Hail, Caesar! – A Review

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Watching a Coen Brothers movie for me is always something of a gamble; for every Fargo, True Grit, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, there is foolishness like Intolerable Cruelty and A Serious Man. I don’t get the cult that is The Big Lebowski at all and there is always the chance after seeing one of their movies that I’m not 100% sure that I got what they were trying to do. Still, the heights they can reach are worth the occasional lows, so I continue to see Coen Brothers movies with an open mind. Even when I don’t dig what they are laying down, it is usually an interesting mess that they create. I respect their perspective even when it doesn’t line up with my personal preferences.

I wasn’t quite sure what exactly to expect out of Hail, Caesar!. It of course boasts an all-star cast and the Coens have a certain affinity for skewering Hollywood. But the trailer was kind of terrible and the fact that the movie was being released in January – typically when studios dump films that they don’t have a lot of faith in – did not inspire a ton of confidence. Reviews were middling – good, but not great – so that was no help. It was quite possible that Hail, Caesar! was a Coen Brothers film where there was no consensus; some people would love it, others would hate it and still others wouldn’t be quite sure what to make of it.

Overall, I have to say that I was generally entertained by Hail, Caesar!. I had expected more of a zany, screwball comedy from the trailer, but while the film is definitely amusing there are long periods where there aren’t many laughs. The performances are great and if you have any working knowledge of old Hollywood you might get more mileage out of the film than most. The film flirts with some big ideas, but ultimately doesn’t do much with them; Hail, Caesar! just tells the story that it wants to tell; it doesn’t necessary amount to a lot, but it is an entertaining journey nonetheless.

Hail, Caesar! is basically a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” for Capitol Studio. It’s his job to make sure that the films get done on time and that their stars don’t get unwanted scrutiny from the gossip columns. Mannix is basically a good guy – family man, trying to quit smoking, goes to confession a lot – but wrangling the various cast of characters employed at Capitol is a full-time job. There’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams-type actress who has been divorced twice and is now pregnant with a baby of unknown fatherhood that must be covered up. Then there’s Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an actor known for playing cowboys that is now thrust into the starring role of a prestige drama and is in way over his head. Mannix is also being courted for an attractive job offer from Lockheed Martin by a persistent headhunter and dodging the prying of twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). So Mannix already has a lot on his plate when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the charming yet kind of dumb star of the movie within a movie Hail, Caesar!, is drugged and kidnapped. Hail, Caesar! chronicles Mannix trying to put out all of these fires as well as offer some pretty great vignettes of the various movies that are filming on the Capitol lot. The musical starring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is in particular a joy to watch. Honestly, seeing Tatum sing and tap dance might have been worth the price of admission alone. He’s fantastic.

The performances in Hail, Caesar! are all really wonderful and it is nice to see so many returning actors from the Coen universe in the film. Brolin is who carries this film and he does a tremendous job as Mannix; he’s competent because he believes in what he is doing, even if it does take its toll on him. Brolin is responsible for keeping all these various storylines spinning and he does so in an efficient manner. Clooney also embraces his role as Baird and has some fun with it; given his many return appearances in Coen Brothers movies, one has to assume that Clooney really enjoys getting to flex this particular acting muscle. He gets to be dashing, yet goofy and Baird’s affable reaction to being kidnapped is very funny to watch. I will never fail to be amused by Johansson trotting out her tough girl Brooklyn accent and the scenes of her aquatic film with is film are beautifully choreographed and shot. She doesn’t have a huge role, but she makes the most of her screen time to create a fun and memorable character.

