Saturday, February 23, 2008

Turok! Apparently once a video game. Out this coming Tuesday, the 26th. (****4/10)

I just received a DVD called Turok: Son Of Stone from Alliance Films. I watched it with my step-son, who is 13 and has played these "Turok" video games in the past. I was not even aware that the video game existed, but he insisted that it was gory and bloody and that the main character in the video game was a caveman who fought dinosaurs and such. In the video game, you were equipped (he tells me) with circular saw blades that return to you like boomerangs, grenade launchers and heat seeking missiles, machine guns, and so forth. In this new cartoon from Alliance Films, Turok appears to be aboriginal. This is indicated by the teepees in the village, the feathers on the heads of the characters, and the tomahawks they use to kill each other. Which is fine at first. The main problem here is that every single character in the movie - the bad guys, the good guys, the women - all look exactly the same. This led my step-son to call me a racist. Which I thought was a hilariously perceptive remark. But they do! The only distinction one can make between people is men and women. And only then because the men are all gigantic steroid cases and the women look normal. As far as facial features go - no difference.

So, Turok is a warrior for his tribe, who kills some enemies to save the woman he loves. In his blinding fury and bloodlust, he also attacks and almost kills his own brother. He is banished from his tribe, where he lives for twenty years alone, apparently just two miles away, but in a barren wasteland where he kills and eats deer. And works out. Because when he returns, he is massive in a way even Schwarzennegger never could have been in real life. The woman he loved has now married Turok's brother, who is the chief of the tribe now. They have a son, who is now twenty or so. The rival tribe, the one who was the "enemy" twenty years earlier, attacks this noble group and slaughters them - using guns! Turok's tribe is stunned, having never seen guns before. What ARE these instruments of death? So with just this woman and her son left alive, Turok returns from exile to avenge his brother. Which leads to more flexing and steroid use. And these battles are definitely bloody. For a cartoon, there is a massive amount of blood, arms severed, heads chopped off. There is even a scene where a giant bird creature bites the head off a horse. But I'll get to that later.

So far so good. I figure the year is about 1650, and guns are relatively new to this part of the world. They are still the rifle musket type, which appeared many years later, about 1800. But that is a minor detail, and everything else makes sense. Until he pulls out an automatic pistol. Then the dinosaurs and cavemen show up. Now I really have no idea what year it is, and I have no interest in putting a date on the movie. More warriors show up, having clearly also subsisted on a diet, lo these many years, of steroidosaurus. I understand that people in this era, whatever it may be, would be in shape. They have to walk and run a lot, and hunting can't be easy. But I find it hard to believe they would look like this. There was no HGH and no Nautilus around. And yet, ever since the days of He-Man, this has been the way lazy animators choose to show how tough someone is. The bigger their muscles, the tougher they are. Fine. It is kind of funny. Also funny is the tyrannosaurus-like creature (it IS a T-Rex, only with horns and bug eyes). It attacks all the people, when it is fifty times the size of their horses. This bugs me in movies a lot. Why do these massive creatures chase the three little humans that are central to the story when there are other gigantic dinosaurs and horses around? As I said while watching, if I had to choose between chasing three peas around my plate, and having a steak delivered to me, I think I know where I'm going. Straight to the steak.

Then there is the giant bird (we figure a Moa of some sort) that bites the head off a horse. At least it went for the biggest, tastiest thing first. Then there are tons of familiar dinosaurs - dimetrodon, plesiosaurus, brontosaurus, and others. But they just exist in passing, like part of a nature show. The creatures that actually attack our heroes have never existed. Anyway, it all boils down to more and more preposterous situations, and bloodier and bloodier battles, until finally the bad guy is dead and the good guy rides a Tyrannosaurus with the eyes of a house fly into battle and lives, and the woman is alive and the boy is alive, and everyone lives happily ever after, quickly forgetting the three thousand fellow tribesmen they have lost in a fight over an axe. Oh yeah, this whole evil-guy good-guy battle is over an axe.

At any rate, my step-son assures me that this movie was very much unlike the video game, in that there were no giant saw blades and ridiculous weapons. I think he liked it enough anyway, it was full of blood and fighting and monsters. But I figure why not be true to the original game? If you are going to have guns of all kinds and dinosaurs of all kinds and American natives and also cavemen, how much more implausible would it have been with saw blades and machine guns and grenade launchers? Come on, Turok. Go all out here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Elizabeth: The Boring Age. (*****5/10)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a sequel to Elizabeth, which was a very good movie from 1998 that netted Cate Blanchett her first Oscar nomination. I suppose Oscar feels as though they ought to nominate her again, if her first performance in the same role was Academy-Award-worthy, then so too must this one be, right? Wrong. Not that Blanchett is bad. But last year, Helen Mirren was exquisite in her role as this very same queen, Elizabeth the First. And Mirren showed exactly what that role should be. She defined it. And one of the main reasons is - and much as I hate it when actresses do this - they uglied her up. If history tells us anything through pictures about Queen Elizabeth I, it is that she was fairly ugly. Mirren put on a fake nose and made herself look less attractive than she actually is. Charlize Theron did the same for Monster, and that was OK too. They were both playing real people. Real, ugly, people. Cate Blanchett is not ugly. She is, in fact, striking and beautiful. That this is historically inaccurate is insignificant. But if she were to look like Helen Mirren did, it would add a certain weight to the role that is just not present here.

