Oh, what kind of year is 2008 that has two Coen Brothers films within it? In February I was swooning over No Country for Old Men and now, just a few short months later, I’ve been treated to Burn After Reading, a scathing and bitter comedy about modern American ignorance. It’s a vicious, savage, despairing and brilliant farce: full of wonderful characters who are at the same time really awful people.
John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a failed CIA analyst who loses a disk containing his memoirs. It’s found by Hardbodies gym staff Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who decide to blackmail him so that she can pay for some unnecessary cosmetic procedures. Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of meanwhiles), Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with sex addict George Clooney, who is cheating on her, and his wife, with Internet one night stands (that include the lonely McDormand). The disk ends up at the Russian Embassy, Pitt ends up in the Chesapeake and the only truly nice person in the whole film ends up with a hatchet in his head.
It’s no accident that this collection of mental and spiritual pygmies can be found populating Washington D.C. Over the last eight years it has become the world centre of incompetence, venality, short-sightedness and political expedience and the film plays as an enraged satire about the end of the American Empire. We can only hope.
The self-indulgent partnership between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe gets another trot out in Body of Lies, a laboured action-thriller about anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Half-decent Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead. He plays honourable field agent Roger Ferris, hunting the Osama-like Al Saleem from Iraq to Jordan via Amsterdam and Langley. Crowe spends most of the film coaching DiCaprio via cellphone and a good ole boy Southern accent. The twist in this film is that he is a boorish, ignorant, arrogant oaf who fails to appreciate that winning hearts and minds is essential to win the war on terror: DiCaprio’s character, an arabic speaker with an appreciation for the region and its people, is continually being hung out to dry by his bosses who simply don’t think the Middle East is worth anything more than the oil that lies beneath it.
Unfortunately for Body of Lies (a terrible, meaningless title), the whole film is thick with cliché and while Scott’s eye for a set-piece remains keen his ear for dialogue is still made of tin.
Another terrible nothing title (but for a better film) is The Duchess. A naive young Spencer girl is plucked from Althorp to marry a powerful older man. She soon finds that it is not a love match and that her emotionally closed off husband sees her as a baby factory while he enjoys life with his mistress. Our heroine uses her celebrity to bring attention to political causes and falls in love with a handsome young man, but happiness and freedom is always too far away. Sounds familiar, I know, but this story isn’t set in the 1990’s but in the 18th century and this Spencer isn’t Diana, but her eerily similar ancestor Georgiana (Keira Knightley).
Knightley is fine as the spirited, but eventually broken, young woman; Ralph Fiennes has good moments as the brutish Duke of Devonshire and Charlotte Rampling delivers another icy turn as Georgiana’s calculating mother. The Duchess is a fine history lesson with some nice observations: my favourite is the paparazzi at every social occasion, pencils sharpened to sketch the scandals as they unfold.
Sadly, I have been too busy in recent weeks to preview any of the titles in this year’s Italian Film Festival but the programme looks a good and interesting one as always. The films in the Italian Festival have always leaned towards the commercial and this year is no different. Crowd pleasing comedies like The Littlest Thing rub shoulders with romances like Kiss Me Baby, dramas (The Unknown Woman) and thrillers: Secret Journey. My pick looks like it could be a combination of all those genres, the romantic black comedy Night Bus. Moving to the Embassy this year should do the event the power of good but it’s a pity about the poorly proofed programme though.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 October, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: All three films were screened at the Empire in Island Bay. Body of Lies and The Duchess were at public screenings and Burn After Reading was the Sunday night print check (for staff), so thanks to the Empire people for inviting me to that.