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Hail, Caesar: Not a movie review, not really

February 27, 2016

I go to the movies reasonably regularly and have seen many movies in the last few months. Some impressed me immensely, such as Spotlight and Brooklyn; some I enjoyed a lot with the odd reservation, such as Carol, The Danish Girl and The Belier Family; and others I could see the skill but they left me a little cold, like, say, the beautifully shot Revenant. However, although I’ve reviewed the odd (usually Australian) film in the past, film reviewing is not my thing, so you haven’t heard about them here. But then, a couple of days ago, we saw the Coen Brothers’* latest outing, Hail, Caesar.

I’m not going to review it, either – not really – but I’ve heard such mixed responses that I wanted to offer my two-penny’s worth, which is that it’s fun to watch, particularly if you have any interest in the golden years of Hollywood. The Coens weave their story around a day-or-so-in-the-life-of Mr Mannix, the studio go-to/fix-it man who reports to the studio boss. He looks after the actors, sorts out money problems and potential sticking points, deals with promotion and publicity, troubleshoots, in other words, anything and everything that happens on multiple sets. As he goes about this work, we see the films being made by the studio. There’s the biblical-Ben Hur like epic titled Hail, Caesar; an Esther Williams-like extravaganza; a singing cowboy adventure**; a Gene Kelly Anchors Aweigh style movie; and a British drawing-room drama, not to mention nods to James Dean, Hitchcock, spy-movies, HUAC‘s attack on Hollywood’s communists, and so on.

The Coens and their crew must have had a wonderful time creating vignettes for all these movie genres and styles, because they were, using my best non-review-language, a hoot. Take the drawing-room drama which, at the last minute, has to accept the singing cowboy in its starring role. Now our cowboy, Hobie, is known more for his singing and lassoo work, than his dramatic acting ability. The sentence he has to say in this vignette is the improbable “Would that it ‘twere so simple”. It’s a very funny scene, played beautifully by Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurents and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it’s worth every penny of your ticket when it comes (and not just because it features the inimitable Frances McDormand). There is, too, surely a joke in the title: Hail, Caesar is the title of the biblical epic around which the main plot turns, but Mannix is the Caesar on the lot.

The ensemble cast does a great job, but I do have to admit that when I and my party of movie-goers came out we all felt we’d seen a tribute but we weren’t sure there was much more to it, not like there was in, say, Barton Fink. If I could identify any specific serious point being made it would, perhaps, be about the lack of recognition of screenwriters.

However, perhaps it’s OK for the film not to have a BIG message. Perhaps it simply wants the audience to have fun, to remember the past (not with nostalgia but with a knowing sort of joy). And perhaps, too, the Coens want us to think about what we want from movies and movie-makers? I’m not sure I’ll remember this film long into the future, but I did enjoy it – and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

* I’ve written once before on the Coens – seems like I’m more likely to make an exception for them!

** In one of those strange coincidences, the day before we saw Hail, Caesar, I happened to see an old singing cowboy movie, Gene Autry in Guns and guitars, at the National Film and Sound Archive!

32 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2016 11:38 pm

    i am usually way behind in watching the latest films – either waiting until they are available on dvd or on a flight so I don’t even know what this film is about. I did watch Spotlight however – the first part was a bit confusing and I couldnt work out who was who but it became gripping

    • February 28, 2016 7:09 am

      So many things to do, Karen, aren’t there? We have a semi-regular movie night with friends.

      I loved how Spotlight focused on the investigation and didn’t get distracted by side stories and sensationalism.

  2. February 28, 2016 12:17 am

    This sounds like so much fun. 🙂

    • February 28, 2016 7:10 am

      It’s good fun Deepika … You just go with the flow and not worry about where the flow is going!

  3. Carolyn permalink
    February 28, 2016 12:44 am

    Thank you for so clearly expressing how I felt about this movie. The vignettes, especially that “twere so simple” one, were fun, and I guess the serious point was to play homage to old Hollywood, but if there was a story somewhere in the movie I couldn’t tell and I didn’t care.

    • February 28, 2016 7:12 am

      Thanks Carolyn … I guess there was a story but it wasn’t really the point, was it? Homage or tribute probably was.

  4. February 28, 2016 2:40 am

    I don’t go to the cinema anymore, so I’ll have to wait for it to appear streamed.

    • February 28, 2016 7:14 am

      You prefer streaming, Guy? I do enjoy going to the movies, partly for the outing with friends, but partly because I’m less distracted than I am at home where I often, stupidly, try to multi-task.

      • February 28, 2016 8:37 am

        Too many cell phones in the cinema.
        How would you rate this compared to other Coen Bros films? I’m a fan of The Big lebowski and Burn After Reading.

        • February 28, 2016 10:43 am

          Wow, we rarely have cell-phone issues in our cinema. There’s a lot of signage to ask people to turn them off and generally we find people do. Of course, I tend, more often than not to attend at “older” people times, either during the day or early evening (6-7pm). We are probably more attuned to theatre behaviour?

          Anyhow, I’ve seen quite a few Coen Bros but not those too – Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother where art thou, and four or five from the last few years. It would be more like the lighter spoof-y films, so perhaps a bit like The Big Lebowski but I really couldn’t say I’m afraid. Sounds like I should see these two that you love.

  5. February 28, 2016 6:56 am

    Thanks, WG. A hoot of a non-review. I will try to see it certainly now. Saw Trumbo last week and that’s worth seeing too. Brian Cranston was great in Trumbo and there were lots of good minor roles. Most of all I loved the way it captured the Hollywood that I knew and frightened the bejesus out of me. Some have been disappointed because it didn’t measure up in their opinion to documentaries they’ve seen about the Hollywood Ten and Trumbo, and to me that’s a shame. Helen Mirren’s portrayal of the odious Hedda Hopper was right on the button for me – no exaggeration as has been said. She and everything about the movie really was like that, for one who had experienced it all first-hand – the blacklist, the anitisemitism, the mass hysteria.

    • February 28, 2016 7:23 am

      Thanks Sara … I’ll try to see Trumbo, as it’s right up my alley. You can’t really compare a biopic with a documentary can you. I’d love to see what you thought of Hail, Caesar. Part of my enjoyment was in sensing the fun they must have had creating it.

      Tilda Swinton plays twin gossip columnists, reflecting Hopper and Parsons. I look forward to seeing Swinton.

  6. Meg permalink
    February 28, 2016 8:49 am

    Hi Sue, funny enough I saw Hail Caesar last night with 3 other friends. We all enjoyed it, except one who said he found it interesting but would have to think about it to make up his mind. I think all the actors would have had a great time making the movie. I also just read this week the Scandals of Classic Hollywood, so the film was very apt for me. I just wonder how much the studio bosses control everything now?

    • February 28, 2016 10:46 am

      Haha, Meg. I enjoyed watching it but in a way I’m liking it a bit more as I think about it and about just what they’ve done and might have been doing. I’d be happy to see it again in fact. Good question about studios. I don’t think they have such total control now. Just not financially viable I think . Just look at the opening credits and see the number of companies involved. That’s probably your answer!

  7. February 28, 2016 9:49 am

    I don’t get to the movies all that often, but did go twice recently for The Belier Family and Carol, and so I’ve seen the shorts for Hail, Ceasar twice. I was somewhat mystified by it I have to say. It was so Coen Brothers quirky that I wondered if it would be delightful, or still just as mystifying.I think I’ll give Hail, Ceasar a miss. I may be going to Brooklyn this week, although I’m not that enthused really, and can’t wait for The Lady in The Van to start next week.

    • February 28, 2016 10:49 am

      Oh I think Brooklyn is, in many ways better that Carol and The Belier Family though I enjoyed those two, Louise. Why aren’t you enthused?

      The trailers for Hail, Caesar, made the humour look sillier than it is, I think. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would from the trailers. As for Lady and the Van, yes, I agree. I have read it and heard the BBC dramatisation (with Bennet and Maggie Smith playing two of the three speakers) and loved it.

  8. February 28, 2016 4:35 pm

    Gummie: My top Coen Bros picks would be Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski and Fargo (missed fargo in my last comment). I’ll probably add this latest to my DVD library.

    cell phones are a huge problem here and the cinemas (I went to) do not enforce the no cell phone rule. Management is probably worried they’ll be shot if they confront anyone.

    • February 29, 2016 12:02 am

      I’d laugh (about your cell-phone joke) if it didn’t have a grain or two of truth. Thanks for your Coen picks, Guy. I did love Fargo. I also loved No country for old men, though I could never watch it again! I’ll add yours to my list of “must sees”.

  9. February 29, 2016 2:46 am

    When you pay to watch a film in peace and find that it is no longer possible–people who talk, bring picnics or decide they HAVE to call their friends, well after a half dozen experiences such as those, I decided not to patronize cinemas anymore. If they all close down, so be it. Plus the local giant 12 screen cinema only shows slasher, blockbuster or kid’s crap and the closest decent films show over an hr away.

    • February 29, 2016 6:51 am

      Bring picnics? Seriously?

      We are lucky that we have 2-3 cinemas within 20 mins drive that screen the sorts of films we want to see. One has an annual Japanese film festival, another regularly has a French or Spanish or German and so on festival. I have a friend in Southern California who doesn’t have near access to a wide range of films too, but she does get some quieter films.

      • February 29, 2016 11:45 am

        A couple whipped out foot long submarine sandwiches which they had secreted about their persons. Then came the giant bag of crisps. …

        • February 29, 2016 12:30 pm

          The sandwich would be quiet at least, but the chips? That’s beyond the pail. I don’t think we have quite the same eating during movies culture that the US has. We do have popcorn and choc top ice creams but the percentage who eat them is probably only 10-20%. Very rough guess. I just read a 2013 article about corn growing in Australia for pop corn that said “Americans eat 100 times more popcorn per head than Australians”. Of course not all that is in theatres, but it gives you an idea I think.

  10. February 29, 2016 3:52 am

    This hasn’t actually come out in the UK yet, but I’m hoping to see it soon … the trailer looked really appealing and I was just waiting for some reviews to reassure me that it didn’t have all the best lines in it. It seems as long as I just want to enjoy period silliness and don’t look for any big messages I should have a good time.

    • February 29, 2016 6:53 am

      You should Shoshi, and I can assure you that the trailer doesn’t have all the best lines. There are too many of them for that. It sounds to me like you’ll enjoy it.

  11. February 29, 2016 12:11 pm

    I plan to go see Hail Caesar tomorrow at the local theatre 5 minutes from home. Tuesdays are Senior’s Card discount day in Melbourne, so you don’t have to pay full price. I’m fond of Coen Bros movies, so don’t care if the plot has holes, or if it doesn’t make sense. I just want to be amused

    I’m not a big movie goer, despite having a beautiful old theatre close by. The last film I saw was the latest Star Wars for nostalgic reasons. Enjoyable with great effects and reminiscent of the early Star Wars films..

    • February 29, 2016 12:41 pm

      Do let me know what you think, Anne. We have cheap Tuesdays here too, but we belong to most Canberra cinemas and the price for Senior Members is not much different to Cheap Tuesdays. So, we just go the day we feel like.

      • ian darling permalink
        February 29, 2016 8:53 pm

        I will have to see Hail Caesar if it portrays old Hollywood with such panache and affection. I’m afraid I am one of those who think Hollywood went downhill since Double Indemnity ( Star Wars finished it off)!

        • February 29, 2016 9:33 pm

          Haha, Ian, if you love the old Hollywood movies then you will enjoy this because it is told with affection and, I’d say, panache. Let me know if you do see it.

  12. March 1, 2016 4:45 am

    I do love the Coen Brothers, they’re from Minnesota dontcha know. I look forward to seeing this one once it is out on DVD. I don;t require my movies have a message or much of a plot, I only require that they be enjoyable in one way or another 🙂

    • March 1, 2016 7:16 am

      Of course, Stefanie, I’d forgotten that. Your point about what you want from movies is interesting. I understand that but somehow I do look for some underlying point or idea … And maybe this is primarily tribute which is fine.

  13. March 1, 2016 3:59 pm

    Back from seeing Hail Caesar at the local theatre with at the most 10 other viewers. I found it a very enjoyable film, and as you mention, very funny at times. Loved the set pieces clichéd to the hilt. Even the screenwriters in the boat had that “I’ve seen that scene before” feeling. I think the Coen Bros decided to have fun and create a film, as producers did in the period where Hail Caesar is set, that was pure entertainment.

    • March 1, 2016 5:15 pm

      Thanks Anne for coming back to comment. Yes, that’s pretty much what we decided. And for that it’s well worth seeing isn’t it? The set pieces are wonderful – can’t you just imagine them creating those? I often think of the fun people, particularly in collaborative arts, must have fun developing ideas like that.

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