Monday, December 19, 2005

Thoughts on King Kong

It's sometimes painful to see the amount of remakes coming out of Hollywood now (Michael Mann, I love ya, but Miami Vice?), seemingly verifying the notion that creative thought is going down the drain. But in the case of King Kong, I am confident in saying that this is the best remake ever made (remade?). Not necessarily because of the special effects (more on them later), but because of the way Peter Jackson went about remaking his favorite movie. The core story is the same, there are scenes that are literally shot by shot (and sometimes line for line) the same, yet through all the parallels this is still a very different movie that was made the best way possible.

I loved it, but five years from now when I'm flipping through channels and Kiwi Pete's Kong is on TNT and the original Kong is on Turner Classic, I think I would choose the latter. The main reason I prefer the original is how Jackson has tried to make the relationship between Kong and Ann more mutual. In the original, the movie is mainly about Kong being a very lonesome beast who finds some kind of happiness in this strange flax-haired beauty who doesn't run away from him. We never see too much emotion (or anything other than screams) from Ann toward Kong, she's pretty much along for the ride. Jackson tries vainly to show that Ann cares for Kong, with unfortunate results most of the time.

Two scenes in particular illustrate this. As they're escaping the island, Ann tries to stop Denham and Co. from hurting or capturing the ape. Um, a few hours ago you were hanging from the lip of a T-Rex and were nearly eaten by a half dozen jungle creatures, are you really worrying what's going to happen to Kong at this point? Then at the end as the biplanes attack Kong on the Empire State Building, Ann tries to wave off the attackers. Why? What do you plan to do with Kong once they let him live in peace? Jackson never really sells the audience on why Ann would care so much for a 25-foot ape and as a result she often comes off as comically deranged. We can easily see why the beast would love the beauty, but why does the beauty want anything to do with her beast?

What impressed me the most was how much homage Jackson pays to the original Kong. Many scenes are recreated note for note, most surprising of which is the T-Rex battle, which uses the original's climax nearly verbatum. A few others, such as Jack's rescue of Ann and the entire Kong on Broadway sequence, are similarly recreated. In the hands of any other filmmaker, Kong would be throwing the T-Rex into a volcano, but it's a tip of the hat to Jackson who can use the original foundation to create scenes that still mezmerize.

And he is able to mezmerize the audience with the best special effects ever seen on screen. If you think you've been CGI'd to death after seeing any of the Star Wars prequels or even Jackson's Lord of the Ring trilogy, where you never forget you're looking at something digital, Kong will blow you away. Even upclose (which many of the shots are), there's no reason to believe you're not seeing a live 30-foot tall ape. Jackson and Co. must have done exhaustive primate research to make Kong move and act so lifelike. His lips and fur look like you could reach out and touch them, you never get that feeling with the aforementioned movies.

Is it too long? It comes in at 3 hours 7 mins, but I can only think of a few scenes he could have cut. Jackson essentially follows the same structure of the original, but obviously fleshed out the potential of Skull Island with more horrors. Skull Island is a truly terrifying place in 2005. The original natives wore coconut bras, now they're almost as scary as the creatures outside their walls. Jackson's Skull Island also has a welcomed mythical quality, with Mayan-style ruins peppering the landscape (complete with steps leading to Kong's perch). The only part of Skull Island where Jackson may reach too far is the bug pit, which has a scene in it that I think crosses the line and will cause many audience members to look away.

It cost over $200 million, but 'King Kong' lives up to the hype and would have conquered any summer challengers had it been released then. Universal has a license to print money with this film and it should earn Academny nominations for visual effects and sound editing. What I'm looking forward to now is what the DVD will be like, since the LOTR sets were appropriately over the top.

NOTE: The DVD Panache offices will be closed for Christmas vacation next week, but will re-open for business in January

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Kubrick Christmas

Some people watch It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story during the holidays, I watch Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick's last cinema offering before his death, 'Eyes Wide Shut' remains an enigma for film fans, with some hailing it a masterpiece while others condemn it as an uneven disappointment. But no matter what you think of the movie, you have to agree that it is a mysterious visual journey through the most difficult emotion in relationships: jealousy.

I get a dull look most of the times I tell people that this is one of my favorite movies. Like most Kubrick films, it warrants multiple viewings to understand the various themes and visual tricks the master filmmaker is trying to get across. Due to strange circumstances, I saw 'Eyes' on the big screen on three consecutive nights, so I had some time to digest it. I think the biggest problem for 'Eyes' detractors is that although it is set in New York, it is not structured, paced or written like most American films. Kubrick is famously anti-Hollywood and goes against its conventions whenever possible, 'Eyes' is a perfect example. Its structure is both frustrating and fascinating because even at the two hour mark, you really don't have a good idea of what direction it's going: does it turn into a straight mystery with Bill's experience at the mansion or was his two-night odyssey all a dream? Ultimately the most important plot devices happen at the very beginning and end, an atypical structure that can turn off many viewers.

In the beginning, our focus is on Bill (Tom Cruise), but our eyes should instead be turned to Alice (Nicole Kidman), whose character's revealing scene is taking place with her Hungarian suitor at the Christmas party. Alice lets him dance and shmooze with her through several songs, all the time quietly keeping up his hopes that he might have a chance at an affair with her. This is best illustrated when Alice is asked if she would like to go upstairs and see the art collection, to which she responds: 'Maaaaybeeee ...... nottt .... juuuuuusssst ...... yet.' It becomes clear that she is just toying with the emotions of her dance partner, keeping him on the edge of her finger until finally pushing him away. Upon first viewing, this scene may seem trivial, but it is absolutely vital to understanding Kidman's character (more on that later).

Meanwhile, husband Bill is face to face with a conked out hooker shortly after rebuffing the advances of two European models. Both Bill and Alice had the invitation to be unfaithful presented to them on a silver platter, with Alice seemingly energized by the experience while Bill treated it like an everyday occurrence. Alice's encounter with the Hungarian seems to be her motivation for instigating the bedroom battle of the sexes in the next scene. Alice is shocked at Bill's admittance that he is never jealous of her, which leads to Alice's disclosure of her near affair years earlier. This confession destroys Bill's stereotypical view of how women think, and the very idea that his wife could have been unfaithful lights a fire in him.

After Bill leaves the bedroom, he begins a journey to a destination he is unsure of, perhaps with the intentions of testing his own faithfulness. Along the way, every person he meets interacts with him sexually and in most cases stops short of throwing themselves at his feet. While Bill does not accept any of these offers, he comes tantalizingly close (especially with the hooker Domino and later her roommate), and in the end his 'only' crime is lying, which is treated by Kubrick as just as wrong as cheating.

These scenes all set up the final conversation, when we get the idea that Alice's sailor confession may not have been true (and we're unclear if Bill's adventures actually happened), but get the idea that Alice's plan to make her husband jealous and change his stereotypical view of women and sex may have worked too well. In the toy store, Alice experiences the same shocking emotions as Bill did in the bedroom, learning that their whole marriage could have been thrown away in seconds. They resolve to be 'awake' now, since the source of their troubles was mostly their respective imaginations.

What makes 'Eyes' truly a classic for me is the numerous 'winks' Kubrick throws at the viewer both with his lens and in the story. There are a couple of coincidences in 'Eyes' that still puzzle me, intended or not. The first is during Bill's early encounter with the models, they tell him they're going to take him 'where the rainbow ends,' and later Bill ends up at Rainbow Fashions to rent a costume. The second is at Domino's apartment, she refers to Alice on the phone as 'Mrs. Dr. Bill' and later at Victor's house he says that Nick is probably 'at home, banging Mrs. Nick.' I'm not sure what Kubrick is trying to say with these, but it seems like there's more there than just coincidence.

There are numerous visual tricks that Kubrick employs, the most paramount is his lighting. Kubrick was always known as a perfectionist with his lighting, and his lights in 'Eyes' probably deserve a credit alongside Cruse and Kidman. All the light sources in 'Eyes' seem just a little too bright, creating a unique style that reaches a peak at the early Christmas party scene when Cruise and Chris Isaak walk up a flight of stairs flanked by a wall of christmas lights that creates a wondrous contrast with their tuxedos. I can't imagine trying to watch this scene on VHS, or even how much more spectacular it will look in the next generation of DVD. Kubrick continues this over the top lighting technique throughout the running time, paying particular attention to having colored Christmas lights (and Christmas trees) in almost every scene.

The other visual trick Kubrick uses is the blue light that permeates through every window at night. This is first made apparent in the early bedroom fight, when Alice is in the doorway to another room, which is entirely bathed in blue light. This blue light could probably be explained in the city scenes, but where does it come from at the mansion? Kubrick could be trying to use blue (typically a color associated with sex) to illustrate the sins that await Bill and Alice outside their bedroom.

But I couldn't talk about 'Eyes' without discussing my favorite scene in it, which ranks among my favorite scenes of all-time. When Bill is at the mansion party, he is summoned downstairs, for a few seconds we see only see Bill staring at what awaits him on the main floor. Even before we are allowed to see what has startled him, the viewer is startled by a single piano note, which is the first note of the film's score played thus far (and this is roughly an hour and a half into the movie). The abrasive piano theme perfectly echoes the horrific scene Bill is seeing: the entire masked party waiting for him to be unmasked. Our first glimpse of the gathering of masked party guests staring at Bill (as well as the subsequent montage of masks) is a startling shot that conveys the fear Bill is feeling.

NOTES: At the 1:21:14 mark, a masked party guest walks into the room where Bill is with a girl at his side, the next shot shows her walking up to talk to Bill but if you look closely you can see that this is a different actress than the previous shot; it's been said before that the reason Bill was busted at the party was because he was wearing a blue cloak instead of a black one, I don't buy it: when he enters into the inner circle after being called out, you can see that it's more of an effect of the blue light hitting Bill's cloak because some of the guests behind him also appear to be wearing blue; Clues that Bill's nights could have been dreams: both nights he greets Alice just as she is waking up and the aforementioned coincidences (especially the rainbow reference) could be Bill dreaming about things that were said to him earlier.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The View From the Cheap Seats

So I don't get out to see new movies probably as much as I should, but on Saturday I was able to ingest two of this year's best that have long-overdue viewings for me: all for only $6. Yup, I went to the cheap theater to see A History of Violence, then as I walked out to my car, I realized that for another mere $3, I could see Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Yes, you've probably already read reviews of these two long ago, but if you stick through my takes on them, I might even throw in a couple bonus reviews.

A History of Violence
The title of this wonderful film could easily apply to its director, David Cronenberg, whose work usually features grosser than you'd expect gore and frequently contains visions of flesh being transformed and manipulated to show what a person is truly made of (see Videodrome, eXistenZ, The Fly). But while those movies deal with excruciating changes and transformations, it's a little refreshing that the central theme of A History of Violence is that people do not change, no matter how hard they try.

Cronenberg isn't trying to say much with 'Violence,' which is why it may feel a little too simple and inconsequential to some. I think its perfect that way, Cronenberg takes an old fashioned approach to his movie, using a pacing and story typically found in 1940s detective noirs (Out of the Past is the most obvious parrallel).

'Violence' introduces us to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who has been trying his best for the past 20 years to be an ordinary guy, to forget his violent past. He owns a diner in a sleepy Indiana town and loves his wife and kids. But one night changes everything when his diner is held up by a couple of thugs. One of them utters a line that foreshadows an upcoming shot, when he shouts: 'Show them we mean business!' Before one of the thugs can assault a female employee, Tom quickly shoots and kills both of them. Before we leave the diner scene, we get a quick and biting shot of the thug Tom shot in the head, we see his fractured skull and how he's struggling through his last few breaths. It's a startling shot, but to me this is Cronenberg showing the audience 'he means business.'

