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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 Predator Makes Mild Blast For Weekend Debut

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While last weekend was a stellar box office debut for The Nun, the weekend is much more low-key with reduced debuts and descending grosses. Shane Black’s The Predator, the latest sequel to sci-fi/horror Predator franchise, came in at #1 but still made a small amount with a box office debut of $24 million. It has a ways to go before toppling its beefy budget of $88 million, but it may survive through a rather slow September.

The Nun was not too far behind as a pleasing horror picture from Warner Bros’ The Conjuring universe. In its second weekend, the film made $18.2 million. While this is a 66% drop from its first weekend, the film did have an amazing start on its premiere that the total domestic is sitting at $85 million. So far, it’s the biggest success of September as the other premieres are not doing so well. A Simple Favor, the new comedy by Paul Feig, only made $16 million. White Boy Rick, a true crime story starring Matthew McConaughey, brought in $8.8 million. And even further down the list is Unbroken: Path to Redemption, the new religious sports film by Pure Flix, came in with $2.3 million.

No surprise that the strong films from August are still chugging away with small drops. Crazy Rich Asians, the hit romantic comedy, only took a 33% drop with its domestic total now at $149 million. The Meg, the giant shark movie starring Jason Statham, only took a 37% drop with a domestic gross of $137 million. And even Searching, the social media mystery movie, only took a 30% drop to have a total sitting at $19 million.

View the full top 10 weekend box office below:

The Predator ($24,000,000)
The Nun ($18,200,000)
A Simple Favor ($16,050,000)
White Boy Rick ($8,800,000)
Crazy Rich Asians ($8,700,000)
Peppermint ($6,070,000)
The Meg ($3,805,000)
Searching ($3,200,000)
Unbroken: Path to Redemption ($2,350,000)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($2,315,000)

Next weekend, The Predator will do battle with fantasy, drama, and politics. Eli Roth’s The House With a Clock in its Walls, a family-friendly fantasy film, will premiere in 3,300 theaters. Michael Moore’s political documentary Fahrenheit 11/9 will debut in 1,500 theaters. And the Dan Fogelman directed drama Life Itself, starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde, will hit 2,500 theaters.


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“The Nun” Scares Up Strong September Box Office

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September has its first box office champion to topple August’s hit of Crazy Rich Asians, and by a substantial amount at that. The Nun, a spin-off and prequel to The Conjuring 2’s scary nun ghost in the painting, has earned an impressive $53.5 million for its debut weekend. That’s an exceptional premiere to warrant the film’s budget of $22 million, rather high for horror. The future is looking bright for The Conjuring franchise. Still, Crazy Rich Asians is still going strong as the romantic comedy of the year, grossing another $13.6 million for a domestic total now sitting at $136 million. With plans for a sequel already in the works and a chance at hitting $200 million, the film may very well carry deep into fall considering it’s still in the top five after four weeks.

Also debuting to a decent take for the weekend is Peppermint, an action-oriented thriller starring a revenge-seeking Jennifer Garner. The film made $13.2 million in its first weekend which may be a bit disappointing for a $25 million budget, but it may have decent enough to legs to make a profit depending on how September shapes up.

Plenty of the returning films are holding on strong. The Meg, the shark movie with Jason Statham, has remained in the top five long enough to clear its budget, with a domestic total now at $131 million. Also sticking around is the social media thriller Searching, dropping only 25% to make $4.5 million for the weekend, the domestic total sitting at $14.3 million. And BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s comedy about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, is still hanging in the top 10, making another $1.5 million for a domestic total of $43 million, stunning results for a $15 million film in somewhat limited release.

View the full box office weekend results below.
The Nun ($53,500,000)
Crazy Rich Asians ($13,600,000)
Peppermint ($13,260,000)
The Meg ($6,030,000)
Searching ($4,515,000)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($3,800,000)
Disney’s Christopher Robin ($3,196,000)
Operation Finale ($3,043,000)
Alpha ($2,505,000)
BlacKkKlansman ($1,565,000)

Next weekend will be a battle of a returning alien hunter and an odd thriller. The Predator, a remake of the alien franchise directed by Shane Black, will be in 3,900 theaters while A Simple Favor, a thriller directed by comedy director Paul Feig, will hit 3,000 theaters. Of the smaller releases are Pure Flix’s latest religious picture Unbroken: Path to Redemption and the Matthew McConaughey starring cop drama White Boy Rick. There’s little doubt that The Predator will swoop in to claim the weekend.


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Crazy Rich Asians Beats Foul-Mouthed Puppets At Weekend Box Office

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The last weeks of summer are proving to be a boom for the romantic comedy. Crazy Rich Asians, now in its second weekend, was once again #1 with the lowest second-weekend drop of the summer at only 5%. The film grossed another $25 million over the weekend to boost its domestic total up to $76 million. Thanks to the positive reviews and great word of mouth, the film could very well be #1 next week as we move into the slowest weekend of the year at the box office.

The new films for the weekend were no match for Warner Bros’ current hits of Crazy Rich Asians and The Meg, which also did rather well for coming in at #2 with $13 million. The Happytime Murders, the raunchy R-rated puppet movie by Brian Henson, didn’t impress for its debut. The film only made $10 million for the weekend to arrive at #3, well short of the movie’s budget of $40 million. Given the harsh reviews, chances are it’ll drop further. Debuting even further was the sci-fi adventure A.X.L., featuring a CGI robot dog, arriving at #9 with a gross of $2.9 million.

Aside from Mile 22 dropping 50%, the returning films had relatively low drops from last weekend. Mission: Impossible – Fallout, now passing its budget in the domestic box office, continues to be a hit of the summer by only dropping 25%, as is Disney’s Christopher Robin with a 28% drop. Most impressive among them is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, being in less than 2,000 theaters and only dropping 27% to still be in the top 10. As we’ve seen earlier this summer, there’s a desire for more challenging and smaller films that are quickly crawling their way into the box office top 10.

View the full top 10 box office results for the weekend below:

Crazy Asian Rich ($25,010,000)
The Meg ($13,030,000)
The Happytime Murders ($10,020,000)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($8,000,000)
Disney’s Christopher Robin ($6,340,000)
Mile 22 ($6,030,000)
Alpha ($5,600,000)
BlacKkKlansman ($5,345,000)
A.X.L. ($2,939,356)
Slender Man ($2,785,000)

Next weekend will be an interesting release of films despite the relatively low box office that will result from what may be the slowest weekend of the year. Operation Finale, the new war thriller by Chris Weitz and starring the likes of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, will get an early start by debuting on Wednesday, but only in less than 1,800 theaters. The weekend itself will bring the sci-fi adventure Kin in 2,100 theaters and the internet thriller Searching in 1,100 theaters. But based on the theater count and the low buzz on all of the new releases, don’t be surprised if Crazy Rich Asians win out the weekend again.


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