Post Date Feb 18

Hail, Caesar!

George Clooney plays movie actor Baird Whitlock in “Hail, Caesar!”Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
Running time: 106 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The Coen brothers — my favorite filmmakers, I should mention at the outset — have always been hit-and-miss when it comes to straight-up comedies. For every “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski,” there’s an “Intolerable Cruelty” or “The Ladykillers.” All their films have some element of comedy in them, of course, usually of the dark variety. Even their violent films (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”) and dramas (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Serious Man”) feature several moments that make you laugh for the sheer brilliance of their absurdity.

Their latest, “Hail, Caesar!”, is their giddiest comedy to date, but it’s also hit-and-miss within itself. And no, this review won’t merely serve as a celebration of Joel and Ethan Coen’s prodigious cinematic output, although that would be appropriate given what their new movie is about. “Hail, Caesar!” is an exuberant embrace of Golden-Age Hollywood, gliding smoothly through various classic genres over a day in the life of a harried studio executive. Working with their longtime cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, the Coens richly recreate a series of fake films which you easily could imagine were real — and some of them, you’ll wish you actually could see.

Those are the thrilling, knowing, winking highlights of “Hail, Caesar!”, which takes place in 1951.  Here’s Channing Tatum, doing his best Gene Kelly impression as a lonely sailor in a beautifully choreographed, fluidly shot dance number (which takes a turn you might not expect — that’s the Coensy humor element at work). There’s Scarlett Johansson, brassy in an Esther Williams-style, bathing-beauty extravaganza (and here’s where Deakins gets to have an unusual amount of fun with Technicolor shades of red, yellow and blue). And then there’s Coens regular George Clooney as the venerable yet gullible star of the titular film, a sword-and-sandal epic that’s meant to be the fictional studio’s year-end prestige picture. (The whole thing is called: “Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ,” one of many examples of the brothers’ encyclopedic knowledge of and love for classic film. That was the full title of “Ben-Hur.”)

I actually wouldn’t have minded an entire film of “Merrily We Danced,” complete with behind-the-scenes turmoil. It’s a witty, British drawing-room comedy featuring the sweetly guileless Western actor Hobie Doyle (an enormously magnetic Alden Ehrenreich), who’s got a winning screen presence as long as he doesn’t have to open his mouth. Ralph Fiennes is the fastidious and precise director, Laurence Laurentz, who steadily loses his patience with the twangy actor who’s been thrust upon him. (Just watch the second trailer for “Hail, Caesar!” and tell me you don’t want more of this.) It would have been divine to see more of all these supporting players and more, including Jonah Hill in a small but intriguing role as a lawyer renowned for his trustworthiness (ha ha).

This is all a very long way of saying that the individual films within the film work like gangbusters. Vivid, distinct and lively, they were obviously made with great craft, affection and attention to detail. It’s the through-line tying them all together that tends to bog things down.

Josh Brolin stars as a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix — who’s actually not based on the real-life studio fixer, Eddie Mannix — a family man and devout Catholic. (The film begins and ends with Mannix making his daily confession of nothing terribly earth-shattering to a vaguely annoyed priest; the streaks of light splitting the booth’s darkness reveal Deakins at his visually dramatic best.) “Hail, Caesar!” follows Mannix as he tries to keep various simmering crises from boiling over. There’s the terrible casting of Doyle; the increasingly obvious pregnancy of Johansson’s starlet, DeeAnna Moran; and, most pressingly, the kidnapping of Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, by a shadowy group calling itself The Future.

Mannix must tend to all these troubles and more while simultaneously trying to hide them from a pair of inquisitive, identical-twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker. (Tilda Swinton does crisp and distinctive double duty as a Hedda Hopper figure, and she gets to wear twice the number of gorgeously tailored dresses and hats from the Coens’ longtime costume designer, Mary Zophres).

