Friday, 28 March 2014

Eee, buy gum!

A long time ago, Star Wars was chewy, and I don’t mean the Wookiee…

Like many of my peers, George Lucas’s 1977 Space fantasy whipped up an all-encompassing mania for me.  I was probably just the right age to be completely absorbed by the mythology and magic of Star Wars, and my fanaticism was nothing short of an out-of-control firestorm.  Fortunately, a conflagration of this intensity couldn’t last, and burnt itself out after a couple of years - to the extent that I didn’t even bother to go and see the first sequel in 1980 (always from one extreme to the other, with me). Naturally, I’d missed the very best the Lucasverse had to offer, but that’s another story.
At the height of Star Wars mania in early 1978, a classmate gave me this at our school sports day, claiming he’d found it on the side of the road.
Two things struck me about this generous gift, the first being that this was obviously part of a greater collectable set, and secondly: as everyone knew I alone loved See-Threepio, the co-incidence of this card featuring nobody else’s favourite droid seemed fishy. The truth came out.  My young colleague had been secretly collecting the whole set in some kind of covert competitive exercise, but finally decided to let me in on the wonder that was Star Wars collectible bubblegum cards.

Topps bubblegum cards had been around for a very long time, the grayish-pink, reputably chewable tiles of gum packaged with cards mostly featuring American sporting stars.
But the previous year,  a set emblazoned with images and pre-production artwork from Dino De Laurentis’ King Kong had been all the rage (I might even have got the whole set of those), and with Star Wars now
changing the face of marketing forever, Topps wasn’t slow in gaining similar rights from 20th Century Fox.

Allen’s and Regina (“A&R Playtime Gum is fun!”) distributed the product in New Zealand.  Printed either here, or by their affiliate, Scanlens, in Australia - this might explain why there weren’t any ‘movie facts’ on the reverse despite the promise on the wrapper.
However, you could piece together a crude re-interpretation of the famous Hildebrandt poster artwork (used on the gum packaging in the US), and the much-used still of Chewbacca, Ben, Luke and Han gazing out of the Millennium Falcon cockpit (also featured on card 31), by turning the cards over and using them like a jigsaw puzzle.

There were 72 cards to collect; 1-66 based on the original blue-bordered American set, and then 67-72 (of which my Threepio ‘gift card’ belonged) were reprinted artwork from part of a set of stickers only available in the US.
These garishly out-lined ‘portrait’s actually turned out to be the only kind you would get from a particular Dairy. Somehow they had been sent an entire consignment of packs containing numbers 67-72 only, and the blameless proprietors lost our custom as soon as the discovery was made.

But mainly we were all happily experiencing the thrill of tearing open the yellow paper wrapping (which surprisingly featured Threepio – maybe because he was gold, and Artoo-Detoo already had his own ice-block with collectible stickers) to see what card was stuck to the elastic, fleshy-coloured wafer within.

Another friend showed me how an empty cassette case with the interior spindles broken off made the perfect container for these cards, and our collections (and jaw muscles) grew throughout the late summer.
Ultimately, I think my natural frugality was my undoing here.  If I’d spent a tiny bit more money, I might have got the full set.  Friends moving on to other things tended to give their cards to me, so I stood a very good chance – one even gave me the box which the packs came in (empty, though probably worth something today if I’d kept it!)
But suddenly, they just weren’t available anymore.  Star Wars bubblegum disappeared from dairy shelves seemingly overnight I was left stranded with a tantalising six cards left to collect.

I realise now that I could have written to Allen’s and Regina and they’d probably have completed my set, although it didn’t matter; it had all been fun while it lasted. 
But to this day, I still have no idea how to blow a bubble with gum.

(With thanks to the NZSW site)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Uneasy Rider

I want to ride my bicycle,
I want to ride my bike,
I want to ride my bicycle,
I want to ride it where I like…
Freddie Mercury

 Much has been made recently of cycling being the new golf for middle-aged men.  Instead of trundling around golf courses; whisking across the tar-sealed sections of the country in ill-advised lycra ensembles and silly hats is de rigeur.
The annual ‘around Taupo’ event is now apparently threatening to re-awaken the dormant crater with seismic vibrations caused by the sheer number of day-glo participants.

