The Ides of March

Stop the presses: politicians are scum!

In the second film this year that ends with a very long shot of Ryan Gosling’s face, we get The Ides of March, the newest installment in George Clooney’s directing career.  It’s a political drama, and Clooney doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a democrat (not that he ever has), while also suggesting that even the “correct” side isn’t perfect.

Politically, the film covers nothing new, and is about as enlightening in that area as Crash was about racism (going as far as saying “it exists” and leaving it at that).  The magic lies in the performances, namely those of Ryan Gosling, who stars as Steven Meyers; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara; and Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns.  Gosling plays the arrogant, up-and-coming brain trust of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), managing the latter’s campaign while looking to further his own career in any way possible.  Along the way, he starts a superficial romance with Molly, an intern barely out of her teens, and is tempted by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent, to join the other side.

The story may not play out like you expect it to.  It seems, at first, the narrative will be broad, following Morris’ campaign trail and sticking close to Steven’s troubles along the way, and it does, to an extent, accomplish this, though politics for the sake of politics don’t remain the focus for very long.  We soon learn that although Morris may be the “good guy” in the political arena, he is, as all politicians must be, scum, and Steven is left to make a few moral decisions.  The question remains, though: for whom is he making these decisions?  Himself, or the people who were wronged?  It’s not evident that Steven truly cares about anyone else, as he isn’t given enough time with any individual character, and two-thirds of the way through the film Gosling seems to morph into his stoic, hardboiled character from Drive before our eyes.

The film keeps us engaged all the way through, albeit through abounding use of the Manfluence Principle (see the Glossary).  Women are portrayed as either sexually-obsessed and immature (as seen in Molly), or jaded and snakelike (as seen in a reporter played by Marisa Tomei).  We get one scene between Morris and his wife, which seems thrown in and accomplishes little besides letting us know the power of Steven’s influence on everyone around Morris.  When the women are out of the room, they’re spoken of with zero respect (including but not limited to gratuitous use of the word “fuck” to describe activities shared between multiple characters and a now-dead woman).

Spoilers ahead.  After Molly reveals that the Governor impregnated her, Steven helps fund an abortion and seems to be looking out for her.  However, after Duffy tricks Steven into leaving Morris’ camp, Molly kills herself out of worry that Steven will reveal her secret in order to damage Morris’ chances of winning the primary.  Steven, having indeed planned to reveal this information to the other side, instead uses it to blackmail Morris into firing Zara and making Steven Senior Campaign Manager.  In a sense, Steven “wins,” though in the final shots, we get the sense that Steven realizes he’s done exactly what Duffy warned him about: betrayed his principles for the sake of revenge and career success.  While beautifully shot in a fully-realized Shakespearean tragedy (reflecting the film’s title), I actually found myself caring more about whether Steven missed/cared about Molly after her very young death.  Sorry, but the sad look on his face upon seeing her dead body isn’t enough.

Despite the glowing performances, it’s occasionally difficult to sympathize due to the editing.  Whenever I said to myself, “Yes; I’m with the characters here,” the film cut to a wide shot of Morris standing at a podium with a thousand people surrounding him, as if to shout, “This is George Clooney’s movie, remember?  Listen to what he has to say about what just happened!”  On the other hand, Wood’s performance is superb (despite the flat writing behind her character), and the film feels wounded when she leaves it.  Philip Seymour Hoffman once again proves he’s such a good actor that he can make things like opening a water bottle seem interesting, and even though his character is a bit of a worm, I rooted for him.  Jeffrey Wright even appears (having lost weight since Source Code) as Senator Thompson, and nets an easy paycheck.

This is one of those stories wherein I become frustrated while also enjoying the in-the-moment experience of digesting it, similar to a T.C. Boyle story.  The technical pieces are there, but questions about the real story linger long after you’ve left the theater or closed the cover.  In this case, I feel like I was meant to “learn” something, and unfortunately, it’s these vain, big-headed narratives that shove a film into Best Picture contention.  Make no mistake – the film deserves whatever accolades it receives.  Just don’t show it to your Poli-Sci class to replace a lesson, nor to your Playwriting class to replace Coriolanus.

The Ides of March (2011); written and directed by George Clooney; starring Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and George Clooney.

50/50

The worst result of a bad mattress I’ve ever seen

Real-life inspiration aside, the latest of several movies entitled 50/50 manages to deliver not only laughs, but competent drama.  This may seem like a herculean task in a film featuring Seth Rogen, but lest we forget, Donnie Darko also had him in it.

Rogen’s presence is a welcome one, being the comic relief of the film as well as the fictional counterpart to his real-life role as Will Reiser’s close friend.  The cast is captained by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who provides the “dram” half of the dramedy.  He plays Adam Lerner, a radio host who, despite his almost obsessively healthy lifestyle, is diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer.  His girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), prematurely agrees to take care of him, having no idea what she’s in for, and things go quite badly for the relationship when she experiences even the first level of Adam’s sickness.  Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston) has almost no one left, seeing as her husband (Serge Houde) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Rounding out the cast is the adorable Anna Kendrick, who plays Katherine, Adam’s young therapist.

Katherine is the film’s breath of fresh air, however obvious it may be that she and Adam are headed for an unethical romantic relationship the first time she gives him a ride home.  She provides what I suspect is one of the film’s most meaningful lines – “I’m not good at getting rid of stuff” – when Adam comments on her disaster of a car.  Kyle (Rogen) attempts to support Adam while also using his cancer to meet women, which leads to some funny moments, and Adam’s mother smothers him with care, despite his refusal to call her back most of the time.  These tough situations, along with Adam’s worsening condition, lead to some great conflicts and build to some heart-wrenching moments.  Interestingly, Adam’s character isn’t incredibly likable when the story begins; he seems to loosen up and spread his wings after his diagnosis.  Speaking of which, the doctor who gives Adam the news does so in such a bored, routine manner that he might be a janitor mopping the floor.  I was stunned to see Adam return to him later.  As Roger Ebert said in his review, “would it kill the son of a bitch to make [the odds] 60/40?”

The film relies on the concept itself – a young person becoming sick and dying – in order to deliver its primary drama.  If you know anyone who has had cancer, especially through the later stages, you know it’s far worse than portrayed here (although you may chalk it up to the fact that this is a feel-good film and, if you want to go this route, that Adam’s cancer was operable).  In addition, the inclusion of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father feels thrown in, as it doesn’t seem to affect Adam very much (I think he only says two lines to his father in the whole film), and might better serve a film centering around Diane, as he is largely her responsibility.

One of the best moments of the film is the convergence of all the people who orbit Adam throughout the film (other than Rachel, who is ousted in an emotionally-confused and rather mean-spirited scene on Adam’s porch).

I am surprised Adam lasts as long as he does before throwing a screaming fit.  Scenes like this provide some real tear-inducing moments, which is commendable for a film pitched as a feel-good comedy.  The story ends in the perfect moment, an opportunity most films miss, with Katherine posing a question to Adam, a question all film heroes must face when their adventures end.  I think Adam might be one character who knows how to answer.

50/50 (2011); written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen and Anjelica Huston.

Killer Elite

MFWIC

I have to admit something: Killer Elite looked like a very bad idea when I first saw the posters.  “A shameless Jason Statham vehicle,” I thought.  However, after seeing Yvonne Strahovski’s name in the top four billing slots, as well as reading that the film was inspired by Ranulph Fiennes’ controversial book, The Feather Men, a story he claimed was a nonfictional account of his rescue by the Special Forces from a group of assassins, my interest was piqued.

My initial instinct was half right, though I must admit, the film exceeded my expectations.  It is only marginally based upon Fiennes’ book; the story and characters are pure invention.  It’s a bit smarter than most action fare, though, lacking a maniacal arch-villain and the usual quota of explosions.  Statham plays the central character, Danny Bryce, an ex-mercenary blackmailed into one last job: assassinate a group of ex-SAS members.  The job is given by a Dubai Sheikh whose sons were murdered by the ex-SAS members during the Oman war.  If Danny doesn’t do the job, then his best friend, Hunter (Robert de Niro) will be executed.

Yvonne Strahovski does what she can with her role, which I’d originally thought might be that of an assassin, but alas, she appears as Anne, Danny’s Australian girlfriend, who sits at home and worries.  Her involvement increases when she is targeted by one of Danny’s greedy contacts, known as the Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but this section of the story still only involves her being moved from place to place and worrying more.  She gets one very good scene with Robert de Niro, however, and I think we should acknowledge how significant this is.

Danny’s team, Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young) work as a dysfunctional machine, and the assassination scenes become much more interesting when we’re introduced to the rule that the killings must look like accidents.  Eventually, Spike Logan (Clive Owen, in a role that rhymes with his name), a member of the Feather Men, becomes aware that his friends are being killed, and decides to hunt the assassins who are assassinating assassins.  I could have fit another occurrence of “assassin” in that sentence, but the plot is cluttered and disjointed enough.  Despite this, the tension never wanes, even when the filmmakers attempt to increase the suspense with cheap, horror-movie-style music catches.  We even get a new, sort-of funny acronym, which could only exist in the British lexicon.

The best part of the film’s major conflict, sausage-fest as it is, is the fact that neither side is inherently bad.  Danny and his team do the job in order to save an innocent man (the ones who are in it for the money don’t live very long), and Logan, similarly, is trying to keep his friends from being systematically murdered.  All parties receive a relatively fair, if hopelessly safe and cozy, ending.  Luckily, Statham isn’t given the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue, and while he carries the most responsibility, de Niro is given plenty to say, and Strahovski’s importance is stressed by the narrative, though her scenes can’t help but seem thrown in.

Also of interest is a cameo appearance by an actor playing Fiennes himself after the book is published in the film’s fiction.  As the film’s story is inspired by the book, the scene in which the book is revealed is a very good “gotcha” moment which simultaneously gives off the tang of anachronism, and while I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a time loop, it was better than being beaten over the head with absurd stunts, relentless Bull-shitsu, and fake-looking CG.  If you have to choose an action movie this month, choose Killer Elite over anything that takes place on an animated planet.  Your brain will thank you.

Killer Elite (2011); written by Matt Sherring (based upon Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men); directed by Gary McKendry; starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert de Niro and Yvonne Strahovski.