(In theaters, December 2010) The Coen Brothers never do anything in a straightforward fashion, and so it is that if their homage to the classic True Grit may be as dirty and unforgiving as we imagine the West to have been, it’s also surprisingly entertaining and even, yes, amusing. The repartee between rivals Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is one of the film’s finest points, and the film often acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise. But for all of its tension-defusing laughs, the film isn’t a comedy: the drama plays without ironic distancing, the characters aren’t completely softened for Hollywood effect, and the finale doesn’t pull any stops in punishing characters for going so deep in the wild. While Bridges is magnificent as the one-eyed marshal “Rooster” that becomes the film’s true hero, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who makes the strongest impression as the 14-year-old heroine of the film capable of mouthing the Coens’ typically dense dialogue. This leads us to the film’s main weakness in theaters: The often thick accents duelling on-screen. Home-video viewers will have the advantage of captions: movie theatre viewers will have to tough it out on their own. At a time where filmed Westerns are most often anachronistic genre recreations, it’s a bit surprising to find True Grit to be such a true-pedigree Western, spiced but not overwhelmed by comedy. It’s an old-fashioned film worth watching and savouring.
(In theatres, March 2010) Politically-motivated action films are rare and precious, so I am unapologetic in liking Green Zone a lot more than I should given my distaste for Paul Greengrass’s shaky-cam style. His politics are in the right place, but his habit of giving jobs to spastic cameramen can be tough to tolerate, especially in early dialogue scenes. Yet despite the firefights, this story is largely about the way a loyal soldier comes to realize the ways the US government has lied about WMDs in Iraq. It’s also a damning portrait of the way the US acted during its first year as an invader: Using Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City as inspiration for its setting leads to one of the best digitally-enhanced portrait of occupied Baghdad so far. Matt Damon is surprisingly credible as the soldier whose questions lead to unpleasant realizations, and one action sequence featuring helicopter surveillance feels as uniquely contemporary as Greengrass’s own Bourne Ultimatum London chase sequence. Still, this may be a film not only for those who can spot the Judith-Miller-inspired patsy journalist or the not-Ahmed-Chalabi puppet figurehead, but those who can both explain De-Baathification and why it was so badly implemented. For savvy political observers, Green Zone feels like a swift Cliff’s Notes version of recent history, or a version of No End in Sight with far many more gunfights. While the dramatic arc of the script feels ordinary (although the American-on-American conflicts are a nice touch), it’s its dramatization of recent bleeding history that’s most rewarding. It so confidently states what many Americans are still reluctant to affirm despite piles of evidence to the contrary that it becomes a minor revelation of what filmmaking can still do –especially in non-American hands. In this context, trolling the politically-driven negative reviews for the film becomes entertainment in its own right. In the meantime, Green Zone goes to join The Kingdom and Lord of War as examples of how enjoyable action filmmaking can back up a socially-conscious theme, and not be much more than half a decade behind current events.
(In theaters, December 2009) Perhaps the boldest chance taken with this film is the concept of slowly transforming a political thriller into a sports film. Picking up moments after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as the first post-Apartheid South African president, Invictus goes from nation-building drama to underdog sport film in steady increments, placing more and more weight on sports until political issues becomes subordinate to the results of a rugby tournament. Fortunately, the film is made by skilled technicians: security issues are used as a way to peek into racial reunification, the legend of Nelson Mandela gets a polish, and we’re shown a nation uniting behind a national sports team. It’s all curiously enjoyable: The South-African setting and accents are different enough to keep us interested (although I couldn’t help wishing for a big spaceship to appear over Johannesburg), there are plenty of misleading thriller cues (one of them leading up to a thrilling CGI flyby), Morgan Freeman is mesmerizing as Mandela (think “role of a career”), Matt Damon is unexpectedly convincing as a rugby player and Clint Eastwood’s direction is as coolly efficient as always. Even the clichés (such as more and more slow-motion segments as the game gets closer to completion) and the unequal pacing don’t look as bad when dealt by such experienced hands. For all of its calculated humanity, Invictus does get viewers to feel better about sports, films and mankind in general, which has its own attraction especially in the usual field of Oscar-baiting films.
(In theatres, September 2009) If the essence of comedy is to do something new and poke fun at sacred cows, then Steven Soderbergh’s irreverent The Informant! is well on its way to hilarity. Whistleblowers, obviously, are supposed to be tragic and noble figures. Not, as portrayed by a surprisingly unglamorous Matt Damon, as borderline-moronic eggheads with little sense and vapid inner monologues. The film’s initial structure is familiar, as a scientist with ethical concerns comes to work for the FBI in exposing a price-fixing conspiracy involving his corporation. (It’s all based on real events.) Idiotic protagonist aside, it begins as a reasonably amusing feature that seems to derive most of its comedy from decidedly mundane surroundings: Blatantly taking place in the American Midwest, The Informant! seems mostly concerned with trivia and discomfort. But that too becomes another deception as the final act of the film gets rolling and it turns out that our protagonist has ethical problems that go far beyond being clueless. As the snowball of his lies goes downhill, we come to realize the wisdom of the agents obsessed with figuring out his rationale for turning informant. And, in the process, we end up with a parody of stories in which the whistleblower turns out to be clean as driven snow. Reality, suggest Soderbergh’s film, is always more complicated. And frequently more absurd than we can imagine. While I can’t imagine many people thinking “Yeah, I want to watch this movie again!”, The Informant! a cheeky piece of comic subversion, especially coming from the same director as Erin Brokovich.
(In theaters, December 2006) Given the traditional association between spy stories and popcorn movies, it’s a surprise to find that this historical drama is far more interested in the emotional burden of espionage than in gunfights and thrilling chase sequences. Matt Damon is surprisingly restrained in the lead role, even when surrounded by a fabulous cast that includes director Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin and many other familiar names. But this restraint has a point: the script is an intricate mixture of secrets, betrayals, codes and detection: Closer to John LeCarré’s brand of dreary spy fiction, The Good Shepherd is a grown-up entry in the spy genre. But like many films dedicated to an older audience, it’s also dull, dreary and far too long for its own sake: Clocking in at a languid two hours and a half, The Good Shepherd tests its viewer’s patience without mercy. Self-consciously ponderous and deathly serious (there’s maybe three laughs in the entire picture), it’s not without qualities, but it really requires its audience to work in order to get at them. CIA history buffs will appreciate, but others are likely to keep staring at their watches.