Wednesday, December 28, 2005
It is unarguably a great movie. The acting, story and special effects are seamless and awe inspiring. I could quibble that it is too long. Others have and they have a point. Yes it is melodrama building to refrain from revealing the Big Ape for an hour an a half. It isn’t that the first hour and a half isn’t interesting. I do believe that the entire story arc built in that time could have been built in less to greater effect. This is why I’m a critic and not making movies I’m sure.
There’s an awful lot going on in King Kong. What starts as a treatise on the effects of the Depression on the entertainment industry suddenly morphs into the scariest most thrilling dinosaur movie since Jurassic Park. And the bugs! Don’t even get me started about the horrible giant bugs that will haunt my dreams FOREVER Peter Jackson! You remember the second Indiana Jones movie? You wont after you see King Kong. Piffle are what those bugs are compared to these…a walk in a (somewhat dark, dank and creepy) park.
Before we get to enjoy the island of legitimately scary dinosaurs, we must endure an awkward and embarrassing visit to bone-through-the-nose scary natives land. I’d take some time here to scold about abuse of stereotypes but I’m not sure who exactly Jackson might be stereotyping. It’s like those car insurance ads that make fun of cave men, resulting in an embarrassed company representative attempting to make reparations to angry and organized Neanderthals. Several decades of indoctrination in the school of Political Correctness make me positive I should be offended. I’m just not sure on behalf of whom.
In the interest of addressing this philosophical conundrum, I tried to imagine how you would make King Kong without the morally troubling visit to native sacrifice land, but I can’t think of one. This is why I’m a critic and not making movies I’m sure. It did lead me to wonder about the population of King Kong Island though. Their primary industry appears to be the construction of scaffolding. They clearly have the technology to build a big freaking door which is strong enough to withstand dinosaur and giant ape attack, and of course the Giant Virgin Sacrifice Delivery Lever. So I have to wonder why not put that creative energy to use to invent, say, a boat to take themselves off the island with the dinosaurs and the bugs and the really big monkey that doesn’t seem to care for them?
All of this and we haven’t even met the title character yet. It may take us over an hour before we meet Mr. Kong, but when he arrives he seizes the movie in his big hairy mitts and waltzes away with it. Whatever criticism I may have about the movie let me make it absolutely clear that the ape is a triumph. He is real. I’d like to differentiate here between ‘realistic’ and ‘real’. Realistic still implies some element of unreality. Jackson and Andrew Sirkis have created a living, breathing, feeling character. King Kong is the heart of the movie. He is also, in my opinion, the movie’s Achilles Heel.
King Kong has been remade more than once. Every version has one thing in common. (Warning: spoiler alert) At the end, the gorilla dies. He is wrested from his island, a place where he already had no easy life to begin with, with the dinosaurs and the bugs…did I mention the bugs…and the ape-hating people. He is hauled to a big cold city, put on cruel display, escapes to find the only kind person he has ever known and is hounded to the top of a building where he dies. The main difference in this version is that before he does all of this, or perhaps while he does all of this, I totally fell in love with the big hairy lug. Somewhere around the time they capture him, ending with a long focus on Naomi Watts sobbing her broken heart out, I started to get a really sinking feeling in my stomach. Jackson has taken an early cinematic inspiration for Godzilla movies and turned it into Old Yeller, complete with tears.
It did occur to me that this movie could easily inspire generations of animal rights activists. What Charlotte’s Web did for vegetarians, what Watership Down did for lab animals, King Kong may do for gorilla rights. Go ahead and laugh at my crazy idea, then watch Kong watch the sun set with Naomi Watts. Feel like that trip to the zoo now? 100 years from now, when the Simian Liberation Front elects a gorilla for president, don't say I didn't warn you.
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS ANOTHER PRIDE & PREJUDICE?
People tend to fall into one of two categories: those who love Jane Austin and those who do not. Those who do not are also sometimes known as ‘male’, although that is not completely fair. There are probably women who don’t like Jane Austen too.
If you are in the category of those who do not like or even care one way or t’other about Jane Austen, then it is probable that you will never voluntarily agree to see the current adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, coming soon to a theater near you. In fact, I’ll wager to say that if you are in this category, your eyes glazed over the instant that Jane Austen was mentioned, and you have moved on to the sports section by now.
If you are a fan of Jane Austen then it is probable, if not certain, that you have seen one or more of the following:
- The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, winner of an Academy Award and adapted in part by Aldous Huxley, of all people.
- The 1995 BBC mini-series which set the world aflame with that scene where Colin Firth emerges all drippy wet from the pond on his estate and inspired Helen Fielding to write Briget Jones’s Diary, which was of course later adapted into a film starring Colin Firth (and some other people) and which you probably also saw.
- The 1980 BBC mini-series, also known as the one that doesn’t have Colin Firth.
- That Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice (ever so subtlety called Bride and Prejudice) set in modern day India.
- The spy thriller version (ever so subtlety called Pride and Extreme Prejudice) or that Mormon version of Pride and Prejudice (ever so subtlety called Pride and Prejudice) set in modern day Salt Lake City, or indeed any of the dozen or so other adaptations that have been made between the dawn of cinematography and today.
All of which begs the question, even to a longstanding Austen fan such as myself, why remake Pride and Prejudice? Is there an element of Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s rocky courtship that remains unexamined? Is there an artistic vision of Liza’s spunk, Darcy’s brood that has not yet been acted? I heard that this promised to be a ‘darker, edgier’ version of P&P, which seemed both unnerving and unnecessary. Would Kitty run off to an opium den? Would Mr. Darcy, guns blazing, have to help Mr. Bennett escape from debtors prison? Would sweet Jane become an unwed mother? Of course, Austen did actually write a darker, edgier version of this story. It’s called Sense and Sensibility, which also has been admirably adapted to film, should the director like to update his Netflix list.
Clearly, it was with great trepidation that I went to see this new and improved P&P. (I confess there was no question of me not going.) I had hope. Thus far critics have simply fawned over the film, and have engraved Keira Knightly’s name upon the Oscar already. Metacritic has given it the designation of “Universal Acclaim”. Only the most cynical literature snob would arrive determined to find fault.
The theater was packed with estrogen bearers, from giggling tweens to your grandmother’s bridge club. They all simply loved it. They laughed, they cried, they gasped. The girls in the row ahead of me clutched at each other, almost expiring from the anxiety…would Mr. Darcy kiss Elizabeth? Any film that exposes great literature to girls typically obsessed with …whatever it is that obsesses them (Am I that old already that I have absolutely no idea what that might be?) couldn’t possibly be a bad thing. Only a person truly churlish would deny this.
I guess I need to start looking for a Churls Anonymous meeting. I tried to love it. I really did. Certain aspects of it I did quite like. Judi Dench was grand as Lady Catherine de Bourg, looking like an aristocratic refugee from the court of Madame Pompadour. Matthew MacFadyen grew on me as Mr. Darcy with a quiet performance suggesting that his problem was not just arrogance, but a kind of terminal shyness that comes from spending a lifetime with people who find you tolerable, but really find your money much more interesting.
The film is beautiful with exquisite locations through which the characters can amble. There are the requisite monstrously large trees under which all characters in period British romantic comedy must visit at least once in order to think deep thoughts, have a picnic or make a heartfelt declaration of feeling. There are lots of strategic rainstorms which allow our heroines to look even more dewy than usual, like participants in a modest Edwardian wet t-shirt contest.
I understand that many scenes must be cut from a film adaptation of a book. The choice in this adaptation seemed to excise much of the wit as well.
I got a small sinking feeling in the first scene when Mrs. Bennett is chastising Mr. Bennett about not making an introduction to the new well-to-do bachelors in town. The scene in the book is one of the most charming as well as informative. Mrs. Bennett is fretting in her hysterical fashion that Mr. Bennett must go introduce himself to the newcomers in order for Mrs. Bennett to start her determined matchmaking between the rich new neighbor and one of her daughters. Mr. Bennett tells her that he will gladly send the neighbor a letter explaining that the young man is welcome to marry whichever of the Bennett’s five daughters he chooses, especially perhaps his Lizzie, which irritates Mrs. Bennett even more.
There, in two and one half pages, Jane Austin economically provides the entire story in a nutshell. We see Mrs. Bennett’s desperation at marrying off five girls. We see Mr. Bennett’s practical nature and sly humor that he exercises for amusement upon his dotty wife. We meet the heroine, though we have not yet seen her, and we know exactly where Elizabeth will get her intelligence and her own sly wit.
In the film, all good humor has been excised. Mrs. Bennett nags Mr. Bennett until he caves or hides. No humor. No deliberately yanking his wife’s chain for entertainment value. Just a ‘yes dear’ before he runs off to his study. Despite a fine performance from Donald Sutherland, this Mr. Bennett is a sad sack of a man, obviously caring of his daughters but otherwise henpecked and miserable. In fact, the most entertaining aspect of Sutherland’s performance was, after the film ended overhearing the teeny boppers in front of me saying “oh my god, that was totally the guy from Animal House.”
I hate to think of myself as so obsessed with detail that I can’t understand effectively applied dramatic license, but the key here is ‘effectively applied’. Elizabeth simply would not have asked Mr. Darcy to dance, as they show in the film. Although Austin clearly loved to poke fun at the clergy, none of her ridiculous pastors would ever commit a sermon malapropism involving the word “intercourse”. No Austin hero would ever say, no matter how appropriate the occasion, “First, I have been a complete and utter ass.”
If the film had been more fun, more generally entertaining, I could have forgiven these lapses. If they had been well done, I might not even have noticed them. But I did notice and I confess they made me cranky. But I also accept that Joe Wright didn’t make this film for the Janeites of the world. He made it for the tweens and the grandma bridge clubs. He made an attractive, reasonably interesting romantic comedy/drama that happens to have similarities to a classic novel. In this he succeeded, and I suppose only a churl would deny him that.