Tuesday, October 23, 2007

'Michael Clayton': A different kind of thriller

“Michael Clayton,” the assured directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, the writer of the “Bourne” trilogy, opens with the voice over narration of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner at a high power law firm. Wilkinson freely admits he is possibly crazy as he eloquently rants about how he feels he is covered in the excrement of the firm. The monologue, delivered quite brilliantly by Wilkinson, is a helluva hook that the movie lives up to.

In subsequent scenes, the film introduces us to the title character (George Clooney), the firm’s fixer, the man who is sent into clean up legal messes, and in some cases bend and manipulate the truth. Gilroy, who also scripted the film, drops the audience in the middle of events set into motion years before. After Clooney survives a car bombing the film flashes back to four days earlier. It will be nearly two hours before the context of these opening events become clear.

Some will call “Michael Clayton” a thriller – after all it is marketed as such – but those expecting the fast paced action of the “Bourne” movies will be let down. Gilroy is making a different sort of thriller. There are no chases. There are no gun battles. The thrills are smaller ones, but no less enticing. There are verbal battles and power plays in place of bullets and cars.

The plot is intricate and complex, but not confusing. Wilkinson’s Arthur is chemically imbalanced and when he goes off his medications he begins to see clearly that the case he has spent the last six years on is all wrong. His erratic behavior makes the firm uncomfortable especially since they are in the process of being taken over by a British law firm headed by Tilda Swinton (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”). Clooney is suppose to keep Wilkinson in check, but soon also sees the error of his ways.

The above description makes the film seem far more generic than it truly is, but to reveal any further details would ruin the film’s rich plot and characters. The film builds slowly, revealing the complexities of its story at a leisurely pace, it may lag in places but the film earns the audience’s patience and time. The ending delivers in a big way and any lulls are quickly forgiven.

As a writer, Gilroy has come a long way from his first screenplay, the figuring skating comedy/drama “The Cutting Edge.” Here his characters go deeper than mere archetypes. Swinton is the villain of the piece and on the surface she is as cold as the Snow Queen in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but Gilroy’s script and Swinton’s nuanced performance show a woman who is perhaps out of her depth as the head of a major international law firm. In a brilliant sequence we see her practice answers for an interview intercut with the actual interview. It shrewdly reveals a woman with a strong front, but a vulnerable underbelly.

Wilkinson gives one of his best performances as a man who he is crazy, but at the same time completely rational with his gifted legal mind perfectly intact and functioning. The line between crazy and sane is a tricky one to walk as an actor, but Wilkinson walks it gracefully.

As for Clooney, he continues to prove himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. Clooney’s Michael Clayton is worn down by life. He is a failed entrepreneur with debt hanging over his head and a guilty conscience. His decision to do the right thing isn’t shown with a preachy speech or flashy overacting. Clooney shows Michael Clayton’s moral shift through quiet pauses and subtle facial expressions.

Clooney is an actor who successfully balances commercial work like the “Ocean” movies with thought provoking film such as “Syriana” and “Good Night and Good Luck.” His star power brings attention to projects that may otherwise fade away. The Clooneys of the world show Hollywood that film can both be intelligent and arty and still be profitable. Clooney and others like him may be able to fix Hollywood yet.

'28 Weeks Later' has the scares, but none of the brains of it predecessor

“28 Days Later,” 2003’s intelligent, character driven riff on the zombie genre, was one of the most imaginative horror films in years, so it was perhaps inevitable it would get the sequel treatment. With “28 Weeks Later,” that low-budget gem is given the big budget treatment and a substantial amount of dumbing down.

The film is once again set in an England invested by a virus transmitted by blood or saliva that turns those infected by it into mindless beings consumed by one emotion: rage. Unlike traditional film zombies the ones of “28 Days” and “28 Weeks” are not the living the dead and do not lurch around, rather they run as if on a permanent adrenaline kick.

England was all but destroyed by the outbreak in the first film, but six months later the American military has cleaned up London and arrogantly reopened the city as an infected free zone. The political analogies are obvious and never go any deeper than the basic set up. Any opportunities for political or social satire are missed as the film instead focuses on gore and violence.

The film’s nominal star is Robert Carlyle of “Transpotting” and “Full Monty” fame. In a great opening sequence that promises a better film than we ultimately get, Carlyle, his wife and other survivalist couples are attacked by the infected. Instead of fighting, Carlyle runs away and leaves everyone behind, including his wife. The sequence provides more visceral, kinetic jolts than anything in the original and has the film’s few moments of genuine emotion.

In the rebooted London, Carlyle is reunited with his kids, who were in Spain when the outbreak occurred. It is at this point the film gets sloppy with the kids doing something so stupid that it is insulting to the viewers and works only as a plot device to set up events to bring about another infected outbreak. Once the infected are again on the loose the script and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo forget about believable characters and let the carnage reign free. The film constantly undercuts itself by killing off characters just as they’re starting to become more developed and well rounded.

“28 Days” had its moments of shocking and gruesome violence, but they were worked into a well crafted story that took the time to create characters the audience cared about. Director Danny Boyle allowed for moments of quiet, humor and even beauty. In this new film – aside from the opening and an affecting scene in which Carlyle explains to his kids that he left their mother for dead – there is little emotional connection or moments of introspection.

On the level of scares the movie is moderately successful, especially in a painful, hard to watch scene in which we watch a person become consumed by the Rage virus and then brutal kill a loved one. It is the only scene that lingers in the mind days after seeing the film.

There’s also an effective sequence in which snipers are told to kill everyone, infected or not, just to be safe. The scene is a throwback to the original’s theme that human nature is far more frightening and dangerous than the mindless infected. The infected have no choice in the terrible things they do, but humans do. It is a good message, but “28 Days” put it across with more skill and style.

Ultimately the problem is that “28 Days” was so fresh that to live up to it a sequel would have to remain equally original. Instead “28 Weeks” is filled with so many tired horror clichés and stock characters that the film’s stronger moments are undermined. It becomes just another generic horror movie with some solid scares and that’s OK, but it could’ve and should’ve been so much more.

'1408': A horror movie with a heart

“1408” is the latest film to tout the catchphrase “from the mind of Stephen King.” Few would debate that King is the quintessential horror writer of the last 30 years, but his works has had mixed results when transitioning to film. For every “Carrie” or “Green Mile” there are numerous duds.

Interestingly, it is his short fiction that seems to fair best in the world of film. “Stand By Me,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Apt Pupil” - all taken from “Different Seasons” - are among the best King adaptations. “1408” – a story from the “Everything’s Eventual” collection - isn’t quite of that caliber, but is a compelling haunted house tale.

“1408” starts with a basic horror premise. Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer who checks into supposedly haunted hotels to debunk them in a popular books series. This is the excuse he gives himself and others, but his real motivation is a desperate need to know there’s an afterlife following the death of his daughter. His cynical, sarcastic front crumbles quickly once he enters the demonic room of the title which is reported to kill anyone who stays in it within an hour.

King has written about writers many times before, most notably in “The Shining” and “Misery,” the former of which “1408” will inevitably be compared to and while there are similar themes, including the lead characters’ alcoholism, “1408” has a different and more simple agenda. Where in the “Shining” you watch a man descent into madness, “1408” shows Cusack struggling with his demons and looking for closure for the loss of his daughter.

Director Mikael Håfström avoids Kubrick’s visual palate and creates his own gothic vision that is arresting and affecting. This is not a gore fest like so much of the horror fare populating multiplexes and living rooms. There are solid jumps, but the film ties your gut in knots by creating an atmosphere of dread. A sinister clock, ticking down the hour and blaring out the Carpenter’s “It Has Only Just Begun” adds to the tension as the film plays out more or less in real time once Cusack enters the room.

At times the film’s special effects nearly take over with the room flooding, freezing and burning, but Cusack’s strong performance anchors the film. Cusack has always been a non-traditional leading man and is best known for his offbeat, quirky romantic persona, but he is more talented than he is given credit for. “1408” which is more or less a one-man show is the perfect showcase for him.

Fans of “High Fidelity” will be familiar with Cusack’s ability to add flavor to lengthy speeches and it helps he is given intelligent, funny dialogue by screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski that captures King’s unique voice.

While the film is largely Cusack monologing into a tape recorder as he tries to hold his sanity together, he does have some deliciously playful early scenes with Samuel L. Jackson as a hotel manager. Their scenes together have more zest than some whole films.

At the center of the film is the loss of Cusack’s daughter and the way the room taunts and teases Cusack with his greatest hurt is what gives the film more weight than the average spook fest. There is one scene that has an emotional impact that few will expect. It is rare today that a horror film will actually give you goosebumps and a lump in your throat and that’s what makes “1408” special.

Avoid this 'Contract'

If you are browsing through a video store and come across “The Contract” keep walking. Don’t allow yourself to be taken in by the pair of A-listers (Morgan Freeman and John Cusack) on the cover, “The Contract” is a stinker through and through.

“The Contract” went straight to DVD, which is rarely a good sign. The world of direct to video filmmaking includes but is not limited to cheapie sequels, low budget horror and action films starring aging former genre stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. They are easy to stop and easy to avoid, but every once in a while a film that looks like it could be worthy gets a direct to video release.

Reading the premise of “The Contract” it seems like it has the potential to be exciting entertainment. Freeman plays an assassin that through a chain of events comes into the custody of Cusack and his son (Jamie Anderson) who are hiking in the Washington wilderness in hopes of bonding after the loss of their wife/mother. Cusack decides to take Freeman to the police, but Freeman’s men are also in the forest eager to rescue their leader.

It is a hardly a new story, the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” which is currently playing in theaters covers similar ground, but with the excellent Freeman and the underrated Cusack you at least expect there to be a well acted mind game.

“The Contract” is the worst kind of bad movie, the sort of film that wastes its talent and teases the audience with glimpses of a good movie mired in the mangled collection of celluloid that is spooling out in front of you instead.

Every component of this film is flawed. The score is overwrought, the editing slack when it should be tight, the acting poor with only Freeman coming out unscathed and the writing clumsy and stiff. The dialogue is so stilted, obvious and forced that it is clear the actors can do little with it. At one point Cusack’s son has to shout at him “Just to listen me for once Dad!”

The characters are flat at best, mere archetypes and nothing more. There’s a throw away line explaining Cusack was a former cop that is there to justify some of things he does later in the film, but why he quit isn’t explored.

In the making of feature on the DVD, Freeman explains it is more fun for an actor to play a bad guy. There is some zeal in Freeman’s performance and he is clearly relishing the opportunity to play bad. Freeman manages to make some of the hackneyed dialogue shine, but most is so awful even velvet voiced Freeman can’t salvage it.

Cusack just looks embarrassed as if he knows there’s no reason to be in this film. Lately, Cusack seems to be drawn to playing characters grieving the loss of loved ones. In “1408” it was a daughter. In the forthcoming “Grace is Gone” and “Martian Child” it is a wife. What this has to say about Cusack’s state of mind could probably fill a psychiatrist’s notebook, but for my purposes it is merely a justification for why he appeared in something so below his talents.

The supporting cast is populated with uninteresting, annoying cookie cutter characters. The most infuriating of the bunch is the tired cliché of hick rural cops that don’t know anything about city things. At one point an FBI agent asks for a croissant and the sheriff replies they never heard of them in town. That’s the level this film is on. You have been warned.

A flawed, but interesting peak into Warhol's 'Factory'

Edie Sedgwick, the “Factory Girl” of the title, was the original party girl and the first to make fame a job. She became Andy Warhol’s muse in the mid-to-late sixties, with her short lived pop icon status eventually leading to a tragic death.

Edie’s story is a familiar one. She came to New York as a relatively innocent girl with aspirations to be an artist, but reinvented herself as a social butterfly. Warhol (Guy Pearce, “Memento") meets and becomes obsessed with Edie (Sienna Miller, “Casanova”). He decides to quit painting and focus on making her famous. Edie slowly loses herself to her own iconic status as she succumbs to the drugs, alcohol and various other excesses of fame.

The idea of fame, and everyone getting their 15 minutes of it, was one that fascinated Warhol, but the film doesn’t explore that too deeply. “Factory Girl” offers a peak inside Warhol’s Factory, the large studio where he did much of his art and films. The Factory is a world unto itself populated by oddballs and social rejects that are free to explore their art.

Warhol was an enigmatic figure with his pale skin, mousy voice and awkward social skills. Pearce nails the mannerism and vocal inflection in a performance that initially seems like nothing more than mimicry, but as the film progresses Pearce adds shading to his interpretation of Warhol.

