Monday, 3 December 2012

Tony Gilroy 3 Films for your consideration

Michael Clayton in 2007 quickly became a favourite film and five years later Tony Gilroy has added two further intriguing films to his early cannon of directorial feature films. Here are my appreciations of his first three cinematic releases.

Famous as a screenwriter, Tony has penned sixteen films and classics such as The Devil's Advocate, Armageddon, Proof of Life and all four Bourne films amongst many others. Collaborating with great Director of Photography Robert Elswit on all three following films, as well as his Brother John Gilroy (Editing), Kevin Thompson (Production Design) and James Newton Howard (original music score), these are three films worthy of your consideration.

As with all of my film blog's I write from a fan's perspective, of the Director's art and craft for making incredible films, rather than producing endless fact tracks and trivia. I also do not intend to provide large spoilers as it is not my intention to spoil these great films for you in any way. Moreover, this blog is an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful new Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these creations. I hope you enjoy!

Michael Clayton (2007)

"I'm not a miracle worker. I'm a janitor"

From the above blank opening screen we merge into slow cuts of an empty office complex late at night, with only occasional floors lit and occupied by cleaning staff. In the background is a panicky narration describing a long career, for one law firm, and how a recent re-birth had changed him after "being coated in a petina of shit for the best part of my life". Containing three of my favourite actors, it's quickly become a personal favourite film. So, starting with the star of the show:

Michael Clayton 
(George Clooney) His first appearance comes after a long, moving camera shot (becomes a camera theme of the film) as it pans around a poker table. A "fixer" or Janitor of problems, he appears as per opposite still from the film, assured and in control, a methodical professional. His persona is subtly different away from his profession and sometimes brilliantly underplayed by Clooney. A back story of brotherly debts and a love for his son "Henry" (an excellent Austin Williams) but extended close up's and long lingering shots on Clooney steal the film. A brilliant assured performance.
Karen Crowder 
(Tilda Swinton) Her first appearance is of a distressed and unsettled woman, panicking and sweating in a toilet cubicle and what follows is a quickly edited nuance of her personality as we cut quickly between her preparations for a TV interview in her hotel bathrobe and the actual interview itself. Every detail is meticulously prepared beforehand and executed in front of the cameras. It's a performance, a practice and detailed preparation as every forced smile and stutter step is in time with her narration and in time with the presentation for the camera. Brilliantly shot and edited together, it's Swinton's performance that shines as she's pitch perfect in vastly different settings and scenes throughout.
Arthur Edens 
(Tom Wilkinson) His first appearance, a dual scene with Michael Clayton, sets the bar for this thunderous performance yet again from Tom Wilkinson. In his prison cell, his schizophrenic and panicked portrayal absolutely riveting, he astounds as he describes "12% of my life" and his descent into a seemingly dark world where he has become "Shiva, the God of Death". His downward spiral brilliantly shown, albeit briefly, but also with a very definite showing of his varying mental position, his telephone conversation with Clayton's son Henry very telling. Never more so than in his journey to Times Square, his complete satisfaction and happiness shattered by a billboard advertisement. Schizophrenic, frenetic, twitchy and sketchy. A sublime performance from Wilkinson.


With Sydney Pollack (opposite) excellent in support as "Marty Bach", a beautiful mournful "hum" of a musical score from James Newton Howard and excellent editing from brother John Gilroy, this debut cinematic feature from Director Tony Gilroy is a joy. Never rushed at exactly at two hours which is a perfect length for the story, and indeed the storytelling. With a twisted narrative, from the very beginning of the film it runs at it's prescribed pace, is stylish and brilliantly shot by Director of Photography Robert Elswit. At times, the film is redolent in constant shadows and reflections and a sublime metaphor for the film as a whole.

The timing and pace of the film is key too. With so much information and character building in the background with conversations becoming a narration, and vice versa, the film moves at a good pace and engages you from the very beginning. Every character has an obvious duality, yet subtle sub plots have to be picked apart and a first Act that is breathless at times and near flawless. A prolific writer, this debut Director performance is brilliant from Gilroy, showing a real love for his writing creation and a real eye for a meticulously drawn out scene. As above, some of the flourishes are subtle but allied to four outstanding performances, this is a treat of a film and a first class directorial debut film from Gilroy which rightfully garnered both him and his stars seven Oscar Nominations. Gilroy himself was nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay categories and James Newton Howard's beautiful musical score was also nominated. All three main stars were also nominated with George Clooney as Best Actor in a Leading Role, Tom Wilkinson as Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Tilda Swinton winning as Best Supporting Actress. What better recommendation could you have? It truly is a wonderful film that may surprise you. 

Duplicity (2009)

"A little professional courtesy would make this a lot less awkward"

Dubai - 4th July 2003, US Consulate

The film begins immediately at a lavish garden party and the meeting of two apparent strangers, one a leg braced but smartly dressed "Ray Koval" (Clive Owen) approaches a confident and controlled "Claire Stenwick" (Julia Roberts). Ray, convinced they know each other pushes Claire to remember, "I'm sorry, are we supposed to know each other?"  is Claire's response, confidently assuring her guest that they do not in fact know each other, or have ever met before. Ray presses her further, but with charm and compliments and Claire slowly appreciates the attention. Cut to rolling split screens, of Claire retrieving a package with a barely conscious Ray in the foreground naked, to checking his pulse before leaving the scene.

