Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!, the latest Coen brothers film, won’t win any awards for best picture, but it probably should win some kind of recognition for most misleading preview.

hail-caesar-heroIf you’ve seen the preview, the movie looks like a very funny take on movie-making at a Hollywood studio in the ’50s, where a clueless leading man making a Biblical Roman epic gets kidnapped by some band representing “the future” and other stars seem to be enlisted to try to bring him home in the face of the unknown threat.  In other words, exactly the kind of quirky scenario in which the Coen brothers — creators of classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men — would thrive.

Uhh, not so much.  Sure, all of the scenes shown in the preview are in the movie, but that’s where the similarity ends.  The quirkiness of the trailer becomes a pretty basic, slow-paced linear story about a Hollywood movie studio fixer type (Josh Brolin) who spends a lot of time walking briskly through studio lots in his double-breasted suit, telling his secretary to handle this and that, and stabbing the blinking lights on his old phone as he deals with each new crisis.  And speaking of old phones, this is the kind of movie that people who like production design would love.  It’s got vintage phones, vintage cars, vintage office fans, vintage restaurant settings, vintage Hollywood gossip columnist outfits, vintage film editing equipment, and countless other touches that do a pretty convincing job of depicting Hollywood in 1951, all of which are beautifully photographed.  If you like that kind of thing, this is the film for you.  Most of us, though, are looking for something more.

People who like Hail, Caesar! describe it as a kind of loving tribute to movie-making under the old studio system — which seems like it’s been done to death already, frankly — and the film has lots of behind the scenes shots of sets and sound stages, as well as well done set pieces featuring the filming of a synchronized swimming water movie, a western, and sailors getting ready to ship out dancing in a bar.  They don’t really advance the storyline, much, because there really isn’t much of a story in the first place.  It turns out that the group representing “the future” isn’t anything particularly interesting, but just a gang of Communist Hollywood writers who kidnap leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) because they feel they’ve been exploited by the studios.  The Commies talk to the dim-witted Whitlock about dialectics and economics as the studio fixer addresses problem after problem and wrestles with whether he should stay in his job or take another one.

This is one of those Hollywood insiders movies that comes out from time to time and gets good reviews from people who know all of the references and probably can find exquisite humor in the dialogue.  For us, however, it was a big ho hum rather than the kind of funny film we expected.  It’s a good lesson — sometimes you just can’t trust a trailer.

 

All Alone

I’ve been reading The Martian by Andy Weir   Made into an Oscar-nominated movie that I haven’t yet seen, the book tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars expedition who is injured and lost in a blistering sandstorm and presumed dead by his crewmates.  They leave because the sandstorm threatens to wreck their exit vehicle and their ability to get home, and Watney then finds himself abandoned on Mars, with no means of communicating with Earth.

The book’s careful recounting of Watney’s efforts to use the remnants of the expedition supplies to create water, grow food, and stay alive long enough to be rescued — and later, the discovery of NASA that he is still alive and the efforts to get him home before he starves — is riveting.  I can’t attest to the engineering and practical science involved in Watney’s development of soil capable of growing potatoes or his cannibalization of rovers to create a vehicle capable of a long-distance journey, but they have the ring of authenticity, and you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.

the-martian-matt-damonAll of this occurs, though, against the backdrop of a bigger human drama:  a person left all alone on an alien planet, with no means of communicating to fellow members of his species, and always on the ragged edge of death from starvation or the hostile Martian environment. How would any person cope with such absolute solitude?  Watney establishes a journal to maintain a conversation of sorts, and he goes through the music, book, and TV selections left behind by his former crewmates — and pays the price by enduring disco music and the complete episodes of Three’s Company.   But even the syncopated efforts of the Bee Gees and feeble comedic antics of Jack Tripper and his roommates Chrissy and Janet, and the human interaction they reflect, are preferable to complete isolation.  In effect, the journal, the songs, and the TV shows are Watney’s version of Wilson, the volleyball who became Tom Hanks’ only companion on Cast Away.

