Sunday, February 28, 2016


As this is Oscar night, a much anticipated event in my household, I saw one more film with a Best Actor nominee.  This afternoon I watched Trumbo, a biographical story about a screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. He was a member of the American Communist Party in his youth and continued supporting liberal causes. In the early 1950's the U.S. Congress held hearings for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Various people who worked in Hollywood were subpoenaed - made to appear in open hearings and be grilled on their participation in Communist causes.

The accused demanded to have the Bill of Rights followed as American citizens, but their demands were ignored, so hot was the hate running for the Soviets at the time. Ten of the accused refused to answer the questions on the premise to do so would violate their rights to the freedoms guaranteed to American citizens. The ten were blacklisted and forbidden to work in their professions.  Some, like Trumbo, were jailed for "contempt of congress."

Hmmmm, if they were jailing Americans for "contempt of congress" today, there'd be lots of us incarcerated for our opinions of the do-nothings in the House and Senate who block important legislation, vote themselves raises, higher pensions, demand longer breaks (why, they don't do anything anyway?!) and take expensive "fact-finding" jaunts at the expense of lobby groups...

But I digress.  Bryan Cranston is wonderful in the title role of "Trumbo," a brilliant writer who doesn't withhold his contempt for the situation in which he finds himself.

When released from prison, he gets an idea of writing under other names, selling scripts to smaller studios and getting paid under the table.  He develops a corporation of sorts using his family to assist him.  He recruits his fellow blacklisted writers to write scripts as well.  Soon they're selling scripts for B movies to the King Brothers studios.  They make movies about aliens coming to Earth, love sick gorillas, weird creatures, etc.

Screenplays written by Trumbo, using other names, won two separate Academy Awards for best scripts, one was for Roman Holiday, a big-budget film which starred a young Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  The other was for The Brave One produced by the King Brothers. In both cases, he could not attend the ceremonies.  In one case he didn't get the statue until twenty years later.

Kirk Douglas came to him to rewrite the script for Spartacus and then Otto Preminger brought the script for Exodus to him, both big budget prestigious pictures in the late 1950s.

Cranston, whose talent is well-documented with previous awards, is a strong contender for the Oscar tonight. He was magnificent as the quirky, stubborn, chain-smoking, hard drinking, amphetamine popping genius.

Also notable in the cast is Diane Lane as his wife, who stuck by him through the ordeals, and never remarried after his death in 1976.

John Goodman plays the head of King Brothers studio, as a brash man, who chases away the Hollywood rep for the House Un-American Committee who comes to demand the studio quit using Trumbo to write his scripts, with a baseball bat and plenty of swings.

Dean O'Gorman plays Kirk Douglas and makes a strong impression in the role.

Louis CK plays a good friend of Trumbo, Arlen Hird, who is also a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking author on the blacklist.  This was a surprising turn for him.  The character is tragic and he plays him with delicate pathos which will make you weep.

Mark Stuhlberg plays Edward G. Robinson, who funds the legal costs for his friends by selling a Monet from his collection, only to turn them all in to save his career later.

Helen Mirren plays obnoxious gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, who led the Hollywood fight to get all the "Commies" out of the business.  At one time, she had the largest circulation of any Hollywood columnist.  As such she wielded great power in Tinseltown. Mirren was appropriately bitchy in the role.  Her final scene when she knows she's lost, is equally impressive.  But hey, it's Helen Mirren...

The film was based on real events.  Kirk Douglas insisted giving Trumbo screen credit for writing the script for Spartacus, which broke the blacklist when Otto Preminger followed suit for his film, Exodus.  One of my favorite scenes was when JFK was seen coming out of a theater having just watched Spartacus.  When asked what he thought about the movie if it was filled with Communist influence, he said it was a great picture which he enjoyed...Too bad, Ms. Hopper...

Throughout the picture Bryan Cranston shines...Trumbo was a character, one who stuck to his ideals and his beloved craft.

Bryan Cranston may win his own Oscar tonight.  He deserves one for this role.

Until next time...

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Revenant

Today I finally saw The Revenant, the incredible story of survival and determination directed by the director of last year's Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Alejandro G. Inarritu (sorry I can't find my tilde).  The Revenant reaped the bonanza of nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Leonardo diCaprio, the star of the film has already taken both a Golden Globe and the British Academy Award for his portrayal of Hugh Glass. He's the odds-on favorite to receive the Oscar next weekend.

