Monday, January 02, 2006

MOVIES: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you KONG!

Spoilers ahead. Kong dies. See! Spoiler!

Do you know, I've actually heard people complain that that is a spoiler. I kind of think if you've been alive for more than ten years, you really should know Kong gets it in the end. But fine, if you want to call that a spoiler, I guess there are other possible spoilers ahead. Including: Rosebud is a sled, Norman Bates dresses up like his mother to kill people, Rhett Butler ditches Scarlett O'Hara, Bogart stays in Casablanca when Bergman leaves, and Darth Vader is Luke's father.

So! I finally saw Peter Jackson's King Kong tonight, and it was spectacular. In fact, it might have been a little too spectacular. I'll get to that in a bit.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here by saying the opening part of the film could have been trimmed here and there. I mean, it takes nearly as long to get our first sight of King Kong in this version as the 1933 original took for the entire movie. I didn't need to know that much about any of the characters: Naomi Watts' vaudeville career, her romance with Adrien Brody, Jack Black's studio troubles -- it all felt like a lot of padding so Jackson could present the film as a legitimate epic, rather than "merely" one of the greatest action pictures ever made. "Look! Characters! Plot! Not just giant monkeys!" Fine, Peter. But the most interesting character work comes after Kong appears, especially for Watts.

What's more, I didn't need to know most of the characters at all. Kyle Chandler's actor character was fairly entertaining, and the captain, I guess, was important to the tale -- but Jack Black's assistant? And sound recorder? And cameraman? And the rest of the ship's crew, especially the Hayes and Jimmy characters? Who cares? I was just sitting there thinking, oh my god, are they really going to spend this much time on people I could not care less about? Yes, yes they are, and more.

So, yeah, I'd say a good half hour could have been cut from the beginning of the film without losing anything, and I don't think I'll be the first, or the last, to say as much. But the funny thing is, I thought the middle part could have been trimmed down a lot too -- and I loved the middle part.

There are so many amazing sequences during the Skull Island segment of the film. The dinosaur stampede. The log shaking. The bug attack. The T. Rex attack. The bat attack. The capture of Kong. They're all tremendous, they're all brilliant spectacles. But it becomes almost oppressively spectacular. Seriously, once Kong appears -- we're sold, dude. We're sold. Kong works so seamlessly well, he's such an incredible creation, that there comes a point where Jackson maybe could've stopped trying to sell us so hard. The dinosaur stampede could've been cut down a bit -- maybe a lot. The whole bug scene was marvelously creepy, but also could have lost a few minutes. The T. Rex battle... no, okay, don't lose a second of that. That was frickin' awesome. But that should've been the major action setpiece of the middle of the picture, and instead, there were, like, eighty-seven major action setpieces.

So, I guess I'm complaining about too much of a good thing. Oh well.

In addition to the action, I loved the quieter moments between Naomi Watts and Kong. Her dance routine for him is so unexpected, and charming (if still slightly unsettling, as in the way he knocks her to the ground and laughs, not understanding he's hurting her), and Kong is so expressive, that it becomes one of those rare, truly magic movie moments.

And then, there's the final part of the movie, when Kong has been taken to New York. It zips along at breakneck speed, in comparison with the rest of the film, and that's partly why I liked it the best. The action is still top-notch -- Kong's escape, the car chase, and of course, the magnificent battle atop the Empire State Building. But there's still room for the quiet, touching moments, such as Kong's delight at discovering a frozen pond, or the way he and Watts admire the beauty of the view from above the city before the airplanes attack. Or, most affecting of all, the way he looks at Watts when he knows he's dying. Jackson wrings genuine emotion out of that moment, and it's a heartbreaking capper to a wonderful film.

All in all, King Kong is a grand achievement, thrilling and moving, if maybe 40 or 50 minutes longer than it needed to be. Really, even the parts that should've been cut weren't truly bad; they were just expendable. A great start to my new year in movies.

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