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 Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck: Disappointing (Though Mildly Entertaining)

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Film: Trainwreck
Director: Judd Apatow
Primary Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, LeBron James, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller
US Release Date: 17 July 2015

Directed by Judd Apatow and written by Amy Schumer, Trainwreck is a romantic comedy that puts a spin on a few of the genre’s conventions, but it never quite manages to break new ground. 

The film follows Amy (Schumer), who adopts her father’s claim that “monogamy isn’t realistic” as a sort of personal mantra after her parents’ divorce. Amy works as a writer at an overtly sexist magazine, likes to drink and party, and regularly has one-night stands. Amy’s sister Kim (Larson) is happily married and has a stepson. Early in the film, Amy and Kim transfer their father Gordon (Quinn) into an assisted living facility, and Amy visits him there throughout the film.

At the beginning of Trainwreck, Amy is dating Steven (Cena), but is also sleeping with other men. When Steven realizes that this is the case, he breaks up with Amy. Shortly after, Amy meets Aaron (Hader), a successful sports doctor, who she is supposed to write a profile on for work. Since Aaron is the male protagonist in the film, he and Amy hit it off. Though Amy doesn’t initially want to fall for Aaron and is hesitant to develop a relationship with him, she does. There are a few obligatory bumps in the road, but by the end of the film, Amy is ready to start a new life as a picture of monogamous heteronormative virtue with Aaron.

Before last Sunday, I had never paid to see a movie directed by Judd Apatow, and I probably won’t be doing so again. Bill Hader and Amy Schumer (but mostly Bill Hader) were enough to get me in the door, but neither of them have enough talent to fully disguise the fact that Trainwreck is really quite ordinary at the end of the day.

Before I get into Trainwreck‘s problems, allow me make it clear that there are some good things about the film. Even I won’t deny that it’s usually entertaining. I chuckled plenty of times throughout the film, and I even shed a tear or two (yeah, I know).

On top of that, I was often charmed by the film’s characters, and was frequently impressed by the film’s cast. Schumer and Hader both give strong performances and, in more than one instance, they help to elevate the material that they are given quite a bit. I am a fan of Hader; I enjoyed his work in The Skeleton Twins, and he demonstrates even more of his ability and range in Trainwreck. After watching the film, I am even more eager to see what this former SNL cast member does next. Schumer is also good in the film. There is something very down-to-earth about her that will surely appeal to many, and the film makes it clear that, as an actress, she is capable of more than her previous work might indicate. It’s just a shame that she didn’t have a better script to work with (more on that later).

Several members of the film’s supporting cast also give strong performances. Tilda Swinton is particularly entertaining (and nearly unrecognizable) as Amy’s hostile and demanding boss. LeBron James is also fun-to-watch. As Aaron’s friend (and as himself), he is funnier and has more charisma than I expected. As Amy’s sister Kim, Brie Larson does a fine job with the material she is given, but she is also capable of more than Trainwreck gives her credit for.

I don’t watch many romantic comedies, but my guess would be that Trainwreck is better than average for the genre. There is probably a pretty good movie buried somewhere in Trainwreck. Unfortunately, it’s hidden under several issues that are just too damaging for me to overlook.

Though it boasts some quality performances and is quite funny in spots, Trainwreck is ultimately let down by its uneven script. Schumer wrote the film. On television and in stand-up, she is known for irreverent and bawdy humor. She is also known for displaying a limited degree of feminism and for the occasional racist joke. As funny as she can be, there are certain things about her comedy that are hard to love, and just about all of them make an appearance in Trainwreck. Some of the jokes in the film don’t quite land. Others are annoyingly thoughtless. And a few of them (many of which are uttered by Amy’s dad) are racist and offensive (and seem to have been included for no real reason at all).

Another issue that plagues Trainwreck is its length. The film is simply too long for the material. There are too many narrative threads that have to be tied up before the film ends, and things get a little boring in a few spots. There are certain moments in Trainwreck (including Amy’s sexual encounter with an intern), that Apatow should have cut. In fact, better (read: more) editing really could have improved the film. Maybe it’s just me, but I was also bothered by the film’s obligatory parade of SNL cast members. Unlike Hader and Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, Leslie Jones, and Pete Davidson don’t serve any real purpose in Trainwreck, and their (brief) presence is more distracting than anything else.

While I do appreciate the fact that Trainwreck at least tries to reverse certain aspects of typical romantic comedy gender roles, I can’t help but be bothered by the fact that it doesn’t do enough. Apatow’s film may want to come across as fresh and new, but its brief flashes of forward thinking are severely undermined by its conservative and formulaic plot. Making a film about a sexually aggressive and independent woman who has no interest in marriage and having her fall in love with a grounded guy who wants a family may look progressive and feminist at first, but Trainwreck doesn’t follow through on this promise. 

In fact, by indicating that Amy is “broken” simply because she has never really wanted to settle down into a monogamous relationship, get married, and have a family—or because her parents got a divorce, she smokes pot, and likes to drink—is downright ridiculous. It’s also harmful and clichéd. At the end of the day, Trainwreck would have viewers believe that falling in love (and wanting to fall in love) according to the monogamous heteronormative standard is what a person needs to be whole and happy. What’s the point of featuring a female protagonist like Amy, if you are just going to tame her in the end? The film doesn’t explicitly shame Amy for liking to sleep with a lot of men, but by indicating that she can’t be truly happy until she abandons that lifestyle, it might as well have. The film also works to establish a number of contrasts between Amy and her sister, which are clearly meant to suggest that Amy needs to make herself more like Kim. Why not give viewers a film in which both women—Amy as she is at the beginning and Kim as she is throughout—can be happy, regardless of their sexual activity and ideas about family?

If Apatow’s film presented itself as a typical romantic comedy, some of these aspects of the film might not bother me quite as much. But Trainwreck wants to have it all. It wants to be edgy without doing the work, and that is something I take issue with. 

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. As always, feel free to let me know what you think of this review by leaving a comment below. You are also welcome to interact with me (or to recommend movies to me) any time on twitter. I recently saw Amy, so expect to see something on that shortly. I may go see Mr. Holmes in the next week, but I’m not sure whether or not I will end up reviewing it. As far as I know, there aren’t that many wide releases that I am looking forward to in the next month or so, so I may spend some time rewatching old favorites or adventuring through my Netflix queue. But really, who the hell knows?
Get Trainwreck on Blu-ray and DVD. 

Unapologetic and Self-Assured: a Review of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

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** Paragraphs marked with ** contain spoilers

Film: Snowpiercer
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Primary Cast: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ah-sung Ko, Ed Harris
U.S. Release Date: 27 June 2014

Last weekend, I finally got my butt to the theater and saw Snowpiercer. I’d heard the occasional whisper about the film and remembered seeing the character posters on Tumblr months ago, but—besides the drama between Joon-ho Bong and the Weinsteins—I knew almost nothing about the film. I never saw a trailer for the film, I knew nothing about the plot except that it involved a train and cold weather. Still, I often find that I enjoy a film much more thoroughly if I go in without any well-defined expectations; I think this certainly proved true with Snowpiercer. With each new scene, with each step closer to the engine, I was pleasantly surprised, again and again. Any given summer could easily pass without me seeing any films (in the theaters anyway) that stick with me and that I genuinely and thoroughly enjoy; thanks to Snowpiercer, this summer won’t be one of those. Woo.

What follows is my first attempt at a properish film review, k cool?

Watch Snowpiercer Now

As many have already observed, Snowpiercer is a film that respects its audience. This ‘respect’ comes through most clearly in the film’s consistent assumption of a certain intelligence on the part of its viewers. This unapologetic and self-assured film offers pure entertainment coupled with profound reflections on humanity, the environment, and the dangers of capitalist society. Fun, visceral, and thought-provoking, Snowpiercer isn’t perfect, but it is a worthwhile way to spend two hours.

Adapted from the 1982 French Graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is set in 2031, 17 years after a worldwide attempt to reverse global warming results in an ice age so severe that it (apparently) renders life on earth virtually impossible. The only humans left alive are those who boarded The Train (which makes one complete journey around the planet each year). The Train is basically divided according to a class system, where those who had money back when they boarded the train live comfortably while those without live in squalor and are consistently abused by those in power. The closer to the front of the train one lives, the more power they have and the better their living conditions; the Train’s division into cars makes it all too easy for those who control the train to keep everyone segregated by class and to treat those in separate cars differently (those at the back of the train know they have it worse than those at the front but really have no idea just how much worse until a few of them actually see the front of the train for themselves). After years of living like rats, some of those at the back of train plan to revolt and take over the Train’s (rather mythical) engine. Reluctant-leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and his devoted follower Edgar (Jaime Bell) are the main organizers of the revolt (though they often seek advice from the wizened and sagacious Gilliam (played by John Hurt). Once they get over the hurtle of freeing security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yuna (Ah-sung Ko) from the prison section of the train, the revolt really takes off (for much of its middle section, Snowpiercer is pure action-thriller).

The film features performances from a solid and diverse cast which (in addition to those already mentioned) includes Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Alison Pill, and Ewen Bremner.

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Snowpiercer isn’t concerned with explaining itself, nor does it make it immediately clear what it’s about or where it’s going. In fact (if my memory serves me correctly), the first scene or two on the train give viewers very little in the way of explicitly stated facts about life on the train or about who main characters like Curtis, Edgar, and Gilliam really are. Instead, the film trusts that’s its viewers are paying attention and gradually shows them all they need to know. Snowpiercer takes its time; for some, the opening section may even be a bit slow, but it’s worth it. Like a train gathering momentum, Snowpiercer moves rather quickly and is hard to stop once it gets going; for most of the film, things move at rather energetic pace (the effect of which may in fact be increased by the somewhat creeping beginning). The slow beginning also gives viewers time to slip into the world of the film; for quite some time, we are as confined to the back of the car just as Curtis & c are. Once the revolt beings—taking the film and its viewers relentless forward toward the engine—there is no looking or going back, which may also help justify the slow beginning.

As the back-of-the-train revolters gradually make their way toward the front of the train (dwindling in number as they go) things get weirder and weirder until they border on surreal. Perhaps the best example of this is the bizarrely disturbing school room scene. I don’t want to spoil things, but, for me, the raw sense of unease I felt during that scene was itself worth the price of admission.

Another bizarre moment occurs when the over-the-top and Thatcher-like Mason removes her prosthetic upper teeth. The resulting image is absolutely absurd and (to my mind) rather hilarious, but it is also deeply unsettling. The image says something quite poignant about figures in power: without their “teeth,” without their outer trappings of authority they are, beneath it all, ineffectual, pathetic, and downright ridiculous; but, like Wilford (to whom Mason is religiously devoted), such figures exercise their power all the same.

Snowpiercer is visually stylized in a way that allows for moments of beauty in an otherwise rather grim film. That said, some of the camerawork in the film may disorient viewers. This, however, is hardly a bad thing. Joon-ho Bong & crew make very creative use of the cramped train space and the disorientation/ visual confusion they occasionally create in that space may even be a way of giving a viewers a sense what it is like to exist like those in the Train. With its camerawork and story alike, Snowpiercer shows its viewers that you don’t need space to get lost.

As for performances, there really isn’t much to complain about. Hurt’s portrayal of Gilliam is exactly what you’d expect from Hurt (in that it’s more about his voice than anything), but it works for the story. Evans impressed me more than I expected (I’ve only seen him in Scott Pilgrim and the Avengers and I didn’t care at all for the latter). His performance may be on the quiet side, but it is also complex and emotionally affecting. He does his best work near the film’s end, giving audiences a devastated, exhausted, and empty stare that they won’t soon forget. Many have already commented on Swinton’s portrayal of Mason. Surely, her performance is the one many viewers will remember most, largely for its sheer absurdity. Though her part is short, Alison Pill is also remarkably memorable as the creepy-yet-cheery pregnant school teacher. Namgoong Minsoo and Ah-sung Ko are great, and though I haven’t mentioned him yet, Vlad Ivanov is hella creepy as Franco the Elder. I was not particularly thrilled with Ed Harris (his portrayal of the Oz-like demigod Wilford felt like a slightly-sleepier version of Christof from The Truman Show).

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Perhap’s part of the film’s socially-relevant real-world “message” is simply this: Even though we seem to be heading toward environmental disaster and worsened social inequality on a high-speed train, that train (despite all that suggests otherwise) can be stopped. But it won’t be easy, and there will likely be a great deal of pain and sacrifice along the way.

(Spoilers Below)
**Personally, I would have preferred for the film to end with the cut to black just after the crash. To my sensibility, that ending would have been more powerful, more haunting. Of course, it would have also been bleaker (which is not to say that the film ends on a particularly cheery note) . . . so it’s possible that my desire for such an ending says more about me than it does the strengths and weaknesses of Joon-ho Bong’s work.

** With its beauty and horror, its intense fight scenes and philosophical musings, Snowpiercer is a film fueled by juxtaposition. Like the train itself—with its disparate cars and sickeningly unequal ways of life—Snowpiercer wouldn’t function without inequality and opposition. This is not to say, however, that the film is somehow advocating for the model of human society that the train presents. After all, while they may seem unstoppable at times, both the Train and Snowpiercer do come to an end (that the film’s end more-or-less coincides with the end of the Train emphasizes the ways in which the two are structurally similar). Like Curtis in the engine, viewers of this film may be left feeling a bit off-balance, a bit uncertain about exactly what it is that they have just experienced, but that’s part of what makes this film a success. Curtis doesn’t gain control of the train; we don’t get to feel like we have control of the film either. At times deeply depressing and, at others campy and even funny, Snowpiercer is a strangely wild ride from start to finish.

Ultimately, Snowpiercer occupies a rather interesting space somewhere between self-indulgent action film and more markedly intellectual arthouse fare, and it does it well. With its violence, its bleakness, and its visual stylization, Snowpiercer may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is most definitely a summer movie that deserves to be seen.

That’s It For Now
Thank you so much for reading. There is a lot more I’d like to talk about in this film—including its use of cannibalism, dismemberment, and religious shiz— but, until I have it on DVD and can easily rewatch it,  I’m not comfortable making a more analytic post. That said, expect to see me write something on Snowpiercer again eventually.

What did you think of Snowpiercer? Feel free to leave a comment below, and let me know.