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KING KONG (2005)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe Starring: William Mosely, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson. Director: Andrew Adamson. Screenwriters: Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
I recently looked over some of the other short reviews that I’ve done, and it was interesting to note that I started out basically saying “I liked this” or “I didn’t like this.” Gradually, with more reviews under my (virtual) belt, I began moving toward having a particular “point” to these reviews, relating to story-telling or film-making mechanics or what have you.

For this film, adapted from the first of a series of seven books, I find myself without much of anything to say, other than “I liked this.”   This isn’t because there’s nothing worth talking about with the film, far from it.   It’s just that it does what it does—tell a story—so well, that it’s hard to look outside the story to see the machinery.   That’s the best kind of storytelling.

I’d read the Narnia books years ago, and a lot of the Christian allegory just flew right by me.  I knew that C.S. Lewis was a very devout Christian, but when I read the books, they just seemed like well-told stories to me.

I’m happy to say the same about the film.   Yes, one character sacrifices himself and is killed, and he returns stronger than ever at a crucial time and helps to save the day.   You could certainly say that’s a Christ parallel, but then you might have to note that both Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi (in the first trilogy) have similar parallels.   And yes, the difference is that Lewis meant the parallel.   But honestly, like the Harry Potter books, the storytelling is so straight-forward (without a lot of pointing and nudging) that you can keep the deeper meanings aside and just enjoy the storytelling. 

In terms of the film, the children are pretty good, though the older ones come across as slightly bland.   But then, they’re supposed to be ordinary.  The centaurs and fauns are wonderfully realized, and the talking animals are incredibly convincing.   Tilda Swinton is the most frightening witch since Margaret Hamilton; she’s excellent, very chilling (in the literal sense, too).   And she has some really scary henchmen, like a gigantic minotaur and a wolf who embodies Michael Madsen's gangsterish voice perfectly.   Whoever cast him should get a bonus.  And Liam Neeson’s voice is also perfectly suited to the lion Aslan, sounding wise, patient and regal.   I understand that he was a last minute choice.   Well, the film-makers chose wisely.   Normally I think there's a distance to Mr. Neeson, but that works splendidly here.   The special effects are great, supporting the story organically without calling attention to themselves as “Ooo, cool!” moments (though there are a lot of those if you want).

For a fairly serious film, the comedy was well-handled, mostly by a pair of beavers.  The beavers were very well done, funny and amusing while being serious at the same time.  While they were “comedy relief” characters, they were never obnoxious.  

One problem is that for the story to grow organically, the children have to become heroes through choice and experience.   While that does happen here—like Peter saving his sisters at the ice flow—it seems rather rushed, in order to get it in before the story rushes over it.  At the time, it seemed like it happened all pretty rapidly, but in retrospect I think it was handled very well.

I’d never heard of Andrew Adamson before, but he certainly demonstrated a sure hand in this film, and a willingness to let the story be the focus, rather than throw in a lot of art-school clever distraction or nudge-in-the-ribs in-jokes.   So I was rather surprised to find out that I had seen one of his film:  Shrek.   Which I didn’t care for at all, precisely because it was filled with in-jokes and an overabundant appreciation of its own cleverness.   It was a comedy in the Saturday Night Live vein, where it isn’t really funny but everyone knows that anyway—it’s all part of the joke, see.

Who’d have thought the same guy could come up with a wonderful film like this one?   There’s certainly room for surprise in the world, and the good kind, too.

I can’t wait to see the next film in the series.   This one is highly recommended for all ages.   I'll say it again, "I liked this."

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint. Director: Mike Newell. Screenwriter: Steve Kloves

I saw the fourth Harry Potter film only a few days after I’d finished the novel on which it was based (this was the first time I’d read the book before seeing the film).   I think this might have been a mistake, since I kept doing a kind of mental calculation as I watched the film, comparing book to film back and forth.   I’d catch myself thinking, Oh, that was clever how they combined those things.  That was a pretty good way of shortening up that.  They eliminated that whole scene by giving one line to someone else.  That was smart.

Anyway, at first I found this a bit distancing, but this didn’t prevent me from enjoying the movie a great deal.   All the Harry Potter films have been first-rate entertainment, and they seem to have pioneered the non-postmodern fantasy film—the film that DOESN'T have to wink at its audience to let them know it’s all just a movie.   I’ve always hated that.  I know it’s a movie, can you please let me enjoy it?  Thankfully, the first film allowed itself to marvel at the world it presented to us, and all the other films have followed suit.

Anyway, in this film, they managed quite neatly to eliminate a lot of unneeded bits (fun, but unneeded).   As an example, in the book one of Harry’s classmates is given a book on plants which has some vital information, but that never comes into play because those damned house elves give Harry what he needs.   In the film, the classmate actually does what he didn’t do in the book.   Consequently, the entire house elf subplot is eliminated.   (I don’t like the elves, and was dreading seeing them come back.)

As another example, there is a lot of speculation near the end of where Professor Snape’s true loyalties lie.   This is condensed into a single gesture, as Snape pushes his wand against the villain’s cheek, his expression one of controlled loathing.  That’s it; just a gesture, a second or two, and it works beautifully.

Overall, I thought the pacing and storytelling momentum were excellent.   The effects were colorful without being overwhelming, and the performances were universally good.   Brendan Gleeson was perfect as Mad-Eye Moody.   This film really wanted to be its own animal, and not just an adaptation of a book, and I think it succeeded pretty well.  The ending, where we watch the departing chariot and the descending ship, was particularly lovely.   A nice quiet drawing of the curtain, that didn’t have to end with a joke or a face full of triumph.

Highly recommended, as are all the Harry Potter films.   Of course, I read the book.   For the next film, I think I’ll start on the book sooner so I can savor the film more.

King Kong Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Andy Serkis. Director: Peter Jackson. Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson.

Remaking a movie widely regarded as a classic carries a number of problems.  Especially when you’re talking about a movie that’s not only a classic, it’s iconographic, and has been responsible for springboarding generations of movie-goers and –makers into their careers and their passions.   The expectations for such a remake, from both goers and makers alike, are going to be huge.   Something that captured one’s imagination long ago has to be treated very carefully, if one is not to pop the balloon.  There’s a reason no one has seriously remade Casablanca or Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.   Remaking a classic of such a stature is obviously far more arduous than remaking a failed film, where one can see what went wrong and use this as an opportunity to “get it right.”

Of course, with King Kong, there was already a remake back in the 70’s.  I haven’t seen it but heard it was awful.  It seems to have permanently stamped producer Dino DeLaurentiis as a man of, shall we say, limited taste.   (He hasn’t done much lately to make us think otherwise, I should note.)

The 70’s film was probably a good thing, as far as expectations for Peter Jackson’s remake.  Whatever it ended up being, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as the DeLaurentiis’ version, so the “dread” bit was out of the way.  But being better than the 70’s version isn’t all we want; we have to acknowledge the original as well, because that’s what Jackson was aiming for after all.   Who would want to remake the 70’s version?   So the ultimate unfair question: is the new one as good as the classic one?

Reviews on this one seem to be either completely over-the-top fanatic, “Greatest movie ever made!” or “Damn this was long, and it wasn’t all that good.”  Personally, I’m in the middle.   I’m mainly positive in my assessment (though if you read on you may doubt this).

I think that sort of collective judgment is going to come (if at all) some years down the road, when there’s been a chance for perspective to kick in.   As I said, I liked it overall, and some parts I liked a great deal.   But I didn’t love it.   And unlike those film-makers and –goers of yore, it didn’t inspire me to make my own attempt to stamp the cinema with my name.

In other words, while I liked it overall, there were problems.

What were the problems?  Oh, I’m glad you asked. 

First and foremost, it was too long.   I don’t care what anyone says, there simply wasn’t enough story to justify the length, and as we were heading into the final hour, I was just tired of the whole thing and wanted it to be over, please.  I think this was a pity, because some things that were really well done toward the end tended to get (slight) short shrift from me and my impatience.  (This film may be more easily digested on DVD.)

A lot of this length was from scenes that could have been cut or trimmed.  For example, there were too many soulful close-ups of Naomi Watts, and for that matter, too many of Kong.  That struck me while watching—haven’t we seen this shot before?   There must have been about twelve of them, total, for both performers.  Three each would have been okay, more was just overkill.  Okay, okay, I get that she’s all sad, and he’s all sad, can we just go on with our lives now!

And when Kong tromps through the jungle, Ann Darrow in hand, it also just seems to go on and on.  He tromps all over the island (and she’s flung about so much I found it hard to suspend my disbelief that she wouldn’t be crushed or killed by all this).   Other Kong stuff that seemed overly long was the gas attack on the island, his rampage on Times Square, the final stand on the Empire State Building, and the Tyrannosaurus fight.  (Oddly enough, I didn’t find the opening sea voyage dull.   Perhaps that was because it wasn’t supposed to be exciting.)

