Wednesday, January 25, 2006

More Magic Shadows, or, Going Ape For A New Monkey Movie

Happy New Year everyone! Yeah, I know, it seems like I’m a couple of weeks late, but actually, a New Year’s salutation at this point in the month turns out to be convenient timing for me: we celebrate two New Years around this house. There is, of course, the typical Western New Year on January first, but since my wife is Chinese, we also celebrate Chinese New Year, which this time around comes on Jan 29th. So, whether you’re a few weeks into trying to find an excuse to get out of your New Year’s resolution to lose that extra Christmas weight (I’ve long since accepted I’m keeping my hippopotamic girth for good), or whether you’re gearing up to flip through a stack of lai-si (red pockets) in a couple of days to find out how much money you’ve received from the relatives (and by extension, how much, if at all, they care about you in comparison with your cousin Johnny), Happy New Year all around.
I admit to being kinda lazy about getting this posting up in the weeks since Christmas, although I do have a good excuse. After spending a couple of months “in between projects” as they say, I’ve started a new gig and it’s been the usual new-job chore of getting up to speed on the inside info and re-adapting the old biological clock to the rest of the world’s 9 to 5 workday. In my former incarnation as a broadcaster, weird hours like evening and overnight shifts were the rule rather than the exception, and during my period of unemployment, I fell into what for me is a natural nocturnal rhythm where it wasn’t a problem staying up writing until 4 in the morning (I’ve often seriously considered that there’s gotta be a lot of validity to a theory I once came across in a short story by Robert Charles Wilson – or maybe it was Robert J. Sawyer, not sure without diving through a whole pile o’ books – that there’s a sort of “night watchman” gene at work in some people that makes them prone to staying up late, if not all night, in order to keep watch and make sure a jaguar doesn’t go dragging off some unfortunate member of the tribe in the wee small hours).
Aside from that, I’ve had to make my way through the pile of DVD’s my wife and others were kind enough to inundate me with at Christmas: the kick-ass “Firefly” movie “Serenity” (impressive job of getting that one to video so quickly), Babylon 5 season 2 (I seem to be collecting that series in reverse order), and that venerable old chestnut “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, along with others.
Speaking of Christmas, one major omission on my part from the nostalgia posting a few weeks ago was that giant among TV traditions: “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. Having acknowledged the masterpiece, I have hopefully redeemed myself.
On to the main point of this posting… time to don the mantle of Elwe Yost again and present another all-new take on Magic Shadows (again, apologies to TV Ontario for the copyright infringement).
I figure it’s long past time to babble for a little bit about that giant that grappled with the cinemas this holiday season: Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”. At this point I can talk about the details until I’m blue in the face because anyone who wanted to see it already has.
Simply put, I loved it.
The special effects were, not surprisingly, amazing. Kong actually looked and moved like a real gorilla, you could almost feel the steam coming out of the jungle he lived in, the frigid art deco hardness of New York’s winter concrete jungle where he died, and when the action started to pound, it was exactly the kind of mayhem that you want to see when you’re paying the extortion rates the theatres are demanding for a ticket these days. I mean, who didn’t think it was pretty cool to watch a 25-foot ape whip out the Kong Fu on a pack of tyrannosaurs?
The cave at the top of Skull Mountain was made a wonderful melancholy in Jackson’s version with the bones of Kong’s titanic forebears scattered around, giving us the uneasy feeling that he might be the last of his kind. A far better display than the original’s corny plesiosaur popping its noggin out of the pond in the depths of the cavern (how the hell does a sea-going dinosaur get all the way up to the top of a mountain and into a cave to swim in circles in a rock bowl full of rainwater?).
What about the biplane battle on the Empire State Building at the end? Amazing to watch – especially Kong’s leap into the air to knock down one of his attackers and then managing to grab onto the building for another go. And looking around the theatre, I noticed there were very few people who weren’t at least a little choked when Kong finally succumbed. What a refreshing and brave move on Jackson’s part to bring us in close to watch Kong desperately trying to maintain eye-contact with his beautiful blonde before he dies, instead of the clumsy longshot of a tumble that’s in the classic version.
And let’s give Jackson full credit for staying true to the original 1930’s classic Kong, while having the guts and the skill to flush it out.
I had a debate about this with a buddy of mine a while ago… My friend (who hasn’t seen the new version yet) is an older guy who, while he wasn’t around for King Kong’s original release during the Depression, did see the original re-released on the big screen as a kid back in the ‘50’s. He argued that there’s no need for a remake because the original was a fast-moving hour-and-a-half of action with tight writing and good special effects (for its day). He also went on to claim that it’s a pretty well established law of art that remakes are never as good as the original.
I have a lot of trouble with these lines of thinking though.
Firstly, I agree that the original Kong is a work of art. It is well-paced and it gets the job done. That being said, that version of the film moves so quickly and focuses so much on the shock of the sight of those monsters cavorting around (something new to the audiences of the early black and white era) that there isn’t a lot of character development in the human beings. In fact, they’re about as one-dimensional as the celluloid they’re printed on. By expanding the movie to three hours, Jackson has been able to add depth to his characters, to show us why they embark on their odyssey and why any of them actually care enough for the producer to sadly remark “ ‘Twas beauty killed the beast.” over the great ape’s mangled corpse. In taking a full hour to set the story up before the monster even makes an appearance (a-la “Jaws” as many have remarked), Jackson can set us up emotionally to sympathize with his overgrown monkey’s plight by drawing comparisons with the lives of the hairless primates of New York. He opens the movie by hitting us over the head with this by showing the denizens of the zoo in their cages not a stone’s throw away from a Depression shantytown in the park where the xylophone-ribbed homeless are crowded cheek-by-jowl in the filth. Not long after, we see our heroine put on display on the stage and tormented by her audience. She’s as much shackled by her hunger looking through the steakhouse window at the dismissive producer as Kong is at the beginning of the final act after being battered, captured and put in manacles for the enjoyment of the Big Apple without so much as a banana.
I’d also point out that a new adaptation is worth-while for the simple necessity of changing the delivery of the dialogue. While it’s enjoyable to watch the antiquated, rapid-fire hard-tone method of delivering lines popular in movies of the 30’s and 40’s, that manner of speech is no longer in use (if people ever actually spoke like that back then, and having had long conversations with elderly relatives who lived through that era, I have my doubts – it’s likely that mobster-movie manner of speech was entirely fabricated by Hollywood and the radio plays of the time to artificially ramp-up the intensity of the production) and is totally alien to the younger audiences of today, to the point that it runs the risk of sounding hokey to the point of being utterly ridiculous. The movie needed to be remade just so the dialogue could be delivered in normal conversational tones.
As to whether any remake can ever be as good as the original (an argument that caught fire for a while back in the ‘90’s when there was talk that perhaps there ought to be another attempt at “Casablanca”), I would argue that while many remakes ARE inferior, that DOESN’T mean that a remake, by definition, MUST be inferior. Without a doubt, the 1970’s remake of King Kong was a complete waste of time. But let’s take a look at some other movie remakes that DID work: what about Kurisawa’s “The Seven Samurai”? Remade any number of times, and most of them good. “The Magnificent Seven” changed the environment, but it was the same story told with utter reverence and it worked, well, magnificently (we’ll ignore the sequels to the western version, though). Admittedly, the SF attempt to remake it – “Battle Beyond the Stars” (with “The Magnificent Seven” ‘s Robert Vaughn reprising his role as the bounty hunter looking for a place to hide) did, without a doubt, suck ass. But the recent Chinese film “Seven Swords” (I don’t believe for a minute that it was an original Chinese work, it stinks of “Samurai” remake) was immensely entertaining, even if all seven of the heroes do survive. And, if you need any further proof that remakes can work, I have one word for you: Shakespeare. The Bard’s plays have been reinterpreted for performances on stage for centuries, and the trend has continued into the cinematic age (including some takes on Shakespeare by the afore-mentioned Kurisawa himself). It should also be noted that some of Shakespeare’s plays themselves are, in fact, remakes of earlier works by other playwrites. There’s nothing wrong with a remake, as long as it’s done well. Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake was done exceptionally well.
That being said, there are a number of critics out there who would still disagree with me. The reviewers at thetyee.ca took a special joy in burning this flick at the stake.
And I’ll admit it’s not without its flaws: while it was immensely entertaining to watch Kong’s slugfest with the pack of T-Rex’s, there was a small part of my mind that kept saying “Hey! Those tyranno teeth were designed to rip 300 pound gobbits of flesh outa the side of a triceratops. Why isn’t monkeyboy there missing a hunk or two of meat from his arms where they keep biting him? Granted, the hair and the skin that’s as thick as elephant hid probably offers some protection, but come on!” And while that doesn’t make much sense, the rest of my mind that was enjoying the show just said “Shut up. Who’d believe in a 25 foot gorilla in modern times when the closest an primate ever got to being that big was giganticus in the forests of Asia millions of years ago which got about 12 feet tall and eventually died out. Much less an ape of that stature pummeling dinosaurs that have been dead for millions of years.” The fight with those weird vampire bat things flapping around Skull Mountain would have looked a lot better if they’d just stuck with the pterodactyls from the original (and what was with using one of them as a hang-glider?). And yeah, Kong’s little skating scene in Central Park has that part of the brain howling about how many tons he must weigh and how the ice would crack beneath his tubby butt. And then there’s our damsel in distress climbing a ladder on the OUTSIDE of the Empire State building in the middle of winter wearing nothing but a cocktail dress and somehow not getting blown off the side of the tower by the crosswind or freezing to death during the half-hour ordeal.
But you know what? It’s a story about a giant gorilla that fights dinosaurs and climbs skyscrapers and knocks biplanes out of the air. Cut the analytical crap and enjoy the flick for what it is – popcorn action (that is if you choose to ignore the good acting and writing) worth every penny you spend.
A movie that fell short of the value of the price of admission this past holiday season was “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe”. There were times when the CG didn’t seem as seamless as it should have, where Aslan didn’t look quite like he was on the same layer of film as the children he was supposed to interact with (kind of like old special effects where the beast would be projected onto a movie screen behind the actors). And for a story that’s bogged down with C.S. Lewis’ clumsy hit-you-over-the-head religious allegory, the movie fired a lot of hits and misses: it was long on “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” and short on the horror of the allusion to the crucifixion that Lewis makes when Aslan is taken to the sacrificial stone. The movie doesn’t show the whipping, spitting upon, slashing, shaving and pounding that the lion endures before he’s stabbed to death that Lewis goes to great lengths to inflict on children who read his book. It’s as though the director and screenwriters wanted a sparkling glass of Lewis light: all the heavy-handed religion, half the gore.
But ultimately, the reason why I didn’t like this “Narnia” movie was something I can’t quite put my finger on. All I can say is that for the legion of monsters and myths present in all their photo-realistic glory, the film was missing… magic. Maybe it’s because I’m not a kid. Or maybe it’s because I read the Narnia books about 10 times when I was a kid. Or maybe it’s because I’m still rather puzzled that they didn’t start with the FIRST book in the series, “The Magician’s Nephew”. But I don’t think so. Pity that a fantasy movie has no magic in its heart.
Speaking of magic, I notice it’s fast approaching the witching hour, and long past time for me to hit the sack. Until next time, this has been another rip-off of “Magic Shadows”.
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