It’s that time of year. Let’s just get this bit over with…

10. Cinderella Man: Great boxing movie, great biopic, great movie. It just works.

9. Land of The Dead: The gore is plentiful, the satire is sharp, the characters are fun and zombies finally act like like ZOMBIES again. Thank you, Mr. Romero.

8. A History of Violence: Forget what the critics all decided it’s message was before seeing it and just see it. David Cronenberg has made one of the all-time great American crime/revenge stories, no matter what you think it’s “really about.”

7. The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe: Disney finally bankrolls an adaptation of a classic without mucking everything up, resulting in a family epic embraced by everyone from devout Christians to the Newest of the New Age. Nearly a half-century later, C.S. Lewis’ work is still able to enthrall an audience whether you think the Lion is Jesus or you just love a good fairytale.

6. Batman Begins: A rich character drama, a complex crime thriller, as great a meditation on revenge and redemption as were “Munich” and “Violence,” scenes of powerful humanity, a 3rd act of tremendous scale and action, a film of real meaning about a man who dresses up in a bat costume. In a new millenium that’s forced the cultural elite to take Hobbits and Wizards seriously, can the Superhero be far behind?

5. Sin City: Some dismissed it as “geek noir” without even realizing that that’s no longer an insult. The most modern tools of filmmaking, the classic style of an age long passed, a grand cast of actors across generations and the black and white soul of cinema are here joined and whole new animal emerges. The future is now.

4. King Kong: See above. Peter Jackson’s epic tribute to his favorite movie puts joyful humor and real romance side-by-side with awesome action and visual poetry, and puts the Monster back into Monster Movies.

3. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: Once unforgivably villified as a screenwriter’s antichrist, buddy movie specialist Shane Black returns with a vengeance, writing and directing one of the best action/buddy comedies in years. A loving riff on dime store paperback noir, with a star turn by Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in his best role in years.

2. Munich: Too much has been made of it’s supposed politics, not enough of it’s actual filmmaking. Steven Speilberg makes his best film since Ryan, reaffirms the spy thriller as a great drama and takes mainstream movie up to the level of high art.

1. Good Night and Good Luck: Smartly written and photographed in gorgeous retro-cool style, Clooney and company retell the Creation Myth of modern TV journalism is honest, straightforward terms anchored by a stunner of a lead turn by David Straitharn. Brava.

REVIEW: Brokeback Mountain

Note: contains spoilers, NOT “the big one.”

Here it is, the Gay Cowboy Movie.

I’m not supposed to call it that, I know. Months of studio hype and preemptive finger-wagging (looking at you, Jeffrey Wells) have gone into the goal of telling people NOT to call this The Gay Cowboy Movie. “It’s not a Gay Cowboy Movie,” goes the tune, “it’s a human story”… “it’s a universal love story”… “it’s a SAD Cowboy Movie.” Guess what? When a studio works THIS hard to convince people that they haven’t made “The Gay Cowboy Movie,” it usually means they’ve made “The Gay Cowboy Movie.”

Here’s the nitty-gritty of it: They don’t like being called “The Gay Cowboy Movie” because they’re annoyed that people still remember the infamous “South Park” episode which brilliantly offered up “gay cowboys eating pudding” as the perfect description of a Sundance-style critical-fave. Being spoofed is one thing, being spoofed multiple years before you even exist has just got to be irritating when you’re fishing for Oscars.

The film’s release has been built up as a kind of pop-cultural phenomenon. “Taking a trip to Brokeback Mountain” is common slang for gay affairs, it’s trailer has been spoofed on SNL before anyone had seen the film, Nathan Lane has used two unrelated TV guest appearances to stage elaborate jokes at it’s expense, the New York Times recently ran a full column on the “all your bases are belong to us”-style following that’s sprung up around Jake Gyllenhaal’s melodramatic wail of “I wish I could quit you!!!!” in the trailers as a go-to cinephile laugh line.

It’s got it’s serious hype, too: Gay advocacy groups are hoping for a mainstream hit to help out with visibility, culture-watchers are predicting a red-state/blue-state culture wars skirmish which “Christian”-Right critics have been only too happy to provide, and the studio is hoping the controversy, infamy and the reliability of director Ang Lee propells them to awards season glory.

All of this pre-release hyperbole has led to two different forms of ACTUAL-release hyperbole suffocating too much of the films’ early reviews: Some making the film out as the most significant work since “Citizen Kane” because they find it in agreement with their politics, while others vilify it like “Gigli” because it disagrees with theirs. Both approaches are wrong, and do disservice to the craft of film criticism. The only fair way to approach any film of any subject is objectively, with as little prejudice good or bad as is possible…

…and, speaking objectively, I’m a bit dissapointed to report that; beyond all the hype and controversy; “Brokeback Mountain” doesn’t really work.

