film

Review Catch-Up: Hail, Caesar!

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to postwar Hollywood in the early 1950’s when big budget epics, westerns, and musicals ruled the cinematic land. Josh Brolin leads this stunning cast of Coen Bros frequent collaborators and newcomers alike as Eddie Mannix, the head of “Physical Production” of Capitol Pictures. As the fixer of the studio’s many issues Mannix corrals wayward stars, abates the rumor mill of gossip columnists, and generally solves any and all problems that occur- sometimes with charm, other times with a bit of muscle when need be. Between all of this, Mannix is caught between an offer for the easy life at Lockheed Martin and whether or not he should stay and wrangle the many personalities and problems of Capitol Pictures.

The main driving force of the film is the abduction of infamous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of “Hail, Caesar!” a religious epic in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben-Hur”. Once informed of the actor’s disappearance Mannix goes on the hunt for the lost star, but gets bogged down in internal studio affairs. Once contacted by the kidnappers, self-titled The Future, Mannix collects ransom money from the petty cash allotted by the studio and follows their orders until he can find the solution. Meanwhile other directors and crews must handle the consequences of Mannix’s decisions, like taking cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and putting him into the high-society drama “Merrily we dance” directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). What follows is easily the funniest scene of the film and a direct criticism of studios making huge moves like replacing stars just for favors to keep from worse studio secrets spilling out into the public. Hobie Doyle may be a world renowned movie star in westerns where he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, but Laurence Lorenz is a stand in for the extremely precise thespian director that desires very specific line delivery. Pairing these two together, with Doyle’s thick southern accent and Lorenz soft speaking mannerisms that quickly boil over into confused agitation- was a genius comedic choice in my opinion.

In the midst of both the ‘Red Scare’ and the beginnings of the Cold War the real Hollywood of the early 1950’s was transitioning to meet the needs of this new era of paranoia and television. The Coen Brothers satirize this period with precise detail and pitch perfect comedic timing. The large studios still very much worked on the star system of the past and watching Capitol Pictures in the film work to garner attention by investing in as many westerns, musicals of synchronized swimming, and epics of religious nature is equally funny and fascinating. With the abundance of well known stars cast in the film, from Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip columnists!) the film has a lot going for it simply on performances alone. The recreation of the early 1950’s pastel color palettes and huge set-pieces within the massive expanse of “studio city” is commendable in its own right as well! Roger Deakins again showcases his masterful use of lighting and camera movement as the frequent Coen cinematographer, and it’s easy to see why they collaborate as often as they have. The pairing between the three as writers, directors, and cinematographer is a cinematic dream team!

“Hail, Caesar!” was a lightweight affair when compared to other offerings from the Coens and everyone involved seems to have had a great deal of fun satirizing their industry’s golden age. As is often true with most Coen bros films, it may not be for everyone, but it is crafted by skilled people who are truly invested in the art form. Joel and Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins, give a damn about the movies they choose to make, and this riff on the industry’s earlier era is full of winks, nods, and references to that time and the films that came out of the studio-orchestrated chaos. It is a pastiche of the gilded age of cinema crafted with great panache, and I definitely recommend giving it a watch!

Final Score: 10 Communist Writers and 1 Dolph Lundgren (seriously keep an eye out for him, easy to miss!)

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film

Review: Solo, a Star Wars Story

*Spoiler Warning*

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, “Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the prequel origin story of a young Han Solo that wants you to know everything there is to know about the character, and I do mean ..Everything. I’ve been engaging in an internal debate as to whether or not I should even concern myself with writing this review. I felt as if it were, ironically, as unnecessary as the film in question… but here I am, pondering the film, so I might as well put ink to paper (you know what I mean). So much of “Solo” simply felt “fine“, but nothing about it felt as grand or had events as sweeping as the Star Wars films we’ve come to love (and despise). Granted, I know that wasn’t the intent of this film. It was pitched as a smaller story designed to reveal more of the grimy crime riddled underbelly of the Star Wars universe. However, the true nature of this film could be felt throughout the runtime, and it was to make money. That’s what I felt coming out of the theater more than anything else. This spinoff didn’t feel like I was getting tasty new morsels of story from the wider galaxy as a whole, it just felt like a filler episode, a distraction from the larger events at hand. It wasn’t particularly offensive or incredibly awful by most measures- we just didn’t need it. Sometimes the mystery of imagination is better than explaining the backstory of every item, catch-phrase, offhand comment, or star-ship. For example, when Han mentioned the Kessel run in “Star Wars” and in “The Force Awakens”, the way he talks about the event- it seemed like a race, not a race against time as depicted in Solo (with time-sensitive explosives being the driving factor of tension instead).

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To be fair, all the noise surrounding the dismissal of the original directors of “Solo”, and the horde of production troubles that plagued the film, didn’t result in a disjointed final product. It was a more cohesive film than “Justice League”, the most recent similarly troubled tent-pole studio production. I guess what disappointed me most about this film is the feeling that came after leaving the theater, that “Star Wars” was now a product being spoon-fed to me by teams of writers rooms designed to give me what the masses claimed to have wanted most. Which I have to point out that a couple friends have said as much to me about the previous Star Wars films made by Disney, though the veil hadn’t yet been pierced for me. I still enjoy “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” to varying degrees, more good than bad I would say. “Rogue One” still feels like the standout of the bunch at this point, the one that most channels the magic of the original trilogy, at least for me.

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I almost feel bad for this movie, it wasn’t outright terrible, as I’ve already mentioned. The Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) interplay was entertaining and actually was the most authentic thing about the film in my mind. So at least that came across well enough- if that didn’t work then the whole thing could have been written off from the beginning. Alden Ehrenreich did a decent enough job translating as a younger and not as grumpy version of Han Solo, but there was admittedly something about the performance that was missing. Maybe that was just something that only Harrison Ford could bring to the portrayal, but I can’t say that the woes of this film lay at Ehrenreich’s feet, he did probably as good a job as was possible without Ford headlining. Donald Glover was the other standout of the film. His version of a younger Lando Calrissian was pitch perfect. Capes, attitude, and swagger- all included and exuded without flaw.

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The major issues I have with the film are A) the overall production of the film as it appears in it’s current final cut, B) how overly produced and manufactured it feels as a whole, and C) how predictable it was with one notable exception. A) Production. The lighting of the film was so dim and murky that even in the theater it felt like you could hardly see what was taking place as most scenes were drenched in earthy browns and blacks or ocean depths’ blue, I wouldn’t point out lighting unless it was noticeably poor or lacking. (Not saying I could do a better job lighting though, that’s a confounding aspect of production for me). None of the locations felt particularly alien either, which maybe that’s just me, or maybe it’s that none of the locations were particularly memorable. Everyone can recall planets or locations from every other Star Wars film to date, but I’d be hard pressed to name any of the planets seen here. The cinematography was also very bland. It felt workman-like and practical in nature only. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but it felt like it lacked artistry.

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B) References. There are several points of contention here. How Han “got his name”, his blaster, the dice, and the cameo near the end of the film. Han getting his name from an Imperial drone when signing up for the Empire as a pilot was the most hamfisted and unneeded scene in the whole film. Why can’t Han have just had that name? Are we going to learn how the Skywalker name came to be in another spinoff in some other bland and useless way of storytelling too? It was just unneeded and way too obvious, robbing Han of the sprinkling of mystery surrounding him in the original trilogy. When Han was tossed a blaster from Woody Harrelson’s Beckett, the scene in itself wasn’t poorly constructed it just felt like an intentional wink and nod from Disney- stop it please, we don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of every item a classic character was known for using over thirty years ago. Speaking of which, the dice in this new era seem to have taken on far more meaning than they ever had in the original trilogy, at least in “The Last Jedi” it was used as a stand-in for Han’s memory when Luke returned to Leia for the first time in the new era of films. Here it feels like another intentional pulling of emotional strings, but it didn’t land here for me. It felt forced. The most forced scene in the entire film was that of Darth Maul’s cameo though. It’s nice to know that a fun character from the prequels actually isn’t dead, but it was how he was used that felt contrived. He doesn’t do anything in his moment onscreen, he is used for a reveal of “That character you know from the other movies”, and that is it. He even turns on his lightsaber threateningly in a Hologram, for no reason at all.

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C) Predictability. This is the linchpin of the problem of this film. If you’re at all familiar with the first Star Wars movie then you’ll likely be able to predict a lot of the plot points of this film, the rest of the film’s predictability lies in age old movie tropes any well viewed audience member should be able to spot a mile away. Though admittedly reprocessing tropes from classic era Hollywood is an old Star Wars trait at this point. However, when approached with with a paint-by-numbers strategy Star Wars feels overly formulaic to the point of absurdism. Corellia (Han’s homeworld), The Kessel run, Han shooting first, Chewie ripping off an unlucky henchmen’s arms- every possible connective tissue from “A New Hope” is mined here with excruciating familiarity. What I loved about “Rogue One” was that the film very much lived in the world of the original trilogy and while it too had familiar aspects and characters littering it’s pages there was also a new exploratory sensation about it. The film added more mystery than it explained away. What happened to Jedha ages ago? There are only decayed Jedi monoliths carved into massive rock formations to hint at its past. Was Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) force sensitive? Or just an extremely skilled fighter that believed deeply in the old Jedi religion? What was his connection to Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and how did they end up together on Jedha? I’m okay with not knowing the answers to those questions- in fact I’d prefer to not know those answers. The only part of “Solo” that was a legitimate surprise was that the earlier threats of the film, “Enfys nest” the marauders of the train heist from the second act, were actually a band of rebel children. This reveal only served to deliver another cringy wink and nod to the audience as Han decides to help them out in the end. They offer a place among their ranks in thanks but he declines, to which the tiny space pirate suggests “Maybe someday you’ll join a… rebellion” Okay it wasn’t exactly that, but the line was essentially that.

“Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the first major bump in the road of the new Disney era of Star Wars films. It has a few redeemable factors for sure, and the crew involved seems to have given it their all, but this film is more of a product than a story that needed to be told in a galaxy far far away…

Final Score: 2 smugglers, 1 falcon, and dozens of references…