You’ll shed a tear or two—especially if you’re a parent—and they’ll be totally earned.
A report from the Venice Film Festival on three world premieres.
A guide to the best Blu-rays and DVDs you can give this holiday season.
An interview with Vince Vaughn about acting in Mel Gibson's new film, the WWII drama "Hacksaw Ridge."
A review of the latest directorial project by Mel Gibson, straight from its Venice premiere.
A report on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's 2016 Grants Banquet.
Scout Tafoya's series continues with a double feature of films by Peyton Reed.
A review of the new season of "True Detective," starring Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch.
A look at "Chappie: The Art of the Movie".
Saturday night is party night at the Toronto International Film Festival, when all the celebs and journalists float from soiree to soiree promoting or being promoted at.
Marie writes: I've been watching a lot of old movies lately, dissatisfied in general with the poverty of imagination currently on display at local cinemas. As anyone can blow something up with CGI - it takes no skill whatsoever and imo, is the default mode of every hack working in Hollywood these days. Whereas making a funny political satire in the United States about a Russian submarine running aground on a sandbank near a small island town off the coast of New England in 1966 during the height of the Cold War - and having local townsfolk help them escape in the end via a convoy of small boats, thereby protecting them from US Navy planes until they're safely out to sea? Now that's creative and in a wonderfully subversive way....
The evolution of Superman's cape; the de-evolution of women's roles in film and TV; joke plagiarist sort-of apologizes for stealing from Patton Oswalt & other pros; David Cronenberg does race cars; Vince Vaughn, salesman; fans bring their Game of Thrones grief into therapy; astounding animated short made entirely from 3-D paper models.
Marie writes: the great Ray Harryhausen, the monster innovator and Visual Effects legend, passed away Tuesday May 7, 2013 in London at the age of 92. As accolades come pouring in from fans young and old, and obituaries honor his achievements, I thought club members would enjoy remembering what Harry did best.
Marie writes: As some of you may have heard, a fireball lit up the skies over Russia on February 15, 2013 when a meteoroid entered Earth's atmosphere. Around the same time, I was outside with my spiffy new digital camera - the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS. And albeit small, it's got a built-in 20x zoom lens. I was actually able to photograph the surface of the moon!
(click to enlarge)
Marie writes: The ever intrepid Sandy Khan shared the following item with the Newsletter and for which I am extremely glad, as it's awesome..."Earlier this year, the Guggenheim Museum put online 65 modern art books, giving you free access to books introducing the work of Alexander Calder, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, Gustav Klimt & Egon Schiele, and Kandinsky. Now, just a few short months later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has launched MetPublications, a portal that will "eventually offer access to nearly all books, Bulletins, and Journals" published by the Met since 1870."
Marie writes: Not everything is what is seems...(Click images to enlarge.)
Marie writes: Recently, a fellow artist and friend sent me the following photos featuring amazing glass mosaics. She didn't know who the artists were however - and which set me off on a journey to find out! I confess, the stairs currently continue to thwart me and thus remain a mystery, but I did uncover who created the "glass bottle doorway" and was surprised to learn both its location and the inspiration behind it. (click image.)
Marie writes: Intrepid club member Sandy Kahn discovered the following Danish designers "Monstrum" who make extraordinary playgrounds for children. I think they're the stuff of dreams, whatever your age. Indeed; behold the Rahbek kindergarten in Frederiksberg, Denmark, and Monstrum's first playground...
The Rocket and The Princess Tower! "Just like a set design, a playground must have an inspiring front that attracts children, and a functional backside with climbing, sliding and relaxing options. The idea of the playground is to combine a girl's mind with a boy's approach into one big common playground. The princess tower consists of three floors, and the rocket has two floors. From the top floor of the Rocket, you can slide down the 6 m long double slide together with an astronaut friend." (click to enlarge.)
Marie writes: I can't prove it but I'm convinced they're related.
Gathered here in one convenient place are my recent reviews that awarded films Two Stars or less. These are, generally speaking to be avoided. Sometimes I hear from readers who confess they are in the mood to watch a really bad movie. If you're sincere, be sure to know what you're getting: A really bad movie. Movies that are "so bad they're good" should generally get two and a half stars. Two stars can be borderline. And Pauline Kael once wrote, "The movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we shouldn't go at all."
