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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Jupiter Ascending

 

Big dumb movie. There’s a reason Jupiter Ascending’s release date was pushed back from July 2014 to February 2015: it’s not very good.

Co-directors/co-writers Andy and Lana Wachowski make movies that contain gorgeous, imaginative visuals. But their stories and their storytelling abilities leave much to be desired.

Here’s the Jupiter Ascending scenario: Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a Chicago housecleaner, just an ordinary (if beautiful) schlub whose 4:45 a.m. alarm gets her moving into another day of the drudgery of cleaning toilet bowls. Turns out that she has in her DNA some special stuff that several folks on a distant planet want.

Jupiter is transported to this faraway place where she encounters three siblings who are interested in her. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tupence Middleton, the three Abrasax nogoodniks do their evil while good guys Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Stinger (Sean Bean) line up on Jupiter’s side.

Redmayne should probably have his recent Oscar nomination rescinded based on his overacting in this film. Tatum, with goatee, resembles Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander. Kunis looks good, if occasionally baffled, throughout the film. The wedding outfit she wears as a bride-to-be is nothing short of stunning.

For what it’s worth, Jupiter Ascending, presents a welcome positive view of Jupiter’s U.S. extended family of Russian immigrants. (Several films of the past few years have depicted Russians as evil, treacherous people, often worse than the Cold War Russians.) Maybe this portrayal is a result of the Wachowskis’ eastern European family heritage. (A subtitle in Jupiter Ascending revealed a Russian curse that I may include in my repertoire: “Stalin’s Balls!”)

The effects are spectacular, the battles are amazing. But, ultimately, Jupiter Ascending fails. It’s a shame that the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 is no longer being produced. Jupiter Ascending, I think, would be an excellent candidate for an MST3K treatment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foxcatcher

 

The acting in Foxcatcher is excellent. The characters are intriguing. The story, however, is unexciting. Based on true events, set in the 1980s, Foxcatcher is mainly about one man and his quirks. Okay, two men with quirks.

John Du Pont (Steve Carell) is a self-described “rich guy” who is obsessed with wrestling. (Legitimate wrestling, not the WWE type.) He is an heir to the vast Du Pont fortune. He resides on an estate in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square.

He recruits Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to train at his estate. Du Pont’s relationship with Schultz goes beyond being a patron. He presents Schultz almost as a trophy. “Have you ever met an Olympic gold medalist?” he asks associates at a banquet.

Du Pont soon convinces Mark’s brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to bring his wife and family and help coach the Olympic wrestling team at Foxcatcher Farms.

Du Pont has issues, as many rich people do. He got his wealth the old-fashioned way… he inherited it. He tries to convince his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in a brief but powerful appearance) that he’s doing something worthwhile. He also sees his role in leading the team to victory as his legacy, a service he’s providing the country.

Mark Schultz also has issues. He’s been in his brother’s shadow most of his life. He’s not particularly bright or socially adept. And he does not handle failure well.

This odd dynamic generates events that lead to a tragic end.

Steve Carell, with prosthetic nose and stunt teeth, is terrific as Du Pont. (His portrayal generated early awards buzz which seems to have cooled lately.) Channing Tatum is a perfect dumb jock—his posture and his gait are dead on. Ruffalo is also strong as the loving, protective big brother.

The narrative leaves much to be desired, but the acting here is superb.

Unless you’re a wrestling fan, it’s the performances of the three main actors that provide the reasons to see Foxcatcher.

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is a pure delight! Colorful, clever and FUNNY! With a memorable song you might find yourself humming on your way home. And a story that springs from the dilemma that many Lego users face: do I follow the instructions or do I make my own creations?

The Lego Movie is my first “must see” film of 2014. Even if you’re a not a fan of silly stuff, you need to check it out for the visuals. Even if you never played with Legos or never had kids who played with Legos, the Lego movie will entertain you.

Emmet (Chris Pratt of TV’s Parks and Recreation) is an everyman Lego guy. But thanks to a series of unexpected events, he goes on a trip that’s almost as mindbending as Alice’s journey to Wonderland.

Emmet, through no effort of his own, is the chosen one, charged with derailing the plans of President Business (Will Ferrell) to glue everything in the universe together with something called “The Kragle.”

Along the way he meets a bizarre cast of Legos: a girl named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Lego pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman).

Other Lego characters seen briefly are Abe Lincoln (Will Forte), Lando Calrissian (Billy D. Williams), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colby Smulders) and Superman (Channing Tatum) among many others.

The various Lego universes seen in the film are universally spectacular. And The Lego Movie‘s coda (whose content will not be revealed here) is sweet and touching.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller shared directing and screenplay duties. The soundtrack is by Mark Mothersbaugh, best known as a founding member of DEVO, but also known for doing music for the Rugrats TV show.

\My first thought when walking out of the theater was: “I want to see it again!” And I will! Soon!

 

 

 

 

Side Effects

Looking for a great movie for grownups? Side Effects satisfies! It has a suspenseful story, well told, and compelling characters, well portrayed.

Rooney Mara is Emily Taylor, a twenty-something in NYC who meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) after she drives her car into a brick wall. He’s a shrink who begins treating her for depression. Channing Tatum plays her sympathetic husband who’s just been released from prison where he served time for insider trading.

One of the medications Dr. Banks prescribes for Emily appears to help but has a significant side effect: it causes sleepwalking. When Emily commits a crime, her meds and Dr. Banks are called into question. The situation is complicated by the fact that Dr. Banks is taking money from a drug company for consulting on medications.

Side Effects steps into many timely and topical areas, including mental illness and its treatments. Also within the film’s sights is the pharmaceutical industry, as well as doctors who are in cahoots with those companies. After Emily’s crime, the blame and the repercussions remain unresolved.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Dr. Victoria Siebert, a Connecticut psychologist who treated Emily for depression before Dr. Banks. As the story unfolds, her involvement with the drug companies becomes a key plot point.

