Monday, March 28, 2016

Moral Courage & Dark Tones

Recently, I got hold of a copy of Trumbo, a film I had wanted to see during Oscar season (the film garnered Bryan Cranston a "Best Actor" nomination), but one that unfortunately didn't come around here. Dalton Trumbo is a fascinating man - one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to "name names" when called before the notoriously un-American House of Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo went to prison for his silence, convicted of contempt of Congress. His writing abilities had given his family a comfortable life and, with his name on the blacklist (and firmly kept there by Hedda Hopper, here played by Helen Mirren in a dazzling collection of hats), his ability to support his family was seriously jeopardized. He resorted to working for fourth-rate studios, but couldn't overcome his inclination to write good movies, even under a series of pseudonyms.

It's a feel good picture, but in its well-meaning desire to show the pressure public figures were under to name names, it stumbles badly in making Edward G. Robinson (played here by Michael Stuhlbarg) a stool pigeon, something that he definitely was not in real life. Trumbo does a nice job in helping its audience feel the moral courage it took - not only for Papa Trumbo, but his entire family - to stand for their principles, which included the idea of economic justice. Yes, Dalton worked hard for that family farm and he didn't want to give it away. But was it so radical to say that the grips and script girls should earn enough to support their families? Make no mistake - Trumbo was a Communist, but he had no plans to overthrow the American government by anything other than the ballot box. He joined the Communist Party in 1943, when America was allied with the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi tyranny - and he was in no way unusual. Many, many Americans joined the Communist Party during the Great Depression through the Second World War. It was only after the war that the Soviet Union became our dreaded enemy and our government got all nutty about "Reds" in Hollywood. The film in no way makes Trumbo a saint - his worries about earning a living make him very difficult to live with - and the film takes some liberties and amalgamates some characters, but it is well worth watching.

Excellent performances here by Cranston and John Goodman as the King of Garbage Films add some levity to the material. (In fact, he's responsible for my favorite non-Dalton scene, which is excerpted below - I promise, it just gets better as the scene continues!) A special shout-out goes to Dean O'Gorman who plays a very young Kirk Douglas, the man who had a great deal to do with ending the blacklist by insisting that Trumbo receive actual credit for his rewrite of Spartacus. Sadly, the two Oscars Trumbo won for his screenwriting were for work done under other names. Perhaps you've heard of them - 1953's Roman Holiday and 1956's The Brave One. Trumbo was also the author of Johnny Got His Gun, one of the early winners of the National Book Award. (In 1971, he both wrote the screenplay and directed the movie version of this novel.)

Seek this one out - and enjoy watching John Goodman as Frank King decline to fire Trumbo, not for high-falutin' political idealism, but for far earthier reasons:

Also up this week is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Zack Snyder attempts to do too much. He's trying valiantly to set up a Justice League movie and a standalone Wonder Woman film, and he seems to lose his way. I've objected to Snyder's handling of Superman before - his vision of the character is too dark and moody for my taste and I think a PG-13 superhero film featuring these iconic characters needs to remember that its target audience will feature many younger folks who aren't up on post-modern cinema theory. The film is ponderous and dark and the pacing seems off. 

Mind you, for all the grief Ben Affleck took when he was cast as Batman, I don't think he deserves the scorn that is being heaped upon his head. He's got some plywood dialogue to work with that really should have been script-doctored into smoothness ("Do you bleed? You will!" is cringe-worthy as is the use of a bathroom sink as a blunt weapon) but Affleck tries gamely. Often, character motivation is lacking in this film but after seeing Bruce Wayne trying to save ordinary people during the Battle of Metropolis, you understand at least some of his desire to stop Superman. (Also, I never knew that Gotham was apparently the Oakland to Metropolis' San Francisco. The things I learn.) For me, Gal Gadot is the standout as Wonder Woman, although her role is deliberately kept small. (Fantastic costuming throughout the film for her, too.) Diane Lane reprises her role as Martha Kent (she's also the sensible matriarch in Trumbo, by the way) and Holly Hunter plays a Kentucky senator who knows how to wrestle a pig.

I continue to be puzzled by Henry Cavill's Superman - this is one grim Man of Steel who can be pulled off-task all too quickly by threatening Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams, who deserves better). And really - the fact that both Supes and Batman have mothers named "Martha" is what bonds them? (And while the Bechdel Test is not a measure of a movie's quality, this film fails to pass it, despite having four large-ish female roles.) Also, Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor is just twitchy. Want to see how to do a thoroughly psychotic character? Tee up Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Kingpin in Netflix's Season 1 of Daredevil.

Many will disagree with me, but I found this film disappointing. It's too dark, the plot meanders all over the place, and certain key events just don't make a lick of sense, quite possibly because of editing that seems reminiscent of William Burroughs' technique of razoring lines of his poetry and then putting them together randomly. For me, Dadaism is interesting to gaze at, but it's not especially entertaining for several hours at a go. But hey - try it here!

Far from being the worst movie ever, SvB is certainly a rental.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Gods & Critters

So I recently took a bullet for the team and saw Gods of Egypt. "Meet Me at the Movies" is a show I enjoy doing and sure - I don't always like every film I see. But this - oh, the carnage! It was enough to make me wonder just what crimes I had committed in a prior life that caused me to suffer through this one. Perhaps I am a victim of the mummy's curse; I don't know. But this film is simply bad. As in MST3K or Rifftrax bad. The mythology is beyond muddled, the idea to have the gods be 1.5 times the height of humans is just off-putting, and the costumes are silly (especially those inflicted upon the women).

Gods of Egypt isn't even campy fun. (And with Geoffrey Rush as Ra, it could have been.) Chadwick Boseman as Thoth wants to have fun with it - and the man did play James Brown, so he can work a spangled costume - but the movie reins itself in when it should go full-on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Perhaps if it didn't try to strike a balance of snark and grandeur or maybe if it reveled in the sheer ridiculousness of itself - but no. The best - the absolute best - thing I can say is that this film is what you could suppose the love child of Transformers, Part Whatever and Clash of the Titans might be. (But without a kraken, so really - there's no point. There almost is, when you see giant scarab beetles pulling a chariot, but -- no.)

"Release the Kraken!" (2010)

Honestly, this film is just a mess. Director Alex Proyas proved with The Crow and Dark City that he can wrangle large, improbable stories (and he uses Rufus Sewell from Dark City in this trainwreck, but hopefully, people will forget that), but this one just got away from him.

There's no reason to see this.

However, Zootopia restored my faith, and not just because it features the vocal talents of Alan Tudyk (as a real-life weasel) and allows Kristen Bell to actually play a slothZootopia could've just been a cute little tale of unlikely partners, but instead, I found myself seeing a touch more deeply into this one.

At its core, Zootopia deals with predators and prey. Animals have progressed to a point where everybody gets along (there's a hilarious school skit that opens the film to explain this - it's right up there with Scout-as-a-ham in Mockingbird), only maybe not everyone likes that idea. Hatred and fear do a great job of dividing folks, as we're seeing in the current run-up to the elections in this country. And yes, we can learn a few things from an ambitious bunny and a misunderstood fox. Go see this one - take the kids, and have a talk afterwards.

Also - be on the lookout for the Breaking Bad joke tucked away in the underground lab scene.