Thursday, May 28, 2015

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars - Dir. David Cronenberg (2015)

David Cronenberg always held a fascination with body horror and psychosexual themes. Although his latest films lack the grotesqueries of early works such as Videodrome and The Fly, they still maintain the same thematic through lines. Maps to the Stars is no different with a screenplay by Bruce Wagner. Cronenberg finally turns his eye on Hollywood with this searing critique of celebrity culture that plays out like a modern day Greek tragedy.
Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a fading actress who was emotionally and physically abused by her late mother, screen legend Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon). Havana attempts to jumpstart her career by portraying her mother in a remake of her most celebrated picture, Stolen Waters. Havana is also haunted by hallucinations of Clarice in her youthful prime.
Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is a bad boy of Bieber proportions. At only 13 years of age, he’s been in and out of rehab. He’s not above lighting into his assistant with an anti-Semitic tirade for an embarrassing mistake. Benjie’s parents are no prizes either. His mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a shark when it comes to managing her son’s career. His father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a celebrity psychologist with more interest in scoring talk show appearances than fixing his crumbling family.
Into their lives comes Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), fresh off the bus from Florida with long black gloves covering the scars from a childhood fire. Thanks to a connection from Carrie Fisher (in a cameo as herself), Agatha becomes Havana’s new personal assistant.
The usual sticking points about life in Los Angeles are all present. Young actors engaging in excessive drug use and inane conversations. Others opine about meeting the Dalai Lama, not as a spiritual awakening, but as a hip trend. One character talks about becoming a Scientologist as a “career move.”
Cronenberg has a tough time balancing the multiple storylines and characters. Robert Pattinson takes a supporting role as Jerome, a limo driver who aspires to be an actor and screenwriter. In a change of pace from Cosmopolis, Pattinson spends most of his time in the front of the limo instead of the back. However, his brief dalliance with Agatha could have easily been excised from the movie. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, which may be a problem for those who want their films about likeable people.
Maps to the Stars succeeds due to Cronenberg’s interests into the macabre and a stellar cast. Julianne Moore won the Oscar for Still Alice, but it’s clear she didn’t get enough recognition for her less audience friendly role as Havana. Moore is absolutely fearless in portraying Havana as a flaming hot mess in yoga pants. During one scene, she runs down an ornate shopping list for Agatha while sitting on the toilet. Another scene sees Havana doing a celebratory dance when she learns she’s won a role because the previous actress’s son drowned.
It makes complete sense for David Cronenberg to turn his eye on Hollywood. The land of cosmetic surgery and Botox injections is a perfect fit for his brand of body horror. Shining the light on the dark side of Tinseltown isn’t anything new and the subject matter has been done better. You can take a look at Barton FinkThe Player or go all the way back to Sunset BoulevardMaps to the Stars doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but Cronenberg’s unique vision makes for compelling drama.

Rating: *** (*****)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wild Card

Wild Card - Dir. Simon West (2015)

There’s a set formula to nearly every Jason Statham action film. The British bruiser generally plays a stoic anti-hero with a rigid code of honor and woe to anyone who attempts to violate his rules. The TransporterThe Mechanic, and Parker are good examples of the prototypical Statham vehicle. One of the rare occasions in which Statham broke from said formula was Steven Knight’s Redemption. Statham did his finest work in the somber tale of a homeless war vet, his romance with a kind-hearted nun, and an investigation into the murder of another transient. Yes, Statham laid serious beatdowns to an assortment of baddies, but the fight scenes weren’t elaborately staged and were always in service of the story.
Wild Card is an unsuccessful attempt to once again give audiences something more than a standard Statham punch-a-thon.
Wild Card is based on the 1985 novel Heat by William Goldman, the legendary scribe behind All the President’s MenButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Princess BrideHeat was previously adapted into a box office flop that starred Burt Reynolds and featured a revolving door of directors including Robert Altman and Dick Richards, who was punched out by Reynolds. Goldman tries his hand once more with Statham in the lead and Simon West (Con AirThe Expendables 2) in the director’s seat.
Statham is Nick Wild and he’s a more credible protagonist than Reynolds as Nick “The Mex” Escalante. Wild makes his home in the underbelly of the Vegas Strip, the parts that are tucked away from the gaudy tourist traps and glamorous suites for high rollers. Wild’s Vegas is a purgatory where ambitious travelers failed to earn the riches necessary to live out their dreams. In Wild’s case, he’s got his eye on Corsica. Unfortunately, he’s also an inveterate gambler who loses any money he earns from assorted odd jobs. Wild’s latest problems involve Holly, a former flame working as a prostitute who is beaten to a pulp by volatile gangster Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia). When Wild helps Holly exact revenge on DeMarco, it leads to problem after problem.
Wild Card won’t be highlighted anytime soon by the Las Vegas board of tourism. This is a film far from the glitzy hotels with gloomy skies and lonely nights. The supporting cast is layered with noted actors like Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Anne Heche, and Sofia Vergera. These are mostly glorified cameos and it’s almost disappointing to see someone of the caliber of Hope Davis appear in a handful of scenes as a blackjack dealer. In fact, the women in Wild Card are all waitresses, hookers, and the like. On the other hand, these casting coups accentuate this version of Vegas as a depressing way station where someone can easily lose himself or herself.
This is an intriguing premise to find Jason Statham. Unfortunately, none of the filmmakers felt truly invested in making Wild Card a Sartre-esque tale of existential entrapment. Moments of melancholy are brief as the movie breaks out into a bar room brawl. Wild Card features two significant fight scenes, neither of which are particularly memorable in spite of choreography by Corey Yuen.
Wild Card was quickly shuffled off into obscurity following a limited theatrical run. This is a film confused about its own existence. It’s one that’s not quite a drama and not quite an action flick. Recommended only for die-hard Statham-ites.

Rating: ** (*****)

Monday, May 25, 2015


Mortdecai - Dir. David Koepp (2015)

Oh, Johnny Depp, what have you done?
There’s no doubting that Johnny Depp is an iconoclastic performer. He was always a well-respected actor who finally shot into the upper stratosphere of superstardom after Pirates of the Caribbean. Ever since the emergence of Jack Sparrow, Depp’s track record has been rather iffy. His high-profile roles in Alice in Wonderland, The Lone Ranger, and Dark Shadows were criticized for being nothing more than one-note cartoon characters. Is he simply trying to recapture the magic of Captain Jack?
Depp doesn’t do himself any favors with yet another overly mannered performance in Mortdecai, based on a series of novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli.
Lord Charlie Mortdecai is a renowned art dealer and a self-absorbed aristocrat. He also owes £8 million in back taxes to the British government, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow). Meanwhile, a valuable Goya painting has been stolen during a restoration. As it turns out, the stolen painting leads to yet another long-lost Goya that would be priceless on its own. The artwork was looted by the Nazis during WWII and Hermann Goering himself was rumored to have written the numbers to his Swiss bank accounts on the back of the canvas. Now, a litany of ne’er do wells are after the paintings from a Russian gangster (Ulrich Thomsen) to notorious terrorist Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky). MI5’s Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) must enlist the aid of Mortdecai, who is reluctant to agree because Martland holds an unrequited torch for Johanna.
There’s a part of me that actually admires that a film like Mortdecai was actually made. It’s the type of picture no one makes anymore, a throwback to the old screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges with a dash of The Pink Panther. Despite the best efforts of Depp and Paltrow, their dialogue has none of the same snap or wit. Chalk that up to screenwriter Eric Aronson whose last credit was the dubious On the Line starring ‘N Sync’s Lance Bass. Mortdecai’s idea of humor revolves around Johanna gagging at the prospect of kissing her hubby’s ludicrous mustache, a nymphomaniac played by Olivia Munn, and Mortdecai nearly getting his testicles hooked to a car battery.
David Koepp directed Mortdecai and he’s a filmmaker who knows his stuff. He’s written big blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, along with directing psychological thrillers (Secret Window), rom-coms (Ghost Town), and action (Premium Rush). Koepp clearly drew inspiration from classics like Charade and How to Steal a Million in attempting to make Mortdecai a modern globetrotting caper. If you remember, Depp already starred in one of these (The Tourist) and the results weren’t any better. Koepp is really let down by the flat material. The slapstick lacks any energy and the whole thing drags on interminably.
As Depp borrowed heavily from Keith Richards for his turn as Jack Sparrow, he draws from British comedian Terry-Thomas for his performance and look as Mortdecai, right down to the gap in his teeth. Sadly, Depp seems content with performing shtick than any sort of subtleties and it becomes tiresome in the long run. Paltrow gets to dust off her British accent, but her and Depp don’t have the chemistry that she and Robert Downey Jr. do. The one highlight in Mortdecai is Paul Bettany, who clearly relishes the opportunity to do some comedy for a change. Bettany goes Cockney to play Mortdecai’s manservant/bodyguard Jock.

One can imagine Mortdecai working had it come along in the 60’s with Peter Sellers or Terry-Thomas himself in the title role. Today, Mortdecai is an anachronistic bore. It seems as if all Johnny Depp hoped for was to amuse himself and on that level he succeeded.

Rating: * (*****)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Confessions of a Cinephiliac

If you haven't already done so, check out my new blog at -

I've effectively moved operations over to wordpress where I'll be posting news, articles, and reviews. My blogspot will remain open and I will continue to post barebones reviews here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Vice - Dir. Bryan A. Miller (2015)

Bruce Willis has a pretty good track record when it comes to science fiction. 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, and Looper have all been great films, but 2009's Surrogates was instantly forgettable. Vice won't exactly be a bright spot on Willis's resume or anyone else's. This is direct-to-video dreck that remorselessly rips off Westworld and Blade Runner. There's a little bit of Total Recall in here too and the filmmakers surely would have cribbed more from Philip K. Dick had they added an extra zero to the budget.

The former Moonlighting star plays Julian Michaels, the impresario behind Vice, an exclusive resort where the high-paying clientele whatever debauchery they desire. Thanks to the latest advances in robotics and genetic engineering, Vice is staffed by "residents," life-like androids implanted with false memories, but real emotions. They can bleed and feel pain in order to make the experience more realistic should someone choose to live out their most violent fantasies. That's where maverick police detective Roy Todesky (Thomas Jane) comes in. Todesky believes that Vice only fans the flames of depravity. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred and visitors of Vice start getting freaky in the real world.

Kelly (Ambyr Childers) is a resident programmed to be a bartender when she's gunned down by a visitor. While undergoing a routine memory reset, Kelly becomes self-aware as she relives every one of her deaths. After Kelly escapes from the facility, Michaels orders his forces to capture her before everything he's built begins to unravel.

Vice posits the age-old hypothesis over how violent media (specifically video games) affect someone's ability to distinguish between reality and fiction. The Vice resort is essentially a live-action version of Grand Theft Auto, an open world game that encourages players to commit all manner of crimes. If you were expecting any sort of intelligent discussion on the subject in Vice, then prepare for disappointment. This film is way more concerned with gunfights and explosions. Besides, the issue was already raised in Neveldine/Taylor's Gamer. When the guys who made the Crank films do a more subtle job with social commentary, you know you're in trouble.

The script by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore (San Andreas) is bogged down by leaden exposition while consistently taking the least interesting path forward. Despite her male co-stars receiving top billing, Ambyr Childers is actually the protagonist of the picture, except she spends much of the movie as a damsel in distress or the recipient of overlong explanations. When Kelly receives a Matrix-style upgrade and you anticipate she'll finally jump in on the action, she throws a couple punches and that's it. Also, if you're hoping for an ultimate showdown between John McClane and The Punisher, prepare for another disappointment. Willis can barely muster an iota of energy for his role to the point he's practically narcoleptic. Jane, at least, seems to realize the B-grade material he's taken part in and hams it up accordingly.

Vice is the type of film where someone can deliver a line like, "You're 'this' close to losing your badge," without a hint of irony. It's a derivative chore and one would be better served watching the movies Vice rips off rather than the movie itself.

Rating: * (*****)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones - Dir. Scott Frank (2014)

The first few months of the year are generally a cinematic wasteland, a time when the studios dump their more forgettable fare into theaters. One of the few bright spots over the last couple years during these doldrums has been Liam Neeson's renaissance as an action hero. Okay, so they aren't exactly high art, but they have been enjoyable popcorn movies. If theatrical releases like Taken 3 and Run All Night weren't enough to whet your Neeson appetite, then you're in luck because A Walk Among the Tombstones is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

While most of Neeson's action flicks are variations on the same theme, Tombstones is slightly different. Although, you do get the requisite scene in which Neeson warns the villains over the phone about his particular set of skills. This isn't the standard shoot 'em up where Neeson dispatches an army of anonymous henchmen with lethal precision. In fact, the opening sequence refutes that sort of myopic mayhem by showing its ugly consequences.

The film begins in 1991 with NYPD Detective Matt Scudder stopping off at his favorite dive bar for his usual coffee and two shots of hard alcohol. When a trio of thugs robs the place and murders the bartender, Scudder chases them into the streets and guns them down one by one. Tragically, one of his stray bullets strikes a 7-year old girl, killing her instantly.

Flash forward to 1999 and Scudder is now a recovering alcoholic who earns a living as an unlicensed private investigator. He reluctantly accepts a case from drug dealer, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), whose wife was abducted, murdered, and brutally dismembered even after the ransom was paid. As Scudder digs deeper, he discovers the kidnappers have killed before and are targeting criminals knowing they won't contact the police.

Director Scott Frank has a notable resume with writing credits on Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report along with an impressive directorial debut with The Lookout. Frank does an admirable job setting the mood for Tombstones with a dour look at the Big Apple. This is a time when New Yorkers were worried about Y2K, unaware that 9/11 would forever change their lives in less than two years. Death and violence are omnipresent. Tombstones may not be gratuitously gory; it can be gruesome, especially for those of female persuasion. This is a movie where women exist as little more than meat to be butchered. Another misstep on Frank's part is a muddled climax that is clumsily cut together and made more awkward by the inclusion of Neeson reading each step of Alcoholics Anonymous.

At least Neeson's presence is more than enough to keep you enthralled. He can do stoic and tortured in his sleep. Plus, it's nice to see Neeson do actual detective work rather than hooking them up to a car battery. And Tombstones isn't relentlessly macabre due to Scudder's budding friendship with a street-wise kid named T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley).

A Walk Among the Tombstones is about as involving and richly woven as a typical episode of Law & Order: SVU. Still, it's serviceable enough as a modern noir and a vehicle for Liam Neeson's brand of vengeance.

Rating: ** ½ (*****)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip - Dir. Alex Ross Perry (2014)

If you're one of those people who can't enjoy a movie with an unsympathetic protagonist, then go ahead and skip Listen Up Philip. Jason Schwartzman once again inhabits the skin of a smarmy hipster douchebag and turns the dial up to 11 in the latest comedy from writer/director Alex Ross Perry. Perry's previous film, The Color Wheel, took audiences on a road trip with a pair of intolerable siblings cut from the same annoying cloth.

In Listen Up Philip, Perry takes us on a journey through the obnoxious underbelly of literate intellectuals in New York City. Our focus is on author Philip Lewis Friedman, a textbook example of narcissism, pretension, and an inflated sense of self-importance. The movie opens with Philip meeting an ex-girlfriend at a quaint corner diner ostensibly to give her an inscribed copy of his second novel, Obidant. When she arrives a few minutes late, Philip berates the former flame for her lack of support and boasts how his life has turned out so much better. Emboldened by his ego trip, Philip calls up a college friend to give him a similar tongue lashing. The kicker? The poor guy is now in a wheelchair. Perry has emphatically established that Philip is nothing short of a world class dick.

Luckily, Perry realizes that Philip can only be taken in small doses. As such, the film is as much about the title character as it is about the damaged people left in his wake. In the second act, Listen Up Philip shifts focus to Philip's long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), a photographer whose career has been stunted by Philip's jealousy and insecurities. Out of the blue, Philip decides to continue his writing at the upstate cottage of his idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a prolific author based on Philip Roth. It turns out to be the best thing to happen to Ashley, who is freed from the suffocating nature of their toxic relationship.

On the flip side is the almost parasitic relationship between Philip and Zimmerman, a prickly misanthrope who is likely to be where Philip's future lies. Zimmerman leeches off Philip's youth in an attempt to jumpstart his own stagnant career while also attracting much younger women. At the same time, Zimmerman allows his already strained relationship with daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), to crumble piece by piece.

With its focus on trendy bourgeois New Yorkers, Listen Up Philip feels like the type of film that could have sprung from the mind of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman or Woody Allen. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams utilizes a slightly jittery handheld approach that calls to mind Allen's Husbands and Wives or the early work of John Cassavetes. Perry adds to the literary feel with voiceover narration by Eric Bogosian. Narration is often used as a crutch by less confident filmmakers, a way to spell out what the audience should be able to infer. However, Perry weaves the narration seamlessly into the story to round it all out.

Jason Schwartzman is at his most unctuous best and it almost breaks your heart to think that this might be the fate of Max Fischer. If you can get past the loathsome personalities of the main characters, you'll find Listen Up Philip to be a sharply written comedy.

Rating: *** (*****)

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Laggies - Dir. Lynn Shelton (2014)

As many indie directors do, Lynn Shelton became a recognizable name following the heralded debut at Sundance of her first film Humpday. She avoided the sophomore slump with her next (and best) picture, Your Sister's Sister, though she stumbled with her third feature Touchy Feely, which received a tepid response from critics. Shelton finds her stride once again with Laggies, which is the first film she did not also write. The screenplay is credited to Andrea Seigel, a YA author now trying her hand in the movie business.

Laggies is Shelton's version of the man-child comedy that Judd Apatow and Adam McKay have mastered with a feminist touch. Keira Knightley stars as Megan Burch, a highly educated 28-year old who lacks any ambition. She hasn't changed much since high school. Megan still hangs out with the same circle of friends, dates the same guy, and retains the same puerile sense of humor. She earns a quick buck by occasionally twirling a sign for her dad's accounting firm.

Megan's world is rocked during the wedding of her best friend, Allison (Ellie Kemper). Her nice, but bland, boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) proposes to her just before Megan catches her father (Jeff Garlin) receiving a handjob from another woman. Megan feels the scene and winds up at a convenience store where she agrees to purchase alcohol for Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her friends. Next thing you know, Megan decides to lay low at Annika's house after telling everyone she's going away to a career counseling retreat. In an improbable turn of events, Annika's single father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), seems all right with this stranger staying at his home. Romance predictably blossoms between the unlikely housemates.

The central plot of Laggies strains credibility with a premise straight out of a hackneyed sitcom. It's quite the jump in logic for a dad to be so blasé about an adult sleeping in his teenage daughter's bedroom. Everything wraps up in a neat little bow though it takes longer than half an hour and it's left in the air if the protagonist learned any valuable life lessons. Credit goes to Shelton for treating her characters with such a gentle hand that you become invested in their stunted emotional journey.

A winning cast also helps. Keira Knightley's American accent is a bit off-putting and it requires a leap of faith to imagine the British beauty as a slacker on a street corner spinning a sign. Still, she throws herself into the part and it's satisfying to see her in something so light after the heavy duty lifting in A Dangerous Method or the overwhelming schlock of Pirates of the Caribbean. Knightley's casting is doubly ironic since actresses of her age are generally cast in the Chloe Moretz role. Moretz herself is a natural. She and Gretchen Mol, as the mother who abandoned her, share a low-key scene that is simultaneously tender and heartbreaking. It's one of the best moments of Laggies alongside just about anything with Sam Rockwell, who shines as the glib and somewhat awkward father.

Laggies is such a slight film that you are bound to forget it just as soon as the end credits roll. Yet, Shelton gives us enough of a refreshing take on the romantic comedy to consider this worth a rent.

Rating: ** ½ (*****)

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Homesman

The Homesman - Dir. Tommy Lee Jones (2014)

Judging by outward appearances, Tommy Lee Jones doesn't seem to be a jolly old fellow. No surprise that Jones has chosen rather dour material for his directorial efforts. His first film as director, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was a somber modern-day Western about a rancher making his way to Mexico with the corpse of a ranch hand and the Border Agent who killed him. You could hardly call Jones' sophomore feature, The Homesman, a traditional Western. Sure, the period is appropriate, but white hats don't shoot it out with black hats and the hero doesn't triumphantly ride off into the sunset.

The Homesman takes place during the mid-1800's in the desolate territory now known as Nebraska. Life has been harsh, especially for three women driven insane by the rigors of the frontier and an overbearing patriarchal society. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) hasn't even hit her 20's and has already lost her three children to diphtheria. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) went mad due to the death of her mother and repeated sexual abuse by her husband. Theoline Bellknapp (Miranda Otto) suffered such a nervous breakdown that she does something unthinkable. In the movie's most harrowing moment, Theoline stumbles towards an outhouse and tosses her newborn infant into the latrine.

The burgeoning town is hardly equipped to handle this pitiable trio, but a church in Iowa has agreed to care for them. When it's clear their husbands are either unable or unwilling to take them, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to embark on the journey. Perhaps, she feels a kinship to these women as she hides her own crushing loneliness. Cuddy is 31 and unwed, making her a spinster in everyone's eyes. She's been sharply turned down for marriage because she's too "bossy" and too "plain."

As strong-willed as she is, Mary Bee knows she cannot make the trip on her own. Due to happenstance, she comes across George Briggs (Jones), a buffoonish claim jumper left to hang. Briggs agrees not so much out of chivalry, but to get out of the noose along with $300 and a jug of whiskey.

The Homesman was based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote The Shootist, which was adapted into a film starring a grizzled John Wayne in what would be his final role. Of course, Jones brings grizzled to a whole new level. He's not exactly the most amiable of travel partners. The prim and proper Mary Bee does not end up falling for the gruff Briggs the way Katherine Hepburn did with Bogart in The African Queen. In fact, The Homesman never goes where you expect. The protagonists and their charges are outsiders in a rigid culture. They don't find redemption, happiness or sanity.

Jones turns in a fine performance that goes beyond his trademark surliness. He is able to go to dark place while playing the buffoon. Swank's success ratio hasn't been that spectacular, but her work in The Homesman ranks right up there with Million Dollar Baby and her breakout role in Boys Don't Cry. It's a fierce and heartbreaking performance.

The Homesman has been called an anti-western and a feminist revision of the genre. Jones' sophomore effort certainly has more in common with the existentialism of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and the beautiful bleakness of No Country for Old Men. He unravels the romanticism of the Old West by presenting its ugliness without restraint. One of the more underrated films of 2014.

Rating: *** ½ (*****)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Munich - Dir. Steven Spielberg (2005)

It goes without saying that Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker in a league of his own. His films have become essential components of our pop culture lexicon. For better or worse, the Hollywood blockbuster exists because of Spielberg and his comrade, George Lucas. Munich lightly mixes Spielberg's slam, bang, blockbuster techniques with the schmaltzy pap that he is, oftentimes, criticized for to create a powerfully, dramatic affair.

During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, operatives of the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September held 11 members of the Israeli team hostage. Two were killed in their quarters, the rest (plus, most of the terrorists) were shot during a botched rescue attempt. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) called for swift retribution against those responsible and hands the task to her former bodyguard, Avner (Eric Bana). Avner heads a covert task force that includes: the gung-ho South African Steve (Daniel Craig); Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toymaker turned bomb maker; the German Hans (Hanns Zischler), who handles false documents; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the man in charge of cleaning up any traces of evidence.

Avner believes in his mission (one that may take years) so much that he leaves behind his pregnant wife, who is close to giving birth. Ironically, Avner's own father (a fellow Mossad agent with a heroic reputation) was absent from his life due to duties of the state. Avner's father is mentioned, but never seen during the film.

