Category Archives: Entertainment

Simple Mind (2012): A Three Punch Combo of a Film (Review)

Leone-esque close up of Timothy J. Cox

Written and directed by Phil Newsom, this 2012 film, starring Timothy J. Cox and Kristi McCarson tells the story of Bob, the “Simple Mind” of the title and it delivers a three-punch combo of a film.  In essence, Newsom and his story give the viewer an ending worthy of O. Henry on steroids but with a few brilliant and disturbing twists along the way.

We see Bob at the start of the film running, his face misshapen with what seems to be fear. He is running from something as he moves out of camera range the film fades to black and the title.  Coming back, Bob is now seated at a bench that is situated by the very path he was running down seconds before.

Something red is shoved under his hip and he clutches black book. Bob’s posture is almost child-like (something that will make sense by the film’s conclusion) and he is obviously excited. He is waiting for a woman (Samantha) who he is describing in detail  to another woman via voice over.

In this “memory” as Samantha comes near, he hides his face behind the book. As she passes by, Bob hurriedly closes the book and rushes to follow the woman “of his dreams.”  All the while, the offscreen dialogue continues with the other female presence asking him about the female he is pursuing.

As the film progresses, Bob’s reminiscences take different forms; a love story, the passion of a stalker, a voyeur who gets too close. As each layer is peeled back, Bob’s truths change, becoming darker and more disturbing.  Eventually an ultimate truth is revealed;  one that has all the power of a sucker punch.

Simple Mind is anything but simple. In an extremely short span of time Newsom and his intimate cast weave an intricate spell where one man turns out to be many things.  Obviously the writer and director has a background in psychiatry as his knowledge of “serial killers” and their motivations along, his knowledge of,   schizophrenia gives us a disturbing look at how dark the mind becomes when faced with an unacceptable truth.

Shot and edited by Paul Nameck (in his first effort as DP) the film looks polished and everything, from the lighting to the focus, is spot on.  Nameck does a close up of Cox, as Bob, at one point which distorts just enough to validate what we suspect already, that the main character is odd and off-kilter.

There are a number of “Leone-esque” close-ups where Cox’s visage are the object of focus.  Shots like these increase the unease the viewer feels with Bob’s narration of events. At one point, his eyes twitch, uncontrollably it seems, at something off camera.  It is, like his other extreme close ups, disturbing. There is a lot going on in this man’s mind as he talks to his therapist (Kristi McCarson).

Cox and McCarson interact with a perfect blend of give and take that slowly evolves into something else. As Bob, Timothy changes, ever so slightly, as the film’s narrative moves along and  his motivations shift from what appears to be infatuation and love to something  both scary and upsetting.

As the film comes to a close, the significance of those red things that Bob is sitting on at the start becomes painfully clear as does the deep seated and not so thinly veiled hatred in Bob’s mind. This man’s story is anything but simple and this short film is a masterful exploration of how frustration affects the psyche.

Simple Mind is a 5 star short film which does have the same impact as a one-two-three punch combo.  Clever and  intelligent (watch the film immediately after the ending to see all the clues signposted throughout the movie) with performances from Cox and McCarson that really help sell the story.

Catch this one if you can.

Ant Man: Michael Douglas, Marvel and a Captain America Teaser

Yellow Jacket under threat from Thomas the Tank Engine "Ant Man'

Without even going into the Marvel verse too deeply, Ant Man skirts along the edge of all things Avengers without encroaching on Iron Man territory. Michael Douglas enters into the spirit of superheroes with the gravitas of an elder statesman (with a mean temper) and the film ends with a teaser that has a surprise appearance by Captain America.

This production had a troubled start and lost its first helmsman, Edgar Wright, who may have given the world a much different Ant Man, although Paul Rudd manages to employ a lot of humor in the role.  As Scott Lang, a man with a daughter he is desperate to keep in contact with, Rudd brings that special brand of persona that he does so well.

As  an over intelligent cat burglar determined not to go back to prison, Lang still manages to get in trouble because, as Dr. Hank  Pym (Douglas) puts it, when things get tough Scott turns to crime.  The likable ex con is targeted by Pym to be the next Ant Man, much to Hank’s daughter’s chagrin.

Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) may be a chip of the old block of both Dr. Pym and his deceased wife, but she is too precious to the scientist to risk putting in the suit.  Her job is to get close to baddy Darren Cross, aka Yellowjacket (played brilliantly by Corey Stoll) and she does this well.

The storyline deals with a strict ex (a tiny cameo by personal favorite Judy Greer) and her new fiancee “a**hat” cop Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) who actually turns out to be less of a hat than Scott reckons.  Rudd’s character goes through an arc, a very impressive one, and steps up to “save the day.” 

