Miss Sloane misses mark – review

sloane-poster

I am a sucker for politics and intrigue, shows like The West Wing and House of Cards (British & American versions) forming a regular staple of my creative diet. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I lined up to see Miss Sloane (trailer), an inside look at the cut-throat world of DC lobbyists, whom many consider the parasitic infection that Washington just cannot (and will not) shake.

Sadly, Jonathan Perera (writer of Miss Sloane) is no Aaron Sorkin or Beau Willimon. In his defence, however, it is likely that neither were Sorkin and Willimon on their first produced screenplays.

The movie follows the string-pulling machinations of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), an ice-water-in-her-veins win-at-all-costs lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Washington. This woman has no scruples and is willing to get behind anything that earns a paycheque and raises her status inside the Beltway. Anything, it seems, except for the gun lobby.

And when she is presented with an opportunity to make guns more appealing to women in the hopes of killing gun control legislation coming to the floor, she instead jumps ship to a boutique firm (read “poor”), run by Rudolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong), and takes up the opposing cause.

sloane-pairing

More could have been made of Strong’s moral angst over hiring nuclear weapon Chastain

Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it steamrolls over everyone in its path, and the story becomes a ballet between Sloane’s new firm and her old one, led by a very angry George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and his lead hitman Pat Conners (Michael Stuhlbarg). Until recently, Conners was Sloane’s partner in larceny. The rest of the movie is simply watching puppeteers pull strings.

Thus, this movie is a character study of people without character; a morality play completely lacking in morals.

As such, it is incredibly dark and even with its climax and moment of supposed triumph, you leave the theatre positively suicidal at the prospect that this story even starts to approximate reality.

In one way, it is fascinating to watch completely manipulative characters toss around human lives and feelings as though pieces in a game of Risk or Stratego. I think it strikes at our voyeur nature, tying in with the modern fascination in so-called reality television and amounting to little more than emotion porn. This movie could easily have been titled 50 Shades of Sloane.

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The strings may be invisible, but the puppet dances

At the same time, with no shred of humanity in these characters, it is difficult if not impossible to invest in the main combatants. At best, we mourn the cannon fodder that litters the field of combat. It is like watching a movie about the invasion of Normandy and really only being able to appreciate the kid who is killed as he steps off the landing craft.

And this is precisely where Perera’s developing skills let him down and his contrast with the current political masters is at its most notable.

Despite the sheer malevolence of Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, there is a vulnerability that helps us understand their razor-clad shells. Go further back to the true master of political intrigue—William Shakespeare—and you see the frailties of the otherwise horrific Macbeth and his Lady. Or perhaps my favourite: Iago from Othello.

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Underwood, Macbeth and Iago: Human frailty lies behind the face of a monster

Despite the play’s title, Iago is the true hero of Othello. It is his story that unfolds as he manipulates all those around him, working their weaknesses and frailties against them, truly uncaring of the destructive impact his actions are likely to have on even his own future. And yet, for all the venom and disturbing glee with which Shakespeare imbues his malevolent beast, the Bard is also sure to insert short references to why Iago is so morally misshapen.

To his credit, Perera refused to go in the opposite direction and give us some long-winded sob story of a slight or wound from Sloane’s past to explain her motivations, and in fact, makes it a point, several times, to complain about just such an approach.

But in the absence of any contextualization for the character, even the climax itself comes across as academic exposition rather than revelation. At best, the climax has audacity rather than soul.

There is no moment to cheer the outcome of the story because the outcome is as soul-less as the morass that preceded it.

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That which cannot be controlled must be destroyed

As though sensing this, the final scenes of the movie felt like a bit of a negation of what came before, attempting to soften the edge of Sloane and the story itself. I really wish the movie had ended with the climax.

Given these character challenges, the stellar cast performed well despite being largely wasted.

Chastain does ice well, her face and mannerisms giving away little. Mark Strong was mostly missing in action, through no fault of the actor. His character simply had little to offer. And Stuhlbarg is quickly making a name for himself as malevolent toady, and for that very reason, really needs to find another role to utilize other aspects of his obvious talent.

Miss Sloane was a great idea that suffered in the execution, and I am perhaps being a bit unfair to put the onus on Perera. Director John Madden—best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—would have had some influence on how this story played out, and given the pre-diabetic sweetness of his other movies, this story was a surprising choice.

As an academic exercise, I would love to see what Sorkin or Willimon would do with this concept. Each would create very different movies, I think.

In the meantime, I will be interested in seeing where Perera goes next.

See also:

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’ (Lindsay Bahr, Metronews)

Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player (Nigel Smith, The Guardian)

Richard Crouse (video, CTV News)

Macbeth is the new Game of Thrones?

Who shall achieve the throne?

Who shall achieve the throne?

I hate writer Erin Whitney for little fault of her own aside from the gaping wound that she has rent into my soul with the opening lines of her Huffington Post piece announcing the release of the latest trailer for Macbeth, as performed by Michael Fassbender.

“Imagine Game of Thrones with Michael Fassbender speaking Shakespearean. Then you’ve got Macbeth.”

Her approach is entirely justified for a generation(s) that did not grow up on the works of William Shakespeare​ but instead find themselves immersed in the worlds of George RR Martin and the like.

But it is in pointing out this sad fact—sad to me, at least—that Ms. Whitney has earned my enmity. With all due respect to Mr. Martin, it is his works that should be defined in Shakespearean terms, even if only from a chronological perspective (taste is personal).

[I would also argue that a better parallel is made with either the British or American versions of House of Cards, but that is beside the point.]

Frank & Claire Underwood are Lord and Lady Macbeth

Frank & Claire Underwood are Lord and Lady Macbeth

Please do not take my condemnation and enmity personally, Ms. Whitney. It is not entirely your fault that you tripped this social and literary landmine.

If, however, I might make one recommendation: Get thee to a Shakespearean festival!

* * * * * * * * * * *

stratfordfestival

Some North American Shakespearean festivals (not a comprehensive list):

Stratford Festival (Stratford, ON)

Bard on the Beach (Vancouver, BC)

Shakespeare by the Sea (Halifax, NS)

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot (New York, NY)

Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC)

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (Chicago, IL)

Shakespeare for all time (more comprehensive list with links)

Much Review About Nothing

http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-reviews/modern-times/review-much-ado-about-nothing-2013

There is a certain degree of irony in this review of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing which is just that; the reviewer complains at length about the bare-bones nature of the production and the lack of interpretation over mere presentation (i.e., modern dress without modern sensibilities).

I seriously doubt the reviewer would have had quite the same issues with the setting simplicity if this had been a staged production rather than a filmed production, and it is important to remember that Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage, not the screen.

As to modern interpretation and sensibilities, I largely think this is impossible without a complete rewrite of the play into another project all-together and most particularly in the case of the comedies. Take, for example, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You as a modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

The tragedies so better lend themselves to simple modern reinvention by simply changing the uniforms of the many and varied soldiery or political figures. As an example, I give you House of Cards, which to me is a retelling of Richard III with a soupcon of Othello for flavour.

And let’s face it, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the more frivolous and playful of Shakespeare’s comedies…it is play for the sake of play. It offers no deep meaning but instead centres on the silliness of love; a topic that will remain universal for all time.

Which brings me to the biggest challenge I have with this review.

The reviewer seems to assume that Whedon meant for this to be anything more than a lark…but Whedon being Whedon, a lark that he filmed with very good friends who happen to be very good actors.

I know as little as the reviewer, but I have every reason to believe the choice of modern dress was simply the reality of not having racks of Renaissance costumes lying around the house. The choice of black & white cinematography was perhaps an homage to the screwball comedies of yesteryear, of which this play is truly one and possibly the most yester of yesteryears.

As you can probably tell, I liked the movie…I had few expectations other than laughter and those were met. I also liked Kenneth Branagh’s version, which really only differed in multiple sets, colour film and period costume.