''The Ides of March,'' ''Real Steel,'' and more

The Ides of March
Last spring, during a fund-raising event in Los Angeles, President Barack Obama was catching up with George Clooney (whom he’s known as a Democratic supporter and Darfur activist), and the leader of the free world asked the actor what he was working on. As it happened, Clooney was wrapping up production on a movie that he was directing and starring in called The Ides of March, set in a world Obama knows well: a presidential campaign. Not only that, Clooney was playing an inspiring Democratic candidate trying to win a hard-fought, high-stakes Ohio primary. ”He said, ‘Should we screen it?”’ Clooney remembers, laughing. ”I said, ‘Absolutely not!”’

The Ides of March is not the sort of movie likely to lift the spirits of a president who’s already got plenty of problems on his plate. Part morality tale, part thriller, Ides offers an unflattering warts-and-all look inside the machinery of a presidential campaign, exploring the lengths people will go to in order to attain power, even at the cost of everything they say they hold dear. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, an idealistic young media strategist working for Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), a rising Democratic star battling for his party’s nomination. When Meyers learns that Morris has a secret that could destroy his campaign (don’t worry, we won’t spoil it), he’s forced to choose between his highest values and his desire to win, whatever it takes. ”I don’t really find it to be a movie about politics,” says Clooney, who co-wrote the script — based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North — with producing partner Grant Heslov. ”It’s about a guy doing anything to win at the cost of his soul. Those are universal themes you could play with in any genre or in any workplace. It’s just that the political arena is so much fun to work in.”

Of course, Clooney has spent years rubbing elbows with people in that arena, and that inside knowledge helped attract top-notch actors — like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who play rival campaign managers, and Marisa Tomei, who portrays a New York Times reporter — despite the film’s modest $12 million budget. ”This film is in George’s wheelhouse,” says Gosling. ”Watching him direct was like watching someone try to explain a song that’s in his head, like Michael Jackson in This Is It trying to tell that keyboard player how to play that part. He knew exactly how he wanted it.”

While Clooney is well-known for his passionate support of liberal causes, with Ides he was careful to avoid taking sides. In fact, he says, he steered clear of making the less-than-squeaky-clean Morris a Republican to ensure the audience wouldn’t see the film as overly politicized. ”This movie is pretty insulting to everyone,” he says. ”It’s not kind to anybody at all.” Though this outlook seems in tune with the country’s generally sour political mood, the timing is pure coincidence. Clooney had actually intended to make Ides back in 2008, but following Obama’s election he decided to put the project, already in preproduction, on hold. ”Everyone felt so good and was so hopeful that we were like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do the movie,’?” he says. ”But times obviously change quickly, and the world got very cynical again. Movies find their time and their place.”

As much as he enjoyed playing a make-believe presidential candidate, Clooney insists he has no desire whatsoever to pursue elected office. ”Look how much fun it must be for President Obama right now,” he says. And though Ides is already accumulating buzz as a potential Oscar magnet, Clooney says he won’t be out on the awards-season stump, either. ”I know the popular thing is you have to go out and kiss babies to get nominations and stuff,” he says. ”I did that once when I had Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck [in 2005], but I don’t need to do it again.” Win or lose, he understands that campaigning is a perilous business. —Josh Rottenberg Oct. 7

The Big Year
It’s unclear what’s more surprising here: the fact that competitive bird-watching actually exists, or that Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson are headlining a feature film about it. ”I couldn’t even conceive of competitive bird-watching,” recalls Martin. ”Does it take place in an arena? Or are you wearing shorts and have to run with binoculars?”

To be honest, we were wondering too. The film was inspired by Mark Obmascik’s award-winning 2004 nonfiction book about competitors in 1998’s Big Year, an annual contest in which birders travel across North America for 12 months attempting to spot the greatest number of rare birds. In the movie, a charismatic silver fox (Martin) and a down-in-the-dumps divorcé (Black) strike up a friendship in the midst of the contest and team up to try to beat the record-holding past champion (Wilson).

Though the cast got into the spirit of birding, the excitement didn’t last for long. ”Seeing a bald eagle…you think that’s just the most rare, thrilling thing you could ever see. And it was — the first time,” says Wilson. ”But then we saw a million more. They were hanging out at the dump! They weren’t these majestic things that you see at game 7 of the World Series.”

Awe-inspiring or not, the film’s avian costars simply serve as the backdrop for a distinctly human tale, insists director David Frankel. ”For me, it was never really a movie about bird-watching. This is about three guys who want to be the best at something,” he says. ”There’s kind of a bromance at the heart of it.” And, of course, lots of ruffled feathers. —Ashley Fetters Oct. 14

Real Steel
Usually when a robot aims for the heart, it means you’re about to get terminated. But while the robo-boxing drama Real Steel includes plenty of metal-on-metal violence, director Shawn Levy tried to target the story’s emotional core. Set in the near future, the movie replaces the sport of human boxing with remote-control mechanized brawls. After his ex dies, a washed-up pugilist (Hugh Jackman) finds himself caring for his estranged son (Dakota Goyo, the child god in Thor), and together they try to restore a rusty hunk-of-junk robo-fighter named Atom. ”Shawn and I kept saying ‘We really have to be able to substitute, I don’t know, Ping-Pong or tennis for the robot boxing,’?” Jackman says. ”As badass as I think the robots are, the movie is really about the father and son and the relationship between them.”

Levy, a veteran of comedies like Date Night and Night at the Museum, welcomed the chance to shoot an offbeat type of sports movie. ”You get away with more anthemic emotions and themes,” he says. ”Sports settings are inherently more epic than a living room.” And those massive metallic fighters would surely ruin your sofa anyway. —Anthony Breznican Oct. 7

Remaking a 1980s classic (see: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans) is always risky. But there were special challenges to updating Footloose, the beloved 1985 teen flick that boasted a blockbuster pop soundtrack and a star-making turn by Kevin Bacon as a city-boy hoofer named Ren McCormack who’s stuck in a small town where dancing is banned. ”It’s kind of like I’m making love to somebody’s old girlfriend,” jokes director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), who took the reins after High School Musical‘s Kenny Ortega dropped out in October 2009.

Even 23-year-old Dancing With the Stars veteran Julianne Hough — who plays Ren’s rambunctious love interest, Ariel, the daughter of the ultra-strict local preacher (Dennis Quaid) — felt weird about revisiting the story, as she wasn’t even born when the film came out. The original Footloose was shot in her native Utah, she says, and ”I used to pass the roller mills where Kevin did the angry dance every day on my way to dance class.” Also, her brother, fellow DWTS professional dancer Derek Hough, played Ren in London’s stage version of Footloose. ”There’s all these little connections.”

As for the new Ren, 27-year-old newcomer Kenny Wormald (MTV’s Dancelife), stepped in after Zac Efron and Chace Crawford both passed on the role. The story has been updated to include modern Step Up-style choreography and a more racially diverse cast, but fans will be relieved to see familiar Footloose hallmarks, from Ren’s gymnastics-heavy angry dance in an abandoned mill to the country-bar road trip to a ”Let’s Hear it for the Boy” number featuring Ren’s rhythm-impaired sidekick Willard (Rabbit Hole‘s Miles Teller). ”You don’t mess with the core story,” says Brewer. ”You can do West Side Story and set it in space, but you run the risk of people calling bulls— on it.” Thankfully, no one in the new Footloose kicks off their Sunday shoes only to watch them float away in zero gravity. —Tim Stack Oct. 14

Martha Marcy May Marlene
All four names in the indie Martha Marcy May Marlene belong to one young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, in her big-screen debut). She’s Marcy May to fellow members of her dangerous religious cult. She’s Marlene to prying outsiders. And she’s Martha to the estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) who helps her re-enter normal life after she leaves the ”family.” Writer-directer Sean Durkin’s debut feature was a hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where talk about Olson’s family tree (Ashley and Mary-Kate are her big sisters) was quickly drowned out by praise for the actress’ raw performance. ”My goal was to make sure Martha doesn’t come off as naive,” says Olsen. ”People think cults are all hippy-dippy. We want to break that stereotype.” —Adam Markovitz Oct. 21

Did William Shakespeare really write the classic plays attributed to his name? That’s the question that inspired Roland Emmerich’s period drama Anonymous, a major departure from the 2012 director’s usual effects-driven specatacles. Rhys Ifans stars as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, whom the film purports was the actual Bard as well as the center of a precarious power struggle within the court of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). ”It’s not a pie-in-the-sky kind of fantasy theory,” Ifans says. ”I am definitely convinced that [the real writer] was not this guy William Shakespeare.” Emmerich has turned his F/X trained eye toward elaborate palaces, ruffled costumes, and outrageous 17th-century facial hair — all of which, Ifans says, ”make Lady Gaga look pedestrian.” —Grady Smith Oct. 28

In Time
”It’s a bit of a mind trip,” admits Justin Timberlake about his sci-fi thriller from director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), set in a future in which humans are genetically engineered to cease aging at 25. To prevent overpopulation, people who reach that age are given one more year to live unless they can earn — or steal — additional time. Timberlake plays Will, a factory worker who suddenly inherits a century’s worth of time, is suspected of murder, and goes on the run. The actor’s biggest hurdle? Imagining 27-year-old Olivia Wilde as his character’s mom. ”We laughed about it when we first saw each other,” recalls Timberlake, 30. ”It’s visually jolting, but within seconds you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that is his mother.”’ Maybe Will doesn’t have it so tough after all. —John YoungOct. 28

The Skin I Live In
In director Pedro Almodóvar’s first film since 2009’s Broken Embraces, Antonio Banderas plays a demented plastic surgeon who’s conducting some kind of artificial-skin experiment on a woman (Elena Anaya) held captive in his creepy-fabulous house outside Toledo, Spain. It’s a dark drama with one whopper of a plot twist. ”The people who go blank to the theater, they’re going see something really different,” says Banderas, who’s working with Almodóvar for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! ”It’s very eerie. It’s a very disturbing movie, actually.” —Rob Brunner Oct. 14

Like Crazy
If you came upon a tear-streaked love note in the street, could you resist reading it? That’s the voyeuristic draw of director/co-writer Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy, a love story about a London girl (Felicity Jones) and an L.A. guy (Anton Yelchin) who fall madly for each other in college, then try to sustain that passion on opposite sides of the world despite work, immigration law, and their own misplaced hesitation. ”I wanted to make something that felt found and stolen,” says Doremus, who based the story on a long-distance relationship of his own. ”We like to think it’s so easy to be in love, and then we’ll just be that way forever. But it was interesting for me to try to understand why two people can’t be together even though they want to be together.”

Like Crazy was a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Jones took home an acting prize — and was acquired by Paramount Vantage for a reported $4 million. That has led to big expectations for a story about small moments. ”There is no first kiss in the movie, no first-lovemaking scene,” Doremus says. ”It is essentially the little looks, a piece of music, those very ordinary things about being together that add up to memories and moments.” And, luckily for him, really good films. —AB Oct. 28

The Rum Diary
First Johnny Depp approached Bruce Robinson about working on 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Robinson, director of the cult hit Withnail & I (a Depp favorite), politely passed. A decade later, Depp sent him a copy of another Hunter S. Thompson book, the early novel The Rum Diary — a relatively non-gonzo tale of an expat American newspaperman down and out in Puerto Rico. ”Johnny’s one of the few stars who can say who they want to direct a movie,” says Robinson. ”I’m sure everyone was like, ‘Who’s this f—er?”’ It turns out he may be what Depp needed after years of playing Jack Sparrow. ”I said, ‘You don’t need peg legs or eye patches or a parrot on your shoulder — just go out and be you.”’ Somewhere an out-of-work parrot is cursing his name. —Chris Nashawaty Oct. 28

Also Playing
Juno Temple is an ’80s-era high school DIRTY GIRL (10/7)…. Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan investigate a series of murders in TEXAS KILLING FIELDS (10/7)…. Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) has culinary aspirations grander than simple TOAST (10/7)…. Martin Sheen is a father who travels all THE WAY to France to retrieve his dead son’s body (10/7)…. Mary Elizabeth Winstead faces off against an alien in a prequel to John Carpenter’s THE THING (10/14)…. A behind-the-scenes doc ponders BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY (10/21)…. A failed infomercial guru (Kevin Spacey) attempts to rebuild his empire in FATHER OF INVENTION (10/21)…. Spacey and Penn Badgley try to prevent an investment bank’s financial meltdown in MARGIN CALL (10/21)…. Camcorders capture even more ghostly footage in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (10/21)…. Tim Robbins narrates the doc REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR (10/21)…. Orlando Bloom wields a scimitar against THE THREE MUSKETEERS (10/21)…. Rowan Atkinson reprises his goofy spy in JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN (10/28)…. Jason Statham fights to keep a young Chinese girl SAFE (10/28)…. Sucker Punch‘s Emily Browning explores eroticism in SLEEPING BEAUTY (10/28). —GS