Friday, November 29, 2019

King Kong (2005)

I reviewed Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) here on the blog upon its theatrical release over a decade ago, and gave it a positive, even glowing recommendation.

With twelve years of hindsight, my thoughts are a little more even-keeled in terms of the movie’s success as a work of art.

It is still a great looking movie, even if it isn’t a great movie, overall.  I'll be honest, I'm conflicted about the film.  I love a lot of it, and some of it drives me up-the-wall.

Why was I so enthusiastic in the first place? Well, I was thrilled that King Kong was back on the big screen, and also that he had been given his due with a sprawling, epic, blockbuster adventure, I suppose. After all -- lest we forget -- a King Kong Lives (1986)-style debacle was always a possibility.

Today, I still see many of the virtues I detected in 2005. This version of Kong is, perhaps, the most sympathetic and “human” iteration of the character. He’s a scarred old warrior, whose heart is melted by Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). The character is strong (as his battle with three carnivorous dinosaurs suggests), but also innocent in a way, as his ice “skating” moment in Central Park reveals. 

And the production values are still top-notch, especially regarding the third-act recreation of Manhattan. The film’s climax, atop the Empire State Building, is both vertigo-inducing and highly emotional. The moment wherein the weakened, defeated Kong slips backwards from the apex of the building still gets me.  I absolutely hate to see the noble Eighth Wonder of the World slip out of frame.  The moment gives me a lump in my throat every time I watch the film. It's so sad.  And that sadness is earned. We've traveled a thousand miles with this noble Kong.

And what doesn’t work about this King Kong?

Well, some of the CGI effects don’t hold particularly up that well today, for one thing, and neither do some of the central performances. The film is overlong too, and takes forever to get through a story that -- let’s face it -- we all know by heart. Some characters and their subplots only take away from the film’s success, overall, I wager.  Kong is the movie.  We don't need sideshows with deck-hands and their mentors.

Also, much of the rethinking about Kong for this movie involves making the film more beautiful, and bigger in scope. I feel like there was actually more real thought behind the 1970’s version; transforming the Kong cinematic myth into a story of plundered resources, and the rape of nature. The disco-decade version of the material updated it for a new age, and a new audience.  This film, for all its glories, is a straight-up throwback, but with a deeper characterization of Kong.  But again, that's a logical development. The 1970's character is more "human" or than the 1933 one.  

This Kong is a remake, indeed, and yet it possesses some intriguing notions that are worth mentioning, like a native culture that suffers, it seems, from constant PTSD.

Yet overall, Peter Jackson’s King Kong doesn’t break much new ground so much as develop old ground, or even give us a particularly fresh or innovative window to understanding Kong's world better. I can happily watch the film -- anytime I have three hours to spend, that is -- and enjoy it.  A lot. But it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that both the 1933 and 1976 editions of this story give me more to write about, and think about.

I am hoping that Kong: Skull Island (2017), while set in the 1970's, also moves the character and his world in a fresh direction.

“Monsters belong in B movies.”

Down-on-his-luck filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) takes his last chance to make a movie, fleeing New York (and his studio bosses and creditors…) about the Venture with the intended star of his new movie: failed stage actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts).  Writing the script for his latest opus is playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody).

They all travel to a mysterious destination in the South Pacific: Skull Island. There, traumatized natives seem to leave in fear of a God-like being.  Ann is kidnapped by the natives and brought back to be the bride of that God, a giant gorilla called Kong.

Kong takes Ann through the jungle, to his home high on a mountain, battling back any prehistoric monsters that might attempt to hurt her.  Meanwhile, Denham, Jack and a team from the Venture attempt to retrieve her.  After Denham’s camera is destroyed, the filmmaker realizes that he can still make it big…by returning King Kong to New York.

He executes that plan, but King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, breaks free, and runs rampant in New York, climbing to the top of the Empire State Building for a final showdown with the world (and technology) of modern man.

“There is still some mystery left in the world, and we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.”

The original King Kong was a taut and lean 90 minutes from start-to-finish. The 2005 King Kong runs over three hours (three hours and seven minutes, I believe.) The extra time is not wasted, but, looking back, the film does seem a little overloaded with unnecessary scenes and characters.  

For instance, a deck hand on the Venture, Jimmy (Jamie Bell), and his friendship with Hayes (Evan Parke) get a lot of attention, but ultimately don't impact Kong’s life and death, at the hand of man.  It humanizes these characters, sure, but do we really need these characters humanized in a King Kong story? I think the answer is negative. They are superfluous.  

Similarly, all the back-story about Jack’s play, and Ann’s hard luck, and Carl Denham’s monetary woes put meat on the skeleton of the story, but as we can see from the 1933 film, that meat is not necessary, either.  The characters don’t really need so much fleshing out, and, in fact, the fleshing out may be counter-productive in some cases.  

Take Jack Black’s Carl Denham, for example. Let's be charitable and just say that Black is not the most nuanced of performers, and he brings a very black-and-white interpretation to the character. Robert Armstrong’s Denham was a filmmaker, a rogue, and also, in his own way, quite heroic. He was capable physically, and cunning mentally. Jack Black’s Denham is part comic-relief, part cartoon. He is so avaricious and money-hungry that his final line, about Beauty killing the beast, no longer makes sense.  In this case, it was greed that killed the beast; Denham’s greed, in particular. It’s silly (and ill-fitting) that he should put the blame on Ann, who clearly loves Kong, while he seems to view Kong only as the goose that laid the golden egg.  Nice way to shift the blame, Carl!

Denham is thus less an anti-hero, and more an actual villain in this version of the film, taking on some of the qualities we see in Charles Grodin’s Wilson in the 1976 film.

The dinosaur attacks on Skull Island in Jackson's version of King Kong are so ramped up, so-over-the-top, so much the last word in edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger action that they can’t help but impress on first viewing. You'll squirm and gasp throughout these exhilarating moments.

Later, however,  questions of credibility crop up.  There’s one scene here where a man shoots another man with a machine gun, to get a giant bug off of his chest.  Miraculously, the other man doesn’t get shot himself, even with the bug darting all about, and the bullets flying, staccato fashion. This scene, like a few others, seems to exist by a cartoon set of physical laws.  These scenes harm the film, overall.

Also, the movie seems to suffer a bit from the fact that it has so many resources to fall back on. In previous versions of the King Kong story, we have seen the huge wall on Skull Island and marveled at it.  It seemed amazing, but also real. The native wall here seems like something out of a fantasy world -- Fellowship of the Rings, maybe -- not out of our reality. The contraption which delivers Ann to Kong is over-complicated and byzantine, when it simply isn’t necessary for it to be so complex.  It all reeks a little bit of the idea that just because you can do a thing, you should do a thing.  But again, that’s a complaint I have often made of Peter Jackson’s work. His films are long, fascinating, undisciplined, and in dire need of a responsible editor.

On the other hand, I do appreciate how Jackson has re-imagined the character of Kong as a hero, not a monster. It's odd to write about a giant gorilla as a "character," but this version of Kong is far more developed than in previous films. He is a battle-scarred warrior, perhaps a little over-the-hill, even. He is the last of his kind, as you can see from his cave high over the island, where the bones of his ancestors and family lay scattered. 

And since the natives in this film are terrible, psychotic people, one senses that Kong has made his loneliness their worst nightmare. They live in mortal fear of their "God," and again, no version of the film has brought that idea home better than Jackson's. When you see the terrors of Skull Island this time around, you'll understand exactly how and why a giant gorilla might long for the company of a Vaudeville entertainer to take his mind off certain things. 

He’s got to deal with things like giant vampire bats. Or roving T-Rex packs.

And because the Ann Darrow/King Kong relationship makes more sense in this version, the last third of the film (set in 1933 Manhattan...) is far more effective. Again, this may sound absurd based on the fact I'm writing about a giant simian here, but the film works in the same rare emotional dimension as Romeo and Juliet or any other tale of star-crossed lovers. 

Ann isn't just "sorry" for Kong because she has sympathy for an innocent animal, she actually loves him, based on their (harrowing) experiences together. All her life, the script informs us, the people she loves have left her; leaving her vulnerable and in danger. Kong is the one being who is always there for her; always fighting to protect her.  That’s a beautiful development of this relationship.

Finally, the portion of the film set in Manhattan, particularly atop the Empire State Building, is utterly enthralling. You will feel awe (at the depiction of NYC during that time...), vertigo (at the dizzying heights), and anxiety (even though, of course, you know how it's all going to end.) You will feel tremendous sadness for the inevitable separation that Kong and Ann will endure.  This sequence is Jackson at his absolute best. He is able to use digital imagery, and CGI creations to render a scene that feels entirely human, and incredibly emotional.  I said it above, and I'll say it again: I find Kong's final slide from the top of the Empire State Building unbearable, despairing, here.

