Martha Marcy May Marlene(11/5/2011)

Most anyone would agree that cults are dangerous and undesirable entities that have been responsible for some terrible episodes like the mass suicides, sexual slavery, and even killing sprees.  However, it can become rather tricky to determine whether a group is functioning as a cult or as a legitimate organization. Is the Church of Scientology a cult?  What about Mormonism?  Some would even go so far as to say mainstream religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are basically just large scale cults that can cause social ills on a much grander scale.  That’s one of the issues addressed in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which depicts a young woman who finds herself living on a farm which initially seems like a relatively harmless commune but which begins to seem much more sinister as its methods of operation are revealed to her and to the audience.

As the film opens the titular character, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), is at the end of her stay with the group she’s been living with for the last two years.  She runs away from their compound and calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who hadn’t heard from Martha since she ran away and joined the group.  Lucy picks Martha up and brings her to a lake house where she and her husband (Hugh Dancy) have been staying over the course of a short vacation.  From here the film begins to show Martha’s difficult adjustment back into regular life while frequently cutting back to the compound, depicting how she was slowly socialized into some increasingly unsavory behavior by this group beginning when they decide to change her name from Martha to Marcy May… unless she’s answering the phone, in which case she calls herself Marlene.

At the center of all this is an excellent performance by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the famous Olsen twins), who has unique challenges during both the film’s flashbacks and during the scenes at Lucy’s lake house.  During the flashbacks we see how she comes to be enraptured by the cult around her even as their behavior gets increasingly indefensible; we see how she could come to see these things as normal and if the performance hadn’t been as strong it would have been easy for the audience to dismiss her as a fool who should have known better.  During the scenes at the lake house the audience builds even more empathy for her as she shows a child-like misunderstanding with the regular world, falling into old habits from her cult days occasionally, but not acting like a complete freak either most of the time.  You get a sense that Martha is a rather wounded person, unsure how to leave her Marcy May identity behind.

There are other good performances to be found in the film, like John Hawkes’ portrayal of the deeply strange Patrick, a man who manipulates people to his advantage but who isn’t necessarily a cynical charlatan either.  He seems to be an almost Manson-esque figure that seems to be just as enraptured by his own charisma as his followers are, he’s a monster but he probably doesn’t consciously realize he is.  Hawkes isn’t quite as amazing here as he was in Winter’s Bone (where he was the clear standout), but he certainly has an excellent character that he brings to life admirably.   I cannot necessarily say the same about Sarah Paulson or Hugh Dancy’s work as Martha’s sister and brother-in-law, though I hesitate to blame the actors for this entirely.  The problem is that these characters both seem wildly insensitive toward Martha at times, often reacting to mildly deviant behavior by shouting things like “what’s wrong with you” or “that’s crazy.”  Granted, neither of these characters are privy to the flashback sequences and likely haven’t built up the same empathy for Martha that the audience has, but there’s a certain point where any rational person would have been a little more sensitive towards someone who’s so obviously disturbed.

Martha Marcy May Marlene was directed by Sean Durkin and produced by Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, three filmmakers who have formed a collective of young filmmakers under a production company Borderline Films.  If there’s anything that characterizes what the Borderline collective and differentiates them from other filmmakers of their generation it’s a certain sense of restraint.  While many young filmmakers over the last decade or so have embraced MTV maximalism, Wes Anerson hipness, or Sundance sentimentality, these films from Borderline have seemed much slower, almost cold in nature.  That’s not to say that they’re boring or even particularly “arty” (in the negative sense of that word), just more restrained.  Sometimes this restraint can go a little too far as I think it does in the final moments of Martha Marcy May Marlene, which ends very abruptly.  There are many virtues to this ending: it’s mysterious, somewhat shocking, and it will certainly elicit discussion and theorizing, but it robs the film of any closure or finality.  Many will argue (perhaps rightly) that this is the point and that the film couldn’t have ended any other way, but I still can’t help but think I would have been more interested in the two or three scenes that may have followed this ending than I would have been by the odd jolt that this cut to black provided.

