Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Lady in the Van and Hail, Caesar!, along with shorter comments on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

                           Aristocrats and Miscreants

                                                     Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                          The Lady in the Van (Nicholas Hytner)
Based on the true story of author/playwright/screenwriter Alan Bennett’s 15-year encounter with Miss Shepherd, an elderly woman who drove her van into his upscale London neighborhood where she continued to live in her vehicle although he allowed her to put it in his driveway so as to avoid parking restrictions; she remains an enigmatic character throughout.
What Happens: This film begins with a dark screen punctuated by the sound of what seems to be a car crash; when the images come on we find an older woman (Maggie Smith) driving a van through the countryside, being chased by police likely because we see her broken, blood-splattered-windshield.  She eludes her pursuers, followed by a fade-out, then at an unspecified later time playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is helping her push the van down the street in his London neighborhood of Camden City.  From there we flashback to a time 5 years earlier when Miss Mary Shepherd first parked her wheeled-home across the street from him where she apparently was tolerated by the neighborhood in a sense of guilt that this woman had nowhere else to go.  However, a combination of rowdy young guys harassing her and parking regulation changes that would have forced her to move on convince him to offer her a permanent parking place in his driveway where she also had use of his garden (and the occasional run of an electrical cord out to the van for plugging in various appliances), although her hygiene left much to be desired even as she used plastic bags for her major toilet needs with residue finding its way to his sidewalks and trashcans, a compromise-necessity as he didn’t want her in the house too often to use his bathroom as her unwashed odor left its own noxious residue long after her departure.

 That’s essentially the ongoing story in this presentation, but along the way we learn a few things about Miss Shepherd namely that she was once a devout Catholic novice working her way toward taking vows as a nun but she was also a gifted pianist who wanted to keep perfecting her art so she practiced for long hours at the convent until her Mother Superior told her to stop in order to devote her life more to prayer than to music, leaving her with horrid reactions to anyone’s use of the art; we also learn that she has a brother living in some town by the seacoast whom she visits periodically in the little 3-wheeler-car she buys (so she’d not destitute, despite living like she is, with all of her material possessions stashed in the van—why she easily gets a neighborhood parking permit by using Alan’s address, thereby setting him up as her caretaker with the local social worker [a designation he vehemently denies] for the little car but not for the van I’m not clear on unless she just wanted to establish the van as a settled “home,” allowing her to use the car as needed) even though his wife wants nothing to do with her because of her bewildering lifestyle.  What else we learn at the end, though, answers most of our questions because back in that opening scene she hit and killed a young man on a motorcycle so she’s been hiding from the police all this time, except for the retired cop, Underwood (Jim Broadbent), who somehow knows her secret so periodically he extorts a little money from her in order to keep quiet that her true identity is Margaret Fairchild (the cop’s a fictional construct but all else about this tale is a “mostly true story” as the film’s opening graphics alert us).  Finally, she dies in 1989, but at the cemetery Alan has a vision of her—along with her motorcycle “victim,” who’s now become a good friend.  In the final scene, to further the metareality of what’s being depicted here, the real Mr. Bennett comes up by bicycle to the house that he used to own when all this was taking place (the film was largely shot there and in the surrounding streets) to watch a scene being filmed with Jennings as Alan celebrating a plaque on the exterior wall noting Mary/Margaret’s “residence” at this actual address. 

 One final notation is that throughout this narrative we’ve seen Jennings as a dual manifestation of Alan, one who lives life outside his home (but not a very exciting one, he admits, a reason for broadening its limited perspective by allowing Miss Shepherd to interact with him) and the other who works diligently at the typewriter (with a constant view to the van) transforming the exterior Alan’s encounters into prosaic art; as the dual Bennetts merge back into one at the end of the film, Alan acknowledges (as if from a future perspective beyond the graveyard scene) that what we’ve seen so far is his account of life with Miss Mary so he might as well grant her last wish for an ascension into Heaven which he does as we see her rising into the clouds to meet her Maker, further blurring whatever line may exist between life and art (the great visionary of “combine” paintings and other forms of found/borrowed-art merged with traditional materials, Robert Rauschenberg, long ago said that he worked in the space between life and art, so Bennett’s just following his lead in different media.  If you’d like to further examine Rauschenberg, though [one of my favorite artists], I’ll offer you more on him specifically and on his larger Neo-Dada context).

So What? The Lady in the Van functions as a low-key-mystery about who Miss Shepherd is, why Underwood keeps referring to her as Margaret (Alan hears him do this at one point but his questions to her about her identity yield nothing); yet, we know from the beginning that something terrible must have happened when 
she was driving in the countryside that day, although it’s not at all completely clear (to me 
at least) even at the end how she’s fully innocent of the biker’s death except that we’re told that he just somehow ran into her for the fatal crash leaving her blameless but fearful that the law wouldn’t see it that way (reminds me of an old Kingston Trio song, “Everglades,” about a guy fearful he’ll be tried for murder in Florida who escapes into the unforgiving wetlands of the Everglades where “If the ‘skeeters don’t get him then the ‘gaters will,” which is tragic because “His runnin’ and hidin’ didn’t make much sense For the jury had ruled it was self-defense”; take a listen if you like [from the 1960 String Along album]).  Obviously, this situation and Alan’s remembrance of it means a lot to him on a very personal basis; still, he’s managed to convey those recollections and feelings vividly to us in this script (along with the strong acting which brings this guarded, irascible woman and her often-confused-neighbor to life in a most effective manner).  If you’d like to give yourself further context on this entire situation of biography interacting with fiction I’ll refer you to 3 additional sources for your edification:  some background information on Alan Bennett, recollections by him about the odd “Miss Shepherd,” and his diary during the making of this film, from February 20 to November 25, 2014.

Bottom Line Final Comments: The Lady in the Van marks the rare occasion for me where I’ve first seen the play a film is based on, starring the same renowned female actor, because my wife, Nina, and I happened to be in London in late December 1999/early January 2000 to connect up with the Mills College January Term theatre tour sponsored by my Dramatic Arts and Communication Dept. (as well as join the huge crowds packing the Themes river to welcome in the new Millennium as New Year’s Eve passed into midnight—yes, I know that technically the fresh count of 1,000 years shouldn’t start until 2001 but that certainly didn’t prevent massive celebrations all over the globe that night).  I don’t know how long Maggie Smith stayed with that performance (began its run in 1999 at the Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End, then was nominated for Play of the Year for the 2000 Olivier Awards, along with a Best Actress nomination for her), but we were fortunate enough to see her command this role just as effectively then as she does on screen now, despite the intervening years.  As I note quite a bit farther below (no surprise if you regularly read my extended reviews), I’m not a follower of TV’s Downton Abbey but just because I’m not a regular viewer of Smith’s latest celebrated triumph doesn’t mean that I haven’t appreciated her for quite some time before in the many cinematic roles I’ve seen her in—including the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011)—especially the ones where she won her Best Actress Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969) and Best Supporting Actress Oscar for California Suite (Herbert Ross, 1978), along with many other nominations and awards (including Emmys for Downton Abbey: Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie [2011], Supporting Actress in a Drama Series [2012], as well as a 1990 Tony for Best Actress in a Play, Lettice and Lovage—I can’t say for sure about this year’s Oscar nominations as I haven’t seen Jennifer Lawrence in Joy [David O. Russell, 2015], but I'll bet I’d put Dame [a 1990 award, from the Queen of England] Smith in as my choice for Lawrence’s slot for a possible current Best Actress).

 Now, does all that prior fame mean that she’s an automatic success in this film and/or that this story is a significant one just because she’s in it?  Of course not; the concept and performances have to show accomplishment on their own merits, although certainly this one does (not just my opinion either as a wide survey of critics has found favor with this adaptation of The Lady in the Van, as Rotten Tomatoes reviews show a 93% positive reaction while the reviewers at Metacritic offer a composite score of 69% [but those snobs often score at a lower rate], with more details in the links far below connected to this film).  It’s a simple story of hidden truths, quiet understandings taken on faith more so than clear facts, and human kindness at its best, even with little reason—except for human decency—to offer such, so I'm moved by it now just as when I first saw Smith in the role so long ago (although I don’t think that the device of the dual-Alan Bennetts was part of the play, but I’d hate to risk even $5 on the veracity of my memory at this point).  As for my usual choice of a Musical Metaphor to speak to the themes, content, or some other element of the film under review, for The Lady in the Van I’ve decided to go with The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (from the 1966 Revolver album) because it’s also set in England, it comes from an equally-famous-English-artistic-collaboration (Lennon and McCartney, Smith and Bennett), and the book/play/film from Bennett speaks not just to the plight of Miss Shepherd but to all of the homeless people who populate the sidewalks, street corners, and dark recesses of cities all over the world, often ignored by their fellow citizens and governments, few of them given the opportunity that Bennett gave Shepherd in terms of squatting in an unmolested space where weather, police, drunk hooligans, and hostility from other homeless—desperate or deranged—didn’t take quite the toll on her that fellow outcasts often suffer on a regular basis, even though she had her own demons to quell.  

 Still, whatever kindness Bennett and his neighbors showed to her didn’t prevent "Miss Mary" from being one of “the lonely people” with no answer as to “Where do they all belong?”  You can get a direct recording of the song at but a more interesting visualization of it is in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie (George Dunning, 1968) if you’ll just fast-forward from the beginning to roughly 10:45, then watch until about 13:30 (you’re encouraged to rent the movie as well, rather than just watch this free version, if you’d prefer to see the images as intended rather than stretched to mild wide-screen-distortion as you get in this link).
                                Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Coen brothers return with a comic rendering of the 1950s Hollywood studio system where lots of folks are on contract but the most important one is the “fixer” who keeps all of the problem people’s misadventures from getting into the gossip columns; we get great parodies of various traditional movie genres and stars, along with disruptive Commie screenwriters.
What Happens: In early 1950s Hollywood (the last decade where the old studio system was truly in force but then battling emerging economic competition from TV, political pressure from the government-run Communist witch-hunts with their Blacklisting threats, and continuing off-camera-problems with stars’ wayward actions) we find ourselves at Capitol Pictures, where the Head of Physical Production (assuming I read the title on his office door properly as it flew by), Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)—based on a real guy at MGM (which Capitol most resembles) with that name but highly fictionalized here—takes orders from unseen Mr. Skank back east (a reference to Nicholas Schenck, who took over running MGM in charge of parent company Loew’s, Inc. [of the vast Loew’s theater chain] after Marcus Loew died in 1927, epitomizing the tensions between the NYC-based corporate owners or vital bankers and the actual studio heads in LA who were forced to follow profit-based-dictates instead of whatever artistic integrity may have existed in this massive entertainment business, as well as the word being a pejorative usually applied to women of “loose morals” by sexist men who accept their casual companionship but loath them nevertheless) but focuses most of his daily toil in keeping Skank unaware of the various crises their studio’s facing from the foibles of their stars.  Mannix’s problems in this narrative include swimming star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson)—obviously based on Esther Williams—who’s unmarried but secretly pregnant, along with acrobatic-singing-cowboy-star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, with a long, seemingly-marvelous career awaiting him), assigned by Mannix to switch to an aristocratic comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a self-important-European who can’t stand the natural folksiness—and drawly-deliveryof Hobie (apparently patterned after Kirby Grant, whom I don’t remember from movies but I did see him some in 1950s TV as the star of Sky King; based on my own foggy memories of movie cowboys from that era I was thinking more of Gene Autry).

