Movie Review: “Hail, Caesar!”

Starring
Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes
Directors
Joel & Ethan Coen

For the first 20 minutes or so of “Hail, Caesar!,” it feels as though Joel and Ethan Coen are making another “Burn After Reading,” only this time their target is not political thrillers in particular, but ‘50s Hollywood in general. George Clooney’s character’s sword & sandals epic (and the movie’s namesake) is pompous beyond words, and Scarlett Johansson’s pool movie is disturbingly good at pointing out the continuity errors of those films (she’s bone-dry in every shot). Ultimately, though, “Hail, Caesar!” is not about the films at all, and once that becomes clear, the films within the film become a distraction. Amusing distractions, yes, but they’re sometimes hard to watch without thinking of things the movie could be doing instead that would make for a better overall viewing experience.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a “fixer” for the movie studio Capitol Pictures, where his day-to-day activities include making excuses for the whereabouts of his lothario superstar Baird Whitlock (Clooney), covering up a potential scandal involving his leading lady DeeAnna Morgan (Johansson), playing nice with the press (Tilda Swinton, playing twin reporters at rival publications), and executing the orders of the studio chief (whose last name, no joke, is Skank), no matter how boneheaded they may sound. Eddie soon discovers that Baird isn’t off on a bender, but has in fact been kidnapped, and is being held for $100,000 ransom. This all happens on the same day that Eddie is supposed to make a decision whether to leave Capitol for Lockheed Martin, a job with better hours and much better pay. He has a very short period of time to find a rat in an industry filled with rats.

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Movie Review: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Starring
Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Lena Headey, Sally Phillips
Director
Burr Steers

How do you make “Pride and Prejudice” exciting? Simple: add zombies. That was the secret ingredient in Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling mashup novel, which transformed the Jane Austen literary classic into a blood-stained farce. But while Hollywood was quick to snap up the film rights to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the project has had a long journey to the big screen, and not without reason. Though the genre hybrid is built around a silly but clever premise, it’s also incredibly niche, which begs the question: who exactly is this movie intended for? Teenage boys will be bored by the Regency-era romance, horror fans will bemoan the lack of gore, and although the feminist subtext is more pronounced, it’s not that different from the original story. In fact, despite the addition of “zombies” to the title, the film works better as an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” than the action comedy it strives to be.

Set in 19th century England, the movie follows the major beats of Austen’s novel, only this time around, a mysterious plague has swept across the country and turned many of its citizens into flesh-eating zombies, leading others to train in martial arts to protect themselves. The Bennet sisters – Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, Lydia and Mary – are some of the fiercest warriors in Hertfordshire, but their mother (Emily Phillips) insists that they find a husband and settle down. So when wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) arrives in town with his curmudgeonly friend, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), Mrs. Bennet is overjoyed to discover that he’s taken a liking to her eldest daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote). The headstrong Elizabeth (Lily James), meanwhile, refuses to be forced into marriage, but she meets her match in the equally stubborn Mr. Darcy, and together, they must put aside their differences to stop the zombie threat… and perhaps fall in love along the way.

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Blu Tuesday: Show Me a Hero and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Show Me a Hero”

WHAT: As the newly elected mayor of Yonkers, New York, rising politician Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is thrown in at the deep end when he’s forced to deal with a controversial, court-ordered plan to build public housing within the mostly white, middle-class side of town.

WHY: After spending five years exploring the socioeconomic landscape of Baltimore with the HBO series “The Wire,” it’s fitting that David Simon would want to tackle this true story about racial and political tensions in Yonkers during the late 80s and early 90s. The six-part miniseries boasts a fantastic lead performance from Oscar Isaacs and great supporting turns by Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder and Alfred Molina, but unfortunately, it just isn’t as compelling as Simon’s previous work. For starters, there are no real heroes in this story, despite what the title (a play on the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote) might suggest. Though Wasicsko may have been responsible for pushing through the housing legislation, he only did so out of compliance and fear of bankrupting the city, not because he felt like it was the right thing to do. Additionally, while the attempts to show both sides of the conflict are commendable, the minority characters aren’t afforded the same depth as their political counterparts. “Show Me a Hero” is either too long or not long enough, because in trying to juggle so many different storylines, it lacks the focus that would have made it truly excellent.

EXTRAS: The two-disc set includes a making-of featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Our Brand Is Crisis”

WHAT: Disgraced campaign strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is hired by an elite management team representing Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) as a last-ditch attempt to save his campaign. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, Jane agrees to take the job after discovering that the competition has hired its own American strategist, longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who she’s never defeated.

