Hail, Caesar! — Review

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Josh Brolin in a scene from Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!

25Star

“A few good gags here and there, but never anything fully fluid and satisfying.”

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The Monuments Men — Review

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25Star

by Ken B.

Do you realize how great this movie could have been? The Monuments Men has an extremely compelling story to tell and a cast to do it, but when all is said and done, it doesn’t really achieve the task at hand. It’s about a team of architects, archivists, and artists assigned to retrieve thousands of pieces of priceless European art stolen by the Nazis before they are destroyed in the waning days of World War II.

The idea is suggested by Frank Stokes (director and co-writer George Clooney), and approved by the president. From America, Stokes appoints four men, with the names of Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Preston Salvitz (Bob Balaban), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and James Granger (Matt Damon). There are two from Europe; from Britain, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and from France Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). The team finds out what has been taken, and figures out where it might be. Along the way, a French curator named Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) becomes vital to locating much of the stolen material. Another supporting character is Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a Jewish soldier who fled Germany for America with his family in 1938. He’s mostly unseen, but acts as a translator a couple of times.

I had to consult the iMDB for character names. One of the key flaws with The Monuments Men is a disorganized and disheveled way of developing and introducing its characters, to the point where the viewer doesn’t really know who these great actors were playing. I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about better projects the main cast had been in.

The Monuments Men is never at a loss for a well performed scene, but it never really combines into a cohesive or memorable film. This is the fault of the screenplay and possibly the editing. It’s a choppy and jerky affair, hard to follow and even harder to care about most of the time. There are seven “monuments men”, and as the story moves on, the group splits up and it becomes a series of tangents, never a fully flowing narrative until the climax of the third act. It’s a disappointing event of thinking about what the possibilities are, and realizing how they’re never reached to their maximum potential. The 118 minute movie suffers a bit in its pacing, especially at the start, with countless amounts of hasty exposition turned against a general disinterest. You’re greeted with an awful incessant speed. The production design uses every warm color it can find in the interiors, creating a glowing sense of nostalgia, as if to initiate the ghosts of the World War II films of days gone by. It never really feels like a successful tribute to that, or nearly any kind of film. The Monuments Men more often than not comes off as a realm of iconic actors misshapen by the script and odd editing flow.

I really wanted to love this. There are so many excellent components in The Monuments Men that it can be called nothing other than a real, real shame that it should not turn out as anything less than a spectacle. It’s such a sadness to watch this as the end result, occasionally stirring but never consistently. You yearn for more yet can’t handle another minute with the sluggish pacing, you love the actors but can’t remember who they’re playing, you make a point to read Robert Edsel’s book to learn more about this otherwise fascinating part of World War II, and you wonder why you didn’t see that move with the Legos everyone’s been talking about.

Buy from Amazon: Book / DVD / Blu-ray

The Monuments Men

Good Night, and Good Luck. – Review

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3Star

by Ken B.

Good Night, and Good Luck. celebrates the power of journalism and then subtly brutally chastises contemporary journalists for an aversion to giving facts and telling the truth. The film details Edward R. Murrow (DAVID STRATHAIRN)’s mission with his colleagues at CBS News’ See It Now to expose the practices and absurdities used by Senator Joseph McCarthy during his self-aggregated Red Scare in the 1950s, at the ever-bearing risk of being the politician’s next target. Archival footage of Senate hearings are shown – “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”.

Strathairn embodies Murrow, the collected anchor, with the titular phrase “Good night, and good luck” rolling off his tongue in a disarmingly natural way. While there are plenty of scenes featuring the man in regular settings, the most memorable and praise-worthy are both the on-air sequences and the recreation of his 1958 address to the Radio-Television News Directors’ Association (RTNDA), which bookends the picture. McCarthy is simply shown via existing footage. This is fitting, since there are few actors that could believably portray the insane passion and manic attitude the man displayed throughout these infamous years of his life and career.

Atmosphere is key here. The black-and-white cinematography led by Robert Elswit is wise and at times striking – early on, the first we see of Murrow is at the start of the film, about to give his speech to the RTNDA. He is shown in silhouette and profile at the wings of the stage. White cigarette smoke flies out of his nose and mouth, dissolving over the light of the ballroom beside him. In terms of music, there is no score in the traditional sense of the word, but every half hour or so, a jazz song performed by Dianne Reaves will break through the developments of the preceding.

The script by director George Clooney (who has a supporting part as See It Now producer Fred Friendly) and producer Grant Heslov is clear and deliberate, never reaching for extra tension or fiction, but displaying the facts as they occurred, and in terms of mood, that is more than enough. However, in spite of its greatness, the screenplay is also Good Night, and Good Luck.’s major weakness. The movie, clocking in at 93 minutes, is too short. Yes, too short. The story of Murrow and McCarthy during this era is a deep and fascinating one, but at times the film feels like it’s barely scratching the surface, and instead simply running for a plain summary.

With the likes of Strathairn, Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, and Frank Langella, everyone in the main cast stands out with something to offer, no matter what the part. Their characters are parts of a goal – to expose McCarthy as terrorizing, lying, and paranoia-inducing. When the sequence comes where a handful of McCarthy’s statements are carefully debunked on an episode See It Now, we await each moment, and what will follow. Good Night, and Good Luck. is a great movie in that respect, yet disappointing in its habit of running by too quickly, and not giving us more time to linger in its style, execution, and substance.

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Gravity – Review

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4Star

by Ken B.

I am about to write a statement that I will probably never write again:

See this movie in 3D.

With Gravity, a confident case that 3D doesn’t have to be a gimmick has been made. With Gravity, the feeling of fear is real and powerfully expressed. With Gravity, there is evident proof in the potential of minimalist setup against an epic frame. With Gravity, you feel what is happening. This is a powerful, immersive experience. There is true terror, both thanks to superb direction and incredible acting.

There is a lot of plot, but I’ll only reveal as little as possible. This is something you need to see for yourself. Matt Kowalski (GEORGE CLOONEY) and Dr. Ryan Stone (SANDRA BULLOCK), are two astronauts sent up to do repairs to the Hubble Telescope. Suddenly, a misguided launch of a Russian missile strike sends debris launching into space, knocking out communications satellites around the globe, killing contact with Houston, and wrecking the shuttle, leaving, at first, Kowalski and Stone stuck in the immaculate blankness of space. (There is more – I promise – but it won’t mean as much if I tell you here).

While one might think just from reading the above synopsis that Gravity is about a botched space mission, at its center, screenwriters Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón have written a film that deals with one of our greatest and most unanimous fears: abandonment. (I might write a stray observation soon for those who viewed the film where I try to explain how this is placed in the movie in more ways than one.) In reality, despite the blockbuster budget and the setting in space, this movie conveys a powerful sense of claustrophobia. The most featured performance here is undoubtedly of Bullock’s (for reasons that I’d rather not spoil), and if there was an Oscar-worthy performance to be found in a CGI-heavy movie, this is it. She must convey many emotions in this 90 minute movie, and she handles it with professionalism and raw feeling and power. Carrying a movie of this size, essentially alone, is no easy task on an actor. (That’s not to say that Clooney as Kowalski and Ed Harris as the Mission Control voice over aren’t welcome either – it’s just that at the end of the day, it’s Sandra Bullock’s character who really matters.)

There’s only one proper way to watch Gravity, and that is in a theater and in 3D. Taking off the 3D glasses a couple of times during the film, I observed a notable flatness and distance to what was happening on screen. The 3D is technologically superb, the atmosphere is surreal, and even the smallest details are dealt with in the highest form. The cinematography by Cuarón regular Emmanuel Lubezki does wonders, with occasional POV shots early on, especially in the immediate aftermath of the debris hit. The 10 – 15 minute shot that starts the movie off is pretty great as well, and traditional shots placed in as the adventure moves on are good. As I’m writing this review, I’m listening to Steven Price’s brilliant score. It was noteworthy with the film, but to listen to it isolated is a greater experience. It almost succeeds in telling the movie’s story by itself. It moves perfectly with the film, and is awe-inspiring and massive from its very style and creation.

Gravity features no complex storyline frills. There really isn’t any possible symbolism until towards the very end. A movie that has enough strength working for it in the acting, writing, and technical fields doesn’t need to cram in any more stuff – at its length, it would only backfire. This, indeed, is a masterful entry of the chronicle that is 21st century filmmaking. It must be seen to be known, and when known, won’t be forgotten.

Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray / Blu-ray 3D

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