MOVIE BUFF-ET: Coen brothers hit the mark with love letter to Hollywood ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Hail Caesar / Screen capture, YouTube

To borrow a phrase, a Coen Brothers movie is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get, but with rare exceptions, it’s pretty tasty.

Their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, is a satiric romp couched as an old timey film noir, the kind Hitchcock might have directed and would have starred Ray Milland or Fred McMurray. In actuality, there’s nothing really dark about the film at all, past the opening scene. It has more in common with the Coens’ 2008 film Burn After Reading than their more serious and violent fare.

Hail, Caesar! is not quite the kind of spoof Mel Brooks popularized in the 1970s. The laughs are more subtle and the comedy not nearly as broad or slapstick. In fact, some of the humor will fly right by you if you’re not alert.

Hail, Caesar! is not as much a movie about movies as it is love letter to the latter days of Hollywood’s studio system of the late 1940s and ‘50s. You don’t have to be a film historian to get the movie, but the more you know and love old movies and the star-factories that created them, the richer the experience might be.

The movie centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio chief pressured by the craziness of his job and demands from home. When a communist clique of screenwriters kidnaps his meal-ticket star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the gruff but endearing Mannix turns up the heat to find his leading man while attempting keep a number of spinning plates from crashing to the ground.

Movie poster / Courtesy

If Brolin and Clooney, playing a Charlton Heston-type, aren’t enough star power for you, Scarlett Johansson plays a knocked-up bathing beauty reminiscent of Esther Williams, and Jonah Hill cameos as the common-man lawyer, who runs off to Vegas with her.

Channing Tatum is a toe-tapping, song-and-dance man, loosely modeled on Gene Kelly. Tatum pulls off some dance moves in a hilarious movie-in-the-movie scene set in a bar named the Swinging Dinghy.

Rafe Fiennes plays the prominent but fussy director Laurence Laurentz, who is struggling with his new leading man, a singing cowboy Hobie Doyle, who is foisted upon him at the last minute when a deal for another actor falls through.

As Doyle, Alden Ehreneich shines bright among the other stars, and his humble, marble-mouthed cowboy is one of the best parts of the film. Ehreneich plays Doyle as a cross between Audie Murphy and Will Rogers Jr., in a winning performance that’s sure to garner him more prominent roles in the future.

In a duel role, Tilda Swinton scores in two scenes as rival gossip columnists who happen to be twins. The roles were loosely based on Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, the self-described Queens of Hollywood Gossip, that waged a bitter war for scoops for decades. An almost unrecognizable Frances McDormand steals one of the funniest scenes in the movie as an eccentric film editor.

The movie is fast, funny and smart and even tugs at the heartstrings as Mannix struggles with his place in the world.

Kung Fu Panda 3

(PG) 1hr. 35 min.

Kung Fu Panda 3 / Screen capture, YouTube

With movies, the third time around is rarely a charm, but if anything, the third time out with Po (Jack Black) and his pals in Kung Fu Panda 3 is charming.

If you and your family enjoyed either or both of the first two movies in the franchise, the third film won’t disappoint. The animation is visually stunning and inventive as portions of the film delve into a spiritual realm that’s under siege by a powerfully built bull-of-a-villain Kai (J.K. Simmons). Kai had a falling out with Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) after being comrades-in-war. Kai is out to defeat Oogway and his successor Po.

The crux of the story is Po preparing to battle Kai by training with his biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and his panda tribe. The film is entirely family friendly. Kids will love it, and adults shouldn’t be bored.

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Classic Corner

With Super Bowl Sunday just a couple of days of way, here are three football-themed suggestions for your viewing pleasure. Coincidentally, all three films were released in the 1970s, the very same decade when NFL football surpassed baseball, horse racing and boxing as America’s preeminent sport.

North Dallas 40, based on a novel of the same name by retired NFL receiver Peter Gent, is a very loosely disguised satire of the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The 1979 film is a raucous, ribald comedy that pulls no punches about a game that became big business before some of the player even realized it.

Nick Nolte stars as disillusioned veteran receiver Phil Elliot, who is tired of playing the game on the field and in the meeting room. But, he just can’t walk away. Mac Davis is his best friend, star quarterback Seth Maxwell, who empathizes with Elliot, but needs his buddy to take the game more seriously.

There’s not a better or more truthful film about the NFL.

Heaven Can Wait is a charming 1978 romantic comedy starring Warren Beatty as a Los Angeles Rams quarterback who dies before his time in a cycling accident and is given a chance to occupy the body of another recently deceased man to live out his remaining years.

The movie is a remake of the 1941 classic Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which originally adapted from Harry Segall’s stage play, and reunites Beatty for the third time with his lovely co-star Julie Christie. They previously co-starred in McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971 and Shampoo in 1975.

The film hits all the right notes and benefits greatly from fine supporting turns by Jack Warden, Dyan Canon and Charles Grodin. This one would be a good date-night movie as warm up to Valentine’s Day.

Brian’s Song may be 1made-for-TV movie, but if you can find a better film about friendship and brotherhood, let me know. I’d love to see it. The 1971 movie details the true story of Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (James Cann) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and how their bond reached beyond the football field. This is a five-hanky movie, wrenching enough to bring the strongest man to his emotional knees, but it’s worth every minute.