Munich: How do you make a movie that engrosses an audience when the audience already knows the ending going in? Not only that, but when the audience also already knows the beginning? One place to start is to look to the 1973 film The Day Of The Jackal, one of the best thrillers ever made, a movie that is quite remarkable because the assassin’s target in the film is French President Charles de Gaulle, who was not killed in an assassination attempt. The story of Munich is the story of the 1972 Olympics and the aftermath of the death of Israeli team members at the hands of members of the Palestinian Black September movement. Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered a team of assassins to kill the men who planned the attack at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. Director Steven Spielberg, working from a screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book “Vengeance” by George Jonas, has decided to keep politics in play (both sides of the issue are discussed), but Spielberg has also correctly decided to make the movie a thriller first and a treatise last.

Headed by Eric Bana, Ciaran Hinds, and Daniel Craig, the team of assassins takes their orders from an annoying bureaucrat (Geoffrey Rush) and heads onto the trail of the men who developed and funded the Olympic attack. The well-acted, fast-paced movie keeps the human element omnipresent by having Bana’s leader be a man who is torn between loyalty to Israel and pain over his separation from his pregnant wife. There are tense moments as when the team miscalculates the force of their own murderous bombs. Their perseverance leads to problems of a diplomatic nature. They become involved with a shady French information dealer. Everyone has to watch – and wash – everyone else’s back. Danger mounts. The mental and emotional strain takes its toll. If caught, Israel will deny their existence. Are there other assassination teams? Are they killing the right targets? Are more innocents being killed? This is a tough movie about a tough subject. It works on the thriller level in extraordinary ways. To turn humans into killing machines – whatever the cause – is dirty work. Spielberg and his team have captured the horror and terror and suffering. Extra mention to Bana who superbly plays a man caught between his family and his fears.

The Producers: I’ve never been inside a wax museum, but I now think I know what one is like. It’s gotta be like this new, not particularly hilarious version of the Broadway musical hit The Producers, which itself is based on Mel Brooks’ original 1968 comedy The Producers, for which he won a screenwriting Oscar. The first movie was a vaudeville turn stretched and kvetched into feature-length tomfoolery. There were send-ups of Nazis, Broadway show people, Nazis, auditions, Nazis, theater-going audiences, Nazis, pigeons, Nazis, frightened accountants, Nazis, and gay men. Not to mention Hitler. Of course, he was a Nazi, too. The movie had more stereotypes than a night at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Nothing much has changed. In fact, it’s remarkable how clunky this movie musical is. In case you’ve been out of the show biz loop, and there’s nothing wrong with that, the joke within is that a sleazy Broadway producer and his namby-pamby accountant concoct a moneymaking scheme to stage the worst musical ever. All of the money invested in the thing will be mostly profit because the show is guaranteed to flop. Spend little on the production; rake the remaining into lovely cash bundles.

The same things that are wrong with the original film are wrong here. There’s a long, dull, set-up until the big “Springtime For Hitler” dance number. And, there’s not much of an ending. The characters are cartoonish, so there’s no humanity. Max the producer is a blowhard; Leo the accountant is a wimp. Their dim-witted secretary is around only for her curvaceous figure. And the Nazi-loving playwright is a moron. None of them have any depth; therefore, it’s hard to empathize with anyone. You just watch the flow go. A couple of songs are zippy, but the best number is still the original “Springtime For Hitler” routine. The gay characters are flamboyant and over-the-top. This was mocking in 1968, but I guess today it’s considered an homage to diversity. The cast seems to be straining to have a good time. Nathan Lane as Max bellows and moos and loos and does whatever else cows do. Max isn’t likeable; he’s an annoying, bombastic spritzing machine from whom you want to run away. Matthew Broderick seems infantile, more so than Leo should be. Uma Thurman as the secretary is the best thing in the movie. She creates a persona and sings and dances well. Will Farrell as the playwright has nowhere to go because Kenneth Mars in the original set the standard and the blueprint. As for Susan Stroman’s direction, well, she may be a stage genius, but regarding film, it’s not just a matter of plopping a camera in front of people and telling them to act and sing and dance. You might as well just see the play. Movies create emotion with editing. You’ll get none of that here. The Producers is Max and Leo’s dream. It’s a flop.

Syriana: The movie plays like a spy vs. spy version of Traffic, which is understandable considering that the writer of Traffic wrote the screenplay and directed Syriana. He’s Stephen Gaghan and he has a lot to say. Maybe too much because the film is stuffed to the gills with enough material for six thrillers. But that was okay with me. I know people who couldn’t follow the goings-on in Syriana. I had no trouble following the story, although I do think some of the connectivity between characters and events might have been strengthened with a few seconds more explanation. The movie is drawn from the book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism” by CIA agent Bob Baer, who’s called Bob Barnes in the film.

The thrust of the movie is the role oil plays in our daily lives. Seems simple enough, but the back alley deals, the corporate shenanigans, the terrorist threats, the market manipulation, the suffering of oil workers, and the luxurious lifestyle that oil wealth delivers all combine to create a driving force; the kind of force that humankind won’t ever understand or control. Syriana’s message is that you are all only pawns in the shell game of life. Might as well try to enjoy what you’ve got, keep your noses clean, and get out of the way of the big boys. CIA operative Barnes doesn’t want to do that. He wants to bend the rules a little. Maybe even break them. Bad move. This causes huge problems for him, for Texas oil barons, for desert sheikdoms, for energy analysts, for the U.S. government, and who knows who else. George Clooney plays Barnes, and like everybody else in the film, he’s superb. It’s a big cast, but look for Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet, Robert Foxworth, and Tim Blake Nelson. Bob Baer himself plays a CIA agent and Thomas McCarthy, director of the excellent The Station Agent, has a small part. The movie has myriad focuses, but one question that’s asked is this: how important is family compared to the value of oil? Your young son drowns in a sheik’s swimming pool. Do you hide your emotions because an impending oil deal is more important than grief? The multi-layered Syriana is very smart moviemaking and we just don’t have enough of that these days.

Rumor Has It: Suppose, just suppose, the premise for the book and movie The Graduate were true. Or at least true in terms of the fictional premise of the new romantic comedy Rumor Has It. The story is wildly convoluted, but I’ll give it a try. There’s a woman (Sarah) whose sister is going to get married. Sarah is also engaged to be married. Her fiancé is played by Mark Ruffalo. The woman’s grandmother is a feisty sort who has no qualms about her past, which is the stuff of legend in her town, and has something to do with being in love with one guy and running off with another guy. Maybe a baby was born, which leads up to the big question: was Sarah the baby? Should she try to find the man who may or not be her long-lost father, and who did granny marry? Whew, forget about it. That’s what’s going on in this film and you have every right to be confused.

When Jennifer Aniston’s character starts running around trying to find copies of the book and movie of The Graduate, well, I don’t recall ever seeing this kind of reference in a film before, but you have every right to wonder if The Graduate isn’t a better movie. Frankly, I don’t think it is. But I don’t think Rumor Has It is a very good movie either. Who was the young man? Is the mystery fellow Kevin Costner, who seems to have given up acting heroic for the sake of playing lovable doofs? If he’s not Sarah’s father, would you believe Aniston and Costner hooking up in bed? Ah older man younger woman. Ah, Peter Pan syndrome. Is granny really Mrs. Robinson? There are laughs within thanks to Shirley MacLaine’s granny turn. Mark Ruffalo brings his usual centering talent to the fray, but overall this rumor hasn’t anything more to it.

King Kong: This three hour and 7 minute remake of the classic 1930s masterpiece of hirsute love is as bloated as your stomach feels after a meal of nothing more than refried beans. Didn’t people jump all over Gus Van Sant for doing that with his reshoot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? What is the point of doing a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the original King Kong? Even old bits of dialogue show up. Homage? Or laziness? The story is ageless. A filmmaker wants to go to a mysterious island to find out what’s on it and ends up face-to-face with a 25-foot gorilla that falls in love with the blonde bombshell the guy’s brought along. Filmmaker and crew capture the ape, bring him to Broadway to star in his own show. The ape escapes, plays havoc with Manhattan, climbs the Empire State Building holding the blonde actress who screams endlessly, and is attacked by machine-gun firing bi-planes.

As the screaming Ann Darrow who gets manhandled by Kong, Naomi Watts is good, but it’s not beauty killed the beast, it’s special effects. I have a rule about remakes. They have to add something to the original versions, or why bother making them. This new King Kong adds nothing more than state-of-the art digital technology, but a dinosaur fighting an ape is still just a dinosaur fighting an ape. This movie has no heart except that of a thief. Director Peter Jackson may have been moved to make movies when he first saw the 1933 King Kong, but that doesn’t mean he’s done anything special here. The film is broken up into three acts – each about an hour long. Cut 20 minutes from each, and there’s a manageable movie here, but still not a better one. As for Jack Black as Carl Denham, the man with a dream? Black is an ironic actor and irony is completely wrong for what’s going down on the screen.

Fun With Dick And Jane: As long as we’re in remake mode, here’s a remake of a clever caper comedy of the same name from 1977 that starred Jane Fonda and George Segal as an average suburban married couple who rob banks to get by. The original has a zing and a snap to it, but the new version is a Jim Carrey vehicle, which means fasten your seat belts it’s going to be Mr. Manic’s Wild Ride. Not even the glorious Tea Leoni (as Jane) can hold down this whirlwind. Carrey (as Dick) is way-over-the-top as a corporate executive who finds himself embroiled in his firm’s Enron-style scandal and subsequent slide into the financial abyss. As their comfortable suburban world crumbles around them, the new Dick and Jane start robbing banks. The first movie was both a comedy and a political statement, albeit a mild one. The new version is breezy, but exists only to showcase Carrey’s ability to mug without shame. Mildly entertaining, nothing more.

