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Hail, Caesar!

February 5, 2016
Hail, Caesar!

The extent to which you “get” Hail, Caesar! probably depends on how much TCM you watch. Which is not to say that the movie isn’t delightful anyway, but the more you recognize about studio-era Hollywood the more rapturous your delight at seeing the Coen brothers’ takes on it.

In fact, it’s hard to say whether Hail, Caesar! is a Philip Marlowe-style mystery bedecked with set-piece tributes to other period Hollywood themes, or whether it’s a revue in the vein of That’s Entertainment! but with a running plot to string the pieces together. I’d lean towards the former, but there are times the latter does seem more appropriate.

Either way, the main story centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive at Capitol Pictures. He’s in charge of making sure the studio’s operations continue smoothly, but most of the time that means cleaning up after the stars to keep their faces nice and neat and marketable. When Esther Williams knock-off DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) turns up pregnant, for instance, Eddie has to get her married before she can’t fit into her mermaid costume anymore.

It also means moving Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) out of trick-riding westerns and into high-society dramas directed by no less a talent than Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and setting him up with Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) in order to tweak both of their images. And it means fending off the advances of Hedda Hopper-ish gossip columnists like Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), sometimes by throwing them the Doyle-Valdez story to keep them off the trail.

But the big story comes when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing. The star of Capitol’s prestigious Ben-Hur knockoff — no points for guessing — Hail, Caesar! has a history of ill-timed benders, but this time he’s been drugged and kidnapped by a gang of Communist screenwriters more entertaining, if somewhat less factual, than the ones in last year’s Trumbo.

Even if this were it, I’m sure the Coens could spin out an engaging yarn. But it’s the studio-era Hollywood decorations that raise Hail, Caesar! to another level. Early on we get practically a full Esther Williams production number featuring DeeAnna, and then there’s a show-stopping song-and-dance number by young matinee idol Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) that may not quite match Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but at least matches James Cagney’s work in the likes of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

And then there are the smaller bits, like a sequence with a film editor (Frances McDormand) that doesn’t serve any essential purpose to the story, but adds delightful color. Hobie Doyle’s misadventures trying to adapt his bow-legged manner to Laurence Laurentz’ staid dramatics also don’t need to be developed as fully as they are, but seeing Ehrenreich and Fiennes opposite each other is a joy.

In fact, the whole cast is charming, from Clooney playing the kind of star he might have been fifty years go right down to the rogues’ gallery of Coen regulars as the cabal of Communists who capture him. And, as we saw two years ago, there’s nothing like a quirky, madcap comedy with an impeccable pedigree for both cast and crew to liven up an otherwise dreary spring dump-season.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Finest Hours

January 29, 2016
The Finest Hours

If you’re looking for manly-men doing manly, heroic things in the theater this winter, and if Bay’s Benghazi bomb is a little too right-wing ooh-rah for your tastes, then maybe you’ll like The Finest Hours. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a coastal-Massachusetts-based adventure on the high seas featuring some guy named Chris doing a really bad imitation of a coastal Massachusetts accent, but Not-Moby-Dick had a little too much whale-head for you, again, maybe you’ll like The Finest Hours.

If I seem less than enthusiastic about the movie, well, it just doesn’t give me a whole lot to get all enthusiastic about. It’s pitched right down the middle at a classic dad-audience, to the kind of later-middle-aged guys who probably have Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman’s nonfiction account of the Pendleton rescue filed on their bookshelf next to a host of other nonfiction adventures. It’s a story of Real Men, endowed by their Creator with a near-magical combination of bravery, machine sense, and dashing good looks.

So, the story: in mid-February, 1952, the oil tanker SS Pendleton broke apart in a gale south of Cape Cod, at about the same time that the Coast Guard turned out to assist another tanker, the SS Fort Mercer, that had broken apart in the same storm. The motor life boat CG 36500, out of Chatham, managed to locate the Pendleton and save 32 survivors from the stern section before it sank.

Most of the movie stays with Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), the inexperienced coxswain of the 36500. Most of his character comes by telegraphing plot points. He’s unsure of himself, even when it comes to his relationship with Miriam Penttinen (Holliday Grainger), despite being reminded that he looks like, well, Chris Pine. Partly his nerves come from a failed attempt to get over a nasty sandbar to rescue a sinking ship a year or so before, so we know what he’s going to have to manage eventually. He’s also a stickler for regulations, even refusing to propose to Miriam without getting his commanding officer (Eric Bana) to approve it first, so we know he’s eventually going to buck them.

