REVIEW: “Infinitely Polar Bear”

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Balancing mental illness with comedy can be a precarious undertaking. Filmmakers who shoot for a direct and straightforward comedy have an easier time, but those mixing elements of humor with a more dramatic lean can sometimes subvert the aim of their film. “Infinitely Polar Bear” is an example of a movie taking a more dramatic look at mental illness but lacing it with smart, responsible humor which doesn’t overthrow the film’s purpose.

Maya Forbes writes and directs this semi-autobiographical portrayal of her life living with her bipolar father. Forbes created a fictionalized version of herself and cast her own 12 year-old daughter Imogene Wolodarsky for the role. She sets her film in Boston sometimes in the late 1970s and chronicles a year of intense ups and downs brought on by her father’s bipolar disorder.

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The film begins with Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) in nothing but red briefs and a red bandana banging on a car as his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their two children (Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) sit terrified inside. The initial absurdity tempts us to laugh, but Forbes quickly acquaints us with the reality of the situation. Cam has had a serious mental breakdown. He loses his job and is sent away for rehabilitation. As a result Maggie has to move into a low-rent apartment where she struggles to provide for her daughters.

Over time Cam progresses and is soon moved to a halfway house where he has an opportunity to reconnect with his daughters. Unable to sufficiently provide for her family, Maggie decides to go back to school to get her M.B.A. and eventually a better job. But that would require Cam to take care of the kids during the week while she is away at Columbia. His doctor thinks the responsibility would be good for him. Maggie is desperate. Cam reluctantly agrees.

The bulk of the film focuses on this mentally frail father getting by on lithium and cigarettes while trying to relate to and take care of his two young girls. There are numerous opportunities for humor and Forbes gives them to us, but you can sense her personal touch on the story and the characters. Cam isn’t a mean-spirited lout or a target for our judgements. It’s clear he represents the real-life father who Forbes truly loves. At the same time she doesn’t gloss over the realities of their struggles and the film is better due to that honesty.

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It also works thanks to some strong performances particularly from Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is a guy who is always solid but who is often defined by his laid-back and relaxed performances. Here he is given material that allows for him to expand himself. One minute Cam can be even-tempered and playful while the next may see him wound tighter than a top. When things get stressful we see him impulsively bouncing from one mood to the next, his kids often being the victims. Ruffalo handles it all with such authenticity. Saldana is also very good it would could be a thankless role. It’s Ruffalo that gets the spotlight but Saldana’s earnestness is crucial.

In the end “Infinitely Polar Bear” succeeds in looking at mental illness with a careful mix of humor and drama. There are portions of the story that feel shortchanged and the film sometimes seems uninterested in plot points that I would like to know more about. But Forbes stays true to the heart and soul of her movie and her connection to the subject matter shows itself in the pleasing end results.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Spotlight”

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I’ve always been a sucker for movies with journalism at their center. I like all kinds of them – the character-driven dramas and especially the more focused procedurals. For years Hollywood has enjoyed using journalism as a means of telling numerous kinds of stories. Many have been fantastic films while others…not so much.

The latest journalism picture sets us down in the world of investigative reporting. It is Thomas McCarthy’s “Spotlight” – an absorbing newsroom drama about a Boston Globe investigative team’s discovery of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The story goes even further by following the team’s uncovering of an elaborate and disgusting cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese.

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The film is inspired by the true story of the Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ unit who in 2001 exposed the abuse and cover-up eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for their work. McCarthy also co-wrote the script which notably doesn’t feature a true lead performance. This serves the story well. “Spotlight” is a full-on ensemble picture built around several key characters and represented by some of the best performances of the year.

The ever-entertaining Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson who heads the Globe’s four person Spotlight team. His team consists of the fervent, high-strung Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), the tireless Ohio transplant Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and the seasoned Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). It’s a tight-knit and semi-autonomous group who determine their own investigations and are given all the time and resources needed.

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That appears to change when, amid potential company cuts, the Globe brings in a Boston outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Feeling there is an important story to be told, the new boss immediately pulls Spotlight off their current project and has them investigate alleged child abuse among local priests. Their trail winds back several years implicating more priests and revealing more victims.

“Spotlight” is a painstaking procedural more focused on credible detail than big, showy moments. There is no pomp or pageantry. McCarthy is far more interested in examining the journalistic process than standard issue newsroom clichĂ©s. Everything he presents is done so with the utmost realism. You truly get a sense that you are watching an investigative process in motion. It may be the energy of the newsroom (much of which was shot in the Boston Globe offices) or something as simple as digging through old news clippings, making phone calls,  or examining old records.

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But there is an incredible balance within the film. It is a journalism procedural but there is also the serious and unsettling story we witness being uncovered. “Spotlight” handles this prickly subject deftly and earnestly. It pulls no punches while at the same time respectfully representing the victims. Even in these moments the movie avoids the temptation to go big. It maintains a consistent level of restraint both from the actors and the director.

And not enough can be said about the performances. Keaton and Ruffalo are flawlessly in tune with their characters. Liev Schreiber may be the biggest surprise delivering a clever minimalist performance. John Slattery even dials it back as the paper’s deputy editor. And Stanley Tucci is fabulous as an attorney on the wrong side of the church due to his unsuccessful crusade against clerical molesters. Tucci is an actor known to go big, but even he is more concerned about serving the story than his character. It’s something the entire cast shares.

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Ironically the film is titled “Spotlight” yet a spotlight is something no one involved seeks. Whether you’re talking about the director or a cast member, everyone seems more interested in the story being told. That chemistry allows for the film to center its focus on smart, meticulous storytelling. McCarthy’s film is subtly thrilling and it flows at such an invigorating pace. Better yet it doesn’t hold our hand or insinuate we need every narrative beat explained for us. And in the end there is no chest pounding or lofty hero statuses. Just a stinging indictment that reaches beyond the church. As one character says “There is enough blame to go around”.

The Spotlight team ran a series of revealing articles that had a profound impact throughout Boston and beyond. It was true journalism at its purest during what could be called the last great age of the newspapers. “Spotlight” the movie is a worthy tribute to the important work done by that team. It also happens to be one of the best films of 2015 and easily one of the best films about journalism itself.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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It could be said that the first Avengers movie was in a ‘can’t miss’ position. Sure, with that much ambition comes a degree of risk. But fans had already shown their devotion to the Marvel movies at that point. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor each had their own films which had earned a ton of box office cash. Bringing them altogether was sure to bring in truckloads of more money. That proved to be true to the tune of over $1.5 billion worldwide. And of course that doesn’t include home-video, merchandising, etc. More importantly, as a movie fan, the first film was fun and very satisfying.

So as is customary in modern Hollywood, a sequel was on the way and we get it in the form of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Writer and director Joss Whedon is back this time with a new and unique set of obstacles in front of him. First, it’s always a challenge for a sequel to recapture the magic of a successful first movie while also being distinctly its own film. Also, if Whedon thought expectations were high for the first movie, they are nothing compared to what people will expect from the sequel. And then there is the question of superhero fatigue. Can Whedon and company continue to energize a genre that has a small but growing list of detractors?

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I always give Marvel Studios credit. Their movies aren’t the assembly line sequels that we see each and every year. Certainly some films work better than others, but Marvel is always building upon their bigger cinematic universe and continuity which I enjoy. But for those not thoroughly invested it could be a legitimate stumbling block. “Age of Ultron” is unquestionably an installment – a transition chapter in this enormous franchise. Loose ends are tied up and potential plot holes related to other Marvel films are addressed throughout. Again, these are things that will satisfy fans but probably fuel the indifference of those not on board.

The film starts with our heroes attacking the snowy mountain compound of Baron von Strucker. He was the guy last seen in the mid-credits scene of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Strucker has obtained Loki’s scepter and is using its powers for human experiments and other nefarious practices. The results of the conflict leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to fulfill an ultimate peace keeping goal of his – the creation of an ultimate A.I. named Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Ultron becomes self-sustained and self-aware and immediately begins his own plan of global peace which happens to include the distruction of the world. Tony’s mishaps with Ultron and his failure to inform his fellow Avengers of his project creates a festering tension between the team. But they must work together if they have any hope of beating this new threat and once again saving the world.

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That is just a brief set up to what is a movie jam-packed with moving parts. There are so many characters and subplots that are being serviced and it is a testament to Whedon’s writing skills that the film is coherent at all. Wrapped around the central story are countless tie-ins from previous movies and setups for future films. It truly is a miraculous feat, but it’s not a flawless one. There were a handful of things that felt terribly shortchanged occasionally to the point of making no sense at all. During these moments it was as if Whedon was saying “Look, I have so much to cover. I just need you to go with this.” Sometimes I found that a little difficult to do.

But considering the insane amount of moving parts and the hefty ground the film is asked to cover, “Age of Ultron” is an impressive accomplishment. All of the core characters are back and get their moments to shine. In fact the amount of screen time between each hero felt much more balanced than in the previous movie. It also helps to have actors who have become more and more comfortable with their characters. In addition to Downey, Jr., Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) each are a load of fun. We also get a good assortment of past side characters and some very intriguing new characters. The super powers endowed Maximoff Twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are an interesting addition and there is the appearance of another new character who really got my geek juices flowing.

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“Age of Ultron” is clearly a movie aimed at serving a passionate fan base  which is really good for devotees like me, but maybe not so good for those unfamiliar with or lukewarm to its many intricacies. I ate up the funny banter between each unique superhero personality. I loved the large-scaled action which seemed ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. I was interested in the future movie tablesetting even when the scenes didn’t always play out smoothly. In a nutshell, “Age of Ultron” was a fun and entertaining ride that succeeded as the central cog in Marvel’s constantly moving cinematic universe.

“Age of Ultron” is not a movie devoid of problems and your experience will probably be influenced by the degree of affection you have for these characters and this universe. As a fanboy I loved being back in this world, I laughed at a lot of the humor, and I was thrilled by the big effects and larger than life action sequences. Yet while it scratched nearly all of my itches, it’s hard not to point out the messy patches. Still considering the film’s enormous importance to the Marvel movie universe and the even higher expectations, “Age of Ultron” succeeds where so many movies would have failed. Now I’m ready to start building towards the next installment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Foxcatcher”

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Director Bennett Miller may not make a lot of movies, but when he does his films seem destined for attention. He only has four to his credit including the critically acclaimed “Capote” and “Moneyball”. His latest is “Foxcatcher” and it has already caught the attention of critics and won several prizes on the festival circuit. Miller seems drawn to a special type of biopic. “Capote”, “Moneyball”, and now “Foxcatcher” are biographical dramas about people or relationships that are outside of the normal box.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are close-knit brothers who have each won Olympic gold medals in wrestling. Mark, who seems a bit slow, lives in his older brother’s shadow. There’s an early scene where Mark is giving a less than rousing speech at an elementary school. Afterwards we get an exchange between him and the school secretary revealing that it was actually David who they invited to speak. David is the only person in Mark’s otherwise rudderless life.

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Enter Steve Carrell as millionaire and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont. Carrell is almost unrecognizable in his facial prosthetics and awkward mannerisms. Du Pont invites Mark to join his Foxcatcher amateur wrestling team where he will coach and train for the Olympics. He will receive a big salary and his own lavish home on du Pont’s humongous estate. David declines to go with him, but he encourages Mark to go, believing it could be a really good thing for him. Mark joins Team Foxcatcher and over time develops a close relationship with du Pont.

A big chunk of the film focuses on the relationship between Mark and du Pont. Mark finally finds a place where he feels needed and important. He begins to see du Pont as a loving and caring father figure. On the other hand du Pont’s actions and motivations always seem a bit dubious. There is a disingenuous and self-serving air that follows him and at times Mark seems to be his personal and emotional experiment. Du Pont often manipulates and toys with the fragile-minded Mark.

The story shifts a bit after du Point turns on Mark and embarrasses him in front of other wrestlers. Du Pont then seeks out David and convinces him to join Team Foxcatcher which causes Mark to distance himself even more. The rest of the movie centers around the various conflicts between these three personalities – the butting of heads, the frustrations, the lack of trust. Miller presents the unfolding drama slowly and methodically and for the most part it works. The narrative is driven by these three characters and its easy to get caught up in this odd twisted story.

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And since the film is driven by these three key characters, good performances are a necessity. We certainly get that. Carrell shows an entire new side and a diversity that he has hinted at in the past. Ruffalo has become one of Hollywood’s steadiest actors. Here he gives the most grounded performance of the three. But the big surprise for me was Channing Tatum. I know the guy has a huge following, but I have yet to be convinced that he is a good actor. Well, that was until now. He does great work handling a complex and pivotal character.

“Foxcatcher” isn’t a perfect movie but it’s a very good one. There are a couple of slow patches and the film doesn’t completely stick the ending. At the same time the story is always compelling and watching Carrell, Tatum, and Ruffalo engage this material is a treat. “Foxcatcher” has given Bennett Miller yet another chance to define himself as a filmmaker. This is a movie that definitely fits within his comfort zone and I just wonder what strange and unusual true story Miller is going to tell us next.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

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Occasionally I will come across a movie that despite its obvious strengths and critical acclaim never connects with me. Often times it can be traced to a bad initial reaction or maybe to specific themes or performances that I didn’t care for. But there are also occasions where a movie will leave a slight mark in the back of my mind. These are films that deserve to be wrestled with regardless of my initial misgivings. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one of those films. After a fairly tepid first impression I was ready to dismiss the movie, but overwhelmingly positive reviews and a tinge of curiosity convinced me that this film deserved a second viewing.

Acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay which was based on a story he created along with director Michael Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. It cleverly develops itself as a romantic drama but incorporates a subtle bit of science fiction to create a cerebral and multifaceted story. Kaufman and Gondry steer clear of any traditional mode of storytelling and instead engage the audience on an intellectual and emotional level. There’s nothing conventional about “Eternal Sunshine” and at times its lack of clarity may be a little frustrating. But having a firm understanding of the periphery allows you to better understand what is going on inside at the heart of the film.

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The story starts by introducing us to a morose and withdrawn man named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). One morning while waiting on the train for his morning commute he takes off on a whim and hops aboard another train heading out of the city. While aimlessly strolling down a Long Island beach he notices a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who appears to be doing the same thing. A couple of chance meetings later and the two are on the same train heading back into the city. Eventually a relationship forms between these two lost souls, but before we get a good taste of it there is a dramatic narrative shift.

The film leaps forward in time which is the first of many transitions in Kaufman’s fractured storytelling. We find out that Clementine has visited a clinic called Lacuna, Inc. which specializes in wiping certain people or things from an individual’s mind. Clementine has had Joel erased. There is a real challenge here for the audience because neither we nor Joel know why she has done it. You have to wade through this information gap until Kaufman is ready to give you more. An angry Joel decides to enact his own form of revenge by visiting Lacuna himself and having Clementine wiped from his mind.

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Lacuna, Inc. is the brainchild of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). His staff is made up of his peppy receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his frazzly haired chief technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and his technician’s assistant Patrick (Elijah Wood). Each have their own surprising role to play in this absurd but utterly fascinating procedure that Joel undergoes. They also each have their own bits to add to a lightweight but intriguing side story. From there the majority of the film takes place in Joel’s mind as he has a sudden change of heart and tries to cling to and hide away any memory of Clementine before they can be erased.

The movie snaps back and forth between the surreal world inside Joel’s brain and the real world where an assortment of things play out between the Lacuna gang and Clementine. To go any further would be a criminal injustice to those who haven’t seen the picture but suffice it to say it’s some unique and compelling stuff. Also, you can’t simplify what is going on as I did during my first viewing. Kaufman and Gondry aren’t interested in a straight-line narrative or generic over-used tropes. There is a fragmented structure that is made challenging by the playing around with with chronology and order. But there is a method to the messiness that I didn’t appreciate before.

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I also didn’t appreciate just how good of a performance that Carrey gives. Over the past couple of years the actor hasn’t help his sputtering career with some rather dopey decisions he has made. But this is a performance that shows a comedic actor embracing something different and really doing it well. Winslet is her usual rock-solid self. It’s an odd and erratic role but she never struggles with it. The supporting cast is also very good at handling what they are asked to do.

I still think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a bit indulgent and I do think there are some moments where it doesn’t hit the emotional note that it is going for. But to say my opinion of the film has changed would be an understatement. I can honestly say that “I got it” during my second viewing and my appreciation for what the movie does is unquestioned. I still feel the need to see it again after the birth of my new feelings towards it, but this time it won’t be for the same reasons.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Now You See Me”

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I have to admit, the idea behind “Now You See Me” is pretty intriguing. As silly as it may sound, a group of magicians working together in huge elaborate bank heists is loaded with potential. The movie also puts together a pretty impressive cast featuring some fresh young talent, fun and reliable veterans, and a French actress that I’ve become a big fan of. So the ingredients are there for a fun an entertaining little thriller. That’s why it’s so sad that the movie stumbles all over itself and ends up being an unfortunate disappointment.

The story goes something like this – Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco are small-time magicians working the streets and house shows. They’re all brought together after being slipped a mysterious tarot card and address by a hooded stranger. We then leap forward to find that they have a fancy new stage show and perform under the name The Four Horsemen. After their first big show in Las Vegas rains down stolen money on the jubilant crowd, the FBI immediately get involved. Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) teams up with a French Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (MĂ©lanie Laurent) to head the case. Their initial interrogation with The Four Horsemen leaves a sour taste in Agent Rhodes’ mouth and he makes in his goal to stop them before their next big show.

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Michael Caine shows up as a wealthy insurance man who sponsors The Four Horsemen’s act but who may not be the ultimate brain behind their operation. We also get Morgan Freeman as a former magician who now makes his money debunking and discrediting magic acts. Both are tossed into the mix of what becomes the movie’s big question – who is the person that’s really behind The Four Horseman? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that twists and misdirections are a big part of this film. When the story stays focused on that it can be entertaining. Unfortunately this thing goes all over the place and by the time the twists do finally come, their effects on the convoluted story pack little punch.

There are numerous structural and narrative problems with “Now You See Me”. First, there are so many enormous plot holes many of which you could drive a truck through. There are also hugs gaps in logic that no amount of magic can explain. The pacing is good enough that you can overlook some of these things while watching the film. But if you take even a second to think about some of the things they completely fall apart. The story has holes. The characters have holes. The explanations and revelations have holes. We also get bits of mumbo-jumbo about some mystical magical force called The Eye which honestly I still don’t understand nor do I even care to.

Then there is the magic. With the exception of Eisenburg’s cool card trick during his first scene (a trick which got me), most of the magic and illusions were underwhelming. Most of the time they felt more like movie trickery than actual magic tricks. Also I can’t say I ever fully bought into any of the Horsemen as serious magicians. Some may blame the actors or it may be because we hardly spend any time with them. Most of our time are spent with the FBI trying to piece together what’s going on. That leaves The Four Horsemen feeling pretty flimsy.

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Personally I felt the performances were decent enough. Some where able to overcome the lackluster writing while others were smothered by it. Caine and Freeman were rock solid as always and Eisenberg was also quite good. But it was Laurent, the fine French actress I mentioned above, who gave my favorite performance. Like every other character, she has to deal with some occasionally clunky dialogue but she handles it very well. Not so with Ruffalo. He has his good moments but he also has a few stumbles. But once again, the script does him no favors.

“Now You See Me” is a real toughie for me. I was never bored. I never checked my watch. I enjoyed some of the performances, particularly from Laurent. But there are just too many stinking flaws to give the movie a recommendation. The story is riddled with plot holes. Some characters are so poorly written. The magic, which should be a strong point, won’t blow anyone’s socks off. In the end all of these problems sink the movie and keep it from being the film it should be. That’s a shame because the parts were in place. There just wasn’t a good enough story to work with.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS