Wonder Wheel(12/10/2017)

Alright, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: being a Woody Allen fan is not very fashionable at the moment.  This of course stems from the accusation of child abuse that occurred in the early 90s, which was litigated and dismissed at the time but which suddenly came back into the conversation thanks in part to a rather vigorous campaign on the part of the Farrow family starting in late 2013 and which has been brought back into the conversation in the wake of the #MeToo campaign despite there being no new allegations.  Frankly Allen’s past has never had much bearing on my interest in his movies, partly because I’m decidedly on Team “Separate Art From Artist” but also because the case against him is far from ironclad and there seems to be no indication that he’s some sort of serial offender.  Given a choice I’d be happy to avoid talking about all of this altogether but in recent times he has been using his filmmaking to comment on his past controversies, and specifically his relationship to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, often in slightly coded ways.  His last film, Café Society, ended with someone contemplating an affair with someone who would be his aunt-in-law and his 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight ended with a man much the senior of a younger woman deciding to go through with a relationship with her despite all logical reason not because the heart wants what it wants.  I don’t have a problem with Allen exploring his controversies on scree but I’m honestly surprised more people didn’t pick up on these themes until now but they’re certainly picking up on similar themes in his newest film Wonder Wheel.

The film is set in the 1950s in and around the famous Coney Island back when it was still a pretty relevant attraction.  At its center is a woman named Ginny Rannell (Kat Winslet) a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar who’s married to a carousel operator named Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) and who lives in an apartment right in the middle of the island above a loud shooting range but with a view of the titular Ferris wheel.  This is a second marriage for both Ginny and Humpty, and Ginny has a twelve year old son from her previous marriage who is kind of disturbed, has a compulsion to start fires, and does not get along at all with his hardass step-father.  At a certain point Ginny started having an affair with a lifeguard/aspiring philosopher named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who actually narrates most of the film.  Things are really set off when Humpty’s twenty-something year old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on their doorstep desperate for a place to stay.  Carolina had apparently run off and married a gangster when she was young, something her father has not forgiven her for, and after a while with this unsavory person she found herself in a situation where she appeared to be snitching on him and because of this she’s on the run from hitmen.  Eventually they kind of make the situation work, at least until Carolina runs into Mickey and a strange love triangle commences.

So, this is a movie where a guy starts out sleeping with a 40-some year old woman and ends up falling in love with her 20-some year old step daughter… gee, I wonder what attracted Woody Allen to that scenario.  Truth be told I’m not one hundred percent sure Allen intended for this to be a metaphor for his own tabloid scandal some twenty years ago.  That whole story is very much on the forefront of cultural commentators these days but I don’t think it as much as the forefront of his own mind as a lot of people might think it would be.  That said, as an outside observer it’s pretty hard to not see the movie that way and he must have been aware of the similarities on some level even if only sub-consciously.  If it was intentional it’s a little disingenuous as there are clear differences between the two scenarios most notably the fact that the man in this situation is Justin Timberlake, a guy who is about twenty years younger than Woody Allen was when he started his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and Juno Temple is about ten years older than Previn was.  What’s more the step daughter in in Wonder Wheel is one hundred percent absent from the life of the Timberlake character before he falls for her and there’s zero question as to whether he played any kind of parental role in her life.  Of course the other little wrinkle to this interpretation is that the love triangle at its center does not exactly end well, and if Allen does mean for it to be any kind of allegory it does not necessarily speak well of his own actions.

Truth be told, all of that doesn’t really matter, as the bigger problems with the movie are largely unrelated.  The problem really isn’t the story so much as the writing.  The movie is very talky, which I suppose could be said about most Woody Allen movies but the dialogue is particularly heightened here.  I think Allen is very intentionally trying to make this seem like a stage play with the way most scenes only involve two or three people and who they’re pretty willing to tell rather that show at certain points.  The exposition here is really lazy, characters just monologue off their entire backstories for the first third of the movie and they seem to verbalize a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling rather than letting the audience intuit it.  In other, more comedic Woody Allen movies this wouldn’t have been as conspicuous but this movie is pretty serious and somber, there aren’t really laughs to distract from that kind of thing.  There’s also a certain theatricality to the performances here, particularly from Winslet, who manages to really make a lot of this material work better than it might have.  Juno Temple is also pretty good here but the male actors don’t fare as well.  Jim Belushi, who doesn’t have the same background in dramatic theater that Winslet does generally fares worse with this material but it’s Timberlake who is particularly miscast.  I get why the idea of casting Timberlake might have made some sense; he’s about the right age, he has the look of a life guard, and he’s also attractive enough to make sense as the love interest for two different women, but his character is supposed to be this sensitive intellectual and that is very decidedly something Timberlake cannot pull off.

If nothing else Wonder Wheel certainly looks better than pretty much anything else Woody Allen has ever made.  The film, like his last film Café Society, is the product of a special deal he signed with Amazon Studios which has given him much larger budgets to work with than he’s used to.  This one cost about $25 million to make, which isn’t a huge budget in the grand scheme of things but is huge for him.  The dude has only made three movies since the 70s that have grossed more than that in theaters.  You can certainly see the budget on the screen.  There’s a ton of period detail and Coney Island is recreated effectively and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro beautifully captures the light of the wonder wheel shining into the characters’ apartment.  I do however wonder if this huge budget is part of the problem though, like Allen knew this kind of financing was not going to last so he pulled the one script set in 1950s Coney Island out of his files and rushed it into production before his last opportunity to make something this expensive went away.  Obviously the guy has been accused of using first drafts before, and I’ve usually felt that was unwarranted but I think it’s true with this one.  That’s a shame because all told I really wanted this thing to be great and to prove Allen’s doubters wrong, but it just isn’t.


Alien: Covenant(5/21/2017)


Having original opinions can be lonely sometimes.  That’s especially true now that we live in the era of the bandwagon and the pile-on when it comes to the popular opinion on movies.  Maybe I’m just being wrongly nostalgic but I feel like there was a time when opinions about movies used to spread a bit more organically whereas today it seems like consensuses are basically built by instantly posted reviews by critics two days before a movie comes out and are then either confirmed or slightly tweaked after a weekend of tweets.  There might be a backlash sometime around a week after the film comes out and maybe a backlash to the backlash the next week but for the most part the die seems to be cast for a movie pretty fast and if you’re on the outside of the consensus you can easily find yourself in a pretty lonely place.  One movie that got pretty cruelly shot down in this environment was Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien which sought to expand the series beyond its horror roots and use it as a platform to examine scientific and philosophical ideas.  It also had a couple of plot holes and script problems, and as such it was quickly torn apart by the consensus.  Personally, I rather liked it.  I could recognize its problems but felt like they were more than outweighed by its visual grandeur and ambitious storytelling and while the film does have other defenders they’ve been pretty well drowned out too by the sometimes kind of nasty wave of negativity that hit the film. Now four years later Ridley Scott has come out with a follow-up called Alien: Covenant and it may well rekindle all the arguments that raged around the previous prequel.

Despite what the title may suggest, this is very much a sequel to Prometheus and picks up about 15 years after that movie’s conclusion.  We are once again following a rather ill-fated space voyage, this time of a colonization ship called The Covenant which is headed for an uninhabited planet which could serve as a base for a new society.  At the film’s start everyone on board except for the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, playing a different robot from the one he played in Prometheus) is in stasis when a sudden accident hits the ship killing a handful of the sleeping colonists including the captain.  The rest of the crew is woken up and needs to immediately stabilize the ship.  With that done they suddenly realize that they are actually close to another planet that may well be an inhabitable alternative to the planet they were initially headed to.  Deciding that they need to explore this world before they think about waking up the rest of the colonists the new acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to lead a landing party despite the objections of his second in command Dany Branson (Katherine Waterson).  When they land they suddenly realize that this planet has had other visitors previously and strange things happen when they run into a mysterious black substance on the ground.

Prometheus was in many ways a pretty bold movie.  It was Ridley Scott rather defiantly making the statement that Alien was a series that wasn’t defined by Xenomorphs so much as it was defined by an aesthetic, at least when Ridley Scott was making it.  Scott proceeded to use that world and aesthetic to explore what humanity is willing to do in order to find the meaning of life.  While doing that, it also proved to be kind of clumsy when it sought to also be something of a monster movie.  Critics certainly seized on the movie’s questionable moments and used them to dismiss it, which is a reaction that was on one hand understandable and yet on the other hand a bit dismissive.  In many ways it felt like the film was being punished for its pretension and for the raised expectations that it had elicited with its promising trailer and highbrow title.  For the sequel Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox seem to have realized that and done everything they could to signal that this is in fact a very much a monster movie.  It’s put the word “Alien” in the title and it has a xenomorph front and center in in pretty much every advertisement for the movie.  However, despite what the title would have you believe this is still very much a sequel to Prometheus in terms of storyline and also tries to retains many of its sensibilities while also functioning as a monster movie and the results can be rather schizophrenic in terms of tone.

