• Hail, Caesar!

    Released by: Universal Studios
    Released on: June 7th, 2016.
    Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
    Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson
    Year: 2016
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    The Film:


    Since the release of Blood Simple over three decades ago, the Coen Brothers have been steadily delivering a series of works that not only feel strikingly idiosyncratic but also pay homage to the iconic films of the past. While there have been some filmmakers who have able to walk this fine line between creating a distinct style and displaying a cine-literate sensibility (Brian DePalma comes immediately to mind), very few can pull it off as consistently as the Coen Brothers have proved over the years. And Hail, Caesar! is perhaps the most cinematically self-referential work that the Coen Brothers have done since their brilliant 1991 film Barton Fink.

    The movie stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, the head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures in the early 1950s. In addition to dealing with the official business of the film studio, Mannix also operates as a “fixer,” which means making sure to protect the stars of the studio from scandal-mongering gossip columnists (wonderfully depicted by Tilda Swinton in a double role of identical-twin reporters working for rival rags). As Mannix struggles to perform his increasingly surreal activities for Capitol, he meets with representatives of the Lockheed Corporation for a high-ranking position in the famed aerospace company. One of the main questions in the film is whether or not Mannix will take the prestigious job at Lockheed and leave his “frivolous” job at Capitol.

    The plot of the film is just a thinly-veiled excuse for the Coen Brothers to indulge in amusing pastiches of various Hollywood genres, including an unintentionally homoerotic musical and a goofy singing cowboy western. Each of these set-pieces usually feature cleverly-cast stars who are clearly enjoying themselves as they earnestly struggle to deliver what ultimately amount of mediocre product. The funniest of these performances is undoubtedly Ralph Fiennes who plays Laurence Laurentz, a pretentious director of period dramas who finds himself saddled with having to give the lead performance of his film to Hobi Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), one of the aforementioned singing Western film stars.

    At the center of these pastiches is the titular film, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a Cecil B DeMille-style prestige picture starring Baird Whitlock (frequent Coen Brothers collaborator George Clooney). One of the funniest scenes in the film has Mannix holding a meeting with a quartet of religious leaders – a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest and a rabbi – in order to assess whether there is anything offensive about the film. It reminds one of the Coen Brothers’ modern-day Job parable A Serious Man, although the New Testament pop-theology on display here is played for broad laughs… when was the last time theological discussions were played for laughs, save perhaps for the films of Woody Allen?

    The central conflict of the film (in as much as there can said to be one) arises when Baird Whitlock is abducted a group of communist screenwriters calling themselves The Future. These kidnappers demand that the studio pay a $100,000 ransom for the return of their valuable leading man. While it is true that various strands and secondary characters are woven into this overarching plot, the kidnapping business is really a red herring - an excuse to string together the goofy cinematic send-ups into something resembling a narrative. In this sense, the kidnapped Whitlock has a function similar to that of the stolen rug at the center of The Big Lebowski.

    How much you enjoy Hail, Caesar! ultimately depends upon how you respond to the quirky humor of the Coen Brothers, in particular the screwball quality of some of their works. While the film was largely acclaimed by critics, most audiences were frustrated at a script that assumes a lot of knowledge regarding this era of American filmmaking. On the flipside, some critics have accused the Coen Brothers as being cynical or misanthropic; the Wall Street Journal went so far as to suggest that the film was evidence that the filmmakers “really hate the movies”). And yet there is something endearing about the way that the Coen Brothers depict this by-gone Studio system. They can’t help it that for every beloved classic from this time period, there were about a dozen stinkers as well.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Universal’s blu-ray release of Hail, Caesar! features a wonderful hi-def 1080p transfer of the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Regardless about where you stand on the merits of the film, you can’t fault how the film looks; wonderful period detail and lavish spectacle during the backlot sequences. Black levels are spot-on, there’s excellent detail and the warm image looks appropriately filmic throughout.

    While the majority of Hail, Caesar! is dialogue driven, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track offers good surround sound during the musical sequences of the film. There are no errors to report on this main audio track. The disc also features an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track and a pair of DTS Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks in both Spanish and French. There are English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.

    On the extras front, there are a series of four featurettes that are the standard press-junket stuff you find on most mainstream releases these days. “Directing Hollywood” features the cast’s thoughts regarding the Coen Brothers, and it clocks in at only 4 minutes. “The Stars Align” runs a bit longer, at 11-and-a-half minutes and offers a description of the characters in the movie. “An Era of Glamour” and “Magic of a Bygone Era” run about 6 minutes each and respectively look at production design and the evocation of cinematic spectacle in the film.

    The Final Word:

    It seems unsurprising in hindsight that a film as episodic as Hail, Caesar! should have proven to be so divisive a film for audiences. Whether you’ll find it amusing or self-indulgent really depends on what you think of the Coen Brothers’ comedy work as a whole. The movie is obviously recommended for their fans, who’ll see it anyway, but also worth a go for people who love films about films. If you find yourself in that camp, the film is highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!