Perhaps the most surprising standout is relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. He more than holds his own with his more famous co-stars and is very sweet and funny as the cowboy who is now forced to wear tuxedos. Ehrenreich really makes his mark in Hail, Caesar! and I hope this leads to more roles for him. It’s not easy to steal the spotlight from actors like Clooney and Brolin, but he manages to occasionally do just that. His enunciation lesson with director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) as they try to transform his drawl into a Mid-Atlantic accent is comedy gold.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • Wayne Knight is involved in the kidnapping plot, which gives me an excuse to share this GIF:

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  • Though everyone knows that Channing Tatum has a background in dance, he had to learn how to tap dance for this role.
  • Embarrassing realization – Ehrenreich looks familiar to me because I watched the movie Beautiful Creatures.
  • Here’s a quick cheat sheet for all the real life Hollywood references crammed into Hail, Caesar!
  • Mostly my biggest issue with this movie is that I have a tough time remembering how to spell Caesar correctly. It’s a name I should know how to spell, but based on the number of times I’ve used spellcheck I most decidedly do not.

Hail, Caesar! is a farce that goes down some interesting side streets and takes on some heavy issues like religion and communism without ever really resolving anything. The story ends when it ends and not everything that transpires in the film is resolved; this is not a neat and linear narrative, but really a series of events that are strung together and abandoned as the Coens deem appropriate. It’s really more amusing than laugh out loud funny and I’ll admit that when the credit rolled, I wasn’t 100% sure how I felt about what I had just witnessed. I’d put it in the middle of the pack of the Coen Brother filmography. Hail, Caesar! is a fun film that has lots of in jokes for those that are in the know about their Hollywood history, but it is just as enjoyable for those who know little of the goings on of the old studio system. It’s not a spectacular film and it isn’t a bomb – Hail, Caesar! is a nice film going diversion that has some great performances and silly moments. Not must-see, but a welcome addition to the Coen Brothers catalog.

Hail, Caesar! opens nationwide today.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – The Big Game Edition

We’re only a few days away from Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most glorious days of the year. Even if you don’t like football, chances are that you’ll tune in to the big game to at least watch the commercials and the halftime show. Of course my team isn’t in the Super Bowl this year (or pretty much any year), but I’m still looking forward to Sunday. Not only is it a fun day to hang out with my friends that I watch football with every Sunday, but I’m hoping for a miracle that Peyton Manning walks away with another Super Bowl ring this year. Given how well the Carolina Panthers have been playing that may be unlikely, but I’d like Manning to end his career on a high note. I’m guessing this is his last ride on the football merry-go-round and I’ll always be disappointed that a blizzard prevented me from seeing him play against Buffalo. But really, as long as I can have my wings and enjoy the Patriots not being in the Super Bowl, I’ll be happy no matter how the actual game plays out.

It feels like every Wednesday is the Super Bowl of pop culture, as I once again bring you the best that the web had to offer in the last week. So without further ado, let’s get on to this week’s pop culture roundup.

 

 

 

 

Time for some trailers….

  • Trolls:

 

  • Alice Through The Looking Glass:

 

  • Nine Lives:

 

  • The Secret Life of Pets:

 

  • Broad City:

 

  • The Confirmation:

 

  • Mavis:

 

  • The Walking Dead:

 

  • The Secret Life of Pets:

 

  • The ladies of RuPaul’s Drag Race are going out on tour:

 

  • Kubo and the Two Strings:

 

  • LEGO Dimensions:

 

  • Regression:

 

  • The Witch:

 

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Sorry boys. I'm off the market

A photo posted by Sophie Turner (@sophiet) on

 

As always, we end with the supercuts and mashups…..

  • Jimmy Fallon, Sia, The Roots and Natalie Portman perform “Iko Iko”:

 

  • Archer meets Magnum, P.I.:

 

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  • Every Best Picture winner ever:

 

  • “Here” as a Peggy Lee-style jazz number:

 

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  • White actors playing other races:

 

  • 100 years of zombie evolution:

 

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  • The Suicide Squad trailer audio with clips from Batman: The Animated Series:

 

  • And finally, The Muppets sing the theme to The Muppet Show:

Fox’s Grease: Live

GREASE: LIVE: (L-R): Keke Palmer, Kether Donohue, Julianne Hough, Andrew Call, Carly Rae Jespen, Carlos PenaVega Aaron Tveit, David Del Rio, Jordan Fisher and Vanessa Hudgens in GREASE: LIVE airing LIVE Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 (7:00-10:00 PM ET live/PT tape-delayed) on FOX. Cr: Tommy Garcia/FOX

Tommy Garcia/FOX

It appears that these live TV musicals aren’t going anywhere any time soon; after three musicals from NBC, Fox finally entered the fray with their live production of Grease. I had very mixed feelings about their musical selection. On the one hand, I love Grease. To the best of my knowledge, everyone loves Grease. It’s iconic. Like most people, my familiarity with the musical derives mostly from the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta big screen adaptation; I cannot honestly tell you how many times that I’ve seen that movie, but it’s a lot. Like, a lot a lot. My high school did Grease my junior year, but mostly what I remember from that was my friends being in it and the fact that they eliminated the whole “Rizzo might be pregnant” story line, which was kind of ironic for a school that would only a few years later have a daycare center in the school for all the teen pregnancies. I assure you – when you are sitting next to the father of three in your social studies class and you have a baby shower for another student during homeroom, we wouldn’t have been scandalized. I’m also well aware of Grease‘s fails when it comes to gender politics. I don’t love the whole “change absolutely everything about yourself to get a guy” message, but the musical is fun enough that I can overlook it. Plus Grease is so goofy that no one should be taking life advice from it.

So while I was really excited because I love Grease I was also a little concerned by the decision. By picking something that so many people are familiar with, expectations were going to be high and it was going to be easy to nitpick. Every performer in Grease: Live was going to be compared to the actors who played them on the big screen, fairly or not. I’m not really a Julianne Hough fan so while there is definitely a physical resemblance to Olivia Newton-John, I am very skeptical that she has the vocal chops or acting talent to pull this off. I also can’t stand Mario Lopez, and while he has a pretty minor role, knowing that he’s in this at all leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Fox is also shooting for the fences with this one – a live audience and multiple sets that are going to be a challenge. If they pull it off, they will have upped the game for these live musicals, but there is also a high chance of disaster. Go big or go home, I guess. I’ll try to leave my concerns at the door and watch Grease: Live objectively. I’m also going to try to not sing along, for the sake of my neighbors, but I make no promises.

7:00 – Staying true to the movie beginning – Danny and Sandy at the beach.

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7:01 – As Jessie J is singing “Grease,” it dawns on me that this song really makes no sense.

7:02 – Yay – our first glimpse of Didi Conn.

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7:03 – I like all the movement as they go through the hallways. This already has more energy than any of the other live musicals. Plus it introduces everyone in the cast.

7:04 – They are indeed doing this rain or shine. Good for them.

7:04 – Jessie J keeps showing off her shoulder. That’s weird.

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7:05 – Boyz II Men and Ana Gasteyer. That’s a combo that you don’t see every day.

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7:05 – Ugh – I have advocated for a live audience, but these girls need to stop screaming.

7:06 – Is there an extra T-Bird? Were there always five of them?

7:07 – Quick fact check – there were indeed five T-Birds. I think I conflated Putzie and Sonny as one guy.

7:08 – So Sandy is from Utah. Making her from Australia obviously makes no sense, so I was curious where her family would suddenly move from.

7:10 – I wonder if anyone under the age of 30 gets that athletic supporter joke.

7:12 – I’ve got to give it to Vanessa Hudgens – she’s got the proper attitude for Rizzo.

7:13 – I appreciated what they are doing with cutting back and forth during “Summer Nights” but it’s a little abrupt.

 

7:14 – Huh – I never noticed how rape-y some of these lyrics are in retrospect. I guess I never thought too much about “did she put up a fight” too much before.

7:17 – Going into the first commercial break, I’m on board. Not totally convinced that Julianne Hough has a strong enough voice for Sandy, but otherwise my only complaint is that we’ve already seen Mario Lopez.

7:20 – Impressive that Sandy has a cheerleading outfit before tryouts.

7:22 – We are spending too much time with Patty Simcox and Eugene.

7:24 – Was going to cheerleading tryouts a thing back in the 50s? Seems odd so many people are there.

7:25 – I guess if they spent all the time learning cheerleading routines, they are going to make us watch it. This is why the show is three hours. Plus wasn’t Sandy supposed to be a mediocre cheerleader?

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7:27 – This chronology is a little confusing. What day is this? How far ahead did we jump from the tryouts to the pep rally?

7:29 – Bunk (Wendell Pierce) is the football coach? I would go to this school.

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7:30 – I’m not sure what to do with a leader of the Scorpions that doesn’t look 50 years old.

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7:31 – I see that they are sticking with the knee length cheerleading skirts.

7:32- “Rockin’ and rolling and whatnot” will be my answer the next time someone asks me what I’ve been up to.

7:35 – There are way too many commercial breaks. This is killing any momentum.

7:39 – Wait – Marty gets a song? This wasn’t in the movie, right? Was this in the play?

 

7:41 – I’ve got to give it to Fox – they are certainly not afraid to use as many sets as possible.

7:42 – Keke Palmer has a great voice. They should have taken advantage of this on Scream Queens.

7:44 – Why is the actress playing Jan always thrusting her pelvis. It’s weird.

7:45 – I love “Sandra Dee” but that song was full of dated references twenty years ago.

 

7:45 – Things I had previously not considered – why does Frenchie have so many wigs laying around?

7:46 – These songs seem very rushed. They need to slow down the pace a bit.

7:47 – Wait – are they NOT doing “Hopelessly Devoted to You?!?!”

7:55 – I’m kind of surprised that they kept the condom scene.

7:57 – Kenickie just isn’t believable to me.

7:57 – I always knew Jan Brady was destined for prison. Nice surprise cameo by Eve Plumb as the shop teacher.

7:58 – Let’s see how censored “Greased Lightening” will be. I’m guessing they’ll lose the “chicks will cream” line, which is honestly for the best.

 

7:59 – Lol – did they just change “p*ssy wagon” to “dragon wagon?” That makes no sense and somehow sounds just as sexual.

8:02 – They are kind of killing this choreographed dancing.

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8:07 – They really should have done a better job distinguishing between the T-Birds and the Scorpions. Once everyone is in a leather jacket, it gets confusing.

8:08 – Pay for your own music, Sandy. #feminism

8:09 – Only Travolta can deliver that “Don’t make me laugh. Ha Ha Ha” line

8:09 – I don’t remember Sandy’s date Tom being this dumb in the movie.

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8:10 – I approve of this Danny in a tank top/short shorts costume change.

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8:13 – Why is this Bruno Mars-dude in the T-Birds still singing? And WHO IS THIS GUY? Is that Doody?

8:14 – I’m being too snarky. This guy is good. I just don’t like change. Ironic, given the song he’s singing.

 

8:20 – Ugh. Again with Eugene and Patty.

8:24 – They are trying too hard to be meta with these references to live TV and amateurs.

8:26 – Haha – Frenchie could make solid money nowadays dying people’s hair pink.

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8:27 – Is this a new song?

8:29 – This song does not fit in at all. AT ALL.

 

8:30 – Thank God. I thought that they were cutting “Beauty School Dropout.”

8:31 – Not necessarily loving this Boyz II Men version. This should not be a slow jam. I am a traditionalist.

 

8:41 – Joe Jonas isn’t getting much screen time. That’s kind of surprising.

8:46 – I always found this Vince Fontaine storyline creepy, so it’s perfect that Mario Lopez is playing him.

 

8:51 – What is up with Sandy being afraid of being on camera?

8:56 – It’s finally hand jive time.

8:57 – Ut oh. My audio went out.

8:58 – It’s back. Live TV folks!

8:59 – Well, I guess that’s the payoff for Sandy not wanting to be on camera.