I’m not mocking, well, maybe a little.  I applaud anyone who gets out and exercises, and enjoys this magnificent country by burning calories instead of fossil fuels.  But I have to say that grimly pedalling around Taupo with squillions of other people, eyes fixed only on the road ahead and below until it’s all over sounds like hell to me.
Perhaps it’s my intrinsic anti-social nature, but I enjoy cycling as a mainly solitary activity.  No start line, no semi-Asperger’s cycle enthusiasts dispensing unsolicited advice or braying about the manful size of their time and distance – just me and the unfurling landscape - and often my i-pod.  A talking book can distract me from the pain of a seemingly-endless incline.

I haven’t been blessed with strong legs, or particularly strong anything (I’m ‘the stick who walks’, remember), but a metabolism which appears to be permanently jammed on ‘nippy’ seems to give me a certain natural baseline of fitness.
This can be useful when I suddenly decide to embark on an overnight cycle excursion to some ‘distant’ shore, with little-to-no physical preparation to speak of .

The first time I did this I cycled from Motueka to Collingwood in Nelson (or Tasman, or whatever they call this beautiful part of the country these days).  A distance of 107km, with the daunting 791m Takaka Hill in between, I threw myself into this with a heavy backpack across my shoulders and another strapped to the handle bars.  As I began to ascend the hill the bike chain fell off and I almost ended up in a ditch.
The trip, subsequent stay at my destination and reasons why the exertion didn’t kill me are maybe worth recounting another time.

The formation which gives Castlepoint its name can be seen in the distance.
The trip I’ve just completed, however, was to Castlepoint, a coastal village blessed with golden sands, spectacular rock formations, and a famous lighthouse.  The internet tells me it’s a distance of 92km from my home, so with a borrowed ‘semi-hybrid’ road bike and a backback bursting with super-compressed tent and sleeping bag, I was off.
A very atypical South-easterly wind gave me an easy first leg to Masterton, feeling as if I was flying along Highway 2.  Responsibly purchasing a pump and spare tube from a cycle shop, the owner pursed his lips alarmingly when I gave my destination.
“It’s a bit of a ride…”
I love kiwi understatement.  Warning me about the hills at the last part of the trip, he looked me up and down and conceded that “I’d probably be alright”.

Buoyed up by that generous encouragement, I turned off from SH2 towards the coast and immediately hit the easterly component of the unusual wind direction.  The southerly part had been my friend, but this literally got in my face all the way to the coast.  Not especially gusty, the worst part was the drag it gave me on what should have been triumphant high-velocity downhill stretches.
Losing cell phone coverage as the landscape changed from rolling farmland to craggy seaward ridges, my progress could only be described as ‘steady’.  I’ll be forever grateful for the loan of the bike I was on, but despite raising seat and handlebars as far as I could it was clear that this machine and I were never going to mesh in ergonomic perfection.  The backpack alternatively pressed me forward and pulled me back while the racing saddle began to feel more like a toast rack than anything ever intended to be sat on.
Lessons learned here: buy a bike which ‘fits you’ and maybe invest in panniers for overnight trips.
A failed 'selfie' none-the-less captures a definite highlight of the afternoon.
But despite this, I settled into a kind of rhythm. The sun came out and, as I’d hoped, the scenery was both secluded and beautiful - particularly my first glimpse of the Tinui Hotel.
Heartened by the mere 20k remaining between me and the coast, I downed a very welcome pint and an ill-advisedly huge lunch.  
Five minutes into the final stretch, the warning about the ‘hills’ rang true.  Thighs burning, I gasped my way to the top of a steep incline to be confronted with a sign    which read: ‘Little Saddle’   .
“I really hope there’s not a ‘Big Saddle’.” I thought.
There was. 
And it was.

After another easterly-stifled downhill glide, one final hill before my first glimpse of the sea.  I flew down the other side, and straight into the vista of waves breaking on a long golden beach, dominated by a Lighthouse perched atop a craggy promontory. 
Castlepoint, in 'oils'.
Despite the by-now beautiful day, the camping ground was distinctly off-season and I had my pick of any site, except No. 22 - the one closest to the beach .  Setting up my tent a discreet couple of spaces away, I was confident that I’d still see the glorious panorama of the beach and lighthouse from my canvas refuge. 
My final peg had just been driven in when an ugly black four-wheel drive, the logo of a certain real estate company shouting all over it, promptly trundled onto site 22 and eclipsed any chance of a view.  Of anything. To make it even worse, they then erected a tent on top of this monstrosity, poking into the sky like Snoopy’s doghouse and blocking the very last glimpse of the lighthouse.

My seaside home-from-home, before the neighbours arrived.
It was definitely time for a walk along the beach, where I consoled myself that my tent was really only for sleeping in anyway, and if there was a sudden tsunami my neighbour’s unsightly barricade probably wouldn’t even let me get wet.
After savouring the sea air, fish and chips and spectacular vistas which this coastal haven affords, I passed a cosy night in my tent, lulled to sleep by the nearby crashing surf and something approaching physical exhaustion.

The camp security lighting, and my torch, allowed me to pack my tent and sleeping bag at 5.30 the following morning, even repeating the miracle of squeezing them back inside my backpack.  Determined to be on the road as early as possible, I climbed the hill back out of Castlepoint in the darkness, probably leaving my neighbours to wonder if I’d been abducted by aliens when they climbed down from their rooftop at a more civilised hour.
Sunrise from 'Big Saddle'.
The return trip was entirely unremarkable, although the relative quietness of the early Saturday morning road enhanced the sense of solitude I had sought .  Enjoying a murky sunrise and breakfast of an apple and muesli bars from ‘Big Saddle’, I eventually made it back to Masterton for a far more substantial morning meal.

Before leaving, I visited the same bike shop as yesterday and promptly bought a cycle which fits me, properly designed for trips like this one.  Hopefully there will be many more.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Beating the Count

The novella Whitstable is a beautifully researched, but unexpectedly harrowing tribute to my favourite actor.

"My heroes have always been cowboys...", sang Willie Nelson in 1980.
Mine have always been old men.  Well, older men: professors, ‘mentors’, scientists and perhaps most especially, doctors.  The young ‘square-jawed’ heroes just bored me.  A commander who shot and punched his way out of a problem was nowhere near as interesting to me as an otherworldly scientist who could call upon vast reserves of knowledge and experience to logically think his way to a resolution.  Even if the mature, learned figure surrounded by uniformed ‘heroes’ wasn’t entirely good, like Doctor Morbius in Forbidden Planet, or even something of a buffoon – Doctor Smith in Lost in Space – a ‘qualification’ always trumped a rank or title in terms of my interest and sympathies.

And if this intellectual, less obviously heroic character could do the physical stuff as well, then I was really behind him.  This might be the application of an obscure or alien martial art, or simply the courage to take sudden and desperate action:

“And he was coming towards you and your eyes went like this – “ He shot a glance to his left.  “And you saw the red curtains and you jumped up and ran cross the long, long table and tore them down and the sunlight poured in…”

In this passage from Stephen Volk’s 2013 novella Whitstable; a young boy excitedly recounts the climax of Hammer’s 1959 Dracula, to Peter Cushing.  But he isn’t just after an autograph: he wants ‘Doctor Van Helsing’ to save him from a real vampire.
The central concept to this short story, written last year to commemorate the centennial of the late Cushing’s birth, sounds charming and probably the prelude to a gentle and loving, possibly even sycophantic, tribute to a much-loved actor.
Actually, in just 132 pages, Whitstable will put you and Cushing through the emotional wringer in ways that Van Helsing’s worst nightmares couldn’t match.  Consider that the story is set just after the death of his beloved wife Helen, when even opening his eyes in the morning seems like a pointless exercise, then ponder what the real-life equivalent of a corrupting, predatory vampire might be and you’ll glimpse how dark the road which Volk leads the reader down really is.

Cushing’s legendary impeccable manners, religious faith and scrupulous regard for the old world values of respect and compassion are tested to their breaking point in the seemingly uncaring and often profane world of the early 1970s.  Many times his films are paralleled (including a horrifying home invasion which can’t quite breach his threshold, uninvited) as this gentle man out of time seems so utterly helpless against the brutal forces of darkness.

Putting real people into fictional situations is not new, but strikes me here more than ever that using a public figure (in this case someone only ten years gone), and all that we knew of his loves, hopes , fears and vulnerabilities in a concocted tale might be treading the very fine line of good taste.
Many have said that they hoped Cushing might have approved of Whitstable, and having finished it in a single afternoon (almost unheard of for me) I can only add my own wish to that sentiment.  It might be harrowing and challenging, but Whitstable is certainly still a loving tribute to Cushing and as with his countless films, good does finally triumph over the most appalling evil.
Highly recommended, but don’t expect a gentle ride.

