REVIEW: “Hail, Caesar!”

CAESAR poster

I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.


While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.

I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.


But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.

It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.

Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.


3 Stars

REVIEW: “Tomorrowland”

LAND poster

At the heart of Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” lies something good and noble. A movie about positivity and hope. A movie about optimism and faith in the future. A movie promoting the idea that we can change the world for the better. I give the film a lot of credit for sporting such important themes. But somewhere along the way Bird and company forgot the importance of good storytelling.

The story centers around a forward thinking and science-savvy teen named Casey (Britt Robertson). She discovers a T-shaped pin that grants her visions of the futuristic Tomorrowland – a utopia where science and technology has flourished. Once the pin’s battery runs out Casey seeks more information about it. A little girl named Athena (who is actually a robot) leads Casey to a cantankerous and disillusioned inventor named Frank (George Clooney).



Frank supposedly knows how to travel to Tomorrowland but he wants nothing to do with it. When a group of angry robots show up to try to kill them, he grows even more obstinate. Frank represents the cynical ‘it can’t be done’ mentality. It clashes with Casey’s unbridled hope and optimism. This is also represented as a generational division between the older pessimistic attitude and the youthful ‘can do’ spirit. Ultimately the two will have to come together if there is to be any hope of saving Tomorrowland and the vision it represents.

“Tomorrowland” is an ambitious picture. It tries to be a flashy special effects spectacle and a thought-provoking essay packaged in pretty Disney wrapping. It gets the first part right. “Tomorrowland” looks absolutely amazing. The effects are dazzling – bright, beautiful colors and fun, innovative architecture and technology. Bird and company create a visually satisfying and compelling world and there is obviously a lot of time and attention  that went into its details.


But the same can’t be said for the story itself. This is a film that struggles to find its identity. It tinkers with several interesting ideas and it teases us with several fun and interesting story angles. But it never capitalizes on them. So often the story loses any momentum by bogging down in dull back-and-forths and tedious lectures. It is a film with a message but it is incredibly clunky in its delivery and the film’s preachiness is pretty glaring at times. These things strip the movie of its excitement, allure, and charm.

In a nutshell “Tomorrowland” is a messy and frustrating experience. It looks spectacular and its optimistic outlook is commendable. There is a really good story buried in there somewhere. But I grew tired of looking for it and waiting for it to show up. The story is simply too inconsistent, too uneven, and too flat. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. There is never enough Disney for young kids and not a well delivered message for adults. As a result we are left with yet another movie that falls terrible short of what it could have been.


2 Stars

REVIEW: “The Monuments Men”


Inspired by an incredible true story and armed with a wonderful ensemble cast, “The Monuments Men” has all the ingredients to be a sure thing. The talent behind the film starts with George Clooney who co-writes, stars, and takes another turn at directing. Clooney has directed some fantastic movies but “Leatherheads” and “The Ides of March” showed us that he’s far from infallible. But I was excited once I saw “The Monuments Men” on the horizon and it quickly became one of my most eagerly anticipated films. Pretty high expectations, right?

I first heard the story of “The Monuments Men” from author Robert Edsel. He was doing an interview and talking about his new book which told the true story of Allied soldiers who sought out and saved important works of art from Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2. It’s incredible stuff and once I heard about a film adaptation I was hooked. Clooney’s picture is loosely based on the actual events which feeds the movie’s strengths but also its weaknesses. So far people have pounced on the film expecting more from it or wanting something entirely different. Personally I thought “The Monuments Men” was fantastic.

Monuments2While watching the film my very first feelings were nostalgic. “The Monuments Men” is a throwback to the old ensemble war pictures but with its own unique twist. I immediately began thinking of movies like “The Green Berets”, “The Guns of Navarone”, and “The Dirty Dozen”. Even the end credits hearken back to those older pictures. My father loved these films and growing up I was able to watch them and learn to appreciate them. I think Clooney gets that and he knows what he’s doing. I give him a ton of credit for recapturing the vibes and nuances of those past genre pieces.

But the big difference between this film and the older ones can be found in the characters. This team isn’t comprised of hardened frontline soldiers. These are common men who possess particular skills needed to complete this unique mission. They are museum curators, art historians, and architects. They are older men who are more comfortable with Picassos and Monets than machine guns and hand grenades. Their mission brings them in as the war in Europe is ending. But even though they slip around the battlefields and combat, eventually the elements of the war effects them. They are at times joking and playful – it’s what you could expect from these types of characters. But they are no longer curating museums, designing skyscrapers, or painting. They are in the war and they constantly come across sober reminders of that.


