Talking Movies

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Michael Clayton

From the Archives:

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer for a New York law firm whose looming bankruptcy distracts him from trying to stop his friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) destroying one of the firm’s most lucrative cases.

The Bourne trilogy seems to have become a veritable cash-cow for all concerned, allowing them to do resolutely un-commercial fare in between Bourne films. Here’s the directorial debut from Tony Gilroy, the co-writer of all three Bourne films, about a shady fixer for a law firm, Michael Clayton (worst title ever…). Perhaps it’s the influence of Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize winning playwright father but there’s more than a hint of David Mamet’s coruscating plays about the opening voiceover monologue. Not at all what you’d expect for the start of a standard legal thriller it leads into a baffling but intriguing prologue that promises Gilroy is going to bring the same realism to this genre as he did to the spy genre in The Bourne Identity.

The film is structured as an extended flashback of the previous 4 days leading up to a replaying of the prologue which gains added meaning second time around. Gilroy has created two genuinely bruised characters in Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens, both men who have been ground down mentally by doing what they know to be wrong in their service of law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Edens seeks redemption by leading the charge against his own side and scuppering their lucrative case representing the obviously guilty chemicals company U-North while Clayton seeks escape by investing in a restaurant venture that will allow him to bow out of being a fixer for the firm’s legal dirty laundry. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood hero being harassed about money and perpetually worried about bankruptcy for the duration of a film, and that is exactly what happens to Clayton as his restaurant fails. However, we could have done with seeing Clayton in action as a fixer. We’re constantly told how good he is but in focusing on the worst four days of Clayton’s life Gilroy undermines that. Show, don’t tell. All we see is Clayton making a mess of everything and being belittled as useless, which is indeed how he appears to us the audience.

George Clooney is on fine muted form as the long-suffering Clayton while Tom Wilkinson fairly snarls thru the screen as Arthur Edens, a manic depressive gone off his meds in order to liberate himself from his evil corporation. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder the chief legal counsel of U-North skilfully makes us hate Karen’s villainous actions while sympathising with her fragile emotional state, owing to the enormous pressure on her to succeed in a job she was groomed for but does not feel ready for. This film shares some qualities with Breach, another uncommercial venture by someone connected with the Bourne films. It is muted in tone, icily intelligent and features some intriguingly written characters. John Grisham for adults.

3/5

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: Breach

Another trawl thru the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers another puzzler from director Billy Ray, as FBI rookie Eric O’Neal (Ryan Phillipe) is assigned to spy on his new boss, senior analyst Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). O’Neal is shocked to discover, after becoming friends with the older man, that Hanssen is a suspected traitor.

This is not the sort of fare one usually associates with August. The Bourne Identity star Chris Cooper returns to the espionage genre with a far more muted depiction of the world of intelligence than current nerve shredder The Bourne Ultimatum. Melancholy is the key word here. Chris Cooper from the opening credits portrays the real life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen as a man exhausted by his double lives, almost aching to be exposed just so the need for deception will finally end. The tone of the story is reflected in its setting: Washington DC in January and February with snow on the ground, a chill wind in the air, and grey and blue tints in all the Bureau’s offices.

Billy Ray as a director seems to have created his own sub-genre in which he makes intelligent fact-based films drawing out good acting performances from previously disregarded pretty boys. Breach follows his directorial debut Shattered Glass in which he drew an emotionally affecting performance from Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, a reporter who nearly destroyed the reputation of The New Republic by making up stories. In Breach Ray manages to drag a good performance out of Ryan Phillipe, who convincingly plays that cinematic staple, the undercover agent who starts to sympathise with his prey. As FBI operative Eric O’Neal he spends the opening act of the film being astounded at the ordinariness of a man he has been assigned to spy on for suspected sexual misconduct. Once he penetrates the initial frosty reserve of Hanssen he finds a loyal, highly intelligent and kindly FBI analyst. Hanssen and his wife even invite O’Neal and his East German wife (Caroline Dhavernas) over for Sunday dinner. Following this O’Neal demands to know from his superiors why he is investigating Hanssen and is told by Laura Linney’s senior FBI agent that Hanssen is suspected not of sexual deviancy but of selling secrets. Ray creates scenes of almost unbearable suspense as the FBI try to acquire evidence against an agent who has consistently out-thought all their investigations to find the suspected mole.

Robert Hanssen, like Stephen Glass, remains even now an enigma. The reasons he gives Special Agent Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) for a previous traitor’s actions all seem to apply equally to himself, but while all are semi-plausible none truly convince. Hanssen is brilliantly portrayed by Cooper not just as a double agent but a double personality. He is a strict Catholic who secretly distributes home-made sex tapes, a loyal FBI man who tries to draw attention to implacable threats to American security but is in fact selling secrets to the Russians. The haunting final image powerfully conveys this self-tortured quality in a succinct summary of the subtlety of this film.

3/5

August 1, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part V

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

 

billy-ray-wga

The Enigma of Billy Ray

Some weeks back I made a cryptic reference to the enigma of Billy Ray. Who the hell is Billy Ray you might ask? Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer actually, as he appears to be two entirely different people; hence the enigma. On the one hand you have the writer/director Billy Ray, and on the other you have the screenwriter for hire Billy Ray. Billy Ray as a screenwriter is someone who writes reasonably big movies, like The Hunger Games or State of Play. This is his stock in trade, films with big names attached or big expectations, but not necessarily huge blockbuster budgets. And quite often they’re riddled with problems, not least with multiple writers getting in each other’s way as in the case of Hart’s War or Suspect Zero. But even when left on his own in the writing room to grind out a screenplay, for something like say Flightplan, Ray is always competent, but rarely inspiring. But as writer/director Billy Ray has made two auteurishly distinctive films, Shattered Glass and Breach. Both films are based on real life events, the former his own original screenplay, and the latter a severe rewrite by him of an existing script which made it feel like his previous directorial outing. Both films are low key dramas that become quite devastating, both feature excellent performances from an impressive ensemble of actors, and both, somehow, feature wonderful lead performances from pretty boy actors that few other directors seem able to coax such subtle turns from, Hayden Christensen and Ryan Phillipe. I once suggested that Robert Rodriguez had a bubbly twin he kept locked in the basement who wrote the Spy Kids movies for him, but with Billy Ray I’m boggled. He is, simply, an enigma.

Sounds like Metric

Two years ago I was blown away by Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and wrote a blog offering 7 reasons to love Edgar Wright’s comic extravaganza. One of those reasons concerned the distinctive sound of The Clash at Demonhead, the band fronted by Scott’s ex-girlfriend Envy Adams, who so blew away all the other bands showcased that Scott’s band-mate was left muttering “That was devastating” after the gig. “I’m not suggesting it’s actually Metric but it’s pleasing that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in composing the music for the film gave some variety to the styles of the different bands we hear and noticeably varied their quality even down to having the only song played by Scott’s ex-girlfriend and her successful band be actually kind of awesome…” That was what I wrote then. I recently re-watched Scott Pilgrim for the first time and was overjoyed to find that it stands up as an inventive and hilarious comedy, and slightly embarrassed to find that the reason it sounded like Metric was because it is Metric! Metric with Emily Haines’ vocals replaced by Brie Larson’s to be sure but Metric performing their song ‘Black Sheep’ nonetheless. And they rock, devastatingly…

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

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