Hail, Caesar!

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (2016)

The knives are out for golden age Hollywood in this sly satire from the mercurial talent of the Coen brothers.

In typical fashion they combine the writer/director/producer roles. After the run of more serious fare of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) True Grit (2010) and A Serious Man (2009) they’re back in the enjoyably goofy form of their early career.

The off screen sensibilities of tinseltown are merrily mocked as singing cowboys, dancing sailors and whip happy Romans collide in a series of films within a film ranging from film noir and musicals to costume drama.

In his fourth film for the Coens, George Clooney plays kidnapped star Baird Whitlock.

Capitol Pictures sends a ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix to find the dim actor so their prestige big budget biblical epic can be completed.

For Brolin it’s his third Coens’ feature after the two westerns No Country For Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).

Perfectly cast in the role of Mannix, Josh Brolin carries the film on his broad, pin striped suited shoulders, stomping about town and wrestling with his conscience over a career decision he’s being pressured to make.

Mannix has no specific job title but does possess a large office, an attentive PA and a direct line to Mr. Skank, the never seen mogul of Capitol Pictures. Directors and actors queue in Mannix’s office to petition for his services.

Mannix is that most pejorative Hollywood term, a suit.

They are the most maligned creatures in Hollywood, commonly regarded as mammon obsessed philistines and monstrous butchers of creative endeavour.

It’s an extraordinarily daring in joke to present Mannix as a squared jawed and gimlet eyed hero in the style of Raymond Chandler’s fictional private detective Phillip Marlowe, and it’s played always with a straight face.

For the devout and humble family man Mannix, film making is a religious vocation, a secret cigarette is his only vice.

Brolin has played a spin on the character before in the overblown and undercooked Gangster Squad (2013). The Coens have riffed on Marlowe before in the joyous The Big Lebowski (1998).

There’s an attache case of cash, mistaken identities, romance, religious discussion and foul mouthed bathing beauties. The fishy tale even features a fabulous water sequence in the style of Esther Williams featuring Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid.

With a gang of disaffected revolutionary screenwriters powering the plot, it’s a mashed up antidote to the po faced sanctimony of Trumbo (2016).

Clooney is entertaining when aping the heavy acting style of classic Hollywood hero such as Charlton Heston, but lacks the light comic touch of his co-stars.

Michael Gambon raises a droll smile as the narrator, Jonah Hill makes a fleeting appearance and Channing Tatum performs a tremendous song and dance routine.

However everyone is outdone by Ralph Fiennes who in a late screwball career move is fast becoming the funniest man in film.

The many films within a film are rendered through brilliant technical skill, captured in customary consummate grace by perennial Oscar bridesmaid, Brit Roger Deakins.

Shot with loving panache, Deakins’ 12th collaboration with the Coens is suitably visually pristine and rich. His lens steps smoothly from genre to genre with immaculate grace and accuracy.

In this arch and sometimes affectionate comedy, the sharp stabs of humour are all the more effective for  being delivered at close range from under a cloak of friendship.

Et tu Brute indeed.

Magic Mike XXL

Director: Gregory Jacobs (2015)

The lord of the lap-dance returns in this sequel about sweet-natured strippers on the slide.

Buff, dim and sensitive, ‘Magic’ Mike (Channing Tatum) leaves his day job behind to re-join his dream boys: Ken, Big Dick Richie, Tarzan and Tito. (Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez).

Matthew McConaughey starred in Magic Mike (2012) but presumably now is too expensive or serious with his post-Oscar win credibility to appear, though his character of Dallas is often referred to.

With abs, pecs, biceps, baby oil and gold lame hot pants, the ageing entertainers fulfil the fantasies of their female fans – while yearning for emotional commitment in their private lives.

Recognising they’re getting too old for the bump and grind game, the boys take a road trip to one last performance to bow out in style.

En route to a stripping convention they lose costumes, a truck and a member, leaving them little time to put a new routine together.

Tatum is engaging and charming, a fine actor and a great dancer and holds the film together. The scene where he rediscovers his love for dance is a joy. The team are likeable and engaging and share a warm chemistry.

But the script isn’t as progressive as it strangely imagines itself to be, reducing the women to dollar-throwing sexual harpies who exist to show how kind, caring and sexy our heroes are.

Though there’s a lot of discussion about how women should be appreciated, celebrated and treated as be queens, one dancer describes his perfect woman as a glass slipper, which in context sounds extremely uncomfortable.

The notable female characters are played with conviction by Jada Pinkett Smith, Amber Heard and Andie MacDowell.

Pinkett Smith in particular gives a barnstorming performance – but in a role which is unnecessary and slows down the film. Written as man, her plot points could easily have been folded into the Andre character (Donald Glover).

With a loose-limbed improvisational feel Magic Mike starts strongly but there’s too long a tease for a disappointingly limp finale. Without a competitive element to the convention there is no conflict and no tension.

Plus the dance routines are underwhelming. Although the final dance is concerned with what the performance means to Mike, the success of the scene for we the audience depends on us believing Tatum is busting his own moves.

Now I don’t believe a dance double is employed, especially as the earlier scenes go to great pains to show us what a prime mover he is.

But not only is Tatum forced into a face-obscuring mask and hat, the awkward framing and rapid editing conspire to sow doubt in our mind as to who is really dancing.

This undermines the dramatic thrust of the scene and the resolution of the story.

Both editing and cinematography are by film-maker Steven Soderbergh, who really ought to know better.

His fingerprints are all over this film: such as the casting of McDowell who played a significant role in his breakout hit Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989). The shot of Mike watching fireworks weakly echoes the ending of Ocean’s Eleven (2001).

As director Jacobs is better known as producer than a director, it’s tempting to think Soderbergh had far more influence over the directorial vision of this film than we’re being told.

Tatum above anyone comes out in credit and manages to hold onto his dignity while wearing nothing but a silver G string which – take my word for it – is far more difficult than it sounds.

Jupiter Ascending

Director:  The Wachowskis

There’s little that makes sense and less that’s interesting in this mega budget mess from the sci-fi siblings who many moons ago made the magnificent The Matrix.

There’s majestically designed spaceships, gadgetry and costumes but that counts for little due to flat characters, terrible plotting, woeful dialogue, incoherent action scenes and a vacuum of a performance by Mila Kunis in the title role.

Impoverished illegal immigrant Jupiter Jones (Kunis) and her squabbling comedy Russian family clean the houses of the wealthy Chicago elite.

Her cousin Vladie (Kick Gurry) – the scamp – persuades her to sell her eggs to a fertility clinic so he can buy a really big TV and she a telescope. But as she lies on the operating table she’s attacked by space imps.

Fortunately she’s rescued by a gun-toting former space legionnaire. Hunky man-wolf Cain Wise (Channing Tatum) is temping as a bounty hunter for interstellar bad guy Titus (Douglas Booth) – a member of the powerful cosmic dynasty, the House of Abrasax.

Cain and Jupiter find fellow ex-legionnaire Stinger (Sean Bean) beekeeping in a country shack. It’s these bees that identify her as a queen and she takes it in her sullen stride.

Stinger and Cain beat each other up for a bit until Stinger’s daughter is sarcastic at them. Then she’s forgotten about and there’s another kidnap attempt.

It turns out Jupiter is the reincarnation of a queen who bequeathed to herself her most prized possession – the planet Earth.

Meanwhile Titus is competing against his siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) to control Jupiter and her inheritance.

This trio of fine Brit actors deliver their lines with as much camp energy as they can muster – possibly out of frustration at the quality of the script.

Earth is the richest supply of raw product for the lucrative market in human genetic material, used to keep everyone in space forever young.

Jupiter Jones is a dull, gullible, joyless soul, blithely accepting of her promotion to queen of the galaxy and owner of Earth.

Alien worlds, space travel and terrifying creatures with murderous intent are all greeted with the same doe-eyed indolence.

Formalities dictate she has to truck on down to the dole office to get her stamp before she is formally recognised in her new position.

Desperate stabs at humour are provided by queues of simpering lawyers and corrupt bureaucrats, all performed with embarrassing grotesque campery which are not funny as presumably intended.

Terry Gilliam appears in cameo and must be appalled at the multi-millions of dollars squandered when he can barely scrape together pennies for his own far superior work.

This is a universe which has nudity and space orgies but no sexual energy. Kunis and Tatum share zero chemistry but she falls for him anyway, without hesitation, conviction or reason.

Tatum enjoyed a fantastic 2014 with wonderful, wildly different performances in 22 Jump Street and Foxcatcher. But here he’s lumbered with dodgy tattoos and scar tissue in a generic action role where he spends most of his time sternly whizzing about on flying space boots.

Cinematographer John Troll chooses to drown cosmic cityscapes in a honey glow which is thematically sound but wearing after a couple of hours. There’s nothing groundbreaking among the visual effects to wow us the way bullet-time did back in the day.

The orchestral score of Michael Giacchino tries manfully to suggest excitement but to no avail.

There’s battles, betrayals, kidnappings and then another battle; each more confusing, longer and repetitive than the last. Then there’s another kidnap attempt but despite how busy it all is, there’s little fun or excitement.

Not since The Phantom Menace have shenanigans in the inter-galactic stock-market seemed so dull.



Director: Bennett Miller (2015)

In this chilly, complex and exceptionally crafted thriller based on a true story, actors more famous for action and comedy give great dramatic performances.

In mood, tone, subject matter and careful execution it is similar to Miller’s Capote (2005) for which the late Philip Seymour Hoffman won the best actor Oscar.

US gold medal wrestling champ Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is being coached for for the Seoul Olympics by older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

Aggressive in the ring, the emotionally stunted Mark lacks social confidence and struggles financially. Dave has acted as father as well as brother but now prioritises his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and children.

As in American Sniper, Miller demonstrates she’s capable of excellence given the opportunity, it’s a shame that in both films she isn’t given more to do.

At no point does Dave consider himself to be a contributor to Mark’s issues.

Mark is overwhelmed when patriotic multimillionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell) demands to help the US Olympic cause, flying Mark out to his secluded Foxcatcher estate where he has built a state of the art training facility.

From behind prosthetic nose, paunch and grey hair, Carell offers a mesmerising performance, hinting at a complex internal conflcits, not least his feelings towards his emotionally cold mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).

Flexing his financial muscle, du Pont brings on board the entire US wrestling team, names them Foxcatcher after his estate and hires Dave to train them for Olympic glory.

The wrestling scenes are convincing and comprehensible while the muted tone, autumnal colours and nuanced performances create a creeping foreboding.

Desperate for affirmation by his wealthy associates, du Pont parades his pet project around town while tension develops between du Pont and Dave as they compete to exercise an unhealthy degree of control over Mark.

With a shocking violence, the cold blooded and tragic end offers further punishment but no redemption.