THE MEASURE OF A MAN

Trumbo:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Program:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

The Measure of a Man:

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

In about 50 years, we’ll regard the events that shaped Hollywood during the Second Red Scare (also known as The McCarthy Years) and threw a bulk of its industry down the blacklist drain with pentimento. How many actors, screenwriters, directors, producers, et cetera, lost their careers, we’ll most likely never know. That others who stood accused but narrowly escaped ignominy were able to continue was nothing short of a miracle; others still would have to travel abroad or wait until the Seventies to re-establish their careers.

And then you have a group of screenwriters who resorted to the unthinkable: having to write screenplays under pseudonyms and get paid in cash in order to survive. One of them, Dalton Trumbo, already an established, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and novelist with a career dating back to the mid-thirties, was blacklisted and denied employment in 1947 after appearing before the HUAC and refusing to name names. He spent a year in Ashland jail. Once out, everyone was anyone in Hollywood shunned Trumbo. He couldn’t find employment anywhere. He was forced at one point to write a screenplay but receive no payment for it. Basically, Dalton Trumbo was ruined goods.

As a movie, Trumbo doesn’t go the typical biopic (and follows a recent trend of biopics that instead of telling a color-by-numbers chronology of events decide to focus more on the essence of a man, what his main conflict was, and the eventual outcome of it — see Steve Jobs, Born to be Blue, and Miles Ahead for other examples). Instead it focuses on his progressive struggle with the HUAC, his decision to survive in a world post-imprisonment by literally erasing his own credit from his screenplays, and his slow rise to retribution by the hands of Kirk Douglas who demanded that his name appear on the credits of the Stanley Kubrick movie Spartacus, a film that would glean Trumbo of a second Academy Award win for Best Screenplay. [His first was for Roman Holiday, a movie he wrote under a ghost name.]

One of the elements that I admired the most of the picture aside from the flawless acting from Oscar-nominated Bryan Cranston who captures the flippant and indomitable spirit of a man is the archetype of the victimized hero that refuses to let his injuries define him. His decision to go into ghost writing is crucial to his character: he writes movies because he loves them, even when they’re essentially garbage. Writing, as opposed to performing, is self-effacing. A writer can be anyone and Trumbo knew that — and used it to his advantage. The fictional Arlen Hird (Louis C. K.), on the other hand, seems to represent the opposite — the writer who believes in greatness and ideologies and can’t remove that from his own self. To be reduced to working in King Films — basically a schlock studio churning grade-Z movies — was an insult. It’s probably why eventually, Hird seems to give  up and give into his disease, while Trumbo barrels ahead, even when it almost destroys his family.

Trumbo is a powerful slice of visual history that presents a slice of history where our own need to protect our freedom, ironically, curtailed it, until one man stood up and refused to be silenced.

A movie that passes a different sort of judgement is Stephen Frears’ The Program. Named for the doping program that Lance Armstrong put himself under in order to produce the stream of victories that virtually made him an unstoppable force, this is a muscular chronicle that presents Lance Armstrong as a man who starts out a competitor in a world of competitors and sees him, after a bout with testicular cancer at age 25, evolve into a superhuman monster without a conscience. Moving at a rapid-fire pace, Frears creates a frenetic, nearly ripped from the headlines retelling of Armstrong’s life, barely stopping to rest as it rushes at breakneck speed to the scandal that rocked the cycling world. Ben Foster channels Lance Armstrong to a chilling degree and is one of the principal reasons to see this movie. His Armstrong is a sociopath, a congenial monster who becomes enamored with the power of victories and his own lies. One chilling scene may reveal just how much he was driven by the need to win — as he practices the lie he will be telling the inquiring public, posing, repeating it over and over, revealing a hint of dramatic tension. It’s as shocking as, for example, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, asking us, the viewer, “You talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me? ‘Cause I’m the only one here.”

I saw The Measure of a Man (La loi du marche) last year at the New York Film Festival on the heels that it was being presented as something that the Dardennes Brothers may have done. Having seen Two Days, One Night, and The Child already I jumped on the chance. The story of a man who becomes unemployed (and has to endure humiliating video interviews with younger employers who see him as either unemployable or overqualified), the slice-of-life story is almost documentary in its approach. Seeing Vincent Lindon as our Everyman going through the motions of hanging out with his wife, trying to sell their mobile summer home, and landing a job in a supermarket where he oversees attempts at theft is a treat in itself as the man acts ever so subtly, barely releasing any emotion. It’s when he realizes that his job is putting others at risk to getting fired in order to save the company money that one realizes the hypocrisy that his character is up against. It’s a cruel society, it seems, in France, and there is nothing one can do about it.

LEGENDS OF JAZZ: MILES AHEAD & BORN TO BE BLUE

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3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Born to Be Blue:

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

Here you have two failed biopics that attempt to capture the most salient moments of two jazz legends, their essence, their art, and their demons. Miles Ahead, which made its US Premiere at the 53rd New York Film festival, is the better of the two just by a fraction of an inch: driven by an earthy sense of humor and gangster movie ethics, it tells a fragmented story of Miles Davis at his peak, falling in love with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and experiencing racism in the middle of his success, positioned against Miles Davis at his utmost worst, a ghost of who he was, turned junkie. Don Cheadle directs and stars as the the jazz master and is electrifying even when he’s a horrible human being, diddling when he should be composing, free-floating in a fog of his own doing. The whole premise of “trying to get a story for the Rolling Stone” takes a role as a Maguffin in what I saw as a crazy, near-psychedelic shaggy dog chase to get his music back from some music producers, reporter in tow, producing some truly funny stuff.

Born to Be Blue on the other hand, is mostly loosely inspired by the singular Chet Baker who was already in a bind with drugs rather early in his career while trying to attempt a movie comeback of sorts — which never materialized. Anchored solely by Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo, it’s a mess, albeit a solid mess —  than one can view without cringing and it does have some visual style. . . but as of being compelling? I’d pass. Listen to the music instead and leave these legends be.

Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue are still in NYC theaters; however, you can see Born to be Blue streaming via DirecTV, iTunes, or Amazon Instant Video.

KRISHA

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Much like the movie’s poster, which features a woman inside a bright red inkblot, Krisha is a wound about to be opened by forces she can’t control.

Invited to her sister Robyn’s Thanksgiving party, we see Krisha arrive and slowly make her way into the large family house, a place she’s clearly uncomfortable with from the word go. The meeting between this estranged character and her extended family goes with bouts of pleasant awkwardness, as they exchange hellos, short talk with that raised tone of politeness, show her around the house, the room she’ll be occupying where she meets one of the family dog, and so on, and so on. It’s a long sequence where Krisha, our main character, is seen in the edges of the frame, always, mute, a spectator in a party she may not revel in but has come to anyway, observing but vaguely lost as the hustle and bustle circles around her, restless.

Once these exchanges are over and Robyn is off to go fetch her mother, leaving Krisha with the sole task of overseeing the turkey, things start to unravel only slightly. Trey Edward Shults keeps the camera in almost constant movement while at the same time he plays some discordant music in the background that slowly begins to mirror Krisha’s own psyche (if telegraphing it a little too loudly). Interspersed in between scenes where she’s alone in the house (as other guests are huddled in their own corners, self-involved in television or small talk) are scenes with Krisha and her brother in law who seems to have been given the best lines in the picture and chews on them with gusto as he moves a conversation topic from having to tolerate his wife’s penchant for dogs (12 of them) to the topic of Krisha herself.

Which is something Krisha does not wish to share with him and thus with the movie goer. When that conversation ends, somehow, Krisha starts to progressively unravel. Moving around the house she becomes privy to a private conversation, but that’s not what interests her: we’ll come to know what it is, soon enough as she opens and closes cabinets with the stealth of a burglar.

Without disclosing what happens, it’s safe to say that Krisha morphs into the gaping wound it was always bound to be once she in desperation locks herself in the bathroom and does something unthinkable after meeting her mother, who is senile, and seeing how shut out she is from her family, especially her son. While the scene that unravels is extremely tense, it doesn’t, even then, complete the picture and leaves too many unanswered questions. All you manage to get from the movie is that the woman is clearly a walking disaster and that perhaps her sister is better off in shutting all forms of communication from there on. Other than that, this is a pretty stylish picture, with shots that draw you into the story, but leave you no closer to solving the riddle Krisha is. Where Krisha suffers the most I believe is in its dialog: too much reeks of indie dialog spoken on the improv, and how many times has one heard the “I’m just trying to find myself” in pictures like these?

Too many. Even so, Krisha is a striking debut from a young director who knows his way around setting a mood and enhancing visual suspense with even mundane elements and cutting in between time frames to present a final, broken yet intact whole.

ON DVD: THE DANISH GIRL

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

i’m going to have to admit to a pesky little secret. I’m actually glad Nicole Kidman — for all of the excellent actress she can be when she desires — didn’t get the part of Lili Elbe when she was lobbying for it a little under ten years ago. I recall after seeing her in Manderley she had become attached to the project where it languished and floated in the background until it seemed to fade away . . . that is, until it took on a new life under Eddie Redmayne and the rest as you have seen, is history. It’s not that I don’t believe she would have played the part well; I just think it was the entirely wrong project for someone of her essence.

Enter Tom Hooper, Redmayne, and Alicia Vikander, hot of a gaggle of good movies that gave her the clout to get the part of Gerda Wegener, the artist-wife of Einar Wegener who inadvertently introduces him to not just donning female clothes and posing, but discovering a greater reality — that he, in fact, was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.

