Wednesday, December 14, 2005

King Kong - Movie Review

King Kong 2005

Well, as the Oscar heat keeps getting toastier, and can we just say – it is so completely unfair that we have to wait for Terence Malick’s and Woody Allen’s latest flicks. (Damn advance screenings.) Anywho, we have been applauding the oodles of critic’s awards that “Brokeback Mountain” has been collecting in their ten gallon hats. (By the by, check out the ever delightful and always fascinating towleroad blog for a truly comprehensive mini-site on all things “Brokeback”. Featuring a mention of little ole us! Thanks towleroad – love ya! The check is in the mail.) And so, by now realizing that this year had finished with various potential Best Actor nominees, and less stellar Best Actress choices, we would like to submit for your consideration two other names.

Naomi Watts and King Kong for Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic Beauty and the Beast riff. Now, hold up there a minute! You can’t be serious, you must be muttering to your pour deluded selves. Well, yes we are. (Kinda.)

As any true film fan will tell you, the original “King Kong” made way back in 1933 was the brainchild of the maverick adventurer and filmmaker, Merian C. Cooper and his partner in crime, Ernest B. Schoedsack. It featured the screen goddess Fay Wray, cost a fortune, terrified Depression Era audiences and made a mint at the box office. And over the past seventy plus years, has endured as a true film classic. So why remake it? Well, they did. Twice. (While we have fond embryonic memories of seeing the 1976 remake featuring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and the debut of future two time Oscar winning actress, Jessica Lange - it was crap back then, and deserves to be forgotten.)

Peter Jackson, in case you haven’t been breathing for the past several years, started out as a talented minor director from New Zealand, who dedicated several years of his life to adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings.Thirty Oscar nominations and Seventeen Oscars later – he is one of the major directors working today. He had long expressed a desire to direct the latest remake of his childhood inspiration to become a movie maker. Several hundred million dollars later, we are faced with a three hour epic celebrating the original concept in spirit, tone and of course one big motherfucking gorilla. And Christ on a Cracker is that ape brilliant! We had been crossing our legs in hopes of hearing Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s names called out come Oscar night, but screw them (Well, Heath at least – while we admire Phil, we don’t particularly want to screw him.) – but this is the Best Actor of the year. Jackson and his cunning CGI team have digitally morphed actor Andy Serkis’ breathtaking performance into an honest to God real character. You think we’re kidding, but we’re not. Every gesture and emotion rings truer than most actors working today. While ole Petey boy may have impressed us with his previous CGI creation, Gollum – he further extends the power of the computer animated process with Kong. Just as the original broke new ground with the pioneering stop motion animation work of Willis H. O’Brien, this latest Kong threatens to deprive some actors from future work. Why bother with onset Diva tantrums and irate publicists, when you can manufacture a great performance on your iBook?

Jackson sets his remake in the originals timeframe and maintains the basic particulars. Adventure filmmaker plucks a helpless young girl off the streets of New York City, convinces her she would be perfect for his next film to be shot on location in Singapore. Off they sail. He lied. Like all men. Typical. He plots a course for a mythical island, home of a supposedly fantastic creature named Kong. They land. Kong is real. Really fucking big. The natives kidnap the white woman, offer her as a sacrifice. Kong falls head over heels in love with his new bride. The hero comes to the rescue. Kong is captured and brought back to the Big Apple as a top dollar sideshow freak. Kong is angry. Breaks free, destroys half the city, climbs the Empire State Building with his gal and gets machine gunned down by swirling biplanes. The end. And if that were all that Peter brings to the remake, why bother leaving your home?

As the great critic, Andrew Sarris once noted, the original “King Kong” was a rarity amongst great films. The first half was not all that good, the second half was indeed good, and the final ten minutes made it great. The same could be said for the current remake. In order for us to care, we must either believe in the impossible or be dazzled by the visual storytelling. Thankfully, we were. The obvious care and attention that Jackson and crew have lavished on their version shows in every frame. The production values are flawless, from the Art Deco opening credits thru the intricately stage battles between Kong and various prehistoric beasts. (We quibble with the use of Peggy Lee on the soundtrack . . . the bitch didn’t even graduate from high school till five years after this flick’s timeframe!) The bulk of the film relies heavily on the fight sequences, and as Peter has proven with his “Rings” trilogy – this man knows how to stage a stirring slapdown. While some may bitch about the first third prior to our first sight of the awesome Kong, we would remind you the original followed the same template. We believe today’s audiences are so used to MTV styled editing and choppy storytelling, they have lost all patience with the art of screen narrative. These people should be taken out back and shot thru the head.