"Just Go With It" (PG-13, 116 minutes). This film's story began as a French farce, became the Broadway hit "Cactus Flower," was made into a 1969 film and now arrives gasping for breath in a witless retread with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston and Brooklyn Decker. The characters are so stupid it doesn't seem nice to laugh at them. One star.
"Sanctum" (R, 109 minutes). A terrifying adventure shown in an incompetent way. Scuba-diving cave explorers enter a vast system in New Guinea and are stranded. But this rich story opportunity is lost because of incoherent editing, poor 3D technique, and the effect of 3D dimming in the already dark an murky caves. A "James Cameron Production," yes, but certainly not a "James Cameron Film." One and a half stars
"I Am Number Four" (PG-13, 110 minutes). Nine aliens from the planet Mogador travel across the galaxy to take refuge on earth and rip off elements of the Twilight and Harry Potter movies, and combine them with senseless scenes of lethal Quidditch-like combat. Alex Pettyfer stars as Number Four, who feels hormonal about the pretty Sarah (Dianna Agron), although whether he is the brooding teenage Edward Cullen he seems to be or a weird alien life form I am not sure. Inane setup followed by endless and perplexing action. One and a half stars
"Certifiably Jonathan" (Unrated, 80 minutes). Jonathan Winters deserves better than this. Jim Pasternak's mockumentary is not merely a bad film, but a waste of an opportunity. Nearing 80, Winters is still active and funny, and deserves a real doc, not this messy failed attempt at satirizing--what? Documentaries themselves? Lame scenes involving an art show, a theft and the "Museum of Modern Art" fit awkwardly with cameos of too many other comics, who except for the funny Robin Williams seem to be attending a testimonial. One star.
"The Green Hornet" (PG-13, 108 minutes) An almost unendurable demonstration of a movie with nothing to be about. Although it follows the rough storyline of previous versions of the title, it neglects the construction of a plot engine to pull us through. There are pointless dialogue scenes going nowhere much too slowly, and then pointless action scenes going everywhere much too quickly. One star.
"The Nutcracker in 3D" (PG, 107 minutes) A train wreck of a movie, beginning with the idiotic idea of combining the Tchaikovsky classic with a fantasy conflict that seems inspired by the Holocaust. After little Mary (Elle Fanning) discovers her toy nutcracker can talk, he reveals himself as a captive prince and spirits her off to a land where fascist storm troopers are snatching toys from the hands of children and burning them to blot out the sun. I'm not making this up. Appalling. And forget about the 3D, which is the dingiest and dimmest I've seen. One star
"I Spit on Your Grave" (Unrated; for adults only. Running time: 108 minutes) Despicable remake of the despicable 1978 film "I Spit On Your Grave." This one is more offensive, because it lingers lovingly and at greater length on realistic verbal, psychological and physical violence against the woman, and then reduces her "revenge" to cartoonish horror-flick impossibilities. Oh, and a mentally disabled boy is forced against his will to perform a rape. Zero stars.
"Life As We Know It" (PG-13, 113 minutes). When their best friends are killed in a crash, Holly and Messer (Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel) are appointed as joint custodians of their one-year-old, Sophie. Also, they have to move into Sophie's mansion. But Holly and Messer can't stand one another. So what happens when they start trying to raise Sophie. You'll never guess in a million years. Or maybe you will. One and a half stars
"Hatchet II" (Unrated, 85 minutes). A gory homage to slasher films, which means it has its tongue in its cheek until the tongue is ripped out and the victims of a swamp man are sliced, diced, slashed, disemboweled, chainsawed and otherwise inconvenienced. One and a half stars
"The Last Airbender" (PG, 103 minutes). An agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. Originally in 2D, retrofitted in fake 3D that makes this picture the dimmest I've seen in years. Bad casting, wooden dialogue, lousy special effects, incomprehensible plot, and boring, boring, boring. One-half of one star.
