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Josh Reviews The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky stars George Clooney (who also directed the film) as a grizzled scientist left alone at an arctic research station after an environmental catastrophe has devastated the globe.  After a while, he discovers that he is not as alone as he’d thought: a young girl has secretly stayed behind at the station along with him.  Together, the two must face a perilous journey in an attempt to warn a crew of astronauts, returning to Earth, of the danger that awaits them.

The Midnight Sky was written by Mark L. Smith (who wrote The Revenant and is one of many different people who were at one time attached to write the as-yet-unmade fourth Star Trek film for J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot studios), adapting the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton.  (I have not read that novel, so I am judging The Midnight Sky based on the film, alone.)  The brief description I wrote above is one that appeals to me, and I am always excited for a new original sci-fi film.  I loved the first two films George Clooney directed (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck), and while in my opinion none of his subsequent films have been nearly as good, I know he has skills as a director and I was excited to see what he could do with a sci-fi story.  And yet, unfortunately, I must report that I found The Midnight Sky to be a huge disappointment.

The film started off well!  I really enjoyed the mysterious set-up; I love that the film doesn’t hold our hand to spell out what exactly is going on.  We’re forced to catch up with events as we see the evacuation of the research station, and see that George Clooney’s character (who we later find out is named Augustine) has stayed behind for reasons that at first are unclear.  I really dug this almost wordless early-going, as we watch the story unfold as basically a silent film.  We follow Augustine’s life alone at the station and, then, the events that unfold after he discovers the young girl (whose name we learn is Iris), who appears mute.  George Clooney is a far better actor than his movie-star celebrity might lead one to believe; he’s incredibly compelling to watch in these early scenes.  And I quite enjoyed the silent work of Caoilinn Springall, the young actress who plays Iris.  These sections are also beautifully directed by Mr. Clooney, who finds some compelling and eerie visuals in these scenes of two people alone amidst the cold technology of the base and the arctic expanse that surrounds them.

But then the film starts cutting away from Augustine … [continued]

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The Coen Brothers have made some dark, violent films, and they have made some light, funny films, and they have made some films that seem to fall somewhere in between.  Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is for most of it’s run-time one of the Coen Brothers’ lighter, more farcical films, though periodically the movie reminds us that it has something more on its mind than simple silliness.  Hail, Caesar! might, upon some reflection, be considered one of the Coen Brothers’ more minor works, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this film doesn’t have a lot of fun to offer.

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Set in Hollywood in the 1950’s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers.  Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly.  The dim-witted Baird, meanwhile, finds himself somewhat taken in by his Communist kidnappers.

Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film.  “Silly” is a tone that is surprisingly difficult for many filmmakers to pull off, but the Coen Brothers have mastered the art of comedic goofiness.  They make it look so easy.  There are a lot of wonderfully funny moments in the film as the Coens gently skewer the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos.  And say whatever you want about the film as a whole, but the fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene of effete director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — trying to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of the greatest scenes they have ever created in any of their films.  I am not exaggerating.

One of my favorite aspects of Hail, Caesar is the way the film occasionally morphs into one of the popular styles of Hollywood films from the fifties, from Biblical epic to elaborate musical to peppy dance number.  Each one of these sequences is lovingly realized (Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque sailor song-and-dance number is particularly terrific) and they bring the film a great spark of energy each time they shift the movie into a different tone.  (Though I will say that while I loved Michael Gambon’s pompous narration at the start of the film, I could have done with a little less of it as the film progressed.)

Hail, Caesar!’s main film-within-a-film, the Roman epic in which Baird … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Descendants

Last week I saw The Muppets and then The Descendants, in what has to be one of the weirdest double-features ever.  I was really excited about The Muppets, and while I enjoyed that film (read my review here) I was surprised to end the evening having far preferred The Descendants!

The whole world seems to have gone ga-ga over Sideways, Alexander Payne’s last film (which was released all the way back in 2004, wow).  I really enjoyed that film, and it deserves credit for showing the whole world how great Paul Giamatti is, but I’m going to say that I found The Descendants to be a stronger film over-all.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off real-estate lawyer living in Hawaii.  He describes himself at the start of the film as “the back-up parent,” but he’s forced out of that comfortable-to-him role when his wife falls into an irreversible coma following a boating accident.  Matt suddenly finds himself the primary care-giver for his two daughters, the teen-aged Alex (Shailene Woodley) and the ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  In the process of traveling around the Hawaiian islands to tell friends and family about his wife’s condition, things become even more complicated when Alex reveals to Matt a secret about his wife (her mom) which all the trailers for the film spoiled but which I’ll avoid revealing here.

