Synopsis: A short film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s one-act play. It follows a desperate woman who waits for the phone call of the lover who has just abandoned her.
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Agustín Almodóvar, Miguel Almodóvar, Pablo Almodóvar
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Running Length: 30 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I mean, let’s just get this out of the way first off. Has there ever been a better trio of collaborators? Pedro Almodóvar, Tilda Swinton, and Quarantine? Seriously, who knows if it hadn’t been for this strange year we just experienced if a short film like The Human Voice would ever have happened. I’m not sure I totally love the work as a whole but the artists involved are of such impeccable quality that you sort of just accept what they offer you and be glad they showed up at all. How else would we ever be treated to an Oscar winning director and actress joining up and giving us a bite-sized version of their best and tastiest calling cards? Our treats include such bon-bons as Almodóvar’s rich sense of color and eye for camera angles, Swinton’s never to be duplicated way for approaching a line reading and her ability to wear the most outrageous clothes and have it feel like she’s tromping around her house in sweatpants. Visually, the film is no question a stunner…it’s all those pesky words that might derail you over its half hour running length.
Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monologue-drama has been seen on film (and in drama/speech competitions) numerous times but as adapted by Almodóvar it’s given a handy reading, at least in the stage actions of Swinton (Suspiria) as a spurned lover saying good-bye to her flame. The lover is already gone and Swinton’s character isn’t taking it too well…that’s why an early trip to a hardware store sees Swinton buying a hefty axe that she uses to exercise some frustration on a suit she’s laid out on their bed. (Side note: any film where Tilda Swinton buys an axe in the first ten minutes instantly merits a watch in my book…but, you do you.) Then…a phone call. Largely dialogue-free up until now, this is where Almodóvar’s film starts to get a little treacly and fartsy (not artsy) and not even Swinton’s dynamite costumes by Sonia Grande (The Lost City of Z) or the exquisite production design from Antxón Gómez (Pain and Glory) can pull it back. It just sort of fails to go anywhere beyond the confines it sets for itself and with art direction so vibrant, it’s an odd dichotomy to work with.
That’s disappointing because for a thirty-minute film with a great pedigree, The Human Voice shouldn’t feel tough to sit through. And, at times, it does. On stage, I’d most certainly be enraptured in the presence of the actor playing the part and how they convey the feelings they are working with moving through this grief, but something is lost in the film we watch and the emotion that can’t come through the screen. That’s not Swinton’s fault (because her reactions are not entirely what we anticipate) and I don’t even think it’s Almodóvar’s fault (seeing that he has conceived of it as more modern and speaking to the pandemic times we are living in)…it’s the piece itself. So what we’re left with are a chorus of strong voices that harmonize for a time but gradually fall out of tune because of one discordant note.
Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.
Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse
Director: Armando Iannucci
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family. Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own. To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read. As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right? Wrong. So wrong.
Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation. There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version. You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic. It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.
So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield? Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings. While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful. It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease. The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.
Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep. As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy. The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before. It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations. That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.
For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another. At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl. His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z). During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe). He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.
There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do. Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised. What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant. One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome. The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.
Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character. Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes. I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation. As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property. If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good. That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.
Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by. That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze. A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too. I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise. Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.
Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.
Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred. The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires. Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon. I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.
Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it. I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise. I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé. All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.) It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.
Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH. As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2). That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis. It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.
The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled. What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it. In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez. Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead. Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.
Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive. One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue. In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes. I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.
What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation. Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark. What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort. The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.
Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Lutz Ebersdorf, Sylvie Testud
Review: Though Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria has long been considered a giallo classic, filmmakers have been trying to remake it for decades. Most recently, it was going to be a project for Natalie Portman and director David Gordon Green, until arguments over the budget caused the in-demand duo to move on to other projects. Portman, who had begun training for the dancing in Suspiria, went on to win an Oscar for Black Swan, which was considered by many to be a film in the same vein. Though he had put a lot of heart and soul into his vision of Suspiria, even casting the film with some impressive names, Green wouldn’t delve into horror again until 2018 when he successfully rebooted Halloween.
The person that brought the project to Green was director Luca Guadagnino who met with Argento and his co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi to get their blessing to remake the film. With Green on to other projects and Guadagnino gathering strong accolades for his work, plans continued to simmer until it was officially announced in 2015. Three years later we have what Guadagnino considers an homage to the original film instead of an outright remake. Though the original Suspiria will always have a place in the horror history books for it’s gorgeous production design and creative visuals, Guadagnino’s version is the superior one with the director and screenwriter David Kajganich holding nothing back. It may lack the color and vibrant gothic-ness of Argento’s vision but it takes the morsel of an idea Argento set on the plate and turns it into a five course banquet of riches.
Once again, the film is set in 1977 but the political unrest at the time is felt throughout and becomes a secondary character at times. Televisions broadcast news of a plane hijacking and there are demonstrations in the street from youths rebelling against their parents and grandparents who are being held responsible for the atrocities conducted in WWII. Into this mix comes American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey) who has arrived from the safety of her Mennonite upbringing. Growing up Susie always felt out of place in her devout and traditional family but an early exposure to the Markos Dance Academy creates a strange pull to the modern dance pieces they originated. It was her dream to attend and after an impressive audition she is granted a spot in the company.
Susie has shown up right after the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dark Shadows) who we see at the beginning telling her therapist Jozef Klemperer that she thinks the academy is being run by witches. When Patricia vanishes completely, Klemperer begins to investigate on his own which will drum up painful memories of his past and endanger his future. At the same time, Susie is drawn deeper into the darkness that haunts the academy as well as the intoxicating aura of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive) who takes her under her wing.
The bones of the film Argento created are still there, with Susie’s friends falling prey to an unseen evil but Guadagnino takes things further into more psychologically complex territory. With no male actors playing a major role in a film directed and written by men, the movie is completely void of a male point of view, a smart move made by Guadagnino and Kajganich to get out of the way of the imperious actresses hired to play their sinister characters. Suggesting the witchcraft at play is part of the undulating movements by the dance students and choreographed by Blanc, Guadagnino and Kajganich move away from our traditional thoughts of spells and sorcery.
As Susie, Johnson gets her best role to date, showing just how much the Fifty Shades series failed to utilize her strengths. Far more nuanced than the original character portrayed by Jessica Harper (who pops up in an important supporting role here), Johnson’s Susie is innocent but not naïve, green but not inexperienced, clever but not all-knowing. Where she begins at the start of the movie and where she ends are light years apart and Johnson skillfully takes us step by step through her journey. As Susie’s friend that begins to get more suspicious of her beloved academy and teachers, Mia Goth conveys a nice amount of terror as she becomes a target of evil and Moretz’s brief appearance fits in nicely with the paranoia of her character.
Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has populated the staff of the academy with brilliant European actresses, all notable stars in their own right. It’s Swinton who is given center stage in not one, not two, but three different roles and the performances are, as expected, brilliant. That Swinton could so believably play multiple parts (and ages, and genders) is another tribute to her willingness to lose herself entirely in a role. The filmmakers at first tried to deny she was playing more than her central role of Madame Blanc but it quickly become a well-known fact that she was also playing Klemperer. The third role she’s playing I leave it to you to find out on your own.
As a horror film, the movie delivers the shocks in several truly disturbing sequences that I’ve honestly had trouble shaking off. If you get woozy at the sight of blood this is definitely not the film for you as the last third of the movie is drenched in the red stuff. That being said, the violence is effective because it is so straight-forward and horrifying, some of it coming out of nowhere. A dynamite sequence interspersed with the troupe performing a new piece is a harrowing experience. There are also quiet moments, such as an outstanding epilogue that conjure the kind of emotions not usually felt in a horror movie. Special mention must go to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for his first feature film score that is all moody creepiness and melds perfectly with several of Guadagnino’s uncompromising sequences.
As is the case with many of these overtly arty horror films, Suspiria isn’t for everyone…nor should it be. At 152 minutes it’s a commitment but one that I felt flew by in a flash. Your experience will likely be different than mine, but I’m hoping people go into this one with their eyes wide open, knowing it’s a challenging film on many levels. I found it to be a largely unforgettable winner and a loving homage to the 1977 original.
Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the troupe’s artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.
Release Date: November 2, 2018
Thoughts: Whoa, this remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic looks far better and way more terrifying than I was expecting. Coming off of 2017’s lauded coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino makes a major shift in tone for this creepy tale of a European dance company ruthlessly run by a coven of witches. From this brief look, the feel of the film seems in line with Argento’s stylish masterpiece but also doesn’t come off like a carbon copy. With stars Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Chloë Grace Moretz (The 5th Wave), and original star Jessica Harper top lining and buzz steadily building based on early screenings of key intense scenes, Suspiria is one fall film to keep your eye out for…and then cover them in fear.
Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong
Director: Scott Derrickson
Running Length: 115 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Can I let you in on a little secret? Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit. After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.
I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience. Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.
Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart. A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him. Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.
As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity. Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.
If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle. The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags. I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.
Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship. That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes. Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time. It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.
That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role. Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.
If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material. Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape. The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them. Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.
Synopsis: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Running Length: 100 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Films by the Brothers Coen have always been a mixed bag for me. Like Woody Allen’s impressive roster of releases, I feel the Coens hit the bulls-eye every two movies or so. They aren’t all winners and as much as movie gurus implore you to like even their most misguided affairs (hello Burn After Reading!) I’ve just gotten used to the fact that I’m just not going to follow that pack and say I enjoy all of their work.
Last represented (directorially) on screen in 2013 with the seriously underrated Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have gone Hollywood with their latest romp, a madcap paean to the golden age of cinema. Like those classic films of the ‘50s, it’s chock full of recognizable stars and has the pristine period-perfect production values we’ve come to expect from the Coens. Yet, like most mass-produced Hollywood fare produced during that era it’s curiously forgettable almost the instant you leave the theater.
I’ve come to believe that any Coen Brothers movie can be edited to look like a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the early ads for Hail, Caesar! have certainly gave the impression there’s a lot of hijinks to be had and for once it wasn’t totally off the mark. Nicely lampooning the types of films and stars that came out of the studio system, cinephiles will rejoice at the Coens recreation of westerns, musicals, and historical epics.
On the set of the biblical drama Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, Tomorrowland) is a handsome dimbulb about to be kidnapped and held for ransom by a pack of disgruntled communist screenwriters attempting to get back at the studio that reaps the financial benefit of their artistic contributions. It’s so very Coen Brothers to make this buttoned-up intelligent gang not the misunderstood members on the Hollywood blacklist but full-on Russian sympathizing commies. Several months after the problematic Trumbo gained so much attention for rehashing the dark days of the McCarthy hearings and the lasting effect they had in Hollywood, I must say it’s kind of refreshing to see this fictionalized band of writers presented as the total opposite of how we’d expect, considering the time and place.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent studios we meet a cadre of classic Coen crazies like Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a beautiful Esther Williams-esque starlet, a mermaid on screen with a hard edge once her tail comes off. Then there’s Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall) as a frustrated serious film director forced to work with a yokel rising star (a hilariously spot-on Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) plucked from the set of a cowboy film to play the lead in a high society musical. Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) sings and tap-dances in an On the Town style musical nicely choreographed to be a little dirty and showcasing yet another undiscovered Tatum talent. Appearing all too briefly is Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) as twin gossip columnists seeking a scoop for their next column. Like her appearance in Trainwreck, Swinton dives headfirst into the character(s), leaving you wanting more in the best way possible. Frances McDormand (Promised Land), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), and even Wayne Knight (Jurassic Park), pop up for the briefest of cameos (why McDormand and Hill are above the title is beyond me) as various denizens involved with either the studio, the kidnapping, or both.
Tying this all together is Josh Brolin’s (Oldboy) Eddie Mannix, employed by the studio to make sure their stars stay in line, their movies stay within budget, and all problems are kept under the rug. Loosely based on the notorious real-life Eddie Mannix from MGM, who some say was involved with Tinsel Towns most infamous unsolved crimes, Brolin’s Mannix is recast as the neutral core of the studio/film, the one people come to when they need help or advice.
Oscar nominated this year for their script of Bridge of Spies, Joel and Ethan Coen (who also adapted Unbroken in 2014) have several moments in Hail, Caesar! that fire on all cylinders. A discussion between four holy men and Mannix about the religious sensitivity of the biblical epic being filmed is a highlight and a perfect example of the dynamic wordplay that have defined much of the Coens careers. Then there are the frequent stretches that philosophize past their welcome and make the wait between the lighter moments seem that much longer. Frustratingly, I’m sure these are the passages of Hail, Caesar! that Coen aficionados will recreate in their living rooms while watching Intolerable Cruelty in their Big Lebowski slippers.
Performances are on par with what we’ve come to expect from an off-killer Coen production, zany, unpredictable, and sometimes directly out of left field. McDormand’s small role as a chain-smoking film editor feels like a Bugs Bunny character come to life while Swinton’s rapid-fire reporter seems to have emerged directly from a Howard Hawks film. Clooney is charming in his ego-less way and while Tatum overshoots his pretty boy hunk role by a mile (even with precious little dialogue), he somehow fits perfectly into this world. Brolin has the toughest role, the straight man, and he’s more than capable of holding it all together.
Hail, Caesar! isn’t up there with the Coen’s best but it’s a nice reminder that when they want to goof off they still know how to let loose and have fun with their friends.
A quick note about the ever popular topic of diversity…recently the Cohens caused a bit of a dust-up when asked about diversity by a reporter. Brushing off the question and never really answering the reporter, it’s interesting to consider that there are but three minority characters in the film (a Carmen Miranda like starlet and two employees at a Chinese restaurant, with maybe 8 lines of dialogue between them)…and over the course of their 17 movies, only three minorities have ever played leading/supporting roles in a Cohen film.
Synopsis: The vacation of a famous rock star and a filmmaker is disrupted by the unexpected visit of an old friend and his daughter.
Release Date: May 13, 2016
Thoughts: There’s something intoxicating about any movie Oscar winner Tilda Swinton hitches her cart to. From a hipster vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive to the amped glam of her Trainwreck character, Swinton falls madly into her work as we gleefully fall with her. Reteaming with her I Am Love director Luca Guadagino for some romantic intrigue in the tropical sun, Swinton’s a rock goddess on holiday with her boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Danish Girl) visited by an old chum (Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey). Looks like a film where a lot of “Secrets Will Be Revealed” but seeing that Swinton hasn’t yet made a movie not eminently watchable, I’ll take a dive for A Bigger Splash.
We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.
I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.
I just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do
The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).
A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.
I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.
Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.
The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.
Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.
Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins The Facts: Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon. Stars: Miles Scott Director: Dana Nachman Rated: PG Running Length: 87 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me? When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor. Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day? Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer. Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization. While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.
Movie Review ~ The Overnight The Facts: Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on. Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche Director: Patrick Brice Rated: R Running Length: 79 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway. A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing. Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple. Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over. Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section. It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.
Movie Review ~ Ant-Man The Facts: Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world. Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson Director: Peyton Reed Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 117 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie. I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxybut it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun. It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber. I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe. Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities. A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.
Movie Review ~ Irrational Man The Facts: Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act. Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg Director: Woody Allen Rated: R Running Length: 96 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect. I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair. I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer. Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man. As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack. Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore. Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.
Movie Review ~ Trainwreck The Facts: Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy. Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man Director: Judd Apatow Rated: R Running Length: 125 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene. Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work. Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome. I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all. The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative. He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film. Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss. Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.
Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes The Facts: Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman. Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker Director: Bill Condon Rated: PG Running Length: 104 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up. McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life. With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon. Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too. An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.
Movie Review ~ Paper Towns The Facts: Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door. Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith Director: Jake Schreir Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 109 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks. Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars. While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children. Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons. The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown. Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.
Movie Review ~ Pixels The Facts: Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games. Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad Director: Chris Columbus Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 105 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame. There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything. Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance. For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.
Movie Review ~ Southpaw The Facts: Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track. Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris Director: Antoine Fuqua Rated: R Running Length: 123 minutes TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor. With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles. So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars. I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.
Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film. If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind. I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving. Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.
Movie Review ~ Samba The Facts: Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together. Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano Rated: R Running Length: 118 minutes TMMM Score: (5.5/10) Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of. And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit. From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien. Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film. I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved. Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.
That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go! Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn. I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.
I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation. I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t. It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up. Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel. In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.
Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it? Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?
Synopsis: Since she was a little girl, it’s been drilled into Amy’s head by her rascal of a dad that monogamy isn’t realistic. When she finds herself starting to fall for the subject of the new article she’s writing, Amy starts to wonder if other grown-ups, might be on to something
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Thoughts: There’s little love lost between me and director Judd Apatow. Though he’s got a better track record as a producer, in my book his directorial efforts are long, languid, lugubrious, and lame. Sure, his first few films had a certain freshness to them but by the time we got around to the seriously dreadful This is 40 I literally threw my hands up in exasperation at Apatow’s inability to deliver a movie with true insight or a running length of less than two hours.
With any luck, Apatow is merely the silent conductor on writer/star Amy Schumer’s (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) comedy train. The raunchy comedienne would seem to be a natural fit with Apatow’s style but I’d hope she insisted on bringing in an editor to keep the film as compact as possible. Sadly, I’m not inspired by the overly long trailer or a stream of cameos by famous faces not known for their acting chops. Still, check out Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive)…with her modern feminine look the actress shows again that she’s operating outside the expected.