Friday, February 05, 2016

HAIL, CAESAR!: Not Top Tier Coen Brothers, But At Times It Comes Close

Opening today at both multiplexes and art houses (but mainly multiplexes):

HAIL, CAESAR! (Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016)

“This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.” – End Credits Disclaimer

After the bleak, gray-toned terrain of their last few pictures, 2010’s TRUE GRIT and 2013’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the Coen brothers mix it up with this colorful, star-studded satire of ‘50s Hollywood.

In his third film for the master filmmaking siblings, Josh Brolin heads the cast as Eddie Mannix, the head production chief for the fictional Capital Studios, who mainly works as a “fixer” (somebody who keeps actors’ scandals out of the press). We first meet Mannix in a confessional, where the man cries over the sin of sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife (Alison Pill) about it.

From there, we learn about the troubled production of a big expensive Roman-Biblical epic (a film-within-the-film also titled “Hail, Caesar”), which stars Baird Whitlock, an idiot of a matinee idol played by another Coen bros. veteran, George Clooney. On the set, Clooney gets drugged and kidnapped by a couple of extras (Wayne Knight and Jeff Lewis), and gets taken to a Malibu beach mansion where he is held for ransom by an organization of communist screenwriters who call themselves “The Future.” That’s right, it’s another Coen brothers’ kidnap caper!

Intertwined are the tales of a few of Mannix’s other clients: Hobie Doyle (stand-out newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a B-movie cowboy star actor who, while working on a western, is told that the studio wants to change his image, and DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson in her second Coen brothers film after THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE), obviously modeled on MGM’s swimming superstar Esther Williams, whose pregnancy threatens to ruin another production (another film-within-the-film). Johansson, who speaks in a New Yawk accent that will be familiar to SNL fans, has a juicy albeit brief part, involving an even briefer Jonah Hill cameo.

Then there’s Tilda Swinton, also making her second appearance in the Coen canon, hamming it up in a dual role as Thora and Thessaly Thacker, twin sister gossip columnists who confront Mannix (separately, but one right after the other) for a scoop every time he leaves his office.

In a extremely well choreographed production number from yet another film-within-this-film, Coen brothers first-timer Channing Tatum steals the movie in a sailor suit in a helplessly homoerotic song and dance routine to a tune called “No Dames.” Tatum, and his fellow seamen, athletically tap dance up a storm around a saloon set on top of the bar, stools, and tables, while Tatum puts in some surprisingly smooth singing on top of it. It’s a smile-inducing highlight.

The more I think about it, the more I like HAIL, CAESAR! It’s not top tier Coen brothers, but at times it comes awfully close. Such times include an early scene in which Brolin’s Mannix assembles a group of religious leaders from different faiths to make sure that the “theological elements are up to snuff” in “Hail, Caesar!,” humorously recalls the spirituality spoofing of A SERIOUS MAN.

The sitting room scenes involving “The Future,” with its wonderfully cast members including Max Baker, David Krumholtz, Patrick Fischler, Fisher Stevens, and Fred Melamed, who happened to be in A SERIOUS MAN, also share that period piece’s vibe, as well as more of a palpable sense of McCarthy-era paranoia than TRUMBO could muster.

Also up there, or at least one that I laughed out loud at, is a bit where Ralph Fiennes as a stuffy director (named Laurence Laurentz, because of course he is) of stuffy drawing room dramas is saddled with Ehrenreich’s Doyle and can’t get him to satisfactorily deliver one particular line (“Would that it were true” being the line that gets repeatedly massacred).

With its A-list ensemble running around in silly scenarios, I expected something more screwball, a lark a la BURN AFTER READING, but the lighter, restrained wackiness of HAIL, CAESAR masks layers of meaning underneath that I predict us critic folk will be trying to decipher for ages.

After saying that BURN was the last time he’d play an idiot for the Coens, I’m glad Clooney reconsidered and came back for what Joel Coen has jokingly referred to as “the fourth installment of the George Clooney numbskull trilogy.” 

