The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an off-kilter bit of good fun

Hardened bush man and city-slicking preteen troublemaker seem like a decent odd couple, no? The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the newest from Taika Waititi (director of vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows), takes that and runs with it, as Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a kid who’s bounced around foster homes with a penchant for “kicking stuff, burning stuff, spitting”, among other crimes, ends up in the care of back-country couple Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). After Ricky feels the need to run away into the bush, Hec catches up to him but winds up injuring himself, forcing the mismatched duo to live as camp-buddies for a while. One thing leads to another, and the two wind up travelling the woods together, all while the entire country of New Zealand, led by an over-zealous social worker (Rachel House) stage a mass manhunt.

It’s a story that the sometimes-ominous label “quirky” could be easily attached to, the kind of thing that could be easily imagined coming out of the Wes Anderson mill. Thankfully, Waititi is a bit more distinctive, if anything cribbing directorial cues from Edgar Wright, with fantastic editing and musical choices in the service of some great visual gags. Especially early on, Wilderpeople is a laugh riot (a scene where Waititi himself cameos as a minister is a sure candidate for funniest scene of the year). It remains engaging throughout, but unfortunately does peak early, and becomes a bit repetitive towards the end. Time seems to fly by in unclear patterns (a camp that seems to last two nights is said to last two weeks), which can make the character dynamics hard to trace consistently. Neill and Dennison have an interesting chemistry, but its nothing incredibly revelatory or original. However, it has a bit more bit and a bit more visual flair than the average family-friendly parent-child morality tale, and sits comfortably in that range of movies that could become classics to kids that see them around the age of ten or so. It’s a fun lark for twenty-somethings looking to kill two hours, but probably an absolute godsend for parents.

B-

Shit's about to get real for Sam Neill and Julian Dennison in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Dir. Taika Waititi
Starring Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rime Te Wiata, and Rachel House
Rotten Tomatoes (99%)

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The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an off-kilter bit of good fun

A sharp cast and fantastic production design elevate the new Ghostbusters

The online frenzy surrounding the new Ghostbusters movie can make it difficult to discuss without seeming like you’re taking a political stance. To be against the movie is to align yourself with the worst types of folks on the internet, but to be for the movie is to be for an endless cycle of remakes.  The prospect of a major summer tentpole/franchise starter led by four women is certainly a fantastic thing, but did Ghostbusters need to updated? Not to say that the original Ghostbusters is some sort of sacred cow; it’s a decently fun movie with its share of memorable moments, but far from flawless. The cast and crew of the reboot all have fantastic track records, but it was hard to not be a bit dismissive after the less-than-inspiring first trailer and the absolutely awful Fall Out Boy/Missy Elliot update to Ray Parker Jr’s theme. Thankfully, misogynist trolls be damned, the new Ghostbusters is a success, at times hilarious and with a surprisingly fresh look that distinguishes itself from its predecessors and most anything else currently in cinemas.

The movie gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Kristen Wiig’s Columbia-tenure-hopeful Erin Gilbert and Melissa McCarthy’s Abby Yates take a while to really pop. They have a nice chemistry together, but everything has a bit of a box-checking quality to it at the start, and the humour skews weirdly scatological. However, once the cast starts fleshing out to include Kate McKinnon’s engineer Holtzmann, Leslie Jones’ subway employee Patty, and Chris Hemsworth’s hunky secretary Kevin, the movie puts itself together remarkably quickly. Jones proves herself here much more than SNL has ever given her the chance to, but Hemsworth and especially McKinnon steal the movie. Kevin is among the dumbest characters to ever grace the screen, but Hemsworth has an aw-shucks quality about him thats incredibly endearing, and the jokes given to his character hit the hardest. Holtzmann’s mad scientist schtick could easily have been over-the-top cartoony, but McKinnon walks the fine line between creating a weirdo who creates laughs out of thin air while still being distinctly human. McKinnon has consistently been the absolute star of SNL over the past two years, and any questions about her being able to stretch one of her characters to a feature-length performance are definitively answered by her work here.

The movie real takes off and becomes something special around the halfway mark (if I were to name a turning point, it’d be the first scene in the Mayor’s office, played by a fantastically funny Andy Garcia and flanked by yet another great SNL player, Cecily Strong). The movie, like the original, truly inhabits New York City, not simply using it as a backdrop for any major metropolis (its no coincidence that both casts draw heavily from the deep hometown SNL bench). What really sells it all is the shockingly good production design. There are some clunkers around, notably the Fall Out Boy theme and a weirdly low-key metal concert, but the ghost design is exquisite, despite it being one of my major problems with the original trailer. Everything glows cartoony colours, with a Casper-esque kind of vibe that keeps it from ever being really creepy, but that I found incredibly absorbing nonetheless. The ghost scenes are, if anything, highly reminiscent of the experience of those Disneyland-style haunted mansions that aren’t really scary, but take your imagination on a wild journey for twenty minutes. It feels distinct from what the previous Ghostbusters did, even if it does reference it a bit (the final act is a neat spin on the original), and even feels utterly distinct from blockbusters as a whole. It was the last thing I expected going in, but the new Ghostbuster’s greatest asset may be its ability to really build a world, which bodes well for its franchise hopes.

The movie does rely unfortunately heavily on references to the original, most of which are pretty funny but the sheer volume of which threaten to keep it from finding its own identity. Most surviving original cast members get a cameo, which range from working spectacularly (Dan Aykroyd, slipping into a small role naturally) to clunking around (Bill Murray, chewing scenery with no laughs). Despite this, the new Ghostbusters is able to stand on its own two feet, and side-by-side quality-wise with the original. The main villain of the film can be read at times as a rejoinder to the trolls, spouting the odd gender-based insult in an otherwise fairly egalitarian film. It’s a bit on the nose at times, but its apt, and just as the Ghostbusters get one up on him, the film gets one up on the real life trolls by just being an involving, funny, and overall incredibly enjoyable summer movie.

B+

Here are your new Ghostbusters, action ready

Ghostbusters (2016)
Dir. Paul Feig
Starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, and Kate McKinnon
Rotten Tomatoes (73%)

A sharp cast and fantastic production design elevate the new Ghostbusters

Game of Thrones Season Six stops building its world and starts tearing it down

WARNING: This review of Season Six of Game of Thrones is full of SPOILERS! Lots of them! Note that I have not read the books, but after the end of season five, have spent a fair amount of time on A Wiki of Ice and Fire because I’m impatient.

By its own high standards, the last season of Game of Thrones (Season Five) was an utter disaster. It was also the first season where the show went decidedly off-book, combining elements of two apparently scattershot sources into one while making up its own shortcuts along the way. It gave us the infuriatingly bland Dorne storyline, an increased focus on Ramsay Bolton’s uninteresting brand of sadism, the faceless Sons of the Harpy, and a dragon ride that looked like something out of The Neverending Story. It wasn’t all a waste; Stannis’ arc was dark but fantastic, and the battle of Hardhome is likely the single best sequence the show has ever done. However, every attempt to expand the word (except perhaps Arya’s) fell completely flat. Given that Season Six was now completely off-book, it would be reasonable to assume it would only get worse from here. However, it course-corrects by collapsing the world instead of continually expanding it, both setting up Season Seven wonderfully and standing as the most satisfying season the show has ever had. It’s a comfortable season in a way, only once really throwing caution to the wind, but even if the narrative is no longer as daring as it once was, Thrones earns its position as must-see TV.

Game of Thrones can be a difficult show to discuss broadly, simply because there are so many characters spread out over such a large distance, both narratively and physically. Season Six corrects much of this almost immediately, bringing together Brienne, Davos, Melisandre, Jon, and Sansa by the fourth episode. Two of the Starks reuniting at last is particularly satisfying, and while the Jon/Sansa story ends with a beautiful if nonsensical battle sequence, having the two characters together again is magnificent (and inspired; Jon/Arya, Sansa/Arya, or even Jon/Theon are the more obvious reunions to stage, but Jon/Sansa allows us a character pairing that was never really explored before but still harkens back to the beginning of the show). In perhaps the weakest point of the season, a carryover from the last, Dany remains separated from Mereen, where Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, and Grey Worm sit in big rooms and talk about nothing. Varys gets one fantastic scene where he attempts to rebuild his network, but otherwise there is no air left in the Mereen scenes. Dany’s reunion with the Dothraki, on the other hand, works by bringing in familiar things, and when the whole gang gets together at the end (along with some others), it leads to an incredibly satisfying ending, even if its a season-and-a-half overdue.

Even when characters are sent off, its not usually to meet new ones, but to bring together old combinations. Jamie repopulates Cersei’s circle for a while, but is sent off to Riverrun to break a Tully siege. This brings the long-abandoned characters of Walder Frey, Edmure Tully, and the Blackfish back into the fold at last, and also gives us Jamie/Brienne and Bronn/Podrick reunion. We return to Bran north of the wall, where his warging ability is used to fill in gaps in our knowledge about the realm (only slightly more elegantly than outright flashbacks), and another long-lost character re-emerges. Most dramatically, the Hound re-appears with a group of new characters, who are lent credence by the presence of Ian McShane and the fact that they link into Cersei’s current struggle by showing another side of the Seven. And, once again, they quickly dovetail into abandoned parts of the narrative by bringing back the Brotherhood Without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion. Relatively few new arcs are created, but old arcs are allowed to pay off and loose ends tied off. Some of these are unsatisfying; the ends of the Blackfish and Osha the wildling are rather unfortunately tossed off, despite the two being interesting characters anchored by charismatic performances. But by-and-large the contraction of the world is propels the narrative forward, which is very preferable to the meandering of the last couple seasons. Even Dorne benefits from this; the storyline only appears twice, once to necessarily close a few dangling threads, and a second time to ally them with more interesting characters and bring them into a storyline that actually might be interesting.

It’s hard to overstate how great it is to have The Hound back. In his second episode, when he calls a generic bad guy out for being “shit at dying”, Thrones operates on a darkly humorous level it occasionally reaches elsewhere in the season with Zombie Mountain and WunWun the Giant. The Hound and The Mountain and violent and, in the latter case especially, reprehensible characters, but The Hound’s pragmatic violence stands in stark contrast to the brutal sadism of characters like Ramsay Bolton. Violence on Thrones is, for lack of a better word, fun again.

Ramsay gets to be the worst again for the first half of the season, but thankfully disappears until the Battle of Winterfell, aka the Battle of the Bastards, which is perhaps the worst of the major battle episodes Thrones has done (ranking: Hardhome, Blackwater, Watchers on the Wall, Bastards). Even the Knights of Vale’s last minute arrival feels exactly like Blackwater four seasons ago. The Starks face great losses, but triumph over Ramsay, and while its great to see “good” get a win, its a Pyrrhic one made to look clean in post. A lot could be made of Jon’s strategical blunders, which get a lot of men killed, but its swept under the table swiftly. When the Northerners proclaim him King in the North, the rah-rah moment is deflated not only because of Sansa’s potential claim, but because he had just proven himself a great warrior but not a particularly even-headed leader. That being said, Ramsay’s sadism pays off a bit with his treatment of Rickon, even if its a bit unbelievable that Jon would fall for this trick there, and it has some beautiful images from director Miguel Sapochnik.

Arya’s Braavos and Dany’s Mereen storyline also come to a close in satisfying ways. It’s arguable whether Arya gained much as a character after the past two seasons, but I’d argue she has grown incredibly, and the moments in Braavos are so well filmed and so engaging that I wouldn’t want to see them shortened. A lot has been made of the disappointing dispatching of The Waif, but the final moment of imply-don’t-show worked perfectly for me, and Arya’s time spent watching a dramatic re-interpretation of Season One was hilarious and one of the only world-building steps of the season. Meanwhile, its fantastic to have Dany finally converging on the mainland, and it even manages to bring the Iron Islanders back in as well. The Kingsmoot storyline was relatively engaging as well, as Yara is a great presence and Theon works as a character outside of Ramsay’s control, even though Euron’s weird Donald Trump-esque performance was a bit odd.

If we’re talking satisfying resolutions though, Cersei’s storyline in King’s Landing is the end-all-be-all, and the season finale, The Winds of Winter, is one of the best episodes the show has ever done. It’s opening thirty minutes are thrilling, beautiful, and explosive, and the most shocking the show has been since the Red Wedding. It clears the table in a dramatic way, and while some great characters bite the bullet, in retrospect its the only way forward for this storyline, given that winter is coming. A lot of the conversation around Game of Thrones revolves around deaths, which is always a bad sign about a show. There should always be things to get invested in with characters other than death, and while Thrones isn’t the worst offender of DeathWatch culture, it traffics in it a fair amount. But the two major deaths this season, one in the Sept and one at the door, are both given the necessary dramatic weight and long-term ramifications to rise above pure shock value.

Before closing, its worth noting the emphasis on women in this season. Thrones has justifiably come under fire before for its treatment of women as objects, whether through sexposition or killing them left-right-and-centre (or, in Roz’s case, both!). It really came to a head last season with Sansa’s Ramsay storyline, which I think was a reasonable storyline decision told horribly due to important parts being given through Theon’s point of view. In this season, women take control, and outside of potentially Jon Snow, every character who gains power this season is a woman. Theon rejects his title and acts as a supporter to his sister Yara, Dany brings fire-and-blood spectacle back, Cersei takes over King’s Landing, the Dornish women and the Queen of Thorns find a feminine monarch to stand behind, and Sansa gets her revenge and retakes her childhood home (and sets up conflict with Jon when the people overlook her as Queen in the North). Even Margaery, who ends up in a not-so-great place, goes down swinging, a victim of playing the long game against Cersei’s willingness to flip the board over violently. Additionally, while the show doesn’t shy away from nudity, its much less reliant on the gratuitous nudity it so frequently employed before. A lot of what came before can be somewhat understood as reflective of the real conditions for women in medieval settings, but having the climax depend so strongly on the actions of the female characters is a refreshing change of pace.

In short, stuff happens, and the show is finally using the world it has built rather than trying to stack its deck further and further. However, the show is less-and-less able to enjoy anything not directly related to the plot. Travel becomes a bit funky (some characters seem to be able to teleport as needed), and the show stops taking its time in the journey. In a way, we’ve already seen a lot of what Westeros has to offer, and it is nice that things are a bit brisker. That being said, a bit of emphasis on the journey would be nice, and the side-scenes that used to take place on the road (remember Arya and the Hound?) now seem to be confined to palaces, with such awful scenes as Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm figuring out the essence of humour. Putting plot ahead of character and world has made for a very satisfying season, but not the very best the show has ever done. It’s drawbacks are a necessary evil, and set up an exciting final two seasons, but the journey was more involving than the destination.

B+

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Individual Storyline Ratings:

  • Jon and Sansa retake Winterfell: B
  • Tyrion waits around for Dany: D+
  • Dany brings the Dothraki on the wooden horses: B
  • The Iron Islanders face a Kingsmoot: B-
  • Cersei faces the Faith: A-
  • A siege at Riverrun: B-
  • Bran sees all: B
  • A girl is Arya Stark: B+
  • Samwell Tarly takes a trip: C
  • The Hound looks for peace, briefly: B+

MVPs: Cersei, Sansa, Tormund, Davos, Yara, Lyanna Mormont, The Hound, Olenna Tyrell
Least Valuable Players: Tyrion, Ramsay, Sam, Littlefinger, Euron

Season ranking thus far: 2, 1, 3, 6, 4, 5

Game of Thrones Season Six stops building its world and starts tearing it down

Weezer’s The White Album is an absolute blast

Pretty much everyone agrees that Weezer took a pretty sharp nosedive as a band at some point over the twenty years since their initial one-two punch of their pop-defining The Blue Album and the defiantly weird Pinkerton, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what changed. The lyrics have always been eye-rollingly cheesy with the cadence of an aunt trying to be hip, whether on their best songs (such as “I’m the epitome of public enemy/Why you wanna go and do me like that?” from Pinkerton’s “El Scorcho”)  or worst (“Just follow the smoke; they’re bringing bottles of the goose/And all the girls in the corner getting loose” from Raditude’s “Can’t Stop Partying”, probably the worst Weezer song of all time). Partially the difference comes from interpreting their cheesiness as a weak, uninspired attempt at creating memes and quirky videos (a la “Pork And Beans”) or just something natural out of the brain of Rivers Cuomo (a la “Buddy Holly”), and their more recent work has definitely skewed towards the former. Partially due to less-inspired lyrics and partially due to a simple lack of the distinct pop hooks that define them, Weezer’s losing streak is the stuff of legend.

That turned around a fair bit with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End. It had its share of cheese, sure, but rather than trying too hard by bringing in Lil Wayne, Cuomo just got weird, with power-pop songs about punk-ass redcoats (“The British Are Coming”) and Stephen Hawking (“Da Vinci”), while revisiting his relationship with his father as a muse in the most effective way since “Say It Ain’t So”. If that was a promise that Weezer was trying again, The White Album is damn sure fulfillment. Nearly every album since Pinkerton is described (at least in the moment) as their best since Pinkerton, but The White Album truly forgives Make Believe, Raditude, and Hurley with half an hour of the most exciting, involving, and distinct power-pop Weezer has ever made.

More than perhaps any other Weezer album, The White Album feels very much like an album rather than a collection of jams. While a summer album isn’t the most surprising thing for the band, they stick to the concept, vaguely tracing a summer fling from start to the inevitable decline, from the its-gonna-be-alright hopefulness of the opening cut “California Kids” to the acoustically driven closer “Endless Bummer”, which proclaims “I just want the summer to end”. It helps that the album is a tight 34 minutes, and perhaps outside of single “Thank God for Girls”, every song feels immediately at peace with what comes before and after it. Whenever it seems to be approaching overt happiness, it is immediately undercut. On “Girl We Got a Good Thing”, a Beach Boys-inspired sunny-day song about lovebirds is suddenly interrupted with a sharp power chord and the declaration “You scare me like an open window”.

Mercifully gone are talks about homies trying to front, and The White Album continues Everything Will Be Alright In The End’s trend of eclectic (although not necessarily obscure references), ranging from hare krishna love of “Girl We Got a Good Thing”, Mendel’s peas on “Wind In Our Sails”, and Dante’s Inferno on “L.A. Girlz”. Even lead single “Thank God for Girls”, the redheaded stepchild of the album, is a neat play on gender roles, the ostensible love interest being praised as big, strong, and “energetic in her sweaty overalls”. Most importantly, the songs are just catchy and memorable in way that harkens back to The Blue Album. “King of the World” is an arena-ready anthem, “L.A. Girlz” is the “Buddy Holly”-esque power-chord driven blast we’ve been missing for twenty years with the , and “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is wonderfully woven mix of key changes and guitar crunch. “Do You Wanna Get High” would’ve been absolutely at home on Pinkerton, and “Endless Bummer”s hey-heys conjure memories of the hip-hips of “Island in the Sun”. It’s definitely familiar Weezer, but it feels fresh all over again, and tracks like the piano-based falsetto jam “Jacked Up” show that their new tricks aren’t all misfires.

It’s hard to call The White Album a great album per se, as it surely isn’t an innovative masterpiece like it would have been 20 years ago. However, it clearly shows that there is gas left in Weezer’s tank, and that they’re still capable of sounding fresh by simply being themselves. It’s a hugely enjoyable album, even if mostly a throwback. If it can’t get out of the shadow of Blue and Pinkerton, it should at least be able to get out of the shadow of what came after. The White Album is not just a good album by post-2000 Weezer standards; it is legitimately front-to-back recommended listening.

B+

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Weezer [The White Album] (2016)
By Weezer
34:05
Available on Spotify, Google Play, and other services

Best Tracks: Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori, L.A. Girlz, King of the World

Weezer’s The White Album is an absolute blast

Teenage summers in Ontario get lit in Sleeping Giant

Anyone looking to survive Canadian content restrictions could do a lot worse than Sleeping Giant, a film set by the cottages of Thunder Bay during a summer that could have been anytime from 1980 to 2010 were it not for a lone telling cell phone. However, judging Sleeping Giant on that curve would be wholly unfair, as director Andrew Civindo has created a film with a clear vision, extracted excellent performances from a young cast, and presents numerous beautiful shots. The film understands better than most how teenage boys work, crafting three unique and interesting lead characters. It’s faults are not in being dinky or cliche, but rather in steeping in a bit too much unjustified misery.

The film takes it title from a rock formation in Lake Superior, an uninhabited peninsula surrounded by cottage country. It focuses on three fifteen-ish boys. Firstly, there’s wallflower Adam, who arrives with his middle-class parents. His father wants to connect with him through rote, vaguely bro-ish life lessons, but teaches him the biggest lesson through a secret he harbours. Adam joins up with cousins Riley and Nate, visiting their grandma and both clearly from poorer households (as told in shortcut via smoking and talk of failing math). Riley is an earnest kid, and Adam’s father quickly takes a liking to him; Nate is the type to act out and egg on others in vulgar ways. Each of the kids starts out as a stereotype (particularly Nate), but is shaded in well. By the midpoint, these kids feel developed, and more than that, feel very real and true to the teenage-boy experience. The class struggle between Adam and the cousins nicely bubbles under the surface, and the cousins’ involvement in a potential romance between Adam and long-time friend Taylor throws some chaos into the mix.