This year's summer movie season began with Mission: Impossible III and Munich gives us a peek at real life subterfuge. Like Mission: Impossible, the Israeli government disavows any knowledge of Avner and his operation. That's where the similarities end as nothing is at all like the sensationalized worlds of James Bond and Ethan Hunt. Avner's targets aren't at all like the bad guys you'd see in True Lies. The first two on the hit squad's list are elderly, living posh lives in Europe. One is even a poet; it doesn't save him from being gunned down in his apartment building.

Confronting the man face to face, Avner and Robert find themselves freezing at the last moment. It's not quite the quick and clean kill they had planned. The same goes for some of their other assassinations. One bomb isn't powerful enough, another is too powerful, and another doesn't work at all. In a harrowing moment, the team nearly kills a young girl with a remote-controlled bomb hidden in a telephone.

More and more, Avner finds that his mission may not be as righteous as he originally believed. At one point, the Mossad team shares a safe house with members of the PLO due to an angered information broker. Avner discusses the struggle between Israel and Palestine and, for the first time, attaches a human face to the people that are supposed to be his mortal enemy. Avner questions the orders he is given, are they even killing the right men? He questions the futility of his actions. Each man they kill will be replaced by someone else. Each kill brings about a brutal response from the other side. Numerous bombings and hijackings leave hundreds dead. What's the point of it all?

Bana put in fine performances in Troy and Hulk. Here, he's given far better material and truly carries the film. His gaunt face and sunken eyes reveal how much his ideology has been shattered. Bana completes Avner's breakdown by channeling Gene Hackman in The Conversation, when he tears apart his room looking for the very explosive devices he had readily used earlier. The actors filling out Avner's team do well, but aren't given anything as meaty since their roles lean towards standard archetypes, rather than fleshed out characters.

Spielberg has quite the habit by tacking on a happy ending whether it's appropriate for the story or not. One can look at the ridiculous finale of A.I. to see this in full effect. Munich ends on a much more somber note with just a hint of pessimism. In contrast to Schindler's List, there is no clear cut line between the good guys and the bad guys. Munich is a world with shades of gray. Avner tensely confronts his handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), about the work he has done. The scene is made more powerful against the backdrop of New York City, the Twin Towers still standing tall. In the city that is supposed to be the ultimate melting pot, two fellow Jews cannot see eye to eye.

Video/Audio: (****)
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski deftly capture the look of the era with a slightly muted color palette. Nothing comes off to soft or too dark.

The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound is excellent and highlighted by the somber score by John Williams. Set pieces involving gunfire and explosions work to accentuate the crisp dialogue.

Extras: (***)
The Blu-ray bonus features have been ported over from the 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD and are presented in standard definition.

Introduction by Steven Spielberg (4:34) sees the director give us some quick thoughts about how he came on board the project and why it was important to him.

The Mission, The Team (13:10) is all about assembling the major players including the leads and screenwriter Tony Kushner.

Members of the cast and crew give their thoughts and remembrances of the terrorist attack in Memories of the Event (8:36).

Portrait of an Era (13:17) is a featurette about how the filmmakers recreated the look and locations of the 70's.

The On-Set Experience (14:24) features interviews with the cast and crew as they look back at filming some of the movie's most pivotal sequences.

The International Cast (12:41) looks at the worldwide casting net that was used to create the large supporting cast.

Editing, Sound, and Music (12:23) looks at the lengthy post-production process with Spielberg and Editor Michael Kahn discussing how they still cut the picture on film as well as a few words from legendary sound designer Ben Burtt.

Film Value: (****)
Normally, I'd complain about almost 3-hour runtime of the film. I think being able to view it at home and being able to pause, stretch, etc. made it easier to swallow. Munich does have some extra fat that could be trimmed away. Yes, I'd describe Munich as long. I'd also describe it as engrossing, thought-provoking, and one of the best films of 2005. Spielberg proves himself as a master of the medium and I shall forgive him for The Terminal and War of the Worlds.