Movie Reviews - 2015 postsFriday December 11, 2015
Movie Review: Trumbo (2015)
“Trumbo” is the fourth Hollywood feature film to tackle the Hollywood blacklist—after “The Front” (great), “Guilty by Suspicion” (meh) and “The Majestic” (blah). It’s also, ironically, the first to use the real names of the blacklisted.
John McNamara’s script is witty, director Jay Roach’s direction is zippy, but do we have too much fun? We're dealing with a dark moment in American history, after all; a kind that, growing up, I thought we’d grown past; a kind that, I’ve found, never goes away. Too many people are too willing to demonize others for power and advantage; too many of us are too frightened to do anything about it.
But I am grateful for the perspective “Trumbo” gives. This is from the first 10 minutes alone:
- Many Americans became communists because of the Great Depression.
- The Soviet Union was our ally during World War II.
- While the U.S.S.R. fought the Nazis, guess who didn’t? John Fucking Wayne.
That said, I would’ve begun later, with the 1957 Academy Awards ceremony, in which Deborah Kerr announces the nominees for Best Motion Picture Story, then the winner: Robert Rich for “The Brave One.” At the actual ceremony, Jesse Lasky, Jr., the vice president of the screenwriters guild, who had also written the screenplay for “The Ten Commandments,” immediately bounded to the stage to accept the award on Rich’s behalf, but in my version of “Trumbo” I would have left Ms. Kerr up there to act flummoxed, to hem and haw, and to suggest the Hollywood machinery grinding to a halt. The Academy, after all, had just given one of its major awards to a man who didn’t exist—or who only existed because of right-wing pressure and various forms of industry cowardice, and I would’ve augmented that fact. Robert Rich? Robert Rich? Robert Rich?
From there, I’d flash back to whatever year you’d begin. Maybe 1943 when Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined the American Communist Party.
The movie actually begins around 1947, when various post-war pressures, augmented by HUAC, the FBI and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), are coming down upon the Hollywood community like an iron curtain.
At the time, Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. Also one of the wealthiest. His friend, Arlen Hird, a more committed communist, and a composite of several blacklisted writers (played in no-nonsense manner by Louis C.K.), comments upon this:
Hird: You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy. .... I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.
Trumbo: Well, I despise martyrdom, and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So you’re right. I’m not willing to lose it all, certainly not to them. But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.
Cranston practically twirls his moustache with delight with these lines but Hird gets the last word: “Just please shut up.”
That’s really Hird’s role: keeping honest a man who is: 1) too in love with his own voice, and 2) not a committed leftist, in Hird’s view. Those two factors also make Trumbo’s downfall tragic in our eyes. His bombastic voice is stilled for no real reason. His life is upended by pro-capitalist forces via anti-capitalist methods. They don’t let the free market work. More irony.
Actually, it gets worse, and this bears repeating: Under the banner of anti-communism, conservative Republicans attacked American movies, a massively successful capitalist enterprise. Hollywood was a brand that not only dominated the world but spoke almost completely to conservative values: family, democracy, cowboys, justice, happy endings. It was about absolutes (good and evil) over relativism. In its wildest dreams, the MPA could hardly come up with a better program than what Hollywood delivered 99.99% of the time. Yet MPA and others were stuck on that .01%. They couldn’t see the forest for that twig over there. No, not that one. The other one.
So after testifying before Congress as one of the Hollywood 10, Trumbo goes to jail, then can’t get work; then he works undercover, and cheaply, for Frank King (John Goodman), who runs his own B-movie operation, and who doesn’t give a crap for the MPA and HUAC. Goodman portrays him as a bat-wielding iconoclast, but I’m curious: Why couldn’t HUAC simply call him to testify? And do to him what they did to everyone else? I’m also curious why Trumbo didn’t try to write novels again, like “Johnny Got His Gun.” Not lucrative enough? Were screenplays his medium? Were novels too difficult?
The Trumbo/Hird relationship is the best in the movie, but when Hird dies, the chief internal conflict for Trumbo is within the family. It's not particularly satisfying. He’s breaking his back, almost literally, to provide for them under the worst circumstances, but eventually his teenage daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), revolts because he’s not paying enough attention to her. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her, but, given the circumstances, she comes off as a spoiled child.
From there, we get: Robert Rich, the battle between Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger over who will first give Trumbo screen credit, the end of the blacklist.
Moguls and shtetls
It’s a great supporting cast: Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Alan Tudyk as Ian McKellan Hunter, Helen Mirren chewing scenery as former starlet and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She brings to heel the studio bosses—all East European Jews—by suggesting that the shtetl, and anti-Semitism, isn’t so far in the past, particularly for powerful Jews who have corrupted gentile starlets.
“Trumbo” doesn't quite sing the way it should, but it's a good history lesson for those who need it. These days, sadly, many people seem to.
Movie Review: It Follows (2015)
It’s a metaphor for STDs, as well as time and death. It’s a warning against sex and a warning to have sex. It’s also a horror version of the relentlessness of the Terminator—as if the Terminator weren’t horror enough.
“It”is the it of “It Follows,” which turns out to be a great title. Because we don’t know enough about “It” to call it anything more than “It”—that most open-ended of pronouns. About all we know is what the title tells us: It follows. And It kills.
I’m not a horror fan but I like some high-end horror: “The Babadook,” “The Others,” “El Orfanato,” “The Conjuring,” “The Changeling.” This fits with those. It’s quiet, moody, beautifully photographed, nightmarish. It lets the horror come to us.
Smell ya later
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”) shows us the consequences in a kind of cold open. A barefoot teenage girl runs screaming from her house as if pursued, is persuaded back inside the house, then bolts. She peels out in her car. The next morning we see her by the beach, dead. The bottom half of one leg is twisted toward her head; the bottom half of the other leg is missing. Consequences.
At which point we begin to follow Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde teenager in various stages of legginess (shorts, swimsuit, underwear), hanging with friends and family in a suburb of Detroit. It’s mostly friends. Are adults around? I don’t remember them much. Jay’s coterie, including sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), smart girl Yara (Olivia Luccardi, the Velma of the group), and nerdy boy Paul (Keir Gilchrist, mooning after Jay), watch bad 1950s horror/monster movies on TV while she goes on a date with a new guy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They seem stuck and purposeless. It kind of reminds me of summers after fifth or sixth grade, when all the kids in the neighborhood would watch “Andy Griffith” reruns, stupid game shows, and play cards like “War.” Before sex kicked in.
Here, sex kicks in. Jay and Hugh have the classic teenage kind—in the backseat of a big American car—before he administers the classic postcoital chloroform. When Jay wakes, she’s tied to a chair in the sketchy area under a bridge, and Hugh is trying to explain all about “It.”
Because Hugh was infected, and she had sex with him, she’s now infected; and It, who was pursuing him, is now pursuing her. It walks, It doesn’t run, and only the infected can see It. It also changes form. It can be anything: man, woman, white, black, young, old. You won’t know it’s It until It gets you. And the only way to get rid of It is to pay it forward: have sex with someone else. But if It catches and kills that someone else, then It’ll come back for you.
Those are the rules. Smell ya later.
It seems awful, what Hugh does to Jay, but it turns out to be a masterstroke of strategy compared with what Jay and her friends wind up doing. Hugh is Eisenhower at D-Day in comparison.
The friends initially don’t know whether to believe Jay or not—since they can’t see It—but at a beach they flee to, It grabs Jay by the hair, and they fight it off and flee again. They keep fleeing and returning. They keep going out to come back. Kind of the cycle the girl in the beginning took—serpentine. The older neighbor boy with the hot rod, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), joins them, and ends up having sex with Jay, but doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation. He’s young, and stupid with youth, and you look at him and go, “Yeah, he’s dead.” Which he is. Which means It’s going after Jay again.
Why do they set up the final confrontation in the swimming pool? When did they figure out It doesn’t swim? And why did they think they could electrocute It? It’s really one of the worst strategies ever. Sit Jay in the middle of a pool, surrounded by appliances, and wait for It to show up. When It does, It’s the first to use the appliances—throwing them at Jay helpless in the pool. After Paul shoots, It falls in the pool, but grabs a fleeing Jay. She escapes with bruises around her ankle after Paul keeps shooting It. Is It dead? She crawls forward to peer into the pool. You half-expect It to leap out again, per every horror film ever, but Mitchell is made of better stuff. Instead, he shows us the pool filling with blood.
Except the nightmare doesn’t go away. Jay finally has sex with Paul, then Paul visits some prostitutes, and that’s how they pay it forward; that’s how they get rid of It—if It still lives. But it’s a bad strategy. Sure, the prostitute will have sex with John, and John with his wife (maybe), and she with ... ? Who? Won’t It get her, then him, then the prostitute, and Paul and Jay will be running again?