Prometheus ended with what appeared to be the creation of the first xenomorph through the combination of an Engineer and a squid-like monster that was implanted into the Noomi Rapace character and removed using a medical station.  This is pretty much ignored if not re-coned out of existence by Alien: Covenant and we are instead given a new interpretation of how the xenomorph came to be.  This is the most Prometheus-like element of the movie.  I don’t want to give too much about this away but let’s just say that it involves a mad scientist, interesting imagery and Percy Shelly quotes.  Prometheus was also plenty pretentious but it seemed a little more earnest about it, here it almost kind of just feels like the new writing staff is a lot less interested and are just doing their best to throw a few philosophical ideas because that’s considered to be part of the franchise now.  That isn’t to say that a couple of these ideas aren’t without interest, but they seem weaker and they sometimes clash with some of the more base genre elements that are here as well.  These genre elements are… alright.  There’s certainly some nicely gooey looking gore here and a few interesting set-pieces, but a lot of them seem like they should be a lot more exciting in theory than they actually are.

The movie certainly isn’t as suspenseful as Alien, not by a long shot, and it also isn’t anywhere near as thrilling and action packed as Aliens.  In fact the Alien movie is most reminds me of might actually be Alien 3.  Like that movie this tries to go back to the “one or two aliens versus multiple humans” but less effectively than the original, and like that movie it does have a few decent kill scenes, and like that movie it has a slightly undercooked but potentially interesting element of character study.  Needless to say, that isn’t the Alien movie you want to be compared to but to be fair it is better than being compared to Alien: Resurrection or one of the Alien Vs. Predator movies.  Ridley Scott does remain a solid craftsman and the movie does share a lot of the solid design work and cinematography that made Prometheus work as well as it did even if they don’t seem as fresh and interesting this time around, but it also carries over that movie’s tendency to have its characters do remarkably stupid things to get themselves killed, and frankly I think this movie is way worse in that regard.  In many ways it’s a movie that just carries over a lot of its predecessor’s flaws while also minimizing a lot of its strengths to almost be the worst of both worlds and it’s only through Ridley Scott’s skill and hutzpah that it isn’t a much bigger disaster than it is.




During the 2010s I started a funny little personal movie-going tradition: making sure to go to a very decidedly non-yuletide movie on Christmas day.  Christmas has of course always been a big movie going day for me (I don’t need to travel for holidays and my family never makes a big deal about it anyway) and somehow Hollywood has consistently managed to supply me with movies to see on the day that are either downright perverse or at the very least contrary to the usual Christmas fare.  Last year my Christmas movie of choice was The Hateful Eight, and previous winners of the honor include Mr. Turner, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit.  This year I may have outdone myself, in part Hollywood was a little stingy about their releases this year (although Silence would have been an ideal choice had Paramount not decided to platform it slowly), so I instead I went to the arthouse to see noted provocateur Paul Verhoven’s French language rape-revenge film Elle which if nothing else can definitely be said to be pretty far removed from what most people would consider ideal holiday entertainment.

The film focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced middle-aged woman who runs a video game development studio in Paris.  In the very first scene of the film a masked man breaks into her hope beats and rapes Michèle in the middle of the day.  That scene is shocking but perhaps not as shocking as the reaction she seems to have to the incident, which is to say she seems oddly undisturbed by it.  She doesn’t go to the police and dismisses the concept of doing so, not out of trauma but because she says it’s “not worth the trouble.”  This isn’t to say she invited the attack or that she is completely undisturbed by it, but the burning anger and trauma you expect doesn’t exactly emerge.  Meanwhile she continues through her daily routines while trying to figure out who her attacker was and prepare for a potential second attack.

The attack at the beginning of the film is not representative of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and the film makes it pretty clear over the course of its runtime that Michèle is not a typical person and her reaction to the attack is not meant to be typical either.  The movie is not really in dialog with the various social and political conversations about rape that have been occurring recently and is really meant to be more of a wild character study.  Michèle is indeed the most interesting aspect of the film.  She’s a character who, attack or no attack, is characterized by a sort of sarcastic remove from her surroundings born of previous traumatic experiences.  She has minimal respect for most of the people in her life from her silly bourgeois friends, to her immature and disrespectful co-workers, to her wacky mother, to her dimwitted son, to his clearly unstable pregnant fiancé.  She’s not exactly wrong in her assessment of any of these people, and yet you get the impression that even if she surrounded herself by a higher caliber of companions that they too would prove unworthy of her high standards.  One could imagine a version of the movie not involving rape which could have a nice bitter little dramedy about a badass chick who manages to rise above the lesser fools bringing her down, and in some way that is what the finished film ended up being but the whole rape thing makes all of this a little harder to comfortably pull off.

This multiplicity of side characters is actually one of the film’s problems.  There are a lot of mediocre white Frenchmen in this woman’s life, perhaps to provide the film with some suspects for who this masked rapist might have been.  It’s one thing to believe that this one woman would be a strange person with a strange background but it’s a little harder to understand why so many of the other people seem to also be so strange.  It could perhaps be said that the film takes place in a sort of heightened world in general but it does get to the point where characters start behaving in ways that are just too strange to connect to and that is especially true of the film’s third act where Michèle’s rapist is revealed and she begins to deal with him in ways that are reminiscent of Liliana Cavani similarly provocative The Night Porter, a classic of provocative cinema which itself left me a little bewildered with its characters’ unusual behavior.  Human reactions to trauma are of course complex, but I wonder if they’re ever really quite as complex as authors and filmmakers like to imagine them being, especially when they’re intentionally trying to dream up wacky scenarios like this.

Elle was directed by Paul Verhoven, a filmmaker previously known for satiric action movies like Robocop as well as sexually charged Hollywood thrillers like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.  He hasn’t had a ton of luck in the 21st Century as he’s a little too Hollywood for Europe and too adventurous for modern Hollywood.  Elle certainly shows some elements of his usual style (including a perverse little acting decision by a cat), but I’m not sure this movie was really the best use of his particular set of skills.  Verhoven is more of a satirist than a provocateur; he’s more interested in finding ways to make his wacky sensibility palatable to the viewer in inventive ways than he is in shoving outrageousness into the viewer’s face.  I can only imagine what something like this would have looked like in the hands of someone like Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, or Gaspar Noe.  I don’t know, this movie is in some weird place where it presses too many buttons to be comfortable but no enough buttons to feel like this really exciting bit of boldness and the end movie just feels kind of strange all around.  I’d like to be able to get on some soapbox and declare that I didn’t like it because of some high-minded principle but really I just think it kind of fails itself in a number of ways and the overall mix just didn’t work for me.

Green Room(4/30/2016)


I have kind of a funny relationship with punk rock, but then so do a lot of its fans.  There is quite a bit of punk rock music I enjoy.  In fact The Clash’s “London Calling” may just be my all-time favorite album of all time.  However, I have absolutely no use for the basic philosophy and ethos that punk rock is based upon and if I met an actual “punk” in real life I’m almost positive I’d hate them.  Anarchy and wild behavior is fun to talk about and fantasize about but there’s really nothing more annoying than someone who indulges every destructive impulse they get.  Of course there are a lot of musical genres that people can enjoy without imitating the ethos that surrounds them: you don’t need to be “hood” to enjoy hip-hop, you don’t need to be a heroin addict to enjoy grunge, and you don’t need to be a dancer to enjoy techno… but those genres don’t tend to be watched over by a vanguard of enthusiasts who are dedicated to policing their ranks of “posers.”  That always seemed kind of strange to me as someone who tends to view pop culture as a window into the human experience rather than as something that one uses to express one’s own identity.  I bring all this up because punk rock is the milieu, though not really the subject, of the new thriller Green Room from Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier.

Green Room follows a modern punk/hardcore band called The Ain’t Rights who are touring the country in a van and living off so little money that they siphon gas from other cars in order to make their trips.  They’re just about at the end of their rope when they arrive in Oregon to play a gig for a local scenester named Tad (David W. Thompson) only to find out that their show has been cancelled.  Feeling guilty, Tad offers to set them up with a quality gig which will get them enough money to return home, the one catch is that the bar they’ll be playing at is mostly patronized by racist skinheads.  The band has had a run-in or two with nazi-punks before and feel they can easily enough stomach their company for an afternoon as long as the gig pays and they can avoid talking politics.  Once they arrive their set goes pretty well despite a couple of rocky moments, but when they return to the club’s green room they stumble upon the body of a woman that one of the skinheads has murdered.  Thus begins a standoff between the band and an older skinhead named Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) who owns the club and seems to be leading this “movement” of rowdy skinheads with the band forced to lock themselves in the club’s green room until they can find some way to escape with their lives.

