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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hail Caesar!



"Hooray for Old Hollywood!" trumpets Hail Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen's prodigious tribute to the golden age of Tinseltown circa the 1950s. Josh Brolin headlines a massive cast of some of today's biggest Hollywood names. As the head of Physical Production for the fictional Capitol Pictures, Brolin's all-consuming and thankless task is to oversee his studio's motley assemblage of eccentrics as they mount a prestige picture called "Hail Caesar!" involving the fall of Rome and the rise of Jesus Christ and Christianity. An early scene where Brolin holds court with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a reverend, and an imam, is a high point, as they hilariously debate whether Jesus was God, the son of God, or none of the above. ("God is a bachelor," the rabbi argues, "And he's always angry.") Brolin himself is a deeply penitent man, making daily confessions to the chagrin of his patient priest. Brolin must have the patience of Job to deal with the wackos he deals with every day, as a recruiter for Lockheed Martin surmises when he offers Brolin a cushier, more lucrative position to run security for Lockheed and quit showbiz. But letting go of showbiz is easier said than done.

During production of "Hail Caesar!" its star, played by George Clooney, is mysteriously kidnapped and held for ransom. Clooney, largely oblivious and of the highly suggestible type, becomes a "guest" - a rather surprisingly willing one - of a cadre of screenwriters who turn out to be communists looking to blackmail the studio. Meanwhile, podunk horse opera matinee idol Alden Ehrenreich receives an offer to star in a prestige drama directed by effete auteur Ralph Fiennes and learns actually having to act in a "serious" picture is tougher than it looks. While all that is going on, Scarlett Johansson has a swim on as a starlet whom the studio needs to find a new husband for, to maintain her image. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum stars in his own musical as a sailor who laments going out to sea means seeing no dames for a long, long time -- because women and seamen don't mix, as we all know. Tons of other famous faces, like Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip hounds), Frances McDormand (of course), Alison Pill, Clancy Brown, and even a very aged Christopher Lambert show up in minor roles, some just for a scene, as it seems the Coens speed dialed every contact on their iPhones and got them all day rates.

With a plot barely strung together like a slacking laundry clothesline, Hail Caesar! at times feels more like an elaborate movie star talent showcase: See how long Scarlett Johansson can hold her breath underwater as the Coens mount an underwater musical number that hasn't been done in a Hollywood movie in 50 years! Watch Ehrenreich perform clever trickery with his trusty lasso! Tatum steals the show with an acrobatic soft shoe tap dance routine that shows off just how talented Magic Mike really is. Through it all, Brolin bounces around from crisis to crisis, putting out fires with his hard-talking, square-jawed, tough guy routine, willing his studio back into some kind of normalcy. Hail Caesar! persuasively and enjoyably recreates Hollywood's golden age in all its starry hues. But what does it all mean? What's the point of Hail Caesar!? That there's no business like show business? Yes, guys, we know.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies



Were she able to witness it, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies may leave Jane Austen aghast, but then she'd probably be one of the undead anyway. In PPZ, writer-director Burr Steers, working from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who was working from a little known, obscure tome by Jane Austen, fuses Austen's timeless and beloved tale of class warfare and romance with healthy injections of zombie horror. It is, in the final account, a gnarly but delightful mishmash. As narrated by Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones), a horrific zombie plague arrived on England's shores from the New World, plunging the country into a full-scale war with the ever-growing army of the undead. A Great Wall was erected to protect London, while a massive moat that can be crossed by only one bridge protects the rest of the island. The remaining section where the vast majority of the zombies lurk is a dead zone called the In-Between, a region rather routinely and perhaps ill-advisedly visited by the zombie-fighting five Bennet daughters: prized beauty and pick of the litter Jane (Bella Heathcoate), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Mary (Millie Brady), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), and rebellious Elizabeth (Lily James of Downton Abbey and Cinderella). 

The business of finding suitable husbands for the Bennet daughters and securing their futures if the elderly Mr. Bennet passes is made infinitely more complicated by the seemingly endless war with the zombies. While the obscenely wealthy and handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) woos Jane, Elizabeth finds herself constantly at odds with her unwanted attraction to the gloomy, severe Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a raspy-voiced zombie killer of the highest order. Well, you know how the story of Pride and Prejudice goes. Its romantic twists and turns and misunderstandings are accounted for. As Elizabeth, the radiant James is a ferocious firebrand, heedlessly throwing herself into battle with the same gusto as when she rejects suitors for her hand in matrimony. Every zinging joke about how Jane is the most beautiful of the Bennet sisters but Elizabeth is a perfectly acceptable runner up and consolation prize lands with the impact of a boot stomping a zombie's bloody head into squishy syrup.

What PPZ brings to the table is a terrific dose of zombie-fighting horror. The class warfare of 19th century England receives a new twist; in a nation where nearly everyone must become proficient in fighting zombies, where you send your brood to be trained in zombie-killing denotes your status: the privileged upper class send their children to Japan, the lower classes to the shaolin monks of China. Darcy's haughty rank and ever-present samurai katana sword gives away his Japanese-honed status, while Elizabeth and her sisters proudly know kung fu and routinely strap blades to their garters when venturing into the In-Between, such as the glorious occasion of the elegant ball thrown by Mr. Bingley. Together, the five Bennet sisters are a formidable fighting force and PPZ giddily shows them off as they luridly slash and smash and decapitate zombies in slow motion. Elizabeth's fighting skills are routinely placed to the test; even the revered zombie killer Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) pays her bravery and abilities the highest compliment. 

Nearly everyone wants Elizabeth either married to them or dead. Along with Colonel Darcy, Elizabeth hilariously deflects the intentions of Darcy's insidious rival George Wickham (Jack Huston), who has a personal history with Darcy that now directly affects the safety and future of England. But PPZ is routinely stolen wholesale by Matt Smith as Parson Collins, a whirling dervish of pure comedy who livens up the proceedings every moment he's on the screen. We know that Darcy and Elizabeth must end up together in the end, but they themselves do not. James and Riley, each playing a version of Elizabeth and Darcy that has never existed before, are at their best sparring with each other both verbally and physically. When Darcy, whose methods of zombie detection include releasing carrion flies into the air because they can detect zombie bites, unleashes his flock to test whether Jane, who had fallen ill, had been bitten, Elizabeth snatches each fly out of thin air with her fingers in a feat that would make Mr. Miyagi snap his chopsticks in pure rage. This is topped by the inevitable fight between Elizabeth and Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith-style, as they tear apart a room in Mr. Collins' home (his reactions to the damage done is priceless), Darcy snapping her bodice with his blade, while Elizabeth pummels him with fists and feet. The undercurrent of sex in their sparring is palpable, one of the advantages of adding an element of action to Pride and Prejudice that PPZ takes full advantage of. In PPZ, Elizabeth and Darcy are made for each other in a brand new way, and when Darcy admires Elizabeth for saving his life in the end, he now means it literally. 

Inevitably, the war with the zombies take center stage as it must. We learn England is nearly bankrupt by the war and the zombies can multiply faster than the living can possibly create more soldiers to fight them. ("It takes 9 months to make a baby and 16 years to train them to become a soldier. It takes one second to make a zombie.") The zombies of PPZ themselves are a novel version of the undead, able to run like the zombies of World War Z but also retaining intelligence, speech and personality. Only in Pride and Prejudice's England can zombies remain polite and dignified. PPZ's can be docile towards humans if fed only animal brains, but once they taste of human flesh, they become unrelentingly murderous towards human beings. When the duplicity of the evil George Wickham is revealed, the full scope of the zombie war and the peril England faces seem truly daunting and hopeless, but PPZ cannily manages to find its hope in the love between and collective marriages of Elizabeth to Darcy and Jane to Bingely. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies doesn't quite set up a happily ever after for the newly-married Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, but if they are indeed destined to meet their maker (not Austen), at least they'll do so fighting bravely alongside each other. That, in its way, is quite romantic indeed.