Friday, March 24, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Kong: Skull Island (WB, 2017) – Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly (s/p). John Gatins (story). Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbel, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, & Eugene Cordero. Color, Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.

Despite the attractive trailers, I was still wondering why this movie had to be made. Why would the story of King Kong need a prequel? But I was not expecting to be knocked back on my heels by this film. The story was told convincingly, the cinematography was stunning and the soundtrack powerful and entertaining. The special effects crew pulled out all the stops, introducing us to brand new monsters and titanic creatures. It even gave some plot explanations that were revealing.

The film starts with a dogfight over the island in 1944 and both fighter pilots have to parachute out of their disabled planes. Hank Marlow (Brittain) and Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi) continue their battle on the beach until Hank runs out of ammunition. He runs into the jungle chased by Gunpei and stops at the edge of an impossibly high cliff. But their conflict is interrupted by two immense ape hands gripping the cliff edge and Kong’s head rising up over the ledge like a hairy sun. The two flee and the audience is taken by the camera into the pupil of one of Kong’s red eyes.

As the opening credits roll, the years advance in the background and stop at 1973. The Vietnam War is virtually over and Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is looking at his collection of medals wondering what they were all for.

Meanwhile, Bill Randa (Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Hawkins), a noted seismologist and geologist, are trying to obtain backing from Senator Willis (Jenkins) for an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean called “Skull Island,” discovered by satellite imaging. The island’s name is appropriate, since it’s shaped like a grinning skull in profile. The senator is extremely reticent, knowing Randa’s track record of hunting fantastic beasts and failing. It’s not until Brooks uses the unknown species and possible cures for disease argument that Willis gives in. The last thing Randa asks for is a military escort.

Preston Packard is delighted to be back in action and he and his Sky Devils helicopter squad are enlisted to accompany the expedition (though the men thought they were going home after Vietnam).

Randa enlists expert tracker, British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston) to lead the intrepid caravan and photographer Mason Weaver (Larson) to record all findings. None of the men expected Mason to be a woman though. Lastly, he recruits eminent biologist San (Jing) – remember her from The Great Wall (2016)? – and Victor Nieves (Ortiz) a Landsat employee to ensure location of the island.

And now, the interesting science fiction. Skull Island has remained uncharted by a vicious, perpetual electrical storm surrounding it which cuts out all communication devices. Everyone in the crew with a brain is wondering why the supplies include seismic bombs and ample ammunition (including napalm) and are given the explanation that they’re needed for geologic surveys. With about a dozen military helicopters on board, the ship Athena (which, in actuality didn’t sail until 2003) sails for Skull Island. 

The apocalyptic circle of storms is daunting to most on board, especially Victor Nieves, but they plow through a calmer spot on the south side. Once on the other side, and everyone gets over how beautiful the island is, the soldiers start dropping the seismic bombs. Guess who notices the commotion? Kong devastates the entire flying fleet defending his turf. The survivors, which include all the major characters, divide into two groups to hopefully make it to the north side of the island where they have plans to be picked up.

On the way they encounter various native fauna; a Kaiju, a giant buffalo rises from a lake, (an amphibious prehistoric and fantastic beast with huge forked horns), the soldiers are best by a spider with legs exactly like the bamboo forest – dubbed “Mother Long-legs.” Nieves is aerially drawn and quartered by pterodactyl-like creatures called “Leafwings" with saw blades for beaks, and Major Jack Chapman (Kebbell) sees Kong wrestle a giant squid and have his own version of calamari sushi before sitting on a giant stick insect and getting eaten by a Skullcrawler.

The civilian crew are ambushed by the Iwi natives, a fearsome tribe with spears and ferocious facial makeup. But just when they think that all is lost, Hank Marlow (Reilly) appears and sets things right, telling them the story of his stranding in 1944 and how Kong rules the island. He named the lizard-like skull-headed creatures from the depths of Skull Island Skullcrawlers and informs the group that they haven’t seen “The Big One” that killed all of Kong’s family.

At gunpoint, Randa reveals to Packard that he’s working for a secret organization called Monarch which specializes in hunting “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.” He’s the only survivor of the U.S.S. Lautman, attacked by Kong in the past and that’s his motivation for this mission. Packard wants revenge on Kong for killing his men and will not be dissuaded. Meanwhile, Mason and Conrad learn the truth about Kong and want to save him from Packard and his men. But all want to get off the island alive.

Lots of excitement, action, moments to startle you, gratuitous and bloody violence and good use of 3D effects are in this movie. The acting is generally believable, even though Samuel L. Jackson is a bit over the top in his vengeful zeal. John Goodman is actually trim; he’s lost a lot of weight and looks like he’s enjoying every moment. There were no slow sections even with a tense standoff toward the end. I found myself gripping the arms of my chair at least twice. Henry Jackman’s music is awesome and the selection of pop tunes mixed in the story – “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” by The Hollies, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie, and “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn – are the original tracks and are appropriate where they are inserted. It kept my toes tapping.

