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00626 – KING KONG

Movie-Hype00626 – KING KONG

How do you know when a movie ceases to be a movie and starts to be real? For the great films, there is always that moment, where time slows down and the movie grabs you by the neck and pulls you in; completely in.

In a way, the language of movies is the language of moments. They are how we communicate film to one another, the currency we use when recommending or defending our favorites. I got my family to see YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN by imitating the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene. Odds are you do the same thing:

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn; Here’s looking at you, kid; And you and you and you….and you were there; I am your father; Rosebud; Say hello to my little friend.”

The ball rolling down on Indy; Maria twirling around the mountaintop like a crazy woman; the bicycles in the air with the moon behind them; everyone pouring in to George’s house to help out; Marilyn Monroe over the steam grate; the horse head; when Gandalf falls over the ledge.

Our favorite films always have those moments, those special times that freeze forever in our minds perfectly like a snow globe.

This brings me to KING KONG.

I have to assume you know the basic story of KING KONG. I assume this because the 1933 original gave us arguably the most iconic moment in movie history. Is there anyone anywhere who doesn’t recognize the image of a giant ape on top of the Empire State Building? Eve if you’ve never seen it, chances are you don’t think it’s Tony from WEST SIDE STORY.

Speaking of the original, it seems that we no longer raise kids to have an appreciation of the classics. They force kids to learn Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, but are classic movies not just as big a part of our cultural heritage?

I know I preach to you to judge a movie for what it is, not what may have come before. With Peter Jackson’s new KING KONG, however, it is impossible to discuss the new without the context of the old. Partially this is because Peter Jackson has said he became a film maker because of King Kong. The reason you have Frodo is that big ape.

More importantly, the original movie was a classic 1930s production: clear good and evil, larger than life projected acting, nuance and subtlety not a priority. I mention this because the second or third (or eighth or fortieth) time through you may notice a subtext to the film, perhaps put there because 1930s audiences couldn’t handle some of the ideas out in the open. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t even mean to put them there, but the ideas were transmitted as a cultural meme, waiting to be discovered.

What am I talking about? C’mon: deep down isn’t KING KONG really a tragic love story? Girl meets guy. He’s from the wrong part of town. He’s rough and tough, postures a lot to hide the pain buried beneath. Yeah, he has some destructive habits—what man doesn’t?—but all he needs is the right woman to come along and he’ll settle down.

There is a second corresponding subtext going on. The 1933 version had a casual racism indicative of the times. Yet looking at Kong’s facial futures you couldn’t help but wonder if this was supposed to be an exaggerated black man. After all, more than a few people back then looked at black men as little more than beasts anyway, and the close ups of Kong’s dark skin tenderly caressing blonde Fay Wray might have struck a deep nerve with audiences.

This brings me back to KING KONG.

I realize it’s a rather strange movie review that brings me this far into it without a word on the new film. But I write this way because for me there is a lot more going on than just an adventure flick.

But let’s get into it. What Peter Jackson has done is given voice to all the undercurrents the original couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about. I won’t say this new version has an overt racism, but there are definitely scenes that will make you uncomfortable.

More realized: the love story is in full bloom. I’d be very curious to hear a girl’s reaction to Kong, and whether she felt for the beast. (I went with Ajax, who’s as pretty as a girl, but it’s not the same thing.)

The original showed Kong as a lustful ape, full of unrequited love. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow spent most of her time screaming.

Jackson’s version gives us Kong and Ann Darrow making a deeper connection than hormone-fueled snickering. They’ve bonded. To be sure, Kong is still a monster, as dangerous as you can imagine, but Ann has looked into his eyes, and seen a warmth, a tenderness, perhaps a sliver of something almost human, worth saving.

Since I mention Ann this might be a good time to talk about casting. Naomi Watts is our leading lady, and she’s magnificent. If there is a humanity in Kong, she brings it out of him, and I would love to see an Oscar nomination.

Jack black plays Carl Denham, the filmmaker with titanic-sized ambition if not the talent to match. It is Carl’s vision that drags the party out to Skull Island in search of exotic location filming, and it is his avarice that brings Kong back to New York. Jack Black is surprisingly effective, toning down his usual shenanigans to give us obsession, barely under control.

The rest of the cast is great as well—especially young Colin Hanks as the ship’s conscience—with the sad exception of Adrien Brody. I love the actor, but he’s woefully miscast as the hero. The only reason it doesn’t bother me is that I think deep down Peter Jackson doesn’t really see Brody as the hero. There is only one hero in Peter’s heart.

The special effects deserve their own column, but we must as least take time to say a few words. First, Jackson has given us a 1933 New York so beautiful and yet so tragic at the same time. It’s not exactly real, but it’s movie real, the kind of real that exists in our minds, in our memories, in our myths.

I give props to New York because I know most won’t be able to stop talking about Skull Island. There are a few shots that don’t quite live up to Jackson’s standards, but odds are by that point you’ll be having so much fun that you won’t care, and it’s still yards better than virtually anything else. The dinosaur stampede. The many many fights. The anti-Tarzan vines. Oh, and if you have a problem with bugs….

And then there is Kong.


Suspension of Disbelief: 8. In my heart I believe somewhere a Kong could exist, but a heterosexual ice skater? That’s too much.

Genre Grade: We’ll call this the Grand Adventure Movie. A+

Sex/Violence: The Miscegenation goes only so far, so we’re not treated to some jungle fever. There is tons of violence, but it’s largely bloodless. However, this movie is VERY scary at times and it would be criminal to let kids under 14 see it.

Better than the Original? So hard to say. The first time you see something there is a power that can’t be matched, even across time and space. That said, this is a wonderful adaptation, bursting at the seams with energy.

Homage? Plenty. The more you know about the 1933, the more you’ll get all the in-jokes.

Best Moment: So hard to say. All the moments I listed above work for me.

Pantheon Percentile: 95. This seems a tad high, I know, but I don’t see my love for KING KONG fading. By the time the DVD comes out Jackson will have ironed out the few CGI kinks, and hopefully (opposable thumbs crossed) we’ll be treated to a Peter Jackson 4 hour plus version. Seriously: this movie could have gone forever and I’d be happy.

The genesis of modern spectacular special effects really started with JURASSIC PARK. Since then characters have gotten more and more realized: Dobby, Yoda, Gollum.

But there is nothing in the history of cinema that approaches Kong. He’s simply real. He fully interacts with the other characters and his environment. Only the most jaded hater will even remember he’s a computer design. Major kudos here.

The film itself is three acts, which is typical, except that these three are so different from each other it at times feels like three different movies. The first part shows us Carl Denham, desperate to make his great movie, willing to do whatever it takes to get people on that ship. The second part is the island, and there is nothing like it on earth. No wonder the natives build such a big wall and look so haunted. Has any woman ever been in as much danger as Ann Darrow? Part three takes us to New York for the frantic inevitable conclusion.

And now back to those moments.

KING KONG is filled with them. For you it might be when Ann tries her vaudeville act or the shared sunset. There is a moment when Ann is caught between two monsters and must make a choice. There’s so much action going on at the time that you might not reflect on the significance there, but it’s huge. Then there’s a moment when Ann finally gets it, and stops seeing Kong just as a monster. There’s another moment when Kong thinks he’s seeing Ann again, and isn’t. I get goose bumps just thinking about what his eyes looked like. There’s a scene on ice that’s simply magical. Anyone who sees that moment and criticizes it, I would stop talking to them and start hating. There is a piece of their soul missing. (And I’m dead serious.)

And then we have the final moments. It was this more than anything that told me how far I’d been sucked in. At three hours plus I never looked at my watch, never wanted to except towards the end because I was sad it might be almost over. I’ve heard from some critics it’s too long, and I suppose they could have cut a couple of side plots, but they didn’t feel forced or pointless to me.

I made my share of quips to Ajax throughout—there are some great moments for one-liners I would love to share—but by the end I couldn’t look away even for a second. I remember seeing Kong on top of the Empire State Building, and my gut hurt. I was afraid for him battling those planes, rooting with all my heart he’d be victorious. I’ve seen the original dozens of times; I know how it ends, but here I was in fear right along with Ann. This time Kong doesn’t bring her on his climb to possess her, but to protect her from the real evil; her fellow humans.

I couldn’t agree more. I hate everyone who attacked Kong, pulled him form his home, separated him from his true love. It’s a deep abiding hate, almost as deep as my love for KING KONG.


Elvis said...

I thoroughly agree. This was an unbelievably good film, and it is a crime against humanity that "Pokemon: The First Movie" had a higher-grossing opening Wednesday.

I feel very sorry for the 5-year-old girl who sat in front of me at the theater. I would have soiled my pants if I were her.

'Jax said...

First, a recently discovered fact. Lumpy, the tattooed ship's cook, was played by Andy Serkis, who coincidentally also played the CG body frame for both Kong and Gollum. I'm still dealing with that, and the shame of not realizing it before now.

Moving on, my favorite moment in the film:

There's a brief lull when Kong takes Ann to see the sunset. Kong sits down and glances nervously at the light haired female he recently acquired (and fought a large number of T-Rexes for). You get a chance to see all the scars which cris-cross his body, get a sense of the constant, perversely typical level of violence which constitutes his life. The environment also gives the strong impression that Kong is the last of his kind, stoically alone, all previous familial ties long forgotten as others like him have died out.

Yet Kong actually seems nervous, glancing at her, and then away, then back again. Kong as the insecure suitor, trying desperately to remember how to interact socially, even with something so small and insignificant that it generally would only register as a potential foodsource. Yet he is devastated and clearly changed by her presence.

The dichotomy of awesome physical power and emotional frailty is always striking to watch, all the more so in this scene with so little dialogue and so unbelievably much communicated through facial expressions and body posture.

Normally I come across as lukewarm about movies, even ones I really like. So please understand me when I say I thought it was much better than Hype says it is.