Monday, April 24, 2006

King Kong (2005)

Remakes are a common concept among Hollywood filmmakers. Why think up a new story when you can just take a well-known one and put a new spin on it? The thing is, only a select few lay claim to being equal to or better than its source material. Sure, there are remakes out there that are actually good, but many simply find themselves being halfhearted attempts to cash in on an established property. I'll admit that not every remake can be as entertaining as David Cronenberg's The Fly or John Carpenter's The Thing, but a lot of them are just plain disappointing.

But in an era of mediocre remakes, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson crafted a great one as the follow-up to his epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels. With his Lord of the Rings crew and a new cast of characters in tow, Jackson returned to his home country of New Zealand to craft a film born of the fond memories of his childhood, the remake of one of the most famous monster movies ever produced: King Kong. The second retelling of a story about a beauty and the beast whose heart she stole, Jackson has created a remake worthy of at least a portion of the respect Merian Cooper's original film is given. So let's get to the review, shall we?

We begin in New York City circa 1933. The city is in the grip of the Great Depression, and among the impoverished masses is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). A struggling vaudevillian actress who has grown accustomed to performing shows in front of more empty seats than people, Ann is heartbroken to discover that she's been forced out of her job after the lack of income forces her theater to permanently close its doors.

Desperate to find work, she stops local casting director Charles Weston (David Pittu) on the street and hits him up for a role in an upcoming production written by her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Weston says the role has already been cast, but sympathizing with her misfortune, he gives her the address of another job, suggesting that she only work there long enough to get whatever money she needs.

Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to Carl Denham (Jack Black), an entrepreneurial filmmaker whose penchant for "safari films" isn't exactly winning over his investors. They'd rather him make more profitable romantic movies, or at least include naked jungle girls. When Denham discovers his investors are planning to sell off his latest work as stock footage instead of funding his next movie, he and his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) steal the footage and jump into the first taxi they can.

Once on their way, Denham tells Preston to assemble their crew so they can leave within the hour for their location shoot. But being the bearer of bad news that he is, Preston informs Denham that their leading lady has quit because Preston couldn't bring himself to lie to her about their filming location. And to really narrow things down, any replacement they get will have to be a size four because the wardrobe department has finished all the costumes. Denham rattles off a number of actresses, but all of them are unavailable. He hops out of the taxi and begins a search for a new lead actress, leaving Preston to make sure everything else is in order.

Ann and Denham's paths fortuitously cross paths at a burlesque house, where they both arrive at the same time. Yeah, Weston sent her to a strip club to find work. Real class act, that guy. Denham notices her, and realizing she's the woman he's looking for, he follows her as she dejectedly walks away. The starving Ann soon arrives at a fruit stand and gets herself into trouble when the stand's proprietor catches her stealing an apple, but Denham promptly steps in, holding up a coin to pay for it. He takes her to a café to talk to her, but promptly kills any trust she may have had in him by asking if she's a size four.

This, of course, is precisely the thing you shouldn't as a lady as soon as you meet her. Ann thinks he's looking for a good time and she just isn't that kind of girl. Denham reassures her that he means no harm, only wanting to offer her a role in his movie. As he explains the intended role to her, she shows enough interest to convince Denham that she'd be a perfectly sympathetic star. Unfortunately for him, Ann graciously turns him down, explaining that she's a comedian at heart. Starring in a dramatic picture is out of the question. But when Denham fleetingly mentions that Jack Driscoll is putting the finishing touches on the script, she just can't say no.

They arrive at the docks soon thereafter, where Denham introduces Ann to Preston and their ship's captain, Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). Preston pulls Denham aside and tells him that his investors have sent the police after him for stealing his footage from them, prompting Denham to send Ann on board while urging Captain Englehorn to set sail immediately despite the lack of proper paperwork. Denham rushes aboard to search for a place to hide, bumping into Jack in his cabin to review the script. And much to Denham's chagrin, Denham has only completed the first fifteen pages of the script. But Jack is in a hurry, as he has an appointment with his true love: the theater.

As Jack starts to leave, Denham surprises him by offering $2000 as payment. After getting stalled with a few poorly written checks, Jack heads for the door, choosing to wait until Denham returns to accept his pay. But thanks to Denham's stalling, Jack misses his opportunity to get off the boat before it sets sail, leaving the dock mere moments before the police arrive. He even considers jumping overboard, but hesitates, leaving Denham to quip, "If you truly loved the theater, you would have jumped."

As the ship's voyage gets underway, the ship's first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) leads Jack to the cargo hold, since all of the actual cabins are spoken for. There are cages everywhere, and when ne'er-do-well cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell) accidentally reveals Captain Englehorn's stash of chloroform, Jack learns that their captain is an expert in capturing exotic animals. He pays it no mind, however, and picks out a rather large cage that he'll call home while he finishes the script.

It is during one of Jack's brainstorming sessions with Denham that their fearless leader finally divulges that the ship's true destination is not Singapore, but a mythical uncharted territory named Skull Island. The little snoop that he is, Jimmy hears the whole conversation and relays the news to Hayes. So he's a thief (as evidenced by a scene in which he got caught stealing Jack's fancy fountain pen), a snoop, and a snitch. I'm surprised the other sailors haven't thrown him overboard yet. Hayes confronts Denham about it, recounting a tale of a drifter who had been found out to sea. He told an ominous story of a island with a massive wall, but before he could divulge any more information, he killed himself.

As the ship's voyage progresses, as does the filming of Denham's movie. As production moves forward, Jack finds himself less than impressed with the performance of egotistical star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), who often improvises instead of sticking to the script like asked. However, Jack is vocal in his satisfaction with Ann's performance, and before long, the pair are head over heels for one another. The guy even writes a play for her to star in. Alas, their romantic bliss is cut short when Captain Englehorn alters course after discovering that there's a warrant out for Denham's arrest. Unfortunately, the ship gets caught in an impenetrable fog bank and eventually crashes into a gigantic rock wall off the coast of ― where else ― Skull Island. The ship is stranded, and as the ship's crew tries to remedy this unenviable situation, Denham takes his film crew onto shore.

As they arrive, they quickly learn that "Skull Island" is an appropriate name, because not only is the shore full of rocks that resemble skulls, but a number of very real human skulls line the path that the landing party follows. Denham's party soon lands in a village bordered by an enormous wall, the one alluded to earlier. The village is seemingly deserted, populated only buy skeletons that appear as if they were part of ritual sacrifices. Denham discovers that the town is very much inhabited, but the natives that call Skull Island home aren't exactly thrilled about having visitors. An unlucky member of the landing party finds himself the recipient of a spear through the back as the natives attack, killing more members of the crew while showing a very disturbing interest in Ann.

Captain Englehorn and his sailors finally show up with guns and chase the villagers off, and both the sailors and film crew return to the boat and get ready to leave. But upon nightfall, a native slips on board and kidnaps Ann, who is dragged back to the island and prepared as the newest sacrifice to the creatures that live on the other side of the wall. Tied up and alone, the frightened Ann is even more terrified to discover just what she has been sacrificed to: a 25-foot-tall gorilla named Kong (Andy Serkis, via motion capture technology).

However, the native that kidnapped Ann made the mistake of leaving a necklace behind for Jack to find. He informs the sailors, who immediately drop what they're doing and start a rescue mission. Ann's rescuers arrive at the wall just as the giant ape snatches up his quarry and disappears back into the jungle of which he is king. Jack and a number of armed crewmen venture behind the wall after Ann and Kong, while Denham, Baxter, and some of the film crew tag along with the intention of continuing his movie's production.

Once past the wall, Captain Englehorn gives them twenty-four hours to return before he and the ship leaves for home with or without them. Unfortunately for them, the island's jungle isn't exactly the happiest place on Earth. Thanks to Denham's inherent desire to finish his movie no matter what, he and Baxter accidentally anger a herd of brontosauruses into stampeding. And just their luck, a number of hungry velociraptors get in on the fun too. Once they get to safety (after a few members of the group have been trampled or eaten), they stop to regroup, with Baxter's cowardly ways coming to the surface as he suggests they turn around and assume Ann didn't survive. Driscoll calls him on being a chicken, and takes the rest of the crew to continue the search.

