Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Jackson's King Kong Vs. The Real Thing
If you read my piece on the movie version of Fellowship of the Ring, you'll remember some dumping, right at the beginning, on Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. Actually, I almost veered off into a full-length dump-a-thon, restrained myself, and didn't think about it too much for a while, caught up as I was in expressing every single thought I ever had about Jackson's LOTR trilogy. Just now, however, I got down to starting my Fantasy Movies Top Twenty list, and since the original King Kong is right at the beginning, I was reminded that I had an incandescently angry Kong remake hatchet-job chambered in my mental gun, and that it really needed to be discharged. Admittedly, it's been a few years since Jackson's version came out, but my wounds still feel real fresh. I hated the movie so much that I actually went to see it twice, believing maybe that I'd been overreacting...while I was suffering through that second go-round, I started getting chest pains, and I remember wondering if I was going to die of a heart attack while watching Jackson's abortion.
Now, the original movie is maybe my favorite film of all time. It was bedrock stuff for me, absolutely essential to the formation of my imagination, maybe even my personality. I believe it was the first movie I ever saw, during its very first showing on Million Dollar Movie on WOR in New York; my parents thought it might scare me, but I said, "Look at the big monkey!" Since it was a big RKO classic, it got played all the time on WOR, which was (still is?) an RKO station. There was a show on Saturday morning, Super Adventure Theatre, hosted by Claude Kirchner, and they must've played Kong every month. It would be Kong, then Son of Kong, then Mighty Joe Young, then Gunga Din maybe, then back to Kong. And I would watch it every single damn time (although I also watched the other flicks too). I think I must've watched it literally scores of times. Memorized every single detail, at least the ones you could pick out in the deliberately darkened print they were showing back then. My head was simply bursting with Kong. Eventually I developed other enthusiasms such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tolkien, and while Tolkien was an extra-huge thing for me, I don't think LOTR ever got way down into my subconscious the way Kong did...really, I suppose it couldn't have, since I ran into it later.
Anyway, as the years went on, I'd revisit it every chance I could. Thought the Dino Di Laurentiis flick was astonishingly awful...for God's sake, they got rid of the dinos, and Kong was just a guy in a (good) Rick Baker monkeysuit, even though it was claimed (and was widely believed by various idiot critics) that he was a giant robotic contraption. Carlo Rambaldi, who went on to do the animatronics on ET, did indeed design a giant mechanical Kong, but it simply didn't work. The movie just sucked, sucked, sucked. Particularly risible was a scene in which Kong falls into a pit full of soporific gas...a giant ape-arm rises up out of the fog, so big that the pit couldn't possibly have accomodated the rest of his body. It was one of the most ill-thought out special effects I've ever seen in a real movie.
There was a sequel to the remake, as I recall...didn't see it. The property sat around for a long while, although a cleaned-up uncensored version of the original was shown on some big screens throughout the country, and the new prints were even more jaw-dropping than the original WOR experience...the movie not only hadn't aged, it was badder and more vivid than ever.
Still, given the ongoing revolution in special effects, I did think that you could do a great remake, actually improve on the original in some respects. This might seem a heretical notion to some, but hear me out...consider Mighty Joe Young. In most respects, it's kind of a remake of Kong...it even has Robert Armstrong in a Carl Denhamish role. As a special effects film, it's pretty balls-out...it must have more effects shots than Star Wars and they're very high quality stuff. Fact is, some big strides had been made in VFX after Kong, and Merian C. Cooper decided to do another Kong type project and exploit the new technology to the hilt, using his FX maestro, Willis O'Brien, and a new guy, one Ray Harryhausen. Well, the movie isn't quite as stupendous as King Kong, but it was well worth doing, an effects classic, and way better than the underfunded and undercooked Son of Kong. Fact is, though, Kong's primary superiority lies in the story...Kong is darker, more ferocious, much more mythic. And if you wanted to do a proper remake, well...just stick to the original story, which is to say...set the thing in the early thirties. And keep Max Steiner's score, for God's sake.
