MONEY MONSTER (2016)

May 15, 2016

Money Monster Greetings again from the darkness. Adam McKay and Michael Lewis sought to educate us on the corruption and deceit within the marrow of the financial world in The Big Short. Director Jodie Foster and three writers (Jim Kouf, Alan DiFiore, Jamie Linden) scale things way back to show the effects on a single, working class man … and how Wall Street and the media conspire to make it hard on us little guys.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer type cable news financial guru … the kind of media star who makes an Apollo Creed style entrance (complete with “dancing”) for each segment. Julia Roberts plays Patty, the show’s ultra-talented producer, and the one who keeps Gates and the show from flying off the rails. It’s just another typically hectic day in the studio, when the show is abruptly interrupted by a man who charges the stage pointing a gun at Gates. Kyle (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) has a few things to get off his chest, and makes it clear that he blames Gates for a recent financial loss … and he expects some answers.

It turns out that Gates had presented a recent investment as a sure thing, and Kyle believed him. When that company lost $800 million overnight, Kyle’s loss was his $60,000 nest egg. Kyle represents the work-class folks who are simply fed up with the lies and manipulation for which the media and Wall Street seeming conspire on a regular basis.

It’s Jodie Foster’s first directorial outing since The Beaver (2011), and she seems at home with a straight-forward hostage-for-admission story. Created for a mass audience (no segment or issue goes too deep), there are snippets of Clooney and Roberts humor that will satisfy their fans. The three most interesting characters are the gun-wielding, end-of-the rope Kyle; his pissed-with-a-twist girlfriend played by Emily Meade (who provides the film a lift when it’s needed); and Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester, the communications officer for the evil corporation at the heart of the swindle.

As with so many things these days, the hostage ordeal plays out on TV and captures the limited attention span of average Americans … heck, the film even references the OJ Simpson event. Of course, this film isn’t an instigator, but rather an exhibitor – a mirror of the times. Once the spectacle ends, everyone returns to their normal activities.

Since this thriller really only offers a few moments of real suspense, viewers might have more fun spotting and identifying the multitude of cable TV faces sprinkled throughout. The 1970’s were the era for extraordinary conspiracy movies, and this one is less Network or Chinatown, and more like Phone Booth or John Q. ‘Forget it Kyle. It’s Wall Street (and cable news).’

watch the trailer:

 

 

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HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

February 11, 2014

monuments Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on real life are often some of my favorites, but that doesn’t let them off the hook in needing to be well made. The real life story of the Monuments Men provides both pride and heartbreak. The Allied group tracked down and rescued so much Nazi-stolen artwork, while at the same time being so short-staffed that they resorted to picking and choosing what parts of history and culture to save.

For much of 2013, this movie was mentioned as a possible Oscar contender. When the release date was delayed and director George Clooney admitted he was struggling with the film’s “tone” – a balance of comedic and dramatic and historic elements – all the warning flags shot up. This final version would certainly have benefited from script improvement, though the cast is so strong and the mission so true, that the film is still enjoyable enough. Director  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have adapted the source material from Robert M Edsel, but Clooney can’t resist stamping the movie with his smirk appeal, despite capturing the look of the era.

The actual Monument Men spend very little time together, so it’s tough to call this an ensemble piece. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have their own subtle comedy routine going, while John Goodman and Jean Dujardin enjoy a jeep ride. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett add a dose of gratuitous love interest where it’s not needed, and Hugh Bonneville strikes the heroic pose of redemption. Director Clooney ensures that actor Clooney and his buddy Damon get the most screen time and close-ups, detracting from what the real story should be … the men who saved art and culture.

Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece are supposedly the centerpieces of this group’s mission, but the film really is just an amalgam of individual scenes that leave the viewer working frantically to tie all the pieces together. Shouldn’t that be the filmmaker’s job? The question gets asked a couple of times, “Is art worth a human life?”. That critical theme could have been the core of a far superior movie … one not in such desperate need of suspense rather than more punchlines.

Very few war projects have successfully blended comedy and drama. A few that come to mind are Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen and TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes“. It’s a tricky line to walk, even with a great cast. So while this one has sufficient entertainment value for a February release, I would rather recommend two others that deal with this same subject matter: The Rape of Europa (2007, documentary) and The Train (1964, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster).

**NOTE: the phrase “women love a man in uniform” was well established prior to anyone seeing John Goodman don the Army green.

**NOTE: the actor playing an elderly Frank Stokes (Clooney’s character) viewing the Madonna near the end of the movie is actually George Clooney’s real life father.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s February and you just need a pleasant movie break

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking for an in-depth look at the fascinating folks behind this fascinating story

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CreneTs7sGs


GRAVITY (2013)

October 9, 2013

gravity1 Greetings again from the darkness. Gravity is a visually stunning film that creates a you-are-there-in-space feeling unlike any other.  That said, hopefully you aren’t expecting yet another in the seemingly endless stream of unadulterated praise fests for Alfonso Cuaron’s critically beloved and audience pleasing film. While the mass appeal is certainly understandable, I’ve never been one to sit back and accept the surface value.

There are two elements for discussion here: the visually stunning and technical marvel from a filmmaking perspective, and the emotionally-manipulating and somewhat emptiness of the narrative story-telling and characters. On the technical front, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive film. It is simply breath-taking, gravity2especially when seen in the format it should be seen … 3D IMAX. Rarely, if ever, has space seemed more real, more beautiful and more ominous. From the extended opening take (Cuaron is known for his long takes), to the numerous shots of Planet Earth (from dominating the screen, to reflections in helmet shields), we are drawn in to the space walking and perils of Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  Even Carl Sagan and his “pale blue dot” musings would admire these space-based visuals of our home planet.

From an entertainment viewpoint, the film works as a high-stress, thrilling space mission gone bad and ultimate survival story. What left me feeling a bit distracted and hence, quite annoyed, was the often eye-rolling dialogue seemingly designed to force our connection with the Clooney and, especially, Bullock characters. I prefer to experience my own emotions in both real life and in movies … obvious cues and manipulating tugs through weak character development drives me away from, rather than towards the desired connectivity. My issues with the film are not related to the numerous scientific issues identified by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. This is all explained away by Mr. Cuaron’s statement that the film is “not a documentary“. If we can be cool with Forrest Gump creating the smiley face, we can accept that Sandra Bullock can navigate her way between space stations with a fire extinguisher.  What I can’t be cool with are cheap writing ploys that tell me I must feel a specific emotion at a particular time for a certain character.

gravity3 Despite this, it’s tough to argue against the technical marvel and thrilling (computer generated) experience created here. The 3D adds depth of field and adds a touch of realism, rather than the gimmicky tricks we often see with the format. With only a couple of jarring exceptions, Steven Price’s score is minimal and complimentary to the quietness of space. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) re-teams with Cuaron for the extraordinary look (with probably numerous technical Oscars on the way). Some of the symbolism was a bit overdone – recurring umbilical imagery for the re-birth, but it’s done to ensure no viewer misses the point. Finally, I got a kick out of Ed Harris’ voice coming from Mission Control (think back to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13).

I would encourage you to seek out the largest screen with the best sound … 3D IMAX is greatly preferred.  Yes, it will cost you more than you should pay for a movie ticket, but the payoff is significant.  This one won’t be the same on your ipad or even your home theater system. It’s the first step forward in movie technology since Avatar.  If you can sit back and let the movie guide you, perhaps you will avoid the frustrations I experienced.

**NOTE: Although many critics have already proclaimed this the best picture of the year and are saying Sandra Bullock is a shoe-in for Best Actress, I will not be onboard with either.  I found it fascinating and would even label it a “must see”, but truly great movies have characters and stories that draw me to them.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have access to a theater with a huge screen and great sound system – preferably 3D IMAX

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you miss its theatrical run … watching it on your laptop or ipad 6 months from now will be time wasted

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgGPTa7-vlE

 


TMI (1-7-12)

January 7, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 GEORGE CLOONEY had his first TV credit at age 7 on “The Nick Clooney Show”, a local Lexington Kentucky talk show hosted by his father.  George became a TV star playing Dr. Doug Ross on “ER” in 1994.  Director Robert Rodriguez gave him his first big movie break with From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), and he became a mega-star alongside Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (1998).  Since then, he has gone on to international fame and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana (2005).  He has also directed 4 feature films … including an Oscar nomination for Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).  However, it wasn’t always champagne and caviar (nod to Robin Leach) for Clooney.  He tried out (didn’t make it) for the Cincinnati Reds, spent some time as a young man working in tobacco fields, and when he finally moved to Los Angeles, he slept in Charlie Sheen‘s closet.  George’s aunt was Rosemary Clooney, a very popular singer and actress who got her start in the 1950’s.  George has Oscar hopes again this year with two films: The Descendants and The Ides of March.  He will next appear in the sci-fi thriller Gravity from director Alfonso Cuaron.  Expected release date: November 21, 2012


THE DESCENDANTS

November 19, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh … finally! I was beginning to wonder if 2011 was going to produce a film that I could whole-heartedly recommend to both cinephiles and casual movie goers. Writer/director Alexander Payne has delivered a gem. And in a giant surprise, it stars George Clooney as a guy going through real life stress, and in his own words, “just trying to keep his head above water“.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who is also the trustee of a family land trust. Only this is no typical family land trust. It involves thousands of pristine Kauai acreage that has been left untouched for hundreds of years. The endless stream of “cousins” want him to sell to a developer for enough gold to make them all filthy rich. The locals don’t want him to sell as they believe in the spiritual nature of land, not the green backs of hotels and beachfront homes. And Matt only wishes this was his biggest problem.

 Matt’s fun-loving wife has been injured in a speed boat accident. She is in a coma and the prognosis is not bright. She also has a living will that states no life-support, which is another of the problems Matt must face. Additionally, he must re-connect with his two daughters. See, Matt has been the workaholic attorney that has left the child-rearing to his wife. The two daughters prove to be more than a hand full for the clueless Matt. Scottie (Amana Miller) is the youngest and is struggling with how to react to the state of her mother. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is off at boarding school in hopes that she can be tamed from her wild ways. These three must come together and really bond for the first time.

