Good Night, and Good Luck
This film begins, and ends, with Edward R. Murrow making a speech after being given an award at a ceremony in his honor. But instead of accepting the award graciously, he challenges his audience not to rest on their laurels simply because their lives are flourishing. The silence of the crowd echoes our surprise that Murrow hasn’t chosen to just count his blessings and move on, but has focused on challenging his audience to not be so satisfied with what the people who represent us are doing, even if we don’t want to believe it directly affects us. When he doesn’t position him in a chair staring at the camera, Director George Clooney places Murrow at the back of meetings, chain-smoking as his colleagues discuss the plans for each evening’s newscast. The film is shot entirely in black and white, and so when Murrow silently watches these gatherings, he tends to vanish into a cloud of smoke. Perhaps because he is not a household name, David Strathairn (maybe best known as the high-class pimp in “L.A. Confidential”) easily melts into his role as Murrow, and the excellent supporting cast (Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson and Frank Langella), though they are all better known that the movie’s star, does a great job of inhabiting the characters of the courageous staffers of CBS News in the mid-1950s. Though the one or two subplots seem a little forced in an “I guess we have to give these people backstories” way, the main story is done so well that the rare missteps are easy to swallow. Murrow challenges Senator Joe McCarthy’s excessive persecution and blacklisting of people who were too afraid or feeble to fight back at a time when no one dared take on the junior senator from Wisconsin. At the end of the movie, when the senate has cracked down on McCarthy (who is shown solely in recorded footage), Fred Friendly (Clooney) and Murrow discuss the fact that he is allowed to remain a senator – so long as he shuts up – even though he has done such illegal and unconstitutional things. There are a lot of moments in this movie that resonate in our current climate, but when the two men shake their heads, knowing that McCarthy’s slap on the wrist merely shows how far politicians will go to save one of their own, even if he’s evil, brings to mind a certain grinning mug shot. The title of the film comes from Murrow’s sign off at the end of every show, and it suggests that the aforementioned challenge he issued is now ours to fulfill. We will hopefully listen to him, because resting on our laurels is one way to ensure that the worst politicians will remain in power.
When Halle Berry won an academy award for her “stripped-down” performance in “Monster’s Ball,” it seemed as though the quickest way to the podium was no longer the Strong Independent Woman Role (“Erin Brockovich,” “Dead Man Walking,” etc), but now the Look How Ugly I Can Be Role. Two years later, a hideous Charlize Theron won for “Monster.” However, if you’ve seen that movie, you know that Theron deserved that award because she disappeared so completely into the character of the bruised, and bruising, Aileen Wuornos. With “North Country,” it seems as though the filmmakers are going for some sort of combination of the stereotypical female award winners. Take a class action suit (“Erin Brockovich”), add a dash of bad late ‘80s haircuts (“Monster”) and Midwestern accents (“Fargo”), a sprinkle of “no one will believe me” attitude (“The Accused”), and, hell, add a bunch of Oscar winners (Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek) and nominees (Woody Harrelson), and see if you can pull it off. Well, do they? Meh. The true story took place 15 years before the story in the film, and the character Theron plays, Josey Aimes, doesn’t really exist. Taking a story out of the beginning of the Women’s Lib era and placing it in the “Vogue” era gives the film a weird vibe, and also makes the oh-so-evil men more than slightly cartoonish. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly on Josey’s side, but the execution in this case is fairly poor. The story works for what it is, I suppose; Josey’s kinda frumpy (i.e., Theron with a wig) and needs money, so she decides to work at the mines where her father (Richard Jenkins) as worked his whole life. But the men are unhappy. They do mean things. They do violent things. They do nasty things. And then Josey gets fed up. And tries to convince the other women working there to join her in fighting back. Which is exactly what you expect. The problem is that they spend way too much time on the section where the others won’t support Josey, and then, in a stunningly unrealistic climax in the courtroom, everyone suddenly changes their minds, and, I’m not kidding, everyone does the “Spartacus” thing, and the judge is banging his gavel but everyone’s become so rebellious that people are standing up and it’s meant to make you feel sympathy for her, but all it really did for me was take the movie from so-so to “are you kidding?” If you want to see a movie and have your heart warmed, then go see this movie, chug your soda when she’s trying to convince the women to stand up with her, go to the bathroom during the courtroom scene, and come back during the denouement.
Most romantic comedies are stupid. I don’t care how much you like feeling good about the possibility of love wrapping up very nicely, it’s just not how things tend to happen. People meet at bars. They don’t meet when garbage comes crashing down the street and their heel gets caught, so suddenly a man comes and saves her life and it’s amazing and lovely (Yes, I saw “The Wedding Planner.”) So when I left “Prime,” I was confused. This movie, about a divorced Uma Thurman (I’d say woman, but women don’t look like Uma Thurman) who ends up dating her shrink’s (Meryl Streep) very young son (WB star Bryan Greenberg), actually has realistic ups and downs, as many relationships might. Sure, Meryl over-Streeps the Jewish mother role, and sure, there’s the goofy, hirsute friend (Jon Abrahams) who likes to shove pies in the faces of his paramours. These are very movie-like characters. But the relationship around which the film rotates, between Thurman and Greenberg, actually seems fairly close to something that might happen in real life. And, putting Meryl aside, the obstacles and the resolution are quite realistic. 23-year-old men and 37-year-old Thurmans don’t often end up together, not just because there’s only one Uma Thurman, but also because there are issues inherent in such a coupling that this movie makes a valiant effort to tackle. So why was I confused? Well, it may have been realistic, and actually quite funny at times, but I think the reason so many romantic comedies are stupid is that they’re more fun to watch that way. And when “Prime” ended, my brain might have been satisfied, but the part of me that walks into a romantic comedy expecting a certain thing (and you all have this part in you) was utterly perturbed. It’s also just plain long. But “Prime” is a good movie to have seen because, even though you probably can’t feel entirely happy when it’s over, it’s nice to see that some people are making an effort to show that relationships don’t just happen how Matthew McConaughey might want.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Writer-director Shane Black once practically invented the buddy cop comedy when he wrote 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.” While I’m sure Middle America is happy Black helped raise their favorite anti-Semite to superstardom, the rest of us recognize that what made Black so good for a while was the wit he infused into the films he penned, and this one is certainly no exception. I’ll be honest: I had to ask the person with whom I saw it to help me put the pieces together. Usually, if you leave a movie and you don’t understand everything, you’re going to be upset. Yet if you’ve been laughing consistently and heartily for the entire length of the film, and having almost every little cliché set up by Black dashed before its conclusion, you really don’t end up caring that much. Robert Downey Jr., whose extremely public struggles seem to have made him the perfect actor for this role, plays a thief… who’s mistaken for an actor… who’s mistaken for a detective, who’s involved in two cases at once… and none of that actually matters. What’s important is that he’s excellent in this role, as are Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan as the other two main cogs in the constantly turning wheel. It’s alternately sexy (kiss kiss…) and violent (bang bang…) but never anything less than hilarious. If it doesn’t become a blockbuster, or even if it does, it’ll undoubtedly become the dorm room staple of the next few years, and its eminently quotable lines will supersede “I’m kind of a big deal” and “So hot right now” (yeah, both Will Ferrell) as phrases that are oh-so-beaten to death. But when you get to that point, you know you’ve written something clever. Ladies and gentlemen, Black is back.