Early on in John Crowley’s Nick Hornby scripted film adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, the director wisely let’s his camera linger on star Saoirse Ronan’s face while at a neighborhood dance where her BFF Nancy has nabbed a man on the dance floor and Eilis is once again left to ponder whether there will ever be anything or anyone to keep her in Ireland. Ronan, whose performance would be a revelation if she hadn’t already proven herself as a wee lass in Atonement, completely and subtly commands the camera and the audience, the slight tensing of her neck tendons, the nuanced flint in her eyes, that almost imperceptible sigh. The whole plight of everyone who has ever wondered what else might be out there is written on her face. And off to America…and to Brooklyn…Eilis goes. Brooklyn is blessed by a few of these very smart moments, and also by a lot of clichéd ones. There’s really not much suspense in guessing our heroine’s fate, but there are moments of sincere heartache and gentle beauty. Continue reading
At one point in Tom McCarthy’s deftly handled expose on the exhaustive investigative journalism done by the Boston Globe to uncover the labyrinthine and monolithic Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002, a character coldly observes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.” Logically it then follows, that it would also take a village to shine a light on corruption.
There’s another great line uttered by Liev Schreiber (who shrewdly plays the Jewish city-hopping editor who turns the Spotlight team onto the case) at the dawn of the story going public where he says something to the effect of, “When we’re fumbling around in the dark and you finally get to shine a light on something, it’s easy to find blame in your own fumbling.” The journalists in Spotlight (all former or current Catholics) are riddled with the guilt the Church (and life) drill into you, knowing that something should’ve been done earlier, and the film is filled with these types of keen insights and great lines without ever becoming didactic. Continue reading
In Lenny Abrahamson’s tonally perfect adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room (smartly scripted by the novelist herself), a young mother (Brie Larson) imprisoned in a backyard shed by a sexual predator since she was 17 creates an elaborate imaginary world for her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), to inhabit in order to shield him from the true horrors of their lonely existence (seriously…thank god they had TV…it was their only connection to the outside world). But eventually she comes to a breaking point, and she must shatter her little boy’s world in order to convince him to agree to a scheme for them to break out into freedom.
Apart from the subversive reprieve for the lasting power of television in a smart-phone and social media obsessed world, Room is stacked with all the right moves crafted to push all the right emotional buttons. The escape plan is truly harrowing and daring, and Abrahamson films it in a way to build up genuine suspense – the shots, editing, music and acting are all top grade. Continue reading
Is it just me or does Daniel Craig, with each passing Bond film, look more and more like the William Shatner mask worn by Michael Myers in Halloween? For me, the biggest problem with the Craig Bond Era has been Craig…he showed a promising range initially but was never quite right for the role. But I digress. He does fine here (I guess) in his fourth outing. So apart from Craig saddled with being Craig and a snooze-inducing Sam Smith Bond theme (man, what a step down from Adele who knocked it out of the park with Skyfall!), let’s inspect all the good stuff in Spectre…because, boy, there’s a lot of it. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Hollywood has done a bang up job over the years telling the story of young men destroyed by wars. Some might argue it’s been their bread and butter. Occasionally there have been poignant child’s-eye-views of war, from the profane (Come and See) to the romanticized and sentimental (Hope and Glory). But what happens when the children are the soldiers? Hardly new in our human history, but always horrific and tragic, Beasts of No Nation (from the novel inspired by grim reality from Uzodinma Iweala) shows us what happens when children become warriors and delivers a first-hand account of one such child Agu (Abraham Atta) in an unnamed present-day African nation torn apart by civil war. The harrowing experience seems more at home on the written page (which for some reason always allows for easier digestion of the inhumane aspects of humanity), but in the hands of Cary Joji Fukunaga (acclaimed filmmaker of such varied fare as Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and the first season of True Detective), the story demands a visual chronicle.
