It's a leap year, which means two things: Cath and I celebrate an engagement anniversary and the USians spend over a year trying to work out who will head the executive branch of government. So the movie-watcher's thoughts turn to films about the presidential election process and US politics. Thish is a review of the latest such film, Ides of March, and previously in these pages we have discussed films as diverse as The Contender, Charlie Wilson's War, State of Play (2009) and Thirteen Days. To celebrate the long, long months of the primary and general election process, the Necessity Culture section will revisit some of the better movies about the peculiar and arcane system of electing these important officials, particularly the nomination and election of the president, both serious and satirical.
The Oscar nominations were so predictable with a strong middle-of-the-road bias. Not even the end of the Potter series could garner it a nomination in acting or production. Critical tepidness did not stop the latest Terrence Malick or Spielberg drama being nominated (Malick even stole the Best Director nomination that should have gone to The Help's Tate Taylor - after all that film won best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors' Guild awards). The big surprises were that the Academy managed to omit the latest Pixar animation from its list of nominees and restrict the Best Song to only two nominees (dissing Madonna, amongst others). The big question: will the Academy surrender to the francophiles and high-brow critics and honor The Artist in a number of major categories, or will the Academy recognise the excellence of Hugo and the performances in The Descendants and The Help.
Father to the man
Set in Hawai'i, The Descendants is about the impact of life-changing events on a small family unit. It is one of the best movies I've seen lately, largely because it takes its time to develop its characters and situations, and because its lead actors are given the opportunity to get under the skin of their characters and communicate with the audience. Matt King (George Clooney) is the centre of attention here, dominating the story as the point of view, the scion of a pioneering family, the product of an early marriage between Hawaiian royalty and white settlers. This family owns a large tract of land that for various reasons will need to be disposed of quite soon. The majority favors sale to a developer but Matt has the final say. As he is facing this crisis, his wife is involved in a speedboat crash, resulting in an irreversible coma. Matt has to confront this with his two daughters, mid-teen Alex (Shailene Woodley) and sub-teen Scottie (Amara Miller), as he comes to understand how much he has neglected both his marriage and the raising of his children. Alex has been in a boarding school and comes with a fair amount of teen angst and rebellion, as well as a boyfriend Sid who offers a different, sometimes outré, viewpoint. Director and co-writer Alexander Payne has focused in particular on Matt, of his discoveries of aspects of his life and family that he had not previously been aware of (such as his wife's extra-marital affair) and his reactions to them. Clooney gives the performance of his life here: he inhabits Matt King and becomes him as the story unfolds. It's a performance well worthy of awards, but interestingly it's matched by the acting of young Ms Woodley, whose Alex is far more complex than first appears. The story tends to open out as it progresses, with members of the extended King family, especially Beau Bridges as the most enthusiastic of the want-to-sell group, and Matt's in-laws making telling contributions. There's also a good cameo from Judy Greer in a vital role. As with all aspects of the film, Payne takes great care in the denouement not to rush to the end that might more easily resolve the issues but to reflect some of the complexity that such situations create, and to show how the various aspects of Matt King's life are interconnected and the solution in one area links to the resolution of them all. A very satisfying film that relies on intelligence, doesn't divide its characters into good and evil, and falls back on logical progression rather than action. The Descendants is highly recommended.
Station, but not stationary
Hugo is an even better movie, the best from 2011 so far. Because I went in with very limited knowledge of the way the movie moves from its start (it is a case where the trailer was exemplary in not disclosing most of the twists and turns), I was pleasantly surprised by the story it told. Because I want to avoid spoilers that might ruin others' enjoyment, this review will not traverse many of the plot developments. I strongly suggest that you see this movie before you find out too much about it. What I can say is that Martin Scorsese has demonstrated again what a great and versatile director he is. As he did with earlier great films like The Age of Innocence and The Aviator he leaves the familiar milieu of crime drama; here he explores a YA adventure, based on a sophisticated graphic novel, using the newest of cinema's 3D technology, to showcase the ability of film to portray the world of reality and the world of imagination. The story is set in an idealised Paris of the early 1930s. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in the walls of Gare Montparnasse, looking after the station's clocks. He has inherited an automaton from his father, and he is trying to complete his father's work in fixing it. In order to get the parts he has been robbing the toy store of Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), an old man down on his luck; Hugo survives by similarly liberating material from other stores in the station, incurring the wrath of the Station Inspector (played with a deadpan dourness by Sasha Baron Cohen). In his interactions with Papa Georges he meets the old man's ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who admires his spirit and helps him take his projects forward. Through her we also meet Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), Papa Georges' less choleric partner. Through Hugo's eyes we also see what's happening at the station, and observe the interactions of many of its regulars: the flower girl who the Inspector would court; the newsy and the cafe owner who have never quite got together; the bookstore owner (Christopher Lee, at last in a purely sympathetic role) who wants nothing more than to find the right people for each of his books; and the Inspector's monomania about rounding up stray orphans. The film techniques employed by Scorsese and DoP Robert Richardson and the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, the director's long-time collaborator, contribute to the success of the film. For just about the first time, 3D technology is used to advantage, helping increase the depth of field without either deadening the color or causing blurring at the edges; additionally it is used to augment the story and enhance it, rather than just seeming like a gimmick, or a way of re-marketing an old film (George Lucas, I am looking at you). Hugo is an adventure for all those that can put themselves in the mind of the young man seeking to do what he must do in the hope of finding the message from his late father. The message he receives does not at first appear to be that which he is seeking but the resolution of the tale, and its relevance to the director and his audience, more than compensates for that. Kingsley is excellent, as is the rest of the adult cast. The two lead children (the only Yanks in the lead cast, amongst a plethora of Poms) do all that needs to be done, with Moretz showing that her star turn in Kick-Ass was no fluke. This is a magical movie with just enough elements of fantasy to leaven the reality. See Hugo at the movies in 3D!!
