Film releases: March 10

Life doesn’t just imitate art. Sometimes it imitates Hollywood hokum. The story of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, as told in Fair Game, is almost exactly that: reality disguised as improbable thriller fiction.

George W. Bush’s presidency developed far-fetchedness as a fine art. His strategists decided that punishment was needed for a US envoy, Joe Wilson, who had accused the White House of distorting his report that no uranium had been traded between Iraq and Niger – the White House thereby enhanced the suspicion that Iraq had a WMD programme. Bush and Co further decided that the punishment should be the exposure of Wilson’s wife as a CIA agent.

What a plot, in all senses. Tinseltown clearly sniffed a screen hit: the calls went out. “Get me Sean Penn to play Wilson. His young grey hairs will give him a Zeus-like combination of wisdom and virility. Get me Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame. She looks just like her: that is, a blonde chick who hasn’t bleached out her brain cells.”

For writer the choice is British playwright Jez Butterworth, dependable for grainy craft and realism. For director the choice is Doug Liman, dependable for the exact opposites. Liman did The Bourne Identity and Mr and Mrs Smith, films that shouted: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” As for the movie’s title, Karl Rove, Bush’s right-hand heavy, is credited with saying: “Valerie Plame is fair game.” If it rhymes it must be true. (See the OJ Simpson trial: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”)

Liberals in turn could claim that the word “Niger”, correctly pronounced “Née-zhair”, echoes “knee-zhairk”, the neocons’ reflex response – instant denial and gainsaying – to Wilson’s suggestion that Saddam Hussein might not be up to his ears in nuclear capability.

Does the film make us quail in a grown-up way at evil and perfidy? Not really. It more resembles Espionage with Dick and Jane. We wait for the next chase, next suspense sequence, next gaudy zinger from a truth-based VIP. Condoleezza Rice apparently said: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” To which the wise reply is: “Nor do we want the mushroom cloud to be another multi-megaton intelligence cockup.” Fair Game, for all its authenticity of story origin, scampers around the foothills of faction, a low-level cloak-and-dagger romp, never quite addressing the reality, the enormity and the iniquity of its context.

More screen topicality from Team America in The Company Men. Aren’t movies overdoing the meltdown? Client 9, Inside Job, the forthcoming Margin Call . . . Now this hot-and-heavy drama about the aftermath of Wall Street’s Chernobyl. Heavy? Actually, a little lightweight, like Fair Game. Hot? The feature-directing debut of John Wells (producer of TV’s ER and The West Wing) has been cooling its reels for more than a year since premiering at Sundance 2010.

It was lukewarm even then. Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner play musical careers in a crisis-hit shipbuilding firm where the melody of the cash register keeps stopping and whoever is perpendicular gets the push.

“I’ll take an AK-47 to this place first,” says Cooper. Others take out their anger at a golf driving range. Too late: the party’s over. Still others gaze tearfully through the cloud-level picture windows. Everyone wears a suit as if born in it: think Mad Men updated. It entertains, it engages, it leaves the brain empty after use.

For intelligence and thought-infusion you need Norwegian Wood. Tran Anh Hung, French-Vietnamese director of The Scent of Green Papaya, adapts Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s best-selling tale of tortured love. Like The Beatles
song providing its title, Murakami’s novel – and this film – has a downbeat beauty and improbable enchantment.

Of the two girls the hero Watanabe loves, Midori is a demonic tease (played by the dazzlingly attractive Kiko Mizuhara) while the troubled Naoko (pop star Rinko Kikuchi, dowdying herself down) pines away in a rural mental sanatorium. Watanabe himself (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the haziest character. Like many protagonists in autobiography-tinged fiction, he seems a self-portrait never quite objectivised by external perspective.

Tran’s script is slow and faithful. Two suicides take place. The weather is grim in the sanatorium mountains. Yet the film’s lyricism is unshakeable, descending on the characters like the rain in those mountains, which spears down dark and windswept, resembling the surreal rain in a Rousseau jungle painting. Is that Tran’s secret? To have put back the surrealism Murakami scrupulously omitted in his only non-fantastical novel? Eerily waving grasslands; a rocky shoreline rocked with grief and music after a death . . . One moment we are watching these characters, the next – without quite noticing – we are inside them, walking about in their emotional landscapes.

The Resident is a high-class thriller from a restarted Hammer Films. Things become scary for Hilary Swank. A break-up with her boyfriend is followed by a move into a dream apartment – spacious rooms, view of Brooklyn Bridge – that turns to a nightmare. The landlord, played with starry charm and then spooky menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, seems the ideal rebound heartthrob for Swank until he starts doing things that –

No, let’s not go there. Go there yourself. Take a friend and, if necessary, a bottle of tranquillisers. Sinister apartment movies are a dime a dozen (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Pacific Heights), but this one is more powerful than most. By the close you want to put a security camera in your brain to make sure its horrors don’t come haunting after the movie ends.

Swank is pitch-perfect. Her large teeth were made for chattering, her large jaw for dropping with horror. Antti Jokinen directs with mischievous style. The name “Hammer” ensures handsome production values, plus a bonus cameo from Christopher Lee.

Owen Wilson and his friend Jason Sudeikis get a week off marriage in Hall Pass. Their wives tell them to take their lustful eyes away for seven days and do what they have to. Party time; get laid; forget guilt. But no, you can’t forget that. This is America. Guilt was planted by the pilgrims in their first colony, alongside the maize and the beans.

The film-making Farrelly brothers have striven for 12 years to re-establish the hysteria frequency of There’s Something About Mary. With that comedy they found Station Outrageous: grossly funny, funnily gross. Now they can’t twiddle the knob to the right tuning. They get a babble of interference: self-censoring demons, poor plotting, miscarried cameos (Richard Jenkins doing superannuated hippy hedonism, a kind of weight-watchers’ Lebowski). But don’t leave when it says “The End”. The funniest sequence comes during the final credits, courtesy of British comic Stephen Merchant.

When a Limey gets to tell Lala Land how to lighten and loosen up, you know the place must be in trouble.

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