The previous feature length film released by Borderline Films was Antonio Campos’ Afterschool, a film with a similarly cold and ultra-modern tone, but also a film that seemed more concerned with making points than about exploring characters.  Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like a more fully realized film, one that will reach a (relatively) broader audience.  With Fox Searchlight bringing the film bringing the film to major markets across the country, this may be the film that brings this exciting collective into the wider cinematic culture.  That’s exciting, but this movie is certainly worth praising on its own merits.  It certainly has it’s small flaws (the portrayal of Lucy, the unexplained absence of Martha’s parents, and the questionable ending), but it is a really well crafted and interesting work just the same that’s easy to recommend both to hardened cinephiles and to wide audiences.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Uncle Boonmee Who Could Recall His Past Lives(11/24/2011)

The Oscar season will be beginning soon and with it will probably be at least a half a dozen articles about how “elitist” the Academy is for honoring “arty” movies instead of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.  These articles boil my blood firstly because they’re anti-intellectual stupidity and secondly because the movies that the academy tends to honor are usually far from being “art movies.”  The movies that win Oscars are usually mainstream movie, mainstream movies that cater to an older audience, but mainstream movies just the same (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  In fact The Kings Speech and The Hurt Locker look like Michael Bay movies when you compare them to the type of real art movies that tend to win at film festivals like Cannes and Venice.  An excellent example of this is the recent film from the Thai filmmaker Apitchatpong Weerasethakul: Uncle Boonmee Who Could Recall His Past Lives, a challenging film that defies almost every conventional expectation that audiences have when watching a film.

As the film opens a man named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying of a kidney disease and is being taken care of by his nephew Thong (Sakda Kaewbuadee).  One night his dead wife returns to him as a ghost, as does his long lost son who has become some kind of Monkey demon with glowing eyes.  From here we watch Boonmee’s final days including a reminicance he has about a past life where he is a Princess who stops by a lake and has a rather strange encounter with a catfish which she identifies as a water god…

If that sounds strange to you you’re probably in good company: this movie is completely batshit insane but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  As can be surmised by that synopsis, this is not exactly a narrative film, it’s more like a fever dream and I’d be lying if I said that I really understood it or for that matter really knew that there was anything to understand.  I could say the same to some extent about Weerasethakul’s earlier films like Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, which were both less aggressive in their weirdness but which also traded in minimal exposition and a dreamlike atmosphere that’s unique in the world of cinema.  The closest thing I can compare it to are the works of David Lynch which also employ a certain casual surreality, but Weerasethakul’s film’s lack Lynch’s darker sensibilities.  Another reason that this film is rather difficult to understand is cultural.  As the title implies, the film is steeped in Buddhism (a religion I’m not overly familiar with), but also in Thai mythology.  Of course there have been other movies like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring that are just as steeped in Buddhism that haven’t baffled me, so I’m not trying to turn this into an excuse for the film, but it is something to lay down on the table.

So, I’ve now established that this movie is really weird and that it will most likely baffle 99% of audiences just as much as it baffled me, and yet I don’t dislike this movie and wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it.  While the plot is baffling, it is completely unpredictable and unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.  Weerasethakul’s style has a sort of lyrical beauty to it that is hard to ignore and should be seen by anyone interested in world cinema.  It should also be noted that my concession of bewilderment at the film’s “plot” is not something that I’m ashamed of; in fact I think it’s the best attitude to have about the film.  I don’t think that this is some kind of puzzle that needs to be put together, I think it’s something that the viewer should simply experience, something one should allow to wash over them.

*** out of Four

Take Shelter(10/21/2011)

“If you build it, they will come.”  That was the iconic line from the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, a film about a man risking money and ridicule in order to build something out of an intense feeling of hope.  Now suppose this character had visions that were less than hopeful, visions born out of an intense paranoia, out of a feeling that something was going to go terribly wrong and needed to be prepared for.  That’s the premise of the new film from Jeff Nichols, the young director who gave us the low budget 2008 film Shotgun Stories.  I was not a fan of Shotgun Stories, I thought it was a silly exploitation film masquerading as some kind of sophisticated piece of Southern Gothic, but the underlying filmmaking on display in that film was solid and could have been a force to be reckoned with if it were paired with material that was more worthy of Nichol’s apparent talent.

