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Coen Brothers McCarthy-Era Satire ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Falls Flat Despite All-Star Cast

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The Coen Brothers latest comedy “Hail, Caesar!” opened in theaters on February 5.

Hail Clooney

Ready for my closeup: Hail, George Clooney!

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, have been making giggling, dark movies ever since they got into the business. I first ran into this when the two cast Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in the goofy picture “Raising Arizona,” which depicts a recently released from prison convenient store thief and his demanding ex-policewoman wife, who kidnap a child, because they cannot have one of their own.

Even prior to “Raising Arizona” the sibling team broke into the big time in 1984 with an attempt at comedic film noir with “Blood Simple,” which was considered gruesome and very funny at times.

Funny and shocking, of course, are odd bedfellows as is the idea of lurking about the shady side of life trying to find a laugh. For the Coen brothers, this has lead to some surrealistic films, like the commercially successful “Brother, Where Art Thou,” and “Barton Fink,” which dipped into the horror mode. With this in mind, the pair, who write and direct most of their films, favor unlikely, non-glamorous actors, such as Joel’s wife Francis McDormand and, in the case of “Hail, Caesar!” Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill and Ralph Fiennes, who appear along side Scarlett Johansson, who plays an Esther-Williams-type actress, George Clooney, who plays an affable movie star (who gets kidnapped) and Josh Brolin, who plays Eddie Mannix, a go-to guy for a big production movie studio named Capitol Pictures.

As you can imagine, the Coen brothers love seedy private detectives in fedoras and wide ties and kidnappings, the later of which occurs in many of their films. Need somebody snatched? Try watching “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,:” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” or “Hail, Caesar!” A kidnapping is bread and butter for the Coens.

The Fixer: Josh Brolin

The Fixer: Josh Brolin

“Hail, Caesar!” shows another side of the Coen brothers that is consistent: Lofty ambitions. These guys aim high. The film, set in Hollywood in the 1940s or early 1950s, depicts the kidnapping of a mega-star, but the actions is viewed through the eyes of Eddie Mannix, who has other problems on his plate. He is trying to quit smoking, a young star in one movie does not know how to act and one of his stars is pregnant and needs a husband quick. It’s Mannix’s job to coddle stars, solve problems, run errands and burying scandals. You know the type. These guys were like hoods with day jobs. They got a lot done and preferred you didn’t ask a lot of questions about it.

The trick to “Hail, Caesar!” lies in tying together the kidnapping with several other non-sequential problems Mannix is trying to solve. Unfortunately, this means giving all the problems about equal weight, as if the kidnapping were just as important as teaching a cowboy singer to say his lines.

The kidnapping in “Hail, Caesar!” never rises to a very high level of importance, anyway. It turns out that the kidnappers are a group of 15 intellectuals who are just trying to make a point — about economics, no less. But, even though it is the center of the picture, the kidnapping is so unimportant the kidnappers casually introduce themselves to their victim, movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and, in the end, Whitlock just drives home of his own volition the next day, as if the kidnappers just got bored of the whole thing. It turns out, boredom is contagious. I, too, found the anticlimax in this case too effective for its own good.

More than boring, it was a bit unsettling to find out that the kidnappers turn out to a group of studio writers, who all happen to be communists. The group complain about their pay, but not as a

Scarlett Johansson

The Starlet: Scarlett Johansson

personal issue — they are all well dressed and well fed — but as an matter of principle. In the end, they simply give the ransom money away. That handsome leather briefcase full of cash, we already know, came from a petty spending fund at the movie studio — called Capitol Pictures. So, it was no particular sweat for Mannix to raise the money, either.

However, as mentioned above, I found it unsettling for the film to pivot on the point that these 15 (or so) bright, well-dressed script writer/kidnappers were communists set in the same year that the film “Trumbo” came out concerning blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), whose career suffered horribly by being blacklisted from 1946 to 1960 – and all for the cruelty of McCarthyism.

Maybe I just didn’t get the joke, but McCarthyism censorship was a direct assault on Hollywood script writers back in the day, so why this would be funny for Hollywood went right past me.

The bottom line: “Hail, Caesar!” is a flat-footed comedy with great set pieces that didn’t know what it wanted to say. The characters are memorable. The movie, it turns out, is not.

Anthony Hall


Box Office

“The Grinch” Steals Box Office, “Overlord” and “Spider” Left With Scraps

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The holiday Christmas movie season starts early as it usually does in November. Just one week after The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, along comes Dr. Suess’ The Grinch, the theatrical animated adaptation of the classic children’s novel, helmed by Illumination Studios of Despicable Me fame. The animated comedy raked in $66 million for its first weekend, well on its way to conquering its $75 million budget as the holidays roll on. Given Illumination’s track record with comedy among kids, expect the film to stick around for the next two months.

The rather high box office of Grinch stole the thunder of the other two films debuting this weekend. Overlord, a Nazi zombie action/horror romp, debuted at #3 with a domestic gross of $10.1 million, which is not exactly a strong opening for a film with a $38 million budget. But it could’ve been worse as The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, the action sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, premiered at #5 with a box office take of only $8 million on a $43 million budget. Don’t be surprised if you see these darker, violent films take a tumble coming into the holiday season that seeks more PG-13 genre films for the families to venture out to the theater for.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic, is holding firm at #2 on its second weekend with a weekend gross of $30.8 million, bumping its domestic total up to $100 million. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, however, isn’t doing so well in its second weekend. The Disney fantasy adventure only made $9.5 million over the weekend, a 53% drop with a domestic total sitting at a meager $35 million. Not a very strong take for a Disney Christmas fantasy that cost $120 million.