Along the way, actor Michael Peña manages to almost steal the film from Douglas, Lily, Rudd and Stoll with his comic portrayal of career criminal Luis.  The actor is aided by some brilliant montage and flashback work where Peña voices all the characters in his expository scenes. 

The combination of his topical language choices and phrasing, along with his voice over matching the expressions of the people he voices in the flashbacks, makes the performer the clear winner in terms of captivating the audience.

Of course the film is not about Luis, so his “take over” is fleeting as Rudd manages to imbue his character with an exponential “nice guy” factor that shines through.  Douglas is a fine mix of curmudgeonly despot and loving father who cannot quite show how he really feels.

While the characters all help to bring the film to life, it is the action sequences, most by necessity CG, that carry the movie forward. Some of the effects are most certainly practical, for example the “exploding from underground” when Lang is freaked out by his initial introduction to the ant world, and are mixed with the computer generated FX brilliantly.

Sidenote: Speaking of CG there is that oddly real, but at the same time creepy, looking scene at the start of the film where Michael Douglas is years younger.  Despite leaps and bounds being made in this field, Douglas still looked…weird and a bit disturbing.

There is a great blend of humor with some of the scenes.  The entire toy train sequence is incredibly funny. Peyton Reed, whether influenced by the multi penned screenplay (with Edgar Wright as main scribe) or not, gives us a Thomas the Tank Engine chase and action scene that is just priceless. 

Seen from both Ant Man and Yellowjacket’s tiny view, the sound is enormous and the train with its speeding cars, looks deadly.  From another perspective Thomas’ danger value diminishes to nothing with comic results.

By the end of the film, it looks like Dyne will be joining Ant Man for a bit of crime fighting, or as an addendum to the Avengers and Dr. Pym survives being almost killed. The original Ant Man will act, presumably, as a continuing mentor to Scott Lang.

Marvel continues to bring more superheroes to the screen; big and small, with some being more oblique than others. Jessica Jones  as a sort of Marvel-Noire offering, along with her paramour Nick Cage has been given a second season on Netflix, for example.

With a lot of territory to cover yet in terms of the Avengers and all the peripheral action that entails; Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, et al, there will be enough material to keep Marvel on both television and movie screens for some time. (Not too mention the Agents of SHIELD and good old Peggy Carter.)

Ant Man is entertaining but not wildly funny, just amusing enough that the casting of Paul Rudd was a masterful move. All the cast do a more than capable job and the storyline is entertaining “Baskin-Robbins” don’t play dude.”

This is a 5 star film version of Marvel’s Ant Man.  While it would have been brilliant to see Wright’s version of this world, Peyton Reed brings an entertaining feature to the masses and it is to his credit that after watching this film, one immediately wants to watch it again.

Final Verdict:

Marvel-ous.

Here Lies Joe (2016): A Review

Dean Temple as Joe Barnes

Directed, shot,  edited and co-written by Mark Battle (with Pamela Conway) and produced by Sweven Films;  Here Lies Joe is a short look at depression, suicidal tendencies and two people who connect as they each compulsively seek death. Dean Temple is Joe Barnes and Andi Morrow is “Z” two disparate souls who meet at a suicide addict meeting, chaired by Bill (Timothy J. Cox). Bill attempts to have the small group talk about their feelings. 

At the start of the film, we see Joe taping his passenger window around a plastic hosepipe that he attaches to the exhaust of his car. After securing both ends of the hose, Joe starts his engine and the film shifts to the meeting.

In the group, the somewhat timid “chair” Bill prompts the members to talk. Carol (Mary Hronicek), who talks about her suicidal fish, is a flake who becomes aggressive when the younger Z comes in. The late arrival to the meeting zeroes in on Joe whom she calls “new guy.” 

When the meeting ends, she coerces Joe into giving her a ride home and the two spend an afternoon together.

Director Mark Battle gives us a look at some intensely unhappy people who are dealing with their feelings as best they can. Z is flip and dismissive of other people’s pain. Joe cannot communicate his thoughts at all and yet, the younger woman and the older man, who is “in transition,” manage to find common ground.

The film is quiet. Here Lies Joe is a contemplative look at these two characters who would not have met except for the suicide prevention organization session. A program that is, as Bill obliquely points out,  not too successful.

Each character, Z and Joe, never specifically state why they are drawn to thoughts of suicide, although with Barnes it appears to be a reversal of fortune. Z just seems to be absorbed by death although later more of her inner thought process is revealed.

The humor in Here Lies Joe is low key but all the more effective because of it.  There is a scene in a cemetery where Barnes is lying in front of a gravestone while Z sits in a tree. Battle gives us a visual gag that is simple and amusingly apt.

Temple gives an excellent low key performance as the man whose life has overwhelmed him. Morrow is funny, quirky and able to show that all her affectations hide a deep pain. The couple connect and by the end of the film, there is a splendid twist that will make the viewer smile.

Andi Morrow as Z
Andi Morrow is Z

Morrow is, at turns, impish and adorable with her slanted look at life and her flirtatious approach to Joe.  She and Temple have a odd chemistry that works. His character’s reluctant acceptance of the younger woman, and Z’s  interest in  him, does not stop either from their pursuit of death.

Timothy J. Cox, as the awkward “chair” at the beginning shows, perhaps, what all these people have in common; an inability to really connect with others.

The cinematography is just as low key as the performances. With each scene, apart from the one at the meeting, has a sort of darkness to it. While the picture is clear and crisp there is the feel of a blurring of the light. It suits the storyline brilliantly.

Here Lies Joe deals with a somber subject with gentle humour and a sweetness that is touching. A 5 star short film so effective that after it ends one wants to immediately  watch it again.

 

Mallas, MA: Ghost Busted

Mallas, MA screenshot

Directed by Sean Meehan (who co-wrote the film with Daniel Bérubé) Mallas, MA is the Audience Choice Award winner of the 2013 Boston 48 Hour Film Project.  The seven minute film is about a pair of con-artists who are playing ghost busters for the benefit of a small Maine town and inadvertently get busted.

The two use rigged equipment and intend to fleece the town by “falsely” investigating a haunting. Brian Higgins (Timothy J. Cox) and his ghost investigative partner Maria Snyder (Maria Natapov) show up at a location and pretend to go through the motions of finding evidence of hauntings. 

At their first location, while fabricating ghostly evidence, they stumble across a young girl in a bright orange dress.  The two decide to use the child to provide the proof needed to get Mallas, Ma to pay for their services. Maria cannot get the girl to understand what they need, but Brian develops an instant rapport with he child.

He and the “ghost” girl set up lots of different photographs to “sell” to the locals. Brian’s connection to the child is so complete that he does not notice the oddness behind the “scenes” that he and Maria set up with the girl in the orange dress.

Cox comes across very well as the “genius” who invents the equipment and then interacts so well with their unknown “ghost girl.”  His partner Maria is the more cold hearted of the two, as evidenced by her inability to meld with the child.

The ghost busting pair rush to complete the needed photographic evidence for a local television show.  Once the program starts,  Brian has an attack of conscience…

Sean Meehan, whose short film Total Performance (his ninth picture as editor and eighth as director) proves here that there is no shortage to his story telling talents.  Shot on (estimated) low/no budget of $5K and turned out in 48 hours, this festival favorite looks brilliant and is amusingly presented.

Higgins, slightly pompous and full of technical know-how that enables him to fleece the innocent and the completely disinterested , and disassociated, Snyder have obviously done this scam before and it is only the relationship that Higgins develops with the “girl” that changes his direction.

Cinematographer Rick Macomber makes each shot pay off with all the right hues and shadows for the film’s theme of “ghost buster” being busted by their own hubris and a surprise element they never intended to find.

The entire “TAPS” ripoff has a sort of community television feel,  with public access channels made by the local denizens with focus on items from the mundane to the weird. Daniel Bérubé gives us two con artists who are dissimilar and despite being comfortable working as a team, do not, it seems, appear to like one another very much.

The fact that the male of the team easily connects with the girl they find hiding in the basement yet cannot really communicate with his partner speaks volumes about the dubious duo.  Even though the film only runs a little over seven minutes, the story is told concisely enough that nothing is lost by the end.

Mallas, MA is another delightful example of the work done by Sean Meehan and Timothy J. Cox.  Keep an eye out for this clever little film and prepare to be thoroughly entertained. While not as in-depth as Total Performance, this short film is just as much fun to watch and contains a pretty good message.

This is a 4.5 out of 5 star short film, it provides a great twist and splendid storyline and all put together in a 48 hour time period. Great stuff.

The Ridiculous 6: A Slapstick Video Game Western

Adam Sandler and company in The Ridiculous 6

It could be seen as tiresome for a joke about taking knives to a gun fight to last almost two hours, as does The Ridiculous 6, but then a slapstick comedic attempt at a video game western could be forgiven for a having  too much of a mediocre thing.  Fans of Adam Sandler, may   enjoy this star studded offering, while others may want to do as “Smoking Fox” suggests and  “gouge their eyes out,” after 159 minutes of nonstop Sandler.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this “comedy” western, apart from the blending of genres and entertainment mediums, is that it feels like one long Saturday Night Live skit.  Like the vast majority of Sandler’s films that all have the same feel and similar formula.  The Ridiculous 6 could have been called “Happy Gilmore Goes West” and lost nothing.

