TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:



November 19, 2015

brooklyn Greetings again from the darkness. A popular proverb “Home is where the heart is” is filled with truth … unless the heart belongs in two places. Such is the case with Ellis, an Irish girl who leaves behind her family and homeland to discover the new world opportunities afforded by 1950’s America. The film is based on the popular and critically-acclaimed novel from Colm Toibin, and is directed by John Crowley (Is Anybody There? 2008) with a screenplay from Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education). It’s a blend of romance, drama, and self-discovery, while also examining a couple of diverse cultures from lands separated by more than 3000 miles (and a big ocean).

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis in a performance that is sure to garner much Oscar talk. It’s only been 8 years since Ms. Ronan exploded onto the screen as 13 year old Briony in Atonement. In this current role we watch her blossom like a flower as she grows from a timid and reserved shop girl with a bleak future in Ireland, to a fully-realized woman with much spirit and hope. On that journey, she experiences many life obstacles including seasickness, homesickness, catty and envious housemates, heartbreak and romantic awkwardness … all while dealing with the overwhelming nature of her new world.

Director Cowley makes some interesting visual choices. We begin with a muted color palette and mostly close camera shots of Ellis’ life in Ireland. This “closed in” feeling continues through her crossing of the Atlantic. However, once she steps through the blue doors of Ellis Island, the world opens up with wide shots and shocks of bright colors. These contrasts blend together in the third segment where Ellis returns to Ireland after a family tragedy. The look of the film at any given time mirrors the mood and circumstance of our lead character.

Ellis struggles to adjust to the United States, both in the bordering house run by the colorful Ms. Kehoe (a terrific Julie Walters), and in the ritzy Bartocci store where she clerks for a demanding supervisor (Jessica Pare’, “Mad Men”). Ms. Kehoe provides her girls with such life guidance as “Giddiness is the 8th Deadly Sin”. It doesn’t take long for Ellis to meet Tony (a breakout performance by Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a pleasant and polite local Italian plumber who is enchanted by her. Their time together provides a wonderful comparison piece for today’s courtship vs. that of the 1950’s.

The movie is beautifully paced, filmed and acted; however, there are some issues to fight through with the story and details of the main character. Her return to Ireland introduces Jim Ferrell (solid work from the ever-evolving Domhnall Gleeson), and just like that, Ellis is confused about Tony’s line: “This is where your life is”. This time of confusion for her, creates similar type confusion for viewers as we either understand her uncertainty, or question it. This distracts a bit from some of the impactful elements like her transition from clueless fish-out-of-water on her first cruise, to strong mentor for an Irish girl much like her younger self on a later trip. The script has more than a few of these moments of gold, and Saoirse brilliantly nails each.

watch the trailer:




November 19, 2015

secret in their eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Why, Billy Ray, why? It’s not surprising that Hollywood green-lighted the Americanization of the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, El secreto de sus ojos. That original from Argentina is exemplary filmmaking and a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery-thriller; a must-see for any true film lover. Even if an Oscar-studded cast is hired (2 Oscar winners, 8 nominations), the guiding inspiration for a remake should be more than losing the subtitles and filming Julia Roberts without make-up.

The story balances two timelines spanning 13 years. Jess (Ms. Roberts) is an investigator who works with FBI Agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Assistant District Attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), and a blustering District Attorney played by Alfred Molina. When Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered, the investigation is impacted by the suspect’s role as a department snitch. When we catch up all those years later, the unrequited attraction between now former FBI Agent Ray and now DA Claire is as strong as ever; Jess’ appearance is on par with someone suffering from a terminal illness, and the murder still hovers over these characters as if it had occurred last week.

It’s a fascinating story that was handled superbly in the original, yet mostly comes across as uninspired in this latest project. At times, it’s even a bit confusing in how the two eras are handled. The score from Emilio Kauderer and a couple of fine scenes from Ms. Roberts (although she gets no credit here for appearing sans-makeup) are the best parts of this one. Otherwise, Mr. Ejiofor (usually a fine actor) goes over-the-top, while Ms. Kidman is simply miscast and unable to generate the proficiency required for her position. Other support work comes courtesy of Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Zoe Graham.

Other than lacking the grit and realism of the original, the editing and camera work (so exceptional in the first version) at times come off as amateurish this time around. The soccer/futbol sequence from the original is replaced with Dodgers baseball (Chavez Ravine and Vin Scully) and a link to former Manager Walter Alston. Normally that would be considered an improvement, but again, these fall short and fail to generate the necessary suspense. A weak impersonation of the famous long-tracking shot certainly doesn’t help.

For anyone who hasn’t seen writer/director Juan Jose Campanella’s (an Executive Producer here) excellent original, this version from Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) might prove interesting enough; however, those same folks are strongly encouraged to instead track down the original, and experience the emotional depth and filmmaking expertise that made it such a worthy Oscar winner.

watch the trailer:



November 19, 2015

black panthers Greetings again from the darkness. Black lives matter. We hear the phrase frequently these days, and director Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer) takes us back 49 years to the beginning of the Black Panther Party, and then walks us through the rise and fall. Rather than the usual textbook approach that focuses on the famous photos of angry black men wearing leather jackets and berets while toting firearms, this is a much more comprehensive look at the complexities of the organization and its members.

The familiar names of the Black Panther leaders include Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Fred Hampton. Despite the fact that first hand interviews weren’t possible with the big three – Newton and Cleaver are no longer living, and Seale declined the opportunity, there are some fabulous video clips and photographs, many of which have been rarely seen.

It’s the interviews with former Black Panther members that provide the most insight. Their stance is that the original plan was a non-violent approach to bring attention to police brutality and the lack of equality in Black America. Many social programs were started to assist kids and the poor, but things turned more aggressive when the passive approach didn’t yield the desired results. Newton studied the laws and realized open carry was permitted on public property, and that’s where most of the famous photos originated.

The segment on J Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence plan for the FBI to do what was necessary to prevent the expansion of the Black Panthers is one of the film’s best. Hoover even described them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (yes, this was during the Vietnam War). He was especially concerned about the rise of a “messiah”, and that led to what most consider the assassination of Illinois chapter leader Fred Hampton while he slept.

Oakland is widely accepted as the central hub of the Black Panthers, and it was surprising to learn that “most” members were teenagers and a majority were female. The interviews with the former members are fascinating and void of any pomp or bluster … just matter-of-fact recollections. What really stands out is just how media savvy the leaders were. They understood how to get headlines and bring attention to the issues.

We also learn that Jane Fonda hosted fundraisers and meetings, and we see a clip of Marlon Brando supporting the Black Panthers. These celebrities brought legitimacy to the organization, but didn’t stop the fracture that occurred when Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver began feuding over the best direction. Seeing clips of Bobby Seale running for Mayor of Oakland in 1972 certainly brought a contemporary feel, as the black voter registration drives continue to this day.

As one of the former members states “making history” was “not nice and clean”. We learn that more than 20 former Panthers are still in prison today, and the parallels between the mid-60’s and the movement for equality today are undeniable. Director Nelson offers an informative education without preaching or romanticizing the Black Panthers.

watch the trailer:




November 19, 2015

mediterranea Greetings again from the darkness. Success on the film festival circuit is much deserved for this first feature film from writer/director Jonas Carpignano, as he expands his short film A Chijana (2012). It’s based on the true story of a young man who migrated from Burkin Faso to the southern Italy town of Rosarno. What makes this special is that the real immigrant, Koudous Seihon, stars in the film and recreates much of what he went through.

We witness the obstacles facing those trying to leave Africa … they need money and assistance and a whole lot of luck. Mr. Seihon plays Ayiva, and he is traveling with his brother Abas (Alassane Sy). The rickety boat they pile into is one most of us wouldn’t consider sea-worthy enough to cross the Mediterranean Sea (especially through a storm), but it’s their only option.

They are certainly disappointed in the shanty town that becomes their new home. However, soon enough they realize sleeping on the ground in cold weather with but a thin quilt is no hardship compared to the everyday risk of violence and racism. Most of the locals are not welcoming in the least, and the hatred often escalates. It’s what led to the riots of 2010, which director Carpignano touches on here.

The film has a no-frills docu-drama feel to it, and Seihon has a real screen presence. Ayiva’s survival skills are enhanced by his ability to blend into his environment – he becomes what he needs to be to persevere. Unfortunately his brother rebels and lets his anger affect his actions. The real world struggles of migrants and refugees are a global issue these days, and the film brings into focus some of the struggles faced by those who see no other option.

watch the trailer:



BY THE SEA (2015)

November 19, 2015

by the sea Greetings again from the darkness. As a devotee and lover of the cinematic art form, I tend to focus on the positive elements of films, and maintain a near reverent respect for filmmakers who engage in personal projects. Because of this, I typically avoid labels such as “bad” or “good” and instead focus on the experience. Unfortunately, this latest from writer/director Angelina Jolie (billed for the first time as Angelina Jolie Pitt) has delivered a prolonged experience of monotony and misery that can only be described as bad. Or awful. Or even beyond awful.

It’s based in the mid-1970’s and filmed on the island of Gozo in Malta. The setting is stunningly beautiful, and cinematographer Christian Berger captures the essence of this unique spot with naturalistic lighting and plenty of wide shots of the rocky beaches that provide the foundation for a classy and quaint inn run by Michel (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet). Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) are the epitome of an unhappily married couple … though they are stylishly dressed while driving their 1967 Citroen convertible.

He is a writer who doesn’t write and she is a former dancer who doesn’t dance. While he is not writing, Roland sucks down gin, beer and anything else Michel will serve him. Vanessa mostly hangs out in the room popping pills and watching a fisherman in a row boat. When they are together, they rarely speak except to ensure we viewers understand just how miserable they are … with a lousy reason that isn’t explained until late in the film. Mostly she bats her porn star fake eye lashes while he sports a porn star mustache.

A glimmer of hope emerges when a honeymooning couple takes the room next door. Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) seem quite happy and enjoy spending time together in bed. We know this because Vanessa discovers a peephole where she can take in the sights. In what is probably the only interesting twist, Lea and Roland are soon sharing peeps … a step that somehow begins the process of rebuilding their relationship. Of course, that doesn’t happen without many more scenes of misery prior to the quite predictable finish.

Angelina is clearly paying tribute to the 1950’s and 1960’s French arthouse films, but having two unlikable lead characters who can’t stand to be in the same room never allows the viewers to connect … though she seizes many opportunities to show off her exquisitely rebuilt breasts. The film is entirely too long – and feels even longer – as it squanders a real chance to explore the second stage of marriage. The beautiful scenery and Gainsbourg songs don’t come close to making this a movie worth enduring.

watch the trailer:




November 13, 2015

my all american Greetings again from the darkness. I’m a University of Texas alumnus and have vivid childhood memories of Freddie Steinmark the player, followed by Freddie Steinmark the tragedy, and finally Freddie Steinmark the inspiration. His legacy remains an active part of the Longhorns football program today via the stadium scoreboard dedication and the locker room tribute that is part of every game day in Austin. This is the directorial debut of Angelo Pizzo, who is known for writing two other inspirational sports movies: Hoosiers and Rudy.

It’s difficult not to cringe when the film opens in 2010 with a reporter interviewing legendary and elderly former coach Darrell Royal, who is dementia-stricken and forgetful … until he starts speaking of Freddie. The cringe-inducing part isn’t Coach Royal’s dementia (of which we fans were all aware), but rather the amateurish make-up applied to Aaron Eckhart in an attempt to age him into the 85 year old icon. Fortunately this segment is brief, and we are soon enough picking up a high school aged Freddie as he practices and works out ferociously with his dad in hopes of fulfilling his dream of playing football at Notre Dame.

Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) plays Freddie, and captures the intensity, ambition and goodness of the young man who would galvanize the Longhorns program and end up making quite an impression on those Notre Dame coaches, but for much more than his play on the field. Burned into my memory (and that of anyone who witnessed it) is the shot of Freddie on crutches at the 1970 Cotton Bowl.

Director Pizzo offers some breath-taking aerial shots of Austin and Memorial Stadium (digitally altered to reflect the late 1960’s), and some impressive sequences of football practices and games. Football fans will have fun spotting former players making appearances including Case McCoy (as Razorback Bill Montgomery), Hays McEachern, Danny Lester, and Luke Poehlmann. You will also note Juston Street plays his father James (mimicking the game face), and Jordan Shipley plays my all-time favorite Longhorn receiver, Cotton Speyrer. Nostalgia flows as the game announcers call some of the greatest college players of the era: Ted Koy, Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen, Steve Owens, and Chuck Dicus.

“The Game of the Century” is the centerpiece game of the movie, and we actually get a clip of President Richard Nixon arriving to the Texas-Arkansas game of 1969. It turned out to be Freddie’s final football game, but more aptly, a continuation of his influence. However, this is just as much the story of Freddie the individual as it is Freddie the football player. His determination, zest for life and incredible courage are the message here … not tackles and interceptions. Even his relationship with his high school and college sweetheart Linda (Sarah Bolger) seems the stuff of which dreams are made.

In addition to this film, there have been three books written about Steinmark: in 1971 Freddie worked with Blackie Sherrod on an autobiography called “I Play to Win”; in 2011, Jim Dent wrote “Courage Beyond the Game”; and just this year, the University of Texas published a new biography entitled “Freddie Steinmark: Faith, Family, Football” by Bower Yousse (a former friend and teammate). It should also be noted that Steinmark’s battle against cancer inspired Congress to pass the National Cancer Act of 1971, beginning the war on cancer and spurring a jump in cancer research that continues to this day.

It’s a football movie, but also a tearjerker. It’s a profile of an over-achiever, but also the story of a young man who inspired a team, a university and a nation. Every time you think the story is a bit corny, or that Freddie is too good to be true, just remind yourself that despite the cynicism permeating society today, Freddie Steinmark was flesh and blood, with a heart and soul and mentality that refused to surrender.

a picture of Freddie Steinmark:




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