Beware the ideas of Clooney

MOVIES: George Clooney’s quest to save the world one crappy movie at a time continues. A Spanish horror plays with light and dark with unsettling results. Ed Miliband turns his hand to secret agentry. And we learn that torture can be dull when the instrument is Woody Allen’s pontificating dialogue and much more fun when it’s a chainsaw.

The Ides of March

The Ides of March sees an atheist, anti-war liberal politician impregnate an intern and pay for her abortion out of campaign funds. In other words, the Democrat Party finally turned its policy platform into a movie. And what a tedious little film it is, as Clooney runs the presidential campaign he dreams of running in real life but can’t because in real life, unlike in the movies, people in Kentucky are allowed to vote.

‘I don’t give a shit about the polling,’ his handsome presidential candidate Mike Morris barks early on. The outburst is supposed to tell us two things: 1) He’s not a sissy-boy Democrat who won’t raise his voice, and 2) He’s an idealist. In the moral universe of the Left, idealism excuses all sins; intentions trump consequences; the cause is greater than the cost. That’s why, when Morris’s press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) discovers his boss has used and abused a 20-year-old intern – the movie leaves open the question of whether these liaisons occurred in a consent-at-21 state – and left her pregnant, Meyers reacts with fury… towards the intern. She has compromised the governor and could help the Republicans tear down a good man with good politics. (The film doesn’t claim any real-life provenance but Morris’s antics are so sleazy Bill Clinton could sue for copyright infringement.)

The Ides of March is nothing but good politics. Morris advocates mandatory public service, opposes the death penalty, and compares people who oppose same-sex marriage to segregationists (or ‘Democrats’ as they used to be called). He intones in prose so precious it would make a Mills and Boon novelist – nay, a West Wing writer – crack up. Morris trounces a stodgy moderate Democrat primary opponent with this: ‘I’m not a Christian. I’m not an atheist. I’m not Jewish. I’m not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in, is called the Constitution of the United States of America.’ (The Constitution is a religion for liberals in the sense that the appearance of new rights with each Supreme Court decision does qualify as a miracle.) Incidentally, if Morris’s line sounds familiar, it’s not Barack Obama but Madonna: ‘I’d like to express my extreme point of view/ I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew/ I’m just living out the American dream/ And I just realized that nothing is what it seems.’

Of course, where there is Camelot, there is also Maleagant. Gosling’s boyish hatchet-man Meyers places Morris’s skirt-chasing in the proper context of Republican malevolence: ‘You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns. They get you for that.’ Democrats done down is a popular theme in Hollywood movies and TV shows about politics from The American President and The Manchurian Candidate to Bob Roberts and the West Wing. As in those and other productions, Democrats are decent, patriotic populists whose only flaw is their high-minded refusal to lower themselves to the base tactics of the slimy, elitist Republicans. As campaign strategist Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) pronounces in a key scene:

‘This is the kind of shit the Republicans pull. And it’s about time we learned from them. They’re meaner, they’re tougher, they’re more disciplined than we are. I’ve been in this business 25 years and I’ve seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn’t get down in the mud with the fucking elephants.’

This is the bedtime story liberals tell themselves every night: Republicans, who are in politics to serve Corporate America, win by dirty tricks while Democrats, in it for the little guy, are noble losers done down by right-wing smears. These are myths of such simplicity they could be believed only by children or fanatics. ‘Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,’ said the emperor whose betrayal the movie’s title references, and who are we to disturb the comforts of self-delusion. Writer and director Clooney, like so many in Hollywood, is a poolside radical angered by what he sees as the gutlessness of Democrats who should pursue any means necessary to achieve their lofty ambitions. He wants to campaign in prose and govern in poetry.

Now for the good stuff. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Morris’s campaign manager, confirms his place as the finest character actor in contemporary American cinema. Paul Giamatti is impeccable as the chipped-shoulder manager of a rival campaign and Clooney can make his next project a tribute to the life and works of Karl Marx as long as he gives the underused Marisa Tomei another role like the cynical but committed New York Times reporter she plays here. Gosling, who combines good looks and interpretive nous like no one since the young Clooney himself, again proves himself worthy of the celebratory press he attracts. In the end, however, The Ides of March is a string of strong performances in search of a worthwhile script.

