Thursday, 7 February 2013

George Clooney - 5 films for your consideration

George Clooney has directed five intriguing films between 2002 and 2014. All are rooted in "real life" with a historical story to tell and two of the following five films are deep personal favourites of mine and I hope you enjoy my "take" on them.

All five films cover a wide spectrum of time, settings and history. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind sees Sam Rockwell with yet another stellar performance as he portrays the arguable inventor of reality television Chuck Barris and in an almost parallel time frame we see David Strathairn's magnificent performance as Edward R Murrow as a CBS News Producer embroiled in a tale of whether to simply report the news or in fact challenge it in Good Night, and Good Luck. Leatherheads is Clooney's weakest film to date but is a fun, screwball comedy with it's tongue firmly in it's cheek before a stellar cast produce a wonderful, if flawed, take on USA politics in the 21st Century in The Ides of March. His cannon of film direction was added to in 2014 with another flawed but fun take on World War II and the recovery of valuable artwork in The Monuments Men.

This particular film blog is slightly different from my others in as much as I've started each film appraisal with a brief overview of George Clooney the actor, as he stars in every one of the five films he has directed. George is of course more famous as an actor than as a fledgling Director with brilliant portrayals in eponymous films such as From Dusk til Dawn, Out of Sight, The Thin Red Line and Three Kings in the 1990's through to O Brother Where Art Thou, The Perfect Storm, Ocean's Eleven, Solaris, Syriana, The Good German, Michael Clayton and The Descendants since the turn of the century. I am an unabashed George Clooney fan and count myself fortunate to have seen both these films, his portrayals and interwoven throughout, his five directorial films.

George is also a prolific Producer alongside his friend Steven Soderbergh in their "Section 8" production company. This was recently disbanded and replaced by Smokehouse Productions with his friend and writing partner Grant Heslov. George has specifically produced or executive produced Argo, The American, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Informant and A Scanner Darkly amongst many others. All films not previously noted here but all films I've seen and naturally, heartily recommend. George is also an outspoken critic on American politics and an activist for many humanitarian charities.

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming five films. Rather, my purpose is to give a flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these great films for you in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations. I write all of my blogs from a fan's perspective and always aim to give just 5-10% of the film as a taster! I hope you enjoy.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

"I'm happy to report you fit our profile, Mr Barris"

Jim Byrd Does he exist? Is he a figment of Chuck Barris' over eager imagination? I'm leaving this profile deliberately vague so as not to spoil or hint at Clooney's character involvement in the film although it is established very early on. An accomplished and stylish performance from Clooney both in front of and behind the camera.

Based on Chuck Barriss' own memoirs and book "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", with a screenplay from legendary screenwriter Charlie Kaufman this is a real joy of a film, an immediate firm favourite of mine on release in 2002 and a real tribute to George Clooney in his first directorial role. The film became an immediate favourite of mine due in part to Charlie Kaufman's eclectic and bizarre screenplay, a central performance from Sam Rockwell that is truly wonderful and helmed in a slick, precise and fun way by Clooney. Scenes constantly dissolve and melt both into the next scene and also from one era to another. There is a constantly moving story, aided by a seemingly moving and rolling camera from Clooney as he follows the action slowly and methodically as the narrative unfolds. As you'd expect from a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, the narrative is never static and rooted in one era or setting hence the timeline is fractured and twisted, from 1981 at the film's beginning back to 1940 but quickly into the 1950's and 1960's. Great credit is due to Clooney's behind the scenes team of Editor (Stephen Mirrione), Cinematography (Newton Thomas Sigel) Costume Design (Renee April) and especially Alex Wurman for a wonderful original music score that spans the decades of the narrative and beautifully bubbles away under the surface of the story. Interspersed with the original music are many timeless classic tracks from the ages such as "Palisades Park" (written by Chuck Barris), "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who, "If I had a Hammer" by Peter, Paul and Mary (and brilliantly used in the film) through to "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head" by Burt Bacharach and "There's No Business Like Show business" by Rosemary Clooney over the closing credits. 

Chuck Barris was a TV Executive and Producer who it can be argued invented the model of Reality Television with his eponymous ideas of "The Newlywed Game", "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show" among many others. These original ideas have, for good or bad, entered into the television Zeitgeist and spawned numerous spin off shows that continue to this day. Always craving for that one original idea, one original television game show, this 109 minute biographical film of his life is a fun, darkly funny and exciting journey from the early 1940's to 1981 however the majority of the film is set within the liberal and hippy tinged 1960's and early 1970's. With the heavy involvement of Chuck Barris himself throughout the screenplay adaptation process through to the filming itself it paints a picture of Barris in a very favourable light although not always so and early on it is established that he leads a very different and very dual life away from seeking that one unique and original idea for television. But more of this later.

The film is bookended by three very brief hotel scenes which I have dissected below, however these scenes only account for 5 minutes of total screen time and are not in strict narrative order. You'll see what I mean by that when you see this film. In between is a genuine gem of a film full of intrigue and suspense as we follow a man's ascent to the pinnacle of his career and his almighty descent on the other side. The film begins with a disclaimer "This film is taken from Mr Barris' private journals, public records and hundreds of hours of taped interviews" and from this disclaimer dissolves into a hotel room with a naked, dishevelled and scruffy "Chuck Barris" (Sam Rockwell) narrating his life as a foretaste for his memoirs. Unhappy, desperate and paranoid it is both a portent for Barris' descent into madness and chaos and a segue into the first of the three brief hotel scenes:

"Penny" (Drew Barrymore) is outside Chuck's hotel room, desperate to be re-united with her friend. "Jesus. How'd you find me?" asks Chuck to which Penny laughs and confirms she'd received his letter on the hotel's letter headed paper.
A quick cut to a distinctive shot of just Chuck's eyeball through the hotel door spyhole but Penny is driving the conversation both in terms of his shabby surroundings and that she desperately wants him to return with her to California and to get married. Penny warns Chuck that she won't hang around forever for him and that she loves him and again wants to marry him. The camera now cuts to a still naked Chuck inside his shabby room, his hair overgrown, a long beard and looking unclean and unkempt. Chuck is part way out of shot as the focus is on the shabby empty room except for a dartboard which is in the centre of the frame. Quick cuts between Chuck and Penny as they share this brief conversation which ends with Chuck unable to fully vocalise an answer to Penny but instead whispers "Penny" repeatedly against the frame of the door before Penny, tired of waiting, walks away.

The second brief hotel scene starts again with Penny outside Chuck's hotel room but quickly dissolves into the room and a scene of utter filth and degradation, of upturned furniture and destruction. Quick cuts move into a zoom on Chuck, sitting with his back to the door, still naked and markedly bloodied and bruised.
All the while, Chuck narrates the letter he sent Penny "Dear Penny, This is just a note to say I'm sorry. For all of it. You were the best part of my life and I couldn't see it. I'm not asking for another chance. Just for your forgiveness. Love Chuck". As the narration ends we dissolve into quick and obscure cuts of Chuck now looking more positive and determined as he cuts his hair and shaves completely, ahead of a meeting with an old friend outside of the cocoon of his hotel room.

The third and final brief scene sees a fresher faced and happier Chuck narrate a melancholic ending to the manuscript for his book.

"My name is Charles Hersch Barris. I have written pop songs. I have been a TV producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered 33 human beings". After he reprises a dance from The Gong Show, the scene ends on a shot of his manuscript.

In addition to Sam Rockwell's superlative performance as Chuck Barris and Director Clooney's much smaller role as Jim Byrd, Drew Barrymore as Penny deserves huge plaudits for her performance. Aside from the television shows and the nefarious activities already alluded to, this is a genuine love story at heart and so brilliantly played by Barrymore alongside Rockwell. As with the flashbacks in the film, their relationship mirrors one of the many motifs of the film, that of light blended with dark, the good with the bad, the ultra positive matched against a horrific negative. Despite the joyous nature of the film as a whole, this blending of highs and lows is a constant throughout and very much a part of Chuck and Penny's relationship so aptly demonstrated by their tender yet quickly explosive game of scrabble. Being a central strand of the narrative there are numerous more examples of their love story. Julia Roberts plays "Patricia Watson" an associate and friend of Chuck's and their early lovemaking scene is a hilarious gem of a brief scene. Rutger Hauer plays "Keeler", another associate of Chuck's but as with Patricia Watson above, I'll leave his role particularly vague for fear of plot spoilers. As a side note, there are numerous cameos and smaller roles throughout the film with Maggie Gyllenhaal as "Debbie" (hilarious, yet awkward lovemaking scene with Chuck!) and Matt Damon "Matt" and Brad Pitt "Brad" all feature. As do numerous real life people and indeed characters from Chuck Barris' various game shows. Alongside Barris himself, Dick Clark, Gene Gene "The Dancing Machine" and "The Unknown Comic" all have brief talking heads scenes as do regulars from The Gong Show and The Dating Game, including one who telling states "Even though he's a prick, he's a good guy too".

Included throughout is stock footage of the time from actual Dating Game and Gong Show contestants through to President Regan and the Cold War which is a significant theme as we follow Chuck's descent into paranoia and unhappiness. A love story at heart and one that will charm you both as a love story, a life story and a story as a whole so very well told by screenwriter Kaufman and Director Clooney. The film has a continually rolling motion to it, never stopping for elongated dialogue or exposition and from the day I saw this to eleven years later remains crystal clear, vibrant and darkly funny. As Barris admits himself, he polluted the airwaves with puerile entertainment, but entertainment that continues to pollute today via Britain's Got Talent, X Factor, Take Me Out and formerly Blind Date, all spin off shows that are rooted in Chuck Barris' early ideas for a unique game show that can be sold to national television producers. 

A wonderful life story brilliantly portrayed by Sam Rockwell who has since this performance also provided stellar portrayals in Welcome to Collinwood, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Moon and Seven Psychopaths amongst many others. Rockwell was Clooney's first and only choice to play Chuck Barris and you can see why.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

"He's a Jew. Well don't tell him that, he loves Christmas"

Fred Friendly Another quiet, in the background role for Clooney as Fred Friendly, a CBS News Producer and close confidant of Edward R Murrow. Both a stylish and understated performance from actor Clooney and a stylish film for which he as director was nominated for an Oscar, which is quite an achievement in only his second directorial film. Clooney was also nominated alongside fellow screenplay writer Grant Heslov for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, with the film as a whole receiving a total of six Oscar nominations. Again, quite an astounding achievement in only his second film as Director.

Another George Clooney film that became an instant favourite with me, the film is bookended with a speech made by "Edward R Murrow" (an incredible performance from David Strathairn) at a Gala Evening in his honour in 1958. A salute to his incredible achievements in television broadcasting and one in which he makes this telling pronouncement "We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have an inbuilt allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognise that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late".

From this early speech in 1958 the film reverts back to 1953 and the main premise for the film is set: In the midst of the Cold War against Russia, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy is trying to root out "card carrying" Communists from the United States of America. A media war is brewing and Edward R Murrow together with Fred Friendly and his CBS News team uncover shockingly one sided attacks on American citizens whereby they are accused of being a Communist without a fair trial or evidence. From 1953 onward the film continues with a straight forward timeline until it loops back to bookend the film with a continuation of Murrow's Gala speech.

Filmed in colour but reverted back to Black and White to reflect the time period, the opening speech itself, albeit brief, encapsulates everything that is impressive about this film, the direction from Clooney, the cinematography from Robert Elswit, a stellar cast of quiet yet mightily impressive performances and numerous themes of the time. Firstly Clooney. His second film but far different from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as this film has a quiet, purposeful and perhaps stoic air about proceedings. His slow, flowing camera work is again evident as is the merging and dissolving of scenes into one another, often with a continuing narration or conversation from the previous scene which really propels an already intriguing and engrossing story. Also reflective of the time and film making of the time, many scenes fade to black or are segued by an important date but whereas Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was frenetically edited here, as with the film as a whole, it is quiet with a gentle flow from one scene to another. This is in no way a criticism of returning Editor Stephen Mirrione, more an appreciation of the film's style and quiet purpose. Of the six Oscar nominations received two were for technical excellence in Best Art Direction (James Bissell and Jan Pascale) and Best Cinematography for the continuing genius of Robert Elswit. Brilliantly reflective of the time period, shadows and the contrast between light and dark are well captured as are the numerous scenes within the confines of a cramped room or office and all three were well deserving of their Oscar nominations. One scene in particular encapsulates everything highlighted brilliantly, from a perfectly still performance from David Strathairn as Murrow hunched over his typewriter completing his script for the evening segment, the cramped room full of shadow and excellently lit as the camera, for the first time in the film, rolls away from Murrow as opposed to the almost constant full frame close up on him as his been apparent throughout the film up to that point. Murrow, whether on camera with his evening news segment or simply with his editorial team is seemingly always framed close up displaying every nuance and touch, yet this brief but brilliantly captured snapshot of a journalist of the age captures everything perfectly.