The film centers on Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) a road worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart).  Hannah is deaf but may gain hearing through a cochlear implant surgery that the family is trying to save up for.  That should be Curtis’ main priority but recently he’s been having strange and very intense apocalyptic dreams that have been affecting him to his core.  Though he realizes that he could simply be losing his mind he still can’t shake a conviction that what he’s experiencing are premonition of something terrible that’s coming and he feels compelled to spend time and money expanding a tornado shelter in their back yard in order to save the family from this calamity.

The film is at its best when it’s depicting Curtis’ frightening dreams which feature strange happenings like brown rain falling from the sky, furniture floating mysteriously in the air, dogs attacking, and dead eyed zombie like people trying to attack the protagonist.  We’re never really told what the cause or nature of this apocalypse is which makes it all the more mysterious and creepy and the way that these dreams are brought to life make a striking contrast for the realistic indie-film that surrounds them.  The tense atmosphere does continue beyond the dream sequences however, and throughout the film the viewer is on edge about Curtis’ psychological state and what that is going to lead them to do.  As worried as the viewer is about Curtis’ psychological state, there is a gnawing feeling in the background that he might be right, there really might be “a storm coming.”  In this sense the film is slightly reminiscent of The Shining which also walked a line between psychological terror and genuinely supernatural material and had an ending which leaves just as much of a question mark on the proceedings.

That Michael Shannon was cast in the lead here should have been the first clue that Curtis’ psychological state was suspect.  Michael Shannon is dangerously close to being typecast after having portrayed crazy people in films like Bug, World Trade Center, and Revolutionary Road and on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.  This does make him ideal for this role and he’s also able to bring a sort of working class realism to the part as well.  Shannon does look like he could be a road worker; if a movie star had been cast in the part rather than someone like Shannon it would have rung a lot less true.  Jessica Chastain (who’s having a real breakout year) is also really good here as Curtis’ long suffering wife who’s trying to understand what’s going on with him while being simultaneously frustrated at what he’s doing.

Take Shelter is not a horror movie or even a thriller in the strictest sense of the word.  It’s a drama about psychological uncertainty and about deep pessimism.  I feel like it has a lot of relevance during these times in which people are highly anxious about their lives and livelihoods.  It never quite emerges as a truly great film, but its very well made and captures the zeitgeist in interesting ways.

***1/2 out of Four

Finding Pixar: WALL-E (2008)

Wall-E

This is the ninth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

As Robert Christgau said at the beginning of his review of The Clash’s seminal 1980 album London Calling, “here’s where they start showing off.”  By 2008 Pixar had earned so much trust from Disney (who now formally owned the studio) that they’d been given an incredible amount of creative freedom, a freedom that they used without hesitation.  First they tested the waters of what could be done in a huge budget Disney movie with Ratatouille, a movie set in the world of French haute cuisine starring a rat voiced by an alternative comedian, but with WALL-E they dived in head first.  If anyone else had asked for 180 million dollars to make a film with a silent protagonist, no dialogue in its first half hour, and no star voice actors more famous than Fred Wilard they would have quickly been shown the door, but these Pixar guys had enough clout to demand just that and even had the audacity to make half a billion dollars in the process.

Critics almost universally recognized that courage and proceeded to praise the movie to a degree that’s unusual even for a Pixar movie.  It earned a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a little less than the scores of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and the Toy Story movies, but what it (barely) lacked in quantity it made up for it in the sheer mania induced by some of the reviews.  While critics have often liked Pixar’s movies, they had usually stopped short of throwing around the word “masterpiece.”  That wasn’t the case with WALL-E, which topped more top ten lists than any other film that year and would eventually be declared the best film of the decade by the New York Times’ film critic A.O. Scott.  Pretty much the only accolade the film fell short of snatching up was an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, a snub that was only overshadowed by the furor over The Dark Knight failing to make the shortlist in the same year.

