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 clichés. 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: “Birdman”

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Boy it’s nice to see Michael Keaton finally getting a meaty starring role. He was a favorite of mine in the 1980s and early 90s but after that his career hit a significant lull. In “Birdman” he gets a chance to spread his wings (abysmal pun intended) and dive into a layered and complex role. He’s up to the task as evident by the slew of rave reviews and awards nominations. But while Keaton is fantastic, what about “Birdman” the movie? Is the movie itself as good as the performance of its star?

“Birdman” is a bit of a change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His previous films are known to be gloomy and emotionally heavy dramas. “Birdman” maintains the gloom and it tinkers with several emotionally heavy subjects, but at its core it’s really a black comedy. It dabbles in a number of things including strained family dysfunction, the stresses of the creative process, and satirizing the blockbuster movie culture. As with Iñárritu’s other films, some of these concepts work better than others, but he still manages to put together a strikingly unique and incisive film.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a once popular Hollywood star who made his name playing a character named Birdman in a series of popular superhero blockbusters. In an effort to revitalize his floundering career Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan doesn’t really have an environment conducive to success. One of his lead actors is out of commission after a stage accident. His replacement is a pompous, explosive but accomplished method actor named Mike (Edward Norton). His lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nervous first-time Broadway performer. His lawyer and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is panicky and always on edge.

But there are also a series of relationship issues that make things even more difficult for Riggan. His estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serves as his assistant. He has a tense relationship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan). And then there are a number of complications with his current girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan also has internal struggles. He is constantly searching for affirmations of importance, relevance, and self-worth. In his head the gravelly voice of Birdman constantly insults him and showers him with expectations of failure.

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Needless to say Michael Keaton is brilliant and his Riggan character is the most compelling of the bunch. Keaton has always had panache and “Birdman” gives him a chance to flaunt it. Riggan is such a wild card – a swirling ball of emotional chaos. He’s constantly on edge and you get a sense that his Broadway production has become his own private hell. It, and him for that matter, seem to be careening towards disaster. Keaton manages all of this with a manic tenacity, yet he always gives us convincing quiet moments. Keaton gives us so many layers to his character. Is he a raging egotist? Is he having a mental breakdown? Is he a bit of both? All of the supporting work is good, but for me it all comes back to Keaton.

Another attention getter is the kinetic cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Most of the film visually presents itself in one long continuous state of motion. The camera snakes down hallways, prowls behind characters, hovers and rotates during conversations. It’s all done with some pretty clever bits of trickery which gives the illusion of a long unending take. The ever-moving camera feels in tune with the hectic, turbulent atmosphere, and I loved how it made every nook and cranny of St. James Theatre familiar to us. But at the same time I was happy when the camera would just stop, be still, and just let us focus on the actors.

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There is no denying the technique and smarts behind “Birdman”, but despite its bold and fresh appearance, in terms of narrative is it doing anything we haven’t seen before? And I don’t think all of Iñárritu’s satire works. His shots at entertainment media and criticism, his look at entertainment versus art, none of it really clicks. I also found it pointlessly crass at times and surprisingly low on humor even during the scenes where it’s really trying to be funny. Perhaps the funniest thing about “Birdman” is having Michael Keaton, an actor whose career went downhill after playing Batman, play Riggan.

“Birdman” is an interesting entry into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmography. It’s not quite as miserable and tragedy-driven as his past films and that’s refreshing. But Iñárritu is still a director who can suffocate his story with his style and high concepts. In this film I think his technique is one of the strong points. It’s clever, well implemented, and it feeds the frantic chaos of the wonderful setting. And while the film is a bit smug at times and the story is stuffed to the gills, I still found myself hooked. As I said, there’s something hypnotic about “Birdman”. Oh, and did I mention Michael Keaton?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Robocop” (2014)

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I can’t tell you how many times I watched the original “RoboCop” during my teen years. The 1987 sci-fi action flick was such a wild ride. It had a really cool mixture of wacky humor, slick satire, a great villain, and some insane (and frequently graphic) action sequences. Then I heard that MGM was bringing RoboCop back. Yes, yet another remake of a popular 1980’s movie. Then I see where this new RoboCop film was getting the dreaded February release date. All things pointed to this being a crappy movie.

But what a surprise it was to find this to be a cool and competent action movie. Let me say it again,”RoboCop” is surprisingly good and I am as shocked as anyone. This is essentially a reboot that takes many of the elements from the original film and adds a modern touch. It shuffles up the narrative a bit and it gets a fresh coat of CGI paint. But the core of the film is the same. It falls short of the first film in several areas, but it makes its own satisfying statement in others. Again, I was really surprised.

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This “RoboCop” quickly lays out its politically charged landscape. The United States government has handed over its military reins to a multinational corporation known as OmniCorp. These guys have mastered advanced robot technology which allows for mechanical soldiers to replace humans. Their sales pitch points to how many lives have been saved in American military interests around the world. OmniCorp’s next big moneymaking venture is selling their products to local law enforcement. But a group of strong-willed senators and a very concerned public opinion stands in the way. This hodgepodge of political wrangling and big corporate greed is clearly intended as some sort of social satire. Well the message didn’t resonate with me, but it did set up an interesting landscape for the main story.

Speaking of the main story, this time around Swedish born actor Joel Kinnaman plays Detroit police detective Alex Murphy. He and his partner have been working undercover to bring down a local crime boss. But as he gets closer to blowing the top off the case, the bad guys get nervous and try to take Murphy out. A car bomb goes off leaving Murphy with severe burns, amputations, and no hope for survival. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) approaches Murphy’s wife Clara (played by the lovely Abbie Cornish) and offers to save her husband’s life by placing him in a permanent robotic suit. Of course Sellars real intent is to put a face on his robot program in hopes of swaying public opinion.

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One thing I was looking forward to was the return of Michael Keaton to a larger big screen role. I’ve always loved him dating back to his early madcap comedy style. While he is written to be your standard corporate baddie, Keaton brings a certain slimy panache to the role. It was great to see him back. There was also the casting of Gary Oldman as a scientist who struggles with the moral complexity of the RoboCop project. It’s a great role for Oldman and as you would expect he is fabulous. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson who plays a loud and opinionated cable news talk show host. We only see him via his broadcast and he is funny in spurts. But by his fourth appearance I was tired of him.

The funny thing about this film is that it flirts with a number of satirical themes and the story teases going in several different directions. But it pulls back on a number of occasions choosing to play it safe. There are several interesting turns that really hooked me and I wanted them to go further than they actually do. Still, there was enough in and around the central story to keep me involved. Some of the plot directions are really effective and very well conceived.

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But many people will go to “RoboCop” looking for some good, old-fashioned action. They will definitely get it here. Director José Padilha definitely knows how to shoot action. There are some butt-kicking standout sequences, none better than a wicked shootout in a pitch black gang hideout. It’s stylish, kinetic, and a ton of fun. The technology is cool, the RoboCop suit looks great, and there are several other visual flares that I loved. For example one scene shows what is left of Murphy once he is stripped of his armor. It’s a wild and disturbing special effect that also fuels one of the movie’s bigger emotional moments.

So many of these modern remakes have turned out terrible (I’m looking at you “Red Dawn” and “Total Recall”). The good news is “RoboCop” certainly isn’t terrible. It isn’t as provocative is it wants to be. It isn’t as clever as it tries to be. It isn’t as witty as it needs to be. But it is more fun than I ever expected it to be. There is some great action, some really good performances, and enough depth to the story to make it a worthwhile science fiction romp. Don’t expect a deep cerebral experience. After all this is RoboCop. But I can honestly say, that it had a lot more to offer than I was ever expecting.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

THE THROWDOWN : Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week Christian Bale (74%) manhandled Michael Keaton (26%) in a Batman battle to the death.*

This week it’s an action movie face-off between the two biggest names of the 80’s. The 80’s and early 90’s were the glory days of the action genre and no one was bigger than Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forget the critical acclaim, the stuffy Academy Awards, and the overrated importance of good acting. These guys were all about biceps, blood, and bullets. Before they teamed up in the recent “The Expendables” movies, these two had a huge box office rivalry that lasted several years. Now it’s time to settle the big question. Which of these action movie icons is truly the best? Their guns are loaded, their knives are sharpened, and their muscles are flexed. But it’s your votes that will decide the outcome.

STALLONE vs. SCHWARZENEGGER

At 66-years old, Sly Stallone is still kicking bad guy’s butts on the big screen. But then again, he’s been doing it for almost 40 years. His career really took off in 1976 with “Rocky”. But it was “First Blood” and “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” that laid the foundation for what would become an amazing action movie career. He would go on to clean up a psycho cult in “Cobra”, team up with Kurt Russell in “Tango & Cash”, hang from mountain cliffs in “Cliffhanger”, battle baddies in the future with “Demolition Man” and “Judge Dredd”, and rescue survivors trapped in a collapsed tunnel in “Daylight”. He’s also made several more “Rocky” pictures and two more “Rambo” films. He has several new projects ahead but he’ll always be remembered for his incredible run that helped make the action genre so popular.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may have more memorable scenes and memorable one-liners than anyone in cinema history. He also has an action movie resume that’s as impressive as any you will see. This one-time Austrian bodybuilder made a name for himself in the early 80’s with his “Conan” films. But his career really took off when he traded his sword for a gun in the sci-fi classic “The Terminator”. He then cemented his one-man-army status in “Commando” and “Raw Deal”. He would battle an alien threat in the spectacular military sci-fi film “Predator”. He also ventured into the future with “The Running Man” and “Total Recall” before making what is one of the best sequels of all time, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. He mad several more action films including “True Lies” and another successful “Terminator” flick. This 65-year old has no plans on slowing down and you’ll see him plenty in 2013.

So there’s a case for both. Now you decide who’s the winner. The action movie genre wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of these two icons. So vote now. Who’s the heavier hitter, Arnie or Sly? You decide!

THE THROWDOWN : Christian Bale vs. Michael Keaton

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects and pit them against each other and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and so much more and see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

This week’s Throwdown is a Bat-Battle to the death between Michael Keaton and Christian Bale. Both of these men wore the cape and the cowl and were undeniably the best that did so. This isn’t measuring which had the better movies. This is all about who was the better Batman and whose performance you liked the best. Forget Kilmer and please, please, please forget Clooney. These two guys WERE Batman. Now you vote and decide who was the best.

BALE vs. KEATON

Christian Bale was a fantastic choice to help revive the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher’s disastrous “Batman and Robin”. Director Christopher Nolan took Bale and built a more grounded and believable Bruce Wayne and took him through some pretty dark places during his immensely popular trilogy. But it’s Bale’s performance that’s key. He unquestionably gets better and better with each movie and by the end of the trilogy he made the character his own. He also has the physical abilities to sell it all. Bale was a wonderful Batman and there’s an easy argument to make that he’s the best caped crusader to hit the big screen.

It may be easy for some people to dismiss Michael Keaton’s two movie tenure as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. But for those of us who remember standing in line in 1989 to see Tim Burton’s “Batman”, we most certainly appreciate how well the actor embodied Bruce Wayne. I’ve always been a fan of Keaton’s but I wasn’t sure about him taking on this role. He was a pleasant surprise and he’s a key reason that the first film worked so well. He’s a much different Batman that Bale but that’s in large part due to the material. Even in the second picture “Batman Returns”, a movie I’m not crazy about, Keaton shines. He left the role just before the franchise was destroyed but his stint still holds up today.

So who is it? You’ve got two very different actors giving two very different depictions of Batman. Forget their movies. This is about the men behind the masks. Bale or Keaton…your votes decide.