It’s a wrap: 2005 is over, and here’s what’s left of both the movies that will get you through the holidays and the space I’ve got to tell you about them. The Matador is a nice year-end surprise worth checking out. I don’t know why 52-year-old Pierce Brosnan, after four hit outings as James Bond, lost his job as the world’s suavest spy. But The Matador is the perfect revenge on his former employers. It’s a savage, breezy, occasionally obscene and sometimes poignant mix of comedy and crime about a scruffy international contract killer and a meek Denver businessman whose lives become serendipitously intertwined in Mexico City. Mr. Brosnan has never been better.
As hit man Julian Noble, a cold-blooded killer who loses his nerve, tires of his work ethic and feels close to a nervous breakdown, Mr. Brosnan is a planet away from anything resembling 007 in this comedic film noir. Maybe it’s conscience, maybe it’s male menopause—but murder for hire just doesn’t have the same old razzle-dazzle. One night, the hit man (who labels his career as a “facilitator of fatalities”) finds himself frittering away the lonely hours between jobs at a hotel bar in Mexico City, getting drunk on margaritas. Seated on a nearby barstool: Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a dull, buttoned-down traveling salesman from the briefcase brigade who is awaiting the outcome of an interview for a new job.
They strike up a conversation. Despite having absolutely nothing in common, the chemistry between them is perfect, and they bond. The next day, Danny allows his new chum to take him to a bullfight, where the title of the film is explained. (The literal translation of the word matador is “killer.”) In a moment of candor, Danny reveals that he’s going through a rough patch financially. Julian promises his new pal that he’ll help, and he offers Danny $50,000 to help him on his next “assignment.” Amused, bemused, horrified but interested, Danny has the time of his life. What the hell, he’ll never see this reprobate again. Fade out. While Julian’s “work” takes him to Vienna, Las Vegas, Moscow and Budapest, Danny is home making money in the new position that was made possible by the mysterious but well-timed death of his chief competitor. Little does he know how much he owes the pompous, self-indulgent, alcohol-soaked assassin he met in Mexico.
But six months later, Julian shows up haggard and desperate on Danny’s doorstep in Denver, at Christmas, in the middle of a snowstorm, needing a place to hide. “I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning after the Navy left town,” he apologizes, heading for the guest room. There’s a contract on his life, but there is one way out: by pulling one last job, with Danny’s help. Julian envies Danny’s suburban-family lifestyle, while Danny is appalled but fascinated by Julian’s reckless and dangerous work, and his wife Bean (beautifully played by Hope Davis) actually finds herself turned on by all the B-movie thrills. So it’s off to a racetrack in Tucson, Ariz., where Danny learns firsthand what it’s like to be Arnold Schwarzenegger (and I don’t mean as “The Governator”). The humor is in the wild, unfiltered dialogue and tongue-in-cheek direction (both by Richard Shepard) and the stylish “odd couple” role reversals of the two stars—what fun to watch Pierce Brosnan as he realizes that all those rogues and crooks he’s known are not what you’d call real friends, while Greg Kinnear gains devil-may-care pugnacity on the job and Hope Davis literally “moons” over the risky, glamorous and profitable prospects of crime.
Stylistically, The Matador is like Julian: bold, quick and effortlessly entertaining. And the film is a delectable revelation for Mr. Brosnan—skillfully funny, messily handsome and deliciously sleazy. Self-parody? Maybe. (He’s one of the producers.) He’s explored his subtle and sensitive sides before, but thanks to the witty and twisted script, he shows something new here. He also proves that tuxedos can turn into straitjackets and that bad boys have more fun. Blond, steely-eyed Daniel Craig may grab the publicity as the new 007 for now (and discover the downside later)—but in The Matador, the old 007 is pulling off something sneaky and altogether exhilarating.
War of the World
I was in Munich in September 1972, covering the filming of a movie called Visions of Eight, in which eight great directors selected a different view of the Olympics. The trip, as well as the event, was wrecked by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in ski masks. I will never forget standing helplessly with John Schlesinger, Mai Zetterling and Kon Ichikawa, watching in horror from the darkened windows of the Olympic Village as the innocent victims were marched into the bus that took them to their assassination at the airport. I’ve had nightmares about it ever since. Naturally, I looked forward to Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of these world-altering events with great anticipation.
