Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Appreciation

     Two of the greatest fantasy film franchises of all time began in the year 2001: the Harry Potter series launched with Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone in mid-November with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring hitting theaters a month later, with both films approaching (but not quite reaching) the billion dollar mark in worldwide box office receipts. Of course, the big-budget, special-effects-driven action/adventure blockbuster continues to dominate at the box office, from James Cameron’s Avatar grossing a whopping $2.7 billion in 2009 to five films this year grossing over a billion dollars (three about explosions, one with dinosaurs, and one with little yellow monsters in overalls), it is beyond doubt that the blockbuster genre that started with Jaws in 1975 is only going to keep growing.
    And I think we can tentatively be ok with that. While crap like Jaws and Furious 7 always has and always will be made (and we’ll keep saying “they made another one of those movies?!”), the legacy of The Fellowship of the Ring lives on – the kids can still have their explosions and cool monsters and toys and the adults can still have a movie that’s actually good. Peter Jackson hit a mark that many other blockbuster directors often miss. Fellowship isn’t a great movie because he made the orcs look sufficiently scary or because the Balrog kicks some ass; it isn’t great because he stuck closely to great source material (he didn’t); it isn’t even great because the story of the battle between Good and Evil resonates with everyone, no matter their age or race or any other factor. The Fellowship of the Ring is a great movie because its director invested in talent over marquee value.
    Let’s get the easy part out of the way: Elijah Wood and Sean Astin as Frodo Baggins and his loyal companion Samwise Gamgee, respectively, are mediocre actors who did the best they could, and that was all the movie required of them. Ditto Orlando Bloom and Liv Tyler as the elves Legolas and Arwen. We can consider ourselves lucky that both Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart turned down the role of Gandalf the Grey, as Ian McKellan’s performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination) is one of the finest of his film career, especially since he started phoning it in so hard on the later X-Men movies before trying again in Days of Future Past (2014). Viggo Mortensen also gives a career turn as Aragorn, the reluctant would-be king of the race of Men. Aragorn seems to live for combat and feel awkward in social situations, an aspect of the character that Mortensen absolutely nails. At times though, he seems literally afraid to speak, choosing instead to brood on some kind of breakup with his elf girlfriend. Side note: this might be the film’s one major failure, a four-hour movie should have time to develop its only love story but we really don’t see enough of the Aragorn-Arwen relationship to care if they end up together or not.
    The real star of The Fellowship of the Ring, for me, is Sean Bean as the warrior Boromir. Though he is not introduced until about the halfway mark, when several representatives of the races of Middle Earth are holding a council to decide what to do with the Ring of Power, he makes his mark quickly, taking the high ground in the discussion with a passionate reminder to his fellow councilmen that he and his people have kept their lands in Middle Earth safe for centuries from their stronghold, Gondor. You can almost feel the flaming Eye of Sauron staring into your soul as he describes its all-seeing position atop a tower in Mordor. Bean’s crowning achievement as Boromir, though, occurs in the character’s final moments: consumed at last by the malign influence of the Ring, he tries to take it from Frodo and we see the true power of the Ring played out on Bean’s rugged features, as he moves quickly from rage to deep sadness while the Ring toys with his mind. His redemption comes as he sacrifices his life in the fight against the Uruk-hai, enemy “super soldiers”, while taking a few dozen with him to the grave. Bean’s last gasp as Boromir reveals both the frailty and strength of Man, and encapsulates the theme of the entire trilogy. Though Boromir dies almost as quickly as he is introduced, Bean’s is an awe-inspiring performance for an all-around awe-inspiring film. 

