Movie Review ~ Trumbo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why.  There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with.  Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.

Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings.  Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.

Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall.  Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of.  It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.

What elevates the film is the presence of several star players.  Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it.  Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her.  Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease.  Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around.  And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.

These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player.  I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend.  He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is.  It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.

Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor.  The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.  It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.

As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events.  It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing.  Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules.  Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.

Movie Review ~ American Hustle

4

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A con man and his seductive British partner are forced to work for a wild FBI agent who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Peña, Louis C.K., Robert DeNiro

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 138 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s because I saw American Hustle so close in time to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street that I can’t help thinking that Hustle was really just Scorsese-lite.   All the elements that make-up a classic Scorsese film are present and accounted for here.  You have the West Coast setting of wheelers and dealers all looking for a break no matter how small time it may be.  The familial and familiar relationship that law enforcement has with these crooked folk is grist for the mill of the scheme that screenwriters Russell and Eric Warren Singer lay out.  And you have all the loyalty-testing double crosses (both real and imaginary) that have populated many a Scorsese crime drama for the last four decades.

So why isn’t American Hustle better?  That’s the question I kept asking myself as the movie slogged along for nearly two and a half hours and it’s a question that was left unanswered by the time the credits rolled.  With a talented director who scored so well with 2012’s surprise hit Silver Linings Playbook, a starry and award ready cast gnashing their way through the material, and a mostly true story to pull from this should have been a much more entertaining film.  But it’s not and that’s just the cold hard truth.

There’s enough fault to go around so we’ll go through it step by step.

First off, though Russell has assembled a cast culled largely from his previous projects there’s something to be said about working with your friends because they are right for the roles and simply working with them to have them around for a few months of shooting.  Two of the actors present have won Oscars for working with Russell and another three have been nominated so it’s easy to see why they’d eagerly sign up for another round with Russell.

In the case of Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell has made the right choice with the actor once again falling whole hog into the character.  With his bloated stomach and comically nutso comb over system, Bale’s puffy Bronx-born hustler Irving is truly a sight to behold.  Though married with an adopted son, he becomes enamored with kindred spirit Sydney (Amy Adams, The Master, Man of Steel) and soon they’re partnered up in the bedroom and in a loan scam that makes them comfortable if not rich.  Bale was better in Out of the Furnace but this performance is nothing to shake a stick at, either.

Adams is a strong actress that seems to appear in no less than four films each year and while I salute her work ethic I’m wondering if she’s not spread perhaps a bit too thin.  The vixeny femme fatale doesn’t sit quite right with her and no amount of plunging necklines can change that.  Side note, Adams wears so many dresses day and night with a neckline that plunges past her navel that if her character needed to go into the witness protection program she’d only have to put on a turtleneck and she’d be incognito.  Her performance winds up feeling governed by great costumes, perfect hair, and a justifiably awful English lilt.  She’s much more effective in her supporting turn in Her, coming out in early January.

I had high hopes for Bradley Cooper after his dynamite turn in Silver Linings Playbook but he dashed those tidings with summer’s grotesque The Hangover Part III and doesn’t quite regain his footing here either.  There’s a lot of showboating going on and you can just feel Cooper’s desire to Brando-ize every single scene he’s in.  The acting reeks out of him, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from the movie, ‘from the feet up.’

If the movie has a secret weapon it’s most certainly Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) as Bale’s immature wife.   Fresh off her Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence is way too young for the role but otherwise takes the movie by the balls whenever she’s onscreen which isn’t often enough.  Her wise acre grimace and towering head of hair ignites the film in ways that no one else is capable of doing.  Though the buzz is growing on her for an upset win for Best Supporting Actress, it doesn’t make the kind of lasting impression that she did last year but should earn her a place on the shortlist for a nomination.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, Marvel’s The Avengers) as the mayor of New Jersey who unwittingly gets sucked into the abscam scheme Cooper’s federal agent cooks up to catch crooked politicians.  Renner is fine in the role but I can’t for the life of me figure out why Russell casts his children with actors that look at least a decade older than Renner and his wife.  Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) is totally out of place as Cooper’s beleaguered superior, Michael Peña (End of Watch) turns up ever so briefly as a Mexican impersonating an Arabian sheik, and if Alessandro Nivola wasn’t doing a Christopher Walken impression in his role then I’ll eat my shoe.

The central plot scheme of the movie is your standard compilation of betrayal and criss-crossing double crosses.  Only in the final fifteen minutes or so does the movie start to resemble something of interest and by that time I was nearly slumped over in my seat.  Though the film has an admirable production design that deftly recreates New York in the late 70’s without being obnoxious and a soundtrack of era favorites, there’s a dullness that really overtakes everything.

This film has been greatly lauded and I just can’t see why.  As a fan of nearly everyone involved I wanted to like this and desperately tried to latch on to something, anything, that would allow me to recommend it to others.  It lands with a thud, though, and for that I have to suggest you temper your expectations if you choose to take it in theatrically.

Movie Review ~ Blue Jasmine

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A life crisis causes a socialite to head to San Francisco, where she reconnects with her sister.

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was pretty sure I was going to like Blue Jasmine for the mere fact that I didn’t enjoy Woody Allen’s previous film, 2012’s To Rome with Love.  Let me explain.  Like the Cohen Brothers, I tend to respond well to Allen’s projects about half the time because even a filmmaker as prolific as Allen tends to deliver a few snoozers along the way.  So after winning an Oscar for writing 2011’s Midnight in Paris it wasn’t a huge shock that I found To Rome with Love lacking.  Thankfully, Allen has returned stateside (the movie is set in San Francisco and New York City) for his latest work and it’s an absolute winner on every level.

A movie with shades of Tennessee Williams as filtered through Allen’s efficient dialogue, Blue Jasmine finds Allen on the tippy-top of his game with an assembled cast that is both surprising and surprisingly effective. 

I chuckled a bit when I saw that notorious comic Andrew Dice Clay was turning up in a supporting role but the comedian acquits himself nicely with a role that appears was written specifically for him.  Another comedian, Louis C.K., has a brief but enjoyable turn in a part that most surely would have been played by Allen himself were the director a few decades younger.  I normally find Alec Baldwin (Rock of Ages) to be an actor that colors his acting with broader strokes than necessary but here we find the actor at his most restrained and believable.  It felt like Baldwin took the time to craft this tricky character (only seen in flashbacks) from the ground up rather than pulling a performance from his wheelhouse to repurpose.

Sally Hawkins convincingly doffs her UK accent for an US one of indeterminate location (one minor quibble I did have was that everyone on the West Coast seemed to have an East Coast accent and vice versa) as she takes on a familiar role to anyone that is acquainted with Allen’s long list of family dramas.  She’s the put-upon sister that rolls with the punches and perhaps allows herself to be more of a punching bag than the audience would like.  Still, there’s a prideful dignity in the way she handles new changes in her life that contrasts nicely with Cate Blanchett as her acerbic sister.

Ah yes…Cate Blanchett.  If there’s any doubt remaining that Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, it will be put to rest with her performance here.  We’ve seen these types of cluelessly delusional characters before (most recently in the awful Kristen Wiig film Girl Most Likely) and know that it takes a special kind of actress to take someone so unlovable and allow them to be loved for their faults.

Moving into her sister’s modest San Francisco apartment after her Ponzi-scheming husband loses their great fortune, Blanchett’s Jasmine is forced to start over again and get used to a much less lavish way of living.  She hilariously tries to school her sister on luxury living, starts taking community college computer classes, fends off the attention of an amorous employer, and attracts the attention of a suitor (Peter Sarsgaard, Robot & Frank) who might just be her savior.  In less skilled hands these vignettes could only be played for laughs and while many of these situations provide great humor they are all tinged with more than a little sadness.  Sadness for the past that can’t be replayed and for the future that is frighteningly unknown.

More than ever, I noticed the attention to detail in Blue Jasmine.  Allen’s films always have a nice sheen to them but this one just glows…whether it is in the vistas of California or the Park Avenue lavishness of Blanchett’s former life.  I especially loved Sonia Grande’s costume design…Blanchett has very little worldly possessions left and that includes her clothes.  Attentive viewers will notice she wears different combinations of the same half dozen articles of clothing she has…and manages to make each outfit look unique.  It’s a small touch that speaks volumes about the resourcefulness of the character…and also her need to make her outwardly put-together appearance cover up her inner turmoil.

Blanchett is rarely off screen and that’s fine and dandy.  In fact, it’s when she’s not the center of attention that the movie loses a little bit of air…which would probably please her character greatly.  The performance is razor sharp and the actress is in tune with everything going on around her – that’s thanks to Blanchett’s great instincts and the way that Allen has etched out her journey.  The film flies by and arrives at its conclusion with a certain grace not found in many mainstream movies today.  The ends that need to be tied off are complete but there’s more than a few loose strands that haunted me even now writing this review. 

This is a film that will surely land those involved in prime positions when award season comes around.  Blanchett is richly deserving of an Oscar nomination as is Allen’s wonderful script and direction.  The picture itself should find its way to the Oscar list of Best Picture nominees so it’s safe to say that this is a must-see.  It’s damn good.

The Silver Bullet ~ Blue Jasmine

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Synopsis: A life crisis causes a woman to head to San Francisco, where she reconnects with her sister.

Release Date: July 26, 2013

Thoughts: You’ve got to hand it Woody Allen.  Arguably the most prolific filmmaker working today, Woody has managed to write and direct one film each year for the last several decades and it’s a credit to his eye and ear that he continues to create interesting pieces.  That’s not to say his annual deliveries are all gems because the large majority of them I find to be harmless but exceedingly slight baubles.  Nevertheless,  every now and then he knocks it out of the park.  After winning an Oscar for Midnight in Paris two years ago he stumbled with the miscast and ho-hum From Rome with Love.  This year he’s back in the US for Blue Jasmine and if the trailer is any indication audiences are in for a nice change of pace.  Cate Blanchett looks award-worthy as does Sally Hawkins as her put-upon sister.  Don’t judge a Woody Allen movie by its trailer though because if history is any indication there’s more to this set-up than meets the eye.