While there is no doubt that psychotropic drugs have helped many people with mental illnesses function normally, we know that drug companies have marketed products with dangerous (sometimes lethal) side effects. It’s easy to throw stones at large organizations that have questionable practices, but not always so easy to determine which individuals should suffer the consequences.

That’s the case in Side Effects. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? And who’s in that gray area in the middle? See the movie and find out.

Side Effects is directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose movies are always interesting, even when they’re not as good as Side Effects. And, as with all his movies, the soundtrack is excellent. Thomas Newman is the music composer.

For Jude Law, this is his best performance in years. His stubble, worn in many scenes, gives him a more mature look. Rooney Mara was excellent in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that was more of a caricature. In this role, she hits it out of the park as a real woman with real problems. Bravo!

“21 Jump Street”—((Fun Times at Sagan High))

“21 Jump Street” is funny and fun. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are a worthy combo because of the many contrasts they bring to their pairing. And, because both have good comedy chops.

The characters played by the two were high school classmates: Tatum, the good-looking dumb jock, and Hill, the less attractive smart nerd. When they find themselves classmates at police academy, Hill shares his smarts with Tatum and Tatum helps Hill get fit.

They become teammates on the force, but they make mistakes and are sent to 21 Jump Street. At that address is a Korean Christian church, in which Ice Cube commands cops on undercover assignments. Tatum and Hill are sent out as high school students in an effort to bust a drug ring. (Never mind that they are 30 and 28, respectively, in real life.)

Adding to the absurdity is the mixed-up identity plot device, through which Tatum is assigned to egghead classes and Hill is sent to run on the track team.

When they finally locate the drug connection at school, he will only sell them the tabs if they will ingest the drug right then. The ensuing drug trip provides some goofy fun.

Each has romantic inclinations at school. Hill has eyes for a cute drama club classmate, who he ends up inviting to the prom. Tatum has the hots for his science teacher, played by St. Louis’s Ellie Kemper. The Tatum-Kemper thing merely smolders, until the closing credits. (Do stick around after THE END.)

“21 Jump Street” has three good chase scenes, including the first one with our two rookie cops on bicycles. There’s a fair amount of violence and a heaping helping of R-rated language.

It has been reported for almost a year that a megastar who kicked off his career on the old “21 Jump Street” TV show has a cameo in the movie. Without sharing details, I will just say I love the way the filmmakers presented it.

Could Tatum and Hill have a future together in action comedies? If “21” hits the jackpot, bet on it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Vow—((A Heart-Shaped Movie))

I have seen your cable channel future and it is “The Vow.” I predict this movie will become a cable staple for women like “Where the Heart Is” was a few years ago. It will turn up throughout the ‘teens on Lifetime, Hallmark, Oxygen, OWN and others and will be watched over and over by many.

Take two attractive, likeable characters. Put them in a crisis. Flash back to their meeting, their courtship and their marriage (which includes their self-written vows). If you have a romantic gene in your DNA, you will become engaged in their story.

The key element here is Channing Tatum’s character. Leo is the sensitive, romantic guy that most women want their own guy to be. He is not shown to have a jerky side, but is totally dedicated to his woman, Paige, played by Rachel McAdams. Leo also happens to be somewhat hunky.

The story, “inspired by true events,” has the couple involved in an auto accident. After recovery, Paige has no memory of the past few years, which include her entire time with Leo. Her parents, from whom she had been estranged, come back into her life after the accident.

Do I need to issue a spoiler alert? I won’t reveal whether the situation gets resolved, but will point out that this is a romantic movie being released just before Valentine’s Day.

Overall, this is a well-crafted movie with a few unexpected plot points. It feels just a bit too long, but that could be a result of the movie’s deliberate pacing and Tatum’s restrained acting style. Yes, “The Vow” is a perfect date movie—for new couples, as well as for old married people.

At the screening I attended, there were an inordinate number of women without men in the audience. If you’re a woman and your guy won’t take you to see “The Vow,” it’s okay to go with girlfriends. If you’re a man, here is an opportunity to show your woman that you can be just as sensitive and romantic as Leo (if not as hunky) by taking her to this movie.

“Haywire” =Gina WHO???=

In “Haywire,” a star is born. The film’s female lead Gina Carano is unknown to most moviegoers. She has achieved a level of fame as an MMA fighter and an “American Gladiator.” Her good looks, her adequate acting skills and her abilities as a fighter guarantee her a future in movies.

The convoluted plot is almost secondary to the constant action that surrounds the character Mallory Kane, played by Carano. Chase scenes in cars and on foot, kidnappings, shootings and hand-to-hand battles are the movie’s key elements. Director Steven Soderbergh shoots the film stylishly with a number of clever subjective camera angles. Carano/Kane’s fight scenes are the best since the last Jason Bourne movie—realistically staged and intense.

Several well-known male actors play Mallory Kane’s various allies and foes. They are Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton.

The action kicks off with a violent face-off between Carano and Tatum in a roadside café in upstate New York. The plot unfolds with scenes in Barcelona, Dublin, rural New Mexico and along the Pacific coastline.

A highlight of the film is the cool soundtrack by David Holmes who scored much of the music for Soderbergh’s three “Ocean’s” movies. He provides rhythmic, up tempo music that is just right for this film.

Go for the action. Go for this new female fighter. Go for the strong male cast. Go for the music. Go to unravel the plot.

“Haywire” delivers 93 minutes of solid movie entertainment. Casting an unknown as the female lead was not a haywire decision—the result makes perfect sense to me.