As is often the case in the Coen brothers’ films, religion comes into play, not only in Mannix’s Catholicism but also in the film-within-the-film, “Hail, Caesar!”, and in the notion that movies provide something to believe in — a sense of guidance, reliability and hope. This would serve as an excellent double feature with the Coens’ 2009 film “A Serious Man,” their semi-autobiographical tale of a Midwestern husband and father (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) struggling to keep his seemingly normal, suburban life from spiraling out of control. Both focus on men who trudge along, trying to do the right thing in a sea of corruption and selfishness, and who rely on their faith to steer them in the right direction when they’re feeling hopelessly lost.

Brolin’s story isn’t as flashy or fascinating as the fake films that bring “Hail, Caesar!” so vibrantly to life, meandering and tinged with melancholy as it is. And maybe the conclusion — which is abrupt and unsatisfying — is intended as such compared to the neatly packaged Hollywood endings that mark the made-up movies in “Hail, Caesar!” (They do this a lot, you know — the ambiguous ending. Often, it works and provokes thought and discussion. This time, it just kinda … ends.)

Then again, maybe this is one of the siblings’ movies that require repeated viewings to “get” what they intended, truly. Just to watch Channing Tatum tap-dance on a table top again, it’d be worth the time investment.

Post Date Feb 12

Kung Fu Panda 3

Kung Fu Panda 3 Movie ReviewDreamWorks Animation
Rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

So vividly immersive is “Kung Fu Panda 3” — so vibrant, so tactile — it will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a fully realized world. And then once you’ve stepped out, you’ll be craving dumplings.

At least Nicolas and I were after attending a matinee screening of the latest DreamWorks Animation adventure. And the dumpling itself — the way it’s used and what it represents — is a perfect microcosm of the movie as a whole. Dumplings function in myriad ways here: as fuel, as incentive, in training and in battle as actual ammunition. They may look soft on the outside but they’re filled with delicious and perhaps unexpectedly powerful stuff on the inside. And they provide both a connection to the past as well as simple enjoyment in the present.

But this is not a restaurant review and I am not a food critic. So I should stick to what I know: “Kung Fu Panda 3” is stunningly beautiful to look at with images in both 3-D and 2-D animation. But it’s also a complete blast, and it manages to have a surprising amount of emotional heft without being heavy-handed. The film from co-directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh benefits from a wide array of styles and textures that create the look of specific worlds yet work seamlessly together, but it also features a lush color palette ranging from bold reds, greens and golds to delicate pastels. It also has great visual flair, including energetic use of split screens during training montages and battle sequences.

Visuals alone are not enough, though, as you know. “Kung Fu Panda 3” has a story to tell that’s inspiring without being mawkish. It’s the classic student-becomes-the-teacher scenario, a staple within the martial arts genre. It’s about learning to embrace who you are, being your best self and celebrating the powerful collaborative spirit that diverse talents can provide — all worthwhile messages for young viewers, which returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger manage to impart with great authenticity and balance of tone. No one is reinventing the wheel here, but the wheel that emerges provides a enjoyable ride.

“Kung Fu Panda 3” is a mostly playful exercise, as you can imagine any film will be in which Jack Black provides the voice of a roly-poly, man-child bear. But when you have a voice cast full of serious actors as you do here, they bring real craft to their performances and create moments of genuine poignancy. Besides Black, returning to star as the ever-enthusiastic Po, there are the new additions of Bryan Cranston as Po’s long-lost father and J.K. Simmons as a villainous yak from the spirit realm.

If that sounds silly, that’s because it is, and Simmons has a couple of amusing running gags to enjoy here — but he’s also, you know, truly evil. I’ve been talking a lot about the film’s emotional elements, but fundamentally, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is just flat-out funny. I vaguely recall the previous two films in the series from 2008 and 2011, but this latest installment was a real delight.

This time, Po’s mentor, the diminutive Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), tells Po it’s time for him to step into his destined role as the Dragon Warrior by serving as teacher to the members of his own team: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). At the same time, Po’s father, Li, arrives looking for the son he lost many years ago — which makes Po’s adoptive father, the noodle-making goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), feel insecure and threatened.

But Po will need everyone’s help — including a clan of pandas who’ve long been living in a mystical, mountaintop land — to fight the power-hungry Kai (Simmons), who seeks to rule all by stealing the chi of kung fu masters across China. This may sounds more complicated than it actually is; basically, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is about teamwork, and about trusting that the power you need has been within you all along.

Not a bad message for kids to hear — and a solid topic to discuss over several orders of steaming dumplings afterward.

Post Date Feb 12 — How to Be Single

How to Be Single Movie ReviewThe ensemble rom-com “How to Be Single” manages the tricky feat of balancing bawdiness and sentimentality. It doesn’t do quite as good a job of connecting all its various story lines. But the cast is so winning, you may not mind, and there’s a moment toward the end that packs a surprising emotional wallop. My mixed review, at

Read the review here

Post Date Feb 5 — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Movie Review“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”: It’s “Pride and Prejudice” … with zombies. The “Pride and Prejudice” parts work fine. It’s the zombie bits that are a problem. My review.

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Post Date Jan 29 — Fifty Shades of Black

Fifty Shades of Black Movie ReviewI’m not saying it’s good. But this Marlon Wayans spoof of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t quite as terrible as you might expect. And it may have something substantive to say, in between all the prosthetic penises and pop-culture references. My review.

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Post Date Jan 24

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying.
Running time: 112 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“The 5th Wave” plays like a Wayans-brothers spoof of movies based on dystopian Young Adult novels. Seriously, it could have been called “YA Movie” the way it wallows in all the overly familiar tropes of the genre. Theaters could offer checklists at the door to allow us to play along and at least have a little fun with it.

Let’s see, we have:

— An apocalypse that decimates the planet (this time, aliens are to blame).

— A plucky teenage girl who dares to think for herself and defy the odds (Chloe Grace Moretz).

— Two hunky potential suitors competing for her affections (Nick Robinson and Alex Roe).

— Adults in control who are clearly untrustworthy, played by serious actors to give the film some semblance of heft (Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello).

— An intense training ritual in which kids learn how to become killers, complete with hand-to-hand combat and firing-range exercises.

— A maze. Seriously, there’s a maze of concrete corridors these kids must navigate in order to escape.

If this sounds familiar to you  — if you’ve seen any or all of the movies in the “Hunger Games,” “Divergent” or “Maze Runner” series — then you know exactly what you’re in for with “The 5th Wave.” There’s even an ending to suggest hopes for a franchise of its own. Rick Yancey, who wrote the book “The 5th Wave,” also wrote a sequel, “The Infinite Sea.” The third installment in the trilogy, “The Last Star,” is due out later this year. Because they all come in trilogies. That’s something you should be familiar with by now, too.

Having said that, Moretz is game for all the physical and psychological mayhem that come her character’s way, and she clearly aims to add depth to this person which might not have existed on the page. Director J Blakeson, working from a script credited to some heavy-hitting veteran writers (Akiva Goldsman, Susannah Grant and Jeff Pinkner), quickly establishes that Moretz’s Cassie used to be a pretty average teenage girl in an idyllic Ohio town: soccer practice, keggers, a wisecracking best friend, an adorable younger brother (Zackary Arthur) and loving parents (Ron Livingston and Maggie Siff).

But then … the aliens come. Who are they? What do they want? Doesn’t matter, although context might provide some actual tension and fear. Just know that they arrive, hover and wreak havoc in a series of waves: a devastating electromagnetic pulse, followed by earthquakes and tsunamis (with tidal wave effects that look pretty cheesy), then an avian flu, then snipers, I think …? People get shot.

(My 6-year-old son, who’s sitting next to me as I write this, just asked: “Why are there five waves? Why don’t the aliens just do it all in one?” It’s a legitimate question.)

Anyway, the fifth wave is coming. And the military (which suspiciously has working vehicles and dramatic overhead lighting out of “Dr. Strangelove”) needs children to help fight the battle. The cute football player Cassie had a crush on before the arrival of The Others, as the aliens become known, is among their most promising soldiers: Robinson’s Ben Parish, whose code name is Zombie. The group’s other bad-ass is a fierce young woman known as Ringer (Maika Monroe from the great “It Follows”), who somehow finds time each day to apply thick, black eyeliner, even though the world could end at any moment.

