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Peter Jackson’s new Kong will make a fortune, and it saddens me that it will be viewed by scores of people who won’t even give the original 1933 take a passing glance because they lack the imagination to immerse themselves in the world of vintage black-and-white cinema. But that’s their loss, and certainly not Jackson’s fault. He’s done his part by treating the property with love and respect, and, much to my surprise, his Kong is a -- pardon the pun -- roaring success. In essence, Jackson has taken the 103-minute original and stretched it out to a 190-minute running time. The three-act structure remains intact, however. The first portion of the film details how visionary filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) elects to head out into uncharted waters to make his epic adventure movie, recruiting a struggling actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to serve as his leading lady. Denham is all business, meaning that Ann’s romantic escapades arrive in the form of Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a sensitive screenwriter with the heart of a poet but the steely resolve of an action hero. The second part charts the sea voyage and the arrival on Skull Island, whereupon Ann is co-opted by the local natives for the purpose of serving as a human sacrifice to the great ape known as Kong. The climactic third act finds Kong captured and taken to New York, where, billed as “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World,” he becomes the featured attraction in Denham’s lavish theatrical production. Naturally, Kong escapes and goes on a rampage. From there, it’s a quick jaunt up the Empire State Building and an even quicker trip back down. Despite a hefty $200 million budget, the film’s visual effects aren’t as seamless as one might expect, particularly when it comes to the dinosaurs. Yet the FX team comes through when it matters most: Kong himself is a visual marvel, with an expressive range of emotions, and the final battle between Kong and the fighter planes is one of the movie year’s defining spectacles. Jack Black’s turn as showman Carl Denham is especially memorable, even if I still prefer Robert Armstrong’s show biz bluster in the original over Black’s more Machiavellian demeanor. Ultimately, Jackson respects that King Kong is above all else a love story -- that’s why Fay Wray is remembered so fondly from the original picture, and why Naomi Watts will emerge the most triumphant from this new version. Watts plays her scenes opposite Kong beautifully, and it’s a measure of her skills as an actress that she generates enormous chemistry with an animal that’s created out of computer codes rather than flesh and blood. w


Christians, heathens and everyone in between will be inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis’ source material -- the first book in a series of seven Narnia adventures -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy yarn that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis’ intentions. Like the best kid flicks, this one never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson’s garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien were friends and contemporaries, so it’s not surprising that the films based on their respective works often resemble each other in style and structure. In fact, I’d wager that it took the massive success of the LOTR flicks for Narnia to even be given the green light. Therefore, it’s easy to see the plucky Pevensie children -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and little Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- as human Hobbits, bravely entering enemy territory to defeat an evil entity whose cruel reign threatens all sorts of races and civilizations. Director Andrew Adamson, coming off the Shrek toons, isn’t as accomplished a filmmaker as Peter Jackson, so his tale feels cramped and on occasion even claustrophobic (cinema’s widescreen possibilities appear to hold little interest for him). But the child actors are appealing, Swinton makes a suitably chilly ice queen, the supporting critters add color, and the brisk storyline fuels the imagination. It may be kid stuff, but it’s suitable for the whole family.


Initially more reminiscent of the brittle Thanksgiving yarns Home For the Holidays and Pieces of April than the warm-and-fuzzy titles usually foisted upon us at Christmas, this ensemble piece centers on the Stone family, a liberal New England clan whose members prove to be remarkably close-minded when it comes to accepting a conservative prude into their abode. Oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his parents (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson) and siblings, but except for his laidback brother Ben (Luke Wilson), all the family members -- especially bitchy sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) -- treat their guest poorly, finding it impossible to warm up to her sheltered viewpoints and physical eccentricities. The arrival of Meredith’s younger sister Julie (Claire Danes) only makes matters worse, as she’s everything (warm, witty, understanding) that her sister is not. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha tips his PC hand early by making one family member (Ty Giordano) deaf, gay and attached to a black lover (Brian White), but he nevertheless manages to make the various strained character interactions believable.


Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA field operative who’s stunned when his years of service count for naught once his superiors decide it’s in their best interest to betray him. Bryan Woodman (Damon) is an energy analyst whose personal tragedy serves as a springboard for close ties with a prominent member of a Middle Eastern dynasty. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a lawyer who finds himself navigating the choppy waters of a merger between two oil company behemoths. Syriana offers little hope and no answers, catering instead to the substantial number of Americans who feel that the bad guys -- chiefly, Big Business and Big Government -- have already won, and there’s not a damn thing we ordinary citizens can do about it. For those who already believe this, the movie’s a well-executed downer. For those seeking to educate themselves, the movie’s a must-see.


Based on an animated series created for MTV a decade ago, Aeon Flux opens by informing us that in the year 2011, 99 percent of the world’s population was wiped out by a virus. Flash forward to 2415, where the descendants of the survivors continue to live in the only established city on the entire planet. Fed up with the fascistic ruling class, a band of revolutionaries known as the Monicans seeks to topple the government; they order their best agent, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), to assassinate leader Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas), but she realizes the situation isn’t as defined as previously thought. An impersonal slab of sci-fi sameness, Aeon Flux wears its lethargy as a badge of honor, with Karen Kusama’s draggy direction and Theron’s monotonous performance front and center in every scene.


Puccini wrote his opera La Boheme in 1896, and it was exactly 100 years later that Jonathan Larson’s update Rent created seismic waves in the theater world. Rent faithfully follows the story structure of La Boheme, although Larson injected a sense of immediacy by adding AIDS to the equation. Unfolding in the late ‘80s, the story centers on a group of bohemians in New York’s East Village. If it sounds like Melrose Place on welfare, the story’s defining characteristic is that half of its leading players are HIV-positive, contracted through either sex or drug use. For a musical, there isn’t much dancing per se, and director Chris Columbus and choreographer Keith Young stage the few numbers competently if not excitingly.


The Ice Harvest is being promoted as this year’s Bad Santa, but it’s just bad, period.


Just as Ray lived or died on the powerhouse performance of Jamie Foxx, so too does Walk the Line depend on the mesmerizing work by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who both do their own singing) to carry it over the line. Phoenix, all hunched shoulders and slow-burn stares, commands the screen, yet even he’s topped by Witherspoon in her most fully realized performance since Election.


Director Mike Newell and scripter Steve Kloves, forced to whittle down J.K. Rowling’s enormous tome, steadfastly refuse to coddle the youngest audience members, “family film” status be damned. The Triwizard Cup competition, undertaken by Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and three older students, is fraught with such perils as fire-breathing dragons and piranha-toothed mermaids. A key supporting character -- a likable one, at that -- is unexpectedly killed. And the evil Lord Voldemort, who hasn’t been seen since he murdered Harry’s parents 13 years earlier, finally makes an appearance (Ralph Fiennes is suitably slimy in the role). Yet the series’ greatest strength -- namely, the dead-on portrayals by Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione -- never fails to deliver.


A descent into the pits of hell disguised as a motion picture, Yours, Mine and Ours is the sort of broad, insincere schmaltz that moviegoers eat up at this time of year.



Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have done an exemplary job of making us care all over again about the plight of the Bennet sisters, five young girls whose busybody mom sets about finding them suitable husbands against the backdrop of 19th century England.


This film looks at an inspiring moment in U.S. history, when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow did the unthinkable by standing up to Joe McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin who destroyed lives by denouncing everyone who didn't subscribe to his petty politics. At times, the laser-beam focus on both the setting and the situation at hand makes the film feel as if it's been sealed inside a Zip-Loc bagn. The movie's genius, however, is in its integration of actual newsreel footage into the fictionalized framework.


Rapper 50 Cent (or Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, as he’s billed here) may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, he’s relevant as a dead mike.