ADVENTURE

Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Movie magic. That's what director-cowriter Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) accomplishes with this smashing King Kong. The film pays tribute to the 1933 original while improving upon it (forget the dismal 1976 version), adding wit, piling on fantastical creatures and giving the titular big ape the most limpid, expressive pair of golden brown eyes seen onscreen since the advent of Technicolor.

This three-hour Kong retains the original's Great Depression setting and plot, albeit tweaked. Now, a megalomaniacal filmmaker (Black, who's a hoot) hires an out-of-work vaudevillian (Watts, who's alluring) to star in a movie to be shot on mysterious Skull Island. Upon landing, they encounter a humongous ape with a weakness for blondes. Special-effects-laden scenes with Kong, rampaging dinosaurs and other nasty critters are wondrous, but it's two quieter scenes between Watts and Kong, who develop a lovely friendship, that thrill the most: In one she juggles rocks for his amusement. In another the two slide gleefully together across a frozen pond in a Manhattan park. Whether 10 years old or 80, a viewer's heart lifts. Mr. Jackson, you've made a royal King. (PG-13)

DRAMA

Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Youki Kudoh

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With their training in dance, music and light conversation, geishas occupied a spot somewhere between wife and prostitute in the upper strata of Japanese society. Memoirs of a Geisha, based on Arthur Golden's captivating 1997 novel and competently directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), follows a young girl's journey to geisha glory in pre-World War II Japan. It's ravishing to behold, boasting gorgeous leading ladies, luxurious costumes and exotic sets—but looks only go so far. Geisha fails to grab you while you're watching or stay with you afterward. Maybe this romantic drama is trying to cover too much ground. Only during the middle third, when the heroine (Zhang) is immersed in intense geisha training while fending off sabotage efforts by a jealous rival geisha (Li, gloriously channeling Bette Davis), does the film manage to exert a hint of the book's mesmerizing hold. (PG-13)

COMEDY

Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Craig T. Nelson

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You know almost from the first few scenes precisely where The Family Stone is going, but still have a swell time watching it unfold. The secret ingredient to the film's success is the warmth that the Stones—that's Mom (Keaton), Dad (Nelson) and five adult offspring—feel for each other, which makes this bittersweet story of an antic and angst-filled family gathering for Christmas chime true. Do we really think that the goings-on in their comfy New England home—everyone ganging up against a Stone son's uptight New York City girlfriend (Parker), wavering romantic alliances and revelation of an illness—would play out this breezily in real life? No, but credit the lively script and direction by Thomas Bezucha (Big Eden) and a likable cast for making us temporary believers. Keaton, with the showiest role as the loving but judgmental mother, takes top acting honors. The woman can do no wrong. Parker is amusing, and Wilson, as one of the clan, exhibits a slobbish charm. (PG-13)

FANTASY

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Tilda Swinton, Jim Broadbent, Georgie Henley

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Half a movie is still better than no movie at all. That would be the positive-thinking way to view The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on C.S. Lewis's beloved 1950 novel about four children who travel to a magical kingdom. It's the first half of the lavish-looking Narnia that works best. It captures both the terrors and enchantment of childhood as the four Pevensie children leave blitz-beset London during WWII to take shelter in a country mansion. While playing hide-and-seek, little Lucy (the adorable Henley) conceals herself in an old cupboard, which turns out to be a portal to the wintery kingdom of Narnia. Only later, when Lucy and her sibs join the oppressed Narnian natives in battling an evil queen (Swinton), does the film head south. It becomes a pint-size Lord of the Rings, with grotesque creatures prancing about and the kids unconvincingly making like junior action heroes. You've seen it before, done better.

Guiding the youngsters in their fight is Aslan, a wise lion (voiced by Liam Neeson). Lewis intended Aslan as a Jesus figure, and in Narnia, when the lion sacrifices his life to save another's, the scene plays disturbingly like The Passion of the Christ, complete with beatings and jeering. Then again, my 6-year-old companion was oblivious to religious overtones. Having read the book, he leaned over as Aslan died to reassure me, saying, "Don't worry. He'll live again because he has a deeper magic." (PG)

COMEDY

Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Kelly Reilly

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All hail Dame Judi Dench: May we all be as hardworking and do it with as much panache when we're 71. Her latest, the delectable Mrs. Henderson Presents, lovingly showcases her diamond-bright comic and dramatic talents. It entertainingly tells the true story of Laura Henderson (Dench), a wealthy English society matron who, after her husband died in 1937, bought London's Windmill Theatre. Teaming up with veteran theatrical manager Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins, who's gruff perfection), she soon put on revues featuring naked women. Henderson skirted decency laws by having statuesque beauties remain still onstage, advertising the shows as tableaus. Once World War II started, servicemen packed the theater night and day.

Written by Martin Sherman (Bent) and adroitly directed by Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things), Mrs. Henderson is just plain fun. The film boasts its share of poignant moments and touching ones, but mostly it is a breezy, loving portrait of a dotty British eccentric. Dench, whether shuffling through a soft-shoe number while dressed as a polar bear or making a rousing patriotic speech, is sheer bliss. (R)

DRAMA

Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo

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Between this terrific movie and the superb Brokeback Mountain, the Old West ain't what it used to be. In the long keening cry that is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which marks Tommy Lee Jones's feature-directing debut, a grizzled cowpoke (Jones) in today's Texas seeks vengeance after an illegal Mexican coworker (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is killed and no one seems to care. Jones kidnaps the bullying lawman (Pepper) who accidentally shot his pal, forcing Pepper to join him and the rotting corpse on a meandering journey by horseback from Texas to Mexico. During the trip, the pair face some hard truths about themselves, the dead man and the imperfectness of the human condition.

Three deftly strikes a balance between cynicism and hope. It's also frequently funny. Jones, sly and purposeful, and Pepper, on edge and lost, are excellent. Plus, Leo offers a piquant turn as a clear-sighted waitress sleeping with Jones, her husband and the local sheriff. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen.