SPOTLIGHT (2015)

November 12, 2015

spotlight Greetings again from the darkness. Faith. A word that easily could have been the title of this gripping and heart-wrenching film. Faith can be defined as trust and belief. Faith can also be defined as religion and ideology. Few things are more devastating than broken faith … the core of this “based on actual events” story of The Boston Globe’s exposure of rampant child molestation by dozens of Catholic priests, and the systematic cover-up by “The Church”.

It’s challenging to name a movie that is as well-made as this one, while also being as difficult to watch. We know the story … we even know how it snow-balled globally … but the raw emotions of disgust and sheer anger permeate much of our being as we watch it unfold on screen. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) and it’s worthy of favorable comparison to other investigative newspaper films like The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007), and even the granddaddy of them all … All The President’s Men (1976).

The opening scene takes place in a 1976 Boston police station. A priest has been accused of molesting a child. Within a couple of minutes we witness the empty promises, the intimidation, and the cover up. So much is conveyed in this brief opener, not the least of which comes courtesy of the ambivalence of the veteran cop as he shrugs it off as ‘just another day’ in front of an idealistic rookie cop. This is accompanied by Howard Shore’s spot-on score, with the best parts featuring only a piano and bass.

Flash forward to 2001 as we meet the investigative journalist team called “Spotlight”. It’s led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They report to Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery), whose father was the editor of The Washington Post during the Woodward/Bernstein/Watergate era. New to The Globe is managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Unlike the others, Mr. Baron is neither a Boston local nor a Catholic. In fact, we catch him reading Dan Shaughnessy’s book “The Curse of the Bambino”, just so he can get a better feel for the community and its people.

What is most fascinating about the movie is that it focuses on the investigative aspects – just how diligent the reporters were in putting the story together – and how fluid the process was … the story led them, not vice versa. There was no media agenda to “get” the church. Instead, the reporters experienced natural shock as each piece of the puzzle was discovered. One of their key sources was a priest-turned-psychologist (voiced by Richard Jenkins) who helped them put scope to the numbers. Another was Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the leader of a victim’s group, who had tried before to provide documentation to the press. Saviano is the perfect example of how someone so passionate about a cause can be viewed with such skepticism … right up to the point when they are proven correct. Three attorneys add perspective to the cover-up. Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) made a career of settling cases (and silencing victims) for the church. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is the polar opposite – he fights vigorously to get the victims heard, while Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) is caught in the middle – settling cases for the church and struggling with his conscience. Other interesting characters include Paul Guilfoyle as Pete Conley, a smooth-talking power-broker for the church, and Len Cariou as Cardinal Law – the man at the top who eventually apologized and was rewarded with a high-ranking position at The Vatican.

The film is so well crafted and acted that it features more than a few “best scenes”. Sacha has a brief encounter with a former priest on his front door stoop. The priest freely admits to molesting kids and his rationalization will certainly deliver chills to most any viewer. Since this is Boston, it makes perfect sense for the reporters to be so distracted by the story, that it supersedes the Red Sox game they are attending at Fenway Park. Being that the investigation lasted well into 2001, it’s quite informative to watch a news agency shift directions for the September 11 tragedy, and along with the nation, put all else on hold. Finally, there is a point in the movie where we as viewers have just about had our fill of extreme emotions – we either need to hit something or throw up – and reporter Rezendes comes through with exactly what is needed: an emotional outburst and release of exasperation rivaling anything previously seen on screen. It’s a wonderful moment for Ruffalo as an actor, and a peak moment for viewers.

The story hit the front page of The Boston Globe in January 2002. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its superlative investigative journalism. The report vindicated so many who had been taken advantage of, and exposed the colossal arrogance of the church. The innocence of a child vs the power of God. The story broke the faith that so many once held, and started a global (as evidenced by the closing credits) reckoning and awakening that was desperately needed. The film offers a line of dialogue, “It takes a village to raise a kid … or abuse one.” In other words, it took the often silent actions of so many to allow this despicably evil horror to continue. In a tribute to the newspaper profession, it took a small group of dedicated reporters to pull back a curtain that should never again be shut. Let’s have faith in that.

watch the trailer:

 


SOUTHPAW (2015)

July 26, 2015

southpaw Greetings again from the darkness. Is it possible to have a boxing movie without a crusty old trainer? Or a cute kid?  Or a stubborn macho lead who makes poor personal choices?  It doesn’t seem to matter much as this latest from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) checks off most of the expected cliché’s, and still slides easily into the canon of boxing movies that now covers nine decades.

This one packs a satisfactory punch both inside the ring and out. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope (the name courtesy of first time screenwriter Kurt Sutter, known for “Sons of Anarchy”). Mr. Hope follows the expected arc: 1. On top of the World! 2. A nasty crash landing  3. Redemption and comeback. However, just because we are familiar with the trail, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the hike.

Gyllenhaal continues his impressive string of performances that include End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler. In the latter, he transformed his body by losing 40 pounds. This time, he packs on the muscle to become convincing as a boxer. The recent trend of actors getting fat, skinny, ripped or ugly to attract awards attention is nothing new to Gyllenhaal, who has made a career of melding into his roles.

The supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife. The two share a background as orphans in Hell’s Kitchen and have a strong relationship with each other and their young daughter played by Oona Laurence. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Hope’s long-time manager who telegraphs his true colors much too early (and no, this doesn’t refer to the recent news involving Mr. Jackson). Naomie Harris is a bit underutilized as the social worker, but the film is at its best once Forest Whitaker enters as Hope’s last hope (sorry). Mr. Whitaker always elevates a film with his presence, and his character here would have provided a boost with even more screen time.

A few topics are touched upon, though none very deeply. The father-daughter story line was pretty effective, but the anger management issue could have been explored more effectively since it was so crucial to the story and Hope’s personality.

Eminem provides some new music for the film, and it should be noted that this was the final score composed by the great James Horner, who only recently passed away. Sure the film “borrows” from Rocky and Raging Bull and many other boxing classics, but at least it doesn’t go full “Champ” on us.

watch the trailer:

 


ALOHA (2015)

May 30, 2015

aloha Greetings again from the darkness. Since I can usually find something of interest, it’s rare that I feel cheated after watching a movie. Of course, feeling disappointed happens more often, but feeling cheated is something altogether different and, unfortunately writer/director Cameron Crowe’s latest is the perfect reminder of that difference.

Three outstanding lead actors (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams), a terrific and deep supporting cast, and a beautiful filming location of Hawaii mean that the fault lies with Mr. Crowe’s script and direction. The film plays like the broad strokes of a screenplay idea, rather than a finished product. It’s as if we are watching filmed rehearsals as a group of writers scramble to connect the story dots … still trying to determine if this is a drama or comedy.

It seems the film was cast with a full-out comedy in mind, but then somewhere along the line, a narrative shift occurred with the hope of making a statement on the privatization of the military and space exploration. There is also an undercurrent of the mistreatment of native Hawaiians, as we are teased with cultural myths, legends and the distrust of the military. Trying to balance these topics with a more traditional romantic-comedy-three-way involving the main characters, results in a disjointed viewing experience that provides only a few chuckles, and a half-baked story of redemption.

The gradual connection of Cooper and Stone (cast as a Navy Fighter Pilot) offers some initial verbal sparring that had potential for comedy gold, but inevitably spun off down a bunny trail of Hawaiian lore or the magic found in the sky. The re-connection of Cooper’s and McAdams’ characters seemed to have continuity holes that might have been left on the editing room floor.  John Krasinski plays McAdams’ husband, and his non-verbal exchanges are the highlight of the film, though the later subtitled version seems lifted from that drawing board straight comedy mentioned earlier.

Bill Murray is cast as the duplicitous billionaire at the core of Cooper’s mission and chance at redemption, though mostly he just acts like Bill Murray with little explanation for his motives. Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin and Bill Camp have their moments, but much more should have been devoted to McAdams’ kids played by Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Danelle Rose Russell.

Cameron Crowe seems to have a driving need to examine interpersonal relationships and what causes some to work, while others falter. His film classics Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous are impressive, but also many years in the past. The last fifteen years have produced Crowe projects that teeter between optimism and outright sap. On the bright side, he always has a knack for music, and on that front, he comes through again … “Factory Girl” is blended with traditional Hawaiian songs and even Dylan and The Who. It’s because of this, that you won’t know for sure if your toe-tapping is due to the music or that gut feeling of being cheated.

watch the trailer:

 


A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

July 26, 2014

a most wanted man Greetings again from the darkness. If you aren’t an avid reader of John le Carre’ spy novels, perhaps you’ve seen movie versions such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener, or The Russia House. If not, how about director Anton Corbijn’s previous film The Amercian (2010 with George Clooney)? The more you’ve read and seen these, the more you are prepared for this latest.

Mr. le Carre’ was actually part of MI5 and MI6 (British Intelligence) and uses his experiencefrom so many years ago to provide the type of post 9/11 anti-terrorism spy thriller that doesn’t focus on explosions and gun play, but rather the subtleties of communication when very smart people go up against other very smart people who may or may not share their goals. Secrets and misdirection abound. Traps are set, and sly maneuverings are pre-planned.

As if all that weren’t enough, how about yet another mesmerizing performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman? He is a master at the top of his craft here. Sure, maybe the German accent is a bit distracting at first, but it was necessary because movie audiences needed a constant reminder that he is not playing an American! I cannot explain how this chain-smoking, mumbling schlub can so dominate a scene and disappear into a character, but Hoffman most certainly does both.

In addition to a very cool script, excellent support work comes from Grigor Dobrygin as Issa, the central figure in Hoffman’s character’s work, Willem Dafoe as a somewhat shady banker, as well as Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi, and Rainer Bock. The only miscast is Rachel McAdams as rich girl turned terrorist sympathizer.

Parts of the score were excellent – the droning, ominous piano notes set the right mood. The composer was Herbert Gronemeyer, a German rock star (you’d never know from the score). This is a delicious, challenging look at international spies and how one never knows where they fall on the food chain … minnow, barracuda, shark.

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman was such an impressive talent, and after this, there are only a couple of projects remaining where you can see his final work: God’s Project (from Sundance Film Festival) and the last of “The Hunger Games” series.  At some point, I will do a retrospective of his career, but not until his final works have been released.

watch the trailer:

 


TO THE WONDER (2013)

May 3, 2013

to the wonder1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Terrence Malick makes films that typically fall into the “love it or hate it” genre. He has a very loyal group of fans (of which I am one) who appreciate the unique mental and emotional ride that his projects provide. To say that his films are not accessible to mainstream movie-goers is understandable. His objective is to challenge you to access your own beliefs and thoughts, rather connect with the characters in his movies … they are simply the tools he uses.

Less than two years ago, I was struggling to put thoughts into words after watching Malick’s The Tree of Life. Now, in record time for him, he releases another film that is even more impressionistic … actually abstract is not too strong a description. It could fairly be called a companion piece to The Tree of Life. The usual to the wonder2Malick elements are present – nature, uncomfortable relationships, minimal dialogue, breathtaking photography, and powerful music. Where The Tree of Life focused on Creation and Family, To The Wonder takes on Love and Faith.

Water imagery is a frequent key as we see the personal relationship mimic the changing of the seasons. Neil (Ben Affleck), an American visiting Paris, meets and falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a free-spirited local filled with light and energy. Their love affair moves to the stunning Mont Saint-Michel before settling in the drab plains of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

to the wonder4 It’s not surprising that the relationship suffers as the newness wears thin. The interesting part is how Malick presents it. We mostly witness bits and pieces … he shows us moments, not events. We easily see that Neil’s aloofness and sullen moods don’t jibe with Marina’s effervescence. When she returns to Paris, Neil easily falls in with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. When she later accuses him of making what they had “nothing”, we all understand what she means … and why.

While Neil is proving what a lost soul he is, we also meet Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He has lost the light of his faith and is in full crisis mode, even as he attempts to console and guide Marina. There is no secret that much of this film is autobiographical and that Malick is working through wounds he still carries these many years later. As a movie-goer, there is little to be gained from Alleck’s disconnected character or from Kurylenko dancing in the to the wonder3rain. The real prize is awakening the thoughts and feelings many of us probably buried over the years to hide emotional pain. Malick seems to be saying that it’s OK to acknowledge your foundation, regardless of your ability to deal with these feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

If you prefer not to dig so deep emotionally, this is a beautiful film to look at – thanks to Director of Photograpy Emmanuel Lubezki (a frequent Malick collaborator), and listen to – a blended soundtrack with many notable pieces from various composers. While this will be remembered as Roger Ebert’s final movie review (he liked it very much), it will likely have very little appeal to the average movie watcher – and I’m confident that Terrence Malick is fine with that.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjVDnwGsAF4


SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

December 17, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Normally if a sequel shows up a mere two years after the original, we would have good reason for low expectations (ie, The Hangover). However, director Guy Ritchie is back and just as importantly, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Adding a few twists to the successful template provided by the original, the team delivers one that is sure to keep fans happy.

The reason so many Sir Arthur Conan Doyle loyalists dismissed the first film is that the frenetic pace and towering action sequences seem to go against what made the original stories so great. So what does Mr. Ritchie do? He goes BIGGER and FASTER! There are three extended action sequences that are mind-boggling to watch. They work because the plot is so elementary, my dear. Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is out to cause a war from which he can personally profit. His plan involves guns, bombs and assassinations. Only our heroes can possibly stop him.

 Much of the odd-ball bromance from the first movie has been toned down here, and we get not only the return of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and Watson’s new wife (Kelly Reilly), but also the introduction of a third female character – a gypsy fortune teller, Madame Simza (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace). Of course, McAdams character doesn’t last long, Reilly gets tossed from a moving train, and Rapace is given a few lines and a couple of sprinting scenes. There may be more women, but this is still a man’s world.

 The vision for this franchise is an updated version that encourages discovery of Holmes by a new generation. And while Downey is excellent, it’s difficult not to notice the similarities to Captain Jack Sparrow. Also, Professor Moriarty is very much a Bond-type villain. None of that matters too much as the rapid-fire dialogue between Holmes and Watson, and the crackling chemistry between Downey and Law, make this a fun time at a huge holiday movie. An added plus this time is a brilliantly written and executed chess match between Moriarty and Holmes. That scene fed my need for the more brainiac Holmes that I so adore.

It seems odd that the release date for this one is so close to that of the new Mission:Impossible, but they both deliver what the fans want and hopefully find their audience. Even if you aren’t a fan, the fabulous sets and various world filming locations will keep you interested, even as you dodge giant explosions.

note: this is the first English-speaking role for Noomi Rapace

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: while watching the first one, you thought to yourself “too bad there aren’t more explosions and fight scenes” OR you enjoy the test-pilot speed at which Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr so excel

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the traditional, methodical pace of the Doyle books OR watching a wife get thrown out of a moving train might motivate you to action

watch the trailer:


MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

June 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not so many years ago, Woody Allen was thought of (along with Martin Scorcese) as the quintessential New York City filmmaker. He understood that and even poked fun at himself in his most popular film Annie Hall. At age 75, Mr. Allen remains an incredibly prolific filmmaker cranking out an original script and film every year. With his recent work, he has ventured outside of NYC and into England, Spain and now France. Clearly these new locales have re-ignited his creativity.

The script for Midnight in Paris is some of his best writing in years, and he explores our (and his) love of nostalgia without sacrificing the customary relationship struggles. While I hold steadfast to my rule of providing no spoilers, a quick glance at the character names gives you all the clues you need to put the basic idea in place.

 Owen Wilson plays Gil, a financially successful Hollywood hack screenwriter who longs to be a serious novelist in the vein of his literary heroes from 1920’s Paris. Gil goes on vacation to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Of course the parents don’t like Gil and it doesn’t take long (maybe one scene) for us to figure out that Gil and Inez are misfits as a couple.

In an attempt to escape the disrespect from Inez and the yammering of her know-it-all friend played by Michael Sheen, Gil goes wandering the nighttime streets of Paris. What happens next is either science-fiction or the culmination of Gil’s dreams. The bell tolls midnight and Gil is whisked away via a classic Peugeot to the world of literary giants he so worships.

As a viewer, half the fun in this one is staying alert to pick up the clues to the references: Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Juan Belmonte, Alice B Toklas, Djuna Barnes, TS Eliot, Matisse, Leo Stein, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Degas, Cole Porter and Picasso. Kathy Bates spikes the film with her lively turn as Gertrude Stein. Corey Stoll makes a ferociously direct Ernest Hemingway. Adrien Brody offers up a slightly off-center Salvador Dali – good for a laugh.  Marion Cotillard brings elegance and beauty to her role of the ultimate art groupie.  Of course, suspension of reality must occur if we are to buy off on her character choosing Gil (Wilson) over the bombastic Hemingway and fiery Picasso!

 This movie plays kind of like an all-star game. A chance to see all the names and players that you have heard about … all under one roof. For film lovers, there is a great little exchange between Owen Wilson’s character and Luis Bunuel. Woody has created a 90 minute tribute to all of us (like Gil) who have yearned to work with and live among the artistic giants. I would love to see Mr. Allen’s notes as he put this idea together. We can only imagine what didn’t make the film! Despite all the fun of inside jokes, the romantic idea of nostalgia and wishing for a better time is discussed and analyzed. Mr. Allen tells us that EVERYONE, no matter their era, has a romantic vision of some previous time which they believe would better suit their style and creative force. The story is balanced by having Gil’s novel based in a nostalgia store, and he ends up meeting an intriguing young lady (Lea Seydoux) at a Paris store that sells old records and books.

 Owen Wilson in the lead role is probably the only mistake Mr. Allen made.  Though his puppy dog excitement and innocence is played full tilt in the classic world he discovers, he just can’t hold up his end in scenes with Cotillard or Bates.  Despite this, I found the ideas and excitement of the setting to outweigh the distraction of Wilson.

As always, Mr. Allen has beautiful music accompanying his words and scenes. This time we are also treated to some breathtaking images of Paris, the Seine, and wonderful works of art (Rodin, Picasso, etc). Of course casting Carla Bruni, wife to the President of France (Nicolas Sarkozy) might have entitled him to film in Paris settings we don’t often see in movies. One gets the impression that this one was quite a bit of fun for Woody to assemble. If you enjoy art or literary history, you too will find this to be one jolly easter egg hunt!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would enjoy a dreamlike trip to the artistic wonderland of Paris in the 20’s OR you thrive on discovering the hidden gems in Woody Allen films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you still call them “freedom fries” OR you and your therapist are still working to overcome your anger at Owen Wilson for letting Marley die