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: “Sicario”

Starring
Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Victor Garber
Director
Denis Villeneuve

One popular web site called “Sicario” an unrelenting horror story disguised as a drug-war action movie. I wish I had seen that movie, because that sounds really interesting. The “Sicario” I saw was a ‘talented but naïve FBI agent falls under tutelage of high-ranking officer of questionable intent’ story that awkwardly morphs into a revenge thriller. It is beautifully directed, it features top-notch work by its three leads, and it is all set to a dazzling, unnerving score (Johan Johannson, who wrote the gorgeous score for 2014’s “The Theory of Everything”), but the film is all undone by a script that isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) has impressed many people with her work on an FBI kidnapping task force in Arizona, and is asked if she would be interested in volunteering for a Department of Defense investigation that seeks to track down the Mexican drug kingpin who owns many of the homes in which their raids take place. She accepts, and her new boss Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) tells her nothing about what they’re doing: he simply asks her to watch and learn. Matt’s right hand man is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who is valuable to Matt because of his extensive knowledge of the Mexican crime syndicates. Kate quickly realizes that Matt and Alejandro do not play by the same rule book that she does (read: the legal one), and begins to question why they brought her onto this team in the first place. That is when stuff gets real.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography, as usual, is gorgeous, but director Denis Villeneuve was thick with the symbolism. His overhead shots of the Mexican desert were bleached and reeking of death, while his landscape shots (also bleached and reeking of death) had a storm on the horizon nearly every time. In one scene, we even see lightning, but it never rains in the movie. This is a movie about drugs, and the battle to beat the people bringing them into the United States. We already knew that a storm was coming, and that the border is a hostile place. There was no need to constantly remind us of this.

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Movie Review: “Everest”

Starring
Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly
Director
Baltasar Kormákur

It’s really not surprising that “Everest” is from the director of “2 Guns” and “Contraband.” A true-life story about survival may seem outside of Baltasar Kormákur’s wheelhouse, but that’s not the case. “Everest” is just as competently made as the director’s two action thrillers, and yet strangely, it’s also as emotionally distant and perfunctory.

“Everest” should be a harrowing story about survival, ambition and the human spirit, but it’s really none of those things, only ever scratching the surface of the story. The film follows a group of climbers as they set out to reach the top of Mount Everest. The team consists mostly of strangers, including the leaders of the expedition, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), as well as Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hanson (John Hawkes) and more. As Hall points out, humans aren’t built to survive the conditions of Mount Everest, especially once Death Valley is reached, so it’s a dangerous decision in the first place – one made only more dangerous when a brutal and violent storm hits as the team ascends the mountain.

That’s all there is to “Everest”: they go up the mountain, something awful happens, and that’s it. That’s as far as Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson’s script goes. What’s funny is that they’ve both written survivalist stories before: Beaufoy penned “127 Hours,” while Nicholson wrote last year’s “Unbroken.” “Everest,” unfortunately, is more like Angelina Jolie’s film, showing us a series of events without much meaning. There are a handful of emotional moments, but unlike “127 Hours,” there’s very little exploration. In one scene, the members of the group are asked why they’re climbing Mount Everest, and we’re given fairly basic explanations for such a complex and dangerous desire. We rarely see these motivations unfold or depicted on the mountain.

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Movie Review: “Inherent Vice”

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro
Director
Paul Thomas Anderson

After years of toying with my patience (first with “There Will Be Blood,” and more recently with “The Master,” both of which feature such great acting that it papered over their respective cracks), Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice (or hidden defect) of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the film, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the big joke of “Inherent Vice,” it’s not a very funny one.

Set in the seedy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator who receives a visit one night from his free-spirited ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), requesting help with a personal matter. She needs Doc to track down her new boyfriend, hotshot real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), after learning that his duplicitous wife plans to have him committed and steal his fortune, only for Shasta to go missing herself. While investigating the pair’s disappearance, Doc takes on some additional cases – including a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang – that are curiously all connected in some way. Doc doesn’t exactly know why or how, but one thing seems certain: he’s not going to get any assistance from hippie-hating LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with whom he has a strange love-hate relationship.

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Movie Review: “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

Starring
Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Jamie King
Directors
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez bring the long-awaited “Sin City” sequel to audiences after nearly a decade’s absence. Unfortunately, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” proves that no matter how many clouds and thunder you put on a screen, it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. The characters are engaging, the over-the-top violence is there in spades, but the magic that made fans scream for a sequel is somewhere between the pages of the graphic novel and the cutting room floor.

Everyone’s favorite jawline with muscles, Marv (Mickey Rourke), is back in full noir fashion. The film opens with him awakening to no memory of the cool trenchcoat he’s wearing and the not-so-cool injuries that came with it. Before he can put things together, he witnesses a guy being set afire by a bunch of frat boys. He teaches them a lesson that they’ll never forget in this world or the next. Just as in 2005’s “Sin City,” Marv is willing to nearly kill himself to bring people to justice. Although seemingly indestructible, he racks up scars by the dozens. Of course, with the six inches of prosthetics Rourke wears on his face, it starts to grow on you.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt joins the cast as the unstoppable gambler, Johnny. Levitt is continuing to fuel an argument as being one of the most versatile young actors in Hollywood. Expect this performance to only add to that. As the slick-talking Johnny, it’s easy to believe that he can do no wrong. He’s a suited force of nature, emptying slot machines almost without pulling the handle. But Johnny boy has his eyes on the sinister Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), and as bad guys go, Roark takes the cake and smashes you in the face with it. He doesn’t suffer fools or losing lightly and quickly shows Johnny why he’s feared by almost everyone with a pulse. Another guy on the wrong end of Roark is Dwight (Josh Brolin), a private investigator who uses his fists to get to the bottom of a case, especially when it’s involving a damsel in distress. And this particular damsel is the titular dame to die for: Ava Ford (Eva Green).

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