I love this entire dynamic which diverts the movie from a common action-oriented path. There really isn’t much action at all which hurts the film in some people’s estimation. Personally I don’t think the story calls for much action. Instead it focuses on the mother of all treasure hunts through an assortment of beautiful European locales. But their mission isn’t easy. There are still wartime tensions, a greedy Russian army, and the Nazis who are under direct orders from Hitler to destroy everything. The seven who make up The Monuments Men split up and spread out across Europe hunting clues, fleeing danger, and tracking down as much stolen art as they can.

Clooney’s film has plenty of shifts in tone. The movie sometimes feels easygoing and lighthearted only to be dark and somber a few scenes later. Some have taken issue with this saying the humor feels out of place. I completely disagree because I found the humor to be measured and conscientious. The humor was there but it felt light. There were never any attempts at big laugh-out-loud moments which would have really been jarring.

And then there is the cast. I love watching good actors act and we certainly get to do that. Clooney plays the team leader and he’s joined by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. Everyone of them gives fine performances and there is some unique chemistry that develops. Cate Blanchett is also excellent playing someone based on the fascinating real Rose Valland. All of these characters are given their moments to shine and we are given small bits of information about them along the way. Unfortunately it’s not enough to fully develop the characters – only to make us want to know more about them. That was a little disappointing although a movie like this could get bogged down with layers upon layers of backstory.


Phedon Papamichael (who also did brilliant work in 2013’s “Nebraska”) offers up some fine cinematography and the war-torn set designs look amazing. Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the film’s old-school flavor that Clooney is obviously shooting for. The performances, the nostalgia, the clever balance of the script, the uniqueness of the story. Everything I’ve mentioned comes together in a film that I found satisfying but many others clearly didn’t. What has caused the strong backlash to this film? Was it the lack of action, the deliberate pacing, the scattered storytelling? These things are certainly present but for me they made it a better film and they help steer it away from the conventional movie we could have gotten.

As a lover of art and World War II history, the story of “The Monuments Men” connected with me from the start. As a lover of the fun ensemble war pictures that were all but gone by the end of the 1960s, Clooney’s vision and approach hits the target. To say I’m bewildered by the negative reception to this film is an understatement. I don’t quite know what to make of it. But movies are a funny thing and they certainly effect people differently. For me this was a real treat – a movie that doesn’t pander to conventionalism, moves at its own pace, and treats its subject with respect. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s certainly not a bad film either and I for one loved it.


REVIEW : “The Descendants”


“The Descendants” is a film from director Alexander Payne that first came out Oscar ripe. It’s a heavy story that deals with several conflicting emotions that flow from situations that are all too real for many people. It can be a difficult film to watch at times but it can also be quite moving. I can certainly understand the reason for the Oscar buzz it received mainly due to some incredible performances. But the movie both underplays and overplays some parts of the story which for me held it back a tad.

The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a husband and father of two who lives in Hawaii. He’s a rich man who gained his wealth by being a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine virgin land on the island of Kauai. But Matt tries to stay grounded. He works as a lawyer and uses that salary to support his family while employing his father’s perspective that you should always work for your money. Matt and his cousins have entertained offers for the land. Some want to sell it to a huge group from Chicago while others want to sell to a local Kauai developer. Matt has the final say and must weigh the wishes of his family with what’s best for the community. We learn most of this in the first few minutes of the movie through expository voice-overs. In many films this could be seen as a crutch but here it works surprisingly well and gives us key elements to the story which sets up what’s to come.

But within the first few minutes of the film it’s revealed that Matt’s wife has had a serious boating accident which leaves her comatose in an intensive care unit. Things look bleak and Matt struggles to bring together his two daughters. One is the impressionable 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the other is the bitter, irreverent 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). To make matters worse, Matt finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with a younger real estate agent. The story takes Matt on an emotional roller coaster as he tries to balance feelings of anger and betrayal with the reality of his wife’s current state. There is a unique complexity to the story and while there is a lot going on emotionally, Payne makes everything feel genuine and authentic.


While “The Descendants” does keep everything feeling reel, it does overplay a vital element to one of the film’s key relationships. Matt struggles and at times looks inept when it comes to parenting. This was never more clear than in his relationship with his older daughter Alex. Payne certainly portrays her as angry and rebellious but I felt he terribly overdid it. I was particularly turned off by her constant vulgarity and irreverence. Even as their relationship supposedly grows stronger, we see her or her airhead boyfriend speak to Matt as if they were drinking buddies. Woodley gives a brilliant performance but I never completely appreciated her character mainly due to some shoddy writing which kills the otherwise wonderful moments between the two. Her character never truly evolves as I had hoped.

And while it overplays that particular relationship I felt it underplayed the relationship between Matt and his wife. To be fair, we do get all the information we need and I had no trouble understanding the relationship between the two. But I couldn’t help but wish for more. We never see them together before the accident. All of the details of their marriage is brought out through conversations with neighbors and family. It’s a smart method of storytelling and I guess it worked well enough. But the nitpicker in me really would have liked to have seen more.


One of the most important lines in the movie occurs during a conversion Matt has with another character. Matt is told “Everything just happens”. This seems to be a main point that Payne tries to make with this film and we see it throughout the picture. But I couldn’t buy into that premise. I go back to Matt’s relationship with his daughter. Alex’s attitude and disrespect didn’t just happen. She is a product of her parents poor parenting. His wife’s affair didn’t just happen. Her poor decisions and lack of self-control led to the adultery. If “Everything just happens” is a main point as many have said, Payne never sold me on it.

As I mentioned, their are some fantastic performances here. Clooney is controlled and reserved and delivers one of his best performances. I’ve already mentioned the great work from Woodley but young Miller is also quite good. With the exception of the peculiarly cast Matthew Lillard, there are several brief but strong performances from actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges. I also loved the use of Hawaii as a location. We do get small glimpses at its island beauty but for the most part Payne treats it as a real place where people live – a community with all the same trials and troubles as any other state. The mix of uniqueness and commonality was very effective.

There is a lot to like with “The Descendants”. It deals with some weighty subject matter in a real and thoughtful way. It shows glimpses of greatness even though it’s brought back down by some poor creative direction that strips one of the more intriguing characters of much of her likability. But I found myself caring about what happened to these people. It’s strong stuff and “The Descendants” handles it all well. It’s a film with a great concept and some great moments. Unfortunately a few speed bumps in the script keep it from being a truly great film.


REVIEW: “Solaris” (2002)

SolarisI love science fiction and I’ve watched a lot of sci-fi movies over the years. But I’ve been amazed at how many sci-fi flicks have slipped under my radar or that I have unfortunately ignored altogether. Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” is a good example. I’ve had several opportunities to see it since it’s 2002 release but have always back-burnered it for some unexplainable reason. Well it took me long enough but I’ve finally sat down and watched “Solaris” and I can honestly say I understand why it’s a movie that’s driven a lot of debate.

Although “Solaris” is often referred to as a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s critically adored 1972 film, writer and director Steven Soderbergh stated that he intended it to be a new version of Stanislaw Lem’s original novel from 1961. I haven’t seen Tarkovsky’s film or read Lem’s book so I can’t make any comparable judgement. But I can tell you I enjoyed this version a great deal even though I can see where it would potentially push some movie fans away.

George Clooney stars as Dr. Chris Kelvin, a psychologist who is convinced to visit a space station orbiting a mysterious planet called Solaris. He receives a cryptic message from a friend on the station asking for his help with some troubling psychological events. I’m not sure how the process works, but Kelvin takes a solo flight to the station to investigate the situation on his own. I’m not sure if that was the best idea. What he finds is quite troubling and soon he’s fighting to keep himself from being consumed by the phenomena.


If it sounds like a science-fiction action story it’s not. “Solaris” is a psychological thriller told through the stylistic lens of Soderbergh’s camera. His impressive penchant for angles and shots that relay a feeling of observation is clearly seen here. These unique touches are sprinkled all through the film giving it a slight sense of unease. That’s exactly what Soderbergh is going for and he succeeds. I also love the accentuated use of sound. From the ominous and distinct hums of each of the space station’s rooms or hallways to the strategic use of Cliff Martinez’s simple but menacing score. Through these things the tone of the film is quickly developed and it never once ventures from it. I liked that.

Clooney is also very good in a role that requires him to do more storytelling through expression and body language than dialogue. It’s said that the role was originally written with Daniel Day-Lewis in mind but scheduling conflicts landed the script in Clooney’s lap instead. I’ll be honest, I would love to see what DDL would have done with this role but the film doesn’t suffer one bit by having Clooney onboard. He goes all out, pouring emotion and paranoia into the character. It’s a really good performance.

“Solaris” may be a challenging watch for some but I found it to be quite fascinating. I’ve intentionally stayed away from some pretty important plot points but lets just say things take some interesting turns. Some may struggle with certain aspects if the story but fans of unique science fiction that’s soaked in eerie ambience are going to be intrigued with this one.



In honor of this Friday’s release of “The Avengers”, I’m spending the week looking at comic book/ superhero movies. Yesterday we listed 5 Phenomenal Superhero Movies. Well, just like every other genre, you have good movies and you have some real stinkers. Today I’m listing 5 Phenomenally Awful Superhero Movies. As with yesterday’s list, this one stays within the comic book arena. The main difference is that these films simply got it all wrong. Unfortunately there were plenty to pick between and I found it a little difficult narrowing it down to five. Nonetheless here they are. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these 5 superhero movies are most certainly not phenomenal!

#5 – “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” (2006)

It’s a shame that a franchise that started so good could fall so far in such a short time. “X-Men: The Last Stand” was the third X-Men movie and by far the worst. Bryan Singer, the director of the first two films, left and Brent Ratner took over. But the biggest problem was with the story. The ridiculous liberties that were taken with the team were simply unforgivable. The series went from being about a superhero team to being a Wolverine and Jean Grey love story. The special effects are really good and the production value is fine. But X3 turned the series on its head. “X-Men: The Last Stand” severed its ties to its comic book roots and proved to be a franchise killer.

#4 – “JONAH HEX” (2010)

Talk about a great example of a missed opportunity. Jonah Hex has more than enough wonderful source material to make a great movie. Why on earth did the movie stray so far off course? “Jonah Hex” is an absurd and often times incoherent mess than only gives the audience brief glimpses into what makes the character great. What’s even worse is that Josh Brolin is perfect as Jonah Hex. The makeup combined with Brolin’s portrayal is right on target. Unfortunately the material is so ridiculous and lame that it’s impossible to enjoy what he’s doing on-screen. Then you have the casting of Megan Fox who offers up one cringe-worthy line after another. Even the often times reliable John Malkovich is like fingernails on a chalk board. “Jonah Hex” is one of the most poorly written movies I have ever seen and even at only 81 minutes, it drags on forever.

#3- “THE SPIRIT” (2008)

Acclaimed comic book and graphic novel writer Frank Miller wrote and directed “The Spirit” and I have to say he should stick to books. “The Spirit” is an absolute mess right from the start. The movie is a lifeless and emotionless film that is a good example of style over substance. Miller’s over-the-top style works visually but the material is so flat and grating. Miller’s self-indulgence make some scenes seem to go on forever and it’s truly a laborious task to make it through the picture. The actors drudge along never developing a single character worth caring about. It’s almost as if Miller simply forgot the difference between print media and cinema. Whatever the reason, “The Spirit” is a movie that I pray I never have to see again.

#2- “CATWOMAN” (2004)

I’m not alone in calling “Catwoman” a terrible movie. It’s one of those rare movies that I honestly wasn’t able to make it through. I struggled with leaving it off this list simply because I never finished it. But then I asked myself WHY I never finished it? Oh yes, because it was absolutely horrible. Loaded with ludicrous and cheesy dialogue and a paper-thin story, “Catwoman” takes a great DC Comics character and butchers her all for the sake of putting Halle Berry in a cat suit. Both Berry and Sharon Stone are laughably bad and the material is no better. The direction, the special effects, the character development, all of it is subpar and the result is a disaster that some have said derailed Berry’s once promising career. If you’ve seen “Catwoman” (or if you’ve tried to see it), you know exactly why it’s on this list.

#1- “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)

The first Batman movie franchise wasn’t the best. The first film starring Michael Keeton and Jack Nicholson was a lot of fun but after that it slowly started going downhill. The series hit rock bottom with Joel Schumacher’s abhorrent “Batman and Robin”. Schumacher’s film was a catastrophe and was the ultimate death knell for the franchise. Nothing in “Batman and Robin” works. It takes such a flippant and arrogant approach to Batman and his universe. It’s never as funny or as clever as it thinks it is and Schumacher seems more interested in clowning around than making a quality film. George Clooney is a fine actor but he was a terrible Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is one of the worst characters in film history. I have a laundry list of faults associated with “Batman and Robin”. Maybe it’s my affection for the source material, but it doesn’t take much to see that this is a poorly made movie on almost every level. It’s absurdity is off the charts and it’s lazy, unfunny attempts at humor never let up. I hate “Batman and Robin” and there is a reason why it’s accused of killing the Batman series.

So there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list. See something I may have left off? Please share you comments below.