Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Michael Clayton

The reviews for Michael Clayton have been nothing but stellar, some critics labelling it one the best movies of the year, worthy of Oscars. Here's where I get to add my two cents and possibly make some angry. I've given myself a full day to fully absorb Tony Gilroy's directorial debut, and while this is in fact an intelligent, engrossing movie, it's more competent that transcendent, more of the appreciative variety, than the loved, and far more an achievement in casting than pacing (I enjoy mature, complex filmmaking, but when the entire middle act of a film is putting me to sleep, it's subtlety is less a success.) Aside from light comatose inducement, Michael Clayton will surprise (especially at the end-- it's a dozy), and does make enlightened comments on today's corrupt corporate marketplace.
George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, once a litigator for a prestigious law firm, long bought out for another career as the company's "janitor," fixer of problem areas. His boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) is of the bull-free, eye on the billable hours variety, and needs Michael's assistance on a new high-profile problem area. Ace attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has just stripped naked in the middle of a deposition and ran around in the parking lot. He's bi-polar, and just went off his meds. Arthur is six years deep in a class actions law suit against a highly successful chemical company whose weeds product has allegedly given people cancer. The sly joke is that by going off his rocker, Arthur has actually come to his senses-- trying to rid himself of arguing on behalf of a company that kills people, in an attempt to prolong a trial, just so his law firm can bask in lofty billable hours. The other main character is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a high-strung executive at the chemical company. Swinton's performance is a quiet thing of beauty-- she plays Karen as a nervous, overly analytical woman just now realizing her job requires her to be a shark.
It makes for a great, topical premise, but Gilroy drags the film down a bit, with too much plotting, and too much half-baked personal problems for Michael. He has an ex-wife, and a son, he more or less ignores, a failed dream of opening up a bar haunting him, an estranged drug addict brother he ignores, and a gambling addiction, plus all the moral complexities he puts upon himself for being a part of the corrupt players at work. It all seemed a bit over done, and for at least a little while put me out of the main story thread. However Clooney is quite good at conveying the haggard Clayton, and reserved judgement aside continues to use his movie star looks in interesting, socially conscious ways-- Syriana and Good Night, & Good Luck.

However it's Wilkinson who's outstanding here, whenever he's onscreen the full promise and potential of Michael Clayton bursts forward, that inevitably when he's not, it limps along. There's a scene toward the center that's very thrilling and quiet that's devastating to behold-- if you've seen you know which one it is, that expresses Arthur's tragedy of growing a conscience. It's in this scene and final scenes that are the most vital in Michael Clayton, and maybe that's why the film has been heralded a unqualified success-- it closes remarkably well, but for me it's a well-acted, so-so film with a good ending-- let the chastising begin. B-

Dan in Real Life

Well, maybe not exactly real life, but an adaptation of real life as seen through a sitcom window, Dan in Real Life, written and directed by Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) is one those family reunion type films where all the relatives get together in one big house and slowly begin to out-crazy one another. It stars Steve Carell as Dan, an advice columnist keen about family values and fine parenting, though a mess in real life. Widowed for a few years, he raises his three girls, who all, in slight variances, hate him. One hates him for not allowing her to drive, one hates him for forbidding her to date (and dubs Dan a "murderer of love"), and youngest hates him for, "being a good father, but a bad dad." So all pack up to visit the folks at in idyllic Rhode Island home.
After being told to "get lost," by his nurturing mom (Dianne Wiest), Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a bookstore. Marie, a beautiful, intelligent, slightly neurotic gal takes a liking to Dan's quirky charms, but is sadly already spoken for. Dan and Marie exchange numbers anyway, just to finish their conversation. Hedges is certainly a talented writer, and Dan and Marie's first scene is written in a realistic way-- all awkward and fidgety. It's essentially a "meet cute" in a movie, but Hedges puts a little truth into it. The big twist of the film is that Marie is actually involved with Dan's younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook), and the best stretches of the movie for Carell are watching him try and disguise his jealously and resentment and put on that proverbial happy face as he watches a woman he actually might care about gallop about with his brother.

In all honesty, I wasn't looking forward to this movie, even though Carell is usually enough for me to get excited, and my low expectations weren't exactly exceeded either. While it's slightly refreshing to watch a dysfunctional family movie in which the family actually likes each other, and the writing is a notch above other family reunion movies like say, The Family Stone, Home For the Holidays, or even Hedges' own Pieces of April, the pacing here just seemed to drag on and on. Carell is quite good here, and Binoche is earthier than in 90% of the movies she does, but this wasn't a couple I found myself really rooting on for the entire length of the movie. Dan in Real Life is perfectly pleasurable, but innocuous, slightly overblown made-for-television fare. C+

P.S.-- keep on eye out for cameos by Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone)-- these gals are going to be big.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gotham Award Nominations

The Gotham Award Nominations were just released-- they honor the best in independent filmmaking...what does this mean on terms of Academy Awards or anything else, nothing, not one thing, but usually this organization picks some of the most critically acclaimed, if completely ignored films of the year.

