SIGNIS REVIEWS MARCH 2016
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI
FINEST HOURS, The
GODS OF EGYPT
HOW TO BE SINGLE
LADY IN THE VAN, The
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
RIDE ALONG 2
SON OF SAUL
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
US, 2016, 103 minutes, Colour.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
Cloverfield was one of those hand-held camera thrillers with handheld camerawork and found footage, pseudo-documentary, about violent threats to communities and fightback.
The only connection with this film is the reference to that title and its director, Matt Reeves, who is one of the producers of this film (as is Drew Goddard, writer of The Martian and Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash).
In terms of photography and style, this is a more straightforward piece – although, there is some hand-held camera work in the final, very busy and active, part of the film.
It also should be said that this is more a terror film rather than a horror film (though there are touches of horror in that final part).
Most of the film is a claustrophobic drama with only three characters. We see Michelle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, packing up, driving away, ignoring her boyfriends pleas on her car phone. At this stage during the credits, we are rather lulled until there is a sudden, quite a sudden shock and the film story changes. (There are a couple more of those sudden shocks.)
Michelle finds herself in a subterranean cell, well stocked by Howard who has built it as protection against the alien invasion. He is a big, jovial man, played by John Goodman. Michelle is a bit wary about him, needless to say, wanting to get out, and we, the audience, do have suspicions as to whether there really is an alien invasion – although, some evidence is gradually revealed.
Also in the underground bunker is a local young man, Emmett, played by John Gallagher Jr. He and Michelle share their stories, wondering about Howard, but gradually forming a little community, perhaps the only survivors of the invasion.
But, all is not always well, Michelle making some discoveries, Emmett concerned, and Howard, big and bombastic, genial, but…
And all this works up to a climax and confrontation between the three, probably not quite as expected, but making the film more engrossing after life in the bunker. And, then, there is that finale with the spacecraft and alien monsters. Which, by this stage, has become credible enough.
Will the aliens take over? Will Michelle, whom Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien series would be very proud of, elude pursuit and survive? Are there any other survivors? The success of this film may well indicate that the story could continue.
13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI
US, 2016, 144 minutes, Colour.
James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman.
Directed by Michael Bay.
One of the great benefits of the film director having a solid reputation is that many audiences will want to see his film without even checking whether it is well reviewed or not. One of the disadvantages of the film director having a particular kind of reputation, especially one that critics continually denounce, is that any film he makes will be tarred with this disreputable brush.
Which serves as an introduction to films made by American director, Michael Bay. He was more acceptable in the 1990s with his comic action police shows, Bad Boys and his apocalyptic Armageddon. But, with his attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Pearl Harbour, he became a victim of critics ire and condemnation, which flowed over a bit into audience reaction. But, then he made the Transformer films, loud, full of action, appealing to the multiplex audience, thus bringing a great division into responses to his films.
Well, 13 hours is a Michael Bay film. In fact, the episodes in which it is based might be called Michael Bay situations, the upheaval in Libya in 2011, after the Arab Spring and the death of Colonel Gaddafi, the civil unrest, the different militias and their objectives, and the place of the United States, especially an ambassador who was interested in some kind of reconciliation but who was killed in action – which had some repercussions for the career of Hillary Clinton and criticisms of her as Secretary of State at this period.
Which does mean that there are some intrinsic elements of interest here, the re-creation of Libya and of Benghazi, the presence of the CIA, especially their security experts, the role of the ambassador and his choices which exposed him to potential violence and ultimately made him a victim of this violence, the ideologies of the militias and their going and violent action.
Michael Bay can really craft an action film and that is what he has done here. He builds up the audience understanding of the situation, introducing a central character, played unexpectedly by John Krasinski who would seem more at home in more domestic and romantic roles, joining the security team in Benghazi, gradually becoming involved in the tensions, in the city, in the compound where the ambassador stayed and was interviewed by the media, in the CIA base, which was protected by some secrecy.
While there is some characterisation, introduction to the members of the team with their different attitudes clashes, their ability to work together, their having to cope with difficult circumstances and some blackouts in information, as well as phone calls home with some domestic background, the bulk of the film, quite long, is in the action concerning saving the ambassador, coping with his death, venturing out into the city, appealing for help from neighbouring countries including Malta, but having to use wits to fight and to survive, finally being besieged in the CIA base.
The film will naturally appeal to action fans, and there is plenty of action. For audiences who may not be action fans but who may have wondered about how this situation could arise in Benghazi at the time, the film fills in the background, highlights the characters, and enables the audience to appreciate how difficult and uncertain it is in Middle Eastern and North African countries, especially when American presuppositions are brought in, and lessons have to be learnt about local culture, local loyalties, local politics.
13 hours has the benefit of having dramatic action but also providing political action background to actual events of 2011.
US, 2016, 111 minutes, Colour.
Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Maggie Grace, Alexandra Daddario, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Welling.
Directed by Ross Katz.
The easiest way to review The Choice is to note that it is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. For those who enjoys Sparks’ novels and the film adaptations, there is no need of review, The Choice will be on the list of must-see films. On the other hand, critics are very harsh on the film adaptations, dismissing them as predictable, sentimental, trite. But, so much entertainment could be described in that way – but does not necessarily stop many being entertained.
There have been 11 adaptations of Sparks’ novels in the last 16 years, one a year since 2012. The first was Message in a Bottle, with Kevin Costner and Paul Newman. The adaptation which has received more praise than the others is The Notebook. Lately, we have had The Longest Ride, with the Rodeo background, The Best of Me, Safe Haven.
Most of Sparks’ stories are set along the North Carolina coast and this is the case with The Choice. Sparkes relishes the beauty of the scenery and the film makers have gone along with it this time, making The Choice a rather pretty picture, the water, the inlets, and at sunset, the golden light shimmering on the water.
As the film opens, Travis (Benjamin Walker) is confiding to the audience that choices and decision-making are important, and that he has a very important decision to make, arriving at the hospital with a bunch of flowers, talking to the doctor and… We go into flashback.
Travis is something of a tough type, with a rather sardonic sense of humour, living by himself in a comfortable house on the water, hosting parties, and listening to loud music – which does not ingratiate himself with his new neighbour, medical student, Gabby (Australia’s Teresa Palmer). And she blames his dog for impregnating her dog – and dogs will feature in the film as well as some puppies.
She goes to the vet and low and behold, Travis is in a veterinary partnership with his father (Tom Wilkinson). Travis will say that Gabby bothers him – but he likes being bothered by her. Initially, she is bothered in the expected way but, somehow or other we know that this is going to end in romance. Complication, Travis has an on-again off-again girlfriend and Gabby is about to be engaged to the local doctor.
Gabby comes from a very wealthy family and she decides to go back home, thinking that she must be engaged – although telling the truth to the dcotor.
