Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!

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Looking for Palladin


Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

(2008) Drama (Monterey Media/Wildcat) Ben Gazzara, David Moscow, Talia Shire, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Angelica Aragon, Roberto Diaz Gomar, Jimmy Morales, Sammy Morales, Vincent Pastore, Joe Manuella, Robert Youngs, Dick Smith, Sofia Comparini. Directed by Andrzej Krakowski

They say you can run but you can’t hide. That’s doubly true if you’re a movie star. You may find a remote village somewhere in the middle of nowhere where few (if anybody) will know who you are but if you have box office pull, Hollywood will find you.

Jack Palladin (Gazzara) has plenty of pull. One of Hollywood’s most respected actors back in the day, he has disappeared from view as of late with rumors that he is hiding out in a Central American village. High octane agent Josh Ross (Moscow) is sent to fetch him, bearing an offer for the two-time Oscar winner of a million dollars for a cameo in a remake of one of his signature films.

The trouble is, Palladin doesn’t necessarily want to be found, and the locals whose lives he has become a part of are willing to aid him in his privacy. Josh’ disdain for them is matched by their snickers that his Gucci loafers are obvious fakes which I’m sure a lot of Guatemalan villagers are experts at sussing out.

When they do finally meet, Palladin is not inclined to take the offer; he is far too content to be the cook in the restaurant owned by Arnie (Pastore), surrounded by his pals – fellow ex-pats and locals, like the bemused police chief (Armendariz). However, it turns out that Josh and Palladin have an unexpected connection – which changes the game in a profound way.

While the name of the village is Antigua, this is actually set (I think) in Guatemala where it was also filmed. Cinematographers Giovanni Fabietti and Alberto Chaktoura make good use of the breathtaking Central American scenery and the colorful environment of a rural Guatemalan village to make a visually pleasing film.

The late Ben Gazzara takes what could easily be a fairly cliché role (well, when all is said and done it is exactly that) and gives it far more dimension than it probably deserves. I always thought he was underrated as an actor and this is the kind of performance that gives me that impression. Palladin is a gruff old codger who sometimes plays at being a kind of Central American Yoda with a SAG card but deep down is running more from his own demons than from the price of fame. None of that is in the script but Gazzara conveys it nonetheless.

The problem here is that the story is kind of rote, with Josh being a kind of goyim Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven kind of owns this role and while Moscow does the best he can ends up leaving us thinking how much better the movie might have been as an episode of “Entourage” which really isn’t his fault; there’s just nothing to distinguish his character from the HBO version.

There is a twist near the end of the movie which throws everything off-kilter and for good reason – it’s so nonsensical that when I saw it on DVD I had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted what I saw. I hadn’t. I won’t mention what that twist is but suffice to say if something like it happened to you no doubt you’d want to get your head examined afterwards.

There are a couple of things to recommend the movie – Ben Gazzara and the Guatemalan location chief among them – but only just. If the script had been tweaked a little bit and that twist pulled out altogether (there are other reasons to make Palladin consider the cameo other than the one the writers came up with) this might have been a seriously good little film. As it is it may have just enough to make you not regret choosing to watch it one night when you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Gazzara is at his grouchy best. Nice cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really stands out in terms of story or plot except that which is preposterous.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming The Bridge at Remagen the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia where the production was filming and Gazzara and co-star Robert Vaughn were briefly detained. After being released, they helped a Czech woman escape by smuggling her out in the trunk of her car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,268 on an unreported production budget; even though this probably had any budget a’tall, I can’t see it being profitable on those kinds of receipts.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Bobby Fisher

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Tsotsi


Tsotsi

Not so much a candlelit dinner for two.

(Miramax) Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Thembi Nyandeni. Directed by Gavin Hood

We are most often a product of our surroundings. Those who live in poverty and despair become what that poverty and despair make of them. Some have the strength to rise above, but more often than not, they become urban primitives, doing what is necessary to survive.

