Talking Movies

February 12, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s last directorial outing, The Ides of March, was compelling if histrionic, but his return to the director’s chair is a sadly muddled affair.

the-monuments-men-matt-damon-george-clooneyFrank Stokes (George Clooney) approaches President Roosevelt in 1944 to plead with him not to destroy Europe’s priceless heritage in the act of liberating it. Roosevelt agrees, and so Stokes is tasked with finding some other art historians, sculptors and curators to enlist in a highly specialised unit – The Monuments Men. Stokes rounds up Chicago architect Campbell (Bill Murray), Campbell’s friend Preston (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), drunken Brit Donald (Hugh Bonneville), and Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon). A French mechanic and curator Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a New Jersey private from Germany, are added to the roster in Europe. But not only must they work with icy Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to find priceless works of art, they must outwit determined Russian and German counterparts tasked with, respectively, stealing and burning it…

I wrote that last sentence to imply tension, because there ought to be a lot of it, given both Hitler’s Nero decree, ordering the destruction of everything in the event of his death, and the startling opening credits image of Italians desperately shoring up a bomb-damaged wall which is revealed to have Da Vinci’s Last Supper on it. Instead Clooney and his eternal co-writer Grant Heslov only inject urgency for the finale as frantic deductions lead Stokes’ men to a cache of stolen art just as Zahary Baharov’s Russian art-thief Commander Elya is closing in on it. Frankenheimer’s The Train is the touchstone for this movie, but Clooney introduces two successive Nazi villains Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) and Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke), neither of whom equal Paul Scofield’s avaricious Von Waldheim; even though Wegner is given a juicily suspenseful sequence.

There were 400 Monuments Men, not 7, so inventing a strong villain wouldn’t be outré. It’s a symptom of a wider lack of purpose. Blanchett and Damon’s characters are largely redundant, and Andre Desplat, in their clumsy seduction scene and his constant insertion of jaunty comic cues, scores an entirely different film. Clooney’s vignettes range from the amusing (Damon’s appalling ‘fluent’ French) to the shocking (a startling sequence in a wood clearing) and the hackneyed (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ being sung over the Battle of the Bulge), but they never cohere into a story, owing to bewildering tonal inconsistency, and he fails to flesh out just 7 characters compared to the Ocean’s characterised ensemble. The importance of saving art is reduced to an argument winnable by a single word from a cameoing Nick Clooney, but there’s no compensatory joyous ‘greatest art heist’ ever…

This approaches The Internship for uncomfortable parallels. Stokes is too old to fight, so he assembles aged men to embark on a loftier mission than the young grunts, just as Clooney retreats from blockbusters to prestige films. Monuments Men is always watchable but falls badly between crowd-pleasing and cerebral-pleasing.

2.75/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:58 pm
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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

November 2, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney’s writing partner Grant Heslov directs his collaborator in an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, which, while consistently amusing, never becomes the laugh-riot we had hoped for concerning American military attempts to weaponise (non-existent) psychic powers.

Goats does though at times recall the Peter Cook sketch involving Lord Streebling who had been training ravens to fly underwater for decades but when asked by Dudley Moore’s reporter how many ravens he had actually successfully taught to fly underwater sheepishly replied ‘Ah, none’. Clooney as Lyn Cassady in 2003 Iraq endlessly talks up his awesome psychic powers to Ewan McGregor’s credulous newspaperman Bob Wilton then does something brutally violent before explaining how he just achieved his objective predominantly by mental means.

In flashbacks it’s another story entirely, as Wilton isn’t around to fact-check… These flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s contain by far the funniest sequences in the film as Cassady’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) bruised by his experiences in Vietnam, and a baffling near-death vision, investigates various New Age movements as a research mission and then tries to train an army unit to use their gentleness as a weapon – it’s like watching The Dude taking over David Mamet’s The Unit… Cassady joins Django’s unit and learns to dance, which (naturally) leads on to finding kidnap victims using remote viewing as his mind soars over the planet to the strains of Boston’s More Than a Feeling.

There are good gags dotted throughout the film like Wilton’s annoyed response to some training by Cassady: “‘Attack’ me” “What’s with the air-quotes, like you think I’m only capable of ‘ironic’ attack?” What’s most interesting though is that Heslov and Clooney have used Ronson’s book to make a film which is really about the American/capitalist tendency to militarise and/or crassly commercialise everything so that even positive discoveries invariably turn sinister or inauthentic. Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper represents this dark side of the force as an ambitious recruit to the unit who aspires to lead a full on psychic warrior division. Cassady, under pressure from Hooper, does in fact kill a goat by staring at it till he makes its heart stop but in doing so the Jedi Warriors (as the New Earth battalion are known – have a good laugh at McGregor being an ex-Jedi, now stop) turn to the dark side, and they are cursed from that moment on for having misused their powers.

The film’s insane finale in a secret army base in Iraq would feel at home in both MASH and Inglorious Basterds as it outrageously rewrites recent history with a more positive version of American liberty. It’s while watching this final sequence that it hits you Heslov’s point is really just Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 musing on “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon”. Amen to that.

3/5

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