Movie Review ~ Ford v Ferrari


The Facts
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Synopsis: American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe

Director: James Mangold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With authors, historians, and filmmakers having greater access than ever before to archival materials for events throughout history, it isn’t long before we’ll have an easy way to bring up a certain important milestone that occurred and research it’s significance.  In the meantime, we have to rely on those who seek to preserve these cultural touchstones and explore the work they do to bring that information to the general public.  Maybe it’s an art exhibition of a painter that died before their time and was never known for their technique in their lifetime.  Perhaps it’s a long-lost book of essays from a famous writer that was found in a safety deposit box of their former lover.  Or it could be something as simple as a movie documenting the rivalry between two car companies seeking to win a world famous race and pushing each other to build better vehicles in the process.

That’s how I choose to look at Ford v Ferrari, the dandy new racing drama zooming into theaters this weekend.  Sure, it looks like that late in the year release that feels like a perfect film for your dad to enjoy while you’re shopping for the holidays at the mall but it’s far more than a mere ‘Dad Film’ and you should consider riding shotgun for this one as well.  If you do, you’re going to find a film gassed up and ready to go from the start, with A-list talent in the driver’s seat and a fine supporting cast of venerable characters actors admirably doing stellar work in the pit crew.  Though I know over the years I’ve come across a number of them, the last racing movie I can remember seeing (and liking) in a theater was a whopping 28 years ago with the (still great!) Days of Thunder – so it was high time to get back behind the wheel and try out this model that had some history to go along with it.

As a barely casual Formula 1 viewer, the only races I had any familiarity with were the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 so learning about the 24 Hours of Le Mans that plays such a major role in this movie was a real eye opening experience.  According to Wikipedia, it is “the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France. It is considered one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world and has been called the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.”  I had always thought cars went around the track for a while and eventually whoever had the best time after a certain amount of laps won.  It totally blew by me that there was a strategy and skill involved in endurance racing, especially when you consider the length of time of Le Mans and how specifically the car has to be made to survive those conditions.

By 1963, the Ford Motor Company was in trouble.  Business wasn’t great and their production line wasn’t appealing to a younger culture that were becoming more enamored with the European cars they were seeing in films.  These foreign cars, driven by the likes of James Bond, were sleek and sexy, not boxy and chaste like the types Ford was churning out.  Inspired by his Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) makes an offer to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari who had steadily been losing business after investing so much money into their countless efforts to win Le Mans.  Hoping to claim a Le Mans victory for his company, Ford II or “The Deuce” as he was called behind his back, thought that by buying Ferrari he was guaranteeing himself a win.  When Ferrari balked, The Deuce made it his mission to destroy Ferrari by gathering a team of his own and winning Le Mans as a way to get a kind of revenge against Ferrari.

At the time, the best man to go to about cars was designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian) who had previously driven a car to a Le Mans victory in 1959.  The brusque Texan knew the right people to gather together to get the job done but also knew the corporate red tape that would ultimately get in the way – yet he soldiered on, eventually bringing in unpredictable British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, American Hustle) to test the car and steer it to victory.  Miles was known for his brilliant knowledge of cars and his talent behind the wheel, but also for his hotshot attitude and aversion to authority, a problem that comes into play when a ego-centric Ford company man (Josh Lucas, Thinner) gets promoted to oversee the racing team.  Under his penny pinching corporate eye, Shelby and Miles collaborate on a revolutionary automobile though and field test it endlessly to prepare for the legendary race.  The road to Le Mans is filled with potholes, though, and over the next years Shelby and Miles would have their professional relationship and friendship tested on multiple occasions as they navigated a company that wanted to win but with compromise and a leader who valued personal victory over loyalty.

Based on the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” by A.J. Baime was adapted by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), John-Henry Butterworth (Get on Up) and Jason Keller (Mirror, Mirror) into a well-oiled screenplay that, while heavy on car talk, doesn’t leave us non-car people in the dust.  In doing my research I’ve found that by and large Ford v Ferrari sticks fairly close to the events as they happened, taking few liberties with the real people that lived it.  As always, a movie can’t concentrate on every member of the larger team that led to success and I think focusing on Shelby and Miles was a good idea, mostly because the roles are so different yet complement each other so nicely.  Most agree that Shelby and Miles were key figures in Ford’s development of a racing car for the Le Mans race, though it’s well known it was a large team effort that wasn’t just accomplished by grease monkeys and the non-corporate type.

