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Hail, Caesar!

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**½

Hail, Caesar! is a collection of cute moments from talented actors. Maybe it would be best viewed as an extended episode of “Mr. Show with Bob and David”, but those always made me laugh far more than this did. Still, with a cast this stacked, there were bound to be some highlights. I thought that the kind of “in the Navy” Channing Tatum singing and dancing number was delightful. It fits into the story as a glimpse into the action on the set of Capitol Pictures with its executive and fixer Eddie Mannix—Josh Brolin. Brolin is fine as the slightly exasperated but always within control Mannix. There was also a powerful speech where George Clooney, in character, forgets the final words, which makes for a slight laugh, and skewers the idea of the validity of emotion within film, but for what? I was left with several questions when the film ended.

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Clancy Brown and George Clooney playing actors playing Romans in Hail, Caesar!

By having Clooney’s character agree with his communist abductors—yes, one problem Mannix faces is that Clooney gets drugged and abducted by non-threatening communist screenwriters—I figured that perhaps the directors were presenting them in a positive light, but they became so farcical and inept that I wondered why take this shot at communism?

With the negative portrayals of sniveling screenwriters, condescending directors, cowardly or dimwitted actors, was this an indictment of the film industry? I do not see the self-criticism herein, which makes me wonder if I missed something.

One part of the Hollywood film industry that never seems to make it into movies are the investors. Well in this one Eddie Mannix calls New York every day to give them updates. We, the audience, never get to actually hear “the money” speak. Does this represent the disconnect between financing art and creating it? Without hundreds of millions of dollars our film industry would be nothing like how it is now, nor how it was in the 1950’s. But they get no credit in creating the art, does their perceived financial desire totally remove their connection to the art created? The art that legally they have a greater claim to ownership over than the cast or crew.

But the most important question of them all is why choose Eddie Mannix as the hero, of all people?! Eddie Mannix was a real person who was portrayed as a villain in Hollywoodland. Therein the late Bob Hoskins portrayed him with a tender menace. For those who have not seen this gem, it is a biopic of George Reeves (Superman). Who tries to make a cuddly flic like this about a guy whom many believe is a murderer?

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Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney and co singing that “No Dames” number.

Unfortunately when taken as a whole, this day in the life of Eddie Mannix just does not satisfyingly fit together. Oddly it felt more like a lesser Wes Anderson film than a Coen Brothers movie. I leave you you all with the highlight of the film, the words to that Navy song:

We are heading out to sea and however it will be, it ain’t gonna be the same. cause no matter what we see, when we’re out there on the sea, we ain’t gonna see a dame. we’ll be searching high and low on the deck and down below but it’s a crying shame. Oh, we’ll see a lot of fish but we’ll never clock a dish. We ain’t gonna see a dame. No dames! we might see some octopuses No dames! or a half a dozen clams No dames! we might even see a mermaid But mermaids got no gams! No gams! Have I got a girl for you! out there on the sea! Here’s how it will be i’m gonna dance with you, pal you’re gonna dance with me! When we’re out there on the sea we’ll be happy as can be Or so the Captain claims! But we have to disagree. Cause the only guarantee Is I’ll see a lot of you And you’ll see a lot of me! And it’s absolutely certain That we’ll see a lot of sea. But we ain’t gonna see no dames. No dames! We’re going to sea! No dames! We’re going to sea! No dames! We’re going to sea! We ain’t gonna see no Dames!

Suicide Squad

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***

Ames, If this man shoots me, I want you to kill him and I want you to go clear my browser history.

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Ike Barinholtz as Griggs in the Louisiana super prison in DC’s Suicide Squad.

It is no secret that the critical response to Suicide Squad was just as poor as the one to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While I disagreed with many of the conclusions regarding Man of Steel 2’s criticism, Suicide Squad does have almost everything wrong that you have heard. It looks like a movie that was edited by someone other than the writer/director—David Ayer, Training Day. The Joker/Harley Quinn relationship casts Harley as a sexualized tool of the Joker. There appears to have been an entire Harley/Joker movie filmed that got edited way down upon the realization that this could not be a four hour movie. The movie wastes a ton of time with Viola Davis’s bland Agent Amanda Waller, who boringly narrates the clips of the Suicide Squad she has assembled.

Sorry about that, I started to doze off remembering Davis talking. So how can I give this giant shopping cart rolling down a street surrounded by explosions the same *** I gave Man of Steel 2? Well here are my top 5 things I liked about Suicide Squad that totally redeemed this up to being an okay movie:

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Suicide Squad’s Cara Delevingne in June Moone mode.

      1. I like Ike. Ike Barinholtz has this quality that makes you feel like you have not only seen him in something before, but listened to him talk for hours too. This was crucial to the film since he is the first actor we see. He portrays gambling addict superhero prison guard Griggs. His affable nature lets him come across as extra cruel, while still being funny. It sets the tone that the rest of the film wished it could have lived up to.
      2. Do I like Cara Delevingne? Unlike Ike, Cara seemed totally unrecognizable to me (until I watched part of Paper Towns, which looks like a really good movie). Apparently I have seen her before because she is/was a very successful model. Perhaps I did not recognize her because her dual performances as archeologist1 June Moone and the smoky Enchantress were very convincing and distinct. I would have pegged her as a seasoned actress.Scud.jpg
      3. The movie’s logo (especially the Q) reminds me of Scud the Disposable Assassin.2 
      4. Ben Affleck was in this at Batman! I did not realize they got him for this and assumed that it would be some stunt double, but no, I got more Batfleck! Even though he got little to do, he made the most of it.
      5. Lastly, and most importantly, Will Smith and Margot Robbie totally crushed their roles. Everyone has heard about how Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn were amazing. So I want to highlight Deadshot, who, despite being played by the biggest movie star of my lifetime, Will Smith, got less press. I suppose that Deadshot does wear a mask—think of a laconic, unscarred Deadpool who never misses a shot—and does not look like Margot Robbie, especially not when she is dressed like they had her dress for this movie, but this is Will F’n Smith! They were so good it made me consider watching their previous movie together, Focus, but somehow that one seemed like too much of a waste of time to watch. This one, on the other hand, is only a waste of time compared to better movies.

1 Read: “Indiana Jones”.
2 I do not remember why I liked that comic book, but it was cute and different. Kind of like Cara Delevingne! Okay, she needs to get cast in something again soon. I see she is going to be in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets but Luc Besson or not that sounds just awful. And it stars Dane DeHaan, whose Amazing Spider-man 2 is the only movie of his I have managed to finish watching.

Now You See Me 2

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**½

Have I ever told you about the guy who screwed me over everything? This is my twin brother Chase.

The returning Jack Wilder and J. Daniel Atlas (Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg) are joined by Lula (the always charming Lizzy Caplan) and are trying to sneak past Allen Scott-Frank (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) in Now You See Me 2, © 2016 Lionsgate.

The returning Jack Wilder and J. Daniel Atlas (Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg) are joined by Lula (the always charming Lizzy Caplan) and are trying to sneak past Allen Scott-Frank (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) in Now You See Me 2, © 2016 Lionsgate.

As the credits rolled on this I decided that this sequel, which returned six of the main characters from the original was surprisingly more engaging than the original.1 The story had me wondering how it would all wrap up and it pretty much pays off, except that the ending retroactively wasted Daniel Radcliffe’s good performance. I blame the director, Jon M. Chu, as sequel specialist, for that. In fact, much like in the first film, this one has lots of arbitrary choices that are presented as ingenious later. When done correctly, this gives us Hercule Poirot with David Suchet, when incorrectly presented you get…well, what is a crappy version of Poirot? “Elementary”? Well this was more in the second camp, but it was a fun ride and I wanted to find out how it all would fit together, so it was still an enjoyable movie.

1 By more engaging I mean that I was more engrossed in the movie. So, while The Empire Strikes Back is a better movie than A New Hope, I am not sure it caught my attention like the original. X-Men 2 hooked me more though, but that was also a better movie. The Bourne Ultimatum (#3) is a good example.

Mamma Mia!

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***

Typical isn’t it? You wait 20 years for a dad and then three come along at once.

For those like me who were unfamiliar with the play on which this movie is based, it is about a wedding where the bride invites her three potential fathers without telling her mother. Also, they sing songs by the 1970s Swedish pop group Abba. I will admit that this is a deeply flawed movie, which if one wanted to tear apart, one certainly could. It is silly and the acting is a mixture between melodrama and light slapstick.

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Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried, as Sky and Sophie, singing Abba’s “Lay All Your Love on Me”, which was the surprising high point of the movie, Mamma Mia © 2008 Universal Pics.

Yet for all of the movie’s flaws I cared about the characters. Amanda Seyfried—Cosette, Les Misérables—strikes just the right balance of ingenuity and naivete to lead the story, while in the hands of a lesser actress her plan would have driven me mad. Fortunately, she is the one who interacts with all the other characters. Through her I became invested in the story and wanted to find out the payoff of the premise. Who is her father? Will the potential dads talk to her mom–Meryl Streep? Will one of them wind up with the mom in the end?

