Thursday, April 25, 2013

Munich (2005) ***

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic delegation, ultimately killing all of them.  Some of the terrorists were captured, then later released by the German government when another Palestinian group hijacked a German plane to use as a bargaining chip.  Meanwhile, several of the men thought responsible for planning and supporting the Munich attack were free, some of them living openly in various European countries.  Disgusted by this state of affairs, the Israeli government secretly enlisted Mossad agents for a protracted program of vengeance, hunting down and killing the men behind the attack.  “Munich” is the fictionalized story of those men and their fraught search for justice.
At least that’s my take.  Others would say “Munich” is a story about the futility of revenge, or about the self-destructive nature of meeting violence with violence.  Some might say it is about the duplicity of governments (one terrorist supposedly receives money and protection from the CIA.)  I suppose it is about all of those things.
The thing about “Munich” is that it is exactly what I originally thought it would be.  In 2005, I didn’t see it, because it seemed like it would be a downer.  I figured a movie that got all those award nominations could never be simplistic enough to make a satisfying revenge movie.  I figured it must be dark, slow, complex, and unsatisfying (and I was right.)  Then I saw the characters in the movie “Knocked Up” talking about how badass “Munich” made Jews look, and I figured maybe I should give it a chance.
“Munich” does NOT make these guys look like badasses.  It does make Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir look pretty tough, but agent Avner (Eric Bana) and his team are the worst assassins EVER!  After shooting their first target, they inexplicably switch to using bombs, and they are terrible at it.  I don’t know if this is actually how it happened, but in any event, I found it frustrating to watch.
If “Munich” is less-than-satisfying to watch, I suppose that is director Steven Spielberg’s intent.  He is trying to show that violence, which is a simple solution, is not ultimately effective at solving complex problems.  Fair enough.  I just feel that there is a taut thriller in there somewhere, and I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see it.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hysteria (2011) ***

If it seems hard to believe that a wide variety of physical and psychic complaints in women were once attributed to the uterus “migrating” around the body, then consider that that is what happens when all the knowledge of women’s bodies is generated by men.  Considering how long it took male doctors just to figure out that they should wash their hands before examining a woman in labor, one wonders if things would have moved along a bit faster if the women had been allowed to chime in.
In the 1880’s England of “Hysteria,” the women are still not encouraged to chime in, and the Old Guard is still largely in control of medicine.  Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), with his skepticism about leeching and his newfangled ideas about germs, finds it difficult to maintain employment.  Then he meets Dr. Dalrymple, who has a highly lucrative practice providing a type of intimate massage to women with “hysteria.”  Apparently the “paroxysms” brought on by the massage cause the uterus to return to its normal position.  He assures Mortimer that the procedure is purely clinical, with no pleasure involved, since it is well-known that women cannot derive sexual pleasure without penile penetration.  The female patients seem happy enough to go along with this story, and they never miss their appointments.
Mortimer bends to his new task mightily, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.  His patients are delighted to have a handsome, young, new doctor applying the “procedure,” but Mortimer develops a repetitive-use injury of his hand.  His promising new career in jeopardy, he, in a stroke of genius, conceives of a new use for his friend’s electric feather duster.  The new, vibrating device induces “paroxysms” in record time, while saving wear and tear on the doctor’s hands.
Meanwhile, Dr Dalrymple has two lovely daughters.  Emily (Felicity Jones) is a perfect, Victorian lady, and seems destined to marry Mortimer.  Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a liberated woman and a social reformer, spending her days running a community center for the poor and preaching about the rights of women.  You can see where all this is going.
In fact, you can pretty much create the entire film in your own mind just from what I have told you.  “Hysteria” is fun and naughty, but it really couldn’t be more predictable.  The invention of the “vibrating massager” is a titillating and interesting theme, and I wish the film had explored it in a more creative and historically expansive way.  The subject of women’s “hysterical” medical complaints, too, could have been more richly depicted.  Still, I suppose I shouldn’t judge a film based on what it could have been.  As it is, “Hysteria” is a fun, silly roast of Victorian England.  With realistic expectations, it is, much like the device that is its subject matter, a guaranteed good time.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

This is 40 (2012) ***

It may just be me getting older, but it seems like Hollywood used to make more movies for grown-ups.  Movies like “Semi-Tough (1977),” “Murphy‘s Romance (1985),” and “The Last Married Couple in America (1980)”  are delightfully comical, but also rather clear-eyed looks at middle age.  “This is 40” is Judd Apatow’s attempt to bring that genre back.  I applaud the effort, even if it is not his best work.
The film picks up on the lives of a couple of characters from “Knocked Up.”  Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the bickering married couple with two kids, are both turning forty.  Debbie isn’t handling this well, of course, because as she explained to us in “Knocked Up,” getting older is harder for a woman.  (Newsflash!)  Also, she’s a bit of a shrew.  Things aren’t going that well for Pete either.  His independent record label is losing money despite having signed Graham Parker (a 1970’s rocker who we are apparently supposed to have heard of).  Pete’s dad (Albert Brooks) keeps hitting him up for money, and one of Debbie’s employees is stealing money from her boutique.
Debbie has a line in the film where she says the ages between 40 and 60 are reportedly the happiest in people’s lives.  You finally have everything you need, and you are young enough to enjoy it.  It may be true.  By forty, most of us have a partner, kids, a good job, money in the bank, and a home.  Unfortunately, we spend every waking hour worrying about those people and things, hoping we can keep all those balls in the air.  “This is 40” is uneven as a comedy and as a romance, but it does capture how, even for people with a relatively good life, life ain’t easy.
There is a school of snark that loves to criticize movies and books that are perceived as being about whiny people living privileged lives.  “This is 40” is one of those movies about what these critics like to call “1st World problems.”  I can understand the sentiment.  We who have plenty to eat should try to remember to be grateful. These are our lives, though, folks!  Our European ancestors toiled for centuries to create a society so peaceful and prosperous that men of my generation can obsess about how our assholes look.  We have so much food that we get to worry about which foods are the healthiest.  Our kids aren’t being forced to fight in civil wars or sell their bodies, so we get to worry about how much time they spend on the internet.  There is nothing wrong with telling these stories, and Judd Apatow generally does it as well as anyone.
“This is 40” never reaches the hilarious heights of “The 40-year-old Virgin” and isn’t even as good as “Knocked Up,” but it definitely has its moments.  Apatow demonstrates once again that he knows how to tell 1st World stories with just the right mix of humor and tenderness.

3 stars out of 5