Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category
Wednesday, April 4th, 2012
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Classic, Noir, Blu-ray
Country: United States
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Diane Ladd, James Hong
Director: Roman Polanski
Run time: 130 minutes
DVD distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
Chinatown is, of course, one of the best movies ever made, a true classic in American cinema. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and the incredible John Huston in Roman Polanski’s beautiful 1974 film noir, the greatest mystery movie ever made.
And now Chinatown comes to Blu-Ray, in a solid transfer to high definition that really does enhance the picture. There are a ton of special features that were not included on the Chinatown DVD that I’ve had on my shelf for years. There’s a commentary track by director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac, Fight Club) and Robert Towne, the screenwriter who came up with the sensational script.
There’s a retrospective called Chinatown: An Appreciation where Hollywood folk talk for half an hour about their love for the movie. There’s a very short interview segment with Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans, a segment about the filming of the movie, and an interesting documentary about Water and Power in Los Angeles (which has little to do with the film itself aside from the fact that the movie centres around a corrupt water deal in LA).
All in all, there are more than two hours worth of special features on the Chinatown Blu-Ray, and most of them are really great. With all that extra content, and a significant upgrade to high definition, this new release of Chinatown, April 3rd from Paramount Home Entertainment, is now the definitive edition of one of the absolute best movies anyone has ever seen. Pick this one up.
Tuesday, August 10th, 2010
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Mystery
Country: United States
Starring: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jorja Fox, Callum Keith Rennie, Thomas Lennon
Director: Christopher Nolan
Run time: 115 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
The gem in this box set is Memento, a 2000 film that we’re getting a chance to revisit. Pan’s Labyrinth was a big hit, and while Blindness didn’t sell millions of copies it was likely watched by more people than Memento, which existed only as one of those movies included on the “best movies of the decade” lists made by nerds and movie geeks, and read only by other nerds and movie geeks. Perhaps now people will take a shot at watching the film, now that director Christopher Nolan has gone on to bigger and more successful things like The Dark Knight and Inception. That being said, Memento might still be his best film.
The way the story in Memento plays out backwards is not just a stylistic quirk or a contrived device. It’s absolutely essential to the story and builds to a shattering conclusion. When I saw this film in 2000, I thought Guy Pearce was going to be the DeNiro of the 90s – clearly the best actor of the decade. He has been very good, but he’s never quite recaptured the jaw-dropping performance he had in this movie. I didn’t expect Joe Pantoliano to become a great character actor, but I did expect more from him following this film. Same goes for Carrie-Anne Moss. But it appears they managed to catch lightning in a bottle with Memento, likely thanks to Christopher Nolan.
Countries: Japan, Brazil, Canada
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Alice Braga, Don McKellar, Maury Chaykin, Gael Garcia Bernal, Sandra Oh, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Run time: 120 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Blindness was not the magnificent movie I had expected. The director, Fernando Meirelles, had made two sensational films before this – the classic City of God and the terrific The Constant Gardener. On that level, Blindness was a disappointment. Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo were adequate at best as the couple at the centre of the film. Moore plays the only person who can still see in a world that has gone blind. You’d think she could do whatever she wanted – but in THIS land of the blind, it’s the guy with the gun in the hospital ward who is king. Blindness is still interesting and visually intriguing. But it’s stale and slow more often than not.
Pan’s Labyrinth (*********9/10)
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Countries: Mexico, Spain
Starring: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Alex Angulo, Manolo Solo
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Run time: 120 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Pan’s Labyrinth remains the only Guillermo Del Toro movie to really be taken seriously by the cinema snob-world at large. That’s fine, because it’s his best movie. But the rest of his films deserve a look as well – the two Hellboy movies, Blade II, The Orphanage. Especially Blade II, I have a real soft spot for that movie. At any rate, it’s Pan’s Labyrinth that gets included in this box set from Alliance Films, because it was a film-festival success, as were the others. As are all the movies coming out in “Festival Collection” box sets August 17th.
I think more people will be familiar with this film than they will with Blindness and Memento. It’s more recent and was a bigger success than either of those two movies. And it really was fantastic. A fantasy where a young girl escapes into a dream world and also a brutal, harsh story of human survival in wartime and the escape from sadistic violence. It stars a kid, and it involves a dream world of fantasy, but rest assured – this movie is not for young children. It’s for adults. And if you have already seen it, this is as good a time as any to own it – this box set includes the interesting Blindness and the brilliant Memento.
Thursday, January 28th, 2010
I can’t handle this. I’m typing this review while my wife watches Sex And The City, and those irritating awful women are boring into my brain. Then again, it may be a blessing in disguise. Because although I am having trouble concentrating on writing the review, that also means that I am not thinking about Whiteout very much. That’s a little bit of a relief. Because this movie is obnoxious.
It’s a murder mystery, see, but it takes place in Antarctica. Which is the Big Difference between this movie and other low-grade, made-to-order murder mysteries. The thing is, a Big Difference should make a movie more interesting than it otherwise would be, not less. As the title suggests, much of the drama in the movie comes from the fact that Antarctica has a lot of whiteouts – snowstorms where nobody can see their hands in front of their faces.
The fact that the bulk of the action sequences in this movie happen during those whiteouts is not interesting. It is annoying. If I can barely see what’s happening, then there is nothing to interest me. And if I can see what’s happening, then it can’t be that bad a whiteout, can it? Why are they clipping themselves onto that wire so they don’t get lost in the snow? I can see them! And the building is right there!
Another annoying thing about a movie set in Antarctica is when that movie stars someone as ridiculously hot as Kate Beckinsale. Anyone could have played her U.S. Marshall-stuck-in-the-frozen-south role. Beckinsale is a great actress, but in this movie she’s not much more than eye candy. Without the candy for the eyes, because she is in a parka throughout the whole movie. Oh, there’s one gratuitous underwear scene thrown in early in the film. It’s actually one of the few gratuitous underwear scenes in movies that I support. It turns out that in Whiteout, it’s the only scene with something to look at.
By the 20 minute mark of the movie, I had already pegged the bad guy. In colour-by-numbers mysteries like this one, it’s always that character. The more the film tries to set that character up as the likeable, friendly, couldn’t possibly be evil person, the more you know that they will turn out to be the bad guy after all in the end. Then there’s Gabriel Macht, who also plays a role that could have been played by anyone. I guess he’s eye candy for the women. You know, also in a parka.
The killer is obvious at the 20 minute mark, Kate Beckinsale was in her underwear long before that. And then the movie is just a big long blizzard with a killer who chases our heroes with a series of unusual weapons like a B-grade slasher film villain. Falling over chairs, lunging and slashing but just missing, sticking his hand through the door to go after the good guys and of course never really coming close to killing his targets. So, in other words, it sucks. If you’re willing to pay the rental fee for twenty minutes of vague drama and a brief shot of Kate Beckinsale in her skivvies, then go for it. But I wouldn’t.
Thursday, January 28th, 2010
Genre: Mystery, Crime
Country: United States
Starring: Cary Elwes, Bruce Greenwood, Jeremy Akerman, David Brown, Venessa Brooks, Sam Jaeger, Kathleen Quinlan, Sarah Manninen
Director: Bill Eagles
Run time: 91 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
I wonder how Robert Keppel feels about The Riverman, out January 26th on DVD from Alliance Films. Keppel is the cop who is best known for tracking down serial killers Ted Bundy and David Ridgway (the Green River Killer). The Riverman is the story of Keppel and Dave Reichart, the two detectives who brought Ridgway to justice. The most famous part of that investigation was a series of interviews.
Those interviews took place between Keppel and Bundy, who was locked up after his own killing spree. Bundy helped Keppel catch the Green River Killer. Many people believe that the Keppel – Bundy interviews served as the inspiration for the Clarice Starling – Hannibal Lecter interviews in Silence of the Lambs, but author Thomas Harris says that this is not the case. That didn’t stop the people behind The Riverman from putting it on the DVD case though.
I don’t know how much of a selling point that would be anyway. The interviews that inspired Silence Of The Lambs are now being given the TV-movie treatment…I don’t know. It wouldn’t make me want to watch. The fact is, this isn’t a very good movie. It’s slow, it has little drama, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion if you know the story of Ridgway and Bundy and Keppel and so forth.
The reason I wonder how Keppel feels about this movie is that the film assumes that the viewer does not know anything about the Green River Killer case, and attempts to create some drama by suggesting that maybe Keppel himself is the killer. In retrospect, after watching the film, perhaps they were simply trying to insinuate that Keppel was dangerously “in the head” of the serial killers. But if that’s the case it was very poorly done.
The whole movie is pretty poorly done. Bruce Greenwood, who plays Keppel, is decent. But he isn’t given much to work with. Cary Elwes is…better than usual…as Ted Bundy, but aside from having the same haircut and acting vaguely creepy, there isn’t much for him to do either. Then they catch the killer, it’s all over, and it’s very anti-climactic. Meh.
Monday, December 7th, 2009
Genre: Mystery, Romance, Lesbian, Supernatural
Countries: Taiwan, Germany
Languages: English, Mandarin, German w/ English subtitles
Starring: Inga Busch, Ke Huan-Ru, Ting-Ting Hu, Jack Kao, Marek Harloff, Kevin Chen
Director: Monika Treut
Run time: 89 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
DVD extras: 56-minute documentary film Tigerwomen Grow Wings, about three famous Taiwanese women (opera singer Hsieh Yue-hsia, writer Li Ang, and filmmaker Chen Ying-rong)
Ghosted, out December 8th from First Run Features, is a Taiwanese-German supernatural lesbian romantic murder mystery. Frankly, the words “Taiwanese-German supernatural lesbian romantic murder mystery” alone are enough to get me interested. (Actually, full disclosure – just the word “lesbian” is enough to get me interested.) There are many things I like about the film. First, the “lesbian” aspect is downplayed and incidental. This could just as easily have been a movie about a man who misses his wife, or a woman who misses her young male lover. The fact that the protagonists in the movie are lesbians is merely an incidental thing – they just happen to have a same-sex relationship, and not much is made of that. Which is great. More movies should have gay and lesbian couples as the stars.
Sorry, that is leading me on a bit of a tangent here…wouldn’t it be cool if there was a big, blockbuster action movie with a gay character in the lead role? In most action movies, the hero gets some girl at the end, and the girl shows up as eye candy through much of the movie for no real reason except to make out with Bruce Willis when the movie ends. His heterosexuality is entirely incidental to the movie. Would it really make any difference if, at the end of Die Hard 5: The Die Is Cast Hard, ol’ Bruce made out with Luis Guzman instead of Natalie Portman or whoever? It would not change the movie in any way at all. In fact, I was kinda rooting for a Justin Long-Bruce Willis liplock to close out that last one…
OK, back on topic. So in Ghosted, not a lot is made of the fact that the main characters are incidentally lesbians. That’s cool. There are a few reasonably hot scenes between the leads, which serve more to drive the love story than to titillate. And that leaves us with a Taiwanese-German romantic murder mystery. There are a few culture clashes between the German film maker at the centre of the story and her Taiwanese lover. But not many. One speaks German and one speaks Mandarin and that leaves English as the language in which they communicate. That’s about it. So that leaves “supernatural romantic murder mystery”.
However, there isn’t really much of a mystery. There are clues throughout the movie about what may have happened to Sophie Schmitt’s (Inga Busch) young lover Ai-Ling (Ke-Huan-Ru). And there is a mysterious young Taiwanese woman named Mei-Li (Ting-Ting Wu) who may be taking the place of Ai-Ling in both Sophie’s life and in the world in general. Is she Ai-Ling’s ghost? Or is she merely a young woman inhabited by her spirit? Or is she just a journalist looking for a story? In the end it doesn’t really matter. We do get a resolution to the mystery. But I didn’t really notice that there had been a mystery until it was finally solved. Oh yeah – I never knew how Ai-Ling died. Hmm. I guess it was that way.
Which leaves “supernatural romance”. Where Ghosted succeeds is in the realm of romance, and Inga Busch does a great job as Sophie, a woman who is mourning the loss of her lover. She didn’t realize how much she loved Ai-Ling until after she was gone. Her scenes with Mei-Li are tender and revealing, even though Sophie is determined to reveal nothing. And it doesn’t matter, in the end, who or what Mei-Li really is. What matters is who Sophie is (a murderer, not a murderer, a cheater or not a cheater, a cold partner or a warm-hearted woman). And that gives Ghosted enough heart to make it a good film. Had they done more with the murder, or the mystery, or the Taiwan or the Germany or the supernatural or the lesbian, it could have been a great one.
Monday, September 21st, 2009
“She’s my mother.”
Australian director Cate Shortland does some impressive things in The Silence, out September 22nd from Alliance Films. She gets solid performances out of her actors, she maintains a tense atmosphere throughout, and she has some stylistic flourishes which are pretty cool. This means that The Silence is a very well made movie. It does not mean that it is a good one. Because it’s not. The biggest problem is the script, which is all over the place and has some major holes.
There are two big problems with the movie. First, there is a reliance on coincidence that really strains credulilty. Richard (Richard Roxburgh) is a cop who has been involved in a frightening incident where an informant was murdered. He has been re-assigned, for some reason, to a police museum where he is now in charge of preparing photos for a display on true crime. He notices the same woman appearing in several of the photos. And he decides to investigate. We eventually figure out (although it’s never pointed out) that her appearance in these photos is nothing but an enormous coincidence. So is her identity, and the mystery that ensues.
The second big problem is the ending. For a movie that has been so taut, and tense, and suspenseful, the ending is sadly obvious. And it wraps the entire plot up into a neat little package, where everyone bad gets what’s coming to them, and everyone good lives happily ever after, and all the questions are answered easily, and Richard doesn’t have to make a difficult decision between his girlfriend and the woman he’s now all about. The movie has been gritty and challenging up until this point. But it lets us off way too easily.
Thursday, September 3rd, 2009
Country: United States
Starring: Christopher Gorham, Adam Campbell, C. J. Thomason, Jim Beaver, Richard Burgi, Victor Webster, Matt Barr, Dean Chekvala, Harry Hamlin, Cassandra Sawtell, David Lewis, Brandon Jay McLaren, Chris Gauthier, Sean Rogerson, Ben Cotton, Beverly Elliott, Callum Keith Rennie
Eye candy: Elaine Cassidy, Katie Cassidy, Cameron Richardson, Gina Holden, Claudette Mink, Amber Borycki, Sarah Smyth, Ali Liebert, Anna Mae Routledge
Creator: Ari Schlossberg
Run time: 9 hours, 1 minute
DVD distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
I wanted to like Harper’s Island. I really did. And, for quite a while, I really was enjoying it. For nine hours on my couch – nine consecutive hours, I might add, I was reasonably interested. This is one of those TV mystery miniseries that gets my wife obsessed, and she can’t stop watching until she knows who the killer is and how it all turns out and who dies and so forth. And I will say that I wanted to know as well. But by the six hour mark, my interest was fading. And by hour nine, I was fast forwarding through episodes and spending more time at the beer fridge than I was paying attention to the show.
The idea here is that a bunch of people are on an island, and one of them is the Killer. People die, one by one, every episode (usually the person we suspect might be the Killer during that episode, of course). And then everything comes together in a neat little package at the end, and the few people who are left alive will either get the killer, or they will die. The reason I lost interest toward the end, though, is that I called the Killer in Episode Three, and by Episode Six I was absolutely certain I was right. (Turns out that, in fact, I was right.)
In the meantime, we get a lot of red herrings and “clues” and “revelations”, some of which appear to be extremely well planned, others seemingly random and sloppy. It maintains a solid pace with some seriously excellent eye candy for a long time. (Of course, most of the eye candy is murdered by Episode Seven.) People don’t seem to question that wedding guests keep disappearing. Where’s Chloe? I haven’t seen her in days. I guess she just went home even though there is no plausible way off the island. Pass the beer. There is a decent amount of almost-nudity, which is of course a cop out but this is CBS, and network television doesn’t do real nudity.
In the end, though, Harper’s Island is a victim of its own gimmick. The gimmick was that none of the actors knew who the killer was, or who was about to die, until they got their scripts on the day of shooting. That’s fine, but the Killer should have known who he was. Because although I knew who he was, the actor playing him didn’t. Which means that several of his reactions to certain scenes, in retrospect, make absolutely no sense. A large portion of Harper’s Island is like watching a bunch of actors going through one of those “murder mystery” nights at a restaurant. It’s solid, but painful.
