“HAIL, CAESAR!” (2016) Review

“HAIL, CAESAR!” (2016) Review

When I first that Joel and Ethan Coen was about to release a new film, I rejoiced. When I learned that this new movie – called “HAIL, CAESAR!” – would be set in old Hollywood, my joy increased. Then I discovered that this new film would be released in February of this year. And . . . my anticipation decreased. Somewhat.

Now, why would my anticipation for “HAIL, CAESAR!” dampened after learning about its release date? Simple. February is one of those months that is considered by the movie industry as the graveyard for second-rate films. A Coen Brothers film set in February. This did not sit well with me. But my enthusiasm had not dampened enough for me to forgo “HAIL, CAESAR!”. I simply had to see it.

“HAIL, CAESAR!” is the fictional story about one day in the life of Eddie Mannix, the head of “physical productions” at Capitol Pictures and a “fixer” who keeps the scandalous behavior of its stars out of the press. The Lockheed Corporation has been courting him with an offer of a high-level executive position, but he is unsure about taking it. While Mannix contemplates a career change, he has to deal with the following problems for his studio:

*Unmarried synchronized swimming actress DeeAnna Moran becomes pregnant and Mannix has to make arrangements for her to put the baby in foster care and then adopt it without revealing herself as the mother.

*Mannix is ordered by the studio’s honchos to change the image of cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle, by casting him in a sophisticated drama directed by Laurence Laurentz. Unfortunately, Hobie seems uncomfortable in starring in a movie that is not a Western and gives an inept performance.

*While fending off the inquiries of twin sisters and rival gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, the former threatens to release an article about a past scandal involving Capitol Pictures veteran star Baird Whitlock and Laurentz, when they made a movie together some twenty years earlier.

*Mannix’s biggest problem revolve around Whitlock being kidnapped, while filming one of Capitol Pictures’ “A” productions, an Imperial Roman drama called “Hail, Caesar!”. A ransom note soon arrives, written by a group calling itself “The Future”, who are a group of Communist screenwriters, demanding $100,000 for their cause.

There were a good deal about “HAIL, CAESAR!” that I enjoyed. Primarily, I enjoyed the fact that the movie was set during the Golden Age of Hollywood and that it was about the Hollywood industry during that period. I enjoyed the fact that this was one Old Hollywood movie that was not a murder mystery, a biopic about the rise and downfall of some actor, actress or director. And I was especially relieved that it was no borderline nihilist portrayal of Hollywood like 1975’s “THE DAY OF THE LOCUST”. I had no desire to walk out of theater, harboring a desire to blow out my brains. Instead, the Coens’ film gave audiences a peek into a Hollywood studio circa 1951 with a good deal of irony and humor.

Out of the five story arcs presented in the film, I really enjoyed three of them – namely those story lines that focused on Hobie Doyle, DeeAnna Moran and Mannix’s new job offer. Although I suspect that the DeeAnna Moran character was at best, a superficial take onEsther Williams, I believe the storyline regarding the character’s pregnancy was based upon what happened to Loretta Young in the mid-1930s. I found this story arc mildly enjoyable, thanks to Scarlett Johansson’s funny performance as the blunt-speaking DeeAnna. But I would not regard it as the movie’s highlight. I also found the story arc about Mannix’s new job offer from Lockheed mildly interesting. There almost seemed to be a “would he or wouldn’t he” aura about this story arc. As any film historian knows, the real Eddie Mannix never received a job offer from Lockheed. Then again, he worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), not the fictional Capitol Pictures. And he was married twice with no kids, not married once with kids. So, at one point, I did find myself wondering if the events of the day would drive this Mannix into accepting Lockheed’s offer.

However, I felt that one of the movie’s real highlight centered around the Hobie Doyle and Capitol Pictures’ efforts to turn the singing cowboy into a dramatic actor. Why? It was funny. Hilarious. Not only did Alden Ehrenreich give a rather enduring performance as the charming Hobie Doyle, he was funny . . . very funny in one particular sequence. In fact, I could say the same about Ralph Fiennes, who portrayed the elegant director Laurence Laurentz tasked into transforming Hobie into a dramatic actor. I did not find this scene mildly amusing, as I did many of the film’s other scenes. Instead, watching Laurentz trying to direct the limited and very awkward Hobie in a sophisticated drama nearly had laughing in the aisle. Both Ehrenreich and Fiennes were incredibly funny and talented. The other highlight proved to be Josh Brolin’s performance as the much put upon Eddie Mannix. Brolin did an excellent job of carrying the film on his shoulders. More importantly, he gave a tight and subtle performance that allowed his character to serve as the backbone to all of the surrounding chaos.

“HAIL, CAESAR!” was set in 1951, a time when the Hollywood studio system was going through a traumatic shake-up. And this period was definitely reflected in two story arcs – Mannix’s job offer and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock. However, a part of me wishes that the movie had been set in the 1930s – especially the early 1930s, when Hollywood was battling the censors and the Great Depression. Oh well, we cannot have everything. But I was not that particularly impressed regarding the story line involving Mannix’s concerns over Thora Thacker’s knowledge about some past scandal regarding Baird Whitlock. Why? The movie’s screenplay barely focused upon it. The entire story arc was wasted. And so was Tilda Swinton. I find this doubly sad, considering that Swinton gave a sharp and funny performance as the Thacker twins. Instead, the Coens used the Baird Whitlock character for another story arc – the one centered around his kidnapping at the hands of a group of Communist writers and a Communist contract player named Burt Gurney.

I might as well put my cards on the table. This story line featuring Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping did not strike me as well written. In fact, I did not like it at all. Neither George Clooney’s funny performance or Channing Tatum’s dancing skills could save it. The main problem with this story is that Whitlock was basically kidnapped to provide funds for Gurney, a song-and-dance performer who was a thinly disguised take on actor/dancer Gene Kelly, who was known to be a hardcore liberal. The end of the movie revealed that Gurney took with him, the ransom from Whitlock’s kidnapping, when he defected to the Soviet Union via a Russian submarine. The entire story arc struck me as simply a waste of time. And I found myself wishing that Whitlock had been used for the scandal story line, featuring Thora Thacker.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Jess Gonchor did a fairly decent job in re-creating Los Angeles in the early 1950s. His work was ably assisted by the film’s visual and special effects teams, Nancy Haigh’s set decorations and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. However, in the case of the latter, I could have done without the occasional use of sepia tones. I also enjoyed Mary Zophres’s costume designs. But they did not exactly knock my socks off. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed were the different “film productions” featured in the movie – especially the ones for DeeAnna Moran and the Hobie Doyle/Laurence Laurentz debacle. I know what you are thinking . . . what about the dance sequence featuring Burt Gurney and dancing extras portraying sailors? Well, I found it well executed. But the whole number, including Tatum’s performance, seemed to be more about skill, but with little style.

In the end, I rather enjoyed “HAIL, CAESAR!”. I believe the Coen Brothers did a fairly successful job in creating an entertaining movie about Hollywood’s Golden Age. The movie also featured excellent performances from a talented cast – especially Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes. However, I think I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more if it had ditched the kidnapping story arc in favor of the one featuring the potential Baird Whitlock scandal. Oh well, we cannot have everything we want.

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Bigos

Below is an article about the Polish dish known as Bigos:

BIGOS

When one mentions hunter’s stew, dishes such as Burgoo, or Bruinswick Stew usually comes to mind. But there is one hunter’s stew that dates back even further. I am referring to Bigos, which is a dish that originated in the Eastern European countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine.

