Hail, Caesar! (2016): A Satire and Celebration of Hollywood’s Past

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     The Coen Brothers continue to make gold. This film is a really good satire that isn’t as great as some of their older films, but still would easily make my Top 10 Films of the Year (whether it’d make Top 5 remains to be seen). This is a film that captures the Coen Brothers’ humor, western feel and detachment that makes up so many of their films. It also does a great job illustrating the craft of making a film and all the art and messyness that goes into it as it explores it through the lens of Hollywood’s “Golden Era” during the 1950s.

    The film was written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen with the other producers being Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

SPOILERS ahead

      The story involves Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) the head of Production at Capitol Pictures and the drama of the life he lives as his star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) of “Hail, Caesar” is kidnapped, the pregnancy of one of his star actresses DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and two rival gossip column sisters Thora and Thessely (Tilda Swinton) which puts the choice Lockheed Martin is offering him as an out into perspective as he must make a choice to take the offer or stay with Capitol.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful as old style ways of filming are captured…whether it is the epic open shots of the Roman Epic “Hail, Caesar” or the small black and white of the comedy western Doyle is in, or the stark, sterile large rooms of a Laurence production. Roger Deakins truly does a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is amazing too. Just like with the cinematography all the different styles of 1950’s films are captured. From the epic trumpets of “Hail, Caesar” or the more action adventure of Doyle’s western. Carter Burwell did a great job once again.

The Writing – The Coen Brothers are great writers and though there is a narrator we never see narrating the life of Mannix, it never interferes with the story going on. We are shown and not told most of what happens and that is part of what makes the brothers so great at what they do, as the script is usually the strongest part of their films.

The Characters – The Characters are easily the strongest part of the film. This film was really well cast and each of the side characters has their moment to shine at different points.

Laurence Laurentz – Ralph Fiennes is wonderful as an uptight director doing Victorian style films who has to use Doyle, a cowboy with a very strong accent as the star of his show. Over the course of his scenes you see him slowly lose control of his calm nature and finally explode at Mannix before keeping Doyle to only two lines to make the film work. He really is a fun character.

Thora and Thessely – These two (both played by Swinton) are a lot of fun as they reveal the underbelly of everything and the drama. They have a relationship with Mannix too in that he does throw them bones to keep scandals from getting out of hand. I wish we could have seen what got them into the circuit as they are both extremely driven.

Baird Whitlock – George Clooney plays the naive star who gets kidnapped by a communist cell of writers and comes around to their way of thinking. He’s an example of the pseudo-intellectual (like many cell) except he’s largely an idiot and you get the idea he’s doing what he’s doing for the attention as him going on benders and getting into trouble is a huge part of his character. He gets his act back together though after Doyle rescues him and Mannix knocks some sense to him as we see that all he really wants is to be a star (and the attention that comes with it).

Hobie Doyle – Alden plays Doyle who was a rodeo guy who was picked up by Mannix and when he got the chance to sing became the star of westerns. He’s a kind and naive guy like Baird but also serious about his work. He doesn’t make it out of being in the westerns and he likes it that way as it gives him a chance to celebrate the western background he comes from. He’s the hero of the picture besides Mannix as he is the one who finds Whitlock and brings him back to the studio.

Joseph Silverman – Jonah Hill is awesome as the no-nonsence fixer who is a legal person so that Moran can get legal control over her child. They end up falling in love though as she’s tough and he fits what she wants in a man as they get married and leave the child behind and send it into foster care.

DeeAnna Moran – Johansson is awesome in this role and I wish we’d spent more time with her. She doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is a huge diva but in the end finds love with the most un-person person, showing that there is more to her too, though she is still extremely selfish and the character we’ve known all along as she has her child go into foster care rather than raising it. I wish we could have got more of her backstory. She steals every scene she’s in.

Eddie Mannix – Josh Brolin plays are main guy who is a rough manager facing a choice of stability with Lockheed or the chaos of the studios and making pictures. In the end he stays as he loves the challenge of it and feels he is main for it as he is made to be the Christ Figure as he is born in light (Film) and will live forever because of it. He is a smooth operator and is able to fix everything, which in the end we learn is why he likes to do it so much. It’s difficult but he’s good at it.

The Satire of Hollywood – The satire is in layers, whether it is the sisters focusing on stupid actor pairings and hookups, the communist cell intellectuals are aren’t changing anything and just hanging out in a vacationesque home and how every film we see captures the hammyness of those early productions where everything was big and overdramatic.