But while small aspects of the tragedy are interwoven in brief flashbacks, Munich is not about the deaths of these heroes. It’s a long, labored and tedious search-and-destroy mission about the secret Israeli mission to retaliate, orchestrated by Golda Meir (as merciless and heartless a leader as she was a matriarch to her country). You learn a few things: At 5 a.m. the dopey, good-natured Americans even helped the terrorists over the gated walls into the Olympic Village; the German Army was prohibited from interfering because of international laws. But mostly you just watch while Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen—and where, I ask, is Tovah Feldshuh?) says “Ambushed and slaughtered again!” and then orders a four-man Israeli combat team headed by Eric Bana (an Australian) and Daniel Craig (the Brit who will be the next James Bond) to exterminate the 11 killers. The movie follows them to Rome, Paris, Geneva, Athens and New York with more technical information than we need about grenades, detonators, letter bombs and exploding telephones.
Munich has been denounced in Jerusalem by humanitarians for the bloody savagery of the Israeli assassins, and for the sequence in a “safe house” in Athens where the Israelis are forced to share quarters with the P.L.O.—a section of the film in which the Palestinian point of view is given equal focus.
Tony (Angels in America) Kushner, writing his first screenplay, edges toward pretentiousness and knows nothing about the narrative arc of screenwriting. He’s aided enormously by co-writer Eric Roth, who scripted Forrest Gump and knows how movies work. You can tell which is which; their styles are easy to detect. Mr. Kushner is good at Hebrew philosophy and international politics. Mr. Roth is the one who moves the plot along. What’s alarming is that there is not a shred of emotional engagement here. While it explores the ways that violence can become an obsession, and the physical and psychological damage it did to the survivors of the Israeli team, it leaves you tired and empty and irritable. In the end, there’s no medal, no payoff, no reward. The ad quotes one critic who calls Munich Mr. Spielberg’s masterpiece. It is nothing of the sort. With no heart, no ideology and not much intellectual debate, Munich is a big disappointment, and something of a bore.
The New World is about Pocahontas. Now there’s a subject the entire civilized world is dying to sink its teeth into. Peggy Lee sang the whole story in 30 seconds: “Captain Smith and Pocahontas / Had a very mad affair / When her daddy tried to kill him / She said, ‘Daddy, oh don’t you dare / He gives me fever …. ” The end. The movie is two and a half hours of paralyzing tedium.
In 1607, Colin Farrell discovers America. Ever in search of versatility, he goes from bald to more hair than Farrah Fawcett as he arrives in Virginia on the first schooner, barely escapes being hanged by a noose, and meets up with a lot of Native Americans who have been working out. The food is full of worms, the men are sick with fever, but hey, there are no landlords. Always inches away from the arrow and the tomahawk, Captain Smith befriends the “savages” and comes to love the gentle ways of the sexually eager maiden, Pocahontas. Spiders crawl up and down tree trunks. A snake glides through the water. People mumble and starve. Minimal dialogue is replaced by torturous narration that sounds like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, while pretentious director Terrence Malick rambles and stumbles into incoherence. Both the English captain (Colin Farrell) and the Indian maiden (Q’Orianka Kilcher, a newcomer with an unpronounceable name, making a spectacularly forgettable debut) mutter and whisper so quietly that you can’t understand either one of them. Most of the time, The New World is like a silent film.
It’s an hour and a half before the Indians attack, after which Chief Powhatan blames his favorite daughter for the massacre of her own people and sells her to the fort at Jamestown in exchange for a copper soup kettle. Mr. Farrell moves to England, leaving her broken and depressed in curly hair and a hoop skirt. The movie drones on until 30 minutes before the end, when Christian Bale, fresh from Batman Begins, arrives and teaches Pocahontas how to plant tobacco and takes her as his new bride to England, where the king and queen throw a party for reasons that are never made clear. When Mr. Farrell looks her up after all those years and she cuts him dead in an English garden, you wonder what took her so long. But Mr. Malick isn’t through. There are more bugs to photograph. Frogs croak. Brooks gurgle and rush. We are told that Pocahontas died of the fever and is buried in England. After two and a half hours of cinematic narcolepsy, who could blame her? The New World pretends to tell the true story of a classic historical footnote. Instead, it makes history catatonic by featuring at least 30 minutes of close-ups of the landscape. Never before have I spent so much time thinking up so many worthwhile things to do with rocks.
The Producers and Rent are two convincing examples of how not to make a movie musical. Unlike Rob Marshall’s electrifying Chicago, which opened new windows to the ways that Broadway shows can grow wings and fly memorably across the screen, choreographer Susan Stroman has done nothing to improve or enhance Mel Brooks’ ideas for The Producers. The small, silly details that made you laugh in spite of yourself are only garish and hammy on a screen the size of a mobile trailer.
Cutting the opening number, which defined Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) as the larcenous producer searching for the worst musical in Broadway history for a tax write-off, leaves a gap at the top of the show that robs us of valuable information. That number set the tone for the whole plot and prepared us for what was yet to come. Without it, Nathan Lane just comes on screaming. He does what he always does, but on film he’s not only over the top, he’s over the rooftop. (He makes Zero Mostel seem subtle.) Matthew Broderick as Leopold Bloom, the nerdy accountant who cooks the books and becomes his partner in mayhem, fares better, and his singing voice has improved.
As their oversexed, treetop-tall Swedish secretary/sidekick Ulla, I cannot fathom the reason why Uma Thurman was recruited to replace Cady Huffman. Ms. Huffman won a Tony Award. Isn’t that good enough for Hollywood? Granted, Ms. Thurman has a movie name—but it’s not a big movie name, and it won’t get any bigger as a result of this mess. She’s a lox on ice. As the goose-stepping author of Springtime for Hitler, a gay romp with Adolf and Eva Braun frolicking through the Berchtesgaden, written “to clear Der Führer’s name,” Will Ferrell in lederhosen is actually funny for a few minutes. Recreating their original roles, Gary Beach as the limp-wristed showbiz Hitler (“the German Merman, don’t you know”), hysterical in both pearls and swastikas, and Roger Bart as his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia, are the best things in the picture.
The numbers with their bratwurst, pretzels and tap-dancing storm troopers are ruined by too many close-ups that cut off the dancers’ feet. The dirty old ladies tapping with their walkers down Fifth Avenue just seem clumsy. It all leaves the same effect as a dinner of Chinese food: pleasant at the time, but you can’t remember any of it the following day.
The movie version of the corny rock opera Rent may enchant the suburban teens for whom it has served as the same iconic pabulum that their grandparents feasted on in Phantom of the Opera, but that doesn’t make it a good or even passable movie musical. Heroin addiction, prostitution, gay-bashing, cross-dressing, starving in the slums of a New York winter and AIDS are not subjects I know how to sing to, and the noxious score by Jonathan Larson isn’t worth singing (or listening) to in the first place.
Rent started in a grim converted warehouse in the East Village, where it caught on with the kind of audience it was about—the songwriters, dancers and artists whose friendships and romances helped them stave off the cruelties of a world that would not accept their alternative lifestyles. Mr. Larson died before the show moved to Broadway, where it’s still running and being applauded by kids who know the songs by heart and return dozens of times to sing along with the performers. The movie, directed without a personal stamp of any kind by Chris Columbus, is so slick that the grime comes from a spray can and the grungy bohemian costumes look rented from a Betsey Johnson boutique sale.
All but two of the original cast members have reunited for the movie, and they are all too old for their roles. For people dying from dope and H.I.V. infections and Greta Garbo coughing fits, they reminded me of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the Peanuts gang doing Sweeney Todd—all meant, of course, as a takeoff on La Bohème. Pretentious and naïve, this movie embraces everything I regret about how far into Dante’s ghetto gutter modern musicals have descended. Everything I hated about Rent onstage goes double in Technicolor. Some people may return for more—who can explain the loss of all those I.Q. points? Some people also hum along to rap and program their VCR’s to collect complete seasons of Survivor. As Margaret Hamilton screeched her way to radiator steam in The Wizard of Oz, “What a world, what a world.”