the tallest, darkest leading man in New Zealand: (l-r)
Watts and Black in King Kong.
Gorilla, Bigger Heart
by Peter Jackson
Even if you haven’t seen the original King Kong since
you were a kid, you probably still remember the foreboding
sight of Skull Island, the sheer awe of Kong’s monstrous appearance
at the gate, the sense of injustice at his captivity and the
inexpressible poignancy of his downfall. So, too, does Peter
Jackson. In his devoted remake, Jackson plays up the emotional
high notes of the 1933 version with loving respect, along
with spectacular reinventions of the action, and more than
a little bombast. At 187 minutes, compared to the original’s
97, it’s got a lot of extra notes—some of them composed from
fresh ideas, and some of them adding nothing but extra frames
in which to admire the filmmaker’s impressive handiwork.
But every shot of Kong himself pays off, because his every
motion and expression add to the story. He may be a throwback
to prehistoric gigantism, but he’s also astonishingly recognizable
as a primate just one or two strands of DNA away from being
human. In the stupendous smackdown between Kong and a tenacious
pack of T. Rexes, we root for the overgrown ape not only because
he’s rescuing his lady love, but also because he’s the evolutionary
home team (Jackson meticulously recaptures the gruesome bone-crunch
of Kong’s famous dino jawbreak).
The new Kong augments the backstory with an extended
introduction to Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a down-and-out vaudevillian
with no family, and her soon-to-be employer, movie producer
Carl Denham (Jack Black), a hack auteur who absconds with
the reels to his latest jungle flick before the studio heads
can pull the plug on his funding. The re-creation of Depression-era
New York City (and its nostalgic shots of the city skyline)
is wonderfully detailed and evocative. Though the writers
exhibit a tin ear when it comes to riffing on the stilted
dialogue of 1930s matinees, the banter is sometimes witty
enough to be memorable, and in a way sends up the mores of
Instead of infusing the fustiness with comic swashbuckling,
the miscast Black drops his lines as though they were weighted
by lead quotation marks. There’s a noticeable lack of hubris
to Denham’s (admittedly gutsy) exploitation, but basically,
he’s a jerk. Fortunately, everyone else (notably Adrien Brody
as Jack Driscoll, the cerebral but unexpectedly doughy playwright
who falls in love with Ann, and Thomas Kretschmann as the
shady captain of Denham’s chartered ship) play their archetypes
with gravity, and when required, panache.
But of course, acting is secondary to the atmospherics, and
the sighting of fog-shrouded Skull Island and its massive
granite wall more than delivers on the story’s primordial
mystery and dread. The natives of Skull Island are displayed
as schlock- horror voodoo killers, with fire-red eyes that
roll into to the back of their heads with alarming frequency.
Though the tribe is meant to be an appalling exaggeration
of Dark Continent clichés, it’s also disturbingly ritualistic,
and in an offhandedly creepy panorama, some of the natives
pole-vault incredible heights over the rocky cliffs to land
silently aboard deck.
The rescue mission, led by the scheming Denham—and bogged
down by a needless subplot involving the stoical first mate
(Even Parker) and his boyish protégé (Jamie Bell)—encounters
a thrill-a-minute gauntlet of marvelous dangers including
some really icky giant tubeworms. With dashing timing, Jackson
cuts from the perils of the rescuers to Ann and her benevolent
captor. Their relationship, communicated largely through eye
contact (Kong’s expressively masculine eyes were modeled by
Andy Serkis) is gently moving, and not just because we know
that Kong’s love for his golden-haired plaything will be his
doom. After Ann charms the beast with a revue of her vaudeville
tricks, they grow to respect each other. And to need each
other: A glimpse of the bones of Kong’s dead relatives makes
it clear that just like the melancholy Ann, he is alone in
Though this convincingly gorilla-like Kong is less scary than
the stop-motion original and its eerily dead eyes, he has
greater nobility, and it’s his remarkably conveyed kingliness
that makes the ending freshly tragic. And Watts deserves the
praise her performance has been heaped with: She’s radiant,
in a slightly-past-ingénue way; plucky in a smart way; and
physically magnetic, whether running like hell through the
jungle, or gracefully climbing into the safety of Kong’s welcoming
palm. Watts gives the film a heart as big as its special effects.
in the Family
by Steven Spielberg
As a filmmaker, Steven Spielberg doesn’t mumble. The blunt
force of his storytelling has often been a vice; however,
wading into the middle of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict
with Munich, it’s a virtue.
