Mr. Turner Review: Masterstrokes & Milestones


Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Stars: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey


Release date: December 26th, 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Country: UK, France, Germany

Running Date: 150 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Spall’s mesmerising performance.

Worst part: The anti-climactic denouement.

Review: Mr. Turner

Verdict: A mesmerising and meticulous docudrama.

Jersey Boys Review – A Bum Note


Director: Clint Eastwood

Writers: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice (screenplay & book)

Stars: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda

 


Release date: June 20th, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 134 minutes


 

 

 

2/5

Best part: The catchy musical numbers.

Worst part: Eastwood’s direction. 

Musicals – some people absolutely love them, while others despise them more than death, taxes, and the Republican Party combined. Gen-Y, a group infatuated with bright screens and tight clothes, is a generation with no interest in musical theatre. In fact, most youngsters would take Selena Gomez any day over Jean Valjean. Despite the preceding few sentences’ condescending tone, I must ask the following questions for the sake of objectivity – is this a major issue? Which demographic is the focus of musical theatre? Is anyone to blame the fall of specific genres, trends etc. throughout entertainment history?

Our troupe in action.

With all this in mind, Hollywood has thrown several big-budget musical adaptations at us over the past decade. With everything from Les Miserables, to Moulin Rouge, to Rock of Ages gracing us with their presence, this trend, like any others, has its fair share of spectacular hits and crippling misfires. So, who would be the best person to elevate this genre above its blockbuster-drenched competition? According to…himself, actor/director maestro Clint Eastwood is the man to make this potentially transcendent cultural shift happen. His latest directorial effort – and first musical adaptation – Jersey Boys, despite its charming high points, lands with a deftly sullen thud. Beyond the commendable intentions, this tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons delivers far more false notes than grand crescendos. I’ll stop myself there. Before I delve into my complaints, I’ll describe the topsy-turvy plot. Jersey Boys kicks off with three miscreants struggling keep their heads above water. Stuck in New Jersey, bad-boy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and his sidekick Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) spend their days scoring gigs and breaking the law. Moving through “revolving door” prisons, these boys are destined to either join the mob or die. However, after timid confidant Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) wows an audience, their aspirations become reality. Along the way, after the group hires ‘Short Shorts’ creator Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), recording contracts and country-wide tours make stars out of our four rapscallions.

Mike Doyle.

Resting on several generations’ love of nostalgia and peace-of-mind slices of entertainment, this Jersey Boys adaptation feels like it’s been released about 5-10 years too late. I don’t mean to illuminate my age or insinuate a hatred of anything even remotely twee. In fact, I recently saw the West End stage production of Jersey Boys in full bloom. The musical – gripping onto its obvious archetypes, fun sense of humour, and lively visuals – sets the right tone for this harmless narrative from the get-go. Inexplicably, Eastwood leaves out everything vibrant and profound about the original material. For his forceful and misguided adaptation, his style drenches this light-hearted tale in a distressing brand of darkness. From the first breaking-the-fourth-wall narration sequence onward, the musical’s iconic tropes clash with the movie’s dour tone and meandering development. Here, the differences between film and theatre production stick out like Valli’s piercing falsetto. This time around, the younger Joe Pesci’s inclusion lacks any sense of verve or sky-high wit. Eastwood, who may be going senile, clings onto the musical’s intended audience whilst neglecting its most valuable conceits. Without stretching the musical’s boundaries, his adaptation takes an inappropriately maudlin approach. At the very least, Eastwood’s comforting themes about the good ol’ days, Americana, empowerment, and masculinity aid this otherwise peculiar adaptation. Regrettably, noticeable in comparing the musical with Eastwood’s efforts, this adaptation clearly isn’t concerned with attracting new followers.

“Oh, by the way, if you’re ever in Vegas, go to a casino. Say the name, “Tommy DeVito”. My hand to God, you’ll be outta there in 12 seconds.” (Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Jersey Boys).

The amazing Christopher Walken.

Like Walk the Line and Ray, this version follows our famous musicians through poverty, success, temptation, and salvation. With his style known for creating ever-lasting time capsules, this version could, and should, have been an epic tale of devastation, regret, and profound accomplishments. With tinges of Martin Scorsese and David O. Russell shining throughout, these filmmakers would’ve brought more enthusiasm and wonder to this note-worthy concept. With muted colour patterns, an acute attention to detail, and lingering camerawork defining Eastwood’s directorial efforts, his visual palette prevents this adaptation from hitting any high notes. Worst of all, our leads are hampered by dodgy old-age make-up in the final scene. Beyond this, the musical numbers are largely neglected in favour of the by-the-numbers-biopic execution. However, used sporadically throughout, certain songs become shining lights in this morbid affair. Paying homage to everything from the Ed Sullivan show to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, performances of ‘Sherry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, and ‘Who Loves You’ provide context and gravitas for Eastwood’s out-of-touch vision. Graciously, like with every Eastwood production, the performers shine throughout. The four leads excel despite the awkward circumstances. Having played Valli on stage, Lloyd Young excels as this heartbroken celebrity figure. In addition, famed character actor Christopher Walken is a delight as high-end gangster Gyp DeCarlo. Meanwhile, Mike Doyle is enrapturing as the group’s “theatrical” manager Bob Crewe.

Whilst I was watching Jersey Boys, I spent a certain period of time imagining what Eastwood’s day-to-day production schedule must’ve been like: At 8am he starts filming, at 3pm he talks to a chair, and at 4: 30pm he goes to bed. I know this is a cruel way to talk about such a colossal Hollywood legend. However, here, like with Invictus, Hereafter, and J Edgar, he’s taken promising material and tarred it with soppy story-lines, leaden pacing, and a bafflingly dark tone. ‘Walk like a Man’? More like ‘Direct like an Amateur’. Sorry, Clint.

Verdict: Yet another Eastwood-helmed flop. 

Theatre Review – Les Miserables @ Queen’s Theatre


Directors: Trevor Nunn, John Caird

Music/Lyrics: Claude-Michael Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer

Stars: Simon Shorten, David Thaxton, Celinde Schoenmaker, Tom Edden

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Basis: Les Miserables (novel) by Victor Hugo

Adaptation: Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Trevor Nunn, John Caird

Premiere date: 1980 (Paris), 1985 (west End)

Genre: Musical, drama


 

 

4½/5

Best Part: The rousing musical numbers

Worst Part: The stodgy love triangle

Courageously, a handful of musicals have stood the test of time. These select few, visually and thematically standing out from the crowd, have been proven worthy of pop-culture acclaim. Even the average Joe, who may or may not know anything about musical theatre, is aware of these productions and their effect on the world. However, big-budget musicals like Wicked, The Loin King, Jersey Boys, and Miss Saigon – despite their overwhelming auras – all pale in comparison to the world’s biggest theatre production. I’m, of course, talking about period-piece extravaganza Les Miserables.

The cast in control.

So, the question remains, how has Les Miserables become this prominent and insightful? Why is a musical about a French Revolution considered to be the most important creation in theatre history? Certainly, the narrative doesn’t inspire confidence or rave rounds of applause. The premise is steeped in one of history’s most depressing periods. In fact, its acclaim all comes down to the execution. The musical, thanks to acclaimed writers/lyricists Alain Boubil and Claude-Michael Schonberg, is a worthwhile delight in the midst of its exhaustive pop-cultural impact. After 25 years in the spotlight, this theatre extravaganza is still holding onto its best-and-brightest characteristics. Nowadays, after the 2012 blockbuster adaptation collected an enthusiastic choir of newcomers, future performances need to excel to satisfy its ever-increasing audience. So, does the West End’s ongoing iteration still hold-up to scrutiny? Well, in short, yes it absolutely does! Obviously, each performance tells the same story about heartfelt characters struggling to survive. However, this version delivers more refreshing nuances than operatic high notes (and that’s saying something). Queen’s Theatre, the heart of London’s artistic hub, now hosts this extraordinary endeavour. Walking up the steps, the anticipation builds like a grand crescendo. Greeted by courteous employees, I was immediately impressed by the venue’s atmospheric vibe.

A vibrant French Revolution.

Soon enough, after the rabid theatre geeks and groan-fuelled school kids took their seats, the lights steadily dimmed as the performance kicked off in style. Closing the surrounding curtains, the venue had prepped the audience. From there, the projector beamed bright colours and titles onto the stage’s immense canvas. The narrative rears its disgusting head in 1815, Digne. Matched by a momentous opening number, disgraced prisoner Jean Valjean (Simon Shorten) is released from his sentence by notorious lawman Javert (David Thaxton). Rejected by society, Valjean is ignored by everyone except the gracious Bishop of Digne (Adam Linstead). Those familiar with the musical will be able to track where this story goes after its traumatic  opening. After factory worker Fantine (Celinde Schoenmaker) is forced into prostitution, Valjean risks everything to help her daughter Cosette (Emilie Fleming) achieve a better life. Shockingly, I find it difficult to spell-out these details. This musical’s prowess lies within its darkest and most transcendent elements. Les Miserables‘ tiniest details reveal themselves at opportune moments. Suitably, viewers will lap-up this exhaustive, gripping, and touching experience. The story, revelling in the time period and courageous characters, is just one of several invigorating aspects of this stirring extravaganza. From there, several major and minor characters and plot-threads clash throughout the 150-minute run-time. Thanks to Thenardier (Tom Edden) and Madame Thenardier(Wendy Ferguson), a love triangle forms between Cosette, idealistic student Marius (Rob Houchen), and Eponine (Carrie Hope Fletcher).

“I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living!” (Fantine(Celinde Schoenmaker), Les Miserables)

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The Thenardiers.

Suitably, Les Miserables‘ musical numbers fuel its scintillating and unrelenting narrative. From the confronting opening sequence onward, the show’s top-tier numbers ring throughout the venue. Here, the performers deliver each song flawlessly. Within the first 45 minutes, this musical showcases its most profound and memorable songs. ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and ‘Castle on a Cloud’ tug on the heartstrings whilst telling gritty stories in themselves. Describing our lead characters’   conflicts and motivations, these numbers are first-half highlights. In addition, despite being brash comic reliefs, the Thenardiers work wonders for this sombre tale. ‘Master of the House’, fitting comfortably into this sprawling narrative, is a punchy and effective song. Utilising the entire stage, this version’s intricate production design boosts the experience. Switching sets with flawless technical precision, Les Miserables smoothly transitions between time periods, locations, and set pieces. Thanks to the swivelling stage mechanism, the larger-than-life execution crafts a momentous scope. The second-half’s battle sequences, combining the love triangle with Valjean’s dilemma, deliver timeless numbers and breathtaking choreography. Gun shots and bellowing cries help paint a portrait of this vital conflict. Graciously, the performers bolster this stirring stage production. Shorten, replacing Peter Lockyer for this performance, is a breakout success as the troubled prisoner turned protector. Within the first act, his revelatory performance matches Colm Wilkinson and Hugh Jackman’s turns.

Pushing itself to be better than previous productions, this West End version lives up to the original’s efforts and audience expectations. Eclipsing Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation, this version sticks to the original’s roots whilst delivering an exciting experience. As the world’s most popular and enlightening musical, the story, set and costume designs, musical numbers, and character arcs stand the test time on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you hear the people sing? Yes, we do. In fact, judging by box-office receipts, we cling onto multiple listens.

Verdict: An immense and note-worthy musical experience. 

Theatre Review – Jersey Boys @ Piccadilly Theatre


Director: Des McAnuff

Music/Lyrics: Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe

Stars: Michael Watson, Jon Boydon, Edd Post, Matt Nalton


Premiere date: 2005 (Broadway), 2008 (West End)

Basis: Four Seasons songs


 

 

4½/5

Best Part: The dynamic musical numbers

Worst Part: The cheesy comic-strip back-drops

New Jersey, known to many as “that place near Manhattan”, has birthed and bred some of America’s greatest talents. In amongst the factories, strong accents, and family ties, true passion resides. Transforming the music scene, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons obliterated the pop charts for several decades. Releasing hit songs throughout five decades and selling over 175 million records, the group reached the little people of suburban Jersey and the world.

Jersey Boys on the West End.

The Four Seasons, taking the name from a neon sign overlooking a bowling alley, is still seen as one of music’s most influential acts. Broadway smash hit Jersey Boys tells their scintillating and heartbreaking story with style and vigour. Keeping it in the family, Bob Gaudio’s hand in the production elevates this seminal jukebox musical above the rest. Gaudio, as one of America’s bravest singer/songwriters, is one of several gems amongst this production’s overwhelming cultural glow. Jersey Boys, soon to be blessed with a Clint Eastwood-directed adaptation, hits everyone similarly. It’s easy to become immersed in the group’s phenomenal hits and overwhelming aura. The musical, tracing the rise-and-fall ride of the group’s time in the spotlight, keeps toes tapping and hearts racing throughout the 2½-hour duration. In a reflective twist on typical jukebox musicals, the musical kicks off with ‘Ces soirees-la’, a cover of Four Season’s hit ‘December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night). Told by rebellious bandleader Tommy DeVito (Jon Boydon), the story then jumps back to a simpler time of diner-set gigs and “revolving door” prisons. Thrown in and out of jail, DeVito’s troupe, changing its name every week, is a major source of trouble in downtown Jersey.

One of many hit musical numbers.

Beyond the seasonal changes and alignment switches, the group’s journey swiftly glides through the momentous, easy-to-follow structure. Peppered with larger-than-life characters, this musical hits high notes from DeVito’s first words onward. Of course, DeVito’s greatest discovery comes in the form of timid singer Frankie Valli (Michael Watson). Pushing him into the spotlight, women and recording contracts threw themselves at this enlightening ensemble. As a Martin Scorsese feature set to pleasant pop tracks, Jersey Boys embraces its iconic locations and hearty stereotypes. As a heartfelt tribute to Middle America and the notorious group, the musical never forgets about the troupe’s origin story and connections with the mob. “I’m gonna be as big as Sinatra”, Valli confidently says to his first squeeze, and future wife, Mary (Victoria Brazil). After that sweet and hysterical statement, the musical’s immense nostalgia factor rises like Valli’s distinctive voice. Breaking the mould, the narration paints a succinct and detailed picture of each member’s perspective. Brushed with fame and frustrations, the group’s astounding prowess is lovingly touched upon. The other members, acclaimed singer/songwriter Gaudio (Edd Post), who wrote ‘Who Wears Short Shorts?’ when he was 15, and wily bass player Nick Massi (Matt Nalton) round out the musical’s impressive aura. Massi, at one point, even labels himself the “Ringo” of the group. Outlining everything from the “British Invasion” of pop groups in the 1960s to their induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the musical’s beating heart is never overshadowed by its rousing covers or eye-popping production design. Shifting sets and time-periods faster than anticipated, the production comes off as an inescapable trip down memory lane.

“Like that bunny on TV, it just keeps going and going and going. Chasing the music. Trying to find our way home.” (Frankie Valli (Michael Watson), Jersey Boys)

The ultimate crescendo.

Despite stellar production values, cartoonish images – depicting pretty girls, band names, and important dates – become false notes in this otherwise harmonious tribute. However, the real flair resides in this unfolding narrative etched into music history. Along the way – as we speed through Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring – the band ascends and descends in spectacular fashion. DeVito’s gambling problems and Valli’s relationship issues round out a jaw-dropping second half. Matching catchy tunes with heartbreaking twists and turns, Jersey Boys accepts the good and bad of this story. However, pushing past the feuds and foibles, each track casts a timeless and insatiable spell upon the already manic audience. Their greatest tracks, ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, and ‘Walk Like a Man’, tell a hearty story about the transition from misfortunate troupe to Top-100 success story. Depicting a time of studio pressure and racial tensions, the musical depicts the Four Seasons as a group daring to be tangible and ever lasting. In this visceral journey, Valli and Massi take over story-telling duties. Valli’s story – bolstered by sterling renditions of ‘C’mon, Marianne’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and ‘Working my Way Back to You’ – juggles divorce, gargantuan expectations, and debts as tragedy strikes. Despite this, the performances relish in this production’s comedic heights. Watson’s Valli is a mesmerising one. Capturing Valli’s falsetto sound and rambunctious dance moves, Watson is a standout performer. Boydon, a spitting image of DeVito, is a charismatic and lively force. Maintaining DeVito’s outlandish voice and emotional current, Boydon is an entertaining young actor. Keeping focus on the Four Seasons, Post and Nalton become charming foils in this gargantuan tale.

Soaring beyond minor quibbles, Jersey Boys lives up to its stellar reputation. As the most intelligent and invigorating jukebox musical to date, this glorious production invests in its all-powerful quartet by revelling in a hearty dose of nostalgia. Thanks to boisterous comedic moments, clever set designs, and wondrous performances, this West End production skilfully carries the undying Jersey Boys legacy.

Verdict: A rambunctious and potent jukebox musical. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel Review – Wild, Wild Wes-tern


Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe

 


Release date: March 21st, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 99 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: Anderson’s direction.