The Celebration of Hollywood – The very things that are being satired are celebrated too as the humanity of characters is shown. “Hail, Caesar” is a film I would watch as it has heart to it and the overdramaticness fits the film, same with the westerns that are played largely for comedy but find something more sometimes. In each thing being satired there is a celebration of the arts and film and this is shown the most when Mannix chooses Capitol Pictures of Lockheed (Where the guy kept insulting films as useless and a dying industry), making this one of the biggest love letters to the art of cinema and Hollywood’s past and present.

The Cons: Pacing – At times it goes really slow and this really hurts the overall quality of the production and keeps it from rising higher.

The Communist Cell – I felt that these guys weren’t explored as well as they could have been. They were a group of intellectuals who never got beyond that and that was a shame given that they kidnapped a person because of their beliefs.

More Character Exploration – If the script had been tighter we could have explored more of these characters more. In my opinion Manix is one of the weaker characters of the story and because the focus is on him we lose sight of the fascinating characters like Moran or the Sisters who had a lot more potential to be explored within the confines of the script.

   This was a solidly great film and well worth checking out. It isn’t the greatest of the Coen Brothers films but it doesn’t need to be. Within the confines of the story it explores all the themes and characters it means to and it presents it beautifully through the soundtrack and cinematography. This is a film well worth your time and I’m glad that this was the film that kicks off my film reviews for the films of 2016.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

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Birdman (2014): A Surreal Exploration of Meaning and Ego

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      I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of good and okay movies over Thanksgiving Week. Out of all those movies, “Birdman” wins hands down. It will probably be in my end of year Top 5 list, but we’ll see. December still lies ahead and there were some films that I saw before reviewing the blog that will be major competitors.

   “Birdman” or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also was one of the producers and writers. The other writers were Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo and the other producers were John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James W. Skotchdopole.

      The premise is Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an aging actor famous only for being Birdman trying to make it big on Broadway and be relevant again. From here the story unfolds as he wrestles with situations, his ego and characters and his possible magic powers as well as the character of Birdman who pressures him into actions. From here the story unfolds as things become undone. From here the story unfolds.

The review does contain SPOILERS.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack –  The music for this movie has a life of it’s own. There is a snare drum (and you see the drummer) at different points during the film and it does a good job of giving New York City life and creating tension. It makes everything organic and tense and draws you into the scene at hand.

Lesley – Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a character who has been working all her life to get on Broadway and is roommates with the selfish method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), when he attempts to rape her on stage she fights back and has her dreams come crashing down as the one who had helped her get to where she was betrayed her and didn’t own up to it. After she connects with Laura (Riggin’s girlfriend) and they share a kiss and appreciate each other as Laura reaches out on how Riggin had never showed the appreciation for her performances the way he did for Lesley. After she sets the boundaries with Mike she is a rock throughout the rest of the film and is able to comfort Riggin when he loses it after another bad Preview before opening night.

Jake – This is the best role I have seen Zach Galifianakis play. His character is driven and does all he can to pull the play together…from hiring Mike and doing what Mike wants no matter how outrageous and finding the money for different things the play needs…no matter how tight it gets. He comes through and his darker side is only revealed when he lies to Riggan to keep him afloat telling him they were sold out and that famous people showed up tonight to cast for movies and when he is celebrating the show’s success even though his best friend just shot off his nose and he hasn’t checked into his friend’s mental state. He was compelling to watch though.

Sylvia – Amy Ryan plays Sylvia…Riggan’s ex-Wife who he cheated on. Post divorce she is the only person he is honest with and opens up about Birdman being in his head pressuring him to do certain things. She listens to him but keeps him grounded and it looks like they are able to resolve things as he shows he cares and has learned and it happens organically too as she’s the adult in the room and he’s the one growing past his ego.

Sam – Sam is Riggan’ daughter and is played by Emma Stone. She plays a young woman out of rehab and she plays the part well. From the apathy and skeletalness, to using what she learned there (marking a napkin with dashes to represent time) she is there for her dad and admits he wasn’t a bad father after she talks to Mike about he was never there and realizes he wasn’t bad. She makes him relevant again and uses the popularity he receives on youtube after he gets caught outside the theatre in his underwear to boost him to relevant again as at the end she’s the one running his social media sites. They are friends at the end and she knows he found freedom as when she goes into the empty room and looks outside, she smiles.

Mike – Edward Norton plays a prick who is only real when he’s on stage and being someone else. We see this in how he plays a critic talking poetry and meaning…but than bashes everyone and during Truth or Dare has Sam spit on a bald guy’s head…as well as when he tries to rape his friend. I didn’t like this character. He was complex but he doesn’t even compare to Riggan in regards to how good he is. He is driven by ego, jealousy and want above all else. He only really cares about people after Riggan calls him out and fights him and after he loses Lesley. That is when he begins to learn and see beyond himself. He is devoted to the craft and that is part of what makes him interesting. If the script says his character is drunk, he was real liquor on stage, etc. I’m glad he grows but because of the scene with Lesley I could never like the guy.

Birdman – Birdman is Riggan’s ego and desire to matter. He is core Id and at one point during Birdman’s monologue near the end that gets Riggan to imagine he’s flying he’s describing that people want action, special affects and most of all him as Birdman taking the screen and soaring. He describes how they’ll make billions and outdo to “The Avengers.” It’s a messed up scene and you see just how twisted that part of Riggan is as it is the part where he believes he can move objects with his mind and where the show is just about him…not all those apart of it. Birdman is defeated though after Riggan faces death on the stage and shoots off his own nose leaving him in a Birdman mask of bandages that he takes off to reveal is bedraggled face but who is finally free of Birdman’s voice as Birdman sits silently on the toilet.

Riggan – Riggan drives the plot as he wrestling with his own self worth which gets shot down multiple times as the press only wants to talk about a possible “Birdman 4” or shoot him down for entering into their world (the critic who hates him for bringing Hollywood to Broadway). He is a flawed character and we see how his ego drives him as he dismisses those who try and help him like his girlfriend and how he isn’t able to connect to his daughter and ex-wife until he is at the bottom. Everything is about his popularity and power until he loses it all. It’s only after getting through losing it that he comes out flying and free from the voice of his ego and the outside pressures around him. It’s a powerful arc.

Messages – Riggan’s arc is growing past his ego and realizing it doesn’t matter. That he can be free if he chooses to be and what everyone wants to see is himself not the character as when he is truly himself on stage (he describes the play as a twisted version of himself but in the end accepts that darkness into himself) that he is able to survive and grow from it. He dies and is reborn without the beard and without Birdman’s voice in his head. We also see that art transcends all mediums as this film is a film and not a play so the critic’s point about Hollywood not being art is countered as the film represents the use of both mediums. Mike is also revealed to be a selfish hypocrite who can talk deep things but can’t live it in any meaningful way until the ones who have been through Hell (Sam and Riggan) pull him out of it. There are more as well, but these were the major ones.

Symbolism – Birdman is a dark bird representing the darker side of the ego I got from the film and the flight is only true flight when he lets go of that part of himself and is free. We also see the symbolism of the city which is loud, large and confining. Riggan and other character care trapped unless they are above it all from Sam, Mike to Riggan himself. These were some of major symbolic moments I caught.

Okay: Ambiguous Ending – The Ending is pretty ambiguous so I have mixed feelings about it. It implies he flies or is free after he blows off his nose based on his daughter’s reaction and the fact that Birdman is present but is not longer pressuring him to become Birdman again…but I would have liked it to be a little clearer. I get the symbolism of freedom and rebirth but when he had an imagination sequence where he was flying it was just that as the taxi driver is angry at not getting paid when he returns after getting drunk for opening night. This is my only issue, but it isn’t a con. It’s just not a pro.

     This film gets so much right that I can’t help but recommend it. It explores the ego, meaning and the different identity of individuals and groups and how they relate to each other…as well as that in relation to the art of the stage and life as a whole. It is powerful and one of the best movies of the year I’ve seen. If you have the chance to watch it, check it out. It is worth the money and time as it tells a story with a point and with amazingly compelling characters.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. The only thing keeping it from a perfect score is that ambiguous ending. I would have liked to get what Riggin was thinking but his silence may have lended for good acting…but no answers on what actually happened.

Barton Fink (1991): To Become the Common Man

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“Barton Fink,” was once an impressive film. I also have yet to see a bad Coen Brothers film so it may be that everything they make is gold since they put so much time into shooting a scene and exploring the mind and motivations of their characters while keeping an overwhelming theme of loneliness and isolation.

“Barton Fink” was directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The story involves Barton Fink, a playwright whose successful Broadway show Bare Ruined Choirs leads to some folks in Hollywood wanting him to write the script for a wrestling movie. Once he arrives he finds he has none of the support network he had in New York and that he is completely alone except for his neighbor Charlie, who isn’t all he appears. He soon finds things even more complicated as his writer’s block continues and he finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, from the shots of the broken down and later burning hotel, to any time you are seeing things from Barton’s point of view or you see his anxiety and isolation taking hold. The room is big but can be made to be confining, the hotel is beautiful but is made to bleak…that is the beauty of the cinematography of this film that the Coens and Roger Deakins pulled off.

