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Monday, December 19, 2005

"Beautiful": Review of Peter Jackson's King Kong

I must confess something: before I started writing this review of Peter Jackson's King Kong, I was already well begun on writing a whole 'nother review about the movie. And THAT one came in place of the one I started working on Thursday morning.

The morning after going in to see King Kong, I woke up feeling totally jazzed about the previous night. I was set to write what could only be described as one of my most positive reviews ever. Probably by noon I'd gotten a darned good start at it too. Every fiber of my being wanted to scream out to the world about how overwhelming an experience King Kong is.

But you know how in Jurassic Park – the novel, not the Spielberg movie – it's got Ian Malcolm ranting about "chaos theory": how very tiny things in a system work to totally wreck the entire thing? That's what started happening to my perception of King Kong as I worked through the review in my head: little details of the movie seemed so innocuous at first, but as the day progressed those small things... started accumulating. And then each one started making the last one exponentially worse. I bought the soundtrack CD from the local Target and listened to it on my MP3 player for two hours or so that night, even through the power outage we had from the ice. It was a subconscious effort to stay focused on the good aspects of the movie...

...Though by 9 p.m. I'd started having serious thoughts about whether King Kong was really that great a movie at all. And I realized that I'd begun trying to rationalize for myself why I should give it a great review... instead of being as objective as I could be about it.

By that point I broke down and admitted that all my work throughout the day was completely kaput. I desperately wanted to write a good review of the movie. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. Not without feeling like I was being completely dishonest with whoever might read my review of it. I realized that I could go no further with the original review: I trashed that one and started work on another.

Let me state the obvious: Peter Jackson's King Kong is not a perfect movie. There's just too much that's wrong with it. Some of the effects look unfinished, like the brontosaurus stampede: too many times during which it noticeably looks like the actors are simply jogging in place in front of a green screen. A few of the scenes could have been shortened by a minute or two: the aforementioned brontosaurus scene, and the part where the Venture is running aground near the wall, f'rinstance. With another 3-4 months of post-production work and tighter editing Jackson's King Kong might have come out a completely different film. Darth Larry posted his thoughts on the movie over at his blog and I do feel led to yield to a lot of his points. His review reads a lot like what my own revised one was going to be like: a blunt-honest look at what kept me from giving King Kong my full stamp of approval.

But then, there was something tugging at me to not write that review, either. I've no idea how to put it. King Kong had resonated with my soul and I'm still at a loss for words for why that is. Something reached out from deep inside my being and stayed my hand, because it was telling me that if I were to pull the trigger on that revision – the one pointing out all its faults – that doing so would be something I would really come to regret for a long time to come. Maybe even the rest of my life. I couldn't dare attack King Kong. And so the second review was aborted even faster than the first.

But I wanted to understand why it was that I couldn't say something bad about King Kong either, even knowing that it's not as good as it could have been.

Two days ago I went out with Lisa to do some Christmas shopping. By early afternoon we decided to take in a movie, and she hadn't seen King Kong yet. So we went to the same theater – the Grande at Friendly Center in Greensboro – that Darth Larry and I had seen it at a few nights before, and caught the 1:30 showing. It gave her a chance to check it out, and it gave me an opportunity to watch it and... I think going in this time I had less heightened expectation, since I'd seen it already. Maybe the first time I went in trying too hard to examine the movie. This second time, with my wife at my side, and on the afternoon of what had been a perfect Saturday, I could let myself simply enjoy it.

So now I'm working on my third version of a review about one film. Never before have I had to wrestle so much with my thoughts regarding a single movie. I'm still wrestling with it. It's five days since it came out, and I'm feeling compelled to say something about it. So here goes...

King Kong is my very favorite movie of 2005. And I'll even go so far to say that it ties with Walk The Line as the best movie of the year.

But even if it doesn't win any awards, or won't do as some have predicted by breaking the box office record from Titanic (which I would love to see happen with this movie), and despite all its flaws, when all of that is lost in its vivid detail and terrific plot and wonderfully deep use of character, I cannot help but take a line from Ann Darrow and offer up one word that describes what I feel about King Kong: "Beautiful."

