For so many reasons, King Kong (1933) is one of the great films in cinema history. For a vast majority of film fans, including myself, I think the film captures the innocence and wonderment that made a lot of us addicted to this art long ago.
There is I guess a sense of innocence about the film itself too. During the opening credits, as the cast is being listed, King Kong himself gets a mention. I’m not sure why, but I found that just utterly endearing when it popped up watching it through this time. Also suggesting some form of innocence is that this is a straightup adventure flick. An old fashioned genre in some ways and I think one that taps into some sort of base innocent longing in all of us, to both journey and to belong. And I guess for some of us, to conquer. The final aspect of King Kong that influences my view of this film as some sort of blast from the past that can never be repeated is the first time I saw any of it. I remember as a child walking out of my room because I couldn’t sleep. It felt like the latest time in the world but more accurately it was probably like 10:30pm. And I recall my parents were up watching King Kong on telly. I was just blown away. I was not into old movies at the time, but I just remember being so blown away by what I was seeing, so enraptured in the wondrous images that were in front of me. I don’t remember what part of the film they were up to, but it was on the island and I distinctly remember Kong being on screen.
But in addition to all this supposed innocence arising from my relationship to the film and that is in its actual makeup, this is also a stunningly good film. A great adventure flick is bloody hard to make, hence there are so few of them. The film focuses on Carl Denham, a John Huston-esque (although of course Huston wouldn’t appear on the scene for quite some time) director who films his movies in exotic far off locales. Bowing to pressure from the studio and the public, he casts Ann Darrow played iconically by Fay Wray as a love interest in his latest flick. Humourously, none of the agents in town trust him with their female clientele, so Ann is a woman on the street that he finds the night before they set sail, selling her on the promise of “money, adventure and fame”. It is just such a purely great tale of adventure. The cast and crew sail to an unchartered distant island, where they run into Kong, a humungous ape. I never realised just how many decidedly awesome monsters there were in this film. A stretch through the middle plays like an (awesome) video game, as our fearless heroes are pitched into boss battle after boss battle – a freaking plesiosaur, a stegosaurus, a pterodactyl, a t-rex, that huge scaryarse snake thing (that I think technically may have legs) and so on. That battle with the t-rex is one of the greatest set piece battles of all time, and is so well choreographed as well. It manages to seamlessly blend boxing and wrestling moves into the action and does so without looking completely silly.
Of course it is impossible to talk about this film without talking of the design of the creatures and the effects work that brings them to life. The character of Kong is clearly the star of the show here and the effort that has gone into his design reflects that. So much skill and detail has gone into the character, even the close-ups of his face look great today and they look different each time the shot is shown. He is just such a menacing presence that has been brought to life. There is no doubting aspects of the effects are dated. But most importantly they work. So many contemporary films spend too much time making effects look all glossy and perfect whilst totally forgetting to have them make me actually feel something. These effects, the best part of 80 years old, really made me feel emotion. I felt a whole heap of emotion when that stegosaurus is shot in the head early on. Did I mention it has dinosaurs yet? Dinosaurs! Dinosaurs make everything better… hell even The Tree of Life (2011) was made vastly better because of the presence of dinosaurs. Outside of the effects, the film just looks great overall. The ocean set sequences, even to this day on the DVD I bought at Salvos years ago, these parts of the film still really pop.
Like so many films of this vintage, there are some aspects that are not exactly in tune with a contemporary sensibility. Attitudes toward women and the depiction of the ‘natives’ are the two that immediately spring to mind. Most everything else still works exceedingly well though. The early on part where it appears Anne will be sacrificed is still genuinely effective at creating great tension. Wray gives a really wonderful performance in this film, she grabs your attention as the viewer early on and never really lets it go. The scene where she lets out her first scream is a bloody great moment. The sound of the scream and the reaction of the rest of the characters is just great and sets the tone for the numerous other screams that are to follow. I guess there is a counter argument or another side to the film to the innocence that I associate it with. Aspects of the film are rather brutal. The rampage that Kong goes on just before his capture, in which he quite mercilessly grinds a couple of locals to death slowly and methodically for example. Then obviously there is the fate of Kong which is a cold moment I feel. Although I think that his capture and eventual death do also say a lot about the suppression of Kong, who was once a king or even a god in his own land but is now enslaved. I think there is a definite subtext there. Also a more obvious allusion is the effect of attempts to tame or domesticate what is wild.
Sorry for the long review, I just kind of got on a bit of a roll there. In any case, when I try and think of a greater adventure film in history than King Kong, nothing particularly springs to mind. For good ol fashioned filmmaking that still works 100% today, this is your film.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Director John Cassavetes is one of the most iconic names in American independent cinema. After watching the incredible Shadows (1959) I have to agree that such a reputation is warranted.
Set in New York, the film loosely follows three siblings living together in the late 1950s. The eldest brother is clearly African American, whilst his younger brother and baby sister are more pale skinned and at times throughout the film pass for white. This fact gives the film its major highpoint in terms of narrative conflict. Lelia, the female of the family, starts a passionate and loving relationship with Tony. Although it is only early in their relationship, not to mention the fact there have been tribulations up to this point, the couple seems to be headed in the direction of some sort of lasting bond. But just as Tony is leaving one day he happens across Hugh, Lelia’s eldest brother. Seeing Hugh, the fact that Lelia is in fact African American dawns on Tony and he reacts appallingly. Cassavetes is too clever a filmmaker to make this an over the top response though. But Tony is horrified that he has been sleeping with a woman of a different race and the excellent performance from Anthony Ray conveys to everyone the gravity of his shameful reaction. The performance of Ray and the way this entire scene is handled is one of many examples of the film refusing to portray simplistic interracial interactions at any level.
Some people reduce the whole point of the film to this singular moment. Whilst there is no doubting that it is both the most dramatic narrative event and moist pointed social commentary (Tony is not some redneck, rather a bohemian literary type) in the film, there is much more going on. Throughout the course of the film’s taut 82 minutes, Cassavetes crafts really satisfying character arcs for all three of the siblings. He shifts attention from one to the next, but never by completely abandoning attention on the others. I would say the focus of the film is actually on all three, rather than just on Lelia. The fourth main character the film focuses on is the very specific New York of the film which is populated by beatniks, literary types and guys looking to booze & fight. There is an openness also to various taboo subjects such as sex, specifically the physical and emotional pain of losing one’s virginity, and interracial relationships that helps to flesh out this world. In terms of shooting, the film is shot in a way that makes it look not cheap, but definitely grimy and a little underground. Obviously in part this probably reflects the budget that Cassavetes was saddled with, but it also reflects the world the characters live in, on the fringes. And it looks great.
Initially, some of the results from the film’s budget limitations can be a little distracting. The poor dubbing of the characters voices, which means they are pretty out of sync I found especially noticeable. Before long though, the film’s rhythm takes over and that is no longer a consideration. The film really does have a rhythm too. Most obviously from the wonderful jazz soundtrack courtesy of Charles Mingus that plays almost continuously through the film, but also from the cigarettes, dive bars, sex and street smart dialogue that the film is soaked in. Indeed it was the dialogue that really gave me a way into the film. It is at least semi unscripted, but excepting a rare occurrence early in the film that jars, this approach to narrative flows and makes the film feel realistic. The dialogue is helped by the fact that the performances, from the predominantly non-professional cast, are all really good. Especially from Lelia Goldoni as Lelia who brings to life a strong, individualist woman who is the perfect combination of naiveté and world-awareness. She is a figure of both gender and racial empowerment who cannot be handled by any of the men in her life, except her brothers who love her in the right way.
I really loved Shadows. It had that effect that some great films do that I just want to race out and get my paws on everything that Cassavetes ever made. To witness a quite different kind of master director at work, I can’t recommend this film enough. It is a wonderful snapshot, both of an original approach to the filmmaking process and of a time and place that Hollywood would never have bothered to spend a little time in.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Nothing has been able to get me out of the house this week, away from madly watching films preparing for the Blue Mountains Film Festival. Not even a couple of my most anticipated films of the year have been able to pry me out of the house and into the cinema. Nothing would break my resolve.
Nothing that is, except that the Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive brought To The Wonder (2012) to the big screen here in Canberra. I have no real idea why Terrence Malick’s latest film was given essentially no cinematic release here in Australia. But given I consider Tree of Life (2011) one of my top 5 favourite films of all time, this was worth heading out of the house for.
There are plenty of critics of To the Wonder who would suggest that this was not time well spent. I am not amongst them. Mark me down in the minority who love this film and who believe it is an honourable entry into one of screen history’s more remarkable bodies of work. I actually think that the narrative of this film is more straightforward than most of Malick’s work. It is a love story, the peaks and troughs of love and passion. Furthermore this narrative is brought to life relatively simply, so that it is easy to follow. Don’t get me wrong, the presentation is slow (some would say laborious) and unorthodox (except for Malick), but the telling, the central thread, is simple enough. Characters played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (Neil and Marina the credits tell us, but I don’t recall that coming up in the actual film) fall in and out of love. That is it. In some ways much of the film is incredibly schmaltzy, but told in the unschmaltziest way imaginable. In the end it strikes the nuance that occurs in real life. Feelings are not just torn in two. There is not just love or just hate between two people. But the two feelings fighting and scratching against each other.
If you have ever watched and enjoyed a Terrence Malick film, you know the kind of visual splendour you are in for with this film. However here he brings some decidedly different images. It is not a simple examination of natural or rural environs. The incredible imagery covers a lot of ground – cities, towns, ranches and a focus on mining. These images are used to examine the effect that all of these aspects of society have on the environment around them. In a way, just as frightening as the snarling mining equipment is the house that Neil and Marina live in, right on the edge of the urban sprawl. A lone outpost of suburbia, the interim space between the rural and the urban. But soon to be joined by innumerable other ‘little boxes all the same’. One last note on the visual side of things, I was lucky enough that the Arc cinema has 4K digital projection and it was the sharpest I can recall a film looking. Stunning projection.
In terms of performances, it is Olga Kurylenko who carries the film. Affleck is there, and he is good. But his is a secondary role, not submissive but kept intentionally quiet and distant. Kurylenko though is very good in the difficult role of a woman struggling to find her place in a relationship, let alone the world. Thematically the film covers a lot of ground. At its heart it is about the transformative power of someone new in your life. Even if the initial jolt of change that person brings cannot be entirely sustained, it does not mean you have not been changed forever. At heart, no matter where the film goes, I think the opening reveals Malick to be a real romantic. Above all, he is a believer in the redemptive power of love. Perhaps the most ponderous aspect of the film is the role of the local priest played by Javier Bardem and that of faith more broadly. His is a character that almost exists on the fringes of the film. He visits the poorer parts of the local community, attempting to minister his good word. He does not appear very successful. It is apt that he is on the fringes of sorts, as the overwhelming sense you get from the character is that he is ultimately a very lonely one. He never entirely integrates into the narrative just as he has never fully integrated anyone else into his confidence. The role that this character plays in the film is one of the aspects of it that I will be most keen to take another look at when I next check the film out. To the Wonder is a film that you do have to actively watch, but not in a way that makes it a chore. You just have to be on guard, as oftentimes fleeting scenes and images are some of the most important or emotive of the whole film.
Like all Terrence Malick films, To the Wonder will require repeat viewings to garner all of its meaning. But the first viewing for me was an extremely enjoyable one, and like all of the great director’s films, for me it was an almost transcendent one. Malick has the power to make me deeply think like no one else working today. All the while putting some of the most awe-inspiring images that you will ever see in a cinema right there in front of me.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Buster Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin, are the contemporary faces of film comedy from the silent era. Whilst Chaplin was probably more renowned during their actual careers, if anything Keaton’s reputation and Filmography is probably more renowned today. In a career of almost universally loved features, The General (1926) is generally considered his greatest work.
The film is a phenomenal one, partly because it works on a bunch of levels and functions as an example of multiple genres. This is in my view probably the best comedy in history. Add to that the fact that it is also a wonderful love story, action film, war film and example of stuntwork and you can see why it is so loved. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer who attempts to enlist for the South during the Civil War. His application is rejected on the grounds that his work as an engineer is more important to the cause. His beloved Annabelle however does not know the reasons behind his rejection and accuses him of cowardice, no longer wanting anything to do with him. Fast forward a year and the devious North have hatched a plot to steal a train from the South and utilise it to blow up their supply routes. The train they happen to steal is being driven by Johnnie and also has Marion accidently stowed away.
What follows is surely the greatest chase sequence in all of cinema, lasting a good half an hour. The whole thing is helter skelter and Keaton also somehow manages to give proceedings a simultaneous feeling of both danger and fun. A sequence where our hero is actually sitting on the front of his locomotive balancing large pieces of wood perhaps the most iconic example. Keaton delivers plenty of these iconic images actually, such as him sitting on the wheel of the train as it moves and the huge set piece involving a train and a burning bridge toward the end of the film. The director/star must have been quite the athlete in his day, because the stunts that he pulls off will leave your jaw dropping. It doesn’t hurt that the actor is always willing to put his body (and probably his life) on the line, over and over. A totally fearless man, who knows how he would survive in today’s Hollywood, filled with insurance policies and stuntmen. On a comedic level, one of the reasons that the film succeeds so spectacularly is because Keaton employs a wide array of techniques to garner laughs – from typically over the top slapstick to much subtler, clever methods. The score on the version I watched (which is also the one I am giving away this week), composed by Joe Hisaishi in 2001, is fantastic and really enhances the viewing of the film. As does the fact that the print is a wonderfully sharp one. It is great to see older films being restored and presented in this way.
To put it bluntly, The General is a masterpiece. It is one of my top 5 favourite films of all time and on many days it would be my number 1. If you haven’t seen it, then I highly urge you to seek it out. I think it is probably the most charming film I have ever seen and also such a brilliant example of the comedy genre.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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