Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Janis: Little Girl Blue, Creed, Trumbo, Brooklyn, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2

              A Holiday Feast of À La Carte Morsels (except for the 
              last one, best just nibbled on when you’re already stuffed)
                                            Reviews by Ken Burke

 You may have noticed that I didn’t post anything during Thanksgiving week (Oh, faithful readers, you did notice didn’t you?  If not, I may have to revoke your Secret Darkness Decoder Rings.) when I gave myself a little vacation culminating in the annual November family feast (with apologies to both the Norman Rockwell family and my own in-laws—including some wonderful new ones I met for the first time this holiday—for the “dope”y illustration on your left, but with my at-times-sick-humor I just couldn’t resist it; however, if you'd prefer to see the real Rockwell image maybe it'll appear later in this posting).  Now that I’ve properly digested (and spent my penance time on the treadmill) I’ll try to catch up with what I’ve seen at the cinemas lately, attempting to treat each entry with a more-reduced-word-count than usual for me (As if that ever works!) in order to deal with several of them without breaking your computer; thus, I'll use my standard-3-part-review-structure this time only with the first film so as to more concisely push on through to the essentials with the others.  I’ll explore these in rough chronological order of release so that you can skip over the most recent ones in case you haven’t seen them yet, all of which I recommend highly except for the current Hunger Games conclusion which I think will only appeal to diehard fans of the series.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                               Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg)
This documentary about the life and musical career of 1960s rock star Janis Joplin draws heavily on letters she wrote to her family, along with interviews with a wide range of people who worked with, were involved with, or otherwise cared about her; when you combine all that with footage of some of her most notable performances you’ve got a most effective tribute.
What Happens 
Although I do hope that you take my Spoiler Alert (above) seriously, just because none of these reviews will hold back any of the you-shouldn’t-know-it-until-you-see-it-info that most critics abstain from revealing 
(as their timely-analyses of new movies usually come out on opening weekends whereas mine normally are posted a week or more after debut dates, so I’m really writing for those who’ve already seen the film in question or are using my review in lieu of even attending a screening), 
you probably won’t be burdened by my spoilers concerning the new Janis Joplin documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, because there’s really nothing in it factually that you couldn’t easily find by skimming her biography; besides, while 1,000 words may be somewhat equivalent to a picture (although if that’s just 1 frame of film then you need 148,320 words to present this doc [24 frames per second x 60 seconds x103 minutes of running time, while I’m at about "only" 2,100 words for this review]), there’s no way words could adequately equate to the pictures you’d see in Janis … so if you're near where this fabulous film opens this weekend (including my San Francisco area for any of you likewise close by, from my worldwide-readership [no joke; I can cite Google tracking statistics if you want]) I highly encourage you to seek it out, although most likely only in small, independent theaters, with future showings to come on PBS’s American Masters series in early 2016.  However, in case you’d like to have Janis’ biographic details (also found in this film) more solidly in your mind before seeing or reading more about Berg’s current work*, briefly they are: born January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur, TX (a shipping/refinery city on the Gulf of Mexico, very close to the Louisiana border); graduated high school, 1960; attended the University of Texas at Austin, 1962 (gained some good performance experience there but, like in Port Arthur, ostracized for being a “freak”; some asshole-frat-jocks got her voted “Ugliest Man on Campus”); moved to San Francisco, 1963; back to Port Arthur, 1965 (already strung out on drugs, tried to go straight for awhile); back to San Francisco, joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, 1966; Monterey Pop Festival, 1967 (live performance and Monterey Pop doc [D.A. Pennebaker, 1968] make her an international celebrity); formed Kozmic Blues Band, performed at Woodstock, 1969; formed Full Tilt Boogie Band and records her best album, Pearl, 1970; died of heroin overdose at LA’s Landmark Motor Hotel (a notorious drug pusher hangout), October 4, 1970.

* If you need some further background on director Berg, you might want to read our review of her previous masterful documentary, West of Memphis (2012), where she presents compelling evidence of how 3 guys are either fully guilty (as first believed) or fully innocent (as later argued) of murder.

So What? Every time I remind myself of those bio notes about Janis I can’t help but think of how my own life parallels hers—minus a few minor things for me such as outstanding musical ability, worldwide fame, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1995), acknowledgement with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2005), and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2013). Nevertheless, I was also raised on the Texas Gulf Coast, in Galveston (with its own ship port plus smelly refineries right across the ship channel in Texas City; it’s only about 100 miles to Port Arthur); I also attended UT Austin (1966-1970 for my undergrad years; while there, I was aware of Threadgill’s gas station/bar/music club on North Lamar Blvd. but never went because while it’s the location where Janis first really developed her crowd-pleasing-stage-presence she was long gone by the time I got there, although I did perform a bit myself in various places around town thanks to the benefit of knowing musicians more talented than me); I also moved to San Francisco (OK, San Jose, then Oakland, now Hayward as I’ve never been able to afford SF housing) but just a bit later than Janis (OK again, it was 1984, about 20 years after her permanent move but it took me a long time to finally find a job opportunity in the area).  However, despite my much-less-illustrious-treading of similar ground to Joplin I’ve been in awe of her talent ever since first seeing Monterey Pop and did get to watch her perform once when she returned to Austin in July 1970 to contribute to a birthday celebration for her old friend and mentor, Kenneth Threadgill (although he was born in September, but that just fit the whole casual attitude of the event; it was a laid-back-affair out in the countryside where she wasn’t an announced performer but flew in anyway from Hawaii, cancelling her own show to be at our event).  Who could have known that by early autumn of that year she’d be gone forever, except for the mementos left behind that are packed into Berg’s film, including many photos, grainy family home movies, excerpts from letters she wrote to family and friends, footage of some of her performances, and a huge helping of her music (I don’t know if a soundtrack CD is in the works but you can go here to access her Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits full album, 2 hrs. worth of 26 songs).

 In case you’re not familiar with her recording of “Little Girl Blue” (an old Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart 1935 tune from the Broadway musical Jumbo; since then, covered by many vocalists), it’s the last one she sings in this film, with its lyrics about “those raindrops … falling down, honey, all around you … Baby I know just how you feel” being extremely relevant to the depression that haunted so much of Joplin’s life, caused either by the frequent social rejection in her early years or the fear of it somehow happening again, even when she was a superstar of the rock/blues scene effectively channeling her many influences including Odetta, Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday, Big Momma Thornton, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding (with such Black-oriented-musical-interests another excuse for ostracization in her racist hometown—another parallel with Galveston, although unlike in Port Arthur there were no protests nor hostile incidents that I remember brought on by the segregation-status-quo of the times; my high school even had a mild beginning of integration during my 1965-’66 senior year with no overt trouble that I was aware of).  Through readings from Joplin’s personal letters (done, as with all of Janis …’s narration, by Chan Marshall, a singer-songwriter better known as Cat Power) plus interviews with her younger siblings—Laura and Michael—along with many musicians who worked with her or held her in awe, friends, and lovers (including TV-personality Dick Cavett who was clearly in the former group, maybe also in the latter [he claims to have a foggy memory]) we get a consistent picture of a superbly-talented-but-emotionally-damaged-woman constantly in need of on-and-off-stage-love, aided by great quantities of various injectable-or-ingestible-drugs, alcohol (preferably Southern Comfort but how she could stand the taste of that overly-sweet-muck I’ll never know), and her ever-present-cigarettes, even though she kept trying—unsuccessfully—to break her dependence on these crutches, especially heroin as her use of it pushed many of her close friends away when she couldn’t kick the habit (although one of them, Peggy Caserta, kept helping her relapse, even as she claimed she was trying to get clean herself).

 Janis … gives us the impression that her most devastating loss of a companion—definitely a lover (which Caserta was also at times, apparently)—was David Neihaus, whom she met in Brazil during one of her attempts at drying out, but her inability to kick heroin drove him away too; as the film’s drawing to a close we learn that he’d sent her a telegram the night she died, found at the motel’s front desk the next morning, leaving the impression that if she’d known of his continuing interest in her she might not have OD’ed.  (Although other accounts say that the heroin she had was too strong so, given that no one’s really promoting a suicide explanation about her demise, she’d have probably used it that night and died anyway no matter what she hoped the future might hold; those other accounts also reveal that at the time of her death she was engaged to 21-year-old UC Berkeley student/cocaine dealer Seth Morgan although he was staying at her Larkspur home [relatively near Berkeley] as he was also opposed to her heroin habit, but he was seemingly having affairs so she may well have been depressed about him—as I recall [but couldn’t take notes because I saw Janis … at a press screening where my tiny flashlight is not acceptable], none of this is in Berg’s doc, despite its otherwise-wealth-of-detail, possibly so as to not distract from the dramatic Neihaus story.)  Certainly you can’t fully compress a complex life like this one to a not-even-2-hr.-documentary, so I imply no fault to Berg for anything she may have had to leave out due to imposed-running-time-restrictions or lack-of-rights-clearance because there’s so much there already, including excerpts from those famous performances, footage of the recording session of “Summertime” (from the 1968 Cheap Thrills album), all of those interviews, and the private side of Janis as revealed in the many letters where she’s essentially apologizing to her family for failing to live up to the kind of life they’d hoped for her.  Obviously, Janis: Little Girl Blue will appeal to fans of “Pearl” (Joplin’s nickname), but I think there’s plenty for anyone to appreciate here, with insights into this wonderful-talent-far-too-soon-gone at age 27 (just like Amy Winehouse, as has been pointed out in many reviews, linking this new doc to Amy [Asif Kapadia], released last summer) and examples of her commanding presence on stage (even if her powerful voice was never what would be considered traditionally melodic)—one that I’ve only found emulated by the stunning Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes band (see/hear for yourself in "Hold On" [from the 2012 Boys & Girls album]).

