Essence of Ape

Forego The Cloying Family Stone In Favor Of A Bigger, Badder Kong.

This is one of those weeks when we're obliged to remember that Hollywood can still make magic, even out of a monkey. On the flip side, it's also another week when we're reminded that Hollywood remains more than happy to make monkeys out of moviegoers.

Let's start with the good news. Ladies and gentlemen. Behold Peter Jackson's King Kong — the eighth wonder of the world!

And then wonder why movies like The Family Stone still get made.

We'll get to Kong in a moment, but first the bad news. For those of you wondering what the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas period would be without at least one mildly quirky, heartstring-tugging, home-for-the-holidays movie, wonder no longer. With a carefully calculated humor-to-pathos ratio and a sleigh full of crowd-pleasing clichés in tow, The Family Stone is a warm puppy of a movie, so desperate to be loved that it practically pees all over itself.

The film will certainly have its fans, many undoubtedly drawn from the huddled masses dreaming of a yuletide lovechild of Terms of Endearment and Sleepless in Seattle. But for those not firmly in the market for its cloying charms, this is one holiday movie that may well put even the most forgiving soul in touch with his or her inner Grinch.

It's not that The Family Stone is such a horrible movie, at least not in the way that most horrible movies are horrible. What makes this one so hard to swallow is the cavalier way it props up a glib, cookie-cutter story with a smattering of moments designed solely to make us think the movie is more thoughtful or more genuine than it really is. Even a potentially devastating scene, like the wordless sequence in which a husband reaches out in the middle of the night to tenderly touch his wife's mastectomy scar, is inevitably followed by the emotional equivalent of a fart joke.

The basic set-up here involves a snowy holiday weekend with the eponymous Stones, a mostly good-natured and open-minded bunch who nevertheless find themselves deeply offended when one of the adult siblings (Dermot Mulroney) brings his painfully uptight fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet the family.

Parker's priggish character is little more than a lazily written cartoon — you can practically see that stick rammed so far up her hindquarters it forms a second spine — and her confrontation with the "colorful," left-leaning Stone clan is as inevitable as it is dull. Within moments, she's managed to piss off the entire brood, not excluding the doe-eyed younger Stone brother, who is not only gay but deaf, and has an impossibly adorable African-American boyfriend to boot. Oh, and did I mention that Mother Stone is terminally ill and played by Diane Keaton (who gets to let loose occasionally with her famous Annie Hall bark-laugh, with just a hint of death rattle at the end)? Or that there's another brother, played by Luke Wilson (looking like he's just wandered in stoned from The Royal Tennenbaums), who gazes longingly at prudish Parker while advising her to let her freak flag fly? Or that Parker's perfect sister (Claire Danes) eventually shows up and lights up everyone's life in a way that instantly telegraphs the entire last act of the movie?

It all bubbles over in a mad rush of predictable partner-swapping and soul-baring as Judy Garland warbles "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from the TV, and The Family Stone struggles to convince us that it's somehow privy to significant insights into the nature of life. But the movie's "truths" are worse than superficial — they're insincere — and the only insights found here are as cheesy as they are disposable.

Still, if it's essence you're after this season, there is essence to be had. But you'll have to go directly to the big ape himself for that.

King Kong is a pretty extraordinary spectacle even before the furry feature attraction makes his entrance — a good thing too, since the big guy doesn't show up for over an hour into this three-hour extravaganza. Director Peter Jackson sets the stage magnificently, though, manufacturing an elaborately detailed and mostly digitized 1930s America every bit as fantastic as the Middle Earth he imagined in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Jackson goes back to the basics here, re-setting this classic tale in its original timeframe and remaining extremely faithful to the original story, while giving it lots of room to breathe. Besides the seriously hefty running time (nearly every minute of which deserves to be there), Jackson ups the ante in other significant ways, adding subtle complexities to the emotions of the characters while making their plight more believable by intensifying the action on all fronts. One of the new Kong's highlights is the giant ape's confrontation with a pair of nasty T-Rexes threatening his human captive, Ann (Naomi Watts) — a battle so ferocious it instantly clarifies the beauty-and-the-beast bond that is key to the story.

Beyond that, this may not be a leaner Kong, but it's certainly a meaner one. The entire, extensive middle-section of the movie (where our human heroes discover a land forgotten by time on mysterious Skull Island) is filled with a profusion of frightening and gloriously repulsive stuff, all realized in state-of-the-art CGI, from gigantic leeches and spiders to enormous bats and cockroaches.

Those with little kiddies pleading to see this will want to note that there are liberal splashings of blood and guts, and that many humans and other creatures are enthusiastically stomped, chomped, flattened and severed during the proceedings.

King Kong is beautifully realized old-school filmmaking with a 21st-century facelift, and Jackson segues skillfully from humor to horror to adventure to romance. Adrien Brody is perfectly cast as the sensitive hero, as is Jack Black (keeping his eyebrows under control and playing it relatively straight for once), and Naomi Watts exhibits star power to burn.

But the real star here is Kong himself. A gnarly, asymmetrical creature with a gnawed-off ear and a snaggle-toothed smirk, this is an older, wiser Kong than the ones we're used to (be it the original or his animatronic '70s successor), and he steals every scene he's in.

Jackson's Kong is a personality kid who takes CGI to infinity and beyond, whether he's gazing contemplatively at a sunset or tearing up the city trying to locate his special blonde, just like Jimmy Stewart obsessing on Kim Novak in Vertigo. And when that monkey finally climbs that famous building in the end and has his Top-of-the-World-Ma moment, there's little doubt that Jackson's doomed monster is also one for the ages.


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