King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson)

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The 1976 version of King Kong actually got a belated and ridiculed sequel, King Kong Lives (1986), but this is a section-by-section review of the second remake from 2005. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

Note: this review is based on the DVD edit of the film, which is around 12 minutes longer than the cinema version.

New York City: Director Carl Denham is about to be shut down by his bosses, so hires an actress, kidnaps his writer and sets sail for a far-off location…
* This film essentially follows the same story as the 1933 original, and is even done as a period film. From the Art Deco credit sequence through the opening montage of Hooverville and Manhattan, the sense of time and place is established very well. In fact, the film’s single biggest strength might be the stunning recreation of 1930s New York. It was filmed on a backlot in New Zealand, but the physical production design and the CGI set extensions are mind-blowing. It’s a totally immersive world. There are rich, bold colours – yellowy yellows, bluey blues – and all the period clichés you could ask for. Depression, prohibition, skyscraper construction… Taxis, pedestrians, Broadway…
* We first see Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) on stage in a failing vaudeville show. This is a nice example of what this adaption is doing compared with 1933. In the original movie, we were just told Ann was an actress; now, we see her in action. This film dramatises its story much better.
* James Newton Howard’s score is terrific throughout, but I mention it here because I love the punchy and jaunty music in this opening New York sequence.
* Meanwhile, Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing it just the right side of comical) is under pressure from his studio execs, who want to cut his funding (another good example of dramatising events rather than just saying things are so). The 1933 Denham felt like a street hustler, whereas this one is clearly informed by Orson Welles: he’s ruthless and arrogant, but undeniably likeable too. (“Goddamn it, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!”) Preston, Denham’s put-upon assistant, is played by Colin Hanks.
* In need of an actress at short notice, Denham mentions people he could ask. They’re all real-life actresses of the 1930s: Jean Harlow (1911-1937), Myrna Loy (1905-1993), Clara Bow (1905-1965), Mae West (1893-1980) and ‘Fay’ – ie, Fay Wray (1907-2004). The gag here is that Fay can’t do Denham’s movie because she’s working for ‘Cooper’ over at RKO – in other words, filming the original King Kong with Merian C Cooper! (In additional self-referentialism, Jean Harlow was considered for the role of Ann Darrow in 1933.)
* It’s noticeable how scenes and even dialogue (“No funny business!”) are being specifically repeated from the original now. The 1933 Kong is Peter Jackson’s favourite movie, and this is pretty much a love letter to it.
* One big change from 1933, however, is that the character of Jack Driscoll has been repurposed. No longer the first officer on a merchant ship, he’s now Denham’s writer. Jack (Adrian Brody) only delivers 15 pages of his script, though, so Denham tricks him into staying on the Venture until after it’s left the dock. Jack then spends *months* sailing to and from an island in the Indian Ocean rather than a couple of minutes swimming ashore.

On board the Venture: Denham has paid for a ship to take him, his actors and his crew to a mysterious island…
* The captain of the Venture has the same name as in 1933 – Englehorn (played by Thomas Kretschmann) – but is now German and has many more featured crewmen. Jamie Bell plays Jimmy, a young boy who reads Heart of Darkness just in case you’re not getting the subtext; Andy Serkis plays the cook, Lumpy; Evan Parke plays first mate Hayes; and Lobo Chan plays a janitor called Choy. These characters are being introduced now so we’ll care when they get killed later on.
* Denham also has new characters with him. In 1933, he was a one-man film crew, but here he has a cameraman called Herb (John Sumner), a sound recordist called Mike (Craig Hall), general dogsbody Preston and an up-his-own-arse actor called Bruce Baxter (John Chandler). There’s a lovely gag where Bruce finds that Jimmy has defaced some of his movie posters, but then comes to like how he looks with a moustache drawn on his face.
* En route to the island, we see Ann and Bruce film a scene for Denham’s movie. As a bit of postmodern tomfoolery, the cheesy dialogue has been lifted from a scene in the 1933 Kong.
* Ann and Jack’s romance begins around this point, and it’s quite sweet. In fact, the whole segment rattles along very enjoyably. There’s lots of fun, especially with Denham driving the story. But the tone turns darker as the Venture sails off the shipping lanes and then stumbles across Skull Island. It’s very spooky stuff – set at night, unlike the previous two films, with lots of fog and moody music.

