Month: December 2011

“Et Tu, Gosling?”: Review for The Ides of March

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It seems that politics, more than any other subject, is absolute fodder for filmmakers who want to critique culture or create some sort of relevant commentary. From The Manchurian Candidate to The Great Dictator to Wag the Dog, directors not only love to look at the corrupt state of government by imbuing its characters with absurd stereotypes but they also love to expose the cunning wit that politicians have. They’re smooth talkers and they’re supposed to be. Just take a look at the iconic speech that Chaplin gives at the end of The Great Dictator, lampooning Hitler a couple years before World War II had actually begun.

George Clooney joins the band of merry satirists in a darker fashion, trying to create and emulate suspense more along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, and, to some extent, Coppola’s The Conversation. Playing a governor and almost presidential candidate just prior to a Democratic Primary in Ohio, Clooney, who directed and co-wrote The Ides of March, isn’t even at the front line of the film. It’s Ryan Gosling, the debonair, smart, young, and very qualified campaign advisor Stephen Meyers, working separate but next to Mike Morris’ (Clooney) official campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

The competition between Mike Morris and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) is close and tense, and throughout the film, you’re never quite sure who’s leading. Logistically, it only matters insofar that we know that Morris is a nice guy, just like Clooney, and we root for him initially. We want him to win, just like Clooney, were he to run for President. He’s a swell, logical guy.

Gosling’s Stephen is just as swell, but he’s harder on the outside and more ambiguous. He makes the statement that, despite whatever the statistics of Morris’ campaign, he will do what he does if he believes in it, not merely to win, in comparison to Zara. We can thus assume that, regardless of how many campaigns he’s actually been a part of, he’s rather naïve. He’s slightly disillusioned about Marisa Tomei’s New York Times correspondent Ida and whether or not she’s an actual “friend”. To what extent can he trust her is something that pops up throughout the film every so often. He plays the character well, with finesse, like he has with his previous roles in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive. He uses that same charm, but he knows, and we know, that it’s not the same character.

The point of this morality play, which is based on co-screenwriter Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, is to observe the moral ambiguity in politics. The idea is nothing new. Even the aspect of the character study is not new. Maybe that’s the problem with the film. It’s not new or fresh, despite the very contemporary setting and the feeling that Barack Obama is watching behind you and will resent you if you don’t like it. Moral ambiguity is usually a key point in political thrillers. What one candidate will do or not do to win or get the advantage is the drama, and here it plays very predictably. The center though, is not the candidate himself, but the advisor.

Meyers, while doggedly “married” to the campaign makes the dangerous mistake of acting on a phone call from the opposing team and visiting the opposing side’s own campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). From there, you have your drama. To what extent is Stephen Meyers still that honest, likable, charming guy; the one who can easily bed the sexy intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and still be seen as the cool guy on campus. But his weakness is ambition. His ambition is his downfall, as, typically, he’s not as honest as he presents himself. It’s his ambition that propels him to see Giamatti, just to see if they can pay better, if the payoff allows for more power.

Its direction is fine, but the dialogue is, thankfully, interesting. If anything, it does make one wonder why the screenwriters and playwrights who pen these contemplative and methodical works don’t run for office themselves. They seem to have a good grip on what’s going on and can articulate the solutions well enough to sound convincing coming from the mouth of an actor playing a candidate. What the characters say, primarily the political ones spark the ongoing debate within the audience’s mind about the honesty of politics or lack thereof.

The title is reminiscent of those tragic Greek plays, but most reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The voting day for the Democratic Primary is, you guessed it March 15th, otherwise known as the Ides of March, the same day that Caesar was so iconically betrayed and murdered by Brutus and 60 other co-conspirators. Metaphorically, Meyers is, of course, Brutus with Morris as Caesar. However, perhaps to the disappointment of Clooney, it never seems as tragic as the play. It’s a bummer, somewhat of an accident on Meyers’ part, but it’s not tragic.

The screenplay is strong, but this is one of the few films that I would have preferred seeing on the stage. The characters are far more important and the constant switch in setting, as contemporary and “relevant” as they seem is actually distracting. It’s trying to be directed more like a film than like a stage play, but there’s no balance between the transition from one medium to the other. The politics are interesting, but the moral ambiguity of its characters is less interesting than you would think, even with Clooney at the head. You walk out with your mental ballot only being half punched through.

Grade: B-

Movie Revenues Are Going Down and This is Old News to Everyone

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Roger Ebert recently posted an article giving his reasons and theories as to why box office revenue had decreased in the last two years. You can find the article here.

In it he cited 6 basic reasons:

  1. Lack of event films
  2. High ticket prices
  3. “The theater experience”
  4. Refreshment prices
  5. Others ways of watching movies
  6. Lack of choice

Here is my response, vehement, sardonic, snarky, and somewhat snobby.

