Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “George Clooney”

Money Monster

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2016

3.5 stars

Considering Oscar nominees The Big Short and Spotlight and festival hit 99 Homes, it’s clear we’re in the era of the “social issue” blockbuster. Be it about financial woes, systemic child abuse or the housing crisis, the silver screen is becoming the place to go for audiences to gain some sort of cathartic redress for the ills of our current world.

Money Monster capitalises on the contemporary outrage at banks and finance companies whose directors earn bonuses in the millions while ordinary Joes lose their homes, pensions and livelihoods. The film charts the misadventures of a smarmy, egotistical TV show host, Lee Gates, (a very convincing George Clooney) who is held hostage on live television by a disgruntled viewer who has lost his life’s fortune. Clooney’s real-life mate, Julia Roberts, is the soothing directorial voice in his ear-piece as tensions heighten on set and the finger of blame whirls.

Initially, Money Monster feels like it might be a misadventure for its well-meaning and earnest director, the two-time Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster, whose promotional interviews belie her serious, intellectual personality (the woman used the word “exigencies” on The Graeme Norton Show for goodness sake). As working class New Yorker Kyle Budwell (the excellent Jack O’Connell from Unbroken) waves his gun about and condemns Gates’ collusion in a game of stocks and shares where innocent people lose, the story feels far-fetched, not in its subject as much as its delivery. (Between them, the film’s three writers have credits as diverse as National Treasure, Rush Hour and Dear John, and as a result it takes a while for a taut, compelling thriller to emerge.)

But a third of the way in, things suddenly get interesting as the two-hander in the studio reverberates around the world. Meanwhile, an audience of captivated viewers tunes in, whether to see a man get his money back or take a bullet, it may not matter. For every cliché in the script there’s an enjoyably unexpected character revelation, and although the film’s moral won’t be an epiphany for anyone, Money Monster might be a show worth watching.

 

 

 

Tomorrowland

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 31st May 2015

Contrary to suspicions, Tomorrowland isn’t just a sneaky promotional tool for one region of the world’s most famous theme-park. Rather, the Disney movie has conscripted a well-regarded director (Brad Bird, whose talents are evident from the animated charm of The Incredibles to the very live, very action Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), cast a bunch of self-possessed youngsters and devised a story which, save for coherency issues, actually tries to send a positive message.

We first meet our hero, Frank Walker, as the grumpy, cynical old man he has become, played by George Clooney. Walker is pessimistic about the state of the world today, and saddened that the future into which he grew wound up bearing no resemblance to the one he envisioned when he was a bright young inventor visiting the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The story back-and-forths between past and present, with Walker pairing up with a teenage girl who is similarly scientific in her outlook, and not yet as gloomy. Together, they must save the world. Or the future. Or something.

While the film’s themes of inspiration and perseverance are clear as day (Einstein’s “Imagination is more important than knowledge” is quoted on a wall, just so you’re sure), the plot bounces around with enough diverting set-pieces and lots of clever ideas to keep it enjoyable, even if you don’t quite know what’s going on. Something is at stake, but when an insufficiently villainous Hugh Laurie asks Clooney “What the hell are you doing here?” you may well echo the same thought. (The Big Revelation is actually an important one as far as children’s movies go, so it really shouldn’t have been such a mystery.)

However, Brad Bird knows how to make a great looking film, built with high production values and a strong cast – in particular, there are terrific juvenile performances from The Longest Ride’s Britt Robertson (a Julia Roberts in the making) and the dazzling 12-year old Raffey Cassidy as Athena –  excellent role-modelling from these strong female characters. Tomorrowland the place is beautifully created, and the various escape scenes perfectly executed.

It’s a bit long, particularly when you don’t know its purpose, but Tomorrowland harks back to adventure tales of yore and its target audience is bound to have a blast.

The Monuments Men

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 9th March 2014

Oh my.

George Clooney is a terrific actor who has successfully branched out into directing and producing a raft of terrific movies, often casting his pals while still managing to direct challenging performances out of them.

But with The Monuments Men he either set the bar too high or simply didn’t think he needed to jump. Drenched as it is with a supreme cast (albeit mostly male but for Cate Blanchett’s token French resistance fighter), this true life tale of the American military wading into a subset of World War II in order to save prized European artworks had megahit stamped all over it. Astonishingly, despite its promising credentials, it manages to bore and disappoint.

One viewer’s “rushed” is another’s “economical” as we’re plunged into the story before the opening credits are over. Clooney’s Lieutenant pleads with President Roosevelt to let him take a crack team of ex-military art lovers to Nazi-infested Europe, where the enemy is methodically stealing and destroying the cornerstone of the world’s culture. Amidst lots of expository dialogue (Clooney himself spends much screen-time telling his men things that are purely for the audience’s benefit), Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray (even Bill Murray is in it!) are joined by Frenchman Jean Dujardin (The Artist) and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville as Clooney’s Seven tiki-tour across Europe on their mission. There they encounter a sour-faced Blanchett who acts like she wants to swap her Oscars for a cameo in ‘Allo ‘Allo, as the tone switches between limply unfunny (overcooked gags about Damon’s poorly spoken French) and actually-people-died-you-know moments of “pathos”.

While the fast pace presumes to disguise the lack of substance, you still have to keep your ears pricked for plot developments, if you can hear over the unnecessarily pompous “America at War” soundtrack (a disappointed thumbs-down from this reviewer to composer Alexandre Desplat).

Granted, some scenes look like the original Indiana Jones and fun may be had initially from watching the cast pal about (Gosford Park’s underappreciated Bob Balaban is a standout), but for most of its running time The Monuments Men is a massive misfire.

Gravity

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 6th October 2013

Conveying just how great Gravity is presents two massive challenges: not giving away anything from a very slight plot, and not slipping into hyperbole. But with critics worldwide describing it as “the best evocation of space you’ve ever seen”, reigning in the latter is going to be particularly tricky.

The simplest of premises is usually the best. On a routine mission to repair a space telescope, Commander Matthew Kowalski and Doctor Ryan Stone find themselves separated and one perilously adrift. That’s it. There is no alien; no imminent explosion of the Earth’s core – just the universal fear, resonant in every audience member, that in space not only can no one hear you scream but you can’t scream anyway once you’re out of oxygen. The film’s tagline “Don’t Let Go” says it all.

It is therefore the magnificently cinematic telling of such a straightforward story that hauls Gravity into the stratosphere occupied by 2001: A Space Odyssey but very little else in this genre. (We’re not talking sci-fi per se, or space horror – we’re talking “as close as you can get to What Space Is Really Like”.)

Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron wowed viewers with long, immersive takes in the dystopian Children of Men, and goes the extra mile here with a set-up that will take your breath away. Throwing us straight into life tackled in low Earth orbit, we get up close with first time astronaut Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she fights to keep her lunch down in Zero G while George Clooney’s Kowalski enjoys his final mission, zooming around her on a thruster pack while playing country music.

The opening banter in the script feels a little clichéd – a minor quibble, though, as goodness knows what else one might talk about when 600 kilometres up – but your eyes are gorging on every incredible detail as events rapidly give way to high drama that never lets up. The cinematography is remarkable, delivering intimacy through lingering close-ups that demand a lot from Bullock in particular (all the more impressive considering the actors are seldom acting directly with one another) and the camera performing incredible feats to attain point-of-view shots that bring you right into the action. If you can 3D Imax it, even better.

The score is sensational, especially over long-held shots that are deeply moving – even the obligatory earthbound back-story can be forgiven when one is so far from home. For a blockbuster movie by a Mexican arthouse director, Gravity deserves its accolades – and a second viewing.

The Ides of March

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th February 2012

Fresh from goofing about in the tear-jerking The Defendants, George Clooney is back, this time directing, co-writing and starring in a political thriller that has you wound as tightly as its characters right until the end.