Worst part: The unnecessary bookends.

Words like “hipster” and “pretentious” are thrown around far too often nowadays. Intended as insults, these words are too often taken out of context and placed into judgemental analyses. Unfortunately, these words are often directed toward writer/director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). Sure, his style stands out from every other big-name filmmaker out there. But why should we criticise him for being different? This year, Anderson has pursued a new and improved form of critical and commercial acclaim.

Ralph Fiennes & Tony Revolori.

Simultaneously lampooning and embracing his distinctive style, Anderson’s new feature The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches out to newcomers and long-time fans. Here, this near-rabid fandom is what Anderson strives for. In  this delectable dramedy, his bold visuals, deadpan performances, and relevant themes are dissected and meticulously placed back together. To introduce readers to Anderson’s universe, I’ll describe this labyrinthine plot. In one timeline, a girl places a key on a statue before diving into a novel named ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. We are then introduced to the novel’s narratorial force. The author (Tom Wilkinson) describes one significant event in his tumultuous life. From there, we meet the author’s younger self (Jude Law) residing in 1968. Meeting the hotel’s elderly owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the author enquires about Moustafa’s past. We then examine Moustafa’s younger self (Tony Revolori) whilst learning of the Hotel’s former glory back in 1932. This timeline, set in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, deals with countries and businesses during wartime. As a lobby boy, Moustafa becomes friends with the hotel’s favourable concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Over the years, Gustave courts several rich, elderly women whom come for the hotel’s reputation and stay for his “exceptional service”.

Adrian Brody & Willem Dafoe.

Heartbroken over his lover Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis(Tilda Swinton)’s death, Gustave, after acquiring prized painting ‘Boy With Apple’, is pursued by her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody), assassin J.G.Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Deputy Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), and Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton). Honestly, it’s difficult fitting this expansive, starry-eyed cast into this synopsis. In true Anderson fashion, commendable lead and character actors fill each role. Here, Anderson’s auteur status ascends to a notch above transcendent. Embracing narrative tropes and visual flourishes, Anderson takes full responsibility for each detail. Conquering screenwriting and directorial duties, this masterful dramedy icon embellishes what others fear. Idealistically, fun concepts are explored in this sprawling tale about hope, love, age, loss, and survival. The Grand Budapest Hotel, escaping Anderson’s conventional familial-drama confines, delivers an investigation into an entire country’s peculiar inhabitants. Despite including one-too-many timelines, Anderson’s deft touch and focused direction delivers an honest and fruitful idea of humanity’s lighter and darker shades. The author’s timeline fuses with Moustafa’s in a tricky yet purposeful fashion. As a showcase for renowned performers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is chock-a-block with impactful moments and hearty surprises. In fact, around every corner, characters, laugh-out-loud gags, and clues reside to bolster this quirky tale. In addition, the movie throws gunfights, murders, and tension into this whimsical concoction. Thankfully, the movie never becomes quirky for quirky’s sake. Gustave’s journey never becomes corny or materialistic. Instead, this harsh yet intelligent narrative explores Anderson’s most enigmatic ideas. 

“Keep your hands off my lobby boy!” (M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Jude Law & Jason Schwartzman

Of course, generating fans the world over, Anderson’s signature visual style eclipses this narratorial thrust and opinionated viewpoints. Beyond being the all-knowing creator of prescient dollhouse-like universes, the mis-en-scene, from the ground upward, builds glorious interiors and kitsch exteriors. As Gustave compliments people on their artistic merits, we can see Anderson applauding his own identity and style. Here, his universe becomes more wondrous, idiosyncratic, and gargantuan than anything a modern blockbuster can, and would, deliver. As blockbusters for the indie crowd, Anderson’s features exclaim more than expected each time. Overcoming obvious and ill-conceived preconceptions, his attention to detail almost becomes a cure for a conquering bout of Hollywood-itis. Overcoming the cynicism, his near-symmetrical compositions, clashing colours, stylistic experiments, and blank-faced characters develop near-wordless conversations. Here, his glorious style interacts with over-arching messages. Paying homage to everyone from Ernst Lubitsch to The Marx Brothers, Anderson uses hallways, elevators, cramped spaces, and lobbies to accentuate the story’s manic energy. Fitting its entire cast onto a bevy of key hangars, the poster reveals only a fraction of the movie’s content. Despite the vagueness, these performers, whether they be new to or accustomed to Anderson’s flourishes, admirably reinforce this tale’s enthusiasm, vision, and ideology. Fiennes breaks from tradition to embody this unhinged and comedically-charged role. Tapping into his slapstick chops, the iconic British actor jumps into each scene with charm, maliciousness, and reverence. Newcomer Revolori is also a standout as Gustave’s naive and witty number-two. Bolstering their already esteemed reputations, supporting players like Norton, Goldblum, Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, and Harvey Keitel stand above this immensely talented ensemble.

