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Reviews of Ghost Town, The Duchess and more...

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BLINDNESS After the back-to-back helming of two excellent motion pictures – City of God and The Constant Gardener – Fernando Meirelles now goes for the gold (Oscar?) with his adaptation of Jose Saramago's Nobel Prize-winning novel Blindness. In this film's unnamed city (the country and characters similarly go unnamed), the disaster is a lack of vision that affects a significant number of citizens. Since it's not what we assume to be normal blindness – the victims state that all they see is white, not black – the afflicted are quarantined. One of those infected is a doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who's then ordered to a containment facility that will soon be harboring others who have been struck blind. The doctor's wife (Julianne Moore) still retains her eyesight, but not wanting to be apart from her husband, she feigns blindness in order to travel with him. In a variation on the theme that "in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," the wife turns out to be a powerful figure in the ward, as her vision allows her to better help those around her. Given the material's expansive canvas, the film ultimately feels too claustrophobic in its scope, and while I imagine the source material (which I haven't read) manages to draw up some interesting parallels between the disease and our society's inability to "see" what's around us, the film merely operates on one plateau, drawing more commonplace comparisons to other literary sources like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm. Despite strong performances and a few compelling scenarios, it's plain to see that Blindness doesn't quite measure up to expectations. **1/2

BURN AFTER READING As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There's Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there's Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there's the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.) Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it's still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit's aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film's biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women's Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno's dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won't remain in the memory like most of the siblings' output. See Burn After Reading, but then expect to Forget After Seeing. ***

THE DUCHESS A substantial number of British costume dramas focus on the efforts of a corseted beauty to land a husband to call her own. These tales generally end on a "Happily Ever After" note, but The Duchess, based on a true story, begins where the others end and takes matters down a darker route: What if the man you snag turns out to be a complete lout? Keira Knightley stars as Georgiana, who, as a teenage girl in 1774, is entered into a marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She soon discovers that the Duke's only interest in her is that she produce a male heir, so after she gives birth to a couple of girls, he loses complete interest and embarks on an affair with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell). For her part, Georgiana keeps busy in her role as a society trendsetter, but she eventually finds herself contemplating an illicit romance with rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The Duke commits some monstrous acts during the course of the film, but it's a credit to the performance by Fiennes that the character never emerges as a dull, one-note villain but rather an emotionally stifled man whose Neanderthal brain can't quite grasp certain aspects of civility and respect. Likewise, Lady Elizabeth is revealed as far more than merely a spouse-stealer, and Atwell does an exemplary job of insuring her character remains the tenuous connective tissue between the Duke and the Duchess. As for Knightley, she's establishing herself as England's go-to girl for this sort of period epic: A bright and sunny presence in Pride and Prejudice, she's given greater depths to explore in this picture. She doesn't disappoint. ***

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