Monday, June 8th, 2009
“I accuse you gentlemen…of murder!”
Nightwatching works on many levels. It is a fine British comedy, with some witty writing and some terrifically funny lines. It is a compelling and tense murder mystery, where the real culprits behind the murder aren’t revealed to the end. It’s also an interesting historical drama and biopic about the famous painter Rembrandt as he painted his most famous work, Night Watch. And it’s a wonderful performance in the role of Rembrandt by an unlikely actor – Martin Freeman. Now, I know him very well from the British version of The Office, and from his role as Arthur Dent in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. So his performance came as a surprise to me. It probably did not come as a surprise to him.
Freeman works in this role because he appears to have supreme self-confidence at every moment while he is on the screen. His Rembrandt is charming, playful, carefree and yet deeply troubled and pained by the evil he sees around him. He is a womanizer and a free-spirited scoundrel, but he is also an artist and a genius and someone whose passion for the truth runs deep. When he gets commissioned to paint the portrait of the members of the local militia, he initially wants to refuse the commission. Convinced by his wife to just go ahead and do it, for the money, he reluctantly agrees. But when a murder is committed, and he discovers this same militia are behind it, he paints his accusation against them into the picture.
What follows certainly takes liberties with the facts of Rembrandt’s life. I’m sure that not all the events represented in Nightwatching really took place in real life. But it does follow the arc of the legendary painter’s life, and he does indeed end up in bed with all the women with whom he was reported to have been. There are tragic moments in the film, as when we learn that one of the militiamen is running a brothel full of pre-teen orphans. There are some very funny moments, mostly when Rembrandt is being a jerk to the militiamen he doesn’t like, while they tend to be too stupid to notice. And there are some tense and dramatic moments as the mystery unfolds on screen.
Also there are murders, conspiracies, paintings, tragic deaths, loves, boobs and a wonderful performance by Martin Freeman. Who would have thought the guy from The Office could be a serious force in a Shakespearean period piece biopic about one of the greatest painters ever? Not me. But I suspect Martin Freeman thought so. Nightwatching is the best movie I saw this week, and it comes out June 9th from Alliance Films.
Monday, June 8th, 2009
I like Perry Mason. Raymond Burr was so grave, and wise, and showed such dogged determination as the titular lawyer that even when the story was silly, or the courtroom scenes strained credibility, the show remained interesting and pretty cool. As always, Mason takes only the cases of those people falsely accused of murder. If he was getting guilty people off the hook, he would not, of course, have been nearly so compelling. Those people have been falsely accused, but almost always have been framed for the crime. And since it’s always such a convoluted and involved frame-up, getting them off the hook becomes a difficult task.
Of course, most of these frame jobs are pretty much preposterous. The idea that someone would dress up in drag, dye their hair blonde, wear high heels, be sure to make a lot of noise after the murder, and steal someone’s car is a little involved. I think most lawyers who got a case where several eyewitnesses identified their client fleeing the scene in her own coat and her own high-heeled shoes and getting into her own car and driving away, would assume that she was guilty. But such is the gravitas of the wisdom of Perry Mason that he can see through these obviously faked circumstances. And then, invariably, he exposes the real killer live, in court!
This was a convention taken to the extreme with shows like Matlock. Lawyers became detectives, they investigated, on their own, the crimes of which their clients were accused. They made certain that there was never any “reasonable doubt” when the case was decided, because they had already fingered the Real Bad Guy in front of the jury. This of course supposes that people are willing to go to great lengths to accuse someone else of a murder, and that the police are pretty darn bad at their jobs. But as long as lawyers like Perry Mason are good at theirs, we will be entertained. Perry Mason, Season Four Volume One hits DVD June 9th from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
“When you can’t control your life, control your death.”
To hear the review
To hear the review
The appeal of The Caller rests almost entirely on the performances of Frank Langella and Elliott Gould, both of whom are terrific. The film has an interesting premise, but clunky structure and some silly moments threaten to derail the whole thing. It’s Gould and Langella that keep the thing on track. The “thing” being the movie. And thanks to the two stars, the movie is good. Langella gives a performance as good as the one he gave in Frost/Nixon as Jimmy, an executive with a high-power energy company who is aware of corporate wrongdoing within the organization. He decides to blow the whistle, knowing full well that the company will attempt to kill him in order to silence him.
