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Review – Hail, Caesar!

FILM REVIEW – HAIL, CAESAR!With Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum. Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. 106 minutes.

The Coen Brothers–Joel and Ethan–have created an eclectic and highly uneven body of work. A given film could be a comedy or a drama, set in the present or the past, done in black and white or color. Some are brilliant. Some are cult films. Some are just duds. You just never know what you’re getting. With HAIL, CAESAR!, they have a winner, having created a delightfully daffy pastiche of early 1950s Hollywood as we follow executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through a day of crises.

For film buffs, the joke starts with his name since the real Mannix was an executive at MGM, Here he’s the head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures where he has to decide whether this is his life or whether he should take an offer to leave Hollywood for a lucrative position at Lockheed. Among the things he has to deal with is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the “Ben Hur”-like movie in production, has been kidnapped. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who does Esther Williams-like musicals, is about to give birth out of wedlock. He’s just been ordered to cast Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a drawling cowboy star, in a sophisticated comedy. And twin sister–and competing–gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) are threatening to run a scandalous story about one of Capitol’s top directors (Ralph Fiennes) and stars.

You would think Mannix would be running screaming towards a saner job, but the real joke of the movie is that he’s good at what he does, and doesn’t lose his head no matter how bizarre things get. This being a Coen Brothers movie, things do get strange, from homoerotic musical numbers to Communist conspiracies to a fixer (Jonah Hill) willing to do whatever it takes to coverup Hollywood’s messes. Along the way we get to see scenes from the various movies in production that show a real knowledge of the Hollywood of that era.

This is a largely an ensemble film with many of the performers just in for a few scenes. The weight is on Brolin and he’s terrific in playing the studio executive as a surprisingly sympathetic character. Other performers get little more than cameos. Frances McDormand plays a chain smoking film editor in one scene to good effect. Robert Picardo is a hoot as a rabbi at a meeting of Christian clergy vetting the script for “Hail, Caesar!” Of the main players, there’s not a wrong move from Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like dancer with a secret, to Johansson’s jaded “innocent” swimming star, to Clooney’s kidnap victim who starts to learn about capitalism from his captors.

“Hail, Caesar!” is a goofy romp that’s like watching Turner Classic Movies while under the influence. Everything is recognizable but slightly askew, so that Brolin’s Mannix is the voice of sanity and reason by default. Given what passes for comedies these days, having something that’s simultaneously as sophisticated and silly as this is a real treat.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

With Lily James, Sam Riley, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Matt Smith. Written and directed by Burr Steers. Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. 108 minutes.

You know how some movies have generic titles that don’t tell you anything as to what the film’s going to be about? Well, that’s not the case here. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES tells you exactly what it’s going to be about. Anyone complaining about this being a 19th century comedy of manners or featuring brain-eating zombies infesting England isn’t paying attention.

In 2009, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was published and became an unexpected hit. Billed as being authored “by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith” it took Austen’s classic 1813 novel which has been adapted for film and television many time and expanded it. Keeping most of Austen’s text it embellished it by the introduction of zombies. Thus Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and Mr. D’Arcy (Sam Riley) are not merely headstrong people who slowly come to realize they are meant for each other, but they are also trained warriors against the zombie infestation plaguing Britain.

If you saw “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” based on another of Grahame-Smith’s books, you’ll get the idea of what to expect: a mixture of authentic material crossed with a horror movie. It’s a one-joke idea and if you don’t find the very concept amusing then you may as well give it a pass. Likewise if you’re unfamiliar with “Pride and Prejudice” you might read the original book or see one of the many adaptations before seeing this so that you’ll know what’s being sent up here.

The Bennett family consists of five daughter whose mother (Sally Phillips) wants to see them settled with wealthy husbands but whose father (Charles Dance) is more concerned with them not marrying clods like Parson Collins (Matt Smith). The film preserves Mr. Bennet’s perfect line when he gives Elizabeth his opinion of such a match.

Then there are the zombies. As the Bennets are comforable but not upper class, the daughters were trained in Chinese martial arts rather than Japanese ninja warrior techniques. This leads not only to some bizarre fight scenes with the zombies, but to an argument between Elizabeth and D’Arcy that wrecks most of a room. The imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) is now not only D’Arcy’s aunt, but a superior warrior with an eyepatch… who has the various characters in for tea.

