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One sweet, one chestnut and a lump o' coal 

Three movies looking for attention in the season of Kong

This is the season for elegantly wrapped and expensive-looking packages. But those presents tend to get opened immediately, thus leaving other forlorn gifts lying under the far side of the tree. So it goes in theaters this weekend that, in the shadow of Kong and Munich, there are several new releases destined to be overlooked. One is for the kids, one plays more to adult experience and a third is for really desperate or bloodthirsty teenagers. Collectively, they're not quite lumps of coal, and two of them, at least, are respectable stocking stuffers.

The best of the bunch is Duma, the first major film in a decade for Carroll Ballard, still best known for his first two outings, The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf. Once again, the story is about a child's coming of age in the company of animals, and despite some artistic choices that will bother adults more than children, Duma is a beautiful and moving return to form.

Duma is the name given to an orphaned cheetah cub by Xan, a small, white South African who lives happily on a farm with his parents (Hope Davis and Campbell Scott). In the care of this family, Duma grows into adolescence with nary a snarl or wayward paw swipe. He even seems to be housebroken, and the scenes of this creature in bed with a small boy will doubtlessly excite the imaginations of children.

Life takes a sad turn for Xan (played by newcomer Alex Michaeletos), however. His beloved father dies shortly before a planned trip to the bush to release the now fully grown cheetah into the wild. After the death, Xan and his mother move to the city with Duma in tow, intending to relinquish him to proper authorities. Neither Xan nor Duma take to the confinements and humiliations of the city, however, and what follows is another variant of the time-honored quest narrative, with boy and beast fleeing for the wilderness.

Inevitably, this latter-day Huckleberry acquires a black companion, a dreadlocked and untrustworthy fugitive named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker). Adult viewers may be a little troubled by the general absence of black faces in this film's version of Africa, but mercifully, Ripkuna is not a simple-minded servant of the small white boy. He's neither Jim nor Uncle Remus, but rather, a troubled man who finds his own peace while accompanying Xan and Duma on their dangerous journey, one that includes rafting, motorcycle riding and close encounters with crocodiles and lions.

Although some viewers may balk at the film's gauzy view of the relationship between a cheetah and a child, Ballard and his writers have toughened up the material considerably from their children's book source in which the cat was a lifelong house pet. Although Ballard's film paints an optimistic portrait of a human-habituated cheetah's adaptability to the wild, the filmmaker does take some pains to stress the rigors of the wilderness, while avoiding the goriest details of the hunt. At 100 minutes, the film is a little bit long and contemplative for the youngest children. Slightly older kids, however, should be perfectly charmed by this story of a boy and his cheetah.

If history is indeed tragedy the first time around and farce the second time around, one need look no farther than Fun with Dick and Jane, a well-intended but ultimately disposable piece of Jim Carrey slapstick that masquerades as penetrating anti-corporate satire.

The spectacular corporate malfeasance of the last few years has been treated with outraged documentaries like The Corporation and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and with indie earnestness in In Good Company, and in high global conspiracy mode in Syriana. With Fun with Dick and Jane, however, the word "Enron" is merely the butt of an easy and very familiar joke.

In writing this film as a topical satire, screenplay co-author Judd Apatow has remade the 1977 film of the same title which starred George Segal and Jane Fonda. However, Apatow, who scored an impressive surprise hit earlier this year with The 40 Year Old Virgin, seems to have merely sketched out this script with little more than a weekend's worth of inspiration and effort.

Dick (Carrey) and Jane (Tea Leoni) are a happy, upwardly mobile couple who live in a southern California suburb with their son Billy and housekeeper Blanca. When Dick's promotion to vice-president at Globodyne turns into sudden unemployment, the film threatens to become a comic adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's recent books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Dick's initial optimism that he'll find a new job quickly gives way to increasingly humiliating concessions to his plight as an unemployed white collar worker. They sell the television, start paying Blanca with kitchen appliances, and even the sod on the front yard gets repossessed. Soon, Jane is teaching aerobics to the women who were once her peers and Dick is working at "Kost-Mart."

Whatever good intentions Apatow and co-writers Nicholas Stoller and Peter Tolan may have had soon disappear in a blizzard of pratfalls and sight gags as Dick and Jane resort to robbing gas stations and head shops. Rather than honestly exploring a suburban family's confrontation with the fragility of their lifestyle, director Dean Parisot, a television veteran, settles for easy jokes, loudly telegraphed in advance. When Jane sells her body to a product testing lab for $14 and we're told that the product is similar to Botox, we know what we'll see next. Yes, the Elephant Man makeup job on Leoni's face is an impressive sight gag, but the chuckle is an automatic and disinterested one.

The faults of this film are due to an unforgivably lazy contempt for the audience. Jim Carrey has shown he can play with a light touch in films like The Truman Show, The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But here the marching orders are clear: Give us the spastic Jerry Lewis shtick, and never mind about trying to make us believe in the character. As the film's heavy, a Bernard Ebbers-like corporate thief, Alec Baldwin phones in what is becoming his signature character role.

On the brighter side, Tea Leoni gives further evidence of being her generation's answer to the great 1930s knockabout comic actresses Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, despite having relatively little to do. While those earlier actresses had such vehicles as It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday and My Man Godfrey, Tea Leoni is a performer waiting for material worthy of her.

And finally, there's Wolf Creek, an inert "horror" movie from Down Under. Three young, hard-partying Aussies get into a car, drive through the outback with the intention of reaching the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately for Ben, Kristy and Liz, a spontaneous detour to a huge crater called Wolf Creek leads to a night of terror at the hands of a sadistic, giggling killer. Some people like this kind of thing, of course, and Dimension Films is betting that enough of them will want to leave the house on Christmas Day to catch it on its very first day. However, Wolf Creek is a classic example of Roger Ebert's dictum (which he in turn credits to a projectionist he knew) that if nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen. Oh, there's some shrieking by the end, but when the film's credits reveal that the preceding events are based on some actual, puzzling events, viewers may wonder why the filmmaker chose to give us a reheated slasher flick instead of telling that one. x

  • Three movies looking for attention in the season of Kong


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