Bottom Line Final Comments In as few words as I can muster: Janis: Little Girl Bluefind it, see it somehow! Then, to properly wrap up Janis ... 
with its own strong Musical Metaphor, I leave myself no choice but what astounded me (and the Mamas and Papas’ Cass Elliott sitting in the audience but captured for an on-screen-insert in Monterey Pop) about the intense vocal hurricane that was Janis Joplin, from Pennebaker’s documentary her version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” at com/watch?v=Bld_-7gzJ-o, a performance that defines the concept and promise of “live music" (this rendition, done on June 18, 1967, running 5:45, is shorter than the first one [8:13] done the previous day; that set wasn’t filmed for some reason so Big Brother and the Holding Company did it again for posterity—you can find an audio recording of the 1st performance on the 1995 compilation Joplin album, 18 Essential Songs).  If all this Janis-love leaves you wanting more, though, here are a couple of suggestions: the official Joplin Website at and the link to a play about her life, A Night with Janis Joplin (which I saw a production of in San Jose, CA in 2013 before it opened on Broadway [Lyceum Theatre, October 10, 2013-February 9, 2014], starring Mary Bridget Davies), that will be touring mostly in the eastern half of the U.S. February-April 2016, although opening in Toronto Feb. 9-21.  There’s also a much older doc simply called Janis (Howard Alk, 1974), which I’ve seen long ago but may be a bit hard to find (unless you want to buy a VHS from Amazon); like the new one, this film contains footage of Joplin attending her 10th-high-school-reunion, an uncomfortable situation where the irony of her previous rejection by these people is hard for us to watch and for her to endure, not at all what she anticipated.  Related is The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979) where Bette Midler plays a fictional version of Joplin in the story of another tragic demise (maybe you’ve heard the title song [from the soundtrack album], with its final message of uplift; the movie really touched me years ago [song still does], don’t know if it would now but I think it might still hold up).
                                                 Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Picking up a few years after where the Rocky series left off, we meet Donnie, the son of Apollo Creed, trying to establish a successful boxing career of his own but convinced that he needs the help of Rocky Balboa to do it; conversely, Rocky’s not interested at first but finally decides to help the kid, which soon leads to an earned-but-unexpected-shot at the World Light Heavyweight Championship.
 With Fruitvale Station (2013; review in our July 16, 2013 posting) director Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan offered a searingly-impactful-account of the grim, supposedly-accidental killing of unarmed, young-Black-male Oscar Grant III in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) White cop, Johannes Mehserle; Coogler and Jordan now make it a 1-2-punch with Creed, their revival of the Rocky franchise (movies which have taken in about $1.3 billion worldwide up through Rocky Balboa [Sylvester Stallone, 2006]) begun in 1976 (written by, starring Stallone [this 1st one helmed by John G. Avildsen], winner of Oscar’s Best Picture for that year, also Best Director and Best Editing).  This time, though, the focus is on the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Stallone) initial-foe-then-close-friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, shown in brief flashback fight scenes), a tough kid named Adonis Johnson (his mother’s surname) who’s in and out of foster homes but also Juvenile Hall because of his quick temper.  Coming as a healer in 1998, Apollo’s widow, Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad), adopts the young boy allowing him to grow into a good life in 2015 with a successful financial-institutions-career looming, but he puts it aside in favor of his clandestine-life as a boxer (15-0 in Tijuana club matches).  Mom has no support for that given that her husband died in the ring, going up against a genetically-enhanced-Soviet-monster, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), which forced Rocky to avenge his new trainer’s death (after the demise of original trainer, Mickey Goldmill [Burgess Meredith]), a bout that left Balboa with brain injuries which ended his intended-in-ring-career.  Adonis—“Donnie”—is determined to see if he can effectively follow in his father’s footsteps so he’s off to Philadelphia to find Balboa; however, Rocky’s now an old widower removed from his former career, running Adrian’s Restaurant with regular trips to the cemetery to visit the grave of his wife buried beside her brother, Paulie Pennino (played respectively in the older movies by Talia Shire and Burt Young: they don’t appear in flashbacks here), so he’s not interested in Donnie’s offer as he’s spent a lifetime rising above his original “bum” status to become not only the “contenda” that likewise-bum Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) wanted to be in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954—another Best Picture Oscar winner; you know I can’t resist the famous cab ride scene with Terry and brother Charlie [Rod Steiger]) but also a well-respected champion.

 Rocky comes around, though (or else we’d have a very short excuse for a feature-length-movie), agreeing to train Donnie with many old-school-methods (including chasing chickens and running through the city’s streets, but there are no scenes of pounding frozen cow carcasses or running up the steep steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), then getting him a fight which raises public awareness because of media stories that connect the son to Apollo (despite “Hollywood Donnie” Johnson’s attempts to downplay that, both because he wants to establish his own career without celebrity-dispensations and because he doesn’t want to be a washout disgracing the family name—Apollo in this movie is often referred to as the greatest ever, despite respect for Rocky [and the unmentioned-existences of others such as Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, etc.], but Balboa does admit that Apollo was the winner of their private 3rd fight that just begins at the fade-out of Rocky III [Stallone, 1982]), soon leading to an offer for a title shot against World Light Heavyweight Champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) of Liverpool, a guy who needs an opponent for several reasons:  he’s already beaten just about every legitimate contender; he messed up his match with next-scheduled-foe Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward; by the way, he and Bellew are actual boxers) by breaking Wheeler’s jaw during a weigh-in-ceremony-confrontation; he’s soon facing jail time so he wants another victory before going away.  Rocky doesn’t think Donnie’s ready yet but ultimately agrees, although Donnie has to compromise as well because the promoter insists on the Creed name for marketing purposes.  Soon they arrive in Liverpool for the fight (giving Conlan a “home court” advantage as thousands of locals cheer him on), accompanied by Donnie’s new girlfriend, aspiring singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson)—an interesting case herself as her career faces a bigger challenge than Donnie’s because she’s going deaf—who’d seemingly abandoned young Creed after an argument (brought on by Donnie’s distress over Rocky’s just-revealed-diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which Rocky refused chemotherapy; however, the guys patched up their problems by both accepting what the other insisted upon—Rocky doing the chemo, Donnie giving maximum effort to training for the bout).  Mama Creed's supportive as well, sending her son some new ring trunks, with “Creed” on the front waistband, “Johnson” on the back.  

 Donnie, of course, proves to be a tougher opponent than Conlan anticipated so they go the full 12 rounds (Apollo and Balboa went 15 in the original Rocky), each avoiding a knockout either through being saved by the bell at the end of a round (Creed) or barely beating the 10-count (Conlan), with the champ retaining his title on a split decision by the 3 judges (just as Apollo did in that first fight with the "Italian Stallion"), which is enough to satisfy Donnie’s team (including Mary Anne, watching at home).  Much like the original Rocky movies, Creed easily sets itself up for a sequel where Conlan would relinquish the title allowing Adonis to win some sort of new-championship-tournament (here are some other speculations along those lines).

 Before we anticipate too much about the future of what was once the Rocky franchise and is now becoming the Creed one (note that Balboa’s name was featured in all 6 of those movie titles with no need for further chapter extensions:  A New Hope, Mockingjay, etc., so it’s clear this series now belongs to Adonis whether Rocky remains or not), we need to note the conclusion of the existing story where Donnie encourages Rocky to walk to the top of that long museum staircase, which he painfully does so that they can look out upon the City of Brotherly Love in personal triumph, even if there are no championship belts on either of their waists (although, unlike wrestlers, boxers don’t seem to wear their hardware anyway; they just have entourage members wave the symbolic objects around for crowd approval).  Coogler as well has acquitted himself in marvelous fashion with this movie, taking command of the story arc with no added (or credited) help from Stallone (Coogler’s also the co-screenwriter, along with Aaron Covington), plus displaying a strong visual sense with scenes that follow the full 3-minute-duration of a boxing round with no cuts in the camera flow so that we experience the instantaneous-strategy that each boxer must calculate, responding to his opponent’s moves, just as we’re made to feel the physical battering to their heads and bodies when bone-shaking-blows hit home.  Coogler’s also adept at quick cuts, either to intensify the in-ring-action as the match methodically moves through actual time on the clock (sometimes dramatically emphasized with impactful slow-motion-filming) but likely feels to the fighters as if it never stops, even during those between-round-rests when the trainers are spewing advice even as blood is seeping from various wounds (further, he handles time-compression-montages well, as with the intercut shots of Rocky in the hospital enduring his chemotherapy while Donnie trains in the stairwells or the quick-lifetime-review that Donnie has while prone on the canvas, resulting in his last-second-recovery from what we fear is a bitter-knockout-loss).  If Creed continues with sequels, the team of Coogler and Jordan will be crucial to its continued success (this one’s rapidly selling tickets so I feel safe in saying there’ll be more to come, with or without Stallone, whose understated performance here is being touted as Best Supporting Actor material).

 The only thing that might hold Creed follow-ups back from extensive life into the future for Donnie and Bianca could be increasing public outcries about pro sporting situations that inherently put the athletes’ lives at risk, always a concern with boxing (as vigorously voiced by Mary Anne Creed—and to some degree, Bianca—in this movie, although, like Adrian Balboa in the earlier ones, their fears are noticeably softened when the loved one gets a chance to reign as champion), soon to be even more debated about football with the impending release of Concussion (Peter Landesman), a true story of an honest forensic pathologist trying to hold the NFL accountable for sanctioned mayhem on the gridiron.  For now, though, the box-office-success (especially in Philly but in general due to nostalgia for cherished franchises) makes the future look bright for Creed and its probable successors, so my only remaining concern is whether to follow the critical consensus (Rotten Tomatoes 93% positive reviews, Metacritic 82%; more details below in the links to this movie) or hold this movie more accountable for its blatant parallels (ripoffs?) with Rocky (including the potential trainer [Mickey] initially rejecting the boxer [Rocky]; the situation of a champion [Apollo] giving an unranked newcomer a shot at a prestigious title [a Bicentennial celebration of America as “the land of opportunity”]; the love interest finding it hard to stand by her man despite caring about him, etc.), especially the no-title-win-but-personal-conquest-conclusion; however, even though there are other 1976 Best Picture nominees that I prefer to Rocky (primarily Network [Sidney Lumet], although I’d have been satisfied with Taxi Driver [Martin Scorsese] or All the President’s Men [Alan J. Pakula] winning the award—1976 was a great cinematic year, including Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face and Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties), I do admit that it’s a highly entertaining “triumph of the underdog” tale that I’d give 4 stars to (with the others noted just above as sure-fire-5’s) so in recognition of Creed’s equal success in that department I’ll go with 4 stars for “Rocky 7” and the (blatantly obvious) Musical Metaphor of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” Rocky’s original theme (which makes a stealth appearance in Creed as we enter that crucial 12th round) at https://www. (but, if this 2:48 version isn’t enough for you to fell your inner "eye of the tiger," then here’s an extended one that lasts just over an hour—you know, about 15 rounds worth).
                                                     Trumbo (Jay Roach)
Spanning the years 1947-1960 we follow the career of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (one of the famous Hollywood Ten) as his leftist positions and refusal to cooperate with a anti-Communist U.S. government lead him first to jail, then to a blacklisted non-career; using the tactics of others taking credits for his scripts or him writing under an assumed name, he fights back against sanctioned paranoia.
 In recent postings I’ve admitted that my personal bias about the subjects presented could well have interfered with my judgment about the success of the films involved.  (All of which I gave 4 stars or higher—yes, I actually went all the way up to 4½ on one of them, Spotlight  [Tom McCarthy]—as a result of issues they stirred up in me: Spotlight, the Catholic Church [which I was raised in], because of its abhorrent acts of child molestation by priests and the ensuing-worldwide-coverup of such crimes; Truth [James Vanderbilt], because of its focus on [and my disgust toward] former-President George W. Bush’s military career, because I’m easily capable of believing Dan Rather and Mary Mapes had their story right about Bush being AWOL from required National Guard duty, despite the controversy over some of their evidence; Steve Jobs [Danny Boyle], an essay on human relationships more so than a “just the facts, ma’am”-biography, because it gave me reason to expound at length on Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] and the songs of Bob Dylan, topics which always put me into the subjective realm of active approval—for that matter, I’m not exactly neutral about Janis: Little Girl Blue, as noted in the review above).  With those confessions fresh in the record, I’ve got to come clean about Trumbo too because any well-made-exposé of the absurd 1940s-‘50s witchhunts for Communists endangering the ongoing stability of the U.S.A. (actually, as the final graphics in Trumbo remind us, the overzealous House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] stayed in business until 1975 [maybe their work declined because of public disgust with the “dirty tricks” and resulting criminal-coverups of the Nixon administration]) would get a positive reaction from left-winger-me, although Trumbo does much more than just ridicule this terrible era* (which, sadly, seems destined for a contemporary-repeat with all of the current concern about not allowing Muslim refugees—especially Syrians—to legally immigrate to the U.S. because of concerns about welcoming terrorists into our midst; there’s no way that the producers and distributors of Trumbo could have known the context that would surround release of their film, but I do hope that open-minded-viewers will benefit from its bitter lessons about overreactions to our supposed “enemies”).

