The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling is Stephen Meyers, assistant campaign manager to Governor Morris (George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote), who is currently locked in a battle with opposing democratic candidate Senator Pullman to win the Ohio Democratic Primary and eventually win the nomination as the next potential president. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are their campaign managers, Marisa Tomei the Times reporter out for inside information, Evan Rachel Wood a young intern with her eye on Gosling’s big man on campus, and Jeffrey Wright is the senator both sides are eager to please.

In the past few years there have been a number of talky, ‘important’ films with predominantly male all-star ensemble casts, with generally well written scripts dealing with issues whose effects can have life or death ramifications. From The Company Men, Moneyball, Margin Call and Wall Street 2, they all have something else in common – I haven’t seen them yet. It’s not that I don’t want to see them (Moneyball and Margin Call are in my LoveFilm queue and The Company Men is sat on DVD form on my shelf – Wall Street 2 will take me a while as first I must get past a hatred for Shia LaBeouf) it’s just that I don’t have many opportunities to go to the cinema, so I use them for seeing movies with a certain sense of spectacle, ones that will make the better use of a gigantic screen and that, should I happen to miss a line of dialogue from a fellow patron’s ringing phone, screaming child or popcorn-chomp, I can still follow the plot amidst the explosions and giant robots. The more dialogue-heavy, less action-y films are saved for DVD. This even applied to such masterpieces as The Social Network – I saw Toy Story 3 instead. Please don’t have a go at me about this. Rest assured that if I had the time (and the money) to see the other films at the cinema too, then I would, and there have been difficult decisions made in the past as to what must be sacrificed for a smaller screen some months down the line.
And so it is that it’s taken me a little while to watch The Ides of March, though it was well reviewed, I’m a fan of 5 of the principle players (Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman, Giamatti & Tomei) and The West Wing has made me at least interested in the ins and outs of American politics, more so than I am in the British trivialities. Plus, my girlfriend could be described as being more than a fan of Gosling (I’m still receiving backlash from my rant on The Notebook).
Now this isn’t a bad film, but I got the feeling that every actor involved was retreading ground they’d walked down many a time before. They all performed well – though Gosling goes a bit glary-eyed on a couple of occasions – but no-one really showed anything new. This is kind of a testament to the acting talents on display. Nobody does cynical schlubs like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, but they’re settled into a well formed groove, and who is Clooney’s smoothly persuasive senator than a slightly more ambitious Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air? Only Gosling gives something of a fresh performance, but only in terms of him being something of an impressionable blank slate of contradictions. His Stephen has supposedly worked on more campaigns by the time he’s 30 than most of his peers ten years his senior, yet it sends him reeling when he discovers that the world of politics is more than occasionally played with cards to the chest and the odd stacked deck.
At times the plot goes a bit overly dramatic. The outcome from who is the presidential candidate already has the potential for phenomenal consequences, yet the scriptwriters felt the need to show the devastating effects this can also have on individual people, with the fate of Evan Rachel Wood’s intern Molly being particularly distressing. It hits the point home, but does so in too severe a manner. I feel that there was greater scope for exploring the characters of Gosling and Clooney being two sides of the same coin twenty years apart. Had equal time been spent on their stories, rather than instead focusing more on Gosling – who I never really believed in as a masterful campaign manager sought after by everyone – then this could have been more interesting. The whole poster campaign was set up to show them, and their freakishly symmetrical faces, as being the same person anyway, yet this seemed completely lacking in the film.
Were this the first film I’d seen with most of these actors in I’d no doubt have been floored by the incredible performances on display. I don’t mean to take anything away from them – they are all consummate professionals who are incredible at what they do and I look forward to seeing them do it again – it’s just I’ve seen them all do it before.
Choose life 7/10

Once Upon A Time In China

It’s probably not a good thing that the only Jet Li movies I’d seen prior to this film are his most American ones – Lethal Weapon 4, Unleashed, The Mummy 3 and The Expendables, so his notoriety as a master of martial arts has been more than a little lost on me, as though he gets to show his stuff in most of these films, they aren’t built around him and he is far from the star. There are several other Li films on the List, including Hero and Enter the Dragon, and I hope that they aren’t as much of a mess as this one.

