Hail, Caesar!

New from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Hail, Caesar!  (B-).  With the glaring and painful exception of Barton Fink, I have yet to see a Coen brothers movie I didn’t like.  (Granted, I haven’t seen them all.)  True Grit, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou? are all classics in my book.  Their current release has its pleasures, but I think it is definitely a lesser entry in the Coen canon.  It’s a pure comedy and a tribute to the movies of the 1940s and 1950s.  (Apparently there are a gazillion references to movies and Hollywood scandals of that era.  They went over my head, but I think I did catch an homage to Fargo.)  Josh Brolin (Sicario) stars as Eddie Mannix, a honcho for Capital Studios who is pulled in a million directions at once as he tries to keep his movies and his movie stars out of trouble.  George Clooney (Intolerable Cruelty) costars as Baird Whitlock, a matinee idol who is supposed to be starring in a big Ben Hur-like production but who has been kidnaped by a mysterious group called The Future.  And there are scads of other stars on hand, including Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a fey director of costume dramas, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) as a pregnant movie star in a mermaid suit, and Channing Tatum (She’s the Man) as the star of a South Pacific-like musical.  I enjoyed the energy of the picture, but it didn’t really seem to add up to much—except maybe to say gee, isn’t show biz crazy?

Tomorrowland

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Tomorrowland  (C).  Well, director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) kind of laid an egg with this one.  (Per IMDB, its stateside haul so far is only about half of its $190 million budget.)  But it’s not a bad movie.  There’s sort of a prologue in which a boy who will grow up to be George Clooney gets to visit a place of technological wonders hidden somewhere beneath the 1964 World’s Fair and, we expect, fall in love with a cute little girl named Athena.  Fast forward to today, and a brainy, optimistic gal named Casey (Britt Robertson, TV’s awesome Under the Dome) receives a mysterious pin that gives her visions of Tomorrowland.  This gets her caught up in a whirlwind of adventure, about which I will say only that it involves a grown-up and curmudgeonly George Clooney (Gravity).  It’s an earnest and optimistic movie, so maybe it just doesn’t fit the national mood right now.  And it is too long, 2 hours and 10 minutes.  But I still liked it okay.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2013, by The Movie Snob

Once again, it is time for The Movie Snob’s annual “best of” column.  As always, the only rule is that I limit the list to films I saw for the first time during the last calendar year.  Thus, you can be sure some 2012 releases will be sprinkled in among the 2013 releases.

Movie of the Year.  It’s another tough call this year.  I gave three movies a straight “A” grade this year, but one of them was a 1949 release, so I’ll temporarily disqualify that one.  As between the other two, I’ll give top honors to 12 Years a Slave.  You’ve already heard all about this movie, if you haven’t seen it already, so I’ll just say it was an amazing, harrowing experience.  It’s a fitting companion to Lincoln, which was my pick for movie of the year last year.

Runner-Up.  If I had managed to see it in 2012, when it was released, I would have picked Zero Dark Thirty as my movie of the year in last year’s column.  If you missed this movie, correct your mistake and see it!  Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance as a CIA analyst consumed with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the final act of the movie depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a tour de force.

Old-school runner-up.  The third movie I gave a straight “A” to in 2013 was the 1949 classic The Third Man.  It’s just a great, great movie.  Look it up.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I’ll pick Man of Steel as last year’s best action movie.  This Superman origin story held my interest from beginning to end.  Plus it featured Amy Adams, which is a plus even though she was kind of miscast as Lois Lane.  I still haven’t seen the new Hobbit movie, so we’ll see if it can give Superman a run for his money.  I also liked World War Z, and I think most zombie fans will too.

Best Animated Movie.  I saw and liked two last year.  Top honors go to Wreck-It Ralph, an entertaining and heart-warming story about the lives of a bunch of video-game characters “after hours.”  I also liked The Croods.  I didn’t have high hopes for that one, but the emotional ending really got to me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category, and last year was no exception.  I didn’t think any of the comedies I saw were great, and the ones I thought were pretty good generally weren’t straight comedies.  I guess the best straight comedy I saw was In a World…, about a woman who is trying to grow up while also trying to break into the very male field of movie voice-over work.  Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 had some good moments, but it’s got a lot of very serious stretches amongst the amusing bits.  And I liked Warm Bodies, which is kind of a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com, but it is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Best Documentary.  Hands down, my favorite of the year was 56 Up.  But don’t watch it until you’ve seen all the previous installments in this long-running British series of documentaries.  The series follows a double-handful of British kids from different social classes from their childhoods until now, when they are 56 years old.  Find the first one, 7 Up!, and watch them all.  You’ll thank me.  I saw a couple of other good ones in 2013 as well.  Twenty Feet From Stardom was an interesting look at the careers of some rock-and-roll back-up singers.  Blackfish is a grim, if one-sided, look at Sea World’s mistreatment of its captive killer whales.

Best Drama.  I’ll give top honors to The Spectacular Now, an effective dramedy about a high-school senior who needs to come to grips with his burgeoning alcohol problem, fast.  Another very good dramedy is The Way Way Back, about a young teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his mom’s relationship with a new, unpleasant boyfriend, played unpleasantly by Steve Carell.  I also urge you not to miss Woody Allen’s last movie, Blue Jasmine, starring the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, and Alexander Payne’s last movie, Nebraska, which may produce an Oscar nominee or two of its own.  Finally, Baz Luhrmann is not for all tastes, but I enjoyed his new version of The Great Gatsby quite a bit.

Best Foreign Film.  Setting aside the British documentary 56 Up, mentioned above, I’ll go with the Italian film The Great Beauty.  The movie is languid and episodic, but it’s still an interesting look at the life of an aging hedonist living among the splendors of modern Rome.  I also saw and enjoyed a couple of older Italian movies—Fellini’s 8 ½ and the post-war classic Bicycle Thieves.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Here’s another clear winner: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  Look for some Oscar nominations for this special-effects extravaganza about a couple of astronauts marooned in space.  I also liked the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Gravity.

Honorable Mentions.  What else should you put in your Netflix queue or your streaming list?  Here are a few suggestions.  For drama, you could go with the 2012 release The Impossible, about the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the recent remake of Les Miserables.  The Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects is a pretty effective and twisty little thriller.  So is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey.  At the risk of making myself a laughing stock among critics, I’m going to come right out and say I didn’t think The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was half bad.  Just give it a chance!  Frances Ha is a decent little movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  Short Term 12 is a decent little movie about a home for troubled teenagers and the twentysomethings who try to watch out for them.  I liked American Hustle decently well, and you may still have time to catch that one in the movie theater.  Finally, I finally got around to seeing Kubrick’s The Shining, which is a pretty effective and entertaining chiller.  And I don’t usually like horror movies.

And that’s a wrap!

Gravity

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Gravity  (A-).  This is a terrific film.  It’s been the #1 movie in America for three weeks now, I believe, so you’ve probably already seen it.  Sandra Bullock (The Heat) and George Clooney (The American) play astronauts on a space-shuttle mission to work on the Hubble Telescope.  Things go horribly wrong when the Russians attempt to destroy one of their own satellites; although the Russian satellite is a long way off, the attempt sets off a chain reaction that sends a shower of deadly debris smashing into the space shuttle.  Before you can say “Houston, we have a problem,” Sandra and George are fighting for their lives and desperately trying to figure out some way to cross the 600 kilometers between them and Earth in a non-life-ending way.  It’s a taut (91 minutes) thrill ride, and the special effects are spectacular.  I saw it in IMAX 3D, and it made for a truly immersive experience.  I’ve liked all of director Alphonso Cuaron’s films that I’ve seen (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Great Expectations) but this one tops them all.

The Descendants

Mom Under Cover says Hang Ten for The Descendants if you want to be in the know on Oscar night.

The Descendants;  Grade B

George Clooney and Beau Bridges are Hawaiian?  I couldn’t really buy it though I found myself repeating that question in my mind throughout the movie.  Is Clooney’s performance Oscar worthy?  Hard to say.  He is unexpectedly adept at subtle humor.  I will confess I saw this film from the second row—which is way too close—I’m sure that colors my impression.  The screenplay is clever in parts, both drama and comedy, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election and About Schmidt).  The story opens as Clooney’s Matt King finds his wife, Elizabeth, (Patricia Hastie) in the hospital from a boating accident.   I was prepared for a long depressing story of a family dealing with the unexpected death of their mother/wife.  The story unfolds differently but is difficult to explain without giving away too much.  King is in the position of caring for his two daughters (though he apparently has never so much as made a PB and J sandwich) while his wife languishes in the hospital.  Oh, and he learns from his older daughter (Shailene Woodley) that Elizabeth had been having an affair with a local realtor (Matthew Lillard).  Surfers will recognize big-wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Elizabeth’s boating partner, Troy.  For my money, this film will probably win more awards than it deserves but it is worth a trip to the theater.

The Descendants

A new review from Movie Man Mike

The Descendants. (B-).  Meh.  I was underwhelmed by this film.   I’ve been hearing the buzz about Clooney’s Oscar-caliber performance and so I decided to check it out.  Yes, Clooney gives a solid performance as the grieving husband in the wake of the coma-inducing accident sustained by his wife.  I actually thought Shailene Woodley, who played the daughter, gave an even better performance.   Part of the problem here is that Clooney’s role wasn’t really written to be Oscar caliber.  The writers injected a little black comedy into Clooney’s misfortune when he learns that his wife had been having an affair with another man and she intended to divorce him before she sustained her injuries.  Frankly, watching the sordid details of this poor man’s misfortune play themselves out on the screen was not all that entertaining.  Perhaps it was because it seemed all too possible and real.  In any event, I wish I had saved the price of admission and my time.  I wouldn’t have missed much.

The Ides of March

The Movie Snob reviews a recent release.

The Ides of March (B-).  This political drama stars the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) as Stephen Meyer, a talented and idealistic member of a presidential campaign team who gets a crash course in hardball politics in the run-up to the Ohio Democratic primary.  His candidate and apparent hero is Michael Morris (George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) who is the governor of Pennsylvania and sounds like Barack Obama would sound if he didn’t have to worry about polls and elections.  Rounding out the cast are luminaries like Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Savages) as Morris’s top campaign adviser, Paul Giamatti (Win Win) as Hoffman’s counterpart in the opposing camp, Marisa Tomei (Crazy, Stupid, Love) as a reporter for the Times, and Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler) as a luscious young intern on the Morris campaign team.  The movie kept my interest pretty well, but the whole thing got a little lurid and overheated for my taste.  It’s got a lot in common with the classic Robert Penn Warren novel All the King’s Men, so if you like The Ides of March, do yourself a favor and check a copy of All the King’s Men out of the library.

The Ides of March

The Bleacher Bum pitches us this new movie review.  (NOTE – this review arguably contains spoilers)

The Ides of March:  The movie is adapted from the Broadway play “Farragut North.” It is directed by George Clooney and has an A-list cast, featuring Ryan Gosling, Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Paul Giamatti. Governor Morris of Pennsylvania (Clooney) is trying to claim the Democratic nomination for President by winning the state of Ohio. His campaign is led by Zara, his campaign manager (Hoffman), and Myers, his deputy campaign manager (Gosling).  Myers truly believes in Morris and believes Morris is going to win, until Myers uncovers a dirty not-so-little secret. Before Myers can “fix” the situation and keep a persistent New York Times reporter (Tomei) at bay, Myers loses his job after being played by Morris’ opponent’s campaign manager (Giamatti).  The movie provides great performances (notably Giamatti), fantastic dialogue, a good pace, and a very realistic look at what goes into winning an election, the good and the bad.  However, I bet the movie played better on the stage in front of a live audience than on the silver screen. GRADE: B-.

The Movie Snob’s 2010 Year in Review!

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s annual list of the best movies of the year. As usual, if I saw a movie in the theater in 2010, I may include it in this column even if it was technically a 2009 release. For the record, I saw 58 movies at the theater in 2010, and these are the ones you should try to see if you haven’t seen them yet.

Movie of the Year. This was not a tough decision — the year’s highlight for me was The Social Network, the popular and critically acclaimed dramatization of the invention of Facebook. It’s an engrossing story about how a bunch of greedy nerds built an empire — and then sued the pants off each other. I just saw a news item that the Winklevoss twins are trying to undo their $65 million settlement because they think they’re entitled to even more. Or maybe they’re just trying to lay the groundwork for a sequel.

Runner Up. It didn’t do so well at the box office, but I thought Never Let Me Go was an excellent adaption of a phenomenal book. I can’t say much about the plot, but it’s a sad tale set in a dystopian alternative reality. Thought-provoking without being (in my opinion) preachy. Put it in your Netflix queue. Wait — read the book first. Then put it in your Netflix queue.

Best Action/Adventure Flick. Will I lose my license to critique if I pick the remake of Clash of the Titans? As a kid, I loved the original, and I enjoyed the remake enough to see it twice in the theater — NOT the 3D version, which was brutally panned by the critics. It’s just good, stupid fun with mythology. Oh, I should mention Inception, because it was a fun, roller-coaster ride of a movie, even though I didn’t know what was going on half the time. And even though I’ll look like an idiot for preferring Clash of the Titans. Alice in Wonderland was pretty good too, and Alice’s duel with the Jabberwocky at the end was pretty action-y, so I’ll mention it in this category too.

Best Animated Movie. Unlike 2009, 2010 featured a bumper crop in this category. I’d give top honors to Toy Story 3, which had more exciting action and adventure than anything in the preceding category. But the quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox was also excellent, if a little offbeat. I also liked The Princess and the Frog quite a bit. But in addition to those films, I’d also recommend Megamind, Despicable Me, and How to Train Your Dragon as being well worth your time.

Best Comedy. I’m always hard-pressed to label any comedy “good,” much less recommend it as worth seeing. But I really, really liked a little-seen movie called City Island, starring Andy Garcia as an ordinary, blue-collar guy — a prison guard no less — who starts taking acting lessons on the sly. His wife thinks he’s having an affair; his teenage kids are complete mysteries to him; and then he inexplicably volunteers to take an ex-convict into his home. The plot clicks along very nicely, and I just enjoyed the heck out of it. The few other comedies I saw were wretched and don’t deserve a mention.

Best Documentary. I’ll go with the Johnny Depp-narrated When You’re Strange, which is about the short, strange career of the rock band The Doors. Nipping at its heels are the space documentary Hubble 3D (narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, I believe), and nature documentary Oceans (narrated by Pierce Brosnan).

Best Drama. Lots of strong contenders in this category this year. Maybe it’s just because I saw it very recently, but I’ll pick The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. It’s just a solid boxing movie with an underdog hero you can’t help rooting for. Too cliched for your taste? I understand. Turn the clock back and go with An Education, a dark tale about a bright but naive British girl on the verge of womanhood who gets seduced by a sleazy cad. Or stay closer to home with the even darker Winter’s Bone, about a courageous teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout performance) who has to stand up to her seriously dangerous, meth-cooking relatives in the Missouri Ozarks if she wants to save her family’s farm. One last honorable mention: I really liked The Young Victoria. You don’t have to be an Anglophile to empathize with a spirited young woman born into the straitjacket of royalty.

Best Foreign Film. I would like to pick The Concert, a moving melodrama about a blacklisted Soviet music conductor who schemes his way into a comeback concert. I really enjoyed it at the time. But it did resort to an unpleasant Jewish stereotype to get a cheap laugh once or twice, and I have a hard time recommending it unreservedly. I also really enjoyed Kisses, an Irish movie about a couple of poor kids with bad home situations who decide to empty their piggy banks and run away from home. Honorable mention to the Italian movie Mid-August Lunch, which is a short, sweet little movie about a basically decent guy who is strapped for cash and agrees to take in a few elderly women for the weekend while their own children go away on holiday.

Honorable Mentions. I’ve already mentioned most of the worthwhile films of the year as honorable mentions in the specific categories above, but I can rattle off a few more that are worth a look. Michael Douglas turns in a good performance in Solitary Man. He plays a shallow, Gordon Gekko-like character, but on a much smaller scale. I didn’t see the Wall Street sequel, but this movie had to be much better than that. I liked The Kids Are All Right, about a very unusual family situation that develops when a couple of kids being raised by lesbians look for and find their sperm-donor father. Although it’s not the action movie it was purported to be, I liked The American, starring George Clooney as a world-weary hit man. (Be warned, it’s got some pretty graphic sex scenes in it.) Ben Affleck’s latest movie, The Town, is an entertaining film about a gang of Boston bank robbers. And still in current release you can catch Natalie Portman as a ballerina who’s not-so-slowly losing her marbles in Black Swan.