Memoirs Of A Geisha: Here’s a surprisingly unfeeling, almost distancing, movie about women who become geishas in Japan. Based on a hugely popular book by an American (Arthur Golden) and starring mostly Chinese actresses, the film never soars. There are moments here and there of simple beauty, but after the first 45 minutes of mostly dark and dreary scenery and corrupt people, the movie cries out for a burst of color and energy. Not a dab of color, which we do get, but a brilliant burst. The tale is of a young girl taken from her family to a bigger city where crime rules. The mystery of geisha life intrigues her, and we see the preparation and training for this most unusual of existences. But none of this is carried out with any passion or power. It’s as if we’re peeking at a passing parade. Maybe the development into geisha life should remain a secret. It’s like seeing the man behind the curtain. The long film lacks dimension and depth. Rob Marshall directs without urgency. The cast seems reserved, sometimes uptight. Didn’t the Japanese and Chinese cast members get along? I did like Michelle Yeoh, a great actress, as the woman who wants to use her new geisha to control her urban territory, which turns the film into sort of a mob fable. But nobody else impressed me and nothing else stirred my emotions.

The Ringer: No. Absolutely not. I’m not going to give the Farrelly brothers a pass on this. They may only have produced this hokum, leaving the writing and directing to others, but they deserve the blame. This is a smarmy attempt to wring laughs out of mental retardation. Does it work? I didn’t think so. Johnny Knoxville plays a guy who needs to win money so save his butt, so he pretends to be mentally challenged and enters the Special Olympics, hoping to win a prize or two. Supposedly the actual Special Olympics approved this drivel, and if they did, whatever dead members of the Kennedy clan that funds this group are spinning in their graves. Cast all the Special Olympians you want; give speaking parts to kids with severe challenges, which is done here, but don’t tell me that Knoxville playing retarded is not debasing the very people you’re allegedly celebrating. Don’t people understand why Jerry Lewis lost favor in America? The nation grew up. Only Jerry Lewis thinks he’s great. The movie stinks. You can smell the constraints. You can sense the risks the “regular” actors” faced. And risks are challenges that need to be surmounted. Nobody surmounted any challenges here.

The Family Stone: The Stone family lives an upper-middle class, liberal, clapboard-housed, postcard reality in a New England that only exists in the movies – or at the Kennedy compound. Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson are the warm and wonderful mom and dad of this kooky clan. There are assorted children, all adultish siblings, including a deaf gay son, and all the kids are as pot-smokingly open-minded and delightfully cool as any proud parent could want. Into the mix arrives the new girlfriend of one of the sons. He’s played by Dermot Mulroney. She’s played with starched priggishness by Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress whose appeal completely escapes me. You get it, right? Fish out of water time? Will everyone in the family warm up to her? Will another son (Luke Wilson) stop hitting on her? Will the deaf gay son adopt his dream baby? Will the punkesque daughter stop throwing verbal darts at Sarah and see the human being within? Well, maybe. But certainly not in the first hour. The movie is mildly entertaining because the cast is so damn good. They can take the patently obvious dialogue and make it seem fresh and original. The film chugs along on a railway of humor and hate, but never really says anything about how families end up accepting the black sheep that every family has.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic: A concert film featuring acerbic comic Sarah Silverman. Her appearance before a live audience is book-ended with some truly dreadfully acted “pretend” segments. These segments also pop in and out during Sarah’s often bawdy, sometimes jaw-dropping stand-up routine with its free-form take on rape, 9/11, religion, pop culture, and myriad other subjects, some of which Silverman brilliant analyzes and some which she misses by a mile. Through it all, her 70-minute adventure into comic risk is never anything but riveting. You may not always laugh, but you will definitely always be alert.

The Dying Gaul: Craig Lucas wrote and directed this humdrum movie that involves a toxic love triangle between a Hollywood producer, his wife, and a gay screenwriter. I have trouble believing any woman in contemporary Los Angeles would need to carry on Internet Messaging to discover if her husband’s having an affair with a man, but that’s Lucas’ take on the secret sex he might be having. The movie is a cauldron of jangled nerves, edgy whispers, and pregnant silences. You want to grab the three main characters and take ‘em for a ride down Santa Monica Boulevard for a reality check. I think the tenor and temper of the times has passed this movie by. Like a curiosity piece, it seems dated. What sparkles is the acting. Campbell Scott as the producer, Patricia Clarkson as his wife, and Peter Sarsgaard as the screenwriter are all brilliant. This is the kind of acting that teaches people who want to act how to act.

The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe: A long, tedious, overblown epic based on C. S. Lewis’ book about some children who escape the bombing of London by heading for the countryside. In their new abode is a wardrobe (a place where clothes are hung) and one day one of the kids discovers there’s a back door in the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, a place where it always seems to snow and a lion talks in parables just like Jesus. A White Witch leads a horde of digitally enhanced villains. There are battles between good and evil and the whole thing is a metaphor for Christianity conquering all. The film’s long length is completely unnecessary. The book is very short, but I guess that overwrought seems to sell these days. Frankly, I’m not buying into the master plan. “The Chronicles Of Narnia” comprises seven short books. If this movie does well, there may be six more of these. Santa delivers the goods… well, almost

By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

I hope you’ve got the time, the energy, and the money to go to the movies this holiday season. Hollywood and the Indies that feed off it have stuffed your Christmas stockings with a few pleasant gifts amongst the lumps of coal.