Great World of Sound (Craig Zobel)
I'm Not There (Todd Haynes)
Into the Wild (Sean Penn)
Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)
The Namesake (Mira Nair)

The Devil Came on Horseback (Andy Sundberg & Ricki Stern)
Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (Jonathon Demme)
My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev)
Sicko (Michael Moore)
Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney)

Before the Devil Knows Your Dead
The Last Winter
Margot at the Wedding
The Savages
Talk to Me

Lee Issac Chung (Munyurangabo)
Stephane Gauger (Owl & the Sparrow)
Julia Loktev (Day Night Day Night)
David Von Ancken (Seraphim Falls)
Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound)

Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild)
Kene Holliday (Great World of Sound)
Ellen Page (Juno)
Jesse Weixler (Teeth)
Luisa Williams (Day Night Day Night)

August the First (Lanre Olabisi)
Frownland (Robert Bromstein)
Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
Mississippi Chicken (John Fiege)
Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa (Jeremy Stulberg & Randy Stulberg)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

We Own the Night & Sleuth (2007)

These two movies have nothing in common except that I don't think I could write intelligently for very long about either of them, as both are retreads of previous greatness.


You have seen this movie before, in fact writer\director James Gray has made this movie before. His limited filmography (The Yards, Little Odessa) shows Gray has a great affinity for the crime procedural, but also shows he doesn't have the deftness to bring anything new to it. We Own the Night tells the stale and overly- redundant story of two brothers-- one a decent, hardworking cop (Mark Wahlberg), and one a nightclub manager (Joaquin Phoenix) with more immoral ties he's even aware of. Obvious tensions ensue, especially with their father, a revered police captain (Robert Duvall.) Things go down, alliances are forged, drugs get sold, Eva Mendes exposes her chest, I yawned and struggled to stay awake.

What's depressing here is that Gray is fairly talented at staging scenes-- there's a car chase that's well shot and French Connectiony charged, but since there's little to no actually character development or involvement, it's all done in vain. Phoenix does what he can with a nondescript template of a character, and it's always welcome to watch Duvall, but poor Mark Wahlberg, especially after the glory of The Departed, is robbed of his abundant charms and basically spends his screen time sulking. We Own the Night thinks it has the soul of a great Scorcese mob epic, but it tries to hard to be great, that the end result is merely half-assed. D+

SLEUTH (2007)

There's nothing but a great pedigree involved in this remake of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1972 Michael Caine\Laurence Olivier classic-- Caine himself returns as the older guy, and Jude Law takes on Caine's original role (a retread in itself, didn't he just do that with Alfie!), in an adaptation penned by wordsmith Harold Pinter, directed by Kenneth Branaugh! EHHH! The acting is terrific, Caine and Law banter and strike forcefully and commitedly, the words are biting and strong and the first thirty or so minutes are pleasurable, but then it just keeps going, and the staginess gets to be annoying and stilted. For the uninitiated, Law plays a young playboy stooping Caine's wife and the two go back and forth in humiliating and torturing each other. There's a modern twist at the end, but it's hard to take it seriously because, in the end, you can't really believe a word that comes out of either of their mouths. C-

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This is not the movie I envisioned when I ventured in to theater, and I intend that as a high praise. This isn't a shoot-em-up old school Western with stock line readings and pretty pictures, but instead a haunting art film not necessarily about one of the most enduring legends of American past (we already know all about that), but about how that legend came to an end. The Assassination of Jesse James, directed by Andrew Dominik, centers around the last months of James' life starting with his last real heist, to the almost pitible end of his life. There's a saddness, a forboding, and an elegaic grace to way Brad Pitt plays James-- part schziephrenic lunatic, part forlorn middle-aged man ready to accept the end of his life. In the last months of his life, James is followed and pestered by a young 19-year-old named Robert Ford (a revelatory Casey Affleck), a kid so eternally fixated by Jesse that he stops at nothing to be a part of his legendary gang, hoping to cement some small piece to history.
The majority of the movie is centered around Jesse at home, where he's known as Thomas Howard, and petty criminals in his circle of friends, all to the graceful tune of Nick Cave's simple score and Roger Deakins beautiful photography (if he can't win an Oscar for his transcendant work in The Man Who Wasn't There, please Academy rectify the situation here-- never has a blowing cornfield made such an impression in American film before.) The first hour and a half is pretty much all character building nonchalance, nothing much matters, but it's interesting and director Dominik builds upon every scene. I understood and was riveted by Robert Ford trying, and mostly failing, the gain the trust and respect of his hero, even by suggesting all their similarities. He's like a post-Civil War Talented Mr. Ripley.

As the film reaches it's apex, it's startling how jolting it is emotionally. The Assassination of Jesse James works as both ambitious art film and interesting historical side note. In the end, no one will ever remember Robert Ford and the legend of Jesse James will always have significance, but in lots of ways this film leans more towards Ford, who was just trying to cling on to that legend.

Two quibbles about this otherwise fine film-- first there's about five endings in this movie-- there's a bit of Lord of the Rings: The Return of King or Magnolia complex going on- a director so in love with his subject he can't seem to ever end it, which would be fine, but come on, this movie is long enough. And secondly, why put master class actors like Mary Louise Parker (as Zee James, Jesse's wife) and Zooey Deschanel (Ford's admirer) in a film and not utilize them one bit-- it's sad to see such fine actresses saddled in the background. B+

Lust, Caution

I eagerly anticipated Ang Lee's latest, Lust, Caution, with it's NC-17 rating, mixed reception and surprising win at the Venice Film Festival-- what is this, doesn't at all sound the type of film from this generations film chameleon and shape shifter. Sadomasochistic sex scenes, improbable-- even the roughest sexual situation in Brokeback Mountain was play with a sense of naive playfulness. But here it is, and a mere two hours and thirty-eight minutes later, there it went. This is the first Ang Lee (not counting the silly Ride With the Devil), that actually disappointed me, not for it's length or it's sexual frankness, but because of it's cold black heart, or lack of one. There's something calculated and emotionless on display here that none of the typically Lee-ian beauty and mastery of precision could salvage.
Based on the short story by Eileen Chang and adapted by Lee regulars James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, Lust, Caution tells the story of Wang Jiazhi (played by newcomer Tang Wei), a drama student in Japanesse occupied Shanghai who joins a group of radicals to assassinate a traitor, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung.) In order to get closer to her target Wang assumes the identity of a wife of a importer\exporter and ingratiates herself with Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen,) joining her Mah Jong table. Over time Wang and Mr. Yee become close and fall into a sexual relationship that's kinky and violent and, I suppose, passionate. From the dirty sexual antics of these two were to assume they've fallen in love, and suppose, Lee envisions this some sort of doomed hyper-sexual update of Casablanca or something.

Nothing against the sex scenes in the movie-- they're honest and forthright, this is certainly one of the few movies that has the balls to show more and yet belong in the story. If the film were an artistic success, comparisons on the ranks of Last Tango in Paris would be allowed. It's an out-and-out travesty that this film was branded an NC-17 rating, even with the untrimmed sex scenes and one somewhat gruesome bit of violence. That silly double standard and puritanicalism on the part of the Motion Picture Association of America is laughable-- if Hostel Part II can get away with a R rating, with it's graphic displays of nauseating torture porn, Lust, Caution can as well, but alas, that's a rant left best for another time.

The reason Lust, Caution doesn't succeed is because while it's expressed these characters yearn and need each other, even despite their duplicity, it's never felt. There's practically no scene in the movie that delves into an honest emotion by the two characters. This isn't the fault of the actors, both Wei and Leung plunge into their characters, both practically giving their bodies up to Ang Lee. What's left to take away from this movie-- a lot of beautiful imagery, a bit of body exposure, and a cold shower to wake up afterwards. C

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

An eternal movie nerd, I've been a loyal Wes Anderson devotee since the days of Bottle Rocket on to the glory of Rushmore and, my favorite, The Royal Tenenbaums. After The Life Aquatic, I began to lose faith-- maybe Anderson was just a meticulous set designer with an impeccable musical score. My faith returns with The Darjeeling Limited, which follows the same themes as his prior work, but opens up a possibly unsettling, more mature respect for life, while maintaining that offbeat, slightly melancholic humor that makes his films so special. This is arguably his moodiest film, and also his least plot-centered, but also atmospheric and full of feelings of anger, resentment, and mirth, it's the one least centered around overly precious set pieces (though there are still plenty) and seems to recall a sort of lost 1970s American road movie.

The films is about three brothers, although with the exception of their overly elongated noses they look nothing a like, reconnecting after a year separated on "The Darjeeling Limited," an Indian train. The Whitman brothers-- Francis (Owen Wilson,) Peter (Adrien Brody,) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) are all heavily neurotic and don't trust one another one lick, especially in the year absence since their father died, and their mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston) fled to India to become a nun.

Francis bands the three of them together for a spiritual journey throughout India, meticulously planning and updating his itinerary. He is also heavily bandaged from a motorcycle accident that might have been on purpose-- it's hard to not think about the real life Wilson in his characterization. Peter is dithering and prone to taking claim his deceased father's possessions, including a pair of prescription sunglasses he refuses to relinquish. He's also an expectant father, something he's kept secret, possibly masking his feared inadequacies of being a dad. And finally Jack, a writer of what he claims to be fiction, is getting over a crippling relationship-- he spies on his ex-girlfriend's answering machine.

That's the setup and all that's important. The brothers fight and argue and share Indian muscle relaxers all carrying their baggage with them. The symbolism with that is that they are literally carrying their baggage-- now famous matching luggage designed especially for the film by Dolce and Gabbanna. The first half of The Darjeeling Limited almost plays a Three Stooges episode with the goofy brothers squabbling and bickering and bracing into comical bits of physical comedy.

But it's the second half that's revelatory and surprising. When the train actually gets lost-- how does a train get lost, it's on rails? A wrong turn puts the brothers in turnaround and sets off on a real journey of enlightenment, one Francis couldn't possibly have planned. There's a scene so strong and jarring, I was momentarily jolted-- I won't give it away, it's best going in fresh, but it demonstrates, I think, an understated maturity by Anderson (who wrote the script with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman.)

The Darjeeling Limited is one of films I treasure for it's keen sense of surprise and wit. It's kind of like Wes Anderson unplugged. The elements of his previous movies are still there-- immaculate camera work, interesting set pieces, wonderful score, and generosity with actors that few or no other directors know how to properly use (Huston, Wilson, Schwartzman, and Bill Murray, who pops up here in an amusing cameo,) but there seems to be more emotion, more (often) brutal familial honesty and less fancy camerawork. As if he himself was on an emotional and spiritual journey reconnecting with making films that matter. A-

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Into the Wild

Into the Wild, the new film from Sean Penn is based on the book by John Krakauer about Christopher McCandless, an Emory grad, who at the age of 23, gave up his plush, materialistic life and went on a two year long quest to reach Alaska, to be free, and just live. Penn's connection with the material is evident from the start, and he films his Kerouacian road trip odyssey beautifully. McCandless, played by super-sharp Emile Hirsch, is expressed as an A student, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London devotee in search of truth and beauty and living with the inconvience of excess, and to piss his heightened pedigree, played with aplomb by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt. So after being offered a car as a graduation present, he hits the road-- he trashes his beat up car, gives up his money, burns his ID and social and hitches his way out.

On the road, he first encounters a hippie couple travelling by van, Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener,) whom he charms into roving around with for a bit, and taking on the moniker Alexander Supertramp. Jan immediately takes on a sort of maternal empathy for the boy, having lost touch with her own son long ago. Keener gives a beautifully textured performance here, always adding layers to what really is a threadbare part. Such as in films like Capote, Being John Malkovich, and Friends With Money, I always want more of her characters. She is at the same time earthy and witty and generous with her fellow actors. In her brief scenes you get an entire sense of why Jan keeps travelling and has the knowing that getting closer to Christopher will only make that pain deeper.

His other adventures include working for a rancher named Wayne (Vince Vaughn), illegally rafting down the Colorado River ending up in Mexico, working at Burger King, and a brief solace from "leathering," as Jan put it, on a desert hippie commune, where he meets Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an aging war vetern, compacted by a tradegy that killed his family who takes on a sort of father figure to Christopher. It seems like Ron is really the only one who really stops to make Christopher think about everything, especially since the fact he hadn't called his family at all-- and Christopher is return sort of liberates the old man and reawakens a sort of zest for adventure. Holbrook is outstanding and heartbreaking in his performance, like Keener he gives his limited, basically cameo, appearance a soul, and not to be one of those types that pushes for awards attention, but who isn't-- Holbrook deserves a spot for his understanded, heart-tugging, never manipulating work.

Finally, he reaches Alaska, and the final act of Into the Wild kind of turns into a specialized indie version of Cast Away. Christopher finds refuge from the cold in an abandon bus he dubbs, "Magic Bus," and hunts (not terribly well), I suppose he's just living, and that's what he wanted. As many know, the story doesn't end well; I won't spoil it, but yeah pretty much.

I recognize this is an accomplished movie and appreciated much of it, but there's something that really bothered me about the character or real person. It seems Christopher was a well brought boy, raised in a highly dysfunctional, possibly not most nurturing home, but his motives for abandoning everything seem highly arrogant and very selfish, as if this whole adventure of self-entitlement was really some rebellious act to make mommy and daddy mad. Not to insult Mr. Hirsch, who gives a full, deeply felt performance-- if ever an unlikable character needed an actor to if not redeem some of his more questionable actions and give it a sense of purpose Hirsch may indeed by that guy, it's just that I worry, especially if the movie really catches on, that this Christopher McCandless, may be romanticized as some sort of hero, giving up everything and living and breathing just with nature. That in itself is noble enough, but his reasoning and justification for such action seems false and wrong-headed. B+

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