'Geisha' and 'Munich' Lure Holiday Film Fans

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Spielberg with Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana on the set of 'Munich.' i

Spielberg with Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana on the set of 'Munich.' Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Universal Pictures
Spielberg with Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana on the set of 'Munich.'

Spielberg with Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana on the set of 'Munich.'

Universal Pictures

Film critic Joe Barber tells Scott Simon about holiday fare from Steven Spielberg: Memoirs of a Geisha, which he produced, and Munich, which he directed.

SCOTT SIMON reporting:

For movie lovers, this really is the most wonderful time of the year. Time to cozy up next to "King Kong" or Dame Judi Dench or Truman Capote or Jane Austen--Heath Ledger, if you're lucky, wearing tights as Casanova or dungarees on "Brokeback Mountain." Or maybe this is the season to slip into a kimono.

(Soundbite of "Memoirs of a Geisha")

Unidentified Actress: Remember, Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans, and we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty.

SIMON: Rob Marshall's newest film, "Memoirs of a Geisha," opens nationally next weekend. It's based on Arthur Golden's best-selling novel. The film has attracted some controversy for casting Chinese actors in Japanese roles. Steven Spielberg was initially expected to direct "Geisha," but he decided to produce the film instead. He has directed another film, "Munich," which opens December 23rd. That movie follows the aftermath of the capture and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics.

Joe Barber is a Washington, DC-based film critic and he joins us in our studios.

Joe, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOE BARBER (Film Critic): My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Rob Marshall directed "Chicago," and he said he had no intention of making just a documentary version of Arthur Golden's book. What has he done?

Mr. BARBER: I think he's crafted a subtle, intelligent and really fascinating film story about a young woman who is sold, along with her sister, into the world of the geisha at age nine after the death of her mother, and who grows up to become the leading geisha in Japan prior to--just prior to and during the period of World War II. The lead role, which is given by a young woman by the name of Zhang Ziyi, who we saw in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"--she plays the young geisha as a grown woman and she is superb.

SIMON: A visually rich film?

Mr. BARBER: Oh, definitely. One of the great things that Rob Marshall inherited when he took over the film from Spielberg was many of Spielberg's favorite collaborators, including costume designer Colleen Atwood and musical score, John Williams, and they do a fine job. This is a film that I'm certain will receive a number of Oscar nominations for its craft work.

SIMON: I want to get into Steven Spielberg's "Munich" because there's been just so much secrecy surrounding this. Reporters were banned from the film set and most of the actors, I understand, were given only partial scripts to read. The movie uses actual footage, television footage, from 1972. And let's hear a clip.

(Soundbite of "Munich")

Unidentified Man #1: Good afternoon, I'm speaking to you live just outside of the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany. At this moment, eight or nine athletes of the Israeli team are being held prisoner.

Unidentified Man #2: These guerrillas are a group called Black September.

SIMON: Has the secrecy added to the anticipation?

Mr. BARBER: What it's done is add to not just the anticipation of the film, but I think it was necessary because Spielberg is telling a very mature story here. This is not the Spielberg of, say, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "E.T.," the young man who might have taken this story. Basically what happens after these athletes are killed and the decision by the Golda Mier Cabinet to essentially go off the books and take a Mossad assassin, have him put together a team and go after the 11 Palestinians they believed were responsible for the planning and execution of this raid.

But he wants to make a larger, broader story about revenge and how one loses the moral high ground when one seeks revenge. Tony Kushner, the award-winning playwright, and Eric Roth have adapted a book about this story into the film, and what they've done is taken on essentially the idea that there are blacks and whites in the story. As we begin the story--we, the audience, we begin watching the story--we feel as if, yes, these Israelis have every right to be outraged and they have every right...

SIMON: Completely innocent athletes are...

Mr. BARBER: Exactly.

SIMON: ...slaughtered by terrorists.

Mr. BARBER: They have every right to go after these men. But as time goes on and as more assassinations are accomplished by the teams, as more people die, as questions begin to develop about `Well, who actually is being killed?'--and even the assassin, the lead assassin played by Eric Bana, wonderful Australian actor, begins to question his handler, played by Geoffrey Rush, about `Am I really going after the people you wanted me to go after, or am I going after targets you selected that are easy to get?' The moral ambiguity of the film begins to change from black and white to a series of grays.

SIMON: Why do you think it is that Steven Spielberg chooses to take up controversial topics?

Mr. BARBER: Over the years, Spielberg was accused--particularly early in his career--of being basically a popcorn machine at the movies, of making big, grand, splashy entertainments but not having much real substance. There was a great story that a few years ago a number of directors came to him after he bought the rights to the book "Schindler's List" and urged him not to do it, that they felt he would trivialize it. And to his credit, he made a tremendous film. This is the work of a very mature filmmaker who wants to expand his boundaries.

SIMON: Change gears here, if we could for a moment. A lot of people are going to be renting videos over the holiday. Joe, is there a DVD that you would recommend people could rent if the family wanted to make some cocoa and sit around and watch a movie?

Mr. BARBER: Yes, I might suggest something from the glorious days of black and white, 1947, a little film I stumbled on years ago called a "Holiday Affair." It stars a very young Janet Leigh; in fact, I think she was 19 when the film was shot. And she plays a World War II widow--the film's set just after World War II--who was about to marry an older, very settled gentleman played by the wonderful character actor Wendell Corey. She has a young son; she goes to a department store at Christmas time to buy a train set the boy wants. And the boy stumbles on to the guy who's selling the train set, played by a very young Robert Mitchum. And he realizes that this guy is just perfect for his mom, but she's in love with the staid, very stable Wendell Corey. So he keeps doing things to get her to go back to the store.

(Soundbite of "Holiday Affair")

Ms. JANET LEIGH (Actress): (As Connie Ennis) Could you wait on me, please?

Mr. ROBERT MITCHUM (Actor): (As Steve Mason) In a moment, madam.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Connie Ennis) I'm sorry, but I'm in a hurry.

Mr. MITCHUM: (As Steve Mason) I'm afraid this gentleman was here before you.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Connie Ennis) I know, but I want to buy one.

Mr. MITCHUM: (As Steve Mason) All right, now, let me tell you about the train. This one's been around the world seven times. Fast, economical, easy to operate and very good...

Ms. LEIGH: (As Connie Ennis) I'll take one, complete with all attachments and accessories.

Mr. MITCHUM: (As Steve Mason) You're not letting me out of my salary, as skimpy as it is. It will be $79.50 plus tax.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Connie Ennis) I have it right here. If you'll give me the claim check, I'll pick it up at the call desk. And thank you very much.

Mr. MITCHUM: (As Steve Mason) It was a pleasure. You come back again.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Connie Ennis) Thank you.

Mr. BARBER: And, slowly but surely, things begin to take their course and love begins to bloom. It's a sweet, funny little story, and this is a film, as I say, I stumbled on about 20 years ago on television. I've loved it ever since, and it's a film you don't think about necessarily at Christmastime, but it's one that's definitely worth renting.

SIMON: Joe Barber, thanks very much.

Mr. BARBER: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Joe Barber is a Washington, DC-based film critic.

And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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