Sunday, November 29, 2015

A sobering look at immigrant plight

Director Jonas Carpignano makes his debut with Mediterranea, a timely story about African immigrants who find their to Italy from the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The early part of the film deals with the dangerous travels of two men Ayiva (Koudos Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy). A perilous trip takes the duo, along with other migrants, through Algeria to Libya and then, by boat, to Italy. Every step of the way, the travelers encounter obstacles. These range from attacks by bandits to nearly losing their lives when their boat capsizes during a storm. Once in Italy, the film settles down a bit, but troubles don't abate. Aviv and Abas struggle to obtain proper papers, to survive on low wages and to endure living conditions that make substandard sound like an upgrade. The Africans find both compassion and hostility from the residents of Rosarno, a Calabrian town known for strained relations between locals and immigrants. Carpignano's direction can be choppy, but he doesn't canonize what seems a varied group of immigrants. A Skype call between Ayiva and the seven-year-old daughter he left behind proves particularly affecting, and by the end, we recognize that immigrant stories -- once so full of promise -- now can become stories of brewing bitterness and crushed hopes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Creed': sequel follows a 'Rocky' road

Director Ryan Coogler tells the winning story of a driven young boxer and the aging Italian Stallion who trains him.

The trailer for Creed suggests we're in for a story about a young boxer fighting his way up from a tough neighborhood. That's not exactly an original idea, but it's the kind of reliable old chestnut that never seems to wear out its big-screen welcome.

Then Sylvester Stallone pops into the trailer as Rocky Balboa. Stallone delivers a line about how the young boxer, a determined looking black kid who wears his muscles like armor, should know that he'll never face a tougher opponent than himself. The inner battle must be won before the kid can triumph in the ring.

Stallone? Rocky? Really?

In case we hadn't already guessed, the title of the movie -- writ large at the trailer's end -- let's us know that the upcoming movie will be grown from Rocky roots: Creed.

The boxer Apollo Creed, of course, made his way into a quartet of earlier Rocky movies. Now, we were going to meet Creed's son, another boxer who shoulders a burden of anger, ferocity and drive.

But wait ...
Creed features yet another level of promotion. The trailer tells us that the movie was directed by Ryan Coogler, the same guy who brought us Fruitvale Station, a troubling indie drama about the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by a police officer while riding a BART train in Oakland.

That film starred Michael B. Jordan, the actor who appears as Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed in a movie that takes the Creed name because it's unlikely that anyone would turn out for a movie called Johnson.

The trailer got my mind moving in what seemed like two irreconcilable directions. Would it be possible to add the authenticity and power of Fruitvale Station to a Rockyesque formula job? And if so, what exactly would be the point?

After seeing Creed, I'm still not sure about the point part, but Coogler has made an enjoyable crowd-pleaser by focusing on a light heavyweight boxer who -- despite a staggering lack of experience -- lands a title shot after being trained by none other than Rocky Balboa.

If you stop and think about it (and I'm not suggesting that you should) Creed is one wacky movie.

Consider Adonis' less-than-hardscrabble background: After stints in juvenile detention, Adonis was adopted by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad). He grew up in a luxurious atmosphere, landed a good, post-college job and seemed primed for a fine middle class life -- except for one thing: He couldn't stop fighting. Adonis made a habit of traveling to Mexico for low-rent bouts. Eventually, he decided that his destiny wasn't to be found in an office, but in the ring.

So it's off to Philadelphia to find Rocky, whose life consists of sitting around his red-sauce restaurant with pictures of halcyon days on the walls. Reluctantly, Rocky takes Adonis under wing setting off a flurry of father/son dynamics and raising issues about family and responsibility.

As the movie moves forward, it peppers the screen with references to Rocky's past. Coogler's camera gravitates toward the same gritty locations that gave the Rocky movies their faux authenticity. Carefully placed traces of the triumphal Rocky score help energize Adonis' training regimen.

Every boxer needs a love interest. Creed doesn't shortchange in that department, either.

When he moves into a ratty apartment, Adonis meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who's gradually going deaf, perhaps for no other reason than that every character in any kind of Rocky movie needs an obstacle.

Jordan gives Adonis palpable hunger, but keeps him likable. Thompson, terrific in the movie Dear White People, adds the spark of a self-assertive feminine presence.

But it's Stallone who gives the stand-out performance as an aging boxer whose balloon of hope slowly has deflated. Now 69, Stallone can't conceal the slight sag in his jowls. And are those strands of gray peeping out from under Rocky's trademark Pork Pie?

Wacky, yes, but the movie's willingness to adopt a fluid approach to urban cliches from two different eras (Adonis' and Rocky's) adds a layer of freshness. Creed has the good sense to pull the rug out from under itself: Like its predecessors, the movie manages to be serious and a goof at the same time.

Coogler knows that every boxing movie ultimately must climb into the ring. Adonis' championship fight is replete with resounding body blows, sprays of blood and heightened brutalism.

Thanks to some last-minute plot manipulations, a bout is arranged between Adonis and the current champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew). The fight takes place in Liverpool after Conlan's manager (Graham McTavish) insists that Adonis boost interest in the fight by using the Creed name.

Coogler's screenplay keeps reminding us of the psychological tension in a young man who wants to be known for his own accomplishments but who also must come to terms with the image of a famous father -- even though he never met the man. Apollo died before Adonis was born.

