Skip to content

The “Truth” About “Spotlight”


When I recently did a Q&A with Topher Grace for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, the 37-year-old actor told me his favorite movie growing up was All the President’s Men (before you start doing the math, he saw it in high school when he was studying Watergate). So he was thrilled to co-star with Robert Redford, aka ATPM‘s Bob Woodward, in another movie about journalists investigating Presidential wrongdoing: Truth. But the true descendant of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 Washington Post-set thriller isn’t the tale of Dan Rather (Redford) and his Dubya-related downfall. Instead, it’s Spotlight, a riveting account of how a small team of Boston Globe reporters exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of its sexual-abuse scandal.

It’s telling that both these movies are period pieces: Spotlight is set in 2001-2, and Truth takes place in 2004. Those dates may not seem so long ago, but in journalistic terms, that was the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, before budget cuts and unpaid bloggers combined to help eviscerate the staffs of too many of this nation’s news-gathering operations. Spotlight is the inside story of how the Globe got it right: Led by editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton, every bit as good here as he was in Birdman—or Ron Howard’s underrated 1994 newsroom drama The Paper, for that matter), a tight squad of reporters use notepads and good, old-fashioned shoe leather to chase down victims, abusers and members of the church hierarchy who enabled this moral cancer to spread throughout its body. Despite pressure from higher-ups and competition from the cross-town Herald, they take their time and make sure they have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth before going to press.

In another parallel to All the President’s Men, one of the Globe‘s editors is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), the son of the Post honcho portrayed so memorably by Jason Robards. Surprisingly, Jr. (who recently wrote a splendid biography of Ted Williams) is depicted as a skeptic who doubted the newsworthiness of the abuse-scandal story until late in the game. Liev Schreiber, who plays a victim of a Boston pedophile priest on Ray Donovan, shines as Marty Baron, the Jewish out-of-towner who takes over as boss at the Globe and encourages the probe, ignoring threats from Beantown’s aptly named Cardinal Law (Blue Bloods‘ Len Cariou).

While Spotlight‘s entire ensemble—which includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James as Globe reporters and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci as a victims’ advocate—the true star is writer-director Tom McCarthy. He’s an actor who starred in the journalism-themed final season of The Wire and has made some very good films, like The Visitor, which earned an Oscar nod for Richard Jenkins (who contributes a vocal cameo as a key source). Here he channels the just-the-facts spirit of Pakula as well as other great American directors of the ’70s like Sidney Lumet.

Truth‘s cast is almost as flawless as Spotlight‘s, with the notable exception of Redford, who never disappears into the character of Dan Rather. It’s fine that he doesn’t try to do a vocal or physical imitation of the famously folksy Texan, but he just seems to be playing Robert Redford. The always-radiant Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, excels as Mary Mapes, the producer who was duped into accepting fake documents meant to prove that George W. Bush had gone AWOL during his Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Grace and Dennis Quaid, who previously co-starred together in both Traffic and In Good Company, display great chemistry as odd-couple members of the CBS reporting team, and there’s stellar work from Stacy Keach (as the shaky source) and Bruce Greenwood (as CBS News president Andrew Heyward) as well. Ultimately, however, Truth adds up to a footnote in journalistic history; first-time director James Vanderbilt, working from his own screenplay, simply doesn’t make the case that this story merits a feature film, rather than a shrug. Spotlight, on the other hand, leaves you devastated. And that’s the truth.

Julia Roberts: The “Secret” Is Out!


The Virginia Film Festival wasn’t kidding when it promised a “secret” sneak preview of a star-studded Hollywood movie last weekend. Producer Mark Johnson — a U.Va. grad, VFF board member and, oh yeah, an Oscar (Rain Man) and Emmy (Breaking Bad) winner — introduced the world premiere of Secret in Their Eyes, the new thriller starring Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And it did not disappoint.

Adapted from the Oscar-winning 2009 Argentinean drama El Secreto de Sus Ojos by writer-director Billy Ray — a master of internecine office conflict from his previous films Shattered Glass and BreachSecret examines the emotional fallout among a post-9/11 counterterrorism task force after the daughter (Boyhood‘s impossibly lovely Zoe Graham) of one of its officers (Roberts) is brutally murdered.

Much will be made about how Roberts goes “makeup-free” for her role as a grieving mother bent on revenge, but her performance is more than just an anti-vanity stunt. “You look a million years old,” Ejiofor’s character tells her at one point, and he’s not exaggerating. Fascinatingly, the film was shot by Roberts’ cinematographer husband, Danny Moder, and perhaps she only trusted him to make her look this bad.

Kidman, on the other hand, is luminous as the District Attorney who’s persuaded to reopen the case by the ex-FBI agent (Ejiofor) who’s as obsessed with catching the killer as he is with seducing her. Interestingly, race is never mentioned in the film, although class is — Ejiofor’s character is told that a community-college grad like him would never have a chance with a Harvard-educated lawyer like her. The film’s gender roles are also surprising, especially when you realize (as Ray revealed in a post-screening Q&A) that Roberts’ character was written for a man, and the only change she requested to the character was that she be grieving for a child, not a spouse.

An almost unrelentingly grim movie about a raped and murdered daughter, terrorism, and the price of vengeance may seem an odd choice to release right before Thanksgiving (the film opens Nov. 20), but the twisty storyline — which veers far from the foreign-language original — could captivate viewers looking for something more challenging than, say, Love the Coopers. And considering the film was shot in 32 days for a budget of “much less than $20 million” (as Johnson disclosed during the Q&A) means it won’t need to make Oceans 11-like money to turn a tidy profit.

Certain scenes may feel overly familiar: Why do cops always shout out a perp’s name before they collar him, allowing him to get a head start on a foot chase? But the top-notch cast, which also includes Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris and House of Cards‘ Michael Kelly as task force members as well as the always-great Alfred Molina as the shady DA-turned-Governor, glide past the clichés and dive right into the story’s dark heart. To invoke the title of a very different Julia Roberts film, Secret in Their Eyes will certainly leave viewers with something to talk about.

Whatever Happened to Meg Ryan?

12194918_10153770559584074_3162375827326706703_oMeg Ryan hasn’t made a movie since 2009’s Serious Moonlight — which, I must confess, I’ve never heard of — but she’s back in front of the camera (and, for the first time, behind it) with Ithaca, an adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy that screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. I’ve never been a big fan of Ryan’s cutesy acting, but I’m shocked and delighted to report she’s a born director.

In a Q&A following the film, Ryan mentioned that she loves photography and her home is full of pictures she’s taken, and she’s got a striking visual style. Gorgeous images permeate the pleasingly old-fashioned yet dark story of Homer Macauley (impressive first-timer Alex Neustaedter, in a role that earned Mickey Rooney an Oscar nomination in 1943), a small-town messenger forced to confront the stark realities of life and death in World War II-era America.

His older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, Ryan’s gifted real-life son) is fighting overseas, and his father (Tom Hanks, in a haunting cameo that reunites him with two-time rom-com partner Ryan) has recently passed away. At the unripe young age of 14, Homer must become the man of the house for his mother (Ryan) as well as his sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and four-year-old brother Ulysses (scene stealer Spencer Howell).

Much of the film’s action takes place at the telegraph office where Homer works with the wry Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater, bringing his typically light touch) and the sweet-souled alcoholic Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard, doing his best screen work in years). The film unfolds at a leisurely, pre-Internet pace, yet it manages to tell a complete coming-of-age story in a mere 96 minutes.

12191253_10153770666369074_7812551171784698021_oMy only quibble with Ithaca is that Ryan miscasts herself as the Macauley matriarch. In the post-screening talk, producer Janet Brenner admitted that having Ryan on screen helped to raise the film’s tight $5 million budget (it was shot in 23 days in Petersburg, Va.). But at 54, she’s a bit too old to play the mother of a four-year-old convincingly and her signature “trout pout” seems fishy in the 1940’s, when cosmetic surgery wasn’t so common.

Ryan said she’d like to direct again — and that she wouldn’t cast herself in her next film — and I hope she makes good on both those promises. She’s sure-handed as a storyteller, composing shots of 20th century Americana worthy of Norman Rockwell and expertly utilizing the evocative score composed by her ex-beau, John Mellencamp. While Ithaca doesn’t quite reach the orgasmic heights of Ryan’s When Harry Met Sally… Katz’s Deli scene, I’ll still have what she’s having.


The Best New Movie You’ve Never Heard Of


There’s something seriously wrong with our cinematic distribution system when dreck like The Last Witch Hunter and Jem and the Holograms comes out on more than 5,000 screens combined (and bombs), and gems like Meadowland and Bone Tomahawk receive only token theatrical releases simultaneous with Video on Demand availability. What’s that, you say? You haven’t heard of Meadowland and Bone Tomahawk? For my review of the former, click here. And for the latter, read on.

I recently did a Screen Actors Guild Foundation Q&A with the great character actor Richard Jenkins (click here to view it), and intrigued by the title, I asked him about Bone Tomahawk. “Oh, I think that’s going to be something,” he told me. And it is something—something wildly original and thrilling. I suppose you could say it’s derivative of Tarantino (or, more accurately, Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn), John Carpenter and John Ford, but hey, there are a lot worse directors from which one could crib. It’s a horror Western mashup that hits its target with pinpoint precision.

Kurt Russell, fusing his work in previous films as disparate as Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone and Death Proof, stars as Frank Hunt (great name), the sheriff of an Old West town ironically named Bright Hope. After a drifter (David Arquette, well-cast) disappears from his jail cell along with the local deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and the wife (Banshee‘s Lili Simmons) of a hobbled foreman (Patrick Wilson), Hunt heads out with a posse. Accompanied by the limping husband, his back-up deputy (the aforementioned Jenkins, eerily channeling Gabby Hayes) and an Indian-killing racist dandy (Matthew Fox, the only actor in the cast who seems utterly lost), Hunt tracks down a tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes, and that’s when it really starts to get gory.

For the first 90 of its 132 minutes, Bone Tomahawk plays like a fairly straight-shooting Western: The Searchers enlivened by Pulp Fiction-al dialogue (Jenkins and Russell’s banter about how to read a book in a bathtub without getting it wet rivals John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s classic “Royale with Cheese” scene). The resurrection of such seemingly abandoned Hollywood cult figures as Sean Young, Michael Pare and James Tolkan only adds to the Tarantino-esque feel.

But once the hunting party encounters the cave-dwelling killers, first-time director S. Craig Zahler (whose only previous writing credit was 2011’s Asylum Blackout, which I must now see immediately) gives the film a terrifying frisson all its own. Be warned: The violence is graphic, beyond even what we see on a weekly basis on The Walking Dead. (Scalping is just the beginning.) But because Zahler has spent so much time letting us get to know the characters—this is a film with an admirably measured pace, and one that’s not afraid to let silence speak for itself—you actually care about whether they become human meals.

Zahler is a talent to watch, and to listen to; in addition to writing and directing the film, he also co-wrote its stirring score, including an old-fashioned Western theme song, “Four Doomed Men Rode Out.” The fact that Bone Tomahawk is not readily available for the vast majority of Americans to see on a movie-theater screen—well, that’s a bone that truly sticks in my throat.

Olivia Wilde Gets Naked!


Ok, so my headline is a shameless bit of click-bait. But I’m willing to do anything to get people to see Meadowland, the transcendently powerful new film produced by and starring Olivia Wilde. And my title isn’t completely untrue. Wilde does a semi-nude scene in the film, but more importantly, she goes full-frontal emotionally naked.

She stars as a Newark public school teacher whose young son disappears from a gas-station bathroom. So it’s not exactly a date movie. More like a stay-home-alone-and-attempt-suicide kind of movie. But Wilde’s stunning performance—and the entire film, written by first-timer Chris Rossi and marking the directorial debut of Skeleton Twins cinematographer Reed Morano (a woman)—demands to be seen.

The unimaginable grief of losing a child has been depicted on film before with varying degrees of creative success—I walked out on Nicole Kidman’s hollow turn as a mom in mourning in Rabbit Hole but was deeply moved by Jessica Chastain’s little-seen tour de force in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. But Wilde plumbs new depths of pain and reaches new heights as an actress in the process.

Ever since her revealing 2003 debut as a porn-star Juliet in the Shakespearean drama Skin (sadly cancelled by Fox after only three episodes), Wilde has proven to be truly wild at heart. True, she’s made some bad mainstream moves (Cowboys & Aliens, The Change-Up), but she’s also shown an appetite for meatier fare like Alpha Dog, Butter and Deadfall. As her character descends into mental illness, death metal and self-harm—and becomes disturbingly obsessed with an epileptic outcast student at her school—Wilde does the finest work of her career.

She’s surrounded by an equally flawless ensemble: Luke Wilson as her confused-cop husband, Giovanni Ribisi as her drugged-out brother-in-law, John Leguizamo as a support-group friend, and Kevin Corrigan as the young outcast’s skeezeball foster father. (Only Elisabeth Moss rings untrue as a convenience-store customer.)

Meadowland is not a film for everyone. But from its jarringly cold opening scene to its beautifully surreal last shot, it’s breathtakingly, punch-you-in-gut beautiful. And in an age when actresses are acclaimed as brave for going makeup-free in empty exercises in narcissism like Jennifer Aniston’s Cake, Olivia Wilde puts them all to shame…and drives me to shamelessness.

Is There a Spider-Man Curse?


You’ve probably heard of the Superman curse: Bad things happen to people who play The Man of Steel, whether it’s the tragic deaths of George Reeves and Christopher Reeve or the career deaths of Dean Cain (soon to be oh-so-briefly-seen as the titular heroine’s adoptive dad on CBS’ new Supergirl) and Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., anyone… anyone?).

I’m starting to think there’s a dark cloud over anyone who plays Spider-Man as well, especially after seeing the two most recent web-slingers, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, in nearly empty theaters playing their new indie dramas, 99 Homes and Pawn Sacrifice. Granted, even the Justice League and Marvel Universe combined probably couldn’t force mass audiences to see movies with such uncommercial topics as chess and real estate. But even in the rarified world of arthouses, these films have underperformed. And that’s a shame, at least in one of these cases.

That would be the case of 99 Homes. Garfield, with a flawless American accent, plays a Florida single dad who’s evicted by a Machiavellian real-estate agent (Michael Shannon, aka General Zod from Man of Steel… uh oh!). Desperate for work, the construction worker starts doing odd jobs for the realtor and ends up learning the evil tricks of his trade.

It’s an old-fashioned morality play, but cowriter-director Ramin Barani treats it like the horror film it truly is. With his laser eyes and ever-present e-cig, Shannon embodies a very modern devil, and the flawless cast also includes Laura Dern as Garfield’s world-weary mom and Tim Guinee as a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God homeowner whom Garfield must evict. On the surface, 99 Homes is an entertaining thriller, but on a deeper level, it probably hits too close to home for many Americans.

The problem with Pawn Sacrifice is that there is no deeper level to its portrait of tortured chess genius Bobby Fischer. It’s not Maguire’s fault, nor can I quibble with the work of such top-notch character actors as Liev Schreiber (as Terminator-esque Russian champ Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (as a priest who inexplicably becomes one of Fischer’s manager) or Michael Stuhlbarg (Shannon’s fellow Boardwalk Empire gangster).

But none of the characters’ motivations are ever made clear, and the film’s depiction of Cold War America is like a coloring book compared to Steven Spielberg’s brilliant new Soviet-era drama Bridge of Spies. Director Edward Zwick (Glory) pumps up the soundtrack with hits from the period like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music.” Yet all you can really do is listen to the music, because there’s not much else going on.

Pawn Sacrifice downplays the uglier manifestations of Fischer’s mental illness, especially his anti-Semitism, perhaps in an attempt to get viewers to root for him. Yet he’s such an unpleasant character that we end up feeling like the pawns.

Spider-Man is about to get another reboot, with the gifted young British actor Tom Holland  (The Impossible) as wall-crawler Peter Parker. One can only hope his Spidey senses are tingling, and he won’t get caught in the same career web that has ensnared his predecessors. Anybody heard from Nicholas Hammond lately?

Steven Spielberg and Michael Moore’s Patriot Games

bridge_of_spies_xxlgI’m taking a break from the dating blogs — and taking a break from dating (my dinner with the #basicbitch broke me) — and getting back to writing about movies, which was the point of this blog in the first place. And I’m just in time for this year’s New York Film Festival, which I’ve attended twice in the past week to view the new offerings from a couple of major American filmmakers: Steven Spielberg and Michael Moore.

On the surface, they could hardly seem more different if they were mismatched partners in a buddy-cop movie. One’s fat, the other’s skinny. One’s a documentarian, the other’s a narrative storyteller. One’s a wild-eyed liberal, the other’s Michael Moore. Okay, maybe they’re not so different after all.

Because, you see, Bridge of Spies might be Spielberg’s most liberal movie ever. It’s also one of his best, although its slow pace and generally old-fashioned style might not earn him his best reviews or box office ever. (For the record, I don’t consider the words “slow” and “old-fashioned” to be pejorative in the context of cinema.)

Tom Hanks confirm his status as a National Treasure with his profoundly likable performance as James Donovan, the insurance lawyer (and most appealing attorney in movie history since Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch) who defended accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, played by virtuouso stage actor Mark Rylance in a miracle of understatement that should finally make him a movie star — or if this doesn’t, maybe his title role in Spielberg’s next film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, will.

This is a movie that will make you nostalgic for the Cold War, when we knew who the enemy was (the Russkies) but could negotiate with them like relative gentlemen, which is exactly what Hanks’ Donovan does once Abel becomes a pawn in the international chess game that took place after the USSR shot down U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan’s and by extension Spielberg’s (and by further extension screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen’s) belief that every accused criminal deserves a vigorous defense, not to mention due process, shines like one of the beacons the director uses in his trademark lens-flare shots.

In an era when even an allegedly socialist president can’t shut down Guantanamo, Bridge of Spies reminds us true patriotism has little or nothing to do with the Patriot Act’s assault on civil liberties. That’s surely a sentiment with which Moore would concur. While it’s good to hear his voice again for the first time in more than five years, I’m disappointed to report his latest film, Where to Invade Next, isn’t one of his best.

The title is a bit misleading. One might expect a searing indictment of the nation’s interventionist foreign policy, but instead Moore’s in a softer mode (is he reluctant to criticize an ostensibly liberal administration directly?). He “invades” a bunch of foreign countries — most of them in Europe, because as he explained at the Film Festival Q&A, he was working with one-third of his usual budget — and lays claim to their best ideas (e.g. gourmet school lunches in France).

The somewhat strained conceit is that Moore will bring these ideas back to the U.S., only to discover they all have their roots in original American ideals. It’s entertaining enough but ultimately slight. One yearns for the angry Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11Bowling for Columbine and Roger & Me. Instead he’s become a big, curmudgeonly teddy bear. If you’re looking to have the cockles of your left-wing heart warmed, you’d be better off crossing over to Bridge of Spies.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 188 other followers