Hail Caesar! has two too many characters

It’s worth mentioning off the bat that most Coen brothers movies take a while to get used to. Almost all of them improve greatly on a second viewing, but can be alienating at the start. Fargo and The Big Lebowski, for two extreme examples, went from good to stone-cold-classic standing after I saw them a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. It’s no surprise then that Hail Caesar didn’t quite gel for me after one viewing. However, its alienating features have more in common with The Ladykillers than A Serious Man, which may bode poorly for its standings in the Coens pantheon.

Hail Caesar takes place in just-post-war Hollywood, where fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is juggling the problems of an entire studio on his back. The cast of supporting characters consists primarily of actors, including George Clooney’s suave nincompoop of a superstar (the unofficial fourth in his Idiot Trilogy), Scarlet Johansson’s brusque swimming film starlet, and Channing Tatum’s smiling dancer. Beyond the actors, there’s Frances McDormand as an editor, Jonah Hill as a professional extra of sorts, Ralph Fiennes as a director, Tilda Swinton as a reporter and her identical sister, and twelve familiar faces including Fred Melamed and David Krumholtz as a guild of politicized writers. It’s exactly as overstuffed as it sounds, and normally reliable talents (particularly Swinton) go full-ham to try to catch their minute in the spotlight. Some, like McDormand, have just one scene and make the most of it, but others like Johansson and Fiennes serve mostly as amusing distractions from the main action. It all feels quite disconnected, even if bits individually work.

Thankfully, the bits that work really work. It’s stuffed with memorable moments and images, and oftentimes is brutally funny. In diving into classic Hollywood cheese, Hail Caesar has its cake and eats it too. For example, in Tatum’s introductory scene it makes fun of old-school dance sequences by staging an effective old-school dance scenes. A running gag about eagles is effective throughout, and it when it goes very Very big, it always works.

Hail Caesar also continues the Coen’s obsession with religion, with its central (and titular) picture being a big-screen story of the Christ. Some of the side characters take on direct religious symbolism (Joseph, the apostles), which leaves its Jesus figure up in the air between two characters. Alden Ehrenreich has a star-making turn as cowboy actor drawn into a drama, whose youth and purity hint in that direction. But Mannix himself is the one carrying the sins of Hollywood, notably courting offers from Lockheed-Martin in a room draped in red. When he encounters McDormand’s editor, the fruits of his labour in Hollywood are laid bare. Like most of Hollywood and the movie itself, its pretty damn amusing, but not 100% satisfying.

B-

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Hail Caesar (2016)
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, and George Clooney
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

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Hail Caesar! has two too many characters

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another

Netflix’s model of releasing all episodes at once is a major problem for many shows, which pad their lengths to seasons-long arcs with a movie’s worth of ideas yet lacking any episodic satisfaction. That same problem though can be a huge boon to hang-out shows, allowing us to get deeply invested in the characters without needing to worry about time constraints for narrative thrust and plenty of natural pauses. It worked well for Master of None, which I didn’t adore but liked a fair amount. It also works very well for half of Love, Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust’s show that bears a significant resemblance to Apatow productions like Knocked Up. It allows the humor to flow while also letting the tragedy set in without an oversaturation of melodrama. Unfortunately, it crashes and burns for the other half, where one of the characters is just not that much fun to hang out with. It becomes an odd amalgamation of the hate-watch and the legitimate, which got me through the entire season but not without constant complaining.

Love concerns the star-crossed trajectories of (on paper) free-spirit Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and nerdy Gus (Paul Rust). Those on-paper descriptions falter pretty quickly, where Mickey’s free-spiritedness and Gus’ nebbishness are shown to be a front for deep-seated interpersonal issues and all-encompassing selfishness. Mickey’s character treats other people terribly, has no direction in life, and is a generally miserable presence; she’s also a complete character who is actively trying to understand and better herself, which makes her fascinating and sympathetic. Gus, on the other hand, is the least self-aware character in existence, another subversion of the Nice Guy trope who denies culpability in his wrongdoings and escapes relatively unscathed and uneducated. He’s an uninteresting and static character who we learn almost nothing about really over the course of the series, aside from it being continually confirmed that he’s a selfish prick with occasional moments of awkward charm who abuses any small amount of power handed to him. Gus is an interesting character, but not a particularly novel one, and definitely not a particularly sympathetic one.