It’s 1963 when quiet Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and extroverted rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are teamed up as tenders of a large sheep heard on the titularWyoming mountain (which technically makes this “The Gay Shepherds-Wearing-Cowboy-Hats Movie,” but nevermind). They hit it off, get stone-drunk one night and then, as they say, one thing leads to another. “Y’know I ain’t queer,” says Ennis. “Me neither,” agrees Jack, but an impromptu sexual encounter the night before seems to argue otherwise.

This early part of the film is the best part, minimal on dialogue and set among some truly stunning cinematography of mountains, forests and wide-open skies. Lee seems to have particular love for imagery of waves of sheep cascading over the hills. The minimal dialogue, meaninwhile, helps lessen the problem of Ledger’s strangely-chosen accent and odd delivery. Those anticipating (or dreading) the much-touted sex scene are in for a bit of a surprise either way, as the sequence takes place in near-darkness, fully clothed, primarily in facial closeups. Shocking? Controversial? Hardly. Still, at this point we’re off to a good start.

It doesn’t last, though, as The film meanders into one of the most repetitive 2nd acts of recent note: Ennis and Jack part ways, meet and marry women, have kids, start lives… then they meet again four years later and the affair begins again; morphing the film into an angsty male-male reworking of “Same Time Next Year.” The marriages get strained, the “fishing trips” get suspicious, Ennis’ wife Alma figures it out and loses control, lather, rinse and repeat. And this is where things start to go haywire…

The first real sign of trouble ahead comes in the form of a gratuitous scene that seems to exist solely to quell potential audience snickering over the “masculinity” of it’s hero: At a 4th of July picnic, Ennis gets to go “Billy Jack” on a pair of gnarly bikers who dare to cuss in front of his wife and girls with… I kid you not… a roundhouse kick, and the result looks like something out of Steven Segal. Recent Steven Segal. (Later, Jack gets a “assert yourself against domineering father-in-law over symbolic turkey carving” scene that plays like the “you go, dude!” topper to a sitcom’s Thanksgiving episode.)

Then arises the film’s central “conflict,” and unfortunately instead of giving the film direction it causes it to (in my opinion, anyway) jump the shark quite definitively: Jack wants Ennis to come be a rancher with him, Ennis refuses; preferring instead the current situation of fooling around on Alma with Jack at his convenience. To rationalize this, he relates a story of how his father made him and his brother look at the corpse of a murdered gay man as kids. Really.

I cannot stress enough how much this development hurts the ability of this film to connect on emotional level, at least in my case. Did Ang Lee and his writers really feel that Ennis’ closestedness required an origin story? To my mind, this element is dramatically unnecessary and weakens the film as a whole: It takes the focus off the issue of Ennis’ ability to deal with his own personal insecurity and broadens it out to a societal commentary, i.e. “if only society-represented-by-his-father wasn’t so intolerant of homosexuals, he wouldn’t be afraid to come out and all the pain caused to him and his loved ones by his secret-keeping wouldn’t exist.”

It’s a nice stab at mixing message with story, and one I’d more or less agree with to boot… but it weakens the actual story by taking the easy way out with regards to Ennis. The plain fact is, this is supposed to be the tragedy of his refusal to admit his true feelings tearing him and those around him apart, but he’s not likable enough for it to work and a simple “it’s dad/society’s fault” explanation isn’t enough by a long shot. He cheats on, ignores, emotionally (and nearly physically) abuses his wife; he knowingly toys with Jack’s volatile emotions and basically jerks everyone who’s foolish enough to love him around without much visible remorse. The film wants us to see this as a tragedy of a man’s secrets eating him alive from within, but why am I supposed to feel bad for him? This isn’t a tragic figure, this is a deep-in-denial coward that we’re asked to accept as a tragic figure because the music and cinematography tell us to.

The other characters are more sympathetic. Michelle Williams as Alma is a stunner, playing the film’s most immediately sympathetic and, problematically, the most dramatically shortchanged figure. Gyllenhaal puts in a good turn as Jack, who seems a cipher at first and shows more depth as the story progresses. Anne Hathaway emerges as a knockout playing Jack’s impossibly gorgeous Rodeo Queen wife, clad throughout the film as a kind of drool-licious cowgirl fetish-doll. And she can act, too, especially in a subtle scene in the 3rd act where she’s called on to emote through little more than disguised coughing.

