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?

O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

A Serious Man


A Serious Man

You may think you're on top of the world, but you've still got to fix the antenna.

(2009) Dramedy (Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, David Kang. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

There comes a time in all of our lives in which our suffering seems greatly magnified. We all experience the dark winter of our souls at some time or another. It’s enough to make even the least devout look heavenward and wonder why. Not all of us get to be Job, but most of us share in his troubles.

I’m sure Professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) would tend to agree with that. He’s a middle aged professor of physics, living a comfortable existence in a middle class subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb in the late 60s. He has applied for tenure and has been assured that there is no reason he shouldn’t get it. His son Danny (Wolf)  is about to undergo his bar mitzvah.

When we feel the weave of our lives is at its strongest is usually when it unravels. His wife Judith (Lennick) wants a divorce. She no longer can take the lack of inertia in Larry’s life and has taken up with his best friend, Sy Ableman (Melamed). Personally, I think if your best friend is named Sy Ableman you’ve got problems to begin with.

His son is having difficulties concentrating in class and has been experimenting with reefer. His daughter Sarah (McManus) is stealing money to save for a nose job. His ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Arthur (Kind) has taken up residence on his couch (when Sy and Judith urge him to leave their home and take up in a local motel, Arthur comes along with him as a sort of hideous luggage set Larry can’t get rid of) with a variety of ailments, including a cyst in need of drainage. Arthur believes he is close to uncovering the secret of the universe which apparently has to do with surviving without working.

A Korean student (Kang) who has clearly failed a test offers a bribe which turns into a means of blackmail. Larry’s oversexed neighbor who sunbathes in the nude has become not so much a sexual fantasy so much as a sexual nightmare that further emasculates him. To top it all off, the tenure which seemed to be a sure thing is now in jeopardy due to anonymous libelous letters that urge the university regents not to grant Larry tenure. It’s enough to make Larry go scrambling first for the shrink, then to the rabbis. Yes, plural.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most gifted filmmakers of the past 20 years, with a string of movies that aren’t just well-made but are among my favorites. Certainly when you go down the list of their films – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men – and that’s just a partial list, there’s bound to be at least one or two that you’re fond of as well.

Here, the Coens explore their own inner Jewishness and certainly their own background as they were raised in a similar suburb of Minneapolis during the same time period here. I’m not sure if Aaron is a surrogate for the brothers but he might very well be.

I’ve always admired the Coens for their quirky sensibility and their offbeat humor and both qualities are in evidence here, to even greater effect. Those who prefer their storytelling done straight up will probably find the Coens an unpleasant taste, too Dr. Pepper in a world of colas.

This is a movie to my mind that is about the nature of suffering and the sheer randomness of it. It is appropriate that this is set in a Jewish background for if any ethnic group knows suffering, it’s them. There is plenty of sardonic humor but also a sense of bewilderment as if nobody involved with the movie can quite believe what’s going on in it.

Stuhlbarg, who has mostly been a stage actor throughout his career, does an extremely solid job here in what is essentially his first motion picture lead role. He captures the sense of being adrift on a sea of troubles with nothing but a life preserver to keep him afloat. Mostly he is surrounded by character actors whose names you may or may not recognize but whose faces you’ll immediately know.

There is a whole lot of kvetching in the movie, perhaps more than is necessary but then I’m just a goyim and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get it. That’s all right, too. This isn’t essential to the Coen Brothers catalogue in the sense of entertainment, but if you really want to get to know the filmmakers, I suspect this will be the film that comes closest to allowing you in. As Roger Ebert said, this is clearly a labor of love and one that would only be allowed to be made by someone who has won an Oscar. The movie is filled with parables that don’t really clarify anything but then, most parables were meant to be mysterious anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: While offbeat, Coen Brothers movies tend to be well-made and interesting, and this one is no exception. Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, gives a solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very rooted in its Jewishness, which may make certain parts of the movie difficult to follow or relate to for non-Jews. The movie also meanders a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a certain amount of sexuality and even a bit of brief nudity. Some of the thematic elements will go zooming over the heads of younger teens and the less mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an educational tool that helps with the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases that are peppered throughout the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.4M on an unreported production budget; given what appear to be a pretty meager budget, I’d say the movie was probably a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Pink Panther 2