'Michael Clayton' shows great writing, fine cast

Atticus Finch's name would never appear on the letter head of this New York gold-plated law firm which represents major clients involved in high-end litigation. As it turns out, Michael Clayton's name is not on the letter head either. But then the world he inhabits is dark, carnivorous, with a patina of sophistication &

partners (and Michael) clothed in Armani, high rent offices that sprawl, and windows that afford a breathtaking view of the City skyline.

George Clooney, as Clayton, is excellent, using his strong, nuanced screen presence to great effect. He portrays an experienced lawyer, an acknowledged "excellent" litigator, wishing only to return to trial work. Over time, however, he has evolved into the firm's "janitor," meaning he is the go-to-guy when the firm has a particularly intractable problem or client needing his special brand of attention. Clayton has street smarts and connections, combined with a solid grounding in law, but his specialty doesn't draw from torts or contracts.

He is also weighed down by his own personal baggage: a divorced father trying to remain in the life of his young son; in debt to the mob for a failed restaurant; and a gambling problem that seems to have kept him perpetually broke. In other words, he is flawed and all the more interesting.

"Michael Clayton" is a thriller; yet it is also an intriguing character study that is intelligent, exceptionally well-written, with sharp dialogue. It also has a dark, edgy look to it and a plot which becomes ever more complex.

This is a film that asks for the filmgoer's full attention and lends itself to that rude impulse to turn to the person in the next seat and quickly recap or clarify. "Clayton," in addition to fine writing, possesses an exceptional cast. Tilda Swinton is always an intriguing actress to watch. Her role as a ruthless corporate attorney demonstrates the depth and breadth of her talent. Ditto for Tom Wilkinson as the firm's top litigator who falls over a psychological precipice, stands up in a deposition, disrobes down to his socks, and then chases the plaintiff out into a snowy parking lot in the buff. It's this moment in the film that prompts the call for the janitor, Clayton, who is suddenly involved in far more than he understands. "Michael Clayton" is exceptional.

'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'

Like "Michael Clayton," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" is a character study. The difference, however, is that the story, such as it is, becomes all but lost in the pageantry, and costuming. While Cate Blanchett, as Elizabeth, is certainly one of the best actresses of her generation, the depth and breadth of her talent shines best when she's part of a compelling story.

Recall that in 1998 she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "Elizabeth I," giving a tour de force performance. "The Golden Age" is the sequel, once again carried almost entirely by her ability to inhabit the persona of Elizabeth as she contends with the intrigues of her court and the intentions of Spain to invade and possess England.

The film is an interesting contradiction. So much of it is splendid, rich and lovely to look at, as well as flush with the Machiavellian maneuvering of Elizabeth's vast entourage of courtiers. Still, for all that, there is very little going on. If you are a fan of period films with Oscar level costuming and sets, or find Blanchett endlessly interesting to watch, you will not be disappointed. If it's a great, robust yarn you crave, then best take a pass.

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