The top items on my Wish List for this Christmas were Woody Allen's Match Point and Albert Brooks's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, for both of which I now must wait till the new year. In the meantime, a partial Got List....
King Kong. Fresh from The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson could presumably have done anything he wanted. What he apparently wanted was to do a remake. Check that, a second remake. A 21st-century Kong. A CGI Kong. A kung-fu Kong. (Three T. rexes at a time, one hand tied up with a savory maiden.) And not least, a three-hour Kong, even though it takes over an hour to get to him, and though he must share screen time after that with an entire ecosystem of slimy, slithery critters. Jackson, remaking almost slavishly the 1933 version rather than the rerouted 1976 version, returns the action to the original period, plays up and jokes up, with help from the turtle-faced Jack Black, the film-within-the-film element (Fay Wray is unavailable because "she's shooting a picture with RKO"), and imbues the beauty-and-beast theme with the sort of modish, operatic amplification that says so much about our Age of Indulgence, squeezing every last drop of emotion from the death of the ape, all the way down to the emotion (among the most sensitive individuals) of mirth. The Kong films show a sharp decline, this one a farther step down from the last than the last was down from the first. Three hours are not automatically "better" than one and three-quarters or two and one-quarter. Even the supposed progress in special effects -- from stop-motion models to computer animation -- is largely illusory. The former falsity of stiffness and creakiness has simply been replaced by the falsity of fluidness and facileness. Exhibit A: the stampede of brontosauruses, an enlarged replication of the running of the bulls at Pamplona, wherein these nimble, fleet-footed behemoths scarcely seem to occupy the same space as the humans, even when stepping on them. Exhibit B: the attack of the giant bats on Kong, flittering like shadows and creating a timely diversion that affords the boring romantic couple (Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody) a means of escape by hang-gliding from a bat's feet, easy as catching a ride on the trolley. In whatever measure such effects might be "better" than the old, it's too short a measure to make up for the falloff in imagination.
Memoirs of a Geisha. Nipponese bodice-ripper, from the best-seller by Arthur Golden, though it plays as if it could just as well have been by Danielle Steel, a Cinderella story of the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of a blue-eyed geisha in pre-war and postwar Japan. "A story like mine," she starts out, meaning more than she means, "should never be told." Nor should it be illustrated with the frenzy, flamboyance, and insufficient illumination accorded it by the razzle-dazzle director of Chicago, Rob Marshall. (Earlier in the gestation, it was going to be Steven Spielberg.) Gong Li is still Gong Li, and still beautiful, but in the lead role Zhang Ziyi is now Ziyi Zhang: the boom in Asian imports has brought no consistency in appellation, only confusion. (The catty rivalry on screen between the older actress and the younger, and eventually the all-out catfight, gains an added dimension when you recall that the one was bumped by the other in the films and affections of Zhang Yimou, or Yimou Zhang.) Using Chinese actresses is of course defensible in a movie aimed at the American masses, just as their speaking in English is defensible. Their speaking in unintelligible English rather defeats the purpose.
Cheaper by the Dozen 2. A family feud, over Labor Day at Lake Winnetka, between the twelve-kid Bakers and the eight-kid Murtaughs, or anyway between their hotly competitive dads (Steve Martin, Eugene Levy). Humor and sentiment every bit as cheap as Cheaper One. The only notable change is in the suddenly sculpted Hilary Duff, who either has done some work or, odds are, had some work done. (The change in directors, Shawn Levy to Adam Shankman, is undetectable.) Bonnie Hunt finds a few crannies in which to do something resembling acting.
The Family Stone. Christmas comedy, from sophomore filmmaker Thomas Bezucha (whose first film, Big Eden, never made the rounds), about the gathering of a clan, and allies, in snowy New England at the holiday. The current holiday, the correct holiday. The core family, name of Stone, numbers seven -- a measly five kids, but all adults -- so a lot is afoot: terminal cancer, a pregnancy, a gay-couple adoption (minorities within the minority: the couple is interracial and one-half hearing impaired), an old flame, a guttering flame, two new flames. It all sorts itself out, in a next-Christmas coda, with no sticky residue. The cast, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Elizabeth Reaser, Ty Giordano, Diane Keaton, and Craig T. Nelson, could use any help they can get, but what they get from the bilious photography is skin the complexion of uncooked chicken.
Fun with Dick and Jane. Fast and loose remake by Dean Parisot of the all but forgotten 1977 social satire by Ted Kotcheff, the American Nightmare reimagined specially for the epoch of Adelphia, Enron, and other corporate miscreants. Fast pacing, that is, and loose plotting. Jim Carrey, as the out-of-work executive who stops his financial free fall with a spree of armed robbery (armed with a squirt gun), can still execute a pratfall and can still out-flex Gumby, but now a little more restrained, a little more aged, he is starting to look less like the new Jerry Lewis and more like the new Johnny Carson. Ace cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski (Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden, Washington Square, and The Third Miracle, for three) sees to it that the star, his co-stars (Téa Leoni, Alec Baldwin, Richard Jenkins), and their antiseptic surroundings at least look good.
Breakfast on Pluto. Odyssey of a transvestite, self-christened Saint Kitten, from postwar Irish Catholic orphanhood to Swinging London in the Sixties and on through the Disco Daze into the Thatcher era. Cillian Murphy, speaking at the breathy top of his range, is so obnoxiously overconfident, dauntless, irrepressible, etc., as to not only renounce our sympathy but thoroughly rout it. It isn't just him. Director Neil Jordan sets an overall tone of obnoxiousness with his thirty-odd chapter headings (from "In Which I Am Abandoned" to "It's Tearing Me Apart"), a Greek chorus of subtitled songbirds, and a parade of goldie-oldies ("Honey," "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Feelings," "The Windmills of My Mind," and on and on) as congested as that in any Cameron Crowe comedy. The previous film of Jordan's that merits a mention on this occasion would obviously be The Crying Game. "I'm not a girl," the hero confesses to none other than Stephen Rea, who, unlike in that other film, wasn't fooled: "Oh, I knew that, princess."
Wolf Creek. Unsolved Mysteries, Australian-style, from tyro filmmaker Greg McLean. A malevolent Crocodile Dundee ("Now that's a knife," or rather, "Nah thet's a knoif") is postulated to explain the disappearance of two pretty British backpackers in the Outback. And untold others besides. Wretched, low-budget, psycho-boogeyman antics, more exasperating than exciting.
Munich. Spielberg demands, and this time even deserves, more space. I'll try to find it next week.