Friday, September 28, 2007

Michael Clayton: Mr. Fix-It

Issues of the personal and the professional overlap, intersect, fold in on themselves and get all around muddled – as does the plot – in Michael Clayton, a somber legal thriller written and directed by Tony Gilroy of the Bourne franchise. George Clooney stars in the titular role as the employee of a powerful law firm whose broad job description is a “fixer.” It’s a performance of immense understatement, both in terms of emotion and charisma. Even more so than in his underwritten albeit Oscar-winning role in Syriana, this is Clooney at his most world-weary and downbeat.

Michael Clayton’s strongest attribute is the attention it pays to character’s lives outside of the workplace. Unlike many other corporate conspiracy tales, the diminishing home lives and personal time of the central characters is made into a focal point. In addition to dealing with an enormous case involving a fertilizer company and a chemically unbalanced senior attorney named Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), Michael is scrambling to resolve the debt incurred by a risky financial investment with his deadbeat brother. His tracts get increasingly jumbled as details of both sides intersect and impede him from resolving either dilemma swiftly.

Gilroy’s world of corporate law is depicted much like the world of the mafia in The Godfather. At the heart of the story are two men – Michael and Arthur – both trying to escape the morass of immorality that has engulfed them. Whenever it seems like either one has an opportunity to break out, the system pulls them back in (to paraphrase Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III). In a brilliantly telling violation of the 180 degree rule early in the film, the camera cuts between Michael and Arthur from opposite sides of the room, reversing their positions on screen and effectively entwining their conditions – although not necessarily their fates.

The characters in the film are artfully drawn and so is the plot; although the presentation of the plot is not as skillful and falls into the trap of obfuscation rather than intrigue. Early scenes go into illuminating detail about litigator Karen Crowder’s (Tilda Swinton) preparation for a press conference but considering the film subsequently streamlines her for the majority of the second and third acts, the early scenes serve little effect other than disorientation. However, if you can make it through the first forty minutes of byzantine plot structure, you’ll uncover a gripping human drama very much worth hanging around for.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Run, Fat Boy, Run

Run, Fat Boy, Run – a romantic comedy about a dopey loser who vows to run a marathon in order to win back his ex-wife – will one day make a remarkable case for reception studies based on the differences of its release and perception in the UK and US. It’s not due out until mid March in the US, at which point it will likely be dumped in a limited release (1500 screens absolute max) and see middling box office returns. Too low brow to receive critical support and not funny enough to generate feverish word of mouth, the film stands little chance to make any mark in the states other than to be seen as David Schwimmer’s failed feature directorial debut. However, in its native Britain, Run, Fat Boy, Run has already garnered some modestly supportive reviews and generated solid box office including a three-week-and-counting run at number one thanks to its prim London locales and lead performance by British comedy superstar Simon Pegg.

Being a sucker for romantic comedies, British urban idylls and all things Schwimmer (I proudly proclaim him to be my favorite Friend and to have seen him on stage twice), I headed off to the cinema to make a judgment on the film before the nasty US marks start pouring in. The verdict? A mild, inoffensive comedy that’s not as crass as its title but still revels in a few too many crotch shots and the gross-out effect of a mammoth blister erupting in a poor bloke’s face. Fortunately it’s all done with pretty locations, inspired casting and a thematic interest in mending family ties. In short, if you’re a fan of one of the three qualities I professed a love for, you’ll probably be entertained.

In the first few minutes of the film, during Dennis’ (Pegg) fevered decision to run out on his fiancĂ© Libby (Thandie Newtwon), Schwimmer loads on all the skewed angles and temporal and aural discontinuities of a first-time filmmaker eager to prove his knowledge of an editing room.

Fortunately, as the film progresses he relaxes and actually proves himself quite adept. He handles a number of key sequences with assuredness and one particular scene with expertise. When Libby’s new boyfriend Whit (perfectly played by Hank Azaria) dings a glass at a crowded party to make an announcement, the entire audience knows that what is to follow is a proposal, but for a change, so does the heretofore witless lead character. Instead of trying to build the tension (because there would be none to build) by holding on Whit’s speech giving, he cuts to a close-up of Dennis realizing what’s about to happen so that Pegg is able to convey the agonizing torture of awaiting the inevitable instead of playing it for a shocked double take after the announcement has been made. Schwimmer’s ten years in the sitcom world have helped him to spot a clichĂ©, know how to adhere to it and most importantly, how to tweak it just enough to make it work.

More to the credit of Michael Ian Black’s original script and Simon Pegg’s rewrite is that the film manages to pull off the story’s silly conceit. Not for an instant could the weight of a legitimate romance hinge on something as inconsequential as running a marathon but the characters acknowledge this idiocy and by the end, the script manages to surprisingly pull out a viable situation in which it does. Even if it does depend on some late-in-the-game vilifying of Libby’s American suitor. It’s almost as if the filmmakers have anticipated the film’s predestined failure in the States.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Not due out until Christmastime stateside but currently playing to a glowing reception in the United Kingdom is Atonement, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwen’s bestselling novel. It’s a love saga framed around WWII; the first half takes place during the onset and the second during Britain’s retreat from France in 1944. In essence, it’s a weepie about two lovers separated by the horrors of war. But it’s more than that; the relationships and the circumstances are quite complicated and best not to reveal too much about their myriad complexities.

