Movie reviews: Hail, Caesar!, Truth, The Other Side of the Door

Hail, Caesar! 4/5

Movie reviews: Hail, Caesar!, Truth, The Other Side of the Door

Set in 1951, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (12A) centres on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for Capitol Pictures who spends much of his time getting his studio’s stars out of trouble.

Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) gets kidnapped by Communist screenwriters whilst starring in the swords-and-sandals epic that gives this film its name; director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) struggles to cope when cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenich) is shoehorned into his tasteful drawing-room drama; the ostensibly squeaky-clean actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself pregnant while momentarily between husbands.

The Coens take the career of the real-life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix as their starting point for this deliciously wicked and occasionally quite blunt satire of Hollywood’s gilded age, employing the character to poke fun at — among other things — the Hays Code, Hollywood’s courting of the religious demographic, and the yawning gap between the illusion and the reality in terms of its supposedly wholesome stars.

It can feel a little flimsy at times, particularly as the Coens are covering well-travelled ground here, but nevertheless there is much to enjoy: Clooney’s wide-eyed clowning, Tilda Swinton playing rival gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum executing a superb homage to Fred Astaire.

Every now and again there’s a glimpse of actual plot, as Eddie Mannix agonises over whether to abandon his charges for a more serious job, but for the most part Hail, Caesar! is a gloriously cynical love letter to Hollywood’s foibles and peccadilloes. No one, of course, does cinematic whimsy quite like the Coen Brothers; if you’re a fan, Hail, Caesar! is sheer joy from start to finish.

In 2004 CBS aired a 60 Minutes report alleging that then-US President George Bush had not fulfilled his duties whilst serving with the Texas National Guard in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Compiled by respected producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the 60 Minutes report was presented by legendary TV anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford); Truth (15A) explores the devastating consequences of the report for Mapes and Rather when the political establishment responded in the wake of the broadcast.

Directed by James Vanderbilt, who also adapted the screenplay from Mary Mapes’ Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, the film is very much a personal account of how it feels to be engulfed by a political firestorm — Mapes refuses to be cowed by the pressure brought to bear on her organisation because she suffered badly as a child at the hands of her bullying father.

Blanchett is in superb form as the crusading Mapes, at her best when Mapes sublimates her incandescent anger at the bully-boy tactics employed by those determined to undermine her story regardless of the human cost (or, for that matter, the actual truth of the matter).

It’s an extraordinary story, and the success of Spotlight at last week’s Oscar awards should give another film about high-profile journalism a fair wind, but Vanderbilt’s story tends to stutter and start, bogging itself down too often in minutiae (much of the middle section, for example, is taken up with verifying the authenticity of documents) rather than focusing on the story’s dramatic potential.

The Other Side of the Door (15A) opens in India, where Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Michael Howard (Jeremy Sisto) are struggling to cope with the death of their young son Oliver (Logan Creran).

Overcome with guilt, Maria succumbs to temptation when their nanny, Piki (Suchitra Pillai), tells her about an ancient temple deep in the jungle, where the dead have been known to appear to the living — although, Piki warns, Maria should on no account open the temple door, no matter how much Oliver begs her to do so.

Horror fans won’t be remotely surprised to learn that Maria does in fact open the temple door, and they’re not likely to be shocked by any of the subsequent events either, as Johannes Roberts’ movie heaps cliché upon inanity (the family dog senses supernatural entities; the Howard’s surviving daughter, Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky), begins playing with an invisible friend, et al) in order to further the preposterous plot.

That’s a pity, because the technical aspects are neatly handled (one ghoul offers a decent variation on Ringu-style stop-motion terror), and Maria’s initial plight is utterly absorbing as she attempts to come to terms with a horrific burden of grief and guilt.

Sarah Wayne Callies certainly can’t be faulted here: she gives her performance genuine depth as the bereft Maria flounders around in search of redemption, even as the wildly uneven plotting cuts the ground from beneath her character, but otherwise The Other Side of the Door is a disappointingly humdrum affair.

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