Monday, February 8, 2016

Hail, Caesar! [2016]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review


Hail, Caesar! [2016] (written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen [wikip]) is a generally gentle modern-day "screwball comedy" about / send-up of early 1950s era Hollywood:

Good-guy (and Confession-going / rosary-carrying and perhaps rosary-praying Catholic) MGM-like studio exec Eddie Mannix (played quite wonderfully by Josh Brolin) is being tempted to take a much simpler / better paying job for Lockheed, a growing nearby defense contractor.   Shown by Lockheed's recruiter / "headhunter" (played by Ian Blackman) a photograph of one of the ENORMOUS hydrogen bomb explosions conducted at the Bikini Atoll at the time, he's told that he could put aside "circuses" ("childish things" cf. 1 Cor 13:11) and concern himself with "building the future" -- presumably weapons of truly Awesome destruction.

And it was true, Eddie Mannix' current job was managing a "circus" full of odd/difficult people from actors to directors to gossip columnists to clergy.

The latter, the clergy, were actually portrayed quite well.  Sure they were portrayed as being somewhat "provincial" about faith, convinced of course of the fundamental superiority of their faith over others' BUT THEY WEREN'T "MEAN" ABOUT IT.  They were simply who they were, and shrugged, perhaps with some disappointment, that others were not necessarily like them ... America ;-) ... But their lives / presumably their faith(s) went on.  CERTAINLY MANNIX' DID and in the Confessional, which he did frequent quite often, he did come to ask some fairly profound questions about the choices before him.

Further, Mannix received honestly some very good counsel from his sometimes mildly irritated Confessor (played by Robert Pike Daniel).  Among his wise words to Mannix was the reminder that as tempting as "the easy path" could be, it is not necessarily "the best path" (cf. Mt 7:13-14).  The reason for the Confessor's advice is perhaps more Coen Brothers' inspired but nevertheless a very good one: The Confessor reminds both Mannix (and the Audience) that Mannix was a fundamentally GOOD GUY / a DECENT MAN (in all its dimensions) in a business _that needed_ GOOD / DECENT PEOPLE to both _set an example_ and _to help others_ out of the messes perhaps that they found themselves in.  And honestly, MY HAT OFF TO THE COEN BROTHERS HERE !  THIS WAS A _WONDERFUL_ AND _KIND_ INSIGHT.

And there were PLENTY OF OTHERS (insights), BIG and small, OFTEN VERY, VERY FUNNY ;-) throughout the film:

Among the funniest honestly was that regarding "THE MALIBU COMMUNISTS" ;-) ... a "cell" of quite comfortably "Red" Hollywood screen-writers who were ALSO convinced that THEY were "The Future."  They were led by a "very intellectual looking" Econ, History and/or PolySci professor (played by John Bluthal) who'd "drive down from Stanford" to advise them ;-).  They'd meet at an "out of the way" PALATIAL CLIFF-SIDE BEACH HOUSE that honestly could have served as a lair for a Bond and/or Marvel Comics villain ;-) where they'd study, well, Communism, and then support each other in airing their grievances.

What were their grievances?  Well, mostly that they weren't being given enough credit (and money ;-) for their work.  They'd also complain that they were being "manipulated" by "the owners of the means of production" ("Evil" bankers/financiers "back in New York").

And then, as a clique of "the smart kids in the class" they'd "plot" various insidious ways to put _random bits_ of "social awareness arousing material" into their screenplays that would SOMEHOW "undermine the Man."   Yes, sipping cognac, seated in comfortable, "strong lined" / minimalist Scandinavian designed couches / chairs that were becoming "the-rage" at the time, in the "huge-yet-homey" OCEAN-facing / glass-exterior-walled meeting room of this PALATIAL Frank Lloyd Wright styled beach-side MANSION where they met, they waxed WITH PRIDE about the "bits of Communism" that they were able to "sneak into their screenplays" and how ANGRY the red-faced, veins-popping-all-over-their-heads, McCarthyists back in Washington were as they struggled to "expose" them ;-).

As part of a new even more radical "direct action" campaign, these "Malibu Communists" decided to kidnap for ransom one of Mannix' biggest stars -- Baird Whitlock (played magnificently by George Clooney) an impressive-looking if not altogether bright Charlton Heston [IMDb]-like actor who was playing a Roman centurion in a Ben Hur [1959] / Quo Vadis [1951] like production at the time.  

Having received a ransom note from this self-styled / quite comfortable "Communist clique", signed ominously "The Future", Mannix asks, somewhat rhetorically, a happy-go-lucky "singing cowboy" actor named Hobie Doyle (played wonderfully by Alden Ehrenreich), "Who could have done such a thing?"

... Hobie was in his office for another problem: The Studio had wanted to change / deepen his "image" and hence wanted him to move from "b-westerns," where he had been _a natural_ to somehow star in a very elegant Rock Hudson [IMDb] / Tony Curtis [IMDb]-like New York set romantic comedy directed by a very prim-and-proper Laurence Olivier [IMDb]-like auteur named, well, Laurence Laurentz (played again magnificently by Ralph Fiennes ;-).  Readers please understand that Hobie's been born-and-raised "in the sticks" and has been SITTING ON A HORSE pretty much since birth ;-).  So it proves next to IMPOSSIBLE for him to, dressed-to-the-nines, "mosey-on-in" ELEGANTLY, "champagne glass in-hand," into a 1950s-era New York black-tie dinner party ;-) ...

Hobey answers Mannix (quite correctly) off the top of his head: "Look into the extras" (who like the nefarious screenwriters, were also poorly paid, and almost entirely anonymous ;-).

With that insight, Mannix begins to understand what kind of "problem" he's dealing with and the best way to "fix" it.  So he asks the studio's accountant on-hand for $100,000 "from petty cash" ;-), puts it in his brief case and then enlists another not particularly bright but generally reliable actor, here a singing, frolicking, tap-dancing looker, presently playing in a South Pacific [1958]-like "sailor picture" ;-) named Burt Gurney (played by Channing Tatum), to serve as "bagman" to bring the ransom money to the kidnappers.

In the meantime, Mannix has another problem to resolve quietly: His swimming Esther Williams [IMDb]-like actress DeeAnna Moran (played once again to the tee by an ever smiling Scarlett Johansson) finds herself knocked-up and becoming increasingly uncomfortable in her mermaid costume ;-), and yet marriage with the father would prove ... "complicated."  The solution that Mannix (and the Studio's "legal department") first come up with, and how this subplot resolves itself, is 1950s-appropriate and actually _quite kinder_ than today.

In the midst of all of this, snoop twin sisters / rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) whose "success" seems to depend on digging-up / reporting-on the failures / failings of others.  Hence, like the "head-hunter" from Lockhead or the cognac sipping "oppressed" Communists of Malibu, they are _not_ portrayed well in this film.

Instead, the good-guys are Mannix and then actors / other folks working in the studio, trying to give their Audiences something inspirational (YES OFTEN HOKEY) to aspire to.

Hence, when Baird Whitlock comes back, somewhat "Patty Hearst-like" (after having been "kidnapped" for less than 24 hours ;-), and is actually already spouting some of the Communist rhetoric he heard (again AFTER LESS THAN 24 HOURS OF "CAPTIVITY" -- IN A MALIBU BEACH HOUSE :-), Mannix feels compelled to JUST SLAP HIM out of it, giving him a pep-talk: "Now just SHUT-UP and GO OUT THERE (on Stage) AND BE THE STAR THAT YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE" (Reminding HIM and VIEWERS/READERS HERE that simply being "a Star" necessarily involves acting as well ;-)

So Whitlock, goes out there on the studio stage for his big scene.  Remember, he's playing a Centurion, THE Centurion in the story of Jesus.  So there, with Jesus nailed to the Cross, he has a speech.  In the Bible he just says: "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mk 15:39, Mt 27:54) or "Truly this was an innocent man" (Lk 23:47).

But this was 1950s Hollywood ;-).  SO the script EXPANDS the Centurion's speech....

The expansion is NOT ALTOGETHER BAD (theologically or otherwise) and the sincere if not altogether bright Charlton Heston-like Baird Whitlock (played in the film by the ever impressive/imposing George Clooney) hits the notes very, very well ... until ... <sigh>.

... his flubbing-of-the-climax will be, no doubt, "fixed" in a "second take." ;-)

HOW LUCKY WE ARE that we're ALL allowed "SECOND TAKES" in our own lives by our loved ones (and then, certainly / we hope by God).

And HONESTLY, how this world NEEDS GOOD / DECENT PEOPLE like the Eddie Mannix of this film: who seek advice, seek to not to offend, try to keep people on track, and SEARCH FOR THEM / HELP THEM when they fall. 

This is honestly _one heck of a film_, and certainly _a praise of common decency_.  So good job folks!  Very good job!


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