Sunday, October 28, 2007

GREAT FILMS: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."- J.J. Hunsecker

Sidney Falco is a hustling press agent, who finds himself in a bind, when J.J. Hunsecker has cut him off from his paper. Hunsecker is the most powerful, influential newspaper columnist in the city, and Falco makes his living on putting his clients in that column. So, why does Hunsecker cut him off? Because Falco had made him a promise that he didn't keep, and Hunsecker doesn't appreciate people who don't keep their promises.

Thus, the stage is set for the greatest story of sacrificed integrity in the history of motion picture. The promise made by Falco (Tony Curtis) was that he'd end a relationship between a girl and a jazz guitarist. The girl is Hunsecker's sister, and she is "the only thing I got left" he claims. So Falco is told to foil the relationship, and when he doesn't, Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) cuts him off, sending Falco into a whirlpool of deceit in order to make a living.

Burt Lancaster's portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker is one of the most villainous characters that was ever on the screen. He turns people inside out. With his power, and public opinion at his grasp he could turn the most innocent person topsy-turvy. Lancaster makes his presence large, and brooding. The character is based on Walter Winchell, an equally powerful and erratic columnist, who broke the taboo of being able to expose the private lives of public figures. Hunsecker takes that logic one step further: he doesn't want to expose, he wants to destroy.

What makes this film a masterpiece is the way it delves in to see into the souls of the characters, only to find there isn't any soul left. No one is safe from the power and corruption, and those who think they can fight it, end up in bad situations.

Falco's elaborate scheme to dismember the young relationship is sleazy if not impressive. Hunsecker wants him to break up the marriage, because if he were to do it himself--and with his power he could easily--that would only fracture his relationship with Susan (Susan Harrison), his sister. Falco can see that Hunsecker's unhealthy connection with Susan is partly deranged, but that is not his business. His business is getting his clients in Hunsecker's column, and if he has to break up a young, fleeting romance to do it, so be it.

Now, Falco is the most disreputable character in the film, the way he slithers around to get things done. Many note that he could get what he wanted if he just asked, instead of acting like such a snoop. We see him to get his stories in the papers by making a helpless woman sleep with one of the newspapermen. The scene is painful, but we also note Falco's desperation. Falco doesn't earn our full contempt because he does his work at the behest of Hunsecker. In a way, his hands are tied. He doesn't know how else to make money, because the only other example he has is Hunsecker.

In the end, Hunsecker is able to end the relationship, but he's become so blind to the situation at that point that he doesn't realize that he his left himself without an ounce of decency. He's spent a career ruining reputations and sometimes entire lives, and as the old adage says, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely". When the people he goes after are people of his own family and friends, he finds himself alone and pitiful.

Sweet Smell of Success is probably the greatest film ever made about corruption and what it does to the human soul. It is frank for it's time. Shatters taboos. More importantly, it doesn't let go to the characters and their mentalities, and no one is left unscathed.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Into The Wild (****)

Written for the screen & Directed by Sean Penn


Most of the charm of Into The Wild comes from the persuasiveness of Christopher McCandless. Chris is an adventurous young man, just graduating from Emory University with great grades, and a full fund for his future years in law school. Unfortunately, Chris doesn't believe in that kind of life. He cashes in his law school fund, sends it to charity, and decides to go off on a life of "Ultimate Freedom".

Soon into his journey, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) changes his name to Alexander Supertramp. He meets two wayward hippies, Jan and Rainy (Catherine Keener and Brien Dieker), and helps them in their unconventional, sometimes rocky marriage. He gets a job farming with the boozing, joking Wayne (Vince Vaughn), to whom he unveils the big plan of his journey: that is to go to Alaska, and live alone in the wilderness; nothing but him and the nature he adored in so many books by Henry David Thoreau and Jack London.

This journey is sparked by all those books and writers, but we learn through interesting flashbacks, that Chris' journey is also spurred by the emotional wreckage his parents made him and his sister (Jena Malone) endure during their childhood. His father (William Hurt) is a successful scientist, and his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) a boozer who started off as her husband's mistress in his first marriage--until she got pregnant. Chris has decided that he does not want to live the life that they have planned for him, because they are no more than materialistic phonies. Instead, he puts them through two years of torture of wondering where he is.

Sean Penn wrote the screenplay based on Jon Krakauer's book of the same name. The book is the true stories of McCandless, told through all the people whom he met on his journey. The film is striking in it's portrayal of McCandless. We believe in his journey, even though we believe, like all the people he meets on the way, that it is doomed. He gets to Alaska, finds an abandoned bus and makes it his home. He's equipped with nature-survival books (which he doesn't read very well), and all the novels that had inspired him on his trek. Everything is like how he dreamed, until he becomes trapped within his own isolation.

It seems Sean Penn, as he gets older, has become much less angry, and in the process, has become a much more rounded filmmaker. The film's beauty goes along with Penn's apparent adoration for the material. He creates the atmosphere of Chris so wondrously, and sometimes dangerously, suddenly the life of a "nature man" doesn't seen like such a bad idea, if only for about an hour. Penn's film though, is made so humane through the incredible performance of Emile Hirsch (known for little before other than Alpha Dog and The Girl Next Door), whose performance as Chris is more than acting. Every year, there is a performance so good you tend to worry about the health of the actor (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator two years ago, for example); this is that kind of performance.

The movie's most touching moment, comes when Chris has come toward the end of his trip, and befriends a religious, war veteran Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). Ron lost his family when they were killed by a drunk driver, and he has lived alone in his home ever since. He takes in Chris like everyone before, and cares for him like a grandfather would. Chris tries to teach him about the wonder of the wilderness, Ron tries to teach him about the importance of forgiveness (in which Chris refuses to do with his parents). Holbrook's entrance comes about two hours into the film, but he delivers such a warm, emotional performance that is the best of many highlights within the movie. Like all the others, Chris soon abandons him too, leaving Ron alone once again.

The movie is a majestic experience, in showing a lifestyle worth living-- a life of transcendentalism. Chris doesn't think he is homeless, he thinks he is free from homes. Penn acutely acknowledges this, because at all the points Chris tries to work his way back into society, he cannot function (he quits a small job he has at Burger King because they require him to wear socks). It's not that Chris is an incredibly skilled woodsman--he is never able to successfully hunt anything other than squirrels and berries--but the effort seems good enough. This is a film that stays with you long after you've finished watching, mostly pondering the incredible pain it must have taken to make Chris want to abandon society. Every person he meets really become enthralled by his zeal, and they worry and long when he leaves. Yet, Chris seems unmoved and continues the set path he's made for himself.

The movie is a bit bloated--it's safe to assume that 35% of it's 150 minutes is taken up by slow-motion, and music-filled montages detailing parts of nature and atmosphere--but since we are so sucked in by Penn into the world of Christopher McCandless, it doesn't seem to matter much. The film seems to adopt the personality of McCandless, free-spirited and uncompromising, and because of that, extensive looks into the wilderness seem almost necessary. McCandless' journey will come off to some as selfish, but this film documents a man who feels he must dedicate his life to something more than material objects. If that is not noble, I do not know what is.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

GREAT FILMS: To Have and Have Not (1944)

Directed by Howard Hawks

To Have and Have Not is a movie more remembered for it's steamy directions on whistling, rather than being a masterpiece of film. The reason mainly, is because the movie is not Casablanca. The two movies are similar in plot: a world-weary protagonist (Humphrey Bogart) lives in an exotic world with the French resistance fighting the Gestapo, while he has a love affair with a mysterious woman (Lauren Bacall) to the soundtrack of a bluesy piano man in an urban Martinique bar.

Sure, Casablanca may have an edge on this film when it comes to place in film history, but what it does not possess is this movie's smoldering sexuality. The sexual tension between Bogart and Bacall is so pulsating, and was considerably racy for it's time. Surely, it mirrors the true-life love affair the then-19 Bacall was having with the then-42 Bogart. Their romance further spurs this film's passion into the subconscious of the viewer.

The film is a very loose adaptation of a novel by Ernest Hemingway of the same name. It is about Harry Morgan (Bogart), a man who charters a fishing boat for hire, with his drunk friend, Eddie (the hilarious and poignant Walter Brennan). People pay to use their boat to fish in Martinique, France, but since World War II, business has been hard. When an American tourist tries to skip out on the money he owes Morgan, Morgan runs into Marie (Bacall), the tourist's date. Marie is tall, sexy, has sharp, glaring eyes, and a low rumbling voice. Harry is immediately fixed on her, and when the tourist is unfortunately killed by stray Gestapo bullets, Harry and Marie are sucked into the world of political unrest that was 1940's France.

We can talk all day about the political commentary within the movie (and there is a lot), but that is not what makes the movie so great. What I'll focus on is the romance between Bogart and Bacall; the greatest, most-telling romance ever shown on the screen. Bogart and Bacall also appear in Key Largo and The Big Sleep, but neither possess the passion that this movie possesses. Created by Howard Hawks, the master of romance within intrigue, this movie unfolds like a political message, but is really one of the great love stories ever told (again, like Casablanca).

The film is not really filled with passionate love scenes, with dialogue announcing the never-ending alliance between the two people. The movie takes a rougher perspective. Marie seems notorious--the first thing we see is her stealing her date's wallet. Harry, on the other end, is no push-over. He scoffs at the chance to help dedicated French refugees, and he's not afraid to tell them to their face. Marie, though alarmingly younger, may be the perfect girl for him, but Harry, so hardened by the world is not willing to find out. When forced to help the refugees because of debt, Harry gives Marie money to take the next plane home, to keep her out of danger, he says, but we know it is because he is afraid of what he may get into with her. In one of the more heart-tugging scenes in the movie, Marie sighs, "It was nice while it lasted."

The movie is an excellent expose of lovelorn relationships. The relationship between Harry and Marie in this movie lasts perhaps less than a week. In that short time we see passion, jealousy, dedication, and disdain. Marie's yearning is so heartfelt and agonizing, particularly coming from what we see is a very young, and naive girl. Meanwhile, Harry is a character best described as "essential Bogart". The character is brooding and selfish, but only a little connection with the right woman brings out the human side of him. This side sometimes scares Harry so much, he tries to destroy it all together.

To Have and Have Not is a masterpiece of steaming sensuality, which makes many romantic films these days look like a wet dream. The romance shown is powerful, but steady, and very sexy. "You know how to whistle, don'cha Steve?" Marie asks Harry in his doorway, "Just put you lips together and... blow." Very few films can have a line that strong, or the talent of Lauren Bacall to deliver it.

Early (VERY Early) Oscar Predictions

Because I have nothing better to do.....

Into The Wild
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
*Joe Wright, ATONEMENT

Emile Hirsch, INTO THE WILD

*Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER
Jodie Foster, THE BRAVE ONE
Angelina Jolie, A MIGHTY HEART
Keira Knightly, ATONEMENT
Ellen Page, JUNO

Hal Holbrook, INTO THE WILD
Philip Seymour Hoffman, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

*Cate Blanchett, I'M NOT THERE
Jennifer Jason Leigh, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT

Judd Apatow, KNOCKED UP
Diablo Cody, JUNO
Tamara Jenkins, THE SAVAGES

*Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Christopher Hampton, ATONEMENT

Seamus McGarvey, ATONEMENT
Rodrigo Prieto, LUST, CAUTION
Roberto Schaefer, THE KITE RUNNER

*Sarah Greenwood, ATONEMENT

Jay Cassidy, INTO THE WILD
Tatiana Riegel & Dylan Tichenor, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
*Paul Tothill, ATONEMENT

Alexandre Desplat, THE GOLDEN COMPASS
Alexandre Desplet, LUST, CAUTION
Michael Giacchino, RATATOUILLE
Alberto Iglesias, THE KITE RUNNER
*Dario Marianelli, ATONEMENT

Jacqueline Durran, ATONEMENT

Bee Movie

The Darjeeling Limited (***1/2)

Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, & Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Wes Anderson


The Darjeeling Limited is the tale of three overbearing brothers who reunite after a year of not seeing each other, and decide to embark on a spiritual journey throughout the religious temples of India. That plot summary in itself is a pretty good display of how off-kilter this film is for it’s entire 91 minutes. That said, this film is a very heartfelt, very funny movie about three people who want to be good people, and want to understand the things that happen in life. Unfortunately, they weren’t built that way.

