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Commentary on movies past and present by Steve Vertlieb
Time Changes Everything:
The DVD release of the Collector's Edition extended version of Peter Jackson's King Kong
Nearly two years have passed since Universal released Peter Jackson's much-anticipated remake of King Kong on December 14th, 2005. I was among those both excited and apprehensive about the second remake.
Merian C. Cooper's 1933 masterpiece remains my all-time favorite film. I would guess that I've seen it over two hundred times in the past fifty years. I was fortunate to have known Merian C. Cooper through extensive correspondence for the last eight years of his life, and once spent a wonderful afternoon with Fay Wray at her Century City apartment in Los Angeles.
No other motion picture has continued to mesmerize me the way that King Kong has, and I jealously guard its reverence in my life.
Jackson's King Kong Sourcebook at The Thunder Child
Adrien Brophy, Naomi Watts, Peter Jackson, Jack Black, Andy Serkis
When Dino De Laurentiis produced his 1976 atrocity, I was enraged. I managed to compose a sarcastic diatribe for George Stover's Black Oracle Magazine which I laughingly labeled "Twas Dino Killed The Beast." After that despicable debacle, I had little interest in seeing yet another remake of the fantasy classic--until, that is, it was announced that Peter Jackson would film his own loving tribute to Cooper's masterwork.
Having seen all of the Lord of the Rings, I became convinced that if anyone on the planet could bring Kong convincingly back to the screen, it would be Peter Jackson. His towering reign over modern fantasy films established his reputation as their pre-eminent interpreter. Add to that his stated reverence and respect for the original Kong, and the fact that it was the picture that inspired him to become a director in the first place.
This was going to be a King Kong for the ages, I believed. The fact that the picture was scheduled to premiere the night before my sixtieth birthday added a mystic touch to an already exultant anticipation of the long awaited unveiling.
I suppose, in reality, not even Citizen Kane could have withstood the intensity of expectation surrounding the finality of completion. I walked into the theatre with stars in my eyes, only to exit three hours later deeply angered and insulted by what I regarded as an arrogant betrayal of the faith I had naively placed in Mr. Jackson's integrity. I was actually quite horrified by the inanity of sequences flashing by me in numbing profusion. Jackson, I felt, had taken one of the screen's most colorful, courageous characterizations, and turned it into buffoonish parody befitting the vaudeville theatrics so shabbily re-created in the film's early scenes.
No longer a fearless adventurer, director, and explorer, so enthusiastically patterned after Merian C. Cooper's own heroic persona, Carl Denham (in the person of John Belushi-wannabe Jack Black) had inexplicably been rendered impotent by the calculated degeneracy and burlesque simplicity of Black's exaggerated comedic mediocrity. As if this wasn't bad enough, Jack Driscoll--the hero of the original piece--had been reduced to a joke, a one-dimensional caricature reminiscent of newsman Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore television show.
Peter Jackson's King Kong, the Video Game
I wrote a scathing attack of Jackson's production for a popular science fiction web site, promptly dismissing the entire film as an embarrassment to everyone concerned. After my review appeared, I began receiving a barrage of criticism from long-time friends throughout the country. The thrust of their observations concluded that I had been too hard on the film, unfair in my expectations, and blind to its many charms. Even my own brother telephoned me upon leaving a Los Angeles theatre, raving about the spectacle and commending Jackson's directorial brilliance.
Most of the major film critics, including Roger Ebert, praised its incomparable artistry and imagination. I thought perhaps I'd seen a different film than everyone else. Most of my friends urged me to wait a week or two, then go back to the theatre with a more open mind. Perhaps, now that I knew what was wrong with the film, I might be better prepared to sit back, relax, and enjoy what was right with the picture.
About ten days later I did revisit the film and, in all candor, found that there were enough genuinely impressive set pieces to take the edge off of my resentment. Upon a second viewing, I composed a not entirely enthusiastic retraction of my earlier comments and, while not able to accept the new representations of Denham and Driscoll entirely, found that I had begun to like, if not love, the Jackson production.
When the film found its initial entry to the DVD market, I found myself watching it a third time. To my consternation, I discovered that I was really beginning to like the movie. The Jack Black introduction, which had seemed interminably long upon its first viewing, had inexplicably grown less offensive and even shorter than I had remembered it. By the time the Venture had run aground on Skull Island, the excitement and pacing had increased dramatically and I found myself caught up in the breathtaking grandeur of the animals and visual effects. Some of the original silliness remained in the later New York sequences once the cast and crew had returned for Kong's exhibition on Broadway, though.
King Kong Poster
However, the single element that had always impressed me was the final scene atop the Empire State Building in which the humbled denizen of a prehistoric era meets an excruciating assassination, his body riddled with stinging machine gun pellets, falling from nobility and grace to the littered streets below a stunning Manhattan skyline. Jackson had gotten this right from the outset--a sublime recreation of Kong's final moments of tenderness within the gaze of Ann Darrow at the top of the world.
Upon a fourth viewing, this time on cable, I found myself--somewhat astonishingly--starting to love the film.
Now, Universal has released an extended cut of Jackson's dream film, a three-and-a-half hour restoration which incorporates some breathtaking sequences that should never have been eliminated from the film in the first place. I sat down in my living room a couple of weeks ago, cleared my mind of any misgivings or preconceptions, and watched Jackson's King Kong for the fifth time.
It was in many ways, however, the first time I had seen it. My mind and heart raced back to December 14th, 2005. I turned down the lights and felt the exhilaration I initially felt on opening night when the theatre lights dimmed, and the Universal logo lit up the screen. Among the restored sequences is an exciting homage to the original production in which a malevolent stegosaurus crashes through the jungle brush to attack the intrepid explorers. As they fell the beast with rifle fire and gas bombs, the creature's spiked tail rises and falls thunderously onto the jungle floor for this is, after all, a dinosaur-a prehistoric beast, a paleontological echo from an earlier film.
However, the treasure unearthed by the studio for this handsome, extended edition is unequivocally a lengthy and terrifying sequence in which fanged sea creatures from beneath the depths come flying out of the primordial mist to devour the defenseless sailors on a hastily constructed raft, adrift upon the murky moat. It is a brilliantly realized scene and one of the most dazzling show pieces in the entire film.
The new footage does much to flesh out an already impressive production, offering Kong what it might have subtly lacked in its original inception. In retrospect, Peter Jackson's King Kong is an astonishing achievement, a breathtaking exploration of a world lost and hidden from the beginning of time. The deluxe edition includes a handsome sculpture of the beloved simian climbing his final refuge in the clouds--the majestic Empire State Tower.
While the casting of Jack Black in the pivotal role of Carl Denham remains mystifying, as does the ultimate trashing of Jack Driscoll--whose singular origins and portrayal by Bruce Cabot stand alone as the only major original cast member pointedly excluded from the loving acknowledgements in the final credits--this film grows more profoundly impressive with each successive viewing, and is a powerful and exhilarating re-imagining of a beloved fantasy from filmmaking's own primordial past.
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