That’s more than we really get for the rest of his crew (Kyle Gallner, Ben Foster, and John Magaro), who mostly fill out the boat as a ragtag bunch you’d never expect to pull off the “Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue”.

Partly that’s because we also spend a huge chunk of time with the men on the Pendleton. With the bow already sunk, the engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), decides to jury-rig enough of a mechanism to steer the ship onto a shoal and slow their descent. But some of the men want to rush for the lifeboats, and there’s some sort of sense that they don’t trust Sybert for reasons that are never all that well fleshed out.

But it doesn’t really matter that much. Despite the storm’s effects on visibility, you can see pretty much everything coming for miles. There are some nicely-rendered shots of the little Coast Guard ship cutting through the giant waves to get over the bar, but the score does a lot of heavy lifting in making the other scenes feel dramatic and important. I get the magnitude of what these guys accomplished, but it feels strangely small and routine even on the big screen, with no real sense of danger to it.

Maybe the depiction is just not up to the task of what it’s trying to depict. And as an adventure yarn, it’s a real stretch to call this the finest of anything. But I guess it’s fine enough.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Lady in the Van

January 22, 2016
The Lady in the Van

When I was a graduate student, there was a homeless lady in New Haven. Well, there were a lot of them, actually, despite the town’s efforts to hide them from the well-off parents of the school’s undergraduate student body. But there was one, in particular, who people called “The Shakespeare Lady”.

You’d usually see her somewhere along Whitney Avenue, maybe at the corner with Grove Street, or on the small side-road of Audubon Street. She’d call out to the passers-by, asking to recite something from Shakespeare for them, and maybe get a donation. She’d seem like she was doing something more than just panhandling, that way. Most people would just assume she’d memorized a bit of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, or maybe Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. I certainly did, until my advisor introduced me to Margaret Holloway.

Margaret had attended Bennington College on scholarship, and gone on to earn her MFA in directing at the Yale School of Drama, twenty years before I knew her. But then mental health issues led to drug problems; even as she got clean, the havoc they wreaked on her life made it all but impossible to recover. She made great strides, though, while I knew her, and last I heard she was still okay. I hope she still is.

I found myself thinking about Margaret a lot as I watched The Lady in the Van, Alan Bennett’s (surrogate-Bennett regular Alex Jennings) memoir-turned-play-turned-film about his experiences with Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith). He met her in the 1970s, already a fixture of the gentrifying Camden neighborhood he moved into. And while he claims to be as disdainful of her as the worst of his neighbors, when she finds herself in a tight spot he suggests she temporarily park her van in the driveway he isn’t using anyway, where she then stayed for fifteen years.

Of course, there’s more to the story than that. Miss Shepherd had a life before she was the crazy old lady in her haphazardly-painted Bedford van. And even once she’s in the van, there’s a whole living breathing person hidden away inside that hard exterior. Richard Gere may have locked down the travails of homelessness in the under-appreciated Time out of Mind, but Dame Maggie embodies the humanity of this unappreciated woman in a way that nobody else could.

In its way, that’s what sets The Lady in the Van apart from most other films about homeless people. Calls for better social services are all well and good, and by all means I support improving them. But all too often our concern for homeless people is marked by a distinct “othering”. That is, we are concerned because it’s such a shame what happens To Them, the others over there. The irony is especially acute in America, so marked lately by the idea that we should never take from the rich because we may one day become rich ourselves, that we never consider what might happen if one day we may be poor.

This othering is embedded in how we write and talk about the issue. We speak of “the homeless”, making indigence their essential trait rather than one unfortunate fact about them. And this leads on to “the homeless problem”, rather than “the homelessness problem”, as if the people themselves are the problem. That’s certainly how both town and gown in New Haven viewed people like Margaret Holloway.

