Hail, Caesar

Hail, Caesar

In 1991 Joel and Ethan Coen created Barton Fink, a film about what happened when a successful but innocent American playwright let himself be seduced into going to Hollywood and writing screenplays for Capitol Pictures.

The result was madness, murder and destruction, with John Goodman as a demon calling up flames with a wave of his hand. Hail, Caesar is set a decade after Barton Fink, but the studio is still Capitol Pictures; this time the innocent character is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s in charge of production at the studio and who goes to confession so often that even his priest is bored with his uninteresting sins.

The film is a humorous account of how Eddie tries to keep several movies on track (giving the Coens a chance to lovingly spoof the 1950s Hollywood genres) while coping with the kidnaping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the biggest star in a nearly completed Roman sword-and-sandal epic loosely patterned after Ben-Hur and called Hail, Caesar.

While the kidnapping plot sags at times, it serves its purpose of letting the Coens guide us around the sets at Capitol and peek in on various works in progress, most of which resemble movies the audience has actually seen. First is the water ballet musical featuring DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson in her best Esther Williams imitation), snarling at Mannix as she tries to fit into a fish tail that is now a bit too small because she’s now a bit too pregnant.

But the water ballet scenes, complete with multiple choreographed “mermaids,” were shot on the stages where the Williams extravaganzas were made, and they look just like the originals. All Mannix has to do is get the picture finished before Moran expands any more, and then convince her to marry the father before her audience finds out she’s in a family way.

Second on the tour is the Broadway musical adaptation, this time featuring Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, a muscular Gene Kelly type in a sailor suit, singing and tapping to a song about the shortage of women at sea in a film that crosses On the Town with South Pacific. As he taps across the tabletops in a bar, he rubs up against the other sailors in a way that suggests he may not miss the women as much as he professes. Channing is first rate, and it’s all slick and professional, but full of innuendoes that would never have reached the screen in the ’50s.

Then there’s Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy (played by newcomer Alden Ehrenreich in a just-right performance). Hobie rides the range on his trusty horse (which comes to his whistle), lassoes bad guys, serenades the female lead, does impressive rope twirling tricks and sports a western drawl big enough to drive a stagecoach through.

That drawl causes him some problems. Hobie’s film is about to be completed, and the studio wants his next picture to be a ballroom comedy with British director Laurence Laurentz (a superb Ralph Fiennes). Their linguistic duets are hilarious as Laurentz tries to teach Hobie “proper” English.

The ballroom comedy scenes produce some good laughs also, with Hobie in a tuxedo trying to make a proper entrance through a door that keeps sticking.

Last, there’s the Roman epic starring the kidnaped Baird Whitlock (Clooney) in his soldier’s leather doublet, skirt and short sword that keeps catching on furniture. Whitlock is clearly not the brightest bulb on the string, but he is a major star (I smell whiffs of a Charlton Heston parody). The studio needs him to complete their picture, but he keeps forgetting his lines at the foot of the cross.

The group kidnapping Whitlock and holding him for ransom call themselves the Future, but they’re just the same old naive screenwriters who flirted with communism (see the review of Trumbo in May’s MM for their side of the story). Whitlock is instructed in Marxist logic by Dr. Herbert Marcuse himself (John Bluthal), and copies of Marx’s books are waved around. Channing Tatum amps up the parody as he prepares to board a soviet submarine, the wind blowing his long blond hair across his face in the artificial moonlight, like all the “heroic” turncoats in Hollywood history.

There’s also a demonic figure in the form of a recruiter for the Lockheed (military/aircraft) Corporation, who wants to hire Mannix to do something serious and warlike instead of wasting his time on Hollywood schlock; one temptation he offers is a cigarette after Mannix has told his wife he has quite smoking (one of the many sins to which he repeatedly confesses). There’s film editor C.C. Calhoun (Francis McDormand, married to one of the Coens), who becomes entirely too intimate with her film cutting machine, and last, the Coens bring in Thora and Thessaly Thacker, twin gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton and differentiated only by the outrageous outfits they wear.