Eclipsing Anderson’s best efforts, including Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an effervescent and efficient love letter. In addition, it outright refuses to become a sorrowful apology to Anderson’s detractors or even average filmgoers. Anderson, now reaching critical and commercial acclaim, holds his head up higher than even the most respectful hotel staff member. Ideally, it’s worth making reservations for, and checking-in to, this hysterical and dexterous dramedy.

Verdict: Anderson’s most gleeful and nuanced effort yet.

The Monuments Men Review – Stuck in Trenches


Director: George Clooney 

Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (screenplay), Robert M. Edsel (book)

Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman

monuments_men_xlrg


Release date: February 7th, 2014

Distributors: Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 118 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The dreary pace.

What ever happened to the concept of ‘classic Hollywood’? The Golden Age of Hollywood was defined by artistic efforts created by influential and enviable crusaders…I presume. Having researched this part of entertainment history (I know, I’m a nerd), I’ve come to a predictable yet apt conclusion – Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to. Literally and figuratively, this statement sports several obvious and subtle traits. Modern Hollywood, continually compared to what it was, doesn’t stand up to criticism. So, who better to boost Hollywood’s wavering reputation than national treasure George Clooney? From Tibet to Timbuktu, everyone knows who he is.

Matt Damon & George Clooney.

In fact, Clooney’s latest effort, The Monuments Men, strives to make gigantic and awe-inspiring leaps of faith. Unfortunately, the movie trips and falls more often than not. Tellingly, this movie contains the right ingredients. In particular, not to be overlooked, the movie’s A-list performers have boosted some of the past decade’s greatest works. However, this saccharine docudrama’s reach exceeds its grasp. Embarrassingly, the movie keeps reaching for Clooney’s previous efforts’ level of quality. His immense star power and determination fight to bring classic Hollywood back. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men comes off like an elaborate dress rehearsal. Needing one-or-two final look-overs, this mawkish dramedy fits great assets into awkward places. Admittedly, this is an inspirational and unique story. Based on Robert M. Edsel’s literary account The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (had me at the title alone), this kooky adventure flick can’t decide what it wants to do. Here, multiple characters take this troop’s intentions across harsh lands to all corners of Europe. Set during WWII’s final moments, the movie picks up with the Nazi’s retreating to Berlin. Stealing priceless artefacts and destroying cities and communities, Adolf Hitler’s forces are taking everything to hell with them. Noticing their disgraceful actions’ impact, Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney, of course) presents his findings to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Cate Blanchett.

Given the all-clear, Stokes recruits representatives from Western Civilisation’s brightest sectors. After throwing Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) back into the action, Stokes invites a gaggle of veteran soldiers to take-on Germany’s fiercest armies. Honestly, I’m trying to make this movie’s intricate plot seem more interesting than it is. Though their names aren’t important, the supporting characters are boosted by a plethora of acclaimed performers. Soon enough, Manhattan architect Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculpter Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), painter Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), theatre director Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Lt. Donald Jefferies (Hugh Boneville) join Stokes. Gathering intelligence proving Hitler’s Fuhrermuseum to be in development, the group infiltrates  Europe to such retrieve artefacts as the Van Eyck Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Sadly, despite the immense talent dousing each frame, star power and attention to detail don’t distract from The Monuments Men‘s crippling flaws. Obviously, the premise is boosted by these esteemed actors. It’s invigorating seeing these actors collaborate and crackle on screen. Unfortunately, from the twenty-five-minute mark onward, this rambunctious crew splits up to take on different missions. The narrative, separating into several under-utilised and tedious parts, exhaustively plods. Within the first third, the movie’s jarring tonal shifts and underwhelming turns stick out. After their separation, Granger meets up with disgruntled museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). With Simone key to the mission’s success, Granger’s intentions become distorted. At least, that’s what I thought his story-line was about. For this subplot highlight’s the movie’s biggest flaw – cluttered with convoluted arcs and under-utilised concepts, the movie’s underdeveloped plot-lines are disjointed and meaningless deviations.

