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Thursday, December 14

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King Kong
I could write and talk for days about this film, but all you really want to know is: has the whole world gone crazy, or is King Kong really as good as everyone says it is? Of course it is. Is it too much of a good thing? Probably, but how often have you been able to say that in the past year? The past 5 years? Is it too long? Probably, but I'm guessing that won't be a problem for most.

By now, a couple days since its official release date, you probably know everything you need or want to about Peter Jackson's terrific remake of the 1933 classic, so I'll try not to bore you with plot details and stuff you've probably already read. To say I'm a superfan of Jack Black is perhaps too modest a statement, but I'll be the first to admit he's probably wrong for the role of filmmaker/con man Carl Denham. The problem is that there's too much of Black in Denham. The 2005 Denham knowingly lies and puts people in danger, whereas the 1933 Denham was as naïve and clueless about the dangers of Skull Island and King Kong as everybody else. That's more a problem with the writing, I know, but I kept wanting to laugh every time Black delivered a serious line (including the film's legendary final line). His performance probably won't ruin the experience of watching King Kong for you, but it may distract you.

On the other hand, Naomi Watts owns the character of struggling and dirt-poor actress Ann Darrow. Fay Wray may have been more glamorous, but Watts is the better actress, and rather than be the fainting, screaming female, Ann is now a fully realized, resourceful character, who not only isn't afraid of a 25-foot gorilla, she learns to be his friend. When Darrow breaks out her vaudeville routine to calm Kong down, it's a stroke of genius and Watts plays it perfectly and acts as the emotional center of this film. When she's upset, so are you. When she's angry, you'll feel your blood boil right along with her.

The rest of the cast (including Adrien Brody as writer Jack Driscoll, Jamie Bell and Colin Hanks) is good but not indispensable. I'm a great admirer of Brody's work, and as an action star, he holds his own. But his primary role is to gush over Ann and react to Kong, who clearly doesn't like Jack because of his closeness to Ann.

So what about Kong? As realized by CGI motion capture by Andy Serkis (the man who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Kong is the greatest non-human actor to ever hit movie screens. As much as film geeks were hoping Serkis might get an Oscar nomination for his work as Gollum, his work as Kong is unprecedented. Of course the effects are flawless, but his "acting" is what draws you in and breaks your heart at the story's inevitable conclusion. Possessing more than simply impressive facial expressions and realistic-looking form and motion, Kong has a soul thanks to Serkis.

King Kong is actually three films, and clearly it's the middle section set on Skull Island that most people will focus on, not that there's anything wrong with that. This is the creature-feature portion of the program, and Jackson does not disappoint, throwing every possible prehistoric animal at us and then some. It's almost too much, maybe one too many death-defying chases (actually, that's not accurate: not everyone defies death), but it's impossible to get bored in this section of the movie, which puts Jurassic Park to shame. For me, the more interesting portions of the film were Jackson's stunning recreations of Depression-era New York City. He's not necessarily going for realism (it's more like hyper-realism), but he captures something in these sequences that is incredibly difficult: the soul of that city in that time period.

The unveiling of Kong on Broadway before the privileged masses, who in turn get stomped upon by the mighty beast is spectacular and the finale will have you in tears. But the film's most touching scene is a newly created sequence in which Kong and Ann have one last peaceful moment in Central Park before all hell breaks loose. People may laugh at this scene (and it is funny), but it works so well as the calm before the storm. King Kong may not be the best film of 2005 (then again, it might; I'm almost ready to tell you), but it is the single most entertaining film of the year. Waiting in long lines to see a blockbuster hasn't been this worth it in a long time.


Brokeback Mountain
Every fan of "South Park" has already made the prophetic connection. Years ago, in an episode featuring Robert Redford attempting to bring a Sundance-like film festival to the Colorado town, Cartman criticized the move by saying that all independent films were about gay cowboys eating pudding. The boy is a soothsayer. Hopefully by now, we've all gotten the pudding jokes out of our collective systems, and are ready to accept Brokeback Mountain for what it really is: the finest and most deeply moving love story of the year, featuring some of the finest performances of 2005.

What surprised me most about Brokeback Mountain is what it doesn't try to do. The film spans from the 1950s into the early 1970s, a period when being gay was a death sentence in some areas. Smartly, the threat of these two men getting caught and exposed to the world is minimal. And while there are confrontations from outside parties at even a hint of "inappropriate" behavior, there are far bigger concerns and obstacles in their lives than getting caught.

Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, capping off his best year yet as an actor, with such films as Proof and Jarhead) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meet as strangers but are thrown into a work situation in Wyoming guarding a sheep herd for Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). Neither man is a particularly good communicator, but as the weeks turn into months and the weather gets cold, the men become friends. Though both make it clear just before their first sexual encounter that they are not "queer," the two clearly feel something for each other. Ledger and Gyllenhaal do a remarkable job of portraying two young innocents who have no understanding of their feelings for each other. When the time comes for them to go back to their respective lives in Texas (Ennis) and Montana (Jack), there's actually a deep sadness. This is only the first third of the movie.

The rest of the film follows both men's lives as they get married, have children and try to forget their time together. Jack, now married to rodeo queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway), is the first to go visit his old friend many years later. Ennis is now married to devoted housewife Alma (Michelle Williams). What's interesting about their relationship with their wives is that these men are clearly very happy being married. And the film makes a strong case that Jack and Ennis are not gay, but their bond is so strong, they need to be together. Toward the end of the film, this case breaks down as their marriages suffer.

The final third of the film is the heartbreaker. Jack dreams of a time when the men can live on a ranch together, but Ennis reminds him that the times would make that impossible. The frustration they feel at only being able to see each other once or twice a year for a week at a time is literally killing them. You want nothing more than for these two to live a quiet, loving life together but inside you know that's not going to happen.

Director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) so perfectly captures the time, the place, and the devastating emotion of Brokeback Mountain (based on a screenplay co-written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, from a short story by Annie Proulx). And anyone that can't get past the gay themes of the film needs to get over themselves in a hurry. These performances and this film are just too good to pass up. While Gyllenhaal provides the emotional heart of the film, Ledger's performance as the mumbling Ennis is Oscar worthy. I also liked the final-hour performance by Linda Cardellini as Ennis' first girlfriend after he breaks up with his wife. Brokeback Mountain is one of the best films of the year and also one of the saddest. Crying is not optional when watching this movie, so be prepared. This is a movie about connecting with that one person in your life who will ever understand you, and it's about love. The time for the end to the pudding jokes is today.


The Producers
This film is a no-brainer. I saw the original musical of The Producers when it premiered in Chicago before its record-breaking Broadway run. Most of the cast I saw on stage is featured this film, with two notable exceptions (Uma Thurman in her first dumb-blonde role, and Will Farrell as the Nazi-loving German playwright of the sure-fire bomb "Springtime for Hitler."). If you saw the musical with this cast either in Chicago or New York, the film is an lovingly faithful version of that experience that is as good as seeing it on the stage. If you didn't see the show, this is your chance to do so. Take advantage of the opportunity.

Yes, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are still playing to the balconies (especially Lane), but that just makes it funnier. And make sure to stay through the credits for two reasons: a great new song written by Mel Brooks for the movie (presumably to have something in this film that would qualify for a Best Original Song Oscar) and a funny little closing message from Brooks himself. People will write on and on about how The Producers started as a great film, became a smash Broadway show and is now returning to movie screens. That makes for great copy, but the bottom line is, if you like to laugh, this film is your best bet this holiday season.


Memoirs of a Geisha
The most beautiful film I've seen all year is also one of the most boring and soulless creations of the year. Despite the bleak nature of the material (based on the best-selling book by Arthur Golden), director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has chosen to present this material as something resembling the glam-rock version of this tale of a young Japanese girl sold by her family into servitude.

As the servant of Tokyo's most famous geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a young Sayuri meets a man known as Chairman (The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe). Something about their encounter sparks a desire in her to become a geisha, and she is trained by one of the best, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). Ziyi Zhang plays the grown Sayuri, and you may already see the problem with Memoirs of a Geisha just in the casting. The three female leads are all Chinese. The male leads (who also include the legendary Koji Yakusho) are Japanese. Everyone speaks English. I know I shouldn't have a problem with nationality of the actors, but the film sacrifices some of its authenticity by not casting Japanese actors and not allowing them to speaking Japanese. I realize that by casting China's three most famous actresses, (and three of the most beautiful women in the world), the box office will be much better (and sticking to English won't hurt either), but it feels disingenuous.

If these were the only criticisms I had of Memoirs, I'd still find it possible to like this film, but Marshall's glossy approach to some truly horrendous events is appalling. And despite the fact that geisha are skilled performers and not prostitutes, it still feels creepy when a pre-teen Sayuri has her first encounter with the Chairman. He's clearly flirting with her and vice versa. In the film's final act, the war with America changes everything, and the film loses what little power it had in the beginning.

