Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Best of 2005

Wow! What a year for film! I feel like I say that more than most people, certainly more than most online critics, but man! This was a good one!

I watched 272 movies over the past year, my highest total yet. Of those, 72 of them were actually released either theatrically or directly to video or cable in the US in 2005. Those are the films eligible for this list. I awarded the most four-star reviews ever over the past year, 15 in all. For the first time ever I have had to eliminate four-star movies from my top ten list. And I also awarded more negative reviews than ever before. But it was the great movies that made this year so exquisite.

2005 was a great year in other ways as well. It brought me my second child, Jude. It saw my own initiation to the Internet criticism field with the site on which you are reading this piece. It brought the union of my lifelong friend, Trev, with his beautiful wife, Char. But this isn’t really one of those dreaded year-end family summaries you get from relatives you weren’t even aware were related. No, this, as with just about anything I ever have the determination to write about, is about movies. More specifically this is a little nudge to my readers to seek out those films I thought were particularly outstanding in a rather outstanding year in film, so without further ado, here is my Top Ten Films of 2005.

1. Oldboy. The revenge flick taken to another level. One which inspires the passion and rage that are embodied by the act of revenge itself. Oldboy is the tale of a man who is imprisoned for 15 years without ever knowing why. Upon his release his entire life has been stripped away from him and his only purpose is to find his captors, find out why they imprisoned him, and destroy them. Directed by renowned Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, Oldboy makes Quentin Tarantino’s take on revenge in Kill Bill look reasonable and pleasant. Uma Thurman’s Bride in the Kill Bill films is a super heroine of sorts; Choi Min-sik’s Oldboy is a man of crunching bone and bleeding flesh with a brutal intellect and a past that catches up to him in more ways than one. Not merely a revenge story, Oldboy is perhaps the pinnacle of the current Korean film movement, presenting a basic premise and filling it with depth and clarity of character against of backdrop of beautiful images and stunning performances. Oldboy is a story that could be told through an American lens, but never this powerfully, never this well.

2. Munich. Munich gives us another story of revenge. This time told with the experience and grace of a master American filmmaker, whose foundation as a director is firmly based on Hollywood’s long history of craftsmanship in the cinema of impact and importance. Steven Spielberg’s latest epic follows the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympiad, during which Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage, a situation that ended with the sudden shocking deaths of all the hostages. Munich follows an Israeli sanctioned counter-terrorist unit dispatched to eliminate the men the Israeli government feels are responsible for the Munich attack. Spielberg dissects the logistical aspects of revenge itself, both the political reasoning behind it and the practicality of the deed itself. Eric Bana plays Avner, the head of a five-man team commissioned to assassinate 11 targets assigned to them by Prime Minister Golda Meir. None of the team has any experience in dealing assassination and despite their humble beginnings of nearly botched missions, these five soberingly normal men eventually become quite adept at their game, but after a while they begin to question the value of the game and regret the toll it takes on their own morality. In his strongest effort since 1993’s Schindler’s List, Spielberg presents a gut-wrenching morality tale that summons many questions about our humanity and offers little answers.

3. Broken Flowers. Bill Murray’s re-immergence as a comedic genius has produced the best work of the actor’s career. He once more proves in this understated performance that the best actors are re-actors. Broken Flowers is a somber comedy, much like Murray’s last highly praised performance in Lost In Translation. The difference here is that the aging Don Juan character he plays in Broken Flowers was written with only Murray’s unique comedic sensibilities in mind. It is hard to believe the lonely man sitting in his plush living room with a glazed look in his eyes as a version of the Don Juan story plays on his TV is such an attraction to the ladies himself; but after his latest woman leaves him and he receives an anonymous letter telling him that he is the father of a 19 year-old boy, this Don sets out on a path of self discovery that is made all the more revealing by the fact that he has only ever been defined by the woman in his life. His nosey neighbor sets him out on a journey to find the letter’s sender and his possible son’s mother. Don tracks down five women, and writer /director Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth) takes the opportunity to flex Murray’s innate skill to communicate and create comedy through facial expression and dry delivery. In the end we find the purpose of Don’s journey is not so much to discover the mother of his child, but it is to discover himself.

4. Sin City. Writer/ illustrator Frank Miller built his career in the comic book industry as a man to redefine characters, genres and even the very format of comic books themselves. With the urging of maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids), the two innovators of their respective fields collaborated to adapt Miller’s own Sin City graphic novels and proceeded once again to redefine an art form. This time the art of film itself is transformed as the sex and violence world of Sin City is realized on screen utilizing innovative techniques that produce not so much a film adaptation of a comic book as an actual comic book put into motion. Dripping with the atmosphere and images of a film noir that has been to hell itself, the mostly black and white anthology of four stories uses color sparingly and bullets in mass quantities. The dialogue is hard core and potentially laughable in hands that don’t understand that these stories are all about style. Like the comic book format itself, the style is part of the substance of the film, and this fantasy crime world that these characters inhabit is so complete it is impossible not to be transported into this gritty world where evil thrives and good can only be measured in the lesser degrees of bad involved. Sin City is truly a new kind of film that has never been seen before, but with two more sequels planned over the next two years and plenty of Sin City graphic novels ready to be mined for material, I’m ecstatic to say it is a style I expect to praise again.

5. Kingdom of Heaven. It is a shame the Christian community did not get behind Ridley Scott (Gladiator)’s Crusades story as eagerly as it did Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. While Gibson’s film so meticulously detailed Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven just as diligently portrays the human element necessary for Christianity, or any belief system for that matter, faith. The Crusades was the answer for many second century Europeans to release them from the oppression and squalor of their time. The Crusades were the great equalizer of its time that allowed people who were willing to endure the journey and the war with the Muslims for a chance to earn their place in society. The life of the blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) represents the true meaning of faith. While the freedom allowed to such groups as the Templar Knights in Jerusalem led many crusaders into the sins of greed and power mongering, Balian is a man with a true understanding of what it means to work the will of God. When Tiberius meets Balian, who is more man than most, he tells him, “Jerusalem has no need for a perfect knight.” That may be true for the Christians to retain control over Jerusalem, but it is what the world at large and humanity itself could use more of. Balian’s good will and true servitude of his beliefs are examples that should be heeded even in today’s world, which is still in a desperate struggle to find tolerance and understanding in the human condition

6. Downfall. During Anthony Hopkins’s Life Time Achievement Award ceremony at the Golden Globes this year they showed a clip of his over the top performance as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the film The Bunker. In the German language film Downfall actor Bruno Ganz gives a decidedly more subdued performance as the 20th Century’s most infamous real life villain. Ganz’s Hitler descends slowly and pathetically into madness as his empire crumbles around him in the final days of World War II after the German defeat is inevitable. Downfall tells the story of all of Hitler’s cabinet occupying his Berlin bunker in those final days as some remain loyal despite his delusions of victory, some just try to save themselves and some outright betray their once revered leader. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (the upcoming Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake entitled The Visiting) offers a rare German perspective on the people that have become thought of only as the “bad guys” of World War II, and allows his audience a chance to relate to what the other side had to endure during the final days of the war. Yet the film is not so much sympathetic to the Nazis as empathetic. Many of Hitler’s staff are characterized as having lost their passion for what the Nazis were trying to achieve and many -- most especially Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the secretary upon whose account of these events in the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary much of this film is based -- are portrayed as completely unaware of the genocide committed by the Nazis against the Jews. When word of such atrocities reaches the bunker, people are told these are stories made up by the Allied Forces to break the German will. By the end of the film, that inevitability has become reality and we witness more lives than we may have imagined fragmented and destroyed by Hitler’s cruelty.

7. King Kong. In 1933 King Kong changed cinema forever by exploiting the illusion of motion pictures and turning film into an art form of spectacle. Perhaps with the developments of CGI, a tribute to the spectacle that King Kong is was inevitable; but in the hands of The Lord of the Rings helmer Peter Jackson, the latest version of this exaggerated Beauty and the Beast tale has transcended its own spectacle to become the ultimate entertainment. Jackson’s vision transports his modern audience to not one but two different worlds. One is the world of pure fantasy that is Skull Island, where dinosaurs still roam and men are as savage as the beasts. Skull Island is the ultimate fantasy setting in which, like a dreaming child, Jackson pits his heroes against impossible odds and giant predators. A giant ape is king, but must constantly defend his throne and his possessions. The people are mere insects (even compared to the insects) and most meet grizzly ends. The other world is the New York of 1933, where the hustle and bustle of the modern age is just beginning and the similarities to primitive jungle life are closer than we’d like to think. But New York is a bigger jungle even than Skull Island in which Jackson lovingly pays tribute to a director that never feared even the big cats of the film industry. Jack Black’s Carl Denham is the relentless director cut from the mold of original King Kong director Merian C. Cooper, who is willing to sacrifice anything (or anyone) in his hunt to make the ultimate action adventure. But it is also in the jungle of New York where an even bigger animal will meet his own end chasing the creature of his desire Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a vaudeville performer who can’t seem to get out of the jungle underbrush. It is with this relationship between Kong and Darrow where Jackson’s film is able to rise above the modern idea of spectacle and become the best kind of entertainment. He adds humanity to Kong and the love shared between Darrow and the beast becomes something more than just a perverse ape’s obsession. All this makes the film’s closing line even more affecting than in the original, “It was beauty killed the beast.”

8. Grizzly Man. There is a strange beauty that accompanied the estranged life of animal rights activist Timothy Treadwell and a harsh brutal irony that attended his death. German director Werner Herzog has defined his career with films about the self-destructive nature of obsessed men, and in the real life character of Treadwell he found an actualization of his own favorite subject matter. With the documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog presents the strange life of Treadwell and his obsession with the Grizzly Bears of the Katmai Nature Park in Alaska. Treadwell is a man who is happier with and more passionate about bears than his fellow humans, and in some esoteric way his death by those very animals he loved so much is quite fitting. Herzog begins this film with an effort to unlock the mysteries behind what drives a man’s obsessions to such lengths that he cannot see the imminent danger in which he places himself in pursuit of those obsessions and comes out of it with almost no answers. Instead Grizzly Man almost becomes a portrait of a man who is totally content because of his obsession. Treadwell may have died by the claws of these burly creatures he called his friends, but there is a sort of peacefulness implicit in the suggestion that this is the only way Treadwell would have wanted it.