When Edie begins an affair with a musician (Hayden Christensen, the new “Star Wars” trilogy) Warhol becomes jealous and cruel. Warhol’s self-proclaimed emotional detachment can’t completely hide his hurt which Pearce quietly registers in almost unnoticeable facial ticks.

Christensen is clearly playing Bob Dylan, but for legal reasons the character is listed as simply The Musician in the credits. He captures Dylan’s brooding cynicism and desire to challenge society. Christensen smolders with intensity that will surprise those who thought he single-handedly ruined “Star Wars.” He shines most in a scene in which he does a screen test for Warhol, blatantly mocking him the whole time.

Dylan and Warhol in many ways were doing the same thing, but Dylan’s art had depth where Warhol’s was seemingly more superficial. The film does a nice job of recreating the atmosphere of Warhol’s pop art world, but doesn’t delve beyond shallow interpretation. A case can be made that as it is shallow art it is unworthy of deep analysis.

Some would contend that Warhol was forcing pop culture to look at self with his work being a mirror of society. If that reflection is shallow that isn’t Warhol’s fault. The film seems to lean towards that view with Edie stating Warhol was throwing America back at people and “turning the assembly line into a punch line.”

But this isn’t a film about Warhol. It isn’t called “Factory Boy,” but you wish it was. Edie, at least as presented here, isn’t that interesting a figure. This is no fault of Miller who gives a strong performance. Miller knows how to do strung out women well as she already showcased in “Alfie.”

Edie was a damaged girl with a sexually abusive father and the weight of her gay brother’s death constantly plaguing her. Miller is forced to give numerous speeches rewording this information. The first time it is presented - in a flippant filmed conversation for Warhol - it is unsettling, but the film keeps playing the same emotional cards with no further exploration.

In the film’s most disturbing scene, Jimmy Fallon (“Fever Pitch”) coldly taunts Edie with her own sordid past while prodding a man to molest her as Warhol films it all. It is Warhol’s cruel punishment for leaving him.

Was Edie worthy of a bio-pic in her own right or are we merely fascinated because of her association with Warhol and Dylan? “Factory Girl” doesn’t quite make the case, but holds interest regardless for capturing the essence of the decadent sixties art scene.

'The Lookout': More than just a heist movie

Heist movies are rarely about anything other than the con, but Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” is a slightly different beast, a character driven piece where how the crime changes the lead character is far more interesting than the mechanics of the job itself.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a high school kid who had it all, until a car accident left him brain damaged. Chris has memory problems similar to, but not to the severity of Guy Pearce’s character in “Memento.”

Where Pearce couldn’t create new memories, Levitt’s Chris has difficulty sequencing them and gets easily confused. Chris also has difficulty controlling his anger and has lost his inhibitions, which leads him to say things like “I want to see you naked” to women.

Chris works alone as a night janitor at a bank something that small time hood Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, “Match Point”) notices. Gary baits Chris with the attractive former striper Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher, “The Wedding Crashers”) and convinces him to help with a bank robber.

Frank, making his directorial debut from his own script, has adapted Elmore Leonard’s “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” for the screen and the unique rhythm and flavoring of Leonard’s dialogue and storytelling is captured here. But Frank’s film doesn’t feel like a rip-off and that’s largely due to the freshness of the central character.

There’s a quiet intensity permeating through the whole film but for the most part it is not driven by the plot. Too often films in the heist genre are overly focused on labyrinthine plots and a surprise twist, which is all fine and well, but Frank has admirably but his focus on character.

Gordon-Levitt, who in the 90s was more known for his comic skills on the show “3rd Rock from the Sun,” has developed into intense dramatic actor. Following his work in last year enigmatic thriller “Brick,” Gordon-Levitt is proving himself to be the go to man for dark, complicated protagonists.

Chris is a complex, conflicted character, a bundle of confused emotions trying to sort everything out and Gordon-Leavitt balances all these difficult emotions in a way that is believable. He never allows the character to become a gimmick or mere plot point and infuses him with a wealth of turmoil that is rarely directly addressed but always there.

Jeff Daniels’ Lewis, Chris’ blind roommate and best friend, gives the film some of its only levity. The character does spout wisdom, but Daniels and Frank keep him from being more than just a blind wiseman. Lewis playfully flirts with a waitress at the same time he offers warm, humor filled support to Chris.

It is a performance that reminds you how likable and charming a performer Daniels is. Chris and Lewis’ friendship has nice flow to it and their scene help deepen the film emotionally and thematically.

Goode, an English actor hiding his accent well, is appropriately hard and grungy as Gary, but as he’s conning Chris, Goode manages to add at least a flickering note of compassion. Gary is asthmatic, which gives him the oddly menacing crutch of taking hits from his inhaler. Although Gary is the film’s bad guy, Goode keeps it low key and avoids hammy villainy.

In terms of acting Fisher’s femme fatale is the only weak link. Fisher showed chaotic comedic energy in “The Wedding Crashers,” here she seems dull and uninteresting, but that could be due to the script, which drops her when she is no longer useful to the plot. In a script that is intelligent and clever without being glib, it is the only disappointing aspect.

Frank as a director isn’t showy and the pace is leisurely, but rewarding. It is 45 minutes before the robbery is even mentioned, but Frank takes that time to create a world that is more fully realized than most films of the genre. The ending may be a bit too neat, but satisfying stems from a natural progression of the story. Maybe that in itself is the film’s big twist.

Ferrell on autopilot

“Blades of Glory” is Will Ferrell on auto pilot. For people who appreciate his humor it is a decent time, for those who think he is terribly unfunny this will act as further evidence.

After showing depth and dialing down to a warm, believable, human level in “Stranger Than Fiction,” Ferrell is back flaunting his body and faux machismo in a one-joke comedy about the first male pairs figure skating team.

Ferrell seems to have a thing for sports comedies, first there was the flat soccer film “Kicking and Screaming,” followed by the more on target NASCAR satire “Talladega Nights” and up on deck is the basketball comedy, “Semi-Pro.” “Blades of Glory” falls somewhere between “Kicking and Screaming” and “Talladega Nights,” but how many times can one actor parody sports movie clichés?

Jon Heder, Ferrell’s partner in comedy and skating, became an overnight sensation following the tremendous success of “Napoleon Dynamite.” Heder is still trying to live down the performance that made him famous and many are quick to dismiss all of his performances as watered down versions of “Napoleon.” But Heder is a likeable performer with a light comic touch and with “School for Scoundrels” and “Blades of Glory” has shown he’s more that a one trick pony.

Ferrell’s Chazz Michael Michaels and Heder’s Jimmy MacElroy and skating rivals who get banned from singles competition after an on-ice fight gets out of hand. Years later they are reunited by Jimmy’s coach (Craig T. Nelson, star of the show “Coach,” get it?) to be a pairs team. Naturally, they are exact opposites who hate each other and then ultimately bond.
This material is incredibly familiar, both as straight drama or comedy and “Blades of Glory” seems to be content to just work within the formula and earn some modest laughs. Although the character grows tired by the end, the idea of Chazz a crass, sex addict in the world of figure skating, is a funny one. It is role that is easy for Ferrell and will appease his fans who like him best when he’s stumbling around half nude or shouting dialogue.

The film lacks the extra layer of satire that features in Ferrell’s best comedies, “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Yes, both of those films are full of crude scatological humor, but there was also an undercurrent to the jokes that revealed the foolishness of American news and sports celebrity. In some ways “Talladega Nights” was just as effective as “Borat” at revealing the worst sides of Americans.

It is hard to review comedy. Humor hits each person differently. Some comedies hit the mark so well that just about everyone falls in love with them, but others are more hit and miss. “Blades of Glory” falls in the latter category.

One particularly gross scene is really the make or break for the film. In it Heder is handcuffed to a toilet. The key lies at the end of long strip of toilet paper. He can escape by using his tongue to pull the paper and key toward him. It is terribly unfunny scene, but if you can forgive the filmmakers for it then you are likely to accept the rest of the film.

Given the subject matter there are surprisingly and thankfully few gay jokes. The skating scenes are fairly amusing and there’s one hilarious chase scene with Ferrell running from a rival (Will Arnet, “Arrested Development”) while both are on skates. It is good as a distraction, but isn’t the sort of comedy you’ll be quoting with friends for months.