Michael Clayton. I don't get the fuss. The film offers an interesting, intriguing even, salute to moody suspense dramas of the 70s (The Conversation et al) but doesn't add anything new to the genre. I admire the film's restraint. Corporate wrong-doing, for example, looms in the plot's background but never becomes a site for polemics. But the narrative jumbles together familial dysfunction, midlife crisis, addiction, business ethics, friendship and masculinity, mental illness, and much more, lacking a real focal point. Of course, as the film's title suggests, the protagonist himself (played competently by George Clooney) is supposed to provide that focus. For me, though, the character wandered in and out of too many conflicts. And the Tilda Swinton character struck me as sexist and stock. The only woman in the narrative is a ruthless and unethical go-getter. Did I miss the film's self-awareness or completely misread this oscar-nominated representation?
In the Valley of Elah. Tommy Lee Jones gives an eerily cold performance as a retired Marine and grieving father. His character's son, also a Marine, is murdered soon after returning home from service in Iraq. The film becomes a police procedural (a played out genre for anyone who watches network tv) but Jones's performance makes "Valley" powerful. He barely sheds a tear, even while identifying his son's remains or listening to his wife blame him for their child's death. That's not to say he doesn't react or he's not full of grief. The character's reaction is flawlessly consistent with his training and values. I appreciated the straight-ahead way the film dealt with the horrors of war--torture, drug abuse, de-humanization--mostly seen through grainy cell-phone videos taken by the murder victim. For some, these horrors represent following policy or letting off steam. For others, these things signal all that is reprehensible about war. The film allows for both. I suspect some see this as a sign of the film's non-committal perspective, but, for me, witnessing these acts without exclamation points made them all the more striking.