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen


Home Alone (1990) Appreciation

     Home Alone was released the year I was born (1990) and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it has been with me ever since. It would be impossible to count how many times I’ve watched it in the last 25 years, mostly on VHS tape in the basement of my grandparents’ condo on Arboretum Circle in the Cleveland suburb of Sagamore Hills, Ohio. It’s difficult to imagine my childhood without Kevin and the rest of the McCallisters, without Harry and Marv, without the gangsters Johnny, Snakes, and Acey; I think I saw the iconic How the Grinch Stole Christmas cartoon in Home Alone a hundred times before I actually watched it on its own. Whether we were celebrating early on Christmas Day or they were giving me presents on my sister’s birthday so I wouldn’t feel left out, a visit to grandma and grandpa’s house almost always included a viewing of Home Alone.
     The tributes to John Hughes’ life and work came pouring in after his sudden death in 2009; from actors who would be nothing without him like Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald, to fellow writer-directors who openly admit to aping his work like Judd Apatow (who candidly told Variety “Basically, my stuff is just John Hughes films with four-letter words.”), the far-reaching impact of Hughes’ writing talent has been well-documented. The word “relatable” seems to appear time and again in describing that unique genre we can call the John Hughes Movie: whether you felt like an outcast in high school or simply had a family, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and many others have something for you.
     But Home Alone was the climax of a storied career that, sadly, died with John Candy. While critics at the time complained that Home Alone was completely far-fetched (of course, it is) and “adult-bashing” (what John Hughes Movie isn’t?), it’s still one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time and anyone that disagrees is just plain wrong. Never mind that on the heels of this success, the John Hughes Movie genre quickly declined in the 1990s as he tried to recapture the glory years of the 80s, even reaching back to his own youth with adaptations of newspaper comic strips (Dennis the Menace [1993]) and Disney movies (101 Dalmatians [1996]) in between sad attempts at Home Alone sequels; never mind that the careers of Macaulay Culkin, Molly Ringwald, and Judd Nelson never really went anywhere despite their early flashes of brilliance.
     We can always come back to Home Alone, and not just because it reminds us of the 90s. We can always come back to Home Alone because it reminds us that family is complicated, but that’s ok. It reminds us that Christmas might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be the most difficult. It reminds us during the season of giving that we have to appreciate what we already have because we could lose it faster than Johnny from Angels with Filthy Souls can count “one, two, TEN!”. 

Director: Chris Columbus

Starring: McCauley Culkin, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Pesci

When Marnie Was There (2014) Review

     With the most recent “retirement” of mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, the latest “final film” from Japanese animation titan Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, is a fitting swan song for the beloved stable that brought us Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and many others. Though not directed by Miyazaki himself but instead helmed by longtime apprentice Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose directorial debut was 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty), When Marnie Was There nevertheless revisits familiar Studio Ghibli themes and story elements. Our young female protagonist, Anna, learns to cope with the inevitable confusion, alienation, and pain of youth (exacerbated here by the fact that Anna is an asthmatic foster child who also happens to look “foreign”) through fleeting contact with a spirit world that may or may not actually exist. Marnie’s greatest strength, like that of the above-mentioned Studio Ghibli classics, is that it doesn’t get bogged down in asking whether anything that happens in the spirit world actually happens in the reality of the film; it is enough for us to see it and, more importantly, to learn from it.
     Anna’s relationship with the titular Marnie begins when the former is sent to live with relatives of her foster mother in a rural village after she collapses from an asthma attack at school. Teased for her blue eyes on multiple occasions, Anna finds in Marniea desperately-sought fellow outcast, a literal foreigner and carbon copy of Alice from Alice in Wonderland whose parents vacation in her life as much as they do in the mansion that occupies an isolated spot across a marsh from the rest of the village. When not pretending to have fun at one of her parents’ lavish parties, Marnie spends most of her time being harshly bullied, and even outright abused, by the family maids. The ringleader of this abuse is called simply Nanny, a buttoned-up matron who is equal parts Mrs. Danvers and Nurse Ratched, albeit tempered for the youthful target audience.
     This remains the only “kids movie” indulgence in the film. Taking on brutal realities from neglect to bullying to the search for belonging, When Marnie Was There handles even its roughest subject matter with equal parts assurance and tenderness. Yonebayashi and his co-writers Masashi Ando and Keiko Niwa strike a balance that approaches and even at times surpasses the best of Studio Ghibli’s vaunted catalogue. Whether the studio itself continues to exist (the current “hiatus” threatens to break its impressive streak of producing an Oscar nominee three years in a row), it is clear that the 42-year-old Yonebayashi is a talent to watch. So many years of studying at the feet of a master like Miyazaki may well have made him a master in his own right. 

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

English Voice Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, John C. Reilly, Vanessa Williams

The Big Short (2015) Review

     For me, Adam McKay’s The Big Short did exactly what it was supposed to do: I am extremely pissed off. Extremely pissed off that banks took advantage of the American people with predatory loans in the early 2000s. Extremely pissed off that a bunch of self-styled “weirdos” and “outsiders” took this as a cue to make a shitload of money, taking advantage of the advantage-takers. Extremely pissed off that none of the assholes involved faced any consequences for their actions. Extremely pissed off that it took such a fucking terrible movie to remind us that this happened. Because The Big Short is just that: a reminder. It pretends to be an exposé but it isn’t; anyone old enough to watch an R-rated movie is old enough to have at least been alive for (and probably affected by) the housing crisis and The Big Short is here to rub their noses in it. “Hey, remember that time about ten years ago when countless families lost their homes due to the duplicity of mortgage lenders? Here’s a movie about a bunch of pricks that made millions of dollars off that. Isn’t that HILARIOUS?”
     I should have loved this movie. None of the characters are good people (though Brad Pitt’s character certainly considers himself above the rest of them, morally-speaking), no one learns anything or grows as a human being, and the world is exposed as the ugly, dog-eat-dog place that it is. I also generally enjoy Adam McKay’s dumb comedies with Will Ferrell and pretty much everything with The Big Short’s four big names, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, and Brad Pitt. Hell, I even liked Brad Pitt in Moneyball. So, aside from the above-mentioned basic objections to the subject matter, where does The Big Short go wrong?
     Adam McKay is a director who thrives on the use of color in his filmmaking aesthetic. Films like Anchorman and Talladega Nights work because McKay controls their rich color palettes (especially that of the gaudy décor in the 70s-set Anchorman) and allows the visuals to pop without distracting from the shenanigans on screen. In The Big Short, by contrast, he forgets what colors are. Suddenly, his world is drab, everything a muted gray, beige, or navy, lit by flickering fluorescents like the entire city of New York became one giant morgue between 2005 and 2008. All that wonderful color has been completely drained from Adam McKay’s cinematic universe; the only thing worth looking at in The Big Short is a dye-job that makes Ryan Gosling look like Creed Bratton in the episode of The Office where he uses all the toner in the copier to make himself look younger.
     Aesthetic failures aside, The Big Short is a jumbled mess masquerading as a slick, fast-paced drama. The film tries to hide its complete lack of inventiveness behind a fog of pointless celebrity cameos and a thick layer of obfuscating industry jargon and double-talk that it wants you to believe is clever dialogue. It was enough to fool the Academy into giving McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph an Adapted Screenplay Oscar but here in the real world it makes The Big Short’s 2 hour-plus running time feel much longer. Between being boring to look at, talking down to its audience, having zero likable characters, and lionizing a crew of detestable ghouls, fuck this movie. 

Director: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Sicario (2015) Review

     Welcome back to the problematic world of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, where shadowy men (Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro) bend and break all sorts of the laws they claim to uphold in the name of keeping Average Joes like us safe. Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario thrives here, where its main character makes more noise about jurisdictional violations by United States law enforcement than she does about the methods (torture) used to gain the information that leads them to commit those violations. This is a world where the CIA is in bed with drug cartels, every cop is corrupt, and the ends always justify the means.
     This grey world where the line between good and bad is so blurred that it ceases to exist infiltrates all aspects of Sicario. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay contains equal measures of frightening brilliance and slapdash melodrama. Sheridan slowly introduces an important character with no context at seemingly-random moments throughout the first and second acts, giving the audience an incredibly satisfying “ah-ha” moment when his role is finally revealed in the third. Why, then, does someone who clearly knows his craft force us to suffer through a pointless 20 minutes of Emily Blunt’s character nearly dying while hooking up with some hick from the local PD? It nets her task force some seemingly valuable information but they never act on it and the cop disappears from the movie entirely. Several others (including the film’s only black character) suffer the same fate at various points, as if Sheridan forgot they existed.
     It would take much more space than I have here to fully discuss the role of women in action movies throughout history so I’ll get straight to the point: we’ve been lied to. I know it’s the job of advertising and actors doing press appearances to get us to see the movie, but I went into Sicario with truly high expectations for seeing a well-developed female character with actual agency kicking some ass in a mainstream action movie. Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer is not that character. Sicario’s first scene gives us some hope, as Mercer leads her squad into battle against several cartel soldiers presumed to have hostages. She even gets to dive out of the way of shotgun fire while gunning down her adversary in a killer move that you might see again if Bad Boys 3 ever comes out. Beyond this prologue, however, her role in the actual action is nearly nonexistent, and every single event from here until the film ends is completely beyond her control. She has no agency in her own life and we can’t help but agree with Benicio Del Toro’s character when he advises her to move to a small town where the rule of law still exists.
     Despite these lies, the sense of helplessness actually becomes a strength of Sicario’s overall effect, as we feel ourselves pulled along by events and circumstances we know almost nothing of; keeping its main character generally in the dark keeps us in the dark as well, which makes the truth, once it is revealed, that much more terrifying. With its flaws in mind, there’s no real reason not to see Sicario, especially if you’re like me (probably not) and wouldn’t want to miss the sure winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Cinematography. You might know Roger Deakins’ work from most of the Coen Brothers’ movies, Skyfall (2012) or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); Sicario is another brilliant entry into his already-ridiculously-good résumé. 

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro

Spotlight (2015) Review

     After last year’s stunningly bad Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler, writer-director Thomas McCarthy has returned to form with Spotlight, chronicling the journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s, earning plenty of well-deserved praise along the way. Boasting a cast so star-studded that Stanley Tucci is relegated to (and brilliant in) a supporting role, Spotlight combines acutely focused and paced writing with too many great performances to count.
     With a tenacity that makes All the President’s Men (1976) look like child’s play, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, almost guaranteed a second Oscar nomination in as many years) and his team at the Boston Globe desperately seek the truth behind long-running sex abuse by Catholic priests and the seemingly endless string of intimidation and plea-bargaining that kept it hidden from the public eye for decades. As the Spotlight team’s investigation leads them to dig deeper into Boston’s most shameful secret, every turn of the plot seems to invite another scene-stealing performance as supporting players like Billy Crudup (playing slick attorney Eric MacLeish, who represented many of the victims and settled most cases confidentially), Liev Schreiber (as new Editor Marty Baron), and journeyman character actor Jamey Sheridan (as Jim Sullivan, an attorney working for the church).
     In addition to Keaton, Spotlight’s other leading actors, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo (Globe reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes, respectively), are both serious Oscar contenders. McAdams especially lends a human vulnerability to the team as her character meets personally with multiple victims and connects with their individual stories. It is a tribute to her acting as well as McCarthy’s writing (with partner Josh Singer) and direction that these meetings invite the audience to connect with the victims as she does without forcing the issue or exploiting their struggles. Despite continued mainstream success in Marvel’s The Avengers franchise, Ruffalo seems to save his best stuff for smaller productions: think his turn as writer/activist Ned Weeks in HBO’s The Normal Heart last year. He brings the same remarkable passion to his role in Spotlight as he did in Heart while holding that Hulk-like anger just beneath the surface, slowly building his character’s frustration as world events and powerful people conspire to keep the story quiet. Eternally frustrated yet somehow never fully defeated, Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes is at the heart of why films like Spotlight always have and always will exist.
     But no actor is the true star of this film, and that may be its best quality. While the reporters’ attempts to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church may make up the events of Spotlight’s plot, it is the story itself that is the reason for the film’s existence. Just as Steven Spielberg made Lincoln (2012) to showcase Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting talent and Andrew Dominik made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) for Roger Deakins to flex his considerable cinematographic muscles, so too has Tom McCarthy made Spotlight for the sake of the story it tells. An important film on an important subject, Spotlight is one of the year’s best. 

Director: Tom McCarthy

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton

A Christmas Kiss (2011) Review

 A Christmas Kiss is not simply the worst Christmas movie I have ever seen; it might be high in the running for one of the worst movies ever made. Unlike classic terrible movies like Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, there’s nothing funny or even adorably sad about its failings. The makers of A Christmas Kiss are clearly professionals who knew what they were doing, and that is by far the worst thing about it. Wood and Wiseau have gained their own cult followings precisely because they had no idea how to make movies and did anyway, with a sincerity and balance between humor and obliviousness that makes the terribleness of their films something to behold. On the other hand, the terribleness of A Christmas Kiss is something that should be avoided at all costs.
 This is exactly what you think about when you hear the words “made-for-TV movie”. We’re forced into the world of some of the richest and, apparently, worst people in Boston, as we see our protagonist, Wendy, plucky assistant to Miranda Priestly wannabe Priscilla Hall, get called away from a Girls’ Night with her friends to make the boss’s house pretty for the arrival of her jet-setting boyfriend. When she somehow kisses said boyfriend in an elevator that breaks and fixes itself in record time, Wendy embarks on a journey full of forced coincidences (they both like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?!?! Holy shit who doesn’t) and other tired romantic comedy clichés (her two friends tell her to “just go for it”. If she “felt a spark” that means he’s “the one”). Speaking of clichés, if I can say anything positive about this movie, it’s that they actually managed to pack so much redundant garbage into 96 minutes that it makes a great drinking game, so here’s the rules I came up with:
 - Drink every time someone says the words “The One” or “spark”. Do a shot if both appear in the same sentence.
 - Drink every time someone gets coffee.
 - Drink every time rich people talk about stereotypical rich people crap like St. Barth’s, Dom Perignon, and the Ritz Carlton.
 - Drink every time the wise, old janitor (yes there is a wise, old janitor. Though he might be some kind of set builder in the theater, who knows? No one bothers to explain his job and he wears a jumpsuit of indeterminate color) dispenses some wise, old janitor advice.
 - Drink every time they force in a reference to some famous play or book, especially if it’s something vague like “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”.
 - Drink every time you roll your eyes at something stupid happening on-screen.
 If you’re not drunk after playing this game, you’ll definitely want to keep drinking to erase the memory of having seen this god-awful movie. It’s on Netflix. AND THERE’S A SEQUEL. 

Director: John Stimpson

Starring: Elisabeth Rohm, Laura Breckenridge, Brendan Fehr, Jerrika Hinton

The Martian (2015) Review

A collective, laughing-at chuckle arose from those who follow such things when, on December 10th 2015, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (who continue to ignore my applications for membership) announced Ridley Scott’s The Martian as a Golden Globe nominee for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. I hadn’t seen it yet at that point but I was certainly not alone in being stunned that a movie directed by possibly the most humorless human being in Hollywood could be nominated as the best comedy of the year. We’re talking about the man who directed Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down, and Hannibal (both 2001, both awful for different reasons), whose 40-year career has produced laughs equal to the amount found in the average episode of Two and a Half Men. And it won.

Let’s get this out of the way though: the Golden Globes are a joke. Everyone is drunk (to which I do not object), there are entirely too many categories (to which I object strongly), and absolutely no one cares what those categories are or who wins them. I’d rather watch Tina Fey and Amy Poehler or Ricky Gervais do free-standing comedy for three hours. But at least they’re not the Grammys.

Anyway, the matter at hand: The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a NASA botanist and crewmember of the cleverly-named Ares III mission to Mars. Watney is presumed dead after getting his shit ruined during a violent storm and left behind on the Red Planet by Commander Melissa Lewis (the always-awesome-even-with-a-hack-director Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the Ares crew (including Michael Peña and Kate Mara, who are criminally under-utilized, and Sebastian Stan, who is honestly unrecognizable to me without stupid floppy hair and a bionic arm). Watney ends up having to figure out a way to grow food and procure water on a planet that provides neither while a ragtag group of guys who wear suits (including Jeff Daniels as a NASA administrator who is the only complex character in the film and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Mars mission’s director who somehow transformed from an Indian man to a Black man in the book-to-film transition) and a few others who don’t wear suits (including crazy-eyed Donald Glover as an “astrodynamicist” who devises the plan to rescue Watney in his pajamas and some white lady I’ve never heard of as the obviously-Korean-American Mindy Park who first notices that Watney is alive) tries to bring him back alive.

There was a point I at least intended to reach when I started this screed. In spite of the myriad faults of both the film itself and that dreadful-yet-somehow-exciting time of year known as Award Season, The Martian is an immensely enjoyable film that is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. Anchored by a brilliant (mostly solo) performance from Matt Damon and a strong screenplay from Cloverfield (2008)/Cabin in the Woods (2012) writer (also director of the latter) Drew Goddard, The Martian, whatever genre it might be, is undoubtedly one of last year’s best movies.

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor

The Revenant (2015) Review

The grueling nature of the making of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest film has been reported ad nauseum and I’m sitting here reviewing it in shorts in my warm house while eating pretzels and drinking beer. So there’s that. As brutal to watch as it apparently was to make, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (perennial Academy Award Loser Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman who, after breaking the cardinal rule of never getting between a mama bear and her cubs, is left for dead by his fellow trappers (including stunning performances by Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Hardy) but survives and seeks revenge.
This fairly standard revenge plot belies the true power of The Revenant: you would get just as much out of this movie if there was no dialogue at all. It is that rare film where the visuals not only tell the whole story, but reflect the depths of the film’s characters in a way that words never could. It’s as if Inarritu and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith (whose other credits include a handful of horror movies you’d be ashamed to even sleep through on an airplane) dug up any old story that would allow Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (whose other credits include too many excellent movies to list) to accomplish what they wanted to, visually. The most ambitious part of this vision by far is the fact that the film was shot with all natural lighting, and is littered with intensely beautiful compositions that utilize the light to transform several scenes, especially the dream sequences, into kind-of moving Impressionistic paintings.
Outside of these dream sequences, however, is a bitterly cold reality. A man is isolated against a brutal wilderness, where the natural lighting instead functions to expose him to us as he is exposed to the elements. Nothing is hidden in shadow, and Lubezki and Inarritu brilliantly mix wide shots and close-ups that ensure nothing is hidden beyond the frame as well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the battle sequence early on where Glass and his crew are set upon by a group of Native Americans. The battle reminds one of the chaos of Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line (the latter of which was also shot by Lubezki). It is a fairly strange but incredibly interesting bit of filmmaking as the camera seems to be just as caught up in the pandemonium as the characters are; it focuses generally on DiCaprio’s character but many times its attention swings to something else, as an arrow flies across the frame or a horse sprints by. Often (and this is true outside the battle sequences as well), the camera cares less about the main character than what is going on around him.
Expect a repeat for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as Best Director. Expect an unprecedented three-peat for Emmanuel Lubezki as Best Cinematographer. After its Golden Globes win, expect The Revenant to be a frontrunner even for Best Picture. It might have a forgettable story and be hard to stomach in its violence at times, but expect to get sick of hearing about The Revenant when The Oscars roll around this year. And you better believe it deserves every single one of those awards. In a film landscape that seems to measure a movie’s worth in Explosions and/or Plot Twists per Minute, we need The Revenant and its ilk now more than ever to remind people that the medium was built on using visuals to tell a story.

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy

Trumbo (2015) Review

We’ve seen this before. A bunch of respected actors jump on to the big biopic hoping for a sniff of Oscar glory. Those actors give reliably great performances and we know we’ve seen what we came to see. The writer(s) and director get most things right, historically, and the few things they do fudge, they probably work for the film dramatically. We are treated to an hour or so of the (usually male) main character kicking ass in one form or another and then something really bad happens. They overcome it and we cheer. We eat too much popcorn, give ourselves a stomachache, and go home. We’ve seen it before, so why bother seeing Trumbo, the latest from Jay Roach, whose credits include the Austin Powers trilogy and the first two Meet the Parents movies?
Simply put, we have to. American audiences need Trumbo as much as Trumbo needs our money (which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be materializing). Any good period piece uses the past to hold a mirror up to the present: when Akira Kurosawa adapted Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest into Yojimbo in 1961, he used Japan’s feudal period to bring life to his views on post-war capitalism and its effects on his home country; when Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, he made a statement about the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee by depicting similar tactics utilized by Puritan settlers prosecuting accused “witches” in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1690s; Trumbo, in turn, makes use of that same committee and its activities, seen mostly through the viewpoint of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, to reflect the interplay of politics and entertainment in contemporary public life in the U.S.
But this is not exactly why we need Trumbo: the film’s plea for sanity, moderation, and circumspection begs to be heard by both sides of the political aisle. Whether the viewer sympathizes with the titular Trumbo’s much-further-left friend Arlen Hird (a composite of several of Trumbo’s fellow Blacklistees, brilliantly played by comedian Louis C.K.) or the one and only John Wayne (former JAG star and your grandma’s favorite actor David James Elliott) and his “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” that whole-heartedly supports the Blacklist, Trumbo is, at its best, an entertaining cautionary tale filled with equal measures of wit, family conflict, and political drama.
Trumbo is also certainly not without flaws. For every great performance in the film, there is a bad one to balance it out. Elle Fanning gives an eye-opening turn as Trumbo’s daughter, Nikola, while Oscar-winner Hellen Mirren must have wanted out of the project from the moment she shot her first scene. As Hedda Hopper, the original Hollywood gossip columnist, her over-the-top boredom is properly comedic at times but it is when she is called to be sincere that the performance falls flat; Mirren seems to hate the character as much as the audience is meant to. Michael Stuhlbarg (best known for his starring role in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man) manages to make Edward G. Robinson mostly likeable while the above-mentioned David James Elliott’s weak impression of The Duke becomes more and more cringe-worthy as the film wears on. Roach’s direction, too, leaves much to be desired, as he and cinematographer Jim Denault flirt dangerously with the line between expressiveness and sloppiness in the interplay of light and shadow. At times, they attempt to achieve the look of the era’s classic films, such as the moody film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), that made Edward G. Robinson a star. Other times, there are shadows where they simply shouldn’t be, blocking out parts of the actors’ faces while adding nothing to the overall visual effect of the scene.
Despite these flaws, Trumbo is an important and worthwhile film overall that, at its best, uses the past to give us perspective on the present. It’s not exactly the Trumbo-penned Oscar winners Spartacus (1960) or Roman Holiday (1953), but look forward to hearing about Trumbo more than once or twice come February 28th, 2016.

Director: Jay Roach

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C. K., Michael Stuhlbarg

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