Thursday 26 November 2015

Spotlight Needs A Better Screenplay

Everybody has been raving about Spotlight which is based on the true story of how The Boston Globe in 2001 uncovered the massive scandal of child abuse and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. Critics compared this movie to All The President's Men and there's a lot of Oscar buzz.

While I enjoyed the movie, I could not help but wish that Aaron Sorkin has written the screenplay instead. The entire dialogue just lacked a Newsroom kind of sharp wit and potency. Director Tom McCarthy wrote the screenplay as well, but for somebody who's known for Meet The Parents, the dialogue exchange among the investigative journalists with The Globe was just a bit flat. Nevertheless, McCarthy did a great job with the direction of the film as it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time even though I already knew the ending.

It's been a long time that any movie has been made on investigative journalism, and from this perspective, Spotlight was indeed a pleasure to watch. But what made this movie excellent was the entire cast, particularly Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber. The first three certainly deserve an Oscar nomination as they played their respective characters with such authenticity and intensity. Ruffalo has always been a superb actor but, with age, he seems to be getting better and better. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor last year for his role in Foxcatcher, and actually won a SAG Award and received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the HBO movie, The Normal Heart, which he also produced. But I loved him as the 'loser' record label executive in 2013's Begin Again and as a bipolar father in Infinitely Polar Bear in 2014 even without any award nominations.

But kudos should also go to Liev Schrieber (lead actor in TV drama Ray Donovan and, in real life, Naomi Watts's husband) who played Martin Baron, the new Executive Editor of The Boston Globe. He was the big boss who asked Spotlight's editor Walter 'Robby' Robinson (played by Michael Keaton) to dig deep on the Catholic Church in this investigative news story assignment which eventually won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. When everybody else in the newsroom was shouting, yelling and getting real intense and emotional about the investigation and the story, Schrieber's Baron was extremely thoughtful, strategic and calm throughout the entire film. He was a staunch anchor for his team and because he was empowered by the publisher to shake things up, he literally made things happen, even if it meant taking down the powerful Catholic Archdiocese. In real life, Baron has been working as the Executive Editor of The Washington Post since December 2012 after a successful career with The Globe.

In spite of an ugly picture painted of the Catholic Church, I understand that the film has received a positive reception from many of its leaders. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston said Spotlight illustrated how the newspaper's reports prompted the church "to deal with what was shameful and hidden." Vatican Radio, the official radio service of the Vatican, also gave strong praise for the film, describing it as "honest" and "compelling." The child molestation scandals were numerous from around the world and the Pope is still dealing with the aftermath.

This is not a film to watch when you're tired because you would need to pay attention to a lot of details. But it's a fantastic moral journalistic thriller that would eventually make you applaud (as did the audience at my show) at the end of the movie because justice is done.


Monday 23 November 2015

The 33: A Salute To Humanity

If the recent terrorist killings in Paris were an attack on humanity, then the Hollywood movie The 33 has to be a salute to the human race! Based on the real-life story of the collapse of the gold and copper San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, in 2010, the film captured the miraculous rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days.

I remember watching the development of this story on TV news and marveled at the brave endurance of the miners trapped underground at 2,300 feet. Previous geological instability at this old mine and a long record of safety violations for the mine's owners had resulted in a series of fines and accidents, including eight deaths, during the 12 years leading up to the accident. Seventeen days after the accident, on August 22, a note written in bold red letters appeared taped to a drill bit when it was pulled to the surface after the rescue operation penetrated an area believed to be accessible to the trapped workers. The note read, "We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us." Once the rescuers and the rest of the world knew that the men were alive, Chile implemented a comprehensive plan to both care for the workers during their entrapment and to rescue the miners from the depths.

The 33 miners were not all friendly comrades to begin with. They were different people with different backgrounds, old and young, natives and foreigner (one of them was Bolivian). One of the miners had a wife and a long-term mistress at the same time and another suffered from bipolar disorder and was estranged from his older sister. Given the fact that the Chilean government had no choice but to be heavily involved in the rescue under the world's scrutiny, politics also stood in the way.

Because it's Hollywood, some parts of the story were a bit sensationalized even though, in general, it stayed quite true to the event. What was most touching was the evolution of the trapped miners from the initial 'looking out for oneself' survivors to the collaborative and self-sacrificing team players towards the end of the saga.

What made this movie outstanding was its stellar cast. Antonio Banderas subdued his sex appeal and played the leader of the group, nicknamed Super Mario, Mario Sepulveda. A very bronzed Juliette Binoche played Maria Segovia, the estranged sister of the miner suffering from bipolar disorder, and the feisty relative who was constantly on the case of Chile's Mining Minister. The latter was skilfully played by the handsome and famous Brazilian actor, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin also played impressive supporting roles.

There's no need for me to give a spoiler alert, because everybody recalls that all 33 miners were eventually rescued. In reality, private donations covered one-third of the US$20 million cost of the rescue, with the rest coming from the mine owners and the government although these details were not dwelt on in the film itself.

The movie ended with a shot of the real 33 surviving miners who, to this day, remain loyal friends to one another. However, what the film didn't say, is that most of the miners still struggle with the psychological scars of their entrapment and have had trouble holding down a job. After the initial talk shows, speaking engagements and free trips, interest in the miners began to fade and today, many of the miners have trouble making ends meet. Super Mario told The Daily Mail last year that he and his fellow miners suffer from nightmares and depression, brought on by the psychological trauma of being trapped for so long. Most of the miners are still taking antidepressants and other medications and will probably do so for the rest of their lives. Mario says he now worries constantly about money. He was offered a job recently in a mine again and he needed to go back underground to support his family. The miners felt abandoned again once they came up from underground and it's sad to hear from Mario saying that, "some days I think it would have been better if they had let us down there."

Sunday 15 November 2015

Frailty, Thy Name Is Not Woman

Whether you're a feminist or not (and yes, including you men too), you should still go to the cinema and watch Carey Mulligan's latest movie, Suffragette. It's difficult to even imagine that women around the world have only been given the rights to vote since the beginning of the 20th century. But the story of the British foot soldiers of the early feminist movement under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in only a few scenes) was vividly told in this film. These women from a laundry factory in London, most of whom poor and uneducated, fought daily battles against the government - obviously an old boys club in those days - and, for their rights to vote, they were willing to lose their families, their jobs, their children and even their lives.

Some of those women, such as the pharmacist Evelyn Ellyn (played by Helena Bonham Carter) were staunch supporters from beginning to end. Others, such as the protagonist Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan), was a reluctant fighter in the early stages, but was later converted and gradually took on a leadership role among the women. It was a constant struggle between whether to fight for an equal voting right as men's, or to protect one's self interest and, therefore, do nothing. Another key character in the film, Violet Miller (played by Anne-Marie Duff, wife of Irish actor James McAvoy), started off as a fervent and fierce fighter for the feminist movement, but eventually gave up the fight for the sake of her future child.

The little-known female director Sarah Gavron did a great job with the film, But it was the writer, Abi Morgan, who presented a powerful thriller in her script. Morgan is known as a writer and producer for the movies Shame, The Iron Lady and The Hour. I read that Carey Mulligan was absolutely tired of appearing in another period movie until she saw the script of Suffragette and immediately signed on for the leading role. As usual, Mulligan dazzled in her role and should be considered for an Oscar. Helena Bonham Carter is not usually my favourite actress, but she was superb in her role as the pharmacist. One can understand why she took on this character as her great-grandfather H.H. Asquith served as the Prime Minister of the U.K. from 1908 to 1916, during the height of the suffrage movement. He was a staunch opponent of votes for women. This was also the first film that was allowed to be shot in the British House of Parliament since the 1950s.

Suffragette would move you to tears and rouse you to anger. Men were absolutely depicted as evil and selfish misogynists (with perhaps one exception) throughout the entire film. For me, the most powerful moment came when the movie ended with the chronology of countries around the world which passed a law allowing women in their respective nations to vote. And now, more than a century later, there are still countries such as Saudi Arabia which does not grant women that right, in addition to not permitting women to drive or travel! I left the cinema not only thinking that women have come a long way, but we should continue to soldier on for gender equality!

Sunday 8 November 2015

Ridley Scott Scores Again With The Martian

I am a fan of neither science fiction nor outer space movies, so it's surprising how many Ridley Scott movies I've seen and loved. In fact, Scott is probably among my top three favourite directors. I saw Prometheus on Netflix and thought that it was one of the coolest science fiction films in the last decade. Then I saw Exodus: Gods and Kings also on Netflix and was puzzled why it was panned by critics!

I deliberately waited till the initial excitement around Scott's new movie The Martian died down before I hit the 3D cinemas last week. Critics asked us to be prepared for a Cast Away in space. But I found the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks boring! The Martian, on the other hand, was exciting, nerve-wracking and extremely funny at times! It was also one of the most beautifully-shot films I've seen.

Most film critics gave credit to director Scott as well as the lead actor Matt Damon. But I think if there is any Oscar buzz, the Academy should also consider Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplay adapted from Andy Weir's book of the same name. The script was tight, humorous and witty and the film was not laboriously long to tell the moving story.

By now, you must know the story line even if you haven't seen the movie. During a mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) was presumed dead after a dust storm and left behind by his crew. Most of the film depicted how Watney tried to stay alive and on his survival skills on Mars. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists worked tirelessly to bring "the Martian" home, while his crew mates simultaneously tried a close-to-impossible rescue mission.

The film was beautifully shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, which has a red-coloured desert; and in Budapest where the buildings representing the NASA HQ and the Chinese space centre were actually two of the city's most important cultural hubs (the film and book acknowledged China's important role to help with the rescue mission). It was not surprising that Matt Damon's solo scenes were shot for five weeks straight, after which he was relieved from the filming schedule. He did not even meet most of his co-stars until the full cast was reunited to promote the film. NASA was, of course, consulted to ensure accuracy of space and space travel.

Many people call Damon the contemporary Tom Hanks. But I think the former is a better actor. After all, in spite of the wide range of Hanks's acting skills, can you ever imagine him playing an action hero like Bourne? Because Damon led us to believe that this ingenious astronaut, who was also a PhD in Botany, survived this ordeal in space by growing a potato farm on Mars from his and his crew's excrements, we marveled at his wisdom and perseverance; laughed at his intolerance of the '70s disco music; and were moved to tears by his humanity. I thought Damon deliberately lost weight when he went from a beefed-up body at the beginning of the movie to a bone-thin physique towards the end, but I read that the director did not allow this to happen and had used a body double at the end of the movie instead.

The Martian is the perfect synergy of a triumphant journey in science and a magnificent cinematic work of art. No wonder retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said he has read the book and seen the movie and gave the latter a two thumbs up!

Wednesday 28 October 2015

A Surprisingly Good Steve Jobs Biopic

I've read so many bad reviews of Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs that I thought twice before I decided to go and see it. But I was pleasantly surprised and actually liked it!

Aaron Sorkin is always arrogant, but there's no doubt that he's a screenplay genius. I'm not sure that moviegoers who have not read Walter Isaacson's biography on Steve Jobs would like the movie or not. The biography is a wonderful book and because Steve Jobs had only authorized Isaacson to interview people and write the biography without even his final approval prior to publication, I trusted its authenticity. But to condense that biography into a two-hour movie was no small feat! I think the one attribute that stood out in the movie was its sharp, tight, witty and true-to-origin script and all the kudos should go to Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, The West Wing, The Newsroom).

I've never watched The Newsroom, but I understand that the actors for the movie Steve Jobs all auditioned for their respective roles by reading scripts from the award-winning TV series instead of the script from the movie. The second credit for this very enjoyable movie should go to the lead actor Michael Fassbender who does not look a bit like the late Apple founder. But throughout the film, I had no doubt that Fassbender was Jobs. Isaacson's depiction of Jobs as both a genius and a jerk was fully vivified by the actor. Having seen Ashton Kutcher in Jobs in 2013, there's no doubt that Kutcher looks more like the Apple founder, but I've always said that good actors do not need to be excellent impersonators. It requires more skills for an actor who doesn't look like Jobs to give a convincing performance, and Fassbender did that beautifully - portraying, in essence, the eccentric, intense, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered but also brilliant, charming and extremely-gifted Apple founder, as described by Isaacson in his book.

I was surprised to hear that Sorkin originally wanted Tom Cruise for this role and thank God the latter had declined. So did Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale. The latter could probably play Jobs equally well because he's such a fine actor. Apparently, Fassbender admired Bale and actually called the latter and told him that he should have taken that role.

I've also read that Kate Winslet heard of the movie in the making from her makeup artist, and immediately craved for the role of Jobs's marketing director Joanna Hoffman. She wanted to be in a film with Fassbender and director Danny Boyle and sent them a photo with herself in a black wig. Well, she got the job, but I'm not sure that she excelled in it. Her American accent sounded a bit contrived and she totally looked frumpy and unattractive in the movie, maybe by design. Frankly speaking, any actress could have played that role exceedingly well and Winslet's superb acting skills were quite wasted in this film, in my opinion.

Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) did a decent job with the movie as the film condensed the book into three acts - the launches of the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. There were flashbacks to Jobs's earlier life at the garage with Steve Wozniak (effectively played by Canadian Seth Rogen); and negotiations with the Apple board and John Scully (played by Jeff Daniels). But I did not expect the entire film to be focusing so much on Jobs's relationship with his daughter Lisa Brennan because this part did not even play a big role in Isaccson's biography at all.
Wozniak was a consultant to the movie and maybe that's why it enhanced the authenticity of Jobs really presented as a jerk even in front of his partner and co-founder of Apple. I also don't understand why it took three non-Americans (Boyle, Fassbender and Winslet) to do a movie on one of the most influential U.S. icons when there are so many other talented filmmakers and actors in Hollywood.

All in all, if you've read Isaacson's book, you would love the film. Otherwise, you might be a bit disappointed, even though if you are a fan of Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Powerful Russian Satire on Corruption in Putinland

I love watching movies because, like reading books, they stretch your imagination by telling a story in numerous different ways and sometimes blow your mind away by giving you a perspective of life that is too real. The Russian movie Leviathan, which has already swept all the Best Foreign Movie Awards so far, is almost a sure win for this category in the upcoming Oscars. It's a powerful satire on the current corrupt Russian government and on religion as well. As always, Russian literature and art excel in the reflection of the darkest side of humanity.

The story took place in a small Russian coastal town in the Barents Sea where whales sometimes appear and an ordinary working-class family was just trying to get by and seek happiness. Fishing was the main occupation of the town and people sought enjoyment by drinking vodka and having a lot of sex. Corruption was the norm of life and every public official including the mayor, his staff, the cops and even the priest were all cut from the same cloth. There were only a few characters in the film but very soon, they seemed like your friends and, as the audience, you became very involved with this unfortunate family.

Leviathan is Hebrew for Sea Monster as depicted in Tanakh and The Book of Job from the Old Testament. The book addressed the theme of God's justice in the face of human suffering, or in other words, asked a very simple question: why do the righteous suffer? In modern Hebrew, Leviathan means "whale," which explains the setting of this Russian coastal town where the sea and everything washed ashore have a deeper, darker meaning. In the Middle Ages, Leviathan was also described as the demon of envy and listed as one of the Four Crown Princes of Hell.