I came really really close to making this the first Pixar movie I saw back in 2008.  Part of that was just the frenzy of praise surrounding the film.  Of course there’s always a critical frenzy around Pixar movies, but what I was hearing from the critics was a lot more convincing this time around.  More importantly this was the least “kiddie” looking movie that the studio had put out to date.  There were no talking animals in WALL-E and the film’s aesthetic seemed to skew a lot closer to what would be seen in live action movies than the cartoony visuals I’d see in the trailers for Pixar’s other films.  What’s more, I’ve always been a pretty big science fiction fan, and this looked like it could very well fit alongside other films in that genre pretty well.  Come year end I began to feel like there really was a hole in my annual retrospectives, though I certainly didn’t admit that out loud.

I do feel like I would have at least rented the movie when it came out on DVD in late 2008 had I not been actively writing reviews of all the contemporary movies I saw at the time.  As was the case with Ratatouille I just didn’t feel qualified to write about the movie without at least a passing knowledge of Pixar’s previous work.  So I skipped the movie in spite of the fact that every film literate person around me was talking extensively about the film and would even find myself getting e-mails from random readers telling me I should give the movie a chance.  One friend/co-worker even went so far as to call me a “hater” for not seeing the movie.  Yikes.  Still, it cannot be understated just how much this movie did to wear down my resistance to Pixar as an institution.  I think it might be safe to say that I never would have embarked on this retrospective had it not been for WALL-E, and would still be resisting the studio to this day.   You could almost say that this entire project has just been one big pre-requisite to my viewing of WALL-E, and as you might expect, that brings some pretty big expectations to the table.

So did the film actually deliver on all the hype?  The short answer is “almost entirely.”  I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one: WALL-E is awesome; it’s the movie that Pixar had been promising for years but which it had never quite delivered.  Perhaps part of what sets the movie apart right from the get go is that there seems to have been a major leap forward in the technology that Pixar has at its disposal.  The computer animation in WALL-E is truly awesome, especially in the film’s first act set on a desolate earth.  The environments and the robots that inhabited it approached photorealism in just how truly awesome they looked; it almost felt like they managed to skip an entire generation’s worth of animation progress after Ratatouille.  Of course this triumph comes with the asterisk that in the film earth is literally devoid of anything organic and as I’ve long pointed out, it is significantly easier to craft inorganic things with CGI than it is to make living breathing organism (something that films like Transformers and Iron Man have benefited from).  The hyper-realism of the film’s animation goes a long way toward making the film feel like more than a cartoon, it gives it a real weight and makes imagery like a skyscraper sized stack of garbage cubes stand out all the more.

It’s interesting that all this visual wizardry is applied to a movie that is an exercise in minimalism, at least as far as big budget science-fiction films go.  This is, after all, a film with all of eight speaking parts and only three of those are from living human characters.  I would be interested to read the film’s screenplay, because I suspect that it’s something like 20% dialogue and 80% stage directions, the opposite of what I’d expect from a conventional film.  The effect of this minimalistic but not completely silent speech track is highly unique but not quite unprecedented.  The film strongly reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which a working class man grows weary of his life and finds himself going on a strange odyssey through a vaguely science fiction world largely out of an innocent love for a woman he meets.   That film, made long after the invention of the “talkie,” never had the little tramp speak but did use synch sound for some of the surrounding characters (particularly those speaking through technology like video screens and telephones).

