The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoë Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Bill Skarsgård, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Noah Oppenheim


A typical problem with film franchises based on novels that decide to split their final instalments into two separate parts is that the first half tends to suffer because of it. When the Harry Potter series did it first, and then The Hunger Games afterwards, both of their penultimate chapters served only to set up the finale and therefore did not stand up as individual films with their own self-contained stories. Although I like both of these franchises, watching the first halves of their final episodes proved to be quite tiresome as they required me to sit through two hours of a non-story in order to reach the good parts. When I have to watch that kind of movie in a franchise that I don’t even like, it becomes the Chinese Water Torture. That, in a nutshell, is how I felt watching Allegiant.

Following the insurgency in the previous film and the revelation of an outside colony overseeing their city, Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz) and Peter (Miles Teller) escape Chicago to seek them out. After venturing into the wasteland that is the world outside their city, the group are discovered by soldiers who escort them to the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. There Tris meets David (Jeff Daniels) who explains that Chicago is an experiment designed to fix the damaged genes of their people by isolating them in the hopes that they can eventually birth individuals of genetic purity, the divergents. Tris is told that she alone is pure while the rest of her people are all “damaged”. David explains that he hopes to use Tris to find the answers to their problems and to save their people. Meanwhile Chicago continues to grow restless under the rule of Evelyn (Naomi Watts) as Johanna (Octavia Spencer) and the Allegiant try to stop her from overthrowing the factions and imposing a ruthless dictatorship.

The Divergent series has never made much sense to me with its factions and convoluted rules and whatnot, but this whole idea of genetic experimentation just did my head in. As Jeff Daniels adopted his ‘I am definitely not a villain’ expression and explained to Tris the particulars of their history and the reasons behind the experiment, I gave up on trying to care about four sentences in. While I had my issues with The Hunger Games, at least that series knew to keep things simple. Divergent gets so bogged down in longwinded exposition and feeble explanations that I almost felt like I was watching a Wachowski movie (at least then I might have been treated to some impressive visuals and decent action). It doesn’t help to have a plot that refuses to move along and advance as the themes of rebellion from Insurgent get played out all over again. Most of what happens in the outside world consists of Tris and her friends sitting on their hands as they wait for the film’s two-hour runtime to expire so that the next movie can finally begin. This film has all the aimlessness and confusion of the first two films with an extra dose of mind-numbing boredom thrown in.

Over the course of this franchise Shailene Woodley’s performance has been its one consistent saving grace as she manages to breathe life into what is otherwise a bland and characterless protagonist. In this film however Woodley’s acting abilities cannot do anything for the fact that her character is given almost nothing to do. Most of her screen-time is dedicated towards disinterested conversations between her and David about genes and human nature and how special she is until she proceeds to take part in a climax that I would have called underwhelming if I had actually had any expectations or investment. I genuinely hope this film at least propels Woodley to stardom the same way The Hunger Games did for Jennifer Lawrence because she deserves far better than this. In fact, the rest of this franchise’s cast (minus Jai Courtney) deserve better.

While watching these finale-part-one movies has consistently proven to be a largely dull and tedious experience, at least with Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay I was invested enough in the franchises to follow them through and in the end found the ultimate payoff to be satisfying. This film however has taken everything that I already disliked about the Divergent series and turned it up to 11. The constant exposition dumps, the one-dimensional characters that put great talent to waste, the sheer absence of any sort of inspiration or originality; Allegiant brings all of these elements into full force. Standing as what is easily the weakest instalment in what is already a weak franchise, I can only hope that the climax they are building up to in Ascendant proves to be extraordinary. I won’t be holding my breath though.

The Forest

Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken

Director: Jason Zada

Writers: Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca


One of the problems with horror these days is that so few of its filmmakers ever attempt to try something innovative or challenging. For every It Follows or The Babadook that gets made, there comes along around five mediocre offerings like The Forest. These films content themselves with imitating movies that have proven to be popular and successful in the past without even attempting to understand why they worked in the first place. They think that horror films begin and end with scary-looking imagery, eerie music and the occasional (or in some cases tiringly frequent) jump scare with barely a thought given to such elements as story, character and atmosphere. Movies like The Forest do not work as horror films because they are dull, tame and predictable. They understand nothing about people or about fear, they only know how to lift ideas out of vastly superior films and grind them down into worn-out formulas and clichés.

The film follows Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) who receives a phone call from Japan informing her that her twin sister Jess has died. She was reportedly seen heading into Aokigahara Forest, a site that has received infamy as a destination for the suicidal, and hasn’t been seen since. Sara however, relying on a special twin-sisterly bond that she shares with Jess, believes her sister to be alive and flies to Japan in order to find her. At the hotel where her sister stayed Sara meets a reporter called Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who offers to lead her into the forest with the local guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). As they venture deeper into the forest Sara sees many strange sights and has had no luck finding her sister as night approaches. However Sara refuses to give up the search and remains in the forest over the course of the night in spite of Michi’s warnings.

You would think that such a setting as a forest where people gather to commit suicide and where their souls continue to walk and to haunt those that venture within would be ideal for building an irrepressible atmosphere of dread and despair. If only this film understood that. Instead of a compelling horror about the human spirit and the kind of pain, agony and misery that leads people to bring their own lives to an end, The Forest offers some creepy trees, a couple of scary faces and about a dozen jump scares. I’m not one of those people who thinks that jump scares are a cheap way to score fear points; in fact I think that a well-executed jump scare can be absolutely terrifying (Carrie is a great example). The problem lies with filmmakers who think that making a viewer suddenly jump by abruptly showing them an image of an extreme close-up accompanied by a sudden loud noise is the same thing as scaring them. Such a practice in the absence of anything of actual frightfulness serves only to frustrate and aggravate the viewer, especially when they can see the jump scares coming from over a mile away. The forest itself does manage to convey a certain ambiance and mood that could almost justify the film’s label as a horror film, if only the film ever put it to actual use.

At the end of the day though, horror is about people. If you cannot relate to the characters involved and cannot invest yourself in their fate, you’re not going to care when something nasty happens to them. Dormer, in her defence, was given the task of playing two separate characters in a film that isn’t able to provide her with even one. As an actress she brings more life to both of these roles than the film warranted or deserved. A solid performance however is still not a substitute for personality, motivation or association and this film has little to speak of. The movie apparently wants to use the suicide forest as a backdrop to explore a fractured and inconsolable part of Sara’s soul that stems from a traumatic experience in her past. The film however glosses over the character building and thematic confrontation that such an approach would require in favour of jump scares involving a Japanese schoolgirl.

The Forest is, if nothing else, an informative essay on everything that is wrong with the horror genre today. It is so tedious and obvious in its attempt to create horror that the only people likely to find it scary are those who have somehow never seen The Blair Witch Project, The Evil Dead or literally any Japanese horror film ever and are therefore oblivious to the overdone tropes that the film so readily employs. There are maybe one or two ‘gotcha’ moments that might catch viewers off guard but, again, that’s not the same thing as scaring them. There is nothing immersive, nothing introspective and, in turn, nothing scary about this film that warrants viewing. The Forest is yet another lacklustre horror film that nobody will remember in a year’s time.

Grimsby

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe

Director: Louis Leterrier

Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston


Personally I’m not a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I thought he was very funny as Ali G and as Borat but, once I started catching on to the joke, he became less funny for me. In all of his films he plays an outrageous character, goes after easy targets and tries to achieve the most offensive or grossest humour he possibly can. This kind of humour can work well if done in a clever or skilful way but in Cohen’s case it just feels worn-out. What made Borat work was that Cohen was not a household name when it came out and so audiences didn’t know what to expect from him. Ever since that film made him a celebrity I think that his comedy has since become all too familiar. Today you know exactly what you’re going to get from a Sacha Baron Cohen film: gross-out humour and topical bad taste comedy. Those who like Cohen’s films and want to see more of the same will find plenty of it in Grimsby. I however am not one of those people.

Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a working-class, beer-guzzling football hooligan from the northern England fishing town of Grimsby. It has been 28 years since he lost his younger brother who is now Sebastian Graves (Mark Strong), MI6’s top agent. While on a mission to prevent a terrorist plot, Sebastian is discovered by Nobby who proceeds to cock up his operation, resulting in Sebastian becoming an enemy of the state and forced to go on the run. Nobby brings Sebastian home to Grimsby where they, along with Nobby’s wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) and their 11 children, can lay low for a while and perhaps even reconnect. Meanwhile Sebastian entreats his colleague and friend Jodie Figgs (Isla Fisher) to help him pursue a lead that could clear his name. Once he discovers a plot that could threaten the entire world, Sebastian realises that the only man he can trust to help him stop it is his idiot brother.

