Still seeking answers: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is a strange time, n’est-ce pas? Yet, when you look at human history, has there ever been a moment unblemished by manufactured turmoil, cruelty, prejudice, and hate? I don’t mean to be nihilistic, but I suspect every generation wonders if they are living the “end of days.” And I don’t just mean Justin Bieber’s inexplicable re-ascension to the top of the charts.

Didn’t you have that moment in history class where you were astounded that humanity collectively allowed something blatantly horrific to happen? The holocaust. Slavery. The Salem witch trials.

Or that there were times where we turned our backs and willfully denied the humanity of others? Women’s right to vote. Segregation through the Southland. Marriage equality.

Or that we found wartime justification in the mass slaughter of our fellow beings? Atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hirsoshima. The conflict in Vietnam. Rwandan genocide.

And let’s not forget ongoing issues like the cruelly monolithic factory farming that is driving the climate itself to hourly nervous breakdowns.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Xenophobia runs amok. Religious fanaticism of all stripes rules the day. A paralyzing fear of “the other” (name a category, any category) cripples us. Outright, politicized hatred wrapped in disingenuous, fear-mongering appeals to the gun-loving, Bible-thumping walking dead to fight for their rapidly “eroding” rights. I’ll say it again: one’s loss of cultural hegemony is not an incursion. It’s a re-balancing.

For me, one of the darkest chapters in American history has always been the bureaucratic bullying perpetrated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in overreaction to the so-called “Red Scare” against Communism in the Eisenhower years. This period always troubled me because it seemed to be the most likely to be repeated. We can argue the nobility of governmental intention then, but the march into fearful groupthink was truly “un-American” and continues to be.

Yet, here we are again.

“Are you a good American and not a Communist?” has now become “Are you a good patriot and do you wear a flag on your lapel?” Back then, anyone who had ever had any affiliation or any interest in socialism or Communism was seen as a potential threat to the “Homeland.” Sound familiar? Sometimes, I wonder if Sarah Palin or Rupert Murdoch scribbled into a Mad Libs page on “the ideal American” the words Christian, reactionary, culturally illiterate, gun-loving, white, married with too many children, hunting, climate change denying martyr – and that, if we’re not careful, the wrong people in power will make sure that those of us not fitting into such a narrow paradigm will be marginalized into oblivion.

I used to think we’d learned from the cruel missteps of something like the 50s “blacklist” which, under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, destroyed the careers and lives of many actors, writers, directors, and other creative types just because they were believed to think differently than the imposed norm. These days, I’m not so sure.

I was hopeful, then, that Trumbo, the new biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in the title role, would be a tonic for this troubled age, the kind of film that uses its historical frame to challenge our present-day complacency. It isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly fine, workmanlike piece of biographical fluff. It’s a bit troubling, maybe ironic, though, that a film about a sparklingly incisive screenwriter has such a lousy, predictable screenplay, including the now-standard “I’m a famous person who lived a troubled life, and I get to end the film treatment of said existence by making a cliché-laden speech and getting an award” denouement (see: A Beautiful MindThe Theory of Everything).

Cranston, who, to me, is overrated and rather uneven as an actor (sorry, not a Breaking Bad fan), does a credible job and is one of the film’s bright spots. Depicting the act of writing which, at best, is a task of isolation and at worst one of alienation, is not something that translates readily to the beat-driven narrative which film requires. How do you open up someone’s mind with its insecurities and egomania, triumphs and failures, engaged in the solitary exercise of communing with a blank piece of paper and make it interesting? Fortunately, Trumbo had his share of eccentricities – writing from the bathtub to ease an aching back; a mustache that gave Salvador Dali a run for his money; owlish horn-rimmed glasses; chain-smoking from a jeweled cigarette holder – allowing Cranston to play up the actorly tics on his way to finding Trumbo’s spiky inner life.

The film falls on the horns of its own noble intentions, however, depicting a world where Trumbo is the liberal white knight tilting at the windmills of an increasingly conservative Hollywood establishment as represented with fang-gleaming glee by Hedda Hopper (an impishly fun Helen Mirren) and lumbering thuggishness by John Wayne (J.A.G.’s David James Elliott, miscast but weirdly endearing – Elliott doesn’t look a d*mn thing like Wayne, but he gets the silly voice right … sort of … and gives the role a kind of Frankenstein’s monster likability). The performers are having a lark, and, like a zippy Halloween masquerade, they are fun to watch, until you think about the proceedings a bit more than you should. The simplicity with which director Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change, Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska) approaches this complex philosophical conflict at the tinny heart of Hollywood commerce is practically chiaroscuro and altogether disappointing. As ridiculous as Hedda Hopper was and as destructive as her caustic PR-meddling may have been, I’m pretty sure she had a bit more nuance than Elvira Gulch.

It’s a shame that the direction and script are so shallow, never rising above TV-movie grade, because the supporting cast offers some great character turns. Louis CK with his “find a cloud for every silver lining” dyspepsia gives some much-needed gravity to the proceedings. He has far too little screen time as the perfect deflation for Trumbo’s hyperbole. The film lazily assumes its audience enters with a common understanding of how horrific the blacklist and its underlying philosophy was (is) and fails to capture the sticky claustrophobia that those victimized by it likely felt. Fortunately, CK with his defeated bearing and hopeful hopelessness grounds the proceedings by establishing the emotional stakes at play.

John Goodman plays, well, the same part he’s played his whole career as a blustering, heart-of-gold purveyor of cinematic filth. And that’s just fine. He can get away with it. He has a unique gift for simultaneously being a pixie and a bag of cement. Alan Tudyk is fine, all wide-eyed, button-downed anxiety as a fellow screenwriter, to whom Trumbo gives the credit for the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday when Trumbo has been all but written-off. Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s daughter offers a nice bit of spark to her father’s flinty charm – their few exchanges depict a rich familial dynamic that isn’t really present in the script.

This brings us to Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s long-suffering wife Cleo. Said simply, it’s likely the worst performance I’ve seen her give. I don’t know if it’s the screenplay or Lane or both, but, to steal a quip from my mom who observed, “It’s like Lane prepared for the role by watching too many episodes of The Donna Reed Show.” There is a lot of squinting and posturing and mincing, a bit of juggling (literally!), some boxing (not kidding!), and … well … that’s about it. I suspect there was a much more contentious dynamic between Cleo and her husband, whose admirable ethics caused years of economic and social strife for his entire family, as he engineered ways to undermine the stultifying effects of the Hollywood blacklist. Sadly, we just don’t get to see any of it. The film would have been stronger if we had. And Lane would have had something to play, other than juggling glassware (literally!).

According to the film, Trumbo’s Oscar wins for Roman Holiday (uncredited) and for the beautiful ode to compassion (and animal rights) The Brave One lit a spark under Hollywood to push back and challenge the blacklist’s economic stranglehold. Additionally, Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman who looks like Douglas if you squint and sounds like Douglas if you’re deaf) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, playing the famed director as if he were auditioning for the villain role in Dr. No) were among the few Hollywood establishment players to buck the system and give Trumbo a chance, thumbing their noses at the suffocating evil of the Washington witch hunters.

I wish this film had been better. I wish we were left with a clearer understanding of what motivated all of the players, both the “good” and the “bad” (whatever those terms even mean). I wish I knew what “messages” were so troubling in the screenplays of the time. I wish I knew why people with one kind of power (political) were so threatened by the free speech of those with another kind of power (celebrity) that they were compelled to shred the very Constitution they claimed they would die on their swords to defend. Trumbo doesn’t help us with these answers. I wish it did. We need these answers, now more than ever.

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DemsReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” Godzilla (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Godzilla, Warner Brothers’ reboot of the classic Japanese movie monster, is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong. I was highly entertained, even entranced, but I also feel like I was just hit over the head by a 2X4 for the last two hours.

Like the similar postmodern reinvention in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or even, for that matter, this spring’s Noah), Godzilla, directed with a surprisingly sure hand by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, is positioned as pointed popcorn allegory for how abysmally we humans treat this planet and the ungodly vengeance Mother Nature should unleash on us self-important ants.

In all fairness, Toho Studios’ original Godzilla series took its cues from a mid-century world traumatized by the threat of nuclear Armageddon (as evidenced by the real-life bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), so Edwards is just following that argument to its logical post-9/11, post-global warming, post-Inconvenient Truth conclusion.

The 2014 edition (let’s all just agree to forget the inane Jurassic Park-meets-Independence Day debacle that was 1998’s Matthew Broderick-starring effort) is a tension-filled marvel. Edwards wisely gives us plenty of footage of the titular “monster” and his battles with the Mothra-esque MUTO creatures, but he keeps the shots murky and smoke-filled, the pacing methodically coiled, and the shocks Hitchockian in their “did I see that or didn’t I?” simplicity. Alexandre Desplat’s score is brain-thumpingly martial.

The narrative is straight-up Saturday afternoon matinee with a healthily cynical gloss of 21st century ecological nightmare. The first half of the movie is all set up as we are introduced to a scientist (a hammy Bryan Cranston saddled with an epically bad hairpiece … guess the budget got eaten up by CGI) who loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a tragic nuclear power plant accident that may or may not be giant-lizard-related. Flash-forward 15 years, and Cranston’s now-adult son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all grown up from his Kick-Ass years and looking like a steroidal Joaquin Phoenix) has tired of his papa’s conspiratorial theories as to what really offed mama.