When you’re the guy best known for that unforgettable tracking shot of the McConaissance traveling through a ghetto Bayou hellscape in a drug raid for the ages, you better deliver when you become your own cinematographer on your next film. Filling the duties of producer, director, co-screenwriter and cinematographer, Fukunaga, for anyone who wasn’t sold on his talent already, arrives here as advertised and announces himself as one of the major new forces to be reckoned with in cinema. Capturing atmospheric images of beauty and horror and raw human drama, Fukunaga (aided by Dan Romer’s music score) nails the technical aspects of the film. His sure hand thus allows his cast – lead by the amateur Atta who perfectly captures the essence of a child soldier making you sympathize, fear and ultimately empathize, and anchored by a volcanic Idris Elba in an Oscar-worthy supporting turn as the vile Commandant who recruits and leads the children into guerilla warfare – nail the emotional aspects of the story. Continue reading
Michael Shannon’s character Rick Carver spouts some great lines in the tense and heartbreaking new film from Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes. At one point he tells his morally conflicted protégé in crooked evictions and house flipping, Dennis Nash (played by Andrew Garfield, raw but with a somewhat questionable Southern accent), “America doesn’t bail out losers. America bails out winners. It was made of, for and by winners.” Yeah, eff the People! No…what? Wait a minute. It was moments like that, where sitting in a near empty theater on the weekend of this indie’s wider release into multiplexes, I thought that a savvier studio would be playing the line in endless teaser loops and marketing this as the flip side to Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe that would’ve gotten more people into the seats. But the wounds 99 Homes pours salt on are too fresh… and as successful as it is from a tactical perspective (well-written, well-acted, well-directed and timely), I don’t know if this could ever be a financial hit.
In the fall-out of the housing crisis, Florida-based construction worker/everyday handyman Dennis Nash suddenly has no new homes to build and loses the one he shares with his part-time hairdresser Mom (Laura Dern – the epitome of lower-middle class optimism and angst) and young son (Noah Lomax) to foreclosure. Into his life steps the non-nonsense, slick-talking, worn down but looking up real-estate agent, Rick Carver, who evicts default homeowners and then runs crooked deals to flip the houses where he screws the banks and the government (and anyone else who he crosses paths with). Carver offers Nash a helping hand, but it’s akin to making a deal with the devil, and he keenly warns Nash, “Real estate should never be personal. Don’t get sentimental about a house. It’s just a box.” But it’s a box that represents the American Dream for so many, who through predatory lending practices, got screwed out of their homes after the housing bubble crash of 2008 that sent the US and the world tumbling into the Great Recession. Continue reading
I recently had two essays published on Wonders in the Dark as part of their monumental Countdown on the Top Films about Childhood where I put fresh eyes on two beloved films, The Tree of Life and The Night of the Hunter. Readers might recall I published the ballot I submitted to WitD not too long ago. And while my personal rankings and choices might differ from the final results after all was tabulated…these two fine films still made the cut as follows:
Coming in at #38 was The Tree of Life and here’s an excerpt of what I had to say at WitD:
And by weaving the life of an ordinary family (and the childhood of an ordinary man) into the grand story of the cosmos, Malick shows that every life is as insignificant and as a monumental as we want it to be. We provide meaning to what we want to provide meaning to. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Our observing of a thing gives it meaning, changes its definition. For a film where characters frequently talk to their god in one-sided prayer, Malick’s thesis points to both the meaning and meaningless of it all. We answer our own prayers.
Coming it at #6 was The Night of the Hunter and here’s an excerpt of what I had to say at WitD:
The singer in the opening of Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter invites viewers to dream along with its young protagonist, John Harper (Billy Chapin), but what transpires in the film is a pure nightmare where religious fanaticism begs us to treat everyone like children and envision a world where everyone is fair game for evil. He’s just a poor kid whose dad was just hung for murder (but not before entrusting his son to hide his stash of money), whose mother (Shelly Winters) is helpless, and whose little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), needs minding. Into his life steps the world’s most vile step-father, Harry Powell (the magnificently monstrous Robert Mitchum) – a widow-killer and money-hungry would-be preacher who wows the simpletons of the small towns he invades with his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. But John is on to him from the get-go (he knows this jack-ass just wants the cash), and John rails against the man and his worldview.
Written by David H. Schleicher
In Roman ruled Judea, Jewish zealots used daggers hidden in cloaks to kill their oppressors and were thus dubbed in Latin…”Sicarious”…or dagger men. Though most of the killing in Denis Villeneuve’s latest master class in vexatious suspense is done with machine guns, there’s a climax building scene where cinematographer god Roger Deakins photographs the character Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) descending into the purple-hued darkness of a drug tunnel as he unsheathes a dagger that will make your skin scrawl.