Following his exquisite adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 2005, Joe Wright’s direction may just be the most invigorating quality to be added to the period piece love story since colorization. Instead of succumbing to the standard period piece feeling of constantly keeping the viewer at arm’s length, his films are rendered accessible through their vitality and immediacy. With Pride and Prejudice, he incorporated fast moving but controlled camerawork that threw the viewer headfirst into the life and times of Jane Austen’s characters. But his skilled camerawork isn’t all, he also has a keen ear for musical score, a talent for casting and a graceful pacing that makes his films feel substantial while kept within reasonable running times.

In Atonement, he plays around with temporal continuity in a manner most uncommon to the period piece and more akin to the nonlinearity of Tarrantino. Key events are seen multiple times from differing vantage points but it’s not a gimmick, rather it’s a thematic accommodation. At times Atonement is a bit too stylish for its own good: it’s hard to feel the emotional impact of a field of murdered children while we’re marveling over the craftsmanship of a majestic tracking shot. However, there is a single extreme long take (of such considerable length and scope that it rivals the much heralded shot in Children of Men) that is one of the greatest shots of the year, awe-inspiring in terms of narrative attachment and formal impressiveness as it simultaneously conveying the bleak expansiveness of the British army soldiers awaiting a return home and baffling the viewer through the sheer patience and skill required to pull off such a shot.

The film’s ending is somewhat problematic. Emotionally stirring to be sure but it tries too hard to satisfy both viewer camps: the romantics and the realists. In a way the filmmakers are guilty of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. While I don’t think that I just saw the Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscar ceremony (as some pundits are already predicting it to be), I did see a film of remarkable character. A synthesis of devastating pain and immense entertainment; prestige filmmaking and populist cinema.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Helvetica: The Font is Mightier

"Ultimately little more than a curiosity piece, there is a certain fascination present in seeing some of the faces behind the Microsoft Office fonts we all know and love."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In the Valley of Elah: The Patriot

"At its best, the film coolly mixes incisive political commentary with a case so engrossing it’s tempting to whip out a notepad and jot down clues..."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Resurrecting the Champ: Down and Half-Way Out

"The screenwriters, Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett, demonstrate a keen ability to write complex lead characters but also a need for them to pay more attention to plotting."

Friday, September 07, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up to Yuma

An onslaught of testosterone invades movie theaters this weekend with the grizzly western 3:10 to Yuma and the go-for-broke action flick Shoot ‘Em Up battling it out in wide release (and to a lesser extent the fertilization comedy The Brothers Solomon). I find it positively shocking that Lionsgate and New Line would release Yuma and Shoot in the same weekend. While Yuma is more likely to attract older movie goers thanks to its western nostalgia and Shoot will lure younger viewers with its hyperkinetic aesthetics, the main demographic remains the same for both films: Males 17-34.

It’s open season as to which film will claim stake at the box office this weekend; my instinct is Yuma but neither would surprise me. But why choose just one anyway? The two seem generated to fit perfectly into the parameters of a Grindhouse-style double feature. That’s the route my buddy and I took this afternoon and the long and short of it is that Yuma is a fairly solid choice under most circumstances, whereas Shoot ‘Em Up should be viewed as the second half of a double header or not at all.

While Yuma is branded the A picture somewhat by default (it could be the B in certain situations), it at least has enough substance to stand on its own two legs. Shoot ‘Em Up is the cinematic equivalent of fast food: momentarily satiating but ultimately unsatisfying and devoid of any nutritional value.

A 14-year-old videogame geek’s wet dream and an expecting parent’s nightmare, Shoot ‘Em Up is a hyperactive collection of extreme action set-pieces strung together by loud rock music, a gun fetish, an orphaned baby and a cooler than cool Clive Owen at his most rough and tumble. I laughed a few times and enjoyed the occasional self-referential mockery but shudder at the prospect of teenage boys trying to gouge out each other’s eyes with raw carrots after seeing the movie.

The only thing Shoot ‘Em Up takes seriously is guns. Not in the pro- or anti-gun control sense (the movie seems to endorse both sides of the argument) but in the sheer knowledge of the inner workings of artillery. The characters in the film are up to date with the latest in fingerprint technology and know that when a gun is fired, the nozzle becomes scalding hot and that if a gun is accidentally dropped in a toilet bowl, it will need to be properly dried before working again.

Toting bigger guns but firing more judiciously are the characters of 3:10 to Yuma. They also boast a much more consistent rate of bullet-to-body ratio than the incessant hail of gunfire swirling around the scenes of Shoot ‘Em Up. One of Yuma’s nicest qualities is the restraint in its depiction of brutality. Make no mistake, the grim lawlessness of the Wild West is in full effect and the film contains a couple of harrowing sequences but the violence never becomes excessive. In other words, I’d easily send my Mom to see it without any words of caution.

The most complex element in 3:10 to Yuma is the presentation of character psychology. Similar to the dilemma in last year’s The Prestige (another Christian Bale film), you’re not always entirely sure who you want to survive here: the Bale character or the Russell Crowe character. While Bale is unquestionably the picture’s hero and of course we want to see him succeed by default, we also become quite fond of Crowe’s charming rogue and thus have to grapple with the truth that either character’s survival is predicated upon the other’s demise. Unfortunately, character motivation becomes somewhat erratic in the film’s final scenes and it’s hard to shake the feeling that – as much fun as it is to watch the brilliant Bale act in any movie – he’s slightly miscast, always appearing too stoic to play the social whipping boy that is his character. Nevertheless, these are still three-dimensional characters and that makes all the difference when compared to the one-dimensional bots that populate the visual orgy of Shoot ‘Em Up.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fierce People: On Deadly Ground

"Fierce People is nasty, unfunny and wildly incongruous."

Click here to read my entire review in The L Magazine