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.

Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron (2013)

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are lost in space and out of this world in this gripping, transcendental sci-fi thrill-ride.

Excellent performances from the charismatic actors combine with suffocatingly tense action sequences and incredible visuals.

Dizzying camerawork (Emmanuel Lubezki) and elegantly restrained editing (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger) thrust us into the heart of the electrifying action.

Astronauts Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) who are on a spacewalk working on their space shuttle when disaster strikes.

They are cast adrift when their craft, orbiting 372 miles above Earth, is destroyed by a storm of debris.

Roped together, their hope for survival rests on a dwindling supply of fuel in their jet packs. They pray it is enough to propel them to a nearby abandoned Russian space station before their oxygen runs out.

To add to their problems, the hail of debris had become trapped in orbit and will return to punish them every 90 minutes.

There’s humour in the sparse dialogue and chemistry between the stars as they struggle to deal with the physics of their situation.

Having lost radio contact with Mission Control, the astronauts become angels flailing in limbo between the cold, dark heavens and the inviting warmth of the earthly paradise below.

Gravity’s finest moment is a single, sexy, sublime shot when Bullock does a free-fall striptease that climaxes with the birth of hope and the possibility of redemption. It’s a journey within a journey – think Barbarella (1968) meets 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

As a Hollywood action thriller this is exceptional entertainment; as an exploration of what makes us human it is, quite simply, divine.

Postscript.

Gravity received a 10 Oscar nominations and won 7.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Visual Effects: Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, and Neil Corbould

Best Film Editing: Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger

Best Original Score: Steven Price

Best Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay, Christopher Benstead, Niv Adiri and Chris Munro

Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle

Kowalski (Clooney) is the name in an urban myth involving astronaut Neil Armstrong. But it’s far too rude to print here.

* in some versions it’s Gorsky.

Tomorrowland

DIrector: Brad Bird (2015)

Take a smooth roller-coaster ride with George Clooney in this well-oiled but preachy theme park-based adventure.

Inspired by the Disneyland Tomorrowland attraction which opened in 1955, the film wants to inspire us to be creative and free – but only if we follow the Mickey Mouse rules.

Disney have had huge success turning their Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a Johnny Depp starring mega-movie franchise and no doubt secret plans are already afoot for a sequel.

Young Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) sneaks out at night to blow up the bulldozers who are due to tear down Nasa‘s defunct launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Not only will the closure of the base put her engineer Dad Eddie (Tim McGraw) out of work – but it will also signal the end of humanity’s dreams of a gleaming future among the stars.

Casey finds a small badge decorated with a corporate logo which miraculously transports her to another dimension.

The badge only works when it touches Casey’s skin – with heavy-handed symbolism she has to literally grasp the future.

It transports her to the futuristic city of Tomorrowland where citizens use jet-packs to fly among the soaring silver skyscrapers. It gleams with orderly sunshine and prescribed happiness – and she’s wowed.

Amusingly Casey has to navigate the geography of both world’s simultaneously, allowing for some well-executed physical comedy.

When the battery power of her badge runs out, Casey finds herself back home but determined to return.

Tracking down another badge, Casey is attacked by sharp-suited robot agents with laser-guns and rescued by a mysterious 13 year old called Athena (Raffey Cassidy).

Part bodyguard and part spirit-guide, Athena is named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration who’s also the patron saint of cities. She delivers Casey to the home of reclusive and grumpy inventor Frank (Clooney).

He was ejected from Tomorrowland for building a machine which broke the future – but he’s persuaded Casey can fix the machine he created. So the three of them team up to try to save the world.

Brad Bird has a mixed directorial track record; The Incredibles (2004) is brilliant, Ratatouille (2007) is dull and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) is excellent but only in parts.

With it’s love of the space-age, hints of government conspiracy and a young boy with a robot best friend; Tomorrowland is similar to Bird’s wonderful The Iron Giant (1999) – though not as entertaining.

Demonstrating Tomorrowland’s admirable if misguided confidence in itself, the opening scene riffs on The Princess Bride (1987). Also easily recognised as influences are The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Phantom Toll Booth (1970) and The Matrix (1999). The ghost of Pinocchio is never far away.

The wheels of this roller-coaster are greased by glorious design. Referencing the work of modernist architect John Lautner and filmed in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia; the sleek buildings and costumes have a retro-futuristic feel.

This contrasts with the gorgeous Jules Verne-inspired steampunk rocket-ships which riff on Disney’s Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Charming performers navigate the decent action scenes with aplomb and employs freeze rays, time bombs and flying robots to dazzle the eye.

But it never reaches the emotional pitch it aims for or delivers the magic and wonder the orchestral score by Michael Giacchino frequently promises.

The plot is powered by an on-brand corporate message rather than drama, excitement or internal logic, and it’s too easily distracted by its own whizzy visuals.

The talented trio of bickering leads do their best to distract you from a message-laden script. In true baby-boomer fashion the film suggests all the the world needs to be a better place is to transmit a positive vibe. Man.

It also demands we choose to feed the wolf of our optimism not the wolf of despair. It’s a small world after all.

The closest there is to a villain is rival inventor David Nix (Hugh Laurie) – but the subdued TV star seems reluctant to project any of the menace, gravitas or camp the role needs and he desperately resorts to comedy swearing.

Even when playing grumpy Clooney is reliably charming. He is generous to his younger co-stars and careful never to overpower their performances. Not that they give him much opportunity to do so.

Robertson gives Casey a feisty energy and is courageous, smart and likeable. However the real star of the film is Cassidy who has a deft comic touch and whose calculated poise is remarkably effective at suggesting wisdom beyond her years.

In order to save the world Frank must reclaim his childhood innocence and imagination by symbolically destroying the source of his unhappiness and negativity.

However this means he also rejects adulthood and those messy adult complications such as love, sex and fear.

The film openly derides the dystopias of Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Huxley’s Brave New World and their negative view of the future, while Frank equates politics and bureaucracy with greed.

But Frank’s vision of utopia is an exclusive enclave of beautiful creative thinkers with admission by invitation only. It’s a sterile, sexless land of infantilised adults and scarily squeaky-clean children who could have sprang from The Village Of The Damned (1960) – now where does that remind you of?

If suitable names are already taken, perhaps Frank could call it Hollywoodland.

Analysis: Why Johnny Depp flopped with Mortdecai

Mortdecai, the new star vehicle for Johnny Depp has received poor reviews and is expected to bomb at the box office this weekend.

The camp caper centres around the adventures of a moustachioed aristocratic art dealer.

It co-stars Gywneth Paltrow,  Ewan McGregor and Paul Bettany – all great performers on their day in their own way – but none could be considered to be box office dynamite.

And nor any more is Depp.

With an A list celebrity status the one-time as the clown prince of the Indie circuit, the fifty-one year old actor is now best known for playing a pantomime pirate.

Last year his woeful $100 million sci–fi flick Transcendence took only $103m gross worldwide on a budget of $100 million.

Lets not forget the ahem, train wreck that was The Lone Ranger: $260m from a $215m budget.

Prior to those The Rum Diary took $24m on a $45m budget.

Those first figures are the global gross takings, for a clearer picture of how truly awful they are one must first deduct the cinemas 50% cut. Nor does the production include the global promotion costs which on The Lone Ranger was guesstimated to be $50m or so. ($30m is reckoned to be a more realistic figure for most films.)

So Production $260m plus promotion $50m multiplied by 2 (accounting for the cinema’s 50%) equals the break-even figue for The Lone Ranger. That’s $620m – well over half a billion dollars – against a $215m return.

Ouch.

But why has Depp’s Hollywood star dimmed so much?

Broadly speaking, when confronted by a dozen choices at the local multiplex, the over 40 crowd will choose a movie depending on who it stars e.g. George Clooney, Sandra Bullock or even Johnny Depp.

Whereas the under 30’s will head towards recognisable franchises; a Fast Furious film, a  Marvel superhero adventure or even a Pirates Of The Caribbean.

An Indie star with a small but loyal following, Depp hit the break-out blockbuster jackpot as Captain Jack Sparrow in the mainstream Pirates franchise.

But Depp’s ageing fan base isn’t sufficiently large enough to take a mega–budget film into profit by itself and younger cinema-goers don’t care about him or his non-franchise films.

So he has big success with Pirates but not so much with the The Tourist. That co-stared Angelina Jolie who has had spectacular success last year with Maleficent so it’s possible to imagine it was she not he who pulled in the punters for that one.

Depp’s only other recent films to make serious money are those directed by Tim Burton. And then only when based on a much loved book such Alice In Wonderland or Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

But look what happened to Burton’s Depp-starring remake of TV show Dark Shadows. 

Budget $150m plus $30m x2 = break-even of $360m. Worldwide gross was $246m.

Ouch again.

You have to go back ten long years for Depp’s last unqualified success that wasn’t a Pirates or a Burton film. That was 2004’s Finding Neverland, which yes, was based on a much loved book and co-starred Kate Winslet.

His starring roles immediately prior to that were Secret Window (2004) From Hell and Blow (both 2001) , all of which struggled to cover their costs – even on their mid-price budgets.

So it’s no real surprise that Mortdecai, a film with no existing franchise base, a familiar title or a big name director flops.

Depp has been great before, he’s been pretty good very recently, lets hope he can be great again.

But lets’s forget the silly moustache next time, eh Johnny?

All figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo