REVIEW: Spotlight

22 11 2015

SpotlightMany a procedural, be it “Zodiac” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” has created suspense by following a straight, chronological line towards its ultimate result or finding. Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” a story of the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, takes a slightly different approach to achieve a similar goal. His screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, treats the journalistic investigation like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

In order to understand the magnitude of the discovery made by the Spotlight team, a four-person squad of the Globe‘s finest inquirers, it is crucial to grasp just how complex and intertwined all the key players were. The molestation was committed by over eighty priests in the Boston area, which alone is a staggering and abhorrent finding. But the complex web of officials in the church, in the government and in the community who enabled the abuse and remained complicit in their silence makes for the real story. Not even the press, celebrated as it is in the film, gets off without a slap on the wrist.

“Spotlight” respects the work of the team enough not to simplify their work into a simplified narrative. It feels effortless to watch and manageable to comprehend since McCarthy directs the proceedings with great agility, pivoting from one strand of thought to another without ever causing motion sickness. Perhaps only when the film nears its foregone conclusion, the publication of the earth-shattering article, do we fully realize just how many crossed wires they had to untangle.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements




REVIEW: The Fifth Estate

8 09 2015

Ripping the story from the headlines seems to be the most compelling action in “The Fifth Estate,” a fictionalization of WikiLeaks’ history from director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer.   The film feels irrelevant in the wake of Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets,” a more thrilling and intelligent treatment of these people and ideas that does not even have to resort to fictionalization or melodrama.

The film begins modestly (ha!) with a brief history of worldwide communications, from hieroglyphs to Guttenberg’s printing press all the way to the iPad newsstand.  Then, it proceeds to cut between the WikiLeaks team led by anarchist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the U.S. government’s response to their destabilizing revelations.

It might have been better off just focusing on its titular estate rather than including subplots involving the second (government) and fourth (press) estates; the tension between the old guard of reporting at institutions like The Guardian and the WikiLeaks “hacktivist” style of citizen journalism feels like a topic for an entirely different film.  Sure, this is an excuse to bring in an ensemble of supporting characters portrayed by talented actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, and David Thewlis, these accomplished thespians are unable to do much to elevate the material.

As Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg take steps to increase worldwide transparency, their tendency to think more about the information and less about the people leads to conflict.  Plenty of innocent people are taken as collateral damage by WikiLeaks, and their servers offer flimsy protection for the whistleblowers who dare to release sensitive information.  Assange’s personality gets in the way of the story he pushes – a worry that seems to inspire caution in the next major leaker, Edward Snowden, as shown in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

Condon uneasily balances Singer’s script that cannot decide whether to focus on who they are or what they did.  For the former, at least Cumberbatch nails Assange’s vocal cadences.  For the latter, though, “The Fifth Estate” cannot even turn one of the most important events of the decade into compelling cinema. Even with one of the newest tricks in the book, adding an M83 song for dramatic impact, the action falls flat.

When the film awkwardly acknowledges its own shortcomings in its odd finale, it feels almost like the creative team saying sorry.  Apology accepted, I guess?  C2stars





REVIEW: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

22 02 2015

Guy and MadelineDamien Chazelle might have struck gold on “Whiplash,” but before that, he had to get “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” out of his system.  The former, now Oscar-winning film feels like the story the writer/director was born to tell.  His actual debut, however, seems like that final student film he had to submit to get a diploma.  (Chazelle is a Harvard graduate, by the way.)

Even as it catapults well over the bar of the average thesis film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” still feels mired in its trappings.  Chazelle feels beholden to a stubborn insistence on his own artiness, as if to announce his own arrival onto the scene.  And, apparently, he seems willing to sacrifice the narrative clarity of his modern romance on its behalf.

He demonstrates a clear understanding of both cinema verite American independent film as well as MGM-style filmed musicals, even making the bold move to combine them into a single feature.  When he wants, Chazelle proves capable of making a few fun modernizations to the movie musical tropes.  But more often than not, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” appears uncommitted to its stylistic approach.  Chazelle, understandably, comes across as somewhat apprehensive of going full throttle.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

20 11 2014

Unlike the “Harry Potter” finale, which ran over 800 pages in length, the last installment of “The Hunger Games” probably did not necessitate a two-part cinematic conclusion.  But alas, the filmmaking team thought they could find enough action in the story, and the Lionsgate executives had confidence that they could market two films.  So now, audiences are stuck with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.”

Though the film runs a full 30 minutes shorter than both its predecessors, it feels significantly longer.  Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his penultimate role) do bring an aura of prestige to the relatively calm proceedings, yet that is not enough to boost the low energy that plagues the first half of “Mockingjay.”  While there is a thrilling final rescue scene and one quasi-action sequence in the middle, the inside baseball of Panem politics occupies the majority of the two hours.

Perhaps “Mockingjay” could inspire the next generation of political publicists, a prospect simultaneously encouraging and frightening.  The film offers an introductory course to how semantics, misinformation, and outright propagandizing can be used by governments as well as social movements to recruit followers and repel criticisms.  The overarching lesson of “Mockingjay” may very well be that the camera is mightier than the sword.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Margin Call

17 03 2012

If anyone ever wanted to know about the problems facing rich white people, tell them to pop “Margin Call” into their DVD player.  When it’s not faintly allegorizing what “Inside Job” had the balls to hit dead on, it’s dealing with the pathetic plight of financial sector employees like 23-year-old Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) who is only bringing home $250,000 per year at an entry level position.  Clearly he can related to little orphan Annie when she sang that it’s a hard knock life for us.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature, narrates the film much like a play, letting the principal characters guide the story.  Aside from maybe one line from a security guard, you won’t hear the voice of the people who will be most affected by the actions in this movie.  There’s one scene in an elevator where Demi Moore’s Sarah Robertson and Simon Baker’s Jared Cohen gravely discuss the implications of their conduct, and in between them is a cleaning lady.  In one of the few great touches of the film and with an almost macabre sense of dark humor, Chandor makes sure that she is totally oblivious to the grave implications of what’s happening in the building she cleans.

“Margin Call” was the beneficiary of chance when the Occupy movement began right around its October 2011 release date, and there are several lines which I feel could have been ripped straight off their cardboard signs.  His portrayal of the investment bankers are shallow, simply becoming more evil and out-of-touch with the more money they make.  The sweeping generalizations of the film are about as ill-conceived as his “magic formula” that predicts the coming of the 2008 financial crisis; I’m wondering if even he knew what on earth it was.  There’s no attempt to explain what a CDO is, or even what on earth these traders do.  There’s great complexity to the system beyond his adaptation of “Baby’s First Guide to Capitalism,” believe it or not.

There are some decent acting moments that make “Margin Call” a watchable movie, and the script has just above the requisite amount of intrigue to keep your attention.  But with all these “one percenter”s just talking about how to spend their millions in convertibles, you wouldn’t think that the world economy was about to collapse.  I know that exists, but if you want to demonize rich people, why not just make a movie only about CEOs of investment banks in September 2008.  C





REVIEW: Burlesque

4 08 2011

For this to be nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, you KNOW there had to be some sort of bribery going on.  For all the glitz and glamour, “Burlesque” is one heck of a dud.  And just because that dud is coated in more glitter than a Ke$ha concert doesn’t make it entertaining or even watchable.  At a bloated nearly two hour runtime, this melodramatic musical makes “Mamma Mia!” look like a classic.

Adding together two musical superstars from different generations like Cher and Christina Aguilera seems like a combination that would produce some fireworks – or at least some cross-generational appeal.  However, it’s just dreadful to watch as their diva attitudes aren’t left behind in the trailer and a contempt beyond something written in the script for their characters.  Cher exudes an unlikable uptightness that’s about as rigid as her plastic face, and Christina Aguilera in her acting debut really can’t act unless she’s emanating a disdainful superiority.  For a novice actress, she really has a lot of guts acting like she’s better than her humble-roots character.

The rest of the movie is better than them, but that’s not saying much.  Cam Gigandet’s ambiguously sexual character is just plain annoying, and Kristen Bell’s entitled prima donna just makes a case for why she should stay in romantic comedies (that’s nt a compliment).  Meanwhile, Julianne Hough’s role is hardly impressive and doesn’t give the country star the big mainstream break she deserves.  Stanley Tucci is alright though, but he’s always good so that doesn’t really count.  Diane Warren’s musical numbers are pretty colorless, and with the exception of the titular final number, there’s nothing worth listening to again.  So skip this strip unless you need to be convinced that the New Wave of American Musical on screen is in its death throes.  C- /