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Blu-ray Review: 'Hail, Caesar!'

The latest Coen Brothers' comedy misses the mark but still manages to look and sound great.

Review by Matt Cummings

It goes without saying that The Coen Brothers are probably everyone's favorite independent filmmakers. Who can blame them for spitting out their names in the same breath as today's other fashionable phrases ('whiskey' and 'Bernie' among them). But those who really follow them might say Joel and Ethan Coen are like many of their recent characters: washed up, existing on the credit of their past glories, and doomed to a slow, agonizing death. Their latest Hail, Caesar! is the fourth in a line of duds, doing a pretty good job of turning the mirror on themselves, while the rest of us try to figure out the humor. Luckily, Universal comes prepared with great audio and video, although the Supplements need a lot of post-editing.

The Movie – 3/5
The Hollywood film system of 1951 takes us deep into the daily madness undertaken by Capitol Picture's studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he struggles to keep his studio and mental state from cracking. Solving one crisis after another - including an unplanned pregnancy by Scarlett Johansson's twice-divorced chain smoker, a western lead (Alden Ehrenreich) horribly miscast in Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) drawing room drama, and twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinson) - Mannix also has a personal struggle. He's been courted by Lockheed to head a comfy job and the chance to have dinner every night with his wife.

But soon all of that is superseded by the news that Capitol's lead Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has disappeared while shooting a Jesus film set in Roman times. We later learn that he's been shuffled off to a Santa Monica beach house filled with disgruntled Hollywood writers who've signed on with the Communist Party and spend their day philosophizing their way through tea sandwiches. Utilizing a top-flight secretary and nerves of steel, Mannix must employ his own actors in a manhunt for the square-jawed buffoon Whitlock before Communists can shuffle him away, all while deciding if this sort of chaotic life is really for him.

Ill-content from the beginning, Hail Caesar! never truly locks in. Like many Coen Brothers films, you wonder what it is that you're watching and seeking the answers long after you've experienced it. That's usually a satisfying journey, but here that effort yields few satisfying results. The real problem with Hail Caesar! is not its exceptional cast or expert camerawork, but the long moments of boredom that grow out of the Coen Brothers' script. They take their immense talents for dark comedy and their exceptional casting prowess and waste it on several arcs that don't affect the bottom line. Several are thrown in as vignettes designed to elicit either laughter or condemnation about the Hollywood film system; but little of it ever truly works. We essentially have a 30-minute film, propped up by several (albeit great) 50's style performances and all those unnecessary arcs. But some of those set pieces, including Channing Tatum's musical/tap-dancing sailor stint, are a sheer delight.

Hail Caesar!'s story is all about Mannix's journey: the daily crisis that's his work and the hilarious guilt over sneaking a few cigarettes to calm his nerves infuriates his priest who tells he confesses too often over too little. Brolin is the center of Capitol's wheel and this film, his steady nerves keeping us awake, and it's great to see him move from one disaster to another. Brolin's particularly good when paired with Clooney near the end, who's really acting with only one half of his immeasurable talent. In O Brother, Where Art Thou, Clooney ran wild, uttering now famous lines that still find their way into my weekly conversations; here, he's just another plot device on Brolin's To-Do list. The rest of the cast too is hilarious one minute and then horribly bored/boring the next. Johansson and Hill aren't needed at all here, and they're not around enough to be of any worth. I truly wanted more of Fiennes, who returns to his now-classic Budapest Hotel shtick. He and Ehrenreich would have been a hilarious duo in their own movie; instead they're sandwiched in for too few moments together.

Hail Caesar! still manages to entertain, even though I found myself imagining funnier versions of every joke. That's never a good sign when you're paying money to see professionals doing less than your imagination. But don't blame Cinematographer Roger Deakins for any failures: his camerawork is as always impeccable, capturing the old school movie lots along with a hilarious half-naked statue who's missing his torso. Deakins also bathes every scene in gorgeous colors, while the sumptuous costumes and set designs capture the splendor of the period. Like those old films, everything's great until you peel back the real motivations of the characters, few of which hold and water or our attention.

The Video – 5/5
Although Hail, Caesar! is considered a flop - only making $30m - Universal's commitment to bringing a great product to home video is worthy of our attention. From the moment the opening scene arrives, our actors are bathed in warm colors and impecible visual clarity. Mannix is perfectly shot via Deakins' camera, with Universal taking full advantage of the master print. Browns dominate the 50's landscape, from Eddie's office to the 'French postcard' shoot and the outstanding Roman mosaic. You can see individual strands of hair in Clooney's outrageous wig, in tree leaves and bark, details in the threading of clothes, and even bits of water drops in the mermaid splendor. But it's the absolute technical mastery of shadows which proves why Deakins and Universal are the best in their respective positions. Again, watch the postcard scene to see every aspect of Mannix's face WITHOUT needing a forward light. Shadows around him disappear into a fine black and fade into black so well. Just 5:00 into Caesar, the picture rewards you with more fine detail, both in the Roman arch and the accompanying hillside. I've crushed on Universal's hjome video acumen before, beginning with The Bourne Trilogy; here, the studio hits another homerun, proving that every film matters to them, regardless of how much money it made.

The Audio – 4/5
Universal's Hail, Caesar! comes with the standard DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 that doesn't impress but never drops the ball either. To be fair, Caesar is a dialogue-driven film, so we're treated to a forward channel that gets the brunt of the workload. On those off occasions that something else happens - music from Composer Carter Burwell or sound effects - the track stands up to show us that it's still with us. There's little else going on here, but there's nothing wrong with what we get either. I just wish The Coen Brothers had taken more time in the sound editing studio to add period environment pieces so that Universal could wrap us in their world. Otherwise, the LFE is solid especially while playing Burwell's good score, especially during the teriffic No Dames.

The Supplements – 2/5
Hail, Caesar! arrives with too few features, including a suite of standard marketing materials like you'd see on YouTube. There's no director's commentary (a real shame as I wanted to know more about the construction of the musical numbers), but what we do get is provided in HD:

  • Directing Hollywood (4:11): Cast and crew share their thoughts on being invited to star in a Coen Brothers movie.
  • The Stars Align (11:34): A discussion of the plot and its characters, as well as the setting of the film.
  • An Era of Glamour (6:22): We learn how the sets and costumes in Hail, Caesar were created, as the cast and crew reflect on wearing 1950's era-clothing and acting on huge sets that remind us of Ben Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told.
  • Magic of a Bygone Era – Hail, Caesar! (6:01): The two big set pieces - the sailor tap dance from Channing Tatum and the aquatic spectacle featuring Scarlett Johansson - are broken down. They're honestly the two best scenes of the film.
  • Trailers: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, The Boss, Race, Rock The Kasbah
  • Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, with a Digital HD copy of the film. It's funny to note that while the slipcase is attractive, I could have done without the 'Certified Fresh' label from Rotten Tomatoes. It's almost like saying, "This movie isn't as bad as people said! Give it a try!" You won't see that on John Wick or Mad Max: Fury Road. We are not aware of any special editions or packaging.

    The Bottom Line – 3/5
    Entertaining in several parts but exceedingly boring in others, Hail, Caesar! is a big time swing-and-miss, but it's a semi-glorious one that transports us back to the 'golden age of film' that few true cinephiles (perhaps some of you here) have yet to discover. It's hampered by its own desire to destroy the old Hollywood system, content to shower us too often on storylines that aren't necessary and moments of supposedly hilarity that I found myself improving in my mind. The audio and video are good, but the supplements needed some greater support. The interesting conversation will be had a decade from now, when we'll either lament that Hail, Caesar! was just the beginning of the end for the Cohen Brothers, or an ignored gem playing in cult classic film festivals. Either way, don't expect these creative geniuses to fade away, but it's doubtful you'll find this on your video rack unless your a Cohen Brothers Apologist.

    Hail, Caesar! is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking and has a runtime of 106 minutes.

    Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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