Skull Island: Denham and his team sneak ashore to film some footage, but encounter natives who kidnap Ann and deliver her to a giant gorilla living in the interior of the island…
* Well, clearly more thought has gone into this native culture than in either 1933 or 1976. These people have a vaguely Cambodian or Polynesian feel to their costumes, and there are skulls and skeletons dotted around the ancient ruins they live in. Initially it seems Skull Island is uninhabited, but then we get some trippy editing and staccato frame jumps. This heralds an attack from the threatening locals. It’s more like a horror movie than anything else: the fun and zip has gone. Then when Ann screams after seeing Mike killed, Kong enters the story – we hear his enormous roar in the 57th minute.
* One thing we don’t get in this version is a scene of the natives sacrificing one of their own before they spot Ann. But once Ann is offered up to Kong, we move into action-movie territory as the men set off to rescue her. (As in the previous films, the island natives oddly vanish from the story at this point. Where do they go?!)
* Kong appears for the first time at the 67-minute mark. After the stop-motion puppet of 1933 and the man-in-a-suit of 1976, this film has a 100-per-cent CG Kong. The character’s performance is driven by actor Andy Serkis using motion-capture technology and it’s a superbly impressive piece of work. He fits into the surroundings very well indeed – and his face carries genuine emotion and empathy.
* We’re into a long section now, which cuts between the men encountering dinosaurs, giant insects and sea monsters, and Ann’s Stockholm-syndrome subplot with Kong. It drags, to be frank: the characters are on Skull Island for nearly half the film and it’s largely dialogue-free. The Ann/Kong scenes seem to never end. But there is also fun to be had, especially in the way Denham keeps shooting his movie even when colleagues are being killed before his lens. The action is generally good too, if a bit cartoony at times (as well as Kong and the monsters, the island is often computer-generated).
* Kong’s fight with a T-Rex contains allusions to the equivalent scene from 1933, while the famous ‘giant insects’ sequence that was cut from the original has been restaged here.
* When Denham loses his film footage, he decides to transport Kong back to New York instead. It takes this gang a lot longer than their 1930s counterparts to subdue the beast!

New York City (again): Carl Denham presents his Broadway show ‘Kong – Eighth Wonder of the World’. But his star attraction breaks free and goes on the rampage…
* After the same kind of audacious jump-cut as in 1933, we’re back in the glorious New York City we saw at the start of the film.
* A change from the original movie sees Ann not involved with Denham’s stage show – instead she’s got a lowly job in a chorus line. Time has passed and things have moved on: Denham’s bosses return from the start of the film, but are now much more kind to him, while Jack and Ann are estranged. It’s a more downbeat section than in 1933, which basically had everyone okay with kidnapping a wild animal for entertainment.
* At the theatre, Denham’s show features music and costumes from the 1933 film: nice touches. Kong then goes crazy because it *isn’t* Ann on stage with him (Denham has hired a stand-in), which is lovely twist on expectation.
* As Kong tears through the city, we get lots of action. There’s no big stunt involving a train (as in 1933 and 1976), but Kong does trash a tram. He calms down once Ann appears on the scene – and there’s then a very silly sequence where the two of them go ice-skating! (Firstly, where has everyone else gone in this moment? Secondly, would a 25-foot-tall gorilla not break the ice on a small lake?) The timing of this section is also difficult to fathom. We go from an evening Broadway show to dawn the next day, but nowhere near enough story seems to happen to justify that time stretch.
* Once Kong has climbed the Empire State Building, the action sequence featuring biplanes is very enjoyable indeed. And, in keeping with this version’s emotional rigour, it’s actually a moving moment when Kong is killed and falls to the ground.
* The 96-year-old Fay Wray was asked to cameo as a bystander who utters the line, “It was beauty killed the beast.” She initially said no, then hinted she might be up for it. But she died on 8 August 2004, a month before filming began.

Review: Unlike a lot of recent blockbusters, this uses CGI in skilful and stylish ways – to create believable creatures and environments that wouldn’t otherwise be filmable. The title character might be the focus, and he is a marvellous creation, but it’s the New York scenes that really wow. They’re so believable you wonder whether time-travel was involved. Super stuff. The script also has a light touch and tells its story briskly and with economy… well, at least until the story gets bogged down with repetitive action on Skull Island. Things really drag at that point, which is a shame. The King Kong template has a slender, simple plot, but this version is *twice as long* as the original. Peter Jackson clearly has an issue with brevity. His Middle Earth movies are enjoyable, but all feature superfluous encounters with elves or talking trees or skin-changers. Here, the terrific work of the film’s first half is nearly scuttled by self-indulgence on Skull Island. But there’s still more than enough good stuff to see us through.

Eight bars of chocolate out of 10

King Kong (1976, John Guillermin)

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A cash-in sequel called Son of Kong followed within a year of the 1933 version of King Kong. The title character then appeared in two Japanese movies – King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967). However, this is a section-by-section review of the big-budget remake produced in 1976. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

Surabaya, Indonesia: An oil company is funding an expedition to an obscure island, but as the ship takes on supplies a palaeontologist called Jack Prescott smuggles himself aboard…
* It’s clear straight away that this remake has decided on some significant changes. For a kick off, it’s contemporary so we’re in the mid-70s rather than the early 30s. We also start in Indonesia, so there’s no New York prologue. And the character who drives the story has been switched from a movie director to a greedy oil executive: Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin). One of his hangers-on is played by René Auberjonois, later the baddie in Police Academy 5 amongst other things.
* The heroic Jack, who’s the lead character in this version of the story, is played by a wild-haired Jeff Bridges.

On board the Petrox Explorer: The team travel to the island, which Wilson explains is uncharted and has never been seen. But a static fog bank and some satellite imagery mean land must be there…
* Prescott sneaks into a briefing and reveals himself with a blaze of information-heavy dialogue. (It reminds you of Quint in the town-meeting scene of Jaws… only not as good.) He suggests the fog bank might be hiding something dangerous, but Wilson just wants him locked up for trespassing.
* On his way to the temporary cell, however, Prescott spots a raft floating in the water. Its only occupant turns out to be an unconscious, beautiful, blonde woman in a flimsy cocktail dress. (Of all the rafts I’ve ever found in the middle of the ocean, not one of them has ever contained this.) The woman turns out to be Dwan (sic – she changed the spelling to be kooky), played by Jessica Lange. Before she wakes up, there’s a bit of comedy business as a crewman considers molesting her. There was a similar gag in Superman: The Movie. The 70s, eh?
* Once awake, Dwan gets over the drowning of all her friends very quickly and is soon flirting with Jack and others. Dwan is the equivalent of Ann Darrow from 1933, of course: both characters are actresses. Meryl Streep was in the running to play Dwan, but the producer didn’t think she was attractive enough. Well, the role could have done with her acting skills. Lange looks lost in the part and – with her confidence knocked by poor reviews – didn’t do another movie for three years. She also gets some tame nudity.
* The antagonism between Prescott and Wilson is kinda dropped around now, because it’s been proved that Jack is who he says he is. He’s given the job of expedition photographer, which means he can be in all the important scenes and play a role in the story.
* The movie is pretty drab around this section. There’s little life to anything, and some rambling line-readings don’t help. Some shots feel like they’re filmed a rehearsal.

Skull Island: Once past the thick fog that surrounds the island, a small team goes ashore. They find a tribe of natives performing a ceremony, then Dwan is kidnapped and given as an offering to a massive ape called Kong…
* There’s such little tension to the story at this point – a real contrast from the 1933 film. The characters are flimsy and dull, and the film’s whole tone is drab. Having said that, John Barry’s incidental music is working overtime to create some mood. It’s big and brassy in Barry’s classic James Bond style.
* Another thing this segment has going for it is the location work. Rather than the LA backlot and beaches of 1933, this King Kong has gone to lush, epic Hawaii. It’s well shot too, making good use of pretty lighting conditions. But the tick in the visual box quickly fades when we get our first matte shot of the island’s huge wall. It’s like something you’d see in a 1960s Star Trek episode.
* A couple of changes from the 1933 film here: oil is found, giving Wilson reason to stay, while the natives make their intentions for Dwan clear as soon as they spot her.
* After Dwan is kidnapped, we get our first sighting of Kong. It’s an actor in a gorilla costume. Now, the Kong in 1933 was demonstrably a stop-motion puppet and no more ‘real’ than someone being filmed on a scale set. But this is close to comical, especially given how Kong walks upright like a man. There’s actually a misjudged joke in the script when someone says, “Who the hell do you think [flattened the jungle]? A guy in an ape suit?” If it’s meant as a wink to the audience it doesn’t work. As well as a guy in an ape suit, a number of other techniques are used to represent the giant beast: a life-size model hand, an animatronic face and some ropey composite shots. But it’s a man in a costume when Kong brawls with an unconvincing giant snake.
* It’s also really noticeable that once Kong appears the film becomes very indoorsy. These are scenes set outdoors but shot on a sound stage, presumably because of the difficulties in filming Kong. There are painted backdrops and echoey footsteps. You wouldn’t say this is the movie’s best sequence, even if it does give Dwan a chance to show more fight than 1933’s Ann Darrow ever did.
* Meanwhile, as Prescott and others risk their lives to try to save Dwan, oilman Wilson relaxes on the beach and gets a massage. Subtle character stuff, there. When he finds out the island’s oil is worthless, Wilson decides to set a trap for Kong as a way of making the trip profitable. It’s very noticeable that the natives have all vanished from the story now.

On board the Petrox Explorer (again): A captured Kong is transported back to America…
* A massive change to the 1933 story here: we actually see the characters’ voyage home. Because the expedition is funded by an oil company rather than a film director, the ship is big enough for Kong to be kept in the cargo hold. Christ, the film’s getting boring now. This section is superfluous.

New York City: Wilson forces Kong to take part in an event to publicise his oil company, but the beast breaks free and goes on the rampage…
* The same basic events from 1933 happen again, but instead of a theatre show we get an open-air exhibition. The train stunt from the original film is restaged with a nice twist: Dwan is on the train. This whole sequence is lengthier than in 1933, though, and less exciting. Prescott and Dwan even have time to hole up in a hotel and flirt some more.
* Of course, one massive change from the original is that Kong no longer climbs up the Empire State Building. Instead it’s the South Tower of the then-new World Trade Center. (Presumably as a deliberate nod to 1933, Dwan mentions the Empire State Building earlier in the movie. It’s also seen briefly.)

Review: Shallow characters, poor performances, naff effects. At times the script feels like it wants to zip along like a Tom Mankiewicz-scripted Bond film, but it just falls flat. The movie feels even longer than its 134 minutes, in fact.

Five coast-to-coast tours out of 10

Next: The 2005 remake…

King Kong (1933, Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack)

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A section-by-section review of the 1933 classic. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

New York City: Film director Carl Denham is about to leave for a distant location to make his new movie. He needs an actress at short notice and finds Ann Darrow destitute on the streets…
* The script for King Kong was rewritten by Ruth Rose after a number of writers had contributed to purple-prose drafts. The directors, one of whom was married to Rose, were pleased with her punchy dialogue and economic storytelling. To modern ears, though, the relentlessly unsubtle exposition takes some getting used to. These opening scenes consist largely of actors barking information at each other. To be fair, this was 1933 and talkies were still new – it would take a while for Hollywood dialogue to calm down.
* Elsewhere, this opening sequence does have a shining light. Fay Wray is pretty, plucky and likeable as down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow. It’s a paper-thin character, but Wray makes her so watchable. (Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow were also considered for the role.)
* Meanwhile, Robert Armstrong is good enough as Carl Denham. His character seems to be a ‘Mary Sue’ for King Kong’s director Merian C Cooper. There are references to a track record for jungle movies and gags about how he’s being forced to include a love story in his new production. Actually, King Kong gets very postmodern on this point. The movie that Denham wants to make – something spectacular, based on a creature audiences haven’t seen before, featuring a pretty leading lady – is basically the film we’re watching in real life.

On board the Venture: Denham, Darrow and the crew of a ship called the Venture set sail for the filming location – an obscure island somewhere west of Sumatra…
* It’s here that a love story heats up – or at least is put on a low simmer. Ann meets and flirts with the ship’s first officer, Jack Driscoll. He’s played rather woodenly by Bruce Cabot (who 38 years later cropped up in Diamonds Are Forever).
* We also meet some of the other crewmembers, including cook Charlie (who moans in Chinese-accented English about having to peel potatoes) and the ship’s pet monkey. But the film doesn’t seem especially interested in anyone other than Denham, Ann and Jack.
* Near the end of this segment, a really nice special-effects shot reveals Skull Island for the first time… There’s a great sense of scale and foreboding here.

