Film review – Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2016)

Hail, Caesar!, the new film from the Coen Brothers, is a film heavy on nostalgia and authenticity but light on focus to moving along the central plot. It has so many fantastic elements that seeing the final product fall short is a huge disappointment.

The film tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of production at Capitol Pictures whose job involves firefighting the many problems created by the studio’s roster of stars who seem to have an uncanny ability to mix themselves up in controversy. The studio’s next big film will be Hail, Caesar!, a biblical epic in which Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) will star. However, when a prop wine goblet is spiked by an extra on the set, he is kidnapped by a group of communist scriptwriters called The Future and held to ransom for a then significant total of $100,000, putting pressure on Mannix at a time when he is considering a career change to join the aviation industry with the Lockheed Corporation.

It felt at times that the Coen Brothers were so hell bent on fitting in a plethora of big-star cameos that they didn’t care that each time they did so they completely derailed the focus of the story. Take, for example, Frances McDormant’s studio film editor CC Calhoun. Her hammed-up effort is a nice comedy turn introduced at a critical point of the film. She could have easily turned into a key character, but never reappeared and thus there didn’t really seem to be much point to her appearance.

A bigger offender comes in the form of a more significant subplot featuring pregnant star Dee-Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and surety agent Joe Silverman (Jonah Hill). It’s a huge eater of time but in the end resolves itself with little input from Mannix at a time when he is deciding that he needs to stay in the film industry, presumably because he is so critical to it.

Similarly, Channing Tatum, who features as Burt Gurney, gets a great song and dance scene – a real highlight to the film – but is probably only in three scenes in total. The time spent with Johansson and Hill may have been better served with Tatum. Instead, none of the three characters really feel significant enough to elicit the response they could have achieved had more time been spent with them.

One character that does end up getting fully fleshed-out is the Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is introduced as a big studio star that has got where he is by his ability to perform massive stunts rather than any of his acting qualities. There are some fun scenes with Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) as he tried to get the best out of his acting abilities or lack thereof. Near the end of the film there is some subtle symbolism involving him figuratively lassoing Baird Whitlock and taking him back to the studios from the communists, a nod to the cowboy as an upholder of traditional American values. Whether or not they needed to spend so long in the film emphasising his cowboy skills to set this up is another question, but at least this character takes us on a journey and proves to be critical to the resolution of the story.

At the heart of the story is Josh Brolin’s Mannix, a man who is essentially a fixer for the studio. It is an interesting character and, along with Clooney’s bumbling Whitlock, he carries the film. His climactic scene with Whitlock underlines why his decision was made – he sees the communist issues surrounding the film industry as a huge threat to America and something he can have a significant impact on from his position. He takes what he considers to be the harder option but in doing so gives his future life more worth. 

There is an underlying message about the wider issues facing Holllywood at the time this film is set (1951) and how easy it was for people like Whitlock to get involved with communist cells. The discussions on such topics is outside the intended remit of this review, though the recent film Trumbo is a good starting point.

Hail, Caesar! offers a lot to fans of the Coen Brothers, though it feels like a hugely missed opportunity due to failings of an over-complicated plot that could have been significantly trimmed to focus the story on the most relevant characters. Fun in parts but overall a disappointment.

Film review – Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (Brad Bird, 2015)

The big live-action summer blockbuster for Disney is always hotly anticipated [1]. The previous three summers’ blockbusters were John Carter (2012), The Lone Ranger (2013), Maleficent (2014) [2], and before that there were plenty of Pirates films to chew on. These have all been at worst reasonable sellers but have received middling to good reviews. As long as the basic premise is generally acceptable to cinema-goers and there’s enough advertising involved, they tend to do well. In recent times, it seems Disney’s summer blockbusters have been review-proof.

So how will Tomorrowland fare? It is an action-adventure film with a young female lead (Britt Robertson as the intelligent and headstrong Casey), a child as a prominent supporting character (newcomer Raffey Cassidy as humanoid robot Athena) and a big name alongside them both (guaranteed ticket-seller George Clooney as Frank Walker), so it has a good chance on that front. It is also in good hands with director Brad Bird at the helm. His previous work for Pixar as director includes The Incredibles and Ratatouille, two of my favourite animated films. He’s also responsible for excellent film The Iron Giant, a film which broke him as a director [3].

Visually stunning, but wrapped up in its own spiderweb of overthought plot.

Visually stunning, but wrapped up in its own spiderweb of overthought plot.

However, there has been a distinct lack of the blanket media coverage we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films. It’s almost as if Walt Disney Pictures hasn’t really got faith in it. Inevitably, this disinterest in the film has seeped its way down to the general public, who are simply not checking it out. It is currently on track to lose money, with a global taking of $133.2m against a budget of around $190m. It’s still ploughing on and might break even after Blu-ray sales and merchandise is taken into account.

The premise of the storyline is loosely based on the futuristic area of the Disney Theme Parks, which is also the source of the film’s name (it was originally titled 1952). It’s a time-travelling adventure with absolutely stunning visuals that make the film very easy on the eye. It’s actually very similar visually to The Rocketeer, and I felt as though this is what would have been achieved had that film been released today rather than 1991.

It’s a problematic film, however, and I put this down to the hard-to-follow plot. I don’t think it’s overly complex, I just don’t think it’s explained very well. Alongside Brad Bird as co-scriptwriter is David Lindelof of Lost fame, whose scripts tend to walk a fine line between intrigue and confusion. When he gets it right (the earlier episodes of Lost, Star Trek: Into Darkness), it can be the most gripping sci-fi around. Sometimes, though, he misses the mark and becomes far too confusing to follow. Tomorrowland is certainly in this category.

The problem is that the plot loses the plot, and therefore its own essence. I’ll try to summarise (SPOILER ALERT!). Casey, the daughter of a NASA engineer, finds a magical pin that transports her to a Utopian parallel universe. However, it has a limited lifespan and counts down to expiry, meaning you only get a glimpse of the alternate universe (we later learn it’s an advert). It also means you co-exist in the alternate reality, so if you move around in the alternate reality you might bang your head in the real world. She tries to track down a second pin and finds herself teaming up with Frank, who can access the real universe via a secret rocket inside the Eiffel Tower, and can get them there by a secret teleportation device he invented. When they get there, the Utopia is now derelict, but evil genius David Nix (played by Hugh Laurie) doesn’t want to let anyone else in, even though humanity will end within 60 days.

I won’t ruin the ending but as you can see, it does get quite far-fetched and I do seriously question whether or not the children in the cinema were fully on board with it. Indeed, it took five of us about ten minutes of debating until we settled on what exactly we’d just seen [4]. We still had some questions remaining though. Firstly, I’m assuming the robots that were sent to kill Casey were sent by David Nix. If so, he didn’t seem to know who she was when she arrived. Why weren’t they trying to kill Frank instead? He was the one known entity. Perhaps they assumed she would lead them to him, but I didn’t feel this was explained very well. Following on from this, why weren’t they all killed immediately after they arrived in the Utopia? It seemed there was a “well, they’re here now, let’s give them a shot” sort of vibe going on. I wasn’t buying it. Finally, why had the Utopia got so run down? I feel there was a huge area of the plot to explore here but it wasn’t mentioned. Oh, and why the Eiffel Tower?

In the end, it was just a huge advert for world peace, creativity, Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, and not stifling imagination. And Disney merchandise (yes, you can buy your very own copy of the Tomorrowland pin that is so integral to the plot). It was a missed opportunity. I don’t recommend you avoid it. Perhaps I’m not as intelligent as I once thought and it’s my fault alone that I don’t understand a film aimed at 12-year-olds. It’s visually stunning and is almost worth seeing just for that. Just don’t get your hopes up and don’t try to overthink it.

[1] It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good.

[2] Despite being classed as a box-office flop, John Carter actually made money on its $263m budget at global box offices alone, pulling in $281m in receipts. Once you factor in sales of merchandise, video games, DVDs, Blu-rays and downloads, it must have made a huge amount. Not bad for a flop…

[3] Surprisingly, he also directed the music video for “Do The Bartman”, right at the start of his career. It’s less of a surprise once you know he was already involved in The Simpsons from earlier on, though this knowledge could help win you a pub quiz one day.

[4] I went to see this one with a couple of good blogger friends, whose blogs can be found at the following addresses: Nesbitt Web and Ahoy Small Fry. They’re both very different blogs but I enjoy them both on a regular basis. Check them out!