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Spotlight (2015)

2B89064B00000578-0-image-a-25_1440115471750Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Win Win (2011)

After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

2012 (2009)

Let’s get this out of the way. The world isn’t going to end in 2012. Well, it might, but it won’t be because the Mayans said so. Because truth be told, the Mayans didn’t say anything about the world ending. The Mayan calendar exists in large circular amounts of time, and the largest period of time is called a bactun. An epoch, 13 bactun, will be coming to an end somewhere around December 21, 2012, but this in no way is a signal for the end of days. It just means that one cycle of time has come full circle and we begin anew. This is entirely a Western invention. If you learn nothing else from this review, know that the world will be fine come 2012. At least in this regard. Who knows about nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, religious fanatics bringing about the end of days, Sarah Palin running for president. The world could still end, but don’t blame the Mayans. They’re already dead anyway. They didn’t see that one coming, either.

2012 is the latest disaster movie from director Roland Emmerich, who fondly destroyed the world in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. In news interviews, Emmerich has insisted that 2012 will be his last disaster movie (yeah right!), so he wanted to pull out all the stops. And he does. 2012 is like the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. It’s great escapist fun but it’s also silly and cheesy and hokey and all things a great memorable disaster movie should be. The movie packs so much that you may likely experience fatigue by the end.

Like previous Emmerich movies, we follow a dispirit group of people from all walks of life who coincidentally come together. Jackson (John Cusack) and his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) are separating. Kate is currently seeing a new guy, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director of The Station Agent), and Jackson’s son thinks highly of new dad (maybe he saw the excellent Station Agent). Jackson is trying to become a better dad and take the kids camping to Yellowstone National Park. It’s there that he runs aground with government officials and a conspiracy radio host (Woody Harrelson) warning about impending doom. He puts enough pieces together to hatch a plan to save his family and escape. The government was alerted by a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 2009 and has been preparing for massive seismic shifts. The president’s chief of staff (Oliver Platt) has been planning the “continuity of our species.” The elites have secured a place on massive arks built in the Himalayan mountain range. Jackson and his family must find a way to reach the arks in China for any hope of surviving the next chapter in human existence.

Emmerich packs so much earthly chaos into this movie that it can get flabbergasting. It’s not enough that California is upending by earthquakes and gaping chasms, it has to be thrown into the sea city block by city block. It’s not enough that Yellowstone National Park emits a thunderous volcanic discharge; it has to explode with the might of three mushroom clouds. It’s not enough that a 150-foot tidal wave strikes Washington D.C., it has to drag along a U.S. aircraft carrier that topples the memorable architectural sights of the city. It seems like Emmerich is trying to one-up everything that has come before in disaster cinema, but beyond the cheesy Irwin Allen movies of the 1970s, his only real competition is himself. No one wreaks havoc upon the world like Emmerich. He has the same destructive tastes of a mad scientist of Godzilla. He’s a big kid that likes to see things fall down and go boom. And in that regard, Emmerich has no equals. Not even Michael Bay, who certainly has panache to his record of ruination, can compete with this German master of disaster. No one can do enjoyable cheesy entertainment on such a mass scale like this man.

The special effects in 2012 are first-rate and the true draw to see this thing on the big screen. Large-scale global devastation has never looked so pretty. This is a full-blown summer movie in the midst of the fall prestige season. The destruction is often awe-inspiring thanks to Emmerich and his team of visual wizards, and the buildup of suspense can be palatable as well. The pacing is better than you would expect for a movie that runs over 150 minutes, but that didn’t stop the contingent of teenagers in my theater from standing up and leaving whenever there wasn’t violent death. At least Mother Nature wasn’t taking out specific monuments with pinpoint precision like She normally likes to do in these things. And just like in disaster movies, the “chosen few” are gifted with the amazing ability to outrun fireballs, earthquakes, falling debris, falling buildings, and just about everything falling at high velocity. Sure the immediate heat from an explosion at Yellowstone would instantly fry the characters, and sure an airplane can?t fly through a pyroclastic cloud, but it’s all part of the territory for the genre. If it was really true to life than we’d all be dead and the movie would be considerably shorter.

