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Movie Crash Course: It Happened One Night

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Actually, the plot covers about four or five nights, but whatever.

It Happened One Night was a surprise hit for all concerned – stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were actually the third or fourth choice for their respective parts, and neither was very enthusiastic about it (after filming Colbert apparently told a friend “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world”) and director Frank Capra had to jump through hoops to keep the cast happy, including shaving a week off his production schedule at Colbert’s behest.  The studio also rolled the film out to theaters slowly.  But then audiences went completely bananas for the film, turning it into a box office smash.  Critics followed suit, and the Academy heaped nominations on the film.  It Happened One Night ended up sweeping the top five Oscar categories that year (Best Actor and Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture), an achievement matched only by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and Silence Of The Lambs in 1991.

And it is kinda fun, at that. Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a pampered but overprotected heiress who managed to get out from under her father’s thumb long enough to score a city hall marriage to another millionaire before her father dragged her back home.  At the top of the film, her father has her on board the family yacht in Miami, trying to talk her into an annulment (and keeping her a near-hostage so he can have his say). Ellie jumps ship – literally – and makes her way to the local bus station, boarding the next bus for New York City, where her beloved awaits.

She meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a down-on-his-luck reporter, on board.  Peter instantly recognizes her – news of Ellie’s flight has already started to hit the press – and he hitches himself to her, figuring an exclusive story about “Ellie Andrews’ Bus Ride To Love” will give his career a much-needed boost.  Ellie is also somewhat new at the Ways Of The Common Man, and Peter appoints himself her Protector, teaching her how to camp out in a hayfield and score rooms in motels.  He even has opinions on the correct way to dunk a donut into coffee.

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The pair are forced to share a number of motel rooms, Peter checking them in as a married couple for decorum’s sake.  To placate Ellie further, he rigs up a blanket wall dividing their beds each time, nicknaming the barrier “The Wall of Jericho”.  Of course, a blanket isn’t all that strong a barrier, especially as the pair continue to get acquainted on the road…

I was strangely reminded of the Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas film Romancing The Stone, a favorite of mine when I was fourteen.  It had a similar fish-out-of-water heroine on a quest, and a rough-around-the-edges rogue who somehow gets drafted as her protector. And over the course of the travel and the bickering, they fall for each other.  But It Happened One Night covers way more of the class difference between Ellie and Peter.  She doesn’t know how to budget her money, she doesn’t think to watch her bag while the bus is on a break; and soon she finds her bag has been stolen and her money is running out.  But a couple nights later and she is comforting another passenger traveling north looking for work, and is joining a bus-wide singalong to “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.”

Ellie also has more wit and sass than Turner’s character had; in one of the film’s classic scenes, Peter boasts about his hitchhiking prowess, then utterly fails to stop any one of a parade of passing cars.  Ellie then asks to try her technique.

In an earlier scene, some private detectives sent by Ellie’s father are searching the motel where they’re staying – and manage to escape thanks to play-acting as a feuding couple, a performance Ellie seems to really get into.

Peter also seems to get into that role, though….a little too much.  And that proves disconcerting.  Alex was eager to watch this with me – he’d seen it in college and had good memories of it – but when the film ended, he had a troubled look.  “….there’s some gender-relations stuff in there that has not aged well,” he said.   We discussed that a bit, guessing that the “Me Too” movement today was casting everything in a different light. Peter is cast as Ellie’s rescuer, helping her get used to budgeting money and trying to ensure she’s safe and sound as they travel.  But he does so by barging into her company and barking orders – at one time even taking her money away from her, lecturing that she’s too irresponsible with it.  We both liked the hitchhiking scene – and I realized that one reason why I liked it was because it was one of the few scenes that Ellie is depicted as Peter’s equal.

I mean, there are some fun and charming enough moments in the film, and our reaction was very much colored by the present climate.  It’s too soon to tell how long that color will last.

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Movie Crash Course: The Goddess (Shénnǚ)

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After a couple years of putting up with Hollywood giving its take on China, finally China answers back.

China’s film scene was born at a tough time.  The nation was embroiled in a Civil War in the late 1920s, then went to war with Japan in 1937.   In between, money was tight, and people wanted an escape; but the films sent over from Hollywood were either culturally baffling or insensitive. But that lack of cash made it all the more challenging for the few local studios which kicked off during the period.  Still, they made a go of it, striving to produce films with stories more germane to the average Chinese citizen than 42nd Street or the like.

One of the big three studios fortunately had two bright talents under its banner – filmmaker Wu Yonggang, and actress Ruan Lingyu.  Ruan was one of China’s biggest stars in 1934, with a long string of hits to her name; several of them dramas featuring Ruan as a poor but hopeful heroine.  She was increasingly drawn to films showcasing social issues and produced by left-leaning directors.  As for Wu Yonggang, The Goddess was his film debut, and proved an auspicious beginning to a 40+ year career.

The Goddess isn’t necessarily a film that’s going to grab everyone.  It’s a silent film about a down-on-her-luck prostitute, and the bad guy is almost a caricature with no clear motivation except to be a jerk.  On the other hand, it has Ruan LIngyu, it has an adorable kid, and it actually manages to deliver a social message without being preachy.

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The Chinese title of the film is actually a play on words: Shénnǚ does translate to “The Goddess”, but it can also refer to a prostitute. And Ruan does indeed play a nameless prostitute; a single mother driven into The Life to support her son.  At the top of the film, she’s got a solid routine in place: leaving her baby with a neighbor and heading out to the streets all night, then coming home to dote on him.  It’s tiring, but she is utterly in love with her little boy.  One night the police decide to sweep the streets, and a local low-life named Zhang offers her a place to hide in his flat.  …In exchange for a taste of her services, of course.  Our unnamed heroine has to agree, leaving in the morning; but Zhang sees an opportunity and secretly follows her home, bullying her into making him her pimp.  When he threatens to take away her son, she gives in.

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Five years later, “The Goddess” is living in a flat owned by Zhang, and her son is a sweet, curious little boy.  The neighbors gossip about her and keep their kids away from her son, but “The Goddess” perseveres.  Zhang is in the habit of coming by unannounced and helping himself to the money in her desk drawer, so she’s started hiding some in a hole in the wall hidden by a loose brick; she discovers one day that she’s saved up enough to get her son into a nearby private school, carefully obscuring her profession from the principal.  The boy takes to school like a fish to water, eagerly reading all of his lessons out loud to his mother at night and even playing “school” with her in the evenings. He even is asked to appear in the school talent recital, singing a ballad about a poor child and making his mother nearly burst with pride.

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Unfortunately one of the busybody neighbors is also in the audience, and spreads the word about “The Goddess”’s profession.  The principal starts receiving floods of angry letters complaining about the immoral situation.  Meanwhile, Zhang has come by the flat for a hit of cash, and starts idly playing with a loose brick in the wall…

That all sounds like serious melodrama, and the ending is even more so.  But except for a couple of High Passion moments, the acting is remarkably subtle.  The chemistry between “The Goddess” and her son is especially endearing; during the scene where the boy is “playing school” with his mother (“Okay, mum, I’ll be the teacher and you be the student – now, class, do what I do!”), I actually said “awwwwwww!” out loud, for real.

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The film also takes a sympathetic look at the whole issue of prostitution, casting it as a last-resort measure for women who truly have been shut out of any other choice. Society is to blame, the film argues – not the women, and certainly not any of their children.  But there’s no big dramatic turning-point where everyone is convinced that the Prostitute Has A Heart Of Gold – instead, the principal follows up on the letters with a home visit, where he sees that even though the woman has a shady job the little boy seems safe and happy, and actually goes back to the school board to try advocating on her behalf.  And even here – he doesn’t sway everyone with any kind of ‘Have Mercy On Her!” speech.  He does speak on her defense, however.

The Goddess was a small-scale, simple film that I found strangely affecting.

 

Movie Crash Course: It’s A Gift

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Ah, a comedy.  A comedy should be a good follow-up to Triumph Of The Will, yeah?

Well, yes, a comedy would have been a good follow-up to Triumph Of The Will. However, one of the key elements of a comedy – in fact, the very distinguishing characteristic of the genre – is that it is supposed to be funny.  And – It’s a Gift was not very funny.

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I mean, funny things happen in it.  There’s an extended scene where W.C. Fields’ character is trying to take a nap on a porch, and gets interrupted by a milkman, noisy neighbors, a travelling salesman, a rickety porch swing, and – improbably – a coconut.  In another sequence, he tries to share a bathroom mirror with his oblivious teenage daughter, who is primping for a date while he shaves.  When her toilette gets too elaborate for him to have room, he hangs a hand mirror from a hook in the ceiling and tries to use that, circling it futilely as it spins.

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But these are just bits of schtick in a paper-thin plot which casts Fields as the henpecked husband to a thoroughly unpleasant matron.  He has an obnoxious son alongside his daughter, his clerk in the grocery store he owns is thoroughly stupid, his customers are all unpleasant.  Fields gets the notion to sell his grocery store and buy an orange grove in California, but absolutely no one likes the idea, and they all let him know it.

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Most damning of all – Fields doesn’t really seem to say or do anything in this.     We’re probably supposed to see him as a sort of downtrodden everyman, but that’s not how it comes across – he just muddles through the film reacting to things.  His wife is depicted as his worst tormentor, which also didn’t make for a happy viewing – at least twice, she begins a lengthy speech complaining about how dissatisfied she is about something, and his reaction is to quietly sneak away as she yammers on.  Even if you set aside the icky gender politics, it’s also a lost opportunity for Fields to have said or done something that would give a sense of what the hell this guy is like.

Feh.  I’ll hold out for the next Marx Brothers picture.

Movie Crash Course: Triumph Of The Will

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I was not looking forward to this film.  Produced in 1935, Triumph Of the Will is a chronicle of the previous year’s Nazi Party’s national convention in Nuremberg, Germany.  It is beautifully shot, lovingly detailed, and absolute in its admiration; while this film is often categorized as a “documentary”, it’s more accurate to say it’s a fan letter.

I was not expecting for it to be stultifying boring.

I tried to keep an academic mind about this (even though I was literally wincing when I put the DVD in my player).  Critics have pointed to director Leni Riefenstahl’s innovative and gorgeous cinematography – apparently she went to great lengths to get the shots she had in mind. Her crew consisted of 172 people, including 36 cameramen, nine aerial photographers, 17 newsreel men, and 17 lighting men, as well as scores of production assistants. Many of her cameramen dressed in SA uniforms so they could blend into the crowds. Riefenstahl also worked closely with the rally organizers to design the set and stage so as to allow her team the best access and the most striking shots; the stage included everything from a special sunken camera-crew pit set just before the podiums so the cameramen could capture the exact angle she wanted, to a motorized platform just behind a banner at one rally so she could capture the precision of a parade of military men.

Riefenstahl’s attention to detail also captures smaller details – cats lingering in windows watching marching S.S. troops, the dancing reflection of a Nuremberg riverside building festooned with a swastika banner, the excited gleams on the faces of little kids in the crowd clamoring for a space to watch the parade.

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These are all technically skilled shots. But quite frankly, they’re lipstick on a pig; and I’m not only saying that because of the subject matter. No matter how attractive are the shots of the parading S.S. troops, the fact remains that easily 75% of this film is nothing but an monotonous series of parades, drills, and marches. There’s a ten-minute sequence that consists solely of the various S.S. units goose-stepping down the same Nuremberg street past Hitler’s reviewing platform; they march, he salutes, they march on, the next group comes in, does the same thing, they move on, the next comes in, lather, rinse, repeat, for ten full minutes.  I literally kept falling asleep during the last two minutes and had to keep rewinding to rewatch and make sure I hadn’t missed seeing anything else happen.  Ultimately I didn’t need to, because nothing else did happen.

