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Xmas marks the spot



Holiday releases come in all shapes and sizes

Steven Spielberg's strengths and weaknesses are both on view in Munich (Rating: *** out of four), though fortunately for audience members, the former wins out by that proverbial country mile. Munich is a strong film, an important work, and already a lightning rod for controversy and (one hopes) healthy debate. But another instant Spielberg classic? Not quite.

With a script drafted by heavy-hitters Tony Kushner (Angels In America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Munich is largely a fictionalization of the events that transpired after that tragic day at the 1972 Olympics in Germany, when a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September slaughtered the Israeli athletes they were holding as hostages. The movie reveals that, in an effort to exhibit their toughness to the world, the Israeli government sent a select band of assassins to eliminate everyone who was responsible for the Munich massacre.

Spielberg and his writers bring to vivid life this motley crew of enforcers: Avner (Eric Bana), the sensitive leader of the group; the fiery getaway driver Steve (Daniel Craig, aka the new James Bond); the meticulous "clean up" man Carl (Ciaran Hinds); the jittery bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); and the pensive forger Hans (Hanns Zischler). But these characters aren't positioned as Israel's version of The Untouchables, with clear-cut visions of right and wrong. Instead, as they carry out each hit on their eye-for-an-eye agenda, each man reacts differently to the consequences of their actions. Is this brand of retribution just? Or are they in effect embracing the same ideology that drives the terrorists?

Spielberg's muddying of the moral waters is already drawing heat (primarily from Jewish leaders), but it's to his credit as a filmmaker of consequence that he asks the hard questions and doesn't flinch from any unsettling truths that might emerge. This is perhaps the least sentimental of any motion picture in the director's strong filmography, with a couple of scenes that stand among the most memorable he's created in recent times.

But that's not to say that the director keeps his finger steady on the trigger at all times, and when his instincts as a popcorn showman emerge, it's at inopportune times. The manner in which he uses the fate of a young girl to manipulate audience emotions is tactless in this context, and the brute force of one excellent scene involving the extermination of a female killer -- it's shocking from the first frame to the last -- is softened by the very next sequence in which the characters discuss the matter in almost apologetic tones.

Overall, though, Munich continues the maturization of that rare director who's able to glide easily between movies that entertain and movies that educate -- no small feat for any filmmaker.

The Academy isn't exactly known for its embrace of comedy -- only in its humorless universe could Ben-Hur win the Best Picture Oscar in the year of Some Like It Hot -- but in the 1968 race, voters were in a giddy enough mood to hand the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Mel Brooks for his comic gem, The Producers. Don't expect similar accolades for this latest version, also called The Producers (Rating: ***), since a funny thing happened on the way to the podium. Brook's commercial failure but cult success was resurrected by the comic legend himself as a Broadway musical, one so successful that it earned a record 12 Tony Awards to go along with its enormous box office booty. That a movie version would follow is no surprise; what's startling is how the picture plays as little more than a static filming of the stage play, barely more mobile than those one-set Shakespeare dramatizations that used to pop up regularly on PBS.

The blame for that falls squarely on Susan Stroman, who directed the stage hit and brings the same limited vision to the big screen. What may have looked energetic to a live audience comes across as myopic to moviegoers, yet because this property was never that expansive to begin with (even in the '68 model), it's by no means a death blow. On the contrary, The Producers functions in much the same way as the recent screen adaptation of Rent by emphasizing melody and mirth over movement -- in fact, it works even better thanks to the presence of master ham Nathan Lane.

In the Gene Wilder role of the timid accountant Leo Bloom, Matthew Broderick strains too hard to be funny -- you almost feel sorry for the guy, praying he doesn't give himself a hernia through all those pained expressions. Lane, on the other hand, is a riot in the Zero Mostel role of Max Bialystock, the struggling producer who determines that a dreadful show called Springtime for Hitler is his ticket to riches. Lane's brand of old-school shtick is exactly what this project calls for, and he's ably supported in his efforts by Uma Thurman, who's a saucy delight as the Swedish secretary Ulla, and Will Ferrell, whose kamikaze style of comedy finds a suitable outlet in the role of Springtime's Fuhrer-loving scripter, Franz Liebkind.