Starring Chandler, Nick Nolte, Harvey Keitel, Taylor Lautner and Luke Wilson, along with the ever-present Danny Trejo, The Ridiculous 6 has a impressive pedigree of actor mixed in with SNL alumni who fill out the cast; Jon Lovitz,  Rob Schneider. With a  cameo by Steve Buscemi as a dentist/barber/doctor and John Turturro as Abner Doubleday one can only wonder what Sandler held over these performers to entice them to be in the film.

Sandler plays “White Knife” and/Tommy depending on what hat he wears, who goes to save his re-discovered father Frank Stockburn (Nolte) and along the way finds five men who all share his paternal genes.  Sandler’s idea of a taciturn western character is to growl in a low tone while gazing laconically at the camera.

For all about the film that annoys,  bores and (typical of Sandler’s one note humor) is too silly for words, there are funny moments that stand out.  There are also performances that lend themselves to praise.

For instance, Taylor Lautner has well and truly left the horrid verse of Twilight behind and shown that he can do comedic impressions. As Lil’ Pete,  Lautner gets to keep his shirt on and do his version of a simpleton Ashton Kutcher.  The actor is funny and this is either one hell of a homage to Mila Kunis’ new hubby or one massive “mickey take.” Whichever way, Taylor is leaning in his performance, he does leave his mark.

On a sidenote, the film looks great. Very “western-y” all pole corrals, proper looking saloons and outfits that fit.  It must be this “focus” on authenticity that moved the “True West” magazine’s “film critic” to speak so favorably about the film.

Standout gags:

Steve Buscemi and the ointment gag, not once but twice.  Buscemi manages to make one jar of ointment as disgusting as possible. Cringingly funny.

Luke Wilson and Harvey Keitel with the glass gag. Wilson’s character annoys Smiley (Keitel) who proceeds to beat the dickens out of Danny (Wilson). The saloon owner throws the man about like a giant rag doll and punches him repeatedly, all the while not one drop from the half-full glass is spilt.

Harvey Keitel, again as the headless Smiley.

The entire “Danny backstory” about Abe Lincoln.

Nick Nolte single-handedly populating most of the old west

Terry Crews and his red Michael Jackson outfit.

Brit English entertainment reporter Robin Leach providing the “voice” of Herm (Lost actorJorge Garcia)

Jorge Garcia as Herm.

The entire Left-Eye Gang buried in the dirt, up to their heads, and the crow, ants, lizard and snake…

Nick Nolte’s “Sh*t happens,” line.

The brilliant actor Steve Zahn and his cock-eye performance as Clem.

Honorable Mention:

Taylor Lautner’s scene on the gallows.

Annoying things:

The “Native American” gags are nowhere near as funny as Sandler seems to believe.

Sandler’s preoccupation with Let’s Make a Deal and Bob Barker.

The taking a knife to a gunfight gag that runs throughout the film and the fact that the star and his director feel the need to actually point out the joke in case we missed it.

The Assassin’s Creed style of climbing walls.

The giant gold nugget that was light enough for a single man to carry.

Adam Sandler’s vocal delivery.

Rob Schneider’s Mexican accent.

The entire Mark Twain, Gen. Custer and Wyatt Earp poker game and the “gangster-speak.”

The apparent nod to Annabelle.

There were bits that missed the saddle completely. The end credits, with their Spaghetti Western animation a’la A Fistful of Dollars felt that is belonged to a different film completely. The Ridiculous 6 had nothing to do with Leone-esque type westerns or any other oater genre.

Sandler had issues with a number of his Native American cast walking off in disgust at his humor.  Amazingly, there were no non-Native American cast members who left for the same reason.   It really does beggar believe as to how Sandler got actors like Keitel and Buscemi, and Nolte to sign up.

The Ridiculous 6 is an uneven affair that has moments of hilarity, tediousness and forced humor.  This comedy western is a “straight-to-Netflix” effort, funded by the site, and it feels right at home in the medium.

This is a 3.5 out of 5 stars, earning such a high mark because the gags that do work are hysterically funny.  Fans of Sandler will love this effort and should go over to Netflix now and watch it. Others may want to give this a miss, although there are bits which tickle the funny bone. People who do not think that Adam Sandler is that funny will definitely want to avoid this film,  instead of gouging out eyeballs.

Shaun the Sheep Movie: Studio Aardman Do it Again

Shaun the Sheep still

Shaun the Sheep Movie from Studio Aardman, aka Aardman Animations,  does it again, they go back to that Nick Park well. This time however, the Creature Comforts (1989) creator, Park himself, is in the producer’s chair versus the director’s one.  In some ways it is blatantly obvious from the first frame when one observes that there is no discernible dialogue.

Sounding more like a episode of Morphbut deeper and with a decidedly Scottish bent to it, the dialogue consists of sounds. Grunts, partial “almost” words and a kind of “Sim” speak make up all “lines” in the stop motion film.  (Nod if “Sim-Speak” means anything at all, think expresso drinking…)

Apart from this irritating decision to keep any of the “people” type characters from speaking, Shaun the Sheep Movie will be  hit with both young and old audience members.  There are enough sight gags to keep even the smallest shaver happy and enough “homages” to grown up films to keep a Simpson’s fan happy, who may have accidentally strayed onto this film.

(The Simpsons are mentioned just for the Cape Fear reference toward the end of the film. One that the yellow colored cartoon family did so well on the television show with Sideshow Bob versus Bart…)

The plot of Shaun the Sheep Movie is not too different, it seems, from the television show source. Shaun and his little sheep mates decide to have a day out and it all goes colossally wrong.  The farmer gets a conk on the head and forgets who he is, the sheep and the dog all wind up in the nick (animal jail) and after some antics it all works out in the end.

Perhaps watching too much Wallace and Gromit (and hearing the delightful Peter Sallis saying “Cheese! Gromit!”) has spoiled any other characters in the Aardman stable (see what we did there) like Shaun, who actually first showed up in A Close Shave. The little wooly creature soon spawned his own series but has never really been  a personal favorite.

Add to this the mumbling and muttering of each character and this one leaves a little to be desired, in terms of “acting” per se. Still, there are enough gags and homages to make the film interesting to a wide ranging audience.

There are jokes aplenty, the farmer becomes an amnesiac celebrity hairstylist and the sheep all dress up like people. Since no one can really speak anyway, the lamb’s bleating comes over as “language” so they fool everyone.

Shaun the Sheep Movie has a cracking soundtrack and enough action to keep the little ones from getting distracted. There are a number of “exciting” action pieces although nothing on scale of Curse of the Were-Rabbit or The Wrong Trousers.  (Once again Wallace and Gromit features with brilliant action set pieces; the train or the flying arcade plane for example.)

The main fun for the grownup viewers of this Aardman offering will be all the various nods and winks to other films and genres. Critics have waxed ecstatic about the film and ratings are high for this “silent” grunting film.  While dialogue would have improved the film for this viewer exponentially, the overall effect was one of amusing action and clever homage fun.

The youngsters will love more childish antics of Shaun the Sheep Movie while the adults will appreciate the trouble that Mark Burton and Richard Starzak went to making the film one that everyone could enjoy. 

A 4 out of 5 star stop-motion animated feature that would have gotten a full 5 if the character’s had talked (or had Peter Sallis in it). Good fun regardless of the lack of real dialogue. Studio Aardman do it again and give us entertainment for the whole family.

Stung (2015): Eight Legged Freaks with Wings

Matt O'Leary in Stung

It might possibly be too picky to point out that the mustache  on Lance Henriksen changes several times throughout the film but apart from this annoying occurrence, Stung is really just Eight Legged Freaks, with wings.  Granted, also missing are David Arquette and these “killer wasps” may have a bit more in common with Irwin Allen’s 1978 film The Swarm, but this horror film does have its moments.

Taking a page from the old Roger Corman theme of mankind messing with nature and paying the price, Stung is the first full length feature film to be directed by Benni Diez  from a script by Adam Aresty.  The film stars Matt O’Leary, Jessica Cook, Clifton Collins Jr. and, of course Henriksen.

A garden party goes madly awry when giant wasps attack the members of the event. These mutations inject fast growing larvae into their victims which results in seven foot long wasps with attitude attacking anything that moves.

There are a few stand out moments, apart from Henriksen’s mutating mustache.  The face on a wasp’s leg is quite impressive as is the dog scene later on.  Like Eight Legged Freaks these monstrous wasps make noises that are not insect-like and more amusing than frightening.  Unlike the David Arquette vehicle, however,  this comedy horror is more adult in nature and does not have quite as “happy” an ending.

With more “f**ks” than the entirety of Beverly Hills Cop (the first one) this is not for kids.  The gore factor is quite OTT but to be honest it is more of the “goo variety” and less about blood and guts, although there are a few “yuck” moments.

Lance Henriksen, as the “name” attached to the film, manages to make it through a good portion of the film before he, and his magic mustache, come to an explosive end.

Later in the film, at least one other classic horror film is given a big nod and wink, The Thing with Two Heads

The old dame whose party the wasps ruin, has a son, Sidney (Collins Jr.) who looks for all the world like a  living homage to the late actor Klaus Kinski from For a Few Dollars More. Long hair, glasses and a hump that later turns into the head of a giant wasp.

The film is good fun in many ways, after all how can one not enjoy a scene where three different characters say one very funny line?

Sydney: “Holy”

Julia: “Mother”

Caruthers: “F**ker.”

This in response to the three witnessing a rather grizzly and impressive birthing of yet another giant wasp.

Stung is entertaining and mildly amusing.  Like the “Drive In” movies it emulates and pays homage to, it really does feel like a throw back to the halcyon days of Corman.  The film is slowly paced, hence the ability to notice that Caruthers’ hairy upper lip kept changing its appearance, which does hurt it somewhat.

Overall, potty language aside, this is a good time to be had by almost all.  Although, sadly the two leads, Cook and O’Leary, never really gel. The two have no chemistry and while their awkward interactions fit the script they just never really feel like a possible couple.  Obviously this is the intent, from the beginning each character is caught up in their own world, but when the film progresses their “relationship” does not.

Odd and quirky, Stung has given the horror fan a slew of references to giggle at but the slow almost dragging pace of the film keeps many moments from ever reaching true hilarity or any real horrific payoff. This one is a 3.5 out of 5 stars for the homages alone and O’Leary’s performance could almost have taken the film to another level…almost.

Total Performance (2015): Rehearsing for Life

Tory Berner as Cori Sweeney Total Performance

With a plot that could have been lifted from Noriko’s Dinner Table (Shion Sono 2005) Total Performance, written and directed Sean Meehan, follows actress Cori Sweeney (Tory Berner) who works for Total Performance; a company that helps people to rehearse for real life “problem” scenarios.  A relationship in trouble, cheating spouses, a man wanting to fire an old friend, and in a nasty twist of fate, a cheating boyfriend who wants to ditch his girl.

At the start of the film Cori is explaining to Tim (Steven Conroy) how the job works.  As an actor, she sees it as practice, she fills in for the person who the client  needs to interact with. In the first scenario a man wants to confront his cheating wife. 

In the second, Walter Baron (Timothy J. Cox) wants to practice, or rehearse, firing a dear friend from his company.  In the third scenario, Cori learns that Tim wants to leave his girlfriend. 

Somewhat like the Shion Sono film, the actors in the company fill in for lovers, partners or friends. As Cori tells Tim earlier, they are “sparring” partners for the client.

Meehan has given the viewer a serious/comic look at relationships, lies and people’s inabilities to deal with difficult issues.  The idea of a practice run for emotionally fraught interactions is brilliant. In Noriko’s Dinner Table, the premise was filling in for missing family members rather than providing a sort of “counseling” service.

(It should also be pointed out that in the Shion Sono film, this was a subplot used to caveat the main plot line, the film, a “J Horror”  was not about the actors but a follow on to another earlier horror film.)

As the female lead, Tory Berner is everything one could hope for.  With eyes that captivate and yet still manage to convey rage (in the scene with Paul Locke, as Bruce,  her eyes combine teary anger with an impressive intensity) where needed.  We believe in this performers role as sparring partner and we also feel for her later in this short film.

The supporting players; Locke as Bruce, Cox as Baron, all feel as real as Tory’s character. Cox always delivers in his roles and his portrayal of the boss who must practice firing a friend is touching as is it amusing.

While the allusion to Noriko’s Dinner Table may only exist in this reviewers imagination, Meehan has given us a world where people have become incapable of either telling the truth (Tim) or handling the more unpleasant aspects of their lives.  The fact that a company of actors have come up with a business based on this issue is brilliantly funny and says something about modern man’s inability to cope with real life issues.

Cinematographer Chris Loughran does an excellent job of matching the camera work to the mood and the sets all look spot on. Both the camera work and the set pieces combine to make the film feel like a slice of white collar Americana.

This is Meehan’s eighth effort in the driver’s seat as both writer and director and it shows. Total Performance is a delightful gem, a well crafted humorous and ironic tale of one actress’s “Day” job. The small slice of Cori’s dilemma is well presented and we feel for the young woman by the end of the film.

A 4 out of 5 stars for giving us characters and an outside the box storyline that is comedic but also touching. Bravo.

 

Spotlight: A Powerful and Moving Truth

The Boston Globe & Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, The Visitor) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Fringe) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, and is about six Boston Globe reporters who uncover a massive cover up of priests who assaulted children all over the city. As docudrama, Spotlight delivers a powerful and moving truth, that the church, and to a huge degree the city of Boston, swept facts under a rug to allowed pedophiles to continue to prey on their young victims.

The story follows the  journalists who discover that the Catholic Church, via Cardinal Law and the clergy’s  system itself,  actively sanctioned the cover-ups and repeatedly moved priests who were pedophiles and sexual predators. As the team of investigative reporters work to find answers and question new sources, the world carries on and a city’s officials continue to look the other way.

In many ways this is an old fashioned sort of film, harking back to the days of All the President’s Men, Erin Brockovich or even, with a bit of a stretch, Silkwood.  Granted, only the Woodward, Bernstein film is about reporters uncovering a very inconvenient truth, but all of the films deal with coverups by people who should have known better.  Out of the lot, Spotlight deals with something that both offends and dismays; an institution whose figureheads are the Pope and St Mary that condoned the molestation of children.

The title of the film refers to an investigative branch of The Boston Globe who work tirelessly to learn the truth behind allegations that priests were sexually abusing children throughout Boston and that the church, rather than punish those who transgressed, were just moving them on to another diocese. The list ultimately contained 87 names of priests who were sexual predators that the church, and the city, protected.

As a result of their investigative efforts the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage. Just as the film is evocative of other “whistle blower” films, or films about coverups, political and otherwise, the story also feels like a “throw-back” to proper journalism and those investigative reporters who worked so tirelessly to learn the truth. It could, in fact, serve as a training template for new journalists.

Spotlight is not shot in a manner to cause excitement, the hues of color in each scene feel like a blend of Boston coffee house and harsh office lighting.  The ambiance of the sets, which feel as real as any reporters cubicle desk back in the old days, lends a sense of reality to the journey these investigative journalists underwent to finally put all the pieces together.

The acting is grim, real and underplayed.  There are scenes of raw emotion, I defy anyone watching not to become emotional during Michael Rezendes’ outburst later in the film. Mark Ruffalo, as Rezendes, brings a deep seated intensity to his depiction of the “head” reporter on the case.  The Hulk actor has proven more often than not that he is destined to play more than a great green “Avenger” with anger management problems.

Michael Keaton now seems to have returned to the screen in earnest.  After his prolonged absence and brilliant return in the Oscar winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014, Keaton proves with his depiction of Spotlight head Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson that his chops have not dulled in his absence.

Powerful, and moving performances were given by all. Even Liev Schreiber, who played the  smaller, but relatively important role of The Boston Globe’s “new boss” gives an impressively nuanced picture of the Jewish executive editor who tasks his investigative branch to take on the city of Boston and the Catholic Church.

There are a number of familiar faces in this “biopic” docudrama. All are beyond excellent, from Rachel McAdams’s role of the reporter whose Nan took her to church every Sunday to family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) who becomes upset when he realizes that two of these pedophile priests live in his neighborhood.

Spotlight works on a few levels, initially it shows, via the mundane nature  of  fact finding and “door knocking” by the team,  just how sources should be found, vetted and questioned.  “Old fashioned newspaper work” feet on the ground, research, and solid investigation are the order of the day.  The editors, all the ones “in the loop,” continually question their reporters on their status and waver between dropping the case and continuing.

Another factor, not mentioned in the film, but one that anyone in the journalistic field will be aware of is that this all took place not long after the “crucification” of investigative journalist Gary Webb. (The film Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner tells about this travesty which took place in the mid 1990s.)

This story has long reaching ramifications for the church.  The story of sexual predators as priests and their victims coming forward could have been buried when 9/11 occurred. (The twin towers were attacked during the investigation.)  In all likelihood the entire sickening episode would have received more attention had 9/11 not taken place.

Spotlight is a re-creation of events that took place in the early 2000s. While in some instances it feels a little like a newspaper version of Dragnet, it lacks the harsh delivery of the hit television show about Joe Friday. Instead it gives us a sober look at the less pleasant side of reporting and shows how investigative work should be done.

McCarthy allows us to see the pain, doubt and indecision behind the actions taken by the investigative team and all the people they interact with.  There may be elements of the “coverup” genre (which arguably should be a genre all its own) but the message is simple:

Any organization, despite its intent, is capable of protecting its own.  

Just like the police force closes ranks when a brother (or sister) in blue commits an offense, so too the Catholic Church closed ranks to protect its pedophiles.

Spotlight is easily one of the top ten films of 2015  that should be seen by all. Not just a message film, or even biopic per se, it is powerful indictment of the old fashioned virtues of the press that is missing in this day and age of Internet news and citizen journalists.

A 4 out of 5 star film that you will feel compelled to watch at least twice, if not more.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Tom Cruise as Older Ethan Hunt?

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt

It is permissible to hate  Tom Cruise a little.  Especially when one is a scant four years older than the action star who is still in his “Peter Pan” years at 53. Cruise, in Mission Impossible:Rogue Nation may be a little bit older as Ethan Hunt, but he is no less limber or attractive to the opposite sex.

Cinema goers will not have seen the featurette’s that accompany the DVD release(s) where fans can see Cruise going through the paces and doing his own stunts and not being crippled for days at the mid century mark, but they can rest easy in the knowledge that the over 50 action star does an awful lot of his own work. Or they can purchase the Blu-Ray and if they are older gaze in awe at his years younger lean look.

As easy as it is to be envious of the top notch shape the star is in, or his seemingly indefatigable enthusiasm and energy for the work he does, it is just as pain free to admire the man who has risen again and again to unimaginable heights.  In the Mission Impossible franchise alone, Cruise has almost reinvented what amounts to an American icon.

There have been no less than five of the big screen versions of a 1960s (The show ran from 1966 to 1973.) cult classic spy thriller television show that allowed Peter Graves (the real life brother of Gunsmoke‘s Jame Arness) the chance to weekly do the impossible. With Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Norris, and other notable names like Leslie Ann Warren and Sid Haig, the show was a fan favorite.

The move to make the transition to the big screen and replace “Mr Phelps” with Ethan Hunt was a smooth one, although Graves as Phelps dies in the first seconds of the first in the franchise, and Tom Cruise then became the new “face ” of the IMF.

Thus endeth the short history lesson of Cruise becoming Hunt.

Each visit to the Mission Impossible verse is slightly different although the “template” is pretty much the same, each film is a mission that should fail. These good guys do not have that word in their vocabulary so by the skin of their teeth, the IMF succeed. Cruise as producer manages to keep each new installment in the franchise  fresh by swapping out directors.

The list of helmsmen for the film’s many iterations are impressive, Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J.  Abrams, Brad Bird and the last, Christopher McQuarrie all come with impeccable pedigrees.  It could  almost be a “who’s who” of talented directors who bring much to the table and each have left their own stamp on the finished product. The cast had Ving Rhames on board from film one, joined later by Simon Pegg  as Benji (Mission Impossible III) and Jeremy Renner came on board for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Increasingly, Cruise’s Hunt and Pegg’s Dunn have become a double act/team. In many ways it feels as though the Brit entertainer, with so many hats, has taught Cruise a different sort of comedy. While this may seem like the case, in reality it is more a dream team  of performers who each compliment the other when on screen and interacting as a duo.

Hunt has always been portrayed as a capable go-getter who is far removed from a mundane Agent Normal  “everyman” with great toys.  Cruise points out that his character is not a superhero as much as someone who just will not give up. Hunt disregards the impossible and so does his team.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, has its fair share of “comedic” moments. Many of these are interwoven into the action scenes so that one can chuckle nervously while watching the action through spread fingers across the face.  This is the allure of the franchise, Cruise can do subtle action comedy well.

(Anyone who doubts this should watch Edge of Tomorrow, immediately.)

This latest in the franchise has a femme fatale to die for, almost literally, in the shape of one Brit/Swede star who has a passing resemblance to Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman. Rebecca Ferguson is killer as the tough-as-nails double agent who helps Hunt, kicks bad guy butt with panache and still looks great with wet and bedraggled hair.  That “almost” cut glass accent does not impede any action that this powerful woman need employ.

Perhaps the best thing in the entire film is its elusive villain, Sean Harris. This Bethnal Green lad could have been born to play baddies. From his nightmare inducing character in Creep (2004) to his crack-fueled drug and gun dealer Stretch in Harry Brown (2009) and even his less terrifying scientist in the 2013 film Prometheus, Harris gives every character he inhabits a living truth that is either terrifying, disturbing or annoying. Whatever his roles are, we believe them completely. 

It is Harris as puppet master who makes Hunt look so good. On a sidenote, this third outing as Benji Dunn for Simon Pegg marks an increase of his capabilities as an agent.

The plot, like the music, is a blend of twists and turns that take the viewer on a great roller coaster ride. Car chases that amaze and create a sense of envy (After all, who has not dreamed of driving a muscle car down a long row of steps?) as well as choreographed fight scenes that look spectacular.

Apart from the action and excitement the driving force of the film is that  Ethan has had IMF disbanded by the snotty head of the CIA , Alan Hunley.

Clearly Alec Baldwin (that nice guy that any girl would love to take home to mother in Beetlejuice) can play smarmy douchebags in his sleep, which in no way is a reflection on his personal life, by the way… Baldwin manages to emote pettiness and jealousy from his every pore in the film, while kudos could be in order, one feels that the actor could have “phoned this one in.” Baldwin is just that good at being a douche…

The story jumps from place to place at break neck speed, fans of the franchise get what they want (there is even the obligatory face-mask scene) and everything works well. Hunt may be a bit “klutzier” than usual, but it works as does that marvelous plane stunt with the “wrong door” gag.

Having missed this in the cinemas all that can be said is that it loses little on the smaller “home screen” and that it would have been nice to have more Ving Rhames. McQuarrie as director does a brilliant job, the cinematography is as breathtaking as the stunts and the acting, spot on.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt may be that bit older, but it appears that the actor either has a painting in his closet a’la Dorian Gray or his membership with the church that Katie Holmes scarpered from has made some sort of deal…with someone….

If this film does not appear in your stocking from Father Christmas this year, rush down and grab it or stream it. This is 5 star escapist entertainment of the finest sort. Fun to watch with a fizzy drink in one fist while shoving some popcorn into your open mouth with the other. Enjoy.