HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016)

February 5, 2016

lady in the van Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner.  Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.

Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).

You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.

Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.

With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.

Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.

The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.

watch the trailer:

 

 


PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

watch the trailer:

 


THE CHOICE (2016)

February 4, 2016

the choice Greetings again from the darkness. When the word formulaic is used to describe a movie or book, it’s typically meant as a disparagement. We must admit, however, that if the formula works, it only makes sense (and dollars) to stick with it. Most Hollywood blockbuster franchises are built around a basic formula – superheroes, romantic-comedies, alien invasions, etc. Author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) has taken his tragic-romance novel formula and turned it into big screen gold. This is the eleventh film developed from his writing, and it’s likely to be another successful entry into the Sparks canon.

Director Ross Katz (Adult Beginners, 2015) is at the helm of the screenplay by Bryan Sipe (upcoming Demolition) and many of the familiar Sparks features are present. First off, the key players are all exceedingly attractive – Ralph Lauren model attractive. Secondly, there is a will they/won’t they romance that will of course happen and then may fall apart, but probably won’t. And third, some type of tragedy will occur that will kick off a stream of tears from a certain segment of the audience.

This one begins with a narrator’s humble-brag promising to tell us the “secret of life”. That narrator is Travis, played with an over-flowing abundance of southern charm by Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012). His main vices are a tendency to use “damn” to the point of overkill in most every conversation, and his natural ability to attract the ladies. Oh, and he has a rescue dog and a lake house and he is a veterinarian. See, in the Sparks universe, everyone is beautiful and successful. Travis has his eye on his new neighbor, who is pretending to be annoyed but mostly admits to playing a game of hard-to-get. This is Gabby (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies 2013), and she is beautiful and a doctor-to-be. Gabby’s current boyfriend is, of course, a handsome doctor. Ryan is played by Tom Welling (a bit heftier than his days as Clark Kent/Superman in “Smallville”).

The beautiful Maggie Grace (Taken) plays Travis’ sister, and Alexandra Daddario (San Andreas) plays Monica … she is not only beautiful, but she is also the nicest, most understanding and supportive “other” woman ever seen on screen. Tom Wilkinson plays Travis’ veterinarian dad, and Sharon Blackwood plays the wise-cracking and match-making assistant Cora. If that’s not enough beauty and success for you, we also get “puppies in a basket”!

Come for the chuckles and tears … just not twists or surprises. Fans of this genre will get exactly what they want. It’s a romantic fantasy set in the somewhat realistic world of doctors, veterinarians, and equestrians. The faces are perfect. The dialogue is snappy without being demanding (even in the God discussion).  Many scenes feature loyal dogs, or a serene lake, or the “moon and stars”. Even the difficult parts of life – raising kids, health issues, etc – are given the ‘yada, yada, yada’ treatment. While Travis claims over and over that Gabby “bothers him”, it’s the kind of bother that creates a cryfest in the theatre … whether things go right or wrong.  It’s also the reason that all eleven Sparks films feature a couple of lovers on the poster. Just remember, if that formula works ….

watch the trailer (or just guess how it ends):

 


POINT BLANK (1967) revisited

January 31, 2016

point blank Greetings again from the darkness. In the not-inconsequential sub-genre of 1960’s tough guy crime thrillers, it’s tough to beat this neo-noir that carries the lineage of a fine wine, but the taste of a stout beer. Familiar faces are everywhere, bullets fly, double-crossing is expected, Angie flaunts, and revenge is the mission.

While not a box office hit on its release in 1967, the film grew into a cult classic and is now appreciated as one of the era’s best. The set-up is certainly not too complicated. During a heist (filmed at Alcatraz), one of the gang members shoots another at “point blank” range and takes off with both the money and the poor guy’s wife. The shot guy survives and seeks his money ($93,000) and revenge on those who wronged him.

Sure it sounds simple and common, but it’s made special thanks to top notch work from the writer, director, cinematographer, composer and cast. The story (adapted by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse) is based on “The Hunter” from acclaimed crime novelist Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark). The book was also the source material for Mel Gibson’s 1999 movie Payback. Oscar nominated director John Boorman (Deliverance 1972, Hope and Glory 1987) works with Oscar nominated cinematographer Philip H Lathrop (Earthquake 1974) to create a stylish and gritty look and feel, while Oscar winning composer Johnny Mandel (The Sandpiper, MASH theme) adds just the right musical touch.

If that’s not enough for you, Lee Marvin commands attention as the revenge-obsessed tough guy who won’t get fooled again. To call Lee Marvin a tough guy seems redundant and unnecessary, as his screen presence oozed dominance. He was coming off an Oscar win for Cat Ballou and one of his best performances in The Dirty Dozen. In other words, he was an actor at the peak of his Hollywood power.

Joining Mr. Marvin on screen is a prestigious group led by Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. With a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ms. Dickinson starred in such films as the original Ocean’s 11 and Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill. Of course, she also starred in one of the biggest TV shows of the 1970’s “Police Woman”. And speaking of 1970’s TV, few were more jarring to the culture than “All in the Family” with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. In this film, Ms. Dickinson plays the sister of Marvin’s double-crossing wife and she gets to flail away in anger at him before the two fall into bed together … a terrific piece of editing. Mr. O’Connor plays Brewster, one of the three heads of “the Organization”, and one of the targets that Marvin chases to retrieve his money.

