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Posts Tagged ‘George Clooney’

Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaacs – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

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It feels like a bit of a coincidence that Jodie Foster’s Money Monster should turn up on UK screens the week after A Hologram for the King, because these are both essentially star vehicles about businessmen having existential crises, with the subtext of the story pretty heavily informed by the aftermath of the financial crisis. Together with The Big Short, I make that three films on the topic this year alone. None of them are actually bad, and I did enjoy The Big Short very much, but why has it taken seven or eight years for Hollywood to get around to addressing this stuff? They were rather quicker off the mark when it came to the September the 11th bombings and the subsequent unpleasantnesses.

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Hey ho. Money Monster is certainly the most generic of the three films I’ve mentioned. George Clooney plays Lee Gates, a gonzo stock market commentator and financial tipster who fronts a (quite tacky) daily show on a (presumably fictitious) TV network. He is, as you can probably guess, a deeply flawed, cynical human being, thoughtless towards his co-workers (mainly his director, played by Julia Roberts), full of himself – in other words, ripe for a transformative experience.

And lo, one comes along with immaculate timing, as the show is hijacked by angry viewer Kyle (Jack O’Connell, another instance of that weird thing where someone off Hollyoaks or Emmerdale somehow manages to land a sizeable part in a proper movie). Kyle is not pleased, because having followed Lee’s advice scrupulously, a freak meltdown has wiped out his $60,000 life savings and he would like an explanation. Surmising, probably correctly, that people like him are not often listened to by wealthy financial players, Kyle sticks Lee in a suicide vest and threatens to blow him up unless chapter and verse on what went wrong is forthcoming…

You see what they’ve done there? They’ve come up with a way to have a film which has lots of potentially fruitful character stuff, and addresses important contemporary world issues, but is also built around a time-honoured dramatic staple – in this case, a hostage crisis. All the bits and trappings of this sort of story get wheeled out – the police turn up and start talking to each other using words like ‘perimeter’ and ‘clear shot’, people in bars notice what’s happening on the TV and gather round to watch, you know the drill. A bit of wrinkle this time round is that a lot of this peripheral stuff happens on a global scale – places like Iceland, South Africa, and Korea – and I initially assumed Foster was making a point about the interconnectedness of the modern world. It turns out to be something more specific to the plot, but I think this is still left implied.

Foster orchestrates the story very adroitly, keeping all her plates spinning – there’s the stuff in the studio, the police operation to resolve the situation, and another plotline about an executive (played by Caitriona Balfe) at the company where the freak meltdown occurred trying to discover exactly what happened and getting more than she bargained for. Just for a touch of flavour and to keep things from being too worthy, Foster introduces an element of black comedy into the story that I honestly hadn’t expected – various attempts to sort everything out, which you might expect to have some traction in this kind of film, spectacularly fail with darkly funny consequences.

And it’s all very solidly done – the actors are all on form, the genre elements are well-handled, and the social comment stuff is pertinent without feeling too preachy. To be honest, it kind of feels like the film cops out a bit on this aspect – rather than sticking with the idea that the financial system is inherent flawed and that sooner or later things will fall down and people will suffer as a result, Money Monster reveals that the mini-crash driving the plot has a rather different origin. But then this is a mainstream picture from a big studio, it was never going to be in agreement with the manifesto of Occupy.

The climax of the film strains credulity a bit, and it is perhaps a shame for some elements of the conclusion to be quite so predictable, but on the whole this is an entertaining film with just enough intellectual chewy bits to make you feel good about yourself for watching it. It’s unlikely to go down as a career highlight for any of the major talent involved, but it passes the time very agreeably.

 

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I am well aware that in respectable film-watching circles it is absolutely unacceptable not to like the Coen brothers. And I can see why: their films are unfailingly soundly made, well-performed, and interesting – often interestingly off-beat, of course. One of the films which impressed me most at the back end of last year, Bridge of Spies, was based on a Coen script. And yet I honestly can’t call myself a fan – there’s something just a bit too arch and mannered, too cerebral, about most of their films, as if they’re little formal exercises in film-making rather than genuine attempts at art or entertainment.

But hey ho. Their films look good and are generally well-liked and promoted, and currently drawing the usual happy critical notices is Hail, Caesar!, a film about (I suppose) the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The central figure is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a very heavily fictionalised version of a real-life studio fixer whose job basically involves managing the complicated and colourful personal lives of movie stars so nothing embarrassing or compromising gets into the papers.

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As the movie opens Mannix is contemplating a move to a lucrative and less-weird job in the aviation industry, but he doesn’t have much time to think about that. In the space of one day, the filming of a major Biblical epic is jeopardised when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communists, hissy fits ensue when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is forcibly inserted into the cast of a serious society drama, a solution must be found for a pregnant-out-of-wedlock swimming-spectacular star (Scarlett Johansson), and so on. Will any or all of these things be resolved to the studio chiefs’ satisfaction?

