Tag Archive for George Clooney

Forces of Nature: Experiencing Cuaron’s GRAVITY

On Monday, I went to see Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity by myself. Considering how infrequently I’ve visited theaters since I’m no longer getting paid to do so, it should feel both cathartic and exciting every time. This is even my favorite time of year to see theater movies – the trailers are for upcoming Oscar films (indeed: The Counselor, Captain Phillips, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Monuments Men aired prior to the feature – along with some Keanu Reeves incoherence called 47 Ronin, which will probably be a terrible masterpiece) or the year’s horror fare. Mostly, I was just anxious. Gravity was bound to be a tense, emotionally vivid experience for somebody claustrophobic like me, who is in complete awe and terror of space, who as she gets older realizes (and rebels against – hello skydiving) her own impending mortality.

Bullock in Cuaron's Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (Courtesy Badassdigest.com)

As it turns out, alone may have been the best way to see Gravity. Scott Foundas wrote a piece over at Variety that claims the movie, which draws inspiration from art films of the 1920s and ’30s, might be considered a religious experience. That’s taking it a little too far, if you ask me…and after the Aurora shootings, I was known to call the theater my sanctuary, my temple. When you really think about it, though, isn’t that what you’re doing, going into a massive, darkened space to view flickering pictures by yourself? You’re deliberately removing yourself from one world and entering another; you’re atoning for your “sins” through voyeurism, or you’re taking comfort in others’ plight (for me, anyway, there’s always an element of schadenfreude). You’re worshiping larger-than-life actors, brilliantly imagined other worlds, technology that continues to develop a century after the first picture moved.

Gravity begins with an off-key orchestral forte that builds in volume until you’re not sure your ears can take it, then snaps off, leaving you alone in the dark and relative silence. (I was reminded of the original THX sound – remember that?) For an hour and thirty minutes, you’re trapped in space with Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical doctor who is for some reason working for NASA, and Matt Kowalski, a seasoned vet who’s looking to break the record for longest space walk. The characters are minimally developed, their arcs relatively simple and even predictable. When disaster strikes (at 90 minute intervals in film-time, hooray for suspense!), Stone and Kowalski perform exactly as you’d expect. Read more

Movie Review: The Descendants (11/19/11)

Movie Poster: The Descendants

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon

George Clooney as Matt King
Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King
Amara Miller as Scottie King
Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer
Nick Krause as Sid

How long is The Descendants? 115 minutes.
What is The Descendants rated? R for language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest brings us
the best and worst of grief and humiliation.

On opening night of the 2011 Virginia Film Festival, the new George Clooney/Alexander Payne vehicle The Descendants is sold out. A palpable buzz fills the theater, as much for the beginning of the festival as for the evening’s feature. I’ll admit, I knew little about the movie prior to the screening – but Payne’s name is enough to get me in a theater seat. With 1999’s Election, Payne handed us an older, grayer, and totally deplorable Matthew Broderick, ruining the teenage dreams of Ferris Bueller fans (and he showed us that romcom queen Reese Witherspoon has serious range). In 2004, Sideways put Paul Giamatti and a naked Thomas Haden Church on the pop culture map as pathetic middle-aged wine connoisseurs. With The Descendants, Payne turns his brutal but loving hand to Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about a cuckolded widower (played by Clooney, who is far more believable as a grieving father than as a cuckold) and his dysfunctional quest to find the man with whom his comatose wife was stepping out.

The story could take place anywhere; it bears a passing resemblance to one arc in John Irving’s New England-set The World According to Garp. Fortunately for the audience, though, Payne’s newest flick takes place in that paradise of sparkling sand and cerulean sea, Hawaii. Matt King (Clooney) is a member of one of Oahu’s wealthiest dynasties. As his family struggles to make an enormous, far-reaching real estate decision, Matt’s wife falls into a coma as the result of a speedboat accident. Matt, who until the accident was the “backup parent, the understudy,” finds himself saddled with two foulmouthed daughters. Seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a bit of a drinking problem, and apparently has kicked her drug habit following her expulsion from the last fancy private school she tried. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) has a cruel streak and an entirely understandable obsession with death and sex. When Alexandra stops acting out long enough to tell Matt his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was cheating on him, Elizabeth’s impending death takes on a decidedly more confusing hue. In one of the worst parenting decisions committed to film, Matt takes his dysfunctional family, which now includes Alex’s twerp surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause), to Kauai to hunt down the man with whom Elizabeth was sleeping.