David Strathairn leads an all star cast as Edward R Murrow and was fully deserving of the film's sixth Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Another quiet and purposeful performance full of stillness and resolution as the permanent smoking news broadcaster and journalist. Ably supported by Fred Friendly (George Clooney) as his loyal co-producer and friend, in a film so heavily dominated by male leads and characters Patricia Clarkson as "Shirley Wershba" stands out in a brilliant performance alongside an uncharacteristically quiet (but as you've read, purposely so) performance from Robert Downey Jr as "Joe Wershba". Jeff Daniels stars as ruthless "Sig Mickelson", screenplay writer Grant Heslov stars as "Don Hewitt" and there are two stunning cameos from Ray Wise as "Don Hollenbeck" and Frank Langella as CBS Supremo "William Paley". Also notable is Dianne Reeves as "Jazz Singer" both for her superlative singing and for the insertion of her (and her band's) jazz tracks throughout. The music itself is minimal throughout the film but always memorable, from the instrumental "When I Fall in Love" over the opening titles to Dianne Reeves' singing "TV is the Thing This Year", "You're Driving Me Crazy", "I've Got My Eyes on You" and "One For My Baby (And One For The Road)". All of these latter songs are used brilliantly as we tour the television studios, a joyous bar scene or a scene accompanying bad news.

The film constantly captures "periods in time" very well as we follow a busy television studio and the workings and behind the scenes angst that goes with a live broadcast of the time. Section Producers, all smoking heavily in the cramped confines of a control room cutting and editing the piece being delivered by a cool and purposeful Murrow with Fred Friendly lying on the floor next to him giving timings and direction. To CBS Executives pacing in corridors, delivering ultimatums. But the real picture captured so brilliantly "of the time" is of the continual in fighting, paranoia, suspicion and of not wanting to step out of line in a time of the Cold War. This may in fact seem to be "of the time" and of wanting to root out Communists or anti Americans but this film highlights a highly prescient image of today's media. Now owned by just a few major Corporations, the Mainstream Media of today is of little value and seemingly toes a party line on the war on terror, of terrorists being everywhere, ready to strike at any time and an all pervading sense of fear always and constantly propagated. The overt chasing of Communists has been replaced by a seeming covert chasing of terrorists and anti Government, anti Establishment viewpoints, all propagated by an unquestioning and docile Mainstream Media. The air of suspicion, intertwined by numerous pieces of stock footage from the real life events of the day are merged with paranoia of the CBS editorial staff and their affiliations. As perfectly summarised by Murrow himself "If none of us had read a dangerous book or had a friend who was different. Never joined an organisation that advocated change, we'd all be just like the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants". Contrast this with ABC/NBC/BBC or the all pervading News International of today, their continual use of negative, fearful information and a dwindling faith we all have in their "news".

Good Night, and Good Luck (Murrow's signature sign off at the end of every broadcast) also raises the question of whether news broadcasts should simply report the news as is provided by national syndicates of news providers and/or Government institutions or in fact challenge the news they are provided with. Should television, and news in particular, be used as a means of debate and challenging the status quo or simply a vehicle for providing a sanctioned view of the news and the world, or indeed simply as a form of entertainment, revenue and ratings. Money, sponsorship and ratings are a continual theme too. The film itself also challenges another highly prescient theme of the time and of today as free speech and violations of that singular right as a human being are being exploited every day despite our rights afforded us as both a human being and as part of national Constitutions. Above all, this film shines a light both into the past and into a very prescient present day with a documentary feel to it brilliantly helmed by Director Clooney and expertly though quietly portrayed by a stellar cast of devoted actors. A brilliant film and well worthy of 93 minutes of your time.

Leatherheads (2008)

"Everything runs in your family Ralph. Except your feet."

Dodge Connelly 
George Clooney's largest and most prominent role of the films he's directed. An ageing professional footballer at the twilight of his career as the embryonic professional football game in the 1920's begins to take shape. Played well with tongue firmly rooted in his cheek! Directed well with a definite eye for the comedy throughout.

