Slower and weirder than it seemed from the trailer, which sets up a madcap comedy.
Katy was disappointed.

Mid-1950’s Hollywood: Josh Brolin is a hard-working studio employee who keeps the stars in line and keeps the press (Tilda Swinton) away from the more damaging stories. Period epic star George Clooney is kidnapped by commies, is curious and agreeable, doesn’t seem to realize he’s being held hostage until rescued by cowboy actor Alden Ehrenreich. Those two and Brolin are great, but they’ve got nothing on Channing Tatum as a dancing sailor who’s secretly the commie group’s leader. Ralph Fiennes plays a frustrated director, and we get quite small roles for McDormand, Johansson and Jonah Hill, and reeeeally small roles for Alex Karpovsky and Dolph Lundgren.

Slant:

On the flipside is a cell of communist screenwriters who abduct mega star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to bleed the studios, only to let slip that their ideals of upending the means of production stem from bitterness over not getting the back-end points they think they deserve. In perhaps the only subtle joke in the entire film, the warped prosperity politics that Hollywood communists bring to the cause is tacitly positioned as a precursor to Scientology, another faddish, extreme cause that the Hollywood faithful would frame in terms of making more bank.

G. Kenny:

The movie makes light of the dialectic as explained to Baird by Marcuse, but it also, in its tricky way, continually invites/compels the viewer to use it. Eddie Mannix is a good man who is very good at his job — but his job seems to be manufacturing schlock. People enjoy schlock, but schlock is arguably an agent of The People’s oppression, so… anyway, one needn’t go on. Suffice it to say that in the cosmology of the delightful Hail Caesar!, regardless of the conclusions to which dialectical thinking may lead, acceptance is the key, and Hollywood, while “problematic,” is more a force for good than the military-industrial complex can ever hope to be. And, finally, doing the right thing is an instinct shared by both company men and singing cowboys, for whatever that’s worth.

F. Cardamenis says the movie “reveals a striking ambivalence about [Hollywood], finding magic in its products but malice in its motives.”

D. Ehrlich’s article in Slate was my favorite, even if I did a sorry job condensing its points below:

[Hail Caesar and The Grand Budapest Hotel] shift through several different aspect ratios and feature Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and — wait for it! — Fisher Stevens. Both films bake their darker underpinnings beneath a frivolous screwball glaze. More crucially, both films probe the ultimate value of storytelling, and leverage their findings into lucid summations of their creators’ entire career and creative worldview. Hail, Caesar! takes one of the diverse back catalogs in American cinema and forces its various components into a reluctant conversation that changes them all, like strangers who are forced into small talk at a cocktail party only to realize that they have the whole world in common.

[the sailor musical sequence] convincingly argues the value of filmmaking to a universe of indelible characters who are struggling to understand it for themselves. It’s a truth they could see if only they had faith. And that, ultimately, is what Hail, Caesar! argues with greater clarity — if not always greater force — than any of the Coens’ previous films. There is no meaning but that which we convince ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you adhere to communism, religion, or movies: The only way you can believe in yourself is if you believe in something bigger. Who wouldn’t want to be a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest hotel, sir? It’s an institution.

Oscar Isaac (Carey Mulligan’s loser husband in Drive) is a folk singer who gets by on his earnest music and pity over the suicide of his ex-partner, not on his abilities to make or keep friends or smoothly adapt to change. He sleeps at fellow folkies Jean & Jim’s place (cutie couple Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) or arts patrons The Gorfeins. Llewyn may have gotten Jean pregnant, and he accidentally receives (then loses) the Gorfeins’ cat. He’s running out of career options and hastily plans a last-ditch trip to Chicago in the company of sullen actor Garrett Hedlund and grotesque blues man John Goodman, to (unsuccessfully) audition at a major club.

R. Brody: “The symbolic aspect of this sidebar is clear. The jazzman is a hardened cynic with a wound, a habit—and a career; the young actor is a self-deluding purist trapped in humiliating servitude; and for Davis, both options appear unbearable.”

