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no country for old men

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

By Cinema, Reviews

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 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.

Another 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: There Will Be Blood, 27 Dresses, Rogue Assassin and Red Road

By Cinema, Reviews

There Will Be Blood posterLike the buses on Courtenay Place after 8 o’clock on a Sunday night, you can wait what seems like forever for a cinema mas­ter­piece and then two come along at once. Like No Country for Old Men, P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is an American clas­sic and you’d be hard-pushed to slip a play­ing card between them in terms of quality.

Dedicated to Anderson’s hero, Robert Altman, Blood is a beast of a dif­fer­ent col­our to Old Men: a heavy-weight Western-style epic pour­ing oil on the myth of the American dream and then drop­ping a match on it. The amaz­ing Daniel Day-Lewis plays inde­pend­ent pro­spect­or, oil man and mis­an­thrope Daniel Plainview. Determined to sep­ar­ate simple people from the oil under their feet he uses his adop­ted child in order to resemble an hon­est fam­ily man while he plots the down­fall of his enemies.

There Will Be Blood ruth­lessly dis­sects the two com­pet­ing powers of 20th Century American life: cap­it­al­ism and reli­gion, each as cyn­ic­al and cor­rupt as the oth­er. Paul Dano (the com­ic­ally mute son in Little Miss Sunshine) is a rev­el­a­tion as cha­ris­mat­ic pas­tor Eli Sunday, the only char­ac­ter strong enough to mer­it a battle of wills with Plainview – a battle to the finish.

27 Dresses posterListless rom-com 27 Dresses comes to life for one amus­ing mont­age of wed­dings and dresses (about half way in) but oth­er­wise this star-vehicle for Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up) seems under-powered. She’s joined in the film by James Marsden (Enchanted) (not nor­mally a cause for rejoicing, and so it proves once again here) and Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) who isn’t nearly as funny as she thinks she is. Heigl plays a sup­posedly plain, self-effacing, young woman who organ­ises the lives (and wed­dings) of all those around her while secretly pin­ing for a wed­ding of her own with Boss Ed Burns.

Rogue Assassin posterRogue Assassin is big and dumb and doesn’t even suc­ceed on it’s own lim­ited terms. Former mem­ber of the British Olympic Diving Team, Jason Statham (Crank) plays an inex­plic­ably English-accented FBI agent in the Asian Crime Unit. He’s on the trail of an ex-CIA hit­man named Rogue (Jet Li) who is engaged in a Yojimbo-like plot to des­troy San Francisco’s Yakuza and Triad gangs. Fans of Jet Li’s trade­mark bal­let­ic mar­tial arts will be dis­ap­poin­ted as any­thing more than stand­ing around look­ing stern seems to be bey­ond him now. The daft twist at the end will provide some much-needed amusement.

Red Road posterDanish pro­vocateur dir­ect­or Lars von Trier recently announced his retire­ment from film­mak­ing due to depres­sion. He hasn’t ceased involve­ment in film, though, as his com­pany Zentropa is still pro­du­cing some of the most unusu­al and chal­len­ging films around and Red Road is a per­fect example, the first release in a new pro­ject called The Advance Party. Zentropa pro­du­cers Lone Scherfig & Anders Thomas Jensen (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) cre­ated sev­er­al char­ac­ters and then gave those char­ac­ters (and a set of rules about how they should be used) to three writer-directors in the hope that the three films togeth­er would prove great­er than the sum of the parts.

The first film, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, isn’t just an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment, it’s actu­ally very good. Lonely Glasgow CCTV oper­at­or Jackie (Kate Dickie) is haunted by an unspe­cified tragedy from her past. When she sees an unex­pec­ted face on her mon­it­or she, in spite of her­self, is forced to con­front him and her own grief. The Red Road coun­cil estate, that gives the film it’s name, makes Newtown Park Flats look like the Isle of Capri, and the whole thing has a Loach-ian grit that is hap­pily well-balanced by some beau­ti­ful cine­ma­to­graphy. The film itself plays out slowly, but not inev­it­ably, and the sur­prise rev­el­a­tion at the end is less power­ful but some­how more mov­ing than you expect.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 20 February, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: There Will Be Blood screened at Rialto Wellington on Saturday after­noon. The image was incor­rectly masked so that the ver­tic­al cyan soundtrack along the left of the screen was clearly vis­ible through­out. The pro­jec­tion­ist was aler­ted but he shrugged his shoulders and said there was noth­ing he could do about it. We have about six more weeks of Rialto Wellington and I volun­teer to swing the first wrecking-ball.

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

By Cinema, 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.