DVD reviews
March 2008



All reviews by Loey Lockerby

Michael Clayton

It would be so easy for George Clooney to coast through his career. With his Old Hollywood charisma, he could make an Ocean’s Eleven knockoff every year and retire a billionaire at 50.

Instead, Clooney chooses to take on challenging roles in unusual films, even when it means box office failure. That was the fate of Michael Clayton, a twisting drama about responsibility and the price of a human soul. Not exactly a light-hearted evening at the multiplex.

Maybe DVD (and several Oscar nods) will give this movie the audience it deserves. Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” for a law firm who plays the system to his clients’ advantage, regardless of the moral consequences. That begins to change when one of his company’s lawyers, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers a conscience-induced breakdown, which ironically makes him more lucid than ever. His needling forces Michael to confront his own sins, which puts him on a collision course with some very powerful people, including rising corporate star Karen Crowder (Best Supporting Actress winner Tilda Swinton), whose Machiavellian scheming seems to surprise even her.

This idea that people don’t always know what they’re capable of runs throughout writer-director Tony Gilroy‘s script. While Michael and Arthur discover the decency and courage they’d suppressed for years, Karen takes the opposite turn, becoming sneakier and more cold-blooded with every scene.

The plot is almost incidental, and occasionally confusing. Gilroy is interested in character study, not thriller mechanics, and the story never really gels. That hardly matters, though. The real thrills come from watching a movie star with serious talent surround himself with the best people — and best material — he can find.

Extras: Commentary from Gilroy and his editor brother, John; a couple of cursory deleted scenes with optional commentary. (R) Rating: 4.5.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Shekhar Kapur’s 1999 film Elizabeth told the story of the extraordinary British monarch’s rise to power. It brought Cate Blanchett international acclaim and an Oscar nomination for her performance in the title role.

It seemed logical for Kapur and Blanchett to team up again, since the previous film ended before Elizabeth began the most famous part of her reign. It also seemed like a safe bet. Just follow the original’s smart, dynamic formula and it couldn’t possibly go wrong.

Unfortunately, Kapur has grander ideas this time around. They may have been interesting in theory, but they nearly crush the film in practice.

In its early scenes, Elizabeth: The Golden Age has a lively sense of political intrigue, and Kapur increases the tension by presenting two very serious threats to the queen's position (and life) — the fanatical Spanish Armada and the machinations of Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) and her supporters. Kapur and his screenwriters also set up a love triangle between Elizabeth, the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) and the queen's confidant, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).

These two story threads illustrate some of the problems with the film. Kapur tries to present an iconic, almost deified image of Elizabeth, turning her into more of a symbol than a person. This makes for striking imagery, but it distances the audience from the main character when it would be more useful to see the human being behind those grand gestures.

In the scenes with Raleigh and Bess, Kapur abruptly shifts gears, turning Elizabeth's life into a soap opera. She is reduced to girlish, almost hysterical behavior that doesn't fit anything we've seen of her before. Blanchett gives another breathtaking performance, but it's uncomfortable watching this great woman reduced to either an emotional wreck or a piece of scenery.

Extras: A rather pretentious (if informative) commentary by Kapur; a handful of deleted scenes, mostly dealing with Mary's subplot; several making-of docs, which lean heavily on the movie's visual style. (PG-13) Rating: 3.

American Gangster (2-Disc Unrated Extended Edition)

Ridley Scott’s epic crime drama has the gritty, unvarnished feel of the ‘70s movies it imitates. It also has a great subject in Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington), the Harlem drug kingpin who imported pure Southeast Asian heroin during the Vietnam War. The film also follows Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the cop whose tireless efforts helped bring Lucas — and several corrupt members of the NYPD — down.

Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian have two terrific actors in the lead roles, and give them plenty of good material. Although serious questions have been raised about the film’s historical accuracy, it feels authentic in a way that transcends its factual basis (call it the cinema of “truthiness”). When Frank goes toe-to-toe with a group of vicious cops (led by Josh Brolin), it almost doesn’t matter if the department was really that rotten. It’s just too juicy and dramatic not to put on film.

Scott and Zaillian seem ambivalent about Frank, who is still alive (and, remarkably, friends with Roberts). This is a man with no qualms about shooting someone in cold blood on a crowded street, and whose “business” led to countless deaths and a worsening of New York’s crime problem. Yet, he’s undeniably charming, especially when a star like Washington plays him. No one — not the filmmakers, not the actors, not the people who actually know the guy — can seem to get a handle on him.

American Gangster goes on about 30 minutes too long, even in its original theatrical version (this 2-disc set also includes a director’s cut with 20 more minutes). There are too many repetitive scenes and needless digressions. With a little restraint, this could have been on a par with the likes of Mean Streets or Serpico. As it is, it’s a good movie that doesn’t quite fulfill its ambitions.

Extras: Commentary by Scott and Zaillian on the theatrical cut; a couple of short deleted scenes; tons of informative documentary material about every aspect of production, from historical research to costume design. (R/Unrated) Rating: 3.5.

Gone Baby Gone

Just when it looked like Ben Affleck had become a permanent laughingstock, he went and staged a comeback. With his performance as doomed Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland, he showed an acting range that had barely been hinted at before. For Gone Baby Gone, Affleck steps behind the camera, and his efforts should shut naysayers up for good.

It helps that the film is set in Affleck’s old South Boston stomping grounds, the same setting that won him (and buddy Matt Damon) a screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting. He knows this place down to the last speck of dirt on the sidewalk, and his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel (which he co-wrote with Aaron Stockard) could almost be a documentary about the mean streets of his hometown.

The story centers on the search for a missing child, whose mother (Oscar nominee Amy Ryan) has a drug problem and a history of generally dangerous behavior. Private investigators Patrick (Casey Affleck, Ben's brother) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are hired by the little girl's aunt and uncle who hope that non-cops from the neighborhood will get results. They do, but not the ones anyone expected.

Lehane seems to have a penchant for absurd last-act twists (see Mystic River for another example), and Gone Baby Gone has a whopper. Affleck takes such a matter-of-fact approach, however, that he almost makes it believable. At the very least, he makes sure the ending leaves viewers contemplating some difficult issues, while avoiding an overly neat wrap-up. He also elicits honest, unforced performances from the cast, allowing even the "bad guys" to earn a measure of sympathy.

Not bad for a guy from Armageddon.

Extras: Commentary by Affleck and Stockard; deleted scenes with commentary; short featurettes on Affleck's return to his old neighborhood and the casting process. (R) Rating: 4.

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.


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