When Francis (Owen Wilson) crashes his motorcycle into a mountain, his face is left covered in heavy bandages, looking like a low-budget Halloween costume. This life-altering experience leaves him to call upon his two brothers: Peter (Adrien Brody), a brooding fellow who seems destined to divorce his wife until he finds out she is pregnant, and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) an articulate writer, who’s been recently crushed by an ex-girlfriend, and occasionally calls her messaging service to check her messages. These three need help, and we find that out soon, as we watch them gobble down various amounts of muscle relaxers and cough medicine.

Francis wants the brothers to reconvene on a train, called The Darjeeling Limited, where Francis, along with his assistant Brendan (Walace Wolodarsky) make daily laminated itineraries with the planned trips and stops during the day. Francis seems controlling, constantly asking the brothers to settle on “agreements” such as Jack not being allowed to call his ex’s messaging service without letting the other two know first. Peter is openly resentful to Francis’ authoritative manner, even going as far as to steal his belt. Jack writes short stories documenting their half-baked plans to pick up their father’s car from a dealership the day of his funeral.

The movie’s plot cannot be explained much more than that, because that’s all it is. They run into little adventures--Jack has a small affair with the train’s stewardess, Rita (Amara Karan); Peter buys a poisonous snake--but essentially the movie does not move in any one, organized direction. There was a smart, deadpan style Wes Anderson created in his two great films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and then he sort of bent it with his film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Darjeeling Limited seems to bend, then fix itself, and then shatter into a million pieces. The movie noodles around ideas of a plot, but all we are left with are three disallusioned boys in the bodies of men.

In a way, that is what makes this film so good. There is no target that needs to be hit. Take the make of train. Much like the mansion-home in Tenenbaums or the submarine/shrimping ship in Life Aquatic, the train is a piece of setting that is so colorful, but disjointed-- in a way, like the characters of the films, themselves. There’s no reason for any place to mismatch so many colors, but it seems like the brothers could not have ridden on any other train. That said, halfway through the film, the three are kicked off the train when they find Peter’s snake. The train leaves, and it is no longer part of the movie. The brothers are left to walk endlessly throughout the exotic country with their mountain of Louis-Vutton luggage.

Francis throws one surprise into the trip for the other two brothers: the trip will end with them meeting their mother whom they haven’t seen in years. Their mother (Anjelica Huston) has since become a missionary in an impoverished area of India. This is probably the most important, searching moment of the film. We see what the brothers have been looking for their entire lives. She can’t leave this place which is thousands of miles away from home, because the people need her. “What about us?” Jack asks hopelessly, in response. She doesn’t have an answer for them, and she disappears from them the next morning.

Many might get confused and say something along the lines of “this film doesn’t have a plot” or a “point”, but I think that is what makes the film magical. There are no amazing revelations, just many moments of various meanderings. Even the way the brothers approach the vast land of India, they are essentially tourists, but it doesn’t stop them from having long, confessing conversations in front of a stranger reading a newspaper next to them, or calling young Indian kids playing on the dangerous riverbank “assholes”. “I love the smell of this country,” Peter says, “It’s kind of spicy”. Nothing is meant to connect. There are times when we ask ourselves what exactly is going on, but we feel safe in the company of the actors and filmmakers.

Wilson and Schwartzman are experts within Wes Anderson’s broad dialogue and comedic timing, and Brody fits in nicely as well. There's something exceptionally piercing about the characters in Anderson films. They seem to stand there, doing nothing, but blurting out statements in monotone voices. Then suddenly, they have an explosion. The three actors especially embody Anderson’s tactic, and have no problems indulging in the “noodling” that is required for the roles.

The movie is an adventure--sometimes we feel like we’re the ones who are chugging down the cough syrup and pain medicine. It is a brave movie. With a shipload of young filmmakers trying so hard to be politically incorrect, I guess this is what it takes to be anti-establishment: just take the system and twist and turn until you have a story so convoluted and deceptive, maybe someone someday will call it art. I’ll give it a shot: This film is art.

Gone Baby Gone (***)

Directed by Ben Affleck


Ben Affleck has spent his entire career heading huge pictures, and consistently getting pounded by most critics for lackluster performances. For the most part, he seemed not much more than a figure of “handsome man” with nothing but “boyish charm”. This is, though, what makes his turn as director with Gone Baby Gone that much more impressive. An actor, who’s weaved his way in out of the public’s heart more times than he’d like to imagine, has made a film so filled with heart and power, we wonder why he hasn’t been making films before.

The film stars Affleck’s little brother, Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, a private detective who works with his girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). The two are hired by a worried middle-aged woman (Amy Madigan) who wants them to help find her young niece who’d been kidnapped three days before. The child’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan), is a strung-out troublemaker, into drugs and pornography, who does little to help find the child, though occasionally breaking down to say how much she misses her.

Patrick and Angie meet Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), the officer in charge of the investigation, and the leader of the Crimes Against Children task force. He once had a child who was kidnapped and murdered, he mentions, and he doesn’t want other parents to feel the pain he felt. They also meet Det. Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a tough-as-nails cop who’s not afraid to take illegal measures to imprison criminals he knows are innocent. Criminals who abuse children, he feels, are the worst kind of people. With all the people that Patrick must work around, it is inevitable that there will come mistakes in the police works, with people stumbling over each other’s findings. That, though, is where most of the fun of the film comes from, and it shouldn’t be revealed here.

The film’s setting is rooted in Boston, the hometown of the Affleck brothers. This film, much like Mystic River (both are based on novels by Dennis Lehane) really show the deep, dark underbelly of that town. Pain seems to strike deep, and the bad guys are much more colorful and harmful. The films are similar in style, but this film is much more ingrained into it’s setting. Affleck is said to have used a technique of filming many people around the Boston area without there knowledge. Nothing is known of whether or not the people gave their consent to be in the film, but what is accomplished is a feeling of supreme realism. All the characters are elevated by this technique, because everyone is just as spotty as everyone else.

The story itself is based on a novel Affleck once publicly christened as “His favorite”. Again, though, like Mystic River, the strength does not lie within the chase, but the chasers. These men become so enthralled in their search, it seems almost manic. As crime movies go, there are characters with hidden, darker motives, and they are revealed very skillfully. The film’s ability to give us the clues without us even realizing it is uncanny. Unfortunately, the film stalls toward the conclusion, and tries to play cheap tricks. The morals of the film, and the established beliefs tell us that the film should go in another direction. We hope that the ending can be as strong, and powerful as the rest of the film. That is not the case.

That said, what we are given is a troupe of actors so akin to their roles and motivations, it doesn’t seem to matter that it concludes unsatisfactorily. Casey Affleck solidifies his maturation as an actor, carrying this film without a beat. Patrick Kenzie seems to make choices the audience doesn’t agree with (sometimes he doesn’t agree with them himself), but that’s what makes the character so intriguing. His choices and mistakes surround him, till he wants to collapse, and many times his baby face is questioned about his age. Affleck’s performance is something coming-of-age, and you tend to wonder if the real acting talent in the family actually went to someone else.

Morgan Freeman’s Jack Doyle is not a character outside his range; meaning, this is the kind of part Freeman has been playing a lot the last couple of years: wise, authoritative and probably well-worn. Sure, he is not being challenged, but why challenge a man when he plays a kind of role so perfectly? The same can be said for Ed Harris. He seems to be yelling in movies now more than Al Pacino, but his brooding resentfulness creates one of the most colorful, dynamic characters in the film, and Harris has lived off of his dynamics for some time now. Michelle Monaghan is the closest thing we have to the “heart” of the film. She’s a caring woman, despises the scum she encounters, but overall, holds herself in high esteem. Monaghan doesn’t shy away from Angie’s self-sufficient personality. Amy Ryan’s portrait of disastrous parenting in Helene is probably the best performance in the movie. If anything, the film suffers from not having her on the screen more. She encompasses all the sloppy clothes and averted attention that we’ve come to know all to well in so many parents today.

When I think of this film, the adjective that I seem to think of the most is impressive. The film’s lead and the film’s director impressed me immensely, to the point that I wonder why I ever questioned their talent. The film is not perfect, but a lot of films aren’t. What matters is that the movie works. Affleck gets great performances from a great cast, and gets the most out of his dreary hometown of Boston. What else does he need?

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (**)

Directed by Shekhar Kapur


When watching 1998’s Elizabeth, there is always the sneaking suspiscion that what you are watching is not incredibly close to history. You tend not to notice or care, because you are so enthralled by what was one of the greatest studies of character that decade. Nine years later, we watch Elizabeth: The Golden Age and we do not walk away with that same impression. This film is less intelligent, less elegant, and without all the charm that was present in the first one. Not that a sequel should be expected to be anything spectacular, but there seems to be an element of disappointment with this film. They could have done much better.

The three main people of the original film come back for this one: director Shekhar Kapur, and actors Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush reprise their roles as Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Walsingham, respectively. The film begins proclaiming the power of the Spanish Armada, and the fears of death threats toward the queen. On the other hand, Elizabeth still has to deal with the issues of being without a male suitor, and being the “virgin queen”. During a series of suitors that sweep in and out of the palace (a scene which seems like something out of a bad romantic comedy) in strolls Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).

We have to dispel the fact the Queen would have been well into her 50’s at the time this film is set (circa 1585), and Raleigh would’ve been around 32. Instead, Elizabeth is made to be young and glowing, creating the intrigue between her and Raleigh that takes up most of the plot. The film revisits a theme that was in the first film: that the supreme and authoritative job of being queen England can be quite a drag on your sex life. That seems like a crude statement to say, but this film is so robust, and lacking of humanity, it leaves it victim to that kind of remark.

Anyway, the film chronicles the Queen’s struggle with death threats and attempts of murder at the hands of the fanatically Catholic Spanish who see her as a husband-less leader of a godless country (AKA protestant), and then also having to deal with Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton). And all the while, she has to deal with the pain that she’ll never be able to be with Raleigh, no matter how much she yearns for him (though he loses no sleep going after her patron). And who wouldn’t love the Raleigh who’s pictured in this film, as a swashbuckling, manly gentleman, who even has a seen where he swings on ropes during naval battle.

All that aside, what is so disappointing about this movie, is the lack of substance. This film is filled with such vast, sparkling sets and flawless costumes, it’s no wonder there seemed to be no substance within the humanity of the characters. How can you portray a character appropriately when you’re busy worried about scuffing the ruffles around your neck? The movie is pretty beautiful to look at, but a film with such talent in it’s cast could afford to add more depth to the story. The director Shekhar Kapur takes the elaborate art direction that he had in his first film and compounds on it so much, that all we are left with is a spectacle of great cinematography and empty humanity.

That being said, the film is not unwatchable. The brightest star within this movie is Blanchett. While watching this movie, I came to realize that she has separated herself as the most prolific and skilled actress in the movies today (knowing that she is spot-on here playing Elizabeth, and is already getting honored for a performance as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There is astonishing in it’s own right). Like she did in the first film, she commands the screen. She delivers the lines with power. Her yearning after Raleigh seems sincere, even if the concept of the love between them doesn’t. Nothing that happens in the movie makes you doubt that she is the authority, even as you see her lost in the inches of Elizabethan make-up.

Rush’s return to the role of the devilish, conniving Welsingham is one met with great nuance. He’s the Al Neri, so to speak, to Elizabeth I’s Don Chorleone. The role is so shrouded, and violent it’s impossible to believe that he spent these two films on the protagonist’s side. Morton’s portrayal of Mary “Queen of Scots” is also very commanding, though she is much less demonstrative than Elizabeth (perhaps because she doesn’t have to deal with the hackneyed Hollywood love triangle). What Morton shows is something a lot of film lovers already know about her, that she is probably the greatest actress of today that nobody ever talks about.

The Golden Age’s downfall is in it’s misguided filmmaking. It’s amazing that so many people were able to take part in this project without seeing the holes left behind in almost every scene. It’s disappointing to see a film filled with such acting talent essentially twist in the wind of creativity. The power is in the performances, and the weakness is in it’s human story. When you end up with that kind of lop-sided result, you end with a sloppy, so-so film.

Michael Clayton (****)

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy


Michael Clayton is a “fixer” at one of the biggest law firms in the country. Got a big-time client who just ran someone over with their car? Clayton’s your man. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he tells a troubled client, “I’m a janitor.” He’s lauded consistently as the best guy for the job--and then his Mercedes bursts into flames in the middle of a forrest road. Michael Clayton, a masterful film by Tony Gilroy, is the best made, most thrilling film made so far this year. The suspense is pulsating, but the human element of the story is dealt with so grandly, that we are strapped in for a great piece of filmmaking.

Michael Clayton (played by George Clooney) is the best in the “fixing” business, but he holds other demons. When he takes his son to school, he has to face the facts that he really doesn’t know his son at all; and he’s becoming increasingly indebted by a bar business he adopted in case the role as “fixer” didn’t work out. This is all expository on the character of Clayton, the action of the story starts when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) sabotages one of the law firms biggest cases, a class action lawsuit against the corporation U/North, and Clayton is forced into the most challenging “cleanup” of his career.

When Edens discovers the damage U/North pollution has done to farmers (including deaths), he kicks his manic-depressive medication and strips naked inside the deposition room. From this point on, Edens is frantically building a case against U/North using evidence only he has. The only person who seems able to pierce Edens’s core is Clayton. Clayton and Edens are friends, but Arthur has grown tired of being the “fixer” he’s been his whole career, he wants to do the right thing. As Clayton attempts to control Arthur before the firm and U/North find their own ways of controlling him, Clayton uncovers a dangerous world of deceit and murder, and is faced with some powerful decisions.

This is the directorial debut for Tony Gilroy, who has had much success as a screenwriter (the Bourne films, Armageddon). This is a polished film, and produced with much skill unlike that of a debut. Gilroy understands that this is a story where the characters are complex, not so much the story itself. He allows the film to piece itself together, and what we end up with is an incredible mosaic of intrigue and suspense, building to a satisfying climax. It is about as perfect an execution as you can have in the “legal thriller” genre.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Good Night, and Good Luck) makes much beauty out of the simplicity in the shots. Everyone is shrouded in some shadow. The film is edited by Gilroy’s little brother, John Gilroy, who is able to cut the film so smoothly, pushing the conversations to the forefront, but not ignoring the stylised quick cuts that make the film run at rapid pace. John Newton Howard’s score is one of brooding mystery. It is my favorite kind of score: a score which is constantly displaying the feelings and thoughts within the central character.

George Clooney seems to be at the peak of his acting career with Clayton. Clayton is seen driving his Mercedes, wearing a perfect, unwrinkled suit, and every hair in place. That is, until things are going wrong, and then everything becomes disheveled and unkempt. Clooney takes his time showing Clayton’s disintegration, wearing a face of discouragement and disappointment. Clayton doesn’t want to do what he does, but it is what he does best. He’d rather have a mundane life as a prosecutor, but the constant pressure from the heads of the firm, as well as bookies, keep him stuck in it. Clooney is excellent at showing all the emotions within Clayton, but he is best at showing his loss of integrity.

The film’s strength is in it’s cast, and Clooney is buoyed by a number of great supporting performances. Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur Eden is deranged and dangerous, but the heart of the character to do what is right probably makes the most poignant element within the movie. Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, the cheif legal executive for U/North, who thinks she knows what it takes to be in charge of a cut-throat business, but may go a little too far. Swinton’s portrayal as the bewildered Crowder is another example of Swinton’s regal talent. Sydney Pollack plays Marty Bach, one of the partners within the law firm--Clayton performs his “fix jobs” at Bach’s behest. Pollack shows Bach as a kind-hearted man, but he knows the ins and outs and displays absolute authority.

Michael Clayton may be the best made film to come out this year, and is a masterful exercise within a genre made popular in the 1970’s. Clayton has no true moments of overwhelming idealism, nor is it a film with a specific significance, but as a film that executes, as well as entertains, you can get no better than this film.

Across The Universe (***1/2)

Directed by Julie Taymor


I must admit, before writing this review, that I’ve been a stringent Beatles fan since about age four. I’ll also admit that when brought forth the idea of a musical film, staged totally around the performances of popular Beatles songs, I sort of cringed. The film, expertly made by Julie Taymor exceeded my expectations though, making what may very well be the most beautiful film of the year.

The film centers on a young, Liverpool laborer named Jude (Jim Sturgess) who impulsively grabs a ship to America in search of his father. His father, rather unclimactically is a janitor at Princeton University. He soon meets the rambunctious Maxwell (Joe Anderson), and his sister Lucy (an angelic Evan Rachel Wood). When Maxwell drops out of college, him and Jude move to New York and shack up in an overwhelmingly communal apartment owned by the Janis Joplin-like singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Also, living in the quarters is the Hendrixian Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), the heartbroken lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio; she comes in through the bathroom window), and eventually Lucy.

Jude and Lucy fall for each other, Jo-Jo and Sadie have a steamy, but vile love affair, Prudence mopes cause she knows she will never have Sadie’s heart, and Maxwell is drafted into the Vietnam War. These are all basic plot points, and not what makes this film as enjoyable as it is. What I enjoyed so much about this film was such a successful execution in making such an enchanting movie with stories and songs that we are so familiar with.

This is a movie about the Turbulent Years of the 1960’s, illustrated by what I assume the filmmakers feel is the best pieces of music from that time. The Vietnam War is documented and protested, but not so much that you feel hit over the head with it (like so many Oliver Stone films). We see the antiwar movement, but more of how it affects the characters, than actually accounting it. Other than marijuana and Jack Daniel’s, we don’t see the characters really experiment with hard drugs, but the visuals within the film definitely suggest it. Basically, it has the images of any film about 60’s, but seems to keep a comfortable distance so we can get to know the characters.

It amazes me that I’ve gotten this far into the review without talking about the music. Which is inarguably great. The films spins the songs into meanings I would have never figured, when I danced to them as a toddler in my living room. Prudence sings “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with such painful yearning, watching the hands of women she knows she will probably never hold. Rows and rows of plastic-looking soldiers strip down Maxwell for basic army training stating the ever popular Army phrase (and equally popular Beatles song) “I Want You” and the sequence evolves into Maxwell and other hopeless draftees carrying the Statue of Liberty exclaiming “She’s So Heavy”.

The movie has moments where it doesn’t work though. The defiant performance of “Revolution” comes off more as campy than rebellious, for instance. Eddie Izzard makes an appearance as Mr. Kite, in the film’s most creatively questionable sequence. It’s the only moment in the film where the song itself seems to be performed inappropriately. These minor flaws, though, are redeemed by sequences that both sound beautiful and are visual experiences. The constant splitting of Jude’s Pollack-like artistry with strawberries mirrored by Maxwell’s horrors in battle are played wonderfully over “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

There are cute little cameos throughout the film, such as Bono playing the shrewd Doctor Robert who sings “I Am The Walrus” while he takes his followers on a tie-dye ride on his Magical Mystery tour bus. Joe Cocker pops up as multiple characters including a stylish pimp, and a raggedy bum as he sings “Come Together”. Multiple Salma Hayeks seem to sprout out of each other, as she plays the Bang Bang Shoot Shoot nurses during a dreamy, but dreary sequence of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” as Maxwell sits in a retro hospital, recovering from war injuries. There is also the affore mentioned Izzard.

I should mention that there is one spectacular sequence that is underwater. The characters float (most of them naked) as if caught in the absolute rapture in the moment as they sing “Because”. During this sequence, a group of teenagers got up in the theater I was in, and walked out. So to be forewarned, the film takes it’s time, and is made on an epic scale. The visuals are languid, and they can be obscure in terms of meaning, but as I think I stated earlier, most of this film is a visual experience. It’s a glorious mix of ubbeat, satisfying performances, and glorious dedication to arguably the greatest Rock & Roll band of all time. So don’t get caught up on how unclear the message may be, just enjoy the ride. Don’t Let Me Down (repeat three times).


Hi, my name is James, and this is more of a way to see if this will work, than an actual post. Thanks for visiting.