Category Archives: In Theaters

In Theaters: Hail Caesar!


BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | February 9, 2016

One of the things that you start to notice after you’ve taken several of the journeys of Joel and Ethan Coen is that often when you get to the end you’ve sort of arrived back at the beginning. Little headway has been made though a few lessons have been learned. There is a glorious life-goes-on-quality to their best work that I personally find irresistible. It’s the peak of their best work like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and even lesser fare like The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading; it is more fun to play in their pond then it is to reach a destination.

Hail, Caesar! is in that tradition. It’s not their best film, but I’m happy that I saw it. It’s a giddy, colorful and sublimely goofy confection, a trip through Hollywood’s Golden Age and a heightened vision of what that era was all about. The brothers establish their story not with a singular narrative but with a structure that feels more like a series of short stories merged together with a common theme. The lynch-pin is jug-jawed, no-nonsense Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) a fixer at a major Hollywood studio. If there’s a problem, he’s there to solve it – If a star misbehaves and is in danger of having their career upended then it is his job to spin the issue back to a clean slate.

The timeline is fuzzy. We are at some point between World War II and the birth of Rock and Roll and we meet Eddie as he deals with a handful of problems. First, the front office wants him to move simple- minded singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, playing a version of Roy Rogers) from B-westerns to leading man despite the fact that he can’t really act. Secondly, he’s asked to deal with aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson, playing a version of Esther Williams) whose undisclosed, and unplanned, pregnancy is causing her mermaid suit to shrink. Eddie needs to figure out how to manipulate the problem so it doesn’t become a PR nightmare. On top of DeeAnna’s problem comes the sudden disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, playing a version of Tyrone Power) off the set of a massive biblical epic that is one final scene away from wrapping. Eddie has a ransom note from an organization called “The Future,” whatever that means.  What happens in his story I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Eddie’s attempts to deal with these possible PR issues are made worse by the presence of a pair of sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton and both thinly molded after Hedda Hopper). Dealing with all of these would-be crises, it’s no wonder that Eddie is considering accepting a cushy position at Lockheed that will mean a lifetime of security.  He’s a good guy, a bit rough around the edges, but a good joe whose moral compass is sending him into confession during practically every lunch break.

What is so beautiful about Hail, Caesar! is that it’s such a wonderful, loving tribute to the Hollywood Studio system. Meeting each of these characters is an excuse to get a glimpse into the kinds of pictures that big studios use to make: The musical, the western, the love story, the biblical epic. They’re all crafted in a lovely Technicolor dream world that is a treat for the eyes.

And, of course, since this is a Coen brothers movie the characters are written with one more dimension than we might expect. My favorite is giddy Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum playing a version of Gene Kelly) whose smiling, easy-going charm on the set is matched by his super-serous political agenda off the set (more I cannot say). He’s part of a hilarious musical number with a group of sailors in a bar who are about to shove off and lament that they won’t see any dames – though based on the way they dance with each other, it doesn’t look like it will be a problem.

I enjoyed a great deal of Hail, Caesar! but if I have one complaint its that this is a confection without many roots.  You realize that when it’s over you’ve seen a day in the life but there’s not much meat on the bone.  This is a great looking movie with some smart dialogue and great characters.  I’m happy that I took the journey, as I always am with the Coen brothers.  The movie is giddy, good-hearted and fun.

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Posted by on 02/09/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: Spotlight (2015)


We have progressed far enough now that we can easily look back at the turn of the millennium with a sense of wonder, reflection and some fear. The clock had barely clicked over into a new century when we found ourselves in a state of panic and paranoia; first Y2K, then a Presidential election that we couldn’t resolve, then the horror of 9/11, then accidents, disasters, war, terrorism, scandals, emergencies and through it all the country suddenly found itself unsure what to make of itself anymore. It all seemed too much for such a short time. It seemed that the atonement for lot of old sins were finally being demanded.

Few bombshells hit quite as hard as the one that went off on the morning of January 6, 2002 when The Boston Globe began running a series of a stories about the permissiveness of The Catholic Church when several priests were accused of systematically molesting young boys. The Globe revealed that such a thing was hidden by The Church whose response was to quietly transfer the guilty to other parishes. There were deals with victims, legal statutes, and worst of all, local Catholics so fearful of taking on the church that they were willing to keep quiet about it. Within less than a year, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston resigned a disgrace – yet that didn’t stop Pope John Paul II from giving him a position in Rome. One man in the film puts it bluntly: “The Church thinks in centuries.”

Spotlight is not about abuse, nor is it about the machinations of the priests themselves – what they did was horrible enough. The movie is an intelligent examination of the investigation to break down the ancient walls that kept the story from becoming front page news. There are no priests seen in this movie and what they did is mercifully not seen in flashback. We hear about their actions through the words of the victims, about how such abuse breaks not only self-esteem but also breaks one down spiritually. We hear very clearly that some of those who were abused found solace with the needle, or the bottle. They were lucky because the rest resorted to suicide. These stories bring an urgency to the investigation.

The horrible stories come from the words of the victims, but we the viewer are kept out of the walls of the church. Spotlight is instead an exhilarating old-fashioned newspaper movie in the mold of All the President’s Men, Zodiac and Absence of Malice that follows a team of Boston Globe journalists called Spotlight as they begin to dig under the allegations that some seem determined to keep under wraps. The editor of The Spotlight Team is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) who oversees a team of three reporters; fair-minded Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); work-a-holic Michael Rendez (Mark Ruffalo); and combative Matty Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). All four of these reporters are Boston locals, all are Catholics, but all admit that they have fallen away from the church. When the paper gets a new editor, a soft-spoken Jewish Floridian named Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), he begins to question why the story isn’t being followed up. Why did the Globe receive information on these priests and then bury it in the Metro section? Why were those stories not followed up?

The movie follows their investigation as they begin with the case of John J. Geoghan, who is alleged to have molested many children over a long period of time. But that case opens another case and then another and then another until the case of one man has become the case of many men who committed an atrocity and then were protected by The Church. What did those in power know? What do those in power know? How many were there? How far back does it go?  How high up does it go?

We feel the David and Goliath struggle here but director Thomas McCarthy doesn’t force anything, yet keeps the story at a breathtaking pace. He lets the information be the star as we become so engrossed in their investigation that we wait for the moment when something will break. The tension here is at the level of a great thriller, especially when the story’s forward momentum is interrupted by a certain national event that delayed The Globe’s progress by for four months. Plus, watching these reporters hitting the streets, questioning witnesses, tussling with lawyers over documents, and flipping through file cabinets we are aware that their kind of journalistic leg work is soon to end. Long form journalism still exists but not at this level at a time when true journalism has to fight for space with the superficiality that is sweeping it right into the dustbins of history. To watch Spotlight is to watch history in action, not just in busting open the long-delayed stories of molestation in the Catholic Church, but in the manner in which it is done. This is one of the best, and most important, films of the year.

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Posted by on 01/13/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: The Hateful Eight (2015)


BY JERRY ROBERTS | January 6, 2016

Picture in your mind the output of a Quentin Tarantino movie if it were written by Agatha Christie. Try and imagine “Ten Little Indians” wrapped in reams of Tarantino-style dialogue and splattered with buckets of blood and guts and there you have the idea of The Hateful Eight, a retro spaghetti western that is as brilliant as it is brutal. After 20 years, Tarantino is still the most creative filmmaker that we have, a director who mines cinema’s past while making it all seem fresh and new.  He’s so in love with the art of film the he’s presenting the film in a beautiful 70mm print around the country.  How well does the movie work? Let me put it this way, it was nice that when I finally tore myself away from Star Wars that Tarantino would be there waiting with one of the best films of the year.

The Hateful Eight is, essentially, a Bottle Movie. For three hours, it traps eight worthless human beings in a cabin in the midst of a blizzard of Biblical proportions and lets them do what despicable people do, especially when they all have guns. It opens staggeringly with the vision of a wooden stake carved into the image of Christ on the cross. If the Bible reminds us that the wages of sin is death, then the sinners at the center of this story should not be surprised by their fate.

The movie takes place somewhere in 19th century Wyoming at a time when the wounds of The Civil War are no longer bleeding, but the scars – emotionally and literally – still sting. In the midst of this blizzard we begin with a traveler and his companion riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to a place called Red Rock. The man is a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and the woman is his bounty, a beleaguered soul named Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth never stops reminding us, or her, that she has a date with the hangman’s noose.

Along the way Ruth’s stagecoach comes across a wayward traveler, a fellow tracker named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth recognizes Warren who was a highly respected Major from the Union Army. Legends of his exploits are as famous as they are infamous, but the most persistent is the legend that he carries a personal letter that he received from The Great Emancipator himself in his coat pocket – everyone wants to see it.

Possible spoilers ahead

What happens along the way is far too complicated to completely explain here. Tarantino’s characters are never just one thing; they have dimensions, histories, side notes, personal tics, sins, successes, and legions of enemies far and wide. The destination for these travelers is a place that might have been a rest stop on the way to damnation itself, a far-flung haberdashery with more amenities then these people probably deserve. What’s waiting there brings tension all around: A charming Englishman named Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet drunken gunslinger named Gage (Michael Madsen), a wet-behind-the-ears sheriff (Walter Goggins), a former Confederate General named Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a narrow-eyed Mexican stable man named Senor Bob (Damien Bicheir). All of these characters seem to know each other, if not personally then by reputation. One of the greatest achievements in this screenplay by Tarantino is that every character is given a full backstory, not quirks, not traits, a history. We learn not only their names, but their sins as well. Each has a story to tell, each has a mean-streak ten miles wide, and each will pay greatly for it.

Right away we sense that something is happening at this tiny haberdashery but we aren’t exactly sure what. We can sense it the moment that the stagecoach arrives at the front door. There are clues and questions: Why is there are piece of candy on the floor? Why is one of the chairs covered in fur coats? Why does the Mexican stable man seem so distant? Why is the latch on the front door missing? It is Warren who pieces things together. He notices things that the others seem to overlook, and he who controls tries to control a situation that threatens to become a bloodbath. Little by little, piece by piece the mystery of this wayward store begins to reveals its mysteries. That leads to a great virtuoso scene with Sam Jackson at the center doing what he does best.

Of course, as with any Tarantino movie there must be a twist in the narrative – this one has a doozie. We spend at least an hour inside the cabin with the title octet, but then something happens. An event takes place that opens up this nervous setting. Halfway through the movie, Tarantino pauses the action, reverses back to events that take place before Ruth and Warren arrived and then returns to their story so that we understand how and why everything is happening. It’s a brilliant narrative, on part with the reverse tactics of Pulp Fiction twenty years ago.

Much more of this story I cannot reveal. Much more of this story I could not reveal. It’s so complex yet so approachable and so engaging. We’re there every second even though 90% of the movie takes place in the same room. We’re so interested in these people because Tarantino always makes them interesting. He creates a gaggle of horrible people who have done horrible things and watches them all get their comeuppance one by one. The story’s sense of moral decay has put off many critics, but I won’t go there. I feel that I’m looking at Tarantino’s vision of Hell on Earth, a place so placid, forbidding and dark, and filled with nasty – yet, interesting characters – that deserve each other. This is one of the best films of the year.

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Posted by on 01/06/2016 in In Theaters