Some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedies are pretty near perfect (see O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and some are a bag of mis-matched shoes (don’t see Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty). The latest effort, Hail, Caesar!, just might be the best of all. The film depicts a single, hectic day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Picture Studios, back in the booming 1950’s. It’s Eddie’s job, when DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson), a twice-divorced ingénue, turns up pregnant, to create a plan for her to “go away for a rest,” and come back having “adopted” her own baby. When Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), director of high-toned romances, can’t get the sentence “Would that it were so simple” out of cowboy-actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), it’s Eddie’s job to listen, nod, and calm him down.
On February 18, 1952, a brutal nor’easter raged off the coast of Cape Cod. The Ft. Mercer, A T2 oil tanker 500 feet long, severely battered by wind and waves, broke in two. The Coast Guard in Boston and Nantucket were called out to rescue the men trapped on board, twenty miles from shore. With 60 foot seas and 80 mph wind, the mission looked insane. One of the men staying behind, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernie Webber, recalled thinking, “My God, do they really think a lifeboat and its crew could actually make it that far out to sea in this storm, and find the broken ship amid the blinding snow and raging seas, with only a compass to guide them? If the crew of the lifeboat didn’t freeze to death first, how would they be able to get the men off the storm-tossed sections of the broken tanker?”
“Inside Out,” the latest animated film from Pixar Studios, is really two movies. One is for kids, and the other is for adults—or, more precisely, parents. But it’s not like other kiddie cartoons that throw in pop culture references and borderline-dirty jokes. This time it’s different. The kid-level movie is about a girl named Riley, 11 years old, who has just moved to San Francisco from Minnesota. She had to leave behind all her friends, her hockey team, every place that had been dear to her. Now she’s living in an old house that’s dingy and gray, and the neighborhood pizza parlor specializes in broccoli.
“When I was a kid, the future was different.” So says George Clooney at the beginning of “Tomorrowland,” looking directly into the camera. Before you can wonder what he means, you see it: the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where everything is shiny, sunny, and rocket-shaped. Clooney’s character, young Frank Walker, has arrived with his homemade jetpack (powered by twin Electrolux canister vacuums), and waits in line for an expert’s evaluation. But the jetpack suffers from the technical flaw of not, actually, working. The sour evaluator, Nix (Hugh Laurie), sends Frank off with a discouraging word.
[National Review; July 25, 2014] When they invent a really reliable time machine, I’m going back to the day I graduated from college. I was an English major who took electives like “German Film of the 1930s” and dreamed of being a movie critic for The Village Voice. (How did I end up here instead? It’s a long story.) One thing graduation-day me will ask is “How have movies changed in 40 years?” I’ll say, “You can’t imagine how much better the visuals are.” Not only because of improved cameras, and not even considering the advent of CGI, but because such meticulous care is now taken with color design, costumes, lighting, locations, and set dressing. Even crummy movies provide an immersive, atmospheric experience. Modern-day filmmaking is consistently a feast for the eyes.
It was “beautifully tragic,” my young companion said, and judging from the sobs and sighing all around us, this opinion was widely shared. The film is based on the best-selling Young Adult book by the same title, authored by John Green (best known, with his brother Hank, for the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers). The novel bucked current trends by not being set in a near-future dystopia ruled by vampires. Instead it’s a dying-teenager story, but not of the usual sort. It’s literate and funny. It doesn’t exploit the drama of diagnosis, horror, and teary acceptance; the characters have had cancer for years already, and have worked out believably different ways of living with their condition. (As a one-time aspirant for the Episcopal priesthood, Green spent some time as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. Hard lessons learned greatly benefit the storytelling.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel is surely the most Wes-Andersony of all the Wes Anderson movies, and if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson movie, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Try this: of all contemporary filmmakers, Anderson is the one most likely to provoke reviewers to use the words “fey” and “twee.”
There’s much to admire, but not much to enjoy, in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen, two Minnesota boys, have won great acclaim over 30 years of filmmaking, sharing a dozen Oscar nominations for writing, directing, and best picture. Their films cover an amazing range of genres, from dark and violent, like best-picture winner No Country for Old Men (2007), to quirky-funny, like The Big Lebowski (1998). You could say that, with Raising Arizona (1987), the Coens invented quirky-funny. A longtime favorite in my family is O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the comic odyssey of a trio of chain-gang escapees in 1937 Mississippi.
The elements of Austenland are terrific: It has a clever premise, is based on a successful novel, has Jerusha Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite) in the director’s chair, and stars cute, likeable Keri Russell and funny, dependable Jennifer Coolidge. It’s produced by Stephanie Meyer who, whatever you think of the Twilight novels, should at least know something about marketability. But somehow the parts don’t come together.
Never seen a Pixar movie before? Monsters, Inc. (2001) is a good place to start. It’s a buddy movie, about Sully and his best friend, Mike. Sully, voiced by John Goodman, is a gentle giant, and Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, is a short, round guy with overflowing self-confidence. It hardly matters that Sully is eight feet tall and has blue and purple fur, and Mike is basically an eyeball on legs.