This screwball comedy is set in 1925 and the opening segments set the tone for the film as both an off the wall comedy (with added clunky dialogue!) and the vast difference between college football (played in front of large fanatical crowds) and the still blossoming professional football league (played in front of sparse but dedicated local fans).  Two major narrative plot strands are evident. As an ageing professional footballer "Dodge Connelly" (George Clooney) is desperate for his team, Duluth Bulldogs, to continue against a background of lost sponsorship and waning interest in the professional league. "Carter Rutherford" (John Krasinski) is a decorated World War I veteran with a story to tell and a sublime talent for playing football. Both narrative strands intertwine when Dodge persuades Carter to join his Duluth Bulldogs and to great fanfare the new signing joins the Bulldogs and they go on an unprecedented winning run. Dodge clearly sees a lot of his younger self in Carter who, whilst reinvigorating the embryonic league set up, simply wants to play football. Enter "Lexi Littleton" (Renee Zellweger).

Renee Zellweger stars as ambitious newspaper reporter Lexi Littleton and heads up a supporting cast of "Suds" a perma drunk sports reporter for the Duluth Bulldogs played by Stephen Root, "Coach Ferguson" (Wayne Duvall), "Big Gus" (Keith Loneker), "Commissioner" (Peter Gerety) and a host of cameos for a large number of football players. Away from the football, screenplay writer Grant Heslov plays eccentric sports announcer "Saul Keller" with tongue firmly in cheek, Randy Newman cameos as "Piano Player" but the largest of the supporting roles falls to the excellent Jonathan Pryce as nefarious sports agent to Carter Rutherford "CC Frazier"The original music score from all time great Randy Newman is excellent and befits the age, setting and comedic style of the film, as does the music tracks selected such as "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye" by Al Jolson, "Who's Sorry Now?" and "The Man I Love" by George and Ira Gerschwin. Written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, with editing from a returning Stephen Mirrione and Cinematography from an equally returning Newton Thomas Sigel, Costume Designer Louise Frogley deserves enormous credit for her period costumes and attention to detail from the leatherheaded players themselves through to the large crowds. The football games themselves are fairly brief with the exposition mainly focussing on the struggle to kick start a new professional league and the triangle between the ageing player, the young fresh faced upstart and the eager journalist who quite literally comes between them. Here the film excels but this is my least favoured of George Clooney's four directed films to date despite my lifelong passion for American Football. The script (and many of the gags) fall a little flat and the comedy is pleasing if a little staid. Again away from the football itself is where Clooney the Director excels, with trademark slow sweeping shots of hotel lobbies and bars and numerous train journeys, but the film lacks a real zest until mid-way through the film and the following scene which is the film's highlight and most stylish scene:

Dodge enters an illegal and hidden away drinking club or Speakeasy with his date for the night "Belinda" (Heather Goldenhersh) and with a flowing camera move passes the Mayor and other friends to make it to the bar. Intercut throughout are close ups of the "Blues Singer" (Ledisi Young) as she sings one of the film's true stand out songs, "The Man I love". Unaware that Lexi Littleton is also at the bar, Dodge introduces her to his date before Belinda excuses herself and the above camera angle remains almost constant as the two friends banter playfully and sexually on their predicament, their environment and their choice of partners. "So, are you flying solo or is The Bullet casting about?" chides Dodge in a reference to Lexi's affections for young protege' Carter Rutherford. "What do you care?" responds a slightly drunk Lexi "You're here to entertain Miss Nipple Width". With quick cuts back and forth from Dodge to Lexi he finally suggests "Come on, let's dance". A wide sweeping shot of the two follows which is faded quickly to their holding hands, preparing to dance.

Fade cuts of the bass player and Blues Singer dissolve into Dodge and Lexi dancing to the continuing strains of "The Man I love". They briefly discuss Carter Rutherford's affections for Lexi as they gently dance and as their smiles grow longer we fade cut back to the Singer and back to the couple, now much closer with wider smiles and on the verge of kissing. At that moment the Police raid the Speakeasy! There follows a comic escape from the drinking club in Police Uniforms, a "leap of faith" before a brilliantly captured silhouette of their first kiss as they hide from the Police. But not "The Bullet"!
Rutherford: "Did you kiss her?"
Lexi: "Now wait a minute!"
Rutherford: "I want answers!"
Dodge: "Yeah I kissed her. On the mouth. And I liked it. A lot".
Rutherford: "Oh you did, did you?"
Dodge: "Yeah"
Lexi: "Thank you"
Dodge: "You're welcome"

Therein lies the sweet with the bitter! A beautifully shot bar room scene surrounded by a screwball, slapstick comedic ending which perfectly encapsulates this film. Again, not a favourite of mine despite it's football roots but funny in places, awkward in others and a clunky script that just fails to hold your complete attention with characters that although played mostly with tongues firmly rooted in cheeks don't always convince.

The Ides of March (2011)

"I am not a Christian. I'm not an Atheist. I'm not Jewish. I'm not a Muslim. My religion, and what I believe in is called the Constitution of the United States of America"

Governor Mike Morris Although nominally a headline performance, this is another role whereby deliberately Clooney the Director melts into the background and allows his stellar cast to carry a magnificent film. A Democratic Governor running for President of the United States of America, this would seem a headline role but although prominent and indeed very good as Governor Mike Morris it's very much a supporting role. And a supporting role eerily reminiscent of current USA President Barack Obama both in mannerisms, style of speech, gestures and deliberations. The political platform on which Mike Morris runs, of national service, national unity, debt free college education, redistribution of wealth and of a society being bigger than the individual are all clear nods to the current President. As are the "Believe" Posters for Governor Morris. This is George Clooney's most serious film he has Directed to date, his most serious yet still in the background role in a film he directed to date and overall his most stylish and accomplished directorial film to date.

Based on the stage play "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon, Beau also contributed to the screenplay with regular writers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, all of whom were nominated at 2012 Oscars in the Best Adapted Screenplay Award, the film's only Oscar nomination. The film was edited by regular collaborator Stephen Mirrione, with Louise Frogley also returning as Costume Designer and a new Cinematographer involved, with Phedon Papamichael on photography duty. Also worthy of immediate note is Alexandre Desplat's original music score which hums melodically in the background but with a brooding air that befits the film. A film close to a number of hearts as is perfectly indicated by the number of Producers noted including both writers Clooney and Heslov, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The film open's and, as is Clooney's style, loops to a close in a similar vein with "Governor Mike Morris" (George Clooney) on the campaign trail in Ohio and as is immediately stated as a real life truism "As goes Ohio, so goes the Nation". This immediately roots us as the audience as being in the present, in a real life take on real life events, but not based on any past or present real life events. Art imitating life, but not based on real life events! As per the play it's based on it roots itself very much in the present political climate and this is evidenced throughout with interviews with Charlie Rose and constant references to right wing bloggers, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, The Drudge Report, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and many others including more familiar Television coverage and snippets of public speeches and addresses. Running against Governor Morris is "Senator Pullman" (Michael Mantell) and the opening of the film depicts their race in Ohio, of busy interns chasing votes and nominations, saturation television coverage, voters on the streets for their candidates and also a stellar cast list who each produce superb performances.

Philip Seymour Hoffman excels as ever as a driven, dedicated, experienced and obsessive Campaign Manager "Paul Zara" who mentors a younger "Stephen Meyers" (Ryan Gosling) who is every bit as obsessive and driven as his Boss. Gosling is the film's stand out star and another performance to add to his burgeoning cannon of brilliant performances in previous films such as Blue Valentine and Drive. Although Zara's deputy, his obsessive eye for detail and to be forever ahead in the polls and working for the future President is evident and he is very much "the big man on Campus". It's a brooding performance of idealism that perfectly encapsulates the dirty world of politics and worthy of Oscar consideration. Paul Giamatti provides yet another star performance, this time as "Tom Duffy", a similarly driven obsessive but who works as Campaign Manager for the "opposition" Democratic candidate, Senator Pullman. Suffice to say these three male leads play out one of the film's many themes, of political in fighting and self aggrandisement, and of treading on anyone who gets in their way, politically or otherwise, to succeed. To conclude the predominantly male lead roles, there are also excellent supporting roles from Max Minghella as Campaign Support Manager "Ben Harpen" and Jeffrey Wright in the pivotal role as "Senator Thompson". In this predominantly male orientated (and testosterone filled) film, two particular female lead roles stand out with Rachel Evan Wood as a young, driven campaign intern "Molly Stearns" and an excellent performance from Marisa Tomei as New York Times Reporter "Ida Horowicz". Two of the film's numerous political themes are perfectly encapsulated in these two briefly dissected scenes. They are also wrapped in superb brief snapshots of acting performances from the film's marquee stars:

The first of many Clooney stylised trademarked scenes as we dissolve from Stephen studying Governor Morris' performance on a television monitor accompanied by a gentle piano rendition of "We'll Meet Again" to the piano player himself and a gentle cut to Ida Horowicz seeking the "scoop" as always from Paul Zara. Quick cuts around the table show Ida, Paul and Stephen involved in political banter and many smiles abound before Paul Zara dominates the conversation.

"But I'm not gonna tell you it's a sure thing because St Gabriel can blow his fucking horn on election day and get his four horseman to rig the ballot boxes for Pullman and it wouldn't surprise me. Six Presidentials I've done and I've never felt this good".

"He's decorated by Bush Senior from the first Gulf War, he protested the second, he left his State with a balanced budget and the fourth highest education rate. The Republicans have no-one out there that can touch this guy".

As Paul leaves to "take a shit!", Ida slides around the table to face Stephen and from a wide shot of the two this cuts to repeated over the shoulder shots of the two as they playfully banter for information again. There is a sense of sexual chemistry and this is mentioned openly but as a throwaway line before Ida dominates the conversation as Paul did before her. Perhaps trying to intimidate the far younger and less experienced political campaigner, Ida presses and presses for information and quickly, amidst numerous cuts back and forth between the two gets more and more frustrated before finally exclaiming "All this take back the country nonsense" and "you've drunk the Kool Aid!". Stephen tellingly retorts, trying to gain an upper hand in the conversation "Ida, I'm not naive. I've worked on more campaigns than most people have by the time they've reached 40".

"It won't matter. One bit. To the every day fuckers who get up and work and sleep and go back to work again".

"Mike Morris is a politician. He's a nice guy! They're all nice guys. He will let you down. Sooner or later".

This brief scene ends as it began with a zoom close up on the piano player still singing but not before Ida's matter of fact summation above and Stephen's telling vehement shake of the head and look of disdain at Ida for her apathy at the political system.

The second dissected scene also commences with a dissolve, however this time it's with an audio of Stephen and Tom Duffy's already in progress clandestine conversation "You're working for the wrong man". "No, you're working for the wrong man". As with the previous scene, the wide shot as per picture opposite quickly cuts to simple over the shoulder shots of both Stephen and Tom which are quickly cut against each other but Tom, who instigated the meeting, is on camera for the majority of their brief meeting quickly dominating the conversation and flattering Stephen constantly. Stephen, a look of bemusement mixed with incredulity at their having this conversation at all is mostly silent as he absorbs Tom constant flattery, of his exuding charm, love and the ability to "draw people in" before Tom's telling and important line that in the political business he has a gift, an innate ability to "win people's respect by making them mistake their fear for love" before his obvious leading approach to Stephen to jump ship and work for him, and for Governor Morris' Democratic opponent, Senator Pullman. A stunning, albeit brief virtuoso performance from Giamatti which is encapsulated below and followed by another scene to end (tellingly) on a long lingering shot of Stephen's face, a repeated theme of the film:

"Yeah, you know what? This is the sort of shit the Republicans pull. And it's about time we learned from them. They're meaner, they're tougher, they're more disciplined than we are. I've been in this business for 25 years and I've seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn't get down in the mud with the fucking elephants".

A fantastic film, worthy of more Oscar recognition and a firm favourite of mine yet I have major reservations. It feels like a "missed opportunity" for me in terms of shining a real light on American politics, on politics as a whole and of the two party system. That system in reality is just a one party system fighting for overall supremacy and feathering their own nest and giving the illusion of two opposing sides fighting for their electorate. The very fact we as an electorate accept a simple Blue versus Red, Republicans versus Democrats or here in the UK, Conservative versus Labour, political system is laughable. Two choices? Two heavily paid for, lobbied for choices? Really? In the 21st Century? Is that the best we can do? Whilst the film definitely shines a light on this simple two sided battle for supremacy it doesn't go anywhere near deeply enough into the charade masquerading as politics, of the lobbyists, control of resources, issuance of currency but most of all of the farcical nature of politics as a whole of one man (normally a man) controlling the decisions of a nation of 330 Million people? It's a film of course and not a documentary but a film rooted in the prescient times we live and not reflective enough of that. The highlights are the veiled attacks of the touchy/feely aspects so often associated with the Democratic Party in the USA and especially the uglier and unseemly side of politics, the constant in fighting and media collusion that grows by the minute.

The other more minor reservation I have is the lack of depth to some of the great characters on display. All portrayed brilliantly by Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei but Giamatti's Tom Duffy and Hoffman's Zara characters could've been used far more heavily and far more effectively with more development and screen time.

Aside from these gripes it is another superb film helmed by Clooney, full of suspense and intrigue that grips you entirely within it's 101 minute running time. His most stylish and serious film to date yet with many early trademarks of sublime, stylised scenes juxtaposed against the grittier narrative throughout, with constantly slow and smooth running camera angles that immerse you in the story.

The Monuments Men (2014)

"This mission is never designed to succeed"

Frank Stokes Another nominal headline performance from the actor/director and an accomplished one at that. However, as with all of his previous four directorial efforts, George also relies on a star studded cast. Here, Clooney portrays Frank Stokes, a recruiter if you will and ultimate figurehead of the team creates, The Monuments Men, a team tasked with finding, securing and preserving valuable artwork throughout Europe and ensuring they are not destroyed by a retreating German army towards the end of World War II. The marquee star of the film, George heads the movie with an accomplished aplomb as you'd expect and the film's tone is very much in his own image. Stylish, tongue often firmly in cheek and offbeat, yet reflective of the period setting and the serious undertone of it's real world narrative.

The premise of the film is a simple one: After convincing sitting USA President Roosevelt that valuable and historic treasures are in danger and at the mercy of a retreating German army, Frank Stokes is tasked with heading a team of architects, art historians and scholars to recover and secure the artwork for future generations to enjoy. As the end of the War draws near, the proposed "Fuhrer Museum" may remain a distant egotistical dream but in it's place is something far worse, total destruction of any and all artwork in the German's possession. The scene is set immediately as we see valuable artwork being smuggled out of Belgium under the cover of darkness before we are transported to an occupied Paris and the vast accumulation of artwork in the hands of the German army and the formation of our heroes, our band of art historian brothers.

"Based on a true story" (Robert Edsel's "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History") and with a stellar all time cast including Bill Murray, John Goodman and Matt Damon amongst a host of others, this film was eagerly awaited by this particular amateur film reviewer but it left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Episodic, minor continuation errors, clunky and jarring dialogue are all factors, however it left me feeling like the film was a minor Saturday afternoon matinee. The film's heart is very much in the right place and with a Director and cast all clearly on board and passionate with the task at hand, the film has a smile on it's face and some of the comedy hits the right notes at the right time. But the film ultimately fails to strike the right balance between this comedy and the serious subject matter depicted. It never has the feel or gravitas of a serious, in depth historical piece and neither does it blend the right combination of comedic drama. It falls between the two stools and whilst the 118 minute run time never feels overly long, the episodic nature spoilt my enjoyment. Prior to the film's release I was unaware of such a daring operation and it's a courageous tale well told, if a little too cobbled together at times. The re-creations of war torn European cities are remarkable, with Jim Bissell deserving a special mention here, as does Director Clooney for his direction and storytelling depicting the horrors of war. Plot spoilers aside, special mention should be made of the juxtaposition mid-way through the film of the experiences of "Sam Epstein" (an excellent Dimitri Leonidas) and "Richard Campbell" (always excellent Bill Murray) as they deal with their individual circumstances within the horrors of war time. There are excellent moments of drama and comedy throughout, mainly through the actions of the aforementioned Bill Murray in collaboration with the superb Bob Balaban as the put upon "Preston Savitz". Their sharing of a cigarette with a young German soldier is a highlight of the film as is Savitz's refrain to Campbell that he "didn't know you could read!". There are others, as the star cast is often paired up ala Savitz and Campbell, but the drama is often shot through a singular character and this is personified through "Donald Jeffries" (Hugh Bonneville) and his letter home to his Father "It feels odd that in a place of so much death, I've never felt more alive". Here the film's drama peaks and it never quite recaptures that again.

Completing the star studded cast is Matt Damon as "James Granger" an art curator sent to Paris to liaise with, amongst others "Claire Simone", an underused Cate Blanchett. Granger's character typifies the film for me, with his comically poor French very deliberate and often times funny, but his flight over "Paree" is particularly dreadful!. A brief scene the film could have done without. John Goodman is excellent as "Walter Garfield" and is paired with Jean Dujardin as "Jean Claude Clermont" but the stand out performances remain with Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Campbell (Bill Murray). Right from the outset they provide much needed comedic chemistry and the light to the film's serious narrative. One further supporting role worthy of mention is Justus Von Dohnanyi's portrayal of "Viktor Stahl", a ruthless, slimy German officer.

A good film and worthy of being within Clooney's cannon of directorial work, however it fails to balance the drama with the comedy, the light with the shade and the historic with the story telling. Behind the scenes, huge kudos is deserved by the vast production, design and costume teams but Alexandre Desplat deserves special praise for his wonderful musical accompaniment throughout.

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