Friday, March 30, 2012

Short Take: The Ides of March

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

George Clooney directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and co-stars in the politics melodrama The Ides of March. The setting of the story is a presidential campaign, and Clooney’s best move was to cast himself as the candidate. His charisma is firing on all cylinders, and he makes the candidate’s ability to inspire supporters effortlessly convincing. Clooney’s worst move was to put the tired script into production. The protagonist isn’t the candidate; it’s the campaign’s number-two operative (Ryan Gosling). The picture is about his transition from idealism to cynical ruthlessness. He and the other campaign officials are unconvincingly written. They seem far too rigid and earnest to function well in the mercurial environment of politics. The intrigues inside the campaign are uninspired and overly histrionic. Those involving the press, a rival campaign, and a valued potential endorsement never rise above the perfunctory. Clooney has assembled a first-rate cast. Besides himself and Gosling, it includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Ehle, and Jeffrey Wright. But the material doesn’t give them much of anything worth doing. Even the dialogue is flat. The directing is unimaginative. Clooney shoots the script as if he were making a play on location. There’s no attention paid to creating the urgent, chaotic atmosphere of a political campaign. The picture looks professionally made, but as an entertainment it just lays there.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Short Take: Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

James M. Cain is a rather disreputable author. His name is all but synonymous with sex-and-violence noir melodrama. While many find him compulsively readable, he doesn't exactly inspire reverence. (Cain's male characters don't embody adolescent masculine ideals the way Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett's do, and that may account for those authors' higher statures.) But Cain's 1941 novel Mildred Pierce rises far above the level of pot-boiler. It's the work of a first-rate writer of prose fiction. The story is set during the Great Depression. The title character is a middle-class divorcée who goes from near destitution to up-from-the-bootstraps success as a restauranteur. It's hard to say what is more impressive: Cain's fast-paced, no-frills prose, his ability to craft incident and character into a full-bodied narrative, or his absolutely stunning eye for social detail. That said, he also gives his talent for lurid sensationalism a good deal of play. There's plenty of grit and sex, and most of the novel's juice in its latter sections comes from its fresh reworking of the femme fatale scenario. The good man isn't brought down by his misplaced love for a wicked, manipulative woman. Rather, Mildred is undone by her devotion to her daughter, a haughty, conniving minx who uses sex as a weapon to get her way. It's not a great novel. For all his ability, Cain lacks poetic daring and dazzle. But it's an extremely satisfying one.

Short Take: Morgan!

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Morgan! (called Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment in the opening titles) is a London-set romantic farce that was produced around the same time as Georgy Girl. It has dated even worse. Director Karel Reisz and scenarist David Mercer have the same basic goal as the Georgy Girl filmmakers. They were looking to adapt the style of the French nouvelle vague films to commercial comedy. And as in Georgy Girl, the effect of mating that material with the existential aesthetic of the French is ludicrous. Of the two, Georgy Girl is the easier to take, largely because it has a plot. Morgan! is little more than a collection of slapstick setpieces that wouldn't have been out of place in a Three Stooges short. The ostensible story is about the efforts of a pathologically childish working-class artist (David Warner) to woo back his upper-class ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave) before she marries her new beau. But there's little in the way of dramatic construction, and the naturalistic manner of the film works against the humor of the slapstick and other farcical elements. The filmmakers seem engaged in a futile effort to make stalking, vandalism, and kidnapping funny. The picture has a number of 1960s "with it" touches, such as the Warner character's fascination with Communist leaders and imagery, but they're strictly decorative. The same is true of his interest in gorillas and other apes. The cutaways to clips from African wildlife documentaries, Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, and the original King Kong never connect to anything more than pretension. Karel Reisz and cinematographer Larry Pike do a superficially capable job of staging and shooting scenes in location settings. It would have been interesting to see them use those skills with compatible material.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Short Take: Hanna

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The director Joe Wright is known for tony literary adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. With Hanna, he tries his hand at a pulp adventure story. The title character, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a teenage girl who has been raised in isolation by her father (Eric Bana) in the subarctic Finnish wilderness. The father is a former CIA agent, and he has been training Hanna since birth to be the perfect spy and assassin. After he feels she has come of age, he sends her out in the world. She quickly becomes the target of a senior CIA operative (Cate Blanchett). The journey is one part mission and one part road to self-discovery. Much of it is Hanna coming into her own as an indomitable killing machine, a aspect of herself about which she becomes increasingly ambivalent. The film is a glossily incompetent mess. The screenplay, credited to Seth Lochhead and David Farr, from a story by Lochhead, doesn’t give Hanna’s odyssey a clear purpose. There’s no urgency as a result. The picture treats the Blanchett character’s designs on Hanna as a mystery, but there’s no suspense there, either. One isn’t made to feel what’s at stake if she did nab Hanna, so it’s hard to work up much concern. The thinking appears to be that since Hanna and her father are the “good” characters, and the Blanchett character and her agents are the “bad” ones, then that should be enough for the audience’s engagement with the chases and the confrontations. Matters aren’t helped by Wright’s flabby direction. He shows little interest in pace or drama. The scenes function as an excuse for empty flamboyance. He's very fond of intricately edited montage and extended traveling Steadicam shots. Each are strikingly executed, but one would be a lot more impressed if Wright managed to enhance the story with them. (He would also do well to avoid single-take shooting in action scenes. His fight choreography is abysmal.) The disinterest in effective storytelling extends to Wright's handling of the actors. The only performer who makes an impression is Blanchett, and it’s the wrong kind. Her sleek villainy is so cartoonish one can’t help giggling. The elegant cinematography is by Alwin Küchler. The Chemical Brothers provide the annoying electronica score.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Short Take: Take Shelter

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is a potent, affecting film, but ultimately a disappointing one. Michael Shannon gives a richly felt performance as a working-class Ohio man who is faced with the onset of clinical mental illness. It begins to manifest itself in a series of nightmares: oil raining from the sky, assaults from loved ones, and apocalyptic storms. But he cannot shake the dreams after waking, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with expanding and outfitting the tornado shelter in his backyard. The film doesn’t once flinch from the real-life consequences of the character’s behavior. Nichols and Shannon take the viewer inside his terror at his psychological decline> Much of the narrative's power comes from watching him gradually undermine the various pillars of his life, including his relationships with work, friends, and family. The film’s major flaw is that it is far more intelligent than imaginative. The hallucinatory dream sequences aside, the picture feels trapped in the mundane. Nichols seems far more concerned with evoking pathos than finding poetry or catharsis in the story. The film is harrowing, but it is not especially edifying. There’s just too much angst and not enough artistry. One may feel compelled to leave before it is over. The luminous Jessica Chastain is a forceful, grounded presence as the Shannon character's wife.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Short Take: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [Film 2]

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The screen adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second in J. K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels, is a comedown from the first film. The director, Chris Columbus, has long had a weakness for hectic staging, overdone slapstick, and cartoonish overacting. The first third or so (almost an hour) is a Columbus film in the worst sense. The noisiness is more annoying than usual, because it undermines pleasant memories of the first film. The picture doesn’t improve much after it settles down and gets into the main story, which deals with a deadly threat to the Hogwarts School's less than full-blooded students. The screenwriter, Steve Kloves, capably streamlines the plot, and the individual scenes are deftly written. But Columbus can’t build any momentum. The various setpieces seem more about illustrating the story than telling it. The anti-bigotry theme of the original book isn’t effectively dramatized, either. It’s a toss-up whether Rupert Grint or Kenneth Branagh is the worst served among the actors. Grint’s skittish, insecure Ron Weasley was one of the more enjoyable characters in the first film; here, he’s Don Knotts as a British tween. Branagh would seem ideally cast as the showboating narcissist Gilderoy Lockhart, but the performance is painfully overscaled. He often needs a director to tell him no, and one is certainly reminded why. As for Robbie Coltrane and Emma Watson, the stand-out performers in the first film, they're not bad, but they don't make much of an impression. One is relieved when the film is over.