Thursday, 30 November 2017

Hail Caesar! (2016)

George Clooney is a kidnapped actor in the Coen brothers 1950's Hollywood spoof

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Frances McDormand (CC Calhoun), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker/Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Alison Pill (Connie Mannix), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), Emily Beecham (Diedre), Clancy Brown (Co-star Hail Caesar!), Michael Gambon (Narrator)

The Coen brothers’ CV is a bit of a strange thing. It’s one part thriller, one part engagingly brilliant comedy – and then there are a collection of screwball-style entertainments, off-the-wall lightweight comedies (usually about dummies or sharp-talking professionals), as if every so often they needed a palate cleanser. Hail Caesar! falls very much into that final camp. 

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio manager and fixer in 1950s Hollywood, whose job is to keep the stars in line and the films running smoothly. The latest fly-in-his-ointment is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s prestigious sword-and-sandals-and-Christianity epic Hail Caesar!. Mannix has to settle the ransom demand, while struggling to keep the news quiet – and manage the production of several other problems including a secretly pregnant Hollywood sweetheart (Scarlett Johansson) and a cowboy-turned-actor (Alden Ehrenreich) struggling with his latest movie requiring him to speak and act rather than just sing and ride a horse.

Hail Caesar! is a mixed bag. There are some wonderful comic sketches in here, the sort of brilliant highlights you could quite happily watch again and again. The problem is these sketches are part of a narrative framework that never really catches fire, that can’t seem to decide how much it is a surrealist comedy and how much it is a genuine Hollywood “behind-the-scenes” slice of life. So I found I delighted in the sketches, and the hilarious reconstructions of some of the studio fodder of the 1950s – while drifting through the general plot of the movie. The laughs are very tightly focused on the stand-alone sketches, and rarely develop from the plot of the movie itself.

Those sketches, though, are brilliant – and the Coens have secured what are effectively a series of stand-out cameos to deliver them. The highlight is certainly a hilarious sequence featuring Ralph Fiennes as a superior English director and Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy-turned-actor crammed into a period drama in order to “change his image”. It’s a brilliant idea, that revolves around Fiennes’ barely concealed frustration Ehrenreich’s awkwardness in front of the camera, eagerness to please and most of all his accent which so badly affects his elocution that he simply cannot pronounce the line “Would that it were so simple”. The sequence is brilliantly funny – take a look at it down here. In fact it’s so good, it might be too good. Nothing else in the film really touches it.

There are some other good sketches in here as well. Most of them revolve around the loving recreation of Hollywood movies. The movie-within-the-movie Hail Caesar! is a perfect recreation of the Quo Vadis style of movies: large sets, hilariously over-blown dialogue, heavy-handed Christian messages (“Squint at the grandeur!” Clooney’s character is directed in one reaction shot to The Christ – as the filmmakers persist in calling him) and gaudy colour and sets. Clooney himself does a pitch perfect parody of the style and delivery of Robert Taylor.

We also get some spot-on parodies of Hollywood musical styles of the time. Scarlett Johansson plays a Esther Williams-style actress who stars in a series of swimming pool musicals (a bizarre fad of the time). Fiennes is directing a creakingly glacial Broadway-adaptation. Channing Tatum plays an actor in a Minnelli style musical. The tap-dancing sequence we see being filmed is, by the way, another brilliant sketch – a toe-tapping parody song, which also showcases Tatum’s grace and style as a dancer. It’s such a good parody that it actually sort of crosses over into being a genuinely enjoyable slice of song and dance.

I also struggled, as I tend to sometimes, with the artificiality of the Coens’ comedy – there is always an air of them (and their actors) wanting the audience to know that they are far smarter than the dummies in the film. I get this feeling a lot from Clooney in particular – while his film-within-a-film sequences are brilliant, it feels like he never feels much affection for the character outside these sequences. He wants us to know that Clooney is not as dumb or vain as Whitlock is. It’s this lack of empathy that doesn’t quite make the performance work. Empathy is why Eldenreich is the stand-out performer of the film. He plays Hobie Doyle with a real affection and warmth – he makes the character feel like a sweet and genuine person. While Hobie is always a comic spoof, he also feels like he could be a real person – making him so much easier to relate to for the audience.

