Two reviews for the free-of-charge price of one!

13 September, 2008

Walker (1987, dir. Alex Cox): Don’t you just love it when you watch a film blind and it blows you away? Well that’s exactly what happened with Walker, this forgotten gem from Alex Cox.

I wrote about it in one of my first ever blog entries but all I knew about it was that the late great Joe Strummer had scored it. Well, that was reason enough for me. His score was as wonderful as I expected — a must-hear for any Mescaleroes fans — but what I was not expecting was a bombastic period piece that sends up the very notion of a period piece within the first few seconds. The tagline on the poster couldn’t be more appropriate: “Before Rambo, before Oliver North…”

William Walker (Ed Harris in an extraordinary early performance) was the real-life figure who declared himself the President of Nicaragua in the 1850s as part of America’s campaign of Manifest Destiny. Naturally, he intends to liberate the people and install democracy, but as time goes on, he becomes the very dictator he is constantly preaching against. Hmm, sound familiar?

(Oh and he also believes he is on a mission from God.)

In the liner notes for the Draughtsman’s Contract album, Peter Greenaway compares historical films to science fiction films because the time and place being portrayed is literally alien to us. His restoration comedy featured a subtle collection of anachronisms including wigs that were too large and birds that would never have lived in England. Cox takes this concept and stretches it out to the nth degree. Eventually you will start to notice zippo lighters. And copies of Time magazine. And cars. And…a chopper.

For those of you who find this obnoxious, you’re right. But that’s exactly the point. Cox was mad as hell about the US’s involvement in Nicaragua at the time and was not going to take it anymore. His approach probably could’ve been more subtle, but considering he lets you know immediately that this is an insane film, what do we really expect?

If you expect a traditional period piece, don’t bother. But if you are looking for a film that breaks all the rules and shoves them in your face and features great music, great images and great performances, give it a go. You won’t forget it, that’s for sure. A-

Burn After Reading (2008, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen): Typical of the Coens that they would follow-up something as bleak as No Country for Old Men with something as insane as Burn After Reading. Similar to the reaction that met The Big Lebowski, the  follow-up to Fargo, some people can’t bear to see these indie darlings clowning around.

All the usual Coen trademarks are here: A story that revolves around misunderstanding, a lexicon of characters with an I.Q. of about 50, and enough off-kilter dialogue to keep you rolling in the aisles, no matter how severe the situation gets. Burn After Reading starts off slower than usual, allowing the viewer ample time to properly get to know all the several characters before jumping head-first into the story, appropriately taking off once Brad Pitt enters the proceedings.

When Robert Altman passed away two years ago, he handed over a title to the Coens: The filmmakers who best know how to handle movie stars. Altman loved playing with the expectations of moviegoers on all levels, and when he made McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he had no reservations about turning sex symbol Warren Beatty into a clumsy, shaggy and cowardly drunk. In Burn After Reading, they have turned the two most glamorous leading men in the world into the biggest imbeciles in the world. They have turned John Malkovich, a regular staple of all movies “sophisticated,” into a psychotic alcoholic. He is the force of chaos that all Coen films have, from Javier Bardem in No Country to John Goodman in Raising Arizona. And of all the hilariously funny performances battling in this 90-minute picture, he comes out victorious.

Burn After Reading‘s biggest strength comes from its style. Unlike their last two comedies, they never draw too much attention to themselves. As far as they are concerned, this is serious material. Carter Burwell’s score, heavily influenced by paranoid pot-boilers of the 1960s, is thankfully absent from the cooky and obnoxious sounds that feature in every other comedy score today. Roger Deakins couldn’t make it this time but this time the equally brilliant — if not more so — Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World) gives the picture the haunting look that all Coen films need.

Ultimately this is a minor work for the brothers. Obviously it’s no Fargo but it’s no Lebowski or Arizona either. Clearly all they wanted to do with this picture is have fun, and for the first time in quite a while, they succeeded all the way. B+

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