View from the Couch
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Date: 28 July, 2006


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'Much has been written about Clooney’s willingness to take on a less glamorous role – gaining 30 pounds in 30 days.'

 

 

This month, Steve Couch reviews Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, A Cock and Bull Story and How Do You Want Me?

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Syriana
Warner Bros, certificate 15

Stephen Gaghan (writer of Traffic) writes and directs the latest in a string of recent issue-driven, ensemble-cast, multi-storylined dramas which raise more questions than they offer answers.

Gaghan weaves his disparate strands together to join the dots between the oil industry and American foreign policy. The film reflects the fact that even the dodgiest of oil barons can argue that what they are doing is for the good of their country, but it also recognises the needs of other nations and peoples.

While stopping short of endorsing or justifying terrorism, the film shows a mature understanding and sympathy for how well-meaning, decent individuals can become caught up – as participants as well as victims – in terrorism. This is grown up, complex film-making and a compelling two hours of viewing.

It helps, of course, to have an ensemble cast of such quality. Quite apart from the big names in the bigger roles (George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright are the three names above the title on the DVD box), keep your eyes peeled for the likes of William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Tim Blake Nelson, and Amanda Peet, among others.

Pounds

Much has been written about Clooney’s willingness to take on a less glamorous role – gaining 30 pounds in 30 days, growing a beard and shaving his hairline back – but despite the star studded cast list, this really is a film where everybody excels and nobody stars.

Disappointingly, the extras fail to expand significantly on the issues raised by the film. Other than the theatrical trailer and three deleted scenes, there are only two featurettes.

The first, A Conversation With George Clooney explains the actor/executive producer’s interest in making the film, tells how keen everybody was to be involved (but when was the last time you saw someone saying that everybody needed lots of persuading to take part?) and claims to be even-handed in its politics, stressing that there are no bad guys.

I’m not sure that representatives of the oil industry would agree with George that the film treats them sympathetically, but that’s beside the point.

The other featurette Make A Change, Make A Difference is strong on encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their relationship (as consumers) with the oil trade, but doesn’t have much to say about how to move forward from that. Fortunately, there is also a link to the website www.participate.net/oilchange which is more practical and campaign oriented.

Click here to read a Damaris article on Syriana

Good Night and Good Luck
Warner Independent Pictures, certificate PG

George Clooney crops up again with a real labour of love: his account of pioneering TV journalist Ed Murrow and the battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt.

The film is atmospherically shot in black and white, with Clooney combining directing duties with co-writing the screenplay and playing the major supporting role of Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer and right hand man.

Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have put the work in to make the screenplay as authentic as possible.

As the sole featurette in the extras package makes clear, the families of Murrow and Friendly, as well as their surviving colleagues, were extensively used as consultants to steer the film-makers away from any misconceptions.

Critical moment

Yet in spite of all that, the film is a little disappointing. It’s a perfectly enjoyable watch, and it chronicles a critical moment in the history of mass media communications and in the development of Western democracy.

While the film reflects the significance of the events, the actual point of conflict with McCarthy seems to be over all too soon, resulting in a disappointing lack of dramatic tension.

In addition to the featurette (a mere 15 minutes or so), there is a commentary track from George Clooney and Grant Heslov. The writers avoid lecturing, but still manage to walk a surefooted line between serious explanation and wry, flippant humour.

The slight package of extras is completed by a trailer and a gallery of stills photographs (something which is almost always accompanied by the sound of barrels being scraped, in my opinion).

An important film, particularly set against recent tensions over expressions of dissent in the United States, and a good film, but perhaps not quite as good as it might have been. A shame really, as ‘Not Bad and Goodnight’ isn’t such a good title.

Click here for the Damaris study guide for Goodnight and Good luck

A Cock and Bull Story
Lions Gate films, certificate 15

Hmmm, a film about a fictional movie version of a supposedly unfilmable novel: confusing. Let’s try again; a real film starring the real Steve Coogan as a fictional Steve Coogan playing a classic literary character in a non-existent movie – self-referential enough for you?

The label ‘post-modern’ is often too-hastily bandied around, but in this instance it doesn’t seem inappropriate. Coogan himself describes the source material, Laurence Stern’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as ‘post-modern before there was any modernism to be post to’.

But before the ‘post-modern’ label puts anyone off, here’s the most important thing: the film is very funny. It’s a genuinely intelligent comedy which isn’t afraid of broad humour. Paradoxically, for all the clever conception, the biggest laughs come from sudden injuries to the genitals.

At time excruciating slapstick combines with subtle character observation in a brave attempt to capture something of the spirit of the original novel in an unconventionally multi-layered format.

Insecurity

We shift between scenes from the fictional film, the making of that film and footage of the cast and crew in their downtime. Steve Coogan and fellow character comic Rob Brydon play versions of themselves, willingly portraying petty jealousy, ego and insecurity.

Their bickering over whether they are co-stars or star and supporting actor, along with the other manifestations of their shallow celebrity obsessions gets to the heart of this adaptation. Coogan personifies Tristram Shandy for the viewer, even when he isn’t in costume actually playing the part, and there is enough discussion about the novel to help those who have never read it to make the connections.

There’s a decent selection of extras, mainly along the lines of deleted or extended scenes, and these continue to play with the different levels of reality within the film rather than stepping outside to offer detached analysis or explanation. The coverage of the film’s London premier, by the way, is far more entertaining than footage of such an event has any right to be.

A Cock and Bull Story could easily have been a spectacular failure, but director Michael Winterbottom pulls off his ambitious intentions with aplomb. This distinctive and well-crafted movie deserves a wider audience.

How Do You Want Me?
BBC DVD certificate 15

What is the point of writing a regular DVD column if you can’t praise a long forgotten personal favourite when it finally escapes from DVD limbo?

I’ve raved about this for years, mostly to friends and family who have no recollection of it ever existing, and now – let joy be unconfined – it’s finally available to buy.

How Do You Want Me? Is more of a comedy drama than a sit-com, and although written by Men Behaving Badly’s Simon Nye, it is a more mature, subtler show with a poignant bitter-sweet feel to it.

The cast is packed full of people who have gone on to more lauded projects – Dylan Moran (Black Books) stars alongside the late Charlotte Coleman (Four Weddings and a Funeral), with supporting roles for Green Wing’s Mark Heap, The Vicar of Dibley’s Emma Chambers, Peter Serafinawicz and the great Frank Finlay (playing absolutely straight as the most intimidating father-in-law in the world).

Supporting

Most of the supporting players could be seen as giving toned down versions of the characters they have gone on to be well known for, although Peter Serafinawicz’s many subsequent supporting roles (Sean of the Dead, Hardware, the voice of Darth Maul) have failed to deliver anything quite like the simple sociopath Dean (well, maybe Darth Maul would give him a run for his money).

The set up is that newlyweds Ian (Moran) and Lisa (Coleman) have moved back from London to the rural village where Lisa grew up. Ian faces an uphill struggle to adapt to country ways, and also to win the acceptance of both community and Lisa’s family.

The chemistry between the two leads is delightful, and Moran brings a touch of the curmudgeon to Ian while also giving him gentleness and humanity which is absent from his better known creation of Bernard from Black Books.

Sadly, Charlotte Coleman’s death in 2001 meant that only two series (each of six half-hour episodes) were ever made, and they are included in full on this 2 disc release. There are no extras, but after waiting so long to own them on DVD, I don’t even care.

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