I feel bad having to give the film a marginally negative review, because there’s a lot in here that really works. Individual scenes have great power, even in the 2nd act where they lose their power by being repeated over and over and over again. But the film doesn’t gel, and there’s too much disconnect from what it wants to be and what it is. What starts out as an interesting relationship drama becomes a thinly-stretched message peice, and finally a misdirected stab at tragedy vis-a-vi a character who doesn’t engender enough sympathy.

Nice try… not enough.


REVIEW: The Producers (2005)

Now this is just downright incestuous. Here’s a movie version of the broadway musical version of a movie about broadway musicals. It’s damn funny, overall, so the snake-eating-it’s-tail aspect of this is mostly forgivable.

The story is the same as the 1970s Mel Brooks classic that inspired the musical: Failed broadway producer Max Bialystock and unstable accountant Leopold Bloom have stumbled on a scheme to bilk investors out of a fortune by overselling a play garaunteed to fail: A pro-Nazi romp called “Springtime for Hitler” written by crazed Nazi Hanz Leibkind. Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane replace Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as Leo and Max, while pun-heavy song numbers replace (most of) the original’s zany wordplay. Will Ferrell turns up as Leibkind, and Uma Thurman steals huge chunks of the film as Ulla the Swedish secretary.

Like all the best of Brooks’ material, the film coasts on wicked fusion of bad taste, absurdity and time-tested Friar’s Club-ready schtick. The songs are catchy and the dances, while nothing amazingly complex, are great peices of physical comedy. Material-wise, and certainly performance-wise, the film works.

What fails to work is much of the direction and staging, courtesy of Susan Strohman. She directed the broadway version, by all accounts to great effect, but seems quite out of her element working with film. Too many scenes lack flair and composition, and someone seems to have neglected to instruct Broderick in the vocal difference between onstage emoting and onscreen emoting in a few too many scenes.

As mentioned above, the actors all aquit themselves nicely but Uma steals the show. Looking sexier than she has in awhile and showing off muy-impressive dancing and singing skills, she checks yet MORE items off of the “things Uma can do” list, a feat some thought impossible after her turn in the “Kill Bill” cycle.

Cute movie. Nothing to write home about, not a prizewinner, but fun.


REVIEW: Munich

Note: contains spoilers and politics.

The most frequently-misused word in the modern English-speaking world, and likely not without intent, is “violence.” In modern parlance, it has come to define all forms of deadly force, which is simply a matter of mis-definition. This should be obvious: The “root” of violence is violation, or rather “to violate,” as in to force into or upon someone or something without right or justification.

In the cleanest of terms, the stranger or foe who leaps from the shadows and attacks you without cause “does violence” to you by violating your personal space and right not to be attacked without justification; but when you take a swing and break his jaw in self-defense you have not “done violence” to him, you have merely “used force.” Because he cedes his rights to space and safety by infringing on yours without just cause, there is no violation and thus no violence on you’re part. (Hence why police who go to rough on criminals they arrest are charged with “excessive force” instead of “excessive violence.”)

Modern parlance, bowing to the ludicrous over-application of postmodern “relitavist” philosophy, has managed to boil ALL force down to “violence” in the minds of many, a by-product of the mushy logic that holds ALL “opinions” (as opposed to all INFORMED opinions) hold equal weight if you squint hard enough. Thus, so goes the “logic,” if all force is a violation in someone’s opinion, then all force must be violence. And since basic laws of action and reaction dictate the force is most often met by force, we come to the favorite trope of the “civilized” guilt-complex: “The cycle of violence.” Or, as you’ve heard it more colorfully put “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

This notion is, of course, not without merit in many cases. But it doesn’t apply across the board, or even (I’d argue) in a majority of instances where force is used against force. In the case of “Munich,” much has already been said about your belief (or disbelief) that the “endless cycle of violence” model fits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a deciding factor in how you eventually feel about the film.

Let is also be said that I do not. Many who also do not have dismissed “Munich” out of hand for this. I, on the other hand, do not demand that a film match my political beliefs in order to draw from me a proper review. As in all cases, I only ever ask that a film fulfill the basic requirements of filmmaking and be worthwhile in it’s own right. A movie gets no pass from me because I agree with it’s “message,” but also gets no “extra venom” for advocating a position opposite to mine (advocating a position opposite to truth is another matter.)