There’s a gibberish-spewing Japanese scientist (an awfully wooden Ken Watanabe) and a gibberish-spewing British scientist (the always crackerjack Sally Hawkins) and an authoritatively gibberish-spewing American general (the genius David Strathairn who could make tax code seem fascinating).

At one point in the film, Watanabe says to Strathairn: “The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” (I loved that!)

I kept expecting Kevin McCarthy or Gene Barry to show up wearing fedoras covering up their sweaty brows as they rattled through unnecessarily expository dialogue (see: 1953’s War of the Worlds or 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers… but preferably if you are 10 years old and it’s 1982 and there is nothing else on television).

Of course, Taylor-Johnson has chosen a military career, much to the chagrin of his academic dad. He is returning from service in some unidentified locale, eager to reignite all-American family time with his perpetually anxious wife (Elizabeth Olsen, spinning gold out of a thankless role) and his toddler son. As mayhem ensues and the various screaming creatures destroy Honolulu … and Las Vegas … and San Francisco … somehow Taylor-Johnson’s character managers to be in every setting, save the day, and find another means of transport to get him closer to home. Ah, Hollywood logic.

But, here’s the thing … it all works, pretty marvelously. There are no winky-nudge-nudge sexist/racist/xenophobic Michael Bay-style jokes/asides/quips and the carnage (while PG-13 friendly) is believable and haunting (and any movie that blows up Las Vegas is ok in my book). The pacing is ominous and steady and relentless, and, without being a shrill polemic, the film reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that how we treat (or mis-treat) this planet has dire consequences for us all …

In this case, primordial creatures who’ve lived in the earth’s core for eons until the lure of radioactive weapons and waste draw them out will obliterate us all in some kind of H.P. Lovecraft/Ray Bradbury fever dream … but, hey, I said it was an allegory!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

In the nick of time: Argo

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When did Ben Affleck get interesting? Somewhere around his indie turn in the film Hollywoodland, about George Reeves, the ill-fated star of Golden Age TV’s Superman? Or was it when The Town demonstrated he could act and direct? Prior to that, I wasn’t sure he could do either, and colossal turkeys like Pearl Harbor or his fling with Jennifer Lopez didn’t help matters. Honestly, he always seemed like a posturing, stiff, preening phony to me.

But interesting he is now, and further evidence arrived this fall in the form of Argo, again directed by and starring Affleck.

Not sure why it took us over two months to finally see this film, but I’m glad we did…and in the perfect setting, actually. Ann Arbor’s State Theatre looks like it last saw a decorator (and possibly cleaning crew) around the era in which the film is set, so let me say, I felt totally immersed in a grungy, claustrophobic 1970s vibe.

Affleck, a fellow Gen X survivor, nails the Me Decade’s ugly, clunky, chunky style and twitchy social anxiety. I haven’t felt this nerve-wracked in a film about strangers in a strange land since Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek’s Missing over 30 years ago.

As most of you already know, the film, set during the Iran hostage crisis, tracks an ultimately successful CIA operation to smuggle out six Americans, purporting to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off.

I can vividly recall watching the release of the other 44 hostages on the TV in our upstairs bedroom when I was a kid. I can still see the grainy footage in my mind’s eye as I barely could comprehend what those people had gone through for nearly a year and a half.

Affleck must have been watching too because he expertly captures that free-floating anxiety of lives in peril, but balanced with a more postmodern understanding that Americans aren’t always the heroes in every story. A thoughtfully done prologue makes quite clear that we created much of the mess in the first place.

Affleck is great as the purposeful ringleader of the operation and is buoyed up by great character turns from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the film’s sole comic relief, a couple of charmingly smarmy Hollywood types in on the game. Also, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and Kyle Chandler deliver credible and at times compelling depictions of well-meaning folks caught up in the intrigue, be they CIA, Canadian diplomat, hostage, or state department.

My only quibbles are with a few of the actors portraying the six Americans in hiding – actors who just didn’t seem too darn convincing, despite their corduroy jackets, over-sized glasses, and unconditioned ’70s ‘dos. At some level, we as audience should worry about them through some self-identification, but the actors here seemed neither terribly distraught nor for that matter very likable…so I kinda forgot that I was supposed to care about them every now and again.

I will also say that I wasn’t too invested in Affleck’s conflicted-near-divorce-loving-father subplot. The kid was cute and his movie wife seemed nice, but it all just felt a bit too trite and conventional, in the midst of an otherwise propulsive and substantial film.

Regardless, the machine of the film and the story of the folks doing the rescuing carry the day. Even knowing how the story turns out, Affleck’s expert pacing makes this one a true nail-biter.  Yup, Ben, you are officially interesting…congratulations!