King Kong (2005)

It is the midst of the Great Depression and struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is at the end of her rope when the theater she works at unceremoniously closes. Hungry and desperate she attempts to steal and apple but is caught red handed. To her rescue comes filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) who makes the pretty size four a proposition: come with him to the South Seas and star in his latest for fame, fortune and adventure. She finally agrees and takes the first step, aboard the tramp steamer Venture, to her new destiny in Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic, King Kong.”

Laura's Review: A-

Carl Denham (Jack Black, "The School of Rock") is an obsessed director so intent on filming at the exotic and uncharted location of Skull Island, that he hijack's the studio's equipment and theatrical playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, "The Pianist," "The Jacket") and endangers the passengers and crew of the S.S. Venture to get there. Denham himself gives pause when, after crash landing against jagged rocks, they discover murderous natives who attack, killing their sound engineer. But when the islanders capture his new discovery, actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, "Stay," "The Ring Two"), to sacrifice to their god, Denham sets his showman's sights on him instead - the Eighth Wonder of the World, the giant ape known as "King Kong." After the grueling production that produced the box-office shattering "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, one would think writer/director Peter Jackson would have needed a break. Instead he moved his "Rings" team, including his New Zealand based Weta digital effects house, right into one of the biggest effects films ever made. Jackson's childhood obsession, the 1933 "King Kong," was ripe, he thought, for a redo with modern technology. And one has to hand it to the man - even at a 180 minute running time (twice the length of Merian C. Cooper's classic) Jackson's "Kong" is a pulse-racing spectacle that pits one man's heart of darkness against the feral beast's need for beauty. Naomi Watts gives the movie its soul in one of the most impressive examples of acting against a make believe costar ever (Andy Serkis, who did motion control work for Kong similar to the work he did for Gollum, provided an eye-line from a cherry picker). Kong opens with a depression era montage of New York City (after "Cinderella Man," the second time this year that Central Park's Hooverville has been prominently featured in a film) that is an astounding recreation of Manhattan circa 1933. Ann Darrow works in vaudeville, but hasn't been paid for two weeks when her theater is abruptly closed down. Denham, whose size 4 actress has deserted his film after her costumes were completed ('Faye,' we are told, is unavailable), comes to her rescue at a fruit cart where she's been caught stealing an apple. He buys her dinner, but cannot convince her to star in his movie until he mentions socially relevant playwright Driscoll, one of her heroes. When Driscoll only delivers twelve pages of script, Carl keeps him on board until after the ship sets sail, but he's rewarded when he catches sight of Ann. In a clever bit of parallelism, Driscoll's libido is literally caged when he forced to stay below decks, Captain Englehorn's (Thomas Kretschmann, "The Pianist," "Downfall") primary commerce being in exotic animal capture. Skull Island, of course, makes up the central third of the film and it's a vividly imagined and scary place indeed, from the jagged and skull shaped rocks which greet the Venture to its unimaginable inhabitants. Jackson balances his natives, pitch black B-movie creatures with eyes rolled back in their heads like zombies, with the Venture's first mate Hayes (Evan Parke, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), the educated black man who mentors young Jimmy (Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot," "Dear Wendy") on the meanings behind Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The Weta Shop has created creatures both real (Kong's oversized silverback gorilla, T Rexes, brontosauruses) and imagined (the 'Wetasaur' and cartoony, demonic looking bats that are one of the film's few letdowns). As Jack leads the charge to save Ann, losing members of both Denham and Englehorn's crews (while Carl keeps filming 'in tribute' to the fallen, a true megalomaniac), Ann proves as exotic to Kong as he to her. Her feisty spirit, at first trying to escape, then attempting to make the great ape laugh after she spies the familiar behavior of wounded pride, win him over and Kong devotes himself to protecting her. The film's centerpiece, a three part, triple threat to Ann which ends with Ann, Kong and a T Rex suspended in vines over a gaping gorge, is breathtaking and Jackson and Watts really convey the stomach-dropping, bone rattling experience of being transported in the fist of Kong. The sequence ends with the great Kong chloroformed and Jackson giddily skips over any thoughts of the logistics of transferring him to the dilapidated ship. On with the show! The final, Manhattan set third features Kong's familiar rampage after breaking the shackles which bind him to a Times Square stage. Jack, disgusted when his alter ego, the cowardly movie star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler, "Mulholland Falls"), is presented as Kong's defeater, rushes to lure the ape away from midtown, while Ann, who has refused to take part in Kong's exploitation, hears the pandemonium outside and finds the bruised beast, offering him comfort. If a scene of the duo 'skating' as Kong delights in sliding on ice had me suppressing the urge to hum the 'Skating in Central Park' theme from "Love Story," it still possessed its own magic, Kong seeming somehow less anthropomorphized than those marching penguins. And if Ann's scampering about the top of the Empire State Building in heels seems impossible, it is part of Jackson's admirable refusal to break the original's hokey spell. He's making B-movie art here. It is unfortunate that Jack Black was incapable of giving the film's legendary last line - 'It was beauty killed the beast' - any character. Black isn't as miscast as might be expected, it's just that he only plays one note. The obsessive, controlling, compulsive, ranting film director, however, is a note he plays well, his eyes shining and glazed over and blinded to everything but his own silver screened vision. And while the film belongs to the amazing Watts (who should also be checked out in the diametrically opposed indie, "Ellie Parker") and the brilliantly realized Kong, some supporting players stand out. Brody hasn't been as appealing on screen since his Oscar win, even if one does tense for a face suck when Jack first kisses Ann (the actor keeps himself in check) and Colin Hanks ("Orange County") does well by Denham's assistant Preston, the director's unheeded conscience. Tampering with classics is a risky business. Peter Jackson recognized a valid reason for doing so and went for it with film geek gusto. His film is a marvelous entertainment, a great big thumping movie-movie that stands beside, all the while honoring, the greatness of the original.

Robin's Review: B+

Hollywood, since its undeserved high praise for helmer Scott’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” has been on the sword and sandal” bandwagon with such other ancient and medieval-set pics as “Troy,” “Alexander” and “King Arthur.” On the surface, “Kingdom of Heaven” would seem to fall in with the same clichéd crowd. But Kingdom of Heaven” is significantly different from its recent predecessors in that it deals with a time of political, social and religious intolerance that parallels the extremist views permeating the world today. It’s Muslim versus Christian as the fanatical Knights Templar-dominated forces of the newly crowned King Guy (Martin Csokas) oppose the far larger Muslim force led by master strategist Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Guy is the successor to the more reasonable, moderate King Baldwin (Edward Norton in mask, sounding like he’s doing a Marlon Brando impersonation) who died, young, of leprosy before he could secure a lasting peace with the Muslim leader. The subsequent defeat of Guy and his hawkish followers is handled in a style reminiscent of Akira Kurasawa’s Kagemusha,” where the battle proper is not shown, but briefly, and the aftermath of that history-altering conflict reflects the horror and carnage of war. This leaves the real, big action sequence of the battle for Jerusalem as “Kingdom’s” significant moment. The battle is as stylish and energized as Scott’s opener for “Gladiator” where the Romans fight and defeat the barbarian Germanic hordes (the best scene in the movie to me). But, this time around, Scott puts the money shot where it belongs, at the finale, and does it well indeed. Techs are superb with the filmmakers eschewing much (not all) of the CGI work that has gone into making its kindred epics epic. It’s nice to see stuntmen actually doing stunts (an art form that is sorely missing in computer-created action) and huge sets being, in fact, huge elaborate sets. The craftsmanship of the filmmaking process is up there on the screen with production design (Arthur Max), costume (Janty Yates), camera work (John Mathieson) and editing (Dody Dorn). Stunt coordination and fight choreography are first rate. While the veteran team of thespians is unlikely to garner kudos come year’s end, the actors acquit themselves well enough. Orlando Bloom, as everyman turned hero Balian (there is a hero in every on of us), while not great, does a solid job portraying a man who meets his destiny directly and with a cool head. Liam Neeson, as Balian’s illegitimate father, Godfrey, is the best thing in the film though, unfortunately, out of the picture far too soon. Jeremy Irons, as King Baldwin’s strong right hand man, Tiberias, and David Thewlis, as the knights’ spiritual adviser (and warrior), the Hospitaler, give full dimension to their capable, compassionate characters. Ghassan Massoud gives the Muslim viewpoint good shrift with a full-bodied performance as the enlightened, wise and compassionate Saladin. The bad guys, and they are depicted on both sides just to make sure things stay balanced, are most prominent in the guise of Martin Csokas as Guy de Lasagnan, the power hungry and uncompassionate husband to King Baldwin’s beautiful sister Sybilla (Eva Green, The Dreamers).” Guy is the vainglorious type who knows it all and refuses Balian’s good-intentioned advice, courting disaster because of his conceit. Brendan Gleeson, as Guy’s wicked lieutenant, Reynald, chews the scenery and gets his just desserts. Eva Green, the least experienced of the cast, is used effectively in an almost diaphanous way as Balian love interest. William Monahan’s well-crafted script keeps the politico-socio side of things well balanced as Baldwin and Saladin stand for the voices of reason during a turbulent and explosive time. The two leaders moderate stance, with peace and tolerance at its epicenter, is the hopeful side of the story. This parallel to our current world situation is not done in a heavy-handed manner as Scott and company immerse you in their story. That the filmmakers both entertain and provoke thought, rather than mindless displays of carnage more typically used, making “Kingdom of Heaven” a cut above its “peers.” My hope is that “Kingdom of Heaven” gets enough good buzz to give it the shoulders of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.” His latest is a better film with more heart and soul.