The Danish Girl comes at a time where trans-visibility is making its mark in society and tells the story of the first recorded male to female transgender person with grace and sensitivity without becoming too melodramatic. On that note and many others, I would say it does a good job and there are a couple of rather striking sequences, such as when in search for a therapist to treat his ‘malady’ Einar almost finds himself committed against his will and uniformly considered to be insane and a pervert. Or the smaller moments when Einar, as Lili Elbe, smiles and lifts up her arms to cover up her chest in a coy pose, you can forget that it’s Redmayne that you’re seeing and realize this is a woman on the verge of being a fully realized creature.

Alicia Vikander, however, to me, makes the movie come alive. Much of what transpires gets displayed on her face and her character’s art: the subtle expressions of confusion and playfulness that she experiences when Einar, after attending a party, reveals he’s wearing her undergarments, for example. To that, followed by their frequent incursions into stores in what now is known as cosplay. Clearly Gerda could not know what was brewing undrneath the surface, and when she realizes just what’s happening . . . well.

There are portions of the movie that seem a little tacked on for an enhanced dramatic story, such as Lili’s fumbled romantic encounters with a male friend (Ben Whishaw) but other than that The Danish Girl as a whole is a well crafted vision of what could have been the real Llii Elbe as recorded (some events are compressed to create a more fluid storyline and technically, Gerda did leave her husband years before his transition although they remained in contact and maybe initiated a lesbian relationship, a thing left unexplored in the final film version), and I believe this movie will serve as a study for future generations on how transgender men and women would have been seen at the dawn of the XXth century.

ON DVD: CREED

Creed:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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If anyone would have ever told me that there was yet another story waiting in the wings within the Rocky Balboa saga I would have laughed out myself into a coma for reasons that are more than obvious. How many times did Rocky have to fight against an unbeatable opponent? All that was left was placing him in the ring against a cyborg, or an alien or worse, a spoof (which actually, did happen: I can’t but think Grudge Match was in some way a not so subtle jab at all the Rocky movies gone bad). No, by the end of 2015, the Rocky Balboa story had come to a close, end of the line, time’s up, shop is closing. EVERYTHING MUST GO.

But . . . of course, there is always a but. It’s a “but” that was probably born in the seeds of Rocky V. Somewhere the spirit of Sage Stallone lives on this film, but now the part of the surrogate son has been taken over by a one-time rival and later friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, a young man rescued from a life of possible crime and delinquency who learns of his origins and now watches his father on YouTube clips. When he leaves what seems to be a promising job in an LA firm to come all the way back East to where it all started — Philadelphia — we can sense a hunger in Adonis. He wants this, to get in a ring and fight . . . but he needs the guidance to get there. And that man is none other than Rocky Balboa.

But no, this is not another Rocky gets in the ring and fights movie — far from it, Rocky, now owner of the restaurant that memorializes his wife Adrian’s name (she has died of cancer, off-screen), is far from the passionate man he once was. He’s become a much more sedate person, speaking in quiet tones, and can offer but a meal to this kid who wants his help in training him. It’s only after some serious thought in a touching scene where Rocky visits Adrian’s grave that he relents to become the young Adonis’ mentor while keeping his identity a secret from other boxing gym owners who may want to jump in on the money bandwagon and make a quick buck off of associating with Adonis.

At its heart, Ryan Coogler has reinvented a tired old rags to richers / ignominy to fame story that made Rocky a household winner in 1976 and spun it into powerful life with some truly ferocious direction and acting from both Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone that has to be seen. Jordan, much like the younger Rocky, is a reserved mask of tenacity hiding a bruised soul that needs to forgive himself before he can come into his own in the ring. Stallone now steps into the role made famous by Burgess Meredith, and I will say, his scenes are handled almost delicately — with measured weight, dignity, and the right amount of subtle pathos. Stallone’s Balboa is a tired man hiding a deeper secret, who still can “put ’em up and show a kid how it’s done. It’s his most elegant performance to date after years and years of playing uber-macho characters. Tessa Thompson is also a standout as Bianca, the girl Adonis falls for who has some issues of her own. Someone give this actress a  movie already–she’s been oozing presence now for three standout pictures starting with Dear White People and Selma.

creed

Creed is still a Rocky film at heart and isn’t afraid to show its somewhat manipulative streak, but you can forgive it for being so because of the near-perfect direction Ryan Coogler gets out of its story and performers. If you thought seeing Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum was the emotional peak of a man ready to get dirty, you need to see Creed’s biker sequence. It’s as operatic as anything committed to screen.

And shame on the Academy for shutting Creed out of directing, movie, and actor slots. Shame, shame, shame.