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The speeches are also fairly dull. I expected a frothing rant that I could be properly horrified and chilled by, but none of the speeches – not even the final address from Hitler himself – contained anything that was much different from your average State Of The Union Address; a little bit of “our party is strong”, a little bit of “we are stronger together”, a little bit of “we’re building our way to a bright future”, a little bit of “here is our vision”.  I did shudder at a couple comments from Hitler about ridding the party of “those who are not like us”, but – he was careful not to specify what he meant by that.

There are a couple of sequences that are different enough to stand out (or, that stand out because they’re a little different).  Early on is a scene at the Hitler Youth Campsite, showing crowds of apple-cheeked kids and teens – all boys – carefully washing their faces and hair in the spartan latrines and chipping in to help with toting firewood for the camp stove before gathering for pickup games of wrestling, acrobatics, and other random stunts; every so often Riefenstahl shows us a closeup of a boy laughing in delight.  It comes across as an earnest, somewhat corny sort of thing, like a scout jamboree.  Never mind what these kids are being taught, they’re having fun!

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….There is no similar coverage of any such rally for the girls’ organization.  I cannot speak as to why.

The rally for the Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labour Service, is a little more serious, and very clearly and carefully scripted. The Labour Service was a quasi-military organization, compulsory for all Germans, which sent adults out to various work camps and work details for six-month stints to do things like build bridges or create roads or work on farms (or, in the case of women, serve in hospitals or do clerical work for the government). Every Labour Service member was issued a shovel, which they treated with pride; the rally opens with a precision drill shovel display before Hitler. But then a smaller team of the service steps forward to give a group vow, reciting that they are laboring in the swamps, in the fields, in the mountains; building roads between towns, repairing damaged bridges, shovels proudly in hand.  A leader in the group steps forward, looks at another man, and asks – “Where are you from?”

“Bavaria!” comes the reply.

The leader looks at another man.  “Where are you from?”

“Hamburg!”

“And you, where are you from?”

“Saxony!”

The leader takes a roll call of a couple more cities or districts before announcing that the labor force has come from all over Germany, to serve as a united force serving the whole of Germany.  It’s pure political theater – yet it is expertly done political theater.  Hitler’s address to the force is brief – at least the piece we see is brief – and consists of Hitler heaping praise upon the unit, declaring that thanks to their efforts, manual labor will no longer be seen as a lower-status profession.  They are to be exalted, for they are rebuilding Germany.

In retrospect, I’ve been thinking that sequence is not dissimilar from more recent political speeches about putting “America First” and pledges to bring back manufacturing jobs.  In 1935, as in 2018, people want to work, and they want the work they do to be treated with dignity. But there are many ways to put people to work, just as there are many ways to ensure a worker has that dignity; compulsory labor service under the aegis of a political party indoctrination gets that job done, but at too high a cost.  Today, we’re going the route of enacting trade tariffs and inflating statistics – a bit better, but still a misguided solution that misses the root of the problem.

But then again, maybe “addressing the jobs crisis” was never the goal anyway.  That sounding-off of German towns didn’t just showcase that “we’re working together to rebuild Germany”, it was also showcasing that “we are the exalted group”.  And any time you single out some people as an exalted group….you diminish those outside the group.  At the time Triumph of The Will was filmed, the “Final Solution” policy was still eight years in the future; but the seeds of it were no doubt laid right here.

This is not to say that the laborers shouldn’t have been given a showcase. The work they were doing was mammoth work, and the people being celebrated had been feeling dangerously downtrodden for a long time.  They were suffering under an economy in shambles following World War I, most of them hearing about elite fashionable artistes living it up in the cities while they struggled.  They were fed up and wanted their share.  The trouble then – as now – was that no one had the vision to state that dignity, equality, and prosperity isn’t like pie – the laborers don’t have to steal their dignity from the musicians, they can both be appreciated for their actions.  The immigrant ditch-digger isn’t stealing a job from the Saxon one – if you hold the people in charge accountable, there will be enough jobs for both.