A determined Jordan drives the movie forward, a dialed-down Stallone keeps a light foot on the breaks, and somehow the whole thing coheres to make for ardent and rousing entertainment. Creed may not be a knockout, but I'd score it a surprise winner on points.

A new look at Dr. Frankenstein

It's sufficiently dark, but Victor Frankenstein also can be quite silly.
James McAvoy takes avidity so far over the top, we can see spittle flying from his mouth in the late scenes of Victor Frankenstein, another take on Mary Shelley's much abused novel.

Perhaps following McAvoy's lead, Scottish director Paul McGuigan joins McAvoy in excess. Maybe he encouraged it. In any case, McGuigan -- along with a more subdued Daniel Radcliffe as Igor Strausman -- pushes the production over a steep Gothic cliff until it plunges into a pool of silliness.

Before the lightning strike that brings Frankenstein's man/monster to life, the movie spends much of its creative capital recreating a 19th century environment in which the insane rationalism of Dr. Victor Frankenstein vies with more traditional views, namely that the creation of life is not the business of science.

Prior to the unveiling of his major achievement, Dr. Frankenstein introduces a small sampling of London's scientific community to a homunculus, actually a monstrous creature resembling a mutant chimpanzee. The movie clearly wants us to know that Frankenstein may have bitten off more than he can chew by zapping life into dead flesh.

As Igor -- introduced as a circus hunchback who Dr. Frankenstein cures -- Radcliffe provides the film with sporadic narration and a bit of welcome sensitivity. (Frankenstein discovers that Igor isn't a hunchback at all; he has a very large abscess.)

An autodidact, Radcliffe's Igor has taught himself medicine and anatomy. He's so grateful to Dr. Frankenstein for liberating him from his circus-freak existence that he readily joins the doctor's search for a new Prometheus.

Igor even has a love interest, a trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay) he saves in the movie's opening scenes.

Andrew Scott signs on as a grim inspector from Scotland Yard, a policeman who insists on investigating Frankenstein's activities, which he's certain are pernicious.

Drawing from previous movies and playing with our perceptions about Shelley's story, McGuigan relies on production design and computer graphics to create an eerie environment.

And, yes, it all might have made for a rousing good comedy had Mel Brooks not already done it in 1974's Young Frankenstein. The screenplay pays a quick homage to Brooks when Frankenstein corrects someone who pronounces his name -- and I'm going phonetic here -- Frank-en-steen.

The resultant movie may not be monstrous; it is, however, somewhat risible, a dark, labyrinthine affair in which great wheels turn, electrical flashes erupt and the whole business -- which begins in near arty fashion -- eventually short circuits.

Tom Hardy' is the stuff of 'Legend'

A rambling British gangster film has everything but a deeply affecting story.

You'd have to be a great actor to play twin brothers and never -- not once -- confuse an audience about who's who. Tom Hardy is one such actor, and in Legend, he manages a neat feat: He portrays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, notorious British gangsters who took London by storm in the 1960s.

Director Brian Helgeland, who wrote the script for LA Confidential, can't quite turn Legend into a gangster classic, but his direction can be lively, and in Hardy, he has found an actor whose skills are sharp enough to play both brothers.

Consider the Krays as blunt instruments. They never seem capable of the kind of cunning found in a Michael Corleone. Their strong suit is their frightening physicality.

The story of the Krays was told before in director Peter Medak's 1990 film, The Krays. Helgeland freshens the tale by allowing Reggie Kray's wife Frances (Emily Browning) to narrate the story.

Frances is swept away by Reggie's brashness and rough charm. Inevitably, she pays a steep price for dancing a little too close to Reggie's fire.

Additionally, Helgeland populates the movie with a terrific cast of British character actors, many of whom speak with cockney accents that can reduce American ears to capturing only the gist of their conversations.

David Thewlis has a nice turn as Leslie Payne, the man who handles the Kray finances. Chazz Palminteri shows up as Angelo Bruno, an Italian mobster from the US who negotiates a deal with the Krays.

Christopher Eccleston stands out as Nipper Read, the lone representative of Scotland Yard who persists in hounding the Krays.

Still, it's Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Drop and Locke) who gives the film its kick.

Handsome and intermittently violent, Reggie becomes the more appealing of the brothers with his green Continental and lounge lizard suits.

An avowed and very public homosexual, Ron represents the psychopathic half of the Kray personality: Hardy gives Ron a demeanor that wavers between funny and frightening. Ron's muted-trumpet of a voice seems to emanate from a place that no voice should.

Helgeland's team recreates London of the '60s with style and verve: its clubs and music define a free-wheeling atmosphere in which the city's notables got a kick out of rubbing elbows with gangsters.

Although Helgeland clearly understands that such associations could be costly, he's unable to give the movie the kind of thematic weight that would have lifted Legend out the gangster ghetto.

Instead, Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay based on John Pearson's book, The Profession of Violence, falls into the trap of letting the story unfold as a series of ramshackle episodes, some steeped in Kray brutality.

At 122 minutes, Legend probably overstays its welcome, but behind Reggie and Ron, you'll find one of the best movie actors of our time bringing an explosive power to the screen -- or maybe that's two helpings of explosive power for the price of one movie.

A boy's adventures in the desert

This Jordanian import boasts harsh beauty and a simple -- but compelling -- story.

Set in 1916, the Jordanian movie Theeb introduces us to a Bedouin boy (Jacid Eid) who's stranded in the desert. In order to survive, the boy must form an uneasy alliance with a wounded bandit (Hassan Mutlag).

Though accurate, that description doesn't do justice to director Naji Abu Nowar's debut movie: A gripping, often stern adventure, a study of tribal and familial loyalties and a glancing commentary on the dissolution of the Bedouin way of life, Theeb attains a stature and resonance that goes far beyond its easily summarized premise.

Shot in Jordan, Theeb makes full use of a desert environment. Arid stretches of sand make the purple striations in rock walls seem even more breathtaking, as do occasional bursts of green shrubbery that sprout up near a well. Nowar's camera captures the desert with painterly beauty.

The movie begins in a Bedouin encampment where Hussein (Hussein Salameh) teaches his younger brother to use a rifle and to handle a knife. The brothers are the sons of a recently deceased Sheik.

The plot wheels begin turning when an Arab (Marji Audeh) and a British Army officer (Jack Fox) arrive and are taken into the small camp where the brothers live. After a meal, the two strangers ask to be guided across a dangerous trail so that the British officer can rejoin his regiment.

Hussein joins these two wanderers for what promises to be an arduous and possibly life-threatening journey.

The movie takes place during a historical moment when Arabs were seeking to break from the Ottoman Empire. As was depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, Arabs were moving awkwardly toward the creation of a unified state. That political backdrop -- though treated in sketchy fashion by Nowar -- gives the movie added richness.

Hussein and his two charges ride their camels into the desert. Theeb, who's supposed to stay behind, follows at a respectful distance. Eventually, he joins the travelers, who have no choice but to take the boy along.

I won't give away more plot details except to tell you that a panicky Theeb winds up alone until a wounded marauder rides into the canyon where the boy faces certain death. Let's just say that this is no ordinary man, and that his relationship to Theeb is deeply fraught.

For Theeb (the name means wolf) the world becomes a hazardous place. The desert can be merciless: One easily extends hospitality; trust, much less so.

Using a mostly non-professional cast, Nowar's movie begins with an admonition about wolves that offer friendship. When the chips are down; they probably can't be relied upon, we're told.

Theeb allows that raw truth to spring from the desert's lonely, shimmering beauty and from the fear and determination of a boy forced by circumstances to confront dangers beyond his years.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

'Hunger Games' crosses the finish line

Jennifer Lawrence helps bring the series to a satisfactory -- and slightly melancholy -- conclusion.

Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2 probably never should have been made. Mockingjay -- Part 1 felt as though it were marking time until the grand finale. Put another way, Parts 1 and Part 2 should have been one movie.

Having offered that necessary caveat, I'm happy to report that the finale has arrived, and if it's not a masterpiece, it's good enough to keep fans happy.

Jennifer Lawrence carries Part II through its many dark moments as rebel forces stage an attack on the Capitol where the fiendish President Snow (Donald Sutherland) struggles to save his diminishing reign.

Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen continues as one of the more interesting screen heroines, a fierce fighter who's given just enough emotional shading by Lawrence to be more than a symbol. And, yes, Lawrence deserves tons of credit for holding the line on a character that easily could have gone off the rails over the course of four movies.

This helping of Hunger Games qualifies as essential viewing for those who've seen the first three movies. It's probably of no interest to those who haven't.

Say this, though: Overall, the series has been a well-handled affair that shamed no one as it toyed with some intriguing ideas about violence, media, propaganda and betrayal.

True, many of these "ideas'' were served at the kids' table, but no matter: At least, there was some meat on the Hunger Games' bones.

I won't attempt to summarize the final movie's plot because it consists mostly of embellishments added to a central concern: Overthrowing Snow, thereby putting an end to his horrible tyranny over the 13 Districts of Panem.

The rebels are led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), a woman who may not be the savior she pretends to be. She's assisted by Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a strategist and propagandist.

That brings me to what may be the essential things to know about Mockingjay -- Part II.

-- The proceedings are laced with a surprising amount of melancholy. Instead of pushing toward a celebratory and triumphant conclusion, Mockingjay exudes a sadness that begins the first time we see the late Hoffman on the screen. His appearance has an unintended mournful quality that echoes the way the movie tries to remember those rebels who have died fighting for freedom.

-- A couple of grandly conceived action sequences -- one involving a flood of oil and another set in a tunnel -- help fend off boredom, although director Francis Lawrence doesn't always make it clear who's fighting whom.

-- The final movie (and the series) actually acknowledges both loss and consequences, a good thing in a story that's aimed mostly at teen-agers.

Let's be thankful that some of the more colorful characters haven't entirely been jettisoned from this last chapter: Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket makes what amounts to a cameo appearance. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy drops by from time-to-time, as well.

So let's bid goodbye to Katniss, as well as the generally vapid men in her life: Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

Mostly, tough, it's Lawrence who deserves congratulations for fitting into a series she probably has outgrown and for never shortchanging either the audience or Katniss.

That's saying something. Quite a lot, really.

Three characters burdened by the past

A strong cast should have elevated Secret in Their Eyes, but the movie turns out to be a mostly drab police procedural.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts.

Tell me that those names don't spark interest. Considering the acting power on display in the new thriller, Secret in Their Eyes, you'd expect the movie to strike a mother-load of dramatic pay dirt. Instead, this drably realized and often murky police procedural yields only medium-grade helpings of suspense.

Secret revolves around a Los Angeles-based, anti-terrorism unit in which we find three of the movie's principal characters.

Julia Roberts plays Jess, a team member who suffers a terrible blow when her daughter is raped and murdered, her body unceremoniously tossed into a dumpster.

Joining Jess in what appears to be a delayed quest for justice are Ray, a former FBI agent played by Ejiofor, and Claire, an attorney portrayed by Kidman.

Director Billy Ray wrote the screenplay, which is a loose remake of the 2009 Oscar winning Argentine feature of the same name. That movie played out in the aftermath of Argentina's "Dirty War," a period when dissidents were "disappeared" by a military junta and its henchmen.

This one deals with the kind of post 9/11 jitters in which concerns about terrorism sometimes trump the pursuit of individual justice.

Alternating between the present and 2002, the movie's skittering structure adds unnecessary murkiness to an already complicated plot.

Equally problematic, the characters don't seem richly enough observed for the movie's trio of headliners.

Kidman plays a tightly wound Harvard Law School graduate who eventually becomes Los Angeles DA.

Sans make-up, sporting bangs and a ghastly parlor, a deglamorized Roberts plays Jess, a grief stricken woman who still manages to soldier on with her police duties.

Thirteen years after the murder of Jess' daughter, Ejiofor's Ray -- now out of the FBI -- returns to LA believing that he has located the murderer, a felon who recently has been released from prison. Ray wants to reopen the case.

Most of the movie focuses on Ejiofor's angry, regretful character, a man who nurses a long-standing (and mostly undeveloped) crush on Kidman's Claire. Again and again, other characters tell him, she's out of his league. She's Harvard; he's community college.

We get a glimpse of what Kidman might have delivered in a scene in which she conducts an interrogation. As a grieving mother, Roberts too often is pushed to the film's periphery.

The supporting cast has little room to maneuver, but the always terrific Alfred Molina registers strongly as a DA with an agenda.

If you like surprise twists, you may be satisfied by this downbeat thriller, but taken as a whole, Secret qualifies as a disappointing use of prime acting talent.

A beautifully acted 'Brooklyn'

Saoirse Ronan plays a young woman who learns to claim her destiny.

Eilis Lacey spends a good deal of Brooklyn, the movie derived from a 2009 novel by Colm Toibin, in a disoriented state. A girl from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Eilis travels to the U.S. in 1951 after her older sister Rose arranges for her to leave Ireland.

Eilis makes the trip, but it is not yet her journey. And that's the basis of a coming-of-age movie that embraces an old-fashioned style that files the roughest edges off its story, but allows its central performance to carry us along with it.

Brooklyn focuses on young Eilis, beautifully played by Saoirse Ronan, familiar to moviegoers from movies such Atonement, The Lovely Bones and Hanna.

Ronan inhabits her character so thoroughly, it seems as if we're watching a flower break ground, stretch to meet the sun's warmth and eventually bloom. Without affectation or undue showiness, Ronan manages to carry a movie that spans the distance between two very different worlds.

When Eilis arrives in the U.S., she takes up residence in a boarding house run by Mrs. Keough (Julie Walters), a good-hearted woman who also happens to have a dictatorial streak when it comes to the women who live in her home.

Gradually, Eilis begins to encounter the new life into which she has been thrust. She's helped by a local priest who cares about her welfare and who is portrayed by Jim Broadbent without a trace of cynicism.

Eventually, Eilis lands a job as a clerk at a department store and begins studying accounting. She also meets Tony, (Emory Cohen) a young Italian man who works as a plumber, but who -- along with his bothers -- hopes to start a construction business that will relocate his family to Long Island.

As the story develops, Ronan begins to taste the freedom and sense of possibility that her sister (Fiona Glascott) so ardently wishes for her. She even learns to hold her own at the table with other women who board with Mrs. Keough.

Eventually, Eilis learns that Rose has passed away. Before Eilis returns to Ireland to comfort her grieving mother, Tony insists that they marry. He wants to make sure that she'll come back to him.

Eilis agrees, but we don't know exactly how committed she is to this marriage; she's still living her sister's dream, not her own.

Back in Ireland, Eilis begins to see a side of life she never experienced while growing up.

Instead of the world narrowing, it suddenly seems to be opening. Not knowing that Eilis is married, one of the town's bachelors (Domhnall Gleeson) begins to pursue her. She lands a part-time job, and comforts a mother who has known her share of grief.

Obviously, Eilis eventually must make up her mind about whether to remain in Ireland or return to the U.S. and resume the life that seemed to offer her so much.

Director John Crowley must have sensed that Ronan could keep the movie on track, so he supports her with nostalgic period design and allows the story to unfold without undue fuss. Nick Hornby's script is both economical and respectful of its characters.

Well-cast and nicely appointed, Brooklyn might be one of the least cynical movies of the year, an engagingly wide-eyed look at a world in which a young woman learns that she has something to say about the way her life will unfold.