It’s no surprise, however, that David Gordon Green’s Halloween took the biggest dip of the weekend at 64%. It’s surprising the horror film is even still here at #9 in the box office, the domestic total now sitting at a very pleasing $156 million. Also holding firm once again at #10 is The Hate U Give, having made $26 million for only being in 1,100 theaters.

View the full top 10 box office weekend results below.

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch ($66,000,000)
Bohemian Rhapsody ($30,850,000)
Overlord ($10,100,000)
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ($9,565,000)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story ($8,015,000)
A Star is Born ($8,010,000)
Nobody’s Fool ($6,540,000)
Venom ($4,850,000)
Halloween ($3,840,000)
The Hate U Give ($2,070,000)

Next weekend will feature magical beasts versus dysfunctional families versus women robbers. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second film in the new Harry Potter spin-off series, will debut in 4,000 theaters. Instant Family, a family comedy starring Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg, will hit 3,000 theaters. Also debuting in 3,000 theaters will be Widows, the all-star heist picture directed by Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis.


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Big “Bohemian Rhapsody” Opening While “Nutcracker” Trails

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In weekend box office battle, it’s Queen who is king. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddy Mercury and Queen biopic, came in at #1 making $50 million domestic. With a $52 million budget, this is a very successful opening for the film, despite the mixed critic reaction. Falling just behind it with less than half the take is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s latest fantasy adventure debuting early for the Christmas season. The film did poorly with critics and even poorer at the box office, bringing in only $20 million which is not a good debut at all for such an expensive epic. Also just behind is Tyler Perry’s new romantic comedy, Nobody’s Fool, taking in $14 million, strangely low for a Tyler Perry movie, especially when you consider that higher budget of $19 million.

Since Halloween is over, it’s natural to see that David Gordon Green’s Halloween would dip in the box office and it certainly fell the lowest this week with a 64% drop. Falling sharply from #1 to #5, the film made $11 million for the weekend but it’s not a huge concern given the film has already made $150 million on a budget of $10 million. Almost tying with the picture is A Star Is Born, the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga musical drama that has proven to be a box office darling, earning $11.1 million over the weekend with a $165 million domestic gross. And still sticking like goo to the box office is Venom, Sony’s solo villain picture starring Tom Hardy, making another $7.8 million for a domestic total nearly at $200 million.

Aside from A Star is Born being the smallest drop of the weekend, it also tied for the lowest drop with Smallfoot, Warner Bros animated comedy that is proving to have modest legs to stick around. The animated film with the voices of Channing Tatum and James Cordon made $3.8 million for a $77 million domestic gross. And The Hate U Give, the racial drama, is still hanging in there at #10 with a domestic total now sitting at $23 million, rather strong for a drama that slowly rose up over the course of October.

Bohemian Rhapsody ($50,000,000)
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ($20,000,000)
Nobody’s Fool ($14,000,000)
A Star is Born ($11,100,000)
Halloween ($11,015,000)
Venom ($7,850,000)
Smallfoot ($3,805,000)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ($3,700,000)
Hunter Killer ($3,525,000)
The Hate U Give ($3,400,000)

We hope you’re ready for Christmas because those movies are going to start early. Next weekend will see the 4,000 theater debut of The Grinch, the latest animated comedy from Illumination Studios based on the classic Dr. Seuss book. But it’ll have some adult competition with The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story opening in 3,000 theaters (the sequel to 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Overlord, a Nazi zombie action picture, opening in 2,500 theaters.


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“Halloween” Tops Last Weekend of October, “Hunter Killer” Sinks

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It’s not exactly a huge surprise that a film called Halloween would be the top earner on the last weekend before Halloween. But it has certainly earned that spot for being a big hit with audiences, given its astounding first-weekend debut to break records for an R-rated movie in October. Though the box office has dipped 58% in its second weekend, the film is still holding firm at #1, earning a weekend gross of $32 million. This sets its domestic gross now at $126 million. You can naturally expect the film to dip further as we head into November but don’t be surprised if this audience-pleaser hangs around a bit longer.

Halloween wasn’t the only film to hold its spot. In fact, four films have stood their ground this weekend. A Star is Born remains at #2, with a weekend gross of $14 million and a domestic total of $148 million. Considering the mere 25% drop, the film is proving to have remarkably great legs as both an awards contender and an audience favorite that everyone is talking about. Dropping but hanging in there is Venom at #3, earning another $10 million for its $187 million total, having already set records for October. Goosebumps 2 is also standing firm at #4 with $7.5 million for the weekend and $38 million total, as a suitable Halloween film for the kids. And still hanging in there is The Hate U Give, remaining at #6 with a $5 million weekend and $18 million total.

The only big debut for the weekend was Hunter Killer, a submarine thriller starring Gerard Butler, and it didn’t make a big impression. The film debuted at #5 to make only $6.6 million which is not a strong opening at all for such a film. I guess audiences weren’t in the mood for a military thriller amid a Halloween season of thrilling horror films for kids and adults. Also debuting low but not a disappointment for such a small film is Mid90s, the Jonah Hill directed skater drama taking place in the 1990s. The film expanded to over a thousand theaters and arrived at #10 for a domestic total of $3 million.

View the full top 10 for the weekend below:
Halloween ($32,045,000)
A Star is Born ($14,145,000)
Venom ($10,800,000)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ($7,500,000)
Hunter Killer ($6,650,000)
The Hate U Give ($5,100,000)
First Man ($4,935,000)
Smallfoot ($4,750,000)
Night School ($3,255,000)
Mid90s ($3,000,000)

Next weekend will be a big battle of bands, nutcrackers, and Tyler Perry. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic, will open to 3,800 theaters. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s latest fantasy adventure, will also open to 3,800 theaters. Nobody’s Fool, another Tyler Perry comedy, will open to 2,400 theaters. Also opening small will be the horror remake of Suspiria, appearing in select theaters on Halloween before expanding for the weekend.


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