back to his home and saved her life. Howard tells Michelle they are in his underground bunker because some kind of attack has occurred and the air is toxic making it impossible for her to leave. Michelle doubts his story despite confirmation of an attack from Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.). Howard’s assistant in building the bunker. Michelle smashes a bottle on Howard’s head, steals his keys and runs to the double steel doors to escape. As she is about to open the outer door, a neighbor woman begs to be let in. Her skin is covered in lesions and she begins smashing her head on the small window, demanding to be let in. Michelle begins to believe Howard is telling the truth and the trio settles into a routine of watching movies, working on jigsaw puzzles and listening to music on a jukebox. Soon, Howard’s controlling nature and a few clues found in his belongings lead both Michelle and Emmet to plot a dangerous escape plan.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is not exactly a sequel to JJ Abrams 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield.” Abrams is a producer on the new movie but it was developed from a script that originally had nothing to do with that first film. Instead, “10 Cloverfield Lane” should be considered a companion piece to “Cloverfield” that doesn’t require you to have seen the original film to enjoy it and understand what’s happening. It is a showcase of both storytelling and acting with enough tension and suspense to keep your eyes glued to the screen and your hands gripping the armrests for nearly its entire running time.

The movie is shot mostly within the confines of the underground bunker, giving it a feeling of claustrophobia and ramping up the tension. While the characters can escape from one another they are never very far away from their roommates. It is the kind of setting where paranoia feeds on itself and the slightest disagreement can quickly spiral out of control. First time feature director Dan Trachtenberg displays a strong command of space and fills it with quiet moments that always feel like spring-loaded traps waiting to release their violence on the characters and the audience. Once the story moves underground there is a palpable sense of foreboding and the innate knowledge of approaching calamity. It is a film that reaches through the screen, grabs your collar and demands your attention.

John Goodman is spectacular in the demanding and complex role of Howard the benefactor/jailer of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Howard’s bulk, as well as his possession of a gun and the keys to all the doors, presents an intimidating obstacle to freedom for Michelle and Emmet. Goodman’s Howard reminds the pair they would be dead without him and he feels they owe him gratitude and strict obedience for his hospitality. Goodman plays Howard as a man on a razor’s edge. He can switch from fatherly to threatening in a heartbeat if he senses some kind of treachery or betrayal. Goodman, best known for his sweet and funny portrayal of Dan Connor on the sitcom “Rosanne,” has shown himself to be a more than capable actor in feature films. “10 Cloverfield Lane” really lets him exercise his acting chops in a film that will likely find a wide audience.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the kind of strong and capable female character frequently demanded by those looking for better movie roles for women. Winstead’s Michelle is smart and capable, doesn’t need a man to save her and is more than willing to fight for herself against overwhelming odds. She questions Howard’s story of the attack and encourages him to do more than hide out underground. While Howard has more information about what’s going on than he is willing to share, Michelle pushes him to the point of his lashing out. It is his reactions and some other evidence that leads Michelle to attempt an escape. If there is a problem with her character it is her suddenly acquired ability to create something out of practically nothing. She becomes a female MacGyver as the movie goes on. While these abilities keep her alive they also stretch believability to the max. It’s a minor complaint but it did kind of stick out to me.

Rounding out the cast is John Gallagher, Jr. as Emmet. I think his character is there to keep the dynamic between Howard and Michelle from getting too creepy too quickly. Emmet is a buffer character that is simple and pure. He’s like a puppy that follows at its master’s heels and only wants to please. Emmet helped Howard build the bunker but describes getting through the door once the attack started as a fight. Despite this, Emmet is still loyal to Howard, believing everything he says. Emmet is a character that is surprisingly important to the story. If he was gone, the movie would have a completely different tone.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language. There is a car crash that is very violent. There is also a nearly constant threat of violence throughout the film. There is an image of a woman with what appear to be burns on her face. A character is shot and, while not seen, there is a spray of blood on the wall. A character is also severely burned.

There is only a passing mention of something possibly connected to “Cloverfield” but it is so minor it would be easy to miss it; however, the end of the movie does connect the two films and answers a few questions left dangling from the first film. If you haven’t seen the first film, that isn’t an impediment to enjoying this film as it stands alone and works as a psychological thriller without knowing anything about the giant monster that attacked New York. Still, there is something there for fans of the first film with the possibility of more tangentially connect stories to come. I am looking forward to more movies from this universe.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” gets five stars out of five.

The showdown between the two titans of the DC comics universe is just a week away; but this week, we get the third film adaptation from a YA book series as well as a faith-based drama. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant—

Miracles from Heaven—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and contact me via email stanthemovieman@comcast.net.