'Hail, Caesar!' provides solid laughs
“Hail, Caesar!” (2016 / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment / 106m / $34.98 BR+DVD combo / PG-13) finds the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, in a lighter mood than usual (in other words, this is no “No Country for Old Men”). Mixing history with fiction it has a major star (George Clooney as Baird Whitlock) abducted by left-leaning studio writers just before he is to enact the final scene of an expensive (and by the looks of it completely awful) Biblical epic. They hope to convince him of their just cause of being better treated financially by the studios. Studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin playing the real life MGM employee here ensconced in a made-up studio) tries to keep things from imploding both on the epic and on a romantic comedy where a singing cowboy (Channing Tatum) has been inadvisably cast in the lead. Things are as quirky and cross-genred as usual for the Coens but only those who know their Hollywood history (particularly of the 1950s) are going to get the full good out of this goofy enterprise. Others might be baffled and wonder how such a terrific cast (Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansen, Tilda Swinton and Allison Pill in addition to the above) got talked into signing on. It may not be major Coen brothers, but film buffs will get some solid laughs from “Hail, Caesar!”
This week’s round-up includes several titles as preoccupied with the Middle East situation as our current presidential race. Quite the least of them, save for die hard (I invoke the name of a well-known franchise deliberately) action fans is “London Has Fallen” (2016 / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment / 99m / $34.98 / BR+DVD combo / R) a film that has a U.S. president (Aaron Eckhart) kidnapped by Muslim terrorists in the wake of a whole bunch of buildings and landmarks being blown up (and Londoners thought it was bad after mama Gorgo came to visit). It’s secret service agent Gerard Butler to the rescue while Morgan Freeman tries to hold down the fort back in the U.S. This is the usual no-brainer action flick with lots of explosions (courtesy very good CGI) and copious gunfire at the wrap-up (it’s one very noisy film). It’s also one of the most repellently racist and jingoistic films I seen since I can’t remember when. It’s a sequel to “Olympus Has Fallen,” where the president was taken hostage inside the White House (does this guy have the worst luck or what?). If you were keen on that production, this cliché-ridden exercise might be right up your alley.
More high-minded is “Eye in the Sky” (2016 / Universal / 102m / $34.98 BR+DVD combo / R), which takes aim (ouch) at drone warfare. The airborne camera types have located the headquarters of a terrorist cell with its leaders present, including several on the most-wanted list. Representatives of several countries have to debate whether to strike because, even though a suicide bombing is obviously in the works, British nationals and a U.S. citizen are in residence. And then, just as an attack is about to be launched by a bomb carrying drone, a little girl sets up to sell bread directly outside the compound. Can she somehow be gotten out of the way? Is her probable death acceptable collateral damage? With so many high-profile characters present, is it reasonable to call off the bombing? Gavin Hood’s film is a model of what a thriller should be, and Guy Hibbert’s script demonstrates that such enterprises can be built on a film that’s heavy on talk and light on the bang-bang stuff. An excellent cast is led by Helen Mirren in an unconventional role and Alan Rickman in his final onscreen performance.
In “A War” (“Krigen” – 2016 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 115m / $29.98 BR / R) the war on terror is taken to the personal level. A Danish squad stationed in Afghanistan comes under fire when they come to check up on a family threatened with being killed by the Taliban. The commander, Claus (Pilou Asbaek – who if you followed my recommendations you’ve seen in “Borgen”), thinks he knows where the attack is coming from and calls in an air strike. Civilians are killed and he has to stand trial for ordering the bombing without sufficient (or with nonexistent) proof of the enemy’s location. The latter half of the film deals with the trial, but the first half has the feel of “The Hurt Locker” – with the major difference being that we get lengthy segments dealing with Claus’ wife (Tuva Novotny) involved in her own struggles back home, coping with three children who miss their father. (The later part of the film also shows Claus reintegrating into family life more successfully than “Hurt Locker’s” protagonist.) The Danish troops in Tobias Lindholm’s film are also depicted more often in positive interaction with the natives than the soldiers in Katherine Bigelow’s (it is tempting to call this production “The Hurt Locker” done right). But what makes “A War” most unusual is the courtroom scenes where the commander’s judgment is challenged; they remind us not all of a soldier’s battles are in combat and sometimes hasty decisions must be made for better or worse.
Another foreign film (meaning it will be anathema to those phobic about subtitles) that takes a serious look at its subject matter is “We Monsters” (“Wir Monster” – 2015 / First Run Features / 95m /$19.95 / NR). Here a divorced couple learns that their daughter has murdered one of her friends by pushing her off a dam. After dithering about whether to report the crime as an accident, they decide to just cover it up, letting everyone assume the young woman simply ran away from her alcoholic and abusive father. But that first lie of omission leads to others and soon the ex-couple finds themselves deeper and deeper into more transgressive acts, drawing more closely together than before while their daughter seems curiously unaffected by what she’s done. Sebastian Ko directs a Hitchcock-like scenario (minus the stylish camerawork) in his feature debut. If the pace is often a tad slower than might be advisable, it allows for a slow boil that leads to surprise revelations (you might see some of them coming however) and a shocking conclusion. While it plays out as a thriller, Ko neatly puts the viewer in the position of wondering how he or she would handle a similar predicament. Would you protect or rat out your offspring?
The same company has also released “The Fear of 13” (2015 / First Run Features / 95m / $19.95 / NR), a documentary of convicted murderer Nick Yarris who, frustrated after trying to prove his innocence for two decades, insists the appeals process be halted and that his execution be scheduled. Mostly told by talking heads, and mostly by Yarris himself, with a few re-enacted sequences, we get Yarris’ life story of dissolute teen years, doing drugs and jacking cars. An attempt to plea bargain his way out of one crime by claiming he knew who committed the murder of a Delaware woman results in his becoming the prime suspect, put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death. Whether you have any sympathy for Yarris will depend very much on your point of view (I had little; my sometime viewing companion was more moved). It’s an intriguing look at how the legal system works – and sometimes doesn’t.
Fictional crime, by way of an action thriller, gets a workout in “Gridlocked” (2016 / Magnet / 113m / $29.98 BR / R). Bad boy movie star Brody (Cody Hackman), after one too many transgressions, is sentenced to spend time with police and get a taste of real life. He’s assigned to David Hendrix (Dominic Purcell), on patrol car duty after taking a bullet; the cop finds Brody a nuisance who sees this as a lark and not the potentially danger-filled situation it is. An extreme wake-up call occurs when the two visit a SWAT training facility and it comes under siege by a former cop (Stephen Lang) and his team of mercenaries who want to liberate a fortune in bonds from the evidence locker. Lots of gunfire and explosions follow, but director Allan Unger (who co-wrote) is bright enough to leaven things with some humor, mostly from Brody inappropriately reacting to most every turn of event. That doesn’t deter one whit from Hendrix and his few fellow officers improvising defenses against outnumbering and superior forces and some rather violent deaths. Normally action thrillers that rely extensively on engagement through automatic weapons (as opposed to well-choreographed fight scenes) are not my cuppa, but this one is well done and reasonably intelligent as these things go. My only complaint is the waste of prominently billed Danny Glover who, at least in one very funny scene, demonstrates once again that he is capable of much more than he’s usually called on for.
“Shrek” (2001 / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment / 90m / $29.99 BR+DVD combo / PG) has become such a franchise, with numerous sequels and spin-offs, that it would be futile to give it a bad review even was I so inclined – which I’m not. While the follow-ups may have worked less well due to mining the same territory the original retains its freshness. Even if you haven’t seen it (and surprisingly I hadn’t till now) you probably know the basic story. Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is a big, green ogre who one morning finds his swamp overrun with all the country’s fairytale characters. They’ve been rounded up and relocated there by the not-so-nice Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). As Farquaad has aspirations of being a king – but only can do so by marrying a princess – he agrees to remove the characters from Shrek’s domicile if the ogre rescues a princess from a tower in a castle surrounded by lava and guarded by a dragon (no halfway measures here). Of course the big guy, somewhat impeded by a talking donkey (Eddie Murphy), rescues the maid (Cameron Diaz) only to find himself falling in love with her.
I admit that with its painterly backgrounds it looks gorgeous and the animation is well done – the characters don’t float through the landscapes as in some lesser efforts. Still I’m more fond of the traditional hand-drawn approach, and I don’t see why most computer animated films could not have been made that way; certainly the technological method is no less time or labor intensive. But when the finished product is as good as this, I can be down with the high-tech creative approach.
Even more lightweight but offering a few chuckles is “Get a Job” (2016 / Lionsgate, CBS Films / 84m / $14.99 BR / R), which deals with recent graduate Will (Miles Teller) and his stoner buddies and their attempts to find employment lucrative enough to support a meager lifestyle and pay off their crushing student loan debts. Only girlfriend Tanya (Anna Kendrick) has landed something pays enough to purchase $800 Prada high heels and work on retiring the $90,000 she owes. Will’s dad (Bryan Cranston) has recently been streamlined out of his position and can’t support his son so the kid takes an uncreative job making video resumes for a shark of a boss (Marcia Gay Harden) who knows how to stay inches away from a sexual harassment suit and still make her intentions obvious. One of his roommates becomes a bond trader in a company where the initiation is to have the new guy drink what looks like a quart of deer semen (just how they, er, harvest the stuff – and in such quantities – is not addressed). Another (Ravi Patel) is on a seemingly futile quest to fund his I Stalk You phone app financed. Lurching from such absurd details to taking potshots at easy, paper targets Dylan Kidd’s film never find its tone and doesn’t offer characters believable enough to care about (it’s easy to credit reports this was made in 2012 and sat on the shelf until now). The cast does much to keep the production afloat and agreeable but can’t salvage it from being forgettable.
Turning to the fantastical we have “The Midnight After” (2014 / Well Go USA / 124m / $24.98 / NR), a Hong Kong production high in WTF? elements. A busload of diverse passengers travels through a tunnel on the journey from Mongkok to Tai Po and finds the latter city completely deserted aside from glimpses of a figure in a gas mask and hazmat apparel. Several of the party wind up dead; one spontaneously combusts while another abruptly falls apart. Literally. Dead cell phones spring to life and the callers insist the bus passengers disappeared without a trace six years ago. A David Bowie song is supposed to provide a clue to the odd happenings. What’s going on? Don’t expect any answers from this incoherent mess that lurches from serious to comic and seems to have been made up as the shooting progressed. Yet three scripters are credited (including director Fruit Chan) for a film that takes more than two hours to play out and (SPOILER ALERT) ends with the surviving characters simply getting back on the bus and driving away. That may have worked in “The Birds” with its stronger characters, but with these stick figures, it does not. I’m not even certain a more reasonable running time would have helped.
Now leaving more questions than answers is not necessarily a bad thing. Take that aforementioned Hitchcock film or the long-running TV series that generated two big screen features and never did quite spill the beans while declaring the truth was out there. It’s returned with “The X-Files: The Event Series” (2016 /20th Century Fox Home Entertainment / 264m (2 discs) / $29.99 BR / TV-14) a six-episode follow-up that reunites agents Mulder, Scully and Skinner (David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and Mitch Pileggi) and the malevolent cigarette smoking man (William B. Davis), who it seems, as Una O’Conner observed on another occasion, “wasn’t burnt to no skeleton after all.” There are two stand-alone episodes; one involves a man who transforms into a humanoid lizard and is quite funny (few seem to recall that “X-Files” frequently did humor and did it very well). The three episodes that bookend the mini-series are concerned with the show’s core theme of whether we are being visited and abducted by aliens. Seems that it’s really a cadre of humans, led by the chainsmoking guy and somehow involving the Department of Defense, that are behind the abductions. I probably shouldn’t say more for those who haven’t yet seen these episodes but want to. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be yet another of the show’s misdirections given the cliffhanger ending to this latest incarnation suggests another revisiting sometime. Duchovny seems to have run out of sleazy cable shows but Anderson (last seen dining on her own leg in “Hannibal”) stays quite busy, so who knows when that will transpire. While none of these episodes seems quite up to the best of the original run (or is nostalgia coloring my reaction?) I’ll be happy to watch the next reunion.