The dish dates back to the medieval era and can trace its roots to fourteenth century Poland. The ironic thing is that the dish’s originator was not Polish. In fact, his name was Jogaila, a Lithuanian Grand Duke who became the Polish king Władysław Jagiełło in 1385. He had created the dish – namely a hunter’s stew – for his guests at a hunting party, after he had ascended the Polish throne. The name “bigos” allegedly means “confusion”, “big mess” or “trouble” in Polish. However, Polish linguists trace the word “bigos” to a German origin. The PWN Dictionary of Foreign Words speculates that it derives from the past participle begossen of a German verb that means “to douse”. And Bigos was usually doused with wine in earlier years.

Bigos usually consists of white cabbage, sauerkraut, various cuts of meat, tomatoes, honey and mushrooms. For those who do not eat meat or do not have any available, Bigos can be prepared without it. And it can be prepared without the white cabbage. But sauerkraut is absolutely essential. The type of meat found in Bigos can be smoked pork, ham, bacon, sausage, veal and beef. However, since Bigos is a hunter’s stew, meats such as venison, rabbit or other game can usually be found, as well. The stew is usually seasoned with pepper, caraway, bay leaf, marjoram, dried or smoked plums, pimenta, juniper berries and red wine. Bigos is usually served with mashed potatoes or rye bread.

Below is a recipe for Bigos from the Simplyrecipe.com website:

Bigos

Ingredients

1 ounce dried porcini or other wild mushrooms
2 Tbsp bacon fat or vegetable oil
2 pounds pork shoulder
1 large onion, chopped
1 head cabbage (regular, not savoy or red), chopped
1 1/2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms
1-2 pounds kielbasa or other smoked sausage
1 smoked ham hock
1 pound fresh Polish sausage (optional)
1 25-ounce jar of fresh sauerkraut (we recommend Bubbies, which you may be able to find in the refrigerated section of your local supermarket)
1 bottle of pilsner or lager beer
1 Tbsp juniper berries (optional)
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp caraway seeds
2 Tbsp dried marjoram
Salt
20 prunes, sliced in half (optional)
2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce (optional)
1-2 Tbsp mustard or horseradish (optional)

Preparation

Pour hot tap water over the dried mushrooms and submerge them for 20-40 minutes, or until soft. Grind or crush the juniper berries and black peppercorns roughly; you don’t want a powder. Cut the pork shoulder into large chunks, about 2 inches. Cut the sausages into similar-sized chunks. Drain the sauerkraut and set aside. Clean off any dirt from the mushrooms and cut them into large pieces; leave small ones whole.

Heat the bacon fat or vegetable oil in a large lidded pot for a minute or two. Working in batches if necessary, brown the pork shoulder over medium-high heat. Do not crowd the pan. Set the browned meat aside.

Put the onion and fresh cabbage into the pot and sauté for a few minutes, stirring often, until the cabbage is soft. Sprinkle a little salt over them. The vegetables will give off plenty of water, and when they do, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. If you are making the tomato-based version, add the tomato paste here. Once the pot is clean and the cabbage and onions soft, remove from the pot and set aside with the pork shoulder.

Add the mushrooms and cook them without any additional oil, stirring often, until they release their water. Once they do, sprinkle a little salt on the mushrooms. When the water is nearly all gone, add back the pork shoulder, the cabbage-and-onion mixture, and then everything else except the prunes. Add the beer, if using, or the tomato sauce if you’re making the tomato-based version. Stir well to combine.

You should not have enough liquid to submerge everything. That’s good: Bigos is a “dry” stew, and besides, the ingredients will give off more liquid as they cook. Bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for at least 2 hours.

Bigos is better the longer it cooks, but you can eat it once the ham hock falls apart. Check at 2 hours, and then every 30 minutes after that. When the hock is tender, fish it out and pull off the meat and fat from the bones Discard the bones and the fat, then chop the meat roughly and return to the pot. Add the prunes and cook until they are tender, at least 30 more minutes.

Bigos is best served simply, with rye bread and a beer. If you want a little kick, add the mustard or horseradish right before you eat it. Bigos improves with age, too, which is why this recipe makes so much: Your leftovers will be even better than the stew was on the first day.

“POLDARK” (1996) Review

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“POLDARK” (1996) Review

Over seventy years ago marked the publication of author Winston Graham’s first entry in his novel series about a former British Army officer who had served in the American Revolution and his life experiences following his return to home in Cornwall. The BBC aired a successful television series that was based upon Graham’s first seven novels in 1975 and 1977.

Four years after the publication of his seventh novel, Graham concluded his literary series with five more between 1981 and 2002. In 1996, the HTV channel produced a pilot episode, which proved to be an adaptation of Graham’s eighth novel,“The Stranger from the Sea”. HTV had hoped this television movie would prove to be the first of a continuing adaptation of the 1981 novel and the remaining four. Unfortunately, fans protested against the casting of new performers in the lead roles of Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne Poldark. Fifty members of the Poldark Appreciation Society marched in full 18th-century costumes to picket HTV’s headquarters in Bristol, England. When Graham admitted that he preferred the new film to the original television series from the 1970s, he found himself cold-shouldered by the Society of which he was president. Needless to say, the television film, also titled “POLDARK”, proved to be a ratings flop and the network dropped all plans for an adaptation of Graham’s later novels.

I first learned about “POLDARK” and its literary source, “The Stranger from the Sea” from the ELLEN AND JIM HAVE A BLOG, TWO website. Already familiar with the 1970s series, I decided to check out this movie via Netflix. Set between 1810 and 1811 (eleven to twelve years after the 70s series’ conclusion), the plot revolved around the Poldark family’s initial encounter with a young smuggler named Stephen Carrington, while they awaited the return of patriarch Ross Poldark from his Parliamentary duties in London. I realize that this summary seems rather simple, but it was for a good reason. Like all narratives, “POLDARK” featured a good number of subplots. But for the likes of me, I found it difficult to pinpoint a main narrative for this particular plot after watching thirty minutes of the film. I was able to detect various subplots in this production:

*Ross Poldark’s political mission regarding the possible end of the Peninsular War
*Demelza Carne Poldark’s frustration over her husband’s absence from home
*The arrival of smuggler Stephen Carrington in Cornwall, whose presence will have an impact upon others
*Clowance Polark’s romantic involvement both Carrington and Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, whom she met in London
*Jeremy Poldark, Carrington and Ben Carter’s smuggling operation
*Jeremy’s attraction to the well-born Cuby Trevanion
*Widower George Warleggan’s courtship of Lady Harriet
*Clash between the Poldarks and Warleggan over Wheal Leisure (mine)

This is a lot for a 102 minute television movie. If the HTV network really wanted to continue the “POLDARK” series with episodes that are adaptations of Graham’s last five novels, it should NOT have adapted all of “The Stranger from the Sea”in the space of 102 minutes. Another problem I had with the movie’s narrative is that it resumed the “Poldark” saga without any recollections or flashbacks on what previously happened during the 1975-1977 series. I would have dismissed this if the 1996 movie had aired less than a year after the last episode of the original series. But it aired nineteen (19) years after the original series’ last episode. Nineteen years. I think some narrative or recollection of what happened in the 1970s series should have been given before the story could continue.

On the other hand, I feel that the production had more or less found its footing some twenty or thirty minutes into the production. I actually found myself investing in the movie’s subplot – especially those that involved Jeremy and Clowance’s romantic lives. And I thought Richard Laxton did a pretty solid job in maintaining the movie’s pacing and conveying Graham’s story to the screen. The author had seemed satisfied with movie. Mind you, his attitude got him into trouble with his saga’s many fans. But I could see why he enjoyed the movie overall. It really is not that bad. Aside from the first twenty or thirty minutes, I found it easy to follow and rather enjoyable.

Some people blame the casting of John Bowe and Mel Martin as Ross and Demelza Polark for the ratings failure of“POLDARK”. This is probably the truth. Many viewers simply refused to accept the two performers as the leads . . . especially since the producers had originally considered Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees from the 1975-1977 series to reprise their roles. They also seemed displeased with Michael Atwell as George Warleggan, even though Ralph Bates, who had originated the role, had passed away five years before this movie aired on television.

I have to be honest. I did not have a problem with Bowe, Martin and Atwell. Both Bowe and Martin gave solid performances as Ross and Demelza Poldark. But to be honest, the screenplay did not allow their characters to be showcased that much during the first two-thirds of the movie. By the time the pair’s characters were finally reunited for the movie’s last half hour, both Bowe and Martin were allowed to strut their stuff . . . so to speak. This was especially true for Bowe in one scene with Michael Atwell. I certainly had no problems with Atwell’s portrayal of Ross Poldark’s long-time rival, George Warleggan. I found it very intense and complex. Atwell did not portray his character was a one-dimensional villain – especially in scenes that featured Warleggan’s continuing grief over his late wife Elizabth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan, who had died eleven years ago; or his rather odd courtship of the slightly intimidating Lady Harriet.

The production also featured first-rate performances from Nicholas Gleaves as Stephen Carrington, Hans Matheson as Ben Carter, Amanda Ryan as Cuby Trevanion and Gabrielle Lloyd as Jane Gimlet. But aside from Atwell, I felt the other two best performances in the production came from Kelly Reilly, who gave a very complex performance as Ross and Demelza’s daughter Clowance; and Ioan Gruffudd as the couple’s son, Jeremy. It was interesting to see both Reilly and Gruffudd when they were both near the beginning of their careers. Even then, the pair displayed the talent and screen presence that eventually made them well known.

In the end, I realized that I could not share the antagonism toward the 1996 televised movie “POLDARK”. Yes, I had a problem with the vague storytelling in the movie’s first half hour. And this adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1981 novel should have stretched out beyond a 102 minute television movie. But I still enjoyed it in the end, thanks to some exceptional and solid performances from the cast and the energy that seemed to infuse the subplots after that first thirty minutes. I would consider it a worthy addition to my collection of televised adaptations of Graham’s novels.

Five Favorite Episodes of “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES” Season One (2014)

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Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of AMC” “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES”. Created by Craig Silverstein, the series stars Jamie Bell:

 

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES” SEASON ONE (2014)

1 - 1.08 Challenge

1. (1.08) “Challenge” – Against the wishes of Abraham “Abe” Woodhull, one of the Culper Ring spies, fellow spy Anna Strong earches for enemy intelligence at an exclusive gentleman’s party hosted by British spymaster Major John Andre.

2 - 1.10 The Battle of Setauket

2. (1.10) “The Battle of Setauket” – Mary Woodhull discovers that Abe is a rebel spy. Other members of the spy ring, Major Benjamin Tallmadge and Lieutenant Caleb Brewster, lead a raid on the Long Island community, Setauket, to save the local Patriot families.

3 - 1.05 Epiphany

3. (1.05) “Epiphany” – During the 1776 Christmas holidays, Caleb and Ben follow mysterious orders, while General George Washington’s army crosses into enemy territory in New Jersey. Meanwhile, one of Anna’s recently freed slaves, Abigail, agrees to spy for the Rebels after she is assigned to work for Major Andre, if the former would agree to look after her son Cicero.

4 - 1.09 Against Thy Neighbor

4. (1.09) “Against Thy Neighbor” – British Army Captain John Graves Simcoe (at least the fictional version) ignites a political witch-hunt to weed out rebel conspirators in Setauket. General Washington assigns Ben to a secret mission.

5 - 1.06 Mr. Culpepper

5. (1.06) “Mr. Culpeper” – En route to New York, Abe is ambushed by a desperate patriot. Washington charges Ben with the task of creating America’s first official spy ring.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.