Monday, December 28, 2015

King Kong Redux

“…I’ve got my love story going. The boy fell in love with the girl. You understood who Denham was. You understood the character of the Captain. I got ‘em all. So once you got that chase going, I never had to stop to explain a single damn thing.” – Merian C. Cooper (excerpt from interview, on King Kong (1933) DVD commentary)

Even if you’ve never seen 1933’s King Kong (And if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?), you’re probably aware of the basic story: a giant gorilla with a fondness for blondes travels to the big city, only to meet his demise after he topples off a skyscraper. Aside from the classic beauty and the beast theme, King Kong was a special effects showcase from the beginning, with each subsequent film attempting to one-up the previous version. The advances in special effects technology and escalating budgets produced three films, representing not only three distinct eras, but three distinct eras of special effects. The first version employed stop motion effects, followed by a combination of a man in suit and animatronics, and finally, computer generated animation. Were the remakes a leap forward or a step backward?

Note: For the purposes of this discussion, I’m refraining from the various sequels (i.e., Son of Kong), re-purposing (i.e., King Kong vs. Godzilla) and offshoots (i.e., The Mighty Kong).

King Kong (1933) Directed by: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by: James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose; Original story by: Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

The original King Kong is almost universally regarded as the best, and who am I to disagree? While the remakes were progressively longer affairs, producer/directors Merian C. Cooper* and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s film is an example of economy in storytelling, telling the grand tale in a mere 104 minutes. The filmmakers spend the first 40 minutes establishing the characters and building suspense, like a roller coaster climbing a lift hill. After the initial setup, the story becomes a juggernaut of unprecedented sights and sounds.

* Fun fact: Cooper wrote the “Arabian proverb” quoted at the beginning of the film.

The special effects team didn’t just push the envelope, but re-defined it, inspiring a multitude of effects artists. Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion effects work would prove to be a heavy influence on Ray Harryhausen (who contributed to an entertaining and insightful commentary for the 2005 DVD), among others. Whether watching the film for the first time or 50th time, it’s easy to become carried away as Kong grapples with an allosaurus, or the crew members of the Venture brave the other prehistoric denizens of Skull Island to rescue Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).

Wray is fetching as plucky leading lady Darrow, who tames the savage beast despite her diminutive stature. Robert Armstrong is especially memorable as movie producer Carl Denham, based on Cooper, himself, with an ample helping of P.T. Barnum for good measure. At the hands of O’Brien, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is more than simple movie trickery, but another character, infused with energy and soul, one painstaking frame at a time. When he takes the inevitable, tragic plunge* off the Empire State Building, his death resonates with us, as if he’d been a living, breathing creature.  

* Fun fact #2: Cooper and Schoedsack appear as the crew of the biplane that takes its final, fatal shot at the giant ape.

The 1933 King Kong exists in its own category, thanks to the beautiful black and white cinematography and fun and surreal effects. It possesses a timeless quality that immerses the viewer in a different world from the first reel until the last.

King Kong (1976) Directed by: John Guillermin; Written by: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.; Based on the 1933 screenplay by: James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose; Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin; Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **

The misguided 1976 remake of King Kong moves the story from the 1930s to a more contemporary (well, the 1970s, anyway) setting. In a departure from the original story, Kong is discovered during an oil surveying expedition. Jeff Bridges stars as Ivy League professor Jack Prescott, who stows away on the oil company ship. In place of Denham is a hateful corporate bigwig, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), looking to strike it rich. Jessica Lange, in her feature film debut as Dwan (a re-ordering of the letters in “Ann Darrow”), inhabits the Fay Wray role. Unlike her spirited predecessor, Lange plays a nitwit, forced to spout dialogue such as “you goddamn chauvinist-pig ape!” and walk around the ship in skimpy outfits.

Instead of the Empire State Building, the recently completed World Trade Center becomes the setting for the film’s climax. The film attempts to create a tenuous link between the twin towers and a rock formation on Kong’s habitat, although you never see him climbing it.