Agree on all points. Going to the movies isn’t what it used to be. When you went to a film years ago it was something fun to do a mini event. But now, the only reason is for “the event movie”, which honestly are overloaded pieces of crap because the execs put so much effort into making them event films. The individual quality of the film is subjective of course and variable. But you won’t get insight or thought from today’s audience. You’ll only get “that was effing awesome” or “that sucked”. You won’t get why. It’s like if everyone went to a great buffet where they were serving a large turkey that had been carefully cured for hours. The fat content is through the roof. The are other dishes there as well, the supporting players. And the guests gorge on it, regardless of its health content. And what do they say? “Oh that meal was great” blah blah blah. No comment on how it actually tasted, how the ingredients worked together, how each dish was complemented by its respective side dish or drink. That’s why I hate today’s public taste. They don’t care at all about what they’re watching. I would at least respect someone who likes Transformers and understands and articulates why, but that inability to do so pushes me over the edge. It’s just eating or watching without real consideration. Also, fanboys and girls suck. They’re annoying and rude during a film.

Back on topic from that dangerous segue. With Netflix, Hulu, iTunes (sort of), UltraViolet, Amazon Prime, and even buying hard copies of films, there’s little reason to pay $10 for something you see once. (Speaking form the mind of today’s audience, bot my personal reasoning.) Films are released on home video in less than four months. Streaming, however, is the “way of the future”. Doesn’t take up room. You can watch it whenever and wherever and however often you want. It’s cost effective, with subscriptions usually being no more than about $13 a month.
Movies are disappearing too fast because of that home video demand. Which is the reason I didn’t get a damn chance to see that damn masterpiece Drive in theaters, dammit. However, films like Melancholia, which can be released VOD (another reason for above paragraph) are independently produced and thus have smaller marketing and distribution budgets. Maybe make more room for these films and do a better rotating schedule in theaters?
Ebert makes a good point about art films. A) People need to grow a pair and open their minds to things like that, as opposed to bitching about it without knowing anything. (“OH MY GOD, SUBTITLES, NO!” “IT’S IN BLACK AND WHITE, OH MY GOD!”) If more art films were available in theaters, not only would that film get a larger audience but more people would be exposed to those films and thus would begin a circle of self reflection and self reflexive thought in terms of their taste. Calling something pretentious or stupid is useless if you don’t put any effort into understanding it.
I don’t really think the refreshment thing is that big of a deal. People have been sneaking in food to the theater since the dawn of time.
These ideas, theories, conjectures are nothing new. People have been citing these reasons whenever a) new technology is introduced to make home viewing better (slash “more fun) and b) whenever there’s a drop in annual revenue. Granted, home viewing hard copies have in the last couple years gone down nearly 11 percent, but the growing ubiquity of Blu-ray and its convenient “combo” packaging (with the Blu-ray, the DVD, and a digital copy) is making up for those losses. For $25, you can get all three. yes, it may be about five dollars more than DVDs were when a new film was released at Walmart, but now DVDs are about $10 cheaper and, if you wait a month or so, the Blu-ray, regardless of its combo pack, will also go down. It only took a month for Martin Scorsese’s newly refurbished-in-4k-glory classic Taxi Driver to take a step down from $20 on Amazon to a very reasonable $13. With a big name title like that, you can’t go wrong. Even the new 3D Blu-rays (which, as far as I can tell, still have yet to really catch on) offers the four formats all in one set, for about $30.
As I said, the conjectures are not new. This will be written about again eventually, within the coming months or years. If anything, studio execs should take a hint from the indicators. They should spend less time taking polls and creating useless studies and instead read more about what the public wants. Go online once in  a while. Read a blog. And take note of exactly who your audience is. Even if it means feeding them something they won’t initially like, what critics, actors, writers, etc. admire is risk. Take the risk. You may be doing it for yourself and for the money, but for once, do it because it’s your job. Do it for the people who love film.

Ghost Tale: Review for Insidious

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Ghost stories are timeless. And so are haunted house stories. They’re embedded into our history and our DNA. That melding of those two subgenres of the scary tale or even the scary movie reveals something about our personal domestic fears. You would think that the two would get old and that that they’d die out, but they still haven’t. Whether it’s Paranormal Activity or the excellent Insidious, we still find ourselves fascinated with something so timeless.

Insidious is an interesting case. Directed and written by James Wan, the creator of Saw (he should have never turned it into a damn franchise); the movie is set in a new house with Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and their kids slowly experiencing strange things around the house. Is this typical of a movie like this? Totally. It’s highly traditional. But the dependency that the film places on its sound design and visual design is integral and well used. The subtle noises and scratches coming from upstairs, the muted color palette and camera tricks which are fairly “old school” – they’re all used to the hilt.

This kind of suspense is rare, when at every turn you see either torture porn, lousy reboots or remakes, or boring and plodding retreads on old material. The suspense created here is real. It’s frightening. Eventually, Wilson and Byrne’s son is put into a “coma” (for an inexplicable reason), but the strange things keep happening. They decide to move back into their old house. All seems fine at first (you can tell because the pallet become colorful and saturated!), but the specters must have followed them!

That’s the first half. It’s a brilliant, scary, and extremely well-paced first half. The second half isn’t bad per se, but it’s so drastically different in tone it feels like it’s a completely different film. It’s as if the tone and style comes out of left field. It adds a very Exorcist-like element, in which the demons that are trying to possess their child must be stopped, etc. etc. It’s still “good but it’s not great. It becomes unbelievable and insanely strange. The switch in tone is admittedly a bit jarring. But, in a way, it’s understandable. It’s hard to follow up a first act so great with a second one that’s just as good.

It’s not the acting here that matters. It’s the atmosphere. The atmospheric tone, the creepiness, to sheer suspense and fear make the film what it is. The first half of the film is one of the best scary movies I’ve seen in ages. It may be the same ground that’s been explored before, but it’s been done with such panache that it seems almost entirely new. In the end it’s a fantastically frightening movie, fun and filled with fear. Vampires may come and go and werewolves may be a fad for a year or two, but ghost and the haunted house will never disappear.

Grade: B+

For the Love of Film: Review for Hugo

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It is often difficult for lovers of film to really articulate why they love film. They will sometimes do this, but it’ll come out as a a half coherent ramble. Even directors who harbor a passion for film can sometimes barely get it out. And this is where they use their medium to tell us why film is magical. Such is the case of Martin Scorsese’s delightful, interesting, but flawed film Hugo. Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Scorsese’s film is nothing but a love letter to the art of film and the masters who perfected the craft.

Young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives within the walls of the Paris Trainstation, inconspicuously keeping the clocks of the station running. Somewhere towards the outskirts of the station is a small toyshop, disregarded by many, and run by an old, curmudgeon man. He, however, holds the key to what Hugo needs. Hugo has been assembling an automaton since his father’s (Jude Law) untimely death. And now he is an orphan living within the walls.

In Hugo’s quest for fufillment, he is joined by the articulate biblioophile Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of the mysterious shop keeper. This is perhaps where the film falters most. Too much importance is given to this strange, fascinating device when the payoiff is barely what one expected. However, the reason being is that the automaton is just another MacGuffin in itself.

It turns out that Hugo loved going to the movies with his father and exposes dear Isabelle to the great pictures. They go to see Buster Keaton’s Safety Last! And the pure ecstacy of going to the theater, the same kind of wonderment I feel when I go, is perfectly drawn across the actors’ faces. The two soon learn that Isabelle’s godfather, who had previously been known as “Papa Georges”, the same shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley), is actually the French filmmaker and pioneer of film Georges Melies. The man who made A Trip to the Moon, Melies has seemingly forgotten about his past. The two head to the library to research the history of film. A gorgeous montage if ever I saw one passes before the audience’s eyes, filled with clips from Chaplin, Keaton, Einstein, Griffiths, and others light up the screen. It’s an intoxicating amalgom of film history.

While the film is certainly delightful in many of its facets, one does question why the film was marketed to a younger demographic. Not everyone is a cinephile and silents are extremely dated. The subject of the film, which eventuallyleads into film restoration, is somewhat esoteric. To what extent will kids buy into the idea of restoring and preserving film? I shouldn’t underestimate kids, considering that the last time I did that, it was with the smash hit from Pixar Ratatouille. I remember thinking, “Really? A cooking rat?” Though, you have to admit, cooking is far less obscure and esoteric than film restoration. It’s not a surprise Scorsese would make that the subject of his film, considering he is one of the leading directors to support film preservation. This is pure fodder for him.

Generally, this film is filme. It’s even magical to an extent. But sometimes its overwraught performances lead into a kind of melodrama which I personally find intolerable. This is usually the product of Asa Butterfied, who, it should be noted, is a fine actor. He juust doesn’t do that well when he’s crying or making a big deal about his father. Kingsley himself is fine. Everyone is fine. But no one really stands out against the rest. Even the comical Sacha Baron Cohen barely leaves an impression. Chloe Moretz may be the best of them, actually. Her English accent is quite effortless. It’s not the acting that makes the film memorable, it is the subject of film that does.

Generally, I find the use of 3D abhorrent. But more and more, auteurs and grand directors have taken to the sets with 3D cameras. Scorsese is one of them, and his use of 3D walks the fine line between immersions (a la James Cameron) and hokey (a la everyone else). The 3D does create an immersive environment and actually does add to the experience. It’s a leap in technology, just as moving pictures was a leap in technology. Melding the two make sense, and the end product is quite pleasing.

Martin Scorsese, who is better known for his gritty, realistic gangster dramas, injects his newest film, a kid’s film, with perfection. The visual effects are top notch and the storyline is great. Only in the acting does it sometimes falter. But you can tell all throughout the film that this was Scorsese’s passion project. It’s filled with his heart and soul. And that’s what film should be filled with: passion.

Grade: B+