King Kong

King Kong (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/22/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

I was actually looking pretty forward to seeing this, the latest blockbuster from Peter Jackson, a major remake and homage to the classic 1933 horror film. I guess it’s my childhood affection for the old horror films or something and Jackson has had a good track record, nothing more impressive than his Tolkien trilogy, the mammoth undertaking that ultimately nabbed him an Oscar for directing and best picture.

Oddly enough, I was catching some part of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) on tv the other day and I was thinking how corny and overdone the sentiment in that film was, and this vaguely new-agey Society for Creative Anachronism-ish thing… It was striking me altogether less impressive and a bit simpy.

King Kong is impressive, particularly in the way of visual design. I think what struck me the most was the visualization of 1933 New York (Jackson set this film in the period that the original was created). And it’s fascinating, with wide views of the NY cityscape, the 1933 Times Square, and of course, the Empire State Building, much more monumental towering above the city whose structures don’t begin to bury it. I was just up in the Empire State Building for the first time a couple of months ago, so it was an interesting “perspective” on the visualization of the city. It’s the most-digitized city in feature films, and the version that most recently comes to mind is the one from Gangs of New York (2002) set about 70 years earlier but equally interesting in its interpretation. I don’t know why this seemed the most significant aspect of this film for me.

It’s a massive film at 187 minutes, nearly doubling the length of the original. And it makes you wonder, “Is this really an epic? Or is an epic the only length of film Jackson knows how to make after the Rings trilogy?” It’s clearly overdone. It reaches heights of simpering soft-eyed emoting that tend to choke one rather than choke them up. As an aspect of the homage, Jackson’s film and characters lack cynicism, I guess some assumption or treatment of “a more kinder and gentler era”? The way it shapes up is some schmaltz that is schmaltzier than this side of schmaltzville. The most painful moment of which is the ice-sliding sequence with Kong and Ann Darrow in the park. It really reeks of those Christmas-y Coca Cola commercials with the digitally-animated polar bears. It’s cuteness with a quotient of the nth degree and sappier than hell.

And for me, it really brought the movie down. There perhaps could be edited out of this film a pretty good flick, losing some of the “bonding” between Kong and girl, some superfluous action sequences with dinosaurs and killer bugs, and just cutting some unnecessary character development.

The cast is charming enough and the action is entertaining, but nothing really shines here. It’s disappointing, but still fun enough, I suppose.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Doug Liman
viewed: 12/13/2005

Not as bad as everyone said. Certainly not a success, however. Doug Liman is a weird director with a decent if not robust resume. I actually think that he’s maybe just making the wrong kinds of movies.

I am not sure how cynical Mr. & Mrs. Smith is or if it’s got a subversive side or not or if it sort of undercuts all that with an easily predicted happy ending. It’s a critique on marriage and relationships and mediocrity, I suppose. And it’s got the two people who in terms of contemporary pop culture, would be deemed pretty much tops in the sex food chain for their respective genders (not my opinion, just an observation of the cult of “personalities”). Is it their “fake” marriage and “fake” middle class lifestyle that dulls them into an unhappy marriage that is purely gorgeous on the surface (beautiful, successful people, big house, great careers)? Or is it that the mediocrity of middle class is inherently soulless and boring? Motherhood is highly shunned by a very unmaternal Jolie in one scene at a neighborhood party. In reality, they are ace assassins, each better than the other, sexy, top of the line, in their secret “real” lives. And when they can finally expose to each other the fact that they are not these dull, boring middle class selves, and that they share much more in common, their sex lives improve and so does their marriage. Is it a critique? Does it have teeth or is it muddled? There is more here than most people would give credit for, but not necessarily enough to really recommend it, really.

Kontroll

Kontroll (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Nimród Antal
viewed: 12/24/2005

A dark little Hungarian film shot in the Budapest subway system. It interested me since I had travelled in that subway system years ago and remembered how interesting it looked. It makes for great location shots and there is a compelling world created there within.

The film is sort of a fantasy, an “underground” (multiple meanings here) world of insane ticket collectors (so crazy and perverse that the film opens with a disclaimer by the manager of the transit system saying that this film is pure fiction and that the ticket inspectors don’t behave like they do in the movie). It’s funny and the characters are quirky and amusing, as is their world.

The film never really clarifies how literal some things are, leaving quite a bit open to interpretation, which is usually a good thing — and maybe it is here, too.

I liked the film. I thought it was fun. And though I have forgotten more than I know about it, it might be an interesting companion piece to Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway

Undead

Undead (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
viewed: 12/13/2005

Australian zombie/alien invasion film, with the low-budget hi-jinks and comedy that seems very particularly Australian. Reminds me of some other stuff, from Peter Jackson’s early stuff to some movie that I am remembering vaguely, but can’t quite pull to mind. One with asteroids in the Australian outback and some sort of Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic kookiness. Why am I having trouble remembering this — it must have been more than ten years ago…

Anyways, this film gets an ‘A’ for effort, though its ambitions far outweigh its budget. I think I read that they did all their digital effects on their home computers (and it looks like it most of the time, too). Still, it’s pretty fun and kind of wacky in sometimes surprising ways.

It’s not great, but it’s kind of fun.

High Tension

High Tension (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Alexandre Aja
viewed: 12/13/2005

Gory, gritty French psycho killer movie. It’s visceral qualities (the oldest pun in the book, I guess, not intended) certainly take it some distance. Cécile De France, the short-haired blonde lead, is a compelling presence in the film. I get a sense that there is some feminist bent to the narrative, with her tough butch-ness, and perhaps even in the film’s final twists which I won’t detail here. I don’t have more to say about it, but I think it could be interestingly analyzed in the context of the “splatter” genre.

Oui, oui

Chicken Little

Chicken Little (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Mark Dindal
viewed: 12/03/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

This was not a case of actually wanting to see this film, but rather that it was the only G-rated movie out at the theater and an opportunity to take my son to the movies. I, quite frankly, thought this looked pretty lame, up and down, and found my suppositions to be well-grounded.

This, I think, was the first digitally animated film that Disney has produced in-house (outside of their contract with Pixar), and if that is correct, then I think that Disney should be well-worried for their future without the Bay Area studio under contract to them anymore. While the animation and design are fine, the whole thing is poorly developed and lacking the charm of character development that works the best for these very mainstream films. It’s funny enough, but not memorable at all, and that is all true with the weird advantage that this film had at being made in 3-D.

I mean, that is a pretty unique experience, going to a 3-D movie, and I have already all but forgotten that aspect of the film. Someone needs to realize that animated films need some greater vision and writing and direction, or they will simply be well-designed, occasionally funny and ultimately forgettable pieces of junk confection that will not make much of a mark on the world or the audience.

It should be noted that my son enjoyed it pretty well. But I don’t think it made much impression on him, either.

Robots

Robots (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha
viewed: 12/09/2005

I wasn’t so interested in seeing this film when it came out. I didn’t like the style of design of the characters or the cities. They seem so ornate as to be confusing. All of the robots and like cobbled-together contraptions, which is all part of the story, but visually, for me, it doesn’t read well. The cityscapes as well, often viewed hurtling around at high speeds, is very difficult to grasp onto. And I found this a problem throughout the film. Though, it might have read better on the big screen.

The narrative is so traditional and sappy at times that it’s absolutely nausiating. Sometimes filmmakers think that there has to be a message and if their assumed audience is young enough, then it needs to be made with a sledgehammer to drive the point home. “Keep believing in your dreams!” It’s enough to drive one to suicide.

My son found the whole thing a bit over his head, but laughed hysterically at the slapstick moments and really loved the roller coaster-esque travel sequence. As I have said, the whole thing is vaguely baroque, in the elaborate detail of everything onscreen to the crammed-in hilarity of Robin Williams’ delivery of his character Fender (which was still shockingly less annoying than I anticipated). It’s busy and hectic, and oddly enough, when it slows down it gets sickly sappy. It was pretty downright disappointing.

Monsters, Inc.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Pete Docter, David Silverman, Lee Unkrich
viewed: 12/07/2005

If you can’t tell, I’ve been watching a lot of movies with my son lately. Monsters, Inc. is my favorite Pixar animation film, cemented, I think after a second viewing. I’d seen it in the theaters when it first came out, when my son was a tiny baby and he slept through it all while nursing. It was fun to watch it with him.

Pixar does the best job at character development of the major digital animation studios, and their films have stronger, while still utterly traditional narratives. I’ve often noted that they have picked up where Disney fell off years ago, making the best of the mainstream narrative animation films, using traditional storytelling styles and characters. But really, this is the best of their lot. The characters inhabit a beautifully designed and cohesive universe, Mostropolis, with a completely thought-out world order and gorgeously rendered settings. The character design is sharp and fun, and the film manages to be fun at the adult level, without being overly busy at winking at the audience.

All that said, I think that the trailers for their upcoming Cars (2006) look awful, beyond awful. I actually can hardly fathom it. It looks like they’ve come from some concept dating to 1976 or something. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 12/02/2005

I can’t think of a film that I saw in the theater and then ended up seeing again on video within the same year. I don’t usually have the time to re-watch stuff, so I usually just watch stuff that is new to me. But this was an occasion for watching a film that I had seen in the theater with my son, who had not seen it. Lucky enough, that I thought it was one of the most fun films that I had seen this year.

It held up pretty well on a second viewing, moving a little faster perhaps than the first time through. The light tone and clever designs are quite charming and fun. I liked it again.