End of the year, six days of vacation left, time to see movies, buy Christmas presents, and unpack the apartment!
Okay, one-and-a-half or of three isn't bad. At this rate I'll have things unpacked the day I move out (hopefully many years from now).
Given a week off like this, I'm always kind of tempted to see how many days in a row I can use MoviePass with its once per 24 hours rule (as opposed to the old one a day one) before rating by skipping a day or going to a non-participating theater. Nearly got four this week, but for a sellout.
Sunday actually was day two of a streak, and the movie of the night was the excellent Spotlight, which figures to be one of the year's big awards contenders with its quiet, terrific excellence. I'm a little unsure of how far it has expanded nationally - it's playing Boston like a wide-release, but we take our local interest seriously.
The last day of that streak was Monday with Chi-Raq, which is just about the damnedest thing I've seen on a multiplex screen for some time. It was distributed/produced by Amazon Studios, as was the movie I reset the streak with by going to a non-MP theater, the new adaptation of Macbeth. I'm not sure whether all of Amazon's films are going to have rhyming dialogue, but I hope they do. It's a bold move for an e-commerce company.
The next streak, then, would start Wednesday with The Secret in Their Eyes, which was on its last days and not really worthy of its nifty cast. It continued on Thursday with The Night Before, which was pretty close to being on its last legs as well, but gets far more out of its cast. Then on Friday, I caught the first of two Chinese movies this weekend, Surprise: Journey to the West, although the second (Mojin - The Lost Legend) was sold out on Saturday, so I turned back around and hit the sack.
Oh, and Friday afternoon - Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Like just about everybody, I was pretty excited, although I was a bit worried about the guy in the middle of Fenway's main room that was applauding everything in the preshow - was he going to be one of those jerks who had to make it about him? Fortunately, that didn't wind up being the case.
Surprising trailer group, too - no Captain America or Star Trek, although my eyes did perk right up on seeing the one for Kubo and the Two Strings, because new animation for Laika is always worth catching. And then the movie - well, it was pretty darn good, wasn't it?
* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2015 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)
Spotlight is not the sort of movie that is generally described as relentless, but what makes it great is that its makers are, in fact, unceasing and focused on their goal of depicting how a group of Boston Globe reporters brought the way that pedophile priests were shuffled to different parishes to avoid scandal despite the structures which allowed it to stay relatively unnoticed for so long. It's two hours or so of people working a case that seldom involves actual danger but does require a great deal of thoroughness, questioning assumptions, and accepting ugly truths. There's not a scene in it that doesn't either move the story (in both applicable senses) forward or demonstrate what the team is up against.
It's an often-quiet efficiency, with director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer not only seldom having his characters raise their voices but avoiding tricky "gotcha" exchanges, and it's amazing how, despite that, the process being shown is still absorbing. Some credit for that probably goes to editor Tom McArdle as well, because the entire film is a series of very precise choices in how to show that a process is painstaking without making the depiction boring, repeating a point just enough for effect but not belaboring it, and always finding time for every member of an ensemble without making any even temporarily feel like dead weight.
As to the ensemble, you're generally doing pretty good when Mark Ruffalo feels like the potential weak link. He isn't (as there isn't one); he's just playing the guy whose passion seems to push him a bit toward eccentricity. He's one of a number of great character actors, with my personal favorite being Michael Keaton as the head of the Spotlight team; his exacting depiction of how Walter "Robby" Robinson goes from reluctant to committed to dedicated is perfect and enhanced rather than explained by something he says toward the end. There are so many other good folks there, though - John Slattery as the guy who is practical enough to allow the others some idealism, Liev Schreiber as the new editor who quietly gives them the push they need, and even an uncredited Richard Jenkins as an informative voice on the phone.
My only very minor beef - showing the giant AOL billboard by Globe headquarters got a big laugh, but it's not like print has pushed the net back at all, let alone enough for something akin to gloating. Heck, isn't the Globe kind of treading water in part because it has adapted to the internet better than many other papers? But, hey, if that's all you can complain about, the movie is doing pretty well.
* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2015 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)
Every once in a while, I'll be watching a movie, think something clever, and then have the clever sucked out when when that thing is just stated plainly. In this case, it's thinking that it would be neat to see Teyonah Parris in something where she gets to be full-on Pam Grier, only to have Samuel L. Jackson's chorus/narrator name-drop Coffy and Foxy Brown in describing her character a few minutes later. Still hope it happens, though; she would crush that.
