Hail, Caesar!

(USA 2016)

Hail, Caesar! is not typical Coen Brothers fare—in fact, I can’t think of anything they’ve done during their four-decade career that’s quite like it. Sure, its structure and approach to storytelling are definitely familiar, but the finished product is different. That’s a good thing—a very good thing.

Like most if not all of their films, the story focuses on one main character—here, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, who sounds and acts more like Matt Dillon the older he gets), a gruff studio executive at fictitious Capitol Pictures whose job apparently is to solve problems for stars—as he goes through a series of bizarre events and peculiar characters. The story takes place over 24 hours in 1951. The kidnapping of lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) during the filming of an expensive historical epic, Hail, Caesar!, and Mannix’s efforts to track him down serve as the main plot. In the midst of finding Whitlock, Mannix dispenses with his daily duties, which include rebranding a Western actor (Alden Ehrenreich), facilitating a weird adoption for a thrice-divorced starlet (Scarlett Johansson), dealing with a persnickety director (Ralph Fiennes), beating away twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) threatening to expose studio dirty laundry, putting off a scout (Ian Blackman) wooing Mannix for a job with another company, and going to confession.

The Coen Brothers do dark humor exceedingly well, and they have their own distinct brand of it. What’s most refreshing about Hail, Caesar!, however, is its frivolity; it’s not one bit dark. Colorful, visual, big, and chock full of kitschy 50s nostalgia, the brothers keep the tone light even with the weighty parallel they draw between Capitalism, Communism, and Christianity. For example, a hilarious but smart exchange occurs during a conference with Mannix and a group of religious leaders—a Catholic priest (Robert Pike Daniel), a reverend (Allen Havey), an Eastern Orthodox clergyman (Aramazd Stepanian), and a rabbi (Robert Piccardo)—to discuss whether anything depicted in Hail, Caesar! is offensive to religion. On the surface, the conversation is about Christ, but it comically sums up the differences between certain religions and highlights the logical flaws that require faith to accept them.

The scenes on movie sets—and there are quite a few—are gorgeously eye-popping. One involves an elaborate Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequence in the water with about 30 showgirls and a mermaid. Another involves a homoerotic sailor number with Channing Tatum (who’s fucking awesome here) tap dancing to a snicker-inducing song about “dames” complete with clever nautical references to pussy. Hail, Caesar! is a sort of homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, an era that the Coens seem to love judging from this picture. It’s a treat to see Frances McDormand, who hasn’t appeared in one of their films for awhile, in a cameo.

In the grand scheme of all things Coen, Hail, Caesar! is not their finest work—but it might be their funnest. It’s probably their purest comedy—only Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski and maybe O Brother, Where Art Thou? come close. Those expecting No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, or even Fargo will be sorely disappointed; anyone else will probably enjoy it for the amusing diversion it is. I’m smiling just thinking about it.

(ArcLight) B

http://www.hailcaesarmovie.com/

 

The Hateful Eight

(USA 2015)

The trailers piqued my interest but didn’t totally sell me, so I wasn’t sure about The Hateful Eight. My apprehension was unfounded: it’s gotdamn motherfucking Quentin Tarantino, all the motherfucking way, motherfucker. If that last sentence sounds good to you—and you read it how Jules Winnfield might say it—well, you’re in for a treat. I said, goddamn, god damn!

Traveling through Wyoming on the way to Red Rock not long after the Civil War, bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is caught in the mountains just as a blizzard is a-brewing. He stops a stagecoach that happens to be carrying another bounty hunter, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), and his captive, the lovely Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—who has blood on her face for nearly the entire film—and finagles a ride. Another guy, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be en route to Red Rock to become sheriff, is thrown into the mix. The blizzard forces them to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they join four strangers: “Mexican Bob” (Demian Bichir), smarmy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), quiet cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and “The General” (Bruce Dern), a frail former Confederate soldier. Niceties, banter, and then expletives are exchanged until characters are killed off, Ten Little Indians style but with twists—Agatha Christie never blew anyone’s nuts off. Then again, Tarantino’s way of telling a story is completely his own.

True to form, Tarantino jams The Hateful Eight with memorable miscreants, snappy dialogue, and impossibly crazy cutthroat situations. The action here is intense and suspenseful, unfolding gradually and teasingly. The timing is out of sequence—no shock there. The plot gets thicker with each character that falls off, leaving questions begging for answers. Best of all, not a single performance is subpar and not a single character—except maybe Minnie’s helper—is superfluous. Russell and Dern stand out, but Jackson is a master scene-stealer—his delivery is so strong that you simply cannot turn away when he speaks. Channing Tatum makes a surprise appearance and gives an even more surprisingly impressive performance.

Well, let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks quite yet. The story has a hole or two, and the gore is so over the top it loses its impact at points. There’s the use of the ‘n’ word like a mere conjunction. Jason Leigh sounds annoyingly like Roseanne Barr. Oh yeah—more than eight characters actually appear, which a couple of times—namely when everyone is in the same small room—requires extra concentration to follow along. All that said, though, none of it detracts from enjoying the film. Yes, it lacks the elegance and grace of Kill Bill, my personal favorite, but The Hateful Eight is toward the top of Tarantino’s resume. I loved every minute—which did not seem like three hours.

Side note: the overall experience was one I’ve never had at a movie theater. Truly a bona fide “event,” the atmosphere was like a rock concert: the screening was sold out ahead of time, and the crowd was abuzz with excited fans taking pictures and chattering about other Tarantino films. Some had on Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill tee shirts. The line to get in was all the way to the next block. Programs were provided. Shot on decadent 70-millimeter film, the Music Box showed The Hateful Eight on a brand spanking new screen it acquired for this special “roadshow engagement.” The price was double a normal ticket but oh so worth it.

The Hateful Eight ended my year of movies on a high note—I can’t think of a better director to release a new film to close out the year. To borrow from it, “Old Mary Todd is calling, so it must be time for bed.” Time will tell for sure, but I think this one belongs to the ages.

(Music Box) A+

http://thehatefuleight.com

 

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Foxcatcher

(USA 2014)

A creepy middle-aged chemical magnate (Steve Carell) sponsors a floundering Olympic wrestler (Channing Tatum) ultimately just to secure the athlete’s older brother (Mark Ruffalo) as coach for a start-up team. What can possibly go wrong?

Carrell is over the top creepy and weird in a role that is tough to imagine him taking, but such a great move. My eyes were fixed on this like a train wreck. And I mean that as a compliment. Based on a true story, I have no idea how much of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s screenplay is accurate. Director Bennett Miller makes it such a killer film, though, that it doesn’t really matter.

With Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David ‘Doc’ Bennett, Lee Perkins, David Zabriskie

134 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East 21) A-

http://sonyclassics.com/foxcatcher/