First Seen on Video This Year. Just one movie I simply must mention: The Big Lebowski. How did I miss seeing this movie? I found it completely ludicrous and utterly hilarious. OK, one more — The King of Kong, about a nice guy who just wants to compete fair and square for the title of Donkey Kong champion of the universe. I defy you not to get hooked on this movie.

So that’s my 2010 in a nutshell. Thanks for reading, and please post a comment!

The American

From the desk of The Movie Snob

The American (B). Be warned: this is a grim movie. George Clooney (Burn After Reading) stars as Jack, who is some sort of international criminal and probably an assassin. In the opening scene, something goes wrong for Jack in Sweden, and he hightails it to Italy where his truly evil-looking boss directs him to lie low in an little hill town and await further instructions. His next job comes soon enough; he is to custom-build a rifle and silencer capable of being quickly disassembled and hidden in a briefcase. In the meantime, he is befriended by the town’s old Catholic priest and develops a more-than-professional relationship with a prostitute named Clara. But, given Jack’s line of work, trouble is never far away. This is not a fast-paced action movie, as the movie posters have misleadingly suggested, but more of a psychological portrait of a bad man whose wicked deeds have almost, but not quite, extinguished his humanity. The movie definitely held my attention, but it is certainly not flawless. Although the film is set in Europe, the Hollywood convention of portraying prostitutes as beautiful, disease-free women with hearts of gold is alive and well. And I am still befuddled by something that happens during the film’s climax; the motivation for a critical act by one of the characters is totally opaque to me. But on the whole, I thought it was a good movie.

Postscript. Okay, having read some messages on the imdb.com board for this movie, I now understand the ending better. Things apparently didn’t happen the way I thought they happened….

Burn After Reading

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Burn After Reading (B). This 2008 release by the Coen brothers (A Serious Man) was actually nominated for a best-comedy Golden Globe. It’s a pretty black comedy, but I enjoyed it well enough. A CIA analyst with a drinking problem (John Malkovich, Beowulf) gets fired and starts writing his memoirs. Through a series of unlikely events, a CD containing some of his memoirs ends up in the hands of two dim-bulb gym employees (Brad Pitt, Babel; Frances McDormand, Fargo), who try to blackmail him for money and then try to sell their “secret information” to the Russians at their embassy. Oh, and George Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox) is involved as a treasury agent who is sleeping with both McDormand’s character and the CIA analyst’s wife. Basically, almost everyone involved is an idiot, and the upper echelon CIA guys who hear bits and pieces of what is going on are completely baffled. A little slow in the early going, but entertaining if you like black comedy.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

New from The Movie Snob

Fantastic Mr. Fox (B+). I was unfamiliar with the children’s book this movie is based on, but I still got a kick out of the movie. Filmed in claymation, it is basically the story of an escalating war between Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney, The Peacemaker) and three mean farmers. In this world, foxes, badgers, possums, beavers, and rabbits live basically like civilized people (except they live mostly underground). The problem is that Mr. Fox cannot resist his natural urges to steal chickens and whatnot from the farmers, despite having promised his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!) long ago that his stealing days were over. The movie is a treat visually, and the quirky dialogue and plot are perhaps no surprise given that the movie is directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). The finger-snapping rat voiced by Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) steals every scene he’s in. An odd, amusing, and entertaining little film. Even the soundtrack is odd, including the seldom-heard “Heroes and Villains” by the Beach Boys and a track by the almost-forgotten Bobby Fuller Four (known almost entirely for “I Fought the Law”).

The Movie Snob’s 2009 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to my annual movie round-up. If I saw a movie in the theater in 2009, I consider it fair game for this column, even if it was technically a 2008 release. I saw 62 movies in the theater last year, and these are the most worthy of your attention.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Hurt Locker, a taut thriller about the Iraq War that has a strong documentary feel to it. The actor who carries the movie, Jeremy Renner, does a heck of a job as a bomb-defusing expert. I think the movie recently came out on DVD, so check it out.

Runner Up: The number 2 spot goes to a 2008 release, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. He should have won the Oscar for his moving portrayal of a washed-up professional wrestler. The scenes in which he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, are especially moving, but the whole movie is excellent.

Best Action/Adventure Flick: And my pick for the 3d best movie I saw this year would be District 9, the out-of-nowhere sci-fi movie about a shantytown of extraterrestrials living outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the clueless bureaucrat whose job is to push all the aliens into an even more remote concentration camp. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel to this one! Honorable mention goes to J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek franchise, even if he rewrote Trek history in the process.

Best Animated Feature: With the caveat that I haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog yet, I’ll go with the obvious choice of Up, in which a grumpy old man ties enough helium balloons to his house to fly all the way to South America. But except for the awesome opening montage that tells the whole story of the man’s life in just a few minutes, I didn’t think Up was really all that great.

Best Comedy: I’ll stretch this category a teensy bit and pick My One and Only, a winsome little movie that is supposedly based on episodes in the life of George Hamilton during his teen years. The redoubtable Renee Zellweger plays George’s mother, a hapless Southern belle searching for love in all the wrong places. I’m probably exaggerating its merits, but I really liked it at the time. Same goes for Management, a romantic comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston. It involves a totally impossible romance, but the leads are so likable I just had to like the movie. In the category of crude yet funny, I liked I Love You, Man.

