Trumbo (2015)

Jay Roach

Such an amazingly mundane film and amazing because while assumedly isn’t hard to make a boring film it is surely difficult to make one so boring out of such interesting source material. The two-hour running time to this movie drags as an eternity as the film struggles with the formation of the red scare and McCarthyism in America in the wake of WW2 and the beginnings of the cold war.

I think most people are aware of the film because Bryan Cranston was nominated for best actor in the 2016 academy awards for his portrayal of the titular Dalton Trumbo. Knowing parts of the story of Trumbo and the Hollywood 10 from the You Must Remember This podcast and having also read about Trumbo in Steve Martins auto-biography Born Standing Up I’ve been eager to watch this film ever since I missed it in cinemas. Amidst the many amazing brushes with historical figures in Steve Martins book his interaction with Trumbo during the time Martin was dating his daughter stood out the most. Martin wrote that it was the first time he had been around such intellectual radicals and described Trumbo as an intense and passionate man despite the troubles he’d gone through with the Hollywood black lists and his time in prison.

On the screen, the film does many things well. It seamlessly interweaves original archival footage and recreates similar footage where necessary. The film is always well acted and the cast, one and all, do a great job of portraying some of the most influential players in Hollywood history.

But there is never a sense what it is to live in America at the time. Kong: Skull Island managed a better job in it’s opening credits with short introductory montage of news clippings and footage. Trumbo never seems confident enough to dive too far into history or examine closely why the cold war lasted for so long or why communism was pursued so vehemently domestically.

A particularly weak moment slowly passes by when the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper threatens to publish the real, Jewish names, of the studio heads and the aura of anti-Semitism which operates in tandem with McCarthyism is left to the audience to be interpreted as a general fear of foreignness. This lack of general political and national scope to the film is problem enough but the film is even less effective with its central subject. There is no indication of how Trumbo came to be where he is. The film introduces him in his thirties as the highest paid screenwriter to date. There is no explanation for his communism or stubbornness or exploration of his past as a war correspondent or even how he grew as a writer. He is birthed fully formed into the film and as such there is never any reason to like him.

Even as Trumbo is blacklisted and jailed there are no real stakes. On Trumbo’s release from prison he and his family move to a palatial house in the city whereas in real life, they moved to Mexico. It is these kind of disconnects which not only, biographically, make it difficult for the film to explain key moments (such as the inspiration for his second Oscar winning film The Brave One) it also is just one of many instances where an opportunity for crisis or real stakes for Trumbo and his family are side-stepped for convenience. Keeping the film in Hollywood allows the filmmakers to concentrate the cause and menace of McCarthyism into the single villain of the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as played by Helen Mirren.

The only real crisis the film bothers to present is that as a workaholic Trumbo might be at risk of losing his family and even this small stake is discarded as his drug and alcohol fuelled work is shown to not be the mission of a stubborn obsessive but the ultimate foil to his nemesis Hedda Hopper. The film portrays this outcome between these two individuals as the main cause of the end of the blacklists, the red scare, McCarthyism and the whole dark chapter of American history. Meanwhile the epilogue cards explain that the blacklist was still in partial operation for a further twenty years and negate even the flimsy premise of crisis and battle the filmmakers invented.

The film is a boring failure made by a director of bad comedy films (notably the Austin Powers sequels) and a tv writer. Though the acting within the film is good I’m not even sure that Cranston deserved to be nominated for work in a film weighed down by such an ironically bad script.

I know now why I’ve never really met anyone who’s seen this film. Very few did. Though I would say to anyone that was interested that they would better spend their time listening to Karina Longworth’s much more interesting, entertaining and accurate stories of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten on the You Must Remember This podcast.

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(The) 25th Hour

David Benioff

25th Hour, originally published as The 25th Hour, is a rare example of a novel which was adapted into a much better film. Other examples I can think of, off-hand at least, include Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which as a novella was great but as a film, The Shawshank Redemption, was enriched and perfected by extended narrative space. I would also argue Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a better film as there are fewer digressions about genital surgery and lounge singers.

Both book and film versions of 25th Hour have the same plot, the same narrative beats and, for the most part, almost identical dialogue. The protagonist, Montgomery Brogan, has been convicted of drug trafficking. The story explores his last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to Otisville penitentiary for seven years. Flashbacks through both his perspective and as focalised through those close to him unveil key events which led to the present. There are elements of a thriller as Montgomery wonders who informed upon him and weighs up his options in the face of his incarceration. Will he will run, commit suicide, or resign himself to the oblivion of prison?

As with Shawshank, the film version of 25th Hour has an unfair advantage over the novel. The setting in New York city forms a large part of the novel but plays an even bigger part in the film. Directed by Spike Lee the film was the first to be shot in New York after the 2001 world trade center attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks and as rubble is still being cleared there is an added element of anger, fear and confusion imbued within the story and the setting. The novel, written and set before the S11 attacks, is about Montgomery as an individual and his own feelings towards others and the city as he travels through it on the last day of his free life. In the film, there is a sense that the whole city is angry, scared and confused and this both reflects and belittles Montgomery’s own feelings.

The greatest accomplishment of the story is the moral ambiguity of Montgomery’s characterisation. Benioff writes Monty as a likeable character and the moral push and pull of reconciling the sources of his riches and reason for his pending incarceration is left to his friends. In this way, the judgment and empathy provided towards Month shifts with the different focalisation and character arcs of his friends and loved ones. The character driven plot provides a natural countdown and Benioff dips in and out of the story time with expert use of segues to provide Monty’s back story.

I really struggle to criticise this book. Though it’s not perfect or great. Um… how about, the structure of a short linear story time interrupted by flashbacks is arguably generic and played-out. That’s some form of criticism but, even that, is a stretch. I am incredible biased because of how much I love the film. That too is the point. This is a prime example of a book that must be read before the film. With Spike Lee as director and David Benioff as screenwriter nearly every page and line of dialogue is perfectly recreated in the film. Perhaps I’m wrong and it is a great book or an amazing book but with such a perfect storm of cast, crew, score, cinematography and use of the city as character this, like Shawshank before it, is an example of a book which becomes redundant once you have seen the film.

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Trainspotting 2 (2017)

Danny Boyle

I’ve watched this film twice now. The first time intentionally and the second because it was the last film to sell out on a busy labour day weekend. I’m happy for the second viewing though because it really elevated my appreciation for this film a lot.

Since then I’ve been chatting about the film to people since and it’s been surprising how many haven’t seen the original trainspotting. It doesn’t seem like it has continued to be as popular with younger viewers as it initially was. Perhaps, probably, because once upon a time every share house in Melbourne (and I’d assume most western countries) had a copy of this film on DVD (as well as, it seemed, Human Traffic, Requiem for a Dream and The Fifth Element all share house staples in the late nineties and early 2000’s). Trainspotting’s popularity then seemed to be driven by it’s cheap and ready availability on DVD. I guess with the decline of DVD it’s not so much a classic by default anymore.

That aside the first film was and is amazing. It’s so hateful, so full of venom. A visceral exploration and part romanticisation and, simultaneously also damnation of heroin culture, Scotland, and post-punk, all contrasted with the rise of brash 90’s commercial culture. The first film is an iconic chain of events which are collected in a series of scenes which only forms into a loose narrative in the third act of the film to provide culture.

The author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (who cameos as Mikey Forrester in both films), wrote a sequel to his first novel in 2002 entitled Porno. The same characters from the first novel reunited and hatched a scheme to get rich off the porn industry. It’s a good book and great character sequel to the events of the first novel but I think everyone assumed that it was unfilmable because of the high level of sexual content, and more recently, because with the collapse of the porn industry no one really expects to get rich off of amateur porn.

I was suspicious of a sequel when it was announced. There have been enough unwatchable late in the game sequels. Dumb and Dumber 2 and it’s mean spiteful nature is perhaps the worst example though Indiana Jones & the Crystal Skull and it’s sheer clumsiness and stupidity is a pretty close second while later instalments of Die Hard simply seem unnecessary.

On my first watch, of trainspotting 2 it took until almost three quarters into the film before my suspicion and distrust eased off and I began to enjoy it. Trainspotting 2 is the same characters and uses the basic setup of the novel Porno minus the get rich amateur porn storyline. It’s much different to the first film however because it relies upon narrative to tell a story of its characters rather than simply detailing their chaotic self-destructive lifestyles. For me at least the narrative ambition of trying to say what had happened to the characters and their city and how they felt payed off.  Not only did I get over my mistrust but I came to love this film and what’s more it made value the first all the more.

This film doesn’t try twist or ignore the events of it’s predecessor, to create a new franchise or hide how old the actors are or how out of touch their characters are with youth culture. Bald spots are actually shown off. The mile a minute pop-culture dialogue between Johhny Lee Miller’s Sickboy and Ewan MacGregor’s Rentboy is still entertaining but not so much biting and funny now as self-deprecating, rueful and almost sad. In terms of these two characters, who were central to the first film, this second film examines them in a culture and stage of life where they are beyond punk and heroin and the irony of post-punk and are instead middle aged and merely low level and not very successful criminals rather than rebels happily wasting their potential.

The film updates it’s ‘choose life’ manifesto and takes subtle jabs at online culture, nostalgia, a conformist society and gentrification but just as all the characters are leery of younger generations ironically enjoying their own youth culture (in music and fashion) so too they are cautious now in attacking what is new.

Meanwhile the real surprise and main story of the film centres around Ewan Bremmer’s character of Spud and Robert Carlyle’s Begby and it’s in showing more of the backstory of one and the shattered dreams and despair of the other that the film really transcends itself and become not just good but a genuinely great film is so amazing in how much it treasures and loves its predecessor and the lives of the characters.