****/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis
screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the screenplay by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
directed by Peter Jackson
by Walter Chaw Naomi Watts is absolutely adorable in King Kong. Good thing, too, because she has to convince that with a few vaudeville pratfalls and a strategically-wielded switch she can win the heart of one of the most venerated monsters in movie history. The way Peter Jackson films her suggests that he's found his own muse: she's always set against impossible backlot sunsets, asked to feign love for a fake film before transforming herself--in the same, wonderful shot--into feigning real love for a man in this film when she spots her suitor, playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), author of a play ("Isolation") for which she sees herself as perfect for the melancholy lead. ("You must be the saddest girl in New York." She is.) In a lot of ways, Watts's Ann Darrow is the logical extension of her Betty from Mulholland Drive: both are actresses with hidden elements to their personalities, both are asked to audition for us on an imaginary stage, and both, in the end, find themselves embroiled in a dark romance that ends in show-business betrayal. During the final third of King Kong, once the beast famously has Ann in his clutches while scaling the side of a mighty edifice in the Big Apple, it's fair to be distracted by the rapture on her face--and to wonder if she knows that there's only one eventuality possible to her quiescence.
It's a giant cheeseball of a movie packed chock-a-block with big emotions, big speeches, impossible sacrifices, and faith in the overwhelming power of love and the siren's call of adventure. Peter Jackson's King Kong has John Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on its mind; the last major auteur project so relatively expensive, so veined throughout with mad ambition, so obsessed with poetry and Conrad, was Apocalypse Now, and you can mark more similarities than that in the margins of this improbably personal project, pursued to the point of irony and brought off with unapologetic hubris and unparalleled, self-knowing artistry. With this film, Jackson has three different characters (including, through a learned gesture, the ape--it's just as corny as it sounds, but not as unbearable as you might fear) intone the word "beautiful" as though they were happening in its utterance upon the holy incantation of Keats's ode: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all/Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." For these three characters (Jack, Ann, and the CGI ape Kong (modeled on movements performed by Andy Serkis)), at least, they're playing for the sublime in an unfussy equation--that idea that the only truth is in an ideal of beauty held with white knuckles and teeth and sinew. And, man, is that simplicity, well, beautiful.
Set in that rough 20-year period between the two World Wars concurrent with the dates most commonly ascribed to the Art Deco movement in Architecture (1920-1939), King Kong opens with appropriately Art Deco titles and ends atop the Empire State Building (built in 1931)--that stylized ziggurat which, in the time of the 1933 King Kong, boasted a spire imagined as a dock for a dirigible. In the interim, from Capt. Englehorn's (Thomas Kretschmann) tramp steamer ("Just like ours!" says stowaway-turned-cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell), pointing to the cover of his Heart of Darkness paperback) to the cramped rooms housing director Carl Denham's (Jack Black) cast and crew to the topography of fearsome Skull Island, Jackson has exploded the stylization of Art Deco to encompass every aspect of the production. Depression-era New York in summer and winter is a marvel of imaginative history, for instance. But the real brilliance comes in the creature design, not only of Kong but of the dinosaurs and insects and bats of Skull Island as well. Each a little south of anatomically correct, the animals in the film are made like the jagged starbursts and sunflowers of Art Deco--there's something ineffably designed about their creation. Jackson announces his presence even here in the creature effects; in one fell swoop you have a demonstration of what a film with a completely unifying vision, one meticulously controlled frame-by-frame, actually looks like. King Kong is an antique picture book come to vivid more-life-than-life, and moments where the digital line between ape and Ann seems unconvincing play a lot more to me like homage to the Jackson-revered original.
About that original: early in the picture, Jackson slyly alludes to Fay Wray, who's "unavailable" for Denham's opus because she's shooting something over at RKO. But if King Kong is self-aware, it's self-aware only in the most fruitful, non-snarky kind of way. Jackson never feels superior to the original (a film he's called his favourite)--rather, his references tend to be evocations of the subjects and aesthetics of films shot in the Thirties. Compare how its period authenticity is all of respect as opposed to something like James Cameron's Titanic, which has already become something of a camp classic for its plucky teen heroes and the name-dropping of Freud and "Something" Picasso. Jackson's film is intelligent and mature whatever its thrill-ride instincts. Consider the handling of the natives of Skull Island. Jackson doesn't deviate much from Merian Cooper's depictions from 1933: they're painted as gibbering savages, and it's fair to wonder at the sensitivity of it all until the conclusion at a Broadway theatre to which Denham's brought Kong to serve as the centerpiece of a gaudy stage show--and hired a group of dancers of indiscriminate race to portray the savages. It's one driven, obsessed director channelling another: Denham the showman, never failing, as Jack observes, to hurt the things he loves the most just as Jackson, in resurrecting this beloved talisman from childhood on the gaudiest stage $200 million can buy, is doomed to murder him again.
Denham takes on the Kurtz role as Jackson's alter ego, driven to finish his "jungle adventure" at any cost on an island he tricks the steamer crew to visit based entirely on his faith in a secret map drawn on the back of an oilskin. He's the kind of wild-eyed dreamer who infected a lot of Capra movies only to find at the end that he's trapped in a Pottersville of his own creation. It's possible to mark in Jackson through this character a lot of ironic self-knowledge: he has Denham, the filmmaker, say, "The whole world will pay to see this, we'll make millions," as well as deliver the final expression of "beauty"--this time as a noun, spit out as though it were something stuck in his craw for the whole of the misadventure. For the rest of it, though, there's this sense of delightful lightness. (Even Denham's single-mindedness is played with some levity by a restrained Black.) I thought Jackson was the perfect choice for the Lord of the Rings trilogy because, judging from his film The Frighteners, I believed that he might have been the best person in the world at integrating live-action and computer-generated imagery. If there was a whisper of a doubt then, there won't be after the Tolkien films (which peaked with the first one, but nevertheless) and now the glorious King Kong, which is exciting, nay, stunning, in a way that's never heavy-handed. While he's escalating the action, layering it, piling on elements and unforeseen roadblocks until the screen is delirious with business, Jackson is still folding in visual gags and character moments. King Kong is gloriously uninhibited, fearlessly silly and willing to express itself through grandiloquent statements and breathless pronouncements. At three full hours, I wanted three full hours more. I hadn't felt as exhilaratingly free and goofy in a film since I was an eight-year-old watching Raiders of the Lost Ark through my fingers. They don't really make movies like this anymore; I don't know if they ever did. Originally published: December 14, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Universal presents King Kong on DVD in competing widescreen, fullscreen, and widescreen 2-Disc Special Editions; important to note that all three releases dedicate a single platter to the movie itself. (Also be aware that the Canadian release contains an extra disc for the French DD 5.1 track to spare the 188-minute feature any undue compression.) We received the standalone widescreen version, which renders the film in a beautiful 2.38:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer whose velvety blacks lend the image a chiaroscuro appearance, especially during the New York bookends. The "Universal jaundice" criticism doesn't really apply here even though King Kong's palette leans towards the yellow end of the spectrum, as cinematographer Andrew Lesnie seems to want to evoke the Golden Age in as literal, Godfather Part II a way as possible. In truth, it's as though they peeled the projected image off the silver screen and pasted it onto my television, faint traces of edge-enhancement excepted. Similarly spectacular, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is marred only by the irrepressible curiosity of what the film's Oscar-winning mix would sound like in DTS. Still, once you compensate for the fact that it's been mastered at a volume lower than reference level, it delivers dizzying discrete activity (I'd recommend demo'ing the biplane swarm if it weren't so goddamn sad) and guttural bass, particularly whenever Kong grunts. A 2-minute behind-the-scenes featurette on a tie-in spot for the Volkswagen Toureg--which borrowed King Kong's scenery but apparently none of its production personnel--rounds out the disc. Supposedly a longer cut of the film will debut on the format later this year. Originally published: March 20, 2006.