Thursday, February 28, 2013

Short Take: Game Change

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Films about politics are invariably propaganda, and Game Change is no exception. The film, adapted from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s lurid, misogynist history of the 2008 presidential campaign, focuses on only a small part of the book's narrative: the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore). The film begins with John McCain (Ed Harris) hiring Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) as his top campaign strategist. This is followed by a montage presenting McCain’s ascendancy to the Republican presidential nomination. But after that, it’s the Sarah Palin story all the way. Or more specifically, it’s an attack on Palin dressed up as a cautionary tale about “the dark side to American populism.” As hatchet jobs go, it’s shallow, mediocre, and not the least bit clever. It does little more than tell people who love to hate Palin what they want to hear about her. The only side of her the film presents with conviction is the narcissistic, intellectually lazy demagogue. The filmmakers acknowledge her phenomenal talent for retail campaigning and her rapport with rural and working–class people, but their understanding of her appeal never goes beyond the superficial. As such, they can’t dramatize her charisma with any effectiveness. The portrait the film paints is just as much a caricature as the lampoons Tina Fey did of Palin on Saturday Night Live. The major difference is that it isn’t the least bit witty, much less funny. The picture is mainly just a series of Palin’s major campaign moments, punctuated with scenes featuring Schmidt, McCain, and campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) wringing their hands over what they’ve inflicted on the American people. As Palin, Julianne Moore gives the role, in both good and bad ways, the Meryl Streep treatment. The attention to surface detail is extraordinary, but her timing is off. It comes across as a lack of spontaneity, and she seems like a programmed android. (There’s also a repeated, weirdly discordant aspect to Moore's performance that may or may not be intentional: whenever she smiles, she looks as if she’s ready to rip someone apart with her teeth.) The scenes that ostensibly treat Palin sympathetically, such as those between her and her family, are undone by the calculated feel of Moore’s performance. Her warmth doesn’t feel genuine, and one cannot help but wonder if that’s the effect the filmmakers were after. Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson, and to a lesser degree Ed Harris are allowed to suggest their real-life counterparts rather than mimic them, and they come across much more as flesh-and-blood people. The contrast seems deliberate. The less Palin is recognizable as a human being, the easier it is to belittle her. The best that can be said for Jay Roach’s direction is that the narrative is clear and well paced. The script is credited to Danny Strong.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Short Take: Casino Royale

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The James Bond franchise has traditionally just replaced one leading actor with another. With Casino Royale (2006), the 21st film in the series, there was not only a new star (Daniel Craig), but also a complete reboot of the character. This adaptation of Ian Fleming’s inaugural 1953 Bond novel gives the viewer a more inexperienced Bond, a grittier tone, and far less fanciful trappings. (The famous Bond spy gadgetry, for instance, is all but gone.) The story is fast-paced espionage-adventure pulp, complete with Third-World terrorists, corrupt financiers, and glamorous international locations. The dramatic hook, though, is the treatment of the Bond character. The film begins as he is promoted to the elite of British secret-service field agents, and this new Bond is easily the most ruthless film version of the character to date. He’s a brutal, devious, and all but completely hardened killer. The tension in him comes from his awareness that the violence he traffics in is costing him his soul. His sympathetic side is brought out by his relationship with the British treasury accountant (Eva Green) assigned to oversee him in the high-stakes poker competition that is the story’s centerpiece. The film, unlike its predecessors, is not the least bit nonchalant about violence; the most eloquent moment is when Bond comforts the accountant in her shock from helping him kill an attacker. The picture also finds a tragic irony in his concluding victory; the humane aspects of him are now completely burned away. Martin Campbell, the director, does a superb job with both the character drama and the action setpieces. The latter are extraordinarily well-executed, with the first half alone providing a daredevil chase through a construction site, and an elaborate sequence involving the foiling of a plot to destroy a luxury jet. As for Daniel Craig, he could not embody this conception of Bond better. Everything about him says thug, but he also makes the viewer feel the tenderness that’s slipping away. But the standout performer is Judi Dench, who delivers a droll turn as "M," the secret service’s head officer. The screenplay is credited to Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis. The excellent cinematography, with gorgeous location work in Italy and the Bahamas, is by Phil Meheux.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Short Take: The Deep Blue Sea

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rachel Weisz’s finely wrought, richly expressive performance is the emotional and dramatic center of The Deep Blue Sea, writer-director Terence Davies’ 2011 adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1952 play. The Rattigan material is a variation on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The setting is London in 1950. Weisz plays the wife of an affluent British judge (Simon Russell Beale) who abandons her marriage for an affair with a dashing former RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston). The film tells the story of the affair in flashbacks. It begins with the heroine’s suicide attempt, and it follows her as she recalls the relationship and looks forward in an effort to save it. Rattigan may have started with Tolstoy, but the men in his love triangle only recall their antecedents upon first glance. The husband ultimately proves a decent, sympathetic man, and the lover, for all his bravado, is a dissolute fellow unable to make the adjustment to civilian life. The heroine only resembles her precursor at first glance as well: she ends up a hopeful figure, not a tragic one. Terence Davies does a marvelous job of realizing the material for the screen. The tonal shifts between the flashbacks and the story’s present tense are beautifully orchestrated. He even includes a movingly ironic homage to the train-station climax in Tolstoy’s novel. The three main performances complement each other exceptionally well. Simon Russell Beale’s stolidity and Tom Hiddleston’s surface confidence are each a form of uprightness, and they both offset and frame Rachel Weisz’s exquisitely delicate tremulousness. She returns the favor; her emotional range helps render the dimensions given the male characters. The picture is a lovely piece of work.