Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscars 2016: My Worst Score In Five Years

Last night, I watched the 88th Academy® Awards broadcast with friends and over 150 people at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh. There was a lot of laughter, and some gasps, at host Chris Rock’s hilarious opening monologue, which, of course, was completely about the whole #oscarsowhite controversy. You knew it was coming way before he walked out on stage to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” but that didn’t lessen the impact of such lines as: “This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.”

I’ve read that some folks think Rock went too far with some of his material, but I found it to be maybe the best Oscars opening monologue ever – at least the funniest. So were appearances by Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G, but there were, as always, some bits that bombed like when CLUELESS actress Stacey Dash came onstage as the supposed new “director of the minority outreach program” and wished everyone a happy Black History Month to zero laughter, and Rock bringing his daughters out to sell girl scout cookies was pretty lame too.

Was happy to see Leonardo DiCaprio win for THE REVENANT - the lock of the night. Naysayers complain that his acting was just angry grunting, but I thought he put in a intensely passionate performance. Of course, in the Oscar tradition, this also majorly a win for his previously nominated work, so you got to factor in his terrific turns in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and THE AVIATOR among others. DiCaprio had a nice eloquent speech too.

Anyway, on to the actual awards. My predictions were really off as I had my worst score in five years: 16 out of 24. In 2012, my score was 15/24 (My best score was in 2014: 21/24). I had THE REVENANT down for Best Picture, it went to SPOTLIGHT, which I came very close to going with as it was my favorite film of 2015. THE REVENANT did win all the other categories that I predicted, including Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Best Director, making him the first person in 66 years to win the award two years in a row. With SPOTLIGHT and BIRDMAN’s wins last year, I guess I’ll know to vote for the Michael Keaton movie that is up for Best Picture next year.

Here are the eight predictions I got wrong:


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Rylance for BRIDGE OF SPIES (I picked Sylvester Stallone for CREED)

ORIGINAL SONG: “Writing’s on the Wall” – Sam Smith from SPECTRE (I picked: “Til It Happens to You” from THE HUNTING GROUND)

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: STUTTERER ( I had SHOK down for this, I thought it would lose to AVE MARIA).


BEST ANIMATED SHORT: BEAR STORY I missed all three of Best Short Film nominees, even though I’ve actually seen all of the Live Action and Animated ones. I guessed with my heart on these for sure.

VISUAL EFFECTS: EX MACHINA (I thought the Academy would throw a bone to the hugely successful STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. My second choice would’ve been MAD MAX: FURY ROAD so I was going to lose this one either way.

COSTUME DESIGN: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (I had picked Sandy Powell for CINDERELLA; my second choice was Powell for CAROL, so I really underestimated MAD MAX, which won 6 Oscars). I loved how Jenny Beavan, MAD MAX Costume Designer, looked like she could've been in the movie with her outfit:

So that's Oscars 2016. Despite my poor score, I had fun and I'm glad there were a few surprises.

More later...

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Film Babble Blog’s Top 5 Oscar Best Picture Beefs

Just like every year, in anticipation for the latest Academy Awards ceremony (this year's, the 88th, airing tonight on ABC), film buffs/blowhards like me can't help bitching about the great movies that didn't win Best Picture in previous years while some incredibly undeserving film took home the gold. 

I've had these conversations many times, especially when I worked at a video store (remember those?), about how a favorite movie, like, say PULP FICTION, got passed over for some forgettable piece of fluff, like, say, FORREST GUMP, that was nowhere as influential and hasn't held up in the long run.

So these Top 5 picks are pretty f-in' obvious, and predictable if you know me (2 Scorsese films are on the list), but they stand as the five instances where I most thought the Oscars got it dead wrong.

Counting down:

5. Robert Benton's (who?) KRAMER VS. KRAMER winning over Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW. (1979) 

That's right, this:

won over this:

Crazy, huh?