Few places on earth know more poverty and despair than Soweto, the ramshackle township southwest of Johannesburg. That is where Tsotsi (Chweneyagae) lives. A young man barely out of his teens, he lives on rage and whatever funds he can steal. He and his gang – fat, loyal Aap (Nkosi), bookish Boston (Magano) and cruel Butcher (Ngqobe) go out to the local train station every night to steal something, then repair to a Soweto bar to drink away their ill-gotten gains.

On this occasion, they choose a well-dressed mark to mug, then kill him ruthlessly and senselessly on a crowded train, quietly and efficiently so that none notice. Back at the bar where bartender Soekie (Nyandeni) dispenses beer, Tsotsi glares while Boston, sickened by what they have done, berates Tsotsi and tries to get him to admit to what he feels. He doesn’t even know what Tsotsi’s real name –  “tsotsi” means thug in the slang of Soweto. Tsotsi reacts with sick violence, beating Boston nearly to death.

Tsotsi leaves the bar and finds himself in an upscale suburban neighborhood. He sees a professional woman trying to get the gate to her home open as her remote isn’t working in the pouring rain. Tsotsi shoots her and takes off with her car, but is a marginal driver at best (something of a running joke throughout the movie). After having driven some distance, he discovers that he has an unwanted passenger – a small baby. Up to now, Tsotsi hasn’t hesitated to kill and one’s mind works overtime, wondering what terrible fate will befall the baby, but the street thug elects to take the baby home with him.

Thus Tsotsi’s journey begins, motivated by the helpless creature that comes into his life. After running out of condensed milk to feed his stolen baby, he encounters a young widow (Pheto) who is nursing a baby of her own. He forces her to breastfeed his baby at the point of a gun. Eventually, they strike up a relationship of sorts. She sees in him not a core of goodness, but something within him that is capable of turning away from the life of violence he has existed within all his life. She doesn’t convince him with some semblance of a great speech as a Hollywood writer might have done; instead, she allows nature to take its course.

Filmmaker Gavin Hood tells a movie that is not so much uniquely South African (although it is based on a novel by Athol Fugard) as it is a universal tale set in South Africa. Cruelty and despair are not unique to Soweto, nor is poverty but there is a unique spin exhibited here. For one thing, the soundtrack is propelled by the Kwaito music of South Africa, a kind of African rap. It fits the mood here very effectively, as is the incidental music, which is more spiritual. Either way, they help enhance the emotional qualities of the movie.

This won the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie last year, but there is nothing foreign about it. This speaks a language that we all understand, from the performances of Chweneyagae and Pheto to the simple response of a wheelchair-bound man that Tsotsi is hassling. When asked why he goes on living when his life is so bad, the man replies “Because I can still feel the sun on my hands.”

This is a powerful movie, one that isn’t about redemption so much as it is about finding the decency within us. It is unusual as it shows us a bad man who becomes better, rather than a good man becoming bad. I suppose the message is that if we can be corrupted by evil, so too can we be corrupted by good. That’s not something I had ever considered before, so this movie gets a lot of points just for that.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an outstanding movie that depicts not so much redemption but the first steps on that journey. The script is not so much innovative as imaginative but not in a fantasy way; it simply tells a story from a viewpoint that I haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tsotsi’s actions and cruelties sometimes make it very difficult to relate to him.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some scenes of baby nursing and a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be released by Miramax after the founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein left the company.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The disc features an early short film by Hood.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Duck Season

Slumdog Millionaire


Slumdog Millionaire

Who wants to be a millionaire?

(Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal. Directed by Danny Boyle

When you live in abject poverty, survival is a day to day issue and nothing is guaranteed, least of all the possibility of a better tomorrow. However as difficult as it is to escape the slums, if that is what love requires of you then it must be done.

Young Jamal Malik (Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is one question away from the grand prize of 20 million rupees when he is arrested by police and questioned. They are suspicious that a boy like this from the slums, uneducated and unaware even of who is on the 1,000 rupee note (It’s Gandhi for those who are wondering, and for those who aren’t, this particular banknote is about as common as the $1 bill is here) can answer questions that even the highly educated cannot.

After a night of torture, a patient police detective (Khan) sits Jamal down and runs through the tape of the previous day’s show one question at a time.