Playing another of the three heads is Lloyd Bochner, who capitalized on his smooth demeanor and velvety voice during a 7 decade career in TV and movies. Mr. Bochner is the father of Hart Bochner, who (as Ellis) tried to out-smart Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Keenan Wynn appears as a mysterious figure feeding information to Marvin’s character to assist in his quest of taking down the organization. Mr. Wynn is the son of legendary entertainer Ed Wynn who was known for his work in vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, TV and movies (Mary Poppins). Keenan also appeared in many TV shows and movies, with Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb being his most famous. Appearing as Lynn, the two-timing wife, Sharon Acker was on the verge of movie stardom … only that stardom never came. By choosing to focus on TV roles, she had a nice long career, but never reached the superstar status many had predicted. Sandra Warner plays the waitress that Marvin talks to, and Ms. Warner simply walked away from the business after this role … despite a successful career that started when she was 18 years old. Yet another familiar face in the cast belongs to John Vernon, who was making his feature film debut. Here he plays the guy pulling the trigger at point blank range, and many will recognize him as Dean Wormer in Animal House. James Sikking plays the sharpshooter employed by the organization, and fans of “Hill Street Blues” will remember him as the slightly annoying Howard.

There are a few other notes of interest regarding actors in the movie … though you’ll have to look quickly. Sid Haig plays a henchman at the hotel. Mr. Haig has had a prolific career as a heavy, bad guy, villain, horror film staple, and even Tarantino favorite. Barbara Feldon, the beloved Agent 99 in “Get Smart” makes an appearance on a Ponds face cream commercial as Marvin watches TV, and Lauren Bacall is seen/heard quickly on a TV set as well. Also, Felix Silla has one scene as a hotel guard. The diminutive Mr. Silla also starred as Cousin Itt in “The Addams Family”. As a final note and shout out to “the Chevies”, it must be noted that Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn would also appear together in the deliciously twisted 1971 film Pretty Maids all in a Row from that lover of the female form, director Roger Vadim.

It’s pretty easy to see how all of these factors came together to create this cult favorite. From a filmmaking perspective, the use of flashbacks, editing and sound effects (footsteps) all add to the experience, as does Brewster’s stunning home – which in real life, now belongs to Drew Barrymore. If you are a fan of 1960’s film, it’s one you probably already have seen a few times, but if not, it’s one to watch if for no other reason that Lee Marvin firing shots into an empty bed … I’m still not sure how that was supposed to help him obtain his $93,000, but he really wants his money!

watch the trailer (it’s a hoot!):

 


MUSTANG (France, 2015)

January 31, 2016

mustang Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Deniz Gamze Erguven admits to being inspired by Sophia Coppola’s 1999 The Virgin Suicides (though this is not a remake), and by offering us a rare glimpse into the lives of five sisters in a rural community in Turkey, it’s clear why the film has been so well received at film festivals – culminating in an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. It’s a bit confusing that the film is credited to France (Ms. Erguven’s current place of residence) as it takes place in Turkey and is performed in Turkish. But of course, country of origin is a minor ripple in this year’s uproar over diversity at the Oscars.

Not being any type of expert in Turkey culture or customs, I must accept that the insights provided by Ms. Erguven and her co-writer Alice Winocour are somewhat accurate, which makes the balance between the tradition of female oppression and the amazing spirit of the girls so relatable for many. What begins as a seemingly harmless game of chicken the girls play with some classmates (boys) on the way home after the semester’s last day of classes, turns into a series of events that most will find absolutely unacceptable. The shame brought to the family and the threat of the girls being “spoiled” highlights the extreme reactions from their grandmother (Nihal G Koldas) and Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan).

Lale (Gunes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and in the end proves to be the toughest and most independent. And that’s really saying something. We take in much of what happens through Lale’s expressive eyes, and we as viewers long for reasonableness to enter their lives. After being what can only be described as imprisoned in their own home, the spirit of the girls collectively and individually becomes clear. They find ways, small and large, to rebel … but it’s soon enough clear that the mission is to marry the girls off before it’s too late (there’s that “spoiled” thing again).

As Lale witnesses what her older sisters are subjected to, and how happiness or their own wishes play no role, she becomes more determined to avoid such destiny. With skewed perspective, one might make the argument that Grandmother and Uncle are doing what they think is in the long term best interests of the girls, but the Uncle’s despicable actions void any such thought. Instead we are left to marvel at the strength and spirit of the girls in world that holds them in such low regard as individuals.

Lale’s sisters are Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Ece (Elit Iscan). The girls are so natural together that we never doubt their sisterly bond. They argue like sisters, defend each other as sisters, and play together like sisters … were it not for their isolated existence, their bond would be a joy to behold. The cinematography throughout the film adds to the discomfort and dread we feel, and the acting is naturalistic and believable.  In the end, it’s the unbridled freedom of the titular creature that Lale defiantly embraces … whatever the consequences may be.

watch the trailer:

 


THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

watch the trailer:

 


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