This review may or may not help to clarify your feelings about this version of the legend.  I sometimes love the film, sometimes like it, and sometimes feel that it is scuttled by bad choices in casting, and running time.  I wish that it had some deeper relation to its time (as we clearly see in the case of the 1976 version). 

Yet you can tell that every frame of this film is a labor of love, and so I wish, 13 years on, I just loved Peter Jackson's King Kong a bit more than I do. 

King Kong Lives (1986)

Ten years ago, the great ape King Kong plunged from the top of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.  However, he did not die, as many people believed.  

Rather, Kong was put on life support at the state-of-the-art Atlanta Institute, and nurtured under the tender-loving care of a pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton).

Now -- a decade later -- Kong’s heart is giving out, and he requires a blood transfusion so he can undergo surgery for the implantation of an artificial heart.  

The big question: is there a compatible donor out there anywhere?  Where on Earth is Dr. Franklin going to find a compatible, giant ape?

That question is answered, unexpectedly in Borneo. A rogue hunter, Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) encounters a giant, friendly female ape, Lady Kong, and befriends her. He negotiates for her to be returned to the States, and undergo the necessary transfusion after receiving assurances regarding her safety.

After the difficult surgery (which is conducted with giant-sized surgical tools…) King Kong awakes and detects the nearby presence of Lady Kong.  He escapes from captivity, and frees his female counterpart.  The two apes mate in the wild, but the Army wants them destroyed, fearing the two primates represent a danger to the citizenry.

When Kong is separated from his pregnant bride, he goes all out to rescue her, and see -- at least once before he dies -- his beloved offspring.

Most of the deficits that critics claim (incorrectly) for the 1976 version of King Kong are actually true of this sequel, 1986’s King Kong Lives

The ’76 film is termed campy all the time, even though that descriptor is not totally accurate. This film, by contrast, is very campy at times, its tone largely inconsistent.  In every way imaginable, King Kong Lives is a big comedown from its underappreciated predecessor.

John Guillermin again directs, but he is dealing with a plainly inferior script, fewer interesting characters, and unimpressive locations that don’t stack up to the wondrous natural vistas of the first film. 

Also, there’s been a crucial change in how Kong (and the other apes) are visualized.  There were a lot of low angle shots looking up at a looming Kong in the 1976 film.  The audience thus had a sense of his size; his power.  Here, we get far too many long shots of the apes tromping around on miniature landscapes, battling miniature tanks.  The position of the camera is at about eye level of the ape; a viewpoint or perspective that does not capture the size and grandeur of the Kong family well. Instead, it is plain that men in suits are the order of the day, but not visualized in an inventive or expressive way.

Why else does King Kong Lives fail?  

Well, there are no returning characters from the first film.  I understand why Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange may not have wished to return, in the mid-1980s, for a Kong film, but Jack Prescott and Dwan were present for Kong’s capture, his return to the States, and his tragic fall in Manhattan. It doesn’t seem likely that once they find out he is still alive that they wouldn’t attempt to involve himself in the story.  

Again, I understand that the actors may not have been available.  Recasting is one possibility. Or the characters could have been mentioned, even once. But without even an allusion to these important characters, the sequel automatically seems like a “step down” from its predecessor, since there are no returning characters other than the big beast himself.

Secondly, Kong’s survival raises important questions.  He survived a fall from the Twin Towers, but did not break any bones from that fall?  Instead, only his heart was damaged?  What about blood loss from the helicopter attack and ensuing fall?  

It seems likely that Kong would have died from blood loss, if nothing else, in 1976. If he had been comatose for ten years, as we are led to believe, wouldn’t his muscles have atrophied during that time?

Next, it is fair to state that Kong’s surgery is visualized in totally absurd, ridiculous fashion, with giant-sized medical equipment, as though this were another episode of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants (1968-1970). 

At one point, a fork-lift is wheeled into the vast operating room, to lift and lower the giant ape hearts, real and artificial.  So I suppose things like sterile instruments -- or a sterile environment -- aren’t a problem in a surgery of this type, on a being of Kong’s nature?

Finally, it’s fair to note, I believe, the wildly inconsistent tone of the film.  

Some moments knowingly (and quite amusingly) tread into mean-spirited camp. For instance, there’s the moment wherein Kong crushes a sports car belonging to a young preppie kid.  It’s a funny moment.  It’s fun to watch the rich, entitled brat get his ride crushed. 

And then there’s the (great) scene in which nasty rednecks capture and torture Kong, and the ape exacts his wrath upon them.  