The effects, featuring an ape costume worn by designer Rick Baker, himself, and animatronics by Carlo Rambaldi, fail to convince. Although the ape costume is decent, the posture and limb proportions remind us we’re seeing nothing more than a guy in a suit. Instead of the amazing fights with dinosaurs in the original film, we witness an anemic tussle between Kong and a barely animated giant snake. With all due respect to effects titans Baker and Rambaldi, we’ve seen much better from them.  

One of the keys to the 1933 version of King Kong’s longevity as a classic is the timeless “beauty and the beast” theme between the huge simian and Darrow. Woman and ape share a connection that transcends species. Kong holds a childlike fascination with his captive, and possesses a primitive instinct to protect her. Instead, the 1976 filmmakers missed the point, with Kong’s playful, childlike fascination giving way to disturbing overtones of bestiality. Kong becomes little more than a perverted ape, ogling a sex object.

King Kong (2005) Directed by Peter Jackson; Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson; Original story by: Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Andy Serkis; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

Nearly 30 years after the first remake, New Zealand director/co-writer Peter Jackson had another go at the material. This time around, there’s a more conscious effort to pay homage to Cooper and Schoedsack’s film, from the 1930s setting to the pulp adventure of Skull Island, and snippets of dialogue lifted directly from the original. Jackson’s film is cast in the same mold as his Lord of the Rings trilogy, as a 3-hour-plus epic. The film was lambasted by many fans of the 1933 original as a pale imitation, but at least Jackson and his crew made an earnest attempt to recapture some of the spirit.

Some of the newest remake’s deficits are difficult to overlook. If the original movie was an exercise in lean narrative, Jackson’s King Kong is the antithesis, with a bloated running time that should have been trimmed by an hour. The 70-plus years that elapsed between the first version and the last haven’t improved the depiction of indigenous people. The residents of Skull Island are portrayed as bloodthirsty savages. Unlike the 1933 and 1976 versions, no attempt is made to communicate with them. Jackson and company pull out all the stops (and restraints) to depict the hazards on Skull Island, making the middle segment of the movie less like King Kong and more like Jurassic Park. Jackson adopts a “more is more” approach, showing a Skull Island overrun with dinosaurs and deadly giant bugs. The fight between Kong and a tyrannosaurus rex is an obvious shout out to the original film, but goes on far too long, as well as the other scenes depicting run-ins with various island nasties. Another concern is that Denham, as portrayed by Jack Black, is an obnoxious charlatan, willing to risk anyone’s life and limb for his nature flick. He never gets his comeuppance after indirectly causing the deaths of dozens of people, and by the time he utters the famous final line (from the 1933 original), you wish someone would throttle him.

Much more effective is the relationship between Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and Kong. The motion capture animation by New Zealand effects company Weta Digital, coupled with Andy Serkis’ performance, is truly impressive and affective. In contrast to the dizzying action sequences, it’s the quiet moments Kong shares with Darrow that stand out the most. As good as Kong looks, however, there’s something unmistakably lost in translation between the dreamlike quality of O’Brien’s stop-motion effects, versus Weta’s slick, photorealistic animation. As much as I appreciate the vast computer-generated palette that Jackson and his team had to work with, I can’t help but miss the low-tech, innocent charms of the 1933 original.

