Sunday, 16 June 2019

Movie Review: The Passage (1979)


A World War Two escape thriller, The Passage features a stellar but poorly utilized cast struggling against a feeble script and the stench of a low budget production.

With France under Nazi occupation, hardy Basque sheep farmer (Anthony Quinn) is reluctantly recruited by the French resistance for a dangerous mission to smuggle American scientist Professor Bergson (James Mason) across the Pyrenees and into Spain.

Bergston is hiding in Toulouse, and the Basque is shocked to learn that the frail Mrs. Bergson (Patricia Neal) and the couple's two grown children (Kay Lenz and Paul Clemens) are accompanying their father. Meanwhile, sadistic SS Captain Von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell) is intent on hunting down the Professor. After receiving help from a gypsy leader (Christopher Lee), the escape party start their perilous journey across the snow-covered mountains, with Von Berkow in hot pursuit.

A British production directed by veteran J. Lee Thompson, The Passage collects an impressive cast and aims for a old-fashioned but smaller-scaled World War Two adventure in the vein of Thompson's The Guns Of Navarone from 1961. With a decent premise and impressive mountainous scenery supplementing the stars, the raw ingredients are promising.

But The Passage suffers from production values that appear cheap and hurried, and the script (by Bruce Nicolayson, adapting his own book) ignores everything related to backstories and personal dynamics. Most of the characters are hardly afforded a name, let alone rounded into individuals, with James Mason's Professor Bergson the primary victim. All of the dialogue is of the plastic variety, while Thompson's directing is muddled, his handling of the action scenes bordering on inept.

The void of quality is filled with shock value, and The Passage is notorious for all the wrong reasons. The main eye-popping excuse to watch the film is a misplaced Malcolm McDowell performance. His full-on British accent unexplained and unconstrained, McDowell mushes Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange with Caligula and enters World War Two with ridiculous madness. His Captain Von Berkow is an all-time over-the-top experience, a star running amok with no guidance from his director.

And Von Berkow steers The Passage to a second claim to infamy as an exercise in excess violence and gore. The SS Captain perpetuates on-screen rape, torture, immolation and mass murder, and on a couple of occasions punctuates his atrocities with pantomime-level outfits. His articulated chef chop-chop scene is admittedly compelling as an indecorous horror-comedy routine.

The Passage is thankfully a mostly forgotten curiosity, a lost opportunity buried in the jagged mountains.






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Saturday, 15 June 2019

Movie Review: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)


An adaptation of the David Mamet play, Glengarry Glen Ross examines the psyche of frenzied men in an ultra competitive business environment.

In New York, a group of salesmen work at a realty office, using unscrupulous tactics to peddle properties in Florida and Arizona to investors. Williamson (Kevin Spacey) is the office manager and hands out precious leads about potential buyers to the agents.

Roma (Al Pacino) has recently been achieving the best sales figures, and is now wearing down his latest client Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). In contrast the elderly Shelley (Jack Lemmon) is on a long losing streak and getting increasingly desperate, with family health issues adding to his stress. Moss (Ed Harris) is ambitious but unhappy at work, while George (Alan Arkin) feels he is losing his edge.

Blake (Alec Baldwin) arrives from head office and berates the salesmen for their recent poor performance, announcing that most of them will be fired if they don't immediately close more deals.  With Williamson safeguarding a deck of treasured new leads at the office, the men have just a few hours to prove themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and an office break-in adds a new layer of tension to the already strained dynamics between the men.

Featuring a superlative all-male cast and a Mamet script, Glengarry Glen Ross (the title refers to two developments being peddled by the agents) is a profanity-filled high-energy talkfest. The film takes place over just a couple of days, but captures the trauma of alpha males growling at each other to gain every advantage and survive until the next batch of leads are distributed.

All the men are experts at deceit and underhanded sales tactics, and effortlessly flip between smooth talk, pleading and ultra aggressive put-downs depending on the immediate objective. And they are all also pathetic, Glengarry Glen Ross a study of manhood lost to the pursuit of shady profit by victimizing others.

Most of the film takes place at the office and the Chinese restaurant across the street. The theatrical origins are obvious, and some of the overclocked gestures translate poorly to the screen. But director James Foley keeps his focus on the talent-rich cast, often in close-up, and with most of the conversations walking on the edge of hostility, the film rides out the rough patches with ease.

Alec Baldwin's one scene performance as the slick downtown executive berating the sales agents for poor performance and goading them by comparing his success to their pathetic lives has entered into cinematic legend. Mamet added this scene to help extend the short play into feature film length, and while Baldwin's insults are never less than over the top, his unconstrained contempt perfectly sets the stage for the mood of desperation.

In a world where integrity and basic ethics are notably absent, Jack Lemmon shines as yesterday's man, surrendering Shelley to wounded melancholia living on past glories as he frantically seeks to catch a break by any foul means, unaware the sun has set on his career and sales tactics.

Glengarry Glen Ross is where life's dreams of success go to die, submerged in fast talking, subterfuge and self-imposed delusions.






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Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)


A musical biographical drama with fantasy elements, Rocketman captures Elton John's artistry and the gap between massive public acclaim and dark personal demons.

Dressed in an outlandish devil/angel combo performance outfit, Elton John (Taron Egerton) enters a treatment centre therapy group and admits to being an alcoholic and addicted to drugs, sex and shopping. In flashback Reggie Dwight's life story is revealed, starting with a childhood in England where he felt unloved by his cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and disinterested mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), but supported by grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones).

Reggie's talent on the piano grants him entry to the Royal Academy of Music, and he eventually backs-up touring artists from the US. He adopts the name Elton John and gradually accepts he is gay. A record company executive connects Elton with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and their music writing partnership leads to unimagined global success. John starts a romance with business manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but as the singer desperately searches for true love and personal fulfillment, he falls into a miserable life of empty excess.

On-stage flamboyance is a cloak to hide deep-seated insecurity, and untold riches, fame, fortune and debauchery are no replacement for true love. Such is the story Sir Elton John wants to tell, and he gets to shape his legacy as the film's executive producer. Written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is a vivid biography using John's music in no particular sequence to underline his emotional state of mind at key milestones, and adding effective fantasy elements to convey the insanity of the pop star life.

Taron Egerton takes on both acting and singing duties, and is sparkling in both contexts. Fletcher keeps the songs short and in service of the plot, and the editing is rational and coherent, with some excellent long and fluid takes to capture the dynamism of the accompanying dancers and crowds.

In adopting the eternal search for love and belonging as a central theme, Hall does not hold back in conveying John's parents as a nightmare of uncomfortable incompatibility with a child's need for affection. And so Elton goes looking for partners of either sex to fill the gap in his soul. Taupin emerges as his spiritual brother and creative partner, while Reid is the passionate but manipulative devil-lover in a business suit offering false fondness.

Meanwhile Elton's vulnerability goes hiding behind increasingly extravagant outfits, the performer wowing the crowd on the outside as he privately sinks deeper into despair.

Once John performs his first Los Angeles show Rocketman zooms quickly through the artist's upward trajectory, and then spends a hefty portion of its two hours wallowing in the unhappy and filthy rich life consumed by the decadence of sex, drugs, and booze. Fletcher almost trips towards self-pitying drama, but Taupin's timely interventions in John's life always help move things along towards more promising outcomes.

Rocketman chronicles the quest for love on and off the stage, a journey where misery accompanied artistic triumph on a most tempestuous journey.






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Saturday, 8 June 2019

Movie Review: Beasts Of No Nation (2015)


A heartbreaking war drama, Beasts Of No Nation is the story of a child who becomes a soldier amidst the savage disintegration of his country.

