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So Hail, Caesar! is a film with virtually no plot, but it gives Joel and Ethan Coen a chance to adapt the styles of films from the ’40s and ’50s into their weirdo universe?

Hell yeah. Sign me up!

The Coen brothers bring a blast of creativity to early 2016 with a movie that, frankly, had a lot of their fans (including myself) a little worried. Its release was moved out of the 2015 award season and dumped into February—usually a cinematic graveyard. It wasn’t screened for critics until a couple of days before its release, a tactic usually reserved for the likes of Deuce Bigalow and Transformers movies, not the Coens.

In truth, this movie probably will score the highest with diehard Coen fans—those who react with glee to the notion that it takes place at a studio called Capitol Pictures. That’s the same fictional place where Coen creation Barton Fink suffered writers’ block all the way back in 1991.

While there are obviously nods to Barton Fink, the film Hail, Caesar! feels most like from the Coen collection is The Hudsucker Proxy, another period piece that featured fast-talking caricatures, unabashed silliness and astonishing period detail. Like Hudsucker, Hail, Caesar! features a bunch of great performers playing with great writer-directors in a movie that looks great.

It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio enforcer at Capitol Pictures tasked with keeping stars out of trouble and assuring moving pictures stay on schedule. In the middle of filming a biblical epic, huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Hollywood communists, who demand $100,000 in ransom money.

Mannix must figure out how to get his star back while dodging two gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, in increasingly hilarious wardrobes), navigating the latest scandal of studio star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and comforting director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who has had a marble-mouthed stunt actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forced into his romantic comedy.

The plot is paper-thin, but it does give the Coens a chance to do their quick interpretations of old-timey movie Westerns, screwball comedies, Esther Williams-style pool epics, overblown Bible movies, Gene Kelly-type musicals and more. The film includes of short homages to all of these cinema genres, and each one of them is a total blast. The movie features communist writers in a manner far less serious than the recent Trumbo.

The Coens have a way with making minor moments so grandiose. While Hobie Doyle waits for a date, he opts to play with his lasso in a way that reminded me of the kid in Hudsucker sampling a hula hoop. Fiennes and Ehrenreich have an exchange over a simple movie line that is easily one of the funniest things the Coens have ever put to screen. A close second is a moment involving a scarf and Coen staple Frances McDormand. And if you don’t laugh when Clooney’s Whitlock beholds the Christ, well, there’s something wrong with you.

In a show-stopping homage, Channing Tatum does career-best work in an On the Town-like bar sequence that has him dancing and singing up a storm. It’s at once gloriously perfect and seriously demented—the kind of thing only the Coens could pull off.

I wish the Coens had a lot more time on their hands, because it would be a delight to see the further adventures of Mannix, Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran. They each deserve their own movie. Hail, Caesar! gives total silliness a grand treatment, and reminds us that nobody does silly better than the Coens.

Hail, Caesar! is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Steven Spielberg continues a mini-slump with another good-looking yet terminally boring historical drama.

After the middling Lincoln comes the sleepy Bridge of Spies. This is Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, and their first since 2004’s terrible The Terminal. It doesn’t represent a return to the glory of Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan.

This film certainly had a lot going for it. It’s Spielberg’s take on spying during the Cold War in the 1960s, which sounds like it should be exciting—and it’s a collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan chipped in on the screenplay, which usually means good things are afoot.

I wish Joel and Ethan had directed it as well; perhaps then the film would’ve had more edge and been less cutesy, with its emotions a little less obvious and drippy. Also, a discernible pulse for the majority of the running time would’ve been nice.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a U.S. tax attorney who lands the unenviable task of representing alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). While Donovan’s law firm and the courts see the whole thing as an open-and-shut case, Donovan makes it known that his intentions are to represent Abel to the full extent of the law. Cue the grouchy judge and perplexed bosses—and you know one of them is going to be played by Alan Alda.

In a parallel story, some pilots join the CIA in a new spying program with U-2 planes. One of those planes gets shot out of the sky at 70,000 feet, giving the Russians their own spy prisoner in Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). With the erection of the Berlin Wall, yet another “spy” is captured when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student who picked a crappy time to study in Berlin, is apprehended by the East Germans.

Those captured American stories crisscross with Abel’s story as Donovan winds up overseas trying to negotiate prisoner exchanges.

Hanks is characteristically good in the central role. The film is at its best when Donovan is trudging through the streets of Berlin, trying to find the Russian embassy and evading thugs who are trying to steal his fancy coat. Hanks instills these moments with some good humor. It’s not one of his greatest performances, but it’s a solid one.

While the film bores me, but there is a sequence that pops with great intensity and displays Spielberg hitting all of his marks: When the Powers’ plane is shot down, the sequence leading up to him finally getting his parachute open is terrific. It feels like it should’ve been in another movie—perhaps one in which somebody turns a light on during the interior scenes.

Spielberg has directed only a few major bombs (1941, The Terminal, Hook), with a couple of films that were OK (Amistad, Always) and a boatload of classics. His last two movies don’t fall into any of those categories: Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are mediocre films that could’ve been great.

Spielberg needs to have fun in the fantasy sandbox again. Whether it’s the long-rumored fifth Indiana Jones, or some sort of sci-fi adventure, I want his next movie to be less about period haircuts and neckties, and more about storylines with energy. He’s getting hung up on films in which characters blather on and on in dark courtrooms and back offices. It’s tiresome and beneath him.

Many years ago, I would defend Spielberg films to people who thought he overdid it on the sentimentality. Many moments in Bridge of Spies had me remembering those arguments, because the moments dripped with sap. If somebody were to tell me today that Spielberg is overdoing it with the sentimentality, I’d raise my glass in agreement, then quietly shed a tear, because one of my favorite directors gone (temporarily, I hope) astray.

Bridge of Spies is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Angelina Jolie directs the harrowing story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a real life Olympic-runner and American soldier who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. Zamperini wound up at sea on a lifeboat for a grueling stretch until he and his co-survivor, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), were picked up by Japanese soldiers and put into a prison camp. That’s where the real hell began.

Unbroken shows Zamperini going through a nasty amount of torture at the hands of the camp commander, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). In fact, some of the stuff Zamperini endured—like an entire prison camp population punching him in the face, one person at a time—seems like it must be embellished. (Nobody could survive all those haymakers in a row … could they?) Still, the story is uplifting, and Jolie makes a good-looking movie.

The script was co-written by the Coen brothers along with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand.

Zamperini died in July 2014. The film acts as a nice tribute to his courage.

Unbroken is playing at the UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100), the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews