Hail, Caesar!

In 1951, movies are huge. Their stars are big. Their colors are bright, if not garish. Television has not yet become a national obsession. In Los Angeles, Capitol Studios fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) loves his job even if his days and nights are spent putting out fires.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers sprinkle their new film with fully realized scenes like those that electrified the movies Hollywood made in the postwar, pre-TV era. It’s a trick comparable to the addition of compelling music performances to brighten up a melancholy story in their most recent film, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Music also spiced up their 2000 release Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? It worked then and it works now.

Among the films in production at Capital in the day-and-a-half that Hail, Caesar! takes place is a film called “Hail, Caesar” starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped after a spiked drink he chugs in a scene knocks him unconscious. A missing star is just one of Mannix’s problems.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen) stars in a swimming pool scene that recalls Esther Williams movies. Mannix works to make sure news of Moran’s out-of-wedlock child is kept quiet.

Director Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) pouts when Mannix forces him to cast handsome young cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated society film.

When Mannix seeks approval from a panel of clergymen for the script for “Hail, Caesar” and its depiction of Christ, they protest.

Twin sister gossip columnists (and bitter rivals) Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threaten to write stories damaging to Mannix’s stars.

When Mannix drops in on an editor (Frances McDormand) and asks her to show him some footage, she nearly chokes when her scarf gets caught in the film.

A cushy job offer Mannix receives from Lockheed presents a chance to move into a more stable industry and spend more time with his family. Will he take it?

Among the film’s best scenes is a dance number featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), channeling Gene Kelly. Gurney sings and he and three other guys dance on tabletops. They lament that where they’re going there will be no dames. Near the end of the scene, the performance takes an unexpected turn.

Another features Mannix setting Whitlock straight with a bit of physical discipline.

Hail, Caesar! is a movie I enjoy greatly. The Coen brothers present a whacked-out story with damaged characters and several juicy 50s-era “movie within a movie” scenes. Brolin is excellent. Clooney gets to indulge in some ridiculous overacting. And Swinton continues to be one of the most versatile actors around.

As can be said about almost any Coens film, Hail, Caesar! may not be everybody’s cup of tea. You may walk out muttering WTFs. But you may also be delighted. It’s worth a shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Dinosaur

 

Pixar’s winning streak continues! The Good Dinosaur is loaded with cute. It will make kids happy and parents can love it, too.

TGD asks: “What if the asteroids that many claim decimated the earth’s dino population millions of year ago… had missed?” Dinosaurs would have co-existed with early man.

The plant-eating dinosaur family in the story features parents voiced by Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand. Of their three offspring, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the runt of the litter. He’s the movie’s central character.

Arlo catches a “critter” in the family’s silo, rustling food. The critter is a small human boy. Arlo and the boy fall into the river and are swept away on a journey of adventure. They face a variety of challenges and peril, including from other animals, as they struggle to return home.

One ally they meet is a dino voiced by Sam Elliott who tells the pair a story about how he got a scar on his face from a battle with crocodiles.

Peter Sohn, who has been a part of the Pixar team for several movies, is the director. This is his first time directing a feature.

The landscapes of an unspoiled world where the story takes place recall parts of the western U.S. The thrilling soundtrack stirs memories of The Magnificent Seven theme and certain Aaron Copland compositions. The old cinematic trick of making pretty pictures with fireflies (as seen in Fantasia and Avatar) is employed beautifully here.

The Good Dinosaur lacks the adult appeal of last summer’s Pixar hit Inside Out. But for adults bringing kids and grandkids, TGD is solid entertainment that you will not find tedious.

The Pixar short that precedes TGD is a trippy thing involving, interestingly, Eastern religion—not the normal subject matter for animated entertainment.

 

 

Promised Land

If you enjoyed last year’s negative political ads, you’ll love Promised Land. Except, when you saw the ads, you were told who paid for them.

The messages of Promised Land concern obtaining natural gas via the process known as “fracking.” Message #1 is that the natural gas companies are ripping off farmers by offering lowball payments for the gas beneath their properties. Message #2 is that fracking is an environmental threat.

Promised Land features Matt Damon and Frances McDormand as gas company agents who descend on a small Midwest farm town. At a town meeting, a local geezer played by Hal Holbrook rains on the parade of riches the farmers and the townsfolk anticipate by mentioning the dangers of fracking. John Krasinski appears as an environmental activist who opposes the gas company. He also is also Damon’s rival for a bit of romance with a local barfly/schoolteacher, played by Rosemarie DeWitt.

The script, written by Damon and Krasinski, presents its messages in an entertaining fictional narrative. Promised Land will likely reach a larger audience than would a message documentary such as those made by Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.

But with any message movie that is totally one-sided (like Promised Land), my suggestion is “be skeptical.” Things are rarely as black and white as they are sometimes presented. (Another incidental message of this movie is “beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.”)

Damon and Krasinski deserve credit for bringing attention to what may or may not be an issue worthy of your consideration. On the other hand, the manipulative story telling is so heavy handed that it has the feel of a negative political TV ad.

Who is behind this movie? Who benefits most should its messages resonate with a significant number of citizens? The coal industry? Electric utilities? The Sierra Club? Farm communities? Monsanto? People with existing natural gas wells? Stay tuned to find out.

Promised Land had the opportunity to open the country’s eyes to a possible environmental danger. But because the message is so clumsily delivered, the film is likely to resonate mainly with those who are already tree huggers and not so much with a general audience.

Moonrise Kingdom

Did you have romantic fantasies when you were 12? Some of us did.

On the brink of puberty, we knew we liked the opposite gender, even if we did not know exactly why. That’s sort of the situation with Sam and Suzy. They run away together and set up camp at a spot they call “Moonrise Kingdom.”

This is a quirky movie from Wes Anderson, a director known for quirky films. But “Moonrise Kingdom,” while quirky, is not so weird that it will put viewers off. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” there is quirkiness, but there is also a great story. And the two main characters, Sam and Suzy (played by unknowns Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, making their movie debuts) are immensely likeable.

The story is set in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England. Suzy leaves her home (and quirky parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) while Sam leaves his Khaki Scout troop (and quirky scoutmaster, played by Edward Norton). The parents and the scouts attempt to track them down, along with help from the island’s police chief, played by Bruce Willis.

Along their journey, we learn about the kids and their backgrounds. We see in a flashback how they met at a church on the island the previous summer and continued their relationship via mail correspondence. Suzy reads her favorite books (all creations of Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola) aloud to Sam.

It’s an idyllic time they spend together, despite the constant overcast conditions, which lead to a big storm at the movie’s climax. These are two kids whose lives so far are generally unhappy, who are now greatly enjoying one another’s company. For anyone who had unfulfilled romantic fantasies at age 12, it’s a joy to see these two together.

Among the many quirks in “Moonrise Kingdom,” one of my favorites is the way Suzy’s mom often communicates with family members—with a bullhorn. Another, as with most Wes Anderson films, is the genre spectrum of the soundtrack. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” it ranges from classical music to Hank Williams, Senior.

Is this a movie for everyone? No, not hardly. But if you are up for a sweet story, with interesting (I’ve used quirky too much in this review already) characters presented in Wes Anderson’s special universe, give “Moonrise Kingdom” a shot. I loved it!