Both sequences are incredibly campy, and incredibly entertaining too.  But the film vacillates from schmaltzy, sentimental scenes of the Kong family, to these (knowing…) ridiculous scenes of Kong’s destruction.  The movie just doesn’t gel as a consistent narrative.

The actors treat the material with the utmost solemnity, especially Linda Hamilton, and the result is that the film plays as absolutely ridiculous.  I’m a King Kong fan since childhood, but King Kong Lives fails in so many ways to update or maintain the character’s legacy.

Still, it is fair to note that the film carries some influence. The end sequence here, of Lady Kong and Baby Kong in a natural reserve, is ported lock, stock, and barrel for the ending of 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park II.

King Kong (1976)

Over a decade ago, I had a strange professional experience. The editor on a book I wrote about a classic British science-fiction TV series marked out in red ink every single reference I made in my text to the 1976 version of King Kong.  

As explanation, the editor opined that such a “bomb” could not be discussed as part of legitimate King Kong history.  If I needed to refer to King Kong, then the 1933 film would do just fine.

This anecdote reveals two things. 

First, it exposes how editors can impress their own viewpoints and biases on a manuscript.  

Secondly -- and more relevantly for this review --  this story suggests the depth of hatred the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake has aroused over the long decades since it premiered.  The film is apparently not only “a bomb,” but it should actually be erased from the history books and our collective cultural memory.  You…can’t…even…write…about…it.

As you may have guessed, I disagree with the questionable conventional wisdom that King Kong (1976) is a bomb, and one unworthy of debate, examination, and analysis. 

In the first case, the film grossed over eighty million dollars worldwide on a budget of twenty-four million dollars, with a marketing budget of fifteen million.  King Kong thus cleared its budget and turned a nifty profit, especially in 1970s terms.  In fact, the remake had approximately the same opening weekend gross as Jaws (1975), about seven million dollars.  

So financially speaking, King Kong was definitively not a bomb. The industry expectation recounted in various articles of the day (including in Time Magazine) established that the film should gross between fifty and one hundred million dollars.  Receipts landed just about in the middle of that ballpark, with eighty million.

And in terms of critical response, was King Kong really a bomb?

Critic Pauline Kael certainly didn’t think so.  She wrote in The New Yorker that the new King Kong was a “romantic adventure fantasy – colossal, silly, touching” and even termed it an “absurdist love story.”

Meanwhile, Time Magazine called the film a “confidently conceived, exuberantly executed work of popular movie art.”   

Roger Ebert also praised the film (and gave it “thumbs up” rating) during a 1976 episode of Sneak 
Previews.  Also, the periodical America noted that “in making a comment on the tragedy of the human spirit in an industrialist age, it [the film] speaks directly to and about its audience.”

So while the film undeniably received many negative reviews, it might be more accurate to state that 1976 Kong was controversial, or faced mixed critical reactions.  Those who declared that King Kong was a “bomb” were primarily die-hard fans of the original 1933 film, and members of the protean genre press (the same class that also, incidentally, savaged Space:1999 [1975 – 1977]).

Considering this dynamic and the timing of the film's release, King Kong may actually represent the occasion of the very first “remake” fan war.  As is the case with all remakes, I can see both sides of the debate, but elect to take each remake on a case-by-case basis. Some remakes are worthy and interesting and others...are not.

In the case of King Kong, there are indeed some fascinating aspects of the film to remember and praise.  It’s true that the special effects in the latter half of this Oscar-winning film are an absolute mess, especially in the film’s bungled finale atop the World Trade Center.  And one can only cringe at the craven attempts to sell the man-in-the-monkey suit (Rick Baker) scenes as featuring a giant Kong robot.  Yikes...

Yet -- warts and all -- this King Kong speaks to the 1970s as trenchantly as the original Kong spoke to audiences of the 1930s.   The film contextualizes Kong as an exploited natural resource, as a metaphor for the 1970s Energy Crisis and America’s dependency on petroleum.  And secondly, on a far more personal level, the film comments on the pursuit of fame and its consequences in our modern culture.

I grew up with the 1970s King Kong and thus possess great nostalgic affection for the film.  I’ll be covering 1976 “Kong Mania” here tomorrow afternoon, in my weekly Memory Bank piece, for example.  But childhood affection for it or not, I maintain King Kong is not the “bomb” -- either financially or creatively -- that conventional wisdom has so often suggested.

“Ah, the power of it. Ah, the superpower! Hail to the power! Hail to the power of Kong! And Petrox!” 

In Surabaya, primate researcher Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridge) sneaks aboard the Petrox Explorer as it prepares to set sail for a mysterious destination.  As Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), executive for Petrox Oil explains, he has discovered in the Pacific what he believes is an uninhabited island hidden behind a perpetual fogbank.  Satellite footage suggests the island could be a rich source of oil.

En route to this remote destination, the Petrox Explorer rescues the lone survivor of a yacht explosion, the gorgeous would-be movie star, Dwan (Jessica Lange).  And upon reaching the island, Jack, Fred and Dwan learn that it is indeed inhabited.  The natives who dwell there cower behind a huge wall in fear of a God called Kong,” in actuality a colossal gorilla.

By night, Dwan is abducted by the natives and transformed into a “bride” or human sacrifice for Kong.  But as Dwan soon learns, the giant gorilla is not a dangerous enemy, but a valiant and loyal protector.  The men from the Petrox Explorer set out to rescue Dwan from Kong even as Fred learns that there is no gusher on the island…no oil.  So as to spare his professional reputation and save his job, Wilson decides to capture Kong and bring him back to civilization as a “commercial” for Petrox.

After Kong is captured and brought to New York City, the regal ape breaks free and causes chaos in Manhattan.  Finding Dwan again, Kong carries her to the top of the Twin Towers.  Before long, helicopters armed with machine guns close in for the kill…

“Well, here's to the big one…” 

Leaving behind the context of the 1930s and the Great Depression, King Kong (1976) is truly a remake with a modern spin. The film revolves around the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, particularly the 1973 Oil Crisis. 

As you may recall, that incident occurred when OPEC slashed oil production by five percent and then increased prices dramatically, something on the order of seventy percent.  The Arab organization used this so-called “oil weapon” to protest the U.S. government’s support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.  

At home, American consumers were soon urged not to be “fuelish” about consumption, and to conserve gasoline.  The embargo was lifted, finally, when the Nixon Administration negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. 

But the OPEC incident revealed to many Americans the heretofore un-excavated nexus between government action, international relationships, oil companies, and fossil fuel.  If America was to become truly energy independent -- and avoid a repeat Energy Crisis in the process -- it would need to discover and dig up new sources of petroleum.

King Kong (1976) is explicitly about this quest, and the mighty Kong himself stands in -- literally, in one case -- for petroleum; for a precious and exploitable natural resource.  

In the specific scene I mention, Kong is rolled out before an American audience in Manhattan…ensconced inside a giant Petrox gas tank.  It would be foolish to deny the potent symbolism of this imagery. An audience stands in awe of a giant container of gasoline, the very life-line to its twentieth century life-style of leisure and consumption. 

But underneath that tank is...what, precisely? 

A monster that -- if set free – could threaten or destroy everything in our modern world, here symbolized by the Big Apple.  

If one stops to consider that the ownership and control of foreign oil has been the precipitating cause of global conflicts on several occasions, one may begin to detect the underlying context of this Kong remake.  The race to possess and control oil could lead not to a world of plenty, but to destruction and chaos.  We try to control oil (or Kong), but look what happens?

Furthering the symbolism, Kong is brought to America inside the vast cargo hold of an oil super tanker, a fact which also visually equates the ape with petroleum, a valuable resource taken from a foreign locale and made to serve American interests.

In the original film, Kong was “the eighth wonder of the world,” an amazing spectacle captured to relieve the boredom and anxiety of a people enmeshed in an economic depression.  

In the 1976 remake, Kong is literally a mascot, a “commercial” (in the words of the script) for an oil company hoping to beat its corporate competition to larger profits.  In fact, a literal comparison is made between Kong and the famous Exxon campaign “put a tiger in your tank.” Only here the royal and regal natural power is embodied by a primate rather than a feline. 

In toto, the “Kong as natural resource” angle of the remake works surprisingly well.  Wilson is described aptly in the film as an “environmental rapist” and Prescott worries about what will happen to the island culture once it is bereft of the “energy” (in this case creative and spiritual energy…) that Kong’s presence provides it. Kong is “the juice,” in other words, that powers every aspect of their lives, from organized religion to national security.  When Kong taken from them….does their culture die? What does it run on?

As Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times the impulse to explore, to discover, to bring back something that you’ve discovered - [that which we found in the first King Kong] is now replaced by simple greed – the greed of the oil company representative Fred Wilson, to find a gusher.”

