REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

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REVIEW: Promised Land

23 01 2013

Gus Van Sant has called “Promised Land” his attempt at Capra, which is a noble thing to aim for – and it has certainly been largely MIA in today’s cinema.  But his film is hardly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a truly inspiring extolling of the virtues of the common American.  Even when you factor in adjusting the tale for our grayer, more morally relativistic culture, it still falls well short.

“Promised Land” aims for pro-small town goodness but winds up being mostly anti-corporate.  Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both the stars and writers of the film, spend most of their efforts vilifying the businessmen.  The homely townspeople, on the other hand, merely speak in vaguely familiar talking points that make them really only function for the sake of the narrative.

And I think that’s a lost opportunity for the movie to really make a great case against natural gas fracking.  As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb postulated in “Inception,” positive emotion trumps the negative every time.  Maybe if we cared more for the well-being this tiny agrarian Pennsylvania town, we would come out of the movie and call our Congressman.  But all that Damon and Krasinski convince us is that businessmen are vile leeches who will go to any lengths possible to suck all the natural gas out of the ground – with as much cost to the environment as necessary to provide little cost to them.

Eventually, I believe we will look back at “Promised Land” as an interesting relic in the ongoing saga of the United States’ quest for energy independence and climate control.  The film lands at a critical nexus in our culture, where it makes sense to revive the economy and decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels by fracking the natural gas underneath our own soil.  Yet the process is so unrefined at the moment that it can cause vast environmental damage.  You know, just never mind what it does to social capital because Damon and Krasinski are only seeing green – the color of money and the color of the environment.

But they make a mild and familiar argument within a generic framework to convey their message.  Perhaps their passion would have been best channeled into a documentary.  Although non-fiction films rarely reach large audiences, those movies can be as polemical as they want because that’s often what they are designed to be.  (For an example of how they could have frightened you with the horrifying truth, look to “Gasland.”)  What they settled on in “Promised Land” just feels like preaching to the converted; I don’t think it has the narrative or emotional strength to create any new believers.  C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 10, 2011)

10 06 2011

With “True Grit” now available to watch at home, I figure the celebration shouldn’t be just of the Western genre but of the Coen Brothers in general!  I haven’t made it through their entire filmography – don’t shoot me when I say I haven’t seen “Blood Simple” or “Barton Fink” – but I have found a gem among their movies that deserves more attention and laud.  I present “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a quintessential example of the film noir style but still a flawless example of the Coens’ own unique filmmaking conventions.  (And for the record, I think it’s much more deserving of a Best Picture nomination than “A Serious Man.”)

Billy Bob Thornton, complete with his low and thick Southern drawl, plays the solemn and stern Californian barber Ed Crane, completely unremarkable in just about every way.  He feels emasculated and numb to the world around him, somewhat because he couldn’t serve in World War II due to his flat feet and also because he senses his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss Dave (James Gandolfini).  Yet the game changes a shady salesman shows up with a proposition that could make Ed a very rich man.  What ensues is a crazy, unforeseeable chain of events that pushes Ed to the brink … and he still manages to stay stolid.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” could easily be labeled a textbook for the conventions of neo-noir, just as “Double Indemnity” could be the textbook for the original school of noir filmmaking.  The lighting and the sets really shift our moods to darkness, and the crisp, clean cinematography of Roger Deakins makes the film’s look simply irresistible.  But any fan of the Coens know that they can’t just stick to outlines or formulas, usually blending in elements of dark comedy and nihilism with any genre they tackle.  Their take on film noir is just sublime, and any fan of the directors will certainly love watching a movie that feels straight out of the 1950s but has their signature spin.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2010)

20 08 2010

It’s the one-year anniversary of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column!  I thought the best way to celebrate that milestone would be by featuring one of my-all time favorites, “Almost Famous.”  It’s not exactly little known given its pretty devoted following and its awards season haul, which included an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a Golden Globe for Best Picture.  Although it was criminally snubbed by the Academy for a shot at the top prize, it is still more than worth your time.

The movie, written by director Cameron Crowe, is semi-autobiographical.  As a teenager, he wrote for Rolling Stone and had the pleasure of touring with bands like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Jealous, anyone?

Young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) discovers music after his rebellious sister (Zooey Deschanel) flees the tyrannical reign of their mother, the strict fundamentalist Elaine, played with brilliant propriety by Frances McDormand.  As a young boy, Elaine thought her son to be so smart that she moved him up two grades in school, thus socially crippling him.  His sister leaves behind a giant record collection, and William’s obsession with music begins.

Not unlike myself, he begins writing about his passion.  We differentiate, however, in the fact that William’s work gets picked up by Rolling Stone.  The industry-leading magazine asks him to follow Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock band, on their tour and write an article on them.  He meets an interesting crowd aside from the band, who are always skeptical of his intentions, particularly lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee).

The most intriguing figure by far and away is the so-called Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), whose name, age, and intentions are always clouded in mystery.  Penny is a different kind of groupie, offering herself to help the band more as a muse to inspire artistic inspiration than to satisfy lustful desires.  She and William, both in their teen years, form a very interesting relationship while on the road.  Hudson, only 21 at the time of the movie’s release, gives an absolutely masterful performance, and her virtuoso turn is only made more astonishing by her age.

But the movie’s real heart and soul comes from William’s friendship with guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).  It is he who teaches the young journalist to enjoy the ride and love every minute of being able to do what you love.  Indeed, we watch “Almost Famous” with the same sense of wide-eyed wonder of William on the road, and the movie is an exciting experience that inspires our own fantasies of living out a childhood dream.  Even if that doesn’t involve music, Crowe’s true masterstroke will still be able to delight your latent aspirations.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 5, 2010)

5 02 2010

The “F.I.L.M of the Week” is not independent, just to get that out of the way.  “North Country” is, however, first-rate.  The movie’s critics will probably say, “Haven’t I seen this movie before?  Oh, right, every two hours on Lifetime and Hallmark channels!”  To them, I say – yeah, maybe a little bit.  Sure, it doesn’t stray too far from the stock story of courage in the face of terrible circumstances.  But it has a tremendous power which can make you forgive the formulaic nature of the movie.

This power comes from a fantastic ensemble cast, led by Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances.  Theron plays Josey, a determined woman with two children that she needs to feed.  She moves back to her hometown and takes a job at the local mine, where she can bring home the biggest paycheck.  There are very few women employed there, and the men go out of their way to make sure they know that they aren’t welcome.  Horrible epithets fly and despicable deeds are committed.  The men succeed in their goal of making the women dread coming to work.  Josey and the other women, including the tough-as-nails Glory (McDormand), try to stand up for themselves, only to be told to “take it like a man.”

But what they don’t count on is Josey’s iron will.  She calls friend and lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to take on a landmark case – the first ever class action sexual harassment suit.  The town instantly turns against her, thinking she might be trying to shut down the mine.  Josey even manages to earn the ire of her father (Richard Jenkins).  But, as all these movies tell us, humanity and courage triumph over all perils.

Keep an eye out for Jeremy Renner, the now Oscar-nominated star of “The Hurt Locker,” who delivers a particularly haunting performance as one of the main perpetrators.  He also has a unique position in the conundrum because he was an old flame of Josey’s during high school.  It’s another role filled with emotional depth that Renner absolutely nails.  If anyone had any doubts, he’s definitely not a one-trick pony.

I’m sure the real events that inspired “North Country” were much less campy and melodramatic.  Nonetheless, the film gets you worked up, emotional, and impassioned.  For just another inspirational movie, that’s about as good it gets.