Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 19, 2005 8:24 pm 
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“Some fans exhausted by manic ‘King Kong’” -- recent headline


You could do something useful with your three hours – or you could see King Kong. Jackson’s costly hi-tech period kitsch revival film, the third version, makes ample – make that excessive – use of the quite wonderful CGI tricks that enable filmmakers with the money to pay for it to spread quite credible monsters across the screen in almost believable landscapes tangling with each other and with humans. Sometimes, as of old, the humans are lighted wrong or there’s a telltale edge around them, but the monsters don’t look stiff or metallic the way they did a few years ago. If you think that advance is enough reason to redo King Kong, this is your movie.

This version goes back to the Depression era setting of the original. The girl is Naomi Watts. The writer is Adrian Brody. The indefatigable, brave, but mendacious movie director is comic Jack Black, who was so good in School of Rock. You could say Black’s hit the big time and the mainstream, but he’s really just been homogenized: the disreputable, dirty quality that made him real is gone. Here he’s part of a package, like everybody else, like Naomi Watts – though in her very limited, if central role as Ann Darrow, the monstrous gorilla’s tiny blonde plaything, she does provide a soulful warmth. The only one of the principals who doesn’t disappear is Adrian Brody. But that’s just because he’s so odd-looking, with his long crooked nose, big sad eyes, and wide mouth. Jackson wanted someone who didn’t look like a leading man, but he went too far.

Are you up for this movie? Prepare for the fact that every action sequence lasts at least three times what would be the normal length. The girl and the gorilla and a bunch of dinosaurs tangle in vines and fall, grabbing at each other and boffing each other away, for what seems forever. You may feel you’re stoned on acid, and that things usually lasting minutes now seem to go on for hours. But they do go on for hours, psychologically. The giant spiders and the outsize bats just keep on coming, and coming, and coming. Kong sits atop the Empire State Building for hours beating his chest, mooning at Ann, and absorbing bullets shot by little war planes. The CGI people must not have figured out how to do a “flinch” function, because he doesn’t flinch, but eventually he falls.

There has never been so under-edited a major film since Terence Malick’s Thin Red Line, and this time with less original and poetic results.

This is your American mainstream Christmas blockbuster. Last year it was Scorsese’s The Aviator. What a difference. And what a come-down after Jackson’s own masterful Ring Trilogy. His King Kong just reads like all those Lost Ark knockoffs about Egyptian mummies, with some glossed-up horror-cum-Sci-Fi sequences tossed in. It's bigger, and technically better, and it cost more -- but is it really better? I ask you.

The screenplay is simplistic – but it’s effective. People have found the intro excessive, but the first half hour or so moves us right along. It’s only when dialogue gives way to noise and violent movement that things begin to drag.

When the tramp steamer with the film crew runs aground on Skull Island and they see the dark, scary “natives” who eventually offer Ann as a sacrifice to Kong, it’s hard not to think of Apocalypse Now, especially given that the screenplay pointedly alludes to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, through Jamie Bell, who’s reading the book. “It’s not an adventure story,” somebody helpfully spells out. So, we’re expected to contemplate ideas and myths. This "isn't just an adventure story." Oh. But it’s also then that you realize Jackson’s dark wild humans, despite all his trouble and expense, just look like racist B-movie villains, rather than the genuinely exotic, mysterious, and terrifying people Coppola conjured up in the Philippines for his extravagant epic. Just think what an amazing creation Coppola came up with simply shooting from the seat of his pants and going berserk in the tropics without enough money. If only Jackson had gone berserk, but the only reliable thing about him is his dogged pursuit of the format.

Sure, Jackson’s dinosaurs and the bigger, faster, stronger Kong are increasingly agile and realistic, but in the end it just looks like a giant video game – one that, as too often in real life, is obsessively played too long.

Kong was “killed by beauty,” Jack Black’s character tells us. But such symbolic gestures toward the story’s roots in mythology and folk tale can’t save this movie from its sense of glossy overkill. Peter Jackson, who did justice to J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, has spoiled a B-movie cult classic with technology and money.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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