It is goofy fun, and fans of the original will be impressed by just how much of Austen is preserved. The sweet romance between Jane Bennett (Bella Heathcote) and Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) is a charming counterpoint to the Elizabeth/D’Arcy story, while the caddish George Wickham (Jack Huston) has a secret related to the zombies. The whole affair is played straight, including a twist on Austen’s opening line which becomes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

The book spawned a prequel and a sequel, but although “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is entertaining enough for those who get the joke, one helping should be more than enough.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Finest Hours

With Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana. Written by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril. 117 minutes.

As we give thanks that the impact of last week’s winter storm was largely south of Massachusetts, THE FINEST HOURS makes us look at blizzard conditions as something other than icy roadways and digging out. It is the true story of a rescue at sea in the winter of 1952 that is, rightly, recognized as one of the greatest rescue operations ever.

The film starts on a personal level as we meet Bernie Webber (Chris Pine). As presented here, he’s shy around women. He’s so shy, in fact, that Miriam (Holliday Grainger) ends up asking him to get married. Webber is being established as someone who is risk averse but who is about to throw caution, literally, to the winds.

Two oil tankers have been seriously damaged by rough seas during what looks like a particularly savage nor’easter. At first it is believed to be only one, and most of the vessels sent to rescue the survivors go to it. Then it is learned that there is a second vessel and Webber and three crew members are sent out on a mission that seems doomed to failure. Assuming they can survive the treacherous waters–including 70-foot high waves–how many people can they save on a single small boat?

Meanwhile, we see the surviving crew of the oil tanker. In a breathtaking and frightening shot, the crew learns why the captain is not responding to questions from the engine room: the entire front half of the tanker has been torn away and sunk. With no clear chain of command and conflicting views as to whether they should wait to be rescued or attempt to use the life boats, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) takes charge. Like Webber, he is not a traditionally heroic figure and, in fact, is not the most popular person on the tanker. However, his clear-headedness keeps them going in hopes they will be found before it is too late.

This is powerful drama, and the filmmakers put us right in the midst of it, from the Coast Guard ship to the doomed tanker to the people back on shore awaiting word. Even as you anticipate how it will turn out (the title is kind of a giveaway), there is suspense as each obstacle has to be faced. Pine is unexpectedly apt as the reluctant hero (although the movie star handsome Pine worrying about his looks before his big date seems a bit contrived). There’s none of the boldness he brings to his role of Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” movies. This is a man who’s going to do his best while not being certain if it will be good enough.

Affleck is a fine and subtle actor, often overshadowed by his brother Ben, but who keeps turning in solid performances. He plays Sybert as a man who has no life outside of the enginge room suddenly being called upon not only to jury-rig what they need to keep half a ship moving, but also serving as a calming influence in the midst of a crisis. Back on shore, Grainger walks a different tightrope, as an independent woman put in the traditional role of waiting for her man to return. She manages to do so without relinquishing what made her stand out in the first place.

“The Finest Hours” tells us more about heroism in real life than many a Hollywood fiction, making it the first really interesting movie of 2016.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Dirty Grandpa

FILM REVIEWDIRTY GRANDPAWith Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Mantzoukas. Written by John Phillips. Directed by Dan Mazer. Rated R for crude sexual content throughout, graphic nudity, and for language and drug use. 102 minutes.

This may be hard for younger moviegoers to believe, but once upon a time–a very long time ago–people would get excited when there was a new movie starring Robert De Niro. Hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, if not the best, his performances in movies ranging from “Taxi Driver” to “Raging Bull” were cinematic landmarks. Now the best we can hope for is that he simply doesn’t embarrass himself as he cashes another paycheck.

With DIRTY GRANDPA, De Niro hits rock bottom. He plays Dick Kelly, a 72-year-old veteran who has just buried his beloved wife but insists on leaving for what had been their traditional Florida vacation the next day. He asks that his uptight grandson Jason (Zac Efron), who is in the midst of planning his wedding, accompany him.

When Jason goes to pick him up, he walks in on Grandpa masturbating to porn. It doesn’t get any better. This is a formulaic road trip movie in which the repressed character is liberated by the obnoxious, self-absorbed one. This will involve drugs, booze, fights, lots of public embarrassment, as well as explicit–and ultimately boring–talk about the sex Dick intends to have, particularly with a college student named Lenore (Aubrey Plaza).

Along the way we get racist stereotypes, gay stereotypes, antisemitic stereotypes (Jason’s fiancee is Jewish), and jokes that suggest using heroin, methamphetamines, and crack cocaine is a laugh riot. This is a movie that thinks it’s funny that Jason’s equally uptight father (Dermot Mulroney) is arguing with the police without realizing that he has several penises drawn on his face.

To add insult to injury we get several “serious” moments, where Dick and Jason reconcile. The only one to emerge from this unscathed–because she’s the sympathetic character with whom Jason connects–is Zoey Deutsch, as a college senior who was, improbably, a classmate of his. (Since he’s a lawyer, he’s at least three or four years post-college having had to go to law school.)

The distributor of this cinematic crime is Lionsgate. Aware of just how awful the film is and yet wanting to fleece the public nonetheless, they demanded that film critics attending an advance screening agree to an embargo. That’s not unusual except for this: public showings begin Thursday night. The embargo for print reviews (although not online reviews) is Saturday, which just happens to be lowest circulation paper of the week.

So spread the word. The worst movie of 2016 has just been released. It’s called “Dirty Grandpa.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The 5th Wave

With Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello. Written by Susannah Grant and Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner. Directed by J Blakeson. Rated PG-13 for violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying. 112 minutes.

It’s not easy being a teenage girl in a post-apocalyptic world…. unless you’re in a YA novel. Then, in “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” you get to fight bad guys, worry about which dreamy guy you’re going to end up with, and deal with alien or futuristic technology. Of course that’s a gross over-simplification and, when it’s done well, the books can be quite successful. In adapting these books to the big screen, Hollywood has been looking for the next franchise. They just may have found it with THE 5TH WAVE.

Based on a trilogy of novels by Rick Yancey (the third is due out this year), its focus is Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is trying to surive an alien invasion of Earth by an unseen enemy known as “The Others.” After using an electromagnetic pulse to shut down the world’s power, causing floods and tidal waves, and launching a deadly viral outbreak, The Others set out to wipe out the remaining human survivors.

To say much more about the plot would be give away some of the twists and turns it takes. Suffice to say Cassie and several other young characters have their work cut out for them. Naturally there are a couple of boys who will pull her in different directions. Ben (Nick Robinson) is a high school classmate on whom she had a crush. He’s survived and is now working with the Army–led by Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber)–to fight back against the aliens. Then there’s Evan (Alex Roe), who rescues Cassie at one point but may not be what he seems.

About that rescuing: the young women in the film are no shrinking violets. When Evan says he wants to protect Cassie she makes it very clear that she fully intends to protect herself. In spite of the romantic subplots in these stories, the female protagonists kick ass and don’t bother taking names.

Casting Moretz as Cassie was a smart move. Like Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” films and Shailene Woodley in the “Divergent” series, Moretz is first and foremost an actress playing a complex character. We have to believe that she can kill and that she would be seriously upset to discover that she’s capable of killing. She can play the teenage girl having to choose between two guys, but also the big sister risking everything to rescue her little brother Sam (Zackary Arthur). In short, she’s got to be capable of carrying the film, be appealing to the guys in the audience, and be a strong role model for teen and tween girls. It’s a tall order, and Moretz pulls it off well enough that one doesn’t mind the prospect of two (please only two) more films.

If “The 5th Wave” is a success, look for the trend of YA adaptations to the big screen to continue. As the old joke has it, in Hollywood, everyone is first in line to be second.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

 With John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa. Written by Chuck Hogan. Directed by Michael Bay. Rated R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language. 144 minutes.

Don’t you just hate it when a movie gets caught up in politics? When “The Right Stuff” came out–about the Mercury astronauts–there was more talk about whether it would impact the potential presidential campaign for John Glenn than on the quality of the film. With “American Sniper,” a superb film about the price our soldiers pay, it became a marker in the debate over the war in Iraq.

Now we have 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI. Objectively it is a solid film about a group of soldiers–actually former soldiers performing as contractors–trying to hold things together at a remote Libyan outpost under attack. A bit overlong, it is still a compelling film about men in combat in a region where you can’t tell friends from enemies. That isn’t how it’s going to be perceived.

If you think FOX News is a legitimate source of information, you may as well stop reading right now, because this review will be focusing on fact, not fantasy. There is no “Benghazi scandal.” Hillary Clinton did not “abandon” Americans under attack nor did she try to “cover up” anything. Several Republican Congressional committees attempted to pin everything on her and came up utterly empty. That’s reality.

The film tries to stick to the facts. There’s a passing reference to protests against an anti-Mohammad film that were taking place elsewhere in the Muslim world on Sept. 11, 2012, but it’s clear that had nothing to do with the attacks in Benghazi. We see that the official outpost and the “secret” CIA location were undermanned for security and that help was distant and slow to come.

Our focus are the six contractors who are there to support security efforts. The CIA station chief both needs and resents their presence, but when they come under attack he’s told, “You’re in our world now.” If at first it feels like a video game–this is a Michael Bay film after all – the attack quickly turns real. There’s the confusion over the lack of identification. The chief is constantly asked if they’re expecting any “friendlies” when, for example, police cars pull up at the gate. The men have to try to anticipate the next move of the unknown enemy while at the same time deal with the ebb and flow of the attack. One notes that the downtime is the worst of it, as the adrenaline drains and they start to crash.

“13 Hours” is not a political film, but will be treated as such by those with an agenda, who will complain there’s no scene with then-Secretary of State Clinton cackling with glee at the deaths of Americans. Outside the bubble of right-wing crazies, nothing like that ever happened. As Steven Colbert famously noted, reality has a well-known liberal bias. Recounting what actually happened during that attack is an opportunity to see America’s defenders pull together under nightmarish conditions. It’s what we’re made of. It’s too bad the movie is unlikely to be perceived that way.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Revenant

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck. Written by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. 156 minutes.

It’s sometime in possibly the 19th century in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s THE REVENANT, somewhere wintry on the North American continent. A group of Indians attack a group of white trappers. It’s a pretty devastating attack and the decision is made by the surviving trappers to get out while the getting is good, and come back for the hides later.

Their guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) has the misfortune of being badly mauled by a bear. He survives but he’s in terrible shape. Realizing that carrying him is slowing them down they leave him behind with a few volunteers, including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald is a bad one, and soon Glass, barely able to move, is all alone.

That’s the setting for this overlong drama of survival and revenge. If the problem with Quentin Tarentino’s equally violent 19th century melodrama, “The Hateful Eight,” is that everybody talks too much, the problem with “The Revenant” is that hardly anyone talks at all. We learn little about the characters (although we get a bit of Glass’s backstory later in the film). Consequently we have little reason to care what happens to them.

Instead the emphasis is on the visuals. It is stunning to look at. Iñárritu shot the film in natural light and since it takes place almost entirely in the wilderness the scenery is, at times, breathtaking. The bear attack is frightening and even though we know it’s all special effects, it’s clear that DiCaprio put up with a lot of hardship for the role.

But for what? As he makes his way back to civilization we see his various struggles but we don’t become engaged with his journey. Is he simply trying to survive? Is he out for revenge against Fitzgerald? His function seems to be one of helping Iñárritu get impressive shots of a lone man against a frozen and forbidding vista. With a running time of over two and a half hours, that’s asking a lot of the audience.

DiCaprio doesn’t so much play Glass as endure the role. He goes through a lot, and one wouldn’t blame him if he went from this to a light romantic comedy, preferably set at a beach. However while he effectively shows us a man with horrible injuries who keeps on moving, there’s not much more to it than that. As for Hardy, he’s got the showier role as the villain, and much of the film’s dialogue. In the absence of any other character with any sort of substantial role, he’s been getting a lot praise for a two-dimensional character. He’s selfish and self-serving, and beyond that we’re told nothing.

This is the action-adventure film as arthouse epic, where a tighter script and more clearly defined characters might have made it more engaging. Enjoy the scenery–and, perhaps, cringe at the violence–but you’ll be hard-pressed to come away from “The Revenant” with anything more than that.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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