January 2 we managed to get out to the UltraScreen theatre in Waukesha, which seemed the only place to see Peter Jackson's version of "King Kong." It was a good choice--you can see the monsters almost life-sized. Some reviewers didn't care for the first section which set the context firmly in the Depression, but we did. It was well done, and particulary interesting since it added character elements: Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is an out-of-work Vaudeville "hoofer", establishing the existence of a skill that serves her well later on; Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a bit ahead of his time as an Orson Welles-like "auteur" one jump ahead of his creditors. Indeed, Denham's hairbreath escape from New York aboard the SS Venture echoes some of the tales told about Welles' shoestring filming of "Othello" from 1949-52, and Black manages to allude to Welles' wide-eyed con man sincerity (think, "The Third Man").
The rust-bucket Venture with its exotic crew and questionable past has a fine "Terry and the Pirates" 30's adventure comic strip feel, and the sailing sequence also builds character (the sequence between First Mate Hayes (Evan Parke) and "ship's boy" Jimmy (Jamie Bell) discussing the novel "Heart of Darkness" is nicely done as well as fun for those of us who know what is coming.
Character construction in the early sequences is important, since once the ship arrives at Skull Island, the action is pretty much non-stop, although there are some surprises, as the film crew and ship's company battle the sinister natives, dinosaurs, giant bugs, and, of course, Kong.
While amply nasty, I did not find the Skull Islanders as outlandish as many. I din't really detect orc-like makeup (behavior, yes--), nor were the natives in any way zombie-like, although seeing that in some scenes dancers have their eyes rolled up extatically, I can see where some viewers got that impression. Their shamaness is a wrinkly horror who is a worthy sister to H. Rider Haggard's Gagaool, from "King Solomon's Mines."
In some ways, although spectacular, the Skull Island sequences may be the weakest of what is a very strong film. Skull Island has an improbable adventureland geography that combines "The Lost World" with Wile. E. Coyote's badlands. For example, you can be running down one valley, only to have it crossed by yet another impossibly deep chasm. Kong's lair is the highest point on the island, yet a waterfall picturesquely cascades from its top. And of course, remote and uncharted Skull Island whould have to be the size of Madagascar to sustain herds of dinosaurs--. That said, the scenes are often thrilling, but go on just a bit too long--Kong's battle with the carnosaurs, the "gratutious giant bug scene" as Georgie referred to it, and Kong's brutal capture--were each about two minutes too long for my taste.
Good part: Kong is very fine. Andy "Gollum" Serkis got back into his motion-capture suit and channelled gorilla very well. Unlikely part: Ann Darrow is the toughest woman alive, since Kong's initial gallop through the jungle with her in hand would have undoubtedly caused fatal whiplash in a normal human, not to mention the rest of what she endures.
As for the notorious "erotic subtext," I frankly did not see it. Once Kong has taken Ann to his lair, he treats and holds her more like a pet or perhaps a child than a sex object--understandable since he is the last of his kind and she is small cute "simian." This is quite unlike the much-maligned 1976 version. It also makes Kong's rage when she is stolen away, and his hunt for her in New York quite believable. The escaped Kong has a playful frolic with Ann in Central Park that is as innocent as it is brief. When Ann futilely screams "NO!" at the attacking planes, we can see that she is trying to protect an intelligent, sensitive creature, capable of great gentility.
And capable of great "brutality" as well. The escaping Kong is a terrifying force of nature, and, although we don't see much on screen, his breakout from the theatre and rampage through the streets would have killed hundreds. The reaction of the police and Army are not excessive given what they can see.
The movie is full of both clever design touches and true-to-life bits. For example, rather than the famous SPADS, the planes that bring down Kong are period-approprate Curtiss or Douglas biplanes, which I thought was well done.
The characters were well written and generally well acted. Ann Darrow is a competent heroine, and doesn't spend any more time screaming than absolutly necessary. She's capable of charming Kong on her own and attempting her own escape--not her fault the dinosaurs got in the way. Adrien Brody is a charmingly unlikely hero--in this version, Jack Driscoll is a playwright, and Brody's lanky physique and off-center face are far from the usual chiseled tough guy who gets the girl in the typical Thirties thriller. Thomas Kretschmann is good as the brooding Captain Engelhorn, master of the Venture, and he is well supported by Evan Parke's sensitive Hayes. The only major acting/directing disappointment comes at the very end of the film: in the 1933 version, Carl Denham, as played by Robert Armstrong, is a showman to the last, and delivers the famous line, "T'was Beauty killed the Beast!" full-throated to his audience. Black instead murmurs the elegy, speaking to the fallen Kong. Not, perhaps, and invalid reading, but not, in my opinion, as effective.
Reccomended for fans of the fantastic. WAY too intense for young children, although there is minimal blood, and no sex or bad language I recall.