But maybe too much chaos. Between the class issues, hormonal complications, and secrets of the father, Sleeping Giant comes dangerously close to melodrama in its final act, unleashed in what is probably the most dramatic game of Settlers of Catan ever played. It survives based on the goodwill it generates leading up to its finale, but never fully recovers in the end. However, all the way through, this is a very memorably visual movie, with upside-down voyeurism and an odd number of long takes of bugs (all of which are great). Civindo relishes in the hijinks, the cliff-jumping and fireworks and play-fighting, all kinetically shot with a great sense of joy and fear. The movie also has perhaps the most realistically stylized first-time-on-pot scene I’ve seen, with slight blurs and lots of cheese puffs. Youth eventually ends, and all can’t be fireworks and cheese puffs, but Sleeping Giant’s sudden disregard for youthful joy in its end is a more bitter pill than it needs to be.

B

sleepinggiant-size-custom-crop-1086x587

Sleeping Giant (2016)
Dir. Andrew Civindo
Starring Jackson Martin, Reece Moffat, Nick Serino, and David Disher
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Spoilery thoughts below

  • Looking at many of the other reviews for this film, the love triangle is often presented about being about Taylor. Forgive me if this is a misread, but Adam was gay, right? From his longing looks at Riley, this seemed like only interpretation. That twist in the story, which never played for high-drama, really affects how the final act of the film is viewed, with Adam trying to break up Taylor and Riley but not take the blame, or his confrontation near the seagull with Nate. The movie ends with Adam and Riley on the beach, seemingly making peace, which makes more sense as an ending if Adam’s crush was on Taylor and not Riley, so maybe I’m off-base here.
  • So what is there to read out of the death of Nate? He was the only one who wasn’t part of the love triangle, instead used as a pawn by Adam. Yet he is the one punished. Adam’s self-blame is not entirely accurate (Nate made the choice at the end of the day), but if we take him as the intended guilty party, is Nate punished for his sins, a token of what happens when you use people? Riley mentions midway through to Adam that straight-up honesty is the best policy; Nate’s death is the indirect consequence of Adam’s lie.
  • How fantastic is the shot of the two bugs having sex, then being splattered, with the left-out bug standing triumphant? A bit on the nose after Adam finds out about Taylor and Riley, but so so very good.
Teenage summers in Ontario get lit in Sleeping Giant

Hail Caesar! has two too many characters

It’s worth mentioning off the bat that most Coen brothers movies take a while to get used to. Almost all of them improve greatly on a second viewing, but can be alienating at the start. Fargo and The Big Lebowski, for two extreme examples, went from good to stone-cold-classic standing after I saw them a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. It’s no surprise then that Hail Caesar didn’t quite gel for me after one viewing. However, its alienating features have more in common with The Ladykillers than A Serious Man, which may bode poorly for its standings in the Coens pantheon.

Hail Caesar takes place in just-post-war Hollywood, where fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is juggling the problems of an entire studio on his back. The cast of supporting characters consists primarily of actors, including George Clooney’s suave nincompoop of a superstar (the unofficial fourth in his Idiot Trilogy), Scarlet Johansson’s brusque swimming film starlet, and Channing Tatum’s smiling dancer. Beyond the actors, there’s Frances McDormand as an editor, Jonah Hill as a professional extra of sorts, Ralph Fiennes as a director, Tilda Swinton as a reporter and her identical sister, and twelve familiar faces including Fred Melamed and David Krumholtz as a guild of politicized writers. It’s exactly as overstuffed as it sounds, and normally reliable talents (particularly Swinton) go full-ham to try to catch their minute in the spotlight. Some, like McDormand, have just one scene and make the most of it, but others like Johansson and Fiennes serve mostly as amusing distractions from the main action. It all feels quite disconnected, even if bits individually work.

Thankfully, the bits that work really work. It’s stuffed with memorable moments and images, and oftentimes is brutally funny. In diving into classic Hollywood cheese, Hail Caesar has its cake and eats it too. For example, in Tatum’s introductory scene it makes fun of old-school dance sequences by staging an effective old-school dance scenes. A running gag about eagles is effective throughout, and it when it goes very Very big, it always works.

