The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

Paterson


Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Rizwan Manji, Barry Shabaka Henley, Trevor Parham, Troy T. Parham, Brian McCarthy, Frank Harts, Luis Da Silva Jr., Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Kacey Cockett, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Sterling Jerins, Masatoshi Nagase, Sophia Muller. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

Paterson is a bus driver. Paterson is also coincidentally the name of the New Jersey town in which Paterson plies his trade. It is not coincidentally the home of famed 20th century poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Paterson (the bus driver) also writes poetry in a journal he keeps with him. He scribbles during lunch breaks and before he starts work. He uses mundane, everyday subjects to inspire him. He leads a mundane, everyday life.

Director Jarmusch is notorious (or acclaimed) for finding the rhythms of life and setting his films to those rhythms. We see Paterson’s routine; getting up in the morning at 6:15 precisely, eating breakfast with his wife Laura (Farahani), going to work, coming home for dinner – Laura is apparently not much of a cook but he gamely is polite about pretending to enjoy it. Afterwards he takes his English bulldog Marvin out for a walk, ending up at his favorite watering hole talking with Doc (Henley) the bartender and then heading home to go to sleep with his wife.

We follow Paterson in his routine over the course of a week. It’s not a particularly important week – just a normal, mundane, everyday week. His wife is making cupcakes for a popup farmer’s market. She has ordered a guitar which she paints black and white like everything else in the house and dreams of becoming a country music star, which would be a bit of a stretch being that she is an immigrant from Iran which in the current climate might not fly among a certain element that loves country. He overhears conversations on the bus, adjusts his mailbox which always seems to be leaning (late in the film we find out why), and sometimes just sits out by the beautiful waterfall that is Paterson’s pride and joy.

Paterson is definitely a working class environment. Some might remember that it was the town in which Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was framed for murder; it is referenced during the film but not dwelled upon, at least not as much as the fact that it was also the home of Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello fame. Then again, Laura’s penchant for black and white patterns might allude to the racial divide that led to one of the most notorious legal cases of the 20th century that was part of the DNA of Paterson at the time.

There is a beauty to the rhythms of life here. Jarmusch is an expert to finding the beauty in the mundane. But, as mundane as Jarmusch wants to make the environment of Paterson, he can’t help but populate it with quirky indie film characters that lend an air of “this isn’t real life in the rest of the world” to the film. I think in some ways it sabotages what he’s trying to do and for me it diminished the enjoyment of the film. Why can’t films about ordinary people actually have a few ordinary people in them?

Driver is a bit white bread here. He doesn’t really distinguish himself much which is likely what Jarmusch had in mind. Paterson (the bus driver) is basically a pretty nice guy without much ambition; his poetry is amazing (written by real life poet and Pulitzer prize winner Ron Padgett) but he refuses to publish them. He clings to them like a lap bar on a particularly scary roller coaster and when near the end of the film an event occurs that puts that to paid, it feels like it should be more liberating than it is. Or at least more traumatic than it seems.

I’m not really quite sure what to make of Paterson (the movie). On the one hand it achieves the “all about nothing” that the Seinfeld show aspired to. On the other, it definitely succumbs to indie film clichés. On a third hand, it plays as a cinematic tone poem, analogous to the works of Williams and T.S. Eliot. There’s beauty here but Jarmusch makes it oddly humorless, although there are occasional twitches of the lips that approximate smiles. It’s an elegant movie that’s not completely successful but is completely worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a cinematic tone poem.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters inhabit Paterson’s world.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Driver undertook training to drive the bus for three months in Queens; he passed is licensing test a week before shooting started and was able to drive the bus himself, allowing Jarmusch to get a broader amount of options in shooting the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mike and Molly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Country: Portraits of an American Sound

Denial (2016)


Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the "Fantastic Beasts" film series.

Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the “Fantastic Beasts” film series.

(2016) True Life Drama (Bleecker Street) Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss, John Sessions, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Pip Carter, Jackie Clune, Will Attenborough, Max Befort, Daniel Cerqueira, Laurel Lefkow, Elliot Levey, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Andrea Deck. Directed by Mick Jackson

 

The trouble with history is that people are constantly trying to rewrite it. Sometimes that’s in an effort to interpret the significance of events but sometimes it’s in an effort to promote a point of view.

Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) is a professor of Jewish history from Queens teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. She is promoting a book entitled Denying the Holocaust in which she discusses how an insidious effort is being made to discredit the pain and suffering of millions of Jews. At a lecture promoting the book, she is confronted by David Irving (Spall), a British historian who had enjoyed a lucrative career on the basis that he claimed there was no evidence that Auschwitz had any gas chambers. An unabashed admirer of Hitler, he offers $1,000 to anyone who can conclusively prove that the Holocaust happened. Lipstadt refuses to debate him on the basis that she doesn’t “debate facts.”

xzSo Irving sues the American academic and her publisher (Penguin Press) for libel, but he does so in a British court because under British law, the burden of proof rests with the defense rather than the accuser. In other words, Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust happened and then on top of it, that Irving knowingly distorted the facts otherwise. Penguin agrees with her that this suit must be fought and so they hire a British dream team; solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson). Incidentally, the film explains the two roles; the solicitor researches the case and the barrister argues it in court.

The strong-willed and often just plain stubborn Lipstadt immediately begins to butt heads with her defense team. She wants to take the stand but they refuse to put her there and she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. They absolutely refuse; for one thing, the charismatic Irving, who is acting as his own barrister, would use the opportunity to shame and abuse the survivors and in the words of Julius, “they’ve suffered enough already.” Lipstadt begins to have serious doubts that she is being well-represented.

Although this was fairly big news when it happened less than ten years ago, the details are not well-known particularly in America where knowledge of news going on across the pond tends to be less well-reported. While you may know how the trial turned out (and in case you didn’t I won’t mention it here) how it got there might be a bit less well-known.

Weisz has a tendency to play somewhat strident characters and certainly Lipstadt qualifies. While I’m not sure she’ll get Oscar notice since the role is somewhat similar to ones she’s done before, it certainly is not outside the realm of possibility that she will. I’d also put up Wilkinson and Spall for nomination consideration as well.

Strangely, Weisz was one of the things I liked least about the film. She whines quite a bit through it and often comes off as condescending to the British legal experts who I would think know her system much better than she does. I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of the real Lipstadt this is but if it is, she’s not a very pleasant person to know. It isn’t until the end of the film that she forms even a glimmering of a relationship (with Rampton) that isn’t confrontational and judgmental.

Even though the material is fairly dry – unlike how they’re portrayed in the movies most court cases are unexciting and even dull – Jackson does a good job of keeping things lively and even interesting. He manages to explain most of the ins and outs of how the law works in Britain to us ignorant Yanks without talking down to us. I am curious if it played differently in the UK where they’d understand the system somewhat better than we do.

There are some things in which the filmmakers acquitted themselves – ‘scuse the pun – well as well as others in which the jury is still out on. Weisz can be an acquired taste as an actress, particularly in roles like this which aren’t necessarily likable. Those who don’t like courtroom dramas might also think twice about this, even though the courtroom scenes are staged better than most. And some people just plain get uncomfortable around the holocaust. You know who you are.

At the end of the day, this is not necessarily a triumph so much as a success. I liked the movie overall and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it but at the same time it’s not the kind of movie that’s going to end up being one of the movies that this year is remembered for, at least by me. Check it out if you have the chance but I think that you may wait and see if the Academy gives it any love before you do.

In these uncertain times with a climate seemingly skewed towards bigotry and hate, it is somehow comforting to see truth and justice win over those things – perhaps it still can. I like to think so. It takes people like Deborah Lipstadt, standing up for those who would lie and obscure and diminish and in so doing, relegate an entire race to second-class status. It’s a lesson that all of us should take to heart.

REASONS TO GO: Most of the performances here are strong. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Weisz is a little shrill here.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult concepts here that might be too much for the sensitive sorts; there’s also some fairly strong profanity from time to time.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the dialogue in the courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the trial transcripts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man in the Glass Booth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gimme Danger

Anthropoid


Nobody likes a bomb.

Nobody likes a bomb.

(2016) Historical Drama (Bleecker Street) Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Sean Mahon, Bill Milner, Jan Hájek, Pavel Reznicek, Alena Mihulová, Harry Lloyd, Detlef Bothe, Roman Zach, Mish Boyko, Sam Keeley, Ondrej Maly, Marcin Corocinski, Karel Hermánek Jr., Václav Neuzil, Jiri Simek, Andrej Polak, Anna Gerislová. Directed by Sean Ellis

 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are some true stories that are not strange at all, but point out the best that humanity can be – and the worst. Not all of those sorts of stories stay with us for long and indeed this one remains only relatively well-known in Eastern Europe, but it is a story worth the telling.

After the Berlin Accords gave what was then known as Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to be used as fuel for the war machine to come, Prague became an occupied city and the entire region was ruled with an iron fist. Holding that fist was Reinhard Heydrich (Bothe), one of the authors of Hitler’s Final Solution and who would become known as The Butcher of Prague.

The Czech government in exile decided to make a statement and sent a team of paratroopers into the countryside outside Prague who had the mission of assassinating Heydrich. Leading the team was Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), two Czech soldiers. Things went bad from the beginning; Kubis injured his foot while landing and the two resistance fighters who were sent to meet them turned out to be Nazi collaborators. The two soldiers barely escaped with their lives.

They finally found legitimate resistance members in Prague, but the situation there was very chaotic. There was little or no information to be hand; the city was under severe restrictions and people were being rounded up and imprisoned with impunity. There were infiltrators everywhere and knowing whom to trust was no easy task. “Uncle” Hajsky (Jones) was trying to make some sort of organization through all this but most of his men had been arrested. He put up the two paratroopers in the Moravec home whose mother (Mihulová) was a resistance member and their son Ata (Milner) loyal to the cause.

To keep suspicions from being aroused over the new arrivals, girlfriends were supplied; Marie (Le Bon) for Josef and Lenka (Gerislová) for Jan. The deception turned out to be a lot more accurate as the two couples began to actually fall for each other. Wartime can be a great accelerator of romance.

In the repressive atmosphere of Prague, however, getting their mission completed would be no easy task and with little contact with their government and almost no intelligence to go on, the two men had their work cut out for them. What would happen would become one of the greatest instances of heroism to come out of the War and is a source of national pride to the Czechs even to this day.

It is not an easy thing to write a review or a movie that is about actual history; while one doesn’t want to supply spoilers for those who may not be aware of how the story unfolded, at the same time it is difficult to write about the film without giving at least some plot points away. Suffice to say that Ellis and company have given us a movie whose historical accuracy is better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen; that is a double-edged sword however.

The movie does drag in places, particularly in the first half. Once the assassination is attempted, the movie is turbo charged and Ellis delivers some really fine suspense sequences and one of the best shoot-outs since the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Murphy and Dornan are both fine actors and they’re given some exceptional material to work with. Both men are imperfect, neither are superheroes and both have the kinds of doubts and frailties that real heroes must overcome to do extraordinary things.

Those who are aware of the history behind the celluloid are going to view this a lot differently than those who are unfamiliar with the story; even the latter group however may find the sense of things spiraling towards a final conclusion somewhat overwhelming. We all know that the Titanic is going to sink even before we view the movie; how it gets there and who survives is what makes that movie a classic.

As a movie, Anthropoid makes an excellent history lesson. That doesn’t always translate to entertainment however, unless you are entertained by history and fortunately for me, I am. I found the film fascinating and I was moved enough to research the real Operation Anthropoid which is where I discovered that the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the incident quite closely which is something to be admired, although at times they seem to be willing to sacrifice entertainment for accuracy. I think that both could have coexisted better as the last half of the movie clearly shows; had the first half been able to capture the tension of the second this would have been a clear front runner to be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it is slow in getting underway so this will have to remain a solid, historically accurate war film that is flawed but nevertheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Historically accurate and full of gut-wrenching suspense. The performances are strong throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The sense of impending doom is oppressive at times. Slow-moving in the first half of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence here as well as some fairly disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Ata Moravec is tortured was filmed in the same place where it actually happened.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Operation: Daybreak
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Think Twice

Captain Fantastic


Viggo Mortensen points out from which direction the Orc hordes are charging.

Viggo Mortensen points out from which direction the Orc hordes are charging.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street) Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Gallen Osier, Rex Young, Thomas Brophy, Mike Miller, Hannah Horton. Directed by Matt Ross

 

This is not a world conducive to raising kids. We are forced to work jobs that take ever-increasing amounts of our time, forcing us to leave them at day care, in schools where getting an education is an uphill battle and with diversions and distractions guaranteed to change our kids from thoughtful, caring people into automatons parroting whatever the cool kids are saying and preferring to do things that require no thought at all.

Ben (Mortensen) has decided to chuck all of that aside. Something of a latter day hippie tilting at the same windmills of Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer did, he has removed his family – his wife and six kids – to the woods of the Pacific Northwest. There, they live off the grid; killing and growing their own food, making whatever it is they need, selling their crafts for the little money they do require and Ben both schooling and training the kids not only how to live off the land but to defend themselves from those who would take them off of it by force.

Ben has been doing this alone since his wife Leslie (Miller) has been hospitalized but when his worst fears come to pass and she dies, the entire family is devastated. Ben, a believer in transparency (when it suits him), tells his children in the bluntest terms possible. This of course precipitates a storm of emotion.

Nothing, however, when compared to what comes out of Jack (Langella), Leslie’s bereaved father who blames Ben and his alternative lifestyle for his daughter’s demise and forbids him and his children from attending her funeral. This, of course, inspires them all to pile into the family school bus and head to the services. Along the road, they’ll visit Ben’s sister Harper (Hahn) and her husband Dave (Zahn) who are far more in the normal meter with two sons of their own and predictably, things don’t go particularly well. When the confrontation comes, it will expose some raw wounds in what appeared to be a tight-knit family and call into question Ben’s methods and dearly-held philosophies.

Much of how you’re going to take in this film is going to depend on your attitudes towards the counterculture, both then and now. Those who look at the movement and find it to be self-righteous and arrogant will see those things in Ben; others who look back at that and see commitment and courage will see that in Ben. Curiously, there’s no drug use going on here, so far as I can tell. However, those who think that white rich people are getting the short end of the stick are likely to find this movie to be somewhat offensive.

Mortensen will probably always be Aragorn in my book; since he exploded in the public perception in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogy, he has stayed away largely from mainstream movies and typical roles. In some ways, Ben is as close to Viggo as we’re ever likely to see. Mortensen is a well-known iconoclast and besides being an incredibly handsome dude, has acting chops guys as good looking as he can only dream about. He is meant to carry the movie and he does.

The kids playing his kids managed not to get on my nerves, quite a feat when you get six child actors together for any reason. Occasionally I’d see a little bit of annoying little brat going on but for the most part the kids are interesting, thoughtful and bright. Ben’s oldest Bo (MacKay) has been accepted at some of the most prestigious universities in the country which isn’t the kind of thing that impresses his father, who disdains anything that has anything to do with the establishment, including education.

The first third of the movie has some beautiful landscapes from Washington State, and the cinematography is correspondingly lush. The middle third is essentially a road movie, largely taking place in deserts and plains and is as different a road movie as you’re likely to see. We get some glimpses of hypocrisy cracking through Ben’s veneer of moral rightness, as well as some of the conflicts going on within the family. In some ways, this is the most interesting part of the picture.

The final third is basically Ben and the kids coming to terms with the fall-out of Ben’s home schooling and attitudes towards mainstream life. There should be catharsis here (and the filmmakers sorely wants there to be) but the ending is such a letdown that any kind of catharsis just gets lost in the backwash. The ending feels arbitrary and inorganic and doesn’t seem consistent with what I thought the movie was trying to get across. Now, I might have misconstrued the filmmakers’ intentions and that’s okay, but quite frankly my wife and I looked at each other after the final credits started rolling and said in almost perfect unison “Really?” You don’t want to leave a movie with that kind of feeling.

Ross is best known as an actor in HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley turns out to be a fairly promising director. The timing here for the comedic parts are right on and the drama parts aren’t especially overbearing. While he could have used a better ending, he certainly has plenty to build on for a future career behind the camera if that’s the path he wants to take.

Even given all that, this is still an amazing, thought-provoking movie with one of the most charismatic actors in the business at the top of his form. In a summer full of disappointing blockbusters and run-of-the-mill sequels, this is a literal breath of fresh air.

REASONS TO GO: Mortensen is a powerfully charismatic actor. The film depicts an interesting conflict between alternative ideas and mainstream reality. It’s not your ordinary road movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending was a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and a brief scene of graphic nudity (Viggo Mortensen fans, rejoice!).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The group of children cast in the film came to call Mortensen “Summer Dad” throughout the shoot during the summer of 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Automatic Hate
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Life, Animated

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

Trumbo (2015)


Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

Dalton Trumbo doing what he does best.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow, John Getz, Madison Wolfe, James DuMont, J.D. Evermore, Allyson Guay. Directed by Jay Roach

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter who was once the highest paid in Hollywood; he wrote classic movies and was considered one of the most intelligent writers in the business and racked up a couple of Oscars to boot. However, even with all that he is better known for one thing; being a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten.

Trumbo (Cranston) was one of the leading lefties in Tinseltown, espousing pro-Union an pro-Socialist causes. While he had joined the Communist party in 1943, he wasn’t what you’d call a hard-liner; he was always more of a Socialist than a Communist, but “socialist” was even worse at the time, as the Nazis stylized themselves as Socialists. When unions went out on strike, he would never ever cross a picket line.

But the times, they were a’changing. Soviet Russia was no longer a war ally and the Cold War was beginning in earnest. Washington was beginning to look at Communist elements in our midst and in Hollywood especially. The House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, took an interest in Trumbo because of his outspoken support for leftist causes and of course his membership in the Communist.Party also made him a target. The vitriol of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) who saw Trumbo as the embodiment of the enemy was leveled on Trumbo and she campaigned vigorously with the studio heads to get him fired, particularly Louis B. Mayer (Portnow) who is Trumbo’s boss. Once he is slapped with a contempt of Congress charge however, Mayer has the ammunition to let him go.

And thus begins the blacklist as Trumbo and nine other writers and directors who refuse to testify in front of HUAC are denied employment for any of the major studios. Trumbo scrapes ekes out a living by writing movies and then having non-blacklisted “front” for them; that is, putting his scripts under their name and taking a part of the compensation for it. It is in this way that he wrote Roman Holiday for which he received an Oscar, although it was Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) who received credit and picked up the Oscar (a statuette was delivered to Trumbo’s widow posthumously).

Trumbo also wrote B movies for the schlockmeister Frank King (Goodman) and his brother Hymie (Root) including The Brave One, written under a pseudonym and also an Oscar winner (this one he received while he was still alive). However, in order to keep up the sheer volume of work he needed in order to meet the demands of the King Brothers and of course keep his family fed and housed and clothed, he had to work an enormous amount of time, employing his family particularly daughter Chloe (Fanning) as a kind of personal assistant while his wife Cleo (Lane) held things together. The toll on his relationships within the family would become nearly intolerable. It also sundered friendships as his friend Arlen Hird (C.K.) disagreed strongly with Trumbo’s methods while actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) found that his own career had been torpedoed by allegations and was put in the horrible position of either naming friends to HUAC or risk seeing his career end in flames.

Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for the title role and I can tell you flat-out that the nomination was richly deserved – in fact I like his performance better than winner Leonardo di Caprio’s. He captures a lot of the real Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms from the clipped speech, the hunched over posture and the witticisms along with the look; his trademark moustache and cigarette holder. He looks the part and quite frankly, he dominates the screen here.

The script captures the paranoia and despair of the time. The conversations between Trumbo and Arlen Hird are really the heart of the picture, setting up the dichotomy between capitalism and socialism (again, Trumbo wasn’t really a true communist) and questioning the motives of his crusade. A speech near the end of the film is an emotional moment that underlines the true cost of the blacklist and of other events like it.

I have to admit though that I was extremely disappointed by some of the historical inaccuracies here. While I don’t mind using Hird as a fictitious amalgam of real people, I do object to writer John McNamara characterizing a particular character here as naming names to HUAC when historically he did not; there were plenty of real people who did supply names to the witch hunters and there’s no need to drag a person’s name through the mud unnecessarily. A fictitious character could even have been created to play the same role but the way that this was done is something I really don’t approve of. I don’t mind fudging history for the sake of dramatic impact, but I do mind tarnishing the reputation of someone who didn’t earn it. While Hopper who is portrayed here as a crude, egocentric and vindictive woman – all things that contemporary accounts support – and her descendents can’t complain of the narrative here, the family of that one character has grounds to object. Sometimes dramatic license shouldn’t trump sensitivity to those close to the people in question.

The movie looks pretty damn good, with some sweet locations (New Orleans substituting for golden age Hollywood) and some wonderfully framed shots (Trumbo’s first film credit reflected in the lens of his glasses near the end of the film). The ensemble cast is terrific head to toe. There are also some powerful moments like the aforementioned speech near the end and the funeral for one of the main characters. There is emotional resonance here as we see the price that people paid for the zealotry of others.

That this sort of witch hunting goes on today isn’t lost on this reviewer. We may not necessarily be singling out communists for discrimination, but there are certainly other groups we have become hysterical about (*cough* Muslims *cough*) to the point of ridiculousness, but I’m sure they don’t find it very ridiculous. Trumbo works as a look at a dark part of our past but it also serves as a warning about our present; we are either true to our principles or we aren’t. You may say what you want about Dalton Trumbo whether you agree with his politics or not, but he stood up for what he believed in because he genuinely felt that to not do so was to betray his country. I’m not going to judge anyone on their stance because in the end they all believed that they were right and were doing right by America. Maybe that’s the excuse of some who are doing the same exact thing; that doesn’t mean however we shouldn’t stand up to those who operate out of fear, rather than displaying strength.

REASONS TO GO: Bryan Cranston nails it. Captures the paranoia of the times.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary factual errors.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair share of profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first non-comedy film to be directed by Roach.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2007)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden