The Monk is again at the front of the event movie line as he went to the 11:59 showing of King Kong at his semi-local stadium-seating Loews theater last night/this morning. Sacrificing this much sleep just to give my (handful of) readers a review as soon as possible from someone who's not a movie critic should earn me something other than a hangover . . . but what can I do?
I've never seen the 1930 or 1976 movies, so I had nothing to go by except Peter Jackson himself -- the director who brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen in an excellent adaptation that stayed true to the core of Tolkien's tale. If anyone can handle remaking Kong, Jackson can.
The verdict is simple: Peter Jackson is officially the Michael Jordan of directors. NO OTHER DIRECTOR could have achieved this monumental creation -- a three-hour tale full of action, adventure, fear, love, fellowship, betrayal and poignancy. Is the movie long? Yes. Does it have TONS of special effects? Yes. Is it excessive? No. Here now, the good, the bad and the ugly of King Kong.
The Good: The acting. Jackson's decision to secure A-list quality actress Naomi Watts for the crucial role of Anne Darrow pays off HUGE. Watts' interaction with the immense gorilla is excellent -- indeed, I did not want to leave my seat when the two were on screen together because the development of their relationship and her reactions (from fear to gratitude to friendliness to love) is among the better acting work you will see. Remember -- Watts had to do all this in front of blue screens or Andy Serkis (6-foot tall, not 25+ feet tall) in a literal monkey suit.
Additional kudos to Jack Black, who works the sleazy showman angle nicely without overplaying it; Adrien Brody as Watts' love interest who is smitten by the simple decency of Darrow and overcomes his initial haughtiness as a self-important playwright; Thomas Kretschmann, the German actor who plays the Captain of the tramp steamer Venture and does a fine job balancing his hard-bitten captain persona with a patina of heroic chivalry; and Evan Parke and Jamie Bell (the title character in "Billy Elliot") who put a new twist on the mentor and protege relationship in an homage to the 1930s-1950s templates (the twist = a black mentor for the white protege in 1930s America).
And a special note for Andy Serkis, the career character actor who has donned the movement-capture suit to play both Gollum and Kong. Serkis did a fine job with the Kong movements, and had a memorable cameo in his own right as the irascible ship cook of the Venture.
More good: the effects, naturally. Jackson is simply better than any other director at making his effects seem real, although there were two uncharacteristic hiccups. The Depression-era NYC sets were fantastic; ditto the tribal village on the mysterious island. And another positive that I failed to note in my initial post -- the screenplay. Credit the writers with NOT writing what need not be written. Watts' Darrow barely speaks with Kong, yet they have tremendous communication. Jackson's direction hits its high points here, as does Watts' acting, while concurrently avoiding the usual trope of human speaking to beast, which becomes inane as the actor or actress just ends up talking to him/herself.
Best of all -- KONG. From happy to sad to defiant to angry, the computer effects captured everything and did an extraordinary job. You see his intelligence, his love for Darrow, his concern for her safety, his jealousy, and more. Best of all (although saddest of all), his confusion and despair when he tries to find her in NYC. Great stuff.
The Bad: a short list here. First, audio looping failed to catch about 3 or 4 times when Watts' natural Australian accent slipped out. Second, the Bell-Parke relationship may have been a little extra stretched. Third, Kong doesn't appear until 70 minutes into the movie -- some of the earlier chaff could stand a bit of pruning and a trimming of about five minutes here and there on the Isle of Kong wouldn't hurt. Fourth, and perhaps least important, three hiccups: (a) two shots over the bow of the steamer when caught in a storm look fake; (b) the trolleys in NYC ran on overhead catenary lines (I think) but didn't have any in the movie.
The Ugly: Jackson does a great job of capturing the depravity of man, both during the immediate return to the US after Kong's capture when the great gorilla is made into a Broadway spectacle that a full house cannot pay enough to see, and after the great beast's fall.
Some notes: (1) King Kong, the origina 1930 version, is the movie that spurred Jackson's interest in movies; (2) catch the reference -- at one point showman Carl Denham is looking for a star for his movie because "Maureen" the lead actress had run out and he needs someone who can fit into her size 4 costumes. He runs through actresses with his assistant: Myrna Loy, Mae West and "What about Fay?" "No she's doing a picture for RKO with Cooper." Fay = Fay Wray, Cooper = Merian Cooper and RKO is the studio that put out the original Kong.
Ultimately, the payoff is so huge that the buildup is worth it. Jackson's reputation is etched in granite at this point.