Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush in MunichMUNICH

He may be revered - and often reviled - for his sense of childlike wonder, but no Hollywood director shoots scenes of violence with the no-frills grimness of Steven Spielberg. In the helmer's taut, ambitious Munich - which focuses on Israeli retribution for the murders of nine of their athletes at the 1972 Olympics - Spielberg, as he did in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, doesn't distance himself from the carnage on the screen, and doesn't let us distance ourselves, either. There's nothing self-consciously "artistic" about the numerous killings we're shown here; bullets tear through flesh with terrifying force, bombs rip limbs apart, and most of these atrocities are portrayed with an almost shocking matter-of-factness - we recoil from the violence because Spielberg's presentation of it is so intentionally artless. (The murders in Munich come off as almost painfully realistic.) Yet although Munich is a brutal work, it isn't brutalizing; Spielberg is too much of a natural showman - and natural entertainer - for that. The film is a riveting and intelligent political thriller, and although the director can't fully rein in his expectedly sentimental impulses, Munich is probably Spielberg's strongest directorial accomplishment in more than a decade. It's a gripping and, for Spielberg especially, refreshingly tough-minded piece of work.

After a brilliantly edited opening sequence in which Spielberg - through news footage and sublime dramatization - reconstructs the Olympic attack by the Palestinian fringe group Black September, Munich launches into the plot that will carry us through the next 150 minutes: A quintet of Israeli assassins, led by the haunted, initially implacable Avner (Eric Bana), are, through Israeli leader Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, in a magnificent cameo), ordered to kill 11 Palestianians nominally tied to the murders. After the Israeli team eliminates its first target, the subsequent killings go increasingly awry, and Spielberg stages these encounters with spectacular assuredness; in one instance, a bomb hidden within a Palestinian's bedsprings accidentally destroys the entire floor of a hotel - the moment is a true heart-stopper - and in a scene filled with Hitchcockian dread, the attempted murder of another is interrupted by the intended victim's young daughter, who picks up a telephone at the exact instant the bomb within the phone is set to explode.

In Munich, the assassinations carry enormous weight because the director gets under the skin of killers and victims alike, which befits a movie that proves remarkably empathetic to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. (Their conflict, Spielberg concedes, is destined to continue forever.) The movie is a clear-eyed portrait of the eternal struggle between Arabs and Jews, and Spielberg delineates this struggle with acuity and incredible finesse. That the film is so technically accomplished is no surprise. What is surprising is that, working with a rare (for Spielberg) first-rate script - by Eric Roth and playwright Tony Kushner - the technique doesn't overshadow the drama.

Yet that detail of having that little girl answer the phone nagged at me. For all I know, the sequence might come directly from the book Munich is based on (George Jonas' Vengeance), but it rings as a little too neat and ironic - too Spielberg - for comfort, and it isn't the only one. A sequence of the Israelis forced to share a "safe house" with members of the PLO, for instance, feels contrived, and the running motif of Avner staring vacantly at a beautiful kitchen display in a department-store window (a reminder of the wife and child he left behind) presses its point; Spielberg is oftentimes a wizardly filmmaker, but he isn't exactly subtle.

And his film would certainly have benefited from a more engrossing lead. While Spielberg elicits several terrific performances from his supporting actors - notably Mathieu Kassovitz, Michael Lonsdale, and Gila Almagor - he can't seem to do much with the sturdy but unexciting Eric Bana, who doesn't suggest much in the way of interior life; even when he's red-eyed and sweaty with paranoia and guilt, Avner's emotions aren't so much felt as taken on faith.

Spielberg is so savvy, though, that he easily carries you past the movie's narrative weaknesses and his merely adequate leading actor; the individual set-pieces have been shaped with so much precision and cunning, and are often so achingly intense, that Munich all but demands its audience-friendly tactics, as well as the lightly comic moments provided by Roth and Kushner. (Even at nearly three hours, the movie is rarely dull.) Munich is a tad too obvious to be considered a great movie, but it's a sensational thriller, a topnotch meditation on the notion of vengeance, and - particularly after this summer's execrable War of the Worlds - it marks an inspired return to form for its director.


Sarah Jessica Parker and Dermot Mulroney in The Family StoneTHE FAMILY STONE

The Family Stone, written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, is this winter's annual heart-warmer wherein a group of dysfunctional, determinedly quirky family members reunite for the holidays and teach us all to appreciate the joys of the season with our own determinedly quirky family members; it's one of those movies that, somehow, you just know will climax with the siblings chasing each other around the dining room table while another winds up accidentally covered in food. (Here, Luke Wilson and Dermot Mulroney run amok to "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," and Sarah Jessica Parker finds herself bathed in an uncooked casserole.) There usually isn't much surprise to be found in movies of this ilk, but The Family Stone is a special case, because while most of it is gratingly predictable, I hadn't anticipated just how hostile the movie would be.

In the film, Parker plays Mulroney's tightly wound fiancée, a talkative career gal who finally meets his left-leaning family at Christmas, and to call this clan rude would be a disservice; they're positively hateful toward their guest, yet the movie seems blithely unaware of this - you want to shriek to Parker to get the hell out of there before she becomes as monstrous as the family she's intending to marry into. (The movie is a splendid argument for spending the holidays drunk.) With its confused script and laughing-through-tears shmaltziness and insidiously chipper musical score, The Family Stone should be impossible to sit through, but, almost perversely, it has been cast with perhaps the most sheerly likable ensemble of the season. Parker's neurotic comic stylings find a wonderful outlet here, and she's surrounded by actors who make you smile even when their characters are making you retch: Wilson, Mulroney (easily his best screen work ever), Craig T. Nelson, Rachel McAdams (a delight even as the movie's most loathsome figure), Claire Danes, and the effervescent Diane Keaton, whose shrewish role would be unimaginable if played by anyone else. Keaton's crinkled smile and infectious giggle are among the true treasures of modern cinema, though she's a bit on the Pollyanna side - in the current Premiere magazine, Keaton says, apropos of her Family Stone character, "She is the kind of mother that gives motherhood a good name." I can only pray she was being facetious.

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