Thursday, March 02, 2006

Viewers used to seeing dragons and hobbits and wizards leaping around might be a bit dazed, or even sent into a bit of a stupor, after watching “Tristan & Isolde,” a new film based on a medieval legend.
The legend stems from oral storytelling traditions, and there are many versions of the story for that reason.
But one can see how, in the twists and turns, and especially in its tragi-romantic conceits, the story may have had an influence on William Shakespeare. The Bard may not have written this one up, but it certainly may have written him.
The film itself is a bit of a disappointment, especially if you consider the 1,000-year-plus wait to get the spoken-word legend up on the the big screen. But now it’s there for all eternity (or at least as long as we have electricity).
And yes, the film is a bit lethargic. Though beautifully shot, and capable of some pretty thrilling action sequences, its tale of royal politics of an Arthurian era may be lost on some. They might say: Where is the dramatic battle sequence with digitized armies of billions and billions of knights? Which one is Arthur? What, the Irish as persecutors? Yeah, right. And so on.
Perhaps this lesson in chivalric lore is best left to some rainy day on DVD, when it can be played the same day as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and you can ask your kids: What is more real, a world in which a lion can come back to life to save the day, or in which honor to a king is a higher love than the romantic kind?
During the 1960s, the world was asked to take a “sad song, and make it better” by the Beatles. And by another high-water mark from the era, “The Graduate” we learned from the iconoclastic film that if you were a young man looking for a career, there was one thing, and one thing only, to look into: “Plastics.”
The director of “Rumor Has It ...,” Rob Reiner was a member of that generation, and the first place we saw him was as the hippie dippy “Meathead” in the show, “Archie Bunker.” In this film, the creature of an age of questioning values and of outright revolution asks us the question, can a good film be made about an even better film?
Well, it certainly plays homage to “The Graduate,” which starred Dustin Hoffman as the post-college graduate trying to come to terms with the new plastic world, and Anne Bancroft as a seductress twice his age. The real-life legend of the Pasadena, Calif., pair that inspired a novel by Charles Webb, is “the rumor” addressed in “Rumor Has It ...”
And the screenplay by Ted Griffin is pretty darn good. It’s a good story with a number of witty lines and surprising turns. Even better, Shirley MacLaine makes the most of the part, overcoming the fact Bancroft is no longer with us to reprise the role, by delivering one of the supporting actress perfomances of the year. Her portrayal of the real “Mrs. Robinson,” made famous by the Simon and Garfunkel song usually associated with “The Graduate,” is completely believable. And Kevin Costner is a warm friend to have around in the film, too.
One critic for the Boston Globe slammed the film because Reiner has political inclinations in the Democratic Party. The reviewer, Wesley Morris, wrote Reiner chose a pre-millenial, “Internet Gold Rush” era setting only because he “couldn’t stand to set the picture during the Bush administration.” Maybe. Maybe not. You could make points either way, since the Bush era is about crushing a revolt, and both the “Graduate” and the Internet are about revolution. But this film doesn’t work for one reason, and one reason only: “Plastics.”
Such as the performance by Jennifer Aniston, everybody’s sweetheart, yes, but with no more range than the pre-packaged nervous nelly we all know and love (or is that loathe?).
Which is why this film may inspire a new motto for these troubled times. And that motto should be: “Brad, we forgive you!”
OK, we get it. The big ape climbs up the Empire State Building and swats at 1920s era bi-plane aircraft. It's just like "The Titanic," with the most horrible thing imaginable happening at the end.
Why should anyone need to see a remake of "King Kong," this time directed by Peter Jackson, who won a warehouse worth of Oscars for his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy? Is the trick for success in this kind of endeavor simply doing the most horrible thing imaginable with more visceral detail than the predecessor?
Yes, the 1933 original with Faye Wray as Anne Darrow is an icon of American cinema. But the 1976 version, the Jessica Lange in the Anne Darrow-dress version, already spiffed up the possibilities, in terms of our cinematic appetite for pseudo-erotic destruction in technicolor. About six months ago, another remake, “War of the Worlds,” succeeded in rendering the most horrible thing imaginable to audiences, and considering the world-weariness of our eyes tuned to the 21st century, that’s a pretty neat trick. But “War of the Worlds” didn’t make as much of a splash last summer during a season awash in action films.
However, in this version of “Kong,” the director has managed to subdivide a lot of new territory into the story, transforming it into a world-class “Moby Dick” on American life, a tragedy for the ages, a veritable MacBeth for the McCulture.
Rather than just relying on amazing action, Jackson sets the stage with useful character development in the movie's first hour or so, building the tension. A fly-by-night director (played by Jack Black) pulls together his movie production team in the 1930s to film scenes on a mysterious, uncharted island. Returning the original story’s period and character styles to the 1930s restores that “Lost World” classicism film buffs will love.
Thus, to find an actress to fit the Ann Darrow dress, we are led to “discover” and fall in love with a new “Kong” heroine, Naomi Watts, who plays this role with tenderness and athletic panache.
Jackson hammers the viewer over the head with the idea, but it fits: “King Kong” is, if rendered with a hand sensitive enough to show the story’s tender side, worthy of Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness.”
And so man-as-movie-director is a parallel to the beast, a Kurtz-like paramount ego. In a perverse demonstration of man’s ability to Disney-fy the environment to meet his own greedy desires, a super-sized ape capable of winning a brawl against the most terrifying of all creatures, the T-Rex (take that, Steven Spielberg), is as vulnerable as anything else to the worst beast of the jungle: man as mortal creator.
Of course, this symbolic brainstorm notwithstanding, let’s just say the action is so intense, you’ll come out of the theater covered in popcorn, as if the bucket had exploded in the back-draft. Guys, if your date doesn’t weep, get a new girl.