But as apt as Clooney is as a movie star dolt, it’s Brolin’s show, and it’s his best work for the Coen brothers - his jaded stoicism is the film’s rock. The character is the only one in the film that’s directly based on a real person of the same name (the real Eddie Mannix was a studio fixer for MGM), and Brolin puts in a weighty performance that would’ve fit right into serious-minded movies set in the same era like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

It doesn’t all flow seamlessly – there’s some HUDSUCKER PROXY-ish clunkiness, and some bits that flatline - but the film achieves BARTON FINK-style brilliancy more than a few times (it’s no coincidence that Capital Pictures is the studio in both films).

It’s too early to see how HAIL, CAESAR! Ranks among the rest of the Coen brothers’ filmography, but I can already say that its miles above their lesser efforts (THE LADYKILLERS and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY). 

The fun of its fake movie production numbers, its authentic Technicolor look (shot on film by longtime Coen brothers collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins), and, of course, its more than capable cast, make it a film that you don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate. But it sure does help.

More later...

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sizing Up The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Docs

The conversation about next month’s Oscars, the 88th Academy Awards (ABC, Feb. 28), may be deservedly dominated by the whole #OscarsSoWhite thing, but I’d like to bypass that mess for now to take a look at the nominees of a way less controversial category: Best Documentary Feature.

It’s one that you can easily catch up on too, as three of the five nominees are available for streaming on Netflix Instant: Matthew Heineman’s CARTEL LAND, Evgeny Afineevsky’s WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, and Liz Garbus’ WHAT HAPPENED, NINA SIMONE?

The remaining docs, Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE, and Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees’s AMY are available on Blu ray and DVD, as well as streaming services such as iTunes and Amazon Video.

As it was the first doc I watched after the nominations were announced earlier this month, I’ll start with Heineman’s CARTEL LAND, about cartel members and vigilante groups on both sides of the Mexico-US border in the Mexican drug war that’s been raging since 2006. It’s at times shocking the access Heineman had as he follows along such subjects as Tim “Nailer” Foley of the paramilitary outfit called “Arizona Border Recon,” and Michoacán-based physician Dr JosĂ© Mireles, of the Autodefensas, who were founded in 2013.

Much of the film plays like a shaki-cam action thriller, and its startling to hear the stories of the beheadings, and mass murder of innocent citizens by the evil Knights Templar cartel, but the film lost me a bit in its last third as it gets into murkily shot interrogation/torture scenes, and a lengthy bit in which Mireles sleazily hits on a young woman also muddied my takeaway. CARTEL LAND is two thirds of a powerful doc about how power corrupts, especially in the lawless border zones. Its intrigue is great enough for me to see why it was nominated, but I really wouldn’t bet on it to win.

There’s a similar amount of blood on the ground in Afineevsky’s WINTER ON FIRE, about events that happened around the same time, but on the other side of the world in the Ukraine. Through footage and interviews, Russian-Israeli director Afineevsky tells the story of the protests in Ukraine’s Kiev in December 2013 through February 2014, that started out as peaceful student demonstrations but escalated into violence with police and paramilitary forces attacking and killing many of the protesters. It can be pretty tough going as the focus can seem as scattershot as the unwieldy crowds on display, but the film has an impactful passion to its breakdown of the proceedings, and much like CARTEL LAND, the access the filmmakers have is truly eye-opening.

The theme that people have the power to come together to make change is one that many, many docs share, but WINTER ON FIRE through its deep examination of material that I’m guilty of ignoring by not watching news reports or by not clicking on links that better informed folks than me post on Facebook stands out more than just about any other big issue doc I’ve seen in ages. It’s got tough competition in this category, but this Netflix production could well be a wild card.

What has a bigger chance at the win is Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE, which is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s previous Oscar nominee, 2012’s THE ACT OF KILLING – both of which are co-directed by somebody credited as “Anonymous.” The reason for that mystery credit is severely apparent when viewing either or both films as they concern the still living, and still in power perpetrators in the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. 

