HAIL, CAESAR! CHARMS LIKE FILMS OF THE PAST

Hail, Caesar! is another delight from the Coen brothers, one of their lighter fare that tend to come out between their award winning dramatic films almost like a palette cleanser.

Set in 1951, it stars Josh Brolin as studio fixer Eddie Mannix charged with keeping stars out of the gossip rags and smoothing out production problems. In a week that he is being courted for a higher paying job at the Lockheed Corporation, the studio’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped and held to ransom while their biggest starlet DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) is revealed to be pregnant and unwed. Brolin who can play bruisers is refreshingly restrained here playing Mannix as someone who more often than not has to think 3 steps ahead and remain calm while everybody else is losing their cool. The actor is joined by an all-star cast including George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and a delightful cameo by Christopher Lambert. The film may just be stolen from them all by Alden Ehrenreich in a break out performance as Hobie Doyle, a musical western star who has been cast against type in a period drama and is a lot smarter than people expect in an old practical way country folk often are.

The film is at its most charming when meticulously recreating the style of films of that era and then subverting them. Great care has been taken to use film stock, implement CGI to create effects that appear like rear projection and model work of yesteryear and make original musical numbers that evoke the past classics. While there are references to our own times and not everything from the 1950s is seen through rose tinted glasses it is made by filmmakers who adore their medium. The classic Coen wit is in full force, a particular stand out sequence involve religious leaders debating what they will support being shown in the studio’s latest religious epic. Unlikely to become a cult classic like their best comedies it is still a beautiful Valentines letter to Old Hollywood and will be appreciated best by people who truly love movies.

-Lloyd Marken

FOR A MORE DETAILED REVIEW PLEASE CHECK OUT MY MAIN SITE HERE.

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ZACK SNYDER DEFEATS SUPERMAN FAR MORE THAN BATMAN EVER COULD

Batman Vs. (I’m not calling it V) Superman is a buffet of a movie full of tasty morsels, exciting from a distance, bloated with too many ingredients and ultimately leaves you wanting a more elegant meal with one purpose that it achieves well. This is a film that relies on making money off bringing together two iconic characters but struggles to stay true to what those characters so beloved.

Continuing the cynical navel gazing of Man of Steel, this originally intended sequel opens with the best sequence of the whole movie showing the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod in Metropolis from the perspective of Bruce Wayne as he makes his way to the local Wayne Enterprises building using all his skills to get out of the way of the large scale destruction and rescue people but ultimately being powerless to intervene against these super beings and what they reap. Batman (Ben Affleck) here is a 20 year veteran of fighting crime, more bitter and haunted than previous onscreen iterations and his rapport with Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) who acts as his nagging aunt, trusted counsel and armourer are some of the best bits of the film. We want to see more of this in a stand-alone Batman film and that is saying a lot after 8 previous films featuring these characters with very talented actors previously inhabiting them.

Bruce Wayne sees the threat of super beings and investigates finding a way to stop them which brings him into the sphere of Lex Luthor who is also involved with the U.S. Government in studying the Kryptonians. Superman meanwhile comes more and more under trial by the media and government as his presence shakes mankind’s standing in the universe. There were probably very good ideas to be mined here but Superman ultimately doesn’t stand for something and declare what he will do. A montage of saving people is delivered joylessly. Fans of Christopher Reeve’s characterisation will weep at the mopeyness of Kal-El here. Of course they’ll fear you, show them they have nothing to fear, you’re Superman for fuck’s sake. Amy Adams as Lois Lane subtly conveys that she is the biggest anchor for Clark’s humanity but their conversations ultimately go nowhere and come across as lazy writing. The film feels like a series of impressive set pieces in amongst these mopey dialogue exchanges. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, already a source of contention, is at least swinging for the fences. His motivation remains under explained given how much Luthor risks but he is bat shit crazy although a more underplayed performance would have better sold how he could manipulate Wayne and Kent who are investigators in their work after all.

Visually Snyder has always been a strong director and it continues here. The world might be dark and murky but it is effectively epic and operatic with the final fight almost looking like a medieval fantasy showdown. The film falls down with too many plot holes and lazy conveniences where characters make poor decisions that insult our and their intelligence. For example Lois Lane has a good heart but she puts herself in danger a lot in this movie and it would have been nice if just once she had been given more agency in the story.

Warner Bros is coming off a few box office misfires and is a take-over target. They needed this to be a hit and to set up the other films already in production of the DCMU. That is a lot of pressure to put on one film and it is kind of admirable how they’ve done it with reckless abandonment in this film. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) for example isn’t really needed in this movie that already has a lot of plates spinning but she is a welcome addition. Remaining an enigmatic character throughout, Gadot spars well with Affleck in one scene and sells the warrior aspect of the character in her action scenes increasing interest for her upcoming solo movie. A clunky introduction to other Justice League characters is badly timed in the narrative of the movie but by not explaining everything the filmmakers kind of leave one intrigued. That is probably the best thing you can say about Batman Vs. Superman, it makes you hopeful and interested in what is to come even if not fully satisfied with what it is as a film in and of itself.

-Lloyd Marken

PLEASE NOTE: A LONGER, MORE COLOURFUL, SPOILER FILLED REVIEW OF MINE CAN BE FOUND HERE.

EYE IN THE SKY: PURE PERFECTION

Eye in the Sky is the first great movie of 2016 and coming so close after all the Oscar race releases is a welcome treat. More than just a drone strike film it is a multi-layered film about the implications and realities of modern warfare traversing the globe and giving an intimate account from various points of view including military, civilian and political.

In Nairobi, Kenya a young family starts their day like any other. The father Musa Mo’Allim played by Armaan Haggio goes about running his business in his front yard and his wife puts bread in their wood fire oven to later be sold while their only daughter Alia (Aisha Takow) plays nearby. The story covering one day will take us around the world, to military bunkers in England, corridors of power in Washington and Whitehall, airbases in Nevada, comms stations in Hawaii, trade shows in the Far East. But all eyes will be on Nairobi and a handful of blocks that show terrorists and a girl selling bread on a street corner.

Helen Mirren leads an all-star cast as military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking these terrorists for years and is leading an operation to have them captured by local Kenyan forces while providing the eye in the sky. The drone is operated by pilots remotely in Las Vegas by 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Airwoman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). When the mission’s nature changes Powell must confirm facts on the ground with Kenyan undercover agent Hama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) and get approval from political authorities on both sides of the Atlantic via Lieutenant General Frank Benson played by the late great Alan Rickman.

Early on the Kenyan family’s details seem calculated by the filmmakers to create sympathy. For example Alia is revealed to be learning how to read by her father who is obviously not supportive of the local rulers and their ways referring to them as ‘extremists’. Ultimately though these details ultimately feed into the ideas of the film and Aisha Takow is so good in her performance we become emotionally involved.

The film also has a sly sense of humour whether it is generals ordering dolls for granddaughters or Foreign Secretaries taking important calls while suffering food poisoning. The political characters are also funny in their defiance to push decision making upstairs while a military situation escalates in real time. That is not to say every joke is at their expense, some compelling points are made by these characters too. The cast is uniformly great, it is a particular delight to see Barkhad Abdi getting to play a heroic role, but it is Helen Mirren who pulls it all together playing many notes as Powell from cool authority, manipulation to thoughtfulness watching a threat halfway around the world. This is a military officer not without a heart but certainly with a mission.

This is not a film against the advent of new military technology, bemoaning collateral damage or questioning foreign policy. The screenplay, a brilliant piece of work by Guy Hibbert, is full of small observances and neat contradictions holding true to personal points of view and yet mindful of more far reaching consequences. It is a court room drama before the fact and invites the audience to be the jury.

General Benson tells his political masters at one point that he’s been on the ground at five bombings with the bodies, concluding “Never tell a soldier they don’t know the cost of war.” And yet we look at two USAF members who may know the cost of war but who have never been on the ground with the bodies. At one point a politician takes off his jacket and we see he has been sweating very heavily, miles away from any danger he is still under stress and carefully weighing potential life and death decisions. Conversely Col Powers who will have the most to answer for from a bad decision is ice cool throughout. Missiles hovering high in the sky waiting for civilians at trade deals to come and answer their phones. Boys selling cheap plastic buckets to act as a cover story for an agent while he operates multi-million dollar miniature drones to fly inside a house. Bread in a wood fired oven potentially being a death sentence. Gavin Hood’s film powerfully conveys a brave new world with the same old truths of human nature. We want to raise our children in peace, go to work, come home and see them playing in our yards. But war has always existed and people die in wars.

