Saturday, May 17, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Michael Clayton (2007)

My mother-in-law and father-in-law are in town this weekend to visit Kathryn, Joel and me, so last night we all (except Joel, of course...) watched Michael Clayton (2007), a recent drama starring George Clooney as the titular character, a legal "fixer;" a janitor who cleans up messes for his firm's clients. In particular, Michael Clayton is assigned to clean up a mess left by his manic-depressive associate, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), who was defending a corrupt agro-business (U-North) for marketing a pesticide that also happened to be - in Arthur's words - a "superb cancer delivery system." U-North is represented by Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton's character, an immoral attorney who eventually sends assassins after both Arthur and Michael in an attempt to silence U-North's accusers.

So - first things first - I enjoyed watching the film. But while I was watching it, I also paid close attention - for some reason - to how I was enjoying it. And suddenly, while viewing the movie, I began to realize that this was one of those films that is "good" and even "pleasurable" only in the absolutely predictable ways that it reinforces things you already believe. It moves the plot machinations in such a rote, familiar way that you feel sort of "happy" because you have to countenance nothing new or unexpected. It's like a roller coaster you've already been on a hundred times. The bumps, falls and curves are all old when you hit them, you smile...but you don't scream.

So in Michael Clayton, we are asked to understand that a big corporation, U-North is corrupt and greedy. (Didn't see that one coming did ya?). And that big, powerful law firms sometimes represent corrupt, greedy corporations for huge sums of money. (Another shocker!) And who is really surprised that Michael Clayton - a divorced, addictive personality (he's a gambler) - is going to stand-up for the little guy against his firm and the corporation? Now, I'm not belittling these points or ideals. I like to see the little guy fight City Hall and win; and I like to see evil corporations exposed. But this old chestnut is the stuff of Academy Award winning drama in 2007? This old, old, old, often-done tale of bad big business getting a comeuppance is the best of the best? All-righty then.

I'm sure it sounds as though I'm being condescending to Michael Clayton, but I'm not. It's just that I've seen this movie when it was A Civil Action and when it was Erin Brockovich. And, setting an extremely low bar here, the movie is "good" only if you're into comforting, reinforcing entertainment. I know, for myself, that there are moments indeed when films like this -- or the latest John Grisham adaptation for that matter -- go down just right. Like smooth vanilla ice cream. You know what I mean - you're not in the mood to be challenged; or even particularly active in your viewing. You just want to sit there in the cinematic bath tub and soak up the generic, nice-smelling bubbles.

At times, I felt that Michael Clayton sought to accomplish more than that, and I suppose that's why the film critic-within found something to be disappointed about at the end of the day. There's a remarkable "life synchronicity" moment that goes unexplained in the film, and I appreciated the dedicated ambiguity. This moment involves horses standing on a picturesque hillside, and the fact that the unusual image appears to Michael twice in the film. Once in the pages of an illustrated book; and the second time out his driver's side window during early morn. The fact that he sees this equestrian image saves Michael's life. But how and why this image should re-appear is unexplored. Is it God, trying to save his life? A coincidence? A synchronicity? Is Michael's son - who left Michael the book - psychic? In a film of stereotypically evil businessmen and equally stereotypically amoral lawyers, a moment as ambiguous as this one stands out as exceptional and special. It's a funny little symbolic grace note. And it has nothing explicit to do with the rest of the film.

Near the end of the movie, there's also a terrific overhead shot of two escalators moving automatically on opposite tracks, in opposite directions. On one, Michael Clayton is "going down;" and the other - abandoned - rolls up. The shot is lingered upon for a good long time, until you start to see all the possibilities, symbolic and otherwise of the staging. The set-up seems to suggest that Michael is headed one way; life in general the other. That - hero that he is - he's going against the grain; against the mechanical "business-as-usual" flow. Again, it's a better staging than the film's story probably deserves. Still...a good shot is a good shot.

