REVIEW: “Hail, Caesar!”

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I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.

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While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.

I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.

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But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.

It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.

Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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I am such a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dating back to 1984 with their first film “Blood Simple”, the brothers have put together an incredible filmography, etching out a prominent name for themselves in the process. Not only that, they have developed into some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Armed with a sharp wit and an undeniable style, the Coens have taken their special brand of cinema to a variety of places. Their latest is the early 1960s New York folk music scene. The film is “Inside Llewyn Davis” and while it may not be the best Coen brothers movie, it is undeniably theirs.

I was so glad to hear that Oscar Isaac had gotten the lead role. This criminally underrated actor has amazing acting chops yet rarely gets big leading parts. Here he plays Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck musician struggling to get by in 1961 New York City. Llewyn’s singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album isn’t selling, and he is flat broke. He spends his nights on the couches of different acquaintances and his days trying to get enough gigs to get by until his big break comes.

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There really isn’t a lot of plot in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. We basically spend a few days with Llewyn witnessing his routine and seeing the nature of his struggles. It doesn’t take long to learn that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He’s constantly driving people away whether it’s fellow musicians, family, hospitable friends, or even girlfriends. Llewyn is selfish, uncompromising, and irresponsible yet he never casts an examining light on himself. He’s not a character who will draw the audience’s affection. Much like the other people in his life, we can’t get that close to him even though we feel sympathy towards him. Llewyn is an extremely talented musician. He just needs to get himself out of the way.

This is a colder Coen brothers picture that clearly has no desire to be hopeful or uplifting. Perhaps that why I had trouble embracing the film at first. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying a movie has to be uplifting or hopeful. I don’t believe that at all. But watching Llewyn continually self-destruct for the entire film had me wishing for a glimmer of hope. There are a few scenes of the Coen’s signature dark humor that occasionally lighten things up, but mostly this is a pointed, unflinching character drama that captivated me while still holding me at arms length.

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As with all Coen brothers films this one is loaded with an assortment of interesting characters and captivating faces. We get quick but great roles for John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as a fellow musician who is married to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. She’s played by Carey Mulligan who is very good in the role. But her character is one of the few Coen creations that could have been handled better. She’s abrasive and profane to the point of being distracting. There is a subtle attempt at humor with Jean and her harsh personality but she disappears before we are allowed to see the compassionate side we are teased with. But this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He brilliantly flexes his acting and singing muscles in what I hope is some career-launching work.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has all the other traits you would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen. There is beautiful cinematography. The sense of time and place is impeccable. The music is unforgettable and the film features arguably the best soundtrack of the year. And it’s certainly a smart film featuring great vision and unquestionable craftsmanship. But for me it doesn’t quite rank up there with the Coen’s best pictures. That said, this is another time capsule experience brought to us by two of the best in the business, and anytime they make a movie it’s something special. Better yet, it has stuck with me and different themes from the film keep coming to mind. That a sign of something good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls

I originally did this particular Phenomenal 5 over a year ago. Honestly, it was one of the most fun lists to put together, but hardly anyone saw it. Thankfully to you all, my blog has grown some since then and I’ve been waiting to share it again for those who have missed it. So why wait any longer? There have been so many great movie moments involving phone calls and almost every single genre has their share. Putting this list together was a lot tougher that I expected and there are some great scenes I had to leave off. But such is the nature with the Phenomenal 5, right? So as always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these movie phone calls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TAKEN” – “a very particular set of skills”

I liked “Taken” even though it kind of flew off the rails closer to the end. But it also provided one of the most memorable movie phone conversations you’ll find. Liam Neeson’s daughter and her friend are abducted while on a trip to Paris. Neeson’s character is a CIA field agent who we quickly find out has “a particular set of skills”. In a brief but incredibly intense phone chat with the abductors, Neeson presents them an offer (if they let his daughter go free) and then a stern warning (if they don’t). It’s a scene that became the signature moment in the film and one that I can’t help but love.

#4 – “DIAL M FOR MURDER” – “Hello?…Hello?…Hello?”

I still struggle with why ANYONE with an ounce of sanity would want to kill the beautiful Grace Kelly, yet that was Ray Milland’s plan in this Hitchcock classic. As his accomplice hides behind the drapes, Milland lures Kelly out of bed with a phone call from the party he’s attending. He then listens on the phone as his hired hand strangles his wife. Foolproof plan right? Of course not, this is Hitchcock, remember? This key scene turns Milland’s devious plans upside down and launches one of cinema’s best thrillers.

