Sunday, December 25, 2005


How It Rates: ****
Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Marie-Josee Croze
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Violence, Nudity (both male & female), Strong Brief Sex, Language

"You are going to kill them, one by one."

The assignment is deceptively simple: hunt down 11 Palestinian terrorists connected to the 1972 Munich massacre. Israeli Mossad agent Avner (Bana) accepts it for love of country and duty. And yet he finds the more he kills, the more others get killed... and others require killing.

Munich is a microcosm of the cycle of violence enveloping Israelis and Palestinians. It raises many questions from both the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives and forces you to think about them. But Steven Spielberg's newest film is not out to preach. The film will let you draw your own conclusions as you're drawn into Avner's world of revenge killings, collateral damage, suspicious loyalties, and love intertwined with hate. It will also remind you Spielberg is one of film's master storytellers.

The film opens with the massacre itself, told largely through the incredible ABC broadcasts of Jim McKay and the late, great Peter Jennings (who snuck into the Olympic village to get a better view). We even see the erroneous first reports of the hostages surviving. Then comes McKay's heartbreaking words: "They're all gone." Prime Minister Golda Mier makes the secret decision to go after the leaders of Black September, the Palestinian organization who carried out the killings. The scene where she orders the hits is grippingly solemn as she tries to rationalize shedding more blood.

Avner is recruited to head a team of four, including a bombmaker, officially operating off the books. They soon find an informant who leads them to the men they're after. Each hit grows more complicated and dangerous as the assassins devise new ways to rig bombs. And there's also the expense. Killing terrorists ain't cheap. A shadowy bookkeeper scolds, "I want receipts!" Avner must also deal with questions about the informant's organization, a group that doesn't seem to have loyalty to anyone except themselves and the bottom line: "You pay promptly and well."

Tony Kushner co-wrote the script, based upon true events recounted in the book Vengeance by George Jonas. The book, though disputed by many, was also the basis of the HBO Movie Sword Of Gideon. Spielberg's film goes out of its way to avoid propagandizing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. A few scenes feature characters talking about the conflict, but in a way born of the plot and not stapled onto the script for some political purpose.

Munich seems the odd film to open two days before Christmas, the time when we all wish for peace on earth and good will to all. But in its own violent way, this film wishes for it too, demonstrating by example the escalating danger of revenge killing and how nobody benefits -- not the victims, not the killers, not their countries, not their religions. Nobody.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

King Kong

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Adventure Violence and Mild Language

Remaking King Kong is like remaking Gone With The Wind or Citizen Kane, but if you're going to redo an epic, at least put it in the hands of an epic director. Peter Jackson's a fine choice. And he's made a fine film... a very long fine film. At three hours, the new Kong is a director's cut DVD version unleashed into theaters. It's big, bad, and bloated. It wants to be so many things -- art-house romance, period piece, CGI adventure, monster movie -- and by ramming it all in, it nearly forgets its one redeeming thread: the doomed romance of a beauty and the beast.

We don't see Kong himself until more than a half hour into the film. That gives more than plenty of time for set-up: Naomi Watts slips into the Fay Wray role as Ann Darrow, a struggling vaudeville actress looking for work in Great Depression-era New York City. She runs across madman movie director Carl Denham (Black), who's looking for a lead in an adventure picture, if he can ever get it finished. The studio threatens to kill the picture and its runaway budget, so Denham quickly signs up Darrow, grabs his crew, and ships out of New York. They set sail aboard the filthy steamer of an animal hunter bound for Singapore. But really, Denham is heading everybody for Skull Island, an uncharted, unknown land mass filled with restless natives, bloodthirsty dinosaurs and the aformentioned ape.

A romance blossoms between Darrow and playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody), who's writing the picture's screenplay. He gets trapped on board the boat before he can get off and get back to more artistic pursuits. One wonders how the heck a cultured writer hooked up with a snake like Denham, but shh, shh; this movie doesn't need to be any longer.

After the genesis of a romance-at-sea movie, we finally hit the action track. The ship runs aground along the rocky shores of Skull Island. Denham is just too eager to get out and shoot film. Everything goes downhill when the film crew disembarks and runs into one of the natives, who then turn around and kidnap Darrow as a sacrifice to you-know-who.

The new Kong is not your father's Kong and not even your grandfather's Kong, and thankfully, not even Donkey Kong. He's an ape with scars, matted fur and serious anger control issues. He looks like he's had a life, and it becomes all too clear it's a sad and lonely one. Beating up dinosaurs and chewing up human sacrifices doesn't even approach therapy. But then Darrow comes along, and this big lug of a gorilla softens up. So much of this film's value lies in the scenes of Darrow and Kong, whose CGI expressions were molded from actor Andy Serkis (who you will recall set the mold for Gollum in Lord Of The Rings). Kong roars and growls and beats his chest, but he has depth, emotion and a scary charm. Woman and beast read each other like two long-lost souls looking for true love. It's all in the eyes, and Jackson gives us plenty of nuance.

But things get cluttered up. While the ship's crew is trying to rescue Darrow, they run into the dinosaurs, which briefly turns the film into Jurassic Park. Then they end up at the bottom of a cliff infested with huge spiders and snakelike creatures who've probably crawled over from Aliens. Although they're fun to watch, way too much time is spent on them. Eventually Kong is captured and shipped back to New York, things get out of hand again, and we come to the landmark sequence on top of the Empire State Building, where more emotion is milked until Kong meets his demise.

Peter Jackson can handle long films. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy was long because it was a long story. King Kong is long because it wants a lot of depth and a lot of action. Thirty minutes shorter and this film would still have it. Cut the filler scenes detailing the friendship between two shipmates. Toss one of the dinosaur scenes. All of this can go on a DVD. The name of the film is King Kong, not Long Kong.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Scary Sequences and Ye Olde Swordplay

The opening picture in what could become another Harry Potter-esque series is the stuff of bedtime stories: innocent children, a mystical land, a wicked witch, talking animals and a friendly lion who's anything but cowardly. You have likely heard much about Wardrobe's religious symmetry, but Disney has not made The Lion King Of Kings.

For those unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis' classic novel, four children are evacuated to the country in WWII England to escape bombing in London: the inquisitive and adventurous young Lucie (Henley), the belittled Edmund (Keynes), his big brother Peter (Moseley) and practical big sister Susan (Popplewell). They wind up in the mansion of reclusive Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), a man not used to children or even walking about his sprawling estate, it seems.

The children, bored silly, turn to amusing themselves with a game of hide-and-seek, which leads Lucy to hide in a musty, dusty wardrobe in a spare room. But this wardrobe turns out to be the ultimate walk-in closet: a portal into a the world of Narnia, a land in perpetual winter ruled by the evil White Witch (icily and slickly played by Tilda Swinton). Lucy eventually leads the others into the new world, where they learn about a prophecy: they -- four humans -- are destined to defeat the witch and bring peace to the land, if she doesn't kill them first... with the unknowing help of Edmund. He betrays the others, albeit unknowingly, with the witch's promise of power and a few tasty Turkish Delights.

As for the good guys, you have a couple of beavers, a sly fox, an army of half-human, half-beasts and the aformentioned lion, Aslan. He's so warm and furry and friendly, it's hard to believe he can lead an army, much less save his people. Here's where we get to the religious symbolism. I'm not giving anything away by saying Aslan agrees to give his life in place of Edmund's to satisfy a murky law of the land concerning the execution of traitors -- at least it's murky as applied to Edmund. So Aslan is executed by the witch, although the scene surely doesn't have half the power of The Last Temptation Of Christ. You can probably figure out what happens next -- Aslan returns to life the next day, ready to do battle.

But as the film explains it, Aslan's return isn't about messianic power, but rather a knowledge of "deep magic" and some cunning. Watch the film with this in mind, or go back and read it in Lewis' book and think about it. Yes, you can certainly draw parallels, but those wanting a pure Aslan-as-Jesus comparison will be disappointed.

C.S. Lewis strongly objected to a movie of his novel because he thought filmmakers wouldn't be able to pull off all the talking animals without resorting to silly puppetronics. He died in 1963, years before anybody had an inkling of what was to come in CGI. The animals in Wardrobe talk and act with a CGI fluidity that is about as natural as you can get for fantasy beasts. No doubt the digital artists spent painstaking hours studying the movements of creatures to synthesize human and animal instincts.

Like C.S. Lewis' classic novel, Wardrobe is tightly paced. Little needs to go on the cutting room floor, and little does, leaving a film clocking in at a comfortable two hours. If box office results are strong, we could see the six other Narnia books filmed.