Superlative Casts Wasted In Mediocre Films – In the Valley of Ellah, The Ides of March & Margin Call

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Greetings all and sundry!

Between bouts of less than strenuous snow shoveling. I’ve taken refuge within the recent fare of The Sundance and Sony Channels. To acclimate myself with some interesting contemporary offerings. And maintain a sense of loyalty to Julian of Dirty With Class. And his suggestion that I sometime stray from my comfort zone of earlier Classic Films.

To that end, I have plunged deep into titles that tickled my interest as their trailers and ads when first unleashed on the populous. Either for their visuals, tightly compressed and less than two minute story lines. Or their casts. Which, surprisingly in hindsight appeared and delivered far beyond the parameters of their assigned tales.

Allow me to introduce …

Superlative Casts Wasted In Mediocre Films

Chronologically first in line is this odd little offering from Paul Haggis and “Based on actual events” of the early Iraq War.

In The Valley of Elah: (2007) – Sundance Channel

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Whose central plot device focuses upon returning G.I. Specialist Mike “Doc” Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker). And his strange and grisly death after suddenly going AWOL after a few weeks stateside.

Enter Mike parents, Army veteran and retired Army Intel Sergeant, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones). And his stoic wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon), who has already lost one son to a helicopter crash during a Ranger training exercise..

Being the concerned father, Hank travels to his son’s home station. Starts asking questions while hitting the first defensive line of an Army stonewall. And doesn’t buy the less than orderly goings on of the Army investigation for a minute. In retribution, hank takes a look at his son’s barracks room and finds Mike’s smart phone. Hoping it may have something hidden within its high tech innards.

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Frustrated, Hank has a discussion with Joan, who channels her inner June Lockhart from the 1960’s CBS fci-fi series, Lost In Space. And sends Hank out to find some help from the local police. On the way, Hank drops Mike’s phone at a local computer shop and asks the resident nerd or geek to run a complete diagnostic and dredge up what he can.

At the police station, Hank sees Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) deep in discussion with the distraught wife of a returned G.I.. Who had drowned the family’s pet dog in the bathtub while her husband had his son watch. Detective Sanders takes the report, but there is nothing she or the police can do. And there’s even less Sanders and the cops can do regarding an AWOL soldier. Not her problem. Not her jurisdiction.

Until a few days later and a crime scene pops up with a burned and dismembered body in the middle of nowhere. The local P.D. is more than happy to lateral the scene and crime over to the Army. Since the scene is on the outskirts if the military reservation, Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

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Hank wants to stick his nose in, but the Military Police have little time and no use for a long retired brother in arms. Angered, Hank starts playing with his son’s phone. Which had suffered heat and fire damage. And its stored videos are garbled, but show images of G.I. interrogating and later, torturing Iraqi soldiers.

Hank get a call from the base and an officer takes Hank out to the crime scene. And later the morgue. Where Jason Patric‘s Lt. Kirklander starts asking questions about Mike’s possible involvement in drugs. Nudging the possibility that a cross border gang may be responsible. Since a glass pipe was found under Mike’s mattress.

Hank and Sanders return to the crime scene and determine that Mike was brutally killed and immolated elsewhere and deliberately dumped between battling civilian and military jurisdictions…

I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers’ sake.

Overall Consensus:

Paul Haggis is a well respected, revered and feted screenwriter. Attached to many award winning films. And that said. He should stick to what he knows and does best!

His direction of this first of a small number of “Anti-War” films is parochial at best. He knows how to set and stage scenes. And arranges and choreographs whatever action scenes there are in a copy book or primer fashion. No scene leaps out memorably. Though, Mr. Haggis claims credit for the film’s adaptation and screenplay.Even when Tommy Lee Jones’ Hank near weepingly informs his wife that their youngest son is dead.

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Susan Sarandon does anger and the sudden bereaved mother well. But Carol Burnett did it better in the made for TV movie, Friendly Fire in 1979. Cinematography by Roger Deakins is serviceable. And a bit clever with New Mexico outlands and Morocco substituting for Arizona and Iraq, respectively. And polished by editing by Jo Francis.

Also not a fan of the heavy-handed, Boogeyman treatment ladled onto Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Something that little is known about, but quickly becomes the catch all for any tense or erratic behavior beyond what is considered the “norm”.

Which takes into the sometimes murky world of politics. In an adaptation of the play, Farragut North. Originally written by Beau Willmon, who shares screenwriting credit with the film’s director, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The Ides of March: (2011) – Sony Channel

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Which boasts Ryan Gosling as junior political campaign manager, Stephen Meyers. Attached to the Presidential campaign of Pennsylvania Governor, Mike Morris (D), (George Clooney. Who’s not afraid to occasionally throw his weight around). Tied up in a slowly tightening race against fellow Democrat and Arkansas Governor, Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell).