4. THE ENGLISH PATIENT winning instead of the Coen brothers' crime comedy drama masterpiece FARGO! (1996) Yeah, I mean who even mentions Anthony Minghella's weepy war rom drama THE ENGLISH PATIENT now? It's probably better remembered as a reference point on a episode of Seinfeld than as an actual film that people saw and liked. At least Frances McDormand won Best Actress for her peppy portrayal of police woman Marge Gunderson, one of the greatest movie characters of all time.

3. Robert Redford's ORDINARY PEOPLE winning instead of Martin Scorsese's RAGING BULL. (1980) This is just silly. However, I did appreciate ORDINARY PEOPLE, but just thought it came nowhere near the majesty that was Scorsese's fourth film with Robert De Niro.

2. John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY won over Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE! (1941)

Now I obviously wasn't around when this happened, but I can sure feel the 7 decades plus ripple effect from what many consider the greatest film of all time losing out to a movie that has been pretty much left in the dust bin of history. Actually, HGWMV isn't a bad film - I watched it a few years back and found it be a well made drama. And it's much better than the next film for sure:

1. Kevin f-in' Costner's DANCES WITH WOLVES winning over Martin Scorsese's mangum opus mob epic GOODFELLAS. (1990). This one still kills me. Scorsese makes two of his greatest movies and they both lose to pretty boy actor's directorial debuts. I'd like to think that Marty and co.'s reaction to the announcement looked like the picture above. At least Joe Pesci won the Best Supporting Actor award, and Scorsese went on to grab the gold with 2005's THE DEPARTED. That one was one of the biggest example's of payback in the entire history of Oscar.

#5 on this list also has to do with my biggest Best Actor beef ever, that Peter Sellers' brilliant work in Hal Ashby's BEING THERE, one of my all time favorite films, was passed over.

Sellers could walk on water, but he still lost to Dustin Hoffman in that damn divorce drama.

Anyway, let's see what beefs tonight's Oscars show will give me. You'll know immediately as I'll be live tweeting the event (follow @filmbabble).

More later...

Saturday, February 27, 2016

TRIPLE 9: A Serviceable Off Season Heist Thriller

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

TRIPLE 9 (Dir. John Hillcoat, 2016)

“triple 9” is slang for the police code 999, which means “officer down.” In this heavy on the grit heist thriller, it’s what a group of corrupt cops and a few criminal partners are counting on in order to pull off a dangerous job involving breaking into a heavily guarded government facility.

Sure, it sounds like a pretty standard issue premise for the February dumping ground (especially to be released on Oscar weekend), but hear me out as I had a bit of fun with it.

We are introduced to the crime busting/crime creating crew, made up of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins, Jr., Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus, in an opening sequence bank heist in downtown Atlanta. You know the drill - menacing thugs in black masks shouting at tellers, and customers to get on the ground, a look-out in a white van outside monitoring police scanners, frazzled bank manager being forced to open the vault, etc.

Yet all these routine elements are efficiently handled and there are some genuine thrills along the way as the gang’s getaway hits a snag in the form of a red smoke bomb that goes off in one of the cash bags, which leads to a freeway bridge shoot-out (you know, sort of like in DEADPOOL!).

After the smoke clears and our gang escapes scot free, they are refused payment for the bank job by the Russian mob headed by an initially unrecognizable Kate Winslet (it’s the big, brassy blonde hair that threw me off). Winslet’s Irina Vlaslov (great name) demands that the crew do the aforementioned break-in so that they can steal computer files that will get her husband released from a Russian prison.

Their plan to manufacture a 999 has a mark in good cop Casey Affleck as Mackie’s new partner. Affleck, whose presence here recalls his roles in the OCEAN’S ELEVEN movies, and TOWER HEIST, and also brings to mind his brother’s THE TOWN, is the nephew of the detective (Woody Harrelson) investigating the first robbery, so he may be able to figure out who the bad apples on the force are before he’s targeted.

There’s not a lot to Affleck’s character, but the sweaty, boozing Harrelson, in a part that’s shaky, where his True Detective persona was smooth, may be the film’s saving grace. He certainly steals the movie with lines like “be careful what you insta-face-tweet,” and (to Affleck) “your job is to out-monster the monster and make it home at the end of the night.”