Hail Caesar also continues the Coen’s obsession with religion, with its central (and titular) picture being a big-screen story of the Christ. Some of the side characters take on direct religious symbolism (Joseph, the apostles), which leaves its Jesus figure up in the air between two characters. Alden Ehrenreich has a star-making turn as cowboy actor drawn into a drama, whose youth and purity hint in that direction. But Mannix himself is the one carrying the sins of Hollywood, notably courting offers from Lockheed-Martin in a room draped in red. When he encounters McDormand’s editor, the fruits of his labour in Hollywood are laid bare. Like most of Hollywood and the movie itself, its pretty damn amusing, but not 100% satisfying.

B-

hailcaesarsailors

Hail Caesar (2016)
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, and George Clooney
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

Hail Caesar! has two too many characters

10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and intriguing, but slightly more exciting in concept than execution

I’ll get this out of the way immediately and admit that I liked Cloverfield a fair amount. The shaky-cam didn’t bother me, I thought the perspective on the Godzilla movie was fresh, and I was genuinely invested in the outcome. Cloverfield 2, however, is absolutely not a thing that the world needed. From that perspective, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an insanely good sequel, in that it has almost nothing to do with Cloverfield.

Really, 10 Cloverfield Lane shares much more with the Curate sections of War of the Worlds, the fantastic Wes Craven flick Red Eye, and that imaginary super-bleak movie that people conjure up when they hear about Room. There are only three people in the cast. There are no scenes of cities being destroyed. And mercifully, there is no shaky cam. It treats Cloverfield as a baseline for an anthology series, hopefully exploring small-scale scenarios in large-scale catastrophes, and the smallness and intimacy of it is incredibly exciting. On the other hand, the Cloverfield link is a fairly shameless marketing ploy, but if it gets movies like this in the cineplex, I’m on board.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a big-studio version of the kind of movie that is normally done for pennies, but the talent behind the camera mostly sticks to the indieness of the proceedings. There are caveats though, and when the big-studio influence pops in its almost always for the worst. Bear McCreary’s score feels like something out of a larger movie, which is distracting rather than classing up the joint. Some of the more arbitrary plot devices (barrels, aerosols) seem to come from an entirely different planet, and the third act has a bit of a focus-group feeling to it. At one point, it leans into its attempt to be “indie” a bit too strongly, setting a montage of the character killing time to upbeat music which doesn’t quite gel with the tone before and after (a later scene pulls a similar trick to great effect though).

The above is to say that 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t perfect, because the rest of what I’ll say is that so many things about it are fantastic! As Howard, the unstable owner of the bunker, John Goodman leans on his physical presence rather than his charisma and reminds us how terrifying Goodman can truly be (the Coens are the only ones who tap into this side of him this well). He’s a dark and mysterious character, but no cheap tricks and twists are played with regards to his motivation. As the hero, Mary Elizabeth Winstead moves from being a welcome presence in movies ranging from Final Destination 3 to Scott Pilgrim into likely becoming a full-blown Movie Star. Her character, Michelle, is a victim, but is never portrayed as a damsel in distress. She’s resourceful, smart, and understandably vexed. It’s a great performance and a great role. John Gallagher Jr rounds out the trio providing some well-needed levity and charisma, but Goodman and Winstead absolutely steal the show.

10 Cloverfield Lane is what happens when someone intentionally tries to create a midight classic. Thankfully, the people involved are talented enough that it works, but the seams show. That being said, a world where movies like this populate the cineplex rather than spending a day in a little theater (if you’re lucky) is a world I want to live in. My advice: put Cloverfield out of your mind and meet it on its own merits. You won’t be disappointed.

B

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10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Dir. Dan Trachtenberg
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Some spoilery comments (highlight to see):

  • The ending really knocks it down a whole peg I think. I like that Michelle wasn’t immediately killed or something “edgy” like that, but devolving into an action climax outside didn’t resonate for me. The movie ends when she gets out and overcomes Howard, but the rest is shown as Story Proper rather than the epilogue it should have been.
  • I talked above about how great Michelle is as a character, but I really want to mention how great Howard is as a villain. He’s a murderous psychopath, but he’s not wrong, which leads to an interesting dynamic. Even as a proper sayer of doom, he’s still clearly the villain. I also like that the movie never hides his instability or uses John Goodman’s charisma to get us to like Howard at all. He’s constantly a ticking time bomb, we just don’t know how big the explosion will be. Although that passwords/Little Women scene was a bit too on the nose.
10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and intriguing, but slightly more exciting in concept than execution