WHY: For a movie about selling lies through a carefully crafted message, “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels hopelessly thrown together. There’s a complacency to the storytelling that prevents the film from ever moving outside its comfort zone, even though that’s exactly what it should be doing, while the talented ensemble cast is squandered in marginal roles. Even Sandra Bullock’s character is pretty one-dimensional, although at least she has the benefit of sharing the screen with Billy Bob Thornton’s reptilian sleazeball, who is hands-down the highlight of the movie. Thornton excels at playing the self-righteous asshole, and the ensuing tête-à-têtes between him and Bullock result in some entertaining moments of political puppetry. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to mask the film’s many flaws. “Our Brand Is Crisis” could have been a biting satire about U.S. politics and our insistence on forcing American culture on other countries, but it takes the easy Hollywood route instead – one more concerned about its protagonist’s contrived journey to redemption than the millions of people being affected by her actions.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on Sandra Bullock’s development of the lead character, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to February

february

2016 got off to a pretty dire start last month, but thankfully, Hollywood has put together one hell of an apology with what is quickly shaping up to be the most promising February in a very long time – if ever. Though there are still a few duds littered throughout the month (here’s looking at you, “Gods of Egypt”), there are also some really exciting new releases, including the long-awaited Deadpool movie and the latest from directors Joel and Ethan Coen and John Hillcoat.

“Hail, Caesar!”

Who: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson
What: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.
When: February 5th
Why: It’s been awhile since the Coen brothers made a straight-up comedy, instead focusing on more dramatic fare like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “True Grit,” but the writing/directing duo appears to be back to their screwball best with this period piece set during the latter years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Though the Coens’ goofier films have always been hit-and-miss (for every “Raising Arizona,” there’s an “Intolerable Cruelty”), the footage released thus far has been pretty encouraging, particularly an extended clip with Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich squabbling over a line of dialogue that perfectly encapsulates the farcical tone of the movie.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Who: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Lena Headey and Charles Dance
What: Jane Austen’s classic tale of tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge: an army of undead.
When: February 5th
Why: How do you make “Pride and Prejudice” exciting? Add zombies. That was the secret sauce in Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling mashup novel, which transformed the literary classic into a blood-stained horror comedy. But that was seven years ago, so it’ll be interesting to see whether anyone still cares now that it’s finally being adapted for the big screen. After all, the last Grahame-Smith novel to receive the Hollywood treatment, 2012’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” was a massive flop, and although “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has a cleverer concept, it’s just as one-note, which doesn’t bode well for its audience, whoever that’s supposed to be.

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Movie Review: “The Finest Hours”

Starring
Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Eric Bana, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger
Director
Craig Gillespie

It’s easy to see why studios are drawn to stories like the one behind “The Finest Hours,” where four Cape Cod Coast Guardsmen braved impossible weather to rescue the 33 men trapped on a severed oil tanker. By all rights, every one of them should have died a cold, miserable death that night in early 1952, but they didn’t, and it is still considered one of the greatest rescues in Coast Guard history, which is why someone thought, “We should make a film about this.” That in itself is not a bad idea. The bad idea is when the film they make about this incredible story looks like every other film ever made about a similar story. This is a pity; the water sequences are breathtaking, but it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters, not for a lack of effort on Casey Affleck’s part.

Coast Guard Boatswain Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) is about to meet, for the first time, the girl he has spent the last four weeks talking on the phone. He’s nervous about how she’ll feel about him, even though a) she’s taken his calls for four weeks, and b) he looks like Chris Pine. The girl, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), likes him just fine, and a few months later, unsung feminist pioneer Miriam asks Bernie if he’ll marry her. Almost immediately after he says yes (in the most awkward, bumbling manner possible), Miriam gets a taste of life as the wife of a Guardsman.

A nasty Nor’easter splits two oil tankers in half off the Massachusetts coast. Bernie, who works in nearby Chatham Station on Cape Cod, is instructed to look for the SS Pendleton, even though there has been no contact from the Pendleton, the Chatham office only has an educated guess where the Pendleton is due to a malfunctioning radar, and there’s a good chance that Bernie’s crew will get stranded on a sand bar before reaching the deep blue sea. The de facto captain of the Pendleton is Ray Sybert (Affleck), an unpopular engine room lifer who knows the ship better than anyone on board, and must convince the crew that he can lead them, or at least keep them alive the longest.

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