Review: Spotlight


There’s a couple of interesting connections between Spotlight, which is the best journalistic procedural of this century, with a couple of other journalism films, most notably All the President’s Men, the best of last century. For one thing, Michael Keaton, who here plays the head of a team of investigative reporters, played a reporter in the enjoyable if relatively lightweight film The Paper. The connection to All the President’s Men is that here John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee, Jr., assistant managing editor of the Boston Globe. Bradlee, of course, is the son of Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of the Washington Post in All the President’s Men, played by Jason Robards.

All that was running through my head, but fortunately comparisons to those other films only burnishes Spotlight, not diminishing it. It’s a crackling good yarn, and showcases some terrific actors in roles that show how dedicated journalists can be. When All the President’s Men, both book and film, came out, they caused a spike in applications at graduate journalism programs. I doubt that happens now, given that journalism is a dicey career, but it made my blood pump to imagine myself as an investigative reporter.

The place is Boston, the year is 2001. A new editor arrives at the Globe. He’s Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). He’s single, Jewish, and doesn’t like baseball, which doesn’t bode well for someone in Boston. His first order of business is to take note of a case in which a priest has been charged with molesting children. The court records are sealed, and he wants them unsealed. “You’re going to sue the Church?” he’s asked a number of times. Essentially, the answer is yes.

Spotlight is the name of a four-person investigative team (it’s the oldest continuing such enterprise in American journalism), headed by Keaton as Walter Robison. Also on the team are Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James. They start with slim leads, but as the film grows their knowledge expands exponentially. One priest turns into thirteen, and eventually it’s ninety, all with the knowledge of the church hierarchy.

All of the reporters were raised Catholic, in a city that is predominantly so. They bump into obstacles at all turns. Ruffalo visits an attorney representing scores of clients who were abused (he’s Stanley Tucci, excellent as always). Victims, now adults, are contacted, and some bravely come forward. As with All the President’s Men, Spotlight is about the shoe leather and the notepads, as we see the grunt work involved in getting a story. Sources must be verified, and timing is critical. There’s always the threat of the rival paper getting the scoop.

Directed by Tom McCarthy, with a script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight hums along like a Swiss watch. I was at no point not engaged, and am lacking in any “buts.” This film is the real thing, and loads of Oscar nominations should follow. I’ll mark it right here that Keaton will win Best Supporting Actor. Not only does he deserve to be nominated, but it will make up for the appalling slight in denying him the statuette last year for Birdman.

The subject matter is not an easy one to digest. Priests molesting children is not a new concept in our society, but it’s never a pleasant thing to think of. Here the reporters, as well as the film, are indicting the system that allows pedophile priests to be moved around for parish to parish, and the cowardly defenders who think that exposing this will lead to loss of faith among the parishioners. A scene in which Keaton talks to an old friend (Paul Guilfoyle), who is a PR man for Boston’s Cardinal Law, says precisely that to Keaton, and Keaton, disgusted, responds, “This is how it happens.”

An early scene has Law (played by Len Cariou) sitting down with Schreiber. He says that he thinks the great institutions of a city must work together. Schreiber disagrees. “I always thought that a newspaper must stand alone.”

Opening in Las Vegas, November 20, 2015


Lots of prestige openings this week as we are fully in Oscar season. At least, if not two, Best Picture nominees likely from this weekend.

The most likely is Spotlight (93), getting universal raves. Gun to my head, it’s the odds-on favorite for Best Picture right now. A journalistic thriller (how quaint), it has an all-star cast investigating sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Not likely to be Cardinal Law’s favorite film this year. Alonso Duralde: “Spotlight is that rare journalistic procedural that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “All the President’s Men,” and while the movie never glamorizes or makes saints of its hard-working newsgatherers, it does stand as a reminder of the power and importance of a free press, particularly in ferreting out local corruption and malfeasance.”

Another sure-fire Oscar contender, at least in the Best Actress category, is Room (86). My review is here. I like the film, wasn’t overwhelmed. James Berardinelli: “Room is honest and challenging but it’s more uplifting than one might expect from a film with such a horrific backstory.”

A few would-be Oscar contenders have proved unworthy. By the Sea (44) a Brangelina vanity project, is underwhelming critics. Peter Rainer: “Both Jolie Pitt and Pitt have demonstrated their chops in far better movies. I suspect the problem here is that there was no one around to tell them, “Please don’t. Please. Don’t.”’

I’m always a little put off by American remakes of good foreign films. It’s as if saying, “we know you don’t like subtitles, so here’s Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman to satisfy you.” Thereby Secret in Their Eyes (46), a remake of the Oscar-winning Argentine film, which is also not thrilling anyone. A.A. Dowd: “Yet nothing short of overhauling the material into something genuinely fresh could make Ray’s Secret feel essential. Tweaks aside, it remains, by in large, the same movie — which is to say, fundamentally redundant.”

The box office winner this week will be the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (65), the end The Hunger Games saga. I’m enjoying all the articles about how when this started Jennifer Lawrence was an indie actress and people doubted her casting; now she’s one of the biggest stars in the world. Josh Kupecki: “This concluding chapter is a solid culmination of a franchise that has had its ups and downs. Lawrence’s superb performance grounds the film, as she oscillates between badass archer and increasingly disenfranchised political pawn, and mercifully the late Hoffman’s CGI scenes are kept to a minimum.”
Finally is The Night Before (58), a raucous comedy with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I like Rogen, but after seeing Steve Jobs I hope he does an equal number of serious parts. I understand he does these to pay the bills. A. O. Scott: “The emotional moments don’t pay off any better than most of the jokes, which reach for the safest kinds of provocative punch lines having to do with sex, race and religion.”

