Monday, December 19, 2005

The New Yorker FINALLY reviews King Kong

This review has been a little late in coming, in part because of the end of the year frenzy but also in part because I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the prospect of reviewing the Mighty Kong. It is a film so impressive, so gargantuan in scope, so revolutionary, it was difficult for me to imagine encapsulating my thoughts into a single blog. But I will try.

King Kong. Just those two words evoke so much. He is an icon, a myth, a Hollywood legend, a global phenomenon. People all over the world who are not too familiar with American cinema have heard of King Kong. The first edition in 1933 was completely revolutionary for its time. While people may scoff and titter nowadays at the special FX captured in the fuzzy black and white, it was and still remains a contextual feat of film making. It is therefore appropriate and somehow poetically just that the 2005 version directed by Peter Jackson is equally astounding and groundbreaking.

With a running time of almost three and a half hours, the film is almost too huge to dissect. The action takes place in four major chunks. First, there is the action in the Depression-era New York City and introduces Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), the starving but stalwart vaudeville actress and Carl Denahm (Jack Black), the tenacious film maker with stubborn resolve. We follow these two characters until they meet and together embark on a journey that will change both their lives forever. This is followed by a good chunk of action which takes place on the Venture –the rickety tugboat hauling the cast and crew of Dehnahm’s movie to their mysterious destination. The third part of the film takes place on “Skull Island,” an insane jungle with a unique ecosystem all its own (including dinosaurs and monstrous sized bugs among other things). The fourth and final part of the film brings us back to New York City for the grand finale. Despite the fact that most feature films are thought of as having a “three-act” structure, I felt as though Kong almost had four. While I realize that the first part in NYC and the travels on the venture are both supposed to be part of Act I, each locale had such a different feel and purpose on screen. I must say beyond the marvel of the FX that made the creatures on the island and Kong himself so miraculous to look at, the sets and locations themselves were jaw-droppingly impressive. The way that Jackson recreated the 30’s era New York City was astounding. Everything had an authentic finish to it, and it all looked and felt so real, and yet so magical at the same time. It was a New York City pulled out of a storybook.

These organic first scenes in New York, also played a crucial part in setting up Ann Darrow’s character, because she in someway embodied the many sides of the city. She had the glamour and the beauty, the grace and the poise, but also had the sadness and the despair. I really liked the time Jackson took to set up Darrow’s character. I liked that they made her a scrappy Vaudeville comedian as opposed to an engenue starlet type. I liked that they gave her an intellect, had her reading plays, and instilled in her desires deeper than simply wanting fame. Darrow was dedicated to her trade, but also desperate to survive. Yet she was not so desperate she would do anything, as she demonstrates when she walks away from the Burlesque house. Yet Darrow, like so many others in the film, get taken in by Denham’s cons and promises, because she herself, wishes to believe in the magnificent things he is telling her, and it is this want of hope that we see in the early moments of the film, that sell us on the fact she accepts to do the movie. I love the line where she says she’s in the business of making people laugh, rather than cry, and that the final push for her to do the film, comes from the fact that her favorite playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody) has written the film’s screenplay. Jackson and writers Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh did a good job of building up this tension with Darrow’s character, and showing how fate really made it inevitable for her to do anything that would veer her from the course of the Venture. In other words, the set up was great.

Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow was immediately likeable. I thought she really imbued the role with an element of charm and a clever mixture of vulnerability and bravery. I think Watts has always done solid work, and I think this role may be one of her most impressive yet, particularly when you think about how much emotional work she had to do in front of a blank green screen. (Though I suppose she did have Andy Serkis bopping around in a body glove –but who could keep a straight face through all of that?) Jack Black as Carl Denham was a bit of a harder sell. I think more than anything it was strange for me to see him in such a straight role, and to boot, a period piece. There was some surprised tittering among folks when word got out that Jackson had cast him in such a major role. But after having the movie, I think I understand why P.J. (Peter Jackson) did it. I think the film needed a true comedian in that role, who had a sense of comic timing and delivery to add humor and help with the pacing of the film. Comedy is not really an integral part of the King Kong story, so I think P.J. was wise to add it in the little places he did, such as casting Black and making Darrow vaudevillian. Overall I think it was a good move on Jackson’s part, and I was impressed by the way Black exhibited the maniacal, deluded components of Carl Denahm’s character, even if it did seem like he was pushing a bit too hard at times.
Adrian Brody was quite good as always, his character was a bit more abbreviated than I had expected. Nevertheless he brought his bookish and magnetic swagger to his role, as he always does, which has quite a winning effect. I also thought the supporting cast was really great –Jamie Bell, Colin Hanks, Evan Parke, Thomas Kretschmann, as members of the ships and film’s crews. Friends of mine balked at the fact that certain relationships, such as that of Hayes and Libby (the first mate and the young kid from Billy Elliot) did not have a real payoff. But I didn’t mind so much, and I enjoyed getting to know some of the other folk on the Venture. I’m not sure exactly how Andy Serkis’ performance was incorporated into the CG character this time around, but I did think that Kong was remarkably emotive and had a wonderfully realistic face, due in part as well to the inscrutable visual FX. (Serkis was also amusing as the squinty-eyed cook, Lumpy.) I didn’t think there were any real acting weaknesses in this film, and yet that is so atypical (though arguably essential) for a film of this nature. It’s vital to have actors, who can not only sell you on the fact they are being chased by a giant gorilla or a man-eating cockroach, but who can also ground their performances emotionally, and show through nuances here and there (at the hand of a talented director) that their characters are real and rounded, not just cardboard cutouts.

After the first hour or so of the film which set up the era, the characters and the story, we (by way of the Venture) finally arrive on Skull Island. This was my favorite part of the movie. The tempo picks up from the moment the Venture arrives on shore. I have a feeling that there was a decent amount of footage showing Denham trying to shoot some scenes of his film on the island that never made it into the final cut. Remember that moment from the teaser when Darrow screams on the shores of the island and a fierce roar echoes back through the craggy coves surrounding the water? Well it wasn’t actually in the film –in fact as soon as Denham and co. begin to walk through the deserted portion of the native’s settlement, they run into that creepy little girl (who we also saw in the trailer), and moments later all hell breaks loose. P.J. went all out with the look of the natives on the island. They looked more like zombies or creatures than humans, and though they were no match for the rifles of Captain Englehorn and his men, they were savage in their insistence to capture Darrow from the Venture. I thought the whole night time sequence when the natives came on board to grab Darrow was terrifying and suspenseful. P.J. segwayed nicely into the sacrifice scene where Darrow is presented to Kong as the men race off the ship to save her.

The island itself was just absolutely stupendous. Once day came and we could properly see the lush yet foreboding greenery of the place I was astounded by the beauty and mystery of the place. I thought the design team did an incredible job with it ---and that was only the beginning. Kong looked incredible. He felt like a real, living, breathing, warm creature. The designers, Serkis and P.J. did such a good job of melding the characteristics which make him both animal AND human. I thought the scenes where we could see true expression through his face and his body language, were terrifically believable and even mildly poignant. Kong’s face and eyes had such a range of motion, and his body was so limber, I truly forgot I was watching a creation of cold, mechanical, computers. It was true artistry. Kong was only one of the many wonders of the island. The dinosaurs were unbelievable, and I don’t care what anyone says, I didn’t think that they felt like a “rip-off” of Jurassic Park. The Brontosaur “tumble” as I have deemed it, was unbelievable. I could barely believe what I was watching when I was watching it. I felt like a five year old who was at the movies for the first time. Not only did the brontosauruses look so damn real, but the way that the action sequence played out was completely mind blowing. All the different bugs were horrifyingly real and cringe-inducing. I don’t think there was an audience member in the theatre who didn’t gasp out loud, when Darrow was pinned between the two centipedes. The enormous earth worms were pretty spectacular as well.