Cassie’s story runs parallel as she struggles to find her brother, Sam, whom the military has taken to an air force base for tiny soldier training. For a regular and rather sheltered girl, she figures out how to use a high-powered rifle and hide in the wilderness pretty quickly. (And her hair always looks amazing.) She also happens to get rescued by the handsomest farm boy imaginable: Roe’s Evan Walker. There are many moments in “The 5th Wave” that made me and my fellow critics giggle from the back row of the theater, but the one that made us cackle hysterically occurred when Cassie stumbled upon Evan enjoying an early-morning bath in the river. As she surreptitiously spies on him from behind a tree, he turns around to reveal ridiculously sculpted pecs and abs. Amid all the alien-hiding and girl-rescuing, Evan clearly found time to hit the gym.

The true enemy here isn’t too difficult to discern. The massively versatile Schreiber, who improves every film in which he appears, can’t do much with his under-written role as the commanding colonel calling the shots. But perhaps we’ll learn more about him — and come to truly fear him — in the inevitable sequel.

Post Date Jan 22 — The Boy

The Boy Movie ReviewJanuary continues unabated with “The Boy,” a horror movie which was not shown to critics before opening day. It’s about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for an 8-year-old boy at a towering, Gothic estate in the English countryside, only to find out that the boy isn’t really a boy at all, but rather a doll whom the parents treat like an actual boy. Sounds super creepy, right? It’s actually pretty silly. My review.

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Post Date Jan 15 — In the Shadow of Women

In the Shadow of Women Movie ReviewMy first review of 2016 is of “In the Shadow of Women,” the latest from French New Wave veteran Philippe Garrel. Given that it’s January, I’d say I lucked out big-time. Garrel may not be saying anything terribly new about infidelity, but he’s saying it in lush black and white and with strong performances. Enjoy.

Read the review here

Post Date Dec 20

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Movie ReviewWalt Disney Pictures.
PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 135 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

You guys have all seen “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” by now, right? So I can go ahead and wallow in all the spoilers?

Actually, I wouldn’t dream of it. Not here, at least. (If you’re interested in a spoiler discussion after you’ve seen the movie, though, feel free to hop on over to our What the Flick?! review.) But I did want to write a little something, just because I loved the movie so much and I’ve had such a good time over the past few days talking about it with folks — those who had and hadn’t seen it alike.

I had the pleasure of bringing Nicolas (who’s 6) with me to a screening on Tuesday afternoon at the Disney lot. Those of you who know me or have read my previous posts about “Star Wars” know that my kid is obsessed. I showed him all six films — in release order, of course, because I’m a good mom — back when he was 4 1/2 years old. Since then, he’s dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween, carried various “Star Wars” lunchboxes to school each day, romped about with his collection of light sabers and played countless hours of the Angry Birds iPad game. I was more excited for him than I was for myself; he’d only seen the movies at home on television, so this would be his first time watching one in a packed theater with all the excitement and ritual that entails.

He sat in my lap the whole time and was transfixed — although he did ask who Han Solo and Princess Leia were when they came on screen for the first time. (Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look a little different than they did 32 years ago in “Return of the Jedi.” It happens to us all.) But even before the film began, just during that brief, silent pause between the words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” and the first blast of John Williams’ stirring fanfare, there was a palpable sense of anticipation and even reverence. This mattered, no matter how old you are.

And J.J Abrams didn’t disappoint. He actually exceeded my expectations of what this experience would be like — and it truly is an experience on both a cultural and an emotional level, and not just your everyday Saturday night at the multiplex. When Abrams was handed the franchise, the expectation was that he would return it to the glory of the the original trilogy. If anybody could, it was this director. And he did. Working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote the best film in the series, “The Empire Strikes Back”) and “Toy Story 3” and “Little Miss Sunshine” writer Michael Arndt, Abrams beautifully combined the elements of the first three films that we loved so much with a fresh sense of purpose. Characters, images, themes and even lines of dialogue that make the “Star Wars” lore so rich co-exist seamlessly with new faces and adventures and a revitalized energy.

It also blends much-ballyhooed practical effects with the best of what crisp and shiny computer-generated imagery can achieve. “The Force Awakens” flat-out dazzles, filled with a wide variety of perfectly-paced set pieces. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a chase involving the Millennium Falcon zooming through the remnants of a crashed star destroyer that’s the most thrilling sequence I’ve ever seen in the entire series. And yes, that includes the climactic destruction of the Death Star in “Star Wars.” This is not hyperbole.

But speaking of the original film — yes, a lot of what we see here is awfully familiar, but with enough tweaks to provide some novelty. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot in the slightest, but there’s a desert planet where a droid (the adorably perky BB-8, arriving just in time for Christmas) is entrusted with secret information. There’s a cantina where various intergalactic freaks meet to mingle and menace (although this time, the owner is a woman, played by Lupita Nyong’o in a vivid bit of motion-capture performance). There’s a giant planet that destroys other planets but also has an Achilles heel that makes it vulnerable to an X-wing attack. And there’s snappy banter between Han and Leia, only now they’re older and filled with regret, which adds a sense of wistfulness to their exchanges.

As for the newcomers, Adam Driver provides real depth and inner conflict as Kylo Ren, Dark Side head honcho and leader of a new evil empire known as the First Order. The black helmet, cape and mechanized voice may all seem familiar, but once again we know the whole film aims for a different perspective when it allows the character to reveal his face and true identity. That element of humanity actually makes Kylo Ren even scarier.

John Boyega is enormously charismatic as Finn, a disillusioned Stormtrooper who must figure out what he believes in and then choose to find the strength to fight for it. If you’re one of the few who saw “Attack the Block,” you know what a pleasing screen presence this young, British actor has. Now the whole world will now. And I love the fact that the massively versatile Oscar Isaac has such a crucial, meaty supporting role as bad-ass pilot Poe Dameron. In the past few years, he’s shown he can really play any kind of character in any kind of film, from “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “A Most Violent Year” to “Ex Machina.” (Isaac’s “Ex Machina” co-star Domhnall Gleeson, who’s also been all over the place lately, is chilling as the First Order’s military czar.) Now, Isaac brings his formidable acting chops to the biggest blockbuster imaginable and provides it with even more substance.

But this is Daisy Ridley’s movie all the way. She is just a superstar. It’s as simple as that. As the plucky heroine Rey, a resourceful scavenger who discovers abilities she never knew she had, she has an electrifying presence but also a down-to-Earth accessibility. It’s a tricky balancing act she pulls off: a mixture of daring and vulnerability, smarts and openheartedness. We now have a “Star Wars” movie for a whole new generation in which the central figure is a woman — and a strong woman, at that. Rey never needs to be rescued. She’s the one doing the rescuing. Ridley has excellent chemistry not only with her fellow newcomers but also with veterans Ford and Fisher. Fellow old friends Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3-PO (Anthony Daniels) and even R2-D2 are welcome sights once more, with Chewie enjoying a significant and even poignant storyline this time.

“The Force Awakens” is a complete blast but it also features real stakes, which woefully were missing from most of George Lucas’ duly derided prequels (although “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” was actually pretty good). A dramatically lighted scene on a catwalk is a prime example of this; again, I wouldn’t dream of divulging what happens in this moment, but I will say that its familiarity in no way diminishes its power.

That’s what’s so impressive about the tricky balancing act Abrams has pulled off with “The Force Awakens”: He’s made a movie that’s simultaneously gripping and a huge release. We are in good hands, at last.

Post Date Dec 18 — Son of Saul

Son of Saul Movie ReviewThe Hungarian drama “Son of Saul” is a marvel of controlled, precise filmmaking and an impressively assured debut from director Laszlo Nemes and star Geza Rohrig. The story of a Nazi concentration camp prisoner trying to bury a boy he says is his son is harrowing to watch, yet mesmerizing. My review.

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