King Kong (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Lieberman
Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
Based on the 1933 story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Directed by Peter Jackson

Just like his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the entertainment of Peter Jackson’s King Kong lasts only for its duration: it does not stick in the mind, leave you pondering, or remain at all as anything more than a few traces. However, while you are in the cinema, it fully occupies your senses and your imagination for three remarkably swift hours. This is a big, big movie, currently the sixth most expensive of all time, but it is money well spent. Compare it with the year’s next most expensive, Revenge of the Sith, and there is no comparison – where Lucas made an uninvolving, not even cool movie, Jackson has produced the purest cinema entertainment for our delectation. And I loved it.

Of the 187 minutes, virtually every single second is completely ridiculous hokum – schmaltzy and totally outside the realms of reality. Practically all of the dialogue is straight out of a 30s or 40s matinee – that is, it exists only to drive the story on, and would never be heard in real life. The characters are quickly drawn and remain consistent throughout, without great development arcs or anything, but that’s fine. What matters most is that Jackson presides over each frame with dutiful care, investing it with all the love he has built up for the original, the big budget film in general, and the personal joy he takes in making these enormous cinema entertainments. He just wants you to enjoy yourself – there are no further pretensions, and that is truly wonderful to find in today’s mainstream cinema.

The star of the show doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the film, but it is worth the wait, and from then on every scene involving Kong is one to savour. He is an animal, not anthropomorphised to any great extent, which is remarkable in itself in these times of Pixar’s and DreamWorks’ litany of wisecracking flora and fauna. Because he remains a beast, he cuts deeper into my heart than if he had been given more complex facial expressions and verbalisations. He grunts, he beats his chest, he roars, and he is sometimes fascinated and/or delighted. A creature. There were several moments, mostly when he interacts with Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow, when I thought he would slip into human mode, but each passed with a sigh of relief on my part as he resisted. Not once does he grin or grunt knowingly. That would be tantamount to winking at the screen, or spouting a witty one-liner, as it would have the same diminishing effect on the power of the story.

It’s a simple story, too, but a good one – a story that appeals to our deepest sense of adventure, the sort of stuff you want to do when you’re a kid. And when Kong finally stands atop that skyscraper, with Darrow at his side and biplanes flying around him like mosquitoes, it’s exhilarating and a little bit affecting. Jackson’s qualities as a director don’t generally lie in shot composition, but the fall of Kong is visually very well executed. A girl behind me bawled her eyes out, and if you get someone in the audience to cry, surely you’ve done something effective with your filmmaking craft.

So, the dialogue is ridiculous, principal characters come through extraordinary danger hysterically unscathed, and many scenes in the first hour and a half could have been pared down or cut altogether. But come on! A fucking giant gorilla FIGHTS A Tyrannosaurus, ripping its jaw apart with alarming brutality, and it is rendered well enough to be believable! You slap down your cash, you go into the cinema and sit down, and you are entertained for the duration. That’s what Jackson promises, and that’s exactly what you get.

Being There (1979) (R)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel
Directed by Hal Ashby

I think I’ll just let Ebert and Cale do the talking for this one – I needn’t add much to their very good reviews. I will say two things:

1) This was my second Ashby film after The Last Detail. I like this guy. He doesn’t overdo anything, ever. In fact, he deliberately avoids manipulative devices – rarely does music accompany the visuals (when it does, he usually chooses something surprising), there is no gross editing trickery. He just shoots the script, alternating between long, mid and close-up to great effect. You know the phrase ‘They don’t make ’em like that anymore’? Well, his films may be where it applies best. Allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions has almost become taboo in Hollywood today, but in the 70s (even as late as ’79) a studio like Warner Bros. would produce a film like Being There because the material was good. If only it were still that daring and simple.

2) I loved the ending. Loved, loved, loved it. It encapsulated the whole film into a single 30-second shot without trivialising all that had gone before; it makes for a fitting end to a very good film, but leaves you pondering for some time afterwards. Beautiful and possessing great depth, like the film as a whole.

The Constant Gardener (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Jeffrey Caine
Based on the novel The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

After only two feature films, Fernando Meirelles has developed a filmmaking style that is recognisably his own. Every frame of The Constant Gardener, like his brilliant debut Cidade de Deus, is clearly stamped with his seal – this is something that few filmmakers can attest to so early in their career (others that spring to mind are Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky and Pawel Pawlikowski). His style is characterised by an (nearly) always moving camera (often handheld), washed out tones, and a lot of quick cuts. Personally, it’s not the kind of style I would use to make films – I prefer things to be slower, more meditative – but it is undeniably effective, especially given the subject matter he has tackled.

Justin Quayle, a diplomat, meets and marries activist Tessa. Both of them have a lot of work in Africa, particularly Kenya, and Justin starts to suspect Tessa is keeping secrets from him. She is then murdered, leaving Justin with a lot to find out, particularly concerning international pharmaceutical corporations. Don’t worry, it gives nothing away to mention Tessa’s murder, because that is what opens the film; it is the event that forces Justin to stop treading carefully, and start demanding answers to very big questions.

For the first 45 minutes or so, The Constant Gardener is deliberately beguiling – it moves so quickly that it takes an effort on the viewer’s part to keep up with what is happening. We see Tessa in various situations – urging Kenyans to take AIDS tests, confronting people from big pharmaceuticals, and questioning her marriage. We don’t know exactly what it all means because the puzzle pieces don’t fit yet, but eventually the answers will come – we feel like Justin, because we care about this woman and want to know what happened to her, but we have only snatches of information from which to seek answers. It’s so rare for a filmmaker to simply provide the viewer with little details and leave the dots unconnected at first, before eventually rewarding our interest by steadily revealing more information. Cidade de Deus was similar, if more clear (probably because it used voice-over); I love that he respects the audience and gets us thinking before offering more. Too many films spoonfeed information leaving us with no work to do; this, however, is serious, intelligent, adult filmmaking to be savoured.

In the role of Justin, Ralph Fiennes (my distant cousin, hooray) is good, effective. unspectacular. He does awkward well at first, but develops a hardness as the character becomes more and more disillusioned with his surroundings. Rachel Weisz as Tessa, however, is even better – a very complex character with positive and negative qualities, a character we love in spite of our reservations. Given not a lot of screen time overall, she brings this character expertly to life – it’s one of those pieces of acting that make you forget the actor. Weisz is a beautiful, talented woman; I believed this before The Constant Gardener, and am completely sure of it now.

It does lose its way a little towards the end, however, as the influx of details is a little hard to cope with and may be unsatisfying for some; still, that is what repeat viewings are for. And what was the deal with Pete Postelthwaite’s accent? Still, this is overall a very effective film. Just as Justin is forced to question the world around him, so are we; how can we accept the atrocities being carried out by corporations and government officials all over the world? We must confront not only the sorry state of our world, but also our own morals and ethics. Place yourself in Justin’s situation. Would you be willing to put yourself in danger in the search for answers, or would you protect yourself and not rock the boat? Stay in your seat for the final credits: there is a postscript from John le CarrĂ© that gives the story a little more power.