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Review: King Kong

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For all the astonishing computer-generated marvels to be found in Peter Jackson’s mammoth remake of the prototypical Hollywood blockbuster, no image from the movie itself can match the eerie frisson produced by recent photographs of its director. Previously tubby and hobbitlike, his ruddy face framed by oversized round specs, Jackson now looks ready to take on the role of the Scarecrow in some other filmmaker’s quixotic reimagining of The Wizard of Oz; it’s as if Hitchcock had emerged from one of his shoots resembling Woody Allen. Once you do see King Kong, though, this startling physical transformation suddenly makes perfect sense. Fuck the Subway diet — if you want to quickly get in fighting trim, all you have to do is more or less kill yourself striving to make the single greatest entertainment the world has ever seen.
    For a good while, Jackson comes remarkably close. A few misguided souls have complained that this three-hour extravaganza takes far too long to get to “the action,” by which I gather they mean giant beasties knocking noggins. But if King Kong‘s lengthy first act is largely expository, introducing characters and generating subplots, it’s also the richest, most affectionate evocation of old-fashioned Hollywood brio in recent memory. With its piquant recreation of Depression-era New York, its deliberately stylized performances, its shameless italicization of each new narrative development and personality trait, this Kong is so brashly archetypal that it might as well have simply been called Movie. From the moment that Jack Black, as monomaniacal filmmaker Carl Denham, stood before a screening room full of studio execs and literally brandished a faded map of Skull Island — I promise you, you’ve never seen anybody brandish an object like Black brandishes this map — I was sporting a goofy grin that I believe had been dormant since Raiders of the Lost Ark.
    Oddly enough, it was during one of Kong‘s several super-spectacular set pieces that that grin began to evaporate. As if to apologize to the audience for his leisurely setup, Jackson kicks the movie into warp drive once he reaches the island, piling one extended hyperkinetic action sequence atop another for well over an hour. Stampeding apatosaurs, giant insect attacks, an earthshattering rumble in the jungle between Kong and a couple of T-Rex’s, a recurring shot that David Letterman might call KongGraspCam — it’s all undeniably masterful, but the nonstop frenetic activity sometimes pushes the needle well past Amazing and into the red zone of Annoying. (Think Temple of Doom rather than Raiders.) Kong himself is a miraculous creation, though — noble and soulful enough to partially offset the wonky racial subtext that has lurked beneath this tale in every incarnation — and the skyscraper-straddling climax, relocated to the Empire State Building for reasons both obvious and aesthetic, is as majestically moving as one could possibly hope for. That alone is worth every pound Jackson shed. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Hidden
Michael Haneke is one of the great contemporary sadists of world cinema. But that’s a good thing. The Austrian director, perhaps most famous to Nerve readers for The Piano Teacher, is a poet of cruelty and mundane evil — the kind of guy who can make an entire film about polite teenage skinheads terrorizing a quiet bourgeois family in broad daylight (Funny Games), or open a film with a woman getting spat on (Code Unknown). So his latest, Hidden, is well-trod ground for the auteur: Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a Parisian talk show host and his family begin to receive mysterious video tapes concerning footage of their home and their lives. Seemingly shot from places where it would be impossible to place a camera without them realizing it, the footage is disturbing not necessarily for what it actually shows, but for its existential promise that Georges and his family can never feel safe again.
    As Georges begins to delve into who might be sending the tapes, he begins to suspect an Algerian man whose family was once employed by his parents. But Hidden isn’t really a whodunit. Haneke isn’t really making a mystery film, or a revenge drama. He’s more of a scientist than a storyteller: He wants to put Georges and his family under a microscope and watch them react to the story’s increasing transgressions. Indeed, as the mystery progresses, one can’t help but wonder if the characters will eventually turn to the camera and realize it’s that sneaky old Michael Haneke himself who’s sending them the tapes.
    That’s not to suggest that Hidden is just some po-mo mindfuck. (Well, not mostly, anyway.) Haneke may be determined not to give us closure and send us out of the theater disturbed, but he’s also (gulp) an entertainer. For all its resolute minimalism, Hidden‘s subtle shorthand manages to deftly juggle issues of sex, class, ethnicity, history, and child psychology alongside its thriller plot. For a sadist, the director actually seems to have an inordinate amount of respect for his audience’s sensibilities. He’ll make a masochist out of you in no time. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
