Sunday, December 18, 2005

All Beast, No Beauty



If this review seems muddled, incoherent or otherwise grammatically challenged, I beg your forgiveness. I just finished the film. It is 2 a.m. You get the point.

I have two copies of each of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films on my shelf. One is the original theatrical release and the other is the extended Director’s cut. The theatrical versions are already long, each clocking in around three hours. The director’s cut, which inserts deleted scenes, runs nearly four. With the exception of two or three scenes, I felt the deleted segments deserved their place on the cutting room floor. While interesting or entertaining, they all, in one way or another, either slowed the film down or played self-indulgently.

Don’t look for an extended cut of Peter Jackson’s King Kong—the theatrical version is the extended cut. Overlong by half, hedonistically animated and decadently self-indulgent King Kong is beastly to be sure, but there is little beauty here.

This is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s not. But as no one bothered to tap George Lucas on the shoulder at any point in the past decade and say, “Um sir,…these new Star Wars movies you’ve written…well, they’re complete rubbish” so no one was brave enough to confront the new master of smoke and mirrors and insist on the inclusion of the one job that seemed hopelessly lacking here—an editor.

The usual and oft-deserved complaint you hear from many film purists is that the advent of CGI has allowed filmmakers to run afoul of good, old-fashioned storytelling. They complain that the story oftentimes takes the backseat to the effects. On King Kong, they have found the definitive case study in a film that uses its computerized brushes not for the sake of dramatic velocity, but simply because they can. That sort of wild abandon—the impulse to create magic and wonder for its own sake is a perfectly viable and I would argue, necessary element of cinemagic. However, when special effects are presented narcissistically as they are here, when they serve no other purpose than to showcase the bravado of the artist, when they exist solely so that someone can thump their chest as the great ape, and cry, “Look what I can do” they cease being magic and become the very worst kind of cheap parlor tricks.

The effects are naturally fantastic—awe-inspiring even, but Jackson and his incredibly talented team at Weta Workshops do not simply cross the line, they gleefully throw themselves over it. These are special effects as white noise and they will leave your eyes and ears ringing at the expense of doing the same to your heart. This is Jackson at his most self-gratifying. And he simply doesn’t know when to stop.

After seeing Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, my mother complained that the entire film was simply one climax followed by another climax followed by another climax. Uneven, repetitive and completely forced (to her), she lost any sense of care and concern for the characters, any sense of immersion within the fantasy world. She should stay as far away from King Kong as possible. Here, our characters literally turn around from one crisis to another without a chance to catch their breath, much less utter a line of intelligent dialogue. Dinosaurs stampede, lizards give chase, Kong and T-Rexes engage in a sort of primal WWF Smackdown, giant bugs menace and massive bats attack. And somehow, in the midst of all this, one very large ape and one very beautiful woman are supposed to meet and fall in…well, something.

This is the part that the film does well. Trounces the original and its first clumsy remake, actually. Here we truly believe that Kong could love this tiny human woman. And more importantly, we can believe that Ann Darrow could care for Kong. The movie allows time for the two to create a relationship, such as it is. Kong is digitally rendered with breathtaking realism. Not satisfied with wide shots, Jackson insists on dozens of close-ups on his beast’s face. Not only do these intimate shots come off with absolute believability, but they reveal that the eyes are the windows to this beast’s soul and they say more than any bit of scripted dialogue ever could. (Andy Sirkis, whose bodily movements were digitally captured and became the template for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, here provides the same stunning achievement in bringing the 25 foot tall primate to life with utter realism. Once again, his is the best actor nod that will sadly, never be.)

If Sirkis is fantastic as Kong and Naomi Watts is stunning as Ann, Jack Black is terribly miscast as the egotistical and self-absorbed director, Carl Denham. Going for a caricature, Jackson gets instead, a comedian. And what did he expect? Oh, Black’s a fine enough actor and no one is denying his uproarious humor, but here, in this film, in this role? It doesn’t shatter the believability, it stifles it before it even gets a chance to take hold.

If it seems I hated the film, I didn’t. It saddens me. Like so much in art, it is not the terrible film that bothers me half as much as the great one that squandered its potential. King Kong may be a great blockbuster, but it is not a great film. It has moments of sublime wonder and majesty. And oddly enough, in a film with this much action, they are mostly found in moments of tranquility and charm as when Kong and Ann watch a sunset together or discover the joys of sliding on a frozen lake. There is beauty in this movie. And grace. And, of course, raw, unmitigated power. Kong charges through the streets of New York City like he does through the jungles of Skull Island—smashing everything in his formidable path, tossing both airplanes and dinosaurs like toys. This is not a reimagining, but a loving re-creation. On steroids. Sure, you’ve seen it before and you know what happens, but you haven’t seen it like this.

Jackson has no peer when it comes to this sort of super-sized, otherworldly, enchanting fantasy. But this film does something none of the Rings film did—it exhausts. While King Kong’s last moments are genuinely moving, there is, nonetheless, a palpable sense of relief that the excessive, bloated, shallow, and often illogical film is finally drawing to a close.

And that is a Kong sized tragedy.

14 Comments:

Blogger Warren Epstein said...

THANK YOU! Man, I was wondering if I was the only one who'd noticed the emperor was wearing a monkey suit.

Great visuals - some of the best ever created. Great use of expressive eyes, both real and digital.

But the script is awful. Corny, stilted dialogue, plot points that go nowhere (what happened to Jimmy?).
To me, one of the most telling scenes is the bug invasion. Jimmy grabs his tommy gun, closes his eyes and fireds off enough rounds to kill ALL the bugs ... and not harm a single human.
Certainly, Jackson is giving us a wink-wink there to the absurdity of action-film conventions. But what he's done is undercut the tension. None of the perils in the film are really perilous -- except for Kong atop the Empire State Building -- and we know how that one will play out.

I found i undeniably entertaining ... in the way the vaudeville acts represented are entertaining. ... trivial distractions.

Given all the money and talent involved, we all deserved more than that.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

This is the first time in my memory where I actually WANTED there to be a studio cut of the film. Instead of a director's cut with additional footage, they need to come out with a studio cut with an hour hacked out. And they can start with Jimmy—you are so right. If you are going to give us character development, make the characters actually go somewhere and do something! Otherwise, it's better if they remain cardboard cutouts.

There is a scene when Preston is in the balcony, talking to Driscoll about Denham's excesses and Driscoll tells him that Denham ends up destroying the very things he loves. I think the same could be said for Jackson in this case. While destroying is perhaps too strong a word, impairs, hamstrings or cripples might work well. Ironically and counter-intuitively, it is the things we love the most that we more often than not need to keep our hands out of—we don't have enough emotional distance from them to look at them objectively.

Come on, Nate. We're waiting. I know you want to wipe the floor with us...

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Warren Epstein said...

About Jack Black, who's getting lots of bad notices about his performance ... I don't think he was miscast. I think the part was unworkable as written.

Didn't you get the sense that he tried to say "twas beauty killed the beast" about 100 times and couldn't quite nail it? Maybe it's not nailable.

That said, imagine Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role...

6:47 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Oh my! ABSOLUTELY! Just the right balance of sleaze, brilliance, persuasiveness and humanity. He would have been PERFECT!

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Non-Prophet says:

I'm afraid of this movie. After seeing the original, Mighty Joe Young and the remake from when I was a kid I think I am burnt out on Kong. I feel like there is supposed to be some romantic element in it all but I never really connected with it in any of the other films.

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I glanced at your king kong review. I am hoping to see it, I expect it to be unreal and all, but hey, it's King Kong. In king kong, it's the terror of a beast that is softened by love and beauty. King kong stirs our inner fears both of nature, and the beast within. If he can be softened, maybe we too can be... That's all we want. If the movie stirs these emotions in our hearts, then we like it, period. But critics, they don't seem to be satisfied by that.

AF

4:35 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

How we tell a story is at least as important as the story itself, wouldn't you say? You can have the best, most moving, most life-applicable story the world has ever heard or seen, but if you tell it badly, that story gets muddled or even lost.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How we tell a story is important. It can break a good story. Also, the telling can actually detract from the important points of the story. But the critics seem to pick at technicalities that are of minimal importance to the average viewer. Now, a movie being bad technically can indeed ruin a good story. THAT should be pummeled by the critics. But picking at technical technicalities seems as damaging as a bad movie. I heard some say that the Narnia movie had technical flaws that detracted from the movie. I didn't see anything noticeable. Some said that the queen wasn't evil enough. I thought that she was depicted as evil. That is why I am beginning to doubt the critics.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

At it's most basic level, to be a critic simply means to have (informed) opinions. And if that is the case, we are all, to some level or another, critics. Don't bash critics en mass. They, like you, are simply postulating a viewpoint. Their word is no more or no less holy than our own. The secret is to filter through them, find the ones whom you seem to agree with most often, and let them be your guide for a film's (or a book's or a CD's) interpretation. But don't ignore the rest altogether—we need those critics who challenge and stretch us. One of my favorites, the late Pauline Kael, is one I disagree with more often than not.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous ED said...

You're in a very very small minority when it comes to KING KONG a somewhat flawed yet critically acclaimed picture. No matter what you say on it, I disagree with you 100% on KONG. You and Harry Knowles are the only 2 fanboys who have approached it the way you did. Want to read a great review whom I'm agree with completely check out Moriarity's review at aintitcool.com.

Jackson was a massive fan of LotR (and I disagree with your opinion on the Extended Edition DVDs as well on a whole) and approached it with absolute reverence and in turn made the BEST film of all time "THE LORD OF THE RINGS".

9:30 AM  
Blogger Dan Shargel said...

I wish someone had tapped Lucas on the shoulder around 1998 but not sure if it would have made a difference. Pretty much everyone over the age of 9 I've ever discussed Ep1 with said it was not just terrible, but unwatcheable. Today, Lucas probably still thinks it's a masterpiece. The rave reviews for Ep3 probably cements that belief even more. How sad to be that cutoff from "reality."

12:16 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

From IMDB the 2nd of January, 2006:

Unless those celebrants who packed Times Square and poured out of New Year's eve parties Saturday night also decided to sober up during post-midnight screenings of the three-hour King Kong, it looks as if The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will be the ... er ... top dog at the box office this weekend. Figures for Friday and Saturday show that Narnia pulled in $17.5 million for the two days, while Kong drew $15.9 million. Overall, Narnia has made $225 million to Kong's $174M.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

The following is from
The Church of the Masses (www.churchofthemasses.blogspot.com),the blog of Barbara Nicolosi, a former nun who now runs ACT ONE, a nonprofit organization that trains people of faith for careers in mainstream film & TV:

"Go down to December 17th entry on this blog to read the review of Peter Jackson's Kong that I would have written if I had the strength of will to force myself to revisit the movie. The blog is by Brandon Fibbs in Colorado. Here's a paragraph with which I particularly resonated:

"The usual and oft-deserved complaint you hear from many film purists is that the advent of CGI has allowed filmmakers to run afoul of good, old-fashioned storytelling..."

Comments--

Very good review!
Brennan | 12.21.05 - 11:40 am | #

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Man, I love it when someone else says what I feel better than I do...I was teaching myself the guitar and working on some songs when I came across this artist named Denison Witmer. His latest album is called "Are You a Dreamer?"...it might be misconstrued as a twisted sort of falsely humble arrogance, but the album is GREAT, and sounds like exactly what I wanted to write. When I heard it, I really felt like I didn't have to keep stealing time from the doc or my writing, or my cows to fumble over lyrics. Denison said it well, and for now, that's enough...
Adam Tillman-Young | Homepage | 12.22.05 - 7:31 pm | #

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Adam:

Denison Witmer is excellent. Nice name drop. If you haven't yet, check out stuff from The Innocence Mission and Sufjan Stevens, who play a lot of the music on Denison's album.
BillH | 12.23.05 - 4:59 pm | #

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I certainly hope and pray that no studio time was spent mixing these albums or that anything but an old six string guitar was used to make the music. Dear God, please let there be no digital recording involved because"...when special effects are presented narcissistically as they are here, when they serve no other purpose than to showcase the bravado of the artist, when they exist solely so that someone can thump their chest as the great ape, and cry, “Look what I can do” they cease being magic and become the very worst kind of cheap parlor tricks."
cb | 12.24.05 - 1:31 pm | #

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I dunno, Barb...I think you're in danger of ceasing to be the Church of the Masses and becoming the Church of Highbrow Film Criticism and Artsiness. King Kong is a film for the masses.

I thought it was great, and this sort of review isn't going to change my mind.
Sean S. | Homepage | 12.24.05 - 5:18 pm | #

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Sean S -

I never claimed to worship at the new church of the masses...
Barb N | 12.25.05 - 11:28 am | #

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From the review:

"The effects are naturally fantastic—awe-inspiring even, but Jackson and his incredibly talented team at Weta Workshops do not simply cross the line, they gleefully throw themselves over it. These are special effects as white noise and they will leave your eyes and ears ringing at the expense of doing the same to your heart."

This reminds me of something the Paraguayan guitarist Augustin Barrios Mangore supposedly said about another guitarist: "He is deaf in the Heart."

To my mind, CGI is only a more visible sign (the 'accidents') of what has been taking place on the spiritual (the 'substance') level for some time now. We have been willing to drink-in greater and greater amounts of inauthenticity ... in our search for authenticity! It has been a viscious circle. We've now reached the point where we're satisfied with "story" or "message"... while we have become deaf to each authentic present moment.
Pace | 12.25.05 - 4:10 pm | #

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Interesting that Kong appears to be just barely able to keep ahead of Narnia at the box office, even though Narnia opened how many weeks prior...
John Farrell | Homepage | 12.27.05 - 10:31 am | #

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Narnia made more in in two days ($ 67M) than Kong did in five ($66.1M).
JonathanR. | 12.27.05 - 11:06 am | #

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I finally saw Kong last week. Never saw the originals, so I didn't have any preconceived expectations.

I fell asleep for the first hour or so. Long, boring, drawn out. Just get to Kong already.

When they did finally get to to Kong and the action, I enjoyed it. Great effects. But everything besides the effects were a bore.
Jason | 12.29.05 - 10:14 am | #

6:16 PM  
Blogger Crazy Dan said...

Hi Brandon Fibbs, I found your blog while doing some research on king kong toys. I like your blog, thank you for sharing the information and keep up the good work!.
I'll be back to see if you have any posts about king kong toys

4:36 PM  

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