Monday, February 8, 2016

Hail, Caesar! Review

If there were ever a conversation at this moment for the best living directors, the Coen Brothers would certainly be in that mix. Their track record is practically spotless, and their work can almost be polarizing at times from the Goofiness of The Big Lebowski, to the dark and intimidating vibe of No Country for Old Men. And sometimes they just hit the sweet spot between the two, like in A Serious Man. Whatever the case, whatever the genre, the two have clearly proven themselves as auteurs of the highest respect. When I heard they were going to make a film centered around the golden age of cinema, I couldn't wait to see it. And with a cast that would sink a 1000 ships, this film had a very positive trend going for it. The only puzzling aspect was why it was being released in February (movies of their caliber are normally released towards winter aka awards season). Not that a movie should solely be about awards (Grand Budapest Hotel even got recognition from the Oscars even though it was released in March that year), but when a movie has oscar buzz people are more inclined to see it (Unfortunately, this is one of the Coen's lowest grossing films so far with an 11.5 mil opening weekend).  Did the February release have anything to do with the quality of the film?

The movie is set in 1950's as we follow Eddie Mannix (based off a real studio fixer played by Josh Brolin), a studio fixer who is seemingly never off the clock helping his studio Capitol Pictures stay afloat and away from bad PR. One of his movie stars, Baird Whitlock, is kidnapped and he is tasked to bring him back to the set of his film "Hail, Caesar!" before word gets out that he's gone missing. Along the way we meet an eccentric cast of characters that each represent a gleaning aspect of film at the time.

The movie does a fantastic job at paying tribute to the genres and staples of 1950's cinema. From westerns, to musicals, to noir (I know it's not a genre sorry professor), and of course the biblical epic the film garners it's name from. Its not even that we're visiting sets from movie to movie, although that does happen at times, but characters themselves represent a particular genre as a whole. Alden Ehrenreich's Cowboy character is super dim but only has the best intentions for everyone around him. He can't seem to escape his role as a Cowboy even when he's not filming (lassoing with his spaghetti cough cough cough). Scarlett Johansson's character is portrayed as a beauty in her films but is rough around the edges in real life (kind of like Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain, but not as blunt). I could go on about who means what but that is a whole essay in itself. The point being this movie is more about the characters and who they represent. We follow Eddie as he almost does a studio tour for us and we get to experience a nice caricature of what these genres were like back in the day

I also like the dichotomy of the twin reporters played by Tilda Swinton. Both argued for integrity but at the end of the the day, they were both smut gossip columnist. Not to mention they were practically indistinguishable from each other, a visual play on the kind of journalists they were. There was a lot being said here but not really with words, and that can put off a lot of people.

The movie argues that things aren't as simple as it seems ("would that it were so simple"), when in fact it kind of is. I think that's the point it's trying to make. That the movie industry seemed like a magical mysterious place that had some much going on behind the scenes, and it sort of does in a sense. But not in the way the general public imagines. Most of what Eddie does is to just cover the ass of the studio, but in reality, it's not all that significant. And that might disappoint people (especially with it's underwhelming climax and abrupt ending). I for one think it was a deliberate effort and not a result of writers block. They stress the idea of simplicity and that's really what it is.

My real issues with the film are how some of the characters are criminally underused. Jonah Hill, Francis McDormand and Channing Tatum (that dance scene) barely have more than a scene or two and are just begging for more. I guess its like getting a great meal to eat, then complaining that you can't have seconds. Just be happy you got that great meal in the first place.

The great Rodger Deakins is behind the camera, but other than some well framed shots and visual motifs, this isn't his crowning achievement. Not that Coen bro's films are known for their cinematography but still. There is plenty to find and see when you watch, but it's not breathtaking like Sicario. This is definitely more of a comedy on the side of the Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading. Their comedic timing and directing is indistinguishable from any other film maker and that is an achievement in its own right.

I can't tell whether its active denial or it's my uppity sense of critiquing, but despite this movie not wowing me I still liked it a lot. It's by far not their best film but it's nowhere near their worst either. Something about me just loves a good homage. Not everyone is going to like it and I can see why they settled for a February release. If anything this is a passion project/tribute from the Coen's to film itself. This movie is hard to review because there's not a lot you can say without spoiling or even in general. It is very much worth a watch today considering what else is in theatres, and very much worth a watch down the road for all people who love film. 8/10