Green Room is being marketed as a horror movie, and while some of the more brutal violence in it would be at home in that genre it would probably be better classified as a grisly little thriller along the lines of something like Deliverance or Straw Dogs.  The fact that this plotline deals with modern racist skinheads would seem to suggest that it has something to say about the nature of hate or about race relations in America, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  There’s a certain genre morality that can be gleaned from the fact that these characters are essentially being punished for momentarily tolerating the company of white supremacists, but for the most part I think the film would be largely unchanged if the bad guys here had been a biker gang or something, the racism mostly just seems to have been added so that the audience will instantly view them has villains and to be on board with the movie once said villain start being brutally killed later in the movie.

To me that feels like a bit of a cheat.  In a movie like this we should be rooting for our heroes because they are likable and because you genuinely want to see them make it out of their predicament, not because their tormentors wear Doc Martins and shave their heads.  Unfortunately we don’t really get a whole lot of time to get to know these people before they’re tossed in the pressure cooker.  The movie starts off well enough in its depiction of this band’s life on the road and the brief glimpses we get of what it’s like to be a dead broke rock band on tour are enticing.  I maybe would have liked to see this section play out a bit longer in order to give you a little more time to get to know these bandmates individually.  Hell, I maybe would have rather seen an entire movie about their rock tour sans the genre twist.  Alternately I might have found some interest in a more sober and straightforward examination of the world of this white supremacist punk bar.  In some ways the movie reminds me a bit of The Purge in that it’s a film that finds a potentially interesting setting and concept and then simply devolves into a run of the mill siege movie.

As it stands, the movie is largely dependent on its execution as a pure genre piece which to me was certainly strong but not strong enough to make up for its general hollowness.  The film’s cinematography is good, although I must say it was slightly compromised for me by the fact that the theater I watched it in wasn’t dark enough to really give the right atmosphere, not that that’s the movie’s fault.  Saulnier also does give certain scenes a reasonable amount of tension but not to any earth shattering degree and I was oddly unmoved and unshocked whenever one of the film’s protagonists was felled.  Overall it just seemed well made but forgettable, which in retrospect is pretty much what I thought of Blue Ruin.  I do think Jeremy Saulnier has talent and I do look forward to what he does next, but next time he picks a color and a word that begins with “R” I hope he can produce something a bit more meaningful to do it with.

Knight of Cups(3/19/2016)


Not too long ago the release of a new Terrance Malick film was a rare and special thing.  Even if you ignore his famous twenty year hiatus between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line it remained the case that you were likely to wait at least five years in-between each one of his efforts.  But it seems something has changed because just two years after his much beloved The Tree of Life he managed to release a brand new movie called To the Wonder in (by his standards) record time and now just a few years after that he’s come out with another new movie called Knight of Cups.  The big question of course is whether or not these long stretches in-between movies were in fact necessary to Malick’s creative process or whether they were simply unfortunate droughts worth filling in with new product.  To many To the Wonder suggested that this sped up schedule was not doing him any favors, but I was not among them.  I wouldn’t say that was his best film, in fact it was probably his weakest up to that point, but I did quite like it and thought it was a worthy companion piece to The Tree of Life.  Unfortunately I’m not so sure I can say the same about this latest movie in his newly expedited slate of films, in fact I’m not really sure what to make of it at all.

The film is set in present day Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, and focuses on a man named Rick (Christian Bale) who I had assumed was a movie star but who the various online plot descriptors say is actually a screenwriter.  Yeah, that’s the level of non-narrative abstraction we’re dealing with in this time around.  The film is divided into eight segments, each one roughly dealing with his brief interactions with a handful of other people, many of them having had some sort of relation to him in his past.  We meet his brother (Wes Bentley), his father (Brian Dennehy), his current friend/lover (Imogen Poots), his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), another ex-flame (Natalie Portman), and various other Los Angeles denizens like a decadent millionaire (Antonio Banderas).

