HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 

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BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

October 16, 2015

bridge of spies Greetings again from the darkness. For a director, true power in the movie industry means you can obtain the financing and assemble the cast and crew you need to make the films that have meaning to you. With his 40 year career of unmatched combined box office and critical success, Steven Spielberg is the epitome of film power and the master of bringing us dramatized versions of historical characters and events. In his fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, Spielberg tells the story of James B Donovan.

You say you aren’t familiar with Mr. Donovan? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the CIA (Allen Dulles was director at the time) persuaded James Donovan to provide a bit of Cold War legal service. Mr. Donovan was by trade an Insurance attorney, but after others in his profession passed on the “opportunity”, his commitment to justice and human rights drove him to accept the challenge of defending suspected Russian spy named Rudolph Abel. In the face of an angry populace and government, Donovan took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and his exact words are spoken in the movie by Hanks.

Not long after, Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell) was piloting a CIA U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Russia and taken captive. This sequence in the film is breathtaking to watch. Enter James Donovan again … this time to negotiate an exchange of prisoners: Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. It’s these negotiations that provide the element of suspense in the story. Mr. Donovan was a family man, but he was also very confident in his ability to negotiate on the biggest stage and under the brightest spotlight (or darkest backroom).

The movie is exactly what you would expect from a master filmmaker. Spielberg slickly re-creates the era through sets, locations, and costumes. He utilizes his remarkable eye behind the camera, an interesting use of lighting, and the score from Thomas Newman. Nope, that’s not a misprint. It’s the first Spielberg movie in 30 years not scored by John Williams (who was unable to work on the project). Of course, the cast is stellar and it all starts with Tom Hanks. He just makes everything look so darn easy! Whether he is talking to his wife (Amy Ryan), his kids (including Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), his law partner (Alan Alda), or agents from the U.S. or Russia … Hanks manages to make each scene real and believable.

It’s the scenes between Donovan and Rudolph Abel that are the most fascinating to watch. Mark Rylance plays Abel, and to see these two men grow to respect each other for “doing their job” is a true acting and screenwriting clinic. We find ourselves anxious for the next Rudolph Abel scene during an extended span where the focus is on Donovan’s negotiations. When the two finally reunite, it’s a quietly affecting moment where much is said with few words.

Spielberg utilized many of the locations where the actual events took place, and this includes Berlin and the Glienicke Bridge where the real exchange took place in 1962. While missing the labyrinth of twists and turns of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s knowing that these are real people in real situations that make this historic drama so thrilling and riveting to watch.  Film lovers will also get a kick out of the fact that the script was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and history lovers will enjoy seeing some of the details provided by the written words of those involved, as well as their surviving family members. It’s an era that seems so long ago, yet the topics are so pertinent to what’s happening in the world today.  Beyond all of that, it’s a story of a man standing up for what’s right at a time when that was not the easy or popular way.

watch the trailer:

 


UNBROKEN (2014)

December 27, 2014

 

unbroken Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.

Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.

Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).

Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).

unbroken2 On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

December 15, 2013

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers (and you should be), then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life’s obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character’s own poor judgment. Coen Bros stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option … the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out apparently thinks life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can’t catch a break).

llewyn6 The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It’s not until this scene is repeated again for the film’s finale do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out … even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape, or he uses excess profanity in front of kids.

The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen’s were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street“. So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn’s story is pure Coen fiction. From a viewer’s perspective, that means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture … such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes.

llewyn5 We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn’s personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we allow ourselves to get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film’s best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is “King Midas’ idiot brother“. Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake).

As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman’s jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he’s not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn’s Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan (whose spirit lingers all through this movie), Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn’s audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie (“The Death of Queen Jane”), but it’s clearly the wrong song for the moment.

llewyn3 Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that’s necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the absurd novelty song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Why Isaac’s performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It’s possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Effort, thought and consideration is required.

If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who wrongly believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it’s fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.

**NOTE: It’s kind of interesting to think that both this movie and Saving Mr Banks are both based in 1961 and the two films are being released at the same time in 2013.  Though totally unrelated, they do provide a stark contrast in NYC vs LA.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Coen Bros fan or past due for an introduction

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve tried, but Coen Bros humor is just a bit too dark or esoteric for your tastes

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc