Trumbo – Film Review

Trumbo

We’ve all seen films like Trumbo a dozen times. Glossy Hollywood films about America’s past that talk of some shameful part of their history but do so in a way that is very clean and safe. These are films that are good but not great. These films give actors scenery to chew but give the audiences nothing to remember by the end. Trumbo opens as Suffragette does; with white text on a black background setting the scene and with slow fades in between. The subtext here is that what you are watching is important and so should be instantly respected and eventually rewarded with golden statues come awards season.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is a screenwriter and a communist at a time in America when being a communist would soon get you called in front of congress and banned from working for any major studio. Trumbo was, so we are told, the greatest screenwriter of his generation. The film covers decades of Trumbo’s life as he goes from his career peak to being put on the Hollywood blacklist and then fighting to continue writing to support his family and show that without the communists there would be no screenplays.

Trumbo 2

This is not the proudest chapter in America’s story so it at first glance seems like a brave and worthwhile film to make. Sadly the film that has been produced is simultaneously theatrical and mundane. That’s not to say it hasn’t been made without skill. Every set and costume is made to exacting period detail and every scene is littered with witty one liners and the best in supporting character actors. John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, and Louis C.K. are particularly enjoyable but eventually the short functional scenes in which someone delivers some exposition and another counters with a quip become tiresome. Elle Fanning is particularly good as Trumbo’s daughter as she brings probably the only human element to the film while Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife is life to just smile from the sidelines.

As for Cranston himself; he brings to mind part of what made Breaking Bad so great, but in the worst way. What Cranston could do so well was make it clear when his character Walter White was himself acting. His performance there had to layers; a level of artifice on top of the real character he was playing. Sadly in Trumbo we only get the top layer of pretending as if Cranston is playing an actor playing Trumbo. It is all caricature and no character. The result of this is that when bad things happen to Trumbo you don’t care as much as you should and you are infinitely aware that you are not watching something real. This film does not immerse you in its world but keeps you at arms reach.

Trumbo is not a bad film. Yes it could lose 30 minutes from its runtime but the film is certainly enjoyable and had me chuckling throughout. The story itself is also interesting but once the film was done no part of it was racing through my head the way the best films do. With films like Trumbo about an important subject the films themselves want to be treated as important. As Trumbo finished it was begging for applause and some of the press audience dutifully applauded but frankly it didn’t really deserve it. Just because a film is about admirable people doesn’t make that film automatically admirable itself.

Trumbo is in cinemas now.

Inside Llewyn Davis – LFF Film Review

Inside Llewyn Davis
When it comes to the latest film by the Coen brothers I pretty much just want to tell you that it’s a great film, both funny and moving and blah blah blah, and for you to just go to see it. This is Joel and Ethan Coen we’re talking about here, they don’t really make bad films. Ok, so they have made a couple of false moves but no one’s perfect; Judi Dench did a cameo in Run for Your Wife after all. If you need more convincing I will go on…

At the centre of Inside Llewyn Davis is, surprisingly, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) a folk singer in early 1960s New York. Davis has hit hard times and doesn’t have a home, a consistent gig, or a stable relationship. We follow him during one terrible week as he hits even harder times which involve an unwanted pregnancy, a creative compromise, and a ginger cat with a habit of running away. We see a man at his lowest ebb who is forced to reconsider his dreams in favour of actually making a living.

The Coens work their usual visual magic and Inside Llewyn Davis has its own distinct look with a limited pallet of browns and greys and a slightly soft sheen to shots that allows the blacks to deepen and makes skin, particularly on Carey Mulligan, positively glow. You’ll have to see the film to understand what I’m wittering on about. The film is set in a harsh winter and the muted colours that leave everything looking infinitely colder. While everyone is wrapped up warm in heaps of attractive knitwear poor Llewyn doesn’t even have a winter coat making him seem all the more pathetic as he shivers within the stark scenery.

Inside Llewyn Davis is about a failing musician so does feature a lot of scenes of a man in dire straights and is not without pathos but this doesn’t mean that the film loses its sense of humour. The screening room erupted with laughter throughout the film as little nuggets of comedy gold were mined by the fine array of character actors at work. The Coens are so often at their best when holding up relatively unsympathetic leads for our amusement and somehow end up earning our sympathy.

When the crowd fell into a hushed silence it was as we all listened in awe to one of the films numerous musical performances. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a musical but with musicians as its core characters there are frequent performances during which we are treated to the entire songs rather than just snippets. These heart-felt folksy tunes are mostly sung by Isaac himself who has a beautiful voice and he was occasionally joined by the likes of Mulligan and Justin Timberlake who aren’t too shabby either. Timberlake plays a gloriously saccharin singer of cheesy songs, the recording session of one of his songs is a film highlight, and Mulligan his unfaithful wife.

This is a film with soul and on the Coen brothers scale sits most easily alongside A Serious Man in quality and in tone. A decent proper film with no gimmicks or distractions Inside Llewyn Davis is a lovely way to spend a cold afternoon.

Inside Llewyn Davis screens at the festival on the 15th, 17th and 19th October and is in UK cinemas on 24th January 2014.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

The Hangover Part III – Film Review

The Hangover Part III

Like Einstein, Copernicus and Marie Curie before me; I decided to conduct an experiment. Is it possible to enjoy The Hangover Part III without having seen the first two? Is the rich interplay and nuance between the characters and the intricate nature of the plot possible to understand without detailed study of the original two parts of the franchise – or can you drink a couple of ciders and just go with it?

