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Review: Good Night, and Good Luck

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If admirability were excellence, Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s scrupulous account of the coaxial slugfest between CBS newsanchor William Murrow and red-baiting demagogue Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), would be the movie of the year. Appropriately disgusted by the craven kowtowing of contemporary TV journalism, Clooney has opted to upbraid by example, reminding us of one of the medium’s finest hours. And just as Murrow and his stalwart producer, Fred Friendly, risked the wrath of suits and sponsors with their angry candor, so Clooney, a matinee idol with everything to lose, has demonstrated both conviction and courage in crafting such a stubbornly uncommercial film. Intent on capturing the period atmosphere, he’s shot it in audience-alienating b&w, duplicating the monochrome severity of the original broadcasts. In lieu of a reliable box-office draw, he’s cast superb character actor David Strathairn, who captures perfectly Murrow’s forthright gaze and clipped, emphatic diction. (Clooney himself appears as Friendly, heading a rich supporting ensemble that also includes Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise and Frank Langella.) Most of all, he’s refused to dumb matters down or hype them up, subordinating personality to ideas. Hoping to learn something about Murrow the fella, as opposed to Murrow the crusader? Look elsewhere.
    Trouble is, you could also look elsewhere — namely, at the original kinescopes — to get the same feelings of nostalgic pride and comparative dissatisfaction that Good Night, and Good Luck aims to inspire. By design, Clooney has fashioned a treatise, not a drama: Roughly half of the film’s brief running time is devoted to archival footage (McCarthy isn’t played by an actor) or to painstaking recreations of Murrow’s “See It Now” reports. Sure, we’re privy to various strategy meetings and late-night bull-‘n’-booze sessions, and these thrum with purposeful energy, but the heart of the film is contained in the historical record — in the stirring, strangely civilized battle of words that entered America’s living rooms in late 1953 and early 1954. Given how little interest Clooney shows in psychology or style, I’m not sure why he didn’t simply make a documentary — I hear those are doing pretty well these days. But for those who don’t happen to live within a few miles of the Museum of Television and Radio, this intelligent, eloquent testimonial is surely the next best thing. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Pickpocket
There are French art films, and then there are French art films directed by Robert Bresson. The master of sublime austerity specialized in stories that focused on the holy suffering of quietly flawed characters. For all their minimalism, though, his films are quite confrontational, facing off against the viewer’s traditional allegiances, their narrative expectations and their understanding of performance. 1959’s Pickpocket, now being re-released in a new print, may well be the most beloved of Bresson’s films. The French New Wave adored it, and its legend has only increased since its release. But it’s no less challenging for the average viewer today.
    The story of the redemption of a common thief who shirks common notions of morality, Pickpocket is the film that most clearly exemplifies Bresson’s quest for a narrative devoid of canned emotions and conventional performances. (Perhaps too well.) Martin Lassalle, who plays the titular character, is so restrained we can actually catch him staring at his lines now and then. This, of course, is the idea, and one of the reasons why Pickpocket is so revolutionary. Bresson removes any and all artifice from the screen, thanks to his casting of nonprofessionals and his very direct cinematic style. The question: At what point does the lack of artifice begin to draw attention to itself? Pickpocket isn’t your traditional notion of a good movie, but you might find yourself unable to shake it. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Dandelion
Although the trailer for Dandelion, heavy on the Cat Power soundtrack, suggests a hybrid of Dawson’s Creek and the music video for “Love Hurts,” the film is neither a debate on the meaning of love or a wistful teen-relationship drama. Rather, Mark Milgard’s directorial debut fits firmly into the “Guns Don’t Kill People, Wheat Fields Kill People” genre.
    There’s the stilted silence of the family dinner table, shots of grass blowing in the wind, and even a father-son fishing expedition, but the actors make the clichés compellingly suspenseful. Vincent Kartheiser plays Mason with such subtle resignation that you almost forget his last day job was the WB series Angel. Mare Winnigham’s turn as Layla Mullich, the dogged wife and mother who breaks your heart with every “What else can I get for you?” should earn her a Linney/Moore Desperate Housewife Award. The romance between teenagers Mason and Danny (Taryn Manning) is so real that watching them make out in the Idaho landscape feels uncomfortably voyeuristic. Those nefarious wheat fields have rarely looked better. — Marie Bernard
Review: Waiting . . .
Dean (Justin Long) is four years out of high school and still waiting tables at the T.G.I.F.-esque family establishment Shenaniganz with his sardonic best friend Monty (Ryan Reynolds) when he starts to question his path in life, the way you tend to when your job sucks. This is where the plot ends and the gross-out humor begins, as embittered twentysomethings spit in mashed potatoes for the next ninety minutes. First-time writer-director Rob McKittrick doesn’t approach the wit of Kevin Smith’s Clerks or Mike Judge’s Office Space. Aside from the occasional cringe-inducing laugh and Reynolds’ uncanny channeling of Jason Lee’s Brodie from Mallrats, all the film might do is discourage you from dining out. — Melaina Mace
Date DVD: The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset
If you are such a complete and unrepentant Anglophile that you plan to purchase The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset regardless of your lover’s opinion, you might as well use it as a date DVD. There’s no hiding this massive fourteen-disc set, much like the John Cleese impersonations you will no doubt attempt after purchasing it, watching it and bragging about it to all of your friends. Be proud, and brave.
    The potential downside is obvious: You risk finding out that your lover doesn’t — gasp — get it. How could they not? We’re not talking about the Python church service that is the Broadway musical Spamalot. We’re talking about the actual original cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. You actually get to watch them inventing their much-imitated bits on the fly! It’s amazing, really, that in just forty-five episodes, the crew coined so many of the sketches you imitated in school, from “The Cheese Shop” and “The Ministry of Silly Walks” to that famous “Dead Parrot” and the very dirty vicar. Still, it is possible that your date could balk, even after using the remedial “Python glossary” that’s included as an extra. No problem. You can practice the conflict-resolution methods found in the Pythons’ “Argument Clinic.” — Logan Hill

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