There are a couple of different movies languishing within Tommy Lee Jones’s feature directorial debut, and one of them is quite good. The story itself, a sort of modern Western set along the Texas-Mexico border, has the rugged feel of something that might have been made in the 1970s, and its elegiac tone has been compared by some to the work of Sam Peckinpah. The film opens with the discovery of the titular corpse, an illegal Mexican worker who has become friendly with gruff old cowboy Pete Perkins (Jones). From there, Guillermo Arriaga’s script jumps back and forth between the events leading to Melquiades’s accidental death, Pete’s inquiries into the event, and the frustrating life of Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) one pissed-off border guard. So, guess who did the killing. Arriaga’s script, much like his script for the ill-fated 21 Grams, is initially too reliant on its clever structure: One feels like the only reason he doesn’t tell the story in linear fashion is because then we’d realize that it’s actually sort of bland and uneventful.
    The script eventually sheds this structure, and the film really takes an intriguing turn in its second half when Pete and Mike take a trip down Mexico way to bury Melquiades in his home town of Jimenez. In a way, they go through the looking glass: Among these desolate hills, what began as a mundane, slightly contrived procedural takes a turn for the surreal and the mythical. An illegal immigrant woman smacked around by Norton in the first half comes back as a village healer in the second. The dry diners of Texas are replaced by twilight Mexican cantinas where people play Chopin on broken pianos. And a world where everyone seems to regard one another with suspicion gives way to one where everyone helps each other out.
    All that could prove more than a little corny, were Jones not such a surprisingly assured director. Maybe that’s because he is his own secret weapon: Craggly, gruff, and pathetic, Pete’s face is a landscape of sorrow, and Jones, as actor, brings a weird mixture of silence and impatience to this character. His presence somehow holds together all the pieces of this disparate, occasionally frustrating story, turning it into something rather grand. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The Family Stone
This star-studded, sappy-as-all-hell Hallmark card of a holiday film is the best counterintuitive date movie of the year. Anyone worth his or her salt as a crush will look over at you halfway through this disaster — say, when the brittle workaholic girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) of self-oblivious dope (Dermot Mulroney) makes a homophobic comment at the holiday table, leading the ailing boho matriarch (Diane Keaton) to passionately sign “You are normal” to her gay, deaf adult son, who is seated next to his black boyfriend, with whom he’s contemplating adoption — and bust out laughing. The rest of your evening should go like this: after being shushed by weepy fellow audience members, adjourn to bar; re-enact dinner table scene, taking turns wearing borrowed Keaton-esque glasses and dramatically signing “NOR-MAL!” until drunk. Voila! Your holiday season is off to a happily cynical start. — Ada Calhoun
Review: Havoc
In an unexpected twist of fate, the simple act of carrying a media-release copy of this film in my Puma bag provided me with an interesting purview into what it’s like to be an innocent white girl playing with fire — I set off shoplifter detectors all over Manhattan. Fortunately, unlike the film’s heroine, Allison (played by Anne Hathaway of Ella Enchanted), who was carted back to Pacific Palisades after getting caught in the ghetto with a drug dealer, no one even bothered to search my bag.
    Allison is a rich girl who’s “sick of this phony life” and bares her breasts during a backseat blowjob within the first ten minutes of the film. Cute little Tommy from Third Rock is a stoner with a serious case of the shakes, and credulous go-getter Rico from Six Feet Under is Hector the Gang-Banging Thug. Spy Kid Gary Giggle plays film-geek Eric, who happens to be filming a documentary about the engrossing culture of rich California kids who consider themselves “wiggers” and “seriously fucking bored.” Eric is taunted with delicious come-ons from randy Allison during their interview, and he barks: “Look, I’m just trying to get to know you here, and you’re acting like a porn star.” Before leaving, he spits: “You’re one of the loneliest people I’ve ever met.”
    By the end, my blithe amusement with such ridiculous dialogue transformed into utter outrage as it devolved into yet another slut-cries-rape story, with only one thing setting it apart: the until-now-very-PG Anne Hathaway’s breasts. — Marie Lyn Bernard
Date DVD: The 40-Year-Old Virgin
In DVD-land, distributors are warming up for very kitschy Christmases with a motley collection of TV-box-set stocking stuffers: new installments of MacGyver, Jackass, Full House, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, Thundercats, Roseanne, The Rockford Files, and even He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special (yeah, somehow I missed that the first time too). So run away from the reruns and catch a film that seemed made for Date DVD-hood from the beginning: 40 Year-Old Virgin.
    One of the stranger box-office successes of the past year, Judd Apatow’s middle-aged comedy slapped the word “virgin” in its title and rode its way to a tidy box-office once word-of-mouth set in. Daily Show vet and star of The Office, Steve Carrell plays a geeky electronics stockboy whose coworkers finally discover that he’s a virgin when he misguidedly boasts that one of his fictional conquests had breasts that felt “like two bags of sand.” Not all of the jokes are so good — especially the dumb “you’re so gay” riffs — but the real catch is Catherine Keener, chronically underused but recently terrific as Harper Lee in Capote and crushable for the first time since Lovely & Amazing. In fact, the only reason not to rent this one is if you fear your date might fall for Keener, instead of you. — Logan Hill

   

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