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Archive for July 2009

Brüno ***

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BrunoThe third (and presumably final) cinematic outing of Sasha Baron Cohen, Brüno is alternately sharp and woolly, funny and painful. The second sub-character from his successful British comedy Da Ali G Show, Brüno is a GAY Austrian television personality and fashionista whose initial purpose was to provoke all kinds of inanities from models and designers, to puncture their pseudo-intellectual veneer of meaning. Yet this sound comic basis lasts all of one minute into the feature, when it descends into the same set-piece exploitation format which came to define Borat (and only re-emerges in a potent second act climax, when Brüno finds pushy parents eager to place their tots in hazardous, vile and inexcusable photo-shoots). Brüno also shares the same loose narrative structure of Borat, but without the ‘depth’ of characterization or any emotional investment (except for a general sense of unease at pathetic Brüno’s constant subjection to threat). And so ultimately, it boils down to little more than these sketches, which are at their best an appauling, grimacing experience, and at worst, stagey and conceited.

What a shame, then, that Brüno stopped drawing stupidity to the lips of some of the Western world’s worst air-heads (only to start spouting that same stupidity to provoke his targets’ prejudices, inhibitions and sometimes, strength of character – and make no mistake, every audience member is as much a target as are the barreled fish on screen). Unlike Borat, Brüno was always a flimsy character, essentially a more direct mouthpiece / weapon / vehicle for Baron Cohen himself – and this wasn’t a problem when his routine went along the same lines as Dennis Pennis. But when he says and performs outrageous things on film in the name of exposing the prejudice of others, he leaves himself as well as his character open for judgement. And I won’t bother going into depth on all the criticisms trotted out already (the duplicity of setting folks up while staging much of the content; of breaking the gag by getting Bono and the gang in on it; claiming to make quasi-ethical or moral points; a critical embargo excepting top marks from The Guardian; compromising some sort of integrity by snipping the film to get a 15 rating) but I will defend Baron Cohen on one count: he hasn’t really claimed to be exposing their (and our) prejudices.

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Written by James P. Campbell

31/07/2009 at 23:42

Frozen River ****

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The opening shot, the structural comma, the deepest symbolic figure in dark and light, the frozen river is a transcendent motif throughout this exquisite, pragmatic meditation on motherhood, worldhood, trauma and the everyday. The first film by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River is a realist account of two women’s personal maternal struggles under immense socio-economic pressure. It bears the hallmark of a work long in gestation, so subtle the nuance, so transparent in form, and so potently universal in implication. These are the characteristics one expects from a Terrence Malick picture, and indeed, Hunt spent many years working on it. A lawyer by training, she went to study film at Columbia in the mid-1990s, and spent the next fourteen years giving birth to Frozen River. And it shows.

Frozen RiverIt is difficult to consider Frozen River within the categories of entertainment media. Clearly it makes more sense within the world of art film and intelligent independent cinema. It is not, however, standard Sundance fare. Technically, it may have a lot in common with recent overrated hits of American independent film, but its content (literary, aesthetic, symbolic) overwhelms and supersedes this categorization. Transcendent is definitely the operative term, and Malick a suitable reference point. As with all of his films, Frozen River takes the natural world as a counterpoint, a universal backdrop to the interaction and collision of human worlds. Individual worlds, the lives of mothers struggling against poverty, recession, repossession, wayward or stolen children, single parenthood. Cultures, of white working class Americans, and excluded underclass Mohawks. Of personal imperatives and the world of the law.

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Written by James P. Campbell

30/07/2009 at 21:08

Public Enemies ***½

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Public EnemiesPublic Enemies considers the crimes and downfall of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the legendary Depression-era bank-robber. His blitzkrieg on the front-offices of America’s retail financial institutions made him J. Edgar Hoover’s “public enemy number one“. The fledgling FBI, then ‘Detectives Agency’, is represented by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), Hoover’s chief tool, huntsman and implementor of rough tactics. Johnny robs banks, busts out of jail, and plays the PR game. Very thankfully, Michael Mann avoids retelling the media’s tale which long fueled misconceptions about the great crooks of the 1930s and their battle with audacious G-men. While there are brief hints at the celebrity Johnny enjoys, his is a life of anxiety, out of the limelight, living in flight. His charm works on Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) but we are shown full well how shallow a veneer it might be. His lines are elegant yet blunt, without a trace of wit. However his escapades endear him to the wider public, we see only his and his comrades’ brutality, violence, and amoral robbery. And a syndicate mobster chuckles at his Robin Hood affectations: reminding the audience that these figures were not sticking it to banks who seemed to have plunged the country into Depression; but robbing dirt poor farmers and working families of their deposits and working capital. We are also under no illusions that Dillinger is a superman: he simply outguns his pursuers, using human shields and hulking V8’s to escape. This is why even the scientific methods of the Agency, who hunt Dillinger to secure the profile necessary to elevate them into a Federal Bureau, come to little avail. All that can fight these thugs is the gunslinging prowess of the Texas Rangers, brought in to corner and blast Johnny.

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Written by James P. Campbell

02/07/2009 at 20:25