Of course, Mannix works out all the problems, including his personal ones, by the film’s end, but that’s unimportant. In this case, it’s the journey with all of its detours, not the destination, that makes the film worthwhile. Anyone familiar with the genre films of the 1950s, in their original incarnations or on DVD, will want to see this film. Only the Coen brothers could stir up such a dish of cynical genre comedy and have it come out this pleasant and tasty.

Deadpool

Deadpool is another dip into the Marvel world of comic book characters, and at times I think if the entire Marvel world disappeared tomorrow, it would probably be a year before I noticed and yawned. Therefore I almost skipped Deadpool, in spite of its good reviews, and now I’m glad I didn’t. It’s the funniest, most cynical takeoff on the superhero concept that has yet emerged. For anyone sick of the vanilla flavor and universe-pounding events of previous Marvel films (Guardians of the Universe is an exception), Deadpool makes comics funny again.

The character of Deadpool evidently appeared in one of the Wolverine movies, but I missed it. Critical consensus says, however, that even though the earlier version was played by the same actor, the two versions bear little resemblance to each other. In this version, Deadpool, before he mutates into Deadpool the superhero, is a former Special Forces op named Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) who earns his living intimidating people for pay.

He hangs out, along with other former mercenaries, at a bar called Sister Margaret’s Home for Wayward Girls, presided over by his friend Weasel (played by Tim Miller who also directs). Here he meets and hits it off with a prostitute named Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin), the first girl he’s met who’s as kinky as he is. They consider getting married, but Wilson develops a quick-growing terminal cancer. One dark night he is offered a miracle cure by a nondescript man in a black suit and soon finds himself under the tender mercies of Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his cohort Angel Dust (Gina Carano).

They inject him with chemicals and torture his body until he mutates into a super-strong, immediately-healing powerhouse, but when he tries to escape and accidentally starts a fire, they leave him strapped down in the burning lab. He survives, badly scarred but apparently indestructible, and vows revenge.

This portion of the film is told in flashback, after the opening sequence in which Deadpool has already demonstrated what he can do as he tries to kill Ajax in a violent chase down a busy thoroughfare.

The last third of the film follows Deadpool as he pursues Ajax and Angel Dust with the help of two X-Men: Colossus (Andre Tricoteux) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).

The best part of the conclusion is that it avoids the “we must destroy the city to save the city” cliche that ends so many Marvel films, with each one working at being bigger and more destructive than the previous one. Instead, Deadpool is simply trying to free Vanessa from the grip of Ajax and make Ajax pay for what he has done. Of course, he does, but the procedure is interesting.

The outstanding  aspect of Deadpool is not the violence, although that’s well done, but the humor. The film plays as though the writer and director went over the script a dozen times to see how many more one-liners and jokes they could pack in, most of them raunchy. Deadpool makes fun of Marvel Comics by ridiculing the whole concept of the X-Men and refusing to join them. He quips about the way different actors have played the same character, sneers at their fancy headquarters, comments on how the low budget makes the current film look cheap, and criticizes Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability. The jokes even extend through the supplements, where Deadpool does special previews for different holidays, including Valentine’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday. Then he tacks on some promos (approved by the American Cancer Society) for how men and women can examine themselves for breast and testicular cancer. As he discusses the latter, he sits on the edge of a pool table, rolling two cue balls around in his hand.

Deadpool is not so much an anti-superhero movie as one that shifts the emphasis of superhero epics. It changes the focus from trying to save the world or the universe to simply trying to kill the bad guy before he does more damage.

It shifts from the destructive extravaganzas that end most Marvel films to one where it’s just the hero and his two friends against the two villains, best mutant wins. Last, it piles on the jokes so deep that even when some of them misfire, there are more coming up that will work.

Anyone who dotes on the Marvel universe with its Captain America-style heroes will probably find Deadpool to be offensive; anyone who wants a mutant offbeat character with a raunchy sense of humor as warped as his face will find Deadpool to be a breath of fresh air.

The Witch

The Witch is set around 1630, a decade after the Mayflower landed and around 60 years before the Salem witch trials in 1692.

It looks backward to the decision to leave England, and the characters, however much they value their new freedom, often yearn for the comforts and life-preserving society they left behind as they struggle to survive in a bleak land. For the audience, it also looks forward, because of its title and subtitle, “A New-England Folktale,” to the witch trials that Arthur Miller’s popular The Crucible have made common currency. Robert Eggers, the writer and director of this first film, tried to avoid Miller’s influence and instead researched beliefs in witchcraft as they appeared in both European and American books of the time. He also drew upon the writings of Puritan preachers such as Cotton Mather, where belief in witchcraft was the rule.

One of the reasons Shakespeare included the witches in Macbeth was because James I, the new monarch, was a firm believer in witches; it never hurt to curry favor with the king.

The film focuses on a Puritan family: the father, William (Ralph Ineson); the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie); an elder daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); a son just entering puberty, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw); the young twins, Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger); and the baby Samuel.

As the film opens, the family is being asked to leave the colony stockade, apparently in a conflict over religious dogma or biblical interpretation or something the father has said. Defiantly, they pack their goods into a cart, collect their animals and set off across the cleared fields to find a new location for a house, confident that their faith will see them through. A later scene shows them with a small cabin, some sheds and a little cleared land under cultivation—apparently a successful fresh start, although not enough to provide for the upcoming winter.

Then it goes downhill.

The baby is stolen, perhaps by a wolf, although no one sees it; the crops fail; Caleb disappears into the woods and comes back with most of his clothes missing and falls sick; the mother, Katherine, feels that God has abandoned them and that they should return to the plantation. Thomasin teases her twin siblings about being a witch, and they believe her; Black Philip, the goat, is assumed to be the devil in their games.

One by one the family members slide into hysteria and disaster, although, for reasons not made clear, the audience sees things that the family members do not.

Whether The Witch works or not depends on how the viewer reacts to the ending. Eggers forces us to lay aside our 21st century views and to move back into the superstitious mindset of the late 17th century, a mindset in which life was often brutal, irrational and unexplainable. Why did the crops fail? What happened to the stolen infant Samuel? Do we lack sufficient faith? Are we cursed?

Whether Eggers’ final scenes are an adequate answer or simply another way for the settlers to delude themselves is a question that the viewer has to answer.

Whether the ending is acceptable or not, the film itself is a small marvel of authenticity and atmosphere.

Perfectly acted, the film uses language that sounds archaic but is still mostly understandable. Its settings are as authentic for the time as any person of the present day is likely to see, and the photography is sharp, bleak and gray, exactly right.

The film pulls the viewer in and doesn’t let up until the last scene deep in the woods. It’s a film whose images and ideas linger long after the screen goes dark.

The Big Short

The financial crisis of 2008 is the subject of The Big Short, and it follows the lives of five men who made an incredible amount of money when they saw what was happening and sold the market short. (When you know that the value of something, like a stock, will decline, you short it—sell it to someone for its current price with the possibility of buying it back later when its value tanks.)

The film follows the outline of Michael Lewis’s best-selling nonfiction book of the same name. There’s Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an antisocial fund manager dressed in a T-shirt and sandals who is the first to figure out what may happen and to bet his clients’ money that it will; he’s also almost the last one out.

Second is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an angry Wall Street executive who hates Wall Street and bets against it partly to see it go down. Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) are college buddies running a small hedge fund who catch a whiff of what is happening and want to show they can play in the big leagues.

Last is Jared Vennett who explains to the audience what is going on, often addressing it directly. Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, Shipley and Geller’s paranoid guru, who isn’t interested in playing but doesn’t want his proteges to lose everything.

Celebrities like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez give mini-lectures on the specific details of financial instruments and terms.

The film will make you angry and disgusted, but, of course, there is no happy ending to this story, especially for the millions of people who lost everything in the crash while the people who orchestrated it, knowingly or not, were not even arrested.

It’s good to be reminded of these things, and The Big Short does it in a visceral fashion that manages to be entertaining as well as enlightening.

— Leonard G. Heldreth

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org

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