Tom Hiddleston

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.

CRIMSON PEAK

Note: Despite its size, this house is comprised of no more than 5 rooms

Note: Despite its size, this house is comprised of no more than 5 rooms

2015 – Heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is swept away to an obviously sinister mansion by the equally obviously sinister Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Everything you expect to happen, happens. 

“But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical Gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it’s a proper R rating. And it’s adult.” For those keeping score, that’s four “really”s, four “very”s, and two “disturbing”s dropped by director Guillermo Del Toro, who is trying really, really hard to make us think this movie is very, very good.

It’s not.

Allow me to get a little English major on you by telling you about an author named Anne Radcliffe. She blazed the trail for the Gothic novel, which were stories about innocent heroines trapped in big, scary houses filled with creepy people and, possibly, ghosts. Her books sold incredibly well… in 1794. Nowadays, they’re derided for their reliance on stale, predictable tropes (despite the fact that she invented most of them).

Crimson Peak plays like a straight Anne Radcliffe novel. It has absolutely no awareness that every one of its “twists” and “turns” is a cliche that has been telegraphed to the audience well in advance. If you’ve read any fiction or watched any movie in the past 75 years or so, there are no surprises waiting for you.

For instance: in the opening scenes, a young Edith is visited by her mother’s ghost, who warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak.” Later on, after she’s moved into the world’s most preposterously awful house, Sir Thomas casually mentions that all the red clay in the soil led to the place’s nickname: Crimson Peak. There’s an ominous rumble of music. Our heroine is shocked. The savvy viewer is left wondering whether the filmmakers actually thought this was a surprise.

The movie is littered with non-shockers like this. The “stray” dog that shows up. The tea that the Sharpes insist Edith drink. The way Lucille is so concerned with whether Thomas and Edith have slept together yet. All the luggage in the off-limits basement. Duuuuhhh gee, what could dese tings mean?

Del Toro seems to have lavished so much attention on the baroque atmosphere and extravagant costumes that he forgot what the hell was happening in his own movie. One character is killed by having his head repeatedly bashed into a sink; the other characters conclude that he “slipped.” It’s repeatedly mentioned that the house itself is slowly sinking into the red clay; this fact never comes into play.

Crimson Peak is a scary ghost story with no scary ghosts; it’s a psychological thriller with no psychology or thrills. Spend your two hours on a couple Twilight Zone episodes instead.