Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

Hail, Caesar! PosterDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: February 5th, 2016 (US); March 4th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Mystery

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich

Hail, Caesar! might as well be a sequel to the Coen brothers’ early-90s writer’s block masterstroke, Barton Fink. The filmmaking duo are back on familiar turf, their gaze once again fixed upon their own industry, only this time it is an exploration of post-screenplay life. Set in 1951, a decade after Fink, we re-enter the mania of motion pictures during a time of internal and external struggle; as studios lose control within the self-contained confines of Hollywood, the real world is dealing with political crises and threats of nuclear decimation. Thankfully George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to spread some joy.

Even those wary of their thematic craftsmanship or storytelling abilities must hold the Coen brothers’ world creation to the highest of standards. Here, the duo conceive Capitol Pictures (another Fink throwback) in all of its glory: bombastic sets tinged with old charm; backlots bearing their own gravitational pull that revolve around the movie star present — when interested parties hear Baird Whitlock (Clooney) will be starring in their feature, the reaction is an audible “oh my”. And office doors get in on the excess, wearing flashy, golden-chrome nameplates. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from stunning work in Sicario, shoots the grandiosity with skill and a sense of cosiness. It all just looks right.

The studio system is on its last reels and given the aforementioned extravagance, it is plain to see why. The social zeitgeist is one of populism, of westerns and biblical epics designed to quell the moviegoer’s fear of Communism and nuclear war if only for a few hours at a time. On a side note, Hail, Caesar! and Trumbo might make a worthwhile double-bill as here we are introduced, teasingly, to the Communist cause without ever delving far into its core. The Coens are interested in the production line, the behind-the-scenes craziness, of which there are many components — too many for such political allegiance to warrant thorough analysis.

Eddie Mannix is the common thread binding those components, superbly played by Josh Brolin (straddling the line between aloofness and competence). He is not a moral man, or so his cigarette-decrying priest would have him believe. He is a studio fixer, that is, a liaison between star and head financier. As the story progresses Mannix increasingly takes the form of a walking, talking manifestation of movies as life’s be all and end all, therefore false pretences must be upheld and personalities must be moulded to suit the needs of a fearful America. “The public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” Mannix informs Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. She is pregnant and single, which is obviously a problem.

Less of a problem is the town’s new personality ready for shaping, that of proverbial cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is an amiable up-and-comer who has plied his trade horse-riding and lasso-snapping, though the Capitol leaders wish to broaden his appeal. Of course, the kid has no experience in dramatic acting, especially not in delivering the mirthless chuckles and ruefulness ordered by his new, pompous director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes in fine cameo form). Regardless, Hobie will be the next big thing because that’s what Mannix wants, and on the basis of his performance, Alden Ehrenreich will be too.

The movies we see in production adhere to a culture of emboldening, where lighting cues are so obviously artificial you cannot help but laugh when they announce themselves, and where acting is defined not by subtlety but by overemphasis. Clooney, playing the easily cajoled A-lister Baird Whitlock, is a master at such overemphasis: an early scene in which he is drugged by two plotting extras, the real life version of Pain and Panic from Hercules, ought to rouse significant amusement at the behest of his delayed water guzzling. It is a delay brought on by the actor’s strenuous effort to convey the hilarity of a joke, of course.

Whitlock spends the entirety of the film wearing the same gladiatorial costume and Clooney answers by sauntering like a Roman solider, sword a-swinging. We get those idiosyncratic moments, Coen watermarks, side quests not related to the central storyline but that are an absolute hoot to watch: two of the best in Hail, Caesar! involve a raucous religious rabble and an impromptu enunciation lesson. There is a sequence in the third act during which the piece knowingly gets ultra-meta: a late-night drive is montaged, scored by brass, Dutch angles invoked. It is like watching a movie within a movie about classic Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the need to accommodate as many kooky industry strands as possible means the film can’t be as richly textured as the Coens’ previous outings (although there are similarities with Barton Fink, deep thematic layering isn’t one). However, you are hoisted along with so much momentum by waves of nutty humour that it is almost impossible not to revel in it all. You find yourself gleefully anticipating the next big, showy scene, expecting it to topple the last in levels of arrant silliness — a high bar awaits tap dancing Tatum, though he sails through with flying colours.

Mannix spends time considering whether or not to ditch his Hollywood gig and assume an executive position at the aerospace organisation, Lockheed. A salesperson from the company occasionally appears, looking to coax Mannix into signing on the dotted line. “I’m sure the picture business is pretty damn interesting, but I’m sure it’s frivolous too,” the Lockheed man says. He’s right, in a wider world context, on both counts. Fortunately, thanks to movies like this and filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, that which is interesting far outweighs that which may be frivolous.

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Fargo (1996)

★★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: April 5th, 1996 (US); May 31st, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy

A jack of all trades, and perhaps one of the best. Shuttled forth by a bleakly comedic narrative, Fargo occasionally amps up the awkward, tie-loosening tension before ploughing right and left into a caveat of blunt criminality. There’s an inherently dramatic element too, the underbelly of bumbling luck and the ultimate tale of karma. The Coen brothers boast a unique style; precise in their crafting and often ironic in their delivery, a deliriously absorbing mantra that stretches far and wide here. Characters gargle seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue, yet a nonchalant poise often demands bouts of laughter. And therein lies the film’s most admirable quality: it makes you guffaw through moments of sadism, but never denounces you for doing so. The sibling duo at the helm aren’t overly serious in their direction (only when required), yet still manage to divulge a genuine sense of authentic story-telling. In Fargo, every scene holds a certain weight and although engagement with the particulars is at the viewer’s discretion, there’s never a sense of an overbearing burden. Yaaaa.

