(On Cable TV, June 2016) At first glance, Spotlight doesn’t look like the most exciting movie of the year. It’s meant to tell the true story of investigative journalists who spend months uncovering a systematic pattern of child abuse by Boston-area priests and attempts to cover up the scandal. That’s not exactly gripping stuff, and the first few minutes of the film don’t promise much more by focusing on a newsroom and Tom McCarthy’s sober (i.e.: not flashy) directing style. But here’s the strange thing: after a while, once the introductions are out of the way, Spotlight starts getting better. Much better. Along with the journalist heroes of the film, we start getting absorbed in the scandal they’re uncovering. As they chase down clues, we start sheering for those characters in all of their quirkiness, drive and doggedness. In its own quiet way, Spotlight has a few devastating sequences, whether it’s interviews with abuse survivors, encounters with the guilty priests, or a disembodied voice suggesting that the magnitude of the scandal is far, far higher than anyone would suspect. It builds and builds, passing over 9/11 and accusations being hurled back at the investigative journalists, until a satisfying revelation of the scandal … followed by a few devastating title cards as epilogue. Spotlight may discuss a church scandal, but it’s not an anti-religion film: Not only does it give voice to practising Catholic characters, it’s far more vital as a celebration of the power of investigative journalism. In its own low-key way, Spotlight is a terrific spiritual successor to All the President’s Men: In a fair world, this film would lead to scores of young people enrolling in journalism school in order to make the fifth estate even stronger, better and more relevant to the nation. Instead, we’re left pondering the devastating impact of the Internet on newspaper closures, the drive away from in-depth journalism and toward click-bait media. Spotlight isn’t flashy, but it does have a fair number of compelling performances, for the always-excellent Mark Ruffalo as an intensely driven journalist, to Michael Keaton further enjoying a later-career renaissance as a sympathetic editor, to Rachel McAdams as a sensitive investigator and Liev Schreiber as a surprisingly enlightened manager. The script is a wonder of efficiency, as it manages to make document analysis compelling and lays down its scandalous revelation like a nightmarish horror movie. Best yet: the film reportedly stays faithful to the facts of the events. Spotlight may or may not be the best movie of the year as exemplified by the Academy Award it got, but it’s in many ways one of the best-controlled of them, one of the most quietly engrossing and one of the most surprising. It certainly qualifies as must-see viewing.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) To be honest, I didn’t expect much from Just Like Heaven, which first presents itself as a basic supernatural romantic comedy: A man moves into an apartment vacated under mysterious circumstances, and soon discovers that he’s sharing space with the ghost of a feisty woman who doesn’t realize she’s dead. Various hijinks follow, all the way to an improbable happy ending. Standard stuff, except for a better-than-average execution and some good comic moments. Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon are both very good the lead roles, Mark Waters directs everything with rhythm and the basic concept of a ghost trying to connect with a real live human are good for some unexpected pieces of physical comedy. It does inevitably dip into drama later on, but no worries: the ending is as happy as anything you’d expect. Don’t focus on the finer points of the plotting or the obvious emotional manipulation and you’ll be just fine: San Francisco plays itself well, the side-characters are fun, and the film hooks you up without too much trouble. I started Just Like Heaven as background watching while I was doing something else, and ended up stopping my work to watch the film more often than I’d thought. That doesn’t make it a great movie… but it does make it quite a bit better than I expected.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I really wished I liked this film more than I actually do. After all, I’m a near-addict to the kind of fast-paced, slick commercial filmmaking that Now You See Me represents at its best, and I’m fond of thematic parallels between stage magic and thriller moviemaking. The story of four skilled magicians involved in a revenge caper that they don’t entirely understand, Now You See Me is fun to watch and filled with interesting actors: Jesse Eisenberg is perfecting his alpha-nerd persona, Mark Ruffalo is fast settling as a dependable protagonist, while Woody Harrelson has some of the best lines in the movie as an arrogant hypnotist. Having both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as supporting actors really doesn’t hurt. (Too bad about Isla Fisher’s bland character, though.) When it clicks, Now You See Me blends beat-perfect editing with skillful visuals and great audio material. Director Louis Leterrier loves to move his camera around in order to make even the most ordinary moments seem exciting, and his action scenes are impressively choreographed. So what’s the problem? Well, essentially, a lack of restraint: The film often uses blatant CGI trickery in order to fake what are supposed to be real-time stage magic tricks, and in doing so basically blows away its own suspension of incredulity: When the smallest details are so obviously fake, it’s tough to be impressed by the film’s bigger magical set-pieces. Now You See Me’s plot dynamics are also as overblown as to minimize the impact of its last narrative revelations: by the time the final sequence is supposed to blow our minds with an unexpected reversal, an excess of previous twists is bound to leave viewers’ reaction divided between “That makes no sense” and “Oh, whatever”. The caper plot is also very unlikely, but that’s part of the charm of the sub-genre. Despite its flaws, Now You See Me is an enjoyable piece of commercial filmmaking, and I even look forward to the announced sequel.
(In theaters, June 2012) As much as I loathe superlatives in my movie reviews, there’s a good case for considering The Avengers as the best superhero comic-book movie adaptation ever made. While other adaptations have been better movies or been more interesting, The Avengers seems to be the first film to successfully manage the transposition of superhero comic books, in all their flawed qualities, onto the big screen. It doesn’t try to be a parody, an exploration of deeper themes using superheroes (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies) or an action movie with incidental superpowers: It’s a committed attempt to recreate the Marvel comic-book experience in live action, and it works about as well as this kind of storytelling can work. Protagonists fighting short inconsequential bouts among themselves? Yup. Alien menace from outer space, curiously concentrated around an urban area? Indeed. A lot of witty banter as the heroes band together as a team? Absolutely. Canny writer/director Joss Whedon has added plenty of humor, attitude and special effects to minimize the exasperating nature of fanboy-driven plotting and the result is curiously enjoyable even for people who haven’t dedicated their reading lives to following the intricate mythology of the Marvel universe. The Avengers, for Marvel Studio, is the crowning success of four years and five movies’ worth of scene-setting: it seemed like an insane gamble in 2008, but it pay off handsomely here as the headliners start interacting with each other. Robert Downey Jr. is still a star as Tony Stark, but Mark Ruffalo also does fine work as the best incarnation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk on-screen so far. It’s true that the villain is a bit weak, and that the first half-hour drags until all the pieces are assembled, but the third act fight through New York City is the brightly-lit action set-piece many superhero movies promised but never delivered until now. Still, the film is seldom as good as when the actors are talking amongst themselves, and it’s this attention to characterization that makes The Avengers work despite its limited aims as a super-hero comics adaptation. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but it’s really good at what it does.
(On DVD, January 2011) If you consider this film solely from its pedigree sheet, you may expect something significant: Film-festival’s favourite, lauded by reviewers, nominated for a truck-load of awards, performances by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo —The Kids are All Right has to be something special, right? And if you just look at the surface, the film’s two major tweaks on the usual family-drama template may be interesting: As the two kids of a lesbian couple come of age, they reconnect with their biological father, causing the father and one of their moms to have an affair. Cue the applause for a frank portrayal of what modern families can be. But beyond that departure from the usual family drama formula, what’s left? Not much. So little, in fact, that once you get the “unconventional family” premise, the film struggles to justifies its existence: The dialogue feels familiar, the plotting is a well-worn formula, the characters are all annoying in their own way, and the laughs in this “comedy” are both rare and slight. By the time the film remembers that it has a serious adultery subplot, the film concludes at a speed it couldn’t bother to reach at any time before that. The sex scenes don’t rescue the film, and neither do the actors involved. There’s a self-defeating quality in how The Kids Are All Right manages to make its unusual family seem as boring as any traditional nuclear family elsewhere in America. Is the film all right? Sure it is. But not much more.