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

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE GAS STATION SCENES

In the movies gas stations offer much more than just a place to use the bathroom and top your tank. There have been all sorts of cool and funny movie scenes involving gas stations. So this is one of those weird Phenomenal 5 lists that looks at great movie gas station scenes. Now there were several scenes I really love that were left out just for the sake of variety. That being said, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie gas station scenes are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD”

This wacky 1963 comedy is known for possibly having the biggest ensemble cast of great actors in movie history. It also has one of the greatest gas station scenes you’ll find. In this wild race to get to a load of stolen money first, a furniture mover named Lennie (Jonathan Winters) gets double-crossed by the greedy Otto (Phil Silvers). Lennie finally runs Otto down at gas station and chases him all over the property causing all sorts of damage. Otto escapes and the attendants tie Lennie up while waiting for the men in white coats to come get him. Lennie gets loose and ends up leveling (quite literally) the entire station. It’s a hilarious scene.

#4 – “ROBOCOP”

There’s a great and pivotal gas station scene in the 1987 sci-fi action romp “Robocop”. Emil, a member of the brutal gang that killed Alex Murphy which in turn caused him to become Robocop, stops at an all-night gas station. He robs the place and fills up with gas while terrorizing the attendant. Robocop notices a crime in progress and pulls up. After triggering Robocop’s memory, Emil sprays gas everywhere, throws down his cigarette, and tears off on his motorcycle. The gas station explodes with Robocop walking out of the flames. He thwarts Emil’s getaway but this scene is mostly important for putting Murphy on track to remembering who he was.

#3 – “KALIFORNIA”

There are actually two great gas station scenes in the 1993 gritty thriller “Kalifornia”. Pre-mega star Brad Pitt gives what I believe is his best performance as Early Grayce, a psycho who, along with his wife, hitches a cross-country ride to California with David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. In the first unnerving scene, they stop for gas and a man with a wad of cash catches Early’s eye. Early follows him into the restroom, stabs him to death, and takes his money. But in an even more frightening scene, later they arrive at a different gas station as a huge electrical storm brews. It’s in this key scene that the rest of the group discovers the brutally unbalanced man that Early really is. Both scenes are intense and disturbing but also incredibly well done.

#2 – “THE BIRDS”

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic killer birds movie has several great moments but few are better than the gas station scene. As an attendant gasses up a customer’s car, two birds attack him knocking him down. As people rush to check on him, no one notices the nozzle continuing to spew gasoline. The flow of gas crosses the street into a parking area where a man steps out of his car and lights a cigar. Before he can be warned the match burns his finger then falls into the gas. BOOM! The man and several cars are gone and the flame blazes up the gas stream and the gas pumps explode. Hitchcock ends the scene with an amazing overhead shot of the horrible event. Classic!

#1 – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”

Hands down my favorite gas station movie scene has to be from Joel and Ethan Coen’s fabulous “No Country for Old Men”. Hired killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) stops by a small isolated gas station to fill his tank and grab a package of peanuts. The elderly attendant makes the mistake of making small talk with Chirgurh which leads to one of most tense yet hilarious conversations I’ve ever scene. It ends with a coin toss with the attendant’s life on the line. I swear, I can watch this scene over and over and never get tired of it.

So there they are. What have we learned from this week’s Phenomenal 5? For one thing, it doesn’t pay to be a gas station attendant in the movies. So many good ones could have been mentioned. So what’s your favorite?

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!

REVIEW: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

No one does off-the-wall, quirky comedy like Joel and Ethan Coen and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is another example of that. The brothers have written and directed a wide variety of movies including crime dramas, gangster pictures, and even a remake of a John Wayne western classic. But the Coens always find their way back to their unique and peculiar brand of humor. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was released in 2000 and features so much of the Coen’s signature style and presentation.

The movie is a depression-era film set in rural Mississippi. It follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallup (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), three prisoners who escape and set out to recover a “treasure” that Everett hid after knocking off an armored car. The three come across a blind man who begins prophesying about their quest saying that they will find a fortune but not the one they seek. Pay close attention to this early scene because it does come back into play later on in the film. They take off on an adventure where they encounter backwoods relatives, a crazy sheriff, George “Babyface” Nelson, seductive river sirens, the Ku Klux Klan, and more.

This is a movie that’s truly more about the journey than the destination. There are several familiar subtext and certainly an interesting ending that deals with a couple of common Coen themes. But it’s getting to that ending that offers the most enjoyment. Also, many Coen brothers films focus on specific regions of the country as well as incorporate clever usages of language. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is no different. The recreation of rural Mississippi during the 1930’s is fabulous. The three travel through period-perfect small towns, swampy yet beautiful bayous, and lush green forests. The film has an amazingly authentic look to it. The heightened accents and deep south lingo help give it more of a southern tang but also injects the movie with some of it funniest moments. The brothers’ almost poetic butchering of language is such fun and is just as regionally centered as several of their other films such as “Raising Arizona”, “Fargo”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Music plays a big role in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The film is filled with bluegrass, folk music, country gospel, and southern blues. One of the movies funnier turns is when the boys unwittingly create and record a smash hit song that becomes the hottest thing in the state. The song, titled “Man of Constant Sorrow”, won several awards including a Grammy. The music is spot on and adds so much to the picture. It’s clearly intended to be an important part of the storytelling and it really works regardless of whether you like that type of music or not.

The performances are strong throughout the film. Clooney really shows off his comedic side and perfectly subjects himself to the material. Nelson is great as a naive simpleton who you can’t help but love and Coen regular John Turturro is also quite good. We also get Coen favorites John Goodman as a loony one-eyed Bible salesman and Holly Hunter as Penny, Everett’s ex-wife. Ray McKinnon, one of my favorite character actors in the industry, has a small but fun role as a campaign manager and Penny’s “bona fide suitor”. Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, and Lee Weaver also give really good performances. The Coen’s are particular when it comes to casting and this film, like so many others, shows the benefits of that.

I’ve only scratched the surface of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The movie also takes humorous looks at subjects ranging from southern politics to racism. It’s sharp dialogue and wacky antics may not appeal to everyone and they do occasionally feel a little overdone. But it’s still a remarkably well-crafted and well-written film, exactly what you would expect from Joel and Ethen Coen. The film is made with the same impressive stylistic technique that we’ve seen in other Coen films yet it creates its own unique look and feel. There’s a lot going on under the surface and the movie offers plenty of laughs. Unlike most of today’s comedies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” actually delivers.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW : “No Country for Old Men”

Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as some of the best filmmakers in the business. Their wide creative range and unique storytelling style has given us great films from several genres. Yet there are several common threads woven throughout a Coen brothers picture and one of the greatest compliments I can give them is that you know a Coen brothers movie when you see it. “No Country for Old Men” is my personal favorite of all of their films and that’s saying a lot. Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men” examines several themes that the brothers frequently explore while incorporating their familiar quirkiness, dark humor, and gritty violence. But the film is also unlike any of the Coen’s other work and that uniqueness gives it its own special voice.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” stays pretty faithful to the book. It could be called a crime thriller or even a modern-day western. It’s rugged look and tone gives this modern tale of violence an almost old west feel. But that plays to one fascinating subtext to the film. It is a movie about the evolution of violence and the moral callousness at its root. It says “things aren’t like the used to be” but from a more broken and defeated point of view. But there is much more to the film than that. It’s also a story of choices and consequences, old versus new, and chance versus fate. I’m being rather vague on all of these but let’s just say the ideas are interwoven throughout the movie.

Set in West Texas during the early 1980’s, the story opens with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong while hunting one day. Among the blood-soaked bodies and bullet-riddled pickup trucks, he finds a lone but wounded survivor begging for water. Having no water Llewelyn leaves him. Before leaving he finds another body with a satchel full of money. Faced with the first of many key decisions that drive the story, he grabs the satchel and leaves the scene. Several ill-advised decisions later, Llewelyn finds himself on the run from the Mexican cartel and more notably a psychopathic hired hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a small town Texas sheriff following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He and his deputy find the busted drug deal and Llewelyn’s abandoned truck and start trying to put the pieces together. The rest of the story focuses on the triangle of Llewelyn, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. And even though they share practically no screen time together, their lives slowly become intricately connected.

As with every Coen brothers film the casting is impeccable. Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and there is rarely a moment where the characters feel false. Josh Brolin not only looks the part of Llewelyn Moss but his flawless accent, the delivery of his lines, and west Texas mannerisms nail his character. He is perfectly complimented by a subtle and reserved performance by Kelly Macdonald who plays his wife Carla Jean. She’s simple but sweet and you are drawn to her as she’s drawn into Llewelyn’s situation. I also loved Tommy Lee Jones’ work as Ed Tom Bell. He’s the perfect choice for a small town Texas sheriff and I was enthralled with how he flawlessly embodied his character. Even Woody Harrelson has a small but great role as a rival hired gun looking for the missing drug money. But the best performance may be from Javier Bardem (who captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). He may sport the worst haircut in film history but he’s also one of the most chilling and brutal villains on film . Even with his amoral propensity for violence, he’s fascinating to watch and the film’s best moments are when he’s on-screen.

“No Country for Old Men” is also a technical gem. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a long-time Coen collaborator, uses his camera to create a dark and dirty world but one grounded in a true sense of realism. The sparse, dusty landscapes provide the perfect canvas for the Coens to create their violent world. The action scenes are ferocious but even in their brutality they never seem gratuitous. Instead they feel perfectly in context. I also loved the Coen’s use of sound, or in many instances their lack of it. Many scenes feature no background music instead relying on natural ambience. Several intense scenes feature no music or dialogue yet it’s the silence that really thickens the tension. While the Coen’s can sometimes be a little, for lack of a better word, wild with their filmmaking, every thing here feels a little more tightly structured and controlled.

The Coens have made many good films and they have a style that’s undeniable. You may like or dislike their approach to filmmaking but you have to respect it. Their unique vision is stamped all over this film. The violence is startling, the pacing is perfect, and there is just the right amount of dark comedy. You’ll wince in one scene and laugh out loud in the next one. “No Country for Old Men” is a brilliantly written adaptation and a beautifully crafted film. It’s one of those movies that features several scenes that will always stick with me. It’s also helped by some truly searing performances led by Bardem’s memorable work. I understand that this film may not appeal to everyone but for me this is a masterpiece. It’s a lesson in expert filmmaking and cinematic creativity. It’s also a movie I can watch over and over and never grow tired of it. Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There, I said it!

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M