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Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Seymour Hoffman’

Having just discussed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, I was half-expecting The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney, to have Soderbergh involved with it in some capacity as well. The two have, after all, a lot of history together, most notably with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, but also with less commercial movies such as Solaris. But no, Clooney and Soderbergh appear to have parted company (amicably one hopes), and the only noticeable crossover of personnel between Contagion and The Ides of March is the presence of Jennifer Ehle, who plays a small but significant role in both films.

In addition to co-producing, co-writing, and directing the movie, George Clooney also appears as Mike Morris – not the former UK breakfast TV host, nor indeed the peerless Doctor Who critic and commentator, but a Democratic candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Morris is looking good for the White House (and it must be said that Clooney is supremely plausible in the role). This is partly due to his strong team, which is led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps even more crucial is the presence of brilliant media analyst and political operator Steve Meyers, who is the main character of the story. Meyers is played by Ryan Gosling (who’s having a pretty good few months, what with this and that movie about driving where he plays the driver who drives a lot, the name of which escapes me).

Morris’ candidacy for the Presidency is looking as assured as something of that nature can, but a crucial primary is looming (on the date of the title). Then Meyers is startled to receive a job offer from their chief opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), his relationship with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) unexpectedly brings a shocking secret to light, and as the polls unexpectedly start to shift against them Morris’ refusal to engage in the traditional political horse-trading begins to look naive rather than principled. With all his certainties crumbling Meyer is forced to ask himself exactly what his true priorities are…

Fans of The West Wing should run to see The Ides of March (possibly carrying on a complex dialogue with each other as they go), as this film operates in a very similar narrative space – the dialogue doesn’t crackle quite as much as Aaron Sorkin’s, but the dizzyingly swift pace, convoluted plot and strong characterisations should all seem very familiar. That said, there’s another sense in which this is a very different kind of story indeed – there was something almost Capraesque about The West Wing’s wide-eyed positivity about the political system and the people who work in it: no-one was really self-serving or anything but a very decent human being. The Ides of March starts off in a broadly similar vein , but the story of the film is the story of masks slipping in extremis and the true nature of the characters becoming clear: and I tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty.

That said, the film takes care not to get too worked up about this – from the very first scene, it’s made clear that for all his idealism, Meyers is a ruthless operator not above playing dirty (in a mild sort of way). On the other hand, for a film with – to put it mildly – a somewhat cynical view of the political animal, it’s notable that The Ides of March doesn’t actually have a villain. Giamatti’s character is just a little more obviously ruthless and goal-oriented than the rest.

As a British viewer I obviously watched this with a certain sense of detachment, but enough of the story is universal in nature for it to remain a very satisfying film. I wonder why we in this country can’t produce similarly satisfying political dramas more consistently? It can’t all be down to American hegemony. Perhaps the very nature of the American system lends itself more readily to this kind of narrative intensity.         

One of the stories doing the rounds about this film is that Clooney and company first started work on it in 2008, but basically parked the project as they realised their audience wouldn’t be interested in such a jaded view of politicians in the year of Obama. Putting aside the question of why they’ve decided to make it now, it seems to me that this is another movie springing from the Clinton era. You may recall a number of key films from the mid-to-late 90s which cast the President of the US in such unlikely roles as romantic lead, gritty terrorist-basher, and jet-piloting alien exterminator, all surely products of the enormous positivity of key Hollywood figures towards Bill Clinton. Fifteen years on, here is a movie – not the first of its kind, of course – which concentrates on the darker side. Quite how many personal foibles are we prepared to overlook, if the right candidate comes along? Can a principled man really succeed in modern politics? We’re left to decide for ourselves how much of Morris’ persona is an act – Clooney has less screen time than you may be expecting.

That said, he’s very good whenever he does appear, as is everyone else: this is a very strongly-written and uniformly well-played drama, which grips from the start and has some very powerful and moving moments along the way – along with a few lighter moments, of course. Overall it’s an impressive package. If, like Contagion, it ultimately seems to be lamenting things which lie beyond anyone’s power to change, then so be it – sometimes it’s for the best that we remind ourselves of uncomfortable truths, especially if in doing means making movies as good as this one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 18th 2006:

[Originally following a review of Slither.]

Funnily enough, we go from a film about bizarre and unnatural methods of reproduction to Tom Cruise’s latest project. (Yeah, yeah, bring on your lawyers: you ain’t got nothing on me!) This is Mission: Impossible 3, as if you didn’t already know, co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost. This is one franchise which isn’t afraid to drag its feet while the Cruiser gets on with other things – it’s ten years since Brian de Palma’s (quite nifty) original, and six since John Woo’s (kinetic but soulless) follow-up. Well anyway, clearly it has been decreed it’s time for a third installment and our presence in the multiplex is clearly expected.

As you would expect given the director’s pedigree, this latest outing finds Tom Cruise stranded on a tropical island with an invisible monster and a female student who’s secretly a top spy. Ha! Ha! Oh, my sides. All right – it doesn’t really. Instead, our toothsome inch-high superspy has gone into semi-retirement as a trainer of other agents and is all set for domestic bliss with his fiancee – no, it’s not Thandie Newton from the last movie, she clearly got sick of never being allowed to wear heels, it’s someone new. But then – wouldn’t you know it! – one of Tom’s trainees gets into trouble and he’s sent in to rescue her. This does not go entirely to plan and Tom finds himself on the wrong side of lardy arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose main hobby is putting bombs up peoples’ noses. A fink within the IMF eventually gives Hoffman the forwarding address of Tom’s new bride and our hero finds himself having to nick a crucial plot device Macguffin for him before his wife gets put six feet under and his own sinuses get decongested with extreme prejudice…

Despite what you may be thinking, Abrams does work fairly hard to make this more than just a cynical cash-in on the Mission: Impossible name. The premise of the show (each week a disparate team of Impossible Missionaries got sent on an unfeasibly complicated, er, mission) is reflected in the structure of the movie – obviously Tom is the Chief Impossible, aided by Deputy Impossible Ving Rhames (yup, back again, still with moustache) and Assistant Impossibles Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Our own Simon Pegg pops up in a couple of scenes as a very junior Impossible who isn’t let out of HQ, presumably because his costume isn’t stylish enough.) Anyway the film is written so Tom and the gang have to go Impossibling in a different location every thirty minutes or so – there is a good deal of globe-trotting involved in this but with the exception of a ridiculous caper inside the Vatican all the locations are used strictly as ‘colour’ – apart from the trip to Rome, they could probably have set the whole film within thirty miles of Birmingham without it needing very much in the way of rewriting. Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets blasted out fairly regularly too, which is nice, but the classic ‘your mission, if you choose to accept it…’ schtick is very nearly abandoned, which isn’t.

The plot is fairly bonkers, but acceptably so, and the film only really gets dull in between bouts of Impossibling. At these points Tom hangs out with Ving Rhames (who used to be an ace hacker but who, to judge from his interest in Tom’s personal life, has since retrained as a relationship counsellor) or gets dragged over the coals by snippy IMF boss Laurence Fishburne, who appears to have been on the pies since finishing the Matrix trilogy. Both of these are fairly grim but much, much worse are the segments where we get to see Tom and his missus hanging out and generally just being in love with each other. Yes, Tom’s teeth go into overdrive, flashing and pulsating away like an Aldis lamp. To be fair, his performance throughout is also quite acceptable but the fact remains that when on screen, no matter what the movie, he frequently looks completely nuts – and when, as in this case, the script does not address that fact, the results are rarely entirely satisfying. Hoffman, who’s a much more versatile performer, gets considerably less screentime and his part is so thinly written even an actor of his abilities struggles to really make an impression.

JJ Abrams does a decent job as a debut director, with a fair eye for a striking composition. He achieves some neat effects, too: in particular a sequence where real-live-Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is seamlessly replaced by Hoffman himself playing Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is very neatly done. He seems to be aware of the dangers of franchise fatigue as well – one of the set-piece bits of Impossibling here is dangerously similar to one from earlier in the series, and Abrams handles it in an unexpected way that keeps it relatively fresh. He also handles the blatant nature of the central Macguffin with amusing impudence – though whether this is done as a post-modern in-joke or as an act of sheer desperation I don’t know. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but only if he explains what those ruddy numbers are all about by the end of the year…

In the end, though, this is a fairly sterile and mechanical piece of entertainment. The individual bits of Impossibling are entertaining and amusing and there are some effective bits of action along the way – but the climax is rather low-key, and the film’s attempts to be politically relevant come across as strained and spurious. It doesn’t play with the audience’s expectations in the way the first film did, and doesn’t have much in the way of novelty value either. As a popcorn movie, it works, and I expect it will do very well at the box office. But the prospect of a six year wait before the next instalment doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

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