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Film Clips

Lars and the Real Girl, Across the Universe, The Assassination of Jesse James, others

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MICHAEL CLAYTON Far easier to follow than its impenetrable trailer would lead one to believe, Michael Clayton plays like Erin Brockovich without the populist appeal – it centers on the title character (George Clooney), a law firm "fixer" who's always called upon to clean up messy problems for the company's clients. Hating his job but stuck with it due to massive debts and an expensive divorce, Michael finds himself caught in the middle when Arthur Edens (an excellent Tom Wilkinson), Michael's good friend and the firm's best attorney, seemingly goes bonkers and threatens to derail their most important case: defending an agrochemical company against a lawsuit filed by ordinary citizens. Michael's boss (Sydney Pollack) orders him to talk some sense into Arthur, but it turns out that the agrochemical company's chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) is willing to go to more extreme lengths to silence the wayward lawyer. Tony Gilroy, adapter of the Jason Bourne novels, makes his directorial debut here (as well as writing the script), and it's an assured first effort. Almost everything about the movie is muted – the settings, the exchanges, the emotions – and this decision gives the story a real-world gravitas that makes the odious executive actions seem even more plausible than they already are. Gilroy steadfastly avoids including anything that can be deemed extraneous or overreaching, preferring to rest his faith – and the picture's fate – in the hands of his accomplished actors and in the strength of his own script. There are no real surprises in Michael Clayton, just the awareness of a job well done. ***

RANDY AND THE MOB Ray McKinnon isn't one of those pampered Hollywood suits who makes faux-Southern pictures like The Dukes of Hazzard and Sweet Home Alabama; a Georgia native, he followed his 2001 film The Accountant (which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short) with the impressive 2004 drama Chrystal, with Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount (McKinnon's wife and producing partner) as an estranged Ozarkian couple mourning the loss of their child. Deep-fried in Southern heritage, it evoked a specific landscape and its people, and only the participation of an A-list star like Thornton prevented it from qualifying as an example of low-budget regional filmmaking. This is why Randy and the Mob comes off as such a disappointment. Arch in a way that his previous feature was honest, it's a clumsy attempt to lay an overcoat of forced cornpone whimsy on a drab storyline involving mobsters. McKinnon plays two roles: Randy, an irresponsible good-ole-boy stereotype, and Cecil, his flaming twin brother. As the title hints, Randy owes a large sum to buffoonish gangsters, who send an odd character named Tino (Walter Goggins) work out a deal. Tino is presented as an inspirational life force who's meant to earn our admiration (and our laughs), but he's merely annoying, coming across like a quirky reject from an early draft of a Coen Brothers screenplay. The mob shenanigans seem as artificial as the family dysfunction, and the whole enterprise has the feel of one of those sloppy, homemade films posted on YouTube. But at least McKinnon had the sense to offer a cameo to the former king of Southern cinema, Burt Reynolds. *1/2

RENDITION What's the point of tackling a real-life hot-button issue if everything about it is presented in an only-in-Hollywood style of fantasy filmmaking? The post-9/11 topic on hand is "extraordinary rendition," which allows the U.S. government to send suspected terrorists to other countries in order to be interrogated. Since the Bush Administration has no qualms about torturing any foreigners whose skin is darker than, say, Nicole Kidman's, it's a viable and volatile subject for a movie to tackle, but Rendition does so in the most simplistic manner possible. Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, a pregnant mom whose Egyptian-born, U.S.-raised husband (Omar Metwally) has disappeared without a trace, snatched at the Washington, D.C. airport for his suspected part in a bombing. The U.S. government's evidence is feeble, but Senator Whitman (Meryl Streep, not particularly effective) decides that's all the proof she needs to ship him off to be subjected to all manner of pain. The American analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to preside over the torture finds the treatment shocking; meanwhile, Isabella seeks help from a former college fling (Peter Sarsgaard), who just happens to be the assistant to a senator (Alan Arkin) who works closely with Whitman. As if this weren't all convenient enough for the sake of tidy storytelling and tentative armchair liberalism, there's also a plot thread involving a love affair between a terrorist and the daughter of the head of the torture unit. Coupled with a narrative "Gotcha!" more suited to Memento, it all adds up to a dilution of the real issues at hand. With friends like this movie, who needs Dick Cheney? **


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