Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Too Much Monkey Love: King Kong (2005) Review


KING KONG (2005)

It's good to know that the original King Kong so inspired Peter Jackson that he decided to make films.   We can see the genuine love Jackson has for the original.  It's a pity though that he decided to not just remake King Kong, or even be slavishly devoted to it. 

Instead, Jackson decided he was going to improve on perfection, making not just his homage to his childhood inspiration, but a film to perhaps overpower and overtake the original.  His King Kong was going to be the inspiration for the next generation of filmmakers as the original was to him; it would be a film that others would turn to and be awed by his version rather than that which inspired him. 

At the moment, I can't decide whether it was genuine love or total hubris on Peter Jackson's part, but here is what I can say: after seeing it both in theaters and for this retrospective, this King Kong made the much-derided 1976 version downright brilliant.

We can essentially break the three-hour film into three acts (or perhaps three movies spliced into one by a mad scientist). Hour One involves Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) a struggling vaudevillian done in by the Great Depression.  She yearns to be a legitimate actress and appear in something like her playwright hero Jack Driscoll's Isolation (the title being clue enough of his deep work), but hunger and the faltering economy force to consider something as shady as burlesque.   Into her life comes Carl Denham (Jack Black).  He imagines himself a director in the same league as a Cecil B. DeMille or an Orson Welles when he is closer to an Ed Wood.  Along with his friend/lackey Preston (Colin Hanks), Carl has been avoiding the studio chiefs who want him off a movie they see no profit in and his creditors.  He steals the film and hightails it to a waiting ship.  All he needs is an actress to fit into his former leading lady's costumes...

Denham gets the ship's Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) to sail into uncharted waters along with his Pequod-type crew, Miss Darrow, and, in a surprising twist, none other than Jack Driscoll himself (Adrien Brody).  Driscoll had given Denham bits of a script, more sketches than anything else, as Driscoll was eager to return to the theater.  Denham gets Englehorn to sail before the studio/police/creditors get to the Venture, and as a bonus Driscoll is essentially shanghaied to take this cruise.

Denham has heard of a mysterious island called Skull Island and urges Driscoll to do two things: one, include it in his screenplay, and two, not tell the nervous crew about where they're going to.  Unfortunately, junior crewman Jimmy (Billy Elliot...I mean, Jamie Bell) has overheard where they're going, and the crew doesn't want to go there.  Just as Englehorn is about to sail to Rangoon to have Denham arrested, a fog and storm gets them to...SKULL ISLAND.


Hour Two is on Skull Island, where unimportant crew are killed off (sometimes in rather gruesome fashion for a PG-13 film) and they meet the creepiest natives in film history this side of Cannibal Holocaust.  Jack and Anne, who have fallen in love, go onto this island and barely escape with their lives (and Denham, with his camera) thanks to the Venture/Pequod crew rescuing them (despite Englehorn's disdain for Denham...which he shares with the viewing audience I imagine). 

Well, the Cannibal Holocaust natives take Anne and offer her as sacrifice to Kong, and the crew goes to rescue her (with Denham and his crew coming along to either be part of the rescue or film the goings-on, I'm not sure which.  Probably a mixture of both).  Well, Anne eventually gets rescued after undergoing a lot and feeling a little empathy for our big gorilla.  Never mind that said gorilla killed off a lot of the crew (both ship and film) AND that in rescuing her the chef gets devoured in a shockingly horrifying manner that even at my age found beyond the pale.

Hour Three goes to New York (how after using chloroform to knock Kong out they managed to get the beast to New York City we don't have to worry or think about), where Denham is the toast of Broadway for bringing Kong, now dubbed King Kong, Eight Wonder of the World, to the stage.  While movie star Bruce Baxter (the ageless Kyle Chandler) eagerly goes along with the act that has revived his career,  Jack, in a rare turn, has written a comedy, Cry Havoc!, but despite having written it for Anne, she is not there.  She is essentially hiding out in a chorus line, depressed about everything.  Kong escapes, goes on a rampage to find Anne, does a little ice skating at Central Park with her (no, I'm not kidding, but it is more accidental ice skating than anything else), Jack and Anne reunite, and the big ape falls to his death.  It wasn't the airplanes that got him.  It was Beauty killed the Beast.

Jackson's King Kong does what is unforgiveable in a film: it makes what should be exciting boring.  It's clear that Jackson essentially fell in love with the star, and devoted more time to it than he should have.  Tonally, the film sprawls in so many directions that no one knows what it wants to be.  Almost from the beginning Jackson decides that this will be some sort of deep, foreboding film, one of danger, rather than an adventure.  We hear this in James Newton Howard's typically horrible score (always pounding away about how serious and foreboding and existentialist this journey into the almost literal heart of darkness was).

Having Billy Elliot quote from Heart of Darkness does not help. What Conrad's tale of a journey into insanity has to do with a gorilla essentially falling for a girl we don't know.  Why we have to have some international sailing crew that even Herman Melville would think was heavy-handed we don't know. Why we have to care or are asked to care about little Jimmy's past or his dreams or even his father-figure type relationship with Hayes (Evan Parke) we don't know.



Which makes the odd moment where Anne does her vaudeville routine (up to impersonating Charlie Chaplin) to make Kong laugh look all the more idiotic, and even a little sad.  The music and general tone of King Kong suggests a SERIOUS film, maybe something close to Apocalypse Now.  Therefore, when we get the scene where Anne mistakes the sound guy for her idol Jack Driscoll the comedy is so forced and unfunny it's more cringe-inducing than laugh-inducing.

As a side note, given how much she admires his work, shouldn't she know what Jack Driscoll looks like?  There is a line about how he looks better 'in person' than in his picture, but the two men look so different there is no way (logically) she could confuse the two.

Jackson, along with his writing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh (the latter his real-life partner) again and again cannot resist going overboard with everything about King Kong (starting with its inexplicable length).  A lot of the storyline could have been cut or trimmed or simply reworked (why not just have the crew sail to the island without all this jazz about having to avoid the law or BE SO AFRAID OF SKULL ISLAND).  If that had happened, we could have gotten on with the story rather than waste at least half an hour with Anne's work worries, Denham's work worries, Englehorn's payment worries, Driscoll's artistic worries (and abduction).

We also could have cut out the creepy natives, the endless battles with Kong and spiders (there was a reason the original cut them out, you know) and the rather barbaric ways minor characters were killed off.  I never bought the idea that the imagery of the natives was somehow racist, but Jackson did go out of his way to make them freakish.  I figure he thought he was making them scary.  He ended up just making them horrifying.

Just on the moment when Lumpy the cook (Andy Serkis, who also played Kong with motion-capture effects) gets devoured by worms I would have given this an R-rating.  How it got a PG-13 is a sign of how lax the industry has gotten.  Jackson's overbearing slow-motion to emphasize the 'terror' we're suppose to experience or 'fear' SKULL ISLAND is suppose to engender makes this almost hilarious instead.


Parody of a parody...

Then there are the moments that no amount of visual effects can make serious.  How Jimmy, who has never used a rifle/gun in his life, manages to by accident shoot off all the bugs invading Jack is just stupid (as is when Bruce, whose only characteristic is how big his ego is, shows up to rescue them from certain death).

How Anne never got whiplash the way she was flopped about by Kong I don't know.

When Jack shows up at the King Kong debut, for a moment he thinks that the praise Carl Denham is lavishing on someone is for him, only to see it is for Baxter.  Given Carl had no idea Jack was there, what made Jack think Carl was talking about him?

I figure this was a deliberate stab at comedy but it, like Kong, fell flat.

Again and again and again Jackson is so enamored of everything that he doesn't know when to quit.  To be honest by the time we got to Skull Island I'd pretty much lost interest and didn't care whether any of them lived or died.

We also get some lousy characters and lousy performances. Making the top on both counts is Jack Black, someone I admit to not liking and never finding funny.  His Denham was so openly loathsome that when he about to be killed off by the Cannibal Holocaust crew I wanted him dead.  He is unethical, selfish, underhanded, manipulative, only interested in his film to the point of blocking out everything else.  At a certain point, when he manages to survive being tossed off a gigantic log by Kong, with all these dead people surrounding him, Denham observes his camera, broken, with the film exposed.  THIS moves him virtually to tears, but why would Jackson and Company think I would care?  When he makes his declaration of using money from the future film to give to a dead film crew members family, not only do we know he is thoroughly insincere, we begin to wonder whether he is literally insane.

As a side note, Denham must have been really desperate in his casting if he thought both Mae West AND Myrna Loy would be perfect for the part he gave Anne.  If you've seen both of them, you couldn't find two different types: the vamp and the sophisticate, so the idea they could both play the same part is the same as suggesting Miley Cyrus and Michelle Dockery could both play the same role the same way.

Even all that we could forgive if Black bothered to give a performance, but all he did was make faces and raise his eyebrows.  Typical Black shtick. 

Watts does what she can with Anne, a mopey little character with nothing to recommend her to be this brilliant comedienne.  Bless Brody for trying something so far out of his range: the romantic/action lead (and for building his body up), but he didn't look all that interested in the goings-on.  His scenes with Watts looked boring and it looked like these two wouldn't be interested in sharing a cup of coffee, let alone be madly in love. 

It's curious that despite winning Best Visual Effects (along with Best Sound Mixing and Sound Editing), a decade later King Kong's effects look downright cheesy and fake.  Time has not aged the visuals that once were so fascinating.

The problem with King Kong is that it takes itself so seriously.  It WANTS us to be awed, it WANTS us to be amazed, it WANTS us to care, but it never earned any of that.

"He destroys the things he loves," Preston observes to Jack (and for the record, Hanks was about the only good thing in this horror).  Were Boyens and Walsh thinking about Peter Jackson when they wrote that?  

DECISION: D-

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