Philip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney in The Ides of MarchTHE IDES OF MARCH

Audiences demanding insight, or even much depth, from director George Clooney's The Ides of March will no doubt leave the film disappointed - unless, that is, the revelation that political candidates and their staffers routinely lie and spin and backstab strikes any of those viewers as a newsflash. Yet if you enter this tale of Machiavellian (and, as its title suggests, Shakespearean) intrigue not expecting trenchant analysis so much as a good, gripping yarn supremely well-told, you're in for a major treat. Smart and fast and gratifyingly vicious, Clooney's latest is a drama that plays like a thriller, and it's full-to-brimming with sequences you want to watch over and over again; for those conversant in West Wing-ese, the movie suggests a juicy episode of Aaron Sorkin's TV series if every character in it was played by Ron Silver.

The Ides of March follows smooth-talking, seemingly principled press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) as he and his team, in a last-ditch effort in Ohio, attempt to secure the Democratic presidential nomination for their idealistic candidate (Clooney), and the film's origins as a stage play - Beau Willimon's Farragut North - are apparent right off the bat. Though your mind might reel at the ensemble-performance possibilities in a work featuring Gosling, Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Jennifer Ehle, and Max Minghella, it's actually rare when more than two of them share any given scene; designed as a succession of quiet - and oftentimes quietly threatening - one-on-one encounters, the movie's "action" is restricted solely to its verbal altercations. (Hoffman, playing Clooney's beleaguered campaign manager, is granted one of those lengthy, actor's catnip monologues whose thematic relevance you could miss only if you were in the lobby during its delivery.)

Remarkably, however, The Ides of March doesn't feel the least bit stagnant, because even when cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's camera remains all but immobile, Clooney's screen images are filled with alert, probing tension. Every once in a while, the director overplays his hand; one particular shot featuring the disenchanted Meyers silhouetted against an auditorium-sized American flag pushes the moment's irony to the point of distracting obviousness. But far more often than not, Clooney's scenes of near-stillness hum with a sensationally vital "What's gonna happen now?" electricity: the slow crawl toward Clooney's town car, where Hoffman, in the back seat, is receiving some very bad news; the exchange of knowing glances between Clooney and Gosling, one of whom is holding a phone that he should absolutely not be holding. With its screenplay by Willimon, Clooney, and Grant Heslov, the dialogue in The Ides of March is always snappy and frequently inspired, yet happily, this is also the rare theatrical adaptation that manages to be supremely engaging on a visual level.

And it should go without saying that the assembled cast gives you as much to look at as listen to. I wouldn't, for instance, ask for one minute less of Hoffman's or Giamatti's snaky, opportunistic bluster. But these brilliantly cagey performers actually tell you everything you need to know about their characters and their impassioned rivalry with one silent, smirking, backstage face-off, and time and again, the actors' expressions and reactions provide emotional pull equal to or surpassing that which is found in the script. (In the haunting climactic shot, Gosling's eyes display a long-hidden lifetime of gestating bitterness, while Clooney's easy, aw-shucks grin, here, has never felt so enticingly malevolent.) It ain't Julius Caesar, but The Ideas of March is still a great time, and those dreading a liberal screed from Clooney may have the greatest time of all: It turns out that absolutely none of the villains in this particular political imbroglio are Republicans. With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?


Hugh Jackman in Real SteelREAL STEEL

I had such fun, and such unexpected fun, at Real Steel that I'll even forgive director Shawn Levy's futuristic action comedy for not being titled Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie, as we all know it should've been. In outline, the film is beyond ridiculous, with former boxing pro Hugh Jackman and estranged pre-teen son Dakota Goyo leading their feisty 'bot toward a world-championship bout; if you threw Rocky, The Champ, and Michael Bay's Transformers pictures into a blender and hit "purée," the results would look a lot like Real Steel. Against all odds, though, the movie works, and works with such stellar enthusiasm and sincerity that it leaves you a little blindsided. There's hardly a moment in the narrative that you can't see coming four scenes in advance. But boasting awesome effects, the film is staged with terrific skill and performed with brio (Jackman and Goyo appear to be having a blast together, and Evangeline Lilly and Anthony Mackie - a Hurt Locker reunion! - add welcome personality), and while you've no doubt seen dozens of training and fight montages before, you've never seen them as exquisitely funny as they are here. Loosening up his metallic pugilist with some fly dance moves, Goyo, at one point, actually teaches his robot how to do "the robot." Now that's witty.


Alex Kendrick in CourageousCOURAGEOUS

I've seen The Poseidon Adventure. I've seen The Abyss. And yet I'm not sure that I've ever seen a wetter movie than director/co-writer/star Alex Kendrick's Courageous, a Christian-themed family drama so overflowing with tears that it makes the collective oeuvre of Tyler Perry look damned near restrained. A rallying cry for paternal responsibility in modern times, the movie concerns four Georgia-based police officers (and one Latino handyman) who make a solemn pledge to better themselves as fathers, and from the tired, TV-movie storylines to the unsubtle dialogue to the acting that ranges from charmingly amateurish to intensely awkward, it isn't much of a film. But try telling that to the packed matinée crowd I saw Courageous with, who screamed with laughter at the gentlest jokes and - more frequently - sniffled and blew their noses whenever characters on-screen suffered, which happened a lot. After an unexpected (and really manipulative) early tragedy, barely a scene goes by in which there isn't a weepy confession, or a weepy cry to the heavens, or a weepy something; Douglas Sirk in his heyday never imagined a world of such aggressive soap-opera sorrow. Yet it's impossible not to recognize that Courageous is, apparently, giving its catharsis-seeking patrons exactly what they want from it, and only a complete churl would deride the film's audiences for the pained pleasure they appear to be experiencing. Kendrick may be preaching to the choir, and only to the choir, but as his movie proves, he sure knows how to get them to sing.

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