FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #83 – “Hail, Caesar!” (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Poster for "Hail, Caesar!"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel fight their initial impulse to embrace yet another Hollywood love letter to the motion picture, and instead enjoy the Coen Bros‘ vigorous cinematic hate-fuck Hail, Caesar! Gene Autry and Kirk Douglas will be rolling in their graves…with laughter (33:53).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is the “The Merry Widow Waltz” by Franz Lehár and “Echelon Song” by A.V. Alexandrov and Osip Kolychev, as performed by The Red Army Choir, both from the film’s soundtrack.
  • Glenn: Hugo was my #1 of 2011 (not 2009), and The Artist was #5 in the same year. Birdman was my #1 of 2014. Like Hollywood, it appears I’m a big ol’ sucker for movies about movies.
  • Cinema attendance has indeed been on the decline since the 1940s, and home televisions are largely credited with this decline. In 1930, more than 65% of the US population went to the movies every week. It dropped to around 10% in the 1960s, and has stayed at about that level since.
  • CORRECTION: We briefly implied that we stand with Rand. We do not. We regret the error.
  • CORRECTION: In the description above, we jokingly implied that Kirk Douglas is dead. He’s alive and kicking, and his son got him a bitchin’ 99th birthday gift.

Listen above, or download: Hail, Caesar! (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” – Life in space

Poster for "Gravity"

Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) has the rather annoying habit of mentioning, for no reason whatsoever, that he has a bad feeling about the Earth-orbital mission at hand. That he uses the non sequitur to introduce an endearing personal anecdote is probably small consolation to Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a first-time astronaut who feels like she’s inside a tumble dryer. The two of them are hurtling through space (inner space, really) on a repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope when suddenly their high-speed platform becomes a shooting gallery of orbital debris. In the space of a few minutes, Hubble is destroyed, and Dr. Stone is sent tumbling into space.

The opening title card of Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity announces, in no uncertain terms, that life in space is impossible. And as hard as that is to believe in the glorious age of information and space exploration in which we live, the film does a marvelous job at conveying just how much we might be kidding ourselves with all this manned space travel nonsense. Every slender thread of survival that we latch onto as a species is useless in space. Food? Water? Air? Only what you take with you. Something’s coming at you- what do you do? Smack it away? Vacate its path? Every attempt at avoidance or deflection is dependent on your ability to exert force, and that ability is non-existent without gravity. Perhaps the most emblematic and disturbing image in the film is of an unlucky astronaut killed in the initial volley, who is left with a large, frozen, awkwardly-shaped hole straight through his facemask, skull, brain, and skull again – hit by a single giant bullet that passed all the way through his head like it wasn’t even there.

Force and gravity are the central setpieces of this film, and for the most part, the physics seem to be dead-on. If you hurtle someone through space, they keep going until something stops them. If you impact a structure in space, it doesn’t explode; it shatters, and every piece keeps right on floating or speeding in the same space and trajectory until some other force acts upon it. Apart from her own despair, Dr. Stone’s only nemesis in this film is Sir Isaac Newton. Possibly my sole complaint about this film is that there is a rather significant plot moment, about halfway through the film, that appears to abandon the laws of physics in the interests of drama. What’s more, there’s basically nothing I can else I can say about it that wouldn’t spoil a rather major event in the film. Suffice to say, it bothered me a great deal in the moment, despite my scientific mind coming up with a plausible (if a bit fanwanky) explanation after the film. I was a bit surprised to see the film resort to such a cliché at the expense of its own plausibility, but it is surrounded by enough well-realized physics and plotting that it certainly didn’t ruin the film*.

Still from "Gravity"

Sandra Bullock heartily defeated my skepticism in this film. I was not sanguine about her ability to carry a solo survival thriller, but she delivers an incredibly taut and tense performance. This character is broken on multiple levels before the film even begins, which makes her pursuit of triumph and homecoming that much more poignant as the film goes on. Much of the film’s imagery, right down to its stunning final shot, relies upon Bullock’s ability to convey this tension between hopelessness and survival, and she pulls it off masterfully. If there was ever a character with the proper temperament to be the sole survivor of a disaster, it’s this one – even if the actual body count will still be luck of the draw. George Clooney makes a welcome addition to the crew as charming, cocky flyboy Kowalski. If it didn’t involve such bulky costuming and wirework, this would be a role that he could play in his sleep. Kowalski is on his last mission before retirement (never a safe character move), but always maintains his composure and professionalism when the situation becomes dire. His radio interplay with Bullock works well, even as it becomes clear that simply being able to do the best possible thing in a bad situation might not be enough.

Gravity is not only one of the finest hard science fiction films ever made; it is a stunning treatise on the limits of human exploration and survival. Unlike a film like 127 Hours, which is better regarded as a treatise on human endurance, Gravity is a film in which simply “choosing life” is not enough. When you’re in an environment that is anathema to human survival, your choice must be accompanied by expertise, equipment, and a whole lot of good old fashioned luck.

FilmWonk Rating: 9 out of 10

*My spoilery physics complaint (highlight to view): When Stone was tangled up in the Soyuz parachute attached loosely to the ISS, Kowalski should not have continued to pull away from her after she had successfully halted him. Whatever force was supposed to be acting upon Kowalski in that moment was not made clear at all. Like a continuously decompressing aircraft with a hull breach (which made an unwelcome appearance only two episodes into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), this is just a lazy violation of physics to heighten tension, and it really only works if your audience isn’t hip to it. This one definitely bugged me in the moment, but it was surrounded by enough good stuff that I wasn’t inclined to mark down the film for it. And I did manage to think of a plausible, albeit fanwanky explanation after the fact – if the ISS were in an uncontrolled rotation, Kowalski could be propelled away from it in the manner depicted.

2009 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actor

#5: Sharlto Copley – Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9


Sharlto Copley in "District 9"

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with such a thoroughly despicable protagonist as Wikus Van De Merwe. He is vicious, self-serving, inept, and almost a complete coward. But newcomer Sharlto Copley (a producer and personal friend of director Neill Blomkamp) completely brought this character to life. Wikus begins the film as the consummate corporate stooge, showing obvious enjoyment and aptitude at his middle management job, even as he perpetrates some incredible acts of callousness and destruction in the alien ghetto known as District 9. Copley’s performance in some of these moments is downright giddy, with a thoroughly believable grin on his face as he supervises the abortion – via flamethrower – of an alien breeding shack (“It’s like popcorn!”). Copley’s character and plotline reminded me a great deal of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, and as with that film, if the character had remained the terrible person he was at the start of the film, there would have been little for the audience to connect with. But even as District 9 loses some of its more provocative social themes and becomes more of a big, fun action film, Copley’s emotional transformation becomes as real as Wikus’ physical one. And this is especially remarkable considering that every line of Wikus’ dialogue is improvised! (source). Copley gives a masterful performance that absolutely makes this movie work, and I’m simultaneously eager and a little frightened to see what he does next.

#4: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Tom Hansen, (500) Days of Summer


In my original review, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had once again proven his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “Third Rock from the Sun”. He was utterly charming in this film, proving as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding (as the story’s unconventional breakup narrative demanded). His chemistry with Zooey Deschanel was fantastic, and made this one of the most memorable romances (if not love stories) of the year.

#3: Jeremy Renner – SSgt. William James,
Anthony Mackie – Sgt. JT Sanborn,
Brian Geraghty – Spc. Owen Eldridge, The Hurt Locker


Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker"
Brian Geraghty in "The Hurt Locker"

I’ll admit, this is a total cheat, but as I noted in my original review, I can’t single out any of these performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic Iraq War action film, The Hurt Locker, as the superlative one. As an ensemble, however, these three work immensely well. Renner’s performance is appropriately intense (and only slightly clichéd, as the new, loose-cannon commander of the squad), but Mackie and Geraghty are just fantastic, and make for ample balance among the three. The film features Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other… But thanks to these three performances, the dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

#2: George Clooney – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air


George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. Ryan is already a fascinating enough character just from that description, and Clooney’s performance delivers on every bit of promise the character demands. He has remarkable chemistry with both of his co-stars, and his relationships with each of them are completely what make this film work. As I noted in my original review, the film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan, granting him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shying away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity in a way that keeps Ryan’s rhetoric as one of the film’s most important themes, but stops it from becoming didactic. And later on in the film, as the character’s transformation becomes apparent, he completely conveys (but doesn’t overplay) how emotionally shaken Ryan has been by the film’s events. This is surely one of Clooney’s finest performances, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

#1: Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell/Sam Bell, Moon



In my original review of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I called it a film for people who love big ideas. The film’s “big reveal” comes in the first 15 minutes, as Sam Bell (Rockwell), the solitary worker of a lunar mining base, wanders outside to investigate a crashed lunar rover, and finds an unconscious clone of himself behind the wheel. As the film begins to explore its deeper sci-fi themes, Rockwell imbues each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. They both play to familiar territory for Rockwell – unshaven and slightly unhinged, but even as the film skips over the expected tropes of its genre (at no point does one clone chase the other around with a knife), Rockwell’s performance creates a compelling dynamic between the two. The only other character in the film is GERTY, the artificially intelligent base computer, which can only communicate its emotions via on-screen emoticons and the mellifluous voice of Kevin Spacey. But while the relationship between Sam and the computer is one of the most fascinating aspects of Moon, it is Rockwell that carries the weight of the film. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, this is Rockwell’s one-man show, and he acquits himself masterfully in the role.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report
  • Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody as Stephen and Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
  • Clive Owen as Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back
  • Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan in Adventureland
  • Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” – A brilliant and timely character piece

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. He spends his life in airports and hotels, brandishing an impressive collection of Executive Gold Club Cards as he bounces from one bastion of transient hospitality to the next.

“When I swipe my card”, Ryan informs us in the opening voiceover, “the system prompts her to say…”
“Pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” the clerk cheerfully announces.

Ryan is clearly in love with the road, in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the temporary trappings that come with it. The film’s treatment of air travel falls somewhere between Catch Me If You Can and Fight Club, and Ryan meets no shortage of single-serving friends along the way. One of these is Alex (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic career gal who is on the road as often as Ryan. They bond after a brief hotel fling, and resolve to meet up the next chance they get.

And yet, those chances may soon come to an end, as Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a brash, young coworker, proposes to slash the company’s travel budget and switch to firing people via videoconferencing. Facing the end of his life on the road, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take her along to show her the reality of his business. And that reality is a dubious one.

“Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world has sat where you’re sitting,” intones Ryan as he fires a man named Steve (Zach Galifianakis, in a great cameo), “And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

This is a line we hear several times, and Clooney’s brilliant, tongue-in-cheek delivery leaves the audience constantly wondering whether or not he believes his own rhetoric. Indeed, his true motivation is one of the film’s central questions…

When Ryan isn’t passing out pinkslips, he makes appearances as a motivational speaker, advising people how to avoid connections in their lives. His message is clear – “moving is living”. He has a silver tongue, and would clearly say anything to convince Natalie why he should stay on the road. And yet as the film goes on, his firing scenes are peppered with what seem to be moments of genuine humanity. During one such scene, in which he fires a white-collar fifty-something named Bob (J.K. Simmons), Ryan gives a touching speech about what Bob needs to do in order to be admired by his kids.

And this may be the most provocative thing about Ryan. Whether or not he believes in his rhetoric, it has exactly the intended effect. Ryan has his own reasons for wanting to stay on the road (including a coveted number of frequent flier miles), but he constantly tries to impress upon Natalie how important and personal the moment of firing is. To hear him describe it, it sounds almost noble. They are the priests, administering the last rites to the doomed before they pass into oblivion, all the while assuring them that there is something bright and beautiful on the other side. “We are here to make limbo tolerable”, declares Ryan, and he is soundly mocked for it by Natalie.

The film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan. It is implied that he has had a multitude of one-night stands, and yet the very first one we see – Alex – is the one that might just turn serious. The film grants him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shies away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity so well that the character is incredibly effective, especially in the interplay with his young colleague.

Still from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air"

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

It is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She comes right out and tells Ryan to just think of her as “[himself], but with a vagina”, and assures him that she’s not a girl he needs to worry about. The character seems a bit facile at the beginning, but Vera Farmiga gives a fantastic performance. And as her relationship with Ryan develops, the character seems more and more plausible. And while it’s fairly easy to see where the story is going with this character, she does treat us to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Ryan and Alex share their views on love and marriage.

The script for Up in the Air, adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. The performances are also something to see. In addition to the three strong leads, Jason Bateman gives a impressive turn as Bingham’s boss – he’s a ruthless company shark with just a bit of a humorous streak to him, seemingly channeling Stephen Root in No Country for Old Men. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen from Bateman, and I was quite impressed.

We also see dozens of people being fired in this film, and most of them were quite convincingly played by real people who’ve lost their jobs during the recession. The film even includes an end-credits song that was seemingly performed on spec on the director’s answering machine. This could easily have come off as pandering to an audience in economic turmoil, but it just lends so well to the relevance and immediacy of this film.

While Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking, it has a much more somber tone. It retains the same darkly comedic style (and presents another fantastic soundtrack) while covering a lot more ground. It takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. And it is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10