SIFF 2016 Report #2: The Big Road, The Island Funeral, Heaven Can Wait, The Final Master and My Beloved Bodyguard

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Brief accounts of a handful of films from the SIFF’s second week as it rolls into its third.

The Big Road (Sun Yu, 1935) – Something like an amalgam of Our Daily Bread and Mrs. Miniver for the Anti-Japanese War, by which I mean it’s a propaganda film celebrating first the communal virtues of collectivist rural life (the hard work of uniting the nation through literal road-building) and then the bold heroism of that collective as it stands against Imperialist aggression, in the form of the traitorous land-owning, but not land-working, class (relics of Old China, these rulers wear 19th Century clothes, and live in Qing mansions, the feudal system in opposition to the power of the Modern Industrial Worker). It ambles, plotless for most of its length, but it’s accumulated enough power that by the end, as its hero (eight characters combine to form one hero, a communist Voltron) is smashed to bits by advanced machines of war, it resembles nothing less than “Guernica” in its devastation.

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Hail, Caesar! (The Coen Brothers, 2016)

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The latest from multi-hyphenate siblings Joel & Ethan Coen is a kaleidoscopic extravaganza of half-formed thoughts and half-forgotten genres, a mishmash of Late Movie references and late night insights, a career-summarizing work that pairs the yearning search for metaphysical certainty in a violently random universe that has marked their 21st Century output with a ramblingly digressive celebration of the cinematic creativity that stands so boldly in denial of the dissolution of meaning that is the modern world. With a rollicking energy they haven’t employed since O Brother Where Art Thou, Hail, Caesar! shifts madly across the spectrum of studio-era Hollywood genres: musical numbers, screwball exchanges, singing cowboys, fedoras and shadows, drawing room dramas and celebrity gossip swirl around 28 hours in the life of Eddie Mannix, studio executive, as he navigates crises both large (the kidnapping of the star of his sword and sandal biblical epic by a ring of Communist screenwriters) and small (the unmarried pregnancy of an established star, the acting challenges and fledgling romance of a budding one), while weighing a job offer from outside the industry and trying to reconcile his devout Catholicism with the truth-stretching demands of his profession.

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