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.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – A Review

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When the original Sin City debuted in 2005, it was like nothing that I’d ever seen before. With its stylized black and white palette interrupted by the occasional burst of color and its other visual effects, the film was like being fully immersed in a graphic novel. Add in its dark, film noir story and it’s no surprise that I was immediately in love. It was a totally different way to make a comic book movie and its slavish dedication to detail from the source material and its visual style has made many people cite it as the best adaptation in the genre. When someone mentions that they like Sin City, my radar is immediately up; I may have just found a potential friend. When I heard that they were finally making a follow-up nearly a decade later, I was excited – I still wanted to spend some time in Sin City after the original film and I was curious to see what they would come up with for the next installment.

My best guess is that if you liked the original Sin City that you’ll also enjoy Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, though to a lesser degree. While the signature look of the films is still utilized effectively and the second film boasts an all-star cast, the stories told the second time around just aren’t as compelling as the original. There’s a lot to like about the new Sin City, but in the end it does feel like a slightly faded copy of the original. It’s worth seeing and enjoyable, but not as impressive as their first attempt.

Of course, a lot has changed in the movie landscape since the original Sin City debuted; the style that was so fresh and innovative in 2005 has now been imitated in many other films. It’s still aesthetically pleasing and visually stimulating, but it isn’t as cutting edge as it once was. The addition of 3-D does help punch things up a bit – if there ever was a movie that was built to play with 3-D, it’s this one – but there is a familiarity to Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. If all there was to the film was the shock and awe of its cinematic style that might be a problem. But beyond the film’s visually dazzling presentation, there were interesting stories to be told and characters to meet in Sin City. That is still the case in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, though the fragmented narrative and the slightly less beguiling plot points hold the film from living up to the achievements of the first film.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a mix of the old and the new – while there are several familiar faces from the first film, there is also plenty of fresh blood. This is partially a necessity, since so many people from the film are no longer with us – either their characters were killed off or the actor portraying them passed away in real life (R.I.P. Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan) – and partially artistic license to take the stories in new direction. Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Powers Boothe are all back, reprising their roles from Sin City; even Bruce Willis is back, though he is a ghost of his former self (literally). These are all welcome returns, especially Rourke who really is fantastic as psychopath Marv. In most other movies Marv would be the bad guy, but in the world of Sin City a big lug that generally tries to hurt people that deserve it makes him one of our heroes. Plus he doesn’t hit girls, which is an admirable quality in these parts – not just accepted behavior. Alba is given a slightly larger role in this film, but for those of you who are only interested in her dance routines at the club, she still does those in spades. There is plenty of gyrating and writing around on the stage to make you happy. Alba’s an undoubtedly beautiful woman and seems like a nice person, but I’m not convinced that she’s really that good of an actress; in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, they expand her role just enough to what she can handle. Powers Boothe is rarely not the bad guy and he’s as evil as ever in his second turn as Senator Roark. We spend less time in Old Town in the second film than we did in the first, so there isn’t a lot of screen time for Rosario Dawson. She still makes an impression however.

Joining in on the fun this time around are Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven and Christopher Meloni (yay!). While all of these people are fine actors, Brolin and Green acclimate themselves the best to the style of the film; they take to Sin City’s noir landscape like ducks to water. Brolin has the right hardened look and gravelly voice to immediately feel like he’s been part of this series since the beginning and Green is perfect as the femme fatale Ava. Green is stylized and filmed in such a way that you’d be forgiven for thinking that she stepped out of a 1950s gritty crime novel. You see a lot of Green in this film, both physically and screen time-wise; she’s nude a LOT in this film. Like – a lot, a lot. I’m actually not all that comfortable with how familiar I now am with her body after watching it projected on the big screen for much of the movie. It’s a little excessive, but it honestly didn’t feel all that exploitive given how it was shot; if I looked like she did and was shot as lavishly as she was, I’d have no problem with doing all that nudity either.

Gordon-Levitt does not fit in quite a seamlessly; he does a nice job and he can sell the dialogue but he’s not hardened enough to not stick out in this world a little bit. He’s just too pretty – a fact that they acknowledge since he’s referred to as “handsome” throughout the film. In a world like Sin City, the men all look like they’ve lived a life and his baby face betrays him. It’s not necessarily a distraction, but compared to Green and Brolin he is more of an outlier. Liotta, Piven and Meloni all do well in their supporting roles and Haysbert is a new face but playing an old character, filling in for the deceased Michael Clarke Duncan. No one can quite live up to the physical presence of Clarke Duncan, but Haysbert does a more than admirable job filling those (very big) shoes.

