The Silver Bullet ~ The Jungle Book (2016)

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Synopsis: An orphan boy is raised in the jungle with the help of a pack of wolves, a bear, and a black panther.

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Thoughts: You’ve got to hand it to Disney, while other studios are remaking/rebooting their films (sometimes cannibalizing them along the way), the House of Mouse is taking an interesting approach and remaking their classic animated endeavors as larger than life live-action spectacles. With the success of the rides turned movies like Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (let’s forget The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears happened, shall we?) and a splendid live-action of Cinderella, it’s looking like it is going to become a yearly event to see cartoons come to life. First up is The Jungle Book and it’s a challenging property I wouldn’t have thought Disney would take on so early but the first look presented here feels like an exciting take on the much loved story of a Mowgli and his jungle friends. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and featuring the voices of Bill Murray (Aloha), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), and Christopher Walken (Jersey Boys), it’s a wild gamble that I’m sure Disney is hoping will pay off…especially with a live-action Beauty and the Beast being prepped for 2017.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Aloha

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray

Director: Cameron Crowe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: One of the more interesting e-mails to emerge from the Sony data breach in 2014 were private conversations between top studio execs bemoaning how bad Cameron Crowe’s latest dramedy was.  You can read the story here but I’ll summarize and say that from the moment the film was first screened (under its original clunker of a title Deep Tiki) it was contending with bad audience reactions and a filmmaker that didn’t seem to want to change anything.  In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.

Originally planned for a Christmas 2014 release but moved to May to allow for writer/director Crowe (We Bought a Zoo) to tweak his film, the final product is maybe the hammiest thing to hit Hawaii since SPAM became an island favorite food.  Considering the reliable track record of the A-List talent involved I can only blame Crowe’s inability to make sense of his own script which in turn leaves his actors totally adrift, trying to create something out of nothing.

There’s really three films happening at once and if you believe what you read, a healthy chunk has been sliced out of Crowe’s original plot (excising whole characters and a subplot involving island mysticism) and what’s left is 105 minutes of incoherent scenes with incongruous characters.  The marketing will have you believe Aloha centers around a love triangle between Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), his ex Rachel McAdams (The Vow), and Air-Force upstart Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) but in reality McAdams appears in about fifteen minutes and the love story between Cooper and Stone is awkwardly shoehorned in apparently for the sake of Crowe’s carefully chosen film soundtrack.

Crowe originally set the film up with Ben Stiller in Cooper’s role and Reese Witherspoon in Stone’s and after the two actors (wisely) left, he didn’t bother to tailor the script for his new stars.  Stone’s entire performance feels like an impersonation of the type of square-jawed task master that Witherspoon would have flourished in.  Stone is an actress with definite charisma but it’s absent without leave here, robbing the Oscar nominee of chances to show the dramatic range we know she has.  I suspect, again, that this has to do with Crowe’s editing after the fact…he’s done Stone no favors the way he cut her role.

While I don’t feel like McAdams has quite the range of Stone she’s well cast as Cooper’s long lost love that fell quickly into the arms of a pilot (John Krasinski, Promised Land, who probably could have thrived in Cooper’s role) after Cooper chose work over her.  Trouble is, she’s such a non-presence in the movie that when she does pop up we don’t quite remember why she’s important…until she reveals a Big Secret that you’ll see coming a mile away.

While Cooper knocked my socks off in American Sniper, he fumbles badly here and comes off unlikable…a problem when the entire film depends on a redemption that is never fully explained or earned.  Twisted up in Crowe’s baffling plot that involves assisting a megalomaniac millionaire (a badly badly miscast Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson) in manipulating native Hawaiians out of their land so he can launch a satellite into space (I’m not kidding), Cooper can’t find his way out of the mess and starts to phone it in pretty quickly.

