Friday, February 26, 2016


TRUMBO (Jay Roach, 2015)

TRUMBO is the sort of bullet-pointed biographical profile that studios love to trot out at awards time. If the subject pertains to Hollywood itself, all the better. Whether the details of the showcased person’s life are familiar to the viewing public or not, they’ll be spelled out with all the subtlety of a grade school book report. In this instance the person at the story’s center was unfairly punished for his beliefs during a shameful period in which the industry and government behaved shamefully out of fear that Communists were working to bring down America from the inside. Despite the events and thematic richness in this tale of injustice, director Jay Roach and screenwriter John McNamara execute it with dutiful monotony.

TRUMBO begins in 1947 with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) considered to be among the best at what he does in show business. Although he signs a studio contract to make him the highest paid writer in the system, he is conscious that others who work on films are not getting what he believes to be their fair share. A staunch defender of workers’ rights and a member of the Communist Party, Trumbo is visible in supporting his colleagues. Such advocacy draws a target on him from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).

The pressure on Trumbo and fellow Communist screenwriters increases when the House Un-American Activities Committee holds hearings to root out the insidious red influence on the nation’s entertainment. Trumbo and those in the so-called Hollywood Ten refuse to answer some of Congress’ questions about their beliefs and are convicted for contempt. Trumbo serves a jail sentence and, like the others, is blacklisted from working again in the industry. To make a living he cannot take credit for what he writes. He persuades a friend to claim to have written his screenplay for ROMAN HOLIDAY. Steady, albeit low-paying, employment comes from Trumbo writing and rewriting B-movies for a small studio that never could have afforded him previously but is happy to utilize his services anonymously. Swimming in garbage screenplays that need polished, Trumbo enlists other blacklisted friends to assist him.

TRUMBO perks up somewhat when the writer connects with Frank King (John Goodman), the co-founder of King Brothers Productions. Goodman portrays the producer as a no-nonsense businessman in the business of selling nonsense. He holds no pretense in acknowledging that he’s bankrolling low-budget product, not art. To him Trumbo and the other ostracized writers merely represent fast, cheap, and high quality labor, with those characteristics in order of their importance. In a film full of commonly known and unknown people, he’s the only one to pop out from those playing classic Hollywood dress-up.

Cranston does solid but unremarkable work that is mostly the byproduct of the script than his acting abilities. TRUMBO lacks fire about the unfair treatment foisted upon him and his associates. Perhaps Trumbo didn’t have time to stew over that when he faced with the pressing need to support his family, but the film is missing the sense of conviction that helped to put the protagonist in these circumstances.

Grade: C-

Thursday, February 25, 2016

How to Be Single

HOW TO BE SINGLE (Christian Ditter, 2016)

Alice (Dakota Johnson) is in a happy relationship with longtime college boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun), but she wants to take a break because she doesn’t feel she knows who she is outside of a couple. In HOW TO BE SINGLE she begins this presumably temporary split from Josh while working as a paralegal in New York City. At the office she meets and befriends Robin (Rebel Wilson), a hard-partying, commitment-resistant dynamo who is eager to teach her new friends in the ways of the modern single woman. Robin encourages Alice to get christened into the world of carefree hook-ups with Tom (Anders Holm), a bar owner with a pathological compulsion for ensuring that no woman will linger at his apartment the morning after. It doesn’t take long for Alice to determine that she and Josh were right for each other, but when she’s ready to end this experiment, she discovers he’s found another girlfriend during their time off.

Alice’s older sister Meg (Leslie Mann) is unattached and appears content with focusing on being an obstetrician than having a family of her own. Whether it’s her biological clock or daily interaction with infants, she eventually realizes she wants a baby of her own and turns to in vitro fertilization. Tom has a thing for Lucy (Alison Brie), who is friendly with him but appears to see him for what he is. Lucy wants someone serious about getting married and is using analytics on dating sites to locate the perfect man.

HOW TO BE SINGLE plays as a less bawdy version of SEX AND THE CITY when it was a television show, although the main characters aren’t nearly as tight socially as those on the HBO series. Alice and Robin are supposedly fast friends--and best ones too--yet Robin vanishes for long stretches, returning only when the film needs a jolt of energy. The episodic nature carves HOW TO BE SINGLE into segments that withhold it from establishing a comedic rhythm or narrative flow.

What Alice elects to do is the solo version of couples on THE AMAZING RACE that say they want to put themselves through a high stress situation to test their relationships’ strength. At one point someone on screen wisely acknowledges that maybe this isn’t the smartest thing to try. Screenwriters Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox also have a curious idea of what Alice’s journey of self-discovery should be. She continues to be defined through the relationships she has, even if they’re fleeting, which directly contradicts what the character states that she wants to learn at the film’s start. There’s no personal growth for Alice other than some lip service toward the end. Otherwise the insistent message is that when she finds the right guy, she needs to lock him down as soon as possible. The film upholds the importance of female bonds yet often has the gals pushing each other into the arms of some guy lest they contemplate the horror of being alone for one second.

HOW TO BE SINGLE comes from the production company Flower Films, which Drew Barrymore co-founded. Alice is the type of character Barrymore would have been playing about fifteen years ago. Johnson is funny when showing how bad or out of practice Alice is at flirting, but she can seem too innocent, inexperienced, or passive. The film is divided among too many characters as it is, so it would have been better to invest Alice with the certainty that Brie’s Lucy displays. Wilson’s devil-may-care attitude boosts the laughs. Mann brings some pathos to Meg’s longing for a child and gets a physical comedy highlight when crawling out of a cab’s window while on the verge of giving birth.

HOW TO BE SINGLE gets tripped up by the fantasy it wishes to indulge about independence and the struggle for interdependence rather than codependence. It could stand to get a do-over, which is something the lead character would probably appreciate too.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


RACE (Stephen Hopkins, 2016)

In RACE Jesse Owens (Stephan James) arrives at Ohio State University in 1933 as an already established track star, but the time necessary to train and compete may interfere with work so he can send money back home to Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), the mother of his daughter. Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) sees Owens as more than just a star at the collegiate level. He envisions an Olympic champion. Having lost his opportunity to win on the world stage, Snyder is driven to get the most out of Owens’ potential.

Owens and Snyder have their eyes set on the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, but political matters may interfere with their plans. The rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party force the American Olympic Committee to consider boycotting the event rather than giving an implicit endorsement by participating. Construction company executive and AOC member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is appointed to visit Germany to observe what is happening there, meet with officials regarding discrimination concerns, and report back.

RACE depicts the best-known events and achievements of Owens’ life at the expense of seeing who did it. For a drama that is ostensibly about the four-time gold medalist, a substantial amount of attention is focused on behind-the-scenes matters in Germany. RACE contains incisive details regarding the politics of athletics, especially the Olympics, yet the number of these instances tend to crowd out the protagonist from his own film. Even when Owens is confronted with a political choice when the NAACP asks him not to go, RACE merely shows his choices at various steps thereafter rather than why he decides what he does.

The sports biography also strangely prioritizes other parts of the story while not seeking to understand Owens. He has a fling with a California beauty, but other than injecting a little conflict into his relationship with Ruth, it’s the sort of thing destined for deleted scenes. In roughly equating Owens with filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), RACE is really reaching to compare their bravery in the face of hatred. Riefenstahl made propaganda films for the Nazis, including TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, and directed OLYMPIA, which captured the athleticism at the Berlin Olympics. How complicit Riefenstahl was with the Nazis is debatable, but RACE draws parallels between Owens performing before hateful crowds and Riefenstahl defiantly filming him that are problematic at best.

James brings quiet determination and awareness to Owens. His initial deference to Snyder, with eyes down, conveys how society expected him to interact with white people. James shows Owens carrying himself as a hero whose actions make a greater impact than any words. Sudeikis struggles to seem sincere as Snyder. It’s almost as if he’s playing the caricature of an old-timey coach in a comedy sketch.

RACE is made with apparent good intentions, but in attempting to take a wider view of Owens at the 1936 Olympics, it’s closer to a false start than a victory.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

HAIL, CAESAR! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2016)

As Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures Studio, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is an overworked executive who wonders if his efforts are worth all of the trouble. In HAIL, CAESAR! he’s not just overseeing the filmmaking on the backlot but primarily attending to the professional and private matters of Capitol’s contracted performers and directors. He’s more likely to be breaking up a starlet’s illicit photo shoot in the wee hours and managing images as he is to be behind a desk poring over spreadsheets.

HAIL, CAESAR! tracks an eventful, although not altogether atypical, day-plus for Mannix. Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney), the star of a Biblical epic, goes missing and is being held for ransom. Bathing beauty DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is in need of a husband to legitimize the pregnancy that isn’t yet showing or known by the gossip columnists. Singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) gets plugged into a period drama that isn’t particularly suited to his talent for acrobatic horsemanship, thus testing the patience of the film’s director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Amid this turmoil Mannix also has to fend off twin tabloid reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) and slip out for a meeting with a Lockheed recruiter who promises him an easy and lucrative job.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s arch and affectionate send-up of early 1950s Hollywood provides plenty of surface pleasures for lovers of film history. Their gorgeous recreation of an aquatic musical scene analogous to one featuring Esther Williams evokes Technicolor movie magic in part through geometric design. A Gene Kelly-like routine with Channing Tatum leading a group of pent-up sailors in a song and dance number in a bar stands out as the sort of funny and joyous human spectacle that cinema excels at capturing. The latest and greatest computer-generated effects can be thrilling, but so too can men hoofing atop tables as tablecloths are pulled out from under them.

Although the Coens demonstrate fondness for classic Hollywood, they remind regularly of the artifice it is founded on. Stories about stars are planted with the press to match how the company wishes its employees to be perceived by the public. The studio bosses arrange dates between its actors and actresses solely for publicity and cover up legal matters as boosters and protection of the bottom line. The tops of sets and crews can be visible, sometimes from a distance, during these tremendous scenes of filmed entertainment. Dailies and rough cuts reveal the manipulation that goes into building an illusion of the projected dream world. As one of the Thackers says, people want to believe in something, not the facts, and the movies sell a kind of perfection. The Coens strive to undercut it while acknowledging the strange beauty all this fakery can produce. In a dark night of the soul moment for Mannix, he visits the Jesus film’s set of Golgotha. There’s nothing realistic about the crucifixes against the muted backdrop, yet the setting emphasizes a real yearning for spiritual enlightenment.

With its opening shot of Christ on the cross and first scene of Mannix in a confessional, there’s no mistaking that HAIL, CAESAR! is about the search for existential purpose and how it gets mixed up with art, commerce, and religion. Mannix’s turmoil comes from thinking that what he’s made his life’s work is frivolous and difficult. He isn’t wrong, yet Mannix isn’t quite ready to trade it in for something that won’t demand much from him while yielding greater rewards. How Mannix spends his days may be inconsequential in the grand scheme, yet isn’t he fulfilling a higher calling if going about his job with enthusiasm in spite of the struggles? Plus, there is a time and place for the minor. A lasso fashioned out of a string of spaghetti is effectively useless, yet there’s something to be said for the fleeting delight in seeing one in action.

Grade: B+


ANOMALISA (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)

To Michael Stone (David Thewlis) everyone looks virtually the same, save for different hairstyles and clothes. More maddeningly, they all sound the same. In the stop-motion animated drama ANOMALISA Michael flies from Los Angeles to Cincinnati to give a presentation about customer service. After making an obligatory call home to his wife and son, Michael arranges to meet an old flame for drinks. She still resents how he left her without a satisfactory answer about their relationship’s end eleven years ago, and Michael doesn’t handle their reunion very well either.

Depressed and lonely he returns to his hotel room when he hears Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her friend in the hallway. They’re in town from Akron to attend Michael’s seminar and are thrilled that he shows interest in them when he knocks on their door. MIchael is really only fascinated with Lisa, who sounds unlike everyone else (Tom Noonan). When he’s able to get her alone and listen to her speak and sing, it’s as though all of his problems have vanished.

