“KING KONG” (2005) Review

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

Several years ago, producer-director Peter Jackson had stated in an interview that one of movies that had inspired him to become a filmmaker was Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 hit adventure film, “KING KONG”. Sixteen to eighteen years after his first directorial effort, Jackson was finally able to pay tribute to his inspiration with a remake of the 1933 film. 

Anyone familiar with Cooper’s film should know the story of King Kong. Set during the early years of the Great Depression, an overly ambitious movie producer coerces his cast and the crew of a freighter ship to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who becomes immediately smitten with the producer’s financially struggling leading lady. After using his leading lady to lure Kong into a trap, the producer ships Kong back to Manhattan to be displayed to the public as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Unfortunately, Kong escapes and inflicts chaos on the city streets in search for the leading lady.

Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pretty much followed the 1933 movie. However, they made some changes. In the 1933 film, Carl Denham was a respected and successful filmmaker. He was a struggling filmmaker who resorted to stealing footage of his film from his financial backers in Jackson’s version. There is more backstory on the Ann Darrow character in the newer film and she is a vaudeville dancer/comedian, not simply a unemployed and starving woman. Ann remains frightened of Kong throughout the entire 1933 film (an emotion that actress Fay Wray did not share); whereas Naomi Watts’ Ann forms an emotional bond with him. The inhabitants of Skull Island are a lot more hostile in the 2005 film, and less human. Kong is portrayed as simply an animal and less of a monster. Jack Driscoll is a playwright hired as a screenwriter in this film, whereas in the ’33 film, he is the S.S. Venture’s first mate. And in Jackson’s film, the first mate is an African-American. The 2005 Captain Englehorn is at least fifteen to twenty years than his 1933 counterpart. Kong’s rampage across Manhattan was a lot more horrific than his rampage in the 2005 film. The character of actor Bruce Baxter was created as a homage to actor Bruce Cabot, one of the stars of the 1933 film. And it is he, along with Denham and some actress hired to impersonate Ann that ends up on the stage with Kong in Jackson’s film. In Cooper’s film, both Ann and Driscoll end up on stage with Denham and Kong.

So, what did I think of Jackson’s “KING KONG”? Technically and visually, it is a beautiful film. One of the first things that impressed me was Grant Major’s production designs for the movie. His work, along with the art direction team led by Dan Hannah, Hannah and Simon Bright’s set decorations and Andrew Lesnine’s photography did an excellent job in re-creating Manhattan of the early 1930s. And what I found even more amazing about their work is that all of the Manhattan sequences were filmed in New Zealand . . . even the opening montage that introduced the movie’s time period and its leading female character. Terry Ryan’s costume designs for the movie were attractive to look at. But if I must be honest, they did not particularly blow my mind. I really cannot explain why. It seemed as if her costumes – especially for the female characters – failed to achieve that early 1930s look, one hundred percent. I was also impressed by work of both the art department and the visual effects team. Their work on the Skull Island sequences struck me as impressive. But honestly, I was more impressed by their work on the Manhattan scenes . . . especially the sequence featuring King Kong’s confrontation with the U.S. Army planes. And here are two samples of their work:

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My only quibble about the visual work in the Manhattan sequences featured the S.S. Venture’s depature from Manhattan. Frankly, it looked like the work of an amateur, circa 1929. Why on earth did Jackson allowed the ship to leave New York Harbor at double speed? It looked so tacky.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens did a pretty good job in re-creating Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s story. In fact, I believe they had improved on some aspects of the 1933 film. One, the Ann Darrow character was given more of a background and more screen time before the S.S. Venture’s journey to Skull Island. I could say the same for the Carl Denham character, who proved to be a more ambiguous character than his 1933 counterpart. Due to the depth given to both Ann and Denham’s characters, the setup for the S.S. Venture’s departure from Manhattan seemed more detailed and far from rushed. The movie spent a good deal of time aboard the S.S. Venture, building up suspense to the ship’s arrival at Skull Island and allowing relationships and the characters to develop – especially Ann’s romance with playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll. I wonder if many moviegoers had complained about the length it took the Venture to reach Skull Island. I certainly did not. The longer the movie focused on the Venture sequences, the longer it took the movie to reach Skull Island.

Because . . . honestly? I disliked the Skull Island sequences. I was able to bear it in the 1933 film. But I cannot say the same for Jackson’s film. There were some scenes in the Skull Island sequence that I liked. I enjoyed the chase sequence featured members of the Venture crew, Denham’s film production and a Venatosaurus saevidicus pack‘s hunt of Brontosaurus baxteri. I even tolerated Kong’s rescue of Ann from three Vastatosaurus rex. And I was impressed by the scene that featured Ann and Kong’s initial bonding. I found it both touching and slightly humorous. And I could see that the screenwriters, along with Naomi Watts and Fay Wray (who portrayed the original Ann) understood Kong’s feelings for the leading lady a lot better than Cooper and Wallace did. But I still disliked the Skull Island sequence – especially the scenes featuring Denham’s film crew’s encounter with the island’s natives and the visitors’ enounter with giant insects inside a large pit. The natives seemed more like Orc rejects from Middlearth with very little humanity. Despite the coconut bras and bone jewelry, the natives featured in the 1933 film struck me as a lot more human and less like savage stereotypes. As for the giant insect pit sequence . . . I usually press the fast-forward button for that scene. I not only dislike it, I find it repulsive.