Li plays Master Wong Fei-Hung, who is put in charge of organising the local non-military men into a local militia to defend China if they are attacked whilst the army is busy elsewhere. This initial premise is soon skipped to see Wong and his rag-tag band of one-note misfits – the fat one, the big-toothed one – become involved in a hectic plot involving a mob-run protection racket and the westernisation of China, as the English influence is felt through weaponry, religion, clothing and cutlery.
The film’s saving graces are the cast and the action. Li proves himself as the martial arts legend he is regarded as, and the various fighting scenes are, mostly, memorable and entertaining. One near the end, a one-on-one fought almost entirely on long, weak ladders, is particularly good, and has a nice payoff too. The moment with Li and the bullet took it a bit far for me, as did the occasional uses of wire-fu to allow characters to jump an awful lot further than they should. These artists are capable of great things with their limbs alone, so whenever stage effects are used to enhance them I’m always taken out of the film, as it shows the stars as mere mortals like the rest of us.
There is far more comedy here than I was expecting too, on an almost farcical level, and many times the scenes seem to be set-up for a fight or a larger, recurring joke that never happens. A scene where a character finds himself with an arm and a leg needlessly plastered could have led to a fight scenes where the casts were used both as his hindrance and advantage, but alas he just runs off and it’s never mentioned again. Similarly, a photograph posing culminating in a burst of flame that ends up roasting a pet bird could have been used later to vanquish an attacker with an unexpected fireball, but again no.
The moments of culture clash comedy – Wong encountering a fork – are nice, but there isn’t much here that’s new, and by the end (the film is well over 2 hours) even the action has gotten almost boring.
Choose life 5/10

Holiday Apologies

Apologies for the lack of posts this past week, I’ve been on holiday in Wales and the cottage we were staying in had considerably less Internet than we were expecting. The Unlisted and Top 5 posts were hastily scrambled together the night before we left home, just in case. Fortunately the typically Welsh weather allowed me to watch a few more films than I thought I would (still only five from the List though) but a lack of researching ability meant few posts could be written unpublished. Ah well, I’ll try and get back on track in the coming week.

Top 5… Rainy Scenes

I’m on holiday in Wales at the moment, and whilst I’d like to do my Top 5 Welsh movies or Movies Set In Wales, I’m afraid I couldn’t come up with very many for either category. Instead I thought I’d try and be funny and do my Top 5 Movie Whales, but I’ve only seen four films with whales in (4. Pinocchio, 3. Finding Nemo, 2. Free Willy, 1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) and I haven’t seen any others (including Moby Dick, Whale Rider, Big Miracle and Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home). So instead I’ve decided to focus on Wales’ biggest export, rain, and I’m celebrating those scenes made all the better because of a downpour. I’ve chosen not to include any John Cusack films on the list purely because he gets caught in the rain in every damn one of them, so if I ever get stuck for a list in the future, Top 5 John Cusack In The Rain Scenes may well crop up.
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Scream 4

I wrote in one of my first posts aaaaaaaaaaages ago that I was really looking forward to this film, as I loved Scream and Scream 2, and enjoyed Scream 3 enough to justify owning it, but when the reviews came out and Scream 4 was deemed something of a failure I became lukewarm to the idea, and have put off watching it until recently. I went in with fairly low expectations, which is probably the best approach to take if you want to enjoy this film.

The problem with the Scream franchise, and indeed with pretty much every horror series, is that it tells the same story every time. Yes, a new batch of barely-characterised nubile young hotties is brought in to be creatively slaughtered, and at least with these films the killer changes each time, but the motive always seems to be the same and it’s always someone you’re not supposed to expect, meaning you work out who the killer couldn’t possibly be, and then you’ve solved the mystery.
It’s not difficult to see why the surviving leads from the series, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, have returned, seeing as none of them has had a very successful venture since the last movie, and the likes of Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin and Adam Brody were probably only too willing to work with Wes Craven, the legend behind the original trilogy as well as A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House On The Left.
The plot sees Sidney Prescott (Campbell), the key surviving victim from the series, as she returns back to her home town of Woodsboro 15 years after the original murders to promote her new book, where Dewey (Arquette) is now sheriff and married to Gale Weathers (Cox). At times it’s more than a little awkward to see Cox and Arquette working together after their divorce, as they’ve lost that spark of chemistry present in the earlier films. Coinciding with Sidney’s return, a new killer is murdering random victims, and seems to be doing so by following the rules set by modern horror multi-sequels. This time amongst the knife-fodder is Sidney’s niece Jill (Roberts) and her friends, as well as movie nerds and audience cyphers Charlie and Robbie (Culkin and Erik Knudsen).
Seeing as the antagonists murder weapon is a big knife, the kills here can never be all that inventive. It’s more a case of where the killer jumps out from and who is behind the mask more than how will everyone die (hint: by being stabbed). The film has now surpassed it’s previous level of satire and whip-smart semi-parody by becoming overly self-deprecating, with the multi-layered opening being a prime example of how silly it has become, and how little the film cares about the kind of emotional attachment the audience is willing to put into the characters and plot. The ending makes sense within the film’s universe, but only because it’s frightfully similar to that of the three films before it.
If you enjoyed the previous films, and heaven knows I did, then chances are you know what you’re getting yourself in for here, and won’t necessarily be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for the series to get a kick start and head off in a new direction, you’ll find it sadly lacking. This was intended to start another trilogy, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Choose life 4/10

