Friday, December 16, 2005

King Kong


Before Star Wars came out, I was given a book of cover illustrations for early 20th century sci-fi pulps, Amazing Stories and the like. This book fascinated me beyond anything I had at that point, these 50-year-old paintings of impossible skyscrapers, weird machines and life on Neptune. Here’s a gallery of Frank R. Paul, the most famous of those artists, to let you know what I mean. When I think back to my own nascent imagination at that time, I figure it was mostly about that book, plus my knowledge that there were dinosaurs once.

I still have an affinity for that early 20th century sci-fi fantasy vibe, so magnificently fleshed out by The Fifth Element and the Coruscant scenes from Star Wars. And now King Kong. Jack Black calls Skull Island “the last place off the maps,” and that’s just the kind of energy this old stuff has. I imagine the readers in the 30’s thought of these places as somewhere you could really go, if you had the right spirit. I imagine that, for them, the spires of New York were those impossible skyscrapers.

Picture this thing that we’re all chasing, us nerds. These stories of outer space, the supernatural, monsters and robots. These movies, toys, comic books, cartoons, beloved TV shows – all this stuff that forms the dragon tail we’re clinging to, trying to recapture the thrill of new toys on Christmas morning or the delight of settling down on the floor with a big pad and a fistful of magic markers. That. That thing. The place where your mind goes when it wanders. Peter Jackson gives you that place with this movie. He busts through the thick ice of time, reality and half-assed attempts and draws out the pure, glowing elixir of everything you want.

The Skull Island that Jackson gives us is a place of dreams. Dreams that eat you. Compared to Skull Island, the jungles of Jurassic Park are drab, technical and real. Here, every shot is lush and dramatic. The sense of the place as Wild is palpable like a panic attack. The danger is relentless and everywhere (one of my favorite scenes is of a pursuing dinosaur that is still chewing on its last kill as it runs). There are overgrown structures all over the place, speaking of unfathomable history, but now its human denizens cling to the outside of the ancient wall like scuttling crabs, quite literally stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Skull Island was handed over to the inmates a long, long time ago. You just gotta see it.

Of course, none of this would work if the story and characters didn’t work, but we’re in luck. In my excitement about this movie’s release, I somehow forgot to think about Kong as a character, as a personality. That’s why he’s the world’s favorite monster (screw you, Godzilla) –- people love him. The best way I can sum up their success in making that work is: he's the main character of this movie. And amazingly, this movie is a love story, and one of the purest I’ve seen. By the time they’re in New York, all Kong and Ann want is to be with each other, even though they never have anything to look forward to, or any idea about what to do. Ann becomes as lost as Kong, and Naomi Watts sells the two of them so well I never questioned it at all. I loved him, too.

There’s a ton of other stuff I could say, with a movie this dense. Other characters and themes and things to see. But that's what hit me, and hit me hard. I'll wrap with a few bullet points:

The lamest part of any story with a weird, monster-filled island is when the natives show up. Here you’ve got monsters to see and now we’re supposed to get interested in spears and such. Not so in this movie. For one thing, you see the natives before you see the monsters. For another, the natives are fucking creepy. Brrr.

Thankfully, there isn’t one second of screen time about going back to NYC.

Last one’s a teeny spoiler.

This one.

Coming up.

There isn’t a hint of this in any trailer I’ve seen, but Kong doesn’t fight just one T-rex. He fights three. Yeah.

11 comments:

JPX said...

Excellent review, Octopunk!

Summerisle said...

Well we finally saw Kong last night and it met if not exceeded my expectations. Octo, your review is dead on. The biggest achievement that this film reached was making the viewer sympathize with Kong by giving him a personality more rich than the actors in the movie. The action was incredible but I had expected nothing less. I didn't expect to have knots in my stomach knowing the pain that his plummet was going to cause Naomi. There wasn't a hint of preachiness (who's the "real" monster here blah blah), it was all captured through expressions and actions. If I have one complaint (and I usually do) I'd have to say that Jack Black was a crap choice. Not only was he grossly misscast but he didn't really seem to be trying to play a character from the 30's, he just played Jack Black. O'well. Can't wait to see it 9 more times...

JPX said...

I loved Kong and agree with all of your reviews.

The first hour of Kong is chock full of essential exposition that I will promptly skip once I acquire the inevitable monster-edition DVD. I’m thinking that the best place to start this film (after having seen it in its entirety once) is when the ship first bumps into Skull Island.

I agree with Summerisle about Jackson’s choice to cast Jack Black. I love Jack Black as much as the next guy (e.g., School of Rock is his Sgt. Peppers) but he’s not a “chameleon actor” in the sense that he’s able to make me forget that he’s Jack Black. Although he tempered his usual Jack Blackisms, he was still Jack Black through and through. Like seeing Michael Richards or Leonard Nimoy in any other role than Kramer or Spock, I was distracted by Jack Black and kept thinking, “It’s the funny, portly guy from School of Rock!” One silly nitpick, I was bothered that Naomi Watts’ character was only wearing a flimsy dress in the dead of winter. Any person living on the East Coast will tell you that she would’ve experienced hypothermia in about 5 seconds as she wondered around New York City in December. Hell, I practically experience it when I climb out of bed in the morning! I also wanted to shove her off the building near the end. Every time Kong removed her from harm’s way she would immediately place herself in peril. Stop bothering Kong while he’s defending himself from bi-planes, he has enough to worry about already! Also, why did Brody feel the need to get to the top of the building?

My final nitpick? Jimmy! What is it about film directors and annoying wet-behind-the-ears characters (see Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 2)? It’s one of those story mechanisms that go right up my ass. Are we supposed to think, “I identify with Jimmy and his desire to be one of the big boys, go Jimmy, go!” I don’t even recall Jimmy succeeding in his desire to prove his worth; he seemed to disappear once the action really kicked in. I hated Jimmy.

Octopunk said...

I heard that the studio originally wanted Jimmy to be a little Japanese kid in really tight shorts, but Jackson fought it.

Octopunk said...

It's too bad Jack Black didn't play for you guys. I thought he was great. He reminded me of the director from the original Kong, who has a hilarious line about how "they're gonna need to make up some new adjectives when this picture is done!"

"he didn't really seem to be trying to play a character from the 30's, he just played Jack Black."

I'm not sure what that means. The non-chameleon actors aren't supposed to make you forget who they are, they're hired for their personalities. Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne -- these guys didn't have much of a range either. I thought the greedy look in JB's eyes while he was filming the guys falling off the log was perfect. His character was meant to be a lot like Dewey Finn from School of Rock, except with a dark, destructive underpinning (as Adrain Brody points out to Colin Hanks during the ghastly floor show). Beauty may have been the bullet in Kong's heart, but it was Jack Black who pulled the trigger. I found his raw, sometimes comic enthusiasm to be the perfect fit for the character.

Who would you have wanted in that part?

JPX said...

Black has said that he imitated Orson Wells (as he imagined him to be based on historical accounts). I didn't think Black was bad, I just think he pulled me from the story at times because he has such a unique look.

Octopunk said...

Yeah, I get that. He is pretty distinctive. Whereas Tom Cruise, who is much, much more exposed, has an easier time blending into a character b/c he's a little more normal looking.

I feel like I might've done the above rant, including the Jimmy Stewart mention, somewhere else on the blog. Whoever finds it before I do gets a giant ape.

Oh, and right on about Naomi Watts and her silky dress. Can you imagine being practically naked on top of the Empire State Building in winter? Yow.

the general said...

>>>I imagine the readers in the 30’s thought of these places as somewhere you could really go, if you had the right spirit. I imagine that, for them, the spires of New York were those impossible skyscrapers.

There were still places to discover in the 30s, weren’t there? I would think so, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. They only made it to San Francisco less than a hundred years before this time.


>>>The Skull Island that Jackson gives us is a place of dreams. Dreams that eat you. …. The danger is relentless and everywhere

Yeah, he filled it with a lot of stuff that was really creepy, but he put it on a revolving display and you saw each scary thing just once. The local people – they were amazing and scary as shit when they were there, but what happened? How come they weren’t around for the exit out of the inland territories? Even in their original appearance, they seemed to just disappear suddenly. The bit with the small annoying insects – the big mosquitoes. That actually made sense that in that heat and moisture (inside a fog belt must be really humid) there’d be a lot of flying gnats. And the scene played well for a few minutes and then it was done, as if they all of a sudden had cases of Off to spray on themselves. It seemed like the beasties had divided up Skull Mountain like Disneyland. First it’s TRex Land, then creepy spider bugs in the dark Land, etc. And it seemed like a lot more crewmembers got killed that were on the boat. I figured the ship’s crew was about 15 and then another 10 people for the film crew.



>>>And amazingly, this movie is a love story, and one of the purest I’ve seen. By the time they’re in New York, all Kong and Ann want is to be with each other, even though they never have anything to look forward to, or any idea about what to do. Ann becomes as lost as Kong, and Naomi Watts sells the two of them so well I never questioned it at all. I loved him, too.

I think this movie needs a lot of editing and that the 3 hours is indulgent, but I was glad for all the time spent developing that relationship because it was so believable. I wish that a little more attention had been given to the other love relationship in the movie: Young Jimmy and the black first mate. I knew the mate fatherloved him, but I didn’t know how much Jimmy cared back until his reaction to the mate’s death. I wish we had more of the early hints about Jimmy’s past. I liked the stuff between those two.

And speaking of a dad/son relationship, how come there are multiple every other creatures but only one Kong? At one point, I thought there was a Kong looking skull in some scene where there were bones and I hoped they were gonna go into some reason why he is the last one of the Kongs. But nope. So that’s why he had to go for the blond babe for love. He’s not going to procreate anyway, so might as well fall for some unattainable female. There are some groups that see racism in this story -- that the blond girl got invited to join Kong for the sunset while all the previous sacrifices, presumably Africans unless there’s a lot of boats crashing into that island, were just eaten and munched. They have a point. Yes, this movie is saying that Kong would save a blond and discard dark skinned women. People do that all the time when it comes to attraction and love, and yeah, that’s what is going on here – Kong is really jonesing for this woman. In gay circles, Kong’s friends would call him a Vanilla Queen and they’d give him a hard time, but it would be in the friendly kidding way. This is the true meaning of sexual preferences – what you like to do sexually. Being a homo or a breeder, or all the various possibilities in between – that’s your sexual orientation. Your sexual preferences are if you like younger, or big booties, or blacks or latinos, or teabagging or all the other variables. So yeah, Kong’s into white chicks. And Watts is a good white chick and did a nice job with the role, but I kept thinking of Nicole Kidman as I watched her. I wonder if it’s an Australian thing? One thing though, he should be into dead white chicks. I’m amazed that what you guys see as unlikely is that she wasn’t cold in that flimsy dress. Cold? She should be dead. Man, her neck should have totally snapped about a kabillion times in this movie. Or killed by bullets when she’s inside the top of the Empire State. Like Brody should have died cuz there’s no way that they shot just the big bugs and not hit him. And even if the kid (Jimmy was doing the shooting, right? The first time shooter was the perfect shot, right?) was that good, the amount of time the bugs were all over Brody would have resulted in big chunks eaten out of his flesh.



Overall? It was fun. It was too long. I am glad I saw it on the big screen. I doubt I’d rent it when it gets to DVD. Not great, but I can dance to it.

The General said...

>>>>I heard that the studio originally wanted Jimmy to be a little Japanese kid in really tight shorts, but Jackson fought it.


When I read this, at first I thought of Michael and couldn't understand it because of course he wouldn't fight it, but then I realized you meant Peter.

JPX said...

"I heard that the studio originally wanted Jimmy to be a little Japanese kid in really tight shorts" Short-round?

Octopunk said...

I was really just thinking about that standard feature of Japanese monster flicks: the kid who has a brush with the monster in the beginning and is thereafter afforded top-flight security clearance so he can blurt out the solution to all their problems.

Tom Servo has a sidebar about "the Monster Children" in the MST3K book.