DVD of the Week – ‘Burn After Reading’ – December 23, 2008

There’s no new column at MSN this week but there are new DVDs, which I have anticipated and included in the two-week column currently up on MSN Entertainment. There’s also something a little different about the Christmas Week releases, which are almost exclusively limited to 2008 features: most of them were actually released on December 21, a Sunday, presumably to give businesses a few extra days to sell and/or rent the discs before Christmas.

The brain trust of "Burn After Reading"
The brain trust of "Burn After Reading"

The highlight of the limited release week is the Coen Bros. Burn After Reading, one of their more playful projects, much lighter and significantly slighter than their previous film, the dark, Oscar-winning thriller No Country For Old Men, but put together with such perfection that you can’t help but be won over. Who else but the Coens could get away with a comedy where a major character is violently, messily killed.

George Clooney is the ostensible lead as a charmingly glib and very married Federal Marshal whose job never seems to interfere with his numerous affairs, but France McDormand drives the ensemble comedy as a desperately single woman determined to get a plastic surgery makeover at any cost. Her motives aren’t exactly pure of heart – she just wants money for some cosmetic surgery that she can’t understand why her HMO won’t cover – and her obsessive drive to get money at any costs leaves a lot of collateral damage. Her plan revolves around a computer disc of what she believes are state secrets (they are actually the romanticized memoirs of a deluded low level CIA agent, played to perfection by John Malkovich with a blank expression meant to look incredulous but actually makes him look like a doofus) and her efforts to sell them to the highest bidder. The characters all think they’re involved in an espionage caper and the Coens direct it with a straight face, not playing punchlines as much as letting the absurdity arise from the disconnect between the sober stylistics and the utterly ridiculousness of their shenanigans.

After the darkness of “No Country For Old Men,” the Coen Brothers eased up with this deadpan espionage farce played out by small fish convinced that they are in deep waters…. It may be a lark but it is pitch perfect and the performances are priceless, from John Malkovich as a doofus CIA vet with delusions of adequacy to Brad Pitt as a cheerfully idiotic personal trainer.

The DVD is reviewed here. I also reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Burn After Reading’ – December 23, 2008”

DVD of the Week – ‘Moolaade’ – March 4, 2008

Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade was officially released on February 19. I didn’t receive a copy until just last week and have only just gotten a chance to explore the disc, but it us surely one of the most important releases of the year.

Ousmane Sembene, the great Senegalese filmmaker and novelist and the godfather of Black African cinema, died in 2007 at the age of 84. Moolaade, his final film, tackles the issue of female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) in Islamic Africa in what can best be described as a rousing celebration of women’s rights and solidarity. Four adolescent girls flee the “purification” ceremony and request sanctuary from the modern-thinking Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), a wife and mother who invokes a tribal power of protection more ancient than the village’s Islamic practices. Her defiance challenges the authority of the elder women who perform the cutting ceremony (they vow to “destroy her power”) and the men who rule the village (they confiscate the radios to stop the spread of modern ideas). Semebene’s style draws from folk storytelling traditions. His dialogue, with its ritualistic call-and-response quality, has a lovely sing-song beauty, and in the climax the women celebrate their defiance in a dance number that merges ceremonial ritual with emotional expression. Beneath the surface simplicity lays a richly drawn community, a serious dialogue about the blind obedience to tradition and authority, and a message of equality, education, and respect.

New Yorker released the film on a deluxe two-disc edition, with numerous featurettes and a video interview with Sembene conducted as Moolaade was being released.

I wrote about Sembene a few years ago for a retrospective in Seattle organized by the Northwest Film Forum. The essay is reprinted here.


My other pick of the week is Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Moolaade’ – March 4, 2008”

Oscar Snubs: They Shoulda Been a Contender

It’s an open question whether the red carpet, the stargazing, the invariably overlong ceremony with its record of misjudged entertainment set pieces, and the obligatory afterparties will be present, but to paraphrase one of this year’s big nominees: There will be Oscars.

Zodiac - Where’s Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination?My annual Oscar report card is up at MSN. There are a lot of good nominees. I list a few choices that I think would have been better. Everyone’s a critic…

For the most part, it’s a classy bunch, but there’s always room for complaining. There is no shortage of deserving artists who didn’t make Oscar’s cut and we’re not shy about sharing our opinions on where the academy went wrong. So here is our report card on Oscar’s slights and oversights. Call it: They shoulda been a contender.

Best Picture

The five Best Picture nominees are a worthy — if fairly dark — class this year, lightened only by the inclusion of the indie-ish comedy “Juno.” I adore the film, I confess, and find it far more interesting and alive than last year’s token quasi-indie “Little Miss Sunshine.” But I’d prefer to see Sean Penn‘s “Into the Wild” — the glaring omission of the category — in its place. This sprawling, ragged human epic throws the audience headlong into the romance of an odyssey across America, living in the moment and in the buzzing thrill of the quest for something that may not exist. Carved out of primal imagery, raw emotion and pure passion, Penn’s ambition may exceed his grasp but only by degrees.

Read the rest here.

Into The Wild - Director Sean Penn shoots Emile Hirsch

Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List

I’ve contributed Top Ten lists to four different organizations already: MSN, IndieWire, the Village Voice/LA Weekly 2007 Film Poll, and Senses of Cinema (not yet published as of this writing). The process has remained fluid throughout, and not just due to differing rules for the different groups. I’ve allowed myself to challenge my own evaluations, and the reasons behind them, for each list, shifting films up and down the list, swapping out different titles in the final spots, rethinking what it is that makes a “best film,” and understanding what I want to represent as “cinema” with such a list.

That ends with this, my final list, the one that I prepare for my annual “Top Ten” event, a small party/debate that I have been hosting for a few film critic friends of mine for ten years now. It’s by design a small gathering of people I enjoy talking to and arguing with, who take movies seriously and are articulate enough to make a discussion not just lively, but invigorating and challenging. The results of that event will follow in a later posting. Here is the list I presented at the event, supplemented with notes, comments, runners-up, and links to reviews and other writings (where available).

1. No Country For Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen)
A model of simple, strong, evocative storytelling pared down to the bone and character and meaning radiating from every image, every movement, and every moment, “No Country” is cinema in every sense of the word. Part of the thrill is the feeling that it’s all spinning out of your grasp, it’s rushing out of control, in a film that refuses to rush anything. You never feel it’s out of the control of the Coens, whose methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story, and Roger Deakins delivers simple and stark images, a desert that sometimes feels like it’s lawless frontier. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss may seem smart, but is just smart enough to outrun the trouble dogging his trail, a minor league talent in a major league showdown. The Coens don’t offer that comforting sense of cosmic justice or thematic completeness that most crime movies provide, even those films about chaotic situations where the violence spills out of the confines of the protagonists. And that’s the point. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t know, and that’s far more dangerous. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, retires because, he says, no longer understands the kind of violence and characters that he faces with the explosion of the drug trade through the borders. The Coens (and McCarthy’s story) remind us that it’s not the violence that’s changed, only the players.

My Seattle P-I review of No Country For Old Men is here.

2. Into the Wild (Sean Penn) Continue reading “Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List”