In an unnamed African nation (with Sierra Leone probably serving as the closest inspiration), a civil war is raging with multiple rival militias vying for power and peacekeeping forces caught in the middle. Agu (Abraham Attah) is a resourceful young boy living with his family in a designated buffer zone, but merciless combatants eventually arrive at his village. His mother and younger sister are bundled off to the relative safety of the capital, and Agu is soon separated from his father and older brother.

In the jungle he is captured by a scrappy battalion of rebel fighters under the leadership of the Commandant (Idris Elba). Gradually Agu gets to know the other fighters, including 2-IC, Strika, Preacher, and Tripod. Exposed to the Commandant's rhetoric and abuse, Agu graduates from ammunition carrier to child soldier, participating in battles and fuelled by drugs. The rebels appear to make progress towards victory, but the Commandant has ambitions of his own.

An adaptation of the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts Of No Nation also bears a striking resemblance to the true story chronicled in Ishmael Beah's 2007 autobiography A Long Way Gone. The film was one of Netflix's earliest critical hits, and helped launch the debate on appropriate distribution channels for worthwhile films.

The plight of children in war-torn countries is bad enough. Methodically turning boys into murderous drug-dependent soldiers subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse is nothing short of horrifying. Beasts Of No Nation is never less than compelling, but also an undoubtedly challenging film to watch. The scenes of violence often convey barbaric cruelty, and plenty of blood is spilled on screen, stopping just short of excess.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga also wrote the script, and invests the necessary time in the first act to bring Agu to life as a fun-loving and enterprising kid, surrounded by family and friends. Because he is well-rounded into his own person, his subsequent descent into a soldier on the ugly battlefields of a chaotic civil war becomes all the more harrowing.

The other main character is the Commandant, and Idris Elba brings to life a chilling military man totally invested in the world of war, adept at saying just the right thing at the right time to inspire, indoctrinate, gain respect and demand obedience from the men and boys in his battalion. Elba's larger than life performance remarkably ensures he is also human, and Fukunaga crafts a scene of mad battlefield brilliance featuring the Commandant inspiring his troops into a difficult battle to seize a bridge.

In dirty civil wars there are no winners, just various categories of losers, victims and survivors. All are devoured immediately or over time by the insatiable internal and external beasts that thrive on conflict.






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Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)


A spy thriller, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation packs in impressive amounts of glossy action but almost overloads its own plot.

After intercepting a shipment of chemical weapons in Minsk, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) of the Impossible Mission Force travels to London and comes face to face with his nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of The Syndicate, an evil global terrorist group. With the unexpected help of undercover British operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt escapes Lane's clutches.  Meanwhile CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) shuts down IMF, much to the disappointment of Hunt's boss Brandt (Jeremy Renner).

Ethan reemerges six months later, calling on his IMF colleague Benji (Simon Pegg) to join him in Vienna where they attempt to prevent an assassination at the Opera House, which leads to a reteaming with Ilsa in Casablanca. The hobbled IMF has to disrupt Lane's nefarious plans to secure access to billions in illicit funds, but Lane always seems to be several steps ahead of his pursuers.

After the spectacular success of 2011's Ghost Protocol, the Mission: Impossible series returns with the still slick but slightly bloated Rogue Nation. Frequent Tom Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie writes and directs this fifth chapter, and delivers the expected non-stop thrills, humour, country-hopping and wild stunt scenes expected of the series. More than ever a James Bond influence creeps in, certainly jazzed up but evident in a rather harried plot and underlined by a knowing emerge-from-the-water-in-a-bikini moment.

At 131 minutes, Rogue Nation does go on. The mandatory MacGuffin in this case has something to do with a triple encrypted digital file stored in a fortified bunker, but overall the story gets more convoluted, less interesting and increasingly blurry by the minute. Better to acknowledge the plot as the flimsiest of excuses to justify the set-pieces, and when it matters McQuarrie and Cruise deliver with eye-popping expertise.