I suppose this qualifies as another behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood movie, although all the actors involved are fictional, and the Coens have fun inserting pastiches of various genres which were popular in the 50s into the movie – there’s the titular Hail, Caesar!, which appears to be riffing off movies like The Robe and Quo Vadis, a comedy western, a black-and-white drama, a couple of musicals, and so on. These all seem to be very affectionate, and the attention to detail is (as you’d expect) highly impressive.

And there are also some very funny moments in the movie: one of the best appears (at some length) in one of the trailers, when Ralph Fiennes’ film director tries to coach Ehrenreich’s heroically dim cowboy in one of his line readings, while another concerns a meeting where Mannix has assembled a group of religious experts to ensure his latest Biblical epic will not prove theologically offensive.

A lot of other stuff in this film, however, is more baffling than actually funny – Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role as a pair of identical twin gossip columnists, but quite how this serves the story is never clear. The idea is odd more than anything else. The film is stuffed with little nuggets like this, most of which remain resolutely undeveloped, just as most of the storylines never really seem to go anywhere or connect with each other. The Coens have certainly assembled a great cast, but despite their prominence in the advertising, many of them only appear in one or two scenes each – I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention that this in addition to the people I’ve already mentioned, performers like Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Michael Gambon are also prominent in this film – while making very unexpected cameos are people from (shall we say) different film-making traditions, for example Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren (although Lundgren’s scenes appear to have been very heavily cut down).

The sheer profusion of characters and storylines, together with the period setting, rather put me in mind of Spielberg’s 1941, a far from perfect movie but still one I’m rather fond of. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have the same kind of irresistible energy or gleeful sense of excess. The appearance of scenes where characters discuss theology and political theory (the movie deals with some of the same ideas as Trumbo, albeit in a totally different style) might lead one to assume that there’s actually some sort of serious theme going on beneath all the sketch-like comic scenes and dance routines, but if so I’ve no idea what it is. The movie ambles along amiably enough for nearly two hours and then it comes to a gentle stop.

This film is unlikely to offend anyone and as a tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood film-making it is amusing and quite charming. But it seems to me that there is very little of substance here, not just thematically but in terms of things as basic as characters and plot. Most importantly, it just isn’t funny enough: you sit there for long stretches thinking ‘hmm, this is a theoretically amusing concept’ but without actually feeling the urge to laugh out loud. Lots of talent – and I mean lots – has gone into making Hail, Caesar!, but there’s a real question mark over whether it actually provides more in the way of entertainment value than any of the corny old films it so cheerfully spoofs. I think there is less to this film than meets the eye.

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I stopped watching the news on May 8th 2015, a bit over two weeks ago. Since then I haven’t watched a single TV bulletin, nor any breakfast television, nor even a topical comedy programme. I haven’t intentionally looked at a newspaper or visited a general news website. If I’ve been sitting on a bus or in a taxi and the news has come on the radio, there has been some discreet humming and putting of fingers in ears. What has occasioned all this? Well, the news promised nothing but grimness and despair, and I couldn’t face the prospect of feeling angry about things that were beyond my power to influence. I couldn’t stop caring so I just stopped looking. I wonder how many other people have found themselves in a similar position.

This sense of helplessness and resignation as far as the future is concerned is at the heart of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (trading under the not-at-all unwieldy title of Disney Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in some territories), a movie which I am tempted to describe as a technological fantasy rather than actual science fiction. This film is, in a very real sense, actually about the future as an idea (rather than just being a convenient setting) – how we view it, how we respond to it, and how we shape it.

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At its heart is the fundamental disconnection between futurist views of the early 20th century, right up until about 1970, in which everything was chromium-plated and shiny, rocket-buses to the moon departed on an hourly basis, and so on – a Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke, Gerry Anderson vision of benevolent technocracy. But these days, of course, think of the future and your mind fills with images of urban decay, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, viral apocalypse, and the general collapse of civilisation as we know it. What happened? When did everyone decide the world was inevitably just going to get worse and worse?

Tomorrowland comes up with a fictional answer to this question. This film has managed to make it to UK screens with a minimum of advance publicity, possibly because it’s one of the few major releases this summer that isn’t a sequel, remake, or reboot (or it may just be that all the coverage has been in those news programmes I’ve stopped watching), and I found that going in relatively ignorant of what to expect added somewhat to the experience. In any case, this is a ferociously intelligent film which handles a complex story with great confidence and skill, and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy capsule review.

In the movie, Tomorrowland is the place where the future is made, a colony of scientists, artists, and other great thinkers. It is the kind of glittering metropolis, filled with monorails, jet-packers and robots, that has been part of our collective consciousness since the movie of the same name, and the nature of its relationship to the ‘real’ world of the movie is something I am not inclined to spoil. However, something is rotten in the state of the future, and it has grave implications for the real world as well.

Discovering all this is Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright teenage girl who spends her time trying to sabotage the demolition of old NASA launch platforms. She discovers a mysterious pin-badge which gives her visions of Tomorrowland, and it eventually leads her to reclusive mad scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile from the place who knows its dark secret. Together they set out on a journey that will take them back into Tomorrowland and lead to a confrontation with its governor, Nix (Hugh Laurie)…

Well, let’s get the mouse in the room out of the way first: yes, Tomorrowland is an element of the Disneyland theme park, and yes, the Tomorrowland of the movie does bear something of a resemblance to it – but, thankfully, this doesn’t really come across as an extended commercial for the Disney corporation’s holiday resorts. (In fact, references to Disney’s ownership of the Star Wars IP seem much more obtrusive – there’s an action sequence in a comic store where Star Wars collectibles are just a bit too prominent.)

This film is too angry to be a commercial, anyway. Well, perhaps angry isn’t quite the right word. Possibly ‘committed’ is better, or ‘passionate’. On one level the film tells a fairly familiar story, that of a ‘gifted’ person who makes the breakthrough from the ‘real’ world into a hidden one of mystery and adventure – think of the first Men in Black or The Matrix – the difference here being that the hidden world draws most of its cues from classic Golden Age science fiction. There are ray guns, jet packs, rocket ships and androids galore, not to mention a minor character named after Hugo Gernsback (the inventor of the name ‘science fiction’, amongst many other significant achievements).

All of this is basically just eye candy, however, surrounding the film’s central thesis, which concerns our expectations of the future and responsibility towards it. I hesitate to say that Tomorrowland is, on some level, Interstellar for a family audience, but the two films both treat the manned space programme as a totemic symbol of human ambition and optimism, and its decline as a damning indictment of society’s lack of self-belief. Tomorrowland is certainly scathing in its analysis of what’s gone wrong: giving in to despair is easier than taking responsibility for making something better. (At this point I found myself in the odd position of agreeing with the film even as it felt like it was having a go at me personally.) You can’t fault Tomorrowland‘s idealism, optimism, or commitment to its ideas.

Unfortunately, great and worthy ideas don’t necessarily make for a great and worthwhile movie, even when coupled to visuals as lavish and inventive as Bird has come up with here. The key question one has to ask is this: who is this film made for? Because I fear it will struggle to find an audience: for all that the script and performances are filled with wit and intelligence, it still feels a bit too dry and preachy to really appeal to a young audience, while adults may find it a bit, well, juvenile. Those in between will probably conclude that it’s just not cool to care any more. Too often Tomorrowland feels like it’s been written to service a theme, rather than characters or story – it’s a slightly too obvious parable, rather than a piece of entertainment with a message.

This is the main problem, next to which a few minor ones are less significant: the structure feels odd, with the actual breakthrough into the hidden world not really happening in earnest until the final act, while there is at least one major special-effects set piece that feels crowbarred in – and, more seriously, it’s strangely joyless when it should be enchanting and stirring.

Then again, that’s probably Tomorrowland in a nutshell – it’s so concerned with imploring the audience to be more hopeful and positive that it ends up being a lot less fun than it could have been. I rather imagine this is one of those films that won’t make much of an impact on the box office on its original release, but will be rediscovered and hailed as a laudable, flawed masterpiece in a few years time. There’s certainly very little wrong with its technical achievement, nor with its intentions. It’s just that the actual story isn’t quite up to the same standard as either, and in the end the story is the most important thing.

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I like George Clooney. I’ve enjoyed his screen performances ever since the first movie I saw him in, which was From Dusk Till Dawn, far too many years ago for me to comfortably contemplate. I even didn’t think he was too bad as Batman, though the film in question is another matter. I have come to admire him all the more following his reinvention of himself as a progressively-inclined hyphenate, making a series of impressively entertaining and intelligent films like The Ides of March, Good Night and Good Luck, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I will give a sympathetic hearing to anything he cares to promote in my direction.

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And the trailer for his latest project, The Monuments Men, makes a good, stirring pitch, for what looks like it’s going to be a rousing, old-fashioned movie with the best of ideals at its heart. In addition to writing, producing, and directing the film, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a senior art historian who makes a heartfelt pitch to the US government: the year is 1943, and the outcome of the Second World War is no longer in doubt. However, the months ahead will see the majority of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures placed in desperate peril as the war rages around them – to say nothing of the standard Nazi procedure of stripping any significant cultural items from any territory they occupy.

Bearing this in mind, Clooney and his sidekick Matt Damon lead a crack team of character actors (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) into the war zone with a view to either protecting said cultural treasures or retrieving them from the hands of the Third Reich…

The full-blown war movie has gone a little out of fashion these days, and The Monuments Men is by no means what you’d call an action adventure. Instead, it is more of a comedy-drama, albeit one motivated by the noblest of concerns – in interviews, Clooney himself has said it originated out of his own desire to make a film which was not, on some level, a cynical one.

