Saturday, November 17, 2007

Recent Screenings

Michael Clayton (2007) - Written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack.

George Clooney's new film has received a lot of positive reviews, and I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I'm a sucker for intelligent political-legal thrillers, and Michael Clayton is one of the best I've seen in a while. Mostly because of a fine script and some excellent work by its main actors.

George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a lawyer at a big New York law firm whose job it is to go into bad situations and fix them. The work is thankless, and it's starting to get to him. In one of the best lines of the movie, Clayton is trying to help an arrogant executive who has just hit a pedestrian with his fancy car and driven away. He's furious that Clayton's advice, for which he's paying the firm a huge amount of money, is simply to call the police and report the accident. The client was led to believe that Clayton would perform wonders. "I'm not a miracle worker," Clooney says. "I'm a janitor." The client finally realizes just how far up the creek he really is, while the audience realizes how bad Clayton feels about his job right now. In addition to his professional work, which constantly keeps him in the murkier areas of morality and ethics, Clayton has tried to start a bar with his irresponsible brother, but it failed, and now he owes some tough people a lot of money that he doesn't have. There's also been a gambling problem. And he's divorced. In the midst of this mid-life crisis, the firm's biggest crisis ever suddenly unfolds. It's premier litigator, a legend in legal circles named Arthur Edens, has stopped taking his meds and strips down naked during an inquest, proclaiming his love to a young farm girl involved in the case he's working on who he sees as being pure and innocent. Clayton is sent off to fix the situation, because the firm is trying to merge with a giant English entity.

Clayton and Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson in a terrific performance, know each other pretty well, and after a while, Clayton starts to believe that his friend's proclamations about an ugly conspiracy on the part of a giant agri-chemical corporation involved in the case may not just be the fantasies of an unmedicated bipolar mind. Strange things start to happen, people die mysteriously, and Clayton gets wrapped up in the case.

Clooney does well in a great role, one that gives him the ability to stretch out and show his various strengths as an actor and star - toughness, shrewdness, emotion, elegance. I'm not sure there's another actor right now who reminds me so much of the stars of classic Hollywood, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him nominated for Best Actor when Oscar time rolls around. At one point in the story, after a particularly rough night, Clayton shows up at the office and Sydney Pollock, playing his boss, says, "You look like shit." Yeah, right. George Clooney looking like shit in the morning, which means he's slightly rumpled and looks even sexier. Sydney's obviously never seen someone like me in the morning.

Tilda Swinton also gives a strong performance, capturing the progressive slide into becoming an unethical person, with all of its tortured emotion, and in her case, sweaty arm pits in a company bathroom freak-out. Even Pollock delivers what may be his best performance ever.

The writing holds everything together. I wasn't expecting much, knowing that director-screenwriter Tony Gilroy was responsible for . . . writing, is that really the correct word? . . . the Bourne trilogy. But I was pleasantly surprised by the high level of his screenplay, as well as by Gilroy's direction. The ending may be a little too easy, but I went with it, bacuase it stayed true to the rest of the film in a certain way. If his debut is any indication, I look forward to seeing more work from Tony Gilroy in the futrure. This is a very good film. RECOMMENDED.

Control (2007) - Directed by Anton Corbijn. Starring Sam Riley, Samantha Morton and Alexandra Maria Lara.

The first half of Anton Corbijn's debut film, Control, may belong with the best movies ever made about rock and roll. He does such a wonderful job of capturing what it's like to be an ordinary teenager in love with rock music, so much so that you want to start a band. In the beginning of the movie, Ian Curtis, a working-class kid from a dreary town outside of Manchester, walks home from school clutching some treasure wrapped in plain brown paper. It turns out to be the new David Bowie album, which at the time was Aladdin Sane. Who doesn't remember the excitement of bringing home a new LP by your favorite musician? Curtis lays in bed, smoking a cigarette and just listening. But eventually he rises from his lazy reverie and starts posturing in front of the mirror while his hero rocks out. On Curtis' desk, you see notebooks labeled Poetry and Novels, and we watch him scribbling his songs as well. Ah man, it just brought back so much of my youth.

I have to admit, I was afraid to see Control. The film is based on the true-life story of Curtis, who wound up being the singer and songwriter of the influential post-punk band Joy Division. After struggling with epilepsy, and torn up over events in his personal life, Curtis hung himself on the eve of the band's first tour of the United States, just as they were making it big. This tragic backstory, and the band's dark, emotionally powerful music made Curtis a cult hero - my generation's version of Jim Morrison - and proved an early inspiration for the Goth movement. (Sadly, and unfairly, as the band was always better than that.) But the myth surrounding Curtis is pretty powerful. Lord knows, I thought, what a movie about him will be like.

