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Review: Munich

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Billed as a grim treatise on the aftermath of terrorism and the futility of violence, Munich, a procedural account of Mossad’s murderous retaliation for the 1972 Olympic massacre, turns out to be a war movie at heart. Its primary subject, however, is not the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine, however much ink winds up being spilled in the op-ed columns this week. Nor is it our recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq . . . although the film encourages us to make that very connection, even going so far as to conclude with a foreboding shot of the Twin Towers standing proud and vulnerable. No, the real battle being pitched in Munich — also furiously waged in this summer’s equally impressive-yet-perplexing War of the Worlds — pits Spielberg the populist entertainer against Spielberg the serious artist, or Dream vs. Works. Sober Steven winds by TKO this time around, but plentiful dissonance remains.
    Adapted by playwright Tony Kushner from George Jonas’s 1984 book Vengeance, the film quickly and impressionistically sketches the background (for a comprehensive take, rent the documentary One Day in September) before introducing freelance operative Avner (Eric Bana), the man in charge of taking out the eleven geographically widespread P.L.O. honchos deemed responsible. Heading a loose-knit team that includes explosives expert Mathieu Kassovitz and all-purpose muscle Daniel Craig, Avner methodically travels from one European city to the next, visiting death and destruction upon his quarry in a wide variety of interesting ways. (Not having read the book, I’m not sure whether this catholicism is standard hit man protocol or just Kushner’s solution to an unavoidably repetitive narrative structure.) Eventually, of course, the target shoots back, and a series of hitches and reprisals ultimately mires our antihero in the ethical morass clearly visible in every poster and advertisement for the film: silhouetted before the window, pistol in hand, staring into space.
    To their credit, Spielberg and Kushner succeed in making this crisis of conscience feel inexorable and genuinely soul-crushing; the movie is more or less one long, slow act of emotional constriction, largely devoid of cheap foreshadowing or maudlin sentiment. Try though Spielberg might to remain faithful to his big audience-unfriendly downer of a thesis, though, he can’t fully resist his showman’s impulse to jazz things up here and there. While some of the assassinations are appropriately confused and ugly, others might as well have been airlifted in from a Tom Clancy adaptation; it’s tough to dwell on man’s inhumanity to man when you’re caught up in the race against time to stop an impending explosion that’ll inadvertently kill the intended victim’s adorable young daughter. As Hollywood suspense filmmaking, the sequence is peerless. But peerless Hollywood suspense filmmaking is the last thing an ostensibly gritty film like Munich needs. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: The New World
About halfway through the opening credits of Terrence Malick’s The New World, the moody-yet-symphonic James Horner score fades out and we’re treated to the sounds of nature — birds whistling, water splashing, wind blowing, etc. Most viewers will miss this odd moment, but it holds a key to the film: In Malick’s world, the music of nature can be as stirring as the music of man.
    Magically demented and singular, The New World is a genuine cinematic paradox: a sprawling, in-your-face movie about such unostentatious things as innocence, peace, humanity, and the kindness of strangers. Wait, you may ask — isn’t this that Pocahontas movie starring Colin Farrell? Indeed, and that logline might be a problem for some people. Much like Malick’s earlier The Thin Red Line, condemned by some for its refusal to indulge in macho war movie posturing, The New World may get knocked about for its avoidance of historical context. The film meticulously recreates the early seventeenth-century beginnings of the Jamestown settlement of Virginia, but the story itself — which focuses first on the nearly mystical affair between innocent forest nymph Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and romantic wanderer John Smith (Farrell), and then on the more mature love between the Indian girl and tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale) — might as well be taking place in an alternate universe.
    And if anyone is selling tickets to that alternate universe, can I please have one? Malick is certainly one of the great visual stylists of our time, but his directorial intelligence lies not necessarily in his peerless ability to frame a shot, but the stunning way he brings together disparate images and sounds — fragments, really — to create a mood unlike any other. The director’s critics like to poke at him for undercutting the drama of his scenes with cutaways to trees and birds, but watch the films closely and it becomes clear that for Malick, nature is the mother of all human drama. What Michelangelo Antonioni was to modernist architecture, Terrence Malick is to the forest primeval.
    That’s not to suggest that The New World is just two-and-a-half hours of pretty trees (though there are an awful lot of pretty trees). Malick makes a familiar schoolbook story his own here. His film isn’t about Indians and settlers so much as it is about salvation. Pocahontas saves the fallen dreamer Smith, only to herself be saved in her moment of disgrace by the patient, practical Rolfe, setting up their subdued love triangle as a kind of romantic dialectic between idealism and pragmatism — which also (surprise!) happen to be the twin poles of the American experience. In its own audacious, iconoclastic way, The New World returns hope to one of our founding myths. It dares to suggest that the nation was borne not of blood, violence, and persecution, but of romantic redemption and a love that passeth understanding. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The White Countess
“Why do you have such heavy doors?” asks the White Countess, the woman, speaking of The White Countess, the nightclub, about midway through The White Countess, the movie. “You think they’ll keep out the world?” Apparently not, since they can’t even stop folks from sauntering into the joint and speaking the film’s facile subtext out loud. Yes, yes, the White Countess represents a haven-cum-fortress for Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), an American expat in 1930s Shanghai who’s still reeling from the tragedy (seen in inevitable late-breaking flashback) that cost him both his family and his eyesight. A closet romantic, Jackson believes, rather dubiously, that revelers are drawn to melancholy, as if the mere presence of someone ineffably sad will make them feel happier. To that end, he’s hired Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), an icy beauty reduced post-Revolution to sleazy escort work, as his hostess, frontispiece, and all-around muse. Will brewing Sino-Japanese hostility intrude upon this duo’s fragile, illusory paradise? Not so long as those heavy symbolic doors remain closed.
    Because The White Countess is the final Merchant/Ivory production (Ismail Merchant having died last May), and because self-professed cognoscenti tend to unfairly deride the team’s tasteful literary adaptations as stuffy, decorous, middlebrow pap, I feel a powerful urge to be kind. Unfortunately, in this particular instance they’ve lived down to their reputation, coating a too-precious conceit with a thin, ponderous veneer of self-importance. Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the screenplay from scratch (perhaps in gratitude for M/I turning his novel The Remains of the Day into one of the best films of 1993), clearly meant for Jackson to come across as the sort of nobly wounded martyr epitomized by Bogart in Casablanca; Fiennes seems stymied by his character’s blatantly metaphorical handicap, though, and the movie’s other performances — its supporting cast includes every extant Redgrave — are equally stilted. Ultimately, The White Countess, like the White Countess, feels like little more than a glittering reminder of past glory. — Mike D’Angelo
Date DVD: The Brothers Grimm
This week, if your relationship is serious, your date DVD might have to double as a family feature when you head home for the holidays. So, let’s use the process of elimination: Exorcism of Emily Rose? Not the worst movie, but still a little weird to watch so close to Christmas. Four Brothers? Alzheimer’s might help your Granny excuse the absurd story, but may not be similarly blessed. Must Love Dogs? Still waiting for John Cusack’s next good film, but this isn’t it. (Note: Mom will want to see this one, so you’ll have to tell her Blockbuster was out.) Serenity? Joss Whedon’s space Western was one of the best Hollywood movies of the year, but the Western accents might throw off anyone who’s had a couple of drinks, and, most importantly, there’s no love story for you.
    So, this leaves Terry Gilliam’s silly Brothers Grimm, a fable about the fable writers. Absolutely fun and weird, it serves up silly head-over-heels, damsel-in-distress romance by the bucket. It’s more eager to please than Gilliam’s Brazil or Baron Munchausen, and more in the mode of his early children’s films Jabberwocky and Time Bandits — which is a good thing here. Kids will laugh, Mom and Gramps can talk about what a sweet boy that Matt Damon is. Meanwhile, you and your date can cuddle up for some old-fashioned, wake-the-sleeping-princess hokum. — Logan Hill

   

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