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View from the Couch

Beowulf, Michael Clayton, more

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In addition to the 165-minute theatrical version, Criterion's four-disc DVD set also contains the 218-minute television cut. Other extras include audio commentary by Bertolucci, Peploe, Sakamoto and producer Jeremy Thomas, new and vintage documentaries exploring the making of the movie, a 1989 interview with Bertolucci, a new interview with Byrne, and a 98-page booklet.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ****

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007). 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.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, and five minutes of deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Extras: **

RENDITION (2007). 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 foreigner whose skin is darker than, say, Nicole Kidman's, it's a viable and volatile subject for a movie to tackle, but this 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?

DVD extras include audio commentary by director Gavin Hood, the half-hour documentary Outlawed, a half-hour making-of feature, four deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

Movie: **

Extras: ***

WALKER (1987). Roger Ebert gave it zero stars (TV partner Gene Siskel was equally scathing). Leonard Maltin slapped it with a BOMB rating. And USA Today's Mike Clark included it on his year-end "10 Worst" list, pairing it with director Alex Cox's other 1987 offering, Straight to Hell. And these reviews were just the tip of the iceberg – no wonder I was hell-bent back in the day to catch a movie that immediately gained such notoriety as it was barely being released to theaters (according to www.IMDb.com, it grossed a ground-scraping $257,000 against a $5.8 million budget). Whether a Charlotte theater ever hosted the film or I had to wait and catch it on video remains lost in my memory banks, but my hope of finding perverse pleasure where others only found pain failed to come to fruition: This movie truly was torturous. A fresh viewing two decades later has revealed that the picture has improved only a smidgen – its points about American imperialism seem as pertinent and noteworthy today, but its satiric take on the subject remains as obvious and ham-fisted as it did back when it premiered. Although it centers on William Walker (Ed Harris), the 19th-century adventurer who overthrew the Nicaraguan government and set himself up as the country's president, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop) meant for their work to serve as an indictment of the Reagan administration's illegal dealings with that country's terrorists throughout the 1980s – and this new Criterion release of the film seems timed to further point out similarities with the insidious Bush administration's exploits in Iraq. But for all its admirable intentions, Walker is a chore to endure, and even the deliberate anachronisms (Coke bottles, Newsweek magazines and a helicopter are among the items that appear over the course of the film) reek of desperation rather than inspiration. Only the excellent score by The Clash's Joe Strummer escapes the monotony that settles over the rest of this strident picture.


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