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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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Bond is Back!

‘Spectre’ double-O dazzles with derring-do, action & emotional depth  

Spectre

Spectre

Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz and Lèa Seydoux

Directed by Sam Mendes

PG-13

 

James Bond, with his iconic “license to kill,” has never been a stranger to death. And in Spectre, the latest adventure of the world’s most famous secret agent, the prospect of mortality looms especially large. “The dead are alive,” a cryptic sentence, is the very first thing you see on the screen, just before the face of a gigantic skeleton in a Day of the Dead parade.

But as Bond (Daniel Craig) notes at one point, “Death and dying—it’s all a matter of perspective.” Spectre, the 24th movie since Dr. No began the Bond franchise in 1962, may reflect on the past and even gaze into the grave, but it’s vibrantly, expressively, emotionally alive and very much in step with today. Reuniting Craig with director Sam Mendes—his partner in the snap, crackle and pop of Skyfall in 2012—it begins with Bond going off the grid to wrap up some unfinished business just as the “double-O” espionage program headed by his boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), is in danger of being scrapped back in London.

Daniel CraigA crusading young British intelligence officer, C (Andrew Scott, Moriarty on TV’s Sherlock), wants to replace Bond and his “prehistoric” stalk-and-shoot derring-do with a new multi-national initiative, using global surveillance and drones to keep track of criminals—as well as everyone else.

“It’s the future,” C tells M. “And you’re not.”

M smells a big, worldwide rat, and so does Bond—and off he goes to track it down, to Mexico, Rome, Austria and the desert of North Africa, setting up some thrilling set pieces that up the ante on cinematic Bond moments. A dazzling 15-minute beaut of an opener begins as one ludicrously long, unbroken tracking shot (filmed by a drone!) down a street and into an alley, up and out of an elevator, into a hotel room, through a window and onto a rooftop—before climaxing in a building-toppling explosion, a frantic foot chase and a brutal hand-to-hand fight in an out-of-control helicopter dipping and diving over a crowded plaza filled with thousands of people.

Wow!

There’s a sleek nighttime car chase, an alpine pursuit with an airplane that becomes both a bobsled and a battering ram, and a brawl in a train so slam-bang intense you expect it to cause a derailment.

Christoph Waltz (left) and Leå Seydoux in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.

Christoph Waltz

Christoph Waltz plays a nefarious über-villain with a deep-rooted evil secret that haunts—and hurts—Bond in more ways that one. Former pro wrestler Dave Bautista (so memorable as the red-tattooed Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) is a hulking wall of sneering, leering bad news—and only one teeny, tiny two-word line of dialogue.

Lea Seydoux

Lèa Seydoux

As the latest “Bond girl,” French actress Lèa Seydoux gives Bond pause for something “more important” than the sometime-vicious necessities of his job. Ben Whitslaw returns as nerdy gadget master Q, and Naomie Harris is back as Moneypenny, the office assistant who’s now become an invaluable assignment aide.

Will this, Craig’s fourth outing as James Bond, be his last, as rumored? Time will tell. Other spies come and go, but Bond—whoever portrays him—has been the standard for more than 50 years, and Spectre finds him in fine, full, clever, super-stylish, ultra-cool, death-dodging form, very much alive and well.

“It’s good to have you back, 007,” M tells him at one point, welcoming him home. Yes, it bloody well double-O is!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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