Movie Review: “Spotlight” (Tom McCarthy, USA 2015)

In the early days of the synchronized sound motion picture, Hollywood had to seek out people to write dialogue. It was no longer a matter of the occasional title card, so the writing had to be stronger than it had been before. Lacking a substantial pool of established writers in the forms that the new motion picture would require, the industry turned to established writers in other media. As a result, Hollywood was flooded with east coast newspapermen like James Agee and Herman Mankiewicz.

So it should come as no surprise that newspapers became a big part of Hollywood. The mystery-thrillers that would eventually become detective stories were more often originally stories of heroic journalists fighting for the public’s right to know. The embrionic paranoid thrillers that became bleak pictures of the corrupt corporate-political structure of modern America in the ’70s were often tales of idealistic young journalists fightinga against editors who had been corrupted by the political and commercial leaders of the time. Even after screenwriters were well-established, similar types of journalism thrillers remained commonplace enough that we saw it peak in  All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976). Continue reading

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Movie Review: “Begin Again” (John Carney, USA 2013)

One thing I should get out of the way immediately: This is a music movie, and I absolutely detested the music. It’s everything I hate–vapid, radio-friendly wuss-pop filled with “delicate” piano lines, far too many people singing in falsetto, and horrible over-loud simplistic drums. The best part of the music was the dirty, feedback-filled mess of a guitar that Violet played in “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” and that wasn’t even very good. I have a broader musical palate than most, but this type of intentionally inoffensive music-for-the-masses generally horrifies me, and the work in this film was no exception. With the exception of Adam Levine, the singing was all competent if lacking in any real character (well, except for the brief moments James Corden got to sing–he had character), but the lone professional singer in the main cast sounded an absolute mess and made everything he sang even worse for it. Also, I swear every song in the film was 90% the same. All that said, I am by no means a musical expert–I may technically be a musician for having played guitar for the last 14 years, but I’m an exceptionally poor one–so the music may be far better technically than my subjective opinion suggests.

Begin Again is a journey through the creation of a debut album from a young songwriter (Gretta, played by Keira Knightley) who is forced into performance by heartache and an old veteran studio exec (Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo) forced into producing by his professional failures. Along the way, Dan’s experienced cynicism helps Gretta to find her voice both as a musician and especially as a single person while Gretta’s joie de vivre and willingness to eschew material wealth helps Dan to fix his broken family.

It’s a bit of an unusual love story in that the central couple is never actually a romantic pairing–while Dan and Gretta repeatedly stare at each other in clear moments of deep, loving emotion for one another, they never actually get together. However, it still manages to follow many of the tropes of a love story, even including yet another attempt to repeat the falling in love by the river sequence from Manhattan (Woody Allen, USA 1979), something seemingly every film including any romance in the last 35 years has included and few have done with any success. Each member of the couple has a specific type of damage that the other partner is uniquely qualified to fix, each member swears off love before meeting the other, etc.

The film’s unwillingness to take its premise in any non-troped directions renders it so predictable that it grows stale within the first 20 minutes and that staleness never lets up. It’s a shame for a film that begins with a premise that had the promise of adding an interesting twist to a tired love story formula.

Further, the film has absolutely no point to make. The closest I can come to a defining point is that music is revealing about people’s inner feelings, as most powerfully exemplified by the terrible, overproduced performance of “Lost Stars” that Gretta’s ex-boyfriend Dave records and then scales back nowhere near far enough for a live performance that is supposedly for Gretta. However, then much of the film is rendered pointless. The falling in love through the splitter scene becomes the entire film, and the rest of it exists only for the purpose of allowing that scene to play out when it didn’t even need any context.

Then, to top it all off, the film has a completely ridiculous ending wherein Gretta and Dan, without speaking to the label that employs him and has just signed her, decide to release the album in its entirety online for $1. Dan comments that he will be officially “going to war with” the music industry, but all I could think of was Amanda Palmer’s store including every song she has ever recorded for whatever price one wants to pay, even if what s/he wants to pay nothing. It may be fair to say that AFP is always at war with the music industry, but the fact that she’s able to survive doing that suggests that putting out the album digitally for $1 would not be the type of revolutionary move that the film thinks it is.

And yet, the film is not without its saving graces–Gretta, Dan, and Dave are all very well-drawn characters with some real depth and subtlety that grows as the film plays and (not coincidentally) some of the acting is excellent.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo serve as the film’s stars and are a tale of two performances, the latter in a far more complex, deeper role than the former. Ruffalo’s Dan is a tortured but well-intentioned old music pro who desperately needs exactly the kind of help he can get from Gretta. Knightley, meanwhile, has a habit of smiling inappropriately and rarely seems to look like the emotion we hear that Gretta is feeling. There are some good moments, like her realization of Dave’s infidelity and subsequent slapping of him, but those moments are not too close. James Corden was his usual ebulliently likable self in a small role as a friend of Gretta’s who is failing in his own pursuit of his musical dream. In only one brief scene, Rob Morrow manages to put in a great appearance as a slimy record company executive that really came across as the most natural characterization in the film. Mos Def was his usual self–amazing if you close your eyes but painful to watch. That leaves Adam Levine, who spent the entire film with the same pained but also deeply pleased with himself look on his face that betrayed the fact that he is not an actor. Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener were way overqualified for parts that gave them nothing to do, a waste of some real talent on Carney’s part.

Carney and cinematographer Yaron Orbach didn’t have anything to say visually, making a film that visually could just as easily have been a made-for-television feature. It’s all standard lighting, standard camera movements, etc.

All told, this film was some really good characterization that led to some good performances surrounded by nothing at all interesting. It’s a pointless mess that would still be fun if the music were half as good as it thinks it is, but sadly it is not.

Notes

  • I did like that Dan says that Dave is “a rock star, even if he didn’t know it,” explaining succinctly why Dave and Gretta can’t work–Dave loves the audience and the adulation more than he will ever love her.
  • Dan first sees Gretta in a little club and she plays a song solo with just an acoustic guitar. That song isn’t bad. Then, he “arranges” it in his head, adding strings, piano, over-loud drums, etc. and it becomes horrendous. When she says, “I think you’ve lost the song in the production” to Dave later, I actually laughed aloud because that was true of every song in the movie.
  • The fact that it’s a film about New York musicians so soon after it invited comparisons to Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013). That’s not a comparison in which this film is going to fare well.
  • I have only seen him a few times and he’s never had to do much, so I don’t know if James Corden has much talent as an actor, but he is one of the most eminently likable actors I’ve ever seen.
  • The way the camera longingly fetishizes Hailee Steinfeld’s body immediately after pointing out that the character is supposed to be a high school-age teenager (seemingly too young to drive, though the only thing we know for sure is that she is definitely not 15) is slightly creepy.
  • Hailee Steinfeld was so clearly not playing what was coming out of the guitar after the first few notes that it made me laugh.

Movie Review: “Now You See Me” (Louis Leterrier, France/USA 2013)

Are you a fan of magic acts? Heist movies? If you answered, “Yes,” this film will disappoint you. If you answered, “No,” at least you won’t be excited enough going in to be disappointed.

In spite of the best efforts of Woody Harrelson to carry the film as its comic relief, it doesn’t work. Nearly every element of the film, from the poor story to the unbelievable overuse of terrible CGI to the incomprehensibly predictable and silly dialogue is seemingly designed to make as poor a film as possible, no matter how confounding a goal that may be. It’s as if The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, USA/Germany 1995) were re-written by a teenager who had seen one too many Penn & Teller shows (I suppose in theory there is such a thing.) and watched nothing but action films in his/her life—trying to be more clever than it can be while repeating every cliché and trope it can find, all the while animating its world with CGI instead of practical action, effects, and background.

The film attempts to tell the story of a group of magicians as they perform the greatest magic trick in history, a trick from an untold source with an untold purpose. It structures itself as a series of “magic tricks,” showing us “misdirection” that appears to be our real action while what’s important happens elsewhere. But it’s not the kind of deep, well-thought-out structure that Christopher Nolan employed in The Prestige (USA/UK 2006). Instead, it’s just an excuse to hold off on showing us important details until after every scene, then show us our magicians running away gleefully, then repeat the same thing over again. It tells us that we are always being misdirected but it ends up feeling instead like Leterrier and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt are making it up as they go along, and not doing so very elegantly, either.

Things start promisingly enough, introducing us to our main characters admittedly hamfistedly but enjoyably enough, with Woody Harrelson immediately standing out as the comic relief. However, as soon as the story actually begins, things start to go awry, as they get sent into a science fiction room of magical wonders to begin their series of tricks and then we immediately cut to a laughably CGI version of Las Vegas. Things don’t improve from there.

Visually, the film accidentally reinforces its themes of misdirection and unreality by overusing CGI to an absolutely ridiculous extent. Not only is the Las Vegas skyline fake, but so are most of the magicians’ stage effects, the film’s closing underwater shot, and countless other effects that could also be achieved practically. If you need to use CGI, it can be a great way to reduce costs without giving up completely on shots that you can’t afford, but this is a large budget film that’s using CGI rather than bothering to go to Las Vegas or even use one of the billions of stock shots that already exist of its skyline and rather than showing an actual stage magic act. CGI is its reality far more than there is any need for it to be.

Further, Leterrier and cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong are obsessed with fast-moving shots to the extent that they will not give us any static moments or even slow down. The camera is always moving full speed, circling characters or flying over a stairway to show us a lower level. It hardly even seems to care about what’s going on, it’s so busy rushing through its various movements across the screen. I can’t help but think that they were attempting to hide the amount and quality of CGI that they were using, but instead it was just a constant visual distraction that made an already confounding narrative nigh incomprehensible.

On the acting front, we have the film’s only redeeming qualities. Woody Harrelson shines as the film’s comic relief, exuding the same charming sleeze that has made him such an effective bit player for so many years. Jesse Eisenberg also plays to type as a fast-talking, high-energy, arrogant jerk of a performer. Isla Fisher is a personality-less beauty but doesn’t do anything to get in the way. Mark Ruffalo also doesn’t have much to do but performs well enough. Even Dave Franco, clearly the least heralded of the film’s stars, and Michael Caine, the one with a history of poor performances, are fine with what little they have to do. It makes it easier on the actors that they have dull, one-note characters to perform, but the fact that none of them gets in the way is still a strong point for a film that otherwise has little in its favor.

This is not a good film, but what’s really unforgivable is how easily some basic elements of the plot could have yielded something interesting. How fun could a film about magicians using their powers of trickery to fool law enforcement as they commit heists be? But Leterrier isn’t interested in telling us that story. Instead he tells a predictable and pretentious revenge story dressed up as a magic trick. In reality, the only trick he pulled was making an interesting concept disappear.

Don’t watch this film, seriously. Save yourself the 115 minutes and the aggravation. It’s a failure on almost every level.