Clooney plays Democratic Governor Mike Morris, presidential hopeful in the primary stages of his race to the White House.  It’s a two-horse race, and interestingly we don’t see the other horse except in sound-bites on television – because this is Morris’s contest.  We see his campaign office, peopled by bright-eyed young interns, and watch two cynically experienced campaign managers (the typically excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti) play everyone like the strategists they are.

Wisely, however, Clooney doesn’t make it all about his character.  For the centre-piece in this particular battle of chess is the young, smart and idealistic Stephen (Ryan Gosling), Morris’s brilliant communications manager.  Ethically clear-cut – he will only “do anything and say anything” for that which he believes in – Stephen is suddenly embroiled in a series of events that see him questioning his loyalty and priorities.

Clooney loves a political movie, having scored high with Good Night, and Good Luck his black and white, Oscar-nominated 1950s retelling of the McCarthy era.  This story leaps forward sixty years, into a contemporary American tale which has some resonances with politicians we’ve seen come and go in recent years.  But the story is almost arbitrarily “political” – Stephen’s choices, his treatment at the hands of merciless friends and colleagues, and his ensuing predicament could all have happened in any boardroom, TV studio or trading floor.

As with Clooney’s other thoughtful works, The Ides of March isn’t full of rousing action set-pieces, but burns slowly at first, establishing its characters’ motivations and then, one by one, tipping them upside down.  With uniformly superb performances (Evan Rachel Wood’s feisty young intern is a pleasant surprise), perhaps the greatest bittersweet pleasure is in watching Gosling’s Stephen lose his idealistic sheen as the conflict intensifies.  His subsequent trajectory from bishop, to pawn, to rook is gripping.

Coming in at a modest one hour forty, the sudden, seemingly premature ending leaves you wishing (for once) that we could follow Gosling’s journey even further into the depths of what must surely be Stephen’s own personal hell.  Meanwhile, Clooney asserts himself a serious contender for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar next week.

The Descendants

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd January 2012

The Descendants is a surprising and wonderful beast, capsizing all your expectations of “the latest George Clooney movie” at every turn.

The trailer is saccharine and banal and, thankfully, misleading – we are warned that Matt (Clooney) is a Hawaii-based lawyer, perennially busy and out of touch with his two daughters, grappling with the ramifications of his wife’s accident-induced coma. Will he bond with his girls? Will the wife survive? How is it not even George Clooney can make a Hawaiian shirt look cool?

In hindsight, the trailer is doubtless all part of brilliant director Alexander Payne’s cunning plan. Echoing the paradoxical, bittersweet tone of his acclaimed films Sideways and Election, Payne is adept at eliciting entirely naturalistic performances from a universally excellent cast of varying experience (teenager Alex, played by the little-known Shailene Woodley, displays a maturity beyond her years), aided of course by a terrific script, and the gift of authentic family melodrama. Clooney is a joy to watch, as he is tortured by attention-seeking children, challenging in-laws, and the small matter of a local community in opposition to his major land deal.

Granted, for the first quarter of an hour we are subjected to the most naive and cliched of voiceovers – whether Payne is winking, one can’t be sure – but as soon as Matt finds his outer voice and the quest begins to find truth and settle his family’s turmoil, the integrity of both character and story grows.

Don’t be fooled by the garish shirts and the lilting hula soundtrack – this is a tricky, clever, multi-faceted little film. There is plenty of room for painful revelations and bedside recriminations in this blackest of comedies which has you tearful one moment, then laughing with awkward relief the next.

Love and Other Drugs

Just what the doctor ordered

Jerry Maguire gets a modern updating (and spares us Tom Cruise) in this tale of an ambitious young pharmaceutical rep who realises what’s actually important in life when he falls for a beautiful woman with a debilitating disease.  Yup – just like it said in the trailer.

Jake Gyllenhaal (so sincerely charming and outrageously handsome that I would buy Viagra off him out of his car boot in an abandoned carpark) provides the perfect dosage of sleazy-but-vulnerable to cure Anne Hathaway’s scepticism that her early-onset Parkinson’s will prevent anyone from caring for her.  Meanwhile, we get to see the dirty underbelly of the medical profession, reassert our assumptions that pharmaceutical companies are simply evil, and watch a lot of practically-nude sex enjoyed by our perfectly pH-balanced young leads.