There was an opportunity for someone to point that out.  No one took that opportunity.  We know what happened next.  And, if we’re not careful, we know what could happen next for us today.

….After watching this film, I permitted myself a palate cleanser.  Watching the “Springtime For Hitler” sequence from the 2005 musical version of The Producers about three times in a row did the trick.

Movie Crash Course: Queen Christina

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Apologies for a bit of a break; I’ve been out of town on a business trip for my day job, and I’ve also been dragging my feet because I really am not looking forward to the film that comes after Queen Christina on the list.

But also – ultimately, Greta Garbo was the best bit of what was a pretty meh film. Loosely based on the life of a 17th Century Swedish queen, the film was really just a run-of-the-mill tale of how an independent woman finally was Conquered By Love, and then Suffered a Tragic Loss.  Like the real Queen Christina, Garbo’s Christina was the sole child of Sweden’s King Gustav II, who was crowned at the age of only six.  She ruled during the Thirty Years’ War, ultimately bucking the advice of her advisors to bring an end to the war.  She was an independent tomboyish woman who preferred hunting and horseback riding to the more genteel womanly arts.  And she abdicated after only 20 years, yielding the throne to a cousin.

However, the real Christina abdicated the throne because of growing discontent with her rule, an increasing interest in Catholicism (a no-no in Protestant Sweden) and frustration with her advisors’ pressure to marry.  The movie Christina, however, abdicates for love.

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Movie Christina is also facing pressure to marry – pressure she escapes by often disguising herself as a random gentleman and hanging around the nearby inns and taverns.  And at one such inn she meets Antonio, a visiting Spanish nobleman – and just so happens to get stuck boarding with him when a blizzard blows up, trapping the pair in place for three days.  Antonio’s quick to take advantage of the fact that his charming new friend is actually a charming new lady friend, and the independent Christina is all too quick to yield.

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At some point, Antonio reveals he’s on his way to Stockholm with a message for Christina. Christina keeps mum about who she is – deciding to surprise him with the truth when he arrives to deliver his message. But Antonio isn’t that happy with the surprise – for his message is a proposal of marriage from the Spanish king, and Christina’s actions have made him an inadvertent traitor to his ruler.  Christina desperately keeps Antonio at court trying to patch things up, while the other two rivals for Christina’s affection try to stir up trouble between them.  Mercy, what ever shall Christina do?….

yawn.

Eh, I take a dim view of overly-romantic plots as a rule, especially when they’re historic films where the real story is so much more interesting.  But I did appreciate Greta Garbo’s performance here; her presence pretty much kept the film from being a total loss for me.  There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to her Christina early in the film – she thinks nothing of kissing one of her ladies-in-waiting on the lips, nor of riding a horse in full gallop through the Swedish countryside.  Her “drag” disguise is practically nonexistant – she simply wears pants instead of a dress, and it’s laughable to think anyone would really be fooled. But she still somehow pulls it off.

There’s also a fleeting moment that caught my eye, when a team of army officers are trying to mess with Antonio and Christina comes in to Lay A Smackdown and get them to let him go; she rides up to them, ordering them to let him go and claiming her royal birthright.  A few of the officers protest at first, but ultimately they yield, letting Antonio’s carriage go on its way.  And as Antonio starts to leave, Garbo’s stern royal countenance collapses into a look of relief – but just for a second, and then she resumes her Queenly Aspect again.  It was a subtle moment, but an affecting one.

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Some critics of the day felt it was a little slow and conventional (I agree!), but it was a big hit, thanks to the swooning romance of the plot and to Garbo’s beauty.  And, I suspect, because of some titilation over sexy hijinks, both on screen and behind it; Garbo was rumored to be Romantically Linked with one of the women screenwriters, and had also flexed some muscle to get her former boyfriend John Gilbert into the part of Antonio.  But everyone, critics and audience alike, agreed that Garbo was herself the best bit.

