Tag Archives: B-

MICHAEL CLAYTON

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B-

Writer-director Tony Gilroy’s legal thriller moves so skillfully through a carefully-designed thicket of apparent complexities that it may take you a while to realize how simple and conventional a story it’s actually telling. And George Clooney is so smoothly charismatic in the title role of “Michael Clayton” that his leading-man power may blind you to the fact that his character is really a terribly familiar one. The picture is essentially yet another tale of unmasking corporate skullduggery via the courts (and extra-legal tricks) combined with a plot about the redemption of a torn and troubled man—“Erin Brockovich” meets “The Verdict,” so to speak. The fact that it’s as entertaining as it is, is a tribute to the dexterity of the execution.

Clayton is the “fixer” in the big New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, cleaning up clients’ emergencies as quickly—if sometimes underhandedly—as he can, and increasingly unhappy with his role as what he describes as a glorified janitor. He’s also facing financial problems—a restaurant he’d sunk his savings into has gone belly up—and family difficulties: his druggie brother (David Lansbury) was the one who doomed the restaurant, and he’s struggling to maintain contact with his precocious little son (Austin Williams), who lives with his ex-wife and her new husband.

It’s in the midst of such troubles that he’s saddled with a major job by his boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack): to deal with the firm’s top litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who’s literally gone bonkers while preparing to defend the huge conglomerate U/North in a suit charging it with having poisoned untold numbers of people with its agricultural products. As Michael tries to get a handle on the situation while dealing with his own monetary and domestic crises, he comes to realize that Arthur may be involved in helping one of the defendants, a physically damaged young woman named Anna (Merritt Wever) to expose the company’s wrongdoing rather than protecting the client’s interests. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s all happening at a time when Marty’s putting the final touches to a lucrative merger of the firm that could be doomed by bad publicity.

Interspersed with Clayton’s side of the story are scenes of U/North’s chief counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who’s overseeing two fixers of her own (Dennis O’Hare and Robert Prescott) in her desperate efforts to succeed as well at crisis control as her predecessor and mentor Don Jeffries (Ken Howard). The two plot lines aren’t just juggled throughout, but are themselves shuffled chronologically—the movie is actually a long flashback—to make events more shadowy and opaque. The result is that “Michael Clayton” winds up being a lot more mystifying than it really has any right to be, given that it’s actually just another tale of a company attempting to cover its unsavory tracks and of an unlikely hero finding a renewed sense of purpose to bring them down. To be sure, the script does add another layer to the mix by inserting the Edens character, whose crusade Clayton must decide whether or not to take up. But in the end, though he’s well—if very flamboyantly—played by Wilkinson, that character is more narrative flourish than essential element; one can easily imagine the story being constructed just about as tightly without him.

Still, for all its artificial sleight of hand, the picture succeeds in holding our interest, up to and including a final face-down that’s a bit silly (and doesn’t tie up all the loose ends) but is still fairly satisfying. A good deal of the credit is due to Clooney, who constructs a rich portrait of a conflicted man while effortlessly winning our sympathy for the character. On the other hand, Swinton, an excellent actress, struggles with the role of Crowder, who’s presented as a woman terrified that she might not have the strength to do her job and overplays the character’s nervousness. Most of the supporting cast, including young Williams and Sean Cullen as Michael’s cop brother, contribute nice turns. The strongest support, though, is offered by Pollack, who once again (as in “Tootsie,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and several other movies) plays himself, but does so engagingly.

The craftsmanship in “Michael Clayton” is on a very high level, with elegant cinematography by Robert Elswit that uses an understated palette of colors very effectively and a properly moody score by James Newton Howard. Their contributions, like the acting, can’t entirely hide the fact that there’s a good deal less to the movie than meets the eye—and the ear. But there’s still just enough to make for a close verdict in its favor.

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM

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B-

At last we know why the CIA has been unable to find Osama Bin Ladin for the past six years. The agency has been employing all its time and assets trying to track down Jason Bourne. Why? Well, as this third and supposedly final installment in the series informs us, because if Bourne gets back his memory he can blow the whistle on…well, without getting too specific, some nefarious goings-on at a high, high level of government, doings that are meant to protect the country but are antithetical to the very principles on which it was founded! (Sound familiar?)

“The Bourne Ultimatum” takes up where “The Bourne Supremacy” left off, with our hero, once again played by Matt Damon, escaping from Moscow to hop across Europe—from Italy to France to England and Spain—before crossing the Mediterranean to Morocco in search of the person who can tell him who he was and how he was transformed into the killing machine he now is. At each stage of the journey he engages in some breathless action—chases, fights or (most often) both. The most extravagant of these occur in London’s Waterloo Station, where Bourne tries to lead an investigative reporter (Paddy Constantine) to safety as they’re pursued by a small army of CIA agents, and the streets of Tangier, where he feverishly attempts to rescue helpmate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the CIA secretary whom he’d previously met and now encounters again in Madrid, from an assassin named Desh (Joey Ansah). From Africa Bourne proceeds to New York City for final encounters with those who are trying to take him down—notably stern CIA station chief Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Pam Landy (Joan Allen), who’s been sent by Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) to observe the operation—that involve more chases and close shaves—though they also bring him answers about his identity.

Even more than “The Bourne Supremacy,” this movie is almost a non-stop roller-coaster ride (there are a few pauses, one at about the seventy-minute mark), sort of like a feature-length Road Runner cartoon without the laughs. (The CIA comes off very badly here, its repeated efforts to kill or capture a single target, conducted with ridiculously state-of-the-art technology and an army of hit-men on immediate call, invariably falling flat. The gangly, dyspeptic Strathairn even resembles Wile E. Coyote without the fur.) And in the final analysis the picture doesn’t tell us an awful lot that we didn’t already know, or at least strongly suspect, about Jason’s past. (One revelation, which you can catch if you look closely enough in the scene where the sole remnant of Bourne’s former life is glimpsed, certainly helps to explain the profound feeling of guilt he feels over his actions as an undercover agent. Turns out he’s a Catholic.) And though the ending is satisfying enough, it owes an awful lot to “Three Days of the Condor.”

But although the picture doesn’t really do much except run and jump and punch and explode, it does all those things extremely well, and is viscerally very exciting. Most of the credit has to go to director Peter Greengrass, who once again shows himself a master at choreographing action and generating tension. The opening Moscow sequence is strong, and another at the Madrid CIA office is excellent, but they pale beside that Waterloo Station scene, a tremendous street-and-rooftop pursuit in Tangier (capped with a hand-to-hand combat scene that’s really down and dirty), and a spectacular car chase in New York City. As with “Supremacy,” the jittery visual style (with cinematography by Oliver Wood that often either is or mimics hand-held, and crisp editing by Christopher Rouse) can be distracting, but it’s typically Greengrass.

And Damon once again—stiff though he may be—makes the title character a figure you can actually sympathize with, and sometimes even believe in, despite his almost supernatural powers of precognition, planning and execution. Strathairn and Glenn are appropriately sinister foes, and Albert Finney adds a touch of class as the man with the answers in the final reel. The women, on the other hand, are, if you’ll excuse the expression, rather weak sisters. Stiles quickly becomes little more than a damsel in distress, and Allen comes across as too soft-grained. (It would have been an interesting choice had she and Strathairn exchanged roles, making the woman hard-edged and the man the idealistic weakling.)

In the final analysis “The Bourne Ultimatum” doesn’t really amount to much more than a hokey tale of an amnesiac struggling to find out who he actually is. But though it’s just sound and fury signifying little, it’s done up with such cinematic flair that in the storm of action and noise you nearly forget how negligible the whole enterprise is.