As soon as he has done so, he hires Frank (Elliott Gould), a private investigator, to follow him around. He alters his voice on the phone, so Gould won’t know that the man who is paying him is the very man he is following. Although we initially have no idea why Jimmy is doing this, it becomes (reasonably) clear by the end of the movie. Sort of. By that I mean that at the end of the film I knew why Jimmy had been seeking out Frank, but I couldn’t quite understand why he was so secretive and clandestine about the whole thing.
The Caller is really two movies in one. The first movie is a subtle sort of Michael Clayton or The Firm or The Insider, where a whistle blower exposes murder and corruption in a major international corporation, and then that corporation comes after him to silence him. The second movie is a surprisingly sweey story about childhood trauma and bonds that last a lifetime and that sort of thing. Both would have been interesting movies on their own, but meshed together as they are during The Caller both stories lose a lot of their impact.
Gould is fantastic as the likeable, friendly, but obviously confused private investigator. Langella is wonderful as the old man who is fully aware that his own death is imminent, who has decided at this late stage in his life to do the right thing, making amends as best he can for some never-disclosed sins. But the movie is choppy and uneven, and I never really got a sense that any of the characters every knew exactly what he or she was doing, or why. And they were supposed to know. Especially Jimmy. It’s good, but these actors would have been better served with a better script. The Caller comes out April 21st from Alliance Films.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Until now, I was convinced that Ben Affleck wouldn’t know a good script if it walked up to him and kicked him in the stones. Now, I am not so sure. Either he just doesn’t care, as long as he’s acting, or he is such a bad actor that he will ruin any script by himself. But there is a third option. Perhaps the script to Gone Baby Gone not only walked up to him and kicked him in the stones, it also bit him in the face, chewed off part of his nose, ripped out his nipple ring, stabbed him twice and then gave him the people’s elbow. Or maybe it’s a combination, because Ben Affleck’s wisest decision as a director in Gone Baby Gone was not to cast Ben Affleck in any role in his movie. How many directors can competently direct themselves? Clint Eastwood and…yeah. Maybe just Clint. So that was good decision number one. A questionable decision was to cast his younger brother Casey in the starring role. Casey Affleck, as far as I was aware, existed only in movies that starred Ben, and even then he played some minor throw-away role. How good could he actually be?
Well, the answer, it turns out, is VERY good. Casey Affleck plays a private investigator who looks as though he is thirteen. This is great casting, because Casey Affleck does indeed look as though he is thirteen. And when the situation calls for him to act the tough guy, it somehow really works. Not only do we not expect it, neither do the bad guys. And it’s pretty convincing intimidation when this young, babyfaced guy all of a sudden gets Dirty Harry tough. Everyone is taken aback, realiztically so. It’s a great job by Affleck of handling the character. Somehow, with that Good Will Hunting Boston accent, you get the sense that this guy is a lot tougher than he looks. His wife is played admirably by Michelle Monaghan, an actress who is rising to the top of the heap of late with roles in movies like this one and North Country. The best performance in the movie, however, is turned in by Amy Ryan, who plays the mother of an abducted little girl. She is a coke-head, a drug mule, a drunk, in short, one of the worst mothers imaginable for a sweet young child.
Affleck and Monaghan are hired by the little girl’s aunt to help find her. They are joined in their pursuit by a pair of cops, played by the excellent Ed Harris and John Ashton, and their search takes them through the seedy underbelly of Boston, dealing with drug dealers (some good and some bad) and general thugs who cause problems at every turn. Every time the movie seems to be reaching a certain conclusion, the script throws a twist into the plot, and all of a sudden Affleck and Monaghan are careening toward a different outcome. By the end of the film, the whole story becomes clear, and there is a final “showdown” that presents a Sophie’s Choice kind of ending, although not nearly so dramatic. This is the only minor quibble I have with the ending. The decision reached by the characters, the course of action they choose to take, seems like a massive moral decision that would cause most of us to really wonder what we would do in that situation. But a closer examination of that choice makes it seem obvious that there is really only one choice that could be made there, the choice Affleck eventually does make. I won’t tell you the details, I haven’t really revealed anything here, but you’ll have to watch the movie yourself. It is being released by Alliance Atlantis on Tuesday, and really needs to be watched to be understood. Watch this movie.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
I have noticed many movie reviewers, when talking about Michael Clayton (and many other movies, of course), like to compare it to other movies. This can make it fairly easy to write a review. So I will attempt it now. Of course, this movie is magnificent. George Clooney is sensational as Michael Clayton, a “janitor” for a major law firm, a man who cleans things up before they get out of hand, whenever they may be screwed up. When a lawyer at that firm loses his mind, Clayton is sent in to clean up the mess. Sidney Pollack shows up in the film, as an actor this time, playing the head of that law firm, and he is good. Tilda Swinton is the litigator in charge of that firm’s biggest client, a company called uNorth. She is absolutely perfect as a detail-obsessed corporate functionary, as a suit-wearing battleaxe who is, deep down, insecure and in WAY over her head. And Tom Wilkinson gives a wonderful performance as the lawyer who has a breakdown in court and removes all his clothes in the middle of a deposition. Oh wait. I’m supposed to compare Michael Clayton with other movies. So, now that I’ve outlined the basic plot, here are some comparisons:
Michael Clayton is a lot like Erin Brokovich in that it involves a class-action lawsuit made by hundreds of “little people” against a major firm that poisoned their land. It is lacking two major things, however, things that made Erin Brokovich such a success. Those would be, namely, boob left and boob right on Julia Roberts’ wonderful chest. Erin Brokovich was a good movie, and Michael Clayton has no boobs. And yet, Michael Clayton is much, much better than Erin Brokovich.
Michael Clayton is a lot like Network, in that a man finally understands the world, and his place in it, and that knowledge drives him over the edge. He goes crazy, has a very public breakdown with hilarious results, and ends up fighting the good fight. In Network, that character was played by Peter Finch, who was terrific. And in Michael Clayton, that character is played by Tom Wilkinson, who is also amazing. Both characters meet a fairly similar end, for fairly similar reasons. Network, however, was about television news, and Michael Clayton is about massive corporate law firms. And Michael Clayton is better than Network.
Michael Clayton is a lot like The Firm, in that it involves a massive law firm, evil corrupt business types, and a plot to get one particular lawyer who can bring down that firm. And both movies involved Sidney Pollack in some way. He directed The Firm. And he stars as the director of the firm in Michael Clayton! However, The Firm had two things Michael Clayton does not. Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. I would take Gene Hackman in any movie. But I would choose George Clooney over Tom Cruise any day. And Michael Clayton is much, much better than The Firm.
Michael Clayton is a lot like The Verdict, in that the central character is a lawyer who must confront his personal demons in order to fight the good fight and defeat the odds. In The Verdict, that lawyer was played by Paul Newman. It was perhaps the finest performance (outside Cool Hand Luke) of Newman’s career. I would take Paul Newman over George Clooney. But Michael Clayton is still better than The Verdict.
Michael Clayton is a lot like No Country For Old Men. Both are films that are critically acclaimed, and both were released to theatres in 2007. They were both released to DVD in 2008, and both are nominated in the Best Picture and Best Director categories at this year’s Oscars. No Country For Old Men has a best supporting nomination, for Javier Bardem. And Michael Clayton has one for Tilda Swinton. And Clooney is nominated for best actor. Both films deserve all these awards. They are both unbelievable achievements. But Michael Clayton will not win best picture or best director. Because No Country For Old Men is better than Michael Clayton.
OK, Michael Clayton is not better than Network. I just threw that in because it fit with my comparison scheme. But Michael Clayton is a genius movie. There are two scenes in particular that are especially effective. One is in an alley where Clooney happens upon Wilkinson, the old friend he has been trying to reign in for the whole movie. The scene makes their relationship completely clear in a few short words, and also shines a light on Wilkinson’s “madness”. Perhaps he has not lost control of all his faculties, after all. And the second is a scene where Tilda Swinton is primping herself in front of a mirror, adjusting her buisness suit so it is just right. She does a fantastic job conveying both her obsessive nature and the fact that she really is completely lost in this world. She is in over her head, and you can read that in her face as she prepares herself to come off as confidant when she must address the board of uNorth. Both scenes are unbelievable moments in a staggeringly good movie. Michael Clayton would have been the best movie of the year in seven of the last ten years. However, this year, it just happened to be going up against the greatest movie of the millenium, No Country For Old Men. I suggest watching both.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
In The Valley of Elah did poorly at the box office. It turns out people just don’t want to be challenged these days. This is why movies like “Meet The Spartans” debut at #1. I was almost ready to write a review of Meet The Spartans, sight unseen, simply to convince people to avoid it. The same guys who made Epic Movie and Date Movie, which were two incredibly bad films, were clearly going to make one just as bad. And I felt that people going to see this film at all would just encourage them to make more. And so next year we will likely get Pirates Of The Beowulf or some such garbage. But even had I done so, it would not have mattered much. People would still have gone out to Meet The Spartans in droves, and the dumbest two percent of those people would have recommended it glowingly to their friends. “They have a pit! Like the one in 300. Like, EXACTLY the SAME. And they kick Britney Spears into it! I have never laughed so hard in my life! Except for the time I took that IQ test and got a result lower than ‘celery”". Meet The Spartans earned 18.7 million dollars in it’s first weekend at the box office, narrowly beating Rambo for top spot. In The Valley Of Elah made 1.5 million dollars on opening weekend, and left theatres having earned 6.7 million overall.
I don’t know why I’m mentioning Meet The Spartans and In The Valley Of Elah in the same sentence. I think it’s merely a method of illustrating the general idiocy and apathy of movie audiences today. Because people do not want to be challenged. They don’t want to think at the movies. And they certainly don’t want a movie that will make them think once they have left the theatre. That’s like bringing your work home with you! Imagine going to that movie with your wife, and then in the car on the way home, she wants to TALK about it! That certainly seems like more effort than it’s worth, doesn’t it? And, I’m sorry to say, for all you movie-watchers, that In The Valley Of Elah will spark discussion, and make you think, and might just lead to other topics of discussion as well. Topics like…Iraq. How this war is different. This war is not World War II. It is not even Vietnam. This is something that we haven’t seen before, and in this film we see that perfectly through the eyes of Tommy Lee Jones, who has deservedly earned a Best Actor nomination for this Sunday’s Oscars.
Jones plays the father of a missing boy. His son returned from the war in Iraq, and then disappeared completely. And Jones goes after him with the single-minded determination of a war veteran. A vet himself, Jones is that uber-American army guy who, after his many years of service, is still completely invested in the army. Not that he still works with them and does army-related things, but he is emotionally invested. He believes strongly in the bonds that connect soldiers, in the military code of discipline and in the army. Which means he believes the war in Iraq is important, that it is American and that it is just another proving ground for young men who love their country and are bringing democracy and peace to a backward nation. But his search for his son challenges those beliefs, and he will not be the same man when the search is over. In The Valley of Elah was in the top 200 movies at the box-office in 2007. It was in the top 100 R-rated movies. (Although I really don’t know why this was rated R. We don’t see that much of the blood and gore that is insinuated throughout the film.) And it had the 233rd biggest opening weekend of the year. But it is one of the 20 best movies made in 2007.
Charlize Theron co-stars as a police officer who aids Jones in his quest for his sone, and provides one of the few problems I have with the movie. We know who Charlize Theron is. We have seen her in dozens of movies where we are fully aware that she is one of the hottest women alive. And yet, in this movie as in others, she seems to be intentionally dialing down her looks. She is just not that hot here. And we have to think to ourselves – we know how gorgeous this woman is. Why wouldn’t she want to look good? Sure she’s a police officer, but would she, as a police officer, go out of her way to look as plain as possible? Well, maybe. Susan Sarandon shows up in what turns out to be a bit part as Jones’ wife and the boy’s mother. And a stellar cast make up the military unit with whom the boy was serving. In The Valley of Elah is a terrific achievement. It’s slow, it’s deliberate, and it’s very political. It will challenge your assumptions – even if you are already against the war in Iraq, there are still other questions posed by the movie that will make you think. This may be the most accurate representation of soldiers in Iraq yet put on film in a feature film. It should really be seen. By everyone. Let’s at the very least make it a success on DVD!