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Posts Tagged ‘Jay Roach’

Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.  It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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Most people, I think, would agree that it is something of a social no-no to talk about yourself too much. In the film industry, of course, the rules are often different to those of everyday life and in recent years we have seen something of a mini-boom in high-profile productions wherein Hollywood talks about itself in great detail and at considerable length. Sometimes these films are ultimately fictions, but on other occasions we are treated to a re-telling of stuff which is actually supposed to have happened – in short, we are back in ‘based on a true story’ territory again. This week’s essay in non-fictitious fiction is Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach (perhaps best known for the Austin Powers movies).

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Dalton Trumbo is one of those names which is so distinctive that many people are aware of it without knowing much about the person it was attached to. The film does its best to dispel this ignorance: Trumbo was a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s, fond of the good life and lengthy baths, and (it would seem) especially fond of the sound of his own voice. He was also quite fond of social justice and left-wing politics, to the point where he refused to cross the picket lines of strikers.

The film opens with the HUAC commission coming to prominence and the activities and beliefs of Trumbo (here played by Bryan Cranston) and a group of other left-leaning writers coming under increasingly intense and hostile scrutiny. The crusade against them is marshalled by shrill gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), with various other right-wing movie stars weighing in too. Eventually Trumbo and the others are summoned to appear before Congress, where they will be expected to answer questions about their political beliefs and those of others they know.

Trumbo, of course, decides this is unjust and unconstitutional and ends up losing his job and being sent to jail for a year for his refusal to cooperate. With Communists officially barred from doing any work in the movie industry, things look bleak for our man – but enough cleverness and determination can take a man a long way. But is his family – especially his wife (Diane Lane) – strong enough to bear the weight of his principles?

You kind of wonder just who Trumbo has been made for, given the setting and topic don’t exactly seem calculated to appeal to people who couldn’t get a ticket for Deadpool. Roach and the screenwriters may have been hoping to bring a too-little-known tale to wider prominence, especially with the casting of the guy from the thing about the teacher, but I still think this film is mainly going to be seen by reasonably mature, well-informed people who are already broadly familiar with the subject matter. If this is the case, then Trumbo makes some serious missteps, because it is much too simplistic about many of the issues and personalities involved. Very early on, Trumbo’s young daughter asks him to explain what a Communist is, and the expalantion he gives – basically, ‘Communists are people who believe in sharing’ – is cringeworthy. My own politics are firmly left of centre, but I still think there are a few more shades to the political spectrum than that.

In a similar vein, the two sides in the struggle at the heart of the film are drawn in an equally uncompromising way. Trumbo and his fellow blacklistees are likable, witty, decent people, and Kirk Douglas is a brave, decent guy, while Hedda Hopper is virtually a Nazi and John Wayne is a bullying hypocrite. Edward G Robinson in particular is presented in a fairly unflattering light – basically, he caves in and names names before the HUAC commission, which is a particular problem given that historically he did no such thing.

So as a political drama, Trumbo is rather awkward and clumsy – just about the only time the film does anything dramatically surprising is when Trumbo meets an apparently-illiterate black inmate in prison, and the film totally undercuts the audience’s expectations of what happens next. However, as a piece of entertainment, it still has a lot to offer, because the middle section is stuffed with very funny scenes. Post prison, the only people Trumbo can get work from are Poverty Row Z-movie producers the King brothers (John Goodman has an unreasonable amount of fun as the senior brother) and he basically sets up a script farm where blacklisted Oscar-nominated writers knock out scripts about womens’ prisons and bug-eyed alien monsters. (Shades of The Front.) Having once had delusions of writing ability myself, I enjoyed the scenes of Trumbo simply being a brilliant writer under very trying conditions to be enormously enjoyable.

In the end, though, rehabilitation comes in the form of gigs writing big movies for Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. (Trumbo seems convinced that Spartacus is some kind of all-time classic of the cinema, which strikes me as pushing it a bit – I mean, it’s two hours of brilliant entertainment, but spread across a 197-minute movie.) The nature of this kind of film means that it’s about very famous people who don’t really look like they should – so you’ve got a John Wayne who doesn’t really look like John Wayne, a Kirk Douglas who doesn’t quite look like Kirk Douglas, and so on. Once you get past trying to work out who’s supposed to be who, it’s all good fun, though. (The film cuts a few corners by intercutting actual scenes from Spartacus, with the real Douglas, with reconstructions featuring Dean O’Gorman, who plays Trumbo‘s version of him.)

What stops Trumbo from becoming either a well-meaning but bungled attempt at a serious drama or just another piece of behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood fun is the central performance of Cranston, which gives the movie serious heft and gravitas. It’s a fairly big and actorly performance, but one gets the impression that Trumbo was that kind of character anyway. Rather commendably, the film makes it clear that while Trumbo was indeed a man of deep conviction and personal integrity, he could also be a monumental pain in the neck and almost impossible to live with – and Cranston puts all of these things across impeccably.

Which, I suppose, must lead us to the regular ‘what are the chances of gongs?’ slot all of these films trawling for Oscars receive. Quite understandably, only Cranston is up for the big awards, something which I suspect would ordinarily hurt his chances. Then again, I suspect quite a lot of people would like to see him get some recognition for a steady career, even if his most notable role by far has been that thing on TV with the teacher. And, as previously noted, Hollywood does love stories about itself, especially ones with the right kind of virtue-triumphs ending. So I would say Cranston is in with a decent chance. Win or not, he is the most impressive thing in a film which obviously means well but doesn’t quite have the brains or the subtlety to be totally successful.

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