Now here’s the kicker: Those expecting a political film out of “Munich” are in for a rude surprise, no matter which politics they were expecting. Yes, it raises questions and deals in moral gray-areas, but for all the early hype about the film’s message (pro-Israel? anti-Israel? allegorical Bush-bashing?) something has been lost entirely, and that something you need to know about:

“Munich” is, first and foremost, a spy movie. A great spy movie. A bad-ass, ultra-violent, bloody-as-hell spy movie. What can only be described as truly misguided marketing campaign has got the world convinced that Spielberg has released a stodgy meditation on the meaninglessness of violence, when in fact he’s gone and made the bloodiest assassin movie in years, along with the first great spy thriller of the new millenium.

The story, you’re already aware, is set in the 70s following the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists of the Black September organization. The film opens with a dramatization of the key turning point in modern Middle Eastern politics: Israel’s decision to finally take the gloves off and go on the offensive against the groups, nations and peoples that have sworn a religious oath to wipe them out. Priority one: hunt down and kill the eleven surviving men most responsible for plotting Munich. Eleven lives for eleven lives, each to be hunted secretly but eliminated publically and spectacularly (preferably with bombs) so that each new body might begin “putting terror into the hearts of the terrorists.”

Eric Bana stars as Avner, an agent and patriot of Israel tipped to head up one of the ultra-secret Moussad hit-squads. He and his men; a bombmaker, an accountant, a clean-up man and a stone-cold hardcase played by 007-to-be Daniel Craig; strike out across Europe with a to-do list of Arab names and only the most essential of tools to get the job done.

And get the job done they do. While it’s true that the film’s lengthy running time allows for ample reflection on the morality of assassination by it’s heroes (only Craig’s character openly claims no remorse or moral qualms about his mission,) Spielberg doesn’t for a moment skimp on the “money shots” of what very frequently become blood-soaked action scenes: A bedroom bomb leaves a messy severed arm dangling from the ceiling, impromptu gunfights riddle actors with juicy squibs of movie-blood, and one hit on an unexpected target creates 2005’s grimest, goriest tableau- more alarming, even, than those from the thematically and stylistically similar “A History of Violence.” You heard me: Steven Spielberg has out-bloodied David Cronenberg.

Between (and occasionally during) the bigger moments, the film finds it’s full greatness by building on the personalities of it’s characters and the complexity of it’s situation. In the course of their so-secret-it’s-not-on-any-books mission, Avner’s men cross paths with everyone from CIA agents to information-selling French anarchists to actual Palestinian terrorists, and the further they sink into the confusion of international espionage the more they find themselves changing from the experience.

But the fears that the film might morph into a kind of “peace on Earth” screed or justification of Palestinian aggression turn out to be unfounded: This is too smart a movie to be take any kind of simple track on either side. While Avner and others grow disillusioned and paranoid, Craig’s hardcase stays focused for the whole mission, proudly declares that the only blood that matters to him is Jewish blood, and is never called wrong or even made to be unlikable because of this. Meanwhile, Avner is shown experiencing imagined visions of the actual Munich murders, which leads to more impressive bloodletting and seems to imply that he summons these “memories” in order to drive himself onward.

“Munich” does ask whether or not retaliation like this is really the wisest policy in the long run, but it never answers the question yes or no. Interestingly, the story includes a “side-adventure” involving a nonpolitical, in fact very personal, revenge-killing which is played both as catharsis and as a more-or-less justified action. It’s possible, I think, that this scene (you’ll know it when you see it) exists to underline an admission by the film (and it’s director?) that sometimes revenge may be a necessary part of justice. Or, at least, that it “understands” what the need for vengeance is.

Steven Spielberg has made his best film since “Saving Private Ryan,” a knockout of a spy thriller that is a no-contest must-see for those bemoaning the lack of great espionage movies. As for the politics, do what the movie does and put them second to the experience, namely the experience of watching one of 2005’s best films.

See this now.


REVIEW: Wolf Creek

The dedication with which American horror fans just keep hoping that something will come along and reinvigorate the genre gets more and more touching the longer it goes on. The plain fact is that the PG-13 “horror” phenomenon, which essentially garauntees box-office paydirt for weak, lifeless wannabes or castrated remakes of genre-classics, has decimated the U.S. horror scene and almost no one is mounting a serious effort to fix this problem. For now, fans will still have to look outward: Germany, France (lately), Italy and especially Japan have been picking up our slack and then some for nearly a decade now, and now “Wolf Creek” marks Australia’s latest foray onto the field.

Like last year’s unjustly maligned “High Tension” from France, “Wolf Creek” aims to outgun the U.S. by putting a native spin on one of “our” signature subgenres, namely the “isolated with killer redneck(s)” setup laid down by “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” back in the 70s. It hits all the proper notes: A trio of tourists in the country, red-herring creepy locals, a torture-happy sicko with a hidden basecamp of captured autoparts, “we KNOW this place” travelogue footage and even a based-on-a-true-story pedigree.

This should have worked, this should have been a good moment in modern horror… but it’s not.

The peices are in place, the filmmakers obviously know what they’re doing, but the film just can’t find it’s own vibe: It’s so determined to be “The Outback Shotgun Massacre” that it never really figures out how to be “Wolf Creek.”

For awhile, there’s hope. It’s “pleasant” first act goes on unusually long, long enough for us to “know” to feel uneasy. The three victims-to-be are interestingly sketched with suggestions of hidden depths and don’t feel like standard stock players. Early elements, like a giant meteorite-crater that (possibly) plays games with machinery and discussions of UFOs, feel fresh and welcome. The villain has an interesting energy somewhere at the intersection of Freddy, Jason and Leatherface; and he’s got wicked proficiency with a decidedly un-slasher-like favorite weapon.

But it’s not enough, and this becomes apparent much too quickly. We’ve been here too many times before, cutting through the same ropes, running from the same headlights, hiding in the same shadows of the same scrapyards, jumping at the same “surprise” emergence from the same sheet-metal shack. The dustiest of cliche’s, like a pre-kill “joke” that’s set up with crushing obviousness or the innability of good guys to locate suitable weaponry in a junkyard full of jagged metal, start to crop up with head-slapping predictability; as do newer cliche’s such as “this is like a horror movie” self-awareness and (groan) camcorder footage.

I’ve no doubt Australia will soon produce a film to put it on the short-list of national cinemas making great horror films, they’re film culture is too interesting not to. But “Wolf Creek” isn’t it.


REVIEW: King Kong (2005)

Minor spoilers, caution, etc.

The first thing that one MUST do in order to fully appreciate this new (and perhaps definative for the forseeable future) reworking of “King Kong” is to put all preconceptions and “baggage” of it’s predecessor(s) out of one’s mind to the best of one’s ability. That would seem obvious in regards to any remake, but this… director Peter Jackson’s megabudget followup to the “Lord of The Rings” trilogy… is not just any remake; and “King Kong”… a film-transcending classic that gave the world it’s first icon of mythology born wholly of the cinema, so universally known and often referenced that most who’ve never seen it can offer a blow-by-blow recitation of it’s story… is not just any movie. Approaching ANY “official” retelling of the story, it’s nearly impossible to regard it without being reminded of “the first one.”

Part of this seperation difficulty is just natural: Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 landmark is still the Giant Monster movie by which all others must be judged, so entrenched as such that even a formidable upstart franchise like “Godzilla” could barely wait two sequels before challenging the titular giant ape to a shoving match. The other part is more complicated: A combination of desire on behalf of the studio to avoid the vitriol that greeted a previous attempt to remake “Kong” in 1979 and what could be termed tremendous humilty on the part of director Jackson has led to the following theme hovering over the entire marketing of the film: This isn’t a “bigger, better” or “modern” remake, it’s an “homage” to the director’s favorite movie, poised in perpetual-genuflect in awe of it’s 1933 ancestor. It opens and closes with old-fashioned title cards, sets itself in the same Depression-era milieu and makes constant reference to the original dialogue and designs.

In other words, it’s at first slightly difficult to veiw Jackson’s “Kong” as it’s own unique film (and it is most definately it’s own unique film) when we’ve been (and continue to be) told that this is a kind of 3 hour party celebrating it’s predecessor’s existance. That Peter Jackson is exceedingly humble is well known, but this time he MAY have done himself a minor disservice by being so willing to play down exactly how much originality, quirk and style uniquely-his-own he’s been able to marinate the meat of the “Kong” mythos in.

But once one successfully banishes the ghosts of Kongs past and is able to approach this new film as it’s own animal, the eventual truth cannot be denied: The filmmakers who took the epic-fantasy genre to it’s next evolution have now done the same for giant monster movies, and this “King Kong” is easily among the best films of 2005.

True to his word, the film replicates the outline and essential themes of the original: Depression-era director of quasi-documentary motion pictures Carl Denham (Jack Black) escapes his angry investors on a steam ship of dubious legality bound for his next big production, shanghaing playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and wayward Vaudville starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in the process. Denahm, we learn, is actually following a strange map to the mythical Skull Island, said to be home of an advanced native civilization and a literal Lost World of strange and exotic creatures.

Once there, they find that the island is nearly sunken and the “advanced native civilization” has de-evolved into a cult of savage primitives scraping by on the last exposed sliver of livable land who promptly kidnap Ann as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25 foot gorilla they worship as a god. Following a series of adventures in the dinosaur-populated island jungle, Kong grows attached to Ann and subsequently captured by Denham, who takes him back to New York in what turns out to be a spectacularly poor decision for all involved: Kong tears the town apart in search of his lady friend, draws the ire of the military and goes down swinging atop the Empire State Building.

The original film took a hair over 90 minutes to tell this story, Jackson takes 3 hours and change. Many predicted this as a sign of directorial indulgence, a case of “LOTR’s” spectacular success having turned the unassuming New Zealand horror/comedy auteur into a 400 pound gorilla aiming to sit (or direct) wherever he wanted. The finished result puts to lie such notions: The film NEEDS it’s extra time, especially in it’s early scenes where the ample breathing room affords Darrow, Driscoll the motley crew of the steamship Venture and Denahm to establish themselves as a (large) cast of fully-formed characters. This becomes essential to the nearly-endless action of the 2nd act, allowing Skull Island’s dinosaurs, giant-insects, man-eating slugs and even Kong himself to engage in conflicts not with random canon-fodder but characters with names the audience will remember and lives the audience will care about seeing end or continue.

The most significant departure the film makes from any prior vision of “Kong” is in the characterization of the Skull Island natives. The original film provided archetypal African headhunters right out of H. Rider Haggard, while the 76 remake made do with a bland PC-ification of the same basic idea. Here, we have a culture that most prominently resembles a freakish deviation of Australian Aborigines (and perhaps the Maori of Jackson’s NZ homeland,) nightmare creatures with flesh the color of their gray-stone “land” and hideous piercings. Their worship of Kong looks more like a voodoo ritual than a tribal celebration, complete with eyeballs rolled back into the head and spasmic shuddering. Wisely, the film avoids providing a character to give the “history” of Skull Island or it’s people, so that we encounter the natives and their home on the same level as the characters: confused, unsure and genuinely terrified.

Other new twists are more subtle but have greater overall impact: Denham, as played with real dramatic panache and period-appropriate swagger by Jack Black, now channels Orson Welles instead of Cecil B. DeMille (and Cooper himself, of course.) Redrawing Driscoll as a staunchly city-slicker writer adds real tension to his action scenes and makes him much more sympathetic, an important element considering how much the audience (and Kong) is eventually inclined to see him as Kong’s “rival” for Ann’s affections.

But the most important switch, and the one that turns out to be the key to the whole production, is adding the backstory of a vaudeville pratfall artist to Watts’ Ann Darrow. Let’s be honest for a moment: The original film and it’s original King Kong are through-and-through “about” the inherent coolness of a giant gorilla. It’s a spectacle in the pure films-in-the-30s sense of the word, and all of the sociological re-reading came after the fact. You had to read pretty deeply between the lines to see any semblance of Ann reciprocating Kong’s affections; but monster movie fans, ourselves often familiar being reclusive, misunderstood and obsessed with women way out of our leagues, were only too happy to do so. The Kong/Ann/Jack “love triangle” is “there” because we want it to be there.

Dino DeLaurentis tried, unsuccessfully, to make literalizing the presumed romantic subtext the main theme of his doomed 1976 “Kong,” presenting a sexually-charged reworking of the relationship that turned the whole affair into a campy, vaugely-creepy mess: The notion of sexual attraction between a giant monkey and a human being roughly the size of his finger was, and is, basically silly no matter how strong the desire to see mighty Kong “get the girl” might be in the abstract. However, establishing a “deeper” current to Kong’s pursuit of Ann is vital to ramping up the emotional ressonance of any modern “Kong” retelling… so what to do?

And so, here is the writers’ stroke of genius: It’s now Ann’s Chaplin-esque clowning that melts the big ape’s warrior heart, not merely her decidedly non-apelike beauty, and the affection Kong develops is neither vauge nor specifically sexual, but instead protective and in fact paternal. This is set up masterfully in a series of early scenes subtly establishing Ann’s easy comfort with father figures vis-a-vi an elderly fellow performer; and the payoff makes the movie. It gives it a core relationship dynamic that is neither as broad as the original but more innocent and believable than the 76 version, as we come to realize that Kong and Ann eventually regard eachother in the same basic terms… each is to the other an exotic creature turned beloved “pet.”

On the other end of Watts’ performance is Andy Serkis, performing the motion-capture movements and physical nuance of the digitally-rendered Kong. Hands-down the most realistic-looking CGI monster ever produced onscreen, Serkis-as-Kong turns in the kind of “synthespian” performance that can and does make “real” actors profoundly afraid for their continued usefulness. Looking like the battle-scarred victim of a hundred struggles, with a crooked jaw and jagged wounds, making a home among the bleached bones of his dead ancestors, with an emotional range from quiet majesty to childlike amusement to primal fury to heroic grandure, somehow always animal yet somehow always more… this is the one: the fulfillment of the promise made a decade ago by “Jurassic Park” and bungled for a decade hence by everyone until now (I’m looking at you, shitty 1998 remake of “Godzilla.)

Coupled with the aforementioned fleshing-out of Denham and his crew, all this serves to produce a third act boasting an emotional and moral complexity so seldom seen in this genre (or at this scale) that the result is truly startling: The audience is asked to identify all-at-once with Jack’s need to rescue Ann, with Kong’s fury at Jack’s “theft” of Ann, with the Venture crew’s instant fear of Kong, with Kong’s brutal, punishing assault on his attackers… even with Denham’s half-mad determination to recoup the loss of money and lives on the expedition by turning Kong into a chained sideshow. The result is a finale that plays not only as massive-scale action but as a profound and disquieting tragedy, as no character or location ends their time onscreen unscathed and no simple answer or higher purpose is assigned.

In between all of this, though, Jackson has not forgotten that this is first and foremost a monster movie, and he provides monsters with the expected gusto of a filmmaker who has, quite honestly, been waiting a lifetime to do so. Skull Island’s denizens are imagined super-evolved descendants of prehistoric giants, a creative license which Jackson uses to stage the best scenes of monster action of the digital age.

Most would be content, as “Jurassic Park” was, to bask in the glow of merely having realized such creatures with such realism, but this film and it’s director have no place for such laurel-resting: The Venture crew flees for it’s life pursued by raptors amid the pounding legs of a cascading stampede and eventual pileup of Brontosaurs (stop writing the email, fellow paleo-buffs: That’s what they were called and imagined as in the 30s, so that’s apparently what they are here,) and are trapped in a horrible pit with endless giant spiders, crickets, slugs and scorpions. In the best fight scene of the year, Kong brawls with three “V-Rex’s” in a stunning slugfest that turns into an aerial battle amid a chasm of giant vines, breathing life into the fantasy of every kid who ever clashed his toy dinosaurs together over the sandbox.

Jackson also re-embraces the morbid sense of humor he kept so appropriately in-check amid the British stoicism of the “Rings” films, taking obvious delight in the ability of a dinosaur’s foot to crush a man into the mud, the absurd horror as dozens of elephant-sized creatures careen off a cliff, the “no way!”-ness of seeing a raptor knocked out by a lucky kick, the gleeful “gotcha!” of Kong pummeling his attackers into paste or naive callousness with which he scoops up and then (literally) throws away innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to look sort-of similar to Ann Darrow. His recreation of the famously-lost “spider pit” scene takes equal pleasure in the way giant bugs can tear apart humans and in the way WWI-era machine gun fire can tear giant bugs apart. I live for this stuff… and apparently so do the people who made this movie.

Bottom line: Peter Jackson knocks another “nobody can pull this off” cinematic accomplishment off the to-do list, and I can only hope that this endeavor will lead to an explosion of high-calibre giant monster movies the same way “Rings” did for fantasy epics. For now, this giant monster movie is a total stunner, an example of everything that movies can be and so rarely are. No one needs to be told that this is a must-see, but I’m telling you anyway: “Best” or not, who can say, but right now this is the movie of 2005, the one that all on it’s own would be enough to dispell the notion of this as a “weak movie year.”

Long live the King.


REVIEW: Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005)

Evidently I’ve missed another memo from the governing bodies of online film criticism, specifically the one that apparently ordered a majority of my bretheren to open every review of “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” (lets just say “Narnia” from now on, deal?) in basically the exact same manner: A paragraph-length breakdown of the critic’s familiarity with the book, opinion of such and opinion of the fantasy genre as whole, followed optionally by either A.) pithy comments about the “issue” of the story’s allegorical Christian subtext or B.) quick appraisal of the film as measured against “Harry Potter” and “Lord of The Rings.” Or both.

Much as I’d like to be different and skip all that, on the off chance that I really would be breaking some rule by doing so we’ll just get it off nice and quickly-like:

Pior experience: Read the book several times as a kid. Dug it. Read completed series eventually, generally dug it. Saw BBC miniseries version, saw animated version. Not bad.

Christian allegory: Chill out. It’s not a sermon. It’s not propaganda. It’s not “The Passion.” It’s not even the goddamn “VeggieTales.” The only way you’re going to be “offended” by what allegory there is to be found is if you’re “offended” by even the barest hint of anything being even vaugely Christian, in which case you’re as intolerant as the people you probably think you’re against. Grow up.

The others: Better right-out-of-the-gate (and much more solid as a stand-alone film) than “Potter” was, not as perfect as “Rings,” not really fair to put these three side-by-side to begin with. The more fitting comparison’s would really be Frank L. Baum’s “Oz” cycle, or Lewis Carrol, really.

So anyway…

As unfair as it may be (see above) to hold C.S. Lewis’ efficient, unrepentently youth-targeted fairytale up against either the muscular mythmaking of “Rings” or the jaunty modernism of “Potter,” it has to be acknowledged that the success of those films are the reason that this one exists at all. It takes a lot to change Hollywood’s whole way of looking at a genre, but 11 Oscars and 3 years worth of boxoffice domination is more than a lot. Bearing that in mind… thanks again, Peter Jackson.

More immediate thanks, though, to Andrew Adamson… who knew the man most frequently credited as the director of “Shrek” had this level of movie in him? A cast made 98% comprised of children, animals and digital/puppet creatures… most of it outdoors and in hyppereal fantasy evironments? Giant-scale war scenes? Entire passages of dialogue dominated by a child under the age of 10? This is a HUGELY difficult production, and there’s hardly a technical flaw or wooden moment showing. And it’s the most visually stunning film of the year so far, rich, colorful, sprawling and (most impressively of all) completely different as a visual experience from any other recent film in the genre. Bravo.

The premise remains as classically-rooted as ever: Four British WWII-refugee siblings (two boys, two girls) living in the care of a mysteries “Professor” stumble through a more mysterious wardrobe into the fantasy kingdom of Narnia, where talking animals abound and all creatures of childhood fantasy (unicorns, fauns, giants and even a cameo by… nah, find out for yourself) seem to reside. It’s also a place currently cursed into permanent winter by the Jadis the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) who reigns as a malevolent dictator and seduces one of the children to her side. The others line up on the side of a Narnian citizen’s rebellion which it seems they are prophecized to lead alongside Aslan, (voice of Liam Neeson,) a talking lion of godlike power.

The bulk of the story takes up journey of the children between leaving the wardrobe and the requisite giant-scale “Braveheart” open-field clash of good and evil armies, punctuated by a plot twist that establishes the story’s much-touted Crucifixtion/Ressurection allegory and leads to just about the scariest extended sequence seen in a children’s film since the third act of “E.T.”

Amidst all this, the film has a ball making use of the opportunities afforded by Lewis’ hodgepodge assembly of myth, fairytales and dream-logic: The kids are aided on their quest by a married pair of jolly Beavers who embody ideal English middle-class domesticity. Jadis’ “secret police” are literally a pack of wolves… while Rupert Everett turns up in the voice of a fox spy. In the climactic battle, everything from centaurs, gryphons and satyrs to gorillas, rhinos and leopards charge the field against Jadis’ legion of minotaurs, werewolves, cyclops and gargoyles. And Mr. Beaver gets a little beaver-sized suit of armor, how can you not love that?

I’ll just say it: This movie is better than I could’ve allowed myself to hope it would be. It’s a total-package: Well made, gorgeous-looking, perfectly paced (it’s a lot of movie in just a hair over 2 hours) and excellently acted. The performances, really, are what put it over the top, even disregarding the “curve” of most of the cast being either voiceovers or children. Worth special mention is Swinton, who plays Jadis as a kind of dark, elemental force in human form and does so so convincingly that she may need to get used to the sight of young children crossing the street and diving behind their mothers as she walks by. And Liam Neeson is expectedly spot-on as the Christ-like Aslan… possibly a little too spot-on, as Neeson is starting to become the go-to actor for mentor roles.

But the breakout star is little Georgie Henley, all of ten years old, as youngest child Lucy. Serving as the audience p.o.v. character for much of the first act, and remaining an important counterpoint throughout, she turns in an amazing performance that becomes the foundation of the film. She has a tremendously expressive face, which the Adamson expertly uses as the emotional signal for a scene’s undertone or approaching danger, while wisely allowing the character to remain convincingly a little girl for the whole of the film (as opposed to the “moppet with a grownup’s wit” routine usually employed for such parts.)

Looking at the boxoffice predictions so far, it doesn’t look like any of you really NEED any encouragement, but I’m going to give you some anyway: GO SEE THIS. Take the kids (if applicable). This could well end up being the best family movie of the year, along with one of the better action films as well, and you don’t want to miss it.