Tag Archives: 12/20

Ruthless People

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Cheating businessman Sam Spade plots to kill his loud, brash wife and is only too delighted when a pair of unlikely kidnappers threaten to do the job for him. Of course he’s not handing over the ransom money! But when his mistress inadvertently blackmails the police chief into arresting him, Sam suddenly finds the tables turned. Will anyone come out of this with their dignity intact, or more importantly, the money?

From the instant the credits begin, this film is resolutely eighties: primary colours everywhere, zigzag styling, synthetic music, big hair and a brilliantly nasty little story about greed and lust. Danny DeVito is Sam Spade, detailing to his Mistress Carol (Anita Morris) his plan to get rid of lumpy, blousy wife Barbara (Bette Midler). Sam doesn’t know two things: firstly, that Carol plans to use this information to blackmail Sam with a video of the deed made by her young and dumb boyfriend Earl (a bleached Bill Pullman); secondly, that poor young couple Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), the latter a fashion designer whose idea for a Spandex mini-skirt was stolen by Spade, plan to kidnap the (as they think) beloved wife for $500,000.

Naturally, Sam refuses to hand over the money and the Kesslers are forced to drop their price, but complications arise as he pretends to go along with the police investigation. Earl’s video, which everyone takes for the ghastly murder, turns out to be the police chief Harry Benton’s noisy indiscretion with a prostitute, making him vulnerable to Carol’s demand that Sam should be arrested. Even worse for Sam, Barbara’s hostility to her kidnappers melts away as she shapes up and learns of her husband’s refusal to pay. It all comes down to a showdown that can only turn out messily.

DeVito fills Sam with unashamed ghastliness, inviting comparisons between Ruthless People and films like Heartbreakers, which I dislike with a passion. But the differences are plentiful: here, you feel that Sam has driven Ken and Sandy to their actions, De Vito being the perfect pantomime villain to whom you can only wish worse things would happen. Also, despite her vulgar demeanour, you feel sorry for Barbara and you’re glad when she gains self-confidence.

And despite the dodgy ethics of captivity leading to weight loss, the jokes are also much better in Ruthless People, not solely centred below the waist. In general it’s as subtle as a brick, but there are still some nice Zucker/Abrahams touches, such as the police playing tennis in the background at the Spades’ home or Benton’s “World’s Greatest Husband” mug. The plot gets satisfyingly convoluted, and although the low-speed car chase at the end is something of a humdrum climax, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, which is as much as you can ask for.

De Vito and Midler carry off the acting spoils with ease, but Judge Reinhold is effectively frustrated as kind-hearted kidnapper Ken. Helen Slater takes a while to warm up as his mousy wife, but grows into the part when she befriends Barbara. Special mention must be made of Pullman, whose squeamish Earl is a marvellously dense character. It may or may not be a role he looks back on with much fondness, but his debut is a great comic performance.

Ruthless People is the sort of broad, low-brow film that is never going to win awards (that said, Midler won a Golden Globe for her performance), but although it is often nasty – especially to poodles – it is only mean to people who ultimately deserve it. More than that, the funny bits hit a lot more than they miss: if only the same could be said about a lot more so-called comedies.


Good Night, and Good Luck

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Following up a story that an air force serviceman has been discharged, without any evidence, for his supposed links to the Communist Party, CBS presenter Edward R Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly find themselves in the sights of the notorious McCarthy hearings. As the news team pursue the story, the scrutineers are closely scrutinised themselves and increasingly put under pressure by their jittery bosses.

Clooney spends a lot of time behind the camera (on-screen and off, if that makes sense) in his second film as a director, a wistful yet faithful cigarette smoke-filled tribute to the work of respected WWII radio broadcaster turned pioneering television news journalist Edward R Murrow. And he creates a beautiful-looking film, perfectly evoking in black and white the look and feel of the 1950s. Murrow (David Strathairn) hears of the case of Lt. Milo Ridulovich, ejected from the air force on the basis of the contents of a sealed envelope whose contents nobody will admit to seeing.

As the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee spreads, Murrow uses the platform afforded to him by CBS show See It Now – a balance to interviewing celebrities such as Liberace on Person to Person – to gain attention to the machinations of McCarthy in trying to eliminate Communism from the face of America. His non-neutral position naturally makes the show’s sponsors, a down-to-earth aluminium business, and subsequently the station bosses, very nervous.

