Good movies almost always let you know they’re good within the first couple of minutes. You Can Count on Me is that kind of good movie.
In a way both casual and heart-stopping, this independent film begins with a car accident that takes the lives of a married couple. They leave behind two children, a sister and brother. You may think you’ve seen this kind of sequence before, but writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright making his first film, hits all unexpected notes.
In every sense, Thor needed a haircut. The Marvel movie universe—which, like the real universe, is pitiless and has no end—featured this character to passable effect in its Avengers movies and with lesser results in Thor’s starring vehicles. Something had to change, especially since a very funny actor, Chris Hemsworth, was visibly hamstrung by the Nordic gloom of his character.
A haircut—literally and figuratively—is exactly what Thor gets in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel thing. And like Samson in reverse, Thor thrives when his 1970s thrash-rock locks are shorn, finding new life as a comic character
Spotlight (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the kind of film that takes on the Big Subject with modesty and self-reflection, drawing the viewer into the world of the reporters and culture of Boston in 2001 to better understand the scope of everything that’s at stake.
Spotlight is the story of the Boston Globe reporters who investigated history of abuse perpetrated on children by Catholic priests, a history that had spotty coverage in the paper over the years but was each time quickly forgotten, chalked up as another isolated case. It takes new editor Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber), someone from out of town who hasn’t grown up believing The Church an untouchable institution, to spur a serious look into what turns out to be a systemic issue. He assigns the paper’s investigative “Spotlight” unit—reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton)—not all of whom are convinced there’s a story here. Until they see a startling pattern.
It’s got a big ensemble cast, but if you want a measure of what Spotlight does very, very well, keep an eye on the new guy. In the film’s opening minutes, new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at The Boston Globe. In Schreiber’s canny performance, Baron is woefully free of warm ’n’ fuzzies; he’s a blunt outsider in a clubby town—he came from Miami, for crying out loud. We spot him as a corporate stooge who will surely act as antagonist to the Globe’s band of reporter heroes, those hard-talking pros with their sleeves rolled up. In a story full of hard-won disclosures, Baron’s gradual emergence as a beacon of journalistic integrity and moral conviction is perhaps the movie’s subtlest revelation.
The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.
In the decidedly non-comedic Foxcatcher, Steve Carell plays a guy so obviously bizarro that his success in life as a public figure could only have happened for one reason. He was filthy rich. Throughout this movie, there’s a sense that people are looking at John du Pont and just barely holding it together. Their body language says “Can you believe how weird this guy is?”, but their behavior says, “Hey, as long as he’s writing the checks …”
Du Pont inherited fabulous wealth, and toward the end of his life decided to spend a lot of it on wrestling. He built a state-of-the-art practice facility at his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher, and acted as a figurehead coach for Olympic athletes there. The story culminated in violence, but as the movie tells it, there was plenty of strange behavior even before the tragic end. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) has created a film that exists almost entirely as a single, sustained, skin-crawling mood.
The Normal Heart (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), the made-for-HBO feature based on Larry Kramer’s play and directed for cable by Ryan Murphy, arrives on disc the day after winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie. Kramer wrote the play in 1985, based in part on his own experiences as a gay activist in the early years of the AIDS crisis, and it captures an era when thousands of gay men were dying yet the mainstream media shied from reporting on the plague (as it was called then) and government officials would not even say the name AIDS in public. 30 years out of time, it seems more of a polemic than ever but it also captures the fear and fury of the men in the community facing a crisis that even the government won’t acknowledge.
Mark Ruffalo takes the lead as Ned Weeks, a writer and activist that Kramer based on himself. He’s the rabble rouser of the group that he founds in 1981, a guy so angry and confrontational that he’s finally pushed out. But the internal politics reflect the culture at large—many of the most active members of the group (played by Taylor Kitsch, as the photogenic face of the gay men’s health group, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello, who played Ned in the original stage production) still haven’t come out in public—and the fears that many have of creating a panic that will turn the public against them. Matt Bomer co-stars as Weeks’ boyfriend, a New York Times reporter who also hasn’t come out, and Julia Roberts is apparently the only doctor in New York City who is concerned with the still-unidentified disease. Most of these characters were based on people Kramer knew, friends and family alike, and some of these characters are dead before the film ends in the year 1985. Just like in real life.
It came to HBO after a successful stage revival but 30 years out of time it plays more like a period piece, removed enough from the immediacy of the crisis to really pour on the sense of outrage and fear, something that the earliest films to confront AIDS could never allow themselves to do. That outrage, and the committed performances of the cast, surely helped this feature earn its Emmy last night.
On Blu-ray and DVD with a nine-minute featurette on author Larry Kramer and the autobiographical roots of the original play. It sheds some interesting perspective on the personal dramas explored here. Also available as a Digital purchase and free for subscribers to HBO via Cable On Demand and HBO Go.
The 2006 film Once, which won an Oscar for best song, was something of a mystery. That little Irish picture featured unfamiliar actors, an obscure director and an unusual approach to the movie musical. Was it just a one-off? Filmmaker John Carney has worked since then, without making much of a splash. His new one, Begin Again, suggests that Once was not a fluke.
This is another music film, deep in its bones. It’s got a dangerously recognizable storyline, but the treatment is heartfelt and its actors engaging. Plus, the music’s pretty good.
The Avengers (Disney), the Marvel comics superhero all-star team, is the most impressive example of synergy in the comic book movie industry to date.
Unlike The X-Men, which arrived full formed in 2000, The Avengers is the comic book version of the supergroup, with stars in their own right coming together (not without some friction and ego-thumping) for a battle royale. So Marvel put together a long term plan, launching their stars in a series of solo films and building an entire universe of heroes and villains for the screen.
They teased audiences with brief cross-overs and then, after years of setting it all up, brought together the team: Robert Downey’s cheeky, cocky Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s warrior prince Thor, Chris Evans’ earnest Captain America, and Mark Ruffalo taking over as Bruce Banner and The Hulk (the third actor in as many films), giving the character a haunted, embittered edge. To round out the team, the film expands the role of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a slinky superagent, from the second “Iron Man” film, and adds Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an archer marksman briefly seen in “Thor.” Samuel Jackson presides over it all as Nick Fury.
It could have been a disaster, with so many characters to juggle and personalities to respect while engaging in a big, noisy, apocalyptic battle with no less than gods and aliens. And it was a measured gamble to bring in Joss Whedon, a man with well-earned fan credentials and an affinity for this kind of genre storytelling. No question that he brings smarts and style and self-aware wit to his productions (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV, “Serenity” on film) but his audiences have been, shall we say, small and passionate.
It was the perfect marriage of subject and sensibility. You wouldn’t accuse The Avengers of being good drama but the sprawling, splashy spectacle and its much-much-much-larger-than-life heroes makes for a genuine comic book epic for the big screen.