Hail, Caesar


Viewed – 10 March 2016 Cinema

I have been an admirer of the work of sibling directors Joel & Ethan Coen for many years now and count movies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo amongst some of the best movies I’ve seen.  However sometimes these talented guys seem to stumble upon an idea that for one reason or another just doesn’t work – and I’m surprised to say, this is one such movie.

hail caesar

The plot follows a day in the life of a movie studio exec (Josh Brolin), sometime in the early 1950s, where musicals and swords & sandals epics were all the rage.  It’s certainly a fascinating setting and one I was hoping would be a great backdrop to an intriguing kidnap storyline, at least that’s the idea the trailer gave me.  However following the mysterious abduction of their biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Brolin finds himself being forced to come up with a ransom whilst at the same time juggling a myriad of other issues at the studio.

Hail__Caesar__BrolinNow you see here lies the problem … there’s a lot of things going on here; Scarlett Johansson appears as a tough-talking pregnant starlet whose lack of a husband puts her image (and that of the studio) in question.  Also twin reporters turn up trying to dish the dirt on Baird Whitlock’s past and a dim-witted western star get’s the opportunity to do his first speaking part in a new movie. Oh and there’s some dancing sailors too, headed by Channing Tatum.  Yet despite these admittedly colourful characters, along with Clooney they’re written so one dimensional that it was really hard to care about any them.  Johansson, considering she’s one of the most bankable actresses around at the moment gets two redundant scenes, and Clooney’s plot is more perplexing and confusing than gripping.

The movie isn’t without it’s moments though. It looks fantastic (thanks to regular collaborator Roger Deakins) and behind the scenes segments of movies being made will always pull me in.  The dialogue at times is also pretty comical (a meeting with various representatives of different religious faiths to discuss a biblical epic is a stand out).  Yet the comedy isn’t strong enough to hide the fact the movie fails to go anywhere even remotely interesting and no attention to set design, costumes or musical numbers can make up for such a glaring flaw.

Verdict: 2 /5

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10 directors who have shaped my movie viewing tastes


Inspired by a recent post over at abbiobiston.com, I thought I’d sit down and list ten movie directors I either seek out without hesitation, or have made some of the most affecting and inspiring movies I’ve ever seen, shaping what kind of movie viewer I am today and creating experiences that have transcended basic entertainment to actually mean something to me as a person.

Quentin Tarantino

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As a reviewer, occasional-writer and movie fan, Quentin Tarantino ignited a spark inside me that has yet to go out.  When first seeing Pulp Fiction, I knew this was the sort of material I wanted to write about, and this continued with his script for Natural Born Killers and also his debut, Reservoir Dogs.  He was a rebel, he challenged people’s ideas of what violence was all about on screen, not there for just shock value but to make you feel something.  He managed to back this up with amazing dialogue writing skills and a keen eye for pop-culture and cinema history that has continued to this day.

David Cronenberg

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Horror for me was never just about hiding behind my cushion and trembling – horror for me was about the strange and surreal, the gruesome but in a way that made you ponder what it meant.  Croneberg has always been a master of this, of using body-horror to make you feel something you’ve never felt before, backed up by intelligent direction that more often than not has a lot of social commentary of the times we live in i.e. sexually transmitted infections with Shivers.  He has continued to shape his often controversial style into the modem gangster and crime genres to brilliant effect in movies like Eastern Promises.

Stephen Spielberg

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Probably the most famous director of all time who seems to barely put a foot wrong and can turn his hand to a wealth of different genres and subjects, from the industry defining Jaws and Jurassic Park to powerful masterpieces like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.  Assured, confident and always entertaining and thought-provoking, this maverick director continues to be a name to bet on even after almost 40 years in the business.  As long as we don’t mention the most recent Indiana Jones movie, Spielberg remains one of those names every movie fan will know and surely appreciate to some degree.

John Carpenter

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Fallen from grace he may be, but during the seventies and eighties, this guy made some of the coolest and most sort after movies I’d ever seen.  Who can argue the merits of Halloween, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China?  Although I can’t say I totally appreciate Escape From New York as much as others, I have a soft spot for lesser known efforts like Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness.  This guy knew how to create perfectly entertaining genre movies and although he hasn’t made much of note for years, that’s a hell of a back catalogue of classics.

