Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

16 December 2015

Far-too-quick 2015 Movie Roundup

I've been seeing a ton of stuff over the last two weeks, cramming everything that is in wide release (i.e. in theatres in Orlando) in before I get to Los Angeles, so that I can spend time seeing the limited-release stuff like Youth and Carol and 45 Years while I'm there. I have already posted about Creed, so I won't review that, but here's some other good stuff. Almost all of these movies are really good, so get out to the movies.

Brooklyn is a beautiful, small picture with some absolutely lovely performances. Saoirse Ronan is a lock for a best actress nomination, and she carries the picture with her deep, beautiful eyes and enigmatic smile. But, in truth, the movie itself doesn't need a lot of carrying. It is elegantly scripted by Nick Hornby, and the supporting performances are all spot on thoroughly enjoyable. Julie Walters, in particular, is very funny while simultaneously feeling richly created; she takes a simple part and makes it into something legitimately fascinating. Domnhall Gleeson, too, gives his usual excellent performance, quietly moving through his role with sensitivity and care. But for me the breakout here is Emory Cohen, who plays an Italian boy Ronan meets in Brooklyn at an Irish dance. Cohen's performance is buoyant, endlessly lovable, and overwhelmingly charming. I was in love with him in under five minutes, but he looks at Ronan with such love in his eyes and half-smile that it seemed to me impossible not to love him back. It is, perhaps, a relatively simple role, in what turns out to be a relatively simple movie, but I found the whole thing emotionally satisfying and wonderfully romantic.

Oscar possibilities for Brooklyn: quite a few, I'd wager. Actress, picture, adapted screenplay, score, costumes. And that's a conservative estimate.

* * *
The Good Dinosaur... was better when it was called The Lion King. The plot is simple and clichéd, like most kids movies, I guess. The look of the film is its most interesting feature – which isn't to say that it is good because the look of the film is decidedly odd.

The scenery in The Good Dinosaur is hyperrealistic. Beautiful water, gorgeous trees and sunsets. And then there are storms and weather: all of these are done pristinely, as though this were CGI for a Marvel movie, ready to be inhabited by basically realistic-looking humans and animals. But then the dinosaurs in The Good Dinosaur, and the other animals as well, all look like they were drawn by an intrepid sixth grader. All of the actual inhabitants of the world of this film look like cartoons. Cartoon creatures and humans living in a carefully crafted realistic world. The effect is bizarre, to say the least, and contributes to a kind of constant, nagging confusion I had while watching the movie. Still, the script is charming and funny (particularly the sequences with Sam Neill and Steve Zahn), and I quite liked The Good Dinosaur while never quite feeling comfortable with it.

Oscar possibilities for The Good Dinosaur: a definite nomination in the animated feature category. That's it, though.

* * *
I loved Spotlight, on the other hand. Directed by Tom McCarthy, who has directed some excellent movies over the years (The Station Agent, Win Win, The Visitor), this is his best film yet. Spotlight is an ensemble picture that follows the story of the sex-abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic church. I honestly don't think I have much to say about this because I just thought it was solid, and I enjoyed it completely.

In truth, if I am honest with myself, Spotlight is a sort of conventional movie about truth and justice and doing the right thing and making the bad guys pay, but it felt so much more than that while I was watching it. McCarthy ratchets up the stakes, and for me Spotlight came to be about the way that each of us allows injustice to continue in the world because of (a) devotions and loyalties to various dogmas and traditions, (b) apathy and indifference about the real sufferings of other people, (c) actual fear that people might not like us, and (d) greed and self-interest. We watch the film's central characters struggle in different ways with all of these qualms and difficulties, and these miniature character studies are all very interesting, even compelling.

I enjoyed Spotlight from start to finish, admiring the filmmaking (it's shot cleverly and without ostentation) and the powerful ensemble work from Keaton, Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, Len Cariou, and Billy Crudup. And I like the film's subject matter, too. It is so easy to cover up something instead of truly dealing with it, so simple (especially if you're getting your pockets lined) to choose to kowtow to the powerful and the wealthy instead of telling the truth. By the time Spotlight's end title cards rolled around, the sheer scope of the conspiracy that this team of reporters exposed bowled me over. This is a conventional film but a stunning story.

Oscar possibilities for Spotlight: This is currently the Best Picture frontrunner, so that means all of the nominations that go along with that: editing, screenplay, cinematography, supporting actor (Ruffalo? Keaton? who knows), and director.

* * *
I shall leave you on a sour note. I had crossed Trumbo off of my list because the trailer looked so... whimsical, but then the Screen Actors Guild nominated it for ensemble, best actor, and best supporting actress, and then the Golden Globes followed suit with nominations for best actor in a drama (even though it is a comedy) and (again) best supporting actress. So, I put Trumbo back on my list and headed over to the cineplex.

Trumbo is an awful film. It is ostensibly the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of Roman Holiday and The Brave One and Spartacus, and I guess it is that, but this movie is so all over the place that one is never quite sure what it's about. It covers an enormous span of time, and its opinion about its protagonist shifts rather a lot, but this isn't really the problem with Trumbo. The problem is that the script is terrible, the acting is hammy and nonsensical, the makeup is too thick, the cinematography is inept, and the whole thing feels so phony that even though this is apparently a true story, one comes away from the film feeling as though it was rather a nice story, but not that our government actually, you know, was fascist and used violence and imprisonment to silence political dissidence. It is all designed to feel so charming: the good guys won. Of course they did. This is America! Utter nonsense.

Oh, and if you think this film might be about mid-century politics? Like Communism or Fascism? You would be wrong. Fascism in Trumbo is a mere plot device. Fascism in Trumbo is just an excuse for John Goodman to get laughs by swinging a baseball bat around an office and for Helen Mirren to say fuck.

I am not Spartacus, but I play him in the movies.
There is more to say about how bad Trumbo is, I guess, but it seems to me that perhaps the most egregious thing about this movie is Hollywood's obsession with having younger actors play famous bygone stars of yesteryear. Trumbo boasts Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Otto Preminger, and Hedda Hopper as characters, so that younger actors do their best impressions of these Hollywood royalty, but it always feels so fake. Michael Stuhlbarg, a fine actor, does a rather awful Edward G. Robinson impersonation as it turns out, and although Dean O'Gorman and David James Elliott do very good impressions of Kirk Douglas and John Wayne (respectively), the impression is all they do; characterization is non-existent, as though because they're trying so hard to play the famous face they forgot how to play humans. As for the two racking up nominations, Bryan Cranston growls his way through his part, and as far as I can tell all Helen Mirren does to get into the part of Hedda Hopper is simply to half-heartedly drop her British accent.

As for old Hollywood itself? In Trumbo (as in Saving Mr. Banks and Hitchcock before it) 1940s and '50s Los Angeles looks like a candy store. It's as though the entire purpose of these movies is to increase nostalgic tourism in the city of Los Angeles. Trumbo looks nothing like the real world in either the mid-twentieth century or the early twenty-first. Avoid at all costs.

Oscar possibilities for Trumbo: I honestly don't see any. The Globes and the Actors Guild are fine, but I predict that Trumbo will follow its predecessors (Banks and Hitchcock) and score a single nomination in some below-the-line category. For Trumbo I predict costumes. The film is so bad that if it scores any more than a single nomination in January I'll be shocked. It could happen, of course, but I just can't see it.