Friday, March 29, 2013

Super

SPOILERS!!!

It's been a very long while since a film really shocked me. I'm not sure if that is a good, bad, or neutral statement. Depends on one's point of view, I guess. "Shock" as defined here is a moment of complete disbelief, an advantage taken by the filmmakers of their viewers, even jaded ones who've sat through some pretty hard-to-watch imagery. Even within a movie that clearly wants to evoke such reactions. I'm becoming more sensitive in my old age, but splatter, even when ridiculously graphic, doesn't automatically shock me, any more than something pornographic does. Without some dramatic context, both types of content on their own are often just plain boring.

I'm thinking of one particular moment near the end of 2010's SUPER, but there are a few others that shocked me. Writer/director James Gunn (whose previous SLIVER is a cult favorite) proves to be quite the proavacateur with this movie, one that turns the whole superhero genre inside out. While there's been a current trend to make darker superhero (and would-be superhero) films, none I've seen are quite as dark or nasty as SUPER.

Rainn Wilson, so well-known for Dwight, his nebbishy, sycophantic, and sociopathic character on T.V.'s The Office, plays Frank, a short-order cook who describes himself as a loser who's only had 2 good moments in his life: the day he married Sarah, a recovering addict (Liv Tyler), and when he directed a cop toward a runaway criminal. Very early on in SUPER, Sarah leaves Frank for the oily Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a local strip club owner/drug dealer who has gotten her hooked on the junk again. Frank's heartbreak turns to anger, but his attempts to get her back result in his getting his rib cage kicked in by Jacques's goons.

While watching a cheesy morality drama on the AJN (All Jesus Network), Frank becomes inspired to re-think his plan of action. The "Holy Avenger", a sort of Christian superhero, from the show appears to Frank in some sort of vision and encourages him. Frank later has another disturbing vision of alien tentacles unscrewing the top of his head and implanting into his brain the wherewithall to become a superhero. Has God called to him? Later, after further inspiration from a comic book, Frank stitches together a low rent red suit and goes off to fight crime.

Business is slow at first, but soon Frank, now the "Crimson Bolt", dons a wrench and clocks a disparate collection drug dealers and pederasts over their skulls. Just when you feel the urge to root for Frank, we get a blindsidingly grisly scene when a couple who dared cut in line at a movie theater get the business end of that wrench. It's a sickly funny moment. At first I was stunned, then laughing, then felt horrible for laughing, somewhat like I did during that the backseat scene with Marvin in PULP FICTION. Yes, the couple were obnoxious. And who hasn't wanted to exact revenge on such behavior? But the moment reveals to be a great subversion of payback fantasy. The scene feels horribly real - the camera does not look away from the brutality. My "appreciates gallows humor" side was even dispirited. Yet I couldn't quite hate Frank.

At the comic book store, Frank meets an amazingly foul-mouthed clerk named Libby (Ellen Page) who eventually learns his secret and clamors to be his sidekick, "Boltie". Frank very reluctantly agrees, and his charge reveals herself to be quite the little psycho, enjoying the resulting violence way too much. Two scenes really illustrate this. Libby convinces Frank to bust in and nearly beat to death a young guy she swears keyed her friend's car (another PULP FICTION nod?). After much brutality, she states, well, maybe it was him. Next: after Frank is ambushed at a gas station by two of Jacques' thugs and chased down the street, Libby pins one of them against a building with a car, crushing his legs as she screams in orgasmic delight.

There's also a moment when Libby, in full costume, tries to entice Frank for sex. He rebuffs her because, as he protests, he is still married. She reasons that if he gets into costume too, it's not infidelity. After he refuses, she rapes him. Frank, who probably could've pushed her off of him, seems to eventually enjoy this, but then runs to the toilet to puke. In the vomit, he see's Sarah's face, who calls out to him. It's a moment that Gunn's former bosses at Troma Films were likely quite tickled over.

So what is SUPER trying to do? Does it achieve a consistent tone? The movie is obviously a comedy, quite goofy at times, including its shoddily animated opening title sequence, with every character from the movie singing and dancing and becoming out of breath. There are many moments of slapstick and more esoteric humor, even a few "Dwight" moments here and there, but Gunn is trying for something else. He seems to be out to completely overthrow our expectations. Superhero films want us to cheer for and identify with the hero, saving the day. SUPER certainly has that as its framework, but the uglier, baser aspects of human nature are quite revealingly explored here too. We're likely are no longer cheering, but we are identifying. It's like watching someone's (your?) darkest fantasies.

The DARK KNIGHT films, WATCHMEN, KICK-ASS, and even the wretched HANCOCK all tread these waters with varying success. SUPER goes further. It is a cheaply produced, washed-out looking, often sick movie that may cause you to re-examine your own tolerances. That moment of shock I referenced, the one near the end is so abrupt, so ugly, perhaps so unnecessary. But it felt real. The confrontations in action films and TV shows are so cartoonish and stylized. Bad guys fire magazine after magazine of bullets and the good guy emerges either unscathed and merely grazed. That does not happen here. I imagine most viewers will be (understandably) repelled. But it's a perfect illustration of Gunn's method. The director has real stones for shooting it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Dead End

The view from the 6th floor of my medical office is picturesque. Intracoastal Waterway below, bordered east and west by tony condos and homes. As you walk one block to the west, things degrade quickly. Separated by several yards are well scrubbed joggers and dog walkers and the downtrodden: prostitutes, drug dealers, assorted poor souls. Sometimes there is turf  (with real or imagined boundary lines) overlap among them. The destitute do make their way to the water, the "good side", a perfect image that really illustrates this telling study of contrasts that is West Palm Beach.

New York City has long been a place of such contrasts. Even with segregated neighborhoods you still, to this day, see gleaming penthouses overlooking sad tenements in some areas. In something that is symbolic as it possibly could be, often the higher you are, the wealthier, gazing down on all those poor plebians.

1937's DEAD END is a early look at urban social division. It surprised me as to how insightful it is, much moreso than the stern programmer I was expecting. It transcends (for the most part) the usual corn and paints a stark picture, a palpable air of poverty and menace. Hopelessness made all the more evident as the privileged go about their business in full view, even utilizing an entrance to their high-rise right from the street, inches from dirty and hungry loiterers. This movie is better than it should be.

Credit Sidney Kingsley, who adapted his play, and director William Wyler, who moves the camera appropriately: sometimes a nervous pan, other times with shots composed to spatially emphasize the relationships (and social standings) of the characters. Every shot is well thought out. There's a point of view from the ground (gang of dirt poor hooligans) looking up at a same-age peer, a rich kid standing on his balcony. Later, a hesitant tilt zoom from under a dock, where a youth who has snitched on his buds is hiding, up to street level, where the cronies smell a rat and plan revenge.

The recreation of a NYC city street is magnificent, right down to the diners and their handwritten signs, advertising daily specials. Such versimilitude! The alleys have depth and long shadows and seem capable of swallowing you whole. Everything rings true in DEAD END, never feels theatrical, despite its origins. Wyler briskly handles the business of the doings of a gang of street urchins (played by the Dead End Kids, including Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey) and former neighborhood punk turned infamous gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who has returned to visit his ma and former girlfriend.

There are many interwoven stories of class struggle. Of blue collar men wooing society matrons, both knowing the inevitable but hoping for some measure of happiness in the sweet meanwhile. Of attempted kidnappings of spoiled rich kids. DEAD END's point of view is firmly through the eyes of the outsiders. Mainly through Martin's, a lifelong tough who has graduated to tailored suits and high living, but still far removed from the privileged who brush past. His terrible moment of recognition, when he finds his long lost girl, poignantly makes the case.

But DEAD END really belongs to the Kids, a motley crew of thieves who intimidate to cover their insecurities, their resignations as to where society would cast them. In some kind of cruel irony, their circle of hell nearly literally touches the palace of the Haves. Peaceful co-existence can only hold for so long. The viewer in 2013 will find more relevance in this gritty little picture than in many other contemporary entertainments. They may want to look away, but will be riveted just the same.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Brain Stents and Tinnitus

Tinnitus is one of the least understood diagnoses in the medical field. I see patients every day who report varying intensities and pitch qualities of the offending sounds. As an audiologist, I implement sound therapies, but treating the condition often requires a multidisciplinary approach.

Sometimes, surgeries intended to manage other conditions may also treat tinnitus.  One of my patients who suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome was told by her physician that associated surgery can often alleviate these debilitating sounds.  The provided link describes a study where patients suffering from pseudotumor cerebri received a stent which in turn helped treat tinnitus and visual difficulties.


http://www.medpagetoday.com/Neurology/GeneralNeurology/37932

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lisztomania


Warning: some graphic descriptions

If a film director could ever have been called a madman, it's the late Englishman Ken Russell. A perusal of his resume reveals some of the most excessive bits of filmmaking in the history of the art form. I've yet to see THE DEVILS (1971), but its controversy has prevented, to this day, its original cut from gracing our shores. His biopics examining D.H Lawrence, Valentino, and Mahler are well known by cinephiles for their outrageousness, sometimes riddled with curious anachronisms. Later efforts like GOTHIC (1986), the Mary Shelley re-imagining, comes complete with winking female nipples. See also: WHORE, CRIMES OF PASSION. Even his Hollywood films (ALTERED STATES) are conservatively termed "off the wall."

In 1975, Russell's filmization of the Who rock opera Tommy gave fans and critics much to criticize and embrace. Fewer movie musicals featured such outrageous imagery as Ann-Margaret swimming in baked beans, churchgoers kissing the feet of a giant Eric Clapton statue, or Jack Nicholson singing. As outlandish as TOMMY was, it ain't nothing like LISZTOMANIA, released the same year. It's the sort of revisionist fantasy that compels folks to say that the artist "must be spinning in his grave."

Russell may or may not have disagreed,  and likely didn't care, nonetheless charging ahead with his usual naughty brio. He paints his subject, Franz Liszt, as a bona-fide hedonist, a womanizing figure whose audiences scream like girls did/would for the Beatles. Apparently, the director did not have to embelish too much. It's been written that young women would try to retrieve locks of the musician's hair, broken piano strings, and even discarded ash from Liszt's cigars. They rushed him onstage and fought over his gloves. LISZTOMANIA portrays these audiences like contemporary ones in that they fall silent for the more challenging compositions, then scream for more when he works in a little crowd-pleasing "Chopsticks".

This really irks Richard Wagner, who attends the shows. Later it is revealed that he is actually a vampire, who will, during the May Uprising, literally suck the genius from Liszt's veins, providing the skills for him to compose his famous German nationalist compositions. Madder and madder Wagner grows, forming a cult of children who sing of a new master race. Before it's all over, he will have created a monster in his own image, be resurrected after a piano duel to the death, and spray bullets at Jews from a guitar. But at least the finale takes place in Heaven.

Most infamous perhaps is a scene that will certainly be a litmus test for viewers who think they're tolerant of excess. Liszt is seduced by a Russian princess who offers to provide him with the ability to compose brilliant pieces again (domestic life back home has sapped his genius) in exchange for her complete domination of his life. The composer proceeds to have visions (hallucinations?) of himself swarmed by the women of the Princess' court. As he entices them with his music, his phallus engorges upwards of 10 feet long/high. Yes, Russell supplies us with this dandy visual, of a line of women riding an enormous penis. What could top this? Maybe that guillotine the women drag the um, member into at the end of the scene. It's an astonishing scene for many reasons, and it certainly gets some point across, but really it's just about Russell's audaciousness, how far he's willing to go.

And that unpredictable, randy showmanship of Ken Russell is mainly what keeps his movies afloat, suggesting that without the spectacle, they often may well be dreadfully boring. It's hard to imagine one of his films without at least one garish idea (with the exception of maybe THE RAINBOW), as they are the very nature of Russellness.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cherry Tree

Boppin' tune from Grand National....



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dillinger

A spoiler or two.

1973's DILLINGER plays fast and loose with the facts of the life of infamous bank robber John Dillinger. Much ink has been spilled over his quirks and pathological larceny. Even more blood was spilled during his eventful life. I haven't read the official biographies of him or the other key players in his story: FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Federal agent Melvin Purvis. Therefore, I don't know how many liberties writer and director John Milius took with his film.

I've read that it wasn't actually Dillinger who was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, but rather someone who went in his place. Even though Dillinger did build a fake gun that helped him break out of prison, I know he didn't really stop to rob a bank while speeding out of town (but it makes for a good scene).

And while a colorful life often doesn't require Hollywood embellishments, moments like that really flesh out this character. As played by Warren Oates, who even ressembles the guy, Dillinger is at heart just a giddy child with big dreams and pie in the sky optimism. Like many criminals, he truly believes he'll never get caught. "They won't ever get me. I may not live forever, but I'd be a damn fool not to try!"

Purvis (Ben Jonson) disagrees. He narrates much of DILLINGER, describing his tirelessness in bringing down the #1 perp, along with cronies Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), and a trigger happy Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss). On the way to the inevitable climatic showdown, Purvis apprehends and/or kills a gallery of other criminals, learning from one of them the term "G-Man.", to his great amusement. Periodically, he even talks to Dillinger over the phone, kindly allowing the fugitive to reverse the charges. There's a fascinating scene as Purvis observes Dillinger and his moll (Michelle Phillips) dining at the same Chicago nightclub. As the agent is with his fiancee, he chooses not to nab him then and there, instead he sends over a magnum of champagne.

Touches like these, real or not, distinguish DILLINGER from other criminal bios. You can see the genesis for Michael Mann's later film about Dillinger et al., PUBLIC ENEMIES, and even MANHUNTER and HEAT, with their complex relationships between lawman and criminal. Also, how similiar each man may be. While Mann's Dillinger take is flashier and more polished, I think I prefer Milius' gritty and compact drama, an action film that doesn't settle for mere caricatures, or watered down characterizations lost in waves of large scale shootouts.

But like PUBLIC ENEMIES, there are many celebrated barrages of gunfire in this film. There is some seriously brutal and well staged gunplay. Milius really knows his way around action sequences, and you may be surprised at how much bloodletting there is for a film of its time. But the director also allows for some unexpected humor amongst the carnage. After Baby Face is gunned down, onlookers very cautiously approach his body, which appears lifeless until an arm rises up to fire more rounds. Meanwhile, as the dragnet tightens and the jig is clearly up, Van Meter audibly laments more than once that today is just not his day.

DILLINGER sports a fine cast. Everyone is solid, including Cloris Leachman who appears at the end as the pivotal Lady in Red. Kanaly (best known for his role on the original Dallas TV series) has a great scene just before he meets his maker. After the final gunfight, he takes refuge in an older couples' farmhouse. Just before he walks out to finally surrender, the wife asks him if he needs a Bible.

"I admit, I have sinned; I have been a sinner, but I enjoyed it. I have killed men, but the dirty sons-of-bitches deserved it. The way I figure it, it's too late for no Bible. Thanks just the same, Ma'am."

If Dillinger himself had had enough breath for his last words, I imagine he'd say something similar.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Run?


Running seems to many like such a masochistic chore. A relentlessness which, had they a voice, would cause one's knees to cry out in derision. The exercise makes great fodder for those like wry one-liners: "I only run when being chased."

For others, it's an obsession. A drug. A necessity. I have not run any sort of marathon since the '90s, but over the years I have attempted to consistently hit a trail, to get out there and sweat and achieve the endorphin rush (and lactic acid burn). I'm not a career runner, nor am I obsessed the way an addicted golfer who hits the alarm at 4 A.M. would be. It's basic: cardiovascular fitness. A feeling of well being afterward. It's a great weight loss strategy, too. Over the years, I've yo-yo-ed with my weight. When I use the last belt hole, I find that running is the most efficient way to get back to something resembling fighting trim. These days, I am at another crossroads, a point where my carefree eating (and part-time hobby of sampling different beers) has aggressively caught up.

So I've reacquainted myself with the ankle socks and running shoes, taking advantage of some cooler air recently. When it's too hot to run outside, it's off to the gym (cardio and weights). I listen to very carefully selected music, as keeping the mind engaged makes all the difference in how hard, fast, and long I can go.  But I also use the miles to clear my head, to plan for the week and beyond.  It's very productive time.  Having the right scenery is also helpful.  I'm blessed to live near the Intracoastal Waterway and also within an attractive neighborhood which pleases the eye as I huff through.

Recently, I was chatting with one of the physicians with whom I work. He's a extremely busy guy: sees patients in office, performs surgery, designs software, coaches his sons' little league, is a husband, joins the dawn patrol  to surf, and runs marathons. I inquired as to where he finds the time to run amidst everything else.

"I don't have time not to run. Being fit and well allows me to be at the top of my game for my family and patients."

Probably the best reason to engage in such punishment.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Life of Pi

SPOILERS...
 
I recall seeing a copy of Yann Martel's Life of Pi in seemingly every reader's hands at Starbucks and on airplanes a decade ago. Like with many bestsellers, I was fascinated by the premise but just never got around to reading it. While many friends and reviewers embraced this adventure story, others (i.e., people at church, conservative theologians) were dismissing it as a tract for religious pluralism. Now that Ang Lee (who won an Oscar for his work here) has directed the long delayed film adaptation, the responses seem like "deja vu all over again." This film is evidently a faithful adaptation. But such criticism is alarmingly singular, a missing of so many other worthwhile attributes.

As LIFE OF PI began, I was instantly taken with the film's amazing use of color. The title sequence promises a gorgeous palatte to follow (and delivers), especially in 3-D.  But then it became clear that the movie would employ one of the most problematic of film tools: the framing device. A present day scene where someone, often clutching a cup of tea and/or in a hospital bed,  reminisces of their youth, of what they lost. Here, a middle-aged man originally from India named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) who relays a fantastic tale: after his cargo ship sinks en route to Canada, Pi spends over 7 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. His brother and parents and everyone else on board had perished.

Pi, which is short for Piscene (named after a swimming pool in France that his father loved), wistfully relays his story to a young writer, looking for his next novel, in the present day. As he takes it in, the writer's face sometimes suggests doubt. It's quite a story. A young boy from Pondicherry, taken to flights of fancy, grows up with more rational minded siblings and parents. His father owns a zoo, and Pi learns a hard, awful lesson there one day. Dad proves to him that the tiger that Pi thinks is his friend ("I can see it in his eyes") is indeed a cold blooded, instinctual killer who will act on his most basic urges. Afterward, Pi's father explains, "what you see in his eyes is your own emotion reflected back at you."
 
Pi is also chastised by his family for his liberal embrace of several religions. The boy sees no issue with following Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam simultaneously. Dad's religion is Rationalism. He does not "embrace the mystery."

Hard times force the family to sell the zoo and sail to a new life in North America. They bring a few animals on the boat to sell in Canada. Four of them end up in the lifeboat with Pi: a zebra, a baboon, a hyena, and "Richard Parker", said tiger. Natural selection pares the menagerie down to the tiger and human in a few difficult but mercifully watchable scenes (the novel is reportedly much more graphic). LIFE OF PI then settles into a survival at sea story as Pi learns to tame the fierce Bengal (never contrived to behave like your typical cartoon tiger, but a real, vicious animal) amidst dwindling rations, unpredictable weather conditions, and the emergences of sperm whales and sharks. There will also be a stop on a mysterious island populated by thousands of meerkats that harbors a dark secret, revealed each night.

Later in Pi's story, after his eventual rescue on a shore in Mexico, he explains to the writer that a pair of Chinese insurance adjusters (there to find out why the ship sank) are puzzled by this tale of an island, one whose existence they cannot verify. They in fact don't believe a word of the entire story. At this point, LIFE OF PI reveals its layers, its resounding theme. It's a big twist, a moment that will cause viewers to rethink all they just saw. The moment that sparks the controversy. It's all in a single line of dialogue:

"Which do you prefer?"

I will not reveal the full implications of that statement. Readers of the novel already know. As I thought on it, I began to muse in directions that Lee and Martel might've considered. Namely, are the stories in the Christian Bible actual depictions or mere allegories? I ask this specific question as I was raised in Christian environments. I remember a troublemaker named Todd who during Sunday School always embarrassed the class and aggravated instructors with his constant questions: "What if someone wrote the Bible as a joke?" He never wondered aloud likewise of the Koran.  The creators of Pi's story appeal to wider scope of questioning, inquiries to mortals as to whether they believe what terrestrial minds can fathom or something more abstract, "unbelievable." The campus and coffee shop debates will be endless.

But LIFE OF PI works best, for me, as an example, fundamentally, of a story told with great skill and artistry.  Of fine filmmaking. The philosophy of this scenario ultimately seems a bit simplistic and can accurately be summed up by and reduced to those "Co-Exist" bumper stickers we've all seen. But Lee again oversees with a keen eye for detail and a real handle on narrative sweep. What an impressive body of films! He has explored many environments and time periods over his career, each mostly with great confidence and insight. Additionally, the visuals in his latest movie are absolutely stunning at times, particularly as sea life and even the ocean itself cast imposing shapes and auras. I won't soon forget the image of the lights of the sinking ship, or how realistic the tiger seemed, almost entirely computer generated. The 3-D seems entirely organic to the picture, never a gimmick.

By the end of the movie, I realized to my delight that the story's framing device is, for once, absolutely necessary. Its very use is in many ways the film's point, its essence. Impressive. But I was most impressed with how beautifully crafted and told this story was. The wonder and magic of it.  Call me shallow but the most effective take aways for me were recalling the moments when Pi and the tiger take care of each other,  and, um, co-exist. There is a very astute study of human and animal relations in this movie.  Their relationship is nicely developed, and the more you think on it the more poignant it becomes. Two beings, so dissimiliar yet both surviving under such harsh conditions by sheer instinct. And what a fascinating moment, when hunger levels the playing field.

And their final scene together (not sentimental in the least) was as emotional for me as it was for Pi.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bourne Legacy

Watching the seeming superhuman strength of the Jason Bourne character famously played by Matt Damon in the BOURNE trilogy some years back, I remember wondering if the character wasn't juicing. It's one thing to have tactical skills, but quite another to survive the parade of destruction to which he's subjected. The rounds of brutal fisticuffs would seem to have a cumulative effect of brain damage as well. In THE BOURNE LEGACY, the 4th film in the series inspired by Robert Ludlum's bestsellers, we learn that a group of superagents have in fact been taking meds to amp up their physical and intellectual acumen.

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is first seen managing his way through the Alaskan wilderness, scaling impossible cliffs and staying ahead of a pack of wolves. He stops to take a blue pill and a green pill every so often. Unfortunately, he loses the greens after frostbite compromises his grip. After meeting an outpost contact who is killed by a drone that was ostensibly for supplies, Cross realizes his own bosses intended for him to perish as well.

Cut to those inner sanctums so omnipresent in the BOURNE world. Rooms filled with subordinates glued to monitors and tracing the steps of pretty much any pedestrian in the world via satellite cameras and surgically implanted tracking devices. Stalking around and uttering forbodences is CIA overseer Eric Byer (Edward Norton), who has learned that his covert program Operation Outcome has been compromised beyond repair and decides to shut it down. Meaning, of course, elimination of field operatives, including Cross.

The research lab where Cross and his fellow agents checked in for blood work and chem replenishment is also shut down, quite violently as one of the scientists, without warning, one day unloads magazines into his colleagues. A seeming man gone mad but actually the Agency's brainwashing of the poor guy to clean up a loose end. But a Dr. Marta Schearing (Rachel Weisz) survives the murder spree.

Cross will arrive at just the right moment to save the lovely doctor's life, setting off a chase that leads to all the way to Manilla, where the vital medications are manufactured. THE BOURNE LEGACY, like its predecessors, jumps between the home office as they track our heroes, and the latter, who race to stay a hair's length ahead.  Meanwhile, there are discussions of a pending FBI and Senate investigation into the activities of Agency members Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, who contributes a cameo) and others who engineered earlier operations, including those of which Jason Bourne was an unknowing part (Damon's picture is featured throughout this story). This so-called intrigue is just mundane, and just adds minutes to an already long movie.

The scenes in the "deep cover" Manhattan CIA offices are sometimes laughable in their plethora of spyspeak. This is hardly Norton's finest hour, and his character's standard issue speechifying quickly becomes irritating. However, Renner is more than up to the challenge of his physically demanding part. He is quite likeable and believably rugged. Tough order to fill Damon's shoes, but Renner acquits himself quite well with this very different sort of agent. Weisz is also very appealing as a scientist who learns the hard way of the Agency's darkest secrets. She has one great scene as she deals with 2 supposedly "on her side" operatives who prove quite otherwise.  Before the fists and hardware come out, she gets to convey some strong emotion that, often in other action films, comes off as overheated. Weisz modulates her emotions skillfully through the entire picture, though in the later scenes she becomes merely a tag-along in need of rescuing.

That leads to the final 20 minutes or so, when the action ramps up to hypertensive levels. If you've seen the BOURNE films, you'll recognize the frantic pace, the impossible scrapes. The big chase is undeniably exciting. But the introduction of a near-superhuman character as the aggressor just before sends this movie off the rails. Still fun, but awfully silly.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Ides of March

George Clooney's 4th outing behind the camera, 2011's THE IDES OF MARCH, might've been the trenchant political stunner it really wants to be if it had been made in an earlier decade. Say, the 1960s or earlier. Today, it plays like a stroll through half-read Newsweek articles and the drone of cable news. If you have followed current events with even the slightest frequency in the past 30 years, IDES' screenplay will seem distressingly old hat. A "what's the point?" and "tell me something I don't know" exercise, a 100 minute dose of the contemptuously familiar.

That could well describe many films. Hollywood recycles ideas without a second thought. To me, it's just as lazy when writers crib stories from real-life events, the latest scandal. Many episodes of Law & Order are guilty of this. Most often, the real life tale is more interesting than the fictionalization. It reeks of a lack of imagination. What separates a pointless exercise from something worthwhile is the spin, if you will, the creative teams put to it. 1998's PRIMARY COLORS, a much superior to IDES political indictment, uses the Clinton years as its blueprint and creates an incisive stare into the backstage intrigue of a presidential campaign without feeling contrived or merely torn from the headlines or a rehash of other politically minded films of the past like THE CANDIDATE.

THE IDES OF MARCH features Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager for Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (Clooney, undeniably well cast), who is attempting to win the Democratic Party's nomination for President. Meyers is "married to the campaign", a sharp, focused up and comer who's mastered the work ethic and learned to reconcile the less pleasant parts of the job. Sort of like when Helen Kushnick, Jay Leno's manager, states in the fictionalized THE LATE SHIFT:  "You want the steaks, but don't want to see the slaughter".

Meyers works for Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, typically fine), a disheveled but very aware campaign manager who learns of Meyers' secret meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the CM for Morris' rival. Duffy seeks to woo the young man over to the other campaign. Also in this stew are a duplicitous reporter for the New York Times named Ida (Marisa Tomei) and an intern in the Morris camp named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom Meyers becomes involved and who harbors a Big Secret that will surprise absolutely no one.

THE IDES OF MARCH is dishearteningly obvious and predictable. It's not a satire, but rather a sober cautionary tale that just never quite distinguishes itself. Clooney's script (co-authored by his usual producing partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon) tracks every cliche to be found in stories such as this. Politicans sell their souls and switch allegiances. They also have illicit affairs. I wouldn't mind the layers of dust of familiarity if the story were told with more ingenuity. There's conviction to spare, yes, but it's all so dull. Yet, the film plays as if it were an American Classic.  Sometimes, when you try this hard., well..... And setting the entire story only within the Democratic sphere (including clips of Charlie Rose and only MSNBC as a news outlet), without exposing the "other side" makes this film feel that much more one dimensional.

The cast is well chosen. But as excellent as the actors are (Giamatti positively nails a scene late in the film as he spells it all out for Meyers), their work is not enough to set THE IDES OF MARCH apart from other, similar movies (or hundreds of TV programs). You may well find more depth and pointed insight in an episode of The West Wing.

It should be said, though, that Clooney's direction is often above average here. He's previously directed  films with interesting topics, but has yet to really impress or earn his spot among contemporary front-line artists like Soderbergh or Russell or Payne. In IDES, Clooney's visual sense is strong, and nods to '70s thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW are welcome. He and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael frame some quietly stunning shots here and there. Thriller elements of the screenplay sometimes work or at least keep your head from nodding.  But the thinness of this scenario defeats any pluses. I really wanted to like this movie.