Movie reviews: 'Kong: Skull Island' a fun romp with some big-budget beasts
KONG: SKULL ISLAND: 4 STARS
Set in 1973, the “Kong: Skull Island” is unrelated to the Kongs that came before. There’s no Empire State Building, no Jessica Lange, no romance between damsel and beast.
John Goodman is Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist William Randa, a man with some wild ideas about an uncharted island in the South Pacific. “This planet doesn't belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.” With government funding supplied by a senator (Richard Jenkins) Randa leads an expedition to prove his ideas about certain life forms on the planet. Along for the ride are a military helicopter squadron, a handful of scientists, U.S. military commander Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), former British soldier turned mercenary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and antiwar photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
Arriving at the island they are greeted by the tallest King Kong ever. “Is that a monkey?” gasps Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell). Some monkey. At over 100 feet he dwarfs his cinematic brothers—1933’s Kong was 24 feet, the 1976 version was 55 feet while Peter Jackson knocked him back to 25 feet for his 2005 adaptation—and easily knocks many of Randa’s helicopters from the air.
The survivors hit the ground running, only to meet up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II fighter pilot stranded on the island for decades. “You've probably noticed a lot of weird things on this island,” he says in the understatement of the century. As they try and brave the treacherous landscape to meet a refuelling team at the north end of the island the motley crew soon realizes Kong isn’t their only or even biggest problem.
At its furry heart “Kong: Skull Island” feels like an anti-war movie. At least half of it does. The opening section, roughly half the movie, suggests the unintentional and deadly consequences that come from dropping bombs where you shouldn't. “You didn't go to someone's house and start dropping bombs and less you're looking for a fight.” It’s a timely message about unleashing powers we don’t understand in the name of war wrapped in a Vietnam allegory. “Sometimes the enemy doesn't exist until you show up at his doorstep,” says Cole (Shea Whigham).
Then Reilly enters and with him comes a new shift. What was once a message movie is now a story of survival and giant beasts. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts pivots at this point, staging a series of action scenes with cool creatures, and it works as pure creature feature entertainment. It's cool to see Kong tossing military helicopters around as though they were Tonka Toys and another scene will make you think twice about sitting on an old hollowed out log. Fans of bigly beast action will be more than satisfied with the final battle between Kong and a massive subterranean people eater.
“Kong: Skull Island’s” social commentary doesn’t fade away completely but Kong’s mighty roar does drown most of it out. Just below the roar, almost out of earshot, is the idea that displays of force aren’t always the way to deal with conflict, a rare sentiment for an action movie laden with WMDs. Mostly the flick provides a fun romp with some big budget beasts and (secondarily) an Oscar winner or two.
THE LAST WORD: 2 STARS
“The Last Word” is a new dramedy starring Shirley MacLaine as a woman determined to have the last word not only in conversation but also in life.
MacLaine is Harriet. A woman of a certain age, her best days are behind her. Once an advertising mogul, she controls every part of her life from how the gardener trims the hedges to how the cook prepares her eggs. Managing life is one thing but now she wants to control how she will be remembered after she dies.
It’s an uphill battle. “She is a human dark cloud,” says one “friend.” Her priest says she's a “hateful woman” and when a former employee is asked to say one nice thing about Harriet she says, “If she was dead that would be nice.”
Her cynical search for a legacy leads her to Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), the obituary writer at the local newspaper. Anne is an aspiring essayist so wracked with insecurity she can’t show her serious work to anyone. As a result she kills time writing about death for the paper.
The assignment is tougher than Anne imagined. “She puts the bitch in obituary,” she grumbles. When she can't find anyone with anything nice to say about Harriet, let alone sing her praises, the older woman once again takes charge. Thus begins a campaign to lighten up Harriet’s legacy. “You are going to shape my legacy instead of just transcribing it,” Harriet says.
“The Last Word” is an extremely predictable movie. Ten minutes in you know that a.) the two women will bond and b.) at some point they will dance joyfully. In between they will learn from one another and we’ll discover that Harriet was not liked because no one could control her and Anne will find inner strength.
Predictable yes, but still somewhat enjoyable. It’s a pleasure to see MacLaine in a juicy lead role, even if she spends most of the time doling out life lessons. She commands the screen, elevating the grumpy-old-woman role in the process. Seyfried is spunky but underwritten as though she exists simply to give Harriet someone to talk to because no one else will.
“The Last Word” aims to have deep, meaningful things to say about life but never rises above the level of pop psychology and feel-good platitudes.
WINDOW HORSES: 3 STARS
“Window Horses” is an animated cultural comedy of errors from Asian-Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming.
Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) is a twenty year-old half Chinese, half Iranian fast food worker and poet. Raised by her overprotective Chinese grandparents (voiced by Nancy Kwan and Eddy Ko) following her mother’s death and father’s disappearance, she has dreams of one day visiting France, but so far has never been outside Canada.
When her self-published book of poetry, “My Eye Full, Poems by a Person Who Has Never Been to France,” earns her an invitation a festival she’s thrilled, even if it will take her to Shiraz, Iran, not France. Upon arrival the beret wearing Francophile learns about the father she never met and, through poetry, learns the healing power of art and to embrace a culture she was connected to but knew nothing about.
Fleming uses a variety of animators and a who’s who of Canadian talent, like Ellen Page and Don McKellar, and Iranian film legends Peyman Moaadi and Shohreh Aghdashloo, to bring Rose’s journey to life. It’s a beautifully whimsical about curiosity, finding a voice and staying open.
The director’s avatar—a stick figure that has appeared in her other short animated films—represents Rosie. The character’s lack of expression is more than compensated for in Oh’s vivid vocal performance. Visually she’s a blank slate who grows throughout to become a fully rounded character.
“Window Horses” is a gentle, airy film that cuts through the complicated clutter of everyday life with a simple message of peace, love and understanding.