KONG: SKULL ISLAND Review

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It’s been 12 years since the last King Kong film. Peter Jackson’s 2005 film is a remake of the classic 1933 story of a giant ape who falls for a woman and ends up meeting an unfortunate demise. Skull Island takes a break from this plot to tell a unique tale using elements from the original story. This isn’t the first time Kong has deviated from the usual story of course, with one example being TOHO’s King Kong Escapes where he battles a mechanized version of himself. Skull Island brings an ensemble cast to the titular setting for an adventure that feels both familiar and new. It lacks enough quality writing to call it a “great” film, but it’s still an enjoyable, fun trek.

The primary reason why people would come to watch this film is to see the title character in action. Kong himself doesn’t disappoint. The sequence with him taking out the helicopters was excellent and rivals Godzilla’s grand airport entrance in the 2014 film. The music going silent when the tree struck the first helicopter changed the mood drastically, and as one by one each helicopter was destroyed the viewer got a sense of how ferocious Kong was. This is his most violent portrayal yet, and in this early scene the viewer actually begins to think that Kong might actually be bad in this one. The story smartly destroys that thought later on. The writing perfectly balances Kong’s gentleness with monstrous ferocity.

Again, his big scene with taking down the helicopters was incredible. It featured some of the best cinematography and editing ever in a monster movie. It’s actually a shame that the very first scene in the film featured a full face shot of Kong, because the helicopter sequence later on would have been a much better way to first show the character. Kong commands a presence every time he’s on screen, and the film features him a lot, which is a nice change of pace from monster films hiding the beast for extended periods of time.

Like in the previous King Kong films, Skull Island is home to many dangerous creatures. Unlike the previous films, the creatures in this film aren’t ones we’d find in a book. Instead, they’re either abnormally giant (the spider) or completely brand new, such as the Skullcrawlers. The creatures are used to great effect. The spider sequence was very well done (it features one of the creepiest deaths in a monster movie) and how the characters managed to overcome it was pretty smart. There’s even a giant octopus which Kong battles. (It reminds the viewer of his encounter with another giant octopus in the original King Kong vs. Godzilla.) The Skullcrawlers are the film’s primary antagonists, and they are really well utilized. They’re genuinely creepy and also command a presence. (The quick death scene of a character turning around only to be chomped by a Skullcrawler was something straight out of a horror film.)

Of course, the climax couldn’t feature Kong simply taking on a bunch of little creatures. The final battle featured a giant Skullcrawler. It got some quality buildup beforehand, and it doesn’t disappoint. It takes what made the little ones creepy and amplifies it. The fight was very well done. The battle is brutal, the setting is used to great effect, and above all else – it’s satisfying. There are no extended cutaways, there are some surprises, and it’s just fun to watch as a moviegoer and as a longtime kaiju fan.

The main thing the story suffers from is an unnecessarily light tone. There is some seriousness to the atmosphere, namely when the music stops when that tree struck the helicopter. Despite scenes like that the story appears more on the light-hearted side at times. John C. Reilly’s character for example kinda takes the viewer out of the realism at times with his dialogue. With horrific deaths taking place on an unknown setting, it seems like the overall atmosphere should be consistently more serious than what it is. Perhaps the idea was to differentiate itself from Godzilla, since that film was completely series from beginning to end. This is not to say Skull Island is a comedy, because it isn’t. A more serious tone throughout just could have been better.

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A rather big drawback is that the Island natives don’t really do anything in this film. It felt like they were just there for tradition’s sake. (They barely do anything other than stare and nod.) An additional 10 minutes could have been added to explain more about their relationship to Kong and the fascinating backstory only briefly mentioned. Moving on to the characters, the film features a cast with quite a few familiar names. Just about all of them are fun to watch. (It could be a fun game counting how many zoom-ins they give Samuel L. Jackson.) Ultimately though, there’s no standout performance. Maybe it’s assumed that simply having these big name actors on screen is good enough. (We have Tom Hiddleston grabbing a sword and slashing like a samurai.) The characters needed to be fleshed out just a little bit more.

The pacing is solid. Some of the early scenes on the boat were a little on the boring side, but it doesn’t take too long for the characters to arrive on the Island. There’s just the right amount of Kong scenes and humans, whether the latter be talking or running away from another creature. The soundtrack has some great moments. There’s also some classic music thrown in the mix, being set in the 70’s. This is used to great effect in the helicopter sequence.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island is a worthy addition to the large catalog of monster movies. Director Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts’ vision of Kong is truly special. The ape steals the show, having the perfect balance of being the kind creature viewers have come to know and displaying monstrous ferocity. If Kong had a reputation of being on the weaker side before, this film changes that. The other creatures are really cool to watch, especially the Skullcrawlers. The big one made for an excellent final boss, with the actual battle being a satisfying finale to the story. The characters aren’t bad. They’re fun to watch, and are given enough personality to keep them from being dry. Still, they could have used just a bit more development. Some of the lighter elements and humor didn’t work, but they don’t ruin what is Kong’s most explosive film yet.

7.5/10

 

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10 CLOVERFIELD LANE Review

It’s amazing to think that it’s been eight years since Cloverfield. If the Blair Witch Project was the film that popularized the found footage genre, Cloverfield is the one which perfected it. The best thing about it was that it put the viewer directly in the action. It felt like we were there experiencing an attack from a giant monster. A sequel has been talked about briefly over the years since. The way it was always mentioned however made it seem like it would probably never happen.

Then 10 Cloverfield Lane popped up out of nowhere.

Immense credit has to be given to Bad Robot for keeping this film literally a secret. It was announced with that title just a few months ago officially. Obviously the most hyped aspect was that middle name. Fans of the original have been hoping for a followup. (After all, the after-credits sequence there revealed that the monster “is still alive.”) Interestingly, Producer J.J. Abrams didn’t use the word sequel to describe Lane, instead calling it a “blood relative.” What that meant wouldn’t really be discovered until opening day, since everything was kept quiet. So, what have we got? 10 Cloverfield Lane is a well acted, well written story. If you’ve never seen the previous film, great, this will be a stellar experience for you. If you’re like me and you have, there’s a big disappointment factor accompanying the well done nature of the plot.

The opening of any story has the ability to draw a person in. The intro here is definitely one of the best I’ve seen in awhile. The only negative I have with it is the very beginning. Michelle apparently is driving out of New Orleans. The city however looked like a barren wasteland out of I Am Legend. It seems like the apocalypse happened, not a blackout as the radio stated. After that is when the good part of the intro comes. Car crashes are frightening, and the way the film uses it is effective. The sudden cuts to the logo was very well utilized. After that the story begins where all the trailers center: the bunker.

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First, great credit should be given to Mary Elizabeth Winstead for the portrayal of a character waking up trapped in a jail-like setting. We can see the peril on her face. It’s the little things like her hands trembling as she tries to dial her phone which provide a legitimate feel to the scene. We’re then introduced to John Goodman’s character, Howard. The film does a good job keeping the viewer on edge with this guy. Is he crazy? Is he really trying to help? The story does solid work in slowly unraveling this mystery. Rarely seen in the trailers is John Gallagher, Jr’s character, Emmet. He provides the comic relief in a rather grim situation. I suppose he could be this film’s version of Hud from the original Cloverfield. Emmet wasn’t as greatly written as the other two main characters, but still not bad.

As a thriller, the film moves at a solid pace. The first half was excellent. In a way however, it can feel like one large setup. The main thing is that by the halfway point when the lyrical music started to play I couldn’t help but feel that something should be happening. If the film was going to relate itself to Cloverfield, then there had to be some kind of monstrous presence by that point. Viewers of the original movie is there waiting for that “big thing” to happen. And just when something appears to happen, (classic rumbling tease) nothing really comes out of it. This leads to the main disappointment: the film has nothing to do with Cloverfield.

Interestingly, Lane had started out with having nothing to do with Cloverfield. Then Bad Robot/J.J. Abrams entered the picture and decided to align the film with the monster movie. This was a mistake. According to Abrams, “You have to have an idea that’s better than what people think they want to see to make a movie.” So this is apparently a better idea than a followup? He goes on to say the film has a connection to the original in “DNA,” which further gives an illusion that while maybe not a direct sequel, it could still be part of that movie. It’s not.  There were so many fan theories which resulted from the trailers with the reason why the characters were all in a bunker. Some theorized that it could be due to the 2008 monster making its way there or more nuclear strikes on the creature. This would have made great sense and satisfied watchers of the original. Instead, it seems like the Cloverfield name was only put there to attract viewers, which is a true shame and crime to fans.

Based on the mysterious nature of the marketing and trailers, the final act was going to be quite the surprising outcome. It’s so unexpected that it feels like we’re watching another film. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call 10 Cloverfield Lane a longer Twilight Zone episode. Ironically, this would have been better as the new Twilight Zone movie rather than a so-called relative to the 2008 film. The soundtrack is very solid throughout. Almost of the perilous scenes are given greater intensity.

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Overall, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a well done thriller and a solid first outing for Director Dan Trachtenberg. The mystery keeps the viewer intrigued as it throws clues and twists to keep he/she guessing. The concept of waking up and being in a bunker after a supposed fallout of some kind is a great setup. Michelle is a likable focus, and Howard is intriguing to watch as we try to understand his motives. Unfortunately, the out of left field final act doesn’t satisfy the “Cloverfield” name, and felt like it was there just to have something unexpected happen. All throughout marketing it has been said it’s not a sequel, but still related. The thing is that it’s not and no one should pretend it is. It’s fine as a standalone film, not as something many have waited 8 years to see come to fruition. It would have been better if it had stuck to its original name, The Cellar.

7.5/10