Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

20th Century Women


Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills

 

Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.

Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.

Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.

Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.

But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.

Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie  reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.

Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.

Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.

This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.

REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

New Releases for the Week of January 20, 2017


xXx: The Return of Xander CageXXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

(Paramount) Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Donnie Yen, Toni Collette, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Ice Cube. Directed by D.J. Caruso

An elite team led by the enigmatic Xiang is pursuing a powerful weapon named Pandora’s Box. This team is so deadly as to be nearly unstoppable, prompting the government to try and persuade Xander Cage, the legendary “Triple X,” to come out of “retirement.” He assembles an elite team of his own to take on Xiang but discovers that not everything that is happening is the way it seems.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language)

20th Century Women

(A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup. As the 70s come to an end, a 50ish single mom in Santa Barbara finds raising her son a challenge and enlists the help of two younger women to help raise him to be the man she hopes he can become. Bening got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and has a good shot to see some Oscar love as well.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Enzian Theater, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for sexual material, language, nudity and some drug use)

The Founder

(Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini. The story of Ray Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman who one day stopped off at a popular burger joint in San Bernardino and discovered their method of producing burgers could revolutionize the way America eats. He determined to hitch his wagon to that restaurant and in doing so made it one of the biggest businesses in history. Today there’s a McDonald’s on every corner – and you have Ray Kroc to thank for it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Paterson

(Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Barry Shabaka Henley. Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey (yes, they have the same name) spends his days watching the world go by his windshield. Snippets of conversations and his own observations make it into a book of poetry he has written but allows nobody to read. He likes his life and is content to let it remain as is. His wife, an artist, however is changing as new dreams inspire new creations. They love each other very much but are they drifting apart? This is the latest from director Jim Jarmusch.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language)

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

(BH Tilt/High Top) Brett Dalton, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Shawn Michaels, D.B. Sweeney. A former child star, fallen on hard times gets arrested and sentenced to community service at a local megachurch. In order to land the role of Jesus in the annual Passion Play, he pretends to be a devout Christian. Soon enough he discovers that the role requires more than just lip service.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for thematic elements including a crucifixion image)

Split

(Universal/Blumhouse) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley. A gifted young man with 23 distinct personalities fighting for dominance within him kidnaps three young women. His psychiatrist realizes that a 24th is set to emerge, one that is vicious, evil and set to dominate the others. Can the three kidnap victims find a way to escape their captor before the world is introduced to The Beast? This is the newest film from M. Night Shyamalan.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language)

New Releases for the Week of January 13, 2017


Patriot's DayPATRIOT’S DAY

(CBS) Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Michele Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Paige MacLean, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea. Directed by Peter Berg

A watershed mark for our nation over the past few years is the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. Not only did it galvanize a city but an entire nation learned the meaning of the term “Boston strong.” This movie takes a look at the event from the viewpoint of first responders, survivors and those who investigated the crime and relentlessly pursued the bombers, this is a look at an unspeakable act that led to unmistakable courage.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use)

The Bye Bye Man

(STX) Carrie-Ann Moss, Faye Dunaway, Douglas Smith, Doug Jones. Don’t imagine him. Don’t even think about him. Whatever you do, don’t you dare mention his name. Otherwise, the Bye Bye Man will get inside you and force you to commit terrible acts of pure evil. Three college friends are about to find out that there is never any escape from the Bye Bye Man.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for bloody horror violence, language and some sexuality)

The Crash

(Vertigo) Frank Grillo, Minnie Driver, AnnaSophia Robb, Dianna Agron. In the near future, the United States is under attack by cyber-terrorists who want to bring our economy to its knees. In desperation, the federal government enlists the aid of white collar criminals to stop the hack and take down the terrorists – before our nation comes to a grinding halt.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some language)

Elle

(Sony Classics) Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling. The ruthless head of a French video game company is sexually assaulted in her home. Not willing to take this  lying down, she relentlessly chases after her rapist and in so doing gets involved in a game of cat and mouse which threatens to spiral out of control.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language)

Live by Night

(Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller. A veteran of World War I becomes a self-proclaimed outlaw although one who really isn’t cut out for the bootlegger’s life – he’s far too good-hearted, a trait that can lead to serious difficulties with some of the more amoral elements of that element. Driven to get revenge for the wrongs against him, he travels from the cold winters of Boston to the warm tropics of Tampa with a plan to make right those wrongs.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)

