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King Kong

A while back, I said that King Kong would never justify its obscene 280 million dollar price tag, and I would like to say, just before I get into the film, that I was right.

King Kong is a difficult film to get through. It's a slog. It's pain. It's a noise without substance. At one stage, I checked my phone, found a message, replied, checked the time on it, and realised I still had over an hour to go. Cue me sighing and sinking into the seats. When I looked up, they were still on the island. That goddamn island, I swear the natives were chanting for Donkey Kong--

But wait.

Lets rewind.

Jackson's King Kong is long and bloated. That's what you need to know going in. What you also need to know is that, for some strange reason, Kong will ice skate, Naomi Watts won't lose her heels when she climbs the Empire State Building, and Jackson has no problem letting token characters run round (as in the original, I suppose). Token Black Man. Token Damaged Boy Who Will Become A Man Because Of The Beautiful Woman He Won't Have Sex With. Token Chinaman. Token Ahab. Token Ape... wait, woah, sorry. The giant ape is the point of this film. But what I'm trying to get across here is that there are an insane number of things in this film that don't need to be there. There's not one aspect of this film that you can look at and say, "That doesn't need to be cut down."

It begins with the scenes in New York, where we watch a well fed Naomi Watts pretend to be underfed and perform as a comedian, and watch Jack Black get his funding pulled on his film. By the time they hit the ship, you're kind of wondering why Kong would show any interest in Watts, when in a remake some twenty nine years ago, he had a beautiful Jessica Lange. I don't much usually go comparing remakes, but Jessica Lange was an astoundingly beautiful woman at one stage, and if you've seen Jessica Lange get carried off by an ape, smoldering sexuality just in her presence, you kind of look at Naomi Watts and wonder what it is that she'll do to make her appeal to Kong. Sadly, it appears that Jackson has also considered this, and provides an answer, much later in the film: Naomi Watts will juggle for Kong.

Yeah. Right. Kong wanted jester. Kong rampages through New York, tossing blonde women all round cause he wanted his fucking jester back.

By the time Kong is tossing round blonde women, however, you've long forgotten Jessica Lange and that other shitty remake of King Kong. You're firmly entrenched in this shitty remake. On the ship to Skull Island, you're introduced to Adrien Brody, the script writer of the film being made, and who while bookish and quiet, will reveal himself to be a gun wielding, fists a flying, kung fu master! Well, okay, so he's not a kung fu master, but he might as well have been. Brody is the writer who kicks ass in his spare time, and his character is pretty much the reverse of if Arnold the ass kicker from films such as Predator spent his spare times trying to write plays. Perhaps to impress women. Actually, I would've greatly loved to see a struggling action star trying to write the King Kong script, but always getting distracted by his need to rescue jesters.

On the ship to SKull Island, you are also introduced to the Token Black Man, and the Damaged Boy, who for a moment, I thought were going to turn out to be lovers. No such luck. I tell you, in my head, I had a fantastic version of King Kong going. The kind of King Kong that the director who made Meet the Feebles might've made, actually, but that director is long gone. We also meet the ship's cook, a comical looking fellow who reminded me, oddly, of Popeye. I kept waiting for him to break out the spinach. But yes, these three men, it appears have heard stories about Skull Island, and they know it'll all go bad if they go there, but because the Damaged Boy is reading Heart of Darkness and the Token Black Man is explaining it to him, we all know they're going to go up on the island to prove that they are all men. It's no great shakes figuring out who is and isn't going to make it back.

The time spent on Skull Island is just ridiculously long and begins, I swear, with the natives calling for what I thought was Donkey Kong. I swear, the first time I heard it, I went, "The Fuck?" and after the film, I asked C., who was with me, if he had heard it, and he said, "I know! I thought, what the fuck's going on here? I was waiting for barrels to rain out of the sky." It must be said, however, that I did find the natives to be a bit on the black savages side, and I wasn't very surprised when they only wanted the blonde girl to string up for Kong in their black pagan ways. Actually, I'm probably being a bit unnecessarily harsh on the savages, since I found them all to be kinda cool in that freaky, nearly an Orc kind of way. Sadly, there really isn't enough of the savages, and for tough guys who will leap from boulder to boulder across the ocean in a storm and then slip upon a ship in the middle of night crowded by men with machine guns, they certain ran pretty fast when those twenty men with machine guns stormed their home.