Meanwhile, Ann has survived, and has been brought to Kong's home high atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. Ann pulls out some of her vaudeville act in an attempt to keep him from killing her, which actually does work in amusing him. Kong humorously gets in on the act by knocking her down over and over, but when she yells at him and tells him to stop, Kong throws a temper tantrum and leaves. And smartly, she takes the opportunity to escape. While she runs for her freedom, the rescue party runs into Kong while trying to cross a fallen tree that bridges a crevasse. Not too happy after the argument with Ann, Kong dumps the tree and everyone on it into the ravine. The fall kills most of the crewmen, and the survivors find themselves at the mercy of giant man-eating bugs and maggots.

With only Jack, Denham, and Jimmy left, Baxter and Captain Englehorn come to their rescue. Jack continues his determined search for Ann while the rest of the crew return to the ship, with Denham (whose camera and film were destroyed in the fall down the ravine) deciding that if he can't have his movie, he's going to capture Kong.

While all this is going on, Ann runs afoul of a trio of angry Tyrannosaurus Rexes, but Kong returns in the nick of time. He manages to fight off and kill all three T-Rexes, then puts Ann on his shoulder and walks back to his cliff, where they watch a lovely sunset and she falls asleep in his gigantic paw. It is up on the cliff where Jack finds them, and he and Ann make a break for it while Kong defends himself from a mob of overgrown bats. Kong catches up to them as they run through the jungle, where the remaining crewmen are waiting to spring a trap for Kong. The trap only serves to slow Kong down, and at the last minute, Denham knocks him out by smashing a bottle of chloroform across Kong's forehead. Standing above the unconscious primate, he announces his plans to make Kong a Broadway attraction as "the eighth wonder of the world."

Months later in New York City, Ann has become an anonymous chorus line dancer after refusing large sums of money to assist with Denham's exploitation of Kong, while the lovelorn Jack watches a production of the play he wrote for her. Unable to watch the play without Ann in the lead role, Jack leaves and rushes to another theater, where Denham has succeeded in putting the shackled Kong on display in front of a large audience. The show also features an elaborate stage show featuring actors playing the natives and Bruce Baxter taking all of Jack's glory as "the man who hunted down the mighty Kong." The grand finale of the show features a fake Ann presented before Kong, which, when combined with the annoying popping of the media's camera flashbulbs, only serves to piss the big guy off.

Kong breaks free from his restraints and begins demolishing the theater. But when he recognizes Jack as the man that stole away his beloved, Kong follows Jack into Times Square and runs amok in his frantic search to reclaim Ann. Jack decides to lead him to her, commandeering a taxicab and tearing through the streets of Manhattan with Kong hot on his heels. He finally catches up with Jack, but before he can squash his human foe into a greasy spot on the pavement, Kong sees Ann and calms down. He scoops her up and takes her to Central Park, where they have a brief moment of happiness sliding around on a frozen pond.

Their fun is short-lived, however, as the military breaks it up with gunfire. With Ann in hand, Kong bounces around across the skyscrapers of Manhattan, escaping to the Empire State Building at sunrise. But once again, their happiness is cut short by six Navy biplanes firing at Kong. The story comes to a head in a recreation of one of Hollywood's most legendary scenes, as Kong makes one last stand atop the Empire State Building against the planes that seek to bring him down.

Clocking in at around three hours and seven minutes, King Kong is twice the length of the original film. This is the biggest problem with the movie; it just runs far too long. Even the end credits run long, contributing nearly ten minutes of the movie's total running time. Most directors remove or shorten scenes from their movies to tighten the pacing or keep it at a respectable running time, but it seems as if director Peter Jackson kept nearly everything he shot. There's a deleted scene or two out there (one of which turned up in TV commercials for the movie), but for the most part, I don't really think very much was lost in the editing room. Maybe Jackson forgot that most people would get a little restless if stuck in a theater for three hours. Maybe he didn't want a very big "deleted scenes" feature on the DVD release. I don't know.

A movie this long isn't so bad on home video, because you can hit the pause button and take a potty break, get a snack, or whatever, then come back and pick up where you left off. But in a theater, you're going to be looking at your watch after about two and a half hours, wondering if and when this thing going to end. While I don't have a problem with long movies per se, King Kong has a few moments that are exciting and entertaining at first, but become tedious after a while because they just keep going and going and going like it was the Energizer Bunny.

However, despite the movie being far too long for its own good, Jackson's direction is very good. For a guy that got his start directing gory low-budget horror movies, Jackson certainly knows how to make an epic. In association with the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie, King Kong is a visual tour de force. Jackson utilizes creative camera angles, such as the point-of-view shots from the biplanes, to put the audience right there in the action. However, Jackson overuses slow-motion setups until they become annoying. You might be able to get away with it a few times, but there's a certain point where a line gets crossed. And when Jackson decided to draw out Denham spelling the word "skull," he gleefully hopped right over that line.

The movie's "realism" also came under fire in various reviews around the time of its initial release, but there is a certain suspension of disbelief that should quell some of their complaints. However, I do wonder about one thing. How would Kong be able to jostle poor tiny Ann around as he does without hurting her? As much as she gets thrown around, I'm surprised she didn't end up with a broken neck (or a major case of whiplash, at the very least). But then again, the movie is about a 30-foot gorilla that fights dinosaurs in the South Pacific before fighting planes atop a skyscraper in New York City. So I guess I shouldn't let a crazy little thing like the laws of physics get in the way of having a good time.

The script, penned by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, isn't all that bad. It's a far improvement over the original script from 1933. The characters are much more well-rounded, and it succeeds at telling a better story. Though it uses the 1933 classic as its blueprint, King Kong also draws inspiration from the 1976 remake by developing a delicate, two-way relationship between Kong and the film's female lead. Fay Wray's Ann Darrow was merely a frightened object of Kong's lust, while Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow views Kong as her protector. It seemed to me that if Kong were human, Ann would pick him over Jack any day.

The Ann/Kong relationship is developed through numerous scenes, each marvelous in their own way. From Ann performing a humorous dance routine for Kong and watching a sunset atop a cliff, to their playfully tender moment in Central Park and the sweet sunrise atop the Empire State Building, I found the onscreen chemistry between Naomi Watts and her computer-animated simian friend more likeable and enjoyable than many human couples in romantic movies.

It is not only a testament to Naomi Watts's ability as an actress, as she had to share the screen with someone she couldn't see, but it is a testament to Andy Serkis's ability to convey emotions with simple movements. He doesn't so much play Kong as he does provide the body language for the effects team, but Serkis gives Kong a humanity not seen in the original movie, and it set up the necessary connection that needed to be made between the screen and the viewer. Because if Kong was just another monkey, it wouldn't have been as engaging.

With the exception of the Kong/Ann relationship, perhaps the movie's strongest point is the cast. Of the three lead characters, Naomi Watts is the best of them. Not only is the role very physical and requiring Watts to interact with a cast member who isn't there, but she must also travel a diverse emotional range. From fear to acceptance to caring, Watts hits the nail right on the head with her absolutely wonderful performance.

Adrien Brody does what he can, but the role isn't really a lot. He doesn't get to contribute much, outside of falling in love with Ann, running around the island, getting into a car chase, and riding in an Empire State Building elevator. He's not exactly bad, but Brody isn't given all that much to work with. And in the most unusual instance of casting against type I've seen in a while, Jack Black is quite effective as Carl Denham. I've seen the role described as a cross between Cecil B. DeMille and P.T. Barnum, and I think it's a very fitting description. Black primarily plays the role straight, but there are traces of his comedic personality that shine through on occasion.

While King Kong isn't exactly the best movie of 2005, it's definitely very good. Although it runs far too long and runs the risk of being boring, it proves that in spite of the disappointing remake of Godzilla, movies about old-school gigantic monsters can be good. I doubt Jackson's retelling of the story will overtake the 1933 version in the minds and hearts of moviegoers, but it definitely shows that there are times when remakes can honor the legacy of its unsurpassable source material. It's an entertaining movie if you can forgive the three-hour running time, so fans of movie monsters will find a fun movie to watch..

Final Rating: ****

Sunday, April 2, 2006

King Kong (1976)

Remaking a classic film can be a tricky thing. You not only have to appeal to those that hold the source material dear (and will likely resent the remake no matter what), but try something a little different so the movie doesn't seem like a total rip-off. The idea of remaking movies has meant big business for Hollywood since the late '90s, but they've been around for decades. Even as early as the '50s, filmmakers have long been infatuated with the idea of telling the same story from a different perspective.

But when Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis announced his intentions to remake the legendary monster movie King Kong in 1976, critics immediately jumped all over it. The original King Kong is one of those movies that you just don't mess around with, so the idea of a remake was immediately proclaimed blasphemy. But is it really that bad?

Our story begins at a port in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where an exploratory vessel for the Petrox Oil Company is on an expedition to find a previously undiscovered South Pacific island hidden by a permanent fogbank. Petrox executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) believes the island contains a massive depository of oil, and wants to acquire it before Shell and Exxon have the chance. As Wilson explains the details of the island to the crew, the meeting is interrupted by Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a primate paleontologist that just so happened to stow away as the ship left Surabaya. He warns Wilson's team about going through with their mission, citing ominous messages from previous doomed explorers. Wilson orders Prescott to be locked up, claiming he's really a spy from a rival corporation. However, while being led to the brig, Prescott spots a small life raft in the ocean and convinces the crew to pick it up.

On the raft is a beautiful yet unconscious woman who, upon awakening, introduces herself as Dwan (Jessica Lange). Yes, her name is "Dwan." No, that is not a typo. I'm assuming that whoever came up with that name was either a.) a hippie, b.) an idiot, or c.) had a rather tenuous grasp on the English language. Maybe it was d.) all of the above. In any event, it is revealed that she was an actress aboard a movie producer's yacht when it suddenly exploded, but because she was on deck, she managed to get into a lifeboat. Turns out the only reason she was up on deck was because she didn't want to watch Deep Throat with the rest of the yacht's crew. I wish I was joking, but that's the real reason. Go watch the movie for yourself if you don't believe me.

The voyage continues as planned, and the ship finally arrives at the island. The expedition, with Dwan in tow, head for shore. Despite Wilson's unsupported belief that the island is uninhabited, they discover a primitive tribe of natives living behind a gigantic wall. The natives are in the middle of a ceremony where they plan on sacrificing a girl to their god, Kong. But when their leader (Keny Long) notices them watching, he stops everything and starts giving them grief over it. None of the expedition understands the native language, but they do understand when the tribe's leader proposes to trade six of their women for Dwan. They refuse, and when the tribe makes a move, the expedition gets out of Dodge as fast as their legs can carry them.

Back on the boat, nightfall comes, and the natives stealthily arrive at the ship and kidnap Dwan. They're like ninjas. Nobody even knows they're there until it's too late. They take her back to the island and lash her to an altar as a sacrifice, and from the looks of it, she doesn't really mind. Dwan doesn't even fight back or scream or anything. So anyway, they tie her to this altar thingamajig, and as everybody has probably assumed, we discover that Kong is a fifty-foot-tall ape. Kong picks her up, and she finally screams for help. Yeah, Dwan, that would have been a little more helpful had you done it earlier. But instead of biting her head off or squashing her, Kong just heads back into the jungle. Okay, whatever. Maybe Kong has a soft spot for airhead hippies with stupid names, I don't know.

While the sacrifice takes place, Prescott finds a native's necklace where Dwan had been, and that's when it hits the fan. With Wilson and the team close behind, Prescott returns to the island and breaks up the tribe's party. But alas, Kong has already made off with Dwan. He takes his new trophy wench back to his home in the jungle the following morning, where she promptly calls him a "chauvinist pig-ape" (whatever that's supposed to mean) and tells him to choke on her before she bonks him on the nose.

Kong doesn't like that, so she starts backpedaling and apologizes. She tries to make nice, which leads to the following line of dialogue: "I'm a Libra. What sign are you? I bet you're an Aries." Once again, I wish I was joking. She asked Kong his sign! He's a giant monkey, astrology serves him no purpose. He has people to eat, jungles to conquer. But as lame as it may be, Dwan's flirtatiousness spares her life, as Kong puts her down and makes goo-goo eyes at her. She promptly tries to run away and falls into a mud puddle, so Kong once again picks her up and carries her away. Gentleman that he is, Kong takes the muddy Dwan to a waterfall and gives her a bath. He even blows her dry. And judging by her reaction, hot monkey breath really scratched her itch, if you know what I mean.

Meanwhile, back at Wilson's base in the village, Wilson's assistant Roy (Rene Auberjonois) informs him that there is indeed a large deposit of petroleum on the island. But there's a catch: it'll be another ten thousand years before the oil will be worth anything. Not wanting to go home empty-handed, Wilson calls in reinforcements. Nightfall comes once again, and just as Kong starts putting the moves on Dwan and remove her top, they're attacked by an enormous snake. Prescott finds them, and while a battle between Kong and the snake ensues, they make a run for it. The fight is short, and Kong begins chasing the pair through the jungle. Just as they arrive at the village's giant wall, Kong is bombarded with chloroform and knocked unconscious.

Since he won't be getting any of the oil he so desired, Wilson has come up with another idea to make Petrox millions of dollars. Drawing inspiration from both an offhanded joke made a member of his crew and Exxon's "put a tiger in your tank" advertising campaign, Wilson decides to transport Kong to the United States as a promotional gimmick for Petrox. Confined to a dark, empty compartment aboard an oil tanker, Kong is a miserable wreck until they reach their final destination of New York City. Prescott protests Kong's exploitation, theorizing that losing Kong will cause the entire island to turn to alcoholism because their way of life has changed so drastically. It's funny, because I figured that having an enormous man-eating ape living in my backyard would be a better reason to start hitting the bottle. Getting rid of him would be a good thing, right?

But in any event, Prescott protests, and tries to convince Dwan to avoid involvement herself. But the call of stardom is too tempting for her, and she agrees to do Petrox's "Beauty and the Beast" show with Kong, who is bound in chains and surrounded by an immense cage. Unfortunately, Kong mistakes the throng of reporters surrounding Dwan as attackers, and the extremely pissed off ape goes berserk. He breaks out of his chains and the cage surrounding him, and begins to demolish anything standing in his way.

Kong angrily squashes Wilson and demolishes an above-ground subway train, before leisurely strolling across the East River. He discovers and recaptures Dwan, making his way through the streets of Manhattan towards the World Trade Center. With his betrothed in tow, he climbs atop of the World Trade Center and stares down armed helicopters and men with flame throwers, staging what will be his last stand.

You know that whole stereotype of remakes paling in comparison to their source material? The 1976 iteration of King Kong reinforces that stereotype. The movie is nothing short of mediocre from start to finish. The acting is less than stellar, the script is silly, and the special effects are lackluster. And even the movie's tagline is screwy. The poster up there proclaims the movie to be "the most exciting original motion picture event of all time." Think about that one. I mean really ponder it for a minute. You done? Okay. Now that you've thought about it, I'd like to ask: What kind of moron in Paramount's advertising department decided to promote a remake as an "original motion picture"? Anybody that hasn't been living in a cave for their entire lives has heard of King Kong, so billing a remake as original smacks of absolute idiocy.

So let's go down the list of the really big complaints, shall we? The screenplay written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. is very much a sign of the times. A great big stupid sign of the times. There's the energy crisis, greedy corporations, characters using the "what's your sign" method of flirting. Even that idiotic pet rock fad is referenced in the name of the Petrox Oil Company. The screenplay does retain a basic skeleton similar to the original classic: a group of people discover an colossal simian on an island in the South Pacific and ship him to New York City, only for the ape to go crazy over a pretty blonde woman and climb a relatively new skyscraper (or pair of them, as is the case in the remake).

However, Semple makes numerous artistic changes to the story, some of them for the worse. Instead of the timeless idea of a film crew, the crew is an is an oil company hunting for petroleum reserves, something much more topical as America was still recovering from the oil crisis of 1973. And let's not forget Semple's complete and total omission of the dinosaurs living on Skull Island (which remains nameless in the remake). The various dinosaurs were the coolest part of the original movie, yet the only other wildlife on Skull Island is a very large, very immobile snake. Come on, guys, couldn't you have given us something worth watching on Skull Island?

Semper's dialogue is downright ridiculous as well. Dwan's line "did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?" has to be one of the most absurd (yet oddly brilliant) snippets of movie dialogue I have ever heard. How Jessica Lange could deliver it with a straight face is beyond me. However, I should commend Semple for giving us a sequence that neither Merian Cooper or Peter Jackson attempted to offer. In neither of the other versions do we see how Kong is transferred to his American prison, but this film does.

Semple also develops the romance between his human leads better than the original story did. Ditto for the relationship between Kong and his betrothed. In the original film, Fay Wray existed simply as an object of Kong's lust. She loathed him, and he only kept her around because he thought she was cute. But in this updated version, Kong and Dwan seemingly have a bond. It takes her a while to warm up to him; in the early going, she appears to merely humor Kong's fondness for her in order to keep him calm. But as the movie progresses, and she realizes the depths of Kong's affection, her fear and dislike for him give way to sympathy. She knows that his rampage through Manhattan will lead to his demise, but she tries to save him and weeps when he takes the Nestea Plunge off the World Trade Center.

And then there's those very poor special effects. If Dino de Laurentiis had just waited a couple of years for George Lucas to conquer the world with Star Wars, then the effects could have been salvaged. But alas, what we get is average at best. The special effects won an Academy Award, proving that in the '70s, special effects didn't have to be all that special to garner praise. There apparently wasn't much evolution in the effects field in the forty-three years between the original and this one. The blue-screen shots are very noticeable and distracting (especially in the scene where Dwan punches Kong on the nose), while Kong is very obviously a guy in a costume. Rick Baker, the man in the monkey suit, doesn't even bother to walk or really act like an ape.

And to make things worse, the suit doesn't look all that realistic either. My guess is that the effects department decided that they would eschew any type of sophistication and play it like a Godzilla movie. That's the only excuse I can think of, because the suit looks just as awful as the worst Godzilla costume. There's also a life-size mechanical version of Kong in the movie, which is a great idea in theory. But in execution, it just looks completely fake. Maybe that's why it has only about ten seconds of screen time. And let's not forget Kong's epic brouhaha with the giant snake. Simply put, Kong's battle with the snake has to be the stupidest cinematic fight scene since Bela Lugosi took on a fake octopus in Bride of the Monster.

I should, however, compliment the sweeping musical score arranged by John Barry. It successfully establishes the mood needed for each scene, and I'd rank it as some of the most underrated work on Barry's extensive résumé. Also great is John Guillermin's direction and Richard H. Kline's Oscar-winning cinematography, which give the movie a much-needed epic scope. But Guillermin and Kline's work is nearly rendered ineffective by the lousy art direction at the beginning of the movie. The majority of the jungle sets look like they were leftovers from old episodes of Star Trek. Frankly, they just aren't believable at all.

And finally, there's the cast. You can tell they're all having fun, but that doesn't exactly mean the same for the audience. Jeff Bridges's hippie animal rights activist is a pain in the neck, and not once did I want to root for him. Charles Grodin is fun as an unscrupulous corporate executive, but the character exists solely to look pathetic and be proven wrong every time he says something. But Jessica Lange's performance leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the whole film, Lange just preens for the camera, as if she's silently declaring, "Here I am, world. Check me out. Aren't I just so darn pretty?" She's like the Paris Hilton of the '70s, only not quite as skanky.

Granted, King Kong was her very first movie, but couldn't she have at least tried harder? During the whole sacrifice scene, Lange simply sat there. She didn't scream, she barely moved, and she didn't even bother to open her eyes for most of it. I wouldn't be surprised if she was as high as a kite, because she definitely looked like it. Seriously, if I was being sacrificed to a giant gorilla against my will, I would at least pretend to be a little perturbed.

I must admit that I'm not the least bit surprised that she took a three-year hiatus from Hollywood after making King Kong, as she didn't appear in another film until All That Jazz came out in 1979. If I'd been around in 1976 and had been asked if Jessica Lange would have had a fruitful career in Hollywood based on her performance in King Kong, I'd have probably said no. But she has two Best Actress Oscars (along with four other nominations), so King Kong proves that everyone can improve upon something.

The remake of King Kong wasn't the complete disaster that history has made it out to be. It made a solid 52 million dollars at the domestic box office, which would be a huge 180 million dollars when adjusted for inflation. So King Kong wasn't a financial failure by any means. However, time has not been as kind to the remake as it has been to the original classic. As I said earlier, this movie reinforces the stereotype that most remakes are disappointing attempts to make a buck or two at the expense of a proven name. No, it isn't a bad movie, but it's not a good one either. A film's mediocrity can be forgiven if it is at least charming or entertaining, but King Kong doesn't really fit either of those categories. So for that, I have to give it no more than two stars. I wanted so much more out of the movie, but I just didn't get it.

Final Rating: **