Glum And Glummer

A muddled Munich and a soaped-up Geisha. Gee thanks, Spielberg.

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Of all the unsettling moments in Steven Spielberg's Munich, the most unsettling may be the opening credit sequence, which consists of nothing but words on a screen. The names of dozens of international destinations scroll by in rapid succession — London, Rome, Paris, Madrid — the letters semi-transparent as ghosts, until the name of one city solidifies, just for an instant, only to be immediately replaced by others.

That city is Munich, as you might have already guessed, site of the horrendous 1972 terrorist attack that sparks Spielberg's latest story. The movie appears to be aiming not at a specific event, though, but at the universal. This horror story happened in this particular city, the film seems to be saying. The next one could happen in yours.

Just in case the message isn't already loud and clear, Munich is not exactly that bundle of good cheer and spiritual uplift you were probably craving at this point in the holiday season. In fact, the opening sequence is one of the few moments of anything even approaching moral clarity in Spielberg's new movie. The rest of Munich, despite a marketing campaign that sells it as a more-or-less straight-ahead suspense thriller, is a glum, oddly muddled affair, so consumed with wallowing in ethical ambiguities and hand-wringing over endless cycles of violence that it forgets to give us an engaging story.

There have been other films about the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and a few about the aftermath — when an Israeli hit squad was dispatched to assassinate the Palestinian organizers of the massacre. Munich is ostensibly one of the latter, but Spielberg is less concerned with creating a visceral thrill ride out of the mechanics of revenge than he is with grinding our noses in the pointlessness of it all. If you were expecting a Kill Bill adrenaline rush recast as a less guilty pleasure, forget it.

There are no heroes per se in Munich, and really no villains either — just ordinary people who happen to be on one side or the other. Spielberg has no political axe to grind, and in fact leans over so far backward in an effort to be even-handed that there's really no one to root for or against.

Far from being monsters, the film's terrorists are as likely to generate sympathy as anger, given redeeming human characteristics and allowed to periodically make passionate and articulate arguments defending what they do and what they want. There's never any doubt that the Palestinians' acts of terrorism are reprehensible, of course, but the film doesn't cut the Israelis much slack either. Munich spends much of its time dwelling on the Israelis' personal and collective flaws, nagging self-doubts and moral qualms about the whole pesky notion of exacting an eye for an eye. "I was trained to dismantle bombs," agonizes one of the Jewish commandos, "not to build them."

And so, with no real heroes or villains in play, Munich sets itself the grim task of clinically detailing the grinding machinery of death, segueing from purposely banal scenes of everyday life (terrorists and assassins have to eat and call home too, after all) to scenes of grisly executions being planned and carried out. Many of these action sequences are as skillfully staged as anything Spielberg has done, but the filmmaker's strategy here is to deflate virtually every iota of glamour from the proceedings, and as a result much of the excitement evaporates, too.

The problem is exacerbated by too many forgettable characters saddled with too much flat-footed dialogue, and a tendency to overstate the movie's thesis that violence begetting violence can only be wrong. To his credit, Spielberg's motives are noble, but the movie winds up an unappetizing muddle (sort of like the director's recent and equally grubby War of the Worlds, but without the special effects or the tacked-on happy ending).

Munich is meant to be taken as a meditation on revenge, but so was Kill Bill, and that movie didn't forget to entertain us. It's as if Spielberg is speaking to us from some dark, depressing place, and the only way he thinks he can get us to understand it is to drag us down there with him.

Another Spielberg project lost in translation, Memoirs of a Geisha is a revenge flick, of sorts. At the same time, it's almost the exact opposite of Munich — beautiful to look at, and with barely a thought in its pretty little head.

The movie is based on a bestseller by a Caucasian author and produced and directed by a couple of other white guys, Spielberg and Rob Marshall, who take what might have been a culturally specific slice of Asian subject matter and inexplicably infuse it with heaping helpings of that old Chicago razzle-dazzle. The film takes place in Japan around the time of the Second World War, but it's a Hollywood fantasy-Japan, where everybody speaks English and acts like they're in an American movie.

The film starts out promisingly enough with a voice-over explaining that a story's mysteries should remain mysterious, and then proceeds to ignore its own advice. We're thrust headlong into the tale of Sayuri (Zhang Zyiyi), a penniless waif who is forced into service at a geisha establishment and eventually inducted into their ways — an exacting and rigidly proscribed set of rules covering every aspect of human behavior.

The movie rushes through this crucial training period, shredding nuances along the way, and then proceeds to cast itself as your basic, overheated melodrama, dwelling on various thwarted love affairs and romantic rivalries between the geishas that inevitably lead to that aforementioned revenge.

An overlong film that feels rushed at all the wrong moments, Memoirs is a visually impressive but hopelessly generic soap gussied up with a few superficial exotic flourishes. Amplifying the scent of kitsch in the air, the non-native-speaking actors all speak a lightly accented English better suited to an old Godzilla movie than a serious dramatic venture.

It should also be noted that all three of the movie's principal female stars are actually Chinese, not Japanese — a little fact that probably won't bother most megaplex patrons (to whom all Asians look and sound alike, after all). I suspect there might be a slightly different response from Chinese and Japanese viewers, however, many of whose parents and grandparents were killing each other on the battlefields during the time the movie depicts. But so much for details.

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