Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Weird Science: McAvoy and Radcliffe try but "Victor Frankenstein" never comes alive

Victor Frankenstein (2015)
109 min., rated PG-13.

As far as the cinematic adaptations of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" go, 1931's classic Colin Clive-Boris Karloff-starrer "Frankenstein" is the benchmark; 1994's Kenneth Branagh-directed "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is a bombastic if not uninteresting mess; and 2014's empty, self-serious "I, Frankenstein" shouldn't even be listed in the same sentence. "Victor Frankenstein" fits into a different category; it's neither fish nor fowl. It's mildly ambitious but not very successful, and it's moderately well-made but mostly dull. Directed by Paul McGuigan ("Push," "Lucky Number Slevin") and written by Max Landis ("American Ultra," "Chronicle"), this retelling tries to be a few different things without committing or being a good example of any of them.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as a nameless hunchback who suffers the daily cruelties as a circus clown. Something of an autodidactic physician, he studies anatomy when he's not being the butt of every performance and pining for beautiful trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). Everything about the hunchbacked clown's life changes the night Royal College of Medicine student Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) comes to the circus. When accident strikes for Lorelei, falling from great heights during her acrobatic act, the circus outcast acts quickly and impresses Victor by knowing just how to reset the woman's collarbone and save her from paralysis. Whisked away from his awful sideshow life, having the fluid drained out of the abscess on his back, and named after Victor's mysteriously vanished flatmate, the newly named Igor is made into the med student's lab assistant and a handsome gentleman. As Victor and Igor begin making a breakthrough of changing the natural order by reanimating a chimpanzee with some stolen body parts and volts of electricity, they are both wanted for an alleged murder at the circus, while dauntless Scotland Yard constable and religious zealot Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott) is hot on their trail. Victor also has a high-society classmate named Finnegan (Freddie Fox), who wants to steal Victor's research.

"Victor Frankenstein"—wouldn't "Igor" be the less misleading and more correct title?—intends to offer a fresh and interesting revisionist angle. There's another story here, but the one that has made it to the screen is neither fresh nor that interesting. Its first mistake is the first line of Daniel Radcliffe's opening voice-over narration: "You know this story." Then, why are you telling it? The film then proceeds to upturn expectations slightly by deviating from the source material and telling the derivative tale from the perspective of Frankenstein's hunchback assistant (who never existed in Mary Shelley's novel and was known as "Fritz" in the 1931 film). Director Paul McGuigan gives the film some visual style in the form of X-ray imagery and moments of ickiness that might have been better served in an R-rated movie. Screenwriter Max Landis (whose father John made 1981's "An American Werewolf in London," a much better man-vs.-monster film) sneaks in a few homages. There's the amusing mispronunciation of Frankenstein's name, as a tip of the hat to Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," and the barest of cleverness in the mention of Victor's late brother being named Henry (the former doctor in the 1931 film) and the world remembering the man over the monster, like the cultural misconception that Frankenstein is the resurrected monster rather than the scientist who invents him. Also, like in Shelley's original story, Frankenstein's monster parallels Prometheus, the mythic Greek titan who created mankind.

The wait to the lightning-cracking climax of Frankenstein's iconic monster is a long time coming. An escape sequence at the circus reminds of a less exciting sequence from one of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies, complete with derring-do captured in slo-mo. On a technical level, the film is aided by CG-enhancements to bring Victorian-era London to life, but only do Victor Frankenstein's laboratory and the Scottish castle setting for the big finish lend much Gothic atmosphere. A scenery-chewing James McAvoy is at least ideal casting to play Victor Frankenstein, sporting a gleefully unhinged twinkle in his eye and providing the film with much-needed gusto. He gets to bare his teeth and spit like a rabid dog, as if to keep the film alive. As Igor, the boyish Daniel Radcliffe seems a little miscast when he's first seen with clown make-up and hunching his back, but once he cleans up, he brings a soulfulness to the sidekick role that has always been stripped of character and just relegated to a freak. His dynamic with McAvoy is diverting enough that there was no need for a steamy-as-a-wet-matchbook romance with the radiant Jessica Brown Findlay with whom he shares zero chemistry. What could have sewn its tongue into its cheek or gone all out as a Grand Guignol, all that's left of "Victor Frankenstein" are feelings of missed opportunities for a regeneration. It warranted no reason for a twentieth life.

Grade:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Look Again: "Secret in Their Eyes" flawed but finely acted '90s-style thriller

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
111 min., rated PG-13.

An English-language interpretation of 2010's Argentinean film "The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)," which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, "Secret in Their Eyes" is a workmanlike, finely acted procedural thriller that plays well enough on its own. The film has a little more thematic depth than a standard-issue "Law & Order" episode, but it also could have dug deeper to feel as powerful as it clearly wants to be. Comparing this stateside version with the foreign import will just be a disservice to what writer-director Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass," "Breach") does get right with his first-rate cast, giving potentially sensationalistic material a relative measure of class and intelligence, and thus validates existence as more than just an unnecessary, watered-down Americanization. It's far better than 1993's star-studded "The Vanishing," a slick but inferior remake of the disquieting 1988 Dutch thriller, and 1996's laughably trashy "Diabolique" remake of 1955's untouchable "Les Diaboliques."

