Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

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The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

Henry’s Crime


 

Henry's Crime

Henry looks at life through a constant haze of befuddlement.

(2010) Dark Comedy (Moving Pictures) Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga, Judy Greer, James Caan, Fisher Stevens, Peter Stormare, Danny Hoch, Bill Duke, Chris Cardona, Rosemary Harris, Mark Anthony, Carlos Pizarro, Currie Graham, Audrey Lynn Weston, David Costabile. Directed by Malcolm Venville

There is a saying that goes “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” It has to do with taking risks. Of course, the opposite may well be true – if you’re gonna do the time, you may as well do the crime.

Henry Torne (Reeves) is the kind of man who is blown by the wind. He rarely gets angry and stares at life through the glass of his toll booth on the New York Thruway with an expression of a man who isn’t quite sure how he got to that point. His wife Debbie (Greer) has made it clear that she is kind of disappointed in him but he doesn’t seem disposed to changing things and frankly, neither is she – he’s a decent enough fellow.

One day his friend Eddie Vibes (Stevens) asks for Henry to give him a lift to the softball game he and a friend were playing in – Joe (Hoch) was supposed to drive them but had come down with a stomach ailment so they needed a favor. Henry, ever accommodating, agrees to do this not realizing that there’s no softball game; in fact, Eddie is going to rob a bank and needs Henry as a getaway driver.

Of course such well-made plans are bound to go sideways and both Eddie and his accomplice are fouled up by an off-duty security guard named Frank (Duke) who manages to capture Henry, who is then tried and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Being the kind of guy he is, he doesn’t finger his friend Eddie for the caper, so he goes to jail alone.

There he meets Max Saltzman (Caan), a con artist who acts as a kind of father figure and mentor to Henry. It is he who plants the idea in Henry’s head  that if he was going to pay the penalty with jail time, he might as well commit the crime. The two form a quiet bond.

Eventually Henry serves out his sentence and is released back into the world. In the intervening time, Debbie divorced him and married his friend Eddie Vibes, who has gone legitimate and has become, well, successful. Henry’s stuff has been relegated to a bunch of boxes which he collects and takes to a cheap apartment which is all that he can afford.

His friend Max has also been paroled and has come into the information that the bank that Henry was convicted of robbing was once connected by a tunnel to a theater next door. That tunnel is sealed off today since it led to the vault but it wouldn’t be too hard to knock down the wall and access it again. The two of them come up with the brilliant scheme of getting Henry a job there, and then during his off hours dig their way to riches.

It so happens that the theater is putting on a performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard which is being directed by the temperamental Darek Milladragovic (Stormare) and stars Julie Ivanova (Farmiga), who Henry has become quite taken with. She had been featured in a lot of state lottery commercials and Henry had already had a bit of a crush on her. When the leading man is fired by Milladragovic, he casts Henry, who had been the janitor, in the role and Henry seemingly against all odds catches the bug, so to speak. Being onstage lights him up.

However, Max is counting on him. Can he get the loot and play his onstage part? The show must go on after all, but can it when so much is at stake?

This is a low-key laid back kind of movie with elements of both a crime caper movie and a bit of black comedy thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the film is pretty well-written with some nice dialogue and  a bit of a quirky nature that isn’t so much indie-quirky as it is just a little bit offbeat.

Reeves has never had a reputation for being a really emotional actor. However, he comes pretty close to it here, particularly during the scenes when he’s assaying Chekhov. He also has some of his best chemistry ever with Farmiga; his character’s attraction to her is very well-portrayed and you get the feeling that these two actors genuinely like each other offscreen.

In fact, the acting is pretty uniformly good and most of the main players get at least one scene to shine. My favorite was one where Duke tells Reeves and Caan the reasons why he is doing what he does. It’s a heartbreaking scene delivered by a reliable actor who doesn’t get the opportunities to show what he can do often and takes advantage of it here. Caan also delivers another winning performance; of late he has perfected a certain kind of role that can best be described as a tough guy with a heart of gold. He nails that here.

The movie’s drawbacks lie in its pacing, which is quite slow, and it’s ending which is a little bit preposterous. I don’t mind laid-back but I do have an issue with comatose. A little more liveliness and passion might have done the movie some good. Still, it’s worth seeing just to watch Keanu Reeves perform a little bit differently than he has previously which isn’t always a bad thing for an actor.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Reeves’ better performances. Kind of a nice dark comedy angle. Fine supporting performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks verve. Sometimes too low-key for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The building used as the bank is an actual bank; it was built in 1901 and is currently home to a branch of M&T Bank.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $204,940 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Maiden Heist

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Italian Job (2003)

One for the Money


One for the Money

Katherine Heigl poses for another glamour shot while Ana Reeder has a moment.

(2012) Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, Debbie Reynolds, Daniel Sunjata, John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debra Monk, Nate Mooney, Adam Paul, Ana Reeder, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Leonardo Nam. Directed by Julie Ann Robinson

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When Stephanie Plum (Heigl) loses her job as a lingerie salesperson at Macy’s and goes six long months without a paycheck, she is reaching that desperation level of which I referred.

So when her cousin Vinnie (Fischler) has an opening at his bail bonds business for a bounty hunter. The kicker is that the guy she has to arrest is Joe Morelli (O’Mara) who was the one to – how to put this delicately – deflower Stephanie and then dump her unceremoniously, making him a first class schnook and a reason for Stephanie to jump on board with both feet.

Of course she knows next to nothing about bounty hunting, so she enlists the help of veteran hunter Ranger (Sunjata) who shows her the ropes and seems to be a little sweet on her (although this never goes anywhere in the movie). Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

The trouble is that Joe – a cop – doesn’t particularly want to go to prison and there’s a really good chance he’s innocent. He’s involved with a rather vicious boxer who may have murdered his girlfriend and may be involved with organized crime. The people who are after Joe are serious and lethal, and Stephanie finds herself smack dab in the middle. With the aid of her informants Lula (Shepherd) and Jackie (Bathe) – both prostitutes – a friendly boxing promoter (Leguizamo), her boss’s brassy secretary (Reeder) and her doting grandmother (Reynolds), she has a fighting chance to get out of this in one piece. That is, if Joe doesn’t kill her first.

This is based on the first installment of a series of books by Janet Evanovich that is extremely popular with the mystery-loving set. Heigl is apparently a big fan of the series and is producing the movie as well as starring in it. One suspects that she had a hand in casting herself in the role, which was a bit of a mistake. Heigl excels at breezy romantic comedy roles; her other action pics have been less successful.

In the books, Plum has loads of attitude and plenty of chutzpah, much more than Heigl conveys here. Heigl delivers the wisecracks but without the strength of character that Plum possesses. Heigl portrays her with a bit more vulnerability than I recall from the books. Now I’m not one of those sticklers for movie characters being absolutely identical to their literary counterparts – that’s not always possible or reasonable – but there are core traits that make the character unique and those shouldn’t be messed with.

Evanovich excels at creating unique characters and Ranger and Lula are two of her best. Shepherd makes something of a poor man’s Octavia Spencer but she does the role justice. I’m not real familiar with Sunjata but he is one of the better performers here; I looked forward to all of his scenes in the movie and he seemed to be the most at ease in his role. He didn’t make Ranger a superman, but he did give him that air of confidence that is needed to pull the part off.

Reynolds is one of the reasons to see the movie all by herself. She rarely makes screen appearances and while this doesn’t exactly rate with some of her finest work, it’s always wonderful to see a genuine Hollywood star (in the traditional sense of the word) at work.

The movie has been getting savage reviews and in some ways I can see the point – Robinson, primarily a television director, seems ill-at-ease on the big screen, creating a movie that seems more suitable for an hour-long network show than a big screen franchise. There’s a curious lack of energy here (although not for lack of trying) and while it conveys some of the charm of New Jersey, it adds none of the flavor, like a plate of spaghetti with no sauce.

Still, I found it pleasantly entertaining and while it’s not a movie that’s likely to stick in your memory for very long, it is diverting enough while you’re watching it. If I’m going to pay ten bucks a head for a movie, I at least want to be entertained and this movie delivers in that department. What more do you want?

REASONS TO GO: Way more fun than “Jersey Shore.” Engaging characters.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels more like a TV movie. Lacks energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a certain amount of violence, plenty of language, some sexuality (and partial nudity), a bit of drug use and plenty of Jersey attitude.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 18 volumes currently in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, all of which have a number in the title in some form.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bounty Hunter

GREY’S ANATOMY LOVERS: Heigl, O’Mara, Sunjata and Monk have all appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Heigl and Sunjata being past or present regular cast members. Robinson has directed several episodes of the show as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Big Miracle

 

Awake


Awake

Hayden Christensen gets wheeled in for a charisma transplant.

(MGM/Weinstein) Hayden Christenson, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin, Fisher Stevens, Georgina Chapman, Sam Robards, Arliss Howard, Christopher McDonald. Directed by Joby Harold

Consciousness can be a funny thing. We can sleepwalk through life, unaware of the things going on right in front of our faces. Conversely, sometimes we are never more aware of what is going on around us than when we are asleep.

Clay Beresford (Christenson) has everything to live for. He’s a billionaire, having inherited his father’s business and making his own mark upon it. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Samantha Lockwood (Alba) and he hangs out with his friend and physician Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard).

But all isn’t 100% rosy for Clay as indeed it is not for anyone. Clay has a congenital heart defect that has led to a massive heart attack; as a matter of fact, the only reason he is still slapping shoe leather upon this Earth is the intervention of Dr. Harper, who saved his life on the operating table – a pretty compelling basis for a close friendship, wouldn’t you say?

Clay is on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and while he waits he ponders. His girlfriend is the personal assistant of his mother (Olin), and the relationship between them has been kept carefully hidden from la madre who has Clay firmly under her thumb; in fact, he still lives at home. Clay also has definite daddy issues, having to do with his father’s untimely death but also from Clay’s latent self-doubts that as a man he will never measure up to dear old dad.

Mom, for her part, wants the family physician (Arliss Howard), a brilliant cardiovascular surgeon who is on the short list for the next surgeon general’s opening, to perform the procedure but Clay is adamant and loyal to his friend.

At Dr. Harper’s urging and Samantha’s own nudging, Clay decides to marry her impulsively and soon after the ceremony, a heart becomes available. Straight from the ceremony, Clay and Dr. Harper (his best man) run to the hospital. Clay is prepped and made ready for the surgery which is a risky one, so after a touching “see you later” to his new wife, Clay is wheeled into the surgery where they find out that the anesthesiologist originally assigned to the team isn’t available; there is a spare one (McDonald) around however and so the surgery is set to take place as Clay is put under.

Or is he? Clay realizes soon enough that he is wide-awake and paralyzed; he can see, hear and feel every single thing happening to him. This phenomenon apparently does happen in real life, albeit rarely. As Clay suffers through the life-saving surgery, he becomes aware that his awareness isn’t the only thing that is going wrong with the surgery.

This movie got a very cursory release and was pretty much ignored during the slew of holiday releases in 2008. It also got appalling reviews, and quite frankly the marketing of the movie was utterly mismanaged.

That’s a shame because this is quite a good little film. The surgery sequence begins about halfway through the movie and takes place in real time thereafter. Director Harold deftly handles the suspenseful elements and wisely chooses not to make this a horror movie but a suspense thriller instead; on that level it succeeds solidly.

Christensen has yet to prove himself as a leading man in my eyes but his work here is a slight improvement. Unfortunately, I don’t think that he works as the benevolent corporate moneylender; he’s a little on the young side for a role like this. Of course, then the “young romance” that with Samantha doesn’t work if the character is older. It’s a bit of a catch-22.

Alba is a beautiful enough actress and she has shown that she is a capable actress in certain roles, but from time to time she also performs unevenly and this unfortunately is one of the latter occasions. The character needs to have a lot of depth to it but there’s no connection, no organic flow so she comes off as schizophrenic. That makes it tough to have a whole lot of empathy for her.

Lena Olin has always been an actress that I’ve felt hasn’t received the props she has deserved in a career that is now twenty years-plus. She gives a very nuanced performance here as the mom and in many ways I think she might have been better in the role of the wife.

This is a taut, professionally made movie that comes at you unexpectedly. I found I liked it better 20 minutes after I finished watching it.  While some of the operating room theatrics were a bit unbelievable, the movie still works on many levels and is an unexpected pleasure. If you’re in the mood for a little suspense, you could certainly do much worse than this underappreciated film.

WHY RENT THIS: A squirm-inducing premise that happens in real life more often than you’d think. Howard is a consistently good performer who doesn’t disappoint here and Olin is a much underrated talent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Christenson and Alba aren’t as convincing in their roles as I might have liked. Some of the plot points are a little too unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the surgical scenes may be a bit too graphic for the tastes of the sensitive; there are some minor language, drug and sexuality concerns as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Clay Beresford was originally cast for Jared Leto..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Last House on the Left (2009)