Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Don’t Beware Clooney’s “Ides of March”

The Ides of March (2011) is a savvy political drama with some razor sharp performances. George Clooney (who also directed) stars as Mike Morris, the Governor of Pennsylvania, who’s competing against Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman for the Democratic Presidential nomination. His campaign managers, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), seem to be making all the right moves. Morris appears to be a candidate with good sense and integrity. Both campaigns are trying to get the endorsement of North Carolina Senator Franklin Thompson, who controls 356 convention delegates, which could help secure the nomination.

Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), calls Meyers and asks him to come to a private meeting. Against his better judgment, Meyers attends. What follows is a series of political games, deceit and schemes; that simple meeting sets a series of events in motion that can’t be stopped. As the story moves forward, we get a behind the scenes look at the wheeling & dealing that goes on behind the scenes of the campaign. As he begins an affair with an intern, Meyers learns there is more to the candidate he admires than he first thought.

Gosling is very good as Meyers, the idealistic young man who believes in the system (and his candidate), but may lose that belief by the end of the story. Giamatti and Hoffman are excellent as the opposing campaign managers, who are like two prizefighters circling the ring, or maybe two con men looking to see who’s best at the game. Clooney is very effective as Morris, using his star power & charisma to great advantage in the role. The fine supporting cast includes Jeffrey Wright as Senator Thompson, Marisa Tomei as a reporter covering the campaign, and Evan Rachel Wood as the intern with whom Meyers has an affair.

The well-written screenplay, based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, is by Grant Heslov, Willimon & director-star Clooney. This is a smart, expertly directed political film. It holds up a mirror to the process we use to elect our officials, and the people we choose to run for office. The reflection we see may be a little cloudy, but it makes for an interesting, informative drama. The Ides of March is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Drive: A Stylish, Pulsating Thriller Races To The Finish Line

Drive (2011) is an action film that re-energizes its’ genre, and at the same time pays homage to its roots. Ryan Gosling stars as a movie stunt driver, who does side work as a wheelman for small-time heists. He has very specific rules about what he will and won’t do when he operates as a getaway driver. He lives a quiet life, mostly keeping to himself, and working as a mechanic with his mentor, Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad), who also arranges his jobs. Things start to change when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor who’s raising her young son while her husband is in prison. The two form a bond, and we start to see the human being beneath the hard shell the Driver has built around himself. Their scenes together are some of the best in the film.

Irene’s husband is released from prison early, and returns home. When the Driver (he’s never named in the film) attempts to help him execute a small heist to pay off some crooks he got involved with in prison, things spiral out of control. From then on, it’s a race against time as the villains are out to get the Driver, and are hunting down Irene & her son. The Driver must step outside the confines of his normal existence, and try to help them survive the threat his actions helped create. He's a man who has scruples, despite the nature of his work.

The style of the film recalls movies like Point Blank (1967), Bullitt (1968) and To Live & Die in L.A. (1985). The Tarantino-esque violence creates a contrast with the cool, neo-noir look of the film. This is a world that can erupt into brutality at any time, where even making the right choice has consequences. Gosling’s character recalls such iconic antiheroes as Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name; loners with their own moral code who say little, but allow their actions to speak for themselves. The film is based on the novella by James Sallis; the taut, effective screenplay is by Hossein Amini. Director Nicolas Winding Refn combines elements of samurai movies, film noir, and classic action films with a truly modern sensibility. The stunning cinematography is by Newton Thomas Sigel, who also worked on The Usual Suspects (1995) and the first two X-Men films.

The mix of cinematic style, haunting music (score by Cliff Martinez, and some well chosen songs, including "A Real Hero" by College, featuring Electric Youth) and excellent performances unite to create an action movie with an existentialist feel. There are quiet moments of real emotion and character amid the car chases and violent action. A perfect example is the understated scene where Standard, Irene's husband, talks about how the couple met. The entire cast is fantastic, with Ron Perlman (Sons Of Anarchy) & Albert Brooks, in a far cry from his usually comedic roles, in good form as the villains. Gosling is excellent as The Driver, and Mulligan is luminous as Irene. This is an action movie with a very human story at its center. Drive is one of the best movies of 2011. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Covers Gallery III

A third collection of covers, remakes & assorted re-inventions. Feel free to post comments or your own suggestions below.

1. The First Cut Is The Deepest by Rod Stewart from A Night on the Town. Rod covers the Cat Stevens classic; one of the best tracks from this era (1976) of his career.
2. Jimmy Loves Maryann by Josie Cotton. Cotton puts a New Wave, modern rock spin on the Looking Glass hit from the 70s, on her album From The Hip.
3. Positively 4th Street by Simply Red from Home. Excellent cover of the Bob Dylan tune, with wonderful vocals by lead singer Mick Hucknall.
4. Refugee by Melissa Etheridge from Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled. Slowed down, emotion-packed version of the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers classic, well-performed by rocker Etheridge.
5. This Land Is Your Land  by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings from Naturally. The Woody Guthrie anthem gets a little soul, courtesy of Brooklyn’s own queen (and kings) of funk. This version was used in the opening credits of the film Up In The Air.
6. A Hard Day’s Night by Ella Fitzgerald. The one and only Ella swings The Beatles. A live cut featured on Ella in Hamburg.
7. Hard To Handle by The Black Crowes. Chris Robinson and his band mates rock the groove on this Otis Redding song; from their debut album, Shake Your Moneymaker.
8. Raspberry Beret by Hindu Love Gods. The late, great Warren Zevon and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Bill Berry & Peter Buck rock out on this version of the Prince tune, from Hindu Love Gods.
8. Billie Jean by Chris Cornell from Carry On. Another re-invention of a Michael Jackson classic, this time by the former Soundgarden frontman.
9. Istanbul by They Might Be Giants from Flood. TMBG energetically re-do The Four Lads tune from the 50’s.
10. You Can’t Hurry Love by Phil Collins from Hello, I Must be Going. Before recording an entire album’s worth of Motown covers in 2010, Collins released this cover of The Supremes hit back in 1982.
11. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Tori Amos from Little Earthquakes. Tori takes Nirvana’s grunge anthem and performs it in her own unique style.
12. Time After Time by Eva Cassidy from Time After Time. The late singer’s beautiful version of the Cyndi Lauper song was released in 2000.
13. Life on Mars? by Seu Jorge from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou soundtrack. Brazilian singer Jorge performs the David Bowie song (as well as several other Bowie classics) for Wes Anderson’s 2004 film. Jorge also played the role of Pelé dos Santos in the film.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Force Is With Charles Ross

How many of us get to do work we really love, and have fun doing it? Charles Ross does. He's the creator of the show One Man Star Wars Trilogy, which he performed Friday night at Fairfield University's Regina Quick Center. It's a funny, inspired 75 minute ride through the original films (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) with Ross performing all the roles, doing sound effects, and even both sides of the battle scenes. He has an endless supply of energy, running around the stage, changing voices & characters at the drop of a hat, doing sections of the musical score, and occasionally interjecting some additional comments and humor into the proceedings. And he does it all without any sets, costumes, props or co-stars.

It's clearly a labor of love for Ross, a Canadian born actor who's been touring with the show for 10 years. Ross drove from Canada to California to visit George Lucas, and get his permission to do the show. After an off the cuff performance of the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, Lucas gave his blessing. Ross has done the show on four continents, and in 180 cities, including Dubai. If you grew up watching the original trilogy, or became a fan over the years due to the countless re-releases of the films on video or in theaters, you'll really enjoy his affectionate (and hilarious) take on the saga.

It's a unique, funny, and amazing experience. You truly have to appreciate his inventiveness, energy and sense of humor. The show is part genius, part spoof & part fanboy appreciation, but it all comes from Ross's love of these movies. The audience at the Quick Center was roaring with laughter & applauding constantly, and so was I. By the way, Ross also does a One Man Lord of the Rings show, which he'll be performing Off Broadway later this month. Charles Ross took his love of the Star Wars saga, and turned into a successful, enjoyable theatre piece. If you're a Star Wars fan, I recommend checking out One Man Star Wars Trilogy.

Here's a link to a brief clip where Ross explains the genesis of the show, and does a performance of the trash compactor scene: