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Posts Tagged ‘Julia Roberts’

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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Well now, life being what it is, one of the rarest pleasures I get is that of Going In Blind. By this I mean going in to the cinema knowing nothing about a movie but the title and whatever I can glean from the poster. I call this a pleasure even though the results are frequently extremely unhappy: as I recall, the last time I did it was in Osaka in 2007 when a friend and I inadvertantly inflicted Roland Joffe’s highly objectionable Captivity upon ourselves. The joy, as with most things, is in the anticipation.

Anyway, this week all the major publicity has been guzzled up by a number of other major releases which have just come out. Not being moved to partake of a techno-porn movie based on a children’s toy range or a paean to incontinence, my choices were necessarily limited, and so in the end I went to see Larry Crowne.

It’s actually quite difficult for a film to get a major release without impinging on my consciousness at all (then again, I have been quite busy for the last couple of weeks), especially when it’s directed by one of the biggest stars of recent years. Tom Hanks is the guy in question, but his contributions also extend to playing the title role, producing it, and co-writing the script. Hanks hasn’t appeared on screen in a major role for a few years now, and it’d be fun to speculate as to why, and how this relates to Larry Crowne, but – on with the review.

Well, I settled down to enjoy the film and did my best to ignore the structure of the cinema creaking and the vague rumbling noises permeating the theatre (both courtesy of the Michael Bay movie playing down the other end of the building). It starts as it means to continue, with a relentlessly perky and upbeat title sequence depicting Larry Crowne (Hanks – keep up), a middle-aged guy who’s happy and apparently secure in his job working for one of those mega-mall companies that haven’t quite caught on in the UK yet.

But lo! There is a screenplay to be contrived. Larry is sacked for not having completed college (shades of Somerset Maugham’s The Warden, but the movie doesn’t follow up on this). Unable to find another job, he decides to go back to school and enrols in a series of classes at his local adult education college. Here he meets a number of people, most importantly unhappily married and more than a bit cynical English professor Mercedes (Julia Roberts), and ever-so-boho fellow student Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – as Roberts’ character says in one of the film’s best lines, ‘What do men see in irritating free spirits?’

So, Talia gets Larry to be a bit more relaxed and to dress better, and invites him to join her scooter gang (all this seems equally implausible in the picture, by the way). Larry’s all-around decency and niceness, meanwhile, have not gone unnoticed by Mercedes, who has slung out her porn-loving waster of a husband. Thus I draw the dots; I leave the joining of them to you, my reader, to work out for yourself. Do not over-think this one – the script certainly doesn’t.

The bottom line is that Larry Crowne is a romantic comedy with aspirations to be a ‘feel good’ movie. Well, it didn’t make me laugh very much, nor did it really cause me to consider abandoning¬†celibacy as a lifestyle choice – but, on the other hand, unlike most ‘feel good’ movies it didn’t make me want to slip off to a quiet corner and open a vein, so I suppose that’s a point in its favour.

The main problem with the film is that it aspires to tell a proper story about supposedly real people and their lives. In a landscape currently dominated by shapeshifting robots, OTT pirates and CGI superheroes, all pursuing spurious plot McGuffins, this is to be commended, but the script here is executed with such broad strokes that it’s never for a moment completely convincing. No-one actually feels or behaves quite like a real person would.

Hanks’ direction is also more than a bit – well, to call it manipulative would be to make it sound more subtle than it is. The ‘How to Set a Mood’ section of Tom Hanks’ Guide to Film Directing would, I suspect, say something like ‘Choose some music. For happy scenes, choose upbeat music. For sad scenes, choose slow music. Play the music over the scene as loudly as you can get away with.’ The problem is that too often the music becomes a substitute for emotion rather than an accompaniment to it. When a character experiences a moment of great personal joy and the soundtrack duly bursts into life, that’s fine if you’re sharing the emotion. Most of the time I wasn’t, because what was happening on screen just didn’t ring true, and the effect was rather like turning up late to a party where everyone else was already drunk: not sharing the atmosphere and feeling slightly awkward and uncomfortable because of it.

I could go on to talk about how the central romance does a very good impression of appearing out of thin air, and the rest of the script is full of the slightly forced quirkiness that characterised co-writer Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I think you get the idea. (And Larry Crowne also has possibly the worst closing credits I’ve ever seen.)

One thing this film isn’t short of is acting talent. To be fair to him, as a performer Hanks is charismatic enough to make you believe in Larry, although he’s trading heavily on audience goodwill throughout. Roberts has a slightly trickier task as a less immediately likeable character. Her career is, of course, entering the Forbidden Zone, inasmuch as Hollywood scripts really don’t cater for leading ladies past a certain age, and on the strength of this picture she’s going to struggle to make it as a character performer. Elsewhere people like Cedric the Entertainer and Pam Grier pop up and do okay, but the most consistently amusing performance comes from (of all people) George Takei from Star Trek, as a slightly preening economics professor. (There’s a Star Trek gag at one point in the film, which seems a little self-conscious as a result.)

The absolute best thing I can say about Larry Crowne is that it passed 99 minutes in a wholly inoffensive and mildly engaging fashion. As I said, it’s not really very funny nor is it especially moving, and it’s certainly not remotely believeable. In some ways it’s almost like the negative of a Woody Allen movie, in that in place of the relentless pessimism and misanthropy that have characterised Allen’s latter movies, nearly everyone is deep-down decent and understanding and actually a pretty good person. There are certainly much worse messages to put in a movie – but you need a bit more than a message to make a good movie.

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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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