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A holiday of silver screen fun 

A great ape, a geisha, a dysfunctional family and much more.

LOVE STORY: "King Kong."
  • LOVE STORY: "King Kong."

“King Kong” made a little more than $50 million in its first three days of release. Now that folks have more free time — except those who waited until the bitter end to Christmas shop — the great ape, and other holiday releases, should get even more viewers.

Opening this week is “Memoirs of a Geisha.” And for those looking for a holiday mix of laughing with a sniffle or two, there’s the dysfunctional romp “The Family Stone.” Those liking their holiday film fare on the gory side will enjoy the Christmas opening of “Wolf Creek.”

So, without further ado, the crack Times review team gives you its look at the current holiday films.



Aping the great ape

Though I’m always wary of remakes, I had high hopes for director Peter Jackson’s new version of “King Kong.”

Since I first saw the original during one of its umpteen TV reruns during my childhood, I’ve been captivated by the story and the characters involved, especially Kong himself, who seemed — even to me at 8 years old — like the world’s biggest lovesick dope, who dies for what he believes in. A great fan of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I thought that if anyone could do Kong justice, it might be Jackson.

I’m more than happy to report, therefore, that the new “Kong” is all the hype and then some.

Before I start to gush, a bit of the story: In a slight twist on the 1933 original, Jack Black stars as down-on-his-luck, Depression-era filmmaker Carl Denham. Though the screening of his latest safari film is a flop with his producers, he promises them something even bigger. He recently has come into possession of map of an uncharted island, complete with legendary beast, somewhere in the Pacific. He’ll go there, he tells them, and bring back wonders they’ve never seen.

They don’t buy it, and on the run from studio thugs who want to confiscate his film and camera equipment, Denham makes a mad dash for the boat he’s chartered, all but Shanghai-ing unknown actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and screenSoon, the voyage is underway. After a near mutiny, the ship runs aground on an island shrouded in fog, and bisected by an ancient, towering wall. While the captain (Thomas Kretschmann) struggles to free his ship, Denham and company steal a rowboat and go ashore. Soon, they are ambushed by a mysterious people. They escape, but Ann is soon kidnapped, and offered up to the great monster that lives behind the wall.

The only film that comes to mind to compare the new “King Kong” to is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Not necessarily to the swashbuckling heroics of “Raiders” (though there is plenty of that to go around in “Kong”), but surely the spirit of that film — a movie that reminds you of the awe you felt as a kid with that ticket and a large popcorn in your hands, back when there was a simple joy of going to the movies. First, there is Jackson’s incredible attention to detail, which has recreated a ’30s-era New York City so rich it’s almost worth the price of admission in itself, just to marvel at it. Against this amazing backdrop are played some great performances. Black shows his range as the single-minded Denham, while Watts and Brody throw some pretty good sparks as well. Mostly, however — as in the original — this is a movie about the big ape.

Thanks to modern computer graphics, Kong looks about as real as your dog or cat at home, all rippling muscles, fluid animal movement and fur that moves in the breeze. It seems that computer-generated imagery has finally become so good and so commonplace that you’re able to forget about technogeeks crunching code somewhere and see the character on the screen. That kind of believability is crucial for “King Kong” to work.

And work it does. The relationship between Kong and Ann grows slowly, but thanks to the care taken in rendering the beast’s body language and facial expressions, you believe it, you feel it, and your heart breaks along with Ann’s when the film comes to its fateful, inevitable conclusion.

I simply cannot say enough good things about this new version of “Kong.” It is, to put it mildly, a wonder, stunning proof that Peter Jackson can dazzle in any genre, and evidence that he just might be heir to the “event-movie” throne that Spielberg vacated a couple years ago to get serious. Simply perfect in every detail, “Kong” is what movies should be about: action, drama, comedy, romance, beauty and power, all in one. This is, at its purest, what we go to the movies for.

— By David Koon



Love of a ‘Geisha’

You know, I really can’t figure out why I loved “Memoirs of a Geisha,” but I did. Maybe it was just the culture shock, or the beautiful women on display, or maybe just the solid storytelling of the script. Whatever the case, “Geisha” turns out to be one of my favorite films of 2005.

Based on the novel of the same name, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is the story of Chiyo, a blue-eyed Japanese girl who is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district. Though her training to be a geisha begins early, a badly executed prank by Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the house’s beautiful but cruel head geisha, leads to the destruction of a priceless kimono stolen from a rival. Young Chiyo gets the blame, and to pay back the price of the kimono, she is taken out of geisha school and forced into a life of slavery as a common house servant.

After resigning herself to this life, a chance encounter with a handsome politician known in the film as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) gives Chiyo new hope that she might someday become a geisha and win the Chairman’s heart. Her prayers — those that she should become a geisha, at least — are answered when Mameka (Michelle Yeoh), a kind geisha who is Hatsumomo’s chief rival, takes a teen-aged Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang, nominated last week for a Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture drama) under her wing and makes a wager that the girl, with her tutelage, can become the most renowned geisha of her time. Betrayal, war, romance and intrigue ensue, with Chiyo (now known as the geisha Sayuri) caught in the middle, still pursuing the Chairman’s love.

I went into “Memoirs of a Geisha” expecting not to like it. I was soon won over, however, by its lushness and depth. Every scene in the film is like a visual poem: artful, poignant and beautiful.

Though Hatsumomo seemed a bit one-dimensionally evil for my taste, the rest of the characters — and the performances that brought them to life — sang with complexity. There was a genuine, heartfelt, nearly playful chemistry between Watanabe and Zhang — a chemistry that became especially vivid and powerful during the years when they can’t have one another. The rest of the movie is held aloft on their energy like a scrap of silk on the wind. The end result, after everything that has conspired to keep them apart, even brought a tear to my crusty old eye.

Like another of my favorite films — 1993’s “The Remains of the Day” — “Memoirs of a Geisha” is about a life lived striving after the happiness of others, and why that kind of life — no matter how elegant and dutiful it might seem on the surface — can only leave you miserable yourself. It’s the kind of movie that breaks your heart a little — a testament to the way that even the most beautiful of us can live in two worlds, half in the glare of the spotlight, half in the black hole of self-denial. It’s a beauty that must be experienced on the big screen. See it soon.

— By David Koon



A family stoned

There is plenty not to like about the “The Family Stone,” most especially for filmgoers who see the movie’s trailer and expect a comedic romp like “Meet the Parents” and soon discover they’ve walked into a drama interspersed with laughs and have left the Kleenex at home. Also the dysfunctional family is so contrived, you question whether you should be laughing at all the dysfunctionality, or crying for them.

But “The Family Stone” eventually won us over with its heart, its New England-postcard-like settings (actually it was filmed in one of those rare New Jersey locations with trees), and maybe some of its Christmas-season sentimentality, plus an abundance of good acting from the ensemble cast that includes the pretty trio of Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes and Rachel McAdams.

Here’s what screenSybil is also hiding a health secret she plans to reveal to the family after Christmas. “It’s bad this time,” Dad tells Ben, who breaks down. Guess what it is?

Another son, the starchy Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings his fidgety, uptight Manhattan investments-type girlfriend Meredith Morton (Parker) home to meet the parents. Amy’s already had a sneak peak and hates her, and her attitude quickly permeates the Stone household. Sybil can tell right off that Meredith is not right for her son and isn’t about to part with a family heirloom ring she promised Everett, not for this interloper.

The hole that Meredith is already in when she arrives gets deeper as she tries to get the Stones to accept her. She even summons her sister Julie (Danes) to ease some of the pressure or at least provide the only shoulder to cry on. Unlike Meredith, the cool Julie is welcomed warmly by the Stones, and at one point at the dinner table Meredith comes across as an ignorant bigot over Thad’s homosexuality and the way the family has dealt with it.

To Meredith’s rescue comes slacker Ben, who takes her to a local dive for some beers and some chillin’. And here we see Parker’s range, and what a few beers can do for Meredith, especially when the jukebox cranks up the jumpy 1970s Maxine Nightingale hit “Right Back Where We Started From.”

So, we know Everett and Meredith don’t realize they’re not meant for each other, but brother Ben has a way of helping Meredith find her better self. And gorgeous Julie doesn’t seem to have a boyfriend back home, and Everett has taken note of her … you can see where this is going a mile away, even in a Christmas snowstorm.

Yes, it’s kinda schmaltzy. So was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the critics said, but it became a holiday classic. For dysfunctional family Christmas films, it’s far better than last year’s awful mess, “Surviving Christmas.” And the performances by Parker and McAdams are terrific (Parker received a Golden Globes nomination last week).

If you’re looking for Christmas laughs, rent “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” “The Family Stone” is far more serious than that. Sentimental sorts should bring the Kleenex, just in case.

— By Jim Harris



A Christmas howler

Based on a series of horrific serial murders in Australia, “Wolf Creek” stars Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi as three vacationing college students who trek deep into the outback to visit what passes for a tourist attraction Down Under: a giant meteor crater in the middle of nowhere.

After a hike to the rim of the crater and back, they find their car won’t start. Who should happen along but your stereotypical Aussie (John Jarratt), complete with a “Crocodile Dundee” hat and a big ol’ knife. He’s even named Mick. He can’t fix their car there, you understand, but he’ll be happy to tow them back to his secluded, not-found-on-any-map camp deep in the bush and fix it there. That night around his campfire, he offers water from canteen, and quicker than you can say “idiot college kids” they’re all waking from a drugged stupor, tied up in various bloodstained slaughterhouses around the camp and listening to one of their friends beg for her life.

To its credit, “Wolf Creek” makes for a scary time in the dark, and the plot does bob just when you think it’s gonna weave. On the downside, however, it is mostly just a pointless roll in the gut bucket, not to mention rife with slasher movie, “let’s assume that one shot killed him while I untie you” cliches.

Still, we’re all adults here; I’m not going to tell you NOT to see it. Let’s put it this way, if you don’t like seeing fresh-faced young Aussies dismembered, raped, stabbed, deprived of their fingers by way of Rambo knife, nailed to walls, disemboweled by wild dogs, shot long-range with a high-powered rifle, and made into a “head on a stick” by way of purposefully severed spinal cord, steer clear of “Wolf Creek.”

If you don’t mind having your brain cluttered up with horrific images, have at it. Just don’t come crying to us the next time you have a flat on some dark and lonely road out in Hooterville and Billy Joe Jimbob stops to lend a helping hand.

— By David Koon

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