In the opening setup of "Ides of March," Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) is giving his stump speech, a stem-winder that resonates with his liberal, Democratic audience.

In the opening setup of "The Ides of March," Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) is giving his stump speech, a stem-winder that resonates with his liberal, Democratic audience. Blue and white Morris signs are everywhere. But this isn't a presidential campaign, it's a primary to select the Democrat who will later challenge the GOP nominee. The candidates are in Ohio, and the stakes are high.

Morris has all hands on deck, especially his first team: Stephen Meyer (Ryan Gosling), press secretary; Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), veteran campaign manager; and a bevy of assistants, to include Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a dedicated-to-the-cause intern. Ohio is heavily contested, and everyone is in full winner-takes-all mode.

As act one opens, there is a developing sense that "Ides of March" will be a crisp political thriller that will focus on a candidate who is, as Meyer says, "the one" — Morris will change lives, he will change America. Morris is a veteran and knows what he is about, and nicely fits the profile of a can-do candidate.

There are set pieces where Meyer, an instinctive media specialist, works with Zara to position Morris to his best advantage, while dealing with the opposition's campaign professionals who are as driven as they are.

But then the film makes a dramatic shift, one that is completely unexpected, focusing for all of act two and three on Meyer, whose idealism is challenged, his values tested. Suddenly this becomes not so much a political procedural as a character study of Meyer directly; and indirectly of Morris and Zara.

In a way, the film becomes a morality play. Idealism struggles with cynicism and the dark side of politics.

The risk taken by the filmmakers is that the mood of audiences today, all things considered, is one of cynicism; yet, the morality play we yearn to see in this stylish drama is one where ideals and our best political angels prevail.

To say more about the narrative is to rob moviegoers of the chance to see the film fresh, without foreknowledge. But what can be commented on, without reservation, is the ensemble cast. This is a deep bench. Clooney, who adapted "Ides of March" from a play by Beau Willimon, directs, eliciting outstanding performances from all the actors. Consider the lineup: Seymour Hoffman, consistently brilliant; Marisa Tomei, an Academy Award-winning actress now delivering remarkable performances in supporting roles, here as a tough journalist; Paul Giamatti, incredibly talented, is the campaign manager for the other Democratic contender; Wood, the vulnerable intern, finding herself in harm's way; and, of course, Gosling, who captures the essence of his conflicted character while mirroring the ambiguity of the film itself.

Watching this top-drawer group work is a superb moviegoing experience. The screenplay is open to discussion.

50/50

Illness is a familiar Hollywood trope — some might say often hackneyed, cruelly sentimental and ever predictable. The just released "50/50" is, however, fashioned from a different template, resulting in a compelling, serious and heartfelt comedic film. It manages to walk a fragile line between being overtly maudlin, with a hint of dark tragedy, while offering comedy relief. It's no easy accomplishment.

"50/50" works in no small measure because of its fine acting ensemble, led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a twenty-something producer for a Seattle radio station. He receives a chilling diagnosis of cancer of the spine.

While the narrative has a certain linearity, Adam's situation is explored most meaningfully through a series of vignettes, beginning with Kyle, Adam's best friend, portrayed by Seth Rogen in inimitable, shameless Rogen style.

There are a bevy of wonderful moments in this film. Adam is assigned Katherine (Anna Kendrick), an illness-counselor (in-training), and they create deeply nuanced exchanges as they struggle to find ways of coping with the train wreck that is bearing down on Adam. It's a display of exceptional acting. Meanwhile, he insists that he looks like Harry Potter's nemesis, Voldermort.

To face a diagnosis like the one Adam is given requires a reservoir of courage that is unimaginable, often framed by a quest for surcease from an avalanche of bleak options while nurturing hope and wishing only to be cured.

"50/50" captures this tsunami of emotions while avoiding a sustained darkness that would send the film off a cliff. It is a fine line, and this film manages it almost perfectly.