With “Hail, Caesar!”, Coen brothers show they’re still rebel filmmakers

The Coen brothers’ recent film, “Hail, Caesar!” is a pure rollicking delight, their funniest and sweetest film in years.

A loving send-up of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood in the late 40s and early 50s, it is a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family on so many different levels.

Those were the days when the studio system churned out biblical Ben Hur-type epics with a cast of thousands; song and dance musicals starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; cheesy aquatic dance numbers with Esther Williams; singing cowboy flicks with Gene Autry; and snooty Joan Crawford/Loretta Young New York Upper East Side melodramas.

In “Hail, Caesar!” the Coens brilliantly recreate set pieces from all these genres, but with their signature off the wall, quirky sense of humour.

However, the film is much much more than a an exercise in nostalgia.

On a deeper level, it subtly tackles larger themes of religion, faith, duty, ethics, morality and the influence of art on life and life on art.

The Coens also slyly take a dig at liberal Hollywood icons like George Clooney (who is one of the actual stars of “Hail, Ceasar!”)

The simple plot centers on a day in the life of a film executive and fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) of Capitol Pictures.

This fictional Capitol Pictures is the same studio that seduced an idealistic New York playwright, played by John Turturro, in the Coen brothers’ first Hollywood-centered flick, “Barton Fink.”

Part film noir, part horror flick, “Barton Fink” was influenced by Nathaniel West’s “Day of the Locust” and Polanski’s “Repulsion”, and exposed the Hollywood dream factory as a hellish destination where artistic and creative careers and dreams are shot down in flames, both literally and figuratively.

Fast forward to 2016. Many wonderful Coen films later, the film industry, for all its weirdness, deception and shallowness, has been kind to the Coen brothers, who have clearly mellowed. In “Hail, Caesar!” their satire is still biting and at times edgy, but also joyful and lots of fun.

Eddie Mannix is a devout Catholic, a family man and true believer in God, country and Hollywood. One of the movie’s best running jokes is that Mannix is constantly seeking absolution from his exasperated father confessor, for such venal sins as sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife. But there is something greater at play.

On a a deeper level, Mannix is conflicted. He loves his work — which is essentially keeping the Hollywood dream factory running smoothly, churning out fluff and idealized illusions, while backstage, he’s dealing with all kinds of sleazy, corrupt and potentially soul-destroying shite.

The Coens take us behind the painted-on backdrops, fake cityscapes and the constant turmoil among the imperfect stars and extras. We see more sausage factory than dream factory.

From this chaos, dreams and memorable images are created. But Mannix can’t help asking himself, is this what his life is all about?

For example, we see Mannix breaking up a soft core photo shoot involving a seemingly virtuous starlet, and bribing police to keep her name out of the gossip mags.

Then he deals with a twice married, bitchy, pregnant Esther Williams type (Scarlett Johansson), by arranging the handoff of her baby to a fake foster parent, then the re-adoption of her own child by the Esther character. (This actually happened, by the way.)

All the while, Mannix is trying to avoid Thora and Thessaly Thatcher, the competitive twin sister gossip columnists ( channeling Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper), both played hysterically by Coen regular Tilda Swinton.

It appears Thora wants to expose how Capitol Pictures’s box office star and matinee idol, Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney) won his first role by doing the horizontal tango with his male director, precious and prissy Shakespearian-trained director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). (Shades of Rock Hudson.)

And Thessaly has heard that Whitlock, playing a Roman tribune in the time of Jesus Christ, is now missing in action from the massive set of the Ben Hur-like biblical epic movie-within-a-movie, also titled “Hail, Caesar!”

On top of everything else, the Coens involve Mannix in three great set pieces that in themselves are worth the price of admission.

One is Mannix leading a focus group of four different religious leaders reviewing the depiction of the deity in the studio’s biblical epic. This exchange is one of the funniest Coen scenes ever.

The other marvelously funny two scenes are a Gene Kelly-like sailor-themed tap dancing routine with a blazing homoerotic subtext, and an attempt to turn singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a black-tie matinee idol.

“Room”: The small Canadian film with the big Oscar buzz

Normally, when it comes to films, I am a frivolous, superficial and escapist guy.

I love “rom-coms” and wacky off the wall comedies like Bridesmaids or more recently, Amy Schumer’sTrainwreck. Or action/thriller fare as the “Bourne” and “Mission Impossible” series.

But critics are acclaiming Brie Larson’s performance in the drama/thriller Room as Oscar-worthy.

So I decided to get out of my comfort zone and attend a seemingly disturbing and uncomfortable film about a woman who was kidnapped as a teenager and held locked up in a single small room by her captor for many years.

I am glad I did.

Yes, the first half of Room is at times painful to watch.

It is filmed entirely in a sound-proof garden shed. Joy (Brie Larson) a 20-something young woman, is imprisoned with her five year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Over time, we learn that Joy was picked off the street at 17 by Old Nick, a 40 something slimy dude, and has been living in this shed for seven years. Jack is the result of Joy being raped by Old Nick.

The shed consists of one skylight, a single bed, a makeshift bathroom and tub, a hotplate, microwave, sink, a television and some chairs and a closet where Jack sleeps when Old Nick comes to the shed to regularly rape Joy.

Within these confines, Joy carves out a loving life for herself and Jack. They exercise and cook together. She teaches Jack how to read and write and he expresses himself beautifully. She reads him classic children’s books such as Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe and tells him Bible stories. She lets Jack grow his hair long like his biblical hero, Samson.

Joy also tries to explain to Jack the magic of the outside world that he could only glimpse upward through a skylight and through television. The two of them bicker like any normal mother and son. But surprisingly, under horrible circumstances, they appear to have created a very warm and loving little family of two.

The screenplay was adapted to the screen by Emma Donoghue, the author of the original award-winning novel of the same name. Room won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award, the Man Booker and Rogers Writers Trust awards, and was a New York Times bestseller.

This film is faithful to the book in which the action and the world is seen through Jack’s eyes. And that is both the book’s and the film’s genius.

Jack and Joy eventually escape and the second half of the film depicts how Jack and his mom relate to the outside world, once Joy is reunited with her estranged parents.

There is joy, literally and figuratively, as Jack tries to embrace, comprehend and articulate the real outside world. But there is also pain, frustration, and confusion as Joy tries to come to grips with how her life has been so altered by that one fateful day when she was kidnapped.

It’s a small movie, filmed in Toronto, with great Canadian talent and a big heart.

Room is well worth seeing.

“Steve Jobs”: One of the best films of the year

The just-opened Steve Jobs film, written by the incomparable Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) and directed by Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame is clearly one of the best, written, directed and acted films this year.

The film stars Michael Fassbender, who, it’s true, does not superficially resemble Steve Jobs, per se.

However, over the course of the film, Fassbender embodies the essence of the Apple co-founder: His visionary brilliance, his creative, strategic and tactical genius, and his obsessive/compulsive laser-like focus.

But he also portrays Jobs’ near pathological indifference and cold-hearted insensitivity to his friends, his colleagues and most dramatically, his own family, including the mother of his daughter Lisa, who is Jobs’ “Rosebud” in this gripping Citizen Kane-like story.

Fassbender as Jobs is ably supported by his smart, long-suffering marketing executive, closest colleague, “work wife” and conscience, Joanna Hoffman, played marvelously by Kate Winslet, who is totally unrecognizable in the role.

Other excellent supporting actors are Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ Apple co-founder; the technical brains behind Apple, “Woz” is clearly too sweetly loyal and good-natured for the “kill or be killed” tech environment. Jeff Daniels plays John Sculley, who initially played father figure to Jobs in Apple — then fired Jobs from his own company and was vilified the rest of his life for that decision.

But the film really belongs to Fassbender and the brilliant writer Aaron Sorkin.

