Hail, Caesar! invades Blu-ray, with a solid technical presentation of a surprisingly enthusiastic ode to 1950s Hollywood.
The Production: 3.5/5
Hail, Caesar! is an unexpected gem of a movie – a surprisingly enthusiastic and heartfelt ode to an era of Hollywood now lost to us. Readers here will be surprised to see a review for a movie that was released to Blu-ray in June, but this is one where it would be good for people to take a look if they passed up the opportunity. I normally would not do this with a Coen Brothers movie, so I’m stepping out of the normal routine to do this. But I must admit when a movie has so many fun surprises and clearly shows off a ready cast and filmmakers working in a great rhythm. George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson lead a cast that uniformly present a lovingly twisted view of 1950s Hollywood. And those are just the larger roles. Watch out for Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum, each of whom nearly steals the movie in their scenes. Without spoiling the plot, the story here follows a day or two in the life of Eddie Mannix (Brolin), a studio exec and “fixer” for Capitol Pictures in 1951, who is faced with a series of production problems, including a missing lead actor from the latest Roman/Christian epic, a miscast cowboy singer who’s having problems in the latest drawing room comedy from self-important British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And there’s more, much more. But again, for this paragraph, let’s not spoil things. Those who want a deeper analysis, please read into the SPOILER sections.
SPOILERS: Eddie Mannix’s production problems are designed to allow the Coen Brothers maximum opportunities to indulge in the kinds of movies they remember from when they grew up. Big, loud, period Hollywood movies from the early 1950s. Mannix’s biggest problem is the abduction of star Baird Whitlock from the set of Capitol’s huge Roman/Christ epic “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ”. Little does Mannix know that Whitlock has been abducted by a group of Communist screenwriters, who quickly turn Whitlock into a budding Communist himself! Then you have your cowboy singer, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who specializes in riding stunts and singing. Except that Capitol wants to expand his appeal, so they’ve thrown him into “Merrily We Dance”, the latest stuffy comedy from puffed-up director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). In their glee (and cruelty too), the Coen Brothers force Laurentz to spend agonizing minutes attempting to train Doyle to speak the line “Would that it ‘twere so simple” without breaking his patience or ours. Before you can get your arms around all that, the Coens take us to the tank stage, where a giant spectacle of synchronized swimming is being filmed, led by bathing beauty DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). After a full display of all the swimmers and their number, we get the news that DeeAnna is pregnant, something that really won’t help her career. And once you’ve digested that, it’s off to the next stage, where Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and a ready cast are staging the sailor tap dance number “No Dames!”
MORE SPOILERS: The idea behind all of these segues is that the Coens are taking the audience on a whirlwind tour of as many different early 50s classic Hollywood styles as they can in a single movie. Their link through all of this is Mannix, who’s given an appropriately clipped, Joe Friday delivery by Josh Brolin as he coolly moves from one near-disaster to another. As a bit of outside conflict, the story has Mannix being offered a more stable job from Lockheed, which would give him a position with some respectability, one presumes. But we all know from watching this movie that Mannix will never quit the Capitol job. It’s the oldest line in the business – “What, and quit show biz?” It’s been noted that there really isn’t a lot of plot here to speak of – just a series of events and problems for Mannix to fix before the final credits roll. And that’s true – but the Coens aren’t really trying to tell a big, long story. They’re just enjoying spending a couple of hours back in Hollywood’s past – and the Laurentz scene notwithstanding, they’re a lot more affectionate with their characters throughout than I’m used to seeing with them. This is a movie that really does qualify as a valentine, and I never expected I would see such a thing from the Coens. In its own way, it’s a much slier take on some of the same material seen last year in Trumbo – pushing the Communist writers subplot so far over the edge that it’s really no surprise when we see them all row out to sea to meet the gigantic Russian submarine. If you’re going to go over the top, the Coens completely understand to go all the way.
MORE SPOILERS: At the same time, the Coens have also taken the time to really study the movies they’re emulating. The Roman epic with Whitlock has all the earmarks of Quo Vadis and Ben Hur. The transplanting of singing cowboy Doyle into a George Cukor-styled comedy is not only comedy gold, but is based on casting ideas that really did happen in the 1950s with varied results. The big swimming dance number with Scarlett Johansson, where she’s hoisted way up over the water for a huge dive, has one funny but uncomfortable moment as she is hoisted straight up at the camera – we can see the panic in her eyes as she grabs the guide rope on the way up. The real Esther Williams was badly injured performing a dive much like this one. And then there’s the big sailor dance number “No Dames!”, performed ably by a dance team led by Channing Tatum. The trick here is that there is no trick – Channing Tatum went through tap dance training to be able to perform his own dance moves throughout the number. You can tell watching the scene that the dancer in the middle is unmistakeably Tatum. And he’s really good, to boot.
