Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My Review of King Kong

King Kong is hands down my favorite movie this year. After having treated the world to his filmmaking prowess with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson has demonstrated that he is very much here to stay.

Just about everyone knows the story of King Kong in the same way that everyone knows the story of Superman; a giant gorilla found on an island who...well, let's allow the three people on the planet who don't know King Kong's story some measure of suspense as to what happens in the story.

This movie presents no significant variations to the basic story, but what it does give us are incredibly fleshed out characters, including the eponymous ape. Without a word of dialogue, Peter Jackson has created a character who makes us cringe, laugh and cry in rapid succession. The most amazing thing about Kong is that at no point, and I mean no point does he look even remotely digital. Digital creatures are too often betrayed by their slickness, by their impossible symmetry. It's Kong's imperfections and awkwardness that give him flesh, that made me wonder if any point in the film, like maybe for the closeups, the filmmakers used latex and foam instead of CGI to depict Kong. I don't believe they ever did (though I could be wrong on that score).

Another skill that Peter Jackson displayed with the LOTR trilogy which sets him apart from the epic filmmakers who came before him like George Lucas and James Cameron is his ability to mine richly nuanced and textured performances from his stars. He is every inch their match, pixel for pixel, in the F/X department, but they simply cannot touch him when it comes to commanding powerful performances from the most unlikely actors (Steven Spielberg is exempt from such a comparison, having coaxed a number of brilliant performances from actors such as Liam Neeson and Tom Hanks, among others). The skill remains evident in this film.

Naomi Watts is pitch perfect as Ann Darrow. Though there are admittedly a number of skilled enough actresses out there, there is simply no one who could have pulled it off with that incredible mixture of innocence and sadness with which she imbued her character. What amazed me most about her portrayal was that, after so many roles as a mom, or a wife, and despite being 36 years old at the time of filming, she was able to play a frustrated young actress with the most amazing...freshness. Maybe some of the credit goes to the cinematographer, but it wouldn't have worked if Watts hadn't played her the way she did. You can only cheat so much, after all.

Jack Black was probably one of the more eyebrow-raising choices Jackson had to deal with when he cast the film, and the qualities that have annoyed some viewers and have pleased others are quite evident in his Carl Denham, but ultimately, the gambit works. One might say that Phillip Seymour Hoffman could have pulled off the role, but there is one thing that Black has over anyone else who might have been considered for the part, and it can be described perfectly in two words: MANIC ENERGY. His Denham is an asshole, a huckster, a fiend, but I could never bring myself to hate him because he believes too strongly in what he's doing to be all bad.

Oscar winner Adrien Brody is a good choice as Jack Driscoll, but his role is not exactly a meaty one, given that he's basically the straight-up leading man with his heart in the right place and with very little in the way of distinctive character quirks. Still, to paraphrase Driscoll himself, Brody makes it his own. Well, if nothing else, he knows how to act scared, even considering King Kong isn'et real. The problem isn't his acting at all; he just isn't given much to do but be a hero. If Universal ever ponies up money for a Hulk sequel (which I don't suppose is likely) I would LOVE to see this guy replace Eric Bana as Bruce Banner (just as I'd love to see Peter Jackson replace Ang Lee, but that's for another post altogether).

The rest of the cast is a bit uneven, though. In the case of Thomas Kretschmann (The Pianist) as Englehorn, I couldn't figure out if Jackson really wanted a guy who talked like Ah-nuld Shwarzenegger or if Kretschmann just couldn't get rid of his accent. His acting was otherwise okay, though. Although he was a tad cartoony, Andy Serkis provided us with some lovely comic relief as Lumpy the cook.

Two characters, however, irked me, both because of the way they were written and the way they were portrayed. These were Mr. Hayes, the ship's first mate played by Evan Parke, and Jimmy, the stowaway turned crew member played by the kid everyone remembers as Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell.

(spoiler alert)

First off, Parke isn't really that good an actor. You don't really get a sense of his purpose in the film, and he never elevates Mr. Hayes past the level of the black dude who gets wasted by the monster. Even before his fate in the film is ultimately revealed you never form enough of an attachment to him to really care what happens to him. He really feels like a throwaway character, and you can't help but blame both the script and the actor for this waste of running time. One wonders why on earth they spent as many minutes as they did developing the dynamic between him and Jimmy, considering the film clocks in at 187 minutes. THAT'S footage they could have cut out, really.

