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Review: Green Zone

When it comes to modern action directors uninterested in spatial lucidity, Paul Greengrass has gotten off pretty easy.

0.5

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Green Zone
Photo: Universal Pictures

When it comes to modern action directors uninterested in spatial lucidity, Paul Greengrass has gotten off pretty easy, despite the fact that his two Bourne films’ faux verité handheld cinematography turned every fight and chase centerpiece incoherent. It seems that if no one calls you on it, there’s no need to change, and thus it’s no shock to find the director’s Green Zone employing the same gritty-jitter aesthetic as his prior two collaborations with Matt Damon. In this laughably preposterous slam-bang military saga set in ’03 Iraq shortly after invasion, Damon is Chief Warrant Officer Miller, assigned to find WMDs by following classified, supposedly vetted intel that, as he goes from site to site, turns out to be dead wrong. First puzzled and then suspicious about the source of this info, Miller brazenly questions his higher-ups during a debriefing and, upon meeting resistance, goes rogue to discover the truth about Iraq’s weapons programs and our reasons for going to war. All the while, he flashes the cocksure bluster and invincibility of an ‘80s action superstar tasked with the revisionist-history fantasy mission of righting real-world wrongs with nothing but his courage, know-how, and might. In essence, he’s Rambourne.

In imagining an alternate reality in which a lone hero uncovers—and exposes to the public back home—that no WMDs exist and that the U.S. military manufactured intel to invade Iraq, Green Zone recalls not only Stallone’s Vietnam-conquering army superhero, but also The Kingdom, which similarly treated the Middle East as a playground for ludicrous genre-movie crash and booms mixed with political “commentary.” In comparison to Greengrass’s latest, however, Berg’s glossy, ideologically silly work seems like The Battle of Algiers, despite the fact that it’s Greengrass who’s obsessed with co-opting nonfiction filmmaking styles. As is his penchant, the director never holds a shot for more than three seconds and cuts spastically at all times to generate a false, distracting sense of “energy.” In the process, he creates a permanent awareness of the camera that keeps one at arm’s length from the action. It’s as if Greengrass doesn’t trust his images, which is understandable considering the mundanity of his compositional sense. Yet framing issues are secondary to his maddening disregard for coherence in his frenetic skirmishes, shot in blurry handheld, often in darkness, and chopped to pieces in the editing room so that characters’ geographic relationship to one another, and the progression of incidents within a given scene, are wholly indiscernible.

Narratively speaking, Green Zone’s rage against the U.S. war machine is not only five years too late, but simplistic, its censure screamed with all the subtlety of Shock and Awe and its schematic layout of good and evil (with a miscast Greg Kinnear as the stand-in for the U.S.’s intel-fudging evil) so reductive as to be simultaneously risible and insulting. Based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Brian Helgeland’s script partakes only of kindergarten-grade analysis, replete with a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) who learns the importance of fact-checking, dim third-act efforts to turn a mustached Saddam general (Yigal Naor) sympathetic—he may have murdered and tortured his countrymen, but he’s been victimized by Kinnear’s lies!—and countless other make-you-go-hmmmm moments. Everything’s black and white and cartoony all over in this Iraq adventure, from Kinnear’s villainy (one half-expects to see him eating an Iraqi baby for lunch) to Brendan Gleeson’s nobility as a gruff U.S. official, to Miller’s on-the-ground civilian assistant Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), whose primary purpose is to be laughed at when a soldier accidentally pulls off his prosthetic leg.

Nonetheless, the film’s crude regurgitation of common truths and opinions is ultimately less grating than its spurious attempt to legitimize itself via a docudrama style as inherently phony and unreal as Michael Bay’s polar-opposite car commercial sheen. Greengrass’s bump-and-jostle attention-deficit cinematography—chockablock with now-hackneyed sights of hooded detainees and suspects being tortured by bald meathead U.S. grunts, all of which are carelessly tossed off as shorthand supporting evidence for the story’s prime argument—appropriates elements from verité filmmaking and TV news reportage without successfully replicating those modes. Faithful mimicry, however, isn’t the pressing issue; it’s Greengrass’s use of his formally cruddy techniques for mere superhero fantasy, resulting in a disconnect that’s jarringly disingenuous. Haphazardly shaking and spinning his camera drums up just self-conscious, artificial liveliness (not to mention nausea), which comes to a head during a climactic nocturnal chase through Iraq streets that’s so visually muddled and hideous as to warrant a permanent, preeminent place in film school 101 classes. With unchecked fervor, Greengrass shows no respect for cause and effect, for how images and plot points cogently go together, thereby negating our own interest in how the pieces of his clichéd, scattershot film correspond.

Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Yigal Naor, Khalid Abdalla Director: Paul Greengrass Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2010 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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Film

Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.

3.5

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1900
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.

The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.

Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.

The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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