Monster Trucks

(Paramount) Lucas Till, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Amy Ryan. A young man is desperate to escape the small town and boring life he’s been born into and it seems likely doomed to remain in. His plan is to build himself a monster truck, become a champion driver, and leave his dust speck of a town in his rearview. What he doesn’t count on is the alien presence that invades his truck and gives it a life of his own. Now he is certain to get out of town; but if someone finds out his secret, it’s likely he’s going to spend the rest of his life in a secret government base! Which might be just a little bit of an improvement…

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action, peril, brief scary images and some rude humor)

Silence

(Paramount) Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds. The latest from director Martin Scorsese concerns a pair of Christian missionaries who undertake a dangerous mission to feudal Japan. They go there in search of their mentor, who disappeared after renouncing the faith, something both men believe he would never do. They enter a country and culture both mysterious and beautiful – and deadly in that their faith is outlawed and they could be killed on sight.

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content)

Sleepless

(Open Road) Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Gabrielle Union, Dermot Mulroney. A corrupt Vegas undercover cop finds the stakes just a little bit higher after a heist gone wrong puts a vicious gang of mobsters after him. When they kidnap his son, he realizes they have no intention of letting his boy go. He’ll have to resort to every dirty trick there is, call on every favor and be just a little bit meaner than those who have his boy if they are both to survive the night.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong language and language throughout)

New Releases for the Week of June 24, 2016


Independence Day ResurgenceINDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

(20th Century Fox) Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Viveca A. Fox, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Sela Ward, Maika Monroe, Joey King, Grace Huang, Brett Spiner. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Twenty years have passed since the events of Independence Day and in twenty years, the human race has rebuilt their shattered planet, utilizing the technology left behind by the would-be invaders. We’ve spent two decades getting ready for what we’re sure is an inevitable return – only to discover that they’ve also had 20 years to prepare, and this time we might not be able to beat them.

See the trailer, interviews, promos, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and destruction, and for some language)

Free State of Jones

(STX Entertainment) Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali. During the Civil War, a Mississippi farmer – convinced he’s fighting for the wrong side of history and also convinced that the South must eventually fall – leads a rebellion at home to secede from the Confederacy – and incredibly, managed to convince slaves and ex-slaves to fight alongside him. This is based on actual events.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images)

The Music of Strangers

(Broad Green) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato. Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Neville turned his cameras on Ma, perhaps the greatest classical cellist of all time, and the acclaimed musicians of the Silk Road Project as they rehearse for a collaborative project. They look at their philosophies of music, their cultures and how the world is changing.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)

The Neon Demon

(Broad Green) Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. A beautiful young woman, what they call in the modeling industry “a natural,” moves to Los Angeles to start off her career. There she runs into a group of women who are obsessed with aging and beauty. They begin to devour her vitality and beauty and will let nothing stop them until they get everything that she has.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Most of the Larger Multiplexes in Central Florida

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language)

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, Eli Roth, John Rhys-Davies. 35 years ago, a trio of intrepid 11-year-old Mississippi boys saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and like so many of us back then, were completely dazzled, enraptured even. They decided to make a movie of their own but not just any movie – they decided to remake Raiders shot for shot. Over a seven year period, they worked on it diligently at great cost. When they ceased filming, they had the entire movie in the can – save one scene. Now, they reunite to finish what they started, not realizing the impact their film has had on the fans  everywhere out there – and on those who worked on the original movie itself.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Septembers of Shiraz

(Momentum) Salma Hayek, Adrien Brody, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Gabriella Wright. A secular Jewish family living in Iran in 1979 is caught up in the events of the 1979 revolution that brought fundamentalist Islamic clerics into power. The family is forced to fight for their lives in a home that is growing increasingly unrecognizable to them – and more dangerous by the day.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content involving interrogation, brutality and disturbing images, and for some partial nudity and brief strong language)

The Shallows

(Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge. A secluded, breathtaking beach. A beautiful blonde surfer alone with the waves. Paradise, right? Sure…until the Great White Shark shows up. Cue the theme from Jaws.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)

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

The Boxtrolls


I'll have some eggs with that.

I’ll have some eggs with that.

(2014) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Maurice LaMarche, Laraine Newman, Brian George. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

We have a tendency to look down upon those who aren’t members of our economic and/or ethnic stratum. If we are rich, the poor receive our disdain. If we are middle-class, we hate the rich. If we are white, we mistrust those whose skin tones are darker. And of course, right back at the whites from the other ethnic groups.

We might paraphrase Tom Lehrer when talking about this film; “All the red hats hate the white hats, and the white hats hate the red hats…and everybody hates the Boxtrolls.” That’s because these underground dwellers who come to the surface each night to scavenge refuse and spare parts have stolen a baby and killed his father, which according to exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) was for a delectable Boxtroll delicacy. Snatcher, a red hat, has long coveted a white hat and sees the Boxtrolls as his ticket to le chapeau blanc. Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), whose main concern is cheese – the town of Cheesebridge is famous for their fromage – absently grants Snatcher his wish. Provided, of course, that he rids the town of every last one of the vermin.

The problem is with the scenario is that the Trubshaw baby isn’t residing in the belly of a Boxtroll. Nor is he even dead. The kindly Boxtrolls have adopted the young orphan and given him a box of his own to hide in – the Boxtrolls are timid creatures who have learned to hide and run rather than stand and fight. True to their custom, they have named the boy Eggs after the product that was stored in the box that he wears and uses as a convenient hiding place. Therefore other Boxtrolls are named Fish, Shoe, Fragile and Oil Can.

Winnie (Fanning), the spoiled daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, is fascinated by the Boxtrolls and by blood, guts and grimness in general. She is further fascinated by them when she discovers that a young boy her age is with them, although nobody believes her tale. When Eggs (Wright) returns to the surface during a cheese festival to try and stop the humans from stealing his friends and releasing those who are imprisoned, he runs into Winnie. She of course doesn’t believe his assertion that the Boxtrolls are gentle and far from dangerous. They are builders, not destroyers.

As it turns out, Snatcher has a fiendish plan in mind which if his henchmen Trout (Frost) and Pickles (Ayoade) had known about they might have had a philosophical issue with. It would mean the extermination of every Boxtroll in town – including Eggs. And as Lord Portley-Rind obliviously chews his cheese, his daughter Winnie realize that it will be up to her and Eggs to save the day if the Boxtrolls are to survive.

Based on a lavishly illustrated almost 600 page children’s book by British author Alan Snow entitled Here Be Monsters, this is the third movie from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that previously brought us Coraline and ParaNorman. Like those films there is definitely a supernatural bent to the movie. Like those films, the painstaking process includes a fantastically detailed background with meticulously crafted characters.

Kingsley’s normally mild voice is given a kind of over-the-top Cockney villain infusion, breathing life into a character who has allowed his dreams to warp him. He will achieve that goal no matter what it costs and the devil help whomever gets in his way because God surely won’t. Equal parts Snidely Whiplash, Wile E. Coyote, the Child Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Monty Python, Archibald Snatcher is a memorable villain who will delight children and adults alike.

So too will the environment created both in the town, which is perched on a hill much like the Wedding Cake town of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy while the underground home of the Boxtrolls is filled with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, unexpected beauty and plenty of gross protein. The entrance into their world is through fun looking slides which would be a slam dunk if Universal ever decides to put a Boxtrolls-themed play area for children in one of its theme parks.

Although Laika is based in the Pacific Northwest, the movie has a definite British sensibility (the source material is, after all, English) not only in the accents but also in the humor; all it lacks is Graham Norton skulking about looking for celebrities to interview. Anglophobes, take note.

Also the story is a bit simplistic which of course comes with the territory when adapting children’s books. While there is plenty of subversive class conscious mockery going on, there are definite bad guys and good guys. Even Archibald Snatcher’s motivation isn’t too hard to understand; if this weren’t geared for kids I suspect they would have made the character a little less malevolent and more sympathetic. I would have liked that myself because, after all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to better your situation. The issue comes when you give up your humanity in order to do so and perhaps that’s the point they’re making, but even so I think it would have been more poignant if they’d made Archibald a decent fellow to begin with.

But that might not have worked so well with little kids who need someone with a black hat to boo. There is nothing really scary about the Boxtrolls other than maybe a scene or two when one or more of the characters is in grave peril but there isn’t anything wrong with bringing your littlest tykes into this one. It’s fun, there’s a definite Halloween vibe to it and adults will be as enchanted as their rugrats at the movies and in a year of mediocre family entertainment at best, this one stands out as pure gold.

REASONS TO GO: Wacky and as enchanting for adults as it is for kids. Kingsley voices one of the greatest villains of recent animated films. Beautiful stop-motion animation.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too British for some. Plot can be simplistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of rude humor, some peril and a bit of animated action. Okay for most kiddies.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pegg and Frost, good friends in real life, didn’t find out until after they’d recorded their portions of the dialogue that they’d both lent their voices to the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trade