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Burn After Reading (2008) October 24, 2008

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 2 comments

Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Take two Oscar winning directors, a cast that would make any financier weak at the knees, a heavy dose of intentional stupidity, and a pinch of ignorance towards convention.  Chances are you’d end up with a bit of a mess, albeit a well regarded, critically anticipated mess.  No prizes for fitting that particular recipe to Burn After Reading, the follow-up to contentious filmmaker duo the Coen brothers’ most revered work: No Country for Old Men [review].  As an undeniably ‘wacky’ addition to their cannon, and with opinion varying so wildly on their past similar efforts, it seems rather ill-advised to grab the Oscars and run straight back there.  Ill-advised, yet entirely Coen-esque.

In this circular caper comedy, it all starts with one man: Osbourne Cox, a government analyst, who is fired for having a drinking problem and thus begins writing his memoirs.  Unfortunately, his scheming wife, Katie Cox, steals all the information from his computer in a pre-emptive divorce strike, and then promptly loses the disc.  The controversial memoirs end up in the hands of numbskull gym trainer Chad Feldheimer, who, along with his colleague and only-slightly-wiser friend Linda Litzke, promptly blackmail Osbourne for what they believe to be sensitive top secret information.

Meanwhile, Linda is also searching for romance, and ends up dating serial love rat Harry Pfarrer, a slightly clueless federal marshal who happens to be conducting an affair with none other than Katie Cox.  The coincidences and bizarre happenings continue to spiral out of control, with all five hapless contributors never discovering the links that bind them.  It’s a fairly involved story, and not entirely well formatted for film, although it seems the Coens are happy to admit a one-sided approach to their process: “We’re fond of stories; movies are a way of telling stories.  We found out that we had some facility for writing them and we got an opportunity to actually make one.  It’s not as if we have some mystical attachment to film.”

Maybe it’s their lack of adulation for the format that leads to such consistent disregard for convention in their films.  Here, in particular, the brothers jump between genres on a scene by scene basis, often wrong-footing the audience over whether it’s a comedy or a work of dramatic intent.  Some will say they have seen this before; that the Coen’s most definable attribute is the sly humour injected into even their bleakest movies.  But this is different.  Its reach covers both laugh-inducing stupidity and rather dark turns of violence, usually changing tack in a blink.  It’s a hard tone to adapt to, and one which might leave you less than comfortable.

Of course, comfort is not what the brothers want you to feel.  I think they take pleasure in detaching an audience from their true intent.  No Country for Old Men took you ‘on the run’ for most of the film, before slamming on the brakes and leaving Tommy Lee Jones to pick up the pieces.  The ending here is similarly curt, although by no means comparable to the dead-air discomforting experience of No Country.  It neatly wraps up its story and poses the question “what did we really learn?”.  What, indeed?

And yet, for all the irresolution and unbalanced tonality, the Coen’s script and characterisation helps pull the film out of the gutter and give you a reason to watch.  It takes a little while to pick up, pretty much holding out until Brad Pitt arrives to steal all the funniest lines.  His boneheaded performance might not be an artistic highpoint, but it’s hard not to find him humorous, especially when paired against John Malkovich’s standard hard-nosed intellectual.  Then there’s Coen-favourite George Clooney, doing his below-the-curve loser enough justice to be watchable, if not entirely believable (nobody would ever give him a gun, for example).  Tilda Swinton dials up the weirdness, and at times it’s a little too much, but then there’s Frances McDormand neatly managing her emotional spectrum without the pantomime delivery.

With its twisting narrative, Burn After Reading is comic exuberance unhindered by the ‘rules’ of comic filmmaking.  My concern about previous Coen productions was that their tendency to lean towards the bizarre meant I always felt at arms length from the film.  For all its joviality, this is a similarly cold affair.  It can be lively and it can be fun, but it can’t be meaningful as anything other than an observation of stupid people and their silly coincidences.  No Country had pretensions towards a wider point, yet here, the pointlessness is the point.  You could say that maybe the Coen’s have earned it, but really, they probably haven’t.  One Oscar success does not a legend make, and yet, you get the feeling that as long as they can keep telling their off-kilter stories, neither of them really cares.

Burn After Reading is currently on UK general release.

The Rocker (2008) October 12, 2008

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Directed by: Peter Cattaneo

If you think ‘rock comedy’ then chances are the first thing that springs to mind is Spinal Tap, the seminal Christopher Guest mock-umentary that didn’t dismantle rock pretentiousness so much as shatter the entire idea, leaving little behind for future attempts.  It’s from that same overblown, theatrical genre of music that this watered-down version takes its cues, albeit with an internet-age twist.  Complete with liner notes about growing up and being yourself, The Rocker is loud, proud, and here for one Dwight only.

The story centres on Robert ‘Fish’ Fishman, a former drummer with rock outfit Vesuvius, he was dropped from the band at the request of a record company twenty years previous.  The subsequent time has seen Fish work numerous unfulfilling day jobs, while Vesuvius have become hugely successful.   It’s not until his nephew Matt is suddenly in need of a drummer so that his band, A.D.D., can play the school dance, that Fish takes his place behind the drum kit once more.  After a video clip of the band goes viral on the internet, A.D.D. suddenly find themselves the subject of professional interest, taking the band to new heights, and giving Fish his second chance at living the life of a rock star.

As much as The Rocker might aspire to be a creation of original thought, there’s no denying that most of its elements are pilfered from other, similar movies.  For example, it primarily operates using the same man-child approach to failed, middle-age rockers that Jack Black utilised in the vastly superior School of Rock.  The difference is that Black made it convincing – for evidence why, you need look no further than his band, Tenacious D, who seem to exist primarily to bridge the gap between audacious rock posturing and comedy.  Here we get actor Rainn Wilson, one of the stars to emerge from the US version of The Office, in the lead role, and desperately trying to keep up.

Rainn himself is actually pretty strong, playing Fish with enthusiasm and boyish charm that helps justify his character’s copious screen time.  Meanwhile, the fellow band members are made up of a rather unlikely mix of personalities, the likes of which only come together in the world of movies.  Emma Stone plays the angst-ridden chick, while Josh Gad puts in a favourable performance as the shy, insecure one.  Least fitting is Teddy Geiger, who plays the slightly too good-looking but still troubled singer/songwriter of the band, Curtis.  With his unsubtle abandonment issues, you’ll spend an early part of the film just hoping he’ll just cheer up a bit – which he does, just in time to almost break up the band.

If you’re smart though, you won’t be watching these central figures at all, but rather the impressive array of supporting roles that fill out the picture.  Some of the best scenes are those involving Will Arnett’s rock superstar, Demetri Martin’s quirky music video director, and Jeff Garlin’s rock-wannabe father.  The most expanded of these though, is the band’s manipulating, superficial record company manager, played by Jason Sudeikis.  He’s another stereotype character, sure, but at least he’s consistently funny.

The story is probably the weakest single element, amounting to little more than a plod through all the usual story points.  If you think that you’ve already got it plotted out from the synopsis, then you probably have.  The small references to films like Almost Famous are welcome, but undercut by the fact that this ‘kids on the road’ flick would probably like to generate the same kind of coming of age sentimentality that Cameron Crowe lent to his semi-autobiographical picture.  My love of Almost Famous aside (which, incidentally, Rainn Wilson made a small appearance in), it’s safe to say that The Rocker is way too conventional to come anywhere close, especially when it tags the feel good ending from School of Rock on there as an encore.

I guess the blame for this, as well as a marginal concentration of jokes and a somewhat heavy reliance on slapstick, comes down to screenwriters Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky.  It’s most surprising to learn that the former wrote and produced on The Larry Sanders Show, while the latter has held the exact same roles for The Simpsons.  Given this employment history, we may well be forgiven for expecting much more.  Director Peter Cattaneo also seems to be chasing better days, having directed the popular British working-class comedy The Full Monty, his work here is perfunctory, although whether better direction could really have aided this project is debatable.

After a lukewarm reaction and a weak taking at the US box office, it would be unfair to say that The Rocker is particularly hateful or offensive.  Its light-hearted disregard for how conventional it actually is may well help take you along for the ride, and at 102 minutes, it falls well into the boundaries of a casual comedy night in.  But without any significant bite to its humour, and only light pokes at the music industry acting as its point of satire, it’s also a hard film to recommend.  The sharpest send-up comes when Fish meets his old bend members; now multi-millionaire rock stars, they’ve all adopted fake British accents.  And that’s The Rocker really, a film posing as a modern music comedy, but too clueless to see how formulaic it is.

The Rocker is on UK general release from October 17th.

Con Air (1997) October 8, 2008

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Directed by: Simon West

On the surface of it, Con Air has all the elements: it’s a Bruckheimer production, there’s the heady mix of John Cusack (an actor I’ve previously admitted my appreciation for) and a post-The Rock Nic Cage, plus there’s some big budget action to enjoy.  So why don’t I love it?  Probably because, though it pains me to say, it’s just not that good.

The story follows Cameron Poe, a man finally being released on parole after accidentally killing an assailant seven years ago while defending himself.  In order to get home, however, he is bundled onto a plane carrying some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, bound for a new high-security facility in Louisiana.  Naturally, not all runs to plan and the felons, headed by the dangerously wily Cyrus Grissom, break loose to take over the plane.  On the ground, US Marshal Vince Larkin is charged with getting a handle on the situation, and does so using the only airborne ally he has: Cameron Poe, the man who just wants to get home.

Only a year earlier, critics had doubted Nicholas Cage’s ability to make the jump to action star in Michael Bay’s formative 1996 spectacular The Rock.  Of course, inexperience was a major aspect of his character in that film, and yet it’s funny that by the release of Con Air in 1997, all those concerns had slipped away.  This time it was John Cusack’s turn to have his applicability questioned, and in a similar way we discover that it was barely worth breaking a sweat over.  Cusack takes the federal marshal ‘ordinary guy’ role and puts his usual idiosyncratic spin on it.  In fact, as his next role after starring in one of my favourite nineties comedies, Grosse Pointe Blank, the film was always destined to draw me in.  Cage and Cusack?  How could I resist?

It should come as no surprise then, to learn that high anticipation lead to a slightly souring disappointment.  Almost.  You see, in some respects Con Air manages to be your average entertainment-fuelled action movie, just with way too much emphasis on the ‘average’.  Writer Scott Rosenberg has come up a decent concept and, in the beginning at least, the idea of the confined hell in a plane overrun by dangerous convicts is appealing enough to take you along for the ride.  The problem is that as soon as they hit the ground (for a refuel? - too much logic for an action flick), the pace drops quite substantially and it never really picks up again until the conclusion.

Rather impressively, this is director Simon West’s debut feature.  From the look of his credits to date, however, it still stands as a glory moment (he would later make the first Tomb Raider movie and do some TV films).  His work here is fine too, not really stretching the boundaries of the genre like, say, John Woo (see: another action-oriented Nic Cage flick, Face/Off), but not terrible by a long stretch.  Where the film lets itself down a bit is in the action sequences, which are fun but sparse, with way too much downtime in between.  Also, the Las Vegas ending, exciting as it is, stretches credibility even by action movie standards.  The feeling that they would surely have killed more people they saved never stopped nagging at me throughout.

For all I’ve talked about the Cage / Cusack pairing, it is actually John Malkovich who has the best character, playing Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom - an intellectual villain; unreservedly cool but still threateningly menacing.  He totally ruins the impact of Steve Bucemi’s supposedly ‘worst of the worst’ criminal, who is introduced too late to have any effect on the plot and never fully lives up to his name.  Like a few characters in the movie, we probably could have done without him, though that’s not to say that the film runs slow, and the 115-minute running length is entirely reasonable.

Con Air really lives and dies by its genre classification.  As an action movie, it doesn’t quite hold its own; but neither does it satisfy the tension of a thriller, nor the emotion of a crime drama.  It can be enjoyed as a mindless piece of entertainment: fun while it lasts but forgotten as soon as it’s over.  A real shame, because with this cast and production team, Con Air should have been flying high with the action greats.  Instead, it simply remains grounded.

