Archive | November, 2015


24 Nov

‘Trumbo’: Scribe refusing to name names meant carrying on by adopting others

Back during the Red Scare and Cold War years, Hollywood relegated many talented filmmakers and artists to the blacklist, making them untouchable and unhirable through the naming of names by people themselves worried they’d be called out as Communists and become unable to keep working. Elia Kazan, the director of such classics as “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden” was one Hollywoodite who appeared as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee and prospered. But Dalton Trumbo, then the highest-paid screenwriter in Tinseltown, was served up by his friends but refused to roll over on others. Equipped with a cunning wit, he preserved and prospered behind the scenes, spinning the excess and hypocrisy of Hollywood into a small fortune.

112115i Trumbo“Trumbo,” based on the book by Bruce Cook, shows the screenwriter’s triumphs and tribulations while on the “list.” It’s a snarky look at a period when right-wing fear mongering – akin to today’s strong immigration/terrorism rhetoric – reigned supreme and liberalism was equated with Communism and anti-American sentiment. The film, directed by Jay Roach of “Meet the Parents” and “Austin Powers” fame, plays light and fast, a benefit to something that could have been a somber slog, but it also lacks breadth. The focus of the film centers on the newly blacklisted Trumbo, his outlandish shenanigans (he wrote “Exodus,” “Roman Holiday” and “Spartacus” behind the scenes, using pen names) and the state of paranoia and complacency sweeping the country.

Roach gets a huge lift from Bryan Cranston as the affable but conniving scribe, who becomes name-drop fodder after taking a defiant freedom of speech stance in the face of blacklisting. As Walter White in the wildly popular AMC series “Breaking Bad,” Cranston, even while engaging in criminal activity, always possessed an avuncular tenderness, and that essence radiates here, coupled with quirky and witty charm. It’s a disarming performance in search of a meaty vehicle, but satiating nonetheless.

The huge ensemble – dwarfed by Cranston’s always-on rebel clown – includes a scene-chewing Helen Mirren as notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, John Goodman as small backlot studio head paying Trumbo peanuts to crank out B-flicks, Christian Berkel, an uproarious specter as director Otto  Preminger, and the lovely Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, Cleo. In it all, it’s interesting to see how some of Hollywood royalty get painted, John Wayne (David James Elliot) comes off as indignantly right while Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) proves pragmatic and sensitive, ever bearing a kind, knowing smile.

In the end, I’m not sure Roach and writer John McNamara get the historical perspective right. It feels like you need a bit of a Google search now and then to anchor it, but in there pinning it all together handily is Cranston, who carries the film as effortlessly as Trumbo cranked out scripts for schlock projects.

In Jackson Heights

17 Nov
Still from Frederick Wiseman's "In Jackson Heights" (Courtesy Zipporah Films)Still from Frederick Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights” (Courtesy Zipporah Films)

Cambridge has quietly become an incubator to more than just hi-tech, intellectualized liberalism and life sciences. Slowly but surely over the past few decades the left bank has become a nurturing rook for documentary filmmakers.

It’s home to such notables as Academy Award-winners Errol Morris (“Fog of War”) and Margaret Lazarus (“Defending Our Lives”). Oscar-nominated Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence“) attended Harvard and longtime resident Ross McElwee made an indelible mark in 1985 with his critically acclaimed autobiographical sojourn, “Sherman’s March,” too, but predating all that undeniable talent and vision, and most prolific, looms Frederick Wiseman.

The embodiment of the cinéma vérité, Wiseman, at the spry age of 85 (call it 86) is now churning out his 40th cinematic essay, “In Jackson Heights,” which begins a special engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts starting Wednesday, Nov. 18, and runs through the end of the month.

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman, director of "In Jackson Heights" (Courtesy Zipporah Films)

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7 Nov

Michael Keaton leads an ensemble cast in the riveting investigative drama Spotlight

Shine a Light


Spotlight is rare journey into journalism that gets at the heart of its investigators’ subject without grandstanding the personalities or personal lives of those doing the poking around. Like the classic All the President’s Men and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Spotlight rides the rails of well-known history — in this case, the Catholic pedophilia scandal in Boston — but despite the anticlimactic nature of knowing how it ends, the film unfurls with intrigue, putting the viewer in the seat of those unearthing the unseemly truths, learning in the moment as the moment unfolds. The simple and earnest approach casts a sympathetic, but never maudlin, light on the victims of child sexual abuse during the 1980s and 1990s with a subtle poignancy that ultimately builds to a roar.

At the center of Spotlight looms the tribal, nepotistic nature of Boston, where hushing up crimes is easily accomplished with money and strong-arm tactics. It’s a world where the powerful prey upon the weak, in this case pedophilic priests targeting boys and girls from the city’s vanishing blue-collar neighborhoods. Many of these children were from broken homes without a stable male figure and riddled with substance abuse.

Spotlight takes its name from the Boston Globe investigative team that ultimately uncovered the massive church cover-up. At the center of the film is team editor Walter Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). Like many Bostonians he was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic high school across the street from the Globe. And it’s not until the arrival of new managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a solemn Jew up from Miami, that Robby and the Spotlight crew begin looking at the link between the abuse cases. Although you get the sense that Robby only reluctantly pursues the case at first, he and his team ultimately become dogged pursuers of the truth who are more than willing to go up against the iconic institution of their rearing, an institution protected by money, reach, and power.

Director and co-writer Todd McCarthy, who’s had great success plumbing the heart of everyday human drama with The Station Agent and The Visitor, succeeds again with Spotlight, thanks in part to his ensemble cast, including Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, and Billy Crudup. In the end, McCarthy’s film is about truth and reckoning and the prospect of giving a modicum of vindication to those broken and tormented souls who suffered at the hands of those they most trusted.