Tom Hardy as his nemesis, the evil Fitzgerald, is nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

This is a film with a huge scope, lots of long panoramic shots of the frozen mountains at all hours of the day and night. There are also shots of raging rapids on rivers too swift to freeze.  The actors' breath is usually visible even in the indoor scenes, it's so cold...

Basically, the story is this, Glass (diCaprio) with his half-Pawnee son, leads a group of trappers for a fur company through the mountains.  Cree Indians attack their camp because they are stealing the animals, taking the hides, and some of the meat that would sustain the tribes throughout the winter. Thirty-two of the trappers are killed before the rest escape to their riverboat with some of the pelts. As they go down the river in safety, an argument ensues.  Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a thoroughly disagreeable man, who I am sorry to say, keeps talking about going back home to Texas, thinks they should continue in the boat on the river to escape the Pawnee.

Glass insists they put the boat ashore while they unload, stash the hides where they can find them, and go back overland to the fort. The captain of the expedition agrees with Glass but Fitzgerald continues to argue for the boat.

They disembark and haul the pelts up on the side of a mountain where they hide them.  Glass continues to lead the men.  One morning he is scouting ahead when he sees bear cubs apparently alone. He knows better than that...sure enough Mama Grizzly scents and sees him, attacking him immediately.  It is a horrible, bloody scene.  But I have to say the mechanical or CGI bear was very well done. Glass gets in a few good stabs with his knife and the bear ends up dying on top of him.  Not a situation I would care to experience...

He is badly mauled, near death when the men find him. The captain insists they build a travois to drag him with them.  Fitzgerald keeps complaining about having to drag him along and talks the captain into leaving Glass.  The captain decides to leave two men who he will pay extra money if they promise to stay with Glass until he dies and his son. I think the captain must have been too cold to think straight because he lets Fitzgerald stay with the youngest man in the expedition to help the son care for Glass...Not a good decision any way you look at it.

Eventually Fitzgerald decides he's had enough babysitting and plans to leave Glass for dead.  Hawk, Glass' son fights him and he kills the teenager, hiding the body. He tells the young man with him that Hawk ran away.  He convinces the kid there are Pawnee down by the water and they need to leave as Glass is "practically dead."

Fitzgerald partially buries the gravely injured Glass and drags the younger man away with him.  Glass manages to crawl to where the body of his son lies, and thus the story really begins...And you thought this was the whole story, didn't you? Nope, this is just the set-up.

Glass embarks on a dangerous journey of vengeance in which he literally comes back from the dead to avenge his son.

It is an amazing spiritual journey in which he is guided by his late wife's spirit and finally his son's.  The Revenant is a stark poetic tale of native American legend and spirituality.  The shots of the landscape, the animals, the authentic regalia of the Pawnee, remind me of Dances With Wolves, with even darker overtones.

Glass will let nothing stop him, even subsequent injuries. But he learns a surprising lesson at the end.

It's a long film, 156 minutes worth, but it grabs your attention and keeps you spellbound.

There are certain shots that took my breath away, such as the pyramid of buffalo skulls with pelts scattered around it as a French soldier smiles beside the carnage.

You need to be in the right mood to see this one, but it's well worth it. Good performances by all the cast members.

Is it the best picture I've seen of the nominees? Yes, I believe it is...

Until next time...

Saturday, February 20, 2016


In a very different mode from my recent review of Spotlight, today I went to see Deadpool, the latest film in the X-Men franchise. Since I am more aware of the Avengers in the Marvel universe, I didn't realize Deadpool is part of the X-Men.  Well, actually he is on the fringes.  Two of the X-Men are trying to recruit him to join, but so far he has resisted their attempts.

Okay, this one is rated R for language, nudity, and sexual situations.  It deserves the R rating.  This isn't a movie to take your ten year olds to see, unless they are surprisingly mature.  I was told by a friend her sister-in-law had gone to see this one and walked out soon after it started, offended by the language and content.

I can understand her reaction, although I would never do that...Deadpool is hilarious, but it is funny like Animal House on steroids.  Most of you are probably wondering what I mean by Animal was a raunchy, frat-boy comedy, back in the day.

Both the opening and closing credits are very much a part of the show. The opening credits are hysterical.  I'll give you examples but I was laughing so hard, don't take them as exactly correct.  For example - the credits for producer referred to a "douchebag", while the credits for the writers was something like "the real talent around here..." Like I said, don't quote me, but you get the idea. All those credited were listed by description, not by name.