In the same vein, the film is veritably loaded with references to Gulf, Shell and Exxon.  And Skull Island itself is termed in dialogue a “huge tank just waiting for us to twist the top off.”  

The idea expressed, then, is that of out-of-control oil companies hoping to sustain our 20th century life style.  In support of this endeavor, they can travel anywhere in the world, claim natural resources as their own property, and in the process destroy the natural beauty and even the people of those terrains.  The excuse?  “There’s a national energy crisis!,” as Wilson says.  

In charting this dynamic, the remake of King Kong evokes a far more cynical and troubled world than the one dramatized in the original 1930s film.  If the original film is a fairy tale of mythic proportions, the remake is, by contrast, a cautionary tale about a world running out of gas, creatively, spiritually and in terms of natural resources.  It’s a world that hopes to latch onto anything “new,” and exploit it for its monetary value even if that “new” thing is destroyed in the process. Going even further, the decision for Kong to climb the World Trade Center -- a representation of western economic and global powers -- is symbolic in some sense too.  As Time Magazine opined, the film might be seen as a "projection of Western fears of what might happen if the Third World should develop its potential power and fight back."

Menaced, literally, by Big Oil.

Kong comes to an oil tanker.

In the remade Kong, Dwan also fits into the leitmotif about exploitation. She is an aspiring actress who desires, more than anything, to be famous.  Her experience on Skull Island with Kong is Dwan’s ticket to fame, and she realizes it.  Dwan is, in essence, seduced by the possibility of being a “star” and so betrays Kong…the beast who protected her and sheltered her in a dangerous jungle.  By contrast, Prescott possesses the wherewithal to detect Wilson’s exploitation of Kong, and he terms the whole affair a “grotesque farce.” 

But Dwan can’t see or acknowledge the truth fully because she is obsessed with herself, and with fame.  

This idea is woven nimbly into the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.  Early on, we learn that the character changed her name from Dawn to Dwan in order to make it “more memorable,” a sign of the character’s true aspiration to be a celebrity.  

And when Kong is captured, and feeling morose about his captivity, Dwan tells the great beast not to worry, that he’s “going to America to be a star.”  This line also suggests that for Dwan, fame is the highest achievement in our culture.  

Finally, Dwan can’t risk rebelling against Fred’s wishes for her, or else, as Wilson says, “I promise you'll never get another booking in your life. You'll end up tap-dancing at Rotary clubs. This threat of public obscurity keeps Dwan in place as a team member in the “grotesque farce.”  Dwan rarely asks if Kong’s imprisonment and loss of freedom – his exploitation – is an acceptable price for her media super stardom.  

One of the primary reasons I appreciate the artistry of the 1970s King Kong involves the clever blocking and staging of the final scene at the foot of the twin towers.   

Kong is dead and Dwan stands before the cameras at his side, playing up her sadness and tears for maximum press impact.  Prescott attempts to approach Dwan through the crowd of photographers, to rescue her from the paparazzi (just as Kong did earlier, at his unveiling in Manhattan). But then Jack stops short.  A dark expression crosses his face as he recognizes that Dwan is exactly where she wants to be: at the center of attention.  

The blocking and reaction shot (from Bridges) represent a visual way of establishing a philosophical line of dialogue from the original film, but one not included in the remake.

It was not the planes (or helicopters in this case) that killed Kong.  It was Beauty who killed the Beast.

As the scene continues, the photographers grow so aggressive that even the attention-hungry Dwan looks legitimately disturbed and menaced by their actions.  But both of her dedicated protectors – Kong and Prescott – are now gone.  As flash bulbs explode all around her, Dwan looks dismayed, but the implication is clear.  This is the bed she made for herself, and now she must lie in it.  

Importantly, Prescott has witnessed another man -- Kong -- destroyed attempting to “protect” Dwan from that which she actively seeks – attention -- and so he, finally, makes a different decision.  He leaves Dwan to the tender mercies of the press.  Thus we leave King Kong on a deliberately down-beat note. There is no happy ending to be found.

For Dwan, it’s be careful what you wish for…you just might get it.  For Jack, it's his realization that everything for Dawn – even the death of Kong – is a thing to be used to further fame and fortune.

Dwan is ready for her close-up?

