HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) Missing Spark

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hail-caesar-poster-

It’s hit or miss for me with the Coen brothers.

For every Coen movie I like—TRUE GRIT (2010), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and FARGO (1996), to name a few– there’s another I don’t like—BURN AFTER READING (2008) and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) to name a couple.

Their latest movie, HAIL, CAESAR!, a comedy about the the film industry in the 1950s, is one of their misses.

It’s got good ideas, some clever writing, decent acting performances, and an attention to detail that’s second to none, but at the end of the day it’s lacking something, a cohesive spark to both keep the entire film together and lead it to bigger and brighter things.  As it stands, it’s a comedy without much to laugh about and worse yet, not many laughs.

It’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer whose job it is to see that everything at Capitol Pictures functions properly.  He’s a problem solver who on any given day is dealing with one issue after another.  That’s Hollywood, for you!  And one thing is for sure, his job is not boring.

In HAIL, CAESAR! Eddie has multiple problems to deal with.  His biggest issue is studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gotten himself kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic they’re shooting, entitled HAIL, CAESAR! 

Meanwhile, his boss has inserted bad acting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high profile drama directed by one of their top directors Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  And if that’s not enough, studio “innocent” DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant, and an unmarried mother is not the image the studio wants for her, so Eddie sets his sights on getting her married.

HAIL, CAESAR! is a collection of little moments.  Some of them work, while others don’t.   For instance, the scene where Eddie assembles a group of religious leaders in a conference room to get their feedback on the studio’s depiction of Jesus in their movie HAIL, CAESAR! is hilarious- an instant classic.  Likewise, when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock awakens from his drug-induced slumber and casually strolls into the living room and joins in on the conversation with his kidnappers, it makes for grin-inducing comedy.

Moreover, the film also includes scenes of genuine drama.  The scene near the end where Eddie literally slaps some sense into his star Baird Whitlock is poignant and painful, and sets the stage for Whitlock’s dramatic speech at the end of his Biblical movie, a speech that Clooney knocks out of the park, playing an actor acting over his head in a movie that’s nowhere near as good as his performance in the scene- until he forgets his last line.

The scene where director Laurence Larentz confronts Hobie Doyle and literally forces him to say the line “Would that it were so simple” repeatedly is pointedly painful.

But just as many scenes misfire.  Most of Channing Tatum’s scenes fall flat, and Scarlett Johansson, whose DeeAnna Moran is a really interesting character, is barely in the movie enough to make much of an impact. Her one scene with Jonah Hill is buzzing with energy, but it’s just one scene.

While Tilda Swinton, who was so icy cold in both the NARNIA movies and in SNOWPIERCER (2013), is very good in a dual role as sister reporters’ Thora and Thessaly Thacker, her scenes are neither comedic or all that dramatic.  They’re just sort of there.

Furthermore, George Clooney possesses tremendous comic timing, and yet it is barely on display here.  His kidnap tale has all the makings of a screwball comedy, yet that’s not the direction this movie decides to take.

And Josh Brolin, who I like a lot, is very good here as Eddie Mannix, but it’s a straight role.  He’s the straight man, and all the shenanigans of his actors, directors, and studio heads play off him.  While Brolin is excellent in the role, as he almost always is, the character Eddie Mannix as written isn’t really the strongest character to build a movie around.  Perhaps if he were more comedic- the type of persona which Peter Falk used to play- that might have worked better, but that’s not how the role is written. With his Catholic guilt, it reminded me of a role Spencer Tracy would have played.  The character just doesn’t seem to fit in with the oddball characters surrounding him.

You can’t really fault the actors.  They all do a very good job with what they have, and HAIL, CAESAR! certainly features a phenomenal cast:  Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.

I also enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle.

By far, the biggest weakness of HAIL, CAESAR! is that it’s simply not that funny, and for a comedy, that is definitely not a good thing!

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written a script that captures the flavor of 1950s Hollywood, and they have peppered it with interesting and quirky characters throughout, but what they didn’t do was give these characters in this setting a solid story in which to maneuver.  It’s simply a collection of little moments that never quite gel together in order to build something more.

And central character Eddie Mannix, in spite of a solid performance by Josh Brolin, just isn’t quirky enough to be that guy who holds a movie like this together.  I almost wish George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock had been the central character. Had that been the case, the comedy would have soared.  Clooney’s got that kind of timing.

The cinematography and costumes capture the period nicely, and HAIL, CAESAR! if nothing else is enjoyable to look at. But for a period piece comedy, aesthetics without laughter doesn’t really cut it.

HAIL, CAESAR! is an emphatic title.  Too bad its humor isn’t equally as assertive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SICARIO (2015) – TAUT THRILLER IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR

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MOVIE REVIEW:  SICARIO (2015)Sicario poster

By Michael Arruda

 

In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit man.”  In English, it means “hit movie.”

That being said, SICARIO is not exactly tearing it up at the box office, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO is the new thriller by director Denis Villeneuve.  Its story about the hunt for a Mexican drug lord has it all:  riveting direction by Villeneuve, a multi-layered and deeply resonating screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and fantastic acting performances all around, led by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.  And wow again.

Del Toro has been exceptional in a bunch of movies, so it would be difficult to call his role in this movie as the mysterious and oh-so-cool and deadly Alejandro his best, but he is phenomenal here.  Alejandro instantly joins the ranks of cinema’s most fearsome hitmen.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who in the film’s opening segment leads a drug raid on an Arizona home that leads to both a gruesome discovery and tragedy.  Kate and her agents discover over two dozen dead bodies buried within the walls of the house, and later as the agents continue to scour the grounds, a bomb goes off killing members of Kate’s team.

Kate’s exemplary work attracts the attention of special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and he invites Kate to join his team.  His mission is to hunt down the drug lord responsible for the death of Kate’s men, and so naturally Kate wants in, despite her misgivings about the operation, fueled by Graver’s evasive answers to her questions.  For instance, he refuses to give her a straight answer regarding the government agency for which he works.

Kate’s by-the-book partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) warns Kate not to go, but she is determined to take down those responsible for her agents’ deaths.  Things grow murkier when Kate learns that they’re not going to El Paso as promised but to Mexico.

On the plane to Mexico, Kate meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose demeanor immediately raises a red flag for Kate.  She demands to know who Graver and Alejandro are working for, and she wants to know if they are, as she suspects, CIA.  Graver, in his usual relaxed, calm, confident manner, tells Kate to chill and to simply go along for the ride to observe and learn, because as he says, the battle that they’re taking to Mexico, is on its way to the States, and she’ll soon be waging a similar battle back home.

Kate relents and goes with Graver and Alejandro to Mexico, where she sees firsthand the horrors and crimes committed by the drug lord they are seeking, a man known as Fausto Alarcon.  Graver has assembled a crack team including Texas Rangers and other military types to complete their mission which is to go in and extract one of Alarcon’s cousins in order to stir things up and ruffle Alarcon’s feathers.  Kate is uncomfortable by the methods she witnesses, knowing they are illegal, but she stays with Graver and his team anyway.

They get their man, and in one of the film’s tenser sequences, attempt to bring him back across the border to the States, where Graver’s work is far from finished.  As Kate is drawn deeper into a world she wants no part of, a world where the lines between friend and foe become more and more difficult to discern, she struggles between keeping to her ideals and knowing what is right, and helping Graver, a man who’s eventual goal in spite of his off the chart methods is exactly what Kate wants to achieve.

SICARIO tells a fascinating story that works on multiple levels.  It’s written by Taylor Sheridan, who has worked more as an actor than as a writer.  Sheridan played Deputy David Hale on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2010). SICARIO is his debut screenplay, and it’s pretty darned impressive!

We are immediately drawn into Kate Macer’s story from the very first scene.  We share her determination to hunt down the man responsible for her team’s death, but this is no vengeance plot.  Like Kate, we become increasingly frustrated by the constant slipperiness of Matt Graver.  We are made uncomfortable by the cold presence of Alejandro.  And like Kate, we are increasingly torn between these men’s methods and their goal.

Alejandro’s story might be even more compelling.  At first, he’s this shadowy figure who we, like Kate, immediately suspect is not who he seems.  And we’re right.  But his back story explains his motivations, and as the movie goes on he becomes more of a central player.  The best part of Alejandro is his complexity. He puts Kate on edge immediately, and yet he’s the man when they’re in Mexico who seems to have her back.  She eventually trusts him, but later his actions cause her to pull a gun on him, an action he quickly makes her regret.

And the plight of the Mexican people, caught in the crossfire between the drug cartel on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other, is captured brilliantly yet simply in a touching subplot involving a corrupt Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and the relationship he shares with his son.  The simple shot near the end of the movie of his son standing next to his empty bed is just one of the many powerful images captured in SICARIO and succeeds in making its point far more effectively than any long drawn out scene of dialogue.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO is full of potent images.  From the disturbing sight of naked mutilated bodies hanging above Mexican streets, to the more subtle scenes of Mexican children playing soccer with the sound of gun shots in the distance, to the blazing display of gunfire and explosions in the Mexican night witnessed by Kate from a distant rooftop.

