Tag: Adrien Brody

Blonde (2022)

Blonde (2022)

Exploitative biopic of Marilyn Monroe that doubles down on misery, discomfort and leaves you feeling rather like a Peeping Tom

Director: Andrew Dominik

Cast: Ana de Armas (Norma Jeane Mortenson/Marilyn Monroe), Adrien Brody (The Playwright), Bobby Cannavale (Ex-Athlete), Xavier Samuel (Cass Chaplin), Julianne Nicholson (Gladys Pearl Baker), Evan Williams (Edward G Robinson Jnr), Toby Huss (Whitey), David Warshofsky (Mr Z), Caspar Phillipson (Mr President), Dan Butler (IE Shinn), Sara Paxton (Miss Flynn)

Few icons had such cultural impact in the 20th century as Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Elvis – coincidentally also the subject of a 2022 biopic. Even people who have never seen a Monroe film can impersonate her or knows about that dress being blown up around her. It’s also pretty widely know she had a difficult life, troubled family and some disastrous marriages culminating in her tragically early death from an overdose. Blonde, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, dives into a heavily fictionalised account of Monroe’s life, focusing overwhelmingly on anything that could be seen as miserable, shocking and traumatic to the exclusion of almost everything else.

In doing so it’s hard not to think that, for all its attempts to shine a light on the difficulties of Monroe’s life, it’s not also partly exploiting her as well, turning her into a sort of misery porn entertainment. Over the course of nearly three hours, we see her raped at least three times, beaten, fall victim to elaborate revenge plots, forced through two blood-soaked abortions, pumped full of drugs to get her through film shoots and constantly at the centre of slavering piles of male filmgoers who scream for her attention and call her a whore the second she walks past. To say Blonde is a miserable film that’s tough to watch is putting it lightly.

Why does Marilyn put herself through it? The film offers no real answers, beyond the simplest, crudest flashes of pop-psychology possible: Daddy issues. Growing up not knowing who her father is, Marilyn’s life is a quest to find either her father or an acceptable substitute. That could be the audience, the husbands she calls “Daddy” or the hope that the person claiming to be her father who sends her a letters, might one day meet her. This is about as far as the insight goes. How issues influenced her choices and decisions is left frustratingly untold.

The film skims over the creative control she gained over her movies, the production company she set up and her skill as comic actor (it focuses much more on her dramatic Actor’s Studio work). It never once tries to understand why she continues in a career she hates so much – she had plenty of chances, even in this film, to back out – or what lured her to the silver screen and a quest for superstardom in the first place. It’s as if acknowledging Monroe worked hard to get her career would undermine the victimhood the film is determined to define her with.

The film suggests “Marilyn Monroe” is a persona put on by Norma Jean. This is another crude piece of psychology. We completely skip the years Norma Jean must have spent creating this persona and we never learn what influences it or get an understanding of “who” this Marilyn is. I suppose it’s “Marilyn” who smiles at film premieres or appears on screen: but we get little sense of how Norma Jean might have used this alternative persona to get her through the day. For all the time we spend with her, we never understand her beyond someone desperate for love with severe Daddy issues.

The film is so clumsily mishandled, its makers were reduced to stating it was not intended as an anti-abortion movie. This despite both abortions being horrifying experiences (one with a drugged Marilyn begging that she’s changed her mind, the other a late blood-soaked possible-fantasy where Marilyn is kidnapped has an implied Kennedy baby removed). Worse than this, the film Marilyn hammers home Marilyn’s sense of guilt. During her first abortion she imagines herself in a house burning down around her and later imagines a conversation with a giant foetus, which asks “Mummy why did you kill me?” and begs her not to do the same for her future babies. Not exactly the sort of messaging you expect from a #metoo film.

On top of this, Blonde is a film almost unbearably pleased with itself. This is Art with a capital A, R and T. Dominik shifts from colour to black-and-white, changes film stock and constantly shifts and changes the aspect ratio from shot-to-shot. In almost three hours, only once could I see any logic in this: as Marilyn agrees to marry Joe DiMaggio, the frame closes in on her from 2.35:1 to 4:3, a neat visual metaphor for the constricting marriage she has signed up for. Other than that, there is no rhyme or reason for any of these visual changes in the film. It doesn’t comment on the action, reflect emotional beats, delineate between reality or fantasy… it just smacks of an overindulged director using all the flashy tools for the sake of it. It becomes intensely irritating.