 Those three problems would be enough for any one man to handle, but Matt receives one more bit of information. Turns out his wife was having an affair at the time of her boating accident. So, “having a bad day” seems a little insufficient for Matt’s situation. At this point, the movie takes a sharp left turn turn and almost becomes a mini-road trip movie. Matt, his two daughters and Alexandra’s odd friend Sid (Nick Krause) take on the mission of informing friends and relatives, while also tracking down the “other guy”.

It may seem like I have given away much of the story, but in fact, all of that has been discussed in one of the trailers. What sets this film apart is how this web of stress is handled by Matt and daughters. The story is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the screenplay is co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Watching Matt as he struggles through each decision and situation makes us pull for him, even though he really isn’t anything special … he’s not all that friendly or charming (a rarity for a Clooney character), and certainly not a polished parent.

 Alexander Payne has given us About Schmidt and it’s been 7 years since his last feature, Sideways. Both of those excellent films, and this one, give us a character on the brink … full crisis mode. Some of his characters lash out (Paul Giamatti in Sideways), while others turn to introspection (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). Here, Clooney’s character seems to have many decisions to make, but the biggest one is reconnecting with his own soul and being the kind of man he needs to be, for himself, his daughters and the sacred land.

 In addition to Clooney’s fine work, I was very impressed with Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter.  Veteran Robert Forster turns in a macho role as Clooney’s father-in-law, who harbors some resentment towards him.  Matthew Lilliard and the underrated Judy Greer play the crucial roles of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Speer. Beau Bridges plays the leader of the cousins, which also includes Michael Ontkean (from The Rookies in the 70’s).  You might also recognize surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Troy, the driver of the boat when Clooney’s wife is injured. The other two key characters are the beautiful state of Hawaii and the pitch perfect guitar and island music throughout.

The characters and story are so effective that you will find yourself tearing up in the same scene where you laugh out loud. And that will happen more than once. Few filmmakers can walk the high wire between comedy and drama better than Payne. We connect with these character as they are real people … we KNOW these people. And we know excellent filmmaking when we see it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a multi-faceted script with realistic characters and dialogue that sounds like something any of us might actually say OR you would like to see Clooney’s best performance to date (even better than Syriana).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to lean towards slapstick and your drama to be a bit less real-world scenario

watch the trailer:


IDES OF MARCH

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Political thrillers can be so juicy and filled with “gotcha” moments and “oh how could he/she” scenes. Inevitably, most come down to an “I believed in you” showdown and reckoning. This latest one based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, gives George Clooney an opportunity to play out his political aspirations without opening himself to the real thing.

Clooney also directs and the smartest move he made was assembling an ensemble cast of some of the best actors working today. Clooney plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, who is one of two still-standing Democratic Presidential contenders on the verge of the Ohio primary. His Campaign Manager is grizzled campaign veteran Paul, played with staunch principals and a black-and-white rule book by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their talented and idealistic Press Secretary Stephen is played by Ryan Gosling, who talks more in the first scene than he did in the entire movie Drive. Their opponent’s manager Tom Duffy is played by Paul Giamatti. Duffy oozes cynicism and seems to have misplaced the rule book that Paul holds so dearly.

 The film begins with the set-up so we get a feel for just how strong or weak of character each of these men are. Morris (Clooney) is obviously an Obama-type idealist who claims his religion is the US Consitution. He says this while gently poking fun at his opponent’s Christian beliefs. We see just how talented Stephen (Gosling) character is at handling the words that his candidate speaks and we see Paul (PSH) in full back room politico maneuvering.

 The film has two huge points where the mood swings. The first is a contrived, definite no-no meeting between the ambitious Stephen and the shrewd Duffy. The second is a sequence between Stephen and a 20 year old campaign intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the DNC. These two events turn the film from political thriller to melodramatic Hollywood fare. That doesn’t make it less of a movie, it’s just different than it began.

 Cat and mouse games ensue and we see just who is the master manipulator amongst a group of professionals. This is one of those films where the individual pieces are actually more interesting than the whole pie. There are two really excellent exchanges between Gosling and Hoffman. Ms. Wood steals her scenes with ease. Jeffrey Wright nails his brief time as a desperate Senator negotiating the best deal possible. Giamatti’s last scene with Gosling is a work of art. The only thing missing is a confrontation between Giamatti and Hoffman. THAT alone would be worth the price of admission.  We also get a glimpse of the give-and-take gamesmanship between the campaign (Gosling) and the media (Marisa Tomei).

You might be surprised that Clooney actually minimizes the political meanderings, though he does get in a few jabs at the Republicans. This is more character drama … how far can your ideals and morals carry you. What is your breaking point? Where is the line between realist and idealist? Is it betrayal if you act for the right reason? The final shot of film is superb. Et tu, Brute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a mixture of political drama and traditional Hollywood melodrama, especially when performed by a group of top notch actors OR you are convinced that only Republicans do bad things

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you only want a full-fledged political expose’ around running for political office OR you still believe that politicians and idealists are above reproach.

watch the trailer: