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When an ape loves a woman, it turns out that he likes to woo the object of his affection the same way upright-walkin’ dudes do—the more sensitive ones, anyway. The beast will cuddle up to his sweetie and peacefully enjoy the sunset. Or gaze into her eyes in the middle of a quiet, snow-dusted street. And when the animal gets confused and frustrated while gallantly trying to walk on ice with her in his arms, he will just fall down and start gliding in circles with his girl, both giggling—yes, giggling—the whole time.
At least that’s how it goes in the Hobbit King’s mind. And goes and goes—for 187 minutes, nearly double the length of the 1933 original. How did Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens stretch Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s relatively simple story to such epic proportions? Well, the movie is first a smaller-scale Titanic, then a ballsier Jurassic Park—and that’s before the monkey business even gets going. Anybody whining about the quickly spread fact that it takes more than an hour for the breathtaking Kong to appear should be grateful for the leisurely introduction—because once the astounding action starts, it doesn’t let up for a long, long time.
The story still begins in 1933 New York, where the Depression has put vaudeville performer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) out of work. As she’s contemplating a career change outside a burlesque house, a nutty, opportunistic, Orson Welles–esque film director, Carl Denham (a perfectly cartoonish Jack Black), decides that Ann is the right woman to replace the actress who ditched him for an upcoming overseas shoot. (Requirements: pretty face, size 4. “Fay’s a size 4!” Carl blurts, one of Kong’s many winks to the original.) Soon enough, they’re off on a rickety ship to Carl-Knows-Where—and quickly, to avoid the producers who want Carl’s head for wasting their money on an earlier movie. The cranky captain (Thomas Kretschmann) eventually tires of Carl’s vague directives and decides to take the ship home in the dark and fog. But before he can, a crew member cries, “Wall! There’s a wall ahead!” and Phase I of the mayhem begins. Only Celine Dion is missing from Jackson’s depiction of angry waves, tossing about, and general chaos.
It’s difficult to discuss what awaits the crew on Skull Island without sounding like a drooling fangirl. The island: a magnificent ruin, its high walls embedded with skeletons. The natives: mobs of The Serpent and the Rainbow zombies, eyes red or rolled right back in their heads, with stringy hair and a taste for human flesh. The sequence in which they attack Carl & Co. during a rainstorm and chase them back to the battered boat is its own little horror movie, and it’s only a hint of what the survivors will face after the fair Ann is offered to Kong.
Jackson has claimed that the 1933 Kong was his favorite movie as a kid and that faithfulness to it was his paramount concern—he even obtained models and storyboards from the original, the latter of which were used to re-create the legendary lost giant-spider sequence. But with more than 70 years’ worth of new technology at his disposal, he inevitably made something bigger, scarier, and more spectacular in every way. Kong, unlike his goofy-faced predecessor, is a terrifically realistic being, with discernible expressions (provided by Jackson’s Gollum, Andy Serkis) and a roar that will rattle your seat. But even more frightening are the island’s dinosaurs, whose attacks on the crew are incessant and heart-pounding. Throughout, Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie alternates between foggy pall and vivid jungle, the latter lit by brilliant orange-pink skies.
Given all the aces CGI, it’s surprising that there are a few green-screen scenes that look terribly cheesy, especially when an actor is running parallel to a digital monster. Another quibble is the slo-mo Jackson sometimes uses to needlessly emphasize the drama. Even if the gesture is intended to slyly remind us that we’re watching a reportedly $207 million B-movie, it’s annoying. And following a middle chapter of relentless action, the gooey love stuff that occurs after Kong busts out on Broadway sure takes steam out of this juggernaut—really, when a film’s closing in on its third hour, the audience could probably do without the Beauty/Beast romantic turn around an ice rink.
It might be letting Jackson off a little easy to say that he’s merely tweaking cinematic convention. But the story’s tragic end is supposed to be boo-hooey sap, which the filmmakers emphasize by giving Ann a nasty case of Stockholm syndrome and having her reciprocate Kong’s love. But call me fangirl. Besides, the film’s gushy mood shift—which, come to think of it, also ends in a very Titanic way—is small penance for all the stunning stuff that comes before. Jackson clearly made his King Kong with geeked-out love and childlike wonder, and the result is by far the best action movie of the year.
The burden the men of Brokeback Mountain carry can be summarized with this terse exchange, which takes place the morning after a freezing night that forced them to share a tent: “You know I ain’t queer.” “Me neither.”
The big flaw—or perhaps it’s just a mainstreaming tactic—in Ang Lee’s basically enjoyable film is that before the first instance of frantic unbuckling, you’d believe those statements to be absolutely true. Indeed, even if you know the gist of E. Annie Proulx’s short story (here adapted by Lonesome Dove writer Larry McMurtry and longtime collaborator Diana Ossana), the clues that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are interested in each other are verrry subtle. The way they fidget and exchange sideways glances when they’re first hired, maybe. Or Jack’s watching Ennis walk away in his truck’s rearview mirror. And then there’s the time at the guys’ mountaintop camp when Ennis undresses to bathe and Jack steadfastly keeps his eyes averted.
But these are cowboys we’re talking about, and some viewers may see the above as simply the way men of few words size each other up or avoid looking at another guy’s prairie. It’s at least clear that over the course of their sheep-herding summer of 1963, goofy Jack and reticent Ennis do develop a sort of friendship, which mostly involves complaining about their steady diet of beans and occasionally wrestling in the grass. When the job ends, the cowboys part ways with barely a nod, with Ennis, a ranch hand by trade, off to marry his fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams), and settle down in Wyoming. Jack, a rodeo cowboy, returns to Texas, where he meets his future wife, feisty rodeo queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway).
Four years and two screaming new Del Mars later, Ennis receives a postcard from Jack asking to visit. When the men once again lay eyes on each other outside Ennis’ home, passion takes over—with Ennis foolishly embracing Jack within Alma’s view. She says nothing as the pair go off on a “fishing trip.” She says nothing when they return. This scenario repeats over the next 20 years, and another of Brokeback’s flaws is how quickly this period whizzes by, with Lee giving little indication of the years passing besides the number of kids around and the style of the wives’ hair.
And if you don’t buy the allegedly deep love that was set up in the opening scenes, the men’s decadeslong affair never seems as intense as it’s supposed to. At least not until the later years, when the warm-eyed, puppyish Jack begins suggesting—and then pleading—that he and Ennis set up household in the mountains and quit their loveless lives. Ennis, however, is against it—probably because when he was a kid, his father made him view the body of a gay-bashing victim.
Lee’s lackadaisical direction doesn’t sink the movie, however. The script is both heartbreaking and funny, often at the expense of Ennis. (When a supermarket clerk tells him that he can find his wife in the condiments aisle, he responds, “The whuut?”) And cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto makes Brokeback a beauty, especially in the opening scenes of strange mint-green hills and swirled pastel skies that look painted by Michelangelo. The landscape provides a metaphor, of course, with the openness of the country standing in sharp contrast to the restrictive suburbia that Ennis hides in. But it’s in his cramped trailer—filled with a couple who barely talk and the kids they can barely support—that the film finds its truest and most gut-wrenching emotion.
The biggest reason the Del Mars’ marriage seems the only genuine relationship in the film is because of Ledger’s and Williams’ career-making performances. Squinting under an ever-present hat and speaking with the low, wearied grumble of a man twice his age, Ledger’s Ennis is stoic and closed-off, offering only occasional hints of the head-on collision smashing in his guts. And Dawson’s Creek vet Williams is devastating as a wife who quietly carries the burden of the truth her husband won’t tell her. A love story in which you can’t feel the love might sound like a dismal failure, but in Brokeback Mountain’s case, it ain’t.CP