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Imagining the tallest, darkest leading man in New Zealand: (l-r) Watts and Black in King Kong.

Big Gorilla, Bigger Heart
By Ann Morrow

King Kong

Directed 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 the times.

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 the world.

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.

Death in the Family


Directed 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 of violence.

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 of control.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Asian Dolls

Memoirs of a Geisha

Directed by Rob Marshall

Well, it was beautiful to look at.

>From 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.

—Laura Leon

Two-Drink Minimum

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic

Directed 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 Belt Lolita.

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 goal.

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 real point.

—John Rodat

Song for mein Führer: (l-r) Broderick, Ferrell and Lane in The Producers.

Adaptation Fatigue

The Producers

Directed by Susan Stroman

In 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.

—Ann Morrow

Very Petty Larceny

Fun With Dick & Jane

Directed 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.

—Shawn Stone

Loose Lips Sinks Flick

Rumor Has It . . .

Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow

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