King Kong himselfTwas Comedy Killed the Savage Beast

Knowing people who can sneak you into DGA screenings is awesome. Like when you get to see King Kong a week early. I’ll lay out what I thought of the movie, but I’ll keep it spoiler free until after the jump.

King Kong is a B movie. B for big. It isn’t, however, big enough to contain its hairy protagonist, who seems to yearn to break out of the puppet show that all the other characters are trying to break into. If there is someone who loves this beast more than Fay Wray did in the original, it is Peter Jackson. This is his love letter to computer generation. Kong is imagined in such exquisite detail, mo-capped so precisely, digitally groomed and mounted so handsomely, that we ogle at him as if he was the Eighth Wonder of the World. Which he is, in a way. His eyes are full of real emotion. While the audience still discerns the small lapses of the compositor — an odd lighting highlight, how his hand doesn’t quite interact believably with the blonde he is clutching — we nevertheless do not doubt that Kong’s emotions are real. This emotional spectacle, plus action sequences of giddy invention, make Kong one of the few movies that is worth not only the price of admission, but the headaches of battling for parking and sitting through lame advertising.

At three plus hours, King Kong will no doubt be accused of being bloated. To me it didn’t feel bloated, it just felt like an ordeal. In a good sense. This is a true epic experience. It doesn’t rank up there anywhere near Lawrence of Arabia, but it sure blows the last three Star Wars out of the water. (Watch ILM once again get shut out in all the technical Oscars). Not since Titanic have the movies offered an experience like this one. Titanic sailed in deeper waters, but Kong visits more exotic lands.

There are a lot of things I didn’t like about Kong, but to talk about them, I have to reveal details of the plot. Read more about King Kong, including tips on when to take a bathroom break…WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

King Kong is clearly the work of a demented, maniacal filmmaker, one not unlike the character mugged by Jack Black, playing Carl Denham, a filmmaker obsessed with exposing the world’s last mystery, an “island believed to exist only in myth,” a lost world called… Jurassic Park. No, actually it’s Skull Island. How he came into possession of this map is never explained, nor is his perverse desire to keep cranking the camera, even as danger is upon him. He is what he is. The fact is, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and the other producers could have had anyone they wanted in this role. They wrote their own ticket on this movie (Jackson even — dementedly? maniacally? — ponying up his own money to finish the special effects). They chose Jack Black. Jack Black is actually capable of toning down his schtick, as he proved in High Fidelity. Peter Jackson did not want him to do this. Peter Jackson directed him to be larger than life. Black’s performance is exactly what Peter Jackson wanted. If his acting in his first scene rubs you the wrong way, you’re in for a long ride. This is what Peter Jackson calls comedy, and the movie is filled with it.

Old-time humor is where the story begins, as Black’s Denham coerces a down-on-her-luck vaudville performer (Naomi Watts) who has apparently been waiting for Godot, or just a dashing playwright. The playwright, who is the closest this movie has to a hero (writers rule!), doesn’t look like she expects. Still, even with his uneven nostrils, Adrian Brody (as the playwright Driscoll) can steam up the big screen. We never doubt his character’s love for Ann Darrow. Watts is radiant, and aquits herself amicably once again as the winsome ingenue in a surreal environment. (When she was getting shaken like a Polaroid in front of a green screen, I wondered if she must’ve thought that Mulholland Drive made sense.)

If Driscoll had seen Darrow on the ship as it left port, it might’ve made sense for him not to dive off. Instead, he seems to accept his berth inside a tiger cage with blissful indifference. The general characterizations of the crew of the ship are equally flimsy. The young stowaway Jimmy (Billy Elliot‘s Jamie Bell) is kleptomaniac — no, he’s a vandal — no, wait, he’s a deep thinker who’s into Joseph Conrad — okay, no, he’s the fresh-faced kid who wants to prove his manhood but whose former drill-sergeant father-figure is being over-protective — no, he’s… who cares let’s have some action scenes! Michael Crichton, in some ways, is years behind Peter Jackson and Co. He’s been putting small groups of people in dangerous situations in novel after novel, but he’s wasted time giving their characterizations consistency.

Let us now praise the action scenes. I had a physical reaction to these scenes. I sat forward in my seat, my muscles tensed, my breathing was shallow. What could be more fake than a stampeding herd of brontosaurs? Yet I was scared.

I was talking with my grandmother once about what movies she remembered from her childhood. She didn’t see many, but King Kong leapt immediately to mind. “It was scary,” she said. I might’ve thought that was funny, seeing as how fake the stop-motion animation in the original movie seems so fake today. Will my (future) grandchilren be amused by my analogous amazement at the present King Kong? All I can say is that, in scheme of remakes, if Kong is still scary… well then mission accomplished, Mr. Jackson.

The action scenes, when examined with perspecive, are so baroque they are sublime. It is not enough to have a stampeding herd of brontosaurs, but they must chase our heroes through a canyon of falling rocks, and there must also be raptors running in between them, chomping at Adrian Brody. And… don’t breathe yet because they are about to be chased off a cliff and turn just in time… but onto a rock ledge that is disintegrating under the stomping of the creatures– And that’s just one sequence. Like I said: sublime.

Another thing I loved were the scenes with Kong and Darrow. She wins him over with pratfalls. He wins her over with a display of awesome power. I adore their brief repite from madness in Central Park before the tragic climax. (Note to Ice Capades: secure rights to show “Kong on Ice”.) It is their relationship that redeems the rather uni-dimensional relationships that govern the rest of the movie, the Dead Alive Jackson who revels in the performance manque bested by the Jackson that, with Sam and Frodo, restored masculine platonic love to glory.

In the end, I’m not sure what we are supposed to take away. Certainly it is not the cliche about man’s humility before nature — because it is nature that is subdued, mostly by the Nietzchian will of the ubermensch Denham. Is it a simple fable of unrequited love? (Nevermind Kong’s love; Driscoll, even at the top of the Empire State Building, cannot declare aloud his love for Darrow that his actions have made plain.) Or is it a fable of filmmaking — not the obvious parody of the narcissistic actor and the obsessed auteur, but of the fragile celluliod dream — that desire to cage the mysteries of the world inside twenty-four frames per second? All I can say is that I was entertained, grandly entertained. Is there a better possible recommendation for a B movie?


Is it true Kong has no intermission?


So when do you recommend taking bathroom breaks?

This was actually hard to decide. There are definitely parts of the movie that can be missed with no regrets, but they don’t tend to come in big chunks. I like how Skull Island is revealed, but as far as the movie’s action sequences go, navigating through fog and rocks is subpar. When Jimmy shouts out there’s a wall you can take a short one, knowing that the steamer got banged up and survived.

Okay, but there’s still two and one half hours left at that point, and my bladder is smaller than a civet skull.

Interesting metaphor. Okay, you definitely don’t want to miss any of the major action sequences. There is one that is sort of senseless, with the crew fighting giant insects. But if you opt to elide that, be the type of person who can assume that characters you don’t see anymore met gruesome deaths and not let that ruin your enjoyment of the rest of the movie.

What about once Kong comes to New York?

Do you really have to pee that badly?

Civet skull.

Okay, you can skip Jack Black’s stageman patter at the Alhambra, even though it is performed with delicious gusto. The scene unfolds pretty much how you assume, except he uses a ringer Darrow.

HOW KONG WAS MADE: I’ve been bloggin’ it for a while now.
UPDATE 2: Coincidently co-incident with the release of the movie (and X-mas), Peter Jackson’s King Kong diaries are out on DVD: