Playing politics in The Ides of March and a rock-’em, sock-’em robot

by Mark Burger

The Ides of March, an absorbing adaptation of Beau Willimon’s award-winning play Farragut North, does not paint a rosy picture of politics, or of human nature in general.

The film’s mounting cynicism (undiluted in the screenplay by Willimon, Grant Heslov and producer/director George Clooney), may not endear it to some audiences, yet this is an intelligent and trenchant tale, almost an updating of Gore Vidal’s classic The Best Man with Shakespearean overtones (hinted at the title, no doubt).

Set on the eve of the Ohio Democratic primary, the story focuses on Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a tireless and tenacious cog in the political machine of Mike Morris (Clooney), the ambitious governor aiming for the White House. Yet, as Stephen will soon discover, simple deeds can have complicated and catastrophic, to say nothing of far-reaching, consequences.

Gosling, fresh from a sharp star turn in Drive, acquits himself admirably again. Stephen’s admiration for Morris is evident in how he carries himself, and Gosling even appropriates a few of Clooney’s mannerisms in subtle fashion. However idealistic or even naïve Stephen may be, however, circumstances will irrevocably alter his outlook. Where there’s ambition there’s corruption, and frequently the ’twain shall meet.

Like many actor-turned-director types, Clooney allows his actors plenty of opportunity to shine, and the characters here are played with terrific collective shading by a first-rate cast. Whether it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti jousting as rival campaign managers, Evan Rachel Wood as a passionate campaign intern, Jeffrey Wright as a senator waiting for his chance to strike or Marisa Tomei as a sharp-tongued reporter, they’re all in fine form, and they’re all enjoying good, substantive roles regardless of how much time onscreen they may actually have. For much of the film, Clooney is very much in the background.

These characters may not be sympathetic — some downright loathsome, others remarkably perceptive despite their venal qualities — yet there’s a distinct sense of what makes these people tick, whether it’s attractive or not.

Additionally, like Robert Redford, another superstar turned director, Clooney tends to zero in on such issues as morality, ethics and integrity (and variations thereof, both good and bad), and Willimon’s play certainly fits the bill. Yet The Ides of March is not a preachy film or a discourse on proper political behavior (although it could certainly be perceived as the latter). It’s an entertaining, well-acted yarn with the sting of relevance and history on its

side. This is one for the grown-ups, and it’s a good one.

There’s some hokey fun to be found in Real Steel, but too often it’s buried under an avalanche of boxing movie cliches and a serious tendency toward bloat. It’s intermittently rousing, frequently silly, badly in need of editing and utterly predictable from beginning to end.

Set in an indeterminate but not-too-distant future — one in which human boxing has been supplanted by robot boxing — the film stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washedup boxer and fight promoter trying to survive on the carnival circuit.

Unexpectedly saddled with his estranged young son Max (Dakota Goyo) following the death of the boy’s mother, Charlie is desperate for one last shot at glory. When they’re not bickering, father and son rebuild an old sparring robot, and before too long (actually, it is too long) they’re making a name for themselves in the ring.

It’s no surprise that Charlie will get his second chance, that Charlie and Max will be reconciled and that Atom will get his (its?) big shot, but it takes forever getting there, and whatever lasting fun Real Steel might possibly have generated has long since evaporated. In the end, and well before, it’s strictly by the numbers and feels as if it could have been written by computer. The average pinball machine has as much personality.

Jackman is affably scruffy and Goyo typically precocious. They’re not bad, but there’s really not much for them to do except play out a pallid reprise of that old Hollywood chestnut The Champ (1932).

Some attempt is made to make Atom a real character (a la ET), but the film is incapable of doing this even for its human characters. Other actors on hand, all in thankless roles, include Evangeline Lilly as Charlie’s faithful girlfriend, James Rebhorn and Hope Davis (looking lost, as well she might) as Max’s uncle and aunt, and Anthony Mackie as a fasttalking fight promoter.

Real Steel is not without its flashy moments and impressive CGI effects, as well as extensive brand-name product placement: Max swigs Dr. Pepper while Charlie favors Budweiser, and there’s futuristic ESPN coverage — replete with the same anchors!

Director Shawn Levy, whose unenviable track record includes Big Fat Liar (2002), Just Married (‘03) and the completely unnecessary remake of The Pink Panther (2006), seems less at home here than do executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Yet even that pair of “brand names” can’t bring much to the Real Steel party.

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