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Monday, May 27

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Airbags

Hey, everyone. This is my final set of reviews for the year, and it's a doozy. I've seen all the films contending for awards this year (a few of which don't open in Chicago until 2006), which means next week I'll unveil my Best (and Worst) of 2006 list. That's the one you print out and hold onto for hints at future DVD rentals/purchases in the coming years. And I'll also give you details on the most self-absorbed contest in the history of contests, but there is actually a prize involved that you might enjoy. Anyway, on with the mega-column…

Munich
I never thought I'd think this about a Steven Spielberg film that didn't include hundreds of special effects shots, but if you don't see this film, something is terribly wrong with you. Spielberg has managed to make a movie as compelling as, and far more controversial than, Schindler's List. Munich is more controversial because it presents such a balanced look at the events that occurred after the horrible 1972 assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Spielberg does an astonishing job at simply laying out the facts (albeit disputed as they are), as the Israeli government unofficially sanctions a team of men (most of whom were not trained assassins) to find and kill those who carried out or planned the event in Munich.

The team is lead by family man Eric Bana (The Hulk, Troy) in a role worthy of many awards, and includes specialists played by Daniel Craig (the man who will be the next James Bond), Ciarán Hinds (Caesar of HBO's "Rome"), and Mathieu Kassovitz (Amalie). Geoffrey Rush plays the Israeli government man who puts the team together and promptly distances them from any connection with their own nation. What follows is not slick and calculated, but messy and disturbing murder. Spielberg masterfully intercuts a bloody re-creation of the events of the Olympics with the killing of the terrorists, and leaves it to us to decide if one sets of events is any more or less cruel than the other.

Everyone who sees Munich certainly will bring his or her own emotional and critical baggage to this film, and it undoubtedly will taint your opinion of it. But if it's possible for you to take a step back from the feelings the film stirs inside, you may realize that Munich is a first-rate political thriller that asks many questions about when governments cross the line into becoming what they are attempting to destroy. Has this issue ever been more relevant? Each Israeli assassin has at least one sincere moment questioning their course of action, no more so than Bana's character, who has a wife and child who soon become targets of retaliation once the terrorists find out who has targeted them. There is a final shot of Bana in New York City that brings the entire reason for this line of questioning and new way of thinking back home, and it's a devastating shot only Spielberg could get away with and not be accused of being exploitative. He is our nation's greatest cinematic storyteller, and, with Munich, he becomes its most welcome thought-provoker as well.


Match Point
If you pay any kind of attention to the films of Woody Allen (presumably because you are or were a fan of his work), you are probably insanely curious about Match Point, if for no other reason than to see what Allen is capable of out of his element, without his security blanket of neurotic characters and endless one-liners. Set entirely in England with an almost all-British cast (the lone exception is Scarlett Johansson), Allen has chosen to cast his keen eye on upper-class British society through the eyes of a man attempting to join its ranks, former tennis pro turned instructor Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

Wilton meets the very rich Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who in turn introduces Wilton to his charming sister Chloe (the always exceptional Emily Mortimer). Allen lulls us into a false sense of security in the first 30-40 minutes. There is much polite, interesting conversation between the characters with barely a hint of the type of humor Allen is best known for. Chris eventually meets Tom's fiancée, Nola (Johansson), an insecure American actress who might be the only character in Match Point that would fit within the context of a more typical Woody Allen movie. She's also instantly flirtatious with Chris, and, in the blink of an eye, this pleasant British study of mannerisms becomes an adulterous love story. But Allen isn't through surprising us with his multi-layered story. With seemingly effortless grace, Match Point goes from polite and civil to steamy Hitchcockian thriller.

Allen's writing has never been sharper or more seamless. By completely avoiding his traditional joke-telling style, he leaves room for some of his most fully realized and morally complex characters. He also has never seemed more in tune with his actors. There's a veritable chorus line of well-known British talent on display in Match Point, including appearances by Brian Cox, James Nesbitt, Penelope Wilton and even members of the comedy troupe "The League of Gentlemen" (although they play it straight here). And anyone who says Johansson is out of her depth here is partly right. Since her character clearly feels out of place among these upper-crust types, it's natural for her to seem uneasy in her skin. It's as good a performance as she's ever given. To say any more about the plot would be ruining some truly gut-wrenching twists Allen has devised, so I'll say no more.

When I first saw Match Point nearly two months ago, my first reaction was that it ranked with Woody Allen's finest films. It's undoubtedly the best of his dramas, but I also think it will be of great interest to people who normally can't stand Allen's films. This film is the best reason I can think of to either rediscover this true master, or discover for the first time the depths of his talents as a filmmaker.


The White Countess
The latest and presumably last official Merchant-Ivory production (since producer Ismail Merchant died earlier this year; although his name may still be attached to future projects) is more a collection of curiosities than an actual cohesive film, but that doesn't make it any less interesting. For example, the fact that director James Ivory has cast sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave (as sisters) and Vanessa's daughter, Natasha Richardson, in key roles in The White Countess is genuinely fascinating. And, the fact that, in one of his most prolific and substantial years to date, Ralph Fiennes gets to sink his teeth into the role of a feisty, abrasive blind American businessman, living in 1930s Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese invasion, is reason enough for celebration. But when Fiennes' Todd Jackson character and Richardson's Countess Sofia Belinsky (exiled Russian aristocrat living in Shanghai as a prostitute to support her family) meet and interact, things aren't nearly as explosive or engaging as one might think.

This is not to say there aren't some moving moments in The White Countess. But when so much of what Ivory wants us to feel is tied up in confusing and unfamiliar world history (at least to most Americans, which I suppose is our fault) and passions that never quite manifest themselves, what we are left with are a handful of very good performances and an oppressive storyline that never quite lives up to its potential. I was particularly drawn to the Belinsky's tragic tale, and how her family is more than happy to take her dirty money while barely being able to look her in the eye because they are ashamed of what she did to earn it. Sofia is not even allowed to look upon her adoring daughter when she's in her makeup and outfit to go to work at a sleazy dancehall.

Jackson leaves behind his business dealings to open up a nightclub where those from all walks of life and political beliefs can mingle and listen to the best entertainers the city has to offer. By only hearing Sofia's voice, he knows she must be the one to act as the hostess and face of his establishment. Their relationship is strictly business (well, most of the time), but raging political and military forces from the outside world threaten this quaint oasis of booze and beauty. The White Countess reminds you of a fading beauty, who still possesses a semblance of her former glory, but is irreparably flawed. There's enough here to recommend a viewing, especially for fans of Fiennes' work, but the film may leave you feeling empty and ambiguous.


Breakfast on Pluto
The latest from master director Neil Jordan is like a film starring a lead character from another planet. Breakfast on Pluto (written by Jordan, based on the book by Pat McCabe) is the life story of Patrick Brady, played with loving enthusiasm by one of the busiest actors of 2005, Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow in Batman Begins, and the terrorist in Red Eye). We follow Patrick from his early years as a foster child in a nasty Irish household to his teen and adult years as a transvestite cabaret singer named Kitten. Murphy's performance is sweet and immaculate, but I've certainly heard some declare him obnoxious, mostly because of a highly affected voice Murphy puts on for most of the film. I'll admit, the voice takes some getting used to.

Jordan has filled his carnival-like film with loads of great actors, including Liam Neeson as a priest who befriends Patrick throughout his troubled life, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Ian Hart and musician Gavin Friday. In a Forrest Gump-like gimmick, Patrick/Kitten finds himself/herself in the midst of some troubling episodes in Irish-British history, including taking up residence in a harmless looking mobile home where the IRA stashes weapons. Most of the time Kitten is oblivious to all things bad and serious as she devotes her life to searching for her long-lost mother.

Breakfast on Pluto most reminds me of a more based-in-reality version of Tim Burton's Big Fish, as Kitten moves from place to place, person to person always seeming to find help just when it's needed. Jordan fills our ears with wonderful British pop-rock tunes of the '60s and '70s, and always makes certain there is something lovely to look at on screen. As mentioned before, Murphy throws his mind, body and soul into this performance, beyond even the glossy makeup and fabulous clothes. He has a dreamy, far-away look in his eyes that makes you wish you could see what he sees. Kitten is an infectious character whose exploits I never tired of watching. Ditto goes for the film, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Casanova
One of the more startling disappointments of 2005 was attending a screening of Casanova so close on the heels of seeing Brokeback Mountain. I've been digging Heath Ledger's scene this year. His scene-stealing, drugged-out role in Lords of Dogtown was fantastic, and I even thought he held his own in the troubled Brothers Grimm. And it goes without saying that his work in Brokeback Mountain is worthy of many an award. So I genuinely was excited about seeing him play the legendary Venetian seducer of women in this frilly costume comedy of the sexes. Instead what we get is a mumbling Ledger and a politically correct account of the woman that finally brought Casanova to his senses about his dastardly ways.

As directed by Lasse Hallström, Casanova is a vibrant-looking work with no real soul to back its lush look. The puffy shirts are extra puffy, the bodices pulled extra tight, the feathers in the hats seem capable of flight. But the heart of this story is absent. Casanova is seen chased from the bedroom of married women, supposed virgins, even a nun, and it's all great fun as representatives from the Inquisition make an appearance and attempt to jail or even execute the man. Make no mistake, this is a film made by the Lasse Hallström who made Chocolat, not the one who made The Cider House Rules. Even the most serious matters seem to generate a la-dee-da attitude in the characters. But the biggest sin Casanova commits is never showing us a true sense of the man's hypnotic powers over women. The woman who takes up most of his time in this film is Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), a not-so-closeted feminist set up by her lovely mother (Lena Olin) to marry lard magnate Lord Papprizzio (Oliver Platt).

There are few things in the world I can count on more than Oliver Platt making any movie- or TV-watching experience a little bit better, but even his portrayal of the pig-like Papprizzio doesn't work its magic like it should. Also on hand is Lead Inquisitor Pucci (Jeremy Irons), who seems more caricature than character. And while I certainly wasn't expecting any deep, meaningful insight into the mind and mannerisms of Lord Jacomo Casanova, I certainly wanted something with more substance than this film has. Ledger seems wholly uninspired, and this might be the Casanova's biggest setback. If he can't muster any enthusiasm for the work, why should we? The film opens Sunday at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Rumor Has It
Rob Reiner has really rocked my world lately. With such forgettable gems as Alex & Emma and The Story of Us to his recent credit, I don't think I'm the only one on the verge of writing off Reiner as past his prime. This is not an easy decision to come to. The man gave us Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, Misery and the film that redefined the modern romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally…. Of course, the most recent of these films was made in 1990. Rumor Has It is far from a great film, but it's promising thanks to a clever screenplay by Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven remake, Matchstick Men). Reiner throws in plenty of cornball jokes that threaten this healthy script, but he more or less just shoots it and lets the story tell itself.

Rumor Has It follows the tumultuous life of Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston), who, on the eve of her younger sister's (Mena Suvari) wedding, accidentally discovers that the book and movie The Graduate was actually a barely disguised version of events that happened to her mother and grandmother. With her mother long dead, Sarah turns to grandmother Katharine, a note-perfect Shirley MacLaine, whose Mrs. Robinson tendencies are clearly visible almost immediately. Sarah discovers that in fact her mother did not run away with "Benjamin" in real life, but did skip out on her fiancée (Richard Jenkins) shortly before their wedding to spend a romantic few days with former flame Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner). Sarah does the math and begins to wonder if Beau might be her real father, since she seemingly has nothing in common with the rest of her family. Her head is further clouded by her recent engagement to a lovely man named Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), who she clearly adores but isn't sure if they should be married. Sarah tracks down the highly successful Beau and things get a little nutty as she attempts to explain the situation to him and gently figure out whether they're related.

After a bold, sexy acting turn in Derailed recently, Aniston reverts back to familiar Rachel-isms with Rumor Has It. Her comic timing is still sharp, and she can make funny faces with the best of them. Her scenes with MacLaine are priceless, and when Sarah starts to uncover the truth about herself, her family and her mother's secret life, their relationship makes some unexpected shifts. As the film digs deeper into Sarah's insecurities about relationships, The Graduate storyline drifts off, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The film's third act suffers greatly as we get more and more into familiar Reiner territory. Is Sarah confused because of her biological identity or is it something deeper? Who cares?

As strong as Costner was earlier this year in The Upside of Anger playing a not dissimilar role, he seems above some of the trite dialogue and behavior in Rumor Has It. He's capable enough to suffer through those scenes and make them seem weightier than they really are, but he just seems like he's trying to do a high dive into a kiddy pool. Rumor Has It is a highly watchable family comedy, but coming out so soon on the heals of the far superior The Family Stone, the choice seems obvious, no matter how much you like The Graduate.


The Ringer
Johnny Knoxville pretends to be mentally challenged so he can win the Special Olympics and win a bet for his cash-poor uncle. As hard as the filmmakers of The Ringer try to be sensitive between the laughs, the film is just one big retard joke with Knoxville being the biggest retard of them all. Forget whether you think the film is in poor taste or not (if There's Something About Mary taught us anything it's that retard jokes can be funny without being cruel), the movie's greatest offense is being completely unfunny. There are 30 other films worth seeing before this, and you better have seen them all before you even consider checking out this hunk of shit.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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