It turns out that Jamal’s knowledge is hard-fought, obtained from a life on the streets of Mumbai. Orphaned at an early age along with older brother Salim (Mittal), the brothers befriend a fellow orphan, the beautiful Latika (Pinto). The three are taken under the wing of Maman (Vikal) who turns out to be a heartless gangster who has accumulated dozens of children in his “orphanage” to act as beggars. He even, in a particularly gruesome scene, has the eyes burned out of some of their heads with acid to then be scooped out with a spoon like so much yoghurt. Salim leads them on a breakout but when he and Jamal make it onto a train, Salim purposely slips his hand away from Latika’s so that she gets captured.

The brothers wind up working – okay, scamming would be a better word – as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, brazenly telling tourists false facts about the Taj and throwing up bigger lies when their own stories are questioned. They are making good money but Jamal misses Latika, to his brothers’ disgust and urges them to go back to Mumbai and find her. When they do, they discover that Maman has been preparing her as a highly sought after virgin prostitute and is getting ready to make good on his investment by selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Salim winds up shooting and killing Maman. He then uses that to get a job with rival gangster Javed (Manjrekar) and proceeds to throw Jamal out of the apartment they share with Latika. Jamal’s heart is broken because Latika is apparently siding with Salim.

Years later, Jamal winds up working at a call center as a chaiwalla (tea server) and uses the database to find both Latika and Salim but succeeds only in finding Salim. Salim is penitent but Jamal is still focused on Latika. Salim is bewildered by his devotion and responds that she is “long gone.” When Jamal follows Salim to his house, he discovers that Latika is there but is apparently living with Javed. Jamal brazenly bluffs his way into the gangster’s house and confesses his love for her. She is reluctant to go with him, knowing that Javed would be furious but he promises to wait for her in Mumbai’s largest train station every day at 5:00pm “until she comes.” One day she does come but before the two can re-unite, she is kidnapped by Javed’s men (including Salim) in front of Jamal’s horrified eyes. One of the men cruelly slashes her cheek with a knife, driving away from an enraged Jamal.

When Jamal goes back to Javed’s house, he finds that the gangster has moved away. With no way to find his beloved, he decides to take a chance – to go on a game show that she is sure to be watching, and stay on as long as he can. And so far, he has stayed on as long as he can go – because every question has had an answer from some incident in Jamal’s life. But can he answer the biggest question of all – will he wind up with the love of his life?

Director Boyle has had a chameleon-like career, with movies as disparate as Trainspotting, Million$ and Sunshine to his credit. Here he takes Bollywood conceits and blends them nicely with western storytelling and creates one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie captures the poverty of the slums and the heartlessness of those who exploit those in it. There are some exemplary moments in the movie.

The storytelling style has drawn some fire, which I find hard to understand. Yes, it might be a bit serendipitous that the questions on the game show echo things that happened in Jamal’s life in chronological order, but it doesn’t take that much of a suspension of disbelief. The flashback style by now isn’t anything particularly innovative, and I for one had no problem following the story.

Also worthy of note is the acting. The leads Patel and Pinto are particularly stellar; giving performances that belie that this is the first time either has acted in a feature movie (Patel has some television experience in Britain). Their chemistry is noticeable and more believable than some larger-budget pairings between established stars.

Many of the supporting cast, drawn from Bollywood, is also solid. I was fond of the heinous gangster as enacted by Vikal, as well as the smarmy game show host with an agenda of his own, which was played by the veteran Anil Kapoor. Special notice must also be given to the child actors who portrayed the two brothers and Latika at various stages of their life. Some of them had no experience whatsoever and were actually drawn from the slums of Mumbai.

The score by A.R. Rahman is superb, combining traditional Indian music along with hip-hop, r&b, rock and other western forms. The result is, like the movie, an engaging multi-cultural stew that gives us a glimpse of an entirely different world. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire is science fiction, only it goes no further than our own world and reminds us that as a race we are far more diverse and wonderful than even we know.