Jack realizes that she  will always be a fame-seeker

The press is her boyfriend now...and she knows it.
In the years since King Kong premiered, we have, as a nation, descended much deeper into this kind of craven celebrity culture, where truly unworthy people become famous for fifteen minutes for participation in a tragedy, a trauma or a scandal.  King Kong is an early commentary on this facet of modern life, granting Dwan her fifteen minutes of fame at the expense, literally, of a king among animals.  Kong had no concern but to protect Dwan, and was (innocently) unaware that she could not reciprocate emotionally.  In essence, Kong is exploited twice in the film: first by Wilson (as a natural resource) and secondly by Dwan (as a gateway to fame and celebrity).   This depth in terms of narrative strikes me as being more than enough meat for a "monster" movie.

In terms of forging a hypnotic spell, King Kong is quite an intoxicating picture, at least in its first hour or so.  Real locations (in Hawaii, I believe) provide awe-inspiring natural vistas.  There are some shots featured here that are so gorgeous, so unimaginable on a visual scale, that they literally prove jaw-dropping.  One lengthy “zoom out” from a tight shot in a natural canyon suggests a scale far beyond our capability to fully process.  Such visuals seem that much more amazing for having been lensed in the age before digital effects and CGI.  It’s absolutely appropriate that the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

About mid-way through King Kong, the film transitions from real life locations to studio sets that, alas reek of sound-stage fakery. Yet the transition -- while jarring -- may work thematically. In other words, the island seems to turn “uglier” and more claustrophobic as Fred Wilson’s motives for it (and its inhabitants) also turn ugly  As man grows dominant (and Kong comes nearer to man's world), the visuals take a turn for the desolate and despairing.

At first, the island is a place of unfettered beauty and innocence – God’s hand on Earth.  But then, technological, 20th century man shows up to put a stamp on it, and the land itself seems to change, revealing a craggy, hard-edged, ugly and ominous side.  By the time we’ve gotten to Kong’s smoky, desolate lair, Skull Island looks as though it could be a harsh, crater-filled landscape on the moon, or perhaps Mars.  And then, of course, the movie takes us to a REAL jungle...New York City.

From this... this... this... this... last, to this.

King Kong’s final scenes, atop the Twin Towers, are also pretty terrible in terms of visuals.  In part this is so because of blue screen and rear projection work that fails to maintain, in proper ratio, the size of Kong and the size of the attacking helicopters.  It’s also a matter of the lighting of the various component parts of the scene.  The night-shots of the helicopters and night sky look washed out and dim compared to the footage of Kong.

And yet, in the final analysis, I can forgive the special effects lapses of King Kong because I feel the film attempts to imbue the “monster movie” form with a new sense of social relevance. King Kong’s game is to ask questions about how, in modern times, we steal from nature and often destroy nature for our own selfish purposes.  The Dwan and Wilson characters represent two sides of that particular coin.  They are indeed selfish and foolish (or is it "fuelish?").

It ought to be noted, as well, that the 1970s King Kong is the first version of the material to suggest more than a rudimentary monster/victim dynamic between Kong and his would-be bride.  This is an important element also featured in the Jackson remake of 2005.  Here, in one of the film’s best and most poetic scenes, Kong takes Dwan -- now covered in mud -- to bathe under a natural waterfall.  

The moment is magical (and erotic, strangely...) not merely because of Jessica Lange’s extreme and ravishing physical beauty, but because of Kong’s gentleness and yes, even sweetness.  I don’t know that either of those qualities could be ascribed to the 1933 version of this “monster” character.  This Kong seems a lot more humane and less violent than his predecessor.  The waterfall scene is supported brilliantly, I should add, by the late John Barry's lush and romantic score, which -- accompanying the visuals -- practically causes swooning.  In lyrical, visually ravishing moments such as this, it's awful hard to totally hate this production of Kong.

Yet if the end game is to hate all over King Kong (1976), there’s obviously plenty to latch onto too.  No stop-motion effects, weak optical-effects in the last half, and a script that probably features too many in-jokes about “male chauvinist pig apes,” “the Empire State Building” and the like.  And yet, for all its obvious failings, it must also be said that this (sentimental) Kong wears its heart on its sleeve.

Or as Pauline Kael astutely noted, “I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a movie that was a comic-strip great romance in the way this one is… it’s a joke that can make you cry.”

Thursday, November 28, 2019

King Kong Escapes (1967)

A conniving scientist and madman, Dr. Who (Eisei Amamoto) is in league with a foreign government, and its agent, Madame Piranha (Mie Hama) to mine the valuable substance Element X from the North Pole.  Element X will make the production of nuclear weapons fast and easy.

