Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"She Said, He Said": All About Michael Clayton

I now present to you this week's edition of "She Said, He Said" on its regularly scheduled day of Wednesday, as promised.

For this installment, Bill and I face off about Michael Clayton in dueling reviews. When I say "face off," I'm not pulling any punches. We really throw down about Michael Clayton. One of us thought Michael Clayton was among the best films of 2007, and one of us thought it was among the worst. Is it a brilliant reinvention of the supsense-thriller that sets a new standard of filmmaking excellence? Or is it a hackneyed, overrated, underwhelming fraud? What do you think? We'd love to hear.

Well, we've definitely chosen sides, and we strongly, proudly, and energetically defend our positions. Who do YOU agree with?

She Said: Lisa Draski

I didn’t see Michael Clayton until a few days before the Oscars. It was one of several films viewed during a last-minute DVD cram session. I saw it because I felt obligated to, not because I really wanted to see it. The film didn’t look particularly interesting, but I had heard universally positive things about it. Then, it got nominated for all those Oscars, and it made me question the film’s validity. Could it really be so great as to eclipse the wealth of other contenders for Best Picture? I was skeptical, to say the least. And I got so sick of hearing all the hype about George “Everyone Loves Me, I Can Do No Wrong” Clooney. Best Actor? Really? He bothers the hell out of me. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I think he’s a pompous ass, a super-charming one (I often feel like I’m being sucked into the hypnotic Clooney charm), but a pompous ass nonetheless. I’m going to bite my tongue and leave it at that. Anyway, this is supposed to be about Michael Clayton, not about Clooney, so pardon my mini-rant.

I admit that I was biased (negatively) when I went into Michael Clayton. I kind of wanted to hate it. But I’m always fair, even if I have certain thoughts beforehand. I’m not petty. I’ll be the first to eat my words if I’m wrong. I watch with an open mind, and I gave Michael Clayton the chance to blow me away and make me seem like an idiot for possessing my preconceptions. Alas, it did not blow me away, and my preconceptions were vindicated. I was extremely underwhelmed by this critically hailed “modern masterpiece” and actually quite angered by it. That was it? THAT’S the movie that everyone was talking about? Did I put the wrong DVD in by mistake? I was totally baffled. It’s not a horrible movie by any means, but it almost seems that way because of all the praise heaped upon it. Because the reactions have been so glowing, I was expecting more out of it, which makes it a bigger disappointment than, say, a film no one ever mentioned. Clooney, the filmmakers, the studio, and all the critics built it up. Not me. It’s not my fault that they set their own bar so high.

Michael Clayton is passably competent at times, but overall, it’s below-average, less-than-mediocre, and nothing more than a standard crime procedural. It could easily be a grim-looking, blue-filtered episode of Law and Order: SVU (Snoring Victims Unit). I just don’t get what’s so special about it. I have to break it down to try to make sense of it. Tony Gilroy wrote and directed it, and it was his first time with both duties, so I do give him credit. It’s a noble effort, but he failed. People are so gaga over the fact that it’s an original script. Usually, the thriller/crime genre is reserved for adaptations, so I suppose the fact that it’s “original” set it apart in the eyes of the viewers, critics, and voters of awards.

But I argue that there’s absolutely nothing original about Michael Clayton at all. It’s painfully hackneyed. Gilroy brings nothing new to the table whatsoever. Big business is evil. Corporate greed corrupts. How mind-blowing. I guess I should briefly describe the plot in case you’re not familiar with the film. Clooney plays Michael Clayton (I HATE the title of the film, how boring to name it after a character - at least with Juno, there's some ambiguity and extra meaning behind it, and it's a catchy character name, not the clunking anvil that is Michael Clayton), a corporate “fixer.” He used to be a lawyer, but now he just tidies up after the firm’s biggest, wealthiest clients, sweeping up their mistakes, even if he has to act immorally or illegally to do so. Poor Michael Clayton. All the years of this work has really done a number on him. He doesn’t even know who he is anymore. Tom Wilkinson is Arthur Edens, a lawyer who develops a conscience about the wrongdoings of the people he was defending, a supposedly environmentally-conscious company producing toxic chemicals for farming or something like that. The big mean company is represented by Tilda Swinton’s Karen Crowder. Clayton ‘s job is to “fix” Arthur Edens, to keep him in line and stop him from blabbing. But is Arthur crazy, as everyone thinks, or is he telling the truth? Will the big mean company get taken down? Blah blah blah. Yeah, so that’s the plot in a dull nutshell. I think the film is ridiculously predictable and that the answers to these questions and “problems” seem so obvious, but I won’t spoil anything.

The film is told through poorly-executed flashback, and it's completely unnecessary to boot. When the plots come back around to the starting point, we don't learn anything new enough to warrant the annoying, useless structure. Everything in the plot has been done before. I wasn’t surprised at all by anything that happened. Okay, I was surprised one time, but I was more saddened by the occurrence, because it just made the rest of the film even blander. I don’t have a problem with slow-moving films. I love films that unfold gradually, like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or The English Patient, both challengingly long, at least in my opinion. The issue is not my patience. If it’s interesting, I’ll wait 10 hours for the climax. Michael Clayton is BORING. There’s no suspense, and it’s supposed to be a suspense-thriller! Gilroy knows nothing about building suspense. Alfred Hitchcock would scoff at this film if he was alive.

The characters are painfully dull. Michael Clayton is one of the worst protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. It’s like Screenwriting 101 for Dummies. Chapter One: How to Create a Character. It feels like character-by-numbers. We meet Michael Clayton. He’s a moody SOB. We soon learn he has a fractured relationship with his son, he’s divorced, he has a gambling problem, he’s not happy with his career, he wants to open a bar but his coke-fiend brother keeps screwing up the business venture, and his father is dying. Yawn. How cliché. Just throwing a ton of ingredients into a stew doesn’t cover up the fact that the stew sucks. It’s too much. All of those elements don’t make him three-dimensional because they seem so contrived. He’s a terrible character.

Arthur is the best character in the film, possibly only because he’s played by Tom Wilkinson. Arthur is an interesting, sympathetic character with a legitimate conflict, unlike Michael Clayton, who provokes no empathy. Still, I would have liked to have learned more about Arthur, and he’s utilized poorly. Everything and everyone just seem like plot devices that exist solely to serve Michael Clayton. Karen Crowder is another awful character. Tilda Swinton does a miraculous job with the steaming pile of nothing that Gilroy gave her (not Oscar-miraculous, but I’ll get to that later), but Karen is worthless as a foil to Michael Clayton’s plans. She’s a really pathetic, weak female “villain.” I know she’s supposed to be conflicted and all that, but the character is so under-developed and, as written, again just a mere prop for Clayton. It would have been nice to learn more about her thoughts and motivations. As is, she’s such a non-factor in the film that she may as well be a ghost. It’s a thankless role. And speaking of thankless roles, Sydney Pollack is only there to be the token wise sage of the law firm. Nothing more.

The filmmaking is perfectly capable, but that’s it. It’s a well-made film, but it doesn’t ever attain greatness. There are some impressive names attached to the crew, too, so I’m a bit surprised. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is drab and forgettable. He also did the cinematography for There Will Be Blood, another 2007 release, and won an Oscar for it. I’m not sure when the films were shot in relation to each other, like which was first, but I assume Elswit was either distracted by the upcoming, much greater, and much more complex There Will Be Blood, or else he was still ruminating about the amazing, more satisfying experience that he had already had on There Will Be Blood. He shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s visually stunning films, and he’s better than what we see here. The score by James Newton Howard, another big name, is a total non-entity. It’s even more forgettable than Elswit’s phoned-in cinematography. I can’t believe the score was nominated for an Oscar. That’s an outrage. I challenge anyone who’s seen the film to recall one note of the score. There’s nothing remarkable about it at all. The score for the TV show 24, on any given episode, is infinitely better (and actually, slap two episodes of 24 together, and you’d have a supremely better movie, too). Howard's score is barely movie-of-the-week, after-school special quality music. What nonsense that it was nominated.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk Oscars. SEVEN nominations? Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Score, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson) - what the hell?! The only nomination that Michael Clayton deserved was the one for Best Supporting Actor. Wilkinson is brilliant. I’m bewildered by everything else. Tony Gilroy for Best Original Screenplay is ridiculous. It’s so standard potboiler that I can’t even wrap my mind around it receiving a nomination for achieving any kind of excellence. Adrienne Shelly (Waitress) and even Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror) wrote better scripts. Shelly obviously should have gotten the posthumous nod, but I stand by my belief that Planet Terror is a superb script. Best score…GAG. I don’t know what crazy rules prohibited Once, Into the Wild, and There Will Be Blood from being nominated, but I despise them. Those scores are way more deserving than Howard’s. But for one that could have actually been in the running, why wasn’t Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ astonishingly beautiful score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford nominated over Michael Clayton? It’s enough to make me scream! Heck, Robert Rodriguez could have taken James Newton Howard’s place for his Planet Terror score. By the way, if it isn't obvious already, I really love Planet Terror.

Best Director for Tony Gilroy? That’s laughable. The film is so static that a blindfolded monkey could have directed it. Again, it’s competent, but totally boring. And hello, Sean Penn for Into the Wild? Todd Haynes for I’m Not There? (Hey, even if you hate I’m Not There, you have to give Haynes his due.) It’s all so infuriating. Best Picture is just insane. I actually agree with the four other nominees in the category, but I’d replace Michael Clayton with the heartbreaking yet life-affirming Into the Wild. Tilda Swinton has given so many great performances in her career that it makes me sick that she was nominated for THIS. Her work in Stephanie Daley, an overlooked gem from this past year, is miles above and beyond Michael Clayton. She’s really good in Michael Clayton. She sure tries her damnedest to make something out of nothing. It’s just standard Swinton greatness, though. I’m not taking her for granted, because I adore her, but it’s not enough for a nomination this time. It might have been in another year, but there were better candidates. Ahem. Cough, cough. Jennifer Garner. Cough, cough. Oh, excuse me. Something in my throat. It somehow affected my typing. That Swinton WON the Oscar is appalling. Cate Blanchett deserved it for I’m Not There, and my second choice would have been Saoirse Ronan for Atonement, then Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone, and THEN Tilda Swinton, if I’m going by the actual nominees. Humph.

Of the five Best Actor nominees, George Clooney was the least deserving by a long shot. His presence in that category is still inexplicable to me. I don’t really want to tear into the other nominees, since I’m trying just to focus on Clooney, but I had issues with the category. Let’s leave it at that. How Emile Hirsch didn’t make it in for Into the Wild is mind-boggling. It’s a crime. Even Clooney’s buddy, Brad Pitt, was better and, dare I say, nomination-worthy, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think George Clooney is a very good actor. He’s had some moments, I’ll give him that, but overall, I just don’t see the fireworks that everyone else seems to see. I’m always very aware that I’m watching “George Clooney: Big Movie Star.” He never really immerses himself, and he certainly doesn’t do it in Michael Clayton. Guess what – bags under your eyes and not smiling? That’s not acting. Ooh, you made him look a little less dashing than usual. I like his big “Does it look like I’m negotiating?” scene, but that’s about it. He’s good, especially by his own standards, but I mainly felt like I was watching a robot. I know the role calls for subtlety, but that doesn’t mean you should shut down completely. Calling him a robot, though, might be insulting to such a cute, interesting robot like Wall-E. Anyway, it’s a GOOD performance. That’s all. In the end, Clooney’s asked to carry the whole movie, and he doesn’t have the chops to do it. He’s the film’s ultimate downfall. Michael Clayton would have been a lot more fascinating if Arthur Edens was the main character. Tom Wilkinson is a much more compelling leading man than Clooney could ever be. And while I’m on the subject of Wilkinson, his performance really is astonishing. He’s the heart of the film, and I don’t think he can do any wrong. Knock on wood, right?

Hey, I thought I had exhausted my complaints with the film, but I’ve come up with a couple more. My rant tank is almost empty, don’t worry. I think I’ll need a nap after I’m done writing. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are horses that are pretty significant to the story. All I’m going to say is that their presence makes NO sense and that what happens with Michael Clayton is totally unbelievable and out of character. He would never do what he does. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple. Also, I HATE the last shot of the film. I hate it. Nothing is revealed in it. There’s no point. It’s completely smug and self-congratulatory and obscenely superfluous. Another major flaw is that the film has no right to take itself as seriously as it does. It’s not good enough. Whew. I think I’ve finally got it all out.

Even though I’ve gone on and on about all the things that I think are wrong, incorrigible even, about Michael Clayton, I really don’t hate it. I know that might seem hard to believe after everything I’ve said, and I don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. I severely dislike it, but I don’t hate it. That’s the truth. I think the film is passably entertaining at times, it’s competently made, and the performances range from decent (Clooney) to great (Swinton) to excellent (Wilkinson), but overall I’m not left feeling much, nor do I care. It’s just not daring, fresh, or revolutionary, as I believe the filmmakers wanted it to be and, in fact, believe it to be. It’s by far the most overrated film of 2007. I frankly resent its acclaim and accolades. But, I AM judging it of its own accord. When I do that, the result is not a positive one. It’s a dull, been-there/done-that, below-average piece of filmmaking. At first, I thought it was average, not really good OR bad, just there. But the more I thought about it, I visualized the line of mediocrity, and Michael Clayton fell just below that line. It’s a bit worse than standard, run of the mill Hollywood. Sorry. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

And I just want to make this amply clear: my rating is as low as it is because of the many reasons I spouted off about in this review, and my rating is only as high as it is because of some of the acting, the barely adequate technical aspects, and its mild, sporadic entertainment value. I did find myself engaged occasionally, but mostly, I was annoyed, bored, or checking the elapsed versus remaining time on the DVD player.

Michael Clayton the Character is a “fixer.” How ironic. Tony Gilroy should have hired a "fixer" to clean up this mess of a film.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Oh, and just to give you an idea of the significance of a two-star rating and what that means to me and how films measure up against each other (taking into account, among other factors, how much I enjoy watching them and how successful I think they are in what they set out to accomplish)... I gave Evan Almighty two and a half stars out of five.

He Said: Bill Treadway

Ah, the thinking man’s thriller. Where have you gone? All we get these days are the same, by-the-number jobs in which thrills and suspense have been supplanted by gore galore and uncreative plots. That is why a thriller such as Michael Clayton is such a joy. Here at last is a thriller that doesn’t insult my intelligence and manages to pack in some real thrills I couldn’t see coming.

This is the kind of film I keep hoping for from those John Grisham adaptations but never get. Veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy, making his directorial debut, gets things started literally with a bang. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is on his way from a poker game to meet with a client when he pulls over and gets out to take a look over a hill. His car promptly blows sky high. (Don’t worry - we do discover the reasons why - like Casino, it’s told in flashback). After that, my mind was racing to discover what other goodies Gilroy had up his sleeve.

He doesn’t disappoint. I don’t want to spoil too many of Gilroy’s nice surprises, so I’ll tread carefully here. Clayton is a Mr. Fix-It for a top law firm in New York City - a man who makes problems go away when they arise. One day, he receives a call: attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has flipped out in court and is in a Milwaukee jail. Clayton flies out and frees Arthur, but Arthur escapes before Clayton has a chance to properly escort him to a mental institution. What Clayton uncovers is only the beginning of a labyrinth of double crosses, deceit and revenge. Pay close attention through all 119 minutes of this movie - blink and you’ll be lost. Gilroy doesn’t spoon feed his plot, instead forcing us to connect the dots on our own. What a relief and a pleasure it was to tax my brain instead of groaning through another predictable, easy to figure out plot.

Michael Clayton has been touted as a completely original thriller. Well, not quite - it does haul out some vintage chestnuts of the thinking man thriller - the evil corporate entity willing to do whatever it takes to get what it wants, the flawed hero who has enough problems for three people and the villain who isn’t as one dimensional as we think. But rarely has all of these elements worked so well in tandem and in such challenging, thoughtful fashion. That’s why I think most people think of Michael Clayton as an original - most thrillers are about as challenging as a child’s first rattle.

The cinematography is a major plus - nicely antiseptic yet a beauty to behold. Robert Elswit has done another award worthy job - he may have won for There Will Be Blood (deservedly so) but it was just as much for Michael Clayton. Elswit has that gift of making drab look so good - he did it in such films as 8MM and Hard Eight - and he reprises that accomplishment with the gritty, grayish tones here.

George Clooney may be the Sexiest Man Alive according to People Magazine, but he’s actually quite an underrated actor. Yeah, I know - he did win an Oscar, for his supporting turn in Syriana, but I don’t think many people realize what an effective actor he can be. After coasting along in junk like Batman and Robin and One Fine Day, Clooney took an about face and went after more interesting roles. (Hey, not everyone can survive a debacle like Return of the Killer Tomatoes and emerge with a career.)

Clooney’s performance in Michael Clayton is his best to date - worthy of the Oscar nomination it received. In fact, I think he should have won the damn award. Some will undoubtedly expect the Clooney charm at work here -with the exception of the final shot they’re going to be disappointed. Clooney keeps things very restrained and low-key. Clayton is a burned-out character with some serious flaws - his gambling addiction is one, not to mention the aforementioned family issues (if there’s a flaw, the movie lays this on a bit too thick). Having felt as burnt out and down as Clayton myself at times, I totally bought into his performance. It’s completely believable and real from start to finish.

Tilda Swinton DID manage to win an Oscar for her work here and deservedly so, in my opinion. It’s a challenging performance - to play a villain who has some shades of gray. It could have been over the top camp or cardboard villainy, but Swinton makes the character an interesting, quirky adversary. Tom Wilkinson was also nominated for his supporting turn as Arthur Edens, the “is he or isn’t he crazy” attorney. I likely would have voted for him since his wonderfully loopy and heartfelt performance is the grenade that sets everything else in motion. It’s another great Wilkinson portrayal, but when’s the last bad Wilkinson performance? Oh wait -Martin Lawrence’s 2001 “comedy” Black Knight.

Then there’s the ending, which has stirred much debate. Without giving away too much, I will say that at least it didn’t involve yet another boring shoot-out or car chase. It’s a variation of the double cross - similar to the twist finish of another thinking man’s thriller - Charley Varrick (1973), but just as satisfying. I particularly loved the final shot of the film, which had the same wink-in-the-eye feeling that The Sting (1973) had. Wow, two 1973 references in one paragraph. And I wonder why people think I’m older than my 28 years.

If you go to purchase Warner’s DVD, beware that there are separate editions out there. Both are single disc, but one is the dreaded full screen edition. Stores like Walmart and Duane Reade aren’t making it easy - they’re solely carrying the full screen edition. When will these chains learn that with rare exceptions, pan-and-scan is evil! The widescreen version is the one to get. You wouldn’t want to lose more than 60% of Robert Elswit’s Panavision photography, would you? The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is not as good as Warner’s usual standard- there is some pixilation, which irritates me to no end. Why should a 119 minute movie with only a commentary and a handful of deleted scenes suffer from compression issues? The audio mix fares much better. It’s Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and it sounds great. Everything is perfectly heard with proper pitch and good balance.

Warner throws together a little bonus material - we get a feature length audio commentary from director Gilroy and his brother John, who edited the picture. It’s not a bad track - a bit too laid back at times and there are moments where their chatter gets too jokey for my taste - but there are some good nuggets of information and interesting insights shared here. It’s worth a listen for those who want to know more about this film. There are three deleted scenes - two of which would qualify as big time spoilers and a third which introduces an entirely new character - Clayton’s lawyer girlfriend (Jennifer Ehle). From what I have read online and in the papers, Ehle had a much larger presence originally aside from this one scene but all of her scenes were deleted for time purposes. I wonder why we only get the one scene here. Would it have hurt to include ALL of this material?

Michael Clayton made my Top 10 list for 2007 (it ranked at number 7) and rewatching it on DVD confirmed my initial thoughts about the film. It’s a superb return to the thinking man’s thriller, a genre that had gotten lost amid the brainless bloodbaths we are beaten over the head with each year. It deserved to fare better on Oscar night, but to be sure, that is a matter of debate. Rent the DVD and see if you agree with me.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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