WHY RENT THIS: Like other Danny Boyle movies, this one has a great deal of heart. Astonishing performances by first-time feature actors Patel and Pinto. A glimpse at an entirely different world than we in the West is used to.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The hype for this underdog movie may well have exceeded its performance. Some of the scenes of poverty, desperation, crime and torture may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic scenes of child abuse and depictions of abject poverty. Also some violence, sex and foul language, enough that would make me think twice before letting the kids watch this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only Best Picture winner to date to win the Oscar without any former or future Oscar winners in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD release is curiously lacking in anything but the basic deleted scenes-commentary-making of feature-trailer package that accompanies every major release, which considering this won 8 Oscars last year is awfully strange. The Blu-Ray contains all this plus a 41 minute Indian short, as well as an examination of the set-up and execution of the notorious toilet scene.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Box

Man on Wire


Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

(Magnolia) Philippe Petit, Jean-Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, David Forman, Alan Welner, Mark Lewis, N. Barry Greenhouse, Jim Moore. Directed by James Marsh

Our human nature is to expand the boundaries of our perceptions, whether the physical borders of our environment or the emotional or mental limits of our capabilities. We don’t always know why we must push these limits, but to do so is the heart of our human nature.

Philippe Petit is a French wire-walker and performer. He had run away from home at age 15 to join his own private circus, a street performer expert in magic tricks, juggling and wire walking, for which he was self-taught. After awhile, he grew bored with the feats. It seemed almost ugly to him, and he yearned to transform wire walking into an art.

To be honest, although it isn’t spoken outwardly in the film, he also seems to have a flair for the spotlight. He decided to perform some daring feats of wire-walking whose legality was a bit murky, starting with a wire walk between the twin spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and one on two towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It was the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that captured his imagination however, and on the morning of August 7, 1974 he stepped out onto a special wire he and his team had managed to stretch unnoticed between the north and south towers and made history.

The feat, which Time magazine called “the artistic crime of the century,” was one of the most defining moments of the Twin Towers until 9-11. It captured the imagination of the entire world. This documentary chronicles the planning that went into it, the execution of the event and its aftermath.

The Oscar winner for Best Documentary Film, Man on Wire has some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a documentary. The personalities of the subjects are nicely captured, and everyone’s role is very clear. Petit in particular is a complex man, and many of the aspects of his personality are represented here. His relationship with Allix is important at the time of the walk, but dissolves as soon as the event is concluded.

The planning that went into the event was meticulous in terms of the mechanics of the walk; getting the equipment up the tower to the roof was less so. Still, it’s fascinating to watch and the re-enactments of the event, the descriptions of how close they came to being detected and their scheme stopped before it started is riveting.

Inevitably, the centerpiece is Petit. When explanations are demanded, Petit shrugs them off. “The beauty of it,” he confesses, “is that there is no why.” He did it just to do it. It is the kind of love that is madness, a joy of life in doing the reckless, the non-conformist’s mazurka. The expression on his face as he dances on the wire between the two towers is all the explanation you will ever need, but it cannot be put into words adequately.

The World Trade Center now inhabits an entirely different locale in our psyche, and wisely director Marsh doesn’t explore that aspect of it. Certainly, the destruction of the towers must have had an impact on Petit but it is the one question that goes unasked; it is much better that way, because the only way for this film to work is to put the Towers where they were that August day; fresh, new, a symbol of a hopeful future. The image of the craters at Ground Zero remains in a different compartment of our memories. In many ways that’s a gift.

This is a movie that has all sorts of emotional resonances; with the daredevil that is Petit, with the urge to do something memorable in all of us, and with the sadness of the loss of something so grand and so meaningful in our lives. Man on Wire can be viewed not only as a documentary of how the deed was done, but also of an allegory of the tightrope we all walk.

WHY RENT THIS: The interviews are compelling and give us a wonderful sense of who the subjects are and their role in the events depicted. While ostensibly a documentary about how the deed was done, it lets us examine the event from a different perspective, one born of our experiences and of the history that followed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Perhaps you don’t like documentaries.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and drug/alcohol use but nothing here that would put off parents from showing this to their children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The phrase “Man on Wire” is the description of the incident as logged on the police report by the NYPD after the event.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several documentary features but none really spectacular.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Proposal