Michael Clayton is the sort of movie that Hollywood should be producing on a weekly basis — but doesn’t. In most other eras, it would come across simply as a competent piece of filmmaking, a solid drama doing a yeoman’s job of making sure the audience got its admission price’s worth of entertainment. It would be part of a studio’s uniform front, in much the same way as, for instance, Warner Bros.’s 1930s crime flicks or MGM’s 1950s musicals. In fact, its proper place would seem to be with the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, a sweaty sub-genre that houses such classics as All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But appearing in 2007, Michael Clayton is a lonely figure, a deceptively low-key suspenser that trusts its audience to be intrigued by its look at corporate skullduggery. It’s a good — not great — movie, but given the “Look, Ma, no brains!” attitude of most of its contemporaries, it just might be able to ride its high IQ right into the awards season. Far easier to follow than its impenetrable trailer would lead one to believe, Michael Clayton plays like Erin Brockovich without the populist appeal — it centers on the title character (George Clooney), a law firm “fixer” who’s always called upon to clean up messy problems for the company’s clients. Hating his job but stuck with it due to massive debts and an expensive divorce, Michael finds himself caught in the middle when Arthur Edens (an excellent Tom Wilkinson), Michael’s good friend and the firm’s best attorney, seemingly goes bonkers and threatens to derail their most important case: defending an agrochemical company against a lawsuit filed by ordinary citizens. Michael’s boss (Sydney Pollack) orders Michael to talk some sense into Arthur, but it turns out that the agrochemical company’s chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) is willing to go to more extreme lengths to silence the wayward lawyer. Almost everything about the movie is muted — the settings, the exchanges, the emotions — and this decision gives the story a real-world gravitas that make the odious executive actions seem even more plausible than they already are
The Farrelly Brothers have a reputation for pushing the envelope when it comes to risky business on screen, but in the case of The Heartbreak Kid, they seem only marginally more daring than Robert Wise helming The Sound of Music. That’s because the original 1972 version (with a screenplay by Neil Simon) is one mean-spirited movie, a prickly comedy about an unlikable nebbish (Charles Grodin) who suddenly decides to abandon his plain-Jane wife (Jeannie Berlin) on their honeymoon once he spots a beautiful blonde WASP (Cybill Shepherd) on the Miami beach. The movie stings because the bride is only slightly annoying — hardly deserving of the cruel treatment she receives — while the protagonist is selfish, insensitive, and due for a comeuppance that he never really gets. But in this version, the groom (Ben Stiller) is generally a nice guy, his new bride (Malin Akerman) is an outright nightmare, and the beach bunny is no longer a callow, self-centered brat but a sweet-natured and down-to-earth gal (Michelle Monaghan). That’s not to say the siblings have completely backed away from their raunchy roots. The movie earns its R rating, thanks to plenty of salty language, some acrobatic sex scenes (though why is it that in American movies, a healthy sexual appetite is always depicted as a vice or a disease to be shunned?), and one startling crotch shot. Much of it is funny (stay through the closing credits for a satisfying capper), some of it merely infantile, but the picture ends with a clever twist, and Akerman proves to be a real trouper throughout as she degrades herself in the name of modern movie comedy.
I’ve always despised the sexist and demeaning term “chick flick.” There are only good films, bad films, and the ones that fall in between, and provided the viewer isn’t a complete Neanderthal, he should be able to separate the cinematic wheat from the chaff. The Jane Austen Book Club is an example of the wheat. It’s intelligent, entertaining, emotional and amusing. It sports its share of rough passages, but those flaws derive from unfortunate shortcuts taken in the screenplay (or the source material, a novel by Karen Joy Fowler), not from the topic at hand or the fact that most of the principal players are (gasp!) women. As the title blurts out, The Jane Austen Book Club centers on a group of people, most of them already friends, who come together to discuss Austen’s literary canon. The members consist of Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the self-appointed matriarch of the club; Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who prefers the company of her dogs to any man; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose husband (Jimmy Smits) just left her for another woman (breaking screen stereotypes, he leaves her for an older, not younger, woman); Sylvia’s daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), a lesbian into extreme sports; Prudie (Emily Blunt), a French teacher unhappily married to an inattentive lump (Marc Blucas); and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who’s actually into science fiction novels but joins the group because he’s attracted to Jocelyn. Both the letter and spirit of Austen infiltrate these club members’ lives, as they not only apply the author’s words to modern living but also note similarities between the novels’ characters and their own particular sets of circumstances.
