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This Life (1996)
Postscript: This Life +10
Part of what made This Life such a landmark television series was its uncompromising trendiness its utter refusal to comply with standard dramatic devices. The shaky camera, the rough cuts, the sex and the swearing were genuinely ground-breaking, which is why Amy Jenkins' decision to make a one-off comeback 10 years on has just a tinge of sell-out about it. I suppose this is how die-hard Beatles fans felt when Paul McCartney released the Frog Chorus.
Still, getting a glimpse of the whole "what happened next?" thing is always intriguing. In This Life +10 the group of law graduates reunite for gay biker Ferdy's funeral. The cause of his demise remains unexplained (maybe Ramon Tikaram was busy that day) though we do learn that he got it together with Welsh milksop Warren (Jason Hughes) in the years following the end of the series.
It is swiftly apparent however that the five original housemates have drifted apart: Anna (Daniella Nardini) is the only practising lawyer and has quickly motored up the ranks of high-class defence attorneys; Miles (Jack Davenport) has acquired a country mansion, a hotel business and a Vietnamese bride; Egg (Andrew Lincoln) has written a best-selling novel based on the gang's experiences and is still with Milly (Amita Dhiri) who has popped a sprog; and Warren is dealing with Ferdy's death admirably thanks to his burgeoning career as a life coach/self help guru.
Egg's status as a celebrity author prompts a sexy young filmmaker to organise a reunion between the flatmates at Miles's stately pile as part of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and this is where the faintly absurd amateur psychology and pent-up tension begins to emerge.
But, hey, this is a study in recent social history after all and Jenkins just about gets away with the clichéd set-up largely thanks to the edginess of the group dynamic (which is still as well observed as ever) and the chemistry between Lincoln and Davenport whose old buddy routine provides just about the only realistic friendship of the whole lot of them.
Frankly the whole project is little more than an excuse to drum up the old neuroses and insecurities that plague those trying to come to terms with lost youth: Career woman versus housewife? Playboy versus responsible adult? Clapham Common cottager versus weird, over-analysing sperm donor? They are the identity crises that face us all
Still there is much to enjoy. The soundtrack to Egg's ostentatious cooking routines and the group's booze-fuelled slanging matches has shifted from Massive Attack and Portishead to The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs the use of contemporary music once again proving integral to This Life's success - but, in a nice conceit, as the action comes to a climax, the whole gang dance around like middle-aged loons to the Manic Street Preachers. Clearly these are nineties children at heart.
Whether intentional or not, there is a spooky symmetry between the fates of the characters and their real life alter egos. Miles's success in industry and Egg's fame mirror the career paths of Davenport and Lincoln who clearly didn't need this nostalgic trip down memory lane as much as the others and it is a tribute to their evident respect for Jenkins and the original series that they agreed to the reunion at all.
The biggest problem with the show has always been empathy. These people are egotistical, hopelessly unstable and borderline unlikeable - but they perfectly bring out the screwed-up wretch in all of us. One can easily forgive Jenkins her indulgence, for This Life +10 is a triumph of reminiscence and guilty pleasures.
The Last Hangman (2005)
A Dirty Job
Albert Pierrepoint was Britain's most prolific executioner, overseeing the hanging of more than 600 condemned men and women including Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Lord Haw Haw. Adrian Shergold's film starring Timothy Spall in the title role is a dark period piece exploring the stark relationship between compassion and work ethic.
Pierrepoint approaches his grisly duties with pride, professionalism and a stoical detachment a third generation hangman, he is well accustomed to checking his personal life at the prison gate while he gets on with the job at hand.
But duty and morality are constantly battling in the back of his mind - a struggle neatly illustrated when he is seconded to Germany after the War and tasked with dispatching Nazi war criminals. His clinical work here is deliberately and uncomfortably linked to the crimes of the Nazis who gassed their Holocaust victims with the same brutal precision.
Back in England, as liberalism begins to take hold and high-profile executions enrage a population bubbling with discontent, Pierrepoint's reputation in the eyes of the public slides swiftly and irretrievably from British war hero to callous murderer a bewildering descent perfectly captured by Spall's mesmerising performance. Juliet Stevenson is not bad either as Pierrepoint's loyal wife gradually embittered by years of turning the other cheek at her husband's double life.
The film celebrates dignity and humanity but is laced with a uniquely British attitude evocative of Vera Drake and The Remains of the Day. Like these earlier social dramas, Pierrepoint culminates memorably in a momentary quivering of its previously resolute stiff upper lip.
Super Size Me (2004)
Pointless but Entertaining
I was travelling through America just as this movie came out on DVD and the improbably named Morgan Spurlock was touting his wares all over the place. On the promotional material French-fries (or, to give them their correct name, "chips") were crammed into his smug, opportunistic handlebar-moustache-surrounded gob, and all indications were that this was merely another leftie having a pop at the big corporations in a bid to make a name for himself.
A month eating nothing but McDonalds? Pah. Gimmicky nonsense, I thought.
Over a year later I actually sat down and watched the thing, and I'm big enough to admit I was only partly right. It IS gimmicky nonsense, but there is an undeniable charm to Super-Size Me that I never gave it credit for.
First the nonsense: It is supposedly a damning indictment of American fast food and the grotesque effect it is having on an increasingly obese and inert population. OK, it won some awards, but it strikes me that movie academies are now handing out Golden Globes and Oscar nominations for stating the obvious.
Of course eating nothing but burgers and fries and fillet-O-fish is going to leave you bloated, pallid and unhealthy. Do the same thing at Claridges a month's worth of gorging on foie gras, Beef Wellington, crème brule and all the trimmings - and you're going to feel pretty soporific and have a distinctly Stilton-y taste in your mouth.
Spend a month drinking nothing but Jack Daniel's and you're likely to wind up dead. But no-one's going to win any awards for dragging round a film crew while they swig relentlessly from a brown paper bag, belch loudly and aim wayward punches at passers-by (otherwise Judy Finnegan would have a stack of statuettes to balance out the empties).
Actually sitting down and watching Super-Size Me has not caused me to change my opinion on the futility of Spurlock's experiment, but it is at least an entertaining ride. There are splendidly jovial pokes at twitchy authority figures and ingeniously selected vox pops with crazed Big Mac addicts and porky consumers.
Most importantly for the success of the documentary, Spurlock himself is disarmingly engaging. He employs an unashamedly Michael Moore approach but does not have the same swagger or self-importance. And though his findings do lead to negative conclusions, he does not overtly condemn McDonalds, just urges caution and moderation.
The physical evidence is pretty compelling Spurlock put on two stone and his GP labelled him a medical phenomenon his liver was on the kind of fast-track to oblivion usually reserved for career alcoholics and his cholesterol and body mass index sky-rocketed.
Predictably he spends a fair amount of time forecasting doom and gloom for a nation of inactive children addicted to fast food, but for an advocate of healthy school dinners he comes across as considerably less punchable than our own Jamie Oliver.
A hint to his motivation for this film could probably be found in Spurlock's fearsome girlfriend, who just happens to be a Vegan chef. At one juncture she quizzes him over his affection for meat and suggests that ham is as addictive as heroin. Maybe stuffing his chops with chicken McNuggets and double quarter-pounders was just a cunning way of avoiding her lentil pie.
Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
Tuturro Faces the Music
Direction duties on the latest Coen brothers release have been entrusted to an able lieutenant in John Tuturro the scene-stealing actor from O Brother, Where Art Thou, Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski. In his hands, Romance and Cigarettes embraces all the staple Coen nuances but is unsettlingly gritty less kitsch, more kitchen sink.
Predictably, the film is just a fraction beyond offbeat. For starters it is a musical original songs and irreverent covers belch incongruously through the pithy dialogue and, while appearing slightly amateurish at times, in the main it is shot with a grimy panache.
The anti-hero is Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) - an overweight, chain-smoking construction worker who is married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon), but having a torrid affair with ballsy English slapper Tula (Kate Winslet). Nick has a trio of daughters (Mandy Moore precocious sex bomb, Mary Louise Parker punk and Aida Tuturro chubby mummy's girl) who pass the time knocking out grungey rock music in their back garden. Plot-wise, that's about your lot - superficially, the movie is about a family coping with adultery, but this is the Coen brothers, so there are always points of interest lurking in the mundane subject matter.
