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.

A Bigger Splash

Director: Luca Guadagnino (2016)

Dive into the shallow end of the celebrity gene pool in this sun kissed erotic thriller.

Intelligently written and beautifully photographed, it features the normally ultra serious Ralph Fiennes on liberated form as a hyper active hedonist music producer called Harry.

He arrives unexpectedly at the Italian villa of his ex love Marianne, a recuperating rock star.

Tilda Swinton gives a rasping performance as the singer protecting her voice, a symbol of the film’s grand themes of the inability to communicate with honesty and freedom.

Matthias Schoenaerts is in typically morose mode as her new partner Paul, their shared idyll threatened by Harry and his lithe daughter Penelope, played by Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson.

It’s almost an anthropological examination of human behaviour, a shame the subjects aren’t more deserving of our study.

At first entertaining, the preening narcissism of the characters is wearying during the slow build up to an act of violence. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.

 

 

 

Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes (2015)

From the breathtaking beginning to the doom laden finale, the 24th James Bond adventure is an extraordinary explosive and epic episode of the franchise.

The spy filled cinematic year has included reasonably received riffs on the genre including Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE.

Now the daddy of espionage returns to slap down the young pretenders.

Returning in his fourth and possibly final film of an extraordinarily successful tenure, the 47 year old Daniel Craig offers an interpretation of Ian Fleming’s alter-ego at least equal to the very best.

Spectre is fresh and ambitious despite the weight of history and expectation.

So spectacular, sexy and superb in all departments, it sometimes feels less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Yet British director Sam Mendes is playing a bigger game than merely creating a standalone action thriller.

He’s also made a fabulous final chapter in a four film reinvention of an overly familiar character.

Prior to Craig each Bond movie was a self-contained story connected not by story but by character.

It’s now clear we’ve been watching a long form story which began way back with the Englishman’s debut in the role in Casino Royale (2006).

It’s a bold strategic 9 year move inspired perhaps by the 10 year long Harry Potter series and a forerunner of Marvel‘s creation of a cinematic universe.

This approach won’t harm the home entertainment box-set sales.

The famous gun barrel opening sequence is re-installed and few themes create a shiver of expectation as effectively as Bond’s does.

Following on from Skyfall (2012), a message from beyond the grave sends 007 off-piste and outside the law.

As he follows a trail of clues from Rome, to Austria and Morocco, he once more encounters the deadly Quantum organisation.

It’s a procession vodka martini’s, dangerous women, gorgeous locations, terrific stunts, powerful henchmen and a completely cuckoo villain. Bond’s car is quite beautiful even by his standards.

There’s paranoia, conspiracy, betrayal, torture, sex and death.

And as a riposte to those who suggest Craig’s interpretation lacks humour, it’s also very funny.

A trio of European stars add indispensable talent and glamour.

As the oldest actress to be cast opposite Bond, Monica Bellucci’s widow riffs on a character on in The Italian Job (1969).

Lea Seydoux is an excellent foil and Christoph Waltz mercifully keeps a firm hand on his inclination to camp.

An intelligent script works hard to give ample screen time to Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw who return as MI6 stalwarts Moneypenny, M and Q.

They also contribute to the two and a half hour running time and if anything was to be trimmed, it would be this extra muscle.

As cinema owners will be forced to have fewer screenings per day to accommodate Bond’s length, it will be interesting to see if this affects the box office.

This potential shortfall may be compensated for by more expensive IMAX tickets. The opening Mexico sequence certainly warrants the extra cost to the cinema-goer.

It’s dynamically photographed by Dutch-Swedish Hoyte van Hoytema. His work on Interstellar (2014) was one of the few high points of Chris Nolan’s pompous ego trip.

But here the rich wreaths of shadows he wraps around the players are more reminiscent of his glorious work which contributed so much to the success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Sam Smith’s theme song sounds thin on the radio but works well in situ over the sensual opening titles.

Mendes encourages his actors to play every scene as if it’s their last. Which for Daniel Craig, may well be the case.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson (2014)

Let Ralph Fiennes lead you through the lobby for a romp around the rooms of this funny and sweet comic caper.

With typically deft and deliberate sweeps of his camera, director Anderson sculpts a sweet trifle and by virtue of keeping the screen-time of his regular actors Bill Murray and Owen Wilson to an absolute minimum, he’s created his best and funniest confection yet.

In the fictional middle-European country of Zubrowka, The Writer (Jude Law) is staying in the once opulent but now rundown hotel where he meets the aged Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

The Writer is regaled with the tale of how as young man, Zero came under the tutelage of the now legendary hotelier Gustave H (Fiennes) and so eventually became the owner of the establishment.

Known more for his intensity of his dramatic performances, uber-thesp Fiennes shows his flair for comic charm as Gustave H – a velvet-tongued concierge and romantic adventurer with a fondness for seducing the blonde, rich, vulnerable old ladies who frequented his hotel.

We see Gustave parade through the lobby issuing a multitude of instruction, insistent on respecting the correct manner in which everything must be done. Perpetually purple-clad and poetry quoting, even his perfume is called Panache.

Young Zero is played by Tony Revolori, he and Fiennes make an unlikely but lovely double act with Gustave showering his protege with advice, not least concerning the pastry girl (an excellent Saoirse Ronan) Zero has fallen is love with.

Gustave is bequeathed a very valuable painting, Boy with Apple by Madame D (Tilda Swinton). Her family whom hoped to inherit it are outraged.

Doors are opened, windows peered through and corridors ran down as Gustave and Zero are pursued by a villainous leather-clad investigator J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe).

What follows is unexpected violence, an alpine chase, punch ups, murders, an interrupted game of cards, a secret society of concierges and a most unfortunate cat.

Like the hotel of the title this immaculate pink and white wedding cake of a creation is textured, rich and slightly nutty – though it may be something of an acquired taste.

 ★★★★