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!

A Review of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario: Captivating, Challenging, and Not Quite Good Enough

Sicario Movie Review Emily Blunt

Film: Sicario
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Primary Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Maximilliano Hernández
US Release Date: 2 October 2015

Kate Macer (Blunt) is an FBI agent with a reputation for getting things done. When the film opens, she is leading a raid on an Arizona home, where she hopes to find a kidnap victim. She doesn’t. Instead, she and her team discover dozens of corpses hidden in the walls. An explosion soon follows. Officers die.

Matt Graver (Brolin) then asks Kate to join him on a task force meant to combat the cartel. Matt’s actual title is unclear, but he claims to be some sort of “DoD consultant.” Hoping to make a real difference in the war on drugs and cartel violence, Kate agrees to accompany him on what she believes will be a mission in El Paso.

The next day, Kate finds herself on a private jet to somewhere near the US/Mexico border. On the jet, she meets an enigmatic man named Alejandro (Del Toro). Despite the fact that he is not an American, Alejandro is clearly in a position of authority on the task force, which seems to make Kate uncomfortable.

The task force’s first mission takes them into Juarez, where they retrieve a known drug lord’s brother from the Mexican authorities. The mission does not go smoothly, and Kate soon realizes that she is in for much more than she bargained for.

As the film continues, Kate’s becomes more and more uncertain of what her role on the task force truly is. At the same time, Graver and Alejandro’s true objectives grow murkier by the minute.

Featuring stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins, strong performances from Blunt and Del Toro, and a heart-pounding score from Johann Johannsson, Sicario has all the makings of a great film. As with Prisoners (2013) and Enemy (2014), Villeneuve uses Sicario both to challenge viewers and to drag them into a haunting and morally ambiguous world that they won’t soon forget. Though Taylor Sheridan’s script is not always as clear, as focused, or as committed as it could be, Sicario remains gripping and entertaining throughout. But it’s still a shame that it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

Villeneuve has no interest in reassuring viewers. As a director, he isn’t afraid to demand a good deal from his audiences. With Sicario, Villeneuve shows yet again that he thrives in the shadows and in the gray areas of life. He does not point the lens at that which is purely good or evil—perhaps because he is not sure that there is such a thing. In many ways, Sicario is a daring film. It does not invite its viewers to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show; instead, Sicario grabs them by the throat, commands them to keep their eyes on the screen, and dares them to make sense of what they see. Unfortunately, it also loosens its grips a few times along the way.

Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Prisoners) has repeatedly shown that he has an undeniable ability to shoot dark films in a beautiful way, and the fact that he does so again in Sicario is hardly surprising. Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood right now, and his latest work will only increase the number of people calling for the Academy to finally give the man an Oscar. With the exception of a single sequence that alternates between green night vision and colorless thermal images, it’s almost impossible to find any real faults in the film’s visuals. In Sicario, Deakins turns the bleak landscape of Arizona and Juarez into something sublime. The scenery in Sicario is as beautiful as it is unsettling, and some of the film’s aerial shots are truly stunning. In fact, the film’s surroundings could actually be said to take on the function of a character, which only enhances its atmosphere.

In addition to a combination of haunting and strangely alluring images, Sicario also presents viewers with a number of strong performances. As the strong and idealistic Kate Macer, Blunt builds on her recent work in Looper and Edge of Tomorrow. In both previous films, Blunt confidently plays an independent and more than capable woman. She does the same in Sicario, but Kate is also more vulnerable and more complex than Sara or Rita. Brolin also does good work in the film, but its most captivating performance comes from Benicio Del Toro. Alejandro is a rather opaque figure for most of Sicario, and Del Toro plays him in an understated manner that fits the world of the film perfectly. Alejandro is charismatic, threatening, and inscrutable all at once; thanks to Del Toro, he is also the character that Sicario’s viewers will think about the most.

Sicario does a number of things well, but there is nothing that it accomplishes better than the creation of tension. The film’s nightmarish opening sequence is one of the most harrowing I’ve seen in a while, and it ensures that viewers of Sicario are thoroughly unsettled well before they meet most of its main characters. As the film continues, Villeneuve continues to pull viewers to the edge of their seats, and several sequences in the film are so tense, that viewers are unlikely to forget them any time soon. The quality of the tension in the film goes a long way toward elevating Sicario above the world of the ordinary, and the film does a fine job of filling viewers with a deep-seated sense of dread as it plunges them into its underworld. They only problem is that it does commit to drowning them.

