Steven Soderbergh

Review – Logan Lucky

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Review – Logan Lucky

By guest columnist Caleb Luther.

Logan Lucky is a film that I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time now. From the look of the trailers, it definitely seemed like some weird offspring of an early Coen Brothers film like Raising Arizona. As we all know, that’s not a bad thing.

So did it deliver on that idea? You bet it did.

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The Informant!

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The Informant! (yes with the exclamation point, though no more for the rest of this review) positions itself as a wacky comedy and a sort of industrial espionage thriller, adapted from Kirt Eichenwald’s novel.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon as a kind of Talentless Mr. Ripley) imagines himself a master sleuth — or a master criminal — and most of the comedy in this movie is Mark’s internal monologue. I haven’t read the book, but the movie makes me want to. Mark goes from being a man with an adorable sense of importance to the inverse of a corporate shark; his machinations implode. The movie itself starts to slowly implode into a still-amusing but increasingly convoluted muddle of absurdity.

I was reminded of the short-lived but brilliant TV show Profit, except upside-down and inside-out. Whitacre is a whistleblower who draws the Feds’ attentions to his agricultural company, revealing malfeasance amongst his colleagues. He clearly enjoys being a mole, but he really didn’t think through the whole process. The screenwriter also wrote the Bourne Ultimatum, but this amount of doublespeak and back-pedaling appears to have done him in. Since the book in paperback is a surprising 656 pages, naturally the film is a lesser-than ad for the book. I was enjoying Mark’s internal monologues much more than the actual “plot,” and wished I could just relax and enjoy that part of the story’s universe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still diverting, but it’s the kind of movie that stymies my proper critical eye (and ability to write) due to being so jumbled and ambitious, much like its hero. I can’t really blame the screenwriter; director Steven Soderbergh often falls prey to the very intangible thing that bogs down this film: that foggy mushy feeling that I think he uses to make something feel real but instead obscures everyone and makes us sleepy.

The supporting cast is littered with random comedy luminaries (from Seth McFarlane to the Smothers Brothers) who plau their roles with deadly seriousness. Perhaps this lends to the chimaeric feel of the movie, because you have Mr. Action/Drama as a pudgy situational disaster on wheels, and Misters Comedians as hard-nosed heavies and foils. The movie feels uneven and unfinished; it would be easy to blame the adaptation process, with all its necessary slicing and dicing, but even the design of it feels off. Set during the years 1992-1995, the tone is irrepressibly 1970’s. If it weren’t for more modern technologies popping up here and there, I’d never have known it was taking place during the Clinton administration.

My recommendation is to rent the movie, and it may make you, like me, want to check out the book. Save your money for the late fall Oscar releases.

MPAA Rating R-language

Release date 9/18/09

Time in minutes 108

Director Steven Soderbergh

Studio Warner Brothers

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George Clooney has worked with an interesting assembly of directors, and spent years on episodic television. What I just figured out about Clooney the director is that he is a crafter of moments more than a story teller. He’s clearly watched and learned from Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), the Coen brothers, and Steven Soderbergh. The Oceans 11-13 movies are just stylish scrapbooks, Michael Clayton is ponderous moments dropped into a big mess. Clooney’s excellent Good Night and Good Luck was supported by the strong storyline of true life events in a significant political time, and the weight that the current-day echoes brought to every scene. What on earth am I rambling on about? It all culminates in this movie, Leatherheads, which is a gorgeous, charming, quaintly stylish movie comprised almost exclusively of moments.

The moments that comprise this movie are flush with beauty and character and portent, but not so much content. I don’t mean to equate Clooney the director with say, Michael Bay, but the stories he is telling are light things with little arc and hardly any motivations, and less resolution. They are, however, packed to the gills with awesome period (1925) feel and detail. Ken Burns documentary-style, Leatherheads occasionally freeze-frames sepia shots of the action, which is kind of precious but also heightens the “this is a true story” feel of the movie. I don’t know if it was based on a true story, but it’s the kind of story that feels like it could have been true.

John Krasinski (The Office) is a natural to play a superstar college boy war hero athlete, with his aw-shucks sincerity and enormous, accessible grin (and his 1000 yard stare perfected weekly in his television life). Clooney is grizzled but charming trailing in his wake. I keep coming back to the word charming, it’s the one word that sums up the whole movie — in both its positive and negative connotations. If only Renee Zellweger had not been in this film, John and George could have used their formidable wit in a real sparring match. Amy Adams, do you have a time machine? (Where is the Renee from Down With Love? This one looks post-chemical peel and deformation surgery.)

Leatherheads takes a subject hat I don’t care about — football — and brings us back to its adorable, leather padded genesis. It was a game I would have watched back then, a real game with teams interested in earning points, and not just a horrible parody of a metaphor selling violence and athletic shoes. The period detail is exquisite, from trains to fashions to slang to music to newspapers, and the soundtrack is diverting as well. Clooney pads his cast with great Coens-esque faces and witty bon mots, but the story fails to engage on any meaningful level, despite all its fractured merits. I hope Clooney keeps directing — his moments are great, and if he can just make them stretch out to 90 minutes, he’ll give us some real classics.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 4/4/08
Time in minutes 113
Director George Clooney
Studio Universal Pictures

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Michael Clayton

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The adrenaline-fueled previews for Michael Clayton had me all aquiver after Clooney’s last masterpiece, Good Night and Good Luck. I was anticipating a big Oscar-montage speech from an impassioned Clooney, maybe about some aspect of right and wrong I had never considered. This topic would be either new to me or something I feel does not get enough attention and the speech will bring me to my feet in inspiration. If not, the preview could have been promising me a taut thriller (political or emotional or otherwise) where you don’t know who to trust or where to turn and there’s just – no – time!

