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STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH

 The imagery in REVENGE OF THE SITH -- The turning of Anakin, the annihilation of the Jedi, the expulsion of Yoda, Obi-Wan vs Anakin, Palpatine revealed, the birth of the twins, Alderran, the adoption of Luke, what became of the droids… These are all near religious iconography in the minds of children raised in the ways of the Force. I’ve spent a quarter of a century discussing these things, speculating on what it’d look like, how it’d play out… I’ve seen it in countless dreams, but never with my eyes open. Never George’s dream of what it was. Till now.

As I sat at the Regal Metropolitan Theater in South Austin watching the film – I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Dad was there with me, we’ve spent countless years talking STAR WARS – through STAR WARS – I learnt of the source material George was smashing and grabbing from – B serials, Pulp sci-fantasy adventure romances, Asian cinema – all of it. Before STAR WARS – I was well on my way – after STAR WARS the road was poured. I would be a geek for the rest of my life.

That would mean, I’d be primed to openly weep as Yoda crawled through that damn crawlspace to escape, during the whole of Obi-Wan and Anakin’s fight and the death of Luke & Leia’s mother. It is a very powerful thing to see the dreams one has spent a quarter of a century pondering. It might be cheese ball of me, but dammit – this is exactly what I wanted out of this last STAR WARS film… closure.

I’m having a really hard time writing about this one. It’s just so damn big. So full of literally everything that I wanted to see in all the prequels – but crammed all into this one. This really is the big Michael Corleone episode of STAR WARS… It’s where all the traps are sprung, all the cards are laid on the table, where everybody dies, all is lost and evil rules the galaxy.

That’s what makes the film so damn hard to talk about, at least off a first viewing. Let me see if I can explain this.

We all know how dark this film is intended to be. We all know how incredibly dire things will turn out in this film. However, the first 40 minutes are so light… as to be completely disconcerting. There’s just a feeling that THEY shouldn’t be having fun. Don’t they know this is the last smiles they’ll share? That when Obi Wan goes on that last mission and Anakin wishes him well… that that’s the last time they would be friends… Don’t they know that? WE DO, why can’t they see what’s coming? WAKE UP!

The film makes you powerless to change things. It’s like sitting still for a *****ing tragedy right from the get go, but unlike TITANIC, you don’t have it all spelt out yet. Unless you’ve read all the spoilers – and I don’t really know what you spoiler-lovers will think. Just because for me… I knew, basically, what was going to happen. The broad strokes. I’ve gone out of my way to ignore as many spoilers as possible – which is a near impossible thing to do when you’re being emailed by everyone on Earth 300 images a day, 40 reviews a day now and were sent all the books, comics, score, everything from Publicity firms… shit… I bought that Talking Yoda toy – and next thing I know the little Green Bastard is trying to tell me the story of REVENGE OF THE SITH. It’s so hard to be pure on this – there’s just so much information out there. Everywhere.

The most shocking or surprising emotion I felt during this film experience is that… I don’t want Anakin to become Darth Vader. I just… Despite 27 years to the contrary, as I sat in that theater watching the last act of a good Jedi that turned evil… I just found myself wanting to scream at him to stop. I wanted desperately to send him on that mission with Obi Wan. I wanted Mace Windu to put his hand on Anakin’s shoulder and say, “Come on Kid, Let’s finish this!” and march off as brother Jedi to kill the *****ing Emperor. I wanted Anakin to let go of his hate, fear, ambition, jealousy and self-centered egotism and just be the knight in shining armor… FOR THE GOOD GUYS!

You can tell… Anakin so wants to do what is right. He even does the right things, it’s just everyone around him doesn’t treat him as an equal… save for Palpatine. That when push comes to shove, the only *****ing rat bastard in the galaxy that is going to call him son, tell him ‘fairy tales’ and really listen to his problems enough to find out what is REALLY troubling him is the bad guy!

Why?

Because the whole damn galaxy is at war, because to everyone else, Anakin’s existential crisis doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, they’ve got bigger fish to fry. They’ve got to Protect Wookies and the mushroom people and Hellraiser’s home planet and kill lots of robots and General Grievous and police the *****ing universe… and… and… well, their damn domestic policy sucks!

The Bad Guy has his priorities right. He’s controlling the robots, the clones and to a large extent the Jedi… yet still manages to multi-task enough to listen to Anakin and help him deal with his premonitions of personal tragedy. He'll take the time, to ignore an amazing science fiction zero G Esther Williams number, to tell young Skywalker a SITH LEGEND. A story, an anecdote. And he tells it, like a father would to a son. And the story is directly related to the problem Anakin is facing, it gives him hope, direction and the first glimmer of a happy ending to his concern. He doesn’t tell Anakin bullshit like… learn to not give a shit, detachment is the key to inner peace… What sort of bullshit is that? Ignore your problems, betray those you love, watch everyone you care about die – and just be happy cuz they’re food for the force, which you manipulate… and everyone’s death will just make you more powerful. WHAT SORT OF *****ING JEDI WISDOM IS THAT SHIT YODA??? THAT'S NOT REALLY HELPFUL YOU NEGATIVE GREEN TURD!

My god. The Jedi really are a bunch of goody two shoe clueless *****s. They’re so concerned with fixing the galaxy’s problems that they don’t have time for their own… and due to their unrealistic and inhumane rules about not loving or caring about anything other than the almighty “force” they created an air of fear for Skywalker. How could he level with them? How could he share with them? By the time Obi Wan finds out Anakin and Padme have kids on the way… it’s too late. That ship has sailed. Everyone is so busy being good little soldiers, that they just are not communicating.

Obi Wan never takes Anakin out for drinks and just levels with him. Sits him down and explains fascist totalitarianism. He doesn’t explain why sacrificing the most marginal freedoms to create a false sense of security enables those taking on those additional powers to create a greater evil than that which they fear. Hell, nobody really explains to Anakin why Democracy is better than Absolute Rule. Instead it is all this, “Search your feelings” bullshit. Turn to your ancient religion. This is why ultimately Luke Skywalker kicks ass. Because he doesn’t have all this dogmatic bullshit. Because he’s got a buddy like Han Solo that’d be willing to bust ass across the galaxy to save his ass. Somebody that has his back. FRIENDS! Because when the Sith hits the fan, it’s the love of your friends that’ll help you push through and kick ass. Because Luke believes in twin sunsets, the good guys and saving his dad.

What does Anakin have? Who cares about Anakin? Well Obi Wan, but he doesn’t know how to show it. Yoda? He’s too busy being disturbed about the cosmic meaning of shit to even form a no bullshit non fortune cookie sentence. Mace Windu? He’s got his head so far up his ass it ain’t funny. Padme? She’s more concerned with her hair, her image, everybody’s standing and well being. And then Anakin himself? He’s told he’s the chosen one, the key that will make the galaxy unified. Yet, the only one empowering him to do that is the *****ing Emperor.

I love how together Palpatine is. He’s just one of the greatest bad guys in the history of bad guys. He absolutely must be Karl Rove’s hero. Look at this. Palpatine has engineered so many things. The creation of the Droid armies, the creation of the Clone armies, his various Sith apprentices, Fall guys for Fall guys… all with the direct purpose of spreading his enemy so thin, that no matter their powers, when he calls ORDER 66… they’ll never see it coming. It’s like inviting your friends over for an all night session of game play and spreading cyanide on the *****ing pizza. They’re all gonna eat it, cuz… dude… it’s what you do when you play games. The Jedi are fighting their war, doing Jedi shit. Kill the droids, tons of them. This shit is fun for them. They eat it up. This is their Frosted Flakes with Bananas. They finally got their Holy Crusade, woo hoo, a sense of purpose. They never think twice about all them *****ing Boba Fetts watching their backs.

It’s so beautifully laid out. It’s *****ing immaculate. This is literally how you rule the universe. It is to be admired. And learnt from. Cuz as Padme says, “This is how Democracy ends, with Thunderous Applause.” Exactly. Distractions, a clear and concise innocent front and cutthroat evil behind the scenes.

REVENGE OF THE SITH is a masterpiece. The final piece of the puzzle Lucas first presented me at age 6. 27 years later, the Jigsaw is complete and damn if it isn't just damn near the most tragically cool thing I’ve ever seen put to film. We won’t see another like this. This is it.

We’ll see enormous sci-fantasy told, with more focus and even grander visions in our lifetime… but we’ll never care as much about a story like this one. For our generation, Star Wars is our mythology. The big story we lived to see told the first time. For those of you that were kids in lines in 1977 through to the coming weeks… I have to say, it has been an absolute *****ing honor to do this with y’all.

We all know where we each were at the opening of all these films. In two weeks… this is your last story. I’ll never see a new Star Wars movie with my father again. I’ll see many more movies – but this is the last Star Wars, I’ll ever see for the first time with my dad. I’ve seen all 6 with him. All on either the first day – or before. It’s the mythology he’s grown old with and helped me grow up with. This one counts, this one is beautiful. This is the last one.

I can’t possibly express how profoundly odd that is to type. How weird it makes me feel. I went out after the film – I went to find a toy to sit on my desk to look at while I typed this. I went through aisle after aisle of Star Wars stuff, and I couldn’t pick something out. I think the one I most thought was cool – was this Lego play set of Anakin and Obi Wan on Mustafa. You pressed down the Lego character’s head and the light sabers lit up. Gosh that’s cool. I’ll probably buy it for my nephew… Instead I came home, played the score to REVENGE OF THE SITH and wrote this.

Remember – this isn’t a Star Wars movie to cheer for, to erupt into applause and call cool. If you really love STAR WARS – this one is heart ache. Not only is it the end of a nearly 30 year journey for us… It really is the story of how things got so bad, that the good guys had to be a rebellion, where the Jedi had to hide and how evil ruled the galaxy.

HOUSE OF WAX

The first 5 hours of the film ( real running time: 40 minutes) is excruciatingly awful shit unworthy of even the slightest raised eyebrow. Filled mostly with oh so cute pokes at the Paris Hilton video that's online everywhere. Cuz - let's face it folks that's why we know her name. And if she's as cold a ***** as that video revealed - how on Earth do you expect her to even pretend or emote anything in reality. There's nothing going on in her character's head. And after the 5th or 6th Paris Hilton video in-joke - walking out of the theater became a viable and urgent calling.

Literally - the first part of this movie is that bad.
Then they arrive at the House of Wax - and the film becomes mildly diverting. There's a neat twist on the whole Wax Museum horror genre. And once things begin to be revealed the film becomes a fun piece of shit. And the last act in the House of Wax in particular is why I'll eventually buy this film second hand on DVD. The last part in that House feels like it was storyboarded and conceived by Robert Zemeckis (one of the producers) as it is visually inventive, exciting and fun. COMPLETELY out of place with the rest of the movie.
Also within the genre of Wax Horror films - this does the best job of showing you the actual tools of the trade. Having said that it really is a subpar film in keeping with the rest of the DARK CASTLE production label.
There's a couple of great gags, but overall you don't really care for anybody, the music is mainly tedious and the acting is universally forgetable. If, like me, you love the Wax Horror genre - check it out, cuz the ending should be enough to sate your wax horror dreams. But, it's like running up a mountain to dive into a dumpster of shit to get the tall blue suited Snaggle-toothed action figure. Best to wait for DVD - where you can just skip right to the cool parts - though - that end sequence on the big screen is pretty cool. You just are not invested in the characters, so it's just a really cool visual effects piece with no substance whatsoever.
That's pretty much all I can say about the film. When the sets burned down, the studio should have taken the hint.

Herbie: Fully Loaded

Story
With college graduation now behind her, Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), a third-generation member of a famous NASCAR family, looks forward to her new life in New York working for ESPN. But when Maggie's widower father (Michael Keaton) takes her to the junkyard to pick out a car, fate is about to lead her in another direction. Because it's there that she meets Herbie, a sad little Volkswagen Bug, waiting to become scrap metal. With a little persuasion from the bug himself, Maggie decides to take the old, beat up #53 home and quickly realizes this little car has a mind of his own. Herbie takes her on a wild ride, culminating in beating the reigning NASCAR champ, Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), in an impromptu street race. Humiliated, Trip will do anything to keep his position at the top and demands a rematch. But Maggie knows she needs to fix Herbie up first and asks her old friend, car mechanic Kevin (Justin Long), for help. Even though her father has forbidden her to race, Maggie has got it in her blood, and in order to save her family's name and business, she's going to team up with the unstoppable Herbie to stake her claim. You can take the girl out of the race, but you can't take the race out of the girl.

Acting
Herbie: Fully Loaded's stellar cast puts the high-octane Herbie in gear. Media-hounded Lohan leaves the paparazzi far behind and gives another spunky performance, proving she's got the acting chops to stick it out. But it may be time for you to let go of the Mouse House ears, Lindsay. Move on to bigger, better and Meaner things. Veterans Keaton and Dillon also add credence to Herbie. Dillon's role as the "villain" suits him well, as he displays a delightful comedic side, while Keaton does a nice job as the overprotective dad who just doesn't want to lose his daughter like he lost his wife. The sweet-faced Justin Long (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) is Maggie's inspiration and wears his heart on his sleeve. And the usually hilarious Breckin Meyer has a small part as Maggie's brother who knows he isn't the one who should be out there on the track. It would have been nice to see more of him, though.

Direction
Director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) makes the movie what it is: A high-speed no-brainer comedy adventure. Starting from the opening title sequence, Robinson uses split screens and graphics to enhance the visuals and trace Herbie's historic progression from his Love Bug years to the present. The biggest marvel, however, is Herbie himself. Back in the 1960s, when the original was being made, filmmakers had no idea what model of vehicle they wanted to use in a story about a lifelike car. They filled a Disney backlot with models as diverse as Chevys and Toyotas. But when they asked employees to pick out the car they liked best, the majority of them pet the only VW Bug on the lot-and Herbie the Love Bug was born. For his 2005 makeover, Robinson uses the same classic 1963 Volkswagen design and creates Herbie's realistic movements by using giant robotic puppets, not just CGI. She also had to gather a whole fleet of VW bugs, including the original Love Bug himself. The end result does justice to the classic original and instantly revives the franchise. As Trip Murphy says, "There is nothing ordinary about this Bug." Herbie: Fully Loaded also has a rockin' soundtrack, with old standards from groups such as The Beach Boys, Steppenwolf and Loverboy.