Five Years later

Following a bizarre slow motion sequence over the opening credits, and a long slow crane shot  of a city comes slowly into view, as does a telephone call narration which fades from an overhead shot onto Ray. Walking along a busy side walk (US phraseology!), there are numerous men surrounding Ray, all seemingly on the same telephone call and following a bizarre natured ritualistic game, we cut to Ray again. With a rolling, constantly moving camera in front of Ray, we follow his progress via an alleyway where he leaves his coat and exits onto a different side of the city and into a busy train station.

With a 360 degree slow camera, Ray surveys the station carefully until he sees Claire on the station balcony. He informs a colleague on the telephone "We're Blown" who tries to persuade Ray to continue with the operation. Hanging up on his colleague, Ray pursues Claire until finally encountering her in a nearby Department Store. Backed by a latin flavoured accordion musical score during this scene, "Gotcha" is Ray's friendly but firm opening, however Claire refuses to acknowledge they know each other and flatly refuses his advances, to which Ray's response is to intimately breakdown their night together and demand Claire accept their previous dalliance. 

Storming out of the Department Store, a clumsy plot device is used to reveal their identity, or at least that they do know each other, that they are connected and professionally required to work together. A three camera bar scene follows, one over each character's shoulders and one dual shot, capturing a verbal stand off. One "The Drop", the other "The Contract", and one with great superiority over the other. Claire leaves the bar first, ignoring Ray's sarcastic aloud question "You want to take one last shot at that apology?" The opening bizarre, yet brilliant core scenes last 15 minutes.

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as Corporate Spies are excellent, Roberts especially so as a confident and assured Claire Stenwick. Clive Owen plays Ray Koval in a similar way, if more methodical, determined and with a more dedicated eye on the ultimate prize. Their scenes together vary (as per above) with their tender scenes the heart beat of the film. In supporting roles, Paul Giamatti (picture opposite) is utterly brilliant as ever as "Dick Garsik", his performance peaks as his rage and frustration builds as his competition with "Howard Tully" goes to extreme lengths. Tully is expertly brought to life in a much smaller but still important role from Tom Wilkinson. Their first introduction to the film is key, as a mysterious letter is read jointly by both Giamatti and Wilkinson to their respective audiences, one in full control, the other perplexed and angry at losing a competitive edge. This is truly the film's metaphor, of duplicity, of being ahead of the competition, intertwined with an intrigue of who's really playing who and to what ends. Further excellent supporting roles are provided from Dennis O'Hare as "Duke", Tom McCarthy as "Jeff Bauer" and Kathleen Chalfant as "Pam Frailes".

This ending conclusion will be much like the film itself, a duplicitous weaving of the good and bad! An intriguing film, but not one without fault. Being a fan of twisted narratives even I remain a little perplexed many viewings later as the film somewhat crunches gear at times as it moves without notice to another destination months/years previous. The settings are stylish and brilliantly shot by returning Director of Photography Robert Elswit, with shadows and reflections again a key ingredient and metaphor. Edited by brother John Gilroy, the film moves at a good pace but the story is often lost between highly complicated and detailed narrative strands, with characters that are well portrayed, yet difficult to engage with. Which is probably the film's biggest failing for me, it's simply not as engaging as Tony Gilroy's first feature film. Not a bad film by any means and the subtle comedy comes through on repeated viewings, as do the performances from Julia Roberts and Paul Giamatti in particular. 

It's a quirky and unusual domestic espionage tale with many twists and turns, with a screenplay again written by Director Gilroy. The film reflects both the twists and the numerous narrative strands in it's camera shots, editing and it's use of rolling split screens and dissolves between scenes which is sometimes very effective, but grating after a while. And there perhaps is the duplicity of the film, pleasing on some level, but not all of the time.  

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

"Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg"

With a familiar beginning and a nod to previous Bourne films, we find a submerged figure in a dark ocean that soon swims to the surface and emerges into the frozen Alaskan wilderness. However, with no returning Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in this, the fourth instalment of the Bourne franchise, Jeremy Renner takes top billing as "Aaron Cross", a member of a Black Operations team on a training exercise in Alaska.

Act One is the film's highlight. With snippets of the previous Bourne film, The Bourne Ultimatum, we see "Simon Cross" (Paddy Considine) and his ultimate demise, very brief glimpses of Matt Damon as "Jason Bourne" in photographs and Television News clips and continuous references to CIA secret operations Treadstone and Blackbriar, and previous CIA Chief "Pamela Landy" (Joan Allen). With occasional flashbacks and locations visited such as Bethesda, Virginia, Washington, Seoul and Karachi, all quickly cut together and a back story fully developed, this is very definitely a "Bourne film".

Reprising their respective previous roles, David Strathairn returns as "Noah Vosen", Scott Glenn as "Ezra Kramer" and Albert Finney as "Dr Albert Hirsch". Edward Norton is a welcome addition as "Eric Byer" and is the most comprehensively developed character in this Bourne edition. As Act One continues, three main narrative strands develop, a CIA operation to cover their various Black Operations and a secretive medical facility is introduced, as is the main character of "Dr Marta Shearing" (Rachel Weisz). But it's Jeremy Renner's performance as Aaron Cross and the Alaskan backdrop that is featured predominantly and rightly so. Renner excels here, as does Director Tony Gilroy, capturing the feel of a vast, bleak and open Alaska, it's snow capped mountains and in the inherent dangers for the film's hero. Often framed from a distance against a snow backed vista and employing quick subtle cuts, these early shots are one of the film's early highlights, as is a quick interweaving of all three narrative strands as we are transported from the CIA to Aaron Cross, now with unexplained tablets and medicine depleting, to a zoom cut to the medical facility. The main criticism of Act One is perhaps covered throughout the film. The opening act is far too exposition heavy and not enough Bourne style action sequences. The film is thirty minutes old before any significant action sequences are shown, but a very good one it is too, as a drone strike is ordered, carried out and destruction wrought. However it's been too long in the making. The next action sequence bridges the first and second Acts, is the best of the film, a hallmark of the Bourne series, and dissected in full below:

An overhead camera shot of a crumbling spiral staircase pans to a ringing telephone. Answered by Dr Marta Shearing (Weisz) who gives directions to her property. Arriving at the property with three Special Agents is "Dr Connie Dowd" (Elizabeth Marvel) and an air of an interrogation falls on the kitchen, whereby both Doctor's try to dominate the proceedings. Shearing is angry that she has had just an hour's notice to prepare for this impromptu and unwelcome visit, with Dowd forceful in her responses, reminding Shearing of her oaths and the security clearance she enjoys at the medical facility. Cutting between three cameras (over the shoulder of Dowd at Shearing, one close up on Dowd and a moving camera that follows Shearing throughout the kitchen) the interrogation feel is heightened, with Shearing, now resigned to her plight, co-operating with her fellow Doctor. With mentions and responses of "programmable behaviour" and "I think he was exposed to something at the Lab" Shearing is interrupted and outraged as her gun is produced by an Agent, who has been investigating the house unseen.

Angry but prepared to continue with the interview come interrogation, Shearing relaxes but with a nod to the Agent, both restrain Shearing, cock her gun and prepare to execute her. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) bursts through the door and several frenetic cuts later has disabled both the Agent and Dr Dowd and Shearing has escaped upstairs. Outnumbered and unarmed, Cross improvises to kill the remaining Agents whilst the first musical score of the scene is introduced. There follows a typical "Bourne" type action sequence that is brilliantly captured by Director Tony Gilroy. Cross, now outside but with a climbing leap against an adjoining wall climbs to a flat roof, enters through a window and shoots another Agent at the bottom of the stairs, all in one swift, continuous camera movement. The shot takes approximately ten seconds but is perfectly produced all round. 

Now reunited with a panicking Shearing, Cross reassures her and asks the same simple question twice "Do you want to live?". Giving her a loaded gun and instructions, Cross takes cover and with a pre-planned signal, Cross, eyes closed, shoots the remaining Agent dead through a door separating them. Desperate for "programme chems" and in a constant, unnerving close up, Cross finally looks Shearing directly in the eyes and convinced she is telling the truth that she does not have any in the house, confirms they have less than eight minutes to leave the house and get as far away as possible. "The next thing coming through that door is gonna wipe us out". Cutting to a nearby Agent whilst Cross douses the house with petrol, the scene ends with Shearing and Cross running rapidly away from the burning house. The scene in total lasts 14 minutes.

As with the previous Bourne films, this is also based on Robert Ludlum's initial series of Bourne books with a screenplay from Director Gilroy and his brother Dan Gilroy. As a fan of the Bourne series I'm probably a little biased, but this film isn't as bad as has been reported and reviewed. However, it's not great either! With it's continued veiled criticisms of the CIA, it's Black Operations programmes and of their creation of "supermen fighting machines" the series continues to be thought provoking and eye opening to a wider audience. Yes it's a film, but there is far more truth here than is widely acknowledged. The drone attacks are shown for what they are, targeted distance kills, cold, calculating and blood curdling. With a musical score from James Newton Howard and Moby's familiar Bourne "theme" to close, it feels like a Bourne film. The above dissected scene is typical of the series and well directed, but perhaps that leads us to the criticisms. Whilst the last twenty minutes is exhilarating, it's both too late into the film and not on a par with similar chase sequences in the other three Bourne films. There is far too much exposition, yet the new characters (including Jeremy Renner) feel unexplained and under developed. Renner is very good as Aaron Cross and I'm sure a fifth and sixth film in the Bourne series will be green lit. But it misses a vital ingredient, of Jason Bourne himself, and the action sequences and stories so brilliantly portrayed by Matt Damon in the previous three films. 

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