Ides of March: About what it takes to succeed in politics. The movie revolves around a series of moral dilemmas, focusing on the education—or failure of education—of the main character, played by Ryan Gosling, a thirtyish senior campaign operative. His loyalty rotates between two potential mentors, his boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a rival (Paul Giammatti), the state governor whose Presidential race he’s supporting (George Clooney, also the director), and the hope of making a difference in the world. He also has a relationship with a young woman, a situation that causes him to question what his commitment really should be, and how deep it should be. The film was engaging, though the characters were not especially interesting. Their characters were mostly telegraphed, and even the major characters largely weren’t given more than very basic reasons for their actions. They weren’t, as the jargon goes, “motivated.” They did what they did, and it was up to the viewer to decide whether their “true” reasons were sympathetic, devious, or something else. This works, in context. The viewer is put in a position similar to that of the other characters in the film, without a reason to interpret things in one way rather than another. And the characterization was appropriate for these people, who don’t necessarily expect to have to persuade other people to see things the way they do, and to add extra words to what they say, to make sure they are understood.
Life During Wartime: This is the most recent film by the not especially prolific Gen-X indie director, Tod Solondz. It follows a family of three sisters, all originally from New Jersey, one now living in a Florida suburb with her slightly broken family, one in Hollywood, and one still in New Jersey, in a relationship that’s falling apart. It includes several of the themes of Solondz’s other films: cruelty, child abuse, and growing up. I liked it better than his previous film, Happiness (which also followed a group of sisters, also New Jerseyites, in part transplanted to Florida), and less than Welcome to the Dollhouse (though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie). In Happiness, nobody suffered except the audience. It was extremely cruel. The characters were cruel to one another: the film offered no sympathy to any of them, so the effect was of a kind of reveling in their cruelty. Some of the characters were outright evil, and the film offered no objective point of view from which they could be either judged or grieved for. Life During Wartime is not so hard-edged, and offers a little more than monsters behaving monstrously to one another, and to the occasional (presumed) innocent who wanders into their field of view. The characters’ lives were more aimless and pitiable, in this film, than despicable, and the changes of scene between New Jersey, Florida, Hollywood, and Oregon were well-played. Overall, I liked Life During Wartime better than the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, to which it’s similar, although the Coens’ film is a better one.
Both The Ides of March and Life During Wartime were clearly shot in digital, and use the flat, blah lighting of digital film to good effect, maybe to the extent of doing something innovative with it. This effect, especially on faces, has been really noticeable to me lately, and pretty annoying. Is it an attempt to hide the flaws that would show up in closeup, with the new high-resolution televisions and digital recordings? Could it be just an artifact of the transferal of the video to the now only medium-res DVD format, and its display on a television designed to display pictures at a higher resolution?
Flashdance: I saw a few minutes of this movie on television. I’d seen it in the movies when it came out, when I was in high school (and wore my hair the same way Jennifer Beals does in the picture). It is pretty ridiculous, and it made me think of Pretty Woman, which came out a little while later, and which has almost the same plot. In Flashdance, a working-class woman falls in love with a wealthy man, and vice versa, and they have problems getting together because of the chip on her shoulder, as well as his difficulty understanding where she’s coming from. But it seems like this wasn’t enough for this kind of Hollywood picture: she had to be not only a factory worker, but a welder; and she had to be not only working class but extremely crude (and the willowy Jennifer Beals seems hardly the ideal person to portray a foul-mouthed welder); and she had to be not only crude but a stripper. Well: not a stripper, a dancer—or at least, she’s trying to class things up at the place where she works. And then she had to not only be smart and warm and funny, a good catch for any man, but she had to have a dream: to get out of the strip club, to get off of the factory floor, and to join—at the age of, apparently, thirty—a school of classical ballet. And her boyfriend had to be not only from a slightly better background, but the owner of the company she works for. Just as in Pretty Woman, the Julia Roberts character couldn’t be just a club girl or a co-ed from Hofstra, and her boyfriend couldn’t be just a stockbroker or Yalie, she had to be a hooker and he had to be an arbitrageur. (To be fair, Mystic Pizza and Desperately Seeking Susan had already done the other plots, though on a smaller scale. These movies Hollywoodized those indie films, but rather than making them more universal, they made the characters actually less easy for most viewers to identify with.)
Her audition for the company is a hoot. She does the same kind of dancing she does on the floor of the club. She wears jazz shoes and a sweater to the audition. The committee watching her is bored, until they see how terrific she is at what she does. But for the entire film, she has been practicing and practicing her ballet, and you get every sense that she knows perfectly well what an audition for a ballet company should be. Watching it again twenty-five years later, it looks even worse, because it seems to be making fun of the new style of dancing—the combination of modern, jazz, and cheerleading that you’d now see a dance team doing—that was becoming prominent on Broadway and elsewhere at the time. That kind of dancing may be perfectly fine in its context, but unfortunately, there’s no way to make this movie’s “I’m going to show them I’m just as good as they are” theme work as a general defense of dance that isn’t ballet. Especially when the scene after the audition has her running into the arms of her classy boyfriend, ready to continue proving she’s good enough for that kind of life. The failure of the audition scene, and the gratuitous extremity of the whole idea that she’s both a welder and a dancer, is just too incongruous.
The Living Daylights: I saw a few minutes of this on television, too. I also saw it in the movies when it first came out. And a very quick web search tells me that I’m far from the only person to say, “who knew Jon Hamm used to play James Bond?” It isn’t only his face, or his facial mannerisms. It’s even the way he holds himself. As if Hamm had modeled himself on Timothy Dalton’s performance.