That’s the fear. So the movie ends with Paul and Jay walking in the neighborhood, holding hands less from love than fear, while someone walks behind them. Is it It? Who knows?
Great ending. It doesn’t let us know. It doesn’t let us out.
I have so many questions:
- What about condoms? Is it the sex act itself that leaves its calling card or something else?
- Is there any way to put a tracking device on It?
- Who discovered all this intel in the first place?
- If It can only walk, and not use transportation, then why not lure It to L.A. and go live in New York? Walking that, according to Google, would take 909 hours, or 37.8 days, assuming an entity that never gets tired. That’s some breathing room. After 30 days, say, then fly back to L.A. And so on. Or would It wise up eventually and be waiting for you in one or the other places?
- What if you moved to Europe? Or Taiwan? It’s an island nation. Can It even get there?
- What if one link in the chain is already dead? Would It skip it or come to a halt?
I have so many questions, David Robert Mitchell. I’m glad you answered none of them.
Movie Review: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2015)
The story of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli Go-Go Boys of Cannon Films, who were responsible for some of the worst movies of the 1980s (“Invasion U.S.A.,” “Bolero,” “Hercules,” “Going Bananas”), turns out to be much more interesting than any of the stories they produced. Low bar, yes.
A key, early line in Mark Hartley’s zippy documentary comes from Mark Rosenthal, the screenwriter for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the final, awful nail in that revered superhero franchise:
I hold them in huge affection even though they ruined our movie.
That’s the dichotomy of the documentary. Golan and Globus made shitty movies but were fun guys. People who worked with them liked them. They certainly imitated them. All of the talking heads here trot out their hellbent, gesticulating Israeli Jew.
But then the movies. Holy crap, the movies.
Boobs watching boobs
It was partly a result of economics. Cannon pre-sold the international distribution rights to movies based upon the poster; then they’d make the movie with that money. It was a kind of Ponzi scheme. It was a juggling act. They had 10 to 15 balls in the air at the same time. If they were low-budget balls, they could continue to juggle pretty easily. Once they became big-budget balls (signing Sylvester Stallone to a two-picture $25 million deal), things began to drop.
But their shitty movies were also a matter of taste—in that they didn’t have any. They sincerely thought, for example, that Brooke Shields would win an Oscar for “Sahara.” At which point Hartley cuts to Shields delivering one of the worst line readings ever: “I wish we could stay here forever. But we risked our lives taking this short cut.” Cannon wound up killing her career, such as it was.
Sure, they dabbled in A-list talent. They produced John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Maria’s Lovers” and “Runaway Train,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Otello” with Placido Domingo.
But mostly Cannon Films went all in with lowest-common denominator crap: strong men and naked women. Think of it as boobs watching boobs. Worse, some of the most gratuitous, graphic rape scenes in the history of cinema belong to them, since they kept hiring director Michael Winner (“Death Wish II” and “3,” “The Wicked Lady”), who is described by both Marina Siritis and Alex Winter as a virtual sadist on the set. “They put a stamp on pop culture,” says “American Ninja” star Michael Dudikoff of Golan and Globus. Yes, sadly.
Does Hartley have a little too much fun with all of this? The documentary is boom boom boom. We barely hold on anything or anyone for more than 10 seconds. It’s a documentary cut the way that Cannon made movies: without looking back.
Meanwhile the doc glosses over the following:
- Cannon’s place in the history of exploitation cinema (they didn’t operate in a vaccum)
- Cannon’s negative impact on the culture
- Box office
Box office is mentioned only in general terms—whether a movie was a hit or a flop. It would have been interesting to know, for example, that “Breakin’,” the 1984 quickie on the urban dance craze, starring Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers and Lucinda Dickey—the “Solid Gold” dancer that Golan was determinded to make a big, big star—grossed $38 million in 1984. That made it the 18th biggest hit of the year, ahead of “The Terminator,” “All of Me,” and “The Killing Fields.” But then they made the quickier sequel, whose absurd subtitle became the title of this doc, and released it (absurdly) the week before Christmas 1984. And that was that.
They lacked even a modicum of patience. One of the more telling lines is from Stephen Tokin, who wrote the screenplay for the 1990 straight-to-video “Captain America” for Golan after the two Israeli cousins went separate ways. He says:
The problem is they loved cinema in the abstract. I don’t think, in my experience, that they really knew what it was like to love something so much that you were patient, and took the time, and went through the pain of seeing it through draft after draft after draft—admitting to yourself that it might not be right yet.
