Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
A top-drawer legal thriller with some terrific performances, Tony Gilroy´s Michael Clayton avoids the usual clichés while becoming that rare film that perfectly balances suspense with dramatic content. A good thriller is hard enough to come by these days; one that manages to feel like it´s based in reality, and gets us to care about its characters, is a breath of fresh air. George Clooney turns in his best performance to date, and the sure hand with which everything is delivered – surprising from a first-time director – assures Gilroy of a rewarding future.
Clooney stars as the titular character, a ‘fixer´ for top New York legal firm Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen who appropriately refers to his position as a “janitor”: he cleans up the messes left by clients and members of the firm. Currently, KB&L are defending pharmaceutical company U/North in a large class-action lawsuit; in the middle of a deposition, the firm´s top attorney Arthur Edens has a mental breakdown. Naturally, this leaves the client – and corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) – concerned. When Clayton is called in to clean up the mess, he discovers Arthur may be trying to sabotage the case – and he may have good reason to do so. Clooney is tough and determined in the lead, shedding the self-conscious movie-star persona of Danny Ocean, and establishes himself as a legitimate acting force; he has at least three scenes – one with Wilkinson, one with Sydney Pollack as the firm´s head, and a final showdown with Swinton – where dialogue kept me on the edge of my seat. Of course, Gilroy, who adapted the Bourne trilogy for the big screen, deserves a lot of credit as well. Exquisite lensing by Robert Elswit creates a slick, brooding atmosphere, measured editing sets a relaxed pace; the style couldn´t be more removed from that of Paul Greengrass´, who directed Gilroy´s last two Bourne scripts to great success, but the result is the same: a thriller that is nearly perfect within the confines of the genre. While excellent on many levels, what I appreciated most about the film was the reluctance to bow down to cliché; we seen a lot of this before, and come to expect certain actions that only characters in movies seem to make – here, we get decisions that could be made by real people. It shows in the minor details – what was the last contemporary thriller you can think of that doesn´t feature a firearm?
A richly detailed, deliberately paced espionage tale, Ang Lee´s Lust, Caution tells an intimate-yet-detached story of seduction. World War II, Hong Kong: college student Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei) falls in with some patriotic classmates who agree to actively do something to help their country. The plan: travel to Japan-occupied Shanghai and have Wang, posing as wealthy spouse Mrs. Mak, infiltrate the social circle of high-ranking Japanese official Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). As Wang slowly seduces Yee – multiple attempts over a number of years – the director slowly draws us in to this story, as layers of emotion are revealed in these detached characters. The cast is good, but the beautiful Tang Wei carries the film in her first screen role. Film has been largely criticized for its slow pacing and a rather muted tone (“not enough lust, too much caution ”), but while the pacing of this deceptively simple tale initially put me off, I was appreciative of the subtle nature here, and how things never veered into melodrama. Pic easily could have been shorter, though, and the occasional scene feels unnecessary – in particular, a lengthy flash-forward prologue.
Though the story is remarkably similar to last year´s excellent Black Book, the approach Lee takes couldn´t differ more than Verhoeven. Lee tackles wildly different subject matter in each film – I often had to remind myself that this is the same director that made The Hulk – and Lust, Caution is his own unique homage to Hitchcock, with one problem: it´s sorely missing The Master´s trademark suspense. The plot directly recalls Ingmar Bergman´s infiltration of Nazis in Hitchcock´s Notorious; a drawn-out homicide also recalls Torn Curtain´s famous scene in which Paul Newman struggles to kill a man. And the climatic scene at a jewelry store, where all of the pent-up tension is finally released, works beautifully; this and some other key scenes work so well that I was able to forgive the overall pacing of the film. Wonderful original music by Alexandre Desplat lends the film some much needed emotional backing, and even occasionally recalls Bernard Herrman´s classic Vertigo score. Some intense sex scenes earned the film a ‘kiss-of-death´ NC-17 rating in the US, keeping audiences and awards groups away. Unfortunate; despite the problems I had with the movie, I feel Lee has surpassed Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here and delivered his best to date.
NOTE: in most cinemas, Lust, Caution is screening in Mandarin with Czech subtitles. You can see the film with English subtitles, however, at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům (they also have a Czech-subtitled version, so make sure you attend the right screening).
Simply awful adaptation of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel gets points only for its unintentional humor; otherwise, Mike Newell´s Love in the Time of Cholera is a chore to sit through and an insult to most. Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) falls in love with Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), has his heart broken, and devotes his life to sleeping with as many women as possible in order to heal the pain. No, really – that´s the plot. There´s a lot of nudity along the way, which helps, but we basically sit through meaningless tryst after meaningless tryst as a depressed Florentino slogs through life. Yet somehow the film is rarely boring for its 140-minute length; it´s always nice to see a ridiculously out-of-place, cigar-chomping John Leguizamo turn up as Fermina´s dad, or when the worst old-age makeup in recent memory is given gratuitous close-up after gratuitous close-up. And although Bardem is awful here and horribly, horribly miscast, I got some pleasure seeing No Country for Old Men´s Anton Chigurh as a romantic lead. He also looks, acts, and sounds nothing like the actor that plays the young Florentino – doubly head-scratching when the same actress plays Fermina throughout. I don´t know how seriously Marquez´s novel could be taken with that plot, but they didn´t even try here; while the result is watchable, almost everything feels wrong. Antonio Pinto´s original score is lovely, though, with some songs by Shakira. New rule: nothing good can come from a movie with a gastrointestinal disease in the title.