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

Famous Filmmaker’s Firsts: The Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”

Written by both Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Joel Coen, “Blood Simple” is a thriller that reflects much of their future catalog of films in a multitude of ways. Mainly that there might be a simple tumbling of events based around those universal and age old instigators; love, jealousy, and revenge. The film opens with narration condoning complainers and letting the audience know that something can always go wrong because in Texas, we’re told, you’re on your own. This brilliantly lays out the mentality that ultimately causes everything to go awry.

It’s a simple story at its core, but it’s what the Coens do with that structure and how they shoot the preceding events that make this film worth it’s while. Abby (Frances McDormand) decides to leave her jealous and brooding husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) in the night. Ray (John Getz) works for Marty at his bar and offers to drive Abby to Houston, but a mutual attraction only gets them to a motel before doubling back after a night of passionate indiscretion. While there Marty’s hired private eye Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) snaps proof of the infidelity and wheels back to Marty to hand over the proof for an envelope of money.

A few double crosses later and we have scenes that play out where two characters believe each other has killed another all while we the audience know that neither version is true. The Coens play each scene for all it’s worth by ratcheting up the tension with their shot sequences, pacing, and soundtrack choices. The title of the film is derived from a 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel (Red Harvest) which the term “Blood Simple” is described as the addled, fearful mindset of people after a prolonged immersion in violent situations. Which is something that every major character goes through, and some viewers may also feel unsettled due to the atmosphere alone. I really enjoyed this movie, it was fun getting to the root of two of the most critically acclaimed directing duos to ever hit Hollywood and it’ll help give me context to their future releases, every good story needs an origin after all. I suggest giving it a shot!

Final Score: One love triangle and a knife in the hand