Director James Mangold (Logan) and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) make the non-racing scenes look absolutely stunning, whether it be a conversation Miles is having with his son (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon, in another winning performance) or when The Deuce is throwing a tantrum in front of his executive staff.  It’s the racing footage that’s truly, incredibly, awesome.  Putting you right into the drivers seat without the shaking camera that often accompanies these views, whether we are looking in, out, or around the car Papamichael makes sure we know where we are and who we are following at all times.  With several races to go through before Le Mans, it allows audiences time to get a rhythm for the racing before the big one that takes up a large part of the last hour of the movie.  Having no knowledge of this event beforehand, I didn’t know the ultimate outcome of the Ford/Ferrari match-up and I’m so glad – it helped make the movie that much more enjoyable to be in some suspense as we near the finish line.

There’s already been a lot of talk about Ford v Ferrari around the performances of Damon and Bale, questioning if one actor should put himself in the running for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.  If we’re being fair, both are leading actors of the movie but I’d argue that Bale has the larger and more pivotal role…which is of course why many are saying he should campaign as Supporting Actor (??).  Even so, it appears both actors are going for the leading category now and I worry that it will either leave both out of the nominations or allow Damon to get in instead of Bale.  Nothing against Damon because he’s very good in this, I just responded more to what Bale was putting out onto the screen.  I also greatly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Letts as the obnoxiously pompous son of Henry Ford.  Wait for the scene where Damon’s character takes him on his first ride in a true racing car…it’s worth the price of admission.  As the lone female in the film with any kind of significance (the film’s one true drawback), Caitriona Balfe (Now You See Me) is stuck with the Wife That Is Supportive Above All Else but makes it less saccharine than it could have been.  If only the script had allowed her a few more dimensions, Balfe would surely have been up to the challenge.

Some movies are easy to skip in theaters and wait until they arrive for rent at home.  This is not one of those movies.  I’d advise to see this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system available.  It can only enhance what is already a thrilling film experience, a history lesson brought to considerable life by a crackerjack team of professionals at the top of their game.  I’ve had this one on my mind quite a lot over the past week and feel as if it’s one I’ll revisit sooner rather than later.  Definitely worth your time to see it in theater.

Movie Review ~ Downsizing

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie that doesn’t have ideas to share.  It’s becoming more and more common to describe big budget action films or insipid comedies as brainless and for me that would just be the worst if I were a filmmaker.  I’m impressed with films that clearly have a point of view and, even if the movie itself isn’t all that special, at least they can go down saying they gave it some semblance of a good shot.

Such is the case with Downsizing, the new film from talented director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) who has co-written an interesting satire that doesn’t have far to go but takes a long time getting there.  It’s not lacking in good performances, dedicated direction, or superior production design but what’s it’s really missing out on is a consistent playfulness that highlight its most memorable sequences.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, Promised Land) is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks in the not too distant future.  Living with his wife (Kristin Wiig, The Martian) in their modest home they make ends meet but aren’t really going anywhere either of them have much vested interest in. They are, like so many of us, just coasting through life and waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Attending a reunion, they reconnect with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis, We’re the Millers) and his wife who have undergone a drastic medical procedure introduced as a way to reduce the global overpopulation and pollution concerns.

Through a process known as Downsizing, humans are being shrunk to five inches and living in communities around the world that are tailor-made to their new sizes.  In places like Leisureland, your life savings that once wouldn’t have covered more than a nice trip to Europe can now buy you a mansion, allowing you to live the life of luxury while eliminating the continued build-up of environmental effluence.  This irreversible process has been slow to catch on globally but those that go through it speak of its life changing benefits.

Energized by the possibility of a better life “going small”, the Safranek’s commit to becoming shrinky dinks and that’s when two things happen.  The first thing that takes place is a shift in the Safranek’s relationship neither of them saw coming, the second is that the movie almost instantly becomes less interesting.  That’s troubling because at this stage in the film we’re only about 1/3 of the way through and so it begins a slow march to the finish line…a very slow march.

It’s not all bad news, though, because there are some bright spots that pop up here and there.  Though he has a penchant for playing the same role over and over again, here two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is having a ball not playing the villian.  As Dusan, a playboy neighbor that befriends Paul, he feels at home with Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s dialogue…proving he doesn’t need a Tarantino script or lip-smacking guile to turn in a memorable performance.

Even with heavy hitters Damon and Waltz present and accounted for, the film belongs to break-out star Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was put in prison for her political activism and downsized against her will.  A Waltz’s house-cleaner, Tran is no-nonsense and to the point, something that captivates Paul.  Finding himself in her debt, a relationship forms between the two that is both surprising and surprisingly sincere.  This connection carries the movie through the final act when Paul, Dusan, and Tran travel to the original downsized colony in advance of an announcement that will change all their lives forever.

There’s good stuff in nearly every frame of the movie and while I enjoyed the film for the most part during my initial viewing, the more I sit and dissect what it’s saying the less enamored of it I become.  Up for debate is the political correctness present in Chau’s portrayal of Tran but while some have called foul I’ve heard the actress talk about her approach and she stands behind her work.  As far as I’m concerned, if she’s OK with it, the discussion is finished.  More of a pain point for me is that the movie just isn’t as interesting as it wants us to believe it is.

The middle sections sags and drags and it’s thanks to Chau’s spirited performance that the movie recovers at all.  Payne isn’t afraid to shine a light on behavior or situations he finds eccentric, I just wish he had found a few more noteworthy turns to take on the odd-ball road trip he sets into motion.  Clocking in well over two hours, Downsizing should have reduced its running time along with its main characters.

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 ~ The Martian

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: At 77, director Ridley Scott has directed films across seemingly all genres.  Starting with his first film, 1977’s war drama The Duellists to his breakout hit Alien two years later, it was clear that Scott had something going for him.  Not that there weren’t stumbles along the way (1985’s Legend, 1992’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise) but for the most part Scott has exceled in drama (1991’s Thelma & Louise), historical epic (2000’s Gladiator) and even the occasional bit of fluff (2006’s charming A Good Year).  Still, sci-fi is where Ridley Scott has felt most at home and be it the aforementioned Alien, 1982’s polarizing Blade Runner, or even his more polarizing sorta-Alien prequel Prometheus in 20012 he always (for me) delivers the goods.

So it’s with great pleasure that I report that not only is The Martian the best film I’ve seen yet in 2015 but it’s Scott’s most appealing work in years.  Based on the hit novel by Andy Weir that’s been well adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), The Martian is one of those big crowd pleasing epics that audiences won’t see coming.  I’d imagine most people will turn up to see an outer-space action film starring Matt Damon (Interstellar) but what they’ll get instead is a full bodied, full blooded, blockbuster in the making that continues to impress with each passing twist.

I was worried that Weir’s first person narrative would be tough to adapt but Goddard has fleshed out not only our titular character but a host of his comrades along the way.  Now, characters that were intriguing on the page leap to life fully formed and ready to play a part in a rescue mission taking place several light years away.

Through a series of unfortunate events, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead during an emergency evacuation of his team from their Mars outpost.  His captain (Jessica Chastian, Mama) and fellow teammates (Michael Pena, End of Watch; Kate Mara, Fantastic Four; Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Aksel Hennie, Headhunters) have no choice but to save themselves after it appears that Watney has perished in a harsh Martian sandstorm.

But miraculously Watney has survived, though it can be argued that his current situation is little better than his presumed one.  While he has enough food to last a little over a year, the next spacecraft isn’t scheduled to return for another four so he has to put his botanist skills to the test to make his own food supply while staying alive in a small habitat that isn’t designed to last as long as he’ll need it to be.

Back on Earth, a NASA authority figure (Jeff Daniels, Looper) has to deliver the bad news of a man dying on his watch but when a tech (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) notices some satellite images that suggest someone is still alive on Mars, he teams with the mission leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) to devise a way to get Watney home.  This choice is mostly to rescue the stranded astronaut but also a tiny way to save face in the eyes of media scrutiny.

At nearly two and a half hours, your bladder may shudder in fear but make sure to go before the movie starts because you won’t want to risk missing a single second of the adventure this movie takes you on.  The running time flies by due in no small part to Scott’s skill as a director and Matt Damon’s bravura performance.  If we didn’t care about Watney or like Damon the film would have sunk faster than the other movies about Mars released in the past two decades (though I liked John Carter better than, well, everyone).

The Martian is a nice opportunity for Damon to show some nuance that sometimes feels lacking in his roles lately.  His is a powerful, mesmerizing performance and it should easily put him on the short list for Oscar recognition.  From Damon on down the cast is excellent.  I was wondering why Chastain would take such a ho-hum role, until a late in the game Hail Mary that I won’t spoil tells me exactly what attracted her to the part. Daniels is appropriately gruff, Ejiofor is galvanizing, and what a treat to see Kristin Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) as serious-minded media correspondent for NASA.  As the characters are introduced it felt like an abundance of riches and their presence makes the film that much more polished.