Fortunately, the movie returned to Manhattan. And I noticed that for the first minutes or so, Jackson re-created Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s introduction of Kong to the people of Manhattan. I was impressed. In fact, I found this second Manhattan sequence very impressive . . . but not as much as I did the earlier one. Granted, Bruce Baxter’s quick departure from the theater following Kong’s escape provided some laughs. And Jackson handled Kong’s rampage of Manhattan rather well. I was a little disappointed that Jackson did not re-create the elevated train sequence from the first film. I was stunned by the sight of Ann searching the streets of Manhattan for Kong wearing nothing but her costume from a stage musical in the middle of winter. Hell, I was amazed that she managed to not to get pnemonia from wandering around the city with no overcoat and no sleeves for her gown. And frankly, I found Ann and Kong’s reunion in Central Park something of a bore. I truly wish that Jackson had cut that scene. As for the Empire State Building sequence, once again, Naomi Watt’s Ann did not seemed to be affected by the cold weather, while wearing nothing but a costume gown. And I noticed that Jackson plagerized Gandalf’s death in “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” for Kong’s final death scene. I felt nothing but a little relief because the U.S. Army Air Corp’s attempt to kill Kong seemed to last forever.

The cast of “KING KONG” seemed to fare very well, despite some of the mediocre lines written by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of the pragmatic and cynical Captain Englehorn struck me as very skillful and effective. Both Evan Parke and Jamie Bell provided some well-acted pathos as First Mate Ben Hayes and a young crewman named Jimmy, for whom Hayes seemed to act as mentor. Adrien Brody provided a nice balance of romance, heroics and cynicism in his portrayal of writer Jack Driscoll. Actually, I thought he made a more interesting leading man than Bruce Cabot. And Colin Hanks’ solid portrayal of Preston, Denham’s neurotic but honest personal assistant, proved to be the movie’s emotional backbone. But there were the performances that really stood out for me.

Andy Serkis, who had impressed the world with his portrayal of Gollum in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, proved to be equally impressive in his motion capture performance as Kong. Not only was he solid as the S.S. Venture cook, Lumpy; he did an excellent job in providing Kong with a great deal of emotional nuances. Kyle Chandler nearly stole the film with his hilarious portryal of movie actor Bruce Baxter. Not only was Chandler’s Baxter egotistical and self-involved, he also proved to be a surprisingly pragmatic character with a talent for self-preservation. He also provided, in my opinion, one of the film’s best quotes:

“Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me – not in the real world. In th real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun who’s lost his motivation. Be seeing you.”

Jack Black gave a superb job as movie producer Carl Denham. In fact, I believe that Black’s Denham proved to be the film’s most ambiguous character. Even though his Denham seemed manipulative, greedy and exploitive; he also managed to bring out the character’s compassionate side and enthusiam for his profession. It seemed a pity that Black never received any acclaim for his performance. Many moviegoers and critics seemed disappointed that Naomi Watts did not receive a Golden Globes or Academy Awards nomination for her excellent portryal of out-of-luck vaudevillian Ann Darrow. Frankly, I think she deserved such nominations for her work. More than any other member of the cast, she had to develop an emotional bond and work with an animated figure and at the same time, develop her own character. And she did one hell of a job. Think Bob Hoskins in 1988’s “WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?”.

“KING KONG” has become a highly regarded film over the years. It made “Empire” magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmmm . . . no. Not really. It is a very entertaining film filled with plenty of action and adventure. It also featured some pretty damn good acting from a cast led by Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. But the movie also possesses some pretty obvious flaws and I find it difficult to enjoy the Skull Island sequence. Like I said, Jackson created a pretty good movie. But I could never regard it as one of the greatest movies of all time.

“TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

”TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

While playing a small part in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (which ironically starred a young Christian Bale), actor/comedian Ben Stiller had come up with the idea of a group of prima donna actors filming a Vietnam War film. Over twenty years later, Stiller’s idea came to fruition in the action comedy movie, ”TROPIC THUNDER”.

Stiller and fellow co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, created a hilarious and very original story that began with a series of fake commercials and movie trailers. The commercials featured rap singer Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promoting his “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar. Then the movie continued with a series of movie trailers that included action star Tugg Speedman’s (Stiller) latest film, “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown”; and another for low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy’s (Jack Black) film, “The Fatties: Fart 2” that spoofed Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of multiple characters such as in “NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS”. But the final trailer – and the funniest in the bunch – featured award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downy, Jr.) and Tobey Maguire as two gay medieval monks in a parody of films like “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” called ”Satan’s Alley”.

But the meat of the story featured the three actors, the rap singer and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as co-stars in ”Tropic Thunder”, a movie adaptation of the memoirs of a disabled Vietnam War veteran named “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). The movie’s production is spiraling out of control and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) seemed unable to handle the prima donnas or keep the movie on schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. With inspiration from Tayback, Cockburn drops the spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle, where he installs hidden cameras and special effect explosions rigged by pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny R. McBride) so he can film the movie “guerrilla-style”. The actors have only a map and a scene listing to guide them to the helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle. Shortly afterward, the director is blown up by a land mine left by the French, but thanks to his preceding diatribe, only Lazarus realizes his death was real. Even worse, the actors ended up in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, led by a young boy named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). And Cody and Tayback end up as prisoners of the Dragons. As for Tran and the Dragons, they believe the actors to be DEA agents.

”TROPIC THUNDER” not only struck me as a parody of the Hollywood movie industry, but also a parody of the lengths human beings go to create illusions about themselves. Tugg Speedman is a failing action star who had earlier attempted a serious role in order to save his career. I can only assume that ”Tropic Thunder” is his second attempt. Yet, he seemed incapable of facing the possibility of being a has-been and has to depend upon his agent, Rick “Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaghey) to maintain his ever deflating ego. Jeff Portnoy resorts to drug addiction to deal with the realization that his past success mainly came from his talent from flatulence humor. Lazarus is an Oscar-winning Australian method actor who has a bad habit staying in his role even when the cameras are not rolling. For ”Tropic Thunder”, Lazurus deliberately undertook an operation to change his skin pigmentation in order to portray an African-American sergeant. Naturally, Lazurus’ role produced resentment and anger from Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to break into films. But even Chino is projecting a façade about himself, which his fellow co-stars manage to break through near the end of the film. The only one in the bunch who seemed real is young Sandusky, the drama student who seemed to be the only sane head in the bunch. Yet, despite the fact the film is bursting with Hollywood phonies, the biggest phony turned out to Tayback, who had never seen combat during the Vietnam War or was disabled. Even worse, he had spent the war aboard a Coast Guard garbage scow that never left U.S. waters. He had originally written the book as a tribute to U.S. servicemen.

I have to say that this movie’s cast more than impressed me. Ben Stiller portrayed one of his best roles as Tugg Speedman, a Hollywood veteran struggling to save his career. Yet, his sanity nearly went down the toilet when Tran and the Dragons force him to replay the scenes of his failed drama, ”Simple Jack”. By the time his fellow cast members found him, Speedman had gone by the way of Colonel Kurtz. I must admit that I usually have difficulty finding Jack Black funny. However, I do believe that Jeff Portnoy was probably one of his better roles – hilarious without being over-the-top. I realize that drug addiction is nothing to laugh about, but his and Sandusky’s attempts to help him deal with withdrawal and reject the temptation of the Dragons’ own heroin were rather funny. Nick Nolte and Danny McBride made an amusing comedy team and I especially enjoyed their interaction when Cody discovered that Tayback is not a Vietnam veteran, but a phony. Matthew McConaghey did one of his best roles as Speedman’s always eager agent, Rick Peck. And Tom Cruise must have had a blast portraying the arrogant and overbearing film producer, Les Grossman. He was hilarious. A member of my family was surprised to discover that the balding, foul-mouthed man was actually Cruise.

Most critics have lauded Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the method actor Lazurus, who spends most of the movie trying to act like an African American. RDJ was hilarious. In fact, I can honestly say that he was the funniest member of the cast. His most hilarious moment came on the heels of an argument between Lazurus and Chino, when he breaks into a litany about the black man’s 400 years of oppression (damn, has it been that long?) and Chino’s use of the “n” word that ended with him singing the theme to television series, ”THE JEFFERSONS”. It took me nearly five minutes to recover from my laughter. But Downey’s take on Kirk Lazurus could have ended in disaster without the presence of Brandon T. Jackson. His Chino not only expressed anger at Lazurus’ portrayal of a black man, but provided some pretty sharp zingers at the actor’s ego and sanity. Another funny scene featured Chino’s insults about Lazurus’ Australian background. What made the scene so humorous were Lazurus’ protests against Chino’s insults, while maintaining his charade as a black man. Weird.

I believe that Ben Stiller should be proud of ”TROPIC THUNDER”. Not only did he give an excellent performance, he also co-wrote and directed what I believe should become a comedy classic. That’s right. A comedy classic. ”TROPIC THUNDER” is one of the best comedies I have seen in years – along with the British action comedy, ”HOT FUZZ”. I also feel that it is Stiller’s best movie since the police parody, ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Hell, it is better than the 2003 movie he had co-starred with Owen Wilson. The cast was superb. So was Jon Toll’s photography of the island of Kauai, which stood as both Vietnam and Cambodia. Stiller, Theroux and Cohen had created one hell of a comedy.