Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

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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

Clooney and the Coens, Together Again?

O Brother Where Art Thou - Clooney 2

According to Deadline, George Clooney is set to reteam with the Coen brothers on Suburbicon, a noir-drama penned by the sibling duo. It appears Clooney will be taking up the directorial reigns, the silver-haired silver screen star having already successfully overseen the making of other outings such as his beautifully crafted 2005 piece, Good Night, and Good Luck.

The screenplay has been languishing in the bowels of Hollywood, or Coen-wood, for at least a decade — Empire reported on Clooney’s potential involvement as far back as 10 years ago — but now the stars seem to have finally aligned for the trio. Clooney and the Coens have been working together since 2000 when the actor starred in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an uproarious Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Only the Coen brothers could conceive a Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Their collaborative portfolio portfolio also includes Intolerably Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008).

Clooney & Coens

Despite the lengthy waiting period, details remain fairly sketchy regarding Suburbicon’s plot, though I suspect it’ll have something to do with crazed unicorns wreaking havoc on a quiet suburban locale. Whatever the case may be, should Deadline’s report come to fruition Clooney will certainly be hoping for a more positive critical outcome than that fostered by his last directorial product, The Monuments Men.

Joel and Ethan will direct Clooney again in their latest upcoming venture Hail, Caesar! which is set for release early next year and could figure prominently throughout awards season. The film harkens back to 1950s Hollywood and will see Clooney star as big name actor Baird Whitlock who is kidnapped mid-production. Fixer Josh Brolin is the man called in to solve the should-be entertaining mystery. Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand are among a host of other actors involved.

If the trailer is anything to go by Hail, Caesar! will be another gloriously shot brash comedy with sardonic skin. In other words, one you ought not to miss. Channing Tatum is playing an actor playing a sailor — look at that grin for goodness’ sake!

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: Indiewire, Vanity Fair, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesUniversal Studios

Sicario (2015)

★★★★

Sicario PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (US); October 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Drama

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

For Denis Villeneuve, Sicario marks something of a departure from Enemy’s odd intricacies and the personal anguish of Prisoners. It has more in common with the latter — a nasty streak and a bleak underbelly — but Villeneuve’s third English-language outing is a different beast entirely. It’s a very cold film. There is so much bloodshed that you almost become impervious to feeling, though attempts to humanise its various players are admirable and fairly successful. Sicario’s concerns are wrapped up in the (under)world of grisly cartels, and in how the war on drugs has fostered moral imprecision, even on the ‘good side’.

FBI agent Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt) is part of that good side, and one of only a few individuals whose outlook relays consistent righteousness. We realise instantly that Kate is both strong and capable, yet not at all infallible. Nobody is for that matter — when her team finds a myriad of deceased bodies plastered behind the walls of a house, physical and mental repulsion take over (there’s a lot of vomiting). This discovery triggers an IED explosion that kills two agents, setting in motion a covert investigation into some serious criminal wrongdoing. Kate, driven by a need for revenge, volunteers for the job.

She has to navigate a landscape dominated by important-looking men wearing suits and asking personal questions (“Do you have a husband?”). Josh Brolin’s Matt Garver is one of those men, an advisor-cum-field officer whose macho posture is supported by a spine of arrogance — for some reason he wears sandals during mission briefs. Garver leads the field operation, batting back Kate’s inquisitive questions with vague swings; you get the sense his unwillingness to reveal all has less to do with bureaucracy infecting law than it does pomposity.

Pitting Kate in amongst cowboys and sheriffs and gruff Texans with gristly beards seems to be Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s way of acknowledging reality while also challenging the effectiveness of a masculine culture. While most of the men — not all, Kate’s partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is similarly noble, though he too is portrayed as an outsider — are energised by the presence of their egos, Kate, indiscreet and somewhat inexperienced, is our key moral fibre. It’s through her gaze that we peer into an immoral world, and it increasingly feels like only her actions can reshape said immorality.

Sicario is clear in its admission that nothing is clear. People are neither good nor bad (in fairness some are quite bad) but instead exist somewhere along an ethical spectrum. A Mexican cop whom we visit throughout the film is shown interacting with his family, particularly his football-loving son. Joe Walker’s editing — which cuts from the search operation to the officer’s modest home — implicates the cop in some form of corruption, yet his family-conscious roots are never invalidated. The vast majority of people on-screen are treated as human beings, a trait often missing in films that depict warring factions (see American Sniper).

If government agencies and drug cartels are the factions at war, Juárez, Mexico is the battlefield. The city is introduced as a final level boss: maze-like, audibly inscribed with tales of dread, bookended by a pulsating score. It’s the urban equivalent of Everest’s Death Zone — the longer you stay, the more likely you are to die. Perennial, and future, Oscar nominee Roger Deakins often gives scenes time to breath, funding the perception of encroaching danger. Civic infection has wreaked havoc upon the people of Juárez, so much so that civilian life is now inseparable from criminal activity. Just ask Silvio, the aforementioned policeman.

Early on, we take a drive through the cartel capital in a stretch of truly exceptional filmmaking. It’s tense, eerily subdued. It makes you feel ill, and its conclusion ushers forth one of the most anxiety-ridden traffic jams in silver screen history. Following the film’s incredible opening third (which is ostensibly a 40-minute horrorfest) the pulse inevitable drops. What follows isn’t quite as interesting; it’s the downtime between assignments, where Kate and co. swan around bars and stare diligently at maps, invoked to add character depth.

One of those characters is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the titular sicario. Del Toro saunters on screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. Gillick says very little, affording extra reverence to the few words he does speak: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time”. Or, in layman’s terms, conquering a complicated cartel network is inescapably complex.

Lines are blurred and identities masked in Sicario’s post-9/11 society. This is Zero Dark Thirty with a narcotic skin. There is a wonderful sequence that precedes the final act (at which point the tension re-escalates): darkened human silhouettes descend into the black abyss below a brooding, orange-tinted skyscape. It’s a sublimely serene moment in a film otherwise dominated by impending threat. The serenity, like life in Juárez, is short-lived.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Everest (2015)

★★★★

Everest PosterDirector: Baltasar Kormákur

Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (UK); September 25th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson

“One in four died.” That’s the first thing we see on screen, a solitary line in a block of informative dialogue detailing the worrisome history of Everest expeditions. It is our dramatic lever, pulled at the inception just in case we’re not already aware of Mount Everest’s indiscriminate harshness. Throughout, numerous avalanches interrupt our viewing but unlike the false threat exhumed from similar-looking shots in the alpine-set Force Majeure, the danger here is very real.

William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (which may or may not be based on John Krakauer’s Into Thin Airdraw your own conclusions) sheds light and dark on the late-90s mountaineering disaster involving rival trekking companies. Going in bereft of any knowledge probably isn’t much of an advantage; there is a moment at around the forty minute mark that essentially earmarks the film’s ending. It is one of those disaster movie clichés — Titanic’s “You jump, I jump”; any conversation between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon — that acts as a sentimental forewarning.

Admirably, it is the only instance of pure sentimentality in a film more concerned with truth. Everest is cold, at times freezing, but authentic and gripping and no less emotionally involving as a result. Realising the dangers of a crowded field, opposing expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — the former is excellent, relaying an exhausting and exhaustive performance — opt to team up during a simple scene bound by numerous layers: it shows two experienced climbers anxiously bowing at the mercy of the mountain, but does so in a manner that provides one of the film’s only junctures of light relief.

Fischer asks who will lead when they near the summit, and both men laugh. There is clarity in his words, an assertion that the need to achieve will always usurp the right to survive. Or, if you like, it’s just a rare chance to giggle. Baltasar Kormákur hones in on the competition between colleagues, a smart move that affords these men and women who are otherwise embroiled in an unrelatable escapade a degree of accessibility.

Invoked from the get-go, this competitive edge mirrors a layer of unsettled snow poised to subside at any moment. At the beginning the banter is weightless — it’s there, but the sly digs between Josh Brolin’s Texas-bred Beck Weathers and the aforementioned journalist John Krakauer carry an ominous undercurrent. The film’s atmosphere is driven by poorly disguised trepidation, and you just know something has to give. “There is competition between every person on this mountain,” says the hippie-esque Fischer, and it is palpable. But any interplay between the climbers is superfluous and Fischer acknowledges this shortly thereafter, declaring the mountain will inevitably have the last word.