#3 – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?”

One of the very best scenes in the Coen brothers’ brilliant “No Country for Old Men” is the phone conversation between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss. It marks the first time the two have had any communication and the intensity is simmering. The scene’s slick dialogue and clever tone is vintage Coen brothers but it also works thanks to great deliveries from Bardem and Brolin. From the startling first ring of the phone to the slamming down of the receiver at the conversation’s end, this movie phone call nails it.

#2 – “DR. STRANGELOVE” – “I agree with you, it’s great to be fine”

How can you have a list of top movie phone calls without including the hilarious conversation between United States President Merkin Muffley and Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov from “Dr. Strangelove”. In this classic Cold War spoof, a base commander goes “a little silly in head” and orders his planes to attack the U.S.S.R. President Muffley, wonderfully played by Peter Sellers, makes a courtesy call to Premier Kisov to let him know the base commander “went and did a silly thing”. The entire scene is just Sellers and he not only plays his character but also brilliantly sells us Dimitri, who we never hear. It’s a laugh out loud funny sequence and one of several great moments from the movie.

#1 – “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” – “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Who can forget the phone call at the end of this Oscar-winning crime thriller? After finishing a gruesome and intense serial killer case, the film ends with Clarice enjoying herself at her FBI graduation party. While receiving several commendations and pats on the back, she’s told she has a phone call. At the other end of the line is Hannibal Lecter. He congratulates Clarice on her success then drops the classic yet still disturbing line “I’m having an old friend for dinner”. Anthony Hopkins, decked in a blonde wig and tilted hat, then walks off after Chilton. The film ends with Clarice simply repeating “Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter…”. It’s one of those endings that leaves you uncomfortable but it’s also an ending you won’t forget.

What are your thoughts of my 5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls? See something I overlooked? Disagree with my choices. Please take time to share you picks or opinions.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE SOUNTRACKS *

Music can make a huge difference in movies. So this week I decided to look at 5 phenomenal movie soundtracks. But to be clear, I did set some restrictions. These are soundtracks featuring a collection of songs that work incredibly well with the movie they’re in. I’m not including in original scores in this list (that will come a little later). These are all soundtracks with songs by various artists that helped make the movies they were in unforgettable. I tried to pick soundtracks that are so memorable it would be hard to imagine the movie without them. Now all movie fans have soundtracks that strike a chord so I wouldn’t say this is the definitive list. But for my money these are 5 movie soundtracks that are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TOP GUN” SOUNDTRACK

It could be argued that the “Top Gun” soundtrack is better than the actual movie. That’s an argument for another time. One thing that isn’t debatable is how much the soundtrack added to the movie. I mean can you imagine “Top Gun” without Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”? And then you have Berlin’s Academy Award winning “Take My Breath Away” which was a #1 mega-hit. Loggins also sang “Playing With the Boys” and Cheap Trick did the energetic “Mighty Wings” which I still enjoy. Classics “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” were added later to the deluxe edition. All of these songs and several others helped make the late “Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” and 80’s classic.

#4 – “O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU” SOUNDTRACK

First off, this is not my kind of music. But there is no denying that the music in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is an absolute perfect fit. The soundtrack features bluegrass, country, folk, and gospel and scatters it all through the movie. The soundtrack featured new songs and old classics from artists such as Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Harry McClintock, and The Fairfield Four. But the song that people will always connect to the film is “Man of Constant Sorrows” sung by George Clooney and company in the movie but by “The Soggy Bottom Boys” in real life. The soundtrack won several awards and became incredibly popular and I can’t imagine this movie without it.

#3 – “PULP FICTION” SOUNDTRACK

Quentin Tarantino has a deep affection for music and how it contributes to his films. Perhaps the best example of this is with the fantastic assortment of tunes in “Pulp Fiction”. Tarantino carefully chose a stylish mix of soul, classic rock-and-roll, and even guitar driven surf music from the legendary Dick Dale. The song choices went from Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” all the way to The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall”. But the best scenes of the movie feature the best music. I love the famous dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”. I also love Urge Overkill’s remake of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” which plays during the apartment scene. And who can forget Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”? What a great variety of music.

