As much as I can’t stand the person, it’s hard to argue that Tom Cruise knows how to make fun movies. This franchise which began more than 20 years ago should have by all rights run out of gas by now but that’s not the case. The Mission Impossible movies just keep getting better and this one has to be one of, if not the best, of the series. Simon Pegg steals every scene he’s in, Cruise shares the screen equally with Pegg and his co-stars, and actually has a female on-screen counterpart who is more than just a love interest or secret bad guy. The action is great, the writing is tight, the pacing is fantastic, and I am constantly surprised how much I enjoy these movies. Go rogue and see this movie and don’t be ashamed to say you enjoyed it.
by Alan Yudman
It is tough to criticize a mega million dollar franchise that is beloved by just about everyone. Especially when it stars the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence, and features such great actors like Julianne Moore and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But like Katniss Everdeen, I’m battle tested and scarred so I’m diving in with my exploding arrows. This will not be Propo for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2. We pick up right where Mockingjay Part 1 left off. Katniss is getting her neck brace off, put there after Peeta tried choking her out. Peeta is still tied to a bed in District 13 because well, he’s been brainwashed by The Capital and President Snow. The movie follows Katniss as she makes every attempt to fulfill her apparent destiny— to assassinate Snow (Donald Sutherland). It’s a long journey filled with battles, propaganda videos, love, broken hearts and deceit. I don’t want to give too much away. The action scenes and set pieces are the highlights of the film. The rest of it plays more like melodrama. Who will Katniss choose? Gale? Peeta? No one? At this point I was really beyond caring. Just pick someone! It’s been a 4 movie slog through Katniss’ emotional wreckage and halfway through MOCKINGJAY PART 2 I wanted to yell at the screen, “kiss Peeta or kill him, I don’t fucking care but do something!!” That is one problem here, Katniss talks a good game but seems to stop short (or is stopped short) of resolution, at least until the end. The other thing that drove me mad was the on the nose dialogue. We’ve been with you for three movies, give us a little credit for getting the subtext, or even the text! You don’t have to tell us that the capital wants you dead, we got it. We’ve gotten it for 3 plus movies. Enough! Another problem with the finale of any of these franchises is how to end them. LORD OF THE RINGS took forever to tie up the end of the last film, MOCKINGJAY PART 2 takes a similarly interminable amount of time to resolve storylines. It feels like it has about 4 endings. Fade to black. Credits? Nope. Another scene trying to resolve things. Sigh. For fear of going on and on like the movie does, I’ll wrap it up here. MOCKINGJAY PART 2 ties up all the threads, but not in a satisfying or artful way. I was happy when the credits finally rolled.
by Alan Yudman
The subject of the Hollywood Blacklist has been tackled before in movies like GUILTY BY SUSPICION and THE FRONT. The first features Robert DeNiro as a fictitious director who is named as a communist and is blacklisted. The second is also based on real stories, but centers on a fictional character who is used as a “front” for blacklisted screenwriters. TRUMBO on the other hand is based on an actual Hollywood screenwriter. Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo who admits to being a Communist and decides to fight back against the injustice of the House un-American Activities Committee because he believes the committee is the real un-American body. He fails, is held in contempt of Congress and goes to prison for a year. When he returns home he has to work, but cannot attach his name to anything for fear of the net being cast around other innocent people. So he devised an ingenious plan to ghost write screenplays (along with other blacklisted writers) for the King brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root) who are outside the Hollywood establishment… way outside. These writers are making their livings by writing movies about aliens, giant bugs, talking gorillas, etc. Not academy award material. But, Trumbo writes a screenplay, The Brave One, under a pseudonym and it wins a screenwriting Oscar. That gets him noticed by Kirk Douglas who enlists him to write Spartacus and by Otto Preminger to write Exodus. Once that happens, the blacklist is broken. In case you are now shaking your fists at me for “spoiling” what happens, sorry. This is history. It is easily researched, so is exempt from the spoiler rule. Those are the facts of the movie, what makes this entertaining and dramatic is Trumbo’s struggle with his values versus his need to earn money for his family. Trumbo apparently had a knack for speaking like everything he said would be inscribed in marble, a fact pointed out by fellow Communist and blacklisted writer Arlen Hird. Cranston portrays Trumbo as brilliant, yet flawed. His personality comes off as committed, maybe even obsessed with doing right. That’s important because all this highfalutin dialogue could come off as stilted or snobby. Instead, Cranston uses the dialogue to bring gravitas. The screenplay by John McNamara is compelling, but sometimes feels a little preachy. Jay Roach’s direction is good enough. He captures the look and feel of the times without being stilted. The only real complaint I have with the direction and cinematography (by Jim Denault) is during the scenes in Congress. The interrogator is looking one way, the witness is looking in what seems a different direction. That’s known as crossing the line and for me it was a bit distracting. The film is loaded with fabulous acting. Cranston proves once again how wonderful he is, bring heart and decency to a character that could have been stuffy and cartoonish. He also give an honest portrayal of how Trumbo’s blind obsession with the fight almost ruined his family. Helen Mirren is loathsome as Hedda Hopper, the media shill for those who sought out Communists in Hollywood. Michael Stuhlbarg (who is great in everything he does), captures the plight of poor Edward G. Robinson, a man caught between loyalty, ego and fame. And Louis CK as Arlen Hird captures his passionate commitment to the cause of fighting the blacklist. If you want to learn more about the Hollywood Blacklist and the heroics of Trumbo, Douglas, Preminger and dozens of others this is the movie you want to see. TRUMBO is a solid, entertaining film with one shining performance by a great actor.. Bryan Cranston.