His half of the show is the hate-watch, whereas Mickey’s is the legitimately fantastic show. She’s a subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which has been done before (500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine, Master of None to an extent) but rarely from the female perspective. When she abuses her roommate, trashes a party, or lies at an AA meeting, its certainly not portrayed favourably, but the humanity behind it is not lost. We consistently want better from and for Mickey because she wants better from and for herself. Jacobs is stellar in the role, and a bit of a revelation as a dramatic actress. Perhaps her greatest trick is convincing us that she would be interested in Gus, not because he actually is any better but because we know she has white-knighted the Nice Guy on the surface. There’s a weird reversal of the norms at work where Mickey is the one putting Gus on a pedestal, with the dark side of the Nice Guy trope playing as a complete surprise to her. It’s a testament to Jacobs and the Mickey character that this oversight plays as completely natural, and it almost makes the whole thing work.

But then Gus has to ruin the whole thing again. We’re sold on Mickey being into Gus, despite it falling into the Ugly Guy/Hot Girl trope, but Gus is also getting into threesomes with co-eds and spurring the attention of actresses, which stretches credulity. This trope runs a bit deeper even. Mickey’s roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty), is the best person who ever lived, and is sold as someone people like. But even Bertie, who really is The Best, winds up with a awkward, smiley man-child at the end of the season. Bertie gonna be Bertie I suppose, but it betrays the dark streak hinted in her character in episodes like “Party In The Hills”. The supporting cast as a whole help sell the show, particularly the always reliable Brett Gelman as Mickey’s boss, Iris Apatow as child actress Arya, Chris Witaske as Gus’ toaster-stupified friend, and Jordan Rock as self-aware minority best friend Kevin, but for a ten-episode season the bench doesn’t run especially deep.

I hated a lot of Love, but its hang-out vibe did work and Mickey and Bertie are fantastic (cut out Gus next season and I’m back in). It didn’t hurt to finish the season, but its counterpart Master of None is so clearly superior that its hard to recommend despite its positive qualities. This could be the kind of show that improves in its already-confirmed second season, so I’ll check it out again then depending on the reviews. As it stands, its a fun show to argue about but a bit of nuisance to actually watch.

C+

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Best Episodes: It Begins, The Date, The Table Read

Love: Season One (2016)
Created by Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, and Claudia O’Doherty
On Netflix

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another

The Modern Classics: Grimes – Oblivion (2012)

In The Modern Classics, I’ll examine songs from the 2000s and 2010s that I think will be remembered as the classics of our time. What makes them different than the other songs we love, and why do I think they’ll resonate years down the line? 

#1. Grimes – Oblivion
From the 2012 album Visions

Deep cuts do not make a modern classic, and I’m hardly alone in my love of this song; Pitchfork named it the best song of the 2010s so far. The rest of that top 10 contains songs I love like Kanye West’s Runaway and Frank Ocean’s Pyramids, as well as songs some that don’t work for me like Drake’s Hold On We’re Going Home and Ariel Pink’s Round and Round, but Oblivion is the only track that I am positive will hold up years later as an emblem of its time.

So why this one? First and foremost, that bouncy synth bassline is unfairly catchy. Grimes’ lyrics are fairly mumbled, so the hook had to come from another source, and a rhythm as active as that bass works in spades. It’s immediately recognizable and omnipresent throughout the song; hearing any five seconds of it having ever heard it before identifies it immediately. Compare it another great Grimes track, Realiti, which similarly has tremendous texture but doesn’t own its rhythm quite as much, relying more on the melodic hook in the chorus to distinguish itself.

But Oblivion isn’t a banger by any stretch. At its heart, its beat poetry, telling a story of sexual assault and the scars it carries. The fact the lyrics are difficult to parse on a first listen allow it to survive as great groove music outside of its context, but its depth gives it a lasting appeal. It’s topical to today’s movement against sexual violence and the taboo inherent in it, and its forwards politics will surely give it lasting appeal to future generations. Grimes has released plenty of great music before and since, but Oblivion remains her crown jewel.

The Modern Classics: Grimes – Oblivion (2012)

This year’s Macbeth is a straightfaced, grim, dissonant, and mostly unimaginative affair

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a film at odds with itself. It’s filmed in a distinctly modern style, with plenty of slo-mo cameras that evoke more 300 than Braveheart. However, its incredibly old-fashioned in its refusal to deviate from Shakespearean prose, or to crack a smile in the middle of a tragedy. It’s stuffy stuff, steeped in blood and dirt but with the personal remove of the familiar prose. The actors are all fine, but the words often don’t match the pictures. The out-damned-spot monologue is essential, but gone is the washbasin, leaving its delivery unnatural and seemingly forced to fit the play. Modern views of Shakespeare consistently veer towards metaphor for the sake of metaphor, and this one does so more than most.

However, there are things to like, and this Macbeth is sure to be a fine version to show in Grade 12 English (lots of violence, no boobs!). Fassbender plays Macbeth as much fiercer than other depictions, never gaining our sympathy for a moment, but has gravitas to spare. Cotillard plays the early scheming Lady Macbeth to a tee, but dissolves for her descent. The cinematography has its moments, notably the final smoky red battle sequence. It all adds up to something watchable, if not an exciting reason to get back into Shakespeare. The score however is fantastic, with droning strings fitting this less human take on the story. It often drowns out the prose, but honestly, I’d rather the strings sometimes.

C

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Macbeth (2015)
Dir. Justin Kurzel
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, and David Thewlis
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)

This year’s Macbeth is a straightfaced, grim, dissonant, and mostly unimaginative affair

10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and intriguing, but slightly more exciting in concept than execution

I’ll get this out of the way immediately and admit that I liked Cloverfield a fair amount. The shaky-cam didn’t bother me, I thought the perspective on the Godzilla movie was fresh, and I was genuinely invested in the outcome. Cloverfield 2, however, is absolutely not a thing that the world needed. From that perspective, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an insanely good sequel, in that it has almost nothing to do with Cloverfield.

Really, 10 Cloverfield Lane shares much more with the Curate sections of War of the Worlds, the fantastic Wes Craven flick Red Eye, and that imaginary super-bleak movie that people conjure up when they hear about Room. There are only three people in the cast. There are no scenes of cities being destroyed. And mercifully, there is no shaky cam. It treats Cloverfield as a baseline for an anthology series, hopefully exploring small-scale scenarios in large-scale catastrophes, and the smallness and intimacy of it is incredibly exciting. On the other hand, the Cloverfield link is a fairly shameless marketing ploy, but if it gets movies like this in the cineplex, I’m on board.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a big-studio version of the kind of movie that is normally done for pennies, but the talent behind the camera mostly sticks to the indieness of the proceedings. There are caveats though, and when the big-studio influence pops in its almost always for the worst. Bear McCreary’s score feels like something out of a larger movie, which is distracting rather than classing up the joint. Some of the more arbitrary plot devices (barrels, aerosols) seem to come from an entirely different planet, and the third act has a bit of a focus-group feeling to it. At one point, it leans into its attempt to be “indie” a bit too strongly, setting a montage of the character killing time to upbeat music which doesn’t quite gel with the tone before and after (a later scene pulls a similar trick to great effect though).

The above is to say that 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t perfect, because the rest of what I’ll say is that so many things about it are fantastic! As Howard, the unstable owner of the bunker, John Goodman leans on his physical presence rather than his charisma and reminds us how terrifying Goodman can truly be (the Coens are the only ones who tap into this side of him this well). He’s a dark and mysterious character, but no cheap tricks and twists are played with regards to his motivation. As the hero, Mary Elizabeth Winstead moves from being a welcome presence in movies ranging from Final Destination 3 to Scott Pilgrim into likely becoming a full-blown Movie Star. Her character, Michelle, is a victim, but is never portrayed as a damsel in distress. She’s resourceful, smart, and understandably vexed. It’s a great performance and a great role. John Gallagher Jr rounds out the trio providing some well-needed levity and charisma, but Goodman and Winstead absolutely steal the show.

10 Cloverfield Lane is what happens when someone intentionally tries to create a midight classic. Thankfully, the people involved are talented enough that it works, but the seams show. That being said, a world where movies like this populate the cineplex rather than spending a day in a little theater (if you’re lucky) is a world I want to live in. My advice: put Cloverfield out of your mind and meet it on its own merits. You won’t be disappointed.

B

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10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Dir. Dan Trachtenberg
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Some spoilery comments (highlight to see):

  • The ending really knocks it down a whole peg I think. I like that Michelle wasn’t immediately killed or something “edgy” like that, but devolving into an action climax outside didn’t resonate for me. The movie ends when she gets out and overcomes Howard, but the rest is shown as Story Proper rather than the epilogue it should have been.
  • I talked above about how great Michelle is as a character, but I really want to mention how great Howard is as a villain. He’s a murderous psychopath, but he’s not wrong, which leads to an interesting dynamic. Even as a proper sayer of doom, he’s still clearly the villain. I also like that the movie never hides his instability or uses John Goodman’s charisma to get us to like Howard at all. He’s constantly a ticking time bomb, we just don’t know how big the explosion will be. Although that passwords/Little Women scene was a bit too on the nose.
10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and intriguing, but slightly more exciting in concept than execution

The Wave eschews the nihilistic spectacle of American disaster movies, but keeps the cliches

The disaster movie has become synonymous with big-effects spectacle like 2012 in Hollywood. Because of the budgetary restrictions, its hard to imagine films from other markets really breaking in to the genre in a major way. In that sense, Norway’s The Wave is very impressive, making its budget count in every way. However, the types of films it emulates maybe aren’t the best to take cues from.