*****

Los Ojos de Julia

A woman suffering from a degenerative sight condition becomes convinced that her sister’s suicide was murder in this disturbing Catalan horror from Guillem Morales, director of 2004’s El Habitante Incierto.

Julia (Belén Rueda) and her husband Isaac (Lluís Homar) visit her reclusive twin sister Sara (also played by Rueda) only to find the blind woman hanging from the ceiling of her basement. The police suspect suicide but Julia is not convinced; Sara was awaiting the results of an operation to restore her sight and had displayed no suicidal tendencies. As Julia retraces her sister’s last moves, she is stalked by a mysterious stranger and comes to suspect the man had a hand in Sara’s death. But her own eyesight begins to fail and Julia searches frantically to unmask the killer before she too is consumed by darkness.

The first two acts of Los Ojos de Julia play out as a thriller, with a heavy roomnote of the supernatural, before shifting into psychological horror for a third act soaked in tension. While the identity of the killer can be mined from a close inspection of small details, the reveal is nonetheless stunning in its framing and the actor’s performance. The movie is one of the most deftly-crafted horrors of recent years and because it never confuses grandiosity with intensity its lean direction and sparse plotting create raw, naturalistic suspense. Guillermo del Toro’s influence is less accented than in his other productions; El Orfanato, which also starred Rueda, tried too hard to be a ‘Guillermo del Toro movie’ and ended up overwrought and insensitive. The breathing space he affords here allows Morales to fashion a more distinctive work and one that draws from the strikingly beautiful Rueda her most affecting performance since Alejandro Amenábar’s Mar Adentro.

Los Ojos de Julia explores the intimacy between light and dark and although it ends on an uplifting, almost spiritual note, it casts a dark unsettling pall that remains with the moviegoer long after the final credits roll.

*****

Johnny English Reborn

Rowan Atkinson’s day job as leader of the Labour Party keeps him occupied but he’s found time to make a sequel to 2003’s Johnny English, the broad-strokes Bond parody about a pompously incompetent secret agent who ‘kicks some bottom’ – usually, inadvertently, his own – for Queen and country. The shtick that made that film a dumb-but-fun confection is revived faithfully in Johnny English Reborn, which sees the bumbling operative – booted out of ‘MI7’ after a botched mission in Mozambique – brought out of exile to foil a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier. (Since Mark Steyn can’t be with us tonight, I’ll field this one for him: This is the ultimate symbol of American decline; spy movie villains are no longer interested in offing the US commander-in-chief and instead gun for the real global power in Beijing.) English gets a green partner (the invariably sweet Daniel Kaluuya), a paramour in the form of Rosamund Pike’s behavioural psychologist, and Dominic West’s double-agent as his nemesis. The plot’s as ridiculous as the gadgets – a rocket-launching umbrella – and the humour a little more tepid than the original’s gleeful absurdity but the comedically undercut action scenes confirm that the appeal lies in watching Atkinson embarrass himself with a never-ending parade of self-inflicted mishaps. Come to think of it, the movie’s not so different from his day job after all.

*****

Midnight in Paris

It’s Woody Allen so this will either do it for you or it won’t. Owen Wilson’s hacky screenwriter Gil wants to become a literary novelist so he moves to Paris, dons a Tweed jacket, and makes fashionable noises about the war in Iraq and the ‘lunatic’ supporters of ‘the right wing of the Republican Party’. His wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) tendency to ditch him to spend time with people who are (marginally) less tedious and self-regarding sees him fall in with a sparkling set of young writers with very familiar names. I’ve never ‘got’ Woody Allen but I suspect with this movie there’s less to get than usual.

*****

Hostel Part III

Eli Roth is absent from the third instalment in his torture-porn franchise, and it shows, as a bachelor party in Las Vegas gets all face-slicey. Wrenched from the (admittedly xenophobic) setting of Slovakia, Hostel Part III loses the atmosphere lent by the backdrop of post-Communist despair – or at least Eli Roth’s limited understanding of post-Communism. That said, there’s a decent opening twist and enough fans of the set-up for a few more entries in the series.