But it is at this stage that Kong has entered the film and it all goes to hell.

Because, you see, Kong looks shit whenever he's next to Naomi Watts. He doesn't look real. He looks like a blue screen. He comes across as cheap and shoddy and it really is quite shocking to have to write this, actually, given how superbly done the blue screen, digital effect stuff was done in Lord of the Rings. But it's awful, here, and there's not one scene in which Kong and Watts appear you can imagine that the two of them are actually side by side.

Of course, the other problem of Kong is that he signals the end of any characterisation. From now on, it's all screaming and grunting and being crushed by badly rendered dinosaurs. Every now and then, during Jackson's film, I found myself thinking again of the Jessica Lange staring remake (yeah, it had Jeff Bridges, too, but who remembers him), and I think about how absolutely awful the effects were in that, and then think about how they were only marginally better in this one. That stampeded by the dinosaurs is one example of very, very dodgy special effect work. There are, of course, moments of good effects, such as when Kong takes on three of the T-Rexs, and his fight with two in the vines, but I suspect that these are wholly rendered effects moments, with no need for a blue screen, and thus, without people, there's no one messing it up. Which just goes to show, really, that people are what are messing up this movie. People who have nothing to do but scream and get eaten by a bunch of monsters. People who spout stupid lines. People who might have had a shoddy metaphoric point in the start of the film, but which forget it the moment they hit the island. People who juggle to amuse a giant ape.

People. If only the film had less.

By the time the film hits New York, you're praying for something to make it worth your time, and Jackson gives you that, with Kong on the Empire State building. That scene is just spectacular. There's something fascinating about watching Kong jump and slip on top of the building as he is attacked by six planes. If Jackson has done nothing else in this film--and he hasn't--then this scene shows the promise of what it might have been, stripped back and free of its fat. Sadly, to get to that scene, you have to watch Kong and Naomi Watts skate across ice, walk through a quiet street together. ("Mom, is that a giant ape outside my window?" "No, Billy, it's just your imagination.") In addition, you have to watch the return of Action Writer, who can suddenly drive a car like you and I might not, and bravely leads the rampaging ape... um, a few blocks into the city. Closer to Naomi Watts, apparently. Well, both of them had been looking for her. She was bound to show up. After all, who was going to juggle for him?

Which is what, eventually, ruins the end of the film.

See, once Kong is dead, having fallen from his building, Jack Black approaches the still warm corpse that isn't splattered about, and says the famous lines, "It was beauty that killed the beast." But--and this is an important but here--clearly beauty has not killed Kong, because Kong is never, at any stage in the film, in a state of desire for his captive.

Instead, Watts makes him laugh.

She is Kong's jester.

But then I suppose you can't say, "It was humour that killed the beast," and get the same pathos. You ought to for 280 million, though.


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Dec. 28th, 2005 04:34 am (UTC)
I respectfully disagree. You're making the right noises, but a lot of your criticisms (weak characterisation, token roles, flabby plotlines) should be levelled at genre rather than the film itself.

Since Kong is a populist Hollywood blockbuster, its storyline stodgy with the most dreadfully fattening pulp clichés that can be dredged up from every decade since the turn of the twentieth century, the final product obtained from its $280m budget should hardly be surprising.

Genre doesn't excuse these failings when one's viewpoint comes from outside the genre, but it does provide a means to celebrate them as features from another perspective altogether. Personally, I enjoyed the movie and I thought you could see that artistic passion had gone into it.

On the subject of the CG, you protest far too much. LotR had effects no better than Kong's (Kong himself is a miracle, and thoroughly convincing, as everyone I was with agreed when we were leaving the cinema). If it comes to that, LotR suffered more from marking time on a bloated plot as well, although in its case the source material hardly did it any favours.

The only parts of Kong that were a bridge too far for me were the New York sequences. The rest was highly entertaining.

That said, I think your point about a woeful lack of exploration of emotional possibility in the Kong-Ann relationship is pretty strong.
Dec. 28th, 2005 04:45 am (UTC)
You're making the right noises, but a lot of your criticisms (weak characterisation, token roles, flabby plotlines) should be levelled at genre rather than the film itself.

i don't think any genre naturally justifies, or embodies these things. the bloat of the film, for example, is purely jackson, as the original is half the length of it. likewise, while the token characters may indeed be found in the original, they were part of that time peroid. as we're now existing in the 21st century, we ought to be working against this tokenism, even in peroid piece films, which you could argue king kong is.

i'm not sure which genre you mean it is (sf, or just pulp, or adventure) but genre never allows for these things to be justified. it's just lazy writing to rely upon genre to cover this because it has previously.

as for the cg, we're just going to have to disagree. i thought kong was awful. just awful. of course, i'm more than aware that in this, i'm going to be in the minority.
Dec. 28th, 2005 06:08 am (UTC)
I must concur with Mr. Peek. It is possible to make "populist entertainment" with genre cliches and plot holes and yet not tax the patience or intelligence of the audience. Look at Spiderman or The Mummy or Jackson's earlier work on Dead Alive or just about anything by Robert Rodriguez (which often have incoherent plots charmingly executed). The phrase is "willing suspension of disbelief" the key part is willing.

A film which tops 2 hours must sell its own length. LoTR uses material so inherently epic audiences can buy into it. The original Kong began an annoying trend in action extravaganzas - a disposable first act. The character, mood and set up is minimized once action and FX kick in. A longer Kong emphasizes the thin structure and would need a more daring writer to balance out the not-Kong with the monkey.

And the CGI. The first LoTR allegedly only used computer effects when necessary - a wise choice. FX will always see fake, but real objects have a presence in reality have something CGI has yet to match. A well lit rubber monster or animated clay can top the "almost but not quite" vibe of computer animation especially when placed next to actors. The best CGI augments or employs real element and uses pure pixels sparingly. [see the first Matrix vs. the sequels] Previews for Kong looked like a video game or pixar trailer.

Rober Rodriguez is again a good example; somewhat of a perfectionist when placing actors in green screen scenes and prefers objects processed from reality when possible. He also works out of his garage from a "get the most from the least" mentality. The result - Sin City, which uses CGI in a way which kicks Kong's ass at half the price.

I'm sure Jackson has a decent design, but Kong requires more than an epic sweep and ability to spend money. It requires a full on stylist - a Terry Gilliam or (though he has his own sins) Tim Burton or Spike Jonez or Michel Gondry - can you imagine what he would do with all the size comparison stuff? Kong needs restraint to balance the excess, someone used to working on budget, who can inhabit the 20s like a graphic designer and be perverse with the racism and penis stuff.

I'm just saying. I could be wrong.
Dec. 28th, 2005 06:35 am (UTC)
"It is possible to make "populist entertainment" with genre cliches and plot holes and yet not tax the patience or intelligence of the audience"

I agree, in fact that's more or less what I derived from King Kong. I don't think that's what Ben's saying, though.

As far as Burton and Gilliam are concerned, IMO they're both rather overrated.

For Burton's take on big budget adventure, look no further than Planet of the Apes, which I would say is a worse film than Kong, and far worse than the original PotA. Burton is repetitious, and his take on gothic fantasy dwells too much on meretricious details at the expense of landscape.

Gilliam has a poor rate of success converting solid concepts into good movies. For every Twelve Monkeys there's a couple of Baron Munchausens or Brothers Grimms.

