Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)

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Tony Gilroy’s 2007 debut behind the camera is brimming with smart, slick dialogue; some of it may come off as stagy, but by the time the noose of tension is being tightly drawn, I didn’t really care, hooked by the weight of its juicy cover-up and justifications for murder. George Clooney is the film’s heart and soul, and luckily he’s able to project the kind of introspective intensity required to ensure Michael Clayton is a believable, even if not entirely empathetic, character; his motivations seem dubious in the establishing scenes, though his clinical command of a situation is counterbalanced by his own weakness for a deck of cards.

Clayton is a jaded but highly proficient “fix-it” man for his law firm, a term replete with malleable qualifiers. He cleans up the mess of others, mockingly referred to by friend and co-worker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) as “a janitor” – the connotations of which seem a little dismissive of his true importance – an integral component, plugging holes with occasional recognition but with neither fanfare or, to his chagrin, a shot at a partnership.

Gilroy begins the film with a 15 minute flash forward, though ending this first act with an explosion, which seen for the first time without any context to rationalise it, deprives it of real impact. But quickly the ship is righted as Gilroy sets about unravelling the sly backstory, commenced four days prior with Arthur’s very public, semi-naked descent into a medication-deprived relapse; a manic-depressive episode which seems to stir his troubled conscience, illuminating his overworked mind with clarifications that must seem like divine messages from on high.

Suddenly, a case in which Arthur’s been swimming with the tide, takes on the proportions of something else: connivingly engineered, amoral culpability; swiftly, the ruthless uNorth, a profiteering chemical company and makers of a weed killer that has seemingly claimed hundreds of human victims, begin their defensive strategizing in order to minimize backlash or harm to their reputation.

The clarity of a re-awakened conscience has dangerous potential and uNorth’s reflexive measures, initiated by its edgy, bundle-of-nerves attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), become a relentless pursuit of concealing injustice for the sake of their own hides; Arthur becomes a liability, an internally diagnosed “cancer” whose silent removal would benefit both parties.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come into sharper focus for Clayton who only vaguely senses the conspiracy afoot at first, but has the added insight of his long friendship with Arthur to clear away any marginal doubts of their obstructive presence. Here, Gilroy’s steady writing builds a subtle, but compelling momentum as a race to find, and gently inform authorities, of the truth becomes paramount. This is a somber drama with the added dimensions of a thriller, and although reaching a neat, predictable conclusion, it does provide satisfaction – meeting that comforting sense of ‘vengeance is sweetest when served by the just and righteous’.

Clooney wears his steely-eyed compunction like a mask and with murky grey lines of fallibility – an ostracised brother, a dud investment and up to his armpits in gambling debts – soaking him in dour duty, he follows the one clearly detectable straight line to its unequivocal conclusion, subverting the intentions of his keepers, the men assuming he’ll stay blind to the truth and follow their orders. Swinton, as the jumpy, reluctant negotiator with shady, dark denizens of the night, and Wilkinson as the impassioned but deeply troubled Arthur, give excellent support, whilst the late Sydney Pollack adds a measure of real gravitas to the role of Clayton’s superior.

A writer with a sizable body of work already behind him (The Bourne trilogy, Proof of Life), Gilroy thrives in his first shot at the director’s chair; Michael Clayton is a fine drama and a highly entertaining one, with a compelling, watertight screenplay and tidy, unobtrusive direction. It’s dense with detail yet never strays into impenetrability, with just enough flesh on its bones to make us care for Clayton’s quest and Arthur’s sad plight. Similarly effective, James Newton Howard’s ominous, simmering electronic score creates tension of its own, whilst Robert Elswitt’s wintry, reduced palette fits the tone of the film like a glove.

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Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Ramsey, 2011)

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From its chillingly abstract opening half hour to its more mundane dissection of an unnatural, antagonistic mother and child relationship, Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) retains a power to disturb in the way it neatly interweaves the evolvement of evil against the backdrop of normality it seeks to poison.

The film opens elliptically like the placement of puzzle pieces – from different strands of time – artfully arranged into a mosaic of raw emotional extremes. Though jumbled, overlapping and chaotic, a series of disturbing impressions emerge. From the haunted, detached stares of Eva (Tilda Swinton) we see a woman and mother grasping for sanity amid turmoil that is portentously hinted at but never fully disclosed. The most distressing revelations are reserved for the final segment of the film when the psychological war between Eva and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) culminates with a truly noxious and personal statement from the boy to his mother.

Though I’m not a fan of her earlier work (in fact, 2002’s Morvern Callar is a film I hated with a passion), I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Ramsay’s direction here is stunning. Idiosyncratic and impressionistic, her approach often bears a strong whiff of Nicolas Roeg about it. The way she manipulates time, colour, and perception is masterful in the way of Don’t Look Now (1973) for example, providing a structural narrative power that only refracted cognitive stirrings as subjective as these can provide.

As ever the incomparable Swinton’s stark, non-classical looks provide the basis for a flawless, relentlessly magnified portrayal of deep-rooted emotional truth. She has few peers in modern cinema with her Eva standing alongside other recent, equally compelling characterisations in Young Adam (2003), Julia (2008), and I Am Love (2009). In the key role of the Kevin as a teenager, Miller, who has grown impressively into his frame since City Island (2009), is also impressive, though perhaps fractionally too one-dimensional.

The film is not without flaws. John C. Reilly is miscast, though not detrimentally, as Eva’s blissfully ignorant husband, whilst the credibility of Kevin’s rendering is infinitesimally offset when unnecessarily allowing the boy’s behaviour to become more overt and uncomfortable to watch. Two scenes immediately come to mind here: his ludicrous devouring of a chicken just after his mother tentatively offers to take him out for dinner, and the abnormally intense scrutiny of Kevin devouring a lychee immediately following a scene in which he’s caused the loss of his young sister’s eye.

A very different experience from Lionel Shriver’s source novel (which is told via lengthy letters written by Eva), Ramsay’s film is a strikingly different but equally brilliant work in which the switch of medium has rendered the ability to faithfully translate prose utterly negligible. Though the director’s stylistic approach will alienate some (with the unsubtle sprinkling of the colour red as an all too defining motif perhaps seen as further overkill), We Need to Talk About Kevin offers a striking, often shocking depiction of a profound maternal pain that will leave you reeling but desperate to experience the perverse brilliance of it all over again.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

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An eighty year old man pierces the New York throng on his pushbike, only pausing to take snaps of the latest in fashion: what is this, Portrait of a Fetishist in his declining years? An oddball begging for loose change in exchange for a fleeting photographic memory? Neither, it turns out; this is Bill Cunningham, revered and cherished photographer for the New York Times where his weekly column has appeared for umpteen years in fact, over 40.

A veritable roving microscope, his lens poring over the hideous, audacious and fashionable to document the latest impulses overtaking those who dress for the sense of contributing colour, drama and the bizarre to an everyday outing in the Big Apple, Cunningham is mostly tolerated or ignored. But in a sleepless city of hustle and bustle, where people identify a camera not as an intrusion but a portentous first opportunity to be freed from anonymity for 15 minutes or else set on the road to discovery, few turn Cunningham away.

Rain, hail or shine, the photographer and his subjects merge on the streets. Most of his photographic abstractions will top the dung heap when scrutinised in greater detail, but from the multitude he is always able to discern a distinct trend – either seasonal or stylistic – for his next column.

A presumption of homosexuality, considering the arena he works in, is arrived at readily but the strangely asexual Cunningham (who claims to have never had a proper relationship his entire life) is difficult to read. Director Richard Press does a fine job at portraying the rapport he shares with his co-workers, all of whom adore him as if part of the furniture, but beyond an admission about his devout religious following, little else can be gleaned beyond the job he has made his own for nearly half a century.

The man is an ageless wonder, no doubt, to be admired for his purity of vision and devotion to his gift capturing needles in haystacks, but he feels more heavily defined by his eccentric side. From his frugal ways with money and choice of nourishment, his fervent hoarding inside a willfully chosen confined space (his tiny studio apartment in the increasingly less populated Carnegie Hall) and random interactions with his dwindling number of kooky neighbours, Cunningham is both presented as benevolent and somewhat sad – a man who has lived long and well, defied the odds, spurned notions of an unlikely longevity, achieved hard-fought artistic peaks, and yet still remains a strangely internal, forlorn figure of mystery.

 

Mean Creek (Estes, 2004)

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An independent project by a young American director, Jacob Aaron Estes, making his feature debut, Mean Creek (2004) stands as a prime example of noteworthy films that initially fly in under the radar. Estes, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story of a group of teenagers who take a scenic river ride, but for one of them – a despised bully who is lured by the deception of the others into thinking they want to be his friend – things may not be how they appear on the surface. This is a powerful film about revenge, responsibility and culpability. For this group of teenagers, any price they have to pay will be a heavy one with far-reaching ramifications set to hover like a black veil over their immediate lives. It’s not only the main players on this trip who’ll be victims but everyone present.

We’re first introduced to Sam (Rory Culkin), a meek, wholesome teenager, who often finds himself on the receiving end of the school bully’s attention – the bully, George (Josh Peck) is an overweight kid who recklessly uses his bulk to intimidate and dominate his classmates. But after coming home from another typical day at school, Sam’s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) decides that enough is enough and that a lesson of some description is in order as a means of payback against George.

He decides on a river trip, employing the help of a couple of his own friends, and convinces Sam to slyly coax George into believing that he bears no grudge and wants to be friends for the purposes of luring him out onto the water with them for a convivial bonding session. Also coming along as a further complication will be Millie (Carly Schroeder), a schoolmate who Sam is very close to.

An internal struggle of will and conscience soon follows on this trip down ‘Mean Creek’ as Sam fights the contrary forces within himself – wanting to see some retribution and teach George a lesson for his bullying, but not wanting to take things as far as his perversely enthusiastic brother would like. He has to fight deep-rooted elements of his own nature in deciding if he’s willing to carry out some form of revenge – and if so, how far is he willing to go? This crew of teenagers sets off on their river journey with their playfulness, sense of adventure and youthful pretensions intact, but by the end of the day will find themselves inhabiting a far less innocent world than the one they’ve known.

What’s so impressive about this ultimately sombre tale is how assuredly Estes deals with its most important themes in the final act. He refuses to dole out simple solutions for us or his characters, faced as they are with burdensome moral quandaries as the bleak mood of the afternoon deepens. The wonderful ensemble of young actors are more than up to the task as well, providing weight and substance beyond their years to these sometimes challenging roles, especially the impressive Culkin. The tomandandy (Tom Hadju and Andy Milburn) score is one of the duo’s most melodic and, sparsely used, it really becomes a poignant counterpoint. Mean Creek is a polished, thought-provoking film and compulsory viewing for anyone looking to mine the back catalogue of American cinema gems.