“Roughly Speaking” on “Hail, Caesar!” and the Coen Brothers

Rodricks Coens 2016-02-05

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the just-released Hail, Caesar! and the work of the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) in toto. If you’re a fan – of us, Dan and/or the Coens, then you must listen (and we’re not the only ones on the podcast!).

Here is the link to the show.


In Brilliant “45 Years,” the Past Derails the Present

45 Years

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Pity the poor Tom Courtenay (Quartet). He’s a marvelous actor, yet paired opposite the grand Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go) – Oscar-nominated for this film – he cannot help but pale in comparison. He’s very good; she’s brilliant. Of course, his role here is to play the more doddering member of a long-married couple, while hers is to simmer in a long burn that erupts in flame in the final moments of the movie. The cause of that upset? A long-buried memory – the ghost of a long-lost love – that surfaces just as Geoff (Courtenay) and Kate (Rampling) are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.

If that’s not a usually noted marker (unlike the 40th and the 50th), that’s kind of the point. It’s a symbol of how much these two have tried, without perhaps even being conscious of it, to remind themselves that their life together has meant something. There’s clearly love – or a lot of familiar comfort, anyway – but is there passion? In any case, Geoff, it turns out, was undergoing heart-bypass surgery at the time of the 40th, and so Kate has decided to make a big deal out of the 45th. From the start, it’s clear that she is the one who wants this; Geoff can take it or leave it.

I haven’t seen any of director Andrew Haigh’s other work, but in movies like Weekend and Greek Pete he explores relationships between gay men, and according to this movie’s press kit, he sees 45 Years as an extension of his interest in intimacy (or lack thereof) within couples. After seeing 45 Years, I feel the need to check out his earlier work, as I found the new film both beautiful and devastating in its portrayal of the way in which a single (perceived) betrayal can undo a lifetime of shared experience. Haigh adapted the screenplay from a short story by British writer David Constantine, entitled “In Another Country,” and while the source text is a brief gem (at just 11 pages), what he adds to it – including the setting of the anniversary – makes it truly profound.

For what we see is nothing less than the details of a life, as it is revisited, parsed and redefined. The greater the specificity of Kate and Geoff’s shared (and unshared) secrets, the more universal their distress. Rampling, especially, gives much with very little, the restrained emotions of the years finally breaking free in an almost-stifled whimper of distress. It’s an amazing performance, and it makes me wish that this year’s crop of best-actress nominees were not so strong (the smart money, apparently, is on either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan to win). Rampling didn’t help her chances recently by claiming that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was “racist to whites” (uh, really?). But no matter: let’s judge the work. 45 Years is a movie that must be seen by anyone who has ever been in a relationship, which is (I hope) most, if not all, of us. Two fine actors at the top of their respective games, working off of a smart script, take us on a journey through time and memory where past sins – in this case, of careful omission – haunt present-day realities. One of the best films of 2015.

“Hail, Caesar!” – We Salute Thy Cleverness, but Not Your Script

Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)

I sometimes struggle over what to make of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Certain ones, I adore. These include: Barton FinkThe Hudsucker Proxy (hardly a popular choice, but I love it just the same), FargoA Serious Man and True Grit. In others, while I may enjoy parts, I do not find the completed whole particularly satisfying. In this category we find: Raising ArizonaThe Big LebowskiO Brother, Where Art Thou?No Country for Old MenInside Llewyn Davis, and now … Hail, Caesar! (we won’t discuss the films I do not like at all, which are but few). Filled with scenes of great brilliance, with equally brilliant performances, Hail, Caesar! somehow manages to be less than the sum of its (un)equal parts. Still, when it succeeds, it does so with panache. Whatever my opinion of the entire movie, I had a great time watching (most of) it.

Loosely based on the life of real-life Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, the movie immerses us in the world of the late studio era, when each production house was a universe unto itself, with laws set by the moguls that Could. Not. Be. Broken. Mannix was one of the men tasked with keeping stars in line, lest their shenanigans end up in the gossip columns, ruining their public image and jeopardizing profits. The Coens have terrific fun with the setting, just as they did with their previous (twisted) love letter to Hollywood, Barton Fink. Here, their affection for a bygone age feels less cynical and more genuine, which is good in that we get many more delightful pastiches of their thoughts on what it must have been like, but bad in that the film has much less bite. What, exactly, is it all for? Every time I feel this way at the end of one of their movies, I sense that they spent too much time laughing at their own jokes (but what great jokes!) and forgot about the need for an ultimate punch line.

Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) plays Mannix as a tough drill sergeant who loves what he does. He sees himself as the pillar that supports the entire studio edifice. As always, Brolin is very good; it’s a shame the movie doesn’t quite do justice to his performance. Others shine as well. There’s Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a pregnant starlet in the mode of Esther Williams, mermaid suit and all; Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) as a Gene Kelly-esque dancer; Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a temperamental director; and, almost best of all, relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) as a young Western star whom the studio has (oddly) decided to recast in a drawing-room drama. George Clooney (The Monuments Men) is around, as well, playing the fatuous leading man of the biblical epic that Mannix is shepherding, but his attempts at stupid feel too obvious, and he ends up being the least interesting member of the cast.

The plot centers around … a plot! And this being the 1950s, the Communists are behind it. A cabal of disgruntled writers plans a kidnapping which stops Mannix’s production cold, with money on the line. The gossip columnists start circling, like vultures, to figure out what’s going on, and before too long Mannix has a real mess on his hands. Meanwhile, here and there, we get diverting scenes of this and that –  as if the Coens wanted to shoehorn every story element that would sense in that time period into the script. The Esther Williams and Gene Kelly numbers are wonderful, as is the Ben-Hur-like movie within the movie; the Communists, less so. The period details are all exquisitely rendered, and any film aficionado or lover of film history should get a kick out of so much of what is on screen. But when the credits come up, we have to ask to what end all that effort?