FINAL SPOILERS: Now, after taking in all the scenery and different period styles of Hail Caesar!, one might well ask what the point of the exercise is. Why did the Coens make this movie in the first place? Is the whole plot really just a ruse to find out whether Mannix is going to keep his job? The answer to the last question is yes and no. Yes, it’s a ruse, since we already know the answer to that question. But it’s also an excuse for the Coens to indulge in their love for Hollywood, and to tweak various personalities and histories that go back to the 1950s and earlier. As I understand it, this movie was actually a simply stated idea – the notion of following some actors in the 1920s putting on a play about Ancient Rome. The idea was never really developed much beyond that, but it was presented by the Coens to George Clooney in 1999. Nothing really happened with the idea for years, apparently until multiple people in Hollywood kept nudging them about it. Clooney tweaked the Coens by announcing it as his next project, just to see what would happen. The cumulative momentum finally pushed the Coens to actually write a script and put something together. (At least, that’s the way Clooney and Robert Graf tell it) However it came together, the result is a pleasure to watch – something I would never have expected from these filmmakers. And for that reason, it’s a no-brainer to Recommend Hail Caesar! for Purchase.
Hail Caesar! was released on Blu-ray on June 7. The packaging includes Blu-ray and SD DVD editions of the movie with both discs containing the same special features, and the Blu-ray containing the reference quality picture and sound. Instructions for downloading a digital copy of the movie are included on an insert in the packaging.
3D Rating: NA
Hail, Caesar! is presented in a 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer (avg 34 mbps) that effectively translates the now-rare film shoot performed by cinematographer Roger Deakins for this movie. There’s an intentionally burnished look to the movie, appropriate to the idea of a valentine to old-time Hollywood. I do need to note that there is a bit of jitter in two shots of the film early on – starting at about 6:48 and going to about 7:22. It’s in a sequence where Mannix (Brolin) is quickly walking across the backlot to his office at the front. After a wider shot from overhead between stages, we cut to a close travelling shot as Mannix and his secretary walk toward us, and the two of them are noticeably shaky in the shot. We pick them up at the front of the studio in the next shot as they continue to walk toward us, and they continue to be shaky. This is not a problem with the transfer, from what l can tell. These were dolly shots, as shown in the BTS featurettes, and clearly something happened along the way. It’s not a major problem, but it’s noticeable.
Hail, Caesar! is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (avg 3.5 mbps, going up to 5.3 mbps for the bigger moments). This is a great mix, adding in atmospherics into the surrounds when appropriate and going for broke in the big sailor dance number. There are also DTS 5.1 mixes in Spanish and French, and an English DVS 2.0 track.
Special Features: 3/5
The Blu-ray of Hail, Caesar! comes with four featurettes, totaling just under 30 minutes, but containing plenty of good insights. The same four featurettes are also available on the DVD edition.
Directing Holllywood (4:11, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This is a fast but instructive BTS featurette. George Clooney and Executive Producer Robert Graf relate the story about how enough people, including Clooney, kept egging the Coens on until they finally wrote the script and made the movie. Several of the actors working on the movie repeat the same idea about getting a call from the Coens to do the movie – that it was a short phone call to which they said yes.
The Stars Align (11:34, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This featurette focuses on the name cast who assembled to do this. There’s some discussion about the notion of today’s stars playing 1950s stars, but in most of the cases, the actors are discussing how they researched and played their roles. Tilda Swinton talks at length about playing a version of both Hedda Hopper and her sister.
An Era of Glamour (6:22, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This featurette goes into the costume design and production design for the film, including discussions by Costume Designer Mary Zophres about her mermaid creation for Scarlett Johansson.
Magic of a Bygone Era (6:01, 1080p) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This featurette gets into the musical numbers and the synchronized swimming. In addition to really going through the water sequence, we are also given a good look at the tap dancing work done by Channing Tatum for “No Dames!” For the water sequence, there’s a fair amount of footage shown of the swimming work on the Esther Williams stage, including a discussion of the reversed shot of Scarlett Johansson coming out of the water completely dry.
DVD Edition – An SD DVD of the movie is included in the packaging, containing the movie in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English, Spanish and French (@448 kbps), as well as the English DVS track. The DVD also holds the same four featurettes as the Blu-ray.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film and special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
Hail, Caesar! is a surprisingly entertaining and exhilarating comedy. Those are two words I never thought I would be writing when describing a Coen Brothers film, but they are true here. The Blu-ray of the film, which has been out for some time, is absolutely worth the time not just of fans of the Coen Brothers but also fans of classic Hollywood. At the time this movie came out, there were some unfriendly reviews and unfriendly buzz, and I don’t believe this really got much of a look when it hit home video. I would be very happy to see readers here give this one a chance. As noted, the Blu-ray is solid on a technical level of picture and sound – but it’s the movie that I’m hoping readers will take the time to see. Hail, Caesar! is Recommended for Purchase.