Monday, December 21, 2015

December Quick Picks and Pans

Creep (2014) In this aptly titled found footage film, Aaron, a struggling 20-something videographer (Patrick Brice, who also directed and co-wrote the story) is hired by Josef (Mark Duplass), a man with an inoperable brain tumor, to document a typical day in his life as a keepsake for his unborn child. As the day goes on, the practical joke-prone Josef pushes Aaron into increasingly uncomfortable situations, and it becomes apparent the situation might not be what it seems. Creep falls into some of the standard pitfalls of found footage movies (namely, when things start taking a turn for the worse why does Aaron persist in filming?), but it’s saved, thanks to Duplass’ convincing performance. From his first to last appearance, he keeps you on edge. You’re never sure if there’s a shred of truth to Josef’s stories. It’s worth a look if you’re a found footage aficionado, or a fan of slow-burn psychological horror.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Dead Birds (2004) Henry Thomas stars as William, an ex-Confederate soldier turned bank robber, who runs off with a band of accomplices and two bags of gold. They spend the night in a deserted mansion, where they begin experiencing awful visions of its previous inhabitants. Dead Birds combines elements from haunted house movies with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as William and his cohorts watch their plans unravel over the course of a stormy evening. Director Alex Turner maintains an appropriate sense of dread throughout the film, but it’s very slow going most of the way, and relies too much on jump scares and creepy kids with CGI faces that seem lifted from a J-horror movie. Although it’s far from perfect, there’s a pervasive disturbing atmosphere, and it’s a novel experience to see a horror film set amidst a Civil War backdrop.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Frank (2014) Despite garnering its fair share of acclaim, this indie darling just didn’t do anything for me. For starters, it’s surprisingly bereft of music considering it’s all about a music group (we never hear a complete song until the end). Michael Fassbender stars as the mentally disturbed title character who wears a papier-mâché head, and serves as the de facto leader of an avant-garde rock band with an unpronounceable name. Fassbender’s off-kilter performance is amusing in small doses, which is more than I can say for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s irritating turn as Frank’s hateful girlfriend Clara. We’re led to believe he’s some sort of mad genius, full of unconventional wisdom, but much like his character, the movie ultimately goes nowhere and has nothing new to say.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Equinox (1970) Proof that not everything from The Criterion Collection is a classic, Equinox is more notable as a proof of concept reel for future effects wizards than a coherent movie. An innocent picnic turns deadly when teens stumble on a book that can summon demons (perhaps this influenced Evil Dead?). There’s some fun/crude early special effects work by Dennis Muren (who also co-produced) and Jim Danforth, but you’re forced to slog through terrible acting and a barely intelligible story. It’s good for a few laughs at the unintentional humor, but you’d probably be better off seeking some of Muren and Danforth’s numerous better efforts.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Hulu

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Twilight Zone: The Movie

(1983) Directed by: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller; Written by: John Landis (Prologue & Segment I), Richard Matheson (Segments II, III & IV), Josh Rogan (Segment II), and George Clayton Johnson (Segment II); Based on stories by George Clayton Johnson (Segment II), Jerome Bixby (Segment III), and Richard Matheson (Segment IV) ; Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Vic Morrow, and Kathleen Quinlan

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“Hey, you wanna see something really scary?” – Dan Aykroyd (Passenger)

Twilight Zone: The Movie and director/co-producer/co-writer John Landis are inextricably linked to the tragic accident that occurred during filming, resulting in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors. The incident cast a pall on the rest of the production, and was fresh in the minds of audiences and critics when the film was released. In the ensuing trial, Landis was eventually acquitted of manslaughter charges, but the controversy about his culpability remains. Was he careless? It would seem so. Did he act out of malice? I doubt it. While the passage of time has not diminished the facts, it’s not too soon to separate the art from the artist, and re-examine this cinematic adaptation of Rod Serling’s seminal long-running Sci-fi/horror series.   

The film’s prologue is classic Landis, featuring witty banter between Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks as passenger and driver, respectively, on a long road trip in the middle of nowhere. It’s fun to watch them trade quips about old television shows, with a repartee that appears natural and unforced. As in An American Werewolf in London, Landis employs Creedence Clearwater Revival (“The Midnight Special”) to help drive the story. The short opening scene starts things on an amusing and disturbing note, setting the tone for the stories that follow (particularly the final two).  In place of the late Rod Serling, the subsequent segments are introduced by Burgess Meredith, who appeared in several episodes of the original series.

It’s unsurprising that the first segment (the only one not based on a TV episode), directed by Landis and starring Vic Morrow, is the most problematic. Morrow appears as Bill Connor, a bigot who blames all of his misfortunes on other people. After a drunken rant in a bar, he finds himself jumping through time (not unlike Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim), winding up on the receiving end of racial and ethnic hatred. Sadly, 30-plus years later, the themes are just as relevant. One can draw many parallels with the current political climate, as history continues to repeat. Probably on account of the untimely death of Morrow and the two young actors, the whole segment seems unfinished and choppy, and the conclusion is underwhelming and unsatisfying. In light of the disastrous circumstances behind the scenes, it was a dubious choice to leave this story in at all. A planned scene would have depicted Connor rescuing two Vietnamese orphans, which would have lent the story more irony. Instead, we’re left with something that looks rushed and unfinished.

