Welcome to the best Movie Reviews on the Web! Steven Barnes is a successful screenwriter and novelist with multiple books and TV screenplays to his credit. He is also a lot of fun to go to the movies with. His viewpoints are fun, sometimes irreverent, and always reflect the absolutely huge number of movies he has seen (where does he find time to write anyway?). Enjoy!
New Review Nov. 14, 2005
KING KONG (2005)
It is impossible to discuss Peter Jackson s staggering, beautiful, heatbreaking, exciting, overlong, magical and largely successful remake without touching on the social aspects of the film, but I m telling you right now that I give it an A. Blasphemy it may be, but Kong improves upon the original in every respect save brevity, and reveals the 1976 version for the hollow travesty it was.
I remember saying to Larry Niven that the 1976 Kong failed for multiple reasons, but looming large among them was the fact that there were no dinosaurs. Because of that omission, Kong was merely a big bully, not a king among creatures his own size. I also remember that Larry, in his uniquely Niven-ish way, grinned and said they couldn t have put dinosaurs in the movie. If they had, everyone would have forgotten about the big monkey, and taken a T-Rex back to New York.
Very funny, and while it s curious that no one really mentions the dinosaurs once they are off the island (in much the same way they never tell you HOW they got Kong onto the ship ?) I don t think its true. Kong is a thinking, feeling creature, even back in the original 1933 version, and therefore it would be infinitely easier for audiences to be fascinated, to see a reflection of
humanity in the simian that they would never have glimpsed in a raptor.
Let s get it out of the way for the two people left in the world who don t know the story: Kong is the story of an ambitious movie producer, Carl Denham (Jack Black),
who talks an unemployed actress/vaudeville performer named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) into traveling to an uncharted island to make an adventure film. Along the way she falls in love with a playwright (Andrian Brody). Oh, yeah, she meets a tall, dark stranger.
Of course, with the dancing black natives, the offer to trade several of their women for one blonde, dark-furred Kong s endless fascination with Ann, his removal to New York in chains, and even his end atop the phallic Empire State Building have triggered endless essays on the racial subtext of Kong, and it would make sense for me to comment on this, but before I do, just let me say: Wow. Probably the best time I ve had at the movies this year. And yes, it s too long.
I think that the original Kong would have been made even had black people not existed, even if the unfortunate history of slavery had not created the tensions we deal with to this very day.
On the other hand, I think that part of the reason for Kong s enduring success DOES have to do with that racial tension but that that is only one of the major aspects. From time to time a story emerges from the unconscious of a writer that strikes deeper chords. Did Miriam Cooper
intend a racial metaphor? I m sure he was at least partially aware of it, but there are other important aspects, and director Jackson obviously read every essay on this film
he could get his hands on: what we see on the screen strongly suggests a director aware of his project s history.
1) Evolution of man. Zoos and circuses are popular at
least in part because the natural world used to be (in part)
a place of horror. The sight of lions and tigers balancing
on balls, where once they were the terrors of the night,
triggers awe and laughter. How far we have come! How
mighty we are as a species, ruler of the planet! The fact
that mere humans could conquer any beast alive,
including the King of them all, speaks to something within
that ancestral memory.
2) We see ourselves within Kong unevolved mankind. The
sight of the most powerful primate who ever lived come
face to face with his descendants has resonance.
3) Yes, there is inevitable racial subtext. (And yes, the black
First Mate in Jackson s film dies spouting Spiritual Guide
twaddle, trying to save a white woman, and protecting a
young white boy. Wonderful.) But Jackson has made the
natives racially indistinct, and there is a self-aware quality
to the scene of black dancers onstage in Jackson s utterly
phenomenally re-created New York that says that the
director was aware, and using aspects of that tension to
4) The aspect that Jackson worked hardest was the ancient
pull between men and women.
There a guy who used to teach relationship seminars. His theory: Men are gorillas, and women are gorilla tamers. And that attitude is a powerful ingredient in this particular
cinematic mix. Ann is given to Kong on the island, but after seeing the deadly nature of the other creatures there, she gladly accepts his guardianship, dancing and juggling to amuse him, to catch his attention.
The fact that that bond leads to Kong s destruction devastates her, as well it should.
The use of Adrian Brody as the sensitive playwright who becomes an action hero to save his beloved is fascinating. He is so thin and sensitive, his eyes so wounded that I
almost wish it had been Brody, and not Andy Serkis, who enacted Kong s facial expressions on the other hand, that would have been seriously on-the-nose.
I would consider myself a sexist, but not a chauvinist. In other words, yes, I think there are important differences between men and women. No, I don t think one gender
is superior to another, or that either gender has the right to control or dominate the other. That said, I think that women can be, and have been, a seriously civilizing influence on men. Marriage from one perspecive is much like hooking a race-horse to a plow. I ve always had the lingering
sense that young girls are better prepared for the realities of life than young men. Boys are playing cowboy, secret agent, space man, explorer, whatever none of which will
they ever be. At the same time, girls are playing nurse, mommy, throwing tea parties and inviting the neighborhood boys. However limiting that may be, at least it actually
prepares them for the lives they will live. I think that men are stunned by how much they want and need women, and the degree to which they abandon their dreams of wildness
and freedom for a steady supply of sex.
Sure, there s more to it than that, by a long shot. But sex opens the doorway to love, and to an entire type of spiritual awareness, the continuance of life, the birth of hope in the
form of a child. Women are the doorway to this, and men are both repelled and hypnotized by that mystery.
Kong is that aspect of the male-female relationship, writ large indeed. One reviewer says that Ann teaches Kong to understand beauty. Wrong. She teaches him the word
or symbol for beauty, but he already understands. Already watches the sunset every day, and when Ann touches her heart, saying Beautiful she is not only teaching the
word, she is also associating herself with the sunset. I am beautiful she is also saying. I am valuable. Protect me. And so Kong does. She gives him a gift, a doorway into his heart. The first gentleness he has ever known since the death of his mother. And it is quite probable
that Kong would consider the loss of his life worth this contact, however brief, with another being.
The sensitive Brody and the Brute Kong both love Ann. Brody must win, or all of civilization, all of society devolves and dies. The wonderful Jackson teased out that theme, developed it far more powerfully than in the original, and around it has created a fantastic entertainment,
with the thrills and chills one might ordinarily find in five good movies. Is it too much at times? Yes.
But so was the natural world. I ve seen human beings living very, very close to that edge, and it s not pretty. I look at the glittering cities we have created, and felt a sense of loss along with the sense of accomplishment. And I know that one of the forces driving that development is the desire to keep more of our children alive. The urge to provide our families with everything
they need. The ancient tug of war between man and woman, each trying to make the world in their own image. Survival. Sex. Power. Love.
When Kong climbs the Empire State Building in his futile, courageous stand against technology, he is the primal male animal that must be subsumed within the intellectual, the artist, to survive and evolve. Yes, he represents native cultures. Yes, he represents the black man but only insofar as race or culture differences interact with either of these deeper, more primal conflicts.
We have won so much. We have lost so much. Men and women love each other so dearly, and are locked in mortal combat for meaning and freedom. It is sad, and it is wonderful, and it is us, our species, our history, our destiny.
The original Kong is arguably the most mythic Hollywood film. Jackson has done it proud.
The Matrix Revolutions: rated A-
In giving this film an A- I am assuming that the reader cares about the series premise: that humanity lost a war with the machines, and the majority of those humans were captured or somehow became sleeping pod-people, bioenergetic power sources who merely dream of the world as we know it. That a small group of freedom-fighters have sequestered themselves deep in the earth in a city called Zion , and that a single remarkable human being named Neo has the ability to move through the consensus reality (called The Matrix ) with unusual power. He is, in essence, the only hope of humanity.
There s bad news and good news about the Matrix Revolutions ,
the concluding part of the Matrix trilogy. The bad news
is that Revolutions will likely make no new fans of its
mythology. The good news is that it s about twice as good as Reloaded ,
which I would have rated as a B- for what felt like an overload of philosophy,
martial arts sequences that seemed perfunctory and obligatory, and a sense
of bridge-itis that often seems to infect the middle section
of a trilogy.