Top 5… Movie Monarchs

Last weekend was Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. I’ve mentioned before that I’m no Royalist, but it got me thinking as to the cinematic world’s greatest rulers, so let’s have a look at the top movie monarchs. I’ve broken this down into real and fictional.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror

There are at least six variations on the Dracula myth on the List, and probably hundreds that aren’t. I’m ashamed to admit that the only other vampire movies I’d seen prior to this (other than Les Vampires, which doesn’t really count) are a half watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Twilight, which I did not choose to watch and am still trying to scrub from my retinas. And yet, though my life has been surprisingly devoid of vampire fiction (I’ve never even seen an episode of Buffy, or an instalment of the Underworld or Blade films), I’m still well versed in the vampire mythology, as indeed is everyone else. It seems one is almost born knowing that vampire’s transform into bats, suck your blood and can be vanquished with a stake in the heart, exposure to sunlight or too much garlic on their pizza.

This version is one of the earliest vampire films, having been released in 1922 and directed by German silent director F. W. Murnau. It follows the traditional Dracula beats (though the vampire is named Count Orlok as this is an unofficial retelling), and stars Max Schreck as the titular creature of the night.
Jonathan Hutter (Gustav von Wangerheim), a clerk from the town of Bremen in Germany, travels to Transylvania (ominous thunder roll) to complete some legal paperwork with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in Bremen. Though there are many clues as to what is in store for Hutter, including terrified locals speaking of nocturnal spirits and his creepy, Orlok-controlled boss hinting that the journey will cause him pain and cost him blood, Hutter merrily laughs everything off as ludicrous superstition and hokum, until he arrives at the castle and meets the Count, who keeps unusual sleeping hours and sleeps in a coffin in the basement.
Most of this film is predictable if you know the traditional Dracula legend, but what makes it truly memorable is Schreck’s performance. His distinctive appearance – all pale skin, pointed ears, giant eyebrows over sunken eyes and clawed hands on arms stuck firmly to his sides – sticks in the mind, and his presence is greatly missed whenever he’s off screen. Scenes of Orlok’s stark shadow descending on a prone figure, or his body, stiff as a board, rising from a coffin, stick firmly in the memory, and at the end of the film, when he is staring, unmoving, from a window, is genuinely disconcerting and more than a little terrifying.
It’s unfortunate then that the score for the film is more than a little insane. It kicks off with a cartoonish plinky-plonk tune over the supposedly doom-laden title cards detailing “Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood!”, and later the score goes crazy when Hutter is merely reading a book. Also some scenes are let down by a distinct lack of quality in the print. I understand that the film was made 90 years ago, but the scene in which Hutter is discovering bite marks on his neck is ruined by the fact that the bite marks are not even slightly visible on his bright white skin.
The ending is a little hurried, though by that time I was starting to get bored anyway. I was also surprised by how little the character of Van Helsing had to do with the plot, as I’d always thought he was pretty integral to the story, yet he turns up from nowhere halfway through as an expert on vampires in nature.
All in all, this is a good example of an early telling of a classic horror, that unfortunately has become very dated since its release. I’m sure that one of the more recent versions on the list – 1931’s Bela Lugosi starring Dracula or the 1958 Hammer version starring Christopher Lee – will be much better.
Choose life 6/10