For the most part I found very little of this film to be funny. There were a few moments that managed to get a laugh out of me like this one time near the end when Nobby decides to intervene in the World Cup final. Most of the jokes however are attempts by Cohen to be as shocking and vulgar as he possibly can and they just didn’t do it for me. I wasn’t disgusted or offended by this film in the same way that I was by Dirty Grandpa, I simply found the comedy to be quite weak. The film certainly doesn’t hold out on the gross-out department as it displays a series of outlandishly crass situations that leave very little to the imagination. When I said that I knew what I was getting when going into a Sacha Baron Cohen film, it doesn’t mean that I could have guessed the nature of the situations that Nobby and his brother would find themselves in. I could certainly never have predicted that a film about a football hooligan and a spy would lead me to a scene like the one involving the elephant. Nevertheless those scenes felt more gratuitous to me than humourous. It’s like the film thinks that being as gross as possible is the same thing as being funny.

One thing that can usually be said for Sacha Baron Cohen is that he is often so committed to his characters that he is able to completely disappear into them. In Nobby’s case however the actor remains in the forefront. Maybe this is the result of a further increase in Cohen’s celebrity status after appearing in such acclaimed works as Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables, or it could simply be because Nobby is not nearly as interesting or funny a character as Ali G or Borat. Mark Strong plays his part very seriously, leading to some good deadpan line deliveries, but gives up much of his dignity in the process. How the producers managed to convince him or the other talented actors like Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane and Gabourey Sidibe to be in this film I’ll never know. I’d be very interested in knowing what Strong was thinking as he and Cohen were filming the scene with the poison dart.

The film is crude and silly but not necessarily in an unpleasant way. I found Grimsby to be more senseless than repulsive. The film does try to take its shots the same way that Cohen’s previous films have (including one particular gag involving Donald Trump) but it isn’t clever or radical enough to make any sort of a meaningful impact. In a weird way the humour in this film, while definitely explicit and obscene, is actually pretty harmless. The comedy amounts to little more than toilet humour and sex jokes (albeit graphically so) and is too childish and ridiculous to be taken seriously. Those who enjoy this brand of comedy will like it for what it is. To me however it is a cheap, tactless comedy with some overly trashy scenes that come across as desperate rather than edgy.

Deadpool

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapičić

Director: Tim Miller

Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick


In this day and age when every second blockbuster coming out at any given time is yet another superhero movie, it isn’t hard to understand why some audiences are becoming wearied with superhero fatigue. This is why Deadpool feels like such an invigorating breath of fresh air. There isn’t a single superhero movie out there quite like it. It took a character that most audiences were unfamiliar with and portrayed him using a style that defied the family-friendly thrills of the Marvel movies and the dark, gritty action of the DC movies. This is a film that was uninterested in forced tie-ins to other movies, studio-mandated content and PG-13 audience appeal. The Deadpool crew was focused above all on making a good movie that was true to the source material and that is exactly what they made. It is not kid-friendly and it is not inoffensive; it is the gory, sweary, indecent movie that Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller set out to make.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary with a relentlessly twisted sense of humour who finds his perfect match in the equally depraved Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin). Shortly after proposing to her however, Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides he doesn’t want to put her through the ordeal of watching him die. Upon leaving Vanessa, Wade is approached by a mysterious figure who claims that his employer can cure him. This employer turns out to be Ajax (Ed Skrein), a scientist and weapons expert whose experiments subject Wade to an agonising and prolonged period of torture. Wade eventually escapes and discovers that he has acquired enhanced strength and reflexes as well as a healing factor but has also been left horribly disfigured. Adopting an alias as the masked vigilante Deadpool, Wade embarks on a campaign of revenge to track down Ajax and have his disfigurement cured.

What sets this movie apart from every other superhero movie is its wicked sense of humour. From the very beginning all the way to the end, Deadpool is packed with dark humour, fourth wall breaks, over-the-top violence, excessive profanity and visual gags that puts most American comedies out there to shame. At the centre of it all is Ryan Reynolds killing it as the character he has been waiting his whole life to play. He is energetic, charismatic and hilarious as this character and is wholly committed to representing him. Reynolds is an actor I’ve often struggled to go along with, so I’m happy to see that he’s finally found a role that allows him to truly flourish. Deadpool is a supremely entertaining character who perfectly matches the film’s excessive, sporadic, almost cartoonish tone who is at his best when he jumps all over the place dropping F-bombs, slicing heads off and making the most hysterically inappropriate comments possible. I also greatly enjoyed the romance between Wade and Vanessa who share a vibrant chemistry. Their relationship is weird, crazy and unconventional, but it works for them and proves to be quite touching.

Even though Deadpool is identified above all as being a superhero movie, the superhero parts were actually the ones I enjoyed the least. More than anything else it was the humour that made this movie for me. Therefore whenever the film chose to be serious and advance the whole revenge storyline that was taking place, I became less interested. I got that the film needed a villain and conflict in order to progress, but it still felt a little stale to me. Whenever a serious scene came along, it felt to me like a 5-10 minute expository segment I had to sit through in order to get to the good part. It didn’t help that the main villain Ajax was utterly bland and forgettable. The action itself was a lot of fun to watch as it fully embraced its R rating and allowed room for much humour, but I think the comedy may have somewhat overshadowed the excitement.

Deadpool is the exact kind of movie that needed to be made with the blockbuster climate the way that it is. Made with a minimal budget and a surplus of creative freedom, this film has shown definitively that superhero movies do not need to be huge in order to be good and do not need to be all-inclusive in order to be successful. Deadpool is coarse, uncouth, unrefined and unapologetic. It is exactly the movie that it wants to be and is a great pleasure to watch for any viewer not put off by its dark, gimmicky humour or its comically extreme use of violence. My only big issue with the movie is that I found it to be more humourous than I found it to be thrilling. Still, the humour is more than enough to make this an enjoyable movie as it takes just as much pleasure in laughing at itself as it does in laughing at the dozens of other superhero movies that have taken over Hollywood. At the very least, it is certainly a step up from X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

★★★★

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

Director: Burr Steers

Writer: Burr Steers


The film’s gimmick is a simple one. It’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice… with zombies. Such a bizarre, outwardly and clearly comical idea requires a clash in tones in order to work. On the one hand the film needs to capture the spirit of Austen’s tale of love, marriage and manners through its setting, characters, plot and use of language. On the other there needs to be a clear satirical element at play where the zombies can be employed for comic effect. It is often the case however that the film instead tries to amplify the action and gore to provide its audience with thrills and tension. While this isn’t necessarily a bad way to go about making this film, the clash does not end up working. Steers seems unsure about how far he ought to take the comedy, action and romance and ends up botching the balance between all three. It is a film that jumps erratically between parody and thriller and I found that the more seriously it tried to take itself, the more my interest waned.

In 19th century England the country has been overrun by zombies and so the practice of combatting them has been ingrained into the culture. Mr. Bennett (Charles Dance) has therefore seen to it that his five daughters have all been trained in the arts of civility, manners and zombie slaying. The Bennett sisters, Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady), must face the pressures of marriage and scandal whilst also dispatching of the living dead. While Jane finds an ideal suitor in the form of the dashing Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth is uninterested in the very idea of marriage. Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), an equally adept zombie slayer, is also opposed to the idea of marriage but finds himself reluctantly smitten with Elizabeth upon witnessing her performance in battle. As Elizabeth and Darcy confront their feelings towards each other they discover that England might be in greater danger than they feared.

For me the most enjoyable parts of the film were the more comedic bits. I liked the idea of how marriage proposals and costume balls were still considered important in a world ravaged by apocalypse, I liked how the Bennett sisters would prepare for such occasions by concealing knives in their stockings and garters and I liked how over the top such characters as Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh were. There are however too many instances where the film, in spite of its absurd premise, tries to be taken seriously. Instead of satirising Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, it tries to convey a genuine romantic bond between them. Instead of utilising the zombies for laughs, it tries to make them intimidating and the combat scenes exciting. A more skilful and clever method might have enabled this approach to work, but it instead comes across as weak. The attempts at creating tension rely more on jump scares than on atmosphere, the combat scenes are shot nonsensically and the character interactions lack substance.

This film is absolutely packed with strong actors who deliver far more than the material warranted. Lily James in particular brings incredible energy to the role of Elizabeth and, between this film, Cinderella, Downton Abbey and War and Peace, looks set to be the new ‘it girl’ of costume dramas. Her performance shows a better blend of comedy and drama than most of her co-stars. Riley, for instance, has made a stronger attempt to play his character for laughs, emphasising Darcy’s stiffness and dourness. Simply put his performance works for the funny parts of the film but not the dramatic parts. The funniest performance by far is provided by Matt Smith as the hapless Parson Collins. The rest of the cast members do what they can but can only bring so much to their roles without a clear idea of the tone or direction required.

I would have liked to simply sit back and enjoy a fun comedy about zombies in Victorian England bringing death and destruction to a world of class, etiquette and romance. Unfortunately when a film such as this tries to take itself seriously, I must in turn take it seriously as a response. As a romance this film is flat in spite of the strong performance provided by James. As a thriller it is messy and unexciting. As a comedy it kind of works, but only in brief intervals. It seems to me that Steers didn’t know how to approach this material, perhaps because he didn’t know which audience to aim for. Those watching the film for the zombies are going to expect blood, gore and violence in spades. Those looking for a satirical take on Austen will be more interested in the humour and social mores. The failure to execute a balance between the two will likely leave both parties unsatisfied. This film will have its fans I’m sure, but it won’t find an audience or a following.

★★

Triple 9

Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Matt Cook


Whenever I watch a film, the single most fundamental thing I require before I can regard it as a success is for the film to give me something that I can take away. Personally I don’t buy into the theory that film is a means of escaping reality. Instead I believe that film is a means of understanding reality. Even if the film in question is simply mindless entertainment, the very fact that I’m watching and enjoying it means that I need some mindless entertainment in my life. Therefore I need the film to actually give me something, whether it be entertainment, insight or emotion, that I can take with me into the real world. If I don’t feel like I’m actually getting anything from the film, then what’s the point of watching it? This is where Triple 9 let me down. Because I never felt attached to any of these characters, I found myself wholly indifferent to their fates. When it was all said and done then, I found the entire experience to be ultimately pointless.

After completing a major bank heist, a group of criminals are blackmailed by an incarcerated Russian mobster’s wife, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), to carry out another job. This crew includes career criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), computer whiz Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and also two corrupt cops called Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The crew decides to organise a plan that involves a Triple 9, which means sending out a distress call for a downed officer as a means of distracting the major police units. Marcus suggests using his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) as the victim, a cop who has recently started to notice something off about his partner and has started to ask too many questions. Things get complicated even further when Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), a veteran detective, starts investigating the original heist.

While writing the above summary I was painstakingly reminded of how little I cared about the plot. Had I been unable to consult IMDb for information I would not have remembered half of the film’s plot points or characters. The only part of the story I can even remember with any real clarity was its wildly unsatisfying ending. Most of what came before in the build-up to that climax simply didn’t register with me. The film was so dense and hasty in its storytelling that I never found the time or the space to actually get drawn into what was happening. Characters were never introduced or established, they just appeared and would then disappear just as quickly. Right from the start the film drops us straight into the action without allowing us time to actually get a grip on what’s happening and allowing ourselves to get invested. It was a bit like taking a random book, abridging the first three or four chapters into half a dozen pages and then expecting the reader to make sense of whatever remains.

Keeping up with a haphazard story becomes even more problematic when you’re unable develop an attachment to any of the characters. The film provides little help in this regard by ensuring we learn as little as possible about any of them. Of the characters actually taking part in the heist, the only one who is revealed to have any sort of motivation is Michael, whose son is effectively being held hostage by Irina. Even then the film barely devotes any time towards defining or demonstrating their relationship. In truth the only reason I’m even able to remember any of these characters is by virtue of the actors playing them. I don’t remember the Welch brothers due to their arcs within the story, I remember them because they happen to be played by Darryl Dixon and Jesse Pinkman. Apart from one terrific cameo by Michael Kenneth Williams (seriously, I would much rather watch a movie about his character than any other in this film), I cannot recall a single character that made this film worth watching.

There are some technically good things about this movie. The cast is made up of some very strong actors, the cinematography is fairly decent and there are some well-executed action scenes. Despite all that however, I’m giving this movie a one-star rating because it failed to do the single most important thing that a film needs to do. It failed to leave any sort of an impact on me. As soon as the film was over I felt nothing about what had transpired over the past two hours and had forgotten most of what happened by the time I got home. I don’t even dislike the film; even a negative reaction would still be a reaction. I feel nothing for this film. This film took two hours of my life and left me with nothing to show for it. Triple 9 may not be a terrible movie but, for me at least, it is worthless to the point that the distinction hardly even matters.

