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

April 21, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIX

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-ninth portmanteau post on matters of course!

“Nah, I don’t like it”

This ad has been annoying me for months, to an unusual degree because of its omnipresence in the inescapable setting of a cinema. From the start I thought of the moment in Castle when his daughter’s layabout boyfriend questions what colour sofa Castle was proposing to give them  – “What colour?? Free!” That’s the lack of gratitude which offended me greatly from the start, taking a gift and just tossing it aside; like the inscribed books in second-hand bookstores I wrote about here some years back. There’s the fuzzy logic at work, you must buy a new sofa to put your own stamp on the place. Well, surely you must also only buy new build houses or else how could you possibly put your own stamp on the place? But then I suffered this ad after David Attenborough’s jeremiad about climate change. One of the talking heads featured said we need to lead a less wasteful life, and that this wouldn’t impact on our standard of living very much at all. We just need, in his example, to buy a good washing machine, care for it, and make it last. Well, this ad now offends on a whole other level. As well as the two elements that got my goat such obliviousness towards a comfortable, generously gifted sofa will end civilisation and the existing ecosystem.

A TIME TO KILL, Matthew McConaughey, 1996

A time to kill?

I had cause recently to encounter a small but outrageous rewriting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

For everything there is a season,

And a time for every matter under heaven;

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

God has made everything beautiful in its time.

Mysteriously some latter-day Bowdler somewhere had decided that there should no longer be a time to kill. Which makes John Grisham’s novel seem a good deal less biblically inspired and a good deal more originally vicious in retrospect. I then discovered another verse from Ecclesiastes has been given the same treatment. I didn’t recognise what 44:10, “Next let us praise illustrious people, or ancestors in their successive generations”, was meant to be until musing on the meaning of it I suddenly realised it should have been, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”. Again, with this change, out the window go the ironical echoes in James Agee and Walker Evans’ photojournalism of the Great Depression Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Jessica Mitford’s devastating takedown ‘Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers’. The Bowdler would no doubt defend good intentions, but no. Leave the Word of God alone. If you give yourself license to rewrite the Tanakh because you don’t like some sentiments or gendering then where do you logically end? Do you silently elide Yahweh torching Nadab and Abihu for using fire from the wrong source for their censers? And if not, why not? It’s a bit of an over-reaction, right? Please, change nothing or change everything.

December 6, 2011

Top 7 Joel Schumacher Movies

It’s easy to make fun of the director of Batman & Robin, and God knows I’ve done it myself, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Joel Schumacher. He doesn’t have a distinct visual style or trademark thematic concerns so he’ll never be acclaimed as an auteur, but as a journeyman director he reclaims the original meaning of that word as he’s a skilled practitioner of his craft whose name usually guarantees solid entertainment.

(7) The Phantom of the Opera
This was the last Schumacher film that did decent box-office, despite lukewarm reviews, and it’s a solid adaptation. Hilariously the then unknown cast has become retrospectively impressive as the disfigured Phantom Gerard Butler tries to win the ingénue singer Emmy Rossum away from the foppish Patrick Wilson. Lloyd Webber’s music is the star, but Schumacher stages the numbers well, especially in the underground lair.

(6) St Elmo’s Fire
Schumacher co-wrote and directed the definitive Brat Pack movie. Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson, all give some of their best 1980s performances in a film about college graduates with great expectations struggling to live up to the promises of Reaganomics by self-actualising (and, pace Judd, becoming Republicans) while being buffeted by the unpredictable desires of their own hearts.

(5) The Lost Boys
Schumacher coaxed a star-making performance from Kiefer Sutherland as the villain while creating an influential version of vampires: forget Anne Rice’s philosophical angst, these are eternally teenage bad boys, bloodily partying to rock music. The great Edward Hermann’s dignity is hilariously abused by the kids who suspect he’s a vampire master. Jason Patric’s hero is anaemic opposite Kiefer, but there Anne Rice’s Louis/Lestat template is observed.

(4) Tigerland
Schumacher ‘discovered’ Colin Farrell by directing him in this incendiary first lead performance as rebellious Texan Bozz, causing discontent at a training camp for Vietnam. Part of Schumacher’s atonement for Batman & Robin, this was a defiant move to truly gritty drama, even down to the rough shooting style, and it worked – Farrell’s charisma making a fairly archetypal arc about the assumption of responsibility seem emotive and fresh.

(3) Flatliners
“Today’s a good day to die…” Schumacher’s second film with Kiefer confirmed his striking ability to foster young talent (Julia Roberts, Hope Davis and Oliver Platt) who would quickly go on to even bigger things. Medical students experiment with stopping their hearts to allow brief excursions into the afterlife, only to find they’ve unexpectedly brought back their own worst demons. Schumacher creates creeping dread with numerous nail-biting sequences.

(2) Phone Booth
Schumacher’s second film with Farrell deployed considerable visual flair, not least in its extensive split-screens, to make its titular fixed location properly cinematic. Farrell’s sleazy arrogant agent is reduced to a gibbering wreck while pinned down by Kiefer’s insidious, and verbally taunting, sniper. Part glorious high concept executed well, and part cheeky reversal of Kiefer’s 24 comeback, this was Schumacher announcing his return to the glossy mainstream.

(1) The Client
The pre-eminent John Grisham adaptation is powered by Susan Sarandon’s charm and doggedness, the latter so underpinned by integrity that even antagonist Tommy Lee Jones eventually respects it. Sarandon may have won an Oscar for Dead Man Walking but (along with Thelma & Louise) this is the film for which she’ll be fondly remembered. Schumacher also drew a great performance from Brad Renfro as her young client, and mixed nicely orchestrated suspense with a wonderfully warm humanity.

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