Friday, November 27, 2015



- This past summer, Pixar put out a genuine masterpiece with the brilliant Inside Out. Only a few months later, they've released THE GOOD DINOSAUR, and unfortunately, lightning doesn't strike twice. THE GOOD DINOSAUR has a lot of the recognizable elements of a Pixar film, but it lacks the sort of polish and effortlessly multi-layered storytelling that elevates a typical Pixar movie above the animated competition. This movie has moments that work well, but it struggles to ever gel into something that is cohesive narratively, thematically, or even visually. This feels like a movie that had a troubled production - it's weird, and not in a good way. This is not one of Pixar's best.

One of my biggest pet peeves in films and TV shows is when a premise is not exploited to its full potential. And THE GOOD DINOSAUR's intriguing set-up is, frustratingly, pretty much a nonstarter. The movie posits as "what-if?" scenario in which the asteroid collision that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs never happened. It imagines a world in which dinosaurs lived on through the birth and evolution of humans. Sort of. In practice, the movie has little to do with that premise - so little, in fact, that this very easily could have just been a movie about dinosaurs living during the time that they actually lived. The premise is basically there so that the film's protagonist - a beta-male apatosaurus named Arlo - can pal around with a feral, dog-like human boy named Spot. But Spot, really, could have been anything - like, say, another dinosaur. The idea of a world in which humans and dinosaurs co-exist is really never explored in any meaningful way in the movie.

So what is THE GOOD DINOSAUR ...? What is it actually about? Good question. The film is an odd mix of other Disney "boy-on-his-own" movies like Bambi/The Lion King/Finding Nemo, classic Westerns, and, well, dinosaurs. Wait, what? Classic Westerns? Yep, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is, sort of, a Western. It takes place in a Western-like desolate environment, features Southern-accented characters (including a T-Rex voiced by Sam Elliott), has a Western-y score, and has a lot of classic Western themes. Except ... the movie doesn't fully commit to being a Western. It sort of goes in and out of Western territory - which is a shame, because the movie's best section is probably its most Western-like one, when Arlo helps a group of ornery T-Rex's (including the one voiced by Sam Elliott) to round up a buffalo herd.

This is representative of what's so frustrating about the movie - it's got moments. But you can practically see the cut-and-paste nature of the film's development process all there up onscreen. Even visually, the film is an odd pastiche of hyper-realistic backdrops and environments paired with extremely cartoon-y character designs. The environs are often gorgeous to look at, but they clash severely with the characters. Still, THE GOOD DINOSAUR pulls off some eye-popping scenes of visual brilliance. It's just messy and inconsistent.

The same can be said for the story and tone. The film tends towards darkness, with an often surprisingly somber tone that seems to linger on sadness and death as opposed to reveling in adventure and fun. And yet, the movie's got some very silly sequences, including an extended psychedelic drug-trip sequence (yes, you read that right) that is positively Dumbo-ish in its trippiness. But overall, there is a jumpiness to the pacing that prevents you from really feeling like you've been following Arlo and Spot on a truly epic quest.

The other gripe here is that the characters are just not that memorable or endearing. Inside Out left us with several instant-icons. THE GOOD DINOSAUR gives us one of the more annoying sidekick characters in a while with Spot, whose bond with Arlo never feels 100% earned, and whose story-arc never quite adds up to anything as profound as the movie seems to want it to. The movie also has a weird habit of giving its most interesting supporting characters extremely limited screentime.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR, as I said, has its moments. And its those vintage Pixar-ian moments (witness the incredibly charming opening that shows baby Arlo and his siblings hatching from their eggs as their parents proudly look on) that make the film's overall unevenness stand out. It's not hard to see how this could have been something special and interesting if given a bit of a creative re-working. As it stands, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is destined to be something of an oddity in the Pixar cannon.

One quick sidenote though: the Pixar short that comes attached with this film, called SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM, is phenomenal - one of the best yet from Pixar. A charming and visually-stunning piece - about a young boy in a religious Hindu household who day-dreams about meeting his superhero idols  - it's a real stunner that was easily my single favorite thing about seeing THE GOOD DINOSAUR at the theater.

My Grade: C+

Thursday, November 26, 2015

CREED Is a Winning Continuation of the Rocky Legacy

 CREED Review:

- Movies like CREED shouldn't really exist. It sounds like fan fiction - something that friends might dream up over a spirited movie discussion. What if the Rocky franchise spun out into a story about the son of Apollo Creed? What if Rocky Balboa assumed the Mickey role? What if the entire Rocky saga came full circle, giving birth to something new and awesome? I mean, this is the kind of stuff that *never* happens in movies. Franchises are supposed to go down in flames thanks to terrible sequels or cash-grab reboots. That's what happens. And yet ... there is CREED. Here is a film that opens up the Rocky franchise for a new generation, yet pays total respect to what's come before. This is a film about legacy, and yet it is, in and of itself, one of the best-ever examples of film-franchise legacy done right. CREED is a great boxing movie, a great character drama, and one hell of a Rocky movie. It's a minor miracle.

