CINEMATIC GRAB-BAG: Rules Don’t Apply, Miss Sloane, The Belko Experiment

Hughes

Rules Don’t Apply

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)
A long overdue return from the Hollywood legend behind Bulworth and Reds or just an over-long-gestated vanity project from the over-the-hill subject of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain?1 Rules Don’t Apply falls, somewhat fascinatingly, occasionally gloriously, into both camps.

For one, the film marks Warren Beatty’s first time appearance on or behind the camera since 2001’s Town And Country; a lifestyles-of-the-rich-&-famous rom-com that cost close to $100 million to make.

For two, the film seems to be — subtextually — as much about Beatty himself as the three characters at its center: seducer-pilot-billionaire-filmmaker turned notorious “eccentric” Howard Hughes (Beatty) and two would-be romantics in his orbit, chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and aspiring starlet Marla Mayberry (Lily Collins).2

Two innocents in the shadowy pastel paradise of 1958 L.A.3, their nascent relationship is obstructed by a variety of obstacles; not least their parallel religious convictions and their employer, the reclusive Hughes himself.4 Both holds him highest respect — Marla with her giddy crush;5 Forbes in search of an investor — but, over the course of three years of irregular time jumps and impulsive city-hopping, both are disillusioned by his unreasonable demands and brusque obliviousness.6

The film is part classic romance, part character study. My friend and podcasting partner Rob Daniel reads the film in part as a Mephistophelian drama with Hughes as a father-obsessed corrupting influence, but I’m more tempted to read it as a reflection of the filmmaker himself.

With his square jawline and sensitive eyes, Ehrenreich recalls his writer-director-costar — minus the impeccably feathered hair — while a scene in which a guileless Marla serenades a teary Hughes seems like nothing so much as a rallying cry from Beatty to himself to get the film made.7

A far more idiosyncratic work than Scorsese’s The Aviator8, Rules Don’t Apply is both frustrating and beguiling. There are scenes that are purely hoke — a bit of slapstick involving a mechanized hospital bed and the threat of an enema bag — and others that are genuinely intriguing; like Hughes’ first appearance, lingering obscurely outside the doorway of a hotel suite.

At its best, the film is both; as in Beatty’s most virtuosic bit of direction: a dizzying pull back revealing two figures sat before a vast, old-fashioned matte painting; scored to a burst of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

An impressive supporting cast — Matthew Broderick as an exasperated lackey, Candice Bergen as a loyal PA, Steve Coogan as an RAF pilot9 Oliver Platt as an enraged investor, etc., etc. — turn up in bit parts; clearly eager just to work with Beatty.

In this regard, Rules Don’t Apply reminded me of Cafe Society, Woody Allen’s ’20s-set, deeply ambivalent love letter to early Hollywood. Where that floated along on champagne bubbles and sparkling wit, Beatty’s film relies on charm and unpredictability; darting hither and yon, occasionally slipping out under a sheet.10

Funded by a consortium of Hollywood heavy-hitters, including Arnon Milchan and Brett Ratner, both of whom also serve as producers, it seems fated to go down in history as a flop. As obstinate displays of wealth and influence go, this is up there with the Spruce Goose.

1 Or at least one of the subjects. Beatty clearly think he’s *the* one, which, of course, is sorta the point.
2 Determined to make more of her than just a bubbly ingenue, Beatty’s script gives Marla remarkable erudition; fitting her with a quote for every occasion. Despite Ehrenreich’s innate charm — put to such
3 The year Beatty himself reportedly arrived; three years before his breakout role in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. It’s clearly a time of which Beatty has fond, if somewhat trite, memories. Of his time behind the wheel — of a Cadillac no less — Ehrenreich spends a disproportionate amount of it neon-lit and in profile.
4 Beatty’s longtime spouse Annette Bening appears as Marla’s bossy Baptist mother who’s concerned by Hughes’ womanizing ways.
5 The film is careful to present Hughes’ seductions as harmless, passive even; though not without damaging consequences.
6 Everyone in Hughes’ world lives according to his schedule: three a.m. meetings and bowls of banana nut ice cream ready to go whenever he gets a craving.
7 “There’s a message that you’ve got to keep believing in yourself/But they generally mean, if you’re young.”
8 Or indeed Lasse Hallström’s The Hoax, whose events Rules Don’t Apply ropes into its climax.
9 Coogan gets the best of it as Hughes takes him and Forbes for a spin in a borrowed plane; going from politely reticent to — as Hughes cuts the engine to coast amidst the clouds — desperately terrified and, finally, wearily resigned to death. It’s understatedly hilarious, and largely conveyed through Coogan’s eyes alone.
10 Beatty himself is slight and mercurial in his Indiana Jones hat and jacket (an odd coincidence, perhaps, given Ehrenreich is set to play the young Han Solo). Harried and distracted, Beatty has a neurotic quality not unlike that of Woody Allen’s, yet with his matinée idol good looks — if slightly gone to seed — he also seems utterly in control. In a Q&A with him that I attended after the screening, he reeled off laundry lists of names — Kazan, Kubrick, Antonioni; circling scandalous anecdotes before always, finally, demurring for the sake of discretion.

 

Miss Sloane

3 Stars (3 / 5)
Politics is the domain of the writer.

Be the portrayal idealistic and articulate (à la The West Wing) or damning and satirical (as in anything by Armando Ianucci), their characters’ intentions good or malign (in the case of the Underwoods from House Of Cards, very much the latter), its the perfect genre through which to say something about the state of modern society.

The debut of screenwriter Jonathan Perera, Miss Sloane blends the icy cynicism of Beau Willimon with the glossy populism of Frank Capra. In arguably her most notable lead role since Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane; a lobbyist and power player in Washington who’s currently facing a Senate ethics committee.

Icily brilliant and damaged – a paranoid, self-medicating insomniac and acerbic master manipulator – nobody expects her to jump ship from a major corporation working for the gun control lobby to a small boutique fighting for universal background checks.

Then again, nobody can predict Miss Sloane, who’s always several steps, several twists and turns ahead, of the competition. Her new boss Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong; sharply bemused) is appalled and impressed by her; mostly in equal measure. The only thing that is predictable about her: she wants to win, at any cost.

It’s this weakness her old associates – speccy former protege Alison Pill, vengeful ex-right-hand-man Michael Stuhlbarg and crusty previous boss Sam Waterston (minus his usual lovableness) – use to plot her downfall.

Miss Sloane is a Shakespearean character study about a woman who, as she puts it herself, is committing suicide via career. She rejects attempts at human connection, brushing off the intimacy proffered by cowboy-like male escort Forde (Jake Lacy) – other than the purely physical – and exploits her few relationships; such as with new mentee Esmé (Gugu Mbatha-Raw; straight off the back of Beauty And The Beast), whose personal history may contain something she can use.

To return to the writer, there’s something about the political arena that has come to feel inherently more televisual than cinematic. Perhaps it’s largely due to the influence of Aaron Sorkin and his ilk. Sloane’s take-no-prisoners approach to everything – in a TV debate she insults both the Bible and the Constitution in a matter of seconds – certainly puts her more in the pantheon of TV geniuses.

The barnstorming final court sequence seems to be aiming for a coup de cinema, but, even with an oh-so neat twist at its disposal, it comes across as self-congratulatory; almost literally so. Even at the hands of Oscar-winning journeyman John Madden, there’s more cool bluster here than actual emotional impact, but Miss Sloane is sharp and glossy enough to win you over. What more can you ask for from a lobbyist?

 

The Belko Experiment

2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)
The culture of modern-day corporate America is one that lends itself to bloody deconstruction.

From cutthroat boardroom politics to petty backstabbing among the cubicles, even the most everyday workplace can seem hostile. The Belko Experiment simply takes the metaphorical into literal territory; the passive aggression into all-out aggression.

That being said, the Belko Corporation seems, initially, to be an alright, if slightly dispiriting, place to work. The office building is in the middle of nowhere; a generic, grey-blue tower block, surrounded by arid scrub, on the outskirts of Bogota, Columbia. The interior is nice enough, though, and the staff seem, for the most part, like a pretty decent bunch. Then one day there are armed guards on the gates, all the domestic workers are sent home, and then a mysterious voice comes over the intercom.

It tells them all that either thirty of their colleagues will die at their hands or sixty will be killed by other means. Most of them seem ready to laugh it off as a prank, though some are genuinely concerned. And then the shutters come down and peoples’ heads start exploding.

Self-described as “Battle Royale meets Office Space“, the film, directed by Wolf Creek‘s Greg McLean, inflicts the gore of the former workplace archetypes upon the archetypes of the latter.

Mike (John Gallagher, Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane) is a canny but decent guy who refuses to compromise his morality; indeed, his willingness to take risks to preserve the lives of his colleague’s borders on the suicidal. He’s the first to realize the seriousness of their situation; at a point when the office’s slick, conflicted COO, Barry (Tony Goldwyn, Scandal), is still calling for calm. When push comes to slaughter, however, it’s predictably Barry who, along with office creep Wendell (a smiley-stern John C. McGinley) and the rest of the execs, are first to go for the guns.

For a film about the understandably touchy subject of a forcibly mandated workplace massacre, The Belko Experiment plays it surprisingly safe. Written by former horror aficionado James Gunn, now best known for Guardians of the Galaxy, the film’s script keeps the satire mostly implicit; instead focusing on the practicalities.

The choice, for instance, of who’s to die is based on a variety of factors – age, dependents or lack thereof, etc. – before giving into arbitrariness and spite. When one employee begs to be spared in that he sends money home to look after his young brother, the bully-boy manhandling him bellows, “Did he come from your sperm?!” It’s Nazi Germany by way of modern-day capitalism.

That a portion of the scene is set to a haunting Spanish-language cover of, ironically, California Dreamin’ – “I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A…” – has a plangency the rest of the film struggles to compete with.

Recognizable character actors play familiar archetypes – Owain Yeoman as an initially cheery but weak-willed family man, repeat Gunn collaborator Michael Rooker as a shrewd janitor. There’s the new girl, the gay buddy; all meet deaths either sudden or heroic; an often mean-spirited, ultimately pointless thinning of the herd.

Indeed, death via gun, or knife, or even paper guillotine (the film is otherwise disappointingly unimaginative in its use of office supplies) seem strangely preferable to the gnarly alternative – the tension of just waiting for people’s heads to explode is close to unbearable. Maybe that’s part of the point…

Still, given the potential in the premise for something truly biting, though, The Belko Experiment can’t help but feel both a little spiteful and a bit toothless.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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