Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.

Hail, Caesar! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016.

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Sicario (2015)

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.

Sicario film poster CREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Taylor Sheridan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015.

Criterion Sunday 20: Sid and Nancy (1986)

Whatever other angle one might wish to approach this film from — whether its characters’ participation at the vanguard of the late-1970s punk scene in England, or their descent into heroin addiction — Sid and Nancy is at its heart a romance. The two characters are utterly self-absorbed, dangerously self-destructive, and (arguably) of questionable artistic talent, but their commitment to one another endures in a way that’s almost sweet, even when they’re abusing one another — well, up until a point, at least. One thing you certainly shouldn’t look for in this portrait of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his romance with Nancy Spungen is for restrained acting: there’s a palpably gleeful embrace of over-acting by all the actors. This doesn’t always pay dividends, but it does create an atmosphere in which any kind of behaviour seems possible, and in which all too much does indeed happen. As the protagonists slide at length into drug addiction, the film starts to take on a sort of hypnotically repetitive quality (there’s a particularly amusing scene where Sid muses that things will be better when they get to New York, to which Nancy replies that they are there already, prompting him to open the window and look out), such that its concluding act of violence seems indistinguishable from the rest of the pair’s grim existence. It’s difficult to say how much of this is true to the actual events, but the film seems to be suggesting that the two were made for each other. Certainly, if they weren’t, it’s difficult to tell for whom they could have been made.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writers Cox and Abbe Wool; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (streaming online), London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

Skyfall (2012)


FILM REVIEW || Director Sam Mendes | Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw | Length 143 minutes | Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 28 October 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, Wednesday 10 July 2013) || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Sony Pictures International

Whatever they try to do with James Bond, however they try to update the archetype with those familiar post-Bourne trappings of propulsive action/espionage mayhem intended to reflect the modern world, there’s always that nagging sense that Bond as a character is trapped in the past — the guns, the girls, the cocktails, the sense of macho imperialist entitlement. It’s certainly acknowledged here with plenty of hat-tips to the supposed old world charms of this retrogressive character, but despite Judi Dench returning to provide a strong female presence, by the end it feels like the series has been firmly returned to its cosy blinkered stasis.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


FILM REVIEW || Director Joel Coen | Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based on the epic poem The Odyssey by Homer) | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman | Length 108 minutes | Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Friday 4 May 2001 (and at holiday apartment in Rovinj on TV, Saturday 1 June 2013) || My Rating 3 stars good


© United International Pictures

At their worst, the Coen Brothers can come across as dilettantish, with an air of superiority to their characters (who often seem little more than caricatures), and it would surely be possible to argue that they’ve shown this hand in O Brother. They’ve certainly marshalled a whole host of period references to the 1930s into a comic book confection to little lasting effect. And yet I have a warmth of feeling towards this film that derives primarily from the music, not to mention the gorgeous widescreen Cinemascope photography and the easy affability of George Clooney as a lead actor. I don’t think any of this makes the film less shallow, but it does make me more fondly disposed towards it.

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