She's pretty terrific here, especially given that this is as odd as anything Spike Lee has been doing in recent years, meaning her dialogue (like everybody's, mostly) is in rhyme because Lee is transposing a satirical play by ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes to present-day Chicago, whose murder rate rivals the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She's charismatic as heck, though, as Lysistrata, a gang-banger's girl who, shaken by the sight of an eight-year-old girl gunned down in the street, teams with her boyfriend's rivals lady to start a movement to deny men sex until the fighting stops (with the delightfully tacky motto "no peace, no pussy!"). She occasionally wavers, but so does most everybody in the cast - including Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and Nick Cannon - at some point, although it's less their failure than Lee being kind of all over the place with his ideas.
That's no bad thing; Lee may swerve from strange comedy to forthright preaching, but both work because they come from the heart, and if they are fantasies, they are so plaintively stated that you can't exactly consider him delusional for positing some near-fantastical situations. The film can also be too eccentric for its own good at times, leaving the viewer wondering if Lee is trying to entertain, educate, or show off, but when it's on, it's devastatingly funny and heartfelt.
* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2015 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)
Though I can't recite it from memory or anything, Macbeth is probably the bit of Shakespeare that has lodged itself in my head the most firmly ever since high school, and that's kind of an issue when watching director Justin Kurzel's new film version. The rhythms of it seem wrong, from the new prologue to the finale, and while I suspect that this might go down better going into the film with a little more idea of what to expect, that may defeat the point, if the idea is that a film about treachery and betrayal should not feel comfortable and familiar. The trouble is that the filmmakers often seem limited in the ways that they can shake things up, leaving the result kind of a mess.
There aren't necessarily a lot of rules in adapting Shakespeare, but "no adding lines" is something most seem to agree on, and there's logic to it - getting those fairly verbose plays down to two hours or so means cutting lines, and it's a bit of hubris to think that effectively exchanging his words for one's own will be an upgrade. But Kurzel and the screenwriters have things they want to add, which means that the new scenes are silent, in the case of the funeral for Macbeth's stillborn child that opens the film, or full of wordless yelling like the extended combat scenes a bit later. Understand, a lot of this stuff is gorgeous, with great dramatic visuals, but it often creates the feeling of an art-house project inspired by Macbeth that includes the most famous lines and speeches as much out of obligation as anything else.
As a result, Michael Fassbender's best moment in the title role comes not from delivering the dialogue, but when he gives the audience a look that suggests both madness and the fierceness as a warrior that originally gained him the king's notice, and maybe just a bit of the greed that being told he has a destiny has inspired in him. It's something that would have been nice to see more often on Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth, really, although it's amazing that her French accent makes her a bit easier to comprehend at times than the burrs coming out of everyone else. There are still some nifty performances, though, notably Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Malcolm, although Sean Harris's Macduff never seizes the screen the way he should.
In some ways, there's little worse than a disappointing film; given the cast and favorite material, I was expecting greatness from this one but instead got something that was too frequently boring. Fortunately, it's not like this being less than it could will stop people from staffing the Scottish Play again, and the next one could very well make better on the promises of its adaptation.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
* * (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2015 in AMC Assembly Row #10 (first-run, DCP)
I don't think I caught the original film that this one was adapted from, but it's got to be a lot better than this. Otherwise, you'd probably just grab the idea that was worth preserving, rather than doing an actual adaptation that's close enough to acknowledge the original. Maybe that would have worked better, because even as someone who doesn't really believe that Hollywood isn't capable of the type of subtlety one finds in foreign films, this one needs an emotional touch that screenwriter/director Billy Ray just can't find.
Even without that, though, the biggest problem is that Ray spends two and a quarter hours having his characters seemingly accomplish nothing along two narrative tracks. We know that the past is mostly going to be a dead-end for FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) searching for the man who murdered the daughter of his partner Jess (Julia Roberts) - heck, we know his attraction to new prosecutor Claire (Nicole Kidman) is going to come to nothing - but the lack of movement in the present is just as maddening. Is not even interesting things holding up progress, but a lot of arguments over jurisdiction and turf. There is a moral quandry that offers some interest, but not nearly enough.
Maybe a little less time spent spinning wheels would help the final scenes (which include a bit of redundancy themselves) do more to salvage the film, because watching them certainly shows the audience just why everything before could be worth it. It's an emotional revelation that should resonate for all the main characters who have been stagnant since the murder, but only goes so far. It does at least serve as a sort of punctuation for Jess, reminding us that Julia Roberts has been fantastic for the entire movie, including the moments when she seems to clash too much with the other characters' reserve. It feels too much like one could cut 90 minutes out of the two hours leading up to that point, but at least that leaves the audience feeling like at least a little bit of their ticket money was put to good use.
The Night Before
* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2015 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)
Michael Shannon should try to get cast in more movies starting Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This and Premium Rush aren't exactly a large sample, but he gives borderline-bizarre performances in each that help rescue them from potential blandness. The world needs more great actors willing to embrace the weird like Shannon does.
Even without Shannon, The Night Before would not really be bland, although it would, perhaps, be even closer to being predictable in its mix of irreverence and sentimentality. That's what this group does - costars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen also worked with director Jonathan Levine on 50/50, and while it's worth noting that this film could perhaps use having its underlying angst a little closer to the surface (the characters played by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Anthony Mackie spend Christmas together because the first lost his parents on that holiday when they were just out of high school) rather than reducing their issues to fairly generic, easily-confronted situations, its genial nature works well. They've got jokes, most of those jokes are pretty funny, and there is something very refreshing in how most of them play out in the way they would among people who genuinely like each other rather than requiring some undercurrent of paranoia or disdain. It's not always the funniest or most original material that these guys have ever had, but it's seldom off-putting.
That's probably calculated to an extent; the filmmakers wanted a movie that was basically sweet but didn't totally neuter the characters. They had a little more room to work with, but manage just enough moments of genuine oddity to nudge it above expectations.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2015 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP/RPX)
To say that the first half of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is better than the second is not to say that the latter is exactly disappointing, but to recognize that reinvention is the exciting part of giving a long-running concept a new chapter, even if back-to-basics is part of the mission statement. When new caretaker J.J. Abrams is reconstructing Star Wars for its third generation of fans with full consideration that 2015 demands something a bit different from 1977 (or even 1999), there's an excitement that just can't be equaled by recreating the bits that worked in the previous films, although even that is done well enough that the film is still a blast all the way to the end.
It starts in semi-familiar territory, with hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovering secret data - in this case, the location of vanished Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) - which he must entrust to his droid BB-8 when his rendezvous on desert planet Jakku draws the attention of the First Order, the remnants of the Galactic Empire that still controls much of local space. During this attack, one Stormtrooper (John Boyega), despite practically being conditioned to be the Order's unthinking hand practically since birth, finds himself horrified by the atrocities General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), heir apparent to Darth Vader, eagerly commit. Fortunately, BB-8 soon crosses paths with Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has been scavenging the wreckage of crashed spaceships for her entire young life but is loath to sell a little droid with such a friendly disposition for scrap.
As the relative lack of familiar names in that description indicate, Abrams is opting to start fairly fresh even if certain elements recur, creating a version of Star Wars that belongs more to kids the age of my nine-year-old niece than those of us who have been rewarding these movies for nearly forty years. The "galaxy far, far away" they are introduced to is more intense in some ways than that of previous iterations - where our desert planets were corrupt backwaters, Rey's expeditions into the wreckage of a massive space battle imply that the previous generation's adventure had devastating effects and did not lead to the decisive victory of good over evil that was always implied, a point driven home by the film's first big battle scene, which dramatically introduces two important characters.
First up is that Stormtrooper, whom Abrams quickly singles out by having a comrade's blood smeared on his pristine white armor (recall that the original trilogy was fairly bloodless by design, with even severed limbs not bleeding much because lightsabers would instantly cauterize the wound). He may be intended to be a faceless member of a horde, but even before the helmet comes off, we're getting a sense of him, and once he gets a name ("Finn") instead of an alphanumeric designation, actor John Boyega is creating one of the best characters of the series. Finn suggests that being a decent human being is both a person's natural state and a powerful act of rebellion, and Boyega is a joy to watch as he and the film never lose sight of that. The personality that emerges is refreshingly free of the ignorance that usually defines this sort of character, but still lets Boyega create nifty moments of delight as Finn discovers actual friendship and anguish as he learns that having principles of his own means uncomfortable inner conflicts.
Full review at EFC.