Saturday, 24 December 2005

Holiday Rock

For many of you out there today is Christmas Eve. For me it is otherwise signficant, as it was on this day that someone dearest to me and closest to my heart was born. I do hope that she has had a very happy Yuletide so far and that she has an even happier birthday. I have often joked that she was my Yule gift when I was six years old (even though I wouldn't know about the gift until years later) and I honestly believe that.

Anyhow, with today being what it is, I thought I would write about a holiday topic. When it comes to rock 'n' roll Christmas songs, most people's knowledge goes ony so far as "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." And while the genre has never produced many classic holiday tunes, it has produced its fair share.

Indeed, the first Christmas rock song not only pre-dates "Jingle Bell Rock," but even pre-dates the term "rock 'n' roll." In 1947 Charles Brown releasead "Merry Christmas, Baby." As proof that the song is indeed rock before that term even existed, consider that it has been remade by everyone from Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen, often with very little change from the original. The song breaks from many traditional carols in being openly romantic, even erotic in subject matter.

For that matter, Elvis Presley beat "Jingle Bell Rock" when it came to making a rock 'n' roll holiday tune. "Blue Christmas" was released in 1957. The song is one of the first of many holiday rock songs that dealt with the idea of someone being without their loved one during the holidays. It breaks with many traditional songs and standards in being openly melancholy about the holidays.

This is certainly not the case with Chuck Berry's "Run, Run, Rudolph." The song is a joyous celebration of Santa's most famous reindeer. The song was supposedly written by Marvin Lee Brodie and John D. Marks--the latter having written the original "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." That having been said, the song has the signature sound of Chuck Berry, clearly four bar blues. It doesn't sound that different from "Roll Over Beethoven" or "Johnny B. Goode." One has to wonder if Berry wasn't denied a composer's credit on the song.

While "Jingle Bell Rock" was not the first holiday rock song, that does not reduce its siginificance. It was arguably the first song that made a point of mixing rock with Christmas. It was originally released by Bobby Helms in 1957 and re-released in 1958. There are those who argue that it is not a rock song at all, but utter pop, although I have to disagree. Although a bit watered down when compared to the songs of such acts as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the song is clearly rock to me.

Perhaps the second most famous Christmas rock song was also written by Johnny Marks of "Rudolph..." fame. Released in 1960 and performed by Brenda Lee, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was a smash hit and became a standard. It has been remade many times since, by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Jessica Simpson.

It would be left to Phil Spector, however, to produce a truly great Christmas rock song. In 1963 A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. The bulk of the album consisted of such standards as "Sleigh Ride" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" treated to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production and turned into rock 'n' roll. The only original song on the album was also the single greatest Christmas rock song of all time, perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all time, period. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," performed by Darlene Love, is the plea of a woman without her beloved at Yuletide. The song turns the conventions of Christmas on their head. The snow falling is not a sign of joy, but serves the same purpose of rain in other songs, that of illustrating the singer's sorrow. Even the bells ringing are indicative of the loss the singer feels. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" is not only the saddest Christmas song of all time, but also one of the saddest rock songs of all time. It is a powerful evocation of what it is like to be without the one you love at the Yuletide (something I sadly have experience with...). It has become Darlene Love's most famous song. Indeed, it is an annual ritual that she performs it each year on Late Night with David Letterman right before Christmas.

Rock has not produced many classic Christmas songs. Indeed, even no less than The Beach Boys failed to produce a classic holiday tune. In 1964 they released The Beach Boys Christmas Album. The album featured songs that came close to classic--the originals "Little St. Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys," but for the most part consisted of rather standard treatments of such standards as "Frosty the Snow Man" and "White Christmas."

The Beatles never released a Christmas song to the public (although they did do so to their fan club), but a Beatle would eventually create the greatest Christmas song short of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home." John Lennon meant "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" to eseentially be propaganda. It was a part of Lennon and Yoko Ono's campaign for peace and protest against the Vietnam War. The song went far beyond its creator's intended purpose, however, to become a Yuletide classic. It has been covered many times since, from artists ranging from The Corrs to The Alarm.

Of course, rock 'n' roll originally started as a music of rebellion, so it should be no surprise that artists sometimes took skewed views of the holidays. It was the British Invasion's court jester, Ray Davies of The Kinks, who wrote just such a song. Released in 1976 by The Kinks, "Father Christmas" is not about holiday joy, but about a poor bloke playing Father Christmas who is robbed by street punks. The chorus "Father Christmas, give us some money...:" is about as far as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as one can get. Another skewed view of the holidays was given to us by AC/DC on their 1990 album The Razor's Edge. "Mistress for Christmas." The title sums up the song. It is simpy one man's wish for sex on Christmas. Leave it to AC/DC to create the first holiday sex song....

Sex also plays a role in Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again." For the most part the song focuses on the cyclical nature of the holidays, addressing such traditional imagery as ringing bells, shopping, fires in the fireplace, et. al. It also contains its share of eroticism, however, making reference to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe with the lines "And Christmas is a rockin' time, put your body next to mine/Underneath the mistletoe we go, we go..."

Of course, rock artists have remade their share of the classics. As mentioned earlier, A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector featured adaptations of many standards, including a classic rendition of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers by The Crystals. Bruce Springsteen added electric guitars to the Gene Autry classic "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," while John Mellencamp gave "I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus" the rock treatment. In fact, where holiday songs are concerned, I daresay that more rock artists have remade standards than written original tunes.

Rock 'n' roll has been around now for over fifty years. The holiday season, if one counts the Yule celebration of the Germanic peoples and Saturnalia of the Romans, has been around for thousands of years. I think it safe to say that more rock artists will continue to write rock songs for the holidays, as well as remake standard Yuletide tunes. Only time will tell if any of these become classics.

Friday, 23 December 2005

A Musical Interlude for the Holidays

Okay, in anticipation of what is for many a very important day this Sunday, I thought I would provide some links to some holiday rock 'n' roll....

"Blue Christmas" by Elvis Presley

"Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee

I have to apologise about not having a link to "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available online. It is the greatest Christmas rock song of all time and arguably one of the greatest rock songs of all time, period. And it does describe the way a lot of us feel at the holidays at times....

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

O Tannenbaum

One of my fondest childhood memories is going out with my father and my brother to pick out and cut down our Christmas tree. We fortunate enough to live on a farm filled with cedar trees, so it wasn't very hard to find one. We never took the best trees, leaving those to grow to adulthood. Instead we selected trees that would look pretty in the house, but probably would not make it if left in the pasture or the woods. My father was apparently born a conservationist.

The origins of the Christmas tree are largely unknown, although there are no shortage of claims as to the origin of the custom. Some look to the pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe for the origins of Christmas trees, while others look to Christianity for explanations of the custom. It is safe to say that most of these claims are largely apocryphal.

One of the most popular Christian explanations for the origin of the Christmas tree centres on St. Boniface (also known as Winfred), who lived from about 675 CE to 755 CE. According to legend Boniface cut down an oak (held sacred by both the Celtic and Germanic peoples) in front of some newly converted Christians. The oak stump then split into four pieces and a fir tree sprung up in its place. This seems unlikely to me, if for any other reason than the fact that evergreens may also have been held sacred by the pagan peoples of northern Europe (see below).

Another Christian explanation is that Martin Luther found himself impressed by a woodland that he cut down a fir tree, took it home, and decorated it. Given that Luther lived from 1483 to 1546 CE and the first reports of the Tannenbaum are from only a few decades later, this too seems unlikely.

A much more likely Christian explanation for how the Christmas tree originated may be found in the morality and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. Among the most popular of these dealt with Adam and Eve, and it was often performed on December 24. Central to the play was "the Paradise Tree" or "Paradeisbaum." In the summer this would naturally be an apple tree, but in winter they would simply use an evergreen decorated with apples and holy wafers. Eventually people started bringing evergreens into their houses at Yuletide and decorating, perhaps in imitation of the Paradise Trees of the plays. Supposedly in parts of Bavaria, trimmed firs are still called "Paradeis."

Of course, Christmas trees have been condemned as a pagan custom by many Christians. No less than Oliver Cromwell condemend many Yuletide customs as "heathen traditions (this perhaps explains why my mother's ancestors were Cavaliers...)." And not surprisingly, some have looked to paganism for an explanation for the origin of Christmas trees. Some look to ancient Rome for the origin of the Christmas tree, pointing out that they would decorate their houses with clippings from evergreen shrubs during Saturnalia and that they would decorate trees in honour of the god Bacchus. This explanation doesn't seem too likely to me, as the first reported Christmas trees occur in northern Europe in areas that never fell under the sway of Rome. Yet others look to the Druids, who reportedly held trees sacred, for origins of the Tannenbaum. This too is problematic as the first reported Christmas trees appeared in Latvia and Germany, not areas occupied by the Celts.