But not everyone has the chance to know someone like Margaret, even to the little extent that I did. Many of the sort who will seek out The Lady in the Van have constructed nice, clean enclaves that isolate them from ever having to come face to face with the human reality of homelessness. Even some of Bennett’s neighbors do all they can to avoid Miss Shepherd, and Bennett himself insists to a social worker that despite offering his driveway he is not her caretaker. For all our high-minded, compassionate liberalism, we still look away when brought face to face with someone in her situation. Bennett’s story implores us not to forget that these are people with lives as complicated and meaningful as any of ours.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Dirty Grandpa

January 22, 2016
Dirty Grandpa

Every so often, a critic stumbles on a realization that, unpopular though it may be, they know is a hill they may die on. Myself, I’ve come to believe that Zac Efron is the next Cary Grant. And believe me, it feels really weird to announce this in a review for Dirty Grandpa. The movie, as you can probably guess, stinks out loud, but Efron delivers what may be the best performance in the worst picture of 2016.

I really do mean this, though: Zac Efron is a Cary Grant-level talent, with the classic good looks of a comedic straight man or a romantic lead, but a willingness to take himself less than seriously. Precious few actors can seem equally at ease in preppy golf attire or nothing but a Georgia Tech Buzz Bee codpiece, and Efron is chief among them. The poster is not wrong when it places him into Dustin Hoffman’s old spot.

Efron is also an actor who can go toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro. Despite his recent habit of showing up in seemingly anything that will pay, De Niro is still a top-notch actor himself, and not all of his co-stars can play back to him as strongly as Efron manages.

The movie itself is basically a buddy raunch-comedy; the recently-bereaved Dick Kelly (De Niro) tricks his engaged grandson Jason (Efron) into driving him from Atlanta down to Spring Break in Daytona Beach less than a week before his wedding. Jason’s fiancée, Meredith (Julianne Hough), seems more a match based on their fathers’ partnership in the same law firm Jason abandoned his aspirations as a photographer to work in, and Dick thinks Jason is about to make a mistake. This doesn’t really get discussed until well into the movie, but I can’t honestly it a spoiler when you’d have to be pretty wasted not to pick up what’s going on right from the start. Then again, getting pretty wasted might not be a bad idea in general before watching.

There are some things Dirty Grandpa isn’t completely transparent about; ironically, they’re mostly things should be clearer up front. There’s a lot about the relationships between Jason, Dick, and Jason’s dad David (Dermot Mulroney) that gets introduced right before it pays off. The result feels kind of like that guy who tells a joke, but keeps backing up to fill in things he left out, and you end up wishing he just hadn’t started at all.

And it’s not like there’s nothing funny at all; Jason Mantzoukas is probably more entertaining here than usual, and individual scenes can be entertaining out of context, but writer John Phillips and director Dan Mazer show no ability to sew these bits up into any coherent or engaging whole. They try to smooth over the creepiness of Dick lusting after Aubrey Plaza’s Lenore by making her just as interested in sleeping with him, but then still act as if there’s anything stopping these two from just getting it on and over with. And Zoey Deutch is given even less to work with as Jason’s love interest.

But as lowbrow and unmotivated as Dirty Grandpa is in scene after scene, Zac Efron keeps coming back and giving it his all. I can’t help but respect his talent and his professionalism, even as I mourn the roles he keeps finding himself in.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

The 5th Wave

January 22, 2016
The 5th Wave

Nobody goes into these young-adult dystopias expecting Shakespeare. The Hunger Games was by far the best of them, and even that was a far cry from the novels and wore pretty thin by the end of the series. So when I saw The 5th Wave, I was ready for it to be bad, but I wasn’t ready for just how bad it was.

You guys, it is so bad.

The 5th Wave is, unfortunately, not the long-awaited post-apocalyptic sequel to Phase IV. It is, rather, an unholy amalgam of Independence Day, Deep Impact, Contagion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live, Red Dawn, and Son of Saul. And yes, in part that last one may have as much to do with the brain damage inflicted by watching this drivel, but I’m pretty sure there are echoes in there.

So here’s what they’re trying to sell us: aliens have invaded in giant flying metal things. They’ve knocked out all forms of power, including both electricity and internal combustion engines — more on this later — and further cut down the human population with earthquakes, tidal waves, and disease. Now they’ve taken human form to hunt down the stragglers, and, as promised, there will be a fifth wave of attack to wipe out the last survivors.

We learn all of this in a very rushed first half-hour flashback as Cassie Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz) writes in her journal. Her mother and father (desperately underusing Maggie Siff and Ron Livingston) have both died, and the army has taken her brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) and all the other kids to a nearby Air Force base, since they can detect the “Others” inside children. And since the kids are known to be clear, they can be trained as soldiers. I wish I were joking about this.