Oh sure, she's good. In fact, she's great, and has been in every movie in which she has appeared in her illustrious career. But deserving of an Oscar nod she is not. Aside from the occasional mood swing and enraged outburst, little is required of Blanchett here except to have a pale face and appear queenly. The movie itself is not that good either. The first one was a breath of fresh air, it looked like something fairly new when I saw it back in the 90s. But now this sequel feels like just another period piece, like Becoming Jane which was also just released, and countless others. "Period piece" basically means people dress up in old-timey clothes and talk old-timey talk and do stuff that must have happened in old-timey times. Some are magnificent, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is not. There is of course, the prerequisite love story, this one between Blanchett and Clive Owen, who plays the famous adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. Owen is decent in that role as well, bringing charm and old-timey manliness to the role, and Geoffrey Rush is terrific as always in his supporting role, that of Sir Francis Walsingham. But the whole movie feels a little forced.

And when it finally ends, and there is a bit of action, it feels tacked on, and too-little-too-late. The rest of the film had just plain bored me by then, and I didn't care what happened to our heroes. Elizabeth: The Golden Age does what a period piece should do - have great costumes and convey the feel of that time period. But it does little else. And so does Cate Blanchett.

I have been attempting to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible in the week leading up to the Big Event, but I have managed only to see those that are on DVD. And I have seen everything that is on DVD so far that is up for an award. Which means I have still missed out on dozens of films. I have seen all the Best Actor movies except for the likely winner, There Will Be Blood. I have seen only two of the Best Picture nominees, No Country For Old Men and Michael Clayton. In point of fact, the only categories where I have seen all five nominees are Sound Editing, where one of them is Transformers, and makeup, where one of them is Norbit. And I have seen only three of the Best Actress nominees. So far, I am rooting for Julie Christie to win Best Actress for Away From Her, simply because it's slightly better than Marion Cotillard's job in La Vie En Rose. But really, I am hoping for Anyone But Cate Blanchett This Year. She will certainly win others in her career, since she has that Meryl Streep thing going for her - she will be nominated for every movie she does for the rest of time - and she may well win Best Supporting for I'm Not There (another film that I regret to say I have yet to see), but she does not deserve it for this one. At least there's a category for Costume Design. Oh, the prestige!

Speaking of costume design, and by extension period pieces, here is a brief list of the ten best period pieces ever made (and by brief, I mean ten items long):

10. The Piano (1993)
9. Raise The Red Lantern (1991)
8. Once Upon A Time in America (1984)
7. The Seventh Seal (1957)
6. Rashomon (1951)
5. The Duellists (1977)
4. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)
3. Once Upon A Time In China (1991)
2. The Untouchables (1987)
1. The Seven Samurai (1954)

Hmm...two Robert DeNiro, two Harvey Keitel, two Toshiro Mifune. Maybe I need to diversify my taste some. But anyone who insists that Titanic should be on that list should be kicked in the leg.

There actually was good TV once! The Fugitive, Season One Volume Two. Out this coming Tuesday. (********8/10)

I have requested a few TV DVDs from Paramount, because I know very little about TV before I was born. I could name actors, directors, screenwriters and cinematographers on movies from before when my father was born, but as far as TV goes, I barely know a single thing before 1995. So when Doc talks about the TV shows of his youth, I am usually in the dark. So to that end, I ordered The Love Boat Season One Volume One and The Fugitive Season One Volume Two. Now, I have yet to get to The Love Boat, mostly because Doc has told me how terrible it was and I need to steel myself for the viewing experience. Or, break it out some night when a bunch of us have beer in us and are in the mood for something truly awful. But I watched the first episode of The Fugitive, and I was hooked. Each episode of this old 60s TV show is like a mini - B-film noir from the same era. And I love the B-movie film noir of the 60s. Not only that, but the acting and the stories are actually good!

David Janssen stars as The Fugitive, a role we now associate almost exclusively with Harrison Ford. Janssen was, like Harrison Ford I guess, handsome in his time. I figured that out because in several episodes, women fall for his charms without hearing him speak. And Janssen barely speaks in any of these episodes. He's like the Clint Eastwood western prototype hero, the one whose actions speak louder than his words and who needs very little dialogue to make himself understood. Of course, he also likes to keep a low profile, so it's understandable that he would speak little, in order to not be noticed. Of course, he is on the run from the law because he is convicted of murder, a crime for which he is not guilty. We all know about the one-armed man who killed his wife, and the subsequent escape during a train derailment. Mostly, again, because of the Harrison Ford movie. Janssen was a serviceable actor, and the guests on each episode are quite good as well.

Some major stars appear here, including (I am positive it's him, although he was unbilled and I can't find anything about it on Google) Jason Robards, who later did a wonderful star turn in the brilliant film Once Upon A Time In The West, and then received three Oscar nominations. (Winning for his supporting role in All The President's Men.) So the basic premise of the show is that Richard Kimble wanders around the land, staying one step ahead of the law, helping people and getting into adventures. Like Kane in Kung-Fu. Or like MacGyver. Or the A-Team. Or any number of other shows about peripatetic drifters who are somehow just better than other men. However, The Fugitive stands apart from all these other shows on the strength of it's writing. Every show is different. They don't all involve damsels in distress, often the guy you think is innocent turns out to be guilty, and the outcome is not always satisfactory. Unlike Kane, there are guys who may well be able to beat Kimble up. Unlike MacGyver, Kimble will use a gun when he has to. Unlike the A-Team, when guns fire bullets, they often hit people. Some of the episodes of The Fugitive are throw-away episodes, like bad Roy Rogers moments, but most of them are excellent.

Only now, after a long and painful run of sit-coms and Melrose Places and A-Teams, are shows actually becoming dark and well-written again. Thanks to The Sopranos, we now get shows like Dexter and The Wire and Californication, all of which are smart and interesting and, definitely, dark. Apparently those shows existed before, and one of them was The Fugitive. Paramount releases Season One, Volume Two this coming Tuesday.

Idiocy...theirs or mine? (Ow My Balls)

There is an underrated movie out on DVD right now called Idiocracy. It stars Luke Wilson, and suggests that the world in general is getting dumber and dumber. That the stupidest of people tend to be the ones who breed the most, and that over many many years, the world will be absolutely dumb. Wilson wakes up from a coma in this idiotic future, and is the smartest man alive. The people in this future world water their crops with Gatorade and watch a TV program called "Ow My Balls". It's basically America's Funniest Home Videos, with all that cute pet stuff cut out and just the shots to the junk left in. Watching the film, it's not too far-fetched an idea. We, the human race, may just be getting dumber and dumber. And I am not helping. I should clearly know by now how things turn out. I should know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no matter what Doc is thinking of doing, it could well turn out quite badly for me.

So we're talking about corporate retreats and the hilarious goings-on that take place at such events. Like where our sales department goes out to some cabin in the woods and in the middle of the drinking and gambling, find time to give each other awards and collaborate in sewing a trust quilt. Or, such is my understanding. I believe they also learn an interprretive "trust dance" that they perform for the camp counsellors at the end of the retreat. So I thought this was all it was going to be, and when Doc asked me if I trusted him, I figured he was going to do one of those obnoxious things like having me fall backward and he catches me, and we would all have a good laugh at the inanity of such a thing. But no, he wanted me to lie on my back with a golf tee holding a golf ball in my mouth, so he could hit that golf ball with his 5-wood. And I should have known then that it was not a good idea, but I felt that Doc would be able to hit the ball clean from the tee, and I would be in no real danger.

But he had not brought a tee. Which led to him trying to set the ball directly on my face, which was not going to work. I made sure it kept falling off, because at that point, I was not letting anyone hit a ball directly off my face. But before I knew it, the ball was placed quickly onto my crotch, and before I even knew what was happening, he was taking his swing. Now, to Doc's credit, he choked up and gave a half swing, and picked the ball fairly cleanly off the front of my trousers. However, even a clean shot from such a lie is bound to create at the very least a small divot, and so there was. It was a glancing blow, but even at that, as many of you guys well know, a glancing blow can be just as painful if not more painful as a direct hit. And so it was. Well, in the end the pain faded fairly quickly, and I am none the worse for wear at the moment. But it does cause me to question my sanity a little. All well and good when we're discussing Gene Simmons and his lackluster performance in his newly released sex tape, but when the boys start running around with drunken-frat-boy ideas first thing in the morning, my job is as strange as they come.

Hey! Dog lovers!

These are pictures of my dog, Muffin. Up until this point, we have been calling her a toy poodle. That is what we were led to believe. I still have no reason to call her something else. But my girlfriend came home yesterday and announced she was something else. Something called a Bijon. I don't even know if I am spelling that right. But apparently she saw a picture in a book of some kind that looked exactly like Muffin here, and the caption said "bijon". Whatever that is. So now I am calling her a toy poodle, and Jen is calling her a bijon. Anyone know for sure? Wow, I didn't lay this post out too well. But I can't fix it for some reason.

I AM BEOWULF! YOU HAD BETTER BE ENTERTAINED! (Paramount) Out this coming Tuesday. (*****5/10)

I am giving Beowulf the benefit of the doubt here. It is a movie that relies mainly on visuals, and the only TV I have where I can actually see the picture and hear the full sound is in the shop. I guess when I bought it, it had a faulty screen, and the warranty does indeed cover it. I sent it into this shop a week and a half ago. I called them yesterday to find out when I could have it back, and they said they thought perhaps, with some good luck, they might just have the parts they need to fix it within a month. Good thing I have that Blu-Ray player and pay for those HD cable channels. So, I had to watch Beowulf on a TV with a shaky, tiny screen and only one channel of sound. Which means that I will give the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume that the visuals ARE amazing and that the sound is impressive. Hey - anyone who has seen this film - can you tell me something? Angelina Jolie comes out of the water naked in the middle of the film, right? And she is all metallic or something, and there is no definition and no nipples. But at the end when she comes out of the water, there are nipples. Right? I couldn't really tell.

But the animation seems strange to me. This movie is done sort of like 300, where it is live action actors which then have animation done over them. This worked with A Scanner Darkly, because it was constantly obvious. Right now, I'm not terribly certain why these movies are doing this. At least in 300, you forget the technique about halfway through the film. And then you just let the mindless entertainment wash over you. With Beowulf, it seems to come and go. Sometimes the actors look like real-life actors, and other times they look like computer animations from a kids' movie. Which is bizarre. It also means that those computer-generated characters walk like the characters in Shrek. Shouldn't they walk like, well, real people? Because they ARE real people? Again, I will assume that I thought this simply because of the lousy TV. Although I doubt it.