If you're going to have a stab at unconventional drama, it is best to arm yourself with some quality to beef up your oddballs. So Tuturro has called in favours from Steve Buscemi who raises more than a few chortles as Nick's philosophising co-worker, and an elaborately coiffed Christopher Walken who lends the fancy footwork he cultured on that Fatboy Slim video to some of the more surreal dance sequences. Weirder still is Eddie Izzard's new age church choir organist who distributes marital advice to Mrs. Murder in between belting out gospel hits.
A stellar cast then, and one cannot fault the promotional poster, which is so dominated by Winslet's mountainous, and, let's face it, almost certainly air-brushed breasts (no offence Kate) that it has been crudely censored on the London Underground.
The poster hints at Winslet being some sort of femme fatale, but she actually has few scenes to demonstrate anything other than jiggling, pouting and athletic sexual gymnastics. Much of her dialogue (delivered in an ambiguously mid-Pennines northern accent) is absolutely filthy dirty and is, if you close your eyes, uncomfortably evocative of Kathy Staff in Last of the Summer Wine. No wonder I had nightmares afterwards.
Winslet is following in the footsteps of Helena Bonham Carter, shrugging off the corset and the irritating "English rose" label by taking increasingly earthy roles. Serious, cerebral critics (their spectacles steaming up with every cleavage shot) will no doubt call this performance "brave", "challenging" or even "career defining". More realistically, she probably saw it as an ideal chance to prance around in hot pants and spout smut breathlessly into a telephone whilst trying desperately not to giggle. Either way, it's obviously some sort of trend among English actresses watch out for Keira Knightley in the new remake of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
But beneath the silliness beats a mournful heart. The Coens' influence, though undeniably prominent, does not swamp Tuturro's serious side and the last third of the movie sees a significant mood change.
Buscemi, Walken and the quirky choreography take a back seat as Gandolfini and Sarandon muscle their way to the fore. It is an impressively gripping finale to a curiously disjointed film, and one which, on balance, just about tips it towards triumph rather than turkey.
The story is wafer thin and the musical set pieces veer dangerously between hit and miss. Frankly it's a bit of a shambles at times, but no less enjoyable for that.
Hoffman's tour de force leaves little room for entertainment
It's easy to say actors are "born to play" certain roles, and, without question, Philip Seymour Hoffman bears a striking resemblance to the notorious writer and professional celebrity Truman Capote. But this is no easy ride. It is a film that ruthlessly exploits the perfection of its casting with constant tight close-ups focussing on Hoffman's extraordinary facial contortions and rambling monologues in his uncannily accurate tinny drawl.
We follow Capote as he researches his most famous book the documentary novel "In Cold Blood" a shocking story about the massacre of a respectable family in a sleepy Kansas town. In particular, it reveals how the author developed an eerie fascination with one of the perpetrators, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr) a brooding drifter on death row. This obsession ends up jeopardising the legal process and serves to paint Capote as complex, neurotic and relentlessly unlikeable.
At the endless fashionable soirees he attends, he surrounds himself with fawning sycophants and even though he enjoyed famously close relationships with iconic women (including Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor) in the film his cronies are faceless yes-men and ghastly society hags who hang on his every word and laugh uproariously at each self-congratulatory anecdote.
This superciliousness is neatly contrasted by the gruff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) - the Kansas lawman in charge of the murder investigation. He is unimpressed by Capote's patronising tales of New York high society, and brings some much-needed perspective to what is, essentially, a gruesome multiple homicide.
The two most important people in Capote's life gently attempt to instil some of this compassion in their flighty chum: "In Cold Blood" is dedicated to best friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), and they come across as caring and unbelievably patient, but both are criminally under-appreciated. The crunch comes when Capote is sitting alone at the premiere of the film version of Lee's even more revered novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" unable to offer her any congratulations as he is too busy wallowing in his own self-pity. This is the moment we lose any straggling empathy.
