Hail, Caesar!

HailDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlet Johansson, and a boatload of others you will recognize including The Highlander!

I want to start this off by simply saying, Josh Brolin is today’s Humphrey Bogart.  The man knows how to rock a fedora and deliver a knuckle sandwich to any nosebleed who doesn’t know how to treat a dame (more on this in my Gangster Squad review).  It’s hard to believe that while Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to tackle westerns, crime, folk music, The Odyssey, even bowling, they have yet to take aim at the very business that has made them so successful for over 30 years, cinema!  Hail, Caesar! rectifies this glaring omission in their filmography and as impeccably as one would expect.

Hail, Caesar! has a plot, but that’s not why it’s good.  Basically, the film follows studio executive, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to keep his talent in line by covering up scandals and fixing production mishaps.  The film’s title is a reference to Mannix’s big-budget prestige picture for the studio starring mega-star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) that tells the “story of the Christ.”  When Whitlock suddenly goes missing, Mannix searches the studio lot for clues to his whereabouts.

Like I said, the key to this film is not the plot.  Like most classic cinema, the plot is a device to direct the entertainment.  The Coens revel in the glory days of cinema as Whitlock’s disappearance leads Mannix to wander from studio set to studio set and consequently from beautifully staged genre scene to beautifully staged genre scene.  Hail, Caesar! gives the Coens license to film Gene Kelly- style musical numbers, Gary Cooper-style western scenes, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming spectacles, and high society dramatic capers all within the context of one goofy plotline.

Furthermore, the screen is filled with trademark quirky characters, some of which look to be lost from a Wes Anderson movie (I’m talking to you Ralph Fiennes!).  Still, an important consideration is that my admiration for this film has little, almost nothing, to do with the characters or the actors.  The closest thing to a classic and fully developed character comes in the form of Alden Ehrenreich’s role as a Gene Autry-type western actor named Hobie Doyle who is forced into a role that is way out of his comfort zone. His battle with the phrase, “Would that it were so simple” is very enjoyable.  Otherwise, the reason to see this film is for its harkening back to the classic days of cinema through the lens of the Coen brothers.  The all-star cast may get people in the seats, but this film will disappoint if you are expecting to spend much time with some of your favorite movie stars.  In fact, recognizable faces are strung together in such a way that once one actor goes off screen another comes in; it’s like a wack-a-mole of Hollywood stars.  Put simply, this is a movie for people who have a fondness for the art and presentation of the movies themselves.  If your ears perk up when a character is introduced as “Carlotta Valdez,” then this is a movie for you.

I make this distinction about Hail Caesar! because I feel it can disappoint if audiences go in with the wrong mindset, but it will dazzle and entertain if they go in with another.  While the film celebrates the importance of plot and actors, you almost have to put all of that aside to fully enjoy this movie.  In fact, the preposterous climactic scene involving the acts of a group of Communists is so absurd, the Coens are basically begging you to reexamine the point of this film.  Hail, Caesar! is a blast though, and likely not a coincidence that it is released amidst wider releases of all of the 2015 Oscar contenders.  The film revels in the eminence of motion pictures and can be seen as perhaps a thoroughly satisfying appetizer worth seeing before this year’s Academy Awards. B+

Hail, Caesar! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes. 

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Spectre

Spectre Movie PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw

The end may be near for James Bond…at least the one that looks like Daniel Craig.  In a recent interview, Craig made it wildly clear that he is not into doing another Bond movie.  While that may change, it means that Spectre, the 24th official Bond film, may be one that passes the torch to a new Bond, a distinction that only five of the films really have (although it gets kind of messy with Lazenby and Connery).  Craig’s four Bond films have been received rather tremendously.  His unconventional approach and downplaying of Bond’s silly side has seemingly revitalized the franchise and brought an air of respect back to the character.  Still, Spectre makes nearly all of the same mistakes that caused me to knock Skyfall last time and Quantum of Solace before that.   Fool me once shame on you, fool me 24 times, shame on me.

****Warning, minor spoilers regarding Christoph Waltz follow.  Do not read any further if you do not want to know about his character.****

Like Skyfall, Spectre starts in classic Bond style with a strong, action-packed opening as 007 sleeks through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival to track down and kill a man who plans to blow up a packed stadium on behalf of a mysterious organization.  These opening scenes are certainly the crown jewel in the Bond film formula and have been elevated to a new level in the Mendes/Craig era.  The rest of the film revolves around this mysterious organization, later revealed to be SPECTRE, and the hunting down of its leader, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  Unlike many previous Bond installments, the Craig films capping with Spectre are actually a much more woven series of sequels than their predecessors.  Director Sam Mendes, who made the two most recent Bond films, used Skyfall to introduce a thematic thread about chastising the egoism of youth and praising the wisdom of age. The film delved deeper into the inner workings of James Bond and by the end, casual throwbacks to earlier “older” Bond trappings were scattered throughout including vintage Aston Martins and the introduction of a Miss Eve Moneypenny.  Now with Spectre, even casual Bond fans are aware of what director Mendes and his screenwriters are doing here.  Fifty years of films are coming full circle as the supervillain that sought to destroy Sean Connery in From Russia with Love is rebooted and reloaded to strike again!

Rebooting and remaking is definitely the name of the game in entertainment lately and while some are hits, I am not excited about seeing James Bond go back to square one.  This is especially a grim turn for female characters.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) does her best to keep this film from being too shallow, but it still may be the most sexist film since San Andreas. Still, the thing that makes Bond tick is the brazen confidence in the face of unspeakable danger, and Spectre has a good dose of that.  The action scenes in this film deliver.  Does it have as much as Skyfall?  No.  Is it miles above other recent tent pole action films in its genre like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation?  No.  To me Spectre feels like a set-up film much like 2013’s Man of Steel felt like a set-up film.  Yes it’s another installment of something that’s been around a while.  Yes, all of the familiar things you expect to see are there, but at the end it feels stretched out, belabored, and even a little monotonous until the end where the hints at what’s to come make you wish you could skip this movie and go right to the next one.

Aside from its pacing, the other unfortunate letdown is Waltz as Blofeld.  What seemed like brilliantly ideal casting at first kind of fizzles out when implemented.  First of all, Waltz does not appear in the film for nearly an hour into the already overlong film.  Perhaps the original intent was to have Waltz’s casting and/or character be a surprise, but the marketing would have you believe otherwise.  Secondly, his introduction after the build-up is absurdly underwhelming, which is a shame when you ponder the potential of having Christoph Waltz play your hero/anti-hero supporting role…it’s kind of his thing!  Javier Bardem’s turn as Silva in Skyfall, while not perfect was far more satisfying than the missed opportunity that is Waltz in Spectre.

Spectre is in full nostalgia mode and not looking forward.  If this is a good thing, remains to be seen, but apparently everything old is new again in the world of Bond. C+

Spectre is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

ImageThe films of director Wes Anderson have obtained a cult status with a shrewd and astute base of fans. His niche style of film making is chocked full of trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and plots that can be best described as Norman Rockwellesque…on acid. However, with 2012’s Oscar nominated film, Moonrise Kingdom and this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is looking to expand his fan base not by sacrificing any of his trademark oddities but by writing brilliant characters who are far more developed than those in his previous films.

Moonrise Kingdom was a nearly perfect cinematic experience, and it was Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward that made the film so enjoyable from start to finish. Anderson capitalizes on this character-driven amusement again with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of a fictional Eastern European hotel located in the republic of Zubrowka and the concierge, Gustave, whose reputation elevated it to its legendary status.

Told in flashback through the eyes of Gustave’s trusted lobby boy, Zero Moustafa to a young author, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a murder-mystery story that takes place between the World Wars where the Hotel becomes the constant in an ever-changing European continent.

Starting out in 1985, the story jumps and bounces through three main time periods. An aging author (Tom Wilkinson) addresses the audience to discuss how a writer is able to tell great stories. He mentions that great writers establish credibility with those with great stories so that they can write them. The film then jumps to 1968 where an adult Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the outrageous and fabled story of Gustave to a young author (Jude Law) about his own life under the charge of the famous M. Gustave.

Gustave is established as a gifted concierge who sacrifices often to bring joy and comfort to the guests of The Grand Budapest. When an affluent and elderly guest (a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton) passes away, the future of the hotel and the future of a rare renaissance painting are in jeopardy as the selfish family of the deceased are pitted against the preservationist Gustave.

Fiennes is excellent as Gustave, emphasizing the importance of identity, culture, and heritage in a time of extreme instability. His fearless adventures find he and Zero in all kinds of situations where they must rely on a slew of imaginative supporting characters all from the mind of Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, like many of Anderson’s films, has a fabled tone and novel-style plot progression. It also has spirit and heart that are on full display. Never has an Anderson film had more fun with foul language, dark subject matter, and true human consequences. This elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to the height of Anderson’s achievements. A-

The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Skyfall

ImageSkyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 50th year and 23rd film in that time. For those familiar with the franchise, it is not rare to see the world of Bond tweaked, updated, modernized, and “freshened up.” Skyfall is a very different Bond film, in that regard. It seems director, Sam Mendes goes out of his way to saturate his film with thematic trappings that chastise the egoism of youth and praise the wisdom of age. This is an intriguing direction to take, but it does slightly miss the mark.

In Skyfall, Daniel Craig reprises the legendary role for his third time. After a tragic mishap in Turkey, Bond finds himself off the grid and at a crossroads. A surprise attack on MI 6 forces his hand to once again enter the fray of espionage where he is met with doubt and reservation both by M (Judi Dench) and newly appointed Chairman of Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). It seems the world of espionage has become a digital one and the artistry of the field operative is becoming superfluous. Nonetheless, Bond is reassigned to active duty to track down an ex-operative and cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem), fueled by revenge against those in the British government whom he believes betrayed him.

The Bond films that rest on a revenge storyline are historically some of the weakest entries in the history of Bond, and this one fits nicely in that group as perhaps the best of the weak. The action starts strong in classic Bond style, as 007 chases down a terrorist with a hard drive that contains all of the identities of undercover agents throughout the world. Bond and M’s relationship is explored in Skyfall in much more depth than ever before, and this film does advance the mythology of Bond a bit more than some other previous entries. However, the film does hit a snag as Bond goes through the motions of tracking down leads throughout China. It is in China where Bond delivers his line, “Bond, James Bond,” and it is also where he drinks a Heineken (Heineken reportedly paid $45 million dollars to have Bond sip their brew in Skyfall). Furthermore, the climax, which does reveal the film’s namesake, also feels a bit clunky and hokey. While Bardem’s villain, Silva does provide some memorable scenes, he is simply a melodramatic excuse to allow Bond to remind us not to underestimate the power of some spit and elbow grease. Silva is, instead, a missed opportunity to chew the scenery along side some of the best Bond villains.

Skyfall is not a bad Bond movie, and it is certainly not a bad movie. Sam Mendes accomplishes his goal of creating a heavy-handed thematically driven exploration of Bond’s inner workings. This is by no means a bad idea. However, this deviation from expectations is not executed with precision and allows the film to flounder in parts. There are some sequences that are absolutely heart pounding and the film leaves us eager to see what’s next; just don’t expect to see your Heineken investment pay off just yet. B-