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Monday 19 December 2005

King Kong

reviewed by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson (based on the original story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace)

Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Evan Parke, Andy Serkis, Jamie Bell, Kyle Chandler

Both: Split decision here. Howard thinks itís a great film. Lawrence thinks itís a rip-roaring two hour film trapped inside a lumbering three hour film.

Howard Waldrop: I've just seen a great movie. KING KONG: THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD, indeed.

Forget most of what you know about the original; assume there'll be a Carl Denham, a Skull Island, dinosaurs, a big ape, and the Empire State Building and you'll be on safe ground.

Lawrence Person: As a faithful remake, you also have to forgive all of the problems of the original which are replicated here: a full Triassic ecosystem on an island that can't be any bigger across than, say, Maui, including not just one but two apex predators, a scantly clad heroine not only being carried about a snowbound Manhattan wearing next-to-nothing, but never managing to lose her high heels, and a giant ape falling from the Empire State Building and leaving a recognizable corpse rather than a big crater and lots of Sploady Kongbits everywhere. None of that bothered me. But other things did.

HW: From its winter 1932/early 1933 opening, with the one absolutely perfect Jolson song and scenes of high life, Hoovervilles, riots and Prohib agents, it plunges us into a world as lost to us as Skull island was to the people of 1933.

When you come out of this thing, you feel like you've been beaten with logs (more so even than when leaving Das Boot 24 years go) — and you have, at least a couple of times — if not actual logs, you've been caught in a sauropod stampede with velociraptors nipping at your face (the stampede is right out of the Donald Duck in Forbidden Valley comic book); you've been dangled between 3 tyrannosauri, and played with by an ape who treats you like a wind-up toy...

There are scenes of wonder and beauty scattered all through this thing like nuts in a praline. Jackson's intelligence shows through all the time; he never lets you forget how big Kong is; he's breathing all the time, and it's like the steam from a laundry, or a locomotive idling. At one point in his cave-den, he passes the skeletons of other giant gorillas, thereby belaying any questions about ancestry — it's like the Graveyard of Lost Gorillas — your assumption is that Kong (like the newspaper strip Phantom) is the last of a long line of Kongs, which the natives thought was one immortal one. Without saying a word. This is not assuming-everyone-is-a-Republican-doodoopeepeehead-filmmaking [LP: Tweet! Rhetorical Foul! Ad Hominem political attack in non-political movie review! Ten yard penalty! First down!], but that they can figure it out from the clues.

Let's talk about what's wrong with the movie so we can get it out of the way, as it's pretty minor.

LP: We differ on the severity of the problems enumerated.

HW: It's too long — Lawrence thinks about an hour, I say more like 25 minutes. I don't have a clue why the Skull Island natives look and behave like something out of an Italian Cannibal Zombie Holocaust movie. And I hate to say this, for a near-legendary lost scene recreated for the film: the Spider-Pit Sequence goes on too long. We get not one but two last-minute rescues by people who are supposed to be somewhere else, and we get the same speech twice about dead camera-crew members from Carl Denham (Jack Black). (LP: Yeah, but that one's supposed to be hokey, and fits in with Denham's self-serving-purveyor-of-humbug persona.) There's one anachronism: a mention of the Federal Theater Project before FDR is even inaugurated...

LP: In retrospect, the wealth of material and absolute need for speed required to present as much of J. R. R. Tolkien's original work in the Lord of the Rings movies may have been to Jackson's advantage. Here there are two obvious pace-killers: It takes way too long to get on the ship, and once on the ship it takes way too long to get to the island. Jackson could have cut out 75% of the beginning footage in New York City, and we still would have gotten everything we needed to move on. You could have cut the scene of Denham meeting with his financial backers entirely (alas, it is Black's best work here), and just cut straight to him running for the taxi with the film reels, add a line or two, and you'd be fine. Likewise, ten minutes of Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) doing her vaudeville routine, of the theater closing, and of her wandering around sad and hungry, could have been done in two.

The problem with the shipboard footage is that much falls between two stools. We get backstories on all the redshirts, but they're such generic types that it wholly fails to individualize them as anything but redshirts, which especially true of the surrogate father-son relationship between Hays (Evan Parke) and Jimmy (Jamie Bell).

The love story, while believable (writer falls in love with the only beautiful woman on a long sea voyage who also happens to adore his work; yeah, not a lot of suspension of disbelief required there...) still falls flat. Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll is simply too limp and restrained to make the sparks fly. Their cute-meet scene is labored, their relationship lacks both snap and smolder (see His Girl Friday for the textbook example of how it's done), and there's just too much time spent on it for the emotional payoff. The adult me wasn't moved by the love story, and my inner 13-year old wished they'd get the hell off the screen and make way for the dinosaurs already.

