Another two films among the best new ones I’ve seen in 2016 – The Club and Hail, Caesar!
The Club would be a great companion partner with Spotlight and a horrible film to watch with someone you don’t know well. Pablo Larrain has yet to make a bad film. Hell, he has yet to make a film that isn’t great (though I haven’t seen Fuga).
The Club is about a group of priests in a small Chilean town. They’re exiles of sorts and when they’re joined by a new companion things go haywire.
The Club is a film that shouldn’t be talked about too much, so this might all be vague as an attempt to avoid spoilers. Larrain gets so much menace out of his film. There’s a great series of sequences where Padre Vidal (Alfredo Castro) has conversations with a young group of surfers. A violent story aside, there’s nothing about this interaction that should spell danger, but Larrain gets that out of it anyway through a combination of takes that hold just a little too long, great reaction shots (particularly of Vidal), and of a crosscut.
In a lot of ways The Club and No are much more traditional than Post Mortem and Tony Manero. Here, Larrain uses his score traditionally, albeit effectively, and the story progresses in a typically structured, albeit nuanced, way.
That said, The Club doesn’t play as anything typical. There’s a gut punch of a scene early-on that involves a graphic monologue and a gun. Unnerving is an understatement. It’s such a great scene – hard to watch and magnetic at once (thanks to an incredible performance from Roberto Farias). It’s also a screenwriting lesson: you want something crazy and unexpected to happen really early, and you want us to believe it? You really have to build to it and get under our skin. Larrain does just that.
The Club certainly doesn’t look too kindly on the Catholic church, and it’s interesting that it doesn’t look too kindly on the new Catholic church. It’s not a period piece like Spotlight and is harshly critical of the institution in a number ways, often embodied by Padre Garcia (Marcelo Alonso).
Larrain favors a whole lot of straight push-ins and pull-outs, often on a wide lens. You can see the edges of the frame bow inward on a lot of shots. It stresses the confinement of the priests, and, alongside the hazy cinematography, the surrealness of it all. The tight quarters and lens choice sometimes make the priests look like giants, which is both comical and disquieting.
How is The Club shot? It looks like Larrain and DP Sergio Armstrong have intentionally fogged the lens. It’s a nice follow-up to the VHS of No. Larrain is certainly not afraid to experiment with the look. Here, the protagonists (who, by the way, aren’t all who you assume them to be at the beginning) are wreathed in misty light. It’s not a transcendental halo, but a swampy vagary.
Sometimes The Club‘s framing style reminds me of that of Carlos Reygadas – stark silhouettes, eerie vistas, unstable frames.
And now for something completely different. Hail, Caesar! is great. It’s another fantastic Coen brothers film that falls somewhere amidst Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy.
While The Club would be great paired with Spotlight, this film would be perfect with Trumbo. Both deal with a pretty specific time in Hollywood history, though the Coen brothers’ film looks at it through less of a tragic, realist lens.
This is a farce, and, like A Serious Man, it’s also about faith (in the end, there’s one, main character, who doesn’t have faith in something). What’s really great about Hail, Caesar! (dance choreography aside) is how two warring factions of Hollywood are treated pretty equally. Both are alternately mocked and proved moral, and while there’s plenty in here about the excesses and shiftiness of Hollywood, the film feels less cynical than others by the same director.
There are great moments throughout: Tilda Swinton playing a double role and (almost) always appearing back-to-back and in the same frame; Jonah Hill’s hilarious interaction with Scarlett Johansson; a wartime-Hitchcock-inspired submarine section; an intentionally redundant back-and-forth between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenrich.
There’s plenty of nods to classic Hollywood. Vertigo shows up, as do Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire. But unlike the slow disintegration in Barton Fink (my favorite Coens), Hail, Caesar! is a bit more content to play broadly. It works. Things are decisive in a Coen brothers film – their frames are pristine (see a sequence where George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock first converses with his kidnappers. The many 3-shots with men in foreground and background are so composed) and characters move with a snappy purpose.
That notwithstanding, what makes a Coen film a Coen film? They’re certainly auteur-recognizable. On some levels it’s the acting style: mannered and quick with sharp body language. Other times it’s repetition (in dialogue, in camera). Here it feels like it’s the color palette. So much of the film fits comfortably on one side of the color wheel. Browns, yellows, and beiges, often. There’s also the excellent Deakins cinematography that loves high-contrast with hard light, a lot of deep focus, and critical inserts (see: Frances McDormand’s hilarious scene). The frames are balanced with background actors, though not a lot of distracting background action.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Coens have made films about Hollywood so often. Their own style is a nod to older styles, just strongly – and often cynically – updated.