Amidst time spent with friends and family and copious amounts of food, I caught three double-features over three successive days during Thanksgiving week. And as the end credits rolled on my sixth screening, I realized that the area debuts collectively formed something really unusual for this particular holiday period: a six-course meal with a complete absence of turkeys.
Of course, in the immortal words of George Orwell, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," and the quality of the movies did significantly vary. Yet it's hard, if not impossible, to be disappointed by a lineup in which the film you like the least is the new Pixar, and you even have a fair degree of fun at an unpromising-looking endeavor titled ...
I suppose it was just a matter of time before filmmakers gave Mary Shelley's most famous literary creation the action-packed-reboot treatment of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes outings, complete with splashy visual effects, tongue-in-cheek references, and a vaguely comical homoeroticism between its central best buds. But director Paul McGuigan's and screenwriter Max Landis' Victor Frankenstein proves not at all terrible, especially considering the chutzpah it takes to re-imagine the Frankenstein saga with the hunchbacked lab assistant Igor cast as the romantic hero. Here, the character is first introduced as a circus freak in Matte-Painting Land - a.k.a. Victorian England - unhappily enduring the abuse of his fellow carnies and pining for a beautiful trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay). Yet one day, impressed by his knowledge of anatomy and perhaps his resemblance to Harry Potter, wannabe re-animator Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) frees Daniel Radcliffe's Igor from his chains and whisks him away to the scientist's London flat. Victor, in the movie's most queasily funny scene, drains the shoulder abscess that causes Igor to hunch, outfits him with a back brace to correct his posture, and before long Igor is the good doctor's well-groomed assistant and devoted friend. Igor can't thank Victor enough. Don't mention it, says Victor. There's just o-o-one little thing I need your help with ... .
You can, of course, guess what happens next. Given the ethos of the current Hollywood reboot, you can also guess how it happens - with a lot of chaotic PG-13 violence, suspiciously well-timed escapes, characters dangling from perilous heights, and "balletic" slow motion, with jokey one-liners frequently thrown in regardless of situational or emotional circumstance. It's all pretty typical and pretty tedious ... or rather, it would be if Radcliffe and McAvoy weren't as strong as they are. In his first half hour or so, Radcliffe, with his gnarled physique and pleading gaze, appears to be auditioning for a national tour of The Elephant Man. But it's an excellent audition, easily the actor's most physically witty screen work yet, and Radcliffe's effortless empathy and sweetness bring welcome light to the darkness. (He's particularly touching in his scenes with Findlay, whose Lorelei appears legitimately moved by Igor's shy allegiance.) As for McAvoy, whose Victor oftentimes turns one-syllable words into three-, he definitely puts the "mad" in "mad scientist," and gives a ferociously theatrical, saliva-spewing portrayal that's at least 10 times more enjoyable than his dully earnest turns in Atonement and the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigbys - all three of them. Even when their film is collapsing upon itself, McAvoy and Radcliffe make Victor Frankenstein an easy sit, and for added treats, we're given the eternally creepy Andrew Scott (suggesting a Moriarty in Sherlock drag), a hellish conglomeration of re-animated animal parts named "Gordon," and just the right amount of Shelley - and of Mel Brooks. The movie's visually cheesy electrical currents put Young Frankenstein in mind, but when Lorelei pronounced Victor's surname as "Franken-steen" and Victor stared in bug-eyed incredulity at her error, I swear that for one glorious moment, James McAvoy actually turned into Gene Wilder.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
We've come to expect Pixar screenings to be preceded by wonderful animated shorts, and the 10-minute entertainment Sanjay's Super Team is indeed lovely. Director Sanjay Patel's autobiographical ode to Hindu culture and childhood imagination concerns a young Indian boy who fantasizes that the gods worshiped by his devout father are crime-fighting superheroes, and it's a colorful, fast-moving, lightly touching tale of generational conflict and connection. So Pixar's short-film track record remains intact. Yet one thing we're not accustomed to is appetizers of this sort proving more satisfying than the main events, and unfortunately, for my money, The Good Dinosaur doesn't hold a candle to Sanjay's Super Team. It also doesn't hold a candle to any of Pixar's 15 previous feature-length films, and I'm including the one that was almost nonstop Larry the Cable Guy.
It's now been several days since I saw the film, so I'm no longer angry at it the way I was on Tuesday night. But while director Peter Sohn's adventure opens on a charming conceit, with the asteroid that purportedly caused dinosaur extinction instead whizzing past our planet and enabling the creatures to survive, The Good Dinosaur is a real letdown, its gorgeously animated vistas of far more interest than the story or characters. This is admittedly a jaded adult's opinion, as the littlest of kids - the movie's obvious demographic - will likely be tickled by its tale of the 'fraidy-cat apatosaur Arlo (successively voiced by Jack McGraw and Raymond Ochoa) who attempts a long, dangerous trek home after a torrential storm separates him from his family. Yet this jaded adult also adores at least three quarters of the Pixar oeuvre without reservation, so I hardly feel like a Grinch for pointing out a few things. Such as the über-bland conception of the movie's many dinosaurs, their lack of visual detail and personality almost shocking for Pixar. (The year of Jurassic World is not the year to boast T. rexes this boring.) And the depressing formula of the Disney studio's millionth "make your mark" and "face your fears" narratives. And Arlo being the millionth Disney animal to suffer the loss of a parent. And the irritation of Arlo's constant whining and shrieking, with even the most minor of frights eliciting screams to shame the Macaulay Culkin of Home Alone. And vocal talents Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, and the inevitable John Ratzenberger being given nothing interesting or funny to say. And the overriding, distracting weirdness of the film's design as a prehistoric Western, suggesting that if that asteroid had indeed missed us, dinosaurs would have evolved into cart-toting, cliché-spouting day players in lackluster John Ford movies. Happily, there's some slapstick amusement in the antics of Arlo's feral-child "pet" Spot (Jack Bright), an orphaned human who looks like a crazed Mowgli and, in one quickly hilarious bit, bites the head off a live beetle twice his size. There are also plenty of arresting images: a cascading waterfall; a scary thunderstorm; the wings of a trio of Pterodactyls poking out of the clouds, subtly suggesting dorsal fins. But those welcome diversions probably aren't enough to make me ever want to re-visit The Good Dinosaur, the first Pixar to leave me feeling a few million years old, too.
So that was Tuesday's double-feature. Wednesday's was a lot better. But I'm thinking that anything - a morning spent in gridlock traffic, a root canal - would be better if it included a screening of director John Crowley's and screenwriter Nick Hornby's Brooklyn, a devastatingly beautiful, thunderously moving tale of a young Irish woman's assimilation into American culture in the early 1950s. Based on the acclaimed novel by Colm Toibin, the film follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) as she leaves her beloved homeland, and her more beloved sister (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan), for the job opportunities of lower-middle-class New York. After her initial trepidation and crippling homesickness, Eilis eventually becomes a confident and contended career woman, and lands an adorable Italian-American beau named Tony (Emory Cohen, suggesting a teddy bear modeled after James Dean). All is positioned for a deserved Happily Ever After until a family tragedy sends Eilis back to Ireland and the familiar comforts she thought she'd outgrown ... and I'd go into further detail if I weren't becoming emotionally overwhelmed just thinking about it all, and specifically about the stunning portrayal and incandescent expressiveness of Saoirse Ronan. Seriously, I wasn't even a half hour into the movie when I realized I could barely look at her without reflexively welling up.
In outline, Brooklyn is deceptively simple - a combined coming-of-age and immigration tale with no contrived plot twists, no forced theatrics, and barring an Irish shopkeeper (Brid Brennan) who's also a grade-A gossip-monger and capital-B Bee-yatch, no antagonists of any real consequence. But there's an accumulated grandeur in this incisive, astoundingly well-designed, unerringly paced period drama, one that comes from many dozens of magnificently calibrated minor moments. Eilis' wistfully rueful exit from a mostly empty Irish dance hall the night before her voyage. Her arrival at Ellis Island, walking from the dreary, crowded customs area into the blinding brightness of the New World. The dinner-table comedy at Eilis' boarding house, where she and four new acquaintances endure/adore the sardonic judgments of their landlady Mrs. Kehoe (an exquisite Julie Walters). The sad, haunted faces of elderly Irish Brooklyn-ites as they listen to a mournful Christmas anthem. Tony's uncontrollably happy relief as the bad news he expected to hear proves to be the best news he's ever heard. The hesitant chivalry of Eilis' Irish suitor (Domhnall Gleeson). And always, always, the phenomenally expressive reactions and readings of Brooklyn's star, who gives as close to a perfect film performance as I've yet seen. It's not just that the prodigiously gifted Ronan holds the screen with such unshowy finesse, or that her comic instincts appear as sharp as her dramatic ones, or that she can turn you into a blubbery wreck with the mere opening of an envelope. (You are officially dared to not cry when, following her arrival in New York, Eilis receives her first letter from home.) It's that somehow, even though the performer wasn't yet 21 at the time of filming, she's able to convince you that she grows from a nervous, awkward teen to a wholly self-possessed (if frequently uncertain) 20-something with only minimal aid from wardrobe and makeup; the changes in bearing, disposition, conviction, and timbre are all Ronan. Brooklyn is a thorough delight. Saoirse Ronan is a miracle.
Speaking of miracles, I followed Brooklyn with another debuting area release, and for the first time since 1979, found myself close to loving a Rocky movie. Of course, technically speaking, Creed is only peripherally a Rocky movie; it's more accurately a showcase for Michael B. Jordan, whose up-and-coming fighter Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa's boxing-ring-nemesis-turned-best-friend Apollo. But Sylvester Stallone is again on hand, in a substantial role, as the Italian Stallion, this time acting as Jordan's very own Burgess Meredith. And I'm thrilled to report that any eye-rolling that may have accompanied news of Stallone's latest refusal to just leave his justly adored character alone already was wholly unwarranted. Not only is Stallone better here - more honest, more instinctual - than he has been since 1976's original Rocky, but that seemingly absurd online rumor that Creed might be the man's ticket to an Oscar proves to be not the least bit absurd. Plenty of actors have enjoyed Academy recognition without delivering anywhere near the pathos, poignancy, and emotionalism of Stallone's finest moments here. Besides, has any Oscar win ever seemed so tailor-made as the one that would allow Sly, at age 69, to ascend the steps to the podium to the victorious accompaniment of "Gonna Fly Now"?
That, however, is a potential discussion for February. What can be discussed at present is how completely, and impressively, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler has overhauled this venerated franchise without excising the elements - including the contrivance and corniness and shamelessness - that have contributed to its mass appeal. Like all Rocky movies, Creed is essentially a hardscrabble fairytale in which the most under of underdogs gets his shot at greatness. But while Stallone's sequels became increasingly ridiculous partly because they were about a proven winner (the Heavyweight Champion of the World, no less!) who kept getting re-cast as a loser, Coogler brings the series back down to Earth. Adonis is a recognizable screw-up: resentful toward a profession that won't give him a fair shake; angry at a father who died before he was born. And no matter the improbable circumstances, Coogler and the wondrously charismatic Jordan keep the proceedings here lifelike and specific; the pair last worked together on 2013's marvelous Fruitvale Station (Coogler's feature-film debut), and, amazingly, their Rocky continuation feels like it exists in a world as real as Fruitvale Station's. This isn't to imply that Creed isn't also a sensational entertainment. I became increasingly, giddily slack-jawed while realizing that Coogler was staging a mid-film bout in one continuous take, the camera dancing right alongside the boxers, and the emotional wallops and "Oh, poor lovable Rock!" gags all land. (So do all of Jordan's gags, his humorous bits including a quick, unexpected Don Corleone impression and an agreeably sorry attempt at rapping in front of a new girlfriend played by the ravishing Tessa Thompson.) Happily, too, Adonis has been given an adversary who's amusingly easy to root against: the Liverpudlian bruiser and reigning champ Ricky Conlan (a fearsome Tony Bellew), who's about to be sent to prison and, you sense, wouldn't necessarily mind if a boxing-ring manslaughter conviction upped his sentence by a few years. But Creed is remarkably effective - more so than any franchise entry since at least Rocky II - principally for the down-and-dirty realness of its execution, and the Philadelphia milieu that's both human-scale and instantly, thrillingly iconic. Who knows if this movie, like Rocky, will inspire six sequels. But based on this one, I'll be happy to follow Adonis at least until he tangles with a Russian brick-shithouse of his own.
My Turkey Day two-fer began with Trumbo, a drama about blacklisted screenwriters during the McCarthy era that I was both eagerly anticipating and kind of really dreading. Not that there should've been cause for dread: I've always been fascinated by this heinous, Commie-phobic period in American history; the cast, led by Bryan Cranston as author Dalton Trumbo, appeared impeccable; director Jay Roach proved terrifically adept at making insider politics cogent and captivating in his HBO movies Recount and Game Change; and, perhaps most crucially, I'm almost always a sucker for movies in which actors impersonate famed Hollywood players of the past. (Even if it didn't boast Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi, I'd gladly watch Tim Burton's Ed Wood just for those two minutes of Vincent D'Onofrio channeling Orson Welles.) But my hesitancy about Roach's latest stemmed from that "almost always," because the previews for this new film also resembled nothing so much as 2012's blithe, cheap-looking, wholly unconvincing bio-pic Hitchcock - Helen Mirren was even in Trumbo's cast! - and I couldn't bear the thought of two long, mannered hours with the Hollywood 10 making me nostalgic for two long, mannered hours with a lacquered Anthony Hopkins.
Well, the movie turns out to be pretty much what I was expecting on all counts - which, all told, is more good than bad. John McNamara's script, based on Bruce Cook's Trumbo biography, duly acknowledges the professional and personal attacks experienced by suspected Communists in the 1940s and '50s, but it doesn't come close to suggesting the emotional toil of the blacklist. Given that the screenplay is chockablock with casual witticisms and Trumbo takes such cheerful delight in fooling Tinseltown suits with his pseudonymous writing credits, being labeled a Red appears to be, at worst, a sizable financial inconvenience. (You'll have to wait until the film's final five minutes to hear any mention of blacklisted individuals who committed suicide.) As for the visuals, Trumbo has that plasticized, under-populated, over-lit brightness familiar from "prestige" TV movies; the film will likely look a lot better on HBO, and certainly would've had a better shot at winning Emmys than it will winning Oscars. Still, it's entertaining, and the story of this ugly chapter in American life would be riveting enough to stand a far lazier presentation. Cranston's growling, self-righteous portrayal, abetted by chain-smoking and constant swigs of booze, may be a stunt, but it's an enjoyable stunt, and there's undeniable fun in watching Trumbo counter insidious studio pressure with bull-in-a-china-shop heedlessness. There are also decent turns by Louis C.K. as a Communist sympathizer and Diane Lane as the requisite fretful yet supportive wife, plus the fabulous pairing of John Goodman and Stephen Root as cheerfully unapologetic producers of grade-Z swill. But the aces up Trumbo's sleeve are the supporting actors who personify Golden Age Hollywood elite. Mirren as loathsome columnist Hedda Hopper, Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Richard Portnow as Louis B. Mayer, Dean O'Gorman (so great) as Kirk Douglas, David James Elliott as John Wayne ... . All of these pros, and numerous others, provide Roach's movie with satiric, inside-baseball gusto, and keep it from ever devolving into bio-pic ennui. Trumbo may be lacking as a drama, but, at its best, it's a super-sized, Hollywood-themed Saturday Night Live episode with crazy-good guest hosts.
As mentioned, Brooklyn turned me into an emotional wreck. On more than one occasion, Stallone - and that damned Bill Conti theme music - got me teary in Creed. And while it never happened to me, it wasn't hard to pinpoint the Good Dinosaur scenes designed to prompt Pixar-ian sobbing. Was there some kind of conspiracy among Hollywood and movie-house schedulers to keep us all verklempt during the long holiday weekend? I certainly expected director Lenny Abrahamson's Room (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene) to have that effect. Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her hugely acclaimed 2010 novel, the movie is narrated by five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, we learn, was born in a cramped shed to a mother (Brie Larson's Joy) abducted seven years prior, when she was 17. Joy hasn't been allowed to leave the shed - which she and her son call "Room" - since then, and Jack has never left it, and the first half of Abrahamson's and Donoghue's film traces their daily rituals as Joy attempts to create consistency and normalcy for her son despite the restrictive, appalling circumstances. The second half (and I can't imagine this would be a spoiler) follows Joy and Jack as they contend with their release from imprisonment - Joy not knowing how to reclaim the life she once had, Jack not knowing that there was another life to be had. It should go without saying that this is an inherently, intensely moving tale, and the performances by Larson and the staggeringly naturalistic Tremblay are powerful. So why did I, a natural-born weeper, stay so implacably dry-eyed at this thing?
Part of the reason, I think, is actually a compliment to Abrahamson and Donoghue, considering how many ways their film could've unwisely veered into the unbearably maudlin, manipulative, or histrionic. Barring a few of Larson's near-breakdowns and one go-for-broke scene in which Joy lashes out against her mother (the subtly heartbreaking Joan Allen), the emotions on display are small-scale and restrained - mercifully so. With its low-key score and lack of compositional strong-arming, the filmmakers don't make the common mistake of having their movie do all your emoting for you. Yet the bigger problem may have been an insurmountable one, in that once the movie was freed from the novel's literary device - where all of our information was presented through the voice and mind of a five-year-old - too many questions are raised that don't have accompanying answers, or even hints of answers. Did no one notice the odd behavior of Joy's suburban captor (Sean Bridgers) over the seven years he kept her in his backyard shed? Not even when he made overnight visits there and brought materials in to soundproof the thing? Aren't the means by which the cops find the shed just a little too convenient? What's the story behind Joy's mother divorcing her dad for a family friend who, we're told, Joy knew from her youth? Is there a story there? (On that subject: Why hire William H. Macy to play the dad if you're just going to give him three confusing minutes on-screen?) Given that nearly the entire second half of the movie takes place in Joy's childhood home, is there some thematic relevance to Joy and Jack merely trading Room for another, house-sized Room? Would any police officers in their right minds ever let a traumatized mother and son re-visit the scene of their years-long detainment? With the novel's interior world now visualized in real-world terms, the plotting no longer holds, and the film's unwillingness to indulge, or even much acknowledge, our curiosity starts to feel like a form of repression. (The movie is a Canadian production, and, for better or worse, it feels like a Canadian production.) Room has been crafted and acted with the utmost care. I just wish I cared more about it.