I suppose it doesn't help the film either that Michael's valedictory speech and moment of anger ("I'm the guy you pay off, not the guy you kill...") is also the clip that was played most frequently when the film was being promoted. I had seen this scene in previews and reviews probably a dozen times, and since it serves as the movie's high point, it kind of falls flat in context. Watching it, I was suddenly reminded of Wayne's World and the melodramatic, false-emotional moment when the words "Oscar Clip" were flashed on the screen. That's precisely how the scene plays: an Oscar clip.

Which brings us to George Clooney. He doesn't bob his head as much here as he did circa Batman & Robin (1997) and that's a blessing. One time, just for kicks, Kathryn and I watched that Batman film on laserdisc (which I purchased for 99 cents) and counted how many times George Clooney bobbed his head. We stopped counting at over two hundred bobs. Seriously, Clooney has grown a lot as an actor and is very good here. I know he's involved in the project because his buddy, Soderbergh, is a producer, but I wonder why he couldn't see just how familiar and uninventive the movie's story is. I'm a big admirer of Clooney and Soderbergh's Solaris (which most people I know hated with a passion...), and there's more invention - more daring - in the first ten minutes of that film than there is in the entirety of Michael Clayton. That film is filled with interesting, rarely-expressed human truths (what my late mentor Johnny Byrne sometimes called the little verities) and I guess the antidote for Michael Clayton is Solaris.

Again, I had a really good time watching this movie. But my brain was on auto-pilot the whole time. How much you like this movie will depend on how you're feeling, I suppose. On a family night, it went down easy enough (but what I really wanted to watch - and couldn't - was Atonement...)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Maddrey picks up my Body Snatchers slack!

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the paucity of posts here this week. As some of you may know, we at the Lulu Show LLC are currently in pre-production on season three of The House Between - my online sci-fi drama that made a splash this winter during the new and improved second season. Anyway, we start principal photography in something like 11 days, and I'm still polishing the last three stories. Cripes!

Anyway, while I anxiously and frenetically pound out the continuing adventures of the (surviving...) denizens at the universe, my producer Joseph Maddrey (author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film), has taken up the gauntlet and continued the bloggy discussion of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise, in particular the 1978 version.

Here's a bit of Joe's insightful commentary (but read the whole piece...):

"From my perspective, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a series in 1993, with the release of Abel Ferrara's screen adaptation. It is not the kind of series that I was familiar with as a child of the 80s – a Hollywood franchise spitting out formulaic sequels. Instead, it is a constantly evolving myth along the lines of George Romero’s Dead series, where new characters and new perspectives consistently overwhelm the basic plot. But that almost wasn’t the case.

Producer Robert Solo bought the sequel rights to Don Siegel’s original film in the early 1970s, when big-budget science-fiction films and remakes of low-budget horror films were practically unheard of. His initial plan was to tell the same story with updated special effects. Luckily, writer W.D. Richter and director Philip Kaufman had other plans. They didn’t want to remake the original film; they wanted to “re-imagine” it, creating a “variation on the original theme.” Today, this distinction is a running gag – every writer, producer and director in Hollywood uses the word “re-imagination” as an excuse to make money off of someone else’s older, better ideas – but “re-imagination” is nevertheless an apt way to characterize Invasion ’78. In Kaufman’s film, the people, places, and pods have evolved just as much as the special effects… giving the already-famous story a new subtext.

Donald Sutherland fills Kevin McCarthy’s shoes as Dr. Bennell (now named Matthew instead of Miles), and he’s much closer to Finney’s original conception of the character: passionate and goofy enough to be in stark contrast with the emotionless pod people. One of the most effective scenes in the film comes when he and Elizabeth Driscoll (played by beautiful girl-next-door Brooke Adams) are having a late-night dinner; Matthew’s main goal in this scene is to make Elizabeth happy, for her sake rather than his own. When she laughs, we can’t help but love them both. Likewise, we gradually learn to love their eccentric friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec, because they’re considerate and idealistic and… well, fun. In short: The film does a masterful job of emphasizing that the struggle between these characters and the pods is a struggle between the human and dehumanizing aspects of the everyday world they live in..."

Monday, May 12, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Iron Man (2008)

A long-time booster of superhero productions (I wrote a book in 2003 called The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film & Television; soon coming out in an updated second edition...), I had nonetheless grown decidedly glum of late about the genre's future prospects.

Why? Well, just consider titles such as Blade: Trinity, Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. These were big (Marvel) franchise films scuttled by their own grandiose pretensions; films that couldn't muster much energy, intelligence or heart the third time around. Not that they were Catwoman-awful or anything, just that the perhaps-inevitable "creep" of sequel-itis had infected their DNA...making the would-be "event" films feel overstuffed, shallow and lacking in thrills, not to mention originality. Even new Marvel film franchises such as Ghost Rider seemed to be running on empty, re-telling the same "origin" story we'd seen a million times before; with all the perfunctory bells and whistles we'd come to expect in this age of big-budget "superheroes triumphant," The genuine high of the original Spider-Man (2002) or DC's brilliant Batman Begins (2005) seemed absent from all of these highly-anticipated releases, and so I pinned my dwindling hopes on this summer's The Dark Knight.

Turns out I don't have to wait that long...

Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) is a boisterous and fun-filled roller coaster ride, an intelligent yet jaunty shot in the arm for a waning genre, and more so, one of the finest superhero films ever crafted. I still count Superman: The Movie (1978) as the very best, but Iron Man rockets to the upper echelons of my "top ten" list; vaulting itself over Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and even the amazing Batman Begins.

Iron Man's screenplay by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby is a surprisingly sturdy (and witty) foundation for this franchise, but the film soars due to the inspired and electric lead performance by Robert Downey Jr., an actor I normally like, but don't love. I have enjoyed (at least intellectually...) Downey's work in films such as The Singing Detective, but I never felt the actor was really engaged with the material he was given. In other words, in some films, I felt Downey was above the material -- quirky, and out to amuse himself but not always the audience. However, this flaw is - amazingly - not at all the case in Iron Man.

With his staccato, whip-smart delivery, dynamic physical presence and deep, wounded eyes (which speak of a thousand heart-breaks), Downey totally inhabits the role of millionaire genius Tony Stark. It is an engaging performance, to say the least, and Downey's final line reading (the one that climaxes the film), is a burst of manic energy and humor so potent, so unexpected, so irrationally exuberant, you leave the theater riding a natural high. His enjoyment of the work here is positively infectious. I know the Academy doesn't consider superhero films serious business, but Downey has done the virtually impossible here: forged a multi-faceted, three dimensional character while vetting a crowd-pleasing, mainstream blockbuster. Someone nominate this guy for an Oscar. Seriously.

I realize that Iron Man/Tony is a different brand of hero from Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, but at this point in superhero film history, it's a sigh of relief to encounter a hero who isn't overtly down-in-the-mouth, taciturn and angsty. Stark has his various and sundry pains, of course, (which he buries in drink and...other vices), but he's not a constant mope. It's clear he's "turned on" by the possibilities of life (whether sexy women, sporty cars, or the chance to develop the latest body armor) and that's a distinction worth noting. I hate how these days everyone with super powers or super resources mopes around like a loser, so sad at the "burden" they bear. Bruce Wayne might be a playboy millionaire, but next to Downey's Tony Stark, he's a lugubrious poser.

In fact, Iron Man's big theme ties directly into Stark's feisty persona: it's about taking personal responsibility for one's irresponsible actions (or even a lifetime of irresponsible actions); for making good when you've done bad, or have been just plain thoughtless because you were busy screwing around. Looking at Downey (and knowing his history with drink and drug addiction), you can guess the actor understands something about that notion. But Iron Man also isn't a straight-up vigilante like Batman is these days, and nor is the film about an abstract platitude, like "with great power comes great responsibility" (courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man). On the contrary, Iron Man feels so real vibrant, so alive, so relevant, because the film's thrust is more "shit, I fucked up, now I gotta do something about it." I find that approach refreshing and more authentic to human nature than what we've seen in some recent superhero flicks. Iron Man wants to do good, but he's also having a hell of a time...

