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Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

I’m not going to strain your credulity by offering an overarching, unifying theme for this year-end roundup of three major releases—other than big budgets and big-name directors, they really have nothing in common except variations on grandeur or delusions thereof. But there is a nice chronological sequence to them: King Kong just opened, and you can compare your opinion with mine; Munich is now not merely a movie but an ongoing cultural-political debate, so here’s my two cents; and The New World is the official Big Christmas Day release. Happy holidays.

King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Kong is the male romantic star here, not Adrien Brody’s morose screenwriter ostensibly in love with the female lead, Naomi Watts. (Brody’s favored close-up is a three-quarter pose with uptilted chin, the better to both invite audience-love and contemplate self-love. The guy’s a hooey machine.) But while the big ape is capable of love, jealousy, and earth-shaking rage, Watts’s character is curiously desexualized. Instead of having Kong sniff and poke her, as the original Kong did, Jackson has his creature simply watch as Watts, playing a mediocre vaudevillian, tap-dances and juggles. She becomes a bauble, a toy, to amuse Kong.

It’s a one-sided romance: Kong adores this girl, who’ll do anything to please him; she just wants to get the hell off Skull Island and land a legit Broadway role. And the island is the only place the action jumps: The CGI battles between Kong and a passel of dinosaurs are really cool, man, but anyone who tells you they’ll go down in movie history is ignoring the built-in obsolescence of ever-improving technology—remember, they were saying the same thing about the action scenes in Jurassic Park. The novelty of King Kong’s special effects will last a couple years, tops. What’ll be left is a slow three hours, with a manic Jack Black, muzzled by thirties-era dialogue, playing a cheap hustling producer, and the mediocre TV actor Kyle Chandler as the comic relief—a mediocre, vain movie actor.

Munich: I walked away from the screening thinking that Steven Spielberg had made an artistically cold-blooded movie that glorified Israel’s systematic revenge killing of some of the Palestinian “Black September” murderers who slew eleven Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972. Then I started reading various commentaries about how Munich has been stripped of politics, or that it refuses to take a stand. This is the op-ed version of Adrien Brody: hooey. Indeed, the more I thought about Munich, the more my admiration for its moral complexity increased. Spielberg, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner, does amazingly subtle, daring things here. The early scenes, in which Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) orders the killings by proclaiming, “Forget peace for now,” are chilling, a bold mixture of righteous indignation and political extremism. The bulk of the movie, which follows a group of five former Mossad agents led by Eric Bana, avoids easy Mission: Impossible–style suspense in favor of something far more serious and worthwhile—an unsensationalized look at what killing, even for what one side deems a worthy cause, does to good people.

The key is that Kushner knows that that concept applies to Palestinians as well as to Israelis. Then too, Spielberg is brave enough to follow through on the notion as Bana, our ostensible central hero, says things like “We can’t afford to be decent anymore,” and suffers emotionally for his loyalty. Anyone who still thinks of Spielberg as merely an ambitious crowd-pleaser—and even after Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, that label sticks—will be chastened and, I hope, satisfied with the rigor of his filmmaking here. Many reviews have noted the Hitchcockian suspense scene in which a little girl is placed in mortal danger after explosives are planted in a home by the ex-Mossad agents, but even here, Spielberg defies our expectations by undercutting such primal movie pleasure. Refusing to play up the tension for very long, he quickly resumes his focus on thorny moral and political tangles. Coming at the end of a year that included The Constant Gardener and the far less successful The Interpreter, Munich is also a political film, but one that challenges its audience to follow some of the most vexed arguments of our time, as much as it presents a bold historical spectacle.

The New World: For its first half-hour, director Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas–Captain John Smith story is entrancingly beautiful in a way few contemporary movies are. Malick’s prolonged use of near silence, blessed silence, as he takes us across the James River to land in what will be Virginia, is the most audacious, gorgeous beginning to an American movie this year. And newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher, with her strong features and slightly dented nose, is a welcome choice as Pocahontas—she comes across as more “authentic” than an established actress or Disney’s conventionally pretty cartoon Native American princess. Colin Farrell is dandy as a scruffy, rebellious John Smith, and during his and Pocahontas’s idyllic woodland meet ’n’ greet, they explore each other with their eyes and tentative fingers—the effect is both anthropological and erotic.

But The New World settles midway through into a familiar movie trope: Boy loses girl to another guy (in this case, Christian Bale as John Rolfe, when Farrell’s Smith is ordered off on another expedition), and all of Malick’s virtuoso moviemaking, his unique swooping camera movements and layered revelations of his characters’ motivations, cannot overcome the tedious inevitability of the plot machinations. In the end, The New World is about trying to get two lovers back together again as surely as Titanic was, and Malick is too much of an artist to have created a popcorn event like that blockbuster. His New World will stand with his Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven as a stately epic, fascinating yet flawed whenever stateliness falls overboard into languor.

King Kong
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Rated PG-13.

Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Dreamworks SKG and Universal.
Rated R.
opens december 23.

The New World
Directed by Terrence Malick.
New Line. Rated PG-13.
Opens December 25.

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