The overarching story isn’t new, though Hathaway handles her character’s Parkinson’s with great sensitivity having apparently researched the disease and spoken to sufferers.  Rather than using it as a prop, the condition itself is treated as a supporting character of sorts when Maggie attends a meeting and hears from others experiencing the symptoms, in what is the most moving scene in the film.  There are shades of Up in the Air in Gyllenhaal’s Jamie’s cavalier attitude to women and his evident aptitude in a sales role (delivering punchy, complicated dialogue that is laden with medical terminology, like some sort of Rainman).  Like a Clooney-in-training, Jamie is to learn the error of his slutty (sorry – what’s the appropriate male term? studly?) ways when the mutually-agreed “just sex” becomes something altogether more emotional for him.

On the one hand, this is a typical Hollywood rom-com (albeit more rom than com – although we have to endure the now seemingly obligatory fat-curly-haired-oddball-sidekick bumbling his way through embarassing scenarios, in order to hammer home just how cool and handsome Jamie is in comparison – or perhaps to provide light relief from the serious illness subplot).  However, the preponderance of semi-explicit sexual activity is more in keeping with an indie film along the lines of Hathaway’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married.  Similarly, the story is a fairly basic morality tale, which skims the bigger issues of corporate exploitation and pure greed, without really making eye contact.

Overall, it’s the believable chemistry between Jamie and Maggie (so much happier than in their previous pairing in Brokeback Mountain) that makes the film so watchable and largely forgivable, even if at the end you can’t help wondering whether you got the placebo rather than the real thing.

An American in Europe

The American

Anton Corbijn, celebrity photographer, music video maker and latterly film director, has followed up the brilliant, breathtaking Control with this superb addition to George Clooney’s body of work.  Set in Italy – that is, the real-life Italy of small, hillside towns and wrinkled folk, as opposed to Julia Roberts’ Rome and its glamorati – Clooney plays a hitman who’s preparing to do “just one last job” before retirement.  It’s a set-up we know well – Robert De Niro in Heat, and again in The Score, latterly Ben Affleck in The Town, and numerous other examples.  But it’s the way Corbijn spins this familiar tale that sends The American straight to the top of your must-see list.

Of course it looks great.  As evidenced in Control, Corbijn understands lighting, composition and cinematography better than most more experienced directors.  The film also plays with sound perfectly – just the right amount of musical soundtrack (nice use of “Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano” which was used in The Talented Mr Ripley – another film about a docile, gentlemanly killer, set in the beautiful parts of one of the world’s most intoxicating countries), and subtle use of strings to anticipate a moment of danger.  The sound is so unobtrusive, yet the mood so frequently tense, that it clearly works.

Most of all, it is the immaculate pacing that marks The American out from other assassin/thriller fare – no jump cuts, no explosions, and a car chase that is actually more of a Vespa + car pursuit.  There are long shots, held for a long time, and slow close-ups, yet we are captivated throughout.  Clooney puts in a serious performance, admittedly one we’ve seen from him before but still authentic and engaging nonetheless (his character is a taciturn chap, and we know next to nothing of his past, or indeed his motivations).  His main interactions are with a fellow assassin played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, who sports a different (fabulous) hairstyle for each of their meetings, and a far-too-gorgeous and unbroken prostitute (Italian actress/singer Violante Placido – whose name curiously evokes both violence and calm).   The local priest lectures our hero on sin and tries to offer him a means to absolution, but Jack/Eduardo is having none of it.

Other joys include a clip from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (also a masterpiece in languid cinematography and exceptional sound design) and the butterfly motif throughout.  Watching Clooney create and assemble a bespoke rifle is fascinating.  And all the while it is impossible not to root for him, ignoring his profession and the body count, and long for him to find happiness at last.  As the titles rolled I was practically gasping at how terrific the film was – a flawless piece of cinema, a superb night at the flicks.

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