It's tempting to turn this review into a (very long) laundry list of all the things that Iron Man gets absolutely right. In terms of presentation, it deploys picture-perfect CGI to create its armor-plated heroes (and you all know how I hate CGI, but I've never seen better...). The film is truly exhilarating in the action scenes, and some of the Iron Man flight scenes are jaw dropping. Additionally, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. share great romantic chemistry and their moments together crackle with energy.

Delightfully, Iron Man isn't overstuffed with over-the-top villains either (again, see Spider-Man 3), and Jeff Bridges is impressive as the primary antagonist. There's also some great social commentary about America's role in the War on Terror world. It's not heavy-handed, it's not mindlessly dark, and it is surprisingly even-handed, not overtly liberal or conservative on its face. On this front, it champions unilateralism but - unlike our current Administration - responsible unilateralism. Tony Stark's desire to do right emerges not from ideology or politics, but from his human heart (ironic, no?) and his connection to other human beings, some of whom he has harmed through his utter thoughtlessness. Stark has grown wealthy by making and selling weapons of destruction, but he's been so busy acting the playboy he never saw the real lives those weapons destroyed. Until now. Given this set-up, Iron Man is a story of redemption.

The best superhero films are those that speak to their times in a potent way. Superman: The Movie commented on Watergate, most notably in Superman's line to Lois Lane that he would never "lie" to her. It also served as a Christ metaphor, speaking to the secular 1970s' longing for a messiah..someone to save the disco decade American citizen from such looming crises as the Energy Crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, Inflation, etc. I believe Iron Man will similarly stand the test of time, because it examines the uneasy and double-edged sword of American military and technological might in this post-911 world. In Gulmira (a town in the Middle East), Iron Man is indeed greeted like a liberator. He frees the people there from brutal warlords. But at the same time time, Iron Man's Halliburton-like company is selling WMDs to terrorists who would oppress the very same poor and the weak people of Gulmira. Iron Man ultimately decides to clean house at home, as well as internationally, but that's a step America hasn't yet taken. Instead, that internal cleansing is coming in November 2008. Whether we install Obama or McCain in the White House after the election, millionaire Darth Cheney with his unsavory connection to Big Oil, Halliburton and the craven Neo-Cons will be history. He is the corrupt, craven "stain" (the Obidiah Stane?) America must cleanse as we navigate our role in a complex world.

Going further, Iron Man suggests something interesting about the state of modern technological warfare. The flow and development of weaponry in the post-911 Age has been towards less and less direct human involvement. Today we have pilot-less flying drones dropping bombs on cities with "shock and awe." We have cruise missiles launched at cities from distant ships at sea. There's a widening disconnect between the man who controls the weapon and the decision to kill, even the kill point. But most importantly, the man who presses the button isn't up close and personal to see the victims; to judge the results of his actions. Now, these technological advancements have saved American lives - a very noble cause - but they have also made warfare infinitely easier and cleaner. And ultimately, that's a terrible thing, because war should be the last available option, right?

Iron Man comments on this trend beautifully because Tony Stark's invention - a titanium, flying mechanical suit - puts man front and center again, in control of the technology and present on the field of battle. And as soon as man is back in war face-plate to face-plate...he sees the horrors of war for what they are, and realizes it should not be engaged in lightly. Iron Man is simultaneously pro-American and anti-war, and it identifies two potent enemies of our age: those dictators who would oppress the weak (Middle Eastern here...), and those bastards in big-business, in the military-industrial complex, who would profit by selling destructive weapons to those self-same dictators.

Of late, even the best superhero movies have veered off track in the third and final act. Even the laudable Batman Begins turns to a confusing mess in its busy, loud, overlong climax. Iron Man avoids this pitfall, and with Downey as the master of ceremonies in this particular circus, that means the film is a wild, enjoyable ride from start to finish. Iron Man never missteps and so - when Downey memorably utters his final, giddy line and the end credits roll, you feel jazzed and inspired instead of beaten down. Iron Man is a great superhero film, a great time at the movies, and one hell of a summer ride.