Tuesday, December 06, 2005

It’s PETER JACKSON’S King Kong and Don’t You Forget It!

Warning!! Spoilers Galore!!

There was a point where I just knew. It was on the way to Skull Island when the young rascal of a former stowaway Jimmy, and now crew member of The Venture, is reading a copy of “Heart of Darkness” he purloined from the New York Public Library, and asks the stoic first mate, Mr. Hayes, why Marlow continues up river when he knows no good can come of it. Mr. Hayes responds with a series of postulations on inner motivations, the dichotomy of humanity and coming face to face with our inner monsters, which leads young Jimmy ask “ This isn’t an adventure story, is it Mr. Hayes?”

“No, Jimmy” Hayes replies “It isn’t.”

At that point I knew we were in trouble.

So I saw a press screening of PETER JACKSON’S King Kong on Monday, and make no mistake about it, It’s Peter Jackson’s Kong complete with all his talents and his excesses. It was an odd experience on a number of counts, not excluding the film itself. For one thing they wanted an older age range than normal. They wanted people 25-59. Usually they’re trying for the younger demographic ( I’d been turned away from free screenings in the past because I was older than the required target audience, and this was in my 30's). I can only assume that they were looking for people who were familiar with (or had at least seen) the ‘33 original. Well if that’s the case they got their man. The only thing I asked for, and thankfully got, for my birthday was The King Kong Collection Box Set( about which, more later). I know the original Kong forwards backwards and sideways. I’m familiar with the background, the process, and the struggles to make it. Hell, Fay Wray and I are from the same hometown. It brings to mind the old “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it” warning.

The other thing was the level of security. I’ve been to Airports Post 911 that didn’t have as much. We were told in no uncertain terms, no cel phones, no cameras, no electronics of any kind. We had to pass through metal detectors. I had a feeling they were going to ask me to take off my shoes but mercifully, for the rest of the audience, they didn’t. They needn’t have worried . The 2 gallon Tubs O’ Coke they were handing out before the movie ensured that no pirate would be able to sit through the entire thing without taking a potty break. That’s because the movie’s 3 hours long.

Yes. That’s right. 3 hours long.

The original comes in at about 100 minutes, depending on which cut you’re watching so the Peter Jackson version comes in at nearly twice that. And what takes up all that time? More. Lots of More.

More Backstory: We learn Ann Darrow is part of a Comic Acrobatic Slapstick Vaudeville team with her father(for some reason they both dress in drag), when the theatre she’s playing at is unceremoniously closed. Her father decides to quit the biz and go back home, leaving Ann in New York at the height of the depression. She aspires to be a legitimate actress. She longs to be in the new play by that darling of the Federal Theatre Program Jack Driscoll...She is on the verge of becoming a stripper when she’s offered a long ocean voyage. Naomi Watts does some nice work in the part. She’s very likable as Ann and screams real good.

The character of Jack Driscoll has had the most drastic overhaul in the Jackson version. In the ‘33 film he‘s the rough, tough first mate of the Venture. Here he’s the sensitive Clifford Odets type, who is dragged off on this little boat ride very much against his will. The part has obviously been tailored to Adrien Brody who would have looked ridiculous trying to play the role as originally conceived. As the revised Jack Driscoll, he’s quite good..

Which brings us to Jack Black as Carl Denham. When his face first appears on screen he’s doing that trademark eye thing he does, and the audience starts giggling before he says a word. It’s a bad start because Carl Denham has to be the driving force behind the movie or it doesn’t work. Black can’t seem to decide whether he’s going to play it straight or for laughs and so neither way works. I just think it’s a crucial role and totally miscast.

Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) is definitely more interesting this time around. He runs the Venture with an Iron Hand, and dabbles in poaching on the side. And good looking too. At first I thought they were setting him up as a rival love interest for Ann, but I was mistaken. Just as well. Things are complicated enough as it is.

More Characters: This time Carl has brought along a leading man named Bruce Baxter(Kyle Chandler), and the character is pretty much as one dimensional as the name suggests. He has a couple of good moments but is essentially a comic relief ham. There is one scene where he admits to Driscoll that he is not a hero, that real heroes aren’t handsome. (Thing is the person he describes doesn’t look anything like Driscoll either. In fact it kinda sounds like a description of Peter Jackson...)

Colin Hanks is fine as Denham’s long suffering assistant director Preston, who appears to have the conscience that Denham was born without.

And there’s the previously mentioned literary crew members, Jimmy and Mr. Hayes. Theirs is a subplot that never really develops, only serves to slow down the film, and comes to an abrupt end when one of them is thrown with great force against a rock wall by the titular character.
Which brings us to Kong. I have nothing bad to say about Kong. He is a brilliantly realized special effect, that manages, like the original, to evoke sympathy. He is a bad ass 24 foot tall, battle scarred silverback gorilla. King Kong is probably the most believable character in the film, which is a great thing but also part of the problem.

More Everything: Peter Jackson has long said that the original King Kong was his inspiration to become a film maker, and I’m pretty sure he’s sincere. The thing is that in choosing to remake it , he also has to deal with its long shadow. Jackson’s solution seems to be that if we just add more stuff that’ll make it work. It’s like some bizarre competition at certain points. The natives of Skull Island are much nastier. The original has a rampaging Brontosaurus, so Jackson has a stampeding herd being chased by Allosaurs (or Raptors maybe...the scene is right out of Jurassic Park so it could be either). Instead of one T Rex , Kong now fights 3. A single Pterodactyl is replaced by a ravening hoard of flesh eating Bats. A lot of the action sequences are spectacular, but a lot of them are also confusing and the perpetual camera movement is enough to make you seasick at times.
There are even points in the film where Jackson seems to be outright mocking the original Kong. There’s a scene on the boat where Denham is filming Ann and Baxter doing a scene. The acting is stilted and phony but the dialogue is from the ‘33 script. Later during Kong’s New York Debut, they do a re-creation of the tribal dance from the first movie along with Max Steiner’s original score, only it’s played for absurdity. One could argue that these are homages or tributes to Kong ‘33, but they’re done with such a smugness that I found it hard to take them that way.
Speaking of the score, there’s way too freaking much of it. At times the music is overwhelming and, at other times seems inappropriate.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There were a lot of things I really liked about Peter Jackson’s King Kong. There are also some things I thought were really wrongheaded. Like altering the dynamic of Kong and Ann’s relationship to the point where it becomes a primate version of Stockholm Syndrome. This leads to perhaps the stupidest scene in the movie. In the midst of Kong’s New York rampage, after picking up and tossing away various blondes, he finally finds Ann. They don’t actually run into each other’s arms (they couldn’t) but they sure look like they want to. And then they go on what can best be described as a winter frolic in Central Park, until the Army goes and breaks things up.

And while we’re on the subject of dumb things, they go through a great deal of trouble to painstakingly recreate 1930's New York, and the cars, the signage, the costumes are all dead on. So why couldn’t anyone take a clipper to Jack Black’s sideburns, and give he and Brody.period haircuts? Just curious.

The bitch of it is that I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. That’s what so disappointing about the whole thing. At least it isn’t as bad as the 1976 version, not that the bar was real high there. But can we make a deal here? Can we all agree that we should never ever remake King Kong again? I think they did it fine the first time.

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