Jackson is also blessedly capable of inciting terror and awe. The natives who inhabit the fog shrouded Skull Island are no longer those spear chuckers of yesteryear. These are goose bump inspiring aborigines who look primed and ready to rip apart the invading film crew at a moment’s notice. And while the Kong vs. dinosaur epic battles are brilliantly handled, it is the intense struggle for survival of the mangled crew at the bottom of a dark crevice that will have you squirming in your seats! Faced with an army of prehistoric creepy crawlies swarming en masse over their battered bodies, their escape literally comes at the nick of time. All these wonderful scenes come as a precursor to the final, epochal ballet of death atop the Empire State Building. The most justly famous scene from the original is transformed into a vertigo inducing aerial duel to the death between giant ape and machine, with Naomi Watts as the desperate heroine struggling to the last to save Kong’s misunderstood existence. Perhaps we are too poetic in our recap of a monster monkey flick, but you know what – magical movie moments are so few and far between, that we found ourselves blissfully transformed back into 10 year olds. And not in a scary pedophiliac way.

What can we say about Naomi Watts, except that we adore her more than ever. From her sizzling breakthrough performance in “Mulholland Dr.” to her Oscar nominated turn in “21 Grams”, she has always astonished us by her range and artistry. Here, she follows in the wonderful scream queen, Fay Wray’s footsteps by pulling out all the stops in making us believe in the unbelievable. And that in a nutshell is what this film is about.

The rest of the players fare well, but lack the power of Naomi Watts’s star turn. Jack Black has never been one of our favorites. We think he’s fine, at playing Jack Black. Here, while it was a hurdle at first, we bought into his portrayal of Carl Denham. Denham was after all only a thinly veiled version of the original Merian C. Cooper, a loud boasting stocky little man – and who else to cast but well, a loud boasting stocky little man. Adrien Brody who post Best Actor Oscar has not exactly found the next perfect cinematic calling card, is seen as playwright Jack Driscoll, lured into the fated voyage by trickster Denham and unwillingly cast in the role of hero when his newly budding romance with actress Ann Darrow is seemingly at risk with her captor, Kong. Shipboard, we have the ever fuckable Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliot” fame. (By the by, please go rent his little seen “Undertow” which was one of the best films of 2004. Now!) Evan Parke as the steely eyed first mate, Hayes. Kyle Chandler, former heartthrob perfectly cast as the onscreen lover of Ann Darrow. (It feels like Jackson has carved the original Jack Driscoll in half, depositing the stilted manly heroic image of the original Bruce Cabot to Kyle and the tender, caring betrothed Bruce Cabot to Adrien Brody.) The ploy works. Colin Hanks, (Yes, the scion of that Hanks.) portrays Denham’s beleaguered assistant, Preston. But this film belongs to our heroine and her tall, dark leading man. Naomi Watts and Kong. (Okay, we admit we’re still pulling for Heath and Phil – but honest to God, Kong is amazing!)

We are often surprised how many filmgoers will go watch a completely unbelievable romantic comedy, performed badly, and cloyingly written and pronounce it “WUNDERBAR!” And then they raise their noses at science fiction or fantasy that demands to be seen with a childlike ability to wonder and suspend disbelief. We are more willing to believe in the mythic bond between Kong and Ann Darrow, than some fat girl and her man troubles. The movies were created to excite us, to astound us, to captivate our hearts and minds. As long as they don’t speak down to us, or trade visual storytelling for schlock gore and car chase clichés, we are more than willing to commit to their flights of fancy. That’s what movie making is for. While this “King Kong” contains the requisite violence and chase scenes, it never panders down to the lowest common denominator. The magic of movies is to be found in the details. And with this latest Kong, we believed. For three hours, we believed that it was indeed “Beauty that killed the Beast.” Bless you all!

(End note: Kudos to the Kiwi for dropping loving “in-jokes” to the original. From the cloche hat, to Denham’s mention of his wish to cast an actress named Fay – who was apparently busy filming something by Cooper, to the use of the original dialogue for the movie within the movie scene. We got all misty at the mention of Fay.)

Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens
Based on the 1933 Screenplay by Merian C. Cooper & Edgar Wallace

Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow
Jack Black as Carl Denham
Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll
Andy Serkis as Kong / Lumpy the Cook
Jamie Bell as Jimmy
Colin Hanks as Preston
Evan Parke as Hayes
Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter
Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn

Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie
Film Editing by Jamie Selkirk
Costume Design by Terry Ryan
Original Music by James Newton Howard
Production Design by Grant Major
Art Direction by Simon Bright
Set Decoration by Dan Hennah