It didn't help that Corbijn was directing. Better known as one of rock's premier photographers (you've seen a lot of his photos, including U2's Joshua Tree cover), he had directed a posthumous music video of Joy Division's "Atmoshpere," which I found silly and pretentious. But positive reviews of Control by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, A.O. Scott in The New York Times, and Roger Ebert gave me enough courage to seek it out one Friday afternoon while I was in New York. And to my very, very pleasant surprise, Corbijn has crafted a wonderfully simple and straightforward film that blows all the superfluous Joy Division myth right on its ass.

What's completely missing from the Goth aesthetic is what made Joy Division such a great band - the muscular, working-class punk background that gave them their start. And that's mostly what the movie is about. Curtis and a few mates from a gritty little town, starting up a band after seeing the Sex Pistols in concert. Meanwhile, Ian, who's just a teenager, marries his girlfriend Deborah. She's a normal girl who likes living in her little British town and wants to raise a family. The film is actually based on her autobiography, Touching from a Distance. Cobrijn shows what's it's like for young kids in this situation, practicing their music, going off to work at their jobs, and being married young. There's no glorification of the process. And, in fact, you don't need to know anything about Curtis or the band to appreciate this movie. It's much more universal than that.

Unlike most star biopics that strut their Hollywood big-budget glamour across the screen, Corbijn has gone after something completely different. Shooting on black and white film, Control feels at times like a small nouvelle vague film from the 1960s. And it works very well. Also, Corbijn infuses the film with a lot of sly humor. Mopey Joy Division fans hoping for some dark, depressing film, are not going to be happy with the results (if they can ever be happy). Actually, I've read some comments by fans who don't think the film captures the band or Curits very well. But that's not true. Corbijn knew the band. He actually left his home in Holland and moved to England because he loved their music so much - that's how he got his start, by photographing them just before Curits died. What these fans are upset about is that Corbijn has shattered a lot of the myth surrounding the band. In one of the best lines of the movie, Ian and Deborah are at a small party at the home of some neighbors, and one of the women says to Deb, "Wow, Ian's kind of famous now, isn't he?" "Not to me," Deb says, looking at him across the room. "I still have to wash his underwear."

The film also features some great scenes of the band playing their music. Curtis had an unusual, jerky dancing motion when performing live, which some say may have been related to his epilepsy, and he was a very powerful presence on stage. Sam Riley, who plays Curtis, not only looks a lot like the singer, but he does an amazing job of conveying Curtis' intensity while performing. The rest of the actors also do a fine job playing the music.

One interesting note, the film never makes mention of the fact that the three remaining members of Joy Division changed their name to New Order after Ian died and went on to tremendous success of their own. That's always amazed me, for he was such a powerful songwriter and performer. How many bands survive the loss of such a pivotal front-man? Look at those albums by The Doors after Morrison died. Not exactly the stuff of rock legend. (What, you didn't know The Doors made two albums post-Morrison? Well, there you go.) The surviving band members were involved in the production of the film, however.

Alas, the second half of the film starts to drag, as Curtis encounters the second love of his life, a woman journalist from Belgium. He's genuinely torn between Deborah and his new love. He knows that Deborah has been a good wife and loves him, but he feels restrained with her. He desperately wants out of the environment he grew up in, whereas she's content with it. Meeting an intelligent and sensitive women from the Continent only heightens his confusion. The triangle is handled well, thanks in part to the great job Samantha Morton does as Deborah. But the second half, trying to build up to the inevitable sad ending, seems to lose its energy as it turns away from the music. All in all, however, it's an impressive film, even for those who know nothing about the band. If you like rock and roll, this is definitely one to watch. RECOMMENDED.


