Italian director Paolo Sorrentino won an Oscar two years ago in the Best Foreign-Language category for "The Great Beauty", a phrase that also applies to his latest film, the unforgettable "Youth". Unlike anything I've seen (and likely will see) this year, "Youth" is bold, unique, powerful and deeply moving - the same words I used to describe my favorite film of 2014, "Birdman". Both works challenge you in a way that only great cinema can.
On the surface, "Youth" is the story of renowned, retired orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), who's been vacationing at the same Swiss hotel/spa for the past 20 years. Daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz at her career best) is also her father's assistant, so she's on hand to make sure he's healthy. Ballinger also re-connects with longtime friend and film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). He's staying at the hotel with his team of much younger writers, working on the script for his latest movie - "Life's Last Day", which is to be his "masterpiece". Also at the hotel is superstar actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who's preparing for his next role. He's fed-up with only being recognized by fans for playing the title robot in the commercial hit "Mr. Q", and not for any of his serious work. His new character, revealed late in "Youth", is just one of a number of jarring surprises Sorrentino hits us with. And there are dozens of other guests, including a world famous sports icon and the newly-crowned Miss Universe. Some are enjoying youth, while others are working hard to recapture it.
Sorrentino weaves all of these characters into a narrative that is very difficult to describe. And the last thing I want to do is give anything away. You've simply got to experience "Youth" for yourself, allowing the meaning of the images, relationships and messages to work on you.
Caine's Ballinger is best-known for his commercially successful "Simple Song" compositions, which play a significant role in this story. This title is in stark contrast to the complexities contained in what is one of the best screenplays of the year. Every scene, every conversation is not only meaningful by itself, but in connection with the story as a whole. Sorrentino is constantly making comparisons between the young and the old, without picking sides, and the script is packed with brutally honest dialogue dealing with family, life, the entertainment industry and how people think and reason. "Youth" is not without its mysteries, and while you may not fully understand everything you see, every single shot has a legitimate purpose.
Caine delivers a heartfelt performance, best on display when the seemingly in-control conductor is able to look back on his life. Keitel is present in practically every meaningful scene, carrying most of them, with a nomination-worthy performance. And in a much buzzed-about extended cameo, the legendary Jane Fonda plays iconic diva/actress Brenda Morel. Fonda's only on screen for about six minutes, and it's mainly one scene with Keitel. She gets to yell, throw F-bombs and blast away at her former director and friend. And her character is pivotal to the story. But the role is just not big enough to justify the Best Supporting Actress attention Fonda's been getting.
Books will be written about the symbolism, imagery and messages in "Youth". There are scenes that will stay with me for a long time, and there's no doubt that I'll be watching it again (and again). This is a visionary triumph that deserves to be seen. And if parts of "Youth" make you feel uncomfortable, sad, hopeless, uplifted, insignificant and more than a bit confused - don't worry. That may just be the point.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Youth" gets an A.
Dame Maggie Smith is approaching her 81st birthday, but age isn't slowing her down one bit. The veteran actress is in the midst of an impressive renaissance. She's been the quintessential player in the PBS drama "Downton Abbey" and has given great performances in both "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and its even better 2015 sequel. Smith plays "The Lady in the Van" in a quirky silver screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's memoir and play. Her performance isn't worthy of a third Academy Award or even an honorary-esque nomination, though her work here and this "mostly true" story are quite unique.
It's the mid-1970s and Smith's Mary Shepherd is homeless, living in her van, which she'll soon paint bright yellow. She travels up and down suburban London streets looking for a place to park her house on wheels. No one in the neighborhood wants her anywhere near their home. Shepherd attaches herself to Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), a local playwright and actor, and he allows her to keep the van in front of his house, and eventually, move it into his driveway.
Shepherd doesn't decipher much of her past, though clues indicate to Alan that she may be a possible subject to write about. He wonders, obviously, how she ended-up this way, learns she was once a nun, and can't understand why she is so bothered by music. Other mysteries arise as their time together grows. In an interesting cinematic device, Alan is presented as two people, because he is constantly in two frames of mind about Shepherd: the timid "care-taker" (his true persona) and the more confident writer. The screenplay, written by Bennett himself, does include some smart dialogue between his split personalities, but I wish this element didn't dominate so much of "The Lady in the Van". Having the two Alans constantly analyzing Shepherd is very distracting as we're trying to figure-out this old woman ourselves.
"The Lady in the Van" is much stronger in its dramatic moments than when it tries to be funny, though some sarcastic lines from Smith and others do hit the mark. A few subplots are decent, though it all leads to a rather clumsy/corny finale. Passed by an act of Parliament, the law requiring Jim Broadbent to appear in at least one scene in every British film, is in full force, as he has a small role as a bad guy (for a change). And both James Corden and Dominic Cooper have cameos. The highlights of Smith's performance are two scenes near the end, though they, like the entire film, fail to fully ignite our interest.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Lady in the Van" gets a C+.
"The Danish Girl" is director Tom Hooper's follow-up to his 2010 Best Picture Academy Award winner "The King's Speech" and equally impressive and innovative 2012 musical adaptation of "Les Miserables". In February, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the revolutionary Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". Redmayne has a legitimate chance to go two-for-two, becoming the first to do so since Tom Hanks in the mid-90s, with his defining work in "The Danish Girl". He and Alicia Vikander, who gave an understated and rich performance earlier this spring in the sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina", are one of the best cinematic pairs of the year.
Based on a book and accounts of its true-life subject matter, Redmayne and Vikander play Einar and Gerda Wegener, husband and wife painters living in Copenhagen in 1926. They are clearly, deeply in love, but efforts to have a child have not been successful. One day, when Gerda asks Einar to substitute for a woman she is painting by posing with a dress, stockings and ballet shoes, we see Einar perceiving his wife and her clothing differently. And soon she realizes that he enjoys dressing in women's clothing. Einar isn't fond of attending Gerda's social events, but she decides that Einar should go to an upcoming dance disguised as this new character they've concepted, Lili. However, Lili quickly becomes much more to Einar. It turns out that she is a real person, the real person he was meant to be, who he believes has been inside of him since birth.
Gerda is stunned at Einar's revelation as well as his thoughts and dreams of actually becoming a woman. But, amazingly, she doesn't treat her husband as insane (as most of the doctors they visit do) but wholeheartedly supports him and his decision to completely transform, mentally and physically, into Lili. Gerda's understanding of the tremendous complexities of her husband's situation is the heart of this story. In her performance Vikander personifies the kind of person we hope we all could be if put in a similar situation: imperfect and undeniably unsure but loyal and trusting in her heart.
"The Danish Girl" is a performance-driven film - a study of two, or rather, three individuals all looking to stay true to themselves and, ultimately, find happiness. Redmayne's work is daring, tranformative and heartbreaking. We see the emptiness and coldness of Einar's eyes that, in a flash, glitter with visions of opportunities and the future. His ability to bounce back and forth from his two personas, often in the same scene, is masterful. Hooper's direction is distinct, but, outside of focusing on his two leads, he doesn't add many interesting supporting elements to make this a truly incredible cinematic experience. I can absolutely see "The Danish Girl" as a bold, 90-minute stage play, but as a two-hour film, it goes at a slow, tepid pace, and is longer than it needs to be. It's certainly worth seeing for the two outstanding leads, who both should get their share of awards nominations. But unlike Hooper's two previous efforts, "The Danish Girl" simply isn't powerful enough for Best Picture consideration.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Danish Girl" gets a B.
Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo once said, "The only kind of love worth having is the kind that goes on living and laughing and fighting and loving." As a new biopic showcases, Trumbo loved to write, and he fought for his First Amendment rights for the freedom to express himself while holding beliefs that weren't shared by the masses. In "Trumbo", Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo, a man who was Blacklisted for being a Communist during the Cold War era of the 40s and 50s.
While Trumbo's crusade is emotionally charged, the first hour of this film is surprisingly sluggish. Trumbo and other writers who support the labor movement and fair wages for everyone in the movie industry (the "Hollywood Ten" as they would come to be known) are "outed" by colleagues and called to testify in front of Congress. When they refuse to cooperate they are sent to prison. Once released all the major studios refuse to hire them. So Trumbo devises a plan to get himself and his friends back to work. But fighting ther Holywood system will be difficult, and there will be a price to pay.
"Trumbo" kicks into gear in the second half, when this cat and mouse game between Trumbo and the studios kicks-in. Wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three children, including daughter Niki (Elle Fanning), provide his support system, but they become victims of the blacklisting campaign, and Trumbo's battle, as well.
When done well, movies about the making of movies, and Hollywood in general, can shine. Five recent examples: "The Artist", "Hitchcock", "Saving Mr. Banks", "Birdman" and "Argo", which featured Cranston and "Trumbo" co-star John Goodman. The true story elements involving Trumbo's work on the screenplays for "Roman Holiday", "The Brave One", "Spartacus" and "Exodus" add to the fun, as do real life characters John Wayne, Kurt Douglas and Edward G. Robinson.
Having actors playing famous actors on screen is always tricky. Director Jay Roach (whose film range includes the comedy hits "Meet the Parents" and the "Austin Powers" series to HBO's powerhouse political campaign drama "Game Change") handles it as best as possible. Actual clips of key Academy Awards ceremonies are nicely inserted. And Goodman, as Frank King, the head of the low-budget studio King Bros., has some terrific moments, including one particular scene that's a "home run". However, Louis C.K. is wildly miscast as one of the other blacklisted writers.
There was a wild fascination with the happenings of Hollywood during this time, and very few sources for information. Gossip columnist queen Hedda Hopper ruled the celebrity scene, using her power and influence to make and break careers. Helen Mirren gets to wear some divine dresses and head attire and plays a woman on top of the entertainment world, who, as it turns out, was also pretty evil. Mirren has some memorable lines, but her role is too small.
Cranston's performance grows as "Trumbo" progresses, particularly once Trumbo gets caught-up in the mayhem and becomes obsessed with churning-out script after script (under assumed names) and defeating the blacklist movement. If the first half was as good as the second, "Trumbo" could have easily been added to the "Movie About Movies" A-list. This uneven effort is worth a ticket, but not the red carpet treatment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Trumbo" gets a B-.
Less than an hour into Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur”, I began thinking about the studio’s 15 other animated movies (never a good thing). Not all of them are outstanding (“WALL-E” being the most overrated), but given the choice, I would watch any of them again in favor of a second viewing of “The Good Dinosaur”, which is clearly the studio’s worst film to date.
It’s no wonder Pixar had years of problems trying to get this movie made. It was originally supposed to be their 2014 film, instead becoming their quietly-promoted second 2015 feature following the much more ambitious “Inside Out”. Much like “Newt”, Pixar’s highly-publicized failed project about amphibians falling in love, “The Good Dinosaur” should’ve been scrapped, or rather, put into extinction. And it’s too bad, because the initial premise, which is somewhat unique, poses the question: What if the meteor that killed all the dinosaurs missed the Earth instead?
We flash-forward millions of years and dino Arlo is born. He’s got a Mama, Papa and two active and competitive siblings. Arlo is not athletic or courageous. And yes, all the dinosaurs in “The Good Dinosaur” speak English, but the few humans in the story do not - kind of a reversal of “The Flintstones”. And this should quiet all those who have problems with the talking vehicles in “Cars”.
The first half-hour of “Good Dino“ (aka “Family Time”) is surprisingly flat, emotionless and awkward. Once again Disney and Pixar Executive Producer John Lasseter follows the studios’ mantra: “You MUST kill-off a character early to move the plot forward!” Just like in nearly every other Pixar and Mouse House animated movie this Century, someone dies early on in “The Good Dinosaur” and Arlo must prove his worth as he battles enemies and the elements trying to make it back home to his family with the help of a new friend, a young cave boy.
This story and script are on the “Disney Junior” TV series level. The writing is basic and rarely provides any genuine interest. There’s only one scene - midway through the film - which actually feels like it was created by a Pixar team, along with the absolutely gorgeous animation and stunningly realistic nature scenery. The rest - from the bland dialogue, to the wacky supporting characters, to the overly-sentimental tone - could have been produced anywhere. The only other “Good” element of “The Good Dinosaur” is Sam Elliot’s voice-work as a T-rex with a nasty scar and tall tales of his adventures battling outlaws. Yes, this film becomes a Western at one point.
There’s a scene in which young Arlo and his cave boy pal eat some “funny” berries and get “high”, complete with psychedelic music and visuals, taking them from the Stone Age to the “Stoned” Age. You've got to wonder if those same berries were being passed around during the production meetings of this movie.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Good Dinosaur” gets a C.
40 years ago, Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as boxer Rocky Balboa in a film that established the standard for the sports movie genre. Following five other “Rocky” films Balboa is finally retired. But in “Creed” a special young fighter inspires Rocky to make yet another comeback.
