Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Peter Jackson's truly great ape

What kind of pull did Peter Jackson have after turning J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy into an international box-office sensation? Enough to make what is at its core a $200 million midnight movie.

His take on "King Kong" is a goofy love story about a very beautiful woman and a very big ape. And an often very glorious one at that.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it starts out in Depression-era NYC. How do we know it's the Depression? Not because, like in "Seabiscuit" and many other earnest, well-meaning flicks, a narrator tells us so, but because we see it vividly with our own eyes. Jackson couldn't have re-created it any better if he had spent his huge stash of cash on a time machine.

In rapid succession we meet Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow, a struggling Vaudeville actress who has just lost her performance space, and Jack Black's Carl Denham, a more-than-slightly malevolent huckster who also happens to make movies.

Jackson is a master at the calm before the storm, and the care he takes in building these early scenes is reminiscent of the opening scenes of "Fellowship of the Ring" in the Shire, still my favorite part of the "Rings" trilogy.

The story lags a bit as we meet the crew who have been hoodwinked into transporting Denham, his starlet and the screenwriter he abducts for the voyage, an entirely out of place Adrien Brody, to Skull Island.

We have to wait awhile for the big payback, but when it comes, it's gigantic. Jackson's take on Skull Island, home to Kong and many other creepy creatures, takes cues from "Apocalypse Now" and "Jurassic Park" and melds them into something you've never seen before.

Jackson stretches the limits of his PG-13 rating even before we get to see Kong. The natives are enough to terrify anyone regardless of age. Like Steven Spielberg, Jackson has become a master at building suspense, so that even when you know what's coming, you'll still almost jump out of your seat.

I won't reveal everything you'll see on Skull Island, but here's a taste: Terrifying T-Rex's, spine-tingling spiders and a dinosaur stampede that will make you forget all about "Jurassic Park." I won't tell you how, but at one point, Naomi Watts ends up dangling from the tooth of a T-Rex. Wild, weird and wonderful.

The action on the island is almost non-stop, with small gaps between the set pieces, just enough to catch your breath, or, as in the audience I saw it with, let out some nervous laughter. Unlike the monotonous car chases and explosions that populate most "action" movies, these scenes are so unique that they keep you riveted the entire time.

And then, of course, there's Kong. It's what CGI technology was made for, to create fantastic creatures that, if you let yourself believe, look entirely real.

Jackson's Kong is clearly king of Skull Island, but you can see it hasn't been an easy reign. Kong is old, scratched-up and weary. He's still a brutal monster, of course, but an almost human one at moments. It's a true accomplishment for WETA, the special effects company that has worked with Jackson since "The Frighteners," his first dabble into big-budget territory.

Watts does a solid job of selling the preposterous idea that she cares for the great ape. And no cracks about monkey love are necessary here. It's more an understanding of Kong's plight that you see in her eyes, and she makes you believe in it.

As Kong is finally brought to NYC and put on display, Jackson wisely wraps things up quickly. If I hadn't already known going in, I never would have guessed the movie was three hours long. It's a brisk ride that rarely takes its foot off the gas.

In one truly odd scene near the end, Kong and Watts glide as gracefully as an ape can across a frozen pond in Central Park. It's unsettling to watch at best, but captures Kong's quest for beauty in one perfect moment.

It's a little strange that Jackson chose to make Carl Denham, the moviemaker within the movie, more of a con man than in the 1933 original "King Kong." But you get the sense that Jackson is more than a bit of a shyster himself. He had to be laughing as he created one of the best B-movies of all time, albeit with an A-plus budget.

Is it flawless? No way. It's far too ambitious to be. But it is by far the most fun I've had at the movies this year.


Iowa Film Nerd said...

I couldn't of put it better, I think I tried when I wrote a review for my small liberal arts college newspaper. Well done, I am glad that someone else loved this movie after all.

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