A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film. In this installment: Michael Clayton, 30 Days of Night, Cloverfield, I Am Legend, Rescue Dawn, Red Road, Death at a Funeral.

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Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy/2007)
I’ve never understood the appeal of George Clooney. Some say he performs with a brooding intensity; I personally feel he acts from somewhere beneath his eyebrows, cocking his head to one side, casting forlorn looks into the camera. Whether this world weariness is what he intended to project or not, there’s no denying I’ve had to reassess my opinion of Clooney’s acting based on his performance as Michael Clayton, a middle aged lawyer and firm fixer who spends his time cleaning up complex cases on behalf of corporate clients. When an old colleague, Arthur Edens (played with manic tendencies by Tom Wilkinson), begins to breakdown after working on a case for an agricultural company for almost eight years, Clayton is called in to resolve the situation. If Edens first appears to be losing the plot, Clayton soon realises there is more to the case than meets the eye. Digging deeper, he is drawn into a corporate world willing to do anything to erase its culpability and protect its image. An excellent film, I’m niggled by how predictable Clooney’s character is, one that’s not at all dissimilar from his breakthrough role on TV, ER’s troubled paediatrician Dr Doug Ross. This time Clooney is a brilliant lawyer (as Ross was a brilliant doctor), but despite being able to fix law cases, is unable to smooth over the flaws in his personal life (a la Ross). His brother has destroyed their bar career and is in debt; he’s a lone parent; he has family problems; he’s juggling a gambling addiction. It’s a characterisation lacking in depth; a sloppy sticking point in this otherwise first-rate thriller. Wilkinson’s presence, while limited, is just stunning, with a performance that simply blows everyone else off the screen. Likewise, Tilda Swinton’s cold, calculating lawyer is chilling; charged with defending the agricultural client, hers is a ruthless and at times inhuman character augmented by a wonderfully underplayed turn. Her reasoning for carrying out such horrific actions seem perfectly logical when portrayed in such a way. Gilroy sustains the tautness of a thriller throughout (as he should having cut his teeth on the Bourne trilogy). A real Oscar contender, it’s craftily constructed (despite some initial misdirection leading viewers to incorrect conclusions), big with flourishes, a hugely satisfying denouement, and some sizzling dialogue between the main leads. In Theatres Now.—Darren Bevan

30 Days of Night (David Slade/2007)
The vampire genre has had a rocky celluloid ride over the years, both on the big screen and small. This latest offering belongs to the worst of them; for every Near Dark made, there’s a Interview with the Vampire lurking in the shadows. A shame because 30 Days of Night holds such a terrific premise; adapted from Steve Niles’ critically acclaimed graphic novel, the town of Barrow in Alaska prepares to be plunged into a month of darkness, with sunset bringing chaos in the form of a pack of hungry vampires. Trying to make it through the month are a bunch of rag tag survivors try, led by the woefully miscast Josh Hartnett as Sheriff Eben Oleson. Rapidly approaching levels of woodenness displayed by Keanu Reeves, he struggles to be an effective lead and fails miserably in conveying any of the conflicts facing his character – not only is he grappling with the wholescale massacre of his town, but he’s also confronted with another demon in his ex-wife Stella (Melissa George). Stranded in Barrow after missing the last flight out, she becomes intent on him to addressing exactly why their marriage disintegrated. Other disappointments include the complete jettisoning of some of the more subtle points raised in Niles’ original comic books – it’s insinuated in the original that the town’s invaders are an embarrassment to the secrecy of the vampire race and a leader; it’s also claimed the cold numbs the vampires’ senses (thus explaining why around eight of the humans can escape) These dismissals denigrate the overall feel of the film and fail to elevate it from the mire. It’s a real waste as there are some great dark moments in David Slade’s film: a child is used by the vampires to try and lure the survivors out; their anguish is counterbalanced by the fear they will be discovered and slaughtered; the pale white landscape of Barrow is splattered throughout with major patches of red where the vampires have fed on the fallen residents; and in one of the darker moments, a deputy sheriff chooses to murder his family rather than see them fall prey to the marauding vampires, taking a coward’s way out instead of trying to help them live. The vampires themselves are not too shabby entrants in the genre – all pale white, super strength, black mouldy Nosferatu like nails. Their leader, played by Danny Huston, is particularly chilling. Filmed in New Zealand, 30 Days of Night inevitably casts Kiwis in roles, the most notable of which is Joel Tobeck as a survivor. One saving grace is the bleak ending which is true to the original, though still not enough to offer a shot at cinematic redemption. In Theatres Now.—Darren Bevan

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves/2008)
Some films are too smart for their own good. Some possess ultra slick marketing campaigns which see them generate terrific buzz but fail long term at the box office after viral word-of-mouth kills the hype stone dead. Cloverfield is one of those films doomed to slump, a la Blair Witch, and it’s already fading fast – down 40% in takings abroad and with a mixed reception from audiences. Shot in handicam style, the film’s wafer-thin plot begins downtown Manhattan where a group of non-descript yuppies bids adieu to one of their own migrating to take a job in corporate Japan (the first homage to the monster movies of the past). Celebrations are soon marred by the arrival of the creature, whose rampage recalls 9/11. When it initially enters Manhattan, the attacks of Al Qaeda resonate; when a building is knocked down and the dust cloud hurtles towards the petrified populace, sending them scuttling into shops, the footage by a French documentary team of the Twin Towers collapsing is distinctly, chillingly echoed seven years on. The big question for Cloverfield, after desperate attempts during its advertising blitz to freeze frame the monster, is whether it holds up to close scrutiny. Yes and no. There’s still no indication of where it came from; still debate over whether it’s manmade or extra terrestrial in origin. As one military character puts it (quite succinctly) as they unleash an arsenal on it: “Who cares – it’s winning”. On screen there are plenty of fleeting shots of the creature throughout, while a real close up doesn’t come until near the end (although this shot itself seems contrived); vaguely, it’s a cross between a Kraken and Godzilla. If not entirely original, it’s not massively disappointing either. More primitively, the characters simply try to survive the initial attacks before attempting to rescue a friend trapped in a besieged building. The film, as a result, resembles a video game of ascending levels: negotiate the yuppy party, avoid the initial attack, cross the bridge, find the girl. The equivalent of a ghost train – some decent jolts along the way that leave you feeling cheated, if exhilarated – Cloverfield ultimately suffers from a human perspective. From the outset, we’re expected to root for characters we’ve barely met, buy into their unrequited love, and care for those placed in jeopardy. In times when YouTube can propel nobodies into the everyday collective, it seems like a perfectly reasonable leap of faith. In Theatres Now.—Darren Bevan

I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence/2007)
It’s rare for me to commend a Will Smith film. He’s usually found in frothy, irritating popcorn fillers such as Independence Day and Men In Black, failing to develop on the promise he initially showed in Six Degrees of Separation. However, at the start of this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, Smith finally makes good; he’s practically alone on screen for the first 45 minutes, Alsatian companion aside. As Robert Neville, a military scientist stranded in a deserted Manhattan after a cure for cancer goes awry and obliterates the majority of the human race, we learn through Smith’s flashbacks how the world changed and in snapshots, how he lost his family. We gradually learn why when dusk falls, he bolts the doors, pulls down window shutters, and hunkers down in a bathtub with his dog until sunrise – a slow cranking tension that creates an early sense of unease. Occuping his days with trying to find a cure and flirting with shop dummies in abandoned video stores, things change when his dog Sam inadvertently leads him to an abandoned warehouse; pitted against zombie-like humans who only want to feast on his blood, Neville decides he needs a devolved human to test a cure on and makes off with one of the females from the zombie pack. The contrast couldn’t be more marked as the confrontation between the Infected and Neville reveals how seriously both sides have dehumanised – an interesting subversion as the zombies appear more human than Neville. Soon enough though, the film begins to fall apart. Smith acquits himself in the role with a psychological unravelling, but it’s Francis Lawrence’s hold on proceedings (who previously cut his teeth on music videos before directing Keanu Reeves in Constantine) that loses grip, with the film changing tone, before really blowing it with a twist denouement. The revelation of a cure is shoehorned in such an implausible way, questions arise as to how a supposedly brilliant military scientist didn’t discover it sooner. All sympathy is lost for the character at this point, while resentment of the journey endured sets in. An open ending (and recent box office receipts) would suggest a sequel is on the way, but I won’t be off to see I Still Am Legend . In Theatres Now.—Darren Bevan

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog/2006)
Miming Little Dieter Needs to Fly almost note-for-note, Rescue Dawn is a faithful and formidable prisoner of war ordeal book-ended by a weakness for military and Hollywood clichés. In the weathered hands of Werner Herzog, however, such concessions are almost entirely forgivable, and while amiably servicing the film’s commercial needs, he also circumvents any pressure to mythologize Dieter Dengler’s capture and escape into a Commando serial of pungent patriotism and chest-beating heroism. Christian Bale, himself a fine amalgam of method madness and mainstream nous, embodies the rabid life-force of Dengler, particularly the ex-pat German’s propensity to talk, and the performance itself becomes a model for the obsession Herzog regularly warps his cinema with. The consumption of snakes and maggots, extreme emaciation, and an excruciating scene involving leeches are just some of the lengths Bale goes to for authenticity’s sake, and evidently also, in honour of Denger’s memory. The film’s other magnificent obsession is ‘Little Dieter’s’ need to fly – or in the context of the captivity, take flight – and there’s something morally precarious about his compulsion to escape at the risk and expense of others. Nature fetish aside, Herzog turns out a robust, riveting big screen movie that omits some of the more overt distinguishing features of his oeuvre, and it’s at least surprising he resisted the temptation to include one of the documentary’s more surreal – and indeed, Herzognian – moments of altered reality: when Dengler, exhausted and near-death, witnesses a grizzly bear emerge from the jungle overgrowth. Opens Feb 21. —Tim Wong [Read More]

Red Road (Andrea Arnold/2006)
Not quite the Orwellian proxy its marketing will have you believe, Red Road nevertheless transfers some of 1984’s high anxiety to the present day, where in the wake of London’s subway bombings and a pervading terrorist threat, CCTV outposts cast an eye over every nook and cranny of the urban terrain. In Glasgow, Scotland – a city of conspicuous grayscale malaise – a lonely surveillance operator happens upon a man from her past, first staking him out via a network of cameras at her disposal, before pursuing him directly in a confrontation that turns every rape-revenge movie on its head. Ostensibly bracketed with the likes of Sliver, Peeping Tom and Hidden, Red Road sure enough investigates leads in voyeurism, Big Brother-ism, and spectatorship, but is less concrete about its findings than its director’s premature comparisons to Michael Haneke suggest. Rather, Andrea Arnold’s CCTV conceit is a high-concept launch pad for a new kind of stalker movie: initially intriguing under the sedation of television monitor glare; then, more involving once its protagonist steps outside of her viewfinder and into the field of play. At the crosshairs of the film’s drama, Katie and Clyde – hunter and prey respectively – may share a liking for arbitrary sex in public places, but remnants of their connected history are otherwise well concealed, with a poker-faced Arnold holding her cards close with all the cunning of an Atom Egoyan reveal. Aesthetically, there’s every chance this material would’ve benefited from the glacial formality of Haneke’s clinical tableaux, yet its floating, hard-edged fidelity draws out an unsightly beauty; chiefly, among the film’s imposing modernist tenements that if not for digital video’s higher definition, wouldn’t look out of place in the bleakest of sci-fi dystopias. Opens Feb 21.—Tim Wong [Read More]

Death at a Funeral (Frank Oz/2007)
I was in two minds walking into Death at a Funeral. On the one hand it includes a pretty decent cast of (mainly British) comic actors. On the other hand I couldn’t stop thinking of the awfulness that was Bowfinger. And what about The Muppets? But my fears were soothed; director Frank Oz serves up a clever little situation comedy choc full of laugh-out-loud humour – even if it regularly crosses the border into Stilleresque puerility. Matthew MacFadyen sheds his In My Father’s Den gravitas to play the slightly whiney, taken advantage of son, Daniel, who is organising the funeral for his beloved father. Rupert Graves puts in a likeable turn as successful and mildly lecherous brother Robert, in whose shadow Daniel lives. Supporting cast includes such recognisable talent as: Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting, Match Point), Keeley Hawes (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), Alan Tudyk (Firefly/Serenity) Kris Marshall (Love Actually), and Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent). All the action takes place in their family home (or on the way to it) and the majority of the humour derives from the morass of family relationships which would resonate, to some degree, with most viewers. There are plenty of Something About Mary-style moments for those who swing that way, though the British cast and setting somehow make these far more palatable and charming than they might otherwise be. I suspect that many of the older audience members wouldn’t have found much of the physical humour so enjoyable if it had actually been performed by Ben Stiller and bunch of other American accented over-actors. In the final analysis this terribly obvious comedy actually works for what it is – an easy, enjoyable laugh. In Theatres Now.—Jacob Powell [Read More]