10/14/11

The Ides of March Decent but Unoriginal

Been there. Done that!

The Ides of March (2011)

Directed and cowritten by George Clooney

Cross Creek Pictures, R, 101 mins.

* * *

The phrase “taut drama” is often applied to films about political intrigue; “slightly flabby and in need of a facelift” is the way I’d describe The Ides of March. It’s not a bad film, but it travels familiar turf and has nothing new to point out during the journey. If you go, lower your expectations and you’ll be fine; if you miss it, no need to feel regret.

The Ides of March takes us to Ohio, where populist Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) should, by all rights, be wrapping up the Democratic Party nomination for president. Of course, politics is never that easy, as Morris campaign strategists Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) are about to discover. Ohio’s open primary allows anyone to vote regardless of their party affiliation and Senator Pullman, Morris’s opponent, is surging because of Republicans and rightwing ideologues planning to vote for Pullman, whom they see him as more beatable in November. Moreover, Ohio Democratic Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) has ambitions (and delegates) of his own, which he’ll sell to the highest bidder. All of a sudden, a sure thing becomes a battle to save both the campaign and Governor Morris’s integrity.

That’s the skinny of the narrative, but the film is really about how idealist Stephen Myers loses his political virginity when he finds out that Morris isn’t entirely the man of rectitude and incorruptibility he thinks he is. And once one sells one’s soul, why not get the best price? Pullman’s campaign leader Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is superb as an oily demonic tempter, though Old Nick himself--as he always is in such films--is hubris. Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Woods) plays the role of na├»ve Eve wandering though the garden.

It’s an excellent cast and Gosling is riveting in his transformation from starry-eyed innocent to amoral cynic. Alas, his performance, as well as those of Giamatti and Hoffman, surpasses the material he’s handed. Clooney’s script is marked by tepid dialogue and a lack of originality. A well-meaning politician slapped in the face by dirty politics, temptation, and corrupt political machines? Where have we seen this before? How about every other political film from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1932) to the present? There are so many, in fact, that the video guide The Golden Retriever has genre categories titled “Capitol Capers” and “Vote for Me!” Movie hounds will recognize The Ides of March as a crib of The Candidate (1972) and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979). The latter is probably no accident, as it starred and was cowritten by another great Hollywood liberal: Alan Alda.

In the end, The Ides of March simply adds to our culture of political cynicism. If you feel the need to wallow in it, Ides will serve well, though there are far better films you can rent. Among them (in my order of preference): The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Bob Roberts (1992), Wag the Dog (1997), Primary Colors (1998), The Contender (2000), and the films mentioned above. And the very best making-of-a-leader portrayal ever done, in my opinion, is the make-your-skin-crawl British TV series A Very British Coup, also available for rental.

A final point--Don’t try too hard to extend the metaphor of The Ides of March. Like much of the film, surface trumps depth.

10/10/11

Darol Anger Album Intrigues Even When It Fails to Resonate


DAROL ANGER’S REPUBLIC OF STRINGS

Generation Nation

Compass 7-4427-2

* * *

Newgrass, the blender mix of bluegrass and other genres, has been around for so long that the very term is an oxymoron. But if you think that you’ve heard every permutation possible, reserve judgment until you listen to Generation Nation, the latest collaborative project led by fiddler Darol Anger. It’s a bit like grafting a Grateful Dead concert to a string band. Take a hard listen to “Polska Upstairs” as it’s about as close to a conventional melody as this album gets. If you’re a listener who absolutely needs to hear strong melodies, feel dancey pulses, and hum signature hooks, steer clear of this recording. If, on the other hand, you like music whose loose weaves leave big spaces for jams, innovation, and free form jazz, this is the ticket. Anger doesn’t cover chestnuts; he cracks them open. There is, for instance, Chris Webster channeling Aretha Franklin on “Chain of Fools.” Her vocals are strong, sexy, and reminiscent of Franklin’s 1967 hit single, but Rushad Eggleston’s cello lines and the fiddle meanderings of Anger and Brittany Haas are miles from what Jerry Wexler had in mind. Anger describes “The Seagull” as an “origami,” an apt way of describing the ways in which the instruments fold into each other’s musical space; and the album’s final two tracks, “Rain Dance” and “The Tan Hut,” are so meditative and experimental that I wondered for a moment if Phillip Glass produced the record.

Does all of this work? No. I adore the singing of Aoife o’Donovan, but her soft tones are simply lost in all the resonant bottom of “In the Basement.” How do you feel about an instrumental version of the tragic ballad “Mary Hamilton” done as if it was the soundtrack for a laconic summer raft float down a slow-moving river? I can’t say I felt much of anything. Nor did I care for a Motown treatment of the Buffalo Springfield standard “Bluebird.” Still, though I did not enjoy every track of this record, I was always intrigued.