There is a committed lead performance from Ana de Armas (even if her Cuban accent does sneak through), who captures beautifully Monroe’s physical and vocal traits and sells what emotional titbits she is given in the salacious, muck-raking framing of the film. Her traumatic relationship with her disturbed mother, a sex-filled thruple with Hollywood princes Cass Chaplin and Eddy Robinson Jnr, raped by Darryl F Zanuck and a surprisingly-vile John Kennedy (while a TV in the background shows missiles rising – boom boom), knocked about by a jealous Joe DiMaggio (in real life he remined close to her and organised her funeral, but hey ho)… it’s all meant to be shocking but it’s all dialled up with glee of a two-bit muck-rag, flogging the hot goss.

That’s standard for the whole film, a flashy, pleased-with-itself epic that focuses on misery and pain for its subject at the cost of everything else and ends up telling us very little about her or her inner life, instead leaving us feel slightly like peeping toms for watching.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

See How They Run (2022)

See How They Run (2022)

Smug, semi-spoof murder mystery which can’t decide whether it loves or scorns the genre

Director: Tom George

Cast: Sam Rockwell (Inspector Stoppard), Saoirse Ronan (Constable Stalker), Adrien Brody (Leo Köpernick), Ruth Wilson (Petula Spencer), Reece Shearsmith (John Woolf), Harris Dickinson (Richard Attenborough), David Oyelowo (Mervyn Crocker-Harris), Charlie Cooper (Dennis), Shirley Henderson (Agatha Christie), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Ann Saville), Pearl Chandra (Selia Sim), Paul Chahidi (Fellowes), Sian Clifford (Edana Romney), Lucian Msamati (Max Mallowan), Tim Key (Commissioner Harrold Scott), Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Gio)

It’s the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (“how much longer can it run”, the characters ask. If only they knew…) and producers are in talks for a big movie adaptation. At the party, boorish American film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) offends absolutely everyone – and promptly gets murdered. Not only are the cast (including Richard Attenborough – wittily impersonated by Harris Dickinson) suspect, but also the film producers which, contractually, can only go into production when the play closes. Investigating: dishevelled Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his super enthusiastic sidekick Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

See How They Run desperately wants to be a witty commentary on Agatha Christie style locked-room mysteries. It even opens with a voiceover from Brody’s Köpernick, full of scorn for the medium and its cliches before revealing, as per form, that as the least sympathetic character he himself is about to be knocked off. To be fair, there are one or two decent jokes. But the presence of Reece Shearsmith just made me think: Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology dramady Inside No. 9 would have pulled off the same idea, but with far more wit and better understanding of Christie, in half an hour. And certainly with better jokes.

Instead See How They Run feels like it has only the most superficial understanding of Christie, based more on watching a few scenes of Poirot rather than reading the books. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out made a wittier, smarter and more enlightening commentary on Christie in its updating of the form, than this comedy ever manages. It’s never quite clear whether the makers want this to be a genuine Christie-style mystery or an inversion. Stoppard and Stalker go about their investigation in a traditional manner. The suspects all have motives of a sort. There is a definite mystery.

But it’s all lightweight and uninformed. Christie tropes are nudged and then ignored, as if the writers don’t understand them. What better opportunity could you have for Christie’s love for one mysterious character in the story turning out to be an actor in the group in disguise (invariably summarised by Poirot as “the performance of his/her life!”). There actually is a mysterious character here – but it turns out to be another person. Christie tropes around red herrings, secondary crimes, poison – all of them go unexplored.

The film ends with a deliberately counter-intuitive action sequence: but it’s not clear to me why. It’s neither particularly funny, nor does it feel like it has anything to say about the form other than offering an ending we might not expect. There is a nudge on the fourth wall (it’s the ending Köpernick wants) but what point is being made here? Is the action ending endorsing Köpernick’s belief that Christie-style mysteries are formulaic or boring, or is the shoot-out meant to look excessive and ridiculous? Is it implying everything we are watching is Köpernick’s dying fantasy? Is it a gag? I have no idea at all, and that sums up this tonal mess.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. It tries to present a genuine murder mystery – and to be fair, when it does this, it does make for a good guessing game – but also wants to take potshots at the genre. It ends up doing neither particularly successfully. And there’s something a bit unlikeable about a film that wants to feed off the audience’s love of a Golden Age detective mystery, but also kinda wants to tell you how the thing you like is actually a bit stupid – and by extension so are you.

Its humour all too often feels a little studenty and obvious – the naming of Rockwell’s character as Stoppard being a case in point (although it does make for one good gag when Pearl Chandra’s charming Shelia Sim denounces another character as “a real hound, inspector”). It eventually feels like a rather smug film, which just goes to show how hard it is to make a Christie-style mystery.

If there is a decent joke in the thing, it’s that it manages to build a film where the plot of The Mousetrap is vital to the outcome, without ever revealing anything about what happens in The Mousetrap. (Presumably, the Christie estate would have had their guts for garters if they did.) Any moment where it looks like we might learn a major event in the play, a character interrupts or someone says “I already know”. These narrative gymnastics are the most inventive thing about it.

The other thing it’s got going for it is a performance of immense charm and comic likeability from Saoirse Ronan, who has rarely been as sweet, bubbly and adorkable as she is here. Ronan’s comic timing is excellent, and Stalker’s mixture of dogged determination and chronic over-enthusiasm provides virtually all the film’s highlights. Rockwell ambles through a (perhaps deliberately) under-written role, but most of the rest of the excellent cast feel under-utilised. Who casts Shearsmith and gives him not a single joke? Sian Clifford to deliver about three lines? David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson do a lot with very little, but it’s telling that the final act appearance of Lucian Msamati and Paul Chahidi as a master-and-servant double act provides almost as much humour as the rest of the cast put together.

See How They Run passes the time – but that’s really about that. It doesn’t really have anything smart or funny to say about murder mysteries and it never offers anything truly unique or striking to justify itself (other than Ronan’s lovely performance). It’s straining as hard as it possibly can to ape the Coens or (most of all) the quirk of Wes Anderson, but totally lacks the skill and finesse of either. It feels like a film commissioned off the back of Knives Out success: but to be honest if you want to see something that brilliantly riffs off Christie while also being a bloody good mystery, just watch that instead.

The Pianist (2002)

Adrien Brody is outstanding in the compelling The Pianist

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Wilm Hosenfeld), Frank Finlay (Samuel Szpilman), Maureen Lipman (Edwarda Szpilman), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Ed Stoppard (Henryk Szpilman), Julia Raynor (Regina Szpilman), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina Szpilman), Ronan Vibert (Andrzek Bogucki), Ruth Platt (Janina Bogucki), Andrew Tiernan (Szalas)

Few directors have as personal a link with the Holocaust as Roman Polanski. As a boy, he witnessed his parents deported to their deaths, surviving only by chance, escaped the Krakow Ghetto and was sheltered by a Catholic family. The lasting impact is clear to anyone who has seen a Polanski film and he avoided Holocaust projects for decades (including Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List). The Pianist was the film he made on this trauma. Perhaps because the experience of Wladyslaw Szpilman was, in many ways, similar to his own.

Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a famous Polish concert pianist. As the German occupation begins, Szpilman and his family face the cruel downward spiral of the new regime’s anti-Semitic policies. Very quickly, laws move from a ban on Jews in public places, to wearing Star of David badges to herded into ghettos. In the ghettos, life is a terrifying struggle, as the German occupiers shift from simple bullying to acts of random, indiscriminate murder. The whim of a German soldier decides whether you live or die. Szpilman’s family are eventually deported to Treblinka, but by a twist of fate Szpilman escapes – and finds himself hiding in Warsaw for years, sheltered by the Polish resistance, desperately trying to survive until the war ends.

Polanski’s film is heart-breakingly sincere and the documentary matter-of-factness it presents appalling, unjustifiable crimes gives great power to the whole film. It never blinks or looks away, and never offers false hope or sentiment. Only the terrible realisation that nothing can have any impact on whether you live or die: death could come from as little a thing as dropping a brick. People are plucked from lines and shot, speaking at the wrong moment is a death sentence and people in wheelchairs are tipped out of fifth storey windows.

There are moments where Polanski seems to be commenting on Schindler’s List’s touches of melodrama: that film featured a Jewish man saved from death by a German officer’s gun jamming – when the same thing happens in here, the German officer calmly stops, carefully reloads the gun, checks it and shoots his victim in the head. That’s the reality. The Pianist tracks all this with a traditionalist, stable camera and a marked restraint. There is no flair, or immersion, to any of this film. Instead, it grimly and calmly shows you each horror.

There is also no sense of fate or destiny. Szpilman survives – while every other Jewish character he encounters does not – not because of things he does himself, but because of chance, luck and risks taken by others. There is a powerful will to survive in Szpilman, but you can say the same for thousands of others. And, as the film demonstrates time and again, determination and desire to live won’t save you if a German officer decides to make an example of you.