Now, if yours truly was doing a new flick with State of the Arts special effects, the only real changes I would make to the story would regard the movie-making stuff...in the original, it's pretty absurd. Carl Denham's going to make a movie, but he doesn't have a script, is planning to make up everything on the spot once he gets to the island, and he's only got one cast member, i.e. Anne Darrow, who he just grabs off the street. I would make Anne Denham's daughter, from a failed marriage...she looks him up and talks her way onto the ship. Actually takes after her dad. When the suggestion is made that, "we've got something he wants," I would've had her say it, and have dad be proud of her. Now maybe nobody cares if the movie stuff is stupid; in truth, it doesn't bother me too much.
But I'll tell you what. I would never, ever, ever, have screwed around with Denham's character the way Jackson does. Instead of treating Denham like a bad guy, a proper tweaking of the story would've involved playing up the underlying similarities between Kong and Denham...and Merian C. Cooper. He used to tell people, "I am Kong," although, as a point of fact, his actual background was very similar to Denham's, and Denham was plainly based on him and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who'd cut their cinematic teeth making documentaries in very wild, very exotic surroundings.
Okay, so time passes...I begin to see some movies by this Peter Jackson guy, and hear rumblings that he'd like to make a new Kong flick. I got a kick out of his early movies, although they didn't seem too Konglike to me...when he did Heavenly Creatures, I thought it was artsy but effective, and noted some nifty digital and makeup effects. Shortly afterwards, Robert Zemeckis ponied up the money for Jackson to do The Frighteners, a total FX extravaganza. It wasn't a box-office success, but Jackson was able to trade on it sufficiently to get his Rings movies made---always with an eye towards doing that new Kong film, a long-standing ambition of his. Jackson is a huge Kong fan, and is a friend of Harryhausen's; he also collects Kong stuff, such as original armatures, etc. Kong is hands down Jackson's favorite movie; which makes his adaptation that much more puzzling and infuriating.
Man, I really don't know what was on the man's mind.
First off, his remake is over three hours long. That's fifteen minutes longer than Fellowship of the Ring. It's twice as long as the '33 version of Kong and less than half as fast...or smart. The original has a good buildup before we get to the island, but we arrive in about twenty-five minutes...in Jackson's movie it take about an hour, and there's a shitload of wheel-spinning, chiefly to do with characterization, which Jackson apparently believes he's good at. Well, there was some great characterization in the Rings films (Gollum, Sam, Gandalf) etc., but there was also some really crummy characterization too (Faramir, Denethor, Gimli, etc.), and the half of Jackson's brain that gave us Gimli's constant pratfalls was working full blast on Kong.
Which brings us back to Carl Denham.
We've already established that he's kind of a stand-in for Merian C. Cooper, who was an incredibly impressive individual. I mean, he knifed his way out of a Communist prison camp after WWI, and during WWII, he commanded Claire Chennault, the man who commanded the Flying Tigers...produced all those John Ford westerns...put up the money for Cinerama and so on and so on. And while Cooper's cinematic alter ego may be a ruthless son of a bitch, he's cool. Denham's larger than life.
But Jackson's version of Denham, as portrayed by Jack Black, is a vile asshole, and a giant sopping loogie right in Cooper's face. The presentation simply reeks of PC, and while I can't be sure, I think Cooper and Schoedsack would've hated this film. I also suspect very strongly that Harryhausen wasn't too thrilled with it...if he was, I must say, then subtract fifteen effing points. Jackson seems to have realized he was wading into some crap here...tries to get out of it by mentioning Cooper by name towards the beginning of the film, thus drawing a distinction between his Denham and the actual guy. But it's transparently obvious what he's up to, and he just shouldn't have done what he did.
But the lousy character work doesn't stop with Denham. There's the matter of Jack Driscoll. In the first movie, Driscoll, played by stalwart Bruce Cabot, is a jut-jawed hard-as-nails guy who you could imagine chasing Kong right to his lair and saving the gal. But Jackson's brainstorm is to turn Driscoll into Barton Fink. Instead of bluff beefy Cabot, we get willowy sensitive Adrian Brody, who's been pretty good in a lot of films, but doesn't belong here. Jackson's Driscoll is a New York playwright who's been dragooned to do the script; at least in this version there's some tentative stuff about a script. But the moviemaking details wind up just as silly as they were in the first film. What would this script be about? The question becomes especially striking when you discover that Denham hasn't even heard of Kong...he knows about Skull Island, but it's the cook, played by Andy Serkis, who first raises the Kong-issue. What the hell is going on here? One of the more annoying things about Jackson's LOTR was his incurable tendency to take dialogue willy-nilly from one character and give it to another...in this case, it's particularly baffling.
Naomi Watts looks pretty much like Fay Wray, and works reasonably well...Thomas Kretschmann, who deserves to be a bigger star than he's been so far, makes a watchable Captain Englehorn. But they're about the only two non-digital characters who work. Things are exacerbated by the fact that Jackson's got no ear for American usage...people talk about "crapping the crappers," stuff like that.
As I said, the boat takes forever to reach Skull Island, but I was still going with the program, figuring that the movie had to pick up once they hit the place. I was, of course, anticipating a really great monster show...LOTR had certainly been one of those, among other things. I couldn't imagine that this movie was going to be a letdown as an effects film...boy did I get blindsided. The cold truth began sinking in just as soon as they approach the island. There's this extremely peculiar bit of business about the ship being swept out of control, by weird currents, and eventually sucked into a gap in an outer ring of cliffs that surrounds the island...the sequence is extremely incoherent in conception, and the ship and water effects bite big time. The ship never looks for one moment like a real object floating in real water, perhaps due to the fact that everything is so vaguely and foolishly imagined. There's a lot of stuff like that later on, most notably in the brontosaur canyon sequence...but I digress.
Okay, so the boat floats, for no particularly good reason, into the lagoon, which is all full of kelp (nice touch) and protruding rocks that look like ape-head sculptures (just sort of silly). Jackson seems to be hinting that there was a lost civilization that actually produced giant apes, and the other monsters as well...if you look closely, you'll see all sorts of ruins in the interior of the island. But he doesn't do much with the idea...what would be the connection between the dinos and Kong, anyway, since he would seem to be a modern gorilla, albeit a big one, and they'd be from a much earlier period? There was apparently an attempt to suggest that the dinos have undergone an evolution over time, but...we just wind up with re-jiggered critters that are just simply lousy looking, bad designs. Really, Jackson should've just had a lost island with dinos and a giant ape on it, no explanation.
But there's a lot of other messing about with the island that is hopelessly unwise. Part of it seems to reflect the fact that Jackson used up a lot of his Kong chops on LOTR...stuff in the Mountains of Shadow and Fangorn Forest looked much more Konglike than anything in this flick. It's almost as if he decided he shouldn't repeat himself...but he should've, since the look of Skull Island in the original is vastly superior. For one thing, he gives us something like a nasty convoluted karsted landscape covered with trees, all narrow canyons and suchlike. In the original, the matte-paintings served up a tremendous evocation of limitless jungly space, vast halls of lush hardwood trees...maybe, it's not as plausible as a concept, because you just can't see very far in jungles, but it was sure more visually engaging, especially when coupled with an astounding use of chiaroscuro...the original Kong matte-paintings are maybe the best ever. Jackson's version is claustrophobic in a really undesirable way.
As for his natives, they're a bad idea too. They're portrayed as being little more than hideous zombies, but they're not very scary...the scenes with them are pretty badly directed. There's a whole bunch of afterthought slow-motion...that is to say, shots where the action wasn't filmed in slo-mo, but Jackson decided to make it slow-mo in the printer or whatever. Proper slow motion, with its fast shutter speed, is preternaturally clear, whereas the afterthought kind is blurry and annoying. Plainly, someone realized that he simply hadn't done a good job on the shoot.
