Sunday, December 18, 2005

King Kong / **** (PG-13)

Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschman
Preston: Colin HanksJimmy: Jamie Bell
Hayes: Evan Parke
Bruce Baxter: Kyle Chandler
Lumpy: Andy SerkisKong: Andy Serkis

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson. Based on the original film story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Running time: 187 min. Rated PG-13 (for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images).

I’ve been reading books about 70’s cinema lately, what many critics call the last great decade in Hollywood filmmaking. It was the age of the auteur, when studios allowed directors free reign to make the films they wanted to make, the way they wanted to make them. Many great directors were cultivated during that decade when the box office and the art house became one, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Terrance Malick. Since then the auteur director has had to rely on independent film companies to get their films made and most of the great auteurs of the 70’s have either died, become studio suits themselves, or simply faded away. It seems only Spielberg and Malick are still making movies the way they want to anymore. Even George Lucas is making films more for his fan base now than for himself. With King Kong Peter Jackson may just prove to be the first great director to rise up through the studio system since that memorable decade.

Jackson, fresh off the ultra successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, says the original 1933 King Kong inspired him to become a film director when he saw it for the first time at the age of nine. I myself held a similar passion for the material. I remember one fall day in particular in which I kept excusing myself from yard clean up duty with my father to sneak in and watch it every two minutes. I would even reenact the entire Skull Island sequence in the woods with friends, each taking our turns getting shook off some fallen log in the woods by our imaginary Kong.

Jackson’s own love for the material shines through in every frame of this loving remake. He and fellow Rings scribes Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have a great deal of fun paying homage to the original Kong by interweaving lines of dialogue from that screenplay by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace into various scenes that play up their corny nature, including using some for dialogue in the movie within the movie. There is even a scene where Jack Black’s movie producer/director makes a reference to that original King Kong production when he asks if he can get Kong star Fay Wray to be in his latest jungle adventure. His assistant tells him Wray just started a picture for RKO. “Cooper must have got her,” he responds.

The filmmakers also have a good deal of fun playing with the notion that in the original Kong Fay Wray’s love interest is a typical male bravado-driven sailor character named Jack Driscoll. In the new version Ann Darrow (the Wray character) is first taken aback by the rugged nature of the captain of the Venture, Englehorn (Thomas Kretschman, Downfall); this is a scene where some of those original lines are exchanged. Later Ann mistakes the more intelligent looking sound engineer for Driscoll, making for an embarrassing Meet Cute with the real Driscoll. But Adrien Brody’s (The Pianist) Driscoll in this Kong is a hero of a quite different nature, a man who understands more about the inner workings of human nature and love than his way around a gun or a ship.

The film opens in a gloriously reproduced 1933 Manhattan, where producer/director Carl Denham (Black, School of Rock) is about to have the plug pulled on his latest film by the studio. In his own typical brash nature, Denham steals the existing reels of his pictures and rushes the launch of a sea voyage to a location shoot. He has told everyone on his crew that they will be filming in Singapore, when in reality he has obtained a map to an uncharted island where he plans to film its discovery. To incorporate this discovery into his latest jungle adventure film he has enlisted the gifted New York playwright Jack Driscoll to pen his screenplay. But Driscoll has no plans to sail with Denham to continue writing the script on location, and in a scene that wonderfully illustrates and foreshadows the cutthroat lengths to which Denham is willing to go to get the film he wants Black gets his chance to chew the scenery as only he can.

Denham is also short a leading lady since his actress has bailed on him and Wray is not available; but in Ann Darrow, an out of work vaudeville performer, he finds his perfect damsel in distress, and more importantly the costumes will fit her. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.) seems perhaps an over qualified actress to play the wide eyed starlet, but she brings a depth of character that plays heavily into the Beauty and the Beast nature of the King Kong myth.

The film has a fairly light tone, save for a few ominous glances from the crew of the Venture when they discover their true destination, until the ship wrecks on the rocky shores of the aptly named Skull Island. When the film crew lands on the island itself to begin filming things go from bad to worse, and suddenly the movie becomes more than your average adventure flick. The people they find inhabiting the island are savage and feral, we will learn this is the rule of Skull Island. They are like some sort of Lord of the Rings beasts, but with human faces; and they desire Ann for sacrifice to the giant ape Kong.

The middle section of the film takes its audience on a fantastical adventure through the island as the film and ship’s crew chases the giant ape in a rescue attempt. The inhabitants of the island are obviously what captured Jackson’s imagination in the original, as it did with most fans with its stop motion animation of dinosaurs great and greater. With the technological advances of CGI made by Jackson’s own Weta Digital and grandiose sets from Weta Workshop, the dinosaurs and other giant beasts become the greatest yet. With action sequences that span from a ten dinosaur pile up to one of the nastiest death scenes ever awarded an actor for Andy Serkis’s Lumpy the cook, probably given in appreciation for being the acting model behind Kong here and Golem in The Lord of the Rings, to the strangest high flying fight ever seen between Kong and no less than three T-Rexes; there is no doubt Jackson’s imagination had even Spielberg saying, “Well, I never would have thought of that one.”

But what really makes this film work it the solid relationship built between Watt’s Darrow and Serkis’s Kong. No longer is Kong just some giant perverted ape obsessed with a scantily clad human female. Kong is given a back story here as the last of his kind; and Darrow makes a genuine empathetic connection with the beast. This relationship serves to strengthen the final act of the film, when Denham captures the ape and brings him to back to New York as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” attraction, so it no longer plays merely as a spectacle of a B-movie monster destroying well-known landmarks of the Big Apple. There is true sorrow to be found in Kong’s fate, as well as the fate of the human characters in the film and when Black utters the final words of dialogue (the very same ones as in the original), “It was beauty killed the beast,” there is a depth to them that goes beyond the clever play on Kong’s obsession with the blonde heroine.

I can imagine some people might feel Jackson goes too far with some of the spectacle sequences (mostly on Skull Island), but the film itself is sparked from spectacle. It is an adventure of pure fantasy, stemming from a fairly absurd premise. Even in 1933 the idea that an island containing all these prehistoric beast remaining undiscovered is outlandish to say the least. It is a tale for a Saturday afternoon monster feature program, but Jackson uses all his resources of story telling to both pay homage to the original production and turn it into something beyond Merian C. Cooper’s original. Jackson’s Kong is like a forest grown up from the single sapling planted by Cooper at the dawn of cinema. It is a feast of cinema that embraces the escapist entertainment and emotional expedition which only the medium of film can give.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes,well.....I guess it wouldn't have had the same theatrical effect if Black's character would've said "It was chocolate cake that killed the beast." But that has nothing to do with anything. So I guess the only thing left to say is.....COMMENCE TA JIGGLIN' YA'LL!