Saturday, November 19, 2011

Film Reviews: The Ides of March, Barry Lyndon, The Road

The Ides of March

The days of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is long past. Cynicism is in for political movies, and George Clooney’s newest movie (directed, that is) reflects that. While the system isn’t presented quite as darkly as in something like Syriana (also featuring Clooney), it certainly fits into the mold.

The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, the idealistic but ambitious young deputy campaign manager for the charismatic and talented Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania Mike Morris (Clooney), who is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president. While Morris is the favorite, and leads in the polls, the election is hardly decided, and may hinge on the upcoming Ohio primary. Former candidate Senator Thompson of Ohio (Jeffrey Wright) still hasn’t endorsed anyone, and his support (and his delegates) could be key to victory, but how much will his support cost? As the day of the primary grows closer, Myers gets a call from the rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), who insists that there are things Myers doesn’t know. Other plots involve a tenacious reporter (Marisa Tomei), Myers’ semi-paranoid boss (P.S. Hoffman), and a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).

Looking at that cast, it’s obvious director George Clooney has some serious heft in the industry. I’m not sure any of these performers is capable of giving a bad performance, and indeed none does here. But at the same time, no one here is going to head his or her resume with Ides. Clooney is convincing as a political star, but doesn’t have much screen time. Giamatti and Hoffman have similar problems; while intriguing, neither has enough time to do much with the character. Of the supporting characters, it is probably Wood’s Molly who makes the biggest impression—she’s quite good as the smart and alluring intern.

As for Gosling, it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. Gosling is talented and more than adequate in the role, but it also is a little out of his comfort zone. Goslin is best in low-key roles (like Drive, which came out earlier this year), and has occasional trouble with some of the more emotional and dramatic scenes, and sometimes the pseudo-Sorkinian dialogue gets away from him. But in the most important scene in the movie (which comes at the very end and, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t elaborate on) he is completely convincing.

The plot is satisfying without being exceptional, and the “twists”, when they come, feel organic. But there are some problems with how the main character—Myers—is portrayed. The first major turning point in the film comes when he meets with Giamatti’s character, which he seems to know is a dumb idea. In order to justify this, another character later in the movie gives a monologue where he talks about how ambitious and desperate for attention and recognition Myers is. That would be fine, but none of these traits are actually integrated into the character, particularly before the fateful meeting. Indeed, quite the opposite—he comes across as pretty unfailingly idealistic. It might not sounds like too big a problem, but considering that everything else that happens in the movie is a direct result of this meeting (well, also one other thing, but I won’t get into that), it presents some real character motivation problems.

There are also some issues with how the primary campaign is presented*, but these are all fairly incidental and unlikely to bother—or even be noticed by—someone who isn’t pretty deeply involved in politics. I also wish we could have seen a little more of the actual mechanics of the campaign—some of the best parts of the movie are early, when we see the Morris campaign at work, and when Morris himself gives interviews (including a much savvier response to the infamous Kitty Dukakis death penalty question from 1988).

*For example, the campaign managers seem to be strangely influential with the general public. I mean, how many people in real life even know who David Axelrod is? And he had the exposure of a general election too.

The Ides of March thinks that it’s a little better than it; the movie has an air of a screenplay that is impressed with its own cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, and indeed is a fair bit above even mediocre. The cast is impressive, the plot generally engaging, and bits and pieces here and there are even thought provoking. But I doubt we’re going to remember this film a decade from now.

6.5 Decent/Good

Barry Lyndon

A Kubrick period piece. So powerful is Stanley Kubrick’s imprint on his films that those three

words (and an article) are all I really need to review this movie. The end.

Okay, so that might not be quite enough. Barry Lyndon tells the tale of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), a young Irish man who comes of age in the middle of the 18th Century. After killing a British officer in a duel over his (female) cousin, Barry is forced to flee for his life. Thus begins a series of misadventures that chronicle Barry’s life over the next thirty or so years, from his time in the British military to his entry into and rise through the ranks of polite society, which culminates in his marriage to the lovely and very wealthy Lady Lyndon (Marisa Barinson). Of course, what goes up must come down, and Barry is no exception.

As one would expect from a Kubrick production, Barry Lyndon is visually breathtaking motion picture. While technically accurate period pieces are not hard to find, the sheer scale of this movie is beyond impressive. The film has a running length over three hours, and there is rarely more than a scene or two in the same location. The grandeur and verisimilitude that Kubrick elicits from each of these dozens of (large) settings is simply stunning. To prepare for filming, Kubrick developed a new form of lighting technology in order to keep most of the indoor scenes diagetic (that is, the light almost always comes from a readily identified source, often candles). This, combined with his masterful cinematography, makes almost any single frame of the movie look like a painting.

But while it is a visual tour-de-force, Barry Lyndon has a number of problems that keep it well short of Kubrick’s masterpieces. The most obvious problem is the lead actor—Ryan O’Neal just doesn’t have much screen presence. Considering Barry is already a largely unsympathetic character in a lot of ways (a modern word that comes to mind to describe him might be “jackass”), the fact that the portrayal is so bland is a major hole in the middle of the film. For that matter, none of the acting is particularly memorable. Kubrick never was an actor’s director—his film style is too emotionally cold and rigid for that—but usually he had at least one or two actors capable of breaking through the frigidity (George C. Scott, Jack Nicholson, and R. Lee Ermy come to mind). Not so here. It’s an exceptionally forgettable cast.

The movie is also a little too long at 184 minutes. This is a common complaint for me (I follow the rule of thumb that you better have a damn good reason to make anything over 150 minutes, be it a movie or sporting event), but unusually most of the excess material is found in the first half, not the second. I actually found the second half of the movie (which deals with Barry’s fall) much more engaging than the first. Barry’s relationships with his wife, stepson, and biological son are much more interesting than any character relationships from the first hour-and-a-half. The bond between the younger (and biological) son and Barry is as authentic and emotional as anything Kubrick has done, and does much to humanize and provide depth to a character whom I was starting to genuinely hate.

My final major point of contention is an almost comically ponderous voiceover that explains what is going on*. This sort of narration is such a blatant, lazy filmmaking crutch that I was shocked that Kubrick (never one to coddle an audience, see 2001) employed it. I wonder if it wasn’t something that the studio made him add. Either way, it’s unnecessary at the best of times and often genuinely distracting. And annoying.

*”Because he had no money, Barry decided to join the military.” That sort of thing.

For all the extra length and bland acting, the visuals aren’t the only thing to recommend about this movie. As I mentioned above, Barry’s relationships with his family—almost all of which come in the second half—are compelling, and the movie’s approach to 19th century European politics is almost satirical at times. The movie also contains two extremely memorable scenes: a fantastically tense duel scene towards the end of the film, and a very odd yet strangely erotic seduction that takes place in the beginning.

Overall, Barry Lyndon is an enjoyable and expertly crafted period piece that has too many flaws to be included among Kubrick’s masterpieces.

7 Good

The Road

While I have a few problems with the Coen brother's Oscar-winning

2007 film, the success of No Country for Old Men opened the door for other attempts at adapting Cormac McCarthy’s notoriously uncinematic material. With this green light, two year later in 2009 we got John Hillcoat’s adaptation of perhaps McCarthy’s most successful and famous novel (and the only one I’ve read), Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road. Books don’t get much bleaker than this minimalist examination of life after The End, and, as it turns out, neither do movies.

The Road is the story of the otherwise unnamed Man (Viggo Mortenson) and his son the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they try to survive after an unspecified apocalypse*. Civilization has almost totally disintegrated in the decade or so since fires consumed the world; the planet seems to have been totally depopulated of all animal and plant life, with only vast forests of charred, dead trees to be seen. What few people are left eke out a meager existence by eating canned food when they can find it, or each other when they cannot. In his increasing desperation, the Man seeks to try and reach the southern coast before the bitterly cold winter finally kills him and the Boy. They follow the titular road while avoiding thieves and worse, with only a revolver and two bullets for protection. But maybe they should just give up and use those two bullets on themselves, following the Woman (played in flashbacks by Charlize Theron), who wandered off into the cold night years before.

*The exact nature of how the world ended doesn’t really matter, but that didn’t stop me from being occasionally frustrated that details didn’t really seem consistent with any one possibility, something that didn’t bug me in the book, probably because it has so few details of any kind. The two most likely possibilities seem to be some sort of nuclear holocaust or maybe an asteroid strike, but there is ample evidence in the movie to contradict either.

Like in the book, it’s an utterly bleak world completely devoid of warmth, both literal and metaphorical. The movie nails the look of this wasteland, completely desaturating the film until many scenes may as well be in black and white. Use of CG is judicious but effective, and the scraggly, emaciated look of all of the (few) people we see reinforces the look of devastation.

The emotional core of the book (where it had one) was the relationship between the Boy and the Man. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are both great as people trying maintain basic human decency and compassion in the face of the worst imaginable circumstances. The Boy’s insistence on helping people (and the Man’s anguished certainty that they cannot) is a recurring and powerful theme. The ending of the film, which changes little from the book, ends on an appropriately bittersweet note.

The movie expands some on the book by including longer flashbacks of the Woman, including a few tantalizingly short scenes set before doomsday. I think this is actually an improvement, as it makes the present day destruction even starker, and the scenes with the Woman only make the Man’s dedication to ensuring his son’s survival even more touching. Other performances are always little more than cameos, but the list includes a bunch of actor’s that I really like and who are all very good in their limited roles, including Garret Dillahunt, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, and Michael K. Williams. But Robert Duvall’s performance as the Old Man, only a few minutes long, is the most memorable.

The movie isn’t flawless; it’s handling of the few scenes of tension and/or violence are somewhat ineffective, especially a very strange scene where the Man and the Boy have to dodge a series of falling trees, which I don’t remember from the book.

But overall this is an emotionally wrenching, visually effective, impeccably acted, and incredibly difficult to watch film. I recommend it, but also plan on never seeing it again.

8 Very Good

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