Polanski’s film is honest and shocking in its presentation of the descent into brutality in the ghetto. The film chillingly presents the viciousness of what starts as bullying – the German officers who smack Szpilman’s father (a dignified Frank Finlay) around and force him to walk in the gutter – into killing-for-sport. Literally so: German officers turf out the occupants of a building, just for the ‘fun’ of shooting them down like rabbits in their car headlights as they run away.

While the first half of the film covers the horrors of the Ghetto – from over-crowding, to deportations to the increasingly open and random violence – the second half becomes a survival tale that owes a lot to the unsettling horror films of Polanski’s early career. Hiding in a series of apartments, knowing discovery will lead to instant death, Szpilman find himself in a terrifying city where the slightest sound will condemn him. After the noise of the ghetto, the silence of these apartments – and the long periods of silence from Szpilman himself – become increasingly overbearing, while also helping build the dread of discovery.

The only sound we hear are the piano concertos Szpilman is reduced to playing in his head. Frequently Szpilman’s hands move to play an imaginary piano. In one apartment, there sits a piano he can never play: nevertheless his first act is to open it and let his hands dance perfectly above the keys, imagining the music they produce. It’s a brilliant reminder of the ordinary life he has been forced to leave behind – and how, even when things are at their worst, we cling to the things that make us human.

As Szpilman weakens and grows pale in his apartment prisons, he witnesses both the Ghetto uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Polanski treats this urban war with the same chilling matter-of-factness as the rest. From Szpilman’s window we see bodies fall and buildings burn. People slump dead in unusual, un-cinematic positions – a woman, shot in the back, falls to her knees and slumps forward – and with an abrupt, horrible finality. Only someone who has seen death in war, could film it like this.

When Szpilman finally emerges into Warsaw – a city Polanski has only let us see as Szpilman sees it, a few buildings, a street or two – he finds the city a burned-out ruin. It’s the first crane shot of the whole film, that until then has kept its formal angles down at the level Szpilman has experienced. The wreck of the city also matches Szpilman, now an emaciated, mute Beckettian tramp, clutching his only food, a can of pickles.

Despite all this, the film is full of good, brave people who help Szpilman, many of them in the Polish resistance. Most affectingly of all is the touch of hope the story offers – the last to help is a German pfficer (affectingly played by Thomas Kretschmann). The motives of this character are left vague – is it kindness, weariness with war, disgust at Nazism or just another whim – perhaps because all we know is this man, who helped many others as well, died in 1952 in a Soviet prison camp. For all that, seeing a good man in a uniform worn by so many murderers,  gives you hope something can come out of this wreckage.

At the heart is Adrien Brody, who gives a transformatively superb performance as Szpilman. Wry and dry at first, the film sees him being hollowed out into someone scared, desperate and finally emaciated and traumatised. Brody’s brilliance is in stressing there is nothing out of the ordinary to Szpilman beyond his piano playing. He has to learn to bear the guilt of having no choice but to walk away while his family are killed. But he never loses his humanity and dignity – even as a frazzled tramp, when finally allowed to play a piano, after a pause he launches into a performance of breath-taking cathartic release. It’s a superb performance.

The Pianist showcases the sadistic whim that drove the Holocaust. Death is not operatic, but functional, everyday and comes without warning. The film is unflashy, almost classical in its approach, carefully paced and un-melodramatic. But that reflects the lack of romance in war and the grinding terror and suffering of just surviving. By focusing on a single man’s story and experience, it helps us begin to appreciate that his story was just one of millions. That helps make The Pianist one of the most compelling, moving and brilliant Holocaust dramas ever made.

King Kong (2005)

Naomi Watts and a mo-cap Andy Serkis bring to life Peter Jackson’s dream in King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike)

In the late 90s Peter Jackson was working hard on putting together the plans for his dream project. It was a complex project, with unprecedented special effects demands, a huge cast, a demanding shoot and a big budget. However, plans fell through, so Jackson decided to move his attention to that Lord of the Rings trilogy idea he had been banging around instead. Hot of the success of that little escapade, he delivered at last his dream: a huge remake of King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a ruthless film director, desperate to make the big epic that will dwarf all others. Pulling together a team including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and vaudeville dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), he heads out on a ship for location shooting on the mysterious Skull Island. Arriving on the Island, they find that the savage natives aren’t the only dangers on an Island that has bypassed evolution. The crew find themselves hunted by dinosaurs, huge creepy-crawlies and other horrors all while they try to find and rescue Ann from the Island’s Alpha – a huge gorilla, King Kong (famously motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Led by Jack, who has fallen in love with Ann, dangers surround the crew – but is mankind, and the ambitious Carl, the real danger?