In post-9/11 2002, Los Angeles FBI agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and investigator Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) are part of a counter-terrorism task force, keeping tabs on a mosque. When they rush to a crime scene with a young woman's body soaked in bleach and dumped in a dumpster next to the mosque, the body turns out to be Jess' college-aged daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). Jess is devastated and takes time to grieve, while Ray remains deeply invested in the case and tries to not distract himself with his flirtatious relationship with assistant District of Attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman), a Harvard-educated woman from Philly. He stumbles upon some clues that lead to a chief suspect in a Russian creep, Marzin (Joe Cole), who also happens to be protected by the FBI as a source. In the thirteen-year interim, Ray now resides in New York and does security for the Mets, but hasn't been able to put the case to rest. When he thinks he's finally found the man who killed Jess' daughter and got away without any evidence to hold him, he makes an urgent trip to L.A. to see his former colleagues and asks Claire to reopen the unresolved case after all these years.

Very loosely based on Juan José Campanella's 2010 film of (minus the article "the") the same name, itself based on a 2005 novel, "Secret in Their Eyes" transplants the setting from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles with a high-alert post-9/11 backdrop and makes the gender switch from male to female (Julia Roberts), as well as the relationship with the murder victim (a daughter, not a wife). Writer-director Billy Ray pulls double-duty, skipping back and forth from 2015 to 2002, and it certainly helps that Chiwetel Ejiofer's hair grays and Julia Roberts' hair is up during the present-day scenes and down in the past scenes. With the cold case being presented in piecemeal fashion, it's a testament to Ray that the film remains reasonably involving. He also replicates a single unbroken shot from the original film's sequence at a soccer stadium; this time, it's set at Dodgers Stadium and impressively shot by cinematographer Daniel Moder (Roberts' husband), as Ray and fellow detective "Bumpy" (Dean Norris) pick out the suspect out of the crowded stands and give him a chase.

Chiwetel Ejiofer intensely gives his all as Ray, making his obsession with the case and friendship with Roberts' Jess more believable than his spoken but unfulfilled relationship with Nicole Kidman's Claire. Kidman is reliably strong, too, her hair always on point, and she shares a juicy good cop/bad cop scene when they interrogate their prime suspect, but the scene before that where her blouse comes undone when Ray grabs her is beyond clumsy. An unglammed Julia Roberts is the most effective, bringing pain and rage to a broken shell of a woman, but it's not a shameless Oscar-grab performance, even as the usually all-smiles actress is game to look haggard and a "million years old." As Jess, she makes the discovery of her daughter's body tough and palpably wrenching, and luckily, there are a few flashback scenes to establish the charming personality of Zoe Graham's Carolyn, making her murder that much more devastating. The trio is also supported by Dean Norris and Michael Kelly, respectively playing law enforcement officers "Bumpy" Willis and Reg Siefert; Joe Cole, an unnerving standout as Russian informant and chief suspect Marzin; and Alfred Molina as D.A. Morales. 

Sometimes too convenient in its plotting but still able to surprise in its double reveal (some viewers might see it coming faster than this one did), "Secret in Their Eyes" feels like a mystery suspense-thriller from the 1990s. It's distinguished most substantially by its A-list cast and a skillfully handled nonlinear structure that will only confuse those who refuse to pay attention. Even if the unrequited relationship between Ray and Claire never develops beyond shallow waters, the characters are at least treated with an adult understanding instead of just making goo-goo eyes at one another. With such inherent drama in the subject matter, "Secret in Their Eyes" isn't quite a knockout, but it is a worthwhile drama that will pop more on the small screen and make all the world of difference with eminently watchable thespians acting the hell out of it.

Grade: B - 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Kill Snow: "Mockingjay - Part 2" catches a little fire and ends satisfactorily


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015)
137 min., rated PG-13.

It ends here. Suzanne Collins' trilogy made for two superior post-apocalyptic YA big-screen adaptations with 2012's "The Hunger Games" and 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," and then the series turned into something of a waiting game by the time it was ready for the third book to bring Katniss Everdeen's journey full-circle. Even if Lionsgate Films' decision to split the third and final installment of "The Hunger Games" into two movies was purely for monetary reasons, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" is certainly more eventful than its predecessor. Without any televised to-the-death "hunger games" in sight, 2014's "Mockingjay: Part 1" more than flirted with being a post-apocalyptic "Wag the Dog" but felt like a dreary, often sludgy, and incomplete hurry-up-and-wait. That languid solemnity does carry over into the first third of this film, but there are more moments of genuine excitement and actual narrative momentum this time around. If you're still invested in these characters and a showdown between Katniss and President Snow, then this will be a satisfying payoff for the series to bow out.

Where the last film left off in the underground District 13, the emotionally and physically bruised Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been strangled by a brainwashed, nearly insane Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her former lover, and placed into a neck brace. She continues to be used as the Mockingjay, a propaganda tool, by Resistance leaders President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) in order to unify all of the districts and eventually earn full control of Panem. Even if Coin turns her into a martyr, Katniss makes it her personal mission to confront and assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Though she's instructed not to make her way to the Capitol yet, she goes rogue with the accompaniment of Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the unstable Peeta, Finnick (Sam Claflin), Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and a squad of other rebel members. With the city booby-trapped by Snow and his game-makers for their arrival, this will be the 76th Hunger Games, for all intents and purposes.

Grim and dark as war and genocide but never in a way that's smothering like last year's placeholder, "Mockingjay: Part 2" initially bumps along, taking its time gathering up a head of steam until throwing plenty of obstacles Katniss' way on her adventure to kill President Snow. Returning director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong find inherent drama and tension in the political intrigue and allow more humor to slip through the cracks of such a devastating society, but when it comes time for more action to take place, the film delivers. Perhaps the most the series has seen since the first two installments, there is a palpable sense of danger and realization that lives are actually at stake, beginning with a rousing encounter in the Capitol with a wall of a giant oil slick. After that, a sequence set in the sewer catacombs, where Katniss and her team are attacked by lizard mutts, is frightening and thrillingly staged on the apprehension levels of "Aliens." Finally, the revenge Katniss seeks on Snow comes with a few surprises that reveal layers in characters on both sides of the revolution.

Four movies later, Jennifer Lawrence has been the unwavering anchor as Katniss, vividly hitting all the right emotions and actualizing the alternate fearlessness, fallibility, and trauma of a young woman who has been put through the ultimate wringer. To express how far she has come, a final scene at the vacant District 12 where she encounters her younger sister Prim's cat Buttercup reaches a startlingly raw degree of poignancy and catharsis. Katniss has had to carry a lot of weight on her now-18-year-old shoulders, and she has way more to live for than just a love triangle between Peeta and Gale; she has to stand as the rebellious figure to turn an entire nation around. It's refreshing, then, when eye-rolling Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone) shows back up with a sardonic quip, denouncing Katniss' triangle as a "tacky romance drama." Josh Hutcherson is the most empathetic he's been as Peeta, who has been through it all with Katniss and now recovers to regain his compassion, while Liam Hemsworth (decidedly the less interesting of the two men in Katniss' life) is just relegated to being the epitome of loyalty. Always calmly ferocious and suitably loathsome as President Snow, Donald Sutherland adds a little devilish glee to his performance for the last time. Like Elizabeth Banks' re-dolled-up stylist Effie Trinket, Woody Harrelson's mentor Haymitch, and Jenna Malone's chops-busting tribute Johanna Mason, several of the series' livelier standout characters are underused but the filmmakers make sure most of them get a curtain-closing moment. This is also Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before the film was finished) in his final screen performance as Plutarch Heavensbee, a bittersweet way of saying goodbye to the series as well as to the phenomenal actor.

Excluding the "Harry Potter" films from the conversation, "The Hunger Games" has always been the benchmark of the YA-page-to-screen trend (not "Twilight," or "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," or "Divergent," or "The Mortal Instruments," or "The Maze Runner"). These are sophisticated pop entertainments that have focused on the evolution of a dystopian world but also on those who inhabit it. It is a testament to director Francis Lawrence (who has helmed every film, save for the first), the writers, and the entire ensemble that such a futuristic allegory has grown into a tough, intimate, emotionally textured journey. On final assessment—as a literary trilogy translated into four films—"The Hunger Games" kicked off with such a bang that it's mildly disappointing "Mockingjay: Part 2" is just merely good. With that said, it's still the right conclusion that Katniss deserves, and hopefully, her fans will agree.

Grade:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Wise Bros: "Night Before" gets Christmas right but laughs don't shine bright


The Night Before (2015)
101 min., rated R.

Director Jonathan Levine's last film with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt was 2011's "50/50," a dramedy about a twentysomething's response to cancer, and it actually contains more laughs than their one-crazy-night Christmas romp "The Night Before." It at least has all of the cinematic conventions for that wonderful time of year: cheery Christmas jingles, Christmas sweaters, twinkle lights, mistletoe — and weed, shrooms and cocaine? Writer-director Levine ("Warm Bodies") and screenwriters Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir & Evan Goldberg ("The Interview," "This Is the End") set out to kick out the jams and make a merrily debaucherous R-rated comedy during the holidays, and while such a concept is always welcome when so many Christmas movies pour on the trumped-up sentiment, almost every joke of theirs is ho-hum, as if raunchy automatically makes it hilarious. A bender of jokes of the penile, vomitory, and psychotropic variety run rampant, but very few of them are actually funny.

On Christmas Eve of 2001, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents, but his two best buddies, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), pulled him out of his funk and have started a tradition in Manhattan. Fourteen years later and now a struggling 33-year-old musician, Ethan has been broken up for three months with girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan) for not committing. Jewish lawyer Isaac is a father-to-be, terrified of that responsibility, and Chris is super-famous as a pro football star who uses steroids, advertises every second of his life on social media, and rides around in a Red Bull-sponsored limo. Since 2008, Ethan has always wanted to attend a big, invitation-only Christmas Eve bash called the Nutcracka Ball, so this year, he steals three tickets and hopes to go all out with his best friends. For his one last hurrah before becoming a father, Isaac's pregnant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) gives her husband a gift box of hard narcotics and encourages him to live it up for the night. Leading up to the time of the Nutcracka Ball, all three men make their traditional pit stops before running into many mishaps along the way and making for one unforgettable night.