The puppets used in ANOMALISA are startlingly life-like yet somehow off in a manner that unsettles. Seams that permit animators to change face plates have not been digitally erased, which emphasize the sentient android quality to the characters. The uniformity of all but Michael and Lisa manifests the psychological horror in the protagonist’s predicament and his potential salvation in finding an anomaly. Something this dour and emotionally naked is unusual for an animated feature, yet in this medium the eerie unreality to the detailed mundanity help to keep it from becoming too uncomfortable to watch versus if it were physically performed by actors. Having originally been staged for the ears rather than the eyes, animation proves to be an inspired way to adapt Charlie Kaufman’s theatrical work with a greater visual element.

The inability to escape oneself or find total relief in someone else runs through Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter, as in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and writer-director of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. With ANOMALISA co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman creates a world in which ordinariness and familiarity suffocate yet are the natural state of things. Michael is an insufferable person, at times more than the film can withstand, yet his plight in pursuit of novelty that eventually fades feels tragic especially with the bombardment of the new in this technological age. There is no shortage of new products to buy or strangers to meet, but what is one left with after the fleeting thrill of the unknown disappears?

ANOMALISA may be more disquieting than anything else in Kaufman’s neurotic body of work, which is why the humor about common aggravations provides brief but welcome breaks from the heaviness. Michael’s difficulties with getting a hotel shower’s water temperature right and failures with his room’s key card are amusing nuisances that can be shared with him even if his mental breakdown can’t. The unimaginative recommendations of what to do in a city, like Cincinnatians suggesting going to the zoo and trying the local chili, may be so funny because they reflect the same responses one could get from anyone in a place. Noonan’s voice work amuses with the deadpan nuance he employs in speaking for the masses. For as critical as ANOMALISA may seem of the indistinct crowd, the anger and disgust directed at them are just deflected feelings of those who own them. For the malcontents and misanthropes, the problem is really in here than out there.

Grade: B+

Monday, February 08, 2016

Jane Got a Gun

JANE GOT A GUN (Gavin O’Connor, 2016)

Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) tends to her bullet-riddled, fur-trapping husband Bill (Noah Emmerich), but it’s only a matter of time until the Bishop Boys find and kill them at their home secreted on the New Mexico Territory’s frontier. In JANE GOT A GUN she hides their daughter with a friend and goes to gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to hire him for protection. Jane and Dan are former lovers who were engaged to be wed when he returned from the Civil War. He still nurtures a resentment after coming back to discover she fled from their Missouri hometown and has taken up with another man. That she replaced him with Bill, whose head carries a bounty from the law and the local gang, wounds him even more grievously. Despite his objections, Dan agrees to assist Jane with fending off John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his scurrilous band of men.

To say that JANE GOT A GUN had a rocky road to get into theaters is like comparing traveling by wagon train with flying on the Concorde. Within days of the production’s start it lost two leading actors and the original director. One of the replacement actors eventually withdrew too. Edgerton switched from playing the villain to the hero. The actual release date ended up being almost a year and half after one was announced when the dust settled over cast and crew defections. Plus, a distribution partner went bankrupt.

None of that matters in terms of determining if the finished film is good or not, but it helps to explain why JANE GOT A GUN feels so ragged. The film is often at odds with itself. Director Gavin O’Connor attempts to incorporate the feminist point of view and lyrical style with the traditional western plot but comes up lacking a distinct perspective, poeticism, and narrative fluidity. The nonlinear structure does the story no favors as it ping-pongs between 1871 and the recent past for the characters. With minimal scenes McGregor’s Bishop gets lost in the shuffle, standing in as a monstrous villain known for the fearsome way he’s spoken of more than any impression he leaves. The tension between Jane and Dan suffers as well. Rather than flashbacks adding to the sense of tragedy in their relationship and the triangle, the scenes from a few years before merely fill in the blanks that the film has left unanswered until those points. The ending definitely does not seem earned.

Although afflicted with dullness, the film revives momentarily with Dan’s ingenuity in trying to level the fight between the vicious attackers and the badly outgunned and the initial outburst on the Hammond homestead. Still, as so-called cursed films go, JANE GOT A GUN is notable for being so ordinary in its flawed realization.

Grade: D+