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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: No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, 30 Days of Night, The 11th Hour and Talk to Me

By Cinema and Reviews

No Country for Old Men posterNo Country for Old Men is essen­tial cinema in two senses of the word. First and fore­most you must see it, prob­ably more than once. But it is also cinema reduced to its essence. Everything con­trib­utes: Cormac McCarthy’s respect­fully adap­ted ori­gin­al nov­el; beau­ti­fully com­posed images superbly pho­to­graphed by Roger Deakins (the only cre­at­ive on the pro­ject not named Coen); edit­ing that could be a film school in a box. The stand­ard music­al soundtrack is replaced by the music of the every­day: foot­steps, cof­fee pots, car engines, gun fire.

A hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a wil­der­ness drug deal gone wrong: many corpses, a flat­bed full of drugs and briefcase full of money. He takes the money hop­ing to start a new life away from the West Texas trail­er park he inhab­its with Trainspotting’s Kelly MacDonald. But instead of a win­ning lot­tery tick­et he has unleashed the epi­tome of cinema badass-ery: Javier Bardem as an angel of ven­geance determ­ined to retrieve the cash by any means necessary.

All the per­form­ances are won­der­ful but the heart of the film is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Bell. Always (aggrav­at­ingly) a couple of steps behind he is a good man ill-at-ease with the sheer, inex­plic­able, evil he is con­fron­ted with. A masterpiece.

30 Days of Night posterJosh Hartnett plays anoth­er small town sher­iff, out-gunned and out-matched, in 30 Days of Night. He runs Barrow, the northern-most town in Alaska, so far north that one month of the year is spent in dark­ness. This is the per­fect setup for a smart vam­pire to take advant­age of: 30 days of feed­ing with no enforced hiberna­tion and a bunch of unsa­voury char­ac­ters (well-led by Danny Huston) cer­tainly go to town. Entertaining and styl­ish, 30 Days goes about its work (with­in its genre lim­it­a­tions) respect­ably enough.

Michael Clayton posterI’m begin­ning to think that George Clooney is so good that his pres­ence has actu­ally made some films seem much bet­ter than they actu­ally are: Syriana would be an example. This the­ory comes in to focus when dis­cuss­ing Michael Clayton, anoth­er Oscar con­tender from first-time dir­ect­or Tony Gilroy. Clooney plays the eponym­ous leg­al fix­er, a middle-aged man los­ing his bear­ings: his mor­al com­pass is as adrift as the mal­func­tion­ing sat­nav in his Merc. He is try­ing to fix a rap­idly unrav­el­ling case defend­ing a dodgy agri-chemical com­pany when he real­ises that he is prob­ably on the wrong side but his tenu­ous per­son­al situ­ation doesn’t give him the free­dom to do the right thing. He is con­flic­ted, in oth­er words, and Clooney plays that con­flict superbly. But, while George is act­ing his heart out, the rest of the film doesn’t quite meas­ure up. Performances mis­step and the plot weighs the themes down more heav­ily than it needs to. A good film but not a great one.

The 11th Hour posterLeonardo DiCaprio for the Nobel Peace Prize? Following in the foot­steps of Al Gore’s act­iv­ist phe­nomen­on An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, DiCaprio stakes his own claim with a doc­u­ment­ary about envir­on­ment­al destruc­tion and the urgent need for change: The 11th Hour. Sadly for the earn­est DiCaprio, there’s noth­ing here we haven’t seen or heard before and (des­pite his star power) he is an uncon­vin­cing presenter. Perhaps he should have stayed behind the cam­era and paid Morgan Freeman to front it – he is God after all.

Talk to Me posterTalk to Me is an enter­tain­ing and mov­ing little film, destined to be over­whelmed by the heavy­weight Oscar con­tenders open­ing all around it. Oblivion would­n’t be a fair out­come though and if you find your­self with the time and inclin­a­tion to give it a try you won’t be dis­ap­poin­ted. Always reli­able Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays real-life Washington DC radio star and act­iv­ist Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green and the excel­lent Chiwetel Ejiofer (Dirty Pretty Things and American Gangster) is his best friend and Programme Director Dewey Hughes. The racial powder­keg that is DC in the 60’s is well recre­ated on a lim­ited budget but it is the rela­tion­ship between these two very dif­fer­ent men that works best.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 February, 2008.

Special thanks to D at the Embassy for let­ting me go back to see No Country a second time before deadline.

Review: Into the Wild, This is England, Once, Bee Movie, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, The White Planet and Hitman

By Cinema and Reviews

In the Summer of 1990 Christopher McCandless donated his life sav­ings to Oxfam and, instead of going to Harvard Law School, headed West in search of him­self, nev­er to talk to his fam­ily again. The jour­ney he took, and what he found and left behind on the way, is the sub­ject of Sean Penn’s crack­ing Into the Wild, based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

Driven by an intel­li­gent young man’s self-righteousness McCandless lived off the land and the gen­er­os­ity of strangers, all the time tak­ing him­self fur­ther away from the people he thought he didn’t need. Emile Hirsch as McCandless has the look (and star qual­ity) of the young Leonardo DiCaprio and the sup­port­ing cast are flaw­less, par­tic­u­larly Catherine Keener and the legendary Hal Holbrook who is just heart­break­ing as lonely wid­ower Ron Franz.

There’s no finer cine­mat­ic sur­vey­or of the cav­ernous and mostly uncharted regions of the male soul than Penn and Into the Wild is his finest achieve­ment to date, lyr­ic­al and beguil­ing. It’s funny how sit­ting in a dark room with strangers can some­times leave you more engaged with the world but this film, the best of the year, did it for me. I came out of the theatre into the cool sum­mer rain and walked home determ­ined to exper­i­ence every drop as if it was the first one.

Margaret Thatcher once said “There’s no such thing as soci­ety.” As a res­ult, under her malevol­ent lead­er­ship English com­munit­ies dis­in­teg­rated as young people without eco­nom­ic or cul­tur­al hope went look­ing for fel­low­ship and found it wherever they could. Set in post-Falklands north­ern England, gif­ted English dir­ect­or Shane Meadows (TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass) is back on top form with This is England, a mem­oir of sorts of his own Nottingham youth.

Picked on and lonely, 11-year-old Shaun is taken under the wing of benign skin­head Woody (Joe Gilgun). When gang lead­er Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from pris­on, his extreme National Front polit­ics splinter the group and Shaun takes the wrong side. Meadows has always been able to get great per­form­ances out of young people and the won­der­ful Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is no exception.

Once is a little gem, like a per­fect short story, sweet and funny and then gone in a heart­beat. Glen Hansard is a broken-hearted Dublin busk­er who meets immig­rant single moth­er Markéta Irglová and bond over a broken vacu­um clean­er. They share a love of music and over an intense week two dam­aged souls help heal each oth­er (and us).

Working our way down the list of the week’s films, in order of qual­ity, we get to Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. It’s a Dreamworks com­puter anim­ated tale of young Barry (Seinfeld) who, dis­il­lu­sioned with a pro­scribed life­time of end­less work, wants to break out of the hive and see the world. He dis­cov­ers that humans are exploit­ing bees for their honey and decides to right this ter­rible wrong, dis­tort­ing the bal­ance of nature in the pro­cess. It’s a hit and miss affair, at its best when the Seinfeld “voice” is giv­en full reign (which isn’t often enough) but kids watch­ing would prob­ably say the opposite.

Also for young­lings is the live action toy shop fantasy Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium star­ring twinkly Dustin Hoffman as the 200 year old toy impres­ario and shoe wear­er. He wants to leave and hand the shop over to his man­ager, Natalie Portman, but she lacks self-belief and the shop is start­ing to sulk. Derivative and inter­mit­tently inspired, Magorium passes the time eas­ily enough.

I’ll con­fess that I drif­ted off to sleep sev­er­al times dur­ing The White Planet, a doc­u­ment­ary about Arctic wild­life that man­ages to make the Embassy screen feel like a tele­vi­sion set tuned to Animal Planet. I prefer my polar bears clad in armour and tak­ing on bad guys and, frankly, when you’ve seen one nar­whal you’ve seen ’em all.

Candidate for stu­pid­est film of the year, Hitman, is the biggest load of inane rub­bish I’ve wit­nessed in ages. Based on the video game of the same name Hitman, stars Timothy Olyphant (from Die Hard 4.0) as mys­ter­i­ous Agent 47. He’s been dis­avowed by his employ­ers, the secret organ­isa­tion known only as The Organisation (so secret they have their fancy logo plastered all over their laptops) after an assas­sin­a­tion of the Russian Prime Minister goes wrong. Dougray Scott (Perfect Creature) is the Interpol agent who has been track­ing him for three years with no luck, des­pite the fact that 47 has the num­ber 47 tat­tooed as a bar code on the back of his head.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 12 December, 2007.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Into the Wild screened in Penthouse Two which still has appalling shut­ter tim­ing prob­lems (I’ve men­tioned this before and Cinema One suf­fers sim­il­arly) and now has a notice­able hot spot in the centre of the screen. Penthouse are re-seating Cinema One but I wish they’d fix these prob­lems first. This is England was in Rialto 2 which has had a reprieve through until March, I under­stand. I will dance on the rubble when it finally goes. Once was in the very nice Penthouse Three. Bee Movie screened at Empire 2, and thanks to all the kids was quite lively. Magorium was a Classic Hits radio pre­view early Sunday morn­ing at Readings. The Embassy screen is not a per­fect curve – in fact it is a series of nar­row planes that looks like a para­bola in most cir­cum­stances. This is very notice­able when the image is mostly one bright col­our like the snow and ice of The White Planet (and the sand of Pirates of the Caribbean). Hitman was also at the Embassy and looked and soun­ded fine.