Pick of the Week:
Hail, Caesar! (Universal)
There’s a way of thinking that when it comes to serious filmmakers navigating the Hollywood system, the best way of staying professionally viable without burning out is to take a “one for them, one for me” approach. That means making a movie designed to win crowds and make money then making one that satisfies your need to make more personal art. (A classic example: Steven Spielberg following Jurassic Park with Schindler‘s List in 1993.)
With Joel and Ethan Coen it’s sometimes hard to tell which films fall into the “them” category and which under “us.” After all, they turned a musical adaptation of The Odyssey set in Depression-era South into a blockbuster and Burn After Reading, one of the team’s oddest films, is one of its biggest hits. If 2010’s True Grit was clearly a “them,” and 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis clearly an “us” then Hail, Caesar! should have been another one for “them.”
Yet, despite earning strong reviews, audiences rejected the star-packed comedy about studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) making the rounds during a particularly busy day that finds a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped by a mysterious organization and others in the midst of problems both big and small. It’s packed with memorable comic sequences and a couple of brilliant dance numbers. If a movie with Scarlett Johansson doing her best Esther Williams impression and Channing Tatum hoofing it like Gene Kelly isn’t enough to get viewers to turn up, what will?
Whatever the reason, even if you missed Hail, Caesar! the first time around, there’s no reason to miss it now. And alongside the broad, funny gags (Tilda Swinton plays a Louella Parsons-like gossip columnist and her twin sister) you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of faith and duty, a sort of Catholic riff on the Coens’ A Serious Man. Maybe the usual categories don’t apply to the Coens. They don’t make movies for us or them. They just make movies like nobody else.
Viewers did turn up, however, for Disney’s latest, a completely charming story about a plucky rabbit (Ginnifer Goodwin) trying to make it as a cop in a big city filled with anthropomorphic animals in which predators live side-by-side with prey. To solve a mystery, she’s forced to team up with a con artist fox (Jason Bateman) and the reluctant friendship between the two makes the visually inventive movie one of the best buddy cop movies of recent years.
There’s been a lot of talk about what a post-Game of Thrones HBO will look like (apart from featuring significantly fewer dragons). The reception of Vinyl hasn’t made the picture any clearer. Set in the early ’70s at a struggling record label headed by Bobby Cannavale, the series kicked off with a promising, Martin Scorsese-directed pilot then quickly nosedived. It’s set to return for a second season, but without Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terrence Winter at the helm. For the HBO-less, this box set offers a chance to check out the highs and lows of what’s shaping up to be a study in how prestige dramas don’t always work out no matter how many talented people get involved.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Paramount)
Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie briefly looked like it was shaping up to be a hot item in this election year. Then it just kind of came and went. But the reviews, which largely described this as a relatively sober, straightforward portrayal of a tragic battle, suggest it might be worth giving it a second chance.
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Director’s Cut (Paramount)
Invaluable as a study in how to do sequels right — and how to improve on disappointing first entries — Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 follow-up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture both stays true to the series that inspired it and does its own thing. Revisiting a classic episode of the ’60s series, it turns space into the battlefield for a revenge story between the warlord-like Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and the crew of the Enterprise, folding it all into a story about growing old gracefully. This director’s cut isn’t that much different from the theatrical version, adding a few minutes of outtakes that had already been revived for TV airings, but this Blu-ray does right by the film, including both cuts and a host of extras, including a great commentary track from Meyer.
Le Amiche (Criterion)
Michelangelo Antonioni was five years away from setting the world on fire with L’Avventura when he made this 1955 film, but he was already starting to earn a reputation as a filmmaker to watch. Early Antonioni hasn’t been that easy to find in the States, so it’s heartening to see it join Criterion’s already impressive catalog of Antonioni titles.
They Were Expendable (Warner Archive)
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (Warner Archive)
John Wayne sat out World War II and that, by all reports, made the making of 1945’s They Were Expendable not the most comfortable of shoots since Wayne’s frequent director, John Ford, and co-star Robert Montgomery, did not. That it’s a film about duty and sacrifice probably didn’t help matters. It’s a stirring, unromantic film that does little to glamorize war even while portraying it as necessary.
Released in 1949, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon comes from a few years later in Wayne and Ford’s collaboration. The second of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, it’s the beginning of a long, more mature reassessment of how Westerns portray the making of America that would last through the end of the director’s career.