Film and drama

Screen Themes – Hail Caesar and ranking the Coen Brothers

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It’s time for some offbeat yet perfectly crafted movie magic, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out the Coen Brothers latest Hail Caesar and takes a look back at their filmography.

Hail, Caesar! (2016) directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Set in the 1950’s, Hail Caesar tells the story of Eddie Mannix, Capital Pictures Head of Physical Production, otherwise known as a studio fixer. Considering a serious job offer from aerospace manufacturer Lockheed, Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) handles problem after problem, from a pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johannsen) to a kidnapped lead (George Clooney), all the while keeping twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) off the trail of the hottest stories of their careers.

Making his third appearance in the Coen universe, Josh Brolin plays Mannix as an unflappable force of nature, always on time with a solution to any problem. A family man who works all hours of the day, his only weakness is his inability to quit smoking, and perhaps his penchant for slapping movie stars. Brolin is capably supported in his role by a talented cast including Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand and newcomer Aiden Ehrenreich, who plays young actor Hobie Doyle, a man with far more depth than is initially apparent.

It is a testament to the Coen brothers that they have persuaded one of the biggest movie stars in the world to play a moron not once but four separate times. From their initial collaboration in 2000’s depression era musical O Brother Where Art Thou, Clooney’s characters got steadily dumber, with vaguely competent lawyer Miles Massey (Intolerable Cruelty) giving way to bumbling CIA agent Harry Pfarrer (Burn After Reading) and finally self-obsessed thespian Baird Whitlock.

At its heart, Hail Caesar is a love letter to movies. Impressive set-pieces include a synchronized swimming sequence featuring Scarlett Johannsen as a mermaid and a bar-room dance led by sailor-boy Channing Tatum, and it seems that Hail Caesar owes more than a small debt to director/choreographer Busby Berkeley.  

With stylized dialogue, a side plot about communists that doesn’t entirely work and a ‘more Coen brothers than ever before’ approach, Hail Caesar will probably not appeal to everyone. On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for a somewhat whimsical ode to the films of the 1950s, starring a bunch of actors who look like they’re having a really good time, you could do far worse than Hail Caesar.

Rating: 7/10

Ranking the Coens

From their 1984 debut Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen have been two of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood. Alternating farce with drama and sharply observed sketches of broken people, the Coen Brothers make movies unlike any other director.

16. The Ladykillers (2004)

Possibly the only true misfire in the Coen canon, The Ladykillers is a remake of the 1955 comedy that tells the story of a group of bank robbers who masquerade as musicians in order to commit a heist. With a cast including J.K. Simmons and Marlon Wayans, the main problem with The Ladykillers is probably lead Tom Hanks, who seems to lack the subtle touch of Coen regulars like John Goodman or George Clooney.

15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

The second in the Coens ‘Clooney as a moron’ quadrilogy, Intolerable Cruelty is essentially a battle of the sexes between George’s womanizing lawyer and Catherine Zeta-Jones conniving gold-digger. Amusing at times, Intolerable Cruelty often relies on slapstick humour, which worked well in Raising Arizona but less so in this case. As with The Ladykillers, part of the problem is casting, with Zeta-Jones a little out of her depth in the Coen universe. It is interesting to note that neither Zeta-Jones or Hanks worked with the Coens again, a situation at odds with the group of talented Coen regulars that turn up again and again.

14. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Starring Billy-Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini, along with Coen regulars Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco and Jon Polito, The Man Who Wasn’t There tells the story of a barber who decides to try a bit of blackmail, only to have his plan blow up in his face. Shot entirely in black & white, this is a relatively slow film, with Thornton playing such a cypher of a character that it is hard to get involved in his story.

13. A Serious Man (2009)

Often cited as one of the Coens most personal films, A Serious Man features a relatively unknown cast, led by Michael Stuhlbarg in the title role. Set in the directors home state of Minnesota, the film tells the story of the hapless Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose life spirals out of control. Short on laughs and long on depressing silences, A Serious Man will probably resonate with people in the middle of an extended run of bad luck.

12. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Before Inside Lleyn Davis, Oscar Isaac was a talented yet relatively unknown character actor. Since that film he has built a profile as one of the best actors of his generation, able to do think pieces like Ex Machina and blockbusters like The Force Awakens. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of a week in the life of an unsuccessful folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961. Rich in period detail and starring a musically adept cast (including Justin Timberlake as a far more successful folk singer), Inside Llewyn Davis is a lamentation on art and the inability of some people to get out of their own way.

11. Burn After Reading (2008)

With an impressive cast including Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and George Clooney, Burn After Reading tells the story of two personal trainers who discover the memoirs of a CIA agent and try to sell them to the highest bidder. Made immediately after the excellent No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading feels like a cinematic palate cleanser, light and good looking but without much substance.

