Some of Joel and Ethan Coen's best movies have been love letters to Hollywood's golden age — Barton Fink, True Grit and The Hudsucker Proxy all come to mind. The distinctive co-directors add to that list with the 1950s-era Hollywood tale Hail, Caesar!, filled with a galaxy of stars and focussed on those who make the magic.
At the centre of fictional studio Capitol Pictures is fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). He's got plenty on his plate, from a beloved screen siren with an image problem (Scarlett Johansson) to a miscast cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) to a missing megastar (George Clooney).
Mannix riccochets around a picture-perfect La La Land (courtesy of celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins) encountering problem after problem, but the various puzzle pieces never really fit together into a larger scheme.
Still, the Coens stage each setpiece with such panache — check out the syncopated spectacle starring Channing Tatum — that's almost beside the point.
Despite its droll collection of talented players and flashes of brilliance, Hail, Caesar! lacks the cohesion of the Coens' best work. Still, this earnest homage to Old Hollywood's fantasy factory offers something to savour.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
The undead and Jane Austen come together in grisly fashion in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Based on the surprisingly successful novel, the movie takes us to a 19th century England where young women are trained in the art of combat amid a zombie plague that has surrounded the capital and is spreading to the countryside.
Lily James bounds from Disney's Cinderella into playing the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet, a woman too proud and too fierce to sheath her sword for a man. Previously seen in Control, Sam Riley acquits himself nicely as the dark and brooding Mr. Darcy. Horror fans and Janites alike will see what's coming as easily as spying a zombie horde on the horizon, but it's the conviction with which both James and Riley play their characters that makes PPZ more than a movie mash-up.
Turns out the famed duel of wits between Lizzy and Darcy is just that much more delicious when the pair cross swords as well as trade barbs. Meanwhile, turning her into a Shaolin-trained martial arts master nicely underscores her independence. Fans of Doctor Who's Matt Smith will revel in his foppish Mr. Collins, while Game of Thrones devotees will have to adjust to seeing Charles Dance crack a smile as the patriarch Mr. Bennet.
If PPZ has a fault, it's finding the right tone. At the outset, director Burr Steers seems to be leaning towards broad comedy disguised as a grindhouse-style slasher flick. But as the romance develops, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finds a balance in its bloody tale of a woman more than willing to fight her own battles.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The Lady in the Van
Set in 1970s Camden on a posh street populated by well-off, well-meaning families, The Lady in the Van is based on the true story of the 15-year relationship, of sorts, that develops between an elderly woman named Miss Shepherd and British playwright Alan Bennett.
Maggie Smith plays the title character, a woman who lives in a van, driving and parking up and down Bennett's street — much to the displeasure of the residents, who regularly find their patience tested. She is not nice, gentle nor endearing. She screams at children, is arrogant and odorous (waste disposal is a recurring issue). But when she settles herself in front of Bennett's house, the two come to a kind of arrangement.
If you're a fan of the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, this film is a must-see. As Shepherd, Smith has — in the words of Bennett — "a certain vagabond nobility." Smith also gives us hints of the proud woman's vulnerability, which stems from an incident that haunts her still. For the all the drama around this mystery, however, the true details are rather humdrum.
With Alex Jennings portraying the frequently flummoxed Bennett, The Lady in the Van plays some nice tricks by splitting the man into two: Alan the writer and Alan who leaves his house. It's a cute technique that gives the film an unreliable narrator, but it's nowhere near as amusing as Bennett, who wrote the screenplay, imagines.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars