Film reviews

A 1950s moment that resonates with our time

Good Night, and Good Luck
dir. George Clooney.

The PG rating for this fine film has added information: ‘Mild themes.’

‘Good night and good luck’ was broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s famous sign-off line to his 1950s CBS television news program See It Now. Murrow used that platform to expose the tactics of anti-communist zealot Senator Joseph McCarthy. And to capture that pivotal American moment, director George Clooney has spliced the CBS newsroom drama played out by his faultless ensemble cast with archival footage of the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy, larger than life, plays himself. So does President Dwight D. Eisenhower, sounding to 21st-century ears like a liberal democrat. Some folk attending the test screenings said the guy playing McCarthy was overacting. Too much ‘reality’ TV?

Clooney uses close-focus, lustrous black and white to capture the intensity of the CBS newsroom and corporation under intense political and commercial pressure. The film, all cigarette smoke and eloquent silences, is economical, beautifully shot, and done for a mere $8 million. It is also restrained in ways that underscore but don’t inflate emotion. When Murrow’s friend and news anchor Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise) suicides after being savaged in the Hearst press, Clooney balances Murrow’s taut on-screen eulogy with jazz diva Dianne Reeves’s perfectly enunciated performance of How High the Moon.

The film is also acidly funny. Watch out for Murrow’s reluctant interview with Liberace, in which he makes a deadpan inquiry about the pianist’s marriage plans—and gets trumped.
The script itself is artfully cobbled from the network archives by Clooney and Grant Heslov. ‘Murrow was the best writer,’ says Clooney, and gives actor David Strathairn the lines to prove his point. Here, because it matters, is a more-than-three-second sound bite: ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.’

Strathairn’s splendid performance is evocative without being overwhelming. He brings back Murrow’s powerful, particular voice, and the effect is to send his audience back to the source, not just to marvel at a virtuoso performance.

Director Clooney (who works both sides of the set, also playing Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly) understands exactly the resonance of his film for today’s America, today’s world. Murrow: ‘We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.’ But Clooney is not Mike Moore, and his film is never polemic. Neither is it nostalgia for a lost idealism. This is America, today, with its greatness and capacity for self-criticism intact. Mild themes?

Morag Fraser

Harry just gets better

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
dir. Mike Newell.

The transfer from page to screen seems at first to be a sign of a novel’s success—as though the book has now been finally ‘brought to life’.

Joanne Rowling certainly doesn’t need the Warner-produced films to make her books successful; a major part of their magic was that they caused reluctant readers to pick them up and allow words to go through their heads, making mind movies that booklovers routinely enjoy. Indeed, one of the biggest problems of book-to-film transfer is the way that someone else’s images usurp the rich, many-layered experiences that link us with the author. The vitality of such things is part of the bargain made between readers and authors, and it is usually crushed by film adaptations, even good ones. Teachers routinely find that the student’s essay they are marking is discussing a film of the specified text rather than the book.

That said, the Potter films have steadily improved since Christopher Columbus’s plodding efforts with the first two. Prisoner of Azkaban was a more seamless, poetic version, while this one, the fourth in the series, is full of good surprises even as one mourns the loss of entire themes and characters.

It was necessary: Goblet of Fire is a good three and a half hours long even without the complexities of the Barty Crouch backstory and its involvement with house elves’ inequality, or the rich references to politics and society. Rita Skeeter, such a prominent figure of corruption in the book, is relegated to a couple of simple scenes about how a naughty reporter distorts facts. The book is much more sophisticated in its expositions of how corrupt governments benefit from such distortion and of how bureaucracies can become infected with hard-right vigilantism.

So GOF is aimed squarely at children, though it earns its M rating with its overall darker theme and the general air of teen angst that pervades it. Visually it is fantastic; the chiaroscuro evokes the mysteries in the plot, although it is one of the many things about this film that might be difficult for very young Potter fans to cope with. The characters have deepened: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is developing into a fine young actor, as is Emma Watson as Hermione; Newell’s direction continues the freer style that characterised Alfonso Cuaron’s direction of POA.

And now we have to wait and see whether the movie of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia has survived the patronage of Christian fundamentalists as healthily as Harry Potter has survived their ill-will.

Juliette Hughes

The truth in the tale

The Brothers Grimm
dir. Terry Gilliam.

Gilliam couldn’t make a commercial for a local chartered accountant without including enchanted forests, village idiots, outrageous contraptions, and a hot air balloon fashioned out of ladies’ bloomers. And for that I doff my cap to him. His directing brain (and I suspect all his other brains besides) must be made from a series of glistening pulleys and levers all set about with magic dust.

Gilliam loves the stories he tells, and it shows. And what’s lovely about The Brothers Grimm is that his protagonists love stories too. Needless to say, this is no historical biopic; it’s a fairy tale. Gilliam’s, and screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s, take on the story of the brothers Grimm is one as fantastical as the tales they famously wrote. Despite this, the film’s story is not great, but the familiar and wondrous tales it plays with along the way (Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and dozens more) are enough to quicken the breath.

Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) are snake oilers. Travelling from one German hamlet to the next, they convince superstitious, grubby burghers that for a decent purse of gold, they will rid their neighbourhood of any pesky witches or hungry trolls that may have taken up residence. Of course the said trolls and witches are no more than collective fears and rumour, and can be excised with a well-placed mirror and a bellows full of smoke. But excised they are—the power of psychology being the brothers’ closest working companion.

But alas, just as the family business is finding its feet, the brothers are taken prisoner by the occupying French. Under the direct guard of a ridiculous Italian torturer (Peter Stormare) and a particularly pompous French general (Jonathan Pryce, who can’t cultivate a taste for blood sausage or sauerkraut, and whose last words are ‘All I wanted was a little hors d’oeuvre ... maybe a slice of quiche ... yes?’), the brothers’ fortunes take a turn for the worse. In exchange for their freedom, the Grimms must investigate the strange disappearance of young girls from a seemingly cursed and muddy little town. But this time Will and Jake won’t be able to blow off the ‘enchantment’ with ‘magic beans’; this one’s going to take real courage and a deeper respect for folklore than they ever expected.

Gilliam knows that cinema is a form of 21st-century carpetbagging, and revels in the fact. He conjures stories from fantastical places and begs us to believe. Even when the parts of his films are more magnificent than the whole, they always have a giddy desire to talk to us about the truth we hide in fairy tales—the dark, creaky madness of phantasmagoria. Never losing his sense of humour or his eye for good casting, Gilliam would be hard pressed to make a dog of a film. But if he did, be assured it would be a three-legged one with a complicated mechanical perambulating structure that knitted socks as well as holding up the poor mutt’s rear end.

Siobhan Jackson

Something sinister grows in this garden

The Constant Gardener
dir. Fernando Meirelles.

The gardener of the title is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), an unambitious career diplomat serving in a minor post in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is his diametric opposite: a fiery, passionate and most undiplomatic political activist who keeps her agitations (well, the details, anyway) from her husband. When she is murdered, his attempts to find out why, and by whom, lead him down the path of her investigations into the collusion between the Kenyan and British governments in helping big pharma make a profit at the expense of their African test subjects.

Ho hum. Another political thriller. One of the slightly odd things about the popularity of genre films like The Constant Gardener (an adaptation of yet another John le Carré book) is that the audience has a pretty good idea of what will happen, and how, before they even buy the ticket. The thrill, the uncovering, the revelation, is in many ways the least surprising part of the process. In fact, predictability (even when unpredictability is part of what is most predictable) seems to be a key part of the pleasure of the experience. What’s nice about The Constant Gardener is that it successfully fuses the conventions of the political thriller with something of an arthouse sensibility, without losing its genre pleasures (keeping in mind that arthouse has pretty much become another genre form these days).

I assume this sensibility is largely a result of its director, Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, whose last film, Cidade dos Homens, was a big hit on the arthouse circuit. Meirelles seems to have been a consciously left-field choice by the producers, perhaps hoping to bring something just a little different (but not too different) to what might otherwise have been just another entry in a series of otherwise largely indistinguishable genre flicks.

Meirelles fragments the plot into snapshots that are more evocative of tone and emotion than story, using variations in colour, texture and shooting style to draw our attention not just to what happens but to the smell and feel of a place, to difference as we live it, to the shimmer of a moment as it happens for itself.

It remains a political thriller, and an effective one, but it’s the one I can remember that left me moved and saddened, not for its characters or stars, but for actual people who suffer at the hands of the real criminality the (fictional) characters try to uncover, and for this world in which we live, in which those crimes really do take place. Not a bad achievement for a genre flick.

Allan James Thomas


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