The above paragraph isn’t really a description of the plot of the film.  Well, it sort of is.  But it’s more like the framework around and within which the events of the film — mostly a series of moments in the lives of this threesome — transpire.  Not a whole heck of a lot happens in The Descendants, and that’s part of the film’s charm.  Things seem to unfold at a slightly laid-back, Hawaiian pace.  There is some learning and some growing, but I felt the film stayed pretty far away from schmaltz, and the character arcs felt earned, rather than just being driven by what Hollywood Screenwriting 101 might think is necessary.

OK, maybe I’m overstating things to say that not a whole heck of a lot happens in The Descendants. It’s interesting to compare this film to Like Crazy, which I reviewed last week.  Now THERE’S a film where not a whole heck of a lot happens!  Compared to Like Crazy, a movie that strove for often-times painful naturalism, The Descendants is incredibly dense with plot.  And I will admit that there is quite a lot of drama that befalls George Clooney’s character in the week-or-so depicted in the film, perhaps more than would realistically befall you or me, even in one of our most tumultuous weeks.  But … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Ides of March

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good, angry political thriller, so I quite enjoyed George Clooney’s latest directorial feature, The Ides of March. Perhaps thriller is the wrong word, since that word conjures thoughts of films featuring mysteries or action/suspense or damsels in distress.  And while there is an unfortunate damsel in The Ides of March who is subject to a great deal of distress, when I write “thriller” I refer not to the presence of any violent murder in the plot, but rather to the film’s bubbling sense of dread and urgency, which builds to a fierce boil as the story approaches its climax.

George Clooney is a fine actor.  I’ve long held that he — like Brad Pitt — is a far better actor than he needs to be, what with his movie-star looks.  But while Mr. Clooney might be a fine actor, he’s a damn magnificent director.  His first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, remains one of my very favorite films ever (and the movie that cemented my abiding appreciation for the great Sam Rockwell), and his second, Good Night, and Good Luck, is an equally beautiful, confident, urgent piece of work.  There’s a direct line that can be drawn from the beating political heart of Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism, to the Ides of March.

Set during several tumultuous days leading up to the Ohio Democratic primary, The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling (who blew my mind, back in the day, in The Believer — and, if you’ve never seen it, go out and find that searing film about a young Jewish boy who becomes a neo-Nazi) as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic number two in the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  I’m loathe to reveal any details of the plot, but suffice to say things get a little rough for Stephen and his candidate.  The Ides of March casts its gaze at the dirty back-room political in-fighting that goes on behind the scenes, far away from the bright lights of the network camera crews.  The film clearly has some broad points to make about our modern political races, but the film is first and foremost a gripping dramatic tale.

Ryan Gosling is terrific, charismatic and compelling as Stephen.  He plays the film’s light early scenes with grace and charm, clearly showing us why Stephen has, at a young age, become such a skilled political operator.  When things turn increasingly desperate, Mr. Gosling takes us right down the rabbit hole along with him, and the genius of the film is the way in which we’re forced to wonder, in the final … [continued]

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There are a few writer/directors whose new films, which we seem to get on a pleasingly regular basis, are always a must-see for me.  I’m thinking about talents like Woody Allen, David Mamet, and the Coen Brothers.  With artists like that, I know that a new film will always be interesting.  Sometimes I might love what I see, sometimes I might be disappointed, sometimes I might be indifferent —  but I always know that what I’m watching will be a unique, personal vision.

I’ve been a bit of a late-comer to the films of the Coen Brothers.  Their first film I saw was Fargo, soon after it came out in 1996, but I didn’t quite “get it” back then.  I think it wasn’t until a few years later when I first saw The Hudsucker Proxy on tape in college that I really started to take notice of these filmmakers.  (I just re-watched Hudsucker last week, and it remains one of my absolute favorite films.  More on this below.)

It always seems for me that the Coen Brothers films that everyone likes, I don’t — and the ones that get passed over are the ones I really dig.  Everyone went crazy about O Brother Where Art Thou?, but I found it to be a dull, rather obvious take on the storylines of The Odyssey.  Conversely, I think I’m one of the few people on Earth who really dug the screwball comedy and rat-tat-tat dialogue of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty.  And as for No Country for Old Men, which got such acclaim last year… I was thoroughly engrossed in the film for most of its run-time, but ultimately I felt it just didn’t earn the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene.  What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that so affected Sheriff Bell (Tommy lee Jones)?  For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply?  The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Tommy Lee Jones, while we never get to see Llewelyn’s tragic end, indicates that the film was really the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s.  But I, as a viewer, was invested in Llewelyn!  And having the end of his story cut off by the finale (we never see Llewelyn’s final confrontation with Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh) really pulled me out of my enjoyment of the film.

Which brings me to Burn After Reading, the newest film written … [continued]