By robbiefreeling | REVERSEBLOG: the reverse shot blog December 21, 2007 at 7:19AM
We try to review all we possibly can at Reverse Shot, between our full-length pieces at the site proper and our weekly reviews for indieWIRE, yet it’s sadly impossible to cover everything. So, despite our commitment to commenting on film culture generally, and trying to champion great films and deride those less worthy, a lot of films fall through the cracks. I always feel guilty when a film doesn’t have an “official Reverse Shot response”—unlikely there could ever be such a thing, since there are so many different writers with different sensibilities here, but I digress . . .
So here’s round one of films that, for whatever reason, didn’t receive coverage on Reverse Shot, Reverseblog, or indieWIRE in 2007, but that were noteworthy in some way. Sorry, guys, still no Enchanted.
I finally caught up with this about two months after it opened; tepid critical response didn’t exactly have me clamoring for tickets opening weekend, and it became one of those films that just seemed to linger in the theaters forever—long enough to make it a weekend possibility eight weeks running. Gladly, I decided to take in an early Saturday matinee at the Sunshine Cinema and settled in for an immensely pleasurable chunk of classical storytelling, as well as a terrific breakthrough performance. As Tang Wei’s Wong Chia Chi evolves from shy schoolgirl to hesitant revolutionary, and finally, most disturbingly, to sexual martyr, Ang Lee’s direction grows increasingly urgent, and his dark espionage story takes on tragically masochistic dimensions. Certainly, the film’s misogynist undertones, however self-conscious, make this a discomfiting watch, but the main criticisms it received from most viewers (that it was soporific, uninvolving, lugubrious) just don’t make sense to me: there’s a patient, rich quality to the filmmaking and performances (especially Tang Wei, who’s been entirely overlooked in this monotonous awards season), and Lee shows true respect to his audiences, letting his novelistic tale unfold with, yes, God forbid, leisure. And let it be said that the NC-17-earning sex scenes with Tang and the ever brave Tony Leung that engendered a bit of discussion in September, though conventionally montaged into naughty bits and pieces, are surprisingly sturdy, worthily explicit, and structurally brilliant—when they arrive about an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, they hit with thunderbolt force: real people, we’ve grown to know and either trust or distrust, adding one more layer of role-playing (this time sadomasochistically sexual) to their already indecipherable veneers.
Can subtlety be hit home with sledgehammer? In the last shot of Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy has a quietly triumphant George Clooney, who’s just brought down corporate dragon lady Tilda Swinton’s house of cards, ride off into the sunset, like any great hero. Yet this is hardly on horseback: instead, Clooney sits in the back of a cab as it loops endlessly down crowded Manhattan streets, the camera fixed in medium close-up on his face. He hardly smiles, yet there’s the faint detection of satisfaction on his lips; or is it a hesitation in his moist eyes? Or is that just the distinguished grey talking? As he stares in the general direction of the camera, evoking hints of granite-jawed emotion, the credits begin to appear—“unassumingly,” down in the bottom right corner of the screen. As the roster of names are checked off with deceptive simplicity, the tinkly James Newton Howard score comes on as barely a whisper. The camera keeps rolling, the shot becomes uncomfortably long, and I couldn’t help but start thinking whether Clooney (or Clayton) was now making a shopping list in his head for dinner that night. Eggs? Butter? Brussels sprouts? No, no, maybe something lighter, like asparagus… The forced subtlety of the shot, which is supposed to blow you away with its gentleness, is indicative of the film as a whole—not a terrible thing in post-Aronofsky cinema, but agenda-driven, just the same.
Clayton works best as a potboiler, not a character study—not only is Clayton more of a movie type than the film seems to want to admit, Tilda Swinton’s nervy sweat-pile is entirely ludicrous. Gilroy identifies her solely by her clothes (twice…twice , he has her fussing over her smart suits and presentation as a shortcut to character; Swinton sells the inherent sexism of the scene, but you never see Clooney, Pollack, or any of the film’s other men obsessing over how they look before a scene), and then couches it as an expression of her psychological makeup. It’s a fun little film, and yes, I wish Hollywood made more films in this vein of storytelling, but there’s nothing groundbreaking here on any micro level.