Villeneuve also directed the well-received kidnapping thriller PRISONERS (2013) starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.  I enjoyed SICARIO better than PRISONERS, as it tells a more complex story and it’s more of a complete package.

SICARIO also features some of the more riveting film sequences I’ve seen in a while.  The trek to extract the prisoner from Mexico, where Graver’s convoy gets stuck in traffic because of an accident, allowing drug hitmen the time they need to descend upon them, is one of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences in the film.  Likewise, later in the film a pursuit into an underground tunnel is just as exciting.  There are plenty of nail-biting moments in SICARIO.

The cast is flawless.

Emily Blunt delivers her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt delivers perhaps her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt is outstanding as Kate Macer.  She’s the perfect combination of tough-as-nails strength and later as her world crumbles around her, frightened vulnerability.  Blunt’s performance in the Tom Cruise science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) was one of my favorite parts of that movie.  She’s even better here in SICARIO. It’s Blunt’s best performance to date.

Even better is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro.  He possesses such a presence in this movie that he can unnerve you just by standing there without uttering a line.  And when he gets into his adversary’s faces, and he does, up close, you can feel their trembling.  Yet, as played by Del Toro, Alejandro is not a one-note heartless robot of a killer.  He’s much more intricate than that, and while he may be one of the more cold-blooded hit men you’ll find in a movie, his backstory and its resolution, may have you shedding a tear.

Benicio Del Toro delivers yet another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Benicio Del Toro in another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Alejandro also shares a bond with Kate.  When he tells her that she reminds him of someone special from his past, it’s not a cliché set-up for a long lost love, but something deeper and more touching.

Josh Brolin is just as good as his fellow co-stars, playing the evasive and confident Matt Graver who doesn’t seem to have a straight answer for anything, and yet he often is the most honest man in the story.  And that’s because in the process of not answering Kate’s questions, he tells the truth.  It’s just not what Kate wants to hear, but the information is accurate.  If ever there was a true CIA man it’s Graver.  Brolin is perfectly cast as the relentless government agent who is so relaxed chasing mass murdering drug lords that he wears sandals during high level meetings and sleeps like a baby on flights into enemy territory.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Daniel Kaluuya is memorable as Kate’s loyal partner Reggie Wayne.  In addition to being an FBI agent, he’s also a lawyer, and he represents law and order in this story, constantly attacking Graver and Alejandro and their methods.  He’s also loyal to a fault to Kate, and in a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust and who might shoot you in the back, it was refreshing to have a character like Daniel in the story.

Victor Garber [ARGO (2013)] makes a memorable impression as Kate’s boss Dave Jennings, and Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) impresses in a small role as a man Kate meets in a bar for what seems like a harmless sexual encounter, except that in this story very little is as it seems.

Probably the best of the supporting roles belongs to Maximiliano Hernandez who plays the Mexican police officer Silvio.  In a series of brief scenes, we get to know him as a father to his young son, which makes his ultimate and unfortunate fate as he crosses paths with Alejandro all the more sad and touching.

SICARIO also has an effective music score by Johann Johannsson which completely captures the mood of this one and complements the edge-of-your seat suspenseful scenes.

SICARIO is the perfect combination of suspense and drama.  It’s riveting from start to finish, and it’s full of deep layers that keep this one from being superficial and trite.  It’s as complex as the multi-faceted drug world it portrays, and yet it’s never confusing.  Like Kate, we are torn by this world, are put off by the methods and partnerships embraced by our own government officials to get the job done, and yet also like Kate, at the end of the day we are not completely sure we want them to be stopped.

SICARIO is a deeply satisfying and rewarding movie that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

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OLDBOY (2013) Unbelievable

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oldboy-posterStreaming Video Review: OLDBOY (2013)
by
Michael Arruda

I missed OLDBOY (2013) when it played at theaters last year— it was gone pretty quickly— but I was able to catch up with it the other day on Netflix streaming.

OLDBOY is a remake of a 2003 Korean film of the same name, a movie I have not seen, but one that is reportedly much better than this remake by director Spike Lee. OLDBOY is a tale of mystery and revenge, and it’s one that I would have liked much more had I actually believed it.

We meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a man who’s not particularly likable— in fact, he’s downright unlikable— screwing up his business meetings and his family life, as he misses his three year-old daughter’s birthday party and screams at his ex-wife on the phone. After botching an important business deal, Joe gets himself stinking drunk, and it’s in this state that he’s kidnapped, whisked away into the night from a dark rainy street.

