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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Michael Clayton

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Michael Clayton
2007 (2008) - Warner Bros.
Released on 2/19/2008
Also available on Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/C-

My second-favorite film of all time is Paddy Chayefsky's Network, the brilliant and prescient satire of the television news business which foretold much of what would happen over the ensuing decades as the news was subjected to tabloidization and drained of its nutritional journalistic content in favor of entertainment value. Chayefsky's dialog was rhapsodic and hyper-articulate and provided actors lots of meat to sink their teeth into and it garnered five Oscar nominations and three wins for its cast. I mention this because in the opening moments of Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, there is a voiceover monologue delivered by Tom Wilkinson that is extremely reminiscent of the evangelical fervor of Network's doomed "mad prophet of the airwaves" Howard Beale.

It's a great opening that serves notice that not many characters will be saying "um" and while Michael Clayton lacks the ambition and scope of Chayefsky's Titan-slaying epic, it is still a carefully-observed study of the moral rot and compromise that can tarnish, wither and ultimately liberate the souls of those who live in the gray areas of the legal world.

While we hear Wilkinson's Arthur Edens, we don't actually meet him for quite a while - he's invisible for the first quarter of the film - as we're introduced to the titular Michael Clayton (George Clooney). Clayton is a "fixer" - a specialist in facilitating solutions to problems - but as he tells an arrogant client to whose mansion he has been dispatched in the middle of the night, he's not a miracle worker; he's a janitor. And he's got plenty to clean up in his life as well: gambling problems, a failed restaurant he opened with a wastrel brother, the creeping sense that he's at a point in his life that he should have more to show for his existence, but not just in a material sense. When his CV is read to opposing attorney Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) - he's a former prosecutor who after 17 years at his high-powered private firm is still not a partner - she wonders, "Who is this guy?", as if even Clayton knows himself.

Clayton's cleanup job du jour is to head to Wisconsin where Edens - the firm's legendary lead attorney handling the defense against a toxic chemical class action lawsuit - has, to put it bluntly, flipped out. Having gone off his meds for bipolar disorders, he ranted and raved and stripped off his clothes before running naked in the winter's cold. Years of work and the firm's pending secret merger with a London-based outfit hang in the balance, so Clayton needs to get Edens back under control and save the day.

While the case is central, it's just the MacGuffin for Michael Clayton. We never set foot in a courtroom; the guilt of the Evil Chemical Company is never in doubt; the end result of the case and the merger are secondary to Gilroy's true focal point of a trio of lawyers in various stages of moral compromise, damnation and, perhaps, redemption. Crowder is totally in thrall to the Dark Side of the Force, but still retains enough humanity to not be able to sleep after some of her actions. Edens, on the other hand, has possibly found salvation, albeit at a horrendous cost to those relying on him staying in the tank for the team and to himself. Clayton is somewhere in between, distracted and somewhat stuck in the middle of it all.

As the writer of the Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum series, Gilroy had a cipher of a protagonist, but here he gets his literary ya-yas out in spades for his directorial debut. With deft strokes of the pen and camera, he brings what could've been a stock batch of characters and situations to subtle life. Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson all received well-deserved Oscar nods for their performances. Wilkinson's Edens frequently reminded me of Peter Finch's Howard Beale, but it's not a borrowed performance. Edens has seen a light and intends to follow it. While mostly acting the unmoored eccentric, in one crucial scene with Clooney he gives us a flash of the ferocious legal warrior he must've been. Swinton is all icy brittleness, but that's what happens when your job is your life and your job is to protect some shady characters.

It's easy to hate Clooney because he's beautiful and with lighter-weight films like the Ocean's 11-13 series he sometimes is so laid-back as to be prone, but here he shows the thespian chops some stubbornly refuse to credit him as having. His Clayton has really gone to seed and it's not a shaggy pose of downcast eyes and a hangdog mien. Other than the climax, he doesn't overplay the decay or star-power his performance with undue charm. While the ending may strike some as being too "Hollywood", it's sorely needed to give the audience a feeling that there is some good left in these people and the world. If you're someone who insists upon every movie ending with everyone dead and miserable or views triumphs with cynical suspicion, you'll probably be annoyed, but it worked for me.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is disappointing as it frequently marred with compression artifacts that cause some jittery shimmer in highlights, aliasing on shiny angles and the texture of fabrics poorly resolved. While the film has a deliberately desaturated palette, colors and black levels still seem a bit weak. It's not distractingly awful, but has much room for improvement. On the audio front, things are better but not spectacular. As a dialog-driven drama, it's understandably front-loaded with minimal surround activity. Dialog is clear and James Newton Howard's oblique, ambient score is rich.

Extras are in short supply with only a trio of deleted scenes and a feature commentary by Gilroy and his brother, John Gilroy, who edited the film. Their talk is mostly focused on the lengthy development period and the technical concerns of the shoot, such as the pre-dawn scenes of Clayton's drive in the country having to be shot in little chunks at dawn and sunset to get the proper light and the use of CGI to insert a critical image into a book which explains a character's crucial motivation. Gilroy mentions the comparisons to Network (A-ha!), but only cops to staging one scene as homage to a scene in that film. Those seeking more clarification of some elements, particularly the book Clayton's son (Austin Williams) keeps nattering about that bears on events, will be disappointed as Gilroy deliberately refuses to explicitly discuss it. Overall, it's a so-so track. The three deleted scenes (totaling 5:35) are all were unmissed from the final cut and in one case would've seriously shifted our appraisal of Clayton's life status.

As an environmental legal thriller, Michael Clayton is no Erin Brockovich, but as a well-observed character study about morally compromised people, it's a solid drama. Bolstered by a trio of stellar leading performances along with solid supporting turns by Sydney Pollack (as Clayton's boss), Michael O'Keefe (as his cop brother), and Merritt Wever (as the plaintiff who attracts Edens' attention), Michael Clayton may not really be one of the Best Pictures of the year - I'd substitute the overlooked Breach if I had my druthers - but it is a treat for those starving for literate writing and fine acting.

The Invasion

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The Invasion
2007 (2008) - Warner Bros.
Released on 1/29/2008
Also available on Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD

Film Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/C-

If there is a lesson that Hollywood needs to learn fast it is to stop making remakes, especially remakes starring Nicole Kidman. From the lackluster retreads of The Stepford Wives and Bewitched to The Invasion, the poor Shelia from Australia has repeatedly found her beauty and talent squandered in service of misbegotten projects. She should consider firing her representation after this latest misfire.

This fourth cinematic telling of Jack Finney's 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, casts Kidman as glossy Washington D.C. psychiatrist Carol Bennell. She's divorced; has a precocious son, Oliver (Jackson Bond); a best friend/wannabe paramour doctor pal, Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig); and an ex-husband, Tucker (Jeremy Northam), who has been infected by a virulent alien spore brought to Earth in the wreckage of the crashed space shuttle Patriot.

Despite having been informed in the previous scene that the wreckage was infected, Tucker still touches a piece of wreckage handed to him, pricks his finger and, in keeping with dumb sci-fi movie conventions, tells no one about what has happened. (The Emmy Rossum character in The Day After Tomorrow was another one of these idiots.)

As the infection spreads, turning its victims into blasé versions of themselves overnight, Carol starts to hear complaints from patients that their loved ones don't seem quite right. However, for someone who should be a trained observer, she fails to spot the change in Tucker when she drops Oliver off for a visit. As the streets fill with emotionally blank zombies, it slowly dawns on her that perhaps something is wrong and Oliver needs rescuing. With the help of Ben and his fellow medico, Stephen (Jeffrey Wright), the race is on to find a cure for the infection, rescue Oliver and to keep Carol awake for she too has been infected and if she goes to sleep, she will succumb.