The Music – The music is very minimalist, which serves the plot really well since it gives us time with the characters and creates tension when it needs too. There are some great piano pieces that I plan on listening to later for my own writing. Carter Burwell did great!

The Characters – Characters are usually the strongest part of most Coen Brothers Films, and this movie continues that.

Chet – Steve Buscemi makes a brief appearance at Chet the Bellhop who is miserable and unhappy. Every word he does is a passive aggressive jab and his character looks miserable. He is our first glimpse of how Hollywood spits people out and destroys the common man.

Audrey Taylor – Judie Davis plays the primary love interest for the writer W.P. Mayhew and Barton Fink. In the case of Mayhew she isn’t respected but it is only in it out of a savior complex and the fact that she built him and wrote most of his work. She is a wonderful and trapped character (like most of the folks in the film). We see her escape with Barton only for it to end in her death…Her death actually means something too since she is one of the few better people we meet.

Ben Geisler – Ben Geisler is the producer who is pretty driven and tends to see past most of the crap around him. He also doesn’t care about anyone truly outside of the films he produces. Tony Shalhoub is great in this role as he calls out Lipnick and the studios for how they don’t care and use everyone. He also advises Barton to get advice from another writer which drives the story forward.

The Detectives – The guys are completely Noir, I love their speech patterns as they insult Barton to give them information they can use to find where Charlie Meadows went since he is the serial killer who has been killing women (who fit Audrey’s description) and taking their heads. They are detached as everyone around Barton but are good in their roles as they aren’t completely antagonistic.

Charlie Meadows / Karl “Madman” Munt – Charlie Meadows is the every man and the muse who Barton denies for sometime. He is expressive about his work as a salesman and Goodman was perfect for the role as he’s so jovial and kind of Barton who is a nervous wreck most of the time. The Reveal that was he was the serial killer was powerful too as he admits he only let Barton live because Barton never listened (before he frees Barton from the beadpost he chained him too). He may have killed Barton’s family and Audrey’s head might be in the present he gave Barton before leaving. In that way we don’t know if he’s just mad or if he is in fact the killer, though most signs point to him being the killer given his shooting down of the detectives and everything he implies to Barton. He’s a pretty great character and antagonist. One of Goodman’s best roles.

Barton Fink – This is the best role I’ve seen John Turturro do, which makes me want to see him in more films. He was great in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” but I haven’t ever seen him as the lead character until this film. He is great at playing the nervous writer who fetishizes the common man (doesn’t listen to anyone share their story and will interrupt them to go off on the idealized common man and how noble his profession is) until he’s found he’s become one. For much of the film he isn’t able to connect to anyone except for Charlie, who used him to kill Audrey and he briefly connects with a woman at the end who may be the woman in the picture above his type writer making the illusion of connection around him complete. He is a character who is unable to stand up to himself even after his work is insulted by Lipnick and Capital Pictures, it’s really his stubbornness that keeps him there and fear, which illustrates how by the end he has become the common man trapped in a job he doesn’t want anymore being used by those around him.

The Themes – The themes in this movie are wonderful…the biggest is that of integrity and the connection to the common man. Barton Fink is seeking to tell the story of the common man but it is so involved in himself he’s unable to listen or empathize until he is chewed out and spit out by the studio in turn becoming the common man. He also finds that he was wrong in his idealization of the people as Charlie was really the serial killer Karl “Madman”‘ Munt who killed Audrey and countless other women before taking off their heads. The movie reveals the false faces of the common men like Charlie and also of the higher ups like Lipnick the leader of Capital Boss pictures who has been lying to Barton the entire time.

The Message – One of the core messages of the film is that Barton was right about writing and that Mayhew and making stuff up was wrong. Good writing comes from a place of suffering and pain and Barton is unable to finish his script until than. The world doesn’t want that though as represented by Lipnick who rejects it as “fruity,” and is shown to be as false as Mayhew and the films he desires. It’s a pretty great critique of Modern Hollywood now even as it’s far easier for million dollar schlock to be produced and green lighted (Emmerich and Michael Bay as examples) than for pictures that have character and a deeper meaning. It also shows that if you stay true you to you and the experience of your experiences that you can create something great, even if nobody recognizes it.

Okay/ The Cons: Lipnick – Lipnick is a two faced guy who tells people want they want to hear but in the end cares nothing about the integrity of art or the well being of his employees. In this way he is a great antagonist, but we have no idea why he is this way as his motivations are never truly explored. Not a con completely, but given how well most of the other characters are explored, I wish he’d been given more motivation.