So very proudly rude and unapologetically crude, "The Night Before" is never as funny as it needs to be and never as outrageously shocking as it wants to be. It also tries to work on the level of an affecting coming-of-adulthood drama, and while Joseph Gordon-Levitt can bring weight and substance to anything, it had better luck at just being a rollicking comedy. The premise is as dopey as can be, and as the plot requires, it becomes an episodic chain of misadventures for Ethan, Isaac and Chris. There are a few stray laughs sprinkled throughout but none of the comedic set-pieces match their potential or hit the comic high they should. In a bit that calls back to "Die Hard's" Hans Gruber and the "Sticky Bandits" in the "Home Alone" movies, Chris gets played by a stealthy, homeless grinch (Ilana Glazer of Comedy Central's "Broad City") who purports to be a super-fan, but there's not much of a follow-through. A bit where Ethan picks a fight with two Bad Santas (Jason Mantzoukas, Jason Jones), drunk off their asses and peeing on the side of the street, falls ever so flat. Some of the hallucinogenic humor isn't always as inspired as it has been in other mainstream comedies, most of which star Rogen, but through all of that chemically enhanced lunacy, Isaac talking to "Spencer and his family" around a Nativity Scene outside of a church is quite funny. When Isaac (who's wearing a Star of David sweater) gets roped into attending Midnight Mass with a mortified Betsy and her family, he ends up hallucinating and throwing up in the aisle of the pews; it's almost blasphemous enough to make one crack a smile, but the payoff is painfully cringe-inducing. Oddly enough, the two high points in the entire film are musical moments. Early on, the three friends reimagine the FAO Schwarz scene in the Tom Hanks classic "Big," this time with Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Mackie covering Kanye West's "Runaway" instead of "Chopsticks" on a walking piano. Then, by the climax, Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" comes into play.

Because of who they are and their commitment to take the material seriously while still doing just about anything for a laugh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie help make the 101 minutes sporadically enjoyable enough to get through. As the orphaned Ethan, Gordon-Levitt is having a good time but also finds the time to make his character arc feel deserved and gets to share it with Lizzy Caplan, here as Ethan's ex Diana, who's always an appealing sight for sore eyes. Rogen is his likable stoned-Fozzie-Bear self as Isaac, who uses his box full of drugs as a buffer for adult responsibility. After "Neighbors," where he played a husband and father who wanted his freedom back, he's playing a husband and expectant father who's terrified of getting older, so at least there's some mature progression in his stoned shtick. Mackie is charismatic as all get-out as the slightly cocky but good-hearted Chris, but he's not nearly given enough business like his co-stars. The women in the cast also fare better than most: Jillian Bell (2014's "22 Jump Street") can't help but be a firecracker and hijack all of her scenes as Betsy, Isaac's understanding-if-you-don't-get-her-mad wife; Mindy Kaling makes the most of dumb, predictable plotting with her ace comic timing as Sarah, Diana's naughty friend who accidentally switches phones with Isaac after he bleeds in her drink (don't ask); and Lorraine Toussaint (2014's "Selma") has one of the loveliest moments in the film as Chris' loving mother, telling the boys the true meaning of Christmas. The who's-who cast of comedians also features an obligatory cameo from someone in Rogen's posse, but even better is a typically weird and unpredictable Michael Shannon. He plays Mr. Green, the same drug dealer the guys used to buy from in high school and a sort-of magical Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and pokes fun at his "quiet intensity that makes people uncomfortable" and drops a line about "The Great Gatsby" that's a hoot.

Opening with a rhythmic Christmas storybook narration by Tracy Morgan and decked out in twinkly holiday iconography, complete with "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the soundtrack, "The Night Before" will no doubt get one into the Christmas spirit, if anything, but that still doesn't change one's wish that the film were funnier. How comedy hits and misses not only comes down to a matter of taste but on how it's executedin this reviewer's honest opinion, this year's "Vacation" reveled in crude humor but found a way to make it frequently funnyand "The Night Before" is just too scattershot and not always sharp enough to earn the kind of laughs it wants to smoke up. Christmas movie and buddy comedy completists may feel more forgiving, and it may play better to those drunk on eggnog and high on every mind-altering substance. You want drugs with your magic-in-the-air Christmas spirit? Hit up 2011's "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas."

Grade: C +

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Power of the Press: "Spotlight" shines with exceptional ensemble and solid writing

Spotlight (2015)
127 min., rated R.

For a film that ought to sound dry and staid with journalists poring over documents and looking through archives, "Spotlight" is a fact-based procedural that can't help but be compelling. The film, set in 2001 and 2002, follows The Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team and their coverage of the Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal (for which the paper won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service). It's a necessary piece of journalism about the process of digging deep and searching for the truth in an unsavory story about such a monumentally faith-based institution as the Catholic Church. Proving to have a knack for observational, character-based slice-of-life dramas ("The Station Agent," "The Visitor," "Win Win"), writer-director Thomas McCarthy (making a great rebound the same year after an "oops" with the Adam Sandler-starrer “The Cobbler”) makes a film that is less about its individual characters, who all still feel like human beings and not just types, and more about them as a team. It's straightforward, but the script by McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (2013’s “The Fifth Estate”) is efficient and carefully researched yet wordy and never dense, and the ensemble couldn't be better.

Formerly of the Miami Herald and arriving at The Boston Globe in 2001, new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who calls himself a "player coach," finds a column about a local priest being accused of molestation and wonders if there's a story there. He puts editor Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton, back to the newsroom after 1994's "The Paper") and his "Spotlight" staff of investigative journalistsMichael Resends (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James)on the story and report back to managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). The team’s findings show that several priests who had child molestation charges brought against them in the Boston area were moved to other parishes, the number of thirteen local priests rising to ninety, and then the abusive incidents were covered up by the Boston Archdiocese - Cardinal Bernard Law. They interview molested survivors, now adult men and meet with attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has been quietly bringing forth 84 cases against these pedophilic priests, as well as Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), who has made deals with the church. After devoting to the story, even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks put everything on hold, the reporters' work would eventually pay off and encourage even more victims to come to light.

