Post Date May 24

Five Best George Clooney Performances

With “Tomorrowland” in theaters this weekend, my friend Ben Lyons posed the question on Twitter: What’s your favorite George Clooney movie? This is, of course, one of my favorite kinds of questions to ponder because it results in so many different answers and creates such a fun debate.

Turns out, I already considered the topic of Clooney’s best work in October 2011. Here’s what I wrote back then — and I’d still make these same choices now. What would you pick?

5 best George Clooney performances

By Christy Lemire

LOS ANGELES — A couple of weeks ago, we looked back on the eclectic career of Brad Pitt, and marveled at the intelligence of his choices as well as his instinct to shun his movie-star persona while still giving the people what they want.

Pitt’s friend and co-star in the “Ocean’s” movies, George Clooney, has shown similar tastes and daring both in front of and behind the camera. And in the process of staying true to his beliefs, he’s carved out one of the most respected careers in town.

This week, he directs the political drama “The Ides of March” and plays a supporting role as a governor seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. So here’s a look at his five best performances. As you can probably guess, I’d vote for him for anything:

_ “Michael Clayton” (2007): Clooney gives a smart, subtly powerful performance in the title role as a “fixer” at a prestigious New York law firm. He’s a man who’s been around a long time and seen it all. He carries the cumulative weight of a lifetime of disappointments in his eyes, his voice, the way his shoulders hunch. And yet, Michael still responds proficiently and professionally to whatever challenge is thrust upon him. All the best of what Clooney can do is on display here: the dazzling charisma as well as the vulnerability. Writer-director Tony Gilroy gives Clooney an opportunity to do some of the best work of his career in a part that’s meaty but rarely flashy.

_ “Syriana” (2005): Clooney famously cast aside his dashing good looks, gaining 30 pounds in 30 days, growing a beard and shaving his hairline to play Bob Barnes, a fictionalized version of former CIA officer Robert Baer. He was unrecognizable, a crucial piece in writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s dense and complicated film about the global oil industry, and the performance earned him the Academy Award for best supporting actor. Clooney was so dedicated, he severely injured his back shooting a torture scene, and was still hurt while directing and co-starring in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” This is a prime example of his willingness to reject the glamour of being a movie star in favor of doing smart, challenging work.

_ “Out of Sight” (1998): Trading snappy banter with a tough-but-feminine Jennifer Lopez, Clooney was sexy as hell as a career bank robber in Steven Soderbergh’s funny and surprising film. The scene in which the two flirt at a hotel bar, with its warm lighting and flattering close-ups, is probably the movie’s best-known and it crackles with romantic tension. But Clooney is called upon to do much more than smolder. “Out of Sight” ranges from buddy comedy to gripping suspense to sultry noir, and Clooney has the versatility to keep up with all those varying genres. He’s probably a bad guy and he’s most certainly unreliable, but he’s also irresistible. Clooney makes that contrast work.

_ “Up in the Air” (2009): Clooney is at the height of his dynamism here as a man who makes a living by firing other people. This would seem like an insurmountable contradiction, but Jason Reitman’s film fleshes out the character, Ryan Bingham, with shadings and subtlety, and Clooney gets excellent support from co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. (All three received Academy Award nominations.) Ryan jets across the country, handing out pink slips without batting an eye and worrying only about increasing his frequent-flier miles. He breezes through life efficiently, and Clooney’s naturally masculine energy gives the character real zing, but he also finds the soulfulness that’s eventually required of the role, as well.

_ “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009): Clooney’s work here also appeared on my list of the five best animated performances. “Up in the Air” earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor that year, but he’s just as memorable behind the microphone lending his smooth voice to the starring role of the crafty Mr. Fox. He brings all that charm in the richness of his delivery, all his signature smarts and presence to director Wes Anderson’s beautifully detailed stop-motion animation. And merely the idea of this handsome man playing a furry, little woodland creature — albeit a clever one with a sly sense of humor — is enough to bring a huge smile to your face.

Post Date May 17

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for innuendo and language.
Running time: 114 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

A perky group of college a cappella singers suffers an embarrassing on-stage mishap, then fights to redeem itself and regain its former glory. Along the way, there’s a little romance, a lot of trash talk, an impromptu sing-off with rival groups, some bawdy moments from a brash supporting player and plenty of clueless commentary courtesy of an announcing duo that also serves as the film’s Greek chorus.