Like the last film, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is made of a series of stories that don’t necessarily intersect other than in location and theme. While the events in the first Sin City all appeared to take place around the same time, they play a little fast and loose with chronology in A Dame to Kill For. This is a little confusing, since there is no explicit indicator that at least one vignette takes place before the events of the original Sin City and other take place afterward; I found myself having to work to put some things in context. I don’t mind non-linear story telling – I actually quite enjoy it as a narrative device – but since there is such little connection between all these stories it is easy to briefly lose your place in the space time continuum. Or maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am (high unlikely). The end result is not only confusion, but the feeling that the whole movie is a little disjointed.

If I were renaming this film, I’d call it Sin City: The B Sides since the film feels a bit like using the leftover stories that weren’t quite good enough to make it into the first film. I don’t know that there was enough meat on the bone from the source material for a second full length feature. The stories are not evenly represented either; wisely, a lot more time was spent on the Brolin/Green story than the others since it is easily the strongest of the bunch. The Gordon-Levitt story isn’t fully developed enough and suffers from being bookended around the Brolin/Green story; I’d kind of forgotten about it by the time we returned to it. The Alba story also felt a little rushed and tacked on; perhaps with more attention or better pacing it would have been better, but by the time that story finally kicked into gear the film was kind of running out of steam. None of these stories were uninteresting, but they didn’t live up to the slick execution of the first film’s narrative.

I also felt that the writing wasn’t as tight in this film as it was in the second; perhaps because I was less overwhelmed by the appearance of the film, I paid more attention to the dialogue this time around, but there were instances where the noir banter and one -iners felt a little forced. The actors make the most of what they are given, but tonally there are a few scattered moments where it all feels a little too aware of itself and its genre – even bordering on campy. It’s a fine line between being authentic to the style and feeling like a parody of it and this film doesn’t quite walk that line as well as the previous installment.

Some other thoughts:

  • Lady Gaga has a very small role as a diner waitress and unsurprisingly she fits right into this world.
  • Not only have the upped the sex and nudity in this film, but there’s a lot more violence this time around. Sin City definitely was a violent film, but the second time out they decided to kick it up a notch. It’s more graphic (no pun intended) and while it didn’t bother me, it may turn some people off.
  • I was bummed that I did not get the teaser for The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s new film, before A Dame to Kill For as promised. I don’t know if that was because I saw the early screening last night, but I had been looking forward to it even though there is no actual footage from the film. Leaked footage of the trailer appears to be online (for now), so I was able to see it. If that’s the actual trailer, I’m pumped.
  • I re-watched Sin City this week to prepare for the new film – it had been a while since I saw it – and it still holds up well. You can see A Dame to Kill For even if you didn’t watch the first film and you won’t be too lost, but there are definitely nods to the first film that you won’t pick up if you haven’t seen it. They don’t do as much work on the returning characters either, so you may not get the best sense of some of them without doing the homework.
  • You guys – I actually sprung for 3-D for this movie. Like, I paid for it out of my own pocket! That a testament to how much I enjoy the Sin City movies. They employed it well in this film; I think it helps that it is already a dark film with a limited color scheme so that the 3-D doesn’t darken the visuals.
  • I know that the first film wasn’t a mainstream hit, but I thought it did pretty well. Apparently not as many people were looking forward to second movie as I was since there were less than 20 people at my screening last night.
  • True story – during a particularly creepy trailer for Annabelle (that movie looks crazy), I was suddenly aware of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was some dude who was slowly lumbering down the stairs – presumably to go to the concession stand or use the rest room. In any other circumstance that wouldn’t have even registered, but he inadvertently looked so eerie that it almost made me jump. Now that’s a trailer that can set a mood!

The second film in a movie franchise is usually weaker than the original and that is certainly the case with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. I still enjoyed it, but the fragmented storytelling was too unconnected to fully work and the stories were just not as interesting as the previous film. It’s a pale imitation of the first film, though I think fans will still be pleased to spend a little more time in the seedly underbelly of Sin City. Brolin and Green are especially welcome new additions and it is still a visual masterpiece, but it can’t hit the same heights as the original movie. I’m glad that we revisited this territory, but without an uptick in the quality of the stories I think that this is franchise that has exhausted its potential.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For opens nationwide today.

Sneak Peek – Gangster Squad

Fact: When you put Ryan Gosling in 1940s clothing, a movie can’t be terrible.

The long delayed Gangster Squad will finally hit theaters this weekend and while it was not as sophisticated a film as I had anticipated, the stellar cast and interesting story almost make up for what the film is lacking in depth. We walked out of Gangster Squad entertained, which can’t be discounted. However, Gangster Squad was ultimately disappointing; it held the promise to be a much greater movie, but the film seems to be content with just being average.

The film is loosely based on the real life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Jewish man who used his skill in boxing to earn respect and work his way up the ladder of organized crime. He is slowly taking over Los Angeles, a fact that doesn’t seem to upset many in law enforcement as many of them are on Mickey’s payroll. The Police Chief (Nick Nolte), however, isn’t on the take and assembles a secret team of police officers (Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick) under the leadership of Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who has proven he isn’t afraid to go up against Mickey. Their mission is to eradicate Mickey’s syndicate by any means necessary. They aren’t charged with making arrests; they are charged with going to war with Cohen’s gang. If that means that they have to kill a few people and work outside the law, so be it. The situation is further complicated when Gosling falls for Cohen’s arm candy, Grace (Emma Stone).

The acting is really the strength of this film. They have assembled a great team of actors headed up by Penn and Brolin, who really seem to embrace the roles that they are playing. Mickey Cohen is the showier of the roles and Penn really does a great job of bringing Mickey to life. Cohen is a terrifying man whose moods can turn on a dime; one moment he will be joking and bantering with reporters, but if one of them asks a question he doesn’t like, he immediately becomes violent and bullying. Penn’s weathered visage only adds to the intimidation factor. Brolin’s character is less defined, but he does well at playing the no-nonsense O’Mara. Brolin has a presence and makes more of O’Mara than was probably in the script. Actually, I suspect that all of the actors made more of their characters than they were written.  Gosling and Stone are their usual fantastic selves and they have the same great chemistry that they had in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I do wish that Stone had been given more to do – she’s a great actress, but here her main responsibility is to slink in and out of the room (which she does very well, but there is more to her than that). The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well. It seems clear that the actors are all having a lot of fun.

The film also looks beautiful and relishes in its vintage sets. I happen to have an affinity for the style of the 1940s and all the costumes are lush and the various locations, specifically Slapsy Maxie’s Nightclub, have the look and feel of the time period. It’s all very pretty to look at and the film is peppered with some of the great music of the era.

Unfortunately, the screenplay for Gangster Squad leaves a lot of be desired. While the story of police going to war with a gangster should be a pretty meaty source for the film, the screenplay just isn’t very developed. It felt very paint by numbers to me. The story doesn’t move forward in an organic way; things happen because they have to happen. I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty much the entirety of the conversation that the Police Chief and O’Hara have about setting up the “gangster squad (keeping in mind, they have no previous relationship):

Nolte: “I want to set up a secret team of cops to go to war with Cohen. Destroy his entire operation. Make no arrests.”

Brolin: “OK.”

That’s it. No real discussion. No hesitation. Just “I’m in.” The entire story moves forward the same way. It all so very predictable. There are also tonal inconsistencies – people are being set on fire in one scene, but a few moments later there is some light hearted comedy. It’s like Gangster Squad couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be. The characters are basically reduced to one characteristic: Brolin (tough), Golsing (ladies’ man), Ribisi (smart), Patrick (good shot), Pena and Mackie (not white). It’s the actors that give them life, nothing else; in the hands of lesser actors, these roles would have been exposed for how flimsy they were written.

Some other thoughts:

  • Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are so good together that I really wish that they were a real life couple (sorry Andrew Garfield). He’s so pretty, she’s so pretty – I like to imagine them off being pretty together.
  • This movie has absolutely no idea what to do with its minority characters.
  • This movie is violent; it’s not in the Django Unchained realm, but there is plenty of brutality. I don’t know that it is excessive – it is, after all, at its heart a gangster movie, but some people may be unprepared for it.
  • Josh Brolin should have never played a young Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3; that is now all I see when I look at him.
  • Late in the film, Ribisi raises an interesting point – by using their take no prisoners methods, are they really any better than the gangsters? It is a valid question that a more thoughtful movie would have at least addressed. But in this movie, it was dropped almost immediately. I really don’t know why they bothered to even bring it up.
  • After many relatively well behaved audiences, I’m disappointed to report that the first screening of 2013 saw the return of bad behavior. The women who were sitting next to us did not shut up through the entire movie. They would quiet down for a few minutes, but then it was right back to chatting away. That behavior just baffles me. They talked the entire time we were waiting in line, the entire time we were in the theater and they were STILL talking when we passed them on our way out. If I hadn’t have been with someone, I probably would have said something. The worst was that they laughed way too loud at things AND giggled like school girls when Gosling did basically anything (these were women probably in their late twenties).  It was infuriating.

The pieces were mostly there for this to be a much better movie. It’s a testament to the actors that I found this film as entertaining as I did. The screenplay felt more like an outline for the screenplay than the final draft and it ultimately dragged the movie down. Gangster Squad was still mildly entertaining, but I also have a tremendous amount of goodwill for the actors involved. I left the film more troubled by what could have been rather than what was. The actors deserved better and with a different screenwriter, I think this film would have been much more sophisticated and nuanced. I was really looking forward to Gangster Squad, but it wasn’t worth my anticipation.

Gangster Squad opens nationwide January 11th.