Certain details of the film’s plot are muddled, and viewers may find themselves feeling like they watch the whole film halfway in the dark. Given the film’s subject matter and Kate’s place in it, it’s more than reasonable that this effect was deliberate. It keeps viewers focused and on-edge, but it also makes it difficult to figure out where the script and the filmmakers stand. This—combined with the fact that the script loses both its teeth and some of its focus before it’s all said and done—leaves both viewers and the film itself in a somewhat confused state of limbo.

For instance, when the film begins, just about every viewer will regard Kate as the lead protagonist. She is presented as the character that the film cares the most about, and Villeneuve clearly intends for audiences to identify with her. However, the further one gets into the film, the more Kate as a character gets lost, even as she remains visible on screen. In fact, though she starts out as a strong protagonist, Kate is eventually reduced to a mere stand-in for the naiveté of viewers. The fact that Kate’s moral and legal concerns never feel fully justified is also a problem, for if the film itself won’t take Kate’s side, then why should audiences?

Late in the film, Sicario effectively abandons Kate for Alejandro, and it becomes hard to tell who the film is actually about; as frustrating (and disorienting) as this is, the bigger issue lies in why the film’s narrative shifts focus in the first place. By giving its third act to Alejandro, Sicario seems to subvert—and thus, to weaken—Kate even further. The end of the film also shrinks many of the larger and more complex issues in Sicario down into a much more conventional revenge narrative, thereby hamstringing the whole endeavor.

Sicario also hinders itself by intercutting scenes of a Mexican cop (Hernández) and his family with the rest of the film. In addition to providing some rather inelegant foreshadowing, the scenes are clearly meant to humanize the cop and his family for emotional impact. I imagine that Villeneuve and Sheridan wanted this aspect of the film to add yet another dimension to the moral and emotional quagmire that Sicario sinks its viewers into. The problem is that everything productive that those scenes do could have been accomplished with a single line from the cop’s mouth and without pulling viewers away from the main drama. All he had to say was, “I have a family. I do this for them.”

When the visual, the audio, and the narrative aspects of Sicario all come together, the results are fantastic, and there are examples of relentless—and even brilliant—filmmaking throughout the movie. At its best, Sicario is a bold and arresting tale of a war that cannot be won by anyone. At its worst, it’s a conventional and narrowly focused thriller. If it seems like I’m being hard on the film, it is only because I cannot let go of how great it could have been. Like Prisoners, Sicario is a film that starts out stronger than it ends. That said, if Sicario is what happens when Villeneuve loses his way a bit, I can’t wait to see what happens when he doesn’t.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. Despite my complaints, I enjoyed watching Sicario, and I would love to hear what you have to say about it! Just leave a comment below, or connect with me on Twitter.

Quick Reviews: Jane Eyre and the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

jane eyre and the assassination of jesse james by the coward robert ford

It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve seen a movie in the theater, but there’s just nothing playing where I am. I might go see Kingsman: The Secret Service if I get really desperate. Otherwise, it looks like I’ll just have to wait until Chappie is released in early March. Anyway. Since the local theaters are full of American Sniper GarbageFifty Shades of AbuseThe Spongebob Movie, and Jupiter Ascending right now, I’m stuck watching films on Netflix and Amazon instant instead. Damn it, February.

Up Today: Jane Eyre and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Quick Take: Jane Eyre is a well-acted and visually gorgeous film that offers a largely successful and properly restrained adaptation of its source material. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a dark, beautiful, and smartly written postmodern western that features stunning visuals as well as a pair of incredible performances from its 2 leads. 

Jane Eyre (2011)
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Watched on Feb 10

I’m not really sure why I decided to watch Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre when I saw it on Netflix, but I did, so here we are.

While many reviewers of this film discuss it in comparison to one or more of the many other adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, I will not be doing so; while I do faintly recall watching a mini series starring Ruth Wilson in high school, I have no useful memory of it (or of its source material). So, now you know.

One of the best things about Jane Eyre is the way that its shot (I mean this as a compliment, not as slight). The film is visually striking, and its shots of the landscape are especially memorable. The film’s visuals also establish and maintain the mood of this Gothic romance quite wonderfully—a strange darkness and gloom pervade the film’s images, but they only serve to make that which they touch more alluring. The film’s visuals are often cold, atmospheric, and sublime, and they create a world that envelops viewers and in which the actions of Eyre and Rochester make all sense in the world.

The film’s gorgeous visuals are reinforced and further elevated by Dario Marianelli’s haunting, beautiful, and somewhat mournful score. His work here is more subtle than in the more recent Anna Karenina, but it is just what Jane Eyre‘s story calls for.

