Tag Archives: Joel Coen

Hooray for Hollywood

Coen Brothers deliver a splendid spoof of movies’ golden era

Hail, Caesar!

Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson & Alden Ehrenreich

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

PG-13

“People don’t want facts—they want to believe!” says Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a 1950s Hollywood studio “fixer” in the new Coen Brothers comedy Hail Caesar!, a sprawling, star-studded spoof of the golden age of moviemaking.

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin

What people believe, and what they make-believe, are the building blocks of Hollywood itself. And they’re certainly the cornerstones of the Coens’ lavish, multi-tiered parody that takes satirical shape around the production of a fictional studio’s major new movie, Hail, Caesar!, A Tale of the Christ, a Bible-based saga a la Ben-Hur, Spartacus and The Robe.

When the film’s lunkheaded leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped, Mannix has to find him and get the money-train movie back on track.

But in the meantime, he’s also got his hands full with other problems, and other films. His job is keeping the machinery of Capitol Pictures Studios whirling, keeping its numerous stars in line and out of trouble, and keeping the whiff of scandal away from prying gossip columnists, particularly twin sisters Thora and Thessily Thacker (Tilda Swinton).

Scarlett Johansson

The studio’s twice-divorced “innocent” aqua-starlet (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant with an out-of-wedlock child. Capitol’s prissy British prestige-picture director (Ralph Fiennes) is at wit’s end trying to wrangle the company’s riding, roping singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) into more refined roles. And a tap-dancing song-and-dance hotshot (Channing Tatum) glides across the set of a new musical, but his light-on-his-feet moves may be hiding heavier secrets.

Look: There’s Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and the guy (Wayne Knight) who played Newman in Seinfeld! Even if you don’t know anything about Hollywood’s “Red Scare,” you’ll still get a chuckle out of a boatload of Commies bobbing off the California coastline. And Alden Ehrenreich’s young sodbuster charming his studio-arranged dinner date (Veronica Osorio) by twirling a strand of spaghetti like a lariat will rope your heart, too.

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

For many viewers, the quirky movies of writer-director Joel and Ethan Coen have always been a bit of an acquired taste. Sure, most everybody now falls in line to applaud the genius of Fargo, No Country For Old Men, True Grit, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou. But where was the box-office love for The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis?

There may be more commercially successful filmmakers, more mainstream filmmakers or filmmakers who win more awards. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many filmmakers who love movies, and making movies, more than the Coens. And that love is evident in every carefully crafted frame of this gloriously goofy homage to the glory days of big studios, big stars and the big wheels that churned out the spectacles of Hollywood’s dream factory from a bygone era.

While Hail, Caesar! is looking backward with such comedic affection, however, it’s also making a sly, playfully subversive statement about our “need” for entertainment, the importance of escapism and how movies have always been—and hopefully will always be—a “potion of balm for the ache of all mankind.”

“What a waste of talent,” a woman behind me groused as the credits rolled, somehow disappointed. Not me, and not a chance. Strike up another win for the Coens, I say. I’m a believer. Hooray for Hollywood, and “Hail, Caesar!”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Blowin’ in the Wind

The Coens’ tragi-comic odyssey of broken dreams and bitter truths

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan & Justin Timberlake

Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen

R, 105 min.

“Hang me, oh, hang me,” sings Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the mesmerizing performance that opens filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coens’ ode to the New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s. Llewyn (pronounced Loo-en) doesn’t just sing the song, he inhabits it, picking his guitar and spinning its tale of a weary traveler defeated by his own misdeeds, finally surrendering to the noose and the cold, cold ground.

The bleak song sets the stage for the story that’s about to unfold—like a folk song—as we spend a week in the life of Llewyn, a young journeyman singer walking the razor’s edge between the glow of success and the gloom of failure.

There have been many movies about music and musicians, but the Coens—among the most unconventional of commercially successful filmmakers—take a characteristically unconventional path here: Their protagonist is not very likeable, nor very sympathetic, and his messy, meandering story is a tragi-comic odyssey of broken dreams, bashed hopes and bitter truths.

But we feel for him nonetheless, and Inside Llewyn Davis is another Coen Brothers gem. While not as boisterously gonzo as The Big Lebowski, as fabulously tangled as Fargo or as much of a toe-tapping toot as O Brother, Where Art Thou, it’s still cool, clever, cynical and achingly funny, meticulously crafted and marvelously quirky. And you don’t know where it’s going until it gets there—which, as it turns out, is right back where it started.

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Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) rehearse in a recording studio.

The soundtrack is outstanding, a slate of mostly traditional folk chestnuts given respectful new spins by producer T Bone Burnett, some stellar backing musicians and the cast. Isaac, the relative unknown who plays Llewyn, is phenomenal, doing his own singing and guitar playing live (instead of overdubbing or performing to prerecorded tracks). Pop superstar Justin Timberlake, who plays another folk singer, Jim, does likewise, as does Carey Mulligan, who portrays Jim’s wife and musical partner, Jean.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

John Goodman

There’s John Goodman, a Coen mainstay, cropping up as an overfed, overdosed jazz musician. There’s the tabby cat that Llewyn spends much of movie lugging around, trying to find, or catch. There’s the novelty tune that Llewyn records with Jim and another singer (Adam Driver) that becomes one of the movie’s humorous high points.

And there’s a certain other folk singer from Minnesota, the Coen’s home state, waiting in the wings to blow everything—and everyone else—away, in the wind. As Llewyn seems to know, the times they are indeed a-changin’.

Inside Llewyn Davis may not blow a lot of its competition away at the box office—like some other Coens’ fare, it could be a bit of an acquired taste. But for anyone who can feel its genuine grasp of its subjects, its music and its times in its deep, dig-it grooves, this cinematic sonnet to a struggling ’60s singer might just become a greatest hit.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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