Time and public perception has not always been kind to Jackson’s labour of love. Perhaps coloured by the generally negative reception to his Hobbit films (which are a mess), perhaps also by the film being more of a gentle, sentimental film mixed with cartoon-splatter horror rather than the monster-mash B movie later Kong films have been, it’s generally remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is far from fair. Yes it’s overlong (hugely so at well over three hours – nearly twice as long as the original) and over-indulgent but it’s also quite a sweet, if rather tonally mixed, film that more or less manages to keep an audience entertained.

Unlike later films which have enjoyed Kong (or Godzilla) most when he smashes things – even if he is often the film’s hero or at least anti-hero – this Kong film is perhaps at its most contented when it is finding the humanity in the ape. As a 9-year old, Jackson talks about crying when Kong fell dead from the Empire State Building – and it is this engaging giant that he wants to bring to life here. Using Serkis – cementing his reputation here as the whizz of motion capture – to have a human literally inside the Gorilla, giving real expressions and genuine character to a giant ape was deliberate. The film’s most heart-felt – and quietest – moments both involve moments of gentle play or innocence from the Gorilla, either starring at a beautiful sunset (which he does both on the island and on the Empire State) or playfully slipping and sliding on a Central Park frozen lake, this is a monster that Jackson sees as a misunderstand soul, that bond he felt at 9 brought to the screen.

That’s the key between the bond that Ann feels with this beast who starts as potential killer, becomes protector, friend and finally a sort of romantic interest of a kind. Well played by Naomi Watts, Ann Darrow herself is a damaged soul, a bright-eyed, naïve dreamer with a dose of realism slowly entering her soul, who wants to entertain people but also to make her immediate world a better, warmer place. It’s natural that such a person would start to feel a deep bond with Kong, to learn to appreciate his gentleness and protectiveness, to put herself at risk to try and save his life. It’s a huge development of the character from scream-queen, and positions Ann (or tries to) as a more pro-active force in her own story.

And the ape responds to this, slowly revealing his own true nature as a potentially gentle giant, albeit one who is prepared to rip a few T-Rex’s apart to protect his love. He certainly ends up feeling more of an ideal partner for Ann than the other men in the film. Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a determined, principled and brave man but there is a touch of inadequacy to him, a surrendering of responsibility and a lack of proactivity in his make-up. While the early love story between the two characters is sensitively drawn, it tellingly can’t survive the events of Skull Island – at least not in the same way.

Mind you Driscoll is better than Denham, who is transformed in this film to a soulless monster interested only in his own greed for fame and power. Jack Black delivers what the script demands – even if the film is pushing on the edge of his range. As Black’s stock has fallen, so perhaps as some of the film’s – and the perception of his performance here. It doesn’t help that the idea of the ruthless film director seems to be a common trope for film director’s to explore (and interesting psychological question there!) so the character’s shallow lack of regard for anyone else, coupled with his fierce ambition to be the greatest showman around start to grate after a while. It’s a character lacking any depth.

But then that’s the case for most of the rest of the cast as well, who struggle to make room in a film that is overloaded with events and action to the detriment of its overall impact. Jackson’s heart may really lie in the quiet moments between beauty and beast – but he also loves an action scene. And King Kong has too many of these. Much of the middle hour of the film is given over to a never-ending parade of events on Skull Island, that after a while seize to have any real impact. As nameless crew members are crushed by boulders, or stampeding dinosaurs, or savaged by giant insects, or have their heads caved in by savage islanders (not surprisingly these H Rider Haggard style savages, with their lust for human sacrifice, drew more than a little criticism – and it hasn’t aged well) you start to feel your interest sagging. Kong’s brawl with three savage T-Rex’s is perfectly made in every respect, except for the fact it goes on forever.

Ambition lies behind every frame (all of them beautiful by the way) of this huge three hour epic monster picture – but it gets all so much that it buries the story. Like Kong himself, it touches the heavens only to fall tragically to Earth, trying to protect the thing it loves. Jackson wants to protect Kong from being just seen as a massive ape that hits things – but loses his way at times when Kong does little more than exactly that. It is still an intelligent and heartfelt film – but it struggles as well with being an uncontrolled play in the sandbox.