 

 

 

 

BETWEEN HELL AND A GREEN ROOM

Green Room:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Baskin:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Try to survive in the green room.
Try to survive in the green room.

After the show, Jeremy Saulnier came out and spoke to the audience on his new movie Green Room, how he stumbled upon the story, how he himself was part of the story (he was a member of a punk-rock band in the 90s), and his love for exploitation flicks. It was quite an insight to someone who’s quickly establishing himself as a director of note who hasn’t yet sold out to Big Hollywood and suddenly churned out another (yawn) rehash of a Marvel/DC superhero movie. Not that that isn’t okay — hey, to each their own, I don’t judge, it’s their pockets, not mine. Even so, to see a director not selling out and sticking to smaller, genre pics (for the moment) is pretty refreshing.

If any of you saw his 2014 Blue Ruin (which singlehandedly became the sleeper thriller/neo-Western of the year), you saw a finely drawn character study of a broken man out to protect his sister from the man who years before killed his parents. Its (anti)hero Dwight, played by the taciturn and scraggly Macon Blair couldn’t be farther removed from the unstoppable force that is Liam Neeson in the Taken films (or, apparently, any film where he’s the good guy in an impossible situation). Notwithstanding, Dwight is as tunnel-visioned as the most hardcore of them, and when his mission generates an unexpected reaction from an entire family, the film then takes revenge and retribution into a whole different level altogether, elevating it almost to Coen Brother’s status.

Green Room is completely different, and at the same time, a little like Blue Ruin’s more streamlined companion. There is a family, or let’s say, two of sorts, and yes, there is battle, and the overwhelming need for survival instinct, but the similarities end there. Green Room is more muscular in its setup and delivery and doesn’t have the gravitas that Blue Ruin exhibited, and there are moments of so much self-awareness and black as night humor it’s a wonder this couldn’t also pass as a mock-up of cheap B-movies.

A DC punk band lands a well-paying gig at a remote location. Once they arrive to the place they realize it’s a watering hole for White supremacists looking to vent their aggression with hyper-loud punk music. Their gig goes well albeit the initial misstep, and here is where Saulnier starts to introduce a sense of menace just outside the melee of bargoers — a large, tattooed skinhead spitting his drink at the howling singer, and two odd looking girls meandering through. Once the band returns to the green room to a nasty event of someone getting a knife through their head, the gloves are off. The band manages to outwit the bouncer and take possession of his gun. Pat (Anton Yelchin); the bar proprietor, Darcy (Patrick Stewart in a completely different role) wants them to hand the gun, come out, and promises no harm. The tension in this scene is almost unbearable.

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Green Room from here on explodes in scene after scene of escalating violence as two groups of people fight to overthrow the other. There is so little characterization that the players emerge mainly as archetypes, but that’s precisely the point in this homage to exploitation films — no one is a true person; everyone is there to serve a plot and drive the story home. Saulnier is Green Room’s true star, delivering a tightly-directed story filled with mood, snappy lines, shocking violence, gallows humor, and a pretty good amount of nastiness. There’s probably one too many subplots playing in the background as to who did what first, but you won’t care once the carnage starts. This should be pretty good performer for horror movie lovers once it gets released later in April.

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Coming out of Turkey is a cop movie with a decidedly wicked twist worthy of David Lynch, Lovecraft, or Giallo movies. Baskin, which in Turkish stands for “raid” is a lurid dream within a dream within reality, well-made, if a little uneven or over the top, leading to a clever Moebius strip that forces the story to unfold back into itself into a hellish replay.

The story has a prologue and epilogue of sorts. A young boy wakes up to hear his parents having loud sex. When he knocks into their room, a strange, misshapen claw of a hand creeps out of another room, beckoning. Cut to the present, and you meet the five cops of the story. There is an extended scene straight out of Goodfellas where a bumbling waiter laughs at a homophobic cop’s joke that winds up with them fighting. It seems completely out of place within the scope of the picture, but this is all setup. Once they get a distress call from another cop asking assistance in the town of Incengaz [sic], and another cop almost loses his shit while staring at himself in the mirror, Baskin hits its story.

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They take off and have encounters with escalating weirdness: frogs, frogs, and more frogs, a naked man crossing the road, and a very strange family. Nothing, of course, can prepare them for what comes next. But while we get there, we’re pulled out of the story and into the best scene in the movie where two officers creep each other out — one with the nightmarish sequence that starts the movie, the other with the tale of being watched . . . and just over his shoulder, in the background, a shadow so unsettling it made my skin crawl.

Baskin devolves into gross out for the sake of it which distills the power it would have had to horrify had it taken a minimalist route. As it stands it is also a pretty good little horror movie that should appeal lovers of gore and straight up bizarre images heavy with faux-Satanic symbolism.