I was also reminded of the films of Jacques Tati, whose films had the Monsieur Hulot character finding his way through a strange modern world filled with odd devices that everyone else seemed to understand better than he did.  Tati’s films also used minimal dialogue and had a similarly ambivalent view of future progress and also felt like a throwback to silent cinema when they were released in the fifties and sixties.  Of course it’s one thing to see these techniques used in near-silent comedies and French repertory-house staples, but to see it used in a $180 million dollar Disney movie in 2008 is quite another.  After all, ten minutes of dialogue free cinema at the beginning of There Will Be Blood seemed like a really wild move just a year earlier and to do a similar thing through much of a children’s film must have been an incredibly ballsy decision.  That said, after a couple of minutes the unconventional dialogue choice did not really stand out as much as I expected it to.  That might be a testament to how much the sound designers were able to communicate through various recordings of the words “WALL-E” and “EVE-a” as spoken by Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight, or it might simply say something about how well told the story is.

The film’s first half hour are the film’s best, and incidentally most dialogue free, moments.  This segment almost feels like it could be its own separate mini-movie, like an extended version of one of the (often silent) short films that they play in front of their theatrical releases.  The film then shifts hard when it leaves earth and changes location to the large self-sufficient space vessel the Axiom, and this is where the film becomes… less perfect.  I don’t want to make it sound like the movie becomes bad at all at this point but it does begin to feel like a more run of the mill Pixar movie than the truly transcendent experience that the film’s first half hour promised.  The plot at this point gets a little simplistic: the Axiom robots are trying to hide the plant and WALL-E and EVE are trying to find it, it’s essentially an extended chase scene.  There are certainly some excellent moments within this chase like WALL-E and EVE’s zero gravity space walk or WALL-E’s near death experience in the garbage compactor populated by WALL-As, but none of it is wildly deep.

The material with Captain McCrea discovering the wonders of self-sufficiency that happen simultaneously are perhaps a bit deeper (if a bit rushed), but that probably brings me to the biggest problem I have with the movie: the way humans look in the future.  Elsewhere in WALL-E the filmmakers made the bold decision of mixing live action footage of Fred Willard into the film playing a former world leader in “archival footage” and live action footage continues to be used whenever we see footage from earth’s past.  On Axiom the now wildly obese humans are rendered in the same computer animation we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and I think this was a mistake on many levels.  For one thing it’s not consistent with the live action footage we’ve seen before, which I could forgive if it were particularly well executed but it wasn’t, in fact I’d say that the animation used on these future humans is weaker than what we saw in Ratatouille.  The problem seems to be Pixar’s fear of the uncanny valley, they’ve always been afraid to make human characters overly realistic and have instead opted for human models with exaggerated and cartoony features.  These particular human models clash violently with the near photorealism we see elsewhere in scenes populated by robots and this takes the audience out of the movie.  I almost wish they’d gone with all human actors, possibly using the fat makeup that seems to look fine when Eddie Murphy wears it for bad comedies (though I’d be fine if they’d dropped the obesity thing altogether).

Fortunately the film mostly ends well.  I could have done without a tacky 2001: A Space Odyssey reference at a pivotal moment late in the film, but the notion of humanity finding its way after a long slumber did have weight and I also found EVE’s desperate struggle to save WALL-E at the last minute to be quite exciting and oddly affecting.  I also found the original Peter Gabriel song to work a lot better knowing its context than it did when I heard it being performed at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, especially given that it was accompanied by a really cool animated sequence during the credits.  The truth is there isn’t a lot that I can say to add to the conversation about this film.  I could rattle on and on about movies like Toy Story because I felt like I had a unique point of view that needed to be defended, but here I feel like I’m mostly in agreement about the consensus.

So, what is there to say about WALL-E in final analysis?  The film is absolutely an improvement over what Pixar had done previously and I’ll be shocked if they top it or even match it with their follow-up films.  This is the first time that I wouldn’t hesitate at all about comparing this not just with live action films, but with really good live action films.  How does it rank amongst that company?  Pretty well I suppose.  I’m certainly not going to call it a new classic and I’m also not placing it amongst the pantheon of the greatest post-millennial films any time soon, but it is a “four star” film and I could even see myself adding the film’s Blu-Ray to my collection some day.  Did it deserve to be nominated for an Oscar?  Maybe.  It certainly deserved to be nominated over The Reader or Frost/Nixon so within the context of that rather lackluster Oscar slate it was indeed “snubbed,” but I don’t know that I’d be ready to call it Oscar-worthy in the sense that it genuinely deserved to be amongst an annual top five.  Specifically from that year I’d say that Rachel Getting Married, The Dark Knight, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Che, The Wrestler, Revanche, and maybe Vicky Christina Barcelona were all greater achievements. That said, this would firmly have been in my top ten if I’d seen it in 2008, and that’s a pretty big deal considering that I’d more or less shunned animated children’s movies at the time.