Ah yes.  Lots has been made about the Tyrannosaurus fight.   Many people feel it’s the highlight of the movie.   To me, it just seemed to go on too long, and it was edited in such a rapid, kinetic fashion that it was confusing.   I hate that kind of MTV-editing where you’ve got swish-swish-cut-swish, let’s hide all the action with the camera.   I get what Jackson was trying to do—make it seem like a real battle, with noise and confusion, and the possibility that Kong would be overwhelmed.  It just didn’t involve me as an audience member—it pulled me out where I could see the technique.

And earlier, when the film-crew was being attacked by the natives, there was all this smeared slow-motion, almost like morphed still-frames.   It was like watching Resident Evil:  Apocalypse again.  What was the point of that?  I know, I know, it was to capture the chaos the way the characters would experience it.   I felt it didn’t work.

The thing is, Jackson spent a lot of time and effort getting things to look right, so why wouldn’t he show us these things?  When he does show you, they’re outstanding.

Some scenes I felt weren’t too long, they just flat-out didn’t work.  The dinosaur stampede was a good example, especially since it seemed kind of stupid and, well, badly-put together.   It shook everyone up and killed a few folks, but there must have been better ways to do that.   The whole bit with Jimmy, the underage kid, seemed to come from (and go to) nowhere, and probably could have stayed there.

Another scene that I felt didn’t work was the spider scene.   The spiders and slugs were very well done, and I liked the change in Bruce Baxter (which was never followed up on), but there was a reason this scene was never put into the original movie:  it stops the film dead.  Here it’s gruesome but irrelevant, and it stuck out as a homage more than anything else did.  I can imagine Jackson saying, “Unlike Merian C. Cooper, I’m going to get my spider scene, so my Kong will be truer to the original intent!”   Well, he did get his scene.   I think he shouldn’t have bothered.  This is a problem in our modern film-making age, when instead of something being put in because it supports the story, it’s put in instead because it refers to another film.

Some other things just seemed careless.  Kong escapes in New York and creates noisy screaming mayhem, then chases Adrian Brody down a side street and everything is suddenly calm and quiet.  Even all the traffic is gone.  Then Ann appears, backlit (a rather silly shot, I thought), and she and Kong go sliding on the ice.  Again, it’s like there’s no one in the city for miles.  Then the shooting starts, and it’s noisy chaos again.
Weird lines:  while watching the preparation for Kong’s Broadway debut, Carl Denham’s assistant has the inexplicable line, “Carl always kills everything he loves.”  Where the hell did that come from?  He never seemed to love anything other than being the center of attention.

Which brings me to some of the good stuff, specifically the acting, because Jack Black’s performance is almost able to make a line like that fly through without you thinking, Huh?  Wha?   The acting was very good all around, by everyone.  Naomi Watts was outstanding, and Adrien Brody was very good too. 

Andy Serkis did a great job as Kong (the motion capture part), very gorilla like.   Which brings me to another bad thing:  Kong himself was kind of, well, boring.   There were only two scenes in which I felt he really became a character, Ann’s dancing scene and his amusement at this, and the frozen lake scene where the two of them had fun together.  (Ice must have been a new thing for Kong.)  The rest of the time I just felt he must sit around all day and glower, since that seemed to be his repetoire. 

The relationship between Ann and Kong was well setup and believable, and contributed to the story.  In the original film, Kong was pretty much just a monster and Ann screamed whenever he was around.   He smashed things and destroyed things.   Here, you could feel more for his plight.  And you could understand her regard for him, not only for saving her life from the Tyrannosaurs, but also because he was removed from his world and forced into ours.   As a complete one-eighty from the first film, this worked wonderfully and was probably the best part of this version.  It finally makes the line, “It wasn’t the planes, t’was beauty killed the beast” make sense.   In the original version, the line is there, but it’s the planes.  Definitely the planes.

I liked some of the little details that got put in here and there, like the giant gorilla skeletons, seen in passing as Kong goes to his lair.   You really do get the sense that he is the last of his kind, and not just some giant anomaly.

So, to sum up.  While I did look at my watch, I was never really bored.  That only happened during those soulful close-ups.  But I did see a lot of the machinery behind the film, and I usually hate it when that happens.   Loved the line, “If you love it, you’d have jumped.”   I have a fear of heights, and the Empire State Building scenes really made me squirm, even though it was all digital.   The recreation of 1930’s New York City was outstanding.   The acting was great and involving.  Special effects, terrific.

On balance, I recommend this one.   If you don’t have a whole lot invested in the original, or in Peter Jackson, you’ll probably be like me and like this one with some reservations.   Overall, it’s a pretty fun time at the movies.   Heck, if you time your bathroom breaks just right, you may like it better than me!