This month: “Accidental Love”, “Analyze That”, “Analyze That”, “The Big Short”, “The Danish Girl”, “The Hateful Eight”, “Le Havre” (pictured above), “I Used to Be Darker”, “Joy”, “The Last Detail”, “Our Brand is Crisis”, “Point of No Return”, “The Revenant”, “She’s Funny That Way”, “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Sleeping With Other People”, “Spotlight”, “Stop Making Sense”, “The Sure Thing”, “Teeth” and “This Must Be the Place”.
You can also read things I wrote elsewhere like “How Xavier Dolan’s soundtracks made it cool to be uncool”, a collection of “Unexpected pop star cameos in arthouse cinema”, my interview with “Lenny Abrahamson and Jacob Tremblay on Room”, my pick of “The best stoner films of 2015”, something on “Quentin Tarantino’s universes”, something on “#OscarsSoWhite”, a scary thing on “The greatest horror soundtracks”, “something I wrote on The Revenant”, something on “David Bowie’s revolutionary film moments” and also “What you should watch while waiting for Twin Peaks”.
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Let’s start with film of the week:
Spotlight (2016) – 7.5/10
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci
UK theatrical release: 29 January 2016
“Keep doing your work, Mr Rezendes,” lawyer Garabedian (Tucci) tells investigative reporter Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo). The compliment is short, punchy and about maintaining momentum, which is the strength of Spotlight – a tautly plotted drama that chips away at itself, bit by bit revealing a hefiter story beneath the headlines.
Along with Rezendes are Walter Robinson (Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), Matt Carroll (d’Arcy James), Ben Bradlee Jr (Slattery) and their editor, Marty Baron (Schreiber). Together they make The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, a group of journalists in 2001 held culpable for producing so few stories, but they follow up leads about a paedophile priest whose abuse of a child was covered up by the Catholic Church. And it’s possible there’s another 900 in Boston.
Spotlight doesn’t rest on its gripping source material. Instead, the story is dissected with the clarity of a hurried investigative team pausing only for bare essentials. Each line and thought is necessary, without sounding obvious or fake – eventual callbacks are earned, and part of professionals playing detective with the same ideas over a year. Character backgrounds are also kept minimal and effective: one line about Rezendes’ off-screen wife, 20 seconds of Pfeiffer in a church with a grandma; this is all that’s required. Compare the subtle approach to, say, The Big Short, which delights in dumbing itself down for the audience and maximising Steve Carell in “sad Michael Scott” mode.
Parallels with All the President’s Men are inevitable. McCarthy directs Spotlight with the same efficiency, bringing the audience into a chase that’s fast yet frustrating, exhilarating despite its avalanche of paperwork, and the delayed achievement that’s around the corner. These stressed-out office workers are following up on calls that could dominate the conversation in a few months’ time, provided they don’t mess up and a rival newspaper doesn’t get there first. Makes me feel embarrassed that a Spotlight of my journalism career would be when I notice discrepancies in release dates between IMDb and LaunchingFilms.com.
That said, when a drama is so committed to telling the facts, its unflashy aesthetics limits the cinema experience somewhat. In my mind, any showy visuals would be distracting, possibly distasteful, but maybe there’s another way, perhaps along the lines of Zodiac.
Still, the “trick” is in the material, much in the way the Spotlight team missed the scandal when they barely reported on it years before. The initial instinct is to publish away upon discovering evidence of paedophile priests in Boston, a line of storytelling most directors would have followed. But Baron is calm and explains to provoke real change, they need to dig deeper into the systemic corruption that protects the Catholic Church, which through patience and hard work makes the more important story. Keep doing your work, Mr McCarthy.
Spotlight is out in the UK on 29th January 2016.
Accidental Love (2015) – 4/10
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell, Kristin Gore, Matthew Rhodes
Starring: Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden
“She inspires me in all ways: to makes laws, to make love…”
Mostly nailed between I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter, Accidental Love aimed to argue the case for universal healthcare, but was ironically left to die in an editing suite when its financing collapsed. Pieced together years later, when O. Russell’s middle initial turned out to stand for Oscar, the dated screwball comedy isn’t that bad, even if it’s been disowned by its cast and director – the officially credited director is “Stephen Greene”.
Despite the horror stories leaking from production, Greene’s debut film is fairly coherent (for what it’s going for) and has traces of Russell’s early scattershot humour. The central hook is, like Flirting with Disaster, an opportunity for a road movie, packed with “crazy” characters along the way. In a case of wrong restaurant, wrong time, Alice (Biel) receives a nail in the head and thus loses the part of her brain that handles inhibitions – unable to afford treatment, she’s taken advantage of by politicians who are either horny (Gyllenhall) or pushing for a military moon base (Keener).
On a joke for joke basis, Accidental Love is enough of a flop to explain why its title was changed from Nailed. One recurring gag involves Tracy Morgan’s prolapsed anus (hence “gag”), while the central players end up yelling a lot in a public setting. But I’d still rather see Russell being his own weird self and failing (this and Huckabees) than his competent, less risky prestige pictures. As for Greene? Let’s see what that guy does next.
Analyze That (2002) – 3/10
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: Peter Tolan, Peter Steinfeld
Starring: Robert De Niro, Bill Crystal, Lisa Kudrow
“Now, is that the correct terminology, mafia shrink?”
Watched it because a) it was on TV b) I’d just seen Analyse This c) Kenneth Lonergan had some part in writing the original d) I felt sad about Harris Wittels. This didn’t help.
Analyze This (1999) – 5/10
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan, Peter Steinfeld
Starring: Robert De Niro, Bill Crystal, Lisa Kudrow
“What is my goal here? To make you a happy, well-adjusted gangster?”
The folly of arranging these films in alphabetical order.
The Big Short (2016) – 4/10
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph, Michael Lewis (book)
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
“Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”
As funny as Anchorman (not at all) and a bit smarter (not hard), McKay’s Buzzfeed movie dumbs down concepts like “bespoke opportunity tranches”, “collateralised debt obligations” and “Steve Carell in dramatic role”. Famous faces are used for real, rather than appropriated GIFs, and as with any Buzzfeed list, it ends on an unjustified, soppy ending.
McKay hodgepodges its angle, too, neither attacking nor tapping into the adrenaline of these bankers onto a very good/bad thing. Human beings are complex, sure, but The Big Short is muted in this regard, chopping up scenes with annoying interludes to jolt viewers from the coma-inducing dramatic foundations.
The Danish Girl (2016) – 4/10
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: Lucinda Coxon, David Ebershoff (novel)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw
“I don’t think anyone is going to be corrupted by seeing my ankles.”
A human story told without any humanity.
The Hateful Eight (2016) – 5/10
Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth
“We need to tighten this up.”
Saw this on 70mm. I think I know Quentin’s email password.
Le Havre (2011) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: André Wilms, Blondin Miguel, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
“Inspector Monet, what a surprise. And this early.”
In 1992’s The Bohemian Life, Marcel Marx (Wilms) was already in generated an autopilot survival mode for, so by the time of Le Havre he’s long been a pro. Fixing shoes by a harbour and nursing his sick wife Arletty (Outinen), he no longer requires the help of his Bohemian Life pals, and can offer a hand to Idrissa (Miguel), a young Affrican boy hiding in the waters. Wishing to find his mother in London, Idrissa is polite, hungry and afraid – and it’s up to the community to save him.
While still lightly comedic (particularly the reformation of a rock band), the stakes extend to more than Kaurismäki’s traditionally dark punchlines. Running from the police was a series of gags in Ariel and I Hired a Contract Killer, but in a post 9/11 climate it’s about shielding the oppressed from right-wing bullies. There’s no backslapping or sentimental close-ups; it’s just instincts
One very specific callback to The Bohemian Life suggests the director – often accused of repeating himself – is maturing emotionally, or at least finding optimism in humanity. When Kaurismäki finds happiness, what’s wrong with the rest of us?
