The Greatest Puzzle Never Solved: A Review of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

hail caesar review

The most common criticism leveled against Hail, Caesar! is that this existential Hollywood comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen is a movie that doesn’t quite come together. The Coens get this kind of criticism all the time, including the first time they decided to set one of their movies in Hollywood. Winner of the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Barton Finkstill one of their best movies- turned what started as a fairly realistic story of a playwright-turned-screenwriter into a darkly surreal comedy, and later, into an outright nightmare. Perhaps the people who were put off by Fink’s dreamlike descent into hell are the same people who can’t find thematic cohesion beyond Caesar’s seemingly incoherent detours.

The more movies the Coens make, the clearer it becomes that they are deeply interested in cosmology. Over and over again, they ask the same question: is there any rhyme or reason to this world? The characters at the center of these movies rarely find a satisfying answer to this question, but the brothers -and their fans- always come back for more. Perhaps because, much like a Coen protagonist, we are all trying to find the right way to live.

These repeatedly unanswered quests can seem like a sick joke. The Coens are so precise and exacting in the details of their filmmaking, that their movies often feel like perfectly crafted puzzles that for some bizarre reason, cannot be solved. In fact, Hail, Caesar! features this very same metaphor in a scene where two writers are about to finish a puzzle only to discover that the last piece, inexplicably, doesn’t fit. How could it not fit, if it’s the only piece left? Just when you think you’ve understood everything there is to understand, an even bigger question appears.

The man searching answers this time around is played by Josh Brolin, and his name is Eddie Mannix, the chief of “physical production” at the fictional Capitol Pictures. The character is based on a real man of the same name, who by most accounts was a ruthless fixer who worked for MGM and would do anything in his power to keep the studio and its stars’ images clean. Unlike the real-life Mannix, Brolin’s character is a deeply religious man with a moral dilemma. Eddie loves his job, and he loves the movies, but how do frivolous entertainments fit into the world’s cosmology?

Perhaps Eddie can find some moral appeasement in Capitol Pictures’s biggest production: “Hail, Caesar!”, a Biblical epic about a Roman soldier who turns his life around after encountering Jesus Christ. This movie seems to be Eddie’s way of making it right by the Almighty. He is so concerned with the respectability of his movie that he assembles a panel of religious leaders and asks them to find any moral objections to the movie’s depiction of God and Jesus. A priest, a pastor, and a rabbi all walk into the room, but no one is as concerned with doing God justice as Eddie.

That Eddie finds time to go to confession and consider the moral implications of his own life is impressive considering the amount of actors, directors, and gossip columnists he has to deal with on a daily basis. If that weren’t enough, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Capitol’s biggest star and the protagonist of “Hail, Caesar”, is nowhere to be found. Turns out he’s been kidnapped by a group of communist writers that call themselves The Future. The clueless Whitlock bumbles into a room full of communists and is quickly mesmerized by their rhetoric. He too is “for the common man”. What are these communist after? Money, of course.

One would surely describe this as a particularly challenging day in Eddie’s career, but as far as dealing with kidnapped celebrities is concerned, Mannix is on top of his game. Everything that has to do with keeping the studio afloat, he can handle in his sleep. It’s the moral implications of being part of such a frivolous and seemingly decadent industry that haunt him. The stakes of Hail, Caesar! do not revolve around rescuing Whitlock and keeping the Studio afloat, but around Eddie’s salvation. Midway through the film he is offered a job at Lockheed Martin, a “real” job, he is assured. A job that matters.

Behind the bells and whistles of a comedy that finds ample time to let the audience glimpse Capitol Pictures’s many productions -including westerns, melodramas, and musicals- lies a very personal movie. Eddie Mannix’s search to find value in his life can be interpreted as a representation of the Coens’ own struggles with their art. After mocking all ideologies, particularly communism and religion, the Coens find salvation in the frivolous pleasures of the movies. Film critic David Ehrlich is right on the money when he compares Hail, Caesar! to The Grand Budapest HotelBoth movies argue for art’s value, but where Budapest is madcap and propulsive, Caesar is eerie and disconcerting.

