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Clooney gets my vote

Several candidates in our presidential election may have been bleating about dirty tricks and underhand tactics in recent weeks but what happened here looks like a pleasant stroll along a river bank compared with how the heavy hitters in US politics operate. Ruthless doesn't even begin to describe the lengths candidates and their campaign teams will go to in order to attain power, and it's this merciless milieu which provides the setting for George Clooney's latest directorial effort. Based on the play Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, who co-wrote the sceenplay with Clooney, The Ides of March centres on a Democratic party primary in Ohio and weaves a moral fable into a story which moves, sometimes uneasily, from an examination of the political process into the realm of the thriller. Clooney plays Mike Morris, a liberal Pennsylvania senator who would appear to be the party's dream candidate, being young, good-looking, sincere and ticking all the right boxes when it comes to his policies. However, he's not really the focus of the film -- as he showed with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Goodnight and Good Luck, Gorgeous George isn't afraid to take a relative backseat in his own movies -- that's Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a media manager/spin doctor who's experienced beyond his years and is devoted to the Morris cause.

The first part of the film deals with the horse trading which goes on in order to secure the vital support of an Ohio senator (Jeffrey Wright) as Meyers drills his young team into shape and takes Morris's message to the people.

For lovers of political intrigue, this is tremendous stuff, albeit familiar to anyone who saw the 1972 Robert Redford vehicle The Candidate or DA Pennebaker's excellent documentary The War Room about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, with Gosling cementing his status as the man of the moment with another excellent performance.

What does nag the viewer, though, is quite how a character who's supposed to be as politically savvy as Meyers can appear to be so naïve as to believe that the man he's working for can be whiter than white.

However, even though some aspects of the story don't ring true, The Ides of March is an enjoyable and intelligent film. Clooney's direction is confident and unfussy and his own performance is spot-on, leaving Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti to grab the limelight and deliver some cracking dialogue. Definitely recommended.

HHHHI

THE HELP drama. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson. Directed by Tate Taylor. Cert 12A.

Weighing in at a hefty 146 minutes, debut director Tate Taylor's adaptation of the Kathryn Stockett best-seller appears to be faithful to a fault to the source material, and his insistence on leaving no page unfilmed detracts from what otherwise stands as a fine ensemble piece.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961, just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning to gather momentum, The Help focuses on aspiring author Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) who, while writing a home help column for a local newspaper, seeks the advice of her family's long-serving black maid Aibileen (Viola Davis). As she learns more about the experiences of Aibileen and her fellow maids she gets the idea to compile their experiences into a book, thus opening a window onto their lives.

Naturally, this being Mississippi in the early 1960s, Skeeter's plan isn't greeted with enthusiasm by pretty much any party as Aibileen and her friends are quite prepared to stay in the shadows.

The prejudices of white Southern society are writ large, not least in the shrill character of Hilly Holbrook, a fairly ridiculous part tackled with admirable gusto by Bryce Dallas Howard, but even the TV movie 'empowerment drama of the week' atmosphere can't undermine the quality of the performances.

Emma Stone has been on a great roll ever since Zombieland and she's the focus here, but that still allows eye-catching turns from Octavia Spencer as the spiky maid Minny, Jessica Chastain as the vulnerable housewife Celia and lovely cameos from Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney as, respectively, Hilly and Skeeter's mothers.

In decades past, The Help would have been categorised as 'a women's picture' and it wouldn't have been the worst of them. HHHII