Both candidates have connections and money to burn. But need the endorsement of North Carolina Governor, Franklin Thompson (Slippery Jeffrey Wright), who controls 356 convention delegates.

Now that the primary characters have been noted. The meat of this tale hangs mostly upon and is brought to the fore by secondary players. Specifically, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, in fine form!) as Tom Pullman’s manager, front man and perhaps, bag man? Who meets with Meyers in private and delivers Meyers to a sit down with Duffy’s boss. Media and message specialist, Paul Zaza, (Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Laconically used to his power and rarely raises his voice.). Who is intrigued by Meyers and is in search for a new Padawan to mentor and teach the ropes and ins and outs to.

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Meyers and Duffy talk. And Duffy offers Meyers a position on the Pullman campaign. Which Meyers turns down in an effort to curry favor with his new girlfriend, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). Young. Idealistic. And utterly naive and out of her depth in her desire to be part of “An honest campaign, where integrity matters”.

Molly is an intern with the Morris campaign and is also the daughter of former Senator Jack Stearns (Gregory Itzin) and Chairman of the Democrat National Committee.

Meyers is bounced around as offers of Sec State are made to Morris by Duffy through Pullman. Counter offers are made in return by Zaza. Just to the the juggled balls even and airborne and Thompkins’ delegates in the mix as major leverage.

No one is playing well with the other. All anxious to hold onto whatever favorable numbers are in the polls. Meyers tries calling Molly to no avail. So Meyers begins poking around where he shouldn’t. Back to Iowa and a stopover shared by Molly and Morris. Molly is pregnant by Morris. Meyers pays bag man and delivers money to Molly for an abortion. Meyers fires Molly from the campaign with orders for her to keep quiet.

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A New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) braces Meyers with what she knows about Meyers’ meeting with Duffy. And wants more. Threatening to publish what she knows unless Meyers wants to help himself. Confronted with a leak. And Molly’s sudden overdosing. Meyers decides to take on Morris. Who has just enough information and gossip to implicate Meyers in Molly’s death. And cuts Meyers off at the knees while being handed his walking papers.

Seeking revenge, Meyers talks to Duffy, who wants nothing to do with Meyers’ rogue, duplicitous activities. Paul Zaza is even less friendly. Filling Meyers in on his personal beliefs in loyalty. And Meyers coming up far short. Admitting to Meyers that he leak that sent The New York Times after him. And not really caring. Because Meyers doesn’t have what it takes for full contact politics.

I’ll not violate the Prime Directive regarding Spoilers and pull over right now.

Overall Consensus:

Having followed the rough and tumble of politics inside and just outside Washington, DC for forty plus years. And crediting everything I know about how Democrats play the game to the late, great political novelist, Ross Thomas. I just didn’t buy the premise of the entire film.

Never doubting for a moment that Mr. Clooney’s Mike Morris would win the nomination. Basically due to his hair and good looks. I also expect something more imaginative than long telegraphed twists and standard plot devices.

That said, the battle is fought exceptionally well in the trenches by Mr.Giamatti’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And their characters who exude worldly weariness over the daily give and take. Addicted to the give and take of power, while doing everything they can to protect their candidates. To these men, it’s a job. Which becomes a career over time. With wins and losses. As long as the wins outnumber the losses. To Ryan Gosling‘s Stephen Meyers. It’s an adrenaline charged rush. That requires, and later demands recognition.

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It might also help to use locations in Pennsylvania to help tell and sell the tale of a Pennsylvania Governor’s desires to rise in political ascension. Instead of major and outlying cities in Ohio and Michigan!

Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is noteworthy in using these sometimes cramped and uncredited locales to add a touch of damp, dour, cold, dingy winter weather to buttress a rather tame, pedestrian.story.

Which glides us to the final installment in independent story telling. Orbiting slowly and re entering in stock market crash of 2007 and its near fatal effect on Goldman~Sachs and other Wall Street firms.

Margin Call: (2011) – Sundance Channel

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Which opens to the noise, clamor, hustle and bustle of another day’s trading on the floor. Though, something new is added. Expensively suited supervisors taking busy traders aside and handing them their pink slips. With whispers to not clear their desks or offices. Just leave!

Watched in slack jawed and stunned awe by Junior risk assessment analyst, Seth Bergman (Penn Badgley). Senior Trader, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Trading Desk Supervisor, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). Something foul is afoot as traders are escorted out. Amongst them, Peter and Seth’s boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Master numbers cruncher. Head of risk management on the trading floor. And nearly unrecognizable in a few days’ stubble.

The three subordinates watch as Dale is led towards an elevator. Peter steps close and Dale manages to pass a USB Memory Stick. With the waning “Be Careful” as the elevator doors close, Peter plugs in the stick and starts stripping the mathematical algorithms. Discovering a whole submerged iceberg of useless and junk stocks, bonds and mortgage backed securities. Far exceeding projections from any time in the past. Or present.

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The exchange house is hemorrhaging money. And drastic measures are needed as department heads decide to burn the midnight oil. each wondering if their heads will be on the block. As Senior Risk Management Officer, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) starts going over the “Formula”‘s numbers and projections. Seth and peter call in Will Emerson. Who calls his higher up, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey solidly in touch with his inner Jack Lemmon).

The players make their entrances in whispered asides and brief encounters. As Will, Seth and Peter go to the skyscraper’s roof for a smoke or last bit of fresh air before the dawn. With Will trying to allay fears while not really knowing much of anything, himself. As a helicopter makes itself known before circling and landing on the upper, night lit helipad.

The first of several meetings is called. With Division head, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, from L.A. Confidential and The Mentalist. Radiating smooth confidence in expensive attire) and Corporate CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons. A veteran of past “hiccups” and anxious to find the limits of immediate damage). His opening soliloquy is equal parts familiarity with what may occur. And a desire for ideas. Any ideas which might help allay or soften the inevitable.

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Ms. Robertson adds to the discussion with the news that “The Formula” is real and a worst case scenario will soon be at hand. While Sam responds to Tuld’s wanting a plan of action with a dawn to dusk sale of anything and everything. At least 40% sales on stocks and shares at 85 cents on the dollar by 11 o’clock. With recalls to brokerage houses throughout the day. Starting at 65 cents on the dollar afterward and continuously whittling down as excess ballast is dumped, But to what end?

Survival, of course. Creating what is sure to be a long, hard and full day ahead. As lower tier traders go seek privacy to cry or panic. And their bosses sweat out what can be retrieved or gained.

As the man with the plan, Eric Dale is sought out for whatever other input he might be able to add in regards to sales and options. Eric is at home. In his recently purchased and refurbished house in Brooklyn. And Will and Peter have their breakfasts interrupted. And are dispatched to find whatever the can. or bring him back.

In the interim, Ms. Robertson has a tete a tete with Jared over whom is going to be asked to fall on their sword and be a sacrificial lamb. Sarah is having no part of it. While Jared knows that she is. And will be. While Sam takes the just arrived floor traders asides and delivers not exactly a pep talk, but more of a plan of strategy.
Mentioning bonuses to individual and team of traders for achieving or exceeding their assigned quotas.

The morning bell clangs and the air is alive with calls out and the sales feeding frenzy begins. With Will laying on all his charms while giving away whacking great chunks of toxic stocks at slightly better than minimum loss. That will surely approaching maximum before the day is out.

Overall Consensus:

Here we have an instance of an A-List cast being used to less than their absolute potential. In a film whose dialogue could use one or two scenes of unbridled and angry scenery chewing. We have utter, serene, near glacial calm as the bottom is falling out of a touch stone brokerage house.

The cast does what it can to add suspense with inflection and decades of experience with the spoken word. Especially Kevin Spacey’s Sam. Who has too many years in. Wants out badly, but the present opportunity offers little in return. Sam does what he does, because he needs the money.

While Jeremy Irons knows the present situation is terrible. But survivable. The only real “third wheel” is Demi Moore‘s Sarah Robertson. Who approaches the requisite anger level for such a situation. Railing against the men over her coveted position, while being brushed aside at nearly every turn.

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Surprisingly, it’s Stanley Tucci who calmly, quietly underplays and subtly manages to steal then own every scene he’s in. His talk with Will on the steps of his Brooklyn home is a wonder to follow as explains hours and days of travel saved with a bridge he’s helped design between Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Direction by J.C. Chandor is adequate and mostly shot in one of Goldman’s deserted office towers. Though his screenplay could have stood a second review and possible re-write.

Personal Notes:

I don’t mind “Bad Cinema”. Some offerings are my favorite Guilty Pleasures. What I do mind are producers (And these films’ list of producers are all excessively long) putting their money on the line to assemble A-List and ‘Dream Team’ actors saddled with less-than-satisfactory projects under the reins of less than proven directors.


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