Faculty Note:

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The following conversation happened in my apartment a couple days ago, between me and my roommate:

“So, listen – I’ve quoted you in my blog a couple times, is that okay?”

“Oh, really?  Wow, yeah, that’s cool.”

“Great.  And since I’m probably going to do that again, I should come up with something else to call you aside from ‘my roommate’, so what name would you prefer? Your real name, or…?”

“Oh, yeah, my real name’s fine.”

“Very good.”

“…..Yay, I’m a character in the blog!”

Yes, he is.  You will hear me quote Alex now and then in future.

Movie Crash Course: King Kong

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We’ve had the ur-war film, the ur-gangster film….arguably, King Kong is the ur-special-effects-monster-blockbuster, the first link in a chain that leads all the way up to Jurassic World.  It’s got an easy plot to understand, and a crapton of visual pyrotechnics; that description fits plenty of other movies over the years.

That sounds like a sneering dismissal.  But strangely, it’s not. Because the secret is – the super-special-effects monster stuff is pure, dippy fun.

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I’m not going to delve into the plot because a) it’s simple, and b) it’s bloody King Kong, but in brief – movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) rounds up a team to go to a remote Pacific island and film a movie; at the last minute he discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a down-on-her-luck actress, and brings her along.  Denham’s heard a rumor there’s a giant ape on the island; he plans to simply hurl Darrow at it and film what happens. But the ship’s first mate falls for Darrow, heroically rescuing her when the ape captures her.  When Kong comes out into the open in an attempt to get her back, Denham gets the idea that film of a giant ape may be awesome – but a live Kong would be even better.  He captures the beast and puts him on display on Broadway – and things go a bit wrong…yeah, you know the story.

So, let’s get the discussion of the special effects out of the way first. I hadn’t seen this original before, but I have seen the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, with greenscreens and CGI and Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit, and…this film had stop-motion animation and miniatures and forced perspective camera tricks.  The close-ups on “Kong’s face” are simply footage of a guy in an ape mask.  It’s nowhere near the caliber of what WETA studios came up with.

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And….you know what?  I didn’t care.  The stop-motion is actually a considerable leap forward in special effects, but more importantly – the filmmakers (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) put a lot of detail into what the stop-motion characters do. There’s an intention and purpose to their actions; Kong gets into a battle with a dinosaur in one scene, and defeats him not by simply hitting him, but by ripping his jaw open.

It’s a moment that Peter Jackson recreated in his own film.

And there are smaller moments meant just to make the stop-motion critters seem alive; the roommate watched this with me, and the sight of Kong pausing to scratch himself in the middle of a scene made him laugh in utter delight.

It’s too easy to lean on special effects as a panacea; instead of using them as a means to an end, it’s tempting to see them as an end in and of itself.  I’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy, both with and without George Lucas’ after-the-fact editing, and it’s clear that some of the thrown-in special effects were just thrown in “because I can”.  King Kong is very heavy on special effects, but at no time did I feel like there was an effect “just because”; Cooper and Schoedsack have clearly put thought into “what do we want to see Kong actually do” and “what will make Kong actually seem alive”.  And because this is special effects with care and attention…it held my attention, even though the technology is dated.

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Speaking of dated – there is some gender and racial stereotyping that has aged much less well.  When Denham and company turn up on Skull Island, they come upon the “native islanders” engaged in a “magic ritual” that’s completely ridiculous; hell, the islanders themselves are ridiculous.  (The women actually wear coconut bras.)  And Fay Wray’s role is little more than just the damsel in distress who screams a lot; there’s even a slightly icky scene where Kong peels parts of Darrow’s dress off and then sniffs his fingers.  That’s a scene that censors cut from several screenings, and which Peter Jackson thankfully updated a little.

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But – you don’t see a film like King Kong for the high art and interpersonal connections.  Yes, they could have been better, but – you see this for the spectacle and the sparkle, and when there’s a strong hand at the helm, the spectacle and the sparkle is a good show.