The movie's modesty and Ronan's lovely performance make it a pleasure to watch.

She collected art -- and men

Complicated, sexually adventurous and deeply devoted to the art she collected, Peggy Guggenheim managed to assemble one of the world's most important collections of 20th century paintings and sculpture. A devotee of Jackson Pollack, Picasso, Max Ernst (whom she later married) and Marcel Duchamp, Guggenheim's collection today is valued in the billions. She spent about $40,000 acquiring much of it during World War II. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland builds her documentary -- Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict -- around recently discovered audio tapes in which Guggenheim was interviewed by biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld. Vreeland tells us about Guggenheim's family (her father died on the Titanic), and takes us with Guggenheim to Paris in 1921. There, Guggenheim managed to become part of the art world. She was one of those people who knew everyone worth knowing. She also spent time in London, where she ran the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery. When the war broke out, Guggenheim returned to New York and eventually opened a gallery called Art of This Century, a fabled spot for viewing work by the shining stars of modernism. In 1947, Guggenheim moved to Venice, where her collection is housed in the palazzo she restored. She died in 1979 at the age of 81. Interviews include curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and art dealer Larry Gagosian. I wouldn't call Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict a great documentary, but the life and times of this brash, frank and influential woman stave off any trace of boredom.

Wishing 'Trumbo' had been better

Bryan Cranston commands the screen in a bio-pic that's regrettably wooden.

During the Black List period of the late 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood shamed itself, joining a national witch-hunt designed to root out Communists from cultural institutions that presumably were being subverted.

One of the people caught in this maelstrom of chest-thumping, patriotic excess was Dalton Trumbo, the Colorado-bred screenwriter who had written movies such as A Man to Remember (1938), Kitty Foyle (1940) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Trumbo also wrote Johnny Got His Gun, an acclaimed 1939 antiwar novel which won a National Book Award and which shook me to the core when I read it in high school.

In 1947, Trumbo was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was found in contempt of Congress for telling the Committee his political beliefs were none of its business. As a result of his defiance, Trumbo served nearly a year in prison, and was blacklisted by Hollywood studios for the next 13 years.

Desperate to support his family, Trumbo -- part of a group dubbed The Hollywood Ten -- turned out scripts for the King Brothers, schlockmeisters who didn't give a damn about politics.

Trumbo also persuaded other writers to pose as the authors of scripts he wrote. Trumbo's screenplay for Roman Holiday won an Academy Award. Screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for Trumbo, and received the Oscar.

It wasn't until Spartacus (1960) that Trumbo's name again appeared on a movie screen, thanks mostly to the courageous insistence of Kirk Douglas, the movie's star.

OK, that's the background.

In the bio-pic Trumbo, Bryan Cranston, an actor of considerable command, plays the title role. Cranston captures the writer's wit, commitment and contradictions. Trumbo was a leftist who liked the trappings of wealth, and made no bones about hungering for recognition.

In a sometimes wooden and prosaic movie, Cranston does the kind of stand-out work that may earn him a best-actor nomination, even if -- at times -- it feels as if he's doing a one-man show on Broadway. In some ways, Trumbo is a one-man show rather than a richly developed movie, but it has its merits.

As the viperous Hedda Hopper, Helen Mirren gives the movie's second best performance. Hopper was a flag-waving right winger, as well as a power hungry gossip peddler who could make or break careers and didn't let those she wrote about forget it.

Director Jay Roach faced a difficult problem in making Trumbo. He's dealing with Hollywood personalities, some of whom are so well known they resist being played by other actors.

Michael Stuhlbarg comes close to capturing Edward G. Robinson, an actor who supported those who were being demonized by HUAC, but who ultimately named names. David James Elliott has the thankless job of portraying John Wayne; he finds the intonations in Wayne's voice, but we've all seen John Wayne and ... well ... you know how the rest of the quote goes.

Dean O'Gorman portrays Kirk Douglas, one of the story's heroes.

Louis C.K. creates a portrait of deep-seated depression as Black Listed writer Arlen Hird, a composite character who never quite understands Trumbo's preoccupations with success. Put another way, Trumbo wasn't exactly a purist when it came to politics.

As the crassly entrepreneurial but fiercely loyal Frank King, John Goodman steals every scene he's in. Diane Lane plays Trumbo's wife, Cleo. Elle Fanning has a nice scene as Niki, Trumbo's oldest daughter, a firebrand in her own right.

Roach's previous efforts include Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, not exactly the best preparation for this kind of material.

Trumbo doesn't fully engage the ideological battle the Hollywood Ten fought or, perhaps, more accurately, the war that was fought against them.

But even this CliffsNotes version has some emotional clout, a testament to the inherent power of the story, to Cranston's charisma and to the fact that Trumbo's suffering was, by any measure, entirely unnecessary.

Another marriage on the rocks

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt in a slog of a movie.
By the time, By the Sea -- a numbingly arty movie written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt -- begins its second hour, you may find yourself wishing that Jolie Pitt, who appears in the movie with real-life husband Brad Pitt, would descend from what appears to be an Olympus where the gods do nothing but suffer. Remote, aloof and in possession of some astonishing hats, Jolie Pitt's Vanessa is emotionally walled off from husband Roland (Pitt), a writer who -- as is usually the case in this sort of movie -- is blocked. Roland and Vanessa arrive at a French seaside resort to get away from it all, but wind up doing what characters inevitably do in overly arty movies: They bathe in their pain. Vanessa specializes in meaningful stares. Roland drinks heavily. Eventually, Vanessa and Roland wind up observing the sexual play of the honeymooners (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) next door. Thanks to a hole in their hotel room wall, Roland and Vanessa become peeping Toms. The story hinges on a dark secret that Vanessa harbors and which you probably will guess within minutes. By the Sea has the exasperating feel of a movie that's trying so damn hard to be profound, it forgets to have something say.

Trying to escape the bonds of tradition.

Jolie Pitt may have overreached in By the Sea, but she deserves credit for executive producing Zeresenay Mehari's Difret, the story of Hirut (Tizita Hagere), a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl who's kidnapped and raped so that she can be forced into a marriage with her abductor. Hirut, who shoots her captor during an escape attempt, faces a murder charge in a male-dominated culture. Based on a true story, Defrit focuses on the efforts of a persistent attorney (Meron Getnet) to save young Hirut from the death penalty. The filmmaking is rudimentary, but Hirut's story stands as a powerful cry against deeply rooted traditions in which women too long have been subjugated.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Catholic Church meets the press

A compelling look at how the Boston Globe uncovered a scandal..

As the nation lumbers toward another major election, you can be sure that some of the candidates will be taking aim at the media. Many already have.

Tiresome as they may be, these inevitable anti-media rants make Spotlight -- a terrific movie about how the Boston Globe's investigative team uncovered sexual abuses by priests in Boston's archdiocese -- a must-see reminder that journalists can (and often do) make important contributions to the betterment of their communities.

Director Tom McCarthy builds his story around the Globe's Spotlight team, a quartet of reporters who were given time to develop and report stories that required deep digging.

Michael Keaton, who played a newspaper editor in Ron Howard's sometimes overlooked The Paper, returns to the ranks of ink-stained wretches as Walter "Robby" Robinson, the head of the Spotlight team.

The story of pedophile priests didn't really take hold until the Globe got a new editor in 2001. Marty Baron -- played in a masterfully collected performance by Liev Schreiber -- was a Jewish newcomer to Boston. Baron, who's now editor of the Washington Post, thought that the Globe had a responsibility to look at the failings of one of the city's most revered institutions.

McCarthy (Win Win, The Visitor, and The Station Agent) keeps a complicated story on track in ways that sustain interest even though we already know the outcome of this unseemly tale.

In a way that works for the story, Spotlight doesn't really have a main character. It's about individual commitment within a context of team work, a much-needed tribute to role players. There are no star turns in Spotlight; the movie that celebrates journeyman work on every level.

The Spotlight team is ably represented by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D'Arcy.

Ruffalo portrays Michael Rezendes, an avid, monkish reporter who eventually won the confidence of Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer who represented victims of church abuse. Initially mistrustful of the Globe, Garabedian had spent years trying to interest the paper in what he saw as wide-scale criminality within the church.

McAdams plays Sacha Pfeiffer; she's committed to the story but understands that it will shatter the church-centered world in which her grandmother -- like many Catholic Bostonians -- lives. Catholics made up 53 percent of the Globe's readership.

D'Arcy portrays James Matt Carroll. While working on the story, Carroll discovers that his own home isn't located far from a house where pedophile priests were hidden so that they could be "rehabilitated."

Billy Crudup portrays a lawyer who knows how to keep the lid on things by making settlements with victims; and Jamey Sheridan has a nice turn as a church attorney who wants to avoid scandal for what he deems a greater good: maintaining the order of things.

Len Cariou portrays Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the church official who eventually was accused of covering up sexual abuses of priests in his archdiocese.

I don't normally like reviews that turn into lists of actors, but it's impossible not to acknowledge all of those who contributed to a fine ensemble cast, including John Slattery, who plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the editor who functions as Robinson's boss.

Spotlight's reach extends beyond the way journalists handle a complicated story, although it certainly shows the required grunt work. It's also about the way a community constructs a protective veneer around its valued institutions and how easy it is for lifelong members of that community to accept such facades as necessary and immutable.

McCarthy doesn't neglect the toll that the investigation takes on the journalists who are conducting it. Keaton, better and much less showy than he was in Birdman, wrestles with the conflicts generated by his varying identities and loyalties: journalist, Catholic and Bostonian.

We meet victims of priests who are conflicted about telling their story, sometimes because they've tried before and were met with indifference. We meet Boston bigwigs; and see what happens when a Cardinal tries to charm a newspaper editor who's not impressed by charm.

Spotlight bravely keeps its eye on truths that don't always make the Globe look good: The paper, we learn, had enough information to have begun reporting the story 20 years before it actually turned to the task.

Credit Spotlight for not imbuing its hardworking journalists with phony nobility, for not sensationalizing a tawdry story and for reminding us that journalists do more than, as some would have you believe, employ cheap tricks to play "gotcha" with politicians.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bond is back, but where's the fun?

Daniel Craig is serious as a clenched fist, but at 148 minutes, Spectre is a Bond too long -- and a bit boring, as well.

Remember when Bond movies were fun?

With a wink at the world and a playful attitude toward 007's legendary sexual prowess, Bond movie etched themselves into pop-cultural immortality -- which in this instance means 53 years of entertainment.

Now comes Spectre, the 24th film in the series that will not die. No expense has been spared to fill Spectre with action, exotic locations and IMAX-worthy scale.

But this time, a dizzying pre-credit sequence -- set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico City -- proves the most exciting part of the movie.

Amassing a crowd of extras reported to number about 1,500, director Sam Mendes guides Daniel Craig's Bond through an escapade that finds 007 scampering over roofs and elbowing his way through crowds of revelers in skeleton costumes. He finally hops onto a helicopter for a white-knuckle battle with an ugly villain.

The movie's opening gives you the feeling that this edition of Bond is going to blow the roof off the theater, thanks in part to spectacularly good design: Mexican rhythms, the traditional Bond theme and an amazingly fluid camera blend in ways that let you know that some very talented people are at the controls.

It's an opening that's tough to match -- and director Mendes, who directed the far better Skyfall -- never tops it.

Mendes seems to have approached Spectre with the same dutiful seriousness that infects Craig in his fourth outing as Britain's most legendary spy.

Many critics applauded the dark hues that Craig brought to the Bond series when he took over the job in 2006's Casino Royale. Craig made Bond credible in a post 9/11 world -- or so the argument went. Glowering menace seemed preferable to nonchalant ease.

Is it possible that this approach has worn out its welcome?

Let's look at some of the elements:

-- Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) comes across as a more life-sized Bond girl than some, but Bond movies tend to be at their best when nothing about them seems life-sized or attainable.

-- Monica Bellucci plays an intriguingly sexy widow, but she's not around long enough to spice things up.

-- And the Bond villain? Christoph Waltz picks up the bad-guy cudgel as the head of Spectre, the organization that's threatening the world.

Poor Waltz. He'll never top the terrifyingly polite SS guy he played in Inglorious Bastards. Here, he again opts for understatement, which may have been his only choice, but he's neither frightening nor arch enough to fill the bill.

-- Ralph Fiennes brings near-actuarial sternness to the role of M.

-- Ben Whishsaw holds his own as the inventive Q, the character in charge of the movie's gadgetry.

-- Naomi Harris, who plays Moneypenny, might be the closest the movie gets to finding a good, old-fashioned Bond beauty. She takes care of Bond business with no-nonsense efficiency and welcome traces of worldly wit.

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema leans toward a sepia-tinged palette that reinforces the movie's more-or-less serious tone, a tone which -- by the way -- a cluttered plot can't really support.

As for Craig: He's brusque, sometimes raw in his expression of emotion. He gives Bond the force of a blunt blow to the head.

There also are suggestions that Bond is an assassin who never really has thought much about what he does, an interesting attempt to give the character some existential lift, but is this really what we want from Bond?

Look, many of the important elements can be found in Spectre: action, killer clothes, romantic dinners on speeding trains, globe-hopping and one ogre-like villain (Dave Bautista's Hinx) who rises to the occasion, something accomplished only intermittently by this overly long helping of Bond.

When British women fought for the vote

A slice of history that shouldn't be forgotten.
Currently, two women (one in each major party) are trying to become president of the United States.

Britain already has had a woman prime minister, and many other countries -- Germany, of course -- have elevated women to their top power positions.

This is not to say that every vestige of gender inequality has been wrung from a still-patriarchal world, but to point out that it wasn't so long ago that the political arena belonged exclusively to men.

Suffragette, a straightforward period piece about the struggle by British women to gain the vote, returns us to a time when women were denied one of the most basic of democratic rights.

Suffragette focuses on one woman's political awakening. She's 24-year-old Maud Watts, played with nuanced intensity by Carey Mulligan.

As the movie develops, Maude must risk everything -- her husband (Ben Whishaw) and her young son (Adam Michael Dodd) -- to push for a cause she deems essential if women are to have a voice in how British society evolves.

Whishaw's character loves his wife, but acquiesces in the way that women are abused at the laundry where Maud works, also his place of employment.

Watts' involvement in an increasingly militant movement begins when she joins a co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) at a meeting. Pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) serves as the main organizer, a woman who's eventually driven to extremes to accomplish her goal.

Before Suffragette concludes, some of its women will have resorted to violence: Not surprisingly members of the movement engage in a familiar-sounding debate about how far they are justified in going to advance their cause.

Director Sarah Gavron, working from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, does her best work in scenes that show how the movie's women are subjugated. They are sexually harassed and demeaned in the workplace. And they find little support from male co-workers.

The film takes place in 1912, some 16 years before British women were granted full voting rights.

When we meet the movie's women, the battle for the vote had been going on for some time, led by figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst, portrayed in a cameo by Meryl Streep.

Streep's brief appearance comes off as an attempt at prestige grabbling. It's a way of nodding at history rather than exploring it.

It falls to a character named Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to represent the male opposition. A Scotland Yard detective, Steed tries to convince women they'd be better off if they simply went home and tended to their domestic lives. He also arrests them, and clearly stands as a staunch defender of the current order.

Suffragette attempts to turn itself into a clarion call for activism in a battle that remains unfinished, but the movie's real value has to do with the urgency of many of its performances and with the way in which it reminds us that some of the things we take for granted only resulted from hard-fought and costly battles.

'Taxi' drives into the heart of Iran

A simple, but revealing film about a society under stress.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been barred from making films for 20 years. His crime: Making movies that angered the Iranian regime. As an artist with a flare for ingenuity, Panahi has resorted to all manner of invention to keep his camera rolling.

The documentary This is Not a Film (2010) dealt with the time in which Panahi was under house arrest. He was in the process of appealing a six-year prison sentence that accompanied his ban on filmmaking. Part of that film involved Panahi describing a film he planned to make.

This is Not a Film was followed by Closed Curtain (2014), which focused on a screenwriter in hiding.

Now comes the entertaining and illuminating Jafar Panahi's Taxi, a movie in which the director drives a cab around Teheran.

A more or less mundane premise allows Panahi simultaneously to explore the limitations that have been imposed on him and the deep contradictions that tear at the fabric of Iranian society.

Using a camera attached to the cab's dashboard, Panahi introduces us to non-actors who play out various scenarios, including one in which a hustler sells bootlegged copies of American blockbusters.

The movie opens with a satirical scene in which a passenger argues for the death penalty. Another passenger suggests that perhaps the death-penalty advocate is being needlessly harsh. The death penalty advocate sticks to his guns.

Two older women get into the cab carrying a gold fish bowl and explaining why it is essential for them to return the fish to the spring where they were found.

The film is stolen by a youngster who Panahi tells us is his niece. He picks the girl up after school, and she proceeds to kick the film into a higher gear.

Self-assured and confident, the girl says her teacher has instructed the class in how to make a "distributable" film; i.e., one that will make it past Iran's censorious regime. A film must be real, but not so real as to indulge in "sordid realism," we learn.

Taxi also opens its doors to Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran's major human-rights lawyers. Sotoudeh has been in prison, so it's particularly convincing to hear her discussing interrogations with Panahi, who also knows something about the subject.

It's probably of metaphoric significance that Panahi -- best known for his 1995 masterpiece The White Balloon -- sometimes gets lost.

The tone of the film is relaxed and the filmmaking, of necessity, is modest.

But this deceptively simple film reveals much about the current state of Iran, about the plight of artists who are suppressed and about the way one such artist courageously retains his humanity, still allowing himself to be amused by his fellow citizens.

Taxi ought to shame every petulant director who makes a point of insisting on more luxury or more money. For Panahi, a film is not only an important act of expression: It's a necessary act of courage.

Killer imagery in 'The Assassin'

A confusing beauty of a film from Taiwan.

Director Hou Hisiao-Hsien's The Assassin has been selected by Taiwan as its entry in this year's foreign language Oscar sweepstakes. I don't know if Hou's film will make the final five, but if sheer gorgeousness counts, it's a shoo-in.

Watching The Assassin is a bit like waking up inside someone else's dream. This beautiful, disorienting and quietly absorbing tale focuses on a young woman (Shu Qi) who's ordered by her martial arts master to kill the man to whom she had been promised in marriage.

That's about the best I can do with a plot summary because Hou's movie is difficult to follow, perhaps more so for American audiences who aren't attuned to the movie's ninth-century historical backdrop.

But there's compensation. As lost as I sometimes got in Hou's movie, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. The Assassin mixes martial arts, political maneuvering and dozens of characters with some of the most arrestingly beautiful imagery you'll ever see in a movie.

It's not likely that anyone this year will match the cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bin when it comes to sumptuous allure, mystery and painterly composition.

Visual beauty -- replete with magnificent costumes and other-worldly landscapes -- helps get us through what seems an overabundant supply of intrigue and political machination built around an ethical question: Is it ever justifiable for a trained assassin simply to refuse to kill?

Perhaps knowing that his film rests on the power of its imagery, Hou moves slowly, lingering on every shot, sometimes fading to black between the film's episodes. When a new image arises, you almost feel as if you're waking from one dream and slipping into another.

Now, in fairness, it must be pointed out that some will find The Assassin frustratingly incomprehensible. If you're looking for a film with narrative drive and a compelling story, this is not a movie for you.

I get that, and normally I even might find myself in agreement with you.

But Hou's visual command approaches a mastery that's seldom seen in movies today.

Here's a martial arts film in which the fighting might be the film's least interesting element. The Assassin is at its best when it's serving up images that invite the eye to enter a world so gracefully realized, it only can be marveled at.

Diary of a really 'mad' housewife

During the depressingly somber I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman's Laney Brooks stands in front of a mirror examining her face and naked breasts. It's a signature moment in which an actress known for comedy makes it amply clear that she's creating a character who's distressingly aware that time is the enemy of the firmness of youth. Based on a 2009 novel by Amy Koppelman, I Smile Back proves relentlessly depressing as Laney dips into drugs, paranoia, infidelity and despair. As the mother of two, Laney is losing her grip. Her husband (Josh Charles) doesn't know what to do, other than to encourage her when she commits to yet another session of rehab. The movie gives Laney daddy issues -- Chris Sarandon makes a brief appearance as the father Laney never really knew -- but director Adam Salky never convinces us that I Smile Back is anything more than a horrifying wallow in bad behavior built around Silverman's brave performance. I have nothing against watching characters in movies suffer, and I don't mind suffering along with them, but in this case I had trouble differentiating between a suffering character and an actress who seemed to be pushed into one demeaning situation after another.