Winslet, who’s up for an Oscar on Sunday night for STEVE JOBS, also stands out with her not bad Russian accent, garish outfits, and big hair. It’s way against type but she successfully disappears into the evil Irina. It would be fascinating to see what Cate Blanchett, who was originally cast in the part, would do with it, but I’m glad Winslet got this chance to show us yet another layer.

Despite their underwritten roles, Mackie deftly proves he can be a dark dude when not dolled up in a Marvel suit, Ejiofor gets some steely stoical moments in, and Paul, of course echoing Breaking Bad’s Jesse, basically just goes through the movie as if he’s on a really bad trip.

TRIPLE 9 is a serviceable off season thriller. Its workmanlike screenplay by first-timer Matt Cook holds it back somewhat, but its committed cast, and its flashes of craft by director Hillcoat ensure that it’s at least a notch above the generic genre exercise that most critics will accuse it of being.

More later...

Friday, February 26, 2016

Hey Kids! Funtime 2016 Oscar Predictions!

I know some folks are boycotting The 88th Academy Awards Ceremony, which is broadcasting this Sunday, February 28th, because of the #oscarsowhite thing, but I bet most of those people will still watch Chris Rock’s opening monologue (at least a clip of it the next day). I’m anxious myself to see what the guy has to say about the lack of diversity controversy, as you just know he’s going to kill on the subject.

As for the rest, this year's Oscars appears to be harder to predict than most years as THE REVENANT and SPOTLIGHT seem to be head to head, with THE BIG SHORT being a possible upset. I’ve even seen some folks predicting ROOM but that’s even a wilder card. It so seems to be Leonardo DiCaprio's (and his film's) year and I'm cool with that, and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD looks to sweep the technical awards, but, as always, here's hoping for some surprises.

My predictions:


2. BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for THE REVENANT

3. BEST ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio. It will truly be a shocker if he doesn't get the gold this year.

4. BEST ACTRESS: Brie Larson for ROOM.

5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Sylvester Stallone for CREED


And the rest:



9. COSTUME DESIGN: Sandy Powell for CINDERELLA. Powell is also up for CAROL, which may have the edge.







16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Til It Happens to You” from THE HUNTING GROUND

17. ANIMATED SHORT: Most critics are predicting Pixar's SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM, and I won't be surprised if that wins, but I'm gonna go with THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, which has a lot more food for the thought than all of the other shorts.





22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, THE BIG SHORT



As I always say, tune in Monday to see how many I got wrong.

More later...

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Bunch Of Blu Ray Blurbs For February

It’s time once again to tackle the growing stack of new release Blu rays that are cluttering up my desk. With a few exceptions, these are mostly titles that had a limited theatrical release accompanying their availability on VOD. These are films that slipped through the cracks of 2015, and mostly for good reason, but I enjoyed a few of them. One of them I liked quite a bit. Read on to find out which.

First up, I saw Peter Sollett’s sincere piece of Oscar bait, FREEHELD, when it played briefly at the Rialto in Raleigh last fall. It didn’t make much of an impact on me or audiences apparently so it came and went pretty quickly. Maybe it was too soon after seeing Julianne Moore deteriorate from Alzheimers in STILL ALICE, which she deservedly won an Oscar for, to see her grapple with another disease – this time cancer.

Anyway, in this well meaning drama based on real events, Moore plays Laurel Hester, a New Jersey cop who fights the Ocean County Board of Freeholders to have her partner of five years, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), inherit her pension after she dies. A no nonsense Michael Shannon plays Moore’s supportive longtime police-force partner, a flamboyant Steve Carrell joins in as a gay rights sctivist, and Josh Charles rounds out the cast as one of the conflicted board members.

FREEHELD isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just like a Lifetime TV movie but with big names. The cast is good (Shannon stands out but then he always does) and it’s certainly a noble effort, but it’s a bit bland and forgettable. However, what is notable is that Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short (also with the same name) that it was based on is included on the Blu ray/DVD edition of the film. In 38 minutes, the doc sums up everything much better than the full length feature and serves as a better tribute to Hester, who died in 2006.

Next up, horror meister Eli Roth brings us KNOCK KNOCK, which has been billed as a “erotic thriller,” concerning Keanu Reeves as a nice guy family man architect who makes a sexy mistake. That is, he is seduced then terrorized by a couple of young girls (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) who show up out of the blue when his wife and kids are out of town for the weekend. The film is a remake of a schlocky ‘70s exploitation flick called DEATH GAME, which had Seymour Cassell getting seduced then terrorized by Sandra Locke and Colleen Camp (Camp is one of the remake’s producers and puts in a cameo).

Roth’s take on the material is initially intriguing but becomes tiresome and as tortuous as the situation Reeves is enduring. Izzo and De Armas are more annoying than scary or sexy for that matter, and their moralizing motives for ruining Reeves’ life, and destroying his posh Hollywood house, are hardly convincing, particularly their taunts that he’s a one-percenter that needs to be taken down. I simply could not see the point of any of this ordeal. Also the movie gets major marks off for using the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” for the climax. It’s such a lame steal as the song was so definitively used as the ending of FIGHT CLUB that when it started up in this I was expecting to see buildings fall down. Maybe this is the film that confirms what I’ve suspected before – Eli Roth’s films just aren’t for me.

Funnily enough, “Where is My Mind” is also used in the next film I’ll be babbling about, Ben Palmer’s MAN UP, but it’s a distinctly different version – a piano instrumental – so doesn’t take you out of the movie as much. MAN UP is an affable British rom com that pairs Lake Bell, doing a fairly decent English accent, up with Simon Pegg, for a blind date. The thing is, the date was supposed to be Pegg being set up by his friends with another woman (Ophelia Lovibond), but Bell, happening upon their meeting place at Waterloo Station, is mistaken by Pegg for Lovibond, and Bell decides in the moment to go along with it. The couple hit it off over beers and bowling, but a run in with one of Bell’s old schoolmates (Rory Kinnear) threatens to blow her cover. Bell agrees to kiss Kinnear so that he won’t tell her stolen date, but when Pegg catches them (in the ladie’s room no less), the gig is up and Bell comes clean.

That’s not as much of a spoiler as you would think because it comes shortly after the half hour mark. So whereas usually the leads in these type movies start out hating each other and then gradually fall in love, this has them bickering and getting all competitive after the setup of them actually liking one another. Bell and Pegg have ample chemistry and although you know after some wacky mishaps they are going to finally come together at Bell’s parents’ (Ken Stott and Harriet Walter) 40th anniversary party that the film has been not too slyly building towards, it doesn’t take anything away from the movie’s abundance of charm. Kinnear’s hammy shenanigans did grate on me a little, but overall this is the rare rom com keeper.

At my first glance at the Blu ray box, I was like, didn’t Robert De Niro already make a movie called HEIST? Turns out, I was thinking about THE SCORE, a heist movie that De Niro made back in 2001, the same year that Gene Hackman starred in a similar film that was also named HEIST that I would mix up back then. As I see on IMDb, there have been a lot of movies called HEIST or THE HEIST throughout the years and I guess it’s fitting that this one uses the title because it’s such a generic by-the-numbers exercise that it really doesn’t deserve anything more original.

Despite that De Niro is prominently featured on the front and the spine of the Blu ray cover, the real star of Scott Mann’s HEIST is Jeffrey Dean Morgan who plays a casino card dealer who takes part in the robbery of a riverboat casino run by De Niro as a tough mob boss. Morgan reluctantly joins in the heist with his co-worker partners, headed by Dave Bautista, because his daughter is sick and needs expensive surgery. The plan doesn’t go off very smoothly and the crew are forced to hijack a city bus and take the passengers hostage. It’s pretty routine formulaic stuff, but it’s watchable enough I suppose for a C grade thriller.

Fairing much better is the horror comedy COOTIES, the directorial debut of Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, mainly because of its extremely capable comic cast. Elijah Wood heads the ensemble as a substitute teacher who on first day on the job at his hometown elementary school finds that the students are turning into zombies because of tainted cafeteria chicken nuggets. Wood took the position to get close to his old high school crush (Alison Pill), but she’s dating Rainn Wilson as the creepy PE teacher. 

The teachers, including Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, and Leigh Whannell (SAW co-creator who co-wrote this movie with Glee co-creator Ian Brennan, who also appears as the Vice Principal) are stranded inside the school and have to band together to fight the infected children. It’s a often violent and gory experience but it’s delivered with a goofball charm that’s pretty infectious (sorry). If you like the cast and have a thing for zombies, it’s a good bet. 

Elijah Wood also appears in Breck Eisner’s THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, a Vin Diesel vehicle that really bored me silly. Diesel potrays the immortal protagonist, who carries on his centuries old legacy of killing witches in modern day New York City, with the aid of Wood as the newest in a long line of Dolans (helper priests). Wood is replacing the retiring Dolan (Michael Caine, a welcome sight since I was unaware he was in the movie), but after Caine is mysteriously murdered the same day, Diesel and Wood, along with a friendly witch (Rosa Leslie) begin to unravel a plot by a squadron of supernatural witches to resurrect the Witch Queen or some such (my mind wandered). 

It’s a slickly made piece of horribly paced dreck, with no discernible spark to speak of. It also appears to take itself entirely too seriously in its misguided effort to form a franchise worthy mythology. Admittedly, Diesel isn’t my cup of tea (see my review of RIDDICK), but I’ll take another FAST AND FURIOUS sequel over this any day.

Finally, Jessie Nelson’s LOVE THE COOPERS, a Christmas ensemble comedy that made me cringe instead of crack up. It’s one of those all star dysfunctional family films, like the previous year’s THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, that failed to make much of a splash in its theatrical release last November, and it’s not very far into it that you can see why. John Goodman and Diane Keaton play the parents whose Pittsburgh house the family, including Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde, June Squibb, Alan Arkin, and Marissa Tomei, gathers at on Christmas eve, but this year everybody has their own kooky issues that get in the way of the holiday cheer. 

It’s narrated by Steve Martin, in a sincere effort to add some zing but that sadly doesn’t help generate any laughs. Neither does any of the other dialogue which feels strained or cutesy (or both) throughout. So, yeah, I really didn’t LOVE THE COOPERS. It’s a mishmash of overly sentimental and tired rom com tropes, but since it was scripted by Steve Rogers responsible for such mush as HOPE FLOATS, KATE & LEOPOLD, and P.S. I LOVE YOU, that’s hardly a surprise.

More later…

Thursday, February 11, 2016

DEADPOOL: Marvel’s Most Meta & Most Hilarious Movie

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

DEADPOOL (Dir. An Overpaid Tool, 2016)

In its first few minutes, in which we swirl around the chaotic imagery of a frozen bridge-set action scene involving a car crash, Marvel’s latest superhero movie declares its intentions by way of an ultra satirical take on the standard self-serious opening credit sequence that we’ve all been through a billion times.

That is, the shiny text that glides through the freeze-framed craziness doesn’t relay any actual names, just snarky labels such as that the film stars “God’s Perfect Idiot,” “A Hot Chick,” “A British Villain,” “A CGI Character,” “A Moody Teen,” was “Produced by: Asshats,” and most amusingly “Written By: The Real Heroes Here.”

Now, I must confess that I am fairly comics illiterate and had not heard of the Deadpool character, who I understand is a super anti-hero (or a anti-superhero?), until rather recently. This is despite the fact that the character, or his alter ego Wade Wilson, appeared in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, also played by Ryan Reynolds.

But Reynolds himself has stressed that the character in WOLVERINE is “not the Deadpool we are representing in this film, in any way shape or form.” So DEADPOOL, based on the Marvel comics character that first appeared in the early ‘90s, is its own origin story told by its wisecracking, fourth wall breaking protagonist, making it the most meta Marvel movie yet.

Reynold’s Deadpool, while still caught up in the mayhem on the bridge from the opening scene, stops time to tell us that his tale starts off as “love story.”

In flashbacks we see Wade, a Special Forces operative turned mercenary, fall for Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin), a prostitute with a heart of gold, but, after some racy sex scene snippets, a diagnosis that he has terminal cancer gets in the way of their relationship’s development. Wade leaves Vanessa to seek treatment, and takes part in an questionable experiment that turns out to be a series of torture techniques conducted by our “British Villain,” Ajax/Francis Freeman (Ed Skrein), and his assistant Angel Dust (Gina Carano).

Wade goes through this ordeal thinking that it will turn him into a superhero – “Please don't make the super-suit green... or animated!” – but it leaves him deformed and mutated. However, he does have the power of regeneration so there’s that.

With the help of his best friend bartender, Weasel (T.J. Miller), and a montage, Wade names himself after a bar bet on his life, suits up as a masked crime-fighting vigilante, and sets his sights on hunting down Ajax and getting him to cure his hideous condition that has rendered him, in his words, a “butter face” (you know, “A girl with an exceptionally hot body but an exceptionally ugly face. ‘Everything but-her-face is attractive.’” – Urban Dictionary). Not sure I really had to quote that definition, but there you have it.

Joining Wade/Deadpool’s fight is X-Men mutant Collosus (Stefan Kapicic), and a new character, (well, new to me) Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who are funny enough, but don’t really add a lot to the proceedings.

The hard R-rated DEADPOOL is more than a laugh-a-minute affair; it’s more like a plethora o’ laughs-a-minute from the opening shot to the final stinger (seriously, stay to the bitter end).
Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese really give meta-joke meisters Phil Lord and Chris Miller (THE LEGO MOVIE, the 21 JUMP STREET movie series, The Last Man on Earth) a run for their money here.

Reynolds, who’s one of the film’s producers, redeems himself for the superhero fail that was GREEN LANTERN, with his displays of quick-on-the-draw wit, and martial arts skills that he has obviously done some deep training to attain. He just may have put in the greatest comic lead man performance in a superhero movie ever (it might be a tie with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man though).

First-time director Tim Miller, who hails from an animation/visual effects background (SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and various video games), provides exciting bursts of full blown filmmaking here. It’s a damn fine debut for somebody who’s credited as “some douche” and “an overpaid tool” in the aforementioned credits.

The superhero origin story formula is still present, but it’s re-invigorated by the ultra irreverent handling of the usual elements here. Film fans are most likely aware of the “Honest Trailers” that the site Screen Junkies has produced, in which a beloved movie gets a factual dressing down. DEADPOOL functions as its own Honest Trailer that takes itself apart. Such moments like when Reynold’s Deadpool notes inside of a flashback: “Fourth wall break inside a fourth wall break - that's like 16 walls!” attest to that.

Marvel’s superhero movies are essentially comedies, but the foul-mouthed, crude, raunchy, and violent as f*** DEADPOOL takes the self awareness factor to the next level. It’s the most hilarious Marvel movie yet, even though it’s not really a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (it's a Marvel property but it isn’t owned by Disney, so it’s part of Fox’s X-Men universe), and a welcome breather from franchise fatique. Nice to finally meet you, Deadpool. Here’s hoping you don’t wear out your winning welcome.

More later...

Friday, February 05, 2016

HAIL, CAESAR!: Not Top Tier Coen Brothers, But At Times It Comes Close

Opening today at both multiplexes and art houses (but mainly multiplexes):

HAIL, CAESAR! (Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016)

“This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.” – End Credits Disclaimer

After the bleak, gray-toned terrain of their last few pictures, 2010’s TRUE GRIT and 2013’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the Coen brothers mix it up with this colorful, star-studded satire of ‘50s Hollywood.

In his third film for the master filmmaking siblings, Josh Brolin heads the cast as Eddie Mannix, the head production chief for the fictional Capital Studios, who mainly works as a “fixer” (somebody who keeps actors’ scandals out of the press). We first meet Mannix in a confessional, where the man cries over the sin of sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife (Alison Pill) about it.

From there, we learn about the troubled production of a big expensive Roman-Biblical epic (a film-within-the-film also titled “Hail, Caesar”), which stars Baird Whitlock, an idiot of a matinee idol played by another Coen bros. veteran, George Clooney. On the set, Clooney gets drugged by a couple of extras (Wayne Knight and Jeff Lewis), and gets taken to a Malibu beach mansion where he is held for ransom by an organization of communist screenwriters who call themselves “The Future.” That’s right, it’s another Coen brothers’ kidnap caper!

Intertwined are the tales of a few of Mannix’s other clients: Hobie Doyle (stand-out newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a B-movie cowboy star actor who, while working on a western, is told that the studio wants to change his image, and DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson in her second Coen brothers film after THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE), obviously modeled on MGM’s swimming superstar Esther Williams, whose pregnancy threatens to ruin another production (another film-within-the-film). Johansson, who speaks in a New Yawk accent that will be familiar to SNL fans, has a juicy albeit brief part, involving an even briefer Jonah Hill cameo.

Then there’s Tilda Swinton, also making her second appearance in the Coen canon, hamming it up in a dual role as Thora and Thessaly Thacker, twin sister gossip columnists who confront Mannix (separately, but one right after the other) for a scoop every time he leaves his office.

In a extremely well choreographed production number from yet another film-within-this-film, Coen brothers first-timer Channing Tatum steals the movie in a sailor suit in a helplessly homoerotic song and dance routine to a tune called “No Dames.” Tatum, and his fellow seamen, athletically tap dance up a storm around a saloon set on top of the bar, stools, and tables, while Tatum puts in some surprisingly smooth singing on top of it. It’s a smile-inducing highlight.

The more I think about it, the more I like HAIL, CAESAR! It’s not top tier Coen brothers, but at times it comes awfully close. Such times include an early scene in which Brolin’s Mannix assembles a group of religious leaders from different faiths to make sure that the “theological elements are up to snuff” in “Hail, Caesar!,” which humorously recalls the spirituality spoofing of A SERIOUS MAN.

The sitting room scenes involving “The Future,” with its wonderfully cast members including Max Baker, David Krumholtz, Patrick Fischler, Fisher Stevens, and Fred Melamed, who happened to be in A SERIOUS MAN, also share that period piece’s vibe, as well as more of a palpable sense of McCarthy-era paranoia than TRUMBO could muster.

Also up there, or at least one that I laughed out loud at, is a bit where Ralph Fiennes as a stuffy director (named Laurence Laurentz, because of course he is) of stuffy drawing room dramas is saddled with Ehrenreich’s Doyle and can’t get him to satisfactorily deliver one particular line (“Would that it were true” being the line that gets repeatedly massacred).

With its A-list ensemble running around in silly scenarios, I expected something more screwball, a lark a la BURN AFTER READING, but the lighter, restrained wackiness of HAIL, CAESAR masks layers of meaning underneath that I predict us critic folk will be trying to decipher for ages.

After saying that BURN was the last time he’d play an idiot for the Coens, I’m glad Clooney reconsidered and came back for what Joel Coen has jokingly referred to as “the fourth installment of the George Clooney numbskull trilogy.” 

But as apt as Clooney is as a movie star dolt, it’s Brolin’s show, and it’s his best work for the Coen brothers - his jaded stoicism is the film’s rock. The character is the only one in the film that’s directly based on a real person of the same name (the real Eddie Mannix was a studio fixer for MGM), and Brolin puts in a weighty performance that would’ve fit right into serious-minded movies set in the same era like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

It doesn’t all flow seamlessly – there’s some HUDSUCKER PROXY-ish clunkiness, and some bits that flatline - but the film achieves BARTON FINK-style brilliancy more than a few times (it’s no coincidence that Capital Pictures is the studio in both films).

It’s too early to see how HAIL, CAESAR! ranks among the rest of the Coen brothers’ filmography, but I can already say that its miles above their lesser efforts (THE LADYKILLERS and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY). 

The fun of its fake movie production numbers, its authentic Technicolor look (shot on film by longtime Coen brothers collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins), and, of course, its more than capable cast, make it a film that you don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate. But it sure does help.

More later...