In Fargo, North Dakota, police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) — a woman as cheerful as she is pregnant — is called to a road-side accident harbouring two casualties. Only it’s not an accident, and is instead part of a series of unfortunate events set alight by car salesman Gerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in an attempt to recoup much needed cash for his family. A master plan that would garner appreciation from the likes of John Kramer, Gerry hires a pair of quintessential henchmen to kidnap his wife and subsequently demand an $80,000 ransom, the spoils of which would be shared between the trio of plotters. Only Gerry is deviously untangling his own personal puppeteering strings, ready to juggle them against his father-in-law in an attempt to gain one million dollars from the extravaganza. In Gerry’s anxiety-plastered eyes, family comes first… and last.

There’s an ever-present aura that wilfully jaunts around any Coen film. It’s easy to spot, deliberate in implementation but astutely subtle as to never degrade proceedings. Drawing upon the experience of 16 previous films, seeing the words “Joel and Ethan Coen” sprawl across the screen nowadays prompts an intrinsic knowledge that meticulous sardonicism will soon be lingering. Released when their three-decade-old filmmaking odyssey was eighteen years younger, Fargo might just be the sibling duo’s most complete diamond of irony. Some films might be more wholesome in their flippant ideology, for example O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its caper-esque comedic quality, whereas others will undoubtedly offer greater absorbency through numerous interpretations and delightful tones, such as Inside Llewyn Davis. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another Coen creation as genre-splicing as Fargo though, for this conglomeration of classification is what cinema is all about.

In a Minnesotan setting bitten by frost and populated with oddities constantly attempting to cover their innocuous tracks (“I don’t vouch for him”) the Coen brothers present and develop a number of wholly recognisable characters. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the absolute epitome of a caricature criminal partnership: the snivelling manipulator, out of his depth but armed with a motor mouth, and the dumb brute, purposeful only in violent outbursts or foul language. Gerry Lundegaard is the struggling businessman who ventures further into the ocean of uncertainty than he should, and is all the more blundering for it. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson has more money than patience, and decreases in accessibility when he knows his cash is at risk (“A lotta damn money” is one of the funniest gags). These characters are familiar, but they are also affectionately handled and escorted through a variety of tonal preoccupations, from comedy to crime to drama, constantly forging energy and slap-stick-like commotion. Our child-bearing detective Marge is the only figure who detours from the norm; noticeably pregnant, deliriously good-humoured and actively chasing murderers are three traits that do not often mesh together. This hodgepodge collection of characters coupled alongside a narrative that explodes with vibrancy, will refrain from giving you enough time to reflect on what just happened before it makes you ponder what’s going to happen next.

Yet, in spite of a growing sense of madness, the Coens always appear fully in control. Although the narrative is idiosyncratic — one minute a Steve Buscemi facial expression will have your jaw aching and the next a gunshot will leave you in shock — there is a point, a certain method, to all on-screen antics. The craziness of each character reflects the madness of his or her actions, prompting us to consider the length of a person’s sanity during tough times, whilst simultaneously sending out a nod towards the wondrous scope of cinema. Masterfully, the Coens develop a blunt and sadistic sense of realism amongst the hilarities. Fargo details karma as a rapid mule with more bite than the cold landscape from which it festers. In this tale of people playing people playing people, only the people face the consequences.

Shepherded by Roger Deakins’ icy cinematography, the arctic setting becomes a player of its own as it seeps into every other aspect of the film. Most characters endure cold minds. Lasting shots of mundaneness appear frozen to the screen. There’s a stiff lack of motivation, embodied emphatically by Marge’s police partner who can only conjure up phrases such as, “Watch your step Margie,” and, “You okay Margie?” as the heavily pregnant woman inspects dead bodies. Even the comedy is frosty — plotting and kidnapping is carried out in an atmosphere far more jovial than intense. Though, the funny buck stops at murder, an action presented more chillingly and viscerally than any other.

Regular Coen contributors Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi are once again on hand and, alongside William H. Macy, deliver terrific performances. Humour is the common denominator for the trio, though the source varies. For McDormand, an incessant politeness in the face of violence and misnomer creates a peculiar dynamic. McDormand’s poise throughout sees Marge one step ahead of the game, even when she’s a day or two behind the others. Entirely the opposite, then, is Macy as the bumbling goof businessman Gerry. Gerry’s idiocy is built from a spectrum of nervous facial expressions and worried posturing; an unassured plight that sees no positive solution. He’s anxious to a T, but so dud-like that you sort of expect his ridiculous plan to come off in a spectacularly inadvertent fashion. The third of three great performances derives from the acting chops of Steve Buscemi, whose raging demeanour funds a big-mouthed little guy not far removed from Tommy DeVito. He relentlessly contradicts himself and thus withholds attracting seriousness, but it’s obvious that Buscemi is having a blast with the role and fun is infectious. It also helps that he gets many of the funniest quips.

The Coen brothers leave nothing to chance and inject Fargo with fastidious application — it’s no surprise that a wintry white landscape pronounces vivid red blood. The film will keep you guessing, is littered with humour and completely embraces the medium from which it thrives. In doing so, it even has the wherewithal to reflect on the outrageousness of its characters’ wrong-doings.

In the often correct words of Roger Ebert, “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies”.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.

The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.

On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.

James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.

Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.

The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.