Trumbo: A Review

Trumbo, a recreation of the most shameful period of American history to date and the force that was Dalton Trumbo who defied the blacklist could and should win best picture this year. Starring Bryan Cranston, who should already be making space for an Oscar, Diane Lane and John Goodman, directed by Jay Roach, this docudrama/biopic is a film that is nigh on impossible to not love.

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Trumbo, a recreation of the most shameful period of American history to date and a depiction of the force that was Dalton Trumbo who defied the blacklist could and should win Best Picture for 2015.  Starring Bryan Cranston, who should already be making space for an Oscar, Diane Lane and John Goodman and directed by Jay Roach, this docudrama/biopic is a film that is impossible not to love.

Entertaining, funny, heartbreaking and thought provoking, Trumbo gets so  much right and this compensates for the few items that could be seen as wrong. The film looks sumptuous, rich and full of detail, from Dalton’s library to the tools of his trade, everything  looks spot on and beautiful. The things that do not work as well irk  but some things cannot be faithfully recreated.

A perfect example  of this is in the area of casting.  As the main  “protagonist”  Cranston’s casting of Dalton Trumbo is serendipity in its purest form, the man is Trumbo.  All of the actors chosen to play the “main roles”  fit their characters like tailored kid-gloves.  Diane Lane, for example,  who can play any part with a skill that many hope for and spend a lifetime trying to achieve but fall that bit short, becomes Cleo Trumbo almost effortlessly.

Elle Fanning, little sis to Dakota, as Trumbo’s teen daughter is perfect. Fanning is well on the path to outshining  her wunderkind older sister and her performance in this film proves that the Fanning girls definitely got more than their fair share of the talent gene.

Helen Mirren, drops the accent to portray Hedda Harper as a vicious and malicious shrew.  Best actress should be hers automatically.  Sadly, Lane and Fanning are also up for the gong and this three way race will definitely end in tears for someone.

John Goodman, along side Stephen Root who plays Hymie, portrays the outspoken ‘B’ filmmaker Frank King. Goodman’s King may just have the best comic line in the entire film. When chasing out a representative of the “opposition” Frank states that he makes films “for the p*ssy and the money, both of which are falling out of the trees,” One of those moments that if this was not what Frank really said, it should have been.

The true star of this film, however, is Cranston. He brings the legend that was Dalton Trumbo to life. Whether sitting in his bathtub telling Nikki off for disturbing him or attempting to survive in prison, the actor lends a realism to the Oscar winning writer who was blacklisted by a combination of well meaning patriots and vicious politicians with hidden agendas.  Although Hedda Hopper cannot be said to be either.  This vitriolic and strident gossip columnist could well be the template that some modern  writers strive to follow. (Ann Coulter for instance?)

The music, sets, cinematography and costumes in this film all combine to bring a breath of truth to the proceedings. Just as the mix of news reel footage of the time takes the viewer back to a most shameful time in the land  of the free so too do all these other elements bring the audience back to a different world.

There are things that have been “altered” or that annoy.  These few moments take nothing away from the film.  Part of the problem has to do with that ever present curse of biopic features that  deal with stars of yesteryear. Granted, finding a modern actor who could convincingly portray “Duke” Wayne, who had a life long love affair with America, would be difficult and it was.

The unenviable task fell to David James ElliottMichael Stuhlbarg was left to bring Edward G. Robinson to life, Dean O’Gorman was Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger was played by Christian Berkel. All the actors carried off their roles with varying degrees of success if one forgave that only O’Gorman came close to looking like the real performers the were meant to portray.

Cranston, as Trumbo, carries off the look and the sound of the legend and more importantly, the spirit of the man.  This film is a testament to the drive and tenacity of Trumbo as well as his overwhelming talent.

Director Jay Roach takes the John McNamara screenplay, adapted from Bruce Cook’s novel and breaths life into a time that many in the audience have only read about, if even that.  The communist witch hunts, lead later by McCarthy, got their start here in the land of dreams.

The stage was set by world events, as stated in the film’s introductory titles, making this, perhaps, an inevitability.  Roach captures the time and the feelings of a bygone era to great effect and come award time, Trumbo should sweep the gongs on offer.

This is easily the best film to come out this year, in the area of biopic/docudrama and features actors who all are well known for delivering first class performances. John Goodman, Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K. all give first rate portrayals. While Goodman is up for Best Supporting actor, he may be pipped at the post by Schulman’s vulnerable and touching performance as Edward G. Robinson, whom the committee forced to crawl and beg his way back to work. 

This is easily this critic’s favorite film, despite the bits that “do not fit exactly.”  Any biopic, especially one so long after the fact, will fictionalize, or alter certain time periods and facts, in order to make the story more entertaining and palatable.  Film, by the very nature of the medium, fictionalizes any “true story” or event. Trumbo is not exception, but it does not do so frivolously or senselessly, it alters for the over all good of the story.

Trumbo should be seen by all who have heard of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklist, Spartacus. Roman Holiday, Hedda Hopper or the Un-American Committee.  The film should also be seen by anyone who loves a hero, an intelligent and talented writer of creative works and Bryan Cranston.

This is a 5 star film and one that, thus far, falls into the category of favorite film of 2015. If you watch nothing else, watch this one and then when it garners praise at the award’s ceremonies later, you will not be surprised.

Sneaky Pete: Amazon and Sony get Lightning in a Bottle

Giovanni Ribisi aka Sneaky Pete
Sneaky Pete the Amazon and Sony Television Pictures offering, called a TV Movie on IMDb that is, according to Amazon, a series available on Amazon Instant Video, is an almost perfect product, that illusive “lightning in a bottle” or perfect storm, if you will, of serendipitous creation. Everything about the first episode, which one can see on Amazon for free right now, clicks into place like a magnetized puzzle piece.

The storyline, the casting, the chemistry of the actors, and the inclusion of Bryan Cranston as villain, all work together so well, that director Seth Gordon and writer David Shore could give lessons on how to create the perfect pilot episode for a new series.

The appearance of Cranston toward the end of the premiere episode has the air of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” to it. The award winning actor from Breaking Bad, has a connection with Shore via Vince Gilligan, show runner and creator of the AMC fan favorite show, as both men, Shore and Gilligan, were the creators of the short lived CBS series Battle Creek.

Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief director Seth Gordon helms the pilot episode of Sneaky Pete deftly and blends writer Shore’s comedy heavy script perfectly with the serious backstory of Marius/Pete. While the series is labeled as a Drama (dramedy might be more apt) there is enough humor to keep the show from being yet another show based upon a criminal with a heart who shines through a life full of pathos.

The pilot storyline follows Marius Josepovich (Giovanni Ribisi) a confidence man who, until very recently, has been sharing a cell with Pete. During their time together, the con man’s cellmate has talked incessantly of his almost Norman Rockwell type childhood and his grandparents. At the start of the show, Marius angrily tells Pete to stop talking about his perfect childhood. He points out to the other man that his life is far from perfect. That he committed a stupid crime and will be in prison or anther two years at least while he, Marius, will be out in a matter of hours.

After his short conversation with Pete, which ends with his being shoved up against the cell wall, he calls his little brother Eddie. He learns that things will not be too great when he gets out. There are people who want him dead. The next time we see Marius, he is pumping Pete about that perfect childhood, prompting his cellmate to reveal his grandparents address.

Marius shows up at Pete’s familial retreat claiming to be his cellmate and they accept him as the grandkid that they have not seen in two decades. Although, it looks like Grandpa does while Grandma seems to know from the get-go that Marius might just not be Pete.

Marius/Pete meets the cousins, one of whom is a cop, and joins the family business of bail bonds as a skip tracer. Cue a lot of moments of tense comedy while Julia (played by Marin Ireland), who helps Grandma at the office, learns a lot from Pete, including the fact that he is not overly courageous.

The series opener is a splendid mix of comedy and pathos, but mostly it excels at the comedy. Overt humor and sly humor sit side-by-side and each character is presented very well by the script. Little touches are interwoven in the plot to present a depth to each person in the story.

Julia turning out to be very good at “winging it” (reference the “faking their way into the award party scene”) and has bad judgement not just about the men in her life but people in general.

Marius tells the real Pete early on that his mother was an addict. Something that, as a viewer, we tend do disbelieve as he has already been identified as a confidence man. Before the show ends we learn, via the auspices of a flashback at the family meal, that his mom was an addict and that Marius looked after his baby brother Eddie.

Sneaky Pete is not the first form of fictional entertainment to focus on the world of the scam, the con, the clip, et al. Universal’s 1973 hit film The Sting starring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid superstars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was all about the con and the people who practice it.

There is something addictive about a confidence tale. Like a magician the con artist strives to be the “smartest person in the room.” Added to this fascination with the con are characters that the audience immediately like and care about, music that moves the story along brilliantly and a storyline that makes it clear that “Grandma did not fall off the melon truck yesterday.”

At the end of the first episode, while Grandma Audrey (Margo Martindale) is collecting eggs, she tells Marius/Pete in carefully couched terms that she knows. While it is implied that she heard his conversation just prior to coming into the barn, It was shown at the beginning of the episode (in the lemonade scene) that Audrey knows something is not right with this new version of Pete.

Sneaky Pete, which does sound a bit like a Looney Tunes character, like Speedy Gonzales, rather than a show title, is a perfect blend of comedy, information (Think Burn Notice and Michael Weston teaching viewers about being a spy but delivered via the show’s dialogue and not through a voice over narration.) and just a tiny bit of sentimentality.

This series is an epic win for all concerned. Ribisi rocks it as Marius/Pete, Ireland is perfect as cousin Julie, Martindale as the perfect all-knowing grandma and the writing brings enough to the table that the actors all have some great material to work with. Thus far, this Amazon program has no further episodes listed so it will be hard to know when episode two may show up. Till then, watch the pilot and marvel at this lightning in a bottle event. This, quite simply, smashing “television.”

Need for Speed (2014): Aaron Paul’s Video Game Film

Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall in Need for Speed
The 2014 film Need for Speed could be seen as a film made to cash in on Aaron Paul’s Breaking Bad popularity or an effort to capitalize on the video game of the same name. While the movie did make a decent profit, production costs were $66 million and the worldwide box office came to $203 million, critics panned the movie almost universally. The film’s biggest crime seems to have been, apart from starring television actor Paul, not being 2 Fast 2 Furious or part of that long running franchise.

Directed by Scott Waugh, stunt coordinator extraordinaire turned director, and starring Aaron Paul, Brit actors Imogen Poots and Dominic Cooper (Cooper is currently working steadily as Tony Stark’s daddy in Agent Carter on ABC) along with Mr Robot‘s Rami Malik and pre – 50 Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson, the movie is an action film based, very loosely on the video game and features fast cars, a little humor, and some thrills and spills along the way. Michael Keaton has a splendid cameo as Monarch, the former Formula 1 racer with a dickey heart who sponsors the De Leon race.

Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a racer who yearns to win the De Leon and whose small cadre of friends stick by him and help out in his late father’s business. Cooper is Dino Brewster, professional race car driver, rich guy and all around heel. The two do not get on, mainly because Dino stole Tobey’s girl, Anita (Johnson) whose little brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) is Marshall’s best friend. After taking a contract to modify a car for Brewster, a Mustang that is later sold to Julia Maddon’s boss for a cool $2.7 million, Dino challenges Tobey and Pete to a race and the heel kills Pete with a pit maneuver during the race.

Tobey is framed for the crime and put away for manslaughter. When he gets out, Marshall vies to get Monarch’s attention and get an invite to the De Leon where he wants to beat Brewster once and for all. Maddon joins Tobey as they drive across country with a bounty placed on their heads by Dino who wants to stop Marshall from entering the race.

That Aaron Paul has got some enormous acting chops goes without question. Just the fact that he held his own against master craftsman Bryan Cranston for the whole of Breaking Bad is proof positive that the man can act. Critics who had their long knives poised to sink into Aaron’s performance in this video game action racer were doing so because he dared to leave the small box. Had they paid attention, these “experts” would have noticed that Paul gave his usual meticulous performance.

Granted the storyline itself had some pretty glaring plot holes and Poots manages to look younger each time she is on screen, and there is not nearly enough Michael Keaton, but…

Malik shows just how he got the part of Elliot in Mr Robot, Poots showed just why she should be in more films and Cooper made a impressively nasty villain. The Brit actor showed just how to make the bad guy a truly nasty bit of stuff and that, in turn, helped to make Paul’s hero look even better.

Waugh did a good job in his second feature length film as director and the film looks great. Everything felt right and while not as glossy or OTT as the 2F2F franchise films, the stunts delivered the requisite amount of oohs and ahhs and made all the scenes crackle with excitement.

Certainly Need for Speed feels a little like a red headed step child to the “Furious” saga but overall, the film delivers. This is a 4 out of 5 star film, earning an extra star for the casting of Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper. It is Streaming on Showtime at the moment and worth watching despite its rather long runtime of over two hours.

Drive (2011) Gosling and Refn in First Partnership (Review/Trailer)

Poster from Drive The 2011 Ryan Gosling film Drive, which was his first partnership with Nicholas Winding Refn, is a compelling film that grips the viewer and plunges them into the monosyllabic world of Gosling’s nameless character. With star turns from the lead, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Christina Hendricks, the movie hits all the right notes and entertains despite the odd plot hole.

The story follows “the Kid” aka the driver in his everyday existence which is, to say the least, pretty quiet. The man himself does not say a lot. Even his spiel to prospective customers consist of about three or four lines of dialogue. When Gosling’s character is not stunt driving for the movies, he offers his services as a getaway driver.

The Kid’s talents lay not in speedy escapades with the police chasing him and his cargo up and down roads in reckless pursuit, but in his pre-planning his route and cleverly losing whatever tail he may have picked up. A robbery at the start of the film has Gosling’s driver listening to a basketball game as he takes his two passengers away from the crime scene.

It only becomes apparent later that he is monitoring the game to use the event as part of the escape plan. When not working as a getaway driver or in the movies, he is a mechanic at Shannon’s (Cranston) garage and his employer/friend has big plans for the driver. Included in the plans are Albert Brooks, as Mr. Bernie Rose, and Ron Perlman’s Nino, aka Izzy. Both men are ruthless and dangerous.

Entering this mix are Carey Mulligan’s married Irene, and her son, along with her recently released from prison husband, Standard. Before Irene’s other half got out of jail, she and Gosling got pretty friendly and when the ex con is threatened into doing a job to repay protection dues from prison, driver steps in to help.

The film is dark and in the “romance” between Irene and the driver, there are not many moments where either one declares their feelings for the other. Silence may mark their mutual attraction, but the signs are there and both actors convey them adequately.

Refn uses silence again in scenes which are trauma heavy or where Gosling’s character erupts into violence. Muffling the sound, only later to fill it with music, intensifies the action. The director works well with Ryan Gosling and went on to make Only God Forgives. While not as well received as Drive the film shows just what a successful team these two artists make.

Looking at Refn recent cat lists, it appears that he favors Christina Hendricks as collaborator and it comes as no surprise. Her small role as the “helper” in Standard’s robbery, the Mad Men actress really stands out. Like the other actors in Drive with “smaller” roles, she knocks her performance out of the park.

It certainly took me a long time to watch the 2011 film. After seeing Only God Forgives I’d intended to see Drive immediately afterward. Still, the wait was worth it and this is a real 4 out of 5 star film. The loss of a star has more to do with the glaring continuity goofs than anything else and the movie is entertaining. A must see for Gosling or Refn fans.

Bryan Cranston Does a Samuel Jackson: You Have to F**king Eat

Bryan Cranston Does a Samuel Jackson: You Have to F**king Eat

Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston proves yet again that versatility should be his middle name when he does a “Samuel Jackson” and reads You have to F**king Eat. The award winning actor reads the sequel to Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep read by Jackson in a hilarious presentation of the frustrations of fatherhood in dealing with an awkward child. Mansbach, best selling author and a man who understands parent’s innermost feelings in dealing with their difficult offspring, has added to his first book about sleeping, or lack thereof. This time it is about getting the little one to chow down at the dinner table.