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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Love, vengeance and high living

'Brokeback Mountain' deserves its accolades; 'Munich' is too heavy; Woody Allen's 'Match Point' doesn't quite work


Those who have heard that Brokeback Mountain is a gay Western and go expecting (hoping?) to be shocked will be disappointed. Ang Lee’s much heralded film shows more good taste than many PG-13 comedies and less emotional exploitation than the romantic weepies so often aimed at women. My nonscientific survey suggests women will like it more than men, some of whom may get nervous at the movie’s very idea.

The director begins with two cowboys waiting to be hired at a wall in Signal, Wyo., who are signed on to tend the sheep on Brokeback Mountain. Both Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) mumble and swallow half their words, perhaps excusably, given the splendor of their surroundings. Sky, rocks, water and sheep entrance us. Critics may say there’s too much of it, but the photography provides time to watch Jack observe Ennis with extra interest and fill in the blanks when a drunken Ennis shares his tent with him on a cold night.

Based on E. Annie Proulx’s New Yorker story, “Brokeback Mountain” is a cry of pain from people who can’t verbalize their secret. Both men deny they’re “queer,” go their separate ways and get married. The movie skips any courtship scenes between Ennis and Alma (Michelle Williams), merely showing her horror when she sees her husband kissing Jack. Mr. Ledger gives a bravura performance, convincing us that he loves his daughters and wants to save his marriage even as he agrees to meet Jack whenever he can. Jack is ready to drop everything: Let the two of them simply live together, perhaps in Mexico.

Psychologists might help us understand differences in how the two men look at their secret, but it’s clear that this is a movie about a love that can only end in suffering. If one sees this love as less than profound, the question remains, how many movie examples of deep love are there to place against it? Were the lovers in those other films as innocent as they are here?

Steven Spielberg’s Munich starts with a jolt: the shocking murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s decision to enact vengeance follows quickly. The Holocaust showed, she explains, that the rest of the world doesn’t care about Jews; Israel must act unofficially and alone. There is no discussion. She assigns former Mossad agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) to head a small group to execute the killers and takes full responsibility for the decision.

An impassive Avner leaves his pregnant wife in Jerusalem, withdraws thousands of U.S. dollars from a Swiss bank account and meets his collaborators in Europe. A shadowy intelligence broker, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), sells them information on the whereabouts of some of their targets, and they move from Rome to Paris to Athens, planting bombs behind TV screens or between mattresses. When their informant tricks them into sharing a safe house with PLO operatives, one of them tells Avner, “You don’t know what it is not to have a home.”

All this is exciting, always professionally done, and Avner’s anxious eyes reveal his instinctive resistance to killing. But the slaughter begins to be repetitive. One of the group is killed by a Dutch Mata Hari, and their bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz) complains, “We’re supposed to be righteous.” More intriguing is a scene in the countryside where we meet the father of their source of information, a suave former Resistance hero who tells Avner that he never deals with governments.

Adapted from George Jonas’ Vengeance, “Munich” doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. Though Jewish neocons have found it unpalatable -- “How do you think we got control of the land, by being nice?” an Israeli official asks -- it makes no attempt to look at the overall situation from a Palestinian perspective.

By the time the haunted Avner returns to his wife for an agonized sex scene, his (and our) desire for vengeance has turned sour. “Munich” wants to be both a popular action film and a stimulus to serious reflection, but too many scenes are scored with heavy music, undercutting its serious intent.

Woody Allen’s Match Point scored a success at Cannes last year; one goes hoping for a return to comic form. Instead we are introduced to an upper-class British world where Irish-born ex-tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), the new coach at a private club, uses his good manners and good looks to make a huge social leap forward. A lesson with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) leads to friendship with his wealthy family. Sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) quickly accepts him as a boyfriend, and her father (Brian Cox) plans a future for him in finance. Tom’s fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), however, proves a too-heady distraction.

As satire, “Match Point” doesn’t work: Mr. Allen himself savors his characters’ massive estates too much. Early in the film Chris strikes a thematic note when he emphasizes the importance of luck in human affairs. He marries Chloe, but when Tom breaks with Nola and marries someone more to his mother’s taste, Chris looks up Nola, and their feverish passion is soon out of control.

Mr. Allen gets good performances from his principals and keeps us guessing as to how long the extramarital affair will go unexposed. But a deep cynicism penetrates the movie, and its unnecessarily melodramatic ending leaves us with neither amusement nor insight.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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