At the end of the day, it's a matter of taste, but to my mind there was plenty to enjoy about the movie.
Dec. 28th, 2005 09:42 am (UTC)
I agree, in fact that's more or less what I derived from King Kong. I don't think that's what Ben's saying, though.

not really. there are things, within specific genres, that you can get away with--plot holes that will be ignored. in KING KONG it didn't bother me that the scary savages disappear when is convient, or that the island is obviously much too small to hold all those prehistoric beasts that it does. there are conventions within each differing genre that you go with. the hero, when captured, is not simply killed.

in the case of kong, however, i don't think the flaws of the film were related to it's action, monster flick genre. it is the flaw of pacing and of character. mostly, the flaws are with the fact that film is too long, and this draws your attention to the problems of it.

as for burton, i got to agree. PLANET OF THE APES was awful. much worse than KING KONG.
Dec. 28th, 2005 09:46 am (UTC)
man, i really hate robert rodriguez films :)

the only one i think is any good is THE FACULTY, though i haven't minded DESPERADO or ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, mainly cause i like the actors in them. strangely, however, i've seen a lot of rodriguez films, and the thing that bothers me is that they're all one frantic pace. i especially hated SIN CITY, though it looked quite nice, i do admit.
Dec. 28th, 2005 12:50 pm (UTC)
Perhaps RR is the wrong example. What I mean is, if you are going to go big, dumb and/or campy, a little thought can make it cheap and relatively painless and perhaps even entertaining. Short is nice, too. So many recent films appear to lose their way when the creators are allowed to go long.
Dec. 28th, 2005 12:54 pm (UTC)
yeah, i get what you mean. i do think jackson put thought into this--but it was all the wrong thought. the short should have been, 'that original is pretty cool, and that remake is pretty crap, and how will i find someone sexier than jessica lange? i should just make a different film.'
Dec. 28th, 2005 06:18 am (UTC)
"genre never allows for these things to be justified"

That's the main thing I disagree with. Firstly, people can and do use genre to justify things that when viewed from a more general perspective are shamefully awful. Secondly, such people often enjoy these shamefully awful aspects in a perfectly genuine way, just as I enjoyed the preposterous but technically brilliant Kong-v.-multiple-T-Rexes sequence.

If enjoyment doesn't justify art on some level, we're simply not on the same page, and should stop arguing.

"i'm not sure which genre you mean it is (sf, or just pulp, or adventure)"

The film draws on more than one genre. The monster/disaster movie is a genre all its own, and a nostalgic take on that and on the original movie provided the backdrop for the New York sequences; there was a huge dose of pith-helmet pulp in there (made rather charmingly hyper-real by the fact that the characters who were actors were in pulp costume).

As far as plot incoherence is concerned, that's normal in pulp, which commonly deals in plotlines mainly organised to deliver key scenes in a certain sequence with little logic linking them. Enough to explain away the curious absence of the indigenous Skull Islanders after Ann is kidnapped.

The premise is arguably sf but I certainly wouldn't call this film sf, given that it delves only shallowly into the logical requirements and consequences of random islands that are home to 25 foot gorillas.

I tend to agree that Kong is overlong. But to say that "the bloat of the film, for example, is purely jackson" is to ignore the fact that almost every Hollywood blockbuster fantasy in recent years has had a damn long running time.

Dec. 28th, 2005 09:57 am (UTC)
Firstly, people can and do use genre to justify things that when viewed from a more general perspective are shamefully awful.

sure, but it's not a practice that we ought to support. as you say, big fantasy is all too long, many sf stuff is bloated and with plot holes... but it needn't be, you know?

Secondly, such people often enjoy these shamefully awful aspects in a perfectly genuine way, just as I enjoyed the preposterous but technically brilliant Kong-v.-multiple-T-Rexes sequence.

see, i didn't see that fight scene as shameful. i thought it was fun. it had a lot of energy, moved well. it was easy to go with it. it wasn't so easy to go with the kong and watts relationship, however, because it struck me as deeply flawed. likewise, the continual last minute saves got a bit repeditive.

As far as plot incoherence is concerned, that's normal in pulp, which commonly deals in plotlines mainly organised to deliver key scenes in a certain sequence with little logic linking them.

again, that doesn't make it the thing to do. it's just lazy writing. you ever watched that cartoon show FUTURAMA? one of the best written spec fic things to be done in recent years, i believe, and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. but there was always a tight script behind it, always a narrative logic to carry the viewer through. KING KONG, for all that i think it is massively too long, has this narrative logic to link scene to scene as well. the logic is in the characters.

But to say that "the bloat of the film, for example, is purely jackson" is to ignore the fact that almost every Hollywood blockbuster fantasy in recent years has had a damn long running time.

well, i got to disagree there. just because everyone does something doesn't remove the fact that the individual can make a choice. in this case, jackson remade a film that was about an hour and a half originally, and he could have played close to that. instead, he made an active choice for this length--which is perhaps the stamp left on him after the success of the LORD OF THE RINGS films.

Dec. 28th, 2005 06:17 am (UTC)
king klang
heheh yep it's a definite deeveedee one for mee.

alternatively, yesty i went to see Broken Flowers, which i am pleased to announce was remotely satisfying and did not piss me off one little iota.

i never go to the movies AT the movies, because i am mostly disappointed (and not rich enough, it's so FUHkin expensive).

Dec. 28th, 2005 07:19 am (UTC)
Re: king klang
oops "never" = "hardly ever"
Dec. 28th, 2005 09:58 am (UTC)
Re: king klang
yeah, i'm planning to go see BROKEN FLOWERS. i'm a big fan of jim jarmusch.
Dec. 28th, 2005 11:31 am (UTC)
Re: king klang
Most. Overrated. Director. Everrrrrrr.

(IMHO ;-)
Dec. 28th, 2005 12:48 pm (UTC)
Re: king klang
this from the man who reckons spielberg is a visionary ;)
Dec. 29th, 2005 02:26 am (UTC)
Re: king klang
Spielberg's still on the naughty mat with me until he can prove he can edit a film properly again.
Dec. 28th, 2005 08:32 am (UTC)
King Kong needs roughly 30 minutes shaved off it - primarily the big bug scene, which feels like one trip too many to the well, and most of the background detail during the interminable boat trip of the first hour.

And the visual effects, Kong in particular, were very good indeed IMO.
Dec. 28th, 2005 09:57 am (UTC)
shaved is such a nice word.

i prefer hacked.

Dec. 28th, 2005 12:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, you were right, totally not justified.
Dec. 28th, 2005 12:48 pm (UTC)
Dec. 28th, 2005 01:31 pm (UTC)
I just don't care about the movie, period. They can hype it all they want (and it has been hype-orama here). They can give it good reviews (Entertainment Weekly called it a "masterpiece" but you know, consider the source). But I still don't care. The amount of money offends me AND as my friend K has often said "Just because a movie CAN be three hours long doesn't mean it SHOULD be."
Dec. 28th, 2005 11:17 pm (UTC)
got to agree with the three hour rule.
Dec. 28th, 2005 02:17 pm (UTC)
Well, I found the movie very good. Maybe it's just me since everyone is different, but I liked the extra background information. I'm a person who likes to go to the movies and get a good story. That's why I loved LOTR, it gave good background information, but that's also why I rather dislike most of the Harry Potter films, they don't give enough to justify everything in the movies so that the movies don't make a whole lot of sense.

For me, Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts had great chemistry, were good at acting their parts and made me want to find out more about their characters and their relationship. I thought Jack Black was perfect for that part, he brought the insane obsessiveness that is Carl Dehnam.

As for the token black man, token damanged boy and all that...I rather like them, and the mentor/student thing they had going on. I thought Hayes was one of the best characters in the movie, there was something about him that made me feel for him, maybe it was the writing, the actor, or both. He was one of the characters, like Ann and Jack, that made me feel that I would want to hang out with them if I had the chance. But that's what I liked about King Kong...even though the characters were a bit stereotypical, once you got past that and just looked at them as characters, they were very well acted and written.

My sister and I thought that the Kong/Ann relationship was beautifully done. Parts of the film where it was just the two of them often ran like a silent film, using acting on the parts of both actors (and Andy Serkis did a great job being Kong) to carry the scene through.
Dec. 28th, 2005 09:11 pm (UTC)
aw, you so wrooong ;P

heh. anyhow, it's cool. many people like the film, so i figure i'm in the minority. i did like jack black in it, thought he was nicely obsessive.
Dec. 28th, 2005 11:45 pm (UTC)
I'm in agreement with all of that. Particularly on Token Black and Damaged Boy. They were both reasonably well drawn for minor characters, despite being stereotyped.
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