I have come to bury Hail, Caesar!

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.

So let it be with Caesar.

—William Shakespeare

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The Coen brothers love the Golden Age of Hollywood, the era when studios ruled, actors did what they were told, writers remained in the background and sound stages were spectacular. To demonstrate their adoration, the brothers wrote, directed and produced a love letter that showed up on theatre screens this week as Hail, Caesar!.

Unfortunately, the love letter they wrote was less a Shakespearean sonnet than the heart-dotted-i gushings of a pre-pubescent girl.

Briefly, Hail, Caesar! is a week-in-the-life story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive for Capitol Pictures (think back to Barton Fink), a classic Hollywood studio. And like any good executive, Eddie spends his days and nights fixing the various issues that crop up around the studio, while trying to keep everything under wraps from the prying eyes of the gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton & Tilda Swinton).

Today, for example, Eddie is dealing with the unplanned pregnancy of twice-divorced swim star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) unwisely thrown into a high-society role, and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) during the final days of shooting for the studio’s largest production ever, the titular Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ.

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And as Eddie scurries from location to location, equally supported and thwarted by the Hollywood clichés that surround him, he takes time to repeatedly visit confessional. Oh, and he is also being courted by Lockheed Martin, who want to make his life simpler while giving him buckets of money.

Now, one does not walk into a Coen brothers movie expecting something conventional, whether comedy or drama. You know that in many ways, you’ll experience theatre of the absurd. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t really live up to that standard. It is more theatre of the silly and mildly amusing.

If the main story of Eddie Mannix is the Christmas tree, the various subplots that infect his day are more the individual ornaments that decorate the tree rather than the branches that flesh it out. For the most part, the subplots are self-contained elements that go nowhere. Each one carries certain amusement—the movie does have its laugh-out-loud moments—and provides a fire against which Eddie must test himself, but even here, the fires aren’t particularly threatening and Eddie handles all of them with aplomb (if exhaustion).

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And because the individual subplots—Eddie’s raisons d’etre—are so thin, the main plot is thin. I get that his journey through the events of the week is meant to symbolize Christ’s walk through the desert, and that Lockheed Martin is the Devil offering to make Christ King of the world. But I don’t care.

I really never invested in Eddie, and so the rest of the film is largely eye candy.

Now, as eye candy goes, this is some lavish stuff that leaves you with a high-end sugar rush. The brothers did a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of those classic Hollywood films, right down to some of the ham-fisted acting and over-emoting for which the era is famed. And full credit on the song-and-dance number starring Channing Tatum.

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But like any sugar rush, the dazzle wears off quickly, and I left the theatre a little empty.

I really wanted to like this movie. Like the Coen brothers, I have a rabid affection for the studio era and its stars—don’t get me started on Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, Hail, Caesar! was the equivalent of fine-dining at Costco…it only really whets your appetite for something better.

O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me.

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me.

 

Other reviews:

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (Danny F Santos)

Hail, Caesar! sees Joel and Ethan Coen trade acid for honey: review (Peter Howell, Toronto Star)

Review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ a satire that doesn’t come together (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

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DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

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Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

Broca

Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

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Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

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The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

Who is this guy?

Without putting too fine a point on it, I have been trying to discover the answer to this question for almost 50 years and I don’t feel that I’m any closer to an answer.Image

I’m a writer. I’m a photographer. I’m a creator. I’m a distiller.

I write comedy. I write tragedy. I write technical. I write lyrical.

I photograph nature. I photograph society. I photograph the concrete. I photograph the abstract.

I think. I feel. I fulfill. I surprise.

And tomorrow, I will do it all over again.