Thursday, December 17, 2015

November 2015

     If anyone doubts that society is losing something important as newspapers slice staffing to the bone—I write this as the Los Angeles Times loses more than 75 veteran reports and editors in a single buyout—or simply close, this film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into corruption within the Catholic Church should convince them.
    As it follows a group of determined reporters and editors tracking down the facts about priest’s sexual misconduct and the cover-up by the church, its lawyers and Boston prosecutors, “Spotlight” portrays journalism at its dogged best. The Globe’s 2002 story opened the door on the scandal, provoking papers around the country, and the world, to investigate local parishes, permanently damaging the powerful church.
        After the movie introduces the paper’s investigative team (called “Spotlight”)—editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Bryan d’Arcy James)—they meet the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), just arrived from the New York Times. On his first day, this soft-spoken, but perceptive newsman suggests that Robinson’s team look into accusations that the church is quietly settling with victims to keep them from going public.
     I don’t believe any film has captured the manner and personalities of reporters and the atmosphere of a newsroom with more authenticity. Writer-director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”) and co-writer Josh Singer go the extra mile to make sure the details of process and the behavior of the journalists ring true, even for those of us who have spent most of our lives in newspapers.
       The actors, especially Schreiber, Keaton and Ruffalo, completely embody the passion, tenacity and skepticism that made me believe they were real journalists involved in unearthing an important story; a story that needed to be precisely right before offered to a public with deep ties to the Catholic Church.        
     In a smaller, but crucial role is John Slattery, playing Ben Bradlee Jr., a Globe editor who pushes Robinson’s team to nail down every detail of the story before going to press. For non-journalists, he might appear to be just protecting the church, fearful of upsetting readers, but journalists will recognize him as the kind of touch, cynical editor that every paper (and reporter) needs.      
     I’m not sure how interesting moviegoers who aren’t journalists will find “Spotlight,” as it tells a 15-year-old story that everyone is somewhat aware of, while focusing on the reporters and the process. But the film’s complex, highly motivated characters and their tireless efforts in pursuit of the story could have the same broad appeal as “All the President’s Men.”
     Yet the 1976 film had the advantage of getting into theaters just two years after President Nixon resigned and as the nation was still reeling from Watergate. The increased speed of news in the 21st Century makes the 2002 priest scandal seem like ancient history.
       Considering the landscape of Hollywood, the fact that a film like “Spotlight” even gets made, even 13 years later, is a minor miracle. For those of us who remain devoted to newspaper journalism, this film couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Not that it will save any immediate jobs, but the film may inspire investors that this institution isn’t just a failing business model, but an essential part of American democracy that somehow must be saved.

     Tales of immigrants have been a favorite topic of filmmakers since movies were invented—one of Charlie Chaplin’s classic shorts is his 1917 “The Immigrant.” But most are filled with tragedies, disappointments, and bad decisions that lead to a life of crime or, at least, a lifetime of struggles.
     This heartfelt film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s unfolds as a coming of age story, in which the change of scenery jolts her life into fast-forward. While facing difficult challenges and choices, Eilis mostly finds the “Land of Opportunity” as advertised.
   On the surface, this sounds like a toothless, inspirational television movie, but the detail-oriented, finely observed script by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “An Education”) and a beautiful nuanced performance by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis keep the picture down to earth, an authentic look at how hard it is to break from the past even when the future appears so bright.
    Her move to American is supported by an Irish priest (the affable Jim Broadbent) now working in Brooklyn. He arranges for her to stay at the boarding house of a sharp-tongue Irish woman, hilariously played by Julie Walters. The dinner table conversation between Walter’s Mrs. Kehoe and the young women boarding with her are wonderful comic set pieces, which also reveals the attitudes and dreams of the 1950s.
    Of course, there’s romance for Eilis, in the form of a nervous, but determined Italian immigrant (Emory Cohen) who spots her at an Irish church dance. Her feelings for him and her family back in Ireland are at the center of her conflicted emotions.
    In 2007, Ronan burst on the movie scene at age 13 with her Oscar-nominated performance in “Atonement” and then, two years later, as the young victim in “The Lovely Bones.” But with “Brooklyn,” the 21-year-old establishes herself as a strong leading actress capable of carrying a film.
     Director John Crowley keeps things simple, allowing Hornby’s sharp dialogue (based on Colm Toibin’s novel) and Ronan’s plain-spoken sincerity win us over.
      At the heart of “Brooklyn” sits the timeless dilemma of choosing between the comfort, safety and familiarity of the known and the excitement, risk and unlimited possibilities of the unknown. Eilis’ struggle with that decision turns this low-keyed, unpretentious film into one of the year’s best. 

     There’s not much to recommend about this film except that it completes the story of Katniss Everdeen, the most complex cinematic hero in quite awhile.
     While the series, based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy but stretched to four films, has grown progressively less interesting after the first, innovative picture, the journey of this child-warrior, brought to life with a gravitas beyond her years by Jennifer Lawrence, makes the film essential viewing.
      The final leg of this dystopian metaphor for the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots again puts Katniss into the action as a propaganda prop. Rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore) and her right hand man (Philip Seymour Hoffman, still a presence in this film), plan to use the Mockingjay’s mythic status to keep the revolutionaries in lock-step with their plans.
     But, of course, Katniss has other ideas as she plots to get into the Capitol and kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland giving another splendidly fiendish performance).
     The only people who will be surprised by the plot turns will be those too young to have seen the past 50 years of action movies. The film also has a clipped-together quality—with Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch popping in and out of the film without explanation.
      The film goes on for at least 20 minutes more than needed as it spells out what was obvious from a single scene at the end of the film. Yet, again, it’s about Katniss/Lawrence, this indelible character who made bow and arrows cool while fighting for truth and justice with the steely fierceness of an Old West gunfighter crossed with a Frank Capra man of the people hero. She doesn’t disappoint even when the film does. 

     This memoir of a British woman’s cathartic experiences during World War I, based on her actual remembrances published in 1933, grows on you.
   It begins on the cusp of the Great War with such a familiar collection of plot points that I was convinced I had seen a Masterpiece Theatre version of the story (there was a 1979 British TV version….)
      Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), a precocious daughter in a well-to-do family, wants nothing more than to attend Oxford University, something her father finds ridiculous. Eventually, he relents, but just as Vera gains admission she falls in love with her brother’s best friend.
      If this sounds too predictable, it is, yet how it plays out is anything but. Her attempts to find a place for both intellectual and romantic ambition become more complicated when WWI breaks out and her brother and her betrothed head off to France. Later, Vern also volunteers to help as a nurse’s assistant; through her we witness the horrors of this devastating war.
     While World War II has been among the most popular source for movies since Hitler’s forces marched on Poland, the earlier conflict remains underrepresented on film. While a handful of masterpieces have focused on WWI—“All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Big Parade,” “Grand Illusion” and “Paths of Glory”—it has never held audiences like the mid-century war.
     This film offers a fresh perspective to the horrors of warfare as this bookish young woman, already fighting for her share of the world, must rearrange her priorities and put her determination to work for the war effort.
     But Vera is also filled with self-doubt and questions about what to do with her life, all convoluted by the war. This moving coming of age story is beautiful realized by the Swedish actress Vikander. She’s clearly the breakout performer of 2015, with memorable turns as the thoughtful robot in “Ex Machina” (see below) and in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the upcoming “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne.
     Also impressive in “Testament of Youth” are Kit Harington as her fiancĂ©, whose war experiences leave him forever changed, and Miranda Richardson (a major film star in the 1990s who now mostly works in British TV) as the women’s dean at Oxford who becomes important in Vera’s life.
      Director James Kent and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, working from Brittain’s book, capture both the particulars of a turbulent era and the timelessness of a young woman finding her way in a very confusing world.

    I could imagine a very compelling movie being made from the life of cult novelist David Foster Wallace, best known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” whose erratic behavior and addictions belied his acclaim as a brilliant writer. His whirlwind life ended at age 46, when he hanged himself at his home in Claremont, where he spent his final years as a creative writing professor at Pomona College.
    Instead, this film about Wallace telescopes his life into the days-long interview with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, who accompanies him on the final days of his promotional tour for “Jest,” spending virtually 24/7 with the writer but, at least as portrayed here, uncovering very little about this man/child. Wallace, portrayed by Jason Segel (from the TV show “How I Met Your Mother”) as a cool, but bipolar eccentric, is both repelled by and bonds with Lipsky (a jittery, irritating Jesse Eisenberg) as they drive through the Midwest.
    Director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies (working from Lipsky’s book) has turned both of these characters into unpleasant company, for each other and for the audience. I’m sure Wallace was a smart guy but little of that emerges in the film. I wanted to be awed by his brilliance, but instead I kept checking the time remaining.
     Lipsky, a fiction writer himself, is miscast (in real life) as an interviewer; a beginning journalist would do a better job of interviewing Wallace and, at least, act like a professional. Rolling Stone should be embarrassed that they are sending out unqualified writers to interview important people.
    I guess I was supposed to find them quirky and funny and insightful in a regular guy kind of way (which Wallace desperately wants to be), but they just made me sad that this is what passes for literary heroes in 2015.   

      There’s so much in this cautionary sci-fi movie that makes little or no sense that I stopped taking it seriously halfway through. Yet, like in “Testament of Love” (see above), Alicia Vikander creates a character that keeps pulling even the unwilling back into the film.
     She plays Ava, the creation of megalomaniacal scientist Nathan (an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac), as part of his experimentation into robotics with very advance artificial intelligence. The movie begins when Nathan summons one of his A.I. specialists from his company to his remove, high-tech Alaskan compound. (The kind of place usually reserved for movie bad guys with god complexes.)
      Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a fidgety, easily misled geek who Nathan wants to independently confirm the level of Ava’s brain. Predictably, Caleb, acting like a flummoxed school boy, falls instantly in love with Ava, who sports a human face on top of her slick robotic body.
    Of course, that’s what Nathan expected, but it’s never quite clear what his end game for this psychological stunt was—it goes astray before we learn that.
      The film could be read as a commentary on the treatment of women in the STEM world: As the two men argue over all those ones and zeroes, the A.I.s are seen as nothing but highly evolved sexual fantasies. But that’s probably giving writer-director Alex Garland, making his directorial debut, (he wrote “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later”) too much credit.
      While Isaac portrays a totally unlikeable, nonsensical character (are we to believe he created these advanced robots on his own?), Gleeson plays a complete fool. It seems to be his specialty; he played fumbling goofs in recent star turns in “About Time” and “Frank.” But he keeps showing up in top films; he has a role in “Brooklyn” and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
      But Vikander saves the film, totally convincing as an evolving being who figures out how to use the attributes Nathan has imbued her with. Her Ava realizes that these humans are both easily manipulated and not to be trusted; a good lesson for anyone.

        While Hollywood made no secret about its role in the U.S. propaganda machine during World War II, helping prop up American institutions had always been an unspoken role of the major movie studios.
     One of the most blatant and well-made prop-art film is this William Wellman tale of Western pioneers, starring Richard Dix and Ann Harding.
    The stars, forgotten today but major players of the era, portray a young couple who head West to find a life during the recession of the 1870s. A similar formula forms the plot in 1931’s Oscar-winning best picture “Cimarron,” also starring Dix.
     In the Wellman film, Dix’s Roger Standish (a pioneer’s name if there ever was one) becomes a banker in an emerging town, putting the burg on the map after he “convinces” the railroad to make the town a stop on its new line.
     The film takes us through the life of Roger and Caroline (Harding), using them as symbols of the bumpy growth of the West, while also showing the ups and downs of the U.S. economy. At each point, the good heartedness and civic leadership of the banking community is emphasized.
    Needless to say, bankers ranked right below Herbert Hoover in the post-crash world of 1933. This film does its best to paint those demonized businessmen as victims doing their best to help the regular guy. Not surprisingly, it is not one of this great director’s best remembered films.
     But it has an epic feel (even at 88 minutes) as the history of the Standish family plays out through the stock market crash of 1929, with both actors aging considerable while also playing younger relatives (Dix plays Roger’s grandson while Harding portrays Caroline’s daughter). The seamless special effects, as the actors appear as both characters in the same scene, are impressive for an early sound film.
      Stealing every scene she’s in (as she did throughout her career) is Edna May Oliver as the couple’s spunky, frank housekeeper/nurse maid. Character actors such as Oliver are what made films of the 1930s and 40s, even second rate movies, so entertaining.
       On the other hand, Dix’s acting skills haven’t aged well. He can be stunningly bad; actually, he gives what may be his best performance (that I’ve seen) in “The Conquerors.” He always looked middle aged and had a deep voice, which carried him as an early sound era star.
     Harding was a superb actress who spent most of her career unfairly struck in B-movies. When she had the chance in top films, she could be memorable, as in “The Animal Kingdom” (1932), “When Ladies Meet” (1933), and “Peter Ibbetson” (1935) and later in “The Magnificent Yankee” (1951). She moved to the small screen in the early 1950s and worked steadily during that Golden Age of TV drama.
    Ironically, consider the pro-business tilt of this film, the next year, Wellman directed “Wild Boys of the Road,” a harsh look at juveniles from poor families trying to survive during the Great Depression.
     The director was one of the most consistent filmmakers of Hollywood’s studio era, starting with “Wings” (1927), the first best-picture winner, and “Public Enemy” (1931), a landmark gangster picture that make James Cagney a star.

      Other essential American movies directed by Wellman, whose career spanned from 1923—after serving as a flier in World War I—to 1958, include “A Star Is Born” (1937), a biting attack on Hollywood star-making machine; “Nothing Sacred” (1937), a screwball newspaper comedy; “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), taking Western justice to task; “ and two of the best World War II films, “Story of G.I. Joe” (1945) and “Battleground” (1949).