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:

 


THE CAMPAIGN (2012)

August 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jay Roach seems to be the perfect guy to direct a political campaign parody during a Presidential election year. He has had plenty of low-brow comedy success with Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers. He then gained credibility with his political sharpness in Recount and Game Change, and he is co-founder of “Funny or Die”. Instead, the movie has the feel of being thrown together during a long weekend with his drinking buddies. Luckily for him, his buddies include Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

Revolving around a North Carolina Republican Congressional primary, we are first introduced to a smug Cam Brady (Ferrell), the four term incumbent who expects to run unopposed. Not long after, we learn local twit Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is entering the race … even though he freezes in front of the camera and has no apparent platform or special issue to support. Of course, that is the one thing both candidates share – the issues aren’t the focus of the movie or their campaign. Rather, this is meant to poke fun at what political campaigning has devolved into, and how we as voters continue to fall for the dirty game of politics.

 We soon learn that the billionaire Motch brothers are financing Marty’s campaign. Their single interest is making more money and they need an indebted politician to help them buy up cheap district land and re-sell it to the Chinese so that cheap labor can be “insourced”. Clearly the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are meant to spoof the real life political power brokers, the Koch Brothers.

Clueless Marty gets help from intense campaign manager guru Tim Whattley (Dylan McDermott) who is there to make him not suck so much. First thing is to re-do Marty’s image … they remodel his house, right down to replacing the family pugs with two more popular breeds. As Marty gets caught up in the campaign fervor, we get the expected results: he drifts from his family, the dirty stuff includes real life political sojourns like drunk driving, sexting, infidelity, false accusations, religious hypocrisy and public embarrassment of the opponents.

The real statement here, if there is one, seems to be that we the voters have allowed political campaigning to turn into a contest of who connects with us and who seems to be like us, rather than a focus on issues present and future. Kissing our baby or attending our county fair shows the candidate is one of us, while in fact, gives no indication of whether the candidate has any true beliefs or understands the issues. There are plenty of laughs in the movie, though it’s not my particular favorite type of comedy (think Talladega Nights). I will especially tip my cap to Zach G for his willingness to do whatever is necessary for a laugh. He is a fearless comedian.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if a lightweight parody of political campaigning is just the kind of escapism you are looking for OR you never miss anything from Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis, two of the funnier people on the planet.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a biting expose’ of political campaigning.  It’s not even as deep as HBO’s “Veep”.

watch the trailer (all the funny parts):


GAME CHANGE (2012)

March 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. One sided films can be made about race, gender, religion, occupations and hobbies. One sided films about politics, however, tend to wreak as much havoc as the actual politics. HBO’s latest from director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong (the team behind Recount) is based on the bestseller from political writers Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Just as the book did, the film will bring enjoyment and confirmation to the left wingers and much pain and anger to the staunch right wingers … at least those who are unable, even 4 years later, to view the story with a hint of objectivity.

I am not here to debate the political sides of the story, but rather to address how it is presented. The thing that really stands out are the Emmy-caliber performances of Ed Harris (as John McCain), Julianne Moore (as Sarah Palin) and Woody Harrelson (as Steve Schmidt). McCain comes across as a man with true ideals and integrity, who gets caught up in the ambitious push to become President. Palin is presented as the “high risk, high reward” gamble that initially pays dividends, but ultimately backfires. Schmidt is really the key to the story as the campaign strategist who accurately reads the climate, but then fails to do his homework before turning in his assignment.

 The story follows the evolution of the Palin story. McCain’s campaign needs a “WOW” factor and the Alaska Governor provides an energetic, charismatic woman who quickly captures the imagination of the public and media. She then fades under the pressure of being separated from her family, having family secrets publicized, and most crucially, her lack of depth on basic foreign and domestic issues. The note-card budget for this movie must have set a record.

We get a peek behind the curtain of a Presidential campaign, and see the shock on the faces of Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace (played by Sarah Paulson) as they realize too late just what they are dealing with in Palin. It was painful enough to watch what was presented to the public during this actual campaign, but to see what was going on behind the scenes is pure agony.

 Where the movie does its best work is in capsulizing what really happened in this 2008 campaign. We hear Schmidt ask, do you think the people want a “Statesman” (McCain) or a “Celebrity” (Obama)? That really is the key observation on the race. One candidate lacked real a connective personality, but fought for his country and served more upon his return. The other had few accomplishments, but had a dynamic personality that drove him to quickly become one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. McCain mentions “the dark side of the American populism“.  Schmidt understood the need for celebrity and poof … Palin appeared!

The last segment of the film provides a glimpse into the power-hungry, or at least celebrity-enjoying phase of Sarah Palin, and it looks like that persona is still going strong four years later. Even at this stage of the primaries, she mentions that she is open to being President.  The film does provide some insight into the pressures of managing a campaign on the highest stage and I found it quite interesting … even though I had to relive the chagrin I felt as each layer was peeled back on Palin in 2008.

watch the trailer:


DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS (2010)

July 31, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I fully expected this to be an all-out raunch-com in the vein of The Hangover, and I was absolutely mistaken. The film only slips into slapstick and physical punchyness at the lowest part of the actual dinner. The rest of the movie is pretty basic and set somewhere near real life.

Often, real life situations bring the most humor. Sadly, that’s not the case here. Most of this one is just plain boring. There are some very talented people associated and they all do a fine job. It’s just that the pieces don’t make up an enticing whole. The film basically rides on the shoulders of the talented Steve Carell as Barry. Barry is a genuinely nice guy whose wife left him for his boss (Zach Galfianakis), and his hobby is making intricate displays of dressed up dead mice … his “mouseterpieces”, he calls them.

Paul Rudd plays Tim, another genuinely nice guy trying very hard to make it in the business world. He has the right car and a great apartment and a beautiful girlfriend (Stephanie Szostack) who doesn’t think it’s time for them to be married. Tim seizes an opportunity at work to go for a promotion. This gets him invited to his boss’s monthly dinner party where all the managers bring a guest with extraordinary skills … the titular schmucks. The point is to have a good laugh at the expense of the idiots. Obviously Tim runs into Barry and the guest list is complete.

Tim explains to his girlfriend that there is a “me you don’t know” who has to do things in order to get ahead at work. I really wanted to see more of THAT guy! Instead, we are subjected to another film that just doesn’t know how to take advantage of Paul Rudd’s talent. He is a funny guy and you would never know it here.

If not for Steve Carell and an outlandish performance by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as an “artist”, this film would be totally flat. Instead, there are a few laughs and an underlying theme about the sweetness of some people. It tries to ask the question, who are the real schmucks? Director Jay Roach is responsible for the Austin Powers and the Meet the Parents franchises. He obviously knows humor. He takes this one from a French film directed by Francis Veber called The Dinner Game. In that film, we never actually get to the dinner. In this one, the film sinks to its lowest point during the dinner. Lesson learned. Best part? Hearing the Beatles during the opening and closing credits.