My holiday moviegoing was shamefully minimal this year -- with one thing and another, I managed to see only one movie between December 13th and this weekend, which for me is like a record-breaking drought. Happily, I caught up in a big way with these seasonal Ticket Stubs:

* The Family Stone -- Kim and I caught this mediocre flick over at the Loews Fresh Pond, which, like the movie's premise, has been hanging on since the early 80's and looks a bit worse for wear. Family gathers for Christmas and to evaluate oldest son's haughty girlfriend, tribal kookiness is displayed, some bedhopping, tearjerker twist, blah blah. Most of the time, the monumentally overqualified cast (Claire Danes, nooooo!) makes the most of it, but poor editing and an unraveling script eventually slow the pace to a dreadful crawl. Diane Keaton crackles as the saucy matriarch, the only stock character with a little punch -- she throws a fork at one point, and it wakes up the entire picture. The few nifty touches (recreational drugs, disco jukebox tunes in a seedy bar, the deaf/gay brother) are all cribbed from other, better, smaller movies like The Myth of Fingerprints, Home For the Holidays, and Moonlight Mile. If you liked any of those, you might rent this one...or, well, not. Points off for the use of Nutcracker music in a dopey chase sequence; one extra point for Luke Wilson being Luke Wilson. (C-)

* King Kong -- The mighty cinematic behemoth returns, and I'm referring to Peter Jackson, of course. Bringing his childhood favorite to the screen again was obviously a labor of love -- the film glows with the forgotten glamour of the movie palace, and bristles with Jackson's ambivalence about the perils of fame and creative obsession. But that, like so much else, is subtext; looming in the foreground is Kong himself, a wonderfully realized creation, looking like, well, a really big gorilla that they trained to be in this movie. Not once does he seem computerized, and unfortunately that goes for almost every other beastie, of which there are a few too many (take a tip from Nat, go to the restroom when you see the giant bugs approaching!). The unsettlingly brilliant special effects sweep you up in the star-crossed story of a lonely ape and the dreamy, equally lonely lass he falls for. Naomi Watts turns in the first truly believable performance of reacting to nothing but a green screen -- her faraway eyes are like a Bernini sculpture, not the off-kilter staring of certain other screen sirens. Her Ann Darrow is a bit of lovely flotsam on the inexorable tide of the narrative: as all the human men are swept aside and crushed by their own weakness, naivete, or greed, she winds up climbing that stairway to heaven with her soul primate. This is all very interesting to your average grad student, but is it a good movie? Yes....but, it's wayyyy too long, especially the ending, which drags where it should rush to a doomed crescendo. I found some of the bit parts diverting, especially the mysterious, spinoff-worthy Capt. Englehorn; others, not so much (Colin Hanks, adieu). I would only have cut two complete sequences (giant bugs and ice skating) but would have edited many others to make them move more nimbly. How ironic that Jackson made his ape look so realistic while the story moves in a painfully "stop-action" fashion. Fantastic production design and Jack Black's devilish eyebrows can only take you so far, though -- in the end, the audience's patience is exhausted and you leave feeling a tad hollow. Somehow I think if this had been a big summer movie instead of a holiday one, and it thus took itself 5% less seriously, it would've hit the mark. (A-)

* The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe -- I won't crown a final favorite until I see Brokeback Mountain, but so far this was my best movie experience of "2005." I'm just as surprised as you! I didn't care much for these books as a kid, but this adaptation really takes on a life of its own. I love movies that weave a successful spell, and this is one of them -- but for a few flat notes (sometimes literally, as the score is grating and disruptive in places) the images sing with life and magic, and the child actors are quite compelling too. Four siblings, displaced by the London Blitz, discover a portal to another world in an upstairs bedroom: just this concept alone could be watered down beyond recognition by the wrong director. But surprisingly, the man behind the ever-irreverent Shrek movies takes a careful approach here, getting many details luminously right, adding new sequences almost seamlessly. Maybe it worked for me because I'm not a Narnia purist, but it worked all the same. This film builds rather obviously on the tone and look of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but then again C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were old friends so what's the harm? The imaginative spark of both writers was their insistence that magic and myth are real in the world, sometimes so real you can zoom in really close up and grab the fur -- this film makes that seem possible, with its supporting cast of astonishing animated animals. Tilda Swinton's eerie characterization of the White Witch adds the shivers on the cake, and cheery Georgie Henley is a perfect little sister Lucy, the embodiment of that belief in magical realism. There are a few clunky action sequences (and judging by the end credits that may be because the special effects were split among several different workshops), and the whole Christian allegory business somehow gets simultaneously soft-pedaled and overcooked, but in the end it's no more moralistic than The Wizard of Oz. The film is at its best in its quiet, captivating details, like the stunning use of silence in the climactic battle, or the surreal flickering of a gaslight in the middle of a snowy forest. Like its source material, this will become a classic. (A)

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