Of Cushing himself, as with many of my heroes, my Mother made the introduction.  It’s difficult to remember exactly where – it might even have been an episode of Space 1999!  I had read about his films for years, possibly completely missing his cameo in the campily-disturbing Scream and Scream Again, so I suspect it was Star Wars where I first really saw him – fittingly, on the big screen.  Once again the young heroes didn’t get a look in for me.  Tarkin’s cold destruction of Leia’s entire planet, quelling of the squabbling lesser dignitaries, and that last, fleeting glimpse of his icily calm profile before the Death Star detonates all stuck in my mind.  He even convincingly threatens Vader with a single, flint-hard line.
And as usual, Cushing’s fellow cast could only rhapsodise about working with the ‘Gentle Man of horror’, Carrie Fisher often remarking about how impossible it was to hate the man who blew up her planet.
Be kind, I doodled this in the back of a school exercise book when I was 14.
And it seemed to continue to be his atypical performances where I would catch Cushing.  His running-gag appearances on Morcambe and Wise, playing my hero in Doctor Who and the Daleks and Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Peter Cushing in the lead role of Doctor Who and the Daleks (1964)
In the early 1980s TV2’s ‘Sunday Horrors’ opened a treasure trove of Hammer and I finally saw Cushing’s Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein.  Naturally, he was as sublime, steely and dynamic as I’d always hoped. But even if I had somehow impossibly been disappointed by his two most well-known roles, it wouldn’t have mattered at all  -Peter Cushing had somehow already become my favourite actor.
Far more accomplished than the parts usually afforded him deserved, and hugely prolific - I’m thrilled by the fact that , even now, there is still a huge amount of his work I am yet to see.

To finish, I am yet again going to defer to another’s far more skilful writing.  In the audio reading of Cushing’s autobiography, Past Forgetting, he reads this ‘fan letter’.  In Cushing’s distinctively perfect diction, scrupulously observing every consonant and finding hitherto unsuspected syllables in every-day words, this letter is possibly the best of its kind ever written, and encapsulates perfectly why this gaunt, gallant gentleman continues to mean so much to those of us who’ve seen his films:

In the endless of fables of good and evil, which we tell, and want told to us, you are the teller, and the tale.

The kind conjurer, the vulnerable miracle worker, with sleight of mind you can steel your face and eyes to become the glacial fire that would wreck a world. You can leash, and unleash the very devils of hell.  You are the raised rapier behind which no fiend could reach.  Grey, grained oak from a remembered childhood, that held the earth and sky in place.

But most of all, you are the long-awaited story-teller.  No-one gives life to a legend as you do, the beloved enchanter, enfolding us in the simple power of a gesture, turning each moment like a spinning apple on a stem, until it falls into our upturned hands.  And the only price we pay is loss of ignorance.
Mary-Anne Rosberg, a Fan, 1978 

Living in Britain in 1994, I found out about Cushing’s death when I discovered
I had recorded this unscheduled, short tribute shown the night before.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Suite Sounds

Mike Batt wrote chart topping hits for the Wombles and forever associated Art Garfunkel with rabbits. In 1979 he played a new card
– a whole suite of them.

I was lucky to have a fairly progressive fourth form English teacher.  His first name was Denis with one ‘n’, and he was forever amused by the fact that his own signature always made the first letter look like a ‘P’, giving the impression he was actually named after the male organ of reproduction.  As well as introducing us to the venerable smut of Chaucer, the imagination of John Wyndham, encouraging us in debating, speech-craft and drama, he also played us music.  Contemporary music – from albums he’d just bought, and then would encourage us to analyse what we heard.  One of these albums was a certain martian invasion-themed magnum opus by someone called Jeff Wayne, but that is a whole other story for another time.

And once, he played us a song which began like this:

There's an eagle in the eastern sky, turning in the wind;
Out across the evening, resting on the wing.
If I had the wings of an eagle
There'd be no holding me
I'd be free
Sailing free.

The song is Run like the wind, written by Mike Batt, performed in usual gravely fashion by Roger Chapman, and is the final track on the 1979 concept album Tarot Suite. 

