Review: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016)
George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.

hail1Hail, Caesar! feels like one of those movies with a hundred inside jokes I will never get. I enjoyed it because it’s such a fun movie on the level I do understand, but the enjoyment was tinged with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.

hail2What’s clear is that the Coens are poking fun at (and paying tribute to) the movie studio system in the Fifties, a time when the studios were barely clinging to the old Hollywood rules, when executives decided not only who would be stars, but how those stars would behave in public. One of these stars (played by Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and unmarried, so the studio’s fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is called in for damage control. Since it would be scandalous for her to have this baby out of wedlock, Eddie comes up with a strange plan to make it look like the actress is adopting an orphan.

hail3As Eddie moves from one concern to another, we’re treated to a series of films in production on the studio lot, each of them an example of the big-budget offerings once upon a time. We have a singing cowboy movie, a synchronized swimming movie, a song-and-dance movie (brilliantly executed by Channing Tatum in the movie’s second-best moment), a European costume drama, and a Biblical epic. The star of the epic (George Clooney) is kidnapped for ransom, and Eddie’s tracking him down is the central plot.

hail4The story is okay, but what makes this film fun are the performances by the actors, who get to do that showy pre-Brando acting, and some really funny situational humor. You know that stupid old gag where someone says, “repeat after me” and someone else repeats everything, including the stuff that’s obviously not supposed to be repeated? There’s a moment here where a director and actor have an exchange like this, and I almost laughed myself to tears. Yeah, it’s silly, but the Coens give the gag a slightly different spin and then take it past silliness and into absurdity.

hail5It’s a strangely goofy movie, one that succeeds because its directors put really good actors in odd situations and let them do their thing. Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists for competing papers is a joy to watch. Clooney as the doofus big-name marquee idol has a pathetic puppy-dog cuteness, but when he delivers the big speech in his film, you remember what a good actor he is and why he seems to be one of the Coens’ muses. And Aldon Ehrenreich as the singing cowboy who the studio wants to turn into its next idol is perfect. I’d never heard of him, but it seems clear he’s going to be huge in a few years. I discovered as I was taking notes for this review that he’s going to be Han Solo in the spinoff film series. I can totally see it.

Don’t go in expecting Fargo or Inside Llewyn Davis, forgive its horrible-awful-stupid title, and it’s a surprisingly good movie.

7/10
79/100

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Claudia Kim, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba. Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

ultron1The first Avengers movie was a big, noisy mess with too many characters to manage and not enough humanity to plumb. Just about everything I enjoy about the Marvel films was either missing or in short supply, which is probably why I was in no hurry to catch its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Then I got myself caught up on Captain America, and I was introduced to Scarlet Witch, and this second Avengers movie felt like a gap I wanted to fill.

ultron2Really, what is it about these Avengers films? Do the titles mean that since nobody gets a titular role, the movies can’t spend time developing singular characters? The recent Captain America: Civil War is effectively an Avengers movie (I’m not a comic book reader, so if what I just wrote is a sin against fandom, don’t shoot me), yet there’s pretty good character development of Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch, so I reject this as necessarily a rule. Except for a pretty great tension with Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff in the stay-away-I’m-dangerous vein, and Scarlet Witch’s conflicted side-choosing, writer Joss Whedon seems to have decided his audience doesn’t care about humanizing these heroes. It’s a bad choice.

ultron3The plot’s main conceit, the emergence of an artificial intelligence powered by Loki’s scepter (from the first Avengers movie), is pretty cool, although I could have done without the comic-booky appearance of the villain and his various incarnations. Most of the action is unremarkable, except as it serves to develop characters, but it’s too long to be excused even by that.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did, in a kind of let-everything-go-and-just-enjoy-the-ride way, which is pretty much what I said about the first Avengers movie. If I hadn’t first seen Captain America: Civil War and come into this one with an interest in Wanda Maximoff’s origins, it wouldn’t have been quite so enjoyable, so I’m giving it a two-point Elizabeth Olsen bump and a surprise one-point Claudia Kim bump.