While much has been made of the muddled production - the studio ordered reshoots to pump up the action quotient and brought in the V for Vendetta team of James McTeigue and the Wachowski Brothers to do the dirty work - the fundamental problems of The Invasion can be laid at the feet of rookie screenwriter David Kajganich's vapid script. Taking forever to get going, it occupies much of the first act with empty scene-setting and on-the-nose references to the American "occupation" of Iraq and general bashing of the current Administration. The allegories are too ham-handed to be relevant beyond the narrow window of this film's making - the rapidly improving situation in Iraq has made the anachronistic nature of the commentary even more jarring - and beg the question that as the infection's spread brings an end to war and brotherhood between former foes (George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez are shown signing a deal in a news report), why would anyone want to go back to the "bad old days"? (We can only hope that the arrival of January 2009 will release Hollywood from their chronic political Tourette's fits so they can get back to making movies that will have a shelf date longer than milk. For example, a plain old infected meteor wasn't overt enough, so death comes from the skies in the form of a "Patriot". Get it?)

But even without the sloppily crammed-in soapboxing, The Invasion never gins up much in the way of tension. Will Carol get to Oliver? Will she stay awake? Will a bunch of predictable plot twists come and go without much surprise? (What do you think? Forget it, Jake. It's Hollywood.) The editing is haphazard and confusing with its flashbacks/forwards/sideways and frequently it felt as if entire hunks of the film were lopped out to make room for the tacked on McTeigue/Wachowski scenes which themselves crib heavily from Dawn of the Dead (the remake; a decent one at that, owing to no Nicole Kidman) and 28 Weeks Later. It really feels as if we're getting two mediocre movies for the price of one.

Amidst the wreckage there are a few bright moments as when we learn some members of the public have figured out what is going on and how to escape detection by stifling their emotions - perhaps a warning that individuality will get you killed in a prevailing atmosphere of conformity? - and the scene in which a wary Carol and Oliver reunite but are unsure as to the assimilation status of the other. But it's too little to salvage this Invasion.

Kidman looks good but doesn't have much to do with her porcelain doll role. Craig's rakish charm is wasted as we're supposed to believe that Carol would rather have him as a best friend than shag him rotten like any woman (and some guys) would want to. (Hey, maybe this is a science-fiction film after all!) The other performances are adequate, including an unrecognizable Veronica Cartwright (who co-starred in the 1978 Philip Kaufman-helmed, Donald Sutherland-starring version), but again they are underserved by the undercooked script.

Much better, because it doesn't rely on the script, is the audiovisual presentation starting with the solid 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer which crisply renders the heavily color-timed cinematography of Rainer Klausmann, who also shot director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall. Running heavy on blues, blacks and golds, colors are clean though a few shots exhibit a touch of noise in deep reds and in dark areas. Detail in fabrics and shadows are very good as well. The audio presentation - options include English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish plus English captions - starts off impressively with substantial surround activity before settling down to mostly environmental ambiance. Dialog is clear within the wide dynamics and action scenes are nice and punchy albeit a bit louder that the average level, though you won't need to ride the volume knob.

On the supplemental side of things, pickings are slim as there is no commentary track and less than a half-hour of featurettes. They lead off with We've Been Snatched Before: Invasion in Media History (18:50) in which a collection of second-string cast members and scientists discussing the film's themes in relation to real-world epidemics like SARS and avian influenza. What's most interesting about this piece is that if screenwriter Kajganich had bothered to incorporate just a smattering of these ideas, it would've been a much scarier and thought-provoking exercise than what he typed up. The remaining trio of features are strictly EPK throwaways with The Invasion: A New Story (2:53) consisting of the filmmakers congratulating themselves for being such brilliant political commentators; The Invasion: On the Set (3:21) discussing shooting in Washington D.C.; and The Invasion: Snatched (3:12) getting a bit more technical, showing a little of the makeup effects employed.

Even if you are like me and haven't seen any of the three prior versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers it's probably a safe assumption that any of the other versions would be a better entertainment option than this lackluster, tepid and banal Invasion. Here's to hoping that Kidman will round-file any future remake projects, too.

Peter Schorn
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