I Used to Be Darker (2013) – 5/10
Director: Matthew Porterfield
Writers: Matthew Porterfield, Amy Belk
Starring: Deragh Campbell, Kim Taylor, Ned Oldham, Hannah Gross
“I was bound to call a thousand times before you stepped into that heaven that I dreamed of.”
A bit like Old Joy (which had another Oldham) in that everything outside of the music left me cold, yet I suspect on both occasions I’m at fault. Because now I just take the blame for everything. I used to be…
Joy (2016) – 4/10
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Annie Mumolo, David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper
“This is a special power.”
Joy from Room > Joy from Inside Out > Joy from Joy. A gigantic mess begging for puns involving how much it needs a miracle, a mop, some joy, and more than its four credited editors.
The Last Detail (1973) – 7/10
Director: Hal Ashby
Writer: Robert Towne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young, Clifton James
“They really stuck it to you, kid.”
Caught stealing $80, a kid is sentenced to eight years in prison, with the added punishment of his various train journeys escorted by two tough Navy guys – one is cigar-chomping Nicholson, eager to squeeze a fight into his schedule. The elder souls find sympathy, though, and proceed to supervise a sort of Superbad-ish rushed adolescence over a few drunken nights.
Ashby’s empathetic direction allows scenes to play themselves, often with the unpredictability of Nicholson as a livewire and a member of the party who could run off at any moment. This chemistry builds momentum as three men decide after a night of alcohol that they’re best friends who barely know each other and will soon head separate directions. At times, Nicholson’s overacting is misjudged – when he smashes a wall, for instance – as it breaks from Ashby’s non-stagey tone, but as with his “badass” strop when a barman asks for the boy’s ID, it’s followed by a cathartic sigh of relief.
Our Brand is Crisis (2016) – 6.5/10
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Peter Straughan, Rachel Boynton (original documentary)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, Joaquim de Almeida
“I give you: Calamity Jane.”
David Gordon Green’s directorial output is so unpredictable, Our Brand is Crisis is still tough to define halfway through, and actually the “this is what the movie is about” beats towards the end are when it flounders. It’s not really Green’s film, though, outside of its spontaneous camera movement and light touches of humour. Neither is it much of a political satire, despite its roots in a 2002 documentary of the same name, George Clooney as producer, and its actual storyline of how a Bolivian election was swung with spin.
No, it’s a Sandra Bullock comedy without the Sandra Bullock comedy tropes, which is no bad thing. I mean, wasn’t hoping for the All About Steve of politics. That it was originally written for Clooney is for another conversation, though. Here, Bullock is the star and rather fantastic, nervy and ebullient as political strategist nicknamed “Calamity Jane”. When she speaks, the whole room listens, and when the whole room speaks, she’s throwing up in the corner. When she’s up for the sack, her defence is she’s more motivated than any replacement because “it’s personal” – and no one can argue with that.
In fact, Bullock is such a star, it’s laughable how her co-stars are of such little consequence, including Billy Bob as a rival, and Almeida as the actual presidential candidate. Subsequently, despite the underlying message of a consultant who ignores the deeper impact of her work, the script most comes alive when she’s isolated from her surroundings, and it could be told anywhere. For a comedic political satire that’s never really comedic, political or satirical, while displaying few of the traits associated with its star and director, the film’s title is an apology – and like the plot, it’s Bullock who saves the mess.
Point of No Return (1993) – 6.5/10
Director: John Badham
Writers: Robert Getchell, Alexandra Seros
Starring: Bridget Fonda, Gabriel Byrne, Dermot Mulroney
“Please, dear, a smile and the sentence.”
Bridget Fonda does a very good Holly Hunter.
The Revenant (2016) – 6.5/10
Director: Alejandro G. Iñáritu
Writers: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñáritu, Michael Punke (novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, a bear
“I’m not afraid to die anymore. I’ve done it already.”
An ugly story told beautifully and repetitively, The Revenant is an endurance test that overwhelms the viewer in the uncompromising vastness of nature, the brutality of mankind, and frequent close-ups of Leonardo DiCaprio not wiping saliva from his beard.
Read the rest of my review here.
She’s Funny That Way (2015) – 4/10
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writers: Peter Bogdanovich, Louise Stratten
Starring: Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Will Forte
“I believe laughter is the best calorie burner.”
Penned in for the 90s with John Ritter and Dorothy Stratten’s sister as the leads, Squirrel to the Nuts was to be a spiritual sequel to the masterful mess of They All Laughed – an incomprehensible web of screwball romances, concocting an alluring sense of melancholy that made it all excusable.
But Squirrel was delayed, renamed, and now it’s not really funny in this way. Now more of a What’s Up Doc? retread, Bogdanovich pilfers from Lubitsch without spark, innovation or – crucially – comic timing. Forced to fake a New York accident, Poots never feels comfortable and upsets the rhythm, in addition to a script that frames everything within a momentum-killing showbiz interview.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Spike Lee
Starring: Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, Spike Lee
“When I woke up this morning, I had a feeling I was going to slice you.”
Stylish, imaginative and indicative of what’s to come from Spike Lee, working on a low budget and a young head bristling with ideas.
Sleeping with Other People (2015) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Leslye Headland
Starring: Alison Brie, Jason Sudeikis, Adam Brody, Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, Adam Scott
“Don’t dance. There isn’t even music.”
A photo from the Transylvania 2 premiere went a bit viral last year. Selena Gomez was in some kind of red dress – by a designer, not torn from the carpet – while by her side were Adam Sandler and Kevin James in old t-shirts and shorts. Likewise, Alison Brie does all the work in a slightly sleazy update of When Harry Met Sally, while Sudeikis just coasts along. I’m not sure he’s ever been funny, aside from Billy on the Street when he too convincingly depicts a clueless bro.
Adapted by Headland from her own play, the talky film comes across as fake as the romcoms it purportedly dissects. The laughs rely on bad taste that’s only shocking if you’re used to watching Transylvania 2. It’s time to consider sleeping with other cinema choices.
Stop Making Sense (1984) – 7/10
Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Talking Heads
“Strange but not a stranger.”
If you search on YouTube for a David Byrne Q&A, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the effort that went behind thoughtfully shooting a concert doc. Or, alternatively, search YouTube for amateur footage – then you’ll really appreciate Stop Making Sense.
The Sure Thing (1985) – 5/10
Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Steven L. Bloom, Jonathan Roberts
Starring: John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, Viveca Lindfors, Nicollette Sheridan
“3,000 miles just to get laid? Really respect that.”
I can’t watch this without thinking of Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now (which is way better).
Teeth (2008) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Starring: Jess Weixler, Hale Appleman, John Hensley
“It’s true! Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata”
On the bus, I once heard an unverified explanation of the subliminal reason for lipstick. All of which (apart from the bus) is relevant to Teeth, a horror-comedy about female sexuality and religious chastity belts. On laughs alone it’s highly recommended. (Trying to think of a tooth pun. Something to do with canines and the brother’s dog?)
This Must Be the Place (2012) – 8/10
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Starring: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Judd Hirsch
“Well, of course, in high school I didn’t dress like this or wear makeup.”
A year ago, I loved The Great Beauty and was agnostic about This Must Be the Place. But after becoming briefly obsessed with Youth, everything’s changed. Well, not everything – just my views on hyperbole and Sorrentino. The Great Beauty, on rewatch, is a bit of a chore with its faux philosophy, and its set-pieces lack impact without the shock value of a first-time viewing. Whereas This Must Be the Place just does the trick on a rewatch, as with Youth, in that I can’t really make sense of it but am happy to follow the musicality on a strange journey. The David Byrne scenes are psycho killer.
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One day you’re going to actually make the joke or the pun, instead of talking about how easy it would be.
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