In the Loop (2009

★ ★ ★ ★

Politicians are among the favorite targets of American comedians. For some reason, this hasn't resulted in more than a handful of respectable Hollywood political satires. Thank God for the Brits. Anyone who's ever been involved in politics has surely heard of Yes, Minister! It is a cult series among politicos; the gold standard for political satire. No political satire had rivaled it, until Armando Iannucci's In The Loop. While it may not have eclipsed Yes, Minister!, it is easily the best political satire since.

Unlike the high level bureaucratic shenanigans of Yes, Minister!, In the Loop follows a British staffer who works for Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander). Foster unintentionally takes a controversial position on the possible invasion of Iraq, leading to an international scandal. Toby (Chris Addison) convinces his boss to take him along on a trip to D.C., where the minister hopes to repair the damage he's done. A series of further slip ups by Simon and his staff worsen the situation. A high level US politician latches onto Foster's seemingly pro-war comments, and uses them to demonstrate British support for the invasion. The hapless Minister is enlisted by an anti-war Secretary of State, who hopes to use him to turn things around. This alliance is brokered by Toby, who happens to have went to grad school with the Secretary of State's assistant. Joined by a high ranking general (James Gandalfini), this triumvirate takes on the ultimate force in DC: Zeitgeist.

While ostensibly about high level diplomacy, the significance of the film lies in its focus on the role of staffers in the political process. I suspect that Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell spent a good deal of time hanging around staffers while writing the screenplay. While high level bureaucrats and political advisers try to control the agenda, the ultimate responsibility lies with an army of neophytes. No matter how much he yells and screams, the party's director of communications (Peter Capaldi) doesn't seem to have any control over the situation. While the situation is extreme, it isn't implausible. Politics accords a shocking level of power to very young people. Though none of the politicos I know has ever been involved in a scandal, it isn't too hard to imagine how a minor lapse of judgement can spiral out of control.

If you're at all interested in politics, In the Loop is a must see. It is a candid depiction of the lives of political staffers, rendered similarly to The Office. It is uncomfortable, disconcerting, and more importantly, it is absolutely hilarious.


Leaves of Grass (2009)

★ ★ 1/2

In Leaves of Grass, Ed Norton plays a pair of twins, a highly renowned professor, and an Oklahoman drug dealer. Sounds like a cheasy mid-90s buddy comedy. Rather than a facile comedy of errors leaning heavily upon the physical similarities of the characters, it aimed for smart black comedy. Unfortunately it was pedantic more often than insightful. It didn't live up to the cast, let alone the subject matter.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is a philosophy professor at Brown who is summoned back to his home town in Oklahoma by the death of his brother. When he arrives, he learns that it was a lie to get him back to help his brother out of a fix. Brady (also Norton) is a small time drug dealer who owes money to a Jewish money lender (Dreyfuss). Bill quickly realizes he has no choice but to help Brady. He is also faced with the unseemly prospect of visiting his mother, whom he had avoided for more than a decade. While there, Bill meets a young English teacher (Janet, played by Russell). Bill is a hyper rationalistic philosopher. He knows he should leave, but he can't seem to go.

The film's title was taken from Walt Whitman's famous volume of poems, which played the role of social lubricant between Bill and Janet. They discussed aethetics, careers, familial obligations--it wasn't overbearing, but it was never as interesting as the subject matter would suggest. While this subplot seemed fairly genuine, I can't say the same about the main narrative thrust. The drug dealing plot was sometimes funny, but often absurd, relying on implausible coincidences.

While Norton and Russell put in solid roles, the rest of the cast was uneven. Dreyfuss' first shaking money grubbing character just wasn't that funny. Tim Nelson wrote in way too many Jewish stereotypes and cliches into this part. None of his henchmen were interesting either. Susan Sarandon seemed surprisingly realistic as the irresponsible new age mother, but her role was limited. Familial obligation was one of the central themes of the movie, and Sarandon's performance was edifying.

If you're interested in philosophy and poetry, you may enjoy Leaves of Grass. There are major structural problems with the movie, but there are a few thoughtful scenes that make it worth a watch.

Prince of Persia (2010)

★ ★ ★ ☆

Prince of Persia is a straighforward morality tale, as you would expect from a Disney film. It's special effects fail to wow, and the action sequences are not over the top. This is unusual for a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Frankly, I don't see these as deficiencies. Rather than attempting to dazzle us with gigantic monsters like Clash of the Titans did, it delivered something I didn't expect: simplicity. Aside from some light tears in the fabric of space and time, the plot was pretty straightforward. A heroic prince framed for murder flees the city with a foreign princess. While unoriginal, it was very entertaining. I enjoy morally complex films as much as anyone, but sometimes a dose of plain old good vs. evil is refreshing.

I admit that I was quite skeptical going into this. There really isn't any reason to expect much from a movie based on a video game. It also scored a paltry 39% on Rotten Tomatoes. It took a mixed review from Joe Morgenstern to convince me to see this one. Within 10 minutes, I knew I made the right decision. Though I haven't played the video game that this was based on, it did have the feel I assume the game does (from what I remember of the original Nintendo game). Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal) constantly finds himself in vexing situations. He takes stock of his surroundings, and methodically makes improbable escapes. It resembled Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes in this respect, save that the situations take place in real time.

Jake Gyllenhall continues to prove that he's more than a washed up teen actor. This is his second respectable role in the last two years (after Brothers). Gemma Arteton was well cast as the impetuous princess, and Ben Kingsley was solid as always. Alfred Molina delivered plenty of laughs as a seedy, tax evading entrepreneur. His generally informed (though hypocritical) social commentary alone was worth the price of admission.

Big budget action movies are generally made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The goal is adequacy in every technical aspect. A few suspenseful moments, and a couple of laughs are enough to satisfy the expectations of the audience. Sadly, it's rare to even find this in a contemporary action movie. Prince of Persia is an exception. Contrary to the critical consensus, it is worth a watch.


Me and Orson Welles (2009)

★ ★ ★ ☆

The thought of an Orson Welles biopic is naturally one that has intrigued me. Welles was a cinematic genius, and an eccentric--perhaps a madman. He demanded nothing less than brilliance from each and every member of his cast, and would lash out arbitrarily at anyone who fell slightly short. As a Welles aficionado, I was thrilled when I heard that Richard Linklater would be directing a film about the man. Though I was concerned with some of the casting decisions, the finished product was quite satisfying. Not only was it entertaining--it was actually quite insightful. Though many of the details were likely fictional, Linklater did a fine job of exploring the mind of Orson Welles.

The film betrayed a deep admiration for Welles' work. Adapted from a Robert Kaplow novel of the same name, it made constant references to Welles' corpus. Even in the most casual conversations, the characters would quote or paraphrase scenes from his major works. Many of these references were used to create dramatic irony for those familiar with Welles' work. Though I've not read the book, it was likely no easy task for screenwriter Holly Gent Palmo to bring such a literary flair to the big screen.

The biggest concern I had going into the film was the casting. More specifically, I was vexed by the notion of casting Zac Efron in the lead role. He isn't exactly Oscar caliber talent. The irony is that this is precisely why he fit the role. Efron was cast as an amateur actor. A more skilled lead would have seemed disingenuous in the role. It's rare that I'll praise an actor for his mediocrity, but this role demanded mediocrity. Claire Danes was respectable as Efron's love interest, and James Tupper played a convincing Joseph Cotton.

At the risk of sounding unoriginal, I will laud Christian McKay copiously for his portrayal of Welles. McKay was cast by Linklater after the director had seen him play Welles in an off Broadway production. McKay was born for the role. Aside from his resemblance to Welles (from a profile view), his emulation of Welles' mannerisms seemed completely natural. It's no easy task to seem natural when playing an eccentric like Welles. He even managed to capture his haughty speaking style. Maybe he didn't capture Welles the man. He certainly did capture Welles public persona. This is what made the film interesting. McKay constantly left the audience wondering whether the persona and the man are one and the same. On a fittingly Wellesian note, perhaps we can never truly know the man.


Splice (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

**Spoiler Alert**

Ordinarily, I do my best to avoid spoilers. However, I think it would be a disservice in this case. Simply put, Splice is the most disgusting movie I have ever seen. It is the only movie that has ever made me feel physically ill. Inter-species sex? Really? I can't imagine why anyone would want to see that. I guess it wouldn't be so bad if there were redeeming qualities in the movie. There weren't. Sadly, the critics loved it. It was widely considered an intelligent exploration of the moral dimension of genetic engineering, and a parable for the difficulties of parenting. What rubbish. It had all the moral complexity that you would expect from a dinner table political discussion.

Splice is about a genetic experiment, which leads to the creation of a human/animal hybrid. The experiment began as an attempt to create a new medicinal compound, quickly spun out of control. In short, it is a diatribe against genetic engineering. While I'm sympathetic to this position, I was disapointed by the simplistic approach director Vincenzo Natali took to the issue. He aimed for a purely visceral reaction, which is exactly what he got. However, I'm not sure it actually caused anyone to think any deeper about the issue.

For a movie that has been praised for it's treatment of complex moral issues, the dialogue was surprisingly amateurish. The rushed conversations were filled with talking points, and flippant reversals. It felt like a made for tv movie, with slightly better special effects. While Adrian Brody wasn't terrible, Sarah Polley put in a performance unworthy of a b-movie. Instead of the suspense that it aimed to create, the film elicited little more than unintentional giggles, and a good deal of disgust from the audience. Guillermo del Toro should be embarrassed to have lent his name to such an amateurish production.

It seems that the entire purpose of Splice was to 'push the envelope.' Given that critics seem to mistake edginess for thoughtfulness, this was probably a good marketing ploy. Ironically, I wouldn't be surprised if this tactic was self defeating. After all, this project received $2.5 million from TeleFilm Canada, a Canadian Government funded cultural agency. Given the number of people who left the theatre in disgust, I wouldn't be surprised if there were calls to review Canadian film subsidies. Though I'm against most forms of censorship, it's hard to blame people for not wanting to fund films that they find incredibly offensive. If there is a market for inter-species sex scenes, film companies should be able to raise the money themselves. Somehow, I doubt that this market exists.