Cassie, on the other hand, was separated from the other kids when she went back to get Sammy’s teddy bear. She gets herself shot by one of the aliens, but wakes up in a farmhouse with her wound being tended by the obligatory Hot Guy, Evan Walker (Alex Roe). He wants her to stay, but agrees to accompany her to the base to find Sammy.

With both stories — the kids at the base and Cassie’s journey with Evan — there’s not enough time to deal with either one effectively. There is no character development to speak of. Cassie and Evan of course will fall for each other, but there’s no real reason given other than that they’re both young and hot and get chances to see each other PG-13-naked. For a story that tries playing to teenage romantic fantasies about love, the execution is pretty damn cynical about what teenagers’ love actually consists of.

The premise is every bit as half-baked as the characters are, so at least they fit in. Killing the power works by magic. Not only are lights and engines knocked out, they evidently can’t be repaired. Except then the army has managed to repair them. And internal-combustion engines won’t work, but guns evidently still do, which makes zero sense to anyone who knows how guns and engines work. I’m not trying to go all Neil deGrasse Tyson here; I’m down with speculative premises that violate actual physics, but I do demand some sort of self-consistency. What we have here is simply magic, conjured up for the convenience of whatever the story happens to want. It’s defiantly lazy.

More than once, someone in the critics’ row would wonder aloud, “who wrote this?” It’s a natural question, faced with a travesty, to demand some sort of accountability. Imagine my surprise as the credits rolled to see Fringe co-creator Jeff Pinkner. Right next to that was Akiva Goldsman, who wrote and directed many episodes of the show, and has a screenwriting Oscar to boot. And then there’s Susannah Grant, who has written some seriously good movies herself. I’m tempted to fall back on the writer of the original novel, Rick Yancey, for coming up with a story so bad that these three couldn’t save it.

But as bad as the writing is, the bad doesn’t stop there. The makeup, particularly Evan’s “beard”, is ridiculous. The action is completely ineffectual. Even Moretz was — and I really hate to say this — terrible, and that comes with full consideration of the lessons of her role in Clouds of Sils Maria. Maybe it was the director? it’s only J Blakeson’s second movie, but his breakout feature was extremely well-received. I’m at a loss.

Whatever the reason, The 5th Wave joins a swiftly-growing roster of truly abysmal movies starting out 2016. Worst of all: it’s threatening a sequel.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 15, 2016
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Most sane people, upon hearing the word “Benghazi”, instinctively think, “Oh, God, not this again.” That’s because the word has come two mean two nearly-unrelated things; three, if you count the Libyan city itself. And one of those meanings is a giant parliamentary boondoggle set up by one of the two major American political parties in order primarily, as they have admitted, to kneecap the presumptive frontrunner of the other party in the upcoming presidential election.

But this giant, childish farce grew out of what was, admittedly, a massive failure of intelligence and preparedness on the part of the CIA and the State Department, in which a small number of military contractors prevented much greater American losses. The facts of what happened on the night of September 11, 2012 are the story Michael Bay wants to tell in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. And, for the most part he succeeds, although he does so by ignoring the politically salient questions of why.

Our heroes, red-blooded American men all, were brought in by the CIA to protect a secret operation going on in the city of Benghazi in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s deposition and execution. For the most part, we follow Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), a former SEAL, and friend of Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale). The six-man team is filled out with an ex-Ranger, “Tanto” (Pablo Schreiber), and a few ex-Marines (Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, and David Denman). They all leave women and children at home while they risk their lives for a couple months at a stretch.

Bay deals with the setup expediently, filling in the back story of Libya and introducing us to the characters in a little over a half-hour of the movie’s running time. The remaining two hours are a string of firefights that play out when a local force equipped with weapons from Gaddafi’s armories systematically assaults first the drastically underguarded U.S. diplomatic outpost, then the CIA annex.

And say whatever else you will about Michael Bay, but the man knows how to shoot the hell out of a firefight. The action is spectacular, at times feeling like the frame rate jumps up in a better use of that hyper-realistic technique than Peter Jackson pulled off in The Hobbit. It’s also chaotic and disorganized, as you’d expect from Bay, but for once it feels like that’s saying something about the confusion these men must have felt. And yet, on top of all this, it’s strangely serious. One particular crescendo peaks when the contractors realize the attackers are trying to unload a huge bomb from a bus; they train their fire on that vehicle, detonating the bomb safely outside their compound. In any other action film, this would have triggered wild applause, but the people who attended my screening remained strangely, soberly, respectfully silent. It’s possible that audiences outside Washington D.C. might react differently.

But for all the just-the-facts equanimity Chuck Hogan’s screenplay brings to this presentation, 13 Hours can’t help but land like a grenade in the middle of a highly charged tempest in a cable-news teacup. That discussion has long since moved on from any actual concern with the facts on the ground, and is all bound up with the questions of why and how things got the way they were before everything went sideways. These are the exact questions the movie refuses to address.

As one particular example, why did the CIA station chief (David Costabile) refuse to send the contractors to support the defense of the diplomatic outpost? We do learn something about their mission, securing and disposing of the very weapons from Gaddafi’s vaults that were eventually turned on them. It’s entirely possible that the chief was concerned that if the annex was left unguarded that the attackers could compromise what the CIA had learned, and maybe use that information to find even more weapons. But when the script doesn’t even bring up what he’s thinking, it’s all too easy to assume he’s simply stupid or incompetent. In this case, trying not to take any side at all ends up reinforcing one narrative more than the other.

The script is shot through with absent motives like this. They’re the sort of thing that’s fine to leave as broad outlines when you’re spinning vampire yarns with Guillermo del Toro, but the omissions glare in a story as fraught as this one has become. The only motivations Hogan and Bay seem to consider are the contractors’ for being in Benghazi in the first place, and even these are never really resolved.

Without them, the most obvious explanation for the movie seems to be a naked cash grab, the filmmakers turning a profit on the infamy of the issue. There are no answers here; just a lot of stuff getting blowed up real good, showing just how bad-ass even retired American soldiers can be. Maybe some day the dust will truly settle and we can start to understand what really happened behind all the bullets and bombs. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Submarine Kid

January 15, 2016
The Submarine Kid

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to The Submarine Kid. A returning-soldier story starring and co-written by the extremely pretty and ’50s-marquee-idol-named Finn Wittrock. At second glance, though, well, there’s still not a lot to it. But Wittrock, for all the hunky-best-friend supporting parts he’s built his young career on in movies like Unbroken and My All-American, is a Juilliard graduate, and it turns out he’s got something of a handle on how to use magical realism to tell a story. Not quite enough to bring it home, but he’s getting there.

In the movie, Wittrock is Spencer, a marine back from the war who has Seen Some Stuff. His family and friends welcome him back, and his girlfriend, Emily (Jessy Schram), has waited for him. And yet, part of Spencer is still stuck in the trauma that got him rotated back home, seeing visions of his fellow soldiers and a mysterious woman wearing niqab. Fellow veteran Marc (Michael Beach), Spencer’s boss at the bookstore where he takes a job, urges him to talk about his experiences, but Spencer insists he’s fine.

Some relief seems to come when Spencer meets Alice (Emilie de Ravin), a seemingly free-spirited young woman in cat’s-eye glasses who wanders into the shop one day. But then she introduces him to a comic book based on a local urban legend about “The Submarine Kid”, who so loved being underwater that he practiced holding his breath longer and longer until one day he vanished in the lake.

Something in Spencer’s mind takes hold of this idea. He becomes obsessed with holding his breath, pulling away from the surface world of his friends and family. They beg him to seek help, but their voices fade away, as if he’s sinking below the surface. He tries holding his breath under water, veering close to suicide in his delusions.

To the movie’s credit, it never avoids the need for professional intervention. There’s a smarmy trap all too many stories like this one fall into, where if the people around a soldier suffering from PTSD just love and support them enough then everything will be all right. Wittrock also doesn’t veer too far into playing Spencer as obviously haunted. It’s not easy to tell at a glance whether someone is really okay, or whether they’re hiding turbulence under the surface.

And yet, while it does some things right, The Submarine Kid comes up watery and insubstantial. Spencer’s family are supportive, but little more; his friends are practically stock townie characters, with only “Toad” (Matt O’Leary) standing out as at all memorable. Even Alice seems curiously undeveloped for the central role she plays, and her interactions with Spencer lack much heft or meaning.

That said, it does get some things right, and Wittrock shows promise as a writer alongside his growing career as an actor. It may not be worth going out of your way to see, but it’s not at all unpleasant to watch.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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