In the opening scenes of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, reporters and editors discuss the Boston Globe’s value as a “local paper.” Local papers cover issues that national papers do not. They focus on stories that are important to the community – that the people who live and work in the area care about. Although the scandal at the heart of Spotlight – the decades-long cover-up of predatory priests by the Catholic Church – went far beyond the boundaries of Boston, this specificity is a recurring theme throughout Spotlight.
…and we’re back.
Sleepers, an often dull piece of Oscar bait from Barry Levinson, is based on a “nonfiction novel” by Lorenzo Carcaterra. For a certain narrow segment of a generation (mine) with particular true crime tastes, it was the kind of book you hid from your parents and read under the covers. Its themes of friendship, brotherhood, survival, and long-awaited revenge, combined with the lurid, exploitative tone of the book, made it irresistible. It was the kind of book you read four or five times and then looked back years later and wondered why.
Carcattera, then as now, insisted that the events of the novel — where he and three friends grow up in 1960s Hell’s Kitchen, endure a brutal stint at an upstate reformatory school that breaks them physically and emotionally, then reunite 20 years later to subvert the justice system when two boys kill one of their abusers — are true. Key players on the other side – including the NYC D.A.’s office and Carcaterra’s school – insist that it isn’t. To this day, no one has been able to definitively prove one way or the other they’re telling the truth. It’s enough to make you wonder what sort of reception Sleepers would receive today, post Stephen Glass and James Frey, when a Gawker or a Buzzfeed could devote the time to fully airing out the stink of Carcaterra’s bullshit.
That’s one of the problems with Sleepers, the movie. It believes his story wholeheartedly and presents a faithful adaptation of the book’s plot, if not its tone. The problem with the structure of Sleepers is that it tells three stories — a coming of age Scorsese rip-off, a brutal, often impressionistic boy’s prison story, and a strange heist-legal thriller pastiche in the third act. It’s a format that works well in the novel, but not here, because, despite Levinson’s best attempts to connect the storylines through voice-over and flashbacks, there’s simply too much going on to latch onto.
The cast is excellent, though. This was when Robert De Niro cared, and he’s great here as the local priest who is an unfailing ally to the boys and the men they become. He’s full of warmth, charm, and occasional menace. The movie is a reminder of how good he can be. Kevin Bacon, as the lead prison guard, is quite astounding as well, doing a lot with his eyes and his walk and the inflection of his voice. It’s one of those performances where I found myself wondering why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. This is also one of those mid-90s pictures where you feel like everyone is in it — not just stars like De Niro, Pitt, Hoffman, and Bacon, but up and comers like Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup, child actors like Brad Renfro, and character actors who would become beloved for their TV roles later like John Slattery, Wendell Pierce, and James Pickens, Jr.
Yet even the cast can’t save Sleepers from being sleep-inducing, particularly as it drags towards its “happy” conclusion.
Sleepers. Wr./Dir. Barry Levinson, based on the book by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver. 147 minutes. Universal Pictures, 1996.
Beautiful Creatures is a beautiful-looking movie that’s surprising in its goofy charm. Adapting a YA romance between a young witch and her human beau, the story is sold by the leads’ rich chemistry. The whole thing feels sweaty and over-the-top, with a sweeping, swampy score. There’s also some stuff involving plantation life and a character (Viola Davis) practicing voodoo. Davis sells it, so it only becomes questionable in retrospect. Less questionable is Jeremy Irons’ choice to dress like a Southern Robert Evans and Emma Thompson’s full-throated embrace of lines like “I made you brownies…from scratch!” If Pat Conroy and Flannery O’Connor had a teenage daughter, it might be this weird, dopey movie.
Fellow YA adaptation Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains charming, but even a decade where blockbusters got longer, the extreme runtime is punishing. Chris Columbus adapts his Goonies style of “all yelling, all the time” when it comes to directing the child actors and is workmanlike everywhere else. This time around, Alan Rickman evoked The Paper Chase in his delivery and the effects hold up better than expected — one giant troll aside, of course. The movie’s chief triumph remains its casting. It’s dead-on for the adult roles, but no one knew what Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, and Neville Longbottom were going to be asked to do seven films later. Whoever cast them all those years ago is a minor genius.
