Movie Review: “Money Monster”

George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito
Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster‘s last directorial effort, the Mel Gibson-led drama “The Beaver,” is a slightly unconventional and often brutal movie. The film proved to be a commercial failure, but then again, it’s hardly a commercial movie. Whether or not it connected with audiences, there was an honesty to “The Beaver” that’s not always present in Foster’s latest feature, the real-time thriller “Money Monster.” Although it’s more of a conventional crowd-pleaser, the film fails to resonate as strongly as it should.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the loud, fast-talking host of “Money Monster,” a finance show in the same vein of “Mad Money.” One day, the show’s filming is interrupted when Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the set and holds Gates hostage at gunpoint. Kyle partially blames Gates for a bad stock tip that resulted in the loss of his life savings after Ibis Clear Capital inexplicably lost $800 million overnight. Nobody has answers, including Gates, and nobody is asking the important questions until Kyle shows up. With the help of his producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), Gates will do everything he can to get to the bottom of what happened, re-discovering his humanity in the process.

That last line sounds cheesy, I know, and it slightly is in execution. It’s not because of the performances or directing, but because the script by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf is treading such familiar territory that character revelations and the big dramatic moments are sometimes more calculated than human. The script is refreshingly efficient — a story that’s cleanly under 100 minutes, especially during the summer, is always a blessing — but it’s almost always serving a formula. Every once in a while, like when Kyle talks to his wife, the story takes a surprising turn, only to find itself back on track towards an inevitable conclusion.

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Movie Review: “Hail, Caesar!”

Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes
Joel & Ethan Coen

For the first 20 minutes or so of “Hail, Caesar!,” it feels as though Joel and Ethan Coen are making another “Burn After Reading,” only this time their target is not political thrillers in particular, but ‘50s Hollywood in general. George Clooney’s character’s sword & sandals epic (and the movie’s namesake) is pompous beyond words, and Scarlett Johansson’s pool movie is disturbingly good at pointing out the continuity errors of those films (she’s bone-dry in every shot). Ultimately, though, “Hail, Caesar!” is not about the films at all, and once that becomes clear, the films within the film become a distraction. Amusing distractions, yes, but they’re sometimes hard to watch without thinking of things the movie could be doing instead that would make for a better overall viewing experience.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a “fixer” for the movie studio Capitol Pictures, where his day-to-day activities include making excuses for the whereabouts of his lothario superstar Baird Whitlock (Clooney), covering up a potential scandal involving his leading lady DeeAnna Morgan (Johansson), playing nice with the press (Tilda Swinton, playing twin reporters at rival publications), and executing the orders of the studio chief (whose last name, no joke, is Skank), no matter how boneheaded they may sound. Eddie soon discovers that Baird isn’t off on a bender, but has in fact been kidnapped, and is being held for $100,000 ransom. This all happens on the same day that Eddie is supposed to make a decision whether to leave Capitol for Lockheed Martin, a job with better hours and much better pay. He has a very short period of time to find a rat in an industry filled with rats.

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Movie Review: “Tomorrowland”

George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Pierce Gagnon
Brad Bird

“Tomorrowland” does not play by the usual ‘Disney PG movie’ rules. It hits harder, makes the audience uncomfortable, and has an alarmingly high body count. When we finally discover the movie’s endgame, this makes perfect sense, but it might be a shock up front to parents who see that the DreamWorks Animation movies are all PG, and therefore assume that “Tomorrowland” will be no different. It is drastically different – this film is a call to arms. It may take its name from a 60-year-old section of Disney World, but this movie is as right here, right now as it gets.

And while the movie is undoubtedly better than it would have been without writer/director Brad Bird’s involvement, the fact of the matter is that this is Bird’s weakest film, but let’s put that into perspective. He directed three animated masterpieces in “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” as well as the very good “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” is enjoyable; it just doesn’t measure up against Bird’s other films. It uses a jerky narrative device at the beginning that never works, and actually leaves the audience unprepared for what follows. It also has no business being 130 minutes long.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a high school science prodigy who spends her free time sabotaging the NASA site where her father (Tim McGraw, yes, that Tim McGraw) works in an attempt to delay his eventual layoff. One night she gets caught and arrested, and while retrieving her things after getting released on bail, she finds a pendant that, when she touches it, briefly transports her to another world with technology that far exceeds our own. In her quest to discover what this place is, Casey gains the help of a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who leads her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), who has also visited “Tomorrowland” but was exiled. Frank reveals to Casey that something bad is coming, and nothing can stop it. Casey convinces the jaded Frank to believe that they can avoid the inevitable, but soon they have another problem: a group of “Secret Service agents” seek to permanently close the bridge between our world and Tomorrowland, with extreme prejudice.

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Movie Review: “The Monuments Men”

George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
George Clooney

When news spread that George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, “The Monuments Men,” wouldn’t be making its original December 2013 release date, many people were surprised, to say the least. After all, nothing sounded more Oscar-ready than a World War II film based on a true story and starring some of Hollywood’s finest actors. Although the studio’s official response on the matter was that Clooney needed more time to finish post-production, it was most likely because “The Monuments Men” just isn’t a very good film. It’s a lot better than most of the dreck that’s forced down our gullets this time of year, but for a movie overflowing with promise, it’s hard not to feel the sting of disappointment.

Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, an American art conservationist who leads a small platoon of experts – including museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), theater director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), French art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and British professor Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) – into Europe during the final year of World War II. Their mission is to protect various monuments and buildings from being needlessly destroyed by Allied forces, as well as locate and retrieve the Nazi-stolen paintings and sculptures hand-picked for Hitler’s planned Führer Museum. After completing basic training, the men split up to undertake specific assignments across the war-torn continent, with Granger heading to Paris to meet a fellow museum curator (Cate Blanchett) who could be the key to tracking down some of the world’s most important cultural treasures.

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Potential 2014 Best Picture Nominees

With the full Academy Award nominations due January 16, 2014, the time has come to start sizing up favorites for the Best Picture Oscar. Voters’ tabulations will determine between five and ten films up for the top prize. From familiar directors and stars to surprising breakout performances, this year’s crop features these films and any of a number of other dark horses. On March 2nd, the Oscars will be broadcast on DirecTV Chicago and through many other U.S. cable providers.

12 Years a Slave

The epic narrative about slavery stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free African American man from the north who is kidnapped and sold as a slave, while Benedict Cumberbatch plays the plantation master in Louisiana who purchases him. Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and Paul Dano also star in this gripping true story, directed by Steve McQueen (director of Shame).

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