Malick’s career can pretty easily be put into two stages.  The first stage goes from his debut film Badlands goes through his first four films and reaches its crescendo with The New World.  These films basically take a concept that easily could be turned into a standard Hollywood project (a serial killer and his lover on the run, the battle of Guadalcanal, the Pocahontas story, etc.) and then tackle it using his signature ethereal style in order to make it feel wholly different than it would have.  Then with 2011’s The Tree of Life he kind of reinvented himself in terms of content if not style.  Rather than focusing on a story with a high concept of sorts, that movie brought the Malick touch to a very down to earth story about a boy’s coming of age in the 1950s and this trend continued into 2013’s To the Wonder which was primarily about a rocky relationship between a man and a woman.  At the end of the day both movies were about very common situations that everyone can relate to on some level.  Knight of Cups, by contrast, is trying to do much the same thing but instead of focusing on relatively universal situations it is focusing on what it’s like to be a wealthy show business figure surrounded by obscene wealth and beautiful women at all times and that is… not something everyone gets a chance to experience.  This is of course where I think we start to run into problems.  When those other movies skipped over the conventional exposition and explanation that most movies would give you audiences were still able to follow along to some extent because the situations were so familiar.  Here not so much.

To make matters worse Malick has, if anything, increased the level of abstraction here to the point of it bordering on incoherence.  There isn’t really a story here as such.  If anything it seems to be designed as a character study of the Christian Bale character but the movie is so dearth of conventional dialogue that we barely get to know him at all.  I think the idea is to give us an idea of what he’s like based on his relationship to all the other characters, but his interactions with them are so brief and impressionistic that we only get the vaguest idea of who they are and what his past is with them.  We get that there’s some sort of strife between his family members, that his marriage to the Cate Blanchett character didn’t work out, that he somehow wronged the Natalie Portman character, but I don’t think there’s enough there to really hang a movie on.  The signature Malick voice-overs aren’t much of a help either as they are even less on point than usual and often take the form of literal poems rather than concrete ideas and the chronology of the whole film is also all over the place.

Malick is, as usual, a visual stylist worth taking note of and his imagery often remains quite beautiful although it never quite had the same bite here as it did in his last couple of films. Emmanuel Lubezki returns as his cinematographer and while his and Malick’s eye for beautiful framings a and seemingly weightless camera movements remain just as impactful as ever the raw cinematography here felt a little more digital and bland than it has in the past.  At times some of the imagery felt a little more indulgent than it has in the past as well, as if Malick came up with a laundry list of interesting shots he wanted to get and then made sure they all ended up in the movie one way or another.  On an intellectual level I kind of get what he’s doing.  Malick has spent much of his career bringing out the beauty in nature through his camera work, but throughout his career he has shown a similar level of awe towards man-made creations whether its his treatment of 17th Century England in the last act of The New World or his admiration of Urban Texas during the Sean Penn portions of The Tree of Life.  This is in many ways a film that’s trying to focus more in on his perspective of modern urban life in both its beauty and occasional ugliness and in this way it is a valuable inclusion into his larger body of work… I just wish he had found a better way to do it.

The film takes its title from a tarot card called “The Knight of Cups” and there are various title cards along the way that assign other tarot cards to various characters.  Wikipedia tells me that according to standard tarot divination the Knight of Cups represents “a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.”  That sounds like an interesting person, and if I look back at the film I suppose I could apply those attributes to its central character if I wanted to, but I kind of wish the film itself had made those character traits known to me in the actual text rather than some riddle that I have to look up by googling the film’s title.  I’m a pretty hardcore Malick defender, the kind of person who loved To the Wonder and think The New World is somewhere in the director’s top three but with Knight of Cups he’s finally found a level of abstraction and general aimlessness that I can’t even get behind and defend.  There are hints of a solid Malick film that seem to be hidden beneath some of the obliqueness of the whole thing that I wish could break free, but at the same time I almost kind of wonder if Malick should have given up any pretense of storytelling and just gone full-on Koyaanisqatsi with this thing. Either way, I can’t say that I got out of it what I wanted and I’m hoping that Malick maybe slows down a bit before he tries to push this style even further into depths of the unintelligibility.


Hail Caesar(2/14/2016)


The Coen brothers have been on such a great winning streak for the last 10+ years that it’s almost hard to remember that they were in some pretty dire straits in the early 2000s.  In 2003 and 2004 they released two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, which were considered back to back failures both commercially and critically.  In the grand scheme of things I wouldn’t call either of those movies terrible and actually kind of enjoy Intolerable Cruelty for what it is, but it certainly looked like the Coens were losing their touch and were perhaps on the outs.  Fortunately they were able to take a three year break, regroup, and come out with their Academy Award winning triumph No Country for Old Men.  Since then they’ve everything they’ve put out has at least been a critical triumph and some of them have even made pretty decent box office.  All good things do come to an end however, and there were a lot of signs pointing to their latest movie Hail, Caesar being the film that broke the winning streak.  The film’s early February release date was certainly a bad sign, but really it’s the trailer that had me worried as it had exactly the same retro celebrity driven tone that those early 2000s failures had.  I’d like to say I was wrong in my suspicious, but alas I think they’ve turned out to be correct.

Set in 1951 Hollywood, the title Hail Caesar refers to a film that is being made at a fictional movie studio called Capitol Pictures which is being overseen by an executive named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is pondering whether or not to leave the movie industry to get a cushy job at Lockheed.  While deciding this he finds himself juggling a bunch of crisis all at once.  One of his leading ladies (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and he needs to find a way to either conceal this or find someone for her to get into a sham marriage with fast in order to avoid a scandal.  Meanwhile he’s trying to convert one of his B-western stars (Alden Ehrenreich) into the leading man of an upscale comedy of manners despite his thick Texan accent, much to the consternation of his director (Ralph Fiennes).  Worst of all, the star of his titular huge budget Roman epic (George Clooney) has disappeared from the set and appears to have been kidnapped by a communist cell called The Future, and a pair of sibling reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton) seems to be on to all this trouble.

Though it has a very different tone, Hail Caesar actually has certain structural similarities to the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man and their 2012 film Inside Llewyn Davis in that all three films look at men who are in the midst of spiritual and/or personal crises and are trying to decide what the next direction in their lives will be.  Where A Serious Man was plainly Jewish in its outlook and Inside Llewyn Davis had a sort of Buddist quality in the way it cycled in on itself, this one would seem to be looking at aspects of Christianity or at the very lease gentility.  It is notable that Eddie Mannix is a practicing Catholic in the movie, especially given that most studio executives in the 50s were Jewish.  Additionally, the film that he’s making is clearly modeled after 50s sword and sandals movies like Quo Vidas and The Robe in that it was openly dealing with the Christ story, but doing so in a very superficial and cynical way in order to sell it to middle America.  I am not, however, sure exactly what the Coens were trying to say about Mannix’ Catholicism as this film is a bit muddled and easily distracted.  Mannix certainly seems sincere in his beliefs as he seems to go to confession every day, possibly because he’s constantly dealing with the tawdry scandals that his movie stars get into but he also feels he needs to assemble holy men in order to know whether or not his film is theologically sound.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the spiritual elements of the film and should concern myself more with what the Coens are trying to say about 50s Hollywood, namely that it probably wasn’t the golden age we all like to think it is.  It’s notable that every one of the fake films within the film looks awful.  The title movie is a bloated and empty expensive tentpole, the Alden Ehrenreich character goes from being in a moronic B-western to being in a pretentious drawing room movie that only feigns at sophistication, and elsewhere we see people making cookie cutter musicals that only exist because other similar movies made money.  What’s more, the film shows that celebrities were just as capable of being vain and scandal-ridden in the past as they are now and that people were as vapidly obsessed with tabloid stuff then as they are now.  Of course this is far from the first movie to point any of this out and I’m also not exactly sure where the sub-plot about the communist cell comes in, firstly because this sub-plot kind of suggests that Joe McCarthy had good reason to be worried about Hollywood and secondly because it hardly seems to play into Mannix’s inner conflict at all aside from the fact that it gives him another crisis to clean up.

So ultimately I can’t say I got a lot out of Hail Caesar thematically, but that would have been alright if it simply worked as a comedy.  Unfortunately I can’t say I found the movie all that funny.  To be fair, very few of the Coens’ pure comedies have really been on my wavelength, pretty much the only ones that have really made me laugh all that uproariously in the past have been The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading while others like Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy have at best left me with a certain dry amusement.  “Dry amusement” probably describes what I felt during the better moments in Hail Caesar.  There were certainly some scenes and moments in the movie I enjoyed.  The film’s parodies of old Hollywood films are certainly fun, especially an innuendo laden musical number featuring a cameo by Channing Tatum, but the film would have benefited greatly from an injection of faster screwball pacing.  So, what we’re left with is a movie that is simply not deep enough and not fun enough to really be a satisfying Coen Brothers product by any measure.  Having said all that, a Coen Brothers movie is a Coen brothers movie and even their misfires are going to be a little watchable but this is definitely one of their worst.