While his book contains exhaustive characterisation of the victims and the killers, the movie has little in the way of back-story. It is a troubling letdown for viewers looking to understand what is a shocking crime and develop compassion for the Clutter family. The flashbacks to the killings are late in arriving and serve merely as jolting snippets of ultra-violence, rather than emotional stepping-stones.
This is a movie that is unapologetically egotistical. Its fixation with Capote directly represents the character's own self-absorption. As such, Hoffman's Oscar is a triumph of role-ownership. He truly manages to maintain interest and repay the viewer's investment in a film where the detachment is disquieting and the lack of any real redemption is a constant niggle.
The Bone Collector (1999)
Denzel Prone to Over-Acting
This is a very silly film.
Denzel Washington has obviously reached that tiresome but inevitable point in a glittering career where he wants to stretch himself as an actor. "He's a cop, and he's in a WHEELCHAIR!" was, I guess, the original pitch - an echo back to "Ironside", if you will - only Washington evidently vetoed this on the grounds that being quadriplegic wasn't quite disabled enough.
"Wheelchair-bound cops are ten a penny," he probably told his agent. "I want to be bed-ridden, on the verge of merciful euthanasia and only able to communicate with wistful eye-rolling and the occasional dignified grunt. Who needs to be an action hero? I'll win the Oscar through facial expressions alone."
His character is Lincoln Rhyme, a genius crime-scene investigator crippled by a falling girder but retained by the police as a consultant due to his encyclopaedic knowledge of all New York's grizzly murders.
And when a devious serial killer with a penchant for mutilation and historical copycatting runs amok, rookie cop Angelina Jolie (forensics experience: zero) is brought in to act as Rhyme's eyes and ears, before those pesky professional crime scene teams get in there and contaminate the evidence. Meanwhile, much of the New York Police Department ups sticks and relocates to Denzel's bedroom.
At this point, all plausibility has officially left the building. Washington smooth-talks Jolie into a little light amateur amputation, along with several other flagrant breaches of forensics protocol. I can't claim to be an expert, but I've seen enough CSI to know that William Petersen et al would not tolerate an uninitiated beat cop zooming in and cutting up their corpses, before they've had time to seal off the area, remove their aviator shades and stare quizzically into the middle distance.
Jolie is almost as constricted in her role as Washington is in his, shorn, as she is, of any kind of sexuality. Indeed, she spends most of her time covered up in either clunky body armour or an unflattering blue boiler suit with only those famous bee-stung lips betraying any hint of trademark glamour. Her modest appearance would make sense if the institutionalised sexism storyline (implied by the early quips at Jolie's unsuitability for the case and the barefaced recruitment of Michael Rooker as the brash police captain) was fully thought through, but the director (Phillip Noyce) seems reluctant to make it an issue, so the rest of an impressive male cast (including Ed O'Brien, Mike McGlone and the genius Luis Guizman) are frustratingly underused.
Surprisingly, what little empathy there is, comes from Queen Latifah's no-nonsense nursemaid who dabs Washington's brow tenderly and provides pithy asides to the masculine posturing of the police officers.
Any Se7en-influenced cleverness accumulated during the intricately planned trail of clues at the murder scenes, is immediately ruined by a shockingly lazy ending, and, though Washington manages a melancholic smile during final fade-out, all dreams of Oscar-winning pathos have been long since banished.
Spielberg Strikes a Balance
Just before I watched Steven Spielberg's Munich, there was a documentary on Channel 4 that followed the first half of the movie almost shot for shot. Apart from allowing me to brush up on my distinctly hazy knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this also provided a clear lesson in distinguishing between political history and intelligent film-making.
And, yes, there are discrepancies in the two accounts. Of course there are. But even assuming the documentary was rooted firmly in fact (and remember, it WAS on Channel 4 never an organisation to favour balanced reporting over controversial muck-raking), I would suggest that Munich is close enough to the truth to discredit the nay-sayers and educate the neutrals without compromising its entertainment remit.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the 1972 Olympic Games hostage crisis, the film charts the Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism. Keen to eliminate members of the Black September group who carried out the atrocity but equally reluctant to outrage the international community, Security Service agency Mossad employs a secret hit squad to do its dirty work and then distances itself from the whole operation.
