The Men Who Stare at Goats reviews

Mister Tee
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Postby Mister Tee » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:34 pm

Hollywood Reporter adds a dash of cold water. Didn't they used to be the easy lay of the trade reviews? Have they revamped their staff this year?

The Men Who Stare at Goats -- Film Review
By Deborah Young, September 08, 2009 12:49 ET

VENICE -- "Good Night, and Good Luck" director George Clooney and screenwriter Grant Heslov team up again in Heslov's feature directing bow, a wild spoof on the U.S. Army research's into psychic phenomena and attempt to use same in its wars from Vietnam to Iraq.

An anti-Army comedy toplining Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey should have been funnier than this, but even if "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is not worth comparing to "Dr. Strangelove," it should satisfy audiences with its great cast and patent absurdities, coated in quaint nostalgia for the happy hippie days of yore.

Bob Wilton (MacGregor) is a young, not very bright reporter from Ann Arbor who signs on to cover the Iraq War. In Kuwait City he meets the enigmatic Lyn Cassady (an attractively aged Clooney), who surprisingly confides that he was once part of a select Army team of warrior monks called the Jedi, psychic spies trained to use paranormal powers against the country's enemies.

Flash back to Vietnam in 1972, where we meet Bill Django (Bridges), founder of the New Earth Army, a special Army unit trained to dance, express their feelings, and let it all hang out. Their experiments yield dubious results, apart from revealing the young Cassady's extraordinary gifts for "remote viewing," aka ESP. His psychic abilities rouse the envy of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), an ambitious newcomer to the group who eventually takes it over, after he gets Django kicked out in disgrace.

Back to 2003: Reporter Bob and psychic Cassady set off together across the Kuwait border into Iraq, where they are immediately kidnapped and sold to another group. After various adventures they end up in a secret training camp in the middle of the desert, where Hooper is running a lab of even more loopy experiments, aided by his former boss Django, now a spaced-out alcoholic. A delirious finale closes the film on an upbeat note.

Peter Straughan's screenplay is based on a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson about the government and the paranormal. With material like this, one would have liked a more incisive comedy to materialize around the decline and fall of the New Age movement. "None of it was real," says one character, citing the cliche; "the dark side took the dream and twisted it." Cassady blames it all on a "curse" he inadvertently acquired during an experiment in which he stared at a goat until its heart stopped beating. The scene in which he does this, like numerous other gags in the film, is quick, funny and gets a good laugh, without going beyond.

The unflappable Clooney and Bridges, wearing waist-length hair and hippie garb, show a cool aplomb that gives some kind of limited dignity to their ridiculous characters and antiquated beliefs; as he watches them rise into the sky in a helicopter, high on LSD, the straight man and narrator MacGregor respectfully calls them "shaman." Spacey, who appears in a handful of scenes, has but to bat his eyes balefully to convince as a walk-on villain.

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Postby Mister Tee » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:30 pm

Screen Daily, in a similar vein.

The Men Who Stare At Goats
8 September, 2009 | By Mike Goodridge

Dir: Grant Heslov. 2009. US. 90 mins.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is a light-hearted and highly entertaining antidote to pompous large scale movies about Iraq or Aghanistan and ironically may be the biggest hit of them all. Grant Heslov’s nimble directorial debut, inspired by UK journalist Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book, explores a secret division of the US military trained in psychic powers. Featuring a quartet of amusing, self-referential performances from Messrs Clooney, Bridges, McGregor and Spacey, it is little more than a trifle but a pleasing trifle nevertheless.

Clooney shows a natural comic timing, and Spacey is a cheerful villain
This independently financed affair opens wide domestically on Nov 6 through Overture and, with at least three weeks before the avalanche of December Oscar contenders arrives in theatres, it has a strong shot at solid box office success, especially after strong word of mouth from Venice and Toronto screenings. International prospects are also bright, especially if independents can get it out before Clooney’s other 2009 release Up In The Air.

McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton, who first hears of the unit from an interview subject in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he works. The man, a self-proclaimed psychic, claims that he was a part of a secret programme headed by the mysterious Bill Django and including one Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who now runs a dance school. The men, he says, were trained to use their minds to read the enemy’s thoughts, pass through walls and kill goats just by staring at them.

When Wilton’s girlfriend leaves him for his editor, he flees the US for Iraq in order to cover the war and try to win her back by proving that he is a serious journalist. But while waiting in Kuwait for his permit to enter Iraq, he comes across Cassady himself on a hotel patio. After some cajoling, Cassady reveals more details of the unit’s history and agrees to take Wilton with him on a business trip.

The unit, we are told in flashbacks, was formed in the eighties by Vietnam vet and new age hippie Django (Bridges) who felt that a new approach to war through peaceful means was possible. The New Earth Army, as it was called, allowed its men to take drugs and wear their hair long as they practiced their techniques. It is finally disbanded when one of the men kills himself having unwittingly taken acid administered by another member, Larry Hooper (Spacey).

Back in Kuwait, after being stranded in the desert on several occasions, Cassady reveals to Wilton that he is not on a business trip after all but has been reactivated by the New Earth Army on a secret mission to find Django, who is trapped in a clandestine militia camp run by Hooper.

Heslov shows lightness of touch throughout and, at 90 minutes, the film moves briskly; Straughan’s script is smart and exuberant and could well bag adapted screenplay nominations, while the actors are clearly having a ball. Bridges revisits his Dude character from The BigLebowski with enthusiasm, Clooney shows a natural comic timing, and Spacey is a cheerful villain. There are also many laughs to be had from McGregor referring to the unit’s other nickname The Jedi, bearing in mind his own legacy as Obi Wan Kenobi.

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Postby Mister Tee » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:53 pm

Somehow, this has turned into the year of the black comedy.

The Men Who Stare at Goats
By DEREK ELLEY


An Overture Films release presented in association with Winchester Capital Management and BBC Films of a Smoke House Pictures/Paul Lister production. (International sales: Mandate Pictures, Santa Monica.) Produced by Paul Lister, George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Executive producers, Barbara Hall, Jim Holt, David Thompson. Directed by Grant Heslov. Screenplay, Peter Straughan, inspired by Jon Ronson's 2004 book.

Lyn Cassady - George Clooney
Bill Django - Jeff Bridges
Bob Wilton - Ewan McGregor
Larry Hooper - Kevin Spacey
Todd Nixon - Robert Patrick
Gen. Hopgood - Stephen Lang
Gus Lacey - Stephen Root
Maj. Jim Holtz - Glenn Morshower
Mohammad Daash - Waleed Zuaiter
Debora - Rebecca Mader

A serendipitous marriage of talent in which all hearts seem to beat as one, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" takes Jon Ronson's book about "the apparent madness at the heart of U.S. military intelligence" and fashions a superbly written loony-tunes satire, played by a tony cast at the top of its game. Recalling many similar pics, from "Dr. Strangelove" to "Three Kings," and the screwy so-insane-it-could-be-true illogic of "Catch-22," this is upscale liberal movie-making with a populist touch, in Coen brothers style. Enthusiastic welcome at Venice, likely to be echoed at Toronto, should translate into friendly biz Stateside in November.

Coming in at a tight, well-paced 93 minutes, Grant Heslov's second feature -- after his little-seen anti-corporate golf comedy, "Par 6" (2002) -- clearly benefits from his close working relationship with star George Clooney, following their writing collaboration on "Good Night, and Good Luck." It also benefits from the dense but pacey screenplay by Brit playwright Peter Straughan, whose only prior credit was the equally little-seen 2007 comedy "Mrs. Ratcliffe's Revolution."

"Goats" is officially "inspired" by Ronson's book, which accompanied a three-part docu series, shown on Blighty's Channel 4 in late 2004, called "Crazy Rulers of the World," tracing some of the U.S. military's more outre ideas for policing the world, terrorism in particular. Straughan's screenplay takes many of the stories from the book -- apparently true, per Ronson, who's made a career from recounting "true tales of everyday craziness" -- and, as a way into the material, invents the character of a small-time, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based journalist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who's desperate to get into Iraq at the time of the Bush invasion.

After a comically cautionary intertitle ("More of this is true than you would believe") and an opening gag (repeated, with a variation, at the end) that immediately sets the tone, the first reel is thick with info and time shifts from the present (starting in fall 2002) back to the early '80s, which are a tad difficult to digest on first viewing.

In a nutshell, Wilton, assigned to interview Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), an apparent wacko who claims he has special psychic powers, stumbles across an even crazier story: Back in the '80s, the government had a top-secret unit of "psychic spies" who were trained to kill animals by staring at them. The most gifted of the group, says Lacey, was a certain Lyn Cassady.

Wilton heads for the Middle East in spring 2003, looking for a good war story. Stuck in Kuwait City, he bumps into "Skip" (Clooney), who initially claims to be an Arkansas trashcan salesman but is actually Cassady, who's been reactivated and is on a super-secret black-op mission to Iraq.

As the two bond, and Wilton persuades Cassady to take him along, it's clear Cassady's elevator stops well short of the top floor. Claiming to be a "remote viewer," "Jedi warrior" and several other things in between, Cassady fills Wilton in on the formation 20 years earlier of the New Earth Army, brainchild of a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age hippie, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, with goatee and pigtail).

In one sequence straight out of the Joseph Heller playbook, the U.S. military decided to adopt Django's New Earth manual, written with liberal doses of LSD, as a new template for ways of policing the globe. "We must be the first superpower to have super powers," exhorts Django, setting up a squad of psychics he dubs "warrior monks."

As the pic flip-flops between flashbacks illustrating Cassady's narrative and the present time, the pair get lost in the desert, kidnapped and traded by terrorists, and then lost again in the desert. Meanwhile, the backstory progresses to a point where one new member, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), tried to sabotage the NEA, prepping the movie for its acidly funny climax.

Incredibly dense screenplay traverses not only 20 years of U.S. military abitions, starting in the Reagan era, but also provides its own riffs on such public scandals as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. What saves it from getting dramatically tripped up by its own populist grandstanding are the leading perfs, which motor the movie far more than the messages.

As the completely nuts Cassady, Clooney anchors the movie in a beautifully calibrated demo of comic timing and sheer physical presence. More than just his nebbish straight man, McGregor has some of the best lines, slicing through Clooney's utter self-conviction with a handful of well-chosen words. Bridges, channeling "The Big Lebowski," fits Django like a glove, and Spacey's appearance midway adds some welcome tartness to all the New Age weirdness.

Robert Elswit's beautifully composed widescreen lensing of New Mexico's deserts (standing in for Iraq) and Puerto Rico (repping Vietnam and other locations) is aces, without dominating the characters. Other tech credits, including Tatiana S. Riegel's smoothly succinct editing, are top drawer.

End crawl stresses that though some characters are based on real people (the New Earth Army was reportedly the idea of a certain Col. Jim Channon), the movie is a work of fiction. Yeah, right.


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