“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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“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.

Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.