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Monthly Archives: October 2007

Despite being one of the most beloved and bankable actors in Hollywood, the films George Clooney has appeared in over the last few years generally have had two things in common: limited box office success, and Steven Soderbergh. With the exception of Ocean’s Thirteen, the average domestic gross of the three films he has been in since 2005 is about $27 million. Good Night, and Good Luck, his directorial effort, received lavish praise; Syriana gave him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; and I am the only one who loved The Good German, let alone one of the few who saw it. As for the other commonality, the last film without Steven Soderbergh’s name on it was the 2003 Coen Brothers’ debacle, Intolerable Cruelty. It appears now, that the most recent film headlined by Clooney, Michael Clayton, will be no exception to the rule.

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who penned The Cutting Edge and Bait (or the Bourne movies, if you prefer), Clayton is being hailed as a gripping legal thriller with some great performances and sharp dialogue. Though, going in, I had heard that the film would require my full attention in order to have the experience that many audiences were enjoying, at the end of the film, after a few minutes of processing, I realized that the film did not deserve the attention it demanded, especially since I learned that I was not even capable of keeping up with it.

The go-to scapegoat for all things confusing with a movie is the screenplay, and, while I certainly think it is at fault in this case, there is more to the story. In an effort to prove my positive approach to film criticism, I shall offer a potential solution to fix this movie, much as Clooney’s titular character plays legal janitor in the film. If Tony Gilroy had been willing to allow someone else to take the directorial reins, I am convinced that the outcome would be preferable to the current product. With a script as convoluted, I mean complex, as his, the restraint of another set of eyes in control could have tidied it up quite a bit.

As is, Clayton the film is much like Clayton the character – intriguing, elusive, but unidentifiable and ambiguous. Clooney is at his best, but Tom Wilkinson turns in the worst, most outrageous performance of his career as the attorney who sabotages the case of U/North, the corporation filing a class action suit led by Clayton’s firm. Now it may be said, in fact, that this movie actually has too much going for it. Michael Clayton could potentially be one of the most exciting and unique characters put on film in the last year, but we never get beyond the surface of the man. The script has the swift dialogue of Gilroy’s other efforts (except The Cutting Edge), and the acting, as I’ve said, is mostly exceptional.

Since all these potentially promising elements, in the end, add up to nothing more than a forgettable afternoon at the movies, it is with great surprise that I cannot recommend a film with Steven Soderbergh’s name on it. C+

Existentialism is not dead. So screams David Cronenberg’s latest gruesome, gory, grisly flick. If there’s one thing that must be said about the divisive director, he really does know what he’s doing. You don’t have to like his movies (and I suspect that most women don’t), and you don’t really even have to respect the technical aspect of his filmmaking. No matter what, he lets you know that you’re in good hands. And once you take hold of that fact, its a bloody good ride.

Eastern Promises can easily be considered his follow-up (or even companion piece) to 2005’s A History of Violence. In many ways, it’s the prequel some of us have been longing for ever since we fell in love with Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of every-man Tom Stall. Promises reteams the duo, joining a cast of some of the most talented and unique actors working today, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel among them. I’ve championed Cassel ever since I had to make every excuse possible to explain my love for Ocean’s Twelve, and Watts was one of the best things about King Kong, besides being charmingly beautiful.

The film begins in a similar way to Violence, with none of the major players appearing on screen, but instead with a pair of scenes that end with blood emanating right off the screen and onto our popcorn. Ew? Surprisingly, not really. Cronenberg really knows how to handle violence in a way that is more haunting than disgusting. In fact, the film is credits to credits with these images, those that are emotionally destructive and evocatively frightening. Of course this is not due to any sort of manipulation or cheap Rothesque torture porn (no, Eli, you don’t deserve the -esque treatment, but it flowed oh so nicely). Rather, it is because each one is emotionally gripping and affecting.

The plot, for a Russian mob flick, is simple and alternative enough. Midwife Anna (Watts) becomes invested in the baby of a young (we’re talking fourteen) woman who died in delivery, while uncovering evidence against a notorious crime family in the late mother’s diary. Nikolai (Mortensen) is their driver, and he begins to climb the ranks and surpass Kirill (Cassel), who is tied to the business by blood. There are a few mafia cliches (the family owns a restaurant), but Cronenberg embraces the history of the genre, and puts his own twisted spin on it.

Many are quick to criticize the unusual pace to his films, but I prefer to delight in it. Everyone needs a chance to breathe (and get a refill on that contaminated popcorn), and Cronenberg allows his audience that with an admirable trust in them. By the end of the sickening, horrifying, disgusting, utterly delightful Eastern Promises, Cronenberg leaves us wanting more story in the realm of the mob, whether Russian or American. Yeah, that’s right, those Italians are way overrated. A-

The music industry is a tough business, especially if you possess no talent, marketing knowledge, or financial background. It is easy to forget that there are many struggling musicians out there, when all most people here is the latest from Kanye or Shakira. Of course, this assuming you’ve never watched an audition episode of American Idol. Interestingly enough, much of Great World of Sound plays out just like one of those addicting episodes where one can watch people who think they’re really talented be injected with a small dose of reality courtesy of Simon Cowell. 



The film, directed by Craig Zobel (who has done some brilliant work for Homestarrunner.com), follows Martin, played by a perfectly cast Pat Healy, and Clarence (Gene Holliday), as they begin jobs for the titular music production company. The duo’s naiveté in the first week or two of employment is exceptionally amusing to watch, and the mockumentary style masterminded by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) amplifies the comedic impact. The interracial banter of Martin and Clarence is reminiscent of that on Psych and Scrubs, but it never steals gags directly from either of those shows, another remarkable feat. 



Just about every joke attempted is successful to some degree, and there are some moments that made me laugh out loud, even though, in some cases, it was at the expense of characters who didn’t see anything humorous in their actions. It is in these cases that Zobel is really able to craft sympathetic musicians who honestly believe, just like the many that line up to audition for American Idol, that they have a shot. However, many of these artists are just too much alike. They all come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, and the only thing really unique about each one is the type of performance they are trying to sell. Countless times we are tortured by the dilemma of whether or not the possibility of maybe selling a record or two is worth the up-front investment. Regardless, in these more serious portions of the film, it never becomes melodramatic or sappy.



Now I can’t say that this film really compares with any of Guest’s efforts or the comedic genius of The Office, but, fortunately, it doesn’t really try to. Instead, Zobel has a clear and well-defined agenda – to expose the corruption of small producers like this one. It’s fine, no big deal; the film isn’t too bogged down by this message. However, it is in Martin’s scenes at home that Zobel really loses touch with the originality of his film. Each line delivered Rebecca Mader, playing Martin’s wife Pam, is airy and cliché. Zobel has nothing new to offer here; instead he provides a subplot to an otherwise captivating story that is uninteresting and distracting.



So, in the end, any comedic brilliance is curtailed by some disingenuous B-plotting and lack of ambition. Still, one must consider the central purpose of a comedy, which is too obvious to even subject to writing, but should stay in the back of the mind of anyone who sits down to watch a film with like aspirations. If such a film succeeds in this matter, then it is truly worth commending. However, preventing me from doing so in this case is the image that rest in the back of mind since about half way through Great World of Sound – Craig Zobel is sitting on his couch one night, large bowl of ice cream in hand, tuning in to the much overrated American Idol, and decides “Hey, everybody seems to love this show. And what is the best part of the show, Craig? The audition episodes, of course. How silly of you to ask. Here’s a thought: why don’t I turn this into a movie, craft some one-note characters, put them in a somewhat familiar environment, and let them play Paula Abdul for a while?” Genius. B-