Review: Brooklyn


Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley, written by Nick Hornby, and adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, is an old-fashioned film, one that I would call square if it weren’t for a few cuss words and a fully-clothed but passionate deflowering scene. It concerns a young woman who tries to find her place in the world, torn between her hometown and her new home, and a man that represents each place.

Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, who lives in County Wexford, Ireland with her widowed mother and older sister. She has a part-time job at a grocery working for a horrible old woman. Her sister, realizing Eilis doesn’t have any prospects, arranges for her to move to New York, where a priest (Jim Broadbent) has gotten her lodging and a job.

She takes the boat to New York (hint: don’t eat on the boat when the seas are rough) and starts her job as a shop girl. She rooms with a kooky landlady (Julie Walters) and several other young woman. She is horribly homesick, but soon, at a church dance, meets a feller, Tony. He is not Irish, but Italian (he just likes Irish girls). They hit it off but a family tragedy calls her back home. While there she meets another man (Domnhall Gleeson). She’s pushed to stay in Ireland, and conflicted about what to do.

Brooklyn is a slow-paced, easy-going film that except for those things I mentioned up top wouldn’t upset your grandma, especially if she’s Irish. But at times it’s too slow-paced. Crowley favors lingering close-ups of his leading lady, Ronan. I especially liked one early in the film, when she watches with pleasure as her friend dances with a handsome man. But after a while I kept thinking, “get on with it.”

And though Ronan is very good and keeps things interesting, she invests more in the role than the script does. She’s basically a saint. Except for the small matter of being in love with two men at the same time, she’s given no flaws, has no moments of anger or bad humor. Walters, when one woman moves out, gives her the best room in the house because she’s so virtuous.  When she does give her virginity to Tony it’s a wonder she even knew what sex was.

The film has rose-colored glasses when it comes to New York in the 1950s. There is some comedy when Tony (played by Emory Cohen) takes Ronan home for dinner. His younger brother blurts out that the family doesn’t like the Irish. That’s played for laughs, but just scratches at the surface. There are plenty of Italians who don’t like the Irish, and it’s not funny. I’m struck by a line from The Sopranos when Christopher pictures Hell: “An Irish bar where it’s St. Patrick’s Day every day.”

We also see Ronan as she goes to work, and twice she’s waiting on a corner with a black woman (it’s strange that they didn’t notice that they used the same extras in two different scenes). This is the only sign of a black face, and I was drawn to that face, wondering what her story was. Brooklyn, as suggested by the title, is presented not only as a physical place, but a state of mind, where everything is great. In a further bit of perhaps unintended humor, Cohen takes Ronan to an empty field on Long Island, where he is going to build a house for them. I can only imagine that today that is some soulless suburb like Mineola or Roosevelt, full of tract housing.

Brooklyn is an accomplished film, but not a particularly interesting one. The more time passes the less I think of it. Ronan will probably get an Oscar nomination and I’d like to see her in more roles, particularly those that are more complex.

Review: Steve Jobs


Watching Steve Jobs is like getting strapped into a thrill-ride at an amusement park, but instead of those rollercoasters that take the long, slow crawl up the slope, it starts zooming immediately, and for the two-hour running time hardly lets you catch a breath. It is dazzling.

The film, as anyone should know, is about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who, posthumously, has attained a visionary status, who some think has changed the world as much as any other person in the last fifty years (for better or worse is questionable). But this movie is about his failures. It is set during three product launches: for the MacIntosh in 1984, Next in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. We get no introductory biography, no title cards. We are dropped media res into Jobs’ world, and at first you may feel dizzy.

Jobs, as played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, was not an easy man to like. In fact, he was a prick, and we see that over and over again in the film. In Act One, in 1984, he is riding high. The commercial for the MacIntosh had just aired during the Super Bowl (I remember watching it–it is tied into Orwell’s 1984). Jobs is ready to launch it at a theater full of people (one thing I learned about this film is there are people who attend these things like others attend rock concerts or sporting events) when he is beset by problems. Mainly, his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) is there to complain about not getting enough for money for his daughter, Lisa. Jobs denies she is his daughter, even though a DNA test confirmed it. The voice component of the MacIntosh is not working (he wants it to say “hello”) and engineer Michael Stuhlbarg is bullied into fixing it. He’s also enraged about not being named Time‘s Man of the Year, which instead went to the “computer” as Machine of the Year (with a PC on the cover).

His marketing director, Kate Winslet, runs interference, in one of the most thankless jobs on the planet. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wants Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team in his presentation, since that is the only product that has made Apple any money, but Jobs refuses. His CEO, John Scully (Jeff Daniels), something of a father figure to him, chats with him just before goes on stage.

The MacIntosh tanked. By the next launch in ’88, Jobs was out at Apple. In flashback, we see how it happened, with Jobs forcing the board’s hand and unanimously voting him out. At the Next launch everyone, including Jobs, thinks it will be failure (it is a computer designed for schools that has over a ten-grand price tag, it doesn’t have an operating system ready, and Jobs is most obsessed with making it a perfect black cube). Lisa is now a bigger part of his life, and Waterston is cracking up. He will again have scenes with Rogen, Winslet, Stuhlbarg, and Daniels, who angrily confronts Jobs about being blamed for firing him.

The last act is Jobs’ successful launch of the iMac, and again, like some kind of O’Neill drama, all of the characters return. This structure is both comforting as someone who loves theater, but also a bit formulaic for a movie. But it allows for some operatic scenes, as the very fine cast gets a chance to bandy about some magnificent words, written by Aaron Sorkin. Early in the film, when Jobs speaks of God, he says, “He sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we love him because he made trees.” In Jobs and Wozniak’s last confrontation, Rogen tells him “I’m tired of being treated like Ringo when everybody knows I’m John,” and Jobs throws out a “Everybody loves Ringo.”

The film also tries to come to terms with just what Jobs’ genius was. Rogen questions it–“What do you do?” Jobs compares himself to a conductor–“I play the orchestra,” but clearly Jobs was a master of the big picture. He was not a techie, but instead saw things as they would be down the road. Sometimes they were spectacular mistakes. MacIntosh crashed and burned because it was a closed system–it was compatible with nothing. You couldn’t even open the back to tinker with it, because Jobs did not want hobbyists fucking with it.

I was enthralled through this whole movie. Yes, it can a little cloying, especially in regards to the relationship with his daughter. Waterston, looking like a dour hippie, has a thankless role of the crazed harridan. But the other characters are vividly rendered. Winslet will probably get an Oscar nod, and Daniels deserves one (he’s had a great year–this film and The Martian), and Rogen and Stuhlbarg are terrific as well. Stuhlbarg, to me, perfectly encapsulates the tech guy who is constantly asked to perform miracles.

Fassbender, of course, is the main attraction. The role is complex and difficult, and he performs it with complete aplomb. You can practically see the wheels turning in the man’s head. There is a thread in the plot about him being adopted (with the talk of Syrian refugees, it’s come to light again that he was the biological son of a Syrian refugee). He has fathered a child, whom he has grudgingly come to love. And. like the prodigal son, he is exiled from the company he creates only to return to save it from destruction. Steve Jobs is like some Biblical epic set in Silicon Valley.

Review: Postcards From The Edge (1990)



When Mike Nichols passed away late last year, his stature as a film director was understandably widely noted and celebrated. And yet there was curious disconnect about the focus on his work. His reputation as one of the most significant American film directors of the past 50 years was almost entirely based on the early batch of films he made during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Films like “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge” were celebrated as groundbreaking and being a breath of fresh air to a stale US film industry in the 1960s. Even a film like “Catch-22” – seen as a failure upon initial release – has had its reputation grow over the years to be now considered one of his finest films.

One would presume that Nichols directorial career ended in the mid-1970s. And yet (after a prolonged absence) he had a largely successful career from 1983 to 2007 both critically and commercially. The perception seemed to be whereas Nichols of the 1966-1971era was a daring risktaker, the Nichols of 1983-2007 made largely conventional, mainstream films that while often pleasing, weren’t particularly noteworthy or daring.

A way to examine this assumption is to look at one of his later era films, specifically 1990’s “Postcards From The Edge”. Based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel (she also wrote the screenplay), the film is the story of Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep),  an actress whose career and life are on the verge of self-destruction due to drug addiction. In addition, she has to conduct her recovery under the care of her overbearing, self-involved mother Doris (Shirley Maclaine). How can Suzanne handle all this and the pitfalls of Hollywood to get her life back on track?

Probably the film’s greatest achievement is that without histrionics or sensationalism what a horrendous place the Hollywood film industry is for any public figure dealing with personal demons as Suzanne is. The scenes where she has to deal with producers, directors and lovers (some well-meaning, some not) are a great encapsulation of how a person’s self-esteem can be chipped away so relentlessly that drugs can be seen as the only respite.

The mother/daughter relationship is promoted and presented as the central feature of the film (and the source of Suzanne’s discontent) but in fact this is a bit of a McGuffin. Indeed the film quite deftly shows that Doris is as much a victim of the film industry as Suzanne has been and does genuinely care for her. The downside of this McGuffin aspect is that as entertaining as the mother/daughter interactions and confrontations are, they feel like a bit of a irrelevance in the context of the film.

Considering her reputation, it’s of little surprise that Streep in the central role gives a quality performance; but the type of quality is surprising. In a career full of appearing in so many ‘worthy’ films and heavy characterisations, it’s refreshing to see her give such a relaxed, natural performance. She avoids the clichés of her role to create such a selfish, troubled but talented and likable persona that it’s pleasing to see she got an Oscar nomination out of it.

Also making a notable impression (in an atypically small supporting role) is Gene Hackman as a movie director. Of all the characters who interact with Suzanne, he is shown to be the most ruthless and yet the most compassionate towards her. It’s a delicate balance and Hackman carries it off with aplomb.

And what about Nichols’ direction? Certainly by today’s standards, his style feels understated (refreshingly so) with lots of long takes, little use of music to heighten  scenes and a generally non-intrusive style. And several nicely observed scenes result.

And yet… for all the fine all-round work “Postcards From The Edge” feels like it should be a better film than it is. There is a sense that the film settles for making minor insights on the film industry and drug addiction and doesn’t want to be as bold and ambitious as it could be. This is especially the case with the last 15 minutes of the film where the plot is wrapped up too comfortably and the final scenes feels more positive than it should be.

And some of the blame for that goes down to Nichols. He puts in a generally skilled effort on direction but it feels a little impersonal. You feel as if he had the capability of pushing harder to raise the film up a level or two but by this stage of his career didn’t have the desire to do that.

This is not to say “Postcards From The Edge” is a failure. It’s an entertaining and adroitly done. But it leaves no lasting impression and it seems symbolic of this section of Nichols career; making good but forgettable films that could have been great.

Hitchcock: Notorious


Notorious is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. If I ever have a doubt about that, after maybe seeing Rear Window or North by Northwest, I am reassured when I see Notorious again. I saw it again over the weekend for at least the fourth time, and I was enthralled as I was the first time. It is suspenseful, scary, and, perhaps most importantly, sexy.

Hitchcock didn’t often do sex, or when he did it was fucked up, like in Psycho or Marnie or Frenzy. But Notorious, behind it’s story of Nazis and an American agent deep, deep undercover, is two attractive people who want to jump each other’s bones.

