Movie Roundup – King Kong, United 93, Centre Stage

King Kong – Finally got around to watching this as Netflix decided it had been out long enough for a frequent movie watcher like me to be allowed to see it. The special effects are as advertised, it’s a beautiful film, more so than any of the Lord Of The Rings movies in fact. Naomi Watts is terrific and Jack Black’s not too bad either. However, instead of thinking the movie was too long, as most commentators seem to, I think it was actually too short. I dug all the set-up in Act One, especially the idea that this trip to skull island to make this movie is fate, totally out of their control. The little subplots on the boat didn’t work for me at all: the kid and the first mate, the Captain not wanting to got to the island, blah. Once they get on the island, everything’s great again: spooky natives, cool effects, a lot of fun action (though does anyone else wonder why these people never get lost on that island?). It’s Act Three that I have a problem with. None of the interesting themes for Act One are revived or concluded, it all becomes subservient to the (admittedly spectacular) action and the pseudo-love story. The final scenes at the top of the Empire State Building even managed to trigger my fear of heights, which kind of ruined the romance, I guess. A summary of some plot holes: there’s no explanation of why Watts and Adrian Brody are separated at the beginning of Act Three, after he spent the previous hour and a half fighting dangerous computer beasts to rescue her from the giant ape; there’s no explanation for why the cowardly actor came to deus ex machina them back on the island (and where’s his moustache?); there’s no further elaboration, or even mention of the destiny theme. Maybe in a year Peter jackson will release the 5 hour director’s cut and I’ll be satisfied. As is, the movie has everything in common with Titanic but the massive box office gross: it’s big, pretty and simple. The #18 film of 2005.

United 93 – Is this movie any good? The better question is is it possible for this movie to be good? What would a good movie about 9/11 look like? Paul Greengrass seems to think that a verit√©-style approach is appropriate. We get fly on the wall views of the events on the plane, intercut with scenes in various air traffic and military control centers. This style, and various comments about the film in advertising and some reviews, and the total lack of outside context in the film (no resolution, no mention of anything that happens after the plane goes down) seem to indicate a desire to take no political position on the events in order to avoid offending anyone, to not be seen as exploiting a tragedy for political purposes. However, I don’t think it’s even possible to make a film (certainly not a film like this) without being political, and Greengrass does seem to drive home the unpreparedness and inefficiency of our disaster-response system (“Where is the President?”). The idea that a film should be made of events like this at all is questionable: reducing a very real and very human tragedy to an anecdote, a simple narrative or even worse, and action movie is intrinsically distasteful. But at least when it’s made with a political purpose, such a narrative has some kind of larger purpose. Without that, the narrative is just an action story, the real human tragedy is reduced to, well, a movie. It’s similar to the Schindler’s List argument: the quality of the film as a film necessarily trivializes the real experience of 9/11 or the Holocaust. At least if the narrative has some kind of context or political agenda, the skill in telling it can be seen as a means to education and the prevention of further tragedies. As is, this film, by doing everything it can to be non-political (and necessarily failing) does nothing to further or deepen our understanding of 9/11 and what it means. The best we can take out of it is sympathy and admiration for the collective hero of the airplane’s passengers. But did we really need a movie to show us how heroic those people were? If so, doesn’t that say something horrible about us and the way we deal with reality? Is it not really real until we’ve seen the movie (and wasn’t 9/11 cinematic enough the first time)? Anyway, I don’t think we’ve had a great film about 9/11 yet, but when we do I’m certain it’ll look a lot more than Fahrenheit 911 than United 93.

Centre Stage – A funky biopic about Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu played by Maggie Cheung and directed by Stanley Kwan. Ruan killed herself at age 25 after only a few years of making movies, most of which no longer exist. After reading Jonathan Rosenbaum rave about it in his Essential Cinema book (where it’s called Actress, a much better title), I snagged it from Netflix. Problem is the Region 1 copy of the movie sucks. The subtitles are bad and absent at inconvenient times, the transfer is really bad and apparently 20 minutes have been cut out of the film. As is, there’s enough to see what Rosenbaum dug about the film: Kwan mixes archival footage of the silent films with Cheung reenacting those same film scenes and interviews with actors in the film and some of the people they’re portraying mixed with dramatic recreations of scenes from Ruan’s life. Incoherence is a necessary part of the film because there are so many gaps in what we know of Ruan’s life, but the cuts take it to far (not too mention that a key newspaper headline remains untranslated, not being able to read Chinese, I have no idea what the tabloids were attacking her about right before she killed herself. Seems like whoever subtitled this film would have thought that might be important. . . . Recognizing that it’s incomplete, I’ll rate it the #21 film of 1992.

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