Films I loved in June 2016

30 June 2016
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Güneş Şensoy as Lale in Mustang

I’d been looking forward to seeing Mustang for almost a year now after consistently hearing great things about it. It’s the feature film debut by Turkish/French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, about five sisters living with their uncle and grandmother in a secluded and very conservative Turkish village. Inspired by real stories including some of the filmmaker’s own experiences, Mustang is about the removal of freedoms from the sisters after they are accused of behaving indecently with male classmates. While the threat to the girls’ welfare looms large during the majority of the film, their defiance and energy is exhilarating, particularly during a sequence involving a football game that evokes Jafar Panahi’s glorious 2006 film Offside. The tension that builds during the film’s finale is close to unbearable, but Ergüven delivers a payoff that is satisfying and feels true to the spirit of what has come before. Needless to say, the expectations that I brought to this film were met and I’m happy to join the ranks of people who speak about Mustang glowingly.

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Vincent Lindon as Thierry Taugourdeau in The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man is only the second film I’ve seen by French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé after Mademoiselle Chambon, which I also liked. Both films star prolific French actor Vincent Lindon who has a wonderful ability to simultaneously portray strength and resilience along with vulnerability and melancholy. This is vital to what makes The Measure of a Man work as well as it does where Lindon plays Thierry, an unemployed middle-aged man trying maintain his dignity while going through the very undignified process of looking for work and making ends meet in the meantime. Brizé’s naturalistic style conveys Thierry frustrations, boredom, worry and most importantly the way he’s constantly on display to be judged and condescended to. The Measure of a Man painfully captures not just the stress of unemployment, but also the subtle ways in which people out of work are made to feel shamed and stupid. The second half of the film goes one step further when Thierry is then placed in a position to watch and judge others,  demonstrating how just the act of watching somebody and expecting the worst from them makes them appear at fault.

The Wailing

Jo Han-chul as a detective and Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo in The Wailing

After being so astonished by South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s previous film The Yellow Sea I required little persuasion to see his new horror/thriller film The Wailing. Set in a Korean village where a number of strange murders have started occurring, the film follows the increasingly desperate investigations of local policeman Jong-Goo. Drawing upon South Korean Sharman traditions and haunted by the county’s violent past of internal conflict and colonisation by Japan – as well as borrowing liberally from Japanese and American genre cinema – The Wailing delivers a mix of exorcisms, possessions, zombies, body horror, children being creepy, paranoia and even several unexpected comedic moments. The scares are generated by slow builds, unpredictability and filming key scenes in medium shots so it’s not always clear what we are looking at. The film has an intense kinetic energy and often feels like it is in free fall with its tonal shifts and plot twists – but that’s all very much part of the fun.

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Blake Jenner as Jake and Austin Amelio as Nesbit in Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard  Linklater has described his 1980-set college film Everybody Wants Some!! as a spiritual sequel to his 1973-set high school film Dazed and Confused, and also as a sequel of sorts to his last film Boyhood since that film ended with the protagonist going to college, and this film is about the first few days of a young man at college before classes and responsibility begins. Everybody Wants Some!! is mostly a bunch of scenes of the young men on a college baseball team hanging out, drinking, competing, partying, talking about girls and attempting – and often succeeding – in having sex. The film is at its best when it allows us to observe the way the characters, who were all stars at high school, are now compelled to continually compete against each other, and how the characters readjust their identities when encountering various subcultures. It’s at its weakest when the characters have similar observations about what they are doing, and then over explain the themes of the film through dialogue. However, I can put this quibble aside since ultimately this is a really fun and sincere hang-out film.

THE BFG

Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as the BFG in The BFG

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG is a little too long and needlessly padded, and sometimes suffers from cartoonish CGI (although perhaps that’s done deliberately to minimise the scariness of some scenes for younger viewers). But I’ve included it as one of my favourite films of the month because the aspects I did like, I really liked. Firstly, the performances throughout the film by Mark Rylance as the motion-captured Big Friendly Giant and new comer Ruby Barnhill as the orphan Sophie, are gorgeous and successfully convey the very sweet relationship created by Dahl in his novel. I also loved the Dream Country scene, which delivers all Spielberg’s classic tricks of the trade where light, music, whimsy and the wonder on the faces of the characters generate a glorious sequence of feel-good cinematic indulgence. And finally, the fart humour of the novel – especially during the scene involving the Queen of England – is taken to extremities that left me wanting to give the film a standing ovation. There is also some great stuff about standing up for yourself, the power of friendship and not judging people who aren’t fortunate enough to have had the education that allows them to communicate as well as others. But it’s the farting that ultimately won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in May 2016

