Tag Archives: George Clooney

Hooray for Hollywood

Coen Brothers deliver a splendid spoof of movies’ golden era

Hail, Caesar!

Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson & Alden Ehrenreich

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

PG-13

“People don’t want facts—they want to believe!” says Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a 1950s Hollywood studio “fixer” in the new Coen Brothers comedy Hail Caesar!, a sprawling, star-studded spoof of the golden age of moviemaking.

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin

What people believe, and what they make-believe, are the building blocks of Hollywood itself. And they’re certainly the cornerstones of the Coens’ lavish, multi-tiered parody that takes satirical shape around the production of a fictional studio’s major new movie, Hail, Caesar!, A Tale of the Christ, a Bible-based saga a la Ben-Hur, Spartacus and The Robe.

When the film’s lunkheaded leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped, Mannix has to find him and get the money-train movie back on track.

But in the meantime, he’s also got his hands full with other problems, and other films. His job is keeping the machinery of Capitol Pictures Studios whirling, keeping its numerous stars in line and out of trouble, and keeping the whiff of scandal away from prying gossip columnists, particularly twin sisters Thora and Thessily Thacker (Tilda Swinton).

Scarlett Johansson

The studio’s twice-divorced “innocent” aqua-starlet (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant with an out-of-wedlock child. Capitol’s prissy British prestige-picture director (Ralph Fiennes) is at wit’s end trying to wrangle the company’s riding, roping singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) into more refined roles. And a tap-dancing song-and-dance hotshot (Channing Tatum) glides across the set of a new musical, but his light-on-his-feet moves may be hiding heavier secrets.

Look: There’s Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and the guy (Wayne Knight) who played Newman in Seinfeld! Even if you don’t know anything about Hollywood’s “Red Scare,” you’ll still get a chuckle out of a boatload of Commies bobbing off the California coastline. And Alden Ehrenreich’s young sodbuster charming his studio-arranged dinner date (Veronica Osorio) by twirling a strand of spaghetti like a lariat will rope your heart, too.

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

For many viewers, the quirky movies of writer-director Joel and Ethan Coen have always been a bit of an acquired taste. Sure, most everybody now falls in line to applaud the genius of Fargo, No Country For Old Men, True Grit, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou. But where was the box-office love for The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis?

There may be more commercially successful filmmakers, more mainstream filmmakers or filmmakers who win more awards. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many filmmakers who love movies, and making movies, more than the Coens. And that love is evident in every carefully crafted frame of this gloriously goofy homage to the glory days of big studios, big stars and the big wheels that churned out the spectacles of Hollywood’s dream factory from a bygone era.

While Hail, Caesar! is looking backward with such comedic affection, however, it’s also making a sly, playfully subversive statement about our “need” for entertainment, the importance of escapism and how movies have always been—and hopefully will always be—a “potion of balm for the ache of all mankind.”

“What a waste of talent,” a woman behind me groused as the credits rolled, somehow disappointed. Not me, and not a chance. Strike up another win for the Coens, I say. I’m a believer. Hooray for Hollywood, and “Hail, Caesar!”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Down & Dirty

Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton make politics personal in ‘Crisis

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Our Brand is Crisis

Starring Sandra Bullock & Billy Bob Thornton

Directed by David Gordon Green

R

“I can convince myself of many things, if the price is right,” says Sandra Bullock’s character, “Calamity Jane” Bodine, in Our Brand is Crisis.

Jane is pretty good at convincing other people, too. That’s why the formerly formidable campaign strategist is lured out of early retirement to help an unpopular Bolivian president in an upcoming election—by convincing the reluctant public, through whatever means necessary, that they should vote for him.

But this battle’s not just political, it’s also personal: Bodine has to match wits with an old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s been hired to strategize for the other side.

It’s based on things that went down at a real 2002 Bolivian election, which was chronicled in an award-winning 2005 documentary of the same name. Thornton’s character is a movie remold of former hardball strategist James Carville, who appeared as himself in the original film. Bullock’s character—a part originally written for a male—is an amalgam of several other actual people.

OUR BRAND IS CRISISBullock and Thornton provide the movie’s real spark; it’s too bad there’s not more of it, and more of them, to help the whole thing catch fire. There’s a murky, turbulent history between Bodine and Candy that we never fully understand, just one of several things the movie doesn’t make clear. But the deft, unfussy way the two characters spar and parry, in guarded conversations and piercing silences, are artful reminders of just how these two pros can make the most of their screen time.

Scoot McNairy, Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie are also aboard as Calamity Jane’s team members. Zoe Kazan plays a young dirty-tricks research wonk brought in to turn up the heat when things shift into true “crisis” overdrive.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Zoe Kazan

George Clooney is one of the producers. The director, David Gordon Green, has a wide-ranging resume that includes the stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Peter Straughan, who provided the screenplay, is also the writer of the espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The movie has some solid DNA, but it never seems to know whether it wants to make us think, make us chuckle or make us sad. Is it political parody with heart, a satire that jabs with its funny bone, or a south-of-the-border rom-com based on real headlines? (The biggest  audience response, for what it’s worth, comes from Bullock’s bare buttocks hanging out an open bus window.)

If you’re a political junkie, this is your time of year. The presidential candidate debates make for riveting, sometimes-outrageous TV, and shows like The Good WifeScandalVeep and the new Agent X take viewers inside the heated (fictionalized) heavings of Washington, D.C. Our Brand is Crisis brings up some timely points about what it takes to mount—and win—a campaign.

But is anyone surprised that politics plays dirty? That strategists can be snake-oil salesmen who convince people to buy things they don’t need, to elect leaders who may not have their best interests in mind? That America exports its will and influence to other parts of the world?

After her first meeting with the Bolivian president, Bodine realizes what a daunting job she signed on for, and she wearily notes that he “doesn’t smell like a winner.” Unfortunately, despite Sandra and Billy Bob, neither does this.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Disney Dreams

George Clooney goes back to the future

 

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Casey (Britt Robertson) ..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

Britt Robertson stars as an idealistic teenager who gets a ticket to ‘Tomorrowland.’

 

Tomorrowland

Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson & Hugh Laurie

Directed by Brad Bird

PG

Walt Disney always wanted his parks to be “magical.” Here’s a movie that takes that idea and really runs with it. Actually, Tomorrowland takes that idea and flies with it—with rocket packs, no less—into the teeming, gleaming futurama of Uncle Walt’s dreams more than half a century ago when he opened the gates to Disneyland.

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Young Frank (Thomas Robinson)..Ph: Kimberley French..©Disney 2015

Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) tests his rocket pack prototype.

 

In Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays the modern-day, grownup version of a bright young lad, Frank, who lugs along his homemade jetpack to an invention competition at the 1964 World’s Fair—where Disney unveiled four major attractions. Frank and his contraption are rejected, alas, but he gets a special invitation to hop aboard Disney’s new ride It’s a Small World, which turns out to be much more than just a poky boat cruise through an international chorus of singing animatronic children: It’s a secret portal to the future!

Frank has a glorious time in the splendid world-yet-to-come, a fabulous sky-tropolis called Tomorrowland. But he can’t stay there forever. We eventually find out why he must leave, and why, decades later, he’s compelled to return.

Director Brad Bird, who’s shown his skill in both animation and live action with The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007) and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011), mixes brisk, old-school adventure and a spirit of boundless idealism onto a palette of gorgeous, eye-popping visuals. The script, which he co-wrote with Damen Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus, World War Z, Cowboys and Aliens) and Jeff Jensen, crackles and pops mystery and suspense, wit and whimsy, and deeper, more passionate themes about science, technology and ecology.

Britt Robertson—recently seen saddling up in The Longest Ride—plays Casey, the spunky teenage daughter of a NASA scientist (country singer Tim McGraw) “chosen” for her own trip to Tomorrowland. British actress Raffey Cassedy is Athena, a mysterious young girl who connects both Frank and Cassidy across time. Hugh Laurie plays Tomorrowland’s top dog, who turns out to have quite a bite. Keegan-Michael Key from Key and Peel and Kathryn Hahn, who stars in Showtime’s Happyish, have a Men in Black-ish scene as a couple of space-oddity souvenir-shop owners.

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Frank Walker (George Clooney)..Ph: Film Frame..©Disney 2015

George Clooney visits a famous international landmark…which is much more than just a famous international landmark.

The movie doesn’t note it, but Disney fans will certainly be aware that Tomorrowland was one of the five original “lands” of Disneyland, opening in 1955 to give visitors an imaginative taste of the future and outer space. Its silent “background” presence in the film deepens the movie’s make-believe mystery about just how forward thinking the House of Mouse might have really been.

There’s quite a lot happening, sometimes almost too much, and the cartoonish violence—aliens blasting people away, humanoid robots being bashed and decapitated—may unsettle some little ones. Plot points become muddled in the rush to keep moving, and the movie’s message gets a bit preachy.

But, like Frank says at one point, “Can’t you just be amazed?” Any movie that can get young people thinking about the future—the future of the planet, their future, our future—and about not giving up, even in the face of doom and gloom, is pretty amazing in itself. Maybe it really is a small, small world, after all. And now I’m super-curious about the secret purpose of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Clooney & Co.

WWII ‘mission’ movie has a modern-day message

Monuments Men

The Monuments Men

Blu-ray $40.99, DVD $30.99 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

 

Co-writer, director and star George Clooney’s tribute to the real-life men and women who put their lives on the line to recover and return the cultural treasures stolen by Nazis during World War II is a rollicking, Hollywood actor-packed mash-up of old-fashioned combat “mission” movie crossed with a modern-day message about the casualties of war that extend far beyond the battlefield. Based on a book of the same name by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, it comes with behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the film, the real Monuments Men, and the cast, which also includes Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Far Out

Sandra Bullock is a knockout in thrilling outer-space drama 

Gravity

Gravity

Blu-ray +DVD + Digital Bonus Pack $35.99 (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

Sandra Bullock stars in this technically dazzling Oscar-nominated thriller as a NASA medical engineer thrown into a terrifying struggle to survive after her first space shuttle mission suddenly erupts in catastrophe. George Clooney’s also along for some of the ride, but this is Bullock’s show all the way as her character stares down the blackness of the cold, indifferent, infinite void of the cosmos—and wonders how she can possibly get home.  Bonus content includes behind-the-scenes features, a short film by director Jonás Cuarón, and a look at the groundbreaking special effects, which create the most realistic, believable scenes of bodies and other “weightless” objects bobbing, bouncing, twirling, hurtling, and colliding ever depicted on screen.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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The Clooney Platoon

Director, star, producer & writer brings true WWII tale to life

George Clooney;Matt Damon;Bill Murray;Bob Balaban;John Goodman

The Monuments Men

Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray & Cate Blanchett

Directed by George Clooney

Rated PG-13, 118 min.

 

This tale of WWII treasure hunters is “monumental” in more ways than one for George Clooney.

To begin with, he’s the star, the director, the writer and the producer. If the movie flies or if it flops, he’ll take the bows—or the boos. And he’s obviously big on the story, based on a 2009 nonfiction book of the same name by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter.

Historically, the Monuments Men were a group of artists, art historians and museum curators commissioned by the American and British armies during World War II to help protect the historic monuments of Europe from Allied bombing. After the war, they fanned out on an even more daunting five-year mission: to recover, catalog and return millions of precious artifacts—paintings, sculptures, tapestries and religious relics—that had been stolen by the Nazis.

The movie takes a few creative liberties with the facts, but it’s mostly true, and the characters are mostly based on, or inspired by, real people. Clooney and his cast mates (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) make a fine-looking international ensemble, even if sometimes the movie’s star power, combined with overly familiar war-movie scenes, sometimes feels like Oceans 11 plus Saving Private Ryan divided by Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Matt Damon;Cate Blanchett

Matt Damon & Cate Blanchett

The bigger problem, though, is how ironically, in the midst of its “bigness,” so much of the movie seems small. Its series of disjointed, scattered moments never really come together into a larger, dramatic whole. The large cast is confined to playing strictly on the surface—we never really learn anything about any of the characters. The humor is flat, the emotion sappy and the drama tepid; although the Monuments Men are supposed to be on the war’s front lines, they rarely seem to be, or behave like, they’re in any real danger.

The film also treads lightly—too lightly, perhaps—on the terrible human toll of the Holocaust, like in a scene in which the men examine the smoldering frame of a Picasso painting that the Nazis destroyed, then turn to find a barrel filled with gold teeth extracted from slaughtered concentration camp prisoners.

Oh…teeth. Now, back to paintings.

The Monuments Men isn’t going to win any awards, but it does shine a high-profile Hollywood light on a little-known chapter of history—and a fact of wartime looting and cultural pillaging that still happens today.

George Clooney

“Was it worth it?” Clooney’s character is asked at the end of the movie. Thirty years from now, his superiors wonder, will people remember, or appreciate, all that went into recovering some 5 million pieces of priceless European civilization?

Thanks to George Clooney’s big, ambitious movie, perhaps now they—we—will. It’s just too bad that, given such a great group of actors and such a monumental story, it doesn’t do a bit of a better job of it.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Out of This World

Stunning, spectacular ‘Gravity’ shoots for the stars—and gets there

GRAVITYGravity

Starring Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

Directed by Alfonso Cuaròn

PG-13, 90 min.

Released Oct. 4, 2013

Wow—that’s the single best word I can think of to describe this truly awesome piece of moviemaking, which has instantly vaulted to the top of my list of the year’s best films.

Marooned in space after the destruction of their craft, two American astronauts suddenly find themselves on a new mission of survival.

That’s a simple enough premise, but Gravity turns its into something at once monumental and sublime, slicing to the core of our basic fears and primal issues about death and dying, isolation, abandonment and spiritual longing, and the general cosmic inhospitality and indifference that greets humans whenever we venture outside the comfort zone of the earthly place we call home.

It’s also one of the most technically dazzling spectacles to ever grace the screen, an eye-popping, digital/live-action marvel that makes the senses reel with new levels of sophistication in its groundbreaking special effects that leave most other films looking like they’re lagging light years behind.

GRAVITYAs it begins, we meet veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and his space shuttle’s medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a newcomer on her first mission. In a breathtaking, 15-minute sequence during which the camera never breaks away, we see Dr. Stone working outside the docked shuttle on the Hubble telescope, and Kowalski whisking around leisurely with his jetpack, cracking jokes with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris, a nice nod to another astronaut flick, The Right Stuff), when they receive some alarming news: A shower of shrapnel from a detonated Soviet satellite is speeding directly at them, at 25,000 miles per hour.

But the warning comes too late: The cloud of space junk, catapulted by centrifugal force as it orbits the Earth, plows into the shuttle, rendering it useless—and sending Dr. Stone flying out into the inky, star-flecked blackness, adrift, detached and alone.

And that’s just the beginning!

Other things happen—a lot of things. But revealing more would rob you of the many edge-of-your-seat surprises Gravity has in store, both visually and thematically, in the gripping story written by director Alfonso Cuaròn and his son, Jonás. Suffice it to say, as Bullock’s character does at one point, it’s “one hell of a ride.”

Back in 2006, Cuaròn made critics giddy with the tracking shots he used in Children of Men, a grungy futuristic fable that became known for a couple of lengthy, carefully executed segments in which the camera stayed with the action and characters, without cutting away, for several long, protracted moments. Those shots were über-cool, but they’re nothing compared with what the director pulls off here, in which his camera goes places, and does things, that are nothing short of jaw-dropping.

GRAVITY

You’ll not only feel like you’re floating in space, you’ll feel like you’re inside Sandra Bullock’s space helmet. (In one amazing slow zoom, the camera “takes you along” as it seems to magically penetrate the glass of her visor from the outside, turn around, and begin looking out—all as she’s turning head over heels, weightless.)

This is one of Bullock’s best performances, without a doubt; reserve her a seat down front now at this year’s Oscars. It’s one of the most dazzling-looking films you’ll ever have the opportunity to see, especially if you see it in 3-D, or better yet, in 3-D and IMAX—believe every bit of the hype. It’s a masterful achievement of technique and craftsmanship, creating what has to be the most realistic “in space” experience ever for any motion picture.

And its final scene is a brilliant cinematic brushstroke of pure movie poetry that blends heaven and Earth, rebirth and renewal, past, present and future, and a poignant reminder of the Newtonian universal constant from which the film takes its title.

In almost every way, Gravity is out of this world.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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