*Before you go any further, though, if you need more background on this topic, here’s info about the “notorious” Hollywood Ten, which included screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the subject of this film (this link also can lead to other links about our Cold War with the Soviet Union during this time and the truly notorious HUAC, along with other topics that give useful context on this troubled chapter in our national history).

 OK, back to our film, which is already in progress: through opening graphics we get a quick history of how, despite being allies with us during WW II, the Soviet Union came to be regarded as our mortal enemy, with many in our government consumed with anti-Commie-paranoia, searching out traitors in the government, the military, and the highly-influential entertainment industry, especially the movies (admittedly, the “Second World” empire of the U.S.S.R. and China were a real threat to our way of life, but the suspicions of whom the traitors might be within our society extended into absurdity).  Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined the American Communist Party in 1943 (not illegal at the time), but our story begins in 1947 as his already-solid-Hollywood-career takes a significant turn with a huge contract proudly offered by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), making Dalton the highest-paid-screenwriter in Hollywood (thereby the world)—you know, another significant event of 1947 was my birth but somehow the Trumbo filmmakers failed to mention that, despite my significant contributions to the content of their story (which they could easily have acquired from the records of Sacred Heart grammar school in Galveston—assuming that the government has declassified them by now).  However, Trumbo’s regular meetings with his left-wing-friends (especially other screenwriters and noted actor Edward G. Robinson [Michael Stuhlbarg—who keeps popping up in other successful films I’ve seen recently: Steve Jobs {noted above} and Pawn Sacrifice {Edward Zwick}]), indulging in such nefarious activities as supporting striking labor unions within the studios, mark him as suspect or worse by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an actual group headed by John Wayne (David James Elliot)—“Congress has the right to go after anyone they see as a threat”—fiercely publicized by Red-hating-but-very-influential-columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren—fabulous as always in her role).

 Trumbo and others (especially fellow-writer Arlen Hird [Louis C.K.], a fictional character who represents others like Trumbo, labeled as the Hollywood Ten when they were jailed for a year in 1950 for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify, then blacklisted from working after release [previous contracts were annulled]; Roach worked with the actual Trumbo children in depicting their father but maybe he didn’t have needed rights to specifically depict any of the other Ten) had their careers frozen by this cruel process of condoned-intimidation but Dalton finds a way around it—write under another name, which he (and the many others he recruited) do for schlock-master Frank King (John Goodman) but he’s also responsible for some notable scripts.  Trumbo’s big break comes when he’s privately asked by Kirk Douglas (Dan O’Gorman) to do a rewrite of the Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) screenplay, a barely-kept-secret which brings director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) calling for Dalton to do the book-to-screenplay-adaptation of Exodus, a situation that leads Trumbo to get both productions to actually put his name on screen.  Such a bold move practically gives Hopper a heart attack (as well as inspiring picketing of Spartacus by anti-Communist-protesters, still convinced that anyone who’d ever been blacklisted never deserved to be relieved of that stigma, but when President Kennedy crosses the American Legion picket line to see the film there wasn’t much wind left in their “better dead than Red” sails).  Trumbo died in 1976, after finally getting the Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (now called Original Screenplay) he deserved for The Brave One (Irving Rapper, 1956) but wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich, then after his death his other (Original Screenplay) Oscar, for Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953; co-written by John Dighton), was credited to him rather than to Ian McLellan Hunter, who took the award as a ruse to support his friend Trumbo.

 While I’m quite happy to see this well-scripted (wouldn’t it be ironic if Trumbo’s nominated—or, even better, wins—the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay [by John McNamara, from Bruce Cook’s biography, Dalton Trumbo {M.W. Books, 1977}]), humorous (hard not to be when you’re dealing with a guy who did some of his best work lounging in his bathtub), extremely well-acted (especially by Cranston, a strong possibility for Oscar’s Best Actor nominations, but with excellent supporting work all around, especially Mirren [could be a contender for Best Supporting Actress], Louis C.K., Goodman, O’Gorman, and Berkel, along with Elle Fanning as eldest Trumbo daughter, Nikola, and Diane Lane as steadfast wife Cleo Fincher Trumbo), cleverly visualized (much of the footage seems to be from old black-and-white-newsreels, some of which transition into color as a longer scene comes alive), very detail-intensive on its depicted era (even within the standard running time of a Hollywood feature), politically-inquisitive film—even if were based on purely fictional circumstances about the 1950s—it has added value for me in reminding us, based on an actual historical foul legacy that’s come to be seen as a national shame, of the critical challenges that occur when First Amendment rights (especially speech and assembly in this case) butt up against even legitimate concerns about national security (brace yourself for even-more-heated-barrages against acceptance of immigrants and for more active U.S. military action in the Middle East in the upcoming Presidential debates).  Yet, Trumbo, with his ever-present cigarettes and booze, is no paragon of virtue either, constantly presenting himself as a martyr for artistic freedom even as his friends aren’t able to become nearly as clandestinely-successful as he is while his family (especially Nikola) suffers his emotionally-distancing-attitudes and work-deadlines-met-at-all-costs-priorities in order to keep his secret career prospering.  All in all, it’s a very engaging, important film that would make a great companion piece with Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) where hallowed-journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) finally brings a halt to the anti-Communists-witchhunts ("What is these 'Reds' anyway?" asks displaced-Okie Tom Joad [Henry Fonda] way back in The Grapes of Wrath [John Ford, 1940], never getting an answer) conducted by Blacklist-era-Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s "Red scare" era (McCarthy presented only with actual archival footage).