It's an outrageous, over-the-top comedy, which laughs at every superhero film, including the X-Men. Oh, the two X-Men who want to recruit Deadpool are a huge metal man known as Colossus and a sullen teenaged girl known as Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Her ability is pretty impressive when she uses it.

The villain is an enhanced man known as Ajax, but whose given name is Francis.  Deadpool while undergoing transformation to his ultimate superhero status, refuses to call his tormentor anything but Francis, even though Ajax frequently demands Deadpool say his name.

It seems Deadpool was once a disgraced special forces officer, Wade, who worked as a mercenary.  He meets a woman and falls in love.  No, there are no hearts and flowers, just down and gritty sex scenes with many comic elements.  He proposes with a Christmas bulb ring.  She accepts and they are happy for about ten minutes until he gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. A strange little man comes to him in his favorite bar and tells him he can be cured.  Desperate, though he first refuses, he thinks about what he has to lose and calls the number on the card the man left him.

Thus, Wade is transformed into Deadpool...nobody explained the side effects of making him immortal. To make matters worse, Ajax is a sadist and takes pleasure in the pain his subjects endure.  Wade vows revenge. Disfigured, he does not think he can inflict his new condition and face on the woman he loves, so he becomes Deadpool - after a few comic missteps.

Of course Deadpool is triumphant in the end.  He wins back his love and defeats Francis in a final cataclysmic battle on and around a dry-docked wreck of a helicarrier. What can I say, it's a comic superhero movie.

If you have ever seen any of the Marvel movies you know they always put a teaser scene foreshadowing the next movie after the entire credits roll.  This was no exception.  The scene was played for laughs like the rest of the movie.  I was shaking my head and laughing as I left the theater.

Oh, and the closing credits, which used the actual names of the people involved in the film, were just as raunchy as the first.  They used cartoon characters doing things no young child should ever see cartoon characters do.

Ryan Reynolds is a hoot as the title character. One review I saw referred to Deadpool as the "snarkiest" super hero in the Marvel universe.  I'd say that's right on.

If you are in the mood for this freaky, funny film, take a chance and see it. Just be warned, absolutely nothing is withheld in this one.  It's not like Captain America and goes much farther than Iron Man ever dreamed of going.  But that's the beauty of this character.

I'm seriously considering switching gears drastically again and going to see The Revenant tomorrow.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 14, 2016


This year my Academy Award preparation is not the usual.  I'm not making an effort to see all the nominees prior to the awards being presented.  For one thing, I'm not up to sitting through what many people think will be the Best Picture Winner, The Revenant. Too much emotional baggage over the last year.

Of the nominees for Best Picture I have seen Bridge of Spies and now Spotlight. I hope to see The Martian this week on pay-per-view.

I saw Spotlight yesterday at a one time only showing at my local multiplex.  Don't know why they did that as the film is coming out on video very soon.  But I'm glad I got to see it on the big screen.

This is based on a true story.  The Spotlight unit of the Boston Globe begins an investigation of rumors of children being molested by Catholic priests in the Boston Diocese. Even though 9/11 happens in the middle of the investigation and pushes back their release date, they do not give up on the story.

The editors and reporters do not stop the research, even when they are blindsided by the far-reaching power of the Church.  Bit by bit, they dig up the truth, resurrect it and publish it for the world to see.

As you would expect, this film is charged with emotion, tense, and unrelenting, just like the reporters who ferret out the awful truth. Starting with a list of 13 priests known to have molested children, the list grows to over 70 verified priests when the research is concluded.

At the end of the film credits, they run three triple column pages of single-spaced lists of other locations where reports of abuse by the priests have been verified all over the world.  You will be amazed.

As a retired social worker who dealt with victims of such abuse, I found the portrayals realistic as the reporters interviewed adults who were molested as children.

There are excellent performances from the cast - notably Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber as staff members at the Boston Globe, Stanley Tucci as an Armenian attorney who brought suits against the church, and Len Cariou as the arrogant Cardinal Law. This is not to short change the rest of the cast members.  Everyone did an admirable job with the difficult roles. This is a solid cast who worked as a unit within a cohesive script.

The cast of Spotlight recently won the Screen Actor's Guild Award for best cast.  It was a well-deserved award.

My interest was caught and held from the beginning of the movie to the end - no checking the time or being distracted by the sounds in the theater.  My attention was glued to that screen.

As I walked out of the theater after it was over, I remembered hearing Pope Francis speak last year about ending the silence on sexual abuse of children by priests and the practice of transferring a known predator to another parish where he could find new victims.

No this is not a topic for everyone, but it is something which happened.  The film version of the brave staff of the Boston Globe taking on a story of such magnitude in a predominantly Catholic city is incredible to watch.

I say good job to the real people portrayed in this film and bravo to the cast who portrayed them.

On a personal note, I have to say Mark Ruffalo is becoming one of my favorite actors lately.  From the HBO biopic The Normal Heart, to the Marvel Comics films, The Avengers, and The Age of Ultron, and now for his passionate portrayal of reporter Mike Resendez in Spotlight. 

Who knew the big green guy with few verbal skills had it in him?

This is an excellent film.  Check it out.

Until next time...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies

Well, I did it. Today I went to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies.  Previously I read the book.  I debated about reviewing it here in this forum, but honestly, I was offended that the author Seth Grahame - Smith had used the original book, complete with much of the dialog and narrative to build his own novel. Granted he gave credit to Jane Austen, but as a devotee of the original work, I wasn't sure how I felt about that.

Today the film put it all in perspective. Yes, the basic story is there - the five Bennet sisters live with their marriage-minded mother and their bemused father.  Each of them knowing her purpose in life is to marry. Enter Mr. Bingley, his friend Mr. Darcy, eventually George Wickham, and the Reverend Mr. Collins.

So far so good, right? Yes, but this England is a far cry from Austen's land of restrictive manners among the gentry.  In this England, zombies are growing in number. Men and women are encouraged by their king to study "the deadly arts." Read that Asian martial arts...The most snobbish among the aristocratic study in Kyoto, Japan.  The ones who want the best training study in China with Shaolin monks. Thereby comes the friction between Darcy and Elizabeth.  He's a student and proponent of the Kyoto school while she is Shaolin trained. Plus women are expected to cease their "warrior ways" when they marry in this cockeyed version of England.  Elizabeth vows she will never stop fighting.

The film wasn't as bloody as the book.  Most of the scenes of Zombie attacks were muted with long shots, camera filters, or the use of night settings.

The film's action and plot elements differed from the novel which surprised me.  It was a very different story. It tells the tale of an upcoming Zombie apocalypse and the four Zombie horsemen who will signal the end times.

I have to admit I loved the scene of the Bennet sisters, all five of them, dressing for the ball at Netherfield, with knives hidden in their garters, along with primitive firearms.  When the inevitable attack comes, they become a formidable group with choreographed fighting in which the camera stays on the sisters, not their assailants.  It was a great scene.

There is also combat between Elizabeth and Darcy when he first proposes marriage to her.  The subsequent fight is sexy and fun, the likes of which we rarely see in films.

Notable among the cast are the following:

Bella Heathcote - who played Johnny Depp's love interest in Dark Shadows, plays Jane Bennet, the eldest sister.  Ms. Heathcote is ethereally beautiful and is a surprisingly spunky Jane, second only to her sister Elizabeth as a warrior.

Lily James stars as Elizabeth Bennet.  She is up to the challenge of the role, and a challenge it is, both physically and emotionally.  According to what I read on the Web, Natalie Portman was originally slated to play the part but had to back out due to scheduling conflicts. She still gets producer credit.

Sam Riley plays Mr. Darcy, who makes an immediate first impression.  He is a clever, great warrior who is a colonel in the British military. He is attracted against his will to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, with the added problem of her Shaolin training.

Douglas Booth plays Mr. Bingley, not the warrior his friend is.  He is a handsome young man, well matched with the lovely Miss Heathcote.  He does a heroic turn in the climax of the story.

Jack Huston plays the scheming Mr. Wickham.  One of my favorite contemporary actors, memorable for his role as Richard Harrow, the horribly wounded WWI vet in HBO's series Boardwalk Empire, he makes an evil villain indeed.

Lena Headey, known as the dangerous matriarch of the Lannister clan in Game of Thrones, does a great job as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy's aunt.  The premier female warrior in all of England, she is an amazing woman, much more compassionate than the original Miss Austen penned. Ms. Headey created a memorable character.

For me, Matt Smith, as the Reverend Mr. Collins, stole the show.  Mr. Collins is usually played as a stuffy little obnoxious man.  Smith's interpretation was a bit different.  He was a hoot. For you Whovians out there, of course he was the eleventh actor to play the Doctor in the venerable series.  His portrayal of Mr. Collins has elements of the Doctor, but is much more obnoxious and unctuous (love that word!) He is a delight as he performs the double wedding at the end of the film.

Now then, I am usually not into spoilers, but I will say, if you leave when the credits begin to roll, you will miss a very important scene.  So don't be fooled when the cast credits start to roll...The film isn't concluded yet. There might be a sequel, that's all I'm sayin'.

I know there are some of you out there who will never willingly see any Zombie movie, but for the rest of you, this is a fun one, very well done.

I recommend it.

Like with any such film, leave your belief system at the door, get some popcorn, and enjoy the ride.

Until next time...

Friday, February 5, 2016

Hail Caesar

Those feisty Coen Brothers are at it again.  This time they have given us a film that is a send up of the early 1950s in Hollywood, at the height of the Communist scare.

Like most of their films, there is a zany component, an off-kilter recreation of an ugly piece of American history.

Though fictional, some of the characters are spoofing actual Hollywood celebs of their day. For example, Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams' clone - a swimming sweetheart with a broad Brooklyn accent and a penchant for indiscriminate love play.

George Clooney does a comic turn as Baird Whitlock, the suave leading man of his day.  Turns out Mr. Whitlock is none too swift in the brains department, as we Texans would say. But, boy, can he turn out a  performance when properly motivated...

Alden Ehrenreich plays the popular cowboy star of his day, complete with riding and roping tricks, and cowboy songs.  The fun comes when he is cast in a drawing-room drama with actors using English accents. I laughed like a fool.  But our cowboy turns out to be a hero off the screen as well. (I think we'll see more of this talented young actor.)

Ralph Fiennes plays the conflicted (in many ways) director who is forced to use the cowboy in his drama, complete with British accents.

Jonah Hill plays straight man as the studio's go-to guy for solving difficult situations that could ruin the career of a star or a valuable director. Depending on your point of view, he ends up either the happiest or saddest man of the story...

Channing Tatum does a surprising job as a song and dance man in a big production number complete with acrobatic moves and tap shoes.  I didn't know he had it in him! But his character has more depth as the plot progresses.  Still all of his scenes, even the ones in which he's not being a movie star, are shot like scenes in a film of that era...if that doesn't make sense just see the film.  You'll understand. I LOVED the shot of him silhouetted in the moonlight holding his little dog.

Oh yes, I loved the dog...

Tilda Swinton does a classic turn as battling twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly.

And what would a Coen brothers film be without Frances McDormand? Look for her in a hysterical bit as a distracted, cigarette smoking, film editor, ensconced in her dark little office late at night when the studio head comes to visit her. I'm not sure, but I think a case could be made that one bit in this film eclipses her, "Nope, I'm goooonnna baaaarrrff" moment in Fargo. She is always a delight.

Wayne Knight (Newman of Seinfield) does a great "Lurking Extra #1" - I'm not kidding that's his character name in the credits.  He's a hoot with his nervous tics and comic timing.

Robert Picardo of Star Trek Voyager fame does a great job as a Rabbi brought in with other clergy leaders by the head of the studio to give the all-clear to their production of the story of the Crucifixion of Christ, which they called Hail Caesar.

And speaking of the studio head, Josh Brolin does a wonderful job as Eddie Mannix, the hard drinking, trying-to-quit-smoking, stressed head of the studio.  The movie really belongs to him as he moves through the action trying to solve problems at the studio, not the least of which is the kidnapping of his biggest star, Baird Whitlock...

The latter event ends in a bizarre way only the Coen brothers could conceive.

I have to tell you, I laughed like a lunatic in this one.  It is a pluperfect hoot.  Not a minute of it is serious, even when Lawrence Laurent (Fiennes) is attempting to direct his drama.

The audience in the movie theater was not huge, but I saw it at a time when most people would be at work. The age of the patrons skewed older, retirees, yep, like me.  There were a lot of us laughing, but some of the people in the audience clearly didn't get the joke.  That's okay, I understand.  Satire isn't always readily evident to those whose minds don't bend that way.

Hail Caesar is another gem from this talented team of brothers.  It's a great way to forget about your problems and suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours.

Check it next review will be Pride + Prejudice + Zombies which also opened today in general distribution.

Until next time...