10. Barton Fink (1991)

A spiritual predecessor to Hail Ceasar, Barton Fink is the first Coen brothers movie about making movies, although the perspective is far darker. Set in the 1940’s, Barton Fink is a semi-successful New York playwright who moves to Los Angeles to become a writer for the people, only to be afflicted by writers block and a series of poor decisions that send his life spiraling into chaos. With blistering performances from John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis and Jon Polito, Barton Fink is not an easy film to watch, but it’s worth the effort.

9. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Apparently a lot of people hated this movie on release, but I find it rather charming. The plot (such as it is) sees naïve college graduate Norville Barnes promoted to president of a manufacturing company as part of an elaborate scam, invent the hula hoop (you know, for kids) and fall in love with the reporter who is on a mission to expose him. Starring a young Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman and Bruce Campbell, The Hudsucker Proxy is both a slapstick comedy and an indictment of corporate greed.

8. True Grit (2010)

A remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a 14 year old girl on a mission to avenge her murdered father. To assist in this quest she hires drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges in a role that nearly won him a second Academy Award. The duo are joined by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) as they pursue the dastardly Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. Beautifully shot by longtime Coen cinematographer Roger Deakin, True Grit is a surprisingly contemplative movie about people struggling against nature and their own bad instincts.

7. Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers first film is beautifully simple and fiendishly complex at the same time, telling a tale of adultery, mistrust, double crosses and murder. Starring the reptilian Dan Hedaya as shady bar owner Julian, who discovers his wife (Frances McDormand in the first of many Coen films) is having an affair with one of his bartenders. Julian hires seedy private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to investigate the affair, and then later to murder the adulterers. Unsurprisingly, things do not go to plan…

6. Raising Arizona (1987)

Made in a time before Nicolas Cage was synonymous with terrible movies, Raising Arizona is the tale of a well-meaning but not-too-bright childless couple who steal one quintuplet from an over-privileged family. Cage plays recidivist bank robber H.I. McDunnough, who meets and falls in love with police officer Ed, played by Holly Hunter. H.I.’s decision to steal baby Nathan Jr results in the pair being chased by the baby’s family, Ed’s former co-workers and a bounty hunter who looks like he stepped straight out of Mad Max. Funny, charming and genuinely emotional, this is a great film to watch if you’re about to have kids. Seriously.

5. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Set in the depression era and loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother Where Art Thou tells the story of a trio of criminals, led by the dapper Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney). After escaping from a chain gang, the three go on a quest to find hidden gold, distracted along the way by one-eyed giants (John Goodman), a crooked politician (Charles Durning) and soul-less guitar maestro who proves to be their salvation. Filled with catchy, period accurate songs (curated by T-Bone Burnett) and dialogue that never fails to raise a smile, O Brother is a joy to watch.

4. No Country For Old Men (2007)

Starring Josh Brolin as morally upright hunter Llewelyn Moss and Tommy Lee Jones as weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country For Old Men is a lamentation on aging and the evil that men do. After discovering a drug deal gone wrong and a bunch of dead bodies, Llewelyn decides to steal the bag of money he finds at the scene, only to attract the attention of mob hitman Anton Chigurh. Played by Javier Bardem in a truly chilling performance, Chigurh is an elemental evil, unstoppable in completing his mission.

3. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The closest thing the Coens have ever done to a mafia movie, Miller’s Crossing tells the tale of Tom Regan, a senior advisor to a mob boss (Albert Finney) in the prohibition era. As Regan (played by a never-better Gabriel Byrne) tries to stop the Irish mob from going to war with the Italians, his loyalties are torn and morals challenged. With a strong vein of black humour, Miller’s Crossing is driven by an exceptional supporting cast, including Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi. Deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Goodfellas and the Godfather.

2. Fargo (1996)

For many, this murder mystery set in rural Minnesota is the Coens best. Frances McDormand plays heavily pregnant cop Marge Gunderson, on the trail of a pair of kidnappers (Steve Buscemi & Peter Stormare) hired by hapless car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy). With endlessly quotable dialogue, beautiful cinematography and characters you genuinely care about, Fargo is a cinematic gem.

1. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski is a movie about kidnapping, mistaken identity, nihilism and bowling. Jeff Bridges is note perfect as The Dude, "the laziest man in Las Angeles County, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide", a simple man drawn into a complex web of fraud, semi-aquatic mammals and Asian-Americans peeing on his rug. Narrated by the laconic Sam Elliott and featuring top-shelf actors including Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, john Goodman and Steve Buscemi, The Big Lebowski is a film that benefits enormously from multiple viewings, with sly winks and subtleties buried within the labyrinthine plot. Honestly my favourite movie of all time.

Like what you read? John Turnbull''s books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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