I have a strange feeling that entertainment reporters are going to focus a lot of attention on the exquisite fashions featured in Geisha, and rightfully so. I'll cast my vote right now for best costumes of 2005. Some of Marshall's set pieces, especially the much-talked-about Ziyi Zhang's snow dance, are exceptional and will take your breath away. But the film is dull, and Marshall's decision to skim over the truly awful parts of Sayrui's life made me lose interest in her story early on. With such a formidable cast, I was genuinely looking forward to Memoirs of a Geisha. There are elements here to love, but overall, the film is a letdown.


The Family Stone
Duped by a lame trailer into thinking this movie was free-spirited, air-headed holiday fluff, imagine my surprise when The Family Stone actually delivered a few actual emotion punches. Led by mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) and father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), the Stone clan is a large, close-knit group of extremely liberal-minded folks. We know this because one of the sons, Thad (Tyrone Giordano) is deaf, gay and involved with a black man (Brian White), and the family is so cool with that.

When eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) dares to bring in his new girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for the holidays, this normally sweet group unsheathes its claws and begins picking her apart, sometimes to her face. Granted, Meredith is uptight and sometimes thoughtless, but the family really does a number on her. Chief among the evildoers is sister Amy (Rachel McAdams), whose hypercritical teeth are very sharp. Also on hand is older sister Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) and stoner middle brother Ben (Luke Wilson, who seems to be doing an impersonation of his brother Owen).

The Family Stone has plenty of genuine laughs. The Stones speak their mind about each other as well as outsiders, and it seems no topic is verboten. When Meredith has had all she can take, she calls in reinforcements in the form of her far more laid-back sister Julie (Claire Danes). Once Julie and an old boyfriend of Amy's (a paramedic played by Elizabethtown's Paul Schneider) arrive on the scene, all of the pieces for the grand manipulation of our emotions are in place. But sometimes having your heartstrings tugged is alright, and it didn't seem terribly forced here. (Although a few prat falls late in the film almost tank the entire movie.)

For everything I disliked about Family Stone, there were two or three things that saved it. Relative newcomer writer-director Thomas Bezucha has done a fairly great job pulling together this large ensemble without making things seem too crowded. Parker's character is so difficult to like that you wonder why Everett ever liked her, not that Everett is all that spectacular in the personality department either. But things more than balance out thanks to some standout performances by Nelson, Keaton, Wilson and McAdams. Even Parker gets a shot at redeeming her character in a sequence in which she and Wilson go to a local bar and get hammered. Considering the pure holiday shite we've been getting for the past couple of years (Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas), Family Stone is a wonderfully surprising effort. The film surprises us with a few very uncomfortable and downright depressing moments, but those moments save it from being trite and cliché. The Family Stone is a tasty holiday cookie.


Ellie Parker
If you're like me and you just can't get enough of some Naomi Watts, might I offer the slightly annoying but utterly fascinating Ellie Parker, which is essentially a day in the life of Naomi Watts if she wasn't famous. Taking place in the space of about 24 hours, Ellie Parker follows the title character on a grueling series of auditions and encounters that seem fairly believable and typical of life for a struggling actress in Hollywood.

Shot over the course of several years by writer-director-co-star Scott Coffey (whenever Watts' schedule was open, I'm guessing) and employing the use of in-your-face hand-held camera work, Ellie Parker feels like an intrusion into the very private moments of this woman's life. In the course of a day, she goes through several demoralizing auditions that require her to express emotions and just generally act foolish. She finds her boyfriend (Mark Pellegrino) cheating on her, she meets a promising new man (Coffey), and she questions her worth as an actress (a process, I'm guessing, that is at least a weekly ritual for every struggling actor).

Ellie Parker has its lighter moments as well. Chevy Chase almost totally redeems a movie career from hell with his appearance here as Ellie's agent. And there's a priceless sequence in which Ellie and an actress friend have a contest to see who can cry first. (It seems like a draw since, although Ellie generates a tear first, her friend produces much more of a full-on waterworks display.) Some actresses are called "brave" by critics for simply showing their breasts on camera, but Watts' all-or-nothing performance here is one of the bravest I've ever seen. I never doubt for a second that with Ellie Parker she's stripping away every veil she's ever put on in the name of beauty or a public appearance.

So why did I call Ellie Parker slightly annoying? As with any actress, many of Ellie's problems seem like so much self-inflicted drama, and that often bugged the crap out of me. The weeping, the exasperation, the yelling, it's all here in large doses.

Still, this is raw filmmaking used as a platform for a whirlwind performance by Watts that I actually saw a couple of weeks before King Kong. Not that I needed another reason, but Ellie Parker made me all the more excited to see what she would accomplish in Kong, and is the main reason I wasn't as surprised as many at her range in the bigger-budget offering. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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