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In the early 1950s, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is busy at work trying to solve all the problems of the actors and filmmakers at Capitol Pictures. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the world’s biggest star, is kidnapped in the middle of production on the studio’s latest swords-and-sandals epic, Eddie will have to recover his leading man while simultaneously appeasing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), disgruntled director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and song-and-dance superstar Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), all while horse-trading information to keep his talents’ names out of the gossip columns written by a pair of rival siblings, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton). (From Universal’s official synopsis)

In terms of their entire career, the Coen Brother’s’ latest rests somewhere among other their screwball comedies – well below Raising Arizona (1987), and maybe even The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), yet well above their most disappointing work, specifically Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004). Despite an unfocused, frustratingly episodic structure, it is one of the more successful blends of their technical prowess, their sharp, crowd-pleasing humour (not to be confused with the darker and more complex humour of something like A Serious Man, 2009), and their more artistic inclinations. Comparisons to the infinitely more lyrical No Country for Old Men (2007) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) are moot, but Hail, Caesar! does have a bit of arty flare – not to mention emotional satisfaction – mixed into the wacky antics. The film-within-the-film aspects offer the Brothers the chance to go overboard with tongue-in-cheek, yet genuinely beautiful avant-garde set pieces, similar to the surreal dream sequences from The Big Lebowski (1997). The stagey-ness of the movie set scenes bleeds into the ‘real world,’ creating charmingly surreal contrasts. It’s a bit Wes Anderson-esque in its twee baroque-ness, though shared cast members may be magnifying the similarities.

 Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! mockingly acknowledges the politics of the period, especially anti-Communist sentiment. Even with its tongue in its cheek, the film acts as a jovial antidote to Jay Roach’s Trumbo – the lifeless biopic that shamelessly aped the Coen’s style while chasing Oscars last year. The Coens’ celebratory satire has much more to say about the hypocrisies and dirty dealings of the industry than Roach and Trumbo screenwriter John McNamara’s unruly, pandering, mostly fact-based production. Hail, Caesar’s ‘insider info’ also covers aspects I had never really considered, such as studio efforts to please multiple religious figures with the depiction of Christ or the arranging of stars’ romantic relationships. That said, all of these ideas, genre shifts, and subplots run against each other somewhat awkwardly at times. The parts are pretty great as standalone pieces and several scenes work beautifully within their own context, they just don’t quite fit together or rotate within the bigger filmic machine. The pace seems a bit off as well, wavering between the spitfire wit of Hudsucker Proxy and the more deliberate momentum of A Serious Man (2009).

As Hail, Caesar! loses itself in fragmented storytelling, it also threatens to lose itself in celebrity cameos. The trailers, which implied that every recognizable face was going to team-up to save George Clooney’s character, didn’t help the situation. In reality, most members of this shockingly star-studded cast appear for a couple of minutes, then are quickly forgotten. It’s hard for anyone to stand out in this crowd, but some succeed thanks to more substantial screen time. While watching Hail, Caesar!, I realized that Clooney has exclusively worked on Coen screwballs, perhaps because they think of him as a proper ‘golden age Hollywood’-type star and want to make fun of his natural gifts. Here, he’s a featured player, just short of a proper lead, which gives him more room to be an utter fool with no consequences. Josh Brolin is the closest thing the movie has to a real lead by filling the thankless role of a straight man to basically everyone else in the movie. He toes the line while relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich gobbles up the best (non-dancing) moments as another typically sweet, Coen-brand baffoon. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t feature the Brother’s most profound dialogue, but the snappy phrases and campy tone all fit the screwy and self-aware concept like a glove.

 Hail, Caesar!

Video


Hail, Caesar! was, like every single one of the Coen Brother’s movies, shot on 35mm film. Unlike Inside Llewyn Davis and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they have opted to avoid intensive post-production colour grading. The Brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who are considered among the original adopters of digital colour grading in feature films) still alter the hues a bit on occasion, usually to push the surrealistic qualities of certain sequences, though there is a slight golden tint to the entire production. What’s important is that the colour timing is still very eclectic and quite vivid. Despite the film-based footage, the image is relatively soft. Darker edges are still relatively hard and finer textures are tight, but most of the gradations are subtle and smooth. Grain levels appear accurate without overwhelming the transfer, even during the darker shots, where highlights still stand-out against consistently black compositions. There aren’t any notable compression effects to speak of, either.

Audio


Hail, Caesar’s soundtrack isn’t the liveliest or most full-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track I’ve ever heard, but the dynamic range is very wide. Dialogue-heavy sequences are neatly centered and relatively crisp with subtle stereo/surround echos and ambience. The more prominent sound effects are punchy, sometimes verging on cartoonish, like the suctioned pop of Johansson’s mermaid tail or the opportune bird calls that punctuate some of the jokes. The brief surprise submarine sequence offers up a bit more directional work and gives the LFE a potent rumble. The Coen’s usual musical collaborator, Carter Burwell, supplies a convincing period-appropriate score and Henry Krieger’s songs fit the early ‘50s vibe perfectly. The music gets the widest stereo/surround representation, especially the boisterous song-and-dance numbers.

 Hail, Caesar!

Extras


  • Directing Hollywood (4:10, HD) – A general behind-the-scenes EPK in which the cast praises the Coen’s and their catalogue of films. The cutest factoid is that the film had been merely a concept for a decade, until George Clooney started telling press outlets that it would be his next movie, thus forcing the Brothers to actually write a script.
  • The Stars Align (11:30, HD) – A slightly more involved look at the cast and their characters, complete with press-kit-style interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and pertinent sequences from the film.
  • An Era of Glamour (6:20, HD) – The third EPK covers the production and costume design, all of which was created in homage to the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood.
  • Magic of a Bygone Era (6:00, HD) – The cast & crew discusses recreating the erstwhile genres of the post-war period.


 Hail, Caesar!

Overall


Hail, Caesar! is a perfectly pleasant, if not lesser entry in the Coen Brothers canon. Viewers that are prepared for an episodic film that occasionally loses itself in lengthy homage, rather than an intricately woven series of vignettes, should be satisfied, especially if they’re already Coen fans. Universal’s Blu-ray looks sharp and sounds very nice, but its extras are the type of EPK fluff we usually expect from the Coens, who aren’t really interested in supplemental content.

 Hail, Caesar!

 Hail, Caesar!

 Hail, Caesar!

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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