Monday, February 25, 2008

Michael Clayton (2007)

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Despite having a remarkably unoriginal title, Michael Clayton succeeds due to a sharply written script, perfect casting, and strong performances from lead roles. Clayton is the directorial debut for Tony Gilroy, the writer behind all three films of the Bourne series, and stars George Clooney as an attorney who doesn't do typical "attorney" work, but works more as a fixer or legal handyman. Clooney has become synonymous with conspiracy films and this is no different, as the twisted inner-workings of the legal system are deeply explored. Clayton is responsible for pulling together the life of a manic depressant lawyer, Arthur Edens, played excellently by Tom Wilkinson, who has come off his medication and "seen the light" in terms of the case he had been working on for over five years. Tilda Swinton co-stars as Karen Crowder, one of the head-honchos for agricultural company U-North, who is trying to reach a settlement through the attorney Edens with those claiming they obtained cancer through U-North products. When Edens goes bananas, however, Swinton goes to all lengths legal and otherwise to maintain the integrity of her company and the settlement that is days from being completed. The dialogue that ensues is masterfully written and pieced together by Gilroy, as the pace of the film is quick, yet deliberate enough to envelop the viewer in the schemes being put in place by both sides of the story. Clooney fills the role of the down on his luck character who is smarter than everyone thinks he is just as well as he did in Syriana, and Swinton and Wilkinson are a double-dose of hysteria and conniving to balance the coolness of Clooney. Michael Clayton isn't anything that has never been seen before, in fact it plays like an homage to 1970s thriller/dramas that were well constructed and performed. In a genre full of average or worse entries, Clayton has a well-defined plot, doesn't over stay its welcome, and builds to an intense climax. The final scene, like most of Clayton, also isn't anything revolutionary. Unlike Clooney's last thriller, Syriana, which was too confusing for a vast majority of the audience, the plot of Michael Clayton is deep and clear. Because Gilroy built a plot in which every character's decisions, no matter how extreme, are made for a reason the viewer is shown and understands, the conclusion has much greater impact, and the case involved seems like something that could actually happen, and likely has happened. Hopefully Gilroy and Clooney will unite again in the future to continue to elevate the state of the conspiracy thriller genre and shed light on other shady dealings.

Good For: conspiracy-movie fans, Clooney fans, people who like legal movies

Bad For: those who are bored easily

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Persepolis (2007)

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Persepolis is one of the most original, fresh movies of the year; a film that makes you feel like you have seen something unlike anything you have previously watched or thought of. The animated film, presented in French and with subtitles, is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi and was adapted for the screen and directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Satrapi's self-narrated story begins as a little girl being raised by progressive parents in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s and the fallout that occurred afterwards in the 1980s. Her account of the events involving both her family and country reveals that a girl raised in an overtly tyrannical country isn't that different from an American or anyone else growing up in the same time period. The film's best character, Marji's grandmother, provides the story's funniest humor and most lasting relevance as she lends advice to Marji and tells stories and parables. The independent spirit imparted on her by her grandmother lead to some of the films greatest scenes, such as teenage Marji negotiating a deal to buy a new Iron Maiden album on the streets of Iran and subsequently rocking out to it. Due to the increasing conflict and violence, Marji's parents send her to France for high school, and these years illuminate even more of the world's harsh realities such as prejudice and isolation. As Marji becomes a woman we see her cope with issues such as finding an identity in society and starting and ending relationships. The film is fast-moving while covering many years and many events and is proportionally amusing and moving. What makes Persepolis so brilliant, however, is the style of animation used to present the story. The black and white, nontraditional, sometimes abstract illustrations and over-the-top flashes and and cut-ins create an environment that is not only entertaining but universal in that no preconceived notions will influence the audience in any of the scenes. Whereas real actors and film may have isolated particular audiences, the drawings provide a means to portray very specific situations very few have experienced in a way that everyone can relate to. The voice-over work is nothing extraordinary and the soundtrack is fairly generic, but the story in this case is so incredibly strong that it carries the entire film on its shoulders into film history. The script and presentation of the script is legendary, so imaginative, refreshing, and thoroughly enjoyable that it is one of the best coming-of-age stories in some time. Equal parts a reflection on history and the lessons learned by fire in life, Persepolis unites the audience and drives home the point that in such a large world, the differences between us aren't that vast, and everyone has the same common pursuit of love, freedom, and happiness.

Good For: all movie fans, people interested in history, fans of foreign films

Bad For: people who cannot read subtitles, mean people

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * * *

The Hoax (2007)

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The Hoax is one of a very small group of movies that have very little depth or resonance but is a must-see simply for being a non-stop roller-coaster of entertainment. Based on a book and true story, The Hoax is the story of Clifford Irving, a down-on-his-luck writer who fabricated a mountain of lies to reach the top of the journalism industry in 1971. Irving is portrayed by Richard Gere, who turns in a surprisingly well-rounded performance. Irving is funny, charming, clever, creative, selfish, weak, greedy, devious, sly, obviously a bit crazy, and tremendously fun to watch. His writing partner, Dick Suskind, is played by Alfred Molina, one of the better character-actors in the business. Their friendship and partnership are constantly at edge as the high-stakes of their scheme weigh heavy on their personal lives. The Hoax, like other true stories, attains most of its drawing power from the amazement that something as unlikely and unfathomable as the events that take place actually did occur. To watch Irving and Suskind time and again hang on the fringe of failure and revelation but weasel their way forward in their quest for fame and fortune is enthralling. The supporting cast has no stand-out performances but is strong and creates an appropriate landscape of reality and reason against which the absurd events take place. Lasse Hallstrom, best known for directing the cult-classic What's Eating Gilbert Grape, stylistically presents the events in a fast-paced manner that keeps the audience guessing and at the edge of their seats, and creates the 70s environment of living to excess with a good soundtrack and real film clips. Although it could be said that The Hoax brings light to the inherent greed of both individuals (Irving) to go to such great ends to reach prosperity and of the corporate world (publishers) to be fooled so easily time and again in an effort to make a dollar, the film is much more of a thrill-ride than an expose'. It seems that only in America could something like the Hoax take place, where lies upon lies upon lies somehow begin to blur the scope of reality until something brings the truth into focus. The truth about this film, though, is that it is far from classic cinema, but will appeal to almost all audiences.

Good For: fans of conspiracy films, fans of "based on true stories" movies

Bad For: people who get frustrated with twisting storylines

The Savages (2007)

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Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two of the finest actors in Hollywood, and the pairing of the two seems like a great match, but even their subtle, nuanced performances cannot make the drudge of a script very memorable. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, The Savages is the story of a brother and sister brought together to care for their aging, ailing father who is rounding the last lap of life. The film is billed as a dark comedy/drama that takes an honest look at the dynamics of family. The Savages clearly approaches the family unit from a unique perspective, that of the baby-boomer generation coping with the role-switch from care-receiver to caretaker within their own family, but the story and script offer very few laughs and plenty of awkward sadness and pity. Hoffman and Linney, as Wendy and Jon Savage, both create distinct characters that come across as very real people the audience can identify with. Many will be able to relate to the older brother, younger sister relationship and all of the disappointment, tension, cooperation, competition, and ultimately love, that it involves. The most memorable performance is likely by Philip Bosco, who portrays the Savage father, Lenny Savage. Bosco embodies the infinite spectrum of mindsets that accompany dementia and the gradual loss of one's mind and self and reminds us all too well of someone we may have in our lives. But unfortunately, the performances alone cannot carry the film as the direction and writing don't pull the viewer into the storyline or leave a lasting impression. The most memorable scene occurs in the film's first five minutes and involves the use of bodily fluids. The Savages will appeal to those who can directly relate to the characters and the circumstances, but those looking for laughs may find that the wait is pretty long and may not have been worth it.

Good For: psychologists, people who like family dramas, people who like sad films

Bad For: fans of dark comedies, Wes Anderson fans, the easily bored