Sunday, October 07, 2007

Warner Bros: with movies for grown-ups: Michael Clayton, Jesse James, Robert Ford

Warner Brothers came out with two major releases this weekend in platform fashion, aiming for the adult or grown-up audience, as well as critics, to build the market for the films by word-of-mouth.

Michael Clayton”, directed by Tony Gilroy (his son -- I believe -- Sam Gilroy appears as a Kinkos clerk) based on what sounds like an original story, presents the ethical problems of a middle aged lawyer (played by George Clooney) who works as a “fixer” or “asset person” or “bad man” for a top New York law firm. We are puzzled by why he never made partner, why he guards his walkaway money and then blows it on a bar business. The story covers six days before his “transformation,” starting at a critical point just before a car explosion and then going back four days to tell the story, much of which involves a class-action suit against a corporate polluter, a high flying female litigator who will stop at nothing, and another trial lawyer who has gone bonkers. The ethical questions in the film are not about corporations, they are personal. Yet, there is stunning filmmaking, particular when the manic-depressive other lawyer (Tom Wilkinson) is assassinated in his Soho loft, with imaginary shots like a hypo injection between the toes.

The other grown-up-thing-to-do (those are words that Shia La Beouf used on his 21st birthday on Leno) is to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik. Casey Affleck, as the boyish, soft-looking, tenor-voiced but volatile Ford, steals the show; Brad Pitt apparently raised the money for the film, and he looks craggy and furrowed as Jesse James (who was only 34). The 160-minute film moves slowly and hypnotically, the most psychological of all westerns (it happens in the Midwest, mostly Missouri, though it was filmed in Canada), teasing us into wondering if Ford’s naive hero worship of James is homoerotic, and if James really feels the same way. At one point, it looks like James does; then the narrator says they "slept together" as an overstatement, shortly before Ford brings James down from behind his back while James is dusting a picture. Indeed, Ford has come to believe that his ocelot hero walks on clay feet.

I suppose that the movie could have been written as a moral examination of "cowardice" as some maximal sin in frontier culture. Perhaps that is the meaning of Ford's own demise, yet the intimacy of the film seems to take us away from that kind of interpretation.

Warner Brothers is marketing these to the arthouses first, as if they were indie films. (They both the big widescreen look of 2.35 to 1 aspect.) I wondered why the “Warner Independent Pictures” brand was not used instead. The Clayton film included contributions from Summit Entertainment, generally known for the art movie market (imdb lists Summit as an all-media distributor). (As an interesting aside, Thinkfilm contributed to Universal’s recent thriller about Saudi Arabia, “The Kingdom,” which again is aimed for the grownup indie-like market.) In any even, when Warner Brothers opens a film with the proud orange photos of its studios, it should ways play that majestic piano-and-orchestra music portion of its trademark, the Casablanca theme. In both of these films, the musical trademarks were omitted to avoid distracting the audience from the director’s mood. But that seems wrong. A studio should always use its full pictorial and musical trademark (including the marks for all of the production companies). In this case, WB did not show the Castle Rock or Summit trademarks at the beginning of the film at all (as would usually be done with multiple companies). Then, if a new mood needs to be established, let the screen go blank and silent for about two seconds, and start the film itself.

The grand old studios are getting the message, even if from some of the amateurs at the small film festivals (who I think are starting to pressure the big studios with their shoestring experiments): the public really does want to see grown-up stories with real problems and issues. It doesn’t have to be negative to be challenging.

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