A hard-hitting procedural and human-interest drama that has rightfully earned comparison to 1976's "All the President's Men," “Spotlight” boasts urgency in piecing together information and a limited scope that proves to be useful in keeping the story tightly focused. The reporters are never canonized, though the integrity they have to complete the story and seek justice is heroic, and the Catholic Church is never overly demonized. One low-key but alarming scene has Sacha knocking on the door of an accused priest who admits to the charges nonchalantly before his angry sister shuts the door on the reporter. There is also a startling discovery by Robby at his alma mater. What the viewer won't get is too much time dedicated to the characters' personal lives outside of their jobs: Michael speaks of having a wife, but he lives in a small, spare one-bedroom apartment by himself; Sacha has a husband and goes to church with her grandmother before she gets too invested in the story; and Matt does a family that is never seen. The film’s emotional core really aligns with the survivors of the molestations. “How do you say ‘no’ to God?” asks one of the now-adult victims. Without there being one central protagonist, director Thomas McCarthy's film is a true ensemble piece, and his cast is terrific across the board. They all handle the all-business nature of their roles as a solid unit with understated authenticity. Save for Mark Ruffalo's dogged Michael Resends, no one has a big, showy, or forceful moment. The lesser-known actors playing the victims also make a lasting impression. 

From a cinematic perspective, the film is sufficiently well-made but mostly utilitarian, unlike David Fincher's masterpiece "Zodiac," and it's an approach that suits the material. A single tracking shot of Matt Carroll walking down the street to find a "treatment center," a house of clergies, only a block away from his own home shows at least a smidgen of visual flourish. Outside of Boston locations in working-class neighborhoods, the film mostly takes place within interior spacesthe Globe newsroom, the subterranean "Spotlight" office and courtrooms—and captures the insularity of the city, another choice that makes sense given the controversial takedown of the Catholic Church. A film that at least doesn't try to sensationalize anything or oversell itself with Oscar-bait importance, "Spotlight" isn't the grandstanding powerhouse it could be, but, like the team of shoe-leather reporters, it does the work and does its job very well. It is going to be catnip for real-life journalists more so than the average viewer, but still, this is solid, mature filmmaking about journalism that seems to get that line of work right and should be seen.

Grade: B +

Friday, November 13, 2015

Deck the Coopers: Talented cast wrapped up and wasted in schmaltzy "Love the Coopers"

Love the Coopers (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Ah, the holidays. That can only mean one thing: it's that time of year for a family Christmas multiplex event that comes gift-wrapped with an all-star cast but, as a general rule, results in a cinematic fruitcake nobody wants to claim. Compared to the painfully tone-deaf trifecta of 2004's "Surviving Christmas" and "Christmas with the Kranks," and 2006's "Deck the Halls," "Love the Coopers" is more harmlessly forgettable than aggressively terrible and even a little less wacky and sitcommy than the advertisements make it out to be. However, in the sweepstakes of sorely underrated family holiday dramedies that include 1995's "Home for the Holidays" and 2005's "The Family Stone," this clunker desperately wants audiences to fall in love with the characters on screen—notice how the movie's title is more of a command without a comma and less of a card signatureand nobody likes to be told how to feel, right? Despite a voluminous cast of appealing faces in one movie, the film is about as tonally cohesive and emotionally true as one of Garry Marshall's starry, multi-story extravaganzas or those phony, cringe-worthy original movies that play on a loop months before the actual holiday on the Hallmark Channel. The film earns most of its bright spots from just watching the ensemble on display, but if they were interacting with stronger material, "Love the Coopers" might not have seemed like such a waste of talent. 

With their forty years of marriage running its course, Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam Cooper (John Goodman) have lost track of what made them fall in love, but they're ready to have their family together at home in Pittsburgh for Christmas Eve. It's their one last shot at a Perfect Christmas before breaking the news to their two two adult children. Their son, recently unemployed family photographer Hank (Ed Helms), and his screechy wife, Angie (Alex Borstein), are in the midst of a divorce, which is hard on their two sons (Timothée Chalamet, Maxwell Simkins) but not so much for their bad-word-spouting daughter (Blake Baumgartner). Meanwhile, the Coopers' daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), a cynical playwright, has already landed in town, but with trepidation about returning home and disappointing her mother, she kills time in the airport where she meets conservative Army soldier Joe (Jake Lacy), who will be deployed on Christmas day, and talks him into playing her boyfriend for the night. Somewhere else in the snowy steel city, Charlotte's younger sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) is feeling sorry for herself while Christmas shopping and decides to shoplift an expensive piece of jewelry inside her mouth before being arrested by no-nonsense Officer Percy Williams (Anthony Mackie), whom Emma tries to psychoanalyze in his cop car. Also, toss in waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) whose last day at a local diner makes favorite customer Bucky (Alan Arkin), Charlotte and Emma's father, rather distraught; Hank's awkward teenage son dealing with young romance when he's supposed to be watching his younger brother Bo; and Sam's wacky Aunt Fishy (June Squibb) whose dementia can't even ruin her cheerful spirit. Who are these people and why do they even bother celebrating Christmas together?

About as uneven as a film can get, "Love the Coopers" is a hectic mess, so filled to the gills with undefined characters and underdeveloped subplots and story threads that are either allotted too much screen time or not enough. Director Jessie Nelson (2001's "I Am Sam") probably had so much fun working with her cast instead of realizing that Steven Rogers' screenplay (whose writing credits include "Stepmom" and "P.S. I Love You") could have withstood numerous nips and tucks before heading into production, not that her direction is well-advised in every case, either. For every nice moment, sharp line reading, and nugget of bittersweet truth, there are major steps back. Such moments either don't last or are trampled on by thick sentiment or lame comedic gags that have little place in an already-overstuffed story centered around a wildly dysfunctional family. When director Nelson tries to shoehorn in comedyeither the family dog or the senile aunt breaks wind during a dinner prayer, a teenage boy sloppily tongues his crush as his family stares in horror, and a little girl copies her angry mother and calls everyone a "dick"it seems at odds with the drama and isn't that funny to begin with. There is also a cornball last-minute race through a hospital where one of the female characters rushes down the hallway, knocks a patient off a gurney, and plows down a parade of people with balloons, just to get to her Mr. Right. And, as all families do when a loved one is in the emergency room, the Coopers too patly put aside their problems and dance away in the hospital cafeteria like it's a reception hall. Finally, the whole Hallmark card of a tale is insistently narrated by Steve Martin, spelling everything out as an omniscient outsider who never shuts up and knows every on-screen character's full names, all of their hang-ups, and histories with one another; once his identity is revealed, it would be darling if it weren't so cloying and nonsensical. 

The only marginal pleasure to be had in "Love the Coopers" is being in the company of such an affable ensemble, but once all of the Coopers get together for dinner, the cast members don't even believably gel as a familial unit, just paid actors gathering on set to make a movie. Diane Keaton, whose face is so distractingly soft-focused here, and John Goodman do bring degrees of recognizably human emotion to their parts as a long-married couple who have lost track of one another, but when the main sticking point for their drifting apart comes down to a canceled vacation to Africa, one can't help but roll his or her eyes at these Rich, White People Problems. A beautiful, adeptly sardonic Olivia Wilde and a charming Jake Lacy (2014's "Obvious Child") have an engaging, even smartly written interplay in the airport. If the focus wasn't frequently pulled off of them, their individual story could have made for a better film as an indie meet-cute romance at feature-length. Of the non-romantic nature between seemingly magical waitress Ruby and the wise, much-older Bucky, Amanda Seyfried has some sweet moments with Alan Arkin, who only has to show up and be his Arkin-y self. Then again, how the script forces Ruby into the Coopers' household for Christmas Eve dinner and doesn't even give her a single conversation with anyone else is beyond contrived, and her coupling with another character is just inscrutable. Everyone else fares less well. Ed Helms snorts a lot and feels bad for himself as the hapless Hank, and what exactly is Marisa Tomei doing here? She plays daffy just fine, but the script doesn't help her out, as there is no clear sense of who Emma is as a character. When she opens up a little to Anthony Mackie's closeted, "robotic" cop, Emma is still a question mark, and the script also woefully doesn't do enough with Mackie. After finally being recognized and earning an Oscar nomination for her acerbic, nuanced character work in 2013's "Nebraska," the adorable June Squibb can do this sort of dotty shtick in her sleep, but she's so much funnier than the role of Aunt Fishy that uses her as a punchline.                            

Workably pleasant here and there, "Love the Coopers" is still too blandly schmaltzy and irritatingly assembled to be a Yuletide keeper. Beyond the comfort of seeing so many people you like in one movie, director Jessie Nelson tries adding some whimsical flourishesa flashback of a heartbroken Eleanor finding her ex kissing another woman has her turning into an ice sculpture that literally breaksthat are half-heartedly used but at least zest up the antsy rush job of Elliot Davis' cinematographyTraditional seasonal classics on the soundtrack also brighten the mood and Nelson wisely shot the production in Pittsburgh, so there is actual snow (its absence or fake substitute has always been a major faux pas committed by the worst Christmas movies). As everything shakes out in the end, this is the kind of film you consistently battle with, hoping and trying to like it instead of genuinely liking it. With the title of the movie already setting itself up way too easily for a jokeit's a bit of a forgone conclusion to say that the Coopers don't deserve much of any love. Revisit the Griswolds this year instead.

Grade: C 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Friends 'Til the End: Frank, beautifully acted "Miss You Already" more than just a tearjeker

Miss You Already (2015)
112 min., rated PG-13.

"Miss You Already" could be 2015's answer to "Beaches," as it's not only a love story between bosom buddies but a Kleenex-ready cancer drama. If there's a way to tell a story about cancer, avoiding downbeat despair and plugging in distinctly English humor without seeming flippant or anything less than honest, director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Morwenna Banks (whose 2013 BBC radio play "Goodbye" was the inspiration) do it well, finding a tricky balance between dignified and accessible. This is an equally tough and compassionate film, reflecting some of the edge of Hardwicke's best film (2003's "Thirteen"), in its depiction of a complex friendship dynamic and battling a disease together. The two deftly cast lead actresses, Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette, are the film's heartwrenching foundation, and they push it way above just another disease-of-the-week telepic.

Ever since Jess (Drew Barrymore) moved to London when she was a child, she and Milly (Toni Collette) have been best friends for nearly thirty years, being there for one another through the good and bad times. Milly, now a stiletto-wearing PR exec, has always been the free-spirited one; she married her rock 'n' roll roadie lover, Kit (Dominic Cooper), after becoming pregnant with their first of two children. Working as an environmental planner, Jess lives the bohemian life with husband Jago (Paddy Considine) on a houseboat and keeps trying to get pregnant. When Milly is diagnosed with malignant breast cancer, she doesn't know how to tell Jess or her family before undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Jess is there for Milly through every moment, but when she successfully becomes pregnant, she can't bring herself to tell her best friend of the good news due to the improper timing.

Never glossing over the process of terminal illness, "Miss You Already" isn't afraid to be frank and uncompromising, nor is it a straight-up downer. It would be so easy for the film to martyrize or sanctify Milly after her diagnosis or to shy away from the ugliness of cancer, but Morwenna Banks' screenplay allows the ill character to still be a flawed, fallible and self-destructive human being. Milly fully admits to being shallow and vain, and when feeling less desirable by her husband, she tries attracting the attention of nice bartender Ace (Tyson Ritter). She inevitably loses her hair and has her head shaved before choosing a wig, experiences nausea from the drugs and chemo, and eventually endures a mastectomy, which forces her to lose her assets. Luckily, the film is still framed as a love story between Jess and Milly. They bond over Emily Brontë's novel "Wuthering Heights," doodling mustaches on model's faces in magazines, and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" when taking an impromptu taxi ride to the Yorkshire Moors (the setting of "Wuthering Heights"). When these friends' dynamic changes, they become less open and communicative, but it's more of an inexorable conflict in their relationship and less of a contrived requirement of the plot.

As slightly codependent friends Jess and Milly, Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette complement one another. Barrymore is sweet and likable, no matter what. Her Jess is so decent and modest that she can't find herself to tell her best friend about her positive pregnancy test in fear that such good news will seem like gloating over Milly's  deteriorating health. Toni Collette is exceptional with the flashier and more challenging role as Milly, and the fact that we continue to care about her even as the cancer exacerbates how selfish she can be is a testament to Collette's performance and the balance from Barrymore. Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine obviously have the less-defined roles as Milly and Jess' husbands,  Kit and Jago, respectively, but they aren't exactly shortchanged, either. Cooper and Considine have lived-in chemistry not only with their female screen partners but an amusing rapport with each other. Jacqueline Bisset, as Milly's daytime-soap actress mother Miranda who wasn't always around for her daughter, is also a standout and never relegated to just play the comic relief.

Where "Miss You Already" ultimately goes will not surprise anyone who's expecting a movie that is designed to give audiences a good cry, but there's something to be said for a film that rarely slips into maudlin clichés or feels transparently manipulative. This one earns every sniffle and tastefully provides unforced levity when it's needed the most. At the onset, the film is a little sloppy in terms of voice-over battling music and a camera that refuses to take a rest but recovers quickly. In spite of some unmotivated handheld movements by an ever-roaming camera, the cinematography by Elliot Davis is intimate. Claire Finlay's costume design for Jess and Milly also reflects their contrasting lifestyles, the former more homey and bohemian and the latter always looking like the life of the party in her seven-inch Louboutin heels. Far from being just a tearjerker or a so-called "chick flick"the term "women's picture" is a little more preferable but still limiting—"Miss You Already" is smart and soulful, a weepie that works on its own with a spikily humored script, raw emotional honesty, and beautiful chemistry.

Grade: B +

Friday, November 6, 2015

License to Still Thrill: Cheeky, exciting "Spectre" sends out Craig's Bond on high note

Spectre (2015)
148 min., rated PG-13. 

As the paradigm shift of 2006's "Casino Royale" reclaimed the cultural relevance of the British Secret Service ladies' man and remodeled him into a harder, more rugged and internally weary James Bond with Daniel Craig in the tux, 2012's "Skyfall" set the standard for a simultaneously thrilling and substantive Bond outing. It would be a tough act to follow, kind of like how "The Dark Knight Rises" apparently had to live up to the greatness of "The Dark Knight." With that said, however, "Spectre" may not be as game-changing or emotionally charged as its predecessor, but it confirms that the Ian Fleming character hasn't forgotten to be fun and more than delivers on the expectations of a Bond film. The 24th entry in the entire franchise and the fourth (and presumably final) go-round for Daniel Craig as 007, this one satisfyingly fits in line, quality-wise, with "Casino Royale" (while "Quantum of Solace" has almost completely wiped from this writer's memory), and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and (additionally) Jez Butterworth (2015's "Black Mass") return for the next engagement, setting the film after the tragic loss of MI6 boss M (Judi Dench). Bond carries out M's final order, arriving in Mexico City to stop an assassin's scheme to blow up a stadium during the Day of the Dead festival. Returning to London after going too far in his destruction, Bond is grounded indefinitely from his field operations by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and bureaucratic underling C (Andrew Scott), who's ready to scrap the 007 program and institute surveillance into the British intelligence. Despite his suspension, Bond naturally disobeys standing down when a video of the late M posthumously orders him to travel to Rome and attend the funeral of the assassin he killed. This leads him to an organization known as Spectre, and once Bond is spotted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), Bond must promise another MI6 fugitive, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), that he will protect his daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).

The most expensive entry in the entire series, being made on a walloping $300-million budget, "Spectre" is considerably the lightest of the Daniel Craig-as-James-Bond series, but that doesn't mean it loses any of its weight. It has all the hallmarks that one seeks in a Bond film, including the gun barrel opening, and a whole lot of cheekiness (i.e. Bond lands on a couch when sliding down the floor of an imploding building and later gives a British man a love tap with his Aston Martin during a car chase). The inky title sequence with Sam Smith singing "Writing's on the Wall" is alternately cool, strangely sensual and haunting with a recurring octopus motif that stands for the SPECTRE organization (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). The globe-trotting plot is often convoluted and business as usual, until it dips into Bond's past and builds to an "a-ha" arc that ties in "Casino Royale, "Quantum of Solace" and "Skyfall." With Sam Mendes still on board, the action filmmaking is on par with "Skyfall," adopting the classic approach of long tracking shots (the opening in Mexico City during a Dia de Muertos parade is just dazzling) and steady camerawork. A fight in and around a helicopter above a crowded Mexican plaza is breathlessly executed, as are chases along Rome's Tiber River and the snowy Austrian mountains, and a wildly brutal, excitingly choreographed drug-out brawl on a moving train with Oberhauser's hulking henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). In between, there is also a quietly tense sequence during a well-populated SPECTRE meeting in a boardroom where Oberhauser is strategically kept in the shadows at the head of the table and singles out Bond in the balcony. 

Daniel Craig's cool, wounded James Bond is still less of a joker than previous actors in the role, but there is a more playfully deadpan side to him here. Even if the actor has admitted to this being his last time playing the iconic role, he shows no signs of boredom or indifference beyond the world-weariness of Bond. There is red-hot sexual tension between Craig and a strikingly beautiful Monica Bellucci as an assassin's widow, who's actually age-appropriate for Bond, and he creates a relationship worth caring about with Léa Seydoux ("Blue Is the Warmest Color") as Dr. Madeleine Swann. Thankfully, Seydoux treats the role with more strength and complexity than the norm of the "Bond girl." Ben Whishaw, as Q, and Naomie Harris, as Eve Moneypenny, and Ralph Fiennes, as M, reprise their roles and seem to have more prominent involvement than before. Finally, a Bond film is only as strong as its Bond villain, and it's almost surprising Christoph Waltz hasn't already played one. Despite the excellent actor being a great sniveler, his Franz Oberhauser is not as enduring as Javier Bardem's unforgettable Raoul Silva, but Waltz still ranks as the second most notable villain in Daniel Craig's Bond era.

If the first climax is a little anticlimactic, "Spectre" still moves well at 148 minutes and has little time for too much downtime with all of its tautly devised action set-pieces. The film also brings James Bond's entire journey to a perfect culmination of where it was headed all along. Franz Oberhauser has been the puppet master of Bond's pain and, no matter how much one struggles to remember what happened in the previous three films, brings everything full circle, all the way back to the Sean Connery era. Never has a Bond film brought more connective tissue to other installments than this one, to the point that the film revises traditional Bond mythos, potentially dividing purists, and might seem too insular for casual audiences. Though it's hard not to measure "Spectre" against "Skyfall" since these films can't exist in a vacuum, that's even more so the case now. Nevertheless, the 24th Bond is still a lot of fun. "James Bond will return," promises the film's end credits. Even if Craig does not, his final bow out least goes out on a high note.

Grade: B +

Evil Fern Gully: Thin "Hallow" bolstered by goopy jolts and nifty f/x

The Hallow (2015)
92 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Imagine "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (either version) being infected with "The Fly" and "The Ruins" and the result might look a bit like "The Hallow." This grim backwoods-folklore fairy tale is familiar in its setup of a doomed family moving to an unfamiliar place with a local urban legend. Narratively speaking, there isn't much to it, but for a genre piece on a lean budget, it stands as a nifty future calling card for Irish monster-making artist-turned-director Corin Hardy (making his feature debut here but already picked to helm the upcoming remake of "The Crow"). The plot and where it is headed is predictable early on, but if one concentrates on where the film's strengths lie, it is resourceful and impressively accomplished in its level of mounting dread and technical craftsmanship.

On assignment to get rid of infected trees, conservationist Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) relocates wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic), their infant son Finn, and pet dog Iggy from London to an isolated millhouse in Ireland. After the family lives there for a month, the locals don't take kindly to Adam trespassing through the forest that belongs to the mythic "hallow," particularly neighbor Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton) who knows from personal experience. While out walking through the nearby forest with his toddler on his back, Adam discovers a deer carcass covered in a black, gooey substance, which he brings home to research under a microscope. After another warning from Colm, the Hitchenses realize they should have listened, as the creatures in the forest are targeting their bundle of joy.

Written by director Corin Hardy and Felipe Marino, "The Hallow" might be a little too streamlined for its own good but it at least mixes up a creature-feature story with a little body and possession horror, while staying true to the name of cohesion. The Irish "hallow" mythos of baby-stealing tree faeries, changelings, and banshees also adheres to the cinematic rule of showing over telling with the illustrations of a Book of the Dead-ish tomb. Save for a police officer (Michael Smiley, "A Field in England") inspecting a broken window in Adam and Clare's baby's bedroom window and alerting the couple of the locals' superstitions in regards to the forest, there are appreciably no characters spouting off exposition willy-nilly. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B -