The Good Liar review

For F*** Magazine

THE GOOD LIAR

Director: Bill Condon
Cast : Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Laurie Davidson
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : NC16

Weirdly enough, respected English thespians Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren have never made a movie together, even though they have shared the Broadway stage in 2003. This thriller, based on a novel by Nicholas Searle, rectifies this decades-long oversight, giving both stars roles they easily make a meal of.

Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a wealthy woman in her 70s who is hoping to make a romantic connection with someone again and gives online dating a try. She meets and quickly falls for Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a man in his 80s. Roy, a lifelong con artist, has seemingly found the perfect mark and plots to rob Betty of her millions as Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) smells a rat and tries to save his grandmother from Roy’s devious clutches. Both Betty and Roy are forced to confront long-hidden secrets as their relationship grows increasingly complex.

With decades of experience on the stage and screen, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are both aware of the kind of movie they’re making and finely calibrate their performances to fit the material. The Good Liar starts out seeming quite silly and predictable, and perhaps it does remain a bit silly, but director Bill Condon knows that his stars will do everything to invest the story with emotion and drama. It is so satisfying to watch McKellen and Mirren play off each other that we get drawn further and further into the plot, no matter how outlandish it becomes.

It seems that smaller-scale thrillers, especially ones with older audiences in mind, are an increasing rarity at the cinema. This is a movie that doesn’t have explosions and shootouts, but one that is still thrilling and exciting. Condon pulls no punches and the movie can be surprisingly brutal at times. The score by Carter Burwell with its undulating strings heightens how delightfully melodramatic this all is. It’s as if someone turned the frantic whisper of “there’s a conspiracy afoot” into music. While a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief is required of audiences, the screenplay by veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher is brought to largely convincing life by the film’s leads.

The movie begins feeling like a version of those Lifetime Channel movies – the ones about Craiglist serial killers and psychotic stepdaughters – for the retiree set. As such, even with two distinguished actors front and centre, it can be hard to take things seriously. As the story gets progressively darker and the shocking revelations pile up, it becomes slightly harder to enjoy the movie as a deliberately arch, mannered confection. It is nowhere near as sophisticated as it would like to be, but is directed and acted well enough to make up for this. Despite the film’s best efforts, not everything about the plot lines up in retrospect, but it is enjoyable despite this.

The movie is set in 2009, which seems like an insignificant detail at first. Roy and Betty go on a movie date to watch a certain Quentin Tarantino-directed movie, and while it would have been fine if that were the only reason to set the story in 2009, it isn’t. The film is the most interesting when it explores both Roy and Betty’s personal histories, but in those sequences, it also means we are spending time away from McKellen and Mirren, which is a trade-off director Condon had to make.

This is a modest thriller fronted by two ever-watchable, extremely skilful actors that differs enough from many entries in this genre partially because it is about two older characters, their age being a key element to the story and not an extraneous detail.

Summary: Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play a game of cat and mouse that is sometimes far-fetched, sometimes devastating and always enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Anna (2019) movie review

ANNA

Director: Luc Besson
Cast : Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova, Eric Godon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : M18

            Luc Besson has always been drawn to lead female characters who make quite the impact, from Mathilda to Joan of Arc and Leeloo to Lucy. Anna now enters the fray, attempting to prove she can take her place in the pantheon of women who have defined Besson’s films.

It is 1990 and Anna Poliatova has become a successful fashion model in Paris and Milan. Anna has a secret double life as an assassin working for the KGB. She reports to Olga (Helen Mirren), who sends her to eliminate whomever the Russian intelligence apparatus deems as a threat. Anna begins a relationship with fellow model Maud (Lera Abova), while having dalliances with Russian intelligence officer Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). The game of international espionage is one with extremely high stakes, but it’s a game that Anna knows her way around.

Anna sees Besson revisiting old territory, in that the film is very much a re-tread of La Femme Nikita, with elements of The Professional incorporated into it. This movie is of a smaller scale than recent Besson projects like 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – there are times when it feels more like something that was made by one of Besson’s stable of apprentices who have gone on to direct their own films, directors like Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton and Pierre Morel.