The team is led by Avner (Eric Bana), the son of an Israeli hero, and contains an eclectic bunch of bomb-makers, fixers and heavies. And it is here that the film starts to distance itself from fact (or at least the documentary). Spielberg humanises his hit squad. They are fallible and conscience-driven and a world away from the unapologetic, bristling assassins depicted in the Channel 4 film where surviving members are interviewed and come across more in the traditional mould - their faces in shadow, but their distaste for the enemy very much apparent. Only Daniel Craig's brawny South African mercenary comes anywhere near the clinical coldness of these testimonies, but Avner and the others are perpetually questioning their motivation.
Spielberg purposefully omits any personal links between the innocent athletes cut down in Munich and those who seek retribution. There are no tearful widows or blinking, wide-eyed orphans. Avner and his team are not on a vendetta they are merely following orders. Himself Jewish, Spielberg never glosses over the shady nature of Israel's response to the kidnappings, but he doesn't side with the Palestinians either. The terrorists are shown as brutal chancers and the other victims of the hit squad are simply targets, not martyrs.
If you look past the challenging material, this is intense human drama, perfectly captured by Bana's superb depiction of a patriot torn between his family and his country. Despite the risk of melodrama in the scenes where he justifies his job to his wife, he is strong enough to carry Spielberg's intrinsic message that conflict of this nature is futile: Victims will simply be replaced and the cycle of violence is endless.
There are some annoyances The squad moves from inept amateurism to polished assassination machine in the time it takes to pepper an elderly gentleman with bullets in a Rome elevator shaft but one cannot really fault the casting, especially, the spellbinding Ciaran Hinds who has gone from ham-actor extraordinaire in the bloated TV series Rome, to this terrifically controlled performance as "cleaner" Carl. Geoffrey Rush and Michael Lonsdale round off a mature ensemble and, despite the nature of the film, the violence and the gun-toting, the emphasis is not on gung-ho action, but on its consequences.
You cannot make a film like this without accusations of bias or glib preaching, but Spielberg has managed to counter these with a balanced, dignified endorsement of peace. That he has also made an enormously entertaining and challenging movie is a considerable achievement.
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
Sex Comedy That Keeps Its Trousers On
I would cautiously venture that not many men who have made it into their fifth decade without doing the deed get the opportunity to break their duck with nymphomaniac, hard-bodied, blonde book-shop assistants, busty, wardrobe-malfunctioning speed-daters or, for that matter, Catherine Keener. But the fact that these are the potential partners put in front of our hero here, reminds us that 40-Year-Old Virgin is, first and foremost, a bawdy sex comedy, despite the critical acclaim and hints of depth.
And our hero's name is Andy. He's polite, clean-cut and conscientious, rides around on a bike and collects action figures, but his workmates at the computer store think he could well be a serial killer. One night, during an illicit game of poker on the shop floor, the testosterone is flowing and Andy's swiftly concocted sex tales are less than convincing. His new buddies twig that he's a virgin and decide to help him rectify the situation.
Quickly, the crux is established: For all their bravado posturing, Andy's colleagues are considerably less fulfilled than he is. Wise-cracking Jay (Romany Malco) may act the player, but he is hen-pecked and insecure; David (Paul Rudd) is still pining over a lost love from the distant past; and wild man Cal (Seth Rogen) lurches from day to day in booze-fuelled, over-sexed stupor (OK, so his life may be more fulfilling )
Despite some false starts with an array of unsuitable though aesthetically pleasing women (this IS a sex comedy, if you remember), Andy eventually finds the perfect partner in "hot grandmother" Trish (Keener). Now if only he can get his rocks off
And here's the clever bit. Andy is a grown man. A little repressed, certainly, but he still has the world-weariness of someone who has experienced many of life's petty annoyances. It would have been easier comedically to make him some kind of desperate oaf a constantly horny dog who humps legs and chases schoolgirls down the street. But if you get to 40 and have never done it, it is likely that you simply aren't that fussed. Steve Carrell plays Andy perfectly with a child-like quality but no sinister perversions.