The most effective way in which Hail, Caesar! argues for the movies are its own superficial pleasures. What we see of the movies being produced at Capitol Pictures isn’t very profound -and often dumb and ridiculous- but it’s also incredibly enjoyable. The most impressive of these moments is a song-and-dance sequence featuring Channing Tatum in a sailor uniform that could be described as overlong and self-indulgent if it weren’t so delightful. Tatum, once again, proves that he is this generation’s closest equivalent to Gene Kelly; and the Coens, that they understand that movies are, above all, entertainment.

The magic of the movies is on full display in Hail, Caesar! I was particularly impressed by how the amount of showmanship to the performances, and the role of physicality in impressing the audience. One forgets about the possibility that some of the feats in the movie could’ve been achieved with the help of computers because watching Tatum tap-dance is as transfixing as a live circus act. It’s also impressive when simpleton cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich in the movie’s standout performance) does lasso tricks with spaghetti, and when sexy Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) demonstrates the trick to dancing with “so much fruit on her head”.

If there are any weaknesses to Hail, Caesar!, they probably have to do with its rather abrupt ending and the often bizarre rhythms of its pacing. At the same time, the bizarre nature of the movie could mean that those qualities are perfectly intentional. The movie is packed with characters, stories, detours, and plot developments that, at first glance, have little to do with each other. Upon further inspection, they might still not make sense. Like most of the Coens’ movies, not all the pieces might fit in this puzzle. But by the time Eddie Mannix finds value in the trivial product he helps produce, the audience has found value in the movie’s own superficial pleasures.

Grade: 9 out of 10

Bojack Horseman is the Best Hollywood Satire Since The Player

Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman is the best Hollywood satire since Robert Altman’s The Player

I choose to compare this Netflix original series to Altman’s movie not only because The Player is a fantastic movie, but because it has had the deepest and clearest impact in the genre since it premiered twenty-three years ago. Virtually all Hollywood satires that have come after -including the ones reviewed here, like David Conenberg’s Maps to the Stars– seem to be riffing heavily on the discomforting ugliness of Altman’s film, and none of them have been able to match the brilliance of The Player‘s disgustingly nihilistic ending.

The problem with these movies is they proclaim to uncover the nasty superficiality and dehumanization of the entertainment industry by making fun of how ridiculous and empty the whole thing is, but at the same time, they are pieces of art that dedicate their entire running time obsessing about the industry they are pretending to criticize. That is why the better Hollywood satires since The Player have tended to be light-hearted comedies like The ArtistThe more serious your satire is, the less genuine is going to feel.

That is not the case with Bojack Horseman. The show started out as the type of adult animated comedy you could find on cable. Being the story of a faded sitcom star from the nineties voiced by the grumpy Will Arnett, it seemed quite similar in tone to shows like The Critic and ArcherIt was a fun show full of animal puns and silly jokes about Hollywood, which was made all the more entertaining thanks to a fantastic (and extensive) voice cast that includes Allison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Stanley Tucci, character actress Margo Martindale, and Paul F. Tompkins, who gives an outstanding performance as Bojack’s nemesis: the always cheery golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter.

However, Bojack Horseman reached its current level of greatness when it ventured into some pretty dark places in the last few episodes of its first season. The penultimate episode in particular, which took a look inside Bojack’s subconscious in an abstract trip that could be compared to something as highbrow as Tarkovsky’s The Mirrorrevealed what exactly is so fresh about Bojack Horseman, and what differentiates it from most contemporary Hollywood satires: Hollywood is not the villain of this story.

This -unlike so many other satires- isn’t the story of how Hollywood destroys the lives of everyone who dares try and make it big in the industry.Yes,  Bojack is an incredibly unhappy character, but he isn’t miserable because of Hollywood. Something is broken inside him, there is an emptiness in his soul that cannot be fixed as long as he pretends that any external factor can mend it.

Amidst all of the silly jokes about cannibalistic chickens, stupid game shows, and J.D. Salinger, Bojack Horseman reveals itself as an incredibly insightful story about depression. It is a story about regular people trying to find happiness in a absurd and indifferent world, and its brilliant second season in particular, focuses on the struggle and difficulties that come with trying to enact any kind of change. It is an unbearably hard road to travel, and all one can do is take one step at a time, and try to better every day.

It’s a touching portrayal of people trying to find meaning in the emptiness of modern living wrapped in an absurd show about an alternative Hollywood that is populated by talking animals. It sounds so foolish that it only makes sense the show is as great as it is.

The first two seasons of Bojack Horseman are available to stream on Netflix.

Ew, Gross: A Review of David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’

Maps to the Stars

A couple years ago, a movie called The Paperboy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It was director Lee Daniels’s follow-up to his Award-winning Preciousbut unlike that movie, The Paperboy was an outlet for the gross impulses and aesthetics that seem to make up Daniels’s id. The movie was critically panned, and I can’t really argue with that response. The Paperboy is, indeed, a horrible mess of a movie. However, couched in that sweaty Southern tale, is a magnificent performance by Nicole Kidman. At one point in the movie, Kidman famously pees on Zac Efron’s leg, at another, she experiences a telepathic orgasm curtesy of John Cusack. Kidman’s is a performance with no boundaries. She is free to act however she wants, and she feels more alive than she had in years.

That introduction might seem irrelevant, but there are a number of similarities between The Paperboy and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Both of them premiered to unenthusiastic reactions at Cannes, and both of them got even worse reviews when they were released stateside. The similarity I want to focus on, however, is the fact that Maps to the Stars does for Julianne Moore what The Paperboy did for Nicole Kidman. Moore’s career hasn’t been in quite the same rut that Kidman’s was before she did The Paperboy, but we still have to thank Maps to the Stars for giving us the unrestrained Julianne Moore performance that so many of her fans were waiting for.

Moore plays Havana Segrand, a middle-aged Hollywood actress who is desperately trying to get the lead role in the remake of the movie that made her diseased mother famous. As you might expect, Havana is a supremely shallow and self-focused person. I’m not going to lie, she is not a very original character. She is pretty much what you picture when you hear someone is writing a satire about an aging Hollywood actress. She is a vain platinum blonde with a Californian accent. However, you get Julianne Moore to play this role, and you get yourself a treat. Moore usually excels at providing her characters with a certain level of tragic pathos (think of her Amber Waves in Boogie Nights), so it’s actually quite a bit of fun to see her be able to just tear into the ridiculous inner life of as fucked up a person as Havana Segrand.

It’s also quite refreshing to see Moore be so casually gross throughout the movie. To see an actress who is known for her elegance and grace have her lips puffed up, dance around in a see-through dress, or casually wipe her inner thighs after having sex in a limo. I could go on and on until I’m transcribing in detail a scene in which Moore talks to Mia Wasikowska while sitting on the toilet, but I won’t. Because very much like Kidman in The Paperboy, Julianne Moore is the best part of the movie, but Maps to the Stars is not really her story.

Maps to the Stars is really about the meeting of two other characters: Benji Weiss (Evan Bird), an obnoxious child-star trying to revamp his career after coming out of rehab, and Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a disfigured burn victim who travels to Los Angeles with a mysterious agenda of her own. Also figuring into the story are Robert Pattinson as a limo driver, Olivia Williams as Benji’s mother, and John Cusack as his father, who is also some sort of holistic therapist for the Julianne Moore character. The movie is set in Hollywood, so everyone has their own set of selfish goals. Their paths meet with deadly consequences.

The movie is directed by David Cornenberg, and written by Bruce Wagner, who is apparently known for having a supremely negative view of Hollywood. After watching Maps to the Stars I have no doubt that Mr. Wagner hates Los Angeles’s movie culture, but I don’t know if he’s telling me anything of substance, or anything that I haven’t heard before. For being a gross, angry satire about Hollywood, Maps to the Stars feels familiar, and often rote. It suffers, like many movie in its genre do, of being unable to find a dark side of Hollywood that we haven’t seen before. Like film critic Peter Labuza wisely said, it seems like “every Hollywood satire made since [Robert Altman’s] The Playerhas more or less been been a riff on The Player“.

What does Maps to the Stars tell us about Hollywood? That people are self-absorbed. As a matter of fact, that is pretty much the one thing that Wagner seems to have kept in mind when developing his characters’ personalities. That they love themselves, and that they’re bad people who are sometimes tormented by how horrible they’ve been. They live in pristine mansions, but do the grossest things. The message is repetitive, immature, and not very complex.

Still, movies with far bigger handicaps have managed to be enjoyable. The problem with Maps to the Stars, weirdly enough, might be David Cronenberg. This might sound weird, but I think he was not the right director for this material. He might not be as good a director as Cronenberg, but I think someone like Lee Daniels is the kind of pervert that this movie needed. That is not meant as an insult to Mr. Daniels. I’m just saying that I get the sense that Cronenberg thinks the people in this movie are gross and disturbed, while Daniels, being as he is fascinated with fluids (sweat, oil, pee), seems able to find a certain sex appeal in even the most disgusting things.

Maps to the Stars is predictable satire, and Cronenberg’s clinical eye prevents it from truly transcending into glorious camp territory, but it also isn’t a boring movie. There is always a certain level of fun to be had when looking at despicable people interact with each other. And no one in this movie is as despicable, or as brilliant as Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Summer of ’92: Hollywood Plays Itself

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Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading. 

The ‘Summer of ’92’ has come to an end. This is the last installment of the summer series. I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t a lot of work to do this “summer series”. I enjoyed it a lot, but it proved to be much more stressful than I anticipated. In any case, I do plan to keep the idea of special “summer series” going, just maybe not in this format. I guess you will have to wait until next year to find out what I ultimately decide to do, for now, you can enjoy this last entry, about two movies that talk about movies themselves, or at least certain aspects.

Death Becomes Her and The Player can both be categorized as Hollywood satires. In the case of Death Becomes Her, though, the movie makes fun of a very specific aspect of celebrity: the drive and constant pressure to remain young at all costs. The movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, stars Meryl Streep as a famous actress who uses her sex appeal to steal accountant Bruce Willis from her good friend Goldie Hawn soon before they are about to get married. Years later, Streep and Willis’s characters are married, and Goldie Hawn reappears in a rejuvenated body. Streep soon discovers that the secret to eternal youth lies in an expensive potion guarded by some sort of sorceress played by the incredibly sensual Isabella Rossellini.

This wasn’t a very successful movie at the time of its release, and it’s easy to see why. Death Becomes Her is a deeply weird movie. You must know, since you just read my attempt at describing its plot. Its sense of humor is dark and campy to a degree that most hit comedies of the early nineties simply were not. It revels in excess, from something as elemental as the larger-than-life performances of the three leads, to details dressing Isabella Rossellini in as revealing clothes as they can get away with. But just like that last aspect suggests, this wasn’t a crazy throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of production. Zemeckis seems to have been especially cautious of brining a specific story to the screen in the most appropriate way, it just happens that said story is best told in as campy a way as possible. One of the signs that Zemeckis was taking this whole thing seriously, for example, is the constant use of mirrors to represent the characters’ obsession with vanity. It’s almost as if there isn’t a single scene in the movie that doesn’t feature a mirror or some other kind of reflective surface.

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Isabella Rossellini’s breasts are barely covered in ‘Death Becomes Her’.

The thing Death Becomes Her was most notable for back when it debuted was its avant-garde use of visual effects. You must remember that, at this point in time, CGI and computer-generated visual effects were a novelty (Terminator 2 had raised the bar the year before, and the following year would bring Jurassic Parkwhich is still the zenith of CGI). There are two notable visual effects in Death Becomes Her. They both occur once the two female leads discover that they, by drinking Rossellini’s potion, have become immortal. One features Goldie Hawn coming back from the dead sporting a huge hole  in the middle of her stomach after being shot by a shotgun…

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Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep look through the hole in Goldie Hawn’s stomach.

…the other, and certainly the most innovative at the time, has Meryl Streep coming back from the dead, after her character has broken her neck falling down the stairs of her Hollywood mansion. Streep stands up and discovers that her head has gone all the way around her neck. She goes on to have a hysterical discussion with Bruce Willis while looking like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Computers were used to green-screen Meryl Streep’s face into the back of her body, and while the effects look a bit dated for today’s standards (Streep’s twisted neck looks a little too computery), it was quite a feat considering the technology of the time. Actually, it is a common assumption that it was this particular effect that won Death Becomes Her the Best Visual Effects Oscar the year it came out.

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Meryl Streep’s head went all the way around in ‘Death Becomes Her’.

First of all let me tell you how refreshing it is to think that there was a time when the movie that was pushing forward visual effects was a dark satire about aging women in Hollywood. No huge robots, or hobbits, or superheroes. That was, simply, another time. Anyway, about Death Becomes Her at the end of a time in which Meryl Streep seemed to have found a new stage for career as a comedienne. This whole period didn’t last long. It began with She-Devil in ’89, peaked with her Oscar-nominated role in Postcards from the Edgeand would end the year after Death Becomes Her was released. Streep’s next project was the adaptation of Chilean novel The House of the Spirits. Needless to say to those who have seen Streep play comedic roles, she is great in Death Becomes Her. Goldie Hawn is also unafraid of going to ridiculous lengths to transmit the dark comedy of the piece, while Bruce Willis is as far from his action-hero persona as possible. In short, everybody committed as much as they needed to, and the result is one fun movie. 

Now, like I said, the main tone of Death Becomes Her is camp, so if you enjoy that can of thing, then you will have a sweet time watching this movie. I had a blast, even though I must admit I was ultimately disappointed in its ending. I was expecting the last act of the movie to move into a deeper level of satire other than “these two ladies are crazy and won’t stop in their search for youth”. The movie doesn’t, and it ends up positioning Willis’s character as some sort of tragic hero trapped between the wills of two women that are far stronger than he is. It works on a plot level, but from a thematic stand-point, the idea that the one man in the movie is the only sane person makes me uncomfortable, especially considering how there are so many societal factors that contribute to women’s obsession with looking as young as possible, especially in an environment as hostile to older women as showbusiness.

But, hey, you know what is not a disappointing movie in any way? Robert Altman’s The Player. Now, this is a much more direct satire of the Hollywood way of life, starring Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a movie executive who is receiving death-threats from a writer he rejected years ago. The only problem is, he doesn’t know which of the many rejected writers is the one sending him the threats. The movie is much more plot-oriented than most of Altman’s work, which tends to be more observational and character-oriented. The Player does feature lots of meandering scenes, especially since it is full of celebrity cameos (some of them so quick you can blink and miss them), but it is undoubtedly the Tim Robbins’s show, and the movie focuses very much on his character.

Robbins is the perfect casting choice for Griffin Mill. He has always been better at playing sleazy and untrustworthy than traditional heroes (He is, for example, one of the things that bothers me the most about The Shawshank Redemption). Griffin starts out as a “cool” guy, some sort of edgy antihero, but we soon realize that he is actually an asshole. Robbins brings a mix of desperation and contempt to the character that make him the ideal protagonist for a tale about how cruel and cynical Hollywood can be. In one particularly good scene, Robbins must go to testify to a detective (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who is investigating a case in which he is a main suspect. Griffin puts on an act, pretending to be outraged by the questions the detective is asking him, but the only result is that everyone at the police station starts laughing at him. This is one of the many metafilmic moments in The Player. Griffin is acting like a character in a movie would, but those kinds of actions don’t work the way they do in the movies.

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Tim Robbins is one of the suspects of a crime in ‘The Player’ (and yes, that is Lyle Lovett)

The Player is metafilmic from its first shot, a very famous eight-minute uninterrupted tracking shot through a Hollywood parking lot, during which we are witness to lots of inside jokes such as a Japanese company buying a Hollywood studio (At the time of The Player’s release, Sony had just bought Columbia), and a executive that won’t shut up about the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil

There is a constant tension in The Player between the real world and the world of movies. Much like the presence of mirrors in Death Becomes Her, Altman dresses the sets of The Player with old movie posters for all kinds of crime and noir movies. The camera constantly close sup on on-the-nose imagery that is designed to know that something bad is going to happen the way it would in an old-timey thriller full of flashing arrows. But at the same time, there are scenes like the one I described above. Scenes that show us that the real world is much crueler, and far more cynical than anything we see in the movies. The dream factory is only a front, and Hollywood is full of hell and darkness. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the movie’s ending, which resorts to incredibly clichéd, Hollywood ideals, ends up being the most tragic and darkest ending possible.

The Player is an amazing movie. It is one of the most inventive and poignant satires I’ve ever seen. It is unafraid of going as dark as possible, while never feeling like it wants to be especially dark. It’s biggest strength is that its darkest moment, like I said, is its ending, which is completely essential to the plot and message of the movie. Film critic Peter Labuza said it best when he said that “every Hollywood satire since The Player has been more or less a riff on The Player”. 

Next Week: Well, like I said, this is the last official installment of this series, but be sure to check the blog in the coming days for some wrap-ups on the movie year 1992 as a whole!