The Short Program: Presto

The short that was played in front of Wall-E was very good but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it great.  It’s sort of an update of a really early Pixar short called Red’s Dream, in which a clown is upstaged by his unicycle in cartoony fashion.  This time it’s a magician being upstaged by the rabbit he plans to pull out of his hat.  This little magic trick is based in real magic, the magician has a pair of hats that are linked to each other, when he reaches into one hat his hand comes out the other.  It’s a concept that would be familiar to anyone who had played the computer game “Portal,” which came out the year before this short saw the light of day.  Like most of Pixar’s shorts it contains no dialogue, and while the animation is mostly effective the magician character doesn’t look as good as the human models in Ratatouille and the rabbit looks kind of odd as well.

Presto is a work of extremely broad slapstick.  Almost the entire work is dedicated to the magician getting hurt (but not really hurt) in a variety of increasingly cartoony ways like getting his head sucked into his hat and getting shocked through the fingers by an electrical current, all while the rabbit keeps getting the last laugh.  It’s like a direct homage to old cartoons like “Tom and Jerry” or the “Coyote and Road Runner,” or perhaps live action slapstick of the type the Three Stooges would engage in.  One shot even seems to be a direct lift from The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the main character is a bunny (who, like Bugs before him, is positively desperate for carrots).

The incorporation of the short almost feels like a calculated strategy given that it’s attached to what is supposed to be one of the most serious and grounded Pixar movie to date.  It’s like they want the audience to get their thirst for cartoony hijinx out of their system so that once the movie starts they can enjoy the (relatively) serious material that is to follow.  Looked at on its own Pesto is good fun and while the material isn’t earth shattering by any means, it is well staged and enjoyable within its five minute runtime.

The Ides of March(10/16/2011)

I’ve always been interested in watching actors evolve into directors, which is a career change that seems to work out more often than it should.  While movie stars very rarely turn into major auteurs, they often manage to turn into highly competent helmers of meat and potatoes Hollywood productions.  Clint Eastwood is obviously the archetype of this, having churned out solid films at an incredible pace for decades, but we’ve seen a similar career trajectory from other stars like Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, Ron Howard, and most recently Ben Affleck.  The reason why movie stars gravitate so heavily towards traditionalist dramas and thrillers directed at middle-brow sensibilities is not entirely clear to me, but it may well explain why so many of the above mentioned actors have been so effective at snatching up Academy Awards the second they move behind the camera.  I bring this up because I think George Clooney has very clearly been moving in exactly the same direction in his work directing films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney’s most recent film, The Ides of March, sends him down that path further but also displays even more competence in this regard than we’ve seen up to this point.

Though Clooney is highly prominent in the advertising, the film’s real star is Ryan Gostling who plays a junior campaign manager named Stephen Meyers who is working for a candidate named Mike Morris (George Clooney) who is in the middle of a tough Democratic primary in Ohio as the film begins.  Meyers sees Morris as “the real deal,” a candidate who could really bring change to the country, a sentiment that elicits snickers from Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) Morris’ Senior Campaign Manager.  It also draws snickers from the opposition’s Campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who doesn’t even think Morris will have much of a chance of winning the nomination after he enacts a deal to get the endorsement of Ohio’s popular Senator Thompson (Jeffery Wright).  Meyer’s is disgusted by these machinations, but he’ll soon learn that these tactics can go both ways and are much deeper than he initially imagines.

The advertising for the film makes this look like a thriller, but that’s not entirely true.  Mike Morris’ “dark secret” is not as spectacular as the film’s title suggests and the conflict in the film is smaller scale and more personal than what the audience is likely expecting.  The film is really more of a procedural about what the political campaigns are like and how they can go haywire when secrets and personal agendas come into play.  The behind the scenes details of electioneering mostly seem authentic and would have been interesting on their own even if there wasn’t a larger story on top of the canvas.  Additionally, the film’s dialogue is truly excellent with each the characters speaking to one another with a crackling Mamet-esque repartee that’s enjoyable to listen to and not distractingly artificial either.

The film also sports an amazing cast spearheaded by Ryan Gostling, who gets a lot more to do here than he did in the film Drive.  He is in movie star mode here rather than character-actor mode, so his work here isn’t necessarily as impressive as what he did in the films Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, but he does carry the film effectively and holds his own against some of the finest actors in Hollywood.  Speaking of Hollywood’s finest actors, this film has the two preeminent character actors of our day: Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  Interestingly, both of these actors have been cast into the same position in the two competing campaigns, making them the two sides of the same coin in both position and star power.  Then of course there’s George Clooney who uses his natural star power and charisma to be incredibly convincing as a gravitas-laden Presidential candidate who could potentially inspire a nation.

The main criticism against The Ides of March seems to be that it doesn’t really have a profound political message at its core.  A.O. Scott dismisses the film by saying “Politicians sometimes lie. If… that sounds like news to you, then you may well find ‘The Ides of March’ downright electrifying.”  To this I’d point to the comparable George Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton, a film that didn’t really have to much insight beyond “Corporations sometimes lie” and yet it wasn’t really held up to the same standard. Granted, when you name your film after a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar you’re probably setting yourself up for rather lofty expectations but that doesn’t mean that this can’t be just as easily enjoyed as an excellently crafted yarn.  That said, I do think that The Ides of March does go a bit further than that in its examination of the political landscape.  In particular I think it captures a certain sense of disillusionment that has been prevalent on the political left as all the hope surrounding the 2008 elections seems to have been lost amidst all the usual political bullshit that’s existed in Washington for centuries.  The conclusions that the film reaches are rather nihilistic, and that’s not necessarily productive, but I think it is an accurate depiction of how many left leaning Americans have felt in the last year or so.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Bridesmaids(10/20/2011)

When Judd Apatow brought the R-rated comedy back to prominence through movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad there was one clear theme that every critic seemed to be fascinated with: the films’ male centric nature.  Some film critics and cultural pundits even went so far as to cry sexism because the women in the films would often be playing straight-men to the male performers who were doing the comedic heavy lifting.  Bridesmaids, a film produced by Apatow but written by and starring Kristen Wiig, seems to be a deliberate response to this criticism with an almost entirely female cast engaging in many of the same antics we’ve seen in Apatow’s earlier sausage-fests.  The film was met with critical acclaim and major box office, but I still decided to pass on the film, largely because I positively hate the work that Kristen Wiig does on Saturday Night Live where she is easily the most irritating cast member since Chris Kattan.  Still the movie’s success was undeniable and given my diligent viewing of Apatow-esque comedy I felt that I still needed to give the movie a chance.

Told from the perspective of Annie (Kristen Wiig), Bridesmaids is about a single woman in her late thirties who recently suffered a financial setback when the bakery she opened failed, who learns that her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has gotten engaged and will soon begin planning her wedding.  Annie is of course chosen as maid of honor for the ceremony and will serve along with Lillian’s other friends like the terminally frustrated Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the naïve newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper), and the crass sister-in-law to be Megan (Melissa McCarthy).  These women all have their quirks, but it’s the last bridesmaid who really irks Annie, the wife of the grooms boss Helen (Rose Byrne).  Helen is a wealthy socialite that has taken an active role in the planning for the wedding and seems to be everything that Annie isn’t.  Annie sees Helen as a threat to the her long time friendship with Lillian and this isn’t entirely an act of paranoia, Helen does genuinely seem to be trying to drive Annie and Lillian apart so that she can step into the best friend role over the course of the wedding preparations.

Judd Apatow’s earlier male-centric movies were often labeled “bromances” because they applied romantic comedy tropes to stories about platonic male friendships.  Bridemaids often feels like a female answer to the genre (a sis-mance?); placing Lillian as the object of affection, Annie as the good hearted down on her luck protagonist, and Helen as the undeserving rich snob who wants to woo the object of affection away from the protagonist.  That’s a plot that makes sense in a genuine romance; Meg Ryan can only marry one suitor after all, and it makes sense that the rich snob is going to do everything in his power to make sure it’s him.  In the context of a friendship on the other hand, this behavior makes a lot less sense.  Do Annie and Helen not realize that it is entirely possible for Lillian to have two friends at once?  Annie’s side of the problem does seem a little more believable, friends do grow apart and it is established this friendship is one of the few good things she has in her life.  Helen’s side of story on the other hand makes a lot less sense.  Late in the film we do get some explination for why she is behaving this way, but for most of the movie she seems like a complete psycho operating without any clear motivation.  Not only is her behavior bizarre, but it doesn’t seem like it should be as successful as it is, her machinations are quite obvious and Lillian should have caught on a lot sooner.

Part of the problem is that Rose Byrne does not really do a great job of either humanizing her character or of making her seem like the kind of expert manipulator that she’s supposed to be.  I think one of the biggest challenges that an actor can have is to play a character who is behaving dishonest while also tipping their hat to the audience.  In this case Byrne needs to lie to Lillian’s face and do so in a way that seems like it will fool Lillian while also sounding unbelievable enough that the audience will think that the character is acting.  I had similar problems with Jackie Weaver’s highly praised performance in last year’s Animal Kingdom, so this can obviously be a challenge for the best of actors, but that doesn’t change the fact that Byrne doesn’t deliver and that her character is a gaping hole in the middle of this movie.

Some of the other performances in the film fared a little better.  I was pleasantly surprised by Kristen Wiig, but then again I had low expectations for her.  I suppose it is worth celebrating that she speaks like a normal human being in the film and not like Gilly or The Target Lady or any of her other obnoxious SNL characters.  She does slip back into that sort of nonsense once or twice in the movie (often while drunk), but for the most part she played a likable character going through a rough patch.  Maya Rudolph was solid in her role, but I do sort of think she was wasted as a straight man to all the rest of the hijinx in the movie.  The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper are side characters that easily could have been cut out of the film but they both have their funny moments.

I’m not quite sure what to think about Melissa McCarthy, who plays a crass and irritating character, but who approaches the role with a ton of gusto.  The movie is at its broadest whenever she’s on screen and it almost feels like something from a different movie.  That’s a problem that the film has in a number of places actually.  For most of its runtime it comes off like a fairly straight comedy with perhaps a bit more swearing than you’d expect in similar material, but then it delves into some really broad gross-out material like a dress fitting that ends in projectile vomiting and a woman defecating into a sink.  The message behind these scenes is clear: woman comics can be just as good as men at super-broad comedy, but they’re doing it in the middle of a movie that hasn’t really dedicated itself to material like this and when these scenes happen they seem kind of jarring.

All in all, Bridesmaids didn’t really work for me.   It reminded me a lot of the 2009 Paul Rudd vehicle I Love You, Man in that it’s characters seemed to behave really strangely because it was also trying to equate romantic comedies and friendships in a way that didn’t make a lot of sense. It also reminded me of that film because it was only sporadically funny at best.  I didn’t laugh a whole lot at all, certainly less than I did while watching most of the other films in the Apatow oeuvre.  Did the fact that this is a movie that women are supposed to relate to have anything to do with this?  Maybe, I don’t know.  I’ve overheard a lot of women say they’ve had trouble getting interested in movies like The Hangover because it was such a “guy movie” and it doesn’t surprise me if that works both ways.  However, there’s no excusing the fact that the Rose Byrne is ridiculous, and I really do think that’s what ultimately kills this movie.

** out of Four