Munich

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A haunting, harrowing exploration of heroes and homelands, expertly directed and perfectly executed.

Review:  Tackling a piece of complex cinema is like trying to eat an elephant.  You have to start somewhere, and it will be awkward.  For Spielberg’s 2005 film ‘Munich’, I’ve chosen to broach the subject by philosophizing my impatience.  There is an artistic relationship between a film’s length and its subject. Like a piece of music that requires time and space to build and create emotional resonance, a film in excess of two hours often is so because of reasons beyond plot intricacies.   ‘Munich’ is a paradox of pacing and running time.  It waxes long but plays with the requisite immediacy one expects from a film so firmly grounded in the documentary style.  The meaning of its length is found in the film’s philosophical heart, which, in his introduction on the DVD, he simply relates as (if I recall correctly) “the artist’s intent”. That is, empathy, extended in every direction.

I know a thing about politics, and the film knows a thing or two, so of course I could look at it from that angle.  However, that would, I feel, miss the grander scheme.  ‘Munich’ is to my mind a meditation on heroes.  The film opens with a brilliant montage crosscutting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre with the subjective reactions of the concerned parties, Arabs, Jews, etc. watching their televisions.  The handheld, highly dynamic camera and the overlapping actions and dialog set up a potent sense of realism and empathy for all sides.  As the film’s plot gathers steam, complicates and finally untangles, the filmmakers never stop being lavishly empathic.  The brutal nature of real-world espionage shatters our illusions of heroic, sexy, mentally balanced spies protecting our interests abroad.  It is not so much that heroes do not exist, but that villains share the same faces.  All anyone wants is home.  What they do to get it is another matter.

What I love about Spielberg is how his films come alive.  While, inescapably, the artifice came through, ‘Munich’ tempted me to believe what I was seeing was real.  This is obviously damn good filmmaking.  How he accomplishes this is surprisingly obvious as well.  It’s also enormously complex.  Cinematographically, ‘Munich’ is not a representation cut into pieces.  It is not a million little shots of plot-worthy or atmospheric details, ala the ‘Bourne’ films.  It is expertly staged, with a great deal of depth in most of the shots.  Layers of actions and sounds cross over each other, fighting for attention.  This is a common feature of all Spielberg’s films, but with Janusz Kaminiski’s docu-style cinematography, the effect amplifies.  The film’s texture, partly because of the production design, feels very much like a ’70s era movie.  I can compare it to ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Godfather’.

The production design is worth praising a little more.  I appreciate their effort to defy convention and strive for accuracy on weapons and their messy effects.   The bombs, for example, even have delayed sound.  Silenced weapons don’t have the laser-ish sound effect heard in so many thrillers.  Instead, they sound like suppressed gunshots, which makes so much sense it’s painful we still have to put up with everybody’s weird idea of what they should sound like.

There’s a lot to praise, and it’s too easy.  It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.  In the end, ‘Munich’ is proof that Spielberg is still a formidable, flexible filmmaker, perfectly capable of handling the most harrowing issues with a steady hand and a philosopher’s soul.  This is cinema’s mirror directed at the souls of heroes and the homes they protect.  What they reflect back is not easy to see.  It is haunting.

Advertisements

Classic Review: Dr. No

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The fantastic, intelligent, archetypical spy movie.

Review: There’s something intriguing about persons who live deceptive, decadent and devilish lives yet find themselves on the side of truth, justice, and fair play. Just such a human contradiction is writer Ian Fleming’s iconic spy James Bond (also known by his code number 007), realized by actor Sean Connery in this, the first of many official big screen films starring the character.  It’s the archetypical spy movie, beautifully designed, perfectly cast, well-written, and exciting throughout.

Unlike future Bond adventures that would focus on his action capabilities and grand set pieces (inspiring Steven Spielberg’s interest in creating Indiana Jones), those elements, though fantastically present in this debut, take a backseat to letting the viewer get to know the mysterious spy and his skill as a detective.  James is not yet the violent “blunt instrument” as in 2006’s reboot of the series, ‘Casino Royale’, and its followup, ‘Quantum of Solace’, where Bond is basically described as a problematic weapon.  Though Daniel Craig’s portrayal is no less intelligent than Connery’s, by the nature of the story in ‘Dr. No’ it is clear that Bond is something approaching a Renaissance Man akin to pulp hero Doc Savage and/or a stimulant-seeking genius who can put himself in anyone’s shoes, ala Sherlock Holmes.  His ruthless manipulation of those who dare to manipulate him reveals an intimate understanding of sociopathy, a condition he obviously shares and is probably aware of.  Bond is the ultimate Cold War figure; an individual capable of literally sleeping with the enemy for the advantage of King & Country.  Dr. No, the titular villain played by Joseph Wiseman, recognizes this unnerving trait and praises it, inviting the secret agent to join SPECTRE, the shadowy supercriminal organization that works to pit East & West against each other.  This seems to imply that Bond is, really, not too different from Dr. No at all, only that Bond chose the right friends and loyalties.  Yet perhaps this isn’t true.  The villain’s plot is to frustrate the U.S. space program, to disturb the balance of power, and if Bond were really as wicked as No, he would have taken advantage of the situation to create World War III, which could then be promptly won with Dr. No’s technology.  Instead, he becomes determined to blow the operation to smithereens, a gesture that denotes respect for both sides of the frigid conflict.

Bond’s similarity to Holmes is evident in the pursuit of the constant challenge.  But while Sherlock avoided women, James both hunts them and entraps them like a skilled playactor running through a familiar routine, similar to Sherlock’s routine of obtaining information from witnesses.  Holmes did what he did because of an obsession with information; Bond acts so because of an appreciation of beauty, that has run out of control.  And yet, like Holmes’ appreciation for his cases and even for the brilliance of the perpetrators, Bond truly cares for the good-hearted women he encounters, and in ‘Dr. No’ he goes to great lengths to save his main love interest, Honey Ryder, from the villain’s clutches.  This points once again to the probability that 007 is a self-aware sociopath, who, though he uses his emotional callousness to do his job, understands the importance of basic humanity when it really matters.

‘Dr. No’ establishes a long list of James Bond film traditions, such as having dinner with the villain, over-the-top technology, exotic locales, multiple femme fatales, a reluctant woman won over by James’ nobility, the Walther PPK, Felix Leiter, villains with physical deformities that turn out to be advantages, car chases in the hills, etc. etc. etc.

This is a must-see for fans of the spy and action genres.  It’s in the top ten of my favorite Bond movies, and it’s there to stay.

Buy It From Amazon: Dr. No (James Bond) [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.