La Belle et la bête [Beauty and the Beast] (1946) - This magnificent film deserves an entire post, but I'm running out of energy. La Reina and I turned on Turner Movie Classics one night just as this started. We'd both seen it multiple times, so we said, "Well, let's just watch a few minutes while we eat dinner." An hour and a half later, we floated away from the TV, having been caught up once again in this most fantastic of films. There is simply nothing in cinema like the works of Jean Cocteau. He created a delirious, beautiful and poetic world that has never been equaled on film. And what was interesting this time, was to see how simply it all was constructed. The surreal images are very transparently produced - those are obviously actors behind the curtain holding candelabras - but that doesn't lessen their incredible impact. In fact, it's fascinating to try and figure out how Cocteau achieved his magic. And it is magic. Just goes to show that you don't need CGI to create a highly imaginative universe. If you've never seen this, watch it. If you haven't seen it in a while, watch it again. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Shooter (2007) - What a Rambo movie would like if directed by a liberal. A Special Forces sniper, played by Mark Wahlberg, is betrayed by his government, then set-up to take the fall for an assassination attempt on the president. (Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.) What saves the movie is some decent writing, and some pretty angry but accurate political analysis. A lot of people get shot in the head by sniper fire. (No, I mean, a lot.) Michael Peña does well in a supporting role. Not bad for a video night. You'll enjoy the Bronson-like vigilantism, then spend the next day concerned that you enjoyed it so much.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) - The first of two Hitchcock films I watched recently that I had never seen before. (Well, evidently I had seen this one, because I remembered some of the scenes.) This won't go down as one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but it's very good. It seems somewhat predictable now, but that's because Hitchcock was developing so much of the vocabulary of cinema during this time. All of the plot devices he uses here you've seen dozens of times. Just keep reminding yourself that films like this one were the beginning of it all. It helps to have Michael Redgrave (yes, the father of Lynne and Vanessa) in it, as well as Dame May Whitty who plays Miss Froy, the old lady who disappears on the train.

Frenzy (1972) - After a series of commercial and critical duds in the last part of the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock returned to England to make Frenzy, which was hailed at the time as a return to form. I don't know about that. What I see is a great filmmaker sadly trying to keep up with the times, and not really succeeding. The only R-rated effort of his career, and the only one to feature nudity (a very disturbing scene, be forewarned), Frenzy made me realize how important subtlety was when Hitchcock was slyly dealing with sexual tension/perversion, which was most of the time. There are some great moments - the man was a master of cinema - but my friends and I figured out the storyline about five minutes into the film, and, worst of all, there's just no suspense. There are some dark comic moments, including a police investigator forced to eat his wife's experimental cooking, and one brilliant cinematographic piece, a long, silent shot coming out of the apartment building where a murder is taking place. Other than that, it's a pretty sad and dreary affair.

Deja Vu (2006) -
I was skeptical about this one after reading the back of the DVD - I mean, time-travel, terrorists, police investigation, romance - it sounded like a recipe for a pretty bad flick. But after considering the DVD several times and always putting it back on the shelf, my respect for Denzel Washington won out, and so I gave it a chance. Actually, I enjoyed the first 4/5 of the film. Is it just me, or is there an epidemic of bad endings going on right now? This one wasn't as bad as some others, but it went from relatively reasonable (I mean, as reasonable as time travel and terrorists can get - it made sense in its own world) to dropping the ball at the end. If you don't expect much and can deal with Tony Scott (Crystal, take note), it's not totally bad. Hey, it's got Denzel Washington.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003) - I love the title, although it had to be changed from its original: I'll Sleep When I'm Watching This Film. Director Mike Hodges and actor Clive Owen team up again after their wonderful Croupier to bring us this dark, lifeless effort. Some interesting parts here and there, but even Clive can't save this from being pretty damn dull.

Premonition (2007) - This is what happens when you're married and have to give in sometimes to your partner's wishes. If only La Reina had had a premonition about how boring this film was going to be. (Or just listened to me.) I mean, come on, has Sandra Bullock made a good film in the last ten years? It's like watching a girl you're infatuated with go out with one jerk after another. "Why's she going out with him?" "Why's she making that film?" Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad, but it's just not that good either.


crystal said...

My sister saw and told me about Michael Clayton - I agree with you that it sounds good. I even looked up the red book she mentioned but sadly couldn't find much on it - I could use some of its advice :-)

I did a post on Deja Vu too (that Tont Scott). I thought it was so-so, although I almost always like Denzel Washington.

Frenzy sounds interesting - maybe I'll rent that one.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - how many times have I used that line in a short story :-)

My sis also agrees with you on Premonition - she thought it was pretty bad and not worth renting.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the responses.

The red book! Funny, I searched for it on the internet myself. But, as it turns out, Realm and Conquest is an imaginary book created by Gilroy for the movie (or so says IMDB.). The snippets read from it reminded me, though, of Sun Tzu's Art of War or some fantasy war epic based on Buddhism. I liked the way he uses it in the film.

Your review of Deja Vu was much more thorough and better than mine. Though it sounds like I enjoyed it just a little more than you did.

I'm a little surprised you still want to rent Frenzy after my review. Have you seen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast? That's infinitely better. If you're a big Hitchcock fan and something of a completist, then, yeah, Frenzy might be worth watching. Otherwise, I'd skip it. It's not one of Hitch's better efforts by a long shot. Although, it had a decent rating on IMDB, but Hitch is a favorite there. The rape-murder scene with nudity is disturbing, as I said.