For those that need to be told, the story picks up a couple of years after the Thailand trip and Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are staging an intervention for Alan (Zach Galifianakis) who has ditched his meds and is acting crazy. As they transport him to a clinic they are forced off of the road by mobsters and forced to find some gold stolen by the flamboyant gangster Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). They then go on a wacky adventure that takes them back to Vegas (with the terrible line: “One way or another… it all ends here”) as they have to break in multiple places and try to find/follow Chow.

The Hangover Part III - Ken Jeong

All plot aside, and much to my expectation, it was entirely possible to enjoy the film having not bothered with the first two. I’m sure that lots of people will have different views of the film being part of a franchise, but as an objective outsider there was much to love in Part III.

The streets of Leicester Square were lined with curious passers-by and desperate twitterati who were trying to get pictures taken with Heather Graham and Bradley Cooper as well as signing something for eBay. Heather Graham has about 3 minutes of screen time and is only in the film as a token female speaking role – or maybe she was in the film simply to give the red carpet some much-needed glitz…

Obviously, most people who watch this film come primarily for Galifianakis and Jeong. All of the other characters are basically filler until these two get back on the screen. All of the biggest laughs during the screening were from the delivery of lines that would definitely fail from other characters. And of course, there is plenty of slapstick that translates well to foreign audiences. (A particularly funny misjudged leap got the biggest reaction in the cinema…)

The Hangover Part III - Zach Galifianakis

Watching as a Brit it is interesting to note that the successes of these films reflect America’s continuing comfort with discussing drugs. There are so many jokes in here about pills, cocaine, ‘roofies’ and bath salts that there is no denying that we are living through progressive times. On that note, it was amusing to note that none of the audience got the ‘bath salts’ reference, it was lost in translation I guess; so if you want to prepare yourself for that line then familiarize yourself with the Miami zombie story (beware – it’s grizzly).

On the way into the cinema the PR team were handing out hundreds and hundreds of bottles of Budweiser to reaffirm the films status as drinking-game/social event. It occurred to me afterwards that this plan seemed to backfire as everyone around me drank about 6-7 beers and loved every joke in the first half hour, only to slumber into a beer bubble for the rest of the film and not really engage with all of the big laughs. The one exception was the woman who sat next to me, who for some reason had brought her mum with her (who had also not seen the first films). They were laughing at Every. Single. Line. The elderly mum particularly enjoyed the cocaine references for some reason…

The reality is that this film will be huge and will be quoted for a few months, and then slowly discover its places in the lexicon of aging frat-boy comedies having not really offered anything drastically new. But who cares, the film had a shallow purpose and it served it well.

Argo – LFF Review

In 1979 the American Embassy in Tehran was invaded by Iranian students and militants. For more than a year the American civil servants who worked in the Embassy are held hostage in the building in which they used to work. Just as the Embassy was invaded six diplomats managed to escape. Initially taken in by the Canadian ambassador the escapees become the subjects of a bizarre and fantastical rescue mission by the CIA.

Argo is a strange beast. The film opens with the American Embassy being stormed and six characters with bad haircuts escape amidst panic and violence. The tone is set for a serious drama about a serious international political event. As we are introduced to the CIA, and most importantly Ben Affleck as CIA specialist Tony Mendez, the tone remains serious – the six escapees must be rescued or all manner of unpleasant things might happen. However the minute John Goodman as John Chambers, Hollywood make-up expert and CIA… make-up artist, enters the film alongside Alan Arkin as film producer Lester Siegel the films starts to mix its tense drama with tongue-in-cheek Hollywood satire.

The plan that Mendez is pushing is one in which he, Chambers, and Siegel fake the production of a Sci-Fi adventure filming in Iran so that the six fugitives can be smuggled out of the country. As events in Iran are treated with a po-faced frown the parallel exploits of the characters (and I do mean characters!), are a light-hearted sideways look at Hollywood hype and many a line is delivered in such a way that Goodman and Arkin may as well turn to camera and give a knowing nod and wink.

With this odd mix of tones Affleck (taking on directing duties too) risks making a film that jars and fails to fully convey the seriousness of the real-life drama at its heart. Somehow Affleck actually makes this work with the silly Hollywood segments serving as a light relief to the endless angst and worrying from the characters (this time with no distinct personalities at all) in Iran. Argo is the perfect mix of humour and drama; it gives you a dramatic situation to keep you hooked but keeps you genuinely entertained as events unfold.

One place Argo does misjudge things (ignoring some historical inaccuracies) are in its climax. As the plan reaches fruition and the motley crew finally try to leave Iran we are presented with a seemingly endless stream of near miss disasters. Absolutely nothing happens until the absolutely last possible second. Even their plane tickets home aren’t confirmed until the woman checking them in has searched the bookings once. The film is tense enough without every “will they make it?” moment being followed by another five.

Argo is a rare example of the fun historical/political drama and is in UK cinemas 7th November 2012.

The Artist – LFF Review

A silent, black and white French film about the end of silent cinema in Hollywood, how could that possibly work? This is the task Michel Hazanavicius set himself with The Artist and he has made a masterpiece as a result. In The Artist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) a star of silent films crosses paths with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) a young dancer about to hit it big. As his star wanes, hers shines brighter than ever.

The Artist embraces the tropes of the silent era; dialogue cards, “mugging” and the all important score are used to great effect, both celebrating and slightly toying with a long abandoned way of making films. A moment towards the end takes quite a dark moment and uses one of these tropes to not only wrong-foot the audience but to lighten the mood and play with the format.

Everything is perfect with The Artist, it is an easy five stars and shows just what can happen when you do something different for a change. There’s not much more to say here other than that this is the most fun I’ve had in the cinema all year, a relief after some of the harrowing films I’ve sat through in the past week.

The Artist has no UK release scheduled yet but it will be a crime if we aren’t treated to at least a limited release.