Beware: the primary club
The Ides of March details the intrigues involved in a Democratic presidential primary. Told from the viewpoint of an idealistic campaign assistant on the rise, the film spends so much time on examining the trees, it doesn't quite see the full extent of the forest. It is not an examination of idealism and grandiloquent statements in the same way that an Aaron Sorkin version might be, it is all about the people and the effect of pressure (under the gaze of the modern media) on reasonably ordinary people. In that it is not unlike George Clooney's previous film, Good Night, and Good Luck. Here the point of view character is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) working for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is managing the campaign of Governor Morris (Clooney). Morris appears to be a good, and a clean, candidate, so Myers has a reasonably easy job promoting him. There are two snakes in is political grass: a venal Senator (Jeffrey Wright) looking for influence and Duffy (Paul Giamatti), manager of Morris' opponent. Myers soon finds himself in a moral dilemma, just as he appears also to have found love in the arms of a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). The resolution of these plot elements are in part a reflection of things we already know about politicians and their campaigns. What is interesting is the way in which Clooney, as a director and co-writer, has concentrated on the individuals and how these reasonably predictable developments impact on them. It also demonstrates that Ryan Gosling is certain to become one of the great cinema actors, if he is not already (this fine dramatic performance compliments his comedic turn in Crazy, Stupid Love) and that Wood is, with Carey Mulligan and Emma Stone, the best of the new generation of female stars. This is a better drama than it is a political movie, in the same way that Moneyball manages to be about a lot more than baseball, so even those with no interest in US politics will appreciate The Ides of March.
Blown out of proportion
The fourth Mission Impossible movie of the modern iteration is by far the best - which could be seen as damning with very faint praise indeed. Starting in Moscow, with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in prison, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol begins with a bang and doesn't let up until the overlong anti-climax. Hunt is compelled to work with a new team, Paula Patton (so good in Deja Vu), Simon Pegg (de rigeur in all series reboots) and Jeremy Renner, another of the cadre of emerging film talents. The team is soon on the wrong side of the law and of a Bondian villain bent on world destruction. They have to confront him and his gang in the tallest of the hotel towers in Dubai, giving rise to one of the least credible stunts in MI history and to an even less credible sequence involving a sandstorm. The third act is in Mumbai, and features three much more exciting and entertaining sequences, involving intrigue, violence and entertainment. The film is directed by Brad Bird, a live-action adventure from a director who learned his trade directing animations for Pixar after working for The Simpsons. While it's true that The Incredibles were more animated than Tom Cruise, the rest of the cast is very good here and, leaving aside the sense of incredulity occasioned by an external hotel stunt and the sandstorm, the film is actually a good action entertainment, and easily forgotten afterwards.
Scarlett colors; Matt finish
We Bought a Zoo is another entertaining but lightweight film that benefits from the sincerity and gravitas of its actors, including its child stars. Based on a true story of an English family that bought a run-down zoo and restored it, the film has been transferred to California and americanised. The paterfamilias is Matt Damon, with a teenaged boy and a subteen girl, recovering from the cancer-death of a beloved wife and mother. The boy in particular is finding it hard to adjust so the serendipity of the run-down zoo, which appeals to his girl and seems to offer something to take their minds off their troubles, is heaven-sent as far as Dad is concerned. The script follows many screen-writing clichés more than it seems to follow any version of the truth: the zoo boasts an attractive, young, female zoologist whose main role seems to be eventually to fall into Damon's arms. Scarlett Johansson essays this role with the aplomb that comes from surviving lead roles Woody Allen dramedies. She also comes equipped with a superfluous niece (Super 8's Elle Fanning) who is just the right age for Damon's rebellious son. This leaves Maggie Elizabeth Jones plenty of time to be a seven-year-old playing with animals and Thomas Haden Church plenty of scope to be Damon's curmudgeonly brother. There's even room in the plot for a pretend villain in the form of the usual bean-counting bureaucrat insistent on following the rules - not that there's anything wrong with that, except when it gets in the way of the hero's journey. The cast manages to overcome the handicaps inherent in the script. Given that it comes from Cameron Crowe, who also directs, and Aline Brosh McKenna (Devil Wears Prada), the writing could have been more original and more profound. Despite that, We Brought a Zoo is fun film.
Solid gold cad lacks
In terms of empty vessels that are evanescently entertaining, Tower Heist fits the bill well. The name says almost all: it is a heist movie set in a skyscraper, in this case a thinly disguised Trump Tower in downtown NY. The object of the heist is a financier who has been operating a Ponzi scheme that has mulcted, amongst others, all the employees who work for the Tower. Of these the leader is Ben Stiller, the building's manager, who has advised his employees to invest in the millionaire's schemes. Alan Alda is the nasty and Tea Leoni is the FBI agent tasked with bringing him down. With the likelihood that they will never recover their money, Stiller and his cohorts start planning a heist, the target being a safe known to be somewhere in the penthouse apartment. In order to assist them in this task they recruit a career criminal, Eddie Murphy playing Eddie Murphy. Director Brett Ratner, who seems always to have some major failings in his movies, spends a lot of time setting up the characters and the story, but not much time on the planning or execution of the heist itself. As a result, the robbery is not as thrilling or suspenseful as it might be. Timed for Thanksgiving, as the Parade passes along the street below, the robbery goes wrong in several plot-twisting ways, leading to the need to lower a car, via the window-washing platform hoist, several floors below the penthouse. This is where the incredible becomes the unbelievable. Even outré heist movies need to make sense within their own strictures and the weight problems associated with the bearing capacity of the hoist and the visibility of the crime both militate against this. Leaving aside the sometime annoying Stiller and the familiar mugging of Murphy, the ensemble cast does reasonably well in finding the humor within the material, if not the suspense. Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Pena and Gabourey Sidibe all do well enough to keep the film going. But I miss the presence of a Dortmunder-style mastermind putting an arcane plan together and carrying it through with military precision, and the occasional glitch.
Seen on DVD
Occasionally you manage to come across one of those movies so bad that you have to ask yourself "What the fuck were they thinking?" Your Highness is a case in point. Especially when it features actors who should know better. Danny McBride was one of the writers, so he has only himself to blame. James Franco was an appalling Oscar host, so he deserves everything he gets. But what are Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel doing here? And what did their advisers tell them? Portman wins an Oscar and ends up in this? Even Damien Lewis, who should know better is here. Briefly, Franco is the brave prince whose bride is kidnapped. Younger brother McBride, a stoner ne'er-do-well, is dragooned into the rescue quest. Portman is the warrior woman they meet on the way, who becomes involved in the hunt and, in a twist that only script-writer McBride would envisage, becomes the younger brother's love interest. Over-acted, badly scripted, raucously unfunny, this is a mess. Avoid. Easy Virtue is a modern adaptation of a Noel Coward comedy of manners put together by Stephan Elliott, who demonstrated his subtlety in his first film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He seems like a bad fit for Coward. And so it proves in this film. The older son of landed gentry returns home with an American divorcée bride, much to the consternation of his overbearing mother and to the indifference of his father, who has never quite recovered from the war. Add a couple of younger sisters and a plethora of neighbors, including the son's former fiancee, and you have the makings of a drawing room comedy. All it needs is more humor in the dialog and some realisation that it's not supposed to be the real world but an imagined world that existed largely in Coward's city-boy imagination. Kris Marshall's butler is intermittently amusing, and has the best lines, apart from Kristin Scott Thomas, who misses the mark as mum, often misreading her acerbic, but brittle, humorous lines. That leaves the increasingly reliable Colin Firth as the war veteran and Jessica Biel as the bride to carry the burden of taking the film forward to an ending that Coward would never have envisaged nor approved.
Choosing a president on film
The plot may seem peripheral to presidential politics but Wag the Dog (1997) is a biting satire of the system and how it can be worked. It is perhaps the most literate of all the non-Sorkin political movies, as you would expect from having David Mamet as the co-writer and Barry Levinson as director. The McGuffin is quite straight-forward for such a twisted movie: the president is accused of sexual misconduct with a mid-teen Firefly Girl and spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) needs to deflect national attention for fortnight until the first Tuesday in November. In order to do so he cooks up a phony war with Albania. To help him sell his non-existent war, he enlists the services of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) and the latter's assortment of writers, singers and film tie-in specialists. Conrad jets between the coasts setting up his con; Stanley is a willing accomplice for no other reason than vanity. When the opposition candidate and the CIA combine to scuttle their war, they move to a second phase: the return of the captured hero (sort of like Homeland seen through the lens of Carroll's looking glass). There are lots of things to like about this movie, particularly the overwhelming cynicism about the political process and how easily the electorate can be manipulated. Given the leads are two of the great actors of their generation you'd expect great performances, and they are matched by Dennis Leary, Willie Nelson and William H Macy in supporting roles. There are just enough shreds of credibility to keep this fantasy afloat through some of the dodgier ploys, but it not only floats, it swims away. In addition to the wit of the script the film benefits from some of great over-the-top songs, including a Live Aid pastiche for the war effort and more martial music for the phantom corps invented by the plotters. The capper is that, right to the end, Conrad and Stanley are true to their characters, with mixed results for each. Wag the Dog should not be taken seriously, but it can be taken often.
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).]
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Last updated: 23 June 2012