Hail, Caesar! – A Review

hail-caesar-poster

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:

1494031423551324995

  • 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.

The Monuments Men – A Review

monuments-menposter1

I have basically zero artistic ability. I can draw well enough that I am not a total burden to my teammates in Pictionary, but otherwise I’m pretty much a lost cause. I doodle the same things over and over in notebooks (a frog, hearts, daisies and interlocking boxes) not because I love these things but because they are about the extent of my capabilities. And even the frog isn’t very good. In middle school I was able to boonswoggle my way into being invited to the advanced art class because they mistook my constant tinkering with an art project as dedication rather than the fact that I was stalling when I had the realization that this was probably the best thing I was ever going to do. I accepted – it earned me credits for high school and as a kid that worried about academics, you don’t turn down advanced placement in anything – but I spent the whole class nervous that I was going to be found out as an artistic fraud.

Perhaps because I don’t possess much artistic ability, I have long been an appreciator of the arts. I may be relegated to drawing stick people, but I can recognize true artistic beauty when I see it. Even before that middle school art class, I was a fan of Impressionism; the class field trips to area museums only served to broaden my artistic palate and introduce me to different styles and artists. Whenever my family would visit Washington D.C., I would always force everyone to go to the National Gallery just so I could wander around and take it all in. When I visited Prague with friends, one of my favorite parts of an unquestionably awesome trip was our stop at the Mucha museum; I didn’t buy a lot of souvenirs on that trip, but I carefully brought several Alphonse Mucha prints home with me. The Art History department at my college even made a pitch for me to become an art history major after I took their intro class, but the career prospects didn’t seem too appealing to me (nor did the idea of telling my father that he and my mother were paying a lot of tuition for an art history degree; I can’t imagine that would have gone over well).

So when I first heard about the film The Monuments Men, the premise of the film naturally was appealing to me. As someone who believes in the importance of art, the story of a group of men who were tasked with trying to prevent artistic masterpieces from being destroyed during World War II was something that I wanted to learn more about. Add in a spectacular cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonnevill and Bob Balban) and my interest was further piqued; that’s a lot of Academy Award nominees and winners assembled in one movie. Add in that Clooney also directed and I was legitimately psyched for this film to come out…..

Until they moved the release until February.

As a rule, good movies don’t come out in February. This is the time of year when the studios dump the films that they don’t have a ton of confidence in or that they don’t think will perform well against the stronger competition of movies released in the summer and late fall/early winter. When the release of The Monument Men was delayed, I immediately began to downgrade my expectations. The fact that with a cast this strong that the film was not released during prime awards season eligibility had to mean something….and probably not something good.

Sadly, my instincts were right. The real story behind The Monument Men is interesting, but they somehow failed to make an interesting movie. Tonal inconsistency and a lack of clear focus resulted in a film that was mildly amusing, but mostly boring and that did not take full advantage of the talent of the cast. The Monument Men could have been so much better, but the end result was just kind of meh. Even with my lowered expectations, I was still disappointed.

The biggest problem with The Monument Men is that it isn’t quite sure what kind of movie that it wants to be – is it a comedy? A drama? A dramedy? The film tries a little bit of everything and in the end is ultimately nothing. There are a few laughs, but not enough to be a true comedy. There are some serious moments, but not enough depth to be a true drama. The serious elements and the comedic moments are not melded well enough to be a successful dramedy. There aren’t smooth transitions between the different tones either. It all felt uneven and inconsistent. Is this a film about the importance of art? The untold casualties of war?  It seems to try to address these topics, but ultimately fails at both. There’s a lot of platitudes about the value of art and Clooney does a lot of speechifying, but they never really stick the landing. For a film that is about men risking (and losing) their lives to save paintings and sculptures, they need to convince the audience that this sacrifice was worth it. Ultimately, they just don’t.

The cast is split up for most of the movie and while this may be what happened in real life, I think that the film tried to cover too much ground in such a short movie. The result is a lot of hopscotching all over Europe, with only a limited amount of time spent with the characters. This scattershot approach means that we know very little about the men who make up the Monument Men; they are just broad character strokes and attributes with very little depth or development. Just when you think you are starting to get an idea about who these characters are, the film jumps to another scene with different characters. Poor Matt Damon feels like he is in a completely different movie than the rest of the gang; he’s off hanging out with Cate Blanchett, who is perhaps the most poorly drawn character of them all. These are gifted performers who do their best, but even this award-winning collective can’t bring these characters successfully to life.

Some other thoughts:

  • There are moments when this film feels like it could be a caper film, a la the Oceans 11 trilogy, but then it rushes through the best part of that genre of film – putting the team together.
  • This film definitely has a throwback vibe; this is a film that could have just as easily been made in the 1950s.
  •  For the young folks – that is George Clooney’s real life father Nick Clooney playing the older version of George’s character.
  • Big tobacco must love this film; not does everyone have a cigarette dangling from their mouth throughout the film, but sharing cigarettes seems to bring enemies together.
  • That being said – for a character that allegedly has never had a smoke before, Clooney’s Frank Stokes takes to it like a pro. Not a cough or a wheeze.

In the end, Clooney and his cronies just didn’t make a very good movie. I have no doubt that they had the noblest of intentions, but The Monuments Men is basically a snooze fest thanks to an overall lack of narrative focus and poorly developed characters. I really wanted to like this film, even with my initial cautiousness, but it failed to deliver even on my lowered expectations. The Monuments Men isn’t a terrible movie – it would probably be perfectly fine to rent or, even better, to watch on cable – but it isn’t worth your time or money at the theater. There’s a lot of talented people involved and an inherently interesting story, but these did not translate to an enjoyable film. Better luck next time, Clooney.

The Monuments Men opens nationwide today.

Gravity – A Review

There are people that are fascinated by outer space and all the mysteries that it holds: is there other intelligent life out there? What scientific discoveries do the cosmos hold? Some kids dream of becoming astronauts and going into space; enough people have this dream that many countries and companies have considered venturing into space tourism, which would allow civilians the chance to go into space. Hell, NBC is planning on a reality show that would allow two winners to be launched into the great unknown via a Virgin Galactic flight. To conquer the final frontier and to go boldly where very few men (and women) have gone before is the ultimate quest for many.

To quote the great Bob Dylan, “That ain’t me babe.”

Much like the Olympics, I am a total killjoy when someone expresses an interest in something as All-American as exploring the cosmos. I just don’t care. I think constellations are kind of cool, but I really have no desire to go up into space and poke around. I saw the movie Space Camp as a kid and while that caused my peers to have temporary dreams of becoming the next John Glenn, I thought it all looked like way too much work. I’m sure the fact that my class watched the Challenger explosion live on TV in class didn’t exactly make space exploration appealing to me either; once you’ve watched people blow up, the bloom is kind of off the rose. Plus I tried that freeze dried astronaut ice cream and it was disgusting; I’m not going anywhere that doesn’t have good ice cream.

So when I first saw the previews for the new film Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to go see it. “Eh – more space stuff” I thought to myself. Not interested. I’ve tolerated a few franchises that are set in outer space, but they aren’t usually my idea to watch them. I wasn’t sure how they were going to make a movie out of what I saw of the Gravity clips anyway; Sandra Bullock screaming as she drifted off into nothingness seemed like it would be a pretty short film. Thanks, but no thanks, Gravity.

As the release date for the film crept up, however, there was a positive buzz around this film that I just couldn’t ignore. At first, I dismissed this as the enthusiasm of people like I described above – that are fascinated by all things space related. But as the din continued from nearly every critic that I know, I realized that this film was being universally praised. A film that hovers at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes is a film that I can’t exactly ignore. An hour and a half runtime was what finally sold me; on the off chance that I was swimming against the critical stream on the film, at least I wouldn’t be wasting a lot of my time. I could probably handle 90 minutes in space; I needed to see what all the hoopla was about.

While Gravity did nothing to change my opinion about space – if anything it reinforced my feeling that it is a pretty terrifying place – the critics weren’t wrong. Gravity is a visually breathtaking film that is probably the closest that many of us will come to venturing outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Strong performances from Bullock and Clooney – Bullock in particular – paired with the pure beauty and realism of the cinematography and special effects make Gravity a film that is definitely worth seeing.

The premise of the film is pretty simple, yet terrifying: Bullock and Clooney are part of a team sent to space to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Clooney is a seasoned astronaut who is out on his last mission, while Bullock is a medical engineer who is making her first shuttle mission. What should be a fairly routine trip becomes a nightmare when an accident from another quadrant of the cosmos sets off a chain reaction resulting in debris hurling at them and their ship. With their shuttle destroyed and their crew killed, Bullock and Clooney must figure out how to survive with their limited oxygen and limited options.

There is no denying that this is a stunning film to watch. It is absolutely gorgeously shot, with many long panning shots that are technically amazing. The director and cinematographer’s choices really give the viewer the impression of being in space with Clooney and Bullock, and just how terrifying it would be to be lost out there. I don’t know how they did much of what they did in the effect department, nor do I really want to know; the results were so convincing to me that I almost felt like I was floating along with them. Frankly I think the cinematography Oscar race is officially over – just hand the statue to Gravity and be done with it. I can’t imagine anything else that will even be in this league. It’s just so impressive. It’s worth going to see the film for this alone.

Though Clooney receives co-top billing on Gravity, this is really Bullock’s film. I was a little skeptical when I heard that she was cast; I generally like her, but despite her Oscar win I am not totally convinced that she is a great actress. But she is tremendously likable and that works to Gravity’s advantage. You are instantly invested in the fact that she is in peril because you like her and want her to be OK. Bullock totally rises to the occasion in this film and does a tremendous job of taking the audience on an emotional as well as physical journey. She manages to make the viewer feel everything that she is feeling and effectively overcomes a somewhat emotionally manipulative backstory that her character is saddled with. Both actors successfully sell dialogue that is a little hokey and cheesy. I don’t know that any dialogue could really meet the visual splendor and situation that the characters find themselves in, but the writers of Gravity really didn’t appear to try all that hard to rise to the challenge. Clooney, in particular, has to cash in some of his coolness chips to make the quips and wisecracks he delivers not sound completely ridiculous. It all mostly works because of the inherent charm and charisma of Clooney and Bullock, but don’t go into Gravity expecting well-honed dialogue. The script just isn’t all that great.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • It’s a minor quibble, but I am skeptical that astronauts wear as little under their space suits as Bullock had on. I’m sure that it is hot in there, but surely NASA would require more than a pair of boy shorts and a tank top (and no footwear whatsoever). But bravo to Bullock – she’s in fantastic shape.
  • I did not see Gravity in 3-D because I am cheap, but I regret that decision. As impressive as the film is in 2-D, I can only imagine how impressive it is using 3-D technology. This is the type of film that 3-D was made for.
  • That is indeed Ed Harris as the voice of Houston.
  • Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went on a Twitter rant yesterday about all the scientific inaccuracies in the film. He raises some valid points. Always best to defer to an astrophysicist in these matters. Time also weighs in on the scientific flaws of the film, while Mashable writes about 5 things that the movie gets right.
  • This seems like as good a place as any to admit that I’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or Apollo 13.
  • I have to commend the directorial decision to have so much silence in the film. A less disciplined director would want to use a lot of music in the film to lend grandeur or to tell the audience how they should feel, but Alfonso Cuaron is confident enough in his visuals to let them stand on their own. This is a wise choice and only improves the film.

The weaknesses of the script don’t completely handicap Gravity; the extra effort from the leads paired with the simply awe-inspiring effects makes this an enjoyable and impressive film. The corny dialogue prevents Gravity from being a truly great film – next time hire a screenwriter instead of letting the director pen the script – but it is so dazzling that you almost don’t notice these limitations (almost). This is a surprisingly stressful movie to watch and I had no idea how the story was going to resolve itself. If this film can win over my cold, black, outer space-hating heart, it is certainly worth seeing. Gravity is one of the most exquisite films that you will see all year.