Spotlight (2015)

In my head I had this in much the same category as the recent The Big Short, in the sense of being a largely-beige awards-baiting torn-from-the-headlines dude-centric drama, and it is those things. But Spotlight‘s real interest is in people’s power (specifically via journalism) to make a positive change in a society overrun by corrupt institutions, where that other film is about men self-interestedly taking advantage of corrupt institutions. The institution in Spotlight is the Catholic Church, and the allegations of child sexual abuse against it — a big story at the time (and since then), and one that was particularly noticeable in a largely Catholic community like Boston. The corruption that allowed the abuse to be covered up was endemic within the city, reaching the courts, the police and, indeed, the Boston Globe newspaper itself, which only upon the arrival in 2001 of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) started to take an interest in the case once again. It’s the investigative journalism of the Spotlight team (led by Michael Keaton’s Robbie) which is the film’s focus and it does a good job in getting across some of the painstaking research and journalistic legwork involved in putting together a story such as this, including the long period of months it takes. Along the way we get to see the backstage wrangling amongst the team (Mark Ruffalo’s reporter Mike is the one with the meatiest role), along with their dealings with lawyers (such as Stanley Tucci’s overworked attorney, rightly sceptical of the newspaper’s intentions) and with judges, while operating in secrecy to both hide the story from the church itself (which is seen pressuring those in power to shut it down) and from other papers. Naturally some of the timeline is rather telescoped (particularly the months after September 2011), but it’s a movie that avoids grandstanding speeches, preferring also to downplay any filmmaking tricksiness to put across a polished if visually unspectacular story of a group of people just trying to get something done. At that task, like the journalists it depicts, the film excels.

Spotlight film posterCREDITS
Director Tom McCarthy; Writers McCarthy and Josh Singer; Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi 高柳雅暢; Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Sunday 14 February 2016.

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The Kids Are All Right (2010)

It can be easy to write reviews of films which are a bit rubbish for whatever reason, but sit me down to try and set out my thoughts about a well-made, well-acted and enjoyable low-key drama in a naturalistic mode, and I’m a bit stumped. That’s the case with this film about the children of a lesbian couple looking for their donor father. It’s an excellent ensemble cast (with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, as ever, standing out as being particularly good), and it doesn’t feel false, not least because the director, Lisa Cholodenko, seems to be drawing from aspects of her own life. Ruffalo’s Paul is living a bachelor life running an organic food shop and restaurant, when Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gets in touch via the sperm donor centre on behalf of her younger brother Laser (yes, that’s his name apparently and no one seems to find it particularly silly; played by Josh Hutcherson), who is curious as to his parentage. The film is trying to get at what it means to be a parent, articulated most clearly by Annette Bening’s character Nicole, a doctor and somewhat controlling mother figure who doesn’t take particularly well to Paul’s appearance in their family life. I liked the characters, I felt I could identify with them (maybe that’s a middle-class aspirational thing) and believe in their motivations. but beyond that I can’t really be any more helpful. A fine piece of work.

The Kids Are All Right film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Lisa Cholodenko; Writers Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg; Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo; Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Mark Ruffalo; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015.

Three Recent Films about Dudes: Foxcatcher and Whiplash (both 2014) and Ex Machina (2015)

At a certain level, the title of my post is a provocation, because one of these films is not like the others, for several reasons. But let’s start with what unites them which is, yes, that they are all set almost exclusively in the company of men, whether in the sporting world of wrestling (Foxcatcher), the musical world of jazz drumming (Whiplash) or the not-so-futuristic world of tech geniuses (Ex Machina).

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher

In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s John du Pont is his own worst enemy, and his mentor status is something that his wealth and privilege allow him to buy. In fact, the wrestler brothers who are nominally the central characters in the film (Channing Tatum’s Mark and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave), take an emotional backseat in the narrative to Steve Carell’s performance, though all three actors do fine work. John “call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle” du Pont has lived a life of wealthy solitude, and it’s this which has bred a desperation to fit in that leads to the film’s tragic denouement and (justly) overshadows everything else. The film’s (and Carell’s) triumph is to imbue a sense of bleak empathy with this most outsider of figures, for all the immeasurable harm he inflicts.

Harm is explicitly what teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) wants to inflict on his students in Whiplash, for it’s part of his philosophy of achievement, largely derived from an anecdote about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker that is mentioned several times in the film. For student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a philosophy that appeals to him, being so desperate to distinguish himself from his smarter, richer fellow students at the prestigious academy he attends. The film is largely a psychological battle between these two set over a drum kit and suffused with sweat and blood, much of it filmed in extreme, lascivious close-up (or so it feels). The other students and relationships fall quickly into the background, and you’d be forgiven for imagining there were no more important instruments in any musical ensemble than the drums, but that’s because it’s a story of student and teacher played out as psychological warfare.

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Yet, despite their shared testosterone, these first two films are quite different from the third I want to discuss. They may all dwell on pursuits which are stereotypically masculine, but I’d argue that the first two films are interested more in the nature of obsession. They are both about desperate protagonists who want to succeed at all costs. I don’t know if the sort of monomaniacal focus that these films’ protagonists have is something specifically male (it certainly feels like it can be, sometimes), but if the films don’t pass the Bechdel Test, you imagine it’s because in their deeply-warped worlds, no one is talking about anything else but them.

Ex Machina, though, is very much about men. At first, it feels like it might be a boring male-bonding-in-the-wilderness story, as coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked off to a vast, remote estate to hang out with his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an alpha male bearded heavy-drinking tech genius. But Nathan has something up his sleeve, a project he’s been working on: a robot. Specifically, a female robot, Ava (the currently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander). When I left the film, the first thing I googled was “feminist critique” because it pushes obsessively at something disturbing about gender relations, and being a white male geek (of sorts), I can’t really be sure if it’s enacting a story of emancipation from the male gaze, or the opposite. A little bit of both, I suspect, because unquestionably the female form is literally objectified. Limbs, hair and naked skin are effortlessly transferred and reconfigured, and unselfconsciously put on display. One of the women doesn’t even have the power of speech. The film comes on like a version of the story of Adam and Eve, with Ava the ne plus ultra of feminine duplicity, but she’s as much a constructed figure of patriarchal fear as Rosamund Pike’s Amy in Gone Girl, so I suspect the way you react to Ava will be similar. I’d be offended, except that the men in the film are no paragons either, and they end up as they start, trapped by their own objectifying gaze. Whatever fears of artificial intelligence it may stir up, the film’s triumph is reserved for consciousness.

Whatever else you might say about Ex Machina — and I think there’s a lot that could, and no doubt will, be said — it does at least allow for many different readings. Putting it alongside the other two films is just to point up their conventional qualities: well-crafted, certainly; flawlessly acted, definitely. But whatever the weaknesses of science fiction, I can think of few other genres as willing to pose difficult questions, and to make audiences think. All three films take you on a ride, but with Ex Machina the ride continues after the film ends.


Foxcatcher film posterFoxcatcher (2014)
Director Bennett Miller; Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

 

Whiplash film posterWhiplash (2014)
Director/Writer Damien Chazelle; Cinematographer Sharone Meir; Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015.

 

 

 

Ex Machina film posterEx Machina (2015)
Director/Writer Alex Garland; Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015.

Begin Again (2013)

There are Hollywood films where I sometimes wonder if the economics of the thing are driven by the idea of just putting some currently-hot talents in front of the camera even when nothing else seems to have been thought out (the script, usually) and the hope that everything will come together when the camera starts rolling. It wouldn’t be surprising, because sometimes I’ve enjoyed a film perfectly well based on the pleasure of watching some charismatic stars do their thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I liked Begin Again, for example, which I only went to because it filled a gap while I was waiting to do something else. It features a handful of actors I really enjoy watching, who generally have the sense of people who are winging it (not necessarily always a bad thing). A particular stand-out is Mark Ruffalo, who does his usual rumpled washed-up shambolic thing with all his customary aplomb. In this, he’s Dan, a music A&R man who’s just been fired by his company, and in a night of disconsolate drinking happens across Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter Gretta in a bar. She’s just been pulled up on stage during an open mic night by her equally unsuccessful friend Steve (James Corden), but Ruffalo sees something in her. We get this scene at least three times, from three different perspectives, and we quickly learn that Gretta’s split up with her rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, himself a lead singer in some kind of rock band). Dan, too, is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), so this odd couple sort of help each other through their respective issues — I’d say it was another story about a damaged middle-aged male ego being restored by a spontaneous, impulsive young woman, but it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as all that. Nevertheless, as I’ve already hinted at above, these aspects of the story weren’t always convincing to me — certainly, Dan’s plan isn’t, the one to record an album with Gretta outdoors, as a sort of ode to New York — though we do get some nice details about the music industry along the way (with small roles for Mos Def and CeeLo Green). If I’d seen director Carney’s first film Once, I’d assume it was a retread of that with bigger names. Nevertheless, those actors do carry the movie a lot further than it sometimes deserves.

Begin Again film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Carney; Cinematographer Yaron Orbach; Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014.

Marvel’s The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble, 2012)

There have in recent years been a lot of comic book-based superhero action films, most of them ‘reboots’ of older film series, but with a few new characters brought into the filmic fold. With this film, called Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK, four of the Marvel superhero film series were brought together, along with a few extra characters who hadn’t had their own films, in a blockbuster which was much trailered and anticipated (indeed, many of the most recent individual films had included a post-credits teaser for just this collaboration) and surely all-but-guaranteed to do well at the box office. The surprise, then, is that it’s quite a jolly enterprise, even if, as expected, it’s far too long.

All these superhero films run a range of styles from the dour (take a bow, Man of Steel) to the, well, comic book, but it’s fair to say that Joss Whedon has done what he knows best from his previous TV work, which is to say self-knowing media-literate jokiness. It’s an angle that probably works best for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man character, who has now had three of his own films, and who stands out in this ensemble piece too, if only by virtue of being most in tune with Whedon’s script.

That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t honoured, with Captain America (Chris Evans) retaining his mien of humourless patriotism and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) his petulant anger, though Hulk impresses in his dual persona thanks to new recruit Mark Ruffalo as harassed scientist Bruce Banner (the Hulk films never did well at the box office, which may account for Edward Norton’s absence). Added to the mix is a rather superfluous Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson returning from Iron Man 2 (2010) as the persuasive Black Widow, neither of them superheroes exactly (at least, not ones with superpowers).

Perhaps I’m not the best person to review superhero movies, which in the past decade or so have taken on a lot of the characteristics of the action movie. I do like a good action film, but the bigger and louder and more pummelling the action setpieces — and there are plenty of these in Marvel’s The Avengers — the more the film needs to be grounded in real human characters you can care about and identify with, and that’s always been a problem for me with superhero movies. Whedon does his best to humanise these characters, and there are lots of nice quiet scenes — by far the best in the film — when they are around each other, sharing jokes, and making fun of some of the absurdities of the genre. And yet, it’s never quite enough to make me care for those long stretches when yet another major American city is being destroyed by monsters sent from an alternate plane of existence by a shadowy evil overlord.

It’s a good film, though, and for those who count themselves fans of the superhero genre, there’s a lot to enjoy in it, not least just the simple fact of having all these disparate characters interacting with one another. This, after all, is at the heart of the movie (as the British title recognises) and Whedon’s script shows great affection for all of them. But at times, as the film ticks on into its third hour, I do find myself getting a bit misty-eyed for the olden days of the superhero film, when villainous plans could be foiled with rather less sound and fury.


© Walt Disney Studios

FILM REVIEW
Director Joss Whedon | Writers Zak Penn and Joss Whedon | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 29 April 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, London, Thursday 27 June 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good

Now You See Me (2013)


ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Louis Leterrier | Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt | Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong | Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman | Length 115 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Summit Entertainment

Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.

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