Two The Extremes
Once again, a couple of reviews this week, with - probably - something for everyone.
All truly great movie stars have in common a quality of darkness - the ability to suggest that they have had Pasts, and that in them they may have made Dark Choices - and may yet do so again. It adds enormously to the depth and appeal of their performances, even - or especially - when playing a whiter-than-white clean-cut hero. Of the current crop of leading men George Clooney has it more than most and while he's playing a self-confessed liar and thief in Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's Eleven it still gives his performance a vital little edge.
Ocean's Eleven has a simple story but a complicated plot. Professional criminal Danny Ocean (Clooney) gets out of jail and promptly begins planning the biggest job of his career - the robbery of three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (the welcome return of Andy Garcia to A-list film-making), the man who stole Ocean's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts).
To carry out his audacious raid Ocean assembles a diverse team: amongst them cardsharp Rusty (Brad Pitt), veteran con-man Saul (Carl Reiner), explosives expert Basher (Don Cheadle) and novice pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon). Will the guys succeed in their insanely convoluted scheme? Or will Benedict rumble them and get medieval on their collective asses?
This has all the hallmarks of a Soderbergh picture: quirky, inventive compositions, cool, clean exteriors, and warm, lustrous interiors. Vegas is displayed as a fabulous neon wonderland, and the Nevada tourist board should give the director a hefty tip. The film has a 'classic' feel to it as well, in a way it could have been made at any time in the last thirty years - there's nothing to date the clothes or sets, although Lennox Lewis does appear as himself in a non-speaking cameo role.
Soderbergh gets great performances from his ensemble of actors and they all get at least one big moment. Garcia is ruthless and gimlet-eyed as the bad guy, Elliot Gould has some fun as the guy bankrolling the raid, and even Brad Pitt - an actor I've never really warmed to - gives a terrifically neat and droll performance. The only wrong note is struck by Cheadle's gratuitously Cockney munitions expert, whose accent is pure Dick van Dyke and whose take on rhyming slang is, to say the least, bizarre. But it's Clooney's film, and he manages to be arrestingly cool yet engagingly warm throughout.
The plot is mainly concerned with the intricacies of the scheme: first establishing the scale of the challenge and then detailing exactly how the gang try to do it. To me it seemed to owe a lot to the old Mission: Impossible TV series (and indeed at the conclusion Garcia wears the 'I've-been-had' expression familiar from many a villain off the show), but this sort of caper-plot, when done well, is always satisfying to watch. And it's done extremely well here.
I was unsure to begin with about the subplot involving Clooney's attempts to woo Roberts back. Julia Roberts gets very little to do other than stand around looking like Marina off Stingray, and at first I thought Soderbergh was overloading the film to damaging effect. But as the film goes on it becomes clear that this plot element is crucial to its plot, characterisation, and the source of nearly all its genuine emotion.
Every once in a while - not nearly often enough, alas - I sit down to watch a new film and within two minutes become totally assured I'm watching a piece of work of the utmost quality. It happened in Magnolia, it happened in Lord of the Rings, and it happened with Ocean's Eleven. It's not deep, it's not profound, it's not Great Drama. It's pure entertainment, but as such it's virtually flawless. It's smart, slick, stylish and very, very cool. The best bet for a fun night out at the flicks there's been for quite a while.
John and Iris
And now for something a little different. Richard Eyre's Iris is the story of the last years of the brilliant philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, based on the book by her husband John Bayley. As the film opens Iris and John (played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) are living in cosy, if slightly decrepit domesticity. Both are noted academics, and they seem completely happy with their lives. And then Iris begins to unknowingly repeat herself. Her latest book becomes a struggle to write. She finds it impossible to hold onto her train of thought in an interview. Medical tests reveal the truth: she has Alzheimer's disease, and the dissolution of her intellect will be gradual but implacable.
Intercut with this is a series of flashbacks to the romance of the couple in the 1950s - here Iris is played by Kate Winslet and John by Hugh Bonneville. It provides a real insight into the foundation of their relationship, and a poignant counterpoint to Iris' later decline.
Iris has an intelligent, subtle script but its success, which is considerable, depends entirely on two devastatingly powerful performances by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent. Dench flawlessly suggests the horror of a philosopher losing her ability to think, and later on is painfully convincing as an Alzheimer's sufferer. But it's Broadbent who in many ways carries the film, and it's John's story as much as it is Iris'. He is staggeringly good and deserves to win every award he's nominated for (and he's been nominated for quite a few). They are backed up by Winslet and Bonneville who are very nearly as good playing the younger versions - it's utterly believable that these two will grow up to be the older couple.
I could object to the way the film suggests that Alzheimer's is somehow more of a tragedy when it happens to a great mind - it's always a tragedy, full stop. Or to the way it suggests that Iris Murdoch's decline and death was somehow the most notable part of her life, when the exact opposite is the case. But these are objections to the film's conception, rather than its execution. Iris is profoundly moving, extremely powerful drama, and I might suggest - and I hope not to have to make this recommendation too often! - that you take a hankie along with you if you go. It's that good a film.