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Goodnight, Constant Interpreter
Reviews of the Interpreter, the Constant Gardener and Good Night, and Good Luck
by david   November 2, 2005

the Interpreter
starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and Katherine Keener

interpreter I didn't see the Interpreter in the theater because its reception by critics was mostly lukewarm. After watching it this weekend on DVD, I'm sorry I missed it in the theater. Even if the rest of the movie were not good, two specific scenes make this movie worth watching -- the scene at the UN when Penn confronts Kidman with the list, and the scene on the bus. You'll know what I mean when you see them.

The plot, briefly: Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the UN who grew up in the impoverished and war-torn African nation of Muboto. When she overhears two men speaking an obscure African language plotting the assassination of her home country's ruthless dictator, and she reports it, she becomes the target of both the plotters, and the secret service (fronted by Sean Penn, Katherine Keener and boss Roman Polansky), who find items in her past which make her as much a suspect as the people she supposedly overheard.

While I found it necessary to suspend my disbelief beyond what should be expected for such a (mostly) intelligent, well-plotted political thriller three separate times, I was able to let that go thanks to the exceptional quality of the rest of the film. The dialogue and language flow more like a play than a film -- scenes are beautifully written, just on the poetic side of reality (which may drive some thriller viewers away, but was enthralling for me), and linger longer than the typical film scene, which gives the whole piece a sort of languid dramatic pace -- the tension remains throughout the film, but it unfolds slowly (maybe too sowly for some). Cinematography is absolutely top-flight -- I'm not usually one to gawk at shots, but this was just a damn beautiful film, especially considering that we are not talking about sweeping natural vistas here -- it's set almost entirely in New York City, and largely indoors.

Acting is strong across the board, principles and smaller roles. You can tell this this was actually shot in New York by the predominance of fine NYC actors (for example, like 30% of the cast of Oz, which was shot in New Jersey, have large roles in the film), and they do their work well. Kidman plays a complex mix of toughness, inner strength and vulnerability, and Penn is achingly human as agent Keller, whose personal troubles directly color his sense of duty. Katherien Keener is fantastic in her role as Penn's partner -- her simple silent presence bolsters every scene she's in, and her every move swims with subtext. Also fantastic is George Harris, who plays a political dissident exiled from Mutobo with tremendous gravity and charm.

In the end, parts of the Interpreter are overwraught, and there are a few glaring plot holes. I understand why a viewer looking for a typical thriller might have been disappointed, but if you enjoy a well-written, complex story and top-notch acting, and can forgive a plot hole or two, it is a fine film, and definitely worth the rental.

the Constant Gardener
starring: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz

constant gardener If I had to summarize the Constant Gardener, I'd say it is a love story about a man who cannot show his love, about a politician willfully naive to the world of politics, and about how terrible loss can lead to clarity and purpose.

Ralph Finnes plays Justin Quayle, a mid-level British diplomat who is good enough at his job, especially the part where he ignores the ugly side of world affairs in favor of tending his beautiful garden. Rachel Weisz plays Tessa, the woman he meets and falls in love with, who also happens to be a human rights activist. At home their life is tender and simple, but when Justin is reassigned to a post in impoverished Africa, they are unable to reconcile their very different views of Western influence on the African people. Justin reacts to their dissonance by retreating into his garden, and Tessa by lashing out against public figures.

Then something awful happens.

I don't want to talk anymore about the plot of the Constant Gardener, except to say that everything that happens is exactly what you expect, and nothing like you expect. Somehow, the movie manages to take us to familiar (and always painful) political territory, but show it through very different eyes. The story unfolds slowly, almost maddeningly, and the audience realizes what is going on seemingly eons before Justin does, so we are forced to really watch him come to terms with what we assume everyone, especially someone who is actually a part of the political machine, takes for granted about the exploitation of the world's poor.

Acting is, as expected from this experienced, talented cast (in roles small and large), really fantastic, and the writing is hauntingly beautiful. Fiennes, especially, who I normally find cold and distant, is phenomenal as a man who must learn what it means to really love someone, and must learn it the hard way, and who seems to be seeing for the first time the hardship experienced by those who are not furtunate enough to be born in the wealthy parts of the world.

I really, truly loved this film. Nothing in it is shocking, except of course the way it is told, and the unfamiliar hero through which the story moves, but all of it feels like a revelation.

Good Night, and Good Luck
starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson and Joseph McCarthy

good night, and good luck Good Night, and Good Luck is as simple and beautiful as a movie can be. What's more, it's an important film, about a period in our history, not so far past at all, which seems to have been totally forgotten by far too many of us.

It's the story of Edward R. Murrow's (played exquisitely by David Strathairn) famous confrontation with Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. It centers around the newsroom at CBS -- indeed, apart from a scene at a bar where the station's employees gather, and a couple of scenes at the home of Joe (Robert Downey Jr.) and Sherley Wershaba (Patricia Clarkson), it takes place entirely in the CBS offices and studio.

The film is not much more than a simple, straightforward retelling of the events which laid the foundation for the downfall of McCarthy's awful campaign, and exposed the beginning of the corporatization of network news (for more on that story, watch Network, one of the finest movies of all time, in my book). The story is our history, and if you don't know it, follow this link to spend some time with Wikipedia on the subject. Clooney, who directed it, does the fabulous job of restraining himself, not adding any frills or ornaments, and just telling a story which moves naturally from A to B. Every actor in the film does exactly what is asked of them, exactly what the story calls for, simply and easily and without any fuss or comment. The result is a stripped-down, black and white view into the frightening past we are doomed to repeat if we cannot learn from it.

As an aside here, I wanna say that I got dragged into a little bit of a political blog fight a week or so ago. I try to stay out of the comment battles which rage on the political blogs I read, but I could not resist this one. At one point I compared the goings on to McCarthy's communist accusations, and suggested we should avoid that sort of thing, knowing how many people, not to mention the spirit of America, were hurt in that process. I was shocked to be answered by several posters who vehemently defended Joe McCarthy and his actions during that dark time in our history, and all but called him a hero. I don't know how any of us, with such distance, with access to all he facts we did not know at the time, with full knowledge of the fallout, can side with such a man, but Ann Coulter does, and so, again, shockingly, do many others.

So, apart from just being a simple, well-crafted, extremely enjoyable movie with fantastic writing, direction and performances, Good Night, and Good Luck is an important historical document. If you don't know the story, or even if you do, watch it and compare it to what is happening in the political landscape of America today. Perhaps, like I was last week, you'll be shocked to see how little we've learned since those black and white times.


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