 For a Musical Metaphor to accompany Trumbo I’ve chosen a marvelously-satirical-ditty called “The John Birch Society” (from 1961 originally) by the Chad Mitchell Trio at Jm3rMd_U (a 1968 live performance but, ironically, without Mitchell who’d been replaced by that time by John Denver; the lyrics also have been slightly updated in their topical references, so if you’d like to appreciate both versions at once you might go here on a 2nd Web browser [copy the URL from this new link, paste it on the other browser that you also keep open, then come back here and read along as you listen to the performance at the first link above; how’s that for a multimedia experience?]) that quite effectively skewers the very time of patriotic-paranoia that Dalton Trumbo was so righteously campaigning against, even when it caused personal grief for him and everyone who tried to side with his cause.
                                           Brooklyn (John Crowley)
In 1951 a young Irish woman is given the opportunity to escape poverty at home when arrangements are made for her to move to Brooklyn, get a regular job, and start a new life (including an Italian-American boyfriend), but then a family tragedy requires her to visit home again where she’s given the dilemma of staying to marry a most-eligible-bachelor or returning to her new life in the U.S.A.
 The praise couldn’t be much higher for Brooklyn (Rotten Tomatoes 99% [an almost-unheard-of-feat for them], Metacritic 88% [notably high here also]; more details in the links far below attached to this film), with Saoirse Ronan (playing the lead female, Eilis Lacey) being consistently noted as a strong contender for Oscar’s Best Actress nominations (well-deserved if she gets it but there’s turning out to be a lot of worthy competition so we’ll just have to see how this all plays out in the upcoming months).   The story is a simple but heartfelt one about a young woman in a small Irish town in 1951, living with her mother (Jane Brennan)—a stern, quiet parent—and older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), a full-time bookkeeper who mainly supports the family as Eilis is able to get only part-time Sunday work at a shop run by the imperious Mrs. Kelly (Brid Brennan), the embodiment of “do-unto-your-neighbor-with-GUILT-so-that-she’ll-always-be-subservient-to-you” (not exactly one of the commandments of the New Testament, but one that certainly found its way into both the Catholic upbringing and the Southern mother that characterized my childhood).  Rose desperately wants a better life for Eilis so she makes arrangements with Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), now living in Brooklyn, to send her sister overseas where a job at an upscale department store, a room in a boarding house for other Irish women (run by another demanding-head-hen-of-the-roost, Mrs. Kehoe [Julie Walters]), and a challenging urban environment await this shy country girl favored by the landlady for her demure presence but tittered about by her extroverted boarding-house-mates; pushed by her “the-customer-is-interested-in-you-being-interesting”-boss, Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré), to be more outgoing; missed greatly by her family across the sea (matched by Eilis’ tears whenever a letter from home arrives).

 As the seasons roll on into 1952, though, Eilis’ fortunes improve when she begins taking accounting classes at Brooklyn College as a start toward following her sister’s career, then she starts being courted by an eager young Italian-American plumber, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), whom she soon falls in love with, overcoming her own hesitations to make an emotional investment in this new world that she’s just barely allowing herself to become accustomed to.  Happiness isn’t long to endure, though, because word comes that Rose has suddenly dropped dead of a mysterious illness that she told no one about.  Eilis makes plans for another shipboard crossing of the Atlantic to bring some comfort to Mom, but Tony’s concerned that she’ll be lured back into her old life (especially when the guilt trip about caring for her aging mother fully sets in) so he convinces her to marry him in a secret (from anyone who knows them) City Hall ceremony prior to her departure.  Once back in Ireland, Eilis is encouraged by both Mom and childhood friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) to take an interest in eligible bachelor Jim Farrell (Domhnail Gleeson)—with none of them knowing about Tony, even as Eilis is having her own doubts about her quick decision back in Brooklyn, not even opening his frequent letters let alone replying to them. To complicate her dilemma further, Rose’s former employer needs someone to cover her duties so Eilis is recruited (having learned enough after 2 semesters at night school, I guess), performing well enough in just a short time that she’s easily going to be offered the full-time-job if she chooses to take it.  With all of these home-based-heartstrings exerting a mighty pull on her emotions, we can tell that Eilis is in a most difficult
situation, as it’s clear that Jim’s becoming an actual option for her, despite Eilis’ situational complications plus the inevitable devastation for truly-devoted-Tony if she should even contemplate the Catholic heresy of divorce (probably acceptable for dissolving a “mere” civil marriage but with the added burden of what would be considered the sin of sex-out-of-wedlock from that union).  Suddenly, though, Eilis’ decision is made for her when she’s oddly called to meet with Mrs. Kelly, who makes it clear that second-hand-sources have revealed that her former employee is now Mrs. Fiorello, despite Eilis keeping this immense secret from everyone in County Wexford.  Bringing an indignant end to their conversation, Eilis storms off with the seeming-authorial (novel by Colm Tóibin, adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby)-intention of us once again condemning Mrs. Kelly for her manipulative threat of gossip-spreading but with the uncomfortable twist of knowing that Eilis is no saint either, both for lying-by-implying to everyone in her hometown (especially Jim) that she’s still single thereby easily-removed from her Brooklyn excursion and for at least emotionally—if not physically—cheating on her newly-acquired-husband.  Our sympathies are structured to quickly reattach themselves to Eilis, though, as she finally comes clean with Mom, leaves a “Dear Jim” letter under her suitor’s door, then catches the first ship back to Brooklyn to joyfully reunite with too-long-left-behind-Tony (after finally reading all of his loving letters).

 As I think back on Brooklyn and what we experience of a naïve young adult making her first foray into unknown, bewildering territory, then I write above about what I saw in the film, it may come across as overly-sentimental (Eilis’ easy rapport with Tony—and his family, at least after his youngest brother has been scolded for blurting out Irish-based-insults when Eilis first comes to their home; the quick opening-up of her always-restrained-personality once she accepts him as her “fella”; his quick embrace of her when she suddenly reappears [joyfully shifting the meaning of his “home is home” concern about her being reabsorbed into Ireland during the return visit, with his new-found-security that "home" for her is now Brooklyn] despite her weeks away with no contact, not even to tell him that she’s on the way back) as well as ambiguous about the ethics of our protagonist in how she not only hides her marriage from everyone in Ireland but also conveys a serious sense of how she could be swayed to abandon a legal, moral, and caring commitment, tempered by the reality of her youth, her limited experience with much of anything beyond her hometown-cultural-expectations, and the likelihood that guilt is at least part of her indecision about staying in the old country in order to take on the expected family obligation toward her mother.  Yet, in watching what sounds and seems like it could be manipulative melodrama the experience is nothing like that, as we’re gently guided to feel her fear and seasickness during the first ocean voyage; her initial inability to break through her reluctance at engaging with her new American life; her growing, sincere attraction for Tony (as well as his for her, despite their chance meeting at a church social) as she comes to trust their mutual romantic feelings; her honest confusion over whether she’s gone too far, too fast with marriage to this new beau within a mere year of knowing him when she still has so many connections to her previous life; as well as her courage, admitting her emerging identity to the previous people in her world along with the shame she likely felt (but doesn’t directly discuss) about her denial (or, at least, silence) concerning Tony.

 Well, if Brooklyn’s not a sickly-sobfest after all (despite Eilis having lots of reasons for her own frequent sobbing until her story’s sudden happy conclusion), my Musical Metaphor's a bit snide: instead of giving you a traditional Gaelic ballad sung by a clear-voiced-tenor I’ll be the one providing Celtic schmaltz by taking you back to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (lyrics by Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr., music by Ernest Ball, first published in 1912) in this version by a guy well-known in the early 1950s, famous crooner Bing Crosby, at com/watch?v=OFdn5YBrqOg (from his 1939 recording).  And if that’s not enough to make you want to grab another Guinness, I’ll let Bing (himself of Irish heritage on his mother’s side, English on his father’s) do an encore with “Danny Boy” (from his 1945 Merry Christmas album) at NJs (lyrics written in 1910 by Frederic Weatherly, then set by him in 1912 to the music of another song, “Londonderry Air”).  So, my lads and lassies, “May the road rise up to meet you.  May the wind always be at your back.  May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.  And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
                The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 
                (Francis Lawrence)
Here’s the final chapter about a rebellion led by young adults (and their crafty handlers) against a futuristic oppressive central government keeping most of its populace in drudgery while their upper 1% live it up in the Capitol (where they control the capital of the country of Padem); the fall of President Snow is the ultimate goal although Katniss Everdeen and her squad must endure a lot on their journey toward victory.
 While I’m not the only one to be underwhelmed by this long, drawn-out, boring long-awaited finale to the 4-part Hunger Games series, based on just 3 books by Suzanne Collins (I wonder who buys the drinks when she and J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame get together for a rollicking-schmoozefest; Rowling’s take from her creations is estimated to be in the $1 billion range with Collins only at $60 million so maybe J.K. treats or maybe the bartender just throws up his hands, comps the libations, and dreams of what it would be like to conjure up an underage-world-savior)—you can read about others who have concerns about its status as a studio tent pole finale (despite taking in 101 of its global millions during domestic-market-opening-weekend [a designation often used as synonymous with “North America” with no acknowledgement that everything from Tijuana through Panama’s not included in those sales figures], yet that’s the lowest domestic total of all the Hunger Games movies for a launch) along with tepid critical response, but as Brent Lang says in the first Variety link above: “Business usually trumps art and Wall Street isn’t overflowing with cinephiles,” although in this case market shares are dropping at the home Lionsgate studio because this latest debut wasn’t as spectacular as predicted, further complicated by all of the advance-publicity for the return of the Star Wars series in mid-December taking a lot of attention away from the supposed-impact of the Hunger Games conclusion.  If you haven’t yet read the books or seen this movie, I’m not going to fill you in with extensive plot details (you can get that here if you like; I'll vouch for its accuracy)—believe me, there are plenty of them—because it all simply comes down to pouty, angry Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) deciding that she doesn’t want to be just the long-awaited-incarnation of the savior-Mockingjay who encourages action from the rebel alliance (thereby grabbing plot points from both of the previous Star Wars trilogies, but whoever said success had to be based on originality?) via propaganda videos but instead wants to kill dictatorial-President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) herself in retaliation for his brutal reign in general, the more specific devastation unleashed on her District 12 home, and the really specific harm done to boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

 Peeta’s problem (as we learned before at the end of … Mockingjay—Part 1 
[F. Lawrence, 2014; review in our November 26, 2014 posting—you can also read about the 3-star-worthy first 2 movies, The Hunger Games {Gary Ross, 2012; review in our April 6, 2012 posting} and … Catching Fire {Lawrence, 2013; review in our November 26, 2013 posting}]) is that he was captured by the Capitol forces at the end of movie 2, then brainwashed in #3 to think that his former-love is now the embodiment of evil.  Various therapies are helping him regain his original thoughts but he’s always on the verge of relapse, which makes his inclusion in the strike team sent by rebel President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the Capitol awkward except as it provides ongoing-plot-tension as to whether he’ll snap in a crucial moment.  Generally, that never happens, although there are enough booby-traps, sewer-dwelling-monsters, and shoot-to-kill-government-soldiers (satirically-called “Peacekeepers” in perfect 1984 double-speak) to drag this tale out to its horribly-mind-numbing 2hr. 17 min. running time, with each complication stretched to fill that allotted-length (reminiscent of the unnecessary-prolongation of the relatively-slim-book of The Hobbit into 3 bloated installments [Peter Jackson; reviews in our December 20, 2012; December 17, 2013; December 23, 2014 postings—with those final 2 also falling from 3½ to 3 star range]) to provide obstacles, including Katniss knocked unconscious by bombs at the palace gates (the 2nd time in this movie we’re given to think that she’s dead; the 1st when refugees from District 2 still fighting the rebels seemingly shoot her but we soon find out her uniform is made of some sort of protective-light-armor [much like Batman’s in the Dark Knight movies]); the remaining Panem (the futuristic North America corresponding a bit to the geographic definition of our “domestic” movie market, without having to consider all of those Hispanic “aliens” down south—hey, lighten up!  I’m just trying to prepare for our own “hunger games” under President Trump where 99% of us will finally be gainfully employed building walls along all of our borders while being assured that “the check is in the mail”) loyalists turning against Snow when they think he called for an air strike on their children at those same palace gates (that was Coin’s final trick) so he’s captured to end the war; finally, Katniss convincing Coin to let the moody-archer execute the tyrant in the huge public square instead of Coin’s idea of a final Hunger Games among surviving Capitol kids in retribution for all of the misery caused by Snow and his predecessors.

 All of this comes to a downbeat ending with Katniss’ arrow intentionally flying into Coin instead (cue The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again" [from the 1971 Who’s Next album] with some Hunger Games-evocative added footage or, if you prefer, here’s a considerably shorter version, a 1971 Live Performance [marred a bit,
I admit, with squeezed rather than the original wide anamorphic images]: “Meet the new boss Same as the old boss”), Snow being obliterated by the fiercy-rampaging-mob, Katniss and Peeta reuniting back in the ruins of District 12 (although Katniss’ little sister, Primrose [Willow Shields], died in the final struggle), then skipping ahead a few years to see them with their 2 kids as morbid Mom tells her offspring how she’s still haunted by nightmares of the past so she has to keep reminding herself of good deeds (no, I’m not going to cue up Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things” [from the 1965 Sound of Music soundtrack], but you're welcome to search for it yourself if you like).  So, why am I giving this somber sack of misery even as high as 3 stars, if I found myself so desperately waiting for it to be over?  For one thing, it’s extremely well-produced (as the other Hunger Game episodes have been) so that it’s got effective moments of visual power (especially when our hit squad stumbles into a plaza rigged to drown them in a sudden release of gushing oil—I guess per-barrel-prices haven’t risen that much in the future so it’s still plentiful enough to be used as a physical rather than an economic weapon); further, even though these roles don’t allow for even the level of character development that we find in the now-defined-middle-trilogy of the Star Wars movies (Luke, Leia, Han, etc., as the Rebels take on the Empire) it’s still nice to see such a marvelous collection of talent—
along with Lawrence, Sutherland, and Moore we also have brief-but-welcome-returns from opposition-supporters Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Beetee Lateir (Jeffrey Wright), and the most welcome of all, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman—long may you live in our cinematic archives), along with Capitol-running-dog-to-the-end, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  As well, there are important questions being asked here about what happens in the “fog of war,” including Katniss’ concern that Panem civilians suddenly become seen as “collateral damage” enemies, especially by old-friend/potential-rival-to-Peeta, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).  For such a seemingly-intended-triumphant-story, we really have to reach to find something to celebrate here when it’s all done (although from the summaries I’ve read this filmic adaptation is clearly true to the original Mockingjay novel [2010]), but that can be the occasion of a celebration in itself, so I’ll leave … Mockingjay—Part 2 and this whole cluster of reviews with an appropriate Musical Metaphor, “It’s Over” (a 1964 hit single, which can be found on an album from that year, More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits) at, a live performance from A Black & White Night Live an HBO TV special from 1988 (which can speak both to the sadness of those who want more adventures from Katniss and the joy for those of us who don't "hunger" for anymore of these extended "games").  

 I’ll be back next time with fewer menu choices but more recipe and preparation details in the explorations (although I admit that my original intention of making the 5 reviews above notably shorter than usual ended up mostly with intention-as-unfulfilled-promise [probably another expected aspect of what you regularly read here] so I’m not sure how much more detail any of us really need in these filmic investigations).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
Here’s more information about Janis: Little Girl Blue: (35:25 interview with director Amy Berg)

Here’s more information about Creed: (6:38 interesting video analysis that explores the above trailer in terms of how it relates to the previous collection of Rocky movies although I disagree with the narrator that Adonis is actually the child of Mary Anne Creed; in his defense, it’s clear he’s basing his speculations on just the trailer itself rather than having yet had the chance to see the final movie)

Here’s more information about Trumbo: (10:41 interview with the actual Dalton Trumbo from 1959), (14:55 interview with the actual Dalton Trumbo [1971, based on the context of the interview]), and (4:54 letter from Dalton Trumbo [don’t know the date], read by Richard Dreyfus [in which Trumbo talks of the blacklisting era as having no heroes or villains, just victimization for all involved])

Here’s more information about Brooklyn: (6:08 interview with actor Saoirse Ronan)

Here’s more information about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2: (18:17 interview with actors Josh Hutcherson, Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Natalie Dormer, Sam Chaflin, Jena Malone, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and director Francis Lawrence)

In honor of the endurance shown by those of you
who've read
(or even scanned) this far, here's the
original Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner painting
called Freedom from Want, which was published in the
March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.



  1. I have seen Trumbo, Brooklyn and The Hunger Games and agree with your assessments, although I might reduce the strength of recommendation for the newest Hunger Games.

    In my opinion Trumbo was clearly the best with an excellent production, story and cast. Brooklyn, while not a must see, is another high quality film aimed at adults.

    I did like the original Hunger Games for a variety of reasons, but the latest (and hopefully the last) came close to walk out status, last achieved by the terrible Batman and Robin (1997 with George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell).

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the feedback; yeah, I may have been too generous even at 3 stars for the final episode of The Hunger Games, so I guess Jennifer Lawrence just won me over with her character's charming personality (Not!). As for Trumbo as the best of the bunch, hard to argue with you about that. Ken