Hail, Caesar!

In 1951, movies are huge. Their stars are big. Their colors are bright, if not garish. Television has not yet become a national obsession. In Los Angeles, Capitol Studios fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) loves his job even if his days and nights are spent putting out fires.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers sprinkle their new film with fully realized scenes like those that electrified the movies Hollywood made in the postwar, pre-TV era. It’s a trick comparable to the addition of compelling music performances to brighten up a melancholy story in their most recent film, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Music also spiced up their 2000 release Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? It worked then and it works now.

Among the films in production at Capital in the day-and-a-half that Hail, Caesar! takes place is a film called “Hail, Caesar” starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped after a spiked drink he chugs in a scene knocks him unconscious. A missing star is just one of Mannix’s problems.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen) stars in a swimming pool scene that recalls Esther Williams movies. Mannix works to make sure news of Moran’s out-of-wedlock child is kept quiet.

Director Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) pouts when Mannix forces him to cast handsome young cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated society film.

When Mannix seeks approval from a panel of clergymen for the script for “Hail, Caesar” and its depiction of Christ, they protest.

Twin sister gossip columnists (and bitter rivals) Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threaten to write stories damaging to Mannix’s stars.

When Mannix drops in on an editor (Frances McDormand) and asks her to show him some footage, she nearly chokes when her scarf gets caught in the film.

A cushy job offer Mannix receives from Lockheed presents a chance to move into a more stable industry and spend more time with his family. Will he take it?

Among the film’s best scenes is a dance number featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), channeling Gene Kelly. Gurney sings and he and three other guys dance on tabletops. They lament that where they’re going there will be no dames. Near the end of the scene, the performance takes an unexpected turn.

Another features Mannix setting Whitlock straight with a bit of physical discipline.

Hail, Caesar! is a movie I enjoy greatly. The Coen brothers present a whacked-out story with damaged characters and several juicy 50s-era “movie within a movie” scenes. Brolin is excellent. Clooney gets to indulge in some ridiculous overacting. And Swinton continues to be one of the most versatile actors around.

As can be said about almost any Coens film, Hail, Caesar! may not be everybody’s cup of tea. You may walk out muttering WTFs. But you may also be delighted. It’s worth a shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Girl Most Likely

Kristen Wiig is terrific. She is funny. She’s a pretty woman who’s not vain. This is obvious from her work on SNL and in films. In Girl Most Likely, she brings her charm and goofiness to a quirky, disjointed movie. Does it work? Well, sort of.

Girl Most Likely stars Wiig as Imogene Duncan. She has talent as a playwright, gets a fellowship, but her dysfunctional upbringing sabotages her big opportunity in New York. When a boyfriend dumps her, she fakes a suicide to get his attention. Because she writes such a convincing suicide note, she is detained in a psych ward before being released to the custody of her mother.

Mom, Zelda (Annette Bening), is a mess: an OCD gambling addict who has hooked up at her Ocean City, New Jersey, home with the mysterious George (Matt Dillon). Also in the home are Imogene’s dorky brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) and a boarder, Lee (Darrin Criss).

The homecoming has mixed results. Imogene takes mom’s car and heads back to NYC but doesn’t get very far before wrecking it. Her initial disdain for the boarder Lee melts away when she sees him perform in his Backstreet Boys impersonation group and he takes her out with friends for drinks and dancing.

Lee takes Imogene and Ralph into NYC on a special mission (not to be revealed here), which yields big disappointment. The return to the shore leads to the film’s climactic scene and a resolution of sorts.

Girl Most Likely is a movie that I’d guess certain individuals might warmly embrace, because of its cast of weird, zany characters and an offbeat, unlikely plot. Some may appreciate the fact that Imogene’s quest has parallels to the Wizard of Oz story. In fact, it begins with a childhood version of Imogene reciting the words “There’s no place like home.”

A big problem with Girl Most Likely is that some of its humor is not quite as funny as it should be. When you shoot for guffaws but only elicit snickers, you’ve missed your mark. But despite this shortcoming, it’s great to have Wiig, who knocked it out of the park in 2011’s Bridesmaids (and was tremendous in the less-seen 2011 film Paul), back on the big screen.

(Yes, I know, she’s been back for a couple of weeks in Despicable Me 2, but voice acting is different.)

 

 

 

This Is 40

Some really funny lines and situations, some great supporting acting performances and two attractive leads should make for a great movie. Instead, This Is 40 is more of a movie stew.

This Is 40 is like a big, bloated sitcom. An R-rated sitcom with F-bombs liberally sprinkled throughout. There’s enough going on here to provide story frameworks for at least a half-dozen sitcom episodes.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are Pete and Debbie. Both are about to turn 40. Their lives are filled with messy situations. Their sex life is losing sizzle. Pete’s record label is hemorrhaging cash. Debbie’s boutique has an employee stealing money. Their kids are borderline obnoxious. Their fathers load them with more baggage.

Pete and Debbie each have little secrets that they don’t share with one another, like Pete’s obsession with cupcakes and Debbie’s sneaking off to smoke. They also do not fully disclose their respective financial issues.

And Debbie lies about her age. So the climactic 40th birthday party is just Pete’s party (not a joint affair, like they’ve had in past years).

The strongest performances in This Is 40 come from Albert Brooks as Pete’s dad, John Lithgow as Debbie’s dad and Melissa McCarthy as a parent the couple has an issue with. As she did in Bridesmaids, McCarthy steals the show.

Director/writer Judd Apatow delivers a movie that runs 2 hours and fourteen minutes, a bit too long. Judicious use of the editing blade could’ve easily trimmed this into a tighter, more focused movie.

This Is 40 will make you laugh. It may portray situations like some in your own relationship. With the right personnel, This Is 40 could easily transition into a successful TV series. It has a lot of the right stuff, but just a little too much stuff to be as good as it could’ve been.

 

 

The Campaign

If you’ve waited for the sequel to “Talladega Nights,” this is it. Ricky Bobby has changed his name to Cam Brady and been elected to the US Congress. His fuzzy, dim-witted counterpart has morphed from John C. Reilly to Zach Galifianakis.

“The Campaign” is not just hilariously funny, it’s also a clever satire of the US political system and the way we elect candidates. You’ve seen tons of negative ads recently here in St. Louis. Maybe you’ve wondered just how low a candidate would go to slam his opponent? You’ll howl when you see how low in “The Campaign.”

Will Ferrell as Cam Brady is a standard issue congressman who keeps getting re-elected and figures to be run unopposed again this year. But two wealthy brothers who are moguls with political clout (played by Dan Akroyd and John Lithgow) draft a yokel named Marty Huggins to oppose him.

Galifianakis as Huggins is a likeable dweeb, who benefits from a Cam Brady campaign miscue and moves up in the polls. With help from a seasoned campaign manager played by Dylan McDermott, he actually becomes the favorite to win. Then the campaigning goes really negative.

As in “Talladega Nights,” there’s a strong cast of sidemen and women. Jason Sudeikis as Brady’s campaign manager, Brian Cox as Marty’s dad and Sarah Baker as Marty’s wife all turn in good performances. But they are trumped by Karen Maruyama who scores huge laughs as a housekeeper with an interesting way of saying things.

Not everything works in “The Campaign,” but the funny and often outrageous developments will keep you engaged and entertained for the movie’s hour and a half run time. Cast your vote at the box office today.

The Watch

You are hereby officially notified: This is a bad movie.

The setup: Ben Stiller is manager of a Costco store in a small town in Ohio. When his night watchman is brutally killed. Stiller sets up a community watch team.

Stiller is joined on the team by Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and an unfamiliar actor, Richard Ayoade. Ayoade is interesting because of his mixed ethnicity, British accent and vaguely intellectual look. He’s a decent enough actor who may have a future in film comedy.

The watch team eventually discovers that what they are up against is… aliens! But their battle with aliens isn’t enough to fuel a whole movie, so we get somewhat lame subplots about infertility, wild teenagers and arrogant small-town cops.

In comparison to other R-rated movies with dirty language (such as “Ted”), this movie seems to bring the raunchiness just for the sake of raunchiness. Yes, there are some laughs along the way, but much of the script languishes in that zone between “almost funny” and “ecccch.”

SNL vet Will Forte’s roles this summer in “That’s My Boy,” “Rock of Ages” and now as the smart-ass cop in “The Watch” (along with his bizarre role on “30 Rock”) appear to have positioned him as a go-to guy for comedy character roles. Rosemarie DeWitt appears as Stiller’s wife.

Unless you feel obliged to see every single movie that Stiller, Vaughn or Hill make, watch this one in a year or two on cable or Nexflix. Believe me, you can wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ted

Will you like “Ted?” Well, do you like “Family Guy?”

“Ted” is a rude, crude and hilarious movie with a heart. Mark Wahlberg is John, a 35-year-old underachiever who has a real, live teddy bear for a best friend. He also has a girlfriend, Lori, played by Mila Kunis, who wants him to ditch the bear and get on with his life.

When he was an 8-year-old, John got a teddy bear for Christmas. He made a wish that the bear could be real and…it happened! The bear became famous. Appeared on the Carson show! Now Ted has grown up with Wahlberg and is a sarcastic, pot-smoking has-been.

Kudos to all involved for making Ted appear so real. A combination of motion-capture and animation has rendered an on-screen Ted that is nearly flawless.

Ted is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, who also directed and co-wrote the movie. MacFarlane is the brains behind “Family Guy”—he’s the voice of Peter and Stewie Griffin and Brian the dog—and two other animated TV shows.

“Family Guy” fans will enjoy cast members Alex Borstein, the voice of Lois Griffin, and Patrick Warburton, who voices Joe Swanson, in their minor roles in “Ted.” (I wonder why Seth Green, who voices Chris Griffin, was not included.)

“Ted” has many cool cameos and a quick tribute to an early 80’s film comedy classic. Speaking of voices, Patrick Stewart provides the film’s opening and closing narration.

Trimming away some excess would’ve resulted in a tighter, better movie. Getting us to a happy ending made the film too long. But the funny lines and scenes are abundant, good taste is lacking and audiences will be howling at “Ted.”

Dark Shadows

It’s simple: if you are a Depp fan, you must see “Dark Shadows.”

“Dark Shadows” is not Tim Burton’s best film. It has flaws. But it has Johnny Depp in a meaty role as the vampire Barnabas Collins. Depp is the reason to see the movie.

Another good is Eva Green as the witch Angelique. She looks great and she has fun with the role.

The two share a lovemaking scene that’s a classic. It’s not particularly sexy, but the way they literally bounce off the walls is ridiculously outrageous. At the end of their tryst, the room looks more like the site of a violent brawl than that of a hookup.

The story is set in 1972. After spending over two centuries underground in a casket, Barnabas is dug up by a construction crew. As he encounters modern life, he experiences some amusing culture shock.

We, the audience, get to enjoy our time travel backward 40 years to the cars and culture of ’72. “Deliverance” and “Superfly” are on movie marquees; the Carpenters sing “Top of the World” on a TV show. (One notable anachronism: Lyrics are recited from Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” which did not come along until 1973. And the Raspberries 1972 hit “Go All the Way,” which played over the closing credits, was not the original hit version—shameful!)

Since Barnabas spurned Angelique’s romantic overtures in the 1700’s, she turned him into a vampire and sent him to his 200+ year dirt nap. When he comes alive again in ’72, she’s still around and still desiring Barnabas.

Another reason to see the movie is the amazing 15-year-old Chloe Grace Maretz as the daughter of the ’72 era matriarch of the Collins clan. This young woman (best known for “Hugo,” “Kick-Ass” and “30 Rock”) sparkles on the big and small screens. With the right role, she could be an Oscar winner by age 21.

Add in Alice Cooper performing “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and you have another hook to lure you in.

“Dark Shadows” is uneven and may fall short of some expectations/anticipations. But I like Depp, even in his less-than-awesome movies, and he’s fun to watch here.

“The Three Stooges”—(Nyuk Nyuk’s for Nitwits)

When one’s expectations are low, a decent movie is a pleasant surprise. So it is with “The Three Stooges,” a movie that has all the elements that made the old Larry, Moe and Curly low-class humor icons.

The new Three are played by Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos and Will Sasso. Sean Hayes (AKA Jack McFarland of “Will and Grace”) sounds so uncannily like Larry Fine that I wonder if all his lines were dubbed by another voice talent. The other two actors capture the essence of the Moe and Curly we’ve watched for over half a century.

Eye pokes, hammer whacks and other forms of physical abuse come early and often, accompanied by loud and effective sound effects. As with the old Stooges shorts, some are hilarious, others are redundant. (There’s a postscript to the movie which says, basically, “Kids, don’t try this stuff at home!”)

The movie’s story has L, M & C attempting to raise $830,000 to save the orphanage where they were raised by nuns (played by the likes of Jane Lynch and, yes, Larry David). The classic Stooge bit of making a mess of a party for a group of swells is also a turning point in the plot.

My love for the original Stooges peaked when I was still in single digits. Oh, I’ve watched them and laughed from time to time over the years, but do not consider myself a Stooges connoisseur. Hardcore Stooges fans will, I think, find the movie acceptable and enjoyable. Some may even love it.

Will kids like it? My guess is yes. Boys may enjoy it more than girls do.

I recall Jay Leno’s observation that a key difference between men and women is that men like The Three Stooges and women don’t like them. We’ll see if that holds true when the box office figures for the weekend are released.

 

 

“Cabin in the Woods”—(Scary Funny)

Five college students (three guys, two girls) drive an RV to a secluded cabin for a weekend of fun. Bad things happen. That’s about all I can reveal without venturing into spoiler territory.

If you’ve seen the preview trailers, you already know that the students are being watched. The watchers are in a control room with big screen TV monitors.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play the mission control leaders. Their nonchalant, routine, ho-hum approach to their work, complete with joking, gossiping and side bets, belies the terrors that we know will ensue.

More humor comes from the stoner among the five, played by Fran Kranz. The only well-known actor among the college quintet is Chris Hemsworth who starred as Thor last year. (“Cabin” was shot in ’09 before he got the Thor role. He’ll be Thor again in the new “Avengers” movie coming in three weeks.)

In “Cabin,” as in many movies of this genre, tension builds slowly until the horror gets going. As the story proceeds to its resolution, things get really weird. Honestly, much of the weirdness is hard to describe. Just enjoy the ride.

“Cabin in the Woods” is not the scariest movie I’ve seen, nor is it the funniest. But it does a nice job of blending horror and comedy. Rated R for gore, language, weed and boobs.

“American Reunion”—(Raunchy Fun!)

Here’s the thing about the class of ’99 featured in “American Pie” and its sequels: the members of the core group are likeable. Some are even sweet. They’re not really that different from other young Americans who have recently turned 30. It’s the situations they get themselves into that make these movies outrageously funny.

In “American Reunion,” the gang comes back to town for their 13 year reunion—certainly an odd anniversary to celebrate, but let’s not be picky. It’s a movie.

The movie focuses on Jim and Michelle (Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan), now married with a kid, and their recent lack of hooking up. Throughout the weekend, Jim tries to make it happen with Michelle but those situations always manage to prevent it. Meanwhile, Jim urges his dad, now a widower, to move on with life and invites him to Stifler’s party where Jim’s dad is attracted to Stifler’s mom.

For me, the real comedic stars of this movie are Seann William Scott as Stifler and Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad. They bring the movie’s funniest lines and provide a couple of hilarious sight gags that may become classics. (No spoilers here, but one of those scenes involves a tub of movie popcorn. That’s all I’ll reveal.)

Jim also has a reunion with the little girl who grew up next door to him. She is about to turn 18 and decides she wants to lose her virginity to Jim, her former babysitter. When he drives her home from her birthday party, she distracts him with bare breasts. His mission to sneak her into her house after she has passed out (with help from Stifler and friends) is another of those funny situations.

“American Reunion” (rated “R”) is loaded with drinking, drugs, sex and raw language but doesn’t leave you feeling sleazy afterward. That’s because the cast and characters are people we like and, in some cases, can relate to.

As long as the movies are as funny as “American Reunion” and the sequels aren’t made too quickly, moviegoers can look forward to keeping up with this gang and their situations for years (decades?) to come.