This is not your normal linear, chronological biopic.

Instead, it is a brilliantly filmed play in three acts. The dialogue snaps, crackles and pops. The pace is fast and loose and frenetic. Think of Sorkin’s The West Wing, but faster and more dramatic, with greater and emotional mood swings.

This film focuses on three “launch” events: the iconic debut of the original Macintosh computer; Jobs’ unveiling of Black Cube at his post-Apple company; and Jobs’ triumphant return to Apple with the invention of the iMac.

Before each launch, Jobs — always accompanied by his loyal marketing exec, Hoffman — is visited by the same four characters: the mother of his child, pleading for money and recognition of their child; Woz, whose star has been clearly eclipsed by Jobs in the public eye; and Sculley, both commanding and classy, but ultimately a pathetic tragic figure.

For me, the core of the film is Jobs’ interaction with his daughter, Lisa, whom, in the first act, he cruelly rejects as his daughter, even scoffing at the notion that the early Apple “Lisa” computer was named after her.

However, Jobs gradually comes to see his better self in his daughter. She embodies his brilliance, but also his goodness, which has been buried beneath a lot of bad emotional baggage and a history of neglect and abandonment.

As the proud father of a daughter, the heart-wrenching scenes between Jobs and Lisa left me teary-eyed.

Jobs’ treatment of his chief engineer Hertzfeld and of Woz verges on the pathologically cruel. But in Sorkin’s expert hands, we at least understand what drives Jobs to be the person he is. We may not like him, but we understand him and still revere his incredible marketing acumen and his world-shaking technological achievements — he was “ the brilliant conductor who leads the orchestra.”

Sorkin has done it again. I urge you to see this film at least once. And perhaps twice or three times, in order to catch and appreciate the brilliance of the dialogue and understand what demons drove Jobs to the incredible achievements that impacted us all.

Magic Mike XXL could teach Patrick Brown’s Ontario PCs a thing or two

(MATURE CONTENT WARNING) What better way is there to spend Canada Day than with a hundred screaming women (ages 20 to 70) in a suburban theatre watching the Channing Tatum sequel to the very successful Magic Mike?

We are in an exciting and interesting time here in Ontario. The Ontario Progressive party under its new young and vigorous leader, Patrick Brown, is trying to evolve and grow from its deep rural roots and become more progressive, more suburban, more urbane, and apparently more tolerant and inclusive. And definitely more LGBTQ.

Hence the very successful, loud, proud Conservative contingent of 60+ strong, led by Brown and his feisty colleague Ontario PC MPP Lisa MacLeod, in the recent Toronto Pride Parade.

And so it also just seems fitting to review a strangely compelling male stripper flick here in the deeply blue conservative, but highly iconoclastic pages of the Rebel.

Magic Mike XXL is clearly superior to the original Magic Mike. Okay, it is no Godfather II. But then againGodfather III was no Godfather II.

Magic Mike, in addition to starring Channing Tatum as Magic Mike – handyman by day and male stripper by night – also starred suddenly hot-again Mathew McConaughey as Dallas, the sleazy strip club owner and manager of the male stripping troupe, the “Kings of Tampa.”

This film was part female fantasy (half-naked, hard-bodied male strippers,) part romantic comedy as (Magic Mike trying to woo Brooke, his stripper buddy’s sister) and part moralistic drama, as one Mike’s young stripper protégés becomes too heavily involved in drugs and the stripper lifestyle, with its (apparently!) attendant violence.

Though directed by indie great Steven Soderbergh, the film did not hang together and was mostly forgettable. Magic XXL, on the hand, is more focused, with a simpler but more interesting and meaningful  storyline.

Gone is the sleazy, over the top acting of McConaughey.

In this film, the boys are back, with the “Kings of Tampa” taking centre stage – both literally and figuratively. The male strippers from Magic Mike – now self-identified as male entertainers -include aptly named Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello,) Tarzan (Kevin Nash,) Tito (Adam Rodriquez) and Ken (Matt Bomer.)