7/10
70/100

Review: Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, and a cast of thousands. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

cacw 1Saving the world sometimes comes with collateral damage, and when the Avengers are involved, turn that “sometimes” into “always.” In Captain America: Civil War, there is huge international backlash when Scarlet Witch unintentionally blows up a building, killing several humanitarian workers, and now the United Nations wants to assume oversight and control over the Avengers. The Avengers are split over the issue: Tony Stark leads one side, while Steve Rogers takes the other.

cacw 2Further description of the plot would only be confusing, but it mostly comes down to The UN wanting to find the Winter Soldier for the assassination of a king, while Rogers tries to get to him first in order to protect him.

(slight spoilers in this paragraph only)
I knew the barest minimum about the plot before going in, and I assumed it was Tony Stark who wanted independence while Steve Rogers accepted governmental oversight. It was a nice surprise to see that it was the other way around, and it’s easy to see what would make each man go against his seeming inclinations. Stark has been his own man for a long time; success in business almost always assumes collateral damage, but when someone humanizes the casualties, he accepts the need for someone else to be in charge. Rogers has been a government weapon, always willing to do his duty, but in this role he has lost his best friend, every one of his contemporaries, and the woman who might have been the love of his life.  As a lifelong questioner of authority, there was never a doubt which side I was hoping the Avengers would take, and it’s actually kind of surprising to see how each of them lines up.

cacw 3The film is loaded with superheroes, and although there are moments where their number is overwhelming, it’s mostly handled well, especially in the big fight scene. There are a few surprise appearances, and they mostly work. There’s a lot of quick humor, too; I laughed aloud multiple times, and I appreciated that even when the Avengers are in the middle of combat against each other, there is mutual respect and affection. There’s a lot of good relationship stuff, too, the stuff that adds nice layers between all the action sequence stuff.

And now I have to say something about Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Holy moly. She’s mysterious, dark, tortured, fearsome, and beautiful. My favorite female superhero in films has been Anna Paquin’s Rogue, beginning with the first X-Men film, but here is someone to rival her. I love that she is alternatingly gorgeous and kind of hideous (witchlike, even), with a haunted goth look I can’t take my eyes away from.

I still have a few more of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to catch up on, but this one is likely right up there with <i>Iron Man</i>, and Captain America is becoming my favorite of the comic book movie superheroes.

7/10
79/100

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

winter_soldier_2Steve Rogers is still getting acclimated to his new home, carrying around a notepad in which he writes the names of musicians, movies, politicians, and cultural references as they come up in conversation. It’s a quick reminder of the underlying stress in Rogers’s life. The Rip Van Winkle motif is certainly not new, but it does give Rogers an interesting dimension, and I always appreciate layers in my superhero movies.

In one early scene, after Rogers adds “Troubleman (soundtrack)” to his list, Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson) drives up in a sleek sports car to give him a ride. It’s another layer, this one falling into the plus column, because if Rogers is still dealing with the abrupt ending to his blossoming romance with agent Carter (and he seems to be), a little bit of Black Widow can ease the transition, even if the relationship seems to be platonic.

winter_soldier_3S.H.I.E.L.D. is being attacked by the titular Winter Soldier, a Russian super-tough guy Romanoff is familiar with by reputation, but weird stuff is going on that cannot be explained by this villain. A S.H.I.E.L.D. program similar to the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s (only a lot more badass) is about to launch, but director Nick Fury asks for a delay until he can figure out what’s going on. He warns Rogers to “trust nobody,” which of course puts Rogers in the difficult position of seeing everyone as a potential enemy.

Action sequences are about as good as in the first Captain America film while the overarching plot of S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Hydra isn’t very interesting, but again, the driving force is really Steve Rogers’s virtuousness, and it’s not just his patriotism, sense of duty, politeness, and desire to serve. He has a way of connecting with people wherever they are, a disarming sense of compassion and comprehension that tells people he’s on their side. This interpersonal talent makes him a quick, accurate judge of character that’s as valuable an asset as his super strength and speed. It makes me eager to see more.

7/10
76/100