Ides of March

Director George Clooney’s latest foray into political cinema in Ides of March actually plays as if it was written by a speech writer. The language is concise, the message is clear. It isn’t necessarily the power that corrupts, but the compromises one has to make to put themselves in that position of power. George Clooney’s character is Mike Morris, a state Governor who is in the running to win the presidential primary for the Democrats’ candidacy. His compromise is embodied by Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen Meyers, Morris’ deputy campaign manager. As the Ohio state primary unfolds, Stephen finds himself making a mistake in meeting, even once, with the manager of the opposing campaign. This acts as a catalyst for a series of events that end up wrecking the ideals of both men – the Governor, and Stephen, as both have to compromise to keep their head above water.

All of this is unfortunately dramatized, and thickened. A single mistake in the world of politics, apparently, means death. Which, may be true in cases – a single embarrassment can mean the death of one’s career in that world, and even so… The character’s reactions seem drastic.

The characters themselves often speak to one another as if they were embroiled in a public debate. It is difficult to decide whether this is a conscious choice on the part of the writers of the film (of which there are three). True, the characters are themselves practiced speech writers, they make their living that way. Perhaps the language would seep into their daily lives.

Yet, if this is a rhetorical strategy it is a flawed one. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Stephen’s boss, is ultimately given very little to do here, which is surprising. George Clooney is an actor himself, and it was difficult to understand why he gave this role to such a masterful actor. It isn’t that the part is small, it’s that it isn’t interesting, apart for a few fiery lines.

Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Tom Duffy, the manager of the opposing campaign, was at least obviously unlikable enough to not suffer from this characterization. He is cynical and jaded, having clearly spent too much time on the campaign trail.

George Clooney’s Morris is almost always on, and therefore comes off almost as perfect as his public image makes him out to be. When Morris is making a speech, one is instantly inclined to believe him. Even as dirty secrets come out, one can’t help but believe he was simply being corrupted by the difficult choices he is forced to make, and that he really is the idealist he swears to be. Only, his ideals are now tied to people that oppose it at all costs.

Finally, we return to Stephen. Stephen has involved himself in a love affair with an intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood, but really is a very nice guy. He believes in his candidate. Only, when his candidate treats him, or the lovely intern, unfairly, he is out for blood. He drops very quickly the spiel about what is best for the country. It becomes obvious that what Stephen is after, is his piece of the pie. The difference between his appearance and demeanor in the opening shot, and the final, is stark. Obvious, even.

2011 is definitely going down as Ryan Gosling’s year – Crazy, Stupid, Love., Drive, and The Ides of March make him the face of the year. Which is well-deserved. He is a believable, likable, and clearly talented.

Ultimately, the message about the realities of the political world contributes nothing we didn’t already know. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. It’s just that when a film concentrates on a message rather than art, its message needs to be profound, rather than merely letting us know that the people we vote for may not be telling us the complete truth about their beliefs. Why is why the movie fails to even be topical during primary season – its message is so broad, it could apply to anything. Which almost feels like a compromise on the film’s part.

Gangster Squad

So here’s the unfortunate truth about Gangster Squad, the one I could never have expected based on the trailers. It’s boring. The parts that aren’t work well, and I’ll talk about what those are, but the truth is that poor structure, pacing, over-dramatic conversation, and most importantly inconsistency turn this into a game of “name the cliché.”

There’s no use summarizing the plot beyond good cop, bad gangster. The cops leave their badges at home, and take on the gangsters using heavy weaponry and explosives. The squad being composed mostly of War World II veterans, they seem to have no trouble in tactics of overt war and out-right murder in accomplishing their goals. The main problem here is that there is no Dirty Harry here, no Martin Riggs, despite this screenplay completely lifting scenes from those action movies. The main protagonist is Josh Brolin’s Sergeant O’Mara, a stubborn boy-scout, who is apparently one of the few police officers that are not for sale. He recruits, with copious oversight from his pregnant wife, a group of forgettable, underdeveloped misfits. The exception in the squad is Ryan Gosling, who, as usual, is delightful. He is a movie star in the true sense of old Hollywood, holding the screen captive with every look. He’s helped by having one of the two fun roles in the entire piece, too. He’s sarcastic, flirtatious, and when he looks down the barrel of a gun he has the determination required to sell a role like this. None of these are a revelation, exactly, we’ve seen enough of him in 2012 to know it, but he certainly helps the picture. The other genuinely fun character is Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, the snarling, boxing villain. I feel like Penn has received a lot of very unfair criticism online for the portrayal. Yes, it is cartoonish. As is the rest of the movie. Few things can elevate an action movie like a memorable villain, and his character IS memorable. The fact is that the lines, as written, actually feel more believable when delivered by a cartoon than a human being; and humane, Cohen is not. Sean Penn, the man who played United States’ first openly gay politician, here plays a gangster that would put Tony Soprano to shame.

I truly feel that it’s these two actors that understand the tone this movie should have had. If the rest of it was, I’ll say it again, as FUN as those two characters were, it would be a blast! This movie screamed out to be closer in vision to Sin City than The Untouchables. The fact that different people involved in the making of the movie seemed to be pulling in different directions is what sunk the picture overall.

The writer, Will Beal, is already signed on for upcoming remake of the 1976 classic Logan’s Run, Lethal Weapon 5, and Justice League. I’m inclined to give the writer the benefit of the doubt in this case. After the Aurora shooting last year, a large portion of the movie was re-shot, and the movie has the general feel of being cut to bits. Therefore, perhaps the writing here is really not indicative of his general talent, but if it is, considering the projects he is supposed to be taking on next, the future of fantasy/action cinema looks bleak. The dialogue is stiff and artificial, the plot sometimes makes no sense whatsoever… Once again, it’s entirely possible that a different reading of the same lines might be delightful, I never expected a naturalistic take on the story. The way it was done, however, it simply did not work.

I really wanted to like Gangster Squad. I was really excited for it, and even hearing about other critics’ reaction, I went into the theater prepared for the movie to prove itself to me. Unfortunately, it simply did not rise to the considerable promise the talent involved showed.

Drive

Directed by Danish Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive a film of a very specific sort of beauty. The aesthetic is very detached, but it is that very detachment that manages to help us identify with the protagonist of the film, because he himself is coldly detached. The movie follows a man whose major characterization is driving around and listening to pop music.

We never learn the name of the protagonist driver, played by Ryan Gosling. Like the stereotypical western Man with No Name, the driver is more an archetype than an actual character. We aren’t meant to identify with the driver so much as watch him in a way that is as detached as the way he no doubt experiences the world. He is almost always calm and collected. What we learn throughout the course of the movie is that when that self-control is lost, the man is a beast, willing to perform any act to get revenge or justice.

All this is filmed with transcendent beauty and style. If one is to simply describe the plot of Drive, it may be possible to sell the movie, but to entirely the wrong audience. The movie transcends its genre of heist-movie-turned-revenge-thriller completely, the same way that Ryan Gosling’s character transcends that of a common criminal (which he is, talented though he may be). Certain scenes, which would be nothing short of disgusting, are instead breathtakingly beautiful. This isn’t because they are filmed in slow motion, which they sometimes are. Slow motion is typically done to be cool, to show masterful precision on the part of the characters, to show their straining muscles in great detail. One gets the impression that when this is used in Drive, it is rather to show that time really does seem to slow in intense moments.

The soundtrack, which consists largely of slow, deliberate pop songs, fits perfectly with the setting and the characterization. The music, also, transcends the confines of its genre when coming into play with the images on the screen, creating very memorable sequences where the music and the visuals are inseparable.

The supporting actors are worth noting as well – Carey Mulligan plays the love interest for the protagonist in a way that appropriately expresses a genuine fragility. The part is tough because in truth she isn’t given very much to do in the film, she needs to play in a fairly confined role of a very confined woman. However, the character comes off as very real in her portrayal, which is certainly commendable. The other characters are similarly confined in their roles, but none come off as unconvincing. Ron Perlman is, as usual, very enjoyable in his role as a gangster who was never accepted the way he wanted to be due to his ethnicity.