Monday, February 29, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Alternate Title:  That's Entertainment!!! (Volume XVIII)

One sentence synopsis:    A 1950s studio boss must track down the kidnapped star of his biggest production of the year, while simultaneously dealing with a series of other crises afflicting multiple movies.

Things Havoc liked:This project began with the Coen Brothers, many years ago at a western by the name of True Grit. Though it was the first film I ever reviewed on this project, it was hardly the first Coen Brothers movie I've seen, as they've been entertaining me and mine since the early 90s with everything from Fargo to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, and The Hudsucker Proxy (shut up, I liked that one). With a pedigree like that, a new Coen Brothers film is the sort of thing that instantaneously lights up my movie radar, and the fact that it was a classic ode to Hollywood of old, starring approximately half of the actors in the world only made it more appealing. I know that not all of you are as obsessive about watching movies as I am, but for a cinephile like myself, this was like the promise of power and riches. I was in.

It is 1951, the golden age of Hollywood, and Eddie Mannix, played by the imperturbable Josh Brolin, is the head of production at Capitol Pictures, a massive MGM/Warner Bros/Universal-scale motion picture studio simultaneously working on dozens of different projects. It is Mannix' job to play the fixer, to resolve the ten thousand and one impediments that arise each day at the various location or backlot shoots, and somehow keep the stars and directors of Capitol's various movies happy, alive, and out of the press, not necessarily in that order. Hollywood is, and always has been, an insane place, and Brolin plays the character like a devoted worshiper at the altar of movie-making, mugging for the camera with a whole series of fifties-style "Good gravy, what will the boss say when he hears about this?!" over-readings, which is exactly the right choice for a movie this stylized. I've not always admired Brolin's work, but he's excellent as the perpetually frazzled lead in this, a romantic who plainly worships the magic of Hollywood, even as he dives regularly into the seamier sides of it.

Nor is Brolin alone here, for the Coen's have assembled a murderer's row of excellent actors to cast in an old-fashioned Hollywood romp. Front and center is George Clooney, playing a sendup to Kirk Douglas, a massive Hollywood superstar of great fame and few brains, the star of the tentpole film "Hail, Caesar!", a Romano-biblical epic in the style of Ben Hur. Clooney's character is a buffoon famous for being a famous actor, but nails the role perfectly, both in the overacting he indulges in on set, and the easily-led, shallow thoughts he leads with when off it. The plot of the film, such as it is, concerns Clooney being kidnapped by a semi-inept gang of Communist screenwriters, who indulge in pointless garbled debates concerning arcane points of Marxist dialectic, the sorts of things that sound profound and deep to people who can't parse together the fact that they are all talking through their hats. Meanwhile, back at the studio, a handful of other subplots are boiling over, including Ralph Fiennes, playing a David-Lean style veteran British director saddled with Alden Ehrenreich, a Gene-Autry-style singing cowboy whom the studios are trying to push forward as a movie star despite the fact that the film he's being pushed into is a costume drama and the fact that he can't act at all. There's also Scarlett Johanssen, doing a synchronized swimming send-up to Esther Williams, swimming gracefully in a fountained pool dressed like a mermaid before climbing out of the water and complaining about her "fish-ass". There is Christopher Lambert, doing a ludicrous send-up to Werner Herzog, a director who clearly has no idea what the studio boss is talking about when he storms onto the set, but feels that everything can be resolved with a hug and a pre-emptory command to go. There is Clancy Brown, doing... well Clancy Brown, by and large (I require nothing more than this), and best (and most surprising) of all, there is none other than Channing Tatum, who gets an entirely pointless extended song-and-dance number clearly inspired by South Pacific or similar musicals, in which he tries to turn himself into Gene Kelly, singing, dancing, and even tap dancing for no reason other than the fact that it's the 50s, and Hollywood believed this sort of thing would sell. The purpose of these sequences really isn't to service the plot, by and large, it's to simply showcase the glitz and glamour of a romantic period in Hollywood history, if only because we're now far enough away from it that we forget the truly awful dreck that came out amidst the Cleopatras and Sierra Madres.

And that's... more or less all there is to Hail, Caesar, an excuse for the Coen brothers to assemble a cast and have fun with them. Oh Brother Where Art Thou was no more than this after all, and Hail, Caesar has similarly absurd showcase moments that make little sense when sat down and pondered over, but seem organic from within the movie. An extended sequence wherein Channing Tatum is rowed out to sea to board a submarine, for instance, has nothing really to do with anything, save as an excuse for Tatum to mug for the camera shamelessly as he leaps dramatically for the railing and tosses his hair back to deliver a parting quip in the best tradition of a Golden Age setpiece. There's a slow-burn sequence of great length and determination as Ralph Fiennes tries desperately to find a line that Ehrenreich is capable of delivering reasonably, and the Coens even get everyone's favorite ubiquitous actress, Tilda Swinton, to play identical twin gossip columnists, trying to out-scoop one another for scandal stories for their respective tabloids, all while screaming that "the people deserve to know the truth!" If this is the kind of thing that you go to the movies to see, then Hail, Caesar delivers just that.

Things Havoc disliked: If, on the other hand, you go to the movies looking for things like plot, characters, or story, then you're in a bit more trouble.

The Coen Brothers have always made weird, quirky films, but those films usually had a point to them, even if that point was simply weird quirkiness (The Big Lebowski comes to mind). They had plots, of greater or lesser importance, and stories, and characters that populated them and were showcased to us by virtue of living in Coen-Brothers-world. But Hail, Caesar, to its detriment, has none of those things, no characters beyond the thinnest veneers, no plot to speak of, no surprises or twists beyond the most rudimentary of tactics, nothing, really, except the glamour of early Hollywood, and even for the Coens, that is not enough.

Consider Brolin, who is laden with a boring subplot concerning a job offer he is being pitched by Lockheed-Martin, for a position that pays extravagantly well, necessitates none of the crazy hours or absurd wrangling that his current position involves, and would reward him after ten years with sufficient stock and bonuses to retire for the rest of his life. And yet can he really turn his back on the crazy-but-glamorous world of movie-making with all its insane and loveable characters? Well I've got a better question, does anyone really give a damn? Brolin certainly doesn't, as he never seems more than slightly perturbed by the kidnapping, terrorism, and McCarthyesque flirtations with Communism that his actors and directors are up to. Without a sense of why he would take the job, why would we ever consider the possibility that he might take it to be a compelling one? After all, it's not like he's currently in a position lacking in money, power, or interest.

But then that's a minor issue compared to everything else. It may sound like there's a plot to this movie, with kidnappings, ransom demands, and the Communist threat, but that's all me trying to pull the movie together into some semblance of order. In reality, none of this amounts to anything, not the kidnapping, not the communists, not anything at all. Half the cast seems to have joined into the movie on a dare, and not because there was anything for them to do, including Johanssen, who gets one scene of any interest, and even that of no consequence, before falling for another character off-screen in a manner that conveniently absolves the film of any need to put her before us again. Jonah Hill, who I usually like, is in the movie for about thirty seconds and contributes nothing to it, and the same applies to Coen Brothers' regular Francis McDormand, who I don't recall even getting a single line of dialogue and who seems to have been placed in the movie for the purposes of a slapstick gag. This isn't cameo casting, or a stunt performance like Channing Tatum's from This is the End. Even seemingly-major characters like Ehrenreich or Swinton really have no purpose in the film. They exist, appear, say lines, and are gone. I've seen every Coen Brothers movie there is, and they do tend towards having weird characters for the hell of it, but in those movies, the characters in question exist to throw light on the world or the other characters that inhabit it. These characters have nothing to show us, and show us nothing for the runtime of the movie, before it finally ends, with nothing having happened, and nothing being resolved.

