Hail, Caesar! (2016) review

Released: February 5, 2016. Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson. Runtime: 1hr, 46 min.

I love the work of Joel and Ethan Coen because of their sense of humour and great tales. The pair of directors follow up Inside Llewyn Davis with a period piece set in the 1950s, Hail, Caesar!

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer at Hollywood production lot Capitol Pictures. He navigates through arising issues, like a production needing a new star actor.

He also has to navigate through the rare kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the production company’s biggest movie of the year, Hail, Caesar!

It’s a cool commentary on the capitalism of Hollywood in the 1950s. There’s lots of communism in the film, and a group of communist writers, especially David Krumholtz, are quite amusing. It’s a good companion piece to their 1991 film Barton Fink, also set in 1950s Hollywood.

Caesar is mainly notable for its hilarious moments. From clever banter between Ralph Fiennes’ character Laurence Laurentz and Alden Ehrenreich’s wild west actor Hobie Doyle to a fun discussion between religious figures of how to properly portray Christ in the film; these stand as memorable scenes.

Hail, Caesar! Baird Whitlock

George Clooney as Bair Whitlock in Hail, Caesar! (Source)

There’s also an entertaining musical number featuring Channing Tatum. He steals multiple scenes in the entertaining romp. It might be surprising to hear a Coen film described as a romp as they’re known for darker humour.

The Coen brothers resist and don’t go nearly as dark as they could have, which is atypical but likely necessary since it is just a harmless comedy musical with a bit of mystery (but nonsensical mystery).

But it seems to be their first feel-good feature, in the traditional sense. Simply because with what may seem like a caper doesn’t amount to much.

I saw the film on Feb. 7 and I’m still trying to decipher what the heck the point of the film is. That’s why I think it’s a good companion piece for Barton Fink, because I didn’t think that one made a hell of a lot of sense, either.

It feels like the point of the film was to keep you entertained throughout so you wouldn’t notice that the actual story-line is as fragile as one of Hobie Doyle’s spaghetti lassos. But the laughs are the only thing saving the film from a near-disaster.

Hail, Caesar! Scar Jo

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar! (Source)

Josh Brolin gives a fun performance as Eddie Mannix, where he goes from sneaking cigarettes and confessing at Church to him getting a job offer so he doesn’t have to make long hours or solve problems for the Hollywood types.

He navigates through getting director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) a new star for his drama (in the form of Hobie Doyle, who can only act on a horse) to helping save the reputation of a starlet, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

It’s an episodic story-line, but the laughs offered throughout make it well-worth it. Caesar is also stunningly shot by Roger Deakins, using a 35mm film to shoot the period piece. Some scenes are more breathtaking than others, notably the aforementioned Tatum dance scene.

But my favourite, in terms of cinematography, was the scene with Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid in an aquatic dance number, surely emulating a scene from 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid.

The said scene is shot with a live orchestra – though, it doesn’t have nearly the same mesmerizing effect as when it was matched with Jamie N Commons’ Rumble and Sway in the film’s trailers. The score by Carter Burwell is good.

Hail, Caesar! Channy

Channing Tatum in his big musical number in Hail, Caesar! (Source)

Tilda Swinton appears in an amusing dual role as identical twin gossip columnists trying to get the scoop on the daily on-goings of the studio. They want to run a column on an on-set story about Baird Whitlock on the set of On Wings as Eagles (amusingly, the title’s utterance cues an eagle’s shrill).

Clooney is funny as Whitlock and the ensemble cast is great. Alden Ehrenreich is also a lot of fun as the B-movie Western actor Doyle. Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) offers soothing narration, and Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill are good in their one-scene appearances.

Despite the fact that Hail, Caesar! has sporadic greatness, it is a blemish in the Coen canon because of how average it can be. By the end of the rather anti-climactic film, I couldn’t help but ask: “That was it?”

3.5 out of 5

Stand Up Guys (2013)

Stand Up GuysReleased: February 1, 2013. Directed by: Fisher Stevens. Starring: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin. Runtime: 95 min.

On paper, this seems like a great success. It stars veteran actors Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin, working together in a crime comedy that sounds pretty good. The story follows Val (Pacino), who, after spending 28 years in prison, is released and spends time with his best friend Doc (Walken). Little does he know, but later figures out going out on a whim, that Doc is asked to kill Val by a mob boss called Claphands (Mark Margolis) whose only son was killed in a robbery, and it could have been Val’s bullet. And someone has to take the blame. All we know is that Val took the fall for everyone 28 years ago and didn’t snitch. He did his time and jail, and that all makes him a stand up guy.

On paper and translated to the screen are two different things. On the screen, it’s bad; it’s a movie so unrewarding, I grunted throughout the end credits. It’s usually seriously boring, made sometimes okay by a good soundtrack and Walken’s signature dancing. This only has about five chuckles to offer, but it has a few sweet scenes. A scene featuring Pacino dancing with a pretty young thing is random, but sweet. All the jokes involving Viagra, however, are not. There are so many Viagra jokes! We get it, these guys are old, but the film feels very juvenile.

The old folks want to do some living before they die, which could be tomorrow, so they also “kidnap” their old friend Hirsch (Arkin) from a hospice (that doesn’t have particularly good security because they literally walk in and out, what if one of these old folks just wandered off?) and take him out for a night on the town in a car stolen from a few gangsters. That sub-plot gets handled oddly. This is essentially The Bucket List with a few more bullets, busted kneecaps and a lot less laughs.

The thing is, the simplistic plot isn’t that interesting, at least the way it gets handled. The drama tries hard to be sweet and garner any sort-of emotional reaction from the viewer, but it only works to some avail occasionally, but hardly consistently. This is just very boring. There’s a lot of time spent in a residential whorehouse that features a prostitute who’s supposed to be Russian but the only foreign dialogue she speaks is actually Ukrainian; but at least it allows us to see Lucy Punch who’s usually decent. It might have been much funnier seeing her portray the Russian prostitute.

There are also too many warehouse sequences, one of which feels like it ends before it really gets going. They go by this diner a lot; where there’s a waitress who’s the most sincere, cheerful and kindest soul in the film. The character’s name is Alex, portrayed by Addison Timlin, whose beauty and charm injects some desperately needed warmth and energy into this film. She’s one of the only good characters in the feature (at least that care about) and this minor character feels like she gets more character development than Arkin’s Hirsch.

The rest of the actors are well-cast as unremarkable characters. I think both Pacino and Walken show they can still bring it and be strong actors even when they seem to be phoning it in at times, and make the best out of a crappy screenplay. They act well, save one scene at a hospital (the second visit) that is played for comedy but it feels so insensitive that it should have taken a different tonal route. It just isn’t a believable character exchange, and because of that it feels empty. You might know which scene I’m talking about if you see this.

Walken’s character is a lonely guy, and that’s his main development. He’s an artist who paints sunsets; so that’s a nice muse. His and Val’s mutual motivations are not to get whacked, but considering all the steaks Val eats, I think his cholesterol is going to kill him first. Val’s character could get more development with an arc where he’s not used to the drastic changes of the outside world after 28 years in jail. He doesn’t look affected in the slightest, and he seems used to his surroundings. Almost thirty years is a long while, so it’s just a bit unrealistic how well he adjusts to everything.

The character can use all the layers he can get, because he isn’t compelling otherwise. Hirsch is also not that great because we never really know much about him other than he wants to have a threesome before he dies and he was the driver back in the day; but the character just feels like he was wedged in there because who wants to leave Arkin out of this opportunity?

The three actors have a good chemistry, but what does a decent bond do when the formula isn’t all there? Nothing really, they’re just left to flounder in a true stinker of a movie. Walken’s Doc should have just shot Val when he was passed out. It would have saved me a lot of time.

Score38/100