Friday, January 13, 2006

2006 Movie Roundup

After a lengthy hiatus due to some personal issues over the last 3 months, I have returned (100 lbs. lighter as well!) to my blog and will do my best to update it as frequently as possible. Although I generally focus on world issues, especially those related to the Middle East and Islamic world, I have decided to devote my first entry back to brief reviews of the handful of movies I shelled out $6-9 to see in the theaters. Overall, I think 2006 was an excellent year for films.

Steven Speilberg's epic story of the covert operation to assassinate prominent Palestinian leaders abroad, several who were suspected to be behind the 1972 terrorist attack and subsequent murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, makes for a great film with a great performance by actor Eric Bana. Despite what its American conservative critics, such as The New York Times' David Brooks, say about it ignoring the issue of terrorism or being "antiwar," Munich is a complex story that delves into issues of terrorism, radical nationalism, and what a proportionate and appropriate response to terrorism on the part of a country that holds itself up as a beacon of Western-style democracy (Israel) is.

Brooks goes as far as to say, "...Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis. There is, above all, no evil. And that is the core of Spielberg's fable. In his depiction of reality there are no people so committed to a murderous ideology that they are impervious to the sort of compromise and dialogue Spielberg puts such great faith in. Because he will not admit the existence of evil, as it really exists, Spielberg gets reality wrong."

However, what Brooks fails to mention in his blistering December 11, 2005 column is that the rise to prominence of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, and particularly in the Palestinian Territories, is a new phenomenon. HAMAS, or al-Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Resistance Movement), which emerged as an offshoot of the Gaza Strip branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, did not issue its official charter until 1988, a year after the outbreak of the First Intifada against Israeli occupation. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the other radical religious organization in the Territories, was founded in the 1970s, but did not begin fullscale operations until the First Intifada and the early 1990s. HAMAS was even tacitly accepted by the Israeli government, who saw it as a counterweight to the avowedly secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by Yasser Arafat. So, in reality, Spielberg is dealing with the first Palestinian radical groups, who were all nationalist and secular. Brooks' criticism ignores the fact that Spielberg is not dealing with the current conflict per se.

In terms of being a quality film, Munich does not shy away from showing clearly whay the terrorists (yes, they were terrorists) of Black September did at the 1972 Olympics; it is shown in flashbacks throughout the movie in graphic detail. He does not ignore the reality of what happened, as many of his critic's have alleged. The film provides a nuanced look at a conflict that remains unsolved and as bitter and violent as ever. Spielberg examines the real question: what is a proportional response to terrorism and when is a response too much for a democracy to justify? Any talk of Munich being anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli is utter nonsense.


Retelling the story of famed writer Truman Capote while he was researching and writing his classic true crime nonfiction "novel" In Cold Blood, Capote is an excellent film, both in terms of its acting (led by the stellar Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote and Clifton Collins, Jr. as killer Perry Smith) and the mood it creates. Based on the book by Gerald Clarke, the film's director, Bennett Miller, and screenwriter, Dan Futterman, show how a brilliant writer (Capote) uses any means necessary to obtain all of the information he deems necessary to write one of modern American literature's greatest works. Hoffman's portrayal of Capote as a brilliant but ethically and perhaps morally lacking man who is wrapped up in his own desires, is without a doubt the best performance of the year. He recently won the Critics Choice Award for Best Actor and he has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Leading Role-Drama.


Memoirs of a Geisha
Based on the hit Orientalist novel of Arthur Golden and directed by Rob Marshall of Chicago fame, Memoirs of a Geisha was a bit of a letdown. Although it is beautifully shot and includes quality performances by actresses Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh, as well as from actor Ken Watanabe who shined in The Last Samurai, the film as a whole is a bit bulky and plods along at points. The editing could have been tightened up and some of the filler material cut out.


Syriana is an excellent film with a confusing plot that weaves a message about the collusion between the U.S. government, big American oil and energy firms, and corrupt regimes in the Arab Middle East. Although the viewer is challenged to keep up with precisely how all of the sub-plots and characters interact with one another (which will prove to be a futile exercise), Syriana makes a bold statement about how big oil and its supporters in the U.S. government have an interest in supporting and protecting corrupt but obedient Arab autocracies. The sub-plot where one sees the recruiting of a young disillusioned (but not incredibly religious) Pakistani worker in an oil-rich Arab emirate into the ranks of the suicide bombers is tragic and a valuable example of how the radical Islamic networks are able to recruit people to carry out such attacks.

Walk the Line
The story of Johnny Cash and June Carter, based on the country music legend's autobiography, Cash, Walk the Line is packed with excellent performances by Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as Carter. No real surprises in terms of the story, but some quality musical performances by both Phoenix and Witherspoon. The humanity of two of American music's greats is apparent through both Phoenix and Witherspoon.


Brokeback Mountain
A tragic and touching story, even for me with my personal views on homosexuality, of two emotionally connected young men (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal; left) who cannot live together as they wish because of the social norms of the time (1960s-1970s Midwestern U.S.) In the end, the two are stuck seeing each other a few times a year for brief periods of time, while living false lives in their respective hometowns. Although the ending, in a way, was a bit predictable, there is enough of a twist that I was caught by surprise. Together with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, Ledger deserves an Oscar nod for his role as Ennis Del Mar. Director Ang Lee and his staff created a tightly edited dramatic film that is certainly one of the year's best. Already nominated for a slew of Golden Globes, Brokeback Mountain also took home three Critics Choice Awards and will certainly receive a slew of Oscar nods as well.


King Kong
Want to be entertained, grossed out by horrific creatures, and even touched for three hours? Then Director Peter Jackson's remake of the classic film is worth your $9. One major criticism, Jackson should learn that less is more when it comes to special effects. However, it the film benefits from quality performances by Adrien Brody (right), Naomi Watts (right), Jack Black, and Andy Serkis.