Monday, December 19, 2005

The King (Kong) of Comedy


What happens when you take your friends to an action/adventure film and a comedy breaks out?

I know what I expected . . . special effects, a love story, a tale of man vs. nature vs. beast vs. beauty. I got all of those things, plus more.

I got staged action sequences that would be at home in The Matrix (if Neo was a 25-foot silverback mountain gorilla and the Agents' Smith were Tyrannosaurus Rex). I also got to see what would would happen if that old show American Gladiators would have been like with, well . . . more on that in a minute.

So . . .

What if you are Peter Jackson. You have just made three of the most successful movies in the history of cinema. You have the influence, studio backing, and bankroll to do WHATEVER you want.

What do you do?

Jackson went back to The Movie--the one that he saw when he was 9. The one where he walked out of the theater saying "I wanna do THAT for a living!" All directors have "this movie" I suspect, that thing that gives them the spark to commit. For Peter Jackson, it was King Kong (1933).

I saw some of that 1933 movie last week. It was definitely a film of its era--stationary cameras, black and white, crude motion on the Kong figure, an almost Silent Film quality about the movie itself. It is completely outside of my movie-going mindset, so I won't pretend to give it a proper evaluation.

Peter Jackson made his version of King Kong using all the tools available to him today. The film also reflects its era--over-long (by that I mean over 3 hours, as compared to 1933's 90 minutes), over budget, wizz-bang effects.

But Jackson's affection for the original is clear. Some scenes are lifted exactly from the original and made better with today's technology. Jackson set his film in the Depression era when the original was released. Slimy film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) mentioned at one point, when trying to find a new leading lady for his film that he'd get Faye (a nod to the original "Ann Darrow" as played by Faye Rae), but she is busy with another picture from RKO (the original film's distributor).

There are three distinct segments of the film, so let's break down the significant bits, okay?

Voyage to Skull Island
Film director Carl Denham and his disreputable crew high tail it out of New York City one step ahead of the creditors, the angry film studio, and the cops. Denham has just convinced young vaudeville actress Ann (who has lost her steady gig, is hungry, and is thisclose to becoming desperate enough to work in a burlesque house for food). So, Denham gives her a plate of eggs and she's off to parts unknown to catch her Big Break.

On the creaky boat, the "colorful" crew chat about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, say Important Yet Clunky Dialogue, and introduce you to such characters as The Captain with Questionable Morals, the African American First Mate with Complete Equality and an (apparent) Degree in English Literature, and the Plucky Sailor Kid Who Will Grow Up the Hard Way. And then there's Lumpy the ships cook, who'll die a gruesome death later.

Ann bonds with the crew, performs her vaudeville act, never gets seasick, always looks beautiful, and charms the movie screenwriter, "Jack Driscoll" (Adrien Brody).

Skull Island
On the mysterious island, the natives quickly capture Ann to serve as a sacrifice to the island's demigod, which is Kong. These islanders eke out a extremely meager life on the strip of hard, unforgiving coastline, with a huge wall separating them from the rest of the island's jungle. Why the choice? Well, the island is just chock-a-block with every kind of monstrously-sized nightmare creature you care to mention. Young Ann will meet many of them and learn to rely on Kong to keep her safe. The ship's crew will meet other creatures while trying to save her. And here is where the unintentional comedy began.

Ann is escaping a huge set of Gila monsters at one point, after escaping Kong. She gets away from them, only to run into a Tyrannosaurus rex. She got away from one of those, only to stumble upon another, and then another. It's almost Keystone Kops, the way she can't escape her troubles. But Kong comes to her rescue, Matrix-style, fighting three T-rexes at once. (You almost expected the camera to freeze in the familiar "bullet-time" slow-mo as Kong rolled one dino over his shoulder while twirling and smacking another one across his jaw.) All the while, he's shifting Ann from hand to hand, to foot, to whatever, being careful not to stomp on her in the maelstrom of fighting.
Kong dispatches one T-rex but the other two dinos, he and Ann are dragged down into a chasm. Luckily, there are many vines that catch them all and keep them from dying. Unfortunately, they are continuing to fight, swinging around (like they used to do on American Gladiators, swinging from the ceiling rings. It's got a "can you believe we thought of this?" feeling.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is trying to catch Ann and running afoul of all sorts of terrible things. One sequence where several shipmates fight desperately to avoid being eaten by swarms of giant insects and really gross tube worm things is affecting in its dread-inducing quietness. There isn't much music, just shouts from the crew, the report of tommy guns, and lots of chitenous clicking. It's well done, but done so that you will have nightmares. Jackson at his horror-film best. (Reports are that he wanted to restore this scene, which was removed from the original film for being too frightening.)

