Kong: Skull Island (PG-13) ****
Yeah, I know. King Kong again. But this time there is a palpable difference in quality of action and photography that makes it worth watching and quite exciting, especially visually. You know most of the story already: Intrepid explorer, in this case John Goodman as Bill Randa, re-stimulates congressional interest in a mysterious island that may be one of the last-to-be-explored places on Earth (“Skull Island—where God didn’t finish Creation”). He requests military escort, which allows mercenary James Conrad (Tim Hiddleston) and Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to go along and somehow Brie Larson as photographer Mason Weaver joins the excursion as well. Good that she does, too, as it gives Hiddleston someone to cuddle up to when things get messy, as we know they will.
I could waste your time describing plot twists but there aren’t really many. They all find the island, conquer the ring of storms surrounding it, find incomparable beauty and a collection of weird and wonderful and deadly throwbacks such as Kong and the “Skull Crawlers,” led by one humongous one who ends the film fighting Kong in a truly spectacular scene. Add, for comic relief and some historical perspective, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who has been on Skull Island since the end of WWII, somehow surviving all the beasts that should have eaten him by now since it’s 1973.
The landscapes and action scenes are spectacular and worth the price of admission. Kong is as smoothly animated as anything in the history of computer animation, as are the other beasties, and the effect is one of utter reality, even though the context is a bit manipulated. The script is throwaway in the face of the action scenes. Who wants to hear a lot of dialogue when there is Kong to deal with?
It is a minor wonder that the film didn’t go over-budget just for the sheer number of helicopters consumed by Kong and the weird group of Kong-specific indigenous people. These excesses aside, it’s quite an experience. It is, in part, a horror show, so be cautious taking the very young to see it. Middle school and above have seen it all before, just not as well done.
Logan (R) ***
This is Wolverine’s farewell, so it may affect the way you react to the film. (The end of Wolverine has been so much discussed in movie and teen columns that it is no longer necessary to give you a spoiler alert!) It’s a good thing it’s the last hurrah, because Wolverine is getting much longer in the tooth than a superhero should be in the prime of his career.
Stay in your seats during the opening that makes it look as if you wandered into a sequel to “Deadpool.” It’s a very funny start as Deadpool gets caught in a phone booth trying to change into his costume. It has nothing to do with Wolverine.
Jackman, wrinkled and wounded and healing much slower than usual as well as nursing a hacking cough, runs into Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse from a former lab that has been turning out mutants, quite a bit like Wolverine. One of them, Laura (Dafne Keen), turns out to be, as we suspected all along, Logan’s daughter. Charles (Patrick Stewart), ostensibly Logan’s father, seems to know a lot about Laura who is mute for most of the picture so it’s a good thing he’s along.
The three of them are trailed by villainous, one-handed Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and the chases get more and more complex and unreal. Various things happen to Logan and sometimes Laura, indicating their biological closeness, but we have few if any clues what is causing the problems until the end when all is revealed. In the meantime, Caliban (Stephen Merchant) suffers his usual burns from the sun as he tags along, clearly not marked for a good end.
As with most superhero films, even the bad guys are indestructible for most of the picture and that is certainly true here. But the headline story is the death of Logan (Wolverine) and the producers give him a great send-off in the woods, surrounded by kids about the age of his target audience in the comic books. By the time he breathes his last, Jackman almost seems relieved, as are we. Lots of gore from impaling and rifle and shotgun shootings but not too much different from the comics. Take the young ones with caution.
Before I Fall (PG-13) ***
A film made for high school age and sensitive high school boys, this bizarre film treats with a ravishing young girl, Samantha (Zoey Deutch), and her Valley Girl, spoiled rotten friends. They are a clique of four who unrelentingly gossip, savage their friends, attack their enemies and hold themselves, however tenuously, to a superior position.
Samantha, according to an early version of the plot, dies in a crash following a drunken “Cupid Day” party. Her life thereafter is a highly edited “Groundhog Day” or daily repetition. The “highly edited” is important because the script, supposedly designed to let Samantha correct the things that she has done wrong in life and correct her friends as well, lets the plot get away from itself and adds and subtracts facts willy-nilly—it cheats and that destroys the narrative and the link with reality. Indeed, the real world becomes the irritating intrusion into what the writer wants to say. The result is that a plausible story gets warped out of recognition to serve the emotional needs of the characters and writer Maria Maggenti.
Samantha’s Day of Recognition and good-byes thus becomes a pathetic and bathetic farewell as, like an apologetic angel, she goes around her school, saying good-bye to a rotten boyfriend, hello to a nice new guy, telling her Rat Pack of girlfriends why she loves them and making up with her family in a particularly soupy farewell scene. (Only she knows she’s leaving, of course.)
The performances are not bad. Deutch is so physically beautiful that you tend to want to believe any and everything she says, her good boyfriend (Logan Miller) is serviceable, and the friends, though nasty, are comely and attractive in perverse ways. Your high schoolers may wish this is possible; more cynical (and realistic parents) will realize it takes more than dying before making up your regrets.
The Shack (PG-13) **
As a movie, this one has some glaring errors, more for non-believers than believers who will probably give it a break. It seemed, to this observer, overlong on Christian symbolism and tropes, starting with the religious tone adopted by nearly all of the dialogue characters. They whisper reverentially and the meaning and often the words themselves are lost in their penitence. Hymns are sung with eyes toward the heavens, and every imaginable family cliché is given its moment. God weeps when doubted. The Trinity is represented by a gorgeous Asian woman (Sumire Matsubara) and Jesus by an Israeli from Tunis (Avraham Aviv Alush), while God is called “Papa” and performed by Olivia Spencer and Graham Greene.
If you have not heard enough clichés yet, Missy, a darling five-year-old coloring peacefully, is snatched while her brother and sister are being rescued from the lake, and she cannot be found. Dad (Sam Worthington) gets the chance to meet “Papa” at the Shack—a tumbledown cabin with snow filling the interior. In the midst of the foot-deep snow and cold, Dad finds a dry path, acres of gorgeous gardens and another, much better shack, holding the Holy Trinity. The boys are soon walking on water, meeting Wisdom and, of course, seeing Missy to prove that she’s doing just fine without her family. The expected reconciliation occurs improbably before Dad is crushed by a semi-trailer as he runs a stop sign. He awakes with nothing more serious than a headache and bruised fingers! Sorry, but you had me at the whispering. Churchgoers, rejoice. Those who are not in regular attendance, that’s fine too.