Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best of 2011

It's a popular pastime for people to offer their 'best of' lists for the year. I guess I'm a little slow but I thought I would offer up my best of regardless. For me, 2011 wasn't exactly a stellar year for movies. I mean, there were some good ones but only one really impressed the shit out of me. A couple were notable, as in really worth seeing, but only one I consider a 'must-see'.

In any event, this is the list of notable movies from last year and the film I think was the best of the lot:

This was pretty cool. Gosling excels in this type of ambiguous, creepy role and the deadpan 'man of few words' nature of the character suits his style of performance down to the ground. Albert Brooks was great too, in a non-typical part for him. It was well shot, and the music was cool. The violence I felt was a little overdone. I don't normally mind violence but it bordered on the absurd at times. I think the film could have used a bit more driving, given the title. Didn't quite understand the wierd, 80s-style font used in the credits though... thought that was a bit odd.

Tree of Life
If you're a fan of Terrence Malick's movies, you have to see this. Unfortunately I had to settle for a DVD because the morons that decide what movies should be shown here chose not to release it on circuit. This is definitely a movie that benefits from a big screen. But if you have a 40 inch or bigger TV set, you won't lose anything in the bargain, especially if you have Blu-Ray and can find a copy of this in Blu-Ray to rent. The visuals alone are worth the two hours. That said, it is Malick's most difficult film, and many have found it tiresome and pointless. I did not become bored watching it, except perhaps in the last 5 minutes, which I found superfluous. To be honest, I could have watched the 'birth of creation' scenes for two hours, so stunningly are they rendered. The story with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain and their family is OK, but felt like a distraction. I didn't get it to be honest. I thought it was an attempt to inject a human story into the much bigger message that Malick was striving for, but I found the story a tad cliched. Brad Pitt was superb, as was Jessica Chastain. Sean Penn was wasted. He looked a bit wasted too. But it is beautiful to look at. Truly stunning. So watch it.

Ides of March
I've just reviewed this so suffice to say I wont blather on anymore about it. Just read the review or check it out for yourself. Well worth a look.

And now, without any further ado.... tadaaaaa.... my movie of the year choice goes to:

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z Burns
Starring: Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow

The apocalyptic movie is a Hollywood staple. Armaggeddon, Deep Impact, 2012... the list goes on. It's a grim subject that nevertheless seems to be a strong drawcard for moviegoers. I guess people just enjoy getting the bejesus scared out of them. But usually these subjects are based on some frivolous and fanciful possibility, like the earth being struck by a meteor or some such unlikely event. People just know that's not likely to happen.

But Contagion is another kettle of fish entirely. It dwells on the possibility of a super virus devastating the globe, a very real possibility if you care to investigate the science. It already happened in 1918, with the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which is estimated to have killed 50 - 100 million people around the globe. No, that number is not a mistake. That's more than the two world wars combined. It was like a roaring runaway freight train of death, it just went rogue and could not be stopped. Whole families and villages were wiped out. A very bad juju indeed. Soderbergh's hypothesis is that this is just one little twist of fate away from happening again. All it takes is the right combination of bat droppings and bad hygiene at a pig farm and people start dropping like flies. One minute they are there, laughing, talking, breathing. And the next minute they are dead. It is this uniquly deadly characteristic of a level 4 virus that makes Contagion such a super creepy movie to watch. When it kills, it kills fast.

What also makes Contagion so effective is Soderbergh's penchant for documentary style movie-making that he first introduced so effectively in Traffic, his examination of America's War on Drugs. With Contagion he cranks the realism up to a whole new level and it makes for hyper-scary viewing. He uses big name actors but places them in low-key, ordinary schmuck type roles to heighten the realism even more. He shows Gywneth Paltrow's head been opened like a can of tomatoes. It's really pretty great.

The other thing he manages to achieve quite wonderfully is scale. The virus is of course a global phenomenon and Soderbergh really gives you a sense not only of how countries around the world would be affected by it but also of the sheer numbers involved. This final aspect is what contributes to the sheer apocalyptic nature of a true mega virus. The bodies start piling up so fast that the normal emergency and medical services can't cope. Society's structures that we rely on so much without even realising it, start to break down. Anarchy manifests itself and the rule of law is steam-rollered by the desperate need of so many people who are trying to survive. Soderbergh brings this sense of panic and desperation to the screen very effectively and you easily see how this would occur in modern day society where we are all so terribly reliant on the airport, drugstore, convenience store, internet... and all the rest of the modern conveniences.

Speaking of the internet, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is how a blogger, played by Jude Law, who is the first person to predict that the virus is going to go global, becomes a hugely influential player due to the panic that spreads almost as fast as the virus itself. He takes advantage of this to peddle a supposed cure for the virus and generate bucket-loads of cash for himself.

It's not an easy film to watch, and parts of it remind you uncomfortably of the current economic malaise that the world finds itself in, but it is undeniably powerful and eerily prescient. Just how long before it becomes a reality? You'll find yourself washing your hands a lot more often after watching this one.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Ides of March - Mozart for babies

The Ides of March is a smart film. It has smart actors, a smart director, smart dialogue, and a smart subject - the wheels within wheels of the political machine. You'll feel smarter just by watching it. But don't kid yourself that this is an in-depth look into this Machiavellian world, filled with penetrating insights. This is Mozart for babies. It will make you smarter if you watch it - but only because 99% of movies released these days will make you dumber just by being exposed to them. Even if its just the trailers. 

The chief pleasures to be gained from the film lie with the near-perfect casting. We have Ryan Gosling in the main role. Ryan is hotter than a fresh-f***ed fox in a forest fire right now. Then there is the actor's actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the candidate's campaign manager and another character actor stalwart, Paul Giamatti, as his counterpart. Both spin pure gold from their small roles. As the candidate we have the multi-talented George Clooney (who also directs). George sure looks the part and of course Clooney is fairly active in politics himself, comes from a political family and would probably make a crackerjack president if he ever ran for office. Not that he's dumb enough to do that. 

Then there are the women, delivering across the board despite having to make do with the bit parts as usual. Evan Rachel Wood is super sexy and vulnerable in a key role. Wood is a great, under-used actress (although in my personal opinion she is much more effective as a redhead). Marisa Tomei is fantastic as usual in a small part as a New York Times reporter, who seems to be the only journalist covering the presidential campaign, oddly enough. 

Unfortunately there just doesn't seem to be enough screen time for some of the cast, particularly Mr Hoffman. The vast majority of screen time is taken up by Ryan Gosling, which will no doubt make the ladies happy but what about the rest of us? Gosling is good enough in the main part, but whether he can carry a whole movie is open for debate, despite the fact that he seems to be snatching up the lion's share of primo leading roles at the moment. But this is not his finest hour. He seems a little under-done. He prefers to go at it low-key, but he's a little TOO under the radar here. We don't ever feel that he really cares enough about the candidate. He's just a little, dare I say it - wooden? Perhaps there weren't sufficient scenes with Clooney up front. Gosling is interesting to watch but he is better in some roles than others. His range is not quite there yet.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, the press liaison officer for a presidential candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen's job is to manage his boss's public profile, make sure the press are printing the right stories about Morris. In a world where a tightly managed public image is as vital as the air you breathe, Meyers has an extremely key role to play. And he's only 30 years of age! How he came to get this incredibly important job at such a tender age is never properly demonstrated. Instead we have one scene where the opposition candidate's campaign manager praises Stephen's abilities to the skies. OK then, done and dusted. Ummm.... no.

What conspires to keep The Ides of March from achieving real greatness is the severe lack of genuine insights and meaty dialogue. Any film that takes you behind the scenes of such a universally fascinating event as the US Presidential campaign should tell you something you didn't know before. If you're going to make a movie about the backroom dealings, insider trading and cut and thrust of the biggest political show of them all, then give us some insights into that world! Particularly now, when we are right in the middle of the Republican primaries, which are proving to be a real knock-down, drag out, fight to the finish, with no clear front runner. The timing is perfect. Ides of March is extremely topical and offers a great opportunity to throw some light on this world.

But we are never shown how it all works. The detail is sorely lacking. There's just a lot of mumbo jumbo about numbers and polls. Come on! Surely they could have given us some juicy tidbits on how press officers keep their boys looking nice and shiny despite legions of journalists all digging for the dirt. It must be a herculean task, but Gosling never even breaks a sweat. He's as cool as a cucumber the whole time. No over-flowing ashtray, no polystyrene coffee cup graveyard cluttering his desk, no peptic ulcer.

From what I understand, US presidential campaigns are fast-moving, back-breaking, extremely stressful affairs. In Ides of March it feels more like someone is running for town mayor rather than the biggest job of them all. For a better idea of what a campaign is really like, I highly recommend Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a classic of its kind and one of Thompson's finest efforts. It may seem a little dated, but there is so much in there that is still totally relevant to today's political world. And its hilarious to boot.

The one 'insight' that Ides of March manages to deliver is that politics is all about compromise. Duh! Robert Redford and Michael Ritchie already nailed that all the way back in 1972 with the highly effective minor classic The Candidate, which Ides of March is clearly heavily indebted to. But what we want in today's super-cynical and savvy world is to know HOW it all works. THAT would make for a highly entertaining movie. Unfortunately, it isn't to be found here. Perhaps if it had been David Mamet or the late and much-lamented Sidney Lumet at the helm of Ides of March it would have achieved greatness. Lumet's pacy, talky procedural thrillers like Network, The Verdict, Night Falls on Manhattan really gave you that 'fly on the wall' feeling. You felt like you were seeing things the way they really are. Not a movie-makers 'idea' of how things go. And Mamet's bust-a-gut laugh out loud spoof of political spin-doctoring Wag the Dog also had that ring of authenticity, outrageous as it was.

Although The Ides of March is a perfectly competent, and, like I said, smart movie it could have been so much more. Unfortunately the script has to take the blame here. In this case, less is definitely not more.