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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 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.

The Duchess posterAnother 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.

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.