Best Documentary: Let’s go with the obvious choice and pick Disney’s Earth. Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? I love ’em, and I’ll go ahead and mention Under the Sea 3D as being worthwhile too.

Best Drama: Or maybe it belongs in the comedy category, but either way I really enjoyed Up in the Air starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman. It’s still in the theaters, so get out there and see it! Another movie that straddles the dramedy line is the quirky (500) Days of Summer, starring the quirky yet adorable Zooey Deschanel. While you’re at it, check out the CD she sings on, under the name She & Him. I was also grabbed by the 2008 release The Reader, although I still don’t know quite how I feel about that movie. It’s a strange one.

Best Foreign Film: I don’t think I saw too many foreign films this year, but I liked A Woman in Berlin, about the Russian conquest of Berlin in 1945 as seen through the eyes of one German woman. It was brutal without ever feeling exploitative. I also recommend the book, which I think is still listed as authored by “Anonymous” even though the woman’s identity is known. Another good one was The Class, or Entre les murs, about a French teacher trying to deal with a very fractious and multicultural classroom. Also, Summer Hours, a French movie that’s just a simple little family drama, well-told.

Honorable Mentions: I have a bunch of them. There’s Wendy and Lucy, a little movie about a sad, down-on-her-luck young woman played by Michelle Williams, and her beloved dog. Adventureland is a good little coming-of-age story starring Jesse Eisenberg of Zombieland fame. Moon is a thought-provoking little sci-fi movie. In the Loop is a funny look at the run-up to a fictitious (?) war as seen through the eyes of low-to-mid-level American and British government staffers. The Informant! is a straight movie about a bizarre guy; you just can’t help asking, “Is this really based on a true story? No, really?” Ellen Page scores again in the roller derby movie Whip It. The Coen brothers ask unanswerable questions in A Serious Man. And finally I will mention, based solely on the strength of their visual effects, Disney’s A Christmas Carol and Avatar. See them in 3D, I insist!

First seen on video this year: I haven’t done this before, but I’ll go ahead and recommend a few movies I saw on video this year. The animated feature Bolt is a cute one, about a dog who thinks he has super powers — kind of like a canine Buzz Lightyear. The original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is still surprisingly good, and the 1963 version of The Haunting is still surprisingly scary. I also enjoyed the little-seen Luke Wilson movie Henry Poole Is Here, the classic Western The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, and the classics From Here to Eternity and To Have and Have Not.

So that’s my 2009 in a nutshell. Please post your comments and voice your own opinions!

Up in the Air

From The Movie Snob

Up in the Air (B+). This is another solid effort from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), and it is getting great reviews (current Metacritic.com score: 82). George Clooney (Leatherheads) stars as Ryan Bingham. Bingham has an unusual job: when a company needs to fire a bunch of employees, they hire Bingham’s company, and Bingham comes out and performs the actual firings. He supplements his income by giving “motivational” speeches about how the best way to live life is with as few encumbrances as possible–and he counts both possessions and human relationships as encumbrances. Consequently, Bingham basically lives on the road, spending maybe 40 days a year in his desolate apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, and he is well on his way to achieving his single goal in life–accumulating 10 million frequent-flyer miles. But of course the real world won’t let Bingham off that easily. At work, a young whippersnapper named Natalie (Anna Kendrick, Twilight) proposes to cut costs (and Bingham’s travel budget) by doing the firings over the internet. Bingham’s little sister is getting married, and he feels obliged to attend despite his espoused philosophy. And in the course of his travels he meets an alluring blond (Vera Farmiga, Orphan) who seems to travel as fast and light as he does. How does an avowed nihilist deal with the unavoidable fact that no man is an island?

I liked it. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking movie–and though not a comedy, it has some very funny lines. A few flaws keep it out of “A” territory for me, but I definitely recommend it.

The Movie Snob’s 2008 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s Best of 2008 column. As usual, I will consider all movies I saw in a movie theater during calendar year 2008. As usual, this means that a lot of the previous year’s releases will be included, ’cause I didn’t see them until 2008. For the record, I saw 50 movies in theaters in 2008, down slightly from the 58 films that I saw in 2007.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings who are suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to find end-of-life care for their estranged and Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Hoffman and Linney give fine performances, and the whole movie just rings very true.

Runner Up: I also have to give high marks to Michael Clayton, a legal thriller that kept an iron grip on my attention from beginning to end. George Clooney stars as the title character, a lawyer at a top law firm who specializes in “fixing” things when particularly sticky problems come up. Things get real sticky when another lawyer in the firm, who has been the lead attorney defending some nasty environmental polluter, seems to go crazy and threatens to blow the whistle on the client.

Best Animated Feature: I mention this category next, because the fabulous movie Wall-E would also be my pick for the third-best movie I saw this year—which I think makes it my favorite movie actually released in 2008. Runner-up status goes to Persepolis, a very interesting movie about what it was like to grow up in Iran and to be a child when the Islamic Revolution swept the Shah out of power.

Best Drama: There were several other excellent dramas this year, to go with the four mentioned above. I loved The Visitor, about a lonely widower who is virtually brought back to life by the results of his unexpected discovery that two illegal immigrants are living in the apartment he kept in New York City. I thoroughly enjoyed Charlie Wilson’s War, even though it had Julia Roberts in it. Atonement also cast its spell over me, even though (or perhaps because) I never read the book on which it is based. And last but not least, and despite the mixed critical reaction, I really liked Australia, which just happens to star Nicole Kidman.A sheer coincidence, I am sure.

Best Comedy: No comedies really knocked my socks off this year. Forced to pick one, I’d probably go with Baby Mama, starring the ubiquitous and talented Tina Fey. I also got some decent laughs out of Role Models and Tropic Thunder. But all in all it was not a banner year for comedy.

Best Action/Adventure: The new Chronicles of Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, was a nonstarter for me as for most, and I haven’t yet gotten around to Quantum of Solace. That leaves The Dark Knight and Iron Man, and I enjoyed Iron Man distinctly more than I enjoyed the latest Batman flick. So Iron Man gets the nod in this category, although I liked Dark Knight well enough too.

Best Documentary: I saw a few good ones this year, but my pick for the best is American Teen, which is more than a little reminiscent of MTV’s The Real World set in a wholesome all-American high school in some small Midwestern town. Also getting thumbs up are a couple of IMAX movies I saw, Dolphins and Whales and Amazing Journeys. I think Amazing Journeys originally came out in 1999, though, so it’s probably even more out of place on this list than the 2007 releases I’ve been mentioning.

Best Foreign Film: I think I saw only one, and it was a good one—the French import A Secret, about a French boy who gradually learns about how his (Jewish) parents met, how they survived World War II, and various other dark family secrets. I recommend it. I also liked Happy-Go-Lucky, which was made in England, so I guess it counts as a foreign movie. The ever-happy-go-lucky main character (Sally Hawkins) won’t appeal to everyone, but I liked her.

Honorable Mentions. Other movies I would single out to recommend to you: Enchanted is perfectly enchanting, about the animated princess who is magically transported to real-world Manhattan. If, and only if, you are an ABBA fan, I would recommend Mamma Mia! to you—and then it’s pointless, because you’ve obviously already seen it. City of Ember, starring up-and-comer Saoirse Ronan, is a worthy effort in the science-fiction-for-young-adults category. Rachel Getting Married is a worthy effort in the big-star-plays-drug-addict category—kudos to Anne Hathaway for looking strung out and luminous at the same time. And I liked Hancock for its remarkable plot twist, Slumdog Millionaire for its unabashed celebration of true love, and The Other Boleyn Girl because, well, just because.

Michael Clayton

Review from The Bleacher Bum

Michael Clayton (Pay Per View) – This movie eluded me for some time because I could never find another soul that wanted to see it. I finally had to go at it alone. I am glad that I did. The movie is about a “fixer” (George Clooney, The American) at a mega-law firm in New York. He is a lawyer that circumvents the law instead of practices it. He does the shady deals, buys off the politicians or judges, gets things, and loses evidence to win cases. The firm greatly needs his services when its lead litigator (Tom Wilkinson – excellent) suffers from a mental breakdown in the middle of the firm’s biggest case. The case is a class action lawsuit where 460 people were stricken with cancer because of a weed killer. (Erin Brockovich with a touch of A Civil Action.) Clooney is extraordinary. He is heroic, lost, cunning, and downtrodden all at the same time. The movie partially loses its way because the background story is boring and underdeveloped. Also, the antagonists of the movie are less than dynamic. However, it is a movie that will be enjoyed by lawyers, business executives, and people that work in public relations. It deals with several issues that arise in corporate America.

Bleacher Bum Movie Scale:
Homerun
Triple
Double
Single
Strikeout

Michael Clayton: Double

Leatherheads

Movie review by The Movie Snob.

Leatherheads (D). Well, I was hoping that the stream of bad reviews had so lowered my expectations for this movie that I would enjoy it regardless of its (lack of) quality. Alas, it was not to be. The scene is the Upper Midwest, 1925. Director George Clooney (TV’s ER) also stars as an aging professional football player and hustler who is trying to keep the whole concept of professional football alive in the face of massive public indifference. He sees his chance in the person of Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski, TV’s The Office), a WWI hero and nationally famous footballer for Princeton. He manages to lure Rutherford to play for his team (the Duluth Bulldogs), and attendance soars. But a tough newspaper reporter (Renee Zellweger, Miss Potter) is worming her way into Carter’s life on a tip that his war-hero record is trumped up. The makers of the movie shoot for screwball comedy, but without much success. Zellweger is miscast, and she and Clooney have no chemistry. The inherently likeable Krasinski plays an inherently likeable Rutherford, and when the movie abuses him it makes the movie itself unlikeable. I expected to leave disappointed, but I left actively annoyed.

Michael Clayton

New from The Movie Snob

Michael Clayton (A). Even though (or perhaps because) I’m a lawyer and this is movie about lawyers, I never had much inclination to see this movie. But now it’s back out in theaters after getting nominated for a bunch of Oscars, and a friend of mine gave it a big thumbs up, so I took a chance. It was excellent, although rest assured that, with Comrade George Clooney involved, it is no love letter to capitalism or corporate America. Clooney (The American) plays the title character. Michael Clayton is a “fixer,” a lawyer at a prestigious New York law firm who is an expert at coming in and helping fix emergency situations. When a big firm client is involved in a hit-and-run accident in the middle of the night, he calls Clayton. And when the firm’s top lawyer defending a huge class-action lawsuit against a fertilizer company freaks out in the middle of a deposition, again, they call Clayton to rein him in. Then things really get interesting. Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) is excellent as the lawyer who freaks out, Tilda Swinton (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) is excellent as the company’s top in-house attorney, and, truth be told, His Clooneyness is excellent as the fixer. All three deserve their Oscar nominations. See it.

Three New DVD Reviews from Nick at Nite

Disturbia

Rear Window for the teen set. It is not exactly the same as the Alfred and Jimmy masterpiece, but it is pretty close. Teenager is placed in Martha Stewart lockdown at his house for three months over the summer after he punches his Spanish teacher. Teenager starts to spy on his neighbors and watch the goings on in the neighborhood. Of course, the goings on are bad goings on, and our teenager must deal with it. Even though it is a copy, it isn’t all bad. This is worth a rental. I give it a “B.”

Ocean’s Thirteen

Ocean’s Fourteen, Ocean’s Fifteen, Ocean’s Sixteen . . . as far as I am concerned they can keep making these movies until the end of time. I know it is a formula. I know it is campy. I know it is a continuation of a remake from the original rat pack. Still, I like ’em. These heist films are fantastic. The how-did-they-do-that and comedic bent make them better than the fare you normally see at the cineplex. Sure, my wife likes Pitt, Clooney, and Damon, but that is not main reason we like these movies. We have fun at them. Isn’t that what it is all about? You know, it looks like the actors had fun making this movie. I give it an “A.”

The Ex

I don’t know how I feel about this movie. It has a bunch of actors I like. Jason Bateman (Disconnect), Zach Braff (TV’s Scrubs), Charles Grodin (So I Married an Axe Murderer), Amanda Peet (Gulliver’s Travels), and Mia Farrow (The Great Gatsby). It has some laughs, I always like that. But, it also had some of those fleeting moments of uncomfortableness seen in What About Bob? (why won’t Billy Murray leave Richard Dreyfuss alone?), The Break Up (when it this gonna get funny?), and Swingers (did he really call ten times in a row?) that make my stomach hurt. I watched this with my wife, she kept saying she was going to be very unhappy if it did not have a happy ending. My point is this, when people make movies that are supposed to be funny, they need to be funny, when people want to make dramedies (dramas that have some funny moments), they should clearly label the DVD case or film poster as such. I give a “C+.”

Good Night, and ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

New DVD review from The Movie Snob

Good Night, and Good Luck (C). I finally got around to seeing this Academy Award nominee starring George Clooney (The American) and Patricia Clarkson (The Maze Runner) the other night, and, to put it bluntly, I was disappointed. It should have been an exciting story: a band of fearless journalists takes on a tyrannical regime, even though they risk being arrested, tortured, shipped off to a gulag, or maybe just summarily shot. Oh wait, that was Stalin’s Russia. Well, in McCarthy’s Amerika maybe they didn’t risk getting shot or deported or even roughed up a little bit, but they might have gotten fired. Anyhow, I thought this movie had almost no dramatic tension, and even at 90 minutes felt padded with musical interludes and superfluous subplots. Skip it.

Munich; Syriana; The Island

New reviews from That Guy Named David.

Munich (A-)

Coming into the this movie, I thought the Munich Olympic massacre occurred in 1968 instead of 1972, showcasing how very little I knew of the event. After the movie, I found myself surfing the internet to find out more about the hostage situation, as well as Israel’s response to the massacre over the next several years. To me, that is the sign of a good movie if it makes me want to learn more about the subject of the movie. The bulk of the movie follows the actions of a hit team organized by the Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) to track down and assassinate those responsible for the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. While the movie does spend a significant amount of time showcasing the action scenes portraying each of the assassinations, Spielberg does a masterful job of setting forth the moral equivalency debate that such actions inevitably provoke. Throughout the film, you can see the actions of this hit squad incite reactions from the Muslim groups targeted by the Israelis. Spielberg did not attempt to sugarcoat the acts of Israel, nor justify the acts of the Muslim groups responsible for Israeli-targeted terrorism. However, Munich forces the audience to take in all the acts and make those judgments on their own. Very well-done. One of the best movies I have seen in quite a while.

Syriana (C+)

I saw on a “Best of 2005” movie show where the reviewer listed Syriana as the number 4 movie of 2005. He must have been vying for a position in Section 8 Productions, George Clooney’s production company, because I can name 20 films I saw this year (and some I didn’t see) that put this one to shame. Syriana is a complicated movie intended to set forth the complex relationship between oil companies, foreign governments, Muslim extremists, private and governmental lawyers, energy analysts, princes and emirs, presidents, and the always demonized Central Intelligence Agency. While generally these are the types of stories I find interesting, the way Syriana is made annoyed me more than it kept my attention. Basically, for the first hour or so, you have snapshot followed by snapshot followed by snapshot with absolutely no connections between any of them. Eventually (during the last 30 minutes or so), the director attempts to put the snapshots together to form a mosaic but instead gets a convoluted, confusing, and anti-climactic ending that leaves the viewer wondering what in the hell happened over the past 2+ hours. If you are in the mood for a heavy movie, see Munich. On a side note, they have one scene showcased in the movie that was filmed in Hondo, Texas, hometown of this reviewer. Needless to say, it was a little strange seeing my hometown of 6000 people acknowledged for a few seconds in a George Clooney/Matt Damon movie. Not enough to make me enjoy the movie, but still interesting.

The Island (B-)

Pleasantly surprised. I kinda have a thing for Scarlett Johansson (We Bought a Zoo), and my girlfriend has a major crush on Ewan Moulin Rouge! McGregor (I think we look very similar). Anyway, she refused to watch the movie because the plot line of human clones discovering their clonehood and then attacking their makers really didn’t appeal to her. Nonetheless, because I got bored with football about 8 hours in, I decided to conclude my holiday weekend with a mindless action movie. Not bad. There really isn’t a whole lotta substance to the movie, and the dialogue is weak, but for some reason, I enjoyed it. Maybe I was taken by the beauty of young Ms. Johannson, but in any event, not a bad rental.

