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: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

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Why, why, why? Oh who am I kidding? The reason is obvious – money. That’s the reason they chose to split the final chapter of “The Hunger Games” series into two movies. It certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen this done. Following the profitable but not narratively beneficial blueprint laid out by “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is the first part of the much anticipated series finale.

The first Hunger Games movie was pretty good although it didn’t convince me that this was a franchise worth following. It was the second movie, “Catching Fire”, that won me over. The characters grow, the stakes are raised, you gain a firm understanding of where the franchise is going, and it ends with a bang. Now enter “Mockingjay – Part 1”, the first part of the final chapter, and a film with nowhere near the pop of its predecessor. It’s not that this is an inherently bad movie. Several interesting things happen. But it is stretched past its limits in order to make this a two-movie ending and the film suffers for it.

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All of the cast of characters return led by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Recuperating from the chaotic conclusion of “Catching Fire”, Katniss wakes up in District 13, the home of the burgeoning rebellion. After a brief reunion with her mother and sister, her is introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore) who wants Katniss to be the face (AKA the Mockingjay) of the growing rebellion. Old friends Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) encourage Katniss to take on the role and inspire the people.

But Katniss remains unsure, that is until she see is taken to see the carnage and ruins of her home district left behind following an intense bombing by the Capitol. She eventually accepts but only if President Coin agrees to send a rescue team to free a captured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol city. Peeta is being used by the noxious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as a propaganda piece to quell the rebellion. Several other familiar faces return. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is given a bit more to do this time around. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) pops up in a couple of scenes to offer sage-like counsel. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) appears in what is basically a tag-along role. And Stanley Tucci’s wacky Caesar gets very little screen time.

 

“Mockingjay – Part 1” doesn’t offer a lot in terms of thrills and excitement. Instead it gives us speeches and debates. Then it gives us more speeches and debates. We have long moments of indecision, lots of pondering, a bunch of planning. We visit a few locations (one of them twice where we get the exact same camera shots) and we get a couple of random scenes featuring inspired rebels. But very little spans beyond Katniss’ reluctance in becoming the Mockingjay and the political wrangling by both the rebellion and the Capitol.

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To be fair, I did enjoy a lot of the political back-and-forths. I also still like spending time with most of these characters. And Jennifer Lawrence is once again superb. There is nothing glamorous about her role. She attacks it with such conviction and delivers genuine raw emotion. There are also great performances from Hoffman, Wright, and Sutherland who is so playfully vile as the the chief antagonist. Moore was the biggest new addition and she serves the part. But her character is pretty straightforward and generic and she is isn’t asked to show much range.

I know “Mockingjay – Part 1” is considered a part of a greater whole, but as a single movie it disappoints. It felt like a gradual meandering buildup towards a climax that we never get. Even the cliffhanger (if you can even call it that) was shockingly underwhelming. And you can tell that numerous scenes were stretched as far as they could go in order to make this a two-picture conclusion. Yet still there are enjoyable moments, good characters, strong performances, and the knowledge that this is just a set-up to what should be an action-packed final film. But as a single standalone movie, I was definitely hoping for more.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

“Jack the Giant Slayer” – 3 STARS

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Hollywood is all about the fairy tales these days. Much like the superhero craze, we’ve seen a load of fairy tale features covering everything from Snow White to Hansel and Gretel. The latest is a variation of the familiar Jack and the Beanstalk story titled “Jack the Giant Slayer”. It comes from director Bryan Singer and to call it a slight deviation from the classic story would be misleading. This CGI laden fantasy picture takes a few of the ingredients from the fairy tale but basically builds its own original story.

I find Bryan Singer to be a very hit or miss director so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this picture. What I got was an above average and sometimes surprisingly fun fantasy film that can be entertaining as long as you’re able to overlook its flaws. I know some who have struggled with doing that, but for me and my tempered expectations I actually came out of the theater a bit surprised. Unfortunately there are a few hiccups and for that I just can’t let the movie off the hook.

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It almost feels like they took parts from several other fantasy films, threw them in a pot, and mixed them together to get the story of “Jack and the Giant Slayer”. I have no doubt that throughout the film you’ll be saying “yep, I’ve seen that before” repeatedly. We get the blind and bull-headed king who insists on an arranged marriage between his daughter and a devious lord. We get the poor commoner who falls in love with the princess. And we have a huge event that allows the commoner to prove his worth. Throw in a silly sidekick and a trusted protector and you’re into some pretty familiar territory. And while all of these characters play out pretty much as you would expect, I still think the story does enough fun things with them to entertain.

Nicholas Hoult (you may remember him from this years “Warm Bodies”) plays Jack, a poor farm boy who goofs up one day by trading his uncle’s horse to a monk for a handful of mystical beans. Of course you know the story, these are magical beans but Jack’s irate uncle doesn’t buy it and he flings them across the room with one falling through a crack in their floor. In a slightly similar story of frustrated youth, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) pleads with her stubborn father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) not to sanction her marriage to the slimy Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). As usual the King is blind to Roderick’s scheme to take over his kingdom even though we recognize it before he says a line of dialogue. Then again if some of these characters were smart we wouldn’t have much of the story left.

Repelled by the arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love, the princess disguises herself and sneaks out of the city on horseback. But after ending up lost in the middle of a late night deluge she comes across Jack’s house where she seeks shelter. The two make starry-eyes at each other but are interrupted when the rainwater soaked bean under the house sprouts. And boy does it sprout! Jack is knocked out of the house and Isabelle is taken through the clouds by the humongous beanstalk. Soon the King and his men arrive and Jack informs them about the princess. A rescue team of Guardians led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and including Jack and Roderick head up the beanstalk to find the princess. But waiting above is a sky world inhabited by giants with a special appetite for human flesh.

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Now even though this movie features some pretty standard characters I can honestly say I was interested in some of them. Hoult is quite good and believable as the unexpected hero. I also thought Tomlinson was solid and very princessy. Sadly she isn’t given anything to do outside of the typical damsel in distress routine. That’s unfortunate. I would love to see her character have more depth. I also didn’t mind Stanley Tucci, a very good actor who’s clearly having a lot of fun as the antagonist. And as always Ewan McGregor is very good giving a variation of the knight in shining armor. McShane on the other hand seems dry and by the numbers. That could be because his character was probably the most poorly written in the film.

But where the movie spends most of its money is on the visuals. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a virtual feast of tantalizing eye candy. The beanstalks are incredibly well conceived. The scenery with its green meadows, huge waterfalls, and lush forests are nothing short of gorgeous. But the giants are the real treat, each designed with amazing detail. I was really surprised at just how well done they are particularly in some big action sequences in the second half of the film. But in spite of all of these great special effects I did at time feel a bit disconnected due to the massive amounts of CGI. It wasn’t the quality of CGI but the volume. And it wasn’t helped by the 3-D. Like so many films the 3-D offered nothing for me and it felt pointless. I also have to say some of the costume designs were pretty dreadful, specifically the royalty garb. I couldn’t help but laugh at McShane in his gold-plated monstrosity.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a mixed bag but overall I found it to be an entertaining mixed bag. If you can shake off the cookie cutter characters, the occasional cheap and lazy writing, and the overload of CGI there’s some fun to be had here. I can honestly say I had a good time with this picture and I would really like to praise it more. Unfortunately its shortcomings keep me from doing that and instead I’m left feeling that this could have been something really special. Instead we’re left with a good but not great film that left a lot of potential behind. Still, you could do a lot worse at the theater.