So the poetry continued to infiltrate the entire film which was really an enactment of The Book of Job in its contemporary form. The protagonist in the movie, Kolya was a good, hard-working, ordinary man wanting to lead a normal happy life with his second wife and his teenage son from a previous marriage. But Kolya himself was full of conflicts - he hated cops, but one of his best friends was a traffic policeman; he tried to fight a corrupt mayor by bringing in his lawyer friend from Moscow who blackmailed the mayor and also eventually betrayed his friend in a personal way. Kolya's troubles went from bad to worse until the sea monster eventually engulfed him and his entire family.

Apart from the first-rate performance by a group of unknown (to us) Russian actors, the music written by Philip Glass and cinematography by Mikhail Krichman were menacing, captivating and beautiful at the same time. Definitely two thumbs up for this outstanding foreign movie!

Friday 30 January 2015

A Great Crime Drama In A Most Violent Year

In the new movie A Most Violent Year, you see the work of the three most-Oscar-snubbed artists in 2015 - director J.C. Chandor, lead actor Oscar Isaac and supporting actor David Oyelowo (snubbed for his leading role as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma).

By now, I've seen all three feature films by J.C. Chandor - the first two were Margin Call and All Is Lost. All three were brilliant in their own ways and with A Most Violent Year, Chandor has once again established himself as one of the most versatile and potent directors of all times. If Hollywood breeds more of such fine directors and writers, its potential would be limitless!

There's very little violence in the movie with "Violent" as its title. Even though there were illegal activities throughout the film and intimidating scenes with guns, it's the innuendos and the mood around this crime drama that were captivating. The movie juxtaposed evil versus good; ruthlessness versus a law-abiding conscience; bold ambitions versus cowardice and fear. It's the story of an ambitious immigrant from Colombia who's trying to achieve the American dream while protecting his business and family.

The Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac is, in my opinion, one of the finest young actors of our times. I never understood why the Oscars overlooked him for his role in Inside Llewyn Davis last year. Now, yet again, his excellent performance as Abel Morales in this most recent film was snubbed one more time. As much as he could convincingly portray a nerdy musician in the Cohen brothers' film, Isaac gave a tour de force performance as the ambitious, but morally stubborn businessman in this flick. It's hard not to think of the young Al Pacino when you saw Isaac's doleful eyes and camel-brown coat in this movie. Physically, Isaac is not much taller than Pacino at 5 feet 81/2 inches; but he commanded a huge presence in the film and, in spite of the numerous comparisons by film critics to Pacino's role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather II, I think Isaac carries his own weight and is a much less exaggerating actor than Pacino.

Isaac got this role because co-star Jessica Chastain, who went to Juilliard with him, recommended that he be cast as Morales after Javier Bardem has backed out. Isaac's own Hispanic roots (born to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father) made him the perfect fit as the Colombian immigrant Morales in the movie. It also gave him an opportunity to speak in his native Spanish tongue during parts of the film.

I love the way the movie was shot in a tinted yellow kind of lighting that gave New York City its 1981 look. It's the depth of winter in the middle of the most dangerous year according to NYC crime statistics. Most of the landscape was industrial; the Manhattan skyline was beautiful, nevertheless, reflecting the never-ending American dream.  Kudos also went to cinematographer Bradford Young who was also responsible for another wonderful movie Selma.

I haven't said much about Jessica Chastain's performance not because she wasn't impressive as the Lady-Macbeth-like character in the film, but because after seeing her in The Help, everything became possible for her in our eyes. Apart from her vintage Armani outfits in the drama, it's her extraordinarily long, sharp manicured nails that became her trademark in the entire film. I think any other fine actress could have possibly played her role equally well, but the scene stealer was definitely Oscar Isaac throughout the entire movie.

There's nothing to dislike about this crime drama. There are no cliches and not enough blood to be categorized as a violent movie. But what's not said was as important as what's being said in the film - this was what kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire two hours of the movie!