I remember hearing about the genesis of CREED a few years back ... the director and star of the buzzy indie drama Fruitvale Station approached Sylvester Stallone with a pitch for a Rocky spin-off about Apollo Creed's son - and, perhaps surprisingly, Stallone said "yes." After seeing the excellent Fruitvale Station, I was instantly excited. Director Ryan Coogler was clearly a real-deal talent behind the camera, and star Michael B. Jordan had all the ingredients to be a huge star. Jordan's performance in Fruitvale was fantastic, and I couldn't wait to see what he'd do in CREED. My expectations were doubly high after the shockingly great Rocky Balboa resuscitated the Rocky franchise several years earlier. That movie reignited my love for all things Rocky, and it's still to this day a huge comfort-food film, a movie with the kind of iconic speeches and adrenaline-pumping montages that will live on forever.

The minor miracle is that CREED is every bit as good as its pedigree suggests, and it not only continues the series momentum of Rocky Balboa, but builds upon it - delivering an absolutely rock-solid film that deserves to be talked about in the same breath as the original (and Oscar-winning) Rocky.

Michael B. Jordan does great work as Donnie Johnson - born Adonis Creed - the product of an affair that the late Apollo had prior to his death. Donnie grew up never having known his father, except by reputation - and he grew up in a rough-and-tumble adoptive care system until Creed's wife Mary Anne finds him and takes him in, raising him as her own. From that point on, Donnie grows up in luxury in LA. He goes to college and works in an office, but he isn't happy or fulfilled. The legacy of Apollo haunts him - and so he travels to Mexico to fight, living a double life. Finally, he quits his job and decides to pursue fighting full time. Donnie goes to Philly and tracks down Rocky Balboa, begging the former champ to train him.

Jordan helps make Donnie into a multifaceted, easy-to-root-for character. He's quick-tempered, but he's also a nice guy. It takes him a while to find some of his dad's confidence and flair. At first, especially, he's quiet - even nervous - trying to prove to himself that he even belongs in the same profession that his dad once dominated. Jordan does a remarkable job of making Donnie into a character that feels grounded and real, but that we can get behind when the big moments come.

And of course, those big moments have added dramatic weight thanks to the large-looming presence of Stallone's iconic Rocky Balboa. This is very much a "passing of the torch" movie, but Rocky's role isn't just to cameo. There is some full-on Rocky-related drama here. This is a Rocky who is now more alone than ever - his wife and friends are mostly gone, and his son lives in Canada and is only sporadically in contact. This is a Rocky who lacks a purpose - who, frankly, isn't sure why he's even still hanging around. Rocky is initially reluctant to take Donnie under his wing, but the arc of the movie (this being a movie about legacy), is one in which Rocky realizes that his fight is not yet over ... even if the fight he now faces can't be fought or won in a ring. Stallone has always done his best acting as Rocky, and he really, really crushes it here. Stallone has always had a way of fully inhabiting Rocky, of slipping into this character in a way that feels so natural that it sometimes blurs the line between reality and fantasy. The problem has just been that, occasionally, the material that Stallone has to work with isn't truly Rocky-worthy. But here, Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington give Rocky some real knockout stuff - and Stallone rises to the occasion. Viewers who have never seen a Rocky movie will still get a lot out of CREED, but fans who have been with the series since the original will get an extra something special out of the way that this film so elegantly and movingly brings Rocky's story into a new phase.

And man, this really does feel like it could be the beginning of something new and awesome. Jordan and Stallone have a great dynamic, and it's one I'd love to see more of. There's also a strong addition to the cast in Tessa Thompson as Bianca, Donnie's love interest - but also a well-drawn character in her own right who has her own battles to fight. All the pieces are in place for CREED to blossom into its own thing and build its own strong cinematic foundation.

Still, the familiar elements of Rocky are there in CREED's DNA. Some of the major story beats - as well as aesthetic touches, like training montages and the iconic Bill Conti score - are there and are used extremely well. But Coogler also makes sure that this is his own spin on an iconic franchise. I recognized certain visual flourishes from his work on Fruitvale Station - and the film's fight scenes in particular feel new and different versus other Rocky movies. Coogler gets the camera in close, weaving it around and even between the fighters - helping to create visceral, brutal-feeling fights that put the viewer right in the middle of the action. Coogler still makes sure to include the big cinematic moments that are a trademark of Rocky fight scenes, but he does it with his own unique visual style. He does a hell of a job - crafting fight scenes that make you wince at the hard-hitting action even as they make you cheer for our hero. And I mean cheer. Like the best of the Rocky films, CREED will make you jump out of your seat and fist-pump. Emotions run high. That said, I'm not sure that CREED has some of the mic-drop, "oh-damn" speeches or emotional highs of Rocky Balboa. In some ways, this is a quieter movie - but then again, we don't yet have as much history with Donnie as we did with Rocky in the character's last outing. I'm willing to give it time. And this film's final scene - a quiet but note-perfect moment - is so great that you can't help but give the film credit for going out in the absolute best way possible - in a way that, unique to CREED, is less about the big win and more about the smaller, quieter victories.

But CREED is a big win. Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone nail it - and in turn they give movie fans the kind of story that is so rare, but so supremely satisfying - a story that keeps going not because it has to, but because new generations can find inspiration and hope from something that inspired them, that made them want to keep the torch burning. CREED preaches the mantra of "One step. One punch. One round." And there is wisdom in that. But what the film also shows us is how those moments, ultimately, add up to a fight, to a win, to a life, and to a legacy. CREED hits hard.

My Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

BONE TOMAHAWK Is the Badass Horror-Western You Never Knew You Needed


- Sometimes, there comes a movie that you never knew you needed, but my god, you can only raise your hands to the movie heavens and thank the lords of film that, somehow, it exists. BONE TOMAHAWK is the badass, Kurt Russell-starring cannibal Western that you didn't know you wanted but now must make an essential part of your 2015 movie-going diet, lest you miss out on a bone-crunching, positively kick-ass, gravitas-infused new cult classic.

What's so great about BONE TOMAHAWK ... well, a lot of things are great about it. But here are two things to start. One is that, if you're like me, and you grew up watching Kurt Russell kick ass in iconic fashion in films like Escape From NY, then holy hell - is it sweet to have The Man back doing what he does best. Even as fellow 80's action stars have continued to saturate our movie screens, Russell has kept largely quiet - emerging only for the occasional throwback role in films like Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, or for small, unworthy-of-an-icon supporting parts as in this summer's Furious 7. Well, here we go, kids. BONE TOMAHAWK has Russell front and center, playing the role a badass Old West sheriff, and sporting a 'stache that could make most grown men cower at the mere sight of it. But all semi-joking aside, Russell is legitimately great in this movie. He plays an affable guy - the kind of sheriff that any town would want - cool and collected in the face of danger, but willing to do anything for the well-being of his citizenry. And if you are the guy to wake the lion, so to speak - watch out. Russell gets some great moments here - some truly iconic lines and some truly memorable scenes of badassery. It's a nice reminder of just how great the dude can be when given a meaty role.

The other big thing about this film is that writer/director S. Craig Zahler doesn't just present it as a grindhouse-esque B-movie. Instead, the first two thirds of the film are essentially a classic Western, in the vein of The Searchers and other such movies. Zahler presents a story that doesn't truly even introduce it's more fantastical elements until late in the game. At first, we've got ourselves a fairly straightforward Western plot - some folks have been kidnapped from the town, and so the Sheriff organizes a search party to go track her down and bring her captors to justice. The searchers include Richard Jenkins as the Sheriff's doddering deputy, Patrick Wilson as an injured cowboy who happens to be the doting husband of one of the women who was taken, and Matthew Fox as a transient intellectual who decides to volunteer for the mission. In any case, much of the film is just classic Western stuff, elevated by this supremely talented cast of leads and the great banter and group dynamic between them. Jenkins in particular is a huge standout - unrecognizable, he absolutely slays as Russell's half-senile right-hand-man. Wilson is also excellent here - bringing the same sort of rugged but unassuming determination he's currently displaying on Fargo to this film. Zahler fills the movie with some stunning Old West panoramic imagery as well. This is a great-looking film.

And that's before the mutant cannibal monsters enter the picture. Without spoiling anything, the horror elements that had been lurking in the background for much of the movie eventually spill over into the foreground, and the tone of the movie shifts somewhat drastically. But it works incredibly well, because the film does such a great job of building up the characters and the stakes prior to the $%&# really hitting the fan. But when it does ... the movie becomes an incredibly entertaining pulp-horror actionfest. Things get brutal and shocking and downright insane. And Russell, Wilson, Fox, and Jenkins each get their big moments to shine. Kudos to Zahler for pulling it off as well as he does. It helps that the creature design for the cannibals is fantastic - they look downright menacing, yet it doesn't feel like *that* much of a stretch for these cave-dwelling creatures to have been lying in wait in some off-the-map corner of the still-uncharted West. 

BONE TOMAHAWK is that rare awesome movie that's a complete original -  I mean, when's the last time there was a horror-western, let alone one that was actually great? My only regret is that I did not see the film theatrically - luckily, though the movie was released only in a select handful of theaters, it came out day-and-date on digital and VOD platforms. Luckily, it can be watched by all with an internet connection. Luckily, movies like this are made at all.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BROOKLYN Is a Guaranteed Charmer


- BROOKLYN is exactly the sort of movie that could be totally off-putting to me if done a certain way. A star-crossed love story about a precocious young woman deciding between two worlds and two suitors? On paper, I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to see that story. But as I've gotten older and (hopefully) wiser, I increasingly realize that any story can be great if done properly and told well. BROOKLYN exemplifies this, as it's so charming, funny, and likable that I can't help but expect that it will win just about anyone over (even the hard-hearted cynics out there). The strong cast is anchored by Saoirse Ronan in the lead role, in a winning performance that should hopefully raise the actresses' star wattage. She kicked ass as a young assassin in Hanna, and charms here as an IRish immigrant finding her way in 1950's New York. If that's not range, I don't know what is.

BROOKYLN follows the journey of Ronan's Eilis as she is sent by her family to America with the hopes of better job opportunities and a fresh start. But coming from a small Irish village where everyone knows everyone, Eilis finds life in the big city to be challenging. Eventually though, loneliness and frustration turns to excitement when Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a salt-of-the-earth Italian kid who frequents Irish dance halls (because he's got a weakness for Irish girls). Eilis and Tony quickly hit it off, and soon thereafter Eilis' overall feelings about New York improve - she becomes adept at city-livin', better able to handle her job working at an upscale clothing store, and more excited about a possible future with Tony. However, Eilis gets thrown a curveball when she's forced to travel back to Ireland in the wake of a family tragedy. She finds comfort and solace in being back in her homeland, and having returned from America, she finds herself now very much in-demand both from local businesses and local men. One in particular, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), takes a liking to Eilis, and she - far from Tony and New York - begins to warm up to him as well. She can see a life for herself back in Ireland - a traditional, cozy life - far from the alien, distant world of Tony and New York City.

Aside from the strength of Ronan's performance as Eilis, the movie really works because the chemistry between her and both Cohen and Gleeson is so strong. With Tony in particular, he and Eilis go through a lot of the typical "falling in love" beats that you've seen many times before - but the interaction between them is so sincere-seeming that you can't help but really root for them. When Jim enters the picture, it's not that he's a bad guy - it's that he is good, and good for Eilis - but he's the safe and easy choice. And what BROOKLYN is really about is taking a chance and venturing outside your comfort zone.

For that reason, BROOKLYN functions as much more than just a charming romance. Anyone who's ever moved far from home or taken a leap in life will relate to Eilis' journey here. This is a story about someone who makes a scary leap, and then has to face a situation where ever single gravitational force in the universe seems to be pulling her back towards a safer, more familiar life than the life she's chosen for herself. But we recognize - even when Eilis can't - that the leap was a positive one, and a necessary one. And for that reason, BROOKLYN delivers a surprisingly powerful story arc, about the resistance we all face when daring to make that big leap of faith, and about overcoming that resistance so that we can end up where we truly want to be.

BROOKLYN has its more serious, dramatic moments - but it's also consistently funny and quirky in just the right measure. A lot of humor comes from the boarding house full of female Irish immigrants that Eilis stays with upon her arrival in New York. Lorded over by a strict head-of-house, the young women gossip and tease each other - often to very amusing effect. The film was written by Nick Hornby - the man who's scripted such offbeat romances as High Fidelity - and Hornby very much brings his trademark mix of wit and heart to this film's screenplay (adapted from a novel of the same name). Meanwhile, director John Crowley accentuates the movie's sweeping story with tons of picturesque scenes of Ireland's green hills and serene beaches, and creates a 1950's New York that teems with life and rich attention to period detail.

BROOKLYN is a guaranteed charmer that's also got some surprising depth. Ronan is really, really good as Eilis. She and the film's smart script will make even the most unromantic root for romance. It's that kind of movie - one I'd recommend to anyone and everyone.

My Grade: A-

Saturday, November 21, 2015

ROOM Is a Harrowing, Intense, Gripping Journey

 ROOM Review:

- Gripping, moving, and featuring some of the finest acting you'll see in a movie this (or any) year, ROOM is, in my view, one of the absolute must-see films of 2015. Looking at the film's premise and story-structure, ROOM could have easily been something far worse and far inferior. But the quality of the storytelling and acting is so high that ROOM becomes, in many ways, a masterclass in how to make a small story feel huge. Especially true here, as much of ROOM takes place in a confined space - a claustrophobic, underground bunker in which a young woman was forcibly taken to as a teenager and where she's been kept - trapped - for several years against her will. It sounds dark and bleak and hard-to-watch, I know. But what makes this film so remarkable is how it is able to take this story of hopelessness and make it into a story about perseverance and survival. And not always in the ways you might think. Suffice it to say, ROOM is an emotional rollercoaster and an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Brie Larson absolutely destroys in the lead role here. I began singing the praises of Larson after her incredible turn in the movie Short Term 12. That was some of the finest acting I'd seen - but she's as good, if not better, in ROOM. Larson has a way of acting in such a naturalistic, nuanced manner that you forget you're watching scripted drama rather than documentary. Even in the "big" emotional moments, she grounds the movie in a cloak of raw humanity. We meet Larson unnamed character (referred to only as "Ma") after she's been trapped in the bunker for years. And in that time, she's been impregnated by her captor, and given birth to a son. The son, Jack, is now five years old - and he's literally known nothing outside of the confines of the bunker, which he and his mother refer to as "Room." To Jack, "Room" is the world. It is everything.

There is a lot of intrigue and humor to be found in the way in which Jack makes sense of his surroundings, and the way in which his mother protectively reinforces how he sees the world. Jack's mother makes up all kinds of stories about how Room is all there is and can ever be. Jack, in his own mind, has pieced together an all-consuming worldview based on the sometimes contradictory tidbits fed to him by his mom. But certain things puzzle him. Who are the people on TV? Where do the rats that make their way into Room come from, and where do they shuffle off to? And most troubling of all - who is the man who visits the bunker nightly, sometimes with food and clothes - but mostly carrying with him an air of menace and a scent of evil? Jack knows that the man is bad. He knows that he is not to talk to him. He knows that his mother detests him, but has to act amenable for their safety. But despite the seeming horror of this situation, what's moving and awe-inspiring is how thoroughly Larson has managed to shield her son from the *true* horror of where they are and how they got there. Though we laugh at the quirky way in which young Jack has been brought up to see the world, the early scenes of he and his mother in the bunker are also brimming with an almost maddening sense of tension.

But where the tension truly becomes unbearable is when Jack's mother decides it's finally time to escape, to make a real go of it - and that he is finally old enough to learn the truth about Room and why he and his mother are trapped there - and why, above all else, they must do everything in their power to get out.

The way the reality-shattering moments are played is perfection - the horror and disbelief and WTF-ness of finding out that everything you know is a lie is played with such wide-eyed wonder by young actor Jacob Tremblay that you have to think ... man, maybe this kid turns in an Oscar-worthy performance. I don't usually think kid performances are Oscar-worthy. But Tremblay is so good, so powerful in his acting in this film that he just might truly deserve a nomination and/or a win. 

And without spoiling anything, I will simply say this: there is an escape-attempt sequence in the film - and it's so intense, so edge-of-your-seat crazy that I found myself literally leaning forward and clasping my hands together in a mini, one-man prayer vigil - hoping against hope that these characters would turn out okay.

And I'll also say this: ROOM does not end where you think it ends. That the movie extends past a logical endpoint - and continues to explore the emotional ramifications of that logical endpoint - is a really gutsy move, that has all the potential in the world to completely backfire. But you're in good hands with ROOM. Larson and Tremblay are so good, and the emotional honesty of the script is so real - that the movie somehow makes its third act not only work, but serve as a fitting conclusion to the story that's come before.  Director Lenny Abrahamson impressed me with last year's quirky rock movie Frank. But the balancing act he manages here is a notch beyond what he's done before. This is potent, powerful filmmaking.

There is a lot of darkness in ROOM. But the movie goes above and beyond merely getting cheap thrills from its horror-movie like premise, and instead becomes something much more. This is a film about being trapped and about digging deep down to find the will to escape. This is a film about creating something from nothing and fighting to regain humanity and normalcy and a life worth living. Brie Larson takes you on a real, legit *journey* in this movie, and you feel stronger and better for having gone through it. I'll be very surprised if there's any single acting performance better than hers this year, and I'll be very surprised if many - or any - movies still to come in 2015 pack this kind of gut-punch. Go see ROOM.

My Grade: A

Saturday, November 14, 2015

SPOTLIGHT Is a Powerful Film About the Power of the Press


- Awards-season movies tend to be flashy, melodramatic, showy films. But like the sleeves-rolled-up characters that inhabit its story, SPOTLIGHT is a nose-to-the-grindstone procedural that nonetheless is a quiet stunner. It's a movie about journalistic investigation in the tradition of old-school classics like All The President's Men - and like that film, the dogged determination of its protagonists uncovers a scandal that runs so deep and is so horrific in its implications that it's hard to believe. SPOTLIGHT builds and builds so as to hit an eventual fever-pitch level of intensity. Its story serves the dual purpose of shining a well-deserved spotlight on its heroes - the intrepid reporters at the Boston Globe's Spotlight section - and of serving as a stark reminder of the evil that these reporters uncovered; the Catholic priest abuse scandal that, for decades, had not just plagued Boston but major cities around the world. This is a movie about the importance of good journalism and of *real* journalism. This is a movie about the way that evil can fester and thrive in communities too paralyzed by fear to report it or stop it. This is one of the absolute top films of the year - a jaw-dropper that is a can't-miss, unforgettable film.

SPOTLIGHT follows a small team of journalists at The Boston Globe circa the early 00's. Led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team is tasked with finding big, complex stories and attacking them from every angle - investigating them over a long period and then crafting feature-length, in-depth stories for the Globe's Spotlight section. After a new editor from New York, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over the paper, he wants the Spotlight team to focus on big stories that will generate real buzz and get people talking. Baron quickly settles on the Church, and the ongoing allegations of priests abusing children, as his first target. Baron - an outsider as a New Yorker and a Jew - is met with a lot of skepticism at the Globe and by the greater Boston community. But he doesn't relent - hounding the Spotlight team to use whatever scraps they have as a starting point in order to piece together the story here. Slowly but surely, the story begins to unravel, becoming something far bigger than Baron or the Spotlight team could have imagined. Little by little, Robinson and team uncover evidence of priests having abused minors - on a scale that makes it more a full-blown epidemic. As the investigation proceeds, the Church protests and denies the allegations. Even many of the victims and their families are not forthcoming, for fear of bringing shame to themselves and to the Church - which they hold in high and sacred regard despite what had happened. But the Spotlight team claws tooth and nail for every shred of evidence.

In some ways, SPOTLIGHT is two films. At its core, it's a crackling investigation movie. But as that investigation proceeds, the horror of the truth about what is being uncovered makes this a movie about something more than just an investigation. Director Tom McCarthy brilliantly takes us down this rabbit hole alongside the characters. Looking at McCarthy's IMDB page, it's sort of shocking - this guy's previous credits include things like the universally-panned Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler. But after SPOTLIGHT, McCarthy is undoubtedly one to watch. The film sizzles with old-school cinematic tension and mounting drama, in the vein of the classic paranoid thrillers of the 70's. The film never puts character melodrama front and center, but it cleverly and effectively reveals new layers of its characters as the movie marches on.

A huge part of what makes the film work so well is the phenomenal cast. Within the Spotlight team, Michael Keaton continues his recent hot-streak as Robinson. An institution in the Boston media, Robinson's easygoing likability belies his intense determination to get to the truth, regardless of what skeletons he has to unearth to do so. It's an understated but near-career-best performance from Keaton. Understated but great could also describe the work of Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, a key member of Robinson's team. McAdams has been doing great stuff in general over the last few years, in movies like A Most Wanted Man and TV series like True Detective (she was, by far, the highlight of a flawed season). Here, she is the reporter tasked with seeking out and working with actual victims of priesthood abuse - and she does a fantastic job of conveying both empathy and a relentless drive to get what she needs to nail the abusers. Another major standout here is Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, a reporter focused on working with a lawyer played by Stanley Tucci to gain access to sealed court records that could directly implicate the priesthood. Ruffalo absolutely kills it here, going all in in a performance in which he's altered his dialect, posture, mannerisms, and tics in order to fully inhabit this character. As Rezendes, he plays the wildcard of the team - in contrast to Keaton's congeniality and McAdams' coolness, Ruffalo's character is a jittery, at times fiery, slightly awkward writer who nonetheless shares his colleague's drive to bring down the abusers. It's a Hulk-sized performance that is undoubtedly worthy of awards-season recognition. Brian d'Arcy James rounds out the Spotlight team, delivering yet another excellent performance. His character, Matt Carroll, is a family man who brings an everyman's perspective to the group. He isn't just worried about the story - he's worried about the implications for him and his kids.

Several other notable performances round out the cast. Shreiber is absolutely great as Baron - and the script smartly shows us different sides of the character that allows him to continue to defy expectation. Tucci's testy lawyer is another great character - a guy who seems like an unsympathetic prick at first glance, but who, we learn, has been through battles that have left him emotionally scarred. 

In a way, the movie can be looked at as a pretty bleak and depressing look at an evil that was, for far too long, allowed to thrive within a sacred institution - all but swept under the rug by Church leaders and politicians. At the same time though, SPOTLIGHT is a potent reminder of the power of and need for real, thorough, fact-based, unrelenting, hard-hitting journalism. The movie earns well-deserved applause for the real-life Spotlight team that exposed the Church's crimes. But it also makes you think about the kind of media coverage that we're saturated with today - barely a decade removed from the events of the film. In an age where longform journalism is disappearing in favor of tabloid, Twitter-friendly, clickbait-grabbing, perpetual news-cycle-feeding "reporting," you have to wonder whether we are missing out on real news and real information that gets lost in the endless clutter - or, worse, never gets reported at all since it requires the kind of time and investigation that doesn't lend itself to daily website or Twitter-feed updates. SPOTLIGHT is a condemnation of the Catholic Church scandal. But that much is obvious. What it also is: a celebration of the power and importance of journalism. Real journalism. The kind that topples kings and opens eyes.

That said, this is not a "everyone wins and goes home happy" sort of movie. No - like those 70's thrillers that preceded it, SPOTLIGHT ends with a real gut-punch - a reminder that as much as the work of the Spotlight team did to expose the truth about the abuse going on in the Church, the problem was and continues to be bigger than even the Spotlight team could have foreseen. And so, the film serves as a rallying cry of sorts. We still need Spotlight teams. We still need relentless search for truth, even when said truth is unpleasant. 

SPOTLIGHT really floored me. 2015 was a year saturated with movies about the media, but this one is something special. It honors and pays tribute to the Boston Globe's reporters not by being a flashy film that lionizes them. Instead, this is a movie about the power of rolling up your sleeves and getting the job done - about pursuing the truth doggedly and without bias or political or institutional influence. A movie about the power of the press. One of the absolute best of the year.

My Grade: A

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

SPECTRE Is Double-0 Disappointment


- I've gone on record as not being the world's biggest 007 fan. To me, the endless cycle of new Bond flicks is emblematic of studio filmmaking at its worst - a never-ending, self-perpetuating franchise that doesn't so much tell a story as it does create product for consumption. Worse, the Daniel Craig iteration of Bond has largely taken away a lot of what made Bond distinctive in the first place - gone (mostly) were the high-tech gadgets, campy villains, and over-the-top escapism of the classic 60's films. In their place: grittier, harder-nosed, more self-serious action that made Bond into a warmed-over Bourne wannabe. With that said, a couple of things had me excited about SPECTRE going in. One was the last Bond film, Skyfall. Skyfall was a surprise - director Sam Mendes brought visual style and flair back to the Bond franchise, turning in by far the most artful and aesthetically-pleasing, narratively-satisfying film since Craig took over the mantle. Secondly, this summer's superlative Mission: Impossible movie had me re-thinking my stance on these sorts of spy franchises. If MI:5 could give us such a fantastically-done, rip-roaring actionfest, then who's to say that the next Bond couldn't one-up it? The weird thing though is that SPECTRE invites direct comparisons to MI:5 in more ways than one. Unfortunately, the latest Bond doesn't really come out the winner in that head-to-head comparison. Playing out more like a series of barely-connected sequences than a cohesive narrative, SPECTRE starts off on a high note, but ends by eliciting eye-rolls.

But that opening sequence ... SPECTRE kicks off with an incredible action set piece in which Bond pursues his airborne prey through a crowded Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. Amidst a city center filled with costume-clad performers and spectators, Bond crashes a fancy party, seduces a mysterious paramour, hijacks a hostile helicopter, dukes it out mid-air, and takes out enemy shooters in a dazzling display of cinematic firepower. The single-take shooting style employed by Mendes is breathtaking, and it's a reminder that yes, this guy is good. But it's almost as if the bulk of the director's energy was expended in that sequence. The film quickly deflates, and momentum stalls.

After a somewhat baffling opening credits / musical sequence (it involves a lot of sexy Octopus imagery - fans of weird Japanese tentacle anime should be pleased), the movie dives into a very convoluted, very haphazardly-constructed plot that mirrors that of the most recent Mission: Impossible film. As it turns out, a shady organization called Spectre is the shadow-Big Bad that's had its hands in the devious acts of many of the menaces that have previously plagued Craig's Bond. Don't try to piece together how that actually works in relation to the previous Bond films' plotlines. And don't think too hard on how Spectre's psycho-evil leader - played with sinister aplomb by Christoph Waltz - is doing all of his evil deeds as part of some revenge plot against Bond. In fact, don't think too hard on Waltz's character at all. In a move that will give some flashbacks to the big reveal in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Waltz's "true" identity is revealed to the audience as if it were some major plot point, when in fact the revelation has absolutely zero bearing on the movie's plot. I was willing to somewhat forgive this narrative laziness in Into Darkness, if only because I dug so much of the rest of the film. But here, Waltz's identity and motives land with such a thud that it derails the entire movie - because none of it has any weight. It's treated with a proverbial shrug by Craig's ambivalent Bond and the rest of his comrades-in-arms. As is the very idea that Spectre has been the secret perpetrator of all of the previous film's inciting incidents. And Waltz goes from shadowy, imposing figure to raving lunatic with the flip of a switch - you almost feel bad for the actor, because as good as he typically is, he really gets the short end of the stick with the laughably silly and nonsensical material that the film hands to him.

At least the movie's got the animal that is Dave Bautista as its ace-in-the-hole. The former WWE champion was a standout in Guardians of the Galaxy, and he's excellent here as a brutal bruiser who - in one of the film's best action scenes - engages in a bone-crunching, up-close-and-personal train-car brawl with Bond.  Bautista works well as the movie's villainous heavy hitter because his character isn't bogged down with needless baggage. He's an evil mo-fo who likes to hurt people - 'nuff said.

But man, Waltz's character is really at the root of what ails this movie. Spectre - the shadowy organization that he leads - is weak, and unbelievably uninteresting given that they're supposed to be a massive conspiracy of villainy. And Bond's lack of real reaction to Spectre or to Waltz's various revelations makes us equally hesitant to care. Similarly, the movie's requisite romance feels incredibly rushed and unearned. Léa Seydoux has the makings of a solid Bond Girl (even if her youth vs the increasingly craggy Craig makes for a bit of creepiness). But instead of making her an object of mere lust, the movie insists on making her an object of love. And the result is one of the most unintentionally funny utterances of "I love you" ever seen in a movie. The problem is that the two meet (Lea's Madeleine Swann is a target of Spectre because her late father ditched them ... or something), have an antagonistic thing going, survive an attempt on their lives, get busy, and then - it's love?! Especially given Bond's history of going through gorgeous women like M&M's, it's laughable that Swann so quickly becomes "the one" that he'll drop everything for. The movie's ending only reinforces this idea, in an eye-rolling denouement that calls to mind the all-too-tidy conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises. It's a double shame too because an early encounter between Bond and the Monica Bellucci's black-widow character Lucia Sciarra has more intrigue in a few minutes than the entire rushed relationship with Swann. But Belucci is quickly ditched for a newer-model Bond girl.

The movie's second half wants to be an extended homage to the campier Bond of the classic films. But something went seriously wrong in the execution of it all. Early on, there's a decent amount of intrigue as Bond infiltrates a secret meeting of Spectre, and Ralph Fiennes' M contends with the threat of Andrew Scott's C - a young upstart looking to dismantle the double-o program and replace James Bond with drones and automated weapons. At first, there's hope that all of this will add up to something. Scott is great at playing a nefarious wildcard (see also: his excellent turn as Moriarty on the Sherlock BBC series). And the prospect of Spectre is exciting. But the way it all unravels is pretty unsatisfying, with a weird, nonsensical progression from Point A to Point B. Case in point is when Bond arrives at Waltz's hidden-away desert lair in the movie's final act. Bond strides into this fortified base without any sort of plan, essentially begging to be captured and tortured. At the same time, Waltz seems all too happy to let Bond penetrate his inner sanctum and risk having all his decades-long plans go up in flames. I won't get into all the sorta-stupid stuff that happens from there - suffice it to say, the entire final third of the movie goes very much off the rails. One other casualty of all the jumpiness in the story progression is that the supporting cast feels very cardboard-ish in this one. This is another instance where SPECTRE draws unfavorable comparisons to the recent Mission: Impossible - but M, Q, and Ms. Moneypenny are mostly just props to be called upon by Bond as needed, with very little personality of their own (contrast that to MI:5, which really got a lot out of mileage out of Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, etc.).

For the first fifteen minutes or so of SPECTRE, I was convinced we might get a Bond to rival Skyfall. But as I sat through the head-scratcher of a climax - where Waltz becomes a 60's Batman villain, Bond seems to barely register the scope of the conspiracy he's uncovered, and Sam Mendes seems to throw his hands up in the air and basically give up trying to make sense of it all - I was back to my not-so-keen-on-Bond skepticism. Newer takes on the genre - from Fast & Furious to Bourne to Mission: Impossible to this year's exceptional spy satire, Kingsmen - have made Bond all but obsolete. Especially when the films so awkwardly try to juggle modern sensibilities with 60's-era nostalgia, as SPECTRE does. A movie can't just be a greatest-hits mix-tape. Craig is a good Bond, and Mendes a talented director. But how much do we need to wring this franchise dry until it becomes utterly and completely creatively bankrupt? Perhaps Bond will die another day, but I say it's time that pop-culture moves on.

My Grade: C

Monday, November 9, 2015

THE MARTIAN Is Sci-Fi With Smarts


- Legendary director Ridley Scott is perhaps best known for helming films that transfix with their arresting visuals, but that have a mythic, larger-than-life scope to their storytelling. With a few exceptions (Thelma & Louise comes to mind), his characters are more iconic than they are humane. Not that there's anything wrong with that - Scott ranks among my all-time favorite film directors, and his best movies (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator) are high on my list of best-movies-ever. But THE MARTIAN still feels like a departure - a movie that is at once huge, epic sci-fi but also very grounded, humane, and funny. Many of Scott's iconic films have a detached coldness to them. The Martian, in contrast, overflows with warmth. Give credit to the book from which the film is adapted, written by Andy Weir. But also give credit to the film's screenplay by Drew Goddard. Goddard, the Joss Whedon disciple who gave us smart and funny films like Cabin in the Woods, knocks this one out of the park. He finds both the epicness in the story and the humanity - and he differentiates THE MARTIAN from other recent space-exploration movies, like Gravity and Interstellar, by imbuing it with a sharp sense of humor and wit. What's more, whereas those other space epics ultimately veered into the more philosophical, spiritual, and cosmic, THE MARTIAN stays grounded in reality and science - presenting a story that has its share of far-fetched cinematic movie-moments, but that never strays from its pro-science message. In an age when we are often inundated - in pop-culture and politics - with figures obsessed with a view of humanity that puts supreme faith in the will of a higher power, it's refreshing (and timely) to get a sci-fi film that is so wholly about the can-do willpower and brainpower that each of us, innately, possesses.

Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, and it's one of the best performances of the actor's career to date. It may not be the type of performance that wins Oscars, but it's pure movie-star acting at its finest. Damon makes Watney into a supremely likable guy, a guy who, when he finds himself marooned on Mars after a mission-gone-wrong, smirks, rolls up his sleeves, and determines to "science the $%&#" out of his dire-seeming situation. Watney is in many ways an everyman - but a very smart and capable everyman. He's a botanist who has ideas about how to create sustainable food that can ensure his survival for a longer-than-anticipated period of time. He's a doer. He's the kind of guy whose ingenuity makes the higher-ups at NASA - and his fellow crew members - willing to risk a hell of a lot to get him home.

In many ways, the conversations back on earth, at NASA, are as interesting and tension-filled as Watney's struggle to survive on Mars. It helps that the supporting cast here is absolutely stacked, bringing just the right combo of gravitas and good-natured humor to the proceedings. Jeff Daniels is great as a NASA director with the weight of the world on his shoulders - answerable to his bosses and to the public and press, but also keen to bring his man home. Chiwetel Ejiofor is another NASA official who pushes on Daniels to do everything possible to save Watney. Sean Bean is also in the mix. Did I say gravitas? There are also really great small-but-pivotal roles for people like Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and Benedict Wong - each helping to round out the NASA tech team. Similarly great is the supporting cast that fills out Mark's space-flight crew - who leaves him stranded on Mars after believing him to have died in a violent storm. Jessica Chastain is one of the absolute best actors working today - and she kills it as Melissa Lewis, the ship's captain and the leader of the effort to bring Mark back. Chastain - now apparently the go-to woman to help you get un-lost in space - really kicks ass here. She takes a role that could have been un-memorable and makes it one of the movie's best. Michael Pena has brought the funny to a number of recent blockbusters (see also: Ant-Man), and he's an unsung hero here as a member of Chastain's crew. Kate Mara is also rock-solid, as are Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie.

Ridley Scott is one of the best-ever at doing eye-popping sci-fi visuals, and he doesn't disappoint here. Often, his filmmaking seems a little more restrained and grounded to match the script's lighter tone. But Scott cranks it up to eleven when called upon. He delivers sweeping Martian vistas, claustrophobic shuttle interiors, and a rip-roaring, edge-of-your-seat outer-space finale that truly demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And yet, he doesn't let those killer visuals detract from or overwhelm the movie's smaller and more intimate moments. This is a film that gets almost as much oomph from crop-growing and message-decoding as it does from zero-gravity space rescues.

Scott is a filmmaker whose sci-fi films I associate with darkness. Alien showed us absolute terror in a dystopian and derelict future. Blade Runner showed us a rain-soaked Frankenstein-monster nightmare of technology gone wrong. But THE MARTIAN distinguishes itself by being an old-fashioned, gung-ho movie about the power of human ingenuity - one that also happens to be one of the most exciting, nail-biting, and visually-stunning films of the year so far. It's spectacle with smarts, sci-fi that actually embraces science.

My Grade: A-