David Fincher

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Although I think he’s become a bit relaxed in recent years, churning out fairly ‘safe’ movies, for the most part Fincher has still created some of the most stylish and intricately directed movies I’ve seen, namely the multi layered classics Fight Club, Seven and even Zodiac.  His directing style is crisp and beautiful even when it’s dealing with very dark subject matter, and his camera work and imagery have stayed with me long after the credits have rolled.  He’s a technical directing fan’s dream director, as for me I can appreciate every aspect of the setting, the camera work to the music and lighting.  Helps he can also pull out great performances from the likes of Brad Pitt and Jake Gyllenhaal to name but a few.

Stanley Kubrick

stanley kubrick

With a fairly small catalogue of movies, this director like no other has made some of the masterpieces of my lifetime.  The Shining is still the best horror movie I’ve ever seen and probably the most perfectly directed, on a technical level movie I’ve seen also.  His strong visual skill at making every shot and every camera movement look so well executed has made movies even of lesser impact like Eyes Wide Shut a work of art.  He proved again and again that careful eye for detail, iconic performances can turn even a well worn subject like the Vietnam war into amazing cinema.  I haven’t seen everything he’s done, but of the movies I have, he keeps on amazing me, and is possibly the best director on this list.

Dario Argento

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Perhaps at his best during the seventies and eighties, but this often controversial director has gained a strong cult following over the years and remains one of the most stylish and genre-defining film-makers around.  At his best he can make gruesome murder look beautiful, and his frequent collaborations with the band Goblin and musician Claudio Simonetti has helped create a brand of effective Italian cinema that still stands the test of time.  Try watching Suspiria or Tenebrae without marvelling at the camera work, atmosphere or use of lighting and music.  Argento will always be the maestro when it comes to horror, even if his light has considerably faded over the years.

Martin Scorsese

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The Don.  How does this guy keep doing it?  To this day Scorsese still manages to amaze and impress.  He has crafted true classics such as Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and still manages to churn out quality movies like Shutter Island and The Wolf Of Wall Street.  It’s always exciting when I hear he’s making another movie and even diversions like Hugo retain that Scorsese eye for style and cinematic creativity I’ve grown to love about him.  He has a tendency to work with the same actors but also manages to bring out wildly different performances from them, that give each movie their own voice.  One of the best film makers of all time in my opinion.

Joel & Ethan Coen

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In recent years their brand of southern comedy and thrillers has felt a tad hit and miss, but when these sibling directors are on form, they can make some of the best movies you’ll ever see.  Comedies like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona offer up laughs as well as style and assured direction along with iconic performances, and thrillers like Fargo and No Country For Old Men prove they can deliver tight, well executed stories that pack a punch.  They continue to be favourites at Oscar season and amongst a huge cult audience, and with a strong visual style and often award winning performances, their movies are hard to dismiss.

Park chan-Wook

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Another director who can explore very dark themes but make them beautiful with imaginative camera work, scene setting and particularly artistic shots.  His American debut Stoker is a perfect example of strong story, strong performances and beautiful, almost poetic direction.  His vengeance trilogy that incudes the cult classic Old Boy is powerful, gut-wrenching but extremely moving and artistic, blending classical music with striking story-telling and stunning cinematography.  Park chan-Wook’s the real deal if you can appreciate quality direction with a signature touch.

Inside Llewyn Davis


Viewed – 02 June 2014 pay-per-view

I was apprehensive when I first heard about this, and the only real reason I wanted to give it a go was the fact it was from famed directing siblings Joel & Ethan Coen, who have made some of the best movies I have ever seen, with a couple of missteps along the way, granted (Intolerable Cruelty?).  Yet generally I’d say, they can do no wrong even if the subject matter this time, that of the week in the life of a singer during the 60’s folk scene in New York, didn’t appeal at first.inside_llewyn_davis

Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn, a guy who just can’t seem to cut a break, as he drifts through day to day life, crashing on various friend’s couches, trying to cope with a girl’s unexpected pregnancy (an eye-catching Carrie Mulligan) and at the same time looking after a cat he just can’t seem to get rid of.  It’s quirky and full of oddball characters, something of a Coen trademark and yes we get a great cameo from Coen regular John Goodman as a philosophical passenger during a late night car journey.  Yet it’s the star making turn from Isaac that stands out most, clearly a gifted singer in his own right, his lovable charm, even when he’s being disgruntled and obnoxious, shines and I really cared for his journey.  Justin Timberlake turns up too as a rather hippy-ish lounge singer, and it’s a site to behold.

The movie is shot with a moody, smog filled noir-ish sheen and at times looked quite beautiful and add to this a collection of enjoyable songs and some emotional and make-you-ponder moments (singing to his dad in the care home, the meaning of the turn off to Akron…), even if this movie doesn’t reveal much or tell you a great deal about the era or the main character – time spent in his company is one I’d firmly recommend.

Verdict:  4 /5

Fargo


Viewed – 25 April 2014  Blu-ray

I would generally say, you can’t go wrong with a movie from sibling directing / writing duo Joel & Ethan Coen.  Their brand of often darkly comical thrillers, mysteries and just plain wacky comedies have earned them many accolades and have them standing tall as two of the best film makers around.  That’s not to say they don’t sometimes perplex me, with the underwhelming Intolerable Cruelty and the bizarre A Serious Man … but also like this Oscar winning effort from 1996 their movies deserve multiple viewings and like me, you may not necessarily ‘get it’ first time around.

Fargo

William H Macy plays a car sales man in money troubles, who thinks his only way out is to have his unassuming wife kidnapped so her rich father can pay the ransom.  Enter kidnappers Steve Buscemi (kinda funny lookin’) and Peter Stormare, who pretty much screw up the whole deal.  This snapshot of Minnesota, South Dakota life and their inhabitants pokes fun at their accents but also captures a good natured likability that despite the cold, the deep snow and the fact we have a murder or two (or three) … seems a nice place to visit.  In the Coen’s hands though this is that kind of uncomfortably funny, macabre tone they seem to nail so perfectly … is it a comedy?  is it serious? … neither question needs to be answered as you wallow in several excellent performances.  Macy is superb as the awkward, nervous sales man in over his head, and remains one of my favourite actors.  A special mention must of course go to Francis McDormand, another superb actor who pretty much steals the movie even though she doesn’t appear for the first half hour or so.  Buscemi is also great as is a dead-eyed, sinister Stormare to round out a great cast.

This should probably go on record as one of the Coen’s most satisfying and well played movies and if you haven’t seen it, I really think you should.

The Blu-ray is a re-release and remastered version of the earlier HD release and boasts a very detailed image, with plenty of clarity and detail to things such as cars, signs, close-ups and in door scenes.  Outside it gets a little softer but considering the amount of snow and distant shots this should be expected.  The sound in either DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 or Dolby Digital Surround 2.0 is more than acceptable but for a gentle, talky movie it’s not going to be a fully immersive showcase for your system.  Extras include an informative commentary by director of photography (and Coen regular) Roger Deakins and also a fun and interesting trivia track to play as you watch the movie.  As this gained a big cult following after release and plenty of talk about it’s apparent true story (it isn’t) – this makes for a worthwhile inclusion.  An archival documentary, a photo gallery, trailer and TV spot also round out this release, making for pretty decent treatment of a genuine modern classic.

Verdict:

(the movie)  5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

True Grit


Viewed – 30 July 2011  Blu-ray

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis, will know I’m a die hard fan of sibling directors Joel & Ethan Coen.  Bar a couple of minor misteps (Intolerable Cruelty, and to a lesser extent, A Simple Man), they generally deliver interesting and very well made pieces of cinema.  In this ambitious re-make / adaptation of the classic John Wayne movie and the book by Charles Portis, they bring to the screen the story of 14 year old Mattie Ross, a girl seeking the man who killed her father.  Hot off the train and new in town, she hires a washed up Marshal (Jeff Bridges) and soon convinces him to help her find the man she seeks.

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