It was on the island of course –where Darrow and Kong met and they developed their relationship. Now, I’ve always thought the relationship between these two figures is a little awkward, a little strange and a little silly. I understand it is a retelling of beauty and the beast, but I think there is a part of the Kong myth that feels a bit antiquated, a bit flawed in its conception. There is an inherent objectification of women that bothers me about the story, always has. In the ’33 version, Darrow is a goddess on a pedestal to be worshipped and possessed. In ’76 she was a sex kitten who was a slave to her own sensuality. Finally in ’05, I felt like someone almost got Darrow right. Almost. For the most part on the island, I thought that once Darrow overcame the initial fear and distress of Kong shaking her about, she was able to win his favor, not so much with her feminine wiles, but with her comedic talents. As she made him laugh, and then they ran from dinosaurs and napped together, I thought to myself –O.K., this is no longer just a story of beast lusting after beauty, this is a story about friendship, companionship, and affection. I think a friend of mine put it best when he described Darrow and Kong’s relationship to one another, as that of an owner and a pet. Darrow was Kong’s pet, and she was his. I agree with this idea at the start of their relationship, when they are on the island, but I think there was a change between them when they reunited in New York City. The scene in Central Park on the ice was very romantic, and the whole set piece on top of the empire state building was the tearful goodbye between two lovers. There was a leap that Jackson, Boyens and Walsh made in the script that I had a bit of trouble following. On the island, up until they were separated, it seemed as if Darrow and Kong merely had a mutual admiration for one another, a mutual respect and friendly understanding, but suddenly in New York, it became a war torn love affair. I think I would have preferred to see the gentle friendship. Of course, I don’t know if Jackson could’ve give me that version even if he wanted to, because that’s not King Kong. After all, the last line of the film, as used in all three versions, “beauty killed the beast.” This is an inescapable theme of the film; the creature who is seduced by the beauty of a woman. I don’t happen to find this undertow palatable in the slightest, but it is a unavoidable. I thought that Jackson and his two writing partners really tried to make Darrow more spunky and strong, and downplayed her objectification, and to a certain extent they succeeded. But I think there’s only so much they could separate from that core element of the story.

Other than that, I really had no major complaints about this film. Some may feel it’s too long, and though it was certainly indulgent at times, I still loved watching every minute on screen. I saw a late show, and initially was worried about staying awake through the whole thing, but my eyes were glued to the screen, and my jaw slack with awe. What Jackson created with this movie was no short of a miracle. It is not only the quality of the FX, but the imagination with which he renders everything. This movie was exciting, enthralling and heart stopping. As far as a Kong remake goes, I think this is the best thing anyone could have ever put out. As far as an action-adventure-fantasy film goes, I think there are very few filmmakers out there who possess the prowess to make a story like this come to life so vividly.

But mark my words –one day I will make a film about a giant lady dolphin who takes a shine to a strapping, handsome, young lad.


Anonymous crazymonk said...

Funny, the island part of the movie was my least favorite part. Too many action sequences. I think they could've cut out the brontosaurus stampede, because 1) it was extraneous and 2) it was the worst-looking scene CG-wise anyway. I loved the insect scene, but it was weakened by the quantity of action scenes before it.

I was most amazed with the last hour of the movie, especially the New York stuff. The scene in the theater was great.

The music: like Lord of the Rings, I felt that the music was too over-the-top. Too many sappy strings and bombastic drums. Don't these people realize that all modern actions epics these days all have virtually the same score?

A pretty good movie, but I think Peter Jackson needs to lose some yes-men.

11:02 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

The scene in the theatre was very cool, but I can't believe you didn't like the brontosaurus stampede! I agree with what you say about the music in this film, but I thought Howard Shore's scores for LOTR were incredible.

9:31 AM  
Blogger The Awful Writer said...

I didn't like the bronto stampede either. I just could not accept that anyone could have dodged all those legs for so long without getting smashed. I thought it would have been better if they used the brontos like the big boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark and had the crew one step ahead, but the brontos always getting closer. Certain death right on their heels until they figure out how to save themselves.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I thought it was terrific.
It was not really as good as I was hoping, but having said that it's still a million times better than most other fare out there.
I think the bronto stampede was marvellous, especially the pile up at the end.
To suggest it didn't look good is simply silly.
I do have a handful of complaints, but they are well balanced by the rest which I thought was marvellous.

6:09 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Huzzah, glad you liked it!

7:59 AM  

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