29 May 2016
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Ryan Gosling as Holland March and Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy in The Nice Guys

I had been looking forward to The Nice Guys, as the promise of a funny and violent buddy-cop (or buddy-PI) film set in the 1970s, written and directed by Shane Black, was just too enticing. And fortunately Black, the writer of Lethal Weapon and the writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, not did not disappoint. Nor did Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as the odd-couple private investigators who have to work together on a missing-person case that, of course, gets them in way over their heads. The dialogue is sharp and funny, the action is exciting, and while the tone is overall playful, it is underscored by genuine menace to ensure the stakes remain high. After the sheer joy of Inherent Vice I didn’t think another film would come along so soon that so successfully blends together classical Hollywood hardboiled noir with such a distinctively ’70s setting, but The Nice Guys pulls it off with not one but two pulp detective protagonists and a gleefully convoluted plot where good detective work and fucking things up often yield the desired outcome in equal measure. Black even includes a sly dig at moral outrage hypocrisy through the device of having corporate greed undermined by a porn film. The Nice Guys is so much fun.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker and Sam Neill as Hector Faulkner in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

When I first heard about Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the new film by New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi, I anticipated something that contained the droll humour and sincerity of his glorious film Boy along with his increasing proficiency with visual effects and spectacle as displayed in the very funny What We Do in the Shadows. These were unreasonably high expectations, but fortunately Hunt of the Wilderpeople met them and then exceeded them. The film is an adaptation of the 1986 novel Wild Pork And Watercress, by New Zealand author and personality Barry Crump, and the film adopts Crump’s core story about the growing bond between a troubled adolescent and a cantankerous older man who are on the run together in the New Zealand wilderness. The magic touch that Waititi delivers is maintaining the heart of Crump’s novel while adding several new characters and dialogue to facilitate his own sometimes dark but always well-meaning deadpan humour. This is another extremely fun film that is also very sweet. I’ve already seen it twice.

Chasing Asylum

Chasing Asylum

On a very different note Chasing Asylum is likely to be the most difficult, but also the most important, film I’ve seen this year, not only because of its upsetting portrayal of human rights abuses, but because they are abuses being committed by the Australian government. Filmmaker Eva Orner’s many impressive previous credits include producing Alex Gibney’s Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. In Chasing Asylum Orner presents a sobering examination of what is happening to asylum seekers who while attempting to come to Australia have been left in indefinite detention in offshore camps. Using extensive footage secretly taken inside the camps as well as testimonials from ex-camp workers and detainees, a picture emerges of a policy that is resulting in the physical, psychological and sexual abuses of men, women and cruelest of all, children. A lot of the information presented in the film was stuff I knew about, but only in fragmented form. Seeing everything presented in one package with the full context and background information is heartbreaking. I hope as many people as possible see it to arm themselves with information about this country’s appalling ethical compromise (that also happens to be absurdly expensive) that is going to have terrible repercussions for generations to come.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in April 2016

1 May 2016
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Jaeden Lieberher as Alton and Michael Shannon as Roy in Midnight Special

At times while watching Midnight Special, the new film by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), I felt like it was custom-made for me. I adored the way its story of two men kidnapping a boy from a cult created tension and intrigue by withholding so much backstory and character information, especially in an era of filmmaking where often so much is over-explained or signposted sooner than necessary. It also helped that the film was heavily and overtly inspired by ’70s and ’80s science-fiction films such as Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my all-time favourite films. While Midnight Special ultimately didn’t deliver the full payoff that I was anticipating, which was disappointing as the final reveal was so literal, I still loved its performances, mood and exploration of many of Nichols’s reoccurring themes concerning family, fatherhood, masculinity and how we perceive reality.

Captain America: Civil War

Chris Evans as Captain America in Captain America: Civil War

While I always more or less enjoy the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, I’ve never found any particularly memorable. Guardians of the Galaxy is the only one to ever appear in one of my monthly summaries, until now as I thought Captain America: Civil War was superb. Containing nearly every significant superhero character from the previous films and introducing new ones while further developing narrative threads from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, this new film is impressive for just how well it manages so much story and character information. But its real triumph is the stunning action choreography and inventive fight scenes. Not since the first two X-Men films have I felt such exhilaration from the spectacle of seeing the inherent strangeness of all the various superpowers in play. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo never allow the computer generated effects to overshadow the visual pleasures of the actors’ bodies in motion, and they are always aware of how to best capitalise on the space of the scenes where the action takes place, frequently tracking the action vertically rather than always staging scenes along the more conventional x-axis.

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John Clarke as Phillip Lang and Anthony LaPaglia as Frank Mollard in A Month of Sundays

The Australian film A Month of Sundays, by writer/director Matthew Saville, reminded me of many independent American films from the 1990s, with its off-kilter nervous energy, understated humour and gently melancholic atmosphere.  Anthony LaPaglia, one of Australia’s consistently excellent actors, gives a sad and funny performance as a divorced middle-aged real estate agent whose life seems to have lost all meaning. The key to the film’s success is its winning droll humour, often courtesy of the always brilliant John Clarke in a supporting role, that takes the film into more serious and ultimately heartwarming  territory. A Month of Sundays is low key and anecdotally seems to have divided audiences, but if you can tap into its humour early on then the results are extremely rewarding.

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National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a terrific documentary that covers the founding for the American satirical magazine National Lampoon in 1960 that went on to become a multimedia operation that included comedy albums, radio serials, theatre shows and feature films such as Animal House and Vacation. The film adopts a similar visual style to the magazine’s art direction, which greatly assists in conveying the impact of the humour, which ranged from irreverent and absurd to extremely confronting and shocking. The interviews with many of the editorial staff and performers from over the years are fascinating and funny, and the film contains plenty of classic moments from the magazine, albums and live performances that still elicit big laughs. This film is enormously fun and demonstrates how rather than belittling the already powerless with lazy stereotypes, ‘offensive’ and dark humour can also be used to aggressively draw attention to social inequalities and hypocrisy.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in March 2016

1 April 2016
Spear

Spear

Seeing the new Australian film Spear took me way outside my cinematic comfort zone and I couldn’t be more thrilled by how much that risk paid off. Spear originated as a 2000 dance theatre work by the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, whose Artistic Director Stephen Page is the film’s director and co-writer. By incorporating dance, some spoken word, and superb editing, music and cinematography, Spear conveys the experiences of a young Indigenous man exploring his cultural identity in modern Australia. I won’t pretend to understand the meaning of every single element of the film, but that didn’t matter as the non-narrative spectacle was completely absorbing. During the first ten minutes of the film I had already experienced more shivers down the spine than I hope to get from the entirety of most other films.

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Odessa Young as Hedvig in The Daughter

Another impressive Australian film that has been recently released is The Daughter, the feature film debut by theatre writer/director Simon Stone. Loosely based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, The Daughter is a ensemble drama set in a small rural community where the circumstances surrounding the wedding of the town’s wealthy business owner and patriarch brings old resentments and hidden secrets to the surface. It’s a finely acted and directed drama that demonstrates how those with power get what they want and it’s everybody else who suffers misery as a result, whether it be in a closed family unit or the broader community. Stone has maintained the spirit of Ibsen’s social critique and successfully channelled it into a powerful contemporary Australian drama.

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Sherpa

The third Australian film that commanded my attention is Sherpa, a documentary by filmmaker Jennifer Peedom. Initially a more observational film about the Sherpas who assist westerner to climb Mount Everest, it became a more immediate portrait of the worst tragedy in the history of Everest on 18 April 2014. The film examines the way the growing tourist industry on Everest has pushed so many of the Sherpa people into a position of economic dependance that results in them routinely risking their lives to assist with expeditions taking tourists up the mountain. The section covering the tragedy is powerful and heartbreaking, but it is not exploitative. The strongest parts of the film is what follows afterwards when as each day after the tragedy goes by, the discussion about whether or not to send the Sherpas back up to assist with the scheduled climbs gets further and further away from considering the morality of putting lives at risk for income.

THE WITCH

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in The Witch

I almost didn’t include The Witch here because despite admiring it when I saw it, it didn’t resonate with me as I expected it would. But since having seen it, I cannot get it out of my head and the more I talk to other people about it, the more I find myself falling under its spell. It’s a serious and sombre film set in New England in America in the 17th Century about a Puritan family encountering something sinister in the woods. Inspired by folk tales and accounts at the time of supposed incidents of witchcraft, The Witch brings to life not just the stories of witchcraft, but all the social anxieties behind such tales. Similar to The Babadook and It Follows, this is giving form to troubling attitudes towards sex and gender to promote introspection rather than provide a didactic sermon, and the results get way under your skin – in my case, several days later!

