In the political thriller The Ides of March – George Clooney’s adaptation of the stage drama Farragut North – Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers campaign press secretary to Mike Morris (Clooney) a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Savvy self-assured and blessed with a preternatural ability to spin a story in his candidate’s favor Stephen is a fast-rising figure with a dazzlingly bright future. Unlike his more seasoned – and cynical – campaign-manager boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Stephen all of 30 years old still boasts something of an idealistic streak. He believes in Morris not just as a meal ticket but as someone who just might make the world a better place.
Stephen’s idealism and ambition come into conflict when in the feverish days leading up to the pivotal Ohio primary he suffers a series of judgment lapses that threaten to derail his promising career. Teased with the prospect of a job offer he’s lured into a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) the campaign manager of Morris’ main Democratic rival – a major no-no in a business that prizes loyalty above all else. Later he beds a beguiling young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) who unwittingly drops a bombshell that could very well bring down the entire Morris campaign.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory about Ides of March. Our eyes were long ago opened to the amorality and viciousness of electoral politics. And goodness knows we’ve witnessed political scandals far more salacious than anything depicted in the film. Ides of March’s strength lies in the power of its storytelling in the way that Clooney brings together several distinctive headstrong characters and sets them against each other in a riveting game of intrigue. It helps compensate for the been-there done-that familiarity of the topics explored.
Clooney is very much an actor’s director and Ides of March is a testament to how absorbing it can be to witness skilled performers operating at the peak of their powers. Gosling is particularly fascinating to watch as his character awakens to the severity of his predicament. When Stephen is dismissed from the Morris campaign after Zara learns of his meeting with Duffy the firing triggers in him something akin to a fight-or-flight instinct. His livelihood endangered he scrambles to outwit his former colleagues seizing upon tragedy and scandal to worm his way back into the fold. All pretense of idealism vanishes and his expression betrays the slightest hint of derangement. The game has claimed him.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
With so many flicks in the dance genre from classics like Flashdance and Fame to more recent entries like Step Up Save the Last Dance and Stomp the Yard as well as numerous popular TV dance competitions the Wayans Brothers are right in thinking there’s material ripe for riffing here. So in Dance Flick we get a young street dancer Thomas Uncles (get it?) who meets a gorgeous white chick named Megan White (get it?) and they team up for the ultimate in dance-offs as they become part of a “crew” that battles the baddies to take the title and repay Thomas’ debt to Sugar Bear an enormous loan shark and drug lord.
WHO’S IN IT?
In the lead roles of Thomas and Megan Damon Wayans Jr. and Shoshana Bush are naturals in the comedy department — if not exactly convincing as dance champs. Most of Dance Flick’s laughs come courtesy of the supporting players particularly Essence Atkins as Megan’s confidante and Amy Sedaris (TV’s Strangers With Candy) as a teacher who likes to verbally torment her students while wearing extremely tight and revealing pants. The rest of the film is swarming with stereotypes including Brennan Hillard doing a gay take-off on Zac Efron’s High School Musical character (including a swishy production number to the tune of Fame); Chelsea Makela as the compact and chubby Tracy Transfat (lifted directly from Hairspray’s energetic teenage lead) and Affion Crockett as A-Con a guy who aspires to be a criminal when he’s not getting all jiggy. Then of course there is the bitchy adversary for Megan played to the hilt by Christina Murphy. Best of all is the imposing Sugar Bear played by In Living Color vet David Alan Grier in a 400-pound fat suit who first does a send-up of Jennifer Hudson’s showstopping number from Dreamgirls “And I Am Telling You ” then later tops that with a killer spotlight dance in the big competition sequence. In addition to Damon Jr. we counted nine additional Wayans in various cameos.
The actual dance numbers including the big two that bookend the film are hilarious over-the-top and cleverly choreographed for ultimate comedic impact. The special effects and stunt teams clearly worked overtime on some of these moves. Sporadic moments of witty invention come along in between those set pieces but the jokes are stale and uninspired for the most part.
Clearly director Damien Wayans and his all-Wayans writing and producing team (Keenan Ivory Marlon Shawn and Craig) cracked themselves up when creating these gags but the hit-to-miss ratio is about to two-to-one on the negative side. And by the time the endlessly padded slow-motion end credits roll after just 75 minutes of this stuff the spoof has completely run out of gas resorting to lame gags about non-dance flicks like Twilight and the Samuel L. Jackson flop Black Snake Moan.
BEST SUPPORTING WAYANS?
Hands-down the small comic gems that work best all belong to Shawn Wayans as Baby Daddy who is easily the worst father in cinema history. His bits rock.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Netflix. Rent it and fast forward through the really REALLY dumb stuff to get to the really dumb stuff quicker.
Set in post-World War III Los Angeles Southland Tales takes place over the three days leading up to a huge Fourth of July celebration as the world is crumbling around the city’s citizens who are living in a city that has been turned into an armed camp by the government. There’s a huge cast of characters in this disjointed tale written and directed by Richard Kelly including Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) an action-movie star married to Madeline (Mandy Moore) the spoiled rich daughter of a powerful senator. Boxer turns up near the beach in L. A. suffering from complete amnesia; he’s watched by a military sniper named Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) who also narrates the film and seems to hold the key to the mystery of what happened to Santaros in the desert that caused his mental breakdown. Meanwhile Santaros falls for activist porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as radical anti-government forces led by Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) plot a huge terrorist event to take place on the Fourth. Add in a police officer (Seann William Scott) who may be the link between all the other characters and you’ve got the gist of the story. Unfortunately there are easily 10 other characters wandering around in this mishmash of a plot played by everyone from Miranda Richardson John Larroquette and Christopher Lambert to Wallace Shawn Kevin Smith Jon Lovitz and Bai Ling and not one of them seems to have a clue as to what is actually going on--which is exactly how the audience watching feels too. It is a mystery how so many usually talented actors stumbled into this incoherent mess of a movie much less how they have all succeeded in giving some of the worst performances of their careers. Dwayne Johnson the usually likable wrestler-turned-actor leads the pack resorting to rolling his eyes and twitching his fingers to portray a man in emotional distress. Sarah Michelle Gellar is equally abysmal; her ridiculous porn-star/talk-show-host character comes off as a complete caricature not a characterization. Miranda Richardson simply chews the scenery and Wallace Shawn actually does a caricature of himself which is just weird. It is no wonder that when this inane flick debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 people booed and walked out. The shock is that Sony coughed up more money for special effects and a re-edit--perhaps that is because there are so many well-known names on the cast list? Whatever the reason the still two-and-a-half-hour film is so jumbled enervating and downright boring that we’re pretty certain you’ll be tempted to head for the bathroom and never come back. The only thing that might keep you interested is if you have a Bai Ling fetish (although why you would pick her to obsess over is a complete mystery); she spends the movie vamping it up in costumes that make her look like the porn star instead of Gellar. Writer-director Richard Kelly had a cult hit with Donnie Darko which apparently made him believe that there is a market for movies that are incredibly incoherent and lacking in the most basic narrative focus. Sadly he’s made just that movie with Southland Tales; in fact he explains himself in three graphic novels and a large Web site the prequel to the movie that we apparently should have investigated beforehand since the film is supposed to be the last three chapters of the saga. But therein lies the rub as no filmmaker should assume that moviegoers will have taken the time to do those things before entering the theater. For anyone who has not embraced this self-involved filmmaker’s other work Southland Tales simply comes across as a mixed-up jumble of half-baked ideas performed by actors who look like they are involved in a high school video project not a bona fide Hollywood movie. And if the steady stampede for the door during the screening we sat all the way through is any indication this is a movie that will have patrons who have actually paid for the experience considering a quick sneak away into a different movie in the multiplex. Lord knows that only someone who is paid to watch would actually sit through this whole film. After all those are two hours and 24 minutes of life that we will never get back.