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Hail Caesar! – Review

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As Eddie struggles with his conscience (he is a regular visitor to confession), finding Lockheed’s boast of the first hydrogen bomb somewhat repugnant, he continues to work in his role at the studio. A large amount of his role is devoted to sorting out the various issues and problems that the studio’s roster of glamorous stars present. Eddie is good at his job, and he knows it, receiving each concern with ease. We witness his attempts to save the studio embarrassment at the pregnancy of unmarried star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) by investing in a scheme that will involve her adopting her own child. Similarly Eddie is involved in helping to redefine the image of gun slinging, acrobatic cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) through his casting in a refined period piece, as well as attaching him to glamorous star Carlotta Valdez (Verónica Osorio)

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the central plot: star of biblical epic ‘Hail Caesar’ Baird Whitlock(George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped by an organisation calling themselves ‘The Future’ a pseudo-communist group who, in decrying their lack of pay despite their efforts as screenwriters, are determined to shake up the capitalist studio system.

The plot admittedly, does not stand up scrutiny, but then arguably, a detailed, developed plot is not the aim of ‘Hail Caesar’. The film instead, intentionally and successfully sets out to be both homage and a tribute to the grand, hyperbolic films that were generated during the studio system era. It is unclear at times whether or not the Coen brothers intend to deride the era or celebrate it, but that seems to hardly matter when the details of the era are rendered so beautifully (largely thanks to the work of Roger Deakins’ cinematography).

The film whips along, engagingly paced, skilfully interspersing time between the various subplots. Some might find the film indulgent, particularly when the audience is treated to a six-minute long heavily choreographed dance sequence (led by Channing Tatum) in the vein of On the Town, but for those viewers who have clear memories of the film of the era, the faithful execution is truly wonderful.

I have seen the film referred to as a return to the previous style of the Coens; more O’ Brother Where Art Thou than True Grit or A Serious Man. For me, such a description is relatively over simplistic, suggesting that the directors’ films can be neatly categorised and defined as a type. Certainly the film’s comedic stylings holds more in common with their previous efforts with Clooney rather than the later films of their career, but to simply compare the film to an earlier piece is to undermine its efforts. Hail Caesar is an admirable addition to the Coens’ filmography, but it should also be appreciated as a standalone piece. Carefully balancing moments of the absurd and sublime, Hail Caesar is a beautiful film.

4/5

Have you been watching … Happy Valley?

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Happy Valley now in its second series, has deservedly received much praise from audiences and critics alike. Much of the praise, particularly from critics, has surrounded the progressive portrayal of women, largely in the form of Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood. Catherine is compelled to imbue her everyday interactions with pathos in order to deal with the horrific details of her past (as revealed early on in series one) largely surrounding the suicide of her daughter after her rape at the hands of Tommy Lee Royce.

In this week’s episode (2:3) Catherine is required to accept that she must attend counselling sessions in place of enforced early retirement. The catalyst of this rhetoric stems from her inappropriately attending a funeral in order to witness the attendance of Tommy Lee Royce – an event which causes disruption for those in attendance.

Whilst watching this episode, it occurred to me that much of the discussion in regards to the progressive representation of women has surrounded Catherine. Thus ignoring another, and in my opinion just as powerful, representation of a female character, that of Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) the kidnapped victim of series one.

Writer Sally Wainwright has rather wonderfully seen fit to return to the character of Ann, whose kidnap and subsequent abuse was the central conceit of the original narrative. In the first series Ann’s character is more of a cipher – a motivational symbol for Catherine. We learn little of her character aside from the money that she represents. We have been privy to her experience at the hands of Tommy Lee Royce, but Royce saw fit to literally prevent her from speaking through taping her mouth – thus Ann’s character had very little narrative voice.

In returning to Ann, Wainwright shows her audience that Ann’s story is not only worth experiencing, but that it has not ended. Her character’s narrative doesn’t simply end with her rescue, there is far more to her and Wainwright is determined to show us. Ann, thus far, has proven to be a determined and brave woman. She does not cower away from the more upsetting details of a case and is keen to impress her superiors. Even more powerfully, Ann, in her current role as Community Police Officer, expresses her desire to become a detective despite her father’s objections. Truly, Wainwright’s decision to return to Ann’s character is commendable, directly standing against the women as victim trope. Yes, Ann was a victim, but she is victim no longer.

Four Favourite TV Christmas Specials

TV Christmas specials are often, deservedly, much maligned. Take the 2008 The Royale Family special which was truly farcical, retaining none of the wit and gentle humour of the earlier series (or indeed earlier Christmas specials). In addition to the utterly bizarre, the episode reduced the characters of Dave and Denise to caricatures of their former selves. Dave was by no means the most intelligent of characters, but the actions in this episode made you wonder how he and Denise actually functioned on a day to day basis.

Yet, when on form, a Christmas special can be a worthy addition to an already wonderful series (note the series has to actually be good in the first place to generate a worthwhile Christmas special).

Him and Her  ‘The Christmas Special’ 2012

I adore the tragically underrated Him and Her, the series, in its best moments brings to mind Beckett, with Steve and Becky standing in for Hamm and Clov in EndgameNearly every episode (aside from the final wedding series) takes places in Steve’s flat and the Christmas special intelligently follows this format.

Indeed, nothing is really different about the episode, there are no hyperbolic surprises or moments of the truly absurd, and that is what helps it to be so successful. Steve and Becky are still perpetually trying to have a moment to themselves whilst Becky’s sister Laura appears, as ever uninvited with fiancé Paul and friend Shelly in tow. What makes Him and Her so sublime for me, is the truly believable connection and affection between Becky and Steve. The pair are utterly in love with one another, which is why Steve puts up with Laura’s constant impromptu arrivals.

The Christmas special is no different: the pair are as in tune with one another as ever and when Steve’s estranged dad arrives, it is Becky that understands how Steve is truly feeling.

Community ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ 2010

Community’s meta, self-aware approach is for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects to the show. I love the intelligent and knowingly ridiculous approach, I also appreciate its unique approach to narrative. The series has, in its time featured episodes that have featured the characters as participants in a video game, and its approach to this Christmas special was as refreshingly inventive.

The episode features Abed, suffering through a psychological crisis in which he believes that he, along with all of his friends have turned into stop-motion characters. The episode in its musical interludes and homage to a variety of Christmas films (including The Polar Expressensures that the episode retains the series’ trademark cynicism and humour, but is able to match this with some truly poignant moments as Abed realises that he will struggle without his friends over the Christmas period.

The group’s dogged determinism in helping their friend, joining in with his fantasy despite their fear and concern, avoids cliché and instead is genuinely affecting.

The Office Christmas special part 1 and 2

The second season of The Office did its utmost to make the character of David Brent more sympathetic. Thus, the cocky, unnaturally arrogant man is reduced to a pitiful man who is struggling to retain any sense of dignity. It also, intelligently, returned to the format and the concepts that made the show so successful in the first place.

As such, the show finds a plausible way to reunite all of the characters, including Dawn who is currently carrying out a relatively miserable existence in Florida. Tying all of the series’ loose ends together and, unusually, giving the audience the ending that had been wished for all along.

With the Christmas special, Gervais and Merchant set out to please their fans and not only ensured to maintain the style of the earlier episodes, but selected an ending that was wonderfully subtle and emotional without resorting to grand gestures.

Peep Show ‘Seasonal Beatings’ 2010

Peep Show uses, intelligently, the same approach as the Him and Her Christmas episode. It doesn’t stray from the usual format of the series, the characters act in the exact same way as they have always done, in fact the only difference is the day itself.

Mark’s hitherto rarely seen family join him and Jeremy for Christmas dinner; his father, it is revealed, is an angry, tyrannical man who is prone to random outbursts. He treats Mark with contempt, proffering a second hand present which raises little consternation from his sister and mother.

Playing on the awkward family dinner trope, the episode’s success stems from the humorous interjections courtesy of Super Hans, along with the usual temerity provided by Jeremy.