Friday, December 09, 2005

Kong is King

We went by the theater early and saw no line, so we went off to dinner. When we got back the line had formed. A guy went up and down the line as it lengthened warning folks to get rid of any cell phones with cameras as they would not be allowed in. Gene was without his Treo and felt naked, but we complied. They frisked purses and gave us all a going over with the wand (ahhh, should I rephrase that?), plus had staff with night goggles checking out the audience for surreptitious filming. Very serious.

From the very first frames, Jackson cues us that this is loving tribute to the original, from the art deco credits to the loving evocation of 1930s New York (as reconstructed in New Zealand). Yet he gives the film an edge of modern sensibilities in reconfiguring the characters and the arc of the story. Over all that may be the biggest problem, the uncomfortable mismatch between 1930s sensibilities and those of the 21st century, especially when it comes to problematic things like racial portrayals and what you might call moments of "movie magic," i.e. things that happen because they need to do so. However, that's really a quibble for post-viewing discussion over drinks with friends (and in large part due to Jackson's faithfulness to the original story). And occasionally he lingers just a little too long on the faces of Watts and Kong; the film could be cut without major sacrifice, but --

In short, it was a fantastic ride and I loved it.

Naomi Watts is luminously filmed and made up so she glows like a vintage Hollywood star. She brings a surprising new sensibility to the role (including her comic work) that makes her more appealing to modern temperaments without discarding the traditional feel of the part. Jack Black is reined in somewhat from his bombast, although he is supposed to be a bit of a hustler and manages to make the director who will get his film done at any cost both sympathetic and eventually, suspect (one can't help seeing a little self-criticism from Jackson). While the on-board fate of the writer played by Brody may be a little too on the nose, he does admirable work in making us believe his role, as does the more comic turn by the "hero" Kyle Chandler. Terrific supporting cast including Andy Serkis, Thomas Kreschmann as the captain and Evan Parke as Hayes. A good number of in-jokes (most horror related) sprinkle the opening half hour, at which Gene and I were about the only ones laughing.

Oh, wait -- you want to know about the ape, right? Well, I've never been big on monkeys and apes (apart from Hanuman and Gene, the monkey man whom I love for reasons unexplained), but I may have been won over. Looks good. Which is to say, believable, moving, real -- scarred, emotive, authentic. An animal, not a human in monkey skin -- one of the most affecting things is that his non-human (but intelligent) nature comes through. The island and all its amazing creatures look good -- and terrifying in most cases. Jackson does a terrific job of giving the audience stunning moments of awe, then jerking you painfully into terror (one of the most beautiful and sweet versions of this comes near the end).

If you want to know nothing at all before you see the film, stop here. If you don't mind knowing the arc of the story (which is much the same as the original) without any important spoilers, continue:

You know Kong fights a dinosaur. You have NO idea. Absolutely amazing.

You know there are big bugs. You have NO idea. I was squirming in my seat.

Joey: the bats! You will love them.

You know we end up on the Empire State Building. I have a terrible fear of heights and vertigo. I was near collapse by the end and sweat was pouring off my hands as my knees went weak. One of the interesting choices was all the long shots of Kong atop the building, making him look so tiny in the big city, so lost.

In resisting the desire to completely anthropomorphize Kong, the ending seems even more bitterly cruel. Watts is our conduit to Kong throughout and the face of our grief, our empathy, and she does an incredible job of conveying thoughts and emotions without any words -- as does the face of Kong, both familiar and alien. Like us, but not us.

In the end, it's a movie about a giant ape. Some might find that silly. It is silly. But it works -- it is spectacle. And Jackson's humor and thoughtfulness make it work. Unexpected turns keep the action lively (and yeah, sometimes quite funny), and the familiar story takes on new resonance. It may be a touch of nostalgia, but it delivers. I laughed, I cried -- I was totally absorbed. It was really cathartic.


Stephanie said...

Wonderful review, Kate! I am hoping it is somewhat faithful to the original. My fond childhood memories of that movie stem from seeing it in the tiny Chaplin, CT library - and the anticipatory pause when they changed the reels during the showing made it even more magical....

C. Margery Kempe said...

Hee hee -- I remember watching movies at the library like that (Bretton Woods, which became a library after my kindergarten year there). We used to love that -- that's where I first saw Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class (need to get the DVD!) and Tom Courtney in I Heard the Owl Call My Name which I remember only vaguely now, but I do remember it having a profound impact on my imagination at the time. The priest who comes to force his religion upon the "heathens" finds that they have knowledge and wisdom of their own, and no need of his. I wonder if that's on DVD?

Glad you liked the review -- I think you'll enjoy the film, it was lots of fun.

Unknown said...

John Shirley's posted his review, as well. (No permalinks, tho, dangit...)

Crispinus said...

I can't make up my mind about this movie. I loved a lot of the details, and I thought the love story was great.

But I am currently wrestling with two issues. (SPOILER ALERT)

1) That island. Danger at every turn (except when there doesn't need to be, like when the characters need to get from one place to the next). So, it revels in its own spectacular movieness. But here's my problem: does it revel because it wants to, or because it has to? I don't think there's a soul alive who doesn't know (whether via direct or indirect contact with prior versions, or through the film's advertising, which clearly shows Kong in a cityscape) that the big monkey goes to New York. So, I can't help but feel that the action on the island has to be amped up to the point of absurdity to compensate for the fact that we *know* the principals will find their way back to civilization. Around the time when Anne was hanging from jaws of a T. Rex that was entangled in vines, while Kong fought its brother among more vines, I began to wonder whether the movie hadn't jumped the shark. And this was after Anne had already been chased by dinosaurs up above. And before the bugs.

(2) We are, I think, supposed to deplore Carl Denham's Kong show in New York for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the indignity inflicted upon Kong. Another reason, though, seems to be the cheap thrill generated by putting (or seeming to put) a woman in danger -- like a twentieth century gladiatorial show, made safe by the fact that no one expects real carnage. If that's true, then how are we supposed to enjoy the first two hours of the film, where the "real" Anne falls prey to monsters of all sorts, some from her own species. How can that be less problematic than Denham's NYC spectacle? (Maybe this is endemic to the Kong movies as a whole -- I haven't seen the 1933 or the 1976 versions in some time. But given what we have to sit through on Skull Island in Jackon's version, I kind of doubt it.) And if the woman in danger isn't a problem, why isn't she?

I'm conflicted.