HW & LP: The Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now parallels do not work, even if the subtext is the same: Don't Get Off the Boat. Moreover, if you are going to make such parallels, you do not put a huge, blinking neon sign reading COME SEE THE METAPHOR!!!!!!, which is exactly what you're doing when you not only have one of the mates reading Heart of Darkness, but actually discussing the meaning of it with another crewmember.

LP: And speaking of Italian horror films, there's one "stutter blur" stylistic camera trick Jackson uses (most notably when we get pan-in close-ups of human skulls) which looks amateurish and annoying the first time it's used, much less the tenth. It's a big misstep from a director capable of masterful restraint.

And finally there are a handful of other annoyances. For example, how come Kong collapses the theater balcony when he jumps on it, but is able to slide gracefully across the frozen central park lake without it cracking (the same one they blow up with an anti-aircraft gun a few moments later)? Much of Driscoll's actions near the end seem illogical (what, you didn't realize the lines about the relationships in your own play applied to you while you were writing them?; and was luring Kong away from the street car and into even heavier traffic really a smart move?). Why would the giant bat things living near Kong's cave all this time wait until it was convenient to the plot to attack him? And there are times above and beyond the aforementioned where Jackson's weakness for the maudlin (heretofore seen overmuch in the last 30 minutes of The Return of the King) surfaces here, where he occasionally seems to be reaching for Pre-Canned Poignancy. I never thought I'd see the director of Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive start going all Spielberg on us. (And speaking of Dead Alive, one of the many clever visual gags is the "Sumatran Rat Monkey" crate in the ship's hold.)

HW: What's good is wonderful. Ann Darrow is her own woman with her own reasons. The first hour is nothing like you're going to imagine going in. The Jack Driscoll character is the scenarist this time around (there's an actor playing the "Jack Driscoll" character in the movie they're making aboard ship). Another sign of Jackson (and his co-screenwriter's) intelligence: some original King Kong script and scenes are there, but they're always "quoted" i.e. in the movie they're filming aboard ship, or in the Carl Denham Kong premiere on Broadway, never as part of the action of the here-and-now [LP: Save the classic closing lines]. More great stuff: the aforementioned sauropod stampede, the tyrannosaurus; the Spider-Pit Scene (for its first five minutes); the capture of Kong; the whole Kong premiere episode (yes, Jack Black makes that same walk from the wings Robert Armstrong did in 1933); the whole New York sequence, in fact. The last 20 minutes give you vertigo — everything is moving; Ann, Kong, the planes, the camera (or whatever it is they use for CGI — you're about a quarter mile away from the building sometimes, and the airplanes fly over, under and around you). And the bullets hurt when they hit Kong; the difference between the original and here is that the machine guns have tracers in them — as they would — and you can see where they're going in.

LP: Though I'm playing the bad cop in the review, that's only because I wasn't as smitten with it as Howard, but I did like it. The breathtaking stuff in it really is breathtaking. The cyclopean ruins on Skull Island are impressive. The tyrannosaurus fight is great (especially the scene where Ann has fallen into a vine-filled crevice where both she and the T Rex are suspended, and it starts swaying toward her...). And Naomi Watts is suitably luminous in a role that requires her to be just that. But the very best thing about the movie is the title character.

HW: This movie answers one age-old question: What does Kong expect out of this? Instead of his fascination being curiosity and some kind of pre-sexual fixation (as in the original), this one is about humor. (The other sacrifices of native girls were about power and food — from the way he starts acting with Ann, he used to terrify them and then eat them, a ritual propitiatory diversion from a hard day of whipping dinosaur butt.) On Skull Island, she makes him laugh. In New York, he makes her laugh. (It's not that schematic in the movie, but that's what happens.)

I didn't cry at the end of the movie (I saw the camera setup coming that was supposed to make me cry) because I'd already brimmed over at the scene in Central Park — a straightforward avowal of Ann's "Nothing good ever lasts" from early in the movie.

LP: Kong didn't move me to tears, but it wasn't for any lack on Kong's part.

If anything, Howard has actually undersold the magnificent job Andy Serkis and the CGI team have done in creating Kong. He is absolutely bestial and absolutely sympathetic (my fingers wanted to type "human" there, for all the times he seems almost so; but therein lies the tragedy). Although "You will believe an ape can look away!" is hardly the stuff ad campaigns are made of, here it's Kong's very smallest, most understated gestures which are the most impressive. As thrilling as the battle sequences are, it's his face you can never take your eyes off of. Serkis' Gollum was brilliant; here he does more, with less.

HW: This has scenes you'll never forget. A template for the rest of your life. You'll always remember Kong on his Manhattan rampage, casually catching up to, cursorily examining and tossing aside every blonde on 42nd street (like some out-of-control Donald Trump) in his search for Ann. The sunrise scene outside his cave-den on Skull Island, and the same one on the Empire State Building. And the scene in Central Park is a real heartbreaker.

Go see it with someone you love, and like Ann, know that for certain, they're going to die one day.

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.