Interesting how the end of Llewyn Davis is similar/opposite to the end of The Grandmaster. In Grandmaster, Ip Man has suffered and ended up alone, but we see a young guy who is obviously Bruce Lee, and the movie is telling us that Ip’s legacy and teachings will live on gloriously. In the Coen movie, Llewyn has suffered and ended up alone getting his ass kicked in an alley, but we see a young guy who is obviously Bob Dylan, and the movie is telling us Llewyn has run out of time, than his whole genre is about to be transformed and move on without him.

B. Ebiri:

The film fades to black, and the Dylan song, victorious, plays over the end credits. Somewhere along the way, you figure Dylan has been on his own, significantly luckier trajectory – maybe like the Incredible Journey that Ulysses the cat must have been on. But we didn’t see that journey. We saw the other journey — the one with some loser named Llewyn and a nameless, wounded cat. In many ways, that’s the journey the rest of us are also on.

M. Koresky:

It ought to be rather clear by now that the Coens’ body of work constitutes the closest we have to a consistent existential American cinema. This helps explain that sense of detachment in their films, often misread as condescension. Theirs is admittedly not an open-arms type of filmmaking, but no one could accuse Inside Llewyn Davis, at once their warmest and most fragile film, of treating its complicated, imperfect protagonist with disdain. From its opening shot, the camera caresses Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), who enters from frame right to meet a microphone in wait.

Habitual thief marries cop, they steal baby, then every other character in the movie (his boss, his prison buddies, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse) try to steal him back.

Some similarities to the later Wild at Heart: Nic Cage, wide-open Western locations, amour fou, people exploding. Is it just me, or is there an Evil Dead reference in the low, traveling camera move when Mrs. Arizona discovers her missing son? And the movie has a similar ending (hazy dream of a child-filled future) to 25th Hour.

Haven’t seen Holly Hunter since The Incredibles (and haven’t seen her since O Brother). Her last movie before starring in this was Swing Shift. Tex Cobb (Police Academy 4) is the Lone Biker, a bounty hunter seemingly summoned by Cage’s nightmares. Sam McMurray (a cop in C.H.U.D.) is Cage’s boss who gets punched (and thus fires Cage) for suggesting a wife-swap, then schemes to steal the stolen tyke for wife Frances McDormand. John Goodman and William Forsythe (of the Steve Gutterberg version of The Man Who Wasn’t There) are brothers who break out of prison (then in the epilogue, back into prison) assuming Cage will join them on some heists. And Trey Wilson (a baddie in Twins who died soon after) is Nathan Arizona, father of the quints, who proves to be a decent fellow at the end.

The least Coeny of the Coens’ string of remakes and adaptations. It’s got their perfectly-timed dialogue, comic tone with brief bursts of violence, cinematography by the gifted Roger Deakins, and Dude Lebowski in a major role, but it doesn’t have their mark all over it. This isn’t a complaint – it’s an excellent Western, exciting and well-acted. Plus Matt Damon. He is kinda weird in it. The little girl who had to carry the whole movie, Hailee Steinfeld, got nominated for an oscar for her troubles. Her character is dedicated – shooting unrepentant daddy-killer Josh Brolin once when she first meets him, then again (to his death) at the end. Part of the film was set in my former family home of Ft. Smith, Arkansas. The place hasn’t changed.

Reportedly this movie was written by the Coens and Sam Raimi in the 80’s at the same time they wrote Crimewave together. Both were huge flops. But Crimewave, directed by Raimi between the first two Evil Dead movies, is downright awful, whereas I think every scene in Hudsucker is just perfect. The movie was expensive, but looks expensive – a well done period piece with great attention to detail. And Katy liked it!