In a sense Everest is about the pull of an unavoidable thrill. “Why?” asks Krakauer as he documents the climbers’ journey. “Because it’s there,” is the comically-inclined universal reply, but it is also the best reply the mountaineers can muster. Nobody really has a solid answer — postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) talks about his desire to be the everyman who conquered the monster and achieved the impossible. We’re left to ponder whether the reward eclipses the risk, a contemplation that becomes increasingly one-sided the more Hall’s pregnant wife (a game Keira Knightley) appears. Various other members of the group give their reasons: Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) references her need to complete the Seven Summits, having already commandeered the other six.

But each response to Krakauer is admonished with persiflage. It is as if the alpinists know the risk is too great, and they’ve simply given in to the thrill. An unfortunate offshoot of the film’s competition element is a spot about the completion of a celebratory magazine article. Emily Watson, who graciously adds oomph to her fairly thankless role as a glorified receptionist (the actors are very good en masse in generally underfed roles), is stressed about her company receiving a bad review in the midst of the encumbering drama, a whim that feels tonally fake.

Death is an inevitability and when it occurs it is visceral in a non-violent way. Shades of grey don’t exist; the landscape yields either white tundras or black crevasses, and as such when people pass they do so bluntly. Analysing the effectiveness of a death scene in this instance feels egregious and unnecessary, particularly given the victims are real people, but Kormákur does handle said moments with candour and, crucially, without mawkishness. Mass amounts of clothing and equipment make it difficult to differentiate between those on screen, reinforcing the notion that on Everest individuals are merely pawns, merely statistics.

Kormákur’s direction is adroit initially, and it gets better as things get worse. We often see the misty, black peak looming over base camp like a plague. Oxygen masks quickly resemble gas masks. Each second the climbers spend plodding up slopes represents an ounce of life extracted from their bodies. This dangerous aura is complemented by Salvatore Totino’s visual flair — the snow-covered ridges could easily pass for one of The Two Towers’ awe-inspiring New Zealand shots.

Enhanced by booming screening room speakers (Everest is definitely a cinema movie), the sound design frequently jabs at your solar plexus. You instinctively breathe a little more vociferously when things start to go wrong and the outing’s audio power does nothing to ease the tension. There is one tranquil shot that is particularly wonderful; at twilight, camped in the eye of the storm, the camera pans calmly around Hall and co. as they gaze longingly at their lofty goal.

Everest stays true to its subjects in a way that is both compelling and respectful, even if some individuals don’t receive the attention they likely should due to the constraints posed by an excessively large cast. By the end, as the credits paid tribute to many of those involved, I found myself in a morose state of sadness, agitation and admiration. For a ‘big disaster movie’, that’s pretty good going.

Everest

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

★★★★★

Guardians of the Galaxy PosterDirector: James Gunn

Release Date: July 31st (UK); August 1st (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

As far as pure cinema goes, Guardians of the Galaxy has all the boxes covered. Sure, we’ve been running on the fumes of superhero momentum for a few years now and with a behemoth such as Marvel Studios behind the film, entering expecting entertainment is an entirely justifiable frame of mind. But James Gunn’s picture never rests on any laurels, it is not satisfied with simply entertaining. Guardians of the Galaxy sets out to interact with the paying customer, to re-establish the genre whilst also refining it. There are laughs, plenty of ’em. Societal threads designed to make us think. And real characters, most importantly. This isn’t just a great addition to the Marvel ranks, it is also a great piece of cinema.

Having lived twenty-six years of his life aboard a scavenger spaceship, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) somewhat innocuously finds in his possession a universe altering orb. The artefact is highly sought after, by none more so than Thanos (Josh Brolin). In an attempt to scupper the success of a threatening deal made between Thanos and Kree radical Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Quill joins forces with an alien, a warrior, a tree humanoid and a raccoon. Chaos? Ensue.