“Segment II,” based on the classic episode “Kick the Can” is little more than an exercise in sentimentality, with director Spielberg on cruise control. Scatman Crothers is the high point, as the ever-cheerful Mr. Bloom, who encourages the residents of a retirement home to reconnect with some of their youth. The message about keeping a youthful mind is obvious, reinforced by cloying scenes of little kids acting like old people. Spielberg was taken to task for his saccharine interpretation, but it’s unfair to blame him entirely, considering the source material was middle-of-the-road at best. With a wealth of terrific episodes to call upon, it’s disappointing that the filmmakers chose to retread this story (never one of my favorites).

Director Joe Dante’s effort is much more effective, with his darkly humorous re-imagining of one of the most beloved episodes, “It’s a Good Life.” Dante regulars Dick Miller (Who else?), Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert appear, along with a cameo by the original episode’s star, Bill Mumy. This time around, Jeremy Licht stars as Anthony, a boy who can manipulate matter at will and make people disappear. Dante and writer Richard Matheson (working from an original story by Jerome Bixby), don’t just regurgitate, as in the previous segment, but take a bold new spin on the material. Although I’m not entirely thrilled with the choice to make Anthony less of a monster and more sympathetic, it enables the story to go in a different direction.

The fourth segment, based on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a nail-biter from beginning to end. As much as I adore the original with William Shatner, the new version ratchets up the tension further, anchored by John Lithgow’s performance as neurotic airplane passenger John Valentine. As in the original episode, only he seems to notice a malevolent creature wreaking havoc outside his window. Borrowing a page from Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Miller’s masterful use of lighting, sound and skewed camera angles create an almost unbearable, claustrophobic atmosphere. We’re complicit in Valentine’s paranoia, as his sanity hangs by the flimsiest of threads. Much like the original version, the fourth segment takes a more literal interpretation of Matheson’s original short story, but as it’s interpreted here, it’s a mini classic.

Producers Landis and Spielberg’s attempt to bring The Twilight Zone to the big screen was met with mixed success. Partially because of its troubled production history, but also due to some questionable choices by the filmmakers, some of the components are greater than the whole. The finished result is a clunky assortment of bits and pieces, ultimately redeemed by moments of brilliance. Even if Twilight Zone: The Movie is less than the classic it should have been, it deserves to be regarded as more than a curiosity or footnote in the respective filmmakers’ careers. Maybe under other circumstances it would have spawned a sequel with a combination of new stories and new interpretations of old episodes. Instead, the film remains an intriguing mixed bag, inseparable with its checkered past.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

(1969) Directed by Peter Hunt; Written by: Richard Maibaum and Simon Raven; Based on the novel by Ian Fleming; Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“…We agreed after a lot of umming and ahhing that we should not over-emphasize the re-introduction of a new Bond.” – Peter Hunt (from the DVD commentary)

“I should have done two. Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. And if I’d have done two, who knows what would have happened. I would have probably said to myself, ‘Hey, I’m James Bond now, what can I do?’ and gone on for seven.” – George Lazenby (from documentary, Inside On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)

I’m excited to participate in the Winter Sports Blogathon, hosted by Michaël Parent of Le Mot du Cinephiliaque. Not only does today’s selection feature a veritable cornucopia of winter sports, it’s my first review of a James Bond film. If there was a candidate for the James Bond Winter Olympics, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would surely be at the top of the list, with its assortment of events, including downhill skiing, bobsledding, ice skating and curling (yep, curling).  

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one title in the James Bond canon that often gets overlooked among fans of the long-running series. The film elicited its share of controversy, due in no small part to the producers’ choice for Agent 007. After starring in five Bond films, Sean Connery decided enough was enough, and left the franchise, leaving some big shoes to occupy. Enter former car salesman/male model George Lazenby to fill the void. While the movie made a tidy profit at the box office, it underperformed compared to its predecessors. As a result, Lazenby only played the character (at least in an official capacity) once.

