Monday, 7 March 2016

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)



I have a bit of a hot and cold relationship with the Coen brothers. While their approach to crime stories is definitely commendable and they’re responsible for one of my all-time favourite films with The Big Lebowski, the majority of their work doesn’t elicit that much more than shrug from yours truly. Hell, their 2013 penned effort Gambit was ultimately so unengaging that I couldn’t even come up with a full review for the thing. Although, in the interest of fairness, that film was also riddled with production troubles and most of their actual script ended up being rewritten. Still, even with all this in mind, I can't help but admit to their obvious skill behind the camera as well as their aptitude for scripting. Considering that, even if today’s film doesn’t work out too well, it will at least show more effort than an awful lot of films released in the last two months. How much more effort, however, is the big question. This is Hail, Caesar!

The plot: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a fixer working for the illustrious Capitol Picture Studios in Hollywood. Over the course of what can loosely be considered a ‘typical’ day on the job, we see Mannix handle behind-the-scenes issues involving actors and filmmakers, including but not limited to sorting out the ransom for the kidnapping of one of Capitol’s highest profile actors, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).

The fact that this film has the ensemble cast that it does is great on its own, but it’s bolstered by the fact that all of them leave their mark by film’s end. Brolin is fantastic as Mannix, embodying the Coen brothers’ unique approach to film noir with a performance that feels pulled right out of L.A. Noire. Clooney is in prime comedic form here, both when conversing with The Future as well as his mannerisms when on set for the titular film-within-a-film. Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie does the singing cowboy schtick to a T and, when coupled with Ralph Fiennes’ artsy director, makes for easily one of the funniest exchanges, calling it now, that I’ll see all year. Coens regular Frances McDormand gets maybe two lines of dialogue overall, and yet she handles the role of editor immensely well. Channing Tatum is put to probably his best use in years, taking his finesse in performing from Magic Mike and turning it into a well-played tribute to classic Hollywood musicals. Wayne Knight, despite not even getting a character name, makes the screen his own in a key scene early on the film. However, more than anyone else, the one actor who stole the show for me as Robert Picardo as the rabbi; him bickering amongst the other religious officials was absolutely hilarious to see.

At its core, this is the Coens paying tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and they seriously went for broke with this one because they leave no stone unturned. Through the connecting tissue of Mannix as the studio fixer, we see a whole gamut of older film styles being adhered to. We have Scarlett Johansson and Tatum showing the kind of on-screen choreography of dancing/singing that I never realized I missed seeing; Ehrenreich playing up both Westerns and attempted break-out dramatic works; and of course, Clooney in the big prestige picture epic. Basically, this film sets out to do for talkies what The Artist did for silent films, and it handles that prospect rather well. For starters, not only do the Coens show definite skill at the helm and in the editing room, but so do regulars Roger “Oh my freaking God!” Deakins behind the camera and Carter Burwell conducting the music. For another, they all seem to be having all the fun imaginable not only with portraying the different film styles of the era but also in portraying the ‘real world’ events as well, like the film noir moments of Mannix’s arc and even the matte painting look for a scene near the end involving a submarine. The meshing of older and newer filming approaches, thankfully, work really well together in this instance.

More so than its rather comedic take on the old cinematic guard, and don’t get me wrong this is an extremely funny watch, there’s an awful lot of reverence shown for said old guard. Even though it’s largely depicted through the eyes of a studio fixer, someone dedicated to keeping the image of Hollywood as squeaky-clean as possible despite evidence to the contrary, there is nothing but earnestness to be felt here. Even with all the production issues and actor drama and Communist writers’ circles getting in the way of things, there is still magic to be felt on those stages. This is especially felt with how Mannix, despite everything going on and the offers on his table to change vocations, still holds some regard for what is so callously considered by others to just be a business like any other. But no, there is a lot of work and a lot of people that go into making a single picture, something exemplified by how this film takes time out to give credit to the lesser appreciated hands involved in cinema. From Fiennes’ snooty but ultimately impassioned director to the writers who are sick of getting no credit for their work to McDormand’s surprisingly dangerous job as an editor, we see that film, even back then, was made up of more than just the lead roles.

Probably the most telling of all the elements that make up this script, in terms of showing respect for what came before, are the antagonists that are responsible for Whitlock’s kidnapping. Made up of Hollywood screenwriters who, after so long of not seeing any of the millions of dollars that come in for their work, learnt Communist doctrine and decided to become part of something bigger. We’ll ignore how warped this depiction of Communists is considering, despite being Communists, they sure care an awful lot about money, and instead look at their place in cinematic history. This film takes place in the 50’s, a transitional period for Hollywood with the studio system soon coming to an end and the Cold War well and truly on its way. With escapism so desperately being needed, and the largest distributor of such under pressure from its surroundings, it’s understandable how all the work being put into every production is so important and why lack of appreciation for said work would be all the more jading. But let’s look at how much cinema has changed since that time: Rather than relying so much big-name studios for our fix, cinema has made its way into every nook and cranny of the world with the rise of independent cinema… which is a style that is mostly determined by its script more than anything else. Huh. I guess these writers really are The Future, given that same independent movement is what gave rise to many a prominent cinematic visionary, including the Coen brothers.

All in all, this is an amazing film when all is said and done. Never mind it’s absolute respect for past cinema, both for the industry as a whole and for the specific roots that would later give rise to the Coen brothers themselves. Never mind the laser-guided comedic timing on display, resulting in one of those rare films where I can actively recall jokes from it. Never mind the ensemble cast that make sure they all get their chance to shine and they all take advantage of it. This is a film where there isn’t a single moment of dead air; nothing in this film feels like it would have improved the overall product by being removed. That is exceptionally rare to find in a film these days. Even with how much it definitely affected me after leaving the cinema, this manages to outdo Spotlight on the year’s list. I’d genuinely rank this up there with some of the Coens’ best work, alongside The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men, and recommend it to pretty much anyone, film buff or no film buff.

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