Balance is pivotal, just ask the bloke in prison with only one leg. Gags, thrills and seriousness are all elements that see plenty of daylight under the astute guidance of James Gunn, a decision that wholly benefits the director’s film. It is tough too, cementing each individual strand without compromising the whole, a concoction Iron Man 3 failed to measure correctly (and look what happened there). Guardians of the Galaxy never stumbles into said pitfall and instead thrives on variation. If the essence of tip-top filmmaking is versatility, we’re looking at a lofty outing. As an audience overly saturated with superhero escapades, we need more. A divergence from the, albeit rather fun, company line. We need space adventures and fresh motives, and both are on the menu here.

As Peter Quill and co’s gallivanting adventures scamper between wondrously constructed civilisations, it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher what might happen next. Mystery and intrigue swivel in and flurry around proceedings, at which point our minds are buzzing with a thirst for more. 10 films into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, this burst of authentic suspense is truly welcome, particularly at a time when the formula is beginning to wane. And it’s not just the raucous air that commands a sense of thought; Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman also include a frequently rearing class allegory, pitting different species side-by-side in disharmony and challenging social boundaries.

And if you’re just here for a laugh, you could do a whole lot worse. The film is hilarious, and it knows so. There’s a prevailing camaraderie between audience and filmmaker; collectively, we know this is all a bit absurd — a tree with a conscience, a raccoon with a rocket launcher — so why not revel in the madness? Brilliant one-liners (“Pelvic sorcery”) make way for equally funny banterous group deliberations. Despite oozing a retro vibe, the film still bears more than a semblance of accessibility. Newcomers will leave filled to the brim on “bro” lingo, whereas the more mature amongst us can lap up Footloose references — of all people, Kevin Bacon becomes one the best running gags on screen this side of 2014. Or, like me, you can inelegantly giggle at everything. Guardians of the Galaxy has a heart, one that beats for all-comers.

At the epicentre of its heart is a ramshackle gaggle of misfits. Forget cookie-cutter characters, these five are dense to the nth degree. Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill — though he prefers Star-Lord — and is the glue that holds the guardians together. Pratt is on a mission to stardom himself, and his performance here is another indication of the leading man’s talent. He injects Quill with some soul and, rather than becoming the conventional male hero, embarks down a slightly less glamorous yet equally loveable path. No doubt buoyed on by his Parks and Recreation experience, Pratt also has comic timing down to a T. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the kick ass alien who is sort of Thanos’ daughter but sort of not. Saldana has already proven her worth on the blockbuster stage and her mystique is integral as it affords the group an ambiguous streak.

Perhaps the most impactful performance emerges from wrestler turned actor Dave Bautista. No doubt, his skills inside a ring prove handy when it comes to fulfilling a number of exciting fight sequences, but it is the big man’s sincerity that really shines through. Drax takes everything literally — a trait that often tickles the funny bone — but he is never presented as stupid. He’s had a tough time in life and he is a tough guy, but Drax is also an endearing presence and Bautista deserves huge credit for ensuring that this is case. Groot is the Hodor at large, partnered alongside the spitfire raccoon, Rocket. Bradley Cooper’s voice work is both persuasive and energetic. A wit-off between Tony Stark and Rocket must be in the pipeline. The aforementioned quintet mesh together like a rugged patchwork quilt: rough and probably a bit dirty, but entirely warming.

Unlike The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy is not an all guns blazing affair. There are a lot guns and they do embark on a hefty amount blazing, but that comes with the territory. We get the sense that the engine is only revved half-way, that the future is dangling the promise of a whole lot more. And that is thrilling. We’re only in the introductory phase of this particular relationship and, while the sparklers are sizzling now, fireworks undoubtedly lie ahead. The comparatively small-scale feel, then, is really charming and quite emotive. Subsequently a deeper connection with the characters ignites. The film’s mischievously dated soundtrack has a hand in generating this personable aura. Its compilation is a masterstroke, making for a number of unorthodoxly funny mishmash sequences — Cherry Bomb is particularly rollicking.

Going forward, one thing is a certainty: if this is Marvel’s new prerogative, then rest assured that next time the comic book logo appears on screen we’ll be in good hands. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s a man without integrity,” rings out early on. I’d like to think that Guardians of the Galaxy is gender-neutral and I’m convinced it is bursting with integrity. It’s also Marvel’s best film to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures