— by Jeff Schultz
Bleak, but not airless, thanks to a “Greek chorus” of Hardy-esque landscapes, suggesting eternal Nature’s obliviousness to the small dramas of domestic life. That’s the beauty of the film —but there’s a problem with the smallness of the drama. The camerawork may find you pulling on a sweater, with its shots of the cold, wet, and sometimes stormy Norfolk countryside. But it also marvelously illuminates character, especially Charlotte Rampling as the wife. Although older now, Rampling is as arresting to look at as ever, all sculptural cheekbones and lithe body. But as her world crumbles in the course of a week, watch her (with the help of DP Lol Crawley) externalize despair, watch as she seems to just give up. The acting — Rampling and her equal, Tom Courtenay — is perfection; you couldn’t ask any more of these performances. So why was I less sympathetic than I think I was supposed to feel by Rampling’s inability to move on? The screenplay has psychological logic on its side: in the movie, the wife learns things she never knew about her husband’s previous girlfriend, including (one of two big reveals) that the girl was the love of his life. And this on the week of their 45th anniversary party. At the end of the movie, Rampling is still in a state of shock, excruciatingly having to appear as though she’s enjoying herself at the party, including a dance with her husband that ends with an angry gesture. She cannot forgive him, though he’s done nothing wrong. I guess that’s the point, the tragedy of the situation. But I’d love to know if a year (or two, or five) later, the couple had managed to reach an accommodation.
By Alan Yudman
Remake or reimagining. Either are tricky enterprises. Taking something beloved and making it fresh, or trying to salvage something from the wreckage of failed sequels is a challenge I would not wish on most filmmakers. So, when you are trying to reboot ROCKY how do you do honor the original while making something fresh. Director Ryan Coogler’s CREED is a roadmap on how to do all that successfully. The movie focuses not on Rocky Balboa, but on the illegitimate son of his opponent/best friend Apollo Creed. Michael B. Jordan is Adonis Johnson (he has taken his mother’s maiden name), who bounces from foster home to youth prison because he is constantly fighting. Apollo’s widow shows up and takes him in and gives him the home he never had. Flash forward and “Donny” is still fighting. He is going into Mexico to fight, trying to make a name for himself. Finally, he gives up his education and his good paying job to dive headfirst into the boxing game. To do that he has to move to Philadelphia where he seeks out Rocky. The rest of the film shows Donny trying to learn how to box from the Rock until he is afforded an opportunity to fight the best boxer on the planet much the same way Rocky was first set up with his father. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone have instant chemistry as the student and the teacher. The banter feels natural and familiar. This is the Stallone I love. The wry actor who can play both drama and comedy equally well. This Rocky is almost lovable. Someone you want to root for, just like in the first film. Jordan is such a good actor. He channels Donny’s fury and frustration into a drive to win at all costs. He also plays the tender moments well, whether he is supporting Rocky or wooing his girlfriend played by Tessa Thompson. The thing that made ROCKY so great was you almost (or actually)standing and cheering for him as he battled the superior fighter. This film owns that same territory. Coogler has a deft touch with the material and hits every note perfectly. If there is a film and a hero to root for, it is CREED.
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—by Jeff Schultz
This seems to me like a European version of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. It’s THE VISIT meets THE SIXTH SENSE, and with the latter in mind, I’ll say it’s definitely worth a second viewing to see more clearly just how the writer/directors pulled off their twist all the way through. Promoted as a scary thriller, it’s not too scary and only intermittently thrilling. Rather, its strength lies in its mystery, and the absorbing way it handles the 180° turn at the halfway point. Twins Lukas and Elias Schwartz play twins named Lukas and Elias; their relationship, which has the closeness of blood, is virtually wordless — they seem to communicate almost telepathically. Susanne Wuest, scary-good from the beginning as Mommy (“Mommy”?) undergoes two transformations after that aforementioned midpoint twist, nailing it all. Bonus points for two special effects, the first involving head-shaking in a forest that I didn’t quite understand but is a deeply unsettling image, and the second involving cockroaches inside the body — the best such iteration since E. G. Marshall exploded in CREEPSHOW.
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.
by Alan Yudman
I write this on my MacBook Pro, while listening to music on my iPhone that I purchased through iTunes and occasionally checking the time on my Apple Watch. So, I am either a sycophant or an acolyte. Take your pick, I’ll admit to either when it comes to Apple and STEVE JOBS. Those devices are just a part of the public legacy of the Apple Computers co-founder. The eponymous movie is less concerned with Jobs’ technological legacy and more concerned with the imprint he left on other people’s lives. STEVE JOBS is not your normal bio-pic. Rather than try to tell the man’s whole story over the course of his entire life, it is structured in the classic three act format. Each act centered around a product launch: The Macintosh, The NEXT Computer and the iMac. And a little more of Jobs personality is revealed at each key moment. Steve Jobs is presented to us as a highly flawed man. He has a vision that at times only he can see. He is petty, spiteful and has no time or inclination to worry about what people think of him. He treats employees with varying degrees of contempt. I’d call it disdain, but that implies he gives any of them a second thought. They are all just cogs in the machine he envisions will change the world. He has no time for anyone who might distract him from his goals, that includes his own daughter Lisa and her mother Crisann Brennan. He apparently loves Steve Wozniak, though again that love is tempered with an air of superiority, kind of like you love your pet. The structure is an interesting choice because it affords us the opportunity to see Jobs interact with key players who help shape his character, yet it doesn’t get bogged down in too much back story. There are flashbacks to certain key moments in his company’s history, but those are just filling in blanks. Aaron Sorkin’s script is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s biography which I read and loved. Like the movie, it’s not about worshiping at the alter of JOBS. While the movie is not close to the book in detail, it does nail the themes. Jobs is tormented by his adoption as a child, as a result he doesn’t really get close to anyone. He operates in a “reality distortion field”, meaning he see things as he wants them not as they are or should be. And he had a single minded vision that he could change the world. Sorkin’s script is excellent. it has his trademark banter and pace, but not much of his trademark preachiness. The performances of Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet as his confident Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Michael Stuhlbarg as engineering wizard Andy Herzfeld and Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the man who fired Jobs from his own company, are all outstanding. I wasn’t expecting to be moved as much as I was. People talking about computers, how could that be captivating. But STEVE JOBS isn’t about computers. It is about vision, about how all genius is flawed and how in the end Steve Jobs was right.
— by Jeff Schultz
Meta is seldom betta. CABIN IN THE WOODS (the remake) meets THE LAKE HOUSE in this slasher genre sendup, which also functions nicely as a parable of loss and acceptance. More funny than scary, and surprisingly tame in the gore department, it benefits from a cast that can handle multiple layers of reality. If the irony of the mother-daughter relationship(s) gets a bit thick at times, we can forgive, because it’s carried along by a screenplay that’s clever enough to delight, but not smug or overcomplicated. Adam DeVine is an inspired choice for the most sex-crazed (and obnoxious) of the movie-within-the-movie’s party kids. And Malin Ackerman, such a knockout on “The Comeback”, shines in a slightly older role. The movie is also visually rich, with differing looks for each layer — present-day, 1980’s horror flick, and the combination of the two when the time warp occurs. Plus, the final joke makes for a perfect ending, maybe the best laugh of all.