Watney’s got a great sense of humor and a never say die mentality that allows him to deal with his predicament, but as you read the book you can’t help but wonder how you would deal with total abandonment on a desolate, alien planet — assuming, of course, that you had the botanical and engineering training that would allow you to survive using the same steps Watney followed.  After the initial zeal for trying to survive, how would you react after weeks and weeks of drudgery, with no actual communication or direct human interaction of any kind?  It’s hard to imagine that even good TV, music, and reading material could fill that void and allow you to maintain the positive attitude that would be essential to survival.  Most of us, I suspect, would just stop caring and give up.

The Revenant

The Revenant probably isn’t the best date night movie out there, but it is a movie that you have to see in a theatre if you are going to see it at all.  This is one film that is designed for a big screen and a high-end sound system.  I can’t imagine that watching it on a TV screen, even the largest at-home unit, would provide anything even remotely close to the power of the movie in a theatre.

And make no mistake about it:  The Revenant is an extremely powerful sensory experience.  It tells a story of a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, in the wilderness in the 1820s.  The wilderness itself is a key, Jekyll-and Hyde character in the film.  You are entranced by its beauty — the towering trees, the magnificent snow-covered landscapes, the rocky mountainous crags, and the rushing, foaming rapids, all of which are beautifully framed and photographed — and suddenly the snowy white wilderness becomes a rumbling, snarling, blood-spattered horror show of bear maulings and Native American attacks and desperate attempts to survive at all costs.

revenant-snow-xlargeWe learn from flashbacks that Glass married a Native American, had a son, and then saw his wife killed in an attack on their village.  After a trapping party for which he serves as guide is decimated by a Native American attack, Glass and his son and the remainder of the trappers escape.  As they make their way back to their fort, Glass is badly mauled by a bear and desperately injured.  The main party moves on, but Glass’ son Hawk and two other trappers remain behind with him.  One trapper, Fitzgerald, decides that staying with Glass is simply too dangerous and that Glass will die, anyway, so he kills Hawk as the other trapper is away, while Glass is too injured to do anything about it, and then convinces the other trapper to leave Glass behind.  The rest of the movie is about Glass’ relentless effort to overcome his devastating injuries and countless obstacles, find food, and survive to find Fitzgerald and avenge his son.

Leonardo diCaprio is wholly convincing as Glass.   He attacks, with gusto, a role in which he is clawed and bitten by a bear, gratefully eats raw fish and raw liver for sustenance, sleeps naked in the hollowed out carcass of a horse to survive a blizzard, and receives countless injuries.  It’s as good a piece of physical acting as you’re going to see, and diCaprio deserves his Oscar nomination.  Tom Hardy is also exceptional as John Fitzgerald, the trapper frontiersman who just wants to get paid and go to a place like Texas that isn’t an ice-cold death trap.  Both Glass and Fitzgerald are subject to their own survival instincts, which inevitably make them adversaries who must fight to the death.   Their story is told against the backdrop of a larger tragic drama in which rapacious white men are moving into the lands of the indigenous peoples, and the performances of the many Native Americans in the film also are compelling.

One final point — the movie is a triumph of cinematography.  From its extreme close-ups even during violent, knife-wielding fight scenes, to the brilliantly staged and brutally realistic bear attack, to the jaw-dropping scene where the camera follows Glass and his horse as they plunge over a cliff onto the top of a huge evergreen tree below, The Revenant will make you think long and hard about the wonders of cinematography and the art of filmmaking.  I don’t know enough about how duties are apportioned on a moviemaking crew to properly give credit to the right people, but whoever brought the many mind-boggling scenes to the big screen — from director Alejandro Inarritu to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to the producers, camera crew, and key grips — deserves a lifetime achievement award.

 

The Perfect Hans

Alan Rickman died today, after a battle with cancer.  Only 69 — which is all too young in these days of countless medical advances and miracle drugs — he was an exceptionally talented and enormously accomplished actor who lit up stage and screen in a variety of roles, from serious to comedic, that attested to the amazingly wide range of his abilities.

For me, though, he will always be Hans Gruber, the brilliant, urbane villain in Die Hard who was one of the greatest movie villains ever.

hans-gruber-die-hardI know, I know:  it’s not fair to reduce an actor of Rickman’s achievements to one role — but I can’t help it.  Rickman was so perfect for the role, and his creation of Hans was so perfect for the film, that he almost single-handedly vaulted Die Hard from an impressive action movie into a classic of the genre.  Sure, Bruce Willis was great, but it was Hans that distinguished Die Hard from the run of the mill action thriller, because Hans was different from every other action movie villain.  Unlike the normal bad guys, he wasn’t slugging it out with the hero in an impossibly violent ending scene, nor was he some mindless psychopath.  No, Hans had depth, he had smarts, and he had a great plan and team — and it would have worked if only John McClane hadn’t stumbled onto the scene at the Nakatomi Plaza.

I may be alone in this, but I actually identified more with Hans than with McClane.  Hans wore a sophisticated, well-tailored suit, his dry wit was hilarious, his decision to pose as a terrorist to distract the cops and FBI cowboys from his plan to steal millions in bearer bonds was a stroke of genius, and he was ruthless and single-minded in his pursuit of his pay day.  When Hans objected to being described as a common thief — saying, indignantly, that “I am an exceptional thief” — I wholeheartedly agreed with him.  And, according to the news articles, many of the touches that made Hans unique and so intensely memorable were suggested by Rickman in the first place.

Rickman was great as Severus Snape, too, and I also thought he was hysterical as Alexander Dane, the would-be Shakespearean actor who bridled at playing an alien with a hackneyed catch phrase in a sci-fi TV show in Galaxy Quest, but those are only a few of the roles that made up a fine career.  It’s terrible when gifted actors like Rickman can die so young, but at least he left behind a record of his talents that his fans can enjoy again and again.  He will be missed.

The Hateful Eight

Pulp Fiction is a great movie.  In my view, so is Reservoir Dogs.  I thought Inglourious Basterds was pretty good, and the Kill Bill duo were interesting and entertaining films, too.  Those movies made many of us willing to go to any Quentin Tarantino movie, just to see what he’s come up with next.

The Hateful Eight isn’t a great movie, however.  It’s not even close.  In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie that I found more affirmatively offensive and unpleasant to watch.  And when Kish and I left the theater yesterday, I decided that I’m done with Quentin Tarantino movies.

hateful-eight-tv-spotHe’s still got a huge amount of talent, there’s no doubt about it.  He can bring slow-building, eventually unbearable tension to a scene better than just about any other living director, he’s still got the ability to inject quirky humor into movies in unexpected ways, and the photography and staging of some of the scenes in The Hateful Eight — especially in the first part of the movie, when a stagecoach is moving through snow-bound Wyoming sometime in the 1870s — is terrific.

But Tarantino has, I think, gotten lazy.  He comes up with a good setting and idea — a bounty hunter taking a fugitive to a town to be hung when a blizzard makes him stop at a way station filled with mysterious strangers — and won’t do the heavy lifting to get the idea into a tight, taut script.  So you end up with what The Hateful Eight is:  an exercise in hyperviolent shock theater, where Tarantino seemingly has simply dreamed up new ways to push the boundaries of Hollywood films beyond the breaking point.

(Don’t read this paragraph if you plan on going to The Hateful Eight don’t want to have some of the plotlines spoiled.)  So filmgoers are bludgeoned with constant use of the n-word. They get to see a woman punched out repeatedly.  They have to watch a naked man performing oral sex on a bounty hunter in a snowy Wyoming field.  They see a dead man’s arm chopped off so a woman who is chained to him can make it to a gun.  They witness a woman being hung, kicking and twitching, from the rafters.  And they see just about everyone who appears in the film die a horrible death, some by poison that makes them vomit up enormous gouts of blood but most by just about every type of gunshot wound — including pistol shots that make their heads explode, shotgun blasts that spray red chunks of flesh toward the screen, bullets that blow off their gonads, and every other form of gunplay that a disturbed mind could concoct.  The film ends with the two wounded survivors soaked in gore and surrounded by carcasses — and, for me at least, a sense of immense relief that the killing and racist language and other unrelenting unpleasantness would finally, blessedly, stop.