A stand out sequence involve a quadrangular wild motorcycle and car chase, the Mission: Impossible series yet again proving new life can be found in one of the oldest action movie cliches, the rational editing adding immensely to the enjoyment level. Even better is an underwater infiltration to swap a computer card involving exceptional physical exertion laced with humour and late heroics.

The character of Ilsa Faust injects the series with feminine clout and provides Ethan Hunt with a worthwhile counterpart, ally and rival. With Rebecca Ferguson providing plenty of resolute oomph, Ilsa plays a more prominent role than most of the IMF members, with Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell suffering the most notable relegation to the background.

Never pretending to be weighty, Rogue Nation is a fast paced and agile romp through the world of high octane thrills.






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Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Movie Review: Remember (2015)


A Holocaust personal revenge drama, Remember is an intellectual thriller set in the world of old men settling old scores.

Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) survived World War Two and is now in his 90s, suffering from dementia and unable to process the recent loss of his wife Ruth. Auschwitz survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) is a wheelchair-bound patient at the New York City care home where Ruth passed away. Max supplies Zev with detailed written instructions to help Zev fulfil a promise to track down and kill a former Auschwitz headguard named Otto Wallisch.

Otto is known to have assumed the name Rudy Kurlander to escape from Germany to North America at the end of the war, and Max has identified four men with that name in the United States and Canada. Struggling with a frequently failing memory, Zev follows Max's meticulous instructions and starts his cross-country journey to sequentially find and interrogate every Rudy Kurlander.

The long shadows cast by the horrors of the Holocaust are the inspiration for an intriguing story conjured up by scriptwriter Benjamin August and brought to the screen by director Atom Egoyan. With an emphasis on life drawing to a close for a generation of men who survived the war, Remember explores the stress imposed by failing physical and mental health, and the unrelenting thirst for human vengeance, even when nature is close to achieving the same ultimate objective.

At a running time of 94 minutes, the film's pacing is efficient and measured. The fairly complex premise is presented in an admirably streamlined format, Egoyan quickly launching Zev off onto his quest and then gradually revealing the context at appropriate intervals. The individual interactions that follow are all well staged, but an exquisitely tense encounter with an Idaho State Trooper, an angry dog, and a roomful of memorabilia at an isolated farmhouse deserves special praise. 

As with all good road movies, Zev's trip is as much about self-discovery as it is about finding the right man. Along the way he learns about his fears, tolerances, the fortitude within, and unwelcome truths. The climax features a good although foreseeable twist, but is also relatively rushed.

Christopher Plummer carries the weight of the film and is an exemplary presence in a performance filled with the anguish of failing mental capacity and the unyielding strain of physical and emotional exertion. In addition to Landau, the supporting cast also includes stalwarts Bruno Ganz and J├╝rgen Prochnow.

Cerebral and engrossing, Remember asks how long is too long in the pursuit of war criminals, and whether appropriating justice into the hands of individuals bent on revenge by any means is ever justified. Because while memories slip away, for some old men the trauma never fades.






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Sunday, 2 June 2019

Movie Review: Ricki And The Flash (2015)


A family drama with comic touches and plenty of music, Ricki And The Flash offers commentary on family responsibility double standards between women and men, but is an otherwise routine story about the pursuit of individual passions.

Linda (Meryl Streep) is well into middle age and still chasing her rock star dream. Adopting the stage name Ricki Rendazzo she performs cover tunes with the band The Flash at a nondescript Los Angeles-area pub. Lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) has a crush on her, but she is not sure why. Perpetually broke and on the edge of bankruptcy, Linda also works as a supermarket checkout cashier to try and make ends meet.

Her wealthy ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls from Indianapolis, requesting Linda's help to care for their grown daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life daughter) who is deeply depressed after her husband abandoned her for another woman. Linda makes the trip and improves Julie's mood, but her history of abandoning the family does not sit well with her two grown sons Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), nor Pete's wife Maureen (Audra McDonald).

Independent-minded women are judged more harshly than men when they walk out on family responsibilities and strike out to fulfil their ambitions. This is the core message from writer Diablo Cody embedded within Ricki And The Flash, and in the hands of Meryl Streep, Linda is an honest, uncompromising voice for women all too aware of their faults and the whispers of others just behind their backs.

Although well-intentioned, Ricki And The Flash is also emotionally limited by its protagonist. Despite flashes of happiness with ex-husband Pete, recovering daughter Julie and potential lover Greg, the film constructs an earthy reality of what a dead-end life looks like. Linda comes alive on stage, but an out-of-the-way pub with a few regulars is the extent of her stardom, and she does not care. This is what she has decided to offer the world, and the narrative loops back to a rather corny wedding climax with Linda gifting her brood the only thing she possesses.

The comic moments are better and build on the unwelcome mom awkwardly trying to catch up to her children's lives. A dinner scene at a swanky restaurant where every wrong thing is expressed in absolutely the wrong way is irresistibly delicious.

But in his final outing director Jonathan Demme struggles to fill out the 100 minutes of running time, and too many songs are performed in their entirety to pad the film. The quite incredible Streep, at age 66, has fun rocking out, convincingly doing her own live singing and guitar playing, but the film does sag as it searches for content.

Without ignoring the price to be paid and the sacrifices made, Ricki And The Flash salutes women carving an unconventional path, but the applause is more polite than raucous.






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Movie Review: Stealth (2005)


A science fiction military thriller, Stealth throws wild technology at the screen with admirable if mindless panache.

In the near future, Lieutenants Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Kara Wade (Jessica Biel) and Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) form the elite US Navy airborne Talon strike force, tasked with covert anti-terrorism bombing missions. After successfully destroying enemy targets hidden in desert caves, Talon's commander Captain George Cummings (Sam Shepard) introduces the team's latest recruit: the top-secret Extreme Deep Invader (EDI), a Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) operated by artificial intelligence developed by Dr. Keith Orbit (Richard Roxburgh).

Gannon has reservations about EDI, but the artificial intelligence proves its worth in a mission to assassinate terrorist leaders. But a lightning strike impacts EDI's circuits, leading to erratic behaviour. Despite the risks Cummings insists on sending EDI back into combat, and this time the unmanned aircraft goes rogue over hostile Asian airspace, endangering the other three team members and threatening to cause multiple international incidents.

An unlikely mashup of Top Gun and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stealth also predicts the expanded role of drone technology in modern warfare. Never pretending to be anything other than a wild ride packed with cheap thrills, the film deserves credit for decent special effects, a better-than-expected focus on the pilots, and even conjures up a nominal character arc for the artificial intelligence.

The script by W.D. Richter capitalizes on the available assets. Stealth is packed with imagery of the fictional F/A-37 Talon stealth bomber, and while plenty of the pilot-perspective computer generated flight action pushes into ridiculous territory, enough of the visuals are real enough to engage. And director Rob Cohen conjures a few moments of truly enjoyable spectacle, including a refueling mission gone wrong for Gannon, and an ejection, self-destruct and harrowing parachute drop for Wade.

And while the romance elements between Gannon and Wade are as clunky as expected in a milieu overrun by macho hardware and mumbo-jumbo software, Stealth conjures up a human-centred climax with plenty of on-the-ground action featuring a low-probability run-to-the-border and a high-odds search-and-rescue mission under enemy fire.

Cohen finds time to make his leads and locations as attractive as the sleek planes, a rest-and-recreation sojourn in Thailand providing a flimsy excuse for the stars to parade in bathing suits, not to mention providing a tourism boost for the Thai economy.

Stealth never threatens to be taken seriously, but delivers its entertainment payload on target.






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Saturday, 1 June 2019

Movie Review: Gambit (2012)


An attempted madcap comedy, Gambit musters up a few chuckles but otherwise collapses into a heap of stultifying gags.

