Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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I do enjoy the Coen Brothers work, but I can’t say I’m gushing over this latest picture. It’s fun in places and soars because of a fabulous cast but I felt it was perhaps scattered too much and bereft of a gripping plot.

We find ourselves in the 1950’s and mostly follow Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood honcho who helps stars and productions keep good press. That could become tricky though as feature star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) gets kidnapped in the midst of filming a religious epic called ‘Hail, Caesar!’. A group calling themselves The Future want money for his release and so Mannix must try to get Whitlock back.

Joel and Ethan Coen direct and write this lark and do so with a clear fondness for the way movies come together. The laughs can be found as actors or directors guffaw over choices, most explicitly in the repetitive yet genius scene between Ralph Fiennes’ directing worry with Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy icon of Hobie Doyle. The Coen’s flit between different sound stages letting us peek at differing productions which are amusing and interesting but this back and forth never gives the movie a sense of story or tension when there could have been. Without much of a plot this movie does look and sound more like a series of images to be loved by critics or classic film fanatics.

Roger Deakins, who really needs an Oscar by now, is on top form capturing wonder in this filmy feature. The glorious epic feel of the Romans sweeping through the screen or the synchronised swimmers gloriously twirling and floating around bombshell actress DeeAnna Moran played by bombshell actress Scarlett Johansson. It looks all the way through like a glorious picture of old, a love letter to the way movies used to be made.

The film did make me chuckle and grin but I never belted a laugh, and nor did many in the audience either, I feel this movie is more subdued and lacking of an engaging narrative than it should be. The angles it bounces off in become so many that characters are lost to minimal moments making them almost unnecessary. We see ideas skewed in from journalist stories, Capitalist thoughts, kidnap, pregnancy fixing, Communism and movie making that it doesn’t ever mesh, each point just hangs there never defined.

The characters are amusing though, their flourishes and their names being so wonderfully goofy and studio send ups. Thora/Thessaly Thacker, Burt Gurney and the winner – Laurence Laurentz. The dance number is toe-tappingly silly, Channing Tatum’s blonde flick and look backs are hilariously over the top and most character looks fall delightfully under the gormless idiot look that the Coen’s so brilliantly encapsulate in their writing. Only a shame that the characters aren’t backed up by a fun or rewarding plot.

Josh Brolin practically does everything as we see him do all the work, finding himself here there and everywhere trying to solve problems and ultimately bring back Baird. He is a straight man, not really demonstrating much comedy as George Clooney does that, going back to his ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ routine to play buffoonish and moronic. It’s not as good as that film or his performance in ‘Burn After Reading’ either but he is still having a ball. Alden Ehrenreich will be one to watch, he plays the singing Western star with such grounded believability that when he steps out of his comfort zone you feel for him, he ends up being the hero of the piece in my mind. Ralph Fiennes once again proves his unquestionable prowess for comic timing, in his two main scenes his face speaks volumes and his delivery adds even more. Scarlett Johansson pulls the cheesy starlet grin with no depth as the mermaid and then counters with a thick accent and a penchant for problems. Tilda Swinton fans get two for the price of one as she portrays twin journalists with a sense of striking fashion and similarly striking headlines. Frances McDormand is a smoking, scarf wearing editor that is merely a cameo but brings in one of the better moments as we see how well the Coen Bros can do dark material. Channing Tatum tap dances his way through as a sailor and more. Hail, Dumbledore! We even get Michael Gambon as a narrator just to make this whole thing more starry and more filmy filmy.

Flecks of brilliance and movie making behind the scenes comedy but a portion empty and flat for my liking. This Coen outing is boosted by a grand cast and a glowing adoration to movies of the golden era.

6.5/10

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The Big Lebowski (1998)

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A far out and surreal movie with cult classic status. A story filled with comedic ideas that ultimately pay off to nothing, as we realise this never ending criss cross of characters chasing money and a missing trophy wife is a complex plot with no importance. A fun idea that gives the film breathing time to play on mistaken identity, meddling friends and idiotic behaviour.

The Coen Brothers manage to create another comedy film whose source stems from the characters. Jeff Lebowski or as he likes to be called ‘The Dude’, is a slacker and a bowling guy, nothing is more important to him than his game, a White Russian and his rug but when some cronies attack him mistaking him for another Lebowski his life gets wrapped up in a kidnapping plot and many parties join the madness to turn his lazy world upside down.