Alejandro is man of mysterious motives and origins who with the aid of another “DOD consultant” – an eager and smiley Josh Brolin – is determined to ruffle some feathers of a cartel based in Juarez that’s been wreaking havoc as far north as Phoenix, where kidnap retrieval field agent Kate (a tense Emily Blunt) has been recently recruited for these clandestine missions after uncovering a cartel body-dump on her home turf. Meanwhile on the other side of the border, mild-mannered and weary cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) tries to balance playing football with his adoring son with the unfortunate mechanics of working for the cartel from hell. Continue reading
While the best film of 2015 may very well have already been released (haven’t seen Phoenix? well, you must), it doesn’t mean Hollywood won’t be crowding the autumnal multiplexes with high-end genre pieces and prestige flicks stacked like fallen leaves piled up at a suburban curb.
Here’s my Spin on the most anticipated films of Fall 2015:
10. Spectre – d. Sam Mendes – November 6th – It’s the latest Bond after what many feel was one of the greatest Bonds. I’m tired of Craig, but Mendes is a force to be reckoned with. And with Blofeld added to the mix finally, this one should set off like a Molotov cocktail.
9. The Witch – d. Robert Eggers – Wait, this isn’t until 2016 maybe? What the hell, this screams Fall! – Exactly…what in the hell is this? First time director Eggers displays a style in the trailer that answers the question, what if Terence Malick directed a horror movie? Well, I’m intrigued.
8. Beasts of No Nation – d. Cary Joji Fukunaga – October 16th – This will be an interesting one to watch, as this tale of child soldiers in Africa is Fukunaga’s first stab at cinematic greatness coming off True Detective, and it’s the first original film released by Netflix who will be playing it in limited theaters and streaming. This could change the game on multi-platform releasing (especially of independent films), or it could be met with a shrug.
7. Suffragette – d. Sarah Gravon – October 23rd – Buzz is good, the cast is great, the story is powerful and the trailer is strong. It would be hard to imagine this one going wrong, but stranger things have happened. Wanna see Mulligan in another great part? Check out this year’s earlier Far From the Madding Crowd.
6. Black Mass – d. Scott Cooper – September 18th – Johnny Depp tries to erase bad memories of Pirates, Tonto and Transcendence (oh dear lord what in the world was that piece of crap supposed to be apart from a cure for insomnia?) in this movie that has the right look and swagger to be a mob genre classic. Will Cooper finally knock one out of the park and join the big boys? Continue reading
War can change a person to where they become unrecognizable to their loved ones and to themselves. It can ravage people and places. It can disfigure a person’s body and soul.
Writer-director Christian Petzold takes this idea literally in his masterful new neo-noir, Phoenix, where his long-time muse, Nina Hoss, delivers a performance for the ages as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then finds herself in the psychologically complex predicament of having to go under disguise as another woman pretending to be herself so as to find out the truth about her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis during the war.
Despite the warnings of her friend and confidant, Lene (a bleak and soulful Nina Kuzendorf) who hopes for Nelly to rest and recover while she works out the legality of claiming Nelly’s family inheritance so that they can join the flux of survivors to Palestine, Nelly wanders the ravaged Berlin landscape mourning bombed out homes, hiding under a widow’s mask and traipsing through the shadows like a Frankenstein monster until she comes across the down-and-out Phoenix nightclub where American soldiers mix with the German underbelly looking to ply them with sex and show tunes. Nelly, a former torch signer, and Johnny, a former pianist, find themselves in this hellish version of their former lives, both on the outskirts looking in, not able to perform. He sees her as someone who looks vaguely like his dead wife, who he now wishes to resurrect so he can collect the inheritance (which he promises to split with her if she plays along). She sees him as a shell of the man she once fell in love with and who she desperately wishes she could fall in love with again. Thus a grand charade begins, and they are soon caught up in perverse duplicity where emotions and guilt run high.
Petzold films scenes in perfect frames and shadows, evoking a chamber-piece version of The Third Man, without it ever seeming overly stylish. Meanwhile Hoss’ physical stiffness is in stark contrast to her otherwise subtle performance where she speaks volumes with her eyes and facial expressions – expertly showing the audience the dichotomy of her predicament where she must hide herself from everyone while inside her inner turmoil runneth over (leaving Nelly to literally lurch). It’s such a controlled performance (inside such a controlled, economic film where not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted) that when Nelly’s full transformation occurs at the film’s end, it a pure moment of cinematic awe where the audience is left gasping.
SPOILER ALERTS – DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM – It is highly recommended you see the film on as clean a slate as possible, then come back and read the following paragraphs to join the conversation.