Good Night, and Good Luck

A review from That Guy Named David:

Good Night, and Good Luck (B)

Prior to seeing this movie, I really had never read or seen much about Edward R. Murrow. Sure, I probably knew about as much as the normal, college-educated male with some sense of 20th century history and understood that Murrow reported on WWII and was a pioneer in the field of early broadcast journalism. However, that was the extent of my knowledge. I did, however, know much more about Joseph McCarthy and his misguided attempts to label everyone who disagreed with him as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the 1950s. What I didn’t know was that Murrow and McCarthy had a public feud that cut to the heart of the role of media and public discourse in this country. Good Night was written/directed by George Clooney (The American) and is definitely a left-leaning flick showcasing Murrow’s on-air battles with McCarthy in the early years of CBS. I enjoyed the way Clooney used actual footage of McCarthy to portray him and did not rely on an actor’s ability to completely vilify him (the real footage does a good enough job of vilifying him on its own). I also enjoyed the message apparent through the movie that a government that persecutes dissent and discourages discourse should have its actions reported by the media without fear that the government will begin persecuting the media itself for accurately reporting what is going on (a bit of an applicable message considering this current administration’s blatant attempt to silence and/or discredit opposition to this administration’s policies). Overall, not a bad movie (despite being a little slow at times). On a side note, I found it entertaining that the combined age of my girlfriend and me was about 10 years younger than the average age of the people in the theatre. I don’t think there has been that much blue hair in one room since the Sex Pistols played CBGB in ’78.

The Peacemaker

From the Movie Snob’s Shelf o’ DVD’s.

The Peacemaker. This weekend I decided to explore more of the Kidman oeuvre by checking out this 1998 release starring NK and George Clooney. It’s a thriller about stolen Russian nuclear warheads and the terrorists who want them. Nicole plays a “nuclear specialist” in the U.S. government who is in charge of finding out what happened to them and preventing them from falling into the wrong hands. Clooney is a smooth-talking Army colonel (special forces) who provides the street smarts, the arms-trade connections, the combat know-how, and, well, almost everything else Nicole needs to complete her mission. Roger Ebert’s review is quite funny and nails this movie for throwing in almost every thriller-movie cliché in the book. (He mentions several of them but overlooks the one — used twice in this movie — in which the heroes flee an explosive situation and leap to safety just in front of a massive fireball.) Nicole looks okay, but her drab wardrobe and short, dark hairdo really don’t show her to her best advantage. The DVD includes a very short feature consisting of interviews and outtakes, and Nic looks much finer in her interview. Movie grade: C. Nicole grade: B.

Ocean’s Twelve

That Guy Named David weighs in:

Ocean’s Twelve (C)

As an admitted fan of Ocean’s Eleven (the re-make), this movie was on my list of “must-sees” over the holidays. After sitting through 2 hours of this dud, however, the expectations were not even close to being met. Basic premise: Ocean (Clooney) and his gang have 2 weeks to get casino boss Terry Benedict’s (Garcia’s) money to him or they will be killed. Now, maybe it was just me, but I thought the whole idea behind Ocean’s Eleven was that they pulled off this great heist without having Benedict know it was them behind it. Well, that premise of the first movie is destroyed in the first 20 minutes of this movie. And after the new premise is revealed, the story fragments about 50 times and then makes a very weak attempt at the end to pull everything together. Simply put, they were trying to hard to make an intricate, complex caper and failed miserably in doing so. The great part of the first movie was that the story was relatively simple to follow, yet the details of the heist itself were interesting and kept your attention. The sequel, however, seemed to get bogged down at times and then would try its damndest to be clever and send the viewer on loops that were unnecessary and took away from the story. And don’t get me started on the Julia Roberts role (you’ll understand when you watch the movie). Weak. Wait till it comes out on video.

Intolerable Cruelty; Mamma Mia! (stage review)

From the Movie Snob.

Intolerable Cruelty. (B) The Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my all-time favorite movies. I did not have such high expectations for this comedy about divorce, but I was pleasantly surprised. From the amusing opening credits, the film had no trouble keeping my interest. George Clooney is Miles Massey, a star divorce attorney in L.A. and creator of the “impenetrable” Massey pre-nuptial agreement. Near the beginning of the movie, he represents a philandering husband against his aggrieved wife Marilyn, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and he completely defeats her effort to take her husband for millions. But Massey is captivated by the incredibly beautiful Marilyn, and sparks fly when their paths cross a couple more times over the course of the film. There are plenty of humorous moments and a few typically Coenesque grotesqueries (like the living fossil of a lawyer who apparently lives in the basement of Massey’s law firm). And did I mention how insanely beautiful Zeta-Jones is in this movie? Check it out.

Mamma Mia. As an anniversary present, I took my parents to see this traveling production of the musical based on the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA. I think they enjoyed it, but I was disappointed. For one, the music was way too loud, painfully so, and it frequently drowned out the singers. The light and playful sound of ABBA was never in evidence. For another, the play was rather crass and vulgar in parts. For a third, the songs were not integrated into the storyline in any coherent or compelling way. The paper-thin plot is merely an excuse for overblown versions of 25-year-old songs that lots of people (including me) still like today. Personally, I’d rather see and hear a competent ABBA cover band than sit through this production again.