Movie Review ~ Suburbicon


The Facts
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Synopsis: A home invasion rattles a quiet family town.

Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You should thank your lucky stars that the trailer for Suburbicon was so terrible. When I first watched it and reviewed it, I was unsure if I’d even be interested in seeing what should have been a slam-dunk from a bunch of talented A-Listers in front of and behind the camera. Though I often turn my nose up at the thought of seeing a movie with a lousy trailer, there’s really no way I was going to miss one directed by George Clooney, co-written by the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!), and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.

So…into the screening I went with low expectations and a general puzzlement as to what was in store. Thankfully, here’s a rare example of a good movie with a stinker trailer…as we all know it’s usually the other way around. While Suburbicon definitely has its drawbacks, this dark comedy is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent memory that feels like it has a brainwave and not just a faint pulse.

Opening with an ad for the community living offered by the Suburbicon development, audiences will be quick to spot something missing. There are ads boasting the quality of the house of the future, the robed choir, the supermarket, and the shopping mall. Pictures of families with gleaming white grins from all over the country that have flocked to the suburbs are on display. The one thing we don’t see? Minorities. This point is driven home in one of the first scenes that show the neighborhood aghast when a black family moves in and that’s when all kinds of heck breaks loose.

Well, actually that’s what is happening in one part of the neighborhood. The new family shares a backyard with the Lodges and they’re really the main focus of the movie. While the concerned citizens of Suburbicon rally themselves into a frenzy to try to oust the peaceful newcomers in increasingly violent protests, they aren’t privy to the deadly dealings developing in the Lodge house. Husband Gardner (Damon, Promised Land), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Moore, Wonderstruck), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Maggie (also Moore, Still Alice) are terrorized one night by two men Gardner seems to know. In true Coen fashion, there’s a dark secret beneath this evening meeting that sets into motion sundry dealings that will impact each member of the Lodge family. Saying more might reveal more of the tricky workings of Suburbicon’s third act so let’s just say when a curious insurance agent (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) starts poking around, it spells trouble for Gardner and company that can only be solved by copious bloodshed.

Where this movie feels so strong is in the fact that everyone involved with Suburbicon seems to understand what movie they’re in. Not only is this evident in the period setting (with its Formica tabletops, gingham aprons, and rolled dungarees) but in the way that deception and anger were allowed to boil just beneath the surface. Never belying the cheerful façade painstakingly put on by the men that went to work, the women that stayed home, and the kids that wanted to grow up to be just like their parents, Clooney (Tomorrowland) and his actors play it largely straight and let the material do the work for them.

That’s also where the movie shows a bit of weakness. Trusting the material this implicitly leads some actors astray and not everyone is successful in their time-warp back to Suburbicon. Damon feels like he’s coasting here, probably because he’s played this type of flawed family man a few times already. Moore definitely knows her way around a period costume and plastered on smile and manages to make both her characters distinct without drawing them too broadly different…they are twins after all. Jupe is a real find and often steals the movie right out from under his co-stars that have already been showered with awards for their previous work. If there’s one person that gets it note perfect it’s Isaac as a complex investigator who susses out something is up in the Lodge house. As usual, Clooney fills out the supporting players with a wacky variety of kooks of all shapes and sizes.

I went into Suburbicon thinking that it would drown in Clooney’s apathy toward this “simpler time” but he doesn’t treat anything with a wistful eye. The story being told here just happens to be set in the ‘50s but there’s nothing saying it couldn’t easily have taken place in present day and been able to suggest the same inequalities in society. Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov worked on the script with the Coens so it’s easy to see where one group started, and one group stopped. While the Coens love a good shot of cynicism, leave it to Clooney to inject some emotional honesty right alongside it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suburbicon

Synopsis: This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is Suburbicon.

Release Date:  October 27, 2017

Thoughts: Oh goodness, what to say about this weird little trailer?  Though it boasts an appealing array of stars in front of and behind the camera, I’m just not sold on moving to Suburbicon at first glance.  As is the case with most previews lately, too much is given away in the trailer, apparently leaving very little to entice audiences to want to know more.  Director George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and writers Joel and Ethan Coen (Hail, Caesar!) are going to have to bank on more than just fans of Matt Damon (Promised Land), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) to get the word out about this tough sell.  To me, it looks too much like it will feature the worst of the Cohen’s back of tricks and Clooney’s strange directorial missteps.  While I’m always intrigued about films set in this era, it already feels like it’s going to be a chore to sit through this one.

Movie Review ~ Hail, Caesar!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.

Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Films by the Brothers Coen have always been a mixed bag for me.  Like Woody Allen’s impressive roster of releases, I feel the Coens hit the bulls-eye every two movies or so.  They aren’t all winners and as much as movie gurus implore you to like even their most misguided affairs (hello Burn After Reading!) I’ve just gotten used to the fact that I’m just not going to follow that pack and say I enjoy all of their work.

Last represented (directorially) on screen in 2013 with the seriously underrated Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have gone Hollywood with their latest romp, a madcap paean to the golden age of cinema.  Like those classic films of the ‘50s, it’s chock full of recognizable stars and has the pristine period-perfect production values we’ve come to expect from the Coens.  Yet, like most mass-produced Hollywood fare produced during that era it’s curiously forgettable almost the instant you leave the theater.

I’ve come to believe that any Coen Brothers movie can be edited to look like a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the early ads for Hail, Caesar! have certainly gave the impression there’s a lot of hijinks to be had and for once it wasn’t totally off the mark.  Nicely lampooning the types of films and stars that came out of the studio system, cinephiles will rejoice at the Coens recreation of westerns, musicals, and historical epics.

On the set of the biblical drama Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, Tomorrowland) is a handsome dimbulb about to be kidnapped and held for ransom by a pack of disgruntled communist screenwriters attempting to get back at the studio that reaps the financial benefit of their artistic contributions.  It’s so very Coen Brothers to make this buttoned-up intelligent gang not the misunderstood members on the Hollywood blacklist but full-on Russian sympathizing commies.  Several months after the problematic Trumbo gained so much attention for rehashing the dark days of the McCarthy hearings and the lasting effect they had in Hollywood, I must say it’s kind of refreshing to see this fictionalized band of writers presented as the total opposite of how we’d expect, considering the time and place.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent studios we meet a cadre of classic Coen crazies like Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a beautiful Esther Williams-esque starlet, a mermaid on screen with a hard edge once her tail comes off. Then there’s Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall) as a frustrated serious film director forced to work with a yokel rising star (a hilariously spot-on Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) plucked from the set of a cowboy film to play the lead in a high society musical.  Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) sings and tap-dances in an On the Town style musical nicely choreographed to be a little dirty and showcasing yet another undiscovered Tatum talent.  Appearing all too briefly is Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) as twin gossip columnists seeking a scoop for their next column.  Like her appearance in Trainwreck, Swinton dives headfirst into the character(s), leaving you wanting more in the best way possible.  Frances McDormand (Promised Land), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), and even Wayne Knight (Jurassic Park), pop up for the briefest of cameos (why McDormand and Hill are above the title is beyond me) as various denizens involved with either the studio, the kidnapping, or both.

Tying this all together is Josh Brolin’s (Oldboy) Eddie Mannix, employed by the studio to make sure their stars stay in line, their movies stay within budget, and all problems are kept under the rug.  Loosely based on the notorious real-life Eddie Mannix from MGM, who some say was involved with Tinsel Towns most infamous unsolved crimes, Brolin’s Mannix is recast as the neutral core of the studio/film, the one people come to when they need help or advice.

Oscar nominated this year for their script of Bridge of Spies, Joel and Ethan Coen (who also adapted Unbroken in 2014) have several moments in Hail, Caesar! that fire on all cylinders.  A discussion between four holy men and Mannix about the religious sensitivity of the biblical epic being filmed is a highlight and a perfect example of the dynamic wordplay that have defined much of the Coens careers.  Then there are the frequent stretches that philosophize past their welcome and make the wait between the lighter moments seem that much longer.  Frustratingly, I’m sure these are the passages of Hail, Caesar! that Coen aficionados will recreate in their living rooms while watching Intolerable Cruelty in their Big Lebowski slippers.

Performances are on par with what we’ve come to expect from an off-killer Coen production, zany, unpredictable, and sometimes directly out of left field.  McDormand’s small role as a chain-smoking film editor feels like a Bugs Bunny character come to life while Swinton’s rapid-fire reporter seems to have emerged directly from a Howard Hawks film.  Clooney is charming in his ego-less way and while Tatum overshoots his pretty boy hunk role by a mile (even with precious little dialogue), he somehow fits perfectly into this world.  Brolin has the toughest role, the straight man, and he’s more than capable of holding it all together.

Hail, Caesar! isn’t up there with the Coen’s best but it’s a nice reminder that when they want to goof off they still know how to let loose and have fun with their friends.

 

A quick note about the ever  popular topic of diversity…recently the Cohens caused a bit of a dust-up when asked about diversity by a reporter.  Brushing off the question and never really answering the reporter, it’s interesting to consider that there are but three minority characters in the film (a Carmen Miranda like starlet and two employees at a Chinese restaurant, with maybe 8 lines of dialogue between them)…and over the course of their 17 movies, only three minorities have ever played leading/supporting roles in a Cohen film. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Money Monster

 

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Synopsis: A bombastic TV personality is taken hostage along with his crew live on air. Unfolding in real time, they must find a way to keep themselves alive while simultaneously uncovering the truth behind a tangle of big money lies.

Release Date: May 13, 2016

Thoughts: I miss Jodie Foster.  The two time Oscar winner hasn’t been in a film since 2013 (Elysium), choosing her projects so carefully that she’s now in a state of semi-retirement.  So whenever she does choose to come out to play, I tend to take notice.  Foster’s in the director’s chair for Money Monster but she’s brought on some heavy artillery casting two mega A-list movie stars to play a brash financial guru and his weary producer that get taken hostage by an irate fan. Foster’s directing roster may be spotty but this has the whiff of something interesting, and not just because George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) look well-matched (too bad I Love Trouble hadn’t been made today…then again…). Co-starring Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) and arriving at the cusp of the onslaught of big summer pictures, I’ll invest some time in this Monster.

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 ~ Tomorrowland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.

Stars: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Judy Greer, Tim McGraw, Hugh Laurie, Kathryn Hahn, Thomas Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Brad Bird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Just last year I made my first trip to Walt Disney World in Florida in over a decade and the area I was most looking forward to visiting in the Magic Kingdom was Tomorrowland, home to Space Mountain, the PeopleMover, and most importantly to me…the Carousel of Progress. Now, all you Disney fans out there you probably read that and thought. “Carousel of Progess? Nerd alert!” but I’ve always found that the ride documenting the advances in technology stirred a nostalgia within that superseded any feelings that the ride is dated (which it surely is).

So it was pretty exciting to hear the theme song for the ride, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” pop up in Tomorrowland within the first twenty minutes.   While the song is just one of several references to the various attractions from the section of the park that the film takes its name from the movie is more than just a big screen version of a theme park attraction and, like the imagination of the man that created it, it’s filled with lots of big ideas and strong ideals.

Admittedly not the slam dunk picture I wanted it to be, the large majority of Tomorrowland works both as a sturdy give-them-what-they-want blockbuster and as a throwback to the Disney studio films of yesteryear which showcases an ordinary person finding themselves in the middle of an extraordinary adventure.

Establishing two stories in quick succession, the movie begins at the 1964 World’s Fair where young inventor Frank Walker hopes to win a prize for his jet pack invention. When his creation is rejected by a weary adjudicator (Hugh Laurie) the young boy catches the attention of a mysterious little girl (Raffey Cassidy, Dark Shadows) who gives Frank a gift that unlocks a whole new world to him.

Flash forward to the present where teenager Casey (Britt Robertson, much more at home here than she was in The Longest Ride) is doing everything she can to keep her NASA employed father (TimMcGraw wearing his newest toupee) on the job even though the space program has been cancelled. Sneaking in at night to the retired launch site in Cape Canaveral, Casey is being watched by a face from the past, a presence that needs her help to save the world from destruction.

It’s at this point, about forty-five minutes in, that the film hits its peak potential and all the elements are working in its favor. There’s an air of mystery that’s kept afloat by the breakneck direction from Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and the script from Bird and Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, World War Z) doesn’t give away all of its secrets in one breath. Then it gets messy.

There’s an oddly wacky scene featuring Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) and Keegan-Michael Key (turning in a performance for the second week in a row that generates zero laughs…last week it was Pitch Perfect 2) that feels spliced in from another Disney film…just one of several sequences/loose ends that are never fully explained or resolved. Where’s Casey’s mother? Judy Greer (Carrie) has a literally blink and you missed it cameo as Casey’s mom but is never mentioned again. There’s a band of square-jawed robo assassins hot on Casey’s trail but we never fully understand who exactly they’re taking orders from.

When an older Frank (George Clooney, The Monuments Men) meets up with Casey is when the movie that felt like it was about to sputter out shows more potential. It’s best to leave the rest of the film for you to discover on your own because Bird and Lindelof have snuck in a pretty good message underneath a bunch of handsome special effects and unexpected turns that occupy the final 1/3 of the film.

Surprisingly rated PG even though it’s quite scary (have fun explaining nuclear war to your kids!), this seems like a film that doesn’t quite know where its audience is. Disney clearly wanted to target the family folk but Bird/Lindelof have a script that’s decidedly more mature and could bore little tykes as the film approaches the end of its 130 minute run time. Still, it’s brainier than your average summer blockbuster and considering the caliber of people involved, it’s a marginal win at the end of the day.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tomorrowland

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Synopsis: Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.

Release Date:  May 22, 2015

Thoughts: Shrouded in secrecy for the duration of its filming, we’re a little over a month away from Disney opening the gates to Tomorrowland and after two trailers I’m still not quite sure what we’re in for.  Now, in this spoiler-ready climate we’re living in today I think that knowing less is better and I have faith that director Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, World War Z) have some magic up their talented sleeves.  With Hollywood heavyweight George Clooney (The Monuments Men) and rising star Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride, Cake) leading the pack, this stands a good chance at being the second boffo blockbuster of 2015 after the May 1st release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Movie Review ~ The Monuments Men

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The Facts
:

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.

Movie Review ~ Gravity

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I remember reading the plot summary for Gravity nearly two years ago and having no clue how director Alfonso Cuarón was going to pull it all off.  Essentially a two person film, you’d have to cast the right actors and keep their fight for survival moving at the correct pace to retain the attention of the audience.  Adding greater difficulty for a film set in space, the bar has been raised so high in the visual effects realm in recent years that you just can’t deliver anything less than astonishing to make us believe that this situation is real and happening in front of your eyes.

It’s probably an understatement to say that Gravity gets everything right.

What we have here is maybe the visually impressive film ever made; its craftsmanship is so subtle, so under the radar that you start to actually believe Cuarón and his actors filmed this mesmerizing opus miles outside of our atmosphere.

The film begins with a nearly deafening simple title sequence with just white letters on a black screen.  Maybe it was just the Dolby Atmos sound system in the theater I caught a screening in, but my ears were throbbing within the first thirty seconds.  It’s all part of keeping you off-kilter, though, as that blasting soon gives way to absolute silence as the film shows a space shuttle coming closer and closer.  As the camera pans nearer to it we start to hear the blips of radio transmissions between the astronauts working on the Hubble telescope and Houston back on earth.

In a seamless tracking shot that lasts nearly fifteen minutes, the camera floats up, down and around the action where Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, The Heat, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) works away and retiring space veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, The Descendants) goofs around trying to beat a record time for longest space walk.  The tranquility of these early moments is not long-lasting, though, as Houston alerts the crew that debris from a Russian satellite is heading their way.  With no time to escape, Stone and Kowalski can only brace for impact as the wreckage destroys their ship and transport back home.

That’s pretty much exactly what the numerous trailers for Gravity have shown you so far and those that think they’ve seen it all have only skimmed the surface because this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the 91 minute film.  What follows is primarily Stone’s story of survival as she works with Kowalski (at one point the two are tethered together) to find a way to safety.  It makes no sense to reveal any more, it’s not that the film is dependent on keeping a review spoiler-free but I can’t imagining seeing the film knowing how it was all going to turn out because at several points I wasn’t sure where it was headed.

Though the central set-up and a few late in the day personal elements are thrown in are somewhat contrived, it doesn’t lessen the overall impact the film will have on you.  On the other hand, while the film is a visual marvel it doesn’t fall back on its effects to cover up any weak points in the script.  There’s a justified nature to almost everything that happens here and it’s completely involving, and endlessly engaging.

Originally slated to star Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey, Jr., Cuarón wound up with Bullock and Clooney and Gravity is all the better for it.  Clooney brings his usual charisma front and center for his role and even if it’s a part the actor could play in his sleep, the way he supports Bullock shows what a true movie star he is.  .

Many people still can’t get over the Bullock bested Meryl Streep for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in The Blind Side but I still say that Julie and Julia was not a movie that Streep was destined to win for.  Bullock’s award was well earned and she hasn’t been touched by the Best Actress Curse (hello, Halle Berry!) in her selective roles since.  Her performance here is surely going to earn another trip to the Oscars and she’s a considerable contender for the award (though as of now I still believe it’s going to go to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine) and there’s no question she deserves the nomination.  It’s a inspired flesh and blood performance with a lot of guts – the actress has a breathtaking sequence where she sheds her space suit and just floats silently spinning.  Cuarón isn’t afraid to let this sequence play on and for Bullock’s vulnerability to be seen at its maximum potential.  Bravo to both for some seriously incredible work.

Count on this film to nab every single technical Oscar this year because the cinematography, visual effects, and sound design are jaw-dropping.  The views of space of flawless and seamless with not a shoddy cell on display.  I also appreciated the understated but powerful score by Steven Price.  Cuarón and his son Jonas created the screenplay for this and minor quibbles aside, it’s a lean story that’s merely a set-up for the performances and visuals to thrive.  A truly landmark achievement.

Gravity is one of those movies that you simply must see in the theater.  I saw it in 3D and would recommend it for Cuarón’s restrained use of the technology coupled with a brilliant sound design.  It’s worth the upgrade, without question.

Though it’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film, multiple moments/sequences still are running around in my brain and I can’t wait to see it again.  It took my breath away the first time I saw it and I hope you have the same experience when you take it in as well.  One of the best films of the year and one of the best movies from a technical standpoint ever made.

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.