Friday, November 11, 2005

More flicks and pix...

THE CONSTANT GARDENER -- John le Carre's novel marked a thematic shift in his work which this excellent adaptation adheres to, positing a post-Cold War villain (the pharmaceutical corporations) audiences can relate to while dramatizing the human toll exacted by the unholy wedding of governments and corporations. The complicity autopsied here is the government-sanctioned (on multiple levels) appropriation of beneath-the-radar Third World (African) populations for medical experimentation, and the fate of those principled 'rogue' individuals who seek to expose the powers-that-be. Rachel Weisz is the journalist, wife of timid Brit career diplomat Ralph Fiennes, determined to unveil the veiled 'health procedures' perpetrated against impoverished Kenyan citizens under the guise of 'care'; alas, Fiennes' diplomatic superior (perfectly played by Danny Huston) has interests in both getting into Weisz's panties and preserving the status quo complicity of the British government and drug companies, and it takes the disappearance of his wife to begin to tear the blinders from Fiennes's eyes. All this duplicity and espionage could have been dry as African sand, but director Fernando Meirelles -- whose City of God crackled with immediacy and terrifying energy -- forges from an excellent script a gripping drama that gets under the skin in all kinds of ways, aided considerably by its sterling cast (including Pete Postlewaite and Bill Nighy in key supporting roles). This isn't a dogmatic political tract: in keeping with the strengths of LeCarre's novels, it has the heat of the heart in every frame. What sets this film apart from others of its ilk is its emotional core: Meirelles opens us up to the true scope of the tragedy, from its most base humanity -- the warm intimacy between Fiennes and Weisz, the bonds of friendship and conviction between Weisz and her African compatriots, and Fiennes's awakening to the consistency of those bonds in the light of Huston's maladroit attempts to portray them as betrayals -- to the cruelity of those in power so callously indifferent to the human toll of their crimes. The massive tragedy is horrific, but it's the sorrowful arc of Fiennes's character, LeCarre's Constant Gardener, that grounds it in something one can almost touch and taste. Timely, agonizing, and potent, Meirelles exposes all levels of this contemporary corruptive network to the sun, from the highest levels of power to the sordid fly-blown remnants of the disposal operations that maintain the silence necessary to such criminal extremes of unchecked globalist policies. The film circles one such crimescene from its black heart -- in which we and Fiennes visit the sad scene of Weisz's final moments -- to its heartbreaking finale at the same remote beachhead. A remarkable film, highly recommended.

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE -- One of the late summer's surprise hits, this rather curious fusion of 1970s bookends The Exorcist and Robert Wise and Frank DeFelitta's forgotten reincarnation opus Audrey Rose is arguably an extension of the current cycle of studio remakes of 1970s horror films, revamping The Exorcist into a more "life-affirming faith-based" crowd-pleaser. Actually, it's closer in tone to The Runner Stumbles (Stanley Kramer's sad final film) than Audrey Rose, but I'd be surprised if anyone had heard of, much less seen, that curio -- so, let's stick with The Exorcist and Audrey Rose analogy, shall we? The particulars, from its Catholic orientation and claim of basis in a true story to the gender and exorcism of its possession host (effectively portrayed by Jennifer Carpenter), are almost identical to The Exorcist, save for the courtroom framing device and resulting reorientation to the case history at hand. Supplanting Pazuzu with a more traditional demonic presence, skirting scatalogical extremes, and eschewing the sparks between secular amorality of Exorcist director Friedkin's pragmatic approach to Exorcist author Blatty's passionate faith-fueled Christian content and intent, Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson is clearly on the side of the angels from the get-go. Thus, its the dramatic tension between courtroom opponents Laura Linney and prosecutor Campbell Scott in the trial of Roman Catholic exorcist/priest Tom Wilkerson that is the arena of this spiritual battle, not the frigid bedroom-and-barn locales in which Wilkerson sought to exorcise Carpenter. In short, it's Perry Mason sugar-coating a pro-Christian horror flick, as such an extension of the ongoing fundamentalist Christian horror cycle (e.g., The Omega Code, the Left Behind series, etc.) and Hollywood satellite productions (from indies like The Rapture to studio efforts like The Seventh Sign, Stigmata, and others). That said, Derrickson spices the courtroom/prison cell/late-night-home-alone-in-the-apartment crisis of faith character arc Linney suffers in the thrall of Wilkerson's faith with some mighty effective chills. Primary among these are the flashbacks to Carpenter's gradual collapse and possible possession, including one startling classroom hallucination that had me jumping and involuntarily muttering, "Jesus Christ!" That wins my heart in the horror department, so I've got to recommend this despite the sanctimonious piety of the courtroom proceedings and reassuring agenda of the film as a whole.

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK -- Highest recommendation! George Clooney's maturation as a filmmaker and actor continues with this crisp, unpretentious, straight-forward and remarkable "you-are-there" account of premiere TV journalist Edward R. Murrow's determinative decision to expose and derail the witch-hunt mounted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite the caveats of some critics, Clooney's decision to work with extant archival footage of McCarthy, the Senator's investigations, and the televised hearings is a masterstroke: while the fidelity to its period (the early 1950s) and performances are sterling across-the-board, the galvanizing power of the McCarthy footage cannot be overstated, nor its relevence to the post-9/11 national environment we find ourselves steeped in today. David Strathairn has always been among my favorite character actors of this generation, and he inhabits Murrow with unwavering focus and gravitas (including the framing farewell speech to a broadcasters gathering, Murrow's sobering parting shot to the very medium and its corporate captors who were intent upon trivializing democracy in its race to pander to consumer culture). The supporting cast -- Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels) -- are just as good, but Frank Langella is arguably best of all as the CBS honcho who backed Murrow's stand against McCarthy while tending to the harsh mistress of business -- which, after the crisis, claims her pound of flesh. This is brilliant populist filmmaking, the courage of its convictions (and determination to "speak truth to power," as they say) anchored primarily in its determination to dramatize a key turning point in American history by simply telling the story, sans flash, flourishes, or embellishments. Note that Clooney is the second ‘liberal’ filmmaker to incorporate a telling archival clip of General & President Dwight Eisenhower at/as a critical point in its tapestry (the first, of course, was Oliver Stone with JFK). Clooney ends with a succinct Eisenhower clip that stands in harsh historic contrast to current President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s pro-incarceration-without-due-process (and torture) policies; indeed, decency and shame seem distant from our current government's members. Like so much else in this film, it’s impossible not to draw the unfortunate parallels -- how far astray we’ve wandered from our espoused ideals, as a country, as a people, and as a world power. But whatever your politics, see this film -- it's a solid piece of work, and a perfect companion feature to Michael Mann's excellent The Insider (1999). Together, they offer sobering accounts of the rise and fall of CBS News and American television journalism as a whole. Clooney lucidly locates the seeds of the destruction Mann potently dramatized, both evident in the closed-door office rooms meetings so central to both stories. Another link they share are those 'coffin nails' -- a lot of cigarettes are smoked in Good Night, and the only commercial Clooney includes in his tapestry of 1950s TV is a hilarious cigarette ad of the period; The Insider neatly caps and concludes that component of Good Luck in spades. Again, Good Luck and Good Night is not to be missed -- among the year's best.

More this weekend --