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Darwin (voiced by Philippe Katerine) and April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) in April and the Extraordinary World

It’s sometimes easy to forget that countries other than the USA and Japan make animated films because so few animations from the rest of the world get released locally, which is one reason it was such a joy seeing the French-language April and the Extraordinary World. Other reasons included the gorgeous 2D hand drawn animation, the Parisian steampunk 1941 setting (it’s set in an alternate version of history where science has come to a standstill but industrialisation has run rampant) and the heroes are scientists who defy the militaristic government by refusing to contribute to the war effort. It’s a film about the pursuit of knowledge in order to achieve progress and it’s a warning about how fascism manifests on a political and personal level. The action is fun and inventive, and the humour succeeds in drawing upon the absurdity of many of the situations without compromising the film’s internal logic. It also features a cat named Darwin who can talk and at one point describes himself as ‘kittenvincible’. Sold. 

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John Goodman as Howard and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane

I cannot help but feel cynical about the way 10 Cloverfield Lane began as a small self-contained genre film known as The Cellar before having a High Concept blockbuster concept grafted onto it along with the accompanying marketing campaign designed to provoke speculation about how, if at all, it is linked into the 2008 found-footage monster film Cloverfield. On it’s own 10 Cloverfield Lane would have still been an excellent thriller showcasing John Goodman at his ambiguous and creepy best as the conspiracy theorist who may or may not be on the level about the need to stay in an underground bunker due to some unknown apocalyptic tragedy on the surface. And while I realise that the film’s bombastic and left-field conclusion somewhat betrays a lot of what has come before it, it was part of what made me enjoy this film so much as it transformed from a tense character-based thriller into a wild roller-coaster ride.

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Mark Strong as Sebastian and Sacha Baron Cohen as Nobby in Grimsby

I was late to the party when it came to embracing Sacha Baron Cohen and I seem at odds with most others when it comes to how much I’ve enjoyed his recent scripted comedies: The Dictator and now Grimsby.The plot involving Cohen playing a caricature of a lower class English football fan who goes on the run with his long-lost brother, an elite MI6 assassin, results in some extraordinarily grotesque comedic sequences that are crass to the point of absurdity. And as much as some of the jokes are often cruel, crude, pointless and often not even always successful, there are enough moments of audacious hilarity that I cannot deny how much this film left me convulsing with laughter. In fact, a lot of the promotion for the film has involved showing footage of audiences laughing in shocked disbelief by what they are seeing on screen (and apparently they’ll feature any old idiot in the various promotional videos). While the level of social satire regarding attitudes towards the poor are not exactly fine-tuned, I do admire Cohen’s commitment to the bouffon style of comedy (as he discussed in a recent interview on the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast) of extreme and ruthless mockery designed to completely undermine and disrupt all social conventions.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

An interview with actor Parker Posey

14 March 2016

Parker Posey

In the 1990s Time magazine called her the ‘Queen of the Indies’ and more recently The New Yorker named her ‘the greatest character actress of the last few decades’. Parker Posey’s diverse and varied acting career has spanned over two decades now, not only in independent cinema but also in Hollywood blockbusters and television. She has frequently worked with Hal Hartley and also with Christopher Guest in films such as Best In Show where she has had to improvise all her dialogue. She is the subject of a film program at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which is screening a selection of the key films from her career including two of her most recent films: Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle.

This interview was recorded on Sunday 13 March 2016 and then played on Plato’s Cave (Triple R, 3RRR 102.7FM) on Monday 14 March 2016.

Download link (running time = 21:48)

Thank you to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and Triple R for arranging this interview. The ‘In Praise of Parker Posey’ program is screening at ACMI until 28 March 2016. Go to acmi.net.au/film for screening times.


An interview with Penelope Spheeris, the director of the Decline of Western Civilization films

7 March 2016

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Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris made the three films in the music documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization, which are currently screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, after having recently been restored for their release on DVD and blu-ray by Spheeris and her daughter Anna Fox. Spherris has an eclectic filmmaking career having made independent documentaries and dramas, as well as studio family films and comedies, including the original Wayne’s World. The Decline of Western Civilization was shot in 1979 and released at the start of 1981 and was her feature film debut, with its raw and often confronting portrayal of the Los Angeles punk scene at the time.

This interview was recorded on Sunday 28 February 2016 and then played on Plato’s Cave (Triple R, 3RRR 102.7FM) on Monday 7 March 2016 as an hour long special that included music from all three films. You can listen back to that special via Triple R’s Radio On Demand service and here:

Alternatively, you can listen back to the podcast version of the show, which just contains the interview with Spheeris:

Download link

Thank you to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for arranging this interview. The Decline of Western Civilization films are screening at ACMI until 13 March 2016. Go to acmi.net.au/film for screening times.

