FILM REVIEW: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren in ‘Trumbo’

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The infamous treatment of filmmakers in Hollywood during the communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 1950s should have made for a powerful movie but Jay Roach’s “Trumbo” misses the target.

The film is a showcase for theatrical performances by Bryan Cranston as wealthy screenwriter and self-declared communist Dalton Trumbo and Helen Mirren (pictured with Cranston) as scandal-monger Hedda Hopper with showboat contributions from John Goodman as a producer of B-movie schlock and David James Elliot as John Wayne.

Trumbo was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1940s when he and nine other filmmakers declined to testify about alleged communist ties before the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail for almost a year. Besides the Hollywood Ten, many others in the film business were blacklisted and faced professional and financial ruin.

The film suggests that Hopper alone was responsible for the mistreatment of writers, actors and directors whereas there were many so-called journalists who behaved shamefully, particularly rival gossip columnists Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell and The Hollywood Reporter founder Billy Wilkerson, none of which are mentioned. The Reporter 65 years later issued a formal apology for its involvement in the Red Scare, as it was called.

The studio chiefs, with their eyes on the bottom line and the possible reaction of small-town America, also behaved cravenly although the film prefers to depict an unlikely scene in which Hopper, a noted anti-Semite, insults and threatens the notoriously tough-minded Louis B. Mayer in his own office and spews epithets at him.

“Trumbo” depicts the screenwriter as arrogant and selfish but it also lionises him as it makes Hopper an almost pantomime villain. He wrote some good pictures – “Cowboy”, “Career”, “Lonely Are the Brave”, “The Fixer”, “Johnny Got His Gun” (which he also directed and based on his own novel), and “Papillon”. He also wrote a ton of mostly forgotten sentimental tosh such as “A Guy Named Joe” (remade by Steven Spielberg as “Always”), “Kitty Foyle” and “The Sandpiper”.

When the big studios stopped hiring him, Trump went to work immediately turning out potboilers for exploitation pictures. The film shows him and his family moving house as he downsizes and accepts low wages. In fact, Trump moved his family to live cheaply in Mexico City and turned out 18 scripts over two years at around $1800 per script, which in today’s money would give him around $320,000 over two years.

The point is made because writers could at least earn a living even if they had to move to another country. Many moved to the U.K. Actors had a different problem and the film does a grave disservice to Edward G. Robinson, whom it depicts as naming names to HUAC. He never did although he did retract association with communist groups.

A generous supporter of liberal causes, Robinson gave to hundreds of organisations including some that espoused communism at a time when the Soviet Union was a western ally and before many learned that the worker’s paradise was a monstrous dictatorship. He was the first American celebrity to visit U.S. troops after the Normandy invasion and marched in civil rights protests.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays him with great sympathy in “Trumbo” but a scene in which the self-righteous Trumbo berates Robinson for selling out in order to increase his large collection of fine art is a gross libel.

Much is made in the film about the two Academy Awards that Trumbo was unable to pick up because he was blacklisted and used either a front or a phoney name as a screen credit. One was for “The Brave One” (1956) and the film implies that he won the screenplay award whereas he actually won for the category of best screen story, one that was abandoned the following year.

The other was for “Roman Holiday” (1953) and the Trumbo family are shown enjoying the laughter of a movie audience during the famous scene in which Gregory Peck sticks his hand inside a sculpture and pretends it’s been bitten off. Reports suggest  that the scene was not in Trumbo’s script and that Peck stole the gag from comedian Red Skelton. He did not warn co-star Audrey Hepburn, whose spontaneous reaction did much to earn her that year’s Academy Award for best actress.

Production design and costumes in “Trumbo” conjure up the time period nicely and Theodore Shapiro’s score does the job. Diane Lane is under-used as Trumbo’s wife Cleo although Elle Fanning makes a striking impression as their sometimes unhappy eldest daughter.

Director Jay Roach is known best for the “Austin Powers” films, “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers” but in “Trumbo”, his taste for over-the-top characterisations along with slim respect for the truth serve to undermine what should have been an important film.

Opens: UK/Feb. 5 (Entertainment One); Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, Edward G. Robinson, Louis CK, John Goodman, John Getz, Elle Fanning, Richard Portnow, Alan Tudyk, David James Elliot; Director: Jay Roach; Writer: John McNamara based on the book by Bruce Cook; Director photography: Jim Denault; Production designer: Mark Ricker; Music: Theodore Shapiro; Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi; Editor: Alan Baumgarten; Producers: Kevin Kelly Brown, Monica Levinson, Michael London, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Shivani Rawat, Janice Williams; Executive producer: Kelly Mullen; Production: Groundswell Productions, ShivHans Pictures; Rated: US/R, UK/; running time: 124 minutes.

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Academy Awards diversity: a look at the numbers

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – In the discussion about diversity in the top prizes of the Academy Awards, the depth of the problem for the Academy is clear as in the 14 awards from 2001 to last year, on the AMPAS database I could find only one Latin American (Benicio Del Toro) nominated for 70 acting spots and only two black men (America’s Lee Daniels and the U.K.’s Steve McQueen) and two female directors (Sophia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow) were among the 70 nominees for best director. Continue reading

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London Critics’ Circle film awards: Ovation for Alan Rickman

Branagh, Dench CC 2016

By Ray Bennett

LONDON  – There was only one standing ovation at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards Sunday night and it was for someone who was not there: Alan Rickman, who died on January 14.

The audience responded immediately and enthusiastically when Kate Winslet, as she accepted the award for best supporting actress for “Steve Jobs”, said tearfully that it seemed odd to celebrate in a week that had seen the loss of her co-star and director. The applause was loud and sustained. Continue reading

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David Bowie: When Ziggy played guitar

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – On Oct. 8 1972, a new young artist from England played his sixth U.S. concert in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre. This is what I wrote in The Windsor Star newspaper two days later: Remember the name. In rock ‘n’ roll there was Elvis Presley and the Beatles and now there is David Bowie. Forty-three years on and that hasn’t changed.

After an extraordinary career, Bowie has died of cancer aged 69. I was lucky enough to see him perform several times in Detroit but I’ll always remember that first revelation.

My review continued: Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Quentin Tarantino’s western “The Hateful Eight” reveals him as a horrible sham who relies on the skills of talented filmmakers to make his pictures look and sound great despite his absence of talent as a director. Continue reading

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Composers Williams, Morricone up for Bafta film awards

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The nominees for original music in the Bafta Film Awards announced this morning are Thomas Newman for “Bridge of Spies”, Ennio Morricone for “The Hateful Eight”, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai for “The Revenant”, Jóhann Jóhannsson for “Sicario” and John Williams for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Continue reading

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THEATRE REVIEW: Frank Loesser’s ‘Guys and Dolls’

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – If you like musical theatre, beg, borrow or steal a ticket to see the Chichester Festival Theatre’s dazzling production of Broadway classic “Guys and Dolls”, which opens at the Savoy Theatre on Jan. 6 and runs to March 12.

The good news is that it will then tour the United Kingdom. A critical and popular hit at Chichester, the show was presented in a few other cities and so in previews in the West End from Dec. 10 it is already pitch perfect. Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Saoirse Ronan in John Crowley’s ‘Brooklyn’

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – A finely nuanced performance by Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish ex-pat in New York is one of the many pleasures of John Crowley’s warm and entertaining “Brooklyn”. Continue reading

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Why Frank Sinatra was called The Voice

Frank Sinatra microphone

By Ray Bennett

There were several reasons why Frank Sinatra, who was born 100 years ago today, was known as The Voice. In 1992, Daily Variety gave me the chance to research just how he earned the sobriquet. Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Daniel Craig as James Bond in ‘Spectre’

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The latest James Bond film, “Spectre”, has grossed around $800 million around the world, so it’s clear that the filmmakers know what sells. It’s just a shame that it’s not really a James Bond film.

Director Sam Mendes and his crew deliver plenty of smash, bang and wallop but it becomes simply flash and clatter devoid of the dash and cavalier spirit the 007 legend requires. Continue reading

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