 I could immediately see why he chose to play us this track, although I might have struggled to articulate it at the time. It is catchy, inspiring and evocative on a somewhat primal level: full of imagery of flight, emancipation and transcendence – and it stayed in my mind, more sketchily remembered with each passing year.

The cover sleeve for the single release of Run like the Wind - with lyrics!
 It took another eight years for me to finally rediscover the album, and I was delighted to find that another personally evocative song I remembered from that same period: Lady of the Dawn, was actually the fourth track of Tarot Suite, once again written and this time performed by Mr Batt.  Apparently the most successful song from the album’s initial release, it did very well in European charts and obviously received reasonable airplay in New Zealand.

 (Caution: lyrics only - not much to see here.)

The next thing I found was that, as a carefully crafted concept album, the tracks aren’t really meant to be listened to in isolation, but are all part of a greater whole – I’m sure you can see where this sentence is heading: yes - just like the cards in a tarot pack
In the sleeve notes, Batt explains that his process of grouping the 22 major cards in order to represent them with ten musical pieces took him longer than the actual writing of the music and lyrics.  The card’s meanings and how he equates them with his musical themes is covered in some depth.

Mike Batt assigns various Tarot cards to the album's tracks.
 To return to Run like the wind, this final track is a good example of the coherence of the album.  The preceeding tracks The Night of the Dead and The Dead of the Night (see what they did there?) are as dark and macabre as the titles suggest.  ‘Night’ is almost ghoulish; with moaning, chittering ‘night things’ audible within heavy, sepulchral orchestrals, which then segues into the still dark but less otherworldly ‘Dead’
Unexpectedly, this short track dissolves into a 'soar' of strings, inescapably conjuring the image of a rising sun, dispelling the oppressive dread of the previous two pieces, and leading triumphantly into the lyrics quoted at the top of this post.  It’s impossible now for me to imagine these tracks as independent of each other.

Of course, this might all be my interpretation, to anyone else Tarot Suite may simply be a self-indulgent relic from the end of one of rock’s least fondly remembered eras.  But it might just be worth mentioning that the ‘band’ featuring on Tarot Suite, later to be conducted on several occasions by the multi-talented Mr Batt, is a small outfit going by the name of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Joy of FX

Long before digital effects, a Wizard once created real magic with ancient knowledge and some help from his friends.

The Wonderful World of Disney possibly formed a part of everyone’s early Sunday  evening childhood's: the anticipation of a good cartoon being dashed most weeks by another voice-overed ‘wandering dog’ saga.
But one instalment, screened in 1980, delivered something entirely different: a funny, exciting almost post-modern ‘promotion’ for Disney’s big budget hat-throw into the Star Wars ring: The Black Hole. That movie itself seems to have disappeared over its own event horizon (perhaps deservedly) but this promotional WWoD episode, called Major Effects, was so brilliantly weird that I wondered if I had dreamt half of it until I found an entry on Wikipedia recently.

Hosted by the unfortunately-named Joseph Bottoms as ‘Major Effects’ an inept caped wonder who anticipated the Greatest American Hero series by at least a year, the following hour revelled in the magic of movie special effects. Interspersed with clips from The Black Hole (which Bottoms also starred in), the absolute stand-out in all this mayhem was a somewhat ‘trippy’ sequence called The Wizard of Speed and Time.
I strongly suspect words will fail me in trying to describe it, so please take a look for yourself.

OK, it has dated, and the stop motion (‘Time’) at the end is a little creaky, but isn’t that high-velocity opening (‘Speed’) entertaining in a delirious sort of way?
An interviewer exclaimed that the ‘locomotive race’ was far more convincing than a similar scene in Superman the Movie (well, it couldn’t have been worse) which Star/director/animator/vocalist/ effects designer and possible co-creator of the ‘smiley’ Mike Jittlov modestly brushed off.
“The train was going 100mph”, he explained helpfully, “I was running 200.”

But what he’s actually doing is running along side a slow-moving freight train, and the sequence was then speeded up.  Sounds simple? Not at all – in this and all other running sequences Jittlov (and his ‘hitch-hiker’) is actually turning himself into a human stop-motion puppet – moving his body incrementally and performing at a massively slowed-down rate.  An hour of gestures, expressions and head and eye movements all translated into a single second of screen time.
Jittlov described his co-star Toni Handcock as a ‘bundle of joy’ – still can’t be easy holding this pose, though…
The ‘creaky’ stop motion sequence with the film equipment suddenly becomes an incredible achievement when you consider that Jittlov is also present - performing at the same fractional rate as the ‘inanimate’ objects.  With a handful of extremely talented friends he is making new breakthroughs in techniques which date back to the very dawn of motion pictures.

To have created this short, which even features him briefly running up and along a wall (you’ll never guess how they did that*), on a microscopic budget begins to look like real magic.
When asked why he didn’t employ the expensive, computer-controlled camera systems pioneered by the then-titans of visual effects, John Star Wars Dykstra and Douglas Close Encounters Trumbull, Jittlov replied: “Ah, but can John or Doug act and sing?”

Mike Jittlov went on to expand The Wizard of Speed and Time into a full length film in 1989 – so far unreleased on DVD, and I’ve never seen it. Legendary pulp artist Kelly Freas painted the poster though, so that’s one thing in its favour already.

The ‘Speed’ and ‘Time’ sequences were completely re-filmed (He actually went through all that again!) and reversed in order, to form the climax of the film.  Although more polished and technically proficient (see link below) to me the original short from ten years earlier has an endearing, spontaneous lunacy which can’t be equalled.

I must confess, Major Effects and especially the ‘sprinting sorcerer’ contributed hugely to my early interest in the film industry, leading to my first-ever job being with a production company.  Thanks Uncle Walt: see what happens when you don’t just palm us off with another gabby dog story?

Mike Jittlov – a real Wizard?
* Jittlov claims he jumped up against the wall multiple times while his friend photographed him at just the right split-second, and then cut the resulting frames together.   Beat that Matrix!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

We Three Kongs part two: The King of Hearts

The 2005 remake of King Kong was an unashamed labour of love and devotion for
Peter Jackson.  But sometimes love is blind, especially in the editing suite.

We’ve had the puppet, the performer and now it’s the turn of the pixels
I’m in this film!  Or at least, a very small headline announcing my Knighthood is.   In 2003 I was given an unusual and rather urgent job.  The art Director on the new remake of King Kong needed several mockups of various New York newspapers from the early 1930s composited and then printed in their hundreds.  I was supplied with actual mastheads, page and typeface samples, and then left to design and compose dozens of dummy pages.  The small story announcing my ennoblement was a combination of boredom, desperation and mischief.
It was worth it however when I saw the film with my family, wondering if ‘my’ papers had made the final edit only to find that they appeared prominently in the opening scenes, overlaid with a song from my Dad’s favourite: Al Jolsen.

Paper trail – freshly printed 70-year-old newspapers.
Given Peter Jackson’s apparent reluctance to leave anything out (the film runs a Kong-sized 3 hours and 7 minutes!), I probably needn’t have worried.  But let’s talk about the positives first.

The main reason for re-making a 70 year old fantasy adventure must surely be a technical one: in the digital age every single hair on Kong’s body can be painstakingly rendered, any imaginable scenario can be put on screen.  The effects in Kong 2005 are quite literally flawless, from the recreation of depression era New York to the nightmarish Skull Island (the exact opposite of the beautiful Hawaiian beach scenes in the previous remake) and its primordial denizens.
But watching the pot-bellied, quadrupedal 25-foot Kong of this version, I wonder if the film makers might have missed the point in a little in going to such lengths to make him exactly like a gorilla. To my mind, there was always a little mystery about exactly what the eighth wonder of the world actually was – he’ s more the personification of untamable nature and noble savagery than simply a scaled-up simian.  The gorilla is not noted for its range of facial emotion, either.  Of course, a 1930s impression of what the then little-known and rarely-seen animal actually was would have contributed to the original  film’s depiction of a ‘living myth’.

Apeing nature: the new Kong is indisputably a gorilla, when he’s not Andy Serkis with spots on his face…
Of the cast, Naomi Watt gives the most notable performance, stepping into Fay Wray’s shoes and building a complex rapport with her giant admirer.  Wray herself is referenced in a dizzying piece of post modernism, said to be filming with Director Merian C Cooper over at RKO as the original Kong theme looms onto the soundtrack.  Alas, whether she would ever agree to long-standing plans for her appearance at the end of the 2005 film remains unanswered, as she died shortly after her meeting with Peter Jackson.
Watt herself gives Ann Darrow the bright, hopeful exterior but inner core of toughness which a struggling actress in Depression-struck Manhattan would surely need.

Of the other two leads, I’m afraid the rather vulgar Jack Black only comes across as stunt casting to me, while the lugubrious Adrian Brody seems completely out-of-place.  They both acquit themselves well, but wouldn’t have been my choices. Better is Thomas Kretschmann as Englehorn, merely a salty sea-cipher in the original, now a charismatic figure capable of stealing the screen from the leads.

“Ugh – it’s horrible – get it off!”, squealed the terrified weta.
The film’s two huge set-pieces are re-crafted with the love and dedication expected.  Firstly, the T-Rex (sorry, V-Rex – the films efforts to depict dinosaurs and a primeval ecosystem which have continued to evolve should be applauded) battle is nothing short of magnificent: tellingly taking a family of the evil saurians to match the verve of the original 1933 stoush.  Perhaps best of all is the climactic stand-off atop the Empire State Building.  My favourite scene of all is the quiet moment which Kong and Ann share on the skyscraper’s ledge, echoing their earlier sunset tryst on Skull Island. Gazing into the dawn-lit sky, Kong imitates Ann’s earlier mime for ‘beautiful’ and her eyes widen as realises how much more than a mere beast he really is; before the roar of the arriving air squadron brutally tears their last tender connection apart.  It tears me apart every time, too.  70 years of race memory means we know exactly what the outcome of this unfair assault will be.  The light literally fading from Kong’s eyes before he falls, in the film’s only justified use of slow motion, is heart breaking.
One of the most iconic images of the twentieth Century is lovingly recreated
And now onto the ‘less positives’ of Kong ‘05:
The fact that it’s simply too long is self-evident.  At times it feels as if the voyage to Skull Island might be happening in real-time - I don’t really care about Jamie Bell’s brattish character or even Carl Denham’s issues with the appalling studio executives.  Jackson’s habit of slipping suddenly into slow motion or even a strange ‘smeary-cam’ only elongates proceedings without any clear advantage.
Worse of all, because this lesson was learned seven decades ago, was the re-inclusion of the ‘spider pit sequence’. Film pioneers from the 1930s realised it slowed down the pace of the film and cut it, and the pit’s pendulous resurrection in this version proves them absolutely right.  Even the soundtrack seems to loose interest during this interminable self-indulgence on the director’s part.

The only remaining still of the original, wisely-excised spider pit sequence.
Key sequences deftly set down by the original film seem unnecessarily laboured in this remake.  Ann’s first meeting with Denham, the first landing on the island and the unveiling of Kong in New York are examples of extended exposition which wasn’t needed in 1933 and certainly isn’t needed here.  Perhaps all this extra screen-time would have been better employed resolving the Kong-sized elephant in the room which only the ’76 remake has ever addressed: How did they get a him from Skull Island to New York?

King Kong is, among other things, a story about human ignorance and greed, manifesting in cruelty and the exploitation of nature.  Sadly, this seems to be more prevalent in this version of the story than others.  The brontosaurus stampede is a thrilling sequence, but the sheer level of death and lethal injury inflicted on these hapless CGI creatures for what seems to culminate in an attempt at comedy relief makes for an uncomfortable watch.  Just because you can put anything on screen doesn’t mean that you always should.
The peaceful survivor of a long-lost race meets a tragic end in the name of a chase scene.
For all its faults, Kong ’05 was a loving attempt to be as faithful to the original film as possible*, made by masters in their field who cared deeply about the legacy they felt privileged to continue.  But as I’ve said before, sometimes you can love something too much. I was delighted to find that a re-watching of the first remake gave a fresh, new take on a very familiar tale, whereas this technically brilliant, but over-egged version mainly just gave me pins and needles and the urge to see the original again.

Which I will do soon, to round off ‘We Three Kongs’ with where it all began.

* A script written pre-Lord of the Rings, when King Kong was to be Jackson’s next film after the Frighteners featured some intriguing variations on the story, including Ann Darrow as the daughter of an archaeologist exploring ancient ruins in Sumatra. Denham's crew would have been encountered independently. The under-performance of the Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young remakes around this time put Kong on the back-burner, until a new script was written and filmed almost ten years later.