As Murrow’s broadcasts continue and McCarthy steps up his own accusations against the presenter before the Senator’s deceits are finally exposed, the film reflects the drama in the suicide of presenter Joe Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who has been savaged by the press for his stance on the issue; and the secret marriage of Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr) to Shirley (Patricia Clarkson), CBS banning marriage within the organisation at the time.

It is in the drama of the piece that the film doesn’t quite deliver. Good Night, and Good Luck is brilliantly staged and ferociously intelligent, speaking through the time period to make a plea for honest and uncensored television journalism in a talent show/game show age, as well as rejecting the politics of fear; it also brings the McCarthy hearings to the audience in an accessible format. But it lacks the dramatic edge that would have breathed life into the film, instead choosing to break up the technical exercise of putting on a TV show with the device of a singer (Dianne Reeves) in an adjoining studio singing a relevant jazz number.

The film’s not boring, and I would rather it tell a plain story plainly than invent events merely to thrill the audience, but I am unsure whether the material would not have been better suited to a documentary consisting entirely of footage, considering how much is used in the film as it is.

This is no criticism of the actors. David Strathairn puts in an earnest, unflinching turn as Murrow, Downey Jr is sombre but amusing, and Frank Langella as weary station boss William Paley is also very good. Clooney himself takes a relatively minor role as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, but is a competent part of a strong ensemble cast. There is, however, a great sense of these men (and a few women) being enclosed in a very small world: even when they venture outside of the studio, it is only to a bar to smoke and catch the reviews of their programme.

There’s an awful lot of love and attention in Clooney’s work, and the story of Edward R Murrow’s crusade against the McCarthy hearings obviously means a lot to him, on both a political level and a personal one, his father having been a television news presenter. Unfortunately, I don’t have much more to say about Good Night, and Good Luck as a film, when I feel I probably should.


WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Disgraced former US President Richard Nixon wants a platform to redeem himself. Ambitious TV presenter David Frost wants a heavyweight project to raise his profile after hosting banal chat shows in Australia. There can only be one winner in the battle of minds, and Frost gets informed people on his side; but with Nixon being such a consummate politician, surely the Englishman won’t land a telling blow on the one-time Leader of the Free World?

On August 8, 1974, US President Richard Nixon (played here by Frank Langella) resigns from the post, his position made untenable by the repercussions of the previous year’s Watergate scandal. He’s pardoned by incoming President Gerald Ford, and earns over $2 million for his memoirs; but he still feels the need to explain himself to the American public, who see him as something of a monster.

Offers for TV interviews come in, but the most attractive – and lucrative – comes from one David Frost (Michael Sheen), last seen cosying up to celebrities Down Under. Figuring that Frost is a lightweight, Nixon and his advisors (including loyal Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, played by Kevin Bacon) agree to a series of four interviews, each dealing with different topics. Frost travels to America, picking up budding journalist Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) on the way, and together with editor John Birt (Matthew MacFadyen) assembles an investigative team of ABC News producer Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and sceptical journalist Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell).

Throughout, Frost flirts with disaster, struggling to get the networks interested and only raising a tiny percentage of the funds he needs, seemingly more interested in partying than in getting the hard work done; and when Nixon breezes effortlessly through the first three interviews, personal and financial disaster beckon. However, Nixon ill-advisedly makes a drunken phone call to Frost and the latter knuckles down, helped immeasurably when Reston digs up a smoking gun from the Watergate papers. When the final interview, on the subject of Watergate, comes round in April 1977, Frost is armed, Nixon is suddenly defenceless, and the rest is television history.

Depending on your age, nationality, and interest in such things, you may think of David Frost as the man who took undue credit for the TV satire boom of the 60s, with That Was The Week That Was and so on (Peter Cook: ‘My greatest regret in life is saving David Frost from drowning’); smarmy rent-a-face presenter of specials such as the Guinness Book of World Records; or ageing self-caricature on cosy panel show Through the Keyhole.

You almost definitely won’t think of him as a hero of American political journalism, however, so it is much to the credit of the filmmakers (especially Peter Morgan, adapting his own play) that Frost becomes – not a hero, exactly – but a worthy protagonist. Frost/Nixon is set up explicitly as a duel or boxing match, with each fighter having their own strengths and weaknesses, backed up by their seconds as they prepare for each round of interviews. If Frost is initially undone by his easy-going nature, Nixon is undone by his egotism, believing that his inquisitor has nothing else to offer, that his intellectual superiority and statesmanlike appearance will restore him in the eyes of the American people. You can imagine the crackling tension of the piece as a stage play, as Nixon over-reaches himself with the famous phrase “When the president does it…it’s not illegal.”

