Movie Review: “A War”


Soldiers, loaded with gear and dressed in camo, depart for a mission in Afghanistan.

They’re to search a village, question the locals about Taliban in the area.

Shots are fired. Soldiers are hurt, others are shaken by the stress.

But they’re in constant contact with their base, and can call in air support in an instant. Which they do, leading to tragic consequences.

“A War” is a vividly-detailed but somewhat generic modern combat film. The sole novelty here is that these utterly professional soldiers are Danish.

They live lives of military tedium, interrupted by sat phone calls home, joshing around the barracks and command decision debates about missions and priorities.

“Winning civilian (hearts and minds),” is mentioned.

But every time they go off-base, whether on an IED (improvised explosive device) hunt, sniper mission or routine search and questioning, tension is high and the fear is palpable.

Tobias Lindholm’s film has documentary realism even in its more melodramatic moments. The family Lieutenant Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) has left behind is struggling. His oldest son is acting out in school, the wife (Tuva Novotny) is overwhelmed.

He’s lost a man, something everybody in this small unit from a tiny country feels intensely. He doesn’t want to lose another. He’s made decisions about civilians “by the book,” and come to regret those decisions.

His enemy is barbaric and ruthless.

All those factors play into the decision to end a firefight with unseen foes with a blunt instrument — an airstrike. And that’s when the Danish system of military justice steps into the picture.

“A War” is about the consequences of combat, even when the soldiers concerned are committed to a righteous mission — “giving these people a chance” to live a half-normal life without the threat of the murderous Taliban hanging over their heads.

Pedersen’s decisions are life-and-death matters to his men, but ripple all the way back to Denmark, to his family.

It’s wrong to think of these Danes as any different from the many other nations of the coalition still trying to keep the peace in Afghanistan. The processes may differ, but the rules of engagement don’t. Americans, Canadians, Australians and others face similar second-guessing and scrutiny, and no doubt have the same responsibilities back home.

But “A War” is an engrossing reminder that we’re not alone and that others are sharing the nasty, dangerous work of policing the failed states of the world. And that they wrestle with the same command dilemmas and personal vs. professional strains as Americans, with consequences just as deadly, with a need to ethically justify themselves to civilians and rear echelon commanders who don’t really know because they weren’t actually there.




MPAA Rating:R for language and some war related images

Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Tuva Novotny, Alex Høgh Andersen, Dar Salim
Credits: Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:55

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Movie Review: “Zoolander 2”


“Zoolander 2” is funnier than any terrible movie has any right to be.

A “high concept comedy” from the days when those were a thing, it’s basically a cacophony of cameos and random sight gags hurled at the viewer in a tsunami of haute couture hype.

But in the 15 years since the original film opened, did OK and then became a cable fixture in the pop culture conversation, nobody’s gotten smarter.

Oh yeah. The stupid is strong with this one.

Zoopermodel Derek Zoolander’s dream of a school for beautiful idiots like him, “The Derek Zoolander  School for Kids who Can’t Read Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too,” died, along with his wife, when the building collapsed. That was years ago.

A TV news montage, featuring reports from Katie Couric, Jane Pauley, Matt Lauer and yes, Jim Lehrer, catches us up on where Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) have been these past fifteen years.

Derek’s been living “as a hermit crab” in the snowy Alps of “extremely northern New Jersey.” Hansel’s been holed up in the desert of Malibu, settled down with an orgy (Kiefer Sutherland included) that went on too long.

But somebody is killing the world’s pop stars — Springsteen, Usher, Madonna, and most tragically — Justin Bieber.

Bieber’s death? On camera, and it gets maybe the biggest laugh of the movie.

Derek and Hansel are summoned from retirement and reluctantly re-united by Interpol’s Fashion Police (Penelope Cruz), because the singers all died leaving selfies with one of Derek’s trademark poses — no, not “Blue Steel.”

A fashion gargoyle/maven played with “Dune” makeup and multi-cultural accent by Kristen Wiig puts Derek and Hansel back on the runways of Rome. But this is the era of polysexuals like “All,” played with vapid femininity by Benedict Cumberbatch. All appeals to both sexes, and no sexes.

“All is all,” he/she says. All has married himself/herself because “Mono marriage is finally legal in Italy.”

Derek has to reconnect with the “fat kid” (Cyrus Arnold) child services took from him years earlier and visit his nemesis (Will Ferrell) in prison. Hansel seeks the counsel of his idol, Sting. Yeah, THAT Sting.

None of this adds up to anything at all. Even All is abandoned after one scene. We giggle when this or that cameo (Christina Hendricks, Willie Nelson, Neil deGrasse Tyson) pops up. And groan at everything Derek and Hansel still cannot figure out.

“I miss not knowing things with you.”

Truthfully, this genre died with Mike Myers. Who isn’t dead, unless you mean cinematically. Will Ferrell is the last guy who could pull something like this off, and “Zoolander 2” gets a much-needed kick in the pants when he shows up. Big and broad and outlandish and still able to riff improved improvised laughs on the set, he’s still got his fastball.

Stiller? He can still do the vapid/vain thing. But he’s outgrown this genre of comedy, and even if he and Wilson are still game to try it, they’re both too late getting around to this sequel that the world sort of demanded — ten years ago.

“Zoolander 2” hasn’t the bite, the edge, the comic anger or sensibility to work in a post-“Hangover” — post Kardashian world. It just has a famous star and director filling the screen with a lot of famous friends. Or acquaintances. And that’s not all that funny.


MPAA Rating:PG-13 for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language

Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Billy Zane
Credits: Directed by Ben Stiller, script by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: “Standoff”


Not gonna lie. I laughed out loud — more than once — at “Standoff.”

The trash talk in this Mexican (Midwestern) “standoff” thriller is tasty, the hit-man threats even tastier.

“Take a good look,” the hitman (Laurence Fishburne) tells the last survivor of a graveside funeral service he’s just mowed down. “You only get one. I’ve shown you my face. You’re already dead.”

This guy is long in the tooth, years on the job. He’s made his peace with that bloody line of work.

“You don’t look the Devil in the face without takin’ a ride to the bottom floor.”

The trouble is, there was a witness to his latest massacre, a little orphan girl (Ella Ballantine) who treasures her late parents’ 35mm camera. She got photographs of the killer’s face.

Thomas Jane is Carter Green, the lonely drunk whose remote tumbledown prairie house is the sanctuary that “Bird,” the girl, flees to. Carter Green, flashbacks tell us, had a wife and son. Something happened. He’s not easy to threaten, especially when there’s a child involved.

“What you think I’ve got to lose I already lost,” he hisses, pinned upstairs with the girl, a shotgun and a single shell left.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a QUAIL hunter, boy. And I ain’t no small game!”

The two men wound each other on their first meeting. Blood is dripping, and their standoff–killer downstairs, Army vet and kid upstairs, has a sense of urgency about it

“We’ll just see who drops first.”

The wounds require gruesome self-surgery, the armed truce involves negotiation, taunting and eventually, torture. “Standoff” isn’t easy to watch, and the only unpredictable moments feel like cheats.

Writer-director Adam Alleca is better at the keyboard, cooking up chewy tough talk, than behind the camera. The shootout stuff is only passably staged, and the blood-bursts (not his fault…entirely) look digitally added, in some places.

But if Fishburne is fated to join Jane in that netherworld of C-movies, at least they make good company. Each gives as good as he gets, tears off tough talk through gritted teeth and delivers fair value, even in a thriller as forgettable as “Standoff.”




MPAA Rating:R for strong violence and language throughout

Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Thomas Jane, Ella Ballantine
Credits: Written and directed by Adam Alleca. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:26


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Movie Review: “Diamond Tongues”


It’s hard to fall in love with — or even like — Edith Welland.

Hell, it’s almost impossible.