One thing to comment on, that many other reviewers seem reticent to address directly, is the racial composition of Zion. Zion is about 80% dark-skinned people much like the real world. The Matrix, as presented in both the original film and Reloaded , is almost exclusively white. In other words, much has been made of the Wachowski Brothers playing with levels of reality. NOTHING has been said about the fact that audiences were confronted with the reality that they themselves are a part of the Matrix that through endless repetitions of images in a hundred years of cinema, we ve come to accept a faux view of the body human, one so parochial that until the 70 s, no one even NOTICED that fantasy, science-fiction and action films were so white they might have all taken place in Luxembourg.. If you look carefully at many of the most negative reviews of the second film, you will sense a creeping unease with the racial imagery. Comments about the Shaka Zulu dance routine are common, and if you look at the fan sites, people are blunter still.
These guys have punched a powerful cultural button, creating the only successful piece of popular film entertainment I can think of that dares to push gender roles, sexual roles, racial roles, and the barriers of conceptualization that bind human beings at mediocre levels of awareness and accomplishment, and keep us slaves of the machine. I suspect the Haters are going to come out in force this time. None of them will say what really disturbs them does any reviewer anywhere admit to sexism, racism, homophobia? And yet can anyone be liar enough to suggest that these poisons do not exist at all? Between the two extremes lies the truth that we are all uncomfortable about certain things, that we all live in a constructed reality gay and straight, black and white, left and right, male and female and we are uncomfortable when that barrier is pushed. I suspect that there s a lot of discomfort here.
That said, the movie is NOT perfect, but it is spectacular, moving,
and ultimately a satisfying completion to one of the great, great cinematic
sagas. The entire cycle of three creates one hell of a story. And if it
isn t perfect, what it is, more than any piece of successful popular
science fiction in a long time, is genuinely provocative, challenging,
intelligent, and entertaining. And, it seems, to a large proportion of
the establishment, unsettling as hell.
I loved it.
OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001)
Back in the 60's, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. used to have a hellaceous good time drinking, gambling and partying--and incidentally entertaining audiences in Vegas like crazy. They were united for the first of (I believe) three times in a film called OCEAN'S ELEVEN which dealt with a former commando squad re-uniting to pull off a casino heist. Well, it's the Naughts now, and George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and Don Cheadle have united to creat an old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment of vast star power and zero depth. Don't get me wrong--that last wasn't intended as a slam. In these times, "zero depth" can mean much-needed fun. And director Soderberg delivers. Does he ever. More sheer mindless fun than I've had at a movie all year. Put your brain on hold and check this film out. A nearly perfect example of the kind of movie only Hollywood makes. For what it is, give it NINE AND A HALF STARS.
BATS (Lou Diamond Phillips)
Well, I'm not going to apologize--here's an old-fashioned PG-13 horror film with a smattering of violence, no sex, and lots and lots of scary flying things, released just in time for Halloween. The plot? Well, there's this flock of bats clustering around this little town in Arizona, and folk's are ending up just as dead as hell. The good guys gotta stop 'em. That's about it, and if it sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is. I liked it, but then I had my 12-year-old hat on, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Give it a SIX, less if you can't take a joke, more if you subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland until you were 20, and still pick up Fangoria every month.
FIGHT CLUB (Brad Pitt, Edward Norton)
Well, I suppose I'll eventually have to forgive David Fincher for ALIEN 3 (a truly bad and evil film, in my humble opinion), and FIGHT CLUB is a major reason why. A film best described by the words "go see it", it deals with the disassociation and malaise of a generation of men who feel that their identity, as men, is meaningless in a modern, post-feminist, consumerist society. They find their identity in an escalating spiral of nihilistic, violent mischief, beginning with the bare-knuckle back alley sport suggested by the title, and ending...well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?
We'll just say that the film definitely mirrors my personal theories of male-female personality (note, however, that the female lead in this film, played by Helena Bonham Carter does not represent women as a whole--only the sort of woman who could possibly enter into this film's particular dysfunctional world), especially when people define themselves as their "male-ness" or "female-ness" as opposed to their humanity. Incredibly violent and hard to watch at times, it is also bracing, honest in a tragi-comic sort of way, and opens a needed dialogue in the gender wars. I loved it, but for any viewer less twisted and/or comfortable with runaway male energy than me, I'll have to just give it an EIGHT.