There is nothing wrong with Anna being lower-key than the average James Bond style-spy action movie, but the film is remarkably stupid while thinking it is quite clever. One’s enjoyment of Anna is very much contingent on the threshold of one’s suspension of disbelief. The film’s structure is deliberately annoying, flashing back to earlier points in the film and reframing the events to reveal a new twist multiple times. The spy games depicted in the film feel rudimentary rather than sophisticated, and the dialogue is often terrible. If Besson had gone just a bit further, Anna would’ve become a parody akin to the Austin Powers movies.

Besson is known as a director with an eye for detail, but the period setting of Anna never seems convincing. The film is largely set in 1990, and there are pagers and black-and-white surveillance monitors, but characters transfer data to and from laptops using USB sticks. One character leaves a message for another that looks like it’s been recorded with a remarkably high-resolution webcam. Although Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ensures Anna never looks cheap, it just feels like something that Besson hasn’t put a lot of effort into at all. It’s also harder to watch a typically male gaze-heavy Besson movie given the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against him (allegations which he has categorically denied and which were dismissed by a Paris prosecutor).

Sasha Luss is a Russian supermodel who previously appeared as an alien princess in the afore-mentioned Valerian. She looks like a supermodel, but is devoid of charisma in a fascinating way, such that she almost seems like an inanimate object that the rest of the film is arranged around. Her line delivery is stilted and her performance in the action scenes makes it difficult to buy her as a highly trained secret agent. It’s still early days for Luss and it’s unfair to say she’ll never make a good leading lady, but especially given the mediocre material, she struggles to hold her own in a role that calls for a bona fide badass.

Luke Evans seems like a standard choice for one of Anna’s love interests, but casting Cillian Murphy as his opposite number seems baffling.

Murphy is known for indie projects and apart from the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, rarely appears in a mainstream action movie. The part doesn’t make full use of his mystique and seems like one that could’ve been given to any number of American actors.

Of all the supporting players, it’s Helen Mirren who knows what’s up. Her severe, curmudgeonly spymaster character seems to be modelled after characters from the earlier Bond movies like Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt, forbidding and authoritative Russian intelligence officials with a nasty streak. The Oscar-winner has fun with what she knows is a silly role, chain-smoking and swearing angrily at video monitors.

Model Lera Abova lends a bit of brightness to the proceedings as the radiant Maud, but her character seems to exist solely for Anna to lie to, and so the camera can leer at Anna and Maud being intimate with each other.

Anna benefits from its supporting cast and the director’s experience making slick action movies, but it often feels like a throwaway direct-to-video movie one would catch a glimpse of on a hotel TV. The plot feels like someone half-remembered a season of Alias and tried to write it all down. It’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a thriller, but also not ridiculous enough to be an all-out, over the top parody.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Winchester movie review

For inSing

WINCHESTER

Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Cast : Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Laura Brent
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1h 40mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG13

In San Jose, California, stands the Winchester Mystery House, reputedly one of the most haunted residences in the United States. This is the story of that house, and the woman who built it.

It is 1906, and Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is summoned by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co.’s lawyers to conduct an evaluation of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sarah, the widow of Winchester founder William, has sunk all the money left to her by her husband into the construction of a sprawling, labyrinth mansion. She intends to imprison the restless souls of those killed with Winchester rifles within the house’s walls.

Also living in the house are Sarah’s niece Marian Marriott (Sarah Snook) and Marian’s young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Henry is prone to sleepwalking, but Sarah believes something more sinister might be at play. Eric writes off the spooky occurrences he witnesses as the result of withdrawal from the drugs he’s addicted to, but soon, the paranormal activity grows to intense to ignore. Sarah must find a way to grant the ghosts peace, or they will torment her and her family forever.

Oh, and JUMP SCARE!

The true story of Sarah Winchester and the Mystery House she constructed is fascinating and eerie, so it is a shame to see it reduced to a mostly dull, run of the mill horror movie. Every so often, there are glimmers of potential: production designer Matthew Putland has created a decent approximation of the house’s rooms, and all three principle actors are talented if under-utilised. Unfortunately, directors Peter and Michael Spierig are only content with scratching the surface, always going for the obvious and nothing more.

Winchester could’ve been a disturbing, compelling portrait of a women driven to the brink of insanity, wracked with guilt, and swallowed up by her demons. This has all the makings of a stylish Gothic horror film – imagine what a director like Guillermo del Toro could’ve done with this material. Alas, we merely get a succession of jump scares, and the mansion never becomes the central character we are promised it will be.

There’s also the opportunity to make a political statement, given the hot-button topic gun control always is in America. There are allusions to oppressed minorities, including African-American slaves and Native Americans, but Winchester never goes anywhere interesting with this. The central ghost winds up being rather boring, given that there are supposedly hundreds of other ghosts who lurk around the manor’s halls.

There’s a degree of novelty in the fact that a respected Oscar-winning actress like Helen Mirren deigned to star in a generic horror movie. Alas, that novelty fades fast. Mirren is good but unremarkable – this can mostly be chalked up to how the script refuses to give any real depth to Sarah’s personal turmoil, and how keen the movie is to explain things the audience should have already deduced. Mirren doesn’t fling herself off the deep end, never surrendering to the madness in a way that could be considered entertaining. At the same time, the movie does want to be sufficiently respectful of Sarah Winchester, by refraining from painting her as crazy. We can only imagine the meal Mirren would’ve made of this character, were she better written.

Clarke’s Eric is the standard sceptical man of science, who refuses to believe that supernatural forces are at work. Naturally, there’s a tragic back-story he must come to terms with. Clarke’s trying, but there’s not much to work with. Same goes for Snook, who starred in the Spierig Brothers’ far superior film Predestination. She spends most of the movie looking scared.

Winchester could’ve gone in two directions: a genuinely creepy psychological thriller that delves into the mind of a truly disturbed, complex woman; or an over-the-top Hammer Horror-style haunted house movie that’s campy, arch and blood-soaked. This film is neither and is instead middle-of-the-road and disappointingly bland. Even Mirren’s presence can’t elevate Winchester, which should have plenty to say about the effect of gun violence on those who are left behind to pick up the pieces but says almost nothing.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fast & Furious 8 (AKA The Fate of the Furious)

For F*** Magazine

FAST & FURIOUS 8 

Director : F. Gary Gray
Cast : Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Elsa Pataky, Scott Eastwood
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

The driving force behind the Fast and Furious franchise – besides international box office – is ‘family’. Groan-inducing though it may be, many moviegoers have warmed to the crew led by Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Diesel), and audiences around the world feel a kinship with this team. In this, the eighth entry in the franchise, we watch the family get torn asunder.

Dom and his wife Letty (Rodriguez) are enjoying their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. The couple is called away for a mission in Germany, where the team must prevent an Electromagnetic Pulse generator from falling into enemy hands. Dom, Letty, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), motormouth Roman (Gibson), mechanical whiz Tej (Bridges) and hacker Ramsey (Emmanuel) pull off the mission without a hitch – until Dom betrays them. The woman who has somehow convinced Dom to cast aside his loyalty is elusive, powerful cyberterrorist Cipher (Theron). To track down Dom and Cipher, spymaster Mr. Nobody (Russell) places the team’s nemesis Deckard Shaw (Statham) alongside them. Everyone, especially Hobbs, is upset that they must work with Shaw, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This latest adventure takes the team from New York City to the frigid Russian tundra, as they try to stop Cipher and win Dom back to the side of good.

Director F. Gary Gray, who helmed Straight Outta Compton and the remake of The Italian Job, takes the wheel from Furious 7 director James Wan. While it’s officially titled ‘The Fate of the Furious’, it’s promoted as Fast & Furious 8 in several territories. With the superstar cast and key behind-the-scenes personnel including writer Chris Morgan, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, composer Brian Tyler and second unit director/stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos returning, not too much has changed, even with a new director.

Under the guidance of Justin Lin, who helmed the third through sixth entries in the franchise, the series has morphed from being ostensibly about car racing culture into a globe-trotting military action/heist behemoth. Fast & Furious 8 opens with a street race in Havana, to remind viewers that the series hasn’t forgotten its roots. It takes confidence to open the film with a relatively humble set-piece, especially when compared to the mayhem that follows.

When the sixth film came out, some viewers were wondering just how the series would continue to top itself in the outlandish car stunt stakes. Just when it seemed there’s nothing new under the sun, Fast & Furious 8 launches a submarine at the crew. This is a series that’s always in danger of swallowing itself up, but Gray presides over things with a firm-enough hand. A sequence in which Cipher orchestrates unbridled vehicular chaos on the streets of New York City is inventive, and in between all the big-budget bombast, we get to witness a good old-fashioned prison brawl. Once again, Razatos deserves credit for staging grand, entertaining spectacle.

Watching the action scenes is like watching a penguin glide gracefully through the water. Sitting through the dramatic scenes is like watching said penguin waddle on land: it’s ungainly, but endearing. The soap opera quotient is even higher than before. Dom goes rogue! Shock, horror! While Morgan’s screenplay heaves with cheesiness and Gibson’s ad-libbing tends to make scenes less funny, we have to admire the logistics of it. Not just the logistics of staging the action, but the sheer mechanics of constructing the screenplay, such that each member of the ever-expanding cast gets their time to shine. There are a few twists, a cameo or two and a reasonably clever gambit is put into play, but it’s nothing as audacious as the chase with the safe(s) in the fifth film. While the seventh film made a fair few viewers tear up with its closing tribute to the late Paul Walker, the emotional scenes here make considerably less impact.

The massive ensemble works like a well-oiled machine, anecdotal murmurs of friction between Diesel and his castmates notwithstanding. Gray wrings a good amount of tension from the premise of Dom turning against his teammates, with Rodriguez’s Letty naturally being the most hurt.

Johnson and Statham play off against each other wonderfully, trading juvenile barbs. Having the big bad villain of the seventh film get all chummy with the crew does run the risk of diminishing Shaw’s intimidation factor, but that’s not too much of an issue because there’s a new villain in town.

Said villain is played by Theron, reuniting with her Italian Job director and co-star Statham. Theron’s awesome in pretty much everything (we like to pretend Æon Flux doesn’t exist) and she has just enough fun with this role. Cipher is coolly evil and her dastardly scheme is very Bond villain-esque. However, unlike the Shaw siblings from the last two instalments, Cipher is mostly a passive villain, standing in front of a bank of computers, shouting things like “hack ‘em all” to her minions. It’s not the best use of Theron, but we’re glad she’s in the series anyway.

Perhaps it’s because she was only introduced in the previous film, but Emmanuel’s Ramsey doesn’t really feel like a part of the team yet. Scott Eastwood plays Mr. Nobody’s apprentice who gets picked on by the crew and feels extraneous. But if you’re already invested in the series and its characters, this is a fun ride that feels shorter than its 136-minute running time. Gray does a fine job of preserving the series’ personality while furthering the team’s delightfully ludicrous exploits.

Summary: It’s as cheesy and outlandish as ever: Fast & Furious 8 sticks to what works for the franchise and even if it doesn’t break ground the same way that submarine did, it’s enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Collateral Beauty

For F*** Magazine

COLLATERAL BEAUTY 

Director : David Frankel
Cast : Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomi Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Kylie Rogers, Ann Dowd
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 36 min
Opens : 5 January 2017
Rating : PG-13

collateral-beauty-poster“Will Smith wants an Oscar.” That’s what we were thinking on first hearing about this film, and that’s what you probably were thinking too. Is this cynicism warranted? Let’s find out if beauty is, as they say, skin-deep.

Smith plays Howard Inlet, a successful New York advertising executive whose life has taken a downward spiral after the death of his six-year-old daughter. His estranged friends and partners at the advertising firm, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), and Simon Scott (Michael Peña), attempt an intervention out of concern for Howard’s well-being and the company’s future. They hire private investigator Sally Price (Dowd), who discovers that Howard has been writing letters to the abstract concepts of ‘love’, ‘time’ and ‘death’ as a therapeutic outlet. Whit, Claire and Simon engage the services of Love (Knightley), Time (Latimore) and Death (Mirren) themselves – we’ll get into the mechanics of this in the spoiler section below. Howard doesn’t know what to make of these encounters with the supposedly supernatural entities. In the meantime, he tries working up the courage to attend a support group for bereaved parents, led by Madeleine (Harris), who lost her daughter to cancer, leading to the dissolution of her marriage.

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Collateral Beauty has been roundly savaged by critics, with the consensus being that it’s overly sentimental, melodramatic, hokey and that its brand of inspiration will appeal to the ‘unwashed masses’. We aren’t saying that there’s no truth to this, but it needs to be contextualised. The hostility that Collateral Beauty has been met with can be partially attributed to its awards season-timed release and its big-name cast. If this were a stage play, or maybe a French film, it likely would’ve enjoyed a warmer reception. Collateral Beauty’s depiction of grief and healing might strike many as patronising and vaguely insulting, yet there are glimmers of profundity buried within. We’d hesitate to call this “original” seeing how it’s built on the template of A Christmas Carol/It’s a Wonderful Life. However, there’s an element of risk to a big studio putting out a drama with a premise that requires such a leap of faith to buy.

collateral-beauty-will-smith-and-helen-mirren

Director David Frankel, best known for helming The Devil Wears Prada, stepped in after Alfonso Gomez-Rejon departed the project. His direction is largely competent and while the New York setting is familiar to anyone who’s seen a handful of American films, Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is inviting and sometimes even lyrical. The screenplay is written by Allan Loeb, whose credits include such mediocre romantic-comedies as The Dilemma, Just Go with It, Here Comes the Boom and the straight-to-DVD Miley Cyrus-starrer So Undercover. Some of the dialogue in Collateral Beauty is clunky, and the string of reveals in the closing minutes comes off as cheap, but we will argue that as inelegant as it is, there’s some wit and heart to the overarching concept.

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It’s safe to say that whatever works in Collateral Beauty works because of the actors more than anything else. This is as solid an ensemble as one can get – nearly everyone has prestige pic cred, but on top of that, there are certain choices that are truly inspired. Surprisingly, Smith isn’t in this as much as one is led to believe. While he does affect an exaggerated pained look in several scenes, the casting works because Smith’s persona is one of charisma and exuberance, so seeing him sullen and grieving does make us miss the ‘default’ Smith.

(l-r) Edward Norton as Whit, Kate Winslet as Claire and Michael Pena as Simon in COLLATERAL BEAUTY. ©Warner Bros. Entertainment. CR: Barry Wetcher.

Norton is slimy and unlikeable, and we’re not sure how intentional that is. Whit is meant to be Howard’s best friend, but it seems that most of his decision are financially motivated. He also hits on Love quite aggressively, when she repeatedly rebuffs his advances. Winslet’s talents are largely wasted in a career woman role; there’s a bit of Claire’s back-story that is borderline sexist. Of the three ‘friends’, Peña is the most sympathetic, but the reason for this can be seen as another helping of tragedy in a movie that’s already drowning in it. The next paragraph deals with the characters of Love, Death and Time, and will contain spoilers, so be warned.

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[SPOILER ALERT] This is revealed in the first act, but it’s something the trailer tries to obfuscate, so we’ll consider it a spoiler: Love, Death and Time are all portrayed by actors. Love is actually Aimee, Time is Raffi and Death is Brigitte, members of a small New York theatre troupe. Collateral Beauty does a surprisingly decent job of conveying an actor’s psyche, of the satisfaction that is derived from the pursuit of ‘truth’ and the balance between putting it all out there in the name of art, and drawing the line where ethics are concerned. Mirren handily walks away with the whole film, delivering an entertaining, engaging performance. Latimore, a promising young actor whom you might remember from The Maze Runner, is a good fit for the deliberately aggravating “millennial-on-edge” persona chosen for Time. Of the three, Knightley gets the short shrift, but her performance is still a safe distance from terrible. [END SPOILER]

collateral-beauty-will-smith-and-keira-knightley

In the film, Simon has a young son named Oscar, which is the closest Collateral Beauty get to anything named “Oscar”. Standard film critic snarkiness aside, everyone deals with grief differently, and perhaps it helps to look at Collateral Beauty not as an instruction manual but as an interesting-if-flawed arthouse approach to the subject. Are there morally objectionable actions being passed off as uplift? Yes. But would we go far as to call it repulsive? No. Its execution does leave something to be desired, but we think this is not quite as worthless as the bulk of reviewers are making it out to be.

Summary: Collateral Beauty has a premise that’s as intriguing as it is problematic and while a significant portion of its talent is wasted, there are commendable performances here too.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Trumbo

For F*** Magazine

TRUMBO 

Director : Jay Roach
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, David James Elliott, Christian Berkel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 124 mins
Opens : 25 February 2016
Rating : PG13 (Coarse Language)

How agonising would it be to write something so spectacular and widely-lauded, yet be forcibly denied credit? This reviewer wouldn’t know because he’s never written anything nearly that good, but Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) certainly knew that feeling.

It is the late 1940s in Hollywood and Trumbo is highly in demand as a screenwriter. He is a member of the American Communist Party, he is one of the “Hollywood ten”, a group of screenwriters subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Trumbo is ostracised as his relationship with his wife Cleo (Lane) and three children is put under immense strain. Trumbo becomes a target of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) and his disavowed by his friend, actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) so Robinson can protect his own career. Trumbo is unable to find work after being blacklisted, so he lets his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) take credit for Roman Holiday, which eventually wins an Academy Award. Gradually, rumours begin to swirl surrounding Trumbo’s clandestine ghost-writing. As the likes of Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Berkel) hire Trumbo to craft screenplays for them, Trumbo inches closer to finally getting the credit he is due.


            It’s no secret that Hollywood loves movies about itself, and as a biopic about a prominent Hollywood figure, set against the backdrop of Cold War political turmoil, Trumbo does come off as Oscar bait. It’s a noble story of a stridently principled and talented man who risks everything to stand by his ideals. It is the hope of the filmmakers that audiences at large will find something in this story to identify with, because Trumbo often plays a little too “inside baseball” to be readily accessible. It’s not a difficult story to understand and Dalton Trumbo does deserve to have his story told, but if one isn’t that big a cinephile, specifically of the era in Hollywood during which Trumbo and his peers were active, Trumbo can be difficult to get into. This might sound disparaging and rest assured we don’t mean it that way, but Trumbo does feel like a film made for HBO. Director Jay Roach and star Cranston will next collaborate on one such HBO film, the Lyndon B. Johnson biopic All The Way.

            John McNamara adapted the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook into this film. It seems that any writer tackling a script about a titan in the same field would be painting a target of considerable size on his own back. Adding to the risk is the fact that such revered classics as Roman Holiday, The Brave One and Spartacus are not only referred to, but are key components of the story. There is a righteous indignation that McNamara brings out in his script, but Trumbo says in a speech that there were “no heroes and villains” while the witch-hunt for “commies” was ongoing, yet several characters do feel exaggerated in the name of artistic license. Director Roach is known for helming comedies such as the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents trilogies as well as Borat and The Campaign. Perhaps the closest he’s come to directing a drama is the HBO film Game Change, about Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential bid. While there are no obvious missteps in his direction, perhaps the material could have benefitted from a defter touch.

            The ace up Trumbo’s sleeve is Trumbo himself, brilliantly portrayed by Cranston. For audiences who only knew him as bumbling dad Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston made the world collectively drop its jaws with his staggering, indelible Walter White in Breaking Bad. Cranston’s Trumbo is not a boring hero, he can be frustratingly stubborn and ornery but that twinkle in his eye and the spark of true giftedness draws us to him.

Leading the supporting cast, Lane is wonderfully convincing as a woman of the 50s. She handles the role, particularly the scenes in which Cleo confronts her husband about being swallowed up by his ghost-writing and becoming hostile towards his family, with strength and grace. Elle Fanning portrays Trumbo’s eldest daughter Nikola, and her relationship with her father is contentious but understandably so. Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk, both more often associated with comedic roles, both deliver solid dramatic turns. O’Gorman and Berkel’s impressions of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger respectively are entertaining and just broad enough. Goodman is charismatically boorish and Mirren chomps down on the role of the catty, flamboyant gossip columnist with great relish.



            Trumbo is a biographical drama set in Hollywood with a talented actor in the lead role just waiting for the kudos to roll on in. In that regard, it’s a safe albeit not especially satisfying awards season offering. For those already enamoured with the period, the 50s style and décor might be eye-catching, but director Roach doesn’t do quite enough to hook the audience in and transport them right into the thick of 50s Hollywood. There’s earnestness aplenty, but a disappointing lack of pizazz.

Summary: Star Bryan Cranston is firing on all cylinders, but because it is only moderately successful at breathing life into the history it depicts, Trumboholds the audience at arm’s length.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong