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Review: Burn After Reading, Body of Lies and The Duchess

By Cinema and Reviews

Burn After Reading posterOh, 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.

Body of Lies posterThe 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 olé 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.

The Duchess posterAnother ter­rible noth­ing title (but for a bet­ter film) is The Duchess. A naïve 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.

Review: Venus, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Evening, Inland Empire and The Game Plan

By Cinema and Reviews

Venus posterThere’s some­thing creepy yet dis­arm­ingly human about Peter O’Toole’s age­ing lothario in Venus; a once beau­ti­ful act­or still work­ing sporad­ic­ally, his cada­ver­ous fea­tures best-suited to the lit­er­al por­tray­al of corpses, cling­ing to the prom­ise of beauty and pleas­ure des­pite the ulti­mate futil­ity of the chase.

Newcomer Jodie Whittaker (in a star-making per­form­ance) becomes the object of his affec­tion, tutel­age and rev­er­ence when she arrives in London to nurse his best friend (Leslie Phillips). While Phillips is appalled at the girl’s inab­il­ity to cook any­thing oth­er than pot noodle while drink­ing his best scotch, Maurice is intox­ic­ated by her spir­it and beauty and decides to take her under his wing.

While O’Toole’s per­form­ance has won all the plaudits (and the Oscar nom­in­a­tion), it is the por­trait of reck­less, inno­cent and impetu­ous youth that has stayed with me – the best por­tray­al of what it means to be young I have seen in a long time. Whittaker’s Jessie has all the con­fid­ence and bravado one gets launch­ing in to the world with the train­ing wheels off but not enough self-knowledge to pro­tect her from the dangers with­in it.

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