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Mandy (2018)

Mandy is a gonzo, psychotropic mood piece that will infuriate some, test others, and delight a select audience that responds enthusiastically to atmospheric indulgences. Set in the 1980s, because of course it’s the 80s, a logger (Nicolas Cage) and his titluar girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have a bad run-in with a small cult. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), declares that the god of the universe told him he is entitled to everything, and he picks Mandy. Bad things transpire and Cage is left for dead. He sets off on a quest for vengeance against the cult and a fetish-clad biker gang they employ as muscle, and in the process he might be going insane.

So what kind of movie is Mandy? There really isn’t a plot here so much as an immersive experience of fever dream imagery with a loving yet detached nod to its cultural influences from the 1980s, heavy metal music videos, Heavy Metal magazines, heavy metal album covers (sensing a trend?). There is the bare bones of a plot here, a revenge formula, but it’s really more about the moments and the feelings that writer/director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is trying to communicate through the screen. He’s another disciple of the Terrence Malick/Nicolas Winding Refn School of Filmmaking, ditching the story details for a visually immersive and hallucinatory sensory experience. The problem with these kinds of movies is that you either check into that wavelength or you don’t. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, as all movies either engage or disengage, but because the story and characters are so minimalist, the opportunities to click with the material rely entirely upon the moody atmosphere and creative execution.

Mandy is overwhelmingly a campy revenge thriller that celebrates the unique Cage-ness of Nicolas Cage’s more unhinged, bizarre performances. This is a movie that asks Cage to go the full Cage, and that can be a beautiful thing. There’s a knowing campiness to the whole exercise that doesn’t feel condescending. It’s not making fun of the onscreen antics so much as it is celebrating the artful absurdity. This is the kind of movie where there’s a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel and it’s awesome. This is the kind of movie where every patch of woods has a blast of fog to make it feel like a dark fairy tale. It’s the kind of movie where the practical gore effects are stomach churning and memorable. It’s the kind of movie where Cage lights his cigarette from the fire of a decapitated head. It’s a movie where Cage goes on a journey where he transcends into the mythic. He is no mere mortal by the end; he is the mythic figure of vengeance. The man doesn’t just find his foes to foil; he has to first construct his own metallic scythe straight out of a fantasy adventure. Cage is fully aligned with the bizarre and eerie primal nature of the film. His crazed intensity is matched perfectly with the overwrought atmosphere and villains. There are moments where his bug-eyed stare or maniacal laughter will give you chills. He has one sequence that’s petty much non-stop screaming on a toilet as he tries to process shocking grief. It’s a performance that asks Cage to be unrestrained and tightly coiled at parts, relying more on physicality and intense looks than dialogue. For fans of the ironic and sublimely weird Nicolas Cage, Mandy should be a deranged delight to hoot and holler.

However, there’s really no entry point for a viewer if they do not celebrate the campy, gonzo, detached atmospherics of the film. Walking out of Mandy, I told my friends that it needed 20 percent more plot and 20 percent less movie. There’s no reason this movie needs to be over to hours long, especially with its threadbare plot. It takes far too long to get going, with the cult attacking Cage and his girlfriend at the one-hour mark. The second half has improved pacing but still takes its sweet time too. Cosmatos seems to favor a dreamy sense of pacing, so instead of, say, ten seconds of watching Cage’s pained reaction, we’ll get 30 seconds. The self-indulgence has a way of making the artful intent redundant. Did we need those extra 20 seconds to really feel the full artistry? Or, perhaps, could Cosmatos have used all the extra time saved from collectively trimming the excess moments and diversions to better develop the characters and story? The other problem with diverting the majority of the attention to atmospherics is that the eventual comeuppance of the cult lacks a full sense of satisfaction. If we don’t get to really know the cult members then we won’t feel the rush of catharsis when they are dispatched. I talked about this very topic with my review for Peppermint, another revenge thriller with inherent structural problems that mitigated audience payoffs. The revenge formula is a simple thing and engineered to deliver payoffs. Here are two September releases that fumble that formula, although Mandy places less importance upon it. Most of these cult members are given a look, at best, which makes them interchangeable and disposable. Jeremiah Sand is an intriguing, hilarious, pathetic creature, and so the final showdown proves satisfying and somewhat revelatory, as his ego-driven bluster transitions quickly to pleading and bargaining and abject fear. It’s a fitfully climactic moment but did we need two hours to get here? There’s a better 90-minute movie trapped inside here, subsumed and suffocated by Cosmatos’ love affair with his influences and indulgences.

This is also sadly the last score from composer Johann Johannsson, who passed away in February of this year. He was an eclectic creative voice whose musical abilities were diverse. He could create a thundering score that felt like an incoming army, like with Sicario, or a soaring melody that could lift your spirits, like his Oscar-winning score for Theory of Everything. With Mandy, Johannsson relies upon those 80s metal influences and produces a sonic landscape fitting for Cosmatos. The score is kept at a rumble that accentuates the nightmarish qualities of the visuals. To the end, Johannsson sought unconventional methods to give voice to his movies.

Mandy is a crazy, dreamy, moody movie heavy on brooding atmosphere and light on story and characters. If you can hop on its wavelength, Mandy will prove to be a gonzo good time. If you can’t, it’s going to be overly reverential to its cultural influences and laboriously long. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of most Refn movies because I feel like they fall into the trap of emphasizing pretty yet hollow imagery. The ideas don’t tend to go as deep as the filmmakers think they do, and I grow restless for more. Mandy needed more time spent giving greater shape to its world and narrative. This criticism may sound unfair given the nature of the film (do you ask for the details of a dream?) but I feel dismissing its lack of substance is a step too far. Mandy is essentially a dream with hazy plotting, vivid imagery, and intense feelings, but it can wash away upon waking. I left my theater torn over the movie, wanting to celebrate its artistic vision and weirdness while also wishing there was more weirdness and more of a vision.

Nate’s Grade: B-


Peppermint (2018)

I invite all my readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word (it’s like the new yanny/laurel aural conundrum). If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor. As asinine and odd as this whole endeavor reads for you, this might actually be the best part of Peppermint, a rote and tiresome action exercise that does too little too often and squanders the resources of a perfectly game Garner.

Our heroine, Riley North (Garner), started as mild-mannered mom and bank teller. Then one day Latinx gang members brazenly gun down her husband and child. A corrupt legal system lets the killers go free and Riley disappears for five years. When she returns, she’s become a ninja trained in an array of weapons. She takes her one-woman crusade against the gang, the cartel, and the corrupt judges and lawyers who serve them, while the police, lead by John Gallagher Jr., try and stop her from going too far and becoming the very monster that she’s been fighting to protect others from.

This is basically another Death Wish-style grisly revenge thriller when, as a true sign of how repeated this formula has become, we already even had a literal Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis earlier in 2018. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the lurid revenge fantasy, but they require more effort than Peppermint is willing to provide if they’re to rise above the litany of direct-to-DVD drivel. I’m in no way against this kind of movie, or direct-to-DVD action entities, but it all comes down to development and execution, and that’s where Peppermint slips up, having peaked at the idea stage. Clearly this was sold to film executives as a “lady Punisher or Taken” and it’s from the director of the first Taken, Pierre Morel. Garner was kicking (peppermint) butt and taking names for years on TV’s Alias. Why not? The problem is that there’s so little thought put to the characters, the plot, the action, and even the structure of basic payoffs. Here’s a telling example. The three gang members responsible for killing Riley’s family are themselves killed around the 45-minute mark, and they’re killed off-screen in a terribly anti-climactic and abrupt plot move robbing the viewer of any sort of emotional punch watching our heroine gain her years-in-the-making vengeance. Think this over. The only characters we’re really rooting for her to topple, to watch them be punished on screen for their misdeeds, and it’s off-screen. This isn’t No Country for Old Men here; it’s barely the eightieth rendition of Death Wish.