Maybe there’s an audience for this kind of stuff, and I am sure that some apologists would argue that Tarantino’s staging of death after death after death shows deft camera work or pays tribute to Hitchcock or Sergio Leone or some other famous director, but don’t be fooled.  This is a sick and appalling movie made by someone who’s resting on his laurels and apparently needs a payday.  It’s too bad that a really good cast — including Kurt Russell, one of my favorites — wasted their time on this dismal effort.

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of those movies that is intended to make you uncomfortable — and it succeeds, twice over.

The film tells the story of the housing bubble and sub-prime mortgage fiasco that led to the economic collapse and stock market crash of 2008. It begins with the handful of loners and clear-eyed if vulgar realists who investigated, read what others didn’t, identified the unsustainable reality, and then figured out a way to make lots of money, even as the financial and political establishment was smugly convinced that the impending disaster couldn’t possibly occur.

bigshortbaleDon’t worry if you don’t know much about finance or economics — as the movie progresses you’ll get humorous little tutorials on the key concepts from exotic-looking women taking bubble baths, Anthony Bourdain figuring out what to do with old fish, and a prize-winning economist and Selena Gomez playing blackjack.  And, of course, all along the viewer knows the catastrophe is coming.  Even so, it’s uncomfortable to watch it unfold and to hear once again about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Countrywide and bailouts and the other events that made some people wonder if the American economy and capitalism would even survive the cataclysm.

It’s a powerful story, and The Big Short tells it well.  Its ensemble cast, which features Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, is excellent, but it’s not an ensemble movie in the traditional sense, because some of the principal players never interact on screen.  They’re each running their own funds, dealing with their own investors and institutional pressures and insecurities, seeing the overall mess from different perspectives and wondering whether they are witnessing fraud or imbecility or incompetence.  And, as the movie reaches the point where the world economy teeters on the brink, they convincingly portray the sense of astonishment and shaken wonder at how the hell it all happened in the first place.

So, reliving those grim days when fortunes were lost and the country plunged into recession is uncomfortable, for sure.  And the second uncomfortable moment comes when the movie ends — because the final message of The Big Short questions whether the same thing could happen again and whether new bubbles are percolating even as we speak.  One of the core themes of the film is that most of the Wall Street wizards really aren’t so wizard-like after all — just greedy hustlers who don’t really sweat the details or even fully understand why they’re making the obscene amounts of money they’re making and are oblivious to the risks they are creating for the rest of us who have to deal with the aftermath.

It doesn’t exactly make you feel super secure about your 401(k) plan, now does it?

Ralphie And Flash

MCDCHST MG002Some of us just like to watch movies as they are released, and take the finished product for what it is — the version that ultimately was released to the public at large.  Others really like to get into the movies that they love.  They buy the director’s cut, and watch the outtakes and blooper reels, and even read the scripts to spot deleted scenes or places where the actors improvised.

I’m squarely in the first category, but I have to say that I was intrigued when I read this story about how The Christmas Story was written to include a scene featuring our hero, Ralphie, and his Red Ryder BB gun with Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless.  You’ll recall that Ralphie was a big day-dreamer, and his idle fantasies included a scene where his teacher concluded that Ralphie’s Red Ryder-obsessed theme deserved an A++++++ and another scene where Ralphie rescued the family from a gang of thugs crawling over the back fence.

Alas, the Flash Gordon scene hit the cutting room floor, but not before a space-suited Ralphie was featured in the photo above with one of the actors who was to play Flash, in very alien-looking surroundings.  From the looks of the planet Mongo set, that one scene probably accounted for 50 percent of the movie’s production budget.  How would Ralphie have used that Red Ryder BB gun to save the day?  We’ll never really know for sure.

But that reminds me:  it’s time to watch A Christmas Story again.