I did get my big awesome speech, but I got it from Tom Wilkinson (sweet!) in an inexplicable voice-over and then, 50 minutes later, my companion and I still had no idea what this movie was about, or even when it would start. It’s a long movie. It’s even longer when every turn of the narrative leaves a wake of question marks and not very many light bulbs. I watch Lost, I know how to find the threads – there were no threads here. Maybe an hour or more into it, I had divined that there were high stakes involved, but I got most of that sense from the heavy-handed and portentious score and the long, lingering thinking shots. You know what shoe leather is in a movie? That’s when they show people walking to their cars or through their houses or basically traveling to where the action is instead of just doing the action. This was brain leather.

By the time the film ambled to an unresolved conclusion centered around two characters with ill-defined motivations or functions, this movie had completely lost my interest. I had the same clockwatching feeling as I did – yes, you’re reading this correctly – watching Pathfinder. “Man, I could be doing my laundry,” I groused, as Clooney looked deep into the camera’s eyes and gave me nothing.

First-time director, many-time writer Tony Gilroy (writer of the Bourne trilogy, as well as some less well-received action-thrillers) may have gotten carried away with getting to manipulate the actors instead of just the words. He has an amazing cast, let’s look at the IMDB record for this movie and see what the problem might have been. OK, here it is, got it. Two of the executive producers (and no doubt meddlers with a first-time director) were Anthony Minghella and Steven Soderbergh. Cinerina fans know what that means. That answers that pressing question. I rated it as high as rental so you can rewind and maybe get a little more out of it than we did, and because it looks gorgeous, the music is Very Very Important, and Tilda Swinton’s character tics are as delicious as Wilkinson’s big speech. But save your money, don’t see this in the theatre.

MPAA Rating R-language and sexual dialogue
Release date 10/5/07 limited
Time in minutes 120
Director Tony Gilroy
Studio Warner Brothers

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

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It’s about time someone gave Sam Rockwell a chance to show his stuff in a lead role, and who better than first-time director George Clooney? I am pleased to say that this is a fine little movie, deftly produced and beautifully acted, so go see it already! Rockwell has been in a million movies in a small part or even a memorable medium sized one, (The Green Mile, Welcome to Collinwood, Galaxy Quest) and this is the Big Show. Limning the film adaptation of an autobiography written by a man who is still alive is one thing; when that man is TV’s Chuck Barris and his autobiography includes the claim that when he wasn’t creating and hosting shows like The Gong Show, he was a CIA operative, those are some big, heavy shoes to fill. Rockwell is awesome.

Clooney plays a small but key role (as does superstar Julia Roberts) in Barris’ “secret” life, with Clooney’s usual warm opacity. He’s got the eyes of a heartbreaker, and for Barris, the heartbreak is of a deeper kind: the heart of his purpose. Screenwriting Wünderkind Charlie Kaufman wisely leaves the question unanswered: was he, or wasn’t he? In the film, it seems equally plausible that he was a part time spy or a schizophrenic. The movie won’t insult Barris by implying he was a nutjob, and it won’t insult your intelligence by forcing you to believe he was a gun-wielding state assassin. But either way, by the end, you don’t even care what is true and what is not, and that is an achievement in and of itself.

2002 (for technically this is a 2002 release) has revealed a troika of Kaufman-driven paeans to self-loathing. Adaptation (sort of the War and Peace of self-loathing), Human Nature, (more like the New Testament of hatred of the self) and finally Confessions, the greatest love story to self-hatred ever written. If you haven’t seen the other films (or Being John Malkovich) check them out and you’ll see what I am talking about. Barris is both a self-proclaimed genius and bad-ass and a completely worthless human being, both in his own eyes. Is that a Playmate speaking his internal monologue to him? Could be. Is that assassin a symbol of his failures? Maybe. Perhaps. The movie is not out to answer questions, but to show you just how deep and intesting those questions can get. And in the mean time, it is damn entertaining. Fantastic, simple, effective transitions between timelines and sets and moods, great camera work (Clooney keeps in touch with his old compadres) and great acting on everyone’s part. Sure, a lot of years go by with no appreciable aging, but so what. It’s a fun story, and a fun movie, despite the human tragedy hinted at within. You’d never know Clooney was in Solaris after seeing this.

It’s funny, in retrospect, to see the guff that Barris took for his ideas. You know he just turns on Fox today and claps himself on the back for being as ahead of the times as he was. Occasional interviews with real Barris acquaintances punctuate the narrative and hint at the mystery behind the man. Kaufman wisely balances the two worlds in Barris’ book, and Clooney does nothing to disrupt that balance. Clooney apparently learned everything that Soderbergh is good at (Erin Brockovich) and nothing he is bad at (Full Frontal), and I look forward to seeing more “A George Clooney Film” titles in the future. But best of all, “Starring Sam Rockwell.” He was simply great. I can elaborate no more. Just go see it.

MPAA Rating R for language, sexual content and violence.
Release date 12/31/02
Time in minutes 113
Director George Clooney
Studio Miramax