OCEAN’S 8 (2018) – Mildly Entertaining Heist Tale

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Oceans-8

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies.

The Steven Soderbergh-directed trilogy did little for me in spite of its impressive cast, led by George Clooney. Of course, the first one, OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) was a remake of the 1960 film, OCEAN’S 11 starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

With that in mind, I wasn’t all that excited to see OCEAN’S 8 (2018), the all- female take on the OCEAN’S formula, starring Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, younger sister to Clooney’s Danny Ocean, but I wanted to check it out anyway, mostly because of its cast.

For me, the Soderbergh OCEAN films always held such promise: they had fabulous casts and told fun lively tales about bold heists of Las Vegas casinos, but the trouble was, they just weren’t that fun and lively. The culprit? Scripts that just never brought the characters or the stories to life.

So, now comes OCEAN’S 8, where the heist features an all-woman team. Would the results be any different?

Sadly, no.

OCEAN’S 8 opens with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) getting out of prison after convincing the parole board that all she wants to do is live a normal crime-free life. Once out of prison, this promise last all of two seconds as she immediately scams her way into purchasing items from a high-end boutique followed by a hotel room. And before you can say Rat Pack she’s already assembling her team for her big heist which she had been planning during her five-year prison stay.

Ocean’s team includes Lou (Cate Blanchett), Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Amita (Mindy Kaling), Constance (Awkwafina), and Nine Ball (Rihanna). The job? To steal a diamond necklace, which they intend to do by manipulating the famous Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) into wearing it to New York City’s annual Met Gala where they plan an elaborate scheme to remove it from her neck and get it out of the building undetected.  It’s a job which would make her older brother Danny proud.

I had the same problem with OCEAN’S 8 that I had with the other OCEAN movies: love the cast and the plot, but the script not so much.

You can’t find too much fault with the cast here. They’re fun to watch, but none of the actors are enough on their own to carry this lackluster tale to higher places.

Sandra Bullock lacks the charm of George Clooney in the central role, and so you don’t have that same “bad boy does good” feeling going on here. It’s the type of thing that Cary Grant used to be able to pull off with ease- the thief who you actually really like.  Clooney could do the same.  Bullock here, interestingly enough, comes off as more of a villain than Clooney ever did.  Her take on the “family business” is far less playful than Clooney’s.

Cate Blanchett is okay as Lou, but it’s the supporting cast who actually make more of a mark. In particular, Rihanna as Nine Ball and Awkwafina as Constance both add considerable spunk and energy to their roles. Even though their roles aren’t any more developed than the others, I enjoyed watching these two whenever they were on-screen.

Likewise, Sarah Paulson was also very enjoyable as Tammy, as she, too delivers a spirited performance.

I thought Helena Bonham Carter gave the best performance in the movie as the manic and apprehensive Rose Weil. It’s nothing I haven’t seen Carter do before in her long and successful career, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do it well.  I pretty much enjoyed her scenes in this one the most.

And Anne Hathaway does what she is supposed to do, as the wealthy celebrity Daphne Kluger, but it’s not really a role that moved me in any particular way, which doesn’t help the story, since she wasn’t someone I felt deserved to be an unwitting participant in a major jewel heist.

Which brings me to the weakest part of the film, the screenplay by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch.  The biggest knock against it is, like the earlier OCEAN films, it’s just not sharp enough with its humor or its story to make me care all that much. There’s nary a memorable line or scene to be found.  I’ve always found the OCEAN films to be only mildly entertaining, responsible for providing a minor diversion for a couple of hours, but hardly all that exciting or fun.  OCEAN’S 8 is the same.

And in terms of story, the heist has very little meaning. Anne Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger is no villain, and so there’s no feeling that she deserves to be robbed. Plus, since the jewels aren’t even hers, she’s not even the one being robbed. There’s also very little motivation for Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, other than that crime seems to run in her family’s genes. There are hints, as in the first George Clooney OCEAN film, that the heist is personal, as Debbie uses the crime to get back at the man who put her in prison, but this plot point remains minor throughout the film.

In addition to writing the screenplay, Ross also directed OCEAN’S 8, and while the film looks good, in terms of pacing, things never really build to a satisfactory climax.  I thought the whole film just seemed off somehow.

Ross also wrote and directed the first HUNGER GAMES movie in 2012, and his work on that film was much stronger than his work here.

OCEAN’S 8 might entertain you, especially if you’re a fan of the previous OCEANS movies, as it’s pretty much the same exact formula, but if you’re not really into the George Clooney films, I can’t see how you’d enjoy this one any better.

Underneath all the glamour and glitter, OCEAN’S 8 is just a mediocre heist tale, a mild diversion, the type of film you might want to catch at home rather than at your local theater.

And while an OCEAN’S 9 may be inevitable, what should come first is an OCEAN’S 101 for the writers who write the screenplays for these movies.  Now that would have some value.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

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Worst Movies of 2016

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And here’s a look at my Top 10 List for the worst movies I saw in 2016:

10. HAIL CAESAR!

Coming in at #10 it’s HAIL CAESAR!, a misfire from the Coen brothers.  Don’t get me wrong, this period piece depicting 1950s Hollywood looks terrific.  But the script doesn’t really work.  It has the makings of a screwball comedy, but the Coen brothers opt to play up the drama instead, and so the main character is straight man Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who goes around getting actors and actresses out of the various messes they’ve gotten themselves into, all in the name of protecting the studio’s image.  And so the screwball tale of lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) being kidnapped is pushed into the background, downplaying Clooney’s considerable comedic talents. The film is basically a bunch of unfunny vignettes with a serious but dull wraparound story featuring Brolin’s Eddie Mannix.  Should have been much better.

 

9. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE

batman_v_superman

Easily my pick for the worst superhero movie of the year.  Batman and Superman lock horns in a story that never makes much sense.   The two superheroes hate each other in the first place, which weakens the plot point of villain Lex Luthor’s plan to pit them against each other, and later the moment when the two future superfriends make amends simply doesn’t ring true.  Best part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

 

8. THE CONJURING 2

conjuring 2

A major disappointment.  This sequel to the excellent horror movie THE CONJURING (2013) is a bust, even with the return of original director James Wan, and lead stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  Film offers nothing new.

 

7. THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY

Horribly unfunny comedy by Sacha Baron Cohen about two brothers, one an assassin, the other a full-fledged loser, who team up to take on the bad guys.  This one had a hilarious trailer, but that’s all.

 

6.THE DARKNESS

Another lame horror movie, this one about a demon which haunts a family after they take a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Stars Kevin Bacon.

 

5. MECHANIC:  RESURRECTION

mechanic-resurrection-poster

One of the worst sequels I’ve seen in a long while.  This sequel to one of Jason Statham’s earlier hits, THE MECHANIC (2011), itself a remake of a 1970s Charles Bronson movie, makes no sense and is simply an excuse to have Jason Statham in some action scenes.  I’m a big Statham fan, but not even his presence here could save this turkey.

 

4. THE FOREST

Yet another terrible horror movie.  There are simply too many of these.  This one takes a real place, Japan’s Suicide Forest, with lots of real potential, and reduces it to a mere setting for a silly story about an American woman searching for her missing sister.  This is one forest not worth visiting.

 

3. BLAIR WITCH

Yup, another horror movie, another pointless sequel.  This sequel to the classic THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) drops the ball as its story about the younger brother of the main protagonist in the original film offers nothing new.  Yup, you won’t find any neat revelations here regarding the mysterious events in the first film.  A huge waste of time.

 

2. HARDCORE HENRY

This actioner deployed the gimmick of being shot entirely from the first person perspective of the main character, who we never see since the story unfolds through his eyes.  The result is a movie which plays like a video game, but of course, the viewer isn’t playing this game, so unless you like watching other people play video games, you might want to skip this one.  Not even the presence of the talented Sharlto Copley can save this shallow flick.

 

1. INCARNATE

incarnate

My pick for the Worst Movie of 2016 is a no brainer.  Easily the worst horror movie of the year and the worst movie of the  year, INCARNATE wastes the talents of a fine actor like Aaron Eckhart and sticks him in a ridiculous story about demonic possession.  The gimmick here is Eckhart’s character approaches demonic possession from the psychological standpoint, and enters the victims’ dreams to expel the demons.  Kinda like a heroic version of Freddy Kruger, only without the wit.  A mess from start to finish, this one makes little sense, nor does it try to.

And there you have it, my picks for the Worst Movies of 2016.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving Movie Turkeys 2016

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turkey

Welcome to a special THANKSGIVING column!  Happy Turkey Day!

On that note, I know that I don’t usually post my BEST OF  and WORST OF movie lists till after December 31, but all this turkey has got me to thinking about— well, turkeys!  As in the worst movies of the year so far.

I won’t make any final picks until the 2016 calendar year comes to a close, but in the meantime, here’s a look at some nominees for the Worst Movies of 2016 so far.  Happy reading, and while you’re at it, please pass the stuffing!

THE FOREST- This weak horror movie wastes a potential frightening setting:  Japan’s Suicide Forest, a real place with real history, but this movie is about as far away from real as you can get.  Contrived and dull.

HAIL CAESAR! – A misfire from the Coen brothers.  This period piece about 1950s Hollywood looks great but the story is not cohesive nor are the laughs.  George Clooney’s comic timing is not taken advantage of, and Josh Brolin’s lead role is that of the straight man, so he doesn’t add to the laughs either.  Best scene features Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill.

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY – Terribly unfunny comedy by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Nuff said about this turkey.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE –  That’s right.  This big budget DC superhero romp is one of the worst movies of the year. Neither the conflict between Batman and Superman nor its resolution ever become believable.  A very forced contrived story.  Best part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

HARDCORE HENRY – Gimmick sci fi actioner with the entire film shot from the protagonists point of view just doesn’t work.  Ulitmately a very boring movie.

THE DARKNESS – Horror film starring Kevin Bacon just isn’t very dark.  Yet another demonic entity proving bothersome to a once happy family.  This demon showed up when the family was on vacation at the Grand Canyon!

THE CONJURING 2 – Sadly, this sequel to THE CONJURING doesn’t come close to the original, in spite of the presence of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  A particularly awful script. Director James Wan needs to move on to some new material.

MECHANIC:  RESURRECTION – pointless sequel to the Jason Statham actioner.  Statham returns as hitman Arthur Bishop, wasted in a completely ridiculous story.

BLAIR WITCH – Awful, awful sequel to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). The less said about this one the better.

SHUT IN – Despite a terrific performance by Naomi Watts, this wannabe thriller is marred by a ridiculous story with one of the least satisfying and most unbelievable twists I’ve seen in a while.

Okie-dokie, that about does it so far.  Will any of these movies make my pick for the Worst Movie of 2016?  Or are there Worse Turkeys yet to come?

For the answer to that question, you’ll have to check back in January 2017.

Thanks for reading!

Gobble, gobble!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

MONEY MONSTER (2016) Tamed by Sentimentality

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money monster poster

MONEY MONSTER (2016), the new drama/thriller directed by Jodie Foster, and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, has the right idea.  It tells a story about the “little guy” fighting back against Wall Street greed, but it takes the wrong approach, as none of what transpires on screen is all that believable.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a hot shot TV celebrity who hosts a show on the wheelings and dealings of Wall Street, and it’s a show that’s full of flashy pizzazz. His director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is his right hand person and keeps him in line on the air.  However, unbeknownst to him, she’s in the midst of her final broadcast as she’s leaving for another network.

In the middle of the show, a man appears on stage and suddenly starts shooting.  He then forces Lee to put on a vest armed with a bomb, and he holds the detonator in his hand.  Anyone messes with him, and he’ll blow up the building, on live TV no less, and it’s being shown live because he orders the cameras to keep rolling.