-Lloyd Marken

P.S. For a more detailed review by me check out my main page here.

ZOOLANDER No.2 MAYBE MORE ACCURATE THAN INTENDED

Derek Zoolander returns to our screens for a belated sequel 15 years after the original became a cult hit. Comedy sequels are notoriously hard to pull off especially once the cultural zeitgeist has moved on, what was once hip and fresh becomes derivative and sad. So it must be said there are new ideas here and some decent laughs, Stiller and co. are prepared to even develop these shallow characters and recognise the passing of time.

To that end the film opens with a montage of events of the past few years to get us caught up to speed. Zoolander opened in cinemas on the heels of September 11, 2001 and inexplicably imagery in this montage recalls those events while showing the Derek Zoolander Centre for Kids Who Can’t Read Good collapsed in a tragic accident which killed love interest Matilda Jeffries and disfigured Hansel (He’s So Hot Right Now!) McDonald. Ripping up the happy ending of the first film is necessary but killing off a love interest to introduce a new one is a tired trope for Hollywood. None the less this proves the catalyst for Derek losing custody of his son and becoming a recluse. Now in the present day the former model is enticed back into the fashion industry in order to prove himself as a contributing member of society so he can regain custody of his son. Someone is killing off famous singers who all sport Blue Steel as they pass. Interpol Fashion Agent Valentina Valencia believes there is a connection that Zoolander might be able to help with before more murders occur.

The film is funniest when developing things from the original in an organic way and when referencing how culture has changed. Whether that is Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All or pointing out that smart phones are growing larger as opposed to years ago when the cool thing was to have a smaller mobile. Too many cameos of the fashion industry show up making the joke too inclusive perhaps although Sting and Kiefer Sutherland are two of the best additions to this sequel. Accepting the characters are older too and having them deal with parenthood is a natural progression but ultimately the film is not as fun or as fresh as the original. A handful of lines are worth remembering whereas the original was endlessly quotable. Kristin Wiig mocking Donatella Versace and the return of Will Ferrel as Jacobim Mugatu are good but the best moments have already been seen in the trailer and Penelope Cruz despite appearing in a red leather biker outfit fails to make much of an impression here (Christine Taylor fared so much better in the original), she is severely under used.

There are incredibly talented people who worked on this and they didn’t lazily just rehash what came before. They told a new story and it has some funny moments. Comparisons to the original may be to the detriment of the film; audience members for whom this is the first introduction to the character may be more forgiving. The death of Matilda seems unnecessary and unfunny but it does reveal that Stiller is not afraid of dark humour and for some may be so random that they enjoy that anything is on the table moving forward. Anchorman 2 though seemed to fare better as a belated sequel to a comedy cult comedy classic. By comparison there is no ‘Cruise Control’ scene in this movie unless you count the whole thing.

-Lloyd Marken

TARANTINO’S HATEFUL EIGHTH FILM

The Hateful Eight may be the year’s most accurate movie title. An exciting cast of Quentin Tarantino regulars and Jennifer Jason Leigh headline this film and they are colourful, memorable, vital and challenging but they are not to the very last one of them likeable. This may be the director’s most divisive film yet.

The plot begins with Bounty Hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) with his bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) making his way via stagecoach to nearby Red Rock where Daisy is to hang for her crimes. Unable to outrun a snow blizzard he is hoping to make it to a lodge named Minnie’s Haberdashery in time to wait out the blizzard. Along the way they pick up another Bounty Hunter Major Marquis Warner (Samuel L. Jackson) with his own dead bounty and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to Red Rock to take up his newly appointed post as Sherriff of Red Rock. Mannix and Warner were on opposite sides of the Civil War so there is already tension in the air when Ruth agrees to take them both into his coach.

When they reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, there are a host of other characters in the form of Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) running the lodge in Minnie’s absence, Oswaldo Mobray the Hangman (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) a cowboy and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) a former Confederate General. At this point the story having been mostly confined to the interior of the wagon is now confined to the cabin while being shot in 70mm. While this may seem an indulgence on the part of Tarantino the larger lenses allows more detail to show up in the background and in the expressions of faces that might be hiding secrets. The inhabitants of the Minnie’s might be there to rescue Daisy or simply take her to collect the bounty on her head for themselves. The film plays like a murder mystery and audience members may enjoy paying attention to see reveals ahead of time but there is not much reward in it.

All of what people have grown to love about Tarantino is alive here, witty dialogue, cartoonish violence and shock value storytelling. Something has changed though. In the director’s previous efforts the victims of cruel retribution were white slave owners, Nazis and rapists. If a likeable protagonist was hurt it usually led to them exacting this furious vengeance. Here Jennifer Jason Leigh is repeatedly smashed in the face, her eyes blaze defiantly and we are told she is dangerous and a criminal but we are not shown it and I grew uncomfortable at the attempt to make humour out of being violent towards the only onscreen actress. There is more involving oral rape which may or may not have taken place but I suspect without providing a likeable protagonist carrying out extreme vengeance like previous Tarantino films did all the cruelty takes on a darker edge. That creates a challenge for the audience but Tarantino is being honest here, he didn’t title the film “The Hateful 7 and the Somewhat Justified 1”. I have seen some troubling nihilistic films in my day which I respected for their brutality and message. Tarantino has a message in this film and the message is that America was borne out of savagery, injustice and robbery. Yet the ideals that the country’s common folk coated themselves in like freedom, civilisation and brotherhood will ultimately project us forward closer to their fruition every year. We’re getting there and that is not a bad sentiment and it is not lacking in ambition to want to tell a stylish rather than realistic tale nevertheless rooted in these hard truths. For a more positive review on The Hateful Eight which I think makes good points please click here.

Samuel L. Jackson by the way is stone cold brilliant in this film, possibly the greatest character Quentin has ever written for him. Kurt Russell too comes in with his John Wayne cadence, hard demeanour and reveals both a viciousness and naivety we don’t get to often see from him. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays up the physical comedy of her character but like the rest of the cast there is a great deal that will be revealed throughout the course of the film. Walter Goggins might just get the biggest arc but I enjoyed Bruce Dern and Tim Roth just as much. One scene played as an introduction for a whole raft of new victims that seemed pointless until it became obvious that the scene showed the bonds of certain characters before tearing them apart.

I can’t fault a lot of Tarantino’s work here and I’m still of the opinion that Quentin Tarantino is one of the great filmmakers of my generation. However if this film is designed to enrage then the understated The Big Short and Spotlight are far more moving and thought provoking. If The Hateful Eight is not designed to enrage but to merely make fun of the absurdity of how cruel we are to each other well then I’m sorry Quentin, I get it but I’m not laughing.

-Lloyd Marken

EX MACHINA: A SMALL FILM WITH BIG IDEAS

Ex Machina marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland who wrote amongst others Dredd, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It is a solid and confident effort that impresses less with big sequences but more with elegantly articulated big ideas and uneasy answers. It is old school science fiction released for a new age.

The premise is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a programmer at a tech company has won a competition to go and meet with the CEO of the company at his secluded retreat to hang out for a week. There is suitable build up to this with the retreat being remote and isolated and Gleeson having to make the last part of his journey by foot. The CEO Nathan Bateman as played by Oscar Isaac is introduced working out before grabbing a beer and speaking like a college frat boy while still pulling power dynamics wherever he can. Caleb has been nominated to interact with an artificial intelligence android named Ava to see whether it has become a fully sentient being. He is to interview Ava who is portrayed by Alicia Vikander and who remains in her room at all times over the course of the week and report back to Bateman each night to see what they think. The only other character present is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who is Nathan’s housemaid.

How each audience member reacts to each character may say as much about themselves as it does about the characters and certainly one of the pleasures of the film is seeing these very different creatures bounce off each other. The movie enjoys playing with the ideas of who is being tested, either anybody else maybe a robot, who is sympathetic or being dishonest and just where this all may lead? I wouldn’t dare spoil it, it is nice to not be sure of a film’s outcome and yet also at the end be satisfied with it. To create this balancing act you need good performances and Ex Machina has some of the most exciting young actors working today Domhnall Gleeson as the lead and audience surrogate should conventionally have the least to hide but he gives many layers to his character. Oscar Isaac plays the alpha male here with coiled aggression and relaxed dominance but as the film goes on we see more and more as this may be a mask. Alicia Vikander, with this the first of three films for her break out year of 2015 is great, unnervingly creepy at times and at others naïve and vulnerable. Sonoya Mizuno given the least to do is mostly a mute performance having to convey character through physicality which she does effortlessly (I’m not surprised to discover she is a Royal Ballet School graduate), one of those performances that can be underappreciated but with which the whole film would’ve suffered if she hadn’t delivered.

Set in and around the retreat for the most part with a small cast the film makes a mark the minimalist architecture of the location clashing strongly with the imposing natural landscape. The understated and cold nature of the text is echoed in this design and also in the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. All the effects were created in post-production with scenes being shot twice (once with Vikander and once without) to capture the background as well. The design of Ava is quite compelling incorporating transparent machine parts replicating human organs, coupled with body parts often sexualised coated in rubber and then topped off with the doe eyes of Vikander. This is a design meant to confront your own ideas about gender, sexuality and what it is to be human or machine. For the machine parts Vikander’s body was rotoscopped out but to retain her movement camera tracking systems taken of Vikander were transferred in. Close to half of the effect shots are in service to Ava’s presence, think about that for a second, half of the effect shots are in service to a character.

Apparently Garland worked hard to keep the script low key so that the budget would remain small and he could retain creative control without having to throw in a third act action sequence. That is not to say the third act isn’t exciting, the whole film is a build up to it and it’s gripping as these characters finally reveal what they’re truly capable of while coming to a head. They should make more movies like this.

-Lloyd Marken

THE FORCE AWAKENS IN STAR WARS FANDOM

Quite possibly the most heavily hyped film of all time Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit cinemas. After being burned by the prequels long term fans just want to know one thing-is it any good? And the quick answer is yes! With expectations being raised so much by the nostalgic laden marketing we have overlooked that the new movie The Force Awakens would buy an awful lot of goodwill just by being better than the prequels. However it didn’t beat the North American Box Office records in 16 days just by failing to be bad. Yes The Force Awakens is good yet more importantly it is fun.

Picking up the story 30 years after The Return of the Jedi, different forces throughout the galaxy are in search of the long absent Luke Skywalker. Poe Dameron a pilot with The Resistance is dispatched to pick up plans which may lead to Skywalker’s location but is unfortunately captured by the First Order led by Kylo Ren. The map remains with his trusty droid the seriously cute BB-8 who makes his way marooned on the desert planet Jakku where he comes across the scavenger Rey. star wars the force awakens haters rolling bb8Meanwhile a Stormtrooper having witnessed his first battle in the capture of Poe sees the Resistance pilot as a way for them to both escape the First Order.

The three new leads of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are inherently good people who make you laugh and like them almost immediately. Rey has come under criticism in some circles for being good at everything. Not a complaint without merit but Ridley makes Rey very believable and likeable that it seems churlish not to enjoy the character’s success for the most part. Kylo Ren as played by Adam Driver, like Vader before him starts off as a forbidding threat and becomes more complicated and fascinating as the story goes along albeit also far less intimidating. Out of all the returning ‘legacy’ characters Han Solo and Chewbacca are given the most screen time. Chewbacca has never been used better but Han Solo still roguish is now older and more vulnerable and Ford revels in playing the same character at a different stage in his life with very real new stakes.

J.J. Abrams is a story teller noted for great set-ups of premises and reinvigorating old franchises anew. Yet he is also known for jumping ship to work on new projects. He also specialises in pacing that carries the audience along at a zippy intoxicating rate that upon reflection appears to have helped gloss over coincidences and plot holes. The Force Awakens still suffers from this but it is arguably Abrams best film. It is not a bad thing he is stepping aside for Episode 8 and how that film answers some of the questions left hanging from this one will determine how fondly we remember both. star wars explosion crash the force awakens desertYet J.J. has pursued practical effects and location shooting to help match the aesthetics of the first trilogy, he’s referenced the past with the original cast and tons of Easter eggs but established a new mythology with lots of open-ends to speculate on for the next two years. Crucially he’s given us new characters to root for and sprinkled solid character based humour throughout. The highest compliment you can give this film is it makes you excited about Episode 8. Who would have thought?