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September 09, 2007

Gremlins in the e-mail system have prevented my coverage from getting through to Kris these last few days and I think finally I have the problem solved. Rather than go day by day, let’s just get caught up on what I have seen these first few days.

“Rendition” (***)
Directed by Gavin Hood

Things got moving early with a morning screening of “Rendition,” the new political thriller from the director of the Oscar winning “Tsotsi,” a hit here a couple of years ago. The film stars Reese Witherspoon, which gave me immediate pause about as I am not a fan of the actress nor a believer that she deserved that Oscar she collected for “Walk the Line” two years ago. But after the film I was left eating my words.

Witherspoon does some fine work as a wife distraught over her husband’s detainment by the American government when evidence links him to a bombing in the Middle East. She is left asking the double edged sword questions: “Why would they target this good man?” and “What is there I many not know about my husband?” Witherspoon does a wonderful job conveying the sense of torment one would go through in a dilatation like this.

Stealing the film is Meryl Streep as a CIA chief with the power to order a person detained and tortured for information. What makes her truly terrifying is that she believes this is right, that what she is doing is proper for America. Never has Streep been so chilling and remote…or outright frightening. Jake Gyllenhall does alright as the young CIA operative who is left questioning his country’s methods when he sees first hand the impact on torture of a man who may be innocent.

The film is one of many politically charged films playing here this fall, and it makes a strong statement about what this sort of behavior does to one’s soul. Are we not stooping to their level by torturing one of our own, or a fellow human being? This is what the films asks. The only Oscar chances I see, however, are for Streep for best supporting actress.


“Michael Clayton” (****)
Directed by Tony Gilroy

“Michael Clayton” should do much stronger with both critics and the Academy as first time director Tony Gilroy has created a seventies style film that looks and feels like an Alan J. Pakula effort (meant with the highest of praise). George Clooney is Clayton, a high powered fixer for a legal firm who values him for his unique skills in making difficult issues go away for the firm’s rich clients. When one of the firm’s best lawyers has some sort of breakdown after discovering information that goes against the client he is representing, Clayton is sent in to fix the matter, but finds that things are not at all as they seem.

The lawyer, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), is Clayton’s friend and a brilliant legal mind, with no real reason to go this way unless he was on to something. When he disappears, Clayton realizes the stakes are much higher than he ever thought and he soon has greater problems than the personal debt he is struggling with.

Clooney is among the rare talent to balance being an actor, and a damned fine one, with being a movie star, possessing that old fashioned movie star glamour. If they were to remake “Gone with the Wind,” he would have to be Rhett Butler. He delivers a fine performance here, one full of self-doubting and regret, nicely supported by the great Tom Wilkinson as a man who has found the very thing he treasures is sick and twisted. Tilda Swinton is all icy menace as the lawyer for the other side, proving to be far more drastic than anyone realizes. Clooney and Wilkinson are good bets for Oscar attention.


“No Country for Old Men” (*****)
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

The Brothers Coen deliver one of the best films of the year “No Country for Old Men,” a modern day western full of dark humor and violence, reeking of the brand of film that has made the Coens among the most gifted filmmakers working in modern film. Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto a massacre, bodies everywhere, men and trucks riddled with bullets and a case filled with two million dollars cash. He takes the money, of course, and in doing so places events and actions in motion that will severely impact his life.

Hot on the trail of the cash is Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) a vicious, resourceful hitman who is a force of nature and seemingly unstoppable. He kills without conscience, almost for sport because in most cases he could let the person move on and does not. I cannot remember a more chilling character in movies in the last ten years. Tommy Lee Jones is the world weary sheriff close to retirement who seems to understand that this is a man not to be trifled with and is anxious to get to Moss before the killer does.

The sparse landscape adds to the film’s heat and tension, and the Coens create a screenplay that is both darkly funny and vicious in its humor.

A knockout and one of the years very best. Oscar awaits.


“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (*****)
Directed by Andrew Dominik

A masterpiece plain and simple – covered in a longer article.


“Eastern Promises” (****)
Directed by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s latest provided another opportunity for the director to work with the great Viggo Mortensen, this time cast as a Russian driver for the mob in London. When a young woman dies, leaving behind a diary, the midwife (Naomi Watts) does some digging and finds where the young woman worked. Her uncle translates the diary for her and learns that the girl was a slave of the Russian mafia, addicted to heroin by the mob to use as a prostitute at the age of fourteen.

When the book links the mob boss directly to the girl, he orders the evidence destroyed and orders the driver to get involved and make the uncle disappear and orders his own son to kill the child. Nothing is as it seems in the film, which is loaded with surprises and loads of violence. Mortensen is brilliant as the sensitive driver, getting far more involved with this young midwife, nicely played by Watts than he should. The great Armin Mueller-Stahl is quietly terrifying as the mob boss who wants the girl dead. The Academy has long ignored Cronenberg, but they may not be able to do so any longer. This is superb on every level.


“Into the Wild” (****)
Directed by Sean Penn

Sean Penn’s most accessible film to date allows him to paint on his largest canvas. He delivers a superb film with an astonishing performance from young Emile Hirsch as a rich child of privilege who gives away his college fund, all his belongings and hits the road inspired by the work of Jack London and Tolstoy, both of whom struggled with nature and man’s insight into himself.

Chris (Hirsch) is looking for something he does not see in the world, some sort of beauty that he finds in nature. There are stunning moments watching him conquer the wild, being moved to tears at the simple sight of a herd of reindeer, throwing him into this thing called life. Obviously Penn, a patriot against the war in Iraq, is making a statement here, asking Americans to look at their country through the eyes of Chris and realize it is not about possession, it is about living. Though Chris moves far from the path he was to follow, he truly lives, more than anyone else around him. There are strong supporting performances from William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his smug parents and Jena Malone as the sister who loves him enough to let him go. Just brilliant filmmaking.

Back tonight with more.


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