Babel (2006) October 4, 2008

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Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Though cynics may tell you that today’s Oscars aren’t the fairest of awards, often swaying in the breeze of popularity and external pressures, it does provide a strong platform for highlighting foreign talent.  If you’re looking for a current tip, then Mexican-born Alejandro González Iñárritu looks like sure thing.  His acclaimed Spanish movie Amores Perros was a best foreign language nomination, and set the mould for what became 21 Grams, an English-language drama that saw Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts with supporting performer nominations.  His last release, Babel, brought seven nominations, not least ones for best picture and best director.  At this point, it’s only a matter of time.

Fans of Iñárritu will not be surprised to learn that Babel is a film made up of seemingly separate but ultimately linked stories, as has become the director’s trademark over the past few years.  Here, we meet Richard and Susan Jones, a couple vacationing in Morocco to try and repair their marriage.  They become involved in an accident at the hands of two local boys, who come into possession of a newly purchased rifle, intended for protecting their goat herd.  Meanwhile, a deaf girl in Tokyo deals with the exclusion that comes with her condition, and a woman working as a nanny in the US is forced to take the two children in her care across the boarder into Mexico, so that she may attend her son’s wedding.  Throughout the film, we see their various moments of pain and despair, and how they deal with the circumstances imposed upon them.

Even with such abstract story structure, it appears the Mexican director is doing something right, as he seems able to command whatever A-list cast he wants.  Plus, he gets them cheap - Babel’s budget was a tiny $25 million, which is incredible given its location-spanning settings.  After working previously with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts on 21 Grams, this time we have Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett taking top billing.  They are, of course, only one quarter of the film, and so we get equally compelling performances from Adriana Barraza, Gael García Bernal, Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble (the Mexico segment); Rinko Kikuchi and Kôji Yakusho (Japan segment); plus Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani and Mustapha Rachidi (Morocco segment).   It’s hard to know where to place the most praise in such a large central cast, so I’ll sit on the fence and say that despite the wide-ranging ages and nationalities, everyone seems committed both to character and to the film.

Meanwhile, on the visual side of things we are treated to a menagerie of different images, from the stark wilderness of remote Morocco, to the hustle and bustle of downtown Tokyo.  Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who has been working with Iñárritu since Amores Perros, brings each place to the screen with a unique identity that helps keep the stories separate; including the two that both take place in Morocco.  There are some nice creative moments too, especially one which takes us to a booming disco inside the head of a deaf character - the bright lights and frenzied dancing spills over visually, but comes accompanied by only an airy silence.

However, amongst this sea of positives lies one fairly significant weakness.  It is another Iñárritu regular, Guillermo Arriaga, behind the script for this movie, and he takes a similarly laid-back attitude to that in 21 Grams.  Even with four concurrent stories running, we are never rushed around - not that the film is slow mind you, just mindful of its pace.  This makes the plotlines easy to follow, but it does sometimes feel a little languishing, especially when we spend time with Pitt and Blanchett.  21 grams had a wistful quality about it that lent nicely to a relaxed narrative arc and room-to-breath scene settings.  Babel, on the other hand, seems to require a little more thrust.

While we’re on the subject of story, it is worth mentioning that although it would claim to be a tale about people, language and the boarders that separate them, it actually turns out to be mainly about a gun.  Most notably, the Tokyo story is only very loosely linked to the rest and feels like a movie on its own.  Maybe a movie called ‘Babel’ actually, since the implications of that title (language and its barriers) are most strongly displayed in this section, yet ignored elsewhere.  Race and ethnicity are more central to the events, taking it a little too close to Crash [review] for comfort.

Babel is a well made movie that never quite lives up to its critical reputation.  Like 21 Grams before it, I found the film a little impenetrable at times, despite handling its stories and their differing time periods with effortless skill.  There’s plenty to see, but the 143-minute running time shows a lack of restraint on behalf of Alejandro González Iñárritu that lets down the overall feel of a film which tries to say a lot, but left me with very little.  I’ve no doubt if Iñárritu keeps making these layered dramatic features that he’ll soon be receiving Oscar gold.  His movies are almost purpose-built Academy pleasers.  It just seems that for me, watching his films is too much like hitting a language barrier: the harder you try, the more tiring it is.

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