by Alan Yudman
Rarely does a movie bring tears to my eyes even before it is half over. Usually, it has to build some emotional capital before you can become invested in the story or the characters. SPOTLIGHT breaks that rule. This is the story of how the Boston Globe uncovered and reported on the priest sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, reporting that started a snowball that has now covered the world. It details how three reporters and one editor for the paper’s “Spotlight” investigative team were able to fight, scratch and claw and shine their Spotlight on horrific crimes. The details of the scandal are well known and well reported. So, I’m not going to go into the details of what the priests and the church did to more than 1,000 young boys and girls. The film is about the crime. But it mostly about how the Spotlight team struggled to uncover the story, how they fought the inertia created by a city that is populated by a Catholic majority and how the Church used its influence and power to cover it up. But it is also about how the Globe let it go underreported for years, even after they had the breadcrumbs but couldn’t follow the trail to its conclusion. The screenplay by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy feels real and accurate. Singer has a law degree, so the legal bits appear authentic. McCarthy’s direction is very good in that he stays out of the way. He lingers on faces just long enough, captures the truth through the lens. The cast is simply fantastic. Mark Ruffalo, Micheal Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and probably a dozen more actors turn in powerful performances. The standouts are Ruffalo, Keaton, Schreiber and Tucci. Ruffalo is the driven reporter Michael Rezendes. Keaton is the bulldog Spotlight editor Walter Robinson, Schreiber is the paper’s new editor and Tucci is the committed and quirky lawyer who represented many victims, Mitchell Garabedian. Each performance taps into something deeper. Rezendes is a disillusioned Catholic. Robinson is deep inside Boston’s Catholic culture having grown up in the Church. Baron is the Jewish outsider who everyone thinks has an agenda. Garabedian is selfless and seemingly out for justice without eyes on fame or fortune. The moral conflict of all the characters is just below the surface. With few exceptions they have ties to community and Church and are conflicted about what they are learning. They are also being pressured by powerful men to just let it go. Yet, they know it is a story that must be told no matter how it affects their lives. The villains and heroes are well defined. It is easy to root for the reporters as they keep uncovering shocking crimes and even easier to root against the Church and priests. Stay for the credits. I won’t spoil what is there, but it will remind you about the scope of these crimes. SPOTLIGHT is a powerful film. It reminds us of what journalism can do when it is not obsessed with pop culture and making a buck and when reporting speaks truth to power. SPOTLIGHT is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year and it is easy to predict it will be an Oscar contender. Even if no awards are won, SPOTLIGHT has reminded me of why I got into journalism in the first place. More important, it reminds us that predatory priests are still out there and the Catholic Church is still not doing enough to stop them.
by Alan Yudman
If this is the end of this quadrilogy of James Bond movies, SPECTRE certainly wraps up the storyline quite nicely. This film builds on the narrative that intelligence gathering has changed and agents like James Bond are a thing of the past. In this case, a new global intelligence apparatus is about to go online. The Double-O’s and MI-6 are about to become obsolete. Oh, and Bond is going rogue again. He’s in Mexico City to stop a terrorist bombing plot, but apparently there on his own, without the sanction of the British government. Bond discovers a ring with an octopus-like logo on it and heads back to London to chase down leads and get a stern talking to from “M”. Then he’s off again hopping the globe in search of this mysterious organization, all without orders or the backing of MI-6. He meets beautiful women, fights bad guys, gets involved in outrageous car chases (at least director Sam Mendes gave a little extra screen time and advertising fodder for Aston Martin’s new DB-10) and wreaks mayhem everywhere he goes. Hey, it’s a Bond movie. What else did you expect? The film has humor and a cloud of darkness hanging over Daniel Craig’s Bond that we have seen in the previous three movies. He’s fighting bad guys and his demons. The bad guys are typically over the top bad. Christoph Waltz is the biggest baddie and as he puts it the “author of all your pain”. We find out he is the head of SPECTRE and is responsible for all the evil and heartbreak throughout James’ life. Dave Bautista is a “Jaws”-like enforcer, but his metal appendages aren’t on his teeth, they are on his thumbs (don’t ask). The more subtle bad guy is played by Andrew Scott (Moriarty from SHERLOCK). He’s the head of the new British Joint Intelligence Service and a secret disciple of Waltz’s bad guy. Lea Seydoux is the woman who needs saving, or is it her who saves James? The set pieces are wonderful and the beautiful locales and action set pieces keep SPECTRE from ever being boring or slow. But, the story feels kind of been there, done that. Bond is troubled, he is dealing with past demons, blah blah blah. I thought we resolved most of this in SKYFALL? Apparently not. Bond seems less troubled by his past than he ever has so some of Waltz’s villainy falls flat from a motivational standpoint. Here’s the rub. Are you really going to see a Bond movie for heavy plotting and redemption stories? Probably not. You’re going for chases, fights, bad guys and beautiful girls. And to see James overcome every bizarre situation to win for God and country. And on that level, SPECTRE is extremely satisfying. Is this the best Bond ever? No, I still prefer (in no particular order) GOLDFINGER, SKYFALL, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and CASINO ROYALE. If this is Craig’s last turn as the dashing assassin/spy, then it is a proper sendoff.