Monday, December 19, 2005

King of kings

No, not Jesus (although we should all wish Mr. C a very happy birthday this Sunday regardless). King Kong, of course, that majestic, 3-story tall tragic ape of a hero. I saw Peter Jackson's version of it last night, and was very happy I did. It's an excellent movie, the best epic I've seen since...well, The Lord of the Rings (also directed by Jackson; this is getting to be a habit).

Jackson could have easily gone the route of Cheesy, Expensive Blockbuster by doing a pale remake of the original. He could have loaded it with knowing references to the first movie, to show how hip he was that he knew it cold. With a 200+ million dollar budget, final cut rights and complete freedom to do whatever he wanted, nobody would have stopped him from packing the movie with big stars and lazily updating it to the present day (like in the bad 1976 remake).

He did none of these things; instead, he delivered a fun version of a great story, with enough character development and plot tweaks to make it fresh and interesting. Jackson wisely set the movie in 1933 New York, and the flavor and look of the city add a lot to the story, since Kong's fate is so strongly tied to the location of his final battle. Additionally, the urban maze that the big ape runs through at the end of the movie contrasts nicely with the jungle of his native habitat.

And the current version gets the trickiest element of the story right - the development of the relationship between Ann and Kong. It evolves sensibly, from terrified captive/angry guard, to grudging familiarity and finally genuine friendship and affection, without seeming forced, phony or abrupt. Every stage is believable, and their final scene together (where Kong holds Ann and playfully glides on a frozen Central Park lake) is a heartbreaker, since we all know what's about to happen to him.

Character development was obviously a priority for Jackson, which is one reason this version of the story is over three hours long (as compared to one and a half for the original). The New York opening gives us plenty of back story with director Denham and leading lady Ann, which makes it abundantly clear how they fall into their respective predicaments. Once on the Venture, we stay there for an hour or so and meet writer/hero Jack, captain Engelhorn, first mate Hayes and cabin boy Jimmy. The story bogs down in the leaky holds of the ship, since this is an epic and all we really want to see, after all, is the big ape. You can only develop the characters so far, and the ship scenes don't do much to get us to identify with them more. By the time all the principals get on board, we've already met and gotten to know the important ones - Denham, Ann, Jack, and for comic relief, Denham's vain leading man Rex. The sailors aren't particularly interesting, and getting acquainted with the crew (especially Jimmy) doesn't really move the story along or build sympathy in the right direction. Besides, when we return to New York for the final act, they're no longer part of the movie anyway.

But that's a quibble. The key characters are strong, sympathetic (even Denham) and well-acted - including, most critically, Kong, thanks to the magic of CGI and the skill of Andy Serkis, rapidly going down in history as the first and best CGI foundation actor in the business. Naomi Watts, in a difficult role, acts terrified without being over the top about it, and shows her growing affection for Kong convincingly.

Meanwhile, the key element we all expect from any King Kong - the action - is tense and exciting. Jackson puts a few imaginative and unexpected spins on the Kong set pieces we know and love. The ape's capture on Skull Island, for example, when he (temporarily) escapes the trap the sailors set for him. Or, especially, the final battle on top of the Empire State building, which is much longer and played out than the same scene in the original. It's an epic scene, fitting for the wider scope and longer length of Jackson's version.

One thing I rarely like in movies and TV is references, in-jokes that only the initiated get and the smug insert. Jackson admirably avoids this, but given the quality of this movie and his overall restraint we can forgive him and allow for a few in the final battle - the pilots and gunners of the Army Air Force planes are all moviemakers, most of whom are connected to Kong one way or another. Jackson himself plays a gunner, as does director Frank Darabont (maker of The Shawshank Redemption). Meanwhile, one of the pilots is played by makeup ace Rick Baker, who played Kong in a gorilla suit (!) in the 1976 version.

'Twas beauty killed the beast, as the famous line goes. And in this case, it's worth the time and effort to see how. King Kong is one of the best movies of this year, and a hell of a remake. Go take a look.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Call of the West

Well, it's been two weeks since the end of our California trip. Two weeks that seem like a year; the slate-gray skies and below-zero temperatures of December Prague are a planet away from Sunny C. We had the benefit of that most American of machines, a car, for our trip, which allowed us to see a lot of the state, from San Diego near the Mexican border to the more obscure corners of the wine country north of San Francisco. Between those two points, we also saw LA, Manhattan and Long Beaches, Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco, etc. etc. etc. Oh, and we made a what-the-hell road trip to Las Vegas for a quick overnight.

But that's a travelogue or three for another time. For the moment, it's best to offer a bite-sized initial impression of the West, a part of the US I had never previously experienced (the furthest I'd gotten in that direction was Champaign, Illinois). Typical for a New Yorker, huh? Many of us natives consider ourselves worldly if we make it to Boston.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in one of the Original Thirteen (American colonial states, that is). Or maybe it's a product of living for 11 years in an European capital older than a Millennium. But to me, it feels like much of the Western US was built yesterday. As if it sprang up in some crazy post-WWII migratory spread. Hey Frank, the war's over, let's go to Hollywood!

You feel this most strongly in Los Angeles. LA has a bad reputation for being phony and soulless. I didn't find it that way necessarily, but it does have that temporary, just-landed-on -this coast-impression. A lot of it seems improvised. Big, fancy houses dominate the lawns in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, but most of them look like they were built when I was in college. Downtown LA, the commercial center, is home to a cluster of skyscrapers, a showy Frank Gehry-designed concert hall and a newish sports arena with a corporate name tag. All this stuff is handsome, well-polished and pleasing to the eye...thing is, Downtown is far away and hard to reach from most other LA neighborhoods, so it feels like an island. It's as if someone decided that, what the hell, right HERE would be a fine place for the business district. Almost nothing about it feels natural or evolved.

And I couldn't escape the impression that a lot of the West is flimsier than it should be. San Francisco - conveniently located near a fault line - is home to possibly the world's largest collection of wooden buildings. It's as if the Gold Rush came, then a settlement was built and evolved only a little over time. You never quite escape the impression that the earth might crack open again and swallow the place whole.

And Las Vegas. Vegas! Only in America would somebody look at a small desert settlement and think of building casinos and hotels there. You have to admire the boundless optimism that sees such huge potential in a plot of sand...and the clever sales job that brings tourists in by the millions and money by the planeload. Driving into Vegas is a funny experience; after several hundred miles of scrub brush desert, broken by the occasional town or outlet mall, Vegas just...explodes...from the ground. They came out here, picked a place to build - and presto! new city.

What's interesting about all this - assuming you're not worried about San Francisco disappearing in the next big natural disaster - is the sense of visiting the result of an adventure. Once upon a time, Americans were imaginative, optimistic and just plain crazy enough to abandon their lives, come to the West and build something out of virtually nothing. A little recklessness once in a while is a good thing, it seems.