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

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Last Vegas


What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas…

(2013) Comedy (CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleeson, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, April Billingsley, Stephen Scott Scarpula, Andrea Moore, Noah Harden, RJ Fattori, Aaron Bantum, Phillip Wampler, Olivia Stuck, Ashley Spillers, Karen Ceesay, 50 Cent. Directed by Jon Turteltaub

When I was a kid, 30 sounded pretty old to me. When I was a teen, 40 was over the hill. In my 20s, I thought that decrepitude started at 60. Now half a century on in my life, I realize that age is just a number, but aging is inevitable for all of us.

How we age largely depends on how we feel about aging. Some of us continue to be active and do things, get out of the house and live full bore as much as they did in their 30s. Others give in to their aches and pains, hunker down where they live and wait for the end of life to claim them. We do have a choice in the matter, although sometimes we are dealt some pretty nasty hands.

Friends since their boyhoods in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Four have gone their separate ways but the kind of friendship they had 60 years earlier has endured for the most part. Billy (Douglas) is the ladies man and the confirmed bachelor of the bunch. He’s a big successful Hollywood type and at last has met someone that he is willing to marry, although his proposal is  a bit unorthodox. Never mind that he’s in his 70s and his fiancée is just barely 30. Love happens when it does.

He can’t wait to share it with his friends and immediately calls Archie (Freeman), recovering from a minor stroke in the home of his overprotective son Ezra (Ealy) and Sam (Kline), who is suffering from depression and can’t seem to get motivated to be happy about anything. Everyone agrees that an epic bachelor party in Vegas, thrown the way only the Flatbush Four can, is in order.

The fourth member however, Paddy (De Niro) is conspicuously missing. That’s because there’s a great deal of bad blood between him and Billy that has caused a gigantic rift between them in the past year. Paddy is also mourning the death of his lovely wife Sophie, the unofficial fifth member of their childhood group and basically stays at home in his bathrobe much of the day, other than to receive a regular dosing of really bad soup from his well-meaning neighbor. Getting him to Sin City is going to take some doing.

However all of them manage to make it there one way or another. Sam arrives with a blue pill and a condom that was given to him by his epically understanding wife who tells him “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She misses the fun-loving guy she married and hopes that a fling in Vegas will bring that guy back.

Things are still awkward between Paddy and Billy but they manage to get around it as they find ways to party on. They also meet a sexy sixtyish chanteuse named Diana (Steenburgen) who has reinvented herself from being a tax lawyer. All four of the men are immediately drawn to her including the prospective groom.

Their VIP host at the Aria, Lonnie (Malco), helps them put together the kind of party that even the most jaded Vegas performers will remember forever, with a female impersonator (Bart) with a surprising secret, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, a bachelorette party and even a cameo appearance from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. They even have their own personal gopher (Ferrara, with a completely different kind of Entourage). But history is threatening to repeat itself. Can their friendship withstand Las Vegas and more to the point, will Las Vegas survive the Flatbush Four?

There’s no need to tell you that this is an impressive cast. Any one of the four male leads would make this a movie I’d be eager to see. Even though I had reservations about the plot and the script, I still wanted to see this just to see Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman all perform. This isn’t the best work of any one of them – nor did I expect it would be. Still, they’re all pros (as is Steenburgen) and they all give performances that won’t disappoint anybody beyond the most jaded and cold-hearted of critics.

The script is as you might have guessed from the trailer not particularly scintillating. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here nor do they have to. While I could wish they would have pumped up the funny a little bit, the personality of the leads more than makes up for it. While there are some off-putting moments (a male crotch gyrating in De Niro’s face during a bikini contest), for the most part there is nothing terribly sinful going on.

What surprised me was how touching the script was. These aren’t geriatric actors doing the standard old man gags. You know the sort – the kind that are like “Tee hee hee. Oh look at the adorable old man, he’s so horny, he’s using drugs, he doesn’t know how to use a computer tee hee hee.” Something tells me if the Flatbush Four had been anything like that, they wouldn’t have gotten actors of the caliber that they did. These are men dealing with the sorts of things the those entering old age actually deal with – grief, loneliness, a loss of virility/sexuality, being treated like an imbecile and/or porcelain doll by the well-meaning.

While the comedy might appeal to those who don’t see a lot of movies, it’s that charm of treating the aging with respect that won me over. Yeah, watching Freeman bust a move after drinking a Red Bull and Vodka in a Vegas nightclub might have been a bit patronizing but for the most part, it is the friendship between the Four that endures and makes this movie worth seeking out. It isn’t the greatest movie you’ll see this year, but it will be better than you’d expect – unless you fall under the jaded and cold-hearted category.

REASONS TO GO: Five veteran pros (the four leads and Steenburgen). Surprisingly heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Fairly cliché and the humor is a bit low-key for modern comedies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Brooklyn were actually filmed in Atlanta.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT:

Midnight Meat Train


Midnight Meat Train

Bradley Cooper demonstrates the wrong way to get on a subway train.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Bradley Cooper, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Eve Harris, Ted Raimi, Stephanie Mace, Tony Curran, NorA, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Callahan. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

 

Big cities hide their secrets zealously. The bigger the city, the more difficult it can be to pry those secrets loose. In a city the size of New York City, it can be well-nigh impossible – and quite deadly to those who even try.

Leon (Cooper) is a photographer who specializes in crime scenes and fairly dark subjects. His girlfriend Maya (Bibb) through her friend Jurgis (Bart) gets Leon an audience with well-known art dealer Susan Hoff (Shields). She likes some of his work but needs Leon to go deeper – get at the truth. Go somewhere dangerous.

And what could be more dangerous than the New York subway after midnight? Certainly model Erika Sakaki (NorA) finds this out first-hand when a group of young toughs surround her, threatening to sexually assault her. Only the timely intervention of Leon pointing out that their whole tete-a-tete is being caught on security camera saves her. She shows her gratitude by allowing him to take a few pictures of her, then plants a kiss on him before getting on her train and heading off into the night.

Except that she never gets off that train. Leon finds out a few days later that she has turned up missing and Leon realizes he may well have been the last person to see her alive. He takes his pictures to the police who are indifferent, so he decides to investigate on his own. While checking out the subway station he sees a hulking, well-dressed man who appeared in his last photo of the missing girl – he was on board the same train as she was when she disappeared. Figuring this can’t be a coincidence, he begins to follow the man.

The man, who we later find out is known as Mahogany (Jones), shows up at a butcher’s shop. He is apparently mute (until the very end of the film when he speaks the only three words of dialogue he has in the movie) and imposing. However, Leon proves to be an inept investigator in one sense; Mahogany soon realizes he’s being stalked. However, Leon does manage to discover that Mahogany is brutally murdering people on the late night trains with a misshapen butcher’s hammer, and then hanging them on portable meat hooks while the subway train goes off on a silent siding.

Now the cat and mouse game gets deadly as both Maya and Jurgis get sucked into Leon’s obsession. Still, there’s an even more terrible secret lurking on that forgotten side track; one which only one of them will walk away from.

This is based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker – in fact it is the very first story in the first volume of his 8-book Books of Blood series. The movie version was announced with great fanfare in 2007 and 2008 as horror fans anticipated what the trailers promised was a taut, mesmerizing gorefest. However, a regime change at Lionsgate saw the film thrown into a series of delaying actions before finally getting about 100 screens, all in dollar theaters rather than in first-run houses before moving quickly to home video.

Horror fans (and Barker) howled in protest at the mistreatment of the film. They have a pretty good case – as horror movies go, this is better than average. It is far from perfect – for one thing, this would have made a pretty good hour-long short on some cable anthology series but the overall story doesn’t really support a full-length feature. It feels sometimes stretched out a bit too thin, particularly the portions where Maya and Jurgis are doing their own investigating.

In addition, Cooper who would find stardom with The Hangover just a year later, was miscast here. He is stiff and somewhat flat; I don’t get the sense that he ever really got a handle on the part. My take is that while Kitamura speaks pretty good English, he might not have necessarily been able to communicate what he wanted precisely to Cooper but that’s just conjecture. It does bring the film down a notch.

Some of the kills use obvious CGI for the blood and gore. Remember the good old days when all that was done with practical effects, make-up and puppets? Some of the CGI gore looks it and when you notice it, it takes you  right out of the environment of the film and it’s much like being awakened from a dream by someone throwing a bucket full of cold water into your face.

That said, there is plenty to like about the film as well. Kitamura is a more than capable director. He takes Barker’s story and translates it beautifully to the screen, combining elements of his own background in J-horror along with Dario Argento-esque Italian horror and throws in Big Apple ‘tude on top of it all, from the haughty snobbery of Shield’s West Village art cognoscenti, the indifference of the cops and media to a series of disappearances going on right under their noses and the cocksure tough guys haunting the streets and subways after dark. It’s a heady mix.

So yes this is flawed but overall there’s much more right with it than not. For one thing, Jones makes an intimidating villain, such a presence here that you wonder if he hasn’t been underutilized in his other films. Bibb, who like Cooper has mostly done comedies to this point, makes a fine scream queen and gets her sexy on in a couple of scenes here. This was one that the studio messed up on – it deserved more than a token contractual obligation release and might have made a good deal more coin than it did had the new regime shown a little more faith in the product but sadly, it seems like the Lionsgate brass has turned their back on the horror genre that essentially built the studio (the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises the twin pedestals that the studio was built on) which makes it all the more ironic that they had gotten into such financial difficulties that they had to merge with Summit earlier this year. Sometimes poetic justice just…happens.

WHY RENT THIS: Combines J-horror with giallo and meets it in the middle with a New York attitude. Jones is at his brooding best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cooper is unconvincing as the horror hero. Over-reliance on CGI gore does occasionally jolt one violently out of the mood.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and gore, quite a bit in fact; nudity (most of it grisly), some sex and of course plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of Clive Barker’s paintings are seen hanging in Susan Hoff’s art gallery.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on author Clive Barker and actor Vinnie Jones.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might have made money but then again it might not have.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:High Fidelity

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With


I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

Bonnie Hunt and Jeff Garlin are stunned by the news that they aren't in High Fidelity

(2006) Romantic Comedy (IFC First Take) Jeff Garlin, Sarah Silverman, Dan Castellaneta, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Kind, Paul Mazursky, Amy Sedaris, Joey Slotnick, Tim Kazurinski, Elle Fanning, Roger Bart, Wallace Langham, Gina Gershon, Aaron Carter, Mina Kolb. Directed by Jeff Garlin

We all want someone to share our lives with to some degree or another. Most want a lifetime partner, someone to raise a family with and growl old together with. Others have simpler needs.

James (Garlin) is a habitually unemployed actor who lives with his mom (Kolb). Overweight, his love life has been sinking like the Titanic. He hasn’t had sex in five years and quite frankly, the likelihood of him getting laid is remote at best.

He attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings but with little enthusiasm and inevitably winds up buying junk food from a corner market, then parking out by Wrigley Field to eat. He turns down roles from his long-suffering agent (Kind) while holding out hope that he’ll get the lead role in the remake of his favorite film of all time – Marty, the movie that won Ernest Borgnine his Oscar. His agent eventually drops him.

Still, even big men get lucky once in awhile. James meets Beth (Silverman) at an ice cream parlor and winds up having sex with her. He also develops a big crush on Stella (Hunt), whom he meets in a record store and who may or may not be a chubby chaser. Meanwhile, he is hit by a crushing blow – the part of Marty has gone to pop star Aaron Carter (himself). And his once-promising love life is imploding. Why can’t he find a woman to love? He’s a really sweet guy after all.

I think this movie was made with the best of intentions. Garlin, who at the time was best known for his work in the comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is also a legendary stand-up in the Chicago area and a veteran of Second City and other improv groups that the city is justifiably famous for. Many of the people in the cast also got their starts in Chicago or at one time lived and worked there.

Garlin himself is very likable and sweet. If you like his standup act, you’re going to want to rent this. It is very clearly a labor of love and of course the big question is how much of this is autobiographical. I suspect quite a bit of it is.

Even though Garlin is the center of the movie, he’s not it’s star. The city of Chicago is. Garlin films it with such affection and love you may want to pack your bags and move there straightaway. Garlin’s love for the city is obvious and captures Chicago in a way someone who is indifferent about it could never duplicate.

Where the film has its problems is in the area you’d think it was strongest in – the jokes. Many of them fall flat and quite frankly, the schtick about Garlin’s love and sex life combined with his caloric intake gets old. Also, many of the characters seem to be thrown in because they are buddies of Garlin and he wanted to make room for them in the movie. Lots of them don’t seem to have much of a purpose in the film, exacerbating the overall feeling of disjointedness that pervades the film.

Still, it isn’t bad. Garlin’s charm really floats the movie along and allows it to breathe somewhat. His relationship in the film to the very excellent Bonnie Hunt is more interesting to me than the one with Silverman, who may be too pretty for the role. Those who love Chicago and Chicago comics will also love this movie, and in a way, thinking about it from that perspective makes me want to rate it higher than I am actually giving it. However, the reason I’m not pulling t he trigger is simply this; it needed to be funnier. Hopefully, Garlin will have a nice long career – he may never do a movie as personal as this again, but I suspect he has a great role in front of him someday soon.

WHY RENT THIS: Garlin evinces a very likable persona here. Garlin uses Chicago as a wonderful backdrop, giving us a sense of the city as well as its landmarks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many jokes fall flat. Many of the vignettes seem designed to add specific comics into the movie when they really don’t need to be there.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is unrated, it’s pretty harmless; there are plenty of curse words and some sexual content but otherwise it isn’t too off-putting to the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After 30 days of filming, the shooting script was 237 pages. The first cut was over four and a half hours long. It took four months to complete the final edit of the version that made it to the screen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $194,568 on an unreported production budget; the film undoubtedly lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cairo Time