To mine the harmful and radioactive element, Dr. Who has stolen Commander Carl Nelson’s (Rhodes Reason) plans for a giant robot based on the legendary monster, King Kong. Dr. Who builds the robot, which he dubs Mechani-Kong, but it fails in its first mining test.

Elsewhere in the world, Carl Nelson takes his U.N. submarine, the Explorer, to Mondo Island in the South Pacific.  There, Nelson, Lt. Commander Nomura (Akira Takarada) and Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller) encounter the real Kong.

The giant gorilla saves the team from a giant dinosaur, Gorosaurus, and takes an instant liking to Susan. When the trio attempts to leave the island in a hovercraft, Kong pursues, and fights a giant eel.  He traps the submarine until Susan convinces the beast to release them.

Meanwhile, Dr. Who realizes that he must capture the real life King Kong, and have the beast complete the mining operation. To facilitate Kong’s cooperation, he captures Susan, Nomura and Nelson and brings them to his facility in the Arctic.

Kong breaks free while mining Element X, and flees for Tokyo. Mechani-Kong pursues, planning to retrieve him for Dr. Who.  The two Goliaths battle atop Tokyo Tower, while the world watches.

I’ve always greatly enjoyed this Rankin-Bass/Toho contribution to King Kong lore, in part because it picks up on ideas from the 1966 cartoon (episodes of which I’ll review this week). 

Dr. Who, Mondo Island, and Kong as a giant, friendly, ally, are all elements that translate from animated series to King Kong Escapes.

Although I don’t at all like how this King Kong looks -- his face resembles the evil yeti in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) -- I love the design of Mechani-Kong, and also appreciate that the giant ape is back in his pre-King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) form. That means he doesn’t consume and conduct electricity.  That was a weird touch, but necessary, I suppose, to make him a challenge for the true King of Monsters, Godzilla.

What’s intriguing, again, is that filmmakers attempt to “ape” (pardon me…) the story that started all, from the 1933 film. Here, Kong again grapples with a dinosaur (Gorosaurus instead of a T-Rex), falls in love with a gorgeous blond woman, and climbs a large building, in this case the 1100 foot high Tokyo Tower. However, the big difference is that he survives this adventure.

In some sense, all iterations of King Kong are all -- more or less – about exploitation of nature.  Carl Denham wants Kong to entertain the masses (and make back his investment, in the 2005 remake). Fred Wilson wants to bring back Kong as a mascot (and as an excuse for failing to find oil) in the 1976 version. 

Even Mr. Tako of Pacific Pharmaceuticals in King Kong vs. Godzilla sees the giant ape as a cash cow, a publicity stunt. 

King Kong Escapes keeps that tradition going. Here King Kong is captured and forced to mine a radioactive element that will ultimately have a deleterious impact on his health.

In all these outings, it should be noted, Kong is forcibly ripped from his island home, and taken to a destination entirely against his will. This makes him very different, from Godzilla, who shows up on Japan’s shore like a force of nature, a tsunami or hurricane.  Instead, Kong doesn’t leave home willingly. He is taken from it; torn from it. He is the reluctant warrior, or king.

When he turns for Mondo Island after destroying Dr. Who’s ship at the end of King Kong Escapes, the beast states  -- as interpreted by Nelson -- that he has had “enough of what we call civilization.”  

I’ve always loved that closing line. It’s memorable (and King Kong movies are also known for memorable closing lines such as “It was Beauty killed the Beast…"), and it captures something of Kong’s innocence and wildness. He doesn’t belong in our world. His love -- for Ann, for Dwan, for Susan, etc. -- pushes him into our world. But it’s not his home.  Civilization would rather exploit him than treat him well. 

King Kong Escapes does possess some ultra silly moments. First, it is weird that Kong perfectly understands every word that Susan utters. Whether she is dubbed in English, or speaking Japanese, he is able to grasp human language remarkably well.

What’s truly crazy is that when Dr. Who subjects Kong to “hypnotic susceptibility” Kong also understands all the doctor’s instructions.  When he tells Kong “you must dig faster,” the big ape apparently comprehends the meaning perfectly.

King Kong Escapes resolves, basically, on Tokyo Tower, with Kong and Mechani-Kong duking it out.  It’s a good final battle, true to Kong tradition, and the punctuation is perfect. What is that punctuation? The robot breaks into pieces as he hits the ground.

Still, there's a part of me that hates to see Mechani-Kong die. I would have loved to see the licensing issues around King Kong and his robot double resolved so that both monsters could have made additional appearances in the Toho Monster Universe.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...