When he awakes, he finds himself imprisoned in a hotel room. He receives food on a tray which is passed through a small opening in the door, and of course he has access to a bathroom, but he’s held in this room for twenty years. During this time, he sees on television news reports of his ex-wife’s murder, and how he has been implicated in the crime. Over the years, since the story of the murder of his ex-wife makes for sensationalistic television, especially since the chief suspect— him—has disappeared, there are follow-up reports, and during the twenty year span he gets to see reports of his daughter’s well-being.

One day, after twenty years of imprisonment, he is released without explanation. Joe makes it his mission to find out who imprisoned him for twenty years and for what reason. He receives help from his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a young nurse Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) with troubles of her own, and she’s attracted to Joe because she sees him as a kindred spirit. Their search leads them to some unsavory characters, a man named Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson) and another man named Adrian (Sharlto Copley) who tells Joe that he’s asking the wrong question, that the question he should be asking isn’t why he was imprisoned, but why was he released?

Not that it really matters, because the answer to both these questions is so convoluted I didn’t buy any of it.

First of all, Joe Doucett is one of the least likable protagonists I’ve seen in a movie in a while, and so I didn’t care what happened to him. That being said, what he did to deserve this fate is so minor it’s ridiculous. When it was time finally for the great revelation— the reason this all came to pass— I was like— really? Are you kidding me? That’s it?

Did I believe that a guy as strong as Joe couldn’t have broken out of that hotel room? Not once in twenty years? No. I did not believe this.

Did I believe that an organization as described in the movie— the one responsible for running the hotel— exists? No. Don’t get me wrong. In real life it very well might exist, but in this movie, it came off as so fake I thought I was watching a cheesy 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Those films were fun because Arnold was so over the top. This film is trying to be dark and serious. It doesn’t work.

Did I believe Joe could become a deadly assassin just by training all by his lonesome in his hotel room? Not really.

I’ve enjoyed Josh Brolin in such films as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), JONAH HEX (2010), and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), and his performance here in OLDBOY is fine, but he’s stuck playing a character I just didn’t like, and as a result, I didn’t care what really happened to him, which made for a very long 104 minutes.

Likewise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen as Nurse Marie Sebastian. I always seem to like Olsen, enjoying her performances in the otherwise awful horror movie SILENT HOUSE (2011) and most recently GODZILLA (2014). That being said, she does seem to play the same part- the victim.

Sharlto Copley is always fascinating to watch but he’s somewhat less so here as the mysterious Adrian. It’s still an interesting performance, but nowhere near as powerful as his villainous turn as Kruger in the science fiction hit ELYSIUM (2013). And Samuel L. Jackson does his wise-cracking bad ass shtick as the sketchy Chaney.

I don’t really have a problem with the direction by Spike Lee, other than the big no-no that I didn’t buy the story, but I used to really enjoy Lee’s movies, films like SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986), DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and MALCOLM X (1992). It’s been a while.

For me, the weakest part of OLDBOY was the screenplay by Mark Protosevich, based on the screenplay of the Korean movie. First off, the basic premise of the movie, the story of a man kidnapped and held against his will for twenty years only to be released without any explanation, was highly implausible.

The imprisonment scenes with Joe in the hotel room were all rather dull, and director Lee adds very little in the way of creative touches to make these mundane scenes memorable.

Things naturally pick up a bit and get more interesting once Joe is released, because then the mystery becomes the focal point of the movie: why was Joe imprisoned? As much as I didn’t like Joe as a character, I was still interested in following him on his investigation while he tried to learn what happened. By far, these scenes were the most gripping in the film but they were hardly exciting.

And then, once he starts finding answers, it doesn’t take long for the realization to set in that these answers are completely ludicrous. I just did not believe that someone would spend that much time and energy— twenty years’ worth— just to exact revenge when so many simpler options exist.

There is one final twist, and I will say, of all the plot points in the movie, this one was the most satisfying, but for me, it was too little too late.

Had this film put some effort into making the audience believe what was going on, it would have been a much more satisfying film. I didn’t believe in the forces at work here. I didn’t believe they could do what they did, and I certainly didn’t believe Joe’s “crime” was the kind of thing which would drive someone to plan out twenty years’ worth of revenge. I also didn’t like Joe as central character very much.

And for a thriller, I didn’t find OLDBOY very exciting or all that intense.

OLDBOY plays more like OLD MAN.

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