The Choice is very much in favour of commitment, marriage and family. And the years go by.
It would not be a romance if there were not some suffering in the film – and, in a predictable way, it happens, causing Travis to think, to make decisions…
After the tears, joy and smiles, and that is a Nicholas Sparks’ story. Until the next one.
US, 2015, 123 minutes, Colour.
Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha- Raw, David Morse, Arlis Howard, Mike O' Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje?, Stephen Moyer, Richard T.Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson.
Directed by Peter Landesman.
Concussion seems a title straight to the point – but the question remains as to what exactly is its point. For someone seeking an action film, it might indicate plenty of fights and head-butting. Head-butting is the case – but it is in the sport so beloved to Americans, their football, the hard-playing tackles, leaps, clashing of helmets, the hitting of heads, the repercussions for brains.
This is a fact-based film, the story of strongly-qualified coroner, Bennet Olumu, originally from Nigeria, working in Pittsburgh. He has way with the people he examines in an autopsy, speaking to them, trying to elicit something of their story, the background of how they died. The nurses assisting are sympathetic. The supervisor is certainly not. But he has the support of the medico in charge (Albert Brooks).
Bennet is played by Will Smith, a strong and serious role, Smith affecting an African English accent quite effectively – skilled, confident in his qualifications, a strong ego, and serious about his craft and eager to investigate mysterious illness. This comes in the form of a player whom the audience has already seen (David Morse), receiving tributes, in action in his long sports career, a popular player, but his life collapsing around him, alienated from his family, isolated and ultimately killing himself. Bennet wants to know why this happened to such a popular man.
This begins an investigation into the suicides of several players after their descent into some kind of depressed and mentally disturbed existence. It leads Bennet to investigate concussion and the repercussions on the brain, detailed and thorough investigations, criticism from his supervisor, support from the medico, paying for the research himself, eventually taking it to a respected doctor (Eddie Marsan) who accepts his finding as scientific and is prepared to be seen as a co-author of the published results.
We are also introduced to a sports doctor, played by Alec Baldwin, enthusiastic in his encouragement of the players but, after hearing the results of Bennet’s investigations, begins to question his own past action, the action of the NFL and teams up with Bennet, pointedly being asked by the NFL to present Bennet’s case when they refused to listen to Bennet himself.
Alongside this is a personal story, and Bennet being humanised as his supervisor suggests. The parish priest asks Bennett to take in a young woman from Kenya who is trained as a nurse and needs accommodation. He is not used to sharing anything much with others but warms to her and, gradually, she being interested in his work, love develops between them, Bennet even going to a site in Pittsburgh where he will build a house for them. The nurse is played by Gugu Mbatha Raw who was seen very effectively in the film about Britain and slavery, Belle.
Bennet is subject to increasing criticism, scepticism about his findings, being accused of fraud and, has as been mentioned, even refused permission to speak to the authorities.
As might be expected, there is something of happy ending but, not before humiliation and suffering, with authorities ultimately accepting his findings, acting on recommendations to protect players against damning concussions with their dire consequences.
One of those “inspiring” films which are also quite enjoyable.
Australia, 2015, 95 minutes, Colour.
Geoffrey Rush, Odessa Young, Ewen Leslie, Miranda Otto, Paul Schneider, Sam Neill, Anna Torv, Nicholas Hope.
Directed by Simon Stone.
The Daughter seems a rather generic title, especially when one discovers that it is an adaptation of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Wild Duck. (There had been another Australian version of The Wild Duck in the 1980s, set in Tasmania, with Jeremy Irons and Liv Ullman in the central roles.)
Ibsen’s play has been adapted by theatre director, Simon Stone (who contributed a story to the omnibus film, Tim Winton’s The Turning). He has certainly made the transfer credible, locating the contemporary story in southern New South Wales, in mountainous timber country, with a logging industry that is collapsing, filmed around Tumbarumba and Tumut. The film has visually impressive photography.
Stone has the advantage of an expert cast. In the background, though not dominating, is the patriarch of the family, who has inherited the logging company and has to face loss of contracts, workers losing their jobs, and the repercussions for the town. He is Henry, played by Geoffrey Rush. Henry has been married, his wife has died and his son, who was born in the United States, has returned there after doing his schooling in Australia. Henry intends to marry again, a younger woman who has worked in his house. And the son, Christian (Paul Schneider), returns to Australia for his father’s wedding.
Obviously, some potential for conflict, social and personal.
The film focuses more on another family, that of Oliver, who has been working on the mill, went to school with Christian, and his wife, Charlotte. They have a teenage daughter, Hedvig. Oliver and Charlotte are played by Ewen Leslie and Miranda Otto, and the daughter is played by Odessa Young, who also made an impression as a teenager in the title role in Looking for Grace. Also in the picture is Oliver’s father, growing older and seemingly with the touch of Alzheimer’s, a former partner with Henry, but living on the farm, Walter, played by Sam Neill.
While there is quite some focus on the daughter, her tending the wild duck that had been shot by Henry but not killed and is now in the care of her grandfather, Walter, who has a collection of wounded animals, she is the pivotal point of the plot and the long keeping of secrets. She is seen at school, sexually curious with a young fellow student who then has to move from the town because of the unemployment situation. She then becomes a victim of the secrets.
One of the main thrusts of Ibsen’s drama is the nature of secrets and whether they should be kept secret or, if they revealed, consequences can be disastrous. And that is certainly the case in The Daughter, with Christian at the centre of the secrets, tense with his father, relying on his bond with Oliver, some wariness of Charlotte, concern for Hedvig.
The performances are very good, the atmosphere of the town created admirably, the interactions of the characters involving – which means a great challenge to the audience concerning the secrets, and the importance of their being kept and the consequences of their being revealed.
US, 2016, 108 minutes, Colour.
Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Gina Carano.
Directed by Tim Miller.
The worldwide success of Deadpool seems quite extraordinary. Within a week it had broken many records in the United States and, very quickly afterwards, made an impact right around the world.
While it is a film version of Marvel Comics, it is quite different from the usual presentation of superheroes, the mighty saviours of the world. Deadpool himself does have some extraordinary powers but they were not necessarily of his wanting – his transformation is something akin to that of Peter Palmer into Spiderman, and his costume is not dissimilar. But, in personality, definitely different!
The thing is that , Deadpool is really a spoof. Deadpool is actually Wade Wilson, who had a career, a tough career, in righting wrongs around the world, mercenary style. Not that we know this from the beginning. Rather, the film makers have decided to write a screenplay which is something of a jigsaw puzzle: initially showing us Deadpool in vigorous action, then going back to Wade’s story, and a bit of to and frowing between these two periods.
What emerges is that Wade is diagnosed with a terminal illness and, rather than imposing on his loving wife, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) their vigorous courtship we have also been privy to, accepts an invitation to undergo some kind of surgery which might save his life. However, a villain that we have already seen confronting Deadpool, ensures that Wade is so transformed that he becomes hideous, including an desperate fire fight, gets himself a costume which will conceal his burnt face, and off he goes on a quest, especially seeking the villain, Francis (Ed Skrein), especially when he takes Vanessa as a hostage.
This means there is a lot of tongue-in-cheek action as well as very straightforward stoushes, sometimes involving his friends, especially two mutants from the well-known school from the X-Men? films and some jokes about Hugh Jackman and Wolverine, one a mutant that resembles a Frankenstein monster in some ways and another is a teenager, who waits to go into action until she has finished tweeting, who becomes a speeding ball of fire.
But, what makes the difference, is the repartee in the dialogue, smart, jokey, quite a number of film references even to Ryan Reynolds commenting on his own acting abilities…
And this seems to have captured the imagination and emotional response of audiences in 2016, probably indicating that along with the very serious, big-budget action shows that are to come, there will be a lot more humour, deadpan humour and spoof – which the trailer of Suicide Squad seems to indicate is another in this trend this year.
THE FINEST HOURS
US, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.
Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz.
Directed by Craig Gillespie.
The Finest Hours is a US and action adventure at sea, based on a true story.
In 1952, off the Massachusetts coast, a tanker was buffeted by waves and broke in half. There were other disasters at sea on the night. Someone on the coast, during the storm and lightning, saw the outline of the tanker and communicated with the local coastguard. The commander, not a local and so resented because of his accent and manner, ordered out a small boat to search for the stricken vessel. For many, it seemed something of a death sentence – nevertheless, the mission was successful.
The film starts rather slowly, establishing the character of Bernie Webber, a young coastguard officer, hesitant, a believer in regulations, and shy and awkward with girls. He has made an appointment to meet a young woman that he has been talking for some time on the phone. He is encouraged by his friend, Gus, and the two men meet girls and go to a dance. The girl, Miriam, is much less hesitant than Bernie and proposes to him – but he is troubled, willing, needing to ask his commanding officer.
Then the storm breaks and Bernie is put in charge of a small but competent boat, his friend, Richie, also somewhat critical of him, volunteers to go as do two other men. The difficulty is getting across the sand and rock bar of the harbour without running aground.
In the meantime we are treated to the powerful special effects for mountainous seas, vast waves, ocean turmoil and the breaking of the tanker. At two stages, the captain of each boat says to his men, “brace yourselves” – but that is something the audience has been doing in their seats for the previous 30 minutes so impacting in the effects.
In the meantime, Miriam is concerned, confronts the officer in charge, challenges his orders. Ultimately, she has to wait like everyone else on the docks, living in hope.
Because we know that the rescue was ultimately successful, the suspense is not in what will happen but how what will happen, the difficulties of Bernie in the small boat, the stalling the engine, the loss of the compass, and a sudden finding of the stricken tanker.
And, on the tanker, some of the men want to lower the lifeboats and escape, but the engineer in charge, Ray, tries to convince them that the lifeboats will be smashed to pieces very quickly. He uses his ingenuity and the loyalty of the crew to work on the engine, to continue maintaining the pumps, to construct a tiller for safe steering and the idea of reversing the tanker onto a reef so that it can be steady in case of rescue.
The film is well done, the rescue plot dominating the personal drama, so some audiences may find the film not to their taste, perhaps to documentary-like. Chris Pine, who has been the new Captain Kirk in the two recent Star Trek adventures, shows himself capable as Bernie. Casey Affleck has a strong role as Ray. Eric Bana is the commander and Holliday Grainger is Miriam.
A worthy drama and a tribute to the heroic efforts of those men in 1952.
GODS OF EGYPT
Australia/US, 2016, 127 minutes, Colour.
Nikolaj Coster- Waldau, Gerard Butler, Brenton Thwaites, Rufus Sewel, Geoffrey Rush, Elodi Yung, Bryan Brown, Rachael Blake, Courtney Eaton, Chadwick Boseman, Felix Williamson, Robyn Nevin, Bruce Spence, Tiriel Mora.
Directed by Alex Proyas.
Big, blooming, brash, blustering. Somebody remarked that this is really popcorn fantasy for the multiplex audience. And why not?
If you are a serious student of ancient Egypt, give this one a miss, you might get confused as to the history of the gods. Or, perhaps you might just put it on hold, waiting for a time for relaxation and an alternate view of what those gods were up to in pre-history times.
Back in the 50s when CinemaScope? was introduced, this kind of film was very popular, even a big budget one like The Egyptian. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, there were adventure films, fantasies about Sinbad and other heroes, taking us back into our fantasy past, conflicts and loves, with special effects by the expert, Ray Harryhausen. One of the peaks of this kind of film was the 1980s, Clash of the Titans, even starring Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith.
In more recent times, the Titans have come back with both a Clash and a Wrath. There have been several Hercules films and another about the gods, The Immortals. So, there is a tradition for this kind of entertainment, this time brash, big-budget, an enormous range of special effects and, through CGI, a seeming cast of millions. The director is Australian Alex Proyas and most of the film was made at Fox Studios in Sydney, with additional work in Canada. Proyas is best known for his science fiction film, Dark City, 1998.
We might remember the names from study or the movies, Osiris, Set, Horus, Ra. They are all here.
Back in those days, it seems that the gods lived amongst mortals, mortals being ordinary height and the gods much taller, which takes a little getting used to. At the opening, the benign King Osiris (Bryan Brown polishing up his Aussie accent to make it sound a little more British) is about to crown his rather irresponsible son, Horus (Nikolaj Coster- Waldau, a solid import from Game of Thrones) in the presence of those CGI millions. Who should arrive but the bad God- Ruler, Set, (Gerard Butler remembered from 300, having decided to keep his Scottish accent and all). Seemingly friendly, he is up to no good and soon he takes over, kills his brother, exiles his nephew, subjugates all the mortals who become the equivalent of the Hebrews in later times, building pyramids and monuments in slavery.
But the story is told by a human in his old age, Bek. Young, he is played by Brenton Thwaites, an enthusiastic young mortal, in love with Zaya (Courtney Eaton) who teams up with Horus, the god not above exploiting the human, the human with a sense of adventure, especially when his loved one is killed and is on a journey to the afterlife and he has a quest to save her before she reaches the final gate.
Also on hand, later, is the grandfather God, Ra, played unexpectedly by Geoffrey Rush who has an extraordinary apotheosis scene towards the end.
This means that there are all kinds of adventures, battles, betrayals, deaths, and, of course, a huge and lengthy confrontation between Horus and Set, especially involving an enormous tower which puts, heightwise, the tower of Babel into insignificance.
This is the kind of film that used to be described as Saturday matinee material, all kinds of adventures and cliffhangers, not a great deal put into depth of characterisation. Rather, here are the heroes and villains, here are the situations, here are the battles – and good will triumph over evil.
UK, 2016, 83 minutes, Colour.
Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Isla Fisher, Ian Mc Shane, Penelope Cruz, Tamsin Egerton, Ricky Tomlinson, Johnny Vegas, Scott Adkins, Gabourey Sidibe.
Directed by Louis Letterier.
An initial word is necessary for audiences contemplating going to see Grimsby. For those with high sensitivity and fastidious sensibility, probably best to give it a miss.
On the other hand, for those with a more robust sense of humour and a tolerance towards the crass, it is often very funny, as might be expected of a film with Sacha Baron Cohen. His initial career was in satiric comedy, creating the television character, Ali G, venturing into the movies as well. Ali G was intrusive, funny, controversial – with more than a touch of vulgarity. Then Baron Cohen won over audiences with his very funny satire, and the visit to Tajikistan, Borat. Bruno, his intrusive adventures and interviews in the United States, was less successful, but he made something of a comeback with The Dictator. He also appeared a number of films including Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables.
This film is much the same except… The setting is in the Northern British town, working town, Grimsby, where Baron Cohen plays Nobby Butcher, an awkward-looking (thanks to imitating Noel Gallagher), pot-bellied father of nine children, often with movie names like Django Unchained. (A lot of funny movie references, jokes about Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Potter and Aids, and satire on Donald Trump).He has a girlfriend, Dawn, played by Rebel Wilson. We are introduced to him in the pub, with fireworks in unseemly places, raucous laughter and pub friends like Ricky Tomlinson and Johnny Vegas. While fingers are poked at the citizens of Grimsby, and an acknowledgement that they often are called scum, he has real affection for them, the foibles and way of life. And the support of football teams and Britain in World Cups.
But, he has a deep yearning to find his younger brother, Sebastian, from whom he was separated when they became orphans and only one was adopted. There are photos, there are many flashbacks of the boys playing together and their separation, Nobby sacrificing himself for Sebastian. With this family emphasis, the characters and situations are made more humane than is usual in the film. It has also been scripted rather than relying on a lot of improvisation.
It is also a spy film. We soon discover that Sebastien is one of the arch-agents in pursuing criminals and getting information, lots of action chases. It would seem that this is the reason for the director, Louis Letterier (Transporter films and other action shows) to be brought in and provide a lot of adrenaline-action.
Of course, the two brothers meet, Nobby ruining his brother’s mission and getting him targeted as a rogue spy, hiding out in Grimsby, and going to pursue leads in Africa and, finally, a World Cup climax in Chile to save the world at a World Cup match.
Baron Cohen’s wife, Isla Fisher, plays the contact at MI6 and Ian Mc Shane is the boss. On the other hand, Penelope Cruz is a villain (a surprise to see her here, although she was in Zoolander 2).
There are a lot of visual gags, but audiences may be wondering with all the verbal and visual jokes about masculine identity, sniggering jokes of the schoolboy kind, each one daring the audience to laugh and then moving on to yet another, more explicit, joke. People will be talking about the elephant sequence – absolutely crass, absolutely preposterous, yet given the humane aspects of the characterisations, more acceptable than it might have been!
There is plenty going on in the brief running time, a lot of corny jokes, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, but the action moving on quickly to the next episode and joke.
Mark Strong as Sebastian deserves great commendation for his playing everything straight and getting himself into all kinds of uncomfortable situations that he is never had to face in any other of his films.
US, 2016, 106 minutes, Colour.
Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances Mc Dormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Allison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, John Bluthal, David Krumholz, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, Jack Huston. Narrated by Michael Gambon.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coen Brothers have had over 30 years success in making films, great critical success, audience fans, Oscars and awards from festivals including Cannes.
Perhaps, over all these years, they have had a special secret Bucket List of all the movie genres they would like to work in. And their output has been quite varied. With Hail, Caesar, they seem to be putting into practice all those wishes. And successfully, both as hommage as well as spoof.
The title. At the beginning of the film, Hollywood, 1951, is a Roman epic called Hail, Caesar. This gives them the opportunity to have ranks and ranks of marching Roman legions, slaves in captivity, and a star for the leader of the legions, Autolychus, George Clooney – adept at speaking some hammy lines, hammy performance as well is getting himself abducted by an alleged study group, naming themselves The Future, actually a Communist cell, giving Clooney lectures on politics and economics, on dialectic, with, of all people, the thinker, Herbert Marcuse, present in the group for discussions. (For Australian audiences and audiences of The Vicar of Dibley, John Bluthal plays Marcuse). Shades of the anti-Communist feeling of the time.
In fact, the focus of the film, is the manager of Capital Studios, Eddie Mannix, played very seriously with touches of irony by Josh Brolin. He is a fixer, on the phone to New York, getting reports from all the film locations, from the directors in the studios, handling temperaments, PR, arranged marriages, stars going into rehabilitation for drying out, dealing with the gossip columnists (in this case, two terrible twins both played very effectively and tartly by Tilda Swinton).
The opening is very surprising for a Coen Brothers, a close-up of a crucifix, extreme close-up of Jesus on the cross, followed by a confessional sequence (later to be repeated more seriously). Eddie is a Catholic (although there is a long history of Jewish heads of studios). He is also ecumenical for Hail, Caesar, because of the sequences with Jesus, the subtitle of Hail, Caesar is a Tale of the Christ (straight out of Ben Hur). In fact, Jesus comes out very well from the film, a reprisal of the Nazareth and cup of water sequence from Ben Hur as well as a final crucifixion scene with Autolychus coming to the cross and making a long speech, more heartfelt after his abduction and reprimands from Eddie, which could have fitted into any Crucifixion story – although, tension is broken right at the end when Clooney forgets his keyword, “faith”. (There are also memories of The Robe and a small homage to The Life of Brian in Roman pronunciations.)
There are lots and lots of other things in the film, Alden Ehrenreich standing out as a cowboy in a B-budget Western where he can do somersaults on his horse, get caught on a tree branch and shoot his enemies and get back on his horse. he is an expert at the lassoo, even with a string of spaghetti, and is seen singing in a romantic western scene. He is very funny when he is transferred, orders of New York, to go into a drawing-room drama where his cowboy gait and his terrible accent need the exasperated but charming attention of the director, played by Ralph Fiennes.
We also go into the editing room for a cameo by Mrs Coen, Frances Mc Dormand, smoking heavily and then her scarf getting caught in the projector and her almost choking!
There is a musical with a reminder of On the Town and South Pacific, sailors ensemble dance led by the singing and dancing Channing Tatum – his character is revealed to have a much more complex side, to do with Clooney’s abduction. There is Scarlett Johansson doing an Esther Williams in a swimming sequence – exuding innocence until she opens her tough mouth.
Many, many things to enjoy about the film, narrated by Michael Gambon, some fine casting and performances (and a question for trivial pursuit in the scene where Josh Brolin talks with the director played by Christophe Lambert, what they have in common is that they were both married Diane and Lane!).
The Coen brothers have done it again, and enjoyably.
HOW TO BE SINGLE
US, 2016, 110 Minutes, Colour.
Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Damon Wayans Jr, Anders Holm, Nicholas Braun, Jake Lacy, Jason Mantzoukas, Allison Brie.
Directed By Christian Ditter.
This is a film which has a definite target audience, younger women in their 20s and 30s – though other women in the audience may well enjoy it, remembering their younger days as well as observing the behaviour of younger women and their dealing with relationships, commitment, marriage and family, as well as the freedom of being single.
While the director is male, the screenplay is definitely from a female perspective. Some of the men are sympathetic – but not all of them and not always.
This is one of those films which start off fairly raucously, audiences invited to enjoy the freedom, dating, drinking, sexual encounters – and, as the film goes on, settling down, developing issues of love and commitment, and some moralising by the end. This reviewer has often referred to this kind of filmmaking as the ‘Judd Apatow syndrome’ – and this is brought to awareness in the fact that one of the women at the centre of the film is Leslie Mann, Judd Apatow’s wife.
However, the story is that of Alice, played by Dakota Johnson after her adventures in Fifty Shades of Grey. We see her chance encounter with Josh in her college days, their four years together, and her feeling that life was narrowing in on her and that she needs some kind of time away from him. She has a job in a legal office where she encounters a very unlikely paralegal, Rebel Wilson. Rebel Wilson gives the same performance over and over, the wild one, the offhand remarks, the straight talk, the seeming good-time girl, but audiences do enjoy her screen presence.
She is Robin and takes Alice out on the town, introducing her to the barman who has a very free and easy attitude towards life and sex, Tom (Anders Holm). Alice is attracted, takes a risk, but she finds Tom too free. Tom, in the meantime, is interested in the gawky young woman, Lucy (Alison Brie) who spends time in the bar working on her computer. While she is not one of the main single characters, she does eventually find a good relationship with George (Jason Mantzoukas).
The third woman coping with how to be single is the older woman, Leslie Mann, Alice’s sister, who is a doctor who works in obstetrics, delivering babies, not wanting a baby of her own because of her dedication to her career but, in a key sequence, minding a little baby, tries valiantly to resist its cuteness (and the director certainly gets a great deal of cuteness from the baby’s face, smile and expressions) but succumbs. She wants to be pregnant but takes the IDF path. She is not interested in relationships but a man at Alice’s office, Ken (Jake Lacy) is attracted to her and not just for a one night stand, but devoted to her and, eventually, to the baby.
There are some amusing moments, some very raucous moments, some very bad judgements about relationships moments, but the film will probably appeal to that target audience while others will look on, probably more benignly than not.
THE LADY IN THE VAN
UK, 2015, 104 minutes, Colour.
Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, George Fenton, Deborah Findlay, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, David Calder, Sam Spruell, Stephen Campbell Moore.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner.
The Lady in the Van began its life as a memoir by Alan Bennett, the celebrated playwright. He published the memoir and then adapted it to a theatre piece in the early 2000’s. It seemed a perfect theatrical piece for Maggie Smith is the subject, the lady in the van, Miss Shepherd.
A decade later, he has amplified the memoir and the play, opening out the story, being able to film in the street, have a real van, bring in the neighbours and their life in the street, expand the story of Miss Shepherd, with scenes in the countryside, Miss Shepherd visiting her brother, Bennett visiting his mother, shops, the hospital, the church.
Miss Shepherd was an eccentric character, rather curmudgeonly in her attitudes and behaviour, travelling around in the van and settling in a street in Camden Town, finally moving into the driveway of Alan Bennett’s house, setting up a residence, able to get a pension, and living her eccentric life. She was roughly dressed, was not very good on hygiene, toilet going, washing, and she and her van smelt.
The film opens enigmatically with Miss Shepherd driving her van, hitting something or someone, blood on her broken windscreen and her driving away from the scene. Later, we see her returning to the scene and kneeling and praying on the road. It is only at the end of the film that there is an explanation of what happened and who was responsible. Nevertheless, she had a lifetime of guilt, avoiding the police, relying on prayer, confession.
The film is also a study of the playwright, Alan Bennett. By the 1970s he had a strong reputation and is seen going to the National Theatre and presenting his monologues. Bennett has the interesting device of creating two selves, his inner self usually sitting at the typewriter creating the story and the memoir, then his outer self who has to deal with Miss Shepherd and the dialogue between the two, the criticisms about his behaviour, his attitudes towards Miss Shepherd. At the end, there is a scene of filming with Alex Jennings as Bennett, an excellent portrayal in both his personas, and the real Alan Bennett coming to watch.
At the time of the making of the film, Maggie Smith was 80, a career of over 55 years on stage and screen, the end of her period as the Dowager, the opposite kind of character yet dominating, in Downton Abbey. She is a commanding screen presence with a commanding character, a character who will remain a long time with the audience.
The director is Nicholas Hytner, director over many years at the National Theatre and director of stage and screen versions of Bennett’s The History Boys. There are some incidental pleasures throughout the film as a number of character actors from the British stage have some moment re-cameos, including James Cordrn, Dominic Cooper, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Campbell Moore, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour.
This is very much a film of words as well as of images and action, a film that challenges compassion for the homeless, not underestimating the harshness of the character of this homeless woman. We see her as a pianist when she was young, remember her time in the convent, her memories of being a stretcher bearer in the war, and, of course, the repercussions of the accident – and the telling scene when she goes to confession and the priest tells her that she had confessed this so many times but that forgiveness was not like a bus ticket, it did not expire.
The film ends with some touches of surrealism: a scene of filming in the Street where actual Alan Bennett comes to watch and then Miss Shepherd dying and, after death, encountering a new friend, the man killed in the accident – and she has a visual ascension into heaven, with a realisation that God certainly has compassion on characters like Miss Shepherd.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
UK, 2016, 107 minutes, Colour.
Lilly James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Lena Headey.
Directed by Burr Steers.
Well, the title tells all. The film is based on graphic novel by Seth Graham Smith – who gets equal credit for book origin with Jane Austen.
We know that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, there could be quite some chaos halfway around the world. It is not known what the repercussions were of so many thousands of Jane Austen devotees suddenly raising their eyebrows as they heard of this particular and challenging title. It could have been more than quite chaotic.