While THE ACT OF KILLING, streaming on Netflix Instant in both theatrical and director's cut versions, dealt with members of the death squads chillingly recounting and reenacting their killings, THE LOOK OF SILENCE involves the perspective of the survivors and the victim's families, particularly a 44-year-old optometrist named Adi Rukun, as he confronts the men responible for his brother Ramli's death in he 1965 Indonesian genocide of more than a million alleged Communists.

The reaction that these men have recalls all the Nazi-rationales - i.e. “I was just following orders” - with, of course, nobody taking responsibility for their actions. But it goes further than that, and deeper than ACT, when Rukun gets warnings from relatives that his life may be in danger for going through with this project, but he doesn't shy away from asking one of his interviewees, who's now in the legislature: “How do you do politics surrounded by the families of the people you've killed?”

THE LOOK OF SILENCE is incendiary stuff indeed, and it has a good shot at the gold - that is, unless a certain crowd-pleasing music biodoc has the edge.

That would be AMY, Kapadia and Gay-Rees’s doc depiction of   British R&B-soul singer Amy Winehouse, which is the only documentary here that's in the top 10 grossing indie films of 2015 (it's #10 - of course). 

I raved about the film last summer (Amy Winehouse’s Rise And Decline Makes For A Devastating Doc 7/10/15), and would love it if it won. It's an up close and personal biodoc, with so much revealing footage of the troubled yet true songstress, that, via a strong home movie vibe, often makes us feel like we're were right there with Ms. Winehouse, whether riding with her in a car between gigs, or hanging with her in Camden flat. 

But it's the excerpts from the woman's performances, most of which have individual lyrics in handwritten fonts superimposed, that make this such a stunner and highlight what a tremendous loss Winehouse's death was to the world. So yeah, I'm pulling for this one.

Lastly, there's another music biodoc that's almost as equally deserving - Liz Garbus' WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? about legendary singer, activist, and North Carolina native Nina Simone (1933-2003). It's the only movie on the ballots that actually pays tribute to a black artist, but, yeah, it was made by a white person. Then, hey, it's the only doc in the category that was directed by a woman, so there's that.

Anyway, the footage amassed here in this doc that takes its name from a Maya Angelou quote is stellar. Clips such as Simone performing “Little Liza Jane” at Newport in 1960, appearing on Hugh Hefner's short lived TV show Playboy's Penthouse to play Gershwin's “I Loves You, Porgy,” and her comeback show from her self-imposed 8-year exile at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 had me later going to YouTube to see more. 

Garbus' exploration of the volatile yet very vulnerable Simone's journey from aspiring classical pianist to '60s civil rights icon is riveting (especially considering that this was a woman who told Martin Luther King, Jr. that she was “not non violent”), as are the tales told about her tumultuous relationship with her husband manager Andrew Stroud (surprisingly an interviewee). 

Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, sums the messiness of her mother's later years best: “People seem to think that when she went out on stage, that was when she became Nina Simone, but my mother was Nina Simone 24/7, that’s where it became a problem.”

But when it gets down to the last ten minutes, even a cursory skim of Simone's wikipedia entry will tell you that this film glosses over a lot of juicy stuff about the lady's demise in its race to conclusion. Despite that flaw, this biodoc is strongly recommended. It would be quite the upset if it won.

At this point, I'm predicting a win for THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Things change a lot in the weeks leading up to the show, so I may change my mind for my official predictions to be posted a few days before the broadcast, but for now, it really feels like its Oppenheimer and Anonymous' year.

* Triangle area folks should take note that the Full Frame Documentary Festival’s Winter Series will be showing CARTEL LAND on February 16th at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.

More later...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

ANOMALISA: A Stop Motion Emotional Masterpiece

Now playing at a indie art theater near you (and at least one multiplex near me):

ANOMALISA (Dirs. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman, 2015)

At first, Charlie Kaufman’s stop motion animated follow-up to his toweringly brilliant 2008 opus SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, is a very strange experience.

Yet after a little while, I started to forget that I was watching life-like 3D-printed puppets, and began to feel like I was watching real people – sad, lonely, restless real people, who were much more affecting than in most dramas that actually feature real people.

But then the filmmakers, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, would do something like having the protagonist’s face malfunction (and even detach like a mask), and I would be jarringly reminded what I was really viewing.