There are some cool scenes in the film, and it is fairly easy to make some decent entertainment out of the story. Not, of course, by following the original classic story line, but simply by pitting a mythic hero, Beowulf, against an indestructible monster, Grendel. After that, I guess people assume they can just do whatever they like. Much like 300, this involves a lot of yelling and flexing. The giant Grendel shows up first, and rips people apart in a Dansih banquet hall. As far as monsters go, he is more reminiscent of The Elephant Man or that kid in Mask than he is of any truly frightening creature. We watch him slink back to his lair to be comforted by his mother after his rampages, and I guess we're supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for him? I guess. Then Beowulf shows up. For about half an hour after his arrival, I was expecting the punchline. I mean, this guy couldn't possibly be for real, or played straight. He kicks open every door, flexes, screams "Beowulf!" at people...he's like that kid on your high school football team who has permanently screwed up his brain with steroids, and can't control the volume of his own voice, and the only word he really has command over is his own name. So he yells his own name over and over to get pumped up for that big football game. Then gets ejected for fighting on the first play. Don't do 'roids, kids. I've actually known this guy. He is now in prison.

Beowulf decides that since Grendel is unarmed and has no armour, that in order to make things fair, he will have to face him completely naked. This leads to an incredibly comical series of camera shots that cover up his wang with various objects, a la Austin Powers. I really don't think it is meant to be funny. I think it is meant to suggest that Beowulf is hung like a telephone pole. The objects obscuring his junk are a sword, a spear, a mace...anything mean-looking and long. God, I hope it was done for comedic effect. Otherwise, it was the dumbest thing in the whole movie. So the woman looks at his wang and almost faints, he lies down naked among his men while they drink and carouse, and he waits for the monster. Then defeats Grendel, rather easily, while still being naked and still having those crotch-obscuring shots. Which makes the fight rather implausible. Grendel could possibly have won the fight had he not spent so much time putting his arms and legs in the right places so we can't see Ray Winstone's computer-generated penis. Poor Grendel. And I'm still waiting for the punchline.

Then we have naked Angelina Jolie. Only, she's a cartoon. A very obvious cartoon. And there are no nipples or any kind of definition whatsoever, because that allowed Beowulf to keep it's PG-13 rating. You see, in movies such as this one, all kinds of blood and gore are OK, because it is basically a cartoon. (In Kill Bill, Tarantino changed some scenes to black-and-white, and others to anime cartoons, so that the film would still be R-rated and not NC-17.) So you can show Grendel ripping guys in half, drinking their blood, chewing off their heads, and it is still PG-13. However, if you put nipples into the mix, this film would have been slapped with an R. So Angelina Jolie looks like the T-1000 from Terminator 2. Well, in it's metal form, not it's Robert Patrick form. Completely smooth, with no features at all, except for her face, which is a cartoon, and therefore not nearly as hot as she ought to be. And that's the scene everyone seemed to be raving about.

There are many scenes that made me laugh out loud because they really did look like a set-up to a punchline. Ray Winstone's Beowulf is a character begging to be mocked, yelling his own name at anyone who will listen, bragging about himself at every turn - this is the guy who, in any other movie, would be exposed for the fraud he is, and would receive his comeuppance. But in this movie, it just means he's that much more heroic. If this was all it took to be a hero, Terrell Owens would be Superman. TERRELL! And while his performance is consistently laughable, so too is the monster Grendel. He rips a body in half, and then he cries, he drinks some blood and then covers his ears because the shrieks drive him nuts...apparently he was "played" in the film by Crispin Glover, but he's just a giant computer-generated freak, and as such could have been "played" by me, my grandmother, a six-year-old, or Terrell Owens. And during the final, climactic battle scene, there is a dragon incinerating the world. It gets to the Danish castle where Beowulf's wife and young concubine are hiding, for some reason, on a bridge. When the dragon appears, it pops it's head up over the bridge in the same manner one would use to attempt to scare one's younger sister by thrusting a sock puppet up from behind the couch upon which she's asleep. Boo! It then tilts it's head comically for some reason, before burning up the place with it's fire-breath.

And John Malkovich is there too, apparently to provide some kind of human face to evil. He is set up, through the whole movie, as the dastardly back-room dealer who will usurp the king and take power himself through some kind of unscrupulous deed. But then he and Beowulf have a very laughable confrontation, he admits Beowulf's superiority, and they bond. But we're still given the feeling that this show of good faith is insidious and devious on Malkovich's part, that he doesn't mean a word of it. And then...he just keeps showing up through the movie, and nothing happens. He still looks and talks evil, and in this cartoon world of characters that must obviously mean he IS evil...but he stops doing stuff. Maybe his talk with Beowulf convinced him? Or maybe the film crew forgot he was evil. My money is on the latter. Based on what I saw, Beowulf gets 3 stars out of ten. but I'm giving it an extra two assuming that it would be far more visually brilliant were I to have my good TV back. If I could truly believe that the intention of Robert Zemeckis and his people was to make us laugh, that the intent of the movie was satirical, it would get 7 stars. Which means it's campy enough for the bad-movie fans out there to really enjoy it.

In The Valley of Elah - Out now. (********8/10)

In The Valley of Elah did poorly at the box office. It turns out people just don't want to be challenged these days. This is why movies like "Meet The Spartans" debut at #1. I was almost ready to write a review of Meet The Spartans, sight unseen, simply to convince people to avoid it. The same guys who made Epic Movie and Date Movie, which were two incredibly bad films, were clearly going to make one just as bad. And I felt that people going to see this film at all would just encourage them to make more. And so next year we will likely get Pirates Of The Beowulf or some such garbage. But even had I done so, it would not have mattered much. People would still have gone out to Meet The Spartans in droves, and the dumbest two percent of those people would have recommended it glowingly to their friends. "They have a pit! Like the one in 300. Like, EXACTLY the SAME. And they kick Britney Spears into it! I have never laughed so hard in my life! Except for the time I took that IQ test and got a result lower than 'celery"". Meet The Spartans earned 18.7 million dollars in it's first weekend at the box office, narrowly beating Rambo for top spot. In The Valley Of Elah made 1.5 million dollars on opening weekend, and left theatres having earned 6.7 million overall.

I don't know why I'm mentioning Meet The Spartans and In The Valley Of Elah in the same sentence. I think it's merely a method of illustrating the general idiocy and apathy of movie audiences today. Because people do not want to be challenged. They don't want to think at the movies. And they certainly don't want a movie that will make them think once they have left the theatre. That's like bringing your work home with you! Imagine going to that movie with your wife, and then in the car on the way home, she wants to TALK about it! That certainly seems like more effort than it's worth, doesn't it? And, I'm sorry to say, for all you movie-watchers, that In The Valley Of Elah will spark discussion, and make you think, and might just lead to other topics of discussion as well. Topics like...Iraq. How this war is different. This war is not World War II. It is not even Vietnam. This is something that we haven't seen before, and in this film we see that perfectly through the eyes of Tommy Lee Jones, who has deservedly earned a Best Actor nomination for this Sunday's Oscars.

Jones plays the father of a missing boy. His son returned from the war in Iraq, and then disappeared completely. And Jones goes after him with the single-minded determination of a war veteran. A vet himself, Jones is that uber-American army guy who, after his many years of service, is still completely invested in the army. Not that he still works with them and does army-related things, but he is emotionally invested. He believes strongly in the bonds that connect soldiers, in the military code of discipline and in the army. Which means he believes the war in Iraq is important, that it is American and that it is just another proving ground for young men who love their country and are bringing democracy and peace to a backward nation. But his search for his son challenges those beliefs, and he will not be the same man when the search is over. In The Valley of Elah was in the top 200 movies at the box-office in 2007. It was in the top 100 R-rated movies. (Although I really don't know why this was rated R. We don't see that much of the blood and gore that is insinuated throughout the film.) And it had the 233rd biggest opening weekend of the year. But it is one of the 20 best movies made in 2007.

Charlize Theron co-stars as a police officer who aids Jones in his quest for his sone, and provides one of the few problems I have with the movie. We know who Charlize Theron is. We have seen her in dozens of movies where we are fully aware that she is one of the hottest women alive. And yet, in this movie as in others, she seems to be intentionally dialing down her looks. She is just not that hot here. And we have to think to ourselves - we know how gorgeous this woman is. Why wouldn't she want to look good? Sure she's a police officer, but would she, as a police officer, go out of her way to look as plain as possible? Well, maybe. Susan Sarandon shows up in what turns out to be a bit part as Jones' wife and the boy's mother. And a stellar cast make up the military unit with whom the boy was serving. In The Valley of Elah is a terrific achievement. It's slow, it's deliberate, and it's very political. It will challenge your assumptions - even if you are already against the war in Iraq, there are still other questions posed by the movie that will make you think. This may be the most accurate representation of soldiers in Iraq yet put on film in a feature film. It should really be seen. By everyone. Let's at the very least make it a success on DVD!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Michael Clayton! Rent this now. (**********10/10)

I have noticed many movie reviewers, when talking about Michael Clayton (and many other movies, of course), like to compare it to other movies. This can make it fairly easy to write a review. So I will attempt it now. Of course, this movie is magnificent. George Clooney is sensational as Michael Clayton, a "janitor" for a major law firm, a man who cleans things up before they get out of hand, whenever they may be screwed up. When a lawyer at that firm loses his mind, Clayton is sent in to clean up the mess. Sidney Pollack shows up in the film, as an actor this time, playing the head of that law firm, and he is good. Tilda Swinton is the litigator in charge of that firm's biggest client, a company called uNorth. She is absolutely perfect as a detail-obsessed corporate functionary, as a suit-wearing battleaxe who is, deep down, insecure and in WAY over her head. And Tom Wilkinson gives a wonderful performance as the lawyer who has a breakdown in court and removes all his clothes in the middle of a deposition. Oh wait. I'm supposed to compare Michael Clayton with other movies. So, now that I've outlined the basic plot, here are some comparisons:

Michael Clayton is a lot like Erin Brokovich in that it involves a class-action lawsuit made by hundreds of "little people" against a major firm that poisoned their land. It is lacking two major things, however, things that made Erin Brokovich such a success. Those would be, namely, boob left and boob right on Julia Roberts' wonderful chest. Erin Brokovich was a good movie, and Michael Clayton has no boobs. And yet, Michael Clayton is much, much better than Erin Brokovich.

Michael Clayton is a lot like Network, in that a man finally understands the world, and his place in it, and that knowledge drives him over the edge. He goes crazy, has a very public breakdown with hilarious results, and ends up fighting the good fight. In Network, that character was played by Peter Finch, who was terrific. And in Michael Clayton, that character is played by Tom Wilkinson, who is also amazing. Both characters meet a fairly similar end, for fairly similar reasons. Network, however, was about television news, and Michael Clayton is about massive corporate law firms. And Michael Clayton is better than Network.

Michael Clayton is a lot like The Firm, in that it involves a massive law firm, evil corrupt business types, and a plot to get one particular lawyer who can bring down that firm. And both movies involved Sidney Pollack in some way. He directed The Firm. And he stars as the director of the firm in Michael Clayton! However, The Firm had two things Michael Clayton does not. Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. I would take Gene Hackman in any movie. But I would choose George Clooney over Tom Cruise any day. And Michael Clayton is much, much better than The Firm.

Michael Clayton is a lot like The Verdict, in that the central character is a lawyer who must confront his personal demons in order to fight the good fight and defeat the odds. In The Verdict, that lawyer was played by Paul Newman. It was perhaps the finest performance (outside Cool Hand Luke) of Newman's career. I would take Paul Newman over George Clooney. But Michael Clayton is still better than The Verdict.

Michael Clayton is a lot like No Country For Old Men. Both are films that are critically acclaimed, and both were released to theatres in 2007. They were both released to DVD in 2008, and both are nominated in the Best Picture and Best Director categories at this year's Oscars. No Country For Old Men has a best supporting nomination, for Javier Bardem. And Michael Clayton has one for Tilda Swinton. And Clooney is nominated for best actor. Both films deserve all these awards. They are both unbelievable achievements. But Michael Clayton will not win best picture or best director. Because No Country For Old Men is better than Michael Clayton.

OK, Michael Clayton is not better than Network. I just threw that in because it fit with my comparison scheme. But Michael Clayton is a genius movie. There are two scenes in particular that are especially effective. One is in an alley where Clooney happens upon Wilkinson, the old friend he has been trying to reign in for the whole movie. The scene makes their relationship completely clear in a few short words, and also shines a light on Wilkinson's "madness". Perhaps he has not lost control of all his faculties, after all. And the second is a scene where Tilda Swinton is primping herself in front of a mirror, adjusting her buisness suit so it is just right. She does a fantastic job conveying both her obsessive nature and the fact that she really is completely lost in this world. She is in over her head, and you can read that in her face as she prepares herself to come off as confidant when she must address the board of uNorth. Both scenes are unbelievable moments in a staggeringly good movie. Michael Clayton would have been the best movie of the year in seven of the last ten years. However, this year, it just happened to be going up against the greatest movie of the millenium, No Country For Old Men. I suggest watching both.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some revisionist Oscars.

It was recently pointed out to me that until Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor trophy for his turn in Silence of the Lambs, no actor had ever won that award portraying an evil guy. For the most part, not even an unpleasant one. They had all been Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous types. (Perhaps only Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest broke the rule.) Since Hannibal Lecter, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn have both managed to make Oscar gold out of fairly despicable characters. But, I thought - this is a travesty! There must be some injustice in Oscar history! And it turns out, there is. Here is my revisionist take, awarding Oscars to some reprehensible characters:

1931: Winner - Frederich March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Should have been - Peter Lorre (M). Of course, March played at least half a bad guy. But Peter Lorre played a character that was through-and-through evil, a child molester and murderer. That is still highly controversial material today (think The Woodsman). And in 1931, Lorre gave the performance of his life (which would have been the performance of ANYONE's career) in this film. The final scene, where he is dragged into the basement of an apartment building by an angry mob and put on trial, is one of the most anguished scenes in movie history. Despicable, but somehow human, Peter Lorre's child killer in M is one of the greatest performances of all time.

1949: Winner - Broderick Crawford (All The King's Men). Should have been - James Cagney (White Heat). Not to knock Crawford's performance, and in point of fact he was a bit of a reprehensible character by the end of that film. But Cagney in White Heat was the definition of gangster. Terrifying, insane, tough as nails but tormented and vulnerable, with an unhealthy and bizarre relationship with his mother. Cagney made a career out of playing such characters, starting with the brilliant The Public Enemy. But it wasn't until he portrayed George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a feel-good yay-America film, that he managed to get his Oscar. He deserved it far more for this one. Made it ma! Top of the world!

1958: Winner - David Niven (Separate Tables). Should have been - Orson Wells (Touch of Evil). Wells should also, of course, have won in 1941 for playing that Charles Foster Kane guy. (That one went to Gary Cooper for Sergeant York.) But in 1958, Niven gave a performance that was decent at best, and Wells was absolutely electrifying as a corrupt cop in Touch of Evil. Come to think of it, his role in The Third Man should have won him an Oscar as well, except that it came in 1949, so he also lost to Crawford. And my money's still on Cagney.

1960: Winner - Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry). Should have been - Anthony Perkins (Psycho). Come on! This is one of the biggest no-brainers out there, isn't it? Has there ever been a scarier bad guy than Perkins? Psycho is considered by some to be the greatest movie ever made, and by most to be Hitchcock's finest film. (I happen to disagree - I like Vertigo.) And Norman Bates was certainly the most enduring character in movie history until Lecter showed up. (James Bond doesn't count - he was in a series of films.) Anthony Perkins deserved this award as much as anyone has deserved a Best Actor statue ever.

1968: Winner - Cliff Robertson (Charly). Should have been - Henry Fonda (Once Upon A Time In The West). Henry Fonda's portrayal of "Frank" in Sergio Leone's brilliant spaghetti western was the best bad-guy performance until the 1970s. This was also the best western Leone ever made. Yes, even better than The Good The Bad And The Ugly. If only Clint Eastwood had signed up for this one instead of Charles Bronson. Fonda's Frank was cold, violent, sadistic and terrifying. This was just about the only time in his career Fonda played a bad guy, and it's too bad. This was his best performance ever, and he would have made an excellent bad guy in dozens of other movies. (This was also Charles Bronson's best movie. Well, until Death Wish Three.)

1971: Winner - Gene Hackman (The French Connection). Should have been - Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange). No disrespect to Hackman. I love that man, and The French Connection was as good as it got for him. However, this particular year, there WAS a better actor out there, and it was McDowell. No one embodied the ol' ultraviolence quite like McDowell, nobody since has been able to be quite as creepy while eating hospital food, and his performance in this film is embodied with such a sense of evil and charisma that I would not be surprised if Anthony Hopkins studied McDowell a bit to come up with Hannibal Lecter.

1983: Winner - Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies). Should have been - Al Pacino (Scarface). Duvall is a great actor, but he had better roles then this one in what has proved to be a forgettable flim. No, this year the award should have gone to his Godfather co-star, as Pacino was brilliant in Scarface. I am not one of those Scarface fanatics who believe that all movies revolve around this one and that nothing is cooler than having that Pacino shooting everything poster up in your dorm room, but his performance in this film was as good as anything he'd ever done.

Just a few thoughts there. Jack Nicholson in The Shining was fantastic in 1980, but DeNiro was much better in Raging Bull. John Wayne deserved an Oscar for his role in The Searchers, but Alec Guinness was doing his Bride On The River Kwai thing that year. And Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo came up against Laurence Olivier in Hamlet in 1948. So there are some others, but I have singled out what I believe to be the greatest injustices done to actors by Oscar, simply because they were not playing the hero role. Then again, were it up to me, James Cagney would have fourteen Oscars in his career, Christopher Walken would have seven, and I would nominate John Malkovich every year just because. Be thankful I don't have a vote. Yet.

Scarin' by one...

Every morning when I come home from work at 9:30, the first thing I do is take off my pants. The second thing I do is make some lunch. And the third thing I do after eating that lunch is slip outside for a smoke. Well, traffic was backed up this morning thanks to the snow. That meant I got home at 10:00, rather than 9:30. Which meant that I ate at 10:15 rather than 9:45. Which meant I went out for my smoke at 10:30, rather than 10:00. When I do go out for this smoke, I don't bother putting pants on. I just open my garage door and sit on the steps. But this morning, my routine was a little bit off. Every morning, a gathering takes place on my driveway. Two babysitters and their young charges congregate in my driveway to wait for the school bus at the same time every day. And today, because I was half an hour later than usual, I opened the garage door to find five very small children staring, mouths agape, directly into the garage as I walked outside with my beer and my smoke and my underwear on. I shut the door quickly. Looks like I'm not smoking today. Kids are good for your health.

New releases today. Tuesday February 19th.

American Gangster: Denzel Washington in one of his finest moments. The 2-disc edition out today is a must-rent. And a should-buy. The second disc adds 18 minutes to an already long movie, but it sure doesn't feel that long when you're watching something this kick-ass, and it's 18 minutes of More Awesome.

In The Valley of Elah: Tommy Lee Jones' Oscar-nominated performance. And he was sublime in No Country For Old Men, so he must be even better in this one. Logically, that is. Assuming the Academy who votes makes sense. Big assumption. But a highly anticipated film nonetheless.

Michael Clayton: Richard Roeper's Number One movie of the year, and a serious contender for Best Picture at the Oscars. I will be renting this one right away. George Clooney hasn't missed lately when doing his own thing.

Rendition: Everyone should watch this movie. Basically the Meher Arar story, it's a fantastic look at the American method of destroying due process in their zeal in the "war on terror".

Lust, Caution: Ang Lee's World War II Chinese resistance film is beautiful to look at, filthy with hardcore graphic sex, and interesting. But way too long.

Redacted: An Iraq war movie starring nobody interesting but directed by Brian DePalma. So it could be good. But his last movie was The Black Dahlia, and that was awful.

Margot at the Wedding: Nicole Kidman is icy and mean. And she plays that in this movie as well. Smart, well-written, but kind of bleak and irritating at the same time. Jack Black is fantastic. This is the best kind of role for him.

Poor Boy's Game: Looks interesting, if one can judge from trailers. A white kid who almost beat a black kid to death gets out of jail, and the black kid's father (Danny Glover) is looking for revenge. But when they meet each other, they end up forming a strange kind of bond. Which all sounds good and interesting, but the big payoff is a brutal boxing death-match, Thunderdome style. Well, if I believe the trailers. Who knows.

Catacombs: This DVD is packaged with Resident Evil: Extinction on Amazon. That indicates to me that it may well be a pile of crap. It stars Pink. That seals the deal. I am assuming this will be crap.

Walker: Texas Ranger Season 4: Well, if you really need your fix of Chuck Norris...wait. This show ran for four seasons?

Chaos: Jason Statham, Ryan Phillippe and a tax-evading Wesley Snipes? This has the makings of high-octane, thrill-ride brainless pile of mush. Or maybe not.

He-Man and The Masters Of The Universe Volume One: Ah, the classics. Isn't Masters Of The Universe reaching a little high? Wouldn't Masters Of Stittsville be more within reach? Anyway, there's nothing like some good old fashioned animated flexing.

It's The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown: Did the Peanuts cartoon ever exist except to mark Valentine's Day, Christmas, Hallowe'en, President's Day, and Easter? Among other landmark holidays?

Pierrot Le Fou: Yes, yes, yes, yes yes! Buy this. Today. I can say with certainty that American Gangster and Michael Clayton and Rendition are not going to be the best movies released today. This one is. Criterion Collection is releasing one of the best movies ever made - Jean-Luc Godard's masterpiece, Pierrot Le Fou. 1965, incredibly stylish and satirical, this one is a must-have for any serious film buff.

Also out:

Dragonball Z Season 4
Curious George Goes To the Doctor And Lends A Helping Hand
WC Fields Signature collection

And - Run Lola Run on Blu-Ray. Now is the time to get a Blu-Ray player, since the battle is basically over. Blu-Ray has beaten HD DVD, and you may as well get on the next big thing. It is likely that Blu-Ray will make traditional DVDs obsolete within a few years now, and although the selection of Blu-Ray stuff is now what I would call suspect, this one will be worthwhile. A fantastic, extremely visually appealing film starring the amazing Franke Potente.

Monday, February 18, 2008

My latest movie pet peeve.

I'm watching Death Wish 3 right now. It just started, so I am going to have to PVR it to make sure I can get my fix of Charlie Bronson goodness first thing in the morning. And something in the movie bothered me. I have seen it many times before, but for the first time it was this particular thing that irked me. No, it was not the fact that Charlie was on his way to visit his friend at the old folks' home just as that friend was being murdered by punks. It's always punks. It was not the fact that those punks committed a heinous home invasion in broad daylight in an apartment-style old age home and no one seemed to notice. And it was not the fact that once good ol' Charlie decided to exact his brand of vigilante justice, he found said old folks' home stacked with gigantic automatic weapons and rocket launchers. And it was not the fact that the bad guys were so easily identifiable by their face paint. Because nothing says evil bad-ass punks who need to be wiped off the face of the Earth quite like face paint. That is why you see them hanging around the balloon animal tent at the fair right before they go off to commit their latest random murder.

No, it was the fact that Charlie Bronson didn't pay for his cab. He gave the driver an extra 20 bucks to get him around an accident illegally, but did not pay him at the end of the ride. He just got out of the cab, looked up at the run-down old folks' home wistfully (unaware that his old army buddy was lying dead inside) and walked in. The cabbie didn't even seem perturbed. He merely drove away, thinking "well, at least Paul Kersey didn't kill me". And this happens in a lot of films. Apparently, doing normal, courteous things like paying for your cab takes up precious screen time, screen time that could be spent (at least in this "film") firing rocket-propelled grenades at face-painted punks with reverse mohawks. It seems very rare that cab drivers get their money or their due in films. And when they actually get screen time, they are the most obnoxious people ever. Think...Rush Hour 3. Or Taxi. (One exception is Collateral, where the cab driver is actually the star of the movie, he is smart and cool, and he gets his money.) Perhaps this is why Larry O'Brien considers them second-class citizens.

No one in movies ever thanks a coffee shop employee for a coffee either, or acknowledges service of any kind. One exception to this rule is the door man. If the star of the movie is in a hotel with a door man, he will always engage in brief banter with said door man on the way in and out. This lets us know that the hero is a good guy, and will converse with even the lowest of the peons he comes across. Also, his solid standing with that door man will come in handy at the end of the film, when the hero needs to find out who has been in and out of the building. OK, I'm done with my sour grapes. Now I need to go back to Death Wish 3. Charlie Bronson is about to discover the cache of automatic weapons stashed in the old age home, and I don't want to miss that bazooka shot.

Somehow, commercials seem dumber at 3 a.m.

I just saw some fantastic commercials. It turns out that should I purchase a particular product, I will no longer need to ruin my sleep by getting out of bed to turn off light switches. And, no longer will I need to stumble around in the dark like a gomer, fumbling for a light switch without knowing where it is. Because although I have hit that same light switch every night for three years, who knows if I can find it at all when it's dark? Now I can turn on the lamps or turn them off with a remote control from my own bed! What a fantastic invention! This will save me so much worry and time. Also, I saw a commercial for baby milk formula. Babies can drink this stuff. It's great. At the bottom of the screen there was a cigarette-like warning from doctors. Breast milk is better. Ask a doctor. Are they really regulating baby formula now? Not allowed to advertise that without giving all the facts, I suppose. Now I'm just waiting for one of those Got Milk? ads that come with a similar warning. Wouldn't that commercial with rapping farmers and tricked-out tractors be much better with a little scrolling warning at the bottom? Breast milk is better. Ask a farmer.