Garner’s character is too opaque to be that interesting. She’s allowed to vacillate between Grieving and Angry but that’s the extent of her depth. We never really get a sense of what’s going on with her, how her actions are affecting her. She’s not even that interesting as an action lead. There’s no real glimpse of a personality here. She’s more a weapon poised to her next target, with little down time between. Garner gets into toned fighting shape and has a flinty, F-you vibe and it all feels wasted on creatively lacking fight choreography. Riley becomes a social media avenger and this is about as much commentary or depth the film affords her. Because we squandered the catharsis of seeing the guilty gang members get their just rewards, the movie has to manufacture more disposable Latinx criminals, like they put out a casting call for characters they forgot they were going to need. From a structural standpoint, you never get a great sense of where Peppermint is going after that 45-minute mark. It just opens on one location after another and we watch Riley wreck havoc on personality-free bad guys we never got a chance to know and loathe. It starts to feel like a series of mundane video game stages to be cleared.

Many of the shortcomings can be forgiven if the action delivers, and it simply cannot. It’s one bland fistfight and shootout after another. There isn’t a sequence I can remember that stands out. There are moments, punctuations of vicious violence that has a brusque, darkly comic accentuation. There’s nothing remotely John Wick, or Atomic Blonde, when it comes to the fight choreography. The geography is too rarely taken into account and there are few organic complications. This is flabbergasting when you remember that Morel also directed the vividly kinetic French action movie District B13. The editing here also feels very choppy, taking more away from Garner’s physical skills having their showcase. One of the great moments of 2017 was the brutal and brutally long tracking shot following Charlize Theron’s super spy pummeling men through her growing fatigue. It was a sequence designed to showcase the choreography and the actress’ refined skills. What constitutes Riley North’s own “particular set of skills”? There’s nothing especially clever about how she dispatches with the bad guys. Her path to vengeance comes across as too easy. She’s able to torch an entire piñata warehouse of gang members like a cheap… piñata. The easy victories and lazy action development are the final reminders that this is a rote genre paycheck and little more.

Whether the peppermint was in her daughter’s blood, her butt, or any other personal cavity, it’s a terrible title for an R-rated action movie and reeks of the forced sweet/nasty irony I think the filmmakers, or marketing team, want to employ by having a woman as their Charles Bronson-styled deliverer of death and destruction (what, a woman as a killer?). The action is forgettable, the characters are barely one-dimensional clichés, and Garner deserves better. She’s 47 years old and as spry and captivating as ever. Give her an Atomic Blonde of her own. Peppermint isn’t it. If your expectations are generous, you may find just enough to keep your interest with Peppermint. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Revenge (2018)

Can you tell a rape-revenge movie from a feminist perspective? The lazy storyteller or analyst would say movies like I Spit on Your Grave are feminist because it involves a wronged woman wrecking righteous vengeance on her almost-assuredly male attackers. However, if you’ve seen I Spit on your Grave, or its remake, or any genre thriller where rape is treated as the inciting incident, you’ll know these movies are hardly feminist. The protagonists typically exist to be objectified, then traumatized, then transformed into sadistic killers. It’s not exactly the most nuanced or dignified portraits of sexual violence. French writer/director Coralie Fargeat attempts to give this tired trope a feminist spin with Revenge, a thrilling, grueling, wildly bloody good time. It’s a thriller with real bite.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) is enjoying a vacation with her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens), who also happens to be a married family man. She’s lounging around in a deserted bungalow for Richard’s hunting getaway, a regular vacation he shares with his other pals Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede). Jen makes herself at home and Stan, in particular, lusts over her. While Richard is away, Stan attacks and rapes Jen. Richard offers to set her up with a new life in another country but Jen refuses, demanding to go home. She runs off and is pushed off a cliff by Richard. Miraculously, she survives, and from there the three hunters try to track her down and cover up their misdeeds.

It’s a simple story but Fargeat has an uncommonly sharp command of her craft, knowing what exploitation elements to double down on and when it’s best to show restraint. This allows Revenge to unfold with a natural sense of pacing and direction while still achieving a high level of thrills and satisfaction. I appreciated that Jen doesn’t suddenly become an expert merchant of death. This isn’t like 2013’s You’re Next (though the final act starts to dip into that film’s black comedy of absurdity) where the damsel ends up secretly being a highly-skilled and highly-trained warrior. In Revenge, the self-entitled creeps think they have the upper hand throughout, constantly underestimating the resourcefulness and will power of Jen. Very early in the second act, the three men are on the hunt for Jen, so the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse thriller with each new set piece being its own engrossing mini-movie, adopting varying degrees of tone. There’s a lovely A-to-B-to-C sense of progression to the plot as Jen confronts a new set of obstacles, all the while being hunted by three cocky sexual predators. There’s great joy in rooting for a worthy underdog and also watching villains robbed of their own joy.

Revenge easily taps into our desire to see justice befall some very bad people, and maximum carnage ensues. This is an outstandingly gory movie and the first I can recall in quite some time that genuinely forced me to avert my sight. Fargeat’s camera gets you up close and personal to gashes and seeping wounds, enough to see layers of tissue and fat, and her camera lingers on the bodily destruction, forcing us to squirm in discomfort. It’s highly effective and yet doesn’t feel gratuitous. When the camera dwells on Jen’s wounds, it’s about her perseverance and strength. When the camera dwells on the wounds of the gents, it’s about the extent of their outlandish punishment. There is a hallucinogenic series of gonzo, gory kills meant to goose the audience for extra fun, and it had me laughing after the third daffy dream sequence-within-a-dream sequence. The final act ramps up the bloodletting to an almost comic degree. Characters are literally slipping and sliding on the floor from the copious amount of blood spilled.

This is a gruesome movie to watch but Fargeat knows what an audience wants to see and squirm over and what they don’t. This is typified in how the rape is portrayed. For the beginning of the first act, the camera seems to adopt the perspective of voyeur, often perfectly framing portions of Lutz’ body, notably her posterior. The men take turns leering at her but so has the audience at this point. It affects us to the male gaze. Then an increasingly agitated Stan harasses Jen. This uncomfortable sit-down is excruciatingly tense because we’re waiting for him to pounce, but it also has an effective power because it illustrates the daily minefield women experience deflecting the unwanted attention and affections of men. She’s desperately looking for safe ways out of the conversation that still save the man’s ego, a tricky navigation so as to not upset one’s toxic masculinity. The ensuring rape happens off screen as the camera leaves the scene with Dimitri who even turns up the TV volume to drown out Jen’s panicked screams. For anyone who’s sat through these kinds of movies, they often glorify the horror of the rape and can readily cross a line into icky intentional titillation. Leaving rape off screen is practically admirable.

Revenge is a cut above its genre ilk thanks to its strongly developed suspense sequences. Each set piece or confrontation presents itself in a memorable and different manner, requiring our heroine to use a different set of survival skills. Fargeat has a terrific sense of space, allowing the audience to understand the distances between the two participants. This allows the tension to simmer and boil as directed. Take for instance that bloody finale, which has an extended and very tense portion that revolves around two characters literally chasing around a circular hallway trying to get the jump on one another. That sequence doesn’t work without crisp editing and a proper sense of space. The director also knows when to draw out a scene with long takes and a wandering camera that makes you nervous about what’s going on where we don’t see. There are some wonderful moments of anticipatory dread to amplify the suspense. Fargeat’s smooth camerawork and sense of pacing allows the suspense to nicely develop, as she draws out the dangers for Jen and finds organic complications per scenario.

The actors ably perform their parts and Lutz (Rings) is a future star-in-the-making. A lot of physical acting is required from her and she is highly persuasive in every moment. Her happiness early on is infectious, her discomfort is grueling, and her desperate escapes feel frantic and wild, more a realistic human being fighting for their life than as some slick movie character coasting on a divine sense of cool. Her second half onslaught of titular vengeance still manages to keep the character grounded and mortal; she suffers setbacks and grievous injuries during these fights too, yet she endures. The other gentlemen give strong performances displaying different degrees of toxic masculinity, entitlement, and hapless weasel-ness when exposed. Stan, who previously had been enjoying his turn as an unpredictable threat in preparation to raping Jen, becomes a big blubbering weakling. Belgian actor Kevin Janssens reminded me a lot of a younger Aaron Eckhart. The movie is certainly elevated a few notches thanks to the actors giving you strong rooting points.

Revenge is a grisly, gory, and wild genre movie that will appeal to fans of indie thrillers but also extend behind that loyal clientele. Writer/director Coralie Fargeat demonstrates an innate understanding of not just the genre but the mechanics of suspense as well, engineering and executing terrific suspense sequences while keeping her familiar narrative fresh. I loved her attention to details (not just the gory ones) like the fact that Jen has these pink star earrings for the entire run of her vengeance. Fargeat understands this genre and its audience but also brings an empathetic, feminine perspective to our heroine’s awful plight. I was impressed how grounded this movie remained with its characters even as they were losing a blood bank’s worth of inventory. Even if you are more on the squeamish side when it comes to blood and gore, I’d recommend Revenge as an above average thriller that only becomes more satisfying in execution.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.

Nate’s Grade: C

Munich (2005)

If 2005’s War of the Worlds was Steven Spielberg’s look at 9/11, then Munich should be considered his examination of the aftermath. What could be more relevant today than a film about combating terrorism, violent reprisals, and where a government leader says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values?” Anyone seen the news lately? Spy eavesdropping, prison abuses, hemming and hawing on what the definition of torture is, it’s all compromised values in the name of security. This is our world and Spielberg analyzes the costs of war. Munich is visceral, haunting, thoughtful, and compelling as both an idea piece and as a mainstream thriller. It’s Spielberg’s most mature work in a decade.

In 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the Munich Olympics. The world watched as the standoff stretched for hours, finally ending in a firefight at the airport and the terrorists throwing grenades into helicopters housing their hostages. Every Israeli athlete and Black September member had been killed. “They’re all gone.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynne Cohen) recruits Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) to run a secretive counter strike. Avner is to assemble a team, track down the architects of the Munich massacre, and assassinate each one. Their mission is only known by a select few, and their only contact is via a handler (Geoffrey Rush) and a safety deposit box that fills up with money. Joining Avner are Steve (Daniel Craig), the South African with a hot-head, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitch), the toymaker turned bomb maker, Hans (Hanns Zischler), the document forger, and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the clean-up man. The men crisscross the globe hunting down their targets, and with each successful kill there is escalating retaliation by Black September. Soon Avner’s group becomes a target themselves and he questions if the men they are snuffing out have any connection to Munich.

When I first heard about Munich I thought it would be a dramatization of the hostage situation, and Spielberg does revisit the sequence in horrifying and bloody flashbacks. The film’s focus is on the aftermath of Munich, though it does not pretend to be fact. This is a made up story based on rumors. As new evidence clears, it looks like the Munich retaliatory slayings were unrelated Palestinian men.

For events that began in 1972, Spielberg punctuates his drama with a gnawing sense of timeliness, closing his film with the very image of the World Trade Center in the New York skyline, connecting an invisible line from Munich to our world today. This is a mature, meditative examination on the retaliatory response to terror. Munich is even-handed in its views and dives into challenging territory where an easy answer is an insult. This isn’t a pro-Israeli movie or an anti-Palestine movie (though it’s already earned condemnation from fundamentalists on both sides), and every side gets a moment in the spotlight to effectively argue their case. The result is a movie that thoughtfully and reflectively looks at the cost of vengeance and compromising our values. Munich, even with its glut of important messages and mouth pieces, never forgets to be entertaining. The cameras are often handheld and Speilberg’s winding shot compositions give a visceral feeling to the events.

Bana (Troy) is the moral anchor of the film and gives a staggering performance. He begins proud and humbled, living in the shadow of his father’s name, an Israeli war hero. As the assassinations play out, each changes Avner and Bana expertly expresses his character’s turmoil, finally succumbing to paranoia and fear. The final act has relatives telling Avner he has done right, that his dead family is smiling with approval, and Bana’s sad, haunting eyes tell the full story of what he truly believes. He looks like he’s aged ten years in such a short time span. Each member of the hit squad fills out their role nicely, with Craig (Layer Cake) imparting tough, hip savvy, Kassovitch (the director of Gothika, oddly enough) is nebbish and the first to morally crack, Zischler is stoic button-lipped,and then there’s the fantastic Hinds (Julius Caesar on HBO’s Rome), an experienced man that?s so calm and knowing and wryly warm-hearted. He’s such a delightful onscreen presence. Rush is only onscreen in spurts but is brash, humorous, and unsentimental to the very end. He’s an actor that rarely misfires, if ever.

Too often we bandy about the term “evil;” our enemies are “evil,” atrocities are brought about by “evildoers,” but by painting in such broad, simplistic strokes, demonizing the enemy as “evil” (and conversely implying you are the side of good) you strip away the reality of the situation. The worst thing you could do in this war on terror is simplify the situation. These are not evildoers; these are people deciding to commit atrocious acts. If they are dubbed monsters or simply evil then we’ve reduced the argument to a kindergarten lesson. Munich doesn’t show the Palestinian targets as mustache-twirling evil doers (no one is spotted tying a damsel to railroad tracks). These are men with convictions, family, and humanity. “Evil” is too tidy a term, and Spielberg understands this. Are evil acts necessary to combat evil? Do we become our enemies when we resort to their ruthless tactics? Robert, shaken from a recent kill, pleads that Jews are supposed to be righteous, that’s what separates them from their persecutors. Assassination is not a righteous act, despite what Pat Robertson may spout off on TV. In the end, the only trustworthy people in the film may be a strange French family that sells information to the highest bidder, regardless of politics.

There’s one moment in the middle of Munich that will stick with me forever. There’s only one pure vengeance murder in the movie and it involves a female killer (Marie-Josée Croze). It’s a kill the audience is thirsting for and demanding; the other assassinations were murky, men unknown to have any involvement in terror other than being a name on a sheet. This is an instance where the audience wants revenge and then Spielberg gives exactly what we want and disgusts us. The kill is so sharp, so uncompromising that the violence is startling and, more importantly, it hurts. The reality of it is painful to watch. The scene seems to be a sexual affront as well, leaving the victim naked, bloody, purposely disfigured. Spielberg has masterfully turned our quench for violence and shown the ugly reality. The audience never thinks the same from that moment on.

Munich also succeeds as a thriller, pulsing with immediate danger and drawing the viewer in. There were key moments that I was chewing on my knuckles because of how taut the suspense was. As a thriller, Munich briefs us on these men’s mission like all good spy movies, brings us into their fraternal order, and then we watch each assassination play out, many never going according to plan. What elevates Munich is how real everything feels and how dangerous every moment comes across. This is a thriller that it makes the heart pound but also courses with subtext, and exquisite dialogue by Tony Kushner (Angles in America), who magnificently frames his characters with the tiniest details, who crafts deft symbolism in moments of doubt and paranoia, and who, channeled with the film’s masterful acting all around, creates a stirring study of the cost of violence and the broken bodies it leaves behind, even those that live to ponder another day. Kushner’s writing is a perfect match for Spielberg’s effortless artistry.

This is Spielberg maturing as a filmmaker, despite some missteps here and there, mostly with the length and a late sequence where he juxtaposes the final Munich hostage flashback with Avner climaxing in coitus with his wife. The characters are sharp, the acting is resonant, and the thrills are palpably engrossing, giving the film a refined sense of danger where anything could happen. Munich is more than a thriller and more than a think-piece. It’s a close examination of the cyclical nature of retaliation and reprisal, dooming both parties into an endless bloodbath. Don’t be frightened by all this heady talk because it’s also a very entertaining movie. Munich isn’t the best film of the year; it’s pretty good but it’s definitely one of the more important movies of the year and worth seeing.

Nate’s Grade: B

Man on Fire (2004)

By far, the most entertaining moment of Man on Fire occurs shortly after the movie ends. A message comes on screen more or less saying, “Mexico City is a very special place and we thank them.” Now, after having watched a lengthy 2 hour and 25 minute film that shows Mexico City as a chaotic equal to the Middle East, a city that experiences four kidnappings a day we are told, these ending sentiments feel like a mea culpa. To say a place is great after showing it to be a corrupt war-zone is hilarious. I doubt Mexico City will be using Man on Fire to lure tourism, just like I doubt Germany uses Hogan’s Heroes for its tourism.

The man on fire is Creasy (Denzel Washington), a former soldier with a drinking problem. He’s hired dirt cheap to be the bodyguard for Pita (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a wealthy Mexican politician (Marc Anthony). Creasy is pragmatic about his job and shirks Pita’s attempts at friendship. Eventually, the precocious tyke gets the better of him and Creasy forgoes his self-loathing for coaching Pita on how to swim better. Creasy has found his recovery in the form of Pita’’s love, but his world is ripped apart when Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is left for dead. When he recovers, he vows merciless vengeance on anyone involved in Pita’’s kidnapping.

Denzel Washington is competent in his role, but there aren’t many films that wouldn’’t be better by having a Denzel Washington performance in it. Fanning has a robotic nature to her delivery. The wacky Christopher Walken is in this movie somewhere, but you would be hard-pressed to find him in the last hour or so. It’’s kind of nutty that Walken of all people plays the voice of reason in a revenge movie.

Director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Top Gun) has flat-out forgotten or lost interest in telling stories. His direction of Man on Fire is erratic and heavy on stop-the-action-dead visual flourishes. Scott is a slave to visuals, but so many of them are jarringly miscalculated that the audience can never fully immerse themselves in the film. It’’s like a kid fiddling with a new camcorder and wanting to try all the super cool special features (“Whoa, I can make things slower … now grittier stock … now sepia … now I can make a mirror of things … “etc.).

It takes over an hour to get to the key kidnapping plot point. Until then the audience is relegated to watching scenes of Creasy find redemption through the eyes of a child. Denzel and Fanning have a nice mentor camaraderie, but after an hour the audience is impatiently waiting for the inevitable kidnapping that the movie’s foreshadowing has been tripping all over.

When Man on Fire does hit the kidnapping, the ensuing movie gets very messy, and boy does it get ugly. Creasy goes on a grisly killing spree that turns him from a sympathetic loner into a one-man wrecking crew. Vengeance is an easy emotion for an audience to get behind a character, but Man on Fire goes way beyond audience empathy. Are we to cheer when Creasy goes about ruthlessly killing unarmed people and threatening families, pregnant women, and kids? I didn’’t cheer. I was somewhat appalled that the filmmakers expected us to revel in this violence as if it was more than justified. It’’s just ugly, plain and simple. It is also sickeningly sadistic.

The most bizarre thing about Man on Fire is the subtitles. When I think back on this film in the future, that is the one thing that will stand out for me. These aren’t your ordinary stay-at-the-bottom-and-do-as-you’’re-told subtitles. Oh no. These subtitles dance, jump around, float, fade, expand and shrink in size, and do about everything but make balloon animals (or, I should say, subtitle animals). It’’s like a living comic book; however, this is yet another visual trick that draws the audience out of the film. The unusual subtitles call too much attention to themselves, especially when they just pop up for a single word, spoken in English, as if to clue in the audience that this point of information will be vital somehow.

Man on Fire is a sadistic action film that is too full of itself for amusement. By the time that mea culpa comes onscreen it’s almost a relief to laugh again. The hard-driving ugliness of Man on Fire might make you forget how to. Fans of revenge films may find some redeemable qualities, but Man on Fire is one gruesome 145 minutes to squirm through.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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