This time of year, the interests of Hollywood folks travel on parallel tracks: totting up the blockbusters and anticipating the Oscars. Start with the money. The year's top-grossing films in North American release were two sequels (the sixth Star Wars, the fourth Harry Potter) and a remake (War of the Worlds). Another remake (King Kong) may join their ranks. Stay tuned for more of the depressing same.
The remorseless familiarity of most movies is one factor cited in the slumping box office: down 7% in 2005. In the U.S. and Canada, that is. But Hollywood films are a global affair, and in the rest of the world, business is fine; theatrical revenues continue to rise. And even that is only a sliver of the story, since studios now make six times as much money from the home market (DVDs, pay-per-view, etc.) as they do from theaters. No moguls need open a vein quite yet.
So the bosses can look without distraction to their end-of-year prestige items. Just as the summer block-buster has become its own genre, so has the December "film of quality." Typically, it has a remote setting: a Pacific island in the 1930s for Kong, World War II London for The Chronicles of Narnia and Mrs. Henderson Presents. It may be based on fact (The New World) or fiction (Memoirs of a Geisha). It may even have similarities to warm-weather fare. Steven Spielberg's winter drama, Munich, like his summer fantasy, War of the Worlds, portrays a deadly surprise attack and the ambiguous human response to it.
Herein, two critics weigh in on eight holiday films. One nice thing: none is a sequel.
KING KONG Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody. Directed by Peter Jackson. Opens Dec. 14
It's not beauty that kills the beast this time. It's--sorry for the fancy literary phrase--"the anxiety of influence." Confronted with the task of remaking one of the best and most beloved movies of all time, director Jackson wishes to both pay homage to the original 1933 version and improve on it, which has caused him to edgily throw around money and technology to mixed avail. His homages to the original's most famous scenes are sometimes spectacularly expansive. Where once the Big Guy had just a handful of prehistoric creatures to deal with, he now has herds of them. But Jackson's other improvements are ludicrous, most notably the fate of poor Ann Darrow, the actress who becomes Kong's victim/love object. In the original, Fay Wray came to sympathize with the beast. But Watts plays Ann as a seductress, consciously leading the big lug on. Suffice it to say that King Kong has lost its divine innocence. And our response to the ape's doom, once touched by authentic tragedy, is now marked by relief that this wretchedly excessive movie is finally over.
THE NEW WORLD Starring Colin Farrell, Q'orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Opens Dec. 25
Malick is the movies' foremost naturalist. His films are uniquely alert to the earth's sights, sounds and textures. Shooting without artificial light, capturing the rush of wind and the rustle of birds, he turns each location into an artful landscape, each image into a snapshot of a new world. So the meeting of Englishman John Smith and Algonquian princess Pocahontas is a fit subject for Malick--just his fourth film in 32 years, after Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.