To catch up on my Oscar viewing I have been watching lots of DVDs (that and new TV hasn't started yet) and Gone, Baby, Gone and Michael Clayton were some of the best I've seen this year. Gone, Baby, Gone was touted as Ben Affleck's directorial debut and it really is very well put together, well directed, and well shot throughout. However, the only thing you remember after watching it is how awesome Casey Affleck has become as an actor. I just rewatched Good Will Hunting and Casey is a skinny, sniveling, side-kick at best. And played a similar character in the Ocean's series, basically annoying and forgettable. He probably could have played character roles for the rest of his career, but this year has transformed him, both physically and his career. His roles in Gone, Baby, Gone and as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James have definitely given him the credentials to play leading men. In G,B,G he plays a private detective hired by the family of a kidnapped little girl. He and his girlfriend/partner are torn about taking the case because they don't want to find a dead little girl, and they're not sure they have the ability to actually find her. However, the personal connections he has to the low-lifes in the Boston neighborhood are ultimately his biggest strength. He works with two older cops, one is Ed Harris in all his good guy/bad guy complexity, and the chief of the kidnapping division - Morgan Freeman. All kinds of standard kidnapping/cops scenes go on - negotiating with a bad guy with innuendo and metaphor ("if I did have the kid, she might be okay if I was given a lot of money"), the money exchange going really badly, and all the people being devastated and not really knowing what should have/could have been done. However, most movies end there and nothing new would have been brought to the genre. This movie was based on the book written by the same author as Mystic River. It goes on to find connections with other kidnapping cases and reveal a great mystery that I knew was coming, but totally didn't see the whole thing unraveling the way it did. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan playing the kidnapped girl's mother. She's crass, lying, stupid, and doesn't really care about her daughter, but somehow you still hope things work out for her. The first half of the movie is sad and you don't really want the little girl to be returned to these people. However, Affleck's partner played by Michelle Monaghan, voices our concerns about how ugly and horrific some of the people connected to the little girl really are. I found that without her character voicing my own issues with the neighborhood, I'd have been screaming at the screen and not able to watch such a terrible place. But Affleck attempting to defend the status quo in his childhood neighborhood and her arguing the moral high ground gives the movie the depth it needs to make you care. I really liked the movie and can't wait to see Jesse James just to watch Casey Affleck on screen again. Nearly 5 of 5 stars (like 4.75, only diminished by the horrors of the story being difficult to watch, though very cleverly shot to avoid imprinting grisly images on our psyche).
Michael Clayton, on the other hand, makes it pretty clear throughout who is good and who isn't. But like G,B,G it doesn't make it clear that all good things come to good people. Oscar-nominated (and previous winner for Syriana) George Clooney is a lawyer with a huge firm, whose main job is to fix problems quickly. He describes his position as a janitor, not a miracle worker. It seems he calls in favors and provides favors to make sure his clients get what they need. He also seems to manage Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson's manic character who's gone off his meds and is sabotaging his career. The movie follows Clooney figuring out how far Wilkinson has gone to sabotage a case protecting a huge polluting mega-company. On the flip side, Oscar-nominated Tilda Swinton is also following the sabotage and as the head lawyer for the mega-company making sure they're protected. Swinton is good as a unsure, high-ranking female lawyer who is always conscious of the company she works for and protecting it. It's an interesting story, well acted, and with terrific twists throughout. It's good, but I didn't think it added a lot to the concept or the genre. Erin Brockovich does a better job representing the legal case of lots of nobodies fighting a big company for polluting, and the legal thriller is covered by all John Grisham's work. It was a good movie, but not a favorite. 4 of 5 stars.