Ann has to rely on Kong for survival deep in the jungle's madness, and she comes to see the introspective nature of the beast when he's not fighting giant monsters but enjoying a sunset (seriously). She finds that Kong also enjoys it when women caper for the male's amusement. But, in the end, with many, many closeups of Naomi Watt's pretty, pretty face, we see that she comes to respect Kong as a Man's Man-ape.
In all seriousness, I give Watts credit. She doesn't have tons of lines in this movie and is sure to have spent the majority of her time working in a green screen room staring at a tennis-ball on a stick. To take a situation like that and find some way to emote . . . well, either she did a helluva job or there was a great deal of digital enhancement of her eyes so they would look extra watery and emotional in each of her kajillion closeup shots.

But Kong was eventually captured . . . and somehow shipped back to New York on this boat with a very small hold. He is then displayed as a sideshow freak in . . .

New York City
Carl Denham's theater performance of Kong's capture is embarrassingly stereotypical, but might have been performed that way in the 1930s. But the true embarrassment in this third section of the movie comes after Kong has escaped from his bonds, torn the theater apart and found Ann again. (To her credit, Ann was ashamed of Carl Denham's exploitive plans and had refused to be a part of the show.) Kong and Ann reunite on a snowy New York street where everyone has mysteriously disappeared. They then wander down an extremely quiet side street flanked with brownstones (where Kong looks for all the world like a confused tourist) and then they stumble onto a frozen pond. Well . . . what are you gonna do when you are in an idyllic frozen pond surrounded with Christmas lighted trees? Of course, you're gonna ice skate like it's a freakin' date movie! (At this point in the film, I was truly embarrassed for how the wheels had come off of Peter Jackson's brain. Seriously, is the man so powerful that no one could say NO to this debacle of a scene?)

But reality quickly intervenes, complete with overzealous soldiers firing machine guns. Kong is driven up the Empire State Building (where we knew he'd end up all along).

HERE is where the movie is best. Here the special computer effects are most impressive. At several points I felt vertigo. I wondered at how Ann had no fear for being so incredibly high in the air with nothing to keep her safe. Here Kong met his end, cut down by the dispassionate stamp of technology. Here the beast fell, and the audience felt the fall, seeing the camera swirl above the tip of the building as Kong disappeared below and bi-planes flew across your field of vision. This was the best sequence in the film that wasn't making me laugh.

So, in the end, as I said at the start, the 9-year-old inside Peter Jackson got the movie he'd been wanting to make for thirty years. I got more laughs than I had expected.


David said...

If you felt that this review flagged in intensity near the end, just remember . . .

"I'm just a blogger, with a keyboard . . . who (might have) lost my motivation."

Anonymous said...

Dave, I saw KK yesterday. I hope to get back to you with a point-by-point response (not a rebuttal, mind you, just comments to reinforce your comments) in the near future.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Your dad and I laughed throughout most of the movie, especially during the dinosaur-fighting scene. Each time I thought it would be over now, but NO, here comes another even bigger one. You can imaging how Big Ken was especially enthralled with all the "sappy" and soulful gazing into the ape's eyes. He did however, admit that the technology was terrific. Since I drug him out to see King Kong, I agreed to see Walk the Line with him. You know I'm not a Johnny Cash fan, but I thought it was a great movie. Juaquin Phoenix convinced me he WAS JC. Mom