Playlist

‘Nausea’
X

‘Manimal’
Germs

‘Depression’
Black Flag

‘Let’s Have a War’
Fear

‘Cradle to the Grave’
Motörhead

‘Under My Wheels’
Alice Cooper featuring Axl Rose, Slash & Izzy Stradlin from Guns N’ Roses

‘Smash the State’
Naked Aggression

‘Race To Eternity’
Final Conflict


Films I loved in February 2016

28 February 2016
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Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in Son of Saul

Son of Saul succeeds on every level. It’s an emotionally devastating drama, which sometimes plays out like a thriller, with a precise focus on one character in a Nazi concentration camp in order to convey the broader trauma and grief of the Holocaust. Its stylistic technique of predominantly filming this character in close-up so that the audience experiences the horrors of the camp through sound and his peripheral vision is confronting and effective. And by making the character one of the death-camp Sonderkommandos, who becomes fixated on a personal act of humanity, the film wrestles with questions of what it takes to survive, when does a noble act in extreme circumstances become reckless or selfish, and how do you measure life and morality when surrounded by death and evil. Son of Saul is a triumph and as the debut feature film by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, it heralds the arrival of a major new talent.

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Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn

On the surface Brooklyn seems like a modest film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York, USA, in the 1950s to start a new life and ends up torn between two men. While the film very much works as romance film, it is also a stirring tale of personal and cultural identity. The excitement and liberation of new experiences, versus the familiarity and emotional bonds with home are both depicted as powerful motivating forces that are to be wrestled with before making major life decisions. As Eilis, the young woman torn between two countries, two sets of friends, and two potential lovers, Saoirse Ronan delivers a beautiful performance of somebody hungry to experience life with all its uncertainties and difficulties. The result is a gorgeous film about love, home and community.

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Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years

Brooklyn left me feeling hopeful about love and companionship with its romantic glow, but 45 Years took all of that away with its portrait of a woman starting to realise that her husband of 45 years has never been as emotionally invested in their marriage as she has. In his debut feature film Weekend writer/director Andrew Haigh proved himself to be a master at using subtle film style, especially camera position, to differentiate between the private and public dynamics of a relationship. In 45 Years Haigh again displays his ability of depicting private and public spaces, and a major incident in the film is framed around the circumstances in which somebody reveals their emotions and how that in turn affects the other person. It allows for a devastating final scene where the cut to the credits is so perfectly timed that all the restrained emotion of the film until that point finally bursts free.

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis (voice) as Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh (voice) as Lisa in Anomalisa

Continuing the theme of doomed relationships, Anomalisa goes one step further to present the world experienced by an unlikeable yet not completely unsympathetic man who has become incapable of forming any type of relationship with anybody at all. While the film’s darkly humorous existentialism is a trademark for writer/director Charlie Kaufman (who shares directorial duties with Duke Johnson) the use of stop-motion puppet animation is both unusual and weirdly inventive in its blandness. However, as the main concept of the film becomes clear so does the rationale for using the animated puppetry, making Anomalisa yet another singular vision by Kaufman that is bitterly funny, uncomfortable and melancholic.

Steve Jobs

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Steve Jobs is that despite how overtly fictionalised it is, it still delivers a convincing and engaging version of ‘reality’. Structured like a three act play, with each act set right before Jobs is about to launch a major new product, the self contained backstage spaces become a microcosmos for the dramas in Jobs’s life to play out. Across the three different time periods he interacts with the same group of people, moving from being a ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex to a slightly less ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy script, Danny Boyle’s flamboyant directorial style, the first rate ensemble cast and the setting, give this unconventional biopic the energy of a backstage musical.

Hail, Casar!

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar!

My favourite film by Joel and Ethan Coen is still their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, a Faustian story set in the classical Hollywood studio system where an aspiring young writer trades his integrity, soul and sanity for a shot at the big time. Hail, Caesar! is a sort-of companion piece by the Coens, although set a decade later in the 1950s and much lighter in tone. At the centre of a sprawling narrative that involves a group of Communist writers kidnapping the star of a new Biblical epic, is a fictionalised version of producer and studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin. With no shortage of deliberately overt symbolism and references, Mannix is a flawed Christ figure who spends the film taking the sins of the studio on his shoulders, while resisting the temptation of abandoning his flock at the factory of dreams. The Coens manage to have their cake and eat it to with their loving tributes to the films of the classical Hollywood era while also presenting a scathing critique of the studio system as encapsulating the worst aspects of capitalism.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

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