Yes, “Pitch Perfect 2″ is pretty much the exact same movie as “Pitch Perfect.” In theory, this is great if you loved the original film, which became a sleeper hit in 2012. I loved the first “Pitch Perfect” so much, I gave it three and a half stars out of four, but much of what I loved about it was how refreshing it felt. It was cheeky and snarky and it pulled off the tricky feat of making us fall in love with the very thing it was making fun of. Its earnestness and exuberance were infectious in equal measure.

There is no single moment here that matches the ingenuity of Anna Kendrick’s “Cups” audition, no song that brings you to the verge of tears with its sheer beauty like her spontaneous shower duet with Brittany Snow to David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium.” The best scene in the entire movie is a rip-off of the best scene from the first movie: a riff-off with various other singing groups, filled with inspired cameos and organized by a delightfully odd David Cross.

“Pitch Perfect 2″ has plenty of laughs scattered throughout, but it also struggles to regain that balance and that sense of breeziness. It runs out of steam somewhere in the middle and probably could have been a good, solid 20 minutes shorter. Making her feature directing debut, co-star and producer Elizabeth Banks stages the production numbers in brisk and entertaining fashion — it’s just the actual, cohesive story in between that tends to bog things down. (As in the first film, Kay Cannon wrote the script; mercifully, there seem to be fewer made-up words with aca- in front of them.)

One of the main problems with “Pitch Perfect 2″ is that it marginalizes its star, the infinitely talented and adorable Kendrick. Beca’s arc from reluctant performer to driving creative force gave the first film momentum, and her romance with the charismatic Skylar Astin from the all-male a cappella group the Treblemakers provided a nice spark. She had attitude. She had an edge about her, which was a great change of pace for Kendrick compared to the good-girl, Type-A characters she’d mostly played. Here, she’s reduced to a supporting figure, and Astin is an afterthought in just a handful of scenes.

Rebel Wilson is the film’s star this time. Granted, “Pitch Perfect 2″ remains an ensemble — and an ever-expanding one, at that — but Wilson was such a scene stealer last time as a brassy Aussie who nicknamed herself Fat Amy that she’s been given even more room to work her inappropriate comic shtick. As enjoyable as Wilson can be, she’s also rather one-note, and a little of her goes a long way.

Speaking of notes, the songs that the Barden Bellas and their competitors sing are even more polished and overproduced than ever, to the point that there’s an emotional disconnect. But things don’t go so well off the top. As reigning national a cappella champs, the Bellas have the honor of performing for President Obama and the first lady. But a wardrobe malfunction during a complicated maneuver by Fat Amy — which comes to be known as Muffgate, in an unfortunate bit of female body shaming — makes the ladies a laughingstock and costs them their title. (Once again, Banks and John Michael Higgins crop up as a Christopher Guest mockumentary-style broadcasting team to provide perspective through satirically sexist and racist remarks. Some of these are hilarious; others land with a thud.)

But! Through a loophole, the Bellas are still allowed to represent the United States at the world championships in Copenhagen. There, they will face a juggernaut German group called Das Sound Machine, which essentially consists of about 20 people doing that “Sprockets” bit from “Saturday Night Live” as they sing songs like “Insane in Ze Membrane.” Their leader is a gorgeous, blonde Teutonic stereotype (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) who repeatedly gets Beca giddy and tongue-tied.

Insecurity and skittishness, however, are not what this character is about. And so it’s also odd to see Beca scurrying off to a secret internship at a record company because she’s afraid to tell the Bellas and let them down — even though, you know, she and the other ladies are seniors now and should be thinking about their futures. (Then again, Bella co-leader Chloe, played once again by an enthusiastic Snow, has stayed in college for seven years because she’s so afraid of the real world.) The presence of comedian Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s demanding but ultimately enlightening boss significantly improves this subplot, though.

But wait, there’s more. As part of Wilson’s larger role here, she also gets a more significant romance with Adam DeVine as the Treblemakers’ cocky former leader, including a bombastic duet which is pretty amusing. All the other supporting players from the first “Pitch Perfect” are back, including Hana Mae Lee with her absurd and nearly silent asides (a bit that was funnier the first time). And there’s a new recruit in freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a singer-songwriter and legacy whose mother (Katey Sagal in a barely-there part) was a legendary Bella more than 30 years ago.

Clearly, the stage is being set for “Pitch Perfect 3″ — whether the world needs it or not.

Post Date May 16

Mad Max: Fury Road

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.
Running time: 120 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

The title of the movie is “Mad Max: Fury Road” because, in theory, its driving force is the iconic character at the center of George Miller’s groundbreaking, post-apocalyptic franchise. The actor taking over in the role that made Mel Gibson a star some 35 years ago is Tom Hardy, a man who has proven himself to be a formidable force in films like “Bronson,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Warrior.”