(Okay, I'm writing more than just one word about it. Just follow through with me, willya?)

Even moreso than The Lord of the Rings, King Kong is Peter Jackson's magnum opus. This is the movie he's been preparing all his life to make, ever since he first saw the 1933 original as a kid growing up in New Zealand and tried to make his own with crude claymation at age 12. The first time I ever heard about Peter Jackson it was when The Frighteners came out about ten years ago. Not long after that some photos made their way online showing Jackson with concept sculptures of Kong fighting a dinosaur. He would have made that King Kong too – it was to be set in the 1930s, done in black-and-white but with computer-rendered effects – were it not for a certain trilogy of movies that some regard as the finest saga ever put to film... perhaps even eclipsing the legendary Star Wars series.

But through it all, Jackson's heart was with Kong. You have to know that going in to see King Kong. Everything that Peter Jackson ever loved about the original movie, every trick he's picked up over the past decade, every weird sick fetish the man has – like showing giant creepy bugs and racks of skeletal remains – he poured into King Kong. This is the moment he's been waiting on for the better part of forty years and he shows you how giddy he is to do it. But he also poured every bit as much heart and soul into his version of the Kong story as he did with The Lord of the Rings. And right now, I'm darned hard-pressed to tell you which of these two cinematic creations of Peter Jackson has awed me the more.

Where King Kong first succeeds for me is its first hour, when we're introduced to all the main players amid the setting of the early 1930s. That's a big part of why I love this movie so much. Whatever its detractors may say of the movie, this much has to be conceded: King Kong is a majestic period piece. I'm glad that Jackson set his King Kong in the time frame of the original. The 1933 version was contemporary for its time but an anachronism today. Jackson actually makes his New York City feel more like it's 1933 than the original did... and that's saying a helluva lot. As much as he worked on bringing the giant gorilla to life, I'm convinced Jackson spent as much or more effort resurrecting the New York City of the early Depression. I'm a huge fan of period pieces, especially those set against the backdrop of the 1930s (I was a big fan of HBO's Carnivale for much the same reason, by the way). For someone who appreciates that bygone era, King Kong 2005 is almost a never-ending feast for the eyes.

Peter Jackson opens up King Kong with Al Jolson's "I'm Sitting On Top Of The World" playing against a montage of quick scenes that Jackson shot depicting New York City life in the 1930s. We see things like newsboys standing on street corners with the latest edition of the paper, men walking on steel girders a hundred stories up in the air, throngs of people lined up outside of soup kitchens, and outrageous acts on the vaudeville stage (my favorite is the guy juggling apples while eating them). In fact the first time we see Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) she's doing a Charlie Chaplin impersonation with a small theatre troupe struggling to stay afloat.

Cut to Carl Denham (Jack Black), nervously watching with the studio execs the movie he's shot. He needs money to finish and they aren't willing to invest any more in him. Not even after he pitches the idea of filming on an island that he's somehow got a map to. He ends up stealing his own movie while trying to figure out who to replace his lead actress who quit production (listen for a sly nod to the original King Kong in the exchange between Denham and his associate). Suddenly Denham is a wanted man on top of being a desperate director. And then he practically kidnaps scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and presses him into the service of finishing the film's screenplay while en route to the unknown onboard a tramp freighter.

By this point in the film I totally forgot that I was watching a movie about a mammoth ape, so immersed did I become in the story of Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, Jack Driscoll and the crew of the Venture. Batman Begins had that same effect on me: Bruce Wayne as a vengeful vagrant trekking across Asia had so completely gripped me that it wasn't until he got picked up by Alfred on the plane that it crossed my mind again that this was a "Batman" movie. I know that some people are going to complain that the first hour of King Kong doesn't have enough action, that it goes by too slow, whatever. To me the first hour is fine as it is. It sets up the characters and their conflicts. The first hour of King Kong makes us care about everything else that happens after they reach Skull Island. Whatever editing the movie could still use, this part of the movie is perfect. I really liked how it established the crew of the Venture, including Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), Mr. Hayes and Jimmy (Evan Park and Jamie Bell), and especially Lumpy, played by Andy Serkis. Of all the Venture crew that I came to enjoy as characters – and I liked them a lot, especially the dialogue between Hayes and Jimmy – Lumpy is without a doubt my favorite. You might remember Serkis for his portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He does motion-capture for Kong in this movie, and in Lumpy we get to see him in a more traditional role than we've lately seen him in. And the man can act, believe you me. When he's telling Denham the story of the sailor they picked up seven years ago, it made me wonder just who in the world this Lumpy guy is: what had he seen, where has he been?

But all of this is just overture for what happens next: the arrival at Skull Island. Imagine one of those cities of unholy geometry that H.P. Lovecraft used to write about, that gets inhabited by feral humans. That's what the first part of Skull Island – what's on the safe side of the wall – looks like. And from here on it is where King Kong becomes an exercise not for the weak of stomach. Be warned that Peter Jackson didn't hesitate to turn on the gruesome: the natives of Skull Island look like malnourished orcs from The Lord of the Rings. That's nothing compared to what happens in "the spider pit" that the rescue party is trapped in later on in the movie during their hunt for Kong.

Okay, let's talk about Kong. Kong may be the greatest special effect ever committed to film. He certainly shares top honors with Gollum from Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Both are products of WETA's computer wizardry. And both characters were played by Andy Serkis. And you know why both special effects work to create believable characters? It's because Jackson and WETA understand something that I don't think the artists at other effects houses have picked up on: it's the eyes. You could just look in Gollum's face and tell whether it was the good side or the bad that had taken over. In King Kong the WETA crew has upped their game significantly. You look in Kong's eyes and you see a real soul there. He's not just an animal anymore. This is someone who can be angry, or joyful. He can throw a tantrum or laugh out loud. He can be brash, and he can be quiet. The scenes where Kong and Ann are making eye contact... so help me, they are really making eye contact with each other. Even more than all his other movements (and can this ape move or what) it was his facial expressions that most captivated me about Kong. Expect a whole slew of technical awards for WETA for pulling this off and making him so utterly believable.

The rest of the effects in the movie... well, I've already touched on how some of them could still use some work. Not much more work, but anyone who's had a steady diet of special effects films will notice. But those are so minor compared to everything else. And the effects that ARE perfect... I don't know what more could be done to the fight between Kong and three dinosaurs. I thought the best effects came in the last part of the movie, when Kong is on his rampage through New York City. From the moment he cuts loose from his chains on Broadway (look for composer Howard Shore conducting the orchestra), the visual work is beyond belief.

Jack Black as Carl Denham... the very first look in this man's face and you'll swear you're seeing dollar signs in his eyes. The '33 Carl Denham comes across as a combo of Frank Buck and Frank Capra: out to make a dollar with a show but basically an okay guy. In 2005 Carl Denham is more like Cecil B. DeMille meets P.T. Barnum meets Captain Ahab. Black's Denham is the king of the hucksters. He is the ultimate moocher. He is exploitation personified. This is a man who would sell off his dear old grandma if he thought he could profit from it. He is obsessed with finishing his movie, and when he can't do that anymore he finds a new obsession. He doesn't see the people around him... the people he dragged into his mess and the ones who are now hurting the most from it. Other people may get injured or killed but Denham always comes out of it unscathed, only to exploit and destroy even more. You will positively come to hate Jack Black's Carl Denham, even as you start to pity him. Black chews up the scenery in every shot he's in... sometimes without even saying a word. He's the kind of guy you'll absolutely demand to be dragged away in handcuffs by the end of the movie. By far the best on-screen villain of the year. In a perfect world there will be at least three men nominated for an Academy Award this year: Ian McDiarmid for Star Wars Episode III, Joaquin Phoenix for Walk The Line, and Jack Black for King Kong.

Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow... this was NOT what I was expecting in a portrayal of Darrow at all. In the original Ann Darrow is there to scream and be kidnapped by Kong and not much else. Darrow 2.0 is much more proactive and engaging. She's a struggling actress who is trying to keep afloat without losing her dignity. She's trying to hold onto something in this world without it being wrenched away from her. As much as Jack Black deserves at least a Best Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars, Naomi Watts should get one for Best Actress. She deserves that much for her interaction with Kong. She also deserves it from all the other little nuances she brings to her character. Her last time with Kong atop the Empire State Building, that's this year’s "I'll never let go Jack" moment. And she makes it work beautifully.

Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll is a far cry from what he was in the 1933 original – the first mate onboard the Venture – but I wound up enjoying this character a lot more than I expected. This is the second movie I've seen Brody in, besides The Pianist, and in King Kong he pulls off both a quiet writer and a man of action exceedingly well. One other actor I want to make mention of is Kyle Chandler as Denham's leading man Bruce Baxter. In Baxter I found a characterization of everything that's wrong with the typical A-list actor in today's filmmaking industry: someone upstanding and virtuous on the screen but minus the special effects and trick shots, it's somebody who's really more of a coward than the average Joe. There's a great dialogue between Driscoll and Baxter about this even, before the brontosaur stampede. One more thing I like about King Kong: there's gonna be a lot of good quotes coming out of this movie.

James Newton Howard's score here is beautiful, made all the more noteworthy because he really didn't have much time to put it together. Part of me is forever going to be wondering what King Kong would have been like had Howard Shore finished his work on the project, but I'm still satisfied with Newton Howard's compositions here. King Kong's music can be powerful and thrilling, but it also has moments of quiet appreciation. I'm thinking especially of "the ice scene" (the track is "Central Park" if you have the soundtrack), featuring a really moving piano interlude.

What else can I say about King Kong?

I could talk about "the ice scene", but the less I say about that to the uninitiated, the better: it really is something you need to go in and enjoy unawares. I could talk about all the little (and big) references to the original King Kong: from the exact same "man on a swinging vine" sign you see in Times Square as you'll find in the background of one shot of the 1933 version, to the "sacrificial" re-enactment in front of the chained Kong... that looks EXACTLY like the scene in the original when Denham and crew first see the villagers. I could talk about how my heart really did pound during most of the action sequences on Skull Island... and then broke the moment I saw the biplanes emerge from behind the Empire State Building, putting an end to one beautiful moment, because we know how this is going to end for Kong...

Yeah, this has been a long review. But I've never felt so much about a single movie before in my entire life.

I could say a lot more, but what I really want to say is: I absolutely love Peter Jackson's King Kong.

Please understand something: this is not going to supplant the original 1933 King Kong. Ever. Put the thought out of your mind. The 1933 one is always going to be considered the better of the two (or three, if you also throw in the 1976 remake). They did so much with so little back then, and it still holds up even today. I will be enjoying my new DVD of the '33 King Kong for many, many years to come. But I'll also make room on my shelf for King Kong 2005. They are basically the same story, but two very different movies about that story. Each one should be enjoyed and appreciated on the basis of its own merits. I've no problem having both of these films as two of my all-time favorite movies.

King Kong '05 is a movie made for all the reasons why we go to see movies in the first place. It's great escapist fare. It's also got a lot of characters that we come to feel for. It has moments that will make you grab hold of your seat and moments that will make you long for a Kleenex. It's amazing eye candy. It is a great object lesson of this truth: that it's story - and not special effects – that make a movie really special.

In spite of everything that I could say that is wrong with King Kong, I just can't bring myself to focus in on the negative and not stand back, and just admire it for what it is. Lumps and all, this is still everything that can be right and true with the art of filmmaking.

Go see King Kong if you haven't already. Make sure you use the bathroom before the picture starts 'cuz at three-hours-plus this can be a bladder-buster. More important, try to drop any expectations you might have about the movie. Just take it in for what it is: a really terrific motion picture spectacle with a lot of heart to it.

Man, I hope this makes more money than Titanic. If any movie deserves to be the new top banana, it's gotta be Peter Jackson's King Kong.


Anna Bond said...

Excellent review...
And Thanks for leaving a note on my blog.. and the link to your review :)