It also accounts for the reason this film has made so many,
on all sides, so unhappy. It’s not that Spielberg is guilty
of “moral equivalency,” because he avoids equating Palestinian
terror with Israeli counterterror operations. What he does,
however—much in the vein of David Cronenberg’s A History
of Violence—is put the focus on the unpretty consequences
The signal event setting off the action is the kidnapping
and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich
by a Palestinian group called Black September. The grisly,
stupid nature of this act of unjustified terror is re-created
in brutal detail; if you were around in ’72, the vintage ABC-TV
reports with Jim McKay, Peter Jennings and Howard Cosell will
bring it all back. The horror of Jews dying in Germany, again,
with the world unwilling to even stop the games, brought home
to the Israeli leadership the apparent necessity of drastic,
violent action. So a team of extralegal assassins is assembled
to go after the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre.
Led by Avner (Eric Bana), a young man willing to give up the
comforts of family for the good of Israel, the team suggests
the societal cross-section of a vintage war movie. There’s
Carl (Ciarán Hinds), an older man who looks like an undertaker
and has the cool temperament and good judgment of a career
soldier; Steve (Daniel Craig), a vengeful hothead; Robert
(Mathieu Kassovitz), a gentle toymaker turned bombmaker; and
Hanns (Hans Zischler), a much older man who worries about
finances but isn’t afraid to bloody his hands when necessary.
Unlike in a classic war flick, however, the pressures of “battle”
don’t bring them together. With each assassination, motives
and outcomes get murkier, and the psychological effect on
each member of the team affects, usually negatively, the others.
And since they’re supposed to be a reflection of Israeli society,
Spielberg’s dim view of the efficacy of vengeance becomes
more and more obvious—and shocking—as the team spirals out
Bana gives a sympathetic account of a good man under enormous
pressures to please everyone: his country, his wife, his mother
and his absent father. (God’s absence from this list is notable;
in fact, religion only comes up once in the picture.) The
two father figures in Avner’s life, Mossad agent Ephraim (Geoffrey
Rush) and French “information specialist” Papa (Michael Lonsdale),
are charming but unreliable. Ephraim is a classic ends- justify-the-means
type who has little patience for Avner’s increasing doubts;
Papa is amoral, too, but has a twisted code of ethics Avner
seems to find attractive.
Even more interesting, however, is Avner’s mother (Gila Almagor).
Much like the mom in A.I., she’s cold and distant.
She’s also a stand-in for the generation that built Israel,
a generation, Spielberg seems to argue, who have bequeathed
a legacy of blood and tears to Avner and his children.
The ending of the film couldn’t be more plain, either: Avner’s
in New York City. Ephraim and Avner have one final argument
over tactics and morals as they walk along the waterfront.
Anyone awake in the audience knows what’s coming, but when
the twin towers of the World Trade Center come into view,
it still has the force of a punch to the gut. Vengeance, Munich
argues, leads only to more vengeance.
of a Geisha
by Rob Marshall
Well, it was beautiful to look at.
the first previews of Rob Marshall’s screen extravaganza Memoirs
of a Geisha, one could tell that this was going to be
a dilly of a movie, at least visually speaking. Pale-pink
cherry blossoms, delicate snowflakes, swirling silk kimonos,
beautiful Asian women with jet-black bedroom hair, and the
promise of romance. . . . Sigh.
Unfortunately, and this is especially true for fans of the
movie’s Arthur Golden source book, the “sense” of romance
is about all the filmgoer gets. Set in 1930s and ’40s Japan,
when modern events brought sweeping, everlasting change to
that society, the movie highlights the travails of a trio
of geishas, particularly those of Surayi (Ziyi Zhang). Sold
into the geisha system, for lack of a better term, as a child
by a destitute family, Surayi rises to the pinnacle of her,
er, profession, becoming the toast of society and also a thorn
in the side of rival geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Along the
way, she picks up a handy Pygmalion of sorts, in the form
of another lovely geisha named Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), whose
motives appear to be for the betterment of the entire geishahood,
but really seem more along the lines of sticking it to the
tiresomely superior Hatsumomo.
While the book brought out the very real tensions inherent
to the life of a geisha, within the context of such modernization,
and also pointed out the very real benefits of being a geisha
(much more freedom, education, etc.), Marshall prefers to
keep it Asian clit-lit lite. To that end, he’s got his geishas
looking very much in keeping with some westernized male fantasy
of hot Orientals—foregoing much of the pancake makeup, shaved
brows and the like, which are associated with real geishas.
Nevertheless, there’s not a lot of sex appeal in the sight
of women, however lovely, waddling around in what appear to
be enormous maxi pads, however exquisitely handpainted.
The utter lack of tension boils this story down to an old-fashioned
weepy, only with a lot more silk and chopsticks. The overriding
theme is the poor lot of the geisha, whose profession does
not allow her to achieve self-realization—which, here, is
another term for being with the schlub she truly loves. Countless
scenes feature Surayi crying the in the rain over her latest
heartbreak, or Hatsumomo sauntering around like a madwoman,
her raven hair clouding her fierce features. From this we
are supposed to get something of a complex plot, which it’s
clear that Marshall is either unwilling or incapable of delivering.
Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
by Liam Lynch
Stand-up comedian Sarah Sil-verman killed in The Aristocrats,
the documentary released earlier this year in which a hundred
or so comics discussed and performed versions of a shockingly
vulgar and profane in-joke of the trade. Whereas most of the
other tellers just narrated the demented tale about an ambitious
and incestuous show-biz family, Silverman co-opted it, making
the premise of the joke her own fictional backstory and then
hammering the unsuspecting audience with a—believe it or not—very
funny, very phony confession of sexual abuse suffered at the
hands of nebbishy TV personality Joe Franklin. Silverman worked
her summer-camp cuteness for all it was worth, turning notions
of victimization upside down and coming across like a Borscht
In Jesus Is Magic, Silverman continues on in that vein,
working the persona of a image-obsessed Jewish American Princess
with a potty mouth and little tolerance for non-Caucasians.
It’s effective for a while, this tense combination of perky-pretty
and prejudice—but only for a while.
The film’s structure is to blame, in part. The movie is essentially
a concert film of Silverman’s stand-up framed and interspersed
with quick sketches and music videos featuring jokey songs
performed by Silverman. Though a couple of the songs are amusing,
most of the bits feel like padding, which is pretty damning
in a movie just shy of an hour and a quarter. The introductory
and closing sequences, which show Silverman among some more
successful peers jealously brainstorming an idea for a big
show of her own, might have had more impact if not for the
other stray—and, to me, pointless—vignettes. One featuring
Bob Odenkirk as Silverman’s manager is particularly inexplicable.
But a greater fault is to be found in Silverman’s material.
It’s not that she’s unfunny. Some of the routines are very
funny, and most are daring. For a white comic to hit the stage
with a full repertoire of ethnic jokes and get laughs (in
front of what, it must be noted, appeared to be a primarily
30-something-or-younger white audience) is no mean feat. It’s
smart, tight, sometimes mildly shocking humor. But, watching,
you get the sense that political incorrectness has become
the new political correctness—that mild shock is the only
There’s one joke, for example, in which Silverman says that
she’s not much interested in jewels, with one exception. The
gem harvested from the tailbones of Ethiopian babies is so
spectacular she’s just got to have one. Yes, she’s got some
ethical compunctions, but it’s so cute, it’s like a diamond
but with that “new-baby smell.” As a joke and as a criticism
of the extremes of consumer culture, this is pretty funny.
But I’m pretty sure I made up the part about it being a critique
of anything at all. In another, Silverman starts off, “Guess
what Martin Luther King, I had a fucking dream, too.” Now,
to take on MLK, that’s balls—but there was nothing behind
it. A joke that started hard and a little threatening went
soft and silly.
Silverman’s risk-taking has gotten her compared to Lenny Bruce,
but that’s off the mark. Bruce had an unabashed political
perspective. For that matter, so have more recent comedians
like Sam Kinison or Marc Maron, among others. Silverman just
wants the laughs, and she’ll get ’em—in half-hour slots on
Comedy Central or in nightclubs serving drinks at the table.
But sober at a full-length theatrical release you expect something
a little more substantial. These are jokes with edge but no
for mein Führer: (l-r) Broderick, Ferrell and Lane in
by Susan Stroman
The Producers—the new movie musical based on the Broadway
mega-hit based on Mel Brooks’ immortal 1968 movie comedy—Matthew
Broderick seems tired and uninspired. And Nathan Lane, though
supercharged as always, strains noticeably to avoid a rote
performance. An underlying fatigue is the disadvantage to
bringing the stars of a long- running stage production to
the screen version, no matter how professional the performers
may be. It probably didn’t help the film that Brooks’ wife,
Anne Bancroft, was terminally ill during shooting. And reportedly,
director Susan Stroman trimmed some of the racier and insidery
bits that made stage version a favorite of theatergoers but
that might not have played to heartland movie audiences.
Brooks’ script is still enjoyable, however, even though all
the once-outrageous jokes about formerly firmly held stereotypes
have been tamed by time. The effervescent plot remains the
same: Outlandishly tacky, washed-up Broadway producer Max
Bialystock (Lane) and his phobic, milquetoast accountant,
Leopold Bloom (Broderick) concoct a scheme to bilk investors
(and the IRS) out of millions by deliberately staging a flop.
They select the worst play ever written, a ridiculous and
offensive song-and-dance homage to the Führer called Springtime
for Hitler, and hire the worst director alive to put it
on. Bialystock raises the money by pleasuring libidinous little
old ladies, and both men are thrown into overdrive when a
dumb-blonde bombshell, Ulla (a delightful Uma Thurman), shows
up for an audition and hires on as their secretary-receptionist.
