“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

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Top Five Favorite Episodes of “BABYLON 5” (Season Four: “No Surrender, No Retreat”)

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Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season Four (1996-1997) of “BABYLON 5”. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series starred Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle and Mira Furlan:

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “BABYLON 5” (SEASON FOUR: “NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT”)

1- 4.15 No Surrender No Retreat

1. (4.15) “No Surrender, No Retreat” – Provoked by EarthForce President Clark’s latest actions, former Captain John J. Sheridan leads the White Star fleet against EarthForce to liberate Proxima 3.

2 - 4.17 The Face of the Enemy

2. (4.17) “The Face of the Enemy” – Thanks to his new employer, CEO William Edgars, former Security Chief Michael Garibaldi is faced with the decision of whether or not to betray Sheridan to EarthForce. Babylon 5’s Dr. Stephen Franklin and telepath Lyta Alexander arrive on Mars with a cargo of frozen telepaths for the final battles in the Earth Civil War.

3 - 4.05 The Long Night

3. (4.05) “The Long Night” – Sheridan make plans for the final strike against the Shadows and the Vorlons during the Shadow War. Meanwhile, Centauri Prime Ambassador Londo Mollari and his aide, Vir Cotto, make the final plans for assassinating Emperor Cartagia.

4 - 4.20 Endgame

4. (4.20) “Endgame” – Following his rescue by Garibaldi, Franklin and Lyta; Sheridan leads the final assault against President Clark’s forces with the help of his rescuers and the Mars Resistance.

5 - 4.14 Moments of Transition

5. (4.14) “Moments of Transition” – During the last days of the Minbari Civil War, the Warrior Caste demands the surrender of Ambassador Delenn and the Religious Caste. Meanwhille, Psi cop Alfred Bester makes an offer to an increasingly desperate Lyta and Sheridan receives horrible news from Ivanova.

HM - 4.06 Into the Fire

Honorable Mention: (4.06) “Into the Fire” – Sheridan stages a final showdown between the Vorlons and the Shadows at Coriana 6 toward the end of the Shadow War.

“GODZILLA” (2014) Review

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“GODZILLA” (2014) Review

“Godzilla again?” That was my reaction when I learned about a new Godzilla movie to be released for the summer of 2014. The last movie about the iconic Japanese monster had been released some 16 years ago and was met with a good deal of derision. Mind you, I rather liked the 1998 film, but I did not love it. But . . . I was willing to give this new film a chance.

“GODZILLA” 2014 begins with a montage of atomic test bombings in the Pacific Ocean by the U.S. Navy. In the last montage, a large creature emerges from the ocean depths. The story immediately shifts to the Philippines Islands in 1999, when a pair of scientists named Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Graham investigate a large skeleton discovered inside a collapsed mine. They also discover two egg-shaped pods. The broken one leaves a trail leading to the sea. The Janjira nuclear plant in Japan experiences unusual seismic activity. The plant’s American-born supervisor, Joe Brody, sends his wife Sandra and a team of technicians into the reactor to check the sensors. When the team is inside, an explosion occurs, threatening to release radiation to the outside. Sandra and her team are unable to escape and the plant collapses into ruin. The disaster is attributed to an earthquake. But Brody suspects otherwise and spends a good number of years investigating the disaster.

Fifteen years later, Brody’s son, Ford, has become a U.S. Navy bomb disposal officer, living in San Francisco with his wife and son. When Brody is arrested for trespassing at the Janjira exclusion zone, Ford is forced to travel to Japan. Convinced of a cover-up of the true cause of the disaster, Brody convinces Ford to accompany him to their old home to retrieve vital seismic data he had recorded before the plant disaster. Father and son discover that Janjira is not contaminated with radiation, unlike the official report. After recovering the data, they are arrested and taken to a facility containing a massive chrysalis within the plant’s ruins. As they watch, a colossal winged creature emerges and escapes. After Brody is wounded by the creature, he dies from his wounds. Ford, Serizawa and Graham join a U.S. Navy strike force led by Admiral William Stenz on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga to track the creature, which has been labeled as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Serizawa and Graham reveal that only one creature can stop MUTO, an ancient alpha predator known as Godzilla. When the MUTO causes the wreck of a Russian submarine, Godzilla emerges to feed off the sub’s radiation and pursue MUTO. More bad news arrives when Stenz, Serizawa and Graham learn about the emergence of a female MUTO in Las Vegas. The two scientists suspect that the MUTO from Japan is on his way to breed with his female counterpart.

Well, this was a first . . . at least for me. Godzilla as the main protagonist? That is exactly how writers Max Borenstein and David Callaham portrayed the monster. I suspect this has been done before in previous Godzilla films. Since I have never seen one, aside from the 1998 flick in which he was clearly the antagonist, this was news to me. Did I like the movie? Hmmmm . . . yes and no.

Let me explain. There are aspects of “GODZILLA” that I liked. The cast is pretty decent. Bryan Cranston chewed the scenery during his appearances in the movie’s first half hour. Usually, this would bother me, but for once I welcomed his over-the-top acting for I thought it gave the movie a lot of energy. One would think I dislike the rest of the cast. Honestly, I do not. I enjoyed Aaron Johnson-Taylor’s subtle portrayal of Brody’s more reserved and equally intense son, Ford. Actually, I thought Cranston and Johnson-Taylor balanced each other very well and it seemed a pity that the elder Brody was killed off after a half hour. Elizabeth Olsen, who portrayed Ford’s more ellubient wife. Like Cranston, she also balanced very well with Johnson-Taylor. Unfortunately, the two younger stars spent most of the movie away from each other. Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn gave solid performances as Admiral Stenz, who is willing to resort to anything to get rid of MUTO (and perhaps Godzilla) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, who believes that the only way to solve the situation regarding MUTO and Godzilla is to let them fight it off.

“GODZILLA” also benefited from some first-class photography, thanks to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s stunning work. I was especially impressed by one sequence featuring the HALO jump of Ford and a team of Army soldiers into San Francisco in order to prevent a missing warhead from detonating, as shown in this image:

There were some sequences in the movie that I enjoyed, including the original accident at the Janjira plant, the first MUTO’s emergence in Japan and especially the arrival of Godzilla and the first MUTO in Honolulu. Unfortunately, “GODZILLA” is not perfect.

I feel that “GODZILLA” lacked two qualities that made the 1998 movie so likable for me – a more centralized story and more colorful characters. I hate to say this, but Borenstein and Callaham’s story could have been a little more tighter. Actually, it could have been a lot more tighter. It seemed to be all over the map. Although the movie more or less ended in San Francisco, it took a long time for the story to arrive at that location. Gareth Edwards’ lackluster direction did not help. Also, I was not that impressed by the writers’ use of Godzilla as the main protagonist. It just did not work for me . At least not now. Perhaps one day, I might learn to embrace the concept. My problem is I found myself wondering why Godzilla went after the MUTOs in the first place. I doubt it he went after them for the sake of the human race.

And this movie lacked some serious characterization. Characters like Admiral Stenz, Doctors Serizawa and Graham were tight-lipped and professional, while struggling to keep their emotions in check. But I did not find them particularly interesting or found myself caring about their fates. I also feel that Juliette Binoche (who portrayed Cranston’s doomed wife) and Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham) were simply wasted in this movie. I realize that many critics do not seem to care for Aaron Johnson-Taylor. I simply feel otherwise. I like him a lot as an actor. But he has a rather subtle screen presence and he needed someone more colorful to balance his more quiet persona. He had the explosive Bryan Cranston and an emotional Elizabeth Olsen. But Cranston’s character was killed off after the first half hour. And Olson had very few scenes with him. In the end, the writers failed to provide Johnson-Taylor with more colorful characters to balance his style . . . something that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich managed to do for Matthew Broderick in the 1998 film.

Will I bother to purchase a copy of “GODZILLA” when it is released on DVD? Probably. It is far from perfect, but I cannot deny that I liked it. As long as the movie is offered at a discount price, I would be more than willing to buy it for a rainy afternoon.

“ARGO” (2012) Review

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“ARGO” (2012) Review

Ben Affleck must be at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had recently been released in theaters and became a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. The movie also won several awards, including the top prize – the Academy Awards Best Picture of 2012.  And Affleck never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a“science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic.“ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the most satisfying movies of the year. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” strikes me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

“TOTAL RECALL” (2012) Review

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“TOTAL RECALL” (2012) Review

Twenty-two years ago, moviegoers rushed to see a movie called “TOTAL RECALL”, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novella called “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the 1990 movie starred Arnold Schwartzenegger and was a big hit.

Two decades passed before Hollywood tackled the 1964 novella for the second time. Still called “TOTAL RECALL”, this new adaptation was directed by Len Wiseman. It starred Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell in the role of amnesiac Doug Quaid. The movie has not been as well received as the 1990 movie. And it barely went into the black. But surprisingly, at least for me, I discovered that I prefer it over Verhoeven’s version.

“TOTAL RECALL” begins at the end of the 21st century. Earth has been devastated by chemical warfare and only two habitable territories exist – the United Federation of Britain (formerly Great Britain) and the Colony (formerly Australia). The UFB is a haven for humanity’s elite and white-collar employees. The less affluent population reside in the Colony, yet have low paying jobs in the UFB. They have to travel there to work in the elite’s factories via “the Fall”, a gravity elevator, which travels through the Earth. Habitable space is at a minimum in both the UFB and the Colony.

A disenchanted factory worker named Doug Quaid is convinced by a co-worker to visit Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories. Rekall’s manager, McClane, convinces Quaid to be implanted with memories of a secret agent. But when the latter is tested to avoid having implanted memories conflicting with real memories, McClane discovers that Quaid has real memories of being a spy. McClane and his co-workers are killed by a SWAT team and Quaid instinctively reacts by killing the officers before his escape. When Quaid returns home to his wife Lori, she tries to kill him before revealing that she is not his wife of seven years, but an undercover UFB agent who has been monitoring him for the past six weeks. Quaid manages to escape and with some help and funds, make his way to the UFB to learn about his true identity. Quaid meets old girlfriend Melina upon his arrival and eventually discovers that his name is Carl Hauser, an agent who works for UFB Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen. Quaid had defected to the Resistance movement against Cohaagen’s rule, became Melina’s lover and was later was captured by the UFB and implanted with false memories. Quaid also learns from a recording left by him at his apartment that Cohaagen plans to use the synthetic police force to invade the Colony and kill its inhabitants in order to provide more living space for UFB.

I am sure that many are either surprised, appalled or both by my earlier declaration that I preferred this version of Dick’s novella over Paul Verhoeven. I stand by my word. But that does not mean that I believe Wiseman’s version was perfect. One, the movie lacked Verhoeven’s style and humor. Two, despite some changes in setting, characterization and plot; the movie’s story is a little too close to the 1990 movie for my tastes. I do wish that the screenplay written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback had been a little more original. And unlike the memorable fight scene between Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin, I was not that impressed by the one between Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale. It seemed a bit . . . confusing. I love Bryan Cranston as an actor. I have been a fan of his since I first saw him in “MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE”. But I was not impressed by his portrayal of main villain Vilos Cohaagen. I found it a little hammy. Now Cranston can be hammy and funny at the same time. But hammy and serious? Uh . . . sorry. It just did not work for me. And I found it disappointing that an actor who won three consecutive Emmys for portraying a school teacher-turned-drug lord resorted to such theatrics in this particular movie.

Despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy “TOTAL RECALL”. And I will tell you why I enjoyed it more than the 1990 movie. Wiseman’s direction may have lacked Verhoeven’s style and humor. Fortunately, he also lacked Verhoeven’s penchant for over-the-top violence . . . the kind that makes me want to close my eyes.  And I . . . am a fan of action films. Unlike the 1990 film, I was not distracted from the story by extreme violence, a trip to a very unimpressive Mars and mutants. Also, I found Farrell’s first fight scene with Kate Beckinsale – who portrayed his fake wife Lori – very impressive. The idea of Sharon Stone fighting muscle man Schwartzenegger was hard to swallow when I first saw Verhoeven’s film. And I still find it difficult.

The political and economical overtones of “TOTAL RECALL” strongly resonated within me. It made sense to me that the great distance between the rich and poor existed with such extremity by the end of the 21st century, considering our current economic state. In a way, the setting of “TOTAL RECALL” reminded me of last year’s “IN TIME”. But this movie benefited from a more solid script than the 2011 movie.

“TOTAL RECALL” also benefited from first-rate performances by the cast. Yes, I had a problem with Bryan Cranston as the main villain, Cohaagen. But I certainly cannot say the same about the rest of the cast. Colin Farrell, in his own way, can be just as effective as Schwartzenegger, as an action hero. But, he can also act rings around the latter. He certainly proved this in his portrayal of Doug Quaid/Carl Hauser. Jessica Biel not only projected a shining idealism in her portrayal of Resistance fighter, Melina; she also proved to be just as effective in action as Farrell. Kate Beckinsale nearly blew my mind as the ruthless UFB agent Lori. She re-created two roles from the 1990 movies – those portrayed by Sharon Stone as the fake wife and Michael Ironside, who portrayed Cohaagen’s chief lieutenant, Ritcher – and put her own delicious and twisted spin on them. Bokeem Woodbine, whom I have not seen in years – portrayed Doug’s “best friend” Harry. I have to say that he gave probably the most subtle performance in the movie. And it is a pity that he was not on the screen longer. The movie also featured brief, yet solid appearances from the likes of John Cho, Bill Nighy and Will Yun Lee.

It is a pity that “TOTAL RECALL” did not fare that well at the box. I guess it was unable to overcome the shadow of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 movie. Which is too bad, because I believe that in its own way, it was just as entertaining . . . and flawed as the earlier version. Well . . . at least I have a future DVD copy of it to look forward and enjoy.

“CONTAGION” (2011) Review

“CONTAGION” (2011) Review

When I first saw the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, “CONTAGION”, it brought back some old memories. I found myself remembering Wolfgang Peterson’ 1995 film, “OUTBREAK”, which starred Dustin Hoffman; and the influenza pandemic that terrified the world’s population two years ago. With those in mind, I decided to check out Soderbergh’s new movie. 

“CONTAGION” is a medical thriller about the rapid progress of a lethal contact transmission virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving pandemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. And as the virus spreads around the world, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart. The movie began with a Minnesota woman named Beth Emhoff returning home after a business trip to Hong Kong and a side trip to Chicago to cheat on her second husband with an old flame. Two days later, she collapses from a severe seizure before dying in a hospital. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff, returns home and discovers that his stepson – Beth’s son – has died from the same disease. Other people who have had contact with Beth eventually die in China, Great Britain and Chicago, leading medical doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the disease.

While watching “CONTAGION”, I noticed that its narrative bore a strong resemblance to the one featured in Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar winning movie, “TRAFFIC”. I noticed that “CONTAGION” had failed to generate the same level of interest that the 2000 movie managed to do. And I find this ironic, considering that I seemed to prefer this movie over the Oscar winning film. I do not mean to say that “TRAFFIC” was the inferior movie. As far as I am concerned, it was a superb film. But I simply preferred “CONTAGION” more. It could be that I found a viral pandemic to be a more interesting topic than drug trafficking, due to the events of 2009. And I found that particular subject scarier.

And I cannot deny that “CONTAGION” scared the hell out of me. The idea that a new disease could spring up and spread throughout the world’s population so fast practically blows my mind. And I have to say that both Soderbergh and the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Burns, did a great job in scaring the hell out of me. What I found even scarier were the various reactions to the disease. Soderburgh and Burns did a great job in conveying factors that drove mass panic and loss of social order, the difficulties in investigating and containing a pathogen and the problems of balancing personal motives and professional responsibilities. Another amazing aspect about “CONTAGION” is that Soderbergh and Burns avoided the usual cliché of portraying the pharmaceutical industry or the military as the villains. Instead, everyone – the government agencies, politicians at every level and even the public at large – are portrayed in an ambiguous light. Looking back on“CONTAGION”, I realized that I only had one minor complaint – Soderbergh’s direction did come off as a bit too dry at times.

Soderbergh and his casting director managed to gather an exceptional job for the cast. Cast members such as Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle John Hawkes and Enrico Colantoni gave very solid performances. But I found at least five performances truly memorable. One came from Jude Law, who portrayed an aggressive freelance journalist named Alan Krumwiede, who convinces some of his readers to use a a homeopathic cure based on Forsythia, on behalf of companies producing the treatment. I found Law’s character so annoying that I did not realize how skillful his performance was, until several hours after I saw the movie. Kate Winslet gave a very poignant performances as Dr. Erin Mears, a CDC doctor who is forced to face the consequences of the political agendas of a local government and the disease itself. Laurence Fishburne did an exceptional job in conveying the ambiguous situation of his character, CDC spokesman Dr. Ellis Cheever, who found himself torn between his duties with the agency, keeping certain aspects about a possible cure from the public, and his desire to ensure his wife’s safety. But I believe the best performance came from Matt Damon, who portrayed the widower of the doomed Beth Emhoff. Damon was superb in portraying the many aspects of Emhoff’s emotional state – whether the latter was grieving over his wife’s death, dealing with her infidelity, or ensuring that he and his daughter remain alive despite the increasing chaos and death that surrounded them.

I did not know whether I would enjoy “CONTAGION”, but I did . . . much to my surprise. Not only did I enjoyed it, the movie scared the hell out of me. And I cannot think of any other director, aside from Steven Soderburgh, who can do that with such a dry directorial style. In the end, I enjoyed it more than ever when it was finally released on DVD.

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

For years I began to wonder if Matthew McConaughey would be stuck in an endless series of mediocre romance comedies and light action thrillers. The last noteworthy movie I had seen him in was the 2008 comedy, “TROPIC THUNDER”. Only, he was not the lead in that film. And the last noteworthy movie in which he was the lead actor was the 2006 drama, “WE ARE MARSHALL” and before that – the 2000 World War II thriller, “U-571”. Then I saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” and whatever doubts I had about the future of his career were erased. For now. 

Directed by Brad Furman and based upon Michael Connelly’s 2005 novel, “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” told the story about a successful Los Angeles defense attorney named Mickey Haller, who operates around Los Angeles County out of a Lincoln Town Car, driven by a former client working off his legal fees (hence the title). Haller has spent most of his career defending garden-variety criminals, until he lands the case of his career – a Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Roulet, who also happens to be the son of a real estate mogul named Mary Windsor. Roulet is accused of the brutal beating of a prostitute. At first, Roulet seems to be an innocent who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But when Haller and his investigator, Frank Levin, discover that the prostitute’s injuries are similar to a past case of his that landed a previous client, Jesus Martinez in prison for murdering a woman, the seemingly straightforward case suddenly develops into a deadly game of survival for Haller.

After watching this movie, it occurred to me that the movie’s title bore very little significance to the actual plot. If anything, the idea that the Mickey Haller operated his law firm from the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car struck me as some kind of plot contrivance that almost seemed like a publicity ploy. Honestly. Both Connelly’s novel and the movie would have been better off with a title that related more closely with the plot. Perhaps I am being a bit of a nitpicker. Yet, before I actually saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER”, I honestly thought the car would feature as a major plot point for the story. Another problem I had with the movie was that at times, cinematographer Lukas Ettlin utilized in that quick-cut photography that tends to leave me feeling slightly dizzy. And I thought that the story’s conclusion may have been rushed a bit. But despite these mild annoyances, I enjoyed the movie very much.

One, it has become increasingly rare to find a major Hollywood movie set in the Los Angeles. There have been movies set in my hometown. But there are not as many as they used to be. And as an Angeleno, this has been a bone of contention for me. Thankfully, director Brad Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin did a great job in revealing the City of Angels to movie goers without resorting to extremes in its portrayal. Two, Furman made great use of a first-rate cast filled with many whose careers I thought were either over or sliding into oblivion. Most importantly, both Furman and screenwriter John Romano did an excellent job of translating Connelly’s novel to the screen. Okay, I confess that I have never read the novel. Which means that I do not know how faithful Romano’s screenplay was to the novel. But whether the movie was a close adaptation or not, I must admit that it had a damn good story. The best thing I liked about “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” was that Haller’s defense of Roulet transformed into a nightmarish situation in which he found himself in an unwitting game of cat and mouse.

When I said that the cast was first-rate, I was not joking. The supporting cast included excellent performances from the likes of Frances Fisher, who portrayed Roulet’s controlling and over-protective mother; Michael Peña, who portrayed Haller’s former client claiming innocence of murder, while serving time in prison; Laurence Mason as Haller’s observant chauffeur/former client; Michael Paré and Bryan Cranston, who portrayed two hostile but very different L.A.P.D. detectives, John Leguizamo, who portrayed the slightly sleezy bail bondsman responsible for directing Haller to Roulet’s case; and Bob Gunton, who portrayed the Roulet-Windsor family’s obsequious attorney. I believe that the last decent movie that Josh Lucas made was 2006’s “GLORY ROAD”. So, it was great to see him in a first-rate movie in which, once again, he proved how much of a chameleon he could be in his portrayal of the righteous prosecuting attorney, whose self-assurance is slowly whittled away. William H. Macy created a strong screen chemisty as Haller’s intelligent and witty investigator, who helps solve the case. And Marisa Tomei gave a strong performance as Haller’s ex-wife and a prosecutor who is torn between relief that she is no longer married to such a difficult man and lingering feelings for him.

But the two star performances came from Matthew McConaughey in the title role of Mickey Haller; and Ryan Phillippe as his latest client, Louis Roulet. McConaughey, who has spent too many years without a first rate leading role, owned this movie. Let me take that back. He did not completely own the movie, but he definitely made the Mickey Haller character his own. Hell, he practically conquered it. Sure, McConaughey utilized his usual brand of Southern charm in the movie’s first ten or fifteen minutes. But as the movie’s plot made a sharp turn, the actor dropped the charming façade and revealed his character’s range of emotions in dealing with his complicated new client. And speaking of the Louis Roulet character, I believe that it might turn out to be one of Ryan Phillippe’s best roles ever. Due to his superb performance, he transformed Roulet from a charming, yet bewildered client that projected an air of innocence to a dark and malignant man with a talent for manipulation.

Would I recommend that you see “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” before it disappears from the movie theaters? Absolutely. Thanks to director Brad Furman and screenwriter John Romano, the movie turned out to be a superb adaptation of Michael Connelly’s novel. And the movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast, led by outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Phillippe. It is one of the better movies I have seen this year so far.