As Jane Eyre herself, Mia Wasikowska gives the film’s strongest and most successful performance. Her Jane is intense and quiet, shy and confident, and so much more all at once. Wasikowska brings just the right amount of emotion to the role and portrays Bronte’s almost impossibly complex heroine quite wonderfully. As one might expect, Michael Fassbender also gives a fine performance as the dark and enigmatic Rochester. Even when he is being affectionate, there is something strangely threatening about him, which works perfectly here. The scenes between Fassbender and Wasikowska are the film’s best (as they should be). Together, these two actors manage to be emotionally controlled and vulnerable all at once, and are both incredibly magnetic on screen. 

I was also impressed with Jaime Bell’s work in the film; while the part of St. John is a smaller one, he certainly leaves an impression (as does Judi Dench, though to a somewhat lesser extent). 

While Fukunaga’s film is largely successful, it does suffer from a few pacing problems. The first portion of the film takes its time setting up its frame narrative; given the mood, the atmosphere, and the controlled emotions of the film, this slower pace works quite well. Unfortunately, Jane Eyre begins to speed things up considerably in its final sections, and it does so to its own detriment. In particular, the plot concerning Rochester’s secret mad wife is a bit too rushed and under developed. I understand that Bronte’s novel is in many ways too large for a feature film, but at just 2 hours, his Jane Eyre could have been a little less condensed than it is.
Get Jane Eyre on Blu-ray. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Watched on Feb 12

JFC 2007 was a ridiculously good year for movies. Also, why the hell did it take me this long to get around to watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? (Henceforth, I’ll shorten that monster of a title to The Assassination).

Dominik’s 2007 film is a beautiful and cynical tragedy that does double duty as an intriguing character study and as a cutting examination of celebrity and fame.

The Assassination is an incredibly beautiful and well-shot film. The legendary Roger Deakins was the Cinematographer/DP for  the film, and it is perhaps one the best examples of his abilities. The landscapes in this somewhat quiet and often deliberately anti-climactic western are gorgeous and intimidating all at once—are something to be admired as well as tamed. In fact, the beauty, the grandeur, and the wildness of the land in this film often seems to dwarf its characters; the mere men portrayed in The Assassinatioare nothing compared to their surroundings. Deakins also works with a largely muted palette (the only real colors are the occasional blue of the sky and the yellow of the grass) which reflects the somber mood of the film quite beautifully.

As the increasingly paranoid and world-weary Jesse James, Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his life. In Dominik’s film, James is an alluring and enigmatic legend, a tired and very human man, and a threatening monster all rolled into one—Pitt conveys this wonderfully and with great skill, and his performance (like the film more generally) is never over-the-top. Casey Affleck (somewhat to my surprise) also does absolutely fantastic work in this film. As the wannabe-gunslinger and Jesse James fanatic, Bob Ford, Affleck gives an incredibly complex performance; he is likable and repulsive all at once, and he manages to come across as both serious and naive in a genuine and well-restrained manner.

If one were to try to find fault in this film, it would probably lie in its length and/or pacing. At 160 minutes, The Assassination is no small film; though, given the scope of what it tries to capture, its length feel appropriate for the most part. That said (and while the film as a whole is wonderfully successful), the section of the film after Jesse’s death (not a spoiler, it’s in the title) does not quite live up to much of what proceeds it. While this final section of The Assassination does serve an important narrative function while also fleshing out what the film has to say about its primary characters, it could have probably been reduced in length. With Jesse gone, The Assassination begins to feel a little too much like a balloon with the air let out of it—then again, that’s probably part of the point.

As is the case with most great films, The Assassination is much more than the sum of its parts; as many times as I compliment the way this film is shot, the complexity of the performances it features, or the quality of the story that it tells, I simply cannot fully convey here what it is like to watch this film. There is something truly sublime and ineffable about it, and I can’t wait to watch it again. (The train robbery sequence alone is worth the running time).

Oh, and back to that monster of a title. It does more than give the narrative climax away from the outset. It also changes the way that viewers watch the film. From the moment Bob Ford is introduced, we pay very close attention to him and begin looking for reasons that he might have to eventually kill Jesse. Of course, this search quickly turns up a problem: Bob is obsessed with Jesse and seems to be his biggest fan. He has no problem with the man’s crimes; in fact, he wishes that he had been involved in them. So why does this man who grew up idolizing James eventually kill him? Well, the full answer is too complicated for a short review, but it does seem to have something to do with the fact that, after meeting Jesse face-to-face and after accepting that he’s just a human, Bob realizes that he cares far more for the fame that he associates with Jesse than he does for the man himself.
Watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford now. 

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. Don’t forget that you can keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd or that I love it when you guys leave comments (seriously, go ahead and leave a comment if you feel so inclined).