The characterization of the islanders is also incoherent...they're dehumanized and barely alive, but they can run (and maintain) this ancient contraption that fills up a canyon with lava when they want to keep Kong at bay during the sequence where they sacrifice Anne...even though the FX are a whole lot more sophisticated and bombastic than the ones in the original, the sacrifice scene is vastly less effective, because they don't have Max Steiner's score, the basic concepts are profoundly silly, we don't get a good look at Kong at this point, and we should've. The overall effect is that Jackson and everybody else was totally coked out.
Yep, here we just have to face the facts. From here on in, Jackson's version begins to seem like it was directed by Stephen Sommers. It looks like it was directed and written by a guy who was convinced that every stupid idea that appeared in his noggin was a good one. It's like one of those Mummy Movies. It's like shitty Steven Spielberg like 1941. It's about as bad as a Transformers movie. Root canal. Jackson got cart blanche because of LOTR, and the results here are terrible. Everything is wildly overdone and ill-thought out. If your basic ideas are sufficiently stupid, the damage can't be finessed, and you can't spend enough money to fix the problems. You come up with things that simply can't be visualized properly. There's a scene in Escape from LA where Kurt Russel and Steve Buscemi are surfing straight down a street...and even if everybody tried real hard (which they didn't), the product would still have been achingly awful, because you don't surf forward, you surf sideways..
Well, Jackson's movie turns into a two hundred million dollar exercise in non-sideways surfing.
Consider the sequence where our guys get chased down a canyon by a bunch of sauropod dinosaurs. Boy is this set-piece a clusterfuck. First off, you've got Jack Black and co. running along for a while right in front of the dinos before the latter even catch up to them. Now, in order for the scene to be exciting, the dinos have to look like they're moving fast, right? But if they were actually moving fast, they'd roll right over our guys, who couldn't possibly outpace them, even if they were running real hard...there's just this long dino stride thing. The result is that you wind up with the men and the dinos moving at two radically different rates of speed that couldn't co-exist in the same reality, and no matter how much huffing and puffing the FX crew lavished on the shots, the men simply look like they're on a treadmill, which they are.
Still, the dinos eventually catch up...and somehow our guys aren't pounded into tomato paste, as they certainly would've been. They run along under the dinos, and things are further compounded by the fact that Jackson et. all couldn't figure out a remotely coherent lighting scheme. The dinos all pile up, but Jack Black and some other guys somehow come squirting out of the pile-up alive. But the idiocy isn't over yet...the sauropods were being chased by some profoundly unconvincing mutant raptors, real lousy designs...the raptors go after our guys, and the camera pulls back into some long shots in which tiny human cg figures are sliding at hundreds of miles an hour up the sides of these cliffs, outrunning the raptors and some surviving sauropods. There are terrible problems with scale...it's like that stuff with the wargs in Two Towers, only a whole lot worse.
We spend some time with Naomi Watts and Kong. There's a scene where she's dancing for him that simply doesn't work...very clunky. Now, Kong himself is actually a very impressive special effect; Andis Serkis, Gollum from LOTR, performs him via motion control, and once again, turns in a bangup performance. It's about the only thing I really liked in the film...and it's a not inconsiderable achievement. But every time you begin to warm up to the movie, something crappy takes you out of it again...such as the T-Rex fight. As a matter of fact, that was the point at which I decided I was terminally not interested in the film anymore.
In the original movie, Kong fights a single T-Rex (okay, maybe it was an Allosaur, but I'd rather it was a Rex). Well, that just wasn't enough for Jackson. He just had to improve on things; and you know what, he could've. You could do a better job on the FX today, fine. You make the scene longer and more violent. Make it more visceral. Crank the PG-13 rating all the way out, because it's dino-ape gore and probably the censors would let you get away with it. But what Jackson doesn't seem to realize is that there's a huge difference between multiplication of effect, and intensification of effect. He says to himself...one T Rex is good...surely three would be great!