9:00 – Again, they did a really nice job with the dancing. Though did anyone actually hand jive in that whole thing?

9:01 – Also, no one mooned the camera. I’m deducting points for that omission.

9:02 – Oh thank goodness -Hopefully Devoted” is back in! Though Sandy must live next door to the school, she got home that quick. Or she’s just singing in front of a random house.

 

9:09 – Haha – Blanche is slaying it.

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9:12 – Interesting potential subplot – Sandy’s parents are in a cult.

9:15 – I wondered if they would keep the Rizzo may be pregnant storyline.

9:16 – Sin wagon? I’m assuming that was a Dixie Chicks shout out.

9:16 – “Sandy” is a little pitchy, dog.

9:17 – Aaron Tveit recovered nicely. But that song needed a swingset. And dancing hotdogs.

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9:24 – Danny is getting more action from Kenickie than from Sandy.

9:25 – Wait – is Eugene the secret hero of this whole show?

9:26 – Sandy let the claws out. Take that Patty.

9:27 – No pressure, but “Worst Thing I Could Do” is my favorite song of the whole musical. Don’t screw this up, Hudgens.

9:29 – Not bad. No Stockhard Channing, but that was pretty spectacular.

 

9:34 – It’s probably ill-advised for a teacher to be at an illegal drag race.

9:35 – Didn’t Rizzo literally five minutes ago tell us that she wasn’t going to Thunder Road?

9:36 – Plot twist – Danny knocked Kenickie out on purpose. That may be the nicest thing anyone has done in this whole musical.

9:38 – Watching people pretend to drive is less exciting than they probably thought it would be. Obviously they are limited in what they can do and they did the best with the camera work, but that was very anticlimactic.

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9:39 – Further proof Danny is terrible boyfriend material – Sandy is sitting right there and the first thing he does after the race is give Eugene his jacket.

9:46 – Can pregnant women not hula-hoop?

9:52 – Someone is out of tune.

 

9:54 – Somewhere, Kanye is taking credit for those leather pants.

9:53 – It would kind of be hilarious if this ends with a golf cart accident.

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9:55 – That finale was pretty amazing.

 

9:57 – So cute that Didi Conn and Barry Pearl came out in their Pink Lady and T-Bird jackets.

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9:59 – A very nice gesture to dedicate the performance to Hudgens’ late father.

So I’ve got to say, Grease:Live was pretty great overall. The crew should all receive Emmys, because from a purely technical perspective what they were able to accomplish was nothing short of ground-breaking. The choreography, camera work, costume and set changes were all pretty flawless. By giving the cast the freedom to move around and using more intricate camera shots, this production had so much more energy than anything that NBC has done. Grease: Live actually felt alive and that energy helped sustain all three hours of the production. So on that end of things, this was a triumph. The cast was generally very good, though I do have a few complaints. Aaron Tveit never quite exuded the danger and cool that John Travolta did to make Danny really come alive. Tveit was just a little too safe. I didn’t think that he and Hough had all that much chemistry. Julianne Hough was not nearly as wooden as Carrie Underwood in Sound of Music, but she’s not a great actress either. But Hough was better than I expected and whatever she lacked in the singing and acting department was not enough to derail the show. Vanessa Hudgens really stole this whole thing; every time she was on screen things felt a little bit more exciting. She really did the role of Rizzo justice and considering that she was doing this less than 24 hours after her father had passed away is a testament to her strength and professionalism. She really, really impressed me.

Grease: Live has really raised the bar for these live musicals going forward. The performances were generally fun and visually the production was tremendous. It wasn’t flawless, but I think so far it’s the best of the bunch. There was a decent chance that Grease: Live was going to go off the rails or be laughably bad, yet the cast and crew were able to rise to the occasion and put on an entertaining show. I might have made a few casting changes and slowed the pace down a bit, but I can’t say that I failed to have a good time while watching it. As it turns out, Grease is indeed the word.