Ron Howard brings events to the screen in some style, reconstructing period details well and keeping a clear handle on how the plot is progressing. He’s lucky to have two quite brilliant actors in Sheen and Langella (the original leads from the play), who embody Frost and Nixon and go much deeper than simple impersonations. Sheen’s outward confidence is betrayed by a hundred insecure glances, whilst Langella’s complex characterisation is always fascinating, topped off by his revealing (though, as it turns out, completely fictitious) phone call to Frost. There are also smart turns from Platt, Rockwell, Bacon – unflaggingly loyal to his former boss – and Toby Jones, typically quirky as Nixon’s PR advisor Swifty Lazar.

The film’s not a runaway success story, though. Maybe it’s because I can’t forgive his bunged-up turn in Pride and Prejudice, or because I know he looks nothing like John Birt, but I found Matthew MacFadyen’s performance perfectly tedious. Worse, I had no idea what Rebecca Hall’s character was doing in the film, other than to break up the monotony of badly-coiffed male faces. Howard also has some of the characters give retrospective opinions, which doesn’t work at all: when were these ’interviews’ given, and to whom? These fake talking heads remove us from the drama of the moment and make us realise that we’re watching an artifice.

This could explain why Frost/Nixon didn’t engage me completely. Some of the tension does transfer from the stage production, and probably does so better on a cinema screen than TV, but you want – at least, I wanted – to feel that the film had something bigger to say, a theme which went beyond the specifics of Frost and Nixon‘s meetings. While parallels with more recent Presidential liberties (and illegal foreign incursions) do hover around the margins, I was disappointed that Frost/Nixon remained essentially a tale of two men at a specific time and nothing more. I last watched Oliver Stone’s Nixon a considerable time ago, but from what I remember it was a much bolder, more expansive movie, however much the end result wasn’t particularly successful. Another example is Thirteen Days, which conveyed the tension of politics on a much, much bigger scale.

This is not to do Frost/Nixon down. It’s an enjoyable, intelligent film with a number of top-notch performances, serving as a solid, thoughtful reconstruction of a moment of media history. It deserves a viewing, but you may well feel you could have learnt most of what you needed to know from the interviews themselves.

Girl Model

WFTB Score:12/20

The plot: Documentary following 13-year-old Nadya Vall as she travels from Siberia to Tokyo with the promise of lucrative modelling jobs, only to find the truth is far less glamorous. We also follow scout Ashley, a former model who reflects on her work as she seeks new girls to supply to her Japanese clients.

The backwoods of Siberia aren’t famed for their glamour or opportunities for personal development, so why wouldn’t the local teenage girls jump at the chance of modelling abroad, especially when they are promised two jobs and $8,000? Model-turned-scout Ashley Arbaugh picks out long-limbed, blonde thirteen-year-old Nadya Vall to sign up to Noah Models under the aegis of unusual “saviour” Tigran, and despite the pain of leaving her family Nadya travels to Tokyo on her own to begin her career.

Unfortunately, on arriving in Japan Nadya is largely left to her own devices, and far from being guaranteed work she is sent with her flatmate Madlen on an endless round of casting, labouring under an incredibly restrictive contract; even when she does get a photoshoot, she doesn’t see any money from the job. Meanwhile, Ashley returns from Siberia to her comfortable home in Connecticut and reveals a number of startling surprises: she shares the house with a pair of baby dolls and hundreds of illicit photos of models’ feet. More disturbingly, she reveals that during her deeply unhappy time as a model in Tokyo, she was aware of models going into prostitution; and as Nadya faces up to being broke, confused and homesick, Ashley has to face up to a different kind of sickness when she has to have a cyst and fibroids removed.

There’s a very clear, and very persuasive, argument running through Girl Model, designed expressly to engender liberal outrage: naïve, innocent young girls are being lured from their poor-but-happy homes under false pretences to be exploited abroad, and everybody is making money from them but the girls themselves. Nadya and Madlen are no more than children, strangers in a strange land, yet are left to fend almost completely for themselves; and the film suggests that there’s a continual, mechanistic process ensuring hundreds of girls every year are funnelled towards the likes of Tigran and the ill-named ‘Messiah’ in Japan.