The trailer alone — a 2 1/2-minute thrill ride of flying vehicles and fiery skies — screams with visceral images that sear into your brain and suggest that this must be a masculine and muscular cinematic extravaganza typical of the season. So what a lovely surprise it was on this lovely day to find that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a fiercely feminist declaration of independence — purehearted, passionate and full of beautifully realized moments of poignancy.

Yes, it’s as bad-ass as you’ve heard: powerful yet fluid, gritty yet crisp, sublime in the daring originality of its action sequences and flat-out gorgeous to watch. Just when you think that Miller, as director and co-writer, has topped himself with a grand and gripping set piece, he goes even more gloriously over the top with the next. Believe all the hype: This movie will melt your face off. See it on the biggest screen you can possibly find with the best possible sound, because this is a complete sensory experience. There’s one image that was so vividly gnarly, it made me jump out of my seat and grab the shoulder of the friend sitting next to me. (Sorry, Amy.)

And yet it conveys an underlying humanity in exquisite and convincing ways. Perhaps this stands out even more because it exists in such an outlandish wasteland. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a movie in which men initially seem to dominate, but eventually it reveals that it’s truly about strong women fighting for each other, fighting for survival, fighting for the future. Hardy, as Max, becomes a passenger both literally and figuratively. This is truly Charlize Theron’s film.

As the fearless and unflappable Imperator Furiosa, Theron has given us a supreme action heroine for the ages. With her shaved head, greased face, a steampunk-inspired mechanical arm and an endless arsenal within the war rig she drives, she’s an intimidating and resourceful protector. Theron has shirked her gorgeous looks previously (in her Oscar-winning performance in “Monster”) and she’s dared to play truly unlikable characters (in “Young Adult” and “Snow White and the Huntsman”). Here, there’s a beauty to her ferocity, a regalness to her statuesque demeanor and — ultimately — a tenderness and vulnerability which are heartbreaking. It’s no hyperbole to say she’s right up there with Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” franchise and Linda Hamilton in the “Terminator” films.

Although the film is told from Max’s perspective in the script from Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Furiosa is the one who’s truly driving the story in myriad ways. This isn’t really a sequel to the three previous movies — the low-budget “Mad Max” (1979), the hugely influential “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981) and the Tina Turner-tastic “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) — nor is it a remake. You could call it a reboot, but that makes it sound reheated. “Fury Road” fits squarely within the series mythology but it’s wildly vibrant and a true original.

Former police officer Max Rockatansky is running from his past, from both the living and the dead as he says in a low, rumbling voiceover. From the first richly oversaturated images of Max surveying the unforgiving desert landscape that lies before him — Oscar-winner John Seale is responsible for the stunning cinematography — his sense of isolation is palpable.

But this ultimate loner and rebel finds himself an unwitting pawn at the Citadel, a fortress carved out of the side of a mountain where the grotesque tyrant Immortan Joe rules completely through a twisted cult of personality. In a neat bit of casting, the actor playing Joe is Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villainous motorcycle gang leader the Toecutter in the original “Mad Max.” (He’s still creepy as hell all these years later, in case you were wondering.)

When Joe’s most trusted driver, Theron’s Furiosa, veers off course and goes rogue during a routine run to Gas Town, the chase is on, and the imprisoned Max is right in the thick of it. He’s strapped to the grill of a car driven by the jacked-up and thoroughly unstable Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy who foolishly believes his loyalty to the sadistic Joe will land him a spot in Valhalla. Shaved and painted a blinding white like the rest of Joe’s minions, the usually handsome Hoult is a frightening sight to behold. But his appearance also suggests an innocence — an infancy, almost — which makes him an unexpectedly sympathetic figure.

(Lesley Vanderwalt was in charge of the inspired hair and makeup design; meanwhile, Oscar-winner and multiple nominee Jenny Beavan provided the artfully rough-hewn costume design, which couldn’t be farther away from the clothes she made her name on in classic Merchant-Ivory films like “A Room With a View” and “Howards End.”)

Actually, calling what Nux is driving a “car” suggests something you’ve seen before. These are the remnants of society, slapped together and souped up for survival in dystopia: muscle cars on top of tanks, vintage cars on top of oil rigs and things that look like killer porcupines with wheels underneath them. The level of detail is dazzling over and over again, and the tactile thrill of practical effects provides great joy and a real connection — especially during blockbuster season when so much of what we see is the product of glossy CGI.