Payne is best at depicting the niggling, cringe-worthy flaws of your average Joe. His movies are smart depictions of normal people thrust into bizarre situations – but softly strange, not so farfetched as to be impossible. Like The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Payne chooses topics that are grotesque, darkly comic. You laugh because you can’t figure out what else to do with yourself. The Descendants intersperses chuckles with poignant portrayals of grief. People respond in viscerally nasty ways to death – they lash out at one another, they place blame, they stubbornly deny that anything at all is wrong. In fact, all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief are present in Payne’s movie. One could argue people are at their worst after the death of a loved one – and in Payne’s deft hands even people at their worst are a morbid pleasure to watch.

The Kings finally locate Elizabeth’s lover Brian Speer. Speer turns out to be none other than Matthew Lillard (I only bring this up because, well, who in her right mind would choose Matthew Lillard over George Clooney?). Even worse, he’s a real estate agent heavily invested in Matt’s family’s land. In a final dagger straight to Matt’s heart, Speer has a family: pretty wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two young children. After a brief and intensely awkward confrontation, Matt can finally return to the grieving process, and as always in road movies (which this is, despite its oceanic setting), the characters grow closer together.

The majority of Americans, of course, live in the lower 48, and to us Hawaii is as exotic as a foreign country. In the opening monologue, Matt asks, “Do you think just because we live here, our heartaches are less painful?” Juxtaposed with shots of Hawaii’s overpopulated cities and homeless – the things that don’t come to mind when we think of that idyllic state – the question is startling. Likewise, it’s jarring to see Hawaii’s most influential businesspeople dressed in khaki shorts and (obviously) Hawaiian shirts: “Don’t be fooled,” Matt warns us. “The most powerful people often resemble bums and stuntmen.” Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael walk a fine line; although Hawaii is undeniably gorgeous, for the most part the beauteous landscape takes a backseat to the microdrama on the surface of the islands.

Clooney, who’s falling into common typecasting for older actors, is perhaps too suave for the role. Nonetheless he’s believable as a man stumbling into parenthood, meandering through grief, and tripping over pointless jealousy. Lillard and Greer, both comedic actors usually relegated to the role of funny sidekick, remain firmly on planet earth in The Descendants. Woodley, Miller, and Krause form a team of quirky, eventually likeable young things to bolster Clooney through his journey. Robert Forster puts in great screen time as Elizabeth’s bitter, grief-stricken father, spewing vitriol and placing blame. Though Payne is undoubtedly a great filmmaker and Clooney will draw audiences thanks to that charm, that coif, and that beautifully graying stubble, the movie isn’t brilliant. It’s a bit tonally uneven, a bit heavy on the profanity. It isn’t destined to go down in history with Election. But those like me, who are drawn to family-oriented melodramas infused with a bit of comedy, will find a perfectly likeable movie with a number of genuinely hilarious scenes. It’s smart, sad, and painful all at once, but the execution isn’t snappy enough to draw Oscar gossip. It’s a perfectly passable dramedy, but it isn’t among the best.

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (11/25/09)

Movie Poster: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Based on the book by Roald Dahl

Mr. Fox – George Clooney
Mrs. Fox – Meryl Streep
Ash – Jason Schwartzman
Badger – Bill Murray
Kylie – Wally Wolodarsky
Kristofferson – Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean – Michael Gambon
Rat – Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip – Owen Wilson
Petey – Jarvis Cocker

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Whimsical Animated Film for Adults and Children Alike

Wes Anderson’s newest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel of the same name. Dahl’s novels, which have helped usher many a disgruntled kid through the travails of childhood, don’t condescend to the young, but there’s an element of whimsy that makes readers want to live in his world. Wes Anderson’s movies, on the other hand, can be hit-or-miss. His films tend toward the pretentious, and he uses a broad cast of actors repeatedly in his movies. Understated line delivery, artfully composed shots, and a focus on dysfunction alienate some viewers while drawing ardent fans from the other end of the spectrum. The combination of Dahl and Anderson proves a winner in Thanksgiving’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, with Dahl’s fanciful novel providing a great backdrop for Anderson’s regimented directorial style.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasant return to classic stop-motion animation, a technique little used anymore. The film went through a long and rigorous production beginning five years ago, and the result is well, fantastic. The sets are beautifully detailed, the puppets’ every hair defined, and each movement is choreographed lovingly (as, one assumes, it had to be, since the film is effectively a series of photographs of puppets). According to IMDb, Anderson used a Nikon D3 camera, which allows for higher definition photography, and the film was shot at twelve frames per second instead of the normal twenty-four. As a result, the characters’ movements are a little jerky, a touch that clues the audience in to the stop-motion animation. The puppetry allows for cute touches (for instance, a “pregnancy glow” is portrayed by an actual fox-shaped lamp). The movie has an alternately surreal and very realistic feel, perfect for the material.

When the film opens, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) raid the neighbor’s chicken coop (as foxes do), and she confides that she’s pregnant just as a trap falls on their heads. Cut to two years later (twelve fox-years), and Mr. Fox works as a newspaper man instead of killing chickens, and their petulant son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) strives to live up to his father’s expectations. Mr. Fox can’t stay away from his foxy nature for long, and recruits the opossum Kylie and his nephew Kristofferson to help him begin executing his Master Plan—to steal from the three biggest, baddest, ugliest farmers in the land, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Unfortunately, the farmers catch on and begin a fruitless attempt to catch the critters as they burrow farther beneath the ground, finding new and different ways to outfox the baddies (pun intended).

By nature the plot is a kids’ story, but in Anderson’s hands, the foxes, badgers, weasels, rats, and bunnies are clad in dapper corduroy suits, living a very civilized life beneath the humans’ noses. There is talk of interest rates, feeling poor, and sports in P.E. class, where Ash struggles to “be an athlete” like his father. Though they’re living quite human lives, the animals slowly realize their talents lie in their own nature—foxes are clever, bunnies fast, moles good at digging, etc. The pleasure is in the incongruity between the civilized costumes and the distinctly wild animal behaviors. As audiences we’re used to talking animals in little animal attire, but rarely do Disney’s cavorting critters (or at least not the “good” ones) indulge their true natures. The Foxes, badger, and opossum are distinctly wild animals, and they kill chickens, ripping apart their dinner with wild furor. Anderson cuts away from any fowl murders, of course, and Kylie the opossum even comments, “there’s blood and stuff!” But nonetheless, it’s amusing to see animals acting like animals as well as taking on human characteristics. If there’s a message here, it’s that we shouldn’t try to be something we’re not.

Anderson fans will love that his directorial style is still present in a medium in which you’ve never seen him before. He has a penchant for title cards, and his films sometimes play as though they’re a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole, which can be sort of annoying in an adult narrative film. Here, though, the material is whimsical enough that it works perfectly. Anderson evidently acted out scenes himself during production, then sent video to the puppeteers and animators overseas. Though this left some of his crew disgruntled, it certainly speaks volumes about the value of our communications technology. Anderson based the film’s set on the town in which Dahl lived and worked, recorded actors’ voices outdoors to add reality to the soundtrack, and included details that show his adoration of the source material.

Though his style can be overly quirky and a bit affected, Anderson’s films generally get you laughing, and this one’s no different. Fantastic Mr. Fox may not appeal to very young children, but Disney’s soon-to-be-released new cel animation The Princess and the Frog should fill that gap. For everyone else (slightly older kids through senior citizens), Fantastic Mr. Fox is a smart, fun holiday release that’s worthy of a watch. And one thing’s for certain: you’ve never seen a movie that looks like this, but you should.

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (11/7/09)

Movie Poster: The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Men Who Stare At Goats

Directed by Grant Heslov
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
Based on a book by Jon Ronson

Lyn Cassady – George Clooney
Bill Django – Jeff Bridges
Bob Wilton – Ewan McGregor
Larry Hooper – Kevin Spacey
Todd Nixon – Robert Patrick
Gen. Hopgood – Stephen Lang
Gus Lacey – Stephen Root

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Men Who Stare at Goats

A Good Farce with a Great Cast

Imagine a world in which the military trains soldiers not to kill enemies of the state, but to infiltrate their minds with the Jedi mind trick. A different political and military climate in which soldiers in camo sport long hair, have dance parties, and hold daisies in their hands. A military unit in which recreational drugs enhance the training, where drills include psychic exercises and the Privates’ chakras are open to the world. Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats plops the audience into this seemingly alternate universe with the admonition that “more of this is true than you would believe.” The film is based on a synonymous non-fiction book by Jon Ronson that provides a comical look into the government’s struggle to exploit the paranormal to win wars.

A good part of the American population would likely watch George Clooney brush his teeth and be thrilled about it—the man oozes charisma from every pore. As Lyn Cassady, a former member of the disbanded New Earth Army, Clooney manages to take a completely preposterous character and lend warmth and seriousness to the role. Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton, whose marriage dissolved when his wife left him for his editor (who inexplicably has a weird black prosthetic hand, adding to the comic unreality of the situation). Wilton “went to war” to prove himself, landing practically in Cassady’s lap. Strange coincidences (or is it fate?) lead the duo on a voyage into the Iraqi desert while the film reveals the New Earth Army’s formation and dissolution.

Cassady’s tale exposes the travails of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who discovers that only 15-20% of new army recruits shoot to kill, while the others harbor an innate desire not to harm other humans. Armed with this statistic, Django wondered, “How could love and peace win wars?” With the question, there’s a striking insight into the American military system. How many people have pondered the notion, and for how long? There still isn’t a real solution—as evidenced by the book and the film. Django dives headfirst into the New Age movement (conveyed in an entertaining montage: The Hot Tub Exercise, the Beyond Jogging Exercise), and emerges a long-haired, gentle soul. His soldiers practice Tai Chi and yoga, dance to classic rock, and let their hair grow long. Adding a touch of reality to the subject matter, the film claims the Army’s slogan “Be All You Can Be” originated with the New Earth Army.

McGregor’s narration leads the audience on his journey from utter skepticism to complete conviction that why, yes, a person can affect the world around him with his brain. Along the way, Clooney steals scenes with his “sparkle eye technique” and his grizzled good looks. Hi-jinks ensue, and a number of strange occurrences gradually link together to form eerie evidence that perhaps there’s more to psychological warfare than forcing prisoners to listen to Barney the purple dinosaur.

 

The only particularly visually stimulating shot is the opening close-up of a Brigadier General (Stephen Lang) deep in concentration. The editing is fluid and invisible. While the story takes the driver’s seat, the stars hold the wheel. Clooney seems to be eminently comfortable playing comic characters who are a little off, and he performs soundly once again. Bridges imbues Bill with a sweet naiveté that contrasts hilariously when juxtaposed with the stringently regimented codes of the U.S. military. His performance is understated and funny, but he’s hard-pressed to top The Big Lebowski’s The Dude. McGregor plays second fiddle, but he does it well. Kevin Spacey lends his talent to the role of Larry Hooper, the driving force behind the decimation of the New Earth Army. Most of the roles Spacey chooses are slightly nefarious—and his deadpan, droll persona fits perfectly with this character (though he has one outright hilarious moment involving LSD and a gun).

Clooney and Heslov have a production company; last time they collaborated, Clooney directed and Heslov penned the script for Good Night, and Good Luck, a fantastic drama about another, more famous journalist. The Men Who Stare at Goats is an insightful (though slightly silly) glimpse into American military strategy, and it may be exactly what audiences need in the current political climate. Everyone involved seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself—and viewers will pick up on it. While it may not be the best movie of the year, it’s a smart caper with a great cast, and that will surely be enough to draw audiences.