Tag: george clooney

Suburbicon


Suburbicon (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is an excellent example of how incredibly difficult it is to pull off a great dark comedy. Get the tone wrong in the slightest and nearly everything becomes displaced in such a way that the entire work trips on its own feet eventually and falls to the ground with a deafening thud. There is potential in this twisty 1950s tale that takes place in an all-white community that is jolted by a black family moving into the neighborhood, but it does not possess the requisite balance of subtlety and obvious—as well as when to shatter such a state of equilibrium and perform truly shocking tonal acrobatics.

The material is written by the Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, and it requires a perspicuous eye and sound judgment considering that it tackles an enchilada of subjects, from the consequences of a home invasion seen through the eyes of a child, a scam gone horribly awry, and the prejudice of a supposedly warm and loving community. The strategy is almost always to hammer the audience with the obvious, afraid that the point will be missed by those who cannot be bothered to pause and think.

What results is an overwhelming feeling that the director can do so much more to tell an enthralling story but choosing the laziest option instead just so the work can be digested much more easily. By doing so, it sacrifices or dilutes what the story is about: the complexity of human motivations and the role of coincidence and irony when we are convinced we are in complete control of a situation. About halfway through the picture, a list of directors made its way on my mind like a marquee: the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé—all uncompromising filmmakers who would rather assume their viewers are intelligent and so they create specific stories without worry that such tales would come across as inaccessible or obscure. In addition, they have a knack for creating images that seep into the mind and their impact is felt days or weeks later.

I enjoyed some of the performances. Noah Jupe is quite wonderful as Nick who becomes suspicious that his father (Matt Damon) and aunt (Julianne Moore) might be up to something sinister right after his mother (also played by Moore) had died. Observe as he holds is own against veteran performers who are more than capable of changing the tone and mood of conversations at a drop of a hat. His terror, never one-dimensional because he adjusts the dial depending on the rhythm of impressions and disclosures, brings to mind a forgotten gem called “Parents,” a story, also set in the 1950s, about a boy who becomes convinced that mom and dad are serving human meat on the dinner table and so he decides to stop eating. With the excellent comedy-drama “Wonder” under his belt and a solid performance here, Jupe is absolutely one to watch.

Another combustible performance is delivered by Oscar Isaac. To describe his role is to spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that he brings a level of humor and wit at a point when the story desperately needs rationality. The character is designed to pester and I wished the character had been introduced much earlier on in the film because the mystery is not really a mystery for those that have seen a handful of mid- to late-1940s thrillers. I grew a bit bored because the material takes its time to dance around the obvious.

Despite numerous symbolisms and foreshadowings, somehow we see right through “Suburbicon” as if it were air—the material being so thin of intrigue, it fails to excite us, intellectually or emotionally, despite some incendiary and relevant topics it dares to tackle. Clooney’s playfulness with tone—and at times his lack of control of it—is an incorrect approach when the story demands that what we see, feel, and think about cut like a scalpel across the throat.

The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.

The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.

In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.

The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.

The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.

What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.

Hail, Caesar!


Hail, Caesar! (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Though commendable that Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” is an off-center, satirical comedy about moviemaking, its many pieces never fully come together. It is likely to breed great frustration, especially from laypeople who neither watch very many films nor are interested in how the Hollywood machine functions in the past and present.

It is a piece of work designed for a specific audience: people who work within the film industry, those who are close to it, movie critics, and cinephiles. Although I belong in one of these groups, the film is still not very funny. It is a stretch to call it anything beyond average.

The main strand that is supposed to connect every subplot together is uninteresting and at times downright boring. It involves the head of physical production of Capitol Pictures named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who discovers that the studio’s biggest movie star (George Clooney) has been kidnapped by screenwriters who happen to be communists. Cue subtle laughter here. The ransom is set for $100,000. Cue bigger laughter here. That amount of money, even in the standard of 1950s Hollywood, is inconsequential.

Brolin is convincing as a man who is torn between his current occupation and accepting a generous offer to work for the aerospace industry. One feels the performer’s struggle of trying to make sense of his character despite a script that lacks both comic and dramatic focus. I wanted to know more—and deeply—about this man who is so guilty about his every day existence, he feels the need to go to confession for every little thing. Even the priest tells him that he need not go to confession so often as he does.