We learn that the man’s name is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), and he lost all his money when the company Lee had told his viewers was a sure thing and a safer investment than a savings account goes belly up.  This company supposedly lost its funds due to a program glitch.  The man who runs the company, Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s show that day but cancelled at the last minute.  Not only did he cancel, but he seems to have gone into hiding, just when his company misplaced billions of dollars.  Hmm.

As the police move in, Lee is advised to keep Kyle talking, and he does, but in the process Lee begins to listen to what Kyle is saying and he realizes that perhaps this deranged young man has a point and he decides to use his influence to get to the bottom of the financial disaster which took Kyle’s money.

Yeah, right.  Look, I know you have a gun pointed at me, and you made me put on this vest with a bomb which you could explode at any second, but I find your story compelling, feel bad for you, and want to help you.

Er— I don’t think so.

And therein lies the central problem I had with this film.  I just didn’t believe it.  For this story to work, you really have to suspend disbelief.  A lot.

For example, take the set-up.  Kyle walks onto the set so easily he might as well have been holding a printed invitation!  Sure, he’s disguised as a delivery man, but even a guy wearing a delivery suit and carrying boxes shouldn’t be allowed such easy access to the set of a live news program.  I mean, where is the security to this building?  Watching the broadcast, I guess!

Speaking of that live broadcast, one of the stipulations that Kyle makes once he forces Lee to wear the bomb suit is that the broadcast continue live.  He wants the world to hear his story.  To make sure this is done, Kyle is watching the broadcast on his phone.  With little choice, Patty agrees and the broadcast goes on.  So far so good.  I buy this.

I also buy that the broadcast needs to be shown to the world for the story to work.  My problem is I just don’t see this as really happening.  To me, once the police get involved, that broadcast is going to be shut down.  I just don’t buy that they would allow Kyle access to the outside world.

The police are terribly ineffective here. They decide early on to sneak some sharpshooters onto the set but it takes nearly the entire movie for them to get into position, and when they do, they come up with the brilliant plan of shooting TV host Lee Gates because by doing so they will knock out the detontator, rendering the bomb harmless.

At one point a whole slew of officers converge on the set and yet they still aren’t able to apprehend Kyle.

Also, George Clooney’s Lee Gates is way too sympathetic towards Kyle.  First of all, he seems to be the type of person- brash fast-talking TV host— who would not be sympathetic towards a man like Kyle.  But more than that is the situation itself.  I understand that audiences are supposed to identify with Kyle and his story, making Lee’s sympathy towards him acceptable, but the guy has a gun which he shoots frequently, has a bomb wired to Lee’s chest, and seems completely unhinged.  I just didn’t buy the sympathy, not as fast as it happened, anyway.  Perhaps after the fact, folks might have looked back and felt bad for the guy, but during an armed standoff and hostage situation?  That’s a stretch.

The acting is quite good, though.

I’m usually hit or miss with George Clooney, depending on the role and the movie.  I liked Clooney a lot here, and he gave his character Lee Gates lots of pizzazz and energy.  More importantly, he makes Lee likeable, which considering the character’s personality isn’t the easiest thing to do.

I also enjoyed Julia Roberts as his director Patty Fenn.  She and Clooney have an easy camraderie and their characters’ relationship— when you see how much they care for each other— heightens the suspense when things get rough.

And Jack O’Connell is very good as the desperate and deranged Kyle Budwell.  You definitely feel bad for the guy, although I would stop short of giving him the keys to the city and a platform on which to tell the world his story.  Lose the gun and the bombs and maybe I’d feel differently.

The supporting cast is solid.  Caitriona Balfe is good as Diane Lester, the spokeswoman for the company which lost all Kyle’s money.  At first, she defends her employer, but as she learns more about her boss, she questions that loyalty.

Both Christopher Denham and Lenny Venito stand out in smaller roles, Denham as one of Lee’s producers and Venito as a cameraman.

However, Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from TV’s BREAKING BAD as well as countless other roles) is somewhat wooden here as Police Captain Powell.  He showed more range just using his voice as Akela in THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).  And Dominic West makes for a rather disappointing “villain” as Walt Camby, the man at the top of the “evil” company.  He looks like he walked off the set of an EXPENDABLES movie, ready to trade barbs with Sylvester Stallone.

I also enjoyed the direction by Jodie Foster, as a lot of the stand-off scenes generate the required suspense.

The best scene in the movie is when the police locate Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) and connect her to a live feed in the hope that she will talk some sense into her boyfriend.  What she says is not exactly what the police were hoping for.  It’s explosive, brutal, and on live TV for all the world to see.

And while the suspense generally builds as the movie goes along, the ending does get a bit carried away.

The screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf is a mixed bag.  The story itself is rather contrived, but the dialogue is very good.  The humor is especially sharp.  That being said, it doesn’t quite  reach the same heights as THE BIG SHORT (2015)  which had a similar message but was more successful in making its point.  The message in MONEY MONSTER isn’t quite as honed, and it gets bogged down in sentimentality.

MONEY MONSTER has its heart in the right place, but it allows this heart to get in the way  of its storytelling.

—END—

 

 

 

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) Missing Spark

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hail-caesar-poster-

It’s hit or miss for me with the Coen brothers.

For every Coen movie I like—TRUE GRIT (2010), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and FARGO (1996), to name a few– there’s another I don’t like—BURN AFTER READING (2008) and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) to name a couple.

Their latest movie, HAIL, CAESAR!, a comedy about the the film industry in the 1950s, is one of their misses.

It’s got good ideas, some clever writing, decent acting performances, and an attention to detail that’s second to none, but at the end of the day it’s lacking something, a cohesive spark to both keep the entire film together and lead it to bigger and brighter things.  As it stands, it’s a comedy without much to laugh about and worse yet, not many laughs.

It’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer whose job it is to see that everything at Capitol Pictures functions properly.  He’s a problem solver who on any given day is dealing with one issue after another.  That’s Hollywood, for you!  And one thing is for sure, his job is not boring.

In HAIL, CAESAR! Eddie has multiple problems to deal with.  His biggest issue is studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gotten himself kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic they’re shooting, entitled HAIL, CAESAR! 

Meanwhile, his boss has inserted bad acting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high profile drama directed by one of their top directors Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  And if that’s not enough, studio “innocent” DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant, and an unmarried mother is not the image the studio wants for her, so Eddie sets his sights on getting her married.

HAIL, CAESAR! is a collection of little moments.  Some of them work, while others don’t.   For instance, the scene where Eddie assembles a group of religious leaders in a conference room to get their feedback on the studio’s depiction of Jesus in their movie HAIL, CAESAR! is hilarious- an instant classic.  Likewise, when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock awakens from his drug-induced slumber and casually strolls into the living room and joins in on the conversation with his kidnappers, it makes for grin-inducing comedy.

Moreover, the film also includes scenes of genuine drama.  The scene near the end where Eddie literally slaps some sense into his star Baird Whitlock is poignant and painful, and sets the stage for Whitlock’s dramatic speech at the end of his Biblical movie, a speech that Clooney knocks out of the park, playing an actor acting over his head in a movie that’s nowhere near as good as his performance in the scene- until he forgets his last line.

The scene where director Laurence Larentz confronts Hobie Doyle and literally forces him to say the line “Would that it were so simple” repeatedly is pointedly painful.

But just as many scenes misfire.  Most of Channing Tatum’s scenes fall flat, and Scarlett Johansson, whose DeeAnna Moran is a really interesting character, is barely in the movie enough to make much of an impact. Her one scene with Jonah Hill is buzzing with energy, but it’s just one scene.

While Tilda Swinton, who was so icy cold in both the NARNIA movies and in SNOWPIERCER (2013), is very good in a dual role as sister reporters’ Thora and Thessaly Thacker, her scenes are neither comedic or all that dramatic.  They’re just sort of there.

Furthermore, George Clooney possesses tremendous comic timing, and yet it is barely on display here.  His kidnap tale has all the makings of a screwball comedy, yet that’s not the direction this movie decides to take.

And Josh Brolin, who I like a lot, is very good here as Eddie Mannix, but it’s a straight role.  He’s the straight man, and all the shenanigans of his actors, directors, and studio heads play off him.  While Brolin is excellent in the role, as he almost always is, the character Eddie Mannix as written isn’t really the strongest character to build a movie around.  Perhaps if he were more comedic- the type of persona which Peter Falk used to play- that might have worked better, but that’s not how the role is written. With his Catholic guilt, it reminded me of a role Spencer Tracy would have played.  The character just doesn’t seem to fit in with the oddball characters surrounding him.

You can’t really fault the actors.  They all do a very good job with what they have, and HAIL, CAESAR! certainly features a phenomenal cast:  Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.

I also enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle.

By far, the biggest weakness of HAIL, CAESAR! is that it’s simply not that funny, and for a comedy, that is definitely not a good thing!

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written a script that captures the flavor of 1950s Hollywood, and they have peppered it with interesting and quirky characters throughout, but what they didn’t do was give these characters in this setting a solid story in which to maneuver.  It’s simply a collection of little moments that never quite gel together in order to build something more.

And central character Eddie Mannix, in spite of a solid performance by Josh Brolin, just isn’t quirky enough to be that guy who holds a movie like this together.  I almost wish George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock had been the central character. Had that been the case, the comedy would have soared.  Clooney’s got that kind of timing.

The cinematography and costumes capture the period nicely, and HAIL, CAESAR! if nothing else is enjoyable to look at. But for a period piece comedy, aesthetics without laughter doesn’t really cut it.

HAIL, CAESAR! is an emphatic title.  Too bad its humor isn’t equally as assertive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thought-Provoking THREE KINGS (1999) Quirky and Intense

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Streaming Video Review:  THREE KINGS (1999)

By three-kings_movie-poster-01

Michael Arruda

 

With the upcoming release of George Clooney’s latest movie, TOMORROWLAND, due in theaters on May 22, 2015, I decided to check out an earlier Clooney film that I had missed the first time around.  THREE KINGS (1999), a movie about the first Iraqi war, starring Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and now available on Netflix Streaming, takes place in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War.

When Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) learns that three soldiers have discovered a map leading to massive amounts of gold which Saddam Hussein had taken from the Kuwaitis, he decides to steal it.  He enlists the aid of these three soldiers, Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze).  They set out in secret for the gold, but along the way they witness the Iraqi Republican Guard executing an innocent Iraqi, an action which Major Gates can’t let stand.  He retaliates, and in the process, rescues a large group of Iraqi prisoners, a group that includes women and children.

Suddenly, Gates’ objectives change, as he finds himself responsible for this group of prisoners, and he agrees to help them reach the Iranian border, a quest that puts him and his men up against Saddam Hussein’s forces and his own American army.  And then there’s the matter of the gold, which Gates still has no intention of giving up, setting the stage for a thrilling journey through the Iraqi desert as they attempt to escort Iraqis to freedom.

I really enjoyed THREE KINGS, both its story and its quirky tone, which for the most part works as a black comedy.

It was interesting to watch a movie about the first Iraqi war, made before the events of September 11.  So many recent movies have focused on the second Iraqi war and the events following 9/11.  Events depicted in this movie, while still disturbing— it’s a war after all— still don’t play as intense as recent films on the second Iraqi war and the war in Afghanistan, movies like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  Our collective consciousness is much darker now than it was when this film was made in 1999.

But that’s not to say that THREE KINGS doesn’t have its share of intense moments.  It does.  The execution of the Iraqi woman in front of her young daughter, for example, is a jarring sequence, as is the torture sequence where Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Barlow is captured by Iraqi soldiers and tortured with electric shocks and is eventually forced to drink motor oil.  These scenes are not for the squeamish.

I also had to keep reminding myself that this was about the first Iraqi war.  For instance, when the film makes reference to Saddam Hussein and the influence he wields over his Republican Guard, I found myself scratching my head questioning, “Saddam Hussein?  Isn’t he dead?”  Of course, then I’d remember that the objective of this first war was only to oust Hussein from Kuwait, and that he wasn’t removed from power and eventually executed until after the second Iraqi war.

Writer/Director David O. Russell has made a hard hitting war movie that effectively makes its point that although Americans largely viewed this war as a “clean” war, in that not a lot of American soldiers lost their lives, and that its objective was largely met, it’s still a war, and for the people of Iraq, there was nothing “clean” about it.  It disrupted their lives and caused death and destruction.

Russell keeps things from being too bleak with a quirky tone that generates laughter, albeit mostly of the uncomfortable variety.  Spike Jonze’ Private Vig is humorous in his naivety, even though his ignorant views are as sad as they are funny.  His banter with Walberg’s Sergeant Barlow is the liveliest part of the movie.

Russell would go on to make THE FIGHTER (2010), also with Wahlberg, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), two films I liked better than THREE KINGS.  Russell also directed AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), the overly ambitious 1970s con artist tale which I liked but didn’t love, and I think that while THREE KINGS is a less ambitious film than AMERICAN HUSTLE, I liked it more.

As screenplays go, Russell’s work here with THREE KINGS is very good, as the story remains compelling throughout and actually gets better and more exciting as the movie goes along, and the dialogue is first-rate.  It makes its points about the Gulf War and provides plenty of entertaining snappy dialogue that is riveting and real.  That being said, it’s not quite as good as his screenplay for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).  That one was a grand slam.

George Clooney is terrific as Major Archie Gates.  At first, the jury is out on this character, as you wonder what kind of a man he is since he’s willing to steal gold from the Iraqis, but when he steps up to intervene on the innocent Iraqis’ behalf, you see firsthand what kind of a man he is, and he’s all the better for it.  Clooney is effective throughout and makes Gates in spite of his early actions a man you can root for.

Reportedly, Clooney and director Russell feuded on the set, so much so that Clooney declared he’d never work with Russell again.  Not sure if this is true or not, but Clooney’s Gates certainly seems like his he has a chip on his shoulder throughout this movie.

Mark Walberg is also excellent as Sergeant Troy Barlow.  There’s a youthful exuberance about Barlow, a naivety that nonetheless is balanced with a sense of responsibility and leadership.  Barlow takes the even more naïve Private Vig under his wing and looks out for him throughout the story.  It was fun to see a younger Walberg, and while he’s very good in this movie, he’s gotten even better over the years, improving to the point where he’s one of the better actors working today.

 

Spike Jonze is memorable as Private Conrad Vig, although I wanted to give the character a library card and a newspaper with the instructions to start reading.  Vig is a backwards but well-meaning character, and Jonze does a nice job capturing these traits.  Ice Cube is also notable as the religious Sergeant Chief Elgin.  He provides the moral conscience for the group.

Nora Dunn is also very good as reporter Adriana Cruz, who spends the bulk of the movie getting the runaround from Clooney’s Gates, but we get to know her well as she shares her lamentations about the war, wondering what this war was really all about.  And at the end, when Gates needs the help of the press to get his job done, it’s Cruz that he turns to.

I really liked THREE KINGS.  It’s a thought-provoking exciting movie about a war that nowadays has been largely overshadowed by the traumatic events which were soon to follow it.

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George Clooney At His Quirky Best in 2011’s THE DESCENDANTS

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The DescendantsBlu-Ray Review:  THE DESCENDANTS (2011)

By

Michael Arruda

Watching George Clooney in THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) earlier this month reminded me that I still hadn’t seen THE DESCENDANTS (2011), the film in which Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.  So, I remedied this by catching THE DESCENDANTS (2011) on Blu-ray the other day.

THE DESCENDANTS takes place in Hawaii, and right off the bat I could tell I was going to enjoy this Oscar winning screenplay by director Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, as in an opening voice-over, Clooney says that just because he lives in Hawaii people think his life is a paradise, free from family problems, sickness, and daily angst, but obviously that’s not true, as he suffers from the same day to day issues as the rest of us.

Lawyer Matt King’s (George Clooney) current woe is that his wife Elizabeth is in a coma, a victim of a boating accident. Matt works attorney’s hours, and he’s never been close to his kids, but now he must care for his young daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and teen daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) on his own, and since they are both volatile personalities with foul mouths and attitudes to boot, Matt has his hands full.

Matt and his extended family also own a huge amount of land on the island of Kaua’i, land that they plan to sell for development.  Since Matt is the sole trustee of the family trust, it’s his name that’s in the news, and his decision to sell is not a popular one among the islanders.

When the doctors tell Matt that his wife will not survive, and that she will be taken off life support, he tells his daughters and his family and friends so they can say their good-byes, prompting an upset Alexandra to tell her father that her mother was having an affair, which drives Matt to search for the man she was having an affair with.

THE DESCENDANTS follows Matt’s attempts to work things out with his daughters while handling the news that his soon to be dead wife was having an affair.  While this may sound gloomy and depressing, it really isn’t.  The film has a quirky likeable style, and these dark plot points merely serve as a backdrop to our getting to know Matt and his daughters.

As I said earlier, Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, and deservedly so.  He’s great here, and it just might be my favorite George Clooney performance.  The last film where I enjoyed him as much as this was in the Coen Brothers’ O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) where he delivered a hilarious over-the-top performance as goofy escaped convict Everett McGill.  Since Matt King is a much more three-dimensional character than Everett McGill, Clooney’s performance here is all the more satisfying.

I often find that Clooney’s roles tend to struggle generating emotions.  They’re intellectually interesting, but they don’t tug at your heart.  That’s not the case here.

He gives Matt a vulnerability that is instantly likeable.  When he struggles with his daughters, he is so sincere in the way he deals with them, being as honest and forthright as possible about his own weaknesses and shortcomings.  It makes him a very sympathetic character.

Clooney also gives Matt a decent dose of idiosyncrasies.  When he’s on the prowl searching for the man who had an affair with his wife, he’s almost comical.  His reaction, for example, when he sees the guy for the first time as he jogs past him is very funny.  Clooney seems to excel at playing quirky characters, and I wish he’d do it more often.

He’s helped along by a solid supporting cast.  Both Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are excellent as his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie.  Even better is Nick Krause as Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid.  Sid is another quirky character who livens up this film and keeps it from being dragged down by its depressing subject matter.

Sid enjoys some of the better moments in the movie.  The scene where Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) punches Sid in the face is a laugh-out-loud moment, and later, when Scott calls Matt an unfit husband who wasn’t there for his daughter, it’s Sid who steps up to Matt’s defense.

Speaking of Robert Forster, he’s excellent as Matt’s father-in-law Scott.  He appears in several of the more emotional scenes in the movie.  Beau Bridges is also on hand as one of the King clan, Cousin Hugh, one of the many cousins in Matt’s family.  Bridges makes the most of his few scenes, coming off like a cross between Ozzy Osborne and Jeb Bush.

Matthew Lillard is very good as the spineless Brian Speer, the man who Matt’s wife had the affair with, and Judy Greer, who played Carrie’s teacher, Ms. Desjardin  in the remake of CARRIE (2013), is also memorable as Speer’s wife Julie.  The scene where she comes to the hospital to “forgive” the comatose Elizabeth provides Clooney with yet another priceless quirky moment when he has to interrupt her ramblings.

As good as the cast is, the Oscar-winning script by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash is even better.  It’s filled with sincere witty dialogue, humorous and painful moments alike, characters that I cared about, and a pacing that kept me interested throughout.

THE DESCENDANTS was directed by Alexander Payne, and he did a bang-up job.  The film reminded me somewhat of one of Payne’s earlier efforts, SIDEWAYS (2004). Payne is nominated again this year for the Best Director Oscar for the movie NEBRASKA (2013) starring Bruce Dern, who’s also up for an Oscar for Best Actor.

THE DESCENDANTS is a rewarding film experience that highlights one man’s realization that he hasn’t been there for his family, as he is forced into caring for his two daughters while his comatose wife lies dying in a hospital bed.  It contains a great performance by George Clooney and a refreshing thoroughly satisfying script.

I highly recommend it.

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