 However, Mannix’s biggest problem is that during production of a Roman-era-epic (in the mode of The Robe [Henry Koster, 1953] and Ben-Hur [William Wyler, 1959]), Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ (title of the film-within-a-film, an intentionally-confusing bit of whimsy, as done also years ago in Woody Allen's masterful The Purple Rose of Cairo [1985]), the studio’s big action star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, with his character patterned a bit on Kirk Douglas), is drugged during a scene by a minor player (Wayne Knight), then taken to the luxurious seaside retreat of the leader of a Communist cell of screenwriters from Capitol (maybe other studios as well; one looks a lot like Dalton Trumbo) who call themselves The Future and want $100,000 ransom (given that the capitalist owners of Capitol's "means of production” don’t share much of their wealth with their employees; however, the writers simply paying themselves back for past transgressions is just another hilarious Coen jab at the pomposity that Mannix is surrounded by, desperately trying to keep it all at bay even as he ponders a lucrative offer from Lockheed Corp. to leave this insanity behind).  Mannix pays the ransom but tells Hobie about the abduction; later that night while on an arranged date with another studio star, Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio)—clearly intended as Carmen Miranda—Hobie recognizes the briefcase stuffed with cash so he follows dancing star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, who marvelously channels Gene Kelly in a sailor movie with his ensemble number on tables in a WW II-era-bar), the Commie cell leader, back to his seaside home where he rescues Whitlock (easy swayed, willing to buy into the Red propaganda) and calls the cops to round up the others (who’ve rowed Gurney out to a rendezvous with a Soviet sub to carry him to Moscow; at the last minute they throw the briefcase to him for “the cause” but his loyal dog, Engels, jumps into his arms so the money’s dropped, then sinks into the ocean).

 By the next day, Eddie Mannix’s chaotic studio problems are essentially over (for the moment) as DeeAnna’s had a quickie-wedding with a studio hack (Jonah Hill) who was originally going to secretly take her baby, then let her adopt it back to enhance rather than sully her reputation, while Whitlock’s back on the set for the climatic scene where he’s in awe of the crucified Christ but blows his inspiring speech when he can’t remember the last, crucial word: “faith.”  (Mannix, who’s decided to spurn the Lockheed offer, as well prevents famed gossip columnist Thora Thacker [Tilda Swinton, who also plays her equally-irritating-rival, twin sister Thessaly] from revealing that Whitlock got his start by having sex with Laurentz—whom some say is intended to imply gay director George Cukor—in that her source is Gurney, whom she can’t afford to be associated with because of his now-revealed-Communist-affiliation).  Given all of this necessary plot detail I haven’t even been able to mention a great cameo by Frances McDormand as film editor C.C. Calhoun, who almost chokes on her own scarf, the hilarious exchange between Hobie and Laurentz (above) as the latter attempts to teach elocution to the former, or the great scenes of argument, one theological among the priest, rabbi, Protestant minister, and Orthodox patriarch brought in by Mannix to vet the … Caesar! script and the other ideological among the Communist scriptwriters as they attempt to explain Marxist principles to Whitlock with occasional deference to Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), down to join them from Stanford (although the actual leftist philosopher of that name never taught there).  Just take my word for it (as if anyone ever does that), the scenes I note in this paragraph are among the movie’s hilarious best (along with the occasional pompous narration from Michael Gambon).

So What? If you don’t watch many—or any—movies from what’s considered Hollywood studios’ Classic Era of roughly the 1930s through the 1950s you may not realize that what’s being presented in Hail, Caesar! is more of a comic exaggeration than a totally-fictional-farce 
(if you need a primer on this early-to-mid-20th-century-Hollywood history, I can offer some options: the first one’s 
an overview of that entire Studio Era [as opposed to today when most films are simply financed—often with other production partners—and/or distributed by the studios that have remained from the old days {along with a few new ones, primarily DreamWorks} rather than produced by them with writers, directors, actors, and production crew on contract] and the second one's focused on MGM, not only the premiere operation of that era but also the one most closely being referenced in … Caesar!, despite the fictional name of Capitol Pictures [which provides a connection to Barton Fink {Joel and Ethan Coen,1991}, where that titular character also worked for the same movie-machine as noted, along with many other comments on the Coens, in an article by The Atlantic's David Sims]).  With all of this background—assuming you'd have needed to be introduced to any of it—I think you can better appreciate the marvelous humor here, even though it’s all just seeming-silliness-for-silliness-sake (not that different from what I’ll explore in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies just below, although the Coens’ offering at least is based in well-observed-parody of the industry it springs from and offers a less-sanctimonious-take on the motivations of Communists or fellow traveller-associates in the 1950s entertainment industry than does Trumbo [Jay Roach, 2015; review in our December 2, 2015 posting], which I enjoyed immensely but it does get a bit self-righteous at times, at least until other characters not as successful as Dalton Trumbo [Bryan Cranston] in manipulating the system during his Blacklisted years dress him down for continuing to find material success in the name of personal, artistic, and ideological freedom).

 The various subplots that Mannix must manage all eventually connect to the main one about the Whitlock kidnapping, but in the process the whole experience does seem a bit loosely-disjointed, assembled like a collection of sketch parodies at times.  Still, if you like brash characters, situations that don’t really seem dated about big celebrities causing havoc with their personal lives, and solid acting by performers who fully inhabit their roles, I think you’ll find a lot to like about Hail, Caesar!

Bottom Line Final Comments: While Hail, Caesar! won’t likely be included in some future accounting of the absolute masterpieces of the Coen brothers (such as Blood Simple, 1984; Raising Arizona, 1987; Barton Fink; Fargo, 1996; The Big Lebowski, 1998; No Country for Old Men, 2007; A Serious Man, 2009; Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013 [review in our December 27, 2013 posting—no matter what else you may think about my reviews I hope you’ll agree that I’ve at least improved my layout since then when I was using intolerably-long-individual-paragraphs, which even I have a hard time reading through now; maybe someday if I’m laid up with a major brain transplant {to insert a functioning one} I’ll go back and re-edit most of the first 3 years of this blog … but don’t count on it]), I do find it very entertaining, quite relevant in its crazy-critique of the oddball personalities that still populate the Hollywood movie industry, and just Coenesquely-absurd-enough to easily convince you that this belongs within their recognizably-offbeat-approach to what should fill your time on screen when you’re paying for a feature movie (as with, say, their 
O Brother, Where Art Thou? [2000]—also starring Clooney—where the whole experience also feels a bit sewn together rather than completely organic [they admit they've never read Homer's The Odyssey, that movie's supposed template] but there’s still enough substance, and unexpected humor in its various parts, to leave you satisfied that you watched it).  I’ll agree with Nina that the closure of Hail, Caesar! just seems sort of oddly-flat (after Whitlock screws up his big Crucifixion speech by forgetting how to end it—a scene pulled so out of context in the trailer that you never know the ending of this movie has been spoiled for you until it happens—we simply see a wide shot of the studio lot, with the odd appearance of the word “behold” on the water tower, then a pan up to the sky; however, maybe that’s in deference to the acknowledgement in the credits [and the rabbi’s rant earlier in the story] that there were “no depictions of the Godhead in this film”), but at least there were plenty of wonderfully-wacky-situations prior to that.  Overall, many critics agree, with 80% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 72% from the Metacritics.

 Although there might be several possible other candidates for my Musical Metaphor to accompany Hail, Caesar!, I’ve chosen to move away from my standard use of a pop song to draw comparisons (reasonable or otherwise) to what was on screen, deciding instead to take my inspiration from another work that explores and parodies the Hollywood Studio Era experience—one that came out in 1952, about the time when the Coens’ movie is set—the highly-lauded Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen) which gives me a chance to not only give you some music appropriate to the kind of movies being ribbed in … Caesar! but also offer some MGM self-tributes/parodies representative of what the Coen brothers are making fun of.  So, we’ll start with this "Beautiful Girl" (3:16) lavish production number sung by Jimmy Thompson, which also leads right into some other … Rain clips, with #’s 9 and 10 of that group being the next 2 I’ll offer you directly, the initial "Gotta Dance" routine featuring Kelly and Cyd Charisse (4:56), followed by the "Broadway Melody Ballet" (also with Kelly and Charisse), both of which are more serious inclusions in … Rain, part of the spectacular musical number that Kelly’s Don Lockwood envisions for his first “talkie” back in the late 1920s (surely meant to evoke the memorable 17-minute-finale he did with Leslie Caron [set to George Gershwin’s An American in Paris ballet {1928} that concluded 1951’s An American in Paris {Vincente Minnelli}]); but, if I’m going to reference … Rain I don’t see how I could avoid closing this out with Kelly’s spectacular titular song and dance number where he appears to be doing this complex choreography (with the constant threat of slipping to a disastrous fall with all that water pouring down) in real time in a single take (look carefully and you’ll see there are a few cuts but they do little to break up the flow of the scene; final trivia note: the guy he hands the umbrella to at the end is famous Silent Era comic actor/director Buster Keaton).
Short Takes (in intention if not in reality)
             Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Burr Steers)
Combining the events of the famous Jane Austen novel with a zombie plague upon 18th-century-England, we find that the various Bennet daughters are being pursued by various suitors while these young women are more concerned with using their sharply-honed combat skills to stave off brain-hungry-reanimated-monsters from destroying their way of life.

 Thanks to the generosity of a good friend/local film critic (who shall remain nameless to protect his reputation, given that he really liked this goofy movie but he admits that he’s drawn to such “dumb stuff”) I was invited to join him for the press screening of this literature/horror movie-mashup (or should I say “Monster Mash”-up and cue the famous 1962 song by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers … but, no, music for this one will have to wait) because his wife could probably have tolerated the Jane Austen aspects (although, maybe not, as she’s never connected with PBS’ Downton Abbey like Nina has) but had no interest in the zombie inclusions so off I went to the theater as his guest, totally skeptical.  Now that my viewing of this … “interesting” … spectacle has had some time to percolate, all I can say is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is somewhat entertaining in its own macabre fashion, an appropriate postmodern (or would this be even post-postmodern?) experiment in various media appropriation and bricolage (as the snotty French theorists and their admiring American acolytes might say about disparate-element-constructions) for our over-saturated-by-media-outlets-and-content-era, and either a frivolous-romp through a hallowed example of the previously-sacrosanct-canon of English-language-novels or a “blasphemous” degradation of a respected piece of writing, despite its melodramatic, paternalistic emphasis on the need for women to find appropriate marriages notwithstanding the insistence of some of those women that they have an equal voice in what constitutes an acceptable relationship.  While I’ll quickly admit that I’ve never read Austen’s source novel (although I found a previous cinematic adaption—minus zombies—[Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright, 2005] to be amusing enough) nor have I cared much for the present craze for the decaying-undead (even by the time of Night of the Living Dead [George A. Romero, 1968; truly scary] and its first sequel, Dawn of the Dead [Romero, 1978; great satire] I knew I’d had quite enough of this segment of the horror genre) I did find this somewhat-revolting-combination of the 2 sources to be amusing enough, but that’s based on free admission; if you’re actually considering paying for this thing, you’d better tolerate, if not fully embrace, at least one of its primary elements.  Even with my no-cost-opportunity, I found the enterprise to be hardly an example of must-see-cinema.

 As with the original story, we have the aristocratic-but-nearly-broke-Bennet family living in their (fortified) countryside manor (set, as best I followed it, in the late 18th century) with Mom (Sally Phillips) constantly concerned that each of her 5 daughters find a mate of appropriate material substance while Dad’s (Charles Dance) more focused on how his girls have successfully undergone martial-arts-training in China to help protect the family from the plague of zombies that roam the countryside, with London semi-protected by a wall around the city, further surrounded by a deep moat that encircles the enclosed land (the In-Between).  This time around, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) is an army Colonel, a fierce fighter against the undead, while his wealthy friend, Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), is smitten with oldest sister Jane (Bella Heathcote).  Darcy manages to derail that connection, though (caring not for Mom’s greed), leading to Parson Collins (Matt Smith)—the Bennets’ cousin—first set on Jane, then fierce-warrior Elizabeth—Lizzie (Lily James)—but she declines his offer so he settles for her friend Charlotte (Aisling Loftus).  Lizzie does show interest in a soldier, Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), who’s nurturing a group of nascent-zombies in the In-Between, feeding them pig brains to prevent their full-manifestation.  “Proud” Darcy suddenly declares love for Lizzie, in admiration for her fighting skills and integrity, despite her previous “prejudice” against his haughtiness, dismissal of his very existence.  When Wickham kidnaps young Lydia Bennet (Ellie Bamber), Lizzie and Darcy go to London to rescue her, even as zombies have somehow overtaken the inner city, so the plan is to destroy the only bridge leading out of the In-Between in hopes of trapping them; Lydia is rescued, Lizzie cuts off one of Wickham’s arms (as we find he's been a zombie all along), Darcy’s knocked unconscious (seemingly dead) as the bridge blows up.  We come to the movie’s end with a double wedding of Lizzie and Darcy, Bingley and Jane as all appears to end well; however, if you stay for the credits you find that the London zombies have escaped, now lead by Wickham as they come rushing toward the countryside manor with our protagonists seemingly outnumbered and doomed. 

 Although … Zombies is an absurd combination of class-conscious-historical-romance and braining-eating-undead-horror-genre elements I did decide to rate it with what I consider to be a generous 3 stars because it manages to present both of its primary elements in a manner respectful enough to those who’d care about either of its halves, it does display some clever humor at times, and the production values of the combat and slaughter scenes are consistently high (although bloody).  Ultimately, though, I can’t get past the feeling that 2 completely incompatible ideas have been forced together just for the blatant shock of the concept.  Depending on your level of connection to either aspect of the story, though, you might enjoy it considerably more or less than I did (the overall critical establishment wasn’t amused much: Rotten Tomatoes 42%, Metacritic 45%).

 If, like me, though, you need more background on the original Pride and Prejudice 1813 novel to better understand how it’s been adapted here (although it’s a 2nd-level-adaption as this movie’s based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith [2009], who simply took many passages from the public-domain-original [with co-author-credit given to Austen], then added the gory zombie elements), I can offer you a choice of this detailed summary, the complete book (all 61 chapters, but they're short), or—if you'd like to really delve into Austenthis extensive hypertext version with all sorts of supplemental features;  if, however, you’re well-versed in Austen but need to know more about zombies you’ll find way more than you care to digest at one sitting (no matter how much more “brain”y you may feel after reading it) at this site (despite what you may think of Wikipedia’s accuracy, I think you’ll find this extensive article to be properly documented).  For a musical metaphor to accompany Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I suppose I could have chosen something by the 1960s English rock group, The Zombies (“She’s Not There” [from their 1964 Begin Here album] would be appropriate for the characters in this movie that no longer have their own souls once bitten, then finalized with a meal of human brains) but given the more direct combination of humor, aristocratic attitudes, and mutilation offered by Warren Zevon in “Werewolves of London” (from the 1978 Excitable Boy album) at (accompanied by lots of nice images of such hairy creatures—along with the full moons that bring out the best beast in them—although these visuals would surely benefit from better resolution), I couldn’t pass it up despite the monsters in this song being lycanthropes rather than reanimated corpses (see, creative license applies to references to horror-movie-creatures as well as to “facts” stated by Presidential candidates—with some of their debates functioning as horror movies as well, depending on your political ideology).

Yes, I know the Denver defense most deserved the
trophy but let's celebrate a football senior citizen
(QB Payton Manning, 39!)
 when we can, OK?
 Based on how our campaigners for high office have been conducting themselves lately, I’ll leave you with Zevon’s admonition to “draw blood,” as that seems to be the ongoing-advice for surviving in our adversarial times, unless you can just quietly lose yourself in an old Hollywood movie or retire to your van down by the river (Saturday Night Live reference 
[to Chris Farley's famous motivational speaker, Matt Foley], not an Alan Bennett one).  Whatever your choice, I’ll see you soon with more reviews, now that movies are starting to reclaim our attention from last weekend’s Super Bowl preoccupation, a huge TV success that took its toll on all of the current releases (off 34% domestically from the previous weekend; although Star Wars: The Force Awakens [J.J. Abrams, 2015] continues to add to its domestic all-time-dominance with over $907 million and $2,012 billion worldwide, making it #3 on that all-time-chart but catching up on Titanic [James Cameron, 1997] at the #2 spot with $2,187 billion—some of that cash may have to be used for bail money, though, because a British government agency has issued criminal charges against Disney subsidiary Foodles Production [U.K.] Ltd. for violations of workplace health and safety laws regarding the ... Force Awakens production incident in June 2014 when a Millennium Falcon hydraulic door slammed down on Harrison Ford, breaking his leg).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awardsYou may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success that you might want to monitor here, and the actual award-winners)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2015 and the Oscar nominees for 2015 film releases.  Additionally, in our last posting I noted at this point in these Related Links the recent winners of the Screen Actors Guild awards as possible predictors of Oscar counterparts; now I’ll note the Directors Guild awards as they may also have some relevance for the parallel prizes for top fiction and documentary features “commanders” as you try to figure out your choices in your local Oscar pool (feel free to share the winnings with me for all the help I’m giving you).

Here’s more information about The Lady in the Van: (28:29 London Film Festival press conference with writer Alan Bennett, director Nicholas Hytner, actors Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, producer Kevin Loader)

Here’s more information about Hail Caesar: (16:09 in-process-production-footage, including a good bit of Channing Tatum’s sailor movie dance scene)

Here’s more information about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: (6:51 interview with actors Bella Heathcote, Lily James, Matt Smith, and Douglas Booth)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. I must say,the Coen Brothers should hire you as publicist for Hail Caesar, which to my mind came off as more of an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, one of the lame ones they use just prior to sign off (although Saturday's Larry David SNL was pretty, pretty good).

    I was hoping for something better out of Hail Caesar, considering even their TV version of Fargo remains must see for me, but this one fell flat and hardly warrants a concurrent mention of the classic (and seriously funny) O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

    I am sure they will easily get their $22m production costs back (which must of been heavily skewed to the massive A list cast). Kind of reminds me one of Woody Allen's many "small" films, interesting writing, plenty of starpower, happy to see another release, but they can't all be Annie Hall.

  2. Hi rj, It's always so satisfying to me to see that we're in harmony on a given movie ... oh, wait, we're not even singing the same song about Hail, Caesar! are we? I agree that they can't all be Fargo (film or TV series) or Annie Hall but it's clear that I found more value in this latest Coen effort than you did; maybe I'm just too supportive of (almost) everything they do to look carefully at the flaws but there were just too many individual scenes that worked too well for me (probably the best being the "twere" dialogue coaching session) to not be in favor of it overall.

    As for anybody hiring me for anything, that would be great so next time you're having lunch with Joel and Ethan, drop my name, OK?

    Always great to hear from you, even when we don't agree. Ken

  3. Hi All, Jason Day of CineSocialUK (see the list of Links to Other Review Sites You Might Like on the upper right of this page) has sent me a comment that I'll share with the rest of you: "... the BBC TV series with the wonderful Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is basically the ‘canonical’ adaptation [of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.] Also, the Bennet family are not aristocratic but nearly broke – they are middle class but striving to be more and have no title, so not aristocratic in any way. It takes an English man to understand such things! ;-)" Not understanding the peerage system too well (I guess I should watch Downton Abbey along with Nina but so far I've resisted that temptation) I'm glad to have this clarified about the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but rather than going back through the whole review above to edit anything, let's just say I've used the term "aristocrats" in a metaphorical manner--as with my musical selections--shall we?

    Jason would have posted these comments himself but there's some problem with Blogspot not accepting his attempts, a matter that I have no control over, so I got a direct email from him and decided to pass his words along myself for our collective benefit, along with thanks to him for the response and the explanation. Ken

  4. Margaret was entirely blameless, because the motorcyclist came around a blind corner and ran into her stopped van.

    You are right that there were two Alan Bennetts on stage. I'm pretty sure Dame Maggie played the role for its whole 9 month run. I was also lucky enough to get tickets to see it/her in London.

    1. Hi Stephen, Thanks for your comments, sorry it's taken me so long to acknowledge them but things have been a bit hectic recently. That was such a wonderful show on stage, so glad as well that I got to see it. Ken