The Coens follow up their grim oscar-winner with the star-studded, absurd and murderous Burn After Reading and then a star-less (recognized one guy from Spin City) return to excellence. Like Miller’s Crossing, it’s a series of perfect scenes, building and building, and leading to… ambiguity. Would need to watch a few more times to work out the film’s philosophy. Part of the problem is all the biblical references (IMDB trivia: “His son Danny’s looking at the oncoming tornado recalls God speaking to Job from out of the whirlwind, saying He will not explain why these bad things have happened to him.”) and I’ve only skimmed Revelations looking for the parts about the seas running red with blood (I think that’s actually in the Necronomicon), so I miss certain allusions.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry leads a pitch-perfect cast (relative unknowns or not, the actors must be the best ensemble of the year, Inglorious Basterds their only rival). His wife is leaving him for a smarmy neighbor just as he’s up for tenure, a student is threatening/bribing him, his kids are pains in the ass, his brother is a closeted, medically-impaired couch physicist, and the rabbis offer no help at all. The story builds to a final tragedy (presumably bad news from the doctor, which we never hear, directly after Larry caves on the bribery issue) and a final mystery (a tornado outside the son’s school) but shortly before the denouement comes the son’s quiet, nervous post-bar-mitzvah visit with the elder rabbi which just explodes the movie’s long-held tension when the old man’s handed-down wisdom consists of quoted Jefferson Airplane lyrics.

G. Kenny calls it “something new in the Coen oeuvre: A completely seamless hybrid of their putatively mature mode with their outrageous cartoonish one.”

Bright Lights:

To watch A Serious Man – their most morally sophisticated work – is to feel what it’s like to be Joel or Ethan Coen, to see the world as a pointless series of endless sufferings and inconveniences, surrounded by insufferable buffoons and irrational cretins. This is not a world of their making. This is the world they live in.

Slate:

You could know the Kabbalah inside out and still struggle with these mysteries every bit as fruitlessly as Larry does. And that’s just how his creators want it. Though the movie concerns a specifically Jewish crisis of faith (and paints a satiric but lovingly precise portrait of Jewish-American culture), A Serious Man unfolds in a moral universe that’s recognizable from earlier Coen films. It’s a cruel and ultimately inexplicable place. What Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s pitiless mass murderer, was to No Country for Old Men, the Hebrew God is to this movie.

I should also mention that this movie had one of the best trailers of the year, a montage of annoying sound effects and cries for help set to the rhythm of Larry’s head being banged into a chalkboard. If not for that propulsive Arcade Fire song on Where The Wild Things Are, I’d have to give it top honors.

Koko’s Earth Control (1928, Dave Fleischer)
Koko the Clown walks the planet with his dog until they find the Earth Control station. The dog willfully and maliciously pulls the end-of-the-world switch and then acts all panicked when the world begins to end. What did he think would happen? Fun mix of live-action (tilt camera while people pretend to fall to the side, the dog skittering atop an animation table) and animation (earthquakes, volcanoes, the sun melts the moon).
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Dutch Bird (2004, Kirk Weddell)
Ridiculous comedy – old man is sad and alone, so his friends convince him to go out again by pranking him with a story about drugged racing pigeons. On my TV the color was way off, which was really the main interest in the movie. In the below shot, everyone had green skin against a pinkish sky. It was eerie – as the 20 minutes stretched on and on, I liked to imagine that green-faced aliens had gotten a hold of The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine and were producing Brit-com films of their own. Sadly, getting screenshots on my PC the color turned out normal.
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Tale of Tales (1979, Yuri Norshteyn)
At least two jury competitions have named this the greatest animated film of all time. It is really good, but we all wished it’d been half its 30 minute length, and its symbolism was extremely obvious. Not that I ever get less-than-obvious symbolism, so that’s not something I ought to complain about. Wild Things are playing jump rope and a little dog kidnaps a baby, and there’s war and peace and what not. Supposedly the director has been working on his film of Gogol’s The Overcoat ever since – for 30 years. He must be the Jeff Mangum of Russian animated films.
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Harpy (1978, Raoul Servais)
Kind of an absurd, funnier Tales from the Darkside episode. Guy saves a poor harpy from being beaten to death by an angry man and takes it home. But it keeps eating and eating and making his life hell. Finally it eats his legs off when he tries to escape, so he attempts to beat it to death, it gets saved by another man, etc. Same ending as Argento’s Jenifer, then. Mostly appealing for the crazy harpy visuals. The Belgian director has also made films called Siren and Pegasus, must find those sometime.
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Grasshoppers (1990, Bruno Bozzetto)
Cute, no-frills cartoon that looked like something out of Mad Magazine. Civilization rises out of the grass only to fight war after war after war, represented by a few dudes at a time, not by whole armies. The kind of thing that would’ve played on O Canada if it wasn’t Italian.
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Out of Print (2008, Danny Plotnick)
A dude yearns for the days when cult movies were actually rare and you could only get crappy unwatchable dubbed versions if you knew a guy who knew a guy. As someone who enjoys being able to see cult movies easily and in relatively good quality, I don’t see the dude’s point.
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World Cinema (2007, Joel Coen)
Llewelyn from No Country stops at an arthouse movie theater playing Rules of the Game and Climates. Gets advice from the ticket guy, watches Climates and likes it. Having seen Climates myself I’m not sure this is too realistic. Also not sure why it was cut from the DVD of To Each His Cinema.
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If you go by the IMDB date of original release, nearly all the 2008 movies I’ve seen have sucked. Good stuff like My Blueberry Nights, Paranoid Park and The Edge of Heaven count as last year’s movies. Why is there always a year delay on quality movies, while crap is available immediately? And why do I ask questions on a blog nobody reads?

