Short Takes 

MICHAEL CLAYTON The appeal of legal thrillers isn’t the threat of surprise but the comfort of ironclad conventions; this one, written and directed by hot screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies), takes and yields great pleasure in hitting its sleekly paranoid marks.

MICHAEL CLAYTON The appeal of legal thrillers isn’t the threat of surprise but the comfort of ironclad conventions; this one, written and directed by hot screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies), takes and yields great pleasure in hitting its sleekly paranoid marks. Borrowing some of Network’s rage-against-the-machine rancor and And Justice for All’s anti-authoritarian fist-pumping, Gilroy follows the four-day freefall of a white-shoe New York law firm’s shifty fixer (George Clooney), dispatched to fetch a partner who fell apart representing the bad guys in a multibillion-dollar class-action suit. Needless to say, the fixer faces a crisis of conscience as the job gets dirtier—but Gilroy’s clever flashback structure and emphasis on character and chilly mood over plot machinery make the familiar elements fresh. What makes this a must-see, though, is the caliber of the acting, from Tom Wilkinson as the stricken partner—a rumpled Howard Beale whose moment of moral clarity seals his doom—to Tilda Swinton’s tightly wound corporate schemer, whose Martha Stewart ice-queen facade clamps back floodwaters of flop sweat. As the firm’s coldly pragmatic chief, producer Sydney Pollack exudes old-pro menace without raising his voice, or needing to. Clooney, meanwhile, proves surprisingly adept at playing a whipped dog of a bagman, saving all his charisma and force for the moment he gets to bite back. The long, admiring close-up he gets over the closing credits is both earned and rewarded. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday)

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE To paraphrase Hank Hill on Christian rock, Julie Taymor’s mercilessly art-directed Beatles movie doesn’t make the Beatles better, it just makes the movies worse. Essentially Mamma Mia! with the Fab Four subbing for ABBA, it’s a K-Tel commercial for the death of the Sixties with every character name and incident a flimsy pretext for a song cue—and that’s even before Eddie Izzard turns up as “Mr. Kite” for a bad-acid version of guess what. The movie’s charming at its least pretentious, when Taymor and TV-vet screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais unpack some of the songs’ soundtrack-of-a-generation baggage—as when T.V. Carpio’s bashful high-school lesbian pines for a teen-dream cheerleader to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while capering fullbacks make like 42nd Street chorines. But by the time flaming strawberries strafe Vietnam to guess what, and a soldier lugs a so-heavy Statue of Liberty across a battlefield to guess what, the movie has co-opted strife and suffering as an excuse to strike up the band. The songs, however, remain indestructible and affecting, even when paired with cheesy arrangements and the hootiest of Taymor’s Cirque-du-So-Lame imagery. Hell, if they could survive William Shatner, the Sgt. Pepper’s movie and this, we should hide behind them in event of nuclear attack. —Jim Ridley (Opens Friday)

THE LAST WINTER Set at the base camp of a corporate expedition to establish an oil-mining operation in the Alaskan Arctic Circle, The Last Winter is one of those ghost stories concerned with an accursed house built atop ancient burial grounds—except here the house is civilization itself, and the angry spirits are those of ancient plants and animals rising from the chthonic sludge of crude oil to bedevil a drilling team (including Ron Perlman and James LeGros). Mother Earth taking revenge for a localized intrusion is one way to parse this canny conceptual horror film, and one way to account for what appears to be the rampage of demonic CGI caribou. Another way to see it is as a fable of speculative evolution: this is what happens when our time on the planet is up; this is, literally, the last winter of humankind. The latest from independent fright-flick auteur Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) is careful not to explain the exact nature of its mounting crises. Fessenden executes his ambiguities with great precision of mood and atmosphere, maximizing the unfathomable dimensions of his white-on-white wasteland, the claustrophobic interiors of the base camp, and the perks of a far larger production than he’s accustomed to, milking those helicopter shots for all they’re worth. —Nathan Lee (Opens Friday at the Belcourt)

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