Bottom Line
Herbie: Fully Loaded brings the lovable VW Bug roaring into the 21st century. Kids will love it, while their parents will remember what it was like watching those fun-filled live action Disney films of their childhood.

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead

Story
Some time has passed since the dead rose up to feast on human flesh, and what's left of mankind is making the best of it. The people have cordoned themselves off from the zombies--or "stenches," as they are so lovingly referred to--behind the walls of a fortified city, where they try to maintain an illusion of life as it once was. Supplies and food are still needed, so a hardened group of mercenaries--headed by Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo)--run retrieval missions into the vast wasteland, using little tricks of the trade to keep the zombies at bay. Back in the city, however, things aren't so hunky dory. The wealthy and powerful, lead by the slimy Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), dwell in a swanky and exclusive high rise and rule over the working class, while the disenfranchised peeps on the streets stew over their lot in life. But they aren't prepared for what happens next. Seems the army of the dead are evolving, learning to organize and communicate with one another. And they don't take too kindly to getting shot in the head. The only thing the humans have going for them is the fact the zombies still don't move very fast--but that's not saying much.


Acting
It's tough for an actor to shine in a horror flick in which the gore and special effects make-up are pretty much the main attraction--but the Land of the Dead cast do their best. You've got Baker (The Ring Two), as the kindhearted hero; character actor Robert Joy, as Baker's mentally challenged sidekick, but who's also a wicked sharpshooter; the lovely up-and-comer Asia Argento, as a tough-as-nails street chick willing to help out; Leguizamo, as the wisecracking mercenary with a major chip on his shoulder and firepower to back it up. And then there's Dennis Hopper. He's playing it pretty straight this time around as the evil and greedy rich guy who doesn't really consider himself the villain, considering he was the one who built the fortified city. But a little of the weird Hopper pops through every once in awhile. Of course, we've also got the hordes of evolving dead walkers, lead by a particularly fearsome zombie. With a bloodcurdling zombie battle cry, this badass teaches his comrades to take up arms, beat down walls and walk under water. Resourceful fellow.


Direction
You can thank George Romero for giving us flesh-eating zombies. If not for his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead, we wouldn't have 28 Days Later or Evil Dead--and we'd be a much duller place without them. Now, 20 years after he made the last Dead movie, Day of the Dead, Romero is ready to hurl body parts at us again. Maybe, after he saw how well they remade his Dawn of the Dead last year, he felt he could do it even better. Not quite. Sure, Romero has definitely grown up and improved his writing. Land of the Dead does a nice job moving things along, showing how the survivors have adapted to living with their "neighbors" but never really learning much from the experience. Romero also has brought a certain pathos to the zombie. They move around, as if in a daze, also trying to maintain a semblance of what they used to be--human. And frankly, they are tired of being labeled mindless idiots who do nothing but wander about. Dammit. If you prick them, do they not bleed? But with all the gratuitous violence, and hardly any of the Dawn remake's humor or irony, Land of the Dead doesn't really distinguish itself from any of Romero's other gore-filled zombie flicks.


Bottom Line
While George A. Romero and zombie fans alike should get a kick out it, Land of the Dead is just a giant excuse to see the walking dead pigging out on human flesh--in all its blood-dripping, bone-crunching, brain-slurping fashion. Yuck.

The Longest Yard

Good for him. But just when you brace yourself for a rollicking ride across a rugged road to brainlessness, "The Longest Yard" becomes a prison drama.

Sandler is pushed, kicked, pummelled and thrashed by the prison authorities. So is this going to be one of those torture-till-you-howl thrillers like the Sylvester Stallone starrer "Lock Up", or that classic on incarcerated indignity, "Midnight Express"?

The indignity suffered in watching Sandler do his wry comic act is something altogether different from what we saw in other prison movies. Let's not forget, director Peter Segal has made two very seriously funny films with Sandler in the lead.

In "Anger Management", Segal had cast Sandler as a guy managing... his anger! In "50 First Dates", Sandler was busy managing cute Drew Barrymore as she suffered a series of memory lapses.

In "The Longest Yard", Sandler just about manages to pass muster. The nervous energy that flows out of the self-consciously macho plot is more sweaty than productive. The characters are laid out across the brittle canvas with scant regard for credibility or continuity.

The prison where Sandler, with the help of incarcerated football coach Burt Reynolds (who incidentally played the lead in the 1974 version of the same story), puts together a football team is splattered with stereotypes -- including a group of gay guys dressed up as pom-pom girls for the game.

Gay jokes are a rudimentary part of this raunchy ride into humour. The actors try hard to ride the tacky terrain of timorous titters, but are largely defeated by the frivolity of the material.

Nonetheless, Sandler is in great shape here, being his blasé self, imbuing a sense of prideful ennui to his role of a freeloader who redeems himself by going back to his roots as a professional.

One only wishes that the football game had been interwoven into a more substantial canvas. Most of the way, the characters are more self important than satirical. Jokes about colour prejudice in prison and on the playing field are played out on an evil pitch.

You can't bring yourself to care for these leftovers from mainstream society as stereotypes or as individuals.

What you can do is enjoy their prankish mission to become overnight football players. The whole game plan is conducted with considerable energy and excitement. Sandler and his screen-mates Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds carry the film on their shoulders. But often you wonder if the material provided is worth their effort.

Cast: Adam Sandler, Burt Reynolds, Chris Rock
Direction: Peter Segal

Sahara

Director Breck Eisner seems to fall into the "Mr & Mrs Smith" trap. Like the other summer biggie, "Sahara" seems to rely much too heavily on the lead pair.

Mathew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz have considerable charm-individually. Put them together, and what do we get?

A WHO doctor and a rakish adventurer who spend all the time searching for sick communities and treasure, if not treasure from sick communities in North Africa. The breakneck screenplay (Thomas Dean Donelly) scarcely pauses to catch its breath before it takes the lead pair and its favourite sidekick (Steve Zahn) on yet another madcap chase through rivers that stretch as long as Ms Cruz's legs, if not beyond.

Most of the time "Sahara" looks like a cross between a comic book and a satire without being either ...or anything at all.

The brown-and-bronzed visuals (skilfully captured by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) seem devoid of character and personality. Most of the frames look like shots from David Lean's "Lawrence Of Arabia" and Sam Mendes' "The English Patient".

Patience is a quality you require in gallons to sit through this self indulgent romp in the deserts. Dialogues include frantic puns on "patient" since the female protagonist is a doctor. And the scant courtship sequences seem to be apologetic about bringing romance into the rugged narrative.

The lines that the characters exchange give away nothing about their character or their motivations. Why do they do the things that they do? Why are they so enamoured of exotic expeditions? Are they driven by the same demons that drove Christopher Columbus and Walter Raleigh around the world?

"Sahara" simply drives you around the bend. What a great opportunity to tell a fabulous adventure saga...Such charismatic actors playing roles that require them to be valiant and vigorous...And yet the end-result is as devoid of dynamism as an eye catching photo-frame without a picture.

"Sahara" is pretty on the edges, blank at the centre.

Do we really need a film that lavishes millions on telling a story that's as bankrupt as a broke stockbroker?

"This is Africa. No one cares what happens," says one of the film's unfettered characters. Care or not, we really can't tell. Emotions are at a low ebb in this knee jerk adventure tale where shadows aren't allowed to fall across the frames.

These characters don't live real lives. And we are never allowed to forget this.

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, Lambert Wilson, Delroy Lindo
Director: Breck Eisner.

Rent

Stylized action in real locations doesn't always work in movies, but it does here perhaps because six of the eight actor-performers from the original Broadway show return for the movie version. These actors know their roles down to the grit in their fingernails, so the film feels loose and real, unfettered by a proscenium and opened up in an almost spiritual way.

"Chicago" proved that American audiences can still, on occasion, embrace a genre that has largely gone out of style. But what will mainstream audiences make of a musical about AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness and drag queens? "Rent" will be strong in major markets but needs crackerjack marketing to draw a broad young audience to the film.

"Rent," which Larson, its author and composer, did not live to see became a worldwide success, focuses on a group of impoverished young artists and musicians, struggling to survive in New York's East Village neighborhood in the 1980s under the shadow of AIDS. "Rent" shares with "La Boheme" an affirmation of the bohemian lifestyle, of creativity and art over anything as mundane as earning a living or paying the rent.

The reason, of course, is these lives might be short. Drugs and HIV inflict several characters. Each feels a pressing need to create a legacy, one in which whom you love is at least important as what you create. You live your art -- and life -- with a metaphorical gun to your head.

Roger (Adam Pascal) is a handsome yet melancholy songwriter coming off a long bout with heroin. Downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a spectacularly beautiful exotic dancer, has a definite eye for Roger, but he is emotionally shut down and understandably wary of her drug habit. What eventually brings them together, for a moment at least, is the realization that both are HIV-positive.

Roger's roommate Mark (Anthony Rapp), a struggling filmmaker, starts to document life around him, starting with his circle of friends. He also carries the torch for mercurial performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who left him for -- the indignity of it all -- a woman, Harvard-trained attorney Joanne (Tracie Thoms).

Returning to the circle of friends is Tom (Jesse L. Martin), a former professor and computer whiz who is jobless. Moments after getting mugged outside his former digs, Tom meets the love of his life, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen street musician. These two also are HIV-positive.

The outsider of the group is Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs). Benny married the landlord's daughter and, despite a vow to keep his former roommates in the loft rent-free, has become the "enemy," a capitalist who wants to transform the 'hood by evicting everyone and building a headquarters for a cyberspace enterprise.

The threat of eviction ostensibly gives the story its dramatic impetus: Maureen means to stage a one-woman show in protest, Benny pressures Roger and Mark to stop her and so on. But the real dramatic propulsion comes from love. Tom and Angel fall hard for one another and revel in that love as their time together will be short. Mimi and Roger share an equally profound passion, but Roger refuses to acknowledge it. Mark still pines for Maureen, whose open behavior with men and women sparks doubt and jealousy in Joanne.

The film spills out of the cold-water lofts into nearby streets, bars, restaurants, performance spaces and churches in a celebration of the bohemian life. Stephen Goldblatt's camera is constantly in motion, and Young's dances have a athletic dynamism that energizes the screen. Some dialogue has been added in Steve Chbosky's adaptation, but like the stage show the story is told in musical numbers that flow smoothly one into another. Meanwhile, Larson's music honors a host of traditions, ranging from rock and blues to gospel, soul and even tango.

Columbus managed the complicated logistics of the first two "Harry Potter" movies but never put his own stamp on those huge productions. Something in "Rent," though, hooked him emotionally for the movie represents his best work -- confident of the material inherited from Larson, true to that legacy yet willing to make changes and expand the possibilities for the screen.

Nearly every big movie has its set pieces around which the film develops, but "Rent" is all set pieces. Each requires ingenuity and sweat to get the best out of a super-talented cast. That each succeeds on its own terms yet flows together so easily is a tribute to Columbus' passion for the material.

Howard Cummings' interior sets, the location work, Aggie Guerard Rodgers' vibrant costumes, the terrific dances and adventurous cinematography all add up to pure pleasure.

Memoirs of a Geisha

"Memoirs" has generated plenty of heat on its way to the screen. The novel reportedly has been translated into 32 languages and the film production criticized for the casting of three leading Chinese actors -- Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li -- as Japanese. So opening boxoffice grosses will be strong. As an exotic romance set in the lost world of prewar Japan, the film should have sufficient legs to become a hit this holiday season.

The controversy extends beyond the cast, which is a case of a major (Japanese-owned) studio covering an expensive bet with international stars. Here is a film about Japan made by Americans, shot mostly in the U.S. and, of course, in English. Once you accept these compromises in the name of international filmmaking, none is a real deterrent to enjoying this lush period film.

Designer John Myhre's meticulous re-creation of a 1930s hanamachi or geisha district with its rickety wooden houses, ancients streets and alleys, formal teahouses and sea of nighttime lanterns on a Southern California ranch is an accomplished and credible set. The lavish kimonos, a sumo match, geisha dances, John Williams' lyrical East-meets-West musical score and atmospheric cinematography by Dion Beebe emphasizing deep, dark colors all are hallmarks of classic Hollywood filmmaking. These are surface delights that might distract from Marshall's tendency to focus on melodrama over intimacy and emotional excess over restraint.

"Memoirs" tells the story of a young child sold to an okiya or geisha household in Kyoto in 1929. Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) initially resists her initiation into this new life despite her terror of the doyennes of the domicile, Mother (Kaori Momoi, whose whiny, sharp voice often grates) and Auntie (Tsai Chin). Adding to her misery, the house's breadwinner, the treacherous geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), takes an instant dislike to the young girl.

When Chiyo attempts to run away, Mother refuses to put any more money into her geisha training. This relegates her to the status of maid for life. At her lowest point, as she sobs near the city river, a wealthy man she knows only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) treats her to a sweet and has kind words for her. This encounter transforms her life. She also falls in love with the Chairman.

Later, the hanamachi's legendary geisha, Mameha (Yeoh), takes the youngster under her wing, seeing in the beautiful girl with haunting eyes (now played by Zhang) a possible means to rid herself of her hateful rival Hatsumomo. Mameha makes, in essence, a bet with Mother that all of Chiyo's debts to the okiya will be paid off by her 20th birthday.

So the race is on. The young girl, whose name is changed to Sayuri when she becomes an apprentice geisha, undergoes intense training. In the world of a geisha, a glimpse of flesh under a kimono or a rumor spread by a malicious rival can make or damage a reputation forever. Mameha takes her "younger sister" to teahouses and introduces her to all her clients just as Hatsumomo and her protege, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), do the same. At every turn, Hatsumomo tries to undermine her rivals. All things lead to the auctioning of Sayuri's mizuage (virginity) to her wealthy gentlemen patrons.

The man who displays the most interest, despite his dislike of geishas in general, is the industrialist Nobu (Koji Yakusho). To Sayuri's dismay, Nobu's best friend and partner is the Chairman. No man will pursue a geisha favored by his friend. The man who emerges as Nobu's rival is Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim), nicknamed for his appearance, but not before the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Mameha's patron, makes improper advances that nearly ruin Sayuri's career.

Naturally, Swicord's screenplay must eliminate characters and take shortcuts to stuff the major activity from the novel into the 144-minute movie. But these shortcuts run roughshod over subtlety. The chess game among these women is reduced to a cat fight. Hatsumomo is a much more formidable opponent than the movie gives her credit: She is clever, sharp and tenacious. The move version forces Gong to pay a spoiled drunk mad with jealousy.

Similarly, Sayuri is brought up to speed much too quickly. She performs a dance on her first night as an apprentice, something that would never happen. She makes sharp ripostes with her rival, dialogue more in tune with a '30s American film comedy than '30s Japanese culture. A dance performance at one point, choreographed by John DeLuca, feels like a modern Western interpretation imposed on Japanese tradition, more "Chicago" than Kyoto as it were.

The acting in all the major roles is astute. Zhang manages to seize the contradictory qualities of her character -- shyness and uncertainty coupled the defiance and iron will -- and mold them into a memorable female character. Yeoh brings just the right dignity and cautious calculation to the role of Sayuri's mentor. Gong puts the necessary sexuality into hateful Hatsumomo. Watanabe and Yakusho make strong impressions as wealthy men reduced to pandering to Yank occupiers after World War II.

The final third of the movie, rushing through the war and occupation, feels anti-climatic, even flat. Admittedly, the novel had a similar problem as this story is strongest when it enters the lost and secret world of women who never can pursue their own happiness.

Yours, Mine & Ours

 Not that the heavy-handed "Cheaper" was a keeper, but at least it had the courage of its slapstick convictions.

Timed to get a one-month jump on the pre-Christmas arrival of "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," the Paramount release, which had been developed at MGM, could see some Thanksgiving holiday action from younger viewers who might be too sensitive for the darker "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

Taking its cue, but not the winning tone, from the original, which in turn was based on the autobiographical "Who Gets the Drumstick?" by Helen Beardsley, "Yours, Mine & Ours" charts the course taken by Frank Beardsley (Quaid), a Coast Guard admiral and strict, widower father of eight who runs into old high school sweetheart Helen North (Russo), a handbag-designing earth mother of a widowed mom with a wilder brood of 10 of her own.

Making up for lost time, the two quickly get hitched and combine their households into a mega-family that makes "The Brady Bunch" look like an ad for Planned Parenthood by comparison.

Needless to say, Frank's ship-shape philosophy and Helen's "Free to Be ... You & Me" approach don't exactly blend beautifully, and their unhappy kids hatch a plan to bust them apart.

Director Raja Gosnell, whose successful comedy credits include "Big Momma's House" and the "Scooby-Doo" movies, has a demonstrated knack for choreographing chaos, but here the film keeps stalling every time it attempts to change gears from kidcom to romcom and back again.

While Quaid and Russo display a nice and easy chemistry, their anonymous litter and supporting characters, played by Linda Hunt, Rip Torn and Jerry O'Connell, are squandered by generic scripting (credited to Ron Burch & David Kidd) and vanishing plot points.

Production values are appropriately bright, though the Beardsleys' supposed seaside home (complete with its own lighthouse) has shaky CGI written all over it.

YOURS, MINE & OURS

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies and Columbia Pictures present a Robert Simonds production

Credits: Director: Raja Gosnell; Screenwriters: Ron Burch & David Kidd; Based on the 1968 screenplay by Melville Shavelson and Mort Lachman and story by Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll Jr.;
Producers: Robert Simonds, Michael Nathanson;
Executive producers: Ira Shuman, Richard Suckle, Tracey Trench;
Director of photography: Theo van de Sande; Production designer: Linda DeScenna; Editors: Stephen A. Rotter, Bruce Green;
Costume designer: Marie-Sylvie Deveau; Music: Christophe Beck.
Cast: Frank Beardsley: Dennis Quaid; Helen North: Rene Russo; The Commandant: Rip Torn; Mrs. Munion: Linda Hunt; Max: Jerry O'Connell; Darrell: David Koechner.

King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on the story by: Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Producers: Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Cast:
Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschmann
Preston: Colin Hanks
Kong/Lumpy: Andy Serkis
Hayes: Evan Parke
Jimmy: Jamie Bell

Firmly believing that nothing succeeds like excess, Jackson and an army of technicians up the visual-effects ante with each passing minute. The wonder and excitement this initially inspires ebb gradually away in the third hour. It never completely disappears -- the movie does have a wow finale, after all. But expect debates to break out in theater lobbies over that blurry line between tongue-in-cheek exaggeration and directorial self-indulgence.

Following up on the triumph of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Jackson has a slam-dunk worldwide boxoffice hit in "Kong." This is spectacle filmmaking at its best, where a director is in tune with the story's underlying emotions and his own boyish love for adventure fantasy. While sticking in outline to the 1933 classic by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Jackson has added (and padded) the tale with action sequences, knowing dialogue and plot twists that wink back at audiences familiar with the original.

Jackson and longtime co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens envelop you in a world of movies: "Kong" is not just a remake of an old film but a movie about the making of such a movie. Realizing memories of the original linger in the minds of many, the writers retain the Depression-era setting while turning the voyage to Skull Island into a movie-making expedition.

Jack Black plays a risk-taking, Orson Wellesian producer-director, Carl Denham, who books a tramp steamer to uncharted South Pacific territory in hopes of turning out a travelogue/adventure film. When backers get the jitters and his actress takes a powder, he suddenly needs to bundle the crew aboard ship with a new actress overnight.

He persuades down-on-her-luck vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to slip into the other actress' costumes -- both are size 4 -- to star opposite B-movie leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler, having great fun with the part). Denham all but kidnaps hot young playwright-turned-film-scenarist Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Because no cabin is available, Jack must hammer out the script in a cage meant for dangerous animals in the ship's hold, one of several amusing digs at the movie business throughout "Kong."

The crew consists of testy Capt. Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), his level-headed assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), the eager youngster Jimmy (Jamie Bell) and the young man's steady minder in first mate Hayes (Evan Parke). Even during the ocean voyage, where mostly character development is taking place, Jackson builds tension through the steady beats of moving engine pistons, crew members sucking on cigarettes, fearful glances out to sea and composer James Newton Howard's musical swells.

On Skull Island, where the ship runs aground in a fog bank, the CGI really kicks in. The exaggerated topography takes in the fossilized remains of an ancient civilization, twisted and deformed vegetation, skulls and bones everywhere and ominous deep chasms spanned by rotting tree trunks, all this crawling with predatory life forms.

In an encounter with frightening-looking aborigines, the natives capture Ann to use as a sacrifice to the island's No. 1 Alpha male. Kong doesn't put in an appearance until the 70-minute mark, but he lives up to his billing. Jackson's go-to guy for live performance capture, Andy Serkis -- he played Gollum in "Rings" -- "acts" the Kong role, bringing a welter of emotions to his facial expressions and body contortions while encased in a gorilla muscle suit. Using the motion capture, Kong is then rendered on the screen with digital animation and miniature environments enhanced with CG matte paintings.

The courtship begins in earnest when Ann becomes the first eatable creature to ever provoke Kong's interest. In desperation for her life, Ann performs her vaudeville routines for the gorilla. This key relationship then develops logically and even whimsically. She represents to him a respite from brutality and killing while she recognizes in him the years of loneliness and ferocity that has lead to his "anger issues."

Surprisingly, the visual effects on the isle are sometimes shaky. A fight between Kong and three T. rex beasts goes on too long. A Brontosaurus stampede with actors running here and there among huge feet is phony looking, a puzzling lapse from a director in love with visual effects. A sequence involving huge sucking, biting, burrowing, devouring creatures and Jimmy machine-gunning them off the bodies of his compatriots is downright silly.

After Kong's capture and journey to wintry New York -- How? Not in that bucket of rusty bolts! -- the movie is ready for a somewhat anti-climactic third act. The filmmakers do manage a charming interlude before the Big Guy's rendezvous with the Empire State Building; he and Ann disengage from mayhem in Manhattan for a friendly slip-slide on the ice in Central Park. Then, in the final moments atop the tower, the movie does achieve a sense of the tragedy in the huge animal's inescapable death.

Watts is such a good actress that she can scream as well as Fay Wray in the original while vesting a B-movie character with genuine integrity and truth. Brody disappears from time to time but makes an effective counterbalance to Kong for the affections of Ann, a sort of Arthur Miller-ish intellectual wooing the blond actress. Black's filmmaker is fun but too shallowly conceived, making him little more than a collection of cliches about Hollywood insincerity and callousness.

Arguably, the film's most stunning achievement is its re-creation of 1933 New York in 3-D, which allows the movie to fly anywhere in this virtual city. Meanwhile, designer Grant Major re-created a city set that reportedly occupied seven acres of the New Zealand film studio while capturing the grit and glitz of Manhattan in the Depression. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie gives everything a soft vintage glow, as in an old postcard, while Howard's music feels as if it were lifted from a 1933 movie.
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