This can be seen in the very first scene, where he goes about his morning business with a persistent erection. It's a nice parody of Porky's only here there is no furtive self-gratification, it is just part of the routine. For a puerile concept, this is a film that actually explores sexuality. A bit. Obviously, it loses its nerve on occasion as Carrell lapses into Saturday Night Live mode, but the intentions are good.
Take the time-honoured masturbation scene. Instead of the standard montage of sensitive guy exposed to a barrel-load of smut, mistakes lube for super glue hilarity, Andy can't get into it and ends up chortling contentedly to an innocent episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Indeed, these offbeat endings to such telegraphed set-ups are what give the film an edge over traditional preppy skin flicks. The beauty (if that is the right word) of the American Pie franchise, Wedding Crashers et al is that we can see the pay-off (apple pie defilement etc) coming a mile away. Here Carrell's Andy is ambiguous enough to surprise us with the way he handles certain lewdly choreographed scenarios.
It's not all high praise. For starters it is absurdly long for a film of this nature. Some of the scenes in the middle don't go anywhere, and while this adds to the quirky, unpredictable feel, the actual ending (when it finally arrives) is oddly uninspiring. Perhaps this is supposed to represent the inevitable anticlimax of your first sexual experience, which would be an extremely bold cinematic statement, but probably not that bright. Anyway, there follows a bizarre musical post-script that has been cunningly cribbed from every Farrelly brothers movie ever made, and by that stage I was fuming as I had missed most of Match of the Day so anyone expecting a higher rating can blame it on that.
Hable con ella (2002)
Pedro's Jobs for the Boys
Pedro Almodovar's dynamic direction, shot selection and creative verve turns a simple story of obsession into a gripping feature-length drama laced with intrigue and black humour.
As with many of his films, Talk to Her is devoted to sexually ambiguous male protagonists. This is not the first time the female leads have missed out on extensive characterisation indeed, his ladies here spend the majority of their screen time unconscious in hospital beds while the men are intensely studied.
World-weary travel writer Marco forms a friendship with hospital porter Benigno when his matador girlfriend Lydia is critically injured by a bull. Benigno, an oddball who spent early adulthood tending his ailing mother, dedicates all his time to caring for another comatose patient, ballet dancer Alicia, upon whom he has a somewhat unhealthy fixation.
Much of the film explores the benefits of talking to brain-dead patients in the hope of channelling positive energy and triggering miracle recoveries, but this is far from inspiring, feel-good fare. Marco, a cynic, clings to Benigno's positivity as Lydia's life ebbs away, but remains troubled by Benigno's overzealous affection for Alicia. Eventually he retreats leaving Benigno alone and unstable in a uniquely precarious situation.
Through flashback, we learn how Benigno started to stalk Alicia shortly before the car accident that almost killed her. Now he is her constant companion, bathing her, dressing her even supervising sanitation during menstruation. Her father, a psychiatrist, is more interested in Benigno's sexuality and lack of social skills than any potential danger to his daughter after four years in a coma, he has reasoned that she will never recover.
The plot is peppered with neat metaphor, usually relayed through Benigno's frank revelations the most memorable being a black and white vignette about a magic shrinking potion. In fact, it is a testimony to Almodovar's mischievous style that he can include a scene where a man dives head-first into a giant woman's open vagina without relinquishing his 15 certificate. Actually it is this scene that is pivotal to the story. Faced with such overtly sexual thoughts, Benigno's already questionable motives for tending Alicia spill over into physical action, and what was once a quirky, off-beat tale of love and friendship, now becomes a powerful study of mental instability and serious crime.
This is tricky for the viewer to deal with for while we have previously enjoyed Benigno's disarming comic naivety, his sinister exploits make us feel duped and guilty.
But an Almodovar film is not meant to be a comfortable ride and while a lot of the credit must go to a nicely layered performance by Javier Camera as Benigno, it is the direction that lifts this movie above the mediocre. It is bursting with originality, and typical of Almodovar's style that the traditionally conventional characters (here represented by Alicia and her self-important ballet instructor) are ignored and even ridiculed, whereas the freaks and the miscreants are portrayed sympathetically and intimately the director is evidently fascinated by the workings of twisted minds and refuses to judge them. As a result, his films are witty, engaging and can never be accused of predictability.
King Kong (2005)
Action Jackson the King of the Swingers
I think that Peter Jackson must be contractually obliged to make swirling epics. To see his name at the top of the bill is to guarantee a parched throat, throbbing head and cripplingly numb buttocks it is as if he has been told that if any of his movies rock in at under three hours he will be immediately dumped by the Hollywood studios, deported back to New Zealand and forced to make art-house flicks on a shoe-string for the rest of his life.
Still, it's been sixty-odd years, so King Kong is probably due a face-lift and Jackson's eye for intricacy and respect for the original material amid his customary cinematic extravagance ensures it doesn't disappoint.
Fame-hungry movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is determined to get his epic picture made despite the studio pulling their financing. So he hoodwinks unknown actress Annie Darrow (Naomi Watts) and ace writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) into joining his film crew on a boat trip to Singapore. En route he bribes the creaking vessel's shifty captain (Thomas Kretschmann) into detouring to the mysterious Skull Island where a giant beast is rumoured to roam.
After fending off some nefarious natives, they decide to scarper, only to discover that Annie has been kidnapped and offered up as a sacrifice to the hairy monster. Jack (who has by this stage fallen in love with Annie) resolves to rescue her, and the rest of the party escort him into the terrifying, prehistoric undergrowth with varying degrees of enthusiasm. King Kong himself, meanwhile, develops something of a fixation on his tiny captive and thus the key conflict of the movie is introduced a mere hour and a half into the film which, for Jackson at least, must be a record.
But we shouldn't grumble, for the build-up is hardly pedestrian and the action sequences on the island are simply mesmerising. I guess Jackson figured that if a 25-foot ape with "feelings" was plausible, he might as well eke out the animatronics budget out a bit further. Other residents include giant centipedes, veloceraptors, T-Rexes and various hulking behemoths that make Jurassic Park look like a petting zoo in Tunbridge Wells.
But the highlight for me was the scene where our plucky heroes are chased down a narrow ravine by a rampaging herd of Diplodocuses (diplodoci?) A truly ingenious use of technology that perfectly sums up the Jackson philosophy of set-piece envelope-pushing.
To Kong though, the dinosaurs are little more than petty annoyances and he sets about their destruction in ultra-violent fashion. Indeed, there is one incident where he fractures an enemy's fearsome jaw with a venom I can only equate to the gruesome pavement kerb scene in American History X. Evidently graphic bone-crunching brutality is acceptable among CGI characters. Either way, despite the 12A certificate, there are some moments in this film that are certainly not for kids.
If I were being pernickety, I would respectfully suggest that there are a few too many crazy animals impeding the rescue mission the T-Rexes-falling-off-the-cliff-and-getting-tangled-up-in-the-creepers scene was audacious but just a mite indulgent, and any cuts to the running time could have occurred while Jackson was introducing yet another murderous arachnid/stegosaurus/swamp monster. But this is a minor quibble.
The film hits top gear in the climactic return to New York where Jackson has fashioned an awesome 30s skyline to backdrop Kong's battle with a squadron of vintage bi-planes, and this unusual love story reaches its bitter conclusion.
Jackson has easily enough time to draw empathetic performances from all directions and Watts and Brody are perfectly cast as earnest, courageous leads. Black has drawn criticism for his bullish film director, but I thought he was terrific just enough subtlety, just enough heart a glimmer of dignity behind his crass, self-serving exterior. The crew of the good ship "Venture", despite an ongoing, clunking Heart of Darkness analogy, contain just the right mix of benevolence and villainy leaving you guessing as to their motivation throughout. Watch out for Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliot fame) as a perky Jim Hawkins style deck hand.
Andy Serkis lends his grizzled features to one of the earthier sea dogs, but will collect more plaudits for his work bringing the mighty Kong to life. It seems he is destined to spend the rest of his professional life rigged up to a computer and prancing around in front of a blue screen like some kind of loon. Still, I bet the money's good.