The Wave takes place in a small Norwegian town in the mountains under threat of tsunami due to rockslides. It’s very much a San Andreas fault type of situation, which maybe makes it less surprising that it follows roughly the exact story beats of last year’s The Rock-starring San Andreas (which wasn’t that bad!). Like that movie, it focuses almost strictly on one family, occasionally drifting to experts in a geological center. The father of the family, Kristian, merges the two worlds, as the head geologist on his last day at the office before moving out of this tsunami-prone town. The Wave doesn’t stray from its cliches at all; Kristian notices something and tries to ring the alarm but is stopped because of politics, all the pieces come together after seeing a clip of Jenga, someone outruns a flood, noble sacrifices abound, etc. If The Wave’s goals were to imitate an American disaster movie, it certainly succeeds plotwise.

Where it diverges is its grimness. There is only one “disaster” scene in the movie, a tense and terrific ten minutes where the disaster in question is foreboding rather than in-your-face. Whether due to budgets or good filmmaking, the effects are limited to that scene. In its second half, The Wave is simply grim. It approaches effective horror occasionally, particularly in an flooding-room sequence that just misses the mark, but for the most part rubs your face in destruction and sadness. Which is fair, disasters are sad, but its hard to take too seriously when it still falls into all the spectacle-disaster movie cliches.

The main sequence of The Wave is absolutely exceptional filmmaking, but its surrounded on either side by a not-so-great movie. The good stuff scattered throughout makes The Wave a worthwhile curiousity, and it certainly has more merit than the likes of Dante’s Peak, but it falls well short of transcending the genre.

C+

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Bolgen (The Wave) (2016)
Dir. Roar Uthag
Starring Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, and Fridjotz Saheim
Rotten Tomatoes (79%)

The Wave eschews the nihilistic spectacle of American disaster movies, but keeps the cliches

Big Game is small potatoes

The premise of Big Game is fairly extraordinary: kid goes into forest to hunt, finds President of the USA being hunted. With a premise like that, why even make the movie? Well, Big Game doesn’t justify its existence as a full movie rather than a tweet, avoiding being offensively bad but never fully engaging. It breaks itself into three or four parts at any given time, splitting itself between the President and the kid, the gang of hunters led by a traitorous Secret Service agent, and the Vice President hunkering down with the CIA. The three never coalesce, with the CIA bits in particular standing out as padding despite featuring a sleepwalking Felicity Huffman, stock-mode Ted Levine, hey-its Victor Garber, and Jim Broadbent, who may be the only person having fun here (he’s introduced eating a sandwich and proceeds to chew scenery throughout the rest of the film).

Big Game is not without a decent visual idea or two. A scene in the woods with a chest freezer is surreal, and Ray Stevenson’s Air Force One parachute drop through RPG fire is exactly the kind of gonzo action shot one would expect from the premise. For the most part, its fairly muted, with nothing of note happening until the Big Action Climax, which still somehow manages to drag. They call back to Die Hard a bit by having the President lose his shoe early on, but that only highlights how little of an impact Samuel L. Jackson has in the role. The editing is less-than-stellar, with seams clearly showing, and the dialogue lacks the spark of the action movies it clearly wants to emulate. Ray Stevenson, also usually dependable in genre fare, also doesn’t seem to be having much fun. Mehmet Kurtulus’ secondary villain Hazar starts off with a bit more pizzazz, but quickly fades into the background after an introductory scene which starts great and becomes ludicrously excessive in the worst way. Onni Tommila, the kid, is fine, and his relationship with his father actually does manage to stick. Maybe the high-concept action movie part of Big Game is its undoing; it overrules the nice small work that is effective, and doesn’t top itself nearly enough to work as schlock.

C-

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Big Game (2015)
Dir. Jalmari Helander
Starring Onni Tommila, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Stevenson, and Jim Broadbent
Rotten Tomatoes (76%)

Big Game is small potatoes