The notorious character in Notorious is Alicia Hubermann, played by Ingrid Bergman. In something of a departure for her (she had just played a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s) she is the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who is being sent to jail. She is tailed by police and paparazzi, and puts on a show, as she is what used to be politely called a “party girl” (an earlier draft of the script had her as a prostitute). She throws a shindig after her dad gets sent up the river and there’s a party crasher she’s attracted to. We only see him from behind, but any film buff knows the back of that head–it’s Cary Grant.

Grant is T.R. Devlin, an agent of some sort (probably the O.S.S., forerunner to the CIA) who, after engaging in a drunken car ride with Bergman, proposes a job for her. She used to date a man named Alex Sebastian, who is now in  Brazil and collaborating with Nazi scientists (interestingly, the word Nazi is never used). Bergman is to seduce him and get into the house and find out who’s there, etc. She agrees after Grant shames her, but it goes so well that Bergman actually married Sebastian (a terrific Claude Rains), who plays a number one sap.

Problem: Grant and Bergman have fallen in love. They exchange one of the greatest kisses in film history. There was a time limit for kisses in those days, something like three seconds, so Hitchcock got around it by having the two, in extreme close-up, talk to each other about dinner and what not while punctuating almost every word with another kiss. The camera follows them from the balcony to another room in a single take, neither one more than six inches from the other’s lips. It was probably the hottest scene since the pre-Code days.

Anyway, the two get into a passive-aggressive thing. Grant is appalled that Bergman accepted the job, while Bergman wanted Grant to stand up for her (the bosses, mainly Louis Calhern, think of Bergman as a slut and have no idea Grant is warm for her). Grant acts like a shit, but remains loyal, especially after Bergman is found out by Rains and his gargoylish mother, who slowly poison her to the point of incapacitation.

Notorious has all the things we love about Hitchcock: the monstrous older woman (played by Leopoldine Konstantin, a famous Austrian actress), a McGuffin–a key to a wine cellar, held by Bergman, the focus of one of Hitchcock’s most famous shots, a crane shot that zooms from the top of the stairs all the way to the key in Bergman’s palm, and making the banal suspenseful. An entire party scene, which lasts about ten minutes, has us on the edge of our seats wondering if the champagne will hold out. That scene ends with Grant and Bergman covering up their snooping in the wine cellar by clinching while Rains watches (Grant is posing an an airline executive who is hot for Bergman). This allows Bergman to react with the full force of her sexuality, breaking down and murmuring Grant’s name as if she were at the peak of climax.

The rest of the film is just as wonderful. Rains figures things out in a beautifully-edited scene, and then Bergman figures out that they’re on to her in another great scene. Finally, Grant swoops in and rescues her, revealing how weak a man Rains is (he’s a glorified mama’s boy) and how superior Grant is to him in every way. A car door locking and Rains’ slow walk back into his house (to meet his doom) make for one of Hitchcock’s greatest endings.

While this is a Hitchcock film, great praise should be lavished on the screenwriter, Ben Hecht. It’s both funny (Grant, taking Bergman outside after her party, wonders, “Shouldn’t you wear a coat?” Bergman sizes him up and says, “You’ll do.”) and literate. Not one syllable seems out of place. The dialogue in the car at the beginning of the film is crackerjack, and the finale, when Grant and Rains talk sotto voce on the stairs with Bergman between them, is gripping.

My only complaint about the film, and it’s common in Hitchcock films, is that he seemed oblivious to how bad the background projection looked. Of course this was shot on a studio lot, nowhere near Brazil, so we get frequent and very bad process shots. It almost seems charming now, the genius’s one area of impairment, like Einstein not caring how he dressed. And Hitchcock is the cinematic equivalent of Einstein.

Opening in Las Vegas, November 13, 2015


This seems like a good weekend to catch up on old releases, binge-watch TV shows on DVD, or read.

The prestige release is The 33 (55), which is the type of movie I hate to watch–based on a news event, the entrapment of 33 miners in Chile, it’s all about the triumph of the human spirit and all that shit and we know what happens anyway. Should have been made for TV. Did provide work for almost every prominent performer of Spanish heritage. Benjamin Mercer: “Stalled in management mode for much of its duration, Riggen’s film nonetheless has its solid elements, one of them being Banderas’ energetic lead performance.”

Labyrinth of Lies (62) is possible Best Foreign Language nominee. Set in Germany, it’s a courtoom drrama about a concentation camp guard. Stephanie Merry: “Labyrinth of Lies is an eye-opening story about the importance of seeking the truth — even when it’s complicated, ugly and buried beneath years of secrecy and deceit.”

DIane Keaton’s career seems to have completely devolved, which is a shame. Her latest flop is Love the Coopers (29), a horribly-reviewed family comedy about a reunion at Christmas. Haven’t we seen this movie a hundred times before? Robert Abele: “The celebrity soup that is Love the Coopers is, indeed, a mess, the kind in which the screenplay by Steven Rogers…is made more chaotic by Jessie Nelson’s tonally smeary direction.”

Another movie topic I hate, the athlete-with-a-disease, is My All American, (38) the true story of Freddie Steinmark, who is deemed to small to play but gets on the University of Texas team but then gets cancer. Wipe away those tears. Jeff Baker: “There is nothing visually or thematically interesting about it. Nobody grows or changes. All the football coaches speak through clinched teeth, even when they’re addressing 10-year-olds.”

For the horror fan there’s The Funhouse Massacre (NA), starring Robert Englund. It’s nice he made something of himself after Freddie Krueger

Hitchcock: Spellbound


Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film, Spellbound, falls well within many of his frequent themes, especially the innocent man being accused of a crime, but in a different way from most of his films. It uses the relatively novel concept of psychoanalysis, which was becoming popular among the Hollywood elite in the 1940s but was still thought of as black magic by most Americans. It does both a service to the profession, by showing how it helps people, and also a disservice, by reducing it to simplistic terms.

Opening title cards indicate that psychoanalysis is treatment for the sane–I suppose this was to indicate that you don’t have to be crazy to need a psychiatrist. But the film is set at a bucolic “home” in Vermont, and the only two patients we see are a nymphomaniac (Rhonda Fleming) and a man suffering from a guilt complex, who thinks he killed his father (Norman Lloyd).

The plot gets in motion when a new head of the institution arrives. He’s Gregory Peck, who is replacing the old chief doctor (Leo G. Carroll) after he had a crack-up. There’s something a little off about Peck, though, that’s picked up on by Ingrid Bergman, the only female doctor (that a woman would play a doctor in 1945 is pretty advanced thinking). Peck goes a little bonkers whenever he sees a certain pattern, and has problems with the color white.

Turns out he has a repressed memory, and he’s not who he says he is. He’s also an amnesiac, so with the police chasing them, she takes him to her old mentor (Michael Chekov), and they figure things out based on one dream he has, which is pretty amazing good luck. The dream sequence was designed by Salvador Dali, and remains the most famous thing about the film. It last only a minute or so, but was originally twenty minutes long, though there is no footage of it that exists.

The film is not one of Hitchcock’s best, but it has its peculiar charms. It strives to have a kind of B-movie sensibility, even before B-movies were classified as such. There is the use of a theremin, which would go on to be on the soundtrack of every cheap horror film ever made (and was also used in the that year’s Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend). Peck and Bergman have great chemistry (maybe because they had an affair while filming) and Chekhov, who received an Oscar nomination, is a joy. I also liked Carroll’s performance–what a smooth talker.

We also get a landmark shot of Hitchcock’s–the POV shot of someone shooting themselves in the face with a gun. Because of space restrictions, they had to use a giant hand and gun to pull it off. Also, the film was in black and white, but at the moment the gun goes off Hitchcock had a few frames of red inserted into the film. They had to be inserted by hand, print by print.

As for Dali’s dream sequence, it’s eerie and thoroughly Dali, with curtains made of eyes (they are cut by scissors, recalling his other famous film project, Andalusion Dog) a wheel that is distorted, like the clock in The Persistence of Memory and the use of slow motion when figures are moving. However, that the one dream Peck has contains all the clues necessary to figure out who he was and who really committed the murder in question is laughably coincidental. Dreams aren’t that literal, and to suggest they are makes a mockery of psychoanalysis.

Hitchcock returns to some of these themes in Marnie, which is also about a person with a repressed memory who has a problem with a certain color. It’s interesting to note, though, that the project began with producer David O. Selznick (it was to be his last teaming with Hitchcock), who was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time.

Opening in Las Vegas, November 6, 2015


James Bond and Charlie Brown. I don’t know how many times those names have been typed together in a sentence, but it’s at least once now, as they dominate this week’s openings.

Bond is back in Spectre (60), the 24th, depending on how you’re counting, Bond film. Getting mixed reviews, and seems a step down from the best Daniel Craig Bond films. Christoph Waltz is the villain. Apparenlty this will be Craig’s last turn as 007. Mike Scott: “Granted, there’s comfort to be found in the familiarity of Mendes’ film, which makes an effort to look back while also advancing the series. But there’s a fine line between paying homage to the past and merely repeating it…. Spectre often crosses that line.”

Good ol’ Charlie Brown is featured in The Peanuts Movie (67), which is the first feature-length Peanuts film in about forty years. It’s a little weird to see them in computer animation, but from what I’ve read there’s nothing radical about the story, and those that grew up with Peanuts will see the usual: Lucy and the football, the Red Baron, the Little Red-haired Girl, etc. I don’t know if kids today are as enamored with Peanuts as past generations were–I was a devoted reader of the comic strip when I was a kid, which tots of today don’t have. Mark Olsen: “The movie is pleasant and charming, but when making a big-screen adaptation of a beloved classic and genuine touchstone for generations, adequate doesn’t feel like quite enough.”

Suffragette (67) was on many radar screens for Oscar nominations, but apparently it’s just not that good. Starring a host of actresses, it’s about the fight for the women’s vote in England, and may suffer from too many good intentions and not enough quality. Peter Rainer: “Gavron’s conventional approach to the material compares unfavorably to the newsreels and stills of the actual suffragettes that close out the film. The harsh reality comes through in that footage in a way that the film as a whole only approaches in bits and pieces.”

Miss You Already (57) stars Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette as life-long friends. Seems suspiciously similar to Beaches. Tim Robey: “The film could have done with a richer sense of what Milly and Jess really see in each other. It’s as if Barrymore and Collette have been flung into this relationship unprepared, and must hustle to suggest there’s much of a history.”

Review: Room


As when I reviewed the novel, writing about Room is problematic when it comes to spoilers. The climax comes early in the film, and the last half is impossible to discuss without giving something away. I think the marketers of the film are assuming that people know what will happen, but I will not, so spoilers are throughout; tread lightly.

With a screenplay by the source author, Emma Donoghue, Room varies only a little from the book. Basically, we open in a small room, which is in reality a garden shed in the backyard of a kidnapper. Inside are a young woman (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). She has been held captive by “Old Nick,” (Sean Bridgers) for seven years, never stepping outside of the shed in that time. Therefore, of course, Jack has never known anything but life inside what he calls Room.

Director Lenny Abrahamson gives us a taste of what that is like, as the first half or so of the film is shot entirely inside that shed. Much of it is from Jack’s point of view, so we see things from a low point of view. When Bridgers visits to have sex with his mother, Jack is forced to sleep inside a wardrobe, through which he looks through slats, seeing and hearing only glimpses of what is going on.

When Jack turns five, Larson decides it’s now or never, and plots to escape, with Jack playing dead. It is at this point that you should stop reading if you don’t know want to know what happens next.

Room is a bit like the allegory of the cave–our reality is what we perceive. Jack’s is the small room. There is a TV in the room, but to make his life less complicated his mother tells him that what is on TV is not real. But she decides to level with him on his fifth birthday (he then says he wishes he was four again). She wants him to know that there is a whole wide world out there. He doubts this, but when he is taken out into Bridgers’ truck and sees the sky in full view (all he could see before was through a skylight) he’s almost completely overwhelmed, and will spend the rest of the film adjusting to a life he never knew possible.

In the book, there are more details, such as Jack having to get used to wearing shoes and dealing with other children. The film is a bit more mundane, with the transition much smoother–he has to learn how to walk up and down stairs, and Larson, who never stopped breastfeeding him, cuts him off. The film focuses more on Larson, who has trouble coming to grips with the decision she had in having Jack and then keeping him. A TV interviewer cuts her to the quick by suggesting that Larson might have been selfish in keeping him with her, imprisoned just like she was. William H. Macy, as her father, can’t even look at Jack, realizing he is the offspring of his daughter’s abductor.

Room is a good, taut film, but isn’t as good as Larson’s performance, which will probably earn her an Oscar nomination. It grapples with things that one can only imagine–living seven years in a shed, knowing there is a world out there, having a child in those circumstances, and then dealing with the real world after going through that. Larson is charismatic and sharp in the role, not milking it for sympathy, instead playing the truth of the situation.

Tremblay, who was about eight when he filmed the role, is also good, as the film couldn’t succeed without him. It’s a natural and convincing performance, although there are so many good juvenile performances these days I wouldn’t call it transcendent. Joan Allen is very good as Larson’s mother,

Room is more about the bond between mother and child and the perspective one has on their surroundings than it is about a crime. We see a brief TV clip that Bridgers has been arrested, but we don’t have anything to do with a trial or what happens to him. Instead the focus is on Larson and Tremblay, and how they cope with the transition.

Random Thread for November, 2015


A couple of trailers for upcoming comedies that look remarkably unappealing:

  • Never been a fan of Seth Rogen’s work but this trailer for ‘The Night Before’ seems lazy even by his standards as it seems to fall back on his familiar tropes. Surprised Joseph Gordon-Levitt would appear in something like this.
  • After largely being on autopilot throughout the 2000s, Robert De Niro seems to have gotten back some verve and purpose to his acting in the past few years. Which is why this trailer for Dirty Grandpa is depressing as it looks even more of a throwaway than that boxing comedy he did with Stallone. Aubrey Plaza lusting after De Niro?!? Yikes.

Review: Crimson Peak


Crimson Peak was the perfect choice for Halloween at the movies. I think what I most admired about it is that director Guillermo Del Toro had a vision to make a Gothic ghost story, and did just that, in spades. It’s a sumptuous, spooky tale, beautifully rendered.

I won’t say it’s terribly original. It reminded me of many other films, most notably Rebecca, Gaslight (which I just saw previously), and Notorious. It comes from a tradition of nineteenth and early twentieth ghost stories, but nowadays that tradition has almost been snuffed out, so I imagine most people would view this film and see something they’ve never seen before.

The film is set at the turn of the 20th century. A young woman (Mia Wasikowska) is warned by the ghost of her mother to “beware Crimson Peak.” She has no idea what that means. She grows up to write ghost stories. Her father is a rich industrialist, and is visited by an English baronet (Tom Hiddleston) who is looking for investors for his clay mining machinery. But what he and his sister (Jessica Chastain) are really after are rich young women to seduce.

After Wasikowska’s father dies (quite violently) Wasikowska marries Hiddleston and moves to his dilapidated manor in Cumberland, England, which rests on top of a clay mine. The clay, red, seeps up through the ground, giving the place the nickname Crimson Peak (cue ominous chords). This house is a marvel of art direction. It recalls the classic haunted house look, with holes in the roof that allow in the weather, an old nursery full of butterflies, long corridors that allow for sprinting away from ghosts, and the aforementioned clay mine below, reachable by a creaking old elevator.

This section is very close to Rebecca, in that Wasikowska is the new wife and Chastain, creepy as all get out, is Mrs. Danvers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Wasikowska is in trouble, even before she starts coughing up blood into her handkerchief and ghosts of other women start making oblique warnings. There is also a bit of Flowers in the Attic, if you get my drift.

I was mesmerized by the film, which most of all expresses Del Toro’s vision. The costumes, by Kate Hawley, art direction by Brandt Gordon, and cinematography by Dan Laustsen, are all top notch. The colors, in particular, are vivid and bleeding (there is numerous use of red, as one would expect). The ghosts are pretty scary (and quite grotesque–one victim got an axe in the head) and while this is more of a romance than a horror story there are few good frights.

The acting is okay–they employ a melodramatic style that fits the production–with Chastain in particular excellent as the sister-in-law from hell.

For fans of ghost stories, Crimson Peak is the best since–well, I can’t remember the last good one. Poltergeist (the original) I guess, but Crimson Peak is a different kind of ghost story.

Films that opened in America on October 23-25, 2015


The Last Witchunter (IMDb rating 6.2) – Clearly I’m not the target audience for this as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Vin Diesel film. In contrast, I didn’t realise until seeing the trailer that Michael Caine is in this and I reckon I’ve seen at least 50 of his films. As it is, the trailer makes it look like an OK timewaster although blighted by the typically elaborate but fake CGI. One of the many films that has underwhelmed at the box office in recent weeks.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (4.5) – Like Vin Diesel, this series is not aimed at me as I’ve never seen any of the films. Looking at the trailer, there was a funny comment on YouTube observing that all these types of ghost stories seem to occur only to well-off families that live in two storey houses with a giant yard, so as long as you’re poor you’ll be alright.

Rock The Kasbah (5.4) – As I commented in the Random Thread,  despite being a critically-panned flop I find this film significant because of its star Bill Murray. Basically since Groundhog Day, Murray has been an untouchable in terms of critical respect. Even in the many bad films he’s made he’s almost always singled out as the brightest spot in the film. But here, critics seems to have turned on him en masse and now seem to be sick of his style of playing obnoxious self-centred jerks that get redemmed by the end.

I wonder where Murray goes from here as perhaps the critical pillaging will make him revitalise his career. On the other hand, not much hope for director Barry Levinson whose career has been a major disappointment since the early 1990s. When you make a film that gets a lower Rotten Tomatoes rating than the infamously loathed Fantastic Four film it’s hard to come back from.

Jem And The Holograms (3.3) – Based on a 1980s cartoon I’d never even heard of, let alone seen, this is yet another financial disappointment to come out in October. I did chuckle in the trailer when they promoted it as coming from the same studio (!) as Pitch Perfect. Yeah, young folk are drawn in by which studio did a film bigtime these days.

Shaandaar (4.1) – Indian romantic comedy film.

Suffragette (6.6) – The story of British women fighting for the right to vote in early 20th century England has high expectations but due to a moderate critical response and disappointing box office returns it could result in those rarest of occurrences: a year without Meryl Streep being nominated for an Oscar.

The Advocate: A Missing Body (5.8) – This South Korean film according to IMDb has the plotline of a lawyer and a prosecutor taking on a murder case that has no evidence or a body. Frankly, it sounds like the most interesting film to be released this weekend.

I Smile Back (6.1) – A change of pace for well-known comic Sarah Silverman with this dramatic role (although she has appeared in dramas like “Take This Waltz” previously) where she plays a seemingly contented middle-class married suburbanite tormented by inner demons and facing self-destruction. An underwhelming critical reponse suggests this is unlikely to be a breakout hit.

Heart Of A Dog (6.5) – From the little information I could find about this, apparently a personal documentary that was largely shot on an iPhone!

Attack On Titan: Part 2 (5.4) – Japanese fantasy film

Nasty Baby (5.6) – A drama about a male gay couple trying to have a baby with the help of their close female friend. Much delayed film that actually got rejected by a film festival, it’s getting only a token release. Kristen Wiig is the female friend and I’ve always found her irritating since seeing her in ‘Ghost Town’ so this probably wouldn’t interest me much. But if nothing else, it has a trailer that goes pretty wild by the end

Difret (6.6) – Ethipoian drama (executive produced by Angelina Jolie) that looks to have the best reviews of any films reviewed this weekend.

Blackhats (no rating) – Not the flop Michael Mann film from early this year, but about a bounty hunter tracking down cyber hackers. Admittedly had a tiny box office on its opening weekend but pretty amazing it’s gotten literally no user ratings on IMDb as yet.

Julia (4.4) – Horror revenge film that actually got released at film festivals in mid-2014 but is finally getting a small cinematic release now.

The Looking Glass (4.8) – American drama that is notable as being directred by John Hancock, who has had a lengthy but intermittent career. Directed Robert DeNiro in one of his first notable roles, 1973’s “Bang The Drum Slowly” which got a 4-star review from Roger Ebert amongst others.

Review: Bridge of Spies


The teaming of Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen is exciting, but not natural–Spielberg is a rank sentimentalist and the Coens eschew sentiment at every turn. So, what do we get when get when we get a director who loves to film children and waving flags directs a script by the guys who had a man put through a woodchipper? A terrific movie–Bridge of Spies.

The film is set during the Cold War, and is about two critical things that happened during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Both, amazingly, involved the same man, James B. Donovan, earnestly played by Tom Hanks. Donovan was an insurance lawyer but was tapped to defend a captured Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is convicted, but when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in a U-2 spy plane over Soviet air space, Donovan was selected to negotiate a prisoner swap.

The film begins with a breathless and dialogue-free scene in which Rylance, who’s cover is as a painter, is tracked by FBI agents. He finds a hollow nickel under a park bench, and is subsequently arrested. The entire sequence is vintage Spielberg–not only for the magnficent art direction–every detail speaks of the period–but the almost effortless way Spielberg can tell a story in jn broad strokes as well. The first image of Rylance is in a mirror–he is painting a self-portrait, and so we see three different images of him–the real him, the mirror image, and the portrait. Which is the real him, though?

To make it look like every person in America receives a fair trial, Hanks is selected to defend Rylance, even though he will become very unpopular in doing so. He gets dirty looks on the subway, and his house is shot at (I don’t know if this last is true, but it seems out of left field and is one of the few parts of the movie that don’t work). The judge has already decided Rylance is guilty, and rejects Hanks’ request to disqualify evidence on Constitutional grounds. He also tells a CIA agent where he can stick it when the man tells Hanks to ease up.

Rylance is convicted, but Hanks convinces the judge not to have him executed, which comes in handy when Powers is shot down. The entire U-2 story is basically sandwiched in between the Abel trial, and quite well, too. There is a lot of information in this film (another man will become involved when a student is arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin wall) but I never had a problem understanding what was going on.

The Soviets have Powers, and want to swap him for Abel. Hanks is brought in to negotiate, and sent to Berlin. He tries to get Powers and the student out, even though the CIA really only wants Powers. Everything ends on the bridge of the title.

Bridge of Spies is just smashing. It is a movie that involves a lot of men in suits talking (and wearing hats–this was before Kennedy killed the industry) but it percolates with intensity. The paranoia of the Cold War is palpable, and Spielberg, as his wont, comes up with some dazzling set pieces, such as a pair of men in a rainstorm, one following the other, both with umbrellas. Or Hanks walking through the snowy streets of East Berlin. But then there are what might have been the Coen Brothers’ contributions. The script (which is also credited to Matt Charman) has some fine nuggets, such as Rylance saying, when Hanks asks him if he’s worried, “Would it help?” This happens three times, and each time the circumstances for Rylance and Hanks are different, but the line works like a charm.

Also, and this is key, Bridge of Spies is full of lofty speeches about the rule of law, but at no time seems like a civics lesson. When Hanks tells off the CIA agent, he says that what makes everyone American is the “rule book,” the Constitution. A lot of people can lose sight of that, but Hanks keeps things in check and the words are crisp, not flowery.

Hanks is terrific here, but he’s not the only one. Look for an Oscar nomination for Rylance, the sad sack-looking Abel, who really looks like the kind of guy you see out painting by the Brooklyn Bridge. But he’s savvy and dedicated–he turns down all opportunities to become a double-agent. Hanks grows to admire him, and so do we, perhaps against are better interests. Powers, played by Austin Stowell, is in contrast played as a blunderer, who can’t manage to kill himself or destroy the plane, as he is instructed.

Bridge of Spies is full of good performances, some very brief but enlivening, such as Peter McRobbie as CIA director Allen Dulles, Sebastian Koch as a German lawyer, and Scott Shepherd as that annoying CIA agent, who is a good egg after all. The editing, by Michael Kahn, who goes back with Spielberg to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is brisk, even if the movie is 141 minutes. Janusz Kaminski is back as Spielberg’s DP, and we do get the blown out windows he’s famous for, but this gives the film that gray and ashy look that is appropriate. Spies move in and out of shadows, not in technicolor.

Interestingly, John Williams is not the composer, due to a health issue. Williams had done every Spielberg since Jaws, save for The Color Purple. Thomas Newman fills in, with a bombastic but very typical Hollywood score, with lots of ruffles and flourishes.

I’ll save the “but” for the last, because there’s always a but with Spielberg. Like Saving Private Ryan and A.I., Spielberg can’t leave well enough alone and screws up the ending. The last shot should have been the one on the bridge, just as the last shot of A.I. should have been Haley Osment just feet away from that angel statue for eternity. But Spielberg keeps the camera rolling, and we get a sticky Americana ending that, after the Coens’ smart script, feels tacked on. We get it, Donovan was a hero, and he’s a true blue American.

The last couple of minutes cost the movie a half a star in my mental tabulations, but Bridge of Spies is still one of the best films of the year.

Review: The Martian


I“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” says Mark Watney, engagingly played by Matt Damon. Watney is an astronaut who has been marooned on Mars, and keeps a video diary that serves as the narration of the film. Since Mars is not a place that has shuttle service, nothing grows there (despite the recent discovery of water), he does not have enough provisions to last him long enough for a rescue mission, and he has no communications with Earth, he will indeed have to science the shit out of it, and he does.

This is The Martian, an endlessly rousing entertainment that relies upon, besides Damon’s performance, the spectrum of science, from botany to astrophysics. As the movie unfolded, I found it to be a direct rebuke to the perniciously anti-science element of right-wing politicians (which are almost all of them) and began to look for any element of religion. There is one, when NASA bigwigs Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean share a moment and ask each other if they believe in God. But this line seems inserted just so it can be said this isn’t a completely secular film. It is.

The film begins with a crew of six, led by hard-as-nails Jessica Chastain (she’s softened by a love of disco music). They are forced to abort their mission by a dust storm, and during their flight to the ship Damon is carried away by a flying satellite dish. Assuming he is dead, the remaining five take off for a very long return to Earth.

But Damon is not dead, just wounded. But the satellite dish was the way to talk to home. Over the next two hours plus Damon and the crew on Earth and on the Hermes (the ship taking his crew home) will use their noggins to get past obstacles to bring him home. I’ve seen some articles talk about the humanity of this film–it is true that human beings can bond together even if to save one man, and a shot at the end of the film has the world breathlessly watching live–and in certain case that’s true. But even overriding that is The Martian‘s celebration of intelligence. You can pray all you want, but it takes an advanced degree in math to get the job done.

Damon, who has curiously played this kind of role before, in Saving Private Ryan and Interstellar, makes a great hero. He’s a botanist, so he figures out how to grow potatoes in Martian soil (with the help of his own feces) and makes water from scratch. He then figures out how to communicate with Earth by finding the old Pathfinder from the 1990s (the film takes place in what I would term the near future). The crew on the ground, led by Jeff Daniels, Ejiofor, Bean, and a bemused Kristen Wiig as PR director, stand in offices and bark orders to eggheads working on the problem, while Donald Glover figures out a way for the Hermes to actually use the Earth’s gravity as a slingshot to take them back to Mars and rescue Damon (this also enables stars Chastain and Kate Mara to continue to have a reason to be in the movie).

Even though The Martian is by the book filmmaking (director Ridley Scott is not exactly an innovator) it’s a lot of fun. The script by Drew Goddard is both scientifically dense and very funny, as Damon’s character finds a lot of gallows humor in his situation. Some of the sequences are a little too pat, such as when Daniels says, “If nothing goes wrong,” and then, cut to Mars, something goes spectacularly wrong. The falling action of the film is an seemingly endless series of problems to be overcome. But even though anyone who has ever seen a movie knows how this will turn out, it’s still very suspenseful.

I should add that the cast is a gloriously diverse one, with every race represented. Michael Pena plays the mission pilot, which reminds me of something I read about Salma Hayek, who was up for a role as an astronaut once when she was told by a myopic studio executive that “there are no Mexican astronauts.” Brains know no color.

I should also add that the film makes great use of its soundtrack. Per Chastain, there’s plenty of disco, but also a perfect use of David Bowie’s “Starman.” Over the film’s closing credits is “Love Train.” The film may be set in the future, but it’s heart is in the ’70s.