On the other hand, Clooney cashes it in by utilizing his go-to aren’t-I-so-charming performance. He creates a caricature and in a movie that is filled to the brim by parody and satire, he not only disappears into the background, he is overwhelmed by them. By the end, I felt I had no understanding of what his character is supposed to be about or who the character is as a celebrity, as an actor in the ‘50s, or as a person who just so happens to be in movies. I was bored by Clooney’s many choices of barely passable mediocrity. He should change it up.

I enjoyed that the environment has a look of artificiality and superficiality to them. Every set that Eddie visits, there is a specific design and feeling. One of the most impressive scenes in terms look and effectiveness of comedy involves renowned director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) shooting a dramatic scene in a posh party but one of the replacement stars, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich—continuing his run as a performer to watch out for), just cannot get the rhythm, emotion, and dialogue of a straight-faced drama. It doesn’t help that his prim-looking co-star—not to mention the extras—is increasingly exasperated but attempting not to show it.

Watching Hobie Doyle, who is great at starring in western films but terrible with everything else, trying to act in a serious drama is like forcing an animal into a dress and expecting it to talk like you and me. It is a scene where if the set pieces and script were not on the same level of detail, it would not have turned out so amusing, so entertaining, or as pointed at its commentary that movies are fantasy, that sometimes we look at the obviously inorganic elements on screen but something inside us automatically processes them as real. This is when this film is at its most powerful—and there isn’t enough of them.

“Hail, Caesar!” provokes dry amusement but its too frivolous of an approach fails to balance all of the elements necessary to make it an entertaining and a compelling work. In the end, it is neither; it is flat, uninspiring, and forgettable. It is a work that is best treated as a footnote in the Coen Brothers’ otherwise colorful and impressive oeuvre.

Tomorrowland


Tomorrowland (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having been arrested for vandalism, Casey (Britt Robertson) soon makes bail and starts to collect her personal items. But she finds there is one thing extra in her belongings: a pin from 1964 which commemorates the New York World’s Fair. Other than being an antique, it has another special quality: When touched, Casey finds herself transported to another dimension—a futuristic place full of hope, scientific discoveries, and inspiration. She wishes to know who gave her this pin and why she had been selected to see this new world.

Based on the screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird, “Tomorrowland” is a stilted film, quite enthralling for about two-thirds its running time, especially as it lays out the circumstances of our heroine and eventually finding out about the futuristic world, but the payoff is weak, inconsistent, typical end-of-the-world template with nothing new to show or say. Regardless, there is a sense of wonder here that will appeal to more mature children, probably starting around eight or nine years of age. A younger age group is likely to appreciate the visuals but may not necessarily be able to relate to the dialogue.

Credit to the casting directors for choosing young performers who command a light about them. Robertson plays a character who is smart but convincingly rough around the edges. I believed that Casey is the kind of girl who has a natural ability in figuring out how machines work. Looking at her, I was reminded of Jennifer Lawrence at times because they both have that spice of guile but not so overpowering that it comes across either trying too hard or intimidating. Pierce Gagnon, who plays Casey’s younger brother, also has his moments. Their chemistry as siblings is so entertaining that I wished Nate was also a part of Casey’s adventures.

The adults are less impressive. George Clooney plays a man named Frank Walker who, as a kid (Thomas Robinson—another standout), was chosen by a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy—who I believe we will see more of in the future) to become a part of Tomorrowland. Although he is amusing during the character’s more sarcastic moments, I wished Frank were played by a less recognizable face. Because Clooney is such a superstar and the script does not transform him enough, it becomes a challenge to separate the actor from the character. His celebrity distracts from the story.

The film is criticized from the perspective of the material offering very preachy messages during the final third. Although there are moments that are too sugary for my liking, I did not consider such a thing to be too problematic. My disappointment largely stems from the final act revolving around the protagonists having to fight a villain, Nix (Hugh Laurie), to save the world. The fighting scenes are standard, not well-choreographed, and the sense of awe is pushed to the side for the sake of action.

I wished that the writers had taken more of a risk by minimizing or removing the action completely. Perhaps the picture might have been stronger if the screenplay had focused more on the differences among Casey the optimist, Frank the pessimist, and Nix the cynic. To take it a bit further, relate those differences to how the world can be changed, molded, or directed into a better society. That way, the film remains true to its premise: that ideas can, in fact, make a true impact in the world.

Directed by Brad Bird, “Tomorrowland” offers a generous amount of wonderful visuals and is meant to be enjoyed purely on an entertainment level. Maybe it might even inspire some children to want to become scientists or engineers. But evaluating the film solely or largely based on “the message” and how well that message is conveyed is to miss the point by a lightyear.

The Ides of March


The Ides of March (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic thirty-year-old campaign manager, working right below a powerful senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is hired to help Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) win the state of Ohio and secure a presidential nomination.

Recognizing Stephen’s suave confidence and talent for spinning stories, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the opposition’s senior campaign manager, gives him a call and suggests they meet in private: Tom wants to offer Stephen a job, one that he should accept because Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) is ready to give them his endorsement which means a certain victory for Senator Pullman (Michael Mantrell) and a loss for Governor Morris.

Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March” is not so much about the politics but the figureheads, seemingly impersonal and cold, that oil the machine. The center of the ruckus is Stephen and how circumstances force to open his eyes and how he learns to play dirty in order to have a career in a field that he is very passionate about.

Gosling is quite impressive in portraying Stephen, a man of ambition, drive, and a specific set of ideals. The film often reaches a creative zenith when Gosling must spar against acting titans like Giamatti and Hoffman—chameleon-like and fluid in portraying every nuance of emotion and intention. It is a tricky role because Gosling must find a way to come off as somewhat submissive due to his character’s comparable lack of experience in politics yet dangerous enough to pose as a real threat, both as an unstable ally and enemy as well as an eventual blackmailer since he has invested so much in the campaign.

Directed by George Clooney, the tension tightens when the behind-the-scenes drama is intercut with Morris’ speeches about how he intends on steering the country toward progress. While Morris’ supporters eat up his every word, there is a growing sense of unease as things start to go wrong in the campaign—slowly at first then like a landslide in strength and speed.

Although the dueling campaigns are both liberal in stance, the picture is a critique about politics as a whole. While it may seem glamorous and important, especially with all the press conferences and media coverages, the film reminds us that, at the end of the day, being a senator, a governor, a campaign manager, or an intern is still a job. And like certain jobs, the workplace can be a competitive environment where betrayal is like the common cold: it can happen to anybody and reactions to the infection tend to vary. Just because Stephen is smart, charismatic, and hardworking, it does not make him immune to the sickness.

Based on the screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March,” equipped with excellent monologues, may be interpreted as having a cynical message. Regardless, I found it fascinating—which surprised me because politics is not something that captures my interest as readily as, say, science or the movies. Experiencing the film is like closely observing a tight chess match. Some moves are easily foreseen but it has enough genuine surprises meant to inspire contemplation.

Gravity


Gravity (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During a space shuttle mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an astronaut, receive an order from Mission Control: abort the task because space debris triggered by a Russian missile strike is on its way. The warning proves too late—significant portions of the space shuttle are suddenly in pieces and the pair come flying about in separate directions without a tether to keep them within distance of their assigned worked area. Since it is Dr. Stone’s first mission, she panics and we observe Newton’s first law of motion in terrifying action.

“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an exhausting experience in the best way possible. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the picture shows that one does not need a bulky running time to appear significant and fulfilling. It values our time, chooses to go straight to the point, and it gets the job done. The first scene sets the pace and the director is keenly aware of this. As a result, the first ten minutes is highly accomplished, allowing us to marvel at the sight of Earth and then thrusting us into horror as the shuttle—without sound—breaks like glass. It is a sight to behold.

The story could have just been about two people in spacesuits as they attempt to survive in the blackness of space. I had my doubts. What is so interesting about someone floating about and breathing heavily? Instead, the screenplay by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón plays with the audience. The medical engineer and the cosmonaut are written smart. General plans are drawn but plenty of unexpected errors and chance happenings occur. So many turns unravel that we learn to expect the unexpected. That does not necessarily mean we are ready for them. I like it best when movies are consistently one step ahead, those that demand to look us in the eye and dare us to tangle with it.

It is masterful and elegant in conveying a sense of danger. The way the camera glides so calmly as characters attempt to grab a hold of something—anything—to avoid getting sucked into a vacuum with little to no hope of rescue jolts us into leaning closer at the screen while simultaneously flinching at the possible worst case scenario. The juxtaposition between images captured and execution are melded just right.

Half of the casting works. Choosing Bullock to play a medical engineer whose first time in space quickly escalates into an unimaginable tragedy is unexpected because I am used to seeing her in comedies and comedy-dramas. Here, she shows a more serious and somber dimension to her talent. My favorite scene involves Dr. Stone howling and barking like a dog. A lesser performer who does not completely understand the character might have refused to perform the scene. After all, it probably looks stupid on paper or it might look plain silly on screen. I loved that Bullock did it and committed to it completely. To me, it is the character’s defining moment—forget the sad revelation about her past, how much she values her solitude, and how no one is waiting for her at home. Give us an alternative to convey a character’s mindset—something fresh we can chew on.

The casting that works less effectively is Clooney. While understandable that his character is supposed to be a very charming guy, one who has experienced life and always has stories to tell, I was never lost in Kowalski or felt connected to him. Instead, I saw and was constantly reminded of Clooney the big movie star. Perhaps it might have worked better if, like Bullock to Dr. Stone, Kowalski is played by someone who is either playing against-type or someone we do not recognize.

“Gravity” is cited by some alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are two completely different movies. Both are ambitious visually. Both are willing to engage. The former is a story about survival. It takes place within the Earth’s circumference. Though some may disagree, I think it is meant purely to entertain—and there is nothing wrong with that. The latter is a story about not only our relationship with technology but also the limitations of what we can comprehend as a species. It takes place en route to Jupiter and beyond. It inspires us to ruminate.

Despite their differences, the two, in some ways, are spiritually connected.

Batman & Robin


Batman & Robin (1997)
★ / ★★★★

Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), a horticulturalist stationed in South America whose project involved cross-breeding animal and plants, caught Dr. Woodrue (John Glover) creating a super soldier named Bane (Jeep Swenson) for bidding. When she expressed her disapproval of her colleague’s indiscretions, Dr. Woodrue tried to kill her by pushing her into a batch of chemicals. This altered Dr. Isley’s DNA and gave her, now Poison Ivy, the ability to manipulate plants. Pairing up with Bane, the duo headed to Gotham City to demand answers from Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) for cutting funds out of their project. Written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” suffocated from too many plots which was unfortunate because there was a hint of good material lost in a jungle of bad. The strand which involved the decline of Alfred Pennyworth’s (Michael Gough) health was interesting because prior to this point, he had nothing much to do except being a butler to Bruce and offering a wise commentary when Bruce struggled for answers in terms of the dichotomy between his personal and professional life. Even though Alfred was only the help of the Wayne manor, it was tough to see him looking frail and lackadaisical because he was our protagonist’s only father figure. Unfortunately, the film put more weight in having fun in the form racing motorbikes which was aimed to symbolize teenage rebellion, Poison Ivy winking at the camera and mentioning how her action figures always came with Bane, and Bruce appearing in social functions with a woman (Elle Macpherson) we knew absolutely nothing about but marriage was apparently on the horizon. This confusing, cheesy pot of doldrum was heated to a boil so slowly and so painfully, it threatened the integrity of the project and the franchise. Furthermore, while I believed Clooney as Bruce the multibillionaire with that winning smile, I had an incredibly difficult time believing him as Batman. The ultimate challenge that Clooney had to face did not occur during the action scenes when he had to throw a punch and utter laughably trite lines of dialogue. It was in the silent moments when Clooney, dressed as Batman, stood next to Robin (Chris O’Donnell). I knew there was a big problem when I found that my eyes gravitated toward O’Donnell more often even if he wasn’t saying anything. Unlike Clooney, O’Donnell was a good choice to play Robin because he could just scoff and I knew exactly what his character was thinking. This error in casting proved very distracting. Notice that Clooney continued to sport a little smile when discussing Alfred’s affliction. That smile made me very angry because it communicated apathy. The scene should have had an air of seriousness because, after all, Alfred raised Bruce like a son. I wondered if the director even reshot the scene. From the looks of it, more attention was put into the special and visual effects of the chases and explosions which were, admittedly, admirable for their colors and detail. Meanwhile, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), eventually teaming up with Poison Ivy and Bane, was reduced to delivering puns, referring to himself as a “villain” and Batman and Robin as “heroes.” Well-established antagonists with real goals don’t consider themselves as villains; they don’t feel guilt toward what they do because they believe what they’re doing is right. Knowing a bit about the deeper and touching details of why Mr. Freeze turned to a life of crime, which involved his wife in cryogenic sleep, it made me angry that the picture mostly portrayed him as a cold-blooded automaton. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, despite his intimidating appearance, he was actually portrayed as having a heart, someone who didn’t enjoy hurting people, but he felt he needed to in order to get one step closer in saving his love? The action sequences in “Batman & Robin,” one occurred in the Gotham City Museum of Modern Art looking like an ice rink on acid, were quite a sight at times but it had no heart. It wasn’t cool to give the audience such a cold shoulder.