Many novels are adapted, as well as the plays of Shakespeare for instance, to contemporary settings. With Jane Austen, it happened in the 1990s with a contemporary American high school version of Emma, Clueless, which received enthusiastic reviews. This time, Jane Austen’s period, the setting, characters and manners are all retained, costumes and decor getting particular emphasis. Of course, it is the contemporary zombie conventions that enthusiasts will be upset about.
We know where we are quite early in the film when Darcy (Sam Riley) is introduced as a colonel, a zombie hunter, and we are giving a lesson on British history, especially British colonialism which is suffering the backlash of imperial attitudes by the seeds of the living dead transported back to the mother country. The main specification about the zombies that they have to eat the brains of the living to be transformed! At a game of the whist in a country mansion, a zombie is revealed – with Darcy coming quickly to the attack with his blade.
Move to the Bennett family, with Charles Dance as the mild-mannered Mr Bennett, Sally Phillips as the mother whose goal is to have her daughters married, the attractive Jane (Bella Heathcote) and the older daughter, with a touch of the cynical, Elizabeth (Lilly James of the Downton Abbey, Cinderella). While they go about their domestic chores, well-mannered in the style of the times, they actually are expert in martial arts for combating zombies and, in a number of scenes, demonstrate their prowess.
There are also the Bingleys, with whom most of us are familiar, Douglas Booth as Mr Bingley, attracted to Jane, inviting her to the Bingley household – and even though she is armed with a blade from her house, she is attacked by zombies on her horse journey and thought to be infected. Lizzie assures everyone that she is not. Mr Darcy turns up and the two begin their battle between pride and prejudice.
One character from the novel who gets more emphasis in this film is Mr Wickham (Jack Huston). He is a soldier, has an antipathy towards Mr Darcy, having grown up in the household, is involved in the war against the zombies, is initially attracted to Lizzie (and she to him) but, as in the novel, he makes his departure with Lydia.
Actually, he has a far more significant role in the zombie stories than we might be initially led to believe, going into the Inbetween section of London where there is a revolt by the zombies and a fierce attempt to break out, with Lizzie and Darcy putting aside the usual dislike and realise, of course, that it is love not hatred that bonds them together, making a narrow escape before a kind of apocalyptic conclusion.
Stuff and nonsense one could say – but, in fact, it is a version of Pride and Prejudice, and one might read some social and political commentary in the presence of the zombies in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century.
RIDE ALONG 2
US, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.
Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, Tika Sumpter, Benjamin Bratt, Olivia Munn Ken Jeong, Bruce Mc Gill.
Directed by Tim Story.
Ride Along was one of those many comedies, which targeted African- American audience in the US and which was so successful there that distributors decided it should get a run beyond the US and rely on the popularity of the stars.
This worked well enough, especially with Ice Cube and his long music and rap history as well as his films (and his story being dramatised in the 2015 Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton). Then there was the issue of Kevin Hart, a very popular stand-up comedian in the US, small, cheeky, with a motormouth, and making his way in films, sometimes successfully as in The Wedding Ringer and sometimes more than irritatingly in the remake of About Last Night.
Hart also made some impression with various interventions in the 2016 Oscar broadcast with the focus on the absence of black actors in the nominations for 2015. He can be very funny – and not.
His casting in Ride Along was shrewd, he was Ben, the potential brother-in-law of Ice Cube, James, who was a detective, with Hart wanting to be a detective, being allowed to ride along, and causing a fair amount of mayhem before the criminals were captured – with some unexpected help from him.
A formula – and repeated here quite successfully, a pleasure for those enjoyed the first one and a puzzle for those who wondered why a sequel was necessary! The context of this film is that Ben is about to get married to James’s sister, preparations well underway, though there are some comic episodes about the organisation of wedding. When a case comes up in Miami, and James is to go over from Atlanta, at first unwilling, he then decides that it would be a lesson to Ben about his unsuitability - he has already sabotaged a case at home with his over-eagerness - that a detective he is not.
In Miami, there is an overtly respectable gangster, Benjamin Bratt, who is involved in all kinds of crime, especially drug importation, who is considered a leading personality of Miami, but has a whole range of henchmen who kill at his whim. There is also a computer expert (who has a weakness for online sex sites) who finds out whole lot of information about the gangster and is therefore at risk. He is played by the comedian Ken Jeong (quite a presence in such films as The Hangover).
The odd couple detectives also team up with a very serious Miami detective, Maya (Olivia Munn). And thus begins a series of comic adventures, dangers, party crashing, shootouts, showdowns on docks, and James tying up Ben so that he will not be involved in the showdown and will be safe for his wedding. Of course, that is not to be, and Ben is certainly in on the final action, helping to save the day.
And a happy wedding, and, again of course, the stern James having Maya as his Plus 1 at the ceremony.
There is no real reason not to have a Ride Along 3.
US, 2016, 107 minutes, Colour.
Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds.
There is an unusual film phenomenon at the opening of 2016. Two films, Scripture-based, but imaginative interpretations of gospel events.
Since 2000, have been many religious films, success attributed to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. there have been quite a number of Jesus films: The Miracle Maker, Mary mother of Jesus, Jesus, The Gospel of John, the South African Son Of Man. It seems that there is an appetite in a wide range of audiences for Biblical films (more recently Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings).The two films further 2016 are The Young Messiah, a film about Jesus at the age of seven, and Risen, a perspective on the death and resurrection of Jesus from the point of view of a Roman Tribune. This is the kind of story that was developed in the 1953 film, The Robe, and used in the current comedy about Hollywood film-making, Hail, Caesar!.
In an age where the title might suggest zombies in the living dead, is interesting to see that the title is for the risen Jesus. This is a worthy film, in some ways a Roman spectacle but, ultimately, a film about faith.
Technically, the film is very well made, using Morocco settings, re-creation of Jerusalem, Pilate’s residence, Calvary, the disciples in the upper room, as well as the Judaean desert, the sea of Galilee and the mountains. The director is Kevin Reynolds who, in the past, directed such blockbusters as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and Waterworld. The film is technically well-crafted.
But, for many viewers, the key question is: how is the resurrection of Jesus treated? Basically, the answer is with reverence and some awe.
The audience is giving the setting of troubles in Judaea at the time of Jesus. There is an opening battle sequence, quite vivid in its action, where the Roman soldiers are confronting the Zealots, the Romans being bombarded by heavy rocks but capitalising on military strategies, using their shields for protection and advancing on the Zealots, defeating them and taking Barabbas. The commander is Claviuis, played very seriously by Joseph Fiennes.
Then we are given the background of Pilate, his concern about beating the Zealots, his remarking to Clavius that he has had trouble, allowing the chief priests to take a prisoner, Yeshua, and crucifying him. Pilate has been troubled and thinks that Yeshua has had a death wish, wanting to sacrifice himself. Pilate and then sends Clavius to Calvary to oversee the breaking of the legs of the thieves and of Yeshua but he authorises the piercing of the issue aside with a lance, despite the Centurion’s professing faith in Yeshua. Mary and the others are glimpsed at the foot of the cross.
This means that the Gospel events are being looked at from the point of view of the Romans. This is particularly the case when Joseph of Arimathea brings a message from Pilate with permission to take the body of Jesus, Clavius inspecting the tomb before the huge stone is rolled over it and Roman seals put on the stone. (The other bodies are seen being thrown into lime pits.)
The film makes much of the incompetent soldiers, drinking on guard, wanting a night off, experiencing something strange and then reporting back to Caiaphas with the invention of the story of the stealing of Jesus’ body. Pilate is insistent to Clavius (and Caiaphas even more insistent) that the body be found and any rumours of Yeshua Risen are quashed.
Which means that the audience goes behind the familiar scenes, with Clavius and his assistant searching for all the recently buried bodies (a desecration that the people abhor) and then interviewing various disciples of Yeshua, including a cheery Bartholomew, an old blind lady, and a very serious Mary Magdalene, identified professionally by a number of the soldiers.
But, one of those interviewed is prepared, Judas-like, to betray the disciples and leads the Romans to the upper room, Clavius entering at the time of Thomas’s encounter with Yeshua and astonished at seeing him.
From this point on, the film changes gear, Clavius rather overwhelmed by what seemed impossible, his leaving his post, travelling north and encountering Peter and the other apostles, sharing their experience with them at the Lake of Galilee, even talking to Yeshua about his search for meaning, and then an ascension scene, not a levitation, but Yeshua speaking the familiar words and walking into the sunrise.
By this stage, the focus is on faith, the encounter with Yeshua and the consequences.
As has been said, the film is well crafted technically, is written with serious intent, performed seriously, with Peter Firth as Pilate and a very sympathetic Cliff Curtis (the New Zealand Maori actor) as Yeshua.
The film will be sympathetically received by believing audiences, by Christians of all denominations, and with some interest in interpreting the Gospels from the Roman perspective by those who do not share faith.
SAUL FIA/ SON OF SAUL
Hungary, 2015, 107 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Laszlo Nemes.
Son of Saul is demanding viewing. This is a Hungarian film, set in Auschwitz 1944, life in the concentration camps, Jewish prisoners, questions of survival but also questions of human values and Jewish traditions.
The film won many awards, in Cannes 2015, Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film and then the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
A number of audiences found the film to gruelling to watch, some having to leave the cinema because they found it. However, over the decades, Holocaust stories and concentration camps stories have been continual reminders that the memory must not be lost.
Saul and many of the other men in the camp are considered as sonderkommanders, indispensable for work, especially in preparing those who are to go into the gas chambers (being cajoled by voices coming through speakers saying that they would be given soup) but who are being asked to strip, leave their clothes and their valuables behind and then being locked into the chambers. The men have to collect the clothes, classify them, examine possessions, even to the gold in teeth.
But, these sonderkommanders are also dispensable, ready to be executed after they have served their time in working.
With the focus on Saul, the film is able to bring some humanity into this inhumane situation. Saul finds a young man who has not finished dying, is moved by his plight, sees him as something of a son-figure and treating him with some reverence, wanting to find a Rabbi to provide some kind of closing ritual for this man’s life, concealing him from the authorities while he tries to fulfil the rituals.
This is difficult as he enlists the help of the Jewish doctor who conducts autopsies, has to avoid the criticisms of some of the other prisoners and sonderkommanders, the audience becoming more involved in the character of Saul and this humane quest.
The visual style of the film is quite stark, sometimes not clear, simply immersing its audience in this dark and confused and confusing world.
The film builds up its tension, especially when the prisoners have planned an escape, involving Saul in making contact with a source for explosives that they would use to create a diversion so that they may make a run. And Saul finds a Rabbi whom he brings to the body of the young man.
But, this is a sombre story and the plotline would not necessarily go as the escapees have planned, not for Saul, not for the body of the boy, not for the role of the Rabbi, not to the escapees – which, after harrowing action, means that audiences will leave the theatre, feeling that they have been put through harrowing experiences, the vision of the boy in the woods as they escape, the oncoming German soldiers, sombre experiences, and an acknowledgement that in inhumanity there is humanity – but, as the concentration camps showed, humanity does not always conquer.
US, 2015, 122 minutes, Colour.
Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlabarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haneyi- Jardine, Sarah's Snook, John Ortiz, Adam Shapiro.
Directed by Danny Boyle.
This is a portrait of Steve Jobs rather than a biography. It would be very helpful for appreciating this film to know some details about Jobs, his life, his work on computers, his Apple company, his rise, his fall, his making a comeback. The previous film, Jobs, stirring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs supplied a great deal of personal and professional background.
This film has been directed by Danny Boyle who began his career in British television with some Inspector Morse mysteries, achieved a reputation with such films as Shallow Grave and Transporting, working in a variety of genres, including science fiction, and won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire.
And, the film has been written by Alvin Sorkin, again, a man with a significant reputation with such television series as The West Wing and scripting films like The American President, The Social Network and Moneyball.
For this portrait, Sorkin has chosen three launches which were significant in Jobs’ career, during the 1980s and 1990s. There are quite a number of flashbacks illustrating something of the background but the audience needs some knowledge to anchor this in. They show Jobs in triumphant mode as well as under a great deal of stress, finally making a comeback.
Jobs was not particularly likeable man and Michael Fassbender, Oscar nominated performance, communicates this particularly well, hyper energetic, intense, a controller, intolerant of anyone who did not measure up to his standards, which meant abandoning friends and colleagues, dismissing them as failures in his eyes. He was also poor in more personal relationships, living under the cloud of being adopted and seemingly rejected, unwilling to acknowledge his daughter and her mother. He did have some moments of redemption, based on whims rather than convictions, often too late.
The film gives great deal of attention to preparations for the launches, a great deal of razzamatazz, precision with lights and audiovisuals. But, each episode shows his changing relationships with key characters.
These are impressively performed. Seth Rogen is surprising in a more serious role in bringing his typical screen persona to the character, the computer whizz, Steve Wozniak, but, at each stage, with the differing relationship, trying to persuade Jobs to acknowledge his past workers, his frustration and feelings of a betrayal of trust more and more evident.
Jeff Daniels appears as John Sculley who was recruited from Pepsi- Cola to manage the Apple company, had to dismiss Jobs, moved into retirement but appears at each launch. The continuing discussion is about Jobs’ need for a father-figure in his life.
Another worker is Andy Herzfeld, played by Michael Stuhlbard, not liked by Jobs, nor liking him, but, having followed Jobs’ orders so long, so highly demanding, breaks with him and gives financial support to Jobs’ daughter to enrol at Harvard.