But by far the biggest question that this movie left me with was, does Abba exist in this universe? I mean, let’s examine the facts. All the main characters break into songs from Abba’s catalog. It is not just one, or one group, it is all of them. These songs are sung in the first person and they apply to the circumstances these characters face. At no point in the movie are the voices of the band Abba heard. I see this as leaving two possible circumstances. The first is that Abba exists, as a band from the 1970s, and people know their music to a greater or lesser extent. These people, by their own volition, use the most appropriate Abba song for their situation every so often. The second is that there never was an Abba in this universe, but their music and lyrics are so potent that they manifest themselves through this certain collection of people at this point in time. Perhaps it goes farther than that and this phenomenon occurs around the world, much like how the alien ships in Independence Day communicated synchronously. Let’s take my favorite song in the movie, “Lay All Your Love on Me1, that song begins with Sky looking for his missing fiancée, Sophie, and as she runs to him he starts to sing that song. They sing to each other, which can be explained in either Abbaverse. Then a squad of men swim ashore and carry Sky off, so that they can synchronized dance to the song before hopping into the water, which abruptly leads to Sky departing on a mystery jetski. This is absurd in a world with Abba songs, and a little less odd in that second world where Abba songs erupt from people. But the song continues on with Sophie finishing the song that night. The song never stops, so, did time pass? Does she know that time has passed? Is she supposedly singing this same song for a second time? If so, did someone else sing the male vocals? For every conclusion I make I have three more questions! Movies are supposed to make us think, and that is especially true in excellent art and unintentional comedies.

1 I hope this YouTube link works forever. I do not even know how to download videos from YouTube, plus, what is the payoff for me to do? It would generally be illegal anyways.

Star Trek Beyond

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***½

Dammit Jim, I’m a human being not a Vulcan!

Totally boned.

The Swarm attacking the Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond, © 2016 Paramount Pics.

I thought that Krall—”The Wire”, Idris Elba—was a good villain, but he was very reminiscent of Nero (Star Trek) and Khan (Star Trek Into Darkness). I think that is why this movie received the reaction that it did, because it was more of the same. It just so happens that those first two were excellent so getting more of a good thing still feels fun. The non-crew member addition to the cast, Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, worked, although Boutella had to act despite extensive makeup and having to speak with an alien affectation. As for the regular cast of the Enterprise, they continued to be an enjoyable lot with excellent chemistry.

I do not know if this is a criticism, or a compliment, but that feeling of more of the same comes from a new director, Justin Lin–Fasts 5 & 6–and a new writers Simon Pegg—who reprised his role as Scotty—and Doug Jung. Perhaps if I looked at the first two with a more critical eye—excluding the sexism critique I provided for Into the Darkness—I would have found more plotholes, but here there are several jumps that we are expected to make as an audience. For instance, they show a ship on fire in a way that is illogical, but looked cool and looking cool appears to be the side of the scale that had more weight in this movie. And, at the risk of revealing my lifelong Trekkie status, how do photon torpedos not work against clusters of small fighters? They don’t even have to hit to have an effect! They are like depth charges despite the vacuum of space. Just detonate them at a certain distance, or when they reach a cluster of fighters.

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Sofia Boutella as Jaylah in Stark Trek Beyond.

So this movie was cute and a little less sexist! Let us celebrate how Spock and Uhura’s relationship helped the plot, instead of getting shoehorned in to inject comedic tension and accidentally undermine Uhura’s character. Lastly, in the reveal at the end of film I legitimately teared up. In contrast, my wife could not understand why this sterile scene had this effect and when I explained it, she demonstrated such a lack of Star Trek foundational knowledge that it made me question if she could tell Deep Space 9 from the Enterprise NCC-1701-D! Oh no, I did that exposing myself as a Trekkie thing again, didn’t I?

The Christmas Bunny

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****

We need a passenger.

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Sophie Bolen as Julia, holding “Rumple” with an appropriate look of happiness, © 2010 Honey Creek Pics.

This movie unsubtly tries to teach its viewers how to care for rabbits. What a noble goal for a Christmas movie, for any movie really. As it was just a Christmas movie I had pretty low hopes for this, but from the acting, to the dialogue, to the story this was a more than solid movie. While it does involve Christianity and Christian values, this does not have prayer being rewarded in the way you might expect. Not everything just magically gets fixed.

The story is about a mentally disturbed foster child who will not speak until she come across a rabbit whom he foster brother and cousin shoot with their brand new BB guns. A difficult moment to be sure, but thankfully that violence occurs offscreen. The foster parents, played excellently by Madeline Vail and Colby French, are flawed people trying to do the right things and struggling. Since this came out in 2010 their financial problems are all too familiar to Americans who were looking for jobs at around that time. Their son, played by Derek Brandon, is a mediocre human being, but what can you expect from a 12 year old? To not use a rabbit as a “passenger” when sending a baby carriage down a sled ramp! That is a reasonable expectation. Julia, the foster child played by Sophie Bolen, reacts strongly to this, screaming and running out, too late to stop it. She attacks her brother and bites him and I approve of this behavior, while the adults did not. Simply put, cruelty to animals deserves a cruel receipt, especially at a young age. I am not saying that negligence deserves cruelty, just cruelty does. If an adult is cruel to an animal then, let’s face it, they deserve whatever it takes to register that such behavior unacceptable. Instead of me explicitly saying what I would do to someone I found wantonly hurting my rabbits1 it would be more productive to provide some rabbit care tips, like this film provides through the director’s voice, as portrayed by Florence Henderson—”The Brady Bunch.”

  1. Rabbits need hay for their digestive system to function properly. Constipation can be lethal to rabbits, so feed them appropriately.
  2. Rabbits’ teeth never stop growing, so having wood to chew on is important for them.
  3. Rabbits eat their own poop. The film did not explain that there are two kinds of rabbit poop and that the kind they eat is a small percentage of their bowel movements and clearly different from the majority of it, which closely resembles Cocoa Puffs™.
  4. Rabbits are social animals, so playing with them is important, or you can get them a pal.2

Writer/director Tom Seidman got his first shot to do both in this movie and it is too bad that it probably made no money, since it was only released locally in Grand Rapids, MI. I was continuously impressed with how professional the movie looked compared to its obviously tiny budget. It is also disappointing because there should be a larger market for movies that show dozens of adorable bunnies. But then again I can always hang out with my rabbits and so can anyone else who takes the time to adopt a couple rabbits, but remember, they are a commitment and buying pets on a whim because it is near a holiday just so that they can be neglected is a sin that out to be punishable by the same fate you inflict on some cute bunny. Maybe, at least for now, it is safer to start with watching this movie instead, which is currently available on Netflix.

1 They are Da Capo and Melody. I never talked on this site about the passing of our (mine and my wife Megan’s) rabbit Vivace, but it was so traumatizing (she died in my arms) that I only watched one movie for two months. Remembering this actually brings tears to my eyes. I legitimately teared up five times during the movie, which has not happened since The Fault in Our Stars.

2 Bonding rabbits is not easy and can sometimes fail. Da Capo was too old and set in his ways and Melody was too young and energetic so they live next to each other instead of together.

Rogue One

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Do we hold previews against the films themselves when rating them? I remember reading, probably in Entertainment Weekly, about a decade ago that audiences did not hold dishonest trailers against the films themselves. As such, movie producers have incentives to make movies look good, even if they are not representative of the actual movies people are going to go watch. Before I knew this trend, I was an outlier and did hold it against the films. When I became aware of this, it cemented my distaste for that practice. The first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story got me so excited that I decided to make one of my fun lists, calling it Favorite Trailers: Part 1—do not bother looking for it, since it is still just a rough draft. And you know what? That trailer has great lines that were not included in the final film. Shenanigans I say! I wanted to hear Felicity Jones, as the main character Jyn Erso, say “This is a Rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.” And I really wanted to hear Forest Whitaker, Saw Gerrera, say “What will you do when the catch you? What will you do if they break you? If you continue to fight, what will you become?” Those lines with the Death Star’s iconic alarm sirens underneath them and with footage like a force savvy warrior taking out stormtroopers made me wish I could watch the movie right then.

So Rogue One lacked those lines. And on the whole it did not feel as amazing as The Force Awakens. But this was in a more classic Star Wars universe. Since it took place between Episodes III and IV it could have gone either way and it was a huge relief to see that director, Gareth Edwards, or perhaps executive producers John Knoll, who has been around since the 1997’s Special Edition of Star Wars as a visual effects supervisor, and Jason Gatlin, who was an EP on The Force Awakens, went in this direction. I have read that the film had a good deal of pickups1 and was re-edited to make for a more palatable sell to mass audiences. Who knows which version would have been better. What I do know is that the ending was not made less depressing, which is contrary to the entire history of Hollywood interference with films. And, this is the opposite of a spoiler — there are no Bothans, so do not look for them.

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Rogue One, © 2016 Disney.

****½

There were a lot of explosions for two people blending in.

The greatest compliment that I can give this film is that it feels like it really exists in the Star Wars universe. Had there been no prequels, this would have felt like the prequel that Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope deserved. In so many ways this could have been a sequel to the Episode III, but it really only fits that description in one way, and that way was a positive one. Timeline wise the Rebellion’s situation was desperate and this shows you just how desperate its position was.

Joining the Rebellion, and not particularly by choice, was Jyn Erso, whose father was a project leader on the Death Star. Through Jyn, Felicity Jones shows what such a great actress she is.  I have never recognized her between two films, which is an impressive feat. The first tie that I noticed to the prequels was Jimmy Smits as Senator Bail Organa. You may remember him as Princess Leia’s adopted father. An even cooler tie to the greater Star Wars films is the vocal choice of JAMES EARL JONES as Vader instead of Hayden Christensen. Contrast that to the DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy where Christensen replaced original Return of the Jedi Vader/Skywalker as a ghost.

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Director Krennic (caped) with two Death Troopers, in Disney’s Rogue One. 

In terms of screentime, Vader played a small role, but even so he makes the primary antagonist, Director Krennic, seem so underwhelming. Ben Mendehlson portrayed him and he was great,  even as he tried to not piss his pants in front of Vader. While Vader’s costume is iconic, Krennic’s white is great. Who pulls off a cape in 2016? Director Krennic and Batman, that is who. And, of course, Darth Vader. Below I have another photo showing Krennic, but it was a younger Krennic wearing a travel cape, so it lacks the authority his full Director status justified. And it was a wise decision to have Krennic as a less imposing villain, since an attempt to overshadow Vader would have been foolhardy, thus to make us hate or fear him the film had to make him a different kind of evil.

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Mads Mikkelsen in Rogue One.

The film starts with Krennic coming for a Republican/Imperial officer, named Galen Erso, who had quit. The Empire apparently does not accept resignations, and Krennic has come to bring the whole Erso family in with him so that Galen—an excellent Mads Mikkelsen, doing his best work since Casino Royale—can help build the Death Star. Galen tells his wife and daughter to run, and one of them listens. Thus Jyn Erso survives, functionally an orphan because of the Empire. The re-cut does the most harm here because there must have been a story about Jyn growing up with a fringe Rebel named Saw Gerrera—Forest Whitaker—where he makes that great speech from the teaser. Alas.

Saw Gerrera, and eventually Jyn, wind up on the planet Jeddha. Galen Erso has convinced an Imperial pilot Riz Ahmed–Jason Bourne–to defect and to seek Gerrara, the man he trusted to raise Jyn when Galen was kidnapped. Jeddha is where the action picks up, and on the streets of its holy city, Jyn, and her Rebel handler, Captain Cassian Andor—Diego Luna, Julio from Elysium—start to form the core of the true rebels in this story. I would be remiss to further omit the droid of the story! Cassian’s mate, K-2SO, is unique in several ways, and casting Alan Tudyk to voice him was an excellent choice—he crushed it as THE Robot in I, Robot.  He is a repurposed Imperial droid, so he can blend in with Imperials until he has to talk. As a Chewbacca/C-3PO hybrid he is great. Probably my favorite addition to their group is Chirrut Îmwe—Ip Man Donnie Yen—whom I almost did not recognize in his blind and English speaking state. I hope he gets treated as a real favorite. Is he a Jedi? As his pal Maze Malbus–Wen Jiang–says, there are no Jedi anymore. The two of them were an archetypical duo and that is what Star Wars did, and does, and they totally pulled it off again.

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Krennic arrives with Death Troopers to find Galen Urso, in the background their shuttle is visible, Rogue One.

This film was a step forward for Star Wars by taking a step back into what it did well, but in a dark way. Episode VII was similar, but on a grander scale, with more important people. Now one major issue that people noted was the reprisal of Star Wars: Episode IV roles with the use of computer graphics. Many people were shocked by young Princess Leia, but earlier than that my biggest mark out moment was the first appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin with CGI Peter Cushing. My gasp made people look at me. The face was imperfect, but a huge improvement from Episode III Tarkin. I was shocked to learn that the voice was new, since Guy Henry’s impression sounded so accurate. Other highlights were Rebel Squadron leaders whom I recognized from the original (Episode IV). All told there were too many references for me to pick up on all of them and the obvious times when they opted to toss out references they cut off the lines you expect before they got cheesy. That is particularly important since the film gets so dark and well earned laughs were crucial to keeping the audience invested.

The final memory that I take from this film, even more than its message of hope and sacrifice, is the beauty of the Star Wars universe. Things look even sharper and better than in the incredible Episode VII. The battles and the scenery were beautiful and unforgiving, just like this film.

1 Pickups and reshooting are not a sign of weakness. For instance, The Lord of the Rings is arguably the second best film trilogy of all-time and for its extended editions they relied on pickups.

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