Second, and more annoyingly, the character of Jimmy, while adequately played by Bell (who adopts a fairly convicing American accent), feels like an unfulfilled promise. When Jimmy is first introduced, Hayes talks about his origin, describing him as "wilder than the animals in here" referring to the wild animals often shipped on the tramp steamer the characters ride to Skull Island. One gets the impression that Jimmy has been to Skull Island, and would either be terrified of it, or a useful guide when they're actually there. The film lives up to neither promise, and it's as annoying as hell. That's all, really.

Another real problem with this movie, however, is that from a narrative perspective, there are a number of things wrong with it that can make the requisite suspension of disbelief a little difficult at times.

(spoiler alert)

First and foremost is the wall that the savage natives of Skull Island have built to keep Kong trapped in his even more savage jungle. It's a hundred-foot structure made of stone. It's not topped with spikes or poison or anything. And yet, we're supposed to believe that it's able to keep out a twenty-five foot gorilla who can climb the goddamned EMPIRE STATE BUILDING with one hand holding Ann Darrow. And considering they don't want Kong to get it, why the hell would they put a wooden door right smack in front of their village?

Another absurdity surfaced a little later, when we're enjoying the beauty and danger of the Skull Island jungle, we notice a number of ruined temples, evidence that once upon a time people attempted to settle there. This is, in a word, ridiculous. We have an island populated by several (at one point) giant gorillas, more than one species of carnivorous dinosaur, and Shelob/Starship Troopers-sized BUGS, and yet...we're supposed to believe that everyday human beings WITHOUT machinegunes were able to erect magnificent temples and hew flights of stairs out of mountainsides hundreds of feet high BEFORE these various monstrosities pushed them to the fringes of the island. Preposterous, really.

Then, of course, there are all the usually convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas that are usually present in big films filled with peril. And Englehorn is used a little too often to bail out Denham and his crew.

In the original 1933 film, it would have been easier to overlook such narrative silliness. It was a simpler time, and filmmaking was a lot less sophisticated. Nowadays, such inconsistencies look sloppy, especially from Jackson, whose meticulousness made the LOTR films modern classics. Rather than obsessively blow the film up into a three-hour running time to cram everything he wanted into it that wasn't in the 1933 film, he should have spent more energy trying to make sure that everything that went into the storytelling made sense and was germane to his narrative vision.

Considering everything that's wrong with it, it's a wonder how I was even able to enjoy this film.

But enjoy it I did. The highlight, of course was the throwdown between Kong and what looked like three crossbred T-Rex/Crocodiles. Since Jurassic Park I'd been itching to see a T-Rex get its ass kicked by another creature, and after twelve long years, Peter Jackson has scratched that itch for me.

Also, because of Naomi Watts' tenderness, and WETA's unbelievably detailed rendering of Kong, the love story between them is utterly convincing and ultimately heartbreaking. This is the love story Titanic wishes it was. Without a word of dialogue, the gorilla made me feel more for his plight than Leonardo DiCaprio ever did spouting out three hours of James Cameron's putrid script.

Furthermore, while there's no denying that Titanic was, admittedly, at the time the pinnacle of digital magic, King Kong is, for all its flaws, pure moviemaking magic.

Why I Will Never Buy a Pirated DVD...and Why I Hope Piracy Never Goes Away

I know that even if I had never been born, Spider-Mans 1 and 2 would still have been the massive, record-breaking box office smashes that they were. So would the LOTR trilogy and just about every blockbuster one could think of. I know, therefore, that mathematically, it would not make a difference to the directors, producers, writer, stars and crew of these films if I were to go out and buy pirated DVDs of their product.

But that's not why I won't buy pirated DVDs.

You see, as a film buff, one thing I like almost as much as a good film is the thought that I am rewarding, with however paltry a sum, the filmmakers who have presented me with such fine entertainment. I like that I am letting them know, with my hard-earned pesos, how much I believe in their product, how much I the experience of watching their movies has meant to me. I feel that I am letting them know that I appreciate the time, money, sweat and love they invested in these works of art. The money I spend on a movie ticket, or even on a DVD is kind of like my love letter to these filmmakers, whether or not they care to receive it.

The truth of the matter is that buying pirated DVDs is the diametric opposite of appreciating them. To me, it's like saying "I like your movie, but not enough to pay to see it. I'd rather just give my money to some unscrupulous Taiwanese or Malaysian asshole who did nothing more than click his mouse a few times to get your movie and burn it." Just imagine if EVERYONE thought like that. What if EVERYONE was like that little shit who tried to sneak a digital camera into Spider-Man 2 during one of its initial American screenings? What if EVERYONE figured that "they'll make money anyway from all the people who pay to see their movie in the US?" It doesn't take much of a genius to guess what'll happen next.

2005 saw a downswing in movie ticket sales, at least in the US. The last three years have seen downtrends in movie attendance. In short, movies are becoming riskier to produce, and while it's a distinct possibility that people simply want better films than the stuff Hollywood is currently putting out, it cannot help that people prefer to watch stuff on their home entertainment systems than trek to a local multiplex. Imagine if all that people watched were pirated DVDs.

That said, I hope piracy sticks around.

My wife hypothesized that the reason why movie companies and their distributors price real DVDs so prohibitively is their adherence to the "diamond theory." That is, if you put a high price on a product, you create the impression of "exclusivity" of your product, and theoretically a desire for it. There could be something to that, but there's no denying that the primary motivator is greed.

Why should I pay $15 for a product that only costs about $1 to make? So Tom Cruise can make his back-end profits and buy Katie Holmes her very own delivery room? The hell with that. As long as these dipshits in the industry don't feel the burn of lost profits to sales of pirated DVDs, they will price their products however the hell they want. And no one will be able to do anything about it. It's like they'll be able to hold our home entertainment hostage for exorbitant prices.

Piracy is the equalizer.

In the last several months, video piracy has helped drive DVD prices down. Significantly. I remember how, when it first came out sometime last year, the US-made Lord of the Rings: Return of the King DVD was priced at P1,300. When the distributors had a hard time selling it at that price, they knocked it down to P899, where it remains still. This notwithstanding, several copies are still gathering dust on shelves. Why? Because people aren't really interested in paying 900 for something they already have on bootleg DVDs.

So recently, the distributor of the LOTR movies, C-Interactive, released a boxed set of all three movies for P1200, including the aforementioned US made DVD. That's an average of P400 a movie, all of which are two-disc deals with all the trimmings. This is opposed to the P1300 that the pricks originally had the temerity to charge us. Chalk one up for the consumer!

In short, while personally, I'm really not interested in giving pirates any business because I'd really much rather let my favorite filmmakers how much I liked their work, I'm glad that their are people around to keep these people in check, lest they shaft me and my fellow consumers with impunity.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

My First Term as a Teacher

As of ten thirty this morning I finished checking the last of my students' take-home exams. The experience was oddly cathartic, but more than that I feel immensely relieved that it's over.

Teaching for the last three months at De La Salle University has been rewarding in more ways than one. It's helped me develop aspects of myself that I never even knew were there before. And it helped me get over my fear of ever setting foot in La Salle again (after the bar).

I don't know if it's something I'll get to do again any time soon. For one thing, I won't have any load from DLSU next sem so I guess I'll have to spend the next six months at my day job, and whenever possible honing my skills for a possible second crack at the noblest profession.

As enjoyable as it was, however, I do confess that it was a bit of a nail-biting experience at times. You see, La Salle kids are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for, and more often than not they were (almost) able to put me on the spot. It was actually one of my fears that at some point the students would realize what a fraud I was, and how little I knew at that given moment. Suffice it to say, to cure myself of this early phobia I studied harder than I ever had in my life (with the exception, of course, of the bar). God, teachers have to study even freaking harder than students.

There has, however, been payoff, other than the obvious paycheck. I've been in an enclosed space with nearly thirty kids about ten years my junior, and it has helped...well...rejuvenate me. It's not that I feel I'm ready to be put out to pasture by any stretch of the imagination, but given that I'm a relatively new dad, it's nice to spend some time with a room full of adolescents and post-adolescents to prepare me for the trial that my children's own tween/teen years is likely to be years down the line.

Whether or not I get to do this again, I'm definitely grateful for the chance I've gotten. Maybe I'll write a paper or get a graduate degree before I try this again, or maybe I'll rack up some more teaching credit so that I can get a graduate degree. I don't know. Either way, this has been one heck of a ride.