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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Short Takes: Recent Releases

Michael Clayton takes itself very seriously. Luckily, you don’t have to. It’s a skillfully wrought, occasionally ridiculous corporate-legal thriller. Fine performances help a lot – George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton are all excellent. And the hushed, solemn tone doesn’t necessarily wreck it as entertainment. The Bourne films have also learned this trick. But the whole thing has about as much real gravity as any weekly episode of 24 (which some people take seriously too, to my astonishment). Evil Corporations who will resort to anything, even murder, to protect their ill-gotten gains, make good villains – less politically charged than terrorists.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

It’s interesting to learn that this is a first screenplay – an audacious one, to be sure, but not completely successful. The deliberately over-the-top approach, striving for something like classical tragedy, is eventually wearying, and it has the effect of making the last few plot turns rather too predictable. But Sidney Lumet maintains and intensifies both the narrative and acting tension throughout. The performers are first-rate. But the characters, a small-town jewelry store owner and his loser sons, can’t quite bear the philosophical weight that’s put on them.

Atonement

I brought high expectations to this movie, and this is always perilous to one’s enjoyment. And indeed I felt let down, particularly by the much-discussed “trick ending” which apparently worked much better on the printed page than on screen, despite the very able assistance of Vanessa Redgrave in telling that part of the story in the film. The first half hour or so of the movie is the best: it refuses to rush, it has a unity of location and time, and it has real feeling in introducing the star-crossed love story that is the beating heart of Ian McEwan’s novel and this adaptation. But while the second half of the movie is crammed with incident, it remains emotionally static and unconvincing. I have not read the novel, but I am reliably told it is very fine indeed. Much of its quality must have been lost in translation, and this would hardly be the first instance of that happening. The photography and the performances are first-rate. It’s not a bad film, but it is far from the great one that seems to have been attempted.

Lars and the Real Girl

Although the script and the supporting cast have their charms, and the direction is appealingly low-key, the only reason for this film to have been made, and the only reason to see it, is Ryan Gosling’s wonderful performance. The movie makes gentle fun of its own fey, contrived premise – a mail-order love doll becomes the object of real love – which may be the only sane way to handle it. But Gosling’s utter conviction brings truth and emotional weight to a story that would otherwise float away on a cloud of fey whimsy. You may go to this movie to laugh, but you’re likely to surprise yourself by crying very real tears.

Sweeney Todd

Tim Burton’s original and energetic talent has often been undone by inferior material. But the powerful Stephen Sondheim musical provides a perfect match. Some of us may have feared the opposite, that Burton and Sondheim would ruin each other, that the whole thing could turn into an arch, campy misfire. But the visual grace and narrative energy of this film is a wonder, as is Johnny Depp’s performance in the title role. The Grand Guignol overstatement in the bloody murder scenes seems to me a bit of a miscalculation, but the movie has an understandably powerful effect on audiences. The photography by Dariusz Wolski and the production design by Dante Ferretti are among the year’s best, and Timothy Spall and young Ed Sanders stand out in a superlative supporting cast.

Charlie Wilson’s War

If this movie managed to sustain the smart-alecky, light-fingered satire of its first half hour, it would be a new classic. Unfortunately, it becomes more pedestrian and less skillful as it progresses. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a great comic performance as a charmingly boorish CIA operative. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are mostly just charming. It remains an enjoyable movie, and considering its subject – the secret American funding (by a Democratic congressman from Texas) of the Afghans’ war against the Soviet invasion – that is an accomplishment in itself. But there is the undelivered promise of so much more: a wisecracking political comedy with a real edge. And whether to avoid offending some of the still-living participants in this real-life story, or for other reasons, the filmmakers really miss the boat by soft-pedaling the irony of what happened: that Charlie Wilson’s war led directly to the struggle with Islamist fundamentalism that dominates today’s headlines.

I’m Not There

A kaleidoscopic biography of sorts of Bob Dylan. In formal audacity and technical skill, this is one of the year’s best movies. I’m not sure that it has much real meat or substance – I enjoyed every minute while I was watching it, but the impact hasn’t stuck with me the way it does with many other original and well-wrought films – or the way it does with Dylan’s songs themselves in other contexts. Nonetheless, the music, the actors, the visuals are all excellent, and this is the most satisfying film Todd Haynes has made to date.

Juno

Yet another charming comedy about an unexpected pregnancy. Like Knocked Up, this is handled fairly deftly as a slightly sentimental farce (although this one is less noisy and less aggressively tear-jerking than the earlier movie). Ellen Page and Michael Cera are both wonderful as the young parents, and the rest of the cast is fine too. It’s perhaps more than a little too careful to remain cute and not to cut too deep – the perfect Sundance movie.

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