Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cooper. I might have known.

King Kong is not at all the movie I expected it to be. Early reports about the three-hour length should have tipped me off that this was not going to be an ordinary holiday tentpole film. Indeed, Peter Jackson's remake has more in common with Titanic or The Godfather than Jurassic Park - it's a personal, overstuffed, audacious, and downright maniacal ape epic. Everything positive and negative you've heard about Kong is true, and I can't urge you strongly enough to check it out. You have to see this.

The film opens with a breathtaking recreation of New York in the early 1930's, and it's a version of the city that is at once authentic and dreamlike. At the center of the film are three characters - Carl Denham (Jack Black), a driven, slightly mad filmmaker; Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), a writer taken against his will to Denham's latest shoot; and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a struggling actress plucked off the street by Denham to be his leading lady. The heart of the film lies somewhere between Denham, an arist and showman driven, John Landis-style, to ignore the dangers that lie ahead, and Ann, who (in a performance that echoes Watts' Betty from Mulholland Drive) is a head-in-the-clouds romantic with a belief that all love stories must end tragically. These three, along with a literal boatload of supporting characters, embark on a journey a mysterious, uncharted destination known as Skull Island.

It is when they arrive at the island, as first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) quotes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that it becomes clear Jackson has more on his mind than cheap scares in DTS. Kong succeeds for the same reason that The Lord of the Rings did - Jackson never condescends to the trappings of genre, instead finding the inherent thematic depth and resonance in the source material. In other hands, this approach could have been wildly pretentious and dull, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (both of whom also worked on LOTR) have written this story with sure hands, creating a film that is at once thought-provoking, exhilarating, meditative, and, as the film reaches the Empire State Building, ultimately heartbreaking.

I'm happy to report that, in this case, the best moments of King Kong have not been spoiled in the trailer, so I'll do the same here. Skull Island, like Oz or Dagobah, is a fully realized cinematic landscape full of unexpected turns and surprises. There are delicate moments between Kong and Ann, and also downright creepy and violent moments involving the various creatures on the island. Yet through the spectacle, Jackson never loses touch of the human element - a quiet moment of communication between Ann and Kong (another perfectly realized CG performance, by the way) is as compelling as a ten-minute ape/dino brawl that ends in a moment reminiscent of Irreversible. The performances are great - Jack Black, already one of the coolest guys around establishes himself as a great actor as well with his Orson Welles-inspired performance (a role that unavoidably raises questions about Jackson's self-image). And Naomi Watts does her best work since, well, Mulholland Drive; she's sweet and sad, and her scenes with Kong (kudos also to Andy Serkis) add up to one of the best onscreen love stories in a long time.

Some critics, and many internet pundits, have complained about the film's length and perceived self-indulgence. It is noticabely long, and it's definitely self-indulgent. But while self-indulgence can be killer when it stems from an inflated sense of self-importance, I really can't find any reason to complain when it is the result of a filmmaker's passion for the material. Jackson has been given unlimited resources here to revisit the film that made him want to be a director, and he has made a glorious cinematic dream, a film about the mad act of moviemaking, the fleeting nature of love, and the awesome spectacle of apes fighting dinosaurs. He's finally succeeded at making his Terrence Malick film (as he stated on the Fellowship of the Ring DVD), and he's also created a crowd-pleaser that ranks with the best of Cameron, Spielberg, or Lucas. Sure, there are a few rough CG moments, but I find it ultimately foolish to nitpick such an extaordinary work - it just feels like missing the forest for the trees. I'll just go ahead and say it - this Kong is better than the original. Go see it, because it's simply the most enjoyable movie around right now. Bring Kleenex.

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