Skull Island: Going ashore, the crew encounter natives who live near a massive wall. The tribe soon kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to an enormous ape…
* The island’s tribe is, let’s face it, a fairly racist bit of cinema history. The locals been cast with black actors, which doesn’t make sense for an isolated atoll near Indonesia, and they’re just homogenous extras. Having turned a blind eye to that, we can say that their scenes show off some glorious old-Hollywood grandeur. The set is *huge*, while there are dozens of people on screen. To save money, the wall was actually a set reused from an earlier film and was later seen burning to the ground in Gone With The Wind (1939).
* In the 41st minute, Kong finally enters the story. We hear his roars then he walks out of the forest. This is where special-effects genius Willis O’Brien really starts to earn his money. There’d been some cute rear-projection shots during the Venture voyage – actors performing in front of cinema screens showing pre-filmed footage of an elaborate background – but now the variety of movie tricks shoots through the roof. As Kong snatches Ann and takes her deep into the jungle, Denham, Driscoll and others give chase. It’s an extended action sequence with little dialogue…
* This film is now 83 years old. It’s easy to forget how early it came in cinema history: there’d only been synchronised sound for four years; many of the people who worked on this film were *older than the medium itself*. But this was the Jurassic Park of its day, presenting astonishing special effects that are all the more impressive because they tell story so well. There’s rear-projection, stop-motion animation, matte shots, composites, double-exposures, life-size models, some how-did-they-do-THAT?! moments where Kong and actors interact in the same frame… It takes your breath away, and the fact you know it’s fake doesn’t matter at all.
* This segment also features some shocking deaths: men fall into a deep ravine and we see their bodies hit the floor, while Kong eats and stamps on natives! He also, in one strange scene, tenderly removes Ann’s clothes. Both the carnage and the perviness were cut out by censors when the film was rereleased from 1938 onwards. Thankfully a full version survived and became the default cut again from 1969.
* A scene deleted in post-production saw crewmembers of the Venture eaten alive by large insects and spiders. The directors thought it slowed the pace down. Sadly the footage was then lost.

New York City (again): Denham has captured Kong and is showing him off to an audience in a theatre…
* What a fantastic storytelling shortcut we get at the end of the Skull Island sequence. Denham tells the other survivors that they can make a fortune by taking Kong back to America. Then we cut to the flappers and jazz music of NYC, 1933… and the ape is on a Broadway stage! The fun time-jump masks the issues of how the blinking bejesus they got Kong onto the boat, how he fit into the hold, and what they fed him on for the weeks of sailing to get home.
* At the theatre, there are cute lines of dialogue from various audience members – all are cynical about what they’re about to see and are getting ready to be disappointed. Nothing changes, eh?
* This final act is all about the hubris of Carl Denham. He’s tried to tame Kong and it’s clearly not going to end well. When the creature inevitably breaks loose and goes on the rampage, he mistakes a woman for Ann and snatches her from her bedroom window. When he realises his mistake he drops her to the ground – more cruelty and another scene later cut out by censors. There’s also more very impressive action, including a terrific train crash, then Kong climbs up the then-new Empire State Building. The model work here is ace. After the ape is attacked from the air by biplanes, he falls 1,250 feet to the ground. A crowd gathers round the corpse, and a policeman says the planes got him. Denham disagrees: “It was beauty killed the beast.” (It’s nice of the surrounding people not to correct his grammar.)

Review: It’s easy to see why this was such a sensation. Even now, it’s exciting and gripping and full of scale and ambition. There’s no depth, but it’s a great ride. It must have seemed otherworldly in 1933. Even before the monsters appear there’s a building sense of dread for the opening 40 minutes, which must have worked so well when the reveal would have been more of a surprise. Most of the characters don’t know what they’re going to find on Skull Island, while en route Carl Denham gets Ann to rehearse screaming – clearly he’s hoping she’ll be scared by *something*. This tension is eked out brilliantly. As the characters approach the island dense fog hits the boat and distant drums are heard… Terrific stuff. It must also be said that Max Steiner’s incidental music is tremendous. It was revolutionary too, being the first purpose-written score for a full-length talkie and the first to use themes and motifs. All this good stuff almost makes up for the flat, risible dialogue you’ve been sitting through before the action begins. In short, the film excels when driven by tension or action (the scenes generally directed by Cooper), but is pretty ropey when focusing on actual drama (the stuff overseen by Schoedsack).

Eight chains of chrome steel out of 10

Next: The 1976 remake…