If that’s what you want to see, Girl Model will rile you up a treat. The endless queue of half-naked girls being assessed like cattle, the sound of announcers informing parents that their kids should be modelling from the age of five, the weird declarations from Tigran about how he cares for his girls by showing them corpses of druggies, and the strange, self-obsessed behaviour of Ashley in her lovely (if lonely) house while Nadya and Madlen suffer in a poky flat; all these things are guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction. Redmon and Sabin expertly piece together a picture of the soulless misery of modelling; Nadya sets out happy and fresh-faced, playing with her beloved grandmother and talking about inner beauty, but ends the film tired and jaded. The film also uses music and the bleak imagery of Siberia (Nadya leaves home during a thunderstorm) to create a profoundly melancholy atmosphere.

To its credit, Girl Model is much less black-and-white than it could be. While Ashley is the chief villain of the piece, the inclusion of footage from her own mentally-disorientating time in Japan and her less-than-happy health situation paints a complex picture of a troubled woman; you wouldn’t call her a victim, necessarily, but she’s more a lost soul than she is actively malicious, conditioned into viewing girls as objects rather than fellow humans. Tigran, meanwhile, is certainly bizarre, yet the film doesn’t cast unnecessary aspersions on his motives. The tragedy of Girl Model is not that its protagonists are immoral, but that their moral compasses are skewed from “normality” by an industry that is odd at the lowest end of the scale and – if Ashley is right – little more than sex trafficking at the other end.

On the other hand, the film does contain a number of internal contradictions, made more pressing by the protagonists’ subsequent reaction (Nadya, though who knows how freely, has expressed dismay at being cast as a victim): if Nadya’s time in Japan is so fruitless, why – as we’re told briefly at the conclusion – does she go back to Tokyo and work elsewhere in Asia? And if modelling is quite so exploitative, how come Ashley has managed to carve out such a financially successful path?

Besides, I’m unsure what to make of the concentration placed on Ashley’s unfortunate health problems, which Ashley herself contrasts with her desire for a baby. The filmmakers seem to draw a murky parallel between the moral decay of Ashley’s profession and the physical decay in her body, and therefore imply that it somehow serves her right.

Finally, while I’m sure it’s common practice, some scenes have almost certainly been placed out of sequence and/or manipulated to create a specific narrative drive: I’m thinking of the phone Nadya’s given to make an emotional call home, and the way she just happens to come across a magazine with her photo in it. It’s not what you’d call ‘fly on the wall’ documentary filming, that’s for sure.

If you are a parent – or have any sort of human feeling, in fact – Girl Model will probably depress and infuriate you in equal measure, and urge you to keep children away from the cynical adult world until their mid-20s at the earliest. To that end, the film does a really good job, and even taken unemotionally this is a fascinating insight into a deeply strange industry and a look at at least one deeply damaged personality. You really couldn’t make it up, though I’m not convinced that this is the whole truth and nothing but.

Cool Runnings

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Deprived of his Olympic sprinting dreams by the clumsy Junior, ambitious Jamaican Derice Bannock decides to coax bolshy rival Yul Brenner, long-time cart-driving friend Sanka and Junior to Calgary to form Jamaica’s first bobsleigh team. It’s a simple task, apart from the fact that they have no experience, no sleigh, no support – and though the only coach on the island is a two-time Olympian in the sport, he’s a disgraced layabout who’s (almost) completely uninterested.

Derice Bannock (Leon) is a man with his eyes on the prize, namely winning his place in the Jamaica team for the 100 metres race in the Seoul Olympics. Aggressive, bald runner Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) plans to join him, but neither of them have counted on the nervous man in the lane between them, Junior (Rawle D. Lewis). Junior’s stumble sends both Yul and Derice’s worlds crashing down; but Bannock is not a man to give up, and intrigued by a photo of his father posing with a young Irving Blitzer, he sets out to find the man who tried to recruit sprinters to the Winter sport of bobsleigh, with wise-cracking, pushcart-derbying friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug) in tow.

They find the older Irving (John Candy) an embittered, violent and at least partially drunk recluse, but Bannock’s single-minded passion is contagious and, despite numerous obstacles – not least Junior’s overbearing father and the apathy of Jamaica’s Olympic committee – they stump up the cash to make it to Calgary. However, they meet a decidedly frosty welcome in Canada, and not just because of the horrendously low temperatures: the other teams either ignore or are actively hostile to the island interlopers, while Irv is given the cold shoulder wherever he goes. The four men, plus their coach, will have to go all-out to make Jamaica proud – or just avoid humiliation.