Hail Caesar! is a film that works in fits and starts, not all the way through. Josh Brolin is fine as Mannix, and his fast-talking, plate juggling, problem solving throws up some funny lines – but his story never really engages the audience as much as it should, and the Catholic guilt Mannix balances in his life never really becomes clear. The Coens are reaching for some point about art and faith - of how film makers may tell themselves they are making something for art, when they actually work for faceless businessmen interested only in making money – but it never really brings this art vs. money argument into place. Does a picture have worth if we talk about worth enough? It's a question we may as well ask about Hail Caesar itself.

Because the parodies and sketches of old Hollywood movies are so brilliantly done, whenever we drift away from them to the actual plot you find yourself losing interest. It’s a film that actually works better as a few sketches extracted from YouTube – I could happily watch Fiennes and Eldenreich’s scene, or Tatum’s dance sequence, or Clooney’s Taylor spoof in isolation – I don’t really feel the need to watch the entire movie again.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Their Finest (2016)

Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy do their bit for the war effort by making movies in Their Finest

Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Gemma Arterton (Catrin Cole), Sam Claflin (Tom Buckley), Bill Nighy (Ambrose Hilliard), Jack Huston (Ellis Cole), Helen McCrory (Sophie Smith), Eddie Marsan (Sammy Smith), Jack Lacy (Carl Lundbeck), Rachael Stirling (Phyl Moore), Richard E Grant (Roger Swain), Paul Ritter (Raymond Parfitt), Henry Goodman (Gabriel Baker), Jeremy Irons (Secretary of War)

During World War Two, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to write dialogue for propaganda films – to be specific “the slop” (the women’s dialogue). She pitches the semi-true story of two young women who take a boat to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers, and is hired to work with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) to write a screenplay. Among the cast of this film is Ambrose Hillaird (Bill Nighy), an ageing matinee idol having trouble accepting his days of playing young heroes are behind him. Together they overcome initial difficulties to create a film that moves the nation.

Their Finest is a gently amiable piece of film-making, totally predictable but still rather entertaining for all that. You won’t exactly be gripped or compelled by it, but you certainly won’t feel cheated out of your time watching it. It doesn’t have much in the way of originality about it – and you can see most of its jokes and events coming a mile off – but it’s still got a certain charm and warmth about it. And it’s crammed full of some very fun “film-within-a-film” scenes, both seeing the film the team create and the work (and backstage politics) that go into making it. There are also some neat gags (and wry comments) about the casual sexism of the day – and the film (without dwelling on the issue) makes a number of heartwarming moments out of its lead character succeeding against the odds on her own merits.

It also has a couple of fine performances, not least from an engaging and bright Gemma Arterton, who brings a great deal of quiet depth and dignity to Catrin. Catrin has a sweet lack of self-confidence about her – a gentle doubt, that she must learn to overcome over the film. She makes an affecting and empathetic lead. It also helps that she has a great screwball comedy chemistry with Sam Claflin. Claflin’s part is far more conventional – the gruff man with the heart of gold – but he nails the part’s humanity and its comic grumpiness.

The film’s main weapon of entertainment is Bill Nighy, in a part almost certainly written for him so well does it match his strengths. Hilliard is just the sort of vain, pompous, arrogant preener that Nighy can play in his sleep – a man who needs to be flattered and praised into doing anything, who assumes when he first reads the script he’s being offered the role of the young hero not the drunk uncle. What Nighy does so well with parts like this, though, is bring them depth and pathos. Hilliard may be an egotist, but he’s gently comforting in tragedy and has a profound sadness and insecurity behind him about where his career and life is going. So, while he brings a lot of the film’s comedy, he’s also a large part of its heart, elements that emerge increasingly as the film progresses.

The sequences that follow the making of the film are very funny. Jack Lacy is wonderfully sweet and genuine as an actual war-hero, an American serving in the RAF, parachuted in by the Ministry of War to send a propaganda message to the USA. Lacy’s Carl is well-meaning and loves films (not least his hero worship of Hilliard) but a hopeless actor, who can’t help smiling at the camera after every line. It’s a neat indication of the film’s well-judged tone that he is never a butt: the crew work hard to improve him, he’s eager to learn, he’s completely lovely – and when a character does complain about the extra work he is causing, Henry Goodman’s Alexander Korda-ish producer simply states “he has done things none of us would be brave enough to do”.

Because there is a harder realism about this film. It doesn’t shy away from the dangers and brutality of war – there are bombings and people die. Some deaths are characters we know, others are on the edges of the story. “I’m a bit emotional today. My landlady was killed last night” one character states. Each of our lead characters encounters a dead body, or knows someone who has been killed. There is a genuine danger of obliteration or invasion just on the edges of the comedy. It’s a neat balance that the film keeps, between pathos and light comedy.

The film-within-a-film, The Nancy Starling, is a brilliant pastiche of 1940s British war films, instantly recognisable and affectionately amusing. But it’s also, when we finally see parts of the film, rather moving. It has a real emotional force to it - the film-makers achieve the difficult balance of giving us a pastiche we can chuckle at it, but also a pastiche that feels like it would genuinely move the people watching it in the film. 

Their Finest’s main problem might be that partly because it’s so quietly unassuming and gentle, it is almost completely bogged down in predictability. Most of the character arcs can be seen coming a pile off – my wife and I were able to practically write the scenes ourselves as they happened. There is very little original here. Even the stories of actors’ pretensions and film-making disasters have a breezy air of familiarity about them – the sort of stuff we’ve seen in films about film-making hundreds of times before. In fact, what’s striking is that a film so predictable and familiar remains entertaining and endearing – which is surely some sort of testament to the acting and direction.

Their Finest is perfect for what it is: an entertaining, weekend-afternoon film that will pop a gentle smile on your face. There is nothing particularly deep or memorable about it beyond that. It has some fine performances, some good jokes and it will make you laugh. But will you remember much about it within a few hours? Probably not. Is it a film that you can imagine revisiting to discover new gems in it? Again probably not. Is it a film that will entertain you on a Sunday afternoon? Absolutely.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Spectre (2015)

Bond heads into danger in thematic mess Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Léa Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Dave Bautista (Mr Hinx), Andrew Scott (Max Denbigh), Monica Bellucci (Lucia Sciarra), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner), Jesper Christensen (Mr White)

SPOILERS: Okay, surely most people have seen this by now - but just in case I'm going to spoil the big twist of Spectre. It is, by the way, a really, really, really stupid, annoying terrible twist. So you won't mind. But just in case you do... Spoilers.

In 2002, Austin Powers: Goldmember had, amongst its ridiculous plotlines, a reveal that Austin Powers and Dr Evil were, in fact, long lost brothers. It was the crowning height of silliness in the franchise, the ultimate punchline to Mike Myers’ James Bond spoof. Well the wheel comes full circle: in 2015, Spectre’s shock plot reveal was – James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld – wait for it – they were only – guess what! – raised by the same man, so basically sorta brothers! Who would have thunk it? The world’s greatest spy and world’s greatest villain both grew up together. Yup, the Bond producers actually thought this was a good idea. Yup they were completely wrong.

Spectre opens in Mexico with Bond (Daniel Craig) preventing an attack on a football stadium – although this attack basically involves trashing an entire city block. Benched by M (Ralph Fiennes), he investigates the shadowy organisation known as Spectre, which he discovers is run by Franz Oberhauser (Christop Waltz), a man Bond seems to know a great deal about. Meanwhile M engages in Whitehall battles with the intelligence director Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his sinister “Nine Eyes” programme, designed to control all surveillance in the developed world.

Spectre is a film that really falls apart in its final third, as ridiculous revelation piles on top of ludicrous contrivance. After Skyfall, we all wanted Sam Mendes to come back to do another Bond film, but this makes every single mistake that film avoided: it’s self-conscious, it’s silly in the wrong way, it takes itself way too seriously, despite its best efforts it doesn’t really do anything new, and it attempts to build a “Bond universe” around a franchise that works because it keeps reinventing itself in stand-alone films. It’s the Bond producers attempt to do a Marvel film – and it ain’t pretty. Did we need to create some sort of tenuous link between the Craig-era Bond movies? Did we need Blofeld and Bond to have a “very personal” connection? No we massively did not.

Mendes shoots the action with a mock grandeur that seems to be serving other things than the plot. Critics fawned over the long shot that follows Bond through the Day of the Dead street festival, through a hotel, out of a window, across a series of roofs and into the first action scene. But for me, it’s a self-conscious, look-at-me piece of trickery. It’s an air of pretention that runs through the whole film: it’s a film that wants you to think it’s making Big Points around Bond’s psychology and background, but keeps running aground because it goes about them in such a ham fisted way, particularly when compared to Skyfall’s subtlety and willingness to look at Bond’s vulnerability.

Most sequences in the film feels strangely flat and lifeless. There is a surprisingly sterile car chase through the streets of Rome between Bond and Hinx. The opening montage in Mexico just never really grips – maybe because it’s not clear what’s going on, maybe because it feels so self-consciously grandiose. The film’s tone is over the place – there are lashings of Moore. Bond falls through a collapsing building only to land on a sofa. During the car chase, Bond hits a button only to have some Frank Sinatra start playing on the radio. Craig does at least go through the comedy with a breezy lightness, though it sits oddly in a film that features a villain shooting himself in the head, and a guy having his eyes gouged out. 

The whole investigation into Spectre just isn’t interesting. Because the film has been written with such a self-conscious eye on fandom, it never gives us a reason within the film to care about it at all. Spectre don’t seem to be doing anything, other than being a shady organisation making money. We don’t get told why Bond is invested in it or Oberhauser until late in the day. The film pins everything on a “beyond the grave” video from Judi Dench’s M to give us a reason for chasing this plot. But nothing feels at stake. Bond isn’t rushing to prevent anything, and we don’t get told about his personal stake in it until almost the end – and even when we do, Bond doesn’t really seem to give a toss about the reveal.

Ah yes. The reveal. A few years ago, Star Trek Into Darkness had a terrible, nonsensical reveal around Benedict Cumberbatch’s character – turns out he was Khan. This was met with derision because (a) it had no impact on the wider viewers who didn’t know who Khan was, (b) it felt shoe-horned in as fan service, and (c) it had no impact on the characters in the film who’d never met Khan before. So who cared? He might as well have said “My real name is Fred”. This was the case with the Blofeld reveal here. The name means little to non-Bond fans. And it means naff-all to Bond. We’ve never heard it mentioned in the film before. It comes out of nowhere. It means nothing – it’s dropped into the film to get a cheer at comic con – so nakedly so, that it just annoyed people.

It doesn’t help that the whole “secret brothers” thing is a really, really dumb idea. I mean so mega-dumb it was, as mentioned, the final ridiculous flourish of Austin Powers. How did they look at this and think “yes”? Again it feels like retreading Skyfall ground – this already had given us interesting insights into Bond by having him return to his childhood home. But what did we learn about Bond here? Sweet FA. Whatever iconic status Blofeld had is also immediately undermined by making him a pathetic envious child. Christoph Waltz’s bored performance doesn’t help either.

And as the film doesn’t spend any time establishing Blofeld or Spectre doing terrible things, it has to make a serious of tenuous connections to Craig’s other films to ludicrously suggest that everything that happened in those films was Blofeld’s evil plan. This is so clearly bollocks, retroactive adaptation that it just makes you snort. Skyfall’s villain was very clearly established as a personally motivated lone-wolf – it makes no sense that he was sent by Blofeld. The first two Craig films established a secretive organisation, but it was framed very much as corporate ruthless villainy – the idea that it was an organisation established to destroy Bond is nonsense.

The reveal that Blofeld wants to destroy Bond personally makes most of the film itself make no sense. If Blofeld wants Bond to come to his base to exact revenge for childhood wrongs, why does his muscle-man Hinx spend the film so aggressively trying to kill him (especially in the film’s stand out action sequence, a no-holds-barred scrap on a train)? It makes no-bloody-sense-at-all. It’s almost like they were making it up as they go. Even Quantum of Solace held together better plotwise than this (ironically QoS goes almost completely unmentioned in Blofeld’s evil schemes – probably because it’s a bad film). The final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld strains credulity and patience – reaching for a personal rivalry that hasn’t been established by anything other than fans’ vague memories of watching You Only Live Twice on a Sunday afternoon years ago.

I’ve not mentioned the Bond girls either. The film tries to make a “strong female character” in Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, but she is a plot device rather than a character, with no consistent personality, who is solely there to be whatever the plot, and Bond, need the Token Pretty Woman to be at that moment. When it needs her to be a gun-toting, self-reliant, go-getter who sasses Bond, she is. When the plot needs her to be a damsel in distress (which it does twice) she forgets all that firearms stuff and waits for a man to save her. When the plot needs her to express total devotion for Bond she does. When it needs her shortly afterwards to leave him, guess what, she does that as well. She is a character who makes no consistent sense at all. It doesn’t help that she looks way too young for Craig. The wonderful Monica Belluci is given a thankless role of informant and brief sex partner for Bond – she of course was far too close to Craig’s age to be the main Bond girl. Just as he did with the shower sex scene in Skyfall, Craig manages to make this seduction seem inappropriate and pervy – it’s not his strength.

Lea Seydoux. She is, by the way, 17 years younger than Daniel Craig. Just saying.

 The stupidly unclear, dully predictable “Nine Eyes” plot doesn’t make things any better either. One of Skyfall’s neatest tricks was to cleverly mislead us about Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory, setting him up as an antagonist to slowly reveal him as an ally. This film attempts an inverted version of this trick with Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh. Problem is, Scott is at his most softly-spoken Moriarty sinister – you are in no doubt he’s a wrong ‘un from the first frame. What would have worked is making Denbigh Bond’s ally early. This would make further sense for the overall plot (if Denbigh is working with Blofeld, why does he want to block Bond getting to him…) and also make the reveal of his villainy at least a surprise for some people in the audience. As it is the whole reveal is no shock what-so-ever. The whole plot starts to feel like plates being spun in the air, a way to give Fiennes, Kinnear and Harris something to do on the margins of the film.

I mean - he just LOOKS like a villain doesn't he?

Okay Spectre is well filmed. It’s got some good scenes. Ben Whishaw continues to be excellent as Q – and gets loads to do here which is great. Craig actually does some of the comedy with charm and skill – even if he hardly seems as engaged with the material here as he did before, as if he was already becoming tired of the whole enterprise. But it’s too long (over 2 and a half hours!), and straight from its pretentious “The Dead Are Alive Again” opening, it’s straining for a thematic depth and richness that it constantly misses. It makes nothing of its family feud plotline and we learn very little about Bond as a character at all. It mistakes stupid fan-service and pointless reveals for plot, and it builds itself towards a reveal that it expects to get a cheer from the audience, but has no real connection to the plot of the film we are watching, and is in no way earned by the events of the film. 

Spectre is, at best, in the middle rank of Bond films – too self-important, incoherent and (whisper it) a little dull in places to really work. It’s not a complete failure – but it is a major disappointment. There is enough here to entertain most of the time, but not enough to really engage the mind or the guts. For Sam Mendes, lightening didn’t strike twice.