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.
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:
The Horatio Alger, up-by-your-bootstraps, orphan to millionaire myth arose in American culture around the same time capitalism and industrialization did. With ingenuity, solid work ethic, and perhaps a little bit of ruthlessness, the story goes, you can work your way to the head of the line. Along with this concept of success arose the notion of conspicuous consumption. It wasn’t enough to become rich, argued the Gilded Age theory. You had to show off how rich you were. You had to be seen spending your millions, often in the most lavish way possible. If business success wasn’t right for you, though, there was always Hollywood, and later, rock and roll and computers. And so, names like Carnegie and Wayne, Presley and Jobs became folk heroes. Stories swirled around them, spurred on by images of lavish parties at estates the size of small villages, fleets of cars, and collections of art. Rumors replaced reality. Legend was printed as fact.
These trends arose in the Gilded Age and in the early 20th century before falling out of fashion. They were once again in vogue in the 1980s, when greed was good, Donald Trump was a role model and television was dedicated to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The soundtrack to the era was on one hand confectionary pop like Whitney Houston and Debbie Gibson and arena rock on the other. Arena rock, with its distant cousin hair metal, was excess in sonic form. Big and loud, prone to guitar solos, with single-entendre lyrics and often featuring a symphony orchestra or two, arena rock blew up the Horatio Alger myth beyond caricature. Artists like Journey, Boston, Kansas, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Poison, Ratt, Night Ranger and Vixen celebrated this new version of the Alger myth. Here, the bootstrap became a guitar strap, and the legend of the rock band on the road searching for that one hit night after night, show after show, joined the pinstriped yuppie as one of the defining cultural figures of the age.
Along with the dominant force of the “rock god,” one of the most iconic faces of the 80s was film maverick Tom Cruise. Starting with 1983’s Risky Business and 1986’s Top Gun, Cruise became one of the biggest box office stars in history. He was himself an “up from nothing” success story, achieving global fame with sheer force of will and attacking each new role with a determined intensity. It is this same determined intensity that made him a cultural punch line just as swiftly, beginning with 2005’s summer horribilis where he jumped right from Oprah’s couch to fated marriage and children with the actress Katie Holmes. Seven years later, his marriage on the rocks and his career unsteady, Cruise would star as rock god Stacee Jaxx in an adaptation of the 2009 jukebox musical Rock of Ages. It was an unconventional move to be sure, but here, Cruise used his force of will and personal knowledge of international fame and worship to create an avatar of those years between Top Gun and Oprah’s couch, offering just not an eulogy for his career thus far, but for the particular kind of 80s excess celebrated in Rock of Ages.
Rock of Ages, whose director, Adam Shankman, previously adapted the musical Hairspray for film, begins with women chanting “Stacee! Stacee! Stacee!” These high-pitched, wanton chants indicate that Jaxx is a figure of desire, and their chants lead into Cruise’s slurred voice, introducing the first song of the film, “Paradise City” (originally by Guns ‘n’ Roses). Yet rather than cutting immediately to a scene of Jaxx and his band Arsenal on stage, the sound becomes tinny, distant, and heard through headphones. It’s revealed that the song is a recording, listened to on a Walkman by one of the film’s two leads, Sherrie, as she rides the bus to Los Angeles, chasing her dream. The audience’s first experience with Stacee Jaxx is therefore through other’s perceptions of him. Stacee is literally a voice without a face, allowing the characters to project onto him their desires and needs — much the way audiences do with their movie stars.
The song is further revealed to be a track on a live Arsenal album, Fallout, and Arsenal/Stacee Jaxx iconography is a recurring visual motif in Rock of Ages. Before the audience even sees Stacee Jaxx, and after as well, the viewer is treated to a near-constant barrage of Stacee Jaxx urban legends. Stories like these follow around any famous person; characters describe Jaxx as being everything from “the man who blew off the Super Bowl to attend a Satanic ritual” to a man who’s music made a mother’s son eat “the head off my neighbor’s horse.” This latter accusation comes as a group of concerned parents worship/criticize a poster of Jaxx resting on an altar. The poster is centered in the frame, and as the women criticize him, the camera cuts to close-ups of the poster, emphasizing Jaxx’s physical features — his hair, his tongue, his crotch. Jaxx is blamed for spreading one thing, and one thing only: sex, sex, and more sex. Yet these pictures and these legends remain largely ethereal, rumored about and writ large a la the stories that have followed Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and Cruise himself throughout their careers. As if to — like everything in Rock of Ages — oversell this point, Shankman includes a scene where Jaxx’s unscrupulous manager Paul Gill pretends to be speaking to Jaxx, when he is in fact speaking to empty air.
Shankman pays more attention to the physical memorabilia surrounding Jaxx’s music career. The record Fallout is almost always shot in close-up, emphasizing its tactile nature. In a scene set at a Tower Records, Sherri and Drew, her love interest, bond over the record as it fills the frame. Sherri calls it her “favorite record ever,” and Drew tells her about missing an Arsenal concert in his hometown. The record, like Jaxx himself, has taken on totemic, fetishistic qualities, but the myth of the rock god persists. “If I couldn’t see Stacee Jaxx,” Drew tells Sherri, “I wanted to be Stacee Jaxx.”
But what does it mean to be Stacee Jaxx? The first time viewers see Jaxx in the flesh, he is nothing but flesh, captured in a blurred, over the shoulder shot. The scene takes place in Jaxx’s dressing room, revealed in a slow tracking shot that captures snakes and gunshots alike. The room is lit low, with drums alternating alongside guitar wails on the soundtrack, emphasizing Jaxx’s decadence — a decadence that calls to mind the garish mansions of Robin Leach, and a decadence only emphasized by the first part of Stacee Jaxx viewers see clearly. It is his crotch, centered in the frame, and covered only by a pewter devil codpiece. The naked girls surrounding Jaxx crawl away, and Jaxx slowly rises, shirtless, pantless, as if everything hurts, as if he feels the weight of the world and people’s expectations with every step. Shankman chooses to keep Jaxx in the center of the frame, slowly pulling back as he stands, looking out at the world through squinted eyes. His bed is lit in reds, symbolizing that Jaxx, despite his wealth and fame, is in hell. The blue of a hot tub water’s plays across his face. Jaxx opens his arms, spreading them, crucified for our expectations of him. It is the rock god as literal Christ figure…and then Jaxx falls, face-first, into the water, less a baptism than a humiliation. Here is what excess brings, the scene says. Excess and decadence are their own hell. Here is what it is like to be Stacee Jaxx. Here is what it is like to be Tom Cruise. Here is fame.
The consequences of Jaxx’s oversized fame are further emphasized in one of the musical numbers where Cruise is the lead performer. One, a version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” is both preluded and provoked by Jaxx’s interview with a Rolling Stone reporter. Jaxx drops boilerplate interview catchphrases at first, eventually dropping off into non-sequitors. Cruise as Jaxx then sums up Jaxx and himself when he says, half in jest, half serious, “I know better than anyone [what it’s like to be me] because I live in here.” Jaxx stands to leave, but the reporter, dressed in white, challenges him. “What happens,” she asks, “when you realize you can’t get rid of Stacee Jaxx?” Her selection of words highlights the fact that celebrity is about persona: ‘Stacee Jaxx,’ like ‘Tom Cruise,’ is a role to play, a character. In this shot, the reporter is dressed in white, standing in the background, while Jaxx is in the foreground, dressed in black. Jaxx is spiritually dead. The angel is beckoning to heaven, begging him to confront what he has become — what he has lost.
During the following “Wanted Dead or Alive” number, Jaxx is almost constantly centered in the frame, constantly in motion. Shankman follows him with a reverse tracking shot, backing away as Jaxx moves ever forward towards the viewer. After striking another Jesus pose, Jaxx takes an empty stage — and suddenly, the viewer is inside Jaxx’s head, witnessing how Jaxx perceives the act of being a rock god to be hellish. The audience is lit in blue as he sings, the stage lit in red, flames and fire surrounding him. Near the end of this number, during the “imagination sequence,” Jaxx throws his hand out, reaching out towards the edge of frame. The camera focuses on his sweaty, physical frame, but it is hard not to be drawn to the look in his eyes. It is crazed, desperate. It is the look of a drowning man. During this sequence, several times, Jaxx/Cruise merge as Cruise breaks the fourth wall to look directly at the audience. We are complicit in this, he says. We have put him in this hell. Then, again, he falls flat off the stage, alone in an empty bar. Hellish projection and lonely reality have collided once more.
As Rock of Ages lumbers along, we learn that these projections of what other people want Jaxx to be (as he puts it, “ssssssssseex”) have crippled Jaxx from producing great music and left him the shell that walks around carrying a monkey named Hey Man. Jaxx admits that perhaps the only thing that can save him is “the perfect song, the perfect sound that will make you want to live forever.” And what is the pursuit of wealth, fame, fortune, legend, but the pursuit of immortality? Yet opulent mansions and towers made of gold and stock portfolios are ultimately meaningless, as are the physical elements of Jaxx’s life. What matters is the work — the music, or in this case, the performance. Shankman illustrates this in a musical number where Jaxx is shot in blue and the audience in red, reversing the hellish symbolism of earlier appearances. Jaxx remains at a distance, without close-ups blurry, illustrating that the act of performance and of singing is most important. Here, too, Jaxx points at the viewer, as if to emphasize the importance of artistic creation — that is the way to escape hell.
Finally, when Jaxx discovers that perfect song — Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” here credited as Drew’s creation — he is born anew. For the first time in the film, the camera slows down to follow him, gently pushing in as he falls back into the arms of his newfound love, the same Rolling Stone reporter who previously challenged him. As those familiar notes of what was once lambasted as corporate rock but has now become an American anthem of endurance play, the scene cuts to an arena. Jaxx is performing this “perfect song” with Arsenal. He’s taking up just enough space in the frame, not too far away, not too close, as in the two previous numbers, and he’s bathed in beautiful blue-white light. Jaxx has been re-baptized in the altar of rock and roll through the act of creating something — a point Shankman sells even further by cutting to a shot of the reporter, now pregnant with Jaxx’s child — that will last beyond him. And as he creates both song and child, Jaxx — Cruise — smiles for the first time. The rumors about Scientology and homosexuality, the mansions on the California coast and in the Hamptons, the Donald Trumps and the Mitt Romneys no longer matter now. What matters is the act of creation, the performance, the joy of acting for acting’s sake. What matters is the music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll, and may Tom Cruise play roles as weird as this for years to come.