So what is the protocol for enjoying mass entertainment that coincides with massive death? Emmerich is usually very good about his disaster sequences to keep his focal point at long distance angles, both so that the audience can get a full vision of the mayhem and also to make sure that we cannot concentrate on the little people fruitlessly scurrying away for their lives. If you stop and think, practically every second of on screen destruction in 2012 involves thousands of nameless, faceless people dying horribly, and these are the big moments when the audience chows down on greasy fistfuls of popcorn. It reminded me somewhat when the news kept repeating the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers as pieces for their 9/11 segments, and I’d stop and think, “You know, you just paused an image and in that image is the reality that hundreds of people are dying.” It’s a strange thing to contemplate, which is probably why Emmerich overloads your senses with (safe distance) disaster carnage. There is an image that does cross a line, where we witness office building workers tumbling out of the crumbling high rise. That’s one 9/11 image that’s just too distasteful even for a disaster flick.

Naturally the reason to see these kinds of movies is the big bangs for your bucks, but what happens during the downtime? I was genuinely surprised how involved I became with the collection of characters. I’m not saying that this is deep, penetrating writing, but it’s easy to wring some pathos out of a story when you have one character after another delivering a teary “Goodbye, I always loved you” speech to their soon-to-be-dearly-departed relatives. I cared about these characters enough to wince when they began being picked off one-by-one when the script called for heroic sacrifice upon heroic sacrifice. Burrowed beneath the avalanche of special effects, like really really buried in there, is an interesting philosophical argument about how people would behave during the end of the world. Would they be selfless or selfish? Would they step on their neighbor’s neck for another minute of life or would people sacrifice? Personally, I’m a bit of a pessimist, but the debate is intriguing. I also thought that 2012 had a vital conversation about who exactly gets to survive. In the story, a seat on the super arks are a billions Euros, which gives the insanely rich a huge advantage, but it’s because of the insanely rich private sector that the world’s governments are able to build these massive arks and plan for a future. So there you have it: a future world with the likes of billionaires and politicians. Who will get them all coffee? Who will pick up their dry cleaning? Who will take their calls? Is this even a world worth living in?

2012 is dopey and self-serious and way too long but man is it entertaining. The fabulous special effects are the real star of the movie, though the assorted cast does well. 2012 is deemed Emmerich’s last disaster picture, and if that holds true then he’s making sure there isn’t anything left to destroy. This is disaster pornography on a scale rarely seen in the movies. It deserves to be seen on the big screen for maximum enjoyment of maximum destruction.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Visitor (2008)

The follow-up by Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director of the sparkling Station Agent, is an affecting indictment on our nation’s immigration policies that manages to say a lot of important things in small touches, ditching histrionic messages. Walter (Richard Jenkins, in a commanding and deeply empathetic performance) discovers a pair of illegal immigrant squatters living in his seldom-used New York City apartment. He strikes up an unlikely friendship that moves in subtle strokes that keeps the movie very character-based. The second half of the film revolves around Walter’s attempts to work within the system to free his new friend from detention. I could have spent more time with Walter and Tariq, the Syrian immigrant who teaches Walter how to play the African drum. The Visitor explores a man learning in his autumn years how to reconnect with people, and it has moments of astonishing emotional clarity. McCarthy is a filmmaker that can spin narrative gold from just about anything; The Station Agent had a hot dog vendor, a single mom, and a dwarf. The Visitor is further proof that McCarthy is an extremely talented man who knows how to target and tap the humanity of his unique characters. There are very few moments in this movie that feel false.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Station Agent (2003)

This is the most charming film of 2003, and I’m not just saying this because I had an interview with one of its stars, Michelle Williams (Dawson’’s Creek). Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man with dwarfism. With every step he takes every look he gives, you witness the years of torture he’s been through with glares and comments. He’s shut himself away from people and travels to an isolated train station to live. There he meets two other oddballs, a live-wire hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a divorced mother (Patricia Clarkson). Together the three find a wonderful companionship and deep friendship. The moments showing the evolution of the relationship between the three are the film’s highlights. It’s a film driven by characters but well-rounded and remarkable characters. Dinklage gives perhaps one of the coolest performances ever as the unforgettable Fin. Cannavale is hilarious as the loudmouth best friend that wants a human connection. Clarkson is equally impressive as yet another fragile mother (a similar role in the equally good ‘Pieces of April’). The writing and acting of ‘The Station Agent’ are superb. It’s an unforgettable slice of Americana brought together by three oddballs and their real friendship. You’ll leave ‘The Station Agent’ abuzz in good feelings. This is a film you tell your friends about afterwards. There’s likely no shot for a dwarf to be nominated for an Oscar in our prejudiced times but Dinklage is deserving. ‘The Station Agent’ is everything you could want in an excellent independent movie. It tells a tale that would normally not get told. And this is one beauty of a tale.

Nate’’s Grade: A

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