Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a put-upon movie producer for Capitol Pictures in 1951. Over the course of one 27-hour period he must deal with rival gossip columnist twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), a rising western star (Alden Ehrenreich) being reimagined as a dramatic actor, much to the chagrin of his new director (Ralph Fiennes), the unexpected pregnancy of a swimming starlet (Scarlett Johansson), offers for Mannix himself to change to a high powered position in another company, as well as the supposed kidnapping of major star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a Communist cell calling themselves “The Future” and the fall-out from Whitlock’s disappearance, which is delaying the production of a lavish epic.
baird Continue reading

Advertisements

Fargo

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series for French Toast Sunday.

Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a bit down on his luck. He’s run up some pretty substantial debts, and will be in trouble for fraudulent affairs any day now, as soon as the bank realise the cars he has been claiming against don’t actually exist. The solution to his problem? Arrange for his wife to be kidnapped, so Jerry can collect on the ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. Unfortunately the miscreants hired to do the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), bungle the escape, leaving enough clues for the police chief, a heavily pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), to begin tracking everyone down and sorting this mess out.

Continue reading

Raising Arizona

It’s hard to imagine a sharper left turn taken by a director than from the Coen brother’s debut, Blood Simple, to their sophomore picture, Raising Arizona. Where Blood Simple was dark and mostly serious, Arizona is the closest a film has ever come to capturing a Tex Avery cartoon in live action – with the possible exception of some parts of The Mask.

in the role that possibly best combines his often underrated acting ability, comedic potential and trademark brand of insanity, Nicolas Cage gives one of my favourite performances of his as H. I. McDunnough (‘Hi’ for short), a serial petty convict whose ineptitude at evading the law is only matched by his love for police photographer Ed (Holly Hunter). On at least the third time Hi is released from the prison where Ed works he proposes, and the two settle down for a life of happiness in a trailer park in Arizona. But all is not well in the McDunnough household. When Ed discovers she is unable to have children she falls apart, not helped by Hi’s criminal background leaving them unsuitable for adoption, so the only logical solution is, of course, to kidnap one of a famous batch of quintuplets born to a local unpainted furniture magnet, Nathan Arizona. To add to Hi’s woes, two of his former cellmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) escape from prison and attempt to crash on the couple’s sofa, Hi’s boss at the metalworks attempts to entice him into swinging, and there’s Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), a bounty hunter from Hell, on the path of the stolen baby.

This is a film with no intentions of meandering along at a gentle pace. The opening ten minutes or so, setting up the couple’s initial meetings, Hi’s triple incarcerations, their engagement and marriage, runs along at such a breakneck pace you’re liable to get whiplash once the credits roll and a more sedate step is taken. The change in speed is almost jarring, but is helped along with ample amounts of comedy and terrific, perfectly pitched performances, especially from Cage. His Hi, sporting a now standard ridiculous feathered hairdo, is a manic, OTT oddball with more Hawaiian shirts than sense. Hunter’s performance is good, but Ed doesn’t really get to do an awful lot other than reprimand Hi at every turn.


If the characters feel like exaggerated caricatures, then this is exactly the point. This film doesn’t take place in any kind of recognisable reality as much as it does in the heightened, prison-crazed mind of the lead. At times though I felt it went a little too far. The two escaped convicts are maybe a little too stupid – though often to hilarious results, as in their ill-planned bank robbery – and their incessant screaming throughout the entire film became beyond grating. No-one can yell like John Goodman. Leonard Smalls, on the other hand, wasn’t enough of a badass. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I always felt that he was a guy pretending, Cobb never inhabited the role quite as fully as I’d have liked, so his presence was very much under felt. It’s a shame, as the Coens can do great work with the right actors in the antagonist roles – check out Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, or Paul Newman’s Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy. Smalls should have been larger than life, and could have been the best part of the film, but remains sadly forgettable. Which in itself is impressive seeing as he is a guy who will happily grenade a fluffy bunny just for being alive.

The fight scenes are tremendously enjoyable, and really cement home the cartoonish nature of the film. Most of the characters involved would have received serious, possibly fatal injuries several times throughout the film – particularly Hi – yet they mostly just walk it off with little more than a plaster stuck to their face. And the film’s solitary death scene is so ridiculously over the top and insane that it is very much a moment of explosive comedy, regardless of whether you can see it coming or not.

I think that one of the overall messages from the film is that Hi and Ed, though they seem incredibly unsuitable to take on the task, are possibly the best parents of all the film’s characters. Of the various people who assume the role of the kidnapped baby’s guardian throughout the story, Hi and Ed are the only ones to not immediately name the baby after themselves. Granted, they name him after each  other instead, but at least they’re thinking about someone else, not just themselves.

Whilst this is in no way one of the best Coen brothers film, it is still hugely entertaining and definitely worth a watch, if only to see some classic comic Cage before he went off the rails.

Choose film 8/10

Blood Simple

Blood Simple, the directorial/writing debut of the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, is a sticky, sweaty, clammy picture about deceit and confusion, set in the heart of Texas. Marty (Dan Hedaya) runs a bar, and is the boss of Ray (John Getz) and Meurice (Samm-Art Williams). Distrustful of his wife Abby (Frances McDormand), Dan has hired private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to look into what she does with her time. It transpires that Abby is sleeping with Ray, so Marty hires Loren to kill them both whilst he is away on a fishing trip. What with this being a Coen film, things don’t necessarily go to plan, but it is the direction the events took, and the motives involved that I found both interesting and compelling.

Tonally, this is probably most similar to Fargo or No Country For Old Men amongst the Coens’ oeuvre. There’s not a great deal of humour surrounding the violence and devious plotting going on, and the location of Texas adds a great deal to the setting, just as Minnesota did for Fargo and Texas again for No Country. I found this lack of comedy to be a bit jarring – there are some moments of Coen-esque quirkiness certainly, and a couple of jokes in the script, but for the most part this is played dead seriously. The brothers can do serious very well, but personally I prefer their lighter efforts.
Had I not known this was a Coen film (and had it not starred Frances McDormand) then I don’t think I’d have immediately associated it with them. If anything, the structure of the narrative felt far too linear and ordinary, with the exception of perhaps missing an opening and closing scene most directors would have felt obliged to leave in. We’re fed the plot in dribs and drabs, discovering who each of the characters is and their relationships to one another just a couple of minutes after we need to.
Though he isn’t necessarily amongst the lead trio of the film, I would class Walsh’s performance as the greatest in the movie. His Visser is the human embodiment of a lizard, a slimy, oily gumshoe with a malicious streak and a rasping laugh that still haunts my dreams. He plays the part so well that I can’t believe I haven’t come across the actor in much else. For my sins I only really know him from Wild Wild West (he was the train driver). Can anyone recommend any of his other work?
I loved the musical choices in the film, especially Ray mopping up blood to the sounds of The Four Tops’ It’s the Same Old Song, an almost Tarantino-like retro song choice. The camerawork too was at times inspired; the marriage of lighting and camera movement revealing Visser’s cigarette lighter on a table, and the oppressive close shots inside the bar intensifying the humid atmosphere.
I can’t imagine this film cost very much to make – the biggest set pieces involve a car and a shovel, and a gun, knife and a window – yet it’s easily as gripping as many other big budget blockbusters. It reminded me of the likes of Glengarry Glen Ross or Reservoir Dogs, neither one which involves a lot of spectacle, but they have great characters and dialogue, which really is in my opinion more important. I’d have liked a last shot of Meurice – one of the coolest characters in film, check out his bar-top shuffle – but other than that the ending was pretty well contained and executed. Whilst by no means the Coens’ best, this is still definitely worth a watch.
Choose film 8/10

Fargo

Snivelling, double-talking car salesman Jerry Jundegaard (William H. Macy, Oscar nommed but somehow losing to Cuba Gooding Jr.) has a plan. He needs money. His father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell) has money, but hates Jerry. So Jerry hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife and demand a ransom, of which Jerry will keep half. What could go wrong? Well, quite a lot it turns out, especially if everyone involved is an idiot and you’re being directed by the Coen brothers. The men’s escapades are chaotic, unstructured and are all heading off in different directions until, at the 32 minute mark, heavily pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson shows up to set them in order. Frances McDormand deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal, nailing that wonderful sing-song North Dakota accent “Yah, you betcha” and, once full of eggs, keeping a straight face whilst clearing up the handbasket Hell’s clearly fallen out of around her. 

Few films as short as this (98 minutes) have room to divulge us with background lives – a meeting with an old school friend, conversations about stamps – whilst still keeping the action moving briskly. Every line is considered and real, every character feels genuine, and this is the greatest proof you can find against the argument that the Coens can only write caricatures. Often underrated, this film can never be over-seen, and no-one can call themselves a film fan unless they’ve both seen it, and loved it. The title of this blog was very nearly called Your Accomplice in the Wood Chipper, and a car boot opening has never made me laugh before.
Choose film 10/10

Wonder Boys

Always be wary when a DVD cover proclaims the feature it houses is an Oscar winner, yet follows this statement with an asterisk not revealed until the fineprint on the back of the box, for more than likely this will lead to a win for one of the lesser Oscars that, though probably well deserved and awarded to people who are very good at, and have worked very hard on what they do, does not make the associated film any good. And so it is with Wonder Boys, overly proud recipient of the Oscar for Best Original Song for Bob Dylan’s Things Have Changed, so worthy is it that I cannot even remember hearing it, when part of me was specifically listening out after discovering the win. Whilst Michael Douglas gives one of his best performances as the mild-mannered, scarf-wearing, adulterous English professor Grady Tripp, he is let down by a meandering plot involving a dead dog, a 7ft transvestite, a stolen dress and an epic manuscript, and a fairly average cast with Tobey Maguire it’s obvious weak link – impressive when Katie Holmes is also involved as a besotted student. Too much takes place without a reason – is Maguire’s James fascinated with celebrity deaths just because he is weird? – and the script is far from excellent (“I’m not gonna draw you a map, sometimes you need to do your own navigating.”)

Choose life 4/10