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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This is the End


Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World's End is opening after their film.

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World’s End is opening after their film.

(2013) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Samantha Ressler, Jason Segel, Catherine Kim Poon, Anna Rekota. Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen   

 

This is the end

beautiful friend

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Of everything that stands, the end

Can you picture what will be

limitless and free

And all the children are insane.

                 – Jim Morrison

The apocalypse is very much on our minds this summer. Perhaps it was because the world was supposed to end last year (and maybe it did and nobody told the rest of us). Be that as it may, there are a bunch of movies out there (or about to come out) that have the end of days as a plot point.

This one comes from Pineapple Express co-writers Rogen and Goldberg (who in addition to co-directing this one also co-wrote it) who rope in fellow Express star Franco in a movie in which most of the actors are playing Bizarro-world versions of themselves.

Baruchel lands at LAX where he is met by good friend Rogen. Their friendship goes back to when they were both struggling comics in Canada. Baruchel is looking forward to a weekend hanging out with his good friend who supplies them both with copious video games on an HD 3D TV, all of Jay’s favorite snacks and of course ample amounts of weed.

Rogen drags a reluctant Baruchel to a housewarming party at Franco’s home which can best be described as a pretentious post-modern bunker. It turns out he has a creepy kind of friendship with Rogen, which Baruchel doesn’t appreciate. He also doesn’t like most of the people at the party, particularly Hill who seems sweet and giving (and whom everyone seems to adore) but for some reason Baruchel has real enmity towards.

There are plenty of celebrities there – a coke-snorting, butt-slapping Cera who Kaling wants to do the horizontal fandango with, a rapping Robinson who wears the name of his new rap song on a t-shirt and several other young stars, mostly from the comedy community. However, the party abruptly ends when a massive earthquake hits the L.A. area, opening fissures in the earth. Baruchel witnesses people ascending to the sky in a strange blue light but nobody believes him – Baruchel thinks it’s the apocalypse while the survivors who ran back into the house (after watching one of the stars get skewered by a street lamp and dragged down into the bowels of the earth) – Franco, Rogen, Hill, Robinson and Baruchel – scoff at his story. Me, I thought it was aliens to begin with.

They discover an uninvited McBride had been sleeping one off in Franco’s bathroom and had, unaware of what was happening outside, cooked almost all of their food for breakfast. As it turns out, Baruchel isn’t far off and in the world of hedonistic egos that is Hollywood, heaven isn’t an option. Or is it?

I had high hopes for this one coming in. Rogen can be hysterically funny as a writer and given all the talent involved, there was reason for optimism. The trailer rocked pretty hard too. Safe to say, this is a major disappointment.

For one thing, there’s an overreliance on dick and weed jokes. I’m no prude – trust me, I don’t mind crude, raunchy and drug humor – but after the same subject of jokes over and over and over again it gets old. Even stoners need a change of subject.

I’m not saying that the movie isn’t funny. There are some real laugh out loud moments (some of which weren’t even in the trailer) but I just expected more. High expectations (no pun intended) can sometimes shape a review, perhaps unfairly.

Yes, there is plenty of skewering of the self-centered and self-destructive behavior that Hollywood is notorious for, but do we really need another movie about that? I mean, it’s not as if this is some sort of new and revelatory information here.

It feels like a massive in-joke that maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get. I like these actors individually but this smacks too much of self-indulgence and just didn’t get me laughing enough to overcome the perception. While I’m fully aware that these “self-portraits” are characters loosely based on the celebrity involved (and in the case of Cera and I’m sure a few others, having nothing to do with the personality of the celebrity involved) it’s still not the point. The point is that the movie just isn’t as good as it should have been, nor did it tickle my funny bone the way it should have. I have no doubt that there are people who found this to be right in their wheelhouse – my good friend Adam has already proclaimed this the funniest movie of the year and the final scene set in the afterlife is certainly going to make my son cackle louder than a Who concert – but I’m just not going to be one of them. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: Really great cast and some nifty cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies way too much on dick and drug humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of crude humor, drug use, sexuality, quite a bit of foul language, some brief nudity, apocalyptic religious images and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the paintings in James Franco’s home were actually painted by James Franco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Man of Steel