"The A-Team" (PG-13, 121 minutes). an incomprehensible mess with the 1980s TV show embedded within. at over two hours of Queasy-Cam anarchy it's punishment. Same team, same types, same traits, new actors: Liam Neeson, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, "Rampage" Jackson, Patrick Wilson. One and a half stars
"Sex & the City 2" (R, 146 minutes). Comedy about flyweight bubbleheads living in a world where their defining quality is consuming things. They gobble food, fashion, houses, husbands, children, and vitamins. Plot centers on marital discord between Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mr. Big (Chris Noth), a purring, narcissistic, velvety idiot? Later, the girls are menaced for immodest dress during a luxurious freebie in Abu Dhabi. Appalling. Sure to be enjoyed by SATC fans. One star
"The Good Heart" (R, 98 minutes). Oh. My. God. A story sopping wet with cornball sentimentalism, wrapped up in absurd melodrama, and telling a Rags to Riches story with an ending that is truly shameless. That fine actor Brian Cox and that good actor Paul Dano and that angelic actress Isild Le Besco cast themselves on the sinking vessel of this story and go down with the ship. One and a half stars.
"Kick-Ass" (R, 117 minutes). An 11-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), her father (Nicolas Cage) and a high school kid (Aaron Johnson) try to become superheroes to fight an evil ganglord. There's deadly carnage dished out by the child, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. A comic book satire, they say. Sad, I say. One star
"Nightmare on Elm Street" (R, 95 minutes). Teenagers are introduced, enjoy brief moments of happiness, are haunted by nightmares, and then slashed to death by Freddy. So what? One star
"The Bounty Hunter" (PG-13, 110 minutes). An inconsequential formula comedy and a waste of the talents of Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. He's a bounty hunter, she's skipped bail on a traffic charge, they were once married, and that's the end of the movie's original ideas. We've seen earlier versions of every single scene to the point of catatonia. Rating: One and a half stars.
"Cop Out" (R, 110 minutes). An outstandingly bad cop movie, starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as partners who get suspended (of course) and then try to redeem themselves by overthrowing a drug operation while searching for the valuable baseball card Willis wants to sell to pay for his daughter's wedding. Morgan plays an unreasonable amount of time dressed as a cell phone, considering there is nothing to prevent him from taking it off. Kevin Smith, who directed, has had many, many better days. One and a half stars.
"The Lovely Bones" (PG-13). A deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they realize what a wonderful person you were. Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings") believes special effects can replace genuine emotion, and tricks up Alive Sebold's well-regarded novel with gimcrack New Age fantasies. With, however, affective performances by Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci and Saoirse Ronan as the victim. One star.
"The Spy Next Door" (PG, 92 minutes). Jackie Chan is a Chinese-CIA double agent babysitting girl friend's three kids as Russian mobsters attack. Uh, huh. Precisely what you'd expect from a PG-rated Jackie Chan comedy. If that's what you're looking for, you won't be disappointed. It's not what I was looking for. One and a half stars.
"Old Dogs" (PG, 88 minutes). Stupefying dimwitted. John Travolta's and Robin Williams' agents weren't perceptive enough to smell the screenplay in its advanced state of decomposition. Seems to have lingered in post-production while editors struggled desperately to inject laugh cues.Careens uneasily between fantasy and idiocy, the impenetrable and the crashingly ham-handed. Example: Rita Wilson gets her hand slammed by a car trunk, and the sound track breaks into "Big Girls Don't Cry." When hey get their hands slammed in car trunks, they do. One star. View the trailer.
"Did You Hear About the Morgans?" (PG-13, 103 minutes). Feuding couple from Manhattan (Hugh Grant and Jessica Sarah Parker) are forced to flee town under Witness Protection Program, find themselves Fish Out of Water in Strange New World, meet Colorful Characters, survive Slapstick Adventures, end up Together at the End. The only part of that formula that still works is The End. With supporting roles for Sam Elliott and Wilford Brimley, sporting the two most famous mustaches in the movies. One and a half stars.
"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (PG-13, 130 minutes). The characters in this movie should be arrested for loitering with intent to moan. The sequel to "Twilight" (2008) is preoccupied with remember that film and setting up the third one. Sitting through this experience is like driving a tractor in low gear though a sullen sea of Brylcreem. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson return in their original roles, she dewy and masochistic, he sullen and menacing. Ah, teenage romance! One star
"The Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day" . (R, 21 minutes) Idiotic ode to macho horseshite (to employ an ancient Irish word). Distinguished by superb cinematography. The first film in 10 years from Troy Duffy, whose "Boondock Saints" (1999) has become a cult fetish. Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus are Irish brothers who return to Boston for revenge and murder countless enemies in an incomprehensible story involving heavy metal cranked up to 12 and lots of boozing, smoking, swearing and looking fierce and sweaty. One star. View the trailer.
"Gentlemen Broncos". (PG-13, 107 minutes) Michael Angarano plays Benjamin Purvis, a wannabe sci-fi Doctor Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). Alas. the great man rips off the kid's book, just when get kid has sold the miniscule filming rights. All sorts of promising material from Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite"), but it's a clutter of jumbled continuity that doesn't add up, despite the presence of Jennifer Coolidge. Two stars. View the trailer.
"The Fourth Kind". (PG-13, 98 minutes). Nome, Alaska (pop. 3,750) has so many disappearances and/or alien abductions that the FBI has investigated there 20 times more than in Anchorage. So it's claimed by this pseudo-doc that goes to inane lengths to appear factual. Milla Jovovich is good as a psychologist whose clients complain that owls stare at them in the middle of the night. One and a half stars. View the trailer.
21 and a Wakeup . (R, 123 minutes). A disjointed, overlong and unconvincing string of anecdotes centering around the personnel of an Army combat hospital in Vietnam. Amy Acker plays an idealistic nurse who is constantly reprimanded by absurdly hostile officer (Faye Dunaway). Plays like a series of unlikely anecdotes trundled onstage without much relationship to one another. One episode involves an unauthorized trip into Cambodia by a nurse and a civilian journalist; it underwhelms. One and a half stars. Visit the website.
"Cirque de Freak: The Vampire's Assistant". (PG-13, 108 minutes) This movie includes good Vampires, evil Vampanese, a Wolf-Man, a Bearded Lady, a Monkey Girl with a long tail, a Snake Boy, a dwarf with a four-foot forehead and a spider the size of your shoe, and they're all boring as hell. They're in a traveling side show that comes to town and lures two insipid high school kids (Josh Hutcherson and Chris Massoglia) into a war between enemy vampire factions. Unbearable. With Joh C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Patrick Fugit, and other wasted talents. One star. View the trailer.
"Couples Retreat" (PG-13, 107 minutes). Four troubled couples make a week's retreat to an island paradise where they hope to be healed, which indeed happens, according to ages-old sitcom formulas. This material was old when it was new. The jolly ending is agonizing in its step-by-step obligatory plotting. I didn't care for any of the characters, and that's about how much they seemed to care for one another. Starring Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis and Kali Hawk. Two stars. View the trailer.
"Fame.". (PG, 90 minutes). A pale retread of the 1980 classic, lacking the power and emotion of the original. A group of hopeful kids enroll in the New York City School of the Performing Arts and struggle through four years to find themselves. Their back stories are shallow, many seem too old and confident, the plot doesn't engage them, and although individual performers like Naturi Naughton sparkle as a classical pianist who wants to sing hip hop, the film is too superficial to make them convincing. Two stars. View the trailer.
"All About Steve". (PG-13, 87 minutes ) Sandra Bullock plays Mary Horowitz, a crossword puzzle constructor who on a blind date falls insanely in love with Steve, a TV news cameraman (Bradley Cooper, from "The Hangover"). The operative word is "insanely." The movie is billed as a comedy but more resembles a perplexing public display of irrational behavior. Seeing her run around as a basket case makes you appreciate Lucille Ball, who could play a dizzy dame and make you like her. One and a half stars. View the trailer.
@jeeemerson god. Pretty soon we won't be able to tell a knock knock joke, for fear of hurting a doors feelings. STFU
That's an offended tweeter's response to my previous post, "The "gay" Dilemma: If it's a joke, what does it mean?" -- except that it's not really a response, exactly, since it doesn't address anything I actually, you know, said.¹ It's a tweet. Still, it expresses a fairly common attitude among those who are easily offended that others take offense to things they are not offended by: Why are people hurting my feelings by getting their feelings hurt over what I say or what I like? So, to those whose feelings have been bruised in this way, I want to say: Don't stop whining. Don't stop making it all about you. Keep on complaining that your sensibilities are being hurt because you feel that other people should not express opinions other than your own. How dare other people claim that things you honestly feel are funny are not only not funny to them, but maybe even painful or insulting!?! What if that's not even what you meant at all? Just remember, when your feelings are hurt by somebody who says you've hurt their feelings, it's all their fault for being so sensitive to what words mean and being so rude as to tell you. Blame them. You shouldn't have to accept responsibility for what you do or say or laugh at. That's just not fair!
But seriously, folks...
Several of yesterday's commenters mentioned comedic treatments of the anti-gay epithets "fag" and "faggot" on "South Park" ("The F Word") and Louis CK's series, "Louie," which is where the clip above comes from. A group of comedians are discussing the implications of using the word "faggot" in Louis's stage act. Louis asks Rick, the only gay comic at the table, if he thinks he shouldn't use the word. Rick says, "I think you should use whatever word you want... but are you interested to know what it might mean to gay men?"²
On the day after the near-mystical cosmic alignment of Columbus Day and National Coming Out Day (did the Postal Service suspend delivery on the day Columbus came out in 1492?), and the very day that a US district judge issued a worldwide injunction ordering the Department of Defense to stop enforcement of its absurd, 17-year-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for kicking gays out of the military (best of all, the case was brought by the Log Cabin Republicans!), I have found myself reading about a stupid gay joke that's been removed from trailers for the upcoming Ron Howard comedy "The Dilemma," starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James.
I saw the trailer in front of "The Social Network," October 1. Vaughn's character is speaking to some automotive businessmen (is this a follow-up to Howard's "Gung-Ho"?) and says: "Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay."
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper reportedly went on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and said he was "shocked" that Universal "thought that it was OK to put that in a preview for the movie to get people to go and see it." Universal responded by quickly pulling the scene from the trailer. No word on whether it will remain in the movie, which opens in January.
Marie writes: Club member and noted blog contributor Tom Dark took this astonishing photograph near his home in Abiqui, New Mexico. The "unknown entity" appeared without warning and after a failed attempt to communicate, fled the scene. Tom stopped short of saying "alien" to describe the encounter, but I think it's safe to say that whatever he saw, it was pretty damned freaky. It sure can't be mistaken for anything terrestrial; like a horse pressing its nose up to the camera and the lens causing foreshortening. As it totally does not look like that at all. (click to enlarge.)
I made a mistake this week. I followed a link from a discussion among reputable movie critics to a showbiz gossip blog that I usually find too sleazy to visit. There I once again found all manner of bilious items that creeped me out and reminded me why I shouldn't go there. One of them insulted a late, internationally renowned film critic for choosing, on his deathbed, a Howard Hawks western as his favorite movie over another title the gossip prefers. (No doubt the latter feels entitled to express an opinion about what your last meal should be, too.) Another post included the observation that Vince Vaughn "needs to lose 30 pounds. He appeared to be at the tipping point during the 'Couples Retreat' press junket."
View image Emile Hirsch as Alexander Supertramp. A star is (re)born.
Ladies and gentleman, writer-director Sean Penn has not ruined the story of Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, in his big-screen adaptation of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book, "Into the Wild." The movie has awkward patches (is it too late to get rid of the strident Eddie Vedder songs?), devices that just don't work (lose the distracting handwriting from Alex's diary scribbling across the screen), and it leans toward romanticizing what is known about a life that is more ambiguous and mysterious in Krakauer's necessarily fragmentary, journalistic chronicle.
View image The last known photo of the real Chris McCandless.
But Penn's empathy with his driven hero is unmistakable and deeply felt. Alex (as he renamed and introduced himself to those he met on the road) was a kind of Holy Fool, a young man whose rebellion against his parents' values -- indeed, their very lives -- grew into a wholesale rejection of society and the culture of materialism that he found empty and meaningless. His contempt for the hypocrisy of the world into which he was born transcended the teenage bellyaching of Holden Caulfield. Alex's literary models are Thoreau, Tolstoy and Jack London. Shortly after fulfilling his parents' expectations by graduating from Emory University in 1990, he donated all his savings (about $24,000) and disappeared into the wild, heading west to Colorado and California, south to Mexico, and eventually north to Alaska, as a "leather tramp." Shoe leather, that is.
His journey -- like most quests -- was as relentlessly internal as well as geographical. He was driven, in every sense of the word. Was he running away from something or in search of something, or both? And was that thing, in either case, himself?
Of course, the answers to these questions are unknowable -- as, fundamentally, was Chris/Alex, perhaps to himself and to all who met him. But his idealism, his motivation, his disillusionment and disgust with convention, animated him and sparked a flame in others, who tended to see part of their better selves in him. Penn's adaptation falters when it tries to simplify the character, to suggest answers to questions that, to be honest, must be left open.
The film attempts to draw a direct "through-line" (or, if you prefer, "character arc") from a philosophical youngster who tells an old man that the value of life does not come from human relationships, to a supposedly wiser (but not much older) young man, isolated in the wilderness, writing between the lines in a Russian paperback novel that happiness is meaningless unless it is shared.
By then we already know that some of Alex's happiest moments were when he was alone, and that while he cared for other people, he didn't rely upon them to give his life meaning. (And who says he was primarily interested in finding "happiness," rather than some kind of larger truth or awareness?) I think the movie presents this notion of "shared happiness," in the section captioned "The Getting of Wisdom," as a breakthrough, a moment of enlightenment, rather than simply a moment -- one of many notes to himself Alex left behind. This is not simply a story of Christopher McCandless reinventing himself as Alexander Supertramp, only to better understand and accept his identity as Christopher McCandless again. To see it that way is to mistake fractional evidence for a shapely scenario (think of the case for invading Iraq, SP).
I read Krakauer's book about ten years ago, but I don't recall any evidence to indicate Alex refused to have sex with a girl he befriended because she was underage. Chris/Alex's apparent lack of interest in sex was a mystery to everyone. He seems to have channeled his drive into other areas. At any rate, the way the scene is presented here (girl undresses and presents herself to him on a mattress) doesn't play. It feels like a development presented explicitly to explain or illustrate, to address a particular question about the character rather than to explore it.
Now I realize I've spent four paragraphs about what I don't think works in the film, when I started off by announcing that it I liked it, was moved by it, and that it wasn't the misfire I had feared. I say that not because I had any reason to think it would fail, just that I felt so strongly about the source material that I really, really didn't want to see a disservice done to it.
View image The abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness where the real McCandless camped.
Two things immediately impressed me about "Into the Wild":
1) The diversity of the locations so vividly (and often spectacularly) captured by Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier. Each place registers an emotional and psychological impression. These aren't just landscapes Alex happens to pass through; we seem to be entering them through his experience, and to absorb something from them as he does. Appropriately, the place that seems the least distinctive is the one he left behind, the world of his parents (school, suburbia) that he rejects.
2) The equally vivid, lived-in feel of the performances. Emile Hirsch has never quite registered with me before, but this is a star-making role. He has to hold the entire movie together, while everyone else passes through his life. Hirsch may now be where Leonardo DiCaprio was around the time of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "The Basketball Diaries." The movie goes right to the verge of making Alex/Chris too saintly, but Hirsch suggests the naivete and self-possession/selfishness of a young man who, perhaps, can't accept love and doesn't know quite how to express it. But he does recognize its expression in others.
View image North to Alaska, deeper into Denali.
From the moment Brian Dierker appears, I figured he was either a great actor or not an actor at all. Turns out this is his first screen credit, and he's a veteran Grand Canyon river guide. Penn must have recognized the real thing when he saw it. As Rainey, one of the "rubber tramps" (on tires, in an RV) who picks up Alex, he's startlingly authentic, an old hippie who's learning that life isn't what he's thought it was, or would be. This is one of those rare nonprofessional turns that is so real, so lived-in, that it deserves recognition -- even if the guy isn't "acting." He's absolutely genuine in his own skin. Many professionals would give their eye teeth to achieve this level of authenticity on the screen.
Of course, Catherine Keener, as his old lady, is one of the few pros who can match this level of unforced naturalness, and her scenes with Dierker are heartbreaking. She is the emotional center of the movie: Alex is the son she lost, and she's the mother he wishes he had had. They both recognize this bond subconsciously from the moment they meet, and it's as if they've each found a missing part of each other.
Alex is blessed with a series of influential, much-needed father figures. In addition to Rainey, there's Vince Vaughn (funny and poignant) as a factory farmer, and Hal Holbrook (eloquent beyond words) as a widowered leather-worker. It seems trite to mention Hollywood awards in the face of such affecting work, but when the Screen Actors Guild nominates their "best ensemble cast," everybody here deserves to be in the running.
View image He's mad as hell...
Tom Wilkinson has probably won an Oscar nomination for supporting actor in "Michael Clayton" before he ever appears on the screen. Or he should, anyway. But then, he should also be competing with (just to mention some of the other supporting male performances I've seen in Toronto thus far) the likes of Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook and especially Brian Dierker in "Into the Wild"; Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (or are those leading actor performances?); Armin Mueller Stahl and Jerzy Skolimowski (!) in "Eastern Promises"; and definitely Sydney Pollack in "Michael Clayton"...
Now, I am not one of those people who come to Toronto for Oscar-spotting purposes. But "Michael Clayton," written and directed by "Bourne" series screenwriter Tony Gilroy, is the kind of smart, crisp, "serious" mainstream entertainment that gives Hollywood (or the part of it influenced by George Clooney) a good name. I guess you could describe it as a Manhattan "legal thriller" -- most of the main characters are corporate lawyers -- that strikes a delicate tonal balance between the cynical political paranoia of the "Bourne" movies, the satirical paranoia of "Network," the corporate paranoia of "The Insider," and the legalistic paranoia of "Erin Brockovich." And, as in all these movies, when you're feeling paranoid, it doesn't mean somebody isn't out to get you.
Wilkinson finds that perfect chord, and establishes the tone of the movie, in his off-screen opening monologue, a breathless rant of a voice message left for his fellow attorney, the eponymous Michael Clayton (Clooney), the firm's "fixer" who is called in to take care of delicate "problems" for a rich and powerful clientele. Wilkinson's character, Arthur Edens, is a brilliant lawyer who's been working for more than a decade on a single case, involving a chemical manufacturer that, after the usual cost-benefit analysis, released an agricultural product with toxic effects on humans. (The company's earth-friendly TV spots will look painfully familiar to PBS viewers, where such underwriting entities are expert at peddling their green corporate citizenship.)
Arthur is also manic-depressive, and he's gone off his meds, and he's raving about the moment of clarity he's having about the dirty, soul-killing business he's in. He's like Peter Finch in "Network," only his volcanic monologues aren't quite so messianic. (But then, he's not working from a Paddy Chayevsky script, either. Actually, I think "Network" would have been a better movie if it had been written and directed more in the style of "Michael Clayton." That is, a bit more dryly.)
View image Clooney and Pollack: These guys are good. Really good.
The movie revolves around the title character's face, and its hard to think of another actor who could hold it together the way Clooney does. His eyes reveal a quicksilver intelligence -- always sizing up the situation, figuring out how best to play it, even when he's utterly lost -- that Clooney can do without looking like he's trying. He doesn't give things away, he just registers enough to for you to notice without noticing that you're noticing. And that's a considerable accomplishment (especially when you remember how broadly, goofily dumb he can also play with supreme confidence, as in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). Equally adept, and really fun to watch, is Tilda Swinton as an ambitious corporate climber, who rehearses her every statement while nervously trying on the appropriate uniform for each boardroom crisis. (Look for Ken Howard and Miles O'Keefe in surprising roles as professional office politicians.)
And there's ever-reliable Sydney Pollack, who has become one of my favorite character actors ("Husbands and Wives," "Eyes Wide Shut," "The Sopranos"). The man is a consummate actor, so effortlessly natural he can make others look mannered next to him. That makes him the ideal foil for the comparably relaxed style of Clooney, and their scenes together are especially fun to watch. They also provide Wilkinson with something solid that he can bounce his wild, unpredictable serves off of. (I feel about Pollack the opposite of how I feel about Sean Penn: the former is a better actor than a director, and with the latter it's the other way around. Pollack is a producer on the film -- and Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella among the executive producers -- and I mean no slight when I say I found myself grateful that they decided to let, or enable, somebody else to direct this one.)
Gilroy does just fine in his directorial debut. His style suits his actors (and, for that matter, his leading characters): handsome, smart, economical. Three of the last four shots in the film (number three is simply a bridge between two and four) are quiet stunners, though I would have cut to black about two or three seconds earlier at the end. The first of these final shots sums up the virtues of the film ideally: While quite naturally following the trajectory of one character in the foreground, the fate of another is captured in the same frame, but out of focus and in the receding background. It's another perfect note, and it's handled so deftly you could almost miss it. You won't, though -- and the great thing is you'll feel like you discovered it yourself. Along with everybody else in the audience.