Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

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The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ’em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale

The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats

That goat shouldn't have eaten George Clooney's script.

(Overture) George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root, Rebecca Mader, Glenn Morshower, Nick Offerman, Tim Griffin, Jacob Browne, Todd La Tourette. Directed by Grant Heslov

The human mind is in many ways the truly final frontier. We know so little about it, yet our minds our capable of amazing things. Were we able to harness these abilities we could literally do anything we can imagine.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is lacking somewhat in the cojones department. A journalist, he takes a job at a small town newspaper, marries his college sweetheart (Mader) and interviews quack psychics (Root) who claim they were part of a military program to develop psychic super soldiers, whose mental powers would allow the military to spy on “the enemy” psychically.

Shortly after this, Bob’s life goes to hell in a handbasket. His wife leaves him for his editor (La Tourette) and Bob falls apart. He decides to prove his manhood to his wife to go to Iraq to cover the war as a truly macho war correspondent but true to form he can’t get clearance to cover anything in the war zone, so he sits in a hotel in Kuwait, enviously watching the other journalists swap stories from the front lines while they totally ignore the inexperienced Bob.

This is when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a ramrod-straight retired soldier whose name Bob remembers from his interview with the psychic, who mentioned Lyn admiringly as “the best psi in the outfit.” He is reluctant to talk to Bob at all but when he sees something that Bob was doodling in his notebook, he does an about face and becomes willing to have Bob accompany him into Iraq on a “black ops” mission.

It turns out that Lyn has recently been re-activated to go on a mysterious mission into Iraq. When they drive into Iraq, Lyn practices his psychic skills to “keep sharp” by cloudbursting. He becomes so distracted by this he runs right into the only boulder in hundreds of miles of sand.

The two seem to be rescued by a passing truck but it turns out to be militants who capture Lyn and Bob. Lyn tells Bob a little more about the history of his outfit, “Project Jedi” (a not-so-subtle jibe at McGregor’s previous role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the man who created it, Lt. Col. Bill Django (Bridges), a free-spirited sort who embraced the new age and proto-hippie movements in California in the ‘70s a little too closely after a near-brush with death in Vietnam. When he returns to the Army, he does so with claims that he can create soldiers who can walk through walls, find missing persons through psychic means, and influence the minds of others. He captures the imagination of a somewhat unrealistic General (Lang) who is concerned that the Soviets are conducting a similar program.

The self-described Jedi Knights undergo unorthodox training methods, experiment liberally with psychotropic drugs and have mixed success in the psychic warfare department. Lyn has the most promise and becomes Django’s apprentice while another soldier named Larry Hooper (Spacey) seethes with jealousy, wanting to be the pre-eminent psychic on the planet. He takes matters into his own hands and when a young recruit dies during an experiment that Hooper clandestinely conducts using the methods of the notorious MK Ultra project, Hooper manages to shift the blame to Django who is shown the door, discharged and disgraced.

The two escape the militants along with an Iraqi civilian (Zuaiter) but run into a firefight between competing security contractors. As the pair travels further and further into the heart of enemy territory, Bob begins to suspect that he is not hearing the whole truth – and that Lyn might just be insane.

This is based on what is reputedly a non-fiction book written by an actual British journalist and makes no bones that not everything in the story is 100% factual. In fact, the opening screen tells you that much with a graphic that reads “more of this is true than you might believe.” Let’s just say that my cynic-meter was registering some pretty high numbers despite the disclaimer.

In the hands of someone like the Coen Brothers, this might have been a terrific movie. Unfortunately, first-time director Heslov (Clooney’s long-time production partner) seems to be trying too hard to make this funny and quirky all at once. The quirk far outweighs the funny percentage-wise, never a good thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some nice moments here. Some of the scenes in which the would-be Jedi Warriors attempt to use their psychic powers unsuccessfully are nicely done, as is some of the satire, particularly Robert Patrick’s turn as a security contractor. It’s too bad that those moments aren’t more plentiful.

The cast is pretty solid, with Clooney and McGregor doing good, solid jobs in the leads, while Bridges and Spacey are dependable as always. Bridges in particular seems to be channeling his character from The Big Lebowski which isn’t as bad as it sounds since that character was so memorable (I don’t name him because I refuse to – as everyone from AOL and MiniPlanet knows I am the Dude).

There is an awful lot of drug humor here and those who are offended by such things might want to skip on by this one. I haven’t read the book this was based on but based on the subject matter I do think there was a good movie to be had. Sadly, this wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and McGregor are appealing leads while Bridges and Spacey always do good work. Some genuinely funny scenes stand out here.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too quirky for its own good, the movie tries too hard to be funky and funny. The drug humor may offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some brief nudity (some of which is Clooney’s for all you ladies out there), some scenes of violence, a lot of drug use and some rough language. A lot of “somes” equals leave the kids at home for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Kuwait and Iraq were actually filmed in New Mexico.

HOME OR THEATER: Strictly for home viewing. There are lots of movies far worthier than this one in the multiplex right now, so you have plenty of cinematic options.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Star Trek