W.P. Mayhew – The drunk writer who just writers for the sake of writing and putting out schlock because it pays the bills. The guy is miserable and slave for selling himself out and his integrity and he’s an abusive drunk to boot as he hits Audrey on one occassion we see. I get he is broken and apparently he’s married to a “Broken” wife which is why Audrey is trying to save him…but I never cared for the guy. The theme of detachment doesn’t serve his character, though I guess that’s the point since his great work didn’t come from any real place.

This is one of my favorite films, but not the perfect Coen Brothers Film. It has great themes, characters, music and cinematography…but some characters who are antagonistic aren’t as explored as they could have been. That’s really the only big problem I can find as the critique of films produced nowadays still stands, as well as the importance of integrity in art and the importance of empathy and connection. If you like the Coen Brothers or are looking for a good drama, I highly recommend this film. John Goodman and Turturro are fantastic as the leads and have some of the best moments in the film. It is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. One of my favorite films and another great Coen Brothers movie.

Godzilla (2014): The Movie that Could Have Been Great

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Godzilla 2014

I came into “Godzilla 2014” with pretty high expectations. The trailer made it look as if it was a truly American adaptation of the original “Godzilla 1954” which dealt with the dilemma of advanced technology that could be used as weapons (Nuclear Weapons as the real life metaphor), how to deal with new life (Godzilla’s very existence) and what war does to people as witnessed in the survivors of Godzilla’s destruction and the scientist who builds the weapon that eventually kills Godzilla. It is a powerful film that is much more than a Kaiju/Monster film.

The film was good, but it could have been great. First I should go over what I liked, found okay and disliked about the film.

First the pros – Godzilla the monster was fantastic. The creature looks like a creature from another time and the sound editing surrounding it and the other monsters make it like they are actually on the screen. The special effects and soundtrack are truly fantastic (though Godzilla 1954 still has the better music). The scientist played by Ken Watanabe was also an amazing character who with his assistant kept me interested over the dullness that most of the other cast brought to the screen. His assistant was also very cool, I found myself wondering what brought them together? When did they start looking for Godzilla? What power do they have in relation to the military and governments? There are some great scenes that Ken Watanabe has with the military commander who played Dr. Lee Rosen on the great Sci. Fi. show “Alphas,” Where he argues against the use of Nuclear weapons. I wish this could have been the movie. Watanabe, his assistant, the military and government and of course Godzilla and the consequences of such a creature existing.

Okay – Bryan Cranston, Ford’s wife and the other Monsters besides Godzilla. Each of these characters and creatures full potential was not realized. They were minor characters and ideas…and not fully explored ideas either. Cranston’s character was clearly suffering from PTSD after what went down at the beginning of the movie, but that is never explored. He’s a plot device, just like the main character’s (Cranston’s son) wife was. They were better actors than the main guy, but the script did not give them much to work with at all.

Cons – The White Military Family^TM. This family that Ford the main character was a part of was one of the weakest bits of storytelling I’ve seen in a movie that had this much poured into it that wasn’t a Michael Bay, Oliver Stone or Roland Emmerich film. The trope they existed as is that to elicit emotion but to have no conflict besides survival. This is sad because any family is more complicated than that, especially a service member’s family. But I could see why it was done. It was the same reason the other directors do it. Trite jingoism that can trump up base nationalistic feelings because all the family (and main character) are is a plot piece. They aren’t supposed to be people, they’re supposed to be ideas…like the communist Martyr’s of the Revolution. Ford the main character was flat and was just there to be heroic and to be in places where action was taking place. He was a cipher and a weak cipher at that, as was his kid (which was a shame since young Ford at the beginning of the film had more depth). The movie didn’t need him or his family at all and they just detracted from the narrative and propped up base nationalism. Ford in doing this ended up serving the White Savior trope as well since he is the only military guy who (SPOILER) thinks to destroy the Monsters’ young since the Monsters’ parents are fighting and beating Godzilla until he does the act. Anyone could have done it and it took more of the wind out of Godzilla’s sails. Speaking of which, Godzilla wasn’t even the main point of the movie, he was a minor character which also made it a good and not a great film. The other monsters and the White Military Family^TM did nothing else but detract from what good narrative (Ken Watanabe’s character and his relationships over the course of the film) and action (The Monster Fight!) that made the movie good.

The film still gets a recommended from me.

But don’t go in expecting “Godzilla 1954.” Enjoy the minor characters who drive the film and the Monster Fight in the the Third Act. Godzilla’s arrival alone is reason enough to see this film. I would rate it 7 / 10.