Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Hitfix film critic Drew McWeeny and MSN Movies critic James Rocchi discuss two new DVD releases: “The Ides of March” and “Paranormal Activity 3.” They also touch on their anticipated Sundance films at the end of the discussion.
ERIC KOHN: Both of you were relatively positive about “The Ides of March,” but cited very specific problems that held it back from greatness. James, you started out your review by calling the movie “a truly entertaining mix of Aaron Sorkin and Sidney Lumet,” which is high praise indeed, but then you lamented a major plot hole of the film. Considering the recent Republican primary, plausibility is a tenuous term in relation to campaign events. Can you can address the issues of that plot twist and why credibility became such an issue that held you back from loving this movie as much as you wanted to?
JAMES ROCCHI: You’re exactly right. My feelings for the film are that it is superlatively acted, and when it turns into a thriller — when, literally, bodies hit the ground and the question is who knows what, there is a huge plot hole. Unlike a comedy or a musical or even a Western, thrillers are incredibly contingent upon the integrity of their plots. They’re like balloons that way. If one thing lets air in, the whole thing explodes. That, to me, is what happened with “Ides of March.” Interestingly enough, the big plot hole I was objecting to was in the new material added to the original play “Farragut North” for the purposes of big-screen-ifying it and pumping up the conflict to make it a little bit sexier. That’s where the huge plot hole is.
If it had just been a look at these Machiavellian characters, where nothing is black and white, that would have been terrific! But as soon as you bring in a thriller element, which, by its nature, involves a procedural element, everything kind of fell apart for me. Now, does that mean I don’t like the way that Ryan Gosling does so much by saying so little? Or Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who I just want to strip down and do sumo as their characters from this film? Absolutely not. They’re great performances. But it was damaged a bit by that error/failure in the new plotting.
EK: Drew, in your review, you had a totally different problem–with this depiction of what you called “the political machine being too simplified and familiar.” When you consider how “The Ides of March” wasn’t particularly successful in terms of both awards season buzz and critical acclaim, do you think that “simplification and familiarity” held back what could have been something with much broader appeal?
DREW MCWEENY: I think [George] Clooney is a guy who is drawn to this kind of material. I think he would like to be making very adult movies for adult audiences that don’t talk down to you and really ask you to bring a higher level of engagement. “Ides of March” is certainly a step in that direction. I think that he and [co-screenwrter] Grant Heslov together seem to mean what they say in terms of the kind of projects they’re drawn to and the things they’re developing.
For me, this movie, the idea that, as you get closer to the center of the political machine, you will become cynical, it will take away your innocence, your ideals go out the window as you realize the way things work–I suspect most functional adults understand that at this point. That’s true of any field you’re in, politics probably moreso because it’s presented as a field of ideals, different philosophies and ideologies.
In reality, you run into the fact that, for a lot of people, it’s about power, it’s about money and it’s about things that are not quite so noble in their motivation. I don’t think that’s a terribly new observation. But that’s really the film’s biggest point that it’s trying to make. So I hesitate to give myself over to it completely. But, like James, I think there’s great performance work in it, I do think Clooney has a good sense of how to stage actors, how to put scenes together. He’s got a good sense of energy as a director. I like him as a filmmaker and I think that this is a nice step. It just wasn’t a grand slam. It wasn’t the movie that I feel like it was striving to be.
JR: If you want a small master classe in direction, the way that Clooney moves his POV through the glass in two different offices, and also when Gosling takes Evan Rachel Wood up the staircase to speak with her in private, those are both stunningly well-directed and are things you could not do on the stage. It is an excellent example of how to open up a play for the screen, taking advantage of cinema at the same time. Like Drew says, it doesn’t earn its majestic, sneering cynicism since that’s become standard operating procedure. All of my plot problems with it, if people were interested, can find more in a movies.com piece I wrote, “The Monday Morning Review of ‘Ides of March’” when it opened.
EK: Speaking of movies that don’t have as fresh ideas as we want them to have, I wanted to talk about the upcoming DVD release of “Paranormal Activity 3.” We were all at that Fantastic Fest premiere. That was obviously an anticipated film, but at the same time, I think we knew what to anticipate. I fel like that whole gimmick got old after the second one. James, you wrote that there’s a sense of completion with the current trilogy and that you’d be totally satisfied if this was the last “Paranormal Activity” film. Now we now there’s a fourth one in the works set for later this year. Where do you stand on that now?
JR: The idea of “Paranormal Activity 4” is what I call “shareholder cinema.” There’s not really interest in it among anyone unless you hold stock in Paramount. Congratulations, it’s lovely and delightful that you folks are going to be able to make your money doing this, but I kind of like what the third film did with the series’ mythology. I like how it closed it off by going back to the past. The other thing is — and I’m going to say this in the most politely cynical way possible — if we have to deal with repetitively churned-out horror franchises clogging up our theater screens, I would much rather have it be stuff done with the subtlety and bloodlessness of the “Paranormal” films as opposed to the “Saw” movies, which just turned into the cinematic equivalent of a little kid burning ants with a magnifying glass.
EK: Right. The diminishing returns are pretty gratuitous with that one. Drew, you wrote you were happy that there was an expansion of the “Paranormal” mythology with the third film, since the flashback structure sends you back to the first film with new information. Would you say that you’re a little more excited about a fourth film than James?
DM: I think James makes a good point about the fact that we know that studios are going to make these movies for shareholders. We know that they’re looking for franchises that they can milk waaaay past the point of any emotional satisfaction for an audience. It’s literally, “How long can we keep making money with these? OK, go.”
Having said that, I think what they’ve been smart about so far is that each time out, another filmmaker has come in, played around with the idea of what you’re doing within the framework, it’s very locked down. There’s a rhythm to them. You understand, “OK, we’re building to a scare now”–like in the third film, the fan’s gonna pan one way, and it’s gonna come back. When we come back around, here’s your scare. That rhythm is fun for an audience.
When we got into the “Saw” era (and the “Hostel” films were guilty of this as well), I didn’t have any fun watching people brutalized and torn to pieces. I don’t like real-world brutality. It’s not fun for me. Horror films certainly can be political, they can be dark, they can make huge points, but there’s a big chunk of horror films that are meant to be fun and simply a release. Something like “Paranormal,” those rhythms are meant to give you that release and tell you, “You’ll scream. You’ll have that big moment. It’s not going to stick to you in the filthy way that some of these others do.”
I think it’s interesting that they’re bringing the filmmakers back for the first time, that they had such a good time with [Henry] Joost and [Ariel] Shulman, the “Catfish” guys, they’re bringing them back to do the next one. The process on the third one was basically that they shot two-and-a-half movies: They shot the entire thing in four or five days, cut it, looked at it, went back, shot it again in the same location in about a week and then went back and looked at it and then did bits and pieces, little tweaks. So they’ve really gone through this now with this team a couple of times and I think they had a really successful experience with them. So what I expect is that we’ll see something that will be at least as fun in the way it tweaks what’s come before.
If you’re not enjoying these any more, I don’t think there’s going to be a bounce, where suddenly you’re back on board the series and you’re like, “Oh! Now suddenly I love them again!” But I think that they are playing fair. I don’t think they’ve lied to their audience. I don’t think they’ve just given them a piece of junk and slapped the name on it yet. I think they’re trying. They’ve had actual filmmakers come in and really try to do something with the gimmick, and, so far, it’s fun.
EK: Moving on from a sequel that doesn’t exist yet, let’s talk about some movies that do. Sundance starts Thursday. I assume most of you guys are going to be hustling through the snow, looking for stuff, following the buzz. Tell us about that one movie you’re really pumped to see.
JR: There’s one of the films I’m looking forward to, not just because I think it’ll be terrific, but also because of the sense of fun and because Sundance is a great place to see music documentaries. There’s that whole thing where, after a couple of days of Sundance, you’re watching economic deprivation or emotional torture or shattered relationships and you think, “Oh my God, I just want to watch a cave-dwelling blind albino mutant eat somebody. Or a good rock’n’roll doc.” This year, I’m looking forward to “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the LCD Soundsystem documentary recorded at the band’s “last show.” I’m really looking forward to that. It’s something that’s going to be just plain fun.
DM: This is one of the few Sundances I’ve walked into where I don’t have any one particular thing that I’m rabid to see, but there’s a fairly strong lineup of stuff I’m curious about: Returning filmmakers like Kirby Dick, who I think is above and beyond your typical Sundance documentarian. For me, the director Quentin Dupieux, who made “Rubber” a couple of years ago — his new one, “Wrong,” has to be very near at the top of my list. I’m just curious to see if this guy has another something up his sleeve or if that was one of those happy accidents and maybe we won’t see that again from him.
I also have say I’m dying to see what [Don] Coscarelli has pulled off. I think he is a deeply underrated horror filmmaker, and that book “John Dies at the End,” that was written by David Wong, is…nuts. It’s just crazy. It’s like Robert Anton Wilson’s “Ghostbusters.” It is a deranged piece of work. And I love Coscarelli. I think he’s got such a strange sense of reality to his films anyway that it could be a really lovely mix of two sensibilities.