Self-absorbed and scattered, cute but not gorgeous, perky but resentful and mean, she’s a Toronto actress with four years of failure under her belt. And she’s bitter about it.

And delusional.

“I think I’m really good.”

Edith (Leah Fay Goldstein) networks, goes to parties, sees her peers starting to have a glimmer of success. So she lies, stealing their credits and latest opportunities when someone asks her “What’re you working on?”

“Isn’t it great how it’s happening for all of us at the exact same time?”

Only it isn’t. Social media, where her friends share their triumphs, just makes her crazier.

Yeah, you could see her ditching her boyfriend “to concentrate on my career.” And spitting (literally) in his (Adam Gurfinkel) face when he takes up acting and effortlessly surpasses her.

You sense that she’s capable of sabotaging her roommate’s (Leah Wildman) play, wrecking a Facebook friend’s “big break” audition or trying to bluff her way into a call-back for a role in the Z-grade horror picture she’s up for, “Blood Sausage.

“Diamond Tongues” is a witheringly funny but still sympathetic portrait of a show business “type” — really, the only showbiz type — the needy, relentlessly optimistic narcissist who tricks him or herself into believing he or she is “special,” and not just somebody with “good looks, and a degree of talent.”

That’s what it takes — all navel gazing, all the time.

Goldstein, whose day job had been with the Canadian band July Talk, embodies the arrested development of an acting dilettante. Edith insults the older “producer” running an acting workshop with a “those who can, do” line, but still sleeps with him in the mistaken belief that it will further her aims.

Edith shows up for auditions without a headshot, can’t be bothered to get her agent or the guy she wants to hire to edit together her reel — the clips of her appearances as “annoyed woman” and the like. She dreams of droning movie star banalities on her favorite chat shows, but cannot be bothered to do the basic work it takes to have that success.

Co-writers/directors Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson and Goldstein let us see the rising bile beneath the ditziness Edith presents to the world. There’s an ugliness that creeps in, no matter how much she smiles, no matter how dolled up she gets.

But as Edith’s self-awareness grows, so does her beauty, a kind of “world gives you back what you put out there” self-help ethos visualized through makeup, hair and Edith’s inner light.

It’s a cute transformation. And “Diamond Tongues” — the film takes its title from an earlier Edith experimental film about to come out — delights even as it reminds us of why it’s always helpful to wear earplugs while standing in line at film festivals.

All that upbeat “Me me me” from the punter/filmmakers and wannabe stars and starlets is grating, and the mere effort to resist rolling your eyes at each and every too-loud conversation about glories to come is just exhausting.

MPAA Rating: unrated, with sex, profanity

Cast: Leah Fay Goldstein, Nick Flanagan, Adam Gurfinkel, Leah Wildman
Credits: Directed by Pavan Moondi, Brian Robertson, script by Pavan Moondi. A Mongrel Media release.

Running time: 1:39

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Movie Review: “Deadpool” delivers death and killer laughs

dead1First of all, don’t be late for “Deadpool.” There are more funny lines and opening credit sight gags in this than most comedies have in their full running time.

It was “directed by some overpaid tool,” it co-stars “a CGI character,” “a moody kid” and “some hot chick.”

And it was written by “the real heroes here.”

And Ryan Reynolds? Self-mocking references to “The Green Lantern” and “sexiest man alive” People Magazine covers (not just his, also his nemesis, Hugh Jackman’s) abound.

Again, this is before the movie gets up and running. And run it does — off at the mouth, and through legions of bad guys and gals — dispatched with extreme violence and nasty one-liners.

Reynolds slays in the role he was born to play, the nasty, anti-social, vengeance-driven mutant who refuses to join the X-Men, led by “McAvoy or Stewart? So confused.”

“Deadpool” is a comic book movie that feels like a comic book — insanely violent (beheadings and impalings aplenty — this is NOT for children), self-mocking in the extreme.

Reynolds is the ex-soldier who’s been a sort of two-bit “Equalizer” until his cancer diagnosis. His one shot at a cure? An underground treatment that will make him a fast-healing, nearly-immortal mutant. Side effect?

He looks “like I got bit by a radioactive Sharpei!”

He wants his revenge on the mutant scientist (Ed Skrein) and henchwoman (Gina Carano) who took away his “Sexiest Man Alive” looks.

A couple of X-Men (not the famous ones) show up. A big fight happens on the ruins of some X-Men/Avengers warcraft.

And the soundtrack wears out more vintage hits than “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which is almost as funny and not remotely as violent as this.

There’s not a lot of heart in all this slaughter and girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) saving, blind roommate ribbing (Leslie Uggams!) and bartender-pal riffing (T.J. Miller). Character motivation goes out the window, making way for funny “types” — the “brooding” teen mutant (Brianna Hildebrand), Megasonic, or the matchstick-chewing brawny bombshel (Chacano).

But it’s good to see Reynolds land something that plays around with his sass and sex appeal, his high-pitched banter and ability to buff up and take (and deliver) a beatdown.

He knew “Deadpool” was his main chance, and this guy gets his “maximum effort” — in fights, in the sack and in every fourth wall (turn to the camera) break.

“Cue the music!”


MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Ed Skrein, Brianna Hildebrand, Karan Soni, Morena Baccarin

Credits: Directed by Tim Miller, script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. A 20th Century Fox/Marvel Studios release.
Running time: 1:48


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Box Office: “Panda” pounds out another $20, “Caesar” rendered $11

boxofficeThe biggest box office news has to be the failure of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

Movies that pander to horror fans and fanboys (mostly boys) in particular are an iffy proposition. And this one has been talked to death for years as it was planned, cast, re-cast as Natalie Portman dropped out and B-C lister Brits took over.

It’s opening to a pathetic $5 million or so, on all those screens. #zombiefail.

The latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation should be the last (it won’t). A $5 million opening? Stick a fork in’em. He’s done.

Maybe audiences are tiring of the walking dead (Sparks, and other zombies). Movie audiences, anyway.

“Hail, Caesar!” has an exclamation point in the title. Ask Jeb! how that’s working out.

“Caesar” is managing a respectable $11 million or so its opening (Super Bowl) weekend, based on Friday’s numbers.

“Kung Fu Panda 3” is doing $20 million, a fall-off of over 50%.

“Star Wars” has cleared 900 million.

Audiences have spent the money they’re going to spend on this year’s Oscar contenders. None of them is still in the top ten, giving ground to the likes of “The Fifth Wave” and “Dirty Grandpa.” Silly audiences.

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Movie Review: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Lily James;Bella Heathcote

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has but one joke, and it’s in the title.

The joke is almost amusing the first time it’s trotted out, and doesn’t improve with an hour and forty-eight minutes of repetition.

Take away the zombies, and it’s a reasonably good-looking but feebly cast and heartless Jane Austen adaptation. Take away the Jane Austen novel underpinnings, and it’s just another variation on the zombie plague, this times showing how 18th century Britain coped. The upper classes barely miss a two-step or reel or round of whist.

That may have been the point of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel, a statement on manners and class and “There’ll always be an England,” even after the dead have become undead. But it’s muddled and all but ignored in Burr Steers’ adaptation.

So the rich send their children, sons AND daughters, off to learn the martial arts of the exotic east. Snobs send them to China. Bigger snobs send theirs to Japan.

The Bennett girls — five of them — pack pistols and muskets and swords and stilettos — the knives, not the high heels.

They still love going to balls and dream of finding their love match, preferably somebody rich. But when the chips are down and their brains are under attack, they slash and behead and hack their way through the undead in a manner George A. Romero would be proud to call his own.

Lizzie (Lily James, almost too pretty) is their plucky leader. Proud, humbled by the fact her dottie mother considers sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) “the pretty one,” she’s a warrior princess with legs and an fetching Empire waistline/bustline.

Then Mr. Darcy (“That’s COLONEL Darcy.”) with his haughty, mistrusting, kill-first, ask forgiveness later upper class ways shows up in Hertfordshire.  He (Sam Riley of “Control” and “Maleficent”) is a veteran zombie killer who packs his own flies. They’re drawn to rotting flesh, which is how he roots out those who’ve been bitten in a crowded card game.

The dapper Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) is here, the insufferably smarmy Parson Collins (Mat Smith). And you just know there’s something untrustworthy about that dashing soldier and veteran Darcy-hater, Mr. Whickham (Jack Huston).

Parson Collins’ “patron,” Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has evolved from dowager to a hot and hot-headed zombie slayer played by Lena Headey (“300”).

And aside from the carefully timed-out zombie assaults and the increasingly gory if not increasingly clever means of dispatching those walking dead, that’s all there is to this.

Riley makes a lousy, hoarse-voiced Darcy. James sets off no sparks with him, suggests no heartbreaking longing. If you want to make a point about women liberated by a zombie invasion into independent-minded martial arts warriors, why do it with one of the greatest romance novels of all time? There’s barely a laugh here, and nothing resembling human emotion.

The Austen movie mania ended when they ran out of novels, though the BBC and PBS took a shot at redoing them all. This zombie fad, spawning endless revamps of George A. Romero’s formula on the big screen and ongoing cable TV hits for those with short memories or no desire to see something fresh or go out to a movie, shows no sign of abating.

But one can hope that you “Pride” flop, maybe at long last we’ll see the undead shuffle, slowly, off into the darkness and back beneath the damp soil from which they came.





MPAA Rating:PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley,  Bella Heathcote, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Lena Headey
Credits: Written and directed by Burr Steers, based on the Seth Grahame-Smith spoof of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” A Sony/Screen Gems release.

Running time: 1:48

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Movie Review: “The Choice”


There is but one plot template in the notebook (computer) of Nicholas Sparks.

Love. “Endless Love.” With an emphasis on the “endless” part.

The tales are set in Coastal Carolina. When they’re turned into movies, sometimes the actors take the trouble to learn to drawl.

There’s romance tinged with tragedy, the joy of new love with a hint of sadness.

And sand. There’s always sand. Unless some fool is trying to pass off the rocky shores of Maine for the sandy Outer Banks of N.C. in “Message in a Bottle.”

“The Choice” is another endless, nearly-sinless-in-the-sun Sparks melodrama, one that benefits from a couple of charming leads and some folksy, down home humor.

But that title frames it in tragedy. And that “choice” leaves this tepid romance mired in the maudlin.

Benjamin Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) is Travis, a rich, dashing lady’s man, the “catch” of Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach, N.C. And that’s not just because he has the nicest fishing boat.

Fishing, like flirting, is a hobby. All he has to do is turn on that Carolina drawl and even the saltier, Daisy Duke-clad hotties melt. And clean up their language.

“You kiss your Mamma with that potty mouth?”

Teresa Palmer, of “Warm Bodies” and “Point Break,” is Gabby, who has the waterfront cottage next door to the showplace Travis calls home. She’s a resident at the local hospital whose studies and classical music listening are ruined by the party boy and his loud music.

“Could you BE any more obnoxious?”

“You have NO idea.”

That “meet cute” moment is chased by a canine love affair that puts them together in the same veterinary clinic. And that’s where the sparks — ahem — fly.

Travis is challenged by how challenging Gabby is. “There you go again, botherin’ me!”

Gabby’s choice? She’s engaged to Dr. Ryan (Tom Welling). She needs to choose between two suitors. Since the first scene in the movie, narrated by Travis, is set in a hospital, we can guess that’s not the only “choice” here.

Tom Wilkinson lends a light twinkle to Shep, veterinarian dad to Travis. The rest of the supporting cast takes its twinkling cues from him.

The script is sprinkled with dopey profundities — “A man with one chair likes to sit alone.” A barbecue invitation is strictly casual. Let’s “throw some read meat on the grill, tell a few lies.”

There’s waterfront dining, dinghy treks to a deserted island after dark, hard feelings and a lot of time passes. A LOT. An integrated church where the choir sings Joe Cocker’s favorite Dave Mason (Traffic) song, “Feelin’ Alright.”

All of which is such predictable pablum that “The Choice” outstays its welcome by a good half hour. As usual, the “love” part almost works. It’s the “endless” and drawn out finale that is makes us wish we’d chosen a better way to use our time.




MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some thematic issues

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Benjamin Walker, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Welling
Credits: Directed by Ross Katz, script by Bryan Sipe, based on the Nicholas Sparks. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:51

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Movie Review: “Where to Invade Next”


Mistitled and meandering, it is Michael Moore’s worst film, his weakest whack at America: What Went Wrong?

“Where to Invade Next”? Where to begin?

Start with the premise. Leftist gadfly Moore lectures the Joint Chiefs of Staff (not in person) for America’s decades of failed military adventures, and will show us and them how it should be done.

“No more using drones as wedding invitations.”

He’ll put on his olive drab jacket, grab a flag, and invade countries that America should be stealing ideas from. He’ll interview Icelanders, Finns, Slovenians, Italians, French, German, Norwegians, Portuguese and Tunisians, find out how their education systems, school lunches, workers’ rights, prison systems and and political systems are better than those of the United States.

And he’ll claim them as ours, planting the flag as he makes his mission creep.

You can probably see flaws in that premise just from the listed nations –tiny, and with the exception of Tunisia, European. Monocultures with small populations. The interview subjects (even in Tunisia) make this his whitest film since “Bowling for Columbine.”

And the cherry picking. Visiting a Ducati motorcycle or high fashion factory to learn about “the Italian way”? Seriously? Ever driven an Italian car? Or tried to keep one running? Are they a model to emulate?

Portugal is Greece in waiting. Iceland has a population the size of Tampa. Tunisia is tiny and gutsy and launched The Arab Spring — thanks to a guy who set himself on fire. Not something Americans do.

The surface ideas here may be sound. Germany mandates that half the members of any company’s board of directors be factory workers, making stronger unions and less chance of a rapacious American “Winner Take All” economy. Finland scrapped traditional school methods for a no homework/no standardized test curriculum that has moved them to the top of the world’s “smartest student” charts. France and Italy tax their people to pay for generous social welfare — and divine school lunches — and everybody benefits, not just those country’s “one percent.”

Portugal legalizes all drugs and empties its prisons, Norway treats its prisoners with humor and humanity and an emphasis on rehabilitation — even the mass murderers. There is no “punishment” to it other that idyllic, comfy isolation.

But the movie plays as a diffuse, smirking rant, allowing us to envy Italians whose many weeks of paid vacation allow them to travel to Monte Carlo, Miami and Nairobi or marvel at those smart, friendly Nordic Finns and Norwegians.

Moore’s mission creep sets in when he takes a shot at getting back in Hillary Clinton’s good graces, noting how Iceland was the first country to elect a female president, how it’s safest bank is run by women and how the country was the only one to send misbehaving bankers to prison after the global financial collapse. Moore famously ditched Hillary for Obama in 2008, and promised reporters (including this one) to “make it up to her.”

The implication is clear. Part of America’s problem can be traced to testosterone. America is lagging in the equal rights/equal presidency department. And there’s just one woman of note running for president this time around.

Moore also visits the Berlin Wall, to remind us that in an age of seemingly intractable problems and unbroken American gridlock that change, when it happens, comes in a flash. And these “great ideas?” They are, to a one, American in origin, ideas the country got away from as it grew too fast and let profiteers take too much control of education, culture and its politics.

None of these quibbles would be worth debating as merits or demerits in a movie were it not for the fact that Moore’s latest film isn’t funny. Archival footage of Texas tinhorn Rick Perry’s insistence that “abstinence” in sex education works, despite being given overwhelming evidence that it  is failing in Texas, is almost the lone laugh in this too-long tirade.

Moore needed to stay on message, plan his trip to be more inclusive and maybe hire fresher writers to polish his political one-liners and zingers.

Wherever he decides to “Invade Next,” the invasion will be pointless if the zing is gone.





MPAA Rating: R for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity

Cast: Michael Moore, Krista Kiuru, Vidgis Finnbogadottir
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Moore. An IMG release.

Running time: 1:50


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Movie Review: “Flail, Caesar!”

When the Coen Brothers miss, they miss with gusto. Images of Babe Ruth, swinging and collapsing in a heap from the effort come to mind.

And when they miss — think “Intolerable Cruelty” “Burn After Reading” –they often miss with George Clooney as their star.

Eddie Mannix would see the pattern. A famous studio “fixer,” the guy who kept troubled productions from collapsing and scandal-seeking stars out of the headlines, from the late ’20s to the edge of the ’50s, Eddie would have steered the studio clear of George after “Oh Brother!”

Josh Brolin plays a fictionalized Mannix trying to keep gay stars from being outed, a pregnant single startlet (Scarlett Johannsson) from giving birth while unmarried and a kidnapped superstar (Clooney) from wrecking a pricey “Tale of the Christ” swords and sandals epic, “Hail, Caesar!” that Eddie’s unseen boss has the studio’s prestige invested in.

Eddie’s with Capital Pictures (not MGM or “Metro”, where the real Mannix worked), and he is written and played by Brolin as a pious man whose constant trips to confession are mostly driven by “lying to my wife” about giving up cigarettes.

Eddie has much bigger secrets. His studio’s version of Esther Williams (Johannsson, her character named DeeAnna Moran) needs a husband, and a lot of help getting out of that mermaid tail in between aquatic ballets.

His boss orders him to put drawlin’, singin’ cowpoke Hobart “Hobie” Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich of “Stoker”) into the lead in a tuxedo’d drawing room drama, with fey sophisticate Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, terrific) struggling to create a performance out of this blunder.

And then there’s the missing (another Coen kidnapping caper) Baird Whitlock, sort of a Tyrone Power type, playing a centurion who quakes in the presence of Jesus in “Hail, Caesar!” Eddie will have to call on all his cunning to keep this from the dueling twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) and crack the case.

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell it to ya, sometime.”

Only he doesn’t. And that’s not the biggest shortcoming in this semi-silly stumble by the guys who gave us “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “A Serious Man.” The movie is flatfooted in the extreme.

Random moments — such as a big, gay sailors dance number starring Channing Tatum, who absolutely kills — tickle and delight. Swinton is a stitch. Joel Coen’s wife, Oscar winner Frances McDormand, delights as a chain-smoking film editor (Weren’t they all?)

But a confessional/recruitment meeting by Hollywood’s communist screenwriters, where they admit they’ve been shoving messages about their version of “The Future” into scripts, flies in the face of the facts and of history. What, HUAC was right? Making them mostly Jewish archetypes and stereotypes doesn’t help. These scenes drag and grate.

Brolin and Clooney play their characters straight, when snappy and broad was called for. Brolin slaps sense into people, here and there. But Clooney doesn’t make his dopey movie star dopey enough. The picture’s pacing is flaccid. The Coens wanted it to be madcap, but couldn’t manage it.

And truth be told, the recreated “Golden Age of Hollywood” scenes of movies within the movie lack the luster, the “Dream Factory” polish. Some of that can be laid at the feet of  the digital “film” quality of today, and some has to do with the Coens not figuring out  how to stage things the way they were shot back then, not getting that long lost pursuit of perfection.

The star the Coens set up for a “breakout” here is Ehrenreich. And he’s a hoot. But the movie around him? An over-reaching whiff. The Coens’ paired batting average, it turns out, is no better than Woody Allen’s.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johannsson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Alden Ehrenreich, Frances McDormand

Credits: Written and directed by Joen and Ethan Coen. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:46



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