Since it’s been in the news so much as its release date drew near, I feel I must mention the accusations that in terms of casting the film eschews native Hawaiians for the “pretty” actors from Hollywood.  It’s not a claim that’s unfounded, sadly.  Relegating native Hawaiians only to roles seen as obstacles is a bad misstep…made more embarrassing by Stone’s tanned blonde character telling everyone she comes in contact with she’s ¼ Hawaiian…as if that somehow fills a quota.  It’s not totally white-washed ala any Nancy Meyers movie (for shame!) but there’s a definite lack of racially diverse casting at play…and that’s quite unfortunate.

It’s fitting that Crowe favors shots of people looking backward over their shoulders because it’s hard to believe that the writer/director of such true blue classics like Jerry Maguire and Say Anything… could have developed such a tin ear for dialogue.  There are a few classic Crowe turns of phrase but the random bon mots can’t save the film from being an absolute disaster and a huge chore to sit through.  In typical Crowe fashion the film is stuffed to the brim with music (some from composers Jónsi & Alex are quite pleasing) so much so that the soundtrack credits go on for a full minute in the end…if you make it that far.

Depressingly bad, Aloha will be another in a long line of failures from Crowe…and considering he’s only directed eight feature films that’s not a great track record.  Who knows what would have happened if Crowe was able to release the film he originally shot and maybe one day we’ll see his version of Aloha…but until that time comes this is one Hawaiian vacation you should decline.

The Silver Bullet ~ Aloha

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Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him.

Release Date: May 29, 2015

Thoughts: Had I not known before seeing this first look at Aloha who wrote and directed it, I can honestly say that I would have said to myself “Wow, this looks like a Cameron Crowe film…” and that says something about the type of movie Crowe is known for making. For his eighth film (and first in four years after the disappointing We Bought a Zoo), Crowe appears to have returned to the type of storytelling that first put him on the map.  In the first trailer for Aloha you can tell that he’s created real people, not some focus-group tested summary of average humans. And what about that cast? Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Emma Stone () are Oscar nominated red hot A-Listers with stars in an unparalleled ascent, joined by the likes of Rachel McAdams (The Vow), John Krasinksi (Big Miracle), Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), and the always interesting (if eternally grumpy) Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom). Originally referred to as The Untitled Hawaii Project, then Deep Tiki (shudder to think!) before blessedly settling into its current Hawaiian moniker, this could easily wind up in the saccharine melodrama bin…but I get the feeling Crowe has a warm welcome waiting for audiences.           

The Silver Bullet ~ St. Vincent

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Synopsis: A young boy whose parents just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic, war veteran who lives next door.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: When are they going to stop trying to remake As Good as It Gets? Did they learn nothing from, oh, the title of that movie? Earlier this year we were subjected to the heinous And So It Goes and now comes St. Vincent which looks an awful lot like it’s going down the same road. Admittedly, the grumpy old man shtick of Bill Murray (The Monuments Men, Hyde Park on Hudson) has worn thin on me so I’m not maybe not the most unbiased at first glance…but if his performance is a good as I’ve heard it is I’m willing to let him get one more in before busting him on it forever more. I’m also pretty gun-shy where Melissa McCarthy is concerned after being burned by The Heat and set ablaze by the agony that was Tammy. First time director Theodore Melfi brings his own script to the screen and it must be pretty darn good for Murray to have taken part in it. Final verdict is always reserved for later…but my devil horns are already on for St. Vincent.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters

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Synopsis: Three unemployed parapsychology professors set up shop as a unique ghost removal service.

Release Date:  August 29, 2014 (30th Anniversary Release)

Thoughts: I wouldn’t normally feature a trailer for an older film so prominently on this site, but seeing that said film is 1984’s Ghostbusters and that the re-release is set to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the 80s hit comedy I decided to make an exception.  There’s not a lot particularly special about this trailer, and anyone that’s remotely familiar with the movie may feel it comes off as more of an ad for the upcoming BluRay release than anything else…but my nostalgia meter went off the charts the moment Ray Parker Jr.’s Oscar nominated theme song started up.  Playing for only one week in theaters (though these limited runs often turn into two weeks at least), I ain’t afraid of no ticket prices and will happily see this one on the big screen again.

Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  In the interest of total transparency, I wanted to let you know that I’m not a dyed in the wool devotee of Wes Anderson.  Sure, I devoured The Royal Tenenbaums as fast as the next art house hound but I started to have my doubts with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and, full disclosure, didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited.  Meryl Streep got me back to Anderson providing a voice for the clever clever clever The Fantastic Mr. Fox and my journey was complete with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my top films of that year.

It’s March now but I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in February and knew even then that another Anderson film would be near the top of my list for 2014 because this film represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, most focused, most comedic, and most free from the convention and chumminess that I felt stymied some if not all of his pre Moonrise Kingdom works.

Here’s a director with that rarest of rare gifts…a point of view.  You don’t even need to know this is a Wes Anderson film to know it’s a Wes Anderson film.  His use of color and his attention to symmetric detail demonstrates a skill very few directors possess and Anderson continues to lead the way.  It says something that in Hollywood’s copy happy climate I can’t recall another studio or director that has even attempted the kind of precision and whimsy Anderson makes look effortless.

His new adventure (and it’s truly an adventure) takes place in three different time periods (and, if your theater is heeding the filmmakers instructions, three different aspect ratios) and charts the goings on of the titular lodging and it’s charismatic concierge that made it famous   Inspired by the writings of Austrian Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film has a little bit of everything from campy farce to murder mystery foibles.  Behind every door of the hotel could lie danger or a lusty encounter with lord knows who.

Priding himself on his exceptional service in and out of the bedroom, randy would-be sophisticate concierge Gustave H (an inspired Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (perfectly etched by Tony Revolori in the past and F. Murrary Abrahm in the almost present) in the ways of love and lodge, eventually embroiling him in a family squabble after a rich old lady (a marvelously brief cameo by Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) kicks the bucket under suspicious circumstances and leaves a prized painting to the concierge that warmed her bed.

Chock full of familiar Anderson players, some are seen briefly while others have meatier roles that allow them to go all out.  All are standouts but notables are Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Swinton’s son wanting his just reward, Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) drawing on his Shadow the Vampire character to play a ghoulish thug, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Big Chill) odd as ever as a family lawyer, Jude Law (Side Effects) as a curious writer, Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) turning up as a detective while Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now, The Host), Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), Tom Wilkinson (The Lone Ranger), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and of course Bill Murray (The Monuments Men) pop up when you least expect them to.

No big surprise that Anderson’s film is given the grandest of grand production designs courtesy of production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar nominated in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave), art directors Stephen O. Gessler (Cloud Atlas), Gerald Sullivan (The Dark Knight Rises), & Steve Summersgill, set decorator Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), and three time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (Carnage).  Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat composes a typically tonally perfect score that sets the mood with style.  Count on all to be recognized with Oscar nominations a little less than a year from now.

Hopefully, Anderson, Fiennes, and the picture itself aren’t too distant of a memory when the award nominations are announced at the end of the year.  It would have been so easy for Anderson to toss this jewel of a picture into the 2013 award race but I think it was a wise choice for Fox Searchlight to hold this one back a bit and let audiences come down from their American Hustle and Gravity highs to start their new season off with a bang.

A film of numerous superlatives, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for my money, Wes Anderson’s finest film to date.  Energetic, often hysterically funny, and excellent from the first frame to the last it’s as close to a perfect film experience as I’ve had in some time.  For some, it may be too left of center to feel the same way but I was bowled over with little reservation.

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Movie Review ~ The Monuments Men

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The Facts
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Synopsis: An unlikely World War II platoon are tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their owners.

Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Dimitri Leonidas

Director: George Clooney

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I was engaged for much of the two hour running time of The Monuments Men, while George Clooney and company were romping over Europe tracking down stolen art from the Nazis I couldn’t help but find my mind wandering to a movie playing in the theater next door.  While many a critic went goo-goo-ga-ga over the 70’s set heist drama American Hustle I remain an unmoved viewer. Moreover, The Monuments Men represents the film that American Hustle should have been…capitalizing not only on its cast but an interesting plot to keep audiences busy.

That’s not to say The Monuments Men is a model of perfection because its flaws are evident to the naked eye…but they’re somehow easier for me to forgive.  This is thanks in no small part to star/screenwriter/director Clooney (Gravity, The Descendants) and his great fortune in assembling a cast of talented character actors, and the resulting movie is a mostly satisfying experience.

Based on the true story of a special task platoon appointed by President Roosevelt in the middle of World War II, the museum curators and art historians that make up The Monuments Men set out to locate and protect famous works of art from falling into the hands of the Nazis.  While this set-up makes it sound like the movie could have been titled Raiders of the Lost Art, Clooney adapts the novel by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter into less of a National Treasure-esque globe hopping adventure and more of a wartime drama laced with Clooney’s trademark caustic comedy.

Trouble is, for a film that’s linear in shape it’s curiously disjointed in execution with large lapses of time happening in the blink of an eye.  If you’re someone that can’t sit through a two hour movie without popping out to use the restroom beware…you may return to a film that’s jumped ahead a significant amount of time.  Even though I was following the film closely these leaps threw me for a loop and it became increasingly difficult to track where we were.

Perhaps the star wattage (and schedules) of the cast wound up demanding this but it’s also strange that so many of the A-listers spend such precious little screen time with each other.  Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov send The Monuments Men off in pairs which may provide actors like Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson), Bob Balaban (Altered States), and John Goodman (Argo, Flight, Stella) the breathing room to find their rhythm but it robs the audience of the nifty sparks that fly the few times the gang is all together.

Timelines and screentime aside, Clooney continues to demonstrate that he’s a movie star for the ages and a snazzy director to boot.  By working with 2013 Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) and composer Alexandre Desplat (also Oscar-nominated this year for Philomena) he’s able to create a fine period production that looks great and is scored in tune with the film’s narrative turns.

Some viewers may be put off by how episodic the film is and in truth this is one of the rare times I left a screening wishing it were significantly longer.  This would have allowed more time for affable Matt Damon (Elysium) and tightly-wound Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) to flesh out their characters more…as it is they feel uncomfortably shoe-horned into the proceedings.  I find that the best kinds of ensemble films with overlapping storylines are the ones where you’re pleasantly surprised when one arc leads to another…with The Monuments Men you find yourself saying “Oh, I forgot about them”…not good.

Clooney’s a good sport as both actor and director — even casting Jean Dujardin (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Artist), the man he lost the Best Actor Oscar to back in 2012.  Though the film visits the well of Schmaltzy Big Speech one too many times, I can’t fault the film for being more pleasing than informative, more goofy than learned, and less memorable than monumental.   It’s worth seeing, but do know its overall impact is fleeting.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Release Date: March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Are you ready for The Grand Budapest Hotel?  No, really, are you ready?  Because I have the inkling the first great movie of 2014 will arrive once Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom opens its doors in early March.  Anderson is an acquired taste and truth be told it’s taken me a while to really warm up to his style but if it’s half as precise as Moonrise Kingdom this one’s going to be another strong entry in Anderson’s growing list of cinematic treasures.  As is always the case for an Anderson film, the trailer is more of an excuse to introduce the slam-dunk cast on board than it is to reveal plot details…I found myself saying “Like him, like her, love him, like him, love her…” as this second preview played on.  Highly anticipated to the point where it may not meet expectations, I’m trying to keep a lid on this one until I see it for myself.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Monuments Men

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Synopsis: In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renowned works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them.

Release Date:  December 18, 2013

Thoughts: After scoring so well as the producer of the sleeper underdog of 2012 (Argo), George Clooney now has two movies in the latter half of 2013 to get excited about.  Up first is October’s outer-space thriller Gravity where Clooney will take a secondary seat next to Sandra Bullock but it’s in December that he’ll take center stage in front of and behind the camera for this adaptation of Robert Edsel’s true life historical novel.  Clooney has a knack for assembling high star wattage for his work and he’s rounded up his usual suspects who have already done quite well for themselves this year (Matt Damon, Elysium and Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine).  You can always count on Clooney to deliver something topical, well-made, and slyly humorous that can make even a film about saving historical artifacts from the hands of the Nazi’s an edge of your seat event.