In theaters: The Cohens' Hail, Caesar! has met some opposition on the basis of its flimsy plot, but it really isn't that kind of film. Rather, it's a series of vignettes told in an old Hollywood style we don't see a lot of anymore - Sword&Sandal, song and dance musical, variety show, bubble gum western, drawing room drama, etc. - strung together through a "day in the life" (another rare cinematic experience) of a producer who is metaphorical God to the proceedings. I do agree it ends abruptly, leaving the audience with a potential "that's it?!" reaction, but would that it were so simple. The more I thought about it, the more clever I thought the film was. It grows on you. For example, check out what each film vignette mirrors the starring actor's personal behind-the-scenes story, whether it's about opening one's eyes, going to see, or ovum imagery. A lot of funny scenes and a successful attempt at recreating how pictures used to look, even if I'll concede this is the Brothers' dramatically weakest film in years. But even the Cohens' weakest effort blows most of contemporary cinema out of the water.
Theeb is Jordan's entry in the Academy Awards race for best foreign picture this year, the story of the eponymous boy who survives the death of his brothers and on the journey back from the desert to civilization in WWI-era Jordan, becomes a man. The young Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat gives an engaging, believable performance, but this is a very deliberate, slow-moving film that will try the patience of many. It's a pacing I tend to like, since the overall quiet makes the short bursts of violence more effective. Part of it is that Theeb isn't a particularly verbal character, even he's not alone. His journey is internal; having lost everything, he must fight through emotional confusion to come out as his father's son, or his brothers' brother, or like the land being transformed by Westerners, change to accept his new circumstances. The whole thing ends on a note right out of a John Ford western that puts the film, I think, in a new perspective.
The Danish Girl reveals the true story of the Wegeners, a couple of married painters who, in the early part of the 20th Century, struggled with the husband being transgender and falling into a dissociative state and creating a Lili persona who becomes the wife's model. It's directed by Oscar bait expert Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables) whose lens is extremely painterly - this is a gorgeous-looking film - and stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vinkander, both nominated for acting awards (absurdly, Vikander is in the supporting category despite having as large a role). Obviously, Redmayne had a challenging task here, but having seen him in three recent films now, I've already spotted all his ticks and does little new for me despite the transformational nature of the role. Vikander is the one to watch and has the stronger, and more subtle character. In fact, despite the film being in part based on "Lili"'s journals, the script makes Redmayne's character single-minded almost to the point of cartoonishness, and maybe it's because journal entries have been put straight into his mouth, but the dialog he has to deliver feels over-written and cheesy. Not so the character of Gerda Wegener, whose UNDER-writtenness is basically Vikander-proof. It's all on her face if not on the page.
DVDs: Better Call Saul Season 1 takes place 6 years before the events of Breaking Bad, before there even was a crooked lawyer called Saul Goodman. In the first episode, we are pushed in the deep end, not knowing where we are, who all these characters might be, or what they were going on about. It's almost too opaque. Episode 2 was perhaps the strongest of the season, clarifying where Jimmy (that's Saul's real name) was and just how far (or how little) he had to go before meeting his destiny. Like Walter White before/after him, Jimmy is a man trying to do good by doing bad, and on the road to corruption. This will also be Mike Ehrmantraut's prequel, and likewise for him. And there may be other characters and locations from Breaking Bad who show up, but expect to invest in many new characters who aren't around in six years. Uh-oh. There's some extra underlying tension there. The producers talk a good game about this show having its own tone, etc., but whatever the variations are, this is very much of the Breaking Bad universe, and if you liked one, you'll like the other. (And I can't wait until we have both series side-by-side to inform one another and create a different viewing experience for Breaking Bad.) The DVD includes cast and crew commentary tracks on each of its 10 episodes, a good making of for the season, a featurette on the first day of shooting, a music video, and a gag reel.
Dead in Tombstone stars Danny Trejo as an outlaw who, after being killed by his own gang, makes a deal with the Devil (Mickey Rourke) to come back and play avenging angel. Great premise for a supernatural western (shades of the Saint of Killers from Preacher), and Trejo is certainly quite strong in the role (as are Anthony Michael Hall as his betrayer and Dina Meyer as the sheriff's wife turned gunslinger). It's the direction that's lacking, throwing so much slow motion in the mix as to make me wonder if the film isn't, like, 45 minutes long without it. When your supposed enhancements (not to call them tricks) are tedious, you've taken a wrong turn. But I guess Roel Reiné is who you normally call to make your B-movie sequels (Death Race 2-3, The Man with the Iron Fists 2, there are a lot of 2s and 3s in his filmography). Still, there are some good stunts and a fun premise that invites sequels (up his alley), so I wish the shooting had been a little more confident. The DVD includes deleted scenes (including a cool deleted shot montage set to music), a making of, and an interesting director's commentary.
The Great Beauty (La grande bellazza in Italian) won an Oscar two years ago for best foreign film, but I didn't know that when I purchased it on the strength of Paolo Sorrentino's newest film, Youth. The two films share a theme, certainly, that of artists growing old and reexamining their lives, and certainly share a "Perfect Shot" aesthetic, as the camera discovers interesting spaces in both Ancient and Modern Rome. Toni Servillo stars as Jep, a writer whose life of parties and pretentious performance art he puts into question when he learns of the death of perhaps the only girl he ever truly loved. Jep's questioning of himself and his world is what keeps the film from becoming pretentious itself, though the second half of his journey is perhaps a bit surreal, not to say disjointed. But even when the story meanders, the frame is always filled and scored beautifully. The DVD includes behind the scenes footage and a photo gallery both set to the film's great soundtrack (again equal parts classic and modern).