A movie that doesn’t feel like it’s as long as it is the stunning Zero Dark Thirty. It’s brilliant in its portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which combines a no-nonsense, journalistic script with striking visuals — lead Jessica Chastain emerging from a dark hallway, a tracking shot following phone lines and internet cables overlaid — that linger long after the film concludes. It’s troubling in that it doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of America after September 11th. The first hour of the film focuses on extracting information through torture. The last thirty minutes are dedicated to the raid itself — one that seems to compromise of shooting mostly unarmed men. In between, however, we see the real triumph — it wasn’t torture that eventually found bin Laden, it was persistence and ingenuity, two all-American values if there ever were such things. Chastain provides a compelling anchor for a revolving door of “that guys” like Coach Taylor, Stannis Baratheon, and Bert Macklin, FBI, who all make characters out of sketches. Like Zodiac, the picture is a masterpiece of true-crime filmmaking that solidifies Kathryn Bigelow as one of the greats.
The Descendants remains George Clooney’s finest work to date, introduces Shailene Woodley to those who don’t watch ABC Family in a sit-up-and-take note performance, reminds audiences that Matthew Lillard is a classically trained actor, and features a totally boss soundtrack. Like Clooney’s Out of Sight, this is bound to be a perennial cable favorite.
Beautiful Creatures. Dir./Wr. Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel of the same name by Kamie Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Perf. Alden Ehenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson. 124 minutes. Warner Bros., 2013
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Wr. Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J.K. Rowling. Perf. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Alan Rickman. 152 minutes. Warner Bros., 2001.
Zero Dark Thirty. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Wr. Mark Boal. Perf. Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler. 157 minutes. Columbia Pictures, 2012.
The Descendants. Dir. Alexander Payne. Wr. Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Perf. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster. Fox Searchlight, 2011.
In the opening scenes of Gangster Squad, before one of the many sadistic executions that litter the film in the name of “good fun,” a character describes Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) as ‘rotten.’ It’s a rare moment of self-awareness for the picture, because this is a rotten movie. It is diseased inside and out, and its disease’s chief symptom is ugliness.
This is an ugly, ugly movie. Ugly in its tone, hovering somewhere between an Asylum take on James Ellroy and a Sweded version of The Untouchables. Ugly in its look, alternating digital night photography that doesn’t match with a teal and orange gradient with an Instagram sepia tone over the daytime scenes. Ugly in its depiction of women, which are either items to be fought over (as in the case of Emma Stone’s ‘tomato’) or dolls for glossy exploitation a la Criminal Minds. This is the type of film that offers an extended sequence involving the abduction and near gang-rape of an innocent, just-off-the-bus woman in order to justify the violent actions of its protagonist (Josh Brolin). The treatment of women here feels like writer Will Beall read how they were portrayed in books by writers like Ellroy and Megan Abbott, then copied the events without understanding the context. Ugly in its violence, which is bloody and brutal, yet with no meaning behind it. Ugly in its vigilante story and defense of guerilla warfare, which could be read as a defense of everything from the War on Terror to the employment of Blackwater. Ugly in the way it wastes a talented cast, many of whom deserve better pictures (Anthony Mackie) and many of whom are really trying to do something with the material (Josh Brolin and the rare bright spot that is Robert Patrick).
The film is ostensibly about a battle for the soul of Los Angeles, but cop and criminal, cast and crew choose to subject the audience to two hours of psychic violence. The film was famously shelved and reshot in the wake of the Aurora shooting. It should have stayed there, instead of one of those pictures film historians will look back on in fifty years as an unfortunate relic of a brutal time in the 21st century.
Gangster Squad. Dir. Ruben Fleisher. Wr. Will Beal. Perf. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick. 113 minutes. Warner Bros., 2013.
There’s a quote by David Foster Wallace where he theorizes that, in an age of irony and cynicism are the sword and shield of ‘rebellion,’ perhaps true rebellion comes from earnestness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, and grace. While neither one is a masterpiece, Jack Reacher and The Last Stand remain entertaining on those merits alone. Or perhaps it’s because you can watch the fight sequences and understand what’s going on.
Reacher and Last Stand’s similarities go beyond those virtues. Both feature eighties icons who are now reaching middle age. In fact, were it not for things like cell phones and GPS playing a large role, these films could have been unearthed by some nostalgic start-up and released on DVD with a reunion in the special features. Both are contemporary updates of Western tropes — Reacher telling the tale of a man (Tom Cruise) who rides into town, restores order, and then rides out again, Last Stand focuses on a town and its sheriff (Arnold Schwartzenegger) under siege from outsiders. Both know how to employ humor and both get assists from capable supporting casts. And both suffer from the same flaws — each is about ten minutes two long, and littered with excessive violence.
Jack Reacher, despite its PG-13 rating, feels like the more violent of the two. Based on one of the many novels by Lee Child, the film focuses on Reacher’s hunt for a sniper in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to see why the film was delayed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. There’s one flashback to the murders in particular that’s quite unsettling when viewed through this lens. However, Cruise’s Reacher prefers to solve his problems with his hands — and while he’s not the hulking brute from the books, the intelligence and swiftness of the character are given capable menace by the actor. As a character, Reacher falls somewhere between the movie star roles of The Firm and Top Gun and the weird menace of Magnolia and Rock of Ages. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie makes effective use of Pittsburgh as a location, and for a writer known for his verbal brilliance, the film’s best sequences are wordless. Except when Werner Herzog appears to give audiences his take on The Greek from The Wire.
The Last Stand also knows how to quickly establish its location and simple plot: a fugitive is racing towards the border in a very fast car, and only the sleepy town of Sommerton Junction and its sheriff stand in its way. That sheriff has a name, but to audiences, it’s just Arnie, back on the screen after years in political life. The actor surprises in his nearly full-throated embrace of his age while occasionally reminding viewers that he can act when he wants to. Loud, fast-paced, and funnier than expected with a wonderful score, the film features several thrilling action sequences — a chase through a cornfield stands out — that make it preferable to Jack Reacher.
But Blood and Bone beats them both.
Jack Reacher. Dir./Wr. Christopher McQuarrie, based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child. Perf. Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney, David Oyelowo. 130 minutes. Paramount, 2012.
The Last Stand. Dir. Kim Ji-woon. Wr. Andrew Knauer. Perf. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Forrest Whitaker, Jamie Alexander, Luis Guzman, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford. 107 minutes. Lionsgate, 2013.
In one of the many fantasy sequences that populate Hitchcock (2012), the director (Anthony Hopkins) imagines himself on a psychiatrist’s couch. The psychatrist is Ed Gein, inspiration for Psycho, and in the course of their session, Hitchcock confesses he’s been having thoughts. “Dark thoughts,” he says.
It’s a chilling delivery by the former Dr. Lecter and a reminder that, even after years of paycheck roles and under makeup that never fully gels here, Hopkins remains a stunning actor. This scene, however, encapsulates the flaws and pleasures of Hitchcock, a biopic in the Capote mold where one period in a subject’s life is meant to represent the whole of their career. Director Sasha Gervasi and writer John L. McLaughlin, working from the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, spend much of the film’s running time portraying the production of Psycho in relatively straightforward fashion. The dynamic between Hitchcock and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, who also gets many lovely moments throughout) is the focus during the production, emphasizing the tension between the famous director and his less-known wife. It captures the relationship two creative people in love so often have, from the fights to the creative disagreements, from the discussions over the material to the private knowledge that, in the end, there’s only one person whose opinion you trust. This relationship is surrounded by a bevy of character actors in supporting roles. Scarlett Johansson is warm and gentle as Janet Leigh, and Toni Collette disappears into her role as Hitchcock’s secretary. Michael Stuhlbarg continues his hot streak of being one of the best parts of any movie he’s in as future Universal studio head and agent Lew Wasserman.
Yet these sections are interspersed with the aforementioned fantasy sequences and in-jokes, often surrounding Hitchcock’s conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) or inserting Hitch into key moments from Gein’s life. And of course time must be given to the director’s voyeuristic impulses and sexual manipulation of his leading ladies. These oft-amusing shadings remain the least effective parts of Hitchock, but they suggest a much weirder, sinister movie had more time been devoted to them. As such, they leave one wishing for more behind-the-scenes material — like the relationship between ‘Hitchcock blondes’ Leigh and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).
Hitchcock can’t fully commit to either take on the Psycho myth, and the film suffers for it before recovering in the final act, centering around the promotion and premiere of Psycho. Here, in a sequence involving Hitchcock watching the people watching the shower sequence, both tracks come together with Hopkins’ wordless acting that makes you wish for a better movie yet leaves you happy with the one you get.
Hitchcock. Dir. Sasha Gervasi. Wr. John L. McLaughlin, based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston. 98 minutes. Fox Searchlight, 2012.
I briefly wrote for Mulholland Books’ website from 2011 to 2012. It was a rewarding and thrilling experience, cut short only by my desire to focus on school. Here’s a link to the work I did while freelancing there: