During the holiday season, we get two kinds of movies: Oscar bait--big deal, important pictures rolled out for ten-best lists, critics' awards, and, of course, that golden statuette that says, "You are about to get a pay raise." Then come the popcorn blockbusters. This year, obviously, one towers mightily above all. We'll get to that 8,000-pound gorilla in a moment. But first, let's get serious.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" is quintessential Oscar bait. It's from an exotic bestseller: the tale of an orphaned Japanese girl sold to a house of geishas-in-training, with nasty crones and a madly jealous diva who will do anything to sabotage our sweet heroine. As directed by Rob Marshall of "Chicago," it skips lightly along the surface of its subject, hardly getting deeper than its face paint and silks.
A different kind of Oscar-bait, political and leftist, comes from George Clooney and writer-director Stephen Gaghan. "Syriana" revolves around a tangled alliance between U.S. intelligence agencies and big oil companies to control the resources of a Persian Gulf kingdom. It has multiple characters and multiple subplots, and to sum it up I'd need a flow chart. Actually, as storytelling it's a pretty inept, but the ambition to weave together so many threads to account for the origins of terrorism is, nowadays, admirable.
Another and more profound look at terrorism and retaliation is Steven Spielberg's thriller "Munich," from a script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the 1972 massacre of nine Israeli athletes. It's one of the most devastating portraits of righteous vengeance and its consequences I've ever seen.
"The Family Stone" is a boisterous comedy with cancer, which makes it one of those you'll-laugh-you'll-cry crowd pleasers and Oscar bait. It's set in a rambling New England house, to which five grown kids and their mates return for Christmas. The movie is unbelievably manipulative, but some genuine feeling does shines through. And what an ensemble, especially Diane Keaton as the warm but prickly mom and Tom Giordano as her gay, deaf son.
Giordano's the only deaf character you'll see on screen this season, but gays are loud and proud. Too loud, in the case of the retro camp stereotypes in Mel Brooks' "The Producers." But the rest of the acting is pitched to the second balcony, too. It's like someone screaming "Laugh!" in your face. On the other hand, Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" is light on its feet, with a delicious and slightly bonkers hero-heroine played by Cillian Murphy. "Transamerica" features Felicity Huffman as a man in the process of becoming a woman who discovers she's the father of a teenage son. The performance is thrilling. Huffman deconstructs a woman and puts her back together before your eyes.
For hot cowboy on cowboy action, check out the artsy but intense "Brokeback Mountain." The Marlboro men in love. I'm not being flip, since director Ang Lee's work is about the genuine passion that struggles to break through our culturally-mandated roles. The cowboy lovers are the extroverted Jake Gyllenhaal and the recessive Heath Ledger, who speaks with a marble-mouthed lockjaw that's weirdly affecting. "Brokeback Mountain" is the elemental place outside society where the two discover their natural passion. But is there a place for that passion in civilized society? Can you build, the characters ask, on Brokeback Mountain?
Can you build on Brokeback Wigwam? That's what cult director Terrence Malick asks in "The New World," a fictionalized romance between Pochohantas and Captain John Smith that's lyrical, meditative, and oh so slow. Can you build on Brokeback Island, also known as Skull Island, where actress Ann Darrow, played by Naomi Watts, meets the gorilla of her dreams?
"King Kong" is a glorious ride. It's a little clunky in the wrap-around New York sequences, but once Peter Jackson gets to Kong's jungle, teeming with dinosaurs and giant insects and sucking wormy creatures it's breathtaking in its momentum, with cliffhangers that would make Spielberg gasp. Best of all is Kong himself. His face signals rage, bewilderment, passion, even depression as he contemplates his life as a mate-less giant ape. It's the greatest three-hankie monster movie ever made.