Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SPOTLIGHT: A Journalism Procedural That Really Crushes It

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

SPOTLIGHT (Dir. Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT is everything that James Vanderbilt’s Rathergate drama TRUTH wanted to be – a vital journalism procedural that actually has the facts to back up its case.

The film focuses on the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team into the scandal of child molestation and systematic cover-up within the Catholic Church.

The investigation is spearheaded by editor Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who has just joined the paper after a buyout. Baron tasks the team – made up of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) – to dig into the case against Father John Geoghan, a Catholic priest charged with sexual abuse of over 80 children.

The staff reports to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., son of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame (see ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN) sharply played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.

To prove that Cardinal Law found out about Geoghan 15 years earlier and did nothing, the Globe sues the church to obtain access to incriminating documents, something that may alienate the paper’s readership, 53% of which are Catholic.

With the help of lawyers Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), and Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), it doesn’t take long for the team to uncover that close to 90 priests in the Boston area have been accused of sexual misconduct.

McCarthy certainly atones for his previous film, the atrocious Adam Sandler vehicle THE COBBLER, with his passionately meticulous work here. The camerawork, shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, is straightforward as is the editing, as no flashiness is required to enhance the swift, compelling storytelling on display.

Many films have great casts, but SPOTLIGHT is my vote for best ensemble of 2015. Keaton, who was wrongly passed over by the academy for his performance in BIRDMAN last year, could be back in the Oscar race for his stellar turn here. Ruffalo, whose reaction to the enormity of the scandal is the most emotional, also stands out, and McAdams puts in her second solid performance of the year (SOUTHPAW was the first one). Schreiber, Slattery, James, Tucci, and Crudup crush it as well – man, this film is really a boy’s club! – and a few non-names such as Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton shine in roles as outspoken victims.

I bet that, much like its classic newspaper drama predecessors ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and ZODIAC, this is a film that will reward repeat viewings. Its pace and construction is tightly wound, but still takes time for some interesting moments in-between the unveiling of events – i.e. a shot of Scrieber looking for the publisher’s office, a beautifully framed shot of Ruffalo, James, and McAdams working at their desks with Keaton in his office behind them (see above).

SPOTLIGHT will definitely make my top 10 films of 2015 list, and I’ll be pulling for it come Oscar time. The acting, screenplay, editing, direction, Howard Shore’s stirring score, etc. should all be acknowledged in the upcoming awards season.

More importantly, it should be seen. It has a lot of competition and isn’t playing on a huge amount of screens so folks should really seek it out. Too many great films slip through the cracks and are largely overlooked. Don’t let that happen to the brilliant, intelligent, and ├╝ber insightful SPOTLIGHT.

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ROOM: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

ROOM (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

Brie Larson’s sturdy performance in SHORT TERM 12 is considered by critics to be her breakthrough, but it’s her powerful work in ROOM, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning 2010 novel, that should make the actress a household name.

Larson plays Joy Newsome, a young woman living under horrifying conditions. For the last seven years Joy has been trapped in a sound-proofed, concrete garden shed in the backyard of the house of her abductor only known as Old Nick (Sean Bridges).

With Joy is her son, five-year-old Jack (first-time child actor Jacob Tremblay), the result of one of many rapes that Joy has suffered over the years. To Jack, the small, filthy space they live in is their entire world. Joy has maintained this illusion by telling Jack that there is nothing beyond the four walls of “room” except outer space, and that what he sees on their crappy beat-up TV is make believe.

However, the day has come for Joy to tell Jack the truth, because she’s devised a desperate plan for escape. Joy fakes Jack’s death, and rolls him up in a rug for Old Nick to take away in his pick-up truck. Joy instructs Jack to wriggle out, jump from the bed of the truck and run for help.

The plan is successful and Jack is able to direct the police to the shed, and mother and son are finally free. Jack is astounded at how big and limitless the real world outside the room is, while Joy struggles with rehabilitation.

Joy discovers that her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have divorced, and that her mother has a new boyfriend (Tom McCamus). Without spelling it out, Macy conveys how uncomfortable he is with having a grandson who is a product of rape.

Needing financial help, Joy agrees to do a prime time interview, but it doesn’t go well because of the glibly insensitive questions posed by the show’s host (Wendy Crewson).

This leads to Joy spiraling down into depression, and attempting suicide. Jack, still wide-eyed at his surroundings, gets his long hair, which he calls his “strong,” cut by his grandmother, and sends his ponytail to his mother in the hospital. This gesture helps in Joy’s recovery, and we see that once again Jack has saved his mother.

Abrahamson, whose film FRANK (the one with Michael Fassbender as a musician who wears a giant papier-mache head) was one of my favorite films of last year, handles this material with great poise. Every scene seems to have profound purpose, especially one late in the film where Joy and Jack revisit room for closure, though composer Stephen Rennick’s score lays it on a bit too thick at times.

I was incredibly moved by ROOM. It’s a durable drama that has moments of gripping suspense - i.e. the escape sequence – but it is its tender concern for its characters that will stay with me the most. It’s largely due to the stellar acting of the mother-son duo.

Tremblay puts in an impressive naturalistic performance for a 5-year old, although his voice-over narration, a totally unnecessary device here, gets a little icky.

Larson, who may be best known to mainstream movie-goers as Amy Schumer’s sister in TRAINWRECK, excels as Joy. One can feel her strained pain in her every expression, and all of her interactions with Tremblay shine with authenticity.

It’s flawless work, a career best, and if she doesn’t get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, I’ll be very offended.

ROOM’s dark disturbing first half is exceedingly effective, but it’s the way that its second half earns its uplift that makes it a fully rounded, and satisfying emotional experience.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

One Last Christmas Eve Blow-Out In THE NIGHT BEFORE

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE NIGHT BEFORE (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2015)

Sure, the premise of this Seth Rogen joint is pretty flimsy - i.e. three friends have one last Christmas Eve blow-out and farcical hilarity ensues - but after giving the silly stoner spin to such subjects as the apocalypse, cancer, and Kim Jong-un, I’m cool with that, as long as they keep the laughs coming.

And that they do, right from the get-go with a very welcome voice-over appearance by Tracy Morgan reciting rhyming lines in the familiar style of the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem from which the film derives its title. This gives us the set-up that back in 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Ethan lost his parents in an automobile accident, and in an effort to cheer him up, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) initiate a hard partying holiday tradition that later comes to include an ongoing quest through the streets of New York City to find the elusive, mysterious Nutcracka Ball, considered “the Holy Grail of Christmas parties.”

In the present day, Isaac is a successful lawyer whose wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth to their first child, Chris is a pro football player who’s just started to get a taste of stardom, and Ethan is stuck in a rut as a struggling musician who has to take work that involves dressing as an elf and serving hors d’ourves at a corporate party on Christmas Eve.

The job is humiliating but things look up when while working coat-check Ethan happens upon 3 tickets to the Nutcracka Ball. Ethan gleefully steals them, quits his job, and runs off to find his friends. Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s most implausible moments (of which there are many), Isaac’s wife Betsy gifts him a neatly packaged box of hallucinogenic drugs and encourages him to go wild at his get-together. Yeah, sure.

So the fellows don tacky Cosby-style Christmas sweaters (Ethan’s has a standard line of red reindeer, while Isaac’s has a Star of David and Chris’s a black Santa – see above) and hit a karaoke bar, where they perform Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis,” and run into Ethan’s ex Diana (I forgot to mention that the guy is still reeling from a break-up) played by Lizzy Caplan.

Caplan, who, as a veteran of Party Down, THE INTERVIEW, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and going way back with these guys to the Freaks and Geeks days, is well acquainted with such sausage party shenanigans, is accompanied by Mindy Kaling (The Office U.S., The Mindy Project), who gets her phone mixed up with Isaac.

This leads to Isaac, who’s gone goofy by consuming most of the drugs in his gift box, getting dick pic texts and not knowing how to respond.

In true Seinfeldian-fashion, each character has their obsessive hang-up - Isaac’s is that he’s too fucked up to function, Chris is wanting to score weed for his team’s quarterback that he’s trying to impress (this is one of the film’s clunkiest scenerios, which involves Mackie chasing Broad City’s Ilana Glazer as an evil drug stealing freak), and Ethan’s is, of course, wanting to get back together with Diana.

And in a wonderfully unexpected appearance, a hilariously deadpan Michael Shannon shows up as the guy’s high-school pot dealer, Mr. Green. This marks the second time that Shannon has stolen a movie away from Gordon-Levitt (see: PREMIUM RUSH). Shannon kills it here – every line is a stone cold gem – so much so that he ought to have his own comedy vehicle some day.

The only thing that matters in a movie like this is if it’s funny, and THE NIGHT BEFORE has some of the funniest moments of any comedy I’ve seen this year, and it has a warm, fuzzy heart that conveys way more genuine Christmas spirit than, say, crap like the dysfunctional family comedy LOVE THE COOPERS (currently #3 at the box office).

The joyous energy that Rogen and gang, including screenwriters Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg, bring to this round of crude gags, dick jokes, drug jokes, wacky mishaps, pop culture riffs, and surprise cameos, is crazy infectious.

THE NIGHT BEFORE is way better than THE INTERIEW, but a notch below THIS IS THE END on the scale of output of from the Apatow alma mater. It may have lazy plotting, some overly obvious set-ups, and much silliness just for silliness’ sake, but it brings so much in the way of laughter, likability, and an undoubtedly sincere theme of friendship, that it more than makes up for those faults.

It did make me wonder how much longer the 33-year old Rogen can make these man-child has to face growing up movies. He’ll probably yet again take a cue from Apatow, and do ‘em til the big 4-0. As long as he keeps bringing the funny, that’s fine by me.

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