Tom is soon visited by three men he pretends not to know, they are from his old gang in Philadelphia, they insist on calling him 'Joey' and ask why he hasn't talked to his brother for so long. The three (led by a brilliant Ed Harris) pester Tom's family before finally threatening to hurt them lest Tom returns to Philly. Tom can't keep up the charade any longer, and eventually heads to Philadelphia to confront his past.

Cronenberg never lets the audience doubt that Joey was once a very real, and violent criminal, but it's also realistic that Tom wants to leave Joey behind forever, no matter how many people he has to kill. I loved how Tom's killings in this movie are unflinchingly brutal and masterful. Joey may have changed his name to Tom and moved to the country, but he never forgot how to kill people.

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit
June 1997, I'm in the middle of a way too long Aer Lingus flight to Ireland, sitting in the very middle of the claustrophobic middle aisle of a 747. The only thing that saved me from pulling the 'eject' button on my seat was a mid-flight showing of some shorts featuring these curious characters named Wallace and Gromit. The shorts (especially The Wrong Trousers) had some of the best animated action scenes I had ever seen, the fact that it was in claymation made it even more amazing.

W&G has been popular in the U.S. for a number of years, but it would take a movie like this to really unleash it on the masses. Years in devleopment, Curse of the Were-Rabbit not only one-ups itself in the action department, but also contains enough puns to make Carrot Top keel over (wishful thinking). I think it's one of the top 5 movies of the year and one of the best family movies in years, so why didn't it 'only' gross $55 million domestically? I really think it was a mistake to release it at Halloween, because it's pretty far from a scary or even a monster movie, and Halloween releases typically don't make much. W&G should have been released a week before Thanksgiving, put head-to-head with the other family movies that fight for audiences during the holiday.

It's really that good. I was in a theater full of kids and found myself probably laughing more than any of the tikes I was surrounded by. What enhances its value is that kids today are so spoiled on the Pixar-type animated movies that its a treat to see pantheon-level clay work. Steve Park and Nick Box could have easily used CGI for some of the scenes, but thankfully didn't (it's used tactfully in one scene, but you can barely notice).

Bonus review: Rio Bravo
I had heard alot about this epic Howard Hawks-John Wayne collaboration, specifically how it was one of the best siege movies, in the same league in the genre as Zulu and The 300 Spartans. So because of this, I had the mindset going in that it was going to be non-stop action like those two, and it most certainly is not. I wouldn't even classify Rio Bravo as a siege movie, even in the Western siege subgenre that includes High Noon, rather I'd just call it my favorite traditional western (which excludes the likes of Peckinpah and Leone) period.

'Rio Bravo' is one of the few movies I've found myself liking more and more as I continue to look back on it. This could be due to its deliberate-as-mollasses pace, which will turn off anyone looking for quick action. Though it is slow going for most of the movie, 'Rio Bravo' is very hard not to like. You have Wayne being The Duke, Dean Martin being a (what else?) drunk gunfighter and of course Walter Brennan having free-rein to be the sass-mouth rube deputy with half a leg that only he can play.

The trio of Wayne, Martin and Brennan is pure gold, and they're a small Texas town's only hope to keep a rich rancher and his henchmen from tearing the place apart to spring his brother from jail. It's been said before, but Hawks went about to make an anti-High Noon and bloody well succeeded. Whereas Gary Cooper goes looking for help in every tavern and church to brace for the arrival of Frank, Wayne refuses to enlist help from the town and makes do with what he has (for the most part). From its infamous dialogue-free opening to shootout ending, 'Rio Bravo' is a relic of a western masterpiece that deserves patience and praise.

Super Quick Bonus Review: Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story
Finally saw this one and was very impressed. As big a fan as I am of 'Family Guy,' the one problem I have with it is its inconsistency, the jokes are either fall on the floor funny or a shake your head miss. I thought this would be exacerbated in the movie, but that is not the case, as it has some of the best writing of the whole series.

Though it doesn't have the feel of a full-length movie (it's pretty much three episodes, and it even has writing credits for three 'parts'), 'Stewie' will probably exceed any 'Family Guy' fan's expectations, and the 'Ferris Bueller' parody at the end is worth the price of admission alone.