That Bialystock’s zesty veniality pales in comparison to business-as-usual
in the current decade, and that Bloom’s neurosis are now a
staple of everyday life, drains the comedy of most—but not
all—of its zing.
The songs range from joyously crowd-pleasing to slightly boring,
but Stroman, a five-time Tony-winning choreographer, accompanies
them with gloriously excessive productions that expertly stop
at just over-the-top. Kudos also go to Gary Beach and Roger
Bart as the fabulously gay director and his swishy common-law
assistant, and especially, to Will Ferrell as the bonkers
neo-Nazi playwright (Ferrell’s Teutonic send-ups are worth
the price of admission alone). Fans of musicals should be
satisfied with this sincere effort. But anyone hoping for
an update of the uproarious original may want to pass.
With Dick & Jane
by Dean Parisot
This update of a nicely snarky late-1970s comedy about a downsized
upscale family aims high. Judd Apatow’s script dovetails the
original plot—white collar couple turn to street crime to
keep their nice suburban life—with the hideous corporate crimes
of recent years. You’d think it might work; unfortunately,
you’d be dead wrong.
(By the way, does anyone under 40 get the reference in the
title of Fun With Dick & Jane? Do you have any
idea who Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot and Puff were? I didn’t think
so. Just checking.)
Dick (Jim Carrey) is a corporate shark deadly earnest about
his career for a big Enron-esque company. Jane (Téa Leoni),
his wife, has a job but not a career; when Dick gets the storied
“big promotion,” she quits to stay home with their Spanish-speaking
kid. (Spanish-speaking, of course, because he’s being raised
by the maid. Nice touch.) Then Dick’s career goes down in
flames with the corporation’s collapse. The film is specifically
set in 2000, so that Dick’s utter inability to find work is
explained by the now-storied Internet bubble burst.
And that’s the problem: There’s way too much explaining. Part
of the fun of the original was the sheer fun Dick and Jane
(George Segal and Jane Fonda) got out of being criminals.
The very 1970s joke was that their crimes were OK compared
to the crimes of the big company that screwed Dick out of
his job. Here, the criminal activities are just excuses for
Carrey to do his rubberfaced shtick. The pains taken to show
that they are basically “good” people take all the bite out
of the satire. After all, we don’t want them to be good: We
want them to be funny.
That said, there is one sequence showing Dick and Jane to
be basically ridiculous, thus allowing us to empathize with
them while laughing at them. One cold, dark California night,
Dick decides to get their lawn—which was repossessed, turf
and all, for nonpayment—back. So, grabbing a long kitchen
knife (and wearing a deranged look familiar to anyone who’s
seen Carrey before), Dick maniacally goes around the neighborhood
carving out chunks of sod. The next morning, the look of pride
on his mud-covered face as he shows off his laughable handiwork
to Jane is, as they say in the credit-card commercials, priceless.
Lips Sinks Flick
Has It . . .
by Rob Reiner
The bland conceit behind the thin concept of Rumor Has
It . . . barely provides enough interest to sustain its
running time. In it, Jennifer Aniston plays Sarah, a woman
having an identity crisis on the eve of her younger sister’s
marriage. Sarah has never felt a part of her shallow but happy
Pasadena family, and she’s unsure of whether she should marry
her safe and supportive fiancé, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo). This
wan drama, for which Sarah is a little too old, is tricked
out with the trappings of being a sequel to The Graduate:
After finding out that her mother ran away for a weekend before
marrying her father, and that a classmate of hers wrote the
novel the film was based on, Sarah becomes convinced that
her family was the inspiration for the story, and that her
crusty, tart-tongued grandmother, Katherine (Shirley MacLaine),
was the real Mrs. Robinson.
Directed by Rob Reiner with his usual middle-class, middlebrow
sensibility, the film is just one overworked, unfunny scene
after another, with an occasional moment of mundane emotional
honesty. Sarah is floundering, presumably because her sister
(Mena Suvari) is a ditz, her father is a bore, and her fiancé
is unexciting. The appalling opening scene finds Sarah trying
to maneuver Jeff into a clumsy tryst in an airplane restroom.
Later, she has a similarly passionless encounter with Beau
(Kevin Costner), an Internet tycoon and the man she believes
to be the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie. Beau’s palatial
estate gives the cinematography additional opportunities for
stunning pans of glorify-the-rich tableaux, along with glamour
shots of Aniston (a floor-length satin gown appears out of
nowhere just in time for Sarah to attend a ball with Beau).
Aniston mugs appealingly rather than acts, but she can’t be
faulted considering the inane and repetitive dialogue. And
a silly, four-way shouting match over the phone among Sarah
and her other family members is a poor excuse for physical
comedy. But then, the nostalgic raciness of The Graduate
is a poor excuse for making a movie in the first place.