“He’s no ninja!”
“Electric Boogaloo” gives us great tales from the trenches of low-budget filmmaking. On location in the Philippines, for example, they lost their lead for the first “American Ninja” movie, but happened to find spaghetti western star Franco Nero in a nearby Manilla restaurant and hired him. Despite the fact that he: 1) didn’t know martial arts, 2) wasn’t American, and 3) couldn’t even do a passable American accent. So he was dubbed. I also like how they had two Chuck Norris “Missing in Action” movies in the can—one good, one bad. The good one was the second one, chronologically, so they released it first, so it wouldn’t damage the brand. Then they released the other as a prequel: “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.”
This is what they did; they wheeled and dealed.
But bottom line? They made shitty movies, ruined careers, ripped off moviegoers. They added so much awfulness to a world that doesn’t need any more of it. I would've liked a mea culpa here amid the laughter.
Movie Review: Suffragette (2015)
“Suffragette” is one of those fall prestige pictures we suffer through: sympathetic characters fighting historical injustices we’ve long corrected. These types of films should make us feel good—since society has long corrected these things—but they rarely do. There’s a weight to them that should be the burden of the injustice but often feels like the weight of self-importance.
“12 Years a Slave” had the advantage of being based upon an historical document, while the lead was a person who actually existed. “Suffragette” includes a few such people in supporting roles (Emmeline Pankhurst), but most, including the lead, are either composites or fiction.
For all that, it’s not bad.
Taking a Mulligan
It helps that Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a 24-year-old laundress, wife and mother, who, during the course of the film, changes from someone on the sidelines to a major actor in the movement. Remember at the 2000 Academy Awards when producers thanked Russell Crowe for filling “a whole arena with the force of your face”? Mulligan is like that on a gentler note. Two scenes in particular stand out: when she testifies before a government committee looking into granting women the right to vote; and when she looks up, beaming with hope, as Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) rallies a crowd after they are once again denied that right. Something about Mulligan makes me fall in love with her almost every time I see her.
Maud gets into the movement gradually but her life is upended rapidly. She initially denies being a suffragette (cf., a lot of folks with “feminist”), but after she’s jailed for the first time, she loses, in succession: her home, husband, son, job. She has no rights in the matter. That’s what she’s fighting for.
Losing her son is particularly heartbreaking, but then she gets over it. A little too quickly, really. She throws herself headlong into the movement. She helps bomb mailboxes and cut telegraph wires—the hacking of its day.
Others flit in and out of the movement. When the going gets tough, they go. This includes Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), the co-worker who initially recruits Maud, and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist, older and steadier and determined. When it's decided to confront King George V on Derby Day, only Maud and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) make it to the track. When they are prevented from confronting the king, Emily makes herself a martyr: She walks onto the track during the race and is trampled to death.
Watching, I didn’t realize this was a seminal event in the British suffragette moment, so kudos to director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Iron Lady,” “The Invisible Woman”) for making me learn something. But it’s still an odd ending. Emily is trampled, there’s a march in her honor, and the fictional march is replaced by historical footage of the actual event. I like that. Then we get a timeline of women’s suffrage throughout the world. I like that, too. In Britain it was 1918—or five years after Davison’s death. And that was just for propertied women over 30. Younger, poor women didn’t get the vote until 1928—or 15 years after Davison’s death. So the connection between climax and resolution feels tenuous, which it shouldn’t in drama but often is in life. The arc of the moral universe, etc. Not sure how you fix that in historical drama.
But I do appreciate the timeline. 1971, Switzerland? Really?
There was a mild controversy about the film before it opened, when Mulligan, Streep, et al., were photographed wearing T-shirts with words from Pankhurst: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Some black people objected. They felt the condition of white, working-class women in early 20th century Britain wasn’t akin to slavery. And it wasn’t. But it’s a silly objection. You’re making our side look bad. “Suffragette” isn’t the enemy.
Besides, if you’re going to object to the shirt, object on logical grounds. Generally, if you posit, “I’d rather be X than Y,” X should be somewhat pejorative, too, and maybe in 1905 “rebel” was viewed that way. But by 2015? Everyone wants to be a rebel. Even one unhip enough to actually have a cause.
Movie Review: Spectre (2015)
Daniel Craig is still wearing a suit that’s too tight and an attitude that’s too tight. His James Bond still starts the movie disgraced and cut loose by MI6—despite all the times he’s saved the world. He still looks like he’s not having much fun.
Seriously, when was the last time James Bond had any fun? Before 9/11, I think. So I guess the terrorists won. Or the feminists.
To me, the quintessential Bond suffers through the fights to get to the girls. Craig’s Bond suffers through the girls to get to the fights. He seems to take no delight in women. Or in general.
In the last movie, “Skyfall,” we finally got the rebooted Q and Moneypenny, and this time we finally get the rebooted Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and SPECTRE, and everything is all finally tied together. The villains in the previous three movies—Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, Raoul Silva? All SPECTRE. Because SPECTRE is a dastardly, secret organization that is interested in...
Um, what is it interested in again? Besides world domination? And taunting James Bond?
Well, in this movie, it’s interested in Big Data. He who holds the most information wins. Sexy.
Here’s my favorite aspect of the movie. SPECTRE is working behind the scenes to put online a global security network called Nine Eyes, which will be able to watch us everywhere, including going to the bathroom or something, but that’s not the point. The point is how SPECTRE gets governments to go along with this plan: It blows things up in those countries, terrorists are blamed, then those governments overreact and go along with the plan. Pushed, cultures abandon core values.
No lesson for us there, right?
My least-favorite part of the movie is related. Consolidating the world’s chaos under one secret global network is the kind of conspiratorial plot that leads, in our world, to talk of Freemasons and Illuminati. So be careful, Hollywood. The last thing we need is more paranoiacs.
“Spectre” opens in Mexico City on The Day of the Dead, as Bond abandons a beauty in a hotel room to track an assassin, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), who was planning on blowing up some building or other. Instead, Sciarra’s hotel room is blown up, but both he and Bond survive for: 1) a nonchalant pursuit through celebratory crowds (apparently the explosion didn’t deter the party atmosphere); and 2) a battle aboard a helicopter that swerves precariously above those crowds. Sciarra winds up dead, Bond pulls the helicopter out of its nose-dive, but the Guardian still blares a headline reading OUTRAGE IN MEXICO. Outrage? For the explosion? Or because people kept partying after the explosion? Or because of the helicopter? I’m confused.
M (Ralph Fiennes) is outraged anyway, because it looks like Bond went rogue. Later, Bond reveals to Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that he’d been sent after Sciarra by the previous M (Judi Dench), via a prerecorded message he received after her death. Why didn’t she just send him after Blofeld? Did she know about Sciarra but not Blofeld? Isn’t that like knowing one of the 9/11 hijackers but not Osama bin Laden?
Anyway, with the help of Moneypenny and Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond whizzes around the globe and fills in the blanks. In Rome, he schtups Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), infiltrates a secret SPECTRE meeting, witnesses the superstrong henchman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, quite good), doing his “Game of Thrones” thing to another assassin’s eyeballs, and is then pursued through Rome’s streets, steps and along its canals before escaping to a mountain cabin in Austria, where he confronts the now dying and contrite founder of Quantum, a subdivision of SPECTRE. Did you know that Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) was in the first two Bond reboots? I’d forgotten, sadly. A lot of the movie is like this. The filmmakers assume small details from previous films will be fascinating to us. They go “Ta da!” and I just sit there, blinking.
In the cabin, White asks Bond to look after his supersmart, superhot daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), which is like asking a tiger to look after a T-bone, then he kills himself. Bond finds/rescues/beds Swann and continues his exotic globetrotting until he’s face-to-face with Blofeld, née Franz Oberhauser, who was supposed to have been killed in an avalanche when he was like 16. He’s also Bond’s half brother or something? I guess he’s the son of the man who adopted Bond? Or taught him to ski? So there’s a vague Cain and Abel rivalry. Consider it another “ta da!” moment that falls flat.
World without end
The second part of the story takes place in London, where C (Andrew Scott) is consolidating power and putting online Nine Eyes, that global security network that will watch all of us go the bathroom. We know within half a second that C is no good—and most likely SPECTRE—because: 1) Bond doesn’t like him, and 2) he’s played by the actor who plays Moriarity on the BBC TV show “Sherlock.” Apparently Iwan Rheon was unavailable.
You know the rest. In London, M, Q and Moneypenny square off against C, while Bond is captured, brutally tortured, then runs through a series of improbably designed labyrinths to save the girl and get the bad guy.
It’s implied that Bond retires at the end of the movie. Sure. The world might not need Bond but Eon Productions does. So, as the saying goes, James Bond will return, and go through the same hoops and hurdles, world without end. No wonder he’s uptight. Sisyphus wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, either.