The story focuses on a male strippers’ convention at Myrtle Beach, which may be the Kings of Tampa’s last show together: Some of these guys are getting a little long in the tooth -Tarzan, though still a strapping example of manhood, appears to be suffering from arthritic knees  whenever he deep bends and painfully whips off his tearaway pants to expose his skimpy Speedos.

Others have outside business interests which demand their full attention – Magic Mike’s growing custom furniture business, Ken’s acting career and Tito’s start-up mobile frozen yogurt operation. Sensing that this may be their last hurrah – and the last time they each experience  hundreds of  screaming women sticking sweaty dollars bills in their jockeys – the boys embark on one last road trip from Tampa to Myrtle Beach.

The high point of the film, at least for me, is when these guys are cracking wise, bonding, kibitzing on and off the bus, and coming clean to each other and to us, the audience. We learn that Tarzan is a painter, a Marine and Desert Storm veteran, and Ken is a sensitive, struggling actor trying to increase his online presence. (I can certainly relate to that.)

Big Dick Richie reveals to his buddies that, though he’s a great-looking guy with tons of female admirers, he has not had sex in six months because he possesses a tragic flaw – an unusually ginormous member that apparently intimidates and repels all potential female partners.

Magic Mike also reveals that though he owns a home, a dog and a thriving furniture business, he cannot find his one true love with whom to settle down and produce award-winning underwear models, Brooke having exited stage left along with Dallas since the original film.

During this memorable road trip, the boys are invited back to a fancy southern plantation where they entertain 40-something, sexually frustrated southern belles led by Nancy (the still beautiful and radiant Andie MacDowell,) providing life affirming and empowering advice and pleasure, while gyrating and singing boy band covers.

Big Dick Richie and Nancy hook up, as Richie has finally found his opposite number, that one elusive woman who fits the proverbial glass slipper. Her yin to his wang, so to speak.

As in all great cinematic cheerleader competitions (Bring it On) or a cappella sing-offs, (Pitch Perfect 1 and 2) the boys realized that they must re-invent themselves and their numbers. Take risks. Throw out their tired old routines and create entirely new ones that truly reflect their passions and their identities for a broader audience.

In much the same way, Brown’s new and invigorated Ontario PC Party, after four consecutive and devastating electoral defeats, have had to throw out the old routines, the old advisers and the old way of doing politics and looking at politics. Electoral success has not been won in the past and will not be won in the future by merely energizing your hard core but declining conservative rural base.

As a straight heterosexual male, I was not moved by the male entertainers’ onstage performances per se, but I can see this film’s overall and broad appeal to both women and the LGBTQ community, and the subversive charm of these guys who simply want to bring fun and joy to their female customers’ lives – and also to their core gay viewing public.

But I did enjoy the male bonding, joking and camaraderie among the bros and the very funny and strong cameo appearances by such strong actresses as MacDowell, Jada Pinkett Smith and Elizabeth Banks. Not only does the film sequel hit a home run with its core gay and female audience, I believe it will successfully resonate with straight dudes, young and not so young as well, for the above reasons.

The lesson of Magic Mike XXL for Brown’s Ontario PC Party is to still appeal to the base, but also to take risks, be innovative, be different and go after those outside the base, for greater political appeal, support and ultimate political success. Also, a stuffed tube sock down the y-fronts might help; we can’t all be Big Dick Richie, after all.

While We’re Young: The Best Feel Bad Film of 2015

When you travel to Noah Baumbach country, it is certainly no day at the beach.

A good Baumbach film is not a fluffy rom-com, where disbelief is suspended from the nearest and tallest oak tree;   where the attractive hero and heroine wittily banter until they jump in the sack, fall in love, then fall out of love, then fall in love again and presumably live happily ever after as a married and successful couple with children.

In a Baumbach film, the hero and heroine, though attractive and ambitious, are usually bitter and disappointed with their careers, with themselves and with their relationship.  But Baumbach has an amazing way of squeezing humor out of darkness, disappointment, bitterness and failed dreams.

With his latest film, While We’re Young, he successfully delivers.

Josh Shrebnick, (Ben Stiller) and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are your archetypical Baumbachian characters.

Josh and Cornelia are both forty-something New Yorkers – intellectual, hyper-articulate, self-centered and painfully self-aware.  Josh writes, directs and produces documentary films; Cornelia produces documentaries, primarily in association with her very successful and well-known writer-director father (played by Charles Grodin).

Josh once made a very entertaining and successful documentary, but for the last ten years he has been struggling to complete his second film, an esoteric, disorganized, painfully boring and non-commercial commentary about the American power elite.

Cornelia, whose own producing career is too dependent upon her famous father, is between jobs.

Years ago, Cornelia and Josh nearly worked together on a film of which they were both passionate, but then Josh preferred going it alone; the project was stillborn and Cornelia never forgot or forgave Josh for that missed opportunity. Cornelia and Josh have also repeatedly failed at conceiving a child, and their childlessness has created a gulf between them and their married friends with children.

They are stagnating both together and apart.

Fortunately, Josh and Cornelia meet up with two young twenty-something New York artistic hipsters, Jaime (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).

Jaime is an aspiring film maker. He shoots hours of film, literally and figuratively from the hip, then thinks later. Jaime is bursting with creativity out of his oh so tight jeans. Darby makes natural and organic ice cream. To Josh and Cornelia they represent their former energetic youth, vanished idealism and – perhaps – surrogate children.

Initially, Jaime wins Josh over. He is charming and deferential to Josh; he appeals to Josh’s vanity and professional insecurity. He wants Josh to be his mentor and advise him and assist him on Jaime’s own film project.

But things are not what they appear, and Jaime is more manipulative rake than devoted student to Josh.

Driver as Jaime is very well cast. As in his role of Adam (Lena Dunham’s dynamic and emotionally unstable boyfriend on Girls) he exudes a powerful and explosive energy. He is very effective as a charming, ambitious and single-mined hustling film maker, who will fabricate, manipulate and take advantage of his wife, Josh, Cornelia and even Cornelia’s famous father in order to make and complete his film and become famous in the process.

Admittedly, I was a little reluctant to enter Baumbach country, but I was rewarded with flawed and complex characters created by a director at the top of his game, as he deftly touched on subjects like youth, age, ambition, creativity , honesty, authenticity and how documentary films have been transformed from honest portrayals of reality to manipulated personal statements of the writer/directors.

As for Ben Stiller, one can devote an entire article, just to his craft. Unlike Woody Allen, Stiller refuses to play sympathetic and likeable characters who win the beautiful girl at the end.

In this film, he is neurotic, narcissistic, self-centred, insensitive and single-minded. Uncharacteristically, Stiller as Josh opens himself up to working with Jaime and he is predictably punished and humiliated in the process. Stiller’s Josh is cringe-worthy, but it is impossible to turn away from Stiller and his purposely pathetic performance.

On the other hand, Naomi Watts is certainly worth the price of admission, even at Cineplex’s grossly inflated VIP ticket rates.

Naomi Watts is a brilliant actress who has played some very strong and complex roles, like the Russian-British midwife in Eastern Promises, the American CIA agent/suburban housewife in Fair Game and a hysterically funny Russian hooker with a heart of gold opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent.

Watts’ Cornelia, barren and professionally frustrated, also tries to recapture her youth by doing hip hop with Darby and experimenting with hallucinogens. She’s caught between her love and loyalty to the stubborn and uncompromising Josh and the intoxicating lure of success with the flawed but creative Jaime.

Even Cornelia’s “old school” filmmaker dad is taken in by Jaime’s film making style and entertaining though fabricated product.

Enter Baumbach country at your own risk. You may or may not leave entertained but Baumbach’s complex themes and messages will stay with you whether you’re young or not so young.