And, all the time, there is Jobs’ assistant, Joanna Hoffman, who exhibits the patience of a saint, always loyal to Jobs, not only fulfilling all his commands but diplomatically smoothing over so many situations, especially towards his daughter and her mother, going through thick and thin, the only person who could seem to love him. This is an excellent performance by Kate Winslet.
Once again, it should be stressed that this is not a biography of Steve Jobs although audiences can learn a great deal about his life. Rather, it is a significant portrait, illuminating one of the key personalities in communications in the 20th century.
US, 2015, 124 minutes, Colour.
Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Alan Tudyk, David James Elliott, Richard Portnow, Roger Bart, Adewale Akkinuoue- Agbaje.
Directed by Jay Roach.
The title might seem a mysterious name – except for those who are film buffs or who are film students. Trumbo is the name of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a significant figure in Hollywood in the 1940s, socialist leaning and joining the Communist Party during World War II, when the USSR and the US were allies. But, with the end of the war, the coming down of the Iron Curtain and militant patriotism taking hold of the American public as well as of the American Congress, it was “Un- American” to have been a member of the Communist Party. Trumbo became a victim of the investigations and hearings, and was blacklisted for over a decade.
Playwright Lillian Hellman called this period “Scoundrel Times”. In retrospect, from 1947 throughout most of the 1950s, a number of people in public office, including Vice- President and later, President, Richard Nixon, participated in hearings, including investigations about the Hollywood film industry, pressurising people to profess their loyalties and to name names. Perhaps the actors and directors featured in Trumbo have become part of Hollywood history and the impact of their patriotic statements does not make such an impact today, but there was a divide and many reputations were lost and a great number of actors, writers, producers and directors were not able to work for many years.
This background is made clear in this film. As is the ultra-Conservative and patriotic stances of some of the Hollywood personnel. Here, one of the main upholders of the right is John Wayne. But one of the principal crusaders is the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, powerful with her widely read columns, played intensely with destruction aforethought by Helen Mirren. There are clips from a number of actors, especially those denouncing, with images of Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, Sam Wood. Others, like Gregory Peck and Lucille Ball overheard in radio clips supporting the alleged communists, or like Humphrey Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, seen in many demonstration scenes. Some were pressurised like Edward G. Robinson.
But, the focus of this film is Dalton Trumbo, play convincingly, sympathetically but not underestimating his ego and his demanding nature, by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. It is very interesting to see Cranston breaking from his TV series to this kind of serious performance, Oscar-nominated. The support of his family and a variety of sequences are convincing because of the presence of Diane Lane as his long-suffering wife and Elle Fanning as his oldest daughter.
The span of the film is 1947 to 1960 with a postscript to 1970 and an award from the Writers Guild of America. Futher information is given in the final credits with a number of photos and radio and TV excerpts.
Early in the film, Trumbo is the leader of a group of writers and directors who had affiliations with the Communist Party who band together to try to deal with the hearings by Congress, preserve the values of the First Amendment, risk being held on contempt and jailed – which does happen to a number of them, known as The Hollywood Ten. Trumbo spent a year in jail in Kentucky, ironically sharing prison time with J.Parnell Thomas, his principal interrogator who was found guilty of tax fraud and jailed. One of the main interrogators in the early 1950s was Senator Joe Mc Carthy – but the film shows him only briefly.
The latter part of the film shows how Trumbo survived professionally and financially, albeit undercover, by writing screenplays like Roman Holiday for which he won Oscar, though it was attributed to Ian Mc Clellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) a close friend. He then worked for the King Bros (only two of the three present here, played by John Goodman and Stephen Root) writing small budget quickie movies or being a script doctor on many screenplays, involving a number of his friends in similar kind of work, including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). One of the projects dear to his heart, The Brave One, then won him another Oscar although under the name, Robert Rich.
Trumbo, unlike others, lived to see his vindication, supported by Kirk Douglas in getting him to write Spartacus and, especially, director, Otto Preminger, not only getting him to write Exodus but deciding to put Trumbo’s name on the script and publicising this in a press conference, something which Kirk Douglas followed with Spartacus.
The anti-Communist fervour of the period offers a lesson in the effect of extremist political and social stances, victimisation of people, so many innocent, and the dangers of any kind fanaticism – something featured in the 2015-2016 campaigns for US presidential nominations, especially the campaign of Donald Trump.
US, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.
Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Justin Theroux, Kristin Wiig, Milla Jovovich, Olivia Munn, Christine Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Billy Zane, Justin Bieber, Kiefer Sutherland, Jerry Stiller, John Malkovich, Cyrus Arnold, Anna Wintour, Lenny Kravitz, Naomi Campbell, Sting, Kate Moss, Lewis Hamilton, Susan Boyle, Tommy Hilfiger, Matt Lauer.
Directed by Ben Stiller.
A lot of people found Zoolander very funny in 2001 – and a number did not, thinking that it was a rather silly spoof. It is surprising to find that it is 15 years between the original and the sequel, which a number of people have found very funny in 2016 and a number have not, thinking it was a rather silly spoof.
This review comes down more in favour of funny than silly, though it certainly is very silly at times.
Ben Stiller and his friend Owen Wilson created the characters, Zoolander and Hansel, male models. Derek Zoolander was a dumb character famous for his facial poses, especially Blue Steel, which Ben Stiller capitalises on here. In the past, the couple got into quite a number of tangles, especially through their dastardly and jealous competitor, Mugatu, Will Ferrell.
Now, in In 2016, Derek is living in the vast and snowbound North New Jersey, morning his dead wife and the son who has disappeared, while Hansel seems exiled with his harem (something of a United Nations group) in the vast dunes of Malibu. Although their foe, Mugatu, is in prison, he has the models in his sights and has a scheme to abduct Zoolander’s son from his Italian boarding school. In the meantime, a number of models are being found murdered, faces contorted by Blue Steel poses – the film being introduced amusingly by Justin Bieber being chased through the streets of Rome and his death mask as Blue Steel. Enter the Interpol fashion police force in the person Penelope Cruz who teams up with pair when they arrive in Rome.
What follows is a mixture of police drama and chases, stupid activities by the models, the transformation of Zoolander’s son who becomes something of a target because he is believed to be the fountain of life.
If you are able to accept this kind of nonsense, and that is the nature of the film, there is much to amuse. and, in the meantime, an overload of guest stars provide entertaining cameos – with Billy Zane and Kiefer Sutherland playing more significant roles, and especially one at Rome airport with the paparazzi greeting Susan Boyle, the surprise performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, with actors wandering in and out like Willie Nelson or John Malkovich, and sports personalities like Lewis Hamilton and fashion personalities like Anna Wintour becoming involved.
It certainly won’t remain in the memory but, for its time on screen, there is quite an amount of amusement.