Charade (1963) (R)

IMDb / Taylor
Written by Peter Stone
Directed by Stanley Donen

A different type of film entertainment existed in the middle of last century. It was funny and thrilling, breezy and clever, a classy sort of movie that captivates all who go into the cinema but leaves little to no lasting impact. They were made by people with a love for and great knowledge of cinema – Hitchcock, Reed et al – and they were designed only to keep your eyes glued to the screen. You don’t really see this today. Instead we get shit like Failure to Launch, Norbit and Saw 47, none of which resemble quality film entertainment. But don’t let’s get bogged down in the rubbish polluting cinema screens here and now.

Charade is the most enjoyable example of that classy entertainment that I’ve seen. It has just about everything: danger, romance, double-crossing and witty banter. A great director at the peak of his powers. Three huge stars, and another who would go on to become a legend. A twisting, cracking script, and excellent production values. Everything seems so effortless, but to get so many different aspects working perfectly in sync takes a lot of work, so the people involved were clearly professionals of the highest order.

Hepburn plays Reggie, a widow, who is being chased by three men (including James Coburn) who think she’s carrying $250,000. Cary Grant appears to want to protect her, and Walter Matthau’s CIA staffer wants to help her, but who’s jeepin’ who? The plot unfolds at a swift pace, supported by a steady stream of great lines, most of which come in conversations between Grant and Hepburn’s characters. It’s easy to see why these two would rank extremely highly on lists of the greatest movie stars ever (I believe Premiere magazine rated Grant at #1), because their very presence on screen is enough to ensure a contented smile from me. With Stone’s wonderful words to back them up, they create iconic roles which made me wish for an infinite reserve of one-liners and comebacks.

For me, though, the real star is Donen. I always figured Singin’ in the Rain was more Gene Kelly’s show than his, but on the basis of this, he’s a fantastic director in his own right. One could film this script with these stars like a sitcom, and it would still entertain; he lifts it to another level by employing wonderful dollys and pans, and timing each shot just right so that the line gets the biggest laugh. He wasn’t yet 40 when he made this; unfortunately, he became swiftly less active as the years went on.

Aside from not having anything to keep your brain ticking over after leaving the cinema, the only quibble I might have harks back to an earlier point: people like Grant, Hepburn and Matthau are (were) such massive stars that they only really needed to turn up to get the audience on-side. That isn’t to say they don’t do a good job; it’s just that I sometimes wish for real characters when I watch these movies, not another identical performance in that star’s typical groove. I suppose that familiarity was precisely what made them famous and what got them the big roles, but acting has come a long way since then, and someone like Tom Cruise has to work extremely hard just to separate the audience’s preconceptions from the character he’s playing. And quite often, to my mind, he does it.

Anyway, if you enjoy life, see this movie. Two hours could hardly pass more swiftly and enjoyably. That makes it very hard to write about – it’s light entertainment, but made with the utmost precision to mine the most out of the material. All you can do is doff your cap, then move on to the next thing.

Children of Men (2005) (R)

IMDb / French / Cossar
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Timothy J. Sexton & David Arata
Based on the novel by P.D. James
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

There’s kind of a rule when it comes to screenwriting: the more writers collaborate on a screenplay, the lower the quality of the finished product. Point of trivia: the use of an ampersand (&) in screenwriting credits indicates collaboration, while the use of the complete word ‘and’ indicates a separate re-write. I’m not even sure if what I’ve used above is correct here – I’m just going by what Yahoo! tells me – but if I’ve got it right, that’s a minimum of three separate writes and re-writes for this script. So, it must be rubbish, right?

Yes and no. Yes, the screenplay for Children of Men is loaded down with plot holes, contrivances, out-and-out stupidity and a large degree of overwrought (usually religious) symbolism. No, because if a poor screenplay can attract a good director, gold can still be spun. It was the case with Miami Vice – Mann’s script was crap even before Jamie Foxx forced him to change half of it – and it is the case here. Cuaron’s direction is better than good – it’s great, and most surprisingly, it offers something almost completely new in cinema.

It’s not unusual for directors to indulge in long takes: extended, carefully choreographed and skilfully created shots that make what is happening seem all the more real. But in scenes of high action? Almost unheard of, especially these days when you’ve got films like Batman Begins preventing you from seeing anything in the fight scenes because of their 0.1sec average shot length. Here, Cuaron has his most thrilling sequences play out in shots of up to four or five minutes in length, and the plight of his characters takes on such an immediacy that when the camera moves into an unprotected place, we fear for it as we fear for the characters. He cheated by patching shots together to make them look like one – this is obvious in at least two places – but it’s still remarkable, and never loses its novelty or impact.

So, as we check off more boxes on the hokum list – animals love hero, Mary-figure draped in old cloth, a boat to salvation called ‘Tomorrow’ – we are forced to put the clipboard away and marvel at what’s being shown up there on the screen. Likewise, as advantages materialise in front of our hero, we don’t really mind because it all feels so real. (Occasional comment poster Helen Back would disagree, but ignore her if she pipes up, even though she’s partly right.) Kudos must be extended at this point to the excellent work done by the cinematographer and production design team, because they create a vision of the future which is at once believable and nightmarish. Wisely, they add little to what already exists today, instead concentrating most of their efforts on what would be missing.

Praise also be to Clive Owen, who gives his most complex, wide-ranging film performance yet. I’ve never been quite sure what to think of him because he always seems kind of flat, like he’s just playing himself, but he uses everything he has here without making it look obvious. It would have been so easy to drift into caricature, being as his Theo is the classic put-upon hero, but with his stumbles and swearing he crafts a unique screen character. (I really love it when film actors can swear well repeatedly; I think it’s a great sign of quality.) The supports are good too, especially Michael Caine as a Steve Bell-type with a great taste in music.

Children of Men is a strange beast, then. Like so many films, the greatness of some aspects (direction, cinematography, design) fights tooth and nail against the crapness of others (screenplay, screenplay, screenplay). However, unlike most of these films, the greatness wins out over the crapness for a change! Seeing as Cuaron was heavily involved in the writing, he doesn’t deserve all-consuming praise, but as a director he’s produced some of the best work on offer this year. Forget all the bullshit flying around the story, and watch it for the darkness (and dark humour) that drips off the screen.

Out of the Blue (2006) (R)

IMDb / Wong
Written by Robert Sarkies and Graeme Tetley
Directed by Robert Sarkies

I couldn’t find a still of the image I wanted to run with this review, so I’ll describe it. Helen Dickson, 73, sits quietly in her kitchen under a duvet as David Gray, 33, stands outside her window holding a rifle. She’s cradling an injured dog, and she grips her hand around its mouth to stifle its whimpers. David can be seen through a chink in the curtains, and for a second or two, he thinks he hears something and peers around into the house. His gaze is pointed directly down the camera at the audience. That moment is a metaphor (and I’m speaking for New Zealand residents here): we’re in that kitchen with Helen, hoping that this evil outside won’t notice us and come in to destroy us. It’s done all sorts of evil deeds elsewhere, but surely it’s not going to get us – is it?

I might be stretching things, but it’s a great moment – one of several in a quality film. Our national psyche might be a bit more wary now, but in 1990, we knew we were cut off from much of the world and the bad things that can happen. Then Gray lost his mind, and we wondered about that strange guy down the street in our town or suburb. I’m not old enough to remember exactly the strength of the impact this massacre had on our society, but Out of the Blue, despite a few loose treatments of the truth, suggests that it opened many of our eyes to nastiness.

The film is at its best when it follows Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) and his fellow frightened cops as they vainly attempt to neutralise the threat posed by Gray. The nervous behaviour of men on both sides rings completely true. Gray doesn’t really have a plan, he just wants to stay alive as long as possible; the policemen fear for their lives, and lack the grit (and training) to do him in. It’s appropriately shocking at times, too: the first killing is hand-over-the-mouth brutal, and a half-second shot where Gray appears in the distance behind someone is genuinely scary.

However, points are lost during the early scenes with Gray. He is filmed mostly in pointed close-up to emphasise how alone he is, which is okay up to a point, but starts to become forced; then we see how out of step he is with the rest of the world, as schoolkids on the bus laugh at him, and starts yelling in a bank (a scene so out-of-synch with reality I couldn’t help but smile). Matt Sunderland is impressive all the way through, though – it must have been an extremely difficult role to play, and I think he got it absolutely right.

Urban is good, too. He’s doing all right for himself over in the States, and that’s because he can play any part with strength and sensitivity. He has to carry large portions of this film almost single-handedly, and he manages that easily. The real diamond here, though, is Lois Lawn as Dickson. A non-professional, there isn’t a single second of her performance that doesn’t feel like documentary. The way she speaks on the phone, the fearful but pragmatic look in her eyes, her final glance at the bedsheets fluttering in the wind – it’s all perfect, and she ought to win awards.

Sarkies has taken a few cues from Paul Greengrass (United 93), but with a few cinematic additions, such as a complex sound design (sometimes overly so) and occasional shots of calm amidst the insanity. If there are missteps, they are over-balanced by even more impressive points in the film’s favour. And as the obligatory roll of names and ‘what happened next’ info came up before the final credits, I suddenly became choked up. They’re all real people, you know? Dickson really did crawl home twice; Chiquita Holden really did get shot and see her father die. Out of the Blue doesn’t function as entertainment; it’s a warning, a reminder of what could be just around the corner, and of what happens if we neglect the marginals of society.

(What most disappoints me is that the title of this film makes me think of that horrific Delta Goodrem song about Mark Philippoussis, which has been running through my head since I left the cinema. But I’m sure I’ll be all right.)

L’Enfant (2005) (R)

English title: ‘The Child’
IMDb / Ebert
Written and Directed Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

During the screening of L’Enfant that I attended, a group of ladies in the row behind me tutted and sighed their way through as young Bruno made one foolish decision after another. Normally I might be annoyed by such loud and obvious reactions, but I found myself shaking my head along with them, the same way you would at a kid randomly pressing buttons in museum exhibits, or running up and down escalators. Whenever Bruno (pictured above) sees an opportunity, he leaps on it without hardly a first thought. They are almost always decisions that will make his already poor life even worse, and between our noises of condemnation, we wonder how he got to be like this.

The film begins with Bruno’s girlfriend Sonia cradling their newborn son, Jimmy, as she looks for Bruno and a place to sleep. She eventually finds him wandering around a busy intersection asking drivers for spare change, and when shown his son for the first time, he acts selfishly and irresponsibly. He lives out of an abandoned shack and commits petty crime to make a living; his existence is completely unenviable. Well, not quite. He appears to have a loving relationship with Sonia. But he destroys that when he realises that Jimmy could be worth a bit, and calls up some people who will give him 5000 euros for his nine day-old son.

It quickly becomes clear that the child of the title is not little Jimmy but Bruno. His actions are entirely motivated either by his own advancement or protection. Gradually he gets into more and more strife – first with passers-by in the street, then with more powerful criminals, and finally with the police – he continues to repeatedly make the wrong decision. He endangers not only himself, but his partner and child, and kids he’s roped into his various pathetic criminal enterprises. Many times, we see him tentatively crossing a busy road, as if to suggest that he is adrift in an adult world he thrust upon himself too early.

At no point does he take responsibility, but neither does he dismiss his actions as inconsequential. He knows he should own up, but he can’t bring himself to do so, and the accompanying guilt spurs him to keep behaving foolishly. The catharsis of the final scene, for Bruno and for us, is immensely powerful given what’s gone before. He knows he fucked up again and again, and at last he is opening himself to the forgiveness of others. Had the film ended any other way – say, for example, he ran away from his troubles – it would be infinitely less powerful and truthful. He is laid bare, exposed as the simple, stupid young kid that we’ve recognised all along, and from there we hope he can begin to grow up.

L’Enfant reminded me a lot of Sweet Sixteen, in that it details with the gritty reality of kids getting involved in things they’re too immature to really understand. It’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. Sweet Sixteen has more complex characters, so I’d probably give it the nod, but there is much to be admired about the directness and clarity of vision in L’Enfant. The Dardennes seek to present a very basic truth in an unusually straightforward (for these times) cinematic manner, and the result is an accurate, perceptive and quite moving tale. It isn’t pretty, but it’s certainly effective.

Borat (2006) (R)

Full title: ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer
Directed by Larry Charles

Every last frame of Borat is designed to incense, to enrage, to get you off your feet and yelling abuse at the screen. To offend. It is expressly designed to piss you, the paying audience member, off; a shallow exercise in depravity and baseness, a shameless effort to perpetuate stereotypes that haven’t been a problem for 25 years or more. It makes a mockery of anything and everything we hold sacred.

Borat underhandedly takes the guise of a comedy. We see the ‘hero’, this one-joke fake whose very existence makes fun of an entire nation, as he travels across the United States from setup to unfunny, defamatory setup. Much has been made of the anti-Semitism in the film – the Jews did 9/11, the Jews will take your money, the Jews will kill you, and so on – but the film contains even greater shocks. Racism and homophobia are celebrated, churches are ridiculed. A bear is cruelly mistreated, as is a pet chicken.

The most outrageous section of the film is an extended sequence of full male nudity. I have never, in all my years reviewing films, come across anything as outrageous and purposeless as this sequence. A tip: it isn’t enough to simply show something like this for it to be funny. It needs to work in the context of the film. Not that this scene could ever be funny – it’s as provocatively poor a bit of comedy as you’ll see.

Clearly, Sacha Baron Cohen is not a student of classic British comedy – his work here bears no resemblance to the intelligence of Monty Python, Steptoe & Son or Blackadder, instead stooping to the present American trends of lowest-brow humour such as that espoused by the idiots on shows such as Jackass. It’s symptomatic of this worldwide trend away from smart comedy. There is no satire here, no trace of irony. We are shown gag after unfunny gag, thrown at us in the hope that something sticks. It isn’t the volume of jokes that matters, Mr. Baron Cohen, but the quality of them. Go back from whence you came, and don’t try this sort of thing again…


Dawn of the Dead (2004) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Based on the 1978 screenplay by George A. Romero
Written by James Gunn
Directed by Zack Snyder

The horror genre is in a boom at the moment. I’m not talking about that tame brand of horror that emerged in the 90s (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and that has continued into this decade (When a Stranger Calls, Cry_Wolf), but the horror that harks back to the 70s and early 80s heyday. Films like Wolf Creek, Hostel, The Descent, and 28 Days Later…. Films with that scare you with their content, proper blood and shocks, and don’t resort to shitty, overused film techniques like loud noises and whip-pans. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake seemed like a bad idea – the original is such a seminal entry in the genre – but remarkably, his film is actually worthy of the title.

Because this is a zombie movie, and we were drinking, half of the time we were paying more attention to our own theories for survival in a post-zombification world. Me, I’d probably get in line behind the characters in this film (and the original, which by the way I haven’t seen): get to a shopping mall and secure it. You’ve got everything you need for months of survival. If nobody comes to save you, at least you will have lived like a king for a while. You’d need to be in a group of 10 people or so – bigger and you risk infighting, smaller and you’re too easy to pick off.

But I digress. Maybe the best thing about this impressive film is the lengthy pre-credits sequence. Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse, leaves work just as more and more bite wound patients are coming in, but she remains unaware of the impending doom. In her Edward Scissorhands neighbourhood, everything seems okay, but the direction suggests something sinister is going on – why do we linger on a shot of the girl rollerblading away? When Ana wakes up the next morning, we learn why: there’s the girl, in Ana’s house, a voracious zombie with a thirst for her partner’s flesh. That Ana loses her partner so early shows how ballsy and ruthless the film is, and that tone continues as she meets with a motley crew and holes up in that enormous mall.

The thing is, amongst all the heads exploding, chainsaws through shoulders and wickets through skulls, there is a sense of humour. The choice of music is fantastic: Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around plays over the opening credits, and Richard Cheese’s cover of Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness plays at about halfway in. Apparently these were Snyder’s choices that the studio disagreed with, but he insisted – it’s just as well. Then there are scenes like the one where they spot zombified celebrities to take out, like Jay Leno and Rosie O’Donnell, or the long-range game of chess the cop has with the weapons expert on top of a neighbouring building. It flicks between humour and horror effectively enough so that we can laugh and then be scared, unsettled for a moment before forgetting about it. It’s probably one of the most audience-friendly films I know of, existing purely to entertain, and it does it well. For boys, anyway.

The script is the source of any problems. Looking at Gunn’s filmography, he seems to be a bit of a hack, and there is little innovation in the story and characters, plus the film kind of runs out of steam towards the end. But the actors do all they need to, and Snyder’s direction is extremely impressive, especially for a debut. His work here suggests a big future. If you’re at all interested in horror this is a must-see – it’s so much fun, and respects its predecessor(s) but creates its own impressive effect. Make sure to keep watching during the closing credits for possibly the biggest shock of the film.

Hi, Mom! (1969) (R)

IMDb / Emerson
Written and Directed by Brian De Palma

Beginning with a point-of-view shot of the protagonist’s perspective and ending with that same protagonist waving directly into the camera, Hi, Mom! is a film that states a clear desire to involve and manipulate the audience. It wants to make you complicit in its senseless violence, its comedy, its voyeurism. It wants you to be aware that as you watch and judge, you are also being judged. A film like this wouldn’t even get made today in America, but if it were, it would be just as incendiary as I’m sure it was back at the beginning of the 70s.

Practically formless, Hi, Mom! is composed more of a string of related scenes rather than a straightforward narrative. There’s Jon Rubin, just back from Vietnam, who wants to film the people in the housing project across the road from him and sell the footage to discerning buyers. And in the windows of that housing project, we have: the family of four whose mother remarks that their housing project is much nicer than the others down the street (it’s exactly the same); the playboy who forcefully beds a different woman each night; the cute girl who Jon attempts to seduce; and the young actor staging a play called ‘Be Black, Baby!’ with some African-American friends, and the audience for that play. Through all of these characters, these ciphers who do not remotely represent real individuals but instead stand for collective groups of society, De Palma turns his gaze on the American public and says ‘Something ain’t right’. And he does it with a wink and a smile, daring you to distance yourself from it.

As I said, it’s a string of related scenes with not much tying them together narrative-wise; still, many of these scenes are excellent. The absurdly optmistic footage shot by the well-to-do family makes light of a situation most would be disappointed with; little is more depressing than someone trying to say they’re happy with their lot when really, they’re not. Jon’s routines with the cute girl are extremely manipulative, but I found myself laughing along with them because Jon was intended to be a source of amusement – wasn’t he?

Then there’s the performance of ‘Be Black, Baby!’, for which the film’s upbeat soundtrack stops and we descend into hell for several harrowing minutes. It’s the moment in the film where you realise how twisted it’s been all along, how you are just as involved in it as these audience members are in the play. It’s truly horrifying to watch, creating an incredible sense of dread that eventually does spill over into our deepest revulsions. And suddenly, Jon appears to play his part, and we’re back where we were – aware once again that it is just a film, just a performance, as if his presence on screen reassures us. The audience’s eager recommendation of the play at its end is, I suppose, akin to my little ‘R’ at the top of the post there – I felt angry and confused, but I’m damned if I didn’t enjoy it just a bit, or feel like I learned something.

After that, Jon loses it and… well, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but his actions are outrageously senseless, and they are coupled with that same upbeat music that keeps telling you everything’s going to be all right. A character called Joe King (say it out loud, fast) succinctly sums up the film’s agenda, but is listed in the credits as a real person. Then Jon interrupts to register his disgust because, among other things, Mr. King hasn’t been to war and seen what he’s seen. Finally, he says hello to his mother, and smiles and waves directly at us.

What to take from all this? Is he reminding us one last time that it’s all just a performance and we can go home and recommend it to our friends and family? Or is he saying that it is us, the audience, that spawned him and brought him to commit such heinous acts? This is the earliest film I’ve seen that really manipulates the audience and incorporates them into its agenda, and it does it very effectively; in a way, its lack of structure helps its impact. You won’t be able to sit through it and not have a reaction. Just quietly, this is a film that came out of nowhere, almost completely unheralded, and pretty well stunned me.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee

Ennis: “I figure we got a one-shot deal going here.”
Jack: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.”
Ennis: “You know I ain’t queer.”
Jack: “Neither am I.”

I want to say these are two simple, uncomplicated men, with simple lives and simple desires, but it just isn’t true. To say that would confound us all as being simple. We reach for simplicity, for plain happiness and peace of mind, but the reality is never quite like that, and the case of Ennis and Jack is no different. Love isn’t ever straightforward, and it can become so complex that it rips you apart. You will have heard Brokeback Mountain described as ‘that gay cowboy movie’, but to be honest, sex/gender is irrelevant to a large extent. It’s about two people who long for and love each other, and how no matter how strongly their love is tested, it will not die.

This is a film remarkably free of pretension or obviousness. The direction is careful and restrained, as one expects from Ang Lee; working in tandem with one of my favourite cinematographers, Rodrigo Prieto, he crafts stunning compositions that are truly beautiful to behold. From a wide shot of sheep being herded through a valley, to a tight closeup of an actor’s pained performance, to one of the best final shots I’ve seen in a film, he uses the full frame superbly to extract the most out of every scene. Everything is placed perfectly: the actors, a campfire, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of beer. It all adds up to some of the most impressive images in recent memory, particularly as most of the subjects are everyday things that one wouldn’t normally give any thought to.

In the steady hands of an assured director, all the actors shine. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are good as the wives of Ennis and Jack, and Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris offer good support in brief roles. However, the movie is about the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and they absolutely nail their roles. Ledger is garnering most of the praise in the press for his subdued, grunting performance, and I can understand that as it is some distance away from his real-life persona. For me, though, Gyllenhaal’s turn is marginally more impressive. He shows sensitivity, fragility, strength, and a deep sadness and regret; I’d be quite happy to see him take him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. They both are really very good, though. Their scenes together, right from the film’s opening, are compellingly well-acted and affecting.

I wonder how people are reacting to this film. I’ve read about religious zealots condemning the film (and in a couple of cases refusing to screen it), but I’m not interested in them. I want to know what the average male cinemagoer feels when a movie gets him to care strongly about – and love – two male characters. Has it provoked angry reactions, or maybe rethinks of personal philosophies? Personally, a heterosexual, I welcomed the opportunity to empathise with gay men in a film, as it challenges me and forces me to consider things I would otherwise avoid. Anyway, as stated earlier, gender was pretty much stripped away by the sensitivity of the portrayal. That’s the way it should be. It’s love, just as we know it – intoxicating, difficult, impossible to predict or prevent. There are significant elements in the plot concerning homophobia and the concealing of the relationship, but they are an aside, rather than the crux of the story. The focus is on the struggle of two people, and the effect their struggle has on the people close to them.

Overall, it loses a couple of points for covering a long period of time in too short a time-frame and for being a little episodic. Brokeback Mountain isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one – a serious, thoughtful, mostly subtle exploration of the Greatest of All Things. It deals with homosexuality in a very mature manner: while it plays an integral role in the characters’ lives, it isn’t what defines them. Their love for each other is what defines them, and ultimately, what destroys them.

Farewell My Concubine (1993) (R)

Original title: ‘Ba wang bie ji’
IMDb / Ebert
Written by Lillian Lee, Bik-Wa Lei & Wei Lu
Based on the novel by Lillian Lee
Directed by Kaige Chen

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that relates to opera and China, the other being the disappointing M. Butterfly. Thankfully, Ba wang bie ji is not a confused adaptation of a confused stage play; rather, it is a quality adaptation of a popular novel. Unfocused and abrupt in some sections, but expertly orchestrated in others, it tells an involving and epic story with often stunning visuals and confident direction.

While I was watching, I was struck by how much more substance was present than in Yimou Zhang’s recent epics, Ying xiong and Shi mian mai fu. Those films are stunningly beautiful and extremely entertaining, but they just don’t have the depth of Ba wang bie ji. Very basically, it’s a love story – two characters and their loves for the opera stage, a woman, and most of all each other – but their detailed exploration makes it more than that. These are complex characters, full of hope, sadness, regret, and great love that spills all over the screen; I remember someone referring to those Zhang films as ‘China discovering Shakespeare’, but to me this is more Shakespearean because it deals in important themes while telling a good story.

Because Mandarin is so different from English, I usually find Chinese acting stilted and awkward and lacking in emotion. Not so here. The three leads (Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang and Gong Li) are compelling and offer affecting portrayals of tragic characters; the child acting in the earlier Full Metal Jacket-esque scenes is also very good. In particular, Cheung is superb as the confused Dieyi; he has too much love to give, and it is heartbreaking to watch as it slowly destroys him. It is particularly sad to watch now, as he committed suicide three years ago.

I’m particularly unfocused with this review; perhaps that’s because the last half hour covered too much ground too quickly. A film of nearly three hours should feel complete and satisfying, and such feelings are nearly impossible when it crams a lot of plot development into the final reel. By that stage the themes are well established and we are just waiting for them to be rounded out, but the introduction of these plot elements is distracting. It’s not enough to derail the film, but I would like to think they could’ve spent a bit less time further back in time in order to give the later periods better coverage.

Overall it’s worth seeing, at the very least for a few scenes which were so good they sent shivers down my spine. It’s the best film I’ve seen from the Republic, and probably better than any Hong Kong film I’ve seen, too. Kaige Chen shows that he is an extremely capable director (I couldn’t believe this was the same guy who made Killing Me Softly), and the actors offer impressive characterisations. I guess my lack of focus with this review shows that I wasn’t completely struck by greatness, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have watched it in two goes. Another viewing, a complete viewing, would probably make my opinion more solid. It doesn’t matter; it’s good cinema.

Munich (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
Based on ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas
Directed by Steven Spielberg

I hate it when movies are lumped with political agendas. Nothing distracts more from a good story than obvious political content, and it is equally frustrating when that content is forced upon the film by statements in media. Munich suffers from the latter, but tellingly, not the former. (Here and here are two very insightful pieces of comment by Spielberg himself, defending his film.) Words have been spoken at length in the press about its supposed defamation of Palestinians, or of Jews, etc etc etc. I was aware of all this going in, and to my delight, these statements were proved to be totally reactionary. This film sides with no group or individual; it sides with humanity, our collective desire, and shows how misguided we can become in our pursuit of the fulfilment of that desire. It’s a film made by people who care about people, not a piece of propaganda designed to convert minds to a different way of thinking.

Munich is based on true events – the series of hits carried out in the wake of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. However, its focus is not so much political, but more on the implications of these incidents on one man. And, in keeping with my own philosophy for filmmaking, this refined focus offers a more inclusive and substantial view of the human condition than a wider scope could have. We watch as Avner (Eric Bana) leads his team through several hits, his life becoming more and more complicated; we don’t condone his actions, and neither does the film, but we sympathise with him because he has real concerns that we can relate to. Family, morality, legacy. The big issues, the ones that really matter.

The screenplay drives the film forward nicely, becoming more focused as it progresses (which I like); it also has room for brief moments that do nothing to advance the plot, but flesh out the characters infinitely better. The acting is decent; Bana is not a great actor, but he is a good one, and he carries the film well – we want to know what happens to his character, and we understand what’s going on through his eyes. It’s every inch Spielberg’s film, though. Many shots are masterfully composed, shifting our focus from one character to another with considerable skill and a great deal of style. It moves at a swift and even pace, making the long running time fly past. And, as I have stated many times already, it is very well focused for a film tackling such grand issues. My hat is off to the guy; he’s hardened a lot since E. T., that’s for sure. Of particular note are the assassinations: they are brilliantly executed, exhilirating set pieces that linger long in the memory.

A few overly dramatic choices bring it down a bit. The sex scenes that bookend the film are gratuitous, especially in that they are integral to the overall message; there had to have been a more toned down way to get the point across. Some of the accents were not very convincing, especially Daniel Craig’s – a minor quibble, but it is distracting. And occasionally, the violence is a little bit too brutal. It’s horrifying and realistic, but too much of it can be numbing, and Munich comes close to reaching that stage.

Some of us may have a collective goal, but are we justified in doing everything in our power – including killing other people – to obtain that goal? And how does it compare to watching our children grow up, or looking into the eyes of a friend and knowing that there is mutual trust and respect? Munich raises many questions, none of which have simple answers. Like The Constant Gardener, it promotes an awareness of what atrocities are being committed in the world, and it promotes a better attitude towards each other and ourselves. Everything isn’t just going to be all right if we carry on like this, so let’s all do something about it. Classic Spielberg themes, in a way, but rarely have they been better handled.