Final thoughts:    Hail, Caesar! is not a bad movie. It's not a particularly good movie either though, and when it comes to these directors and this cast, not being particularly good is damning enough. I am and remain a great fan of the Coens', and the fine movies they have given to us, such as No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, True Grit, and many others besides. As Roger Ebert used to say, I cite these fine films as an antidote to this one, a movie that came to be on a marketing sheet and never properly evolved from there, and one that proves conclusively that a handful of scenes, even when directed by great artists and performed by great actors, do not a movie make.

I have seen far worse movies over the course of this project than Hail, Caesar! But few had this pedigree and this potential, and did this little with them. One can only hope that the Coens remember what it is to make a movie in the near future, at which point we can put this minor misstep behind us, where it belongs.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  No Pickles.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Films

The Live Action showcase this year was honestly a bit of a let down, mostly because of drama fatigue. Yes, these movies are usually about awful things happening to people in terrible situations (I still remember the Afghan movie about child-beggars from a few years back), but there is customarily a bit of levity to undercut the horror and heavy drama somewhere in the showcase (such as the Norwegian movie about the old man who massacres seagulls with machine guns and builds tubas to sound across the Atlantic). This year, it seemed like everything was a pile of pain and high drama, which just gets tiring after a while, as you watch awful climax after awful climax. Nevertheless, we have the films before us, and it's time to evaluate them!

The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Live Action Films

Ave Maria:: A Palestinian-French film that is, of all things, a comedy, this one concerns a hardcore orthodox Jewish family who gets into a traffic accident at a West Bank convent of catholic nuns on Shabbat. The Jews can't use any technology on Shabbat, while the sisters have all taken vows of silence. Hijinx ensue, albeit not as many as I was expecting, and the entire thing is resolved through a nun suddenly possessing the advanced skills and tools to do something she realistically could have done at any point prior to the movie's commencement. Still, not every film has to be Hamlet, and this one's at least all right.

Shok::  Hey guys, did you know the war in Kosovo was horrible for children? Because it was! Shok is a movie about two Albanian boys in Kosovo dealing with efforts to alternately Serbify and eventually Ethnically Cleanse their village, and it is approximately as uplifting and warm-hearted as you would expect as a result. The film has a couple of quite good scenes, but overall it's nothing more than another "children in hell" flick, a sob-story archetype that the Oscars are not new to.

Everything Will Be Okay:  Longest of the movies on offer, this German film features handheld cameras documenting a father picking his daughter up from his ex-wife's house for the weekend, buying her toys, taking her to the amusement park, and then embarking on a complicated scheme to abduct her out of the country using falsified documents. Filmed more or less from the perspective of the daughter, an eight-year-old girl who slowly comes to realize what is happening, the movie is intriguingly well-made, but has the unfortunate quality of spending most of its runtime waiting for the character in question (the little girl) to catch up to what the audience already knows. Still, the film ends strongly, and has a true-to-life feel throughout.

Day One: A complex, multifaceted story about how much Afghanistan sucks, Day One follows an Afghani-American translator on her first day in-country with a force of US military personnel, as they try to track down a bombmaker allied with the Taliban and accidentally stumble upon the bombmaker's wife, currently in labor, whose medical situation necessitates treatment. Instantly, a hundred complexities of local custom, religious scruple, guest-laws, and medical training pop up, forcing everyone to struggle to figure out what to do. The situation is highly contrived, but the movie gets a lot across in a little time, and has a cohesiveness to it that the others on the same theme lack.

And the Havoc award for Best Live Action Short Film goes to...

Stutterer: Admittedly, this is a close one, and in many ways the best of a mediocre lot, but Stutterer was at least entertaining in a way that most of the other films were not. A typographer with a terrible stutter who has been in an online relationship that is suddenly coming offline stresses out over what to do to avoid revealing his crippling inability to speak. The setup isn't revolutionary, and the film ends on a rather pat note, but the film has an interesting style to it, and is written well enough to push itself over the top. Not a great year for the short films, but one perseveres.

Next Time:  The Coen Brothers take us back to Hollywood's golden age.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

And now for something completely different (... again)

Once more we have a new year of films spread out before us, but with the Oscars coming up early this year, and January a wasteland of quality enlivened only by special projects like this, I decided to start things off with a few short films. Therefore, as is customary, The General's Post proudly presents:

The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

World of Tomorrow: What the hell was that? World of Tomorrow is a very strange film about a young girl being given a tour of a trans-humanist future reality by a third-generation clone of herself. A bit rambly and extremely incoherent, the film has some really clever ideas in it (like a time travel device that isn't the most accurate thing in the universe, either temporally or physically, but the whole exercise seems to be a bit of weirdness for no real purpose. Full disclosure: most of my viewing companions thought this one was the best of the bunch.

Bear Story:  A silent, stop-motion animated film from Chile with a really clever visual style to it (more or less the entire film takes place inside a clockwork display mechanism), this film would have been instantly identifiable as a Chilean piece even if I hadn't known ahead of time where it came from, so tightly is it focused around the trauma of Pinochet. A decently-clever film, but nothing I'm going to remember.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos: A Russian movie (LEVIATHAN FLASHBACK! AAAAAARGH!!!) about two best friends who are also astronauts, this one actually proves to be the funniest one of them all, relying on situational humor and slapstick. The film's ending feels a bit slow and tacked-on, but overall it's a much better piece than the last thing I saw from Russia...

Prologue:A six-minute, one-scene sketch cartoon plainly drawn from some sort of rotoscope-like software, Prologue is a single fight sequence between two teams of two ancient Britons, who fight to the death with spear, axe, sword, and bow. It's well-made, certainly, with vividly lifelike movement and well-paced action, but there's really nothing much to it beyond people killing one another briefly. Still, it's the first time I've ever seen the Short Film showcase warn the audience of graphic violence and nudity.

And the Havoc award for Best Animated Short Film goes to...

Sanjay's Super Team: An Autobigraphical piece directed by Pixar Animator Sanjay Patel, this short film debuted in front of last year's Good Dinosaur, and it's just as good now as it was then. A young Indian boy who wants to watch Saturday morning cartoons about superheroes is instead forced by his father to participate in Hindu morning prayers, and daydreams the gods of the Hindu pantheon as members of a DC/Marvel-style superhero team. Wonderfully-animated (as is customary with Pixar), richly-produced and filled with warmth and emotion, this one ultimately won out in my mind. Call me a studio hack if you like, but Pixar knows how to do them right.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Little Chaos

Alternate Title:  Indulgence

One sentence synopsis:    A widow-turned-professional gardener is hired by the head landscaper of Louis XIV to build an outdoor ballroom within the gardens of the newly-constructed Versailles.

Things Havoc liked:As I've mentioned before, I'm entirely reliant upon trailers in order to determine what movies I should be watching, but then that's not always such a bad thing. Still, it has given rise to odd occurrences, particularly when a movie pops up in the trailer reels which never actually materializes as a released film. This happens every so often, usually when a foreign company finds itself with a tremendous bomb on its hands, and cuts its losses halfway through the marketing campaign, and before securing an American release. Generally these films are no loss, as they represent movies I was hardly about to go and see whether they were released or not, but once in a very long while, a movie I had circled as something potentially special disappears without a trace. So it was with a film I first heard of last year, mid-Doldrums, while slogging through the likes of White God, The Water Diviner, and Leviathan. It was a film set in 17th century France, an epoch of stockings and wigs, promising splendor, beauty, and the services of the incomparable Alan Rickman, one of my favorite actors working, taking on the dual role of the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, as well as the director's chair for the occasion. Though costume dramas are not really my particular cup of tea, I was excited for this one, and disappointed when the film failed to materialize in the US despite the promised release date. But it wasn't until earlier this year, with the news of Alan Rickman's passing at the age of 69, that I decided that while my rule has always been only to consider films in theaters, it was time to make an exception. And so, through methods I had best not admit to directly online, I was able to acquire a copy of Alan Rickman's final film, that I might give it the dubious honors I am capable of bestowing upon the capstone to a remarkable career.

It is the late 17th Century, and King Louis XIV is busy commissioning the construction of what will become his most enduring legacy, the magnificent royal palace of Versailles, a task that also involves the construction of the grandest gardens that have ever been produced. The task of playing the Sun King cannot have been a simple one, as Louis XIV was, both at the time and today, the effective model for absolute monarchs across Europe, a man of ambitions so towering that they consumed all of Europe in sanguinary wars, not once, but many times. It's therefore fitting perhaps that Rickman steals this show effortlessly, portraying a King whose every gesture, word, and glance is a calculated tool of rulership, and who has carefully constructed a heliocentric universe of courtiers, nobles, artists and officers around himself, whose task and mandate are to reflect glory upon him. Rickman's imperious, deadpan delivery and expression, honed over the course of many films (recall him from Dogma if you want an idea) is a perfect match here, whether instructing his grandchildren in mid-speech asides on how to be both loved and feared, cutting dead a mistress who has outlived her political usefulness with a single barbed word, or expressing his delight in such subtle terms that the object of such delight needs the services of a translator to determine if she has offended or pleased the King. Indeed, some of the weirdest sequences in the movie involve the King striking a pose of power and authority, and everyone nearby instantly and literally falling into orbit around him, forming a tableau of power and central authority for any who should choose to be watching.

But while Rickman is the main draw for me, he's not the main focus of the movie, which is ultimately a romance, featuring one actor I'm a fan of and one I'm generally not. The former is Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor I remember well from The Drop, Rust and Bone, and Death of a Shadow, the Dutch sci-fi film I encountered back in 2012 during my annual showcase of the Oscar-nominated Short Films. He plays the legendary gardener (these apparently exist) André Le Nôtre, the (real) head gardener of Versailles, a position which, back then, was roughly the equivalent of a Cabinet post today. Schoenaerts underplays the role considerably, which is the right call, as his character is both a nobleman of the Ancien Regime and in a position to both enjoy unlimited access to the King's Ear, and receive all the blame if anything goes wrong with Versailles' construction. An early scene, in between interviews with would-be subordinates, has him remark that despite being on such close terms with the King that he is allowed to dine with him, failure in his task will almost certainly mean execution. The other party is Kate Winslet, whom I first met in Titanic and needed a long, long time before I could forgive her for that fact (the same was true of DiCaprio). My grievances aside, Winslet is a fine actress, as roles from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Finding Neverland, or Little Children will all attest to. Here she plays Madame Sabine de Barra, another gardener selected to assist Le Nôtre in completing a particular feature of the gardens, a widow who supports herself through her work (not as rare in 17th-Century France as you might think), and who falls in love with her boss. Conventional though this all might be, Winslet and Schoenaerts have a nice chemistry on screen, butressed by the fact that these are both middle-aged veterans of the games of politics and gilded disappointment that has been their lives.