#2 – “AMERICAN GRAFFITI” SOUNDTRACK

I love the music and the use of it in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti from 1973. But there’s a very interesting story behind it. Lucas understood that music was a huge presence in the summer of 1962. So he spent tons of money securing the rights to use the original material. In fact, he used up all of his budget therefore these classic oldies are the only music in the entire picture. But would you want it any other way? It was the perfect decision because you couldn’t go cruisin’ on a weekend in the 1960’s without the radio playing Del Shannon, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, The Crests, Billy Haley & the Comets, and so many others. “American Graffiti” is a movie that owes a part of its success to this great selection of classic rock and roll tunes.

#1 – “DAZED AND CONFUSED” SOUNDTRACK

Let me simply say that I love the soundtrack to Richard Linklater’s coming of age picture “Dazed and Confused”. This 1993 comedy was set in 1976 during Lee High School’s final day of school and then a night of hanging out and cruising the town. As with “American Graffiti”, the music of the time is huge in making this movie work so well. And it’s not just the songs themselves, but it’s also Linklater’s management of the music. The soundtrack is an incredible collection of 70’s rock music including ZZ Top, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We get some great songs that we hear playing in cars and in the local arcade such as Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”, War’s “Low Rider”, and Foghat’s classic “Slow Ride”. Several other great tracks are perfectly used to help make this feel like a genuine 1970’s picture. I love the music, but even more I love the way Linklater makes the music as essential to the movie as it is to those kids cruising the streets.

There ya go, 5 Phenomenal Movie Soundtracks not including original scores. What do you think of the list? What did I miss. Please take time to share what you would have included.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE HAIRCUTS (that are so bad, they’re good)

I had a tough time putting this list together. First off you have the iconic haircuts – haircuts that aren’t exactly bad but have an iconic status in cinema. But then you have those that are just so bad that they’re good – those wacky haircuts that defy common sense. But even though these are some pretty goofy hair styles, you just gotta love them. Now considering that goofy is on the scalp of the beholder, I wouldn’t go as far as to call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie haircuts, which are so bad that they’re good, are phenomenal.

#5 – GARY OLDMAN – “DRACULA”

Ok, how on earth do you even begin to describe Gary Oldman’s hair in Frances Ford Coppola’s telling of “Dracula”. It’s almost like receding Princess Leia buns turned gray. Oldman has had several movies that have featured truly atrocious haircuts. But there’s something so crazy about his Dracula “do” that I had to include it on this list.

#4 – JIM CARREY – “ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE”

Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura haircut is like Ed Grimley’s on steroids. The big looping front come to a point and is completely over-the-top. But as ridiculous as it is, somehow it perfectly fits this nutty character that Carrey came up with.

#3 – JON HEDER – “NAPOLEON DYNAMITE”

“Napoloen Dynamite” is one of those movies where at least three or four different characters have hairdos that could qualify for this list. Napoleon’s stands out mainly because it hasn’t met a comb in weeks. But again, just like with Ace Ventura, the goofy haircut perfectly fits this goofy character.

#2 – NICOLAS CAGE – “RAISING ARIZONA”

One of my favorite Coen brothers movies is one of their earliest, “Raising Arizona”. Nicolas Cage’s character H.I. “Hi” McDunnough is as goofy looking as he is dumb and that’s largely due to his crazy, wild hair. I’m not 100% sure how they made it do what it does, but his hair seems to have a life of its own. In a film full of laughs, it says something when some of those great laughs revolve around this awful hairdo!

#1 – JAVIER BARDEM – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”

What is it with the Coen brothers and bad hair? In “No Country for Old Men”, Bardem plays one of the most memorable villains in cinema. He’s brutal, scary, and menacing and he pulls it all off with one of the most hideous haircuts I have ever seen. “No Country for Old Men” is one of my personal favorite movies and Anton Chigurh, hair included, is one of my personal favorite villains.

That’s a lot of hair! So who did I miss. Take time and let me know a wonderfully awful movie mop that would have made your list!

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE FOOT CHASES

As an action movie fan I love a good chase regardless of the kind – motorcycle, car, or even on foot. It may surprise you just how many great foot chases there have been in movie history. And as technology has gotten better, particularly with new cameras and methods of shooting action scenes, movies have been able to create some incredible foot chases. So I decided to give some love to 5 great movie foot chases. I left out a few that certainly deserve mention, but these 5 were impossible for me to leave out. So, here they are. Now as usual, I wouldn’t dare call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie foot chases are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “FAST FIVE”

“Fast Five”

The “Fast and Furious” series has made it’s reputation on fast cars and some ridiculously wild car chases. Who would have thought that one of the coolest scenes in 2011’s “Fast Five” would have been a foot chase? After meeting back up at Dom’s safe house in Rio de Janeiro, Dom, Brian, and Mia find themselves boxed in by the armed thugs of a local crime lord on one side and Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his men on the other. The three take off on a foot chase through the cramped, densely populated, hillside streets – running through tight alleys and jumping from rooftop to rooftop – with a host of pursuers hot on their tail. It’s a tremendous, high-octane sequence with some incredible camera work. I love this scene.

#4 – “POINT BREAK

“Point Break”

In what was one part free-spirited surfer movie and one part gritty heist film, “Point Break” was a popular action romp from director Kathryn Bigelow. Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) is the ring leader of a group of surfer bank robbers and FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has infiltrated their ranks. As Utah gets closer to making the arrest, the “Ex-Presidents” – the name they go by due to the rubber masks of past presidents that they wear – pull off a heist. Utah arrives as they are leaving and bodhi is forced to take off on foot. Utah chases him into a neighborhood, over fences, through backyards and living rooms, and finally down a ravine where Utah hurts his knee and Bodhi gets away. It a furious chase with tight, close quarter camera work and even a touch of subtle humor. “Point Break” has a lot of memorable scenes, few better than the foot chase.

#3 – “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM

“The Bourne Ultimatum”

The third film of the Jason Bourne series featured the same intense, spy thriller action and around the world globetrotting that the series is known for. One of my favorite sequences is the sequence in Morocco. Bourne (Matt Damon) and Nicky (Julia Stiles) are trying to get to a source who is coming clean about the CIA’s undercover project known as “Blackbriar”. But the organization has an asset on the ground to take him out before they get to him. After Bourne and Nicky split up, the asset turns to her with orders to kill on sight. Nicky takes off, the asset chasing her, and Bourne chasing the asset. The three run through the crowded streets of Tangier and finally through a series of close, cramped houses, before the scene ends with the best fight scene of the entire series so far. Director Paul Greengrass puts it all together perfectly with the perfect amount of tension and action. It’s an awesome scene.

#2 – “RAISING ARIZONA

“Raising Arizona”

Leave it to Joel and Ethen Coen to give us not only one of the best foot chases in movie history but by far the funniest. In 1987’s “Raising Arizona” Nicholas Cage plays H.I. McDunnough, a dimwit struggling with a most unusual addiction – robbing convenient stores. He’s stressed over some events at home, namely the kidnapping of one of the “Arizona Quints” – the children of unpainted furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona. While the story revolves around H.I. and his wife Ed’s lamebrain idea to solve her infertility by taking one of Arizona’s five babies, one of the funniest moments is when a stressed out H.I. gives into his addiction and holds up a convenient store with ED and Junior in the car outside. Once she realizes what he’s doing, she drives off leaving him behind. With the police arriving and the store clerk pulling out his Dirty Harry .44 magnum, H.I. takes off on foot. He’s chased by lunatic cops, dogs, and eventually Ed again. He runs through suburban backyards, living rooms, and supermarkets running into an assortment of funny characters and hilarious obstacles. It’s hard to beat.

#1 – “CASINO ROYALE”

“Casino Royale”

I’ve never been the biggest James Bond fan although I did enjoy some of the Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan films. But that changed dramatically with director Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” from 2006. Daniel Craig took over the role of 007 and brought a gritty more realistic Bond to the big screen. I absolutely loved it. It doesn’t take long for the action to fire up in “Casino Royale”. We see Bond in Madagascar where he has tracked down a wanted bomb manufacturer. When his partner botches the apprehension, the suspect takes off on foot with 007 right behind him. I recently rewatched this scene when preparing this list and it still blows my mind. The chase takes the two to a construction site where a high-rise in being built. They leap up scaffolding, run along steel girders, and fight on high altitude cranes. Then the chase takes them back to the ground and through the streets and finally through the Nabutu Embassy where it has an explosive ending. Even though it’s close to 10 minutes long, this chase keeps you glued to the screen, constantly draws “ooo’s” and “aah’s” from the audience. It’s beautifully shot, masterfully edited, and it serves as a wonderful introduction to this new era of Bond. I love the movie and I really love this scene.

There ya have it – my 5 Phenomenal Movie Foot Chases. See something I missed? Disagree with one of my choices? Please take time to share your favorite movie foot chase.