There’s also the element of that every character, men and women, except for the two leads is voiced by the same actor – Tom Noonan, who previously appeared in a pivotal role in SYNECDOCHE, who is actually credited here as “everyone else.” This takes a little getting used to, especially as there are times that Noonan sounds erringly like a soft-spoken Jimmy Fallon.

David Thewlis, best known for his role as Remus Lupin in the HARRY POTTER films, voices the principal protagonist, the middle-aged Michael Stone, author of the bestseller “How May I Help You Help Them: 5 Ways To Improve Customer Service.” Thewlis’ Michael, who at times sounds like a drunken Pierce Brosnan, has come to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement and after we witness him making awkward chit–chat with a cabbie, his hotel clerk, and busboy – again, all Noonan-voiced, but also with the same non-descript faces – he gets antsy and phones an ex named Bella, who lives in town that he hasn’t spoken to for over a decade.

Despite her shock at his call, Bella agrees to meet him for a drink at the hotel bar. The meeting doesn’t go well and Bella storms off. Later, Michael desperately and frantically finds himself running down his hotel’s hallway knocking on doors claiming he’s looking for a friend. He happens upon the room of two women, Emily and Lisa, a couple of sales reps who drove from Akron just to see Michael’s speech. Noonan voices Emily (again same face as everyone else), but Jennifer Jason Leigh, in her second stellar performance of 2015 after THE HATEFUL EIGHT, provides the slightly chubby, but pretty and nervously charming Lisa’s voice.

Michael invites them out for a drink – by this time he’s had a half a dozen Belvedere martinis – and the three share some laughs together. On the way back to their rooms, Michael asks Lisa if she’ll have a nightcap with him. Emily encourages Lisa to accept the offer (“he’s gorgeous”), and Lisa and Michael retire back to his room.

Michael is thoroughly taken by Lisa – continually telling her how lovely she is, exuding a loving warmth while she talks about her day and especially as she sings an acapella rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (she even does an Italian language version of the song). Lisa talks about learning the word “anomaly” from Michael’s book and relating to the term, and he dubs her “Anomalisa.”

Before you know it, we’re watching puppet porn, but, don’t worry, it’s nothing like the infamous sex scene in TEAM AMERICA. Somehow it’s about as tasteful as stop motion puppet intercourse can be.

After that, the film goes on a surreal tangent with a dream sequence in which Michael is called to an office in the hotel’s basement by the hotel manager, who tells Michael that he loves him, and that he shouldn’t be with Lisa.

Michael awakens and, in his shaken state, proposes that he wants to leave his wife and run off with Lisa. Things get screwy though when Michael has a bit of a breakdown at his keynote talk, and the film cuts to him returning to his wife, 5-year old son, and a bunch of surprise party people at his home – all, again, voiced by Noonan with that same damn face.

ANOMALISA is based on a play Kaufman wrote for composer Carter Burwell’s “Theater of the New Ear” series of what were called “sound plays” that was produced with the same cast in 2005, which explains Michael’s speech/rant that calls out the President as being “a war criminal.”

It’s great that the sex scene and the slew of f-bombs dropped make the film the first R-rated animated movie that’s ever gotten an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but I think it should’ve picked up a Best Screenplay nomination as well. Not one line of dialogue felt convoluted or off at all – as a written work, ANOMALISA is a flawless concoction.

But it’s also a beautifully acted and aesthetically pleasing piece, in which Thewlis and Leigh’s transcendent voice contributions breathe an exuberant amount of humanity into these abstract proceedings.

Yet again, Kaufman has made a movie that nobody else would make – or even think of making, even if he had help via co-director Johnson. Like just about every movie he’s made – from the mindblowing movies he’s written (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) to his directorial debut (SYNECDOCHE) – it’s brainy brilliance with a battered heart. 

A drama about real life using the fakest of props that somehow says more about confused loneliness than any other movie in recent memory, ANOMALISA is Kaufman’s latest masterpiece. Seek it out to see the most emotion anybody’s ever put into stop motion.

More later...