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The Ides of March

Political thrillers and political dramas are separated by a very fine line. Even slight changes in things like pacing and lighting can make what would otherwise be a straight forward film become edgier and darker. The two can be mixed together, and often have to great success, but some movies don’t make that conscious decision. Some movies can’t make up their mind on what their ultimate goal is and end up suffering because of it. George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Ides of March, is a perfect example of that.

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a man whose life revolves around politics. He has worked, as he puts it, on more campaigns at the young age of 30 than most of his elders. His latest job comes in the form of Democratic GOP candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Governor Morris is the first person he has ever truly believed would change the way we do things and make a difference in people’s lives. He’s an optimist and trusts those around him, but he’s about to get a lesson in dirty politics when he gets caught up in a media firestorm after meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the assistant to the Governor’s GOP opponent, and his simple life begins to unravel.

There’s a fundamental problem with The Ides of March. It thinks it’s penetrating politics when, in reality, it’s doing and saying nothing that the American people aren’t already aware of. It shows that politicians and those working for them begin with a set of unwavering ideals they promise to hold true before compromising them once they see the true face of politics. They quickly realize that politicking is a dirty game and, if they ever hope to get ahead, they must do things their young, naïve selves thought they never would.

As such, The Ides of March is political piffle, a movie that aims for the Oscars, but, aside from some possible acting nods, lands much lower. It’s a shame because Clooney has proven himself to be a fantastic storyteller with 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck, another politically charged (but media oriented) film that had much more to say than this. As terrific as he is behind the camera and in front, I’m afraid this will end up being little more than a blip on his impressive career.

Still, this is a solid film. A disappointment, sure, but solid. It’s entertaining, relatable to today and serves as yet another vehicle for Ryan Gosling who once again proves himself to be one of the most prolific and versatile actors currently working, but it’s inconsistent. In a way, it’s too cinematic, taking a story that should be told in a straight, dramatic fashion and over stylizing it with contextually inappropriate filmic techniques. Political backstabbing is treated like murder, leading the characters to secretly meet each other in closed down, darkened bars where eerie, silhouetted figures loom in the hall. The media is treated like a peeping tom stalker, the villain in a horror movie, and paranoia begins to eat away at the characters, bringing them to make decisions that lead to the oft heard and obvious political message. Simply put, the film has an identity crisis. It never settles for one tone and doesn’t do a good job of cohering multiple ones.

George Clooney, an outspoken Democrat, sometimes seems to treat this movie more as a cathartic outlet to speak in favor of gay marriage and taxing the wealthy than as a story. As an outspoken Democrat myself, I’d be lying if said I didn’t agree, but as a critic, it’s hard not to question his intentions, especially when the majority of the scenes he appears in are at speeches where he defends his left wing beliefs. Nevertheless, these moments fit comfortably into the story, so they aren’t so much scandalous as they are simply obvious. But that’s the entire movie’s problem. It’s just too obvious. Only those without knowledge of past political scandals or what goes on behind the scenes of a political campaign will find something enlightening. For the rest of us, The Ides of March is watchable, but underwhelming.

The Ides of March receives 3/5



Now, here’s a movie that gets things right. Drive blends tones, genres, feelings and perceptions to the point where you’re waiting for it to go wrong, but it never does. It takes things that, in a lesser movie, wouldn’t work and shifts and shapes them perfectly to fit its narrative flow. Drive is an incredibly well rounded movie that only falters in minor areas.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character known simply as Driver, a movie stunt driver and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. He lives alone in a small apartment complex where he meets Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. She’s the girl-next-door, literally, and she begins to break through his tough outer shell while he bonds with her son. However, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has just been released from jail and is coming back home. Unfortunately, he owes protection money and his inability to pay threatens his wife and son. Because he has grown close to the two, Driver takes on another job to earn the money and protect them, but things go horribly wrong.

Drive is the best kind of movie: one that takes you by surprise. It sits you down and keeps you calm before smacking you over the head with a sudden and shocking narrative turn—not many movies can do that these days in a cinematic world of remakes and sequels. This sudden shift is carefully set-up, giving us only glimpses into a man that is quiet and reserved. Aside from his illegal side job, he’s a normal, though seemingly lonely, young man. In these early moments, his character reminds most of George Clooney in last year’s The American. He’s calm and collected, but he is somewhat emotionless, confined to the four walls of his room (or car) and, though only subtly suggested, longing for companionship.

In a movie that begins as a slow, thoughtful drama, its shift into a dark, gruesomely violent and sometimes hard to watch revenge picture is abrupt, though certainly recognized (and intended) by the director who effectively uses sound effects at an increased volume to create the jarring effect. At this moment, the entire feeling of the movie changes, eventually running itself into even blacker territory and, in one particular scene, recalling a masked killer film, but it somehow gels together. Sometimes, there’s no explanation as to how this happens; it just does.

Of course, Driver isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s the point. He’s a flawed individual, an anti-hero that strikes women and is perhaps a bit too quick to anger, but the wonderful screenplay and terrific performance from Ryan Gosling keep him grounded. While you certainly won’t approve of some of his actions, you still hope for redemption because Gosling keeps a glimmer of hope alive in him. As one of the most versatile and underrated actors working today (just look at the contrast between this role and his last in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Gosling does wonders and he’s only strengthened by strong supporting actors that include Bryan Cranston and the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, who is perfectly cast (as she always is). She has a real world type of attractiveness, not like the glossed up Hollywood ladies we've become accustomed to, and she brilliantly communicates how her character is feeling with the slightest of expressions.

The lone casting flaw comes in the form of Ron Perlman, who usually comes through when given good material, but he overdoes it here. His over-the-top approach to his character comes with profane language that isn’t offensive because it’s profane, but because it’s excessive and distracting. Similarly out of place are a few unnecessarily long sustained close-ups and the awkward synthpop soundtrack that comes off as somewhat laughable given the dark subject matter (despite the attempted 80’s vibe). All in all, however, Drive is a terrific movie. It’s not always fun (actually, it never is), but it’s gripping, nerve-wracking and well made. If you have a weak stomach, it may not be for you, but for everybody else, it’s a must see.

Drive receives 4.5/5


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is neither crazy, stupid, nor particularly romantic. It’s a movie that bungles many things, but nails many others. Its quality fluctuates from slightly below average to slightly above. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a decidedly middle-of-the-road picture, one I’m not upset I saw, but one I’ll surely forget about before the year is out. It’s likable enough, but whether it’s worth seeing is hardly worth arguing. If it interests you, see it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

If you do, this is what you’ll get: a movie about love that doesn’t spend adequate time building emotion. And that’s precisely why it’s stuck in mediocrity; because love is emotion. If you don’t feel it, it’s hard to care. However, it must not be a minute or two into the film before Cal (Steve Carell) is hearing from his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), that she wants a divorce. It doesn’t establish their relationship prior to this, yet we are asked to sympathize. In a way, we do (mainly due to Carell, who shows the anguish most people must go through when they find out the love of their life wants to leave them), but the structure of the screenplay limits it. One can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers chose not to open their film more emotionally aggressive and allow us to see the love the two had before splitting them up.

Distraught by what his wife has told him, Cal immediately moves out and starts drowning his sorrow in alcohol at a local bar. While there, ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who seems to take a girl home with him each and every night, strikes up a discussion with him. He tells him he is embarrassing himself with his self loathing and agrees to make him over, promising his wife will “rue the day” she decided to give up on him.

But of course, in a movie about love, even a ladies man like Jacob is going to find someone to care about. She comes in the form of Hannah (Emma Stone), a “game changer” (with a strange attraction to Conan O’Brien) with whom he begins to fall in love. Though wildly uneven as a whole, Crazy, Stupid, Love succeeds on little moments and the romance between Jacob and Hannah is the best example of that. Their relationship is built on virtually one scene, but it takes its time, allows for character growth and it forces viewers to reevaluate their perception of Jacob. Such a character curveball can only be done with a capable actor and Gosling is more than up to the task, emitting charm and likability at every turn, despite some shades of what seem like mild misogynism. Because of him and the always effervescent Stone, the scene comes off as strikingly authentic and deeply moving.

The problem is that it’s followed by an ending where coincidences are stacked on top of contrivances, resulting in a ridiculous string of events that takes a level, if underwhelming, movie and tips it too far to one side. By the time the credits roll, the movie has tackled issues of guilt, forgiveness, family, infidelity and depression, though “tackled” isn’t really the right word. It’s more like what would happen if a football player ran at a brick wall. He would hit it, but he’s not making an imprint.

Crazy, Stupid, Love should be something more than it is, especially given the wonderful trailers, which, sadly, do a better job of bringing forth the desired emotion. What it amounts to instead is nothing more than a barely passable movie that does something wrong for every something right.

Crazy, Stupid, Love receives 2.5/5


Blue Valentine

What a joy it is to start 2011 off on the right foot. In a month that is usually relegated for films that the studios have no faith in (known as “dump month”), I’m delighted to see Blue Valentine, a film that made the festival rounds last year and is now finally seeing a proper release. It’s so good in so many different ways that if I had the mind to do it, I’d be tempted to go back and edit my “Best of the Year” list to include it (because it’s technically a 2010 film). Despite having its DC release in this awkward transition period, which will keep it from landing on any of my year end lists (much like the terrific Crazy Heart), it’s a movie that needs to be seen and I implore you to seek it out.

The movie follows a couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), as they hit the ups and downs in their relationship. It cuts back and forth from the present, where their troubles are persisting, and the past, when their love first blossomed. This non-linear approach helps Blue Valentine strike a perfect balance in tone and pace. It allows us to see how good the two were together while also seeing how they’ve drifted apart.

The beauty in the film lies in the handling of the characters, neither of whom are demonized. While far from perfection, they are both good persons with flaws. Cindy is perhaps a bit selfish and her love for Dean is dissipating while Dean is occasionally quick to anger, though he never violently attacks Cindy, despite one late outburst. In fact, some of his anger is understandable, given a late movie revelation that puts an earlier argument into context. Much of it stems from frustration because his wife, whom he still dearly loves, is failing to reciprocate the feeling. Dean is not a perfect man, but it’s difficult to condemn him because of his genuine love and respect for his family.

In flashback scenes, he even comes off as charming, as does Cindy, and the actors in the roles are stunning together. I can’t recall a time when an onscreen chemistry felt as authentic as it did here. It felt like Gosling and Williams had in actuality been together for many years and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hooking up off camera.

To say a movie is a “roller coaster ride of emotion” has become a bit of a movie critic cliché and, indeed, the phrase is thrown around far too often, but there’s simply no other way to describe Blue Valentine. Because of the constant alternations from the past and present, the good times Dean and Cindy have mix with the bad so the joy you feel one moment is immediately followed by an opposing feeling the next. Certain romantic scenes notwithstanding, this is not an optimistic movie about love. It’s not about two people who meet one day, are smitten with each other and live happily ever after. This approaches it more realistically. It’s about what happens when the love you have for someone begins to wane. It’s about coping with the idea that the one person in the world you love with all your heart doesn’t love you back. It’s about a crumbling relationship in its final stages that looked like it was going to last forever.

Blue Valentine is not an easy movie. People prefer to look at love from a certain point of view, but this movie dares to view it from another, one not filled with cutesy happenstances and longing embraces. At one point in the film, Dean expresses his own take on how love is supposed to work, going so far as to directly compare it to the multitudinous amount of romance movies he has seen. Like Dean, many people expect love to be grand and never ending, but the truth is far less encouraging and Blue Valentine never holds back from showing it.

Blue Valentine receives 4.5/5


All Good Things

There’s nothing worse than watching a bad movie that you know had the potential to be so much better, a movie with an interesting idea and a terrific cast that does nothing to set itself apart from the rest of the crowd. This notion lingered in the back of my mind the entire time I watched All Good Things, a supposed mystery thriller that slowly spiraled downward the further it went on. I tried to like it, but by the time I reached the end, I had given up.

The story is inspired by what the press release says is the most notorious missing person’s case in New York’s history. Ryan Gosling plays David Marks, the young son of real estate mogul Sanford Marks, played by Frank Langella, who narrates the movie through his testimony at his trial. His story spans multiple generations and he begins in 1971 when he meets the love of his life, Katie, played by Kirsten Dunst, whom he eventually married. Their rocky relationship raised the eyebrows of those around them and after Katie went missing, David quickly became the prime suspect.

All Good Things is a movie in search of a tone. It tries to be a romance, drama horror and thriller all in one, but it mixes them together poorly resulting in wave like tonal changes. For instance, one scene shows David as he violently grabs Katie by the hair and drags her out to the car, which then instantly cuts to inside their home where she acts like he’s done little more than burned dinner, least of all physically abused her. Once Kristen Wiig shows up, it even turns into a kind of light comedy, though the laughs are outmatched by the unintentionally funny final third of the film where David starts to dress up in drag, effectively creating one of the most unconvincing women in Hollywood since the Wayans brothers in White Chicks.

Much like this year’s Charlie St. Cloud, only a musical change would be required to completely flip the meaning of a scene or shot. The ominous music that plays while lingering on David’s empty stares show him as unstable and evil, but without it he would merely look depressed. Similarly mishandled, his evolution to violence is faulty. Before his aforementioned violent eruption, he is shown talking to himself, a supposed sign of mental instability, which at this point has become a cinematic cliché. Lots of people talk to themselves (hell, I do) and scientists have actually found it to be beneficial. More needed to be done to convince me to be afraid of David.

All Good Things looked like it was going to redeem itself in its closing minutes. Its ending is interesting and, assuming you haven’t done your research prior to viewing, unexpected. However, once you learn what he was on trial for, it makes you wonder what exactly the point was of the first hour. The two events portrayed in this movie are only loosely linked, so the beginning comes to feel kind of unnecessary upon reflection.

If it can be praised for anything, All Good Things wrings out some good performances from its cast. Gosling and Langella are effective as usual, but Kirsten Dunst, who hasn’t impressed in many years, shows she shouldn’t be written off yet. She has the most emotionally nuanced role of all and she carries it out with poise. But aside from that, I’m afraid there isn’t much to All Good Things. Its title is a lie. It isn't even mostly good things.

All Good Things receives 2/5