And that’s basically the entire plot: One big, long chase across the desert. What happens along the way is awesome, frightening, deeply strange and darkly funny, but it’s never less than jaw-dropping and it’s constantly surprising. A sequence that takes place entirely within a wall of swirling dirt and piercing lighting will leave you breathless; a quieter moment amid barren trees and blue moonlight provides an unshakable melancholy. The score from Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) provides just the right tone each time: propulsive here, introspective there.

I don’t want to say too much more because I want you to discover the film’s pleasures and purposes on your own. But I do want to mention these actresses’ names, because they do so much alongside Theron to provide heart amid the muscle: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. When one of them takes a pair of bolt cutters to the horrific chastity belt that’s ensnared her, it’s poetry and rebellion in a single snap — and a perfect encapsulation of the movie as a whole.

Post Date May 9

Hot Pursuit

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, violence, language and some drug material.
Running time: 87 minutes.
One star out of four.

At the end of the mismatched-buddy comedy “Hot Pursuit,” during the closing credits, there’s a series of outtakes. This is frequently the case, especially when the performers have a knack for improv, and it can be amusing or even enlightening to see how a scene in the film might have played out in an alternate fashion.

The outtakes at the end of “Hot Pursuit,” however, are informative in a totally different way. They make it clear that there is even less funny stuff than what we’ve just seen. And that’s astounding.

“Hot Pursuit” isn’t just flat, it’s actively frustrating. It’s simultaneously manic and lazy. It’s vaguely misogynistic but too tame to be truly offensive. And it’s a massive waste of two actresses who are appealing individually and might have had a crackling chemistry together: Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.

Their differences extend from their physical appearances to the auras they exude: Witherspoon is petite and precise, Vergara is curvaceous and outrageous. But they share an interest in playing comic roles that push and play with the limits of feminine extremes: Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in “Election” and Elle Woods in the “Legally Blonde” movies, Vergara as Gloria on TV’s “Modern Family.”

These are smart women who are clever enough to pull off some tricky comedy with a wink and a smile. “Hot Pursuit,” directed tepidly by Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “The Proposal”) from a script by two men (sitcom writers David Feeney and John Quaintance) which is reliant on fake lesbian makeout sessions and menstruation jokes, places these actresses in overly simplistic yet uncomfortable boxes with no way out. Each character is a one-note idea rather than a fully fleshed-out figure, and not a particularly inspired one, at that. Once the film takes a break from its shrill antics and allows Witherspoon and Vergara the opportunity to dial it down and show some range, it offers a glimpse into the kind of substantive, convincing connection they might have forged. Such moments are rare but welcome.

Witherspoon stars as an innocent and uptight police officer known only as Cooper. The daughter of a late, veteran cop (as we see in the film’s opening montage, which shows her growing up in the back seat of his patrol car), Cooper has been stuck in the evidence room ever since an unfortunate Taser incident. (The timing for a running bit about police brutality is unfortunate.) But she’s eager to prove her worth in the field once more. Since she’s apparently the only woman on the force in the entire city of San Antonio, Cooper gets the assignment from her captain (John Carroll Lynch) to escort the wife of a high-ranking drug cartel member to Dallas so she can testify against the kingpin before entering witness protection.

That would be Vergara’s Daniella Riva, a Colombian sexpot who’s a whirlwind of tight clothes and twisted English. Naturally, nothing goes down as planned — a massive shootout with multiple sets of gunmen leaves both Riva’s husband and Cooper’s partner dead, which is played awkwardly for laughs. The two women are then forced to go on the run — in a vintage convertible, no less, although Cooper and Riva are definitely NOT Thelma and Louise — but fleeing inadvertently makes them suspects and the subjects of a statewide search.

A crash leaves Riva’s car in ruins and sends a cloud of hidden cocaine into the air, which makes Cooper even more obnoxiously chatty than she already was. (Witherspoon is essentially doing a version of Holly Hunter in “Raising Arizona” here, only with far less inspired writing.) With Riva’s oversized suitcase full of overpriced heels in tow, the two commandeer various vehicles in hopes of reaching Dallas safely. Mostly, they bicker. That photo at the top of the review isn’t even a moment that occurs in the movie, but it’s a pretty perfect encapsulation of its ethos.

Cooper rattles off penal codes and procedures in a twangy monotone, Riva makes fun of her for being small and weird in two different languages. And that’s pretty much the extent of their dynamic throughout various contrived, madcap scenarios. A would-be romance between Cooper and a parolee (Rob Kazinsky) whose pickup truck they steal feels wedged-in, as does an effort to explain Riva’s motivation through the context of her murdered brother.

These women are clearly game — look no further than a scene in which they dress up in a deer carcass to avoid a police checkpoint — and given that they also function as producers, they’re invested on multiple levels. But their efforts are in the service of material that renders their characters as little more than stereotypes.

These are exciting times for daring, female-centric comedies that appeal to all audiences, from “Bridesmaids” to “The Heat” to this summer’s “Spy” (which all happen to have the benefit of the same enlightened director, Paul Feig). “Hot Pursuit” tries to take a step forward in adapting the mismatched-buddy action-comedy model to a feminine perspective, but it feels like a giant leap backward. It’s actually, actively worse than you think it’s going to be.

Post Date May 3

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie ReviewWalt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.
Running time: 141 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

Much of what made Joss Whedon’s original “Avengers” such a joy in 2012 was his ability to juggle and make it look effortless. As writer and director, he combined spectacular set pieces and small, clever moments deftly, and found a way to give every member of his large, star-studded cast an opportunity to shine. It was a summer blockbuster with a sly sense of humor — the most dazzling high-wire act — and one that would be tough to top.

Whedon follows up that smash hit with the latest installment in the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and this time, the effort is obvious. There is simply too much going on here — too many characters, too many foes, too many subplots, too many twists. More does not necessarily equal better; here, more is just … meh.

It’s often hard to figure out what’s going on and even harder to care, but whatever is happening, it’s brought to you by Audi (when it’s not brought to you by Gillette or Beats by Dre). Here and there, Whedon — the groundbreaking, genre-blending creator of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” — sneaks in glimmers of the snap and wit which have made him a major cultural force. Iron Man makes an aside about Eugene O’Neill, for example, which I’m guessing the vast majority of the giddy international audience won’t get.

When “Avengers: Age of Ultron” takes a moment to catch its breath and allow the talented ensemble of actors to bounce off each other with self-aware smarts and charm, it’s thoroughly winning. There’s a party scene at Tony Stark’s glassy lair in the sky which is just a complete blast to watch. Dressed in their civvies, the Avengers drink and joke with their friends and bust each others’ chops. An amusing bit involving Thor’s hammer has an amazing payoff later on in the film. It’s enough to make you wish the entire movie could be like this: Imagine the Avengers, sitting around bantering rather than blasting bad guys. Whedon did a stripped-down, modern-day version of “Much Ado About Nothing” in his backyard, so why not?

But alas, bad guys come. And there are so many of them.

We’re dropped in at the top in the midst of a massive siege on a fortress in some made-up Eastern European country. The camerawork is smooth and the stunts are tricky and the action is punishing, but it’s all so big and glossy — and so obviously computer-generated — that it establishes an emotional disconnect from the very beginning. Yes, the characters originated in comic books, but this just looks cartoonish.

Having saved the planet from the smarmy, preening Loki and his army of aliens, the Avengers must assemble once again to stop an accidental enemy: an artificial intelligence that Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) himself designed. His name is Ultron, and he’s voiced with bemused menace by James Spader. (In an intriguing switch of their relationship in “Less Than Zero,” Downey is the one in control and Spader is the one causing damage.) The introduction of A.I. and its benefits causes an ethical divide among the Avengers: Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Various supporting players from previous Marvel movies also show up briefly, including Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Hayley Atwell and Idris Elba.

But wait, there’s more! Besides the threat of Ultron, the Avengers also must manage a pair of genetically enhanced twins who have a score to settle with Tony Stark: the speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the psychic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). With the exception of a couple of pivotal moments, they weren’t terribly necessary for the plot. They’re also doing terrible Eastern European accents that suggest they’d rather be hunting moose and squirrel. Ultron also uses a super-strong metal — the same kind that comprises Captain America’s shield — to form a army of mini-Ultrons, so that’s a problem, too.

It all feels frenzied and breathless, but Whedon’s attempts at jamming in humanity end up seeming half-baked in contrast. Hawkeye gets an actual back story (as well as one great speech he delivers to Scarlet Witch in a reminder of the subtle strength of Renner’s acting abilities) but it’s more of an idyllic idea than a real life. Also hard to accept is the will-they-or-won’t-they romance that forms between Hulk and Black Widow. Even with accomplished actors like Ruffalo and Johansson — both of whom are capable of great power and great sensitivity — this new-found relationship comes out of nowhere and makes no sense.

If the high-tech issues “Age of Ultron” tackles interest you, though, there is a movie out there about the merits and threats of artificial intelligence which features tremendous performances and sharp writing and vivid special effects but about one one-hundredth of the cast: It’s called Ex Machina. It’s one of the year’s best, and a shining example of how less truly can be more.