Thursday, November 21, 2019

Highlights in HAIL, CAESAR!

There were definitely two black men in the preview audience laughing. I was one of those black men laughing. The other was my friend, film critic Mike Sargent. The movie onscreen for the critics preview was HAIL, CAESAR!, a spoof on 1950s Hollywood studio politics from the Coen Brothers. Mike and I are both film geeks and we got some of the classic Hollywood references in the comedy. For instance, the main character was Eddie Mannix, an important studio figure, played by Josh Brolin. There really was an Eddie Mannix. He was what Hollywood called "a fixer." If a big star got pulled over for drunk driving, Eddie took care of keeping it out the papers. If a star's daughter killed mom's physically abusive hoodlum boyfriend, the star called Eddie before she called the cops. You get the idea. In HAIL, CAESAR!, Mike and I knew that the Carmen Miranda-like character, Carlotta Valdez, has the same name as a character in Hitchcock's VERTIGO. We also knew that Scarlett Johansson's movie star character was loosely inspired by the famous MGM swimming star, Esther Williams. George Clooney, dressed as a Roman centurion, tells a story that once happened to him on location. I really broke up laughing at Clooney's delivery and the story because it involved Judy Canova and Danny Kaye. When I was a kid in South Central L.A., I was the only kid on the block aware Judy Canova and Danny Kaye's credits.
Clooney plays the Robert Taylor-ish movie star who's kidnapped by two background actors while he's shooting a Biblical epic.  As I wrote, Mike and I laughed a lot watching the movie. However, as we left the theater, we did say "Who's gonna go see that film?" Most average moviegoers, the kind of folks who filled a theater to see DEADPOOL or X-MEN APOCALYPSE are not going to know Eddie Mannix or get a punchline that involves Danny Kaye. The movie had a jazzy pace, good performances and very funny scenes. But, overall, mainstream audiences wouldn't get the point of the movie. Once again, the Coen Brothers showed how greatly influenced they were by the 1940s classics from director/writer Preston Sturges. But Sturges -- the man who gave us THE LADY EVE, THE PALM BEACH STORY, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK and SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS -- loved his audiences and loved entertaining them. The Coen Brothers often seem to make movies mostly for the Caucasian group of predominantly male film critics in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
HAIL, CAESAR! airs on HBO frequently. When I can, I'll watch the first hour because three actors in it get belly laughs from me with their performances. They are Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson. I remember the original STAR WARS when it opened. A fun movie that was rooted in a new mythology. We eagerly waited for the next adventure that would further the mythology. Now the STAR WARS adventures have been overtaken by marketing. The new movies are being whipped out like Big Macs. Alden Ehrenreich was cast as Han Solo in the 2018 prequel SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. It flopped. That's a shame because Ehrenreich is a good actor. In the 1940s, he would've been added to the Preston Sturges company of actors -- like an Eddie Bracken. Alden Ehrenreich is a comedy stand-out in HAIL, CAESAR! as the polite singing cowboy who stars in popular low-budget movies. He winds up being cast in a sophisticated romantic drama that required him to wear a tuxedo instead of chaps and boots. The perplexed, tweedy director, fabulously played by Ralph Fiennes, must give his assigned star tips on elocution. I love this scene from 2016's HAIL, CAESAR!


Alden Ehrenreich is not an outer space action movie hero. He's a talented actor with screwball comedy chops. He shows that in HAIL, CAESAR! and with his performance in Warren Beatty's 2016 film, RULES DON'T APPLY. Ehrenreich plays the overwhelmed assistant to the mysterious and eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes, in Beatty's film.

As for Scarlet Johansson in HAIL, CAESAR!, she marvelously resurrected the kind of fast-talking, wise-cracking, gum-chewing, brassy blonde that gave 1930s and 40s Hollywood movies life. Watch this clip of her in HAIL, CAESAR!


Those three actors, Clooney, Brolin and Tilda Swinton as twin sisters who are rival Hollywood news columnist -- they all hit home runs in this comedy that not many folks paid to see. I just had to give them some love here.

One more note: After Channing Tatum's jaunty, gay-friendly movie musical number with sailors, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) walks onto the set for a chat with the musical's director. The director is played by Christopher Lambert. Mannix and the director have a short discussion. In real-life, both actors are the ex-husbands of actress Diane Lane. And that's Hollywood.

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