Friday, February 12, 2016

"Hail Caesar!" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new Coen Brothers film "Hail, Caesar!" and the DVDs "Truth" and "The Visit." The Book of the Week is Brene Brown's "Daring Greatly."  I also bring you up-to-date on "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die" with Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura."]

Hail, Caesar!

It's the early 1950's in the waning days of The Golden Age of Hollywood and a famous actor is kidnapped.

What you can count on from the Coen Brothers is that the film will be fresh, original and quirky. Think "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" and "No Country For Old Men."

Here we have Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of the fictional Capitol Pictures and Hollywood studio fixer (who was a real person, by the way), making sure the viewing public doesn't know just how jaded their beloved movie stars really are. That is certainly something that would not be possible today with social media reporting everything from a star's latest romance to his issues with passing gas.

Mannix is a deeply religious man who goes to confession so many times that the priest tells him to cool it.  He is in the midst of producing his big religious epic (think Cecil B. DeMille) "Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ" starring leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).  He also has to deal with swimming diva DeeAnna Moran's (Scarlett Johansson) illegitimate child and turning singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (charmingly played by Alden Ehrenreich) into a sophisticated romantic star.  Amidst all of this, Whitlock is kidnapped.

The Coen brothers have created a loving and hilarious send-up of the movies at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time of innocence when we believed what we saw in the movies was real and that our heroes were as lily-white and scandal free as portrayed by the studio driven movie magazines.  But now we know that behind all of that dancing and singing and drawing room elegance were the dark secrets of the real lives of our idols- sex (gasp!), illegitimate babies (gasp!), homosexuality (gasp!). 

But the stars were protected by the studios.  There was always someone like Eddie Mannix, who was the fixer, who made sure the stars, but more importantly, the studios, the moneymakers, were protected from scandal. But that time of innocence was about to end as the fear of "the bomb" hovered over everyone and Hollywood started blacklisting anyone who even breathed the word "Communist." 

This is a bunch of movies within a movie. The Coen Brothers have the clichés from the movies of that era covered: a singing, dancing Gene Kelly character channeling "Anchors Aweigh," a swimming goddess like Esther Williams, a singing cowboy - think Gene Autry and Roy Rogers - and an effete director specializing in elegant drawing room dramas. 

Highlights include Channing Tatum dancing up a storm as a Gene Kelly clone in a dance number that has some moves that never would have made it past the censors in the 50's and Johansson channeling Esther Williams except with a Brooklyn accent and chewing gum (Johansson played that same kind of character in "Don Jon" and I love her doing that gun moll kind of character).

Ralph Fiennes as stuffy effete director Laurence Laurentz has one of the funniest scenes in the film as he works to whip cowboy actor Hobie Doyle into a sophisticate for a drawing room drama by trying to teach Hobie, with his pronounced cowboy drawl, how to say "Would that it 'twere so simple." Classic. And speaking of Ralph, when did he get so funny? How did he go from "Schindler's List" and "The English Patient," where he turned brooding into an art, to "The Grand Budapest Hotel" to this?  It doesn't matter.  He can do anything.

There is also a particularly funny scene where Mannix assembles religious leaders from the various religions to get their approval of his depiction of Christ in the film.  They get into an argument about Jesus' relationship to God. You had to have been there.

This Golden Age of Hollywood homage is wonderfully funny. But one wonders how many of these old Hollywood references anyone under the age of 50 might recognize, unless they are devoted movie lovers, and there are too many references to count.  Tilda Swinton hilariously plays twin sister gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, a nod to Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons who were not twins. They were not even sisters, but they might as well have been, because they were both almost interchangeable old bitties plying their trade at the same time, and Esther Williams did lead a sexually adventurous life (read her book) despite her wholesome screen image. Singing cowboys who couldn't act were rampant as were Hollywood scandals involving sexual preferences.  Lots for a "fixer" to do.

Brolin, who, I think, is one of our most underrated actors, carries the film well as straight man to the wacky shenanigans of the other actors, some of whom are Coen Brothers regulars: Frances McDormand looks just like you would imagine a female film editor of the day, glasses, smoking, toiling away in the dark; Clooney as Baird is handsome but brainless and very funny.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who worked with the Coens on their version of "True Grit" and who has embraced digital photography, shot this film on 35mm, because the Coens don't like digital and they especially wanted this film to have the look of films of old.  And thank god, because I hate digital films.

There is so much going on at any given moment, that it's difficult to figure out what the Coens are actually trying to say here.  Is this film just a love letter to The Golden Age of Hollywood or is it a comment on lost innocence, religion or blacklisting? Or something else?

It doesn't really matter.  It's good fun.  And the more you know about movies from 60 years ago, the more fun you will have.

The film is full of oblique movie references.  Mannix arranges for DeeAnna to go away, have her baby and then adopt her. Loretta Young really did adopt her own daughter as per her daughter's book.  Hobie, our western star, does a bit where he is on a date in a restaurant and turns his spaghetti into a lasso. Voila!  Spaghetti Western.  Get it?  Movie trivia fans will have a field day.

Rosy the Reviewer this going to stand as a Coen Brothers classic like "Fargo" or "The Big Lebowski?"  Probably not but it is a fun evening of theatre that only the Coen Brothers can deliver.

***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

Now Out on DVD

Truth (2015)

The "truth" behind the 2004 "60 Minutes" report about George W. Bush's military service which cost newsman Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes their jobs.

Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, a hard-hitting news woman out of the CBS office in Dallas. One of her stories, about Abu Graib, had won a Peabody and was considered one of the best pieces of journalism ever. Dan Rather (Robert Redford) was a trusted news anchor who followed Walter Cronkite in that role on the CBS Evening News and was also one of the reporters on "60" Minutes."

During the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign, Mapes gets wind of the fact that in the 1970's George W. Bush not only used connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam but once there went AWOL.  It was a story too good to be true.  Little did she know.

Mapes got a team together to investigate the story - Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) and Lucy Scott (Elizabeth Moss).  Much like the Boston Globe's Spotlight Team, so wonderfully portrayed in the Oscar nominated film "Spotlight," this is an investigative team story, except this time instead of investigating pedophle priests this team is investigated allegations that George W. Bush avoided the draft and going to Vietnam by using his connections to get into the Air National Guard and then did not fulfill his duties while there.

In the course of their investigation, Mapes and her team discovered that not only did Bush get into the Guard by using connections to then Texas Governor Barnes, but in 1972 he was suspended in writing for not taking a physical and never showed up for work from 1972-73.  The next time he appeared on the record was in 1973 when he was granted an early discharge and went to Hawaii.

Question #1 - Did Bush get into the Air National Guard to avoid Vietnam?

Question #2: Did he skip his physical because drugs would have been found and did he go AWOL for a year?

Question #3: Who got him into the Air National Guard?

As the team investigated these questions, no one would talk.  They kept getting a stock answer from the higher ups:  "No strings were pulled."

Keep in mind, this was the Presidential election where Bush's opponent, John Kerry, was getting attacked by the Swift Boat group who tried to discredit Kerry's war hero status.

However, Mary finally found someone who claimed to have proof.  Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) had copies of documents that showed that Bush made no attempt to be certified to fly and that his pilot position was a critical function.  This contradicted what Bush had said about his early discharge:  that he had not been needed.

As the investigation continued, Gov. Barnes confirmed he used his position to get Bush into the ANG and with some other confirmations about the accuracy of the documents, the show aired...and then all hell broke loose and Mapes and Rather became the story. 

Strangely, it wasn't the content of the memos that were called into question but the authenticity of the memos, because supposedly the typewriter used to type them was not in use in the 1970's and it didn't help that they were copies, implying the memos were forged, typed on a computer and then made to look authentic.  Conservative websites went crazy.  ABC News went after them.  And sources started to recant.

"60 Minutes" did an internal investigation and Mary was thrown under the bus and Rather was forced to apologize on air and his career never recovered. "60 Minutes" did not stand by Mapes and Rather.  They caved and used the two of them as scapegoats. So much for journalistic guts.

Rather was clearly a father figure to Mapes and the two had a close and trusting relationship.  There is a scene at the end of the film where Mary asks Dan," Why didn't you ask me if the documents were real?" to which he replied, "Because I didn't need to."

Cate plays ballsy women like no other.  She continues to amaze.

Redford is believable as Rather.  He has captured Rather's cadence and how he sometimes garbles his words, though he could have used a bit more of Rather's drawl.

Elizabeth Moss and Randy Quaid didn't really have much to do but Topher Grace was a stand out.

Based on Mary Mapes' book (and this is clearly her version of "the truth") and adapted for the screen by James Vanderbilt (he also directed), this docudrama is a riveting newsroom story very much like the Oscar-nominated "Spotlight."  Released a month before "Spotlight," not sure how this movie got buried as it is every bit as compelling and has an all-star cast.
"60 Minutes" was riding high.  It was the first news show to ever make money.  But moral of the story?  If you go after those in power, you cannot win. When people don't like a story, they will throw all kinds of crap at it in order to obscure the truth.

There is a poignant scene between Rather and Mike Smith.  Smith asks Rather why he got into news and Rather answers, "Curiosity."  Rather then returns the question to Smith and Smith replies:  You.

Rather's career never recovered and it's sad to see him relegated to the AXS Channel and his "Big Interview" series.  It's a good show and highlights Rather's extraordinary and tactful interview ability, but who watches AXS?  It's a sad end to what was once a stellar career. 

The ending of the film has the usual ending for a docudrama:  before the end credits roll we are brought up to date on what happened to the key players - a poignant reminder of what happens when you mess with the Big Guys.  Mary Mapes never worked again.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a powerful docudrama every bit as good as "Spotlight."  It's enough to make you stop watching "60 Minutes!"


The Visit (2015)

Two kids visit their grandparents and are frightened by their strange behavior.

Kathryn Hahn starts the film by facing the camera and talking about her bad relationship with her parents who she hadn't seen for 15 years. However, she has recently made contact and arrangements for her teen daughter, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and young son,Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), to visit them while she goes off on a cruise with a new love.  She is being interviewed by her 15-year-old daughter who is making a documentary of the reunion in hopes it will help mend the rift between her mother and her parent.  Well, you know what that means.  It's all going to get very "Blair Witch Project."

Becca and Tyler take the train to meet their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), who are there waiting for them.  They go to their farm and about 20 minutes into the film, strange things start happening.  Nana has this habit of running around at night on all fours and gnawing on the woodwork.  Pop Pop has strange fits of anger.  At first the kids try to explain away the behavior, the running joke being that they are old and old people do all kinds of strange things.  When the kids ask Pop Pop about Nana's behavior, he too says old people do strange things.  Made me wonder if I can start using that excuse.  Anyway, Pop Pop tells them it's best if they don't come out of their room after 9:30.  Now right there, if someone told me that, I would be on the phone to my Mom immediately demanding to go home.

With the kids filming everything and the camera on constantly, even when it is laid down, there is a sense of ominousness and that this is going to be one of those "found footage" films.  It sort of is and sort of isn't.

I am known to dabble in the occasional horror film.  Hubby can't handle anything scary so I'm usually watching on my own.  My interest goes back a long way to the Vincent Price/Edgar Allen Poe films and my all-time favorite, "Circus of Horrors."  But those so-called horror films of the 1960's can't compete with the special effects of today.  There were no axes plunged into skulls or intestines teeming with maggots. Hubby could have probably handled this one.

Here M. Night Shyamalan harks back to those less gory films of bygone days by relying more on suspense than thrills. Shyamalan's most famous films are probably "The Sixth Sense" starring Bruce Willis, "Signs" starring Mel Gibson and "The Village," but since then he has been plagued with a series of flops.  This one is more like his early films, but sadly not as good.  I figured it out right away whereas when "The Sixth Sense" ended, my daughter had to explain it to me.

