I decided to mark this St. Patrick’s Day by watching movies about beasts instead of leprechauns. I also didn’t wear an inch of green, which was good because if someone pinched me, I would’ve gone beastly on them myself.

Kong: Skull Island

 Back when I was a bored child with too much time on my hands and an entire household to myself, TV was the best way to pass time. There was a film that was always on called The Lost World, which was a 1960 remake of an old 20s monster movie classic. This picture sported very cheesy effects and acting, but relished in being a jungle adventure unafraid to show off its monsters.

Kong: Skull Island reminded me of a much better version of that. It succeeds where an earlier monster movie, 2014’s Godzilla, failed in the sense that it keeps both beasts and humans compelling enough to watch. That comparison will be much more appropriate later.

The last time we saw the mighty ape on-screen, it was in Peter Jackson’s overwrought remake that took an hour to even get to Skull Island. This version gets to it within twenty minutes, by the way of a plan by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins). The two men want explore the area to see what lives on it.

Being bookish scientists traveling under government money, they know they can’t go by themselves. They enlist a lieutenant colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) and his underlings, a war photographer (Brie Larson) and a British pilot with a knack for survival (Tom Hiddleston).

The plan? Detonate various bombs around the island as a way to see if it’s on hollow ground. It seems like a scientific mission, but it turns out blowing up that much space can really make a giant money angry. Who would’ve thought?

The group is split up into smaller ones, which is where Kong finds its footing as a solid adventure story. Randa teams up with the military squad and reveals he’s a part of a shadowy government group that wants proof that monsters like Kong exist. Wanting to make sure they don’t lose another war (he just left Vietnam), the colonel decides to kill the beast.

In-between the scenes of each group, we see a lot of Kong. Some monster movies make the mistake of hiding the monster and leaving us with boring characters; this movie does not. He’s front and center here, and moves with a power that even the 2005 film barely scratched. Again, they didn’t go down the Godzilla route, and it paid off.

The biggest reason why all this creature madness works? Because all the characters are still interesting. Credit writer John Gatins with creating interesting people and the actors for developing their roles into something memorable. Jackson gives a solid performance that avoids the self-parody he’s descended into recently. Larson plays a reporter with appropriate spunk and Hiddleston does just enough to remain a compelling lead.

But the stand-outs are all the little supporting characters. Jason Mitchell is a feisty screen presence that I hope gets more roles, and his Straight Outta Compton co-star Corey Hawkins plays a bookish scientist that I liked, even if he had a hand in everything going badly. Thomas Mann has matured from his Project X days into a frenetic screen presence that you want to root for.

The soundtrack is wall-to-wall early 70s, with most of the song choices being clichéd (“Run Through the Jungle” while they’re on the island), but still enjoyable.

 I have to dedicate an entire section to John C. Reilly’s character Hank Marlow. His arc is the biggest reason why this film succeeds; because it never forgets about the humans underneath all the fighting monsters. Marlow landed on the island with a Japanese solider in World War II, and the two bonded through survival until monsters killed his partner.

Marlow is a simple man that likes baseball and hot dogs (a joke about the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series is either very timely, or they somehow shot his after last October), and Reilly is the reason why you like him so much. Another actor would’ve played up Marlow’s isolation from human society and turned him into a freak; but Reilly plays him as a sweet and simple man.

His arc is brought to a devastating end, but not a tragic one, that shows how important people are in making these monster movies. I’m not afraid to say that I teared up at a post-credit scene that featured him. Again, Kong succeeds in an area that Godzilla failed in.

Why do I keep mentioning a three year old movie with seemingly no relation to King Kong? I think you can figure out why, but if you can’t, let’s just say that I hope the filmmakers behind a mash-up movie feature more of what this movie great. It’ll be a giant success, and yes, that was an awful attempt at a pun.

Go see this movie is you want a fun adventure.

Beauty and the Beast

Let’s get the ironic part out of the way first. Beauty and the Beast is partially about taking chances over being complacent, yet this movie is a pretty safe re-telling of the 1991 animated classic. If I had to force a complaint, it would be that.

Now that I’m done being negative, let’s look at the facts. This remake is big, glossy, schmaltzy and a joy to watch. It’s not very deep, but it’s an excellent re-doing of a story you’ve likely already seen. The tagline for this is “Be Our Guest”, which is basically a nice way of saying “let us take you on a ride you don’t have to think about”; I don’t mind if I do.

A quick re-telling: a vain prince (Dan Stevens) refuses to help an old witch, so she turns him into a beast and his servants into appliances and furniture. If he can find true love before all the pedals on a rose die, then they will all be restored to their previous forms. A young girl named Belle (Emma Watson) agrees to be his prisoner to save her father, and the two fall in love.

Director Bill Condon’s experience with Dreamgirls ten years earlier gave him the expertise to handle a big budget musical, which he does here with ease. Lush colors fill up the screen even more than a cartoon; even shots of a dreary castle feel alive.

The performances are all on point too. Watson plays the Disney princess close to the original portrayal, rebellious and anxious for a better life. Stevens is an absolute highlight as the Beast; he manages to be more charming than threatening, even looking like a monster. All the supporting cast members (Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor) hit the right notes in supporting roles, and that includes musically too.

Luke Evans plays a good dastardly villain, and Josh Gad has an amusing role as a side-kick with homosexual feelings for his friend (some close-minded people will find that weird, but I thought it brought good humor to several scenes).

The musical numbers are beautifully sung, and even if it’s familiar, I still got a chill listening to the famous theme song. Occasionally they go on a tad long (“Be Our Guest” namely), but can you really complain when they’re so well done?

 I guess the best word to describe this movie is “professional”, but that’s not a bad thing. Every scene, song, performance, frame and color is just right, and that’s all you really need. Beauty and the Beast is a property that has been told straight and inverted (2011’s Beastly, the CW television series), so what’s wrong with a little tradition? The Disney method of songs-and-sights is a formula for a reason; because it works no matter what time or place it’s put in.

The relationship between Belle and the Beast is tender and sweet, and never descends into pointless melodrama. The moment when he lets her go to see her father is especially touching, to the point where even cynical me felt the monster’s pain.

Go see this movie if you want a good romance, or are a Disney freak.

Published by Jagger Czajka