Trumbo – 8.1

Just as Hollywood-perfect as The Martian, with great acting, fun story and scene-after-scene that brought tears to my eyes – except this story really happened. Bryan Cranston deserves Oscar consideration for his intense portrayal of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a hero presented with just enough flaws to avoid treacle. It’s also fun to see actors playing John Wayne, Hedda Hopper, Edward G. Robinson, Otto Preminger and, best of all, Kirk Douglas. Trumbo’s family – the beautiful Diane Lane and sensitive Elle Fanning – add an emotional counterpoint to the larger story, but it is that larger story – how America was bamboozled by the politics of fear – that makes the film important. In a post-screening interview, director Jay Roach made clear that the parallels of today – the Benghazi hearings, Donald Trump, etc. – were never far from his mind. The days of HUAC and Joseph McCarthy were a terrible time, and we should not forget them.

Sicario – 6.5

I look on this as a mood piece with a riveting score, maybe an homage to the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, with Benicio del Toro in the Javier Bardem role. Or it could be a domestic analogue to Zero Dark Thirty, with torture and extra-legal black ops producing the assassination of the Mexican drug kingpin. Looked at as a realistic plot, however, it made about as much sense as The Martian. There was also the continual question of what Emily Blunt – or more exactly, Emily Blunt’s character – was doing in this movie. I kept wondering what particular skill set she had that qualified her to be chosen for the “interdepartmental team.” When we learned that her job was to stay out of the way and keep quiet, it was even clearer that someone – whether the casting director or the estimable Victor Garber – had grossly miscalculated. Even more puzzling was what her (African-American) sidekick was doing on the team, especially since he had been expressly rejected – “No lawyers!” – at the outset. It was a kick to watch Josh Brolin and del Toro waltz through their tough-guy roles: I chortled with pleasure at their drolleries. But the more I thought about the movie afterward, the more annoyed I became. But what should I expect from a French-Canadian director’s take on an American anti-drug mission in Mexico?

The Martian – 7.8

How can you not root for Matt Damon – our generation’s Jimmy Stewart, as one critic said – as he struggles to survive for years all alone on Mars? And how can you not root for Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis back in Houston. (Jeff Daniels is the resident prig, but how bad can he be?) Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara, hurtling through space, are pretty cool, too. The story is a basic tear-jerker; you pretty much know what is coming (“Shall we risk our lives to rescue our buddy, or shall we continue home to be with our families?” being a typical fork in the plot), but I shed tears of joy all the same. The elephant in the room, of course, is the total improbability of pretty much everything that happens, starting with why the team would abandon its mission for a sandstorm, then running through Damon’s ability to build, repair, innovate, farm, live with himself and survive on potatoes. What, the Rover never breaks down on Martian soil? And he is never without the proper screwdriver? What the movie did get right was the illogical importance society can attach to the saga of a single individual. When the NASA chief asks, which is more important, saving Mark Watney or preserving the Ares program, the point is that people can identify with an individual, not a program. He becomes a metaphor, a symbol, and saving him is what will save the program. I could’ve done without the “where are they now” PS, but that did give me a chance to wipe my face before heading out to the street.

Mississippi Grind – 7.5

A delightful road trip down to New Orleans with Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, portraying, respectively, a natural winner and a born loser. The ending was not exactly what the story set us up for, but I won’t complain about a little fantasy. For all the gritty shots of Iowa, St. Louis and Memphis, this was still just a movie. Mendelsohn, especially, made us believe.

99 Homes – 7

Not a lot of “up” moments (any?) in this tale of unscrupulous real estate dealings in an overextended Florida housing market. Michael Shannon offered a deal with the devil and Andrew Garfield took it. The drama may have exaggerated the reality, but the knowledge that thousands of people lost their homes in the actual crisis made this a somber movie to watch.

Pawn Sacrifice – 5

Maybe if I hadn’t seen the excellent documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World, I would have found something of interest in this recounting of the Fischer-Spassky chess championship. As it is, I found the characters cliches, drama lacking and the whole thing rather pointless.