As I said, I like Clooney, and I’m all for idealism, and if the film is arguing for the vital importance of culture as part of the bedrock of civilisation, then I’m absolutely with it all the way – but while The Monuments Men has some moments of real quality, on the whole the film is a bit of a disappointment when compared to some of Clooney’s previous work. The trailer is great at pitching the central premise of the film – a sort of high-minded amalgam of The Dirty Dozen, Dad’s Army, and (possibly stretching a point) The Da Vinci Code – but the movie itself is less successful at turning the premise into a satisfying narrative.

For one thing, I get the impression that this movie is rather less of an epic than Clooney would have liked it to be, clocking in at a smidge under two hours, and the main consequence of this is that the whole putting-the-crew-together element of the story is raced through in the course of the opening credits. As a result, the early scenes of banter and camaraderie take place between a bunch of people we don’t actually know that well, and the effect is rather like going off on an adventure with a bunch of complete strangers. In this kind of film the first act is everything, and the film never quite recovers from this bumpy start.

The movie also struggles to accommodate the sheer scope of the story it’s trying to tell – as the characters admit at several points, the numbers involved are mind-boggling, and the story ranges across practically the entirety of western and central Europe. Forging a coherent narrative out of all this proves extremely difficult. In the end the film opts to focus on the hunt to rescue a few particularly significant pieces of art, with some other episodes woven into the story, but the final effect is still that of a film which is a collection of disparate bits and pieces. Some of these are effectively funny, or moving, or tense, but they don’t quite cohere into a really great film.

Perhaps it’s just that the ideas which The Monuments Men is trying to explore are too big and abstract to lend themselves to a film of this kind. Certainly the movie itself seems unable to quite decide on what its central message is – ‘Watch yourselves! No piece of art is worth your life!’ Clooney warns his team as they disembark in Normandy, but by the end of the film he’s stating the exact opposite to justify some of the sacrifices made in the course of the story. Hmmm. Inevitably, when dealing with the issue of cultural obliteration during the Second World War, the spectre of the Holocaust is raised at several points in the course of the film, but it never quite comes up with a way of really engaging with this beyond an uncomfortable, reverent silence.

Still, the performances are good and it’s well mounted, and it’s not what you’d actually call a bad film – it just really struggles to convert its good intentions and big ideas into the meat and drink of narrative film-making. I won’t deny it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but I still wouldn’t describe it as a bad film – average, more than anything else. One of Clooney’s minor works, I suspect, but still laudable on many levels.

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As long-term readers should be well aware, I am member in good standing of the Kermodian sect of film-followers, which is to say that under normal circumstances I will happily go a very long way to avoid seeing a film in 3D. I can’t have seen more than half-a-dozen or so, certainly not more than ten, and most of those because the movie in question wasn’t released in a 2D format. Of those the only one in which the stereoscopy didn’t feel like a tedious piece of gimmickry was Hugo, and that was two years ago. However, now I have to add another film to that list, and the film in question is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Even Dr K himself has gone on the record to concede that (and I quote) ‘Gravity is worth seeing in 3D’, such a startling announcement, all things considered, that it surely signifies the coming of a really exceptional piece of work. And so it proves – we are so routinely bombarded with superlatives these days that they have lost any real meaning, which means that this will inevitably not have the impact I would wish, but nevertheless – Gravity is an astonishingly good movie, head and shoulders above virtually everything else released so far in 2013.

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Sandra Bullock is way out of her usual rom-com comfort zone as a space scientist, which is not inappropriate given her character is way out of any sort of comfort zone. Ryan Stone (for this is her name)  is a mission specialist on a space shuttle mission to refit the Hubble Space Telescope. It is her first time in space and she is having trouble acclimatising, not least because there is no climate in the first place. She is a complete contrast to the commander, Kowalski (George Clooney), a hugely experienced veteran on his final mission prior to retirement.

All is going reasonably well until news reaches the astronauts of an unfolding disaster in orbit, resulting in a dense cloud of debris travelling around the planet at supersonic speeds. The shuttle is in the path on the debris, and a close encounter between the two could have devastating consequences for the crew…

And that’s just the first five minutes (albeit of a relatively short film by modern standards). To say too much about what follows would inevitably reduce the impact of the story, but suffice to say that Stone and Kowalski are instantly flung into life-threatening danger which persists for the rest of the film, one way or another.

It all starts quietly enough, though: after captions deliver some salutary information about the hostility of hard vacuum to life as we know it, the film opens with a peaceful, breathtaking shot of Earth rotating. Nothing happens for what feels like a long time, until – with almost imperceptible slowness – the orbiting shuttle comes into view, slowly swelling to fill the screen. The camera lazily loops and spins around the vehicle, taking in Clooney lazily jetting around it by means of a new type of jetpack, a tense Bullock at work on a grappled Hubble, and so on – both actors’ faces are clearly visible. And this goes on for what feels like eternity, in what does an extremely good impression of being a single, unbroken shot. It’s utterly, utterly extraordinary, and makes the opening of Touch of Evil feel very pedestrian (not that this is really a fair comparison).

You are inevitably reduced to wondering how the hell Cuaron achieved this, how many different CGI and blue-screen elements are interacting in this single shot, and so on – but then, almost miraculously, the droll dialogue between Clooney and Mission Control (Ed Harris), and the obvious tension that Bullock is feeling, sucks you into the story and the characters, and your sense of sheer confoundment at the technical wizardry – and for once this does not feel like too strong a word for it – is reduced to a dull background roar. The actual plot is much too compelling for anything else.

Maybe Cuaron has tricked everyone and actually made the film on location in orbit. Or possibly he just managed to track down the people who faked the moon landings and got them to help him out. I would argue, not that it matters, that Gravity isn’t really a science fiction movie, as – the existence of a NASA orbiter programme excepted – everything in it is completely grounded in the realities of manned spaceflight, but even so it is one of the most convincing depictions of space travel I can recall seeing. Issues such as inertia, momentum, orbital velocity and reaction mass are crucially important again and again – even the difficulties of using a fire extinguisher in zero-G are addressed. There do seem to be some implied references to classic SF and space movies, most of them very deadpan – Harris’ involvement is surely a reference to his very similar role in Apollo 13, while later on I’m sure there’s a wry tip of the hat to Barbarella, of all things – but these are very incidental pleasures. The film is content to concentrate on being an utterly gripping drama.

If Gravity was simply a technically superb thriller set in orbit, given the virtuosity of its production it would still be a very notable piece of work. What elevates it to the status of a breathtaking instant classic is that the heart of the film is a deeply resonant and very moving human drama. The film is fundamentally about isolation and loneliness, about being cut off from the world. This is true of Stone both physically and psychologically, and the deftness with which the film makes this clear and charts her progress back towards something approaching normal reality is, in its own way, every bit as impressive as any of the special effects or directorial flourishes which Cuaron deploys. The key scene at the end of the second act of the film may well prove a little controversial to some people – whether it’s a brilliantly executed piece of metaphor or a hackneyed old cliche will probably be a matter of personal taste – but apart from this text and subtext complement each other perfectly and the result is a film which works brilliantly on every level.

The advertising for Gravity seems to be based largely on the film’s credentials both as a thriller adventure and a groundbreaking piece of 3D virtuosity. And both of these are, as I hope I’ve been able to communicate, deeply impressive. But it’s the human factor which really gives the film its power, and it’s the performances of Clooney and Bullock which bring it to life so vividly. This is an amazingly beautiful, desperately gripping, and in places profoundly moving film, as close to unmissable as any I have seen in recent years. Many Oscars await, if the award is to retain any credibility.

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Proof that the yearly round of gong shows will soon be upon us once again is amply provided by the fact that, likely as not, currently showing in a cinema near you is at least one film that gives every impression of having been made by intelligent and mature adults for the enjoyment of the same. We still have a few months to go before the onset of comic-book and computer-game adaptations that, reassuringly, marks the beginning of summer.

One movie doing rather well in terms of gong nominations is Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. In 2002 Payne made About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson, which I was rather impressed by, so I turned up for the new film with quite high expectations.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer with a lot on his plate. Not only does he have final say over the disposal of a vast and potentially lucrative tract of virgin land which could very well make both him and his large extended film rather wealthy, but his wife is in a coma following a boating accident, leaving him in charge of their two daughters. He is not very comfortable with this, but things are about to get even worse.

Matt’s wife shows no signs of recovery and under the terms of her living will her life support systems are to be disconnected. Also, his elder daughter (Shailene Woodley) has something to impart: completely unbeknownst to Matt, his wife has been having an affair with another man.

The film is about how Matt comes to terms with this and resolves his various issues, and on one level I can fully understand why this movie has become such a critical darling: as I suggested up the page, this is a thoughtful and grown-up film about the realities of life, made by an accomplished director, and built around a big leading man performance by a proper movie star. However, I have to say I haven’t fallen in love with it quite as much as everyone else appears to (with the exception of my landlady, who advised me categorically not to go anywhere near it – though not until after I’d seen it).

On a purely technical level Clooney’s performance is very good, of course, but I have to say that as his daughter Shailene Woodley is possibly even better. Either way my problem with the film is not with the cast but with the script, which – at least to begin with – isn’t quite up to scratch. The film is really about loss and grief, but the situation at its centre is presented to us via a very trite and unremarkable voiceover – we barely get to see Matt’s wife prior to her accident, and as a result there’s very little sense of who she was or what the other characters have lost now she is gone. The performances make the anguish that Matt and the others are feeling very clear, but it’s somehow difficult to genuinely feel or share it.

It may also be a factor that a few key scenes essentially take the form of various characters delivering lengthy monologues to each other. Even when the audience is comatose (I mean the listener in the scene, not people actually watching the film in theatres – it’s by no means that bad a film), this still seemed to me to be rather theatrical, even bordering on the melodramatic.

All this said, I did warm rather to the film as it went on, particularly when Shailene Woodley’s character became more central to the story: her performance really is impressive. To be honest, I wasn’t initially sure what this film was about, beyond the slightly soapy central drama, but eventually it seemed to me to be about the difficulties of trying to be a genuinely good individual when encumbered by all the emotional and personal baggage that this typically entails.

One of the most impressive aspects of The Descendants is the way in which it handles this theme with appropriate subtlety and ambiguity and accepts that there are no easy answers – maybe no answers at all in some cases. Everything is addressed through ambiguity and shades of subtlety rather than by glib absolute pronouncements. Clooney is justifiably angry with his wife for her infidelity, but at the same time insistent that his elder daughter not let her own hostility spoil the final hours she will share with her mother. And, towards the end of the film, Clooney takes a significant decision which he claims is for reasons that most people would find laudable – but, as the audience, we are aware he has another motive for doing exactly the same thing which would be outright petty vindictiveness. In a choice that I found deeply impressive, the film opts not to address this ambiguity in the slightest – not to even highlight the fact it exists – and trust entirely to the audience’s intelligence.

That said, I still found The Descendants more effective as a drama than a comedy – which is not to say that I didn’t laugh at all, and I should point out that many people at the screening I attended were roaring their heads off at times when I was barely cracking a smile. Too much of the humour was cutesy or obvious to really work for me, I’m afraid. And while most of the film is put together virtually flawlessly, the soundtrack grated with me after a while – and I will now get soundly told off by one set of my acquaintances, as the score of this film is made up almost entirely of Hawaiian ukulele tunes! (What can I say, give me some Formby syncopation any day…)

So in the end I thought The Descendants was a fairly interesting movie with some definite virtues but a lot of equally clear flaws. I don’t necessarily think it deserves any awards, but then neither would I be surprised if it won some, simply because it’s the kind of film people who vote for awards tend to like. If it is the best mature drama for grown-ups in the cinema at the moment, that says more about the state of that kind of film in general than it does for the actual quality of this particular film.

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Having just discussed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, I was half-expecting The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney, to have Soderbergh involved with it in some capacity as well. The two have, after all, a lot of history together, most notably with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, but also with less commercial movies such as Solaris. But no, Clooney and Soderbergh appear to have parted company (amicably one hopes), and the only noticeable crossover of personnel between Contagion and The Ides of March is the presence of Jennifer Ehle, who plays a small but significant role in both films.

In addition to co-producing, co-writing, and directing the movie, George Clooney also appears as Mike Morris – not the former UK breakfast TV host, nor indeed the peerless Doctor Who critic and commentator, but a Democratic candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Morris is looking good for the White House (and it must be said that Clooney is supremely plausible in the role). This is partly due to his strong team, which is led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps even more crucial is the presence of brilliant media analyst and political operator Steve Meyers, who is the main character of the story. Meyers is played by Ryan Gosling (who’s having a pretty good few months, what with this and that movie about driving where he plays the driver who drives a lot, the name of which escapes me).

Morris’ candidacy for the Presidency is looking as assured as something of that nature can, but a crucial primary is looming (on the date of the title). Then Meyers is startled to receive a job offer from their chief opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), his relationship with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) unexpectedly brings a shocking secret to light, and as the polls unexpectedly start to shift against them Morris’ refusal to engage in the traditional political horse-trading begins to look naive rather than principled. With all his certainties crumbling Meyer is forced to ask himself exactly what his true priorities are…

Fans of The West Wing should run to see The Ides of March (possibly carrying on a complex dialogue with each other as they go), as this film operates in a very similar narrative space – the dialogue doesn’t crackle quite as much as Aaron Sorkin’s, but the dizzyingly swift pace, convoluted plot and strong characterisations should all seem very familiar. That said, there’s another sense in which this is a very different kind of story indeed – there was something almost Capraesque about The West Wing’s wide-eyed positivity about the political system and the people who work in it: no-one was really self-serving or anything but a very decent human being. The Ides of March starts off in a broadly similar vein , but the story of the film is the story of masks slipping in extremis and the true nature of the characters becoming clear: and I tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty.

That said, the film takes care not to get too worked up about this – from the very first scene, it’s made clear that for all his idealism, Meyers is a ruthless operator not above playing dirty (in a mild sort of way). On the other hand, for a film with – to put it mildly – a somewhat cynical view of the political animal, it’s notable that The Ides of March doesn’t actually have a villain. Giamatti’s character is just a little more obviously ruthless and goal-oriented than the rest.

As a British viewer I obviously watched this with a certain sense of detachment, but enough of the story is universal in nature for it to remain a very satisfying film. I wonder why we in this country can’t produce similarly satisfying political dramas more consistently? It can’t all be down to American hegemony. Perhaps the very nature of the American system lends itself more readily to this kind of narrative intensity.         

One of the stories doing the rounds about this film is that Clooney and company first started work on it in 2008, but basically parked the project as they realised their audience wouldn’t be interested in such a jaded view of politicians in the year of Obama. Putting aside the question of why they’ve decided to make it now, it seems to me that this is another movie springing from the Clinton era. You may recall a number of key films from the mid-to-late 90s which cast the President of the US in such unlikely roles as romantic lead, gritty terrorist-basher, and jet-piloting alien exterminator, all surely products of the enormous positivity of key Hollywood figures towards Bill Clinton. Fifteen years on, here is a movie – not the first of its kind, of course – which concentrates on the darker side. Quite how many personal foibles are we prepared to overlook, if the right candidate comes along? Can a principled man really succeed in modern politics? We’re left to decide for ourselves how much of Morris’ persona is an act – Clooney has less screen time than you may be expecting.

That said, he’s very good whenever he does appear, as is everyone else: this is a very strongly-written and uniformly well-played drama, which grips from the start and has some very powerful and moving moments along the way – along with a few lighter moments, of course. Overall it’s an impressive package. If, like Contagion, it ultimately seems to be lamenting things which lie beyond anyone’s power to change, then so be it – sometimes it’s for the best that we remind ourselves of uncomfortable truths, especially if in doing means making movies as good as this one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 27th 2003:

The abiding image that’s remained with me from George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is of a Japanese Elvis impersonator singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ on the soundtrack, whilst Julia Roberts and Sam Rockwell wrestle a recently-assassinated corpse into a well. The really worrying thing is that in the context of the movie this seems entirely reasonable and actually a little bit moving.

One of the good things about being the undisputed global hegemon is that you can release bio-pics of obscure pop-culture figures abroad (i.e., here) and still expect them to make money. Man in the Moon, about the almost-unknown-in-the-UK Andy Kaufman, was one, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is another. (Although knowing the British Film Council it’s only a matter of time before the life story of, say, Graeme Garden, hits the multiplexes from Tallahassee to Bakersfield to near-unanimous indifference.) The subject on this occasion is Chuck Barris, another total unknown over here (though his progeny have wreaked their insidious influence upon our cultural landscape for decades).

Based on Barris’ unauthorised autobiography, the movie boldly depicts the young Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) as a sex-crazed loser with an ambition to get into television any way he can. Along the way he hooks up with the sweet and uninhibited Penny (Drew Barrymore) who inadvertently gives him the idea for the TV game show that launched his career, The Dating Game (which is still running in the UK under the title Blind Date). But also around this time, Barris is approached by CIA agent Jim Byrd (a deadpan, moustachioed Clooney, supporting my thesis that actors directing for the first time always cast themselves) who recruits him as an assassin for the government. But as Barris’ TV shows (culminating in the no-talent contest, The Gong Show) go from strength to strength, the dangers involved in his double life become greater and greater, as does the strain of keeping them separate…

Well, Barris claims this is all true, but no-one really seems to believe him. Many of Barris’ real-life friends and colleagues appear and express their doubts on the subject, and the film keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. (Barris himself, still alive and still sticking to his story, appears in a mute cameo at the end of the film.) But the truth or not of the story doesn’t really matter as the film it’s inspired is hugely entertaining.

This is, first and foremost, an absurd, deadpan black comedy. The central conceit – producer of trash TV by day, government killer by night – is a ridiculously winning one and the script (by current golden boy Charlie Kaufman) wisely pitches the whole film at a stylised, fantastical level, avoiding the temptation to make Barris’ ‘real’ life too naturalistic or his spy exploits too far-fetched. But the characters of Barris and Penny are carefully drawn and fully rounded, and apart from the opening section, which seems a little insubstantial and over-pacy, this is an extremely classy screenplay.

It’s directed with enormous energy and a great sense of fun by the debuting George Clooney. He does a very stylish job – perhaps a little too stylish in places – and shows a good deal of promise should he decide to do this on a regular basis. He’s also managed to attract a first-rate set of actors – Brad Pitt and Matt Damon appear very briefly, but further up the cast list we find Rutger Hauer, who in the course of a quite small part dispels all memory of the rubbish he’s done lately and reminds you of just how damned good he can be. Julia Roberts sends herself up winningly as a femme fatale spy, and Drew Barrymore affectingly provides the film’s emotional centre. (Clooney’s pretty good too, though I suspect the director shot every scene in his favour.) But the film really belongs to Sam Rockwell, who gives a superb performance in a challenging and complex role. It’s only through the nuances of his acting that we get any clue as to what we’re supposed to believe in this film, or what it’s actually about.

And, without spoiling it too much (I hope), this film is really about not a dangerous mind but a mind in the throes of crisis. It is entirely understandable that a man whose main achievement was originating the format for Blind Date would want to embroider his life story just a little – or more than a little in this case. This is the story of how the dreams of youth transform into the fantasies of middle age. On the surface this is an absurd, deadpan comedy, but it has a dark and serious heart. The whole package is sharp, intelligent, and tremendous fun. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 6th 2003:

‘According to… the British Board of Film Classification… the latest Clooney release contains “a moderate sex scene”. Can we expect them to tell us when there is a really good one?’ – Letter to The Guardian, last week

The inappropriate sequel or remake has long been a staple of the film industry’s attempts at self-parody – think of Good Will Hunting 2 from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for example – and one that’s occasionally made all the more ironic by the sequels and remakes that they genuinely seem to think are a good idea. Most Hollywood attempts in this department make a bad film out of a good one, but there are a small but significant number of instances where they’ve taken a bad film and improved it no end. The number of good remakes of good movies is even smaller. So it was with rather mixed feelings that I learned of the news that James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney had joined forces to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic SF movie Solaris.

The day will eventually come when it will not be obligatory for descriptions of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to contain the phrase ‘the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey‘. But obviously not yet. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful, all these words apply to the Russian Solaris in exactly the same way that they don’t to anything James Cameron has worked on in the past. But to be honest he appears to have taken a definite back seat on this production, which seems much more typical of Soderbergh’s filmography.

George Clooney plays psychologist Chris Kelvin, who leads what looks like a fairly miserable existence on a near-future Earth. But a message from his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) leads him to the space station Prometheus in orbit over the mysterious planet Solaris. The surviving crew are suffering from a wide range of psychological complaints, all due to one thing: by night, ‘visitors’ from Solaris materialise out of nowhere on the station, taking the form of the crew’s loved ones – as Kelvin learns for himself when he awakens next to his wife, who back on Earth had been dead for years…

Conventional advertising for Solaris hasn’t really caught the essence of the film. This is mainly because all the trailers and so forth either show one important scene or lots of significant and/or striking moments in quick succession. What they don’t, and can’t express to the viewer is the fact that these important and striking bits are invariably separated by long passages where not much of anything at all seems to be happening. I’m not saying I agree with the German critic who asked Soderbergh at a press conference why he made such a boring film, but I can certainly see where he’s coming from. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful – yup, the new Solaris is all these things too, but at least it’s only an hour and a half (-ish) long and not three hours like its predecessor (even if this does mean it achieves the startling feat of somehow managing to seem slow yet rushed simultaneously).

I was going to say the new Solaris isn’t a conventional SF film, but I may as well just broaden that out and say it’s not a conventional film, full stop. It’s wilfully oblique and impenetrable in places, it offers no easy explanations for the events of the story, it has very little in the way of ‘plot’ – a major revelation about one of the characters, which would be a crucial moment in a different film, here is passed over almost without comment. This is in no way a dumbed-down version either of Tarkovsky’s film or Stanislaw Lem’s original novel.

Where new Solaris differs from old is in its emphasis. Old Solaris was much more about the nature of the visitations from the planet and what they truly represented – new Solaris concerns itself much more with the relationship between Kelvin and his wife (Natascha McElhone) – their past relationship is depicted in flashback, as Kelvin comes to terms with the simulacra Solaris has created for him. (And, yes, you do get to see George’s bum, albeit dimly lit and in medium-shot.) For all that it’s about a romance, it’s not actually that romantic, nor does it really want to be – it’s more interested in question such as the subjectivity of memory, the division between the self and the world, how well one can truly know another person, and so on. At the time McElhone’s rather mannered performance irritated the life out of me but on reflection she does a remarkable job, modulating effectively between the ‘real’ Rheya and the replica of her. (Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, is just plain annoying as surviving crewmember Snow.)

And as for Clooney himself… well, I think we’re in danger of underappreciating one of the most ambitious and charismatic leading men in current cinema. Sure, he made a few mistakes early in his career, but since then – and more often than not with Soderbergh as his accomplice – he’s made some of the most interesting and classy films of recent years – Out of Sight, Three Kings, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Spy Kids (well, maybe not the last one). His performance here is dedicated and serious and largely successful.

This being a Soderbergh movie, it naturally looks gorgeous throughout, mixing earthy tones for the Earthbound sequences with metallic blues and greys for those set on the station. Soderbergh chooses to shoot much of the film in very long, static takes, which contributes to the continental-drift-like pace. Admittedly, though, the effect is rather hypnotic and the film has a dream-like quality. But at the same time it’s cool and uncompromising: a demanding film to watch, and not a very cheerful or immediately rewarding one. This is probably reflected in the film’s poor box office in the States (where, according to a cheerful Clooney, ‘it bombed’) and by the fact that, at the end of the showing I attended, I was the only one left in the theatre.

But just because something is utterly uncommercial doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad and Solaris is probably a very good film, just one pitching to an extremely limited target audience. I would probably go and see it again if the opportunity arose and nothing else was on. As it is, Soderbergh has made the perfect date movie for depressed philosophy PhD laureates.

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