Trumbo

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Jay Roach

Writer: John McNamara


In the long, colourful history of Hollywood, the story of the Hollywood Ten marks one of its unhappier periods. In the early days of the Cold War when insecurity and paranoia grew from the fear of the Soviet Union, leading figures in American law and politics (most infamously Senator McCarthy) sought to prevent their communist ideology from taking hold of the American public. The result was a witch-hunt that propagated fear, corrupted institutions and ruined lives. It is remembered today as a dark episode of American history that demonstrates what happens when irrational panic and warped patriotism are allowed to permit the abuse of democracy. Dalton Trumbo, as one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted for his political activism, is hailed as a man who stood up to the oppression of the Blacklist and is often credited with defeating it. Trumbo is a film that sets out to celebrate the man’s legacy by giving his story the Hollywood treatment. (On a sidenote I first learned about this subject because of Herbert J. Biberman who was also one of the Hollywood Ten. He went on to direct a movie called Salt of the Earth, a film about socialism and feminism that is well worth a watch).

Upon the conclusion of the Second World War Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood. However his radical politics gets him into trouble when the McCarthyist hunt for Communist sympathisers turns its head towards the entertainment industry. Persecuted by such figures as the influential columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), Trumbo and his friends, including fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), are made to testify before the House Committee of Un-American Activities where they are subsequently found in contempt and blacklisted. Exiled and disgraced, Trumbo seeks to find a different means by which he can provide for his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his children, including his socially active daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning). His solution is to anonymously write B-movie screenplays for the low-budget King Brothers Productions led by Frank King (John Goodman). It is also during this period that Trumbo secretly writes the screenplays for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which would go on to win Academy Awards, as well as Spartacus, the movie that effectively ended the Hollywood Blacklist.

The big problem with this movie, as is often the case with other ‘based-on-a-true-story’ movies of this type is that it takes a simplistic approach towards its subject matter. In order to convey what an injustice the Hollywood Blacklist was, the film determinedly portrays its perpetrators as decadent villains and its victims as venerable heroes. While the Blacklist was indeed an injustice, the approach this film takes felt too one-dimensional. There is a scene that stuck out where J. Parnell Thomas, the judge who had Trumbo convicted, is himself found guilty of tax evasion and ends up serving time in the same prison. Upon meeting each other during their incarceration Thomas remarks on the irony of them both ending up in the same place to which Trumbo defiantly counters, “Except that you committed a crime and I didn’t”. The movie was so superficial yet morally superior in its portrayal of these events that this scene felt cornier to me than heroic. I felt like the complexity and significance of this truly fascinating figure and his story was somewhat lost by the film’s desire to overcompensate for the wrongs that were committed. In a way Trumbo suffers from a similar problem that I found with fellow Oscar nominee The Danish Girl, which is that its depiction of the story is too safe and lacks power and weight because of it.

As much as I like Cranston as an actor, I must say that I thought his depiction of Dalton Trumbo came across as something of a caricature. This doesn’t exactly mean that I think he gave a bad performance, I just thought it was a little thin. Trumbo never really felt like a character to me, but instead felt more like Cranston trying to play a character. It is for sure an entertainingly eccentric performance but it lacks the nuance that I know Cranston can bring. In truth most of the characters in this film are thinly written, meaning that many of the performances provided only work on a surfaced level. Mirren for instance delivers a delectable performance as the malicious columnist who has set out to ruin Trumbo and his allies, but it is a performance completely lacking in substance. Consequently she comes across as more of a cartoon villain than she does a portrayal of a real-life figure. In fact most of the famous names portrayed in this movie, including Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, feel more like soulless simulations than they do characters.

The film is simplistic, distortive and hollow but it still has its merits. It is by all means an entertaining and even a compelling film, even if it does lack the weight that a more challenging and introspective approach to the story would have given it. Cranston certainly provides a solid leading performance as the idealistic Trumbo and is backed by a formidable supporting cast who all deliver stronger performances than the material warranted. The film is sketchy and historically selective in its approach to the story but still depicts it in an appealing way to those looking for a simple and straightforward movie about a real-life hero overcoming and defeating a movement of tyranny and persecution. The story of the Hollywood Blacklist is an important one that deserves a smarter and worthier film but Trumbo is agreeable enough, if otherwise undistinguished.

★★★