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: “A Most Wanted Man”

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Anton Corbijn’s brooding espionage-thriller “A Most Wanted Man” doesn’t follow any popular spy movie blueprint or formula and the movie is better for it. It won’t take audiences long to notice the intentionally deliberate pacing, dialogue-driven suspense, and strong character focus. All of these elements create a very grounded and methodical procedural that relies heavily on great performances and a strong screenplay from Andrew Bovell.

“A Most Wanted Man” isn’t just a unique thriller. It also has the sad distinction of being Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance. He plays Günther Bachmann, the head of a German anti-terrorist group. He’s a heavy smoker, drinks a lot, and often times looks unkept. In fact, in an unfortunate case or art imitating reality, he looks terribly unhealthy. But Hoffman takes whatever personal struggles he may have been going through and injects them into this character creating someone full of raw authenticity.

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When a Chechen Muslim on Interpol’s radar illegally enters Hamburg Günther and his team begin tracking him down in hopes of catching bigger fish in a potential terrorist ring. Complicating things is a German security official (Rainer Bock) who wants to apprehend the Chechen instead of using him. Then there is an American intelligence agent named Sullivan (played with fascinating mystery by Robin Wright). No one knows her intent and Günther doesn’t trust her from the start.

The story spins in several different directions and we are kept on our toes by some interesting twists and character developments. It becomes a movie of ‘who is a terrorist and who isn’t’ and ‘who can I trust’. Watching Hoffman navigate through this maze of clues and information is half the fun. Willem Dafoe shows up as a banker with a very shady past and Rachel McAdams has a hefty role as a human rights attorney who latches on to the Chechen suspect’s case. Both characters play key roles in the unfolding story.

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When you’re working with this type of material you have to trust your cast and they are all good here. I still find myself drawn to Wright’s performance and the unshakable confidence she brings to her character. Dafoe is also spot-on and many of the film’s great scenes have him in them. McAdams
is good although she often has trouble keeping her accent. But this is truly Hoffman’s film and he strips away every shred of showmanship in portraying this sad and weary soul whose life revolves around his work. He is obsessive to a fault, but that’s also what helps to make him such a compelling character.

“A Most Wanted Man” may not be for everyone and that’s a shame. It’s a slow burn meticulously built around nuggets of information we glean from conversations, interviews, and observations. It’s compelling stuff – crisp and razor sharp. There was a moment or two where I wasn’t sure what was being discussed and there are a couple of lulls. But even in those moments there is still Hoffman’s sublime performance. If there had to be a final performance this a fitting one – conscientious, complex, and forceful. It’s a clear reminder of the natural ability this man had as an actor.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Midnight in Paris”

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Without a doubt the romantic comedy is one of the weaker movie genres and has been for years. But sometimes we get a special gem that reminds us of just how fun these types of movies can be. “Midnight in Paris”, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a crash course in the art of making a romantic comedy. It is loaded with heart and feeling and doesn’t trudge down the same path as so many failed films of this genre. It’s a movie that captures the magic of it’s location and the inner workings of it’s characters. It’s clever and unique while maintaining a true romantic feel and sense of humor.

“Midnight in Paris” opens with a picturesque three-minute montage focusing on the beauty of Paris, France. It gracefully moves from one exquisitely framed shot to another, showing us historical landmarks, museums, cafes, and more all set to the lovely “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere”. It elegantly sets up the city of Paris as not only a central character in the film, but an enchanting and magical force whose influence is seen throughout the picture. In many ways Woody Allen is celebrating Paris. He wants us to love the city and appreciate the mystique of it’s rich history just as much as his main character does. Allen’s desire works. I was instantly grabbed and found myself totally lost in what I was seeing on the screen.

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While Paris is at the heart of the story, the main character is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a hack Hollywood screenwriter who is visiting the city with his fiancée and her parents. Gil loves everything about Paris and to this day regrets his decision not to move there when he had a chance several years ago. He feels he was meant for more than writing screenplays but he struggles with confidence. He doesn’t feel comfortable in today’s world and believes he would be a better fit in the 1920s. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is a spoiled momma’s girl who spends more time insulting Gil than supporting him. There is clearly a disconnect between the two. He loves Paris and she doesn’t. He’s working on a novel that he thinks will change his career and she thinks he’s wasting his time. He enjoys the small details in life while she would rather milk it for it’s benefits.

While in Paris they run into Paul (Michael Sheen), Inez’s old friend and self-proclaimed expert on everything from art to French culture to fine wines. Inez seems infatuated with Paul’s knowledge regardless of how many facts he gets wrong in his efforts to impress everyone. Needing to get away, Gil takes off on a late night walk. After getting lost, he is picked up by a group of partiers in an old classic car who magically transport him back to 1920s Paris. Here he meets many of his literary and artistic heroes such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Stein. He also meets the lovely Adriana (played wonderfully by Marion Cotillard) who he grows more attracted to with each midnight visit.

The fantasy turn of Allen’s story did feel a bit out of the blue at first but it didn’t take long before I was enthralled with what I was seeing. Gil’s golden age is recreated flawlessly from the music and atmosphere to the careful attention to detail. I loved seeing these authors, painters, composers, and filmmakers of old fleshed out through some fantastic performances. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are absolutely brilliant as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I also loved Marcial Di Fonzo Bo as Picasso and Adrien Brody as Dali, both in smaller but fun roles. And then there’s Corey Stoll as Hemingway who steals many of the scenes he’s in. The supporting cast is such a wonderful ingredient to the film’s charm.

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But in terms of acting it’s Owen Wilson that really blew me away. In many ways he plays a character that really fits him. We’ve seen elements of this performance in other roles of his but here everything is perfectly measured and controlled. Even though Woody Allen has stated he gave Wilson a lot of room to work, it’s clear that Allen has a solid influence on his performance. I’ve been really lukewarm concerning most of Wilson’s past work but he really, really impressed me here. He dials it back a bit and never allows his performance to drown out the material.

“Midnight in Paris” does call for the audience to just buy into it’s fantasy angle and if you struggle with that you may struggle with this picture. It also turns out to be fairly predictable in places. But these small gripes do nothing to kill the magic of this picture for me. This is certainly a love letter to Paris, but it’s also a lesson on living in the present. Allen reminds us that the golden age so many long for isn’t that different from where we are now. It’s a beautiful film both visually and structurally and it moves along at an almost poetic pace. Better yet, “Midnight in Paris” is a film that gives us hope for a struggling genre. I love this movie.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “To the Wonder”

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Terrence Malick is a filmmaker that marches to the beat of his own drum. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like the most about him. We say this often but here it unquestionably applies – you know a Terrence Malick movie when you see one. Malick has a distinct style of lyrical and visual storytelling and you either respond to it or you don’t. Personally I love it. Now sometimes his style is more impressive than his finished products, but for the most part Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, his last film “The Tree of Life” was my clear favorite film of 2011.

Malick is a director who takes his time and only makes a film when he’s ready. This is evident by the fact that he has only six movies on his directing resume. His latest, surprisingly only two years after “The Tree of Life”, is another exercise in lyrical and contemplative style. It’s one of my most anticipated films of 2013. It’s called “To the Wonder” and for me it’s another soul-stirring gem that throws the textbook on conventional moviemaking out the window. Instead Malick is making another deeply personal film, possibly his most personal movie to date. It’s also his most romantic, most spiritual, and most tragic film all at the same time.

The movie follows a young couple as they navigate the unquenchable joys and the devastating heartbreaks associated with love. We first meet Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, France. The two are madly in love and Malick expresses it through a rhythmic series of romantic and absorbing scenes in such beautiful Parisian settings such as the Luxembourg Gardens and the banks of the Seine River. There’s also a majestic sequence with the two outside of town at the gorgeous Mont Saint-Michel. Neil and Marina can’t seem to be able to control their affection for the other. There’s a strong focus on touch in these scenes whether it’s holding hands or running a hand across the shoulder blades. The romance between Neil and Marina is sublime and beautiful and I never doubted its authenticity.

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Marina, a Paris native and single mother, decides to move with her daughter to the States in order to be close to Neil. They land in midwestern Oklahoma where Neil works as an environmental safety inspector. The contrast between the energetic and vibrant Paris and their sparse and sometimes empty Oklahoma community almost serves as a metaphor for their relationship. The two who were as passionate as the French city they consumed now battle creeping bouts of emptiness and an emotional wedge that we watch grow and grow. It becomes painfully obvious that their relationship is hurting but neither seems to know what to do.

Then there’s the story of Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest in Neil and Marina’s area. Quintana is a troubled man. He has a deep love for the Lord but he feels disconnected. He’s dying to have the intimacy with God that he once had. He visits the sick, the poor, and the needy. He shepherds his flock. Yet there’s still a void in his soul that he desperately wants to fill. But he’s also a lonely man bound by the shackles of the priesthood an its strict rules. Watching Bardem’s solemn face and lonely, tired eyes really drew me to this character. It did surprise me how little he had to do with what seemed like the main focus of the film but Malick shows some moving similarities between his struggles and those of Neil and Marina.

Their stories do begin to connect and we watch as everything plays out. But don’t expect a tight narrative with a fully disclosed ending. Malick is more interested in having us observe and experience than being baby fed an entire story. He wants us to feel, to sympathize, to grow angry, and to meditate. Our time is spent observing and Malick lays his canvas before us. On it he explores inner conflicts, poor and costly decisions, and revived hope. It’s presented through an artistic machine that utilizes everything including the stunning score, the beauty of nature, a graceful camera, and the natural ambiance of the world surrounding his characters.

Affleck and Kurylenko are transcendent. The film features little to no dialogue with the exception of voice-over narrations therefore the two lead actors basically perform off of each other or in scenes alone. Neither ever seem aware of the camera and both get lost in their performances. Affleck was a great surprise. He’s quiet, sincere, and a stout and strong contrast to Kurylenko’s subtle elegance and grace. And speaking of Kurylenko, I think she gives an awards worthy performance. But while the performances are key, a Terrence Malick film is usually made in the editing room. Don’t believe me? Just ask Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain. Both shot scenes for the film but all of them ended up on the cutting room floor. Regardless the editing is sensational and the film moves like a page of good music with the exceptions of a few patches of repetition in the second half of the film.

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As with his other movies, Malick uses his visuals to draw us in and also tell the bulk of his story. His sensational command of his camera and his artist’s eye for capturing beautiful shots are essential to his success. His camera is constantly moving and it always seems perfectly positioned. I was absorbed in what I was seeing and his fluid and poetic transitions from shot to shot kept me that way. Even for those who don’t respond to the film as a whole, they’ll be hard pressed to not be fascinated with Malick’s visual artistry.

There will be plenty of people who can’t latch onto “To the Wonder”. It will be perceived as slow, confounding, and lifeless. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved the film and while it’s certainly not as challenging as “The Tree of Life”, it’s still a captivating piece of cinema. It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t adhere to a conventional storytelling formula. It asks the audience to think and to feel. If you’re not open to that you’re probably not going to respond well to this film.

In his final review before his unfortunate passing, the late Roger Ebert said this about “To the Wonder” : “(Many will) be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply.” I think he’s right and some early reviews have shown that to be true. But I believe Malick has given us another standout picture that takes a real (sometimes uncomfortably so) look at relationships, faith, and the quest for love in both. Yet it’s all told through an artist’s lens with entrancing metaphoric imagery and a steady grace that could only come from a Terrence Malick film. I know many are going to struggle with this movie but for me it’s the first great film of 2013.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE VOW” – 1 1/2 STARS

Some movies are released that really leaves me scratching my head. I ask myself “How on Earth did this movie get made?” Such was the case with “The Vow”, yet another poorly acted and poorly written entry in the hurting romantic comedy genre. I was honestly dumbfounded that “The Vow” saw the light of day. But after seeing the movie rake in almost $200 million worldwide, I was reminded that there is an audience for this type of shallow and unoriginal storytelling.

“The Vow” offers nothing original. It almost comes across as a slightly better looking mid-day soap opera. Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) are a happy young married couple. While heading home after a movie the two are involved in a car accident. Paige is thrown from the car and experiences severe head trauma. As she recovers, Leo stays by her side waiting for her to regain consciousness. When she does, as you can probably guess, she has amnesia and doesn’t recognize Leo. Yes, they really went there.

Things are complicated when her parents enter the mix. In pre-amnesia times, Paige’s relationship with her parents was nonexistent. They use her memory loss as an opportunity to jump back into her life. This pits them against Leo in an attempt to win her affection while she struggles to remember her old life. Throw in Scott Speedman as Jeremy, her ex-fiancee who she split up with prior to meeting Leo. Of course he wants back in her life and sees Paige’s memory loss as his ticket in.

Most of problems with “The Vow” can be traced back the shoddy writing. There’s not one single character mentioned above that feels authentic. They are all paper-thin versions of characters we’ve seen so many times before. The movie hinges upon the love between Paige and Leo. Unfortunately I never bought into them as a couple. Their dialogue is so silly and tripe and neither of the performers are believable. A lot of people like Channing Tatum as an actor but I’m still not sold on him. He delivers so many flat, stone-faced lines and I often found myself laughing at scenes not intended to be funny. McAdams tries her best but the material she is given is so incredibly slight and superficial.

There are instances where “The Vow” teases you into thinking it’s going in a more unconventional directions. But that’s never the case. Sure the ending isn’t the straightforward run-of-the-mill mush that we usually see, but it’s also not enough to save the film which labors from start to finish. Weak material and Tatum’s poor lead performance end up killing the movie before it even gets going. So I find myself again lamenting the status of the romantic comedy, a genre that I actually like but that is bombarded with poor movie after poor movie. But I guess as long as people keep paying money to see them, this is what we can expect.

FIVE GREAT SCENES FROM “MIDNIGHT IN PARIS”

Ok, I’ve never been what you would call a Woody Allen fan. That being said, I can’t express how much I enjoy “Midnight in Paris. It’s a movie that features some great laughs and the best performance from a usually annoying Owen Wilson. It’s a romance film but not in the traditional sense. The true love of the movie is the city and it’s magic. It’s the city that brings Gil Pender (Wilson) to realize some very important things about himself and his life. It’s the city that Gil’s in love with and it’s the city that helps him get on the right path in life.

Now I know that one reason I responded so strongly to this movie was because of my current trip to Paris. As I sit here soaking up all this glorious place has to offer, I understand what Allen in conveying in his film. Paris is a city like no other. It’s living and breathing. It’s a place filled with history, style, and beauty, all things that “Midnight in Paris” presents. So my opinion of the movie is most certainly influenced by my expectations of what I’m now experiencing here in Paris, France.

But let’s not get bogged down in just that. “Midnight in Paris” is also laugh out loud hilarious. The characters are fantastic and for my money it features some of Woody Allen’s best writing. Filmed at various locations here in Paris (some we have already visited), Allen places his characters right in the middle of this city both past and present day. The performances are top-notch and the feeling of nostalgia is impossible to deny. It’s a beautiful film that I just love talking about.

So, before we head off to a local cafe and take a stroll in the Latin Quarter, I thought I would share five great scenes from this movie I love. Now, last Sunday I did a Phenomenal 5 on Paris movie scenes and #2 was the gorgeous opening montage of “Midnight in Paris”. Since I’ve already used it I’ll leave it out here. But it is an amazing opening sequence that I have watched over and over. These scenes I have picked are just samples of what makes this movie so good. Great laughs, great characters, great performances, great city!

 #1 – GIL MEETS THE FITZGERALDS

One of my favorite scenes in “Midnight in Paris” is where Gil meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (played brilliantly by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston). After getting lost in the streets of Paris, Gil is picked up by an antique car which whisks him away to 1920’s Paris. He arrives at a bar where a party is going on and bumps into the Fitzgeralds. Gil’s confusion mixed with amazing portrayals from Hiddleston and Pill make this a hysterical scene. And even though it’s completely preposterous, the environment, the music, and the performances make this strikingly believable. Hiddleston alone makes this scene with his chipper expressions and hilarious line deliveries. I love it.

#2 – DEBATE AT THE RODIN MUSEUM

We all know people like Paul (Michael Sheen) from “Midnight in Paris”. He’s one of those who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is. He’s an old friend of Gil’s fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and she is enamored by his immense knowledge of Paris and it’s history even though most of his “knowledge” is flat-out wrong. A great example of this is the scene in the gardens at the Rodin Museum. Paul, flexing his pseudo-intellectual muscle, actually argues with the museum tour guide regarding Rodin’s past relationships. Paul is clearly wrong, but you know guys like this, they’ll never be convinced of it. Sheen’s delivery is hilarious and Rodin himself couldn’t have convinced this know-it-all otherwise. *(Yes, I know this photo isn’t from the Rodin Museum scene but it perfectly captures the Paul character).

#3 – A CHAT WITH HEMINGWAY

Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Earnest Hemingway was absolutely phenomenal. We’re introduced to him after Gil leaves the above mentioned party with the Fitzgeralds in search of more lively entertainment. They enter a bar where Hemingway is sitting alone in the corner. We just stand there alongside Gil and watch as a hilarious conversation takes place between Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. It’s clear that Zelda doesn’t like Earnest and she takes off. F. Scott soon follows leaving Gil to share a conversation about life and  writing with one of his literary idols. Stoll speaks like Hemingway wrote which adds an ever funnier element to their conversation. This is a key moment in the film that begins Gil’s new perspective on life. It’s also extremely funny.

#4 – A NIGHT WALK WITH ADRIANA

After several trips back in time, Gil finds himself mesmerized by the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard). He finally gets some meaningful time alone with her as they share a romantic walk on a beautiful Paris night. The cool 1920’s feel mixed with the beauty of the city of lights is the perfect setting for the movie’s most romantic scene. Woody Allen also uses Gil to once again speak of the allure of the city. It makes you question who he’s attracted to more, Adriana or the city? This is such a wonderful scene that moves which such grace, all as the equally beautiful “Parlez-moi d’amour” plays in the background. Call me a sap but this is a great scene.

#5 –  PARIS IN THE RAIN

The movie ends with Gil walking alone in the Paris night. He’s broken it off with Inez and has realized his desire for the past was misguided and that every era has their own problems. Unsure of everything, he bumps into Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux) again on the beautiful Pont Alexandre III bridge. The two strike up a conversation and Gil tells her that he will be staying in Paris. There is an obvious attraction between them which is only solidified when a small rain shower pops up. The two walk off together enjoying the rain and the city. While Gil thought he once again had no direction in his life, Paris takes him by the hand and sets his course. What a great way to end the movie.

Well, that’s all for now. I have fountains, paintings, a buttered baguette, and a cozy cafe in my immediate future. What did you think of “Midnight in Paris”. Hopefully you liked it as much as I did. Please fell free to share your thoughts on it. And until I hit the states again…au revior.