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King Kong (2005)
Gorilla In The Midst
I can honestly say that I've enjoyed all three versions of "Kong" for wildly varied reasons. The first has the clipped, efficient feel of a Boy's Own novel along the lines of Burroughs or Haggard. As campy as the 1976 effort is at times, it's as equally grim and socially conscious, with a pre-gentrified New York, an ape whose love is boundless and gorgeous, and a heroine who seems just as doomed as he is. Now we have a sweeping, dizzying, operatic "Kong" for the 21st Century. The film's tone weaves seamlessly from clear-eyed adventure, high comedy, and soaring romance to a dangerous journey of self-discovery, a melding of two disparate worlds, and agonizing despair at the heights of the civilization. Almost eighty years after the Great Ape roared his way into the world, I can't think of anything more appropriate, and in its own way, predestined to occur.
As often as I hear the original "Kong" described as simple, uncomplicated, and subtext-free, I've never been able to buy that argument. The movie is so laden with below-the-radar themes-- the devastating effects of colonialism, white man's right to imperialism, the value placed upon a woman's powerless body, the abuse and exhibition of an exotic for profit, evolution turning back upon itself, the yawning gap between Haves and Have Nots-- that even if it doesn't necessarily expound on these ideas, it certainly does at least raise them and encourage audiences to draw their own conclusions. These motifs crept into the 1976 film and today demand a reckoning. And do they ever get it. After all these years, Kong transcends being mere clever movie trickery and his leading lady proves she's more than just a pretty trinket to all the men in her life.
It's interesting that some feel Kong has been neutered by his more playful or somber moments depicted herein. He's actually capable of the same reactive violence as his predecessors and enacts perhaps even greater feats of instinctive chivalry for his newfound bride. The difference is that now we can't just take for granted that he's an unreasonable, possessive brute or killing machine a la "Jaws" or the endlessly malicious predators that clutter up Direct To DVD Animal Peril yarns. It's easy to portray animals as one-note menaces, harder to depict them as fully realized beings in their own right. In his humid and teeming world of horrors, Kong's every action is given purpose and motivation: territorial bluster, innocent curiosity, rage driven by solitude, jealousy, and defiance of a world that seeks to chain what can never be truly bound by law or force. If we see Kong as relatable, it's not in a puckish, Disney-like way where he's basically a barely-disguised human there to goof around and reflect our own humanity back at us. This God/Monster/Lover is more than that, a being of might and desire that we may not fully be able to comprehend...perhaps even something from the dawn of time that modern man has lost over the ages.
It's arguable that the first film is really more about Kong and Denham than it is about Kong and Ann. In that black and white realm of dream-like junglescapes, she seems a dream herself: beautiful but vague, her appearance becoming more eroticized as her life is put in greater jeopardy, her stake in events never quite clear as she whimpers and faints cinematically. If she's the hazy fantasy, Naomi Watts' shrewd and non-conformist Ann Darrow is the real woman of the 30s. Pretty girls are a dime a dozen in the Big Apple and Ann knows she's got more to offer. We immediately know she's no cookie cutter glamorpuss because she performs in Chaplin-style drag and dreads the generic listlessness of being in a chorus line. This is her adventure back to a land and a time unknown and the beast she finds at its heart captivates her (and in turn, she fascinates him) in a way that extends beyond the bindings of a sacred bridal altar of the power of the paw. More than just an attractive curio for Kong to handle, it's her own strength and will to survive that reenergizes the near-extinct God of the Island. Here we have a lady fleet of foot and sound of mind with an enigmatic longing in her heart for something wild and free that surmounts tenement life, grinding poverty, and the death of dreams. So unfair and lonely is her life that we really can't blame her for defying to status quo and the Allmighty Dollar to stand beside her chest-beating protector and rail against the world on her own terms as well as his.
Moreso than box office clout, public recognizability, or mass market appeal, it's through its own personal daring and visionary power that "King Kong" succeeds on a grander scale. Amid all the empty, soulless blockbusters, we're given a genuine adventure that values its characters (man, woman, and beast) and in the end has no real inclination to be convenient or easy to wrap our collective heads around. Like its towering protagonist, it demands more of its players and of the public at large than the average "Capture the Mankiller" epic Carl Denham trades in ever could. Its Call of the Wild is irresistible, and ultimately, as dangerous as it's ever been.
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Myra Down The Rabbit Hole
Though "Myra Breckinridge" has been universally put through the critical gauntlet, in recent years it seems to be garnering a certain amount of reappraisal, especially from those who were too young to catch it the first time around. As overwrought, unwieldy, and admittedly bellicose it is toward Hollywood and America in general, it's not the total travesty it's been made out to be. Equal parts "The Wizard of Oz" with Hollywood standing in for the Emerald City and "Alice In Wonderland" with Myra's White Rabbit being her lecherous uncle, this is essentially a glossy big budget studio picture concealing the zaniness of a freewheeling 70s underground movie at heart. It's fitting that it shared a double bill with Russ Meyer's "Beyond The Valley of The Dolls" as both feature colorful and decadent adventures in Hollywood, an insane array of characters, a contested inheritance as a plot motivation, unabashed omnisexuality, transgendered players with Goddess Complexes, and a renegade take on film-making.
There's a reason this movie works against all odds and its name is Raquel Welch. Amazonian in body, mind, and soul, she-- like the wily title character-- is a package who's wrappings belie the surprise hidden within. Here we have an ostensible Beach Goddess and Mod Pin Up who's actually a canny rule-breaker and superb light comedienne operating under the radar at Twentieth Century Fox. In Welch's hands, Myra is everything Vidal intended her to be: an androgynous avenger, a culmination of personal dreams, a being born of celluloid and "Million Dollar Movie" reruns, and a Frankensteinian force appropriating power over a drama school Adam and Eve. As much as the movie lurches from one rollicking escapade to another, Welch is the consistent element who never loses her focus and anchors events with a poise and confidence that keeps Myra from becoming a one-note caricature. All of this the lady does without a coherent script, solid direction, or unified support from her costars, no mere feat by any means. Huston makes a fine foil as the macho, out-to-pasture former movie star to Myra's dazzling Bird of Paradise and the two spar marvelously, each giving as good as they get. Reed acquits himself admirably, yet the male version role should have also gone to Welch, who could've pulled it off. It's West who gets the booby prize, though. Seeming to exist in another movie and having no meaningful interaction with the other players, she effectively muzzles her randy character and denies her the chance to rise to the challenge of becoming Myra's equal. Bump and grind as she may, she hasn't a hope of matching the fearless Welch and opts to just go through the motions of her own self-parodic one-woman burlesque show.
As with its leading lady, the film's other great iconoclastic asset is its willingness to present us with a non-mainstream character who's at once a clever homosexual male, a ball-breaking woman who continually flouts authority, a transsexual with no shame about her nature, and a social outsider ready to take on the world. Myra is no superficial pervert or mad drag menace; she's a formidable and morally ambiguous figure who isn't mandated to die so that the status quo can resume. Be it in one form or another, she lives to tell and rise again another day. In her, we ultimately see a real man and a real woman trying to reconcile themselves, while in Ms Welch we witness a true unsung talent and a genuinely brave actress fighting to be free of her own image.
Satan's Slave (1976)
Clever & Surprising
This is actually quite a bright spot in the late 70's Brit Horror Film Industry breathing its last few gasps. It comes in a few different versions, some bloodier and sexier than others. It actually works in either the softer or hotter versions. The grue-- including a nude woman threatened with scissors, a head crushed in a door, a gory fall of a ledge, a woman slashed with a jagged piece of glass, and a nail driven into an eye-- is lively, but the central story about the traumatized heroine being cared for by her malevolent uncle and his murderous son is strong enough to stand on its own. There are also the expected scenes of black mass and nude female worshipers. The film plays nicely on our expectations and manages to surprise. With all the garish colors and hazy turn of events, we're never quite certain if everyone is off their rocker, the heroine especially possibly going off on some flight of fantasy triggered by the accident and exacerbated by the legend of the ancestress witch. Plus, characters you expect to play a pivotal role die suddenly, it's hard to tell who is trustworthy and who isn't, and Martin Potter as the cousin vacillates so perfectly between being a morose companion to the girl and a frenzied monster to everyone else that I found myself just as lulled in by him. The violent scenes are shocking and unpredictable, while the talkier sequences have a weirdly cold atmosphere to them. For me, this one gets unfairly written off far too often.
Turkey Shoot (1982)
This is a vile, reprehensible, and completely socially unredeeming exercise in cruelty featuring totalitarian quashing of the Individual, rampant prison corruption, a callous aristocracy, rape (both hetero and same-sex), ridiculously over-the-top violence, dismemberment, shower scenes, and the genetically-different being used as hunting dogs. All of which when taken into account makes this one of my favorite movies...ever! It was reportedly developed to be a somewhat serious glimpse into an unjustly repressive future society (the action is located in 1995), but much of if not all of the events leading to the main characters' incarceration was dropped in favor of an immediate wallow in all the sadean exploits of the prison camp. As if an attempted shower gang rape upon the heroine and public immolation weren't enough to catapult this into cult worship, a "Most Dangerous Game"-style hunt, cross-bow wielding lesbian, death-by-machete, and a circus freak resembling a "Planet of The Apes" prototype reject are thrown in for good measure. It's all so willfully un-PC and exploitive that I doubt it could be made today. Everyone involved is clearly slumming it. Besides, how many movies have not only the heroine, but also the hero himself threatened with rape by the gleefully sadistic and gigantic prison guard?
Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987)
It's A Wretched Life
I watch this one every Christmas. It features a pretty atypical psychopath for the 80's canon in Eric Freeman. He's an intense-looking and mask-free short fuse who at first glance could be either a ski instructor or a paroled sex offender. His animated eyebrows are hypnotic. This feels at once like a slapstick parody and a demented sitcom (" Hey Mom! I'm Dating A Strangler!"). It even has the built-in 'Naughty!' and 'Garbarge Day!'catch phrases. The newer footage with the killer's eye-bulging fits of rage toward any sort of social disruption are more cartoonish and less focused on the childhood Santa trauma than the scenes used from the previous entry. It's actually a shame that more new footage featuring the emotionally-crippled Child-Hulk couldn't be used in their place because their zaniness is so weirdly compelling. The shooting spree through suburbia is broad daylight is priceless. There isn't a single scene in the movie where he doesn't seem alien and out of place. He's so completely ill-equipped to deal with life that his reactions to both the public and the police make him almost zen-like in his fearlessness.