The first weekend of October isn’t a terrible time to head out to the movies if you feel so inclined. Like weird indie thrillers with amazing performances? Then go to Take Shelter and realize that Michael Shannon is now one of your favorite actors.
Feel like watching a bunch of movie stars look pretty and be all political 'n' stuff? The Ides Of March will fill that bill and if you check it out now you can be all uppity about being an early supporter when it’s inevitably lavished with awards and nominations in a couple of months.
Or if you feel like laughing at one of the most embarrassing blockbusters to be shat out of the Hollywood system in recent memory, there’s always Real Steel. What more could you possibly want?
The Good: Take Shelter
Take Shelter is an interesting movie made great by an astounding central performance by the perpetually underrated Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Bug, etc). It’s not that the film would be terrible without him, but this is just one of those movies that hinges on a central performance and Shannon knocks this sucker out of the ballpark, parking lot, and municipal district.
He stars as a rural father who unexpectedly starts having vivid dreams about an impending apocalypse. The dreams feel so real that he starts taking action and spending his life savings on gas masks and building a large underground shelter in his backyard. The only problem is that none of his friends or family believe him and start fearing for his health. It certainly doesn’t help that there is a history of illness in Shannon’s family, leading even him to worry about the whole thing merely being the onset of schizophrenia.
The concept is pretty sound for a psychological/apocalyptic thriller and director Jeff Nichols does an excellent job of piling on the suspense and creating creepy apocalyptic nightmares straight out of a horror movie to keep the audience on board with Shannon’s mindset. Nichols’ script never gives the game away and it becomes incredibly tense and unnerving trying to work out whether Shannon is insane or a prophet. The only problem is that Nichols doesn’t seem to know which way he feels either and the film stumbles into a conclusion that tries to have it both ways and won’t satisfy the audience rooting for either option.
Fortunately a wonky ending isn’t enough to kill Take Shelter, which simply works far too well to be spoiled by a misstep at the finish line. The tall, sunken-eyed Shannon is perfect for the role. He’s a warm enough actor to be a believably loving family man, yet he’s also one of those character actors who always seems like he’s one bad day away from insanity if only because of audience association with his previous roles.
He’s a fascinating character to have at the center at a movie toying with viewers’ sympathies and Shannon admirably plays things close to his chest, saving up for a few key explosive scenes (one climatic freakout at a potluck will be playing on plenty of awards clip reels in a few months). Take Shelter works well enough to be an effective thriller, but is worth it for the acting master class alone. A must see.
The Bad: Real Steal
Whew! If you haven’t seen a bad movie is a long time and you want to see just how deep into the gutter Hollywood is capable of sinking, then by all means seek out Real Steel. It might sound impossible to make a movie about robot boxing boring, but somehow Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy and his team of screenwriters found a way to do it.
Hugh Jackman sleepwalks his way through his role as a former professional boxer turned down-on-his-luck robot boxer. With debts mounting, he embarks on a summer robot boxing tour to make some cash. The only problem is that the deadbeat dad is suddenly forced to take care of his young son after his ex-wife dies. Fortunately the kid loves robot boxing and has just as much sass as the old man. I’ve got a feeling they are going to become friends before the trip is over, don’t you?
Think of this as that terrible Sly Stallone arm-wrestling movie with super-sized Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots doing the wrestling. And because that concept isn’t cheesy enough, you’ll also have to add a beat-up old robot that the kid discovers/make friends with to turn this into a half-hearted Iron Giant rip-off. Then throw in Jackman’s thoroughly uninteresting 20-something love interest just because well if Jackman isn’t going to kiss some pretty girl with that stubbly mug, what’s the point of having him in the movie?
Somehow the final film is even worse than the description sounds. It’s an awkward mix of bad scenes ripped off from other movies organized by a marketing department into something vaguely resembling a script that could sell Dr. Pepper tie-ins and robot action figures. The film is such a nakedly commercial creation with no attempt at art or storytelling that you almost have to admire the filmmakers. It’s not every day you see a $100+ million movie that makes absolutely zero attempt to pretend it’s anything other than the next profitable product from the Disney assembly line.
The film is worth seeing for anyone who enjoys laughing their ass off at embarrassingly awful movies (the multiple robot dancing sequences really need to be seen to be believed), but should be avoided by any self-respecting audience member looking for something resembling genuine entertainment. A movie for cynics and children without any sense of critical thought only.
The Clooney: The Ides Of March
In the Ides Of March writer/director/star George Clooney gets political, playing a Democratic wet dream of a president whom bright-eyed young press advisor Ryan Gosling couldn’t be more pleased to work for. The only problem is that Gosling has yet to learn of the dirty world of politics that his grizzled, chain-smoking campaign manager Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps warning him about. He has to learn fairly quickly after two dumb mistakes pin Gosling’s back against the wall, facing press blackmail and the possible end of his career. However, the thing about ambitious folks in politics is that type of situation tends to cause ideals to fly out the window in the face of survival.
The Ides Of March is a smart, witty, and handsomely mounted political drama from Clooney who has matured into a pretty damn good director over the last decade. This is one of those "prestige pictures" made to milk cash through awards nominations and it should get its fair share of accolades over the next few months, particularly for the actors, who are fantastic from top to bottom. The only problem is that the movie just isn’t as quite as meaningful as it wants to be.
At the end of the day, while The Ides Of March might a solid piece of entertainment, it doesn’t shed much light on behind the scenes politics. The big revelations are that people lie, cheat, use blackmail, and slip interns the pickle on their rise to power (at not just the politicians at the center of campaigns either, everyone gets their hands dirty).
While I suppose it’s not a bad idea to get that out into the public consciousness on the eve of the next presidential election, I can’t help but feel that this movie could have dug a little deeper, especially considering how much self-importance is splattered all over the screen. It’s a decent movie that’s certainly worth seeing, just curb your expectations accordingly.Also released this week: Intruders (a kind of okay, mostly bad ghost story with a twist), The Human Centipede 2 (aka the film most likely to make you vomit in a good way), and 1911 (Jackie Chan FINALLY gets serious).