But it's not great. Especially when Kong and the Rexes fall into a chasm full of vines, and start swinging around...("Rexes in slings," as my daughter Soph observed). The effect is profoundly goofy. And even if the Rexes hadn't been poor designs, the FX would've been torpedoed by the fact that the overall conception is cartoony, circusy, trapeezey, comical. People in the audience were just laughing. The only stuff in the whole fight that works is when Kong is finally down to one T-Rex, and the action kinda recapitulates the stuff in the original film, most notably, the scene where he dislocates the dinosaur's jaw. Up until practically the end, the set-piece is devoid of impact, moronic.
Right afterwards, we get the thing with the guys getting shaken off the log by Kong, but by this time I was so zonked out that I didn't expect anything from it...Jackson, in his wisdom, chose to set it in a rather constricted-looking digital location...once again, there's no real sense of space, and the log doesn't look anywhere near as big as the one---a giant practical effect---in the original. Driscoll doesn't sneak down and hide in an alcove and fight off a creepy two-legged lizardy thing...he falls off the log with everybody else.Just about all of them survive even though they fall hundreds of feet and land on rocks. As portrayed, the scene is preposterous; there was a sequence in the original where some of the guys who fell off were eaten alive by monstrous crabs and spiders, so it must've had them surviving the fall too. But that scene was cut out, perhaps wisely (although I'd love to see it), because it supposedly "stopped the show"; Jackson retains the sequence. Actually, it's got some of the best monster designs in the film, namely a bunch of solpugid-whip scorpiony things and lots of other giant bugs. I wasn't too fond of the uncircumcised penises (one of whom gets Andy Serkis's cook character), but what really sank the scene for me was this bit when Driscoll blows a bunch of bugs off a guy with a Tommy-gun. I guess we're supposed to suppose that Driscoll, being familiar with typewriters, would be a real expert with...a typewriter. Maybe not. But it's just one more hunk of stupid in a movie simply choking on them. Driscoll and the others are rescued improbably by Englehorn and some other guys, one of whom swings back and forth on a vine shooting a Thompson. You begin to feel like you've wandered into Van Helsing.
We get up to Kong's lair...interestingly, it's all full of giant ape-skeletons...he's the last of his kind, and it's really pretty sad. Once again, the characterization of Kong is one of the few bright spots. But we don't get a giant snaky flipperdy lizard, there's nothing even as remotely neat as the interior of the giant skull-cavern in the original, and there isn't a pteranodon...for some reason, we get giant bats. Driscoll rescues Anne and they fly off on a bat, which is a whole whole lot less suspenseful and scary than the bit where the original Kong starts hauling up the vine they've been climbing down, and they've got to drop down into the river.
The depressing descent into not-remotely-as-good continues into the scene where Kong goes to the native village to get Anne back; his ridiculously long jump over the chasm in broad daylight is vastly inferior to the stuff where he bashes his way through the gates in the '33 version. And when Jackson's Denham stands his ground and finally brings Kong down by chucking jars of chloroform at him, you just have to wonder where this guy has been hiding...he certainly doesn't seem anything like the guy from the rest of the film. If Jackson was going to retain the scene, why make Denham an anti-heroic shithead to begin with?
They get Kong back to New York, and in this respect, the original was just as dopey as the remake...they both kind of skip over the question of how he could've been hauled into the hold, how they could've kept him sedated, restrained, fed, for week after week, etc.
The special effects that recreate 1933 New York City are a lot of the best work in the remake, but I have to say, even in the original, my favorite stuff is the Skull Island material...I just prefer dinosaurs and jungles to Manhattan. But as his film heads towards its big finish, Jackson continues to make a number of mis-steps that are all entirely on his shoulders. For one thing, he has a big musical extravaganza featuring native dancers and the guy who was swinging on the vine in the chasm, pretending to be Mr. Adventure...the music is “Jungle Dance” from Max Steiner’s original score. I’ll tell you what...reminding me of the original score was an incredibly awful idea. For one thing, Steiner’s score is a smokin' ton of the best movie music ever. Oscar Levant used to say that it should’ve been the main attraction, and the movie should’ve been advertised as “accompanying pictures.” Well, the movie’s way better than that, but I can see how a musician would’ve been completely mesmerized. James Newton Howard’s score is feeble in comparison, and completely unmemorable. He’s done some good work on other films, and the poor guy was brought in at the very last moment when Jackson decided not to use Howard Shore’s music. I think it’s really not JNH's fault....once again, you’ve got to pin the blame on Jackson. I guess he thought that using the Steiner music was a tribute. But it just becomes part of the shitty jungle extravaganza, as though it's in terrible taste itself and really crummy...once again, it’s a big sopping loogie, if perhaps an oddly unintentional one.
Okay, so Kong breaks loose...the stuff with him tearing up the theatre is pretty cool...I liked him ripping his way through the balcony to try and get Denham. But even though Denham has been portrayed as such a horrible wretch, he doesn’t even get greased. Once again, what was the point of taking such an approach to the character? The last we see of him, he looks rather unhappy, as though he needs to take a dump...I understand Mr. Black really didn’t like working on the film...I think I’ll blame Jackson completely.
Kong smashes his way out onto the street. By now I wasn’t expecting there to be any good monster-in-the-city stuff, and I sure didn’t get any. There’s some chaotic rushing about, Kong recaptures Anne, and goes to Central Park with her and butt-slides romantically on a frozen pond (man it must’ve been frozen pretty solid) amid trees hung with Christmas lights...I suppose it’s supposed to be lyrical, but it’s just braindead, and brings the movie to a shrieking halt when it should be building up steam. Particularly remarkable is the fact that it's cold enough to freeze the pond till it’s like a mile-thick antarctic icesheet, but Anne isn’t wearing much of anything and not bothered a bit...
Oh well, why would I even worry at this point? The climax atop the Empire State Building is visually pretty stunning, but it’s not exciting at all. It should’ve been an all-out Kong-spindling-biplanes-and-chucking them fest, with him being steadily more riddled by machine-guns, as bloody as you could get in a PG-13 movie. And then he should’ve taken a plunge that’s at least as satisfactory as that shot in the ‘33 version, of the Empire State Building in profile, with him bouncing down ledge after ledge. No such luck.
Boy did I hate this film. I think it was the biggest single cinematic disappointment for me since Temple of Doom, and if you ever read Samurai Cat and the Temple of Dog Doom, you’d know how I felt about that. For about a year after Jackson’s Kong came out, if I was at a party with my friends, the conversation would turn inevitably to what a shitty movie it was, and we’d go on and on, and usually come back to it a couple of times later in the course of the evening. When I watched Lord of the Rings again recently, in order to do that ridiculously long critique I posted a coupla months back, I was relieved to find out that Kong hadn’t completely poisoned all of Mr. Jackson’s work for me, but...
I'm apprehensive about The Hobbit. There’s no reason for anyone to be making a two-part movie of it. There’s no reason to have practically every character from LOTR reprising their roles. I cringe at all the character arcs we’re going to have to endure with all the dwarves, most of whom were barely characterized in the book...I find myself pretty sure that we’re going to get something like Gimli times thirteen, interlarded with a lot of ill-advised attempts to render the story in the style of LOTR, even though it’s very much a kid’s book which will stubbornly resist the attempt to make it more grown-up. Tolkien himself started a rewrite, in order to do just that, removing the confustications and bebotherings, etc, etc...he gave up after three chapters or so. I cannot imagine that Jackson will be able to handle the awful moodswings and changes of tone that will inevitably crop up.
He did do a bangup job on Gollum the first time, and could very well do it again. If the Misty Mountains-Goblin-Gollum stuff clicks, that will be very redemptive. Likewise, Jackson might very well do Mirkwood and the Spiders right. He should be able to do Smaug properly...but I don’t know. The monster designs in Kong were frequently quite awful, and we already know that Guillermo Del Toro left the project because of a conflict over the design of Smaug. Given the battle scenes in LOTR, The Battle of the Five Armies should be good...
But then again, Jackson managed the major miracle of ruining the T-Rex fight.
As Criswell says, God help us, in the future...