Lazenby does a respectable, if not quite standout job of playing Ian Fleming’s fictional super spy. While he hits all the marks, it’s hard to shake the impression we’re watching Connery’s understudy, rather than a replacement. He lacks the debonair, roguish charm of Connery, or the tongue-in-cheek quality of Roger Moore. Compared to both actors, he falls a bit flat. Sadly, history has only reinforced the perception of Lazenby as a placeholder 007, since Connery was wooed back for the follow-up film, Diamonds Are Forever. All faults aside, he brought a certain je ne sais quoi to the role. How that might have played out in a second appearance would have been interesting to see.

Outside of the fact this film was the star’s debut and swan song, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains an oddity in the series. For starters, the opening credit sequence doesn’t begin with a pop tune, as was customary with all but the first movie, and remained a tradition with all subsequent films. Instead, we’re treated to a series of clips, chronicling 007’s previous exploits. In an early scene, the protagonist handles artifacts from his earlier adventures, accompanied by snippets of music to cue the audience that this is, unequivocally, a Bond film. While the scene accomplishes its task, it’s a blatantly obvious attempt by the filmmakers to remind us what we’re watching (“See? This is the real James Bond. Get it?”).*

* In another, more subtle scene, a dwarf janitor (Norman McGlen) whistles the title tune to Goldfinger.

Bond unwittingly rubs elbows with crime syndicate boss Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) to glean information about the elusive villain Blofeld. In trade, Draco encourages a courtship between Bond and his free-spirited daughter Tracy (Diana Rigg). It’s not love at first sight for the two, but after an obligatory romantic montage, accompanied to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World,” they fall in love. The tune, referenced in John Barry’s rousing score, provides an ironic undercurrent to the film, and its tragic conclusion.  

Rigg (fresh off of a stint as Emma Peel on The Avengers) dazzles as Tracy*, one of the best Bond girls of the entire series. A far cry from the pretty ornament that “Bond girl” evokes, she’s smart, headstrong and good in a scrape against evil henchmen. In one scene, she helps 007 escape from the bad guys by driving into a winter stock car race.It’s not Bond who reigns in Tracy, as her father had intended, but the reverse. While Bond is true to form, bedding every young, nubile woman who crosses his path (once he reaches Blofeld’s Swiss mountaintop lair, Piz Gloria, they practically line up to see him), it’s clear that he and Tracy share something more than mere sexual attraction.

* Fun fact: As tough as it is to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role, Brigitte Bardot was the producers’ first choice.

Aside from the uncustomary romantic theme throughout, there’s much to distinguish On Her Majesty’s Secret Service from other Bond flicks. The film boasts some truly exciting action scenes, including an Alpine ski chase,* an avalanche, and a bobsled pursuit. The most exciting sequence involves our hero attempting to escape from the aerial tramway wheelhouse in Piz Gloria. The scene conveys tension and a sense of imminent danger, as he hangs from an icy cable. The climax and sobering finale provide a downbeat note to an otherwise high-spirited film, as a final reminder of the steep price Bond’s profession dictates.  

* Although Vic Armstrong is often credited as Bond’s ski double, the DVD commentary attributes the more daring exploits to German skier Willy Bogner, who contributed to three other Bond films.

Telly Savalas is excellent as the arch-nemesis Blofeld, who’s Professor Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s always one step ahead, as he hatches an evil scheme from his mountaintop retreat. His plan to dominate the world is more than a little ludicrous, as well as the scene where he hypnotizes a woman to overcome her food allergy (accompanied by a psychedelic light show), but Savalas really sells it.  

If you weigh the considerable pluses with a few of the minuses, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service compares favorably to the better entries in the enduring series. It’s unfortunate that Lazenby never had the chance to prove himself, and the producers didn’t have the faith to weather the growing pains of their new star, but the film stands out as a vital chapter in the Bond saga.