I never intended for the new Coens comedy to be lumped in with the 2008 crap, but there you have it. This would probably be below Intolerable Cruelty in their pile of late-career misfires, but I’m not about to rewatch that one to find out for sure. Katy “detested” this movie. I thought it was pretty okay, watchable for a few good performances and favorite actors but certainly not for story or humor. I heard this was supposed to be a comedy, so where was the funny?

Plot rundown so I don’t forget everything and feel compelled to watch this again soon: Bearded G. Clooney has seemingly good relationship with wife, but he’s also a huge sex addict, sleeping with Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand, so his wife has hired private investigators to catch him (which is not too hard). John Malkovich is a gov’t flunky who is getting demoted at work and divorced by wife Tilda Swinton and locked out of his house and bank accounts. Frances McD works at a gym with Brad Pitt and wants surgery to look younger. An energetic Pitt accidentally gets a disk of Malkie’s private files and tries to blackmail him with Frances in tow. When blackmail fails, Pitt breaks into Malkie’s house to get more files to sell to the Russians, and is memorably killed by Clooney. Pitt/Frances’ nice boss visits the house trying to help and gets killed by Malkie. Then some bunch of mid-rank government fellas puzzle over what has happened, and tell us about some stuff we did not see, then end the movie with a big godlike zoom-out mirroring the zoom-in at the start, either to show us how far above this story the filmmakers consider themselves, or to point out that nothing of significance actually happened.

Music, recognizably, by Carter Burwell. Good cinematography by Coen newbie Emmanuel Lubezki, who just finished shooting two of the most amazing films of the decade, The New World and Children of Men. Lubezki keeps the film looking alive even when it’s set in a series of depressing buildings (a gym, McDormand’s apartment, government offices), and adds touches of comic terror to the scenes of Malkovich obsessing on his boat or Clooney getting paranoid in the park. He does all he can, I guess. Everyone did all they could… it’s a high-quality production with good acting, but to serve an empty story. The Coens think it’s hilarious to create an amoral world populated by a couple likeable people, then have the rest of the cast bloodily murder those likeable people. I’m aware that they’ve done this plenty of times before, but when the story is tight (Miller’s Crossing, Man Who Wasn’t There) or the humor is funny (Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona) I give their sociopathic tendencies a pass. Not here, bros. Better luck next time.

Happy 10th anniversary to the funniest comedy of the 90’s!

In honor of this anniversary, I intended to post pictures of Jeff Bridges’ smiling eyes, but the DVD crashes my VLC player on both computers, so I will abandon this post before I am tempted to start quoting lines.