Monday, 7 March 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Hot Hail

Hail, Caesar!
2016 UK/USA/Japan
Directed by The Coen Brothers
UK cinema release print.

Ha! You know, when I first saw a trailer for this movie on the internet sometime last year, I thought the idea of this one looked promising but I was in no way expecting this to be a good movie. It looked like a whole bunch of actors and film-makers having a whale of a time and, quite often when this happens, you often find the people making the movie are going to have a far better time than the audience who are going to be watching this. I might cite the 1967 version of Casino Royale or 2015’s Mortdecai (reviewed here) as examples where this tactic seems to seriously backfire on the studio.

Another problem I have, and which made me fairly wary is that, much as I love some of the Coen’s movies dearly, I do find them a bit hit and miss and, over the last five or six years, I have found their movies definitely in the miss category, for me. I love the Coens of The Big Liebowski, Oh Brother Where Art Thou and The Man Who Wasn’t There but some of their other stuff seems to be less emotionally involving to me.

Well, I needn’t have worried on either count, as it happens, because although it took me 20 minutes or so to warm up to their latest opus, Hail, Caesar!, I absolutely loved it, once it got going. The film stars Josh Brolin as famous Hollywood ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, a fictional version of the real person who works here in a made up studio where thinly disguised ‘Coenised’ movies from Hollywoodland’s rich legacy are in production. When famous film star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney as a kind of Charlton Heston via Victor Mature type, is kidnapped from the set before the completion of his latest movie Hail, Caesar!, it’s up to Eddie to get him back while still trouble shooting other problems with various stars who work for the studio.

In a nice touch to the William Wyler version of Ben Hur, the fictional Hail, Caesar! shares the exact same subtitle of that movie, A Tale Of The Christ. There’s even a hilarious scene where Clooney is trying to channel the same look of reverence that Heston does in Ben Hur, when Christ gives him water on his journey to be a galley slave, although the roles are slightly twisted around here, just like a lot of other stuff in this movie is nicely subverted... such as the gay subtext highlighted with a joke in the sailor’s song and dance number performed by Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, this film’s equivalent of Gene Kelley.

Other people who populate this film are Tilda Swinton in a kind of dual role playing a kind of ‘twins’ version of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz and Scarlet Johannson doing a kind of earthy version of famous water dancer Esther Williams. The character which made it completely watchable for me though, is the role of Alden Ehrenreich as ‘singing cowboy’ sensation Hobie Doyle. I don’t know who this guy is but he’s phenomenal. Sure, he gets some good laughs in scenes with Ralph Fiennes character as the studio attempt to ‘change his image’ but it’s his other role in the film which really help bring this all to life.

Hobie is obviously a parody of the Roy Rogers/Gene Autrey cowboy stars of yesteryear and can perform some neat tricks as demonstrated here. He even has his very close parody of a Gabby Hayes style sidekick who, obviously, gets all the laughs from the fictional audience when he takes his date to see one of his films. And about that ‘date’. This movie is very much a film watcher’s movie... like a Quentin Tarantino piece, a lot of the pleasure in watching it is derived from how many famous movie references you can pick up on. A real movie spotter’s pursuit, is this. We only hear her name teased a few times in the movie, for a while, and as soon as I heard her name, Carlotta Valdez, my brain was on fire. I spent the next twenty minutes or so of the movie agonising where I’d heard it before until it finally kicked in and I realised that this was the name of the fictional, historical figure that Kim Novak is pretending to be channeling for the benefit of James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo. Oh my gosh, I thought to myself, are they going to go the whole hog and make her look like the ‘Portrait of Carlotta’ right down to the iconic hairstyle in the Hitchcock movie?

As the film wore on and I realised the Coens weren’t taking the strength of their parody too seriously (I’ll get to that in a minute) I then started thinking that maybe they were going to have Hobie dating a parody of the Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez, herself. As it happens, it turns out Hobie is dating a version of the famous actress Carmen Miranda and, it has to be said, Veronica Osorio, the wonderful actress playing her here, makes it more than apparent who she’s supposed to be in her very first scene. She is an absolute delight in the role and her scenes with Alden Ehrenreich, as Hobie entertains her with both a real lasso and, later, a spaghetti lasso, are just so charming they will probably win your heart right over. However, Hobie’s solo scenes as he goes after the kidnappers are equally great and... I’ll briefly mention those in a little while.

George Clooney, of course, is also brilliant in his role and when it turns out he’s kidnapped by communist writers, his scenes with them are pretty funny too. And it was nice to see Patrick Fischler as one of those writers... I always wondered what had happened to that guy who played the video store clerk in Ghost World and... here he is. He has a very distinctive face which makes him a good person if you want someone to stand out and add texture to a crowd. Clooney is marvellous, though, and the more stuff he makes these days which border on almost parodying himself, to an extent (with a little bit of stretch), forces me to admire him more and more as both an actor and a star as the years go by. Some people might be afraid to take on this kind of role but, as usual, Clooney gives it his all.

Now there are some problems with the parody in this movie, to be sure, and I’ll highlight those soon enough, but one of the things which made me stop worrying about the authenticity of a lot of the stuff on show in the movie is that, it soon becomes obvious that the Coen’s just don’t worry too much about making it all authentic. These are broad strokes which create a brief impression rather than full blown homage and, as such, it kinda works at its own level. Where it’s less satisfying is when some aspects of a parody are finely tuned to the smallest details but maybe slightly tarnished by another element being less so...

For example, the sailor’s song and dance number, headed up by Channing Tatum, is an incredible movie moment. It’s clear that the choreography and dialogue of those big MGM mid-fifties numbers have been studied here to the nth degree. And Tatum has obviously been looking at Gene Kelly and the way he moves, the way his face expresses (or doesn’t always) and the way he delivers his lines... it all works really well. As does the consistency of the simplicity of the colour scheme of the set being used. However, what doesn’t work about this scene is the veracity of those colours themselves. The MGM films used to be... well, over the top and almost over saturated beyond belief in those movies... the colours here, while simply wrought, have none of the luminosity of the hues used in the films the Coens are trying to emulate in this scene... which kind of spoiled the overall effect of it, for me.

Another example would be Carter Burwell's score throughout the movie. Now this must have been a dream job for a composer to work on as he has to cover a range of musical styles due to the nature of the content... but I noticed that he was more successful in some styles than others... although that might not have been his fault. For instance, the music he delivers for the Hail, Caesar! movie within a movie scenes are typical in structure and tone of the kinds of scores these films were getting by the likes of Dr. Miklos Rozsa but... well, they just don’t seem to have the same punch or over the top-ness, over scored quality of the originals. However, like I said, it might not be the composer’s fault, it might just be mixed too far back into the background compared to the way the music would have been mixed into a genuine Roman/Religious epic of the mid 1950s so... well I’ll find out once the CD arrives.

The composer does do some really great stuff here too though and, getting back to Hobie going after the kidnappers, the scenes where the Coen’s get almost metatextual and use the vernacular of the 1940s and 1950s film noirs to tell that part of Hobie’s story is faithfully backed up by Burwell with something which really does the trick in those sequences. So, yeah... looking forward to this score arriving in the post sometime soon.

And that’s what I thought of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! Once it starts coasting along the movie is a real breath of fresh, or maybe that should be reconditioned, air midst a cinematic climate where no other film is being made quite like this one at the moment. So as far as subject matter and approach are concerned, there’s nothing else like it out there currently... so if you want to see something different then check this one out. I, for one, had a great time with this movie and if you’re a fan of old school Hollywood movies then you’ll probably have a good evening with this one. Definitely a big thumbs up for this one... if I had a massive, giant thumb to do that with.

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