“Stop, stop. Stop. I seem to have stepped on a land mine…of some sort.” (James Granger (Matt Damon), The Monuments Men).

Bill Murray & Bob Balaban.

Beyond Clooney’s hubris blinding his gaze, his and long-time co-writer/producer Grant Heslov’s screenplay lacks depth, charm, and consistency. Steering away from emotional impact, the exposition-and-cliche-driven story-lines lack definitive resolutions. Considering Clooney’s greatest works (Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), he should know how to fuse relevant, politically-driven narratives with eclectic, period-piece settings. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men‘s broad, bloated sub-plots distract from Clooney’s grand vision. With plot-strands switching from blissfully lighthearted to disturbingly dark and vice-versa, this homage to classic Hollywood already feels wholly dated. Irritatingly so, Clooney’s influences and viewpoints rest close to his heart. Like with The Ides of March, Clooney uses his democratic, no-nonsense agenda to kick this movie into overdrive. Thanks to the true story’s significant profundities, the movie almost  becomes socially and spiritually involving. Commenting on art’s effect on culture, the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the first world, Clooney’s fiery viewpoints reach breaking point. Amongst Clooney’s feisty attacks, the hit-and-miss gags also distort his intentions. Injecting slapstick humour into heartbreaking sequences, The Monuments Men awkwardly  connects contrasting genres and influences. Beyond the kitsch opening credits sequence (honouring The Dirty Dozen), Clooney’s overt sense of humour hinders this heavy-handed docudrama. Thankfully, Clooney’s visual style elevates this otherwise underwhelming dramedy. Along with the movie’s sumptuous and electrifying mis-en-scene, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is jaw-dropping. Overcoming Clooney’s tonal transitions, the visuals are far more substantial than his overwhelming opinions. 

I hate to criticise Clooney’s work. For an entire generation, his scintillating screen presence and immense talent establish him as one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures. However, The Monuments Men, despite the commendable intentions, is an uninspired, confused, and weightless dramedy. Hampered by Clooney’s agenda and affection for classic Hollywood, his ambitiousness and profile prove costly. Somehow, this WWII docudrama lacks dramatic tension, laughs, and genuine thrills. Despite Clooney and co.’s involvement, its clear why Brad Pitt didn’t show up. 

Verdict: A lively yet disappointing WWII dramedy. 

Labor Day Review – Like Undercooked Pie…


Director: Jason Reitman 

Writer: Jason Reitman (screenplay), Joyce Maynard (novel)

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg 


Release date: December 27th, 2013

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 111 minutes


 

1½/5

Best part: The charismatic performances.

Worst part: The egregious romance.

Romantic-drama Labor Day‘s opening credits sequence sets its audience up for a heart-breaking fall. Here, the movie introduces us to one of Middle America’s most gorgeous suburbs. Sure, this seems pleasurable. But, as this sequence goes on, the tedium steadily sets in. In one 30/40-second shot, Labor Day transitions from intriguingly simple to bland and dreary. This movie, leading itself down Oscar-bait lane, is nowhere near as interesting as its all-powerful competition. From the aforementioned credits sequence onward, the movie crashes and burns.

Kate Winslet.

Dear young and old couples alike, don’t be drawn into Labor Days alluring marketing campaign! This movie is the ultimate relationship test. If anyone who watches it says, to their respective partners, things like: “that was so romantic” or “these characters remind me of me”, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror. Despite my scornful words (really, they’re just words!), Labor Day does sport several interesting scenes and revelatory performances. However, despite the slight positives, I still hate this messy and disgraceful melodrama. Anyway, I guess I should describe the ‘plot’. In a sector of 1980s America (I presume), depressed and agoraphobic single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) struggles with day-to-day life. Forced to look after her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) full time, the thought of even stepping outside makes her shake uncontrollably. Relying on Henry’s acute precociousness, she’s unable to fend for herself. In addition, at the local supermarket, several things remind Adele of her current predicament. Henry bumps into escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). Forcing himself into their maudlin lives, Frank finds solace in their quaint home. Over Labor Day weekend, Frank becomes ingrained into their peculiar familial structure. Based on Joyce Maynard’s semi-autobiographical novella, this adaptation bludgeons this already weak-minded genre. Admittedly, the story’s heart-warming premise seems romantic. My steel-like heart melts the tiniest bit for concepts like these. However, Labor Day’s execution, to be gleefully hyperbolic, is as painful as witnessing an actual execution.

Josh Brolin & Gattlin Griffith.

Before I go on a “modern romance is awful!” rant, I’ll stop myself dead. My cynical perspective, somehow, became darker as I watched this insipid and egregious romantic-drama. Its problems stem from the story’s core ingredients. As Adele and Frank fall in love, Labor Day slides into a brainless and vacuous lull. Anyone, of any age group, can tear through this unending melodrama’s plot mechanics. Relying on coincidences and implausibilities, the story’s hollow and archaic nature becomes frustrating. From their creepy meet-up onward, Adele and Frank’s romance hurriedly, and unexpectedly, becomes ethically questionable and unlikeable. From then on, the movie falls into manipulative territory. Forcing himself into their lives, Frank, inexplicably, turns into a cross between Bob the Builder and Martha Stewart. Within Labor Day’s malfunctioning 72-hour window, Frank fixes everything around the house, teaches his ‘victims’ how to bake, and turns Henry from a sensitive child into a baseball-loving primate. Even more unrealistic, the leads’ relationship blossoms over this alarmingly short space of time. Frank’s muscle flexing and Adele’s cleavage-friendly dresses become catalysts in this uninspired love story. As the saccharine love child of Fifty Shades of Grey and Nicholas Sparks’ harlequin romance novels, this exhaustive mess is just as stale. Like Safe Haven and The Lucky One, Labor Day is mind-numbingly dull and oddly psychosexual. Sadly, Dear John is much better. My disappointment rests squarely on its wasted potential. Romance, despite mass cultural and critical vile, can make for intriguing and invigorating cinematic gold. The Notebook and Titanic, though not without their flaws, still sit at the top of this schmaltzy leaderboard.

“I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself.” (Henry (Gattlin Griffith), Labor Day).

The ‘family’ in action.

The blame rests with acclaimed writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air). Reitman, known for insightful and darkly comedic character studies (Thank You for Smoking, Young Adult), avoids his satirical shades and witty edge here. Instead, this energetic filmmaker reaches into an ancient bag of tricks. Where is his sense of humour or acute insight into pop-culture? Despite Reitman’s ambitiousness, his new career path falls into dangerous and degrading territory. Like with Nick Cassavetes, commercial glory and watchful studio eyes now cast a debilitating shadow over Reitman’s distinctive style. Here, Reitman examines his and Maynard’s livelihoods. Based on Maynard’s peculiar experience with a prison pen-pal, the young filmmaker’s efforts dampen this manipulative tale. Displayed in flashback, Frank’s life story and motivations become clear. However, Reitman, clinging onto small and intriguing details, mashes the flashback and flash-forward buttons. Unfortunately, inconsistent flourishes distort several plot points and revelations. Jumping from pre-Vietnam 60s, to present day, then to the swinging 70s, the movie’s timeline doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. However, one sequence is effectively handled. Examining Adele’s dilapidated psyche and harsh life story, this flashback-fuelled vignette sits head-and-shoulders above the present-day romantic dross. Rescuing this atrocious romantic-drama from the cinematic doldrums, Winslet and Brolin deliver touching performances. Though unable to elevate such soggy material, Winslet injects charm and malice into this frustrating character. Looking beyond her character’s child-like mind, the Oscar-winning actress – making the most of this career misstep – relishes in the narrative’s wavering emotional state. Here, Brolin is endlessly charismatic. Despite the lack of chemistry, Brolin’s distinctive voice and charms bolster this irritating character. Meanwhile, Griffith is revelatory as the patriarch turned concerned citizen.

Sadly, Labor Day is a gigantic waste of time, potential, and talent. Despite the cruelty, I see this as a public service announcement. Depicting a joyless and hollow version of romance, this romantic-drama is a calculated, lugubrious, and cynical mess. Earning a spot on my 2014 Worst of the Year list, I pray this Hallmark Channel reject is just a one-off for Reitman. I still like him, but this is pushing it! Even the world’s craziest cat ladies are too intelligent for this one. Skip it at all costs!

Verdict: A laughable and frustrating melodrama.