Hail, Caesar!

'Hail Caesar!' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

There’s a new Coen brothers film out in theaters and it is called Hail, Caesar! It chiefly depicts a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood fixer, a man charged with ensuring that studio productions stay on track and avoid disruption or shut-down due to various intervening factors, not least of which being a movie star’s actions away from the set. Call it a function of public relations but this custodial role actually seems even more thankless.

As a modest Coen brothers fan, I bought a ticket. I watched as the film played. When it was over, I got up and headed for the exit. I got into my car and drove home. Such is the perfunctory, mechanical, obligatory, bland, boring manner in which the Coens chose to “make” their new film. This is a total head-scratcher, a real WTF-er.

All the elements seem to be in place for an uproarious, clever comedy. The talent is there behind the lens and the pens. The cast is the sort only directors with the kind of pull brothers Joel and Ethan now have can afford: Josh Brolin is the fixer, Eddie Mannix. George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a name as epic as the film he’s starring in (you guessed it, Hail, Caesar!). Scarlett Johansson reinvests in her native New York accent playing DeeAnna Moran, the star of a spectacular water-themed production that will apparently involve lots of synchronized swimming, while Ralph Fiennes is a British director unhappy with a miscast  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his stage drama. Frances McDormand isn’t exactly Marge Gunderson this time around but she does have the distinction of being in the film’s funniest scene (and it is great). Channing Tatum plays a tap-dancing Communist and Tilda Swinton has a double role as twin sister journalists.

Oh yeah, I think I forgot Jonah Hill but that’s okay, because so did the Coens. Hill’s cameo barely registers as it seems to have already had its time in previews that have played to death the little flirty moment he gets to have with Johansson. No harm, no foul though. At least I can say Hill is consistently compelling with the two lines of dialogue he gets.

Hail, Caesar! can hang its hat on other things besides its staffing. Visually, it’s a beautiful piece and a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A sparkling sepia filter bathes the backlots of 1950s studios in a warmth that belies the business-like approach of both Brolin and the narrative at heart. But it’s not all glamorous, for the Coens seem to be indicting Big Business while celebrating the end product, the beauty of filmic imagery and the devotion of a cast to see its completion. Hail, Caesar! is, if nothing else, confirmation that the ‘magic of movies’ really lies in the sequence and number of phone calls a studio exec happens to make. But please, I turn to the Coens to be entertained, not educated. Or maybe I came to be educated, too, but I still put my needs in that order.

The film does very little entertaining. In fact it’s a surprisingly meandering, mindless affair where plot threads begin and taper off out of nowhere; where the comedy comes in spurts and the weirdness rules with an iron fist. Hail, Caesar! is perhaps at its worst when tracing Mannix’s single biggest problem of the day: locating and returning Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped from his own trailer. This is a subplot that goes nowhere. A group of Communist sympathizers explain to Whitlock the arrogance of studio executives and how they get off on making millions for themselves (and their higher-ups) while never properly paying those who contributed their creative talents — several of the members of this clandestine group are screenwriters, you see — thus the reason why they are holding one of Hollywood’s biggest names for ransom.

Yeah — take that, you big meanies! This arc would have been compelling had it made any effort to engage the audience but philosophical and ideological ramblings (which seem to have this weird effect on the movie star) offer a painfully obvious exit for any theatergoer not well-versed in the Coens’ tendency to wander aimlessly every now and then. This time I don’t blame those people that couple for leaving; Hail Caesar! spends way too much time indulging.

And then it leaves such little time for other stories, such as DeeAnna’s concern over raising her soon-to-be-born child and Hobie Doyle’s aspirations. Mannix offers to protect the former’s image of having a baby out of wedlock (this is the 1950s, remember) by allowing her to put her baby up for adoption until she can claim it without the public becoming any wiser. Doyle is having a hard time fitting into a more talky role and must decide if he wants the western to define him as an actor or if he wants to grow and develop into something more. At least he seems to be comfortable finding a date to the premier of one of his own movies.

There’s another half-baked story involving entertainment beat reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — anyone notice a pattern yet? — in which both are morbidly curious about the disappearance of Capitol’s prized possession in Baird Whitlock, and both still have questions about his legitimacy as a star in the first place. Some scandal about sleeping with a male director to get a role early in his career? What? You could almost consider the Thacker sisters prototypes of the folks over at TMZ, their ability to show up at any time and out of thin air simultaneously alarming and amusing.

The Thackers’ presence is microcosmic of the Coens’ unusually tedious throwback: at its best it is a mildly amusing, grin-inducing gossip column. At its worst it is a waste of time, with some moments so dreadfully boring it’s a wonder how a film that’s critical of the film-making process managed to keep them in the final cut.

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Recommendation: One of the Coens’ weakest efforts to date, Hail, Caesar! has its moments but too often the laughs are lost in an unfocused narrative that spreads itself too thin across an arguably too ambitious cast. That said, those who are cast in the film fit right into the scene and do well with what material they have. There’s no such thing as a bad performance here but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cast this good fail to compel in any significant way. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Would that it were so simple . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

In a World…

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Release: Friday, August 9, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

If ever you’ve wanted to learn more about the voices behind all those movie trailers you’ve seen, then look no further than In a World…, a glimpse into the industry of voice-overs that’s simultaneously humorous and heartfelt; awkwardly distant, yet fully immersive.

Though it features all fictionalized characters, the film tips its hat to real-life movie trailer voice legend Don LaFontaine, who’s seen in the opening title sequence (in clips of archived footage) doing a few interviews — openly expressing his joy over what it’s like having one of the most recognized voices in the world. This being released almost five years after his passing, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this film a tribute of sorts to the man behind the iconic voice. His signature phrase “In a world…” functions as an interesting title for director, writer and actress Lake Bell’s new film, as well as it serves as the motif. In the wake of LaFontaine’s death, much debate is fueled over whether that catchphrase should ever be uttered by another person; and if it is to be used again — who should be the next person to follow in his footsteps?

Lake Bell — as if writing and directing this wonderfully entertaining picture wasn’t enough — also stars as Carol Solomon, a young yet frustrated vocal coach who has yet to find her rhythm professionally. She’s first seen trying to make Eva Longoria effect a Cockney dialect for an (obviously staged) voiceover role, and this scene is every bit as humorous as it is intriguing. After her father — acclaimed movie trailer voice Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) — tells her he can no longer support her and that she needs to move out of his place, 31-year-old Carol finds her life at its most disoriented, forced to move in with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband (Rob Corddry).

It’s difficult to determine in what capacity Bell excels the most. As an actress, her Carol is whimsical, a little more than socially awkward, and somewhat impulsive. But all of this translates into a rather enjoyable character to watch, especially as you may take note of her increasing confidence — both professionally and personally — as the film develops. As a writer, she might be even better. There is such a natural flow to the way each character acts and interacts with one another; the world she’s created is just charming. In particular, her Carol and the dorky sound engineer that she works with, Louis (Demetri Martin) have an on-again, off-again relationship that is bumbling yet heartwarming. When Louis brings Carol over one night, he insists the two sleep in separate rooms despite the obvious chemistry between them. Louis simply doesn’t want to make things more awkward than they already are; thanks to the strong script, he does. And then as a director. . . .perhaps this is Bell at her most ambitious and distinctive.

The film could have easily been dulled down by focusing on general industry trends, or by trying to make drama out of things that need no drama created for them. Much to her credit, Bell approaches an already interesting subject matter with a rarely-used angle. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the use of female voices for movie trailers was nonexistent, with the exception of the Gone in 60 Seconds trailer back in 2000. Indeed, her character’s own father, along with his equally misogynistic colleague and friend Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), demonstrate the general attitude held by males at the time — in particular, their feelings towards women attempting to earn the same status. Their conversations in the sauna are rather unsettling as they talk business. Men become cruel, uncivilized beasts before our very ears. And because LaFontaine’s line, “in a world…” is suddenly being reconsidered for posthumous use in trailers, fierce competition to become the next individual who gets to say these words is eminent. With an inventive twist, the race to become the number one movie trailer voice becomes even more heated as the identities of the competing voice talents slowly become revealed to each character.

Because the film features a cast playing individuals in an unusual and competitive career, Bell ingeniously decided to give all of her characters peculiarities to match. There’s not a single “normal” person to be found in this quirky world. Perhaps Corddry’s Moe is the closest to such a description (wow, that’s a change). The studio in which Carol works as a vocal coach is filled with weird characters — as previously mentioned, Louis is an odd one as Carol’s secret admirer; Nick Offerman makes a brief appearance as a studio manager (?) and well, yeah, you can just color your own imagination with that. . . and then there’s a wonderfully eccentric performance in Tig Notaro‘s Cher, who’s mainly there just for a few laughs. She may be limited but damn is she effective. Even the “villains” who happen to be in Sam Soto and Gustav Warner have peculiar mannerisms and character traits that make them convincingly nasty people. Considering all of this, the overarching film is quite a strange experience, if not delightfully strange.

Although Bell clearly enjoys delving into the mentality of men who are all of a sudden feeling threatened by an empowered woman in their field of expertise, one of the side effects of detailing characters this much becomes clear: the narrative does run away from her towards the end. A couple of romantic subplots veer from the very compelling narrative a few times, and while these are not entirely uncalled for, they become a bit distracting as more and more focus seems to be placed on the relationship aspects. Still, they serve to add a little bit more to the chaos of the lives behind the scenes, which I appreciated personally. I also understand where it detracted more for others and there certainly could have been some cleaning up on Aisle 7 in this department.

One of the larger ironies of this film is that when you go and check out trailers afterwards — specifically for more contemporary releases — you are going to notice a distinct lack of voice over work on the trailers you’re watching. Instead, these days, it’s all about snappier/fancier editing, increasing the frequency of taking scenes out of context for dramatic effect, and replacing what once were voiceovers with text/captions (most of which are some variant on ‘life is a journey’ — that kind of hokey B.S. most of us see right through). It’s fascinating listening to the conversation going on here, and this applies on a number of levels.

Virtually everyone on the planet is exposed to trailers and commercials, and this film provides a rare opportunity to go beyond that and get a glimpse of the dynamics of this particular aspect of the entertainment biz. Thank you, Lake Bell for providing that for us.

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3-5Recommendation: It could be easily labeled as a film for a very niched audience. Some might even call it a snooty film for just movie buffs. Forget all of that noise. This is a heartfelt character study as much as it is a spotlight on a rarely-studied industry (at least in terms of mainstream media coverage — when was the last time you saw a documentary on the current voices of TV/film advertisements/trailers?). It is a movie that is both socially and culturally relevant and while it may slide by under most people’s radars, it most certainly shouldn’t. I highly encourage anyone who sees this film on the listing at their local theaters to go check it out.

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com