The dark may have been rising, but my eyelids were repeatedly falling as I struggled to stay awake during this interminable and exhausting film. Based on one of the books in Susan Cooper’s award-winning fantasy series, The Seeker comes across less as a faithful adaptation of a beloved story than as a cash-in-quick product meant to appease small kids who can’t abide the waits between Harry Potter or Narnia flicks. Also owing a passing nod to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Seeker concerns itself with Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig), an American kid living in a quaint British burg with his large family. Young Will learns from Deadwood’s Ian McShane and other village protectors that he’s the only person who can enter the eternal fray between “the light” and “the dark” and protect the planet from being conquered by an evil entity known as The Rider (Christopher Eccleston). This designation allows Will to draw upon his heretofore unknown abilities to travel through time, telekinetically start fires, and make a mean martini (OK, just kidding on that last one).
After his film career began floundering, action star Vin Diesel turned to the family audience with The Pacifier and ended up with a $113 million hit. Along the same lines, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson now throws himself on the mercy of the small fry and their easy-to-please parental units with The Game Plan, an innocuous mediocrity whose biggest sin is its punishing running time. Rocky stars as Joe Kingman, a narcissistic quarterback who’s blindsided when 8-year-old Peyton (Madison Pettis) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter. Livin’ la vida loca with a lavishly designed bachelor pad, a European model for a girlfriend, and a flashy sports car to complement his lifestyle of the rich and famous, Joe (whose clunky gridiron nickname is “Never Say No Joe”) learns that in order to become an effective parent he has to accept a pink tutu being placed on his bulldog, his football trophies getting BeDazzled, and his mode of transport getting downsized to a station wagon. Considering that The Game Plan holds next to no surprises for anyone who’s ever seen a movie before, a 90-minute length would have been plenty; instead, this gets mercilessly stretched out to 110 minutes.
Just as 1978 saw the release of two Vietnam War flicks that complemented each other in their portrayals of the skirmish — The Deer Hunter and Coming Home — along comes September 2007 and its entree selection of two Iraq War dramas. The Kingdom is basically a Rambo retread outfitted with a thin veneer of topical import. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) appears to be an American apologist at heart, which may explain why, after a fascinating title sequence illustrating the United States’ complicated ties to Saudi Arabia the movie quickly devolves into a standard us-against-them revenge flick. The film opens with a shocking sequence in which a base for American families in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is destroyed by terrorists, thereby prompting a group of elite FBI agents to undergo a secret mission to find the culprits once the Saudi and U.S. governments both balk at creating an international incident. Collectively, the four agents — played by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman — are devoid of much in the way of personality, but that’s OK: Their only purpose in this story is to kill Middle Easterners. Lots of them.
1/2 Writer-director Paul Haggis will forever be lambasted in many circles because his arch drama Crash unfairly shanghaied the clearly superior Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars. But those quick to write off Haggis as a pandering huckster tend to forget that he also penned the exquisite screenplays to two Clint Eastwood triumphs, Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima. It’s that Paul Haggis who shows up with In the Valley of Elah, a powerful drama that employs a murder-mystery template to initially camouflage what ultimately proves to be the picture’s true intent: Examine the repercussions of war on the psyches of the youngsters we ask (or order) to defend us in battle. Tommy Lee Jones, in a superlative performance, stars as Hank Deerfield, a retired officer trying to find out why his son went AWOL upon returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. It’s obvious from the outset that Hank won’t find his son alive, and once it’s ascertained that the boy was murdered, the morose father teams up with equally glum detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to solve the case. On its own terms, the mystery is set up and followed through in a satisfying matter, and only those expecting an elaborate Agatha Christie-style unmasking of the killer will be disappointed in this aspect of the story, which wraps up well before the actual movie does. Clearly, Haggis’ main story is about the toll that the Iraq War — and, by extension, all battles, especially those (like Iraq) created for bogus reasons — takes not only on the soldiers sent to participate in the bloodshed but also on their families and friends. For all his surface simplicity, Hank Deerfield is a complicated and conflicted individual, a conservative patriot who would never question the military but who can sense that its ideals, along with those of the country he loves, have changed since his time of service. Even more daringly (and likely to spark debates among war vets), Haggis’ film attempts to depict the manner in which the specter of war can follow a soldier back to civilization and inform every subsequent decision and action.
A sprawling, messy yet occasionally affecting adaptation of Charles Baxter’s novel, Feast of Love finds Oscar-winning director Robert Benton (whose last film was the grossly underrated The Human Stain) orchestrating a series of intertwined storylines that all push force the notion that the true meaning of life can be found in the arms of a loved one. Morgan Freeman once again plays his stock role, a gentle soul who’s smarter than everyone else around him; here, that translates into the character of a happily married and semiretired professor who notices that love — and, in some cases, lust, deception and betrayal — is all around him. In what could probably be construed as first among equals in terms of the competing storylines, he befriends a coffee shop owner whose wife (Selma Blair) leaves him for another woman and who then becomes involved with a realtor (Radha Mitchell) who can’t seem to break off her affair with a married man (Billy Burke). The Mitchell-Burke relationship is given plenty of screen time on its own; ditto the puppy-love romance between two young coffeehouse employees (Alexa Davalos and Toby Hemingway). Happiness and tragedy are doled out in equal measure — usually falling where we expect — but a fine cast and some touching moments help make the film if not exactly a feast, then at least an edible appetizer that will keep our hunger for a great movie romance at bay a while longer.
One of the central gags in Knocked Up involves the efforts of Seth Rogen and his pals to create a website that catalogues all the nude appearances made in motion pictures by actresses of all ranks. Of course, sites of this nature really do appear all over the Internet, though it’s unknown (at least by me) if a similar site exists that tackles male movie-star nudity with such dedication. If so, then Viggo Mortensen’s turn in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises will be right at the top of the site’s “Most Searches” list. In one of the climactic scenes, Mortensen’s Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, is relaxing in a steamroom when he’s attacked by two knife-wielding (and clothed) assassins. Without time to even pick up his discarded towel, he ends up fighting both assailants in the buff, and thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s camera angles, we can examine Mortensen from vantage points that even his personal doctor probably hasn’t seen (it’s astonishing that the prudes on the MPAA board gave the film an R instead of an NC-17). Some might think that Cronenberg is merely giving the ladies in the audience equal time, but on a thematic level, the skirmish makes sense: Nikolai has been living a life full of betrayal and deceit, and it’s time to strip down to his essence in order to make an attempt to reclaim his true identity. In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the last film made by Cronenberg and Mortensen: 2005’s excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary cafe owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings.
The Brave One is basically a retread of Death Wish, only with a sex change for its protagonist and, given the director (The Crying Game’s Neil Jordan) and star, a more distinguished pedigree. It also purports to add dramatic heft to the moral implications of the situation at hand, with an ad line that blares, “How Many Wrongs To Make It Right?” But the movie itself clearly doesn’t believe in its own promotion, resulting in a finished product that works as exploitation (like Death Wish) but fails at anything more socially relevant. Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, the host of a particularly dreadful-sounding NYC radio show called Street Walk. She and her fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) are blissfully happy, but everything changes after a brutal attack by street punks leaves David dead and Erica in a coma. Once Erica awakens, she’s become a different person, afraid of the city she calls home and terrified by even the thought of leaving her apartment. Mustering up her courage, she goes out and illegally buys a gun for protection. But quickly learning that happiness is a warm gun, she sets about using the weapon on anyone who threatens her, from punks on the subway to a killer in a convenience store. Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) obviously has no love for the victims, but he feels that it’s nevertheless his duty to stop this vigilante. Via a massive coincidence, he also becomes friends with Erica, little suspecting (at least at first) that she and the vigilante are the same person. Foster is rarely less than excellent, but for years now, she’s settled into making movies in which she portrays a largely desexed woman who’s all business and no pleasure (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man, etc.). Mind you, I’m not suggesting an insipid romantic comedy opposite someone like Bruce Willis, but I’m sure there’s a happy medium to be found somewhere.
3:10 to Yuma proves to be a rarity among remakes. It doesn’t slavishly copy the original, nor does it update it for modern times. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, the 1957 3:10 to Yuma retains its status as a solid Western, typical of the psychologically rooted oaters that emerged in force during that decade. In Glenn Ford’s old role, Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, a notorious outlaw who’s finally captured by the authorities and scheduled to be transferred via train to the prison in Yuma, Arizona. Dan Evans (Christian Bale in the Van Heflin part) is a rancher by nature — he’s so mild-mannered that his own wife (Gretchen Mol) and son (Logan Lerman) are often disappointed in him — but because he’s about to lose his home and cattle, he agrees to help transport Wade for $200.
Mr. Bean's Holiday**
By borrowing from Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis and silent-cinema icons like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson managed to concoct his own singularly unique comic creation in the bumbling Mr. Bean. It’s just a shame that the actor has yet to find a feature film to do his character justice. Mr. Bean’s Holiday has some amusing moments scattered throughout but they’re not enough to sustain an entire picture.
Exactly 50 years ago, Max Von Sydow was exploring philosophical issues of life and death in Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal; now, he’s shunted to the background to make room for the increasingly unfunny antics of Chris Tucker. If there’s a more depressing commentary to be made on the current state of cinema, I can’t imagine what it might be.
One of this summer’s few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the issues that made John Waters’ original film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray stars delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won’t let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream in 1960s Baltimore. And her dream is to become famous, preferably by showing off her dance moves on The Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-style program that’s a hit with the kids. Her obese mom Edna (John Travolta in drag) is afraid her daughter will get hurt, but her dad Wilbur (a warm Christopher Walken) encourages her to go for it. Impressing Corny Collins himself (X-Men’s James Marsden), not to mention the show’s reigning pinup star Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy does indeed land a coveted spot on the show, much to the disgust of Link’s girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her wicked mom Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer). Compounding the tension is that Tracy has become friends with the blacks who are allowed to perform on the program once a month (on “Negro Day”), an open-minded attitude that infuriates the racist Velma to no end. The film’s hot-topic issues are all presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. But that’s not to say the movie is insincere in its intentions, and when Tracy and “Negro Day” host Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) lead a march promoting “Integration, Not Segregation,” it’s hard not to get swept up in the emotionalism of the piece.
Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus’ first two entries — both underrated — focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe. With only one to two years separating each Potter flick, it’s been easy to spot the relative growth of Radcliffe (as well as costars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) as he sprouted from wide-eyed tyke to troubled teenager. Yet between the last film (Goblet of Fire) and this new one, it’s startling to note how the actor and the character seem to have aged multiple years, a testament to the maturity Radcliffe brings to the role.
Villainy abounds in The Order of the Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry’s every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry’s issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it’s no wonder the lad can’t keep those roiling emotions in check. In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but also as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he’s on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. Because of this slant, this emerges as the most dramatic of the five films to date.