Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Creed

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ryan Coogler's "Creed" relaunches (sorry, I'm sick of the word reboot) the "Rocky" franchise in a clever way and, in the process, is the second best of the entire series after John G. Avildsen's 1976 Best Picture winner (for the sake of full disclosure, I've never seen "Rocky II," although it's in my Netflix queue). 

In this film, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) takes on a young protegee named Donny Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) - yes, I know, Don Johnson - who, as it turns out, is actually Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of famed boxer and Rocky pal Apollo Creed, who was, if you'll recall, killed in the ring in 1985's "Rocky IV."

Donny, whom we first meet during a stint in juvenile hall in 1998, has been adopted and raised by Apollo's very understanding wife (Phylicia Rashad). As the film opens, Donny is working a nine to five desk job, but sneaking away to fight for money in Mexico on the weekends. But, one day, he quits his job and decides to follow in his father's footsteps, although he goes by the last name Johnson in order to win respect for himself, rather than rely on his pop's legend.

Meanwhile, Rocky is managing a restaurant in Philadelphia and wants no part of the boxing world anymore. Will it surprise you if I tell you that Donny convinces him to become his coach? Yes, there are a number of those scenes of the young boxer training (although no punching of frozen meat), but "Creed" is a film that does not merely play all the same notes as the numerous "Rocky" films that preceded it.

There's a romance between Donny and a young woman named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is losing her hearing but won't give up her dream of being a singer, that remains pretty involving throughout the course of the picture. And Rocky is given some bad news of his own that the filmmakers handle gracefully, rather than through tired cliches.

It also helps that Jordan and Stallone are so well paired. Jordan has long been an actor on the rise - his early work on "The Wire" made me first notice him, but his performance in Coogler's previous film, "Fruitvale Station," proved that he had the goods to be a leading man. 

And Stallone gives one of his best performances to date, one that is continually evolving. Rather than fall back on noticeable characteristics as many recurring cinematic characters tend to do, Coogler and Stallone add some extra depth to the old lug. In fact, this is one of the rare recent franchise films that made me want to see the characters brought back to the screen yet again.

Coogler is a filmmaker to watch. "Fruitvale Station" was a powerful indie film on an important subject and "Creed" proves that he can deliver a major studio film as well. This is one of the holiday season's nicest surprises. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Carol

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Few filmmakers are as adept at capturing eras of American history and then deconstructing them as Todd Haynes, whose latest, "Carol," is a sumptuous romantic drama based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, "The Price of Salt."

With "Far From Heaven," Haynes paid a loving homage to Douglas Sirk, all the while giving the film his own distinct voice, and his "I'm Not There" will, perhaps, be the only picture ever to truly capture the essence of Bob Dylan and what he meant to the 1960s. His "Mildred Pierce" was a fine piece of 1940s noir drama, "Safe" was a near perfect encapsulation of AIDS era paranoia and "Velvet Goldmine," although a mere good film in an oeuvre filled with great ones, certainly portrayed glam rock in all its glorious excesses.

"Carol" finds Haynes working with slightly more moody material and it's a film marked by restraint, although given occasionally given to sequences of gorgeously filmed melodrama. Visually, the picture presents an authentic snapshot of the early 1950s and cinematographer Edward Lachman manages to find beauty in that era's drab department stores, diners and New York City apartments.

Set in 1952, "Carol" is, for lack of a better phrase, a story of a Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. This romance is between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett, who encapsulates the era in every way in the film, from the clothing she sports from the shape of her face and cat-like eyes), a wealthy New Jersey woman in the middle of a divorce with her controlling husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara in a very strong performance), a quiet shopgirl at a department store with a doting boyfriend who doesn't quite pique her interest.

When we meet Carol, she is fighting her soon-to-be-ex-husband for custody of their young daughter and we learn that among the many reasons the marriage fell apart was her previous affair with a long-time friend and confidant named Abby (Sarah Paulson, excellent in a supporting role).

Carol's eyes land on Therese behind the counter at her department store while Christmas shopping and the younger woman assists her in purchasing a train for her daughter. But the older woman accidentally leaves her gloves at the shop, Therese gets them back to her and this event is the excuse used to launch a friendship that quickly grows into something more.

Therese's boyfriend calls her "Terry," Americanizing her - she's U.S.-born, but with a Czech name - but Carol draws out her name (pronounced "Te-rez") and emphasizes the young girl's exoticness. One of the most fascinating elements in "Carol" is how the upper hand is, at times, held by one of the two women and, at others, by the other. But this film is not about a power struggle, but rather a relationship in which each character benefits and, due to the conservative time period in which it is set, suffers.

A large portion of the picture is in the form of a road trip that Therese takes with Carol that includes elements of romance, eroticism, melodrama and even a little mystery. In one scene, Haynes even breaks the rule of Chekhov's gun. Although the film is straightforward in terms of story and style, there's a dreaminess to much of the proceedings - for example, Therese's staring out of moving cars at young children running on darkened streets or a cloud reflected in a car window as Carol and Therese have a conversation.

One of the picture's best - and key - scenes is repeated twice. As the film opens, Carol and Therese are spotted by a young man as they have dinner. He interrupts them, which breaks up the meeting and Therese goes on with him to a party. It all seems innocuous the first time we watch the scene. The rest of the film is primarily a flashback leading up to that meal and the second time we witness the scene, it's from a different angle in which much more emotional complexity can be spotted.

Although purposely restrained, "Carol" is a powerful, beautifully acted, visually gorgeous and often haunting period piece. Its melancholic mood and relatively open ending will likely stay with you long after you've left the theater. Haynes is a master of period drama and "Carol" is one of the most accomplished movies you'll likely see in a theater this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: By the Sea

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Although the results were often mixed on Angelina Jolie's first two films as a director - the mostly good "Unbroken" and the interesting, if not completely successful, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" - I admired that, in her first two times behind the camera, the actress attempted to tackle some fairly weighty and substantial subject matter.

So, it's unfortunate that her third film, "By the Sea," is mostly a bust, albeit a scenic and occasionally visually stunning one. Yes, the film looks great and there's no doubt that the gorgeous coastlines of southern France where the picture is set go a long way. The cinematography by Christian Berger is also fairly impressive and sets a mood for the film with which the screenplay and other elements can't quite keep up.

Set in the 1970s and obviously attempting to emulate the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and other '60s world cinema masters, "By the Sea" follows a fairly predictable trajectory as its two handsome leads - Jolie and husband Brad Pitt - play a miserablist couple making each others' lives a living hell during a trip to the shore, where Roland (Pitt), a writer, attempts to break out of a creative rut and Vanessa (Jolie) aims to find her way out of a more personal one.

A problem that plagues the picture from nearly beginning to end is how muted it comes across. When dialogue is not being muttered, it's being shouted and while I understand that this is all to show how much Roland and Vanessa's marriage has come apart, it leaves little room for subtlety. Pitt and Jolie are both fine actors, but they are given little to do for much of the film, which is surprising considering that Jolie wrote the script, most likely as a vanity star vehicle for she and her husband.

Things liven up a little with the introduction of a young French couple (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) who are spending their honeymoon next door to the gloomy Americans. Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall and a significant middle portion of the film involves the older couple spying on the younger one, which seems to revive their own flailing relationship - at least, for a while.

While watching the picture, one senses early on that there's more than meets the eye at the heart of Roland and Vanessa's troubles, but when it's finally introduced, it's not quite given the weight it would need to justify Roland's drinking problems and Vanessa's suicidal behavior. And just when it would seem the action might come to a head - it sort of does after Pitt confronts two of the film's characters - the story just ends.

"By the Sea" is not quite as bad as I might be making it sound. As I said, it's often great to look at and the two leads are always fun to watch, even when saddled with mediocre material. But this is a missed opportunity and it's a film that occasionally feels aimless. There's no doubt that Jolie is focusing more on being a director than an actor these days, so I hope her next move behind the camera is a little more successful than this one.

Review: Brooklyn

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
John Crowley's "Brooklyn" is a lovely, old fashioned and bittersweet immigrant tale as well as one of the best films I've seen in a while. Based upon the 2009 novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, the film - which was scripted by Nick Hornby - tells the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irishwoman who moves to New York City in the early 1950s after she is unable to find work back home and, through a series of circumstances, finds herself torn between staying in her new home or returning back to the place where she was born and raised.

"Brooklyn" follows some of the elements you'd expect to find in an immigrant tale - the boat ride over, becoming accustomed to new surroundings, culture shock, etc., but thankfully little time is spent on getting through immigration and customs.

At first homesick and shy around her fellow Brooklynites, Eilis takes a job as a clerk at a retail store, where her boss (Jessica Pare, of "Mad Men") is, at first, hard on the new employee. Eilis lives in a boarding house under the watchful eye of a strict, but funny, landlady and several gossiping young Irishwomen, who eventually take to Eilis's good nature.

The priest (Jim Broadbent) who helped her find work in America suggests she take night classes and Eilis, a quick study, learns to become a bookkeeper with the intention of finding work as an accountant.

But the real heart of the story begins once she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a plumber and son of Italian immigrants who has a good heart, which he often wears on his sleeve. Things become serious and Eilis and Tony make a commitment to each other. But a tragedy back home in Ireland strikes, causing Eilis to return to her native land.

Once there, Eilis begins to feel guilty about leaving her mother on her own and settles back into life in Ireland, complete with a bookkeeping job at her sister's former place of work and a well-to-do suitor (Domhnall Gleeson). All the while, Eilis keeps Tony a secret and some obvious complications ensue.

So, while "Brooklyn" follows a story that rings a bell of familiarity, it's done so beautifully through its lovely writing, poignant acting and gorgeous cinematography. This is a winsome film in the best sense of the word.

Ronan, who has long been among the better actors of her generation, is phenomenal here, giving Eilis a heart and soul and making her a complicated person whom we root for, even when we question some of her decisions. She, like many of the other characters in the film, is the type not to suffer fools wisely, but she is also vulnerable and Ronan does such a marvelous job balancing these two parts to her character's personality. The supporting cast, especially Cohen, are also terrific.

The film's final scenes are of a bittersweet nature, but handled deftly. There's an early scene in which Eilis is traveling to New York and she is schooled by another young Irishwoman on the boat who already lives in the United States. The woman shows a tough exterior, but warms to Eilis's naivete and gives her some pointers. A sequence late in the film during which Eilis does the same for another is among the picture's most powerful and beautifully handled.

"Brooklyn" is one of the year's best. It's a simple story made with great care, from its filmmakers to its cast, and one you'll likely grow to care very much about.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Spectre

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
With "Spectre," the James Bond franchise has taken one step closer to making 007 into a comic book character and this film's villain feels more like someone who should be facing off against Batman than a British spy. The picture has been directed by Sam Mendes, who was responsible for the last entry in the series - "Skyfall" - which was one of the better Bond films, especially in recent years.

So, while this latest installment is a pretty decent action movie and mostly fun, it falls short of Mendes' previous foray into the franchise and while it's often thrilling, it's often a little silly as well.

In the film, Bond (Daniel Craig) is given the news that his government's 00 program will be shutting down with a seemingly sinister surveillance program that Bond's boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), opposes replacing agents in the field. If this sounds similar, it's likely because you watched the recent "Mission Impossible" film, in which there was an operation to take Ethan Hunt's team out of commission.

Anyway, Bond stumbles upon a secret organization headed by a man named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, the go-to villain these days), with whom our hero shares a past, of sorts, albeit a slightly far fetched one. And, since this is a Bond film, there's a young woman (Lea Seydoux) to protect whose father was a former ally of Oberhauser, but has since turned against his boss.

As I'd mentioned before, the film gives off the vibe of a comic book movie, from the overuse of Bond cliches past ("Bond. James Bond" is uttered, a signature drink ordered, at least two women bedded) to a villain that - during the course of the film - has not one, but two secret lairs and a scarred face to boot. And Oberhauser's connection to previous Bond installments is also a little, well, overwrought.

All these quibbles aside, "Spectre" is an amusing enough - if occasionally slight - entry into the Bond franchise. There's a fun opening sequence during which 007 chases villains through a "Day of the Dead" celebration in Mexico and another well-choreographed chase through the snow involving an airplane with no wings.

But, ultimately, this is more of a middle tier James Bond movie. It's certainly better than the likes of "License to Kill," "Quantum of Solace" and "Tomorrow Never Dies," but it's no "Skyfall" or "From Russia with Love." However, it'll do.

Review: Spotlight

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
In our age of 24-hour news cycles, celebrity gossip posing as actual news and SEO-driven web content, "Spotlight" may strike some as an old fashioned newspaper yarn, which it is, but it's also one of the year's most important and, certainly, best films.

Tom McCarthy's movie follows the team of reporters, editors and publishers at The Boston Globe who, in 2001, began following leads that resulted in their unearthing a massive cover-up scandal by the Catholic Church in Boston that involved the institution sheltering and protecting priests who had molested young children.

While "Spotlight" could technically be categorized as a message film - you know, the type that Hollywood tends to deliver around this time of year in search of Oscars - it's a fascinating and powerful one that is brought to life through terrific writing and a spectacular ensemble cast.

At the film's beginning, a new editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is being brought on board and the staff is not only unsettled at the prospect of layoffs, but many among the news team question his credentials. He's from Miami and has never lived in Boston, which is portrayed as an insular town with its own culture, much of which is derived from the Catholic Church.

But during his first meeting with the Globe's various news editors, he makes waves by suggesting that the paper do a follow-up on a column about a rogue priest who had been sent away to another parish after having been sexually involved with a minor as well as filing a suit to force the church to make public documents relating to the incident.

The story is passed along to the Spotlight team, a four-person outfit at the Globe that undertakes long-term investigations. The team is led by Michael Keaton's Walter "Robby" Robinson and includes the hard driving Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). They all report to the paper's Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), who is, at first, skeptical of the investigation.

Much like the great newspaper-centered films of decades past - for example, "All the President's Men," "Zodiac" and "The Insider" - "Spotlight" places an emphasis on the sleuthing element of reporting. A significant portion of the picture involves the team's tracking down witnesses or clues and sitting outside public records offices to sort through files. And yet, much like "Zodiac," these sequences are nothing short of riveting.

Although the movie places the facts at the center of its story, McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer inject a sizable dose of humanity into the proceedings. The scenes during which the victimized individuals relay their stories of abuse at the hands of priests to Rezendes and Pfeiffer are harrowing and heartbreaking and it's a good sign that a story is in the hands of a strong filmmaker when every single one of the minor characters feel well represented and the actors portraying them provide solid supporting work.

The film's ensemble cast is among the best I've seen in recent years. Keaton continues his comeback streak with his excellent portrayal of Robby, a man who fits in with Boston's society due to his upbringing in Catholic schools and his one-of-the-guys persona, but who also is willing to rock the boat when it needs rocking. Ruffalo gives one of this finest performances to date as the intense Rezendes, who begins to make the story he is covering into something personal. McAdams, who was already having a strong year with her work on "True Detective," is among the film's most sympathetic characters. She is determined to get the victims to speak, but she does so delicately.

Schreiber brings the necessary gravitas to his role as Baron, an outsider who, in one of his best scenes, tells a high ranking cardinal that his institution is at its best when it "stands alone." And there's also some very strong work by Slattery and d'Arcy James as well as Stanley Tucci as a colorful attorney representing the victims and Billy Crudup as a lawyer who has assisted in negotiations between the victims and the church.

"Spotlight" moves along at the rate of a thriller and it's a sign of great storytelling and direction when a filmmaker can create suspense with subject matter and a story to which most people already know the ending. It's a throwback to the newspaper movies of old when a team of reporters and an editor are viewed as heroic servants of the public attempting to dig deep into a story and brings wrongs to the light.

And at a time when the Fifth Estate is increasingly losing its power due to declining subscriptions, cutbacks, layoffs and being slowly replaced by internet content, "Spotlight" is a reminder of the essentialness of good investigative journalism. McCarthy's film is one of the year's most compelling and very best.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review: Our Brand is Crisis

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Based upon the 2005 documentary of the same name, David Gordon Green's "Our Brand is Crisis" is an inside look at how a political campaign works, in this case one in Bolivia in which a handful of American campaign managers are involved.

While the documentary followed Greenberg Carville Shrum's assistance in getting Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada elected, Green's film follows the fictional exploits of one Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) and her game of one-upmanship against Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a smarmy campaign operative who relishes in making Jane uncomfortable. The two have a history involving several campaigns lost by Jane and a leaked story that caused a young woman to commit suicide.

On the one hand, while Green's film doesn't divulge anything most of us already don't know - that is, how campaigns are about perception, rather than content - "Our Brand is Crisis" is a fast paced political drama featuring solid performances, good writing and more than a few genuinely funny moments.

Bodine has been called out of a self imposed seclusion by other members of the team - which includes Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd and Scoot McNairy - attempting to get Castillo, a Bolivian senator and former president who was not particularly popular, re-elected. Bullock's character displays early on that she's both a pragmatist and a cynic and her particular brand of political mudslinging is effective, but obviously ethically questionable.

Candy's tactics are just as - if not more - despicable and the film benefits from the two characters attempting to outdo one another, including a particularly memorable sequence during which Bodine tricks Candy into feeding his candidate a line that he thinks is from Goethe, but is actually from someone else.

However, the picture is not without its problems, the most obvious being that its script depicts the people of Bolivia as possessing easily malleable minds that are, at most times, under the control of the Americans manipulating them. I'm not sure Green and the film's screenwriters intended for the story to play out this way, but it does.

I don't think I'm being snobbish by agreeing that, yes, a large number of voters in any nation at any time do not often vote in their best interest and focus on attributes of a candidate that have nothing to do with how well they would govern their nation. On the other hand, "Our Brand is Crisis" occasionally creates the unfortunate portrayal of some crafty Americans talking down to third world denizens who can't think for themselves.

Then again, the film does not portray said crafty Americans in the greatest of lights either and by the end of the film, it's hard to find anyone - other than the Bolivians who are righteously outraged at being sold out by their leaders - with whom to sympathize.

For the past decade and a half, Green has taken on everything from Malickian-style dramas ("All the Real Girls" and "George Washington") to raunchy comedies (the unfortunate "Your Highness") and heavier fare ("Joe" and "Snow Angels"). "Our Brand is Crisis" is the first time he has ventured into what could be called, for lack of a better phrase, advocacy films. It's far from perfect, but it's a well-made and humorous inside-baseball look at political campaigns that works more often than doesn't.