A more likely heathen explanation for the origin of the Christmas tree may lie in the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples themselves. From Roman sources we know that the Germanic peoples had holy groves where they would worship their gods. The Laws of the Lombardic king Luitprand from the 8th century CE condemns the practice of worshipping trees and springs. Now there is little evidence that the Germanic peoples actually worshipped trees and springs, although there are instances in ancient sources where they did leave offerings for gods and nature spirits at trees and springs. An instance of this may be seen in the Life of Barbatus (a 7th century bishop), in which the Lombards are said to hang a hide from a tree and then hurl spears at it as part of a religious rite.

Indeed, central to the cosmography of Norse myth is the World Tree, which either contains or supports all the Worlds. That the idea of the World Tree may have been found among other Germanic peoples may be seen in references to the Irminsul. It is first mentioned in the Annals of Frankish Kings from the 8th and 9th centuries. Archbishop Hincmar of Reims (who lived from 806 to 882 CE) later described precisely what the Irminsul was. It was a large tree trunk which the Saxons held sacred. He tells us that in Latin it was called the "Universal Column," as if it supported everything. Indeed, the word Irminsul would appear to mean exactly that in the Germanic languages. What is more, it is an apt description for the World Tree of Norse myth.

What is more, it is possible that the World Tree of Germanic myth was seen as an evergreen. In the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, the World Tree is described as evergreen, although it also has characteristics of fruit trees. In The History of the Bishops of Hamburg, Paul the Deacon describes a large tree that stood outside the temple at Uppsala, Sweden, which was green in both summer and winter. It may not be too far fetched to assume that in parts of Germany individuals may have continued to leave gifts at evergreen trees (standing in for the World Tree) long after they had been converted to Christianity. Eventually, they may have even started to bring such trees inside.

Indeed, it seems to me that the origins of the Christmas tree could be both heathen and Christian. On the one hand it seems to me that people may have continued leaving gifts at trees in Germany long after the conversion to Christiantiy. Indeed, it seems possible that people may have held some reverence for trees long after they became Christian. This could be born out by the central role that the Paradise Trees played in the moraltiy plays, which seems to be a bit out of proprotion to the position occupied by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. I guess I don't have to point out that the Paradise Trees were evergreens decorated with fruit while the World Tree of Norse myth may have been seen as an evergreen with characteristics of a fruit tree. On the other hand, it seems to me that the idea of bringing an evergreen in doors and decorating it probably does stem from the Paradise Trees of the morality plays. It could well be that the similarity between Christmas trees and Paradise Trees is due to more than just coincidence. And both seem to have largely been German in origin. At any rate, it seems possible to me that the Tannenbaum could have been a result of the confluence of ideas both pagan and Christian.

At any rate, it seems to me that we will never know the origins of the Christmas tree. We can only offer theories as to its origins. What we do know it that the custom is first reported in the 1510 CE in Riga, Latvia. In 1521 the German Princess Helene of Mecklembourg brought the Tannenbaum to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Thereafter there are references to Christmas trees as being a custom among German families. The custom of the Tannenbaum was brought to America by German settlers and to England by Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert (originally from Germany). Despite their popularity today, there have been those who condemned the custom of Christmas trees. The preacher Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio became the first man to place a Tannenbaum in an American church in 1851. This act brought howls of protests from some parishoners, who thought it a pagan custom.

Regardless, the Christmas tree soon became a part of the American holiday celebration. Indeed, songs mentioning Christmas trees date back to the 16th century in Germany. Perhaps the most famous Christmas tree song of them all is indeed German. "O Tannenbaum" was written by Ernst Ansch├╝tz of Leipzig in 1824. Since then there have been dozens of carols either about or mentioning Christmas trees--"The Littlest Christmas Tree," "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," and so on.

As an adult I celebrate Yule rather than Christmas (keep in mind I am not Christian...). And every year I put up a tree. Alas, these days it is an artificial one, although I still have fond memories of seeking out that special cedar that would occupy a central place in our living room. To me, it just isn't the Yuletide without a tree.

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

A History of Kong

Peter Jackson's King Kong topped the box office this weekend. It is little wonder why. Beyond being the product of the Oscar winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong is the remake of the classic 1933 movie that long ago became a part of Anglo-American pop culture. I don't think it would be exaggerating to say that Kong is one of the pivotal characters in cinematic history.

Indeed, today we take the original 1933 King Kong for granted. Most people do not realise that it was the Star Wars of its day. It was easily the biggest box office winner of 1933. People would literally stand in line to see it. The movie originated in the mind of Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was quite a character--he was an adventurer, aviator, documentary filmmaker, and movie producer. Indeed, the character of Carl Denham was in a large part based on himself! The roots of King Kong go back to Cooper's childhood, when he became fascinated by gorillas when reading a book on exploration.

Of course, to bring his giant ape to life, Cooper would need to find a way of creating a 25 foot gorilla. He found the way in the form of special effects technician Willis O'Brien. O'Brien had provided the stop motion effects for The Lost World, one of the biggest movies of the silent era. At the time O'Brien was working on a project called Creation, another movie about dinosaurs. Cooper persuaded O'Brien to give up on Creation to work on King Kong instead. For the time King Kong's effects were mind blowing. It made many innovations in stop motion animation and rear projection.

It would seem to be the movie's plot, however, that made it a classic. Contrary to popular belief, King Kong was not the first "giant monster on the loose" movie, although it is arguably the most influential. I rather suspect the first "giant monster on the loose" movie was The Lost World, in the climax of which a dinosaur rages through London. But Kong was not a mere mindless beast intent on destroying New York City. Kong was a thinking, feeling creature who had fallen for beautiful actress Ann Darrow. Finding himself in a strange atmosphere, Kong naturally acts out of fear and seeks out the one thing that means anything to him--Ann. Like the Frankenstein monster of Universal's classic films, Kong is not so much a monster as an intelligent, emotional creature who has no place in modern, human society.

One little known bit of Kong history is that there exists a novelization of the original movie. The novel King Kong was published in December 1932, shortly before the movie's release, and is credited to Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, although it appears to have been ghost written by Delos W. Lovelace. The novel follows the movie closely, although it includes the spider pit sequence in tact (the sequence was cut from the movie because Cooper thought it was too frightening) and it does not include the scene in which Kong destroys a subway train (reportedly added because Cooper did not want the movie to run 13 reels).

The success of King Kong virtually created the genre of "giant monster on the loose" movies and inspired many imitators, among them Cooper's own Mighty Joe Young. The success of King Kong immediately spawned a sequel. Made in a rush and released the same year, Son of Kong has always suffered in comparison to the original movie. This having been said, it is a fine movie that stands quite well on its own. It realistically portrays the aftermath of Kong's rampage through New York, in which Denham must flee the city and finds himself back on Skull Island. And while the original was a horror/adventure movie, Son of Kong plays as a comedy/adventure. O'Brien's stop motion effects are still impressive. Although I am not sure I would call it a classic, it is a very good movie on its own.

Kong would not be seen on screen again until the Japanese Toho Studios decided to pit the most famous American giant against the most famous Japanese giant. Released in 1962 Kingukongu tai Gojira or King Kong vs. Godzilla pitted the giant ape against the giant lizard. Contrary to popular belief, the movie did not feature an American ending in which Kong wins and a Japanese ending in which Godzilla wins. Instead, the movie ends in a draw between the two. It must be said that the Japanese Kong is very different from the Kong we know and love. He is bigger and not hardly as lovable. Although quite rightly famous, King Kong vs. Godzilla is not a particularly good movie. Indeed, Kong looks like a man in an ape suit(which he was).

Kong's fame made him a natural for Saturday morning cartoons and in 1966 the animated series King Kong made its bow on ABC. The cartoon featured Professor Bond and his two children befriending the big ape on Mondo Island (he apparently did not die atop the Empire State Building). Kong would battle such villains as Dr. Who and the hunter Ulrich von Kramer, not to mention various giant beasties. This cartoon is historic in that it marks the first time that Japanese animators worked on an American cartoon. It is also historic in being the first Saturday morning cartoon to debut in prime time. It had an hour long special on September 6, 1966 on ABC. I really don't remember much about the animated series, so I have no idea if it was any good or not. It has been released on DVD, so I might soon have the chance to find out.

Kong appeared in another Japanese movie from Toho Studios, in this case Kingukongu no gyakushu or King Kong Escapes as it is know to English speakers. The plot has a group of explorers who encounter Kong, who then takes a liking to a member of the expedition, Lt. Susan Miller. Unfortunately, Kong is captured by the evil Dr. Who and must later battle Mecha-Kong, a robotic version of the great ape. Naturally, Kong rampages through Tokyo, as would be expected. Unfortunately, King Kong Escapes is bad even by Japanese monster movie standards and is probably best avoided. Beyond King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, Toho had intended to do another Kong film. Fortunately, the movie became the Godzilla movie Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster instead.

Through the years there were attempts at other projects centred on Kong. At one point Hammer Films, famous for their horor movies, had wanted to remake the film. They dropped the project after they failed to get the rights from RKO. Some of the test footage they shot did find its way into a Volkswagen commercial. In the Seventies Universal wanted to make a big budget version of the classic, set in the Thirties. Sadly, they backed out of the project when producer Dino De Laurentiis announced his plans to remake the film.

Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 remake of King Kong is one of the most notorious remakes of all time. Originally, De Laurentiis has intended to use a giant, life sized robot of Kong throughout the movie. As it turned out, the robot proved not to be functional and appears in less than a minute of the film. What we see instead is Rick Baker in an ape suit. And sadly, that is what it looks like--Rick Baker in an ape suit. Indeed, when Kong walks, he walks more like a line backer than a gorilla! The film's shortcomings don't stop there. Skull Island boasts no dinosaurs and even looks downright pleasant (hardly the terrifying place of the 1933 and 2005 versions). In fact, the only other beastie is a rather fake looking giant snake. While the script boasts some humour and a few great observations (such as Jack Prescott's observations about the fate of the natives of Skull Island), it is ultimately very poor in quality. Indeed, the climax atop the World Trade Center (not the legendary Empire State Building--a decision which actually caused protests), is about as anticlimatic as possible. The great ape is brought down not by planes, but by helicopters! Jessica Lange, although unarguably beautiful, had yet to hone her acting skills. Her performance is uneven at best. Given how bad the film is, it is easy to forget that it was one of the most anticipated movies of 1976. There was a lot of buzz around the movie. Indeed, it made $7,023,921 in its opening weekend. That might not sound like much now, but in the Seventies, that was a lot of money.

Amazingly enough, there was a sequel to this turkey made. King Kong Lives was released in 1988 and has Kong given an artifical heart transplant and paired with a giant, female gorilla. And, yes, the movie is as bad as it sounds.

In 1998 an animated musical version of the classic story, titled The Mighty Kong, was released straight to video. It featured Dudley Moore as the voice of Carl Denham. While set in the 1930s, the animated movie does take some liberties with the plot. Basically a kid's film, it is not highly regarded.

That brings us to Peter Jackson's 2005 remake. I have already reviewed the film, but I think it is safe to say that it is the first film since the original to capture Kong as he was first envisioned. Indeed, the film is a masterpiece. I know many purists will howl at this, but I honestly think it surpasses the original in quality.

Kong is one of the characters who have found found a place in Anglo-American pop culture. He has appeared in numerous commercials and even in a Beatles movie (behind one of the many doors in The Beatles film Yellow Submarine is Kong reaching for Fay Wray in a New York skyscraper). Like the Frankenstein monster and Superman, he has become part of the collective unconscious of modern society. Kids who have never seen the original movie even recognise him. I think it is safe to say that he will continue to fascinate people for many years to come.

Sunday, 18 December 2005

King Kong (2005)

"The beast looked upon the face of beauty. Beauty stayed his hand, and from that moment he was as one dead."
(Carl Denham, King Kong 2005, paraphrasing a quote from King Kong 1933)

"There are only four questions of value in life..What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love."
(Don Juan De Marco, from the film of the same name)

It is a rare thing when a remake surpasses the original film upon which it was based in quality. In fact, more often than not the results are disastrous. A few examples of this are the 1997 version of Psycho, the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes, and a 1976 Dino De Laurentiis movie entitled King Kong. It would seem, then, that Peter Jackson has accomplished, if not the impossible, then at least the highly unlikely. He has made a remake that is actually better than the original.

I realise that many fans of the 1933 King Kong probably read my last remark with disbelief. Not a few probably are accusing me of blasphemy. After all, the 1933 King Kong is an unabashed classic. It is one of the most influential movies of all time, inspiring filmmakers from Ray Harryhausen to, well, Peter Jackson. Its iconography is part of Anglo-American pop culture--who can't look on the Empire State Building and not think of the great ape? And I must confess that the original King Kong is one of my favourite films of all time. Indeed, I wore out my VHS copy from watching it too often and I bought it the moment it came out on DVD. But I cannot lie. I honestly think Peter Jackson has taken a masterpiece and created an even greater masterpiece based upon it.

Indeed, it is hard for me to know where to even begin. I suppose the most obvious place to start is the film's astounding special effects. Kong looks real. This is not a stop motion puppet as in the original film (which was state of the art for the era and still holds up fairly well) or a man in a monkey suit (as in De Laurentiis' mammoth piece of garbage). This a CGI creation superior even to Gollum of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it is not enough that this Kong battles T. rexs and climbs the Empire State Building, this Kong emotes as well as the best actors. He displays a wide range of emotions through his facial expressions, from rage to jealousy to love. The state of the art FX wizardry doesn't end with Kong. There are dinosaurs and other beasties, not to mention an incredibly accurate, realistic creation of New York City circa 1933 that involves CGI, miniatures, and a four block set. It cannot be said that Jackson and his crew did not do their research. His New York City of 1933 looks like the real thing, right down to the streetcars.

Despite its state of the art technology, Jackson's King Kong feels very much like an old time movie. Many films today would have us on Skull Island within the first ten minutes. Not so with Jackson's remake. It is nearly an hour before we even see Skull Island and its best known inhabitant. That hour is spent setting up the milieu of Depression Era New York and developing the characters. By the time the viewer reaches Skull Island, he or she will feel as if he knows actress Ann Darrow (the exquisite Naomi Watts), flashy producer Carl Denham (Jack Black), and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) as well as his or her next door neighbours. That character development is made all the easier by the performances of the actors. Indeed, I believe it would be a grave injustice if Naomi Watts does not receive an Oscar nod for Best Actress. Her Ann Darrow is beautiful, sexy, funny, and smart. It is easy to see why Kong falls for her. Jack Black does well as Denham as well, a flamboyant character who is one part Darryl Zanuck, one part Merrian C. Cooper, and one part P. T. Barnum. Kudos must also go to Andy Serkis, whose movements provided the model for Kong. Indeed, Serkis even provides the roar for the big guy!

What makes Jackson's King Kong so great goes beyond its state of the art FX and the performances of its cast. At the heart of the film is the work of Peter Jackson, who not only directed the movie, but co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Jackson has captured the heart of the original King Kong. Neither the 1933 version nor the 2005 version are giant monster movies. Instead they are both stories about love. And it is the love that Kong has for Ann Darrow that Jackson brings to the fore of the movie. Taken not only with her blonde good looks, but her spunk, intelligence, and sense of humour as well (she seems to be the only woman who ceased to fear him after a time), Kong is literally willing to die for Ann. To protect her he faces giant lizards and even an entire family of Tyrannosaurus rexs. Indeed, one gets the feeling that he even climbs the Empire State Building because of Ann. Here Kong is, the inhabitant of an ancient island facing 20th century technology. He knows that he will die in the end, but he must protect the one he loves. After years of living alone, Kong at last found a reason to live for and to die for.

Indeed, it is the climax atop the world's most famous skyscraper that makes Jackson's King Kong superior to the original. It is not simply the advanced FX technology, it is the scenes between Ann and Kong. Both know what is going to happen. Both know that in the end the biplanes will win. Yet neither will give the other one up. It is arguably one of the most tragic and most romantic endings of any film.

If the original film continues to be popular with grown men long after they have ceased to be boys, perhaps it is because we can sympathise with Kong, even identify with him. I know I do. Peter Jackson's remake increases the sympathy for Kong and identification with him. Forget that he is a giant gorilla. He is Everyman.

Here I must point out that despite the fact that it is a tragedy, Jackson's King Kong does have a sense of humour. There are some hilarious scenes between Denham and Ann, between Driscoll and Ann, and even between Kong and Ann. And there are a number of injokes for fans of Merrian C. Cooper and the original King Kong, not to mention one injoke that only long time fans of Peter Jackson will get (and it doesn't have to do with Heavenly Creatures or LotR).

I realise that there are those who will scoff, that there will be doubters who read this review. But Jackson's King Kong is a truly great film. It is an old time adventure story and a story about love that will bring out the kid in any adult wiling to be a kid again. Forget Brokeback Mountain and Pride and Prejudice. King Kong is the best film of this year.