Art curator Harry Dean (Colin Firth) is fed up with his boss, the insufferable London-based media tycoon Lord Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman). With help from art forger The Major (Tom Courtenay), Harry concocts a plan to "discover" a long lost Monet at the ramshackle Texas home of rancher PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), and have PJ sell it to Lionel for millions.

After some misadventures Harry and The Major secure the cooperation of PJ, but nothing else goes according to Harry's plan. Shabander is difficult to fool, and sets his eyes on PJ as a romantic conquest. The mogul also plots to replace Harry with snooty German curator Martin Zaidenweber (Stanley Tucci) while fending off a gaggle of rival Japanese businessmen.

A rough remake of the 1966 original, Gambit's troubled script was written by the Coen brothers (among others), and they were wise enough to leave it alone. Instead Michael Hoffman takes over directing duties, and he can do little to enliven proceedings. The film looks glossy enough and Firth's dry brand of humour saves some scenes, but the script and situational comedy settings are remarkably dated.

Gambit lives in a world where it is somehow supposed to still be funny that Harry Dean is repeatedly punched in the face; cannot move an office chair; gets his hand stuck in a jar; traps himself in a linen closet; is caught without his pants; and has to make an escape on the outside ledge of a hotel. In the early 1960s these cinematic gags may have been relatively fresh to some audiences in a Pink Panther type of way. Forty years later, Gambit is just oh-so-tired.

At least the London setting justifies the Englishness of Colin Firth and Alan Rickman. Californian Cameron Diaz goes all-in and distractingly over-the-top to portray a Texan, and Stanley Tucci stays firmly in caricature land as a German. The group of suited Japanese businessmen who are easily manipulated by food and drink is stereotyping at its worst.

A lion makes a late appearance as part of a ridiculous artwork security system, but Gambit is more of a meek house cat than wild beast.






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Friday, 31 May 2019

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)


A Hollywood comedy, Hail, Caesar! is an homage to the heyday of the studio system, and just about holds together.

It's 1951 in Hollywood, and Capitol Pictures manager Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has a lot on his hands. The studio is filming a Biblical epic, but star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of communist writers, who demand a $100,000 ransom. Aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and not quite sure who the father is.

On the orders of the studio boss, singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is pressed into a starring role in a sophisticated comedy and struggles to follow instructions from director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Dancer/singer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is filming a navy-themed musical while potentially hiding some secrets. And all the time rival twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are circling the studio looking for nasty stories to publish.

Mannix is also trying to stop smoking, and is considering a lucrative offer to quit Hollywood and join the Lockheed corporation. He has to try and keep the kidnapping story away from the press as he arranges for the star's release, and find solutions to DeeAnna's potentially scandalous pregnancy and Hobie's incompetence.

With something different going on within every soundstage, Hail, Caesar! captures the insanity of a workplace where reality is make-believe. Produced, directed and written with a jovial spirit by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is an affectionate salute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a place where men controlled the plots points for both the movies and the stars.

The Coen's craft their love letter without resorting to sentimentality. The intention is to deliver fun laced with satire, and along the way the full range of genres popular in the era is skewered to good effect. De Mille-level historical epics,  Esther Williams-style lavish swimming pool spectacles, B-level westerns, sparkling romantic comedies and raucous musicals are all weaved into the life Eddie Manx.

He somehow maintains his composure as a crisis erupts with every phone call. His workday consists of putting out fires or delaying their spread while his mind operates at 100 miles per hour to stay ahead of the next scandal, all while battling his cigarette addiction, lying to his wife and confessing (frequently) to his priest.

Within the madness the Coens find time to delve into the mythical communist infiltration of Hollywood, here represented by leftist writers incongruously hanging out at a lavish seaside villa raising funds for their cause by kidnapping Hollywood's biggest star. It does not take long for Baird Whitlock to fall for the eloquently explained communist drivel, in what could be a nod to the typical mental nimbleness of the on-screen talent.

Hail, Caesar! never takes itself seriously, a most appropriate stance for an industry trading in formulating fleeting fantasies.






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