Shyamalan seems to like psychological suspense stories that lure you in and then give you a big twist.  I like his films.  They are not slasher films but more the "what the hell is going to happen next" kind of films with a big twist ending. He plays on our childhood fears of the boogie man under the bed and people not being what they appear to be. Unfortunately I figured out this big twist early on.

But what sets this apart from the usual horror film is that it's actually quite funny and purposely so. There is one funny scene where Nana asks Becca to climb inside the oven to clean it.  She does and for a minute there, I thought I was watching "Hansel and Gretel."

DeJonge and Oxenbould are appealing young actors.  They didn't annoy me at all, as precocious kids in movies usually do.  And Dunagan and McRobbie take their roles seriously. 

It's not a bad film but it's certainly not in the same league as "The Sixth Sense."  It feels more like a "Lifetime Movie." The film still has the production values of an A-list horror film but there are no A-list actors here. This movie relies on one big reveal moment.  If that doesn't work the movie doesn't work.  There are also some issues that stretch the limits of belief such as sending your kids to visit your parents when you haven't seen or spoken to them in 15 years. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...even though you will probably figure out the ending, you will still be compelled to find out if you are right.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

261 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

L'Avventura (1960)

During a boating trip, a young girl goes missing on a stark volcanic island and her friends try to find her in this early film by auteur director Michelangelo Antionioni.

Anna and Sandro are lovers but Anna (Lea Massari) is confused about their relationship and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a bit of a lothario.  They join their wealthy Roman friends Claudia (Monica Vitti), Anna's best friend and others for a Mediterranean cruise off the coast of Sicily.  They anchor on a small volcanic island, Lisca Bianca, and sunbathe and explore.  Sandro takes a snooze and when he wakes up, Anna is missing.  They scour the island and find nothing.  As the weather worsens, they all decide to leave and seek help, leaving Sandro and Claudia behind. 

Now it appears that Sandro has a hankering for Claudia.  Despite police efforts, Anna is not found and everyone leaves the island and tries to go on with their lives.  Sandro and Claudia get together but the ghost of Anna hangs over them. 

Antonioni likes the barren landscapes and themes of social isolation and lack of connection. Here he plays with the idle, decadent rich and their bored existences.  The film just drips of existential ennui.

I had a love affair with foreign films from a young age.  My friends and I, thinking ourselves very sophisticated, would talk our way into the local adults only foreign film theatre.  A fake ID didn't hurt.  We loved all of the existential stuff that was so popular in the 60's.  I mean we started the school Philosophy Club, for god sake, so we could talk about Sartre.  We were serious kids.

This one would have fit right into our existential yearnings but in 1960 I was only 12 so that would have been a hard sell to get in to see it.  Plus, I think I was still playing with Barbies when I was 12.

Anyway, this is one of Antonioni's early films.  It was booed at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, but some critics hailed it as one of the most important films ever shown there.  Two years later an international critics poll listed it as the second greatest movie ever made.  Four years after that Antonioni came to international stardom with "Blow-up."  I WAS old enough to see that one and it blew my mind.  This film also brought stardom to Monica Vitti, who was Antonioni's muse and starred in his next two films "La Notte" and "L'Eclisse."  From the loving close-ups of her, it feels like Antonioni was in love with her too.

Why it's a Must See:  "Although writer-director Michelangelo Antonioni had been making documentaries and features for nearly twenty years, this epic-length film was his major artistic and commercial breakthrough."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...perfect film for a dark rainy day so you can tap into your existential angst, and it's worth it just to drown in the gorgeousness that is Monica Vitti.

***Book of the Week***

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown (2015)

Brene Brown teaches us how to have the courage to be vulnerable.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”—Theodore Roosevelt

This quote is at the heart of Brene Brown's book and the work she does.  She made a huge hit at a TED talk she did on this topic and has emerged as one of Oprah's self-help darlings. I have even signed up for her video course as part of my self-help binge that I am on.

Vulnerability is not being a wimpy little victim.  That is not the kind of vulnerability Brown talks about.  Brown equates vulnerability with courage.  It's the courage to show up, to put yourself out there, to step into the arena - the arena of life.

Brown uses lots of imagery that reflects "the arena," such as the armor we wear as we go about life and the "shields" we use to combat feeling vulnerable.  The three most common "shields" being "foreboding joy," perfectionism" and "numbing."

"Foreboding Joy" is all about feeling something is too good to be true so we must have to pay somehow for feeling happy.  We wait for the other shoe to drop.  And by the way, do you know where that phrase came from?  Well since I am always trying to help, educate and provide a public service (comes from my years as a librarian) here it is:  In the early 1900's when immigrants flooded into the cities and people were crammed into apartment building, you could literally hear your upstairs neighbors taking off their shoes at night.  Once you heard the first show drop, you would wait for the other shoe to drop.  Get it?  You are welcome.  And you can thank Brene too. 

Anyway, my mother was great at "foreboding joy" and passed it down to me.  Don't get too happy.  Otherwise, something bad might happen.  It think it's a Swedish thing.  I always liked to think that if I anticipated the worst, then it wouldn't happen. 

The way to combat "foreboding joy?"  Gratitude.

Next, perfectionism is the belief that "if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame...[it's] a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen." 

The antidote to perfectionism?  "To be kinder and gentler to ourselves and each other.  To talk to ourselves the same way we'd talk to someone we care about."

And finally, "numbing."  It's not just wine, pills and cigarettes, it's also being crazy-busy or anything else you do to numb the anxiety, shame and disconnection you are feeling. 

What to do?  Learn how to actually feel feelings and how to lean into the discomfort of hard emotions.

This is just a taste of her book and what we need to do to live a "whole-hearted" life, but if that is what you want, to live fully, you need to have the courage to be vulnerable.

If you are interested in learning more about Brene and her courses go or watch this TED talk and see what you think.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Read the book and I will see you in the Arena!

That's it for this week!

See You Tuesday for

"A Letter to My Newborn Granddaughter"
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  1. Wait! You have a newborn granddaughter????? Congrats! I look forward to the next post with photos.

    Definitely looking for "The Truth". I know the story and agree it was a shame it crippled Dan Rather's career. Also meant to tell you I saw "Spotlight" and loved it.

    I also like Brene Brown but I have to wait to read this book. Still trying to clear the decks here.

    I have a burning question to ask you...think about it every time I read your movie reviews. Do you get buttered popcorn when you go to the big movies? there anything better tasting and worse for you BUT inquiring minds need to know...


    1. Yes, she was born on the 11th. With two little grandsons, I was thinking I might not get granddaughter. As for buttered popcorn? Usually when I go to the movies by myself, I get a diet coke. I like to have something to hold and pretend it's wine! If I go with Hubby, yes we get the popcorn but not with extra butter. I know it's bad enough without that. And you are right, it tastes great!

    2. Have you ever thought of smuggling in one of those small screw-top bottles of wine? And maybe some kettle corn in a great big tote bag? I love the "buttered" popcorn too, but always remember a friend of mine used to call it "yellow-colored Penzoil"…yuck. I absolutely cannot go to the movies without something to eat or drink. Going to the movies is a treat, and besides, whatever you eat in the dark doesn't count!

    3. Oh, geez, Susan, you read my mind. YES, I have thought about bringing in wine but so far have not had the nerve. It also helps that I often go early in the day for the "early bird special!" :) I usually have a diet coke and pretend it's wine OR if it's early in the day smuggle in a grande skinny vanilla latte from the Starbucks across from the theatre! And thanks for the heads up about what I eat in the dark doesn't count. I am on a gummy bear binge!

    4. Omg Susan! Wine is such a good idea but those days of driving after a drink are over for me...dang it. I sneak in water cuz I am so terrified of having a coughing fit. AND I only have a small buttered popcorn...honest. It's part of the reason I go to the movies....for that unhealthy popcorn! I can't do popcorn at home unless I share with the dogs.

      I can't begin to tell you what Mary will sneak into the movies. How does she stay so teeny?