Monday 1 December 2008

Monday Night Film Club - A pleasant surprise

It should have been terrible. It was, after all, a film from the Coen brothers. They may have won a bevy of Oscars for No Country for Old Men, but so too did Titanic and the final instalment of Lord of the Rings. The former was somewhere beyond terrible and remains three hours of my life that I'll never get back, and about which I am still bitter, the latter was at best extremely disappointing. The Coen brothers' story of murder and drug money in the west is not only horribly violent but, in common with many of their films has no point. The motivation of many characters is at best unclear - in particular why the police show so little desire to locate a man who kills one of their own in the opening moments. The ending leaves you wondering to what end you have just been watching it all. A reaction common to their work. It ranks as one of the worst and most objectionable films I have ever seen. And don't think such objections are down to violence in and of itself: there are plenty of violent films I enjoy, much of Tarentino's work, for example. This was not only violent, but utterly pointless. The only thing that prevented me from walking out was that to do so would have been rude to the people whose guest I was.

I was not, therefore, keen to see their latest outing, superficially amusing though it might have appeared from the trailer. I thought I had dodged the bullet when several members of film club went to see it shortly after its release. Not so. Last Monday saw us attending a later showing than normal at the Cameo to see Burn after reading.

In the first place, the film is a screwball comedy, and I like a good screwball comedy. Secondly, all the characters, while many of them are impressively stupid or inept, or more usually both, have crystal clear and believable motivations. We start with alcoholic CIA analyst John Malkovich's Osbourne Cox being fired, or rather demoted and resigning in a huff. He goes home to start work on his memoir. His wife, beautifully played by Tilda Swinton, cares more what this may mean for her financial position and decides to go for divorce so that she can get together with George Clooney, with whom she is engaged in an affair. Clooney's motivation is really very clear indeed: he wants to sleep with as many different people as possible with as few strings as possible (that and engage in the construction of DIY sex toys in his basement).

Things start to fall apart when Swinton, thinking she has stolen her husband's financial files also takes the manuscript of his book, which she then leaves in the gym where Brad Pitt, a fitness obsessed moron, and Frances McDormand, who is obsessed with finding money for her plastic surgery, come into possession of it and decide they are owed a reward of some kind. When they are told to think again (that, at least, is the gist of what Malkovich says), they embark on a series of ever more desperate and comical attempts to make something of the disc.

Things spiral downwards pretty rapidly from there, but extremely funnily so. J K Simmons, who has previous worked wonders as J Jonah Jameson in Spider-man puts in an inspired turn as the CIA superior at a loss to comprehend the madness unfolding before him and hoping it can all be cleaned away with as little mess as possible. Indeed, nobody has a clear idea of exactly what is going on, save for the audience, which only makes the bumbling actions of many of the protagonists the more amusing.

I won't spoil the ending, but it is by far and away the most satisfying work I have seen from this team.

All of which was a marked improvement on our previous outing to see Oliver Stone's W. A film that should, and could, have been every bit as funny. And, in places, it was: President Bush picking the salad from his lunch in response to Cheney's analogy that action must be taken against terrorism in much the same was as it would have to be if there was even the small chance of contaminated lettuce, or when he lands on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare "mission accomplished", the film cuts to a news channel pundit saying:

He's just landed on an boat at 150 miles an hour. You wouldn't see a Democrat doing that.

Unfortunately, given the wealth of material available, such laughs are too few and far between. Perhaps stone was keen to paint an even and fair portrait of Bush. This is a reasonable goal, but if he wanted to do that, he should have provided some insight into the man and for the most part he doesn't. His one point seems to be that George H W Bush prefered his other son Jeb. There may or may not be any truth in this, but it isn't enough to hang a whole film on. Worse, there are too many points the film makes no attempt to answer: what is it that Laura Bush sees in the man, how did he get to be in charge of the Texas baseball team, why was he pretty coherent and lucid it the Texas gubernatorial debates but not in the presidential ones?

Then there is Stone's propensity to play fast and loose with history. This is highly evident JFK, where Kevin Costner makes a final and fictional statement to the Warren commission. Here we see Colin Powell constantly cautioning against war in Iraq. Fair enough, but he then goes on to bat strongly for war at the UN, with no explanation as to why he made that choice. Perhaps it simply isn't known, but that makes things the more frustrating: what is the point as such films as this if not to attempt to understand such mysteries. Then Tony Blair crops up, in a fairly standard caricature by Ioan Gruffudd. The scene is the infamous Camp David meeting where Blair wore supposedly 'ball crunching' jeans, and wherein the too youthful looking Prime Minster cautions against war. I think I speak for all in Britian when I say WHAT THE [expletive deleted]. Now, whatever side of the war debate you may have been on here, one thing is certain: there was never the slightest doubt which side Blair was on. Lastly, there is the question of Bush and drink. He gives it up, but later in the film he can seen swigging a can of beer, which passes without comment. Is Stone suggesting he didn't give up booze completely or is this just a continuity error? I say lastly, but this list is by no means exhaustive.

Another problem is that he makes no effort to guide the viewer through the cast of thousands. While I had little trouble identifying the likes of Rove (an excellent Toby Jones) or Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), I did spend about half an hour wracking my brains as to who the other George n the Bush administration was before realising that it must be then CIA Director George Tenet (wonderfully played by Bruce McGill) and I'm a pretty close observer of American politics. Indeed, the cast is generally excellent, doing great impressions, from Brolin's Bush, through Dreyfuss's Cheyney, to Scott Glenn's Donald Rumsfeld. The only real weak link is the Condelezza Rice of Thandie Newton who spends the whole film in an annoying high-pitched scream of a voice.

None of which is to suggest this is a terrible film, it's perfectly watchable, rather that I can't really see the point of it. More so, why make such a film just months before the presidency and the story end? Stone himself doesn't have a clear idea where to end. A powerful and famous moment where Bush is asked at a press conference to list his mistakes and is unable to think of a single one seemed perfect, but the film rolled on. Instead Stone takes us to a dream sequence that recurs throughout the film with Bush in a baseball stadium. A ball is hit but vanishes, preventing him from catching it. I get the general metaphor, but it says nothing the earlier scene didn't say better, save, of course that the president quite likes baseball. Thanks for the insight!

The film does offer one insight though, but it isn't one that too many people are likely share. George Bush is shown ending all meetings with silence, which he, and perhaps some others, use to pray. This is interesting because I am a Quaker. Quakers worship mainly though sitting together in silence. When they hold business meetings, they start and end with silence, in part because it's a good way of bookending the meeting so that it doesn't continue after it has officially ended. Either way it was both fascinating and troubling to learn that I had something in common with this man for whom I have nothing but contempt.

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