The only flaw was a temporal one. I checked when the original movie was released. If King Kong was kidnapped (or rather ape-napped) in 1933 and brought to New York, where he died, how did they only discover him in 1944? Forget about 1973. Otherwise, the film was great, including the minimal interaction between the non-existent Kong and live actors. I would definitely recommend it to everyone who would not get nightmares from seeing scary creatures, especially in 3D. Forget about the time problem and stay through all the credits for the de-briefing scene with Conrad and Mason with its innuendos of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah. In the words of Randa, “This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.”

Rating: 4½ out of 5 martini glasses.

Sushi Seki of Times Square
365 West 46th Street, New York

I thought I’d been to every restaurant on “Restaurant Row” (46th Street) but this one opened 15 months ago and, one thing for certain, nothing is as sure as change in New York dining.

Besides the food, the most important part of a restaurant is its servers. They can make or break one’s dining experience. Fortunately, I had Nini, who helped my through the menu and explained the specials as we assembled my dinner. For my cocktail I chose the Koubai – Hendricks gin, plum wine, campari, rice vinegar and sea salt, a beautiful shade of rich orange in a ball-shaped glass with a hefty twist of lemon peel and a brownish-red Chinese Bay berry suspended over the drink. The plum flavor was dominant and the juniper of the gin gradually insinuated itself into the mix and the citrus from the lemon combined with the sweetness of the campari to make it an intriguingly delicious cocktail.

Choosing a sake was not easy – the list was so long, but the sake I chose was in a category by itself on the list: Ichinokura “Taru” sake, aged in cedar barrels with a subtle cedar accent to the smooth flavor of the sake.

My first course was a favorite, Shumai (ground shrimp wrapped in delicate, tender rice flour dumplings steamed to perfection and topped with flying fish roe). They were so fragile it was a challenge to pick them up with chop sticks, but I managed and savored every bite.

The next course was a joint selection. I chose the Uni (sea urchin) sushi because it’s my favorite (and I learned later, it’s also Chef Seki’s favorite) and she chose the King Salmon Sushi topped with a slice of roasted tomato. Both were amazing. The slightly earthy Uni is the only sushi one cannot dip upside-down into the soy sauce. To do so will cause the sea urchin meat to fall out. The salmon sushi mixed with the tomato almost tasted sweet.

My soup arrived with the sushi. Akadashi (Aka=red, Dashi=bean) – red miso soup, with little cubes of tofu, strands of seaweed and Nameko mushrooms (slender-stemmed with heads the size of small peas). It had much more bean flavor than regular miso, made from mung bean curd. And, as with so many Japanese dishes, it was not heavy, almost a broth.

The main course was as stunning to look at as it was to taste. Aji Sugata-Zukuri – horse mackerel sashimi with ginger and wasabi. The sliced, shiny, silver-skinned meat glimmered on the plate next to a row of thinly sliced lemons. The main attraction was the remainder of the mackerel, whose head was positioned looking up, while the rest of its body swept over it like a ballerina’s arm ending in the tail overshadowing the head! And when I tasted the fish I was surprised at the lack of fishy flavor. It was tender enough to melt, almost sweet and very delicate. My sake tasted strong in contrast. 

When I finished the sashimi another server took the dish for its second preparation. The remaining flesh on the bones and head were crisped tempura-style and re-served looking like a star on the plate. It was indeed a stellar dish, the crunchy coating made the flesh taste similar to bacon. And though I had to remove several small bits of bone and scales.

That may sound like a lot of food, but still, I was hungry. Nini brought back the menu and made a few suggestions, but I knew what I wanted. The Spicy Tuna Roll, a California style sushi with the rice on the outside, was the right choice to fill me up. Though each piece had wasabi in the roll, after tasting one, I added more to each, making it really spicy. The red tuna meat inside was excellent, tender, but firm and flavorful.

I always leave room for dessert and Sushi Seki had one unique recipe that Nini pointed out: the White Sesame Panna Cotta, flavored with rhubarb and served with red bean paste and fresh berries (raspberry, blackberry and kiwi, in this case). It was a delicate, mousse-like pudding. The tart flavor of the rhubarb was merely a hint in the sesame goodness. Nini brought me a beautiful ceramic cup of hot green tea and the bar tender brought a bottle of plum sake flavored with apricots. I had come full circle from my rich orange cocktail to my dusty orange after dinner drink.

Sushi Seki has three locations in Manhattan. Where I dined is the flagship and there’s one in Chelsea and one on the Upper East Side. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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