Samuel L. Jackson

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

2017 – A group of scientists and soldiers launch an expedition to an uncharted island and are quickly beset by its monstrous inhabitants and its legendary protector, Kong.

You’ll be relieved to know that this movie is not a remake of the original 1933 King Kong (or of the 1976 remake, OR of the execrable 2005 Peter Jackson remake). It’s actually more akin to the Faro Island sequences from Toho’s 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Yes, it’s a reboot, which in 2017 means that the studio is trying to do the Marvel thing and create yet another multi-movie “shared universe” (alongside the 2014 American Godzilla [not to be confused with the 1998 American Godzilla {which itself was a reboot of the 1954 Toho Godzilla (which was rebooted with 1984’s The Return of Godzilla [and subsequently rebooted again in Godzilla 2000])}]).

Instead of having an obsessed director helm the expedition, Skull Island gives us obsessed scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman). He recruits tracking specialist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), requisite “girl power” photographer Mason Weaver (the willowy-yet-surprisingly-large-breasted Brie Larson) and Samuel L. Jackson-like angry black army guy Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). There are about a billion other characters, but rest assured that every ethnic group is solidly represented.

The trip to Skull Island turns out to be somewhat more challenging than initially believed, and our protagonists have to confront every danger that this prehistoric land has to offer in order to make it back to civilization. If you’ve seen a Kong movie before, you’ll know that these dangers have to include land and air dinosaurs, enigmatic natives, giant bugs, and a huge octopus / squid.

One of the best things about this movie is that it wastes very little time getting to the Kong-induced mayhem. There are a few split-second attempts at characterization, but the filmmakers knew that people come to a monster movie for the monsters. And Kong is clearly a monster this time around – hundreds of feet tall, like the Toho version, and walking mostly upright, like the 1933 version.

As you might expect from a 2-hour film, things sag a bit toward the middle despite the addition of zany castaway character Marlow (John C. Reilly). The film’s lack of character development becomes a real liability here, because suddenly all these people – most of whose names I couldn’t remember – are supposed to be very important to us. But I didn’t particularly care about any of Samuel L. Jackson’s soldiers, or the whiny scientists, or Hiddleston’s nearly useless tracker character.

Fortunately, the climax more than makes up for these minor deficiencies. Compared to other cinematic monsters, it’s pretty rare to see King Kong matched up against an opponent who is his equal in size and strength; Skull Island gives us a fantastic showdown that makes the most of not only Kong, but of the island terrain as well.

The human acting is about what you’d expect from a movie like this. And unfortunately I just can’t take John Goodman seriously anymore (when he talks, all I can think of is Dunkin’ Donuts). Kong moves about with appropriate majesty and savagery, but similar to his 2005 incarnation, the filmmakers try to do a little too much with his face. He stares wistfully at the moon, for instance, and dabbles with his own reflection in the water.

That is not the essence of King Kong. In the 1933 version, we have no doubt that Kong is an animal – a pretty intelligent one, but still just a big gorilla who only spares the heroine because, like his native worshipers, he’s never see a blonde woman before. In the 1933 version, the wilderness beyond the natives’ wall was a land of danger, with Kong being the biggest danger of all. Here, the natives build their wall to keep out the other monsters, and Kong is some kind of spiritual protector. When you remove that fear, the King loses something.

The CGI creatures are also not as effective as the 1933 stop-motion (or even the 1976 guy-in-a-suit). The human eye can easily tell that Kong and the other monsters are simply not real – there is no way a computer image can convey real size and scale. Plus, it doesn’t help that Kong is able to sneak up on people multiple times, without so much as a tremor in the ground to indicate his approach.

Still, these are my own quibbles. Kong: Skull Island gives the viewer ample monster mayhem for his money, delivering a viewing experience that, while it falls far short of the original, still out-does the Peter Jackson version by a wide margin. This is the kind of movie that must be seen in a theater. My advice is to do so.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE

2014 – The world’s most clandestine club of gentleman spies is looking for recruits as it faces a new threat that could destroy human society.

Now this is how you make a Bond movie. We’ve got it all here – a dashing, handsome hero (or two), slick costumes, amazing set design, gadgets, puns, a strong villain, grotesque henchmen, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, and a spectacular final battle where the protagonists race to stop a ticking timebomb (while pausing for some romance along the way).

Kingsman: The Secret Service  isn’t about James Bond, but I seriously doubt we’re ever going to see a real Bond film again, so I’ll have to take what I can get. It follows the exploits of Harry Hart, code name Galahad (Colin Firth), an elite spy who sponsors the unlikely Eggsy (Taron Egerton) to replace a recently-fall comrade. The Kingsmen need all the help they can get to stop a threat from lisping lunatic Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a global warming alarmist with the ultimate solution to the human population problem.

The movie easily and cleverly balances its two plots – can the rough-edged, lower-class Eggsy fit into the world of cognac and umbrella duels that the Kingsmen represent? And can old-school spies stop Valentine’s ultra-modern program for genocide? Director Matthew Vaughn, of Kick-Ass fame, keeps things moving at a crisp pace, never battering us over the head with the “poor kid vs. rich kids” cliches or tiresome “hero in training” sequences that I was fearing.

The two-hour run time is an amazing celebration of what makes escapist fantasy great. It didn’t have its characters mumble and stare broodingly into the dark to make them “more real” – it built them up with clever dialog and revealing action. It didn’t waste our time with any “spying is a harsh game and human life is cheap” tripe – it toasted fallen Kingsmen with Napoleonic brandy and got back to the action. Firth and Egerton play their heroes with a grin and an elevated eyebrow that would make Roger Moore green with envy. The supporting cast includes Michael Caine and Mark Hamill, but Caine doesn’t talk like Alfred and Hamill doesn’t do his Joker voice, so… meh.

One thing I absolutely dreaded was seeing chronic loud-talker Samuel L. Jackson as the bad guy, but he ended up being a highlight. As Galahad himself observes, the strength of a good spy movie always depends on its villain. Valentine isn’t some weepy stooge with a maudlin back-story, he’s an absolute nut committed to (and reveling in) his villainy. His henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is a double amputee whose feet have been replaced by razor-sharp blades – kinda like an even more murderous Oscar Pistorius. Since it’s always been a dream of mine to make love to a woman missing either an eye or a limb, she gets an A+ in my book.

There’s also a sub-plot involving the world’s elite basically deciding that Valentine is right and global warming is bad, so killing everyone else is okay. One of them, seen only from behind, is clearly an Obama stand-in. I think it’s the first time he’s gotten “the Bush treatment” (a.k.a. when a movie shows a president and doesn’t say who it is but ha-ha it’s really him and he’s an asshole). I salute the filmmakers for that.

SKIP AHEAD IF YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED IN A LENGTHY RANT ABOUT THE DECLINE OF THE JAMES BOND FRANCHISE

With all due apologies to Skyfall, I felt that Kingsman was the best Bond film in well over a decade. If they’re going to turn Bond into a Jason Bourne knock-off who, as a friend once put it, “just gets pissed off at people and doesn’t spy on anyone,” then I’d be more than happy to accept Eggsy’s (hopefully) continuing exploits as the fun, slick action series of the new millennium.

See, here’s the thing: I don’t want Bond to be some hulking, squinty brute. I want him to be lean and debonair. I want him to play golf with the villain (or eat McDonald’s with him, as in Kingsman) and engage in a little witty banter, not just glare righteously and stab him in the back. I don’t want or need my villain to be sympathetic, either. I want him be delighted with his scheme and annoyed at Bond’s mosquito-like persistence in disrupting it. Someone once observed that the ideal Bond/villain relationship is like a rebellious student and a strict master. Note that they didn’t say “mush-mouthed bodybuilder and metrosexual douchebag” (I’m looking at you, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace).

When was the last time a Bond bad guy even had a BASE? Or at least a cool set-piece for a final confrontation? Auric Goldfinger had Fort Knox. Karl Stromberg had an underwater laboratory. Hugo Drax had a damn space station. The bad guy from Casino Royale had… what? His hotel room? That’s pathetic. In Kingsman, Valentine has a base in the side of a mountain. Much better.

I’m also not interested in seeing Bond being unshaven or walking around in sweat pants. Bond is well-dressed. That’s his thing. As a character, he cares about how he looks. Don’t show me a stubbly Bond wearing lounge pants and say, “Oh, well, this is his character. He’s just like us.” No, it’s not, and no, he isn’t. In Kingsman, the heroes wear suits and ties, don spectacles, and carry umbrellas. That’s what I’m talking about.

I don’t particularly want to see Bond holding a machine gun, either. Bond is about elegance and sophistication and subtlety. That’s why he has his brains and his gadgets. Remember the scene in The Living Daylights when Bond, armed with his .380 Walther PPK, took on Whitaker, armed with an assault rifle and full body armor? He still won. In the real Bond films, you had the main villain (who was often physically weak but had great intelligence) and a henchman (who was usually dumb but far stronger and better-armed than the hero). When Bond defeats both of them, it proves his supremacy in both physical combat – craft over brute force – and mental dueling – cunning and wit over raw genius. Do the current leaders of the franchise seriously think that having Bond slap around some sniveling little shit in the desert gives him “hero” credentials? In Kingsman, the hero ignores an entire room full of guns and picks up an umbrella instead. I wanted to applaud.

One more thing: don’t condescend to me and say that the newer Bond movies are “more realistic.” No. No, they aren’t. They just have all the joy sucked out of their absurd moments because damn it we are making a SERIOUS movie here. Whew. Okay, I’m finished.

END LENGTHY RANT ABOUT THE DECLINE OF THE JAMES BOND FRANCHISE

So. To sum up: Kingsmen. Go see it, because it’s fun and violent and not too long and an attractive woman shows her butt near the end.