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.

 

Gravity

Gravity is one of those films where you are acutely aware of all of the components of moviemaking:  cinematography, sound, special effects, acting, props.  All play key roles in making this space thriller a real gut-punch of a movie that sticks with you.

The story line is simple.  Astronauts are working on equipment in space when disaster strikes, and they have to figure out what to do.  They’re cut off from the world and alone in an impossibly hostile environment.  And that’s where all of the elements of the cinema arts come in.  In these days of blasting soundtracks, how many movies feature absolute silence, or only the sounds of panicky breathing, to help tell the story?  In these days of explosions and superhero epics, how many films require you to watch tiny things, like ice crystals forming on a space helmet?

The zero-gravity environment of space is a perfect setting for jaw-dropping technical wizardry, and Gravity doesn’t disappoint.  The weightlessness special effects looked spot on and, in the case of a tear forming into a tiny drop of water and floating toward the camera, moved the story forward.  Equally impressive was the camera positioning and sets that gave a true sense of the claustrophobic nature of spacecraft and their tininess against the vastness of the universe.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as the wisecracking veteran who falls back on years of astronaut training to develop a game plan on how to respond to the crisis.  Sandra Bullock is a revelation as the first-time space voyager who must draw upon the will to live as she faces challenge after challenge.   Bullock shows an emotional range I didn’t think she had.  And while the physics of their space adventure may be sketchy, thanks to the actors the human story rings true.

Gravity is well worth the price of a ticket.  Just be sure to budget time afterward when you can talk about “how did they do that?”

The Descendants

The Descendants is an interesting movie about choices, and families.

The film stars George Clooney in what is likely an Oscar nomination role.  He plays a wealthy Hawaiian lawyer who has a lot on his plate.  His wife is in a coma after being injured in a boating accident.  He manages a soon-to-be-dissolved trust for his extended family and needs to decide whether to sell land that has been in his family for generations.  His two daughters are acting out, then he learns that his wife will not survive the coma, and then he learns from the oldest daughter that his wife was having an affair.  The arc of the movie addresses Clooney’s struggles to deal with his confused feelings about the affair, his wife, her approaching death, his daughters, and his native Hawaii.

I thought The Descendants was highly entertaining, thought-provoking movie.  Clooney turns in a fine performance, and Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, who play his two daughters, are excellent.  The three of them had great chemistry as  a family.  I also very much liked the deliberate pace of the movie and its refusal to be pigeon-holed into the categories that so often define the standard Hollywood fare.  Often funny, at times deeply moving, and always riveting, The Descendants was an unpredictable treat.