9. Last Days. It seems that whenever a pop culture icon dies early in his or her career, there is a sort of national obsession about why such a revered artist would either choose or put himself in a position that would allow the rest of us to wonder what could have been if they had lived. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the early 90s grunge progenitors Nirvana, is such an icon in rock history. In Gus Van Sant (Elephant)’s film Last Days the independent director shows us the final days in the life of a Northwest Coast musician (Michael Pitt) so much like Kurt Cobain in appearance and behavior that it is a wonder he even bothers to give the guy another name. What makes Van Sant’s take on the events of this rock star’s last days so original and fascinating is that he doesn’t succumb to this need we seem to have to ask why. The film is unusually haunting in the way it just observes the goings on in this old castle that acts as the musician’s home away from his life of fame. For a film where it seems as if nothing is happening, we witness many interactions between people. Mumblings, schemes and underminings. There is a group of “friends” that use the musician, and everyone treats him as they feel he expects to be treated rather than reacting to his strange behavior, often pretending he is not who he is even though they would not even be there were he not. Although Van Sant does not attempt to answer the question why, if you look you might be able to see how someone with so much might think he has so little.

10. Yesterday. I find it hard to express how beautiful this particular movie is. It presents a life that is cut short, but a life that is lived with purpose, light and life. Yes, a life lived with life. Yesterday is a mother to Beautiful. After the small African village in which they live is finally graced with a teacher, her daughter is about to embark on school. This is a great thing for someone in a place where most of the town’s husbands must live far away to work in the mines of Johannesburg. But Yesterday is sick. She walks every Tuesday for over two hours to get to a clinic with but one doctor. When the day ends and she has not seen the doctor, she is sent home for another week. She wakes earlier and earlier each Tuesday to get a better spot in line, and when she finally gets to see the doctor the news is not good. Yesterday does everything for her daughter and when faced with a terrible fate, she remains beautiful and strong. She wants only to survive until her daughter begins school. In this there is a lesson of life. Something like to live for the positive, but to say it sounds trite. Director Darrel James Roodt (Cry the Beloved Country) paints a beautiful landscape, although this picture is set in the desert. He surrounds his characters with life and hope, and somehow makes it easy to believe we are all here on the same world, one in which we should cherish every moment. Yesterday is the first film ever shot in the Zulu language, and Roodt uses this monumental event to address an issue that many have forgotten about, but is still a major problem for our world. Diseases do not just disappear in our world, but if we continue to look for cures, maybe someday they will exist only in yesterday.

The documentary film movement seems to keep increasing in popularity with each passing year, and this year saw a number of wonderful documentaries in release. One, Grizzly Man, landed a spot on my top ten list, but there were a number of other documentaries that I saw this year that could easily trade places with that one on my list.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is a four hour excursion into the early years of Dylan’s career by expert music historian Martin Scorsese. This film delves deeper into the Dylan being than any I have seen and exemplifies why Dylan’s genius has endured for so long.

Murderball is the forbidden name of the sport of wheelchair rugby. Played solely by paraplegic athletes, this film redefines the handicapped world for those who might think that the loss of limb mobility means the end of having fun. Of course, little seems fun in this full contact sport, which is taken as seriously by its participants as life itself.

Rock School enrolls its audience into the elite School of Rock run by the colorful Paul Green. The inspiration for Jack Black’s character in the film School of Rock, Green runs this strange school where children hone their rocking abilities like some sort of mad drill sergeant out to make or break these children. The kids have some pretty interesting stories of their own, but the key to this flick is the innate need to rock!

Most film festivals award special jury prizes to films they felt were also worthy for their top spots but just couldn’t be fit in. With so many great films to choose from this year I have to award some jury prizes myself. In alphabetical order:

Batman Begins rectifies the atrocity this franchise had become by beginning again with a fresh start and a dark look at the origin of the most popular of all comic book heroes. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) grounds the character with a realistic vision giving us a story that focuses on what makes Batman so appealing to audiences as a superhero, his humanity.

Dear Frankie is a touching Irish film about a deaf boy named Frankie (Jack McElhone). In an effort to spare her son from the truth about his father, his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) makes Frankie believe that his father is a merchant seaman on the HMS Accra by writing him fake letters from a father that isn‘t there. When the Accra sails into port one day, Lizzie must hire a man to play Frankie’s father. Avoiding many of the clich├ęs of the romantic comedy, Dear Frankie is an uplifting film with a heart and a brain.

Kung Fu Hustle is perhaps the strangest foreign film to find success in the US. A spoof of the Asian invasion of martial arts action films, this film proves that even a silly movie can be smart. With characters as colorful as their superpowers are outrageous, Kung Fu Hustle packs a laugh with every punch and proves that the spoof film may not be dead just yet.

If you want to get a glimpse of how well new James Bond Daniel Craig can carry a film, Layer Cake might show you a grittier hero than you would expect. Craig plays an underling drug dealer who gets promoted to Mob enforcer in this convoluted British caper flick by the producer of such British genre films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.

Millions is yet another picture from the United Kingdom, a family film from the most unlikely source of director Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later). Boyle brings grown up filmmaking sensibilities to this story about two brothers who find a bag full of money. The younger boy speaks with various saints from his Catholic schooling for advice on what should be done with the money, which must actually belong to somebody.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith finally provides fans and detractors of the prequel series alike with what they really wanted to begin with, Darth Vader. Director George Lucas does a surprisingly good job providing a true ideological struggle for the doomed Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) before his turn to the Dark Side. Not as surprisingly in this -- the strongest of the Star Wars prequels -- he also provides some amazing sci-fi scenery and battles. Be sure to check out Star Wars: Clones Wars, the Cartoon Network series that acts as a pretty solid prequel itself to this prequel episode.

Turtles Can Fly is the first Iraqi film to depict life in Iraq during the war with the US. It follows a child entrepreneur, who provides the children of his town with work and the elders with US News coverage of the war. It shows the Iraqis as people rather than just statistics on CNN, shows their hopes for the war and their disillusionment when the war does not miraculously change their lives.

In The Upside of Anger Joan Allen plays a housewife and mother of four girls, who believes her husband has left her for another woman. She uses this idea as a springboard for becoming a drunk and expressing all the anger she has ever felt about her life. Kevin Costner turns in a surprising performance as her goofy neighbor who shares her appreciation for barbiturates and harbors appreciation for the woman herself.

Johnny Cash is an American original, and in his biopic Walk the Line Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon provide two of the year’s spot on performances as Cash and his love June Carter. Restricting himself to Cash’s early years, director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) paints a typical tortured artist picture, but fills it with the life and vitality of the songs of Cash so powerfully performed by the actors themselves.

Steven Spielberg’s modern adaptation of the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic War of the Worlds is relentless in its depiction of a father’s struggle for his family’s survival during an invasion of the earth by unstoppable aliens. Staying truer to the story than the previous film adaptation, Spielberg knows just when to let Wells’s fantasy play on its own and when to stop for his own interjections.

I also enjoyed The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Assault on Precinct 13, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Constantine, Dolls, Fever Pitch, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, In Good Company, Land of the Dead, Lords of Dogtown, Madagascar, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Melinda and Melinda, Red Eye, Rings, Sahara, Serenity, Sky High, The Spaghetti West, Steamboy, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.

Now, my lists:

Best Director: Steven Spielberg, Munich, War of the Worlds. Honorary mention: Park Chan-wook, Oldboy; Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller with special guest director Quentin Tarantino, Sin City; Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man; Peter Jackson, King Kong; and Gus Van Sant, Last Days.

Best Original Screenplay: Mike Binder, The Upside of Anger. Honorable mentions: Tsang Kan Cheong, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo and Chan Man Keung, Kung Fu Hustle; Andrea Gibb, Dear Frankie; Frank Cottrell Boyce, Millions; Miranda July, Me and You and Everyone We Know; and William Monahan, Kingdom of Heaven.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, Sin City, based on the graphic novels “The Customer is Always Right,” “The Hard Goodbye,” That Yellow Bastard,” and “The Big Fat Kill.” Honorable mentions: Bernd Eichinger, Downfall, based on the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and the book Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller; Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich, based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas; John August, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on the book by Roald Dahl; Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, King Kong, based on the original film story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; and Josh Friedman and David Koepp, War of the Worlds, based on the book by H.G. Wells.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Honorable mentions: Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy; Bill Murray as Don Johnston in Broken Flowers; Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall; Eric Bana as Avner in Munich; and Sean Penn as Samuel J. Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in Walk the Line. Honorable mention: Ziyi Zhang as Bai Ling in 2046; Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge in Downfall; Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow in King Kong; Joan Allen as Terry Ann Wolfmeyer in The Upside of Anger; and Leleti Khumalo as Yesterday in Yesterday.

Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Costner as Denny Davies in The Upside of Anger. Honorable mention: Matt Dillon as Officer Ryan in Crash; Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom in Lords of Dogtown; Ciaran Hinds as Carl in Munich; Nick Stahl as That Yellow Bastard in Sin City; and Mickey Rourke as Marv in Sin City.

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca DeMornay as Philaine Adams in Lords of Dogtown. I apologize for the lack of any significant supporting actress performances noted here. I’m sure there were some, I just didn’t happen to see those films.

Worst film of the year: XXX: State of the Union. Dishonorable mentions: Crash, Be Cool, Elektra, The Girl from Monday.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Munich / **** (R)

Avner: Eric Bana
Steve: Daniel Craig
Carl: Ciaran Hinds
Robert: Mathieu Kassovitz
Hans: Hanns Zischler
Louis: Mathieu Amalric
Papa: Michael Lonsdale
Daphna: Ayelet Zurer
Jeanette: Marie-Josee Croze
Ephraim: Geoffrey Rush

DreamWorks SKG and Universal Pictures present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. Based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas. Running time: 164 min. Rated R (for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language).

About ten years ago Sting released the album Mercury Falling, arguably his finest effort. At that time, I was talking to a musician friend of mine about the album and he asked me, “What happened between Sting and his wife? Did they divorce or something?” They had not, but the theme of broken love that permeated the album and was executed so astutely suggested that it must have come from some deep personal turmoil in Sting’s life. While watching Steven Spielberg’s latest film Munich, I couldn’t help thinking Spielberg must have been affected by some similar deep personal trauma. What secret war did Spielberg fight? Was it really like a game of terrorism to get your foot in the door of Hollywood in the early seventies? Although the story in this film is inspired by the real life terrorist situation at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games where 11 Israeli athletes lost their lives after being taken hostage by the Palestinian terrorist organization calling itself Black September and the aftermath that saw 9 of 11 men held responsible for planning the attack assassinated by Mossad agents of Israel, it seems Spielberg must have had some deeper personal investment in this film fiercely rooted in family, home, loyalty and the price everyone must pay for vengeance.

Spielberg begins this tale inauspiciously enough. Without glorifying the events at the Olympiad, he and screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (The Insider) give the audience just a taste of what happened on that fateful day. Utilizing much of the ABC sports/news coverage, the effects of the terror can be witnessed. The filmmakers do not introduce the terrorists or the hostages as characters, but only show us the beginning of their ordeal so we can also understand the violence and the personal terror involved. They stop short of involving us in these events at this time, but will return to those grizzly proceedings throughout the course of the film as needed, as this is not the story on which Spielberg is embarking.

The story of Munich involves the politics involved in sanctioned (however unofficially) terrorism; and the personal sacrifice, struggle and avarice of those who give the orders and pull the triggers. Based upon the George Jonas novel Vengeance, a most appropriate title, the film’s protagonist is Avner, portrayed by Australian actor Eric Bana (Hulk), a soon-to-be family man chosen by the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, The Station Agent) to head a team of five men to execute the 11 men determined to be directly responsible for the Munich attack. What is immediately noticeable about all of the characters in the film, from the soldier of Israel to the Prime Minister, is how average they all seem. Cohen’s Meir looks like the grandmother who bakes those wonderful cookies from down the street as she considers, not without some sense of gravity, ordering the deaths of these eleven men and most likely the team she sends to do the job. Even the political end of the Israeli’s actions is presented like a meeting of some 100 person population village town council; although there is some question as to whether these eleven men set for assassination are truly the men responsible for Munich or merely random people on Israel’s dream hit list.

The ordinariness of the people involved in what seems like some plot out of a James Bond movie or a Tom Clancy novel extends into the assassination squad itself. Avner is about to be a new father and seems to have done the unthinkable by leaving his family just as it is getting started; the unthinkable part not being lost on Avner himself. Steve, played by the actual new James Bond Daniel Craig (Layer Cake), just wants to shoot all the targets rather than mess around with the bomb plots their government would prefer them to use for their high profile impact. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz, Birthday Girl), the team’s bomb builder, is a former toy maker. Hans (Hanns Zischler, Ripley’s Game) is an antiques dealer. And Carl, carefully realized by Irish-born Ciaran Hinds (HBO’s Rome), expresses his doubts about their mission’s morality from the beginning. None have ever done anything like counter-terrorist work before.

They learn as they go, so it doesn’t always go smooth. During their second mission, their first bombing mission, Spielberg recalls one of his own images from a previous film Schindler’s List of the little girl with the red jacket in the daughter of the victim, who inadvertently answers a phone that has been rigged to explode when her father picks it up. The assassination team scrambles to stop the chain of action that will set off the bomb. When the team succeeds in saving the daughter’s life from their device, Carl asks, “Are we still on?” The cold clarity of their ideology comes crashing to the street with the shattered glass from the victim’s window in the next shot.

A good deal of controversy has come down on Spielberg for his lack of condemnation of either the Israeli actions or the Palestinians over the course of the film. It is clear that this mission of death is not viewed as all good even by the characters committing these acts in the film, but at several points in the film good arguments are made to justify at least the ends behind these means. As a sort of payback lesson from the team’s information source, because of a job that was not executed in the manner the source would have liked, Avner and his Mossad cohorts find themselves sharing a hideout with a Palestinian terror cell. Spielberg gives this predicament a sort of standard “we can all learn to get along” treatment with a member of each team battling over what music to listen to on the radio, and finally compromising with some American R&B. But then he follows up this lighter motif with a conversation between Avner and Ali (Omar Metwally) where Ali argues the case for Palestine’s right to their own homeland.

Home has a great deal to do with the actions of everyone in this film. As America has become so well rooted, it is hard for us to remember a time when we had to fight for our home, we mostly fight for other people’s rights in their homes now, but at one point in history we had to fight for home and family. Spielberg has been criticized for allowing that this is what both Palestine and Israel are doing, and have done for so long. But Spielberg also brings this global issue down to a more intimate setting as Avner struggles to remain a part of his own family while he is off fighting for his family of Israel. This is where Spielberg’s face in this story becomes more obvious. The story has earmarks of Spielberg’s favorite familial settings as Avner comes from a broken family. Avner’s father is in prison, he moves his wife and daughter to Brooklyn so he can visit them while he is Mossad, his mother is proud of his actions as Mossad but cannot understand why he would move his family from Israel. There is detachment and commitment in every mention of family. To give the best for family, you must sacrifice family. This is a truth that so many know but would rather not.

There is so much more to this film than has been said here. I haven’t even mentioned Avner’s case worker Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush (The Life and Death of Peter Sellars), who alternately articulates the necessary cold calculation of war such as this and formidably defends this course of action through speeches of caring and patriotism. Munich is a monumental film that encompasses tough questions of morality. It is easily the best film Spielberg has made since Schindler’s List over a decade ago. Perhaps it captures the essence of human nature, the dichotomy of our creative and destructive leanings. One character describes himself and Avner at one point, “Oh, we are magic men. Butcher’s hands, gentle souls.” This is the nature of man we can never escape.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Broken Flowers / **** (R)

Don Johnston: Bill Murray
Winston: Jeffrey Wright
Laura: Sharon Stone
Dora: Frances Conroy
Ron: Christopher McDonald
Carmen: Jessica Lang
Penny: Tilda Swinton
Sherry: Julie Delpy
Carmen’s assistant: Chloe Sevigny

Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Running time: 105 min. Rated R (for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use).

What a delightful movie Broken Flowers is. Rarely is a comedy so rich in character and nuance, so steeped in self-discovery. It contains another understated performance by aging comedian Bill Murray, who has hit a graceful stride in his career of late, but still retains and utilizes his comedic talents with such subtle performances as witnessed here.

Like the highly praised Lost in Translation, Murray seems to have found himself yet another perfect role in the character of Don Johnston here. “No. Not him. Johnston with a ‘T’.” Johnston is known to most of his acquaintances as a Don Juan type. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. A man of many lovers, who is going through yet another break up with his latest significant other Sherry (Julie Delpy, Before Sunset). After Sherry walks out on Don in the opening moments of the film, writer/director Jim Jarmusch treats the audience to a long contemplation of Don’s existence with extended shots of him sitting in his living room on his sofa. He barely moves. At one point he reaches for a wine glass to take a drink; then decides against it.

Don’s neighbor Winston is an Ethiopian factory worker and self-proclaimed detective, played by the underrated Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America), who springs into action when Don receives an anonymous letter from a former lover that informs him he has a 19-year old son. Don never encourages Winston to help him discover who this letter might have come from; but he accepts, under only verbal protest, any assignment Winston gives him to discover the identity of this anonymous lover. Soon Winston has sent him on a cross-country trip to meet with the four former lovers with which there could be some chance he fathered a child 19 years earlier.

Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Coffee & Cigarettes) frequently structures his films as a series of vignettes. Don’s encounters with his former lovers plays perfectly into this format of which Jarmusch is so adept. First he visits the widowed alcoholic Laura (Sharon Stone, Catwoman), whose daughter is aptly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena, ABC’s Invasion). Next on the list is the go-getter/traditionalist yuppie/former flower child who sells upper-class pre-constructed houses in “communities”, Dora (Frances Conroy, HBO’s Six Feet Under). After an exasperated morning call to Winston claiming that he is getting nowhere, Don then visits Carmen (Jessica Lang, Big Fish), whom he knew as a lawyer but has since become a self proclaimed Dr. Doolittle, an “animal communicator.” Finally, he visits the woman who may have meant the most to him, or him to her, and yet also clashed the most with his social status because her white trash background, or perhaps that is just where she ended up. Penny (Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is the only former lover with harsh words for Don.

But of course, none of these encounters are about these women and what they have become, or what they were. Everything in this film is about Don. These women are a reflection of what Don was, what he has become and not become. Even Winston only exists in Don’s life to give him purpose. Don may never have made this journey of reconciliation with his past without Winston’s meddling, but Winston never forces Don on this journey of self-discovery. That action is Don’s alone.

Even other women that he encounters on this passage reflect Don’s own inner vision of himself. A flight attendant (Meredith Patterson, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) he sits next to in the airport – he notices the ankle bracelet on her sheer-hosed legs – is a reflection of the Don Juan who still thrives in Don’s tired existence. Carmen’s assistant (Chloe Sevigny, Melinda and Melinda), with her nasty looks of disapproval and not-so-subtle dismissals, is his conscience for the gigolo-type life he has led. Lolita is the poor choices he may have made. And a flower shop girl, also aptly named Sun Green (Pell James, Uptown Girls), is the hope he has to finally find what he is looking for in a woman and in life. She arranges some flowers for Don to leave at the grave of one of the possible mothers of his child who has passed away. The deceased is not hard to interpret, representing that very unknown which is death. What if there is no answer to what Don searches for?

It is Bill Murray’s performance that transcends anything in this summary that seems like it has been done before. The material teeters on a precipice of the two forms of theatrics, drama and comedy; but Murray (and Jarmusch) cleverly keep it just this side of comedy enough to endear Don to the audience. Murray’s dry take on facial expressions allow us to see the comedy in each situation Don finds himself, but he never sinks to the depths of ridicule and the seriousness of what he is going through becomes just as important as the comedy.

I will leave it to you to discover whether Don finds the mother of his child, or even the child himself, or even whether there is a child to begin with. But by the end of the film it becomes clear that Don’s paternity is not really what his journey is about. Don is tabula rasa. He is a blank slate. It is the people he surrounds himself with that define him, and that has left him without much as he realizes his life coming to a close. Worse yet, is Don’s realization of this something he can use to change his life or will he never be able to find the love that is missing in his life – the love that comes from within him? This is a question only Don can answer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Grizzly Man / **** (R)

Featuring:
Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Medical Examiner Franc G. Fallico, Jewel Palovak, Willy Fulton, Sam Egli.

Lions Gate Films and Discovery Docs present a film written and directed by Werner Herzog. Running time: 103 min. Rated R (for language).

No one will ever understand what motivated the choices of Timothy Treadwell, because no one can see the world in quite the same unique way Treadwell himself did. Treadwell was an animal rights activist who found a special connection with bears in the Alaskan wilderness, where he spent 13 years living in the wild with grizzlies. Treadwell did not merely study these bears, but he lived among them, tried to understand them, and eventually was killed by them.

Grizzly Man is a documentary made by renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog about Treadwell’s life spent with the bears and his horrific death. Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Invincible) has a long history as a filmmaker who focuses on obsessive characters that dissent against humanity and often sew the seeds of their own destruction. As you watch Treadwell in his frail, lispy, impassioned voice speak of his dedication to these animals that you already know will be his demise, you realize that Herzog has found a character greater than any of his own fictitious ruminations of this self-destructor type. “I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals.”

Prognostications aside, what Herzog unfolds in this study is not a man who has totally lost touch with reality, but more like a man who wishes he could totally lose touch with reality. That is not to say that Treadwell has a death wish, as many of the people that are interviewed but did not necessarily know Treadwell suggest in this film. From the hundreds of hours of video Treadwell shot himself, of himself out in the wild, which make up most of the footage for Herzog’s documentary; it seems more like Treadwell is like many men who are constantly in search of meaning for their lives. Treadwell has found meaning in his existence with the bears, and with that a peace so few of us ever achieve.

But Treadwell is not content. At times he seems more like any one of us than the other talking heads in this doc are willing to admit. Many of his nay-sayers who claim things like, “He got what he deserved,” insist that he had begun to act like and think he was one of the bears. Yet there is not much footage here that suggests this to be true. Instead he often seems all too human, expressing the same insecurities and sentimentalization as anyone living in our modern world. There is one section where he deftly addresses the notion that he is perceived as gay by many people, probably due to the light tonality of his speech and his extremely emotional approach to his activism. His defense of his own heterosexuality boarders on the offensive as he speculates about how it would be easier for him if he were gay, reasoning that the gay lifestyle is one with less emotional attachment to physical partners.

His sentimental views of the animals come out in his relationship with the foxes that live in the area where he camps. He seems to want to make them human rather than become like the animals himself, as he gives all of the animals he knows names and speaks to them as if they could understand human thought patterns. At one point one of the foxes steals a hat that Treadwell goes so far as to call vital to his mission of protecting these animals in an argument for the fox to give the hat in question back, “…If that hat’s in the den, I’m gonna f***in’ explode!” he exclaims to the fox. And when one of the animals he has befriended dies, even of natural causes, the effect on Treadwell is devastating.

While Treadwell lived an eccentric life, it is his death that Herzog is primarily interested in here. From the opening moments of the film Herzog makes it clear that this movie is about only one thing, the death of Treadwell by the very bears he loved so much. Treadwell’s death is the obsession of the living that he left behind. Ex-girlfriends and business partners find comfort knowing he died where he loved life most. Outdoorsmen and forest rangers speak of his irresponsibility and the inevitable nature of his death. Medical Examiner Franc G. Fallico relishes in his own speculation of how it went down. Through Herzog’s lens you can see this grown man’s face sparkle as he delights in describing how the remains mean this must have happened and that would have been likely before the bear had finished Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard off.

Besides the sparse remains of Treadwell and Huguenard that were left after the attack, there is also an audio tape of the attack to suggest how it happened. Apparently Treadwell was able to start recording with his video camera when he was attacked, but he never got the chance to remove the lens cap. Herzog is a filmmaker who is thrilled by filmmaking as random observation rather than planed sequences, thus his use of this audio recording is more likely honest and not planned. It proves both his integrity and genius as a director. He never allows the audience to hear this tape, but is very aware of the duality of an audience’s desire to hear it and horror at the thought of it. There is a sequence where he listens to it himself in the presence of Treadwell’s closest surviving friend and former business partner Jewel Palovak. His on screen reaction to it is everything the audience must know. “You must never listen to this. I think you should destroy it. Burn it.”

Herzog never tries to steer the audience to one conclusion or another, was this Treadwell’s own fault or not. I don’t think he is even searching for any sort of conclusion, but it is obvious from Herzog’s own observations and obsessive fascination that he is in awe of Treadwell’s life and most amazing death. It is easy to get the sense that if Herzog had ever met Treadwell while he was alive he would have been just as fascinated by the man, but it is his death at the hands of these giants of nature among which he chose to live that transcends its own inherent irony into something of fateful poetry.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Fun with Dick and Jane / **½ (PG-13)

Dick Harper: Jim Carrey
Jane Harper: Tea Leoni
Jack McCallister: Alec Baldwin
Frank Bascom: Richard Jenkins

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Dean Parisot. Written by Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller and Peter Tolan. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief language, some sexual humor and occasional humorous drug references).

My wife is often a good barometer as to how successful a film is, especially in the situational comedy genre where my own particular brand of movie snobbishness might not lend myself to be the best judge. She has a couple of key phrases that I look for but require interpretation for those not aware of her inability to say anything negative about work that other people have put their time into. “It was O.K,” means they failed miserably. “That was fun,” means she really liked it. And “That was cute,” means they put in a really good effort and she wanted to like it, but in the end something was missing. Fun with Dick and Jane falls into the latter category of her rating system.

Fun with Dick and Jane, a remake of the 1977 comedy starring Jane Fonda and George Segal, stars Jim Carrey (Limony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and Tea Leoni (Spanglish) as Dick and Jane Harper, a couple which turns to petty crime to keep up with the Joneses when their careers take a nose dive. With Carrey grabbing two paychecks as the star and one of the film’s producers, much of the movie acts merely as a stage on which Carrey is given free reign to practice his own flavor of physically comedic antics. Not that this is always a bad thing, but there are a number of situations for which no explanation of the plot is necessary that seem created solely for the purpose of letting Carrey do his shtick. There is the lip-synced song and dance in the elevator, the imitation of a marionette puppet, the voice altering microphones (which he uses to improvise a performance of the Styx song “Mr. Roboto”), and the electro-shock dog collar gag that was done much better in a beer commercial from a few years back.

The film alternates between these uninspired comedic setups and some great ideas. The writing team stumbles upon a stroke of genius when their update of the material places Dick in the surprise position of spin doctor for an Enron-type Fortune 500 company just as their stock falls to pennies per share. They utilize this set up well in placing the stars in a position of desperation and to shore things up for the film’s climax, but the in-between period doesn’t provide enough about the breadth of victims these corporate raiders leave in their wake nor do they make any connection of the corporation style of crimes and the petty crime to which Dick and Jane find themselves stooping. With Jane pulling her weight at the beginning of the film as a travel agent, my wife also found the jokes about dealing with travel clients to be quite humorous and not quite as exaggerated as many might assume.

Alec Baldwin (The Aviator)’s own skill as a comedic heavy is utilized as Jack McCallister, the CEO of the company who sets Dick up as the fall guy along with company CFO Frank Bascom (Richard Jenkins, North Country). Eventually, Dick and Jane and Frank hatch a scheme to get the $400 million Jack squirreled away from the employees of his company. The movie could have sustained itself under this plot and the other crimes perpetrated by Dick and Jane getting to this point, but director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) and the other filmmakers are not interested in having Dick and Jane’s antics supported by plot so much as they are interested in putting them in awkward situations such as their attempts to make lower entries into the job market with Dick botching a job as a greeter at Costco and Jane trying to teach a martial arts class of a discipline she can’t even pronounce let alone know anything about. There is also an unnecessary extended sequence where Dick is mistaken for an illegal immigrant and must sneak his way back across the U.S./Mexico boarder after being deported.

Promotional materials have stated that the only sequence retained from the ‘77 Fun with Dick and Jane, unseen by me, is a sequence involving the repossession of their lawn. Dick proceeds to make a patchwork lawn out of pieces he steals from his neighbors’ lawns and a golf course. That patchwork lawn works well as a metaphor for the movie itself. Those lawn pieces are a funny bit; but they never really connect with each other, and if you aren’t careful to only look at those pieces of grass you are likely to see the bare earth that lies beneath them. I want to say I liked this movie because I laughed and enjoyed watching two gifted comedic actors spend an hour and a half making fools of one another, but the patchwork material they are working with just doesn’t hold together in the end. The saddest part is that the biggest laugh came in the form of the scrolling credits at the end of the film where the filmmakers thanked Ken Lay of Enron and CEO’s from many other corporations that recently when defunct through scandal, such as World Com and Tyco. Even sadder is that my wife and I were the only two during that teen dominated Friday night audience that even had the slightest clue that it was a joke.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

2046 / **½ (R)

Chow Mo Wan: Tony Leung
Su Li Zhen: Gong Li
Tak: Takuya Kimura
Jing Wen Wang: Faye Wong
Bai Ling: Ziyi Zhang
Lulu/Mimi: Carina Lau
slz1960: Maggie Cheung
cc1966: Chang Chen
Mr. Wang/Train Captain: Wang Sum

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written, produced and directed by Wong Kar Wai. In Cantonese, Japanese and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 129 min. Rated R (for sexual content).

Pacing. Story pacing is an overlooked art in the filmmaking process. Pacing can be affected by a number of elements in a film; dialogue, score, editing, even dramatic liberties affect the pace of a film. Films of different genres have different pacing expectations. An action film is expected to have a breakneck pace so the audience cannot catch it breath. A romance is expected to be much slower, often lingering on moments that can also take an audience’s breath away. Chinese director Wong Kar Wai’s latest romance 2046 has many lingering moments. Perhaps too many. Perhaps lingering far too long.

2046 is a loose sequel to Kar Wai’s critically acclaimed 2000 feature In the Mood for Love, about a writer and a secretary in neighboring Hong Kong apartments who suspect their spouses of having an affair. 2046 follows the further sexual exploits of the writer, Chow (Tony Leung, Infernal Affairs), who has developed an obsession with the number 2046. He writes of a futuristic world called 2046 in the year 2046, although his story takes place between Christmases of 1966 through 1969.

His Don Juan lifestyle leads him across an apartment with the number 2046. After renting apartment 2047 Chow embarks on a series of relationships with the women who occupy 2046. One involves the superintendent’s daughter, Jing Wen Wang (Faye Wong, Chunking Express), who yearns for a Japanese man, a relationship her father forbids. Another is with an elusive beauty, Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang, House of Flying Daggers), who becomes dependent on Chow for an emotional relationship he is not willing to give. The third involves a woman in Singapore named Su Li Zhen (Gong Li, Memoirs of a Geisha), who shares the same name as the woman neighbor from the previous film.

The most significant of these relationships is shared with Bai Ling. She starts out hard to get, but as soon as Chow finally does win her (to her bed at least), he offers her money. Not in blatant prostitution payment, but the implication of his action is a way to sever the possibility of an emotional attachment. But it is too late for Bai Ling; she descends into a pathetic outcry for affection. Chow is hardened stone. It is a surprising turn for Zhang, who has built a reputation (for American audiences at least) of playing very strong women. Even once both have moved on to other romances, there is pain in every glance of Bai Ling’s eyes.

The film is infatuated with its own sense of romance. That romance is built upon some fairly simple plots of lust and desire and the fascinating imagery and lighting that occupies almost every shot provided by cinematographers Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American), Kwan Pun Leung (Still Love You After All These Years), and Lai Yiu Fai (The White Countess). Even the futuristic scenes taken from the book Chow writes drip with an erotic atmosphere that suggest what might happen if Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey melded with David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.

But, as the stories within the very film exemplify so well, infatuation is a mistress that will always leave you with a bitter taste on your lips. The movie falters under the weight of Kar Wai’s obsession of these images through his lingering direction and some ill-advised editing. Kar Wai lingers far too long on shots of people smoking, and uses an over-abundance of slow motion, including cranking the speed of some shots down in post-production rather than in the camera itself, which creates the effect of a jumping image. That jittering image does not fit the ambience of the film, plus it destroys any suspension of disbelief by sending up a flag saying, “You are watching a manipulated image!”

For all its beauty, it is hard not to sit through 2046 without glancing at your watch, or wondering just why this shot or that shot is in slow motion. Kar Wai does a wonderful job creating an erotic atmosphere for a unique vision of tortured romance; but as compelling it is to view at first, by the final moments that compulsion has diminished as much as the speed of the frames per second while these people burned by love slowly suck the life out of their cigarettes and their audience.