We’ve seen so many sports dramas, many involving boxing, since the release of “Rocky” in 1976, and most have had a very formulaic flow. But here “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler breathes new life into the “Rocky” franchise. “Fruitvale” star, Michael B. Jordan, gives a commanding performance as Adonis (aka Donnie), the troubled son of the late, legendary Apollo Creed.
Donnie’s been fighting underground for years, and is undefeated, using the name “Johnson” to hide his identity. He wants to make it on his own. So he quits his office job in California and heads to Philadelphia. Where better to make this dream a reality than in the place where the sport’s two greatest icons, Rocky and his father (who died in the ring before he was born - in “Rocky IV”) became superstars?
His goal is to convince Rocky, who’s been out of the fight business running his restaurant “Adrian’s” full-time, to become his trainer. Moved by Donnie’s passion and determination, Rocky decides to return to the gym and the sport he loves - and an opportunity give the pair a chance to prove they both belong.
Thankfully, “Creed” elevates this very basic premise, with a multi-layered, character-driven story that goes at the steady pace of Rocky’s main motivational line to Donnie: “One Step, One Punch, One Round at a Time.” Coogler often mirrors the previous “Rocky” films (too much so with the glorified finale bout), but he’s able to give this spin-off the appropriate, modern flare that allows it to fly on its own. Bianca, a local singer (played by Tessa Thompson) provides a love interest for Donnie, and as his training and relationship with Rocky continue, things become more and more complicated. Most of the dialogue is quite authentic and packed with emotion.
Jordan has the physical look and overall presence of a real fighter. He and Thompson have great chemistry, and Phylicia Rashad, as Apollo Creed’s former wife and Donnie’s adopted mother, has a few standout scenes. But, believe it or not, it’s Stallone who gives the defining, knockout performance in “Creed”. He revitalizes this beloved character, with a subtle authenticity and restrained command of every moment on screen. In a career filled with cartoonish action roles, Stallone proves to all doubters, once and for all, that he can act, as he carries some of the most raw and powerful scenes of any movie this year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Creed” gets a B+.
After a solid first installment and an even stronger sequel, "The Hunger Games" franchise flamed-out with last year's "Mockingjay - Part 1". Lionsgate decided to split the third and final book from Suzanne Collins' phenomenon series into two films based on the financial successes of the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series, which utilized this strategy. This time, however, it was a huge mistake.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" underperformed at the box office, and the film itself was a snoozer, with a serious lack of action. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" does amp-up the destruction and explosions, and there is a level of anticipation for those who have been with this series for the past four years (especially for those who didn't read the books). Will Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the shining symbol of the ongoing Panem districts rebellion, finally kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland)? And how will the romantic triangle end - will she pick Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)?
"Mockingjay - Part 2" suffers from the exact same problem as its predecessor: there isn't enough legitimate material to warrant a stand-alone, 2-hour, 15-minute movie. Once again, there are long, dull stretches with the array of characters talking and talking but not advancing the story. But the truth is - even if combined into just one movie, "Mockingjay" is clearly the least exciting and satisfying of the adaptations.
Each of the "Hunger Games" films has featured at least one or two standout performances. In the original, it was Woody Harrelson's former "Games" winner Haymitch and Stanley Tucci's TV show host Caesar Flickerman (their roles are greatly reduced in "MP2"). "Catching Fire" introduced us to new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who elevated the entire cast. He does have several scenes in this final installment (though, oddly, no "In Memory of" this time in the closing credits). In "Mockingjay - Part 1", Julianne Moore was terrific as District 13 President Alma Coin, with a commanding presence and an engaging and slightly mysterious personality. Coin is a significant character in this final chapter, still leading the rebel take-over of The Capitol and the destruction of Snow. And she has a few other surprises up her sleeve as well.
But the best performance in "Mockingjay - Part 2", by far, is delivered by Lawrence. The Oscar-winner captivates in at least a half dozen dramatic scenes, displaying the acting skills she regularly saves for collaborations with David O. Russell. If you've been invested in "The Hunger Games" movie franchise, seeing Lawrence's best work of the series is really the only reason to check-out this finale. If that's not enough for you, just ask one of your obsessed friends or younger family members to take 30-seconds and fill you in on how it ends.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" gets a C.
In a season filled with blockbusters and awards hopefuls, “Love the Coopers” deserves a very special recognition: This all-star comedy takes elements from every “dysfunctional family coming together for the holidays” movie ever made, combining them into one, large fruitcake…that’s as hard as a rock.
If you’re expecting some holiday cheer from this star-studded effort, think again. There’s very little love on display in “Love the Coopers”, but plenty of pain. We’ve got the main couple, played by Diane Keaton and John Goodman, on the verge of a divorce after 40 years of marriage. A son, played by Ed Helms, who’s lost his job and can’t afford to buy presents for his kids. Oh yeah, he’s also divorced. How about the daughter who’s forced to bring home a fake boyfriend for the holidays so the other family members won’t feel sorry for her? And she’s also having an affair with a married man. This storyline (featuring Olivia Wilde and Jake Lacy) gets the most screen time and is the most interesting, though only because of the likeability of the two actors, and not their actual characters or wildly-predictable situation.
There’s the lonely sister played by Marisa Tomei who’s a criminal and becomes involved with police officer Anthony Mackie. “Nebraska”’s delightful June Squibb somehow got roped-into playing the senile old Aunt. And finally, nothing says festive fun like a young woman looking to start anew inspired by the wise ol’ grandpa of the family. Amanda Seyfried and Alan Arkin, as longtime waitress and her devoted customer, play-out this awkward relationship as best they can.
It’s hard to understand how a movie like “Love the Coopers” got made. If I laughed or smiled at all it was in sheer disbelief of what I was witnessing. At least director Jessie Nelson didn’t play favorites, instead making sure each actor has their own embarrassing scene or two…or three. We get both the uncomfortable Christmas Carol sing-along and cringe-inducing family dancing exhibition - in a hospital cafeteria. Plus, the obligatory dysfunctional dinner table drama. At times it felt like I was watching “December: Osage County”. Nelson also plays mind tricks with weird, unexpected flashbacks and visions, I’m guessing just to keep the audience from dozing-off.
The story, which is set in Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve is narrated by a Hollywood legend who’s barely recognizable and only named in the closing credits. That’s his early Christmas present, getting to stay as far away from this holiday disaster as possible. You should do the same.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Love the Coopers" gets a D.
2012’s “Skyfall” marked a box office high and critical resurgence for James Bond. However, the 53-year-old franchise has, sadly and surprisingly, taken a downfall with the newest installment - “Spectre”: that’s Bland, James Bland.
Returning director Sam Mendes does deserve credit for getting things off to a rousing start, with Daniel Craig’s 007 in Mexico City amid a Day of the Dead celebration that features a sloppy assassination attempt and a wild helicopter extravaganza. The rest of “Spectre” is hit and miss.
Ralph Fiennes takes-over the position of “M”, following the death of Judi Dench’s character at the end of “Skyfall”. (If you didn’t know that fact by now you have no reason to go to “Spectre”.) And boy, do both Bond and this film miss Dench’s presence. Following the Mexico fiasco, M grounds Bond, but that doesn’t stop the agent from going “rogue” and finding his own way of getting in and out of sticky situations.
“Spectre” has all the gadgets associated with a great James Bond movie: cool weapons, fast autos, exotic locations, beautiful women and a devious villain. Oberhauser, head of the evil Spectre organization, is played by the new king of the modern movie villain: Christoph Waltz. But this time, much like the car that Bond uses during one of the many chase scenes, this script has no fire-power.
Three years ago, singer Adele belted-out the title track “Skyfall” all the way to an Oscar. Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” accompanies “Spectre’s” opening credits montage, which is rather bizarre, even for Bond standards. The song, like the entire film, is generic and uninspiring.
“Spectre” runs 2 hours and 28 minutes, and it moves along at a snail’s pace, only accelerating during a few solid splashes of action. Waltz doesn’t get much to do, and Lea Seydoux (who plays Bond girl, Madeline Swann), is a full 17 years younger than Craig in real-life. It would’ve made more sense if Bond was a new father figure in her life than love interest, especially considering the elements of his past that are revealed.
“Spectre” has none of the intrigue, excitement, emotion, humor and charm we’ve come to expect from this franchise, not to mention a story with legitimate purpose. It’s downgraded James Bond to being just another cinematic agent, along with Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and all the rest. And that’s a REAL crime.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Spectre” gets a C.
When Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the “Ice Age” franchise, announced they were going to tackle the world of Charlie Brown and Co. with a CGI “Peanuts” movie, the expression “Good Grief” was heard loud and wide - the general opinion being: Why mess such beloved characters? But, 65 years after the comic strip began, and in the golden anniversary year of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “The Peanuts Movie” overcomes all the fears and concerns by sticking with its timeless foundation. This is classic 20th Century “Peanuts” - nothing modernized or updated - and it works beautifully.
“The Peanuts Movie” has a heart as big as the sky, thanks to director Steve Martino (who also crafted an honorable adaptation of "Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” for Blue Sky back in 2008), and three writers, including late “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. It’s a genuine, all-new story, but it’s packed with all the classic elements - from the iconic music to direct lines and bits from the TV specials.
None of the characters have been altered in any way, including Charlie Brown himself, who’s kind, but a bit clumsy and often puts himself down for always, somehow, messing things up. He still can’t fly a kite or strike-out a batter. But when “The Little Red-Haired Girl” moves-in across the street and becomes his new classmate, Chuck instantly gets a crush on her and comes up with a plan to overcome his lack of confidence and become a “winner” so he can win her over.
“The Peanuts Movie” is consistently fun and inventive, with new layers that unravel as the film moves along. High energy, up-tempo scenes involving the gang at school and at play mix nicely with appropriate, quieter moments. There are plenty of nostalgic touches for parents and grandparents who have watched the TV specials countless times, and wonderfully colorful and friendly animation that a new generation of kids, who may be introduced to this world for the very first time with this film, will absolutely love.
And remember Snoopy’s WWI Flying Ace from “It’s The Great Pumpkin”? A parallel storyline to Charlie Brown’s girl troubles involves the fearless beagle and pal Woodstock writing (on a old fashioned typewriter) an adventurous romance novel of the Ace trying to capture the heart of his new love Fifi, and defeat his nemesis The Red Baron. I wish they had spent a little less time on this, but the animation in these sequences is spectacular.
“The Peanuts Movie” is about friendship and staying true to yourself - those themes hitting home surprisingly hard in a sweet and moving finale. On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Peanuts Movie" gets an A-.
The latest true-story investigative journalism drama “spotlights” one of the most star-studded casts of the year: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery from “Mad Men”, Brian d’Arcy James (who played Shrek on Broadway), Billy Crudup and the great Stanley Tucci. “Spotlight” deals with a controversial topic and a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-Prize winning expose. The story itself needed to be told in print, but the events leading-up to it, depicted in this film, don’t deliver quite as much impact.
In 2001, The Boston Globe’s renowned “Spotlight” investigative team was told by the paper’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Schreiber) to dig deeper into reports claiming Catholic priests had been sexually abusing children over the past several decades. A few previously reported cases, which quickly and quietly went away, are revisited, but as the team keeps working they uncover new, appalling details on just how many incidents of abuse there are, and of the cover-up by the church, which could go all the way to the top.
“Spotlight”’s strength is the solid ensemble (each of the actors is being put-up for awards consideration in the Supporting categories). The standout performance comes from Ruffalo, who transforms himself completely into “Spotlight” reporter Michael Rezendes. In fact it’s Ruffalo’s back-to-back scenes late in the movie that finally elevate “Spotlight” to the emotional level it needed to be at throughout. Until that point, the narrative is quite monotone, with a very straightforward plot. There isn’t a lot of tension and scenes begin and end so quickly it’s difficult to lose yourself in them. Frankly, I (like Rezendes) couldn’t wait for this expose to finally make it into the paper so we could experience the aftermath.
However, “Spotlight” is never uninteresting. The level of importance director and co-writer Tom McCarthy places on the screen is valid. And the work these reporters did to bring to light the worldwide Priest abuse scandal deserves high praise. A few subtle subplots add texture, and there are some terrific dynamics on display between key players: Keaton’s Spotlight chief Robby Robinson and a valuable source, Rezendes and victim defense attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Tucci), and Baron and the entire staff. And the final 10-15 minutes shine, especially a well-staged final scene. If the entire movie had been this strong, “Spotlight” could have been a ‘Best of 2015’ contender.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Spotlight” gets a B.
"Brooklyn" is a charming and enchanting period romance, featuring one of the best performances of the year. This marks a major step up for director John Crowley, whose previous film, 2013's "Closed Circuit", was a "thriller" with absolutely no thrills. "Wild" screenwriter Nick Hornby adapted a 2009 Irish novel for the screen and he paints a beautiful canvas on which 21-year-old star Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominated for "Atonement") can shine.
It's the 1950s and Eilis (played by Ronan) lives in Ireland with her mom and older sister, working at a small convenience store. She and a friend regularly go to local dances in their free time. The friend is the town catch. In an early haunting and powerful moment, we see Eilis standing alone, waiting, for what seems like forever, for someone to ask her to dance (and maybe change her dull, uninteresting life), and no one does. And so she quietly leaves the hall.
Eilis gets the opportunity to leave Ireland and start anew in America. A parish priest has made the arrangements and set her up at a boarding house in the Irish section of Brooklyn, and with a job at a lavish department store. Deciding to leave her family and homeland is difficult, though not the most challenging decision she'll face over the course of the film. The boarding house is run by Mrs. Kehoe (a feisty Julie Walters is terrific). While attending a dance in her new community, a young man approaches Eilis. Though she is Irish and he's Italian, Eilis and Tony (Emory Cohen) quickly become a couple.
Soon life gets much more complicated for Eilis, as the prospects of returning home loom because of gloom. Promises, vows and secrets are all on the line as the story unfolds in a beautiful and often heartbreaking fashion. "Brooklyn" is a simple, yet powerful exploration into love and loss, fate and faith.
Technically, there are a few slight glitches: Scenes on the steamship crossing the Atlantic and of the NY skyline feature clumsy use of green screen. And, from a story structure standpoint, the climactic decision made by Eilis comes rather abruptly, considering all the time and events that lead up to it. It's as if she simply flicks a light switch, erasing everything that came before. This turning-point feels rushed and misses some much-needed outside motivation. But these are minor quibbles.
There's a nice balance of heavy drama and occasional humor, and the score and cinematography are lovely. But above all, "Brooklyn" is a showcase for Ronan, who embodies this young woman torn between two sides of the world, each with powerful influences on the life she has and the one she longs for. This is a performance worthy of Best Actress nominations, though "Brooklyn" is a type of film that will not have mass exposure or appeal. It needs to be seen and embraced by the voting communities. It is one of those "hidden gems" that we're lucky enough to get every Awards Season that deserves to be seen and enjoyed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Brooklyn" gets a B+.
In 2009, Warner Bros. scored a touchdown with Sandra Bullock, the actress earning an Oscar for “The Blind Side”. Four years later, they soared together again, Bullock snagging a nomination for her work in “Gravity”. Can this team go three for three with the political dramedy “Our Brand Is Crisis”? Well, early results are not promising.
Bullock plays “legendary” campaign strategist Jane Bodine. We meet first her as she’s being interviewed, and the film is actually done in flashback, which is totally unnecessary. Burned-out from the political game, Bodine’s been living in a cabin in the woods for six years, making pottery. Two members of a team running a campaign for a candidate in the Bolivian Presidential Election find and convince her to help them get Senor Castillo elected.
Castillo was actually el presidente 15 years ago, but that didn’t go too well (apparently he had a lot of the citizens killed). So both he and Jane (a lover of quotable quotes) are desperately looking for comebacks, though their stories are not parallel.
Things take an all-too “Hollywood” turn with the entrance of Pat Candy - the campaign manager for an opposing candidate who’s the current leader in the polls. Candy is played by Billy Bob Thornton, in a typical Billy Bob Thornton role. He and Jane have gone head-to-head several times in the past, and he’s always beaten her. This time we watch him pop in and out of scenes for some cinematic trash talk, but never actually do much of anything involving his own campaign.
My numbers show that about 75% of “Our Brand Is Crisis” doesn’t work. There have been so many election movies with similar storylines, and there’s little fresh here, especially when it comes to saying anything new or remotely interesting about the political system. And attempts to blend in comedy all misfire. There’s a campaign bus race scene through the Bolivian mountains that doesn’t belong in this (or any other) movie, with Bullock dropping her pants and showing-off her Buttocks. And even when it tries to be dramatic, the script suffers from a lack of believability and some really corny dialogue.
As for Bullock’s performance, award-season voters won’t need to consider her this time around because she likely won’t be on any ballots. She tries her best, delivering a handful of effective speeches, and her bitter exchanges with Thornton did keep me from dozing off. There are a few scenes late that do add some meat to the otherwise sparkle-free story. But there’s no debating the fact that someone should have realized this movie was in crisis long before it got to the screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Our Brand Is Crisis” gets a C-.
"Truth" is based on the real-life 2004 events surrounding a "60 Minutes" investigative report put together by veteran show producer Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett), legendary CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), and their team, involving then President George W. Bush's military service. On-record interviews and copies of documents obtained by Mapes revealed enough damaging information about Bush's attempt to avoid being sent back to Vietnam in the early 70s that everyone felt good about airing the explosive story. However, after the report runs, questions about the validity of the documents arise - and Mapes, Rather and everyone at CBS must deal with the truth that their truth may not be the REAL truth.
First-time director James Vanderbilt also wrote the script, adapted from Mapes' own memoir, which is why she is clearly the main focus of the film and, unfortunately, not Rather. Most people going to see this movie will be interested in Redford's performance of the iconic newsman and may be disappointed in how limited his role really is. Redford plays it "rather" straightforward, though the scenes where he is at the center of attention are my favorites of the film. Blanchett is also strong, though she's given a boatload of showy scenes, and especially towards the end as we watch Mapes become an emotional mess, I felt like I was watching an encore "Blue Jasmine" performance.
"Truth" is compelling enough to keep your attention, and it's fascinating to witness, as things start to unravel and then snowball, just how bad it got. However, Vanderbilt and the script place way too much importance on this journalistic event. The dialogue and overall tone combine to blow this relatively minor moment in the history of TV News way out of proportion. A few slow-motion scenes and corny dialogue also add to the melodrama.
If the focus was the decline and fall of Dan Rather, then maybe. But this isn't Watergate, or "Rathergate": it's "The Mary Mapes Story". Frankly, whether or not she loses her job because of her mistakes wasn't of much interest.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Truth" gets a C+. Courage.
Remember when Barry Levinson made great films? I don't, specifically, because they all came-out before I was born. His latest, "Rock the Kasbah" is set, as the opening title card reads, "in the recent past". The director of such 80s classics as "Diner", "The Natural", "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Rain Man" (for which he won an Oscar) has brought some of Hollywood's most respected and likeable actors together for a comedy with a somewhat interesting premise. However, here's the really bad news: nothing in this mess of a movie works.
Bill Murray plays the same character he's played for basically the 100th time (though name and occupation always change): a wisecracking, smart aleck. Murray has terrific comic timing and can deliver great lines and memorable moments when working with the right script, such as in the holiday favorite "Scrooged" (1988). That film's writer, Mitch Glazer, also wrote this screenplay, which is, well, "Bah, Humbug!", with no cohesive flow, a misguided tone and characters who pop in and out at will.
Early in the film Murray's down-on-his-luck talent manager, Richie Lanz, tells his daughter that he and business partner/singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) are going on tour in The Middle East and will "Rock the Kasbah". The girl informs him that Kasbahs aren't in Afghanistan, but northern Africa. This stuns Richie and then the topic is dropped completely. You know a movie has problems when the title doesn't even fit the project.
Lanz, who claims to have discovered Madonna and suffered a broken nose in a squabble with Stevie Nicks, gets caught-up in a bunch of wacky situations on the tour, including an arms deal with warring Afhgan factions. None of this is entertaining. The only surprise comes when Ronnie leaves him, and the film for good, after about 15 minutes. Deschanel apparently knew when to cut her losses.
Murray soon meets-up with some of his ol' acting pals: Bruce Willis plays the same schmuck mercenary soldier we've seen before. At first he wants to kill Lanz, but then somehow agrees to tag-team along with him. Kate Hudson plays the happy, friendly prostitute with a heart of gold, and Danny McBride and "Hawaii Five-O"'s Scott Caan are goofy weapons dealers. But, in order to add even more to this mis-mash, the focus shifts yet again to the Middle East version of "American Idol" called "Afghan Star", and a contestant Richie discovers who could "win it all."
But there are only losers where "Rock the Kasbah" is concerned. It is as long and dry as the desert. There are so many attempts at laughs and they all fail miserably. Every line just sits there. Even Murray's closing credits ad-lib bit with a store owner is embarrassingly beneath him.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Rock the Kasbah" gets a D-.
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