Sunday, November 29, 2015

Video review: "Amy"

I’m at an age where one stops paying much attention to the popular music of the day, preferring the sounds of our youth. So I experienced the swift rise and early death of singer Amy Winehouse from a distance, where it’s easier to smirk and make light of another person’s tragedy.

Workaday people have a hard time relating to the struggles of creative personalities -- especially successful ones who earn millions of dollars at a young age while doing what they love. ‘Give me those kinds of problems,’ we say.

“Amy” is a great documentary film because, like the best of its kind, it can take a subject that appears alien or even laughable to us, and make it seem immediate and very human. This portrait of a tender soul who had it all, and lost it all, is heartbreaking and fascinating.

Director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) shows great empathy toward Winehouse, but never drops the journalistic mode of exploration to simply genuflect and celebrate. It shows the moody, bluesy singer in all her amazing glory, and pitiable squalor.

Her seriocomic life played out in an extravagant public parade of drugs, wastrel boyfriends, abuse and disaffection. With her beehive hairdo and slathered makeup, Winehouse resembled a 1960s West End hooker who wandered up on stage and turned out to have amazing pipes.

She wrote great, soaring songs about life’s lows -- her lyrics were autobiographical, confessional, defiant. We drank in the catchy R&B bliss and tittered at the ridiculous person who belted it at us. Every news cycle seemed to produce more lurid behavior; the portrait of a hard-partying girl who couldn’t say no to temptation became fixed.

This was, after all, a woman whose biggest hit single was about refusing to go to rehab.

The film has the usual testimonials from people who knew her, and plenty of interviews with Amy herself. What makes it truly revelatory are the many private videos she and her loved ones shot, talking freely without posterity looking over their shoulder. Here Winehouse reveals her innermost self – including her prediction, while still a struggling teen artist, that she will not bear fame very well.

How dreadfully right she was. This documentary underlines how misguided we were -- I was -- to laugh at Amy Winehouse. All we have now are her echoes.

Bonus features are decent, anchored by a feature-length audio commentary track by Kapadia. The DVD also has video of previously unseen performances by Winehouse, plus deleted scenes. Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add interviews with friends and musicians.



Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Film review: "Creed"

“Creed” is a self-conscious attempt to bring closure to the Rocky Balboa saga, by depicting the aged boxer passing on the torch to another underdog. It’s a classic story of beginnings and endings, fathers and sons, starting a new chapter and closing an old one.

It’s well-made, stirring, and would make for a fitting summation to a 40-year journey.

(Though as long as Sylvester Stallone, who’ll be 70 next year, is capable of shambling in front of the camera and mouthing that iconic stumblebum patois, don’t bet on this being the last “Rocky” movie.)

Just how important is Rocky to us? He’s probably the most famous sports figure who isn’t actually real. Check that; in many ways, you could argue he is real. Certainly his influence is – on movies, the sport of boxing and the city of Philadelphia.

There’s a scene in “Creed” where people are shown having their pictures taken in front of a statue of Rocky Balboa at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – the place where he famously ascended those steps in the first movie. It’s supposed to demonstrate how Rocky, now long out of the boxing game and quietly running a little restaurant named Adrian’s, became a legend.

But that’s an actual statue in front of the actual museum, put there as part of a scene from “Rocky III” -- demonstrating that myths can turn into reality, and vice-versa.

The film stars Michael B. Jordan, one of the finest young actors working in film today. Director Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington, also directed Jordan in the powerful “Fruitvale Station.” Tonally the two films are somewhat similar, in that Jordan’s character is a wayward soul trying to improve himself, only to be pushed down by an uncaring and capricious system.

Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent from the first two movies who eventually became his closest friend. He died in the ring before Adonis was born, who grew up angry in the child welfare system before being taken in my Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad.)

“Donny” was raised in comfort and security – unlike Rocky, the Creeds kept their boxing dough – but has a Drago-sized chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t feel like he belongs to anyone, is both proud and ashamed of his heritage. He fights low-end professional bouts in Mexico while working a day job in the financial sector.

After running his mouth and being humiliated in the ring by a legitimate boxer, Adonis decides to strive for his dream and make it on his own as a fighter, without using dad’s name as a stepping stone. He moves to a cruddy apartment in Philly, and enlists Rocky to train him. Donny calls him “Unc” and regards Balboa as family, though Rocky is reluctant to reenter the world where he’s lost so much.

Stallone is regretful and poignant, playing a man who doesn’t really have much to live for, but presses on because he doesn’t know how to quit. In Adonis he sees a chance to nurture, to hone and to protect – i.e., to be a father again.

Of course, because this is a Rocky movie it ends with a fight for the championship. How exactly one goes from novice to contender is left deliberately murky. A romance with the cool downstairs girl (Tessa Thompson) has an obligatory feel – why must there always be a love interest?

The bad guy is Ricky “Pretty Boy” Conlan, played by real-life fighter Tony Bellew. He’s a Cockney brawler looking for a quick payday owing to pressing circumstances, and he and his manager (Graham McTavish) see using the Creed name as a way to drum up exposure. Rocky sees what’s happening, doesn’t like it, but gives Donny the space to make his own decisions – while having to make some hard choices of his own.

“Creed” isn’t up there with the first four Rocky movies. But it summons their spirit, and adds a few grace notes of its own. “Rocky” was the story of a guy who fought because he had nothing else; this is the tale of a man with choices who traces in his father’s footsteps in order to become his own man.

Just as it was in 1976, there are different forms of victory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: "The Good Dinosaur"

"The Good Dinosaur" contains many notes and musical phrases from other animated films, but it's still a strong song all on its own.

It mostly feels like elements of "The Lion King" and "Finding Nemo," with a little bit of "The Croods" thrown in. Reportedly this movie from Disney/Pixar ran into all sorts of problems during production and they essentially had to start over from scratch, with a new cast and director.

It certainly was worth it, as "The Good Dinosaur" is easily the best animated film I've seen this year. (Albeit in a weak year for cartoon movies.)

Raymond Ochoa voices Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who gets separated from his family and must make an uneasy alliance with Spot, a feral human boy (Jack Bright). The twist here is that this is an alternate reality where that big asteroid didn't hit the Earth and wipe out the mammoth land reptiles. Given a few million years to evolve further, they've become the planet's dominant species, capable of speech, agriculture, tools and more.

The humans, meanwhile, can do little more than grunt and bark. Spot is essentially part wolf, a fierce warrior (for his size) and hunter with a terrific sense of smell. Spot and Arlo are enemies, then thrown-together castoffs, then circumstantial allies, then something more.

Director Peter Sohn and his team of animators made an interesting choice visually. Except for the dinosaurs and people, everything is rendered in hyper-realistic animation. The mountains, the dirt, the vegetation and even smaller animals -- collectively described by the dinos as "critters" -- almost look like they've sprung to life out of National Geographic gallery.

Arlo, Spot and their fellows, however, have a deliberately cartoony look to them, with exaggerated features and shapes. Arlo's eyeballs are so big that if they were actually spherical, they would have to extend out past the sides of his head.

But it all works. The contrast between the stylized protagonists and their often-dangerous environment makes for an oddly intuitive sort of balance, a yin and yang effect.

Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand are soothing and wise as Poppa and Momma, corn farmers who till and protect their own land and impart to their young ones the importance of "making your mark." To them this means pushing past your limits and fears and finding your place in the world.

That's easy for brash, bruising brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and headstrong sister Libby (Maleah Padilla,) but Arlo is a smallish (for his kind) and timid sort who gets rattled just by feeding the family "chickens." When a storm comes and a tragedy visits the family, Arlo finds himself washed far away into a strange land. Only Spot, who's caused them some trouble earlier with his foraging, is on hand for companionship.

The screenplay by Meg LeFauvre, who also helped pen this summer's "Inside Out" -- the first time Pixar has released two features in one calendar year, by the way -- keeps things simple, and inspired. Arlo and Spot encounter a variety of natural challenges and other dinosaurs, including a soaring band of pterodactyls and a fearsome family of tyrannosaurs (Sam Elliot voices the dad), but things often don't shape out as they first appear.

"The Good Dinosaur" isn't the top of the animation pyramid for Pixar, which has been in something of a trough lately after 15 years of one triumph after another. But being a step down from "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" et al isn't a bad place to be.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)

There is a purity to "Two-Lane Blacktop" that grabs you like fat tires gripping a hot asphalt road.

On the surface it is seemingly the barest of trifles, a drag-racing movie in which the two main characters literally have no existential identity beyond their roles as Driver and Mechanic -- the only names ever given them, and only then in the end credits.

Like slavering wolves with but one or two primordial imperatives constituting their entire behavioral makeup, they tool from town to town in a souped-up 1955 Chevy 150, searching for chumps to fleece in wagered side-by-side sprints. That's the whole movie.

Yet the film, a cult classic that barely made a ripple in the box office or pop culture of its day, often gets spoken about in tones bordering on reverential. Back in 1971 Esquire magazine named it the "film of the year" -- without even bothering to wait for the bloom of spring, at that.

Many people consider the movie the unsung triad of great counter-culture road pictures of the time, along with "Easy Rider" and "Vanishing Point." It is talked about frequently, and has received a handsome Criterion Collection restoration and video release.

(Though I'm aware such treatment from Criterion is not considered as ostentatious as it once was.)

Directed by B-movie denizen and Roger Corman mentee Monte Hellman, "Two-Lane Blacktop" was written by Rudy Wulitzer over a frenetic four-week period. He was an underground nobody at the time, but went on to pen notable films like "Pat Garrett and & Billy the Kid"  and "Little Buddha," and even contributed to the Oscar-winning script for "Coming Home," though he did not get a screen credit or a statuette.

Wurlitzer, who admitted he knew little about cars, threw out almost everything from a first draft by Will Corry, diving into motoring magazines and hanging out with gearheads to soak up the culture. He kept the simplicity of Corry's three main characters: Driver, Mechanic and The Girl (Laurie Bird) and added to them G.T.O., an older man played by Warren Oates who starts out as an adversary and becomes their companion.

There is very little dialogue, and most of what is spoken is by G.T.O., a born liar cruising cross-country in a brand-new flaming yellow Pontiac GTO, who constantly picks up hitchhikers, supplying each one with a different backstory about who he is and how he got the car. In different fables he is a test pilot, television producer, etc., but always a braggart and back-slapper.

G.T.O. wears an extravagant outfit, complete with cravat and slip-on loafers, that looks like a precursor to the disco-era leisure suit. He keeps a full martini travel kit in the trunk.

(A note on nomenclature: the iconic Pontiac muscle cars are GTOs, sometimes cheekily expanded to "Gas, Tires & Oil" -- the three things they prodigiously consumed -- or simply "Goats." But the film's credits include periods, most likely an error on Wurlitzer's part, and have become an established part of movie lore. So I'll use them here.)

G.T.O. doesn't actually know very much about cars. He proudly enumerates for a hitchhiker all the particulars of the model, including acceleration times and such, then admits he got all the information out of the owner's manual. He's a poser who views other hot-rodders with disdainful confidence, a self-proclaimed king of the road who's never actually shut anyone down.

"Performance and image, that's what it's all about," he drawls, innocent of embarrassment for these words. 

Driver and Mechanic are his polar opposite. They are young, stoic, long-haired, T-shirted, terse. They don't imbibe or toke up. They talk about nothing but the condition of their vehicle and racing strategy. They travel along Route 66, generally eastward, finding people to race and bet against. It's strongly implied they have never lost.

Their car is the antithesis of flashy, all business: primer gray paint that blurs into the road, a functional but boxy hood scoop for ramming air into the carb, sheet metal shaved and bumper stripped to cut down weight. It has no radio or heater, only rollbars in the back, and the heavy glass windows have been replaced with sliding plastic barriers.

With a mammoth big-block 454 cubic inch plant -- that's about 7.4 liters in today's parlance, or four times the engine displacement of a new Honda Civic -- paired to a 4-speed gearbox and heavily modified, their '55 Chevy is a stealth warrior, a professional machine disguised to look like a local boy's plaything. To access the engine, Driver and Mechanic have to flick a release near each door corner and together tilt the front end up, fenders and all.

Interestingly, this is the only way in which the two men collaborate on the car itself. Driver will help Mechanic take off the hood, then he studiously strolls away and sits somewhere nearby while the work is performed. Similarly, Mechanic offers no words of advice before a race, and never rides along. Each understands their clearly defined roles, and obeys the self-imposed demarcation as if a biblical directive.

They do talk shop while scouting out opponents, however. Mechanic can tell what another driver has under the hood with a glance and a listen to their exhaust note. Driver is in charge of baiting their prey, sidling up at the local car aficionados' gathering spot, offering praise for another's wheels, then derision, returning a challenge of a $50 race with a demand for $300, knowing the man can't back down in front of his hometown crew.

Driver and Mechanic are both played by famous musicians in their only feature film role. James Taylor (Driver) was just breaking out as a solo act, while Dennis Wilson (Mechanic) was sliding down from the Beach Boys' heyday, on the threshold of a dark decade and early death.

Neither has a scintilla of acting talent. Taylor actually stumbles badly during his character's only notable piece of dialogue, seeming unsure if he should keep going or wait for someone to yell "cut." Yet their blank glances, unmodulated speech and nervy unease in front of the camera actually work to the film's advantage. They're single-minded beasts, unconcerned with social niceties or anything that could distract them from speed, and victory.

The one thing that tries is The Girl. She's a hippie and a roamer who rides along with anyone who will have her. She literally waltzes up and throws her stuff and herself into the back of the '55 while the two men are inside a diner, and upon returning they acquiesce to her presence -- without comment.

Despite her reliance on the kindness of strangers, Girl takes pains to aim her verbal barbs and astringent energy at whoever's currently providing the lift. In the case of a twosome of benefactors, she tries to set them against each other. Since Driver seems to express the barest of interest in her, she bestows her affections instead on Mechanic.

It is tacitly understood by all that she will provide sex in exchange for transportation, food and shelter. In many ways she is the pair's true spiritual companion. They are devoted only to racing, and their car is the tool to that end. She is only committed to her own freedom and whims, and offering her virtue is the most obvious and replenishable currency. The Chevy and The Girl's body are merely forms of conveyance.

The trio encounters G.T.O. at a gas station, and the boys use the older man's pride to lure him into the ultimate wager: an overland race for "pinks" -- aka pink slips, or ownership of the loser's car. They mail their titles to a post office in Washington D.C., and the first one who gets there, wins all.

The race gradually devolves into a comradely jaunt. They agree on truces for repairs, eating stops and spontaneous races with third parties. G.T.O. pretends to be their manager, The Girl switches between cars as her mood strikes, and eventually it becomes unclear if they're even going to bother finishing the race.

At some point G.T.O. realizes he's clearly out of his class with Driver and Mechanic, and starts to envy and emulate them. Just as Driver drives and Mechanic maintains and The Girl chases her zephyr, G.T.O. is a chameleon who lives for deception and change. We're not sure what he really was before, but self-invention is now his single-minded vocation. He is on a quest to forget himself.

When your goal is ephemeral and ever receding, all you have left is the race itself.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Video review: "Ricki and the Flash"

If there’s nothing more exhilarating in a movie theater than finding a wonderful film where you didn’t expect, then little is more depressing than walking out let down by a movie you had awaited with enthusiasm. Such was the case for me and “Ricki and the Flash.”

I think Meryl Streep is the finest actor working in film today, and operate under the general assumption that having her in the cast makes anything worth the price of admission. And while “Ricki” certainly isn’t a bad flick, it’s got too many obvious problems in its structure and execution to ever had a chance at being good.

Streep plays a woman who ran out on her family decades ago to pursue her rock ‘n’ roll dreams on the West Coast. She never made it big, but continues to entertain at night while working days as a checkout clerk. Then Ricki gets the call that her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life kid), is in a bad way after a terrible breakup.

You can’t go home again, at least not without stirring up old heartbreak, as Ricki discovers in a by-the-numbers trip through resentment and buried longing. The screenplay by Diablo Cody takes a “kitchen sink” approach, lobbing in all sorts of distracting sub-characters and side plots.

The main dynamic between mother and daughter gets lost, and Julie actually disappears for most of the second half. Kevin Kline is poorly used as Ricki’s ex-husband, a diffident but decent fellow who’s moved on from a shattered love life but still feels some warmth toward her.

Throw in the gay son’s coming out, the other son’s wedding, Ricki’s scratchy romance with her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield) and a face-off with her children’s stepmother, and there’s just too many notes in this cacophonous arrangement. And director Jonathan Demme can’t find a consistent tone amidst the chaos.

Streep’s great as always, but “Ricki and the Flash” gets the primary chords wrong.

Video extras are middling. The DVD comes with a making-through documentary, and that’s it. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery and a featurette on Springfield’s reemergence as a rock icon and actor.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2"

The "Hunger Games" saga ends not with a bang but a yawn. I haven't been a fan of this overstuffed film franchise based on the popular YA novels, but the final entry is easily the most tedious and least entertaining of the bunch.

Like other recent sci-fi/fantasy series, it takes the now-familiar and thoroughly discredited route of dividing the last novel into two movies. It's a transparent attempt to sell twice as many tickets for the same amount of story. With the Harry Potter books and the Hobbit, there was at least enough narrative to give the final movie momentum.

Suzanne Collins' engaging but thinly plotted book simply doesn't.

If you'll remember where we left off, the rebellious uprising against the Capitol District was starting to stick it to the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland, in full twinkly smirk mode) with the help of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) acting as the Mockingjay, the face of the insurgents.

But really, she has been more or less in thrall to the District 13 chief, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), head creator of the nefarious Hunger Games, in which children killed each other for sport. Meanwhile, former ersatz lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) -- a relationship concocted for the benefit of the Games audience -- has been brainwashed by Snow into a maniacal urge to kill Katniss. And Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' stoic and grim actual love interest, labors hard at becoming grimmer and even more stoic.

Have I got all those names and faces straight? Good. A few other formerly important figures are in the mix, such as mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Katniss' kid sister, but they only show up to service the plot and then leave.

(Harrelson seems to have been given most of the expositive lines left over from Hoffman, who died during production.)

Basically, it's end times for Snow and the other leaders of Panem. Katniss and an ever-shrinking team of soldiers is infiltrating the Capitol on a quest (unauthorized) to take him out and end the war. But the outlying portion of the city has been evacuated and filled with pod snares, mutant mutts and other nasty challenges, essentially making it another giant booby-trapped iteration of the Hunger Games.

Peeta is unwisely inserted into the group as a PR move, and is distrusted by all, particularly Katniss. But his kind nature slowly reasserts itself over the mental "hijacking" he underwent, and she begins to remember the altruistic boy who has sacrificed so much for her.

There are surprisingly few action scenes. It's mostly running and hiding as the group makes its way toward Snow, are picked off by pods, share a few standoffs, etc. Only an attack in the sewers by mutated human "mutts" contains anything like a genuine thrill.

You wouldn't think that what is essentially one long chase would add up to a 2¼-hour movie... and it doesn't. "Mockingjay Part 2" is filled with pregnant pauses and dead spots. Despite some talented actors, the material is too goofy to ever take seriously. Snow dismisses Katniss as an easily manipulated puppet who's only good at shooting a bow, and for once the bad guy has it right.

Review: "By the Sea"

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “By the Sea” will not be everyone’s slice of pie. Set in the 1970s, it’s a throwback to a style of filmmaking from that same era we don’t see much anymore: contemplative, personal, forthrightly erotic, at times wandering and hazy, at times mesmerizing.

I’ve long made it a point not to read other reviews or articles about a movie before I’ve written my own, but couldn’t avoid a growing and nasty wave of commentary about this film. Much of this seems to owe to it starring Hollywood supercouple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and that it was written and directed by the latter (who is credited, perhaps tellingly, as Angelina Jolie Pitt).

They haven’t made a movie together since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” when of course Pitt was married to somebody else. It seems eons ago, but it was just 10 years. Since then they’ve wed, had a gaggle of children (adopted and natural), gone through a major medical scare for her, seen their careers bounce high and low.

Now in his 50s, he’s become choosier about his film projects, and she’s starred in fewer and fewer, preferring the space behind the camera. “By the Sea” is Jolie Pitt’s third film as a director, the first in which she also acted, and her best.

There’s not much to the story. The Bertrands, husband and wife, are motoring along the French coastline. They find a nice place with a gorgeous view of a rocky bay, and stop for a while. Their linger becomes a wallow, as he tries to use the setting as inspiration for his writing, and she seems to have little reason to exist beyond embodying resentment.

The Bertrands are not happy people. Married 14 years, they’re engaged in a wary pas de deux through the “second stage of life.” Roland mostly drinks and takes notes at the local café, but the sheet of paper in his typewriter remains obstinately unchanged. Vanessa (Ness) hangs around the hotel balcony, spying on sunbathers, occasionally going shopping in town while wearing an enormous hat and sunglasses, Audrey Hepburn-like.

They act like celebrities hiding out, and indeed he was once a noted novelist and she was a famous performer (the venue is vague). Money does not seem to be a problem, as they wear expensive clothes, buy their suppers, smoke cigarettes and drink, drink, drink.

A colleague commented after the screening that this is the sort of movie “Liz & Dick” -- meaning Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- might’ve made a half-century ago, and the comparison is apt. Like their earlier counterparts, Brad and Angelina are world-famous figures who seem bored and bothered by their status, and are looking to use this movie to comment upon and distance themselves from their public personas. Ness is an object of curiosity to most everyone she encounters, but she prefers to remain remote and aloof.

Things happen, slowly. Roland befriends the older bartender (Niels Arestrup) and tries to squeeze every considerable ounce of wisdom out of him -- both for his book and the sake of his marriage.

A younger couple on their honeymoon (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) moves into the suite next door, and Ness begins spying on them through a forgotten pipe. Meanwhile, she and Roland are virtually asexual. He soon joins her in voyeurism, simply to have something they can share.

“By the Sea” is an amazingly beautiful movie; Pitt and Jolie Pitt have never looked more gorgeous. It’s a very observational film, keying on little details like the way Ness always tosses her sunglasses onto the table, and he always rights them so the glass doesn’t get scratched. We watch a red-shirted fisherman row his tiny boat out of the mouth of the bay and back every day, but never meet him. There are fleshy flashes of thoughts that bound around inside Ness’ head, but it’s torment rather than desire that makes her vibrate.

This is the sort of movie that isn’t really “about” anything, other than the question of whether Roland and Ness make it as a married couple, or not. At times their situation seems dire, later hopeful, then less so. Their disillusion, carefully staked out in their days spent apart, is challenged in ways unexpected. This movie is less about the what than the how.

Some people are ready to dismiss “By the Sea” as an old-school vanity project, but I think that’s missing the point. People -- especially those who’ve spent their lives pretending to be somebody else -- often understand others better than they do themselves. Here are a pair of stars behaving like nobodies, and having a swell time acting miserable.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: "Spotlight"

“Spotlight” is the truest depiction of journalism since… well, ever.

Even “All the President’s Men,” “Network” and “Broadcast News” -- great movies though they are -- contained a certain quotient of Hollywood BS. Here is the new standard in cinematic depictions of the journalists, along with one of the best films of the year.

This new drama depicting the Boston Globe’s discovery of a massive cover-up of sexually abusive priests never skimps on the facts, or sexes up the individual reporters and editors, or creates composite characters to skirt over the unsavory aspects of some of the real ones.

Why? Because it never has to. The real thing is compelling enough and needs no sprinkling of fictional fairy dust.

Directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Up”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, “Spotlight” is a great story about the making of a great and tragic story.

McCarthy knows a little about newspapering, since he played an ethically untethered reporter in the last season of the great HBO television series, “The Wire.” Having portrayed the worst of the profession, he now shows us the best.

Unless you’ve had your head in a hole, you know where the long tail of the priest molestation story eventually went: widespread sexual abuse by clergy and a coordinated effort by the Catholic Church, nationally and internationally, to cover it up rather than end it. Even the Pope personally apologized.

Here is how the shroud first began to fall.

The most realistic thing about the movie is that it shows how big stories are rarely uncovered by a single person who has the information fall into their lap. It’s almost always a group effort, it takes weeks and months and years of arduous work, and at some point in the investigative process someone will realize they already had the information they needed all along, right under their noses. But it either got swept under the rug or ignored in the rush of daily publishing.

The heroes here are the four-member team of Spotlight, the investigative project unit at the Globe. As the story opens in 2001 a new editor is arriving at the paper, an out-of-towner named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who knows nothing of predominantly Catholic Boston and is an unmarried Jew, to boot. He’s given warm handshakes and cockeyed glances, both outside the newsroom and within.

Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the editor of the Spotlight, a self-described “player/coach” who doesn’t just sit in his office and circle misspellings. He’s a man of the town, went to the high school across the street from the Globe. He acts as the glad-hander and bridge to the city’s bastions of respectability -- who are hiding vile secrets.

Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, the quintessential dogged reporter who seems to have little in his life beyond his phone and notebook. Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, who has a knack for getting people to talk, especially victims of sexual abuse. John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the skeptical metro editor, and Brian d’Arcy James is Matt Carroll, the “glue guy” who eventually discovers that some of the accused priests have been living down the street from his family.

Stanley Tucci shines as Mitchel Garabedian, a cantankerous attorney suing the Church on behalf of dozens of victims, who is slow to be recruited to help the intrepid reporters. He’s fought many battles and lost. “I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced,” he intones. Also solid are Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup as conflicted lawyers and go-betweens.

The film nails, absolutely nails, the rhythms and culture inside a metro newspaper -- the petty rivalries, the built-in curiosity about everything, the caustic humor, the deep-seated belief that whatever you’re working on is the most important story in the world. All the little background details are there, from the men’s cheap short-sleeved shirts and ties to the hurried junk food, constant scribbling of notes and long nights away from family. (And how the librarians are the unsung heroes of every newsroom.)

It shows how journalists get reluctant people to talk, through appeals to better nature and sheer persistence, since they have no real power other than the threat of telling the truth. “You want to be on the right side of this,” they say, more than once.

The story of mass abuse of children by priests is one of immense importance, but even it is fleeting in comparison to the story of journalism itself. It’s been called the first draft of history, but what reporting most essentially represents is the intrinsic need to ask questions -- to inquire of our communities, our wielders of power, of ourselves.

“Spotlight” is the triumphant depiction of one of mankind’s noblest instincts.

Review: "Brooklyn"

“Brooklyn” is melodramatic, and I mean that as a compliment.

It’s an extremely well-made picture in the tradition of Golden Age director Douglas Sirk, whose films like “All That Heaven Allows” and “Imitation of Life” unabashedly focused on women’s struggles and interior anguish in domestic settings and romantic entanglements. I guess you could call it a “chick flick,” though that usually connotes frivolous movies in the romcom mold.

Though certainly a romantic story, “Brooklyn” is kind-hearted and sober. It’s about a young Irish girl who emigrates to New York City in 1952 and her attempts to integrate into the American life while desperately missing the one she had back home.

Based on a novel by Colm Tóibín, the screenplay is by Nick Hornby (“An Education”) and the film was directed by John Crowley (“Intermission”). It’s one of those movies that if you sit back afterward and enumerate the events, you’ll find that there really isn’t too much to the plot. But the film’s emotional energy, buoyed by a confident lead performance by Saoirse Ronan, gives the story plenty of momentum.

