I can’t even begin to explain the magnitude of a movie like Gravity. It may be a small story – a couple of astronauts on a space walk are thrown into jeopardy by speeding satellite debris and have to make their way back to safety – but it’s an absolutely magnificent film on a grand, even humungous, scale. I had to keep reminding myself of the awesomeness of the cinematography – you can’t actually fake zero gravity on Earth – and the silent perils of space are astoundingly realised. Just go see it. Really. You won’t have seen the like.
I feel like I’ve had a treat of a movie weekend, and if anything, we saved the best til last, wrapping up with Alexander Payne’s quite, quite brilliant The Descendants. George Clooney – just on top form – is Matt King, an overworked lawyer and descendant of one of the 1860 missionaries who won vast tracts of land from the Hawaiians. King has been neglecting his family whilst negotiating a massive land-deal for a huge slab of coastal land over which he is the only trustee. In the middle of the negotiations, his wayward wife is injured in a boating accident, and he’s forced to round up his daughters and try to keep the family in one piece as his own life collapses around him.
It’s – I’ll say it again – a brilliant film, the kind of film that sits with you afterwards, so well is it made, so honest are the emotions, so true the performances. It’s neither mawkish nor maudlin, and the gentle re-connection between George and his daughters (the eldest is fantastic) is just marvellous. It’s kind of a perfect film. Hawaii is front and centre too – it’s history, its characters, its magnificent landscapes. (hat tip to Jerry Garrett’s blog on finding the real-life bay Matt King’s trying to sell.) Fantastic too is the use of Hawaiian music throughout – Payne skipped an orchestral score altogether and illuminated the script instead with recordings of some of the best Hawaiian artists. It’s an aural treat.
I’ve tried writing this review for Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air a number of times, but it keeps coming back to this one singular fact: it’s really excellent.
George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a cool, charming corporate axeman who flies from city to city firing people for a living. He’s very good at it, this firing business (and he’s surprisingly not entirely without compassion) but the very best part of the job is that it keeps him moving virtually year-round. This way he doesn’t have to deal with family, relationships or any other personal baggage. It all seems quite ideal. Yet his assumptions are challenged by a perky new co-worker, a sexy fellow-traveller and the obligations of a family wedding that just will not go away…..
So: imagine a movie where almost every one of the notes are hit with perfect pitch and clarity. A movie where the lead characters are perfectly painted and then shaken from the positions in which they have been established, almost without missing a beat. A movie where there is bleak sadness and significant humour, sunshine and snow, tenderness and brusque dismissal. It’s got George Clooney too, who must be the leading man of his entire generation. I loved it, and I can’t find a quip witty enough to do it justice.
Steven Soderberg goes all Casablanca on us, with a black and white, forties-style film noir, The Good German. George Clooney plays Jake Geismar, a war correspondent in Potsdam, Germany, for the Post Armistice conference held by the victorious Allies. It starts as a murder mystery, when his venal, vicious snotrag of a driver is pulled out of a river, but it switches into something altogether more intriguing: the search for the sole witness to the war crimes of a Nazi Scientist. The Americans want the Scientist for their own rocket programme, but they can’t have him if he’s uncloaked as a bad German…..
So, though it falls far short of being a thriller, The Good German is nevertheless a solid yarn that’s not only well told and well acted, but is finely crafted with the tools of Forties’ Hollywood. It shot largely on sound stages in LA, but a lot of the footage is actual Russian archive that’s been spliced into the whole.
I’ve been meaning to write about Michael Clayton for a while, but I kind of lost track of it in the melee of all my travels this year (I’m in Tbilisi, Georgia as I write this.) But it is worth writing about, and having just seen the trailer again, it reminded me of what a solid film it is.
Michael Clayton is classy: slow-ish, noir-ish, thriller-ish. A movie about a slimy fixer (he calls himself the janitor) for a slimy law firm that’s embroiled in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit on behalf of one of those monster agri-businesses. It seems their health products are about as efficacious as strichnine and people are starting to die. While working towards settlement (ie. buying off witnesses and complaintants) the firm’s star litigator suffers an epic meltdown, and Michael’s sent to pick up the pieces. Quite an inappropriate time then, for him to decide to develop a conscience and a visceral dislike for what he’s become….
George Clooney as Michael is fantastic as usual – the man is simply the modern movie icon – but it was Tilda Swinton – a Lady Macbeth in pumps and discreet pearls – who won the Oscar. Some of the stuff she does to camera (to the mirror actually) is just painful. Never trust a redhead.
On the locations side of things, a lot of the country stuff shot in upstate New York. If you’ve ever doubted the impact a director can have on the choice of filming locations (and thus the relative impotence of the film commission in the face of this phenomenon) then check out this article from the Times Herald Record. Blooming Grove, Stewart “International” Airport in New Windsor, Moodna Viaduct in Salisbury Mills; all of these locations are within seven miles of where the director grew up.
“And that’s why the Hudson Valley came down with George Clooney fever last winter. Because Tony Gilroy had an impulse to come home….”
With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers channel Evelyn Waugh.
Gym bunny Chad and grasping Linda discover a cd rom on the floor of the changing rooms at the Hard Bodies Gym in Washington DC. When they realise it may contain highly sensitive CIA information, they proceed to try to flog it to the highest bidder. It’s actually the worthless novelised memoirs of Osborne Cox (Malkovitch), but the greed and misunderstandings set into motion an unstoppable series of tragi-comic events.
Set against the cruel infidelities, the blithe dismissiveness, the amoral ruthlessness, the stupidity, of the Washington DC / Georgetown “intelligence” set, Burn After Reading is by no means the Coen Brother’s best work. But like Waugh, the moment they make you laugh, they also make you gasp with shock and even horror. The innocent die quickly, the noxious escape unscathed. This is not a comfortable film. But it is funny.
Inspite of the strong Maryland / DC locations, Burn After Reading principally filmed in Brooklyn, so that the directors could remain close to their homes and families – another one of the myriad of frustrating influences that affect a of choice of production location, and over which no-one has any say.