The dialogue is pretty standard and becomes increasingly funny or annoying, there’s no inbetween. Dude is said a whole bunch of times probably more than any other word in the movie and this makes the script feel more bone idle which fits with the laid back trait of ‘The Dude’. More than anything the one constant piece of writing that made me smile was Walter forever shutting Donny down, he hardly speaks or joins a conversation late and after comedy timing Walter (John Goodman) swears at him leaving Donny (Steve Buscemi) to pretty much accept it. It’s a fun friendship in recognising the outsider role where he literally misses everything, gets left to sit in the car like a dog and then is the one to face tragedy for doing nothing at all. A sad yet darkly funny character arc.

Jeff Bridges as ‘The Dude’ is brilliant, he fits into the robe of his slovenly character with ease but he’s likeable in the fact he has kindness, he wants to do the right thing and he gets unwillingly caught up in a whole plethora of crap thanks to Germans, pornstars and his Vietnam buddy Walter. I don’t believe anyone else could play the role and that’s huge kudos to Bridges who is ‘The Dude’. John Goodman plays it greatly forever spouting knowledge he’s picked up along the way whether it’s rubbish or not. He tries to help but makes things worse, for instance bringing his dirty undies along as hostage ransom. Buscemi pulls fabulous faces as he grimaces his way through the small role given. John Turturro plays camp and mean with a Latino infused role as a rival bowling player called Jesus. Julianne Moore is barking mad as an off the wall artist who gets on side with ‘The Dude’ as a feminist and hater of her ex-husband’s new and missing wife. The entrance she has is fantastic and one of the most out there screen entrances I’ve seen. A character with numerous layers to what she wants to gain mirroring the structure of the film that peels back layers to differing ideas and characters all wanting something. Philip Seymour Hoffman squirms and displays uncomfort in his bit-part role as aide to the wealthy Lebowski. I also must give credit too to David Thewlis who shines in a tiny role as a insanely camp friend of Maude’s (Moore) and has a giggle that will echo in your mind for days. I realise I’ve wrote a lot about the cast but I feel like in this film they made a huge difference as the script seemed to lack something but the diverse offering of characters kept me engaged enough.

The film is sort of simple in it’s identity mix up narrative bookended by gravel toned voice over from ‘The Stranger’ who we meet in person in the bowling alley and find out who it is at the end. There’s golden moments such as the uzi going off as Walter bails from the car, the ash blowing back into ‘The Dude’s face, the German cutting a toe off for sod all and the private detective following who he thought was another PD. The hilarity of both cases taken to the meeting point being dummies is genius too and shows off the story as being a whole plot of possible danger with tricks around every corner and a simple outcome that both Lebowski’s don’t have anything to do with. The reveal is deliberately easy in where Bunny (Tara Reid) was, making everything that came before even more ludicrous.

The surreal dream sequences are probably the best parts of the film in my opinion, they’re clever and funny and….well surreal. You get flying Jeff Bridges, a bowling ball that plummets him to earth, Saddam Hussein handing out bowling shoes and a camera shot from within a bowling ball, a neat and cool little point of view angle. They more than anything speak for the odd nature of this slacker comedy and it’s cult classic tag. The way the bowling alley is shot too gives the film life, it somehow makes the bowling lanes feel like a spiritual place, the slow motion and soundtrack add to this emotion, it feels like you’re watching the men perform some ritual when they step up to the line. Those parts and the simple drive that all ‘The Dude’ wants is his rug to not be soiled and that he’d rather be bowling are the down to earth laid back things that make this film the mad farce it is, in him being embroiled in it all.

I was sadly a tad underwhelmed by the film as a whole expecting something different. I liked the idea of the conclusion, it being pointless and all but in it’s pointlessness I found it an aspect I didn’t enjoy. I also didn’t find the film as funny as I had believed it would be, there are some terrific moments and I chuckled a few times but apart from that it didn’t live up to the comedy stature I’d heard it being told as. I can see how it became a cult film and that it didn’t do great at the box office on release, as it’s not something striking (excuse the pun) from first viewing and is definitely not one of the Coen Brothers better pieces of work. Apart from these minor issues I did like the film and liked the stupidity of it all.

A fine and surreal if not overly laugh out loud case of mistaken identity, a missing woman and bowling that succeeds in its fun cast.

7.5/10