Archive for November, 2015

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Most movies about European immigrants chasing the American Dream are not bright, sunny affairs (think Gangs of New York or, more on the nose, The Immigrant).

But in ‘Brooklyn,’ written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley, the idea of romance and opportunity awaiting across the Atlantic seems endearingly possible.

After a seasickness-filled voyage across the sea, Eilis (a sensible Irish woman played by Saoirse Ronan) meets and eventually falls in love with an Italina, baseball-loving, plumber. She’s beyond lucky, with a job and boarding house lined up before she arrives, and the trick Crowley executes is acknowledging the charmed life of his protagonist without melting into a pool of sugar.

It’s a testament to the period details included in the script, like a holiday meal at the local Irish parish that pays tributes to the cheap immigrant labor that built New York City, or the hint of anxiety as a family of fellow travelers is pulled aside to face quarantine.

And Eilis’ fortune evolves into the central drama in Act III, when she’s temporarily called back across the pond and faced with a choice between her new life in America or an unexpectedly-improved situation in Ireland.

The tension of that choice arrives a little late in the movie’s running time, setting up a resolution that feels earned but could have benefited from a little more time in the oven.

Ronan already has a number of fine performances under her belt (if you haven’t seen Atonement, do so post haste)  and while ‘Brooklyn’ is hardly a breakout vehicle, it’s the latest fine choice in a growing resume of quality work for the young actress.

Grade: B+

*Brooklyn opens in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 25

 

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It’s 2001, George  W. Bush has just entered the White House, AOL is advertising on billboards and a massive, decades-long cover up of child molestation by Catholic Priests is about to be exposed by an elite team of journalists.

That’s the setting of Spotlight, which tells the true-life story of the Boston Globe division that spent a year interviewing victims and pouring through church and court records to unravel one of the most insidious conspiracies in modern memory.

It’s a great story, and just like the scandal needed the Globe’s Spotlight team to tell it right, Spotlight, the movie, is the perfect fit to tell the tale on the big screen.

Full disclosure: I’m a journalist, and I have no illusions about how much these types of films preach to my choir. But even as I attempt to set that bias aside, I maintain that Spotlight is a great piece of drama and not just first amendment porn.

That’s because director Tom McMarthy is working with a perfect cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo Liev Schriber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and John Slattery. And together they create an incredibly human story about individuals working together to move a mountain.

Because this is Boston, and The Catholic Church (or simply, THE Church), is an institution that is all but immortal. But the Spotlight team made it bleed.

As a piece of drama, Spotlight shouldn’t work. There’s no back-alley meet ups with anonymous sources, no bricks through windows. Even fellow based-on-a-true-story Zodiak had the unspoken possibility that its journalist character could be murdered by the titular killer.

Instead we have long segments in which the characters furrow their brows and run their fingers down the pages of a directory, or type names into a database. It’s not sexy stuff, but Spotlight makes the machinery of a newsroom as compelling as a car chase.

When the pieces start coming together, and the Globe team realizes its not just a handful but dozens of priests with hundreds of victims between them, the script hums with electricity. The audience is treated to a sample of firsthand accounts from survivors, and the knowledge that it’s the tip of a very dark iceberg is handled with deft, unsettling precision by McCarthy.

The film would have been forgiven for playing into the criminal acts of the Catholic Priests. It’s easy to imagine an alt-universe version of Spotlight that plays like an episode of CSI, showing us a string of horrendous crimes as our heroes get closer to the truth.

McCarthy resists that temptation, and the film is better for it. It’s not a story about depravity, it’s a call to action.

Grade: A

*Spotlight opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, November 20

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If you believe the reports, Daniel Craig is definitely done playing James Bond. Unless you believe the other reports that he definitely intends to return for the final film in his contract.

That type of behind-the-scenes uncertainly wouldn’t normally be an issue, especially for a franchise where perpetual casting changes are built into the machine, but for the fact that in Spectre, Craig et al deliver a film that very much feels like the final chapter in a Bond quadrilogy.

There’s a gravitational pull with most franchises to deliver the movie that Ties It All Together™, and more often than not its an impulse best avoided. Such is the case with Spectre, which attempts to retcon all of Craig’s villains – Le Chifre, Mr. White, Dominic Greene and Silva — into a shadowy organization headed by Hannes Oberhauser (Chistoph Waltz), a figure with a mysterious tie to Bond’s past.

But before you can say “Wait…how?” the film skips off to Tangier in an attempt to distract you with beautiful women, beautiful locales and beautiful fights on a train so that you’re too occupied to question how Oberhauser could have possibly orchestrated the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. For one thing, QUANTUM already gave us one shadowy organization, which now was a subsidiary? Is this a Bond movie or a quarterly earnings report?

It’s par for the course of Spectre, in which THINGS HAPPEN out of necessity, with little time spent on the “why?” of it all. There are plots and subplots, villains and sub-villains, but they’re parceled out like a paint-by-numbers book as the film follows the establish Bond formula established decades ago (the introduction of Andrew Scott as a drone- and surveillance-minded head of British security intent on shutting down MI6 is the definition of an afterthought).

And that’s a shame, because the Daniel Craig era has been marked by an overall sense of freshness and experimentation. Beginning with Casino Royale (still the strongest entry of Craig’s time in the tux, IMHO) the four films have enjoyed a sense of unpredictability, even while calling back to the tried-and-true aspects of the cherished (by many, myself included) franchise. Spectre, on the other hand, is quite predictable, from the car chase in Act I, to the love interest in Act II and the Big Twist Reveal in Act III.

None of this is to say that Spectre is a bad film, it is not. The visuals are delightful (the film opens with a beautiful tracking shot meandering through Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico) and the introduction of classic bond elements like Moneypenny and Q that began with Skyfall continue to pay dividends as the new era of the Bond Team develops. The female characters in Spectre (you know, the Bond Girls) are also more developed than their predecessors, with Lea Seydoux in particular offering more than just a pretty face.

Spectre’s greatest challenge is its own success, coming off the heels of Skyfall and hearkening back to Casino Royale. It falls short of those elevated expectations, but continues the trend of overall quality that has defined the recent exploits of 007.

Grade: B

*Spectre opens nationwide on Friday, November 6

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Room is the world, lit by skylight, and beyond room is space. Door is not a real door, and “Old Nick” arrives each night with items he got through magic from the TV.

Thus is the logic of Jack (Jacob Tremblay, in one of the most nuanced child performances ever captured on film) whose entire life has been spent inside the locked shed of his mother’s captor. His mother (a haunting and haunted Brie Larson) crafted this worldview out of protective necessity, but as Jack turns five she sees an emerging ally capable of helping her escape and begins to open Jack’s eyes to their true predicament.

That’s the first act of Room, and it doesn’t seem like too much of a spoiler to reveal that both characters eventually leave the shed. But the film (directed by Lenny Abrahamson) is not concerned with telling the lurid criminal story of a kidnapping and imprisonment. Instead, the focus of Room is on Jack and his expanding worldview as he is abruptly ejected from Plato’s cave.

It’s an effective choice, as the early claustrophobia and dread (only minimally perceived by Jack but not lost on the audience) is replaced with the danger and uncertainty of an entirely alien world. Ringing phones jolt Jack as he skeptically eyes unfamiliar food and faces, like those of his newly-discovered grandparents, played by Joan Allen and a briefly seen William H. Macy.

But Room also errs by sidelining Larson post-captivity, showing her suspiciously well-adjusted to freedom before sending her off screen for the bulk of the film’s final act. Jack’s experiences are wonderful and new, but as a doctor points out he is fortunate to have escaped while he is still “plastic” compared to his mother, whose life was stolen for seven years.

This is also used as a point of attack in the film’s weakest scene, which sees Larson’s character barraged by a reporter during an interview, who accuses her of selfishness for not asking her captor to release a newborn Jack. It’s heavy-handed and a rings sour to the rest of the film, which largely avoids moral judgements, going so far as to eject “Old Nick” and his societal comeuppance from the film as soon as his captives are free.

Best, however, is the unspoken horror that permeates room. Focused on Jack’s perspective, we see none of the abuses that Larson’s character has experienced, and are instead forced to fill in the gaps within our own minds.

It’s an intentionally and effectively uncomfortable film that heavily relies on the confident presence of Larson and the natural innocence of Tremblay. Room forces recollections of high-profile kidnappings, like the 2013 escape of three women and their children in Ohio, and the ensuing notion that imagination and dramatization can’t approach what those individuals actually experienced.

Grade: A-

*Room opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, November 6.

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