Into the heart of darkness: 'Kong: Skull Island,' 'Lost City of Z'

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 15, 2017
Photo by: Warner Home Entertainment You do not want to mess with old Mr. Kong, shown here in "Kong: Skull Island."

Owls Head — Kong: Skull Island (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 118 min.). Kong, the king of Skull Island, gets an upgrade in this stand-alone movie, which, while paying homage to the 1933 original "King Kong," upgrades the giant ape through modern digital technology and motion capture. Kong is now a 100-foot-talle behemoth, with 19 million digital hairs. He guards Skull Island and its Iwi inhabitants from the skull-crawlers who dwell in the hollow earth below the island and occasional venture to the surface.

Into this South Pacific paradise, which is protected by perpetual storms around it, come a team of scientists and soldiers. Expedition leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) says the intent is to map the uncharted island, whose location has been discovered by new satellite photography (it is now 1973); however, he has a hidden agenda of revenge, being the only survivor of the destruction of the USS Lawton some 30 years previously. Randa hires James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston of the "Thor" films; his character name most likely an homage to Joseph Conrad, who wrote "Heart of Darkness") to be his guide, while Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is the anti-war photographer along to make a name for herself. The U.S. military contingent, a group of helicopter pilots and crew who had been serving in Vietnam during the conflict there, is under the leadership of Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), whose leave-no-man-behind philosophy and desire for revenge will lead to deadly consequences.

The film has a prologue, set in 1944 during World War II, in which the pilots of two planes -- one American and one Japanese -- shoot each other down on Skull Island, but both survive via parachute. The American pilot, Lt. Hank Marlow, is still alive nearly 29 years later and played by John C. Reilly, who steals the portions of the film not dominated by Kong. Note that Marlow is the name of the principal narrator of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Col. Packard has brought along a dozen Huey helicopters, which fight their way through the storm to reach the island. This leads to a visual homage to "Apocalypse Now," another film based on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." (There also are several musical nods to previous Vietnam War-set movies.) Seismic bombs, purportedly to check the hollow earth theory of Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), are dropped on the island's interior and arouse the ire of Kong. In the film's best sequence, Kong then proceeds to destroy all the helicopters, killing at least seven soldiers and dividing the survivors into two groups, one generally made up of the civilians and the other Col. Packard and some of his men.

Kong is in the film a lot, along with some other gigantic creatures, including a most deadly spider. Several times, Kong battles skull-crawlers of various sizes, with the largest being 80-foot tall and 200-feet long. These creature battles hearken back to the monster tilts in "Mysterious Island" and "The Land That Time Forgot," although Kong also fashions crude weapons from trees and the like around him. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts ("The Kings of Summer") ably captures the mayhem on screen, with the stupendous ILM digital work and the sound affects making these behemoths seemingly alive. And while Kong does not fall in love this time, he does have a tender moment with Weaver and subsequently rescues her. The script, accredited to three writers, is a bit of a letdown, especially with how cliché Lt. Packard is. Plus, the supposed parallels to the Vietnam War really do not come through.

Bonus features include audio commentary by Vogt-Roberts; a two-part feature (24:26) that looks into previous versions of Kong and how this Kong creature was created; shooting the film's stunning views in a portion of Vietnam not filmed before (5:38); Hiddleston doing explanatory and reaction video bits on location in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam (6:53); the director talking about Larson's use of a working camera in the film and some of her photos (2:19); four deleted scenes (3:45); and five secret Monarch films (7:58), Monarch being Randa's agency. Grade film and extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Lost City of Z (Broadgreen, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 141 min.). Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is even more evoked in this film, which has British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam of TV's "Sons of Anarchy" doing some of his best work) and small crew battling up the Verde River in the Amazon to find its source. It is on the first of Fawcett's three expeditions depicted in the film -- one whose major goal was mapping the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil to avoid war, which Great Britain did not want in order to ensure continual supply of rubber -- that his native guide tells him of a hidden city of "gold and maize," where once many, many people lived. Indeed, at the source of the river, Fawcett finds some ancient pottery fragments.

Writer-director James Gray's ("We Own the Night") biographical film is based on David Grann's book; Grann actually attempted to retrace Fawcett's expeditions to find evidence of their passage. Fawcett is portrayed as an ambitious soldier, who is thwarted in his efforts to rise in rank due to an ignominy involving his alcoholic father. Having done some cartography in North Africa and being a member of the Royal Geographic Society, he accepts the challenge of mapping Amazonia for the society in 1906. This trip and a subsequent one in 1912, each take a couple of years, so Fawcett is not at home to see the birth of his second son and daughter. In fact, his relationship with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) is portrayed as sometimes not very happy due to the lengthy separations and his refusal to let her accompany the second expedition, even though she finds a 173 letter by a Portuguese soldier that mentions an ancient hidden city, he called Z ("zed" being how the British pronounce the letter). Nina is a bit of a burgeoning feminist.

Famed explorer/biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) went on the 1912 expedition, but proved incapable of keeping up and, in the film, puts the expedition in jeopardy. The film gives most of its time to the 1906-07 and 1912 expeditions, with some beautiful footage of the Amazon. Also well photographed is the World War I portion, where Fawcett served at the front line during the battle of the Somme in France. Serving as Fawcett's aide-de-camp on those two expeditions was Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson of the "Twilight" series in a fine performance). For the 1925 expedition, funded by several American newspapers, Fawcett took along his son, Jack (Tom Holland of "Spider-Man Homecoming"). Contrary to the prevailing colonial attitudes of the time, including among Royal Geographical Society members, Fawcett hoped that finding Z would prove his theory that certain non-white civilizations were more advanced than any western society in existence at the same time.

Subsequent exploration of the Amazon has uncovered traces of Kuhikugu, an archaeological complex including 20 towns and villages, spread out over an area of around 7,700 square miles, where close to 50,000 people may have once lived. It is in Brazil at the headwaters of the Xingu River in the Amazon Rainforest. Some believe this may have been Fawcett's lost city of Z. Fawcett became friends with authors H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, the latter of whom used Fawcett's Amazonian reports as an inspiration for his novel, "The Lost World."

Bonus features include audio commentary by Gray and two brief promotional featurettes, called "Adventure in the Jungle" (2:21) and "From Novel to Screen" (3:10), although technically the book is nonfiction. There also is a photo gallery of 38 pages, with one or two photos on each page. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.25 stars

The Promise (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 133 min.). This can be viewed as a better made companion piece to "Bitter Harvest," the recent film about the Josef Stalin-created Holodomor, the 1932-33 genocidal famine that killed seven to 10 million in the Ukraine. This time the atrocity is Turkey's ethnic "cleansing" of the Armenians who lived within its borders on the eve of World War I. Some 1.5 million Armenians died, as they were shot or driven to die in the desert. In both films, a fictional love story has been injected to make them more palatable to audiences. I'm not sure that was necessary, as, in this instance, the love story is somewhat secondary and not all that convincing.

Oscar Isaac ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") plays Mikael Boghosian, an Armenian who becomes betrothed to a woman in his village so he can use the dowry of 400 gold coins to fund his education at the Imperial Medical School in Istanbul during these last days of the Ottoman Empire. In the big city, Boghosian stays with his Uncle Mesrob (Igal Naor) and family, befriends fellow student Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari), a Turk, and falls in love with Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), an aspiring artist who teaches Mesrob's children and is an Armenian from a village near Boghosian's. The trouble is that Khesarian is already engaged to American journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who works as a war correspondent for the Associated Press.

Far more compelling than the love story is the dastardly treatment of the Armenians by the Turks, including situations in which they killed all the men in a village and drove the women and children to form long lines heading towards the desert, where they were expected not to survive. While Ogan initially keeps Boghosian out of the army, to his father's chagrin, Boghosian is thrown into a labor camp when trying to wrest his uncle from arrest. The conditions there are abominable, but this allows for a key brief appearance by Tom Hollander ("The Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise) as fellow prisoner  Garin. The film also has brief appearances by  Jean Reno as Admiral Fournet and James Cromwell as U.S. Ambassador Morgenthau. The story, which is at its best when dealing with the fleeing Armenians deciding to stop and take an armed stand, culminates with the French rescue of more than 4,000 Armenians from Musa Dagh mountain.

Not every story can be "Doctor Zhivago," but the music here by Gabriel Yared is a real plus. Bonus features include audio commentary by co-writer and director Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda," "In the Name of the Father") and producer Eric Esrailian; three deleted scenes (6:13) with optional commentary by George (one makes more explicit the reason for driving the Armenians to the desert); and three brief promotional featurettes on the love story (2:36), the war and struggle (2:51; some repetition) and the cause (3:19; the best of the three). Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 1.25 stars

Smurfs: The Lost Village (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 89 min.). After watching this kids' movie, adults will be left with the question of how do Smurfs reproduce. The main Smurf tribe is all-male, except for Smurfette (voiced by Demi Lovato), who was created out of clay by evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson). The lost tribe that Smurfette and three friends find is all-female. There has been no previous interaction between the two tribes.

That said, this is a fun movie with some good physical action, including a chase segment that takes place on a magical river whose streams rise into the air. The film is narrated by Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin of Showtime's "Homeland"), who has been keeping tabs on Smurfette. (OK, that could be considered creepy, but Papa Smurf does it in a nice way and, well, he is Mandy Patinkin.) Smurfette's friends are Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi), Clumsy Smurf (Jack McBrayer), Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello) and Grouchy Smurf (Jake Johnson). Unlike the first two Smurfs films, this one is 100 percent animated.

One day while the Smurf friends are skateboarding, Smurfette notices what she believes is a Smurf near the wall, which is the boundary with the forbidden forest. Meanwhile, Gargamel, whose cat Azrael is smarter than he, wants to capture as many Smurfs as possible so he can transform their magic to himself for more power. The friends are captured and escape, but a map is found that leads to the lost village ... and the race is on. I particularly liked the stampede of rabbits, set to a famous Western film music theme. The lost tribe is led by Smurf Willow (Julia Roberts) and Smurf Storm (Michelle Rodriguez of "The Fate of the Furious") is its fiercest warrior. The funniest line comes when Gargamel is bitten on the behind by attacking fish and says, "They are bottom feeders."

There are a bevy of extras, starting with an entertaining audio commentary by director Kelly Asbury, animation supervisor Alan Hawkins and head of story Brandon Jeffords. There are four, unfinished deleted scenes (7:35), including a paintball segment; a making-of feature with the director, producer and others (9:12); lost auditions (4:14), a funny piece in which the voice actors audition for roles other than the ones they actually play; Lovato being auditioned by Smurfette (1:01); showing the dance steps to the Lost Village dance (3:10); and several kids-aimed how-to-dos, including painting finger nails (2:23), cooking (4:07) and how to draw three of the Smurfs (7:42 total). There also is a good piece on the music with Christopher Lennertz (3:44); Meghan Trainor's "I'm a Lady" music video;  and how the song, "You Will Always Find Me in Your Heart," sung by Shaley Scott, was developed. Grade: film and extras 3 stars

Resident Evil: Vendetta (Sony, 2 Blu-rays or single DVD, R, 97 min.). This animated feature reunites Bioterrorism Security Assignment Alliance agent Chris Redfield (voiced by Kevin Dorman) with Dr. Rebecca Chambers (Erin Cahill), both of whom appeared in the first Capcom video game. They are joined by Leon S. Kennedy (Matthew Mercer) to stop weapons dealer Glenn Arias (John Denita) from unleashing a zombie-making virus in New York City. Arias is understandably upset that the government bombed his wedding, killing his bride, friends and nearly everyone but himself. Diego Gomez (Fred Tatasciore) survived too, but now is in a much hulked-up form.

The film opens with an attack on a home in Mexico, where Arias is supposed to be holding a woman and her son hostage. Arias is there all right, but everyone else is a zombie and many of the soldiers die. Redfield then rescues Chambers, as Maria Gomez (Christina Vee), Diego's daughter who is working for Arias, unleashes the virus in the Chicago college building where Chambers is doing research on a vaccine against the virus. Chambers reveals that the virus is latent in everybody -- probably distributed by contaminating the drinking water in the Great Lakes -- and Arias uses a second virus dose to trigger the zombie conversion.

The characters, except for Chambers, are extremely life-like looking, although it is a bit off-putting that the voices are dubbed. The film really succeeds in its action sequences, including some rapid hallway shooting/slashing and when mutant dogs chase Kennedy on his Decati motorcycle.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (in Japanese) by director Takanori Tsujimoto, executive producer Takashi Shimizu and writer Makoto Fukami; ; very good looks at the motion capture process with Dante Carver (11:03) and designing the film and making the CGI look real (24:05). There also is a still gallery with 30 sketches and designs. The bonus disc contains three featurettes, but totals less than 22 minutes. There is a solid mission briefing video on the film's characters (5:06); a look at designing the world to be more like the original game, including a final battle on a rooftop (3:31); and the filmmakers' appearance at the 2016 Tokyo Game Show. Grade: film and extras 3 stars

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