But if I wanted to watch a conventional romance, even one with Alan Rickman, I have quite a few to choose from, so what makes this movie special? The pageantry, for one. Rickman's directorial style is very lean on dialogue and long on landscape, using a Wes Anderson-style geometric shot construction to get the glory and the splendor of Versailles across, a world of wigs and gowns and stockings and poisonous politics, wherein everyone is quite happily sleeping with everyone else in "arrangements" that only the French could possibly keep track of. So it is with Stanley Tucci, who steals the show as the Phillipe, Duke of Orleans and brother of the King, whom he plays as an endlessly talkative, flamboyantly gay ornament of the court, whose wife, Princess Elizabeth of the Palatine (Paula Paul) has come to a perfectly happy arrangement with the above, aligning herself with Madame De Montespan, chief Mistress of the King (this was an official position in those days). Fortunately, the film doesn't expect us to remember who is who among the dizzying array of Madames and Seigneurs that we are presented with, but hints constantly at the byzantine complexities that surround the characters, getting everything across, as a rule, with inference and wordplay. Indeed, the dialogue in the film is almost relentlessly off-point, using metaphor and voice tones to say what is actually going on. It's a strange effect to someone used to more traditional Hollywood fare, but the resulting film feels a lot richer for it, as the characters circle around one another dispensing charm and venom in equal measure. A particular gem is Helen McCroy, playing Schoenaerts' cold-hearted courtesan of a wife, a woman who has elevated her husband through marriage and does not intend to ever let him forget it, even as she dallies with other men (as does largely everyone in the movie). The music, meanwhile, by cellist Peter Gregson, complements the effect with baroque splendor, a chamber orchestra to accompany a world that is consciously artificial.

Things Havoc disliked:The dialogue in this film is quite rarefied, and while I would hesitate, generally to cite that as a negative, it can actually be quite hard to figure out what the hell people are talking about (or doing) as a result. An extended sequence, midway through the film, where a promenade in the countryside stumbles upon what appears to be a pagan altar, seems to serve no purpose whatsoever except to allow a rider to announce that someone is dead, while the confusion of Winslet's character concerning the intrigues of the court translates to nothing more than confusion for the audience on the same subject. I could not tell, for instance, which mistress was and was not on the outs with the King at any given moment, which is a matter, as it turns out, of some importance, nor have I any idea why Winslet, approaching the most important job interview of her life, would decide for no apparent reason to begin messing around with the potted plants in her prospective employer's front yard.

And yet, strangely for a movie which turns in circles this lofty, so lofty that a critic as experienced as myself was lost several times, the actual plot of the film, as so often in romances, is relatively shallow, particularly in the second half, wherein Schoenaerts' wife spontaneously develops a Mean Girls' streak to her, and decides to sabotage a royal construction project for no reason other than spite and to no effect other than getting herself in a great deal of entirely predictable trouble. In a film where literally everyone has a mistress or a lover, where she suddenly develops a jealous streak sufficient to be willing to risk summary execution is beyond me, but we require a "crisis" of some sort to drive the formula plot forward, so there. All is forgotten, of course, by the end of the film, as is the "little chaos" of the film's title, a subject it took some pains to set up and then fails entirely to pay off. Much time is devoted to the fact that Winslet's gardener has shocking (one might even say British) ideas regarding landscape and horticulture, preferring the chaos of nature to the rigid order of French-style gardens (believe it or not, I know what I'm talking about). And yet having established Winslet as a Gardener who Doesn't Play By The Rules (imagine an 80s cop movie with this concept), she then spends the rest of the film playing by the rules. The final result, an outdoor ballroom with a cascading fountain (which I have seen in the real Versailles) is indeed very pretty, but has no element of Chaos within it, Little or otherwise.

Final thoughts:    A Little Chaos is the sort of movie that isn't commonly reviewed on this website, mostly because I don't care for formula romances enough to bother to see them. But to my surprise, despite the criticisms I leveled at it a moment ago, Alan Rickman's second (and sadly, final) directorial effort is an effortlessly-charming little film, one that speaks well above the intellectual level of its plot, and which imbues its admittedly formulaic structure with warmth and light and a soft-hearted cheer that is entirely fitting of the purpose it has unfortunately taken on. I am, of course, indisputably biased regarding this movie, being both a Francophile of long-standing, and an abject admirer of Alan Rickman's work. But given the jaundiced eye I generally cast upon romantic period pieces of this sort (the less I have to discuss Pride and Prejudice, the happier everyone will be), a movie that wins me over despite that is perhaps worth giving a shot to. And if nothing else, A Little Chaos serves as a fine tribute to a legendary actor, who will most certainly, by this critic at least, be missed.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  A yearly tradition returns for another installment!

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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