Reviews of “Hail, Caesar!” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Hail, Caesar!

Movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of Communist script writers who feel they are undercompensated for their work. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works for the studio as a “fixer” who tries to keep movie production running smoothly by taking care of any problems for the actors and directors. Mannix gets a ransom note asking for $100,000 for the return of Whitlock. Whitlock is the star of a big-budget Roman Empire film called “Hail, Caesar: The Story of the Christ” and is needed back on set as quickly as possible. He also wants to keep Whitlock’s disappearance out of the two gossip columns written by feuding twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Mannix is also dealing with the pregnancy of unwed starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and monosyllabic cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being shoehorned into an upscale costume drama much to the chagrin of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). As if this wasn’t enough, Mannix is also considering a lucrative job offer from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and is also trying to quit smoking.

Joel and Ethan Coen are the talented writers, directors, editors and producers behind some of the best movies in history (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Big Lebowski,” “True Grit” to name a few). They have also given us some interesting films with unique characters and a skewed view of the world. These films aren’t quite great but are certainly worth a look. Where “Hail, Caesar” falls on the list from worst to first will probably require some time to decide and may depend on your mood when you see it but, for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of their best efforts.

Right off the bat, you know you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie. The look of the sets, the way the characters are filmed and the often amped up energy between the actors are all signatures of a Coen Brothers joint, especially one of their lighter films. Adding to the mood is the utter self-absorption of some of the movie’s characters. They cannot see past their own wants, needs and desires to consider all the trouble they are causing. They need someone like Mannix to take care of the problems they are ill equipped to handle or blindly stumble upon. The film, set in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, gives the audience a peek behind scrubbed clean facades and into the dirty lives of Hollywood stars from the era. Reading a little of Hollywood history shows there were plenty of pregnancies, closeted gays and lesbians, and substance abuse to cover up keeping the real versions of Eddie Mannix busy. Watching the small emergencies and major catastrophes Mannix deals with fill his day made me wonder if what he does only enables the actors and directors bad decision making. Of course, the answer is “yes” since he was hired by the studio to keep the actors and directors working, on schedule and within budget.

Watching Mannix work is probably the most interesting thing about “Hail, Caesar!” making the subplot about the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock almost an afterthought. Sadly, that part of the story is written that way as well. There is a great deal of Communist ideology spewed by the group of writers holed up at a beachside bungalow. Granted, it’s all done in a friendly fashion, leading to a case of Stockholm syndrome for Whitlock. Nothing about this group is terribly interesting aside from the petty sniping between members. I suppose I expected a more aggressive gang hoping to convert Whitlock as a vocal and public advocate for their cause. Instead, Whitlock doesn’t really get it and is treated like the slow cousin at the family reunion with everyone just nodding and smiling as he tries to play along. Pretty much everything at the beach house feels like filler and tends to bring the movie to a bit of a narrative stop.

Far more entertaining are the films within the film being filmed. A water ballet featuring Johansson’s pregnant DeeAnna Moran in a mermaid costume and a big dance number with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney leading a group of sailors tap dancing on tables at a bar the night before they ship out contain dazzling visuals, impressive choreography and catchy tunes. I almost wish they had just made a movie that stitched these scenes together with a Hollywood backlot story about Eddie Mannix and left the Communist kidnapping plot out. Even watching Clooney chew the scenery in the sword and sandals epic his character is filming beats anything that happens after his kidnapping. It’s the dichotomy between what Hollywood is trying to sell us and what this movie is trying to show us about the real world that drags the film down a peg or two. It’s far from awful but I could have used a bit more screwball action and a lot less Communist manifesto.

“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. The suggestive content is very mild and hardly noticeable. Smoking is common throughout the film.

One of my favorite Coen Brothers movies is “Raising Arizona.” It is goofy and sweet and features some very memorable characters. From time to time, for no reason, my wife will just suddenly announce, “Short of Edwina. Turn to the right!” which is a line Holly Hunter’s character says on her first meeting with Nic Cage. “Raising Arizona” has more memorable lines. Perhaps that’s what “Hail, Caesar!” lacks…scenes and dialog that burrow into your brain and pop up for no particular reason in conversation. While that isn’t a requirement for a great movie, it does help.

“Hail, Caesar!” gets four guitars.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Bennet family lives on a nice estate in the English countryside. The five Bennet daughters have all been schooled in Chinese martial arts as all good young women should be in a land plagued by a zombie scourge. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) meets and takes an instant dislike to Col. Darcy (Sam Riley), a well-known zombie killer, at a reception at the home of Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). Mr. Bingley sees Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) and is instantly smitten, making Jane’s mother, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips), quite happy as she hopes to marry her daughters off to wealthy families as her own is not as financially secure as she would like. The zombie plague is beginning to overrun most of London’s defenses and Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) is brought in to improve them. Darcy and Wickham have a strained history going back several years that Wickham blames on Darcy. This drives a further wedge between Darcy and Elizabeth.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” henceforth to be referred to as “PPZ,” is a brilliant idea on paper. The juxtaposition between the mannered and stuffy British upper class and the mindless hunger of zombies should have been a no brainer (pardon the expression). Sadly, this theatrical representation of a genre mashup is about as dry and dull as a British costume drama without the ravenous undead.

“PPZ” isn’t funny, isn’t scary and isn’t otherwise much of anything. It seems to have taken more of the tone of the original Jane Austen work and left any of the excitement of Seth Grahame-Smith’s modification on the page. While there are moments when Austen’s words are said during a fight scene between two characters and that does provide some visual humor it doesn’t translate into actual laughs. Perhaps Grahame-Smith’s book wasn’t intended to be funny; however, if you want a film like this to appeal to a broad audience, it needs some laughs that aren’t the polite chuckles this film only occasionally provides.

The movie isn’t scary in the least. These zombies still possess some of their former intelligence and can maintain their composure at least until they consume human brains. After they get their first taste of grey matter, they become ravenous and aggressive. The world of 19th Century England dealing with zombies is somewhat interesting and the modified history, construction of a massive wall and deep moat to block zombie progress, is a nice touch of background; but it doesn’t do much to carry the story past the opening credits.

I suppose the filmmakers were hoping to attract fans of Austen’s work AND people that enjoy “The Walking Dead.” The Venn diagram of those two audiences doesn’t have a great deal of overlap and you need an audience big enough to justify making the sequel suggested in the film’s closing image. Considering the anemic opening weekend box office, a second film seems unlikely.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. We see a few zombie heads explode when they are shot. An arm is severed and zombies often appear to have severe injuries to their faces. We also see some corpses with large holes in the tops of their heads and their brains removed. Suggestive material is limited to the occasional sight of the tops of a heaving bosom.

When I heard “PPZ” was being made I was actually a little excited to see it. I believed it might be possible to turn a one-note premise into an entertaining movie. Sadly, I was wrong. With such a serious tone and ignoring its humorous potential, “PPZ” is largely a lifeless mess.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” gets two stars out of five.

This week, comic book fans get what could be a cinematic Valentine’s card from a much anticipated character. There is also a comedy about dating and a revisit from Blue Steel! I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

Deadpool—

How to be Single—

Zoolander 2—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

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