What I’ve Been Watching: Best in Show and From Dusk Till Dawn

 

wibw3

I haven’t posted in what feels like forever, and I feel pretty not great about it . . .  Anyway, here are a few quick thoughts on two movies that I recently watched for the first time.

Film: Best in Show
Director: Christopher Guest
Primary Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Don Lake, Ed Begley Jr., Jim Piddock, Bob Balaban, Larry Miller, Linda Kash
US Release Date: 20 October 2000

I’ve been vaguely aware of Christopher Guest and his mockumentaries for some time—one of the first DVDs my father bought was A Mighty Wind—but I never took the time to watch one until Best in Show showed up in my Netflix suggestions the other day. Now that I’ve seen Guest’s work in a film other than The Princess Bride, I’m sure that I’ll make time for a few more of his comedic endeavors sometime soon.

For whatever reason, I generally have a harder time enjoying comedic films than I do non-comedic ones. While I may just be too picky when it comes to comedy, I find it more likely that comedy is simply more difficult to execute than drama (as many have already claimed). Regardless, I am always pleasantly surprised when I watch a comedy that delights me, and Best in Show certainly did.

Best in Show is presented (and structured) as a sort of documentary about the strange world of dog shows. But while the ridiculousness of dog shows and the people who care about them certainly helps to make the film funny, it is much more about the various people it depicts than it is about its apparent topic. Perhaps the very best thing about Best in Show is that it presents viewers with an array of eccentric and memorable characters, many of whom end up revealing more depth and complexity than audiences might expect. Together, Guest and the rest of the film’s cast form a well-developed and lovably odd bunch. Moreover, even though Best in Show has more “main” characters than is typical, none of them feel flat. The many performers in the film know their characters inside and out and they work to bring them to life as full-fledged people with every line and facial expression. Real people are weird, and Best in Show uses that fact to its advantage.

As solid as the film’s cast is overall, a few performances still stand out from the others. I especially enjoyed Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, and  Fred Willard’s scenes, although I suspect that everyone who watches Best in Show gravitates toward a different set of characters (luckily, there are plenty to choose from).

This zany film moves quickly and unfolds effortlessly. It’s also the sort of comedy that relies more on awkward people, personalities, and situations than it does on clear-cut jokes or gags, but that doesn’t mean that it’s short on laughs.

Best in Show may be a tad bizarre, but it isn’t loud or flashy. In fact, compared to some of today’s high-grossing comedies, the film might seem rather subdued. In truth, the film strikes a near-perfect balance between loud laughs, quirky elements, and realistic restraint. Best in Show may not be every viewer’s cup of tea, but it does just about everything that it attempts quite well. Even those who don’t enjoy this faux dog show documentary would have a hard time arguing that it didn’t take a good deal of brains and improvisational talent to make it.

For what it’s worth, my fondness for Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows may have somehow increased my enjoyment of Guest’s Best in Show. Where someone with virtually no knowledge of popular culture could possibly mistake Best in Show for an “actual” documentary, the same certainly can’t be said for Waititi’s comedy about vampires. And yet, it’s very clear that Guest helped pave the way for the largely improvised What We Do in the Shadows, which recently demonstrated that there is still room for creativity, hilarity, and growth in the world of mockumentary films.

Film: From Dusk Till Dawn
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Primary Cast: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Danny Trejo, Michael Parks, John Hawkes
US Release Date: 19 January 1996

For whatever reason, I’m never quite sure how I feel about Robert Rodriguez films. I suspect that this has something to do with my lack of experience with the sort of pulpy B-movies that he clearly has a good amount of respect for. I also seem to have an innate aversion to certain elements of his aesthetic. And yet, I carry on, and I watch his movies anyway. Why? Because, even when they are messier than I might like, they are still a whole lot of fun.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that what Rodriguez wants most is for his audiences to have a really good time at the movies. That doesn’t change the fact that many people probably hate From Dusk Till Dawn, but it’s a respectable goal regardless. There is a joy and an energy in Rodriguez’s work that’s unmistakable, and that’s something worth celebrating. Even though Tarantino wrote the screenplay, Rodriguez’s presence is felt strongly throughout, and the result is a film that jumps from the screen.

Rodriguez loves blood and action and gore. Tarantino loves blood and characters and dialogue. In From Dusk Till Dawn, their two sensibilities work well together well, and for the most part, each seems to enhance the other. The film isn’t all shootouts and slaughter, and it isn’t all talk and character development either; as crazy as much of it is on the surface, it’s also pretty well-balanced.

When the film makes its rather abrupt jump from hostage movie to vampire movie, the transition is easy to accept, in part, because the film is self-possessed enough and is well-developed enough for it to make sense. Long before Salma Hayek’s Santanico Pandemonium sticks her foot into Quentin Tarantino’s all too eager mouth, Rodriguez makes it clear that From Dusk Till Dawn is a film in which anything goes. Even the film’s opening scene works to establish that there are no rules here, and that shit can—and will—hit the fan at the drop of a dime. The first half of the film also follows a largely realistic and perfectly logical progression that coerces viewers into accepting whatever comes next.

If someone made a film depicting the same events as From Dusk Till Dawn without giving it a sense of humor, it would most certainly fall flat. Luckily, Rodriguez and Tarantino both approach this bloody crime/vampire flick with plenty of humor, and viewers who enter the film ready to laugh—at anything and everything—will have a much better time watching From Dusk Till Dawn than those more inclined to maintain a straight face. The film is irreverent and wild, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and anyone looking to enjoy it should follow suit.

There are plenty of moments in From Dusk Till Dawn that don’t really work, and the script—especially where Richie Gecko is concerned—is not perfect. And yet, even the film’s many potential misfires still feed into its campy and deliberately trashy nature.

Like the rest of film, its cast is largely hit-or-miss. Clooney makes for a great lead, and Lewis is impressive as well, while Keitel does a decent job with the material he is given. That said, Tarantino’s entire performance seems to be fueled by some desire to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and Liu is more or less useless.

From Dusk Till Dawn won’t ever be one of my personal favorites, and it’s certainly flawed, but it’s entertaining and full of life all the same.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! Even when I’m not posting here, I’m usually saying something on this blog’s twitter, which you should follow.

Also, I saw The Nice Guys earlier tonight, so I should be posting a review of it here soon.

A Review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!: Movies, and Christ, and Communists, Oh My!

Hail, Caesar! Movie Review Coen Brothers
Film: Hail, Caesar!
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Primary Cast: Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, George Clooney, Michael Gambon (narrator), Ralph Fiennes, Heather Goldenhersh, Max Baker, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill
US Release Date: 5 February 2016

Hail, Caesar! is set in the 1950s, and the events that it depicts take place in just over a day. Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer for Capitol Pictures; though his official title is “Head of Physical Production,” Mannix spends most of his time controlling and preventing scandals pertaining to the studio’s actors. The most famous of these actors is Baird Whitlock (Clooney), who is starring in Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, which is Capitol Picture’s most expensive film for the year. On one especially eventful day at the studio, Whitlock mysteriously disappears from the set after being kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters.

Mannix spends most of the following 24 hours trying to keep Whitlock’s disappearance under wraps. Much of his attention and energy is also spent doing all that it takes to keep the movie machine that is Capitol Pictures running as smoothly as possible. Over the course of the film, he tries to get Whitlock back, meets with religious authorities, dodges journalists (Swinton), tries to find a husband for actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), pacifies director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes), fields questions from his secretary (Goldenhersh), encourages actor Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), tries to quit smoking, goes to confession twice, and much more. Though his faith is tested—by a devil in the form of a Lockheed Martin contractor—Mannix is devoted to his job, and he works so tirelessly that it’s unclear if he ever sleeps at all.

The latest film from the fabled Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a flawed, but brilliant comedy that simultaneously ridicules and pays homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. With its infectious energy, its stellar cast, its clever writing, and its off-beat sense of humor, the film possesses a potential for sheer entertainment that’s nearly off the charts. Though Hail, Caesar! is packed with too many cameos and has so many ideas that it often appears unfocused, it should still appeal to anyone who loves the Coens as well as to most who love movies. And while all of its parts might not come neatly together in the end, the film still provides a ride that is thrilling, unique, and lots of fun.  

Hail, Caesar! is an exhilarating and incredibly amusing film. It’s also a mixed bag. Not only does the film apply its comedy to film noir, historical epics, westerns, musicals, and more, but it also tells a tale that weaves religion and faith in with movies and (to a lesser extent) with political ideas as well. At the same time, Hail, Caesar! also throws so many characters and comedic moments at its audiences, that they may find their heads spinning; in giving viewers a sense of just how chaotic the life of a Hollywood fixer could be, Hail, Caesar! risks overwhelming viewers with its variety of characters and with the large number of settings, moods, and problems that accompany them. On top of all that, this fast-paced and perfectly silly film is also deeper—and even a shade darker—than its multitude of jokes might indicate (it’s not nearly as bleak as other Coen films, but Hail, Caesar! isn’t quite as chipper as the grin on Channing Tatum’s face either).

This is all to say that Hail, Caesar! is not interested in settling into a predictable pattern or in allowing viewers to relax and get comfortable. The film is constantly shifting, and growing, and it throws something new at its audiences with every scene. Even those viewers who chuckle and smile all the way through Hail, Caesar! are likely to leave the theater a little exhausted. And yet, as odd, as kinetic, and as messy as it often seems, the film remains entertaining throughout, and it never feels less than inspired.

Hail, Caesar! is overflowing with many things, one of which is narrative threads. Mannix (the figure that the film is the most concerned with), often disappears from the screen for long periods of time. Similarly, while Whitlock’s kidnapping is presented early as the film’s central conflict, it soon becomes just one of many issues that Mannix has to deal with. None of this changes the fact that the film is hilarious and consistently engaging, but it does mean that viewers expecting a direct and linear story may be frustrated. Though most of its scenes are quite strong on their own, Hail, Caesar!’s overarching narrative structure is noticeably loose and is brimming with moments that may feel like offshoots and tangents. The film is certainly intelligible, but viewers who are more concerned with its plot than they are with enjoying its individual moments may find it hard to follow. The quicker viewers adapt the film’s unorthodox style of storytelling, the better off they will be, and those who can accept Hail, Caesar! on its own terms will leave it much happier than those who can’t.

The film is also overstuffed with people and ideas. And while the jam-packed nature of Hail, Caesar! is responsible for much of its energy, its comedy, and its distinct personality, it also one of its most noticeable problems. For instance, there are simply too many cameos in the film. At times, it feels like every actor the Coens know finds their way into a scene or two, and the results are both dizzying and distracting. As much as I love Frances McDormand, her miniscule part should have gone to lesser known performer, and at least one of Tilda Swinton’s two characters could have been dispensed with. Furthermore, while the film does have plenty to say about the religion of cinema and about Mannix’s faith in that religion, it does not develop its thoughts on communism, celebrity, or homophobic blackmail quite as much as could have if it had more space to contain them.

But back to some of the places in which Hail, Caesar! is more solid. Though cinematography is not as frequently discussed with comedies as it is with dramas, Roger Deakins’s work here is masterful and rather striking (which should surprise no one). With its visuals, Hail, Caesar! brings its Hollywood and the various film genres it depicts to life beautifully. The look of the films manages to evoke a sense of timelessness without ever abandoning the bold humor that defines the script. And like most of Hail, Caesar!, it’s visuals also help to set it apart from other films while simultaneously demonstrating an undeniable love for movies in general.

Though the film’s many performances are not particularly noteworthy, the vast majority of them are exactly what the script and the world of the film both call for. Brolin does the best work in Hail, Caesar!, but Ehrenreich, Clooney, Tatum, Goldenhersh, and Fiennes each make an impact as well.

Though it is, for the most part, a comedic romp, Hail, Caesar! is also interested in rather weighty ideas, the most notable of which is the relationship between religion and the movies. In fact, if Hail, Caesar! has any clear message at all it’s that movies and moviemaking—even as messy and as ridiculous as they both often are—are worth the effort in the end. For, even as the Coens pull the curtain back on some of Hollywood’s seedy, laughable, and rather strange elements, they also joyfully embrace the films it produces.

In fact, Mannix—a Catholic—can easily be considered a sort of Christ figure. Just as Christ is supposed to save Whitlock’s character in Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, so too does Mannix bring his star actor back into the fold while shielding him from those who would do him harm. Mannix is also the son of the God at Capitol Pictures; where Mannix’s boss is never seen (just as God is never visually depicted in the film Whitlock starts in), Mannix himself is in the flesh among the people, where he works tirelessly for the good of the studio. Moreover, even though he doesn’t speak his love of film aloud, Mannix also cannot stand to hear movies or Capitol Pictures badmouthed in any way (he strikes Whitlock when he insults his boss, and he is clearly offended when the Lockheed Martin contractor trivializes his line of work). In Hail, Caesar!, Mannix is a devotee of the religion of movies; and though his work is often thankless, he knows that it is still right in the end.

Hail, Caesar! does demand a good deal from its viewers, but those who surrender to its ways are sure to enjoy themselves. While it isn’t hard to find problems with Hail, Caesar!, it’s also extremely difficult for me to imagine ever calling it a “bad film.” It may not be my favorite Coen Brothers movie at the moment, but I had so much fun while watching it, that I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it again and again. In fact, I’m already quite convinced that Hail, Caesar! will only improve with repeated viewing. As with so much of the Coens’ work, their affectionately farcical presentation of 1950s Hollywood is brimming with so many large and tangled ideas, that those who spend additional time with it are likely to be rewarded. For as flashy and as silly as Hail, Caesar! is on its surface, it’s also quite serious about the strange and wonderful world of film.

Until Next Time
As much as I hate to admit it, quite a few of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films remain on my watch list. That said, I’ve enjoyed all of those I have seen; now that Hail, Caesar!, is among them, I’m even more convinced that making time to watch the entire Coen Brother filmography is something that I need to do as soon as I can.

Thanks so much for reading! If you’d like to discuss Hail, Caesar! further, please leave a comment below. You can also connect with me by following this blog on twitter!