Ellis Lacey is a smart girl who works in shop in a small town. Her father is long dead, mother (Jane Brennan) is getting to an age where she needs looking after and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) appears ready to shoulder that burden alone, as Ellis dreams of a life away from the tightly bookended one she has.

It’s not that she resents her home, but the endless gossip, carefully stratified classes and seemingly generic pool of young men render it unexciting.

Through the help of a kindly Irish-American priest (Jim Broadbent), she obtains passage to New York, a job at Bartocci’s, an upscale department store, and a room in a boarding house run by a sharp-tongued landlady (the great Julie Walters). Brooklyn of this area was teaming with Irish immigrants, who have their own businesses, social and religious circles, so at first it barely seems like she’s left.

Of course, Ellis is burdened with the guilt of having left her mother and sister alone, which is soon compounded by events. She finds solace in the arms of Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber who has a bit of a Gene Kelly thing going -- looks and geniality, if not musical talent.

(Keep an eye out for young James DiGiacomo as Tony’s kid brother, a born scene-stealer.)

They initiate a tender, halting romance, as Ellis begins to gain confidence and spread her wings as an individual, enrolling in night school on the way to becoming an accountant -- the only woman in her class. But circumstance brings her back to Ireland – only briefly, she insists -- and one of the local lads (sad-eyed Domhnall Gleeson) makes her think of the life she could have had.

It’s a delightful movie, mournful without being sappy and joyous while avoiding maudlin overreach. In the end it’s a simple tale of a young woman finding her way, choosing between two homes that each hold more promise than she initially would’ve guessed.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Video review: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” cost a bundle to make and made not such a large bundle at the box office, so it’s already been written off as one of 2015’s biggest flops. Actually, it’s all disinformation and propaganda: this was probably the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.

Based (loosely) on the 1960s TV series, it pits East-versus-West superspies who are forced to join forces to get back the nuclear technology that’s been stolen. Henry Cavill plays CIA star Napoleon Solo, a rakish scamp who gets by on charm and improvisation. Armie Hammer is Illya Kuryakin, a KGB agent who’s all iron and cold fury.

They clash, they grudge, they clash some more.

Of course there’s a damsel, though she tends to distribute distress rather than needing to be saved from it. Alicia Vikander plays Gaby, a German mechanic whose dad was a Nazi scientist and is now at the center of the trouble. Napoleon goes for the frontal romantic assault, but she’s got eyes for the dour Russian.

Director Guy Ritchie breaks out every trick in his book, with lots of jump-cutting, musical interludes and time displacement. The movie is festooned with dashing suits, nifty gadgets, sexy villains and lots of color. The result is jazzy and loose, an ironic tug at the smug façade of the spy genre.

Forget what you’ve heard and remember this message (though you may have to destroy it afterward): “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is the best time this side of Bond.

Bonus features are pretty good, though the DVD comes with only one featurette, “A Higher Class of Hero.”

Upgrade to the blu-ray combo pack, and you add more making-of mini-docs: “Spy Vision: Recreating ‘60s Cool,” “Metisse Motorcycles: Proper -- And Very British,” “The Guys from U.N.C.L.E.,” “A Man of Extraordinary Talents” and “U.N.C.L.E: On-Set Spy.”



Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: "My All American"

I'm indifferent to most sports but have an abiding affection for quality sports movies. When done right, they can evoke universal, almost mythic themes about humans striving toward a goal and finding the best of themselves through games.

Hoosier filmmaker Angelo Pizzo knows something on the topic, having penned screenplays for two of the most enduring sports movies in recent memory: "Hoosiers" and "Rudy." Now he's stepped behind the camera, too, writing and directing "My All American," about hitherto little-known University of Texas football player Freddie Steinmark.

This film is sure to be remembered among the first two in the annals of iconic sports pictures.

This is the sort of unapologetically humanistic, wholesome moviemaking that Frank Capra ("It Happened One Night") used to practice. Pizzo approaches his subject without an ounce of irony or disdain. It's the sort of film that is corny when done wrong, and tugs insistently at the heart when done right. Here, cast and crew maintain an absolute straightforward tone and hit all the right notes.

Freddie (Finn Wittrock) is a straitlaced kid from Colorado. He's the star of the high school football team, despite being undersized. Freddie is from a religious family that believes that hard work and dedication are everyday expectations, not favors to be rewarded. He falls for a smart girl, Linda (Sarah Bolger), and insists that his whole life lies stretched out before him: scholarship at Notre Dame, drafted by the Denver Broncos, a daughter and three sons... maybe four.

Of course, things don't work out that way. Freddie is ignored by all the football schools owing to his diminutive stature -- until coach Darrell Royal comes calling from Austin. Freddie believes his best friend, Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell), is the real target: big, strong, a natural athlete. But Royal (Aaron Eckhart) sees something in the scrappy kid and offers a full scholarship.

The middle section is largely occupied with the on-field play, and Pizzo, with the help of cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, constructs some tight action sequences that are slam-bam thrilling while still seeming realistic. A running back in high school, Freddie transforms himself into a safety and kick returner.

Meanwhile, he befriends fourth-string quarterback James Street -- played well by his real-life son, Juston -- and together they hatch plans to eventually become the respective kings of the offense and defense.

If you've seen the trailers for "My All American," then you know that tragedy befalls Freddie in the midst of a fabulous college career, about which I will speak no more. Suffice it to say that his struggles to establish himself as a football star pale in comparison to his challenges off the field.

Wittrock, with his blue-eyed earnestness and sweet charm, captures the essence of a guy born with gifts and limitations, who made the most of the former and ignored the latter. Eckhart is solid and stern as the wise coach Royal, but I was glad the screenplay also fleshed him out with moments of humor and warmth.

("We fell in love faster than Eggo," is just one of several Royalisms.)

The music by John Paesano swells with strings admirably at just the right moments to enhance the emotions without intruding.

This is golly-gosh-good filmmaking, the sort some will sneer at for its saccharine qualities. But it's the sweet moments that give the bitter parts their bite -- and vice-versa -- just as you can only truly savor victory after becoming intimate with defeat. "My All American" is Angelo Pizzo's threepeat.

Review: "The 33"

“The 33” is one of those movies that delivers everything you expect, does it well, and suffers no surprises. The true tale of the 2010 Chilean mining disaster that left 33 men trapped thousands of feet underground in a gold mine, it’s uplifting, humanistic and harrowing (though not too much).

Directed by Patricia Riggen (“Girl in Progress”) with a screenplay by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, based on a book by Hector Tobar, the film goes for verisimilitude as we alternate between being buried deep in the mine with the workers or scrambling with the rescuers and family members on the surface striving to free them.

Of course, we know that all the men got out safely after an incredible 69 days trapped underground. This was a huge international story at the time, and even if it weren’t, we’re told from the outset that 33 men were trapped, so if some of them died the title would’ve reflected a lower number. (And, most likely, this movie wouldn’t exist.)

What makes it a great story is that normally all of the miners would’ve perished, but miraculously every one of them made it out alive.

Antonio Banderas plays Mario Sepúlveda, the unofficial leader of the trapped miners. He’s a wise man who recognizes that the greatest danger they face is not the lack of food and water but each other. He carefully rations their meals and breaks up fights before they happen, counseling patience even as others edge up to wigging out.

If the presence of a Spanish actor playing a Chilean bothers you, then you should know the cast is a mishmash of actors of different ethnic backgrounds. Lou Diamond Phillips, who is Scotch-Irish, Cherokee and Filipino, plays the foreman, Luis, who tortures himself over the inadequate safety protections in place in the mine. Other performers are of Mexican, Cuban, Brazilian or other Latino heritage.

There are also some lily white actors such as Bob Gunton, who plays the Chilean president, and Gabriel Byrne, a pale Irishman who portrays the chief engineer overseeing the rescue. Though Chile is more racially diverse than most Americans realize, with roughly half the DNA being of European origin, or so says Wikipedia.

Obviously, you can’t have 33 characters competing for screen time, so the filmmakers focus on a half-dozen or so, with Mario being the first among equals. The other “focus” miners break down into familiar archetypes: the old guy who’s already filed his retirement papers; the young guy who’s about to have a baby; the new guy who’s not from around here and gets heckled for it; the wayward guy battling addiction; the philanderer who’s got a wife and mistress fighting over him on the surface; the religious fellow who offers the others comfort; the Elvis admirer with the outsize personality and temper; and so on.

Up top the families, mostly women, caterwaul and demand action. Juliette Binoche, despite being estranged from her brother (the addict), becomes the de facto leader aboveground just as Mario is the authority figure below. Rodrigo Santoro plays the young government minister sent to talk soothingly and hold hands, but actually tries to make a difference.

The heart of the movie, of course, is what it’s like to be trapped deep in a mine with little hope for survival, slowly wasting away as fears eat into your mind. It’s powerful stuff, with Banderas showing how emotionally accessible he is as an actor.

The best scene is a shared dream/delusion as the men consume the last of their food, as each hallucinates being presented with some bodacious meal by his loved ones. The darkness recedes, it’s all light and joy, as each miner sits at a long table like a recreation of the Last Supper with Jesus and his apostles.

(Though, I am pained to point out, the actors don’t appear to have starved themselves very much for the movie. For a bunch of guys supposedly wasting away, they’re a rather fleshy bunch. I think fat Elvis actually got fatter. Though I guess if you’re going to do that sort of thing you need to either go Full Bale or not bother, and they chose the latter.)

It’s a terrific bit of imagination, both inside the miners’ heads and on the part of those telling the story. “The 33” could’ve done with more of this, but instead sticks to the safe path.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: "Suffragette"

In America we think of the suffragette movement in glowing, benevolent terms. Our public consciousness invokes halcyon memories of a non-violent, high-minded debate in which brave women who advocated for the right to vote were subjected to little more than frowning disapproval and comments about their diminished prospects for marriage, with jail time for a hardened few.

In actuality the movement took decades and included police brutality, mass arrests, hunger strikes, forced feedings and the separation of mothers from children. “Suffragette” is an attempt to shine a light on the darker, grittier side of the crusade, focusing specifically on a small group of working-class British women who kicked the push for the vote into high gear in their country.

It’s a well-intentioned film, which jumps through the tropes of the ‘inspiring historical drama’ genre 1-2-3. It takes miserly few chances with its story and characters. The actors are an impressive lot and the production values are fine, but it’s a rather dour affair with a scarcity of surprises.

Carey Mulligan plays a familiar type of protagonist: the indifferent youngster who falls in with the rebellious crowd, gets caught up by circumstance and ends up as hardest of the hardcore.

Her character is entirely made up, as are all the others but two: Meryl Streep has a bit role (two or three scenes) as Emmeline Pankhurst, the real-life founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who essentially operates as the leader-in-exile, flitting from place to place in secrecy for fear of arrest. And Natalie Press plays Emily Davison, a tertiary figure who only becomes important late in the proceedings.

Mulligan is Maud Watts, a 24-year-laundress who keeps her head down in 1912 London. She started working at 12 and was made forewoman at 20. Her factory is a brutish sweat shop, complete with a piggish manager (Geoff Bell) who sees taking liberties with the young girls as a perk of the job. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) is a kindly but sheepish fellow who also works there. They have an adorable scamp of a son, are desperately poor but essentially happy.

The government is taking testimony from working women about getting the vote, and Maud is conscripted at the last minute to fill in for a fiery co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) who has to demur. Her plain-spoken words seemingly move the chief official, but needless to say more challenges await.

She makes the rounds befriending the suffragette crew, including a wealthy benefactor (Romola Garai) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a female doctor who’s been jailed nine times and repeatedly urges more militant action, including breaking shop windows and blowing up mail boxes.

(Fun fact: Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith, who was Prime Minister during this time and a noted opponent of voting rights for women. Take that, great-grandpa!)

Brendan Gleeson has a nice turn as Steed, a cunning police inspector who outfoxes the suffragettes for a time. He views Maud as just an impressionable young woman and targets her for recruitment as an informer.

Things go on as you might expect. Maud is shocked when peaceful channels prove fruitless, agrees to more strident acts, is jailed and disgraced, her husband is mortified and warns her not to defy him again, the heroines make quotable pronouncements off the cuff, etc.

“You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable!” goes a typical refrain.

I didn’t dislike “Suffragette,” but it feels so workmanlike and even drab at times. Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) might have been better served by focusing on actual historical figures instead of concocting a bunch of make-believe folks. These characters feel less like people and more conduits for a message, however noble it might be.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Video review: "Mr. Holmes"

Some of the best stories involve taking a well-known, even tired narrative and putting a clever twist on it. In “Mr. Holmes,” we get to hang out with Sherlock Holmes, who here is presented as a real person, now 93 years old and mentally doddering.

Expertly played by the great Ian McKellen, it’s an exploration of the hero myth when the hero has lost his grasp on the very thing that made him revered.

Directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”) from a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, “Mr. Holmes” finds the storied sleuther long retired and living in a remote farmhouse with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker), whom he befriends. His former partner Watson made him famous by writing about their cases, though Holmes feels too many liberties were taken with the facts.

His memory is failing, and Holmes is trying far-out remedies to restore it, like jelly made from a rare Japanese plant. Meanwhile, he is vexed in trying to accurately recall his final case from decades ago, which caused him to give up the detective business forever.

Essentially, Holmes is investigating himself, leveraging the remains of a formerly formidable intellect to grasp for new understanding about the things in life that are truly important. He’s a man who has always prized the logical aspect of human behavior, and learns that the emotional part is less easily mastered.

“Mr. Holmes” is one of those movies where not a lot really happens, but we’re overjoyed by its subtle little perambulations.

Alas, special features are… not so special. The DVD and blu-ray both come with just two making-of featurettes.



Monday, November 9, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Hell Is For Heroes" (1962)

By all accounts the production on "Hell Is For Heroes" was a total nightmare. And yet, the final result is a gritty, compelling war picture notable for its unblinking look at the horrors of combat. It's one of the earliest movies I can think of where a character dies not with noble silence, but screaming and convulsing while trying to keep his intestines inside his body.

Steve McQueen, an ensemble player who already felt like he should be paid and treated like the big star he was yet to become, was a surly jerk to cast and crew. Screenwriter Robert Pirosh was tasked with recreating the gritty feel of his masterpiece "Battleground," basing much of the plot and characters on his own World War II experiences. He was to have directed it, too, but walked off the project after dealing with McQueen's attitude.

The story, which reportedly was supposed to focus more on Bobby Darin's wisenheimer character, Corby, was rewritten after McQueen was cast, making his moody Private Reese the spotlight. Trusty action movie director Don Siegel ("Dirty Harry") was brought in as a replacement, a move that likely saved the picture.

It was so low-budget that other stars James Coburn and Fess Parker were essentially parachuted into the production a few days at a time while filming other movies. Bob Newhart wanted to go do stand-up comedy instead, and kept lobbying to have his nebbish character killed off. The props and costumes were cheap and unreliable, and eventually the studio just called a halt to production and told the filmmakers to edit together what footage they had.

For all this, "Hell Is For Heroes" is a worthy inheritor of other realistic war films like "Battleground" and a precursor to bloodier depictions of violence that would come with "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch."

And whatever McQueen's disposition toward the cast and crew, he's at his anti-hero cool best. He had the uncanny ability to fashion characters who seemed both remote and identifiable to audiences. His indifference was his hook.

Story-wise, there's not much to it. An American company of dogfaces expects to be sent home, but instead they're sent back on the line to plug up a hole on the front. A puppyish Polish refugee named Homer (Nick Adams) tags along everywhere, hoping to eventually join the soldiers on the trip home. At the last minute Reese (McQueen) joins the second squad as a reinforcement, and immediately sets about alienating everyone.

Reese, wearing a beard and a scowl, is too old and battle-hardened to be a private, but that's because he was just court-martialed down from master sergeant for going crazy on leave, crashing a colonel's jeep. He's a classic film archetype, seen more in Westerns and Japanese samurai flicks: the warrior who lives to fight, and isn't much good for anything anytime else.

The officers are attempting to outfox the Germans, moving in an entire company and then moving them out again quietly, hoping the enemy doesn't notice. That leaves the depleted second squad -- just six men -- to hold the line. The idea is the reinforcements will arrive before the Germans have noticed how thin they are, but of course things don't work out that way.

The rest of the squad is a typical war picture troupe. Coburn is Henshaw, the owlish corporal who likes to fix things. Harry Guardino is the commanding sergeant, Pike, who's smart enough to listen to Reese's advice on battle tactics. Corby (Darin) is the scrounger, always wheeling and dealing. There's Kolinsky (Mike Kellin), the only one who speaks Polish, and the quiet, naive Cumberly (Bill Mullikin)

Parker plays another sergeant who knew Reese back when. Newhart joins them halfway through as Driscoll, a weak-kneed private from the typing pool who got lost with his jeep full of typewriters, and gets conscripted (him, not the typewriters).

The squad comes up with some clever ideas of how to generate enough noise and activity to make the Germans think there's still a whole Army company defending the area. Henshaw rigs the jeep to groan and backfire like a tank. They string wire to ammunition cans filled with rocks or coins and hang them out in no-man's land, so they can pull on them and draw enemy fire.

It seems the Germans even rigged up a microphone in the bunker when they previously held the area so as to spy on the Americans. Driscoll is assigned to stay in the pillbox and simulate the radio chatter of a busy unit, drawing on Newhart's standup routines faking one end of a telephone conversation.

Nevertheless, the Germans do send a patrol to probe. Reese, using grenades and his M3 automatic "grease gun," manages to kill most of them, but some escape to report back. Reese decides the only way to make the Germans hesitate on a full-scale assault is to sneak across the battlefield and blow up their main bunker with a 40-pound charge.

This leads to a very tense scene of Reese, Henshaw and Kolinsky crawling through a minefield on their bellies, feeling for the triggering prongs with their fingers. It's certainly the film's visceral highlight.

"Hell Is For Heroes" is one of those forgotten war pictures that deserves a better place in the cinematic pantheon. Sometimes even when a shoot goes to hell, the result can still pack a wallop.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Video review: "Terminator Genisys"

I had high hopes for "Terminator Genisys," but then I had similar aspirations for the previous Terminator flick... and the one before that, and the short-lived TV show.

Perhaps it's time to finally admit to ourselves that the last worthy iteration of the iconic sci-fi franchise came a quarter-century ago, and the chances of another good one happening are roughly the same as Arnold Schwarzenegger taking up professional bodybuilding again and winning Mr. Universe 2023.

It is indeed a thrill to see Arnie playing the infamously monotone android again, with a little help from CGI to portray his younger self in the flashback scenes. It's mostly a tongue-in-cheek, winking nod to the first films, repeating familiar quips and making puckish references to his age.

The notion here is that a friendly Terminator was sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) when she was still a child, so she's grown up into a badass warrior and he's become an older, wiser mentor.

The story is a confusing retcon of Terminator lore, with Sarah and human protector Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) jumping through time portals hither and thither in a bid to shut down Skynet and prevent the robot apocalypse.

Aside from a handful of nifty action scenes and the nostalgia of seeing Schwarzenegger as a strutting cyborg again, "Terminator Genisys" was better left in the dustbin of the past.

Bonus material is rather skimpy, and what there is comes on the Blu-ray edition. The DVD version has none.

There are three making-of featurettes: "Family Dynamics," "Infiltration and Termination" and "Upgrades: VFX of Terminator Genisys." They focus on the cast, shooting locations and visual effects, respectively.



Thursday, November 5, 2015

Review: "Spectre"

Just a few thoughts today on the new James Bond film. Evan Dossey is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so head there to read his more complete thoughts.

The Daniel Craig Bond flicks have been defined by their dourness, and while that was a welcome change from the breeziness of the Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton movies -- not to mention the nearly pure comedy of the Roger Moore era -- it's starting to wear down the franchise, like a repetitive stress injury.

Director Sam Mendes is back at the helm again, a rarity in the Bond tradition, but "Skyfall" was the highest-grossing 007 film ever, so if he was game there really wasn't anyone to tell him different. Craig is loudly and publicly musing over whether he wants to play the British agent again, and there's a lot of chatter about Idris Elba or Tom Hiddleston or (insert latest rumor here) sliding into the role.

Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending of "Spectre" is such that it could either neatly wrap up Craig's tenure in the black tuxedo, or set up one final go-round.

It's very much a story of beginnings and endings, with most of the familiar Bond solar system -- M, Q, Moneypenny -- now replaced with fresher faces. James Bond is widely viewed as an anachronism by the British intelligence services, who are more keen on data and satellite imagery and drones than guys wandering around with a license to kill.

The movie for me is more of a Greatest Hits version of James Bond than anything else I've seen. Names and faces of villains and allies from the recent past are recalled and, forcibly, linked to one another. We're told that a sinister organization named Spectre has been behind nearly all the troubles Bond has encountered in recent years, with one shadowy figure at the head of the table.

I'm not giving anything away in saying that Christoph Waltz plays the chief villain, or surprising anyone by stating that he's the best thing about the movie. (You could say that about most films with Waltz.) He plays Franz Oberhauser, a supposedly dead guy with an intimate connection to Bond that I wouldn't divulge.

Suffice to say that rather than pursuing some overarching goal of world domination, Oberhauser -- who also has adopted another, familiar, moniker -- seems to delight in creating chaos and pain for its own sake. Particularly when that pain is Bond's own.

Waltz has surprisingly little screen time, but makes the most of it.

The main "Bond girl" is a bit of a disappointment, the sloe-eyed Léa Seydoux as the daughter of an infamous villain. (Why are so many female characters in spy movies the daughter of somebody important, instead of just being important themselves?) The script, a thinly written affair by a committee of four, doesn't give her much to do but react to Bond's carnivore magnetism. 

Better is Monica Bellucci in an all-too-brief appearance as a recently widowed Italian who gets intimate with the man who made her a widow. Bellucci, still a stunner at 50 -- rendering her the oldest Bond conquest of all -- shows more steel and fire in her few minutes of screen time than Seydoux does in the rest of the movie.

Craig is still a terrific Bond, the best I think aside from Sean Connery, a skilled enough actor to let slip the pain that lies just behind the eyes of the icy killer. And there are a few good action scenes and chases, particularly when Bond mixes it up with Dave Bautista, a Herculean tentacle of Spectre.

"Spectre" is entirely watchable, and parts of it are even thrilling. But there's something missing here, a vital essence that seems to have drained away. This iteration of the Bond legend feels tired, grumpy, chippy. It senses the anticipation for the next thing, even shares it, but isn't quite ready to let go of the Walther PPK and Aston Martin. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: "Room"

"Room" falls into that rare category of movies that are truly miserable to watch, but you simply must.

By that I do not mean that it is terrible, but that it is so good at what it does that you will be miserable at times while viewing it. I guarantee that you will tear up during the screening and want to pull your hair, because experiencing raw human frailty at such a close remove is a taxing experience.

Like "127 Hours" or "Boys Don't Cry," the film's exhausting nature is intrinsic to its cinematic worth -- which is considerable.

Based on the best-selling book by Emma Donoghue, who adapted it herself for the screenplay, "Room" takes a tabloid headline premise and turns it into a highly remarkable study of the infinite layers of the human soul. Director Lenny Abrahamson sensitively takes us into a tiny enclosed space, and shows how terrifying that can be, and then lets us out of it into the world beyond, and shows us how frightening that can be.

Brie Larson is possibly the best actress of her young generation, and if you missed her in the excellent "Short Term 12" -- nearly everyone did -- then this movie should cement her status. She plays Ma, a young mother living with her son, Jack, who as the story opens is just turning 5. They are each other's entire world, because they have never left Room, as they describe their tiny, cluttered living space.

Without it ever being overtly said, we sense what has happened. Ma, whose real name is Joy, was somehow captured and imprisoned in this space. It was obviously a man, because that is how she got Jack. She has been there for years -- her ghostlike pallor and glum resolve instruct us so. She is long past the point of rebellion or despair, and has come to grudgingly accept her life in Room.

For Jack, she has built an elaborate ruse to keep him from yearning for the real world. Room is everything there is, he believes, except for the single window in the roof looking out on the sky, which is outer space. They have an old television that shows jumpy images, cartoons, shows, even newscasts, but he believes everything there is imaginary: "TV people."

The man, known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), visits every now and then, always at night, to satisfy his carnal wants, and deliver food and supplies. Jack is put into the wardrobe on these evenings so man and boy don't interact -- they have never even met, by both his and Joy's choice, though Jack watches through the slats and is aware.

It's essentially the most depraved family unit in human history, where the father is keeping the mother and child locked up under his yoke.

Jack is played by young Jacob Tremblay, in one of those gasp-inducing child performances that is so unaffected and true that it only comes along once every generation or so. I think of Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," and do not find Tremblay wanting in the comparison.

Jack is a creature of utter innocence, but also realistic 5-year-old petulance. He is beginning to question his world and push back against the way his mother defines it for him. One wonders how an adolescent would react to being in Room... which we won't know because they get out halfway through the film.

I won't say how, or why, but stating that their time in Room comes to an end will not spoil your experience. (The movie trailer gives away as much.) I don't wish to say too much about Joy and Jack's time after Room, other than it involves trying to integrate themselves into a family that is different from the one she left. Each struggles in their own way, but not the way we might expect.

This is one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences you will ever have at the movies. Larson and Tremblay form one of the closest bonds we've ever witnessed on screen, in a pair of performances that I'm sure will be remembered come Oscar time. Here is one of the year's best films.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Video review: "The End of the Tour"

More people bought tickets for “Fifty Shades of Grey” on its 17th day in release than did for “The End of the Tour” during its entire theatrical run. We get the cinema we deserve, people.

This amazing film, one of the year’s best, is the story of two young writers who connect and clash in 1996. David Foster Wallace has just published his novel “Infinite Jest” to great acclaim. David Lipsky is interviewing him for Rolling Stone magazine, at his own insistence.

As introverted men of similar backgrounds who live through their words, there is a natural affinity between them, but also a large potential for antipathy. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), whose own novel has just flopped, envies Wallace for his success. Every question he puts forward seems to have the unspoken addendum, “Why you and not me?”

Wallace – played by Jason Segel, in a career-changing performance – is defensive, outwardly shy but with an iron inner core of ego. He can’t stand the idea of somebody else drafting the narrative that will define him. He senses Lipsky’s resentment, and responds with indignation.

It’s the story of two guys who, in other circumstances, might have become best of friends but are nudged toward hostility by professional jealousy and circumstance. Looming over it all is the weight of knowledge about Wallace’s death in 2008 by suicide, which acts as a framing device for the story.

If you don’t think 106 minutes of essentially nothing more than two guys talking can’t be exhilarating, then prepare to be shocked. “The End of the Tour” deserves our attention.

Bonus features are quite good, anchored by a feature-length audio commentary track by director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Donald Margulies and Segel. Though the absence of Eisenberg nettles, the best commentaries come when all three legs of the core creative triad – writing, acting, directing – are represented.

There are also deleted scenes, an interview with composer Danny Elfman and a making-of documentary short. Extras are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions.