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Munich

Munich

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Hanns Zischler, Mathieu Amalric and Mathieu Kassovitz
Runtime: 164 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language

Unlike some recent films that found themselves surrounded amongst controversy, Steven Spielberg’s new film Munich does not cripple itself with a naive message or manipulative film making.

Rushed into production earlier this year, Munich could have been full of all the hallmarks of lazy filmmaking. Yet it shows thought, care, and passion.

As a film it is able to capture the feel of the 1970’s very well. Both from the clothes to the look to the feel, this is a film that never becomes a cheap modern reconstruction. Spielberg even uses 1970’s cinematic techniques, such as a frequent use of zooms, to recreate a time not so long past.

As a historical thriller this is a very modern film dealing with very modern issues. One person I saw it with was disgusted, calling it “an awful piece of Palestinian propaganda.” Munich cuts to the nerve.

This is exactly why it is such a towering success, especially since it is a Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg often imbues his films with mega happy endings that wrap everything into a nice little bow. Just look at the end from his War of the Worlds adaptation earlier this summer.

However, while Munich begins with the 1972 murder of the Israeli Olympic team and then follows the reaction afterwards (some of it of course fiction or speculation), the film ultimately transcends the entire Israeli Palestine conflict to reflect on the entire culture of terrorism begun with the Munich murders that has affected our world of today so deeply.

One thing that can often cripple “message” films like this is that they end with an overly simplistic message that can be summed up in a single sentence. Often times a film can become too much about the message and not enough about the characters, as well.

Thankfully, Munich has more to say than “all violence is bad,” or “revenge makes us as bad as the people we are going after.” It also creates characters that are more than cardboard cutouts to be pushed through a story.

Munich never tries to justify the killing of the Israeli Olympic members, either, nor does it compare the murder of the Israeli athletes to the retribution of the people part of it. In both cases blood is spilt, but it is not the same.

Rather it examines the human side of such acts, observing how something that begins as a noble act of justice can quickly spiral out of control. Ironically, but sadly, often what is being fought for is quickly forgotten in the process of fighting.

In the last shot, a pan revealing the World Trade Center sitting quietly shrouded in the fog of distance, Munich borders on becoming a preachy indictment of modern America.

The last haunting line tempers this, though, as it does not condemn as a Michael Moore film might but rather suggests, offering something for those who know much about the Munich massacre, and for those who know nothing.

Most importantly, Munich is a human story that takes all these big issues and brings them to a personal level. Sometimes in the chaos of conflict we lose sight that what we are seeing is happening to people, and being done by people, and that you cannot examine any situation without looking at the people part of it and affected by it.

This does not mean that as a film Munich never stumbles, for it does. At points the hurried production time does rear its ugly head as certain scenes become muddled in unnecessary complexity. The main character of Avner, played by Eric Bana, could have had a bit better of an introduction to fully show his motives and the toll his job takes on his family.

There is also a perplexing and almost amusing montage near the end at a very important moment that drowns itself in murky pretension.

However, these small flaws hardly affect a film that is much more than simple “Palestinian propaganda,” or any propaganda for that matter. In fact, the very backbone of Munich encourages individual reflection rather than blind acceptance of an ideology or moral standard.

Critic’s Conclusion: Munich reaches no absolutes because there can be no absolutes with such multi-faceted issues. It is this surprising complexity from Spielberg that makes this one of his best and most mature films to date, and a film that will bring him much controversy from those looking for a black and white conflict that is never portrayed.

Munich

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.5 stars
****1/2

Rent

Rent

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel and Adam Pascal
Runtime: 135 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language

From the award winning Broadway musical from Jonathon Larson, Rent makes its big screen debut and it is not likely to disappoint many fans. Better yet, it may even create some new ones.

Part of what made Rent so popular and defining for the 90s was that it mixed the glitz and glamour of Broadway with the grittiness of modern times. It had themes involving AIDS, sexuality, and the contemporary frustrated artist.

The movie, in turn, successfully manages to balance the stagy showiness of Broadway with the distinctive scope of cinema. While often plays and musicals find a poor translation to the big screen, Rent succeeds partly because it never forgets that it is a Broadway musical.

It begins with all the main characters lined up, on a stage, singing. Yet, it then becomes irrevocably cinematic as we are whisked to the streets of a wintry New York in turmoil. The cinematography is especially beautiful, as shadows slowly reveal color in an environment that is New York as it can only be seen through interpretation.

Now, there are a ton of songs. The play itself is all singing, and the movie follows close to this. It feels like there are about 50 songs, and to be fair around the middle some of the tunes begin to blend together and sometimes it seems like a song hardly ends before another one has began.

However, by the end this concern disappears, and the lyrics and dialogue in particular are clever and layered with meaning. It is a wonder that the actors can memorize all of it when on stage.

In fact, part of what makes Rent so authentic is the fact that many of the actors here are the actors from the original Broadway play, so there is already a strong bond between them that is very evident. Their energy simply radiates off the screen. It also helps that they can sing, as this is something that can cripple some musicals (Phantom of the Opera anyone?).

One of the more surprising things about Rent, though, is the direction. Usually director Chris Columbus (he did the first two Harry Potter films) is a very by the numbers and painfully average director. However, here it seems he may be maturing a bit, exploring more of what he can do with his camera and the medium he is using.

It is also evident that he feels passion for this material, as does everyone else involved with this project. Also, somewhat humorous is that this is a film from 1492 Productions and directed by none other than a man named Christopher Columbus. Thankfully the film itself is also full of purposeful ironies that ensure that not every detail can be picked up in just one showing.

While near the end Rent does dabble heavily in the sentimental and the melodramatic, it rarely loses its edge or becomes overly sappy. This is a gritty story that doesn’t necessarily end in a song and a dance, as it were.

Rent ends on the perfect moment, the perfect image. It captures an important character without any superficial razzle-dazzle, letting all the emotions of the entire story filter through in that single, defining moment.

This is part of what ultimately makes Rent successful as a film, as a musical and as an adaptation. While sometimes it does hit a musical overload (though this is also part of its appeal), it is still able to create some true emotion while delivering a message that we have both heard too many times and yet not enough.

When it came out in the 1990s Jonathon Larson hit a nerve with his very frank look at AIDS, sexuality, and despair mixed with hope. While some of these issues have become much more mainstreamed and known with time, they are still issues we face today. AIDS is very much a problem without a solution, and more importantly the way some people find themselves treated for not fitting the norm can be appalling. Yet, we can still find a way to bond together.

Rent never forgets what it is, and doesn’t compromise the still somewhat controversial message it carries for that last unneeded bit of glitz.

Critic’s Conclusion: If you are a fan of the musical you will most assuredly very much enjoy this, but even if you are not Rent offers a lot of entertainment along with a lot of to chew on.

Rent

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.0 stars
****

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, and Ralph Fiennes
Runtime: 157 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images

Beware Potter fans for I am about to speak utter blasphemy: I was bitterly disappointed with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Okay, so I’ll be fair, it is not that bad of a film. However, after already three films in this franchise some things begin to get too annoying to ignore.

For example, why is it that in every Potter film all the most important story points happen in a dingy room with Harry talking to some evil character we thought was on his side but was really evil all along, or vice-versa? And why is this always interrupted at just the right moment by the forces of the good guys?

Also infuriating is that a lot of the minor characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts that take away from the impression that the Harry Potter universe is a fully magical world with living, breathing inhabitants.

For example, there is the Daily Prophet writer Rita Skeeter who is pretty much the same exact annoying character as Gilderoy Lockhart from the second film. She is a sensationalist liar full of her own arrogance.

Most of the villains of Harry Potter are just as shallow, too, fitting the old stereotype of evil being ugly and good being attractive. Also, it has been said before but I will repeat it again: a film must stand on its own.

This particularly crippled Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with the scene in the Shrieking Shack, as a lot of plot points were brushed over and everything became very unclear. Here the problem lies more in many of the little details that are vague or never explained.

For an epic film some of the spectacle is ignored, too. Near the beginning there is a huge Quidditch match where one of the main characters, Viktor Krum, is introduced. However, as soon as the match is about to begin we are suddenly whisked away in time to the partying afterwards.

Would it have killed anyone to show a little bit of the match so we could at least get a feel for how great a Quidditch seeker Viktor Krum is while also getting a little bit of nifty action?

The biggest disappointment, though, is a case where entirely too much is shown. Now, I am treading into minor spoiler territory here so read carefully.

After three movies, Voldemort is finally revealed. Here we are supposed to discover the essence of wickedness but instead we find an Oscar nominated actor in some very silly make-up. As good as Ralph Fiennes is, here he looks like an aquatic fish-man.

Worse, though, is the fact that this evil villain is nothing new. He spouts nonsensically that Harry Potter will die, that he will get his power back, that his henchman are not loyal enough, that he will finish the job he began, that blah blah blah. We’ve heard it all before. Why are you boring me when you should be threatening me?

Not everything is a missed opportunity, though. The very beginning is wonderfully creepy and Voldemort really seems threatening and mysterious (the two things he loses in his climatic appearance.) Also, the introduction of the death eaters is downright awesome and the images etched in the sky with smoke are suitably sinister and foreboding.

Overall the visual style that new director Mike Newell gives this fourth outing is beautiful and memorable, and this is probably the most spectacular Potter yet. The main fault of Newell is that his pacing is somewhat clunky, as some scenes drag on too long while others are cut woefully short.

Thankfully the romance between Harry and friends is not nearly as sappy or overdone as feared, though some of it comes off as a little rushed and the Goth-rock band playing at the Yule Ball seemed hilariously out of place.

In the end, if you are a Potter fan you have probably already seen this blockbuster film and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, for the rest of us there might be the discovery that beneath all the pretty colors and classic themes of good and evil lays an unoriginal story cobbled together by elements of other fables in search of that extra something that could be called magic.

Critic’s Conclusion: Already an epic hit, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a rousing action adventure full of both spectacle and many holes. Ultimately hollow at the center despite visual beauty, the pacing is sometimes maddening and by the end it is hard not to be disappointed, at least if you’re not infatuated with Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.0 stars
***

Jarhead

Jarhead

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Jacob Vargas, Skyler Stone and Chris Cooper
Runtime: 123 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content

Full Metal Jarhead

For both better and for worse Jarhead, the new film based on a 2003 best-selling book by former marine Anthony Swofford, is not just another war film. That is not to say there aren’t similarities.

Like many recent films about war Jarhead tries its best to become immersed in the feeling of military life. From the locations to the sounds, everything is authentic. Important is the acting which never becomes theatrical as the performances strive to echo true marines.

Jake Gyllenhaal especially shines as Swoff, able to give a surprisingly subtle performance that never really cries out, “look how brilliant and intense I am!” The entire film is really quite subtle in this way and this lends to an overall uneasy feel that Jarhead lets unquestionably sink deep.

Also, director Sam Mendes evokes stunning images in only his third film (he previously made the award winning American Beauty and then Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks), as burning oil fields and sun-bleached sand dunes are displayed in full glory.

Jarhead even strays into territory that has already been explored before. It begins much like Full Metal Jacket with a yelling and almost comically abusive drill sergeant proving the horrors of boot camp.

However, such similarities in turn compliment the ways Jarhead is actually a commentary on these perceptions of war. It is, ultimately, quite unique.

Unlike “classic war films,” such as Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now, Jarhead is more about what happens when the intensity of battle never really comes. All the marines in the film are pumped up for battle, at one point actually watching Apocalypse Now and cheering as helicopters blow up targets. Yet they never get this same opportunity.

As an audience member I found myself waiting for that big battle scene but it never really comes. And it never should.

This is not a film for those seeking mindless action. Jarhead isn’t afraid to scrutinize the bloodlust that can fill both war and people and the need for this bloodlust to be quenched, whatever the cost.

Jarhead thus becomes a compliment to the perception of war that has pervaded our culture. Is it death and destruction that truly makes war what it is? Jarhead very much delves into these themes.

With this said, some problems do arise with the film. There is always a distance kept from the characters. We see that they are bored and that problems such as cheating spouses and waiting are their greatest adversaries. Yet there is never really that epiphany, that moment of “now I get it.”

The characters never grow or change. Simply showing them as anxious to fight is not enough to fill up two hours.

Especially as some horrors of war finally begin to trickle in, such as the aftermath of a massacre in the desert, we never see the effect on the battle-ready mentality of the soldiers beyond some immediate outward emotions.

At the end of the war are the marines any different than when they went into it and why? What happens to all the anxiety built up within them? Jarhead never really attempts to answer any of these questions.

It is also somewhat ironic that this is a film released in the midst of the second war in Iraq because the war of today is a much different beast than the Gulf War. In this current war there isn’t a problem of not having enough “action.” Likely this new Iraq war is the battle that the soldiers of Jarhead yearned for while waiting in that desert.

The makers of Jarhead claim that they do not have any direct commentary on the new Iraq war and the film echoes this. This stress for objectivity sadly cripples some of the lasting power, though.

By delving into the ultimate results of the Gulf War on its battle-ready troops perhaps certain truths of today could have become illuminated. Jarhead mentions that, “All wars are different, all wars are the same.” It is this simple yet complicated message that best defines Jarhead while also keeping it from becoming all that it could be.

Critic’s Conclusion: Don’t expect much action from Jarhead, a movie that focuses on how boredom and tedium can be dangerous weapons in warfare as well. Overall it is a fairly unique and thought-provoking film full of unforgettable images, though at the end there is a sense that Jarhead doesn’t reach the full potential of its themes and images.

Jarhead

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Boogeyman

Boogeyman DVD cover

Halloween is just around the corner, which means it’s time for everyone to rush out to the rental stores and check out the scariest and goriest horror flicks on the shelves. However, be weary of the recent DVD release, Boogeyman, as it continues to prove that Hollywood’s latest batch of horror films are nothing but garbage.

Throughout the film, there are a few “Oh shit!” moments, but most border on parlor tricks that have been done hundreds of times before. A prime example when Tim, the lead character, meets a girl who ends up being a ghost. Perhaps someone watched The Sixth Sense a few times when they were writing Boogeyman.

Boogeyman is incredibly slow and the story is just ridiculously unbelievable. A slow pace can be used as a device to build suspense, but when it’s this slow, people fall asleep. Coming in at a relatively short 90 minutes, the film should fly by, but it ends up feeling like an eternity to play out. With far too many characters, the story is less than coherent and many questions are left unanswered at the end of the movie. Perhaps the writer just got tired of the story as well.

Critic’s Conclusion: While it’s far from the worst horror movie out there, when it comes to planning your Halloween Scare-Fest, leave Boogeyman on the shelf.

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