Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

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Snowpiercer


Chris Evans is preparing a strongly worded letter to management.

Chris Evans is preparing a strongly worded letter to management.

(2014) Science Fiction (Radius) Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ah-Sung Ko, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic, Emma Levie, Stephen Park, Clark Middleton, Marcanthonee Jon Reis, Paul Lazar, Tomas Lemarquis, Kenny Doughty, Robert Russell, Magda Weigertova. Directed by Joon-Hoo Bong

It is an illusion of humanity that we have control of anything. Control of our environment, control of each other – the only thing we really have control over is our own actions. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying to make everyone and everything around us conform to our own needs.

In the near future, the reality of climate change has finally been accepted universally and the governments of the planet have decided to do something about it. Sadly, they’ve waited so long that all they can do is the environmental equivalent of a Hail Mary end zone pass on the last play of the game. A gas, released into the atmosphere simultaneously all over the globe, should reduce global temperatures significantly and give us a chance to clean the carbons out of the atmosphere.

As with most things governments undertake, things go completely, horribly wrong. The temperature does reduce down to the levels that we need them to – and then keep falling, and falling, and falling. In a matter of hours, the planet is frozen solid and all life on it has ceased to be.

That is, except for the life on a kind of Supertrain. Those aboard the Snowpiercer at the time of the freeze all survived, along with a few stragglers who made their way on board before the end came. The train circles the globe on a specially built track, taking roughly a year to make each circumference.

Instead of being powered by nuclear energy, it’s powered by a perpetual motion engine. It’s the brain child of Wilford (Harris), a mysterious industrialist who now lives a reclusive existence in the engine room of the train. In the rear of the train are the half-starving lower class, barely able to eke out a living and subsisting on gelatinous protein bars that keep them alive (although you really don’t want to know what they’re made out of). In between is the upper class, living with a bounty of food and clean water and in excessive luxury. From time to time, representatives of the upper class – and by representatives I mean armed guards – come to the back with spokesman Mason (Swinton) to cart off children from the back, to distribute the meager supplies that the front gives out, or to perform all manner of humiliations and torture on the back-dwellers.

Well, Curtis (Evans) has had enough. He is brewing revolution, aided by his mentor Gilliam (Hurt) who has been through several of these. They are waiting for the right time to make their move, although many of the tail end inhabitants grow restless, particularly Edgar (Bell) who looks up to Curtis with something like hero worship, Tanya (Spencer) whose son Timmy (Reis) has been taken by Mason and her goons, and Fuyu (Park) who just wants to kick some ass.

Their plan hinges on springing the drug-addicted Namgoong Minsoo (Song) who designed the train’s security system and would be able to deactivate the gates that separate the back of the train from the front. However, even if they spring him (with the promise of plenty of the drug Kronole as reward) and his perky daughter Yona (Ko), getting to the front of the train and taking over the speeding missile on rails will be no easy feat, if it can be done at all.

This is based on a French graphic novel written back in the ’70s although the climate change element (among others) has been added on by the filmmakers. Like much art from that era, there is a decidedly grim and dark element to the movie. It carries very much a 70s vibe, although there is a 21st century Looney Tunes element to it as well.

Evans, better known as Captain America in the Marvel movies, is as grim and gravelly voiced as a poor man’s Clint Eastwood here. The All-American Cap would be absolutely horrified by some of the things Curtis must do to survive and he certainly wouldn’t approve of the class system on the train. In many ways this is Evan’s most complete role to date – this isn’t the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing and that’s a good thing. Not that the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing isn’t worth seeing.

Swinton is so over-the-top that you half expect a giant hammer to suddenly materialize out of the screen and smash your pointy little noggin like so many nails in a board. Her Mason comes off as a cross between Dolores Umbridge, Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand with emphasis on the latter. Her fake overbite reminds me of one of those “Stay Calm” memes come to life.

Bong, who previously directed the comic horror film The Host, brings from that film the broad comedy with a dark edge while adding some fairly serious social commentary as well. Certainly this is about the sharp divide between the privileged wealthy class and the desperate poverty class but it’s also about the economics of survival and the folly of human arrogance. Some conservatives see liberals as the villains here while liberals will likewise see conservatives as being the targets of Bong’s criticism. I’m not sure he had American politics in mind when he wrote and directed this but I suppose we all see what we want to see.

A few words of caution. First, as to the dialogue – it’s atrocious, especially as the film winds down. There’s a confrontation between Wilford and Curtis in which the two say things that sound like they came out of a middle school book report on Atlas Shrugged. Actors the caliber of Ed Harris shouldn’t have to say dialogue like this.

Second, the violence. There’s a lot of it and it ranges from brutal axe attacks to some silly shoot-outs. While you will get somewhat numb to it by the end of the movie, those who are sensitive to such things should have a care about seeing this.

Finally, the ending. It’s a humdinger in terms of visuals but when it hits it’s both coal-black grim and to be honest, ludicrous. Again, think 70s cinema when you watch it and it may make more sense to you but even with that in mind you might end up tearing out your hair, assuming you have any.

The set design here is amazing. Each train car is its own world and as you move from the bleak and monochromatic rear, the cars become more colorful and decadent. Some are downright beautiful. This is a world both familiar and alien to us and while the imagery has elements of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the French sci-fi graphic magazine Metal Hurlant and the art deco of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it is a world unique to itself and completely imaginative.

I ended up being quite entertained, although many of my friends ended up disappointed by the film with some outright despising it. All I can say about that is that it is likely this will affect you in unexpected ways and will draw out of you your own individual reaction which is to me something that is the mark of a good movie. You may not agree with me in terms of my admiration for the movie, but you won’t walk away from this with an indifferent point of view.

Speaking of view, Snowpiercer is taking something of an unusual release strategy for movies that are in national release. Unlike most limited releases which don’t make it to every market, this film is in nearly every market although on a limited number of screens. It is likely playing somewhere near you. If you can’t find it, it is available on most major Video On Demand systems, including DirecTV, iTunes and most digital cable systems.

REASONS TO GO: A different kind of role for Chris Evans. Class warfare in a dystopian society done with some really dark humor.

REASONS TO STAY: Piss-poor dialogue. The ending is disappointing albeit spectacular.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence and foul language and quite a bit of drug use (although it is a nonexistent drug).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The drawings in the tail section of the train are by Jean-Marc Rochette, original artist of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the work that this movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Colony

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Deliver Us From Evil

Goon


Rock 'em sock 'em robots.

Rock ’em sock ’em robots.

(2011) Sports Comedy (Magnet) Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill, Eugene Levy, Marc-Andre Grondin, Kim Coates, Nicholas Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Cherry, Ricky Mabe, George Tchortov, Karl Graboshas, Larry Woo, Stephen Sim, Ellen David, David Paetkau, Dave Wheeler, Sarah Scheffer. Directed by Michael Dowse

To those who know me, it’s no secret that ice hockey is my favorite sport. The grace, the speed, the skill appeals to me. Perhaps it is my half-Canadian heritage that instills the love of this great sport into my genetic make-up. Hockey, after all, is part of the Canadian DNA.

The flip side of the sport is the fighting. Goons, the vernacular for enforcers who are there to act as nuclear deterrents essentially, are the brawn of the sport. They rarely get the ink of the goal scorers but are as respected if not more so in the locker room of those teams they toil for and let’s face it, many fans love them more than the skill players.

Doug Klatt (Scott) is a bouncer in a New England bar whose father (Levy), a doctor, is disappointed in his son’s career direction and is not shy about expressing that disappointment. Doug’s best friend, Pat (Baruchel) is a hockey nut. While Doug and Pat are at a minor league game, Doug gives a beat down to a player who ventures into the stands. This catches the notice of an opposing coach who gives Doug a try-out even though Doug can’t skate.

Doug learns to skate and becomes an enforcer. After a few weeks he becomes a star goon in the league and is eventually promoted to Halifax to protect Xavier LaFlamme (Grondin), once a highly coveted prospect in the NHL whose game has deteriorated due to drug use, ego and attitude. Well, there’s that but also LaFlamme has also lost his nerve after being badly injured in a hit by Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Schreiber). Now the phenom avoids contact at nearly any cost. That generally doesn’t lead to a long career in the NHL.

Doug is a sweet guy at heart who has never really felt like he belonged to anything in his life, but now has found a purpose. He’s even attracted a girl, Eva (Pill) who is a self-described slut willing to give up her promiscuity for Doug. Things are going well for Doug  despite his father’s continued disapproval but you know that a confrontation with Rhea – who happens to be Doug’s idol – is inevitable.

Baruchel co-wrote this with Evan Goldberg, both of whom also co-wrote Superbad. This script really isn’t up to that level, being a bit more of a niche project, but it fills that niche admirably. Much of this is due to the performances of Schreiber and Scott. Schreiber plays an enforcer reaching the end of his career with a certain amount of cynicism, knowing that he has been exploited. Schreiber gives the character not only the toughness that such a character would naturally own but also with the intelligence and thoughtfulness that is a Schreiber trademark.

Scott’s character isn’t terribly bright and is socially awkward. He’s kind of an anti-Stiffler, not very confident with women and not terribly sharp. He tends to punch first and ask questions later. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t basically a nice guy. Although there’s an enormous amount of gay slurs in the movie (reflecting a homophobic sensibility in sports in general not just hockey) Doug stands up for his gay brother Ira (Paetkau) as much as any good brother would.

This is the best hockey movie since Miracle and maybe since Slap Shot which it is more akin to and could be said to be the spiritual godfather to the film, although it is actually based on the memoirs of real-life minor hockey league goon Doug Smith. I do have issues with movies that glorify the violence in hockey – maybe I’m in the minority (and I don’t think I am) but I don’t love hockey for the fights but for the speed and grace of the game, the skills of the players and that the game hasn’t been overwhelmed by egos in the same way other major sports have.

Still, I was entertained by the movie and even though I will admit a bias towards the sport, I believe the movie will be entertaining even for those who aren’t particular fans of the game. I’m not sure it will make a lot of new fans of the sport but you never know. Game on.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best hockey movies in recent years. Scott and Schreiber deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goon-like players are becoming an endangered breed in modern hockey.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, plenty of hockey violence, some fairly strong sexual content and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former NHL players Mike Ricci and Georges Laraque make cameo appearances in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: In Power Play Mode the viewer can access features and commentary enhancing what’s onscreen when the Power Play icon is onscreen. There’s also an HDNet featurette, a bloopers reel and a sit-down interview with Scott and Baruchel. There’s also some video hockey cards featuring characters from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.5M on an unknown production budget; very likely made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Back to the Future