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

April 25, 2018

From the Archives: Jumper

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds the last wide-release Hayden Christensen movie just days after the now neglected actor celebrated his 37th birthday.

Doug Liman, the director of The Bourne Identity, tries to reinvigorate the fantasy genre by bringing his trademark edgy handheld camera style to bear on new blockbuster Jumper but fails miserably. Jumper’s main problem is a wretched script that is the work of three screenwriters as well as the original novelist Stephen Gould. This film is transparently meant to establish an Origin Myth for an action franchise but it rushes through its set-up with unseemly haste. You will long for more detail on the mythic past of the teleporting Jumpers and their mortal enemies the Paladins but you will neither get that nor a good reason to care about any of these characters. This is all the odder given that the screenwriters boast Fight Club, Batman Begins and Mr & Mrs Smith on their collective resumes. Jumper thus bears the dreaded hallmarks of extensive studio meddling during its protracted post-production.

A brief prologue shows our hero David Rice discovering his power to teleport after a school bully’s prank leaves him fatally trapped under the ice in a fast flowing river. He then uses this new found ability to escape his abusive father and relocate to NYC where he robs a bank and lives off the proceeds for the next 8 years. In Hayden Christensen’s first scene as the grown up David he walks past a TV news report about people stuck on rooftops in a flood which asks how can these people be saved when no one can reach them? ‘Well, a Jumper could reach them…’ you mutter…but David just heads to the fridge for a beer before flitting off for a night on the town in London. David is selfish to a fault and Christensen’s utterly flat performance doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. Jumper slows to a crawl when he revisits Ann Arbor to whisk off his high-school sweetheart Millie (The OC’s Rachel Bilson) for a Roman holiday. Exactly why she agrees to go should become one of cinema’s most enduring mysteries. In Rome David meets Jamie Bell’s Griffin, a Jumper dedicated to killing the Paladins who have hunted the super-powered mutant Jumpers for centuries, and reluctantly teams up with him to defeat Roland, leader of the quasi-religious Paladins.

Jumper’s teleportation heavy action sequences involving ‘blink and you miss it’ globe-trotting underwhelm for the most part, with the exception of some extremely dangerous teleportation enhanced fast driving, and Jamie Bell’s line “God, I hate Chechnya” when the Jumpers unexpectedly land in a warzone. Samuel L Jackson as Roland, the vicious Jumper-hunter, has some fun sporting a fetching white hair-do but his role, rather like the film, is too underwritten for him to really make an impact. Ultimately (and ironically) for a film about people who never walk when they can teleport Jumper ends up a sadly pedestrian affair.

2/5

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