With the advancement of special effects it seems like anyone can make you believe that you’re in outer space floating weightless but there’s something truly incredible about the production design and visual effects on display here.  Seamlessly integrating green screen technology, it’s the first film in a long while where I couldn’t tell where the effect ended and reality began.  Couple that with Harry Gregson Williams’s gorgeously haunting score and exemplary cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and you have a film that’s a real stunner.

I can’t remember the last time I left a film so fully satisfied and, better yet, energized.  Rocketing to the top of Best Picture frontrunners, the film has all of the elements that could help it nab the top prize.  We’re pretty far off from the final nominees and the dramatic films seem to rise to the top of the pile but I’m going to be pulling for The Martian to find its way into the mix.  Don’t miss it and feel free to spring for the 3D too, the effect works well to give Mars a unique depth while letting computer read-outs pop out at you.  Seriously…not to be missed.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Martian

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Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: There’s a Mars curse in Hollywood and everyone knows it. Numerous films about the red planet have been released over the years and, save for the 1990 version of Total Recall, they’ve all been belly-up flops. True, it’s not as if these were great films to begin with…like the 2000 double-header of Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars and Anthony Hoffman’s Red Planet. John Carter was savaged by critics but it was better than it was given credit for.

Now here comes director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Blade Runner) with his bid to break the Mars curse and it looks like he may have cracked the code. Though the first trailer clocks in at an astounding 3+ minutes, it’s a brilliantly edited preview of the November release…giving us some idea on what to expect but not foreshadowing what’s to become of an American astronaut stranded on Mars.

Based on Andy Weir’s 2014 novel and adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), Scott has gone big with the visuals and cast. After sharing no scenes in Interstellar, I’m wondering if Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jessica Chastain (Mama) will meet up again in this space tale. There’s also Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment), Kate Mara (Iron Man 2), Sebastian Stan (The Apparition), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Sean Bean (Mirror Mirror), and Kristen Wiig (Girl Most Likely…).

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 ~ Elysium

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Achieving a minor miracle of a success with 2009’s District 9 (which went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture), it’s interesting that it took director Neill Blomkamp several years to release his follow-up film.  Laboring long and hard on a film that, like District 9, is not merely a science fiction stunner but a thinly veiled allegory about something bigger the wait was (mostly) worth it with Elysium.

Now I know this film has some problems.  Its storyline is a bit fractured with holes that are wide and frequent but it’s the intense focus on the superior visual design of the movie that earns high marks from this reviewer.  Surely housing the best looking effects of any film released in 2013, Elysium sometimes becomes too enamored of its own shine and flash and that’s why it’s class warfare parable doesn’t seem as fully fleshed out as Blomkamp’s apartheid statement hiding under the wiry guts of District 9’s plot.

That being said, you have to hand it to Blomkamp for aspiring to something greater than just delivering straight-forward science fiction with a message that doesn’t seem force-fed or totally obvious.  I’ve mentioned in my review of the trailer for Elysium that Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster (Carnage) are notoriously choosy about their films and it isn’t hard to see why both actors eyeballed this project.  Though I don’t feel either broke any new ground, it winds up providing solid fodder for Damon to continue his flawed hero character he’s been honing since the Good Will Hunting days and for Foster to fashion another ice queen so brittle she might break if she bumped into a wall.  Foster adopts a strange accent that sounds like it was both an afterthought and extensively fixed in post production dubbing…it just felt off and a rare misstep for the actress.  The most satisfying performance comes from Sharlto Copley’s (Europa Report) wicked wicked contract killer, a rough and tumble movie villain from a movie era long since obliterated.

Blomkamp’s script has its fair share of twists and interesting commentary about future society until it pares back the bigger ideas for bigger action sequences.  These aren’t necessarily unwelcome bits of action but it feels like Blomkamp was a servant to two masters…his own ideology of what he could say with this film and a movie studio that supports the director but also sees the bottom line of a summer action film.

I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would and found it a wonder to look at, if not always to follow along with.  I’m hoping that Blomkamp gets back to what made his first US splash such a smash and find a way to achieve more balance with what he’s saying and what he’s showing.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Monuments Men

the-monuments-men-poster

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Elysium

elysium

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp made a big splash with his first film, 2009’s District 9, a sci-fi action film set in the future that was a very thin veiled statement on the horrors of apartheid.  With his newest film, he seems to be taking on a bit of class warfare in the quest of equality.  Attracting the notoriously picky Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster bodes well for the quality of the picture, and this first trailer shows the August release has impressive visuals to go along with its action roots.  We’ve had a healthy run of futuristic pictures in the last few years and it will be interesting to see how Elysium fits into the genre.