“KONG: Skull Island” movie review

“Hold onto your butts;” Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s KONG: Skull Island is full body KONG with just a hint of story. Wait. Isn’t that a line from Jurassic Park??? Sure is. And guess who delivers it? None other than Samuel L. Jackson himself–reprising his famous line from one of the most iconic films in the American cinema library. It’s rather fitting since there are many shared elements between KONG and the Jurassic Park franchise. Both take place on an island and deal with science vs. nature and pit man against ancient creatures. King Kong is no stranger to most people, considering he’s been a fixture in the cinema and theme park universes respectively for many decades. From silver screen to Universal Studios, he remains an icon to which few “monster” movies compare. Although the previous KONG films followed a very similar narrative, this newest incarnation of the king of Skull Island takes a modified route to the classic story. It shares many of the same elements or themes with its predecessors, but through the echoes of the past comes a reimagined story. Diegetically, the film certainly suffers; furthermore, it attempts to integrate social commentary on war, Captain Ahab allegory, and conservation, but none of those themes are effectively carried out. Due to the enormous “King Kong” sized cast, there lacks any real connection to any of the characters and development is certainly obscure, if any at all. Films such as this one can sometimes run into the danger of waxing nostalgic too often and forgetting that audiences want a new movie (i.e. Star Wars: the Force Awakens); and like the aforementioned, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ KONG: Skull Island provides audiences with connections to past King Kong movies in a new approach, but ultimately crafts generic experience.

When an uncharted island shows up on U.S. satellites, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brookes (Corey Hawkins) approach a prominent senator, seeking clearance and funding for a mapping expedition and exploration of the mysterious island resembling a skull. Begrudgingly, the senator clears Randa’s MONARCH for one last mission before the U.S. pulls out of the south Pacific following the Vietnam War pull-out. Partnering with Colonel Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson) military troop and attaching ex-British special forces Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to the group, the expedition lays out plans to penetrate the severe storms surrounding the island to explore the island. What the group encounters on Skull Island will give them nightmares for the rest of their respective lives. Beginning as a glorified mapping excursion, this expedition turns into a game of survival as the group makes its way across the island.

At the end of the day, this movie accomplishes what it set out to do: revive Kong, thrill people for a couple hours, and setup KONG v. Godzilla. Action-adventure films are typically not expected to contain brilliant writing, character development, and strategically placed themed and subtext. What I respect about this movie is that is unashamedly pretends not to be anything other than a larger than life adventure centered around one of cinema’s most iconic “monsters.” Clearly, there are attempts in the movie to include some deeper themes such as anti-war, nature/conservation, and even a little Moby Dick; but those themes appear to have been great thoughts that were not fully executed. That being said, there is clearly a Captain Ahab figure in the film and there are many similarities between King Kong and Moby Dick–size just being one of them. For fans of Jurassic Park you’ll appreciate not only Jackson’s “hold onto your butts” line at the beginning of the film, but also several similar scenes, camera angels, and even the helicopter entry onto the island. Lots of nostalgia, but not so much that it feels like you’ve seen it all before.

In many ways, Kong is bigger than ever, but hardly better than previous Kong films. Ironically, this same thing can be said about the former Kongfrontation attraction at Universal Studios Florida. Much like the new attraction Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Universal feels far more generic than its predecessor, today’s Kong lacks the magic and innovation that the original Kong did in 1933. Despite an attempt to successfully launch a series of “creature features,” the script and human characters certainly suffer. Little can be said about the dialog except that occasionally there are lines that move the story along instead of stating the obvious or predictable. The dialog is cumbersome and never seems to remain focussed very long. Of course, that is hard to do considering that Kong boasts an extremely large ensemble cast. At the forefront of the cast are Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, Goodman, and Reilly’s respective characters. Of all the characters, John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow steels the screen about as often as Kong does. One might even be able to say that this is as much a John C. Reilly film as it is a Kong movie. Part of the magic of the previous Kong films, the 1933 version to be more specific, is the setting and characters themselves. Much like the new KONG attraction at Universal took physical sets, animatronics, real fire, etc and crafted a virtual 3D experience, the special effects artists and set designers did the same thing in KONG: Skull Island. The film comes across as less Kong and more Pacific Rim. In other words: generic.

KONG: Skull Island will certainly keep you entertained the whole time as action-adventure films are supposed to do. You’ll enjoy the fight scenes and the whole “creature feature” approach this film takes. If you’re looking for moments taken right out of the previous Kong movies, then you’ll mostly be satisfied. There are few scenes taken directly from the previous movies, but there are certainly allusions and nods to classic moments. You won’t spend much time with the natives nor will you get to witness the famous Empire State Building scene, but you’ll likely enjoy the film nevertheless. Just because a film takes a reimagined approach to a classic character that ultimately plays off as generic, doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to enjoy. For action junkies, there is plenty to grab your attention and hold it for the duration of the movie.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Crimson Peak” movie review

CrimsonPeakNo flowers in this attic. From the studio that pioneered the horror film back in the early days of cinema, comes the truly avant-garde German expressionist film Crimson Peak. Universal and Legendary Pictures provide us with a thought-provoking classically produced horror film that contains prolific imagery that invites interpretation, even from the most veteran of film scholars. Visionary director Guillermo Del Toro lives up to his reputation as a master of the macabre. Although the dialog and acting are weak, the film is beautifully shot and will constantly have you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what is about to happen. This is definitely one of those horror films that will undoubtedly make its way into film appreciation classes because of the vast material there is to dissect and explore. There is also a very self-reflexive element in the movie that is quite fascinating to think about. Not your traditional Halloween fair or ghost movie, this one part ghost story and one part mystery film is still a remarkable addition to the horror library because of the adherence to the very essence of what makes a horror film great.

Crimson Peak is about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a wealthy engineer in Buffalo, NY who is swept off her feet by the charming old English money Baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Following tragedy in Edith’s life in Buffalo, she marries Sir Thomas and moves to the countryside estate of Allerdale Hall in Cumberland, England with Thomas and his highly aristocratic sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). Despite Sir Thomas’s family name, he and his estate, built upon clay mining, are virtually bankrupt. Hoping that she can help to revitalize Thomas’ family estate, Edith begins to move her assets over to England; however, after a series of encounters with specters of the night in the dark and dank mansion, she begins to feel like something is terribly wrong and her very life may be in danger of meeting the same fate as the ghosts and ghouls.

One of the most noticeable elements of the movie Crimson Peak is the commitment to a truly classically produced horror film in the vein of German expressionism and the avant-garde. Interestingly, it is highly appropriate that Universal Pictures released this film because the founder of Universal Carl Laemmle made it a staple of early horror films released by the then fledgling studio. Although there is no one single definition of what indicates a German expressionist film, common characteristics are: using extreme distortions in the production design to indicate inner feelings or subtext, a very dark and moody style of filmmaking, strategic placement of lighting to create harsh shadows, unique and emotional architecture, and creating a sense of disorientation. Tell tale signs of this cinematic influence in Crimson Peak‘s production design can be seen in the very design of Allerdale Hall. Due to the very artistic nature of German expressionism, there is also a high degree of avant-garde because of the experimental production style, particularly in how it relates to the mystery at the center of this movie.

Although there are many positive elements in this film, some of the negative elements are the underdeveloped dialog and, by extension, the acting, lack of exposition, and at times sloppy editing. Common in German expressionism and avant-garde cinema are these characteristics. Note, that does not excuse the film for not delivering but does help to understand why they can be found in such a high budget movie directed by such an accomplished director. Had the dialog been better developed and even fifteen more minutes of exposition (or backstory) has been added, then I feel the acting would have increased in quality and delivery. As far as the occasional sloppy editing, there is no explanation and could have definitely been carried out with more finesse. Part of what makes this such a beautifully macabre film is the cinematography and production design. There are even sequences that will genuinely make you squirm and cringe at the highly visceral action with a hint of gore.

If you are looking for a traditional ghost story, this is definitely not the movie for you. To quote Edith, “the ghosts are a metaphor.” However, if you are looking for a great movie that embodies the thrills and chills of the Halloween season, then this is one to catch in theaters this month. Because of the expressionistic style of filmmaking, I can definitely see the advantage of and recommend watching it in IMAX (provided it’s the 2D version). It has a little of everything that a well-written horror film needs: death, romance, disorientation, and mystery. For the filmmakers or film scholars out there, prepare to have your mind stimulated as you attempt to interpret what the various symbols mean beyond the more superficial plot of the story.