hail-caesar-posterIf Hail, Caesar! is anything more than a series of send-ups of the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s, then I didn’t see it. The Coen Brothers have the luxury of looking back from decades of cynicism that have since passed, so the studio system is immediately suspect as an easy target. However, there is affection to be found in the sincerity that was the basis of the industry of that era, a period when movies were “another potion of balm for aching mankind.” And the Coens channel it to make Hail, Caesar! a rather decent if toothless bauble in their filmography.

Our entry into this world is studio honcho Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer who greases the wheels of the cumbersome production house that is Capitol Pictures. Privately, he also happens to weep over his betrayal to his wife by lying about his cigarette habit. Mannix’s job is to clean up the images of the studio’s stable of actors, from digressions like kinky private photo shoots to arranging marriages. He also oversees meetings with religious leaders to assure the studio’s biggest production yet — Hail, Caesar!  A Tale of the Christ — offends no one’s beliefs. Just as the picture is about to wrap production, its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), known to disappear on benders of drink, goes missing. It turns out he was kidnapped by a group of communists who consider movies — gasp — “instruments of capital.”

Clooney Hail Caesar

It’s a funny film, and a highlight includes the meeting with religious leaders that speaks to the Coens’ skills at buoyant humor at the expense of grave subject matter like faith in God. They also go deep into commie humor, referencing not only Marx but also Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), who turns out to be one of the kidnappers that Baird quickly warms up to (in a moment of enlightenment while in discussion with his kidnappers, he compares the problems of capitalism with being bamboozled into shaving a famous actor’s hairy back). An unlikely hero rises in the form of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a star in Westerns suddenly shuttled into a comedy of manners at Mannix’s whim (one of the film’s greatest jokes is highlighted in the film’s new trailer below). It is his free thinking, as dim as it might seem, that allows him to crack Baird’s disappearance.

The brothers’ affection for the films of John Ford, Busby Bekeley and even Vincente Minnelli comes out in extended scenes that pay tribute to the production numbers featured in many films of that bygone era. The meticulously choreographed numbers walk a balance of irony and plain shiny humor. There are over-the-top horse-riding stunts by Hobie and an extended dance sequence featuring a group of sailors led by Channing Tatum. A lengthy synchronized swimming dance number features Scarlett Johansson, who plays a terrific actress modeled after Esther Williams who can hold a perfect smile while doing frightening dives, until the camera turns off to reveal a plucky attitude.


It is in these reveals that the Coens keep the movie engaging, and it never lets up by playing with the artifice with a wry humor. Hail, Caesar! may not reveal anything anyone with an awareness of the Hollywood system would not already know, but its pleasures are as sincere as its inspirations. The machinations of the industry treated actors like commodities and perpetuated a false idealism. Its concern for image and money gave no one seeking true art any real constructive release, and this flick ends up feeling a bit shallow for a movie that one would expect from the team who last gave us a true masterpiece (Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis offers elegiac portrait of struggling folky). Still, it has a consistently fun tone befitting of the material that also, thankfully, never veers into darker territories to push it off of any edge, but then that also doesn’t make it as edgy as some may have hoped for from the Coens.

Hans Morgenstern

Hail, Caesar! runs 100 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere this Friday, Feb. 5. SCREENING UPDATE: The film will be coming to O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Feb. 26 for at least a week-long run.Universal Pictures provided all images in this review and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.


(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

gravity-posterMovies like Gravity are the types of films routine visitors to the multiplex live for. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years feels fresh and exciting by ironically staying as true to the image as possible. From the opening seconds, Cuarón makes an effort to show his devotion to realism by offering a title card explaining sound and temperature in space, debunking myths perpetuated by sci-fi films like Star Wars and their booming interstellar explosions. But most of all, he relies on the image. His effort to avoid editing is so extreme viewers will be hard pressed to find a splice within the film’s first 20 minutes.

His aversion to cutting images is not just a gimmick. It’s an effort to enhance the feeling of reality to what many viewers so easily resign to the “that’s so fake” world of science-fiction. Though Cuarón tries to maintain the illusion of “realism” by avoiding splices as much as possible, far be it from this evolved filmmaker to allow the images to drone on. Limber camera work consistently offers awe-inspiring vistas of the openness of space and keeps the film dynamic even without pace-dictating cuts. It’s also not long into the film when he sends a shower of space debris hurtling at the astronauts working on the Hubble Telescope. Then things get real exciting.


Cuarón’s dazzling work with uncut action sequences in his criminally underrated previous film Children of Men (2006) reaches new heights with this intimate thriller in space where two astronauts in this freak accident in space struggle to make it back to earth alive. Only two actors appear on screen: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who bring the sincerity to the dialogue, written by the director and his son Jonás Cuarón, which can feel a tad heavy-handed and sentimental when it’s not efficient and quippy. The script’s simplicity helps in maintaining the film’s brisk pace, however, and despite many solitary moments with one of these characters, it never dwells too long in monologue mode.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has almost consistently worked with Cuarón from his first feature, A Little Princess, and has gone on to work with Terrence Malick on his latest films, enhances the visuals like no one else. Shadow and light shift from ominous to becalmed in moments. There’s also something to be said about the score by Steven Price, who pushes the limits of bombast to minimalist heights of sensation when that killer space debris passes through. It’s like the theme from Jaws stripped to sensation. Speaking of the senses, the sound design also deserves mention, which, at appropriate times, feels like what life underwater might sound like. Cuarón has not forgotten any detail.


Despite the efforts of these filmmakers, distractions do arise, however. The star power of the two leads somehow overshadows their humble roles as astronauts. Bullock carries the baggage of a once-it-girl in movies like Speed and While You Were Sleeping. Hollywood’s pressure for its preference for young women shows clearly on her face (read: plastic surgery). Though Clooney has successfully escaped his “Sexiest Man Alive” aura in films like the Descendants, Syriana and even the American (my review), the script gives him little room to maneuver as anything more than the sly rogue he’s so well at playing.


Bullock is given the meatier role as a mournful woman who lost her young daughter in a freak accident. As she fights for survival in one Rube Goldberg action sequence after another, she shows a delicate sense for motion in space. She does a lot of great work snatching at the air during what amounts to one epic free-fall. But she also delivers a heartfelt performance that improves the dialogue, capturing a sort of will to live in what often feels like a hopeless situation.

Some may think the premise that starts the catastrophic domino effect in space contrived. As Gravity tries so hard to stay as true to science fact, it will in turn beg for more scrutiny. For every smart effort like floating fireballs and tear drops, a threat to break suspension of disbelief arises. Get over it and go with it. It’s a movie. Yes, this film is nothing but a painstakingly polished thrill ride at the movies, but dang it if it’s not brilliantly constructed to crush the cynic in us, from eggheads looking to pick apart the inconsistencies with real-life rules of space to the cinephiles who dare the screen to make them cling to their arm rests.

Hans Morgenstern

Gravity is rated PG-13 (it’s intense and characters react appropriately with a few f-bombs) and runs 90 minutes. You can catch it at any multiplex right now in 3-D, HD, 35mm and IMAX. Warner Bros. invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With the American, Anton Corbijn follows up his debut feature Control, a movie about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, with a thriller far removed from the music world where he first made his name. It seemed odd that an artist so attached to music (Corbijn has been involved in rock photography, album art and music video for over 30 years) would all of a sudden turn to directing no one less than George Clooney in a suspense movie, yet Corbijn hinted as much in an interview promoting Control back in 2007. “I’d like to do another film, an action film with more tension, a thriller, if you like,” he told contactmusic.com.

Corbijn has indeed delivered on that, but he has stayed true to the slow-paced seventies-era feel of Control, which felt like an animated version of his many photographs of Joy Division. It certainly seems ironic, having started his moving image career making music videos for that thing that revolutionized movies, MTV. It turns out Corbijn has produced a film that goes against the tropes of what many expect of a contemporary thriller. Despite the A-list Hollywood actor fronting the American this film comes from a world of the more atmospheric cinema of European cinema (Corbijn is Dutch after all) and, again, the seventies (just look at the poster art that seems to recall the feeling of films like 1974’s the Parallax View). The American fills a viewer up like a fine and tenderly cooked meal, instead of the usual greasy junk from Hollywood that only tastes good in the mouth, but soon enough makes you want to throw up.

There is a mesmerizing pace to the American. Corbijn allows the camera to linger longer on the takes, impregnating the scenes with emotional and psychological depth. You get a chance to watch the actors act, whereas current Hollywood directors would take the easier way out with tightly associated cuts on focused images (see Michael Bay). Corbijn goes against this sort of lamebrain manipulation that insults the intelligence of the audience to make a rich experience, and Clooney adapts to the pace with amazing skill. As Jack, the titular American with a shady past, Clooney invites the audience in to his character’s thoughts, a dark place to venture as the film lays out in a sudden burst of violence at the very start.

Clooney plays Jack, an agent with an unnamed organization, whose business is killing. He sets out for that all-too-familiar last job. His assignment takes him to a small, labyrinthine Italian village where he falls for a prostitute (Violante Placido), who returns the sentiment, and befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who himself knows about walking that difficult line of morality. Even though Jack is all too familiar with the dangers of becoming emotionally attached to innocents, try as he might, he can help but accept these souls into his life during a job that inevitably proves very risky.

As great a performance Clooney unleashes on the screen, Corbijn deserves the credit for giving this story, based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, the respect it deserves as a satisfying thriller. There are five or six distinct moments of pulse-pounding action, which could never be as thrilling as they turn out to be had they not been sandwiched between deliberate moments of stillness, hence the film’s dynamic, almost musical quality.

Most key are scenes where Corbijn lets the camera linger. During these moments, Corbijn composes images not unlike the photography with which he first made his name. They are images that play with light and dark and focus on a subject who carries a weighty presence. Corbijn’s blog where the still image at left is taken from, features more still images he took on the set. They have been compiled in the companion photo book, Inside the American.

Appropriately, and very much like a European movie, the dialogue in the American is very sparse. Some might fault the film for this, saying it results in little character development and a confusing plot. But there is something to be said for the mystery it invites. Hollywood movies are so caught up with exposition, it can sap the mood out of a film. What Corbijn does is impregnate his images with a delicious sense of mystery that offers to stimulate the mind instead of deaden it, as most action pics oblige themselves to do.

Who knows how well this film will do ahead of the Labor Day weekend, where viewers will also have the choice to see Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, a take on another kind of 70s film: the decidedly less cerebral exploitation film. I doubt the American will even surpass the Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone ensemble action flick that had dominated the box office two weeks in a row. No wonder Focus Features has decided to open the film a couple of days before the weekend. For those who want their action served with some intelligence and a deeper sense of atmosphere, there is always the American, and God bless Corbijn for coming up with that alternative.

The American opens in wide release this Wednesday and is rated R.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)