Spotlight – Tom McCarthy

Spotlight starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

Spotlight starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams.
Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

At this point most if us know the sex abuse stories, about priests taking advantage of young, scared, impressionable children. It’s both disgusting and shocking and not really something we want to think about. Spotlight puts you at the front of the initial investigation by The Boston Globe that brought the news of this terrible cover-up by the Catholic Church to light in the early 2000’s. The investigative team for the Globe, called “Spotlight” earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in  2003. One can only imagine how disturbing this information would have been to come across, especially knowing that the evidence and accusations against the Catholic Church had been around for decades. Spotlight introduces you to the team that was dedicated to uncovering the story and what they went through emotionally trying to piece it all together. The result is a disturbing, yet professional, film that honours the investigators and doesn’t glorify anything. It never undermines the importance of the truth and its responsibility to the audience. It’s no mistake that Spotlight has walked away with six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

Just as the investigative team works together and no one tries to outshine the other, the cast of Spotlight is so well-balanced that it’s difficult to say whose performance was better because they were all gripping. However, both Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers, Foxcatcher) and Rachel McAdams (Southpaw, About Time) showed the most emotional range and both have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars.  Michael Keaton, who received his first Oscar nomination for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year is great as the veteran manager of the “Spotlight” team who just wants to “get it right”. Liev Schreiber (Salt, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) deserves some credit for his wonderful (and underplayed) portrayal of the outsider who has just stepped in as editor of The Boston Globe; he doesn’t say much, but his direct delivery can be quite amusing. Finally, Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games, Julie & Julia, The Lovely Bones) is perfection as the untrusting, but dedicated lawyer just trying to do the right thing no matter the cost.

Despite its heavy topic, Spotlight isn’t without humour; but it is completely appropriate and timed just right to help lighten the mood when it is most needed. The ending is not comforting, nor should it be, but you are left satisfied that the journalists did their jobs and that they did it right. The history of the abuse was finally public knowledge that could not, and would not, be ignored any longer.

What actor-turned-director Tom McCarthy (now with 3 Oscar nominations) has done here should be admired. Many would think it a big risk to make a movie about this delicate topic. Spotlight was perfectly unshowy and remained sensitive to the material, all while keeping the audience absorbed in the characters and their main goal. The final punch, the statistics surrounding the sex abuse, will leave you shaking your head and demanding justice. It’s exactly the reaction you should have. Spotlight has done its job.

Spotlight had a limited released in the USA and Canada in November 2015. It has been released in most other countries since January/February 2016.

Update: Spotlight won the Academy Award for BEST PICTURE

Watch the trailer here:

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The Revenant – Alejandro G. Iñárritu

The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Photo Credit: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson.
Photo Credit: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

This is a movie about pain – mental and physical pain.  Leonardo DiCaprio will make you feel every bit of suffering endured by his character, Hugh Glass, in The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu‘s latest 156 min tour de force. If gore and death make you at all squeamish, this is not the movie for you. Arrows cutting through flesh, burning bodies, claws ripping through skin and crushing bone, the disembowelment of a horse, these are just a few things that might turn a lot of people off. But if you can handle it, you’re in for a film experience that doesn’t come around very often.

Fresh off of his Best Picture and Best Director win at the Oscars last year for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro Iñárritu has directed and written yet another masterpiece, although arguably less, shall we say, odd. The Revenant takes place in the early 19th century American wilderness and tells the (embellished) true story of Hugh Glass, a renowned fur-trapper who was left for dead by the men he was guiding after he was viciously mauled by a bear. The majority of the movie is watching him struggle to survive and watching him try to make his way back to the camp to face the man who ultimately made the decision to leave him (Tom Hardy).

From the group’s first ambush by natives, it’s clear that there will be a significant amount of violence throughout the movie. The scene with the bear is by far the most gruesome and realistic attack by a wild animal ever to be shown on screen; it just proves that there is absolutely no holding back in The Revenant. The horror stories from the set, from the freezing temperatures to the struggles to find the right setting and only being able to shoot an hour a day in order to get the ideal natural lighting, shows the director’s passion and desire to get things perfect. Whether or not you can stomach the brutal violence, there is no denying the fact that it is a visually stunning film. It’s as real as it’s going to get for a movie filmed in this age of technology.

There are incredibly strong performances in The Revenant, led of course by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his most outstanding immersions into a character to date. This is what acting is. Every moment is a struggle for Hugh Glass and Leo makes sure the audience struggles with him every step of the way. Even though they aren’t getting as much credit as Leo, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson are just as convincing, albeit with smaller roles (Tom Hardy also has a nomination for Best Supporting Actor). For a movie just over 2.5 hours, there isn’t much dialogue (especially for Leo) but nature and the subtle soundtrack play such strong parts that it doesn’t really matter. What Alejandro Iñárritu has done with this film is nothing short of spectacular. To get the audience to actually feel cold (and a little sore) when leaving the theatre is not an easy feat, and he certainly did his job with the help of the cast.

Nominated for 12 (of 14) Oscars, The Revenant will certainly walk away with a number of wins on February 29th – and it would be an utter travesty if Leonardo DiCaprio did not win Best Actor.

The Revenant saw a limited release in the U.S. at the end of December 2015 and has had a steady theatrical rollout from January 2016 through to the end of February 2016.

Update: The Revenant won Academy Awards for BEST ACTOR, BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY,  and BEST DIRECTOR

Water the official trailer here:

Carol – Todd Haynes

Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Photo credit: Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company

If all you’re looking for is a nice, sleepy, Oscar-nominated musical score by the guy who does all the Coen Brothers’ movies and some slick production design, then Carol is the movie for you. To say this movie starts out slow is an understatement; and to some, the entire two-hours of this 1950’s love story will be torture to watch. The sad reality of Carol is that it will not appeal to everyone, but those who live for the Oscar categories of costume design, cinematography, and production design will be completely engaged. For this movie to captivate you, you need to be very patient and you need to be the type to appreciate the art of film-making and film direction.

Based on the novel “The Price of Salt”, Carol tells the story of two women – a young one (Rooney Mara) who doesn’t yet know who she is, and the older, unhappy one (Cate Blanchett) who she falls head over heels in love with. It’s the 1950’s, so lesbian love is not something that is widely accepted or tolerated to a great degree. The main point of drama is the fact that Carol’s husband (from whom she is separated) is trying to get their daughter taken away from her because of her pattern of “inappropriate behaviour” with women – which also doubles as a silly attempt to “get her back” because if he can’t have her, no one else should, especially not a woman.

The reviews from both critics and viewers have been very positive, but it truly takes a certain type of movie-watcher to appreciate the subtleties of the performances and the artistry of the film-making. It won’t knock your socks off unless this is the only thing you look for in a movie experience. It’s unfortunate, but the general population just won’t see the tragic beauty in Carol and the love story will be lost among the countless scenes of silence, frustratingly long gazes, and the general lack of climax.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is good, there is no question, but compared to her other Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated performances (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator, Notes on a Scandal, I’m Not There, Elizabeth, etc.), this is nothing special and certainly not something the masses can get behind. Aside from one steamy lesbian love-making scene, there are only a couple other scenes that stand out. Like Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett could be nominated every time because she’s just that good, but maybe the standards should have been set a little higher for her this time. All in all, Carol is walking away with two acting nominations (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress), and four others for its cinematography, musical score, costume design, and screenplay (adapted).

The many accolades it has received from prestigious film festivals proves that, in a way, Carol is just like poetry – a select few find it beautiful, powerful, and deep, and most others will just be bored and unimpressed.

Carol opened in limited release in the USA in November 2015 and Canada in December 2015. Worldwide gross is only $29M to date and it can still be found playing in some theatres leading up to the Oscars on February 28, 2016.

Watch the official trailer here:

The Big Short – Adam McKay

The Big Short starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.

The Big Short starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.
Photo Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures

Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt. Could you ask for a better cast? If the answer is yes, then add Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo,  Hamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong and you’ve got The Big Short.  Between six of the lead actors, there are 6 Oscars and 9 Oscar nominations, so it’s not surprising that this movie has already done very well. We’re well into awards season now, and although The Big Short did not walk away a winner, it was nominated for 4 Golden Globes in the two male acting categories, adapted screenplay, and best picture. It still has another chance in late February with its 5 Academy Award nominations (Editing, Screenplay, Actor, Directing, and Best Picture).

This movie takes a very complex topic – the 2008 financial crisis – and attempts to explain it in a way that the average adult can understand. There are so many moving parts and economics isn’t everyone’s strong suit, so it does it’s best (complete with various celebrities trying to dumb it down for us) and mostly succeeds.  Regardless of whether you understand all the intricacies and terminology or not, you’ll still walk away from it feeling sick and cheated – and that’s the whole point.

The movie is centralized around three different groups of men who notice something no one else did – that the U.S housing market was built on a bubble, and that bubble was going to burst. Michael Burry, the one guy who discovered it all is played by Christian Bale. His quick actions sparked the interest of the other teams, who quickly began doing their own investigations. These teams included FrontPoint Partners, lead by Mark Baum (an amazing performance by Steve Carell) and two young guys with a hedge fund start up. They all go about finding a way to make money off of the greed, corruption, and general stupidity of the banks – they bet against the housing market.

The Big Short is filmed in a bit of a quirky way that may annoy you in the first 10 minutes but you’ll quickly get over it and later recognize it for its brilliance. It’s like you’re watching real life unfold in front of you, except you know what’s going to happen. Quick flashes of real images and video serve as a reminder of how things changed so quickly. The script is nothing short of genius and the dialogue is quick-witted and blunt. The fourth wall is broken a number of times, but it works in every case and doesn’t affect the fluidity of the film, in fact, it makes it more real. Steve Carell outshines everyone else and it is likely one of the best performances of his career to date. Unfortunately his performance was not acknowledged by The Academy and Christian Bale was nominated for Best Actor instead. He won’t win, but it’s still a nice nod in his direction. Considering Adam McKay’s previous claims to fame included Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the Best Director nomination is a big step in the right direction for him.

It’s definitely worth a watch, but the target audience for this movie is likely 25+… make that 40+ in order to really identify with what the collapse of the U.S. housing market did to the world. The younger generations will find the fast dialogue amusing, the topic informative, and the forecast for the future slightly troubling, but they won’t have the same appreciation for the utter stupidity that ended up costing tons of people their jobs and their life savings.

The Big Short is still playing in some theatres but is mostly gone from the rotation. It still managed to pull in over $100M (worldwide) since its release in December 2015.

Watch the official trailer here:

American Sniper – Clint Eastwood

American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

Ignoring the memoir on which American Sniper was based, and ignoring the controversy surrounding Chris Kyle as a person, American Sniper is a decent war movie, but not much more than that. It follows the central character’s journey from his early life in Texas to becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL and finally to his multiple tours in Iraq where he earns the title “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” with 160 confirmed kills. The action scenes are good and exciting but the rest feels a bit empty and, for lack of a better word, passionless.

Chris Kyle is portrayed as an unwavering American patriot who firmly believes in the war and never questions its objective to protect American citizens from the threat of the Taliban. Unfortunately for his wife and children, Chris becomes so attached to the war that he finds it hard to come home and even harder to stay home. American Sniper follows the man and his story, but unfortunately all the pieces to the story seem to be fragmentary and disconnected from each other. It’s bound to happen when a Director attempts to cover a man’s entire career in 132 minutes, even when that Director is the great Clint Eastwood. It is obvious that some liberties were taken with respect to the memoir in order to weave a better story and to meet the standards of a Hollywood biopic, but it still seems to lack the coherence necessary to make it truly resonate with the audience. That being said, the war scenes were all done very well and provide for some very tense and very raw moments that’ll surely have movie-goers holding their breath, but Clint Eastwood could have done more to explore the human element of a story like this.

Fortunately for Chris Kyle’s memory, the movie seems to distance itself from his more unlikeable traits and actions described in his book and also covered in the media. However, touching on at least some of Chris Kyle’s weaknesses and psyche would have made the movie a little less hollow. Instead, all you see is a soldier who identifies better with his comrades and his war persona (“The Legend”), than he does with his own family back home, but without much of an explanation other than pure patriotism. This is a notion that many soldiers from any country can identify with – the struggle to come home and live each day as if your fellow soldiers aren’t fighting for their lives or for the lives of others. Bradley Cooper is solid in his performance and certainly went through an intense ordeal to bulk up significantly for the role. There are a few key scenes that show his true range as emotions finally erupt from his character, but unfortunately this isn’t the role that will define his career from this point on. Sienna Miller, who plays Chris Kyle’s wife Taya, also puts in a good performance and channels Taya’s frustration and struggle to understand who her husband has become.

One thing in particular that stands out about American Sniper is the ending. It was executed with perfection and will leave those who don’t know what happens a bit stunned and those who do know will be satisfied. The end credits are also quite touching, to the point where it feels almost disrespectful to leave before they wrap up.

As a sniper, Chris Kyle’s skill and accomplishments cannot be disputed, but as an American hero who emulates everything we want our children to be, that is up for debate. A heated debate, it would seem.

The Theory of Everything – James Marsh

Theory-of-Everything-banner

The Theory of Everything starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Those who recognize the name “Stephen Hawking” will likely know him for his unique robotic voice and as one of the world’s most brilliant minds who seems to know more about the workings of the universe than any other human being. All the things we don’t know are captured in the movie The Theory of Everything, which is loosely based on the memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane Hawking.

The movie focuses on Hawking as a graduate student at Cambridge and his blossoming relationship with Jane, a smart and ambitious woman who was also studying at Cambridge, as well as the progression of his disease and how it affected their lives. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease while he was still at Cambridge and has lived with the disease for over 50 years. Motor neuron disease is also referred to as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease and is mostly considered fatal; in fact, Hawking was originally given about two years to live. Hawking is a physical and mental marvel and The Theory of Everything follows his extraordinary life from 1963 to 1989.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star as Stephen and Jane Hawking and both deliver performances that deserve all the recognition and awards they have received. Redmayne’s portrayal is nothing short of Oscar-worthy and must have been very difficult physically and mentally. Jane Hawking has said that she felt as if Felicity Jones stole her identity as she plays her so flawlessly. It is absolutely devastating watching them struggle as the disease slowly takes away Hawking’s mobility and speech. We watch as he becomes completely dependent on Jane and is left with nothing but his own thoughts and no means by which to share them with the world; that is, until the computer comes along to help him.

At its core, The Theory of Everything is a touching and tragic love story but it also touches on the brilliance of Hawking’s theories in quantum mechanics and relativity. It is heavy on emotions and light on the mathematics, which makes the movie universally appealing, especially since the topics Hawking studied are far beyond the understanding of the average person, particularly those who have not read his best-selling book “A Brief History of Time”. The movie doesn’t hold back and the Hawkings’ struggle is shown as something real and not just Hollywood fluff.

Even though a movie’s soundtrack can sometimes go unnoticed by movie-goers, the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is beautiful and compliments the story well, while stirring up emotions right through to the end credits.

With the success of the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” in 2014, one can only hope that all of those who donated but had no concept of the disease will watch this film and finally get a glimpse of what ALS does to people and their families, especially those who are not as lucky to live as long as Stephen Hawking has.