Tag Archives: Biopic

FILM REVIEW: Trumbo

I encountered a review of Jay Roach’s Trumbo the other day. It was critical both for being inaccurate and for presenting an overly favourable depiction of a man who was by all accounts notoriously hard to get on with and a bit of a pain in the arse.

I couldn’t possibly comment on this being relatively ignorant of the man and his life’s work, but turning this wholly negative, ‘thumbs-down’ review on its head for a moment, I would argue that Trumbo is in fact an excellent piecefor those very same reasons.

Jay Roach’s biopic, in spite of the relatively heavy nature of the subject matter, takes a fairly light-hearted, almost whimsical approach to the remarkable life of Dalton Trumbo; but lacking in substance and weight, it is not.

Strangely comic and almost cartoonish in his portrayal, Bryan Cranston nails his depiction of the infamous Hollywood screenwriter and political activist. Perhaps it’s Trumbo’s relentless chain-smoking or the flippant nature of his retorts, but there are shades of Groucho Marx about Cranston’s Trumbo, whilst Roach’s direction borrows slightly from latter-day Woody Allen in many respects, adding considerable charm and levity to the story.

That’s not to say that Trumbo by definition is a comedy. It isn’t.

Mid 20th century America was a tough place to hold ‘radical’ political beliefs. With the Cold War hanging over the nation like a bad smell and the trepidation of ‘what may be,’ American minds were rightly or wrongly preoccupied within a climate of fear and anti-Russian, anti-Communist sentiment.

For those like Dalton Trumbo, a man who held the civil rights and welfare of all American citizens as paramount to a well balanced and fair society above anything else, there was a very real sense that the net was widening and indeed closing in on them.

Trumbo, buoyed from signing a lucrative writing contract with Metro Goldwyn Meyer, a deal that would well and truly set him up for life, would soon find his life and career taking a serious downturn. Not just the American authorities was it, hell-bent on pulling the rug from beneath him, but the herd mentality of a media-fed public, lapping up the propoganda of the times, would also adopt the position of ‘defenders of the flag,’ unwittingly undermining their own freedoms by policing both the ‘commies’ and themselves in the process.

Trumbo and his circle of politically like-minded friends and confidants are predictably put through the wringer by the U.S authorities and shunned by those they had assumed were either friends or trustworthy acquaintances, with law after law passed deliberately to demonise them and their kind, ever further.

For the outed Communist Trumbo, a potential spell of incarceration is a very real possibility, but worse still, a blacklisting at the hands of the powers that be in Hollywood, spells potential career disaster.

Dalton Trumbo is however a canny customer, made of sterner stuff. Indeed, time will truly reveal the brilliance of the man and his ingenious methods of biting back at those who see fit to ruin him…

There’s a hell of a lot to like about Trumbo.

Bryan Cranston is terrific in the lead role, and his job is made that much easier being backed up most ably by a tremendous support cast:

Diane Lane is stoic, motherly and wonderfully feminine, portraying Trumbo’s long-suffering wife, Cleo. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the conflicted actor Edward G. Robinson, Louis C.K is Alen Hird, Trumbo’s close friend and fellow screenwriter of similar mind, whilst John Goodman weighs in, quite literally, with his take on the larger-than-life character, Frank King, the owner of a film company specialising in turning around God-awful films in record time, without any bullshit.

A special mention to Helen Mirren too. She portrays Hedda Hopper, a ‘Time’ journalist and critic as loathsome as she is influential, and a woman whose poisonous pen can and does make or break the best of them.

Trumbo, in spite of the at times sobering content and heavily political sub-text, positively jollies along. There’s a good pace to the film and a reassuring sense of quality about both script and direction, akin to a well-directed Spielberg yarn, and above all, the comforting realisation that everything’s in exceptionally good hands here.

There’s always a danger that biopics end up being dry, box-ticking exercises, but in Trumbo, director Jay Roach has got it spot on. He’s succeeded in revealing the life and times of one of America’s finest and most prolific screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo, not just as an interesting historical account, but as a properly engaging cinematic event, and that’s no mean feat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Film Review: selma

“Negotiate, demonstrate and resist” – the mantra and considered approach of one Martin Luther King Jr, the preacher and founder of the SCLC movement of the mid-twentieth century; a peaceful yet determined outfit, set on establishing voting rights and demanding equality for the back population of the United States of America.

Selma, Alabama; the backdrop to the scene of what was initially hundreds of black African Americans and later, thousands of black and white folk from all over America, marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, to confront its sinister and racist governor George Wallace (played by the excellent Tim Roth).

King Jr (a fine performance by David Oleyowo it should be said), is portrayed as a man of great passion and religious conviction, yet a man that seemingly struggles somewhat to balance his life’s calling with the responsibilities he faces as a father and husband.

There’s clearly a great deal of heartfelt reverence in director Ava DuVernay’s re-telling of this pivotal point in America’s race relations history and such a serious and faithful rendition requires a strong cast: Selma’s cast delivers, right across the board.

We’re probably all aware of Martin Luther King Jr; a great man in anyone’s eyes and therefore a man whose story can probably be afforded a little artistic licence without detracting significantly from the salient points of his mission and story, yet Selma feels a little too much like a King Jr biopic; a linear re-telling of historical events and not quite the all powerful, cinematic experience it might have been.

Yes, in a rare turn of events, I’m actually bemoaning a lack of ‘Hollywood’ in a mainstream Hollywood release.

2014’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ was another film based upon true events and again tackling racial tensions and prejudices in America’s deep south, yet somehow possessing the ability to translate this effectively to the big screen, a quality that this King Jr biopic certainly strives for, yet curiously never quite achieves.

Whilst Selma does contain moments of intensity and conviction (notably the more violent altercations that transpire, along with some interesting observations with regard to the power and influence of both the church and the media), we never truly get under the skin of Martin Luther King Jr, the man, and this you sense is a critical flaw.
There was certainly far greater scope to explore King Jr, the family man and the somewhat unavoidable marital tensions between him and his wife Coretta (played by Carmen Ejogo); to really sense his true emotions, his inner demons and to fully appreciate the weight of expectation resting firmly upon the man’s shoulders. Perhaps DuVernay thought that that would have side-tracked us away a little too much from the principle point and focus of the film, but I suspect it could only have added the piece a greater depth.

From rapper ‘Common’ to America’s favourite daytime agony aunt and matriarch, Oprah Winfrey, (who incidentally turns in a nice cameo as Annie Lee Cooper), right through to producer Brad Pitt, it’s pretty obvious that America’s ‘A list’ wanted in on this project, but maybe that’s the real issue here: The enormity of Selma – the subject matter and agenda – seems on this occasion to have dwarfed Selma – the movie – resulting in an admittedly well-intentioned, respectful and occasionally powerful homage to a great man and an important set of events in, American and world history, yet, for one reason or another, a piece that doesn’t truly satisfy or realise its potential on the big screen.

Good, but above all, a bit of a missed opportunity.

FILM REVIEW: Mr Turner

Mike Leigh has always been an expert observer of character, seemingly wringing every last drop of inspiration from those that he works with and the development of his characters is always to the fore in any of his films. So proves to be the case once again with this superb biopic of the great British painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Whether Turner’s character and nature is accurate here or not I couldn’t say and is not necessarily important; we must however at this point, without further ado, praise the magnificent Timothy Spall whose portrayal of a man of few words and the proverbial bear with a sore head, is quite possibly a career best.

A sneering disdain for small talk and flowery waffle, he grunts and grimaces his way through life, driven by an admirable, all consuming, burning passion for his work, often to the exclusion and detriment of those around him, be they his peers, his family or those whose affection for him will forever be largely unrequited; and all the while, one senses that behind his secretive nature and rituals of self-preservation, there’s a man that wants to be heard, appreciated and to be loved.

Not only does Mr Turner offer richly developed, beautifully observed characterisation, but equally as impressive is the magnificent cinematography which rather cleverly, and if the knowing ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from those watching around me were anything to go by, very faithfully seems to capture the true essence of Turner’s work, presenting each new scene and location in such a way as to imitate his paintings, with much emphasis on the use of the dawn light, lending a kind of soft, gentle haze to each backdrop; a nice touch, apparent to even those of us with only a limited knowledge of the great art masters.

The film traces the development of Turner, the artist revered by all, to a man ridiculed by many for pushing his own boundaries into an area too experimental for its time. T’was ever thus…

Mike Leigh has worked his magic once again with just the right balance between the serious and the lightly comedic in this, his ode to a true genius.

Marvellous.

FILM REVIEW: Yves Saint Laurent

This was admittedly never one on my radar but I like to shake things up from time to time, so why not?!

As biopics go, this is pretty well put together and chronicles the ups and downs of the late, great Yves Saint Laurent. I don’t know whether the film’s primary focus on his personal life and loves over his output is a good or bad thing, not being sufficiently well versed in his designs and professional accomplishments, but on the whole, film-wise, the balance seems just about right. Some decent performances but not really anything to get too emotionally charged about, personally. Although not exclusively so, this is definitely a film more for those in the industry and his fan base than your average Joe, but not without some general appeal. Worth a look.