“Munich is not quite, at least on first blush, the unstoppable Oscar powerhouse that I first thought it might be,” admits David Poland in his current “Hot Button” column about his viewing of Steven Spielberg’s film last night (i.e., Monday). “But it is still the likely winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar, in my opinion.” [I presume readers are aware that whenever a writer says “in my opinion,” it means he/she is feeling less than 100% resolved.] “It is serious…it is excellent,” Poland continues. “And it is about something important beyond its own storytelling parameters. Brokeback Mountain will have its supporters, but I don’t see it overcoming this film, which speaks to bigger issues, though the issues in Brokeback are extremely important to its constituency.” In other words, if you’re gay or female Brokeback may mean a lot to you, but if you’re a thoughtful two-fisted hetero guy you’re going to find “bigger issues” — i.e., more important content — in Munich, and probably even more so if you’re Jewish. And yet Poland’s first out-of-the-gate reaction to Munich…the first thought that seemed strong enough to merit mention…is that all the performances are strong (especially Michael Lonsdale’s “near cameo”). He states toward the end of the piece that “the theme of [Munich] is the dehumanizing nature of violence over time. No matter how well founded — in your mind or in reality — the ‘right’ to kill is, in order to maintain focus on the effort, one must dehumanize both their target and themselves.” Uhm…okay. But uhm…may I say something? Has there ever been an intelligent film about protagonists involved in killing people that doesn’t convey the idea, in one fashion or another, that violence is dehumanizing all around? Including (but certainly not limited to) Peter Weir’s Witness, Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Michael Mann’s Collateral and about 20 or 30 other films I could mention off the top of my head?
Correction: The trades will be out Friday, 12.16 with their reviews of Terrence Malick’s The New World (New Line, 12.25 limited). Most critics will love it, Academy members will run hot, lukewarm and cold, and the paying public….well, who knows? Film sophisticates will turn out, of course…ditto anyone bored with the commercial mainstream output these days…anyone with an appreciation for an unusually told love story…it’s a sumptuous art film and a class act all the way.
It was supposed to be okay as of yesterday (12.5) to start riffing about The Producers (Universal, 12.16), so where are the trade reviews? Let me be among the first to say that this big swanky movie musical may be square (i.e., in a Mel Brooks time-capsule way, which means square with a certain historical authority) but very entertaining in a brassy and unapologetic Tin Pan Alley fashion. The Broadway musical worked beautifully and this is a stodgy but fervent capturing of that Broadway show …and there’s really nothing to beef about. It plays fine even if you never saw the show but liked the original 1968 Mel Brooks non-singing filmed comedy. Nathan Lane’s Zero Mostel-like Max Bialystock is a raucous ride in itself, and chubby Matthew Broderick is loads of fun as Leo Bloom. A bewigged Uma Thurman really gets into that parody-of-a-broadly-sexual-babe routine that Madeline Kahn used to do for Brooks in the ’70s. Will Ferrell is oafishly tedious in the Kenneth Mars part, and is wearing out his welcome fast. Susan Stroman directed, but of course she didn’t make a move without Mel Brooks’ say-so. The queeny gay humor is “funny” in a vaudevillian sense, but only in Brooksland are gay men portrayed as unregenerate pre-Stonewall effeminates. (You just know that Middle Americans will be more comfortable with this shtick than anything in Brokeback Mountain.) Stranger still is Stroman’s visual sense, or rather the photography by John Bailey and Charles Minsky. The Producers is shot and edited as if it was directed by Henry Koster or Henry King in the mid 1950s. The camera just sits there like it weighs ten tons and can only be moved with herculean effort. You couldn’t get further away from the frenetic visuals of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge if you tried. There’s nothing “wrong” with an approach that says “this is a story set in 1959 or thereabouts, so let’s make a movie that feels like it was shot back then.” But it’s also just plain old-fogeyish, and I wonder how it will sit with the under-25s.
“I don’t think any movie or any book or any work of art can solve the stalemate in the Middle East today,” Steven Spielberg has said in reply to a question about Munich, which deals with Israel’s revenge campaign over the 1972 Olympic massacre murders. “But it’s worth a try. Somewhere inside all this intransigence there has to be a prayer for peace. The biggest enemy is not the Palestinians or the Israelis. The biggest enemy in the region is intransigence.” A wise and perceptive thought…and yet something in me recoils when moral and ethical ruminations become part of a movie’s marketing campaign, however relevant they may be to the subject matter. Paddy Chayefsky once wrote that “nobody gets moral unless they want to get something or get out of something.” Political considerations must be set aside — Munich will rise or fall based on whether it has at least two and preferably three killer scenes that sink in and stick to your ribs. If it has these, watch out.
Here we are at the end of the year with a couple of weeks left to sift things through before everyone leaves for the Xmas holiday, and I’m only just starting to hear about screenings of two big-studio comedies — Dean Parisot’s Fun With Dick and Jane (Columbia, 12.21) and Rob Reiner’s Rumor Has it (Warner Bros., 12.25). We all know that a typical Meathead movie (i.e., one directed by Rob Reiner) will be conservative and tonally smoothed-out as well as diametrically opposed to any kind of loosey-goosey 1980s Pedro Almodovar sensibility, so that kind of diminishes the Rumor want-to-see right off the top of the deck. (Honestly? I’m more interested right now in those Jennifer Aniston papparazzi boob shots that her attorney has been threatening magazine editors about.) I just got invited to a December 12th London screening of Fun With Dick and Jane by Sony’s Anna Whelan…but the Culver City Sony team is curiously silent. (Wait…have I been taken off the screening list because of my Geisha comments?) The irony is that Dean Parisot (director of the great Galaxy Quest and the under-valued Home Fries) is a good guy with good instincts…but leave it to Sony’s p.r. team to convey the opposite impression. Dick and Jane, a remake of a not-very-good 1977 comedy that was co-written by Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller and Peter Tolan, was said to be a “troubled” during production…but that’s just talk. It’s about ideal married couple Dick (Jim Carrey) and Jane (Tea Leoni) freaking and turning to larceny when their income dries up.
The first no-holds-barred critics’screening of Steven Spielberg’s Munich (Universal, 12.23) (i.e., one unsullied by notions of giving Munich and Spielberg a Time cover story) happened last night at 7 pm at the Lindwood Dunn Theater on Vine Street…and I’m sure reactions will begin to seep out sometime today and answers to the Big Question — is Munich this year’s Million Dollar Baby? — will start to take shape. I won’t see Munich myself until Wednesday evening.
It’s a melancholy moment for all of us, but the Best Picture Oscar campaign for Memoirs of a Geisha seems to be dead in the water, along with any hopes of its director, Rob Marshall, being thought of in a half-serious way as Best Director. What tells me this? Five things. One, strong insect-antennae readings that people are agreeing more and more with my personal conviction that costumes and production design do not a Best Picture make. Two, a 70ish director regarded by yours truly as a harbinger of Academy sentiment is letting it be known he’s no Geisha admirer. Three, a producer I know told me today he “had great expectatons for Geisha going in but I was really bummed [afterwards].” Four, Envelope guy Steve Pond is reporting that the applause at the end of an Academy Geisha screening last Saturday afternoon was “very strong” for Ziyi Zhang and various below-the-line contributors, but that Marshall and pic’s screenwriter Robin Swicord “didn’t draw much applause.” And five, Movie City News’ David Poland is detecting that Geisha‘s Best Picture chances are “fading a little” and commenting that it’s “almost time to drop [Marshall] off the list” of Best Director contenders.” (Poland asks in the same breath, “Will fellow directors vote for a fashion show?”) Even Geisha‘s tireless publicity team (including the gracious and passionate Flo Grace, Lisa Taback and Murray Weissman) must be feeling the dying of the breeze. It’s over for three reasons, if you ask me. One, Geisha feels like a phony cultural hodgepodge (set in Japan, shot in California, spoken in English by Chinese actresses). Two, it simply isn’t good enough to be considered as a Best Picture contender (sometimes the equation really is that simple). And three, the Gods have declared that Marshall must suffer for his glossily dreadful Chicago winning the Best Picture Oscar nearly three years ago. That was a terrible Black Moment in Oscar history (the much more deserving The Pianist should have won), but now revenge is at hand. Or, as they say in Sicilian, “Nun si l’havi a ghiuttiri.”