If ever the phrase ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’ applied to a movie, it applies to Cool Runnings. Jamaica did enter a 4-man bobsleigh team into the 1988 Olympics; and they did crash on one of the runs (the sled going on its side, with heads scraping nastily against the wall, is actual Olympic footage); but other than that, it’s pretty much made up. Our four heroes are fabricated: the 1988 Jamaican sprint trials took place after the Winter Olympics and the team was made up of army athletes; there was no coach Blitzer or anyone like him; the rival teams were extremely hospitable and helpful to the Jamaicans, not disdainful; and though they did get up from the crash (never, incidentally, in contention for a medal) and take their sled across the line, it was a painful push rather than a proud, chest-bursting lift. The actors aren’t even Jamaican – they’re mostly American, except for the lead American, who’s Canadian.

Other elements of the story are (literally) Disneyfied, too. Brenner’s non-specific grumbles apart, Jamaicans are presented as a primitive but unfailingly sunnily-dispositioned people untroubled by violence or poverty (just like Ireland is a peaceful, unscarred land of leprechauns and fair titian maids). Furthermore, the slapstick comedy of the film’s first half signals a film aimed at, or best suited to, kids; there’s no offensive language, the villains are all boo-hiss panto figures (who all come round eventually, of course) and any hints of racism are couched in very general terms (“you don’t belong here”). This patronising attitude, plus the various adverts for Coke and Adidas, make you fear the worst.

But fear not! For beyond the child-friendly primary colours and lazy steel drum tunes, Cool Runnings is an utterly charming film. Fictional archetypes though they may be, there is enough personality in each of the characters (and enough presence in the actors) to latch on to. Derice learns to think Jamaican under the tutelage of wise fool Sanka; Junior learns about self-respect from Brenner, while Brenner discovers the empowering effects of teamwork and giving respect as well as demanding it. However, there are two real reasons why Cool Runnings works: the first is the (still) much-missed John Candy, who brings terrific warmth to his slightly tarnished character. Initially down-and-out, the rehabilitated Irv is authoritative when he needs to be, though mostly caring in an unsentimental, entirely un-Robin Williamsy way; Candy’s comic timing is impeccable, and while he’s larger than life, his size is never played for laughs in a script which knows when to play up the laughs and when to take the mood down – though the bar-room brawl is probably unnecessary.

The second reason Cool Runnings works is because, however much it disregards the facts – and however much it fits into a standard ‘no-hopers made good’ template (complete with montage!) – the story is remarkably effective. I started crying when the boys made the qualifying time and sobbed gently until the end, where the climactic moment set me off all over again. Why? It’s in recognition, I think, of Derice’s determination to dream the impossible dream; and the magic of sport wherein you can fail to win but still emerge triumphant. And I know I’m being manipulated by music and reaction shots and it’s all lies anyway, but do I want to believe the lie? Yeah man. I should also mention that while Turteltaub’s direction is singularly unspectacular, he importantly gets a decent sense of speed into the bobsledding scenes.

To paraphrase Stewart Lee, then, Cool Runnings isn’t true: but what it tells us about the triumph of sporting spirit (or something like that) is true; and if the subsequent supremacy of Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and a host of other Jamaicans in athletics has taught us anything, it’s that the often po-faced world of sport can be enhanced immeasurably by humour and Caribbean style. Although the messages of Cool Runnings are corny and constructed, very few films glow with as much feel-good positivity. Peace be the journey…

Stranger than Fiction

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The mundane life of IRS employee Harold Crick is turned upside-down when he starts hearing a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, who is writing a book with Harold as the main protagonist; unfortunately for Harold, not only does she have writer’s block, but she’s famous for killing off her main characters – just as he’s falling in love and starting to enjoy his life.

It seems unlikely that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) would be the hero of anyone’s book, since – apart from having a talent, bordering on a penchant, for numbers – his life is thoroughly ordinary. He works for the IRS, lives alone, doesn’t really have a hobby or social life to speak of, save for his trusty watch. However, one morning his ablutions are disturbed by a voice in his head, narrating what he’s doing.

Naturally, his first instinct is that is that he’s going mad, which is unfortunate given that he’s auditing and falling for feisty baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a conscientious tax objector who also, understandably, objects to Harold ogling her. When the narrator reveals Harold’s deepest thoughts back to him and also the fact that he is marked for death, he’s alarmed and struck by the literary turn of the voice in his head (‘Little did he know…‘).

He shares his concerns with literature professor-cum-lifeguard Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who sceptically asks Harold to keep a tally of whether he’s in a tragedy or comedy. The results aren’t promising, even if Ana slowly softens to Harold’s uptight honesty. Anyway, the owner of the voice – writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) – is desperately researching ways to kill off her lead character. Can Harold reach her before she overcomes her mental block?

Authors will often say (I do, at any rate) that their characters ultimately take on lives of their own and will begin to make suggestions about what they’re going to do or say next, and this simple premise drives Stranger Than Fiction. It’s not particularly original – plenty of characters have confronted their creators – but Marc Forster’s film takes the idea and runs with it confidently and nimbly. It’s an idea which (like close cousin Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind*) only makes sense as long as you don’t prod it too hard – exactly when did Harold wink into existence, for example? – but the film manages to be clever without being clever-clever, by which I mean that it asks questions about the nature of fiction in books and film (neither Eiffel nor Hilbert are ‘real’, after all) without shouting from the rooftops that it’s doing it.

It’s cutely written as well: there’s a great verbal and visual pun which I won’t spoil for you. That said, the theme – if you have a life, make sure you go out and live it – is a pretty standard one in recent times, American Beauty being just the first example that came into my head: having your author narrate your mundanity to you is simply a novel (no pun intended, though it‘s rather a good one) way of announcing a mid-life crisis.

The appearance of a comic actor in a straight role is not the only feature of Stranger Than Fiction that brings The Truman Show to mind. Harold is almost a negative of Truman: where Carrey‘s character was a ‘real’ person living a fake life, Ferrell’s is a fictional character somehow living in the real world. Both undergo a revelation, a revolution in their lives, and come face to face with their ’Makers.’

It’s tempting to say that Eiffel beats Christof solely because she doesn’t wear a beret, but I won’t be so flippant. Neither will I reveal whether she ends the story as comedy or tragedy, but the denouement is both effective and touching. High praise must be given to Ferrell for reining in his natural exuberance, and while his chemistry with Gyllenhaal doesn’t exactly burn up the screen, she’s as sympathetic as I’ve seen her and they make for a sweet couple.

Hoffman plays his role effortlessly (I hope he works hard to make it look so easy, it would be annoying if he didn’t), while Emma Thompson is just wonderful as Karen Eiffel; her mannerisms and haunted expression bring enormous gravitas to the film, much needed since Hoffman is doing breezy and Farrell couldn’t do deep if he tried (neither of these things are criticisms, by the way).

Nonetheless, it’s not all good news. Though she’s perfectly decent, I saw no reason whatsoever for Queen Latifah’s character to be in the film. She plays Penny, a writer’s assistant who tries to nurse Karen’s book to completion, and for all the impact she has on the story Thompson might as well be talking to her semi-smoked cigarettes. Stranger Than Fiction is also enamoured of its own story, when Harold’s decision to live his life to the full is neither particularly profound, original, nor (to be honest) full – his relationship with Ana is lovely, if familiar, but the guitar playing doesn’t convince – so I’m not persuaded that Karen’s novel is quite the sensational tale Jules makes it out to be, even with its intended ending.

The film pulls a few fancy tricks that I’m not sure about, too: the graphic visualisations of Harold’s obsessive counting don’t add much, and while his wristwatch is incredibly cool – nay, heroic – its analogue/digital design has nothing to do with the story, so comes across as a gimmick for its own sake.

Let’s be clear about this, though. Stranger Than Fiction is no noble failure. It’s a success, albeit one with significant qualifications. At times it’s over-familiar, at others a bit slow; it’s also unbalanced and won’t do anything for you if you’re looking for a full-on Ferrell comedy. But it’s not a self-satisfied, introspective work either, so as long as you come prepared – don’t expect Elf II – there’s every chance you might really like this quietly provoking tale.

NOTES: The film could easily be a conservative work from Charlie Kaufman, a less fevered variation on Adaptation.

Green Zone

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Hunting down Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Warrant Officer Roy Miller keeps coming up empty – and he wants to know why. His investigations send him on a direct collision course with the Pentagon, who refuse to give up their source, so he goes on a hunt of his own with the reluctant assistance of local ex-soldier Freddy. Unsurprisingly, Miller suddenly finds he has enemies on all fronts.

It’s April 2003, and the US Army are busy searching for Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction among the ruins of the bombed-out cities of Iraq. Leading the search is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who is frustrated when his ‘intel’ repeatedly turns out to be useless. Miller’s inconvenient questions to his superiors bring him to the attention of CIA agent Marty Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who is trying to keep the country functioning; but he’s struggling against local Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), busy installing a puppet leader and feeding Amy Ryan’s reporter Lawrie with stories from an elusive source called ‘Magellan’.

Marty tells Miller to keep his eyes peeled, so when Iran War veteran Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) tells him about a meeting of Ba’ath Party Generals, including chemicals expert Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), aka the ‘Jack of Clubs’, he’s more than interested. A firefight ensues during which Al-Rawi escapes, but Miller finds a notebook which may hold the key to his whereabouts. Miller is desperate to catch up with Al-Rawi, but the Pentagon are equally keen to keep Miller off the track; so when the Warrant Officer finds further clues in Abu Ghraib prison, he becomes involved in a violent race with moustachioed Special Forces hardman Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who doesn’t let a thing like being on the same side as Miller get in his way.

Whether or not you have any interest in the politics of the piece, there’s plenty to applaud in Green Zone. The re-enactment of the chaos and carnage of war is brilliantly filmed, once you get used to Greengrass’s nervous, restless camera (and you do); and the film is tightly paced, measuring out regular action scenes amongst the slower sections, which develop the plot and highlight the absurdity of the Americans luxuriating in the Imperial Palace while the civilians they’ve ‘liberated’ go without electricity or water.

The film is packaged in the style of previous Greengrass/Damon projects The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which means Green Zone is always exciting and kinetic. What’s more, while you can agree or disagree with the politics of the piece, as someone who remembers watching Colin Powell trying to bamboozle the UN with crude computer mock-ups of lorries laden with chemical weapons, the subject matter remains relevant and – bravely for mainstream American cinema – points fingers at those in charge. You may believe the invasion of Iraq was justified in any event, but the uncomfortable fact is that the Allies went in to find WMDs – and found none.

The above praise makes it all the more unfortunate that one key aspect of Green Zone is a real let-down. Though the actors are all game, Brian Helgeland’s script fails to muster a single credible character with a humanising personality, quirk or foible. Everyone is a simplistic representative of a political position: Miller the doubting Thomas, Clark the slimy, scheming face of Washington, Briggs the unquestioning assassin, Marty the overlooked voice of reason, Freddy the noble Iraqi, Lawrie the gullible journalist. The film may have been based on a real-life account of the war, but it seems as though anything that could identify the characters as actual protagonists has been sanded away, leaving the talented cast to play a bunch of largely anonymous ciphers.

Consequently, when the film ramps up the thrills in full-blown Bourne fashion, with helicopters and vehicles and on-foot pursuits, the action partly relayed via state-of-the-art technology, it’s a strangely uninvolving experience. You don’t want Damon to get killed because he’s cuddly Matt Damon, but otherwise his Roy Miller doesn’t have enough about him to feel worth caring about. And while you’re clearly meant to feel for Freddy, he’s far too obvious a symbol of Iraqi self-determination to empathise with as a genuine person – and as others have noted, how the hell does he catch up with the action come the climax?

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a paradox, in that the film finds truth amongst lies yet doesn’t ring true itself. Green Zone plays like a cracking action film but fails to hammer home its point, which must have been Greengrass’s chief priority. I couldn’t help but compare the film unfavourably to David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which was seldom believable and occasionally quite unpleasant to watch, but took a much more jaded, scabrous view of the first Iraq War and was more memorable and effective as a result. Alternatively, I think of Black Hawk Down, which dealt with another screwed-up mission and brought the viewer into the middle of the fray, concentrating on the humans stuck in hell rather than the political decisions that caused them to be there.

I don’t want to sound too down on Green Zone, because I enjoyed it. I applaud the idea of exposing the (probably) illegal ‘War’ in Iraq for the sham it was, and I understand that packaging the Allies’ shoddy dealings in an action-cum-thriller wrapper secured the film the largest possible audience (though not, ultimately, very good box office). However, action films need a hero, and Damon’s upright but charmless Roy Miller just isn’t that man. Put simply, it’s difficult to warm to any film that suggests that the Ba’ath Party, given the chance, might save the day.