November 19th, 2015 — 6:28am
Almost 40 years ago a film about investigative reporters who exposed the Watergate break-in and brought down the Nixon presidency was nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture. That was All the President’s Men. Jason Robards, Jr. won for best supporting actor. Now today we have Spotlight, a terrific film about an investigative reporter team of the Boston Globe, who in 2002 dug into the hidden scandal of about 90 catholic priests who were molesting children. These horrific crimes were covered up and even when some of them were exposed, the priests were not prosecuted and would just be re-assigned to churches in other cities. The reporting team persisted in their work and even exposed the fact that Cardinal Law also knew about these activities and participated in the cover-up. This ultimately led to him being re-assigned to a posh position in a prominent church in Rome. This exposé rocked the Catholic Church and has implications that extend to the present time.
It will be very difficult to choose a best actor or supporting actor from these outstanding performances, since this was truly the work of an ensemble. The real life reporters, Mike Rezendes was played by Mark Ruffalo, Sacha Pfeiffer was played by Rachel McAdams, Matt Carroll was played by Brian d’Arcy and the Spotlight team team leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson was played by Michael Keaton. There also were great performances by Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, the newly brought in overall senior editor of the Boston Globe who happened to be Jewish. John Slattery played Ben Bradlee, Jr. the long-time editor of the Boston Globe, who was a supervisor to the Spotlight Team. Interestingly, Ben Bradlee, Jr. is the son of the famed newspaper icon, Ben Bradlee who was the editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal exposé. There were some other fine performances by familiar faces which included Stanley Tucci as one of the many lawyers in the film and Len Cariou (who plays the grandfather on Blue Bloods TV program) as Cardinal Law.
The director of this movie was Tom McCarthy who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer. They made the decision not to collapse some of the characters in order to keep the team as the ensemble it was in real life. This may have somewhat diffused the potential drama of the movie. Early in the film, as each reporter went off on his and her own investigative aspects of the project, it was a little confusing as to who they were interviewing and why. This all came together as the two-hour and nine-minute film flew by with the tension mounting as the story progressed. We got the message that investigative reporting is hard, tedious work but when you see your subject in your “gun sight” and you realize you are dealing with a worthy subject, all the effort is worth it. The realism of the movie was also enhanced by some collaborative meetings by the actors with the real reporters. We understand that they held meetings with their respective characters and with some of them even watched how they performed in their workplace. The result is a movie that should not be missed. (2015)
Comment » | 4 Stars, Drama, History
November 18th, 2015 — 7:43am
This is an excellent film that should score a touchdown on several counts. Significantly, it may put an unwavering light on the brain damage that football brings about due to the repeated slamming of the brain in its fluid container inside the skull, which is so characteristic of our highly popular American sport. The viewers of this film will take in this awareness in the course of this most dramatic presentation. The audience will also witness an outstanding sensitive performance by Will Smith who plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the true to life Pittsburgh pathologist who discovered and named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy as a result of performing autopsies on three former professional football players who died at a young age. Their death was often preceded by memory difficulties, mood alterations which included depression and labile mood which often led to out of control behavior and even suicide.
Will Smith deserves Oscar consideration as he brought to life the persona of this brilliant Nigerian born doctor who had numerous degrees but yet was sensitive to his deceased patients and felt compelled to be sure that their true story was told. He worked in a Pittsburgh morgue under the supervision and support of famed pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht who was played very well by Albert Brooks. Wecht was portrayed as quite wise yet with a smidgen of comic undertones, which made him quite warm and believable. Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) who was a former loyal NFL team doctor who once he appreciated the solidity of Dr. Omalu’s discovery, stood by him in his confrontations with the NFL.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw sensitively portrayed Dr. Omalu’s girlfriend, who became his wife. The film may have taken on a little too much unnecessary poetic license in at least one place by showing Dr. Omalu’s wife being harassed by some people following her while she was driving alone in her car, which led to her having a miscarriage. Director/Writer Peter Landesman in response to MB’s question admitted that this incident shown in the movie was not exactly what happened. He said, it was meant to symbolize and condense the real harassment that Dr. Omalu and his new wife had from the many football fans in his community when some of them realized that the essence of professional football was being challenged by this one unknown doctor who documented and published scientific articles backing up his findings which challenged the safety of football at all levels from the NFL down through college, high school and even at the youngest level.
We know that ultimately lawsuits were brought against the NFL and were settled for large sums of money with the caveat that the NFL does not have to acknowledge how long they knew about the possibility of brain damage in the players. Practices have since been adopted to take players out of the game who show signs of head injury. However, it has been estimated that at least one-quarter of professional football players will develop evidence of brain damage. We do not know what the full extent of these injuries will be especially in high school and college players or even at the most junior level who are playing the sport.
The authenticity of this film is confirmed by the fact that the real Dr. Omalu and Dr. Cyril Wecht are consultants to the movie. There was one line in the film, which states that if 10% of parents hold back their children from playing football, it could destroy football as the big time multibillion-dollar sport that it is today. We don’t know if that statistic is true. We also don’t know if this film will get wide enough distribution to make this impact. The filmmakers wondered if the NFL would use their influence to stop the film from being advertised during NFL TV games. Apparently, that is not going to be the case. So the general public is going to get a chance to learn about this outstanding movie and parents as well as young people will decide if the youth of America is going to play this game knowing what they know about concussions, brain trauma and aftermath of these events. (2015)
Comment » | 4 Stars, Drama, History, Sport
November 16th, 2015 — 7:32am
Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar, the story of the 2010 Chilean Mine disaster and the 33 miners trapped underground, was one of the best books we have read in a long time (see book review). So a movie following in its footsteps has big shoes to fill. Director Patricia Riggen and the producing team led by veteran producer Mike Medavoy did a pretty good job of capturing the atmosphere as well as creating the tension and interaction of the beleaguered miners. They chose to make this film in English, which took away from the realism but we understand the reasonable necessity to do this to facilitate worldwide distribution. Much of the film was deep in the dark mine and the faces of the characters were understandably in deep shadows. While good for realism, it did take awhile for the characters to be clearly distinguished as individuals.
There was one interesting issue which we wonder if it was fact or creative license. That was when Laurence Golbourne (Rodrigo Santoro), the young government official who was Minister of Mines for the Chilean government told the veteran mine rescue expert exactly how he should position the last chance drilling effort, which was the only drill to reach the miners. Just as important as the interaction of the miners with each other was the role of the families putting pressure on the various officials to make an all-out effort to save their loved ones. The emotions of these family members, friends and one mistress was highlighted by the character of Maria Segovia, sister of one of the miners, who was well-played by Juliette Binoche. Another standout was the character of Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) who assumed the leadership role of the trapped miners.
This was the last film of the late James Horner who as usual created an excellent soundtrack to capture the changing moods of the film. At the conclusion of the movie, we see a postscript telling us that none of the miners received any compensation from the mine company. In a post screening discussion, we were able to ask producer Michael Medavoy if this film is financially successful, would the miners receive any compensation. The answer was, “You bet,” but it has to come after all the backers of the film receive their upfront money back plus a reasonable profit. We thought that why should the miners not receive their compensation upfront? But that apparently is the usual Hollywood way. Despite this concern, the film itself, while not meeting the standards of the amazing book is still worthwhile and should be seen and enjoyed by many viewers. Shortly after the actual disaster occurred I also wrote two blogs about the psychological implications of this experience ( see blog#1 and blog #2 ) (2015)
Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History
October 25th, 2015 — 2:17am
Steve Jobs- rm
We came to this version of Steve Jobs’ story, Apple’s iconic founder, having seen the recent documentary film of Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and also having read Walter Issaacson’s 2011 biography of Jobs. We are not so sure that we would have appreciated the nuances and the depths of how the relationships were depicted in this current movie, had we not experienced the two previous pieces. For example, we see a recurrent theme, which defines Jobs’ relationship with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) as he pleads with Jobs to give him and the Apple-2-team credit during the new Apple launches. Jobs refuses because he says he wants to emphasize the future. In fact, Jobs has treated his friend Wozniak, the real inventor of the first Apple computer, very poorly. They had been friends working in Jobs’ garage when they were in their 20s. While not shown in this film, it has been previously documented that one of the first projects that they worked together was designing a game for Atari where Wozniak did all the work and Jobs dealt with the interface with Atari but grossly short-changed Wozniak when they were paid for their work, a pattern they apparently continued later in life. .
Perhaps the most important and revealing relationship shown in this film and well described in the previous book and movie is the one with his daughter Lisa. Early on Jobs consistently denied his paternity of Lisa. When it was eventually proven by genetic test, he reluctantly paid minimal support for the struggling mother and child despite the fact that at that time he was worth at least $440 million. We see Jobs wrestling with his feelings about Lisa in this film and his ambivalence towards her and her mother.
The dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin was typical of his fast-moving style in both the words and the physical movement of the characters. The film did not attempt to be a biography of Steve Jobs. Instead, the storyline showcased three specific product launches of the Apple computer. It revealed the behind-the-scenes interactions of Jobs and other important people, particularly with his daughter Lisa played very well by three different actresses, Mackenzie Moss when she was five, Ripley Sobo when she was nine and most significantly by Perla Haney-Jardine when Lisa was 19. Lisa’s mother was played Katherine Waterston.
There was one very interesting foray in trying to show some psychological insight of the origin of Jobs’ self-centered personality. This occurred when Jobs was interacting with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) the Apple CEO who was originally hired by Jobs and then participated in firing Jobs at a later point in time. The discussion was about how Jobs was treating his daughter and how it might be related to his own childhood relationships. Jobs related how he was adopted as an infant but his new mother wasn’t sure that she would be allowed to keep him for certain complicated reasons, so she withheld her love during his first year so she would not become too attached to him. If that were true, it might explain Jobs’ apparent defective ability to relate to others despite his genius, unusual vision and talent in bringing his products to the world.
Credit has to be given to Michael Fassbender in his role as Jobs and to director Danny Boyle. A key role was also well done by Kate Winslet who played Joanna Hoffman an important member of the Mac team. The film will give the moviegoers the experience that they are transported back in time, and are seeing this iconic figure up close during some of his historic moments in the birth of the Apple computer. (2015)
Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History
October 22nd, 2015 — 10:18pm
Bridge of Spies -rm
With Steven Spielberg directing, Tom Hanks staring, the Coen brothers being part of the writing team in this story of the spies in the cold war, this movie would seem to be bound for success. If you were around in the 1950’s, the story of Colonel Rudolf Abel, the Russian spy caught spying in Brooklyn and Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot shot down taking pictures over Russia should be quite familiar to you. That may take some of the suspense away from you as you know how the movie is going to end. On the other hand, if you were close to the millennial generation, the film might generate enough tension to put you on the edge of your seat.
The film did show very interesting depictions of two persons who became well known to the American public as the central events unfolded. There is the captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who was very devoted to his cause and not really a bad person although clearly hated by most Americans. On the other hand, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) the American pilot on the secret spy mission taking pictures over Russia is shown as an all American-type handsome guy who is the center of attention because he didn’t do the expected, deadly self-destruct thing with the poison pin, before he was captured.
The main protagonist was James Donovan (Tom Hanks). It’s hard to say if we like him so much because he was Tom Hanks or was it because he was this idealistic attorney standing up for American principle’s of giving everyone a fair trial, even if his client were a despicable man of the times being a Russian spy.
Spielberg appeared to put his $40 million budget to good use as the scenes were all quite realistic. Especially dramatic was the building of the Berlin wall and the views of some attempted escapes from East Berlin and of course there was the bridge where the exchange was to take place. The shoot down of Powers’ plane seemed quite realistic (we hope no one was hurt in the escape from the plane – it seemed that good). There was a little too much repetition in this two-hour and fifteen-minute movie with much more talking than action. For those who didn’t live through this period, this film may very well become the mental representation of this period although we didn’t think it quite captured the fear and apprehension that existed in the country at that time. (2015)
Comment » | 3 Stars, History
September 28th, 2015 — 5:58pm
Pawn Sacrifice -rm
This is the story of Bobby Fischer, the American boy wonder chessmaster, who at the age of 29 in 1972 beat Russian champion chess player Boris Spassky to become the best chess player in the world. We meet young Fischer as a preteen growing up in Brooklyn where his preoccupation with chess makes him a very unusual brilliant young man. It would appear that his limited social skills matched with his total preoccupation with chess and a genius mind that could visualize and memorize numerous chess games in his head, suggests that he had Asperger’s disorder. As we follow this brilliant genius into preparation and ultimately arriving at the classic series of matches in Iceland, we see how he became preoccupied with the belief that he was being spied upon. He took apart a telephone looking for listening devices and even insisted that the venue for the match be moved to a basement setting instead of the large stage where it was to be held. He limited the number of TV cameras demanded a certain distance from him. The film does suggest that this classic famed match had great significance to both the United States and Russian governments. We even see that the CIA may have been involved in meeting Fischer’s demands for money and other requirements in order for him to participate in the match. However the film also points to the probability that Fischer’s mental functioning was much more than the political paranoia of the time. In fact, we think that a case can be made that Bobby Fischer had a schizophrenic mental disorder.
This well done film is a recounting of one of the most important and widely followed chess matches in history. It is also a sad story of a tortured soul. Tobey Maguire who plays Fischer as an adult did a fine job although it was a one dimensional view of this man as we never saw any evidence of him having any joy or meaningful relationships which we would expect even with a severe mental disorder. Liev Schreiber was quite good as the large contemplative Russian master Boris Spassky who barely said a word in the film.
Even though most of the movie audience probably knew the results of the match, seeing how it developed and went down was filled with suspense and drama. The subsequent downhill slide of Fischer which was not shown in the film and only told to us in a post-script at the end of the film, with a few newsreel clips, might have taken the movie to a more dramatic and interesting conclusion had the writers Steven Knight, Stephen Rivele and director Edward Zwick chosen to extend the film to this subject. (2015)
Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History
September 23rd, 2015 — 5:31am
LABYRINTH OF LIES -sp
To us, one of the most important and memorable aspects of this outstanding film is that the current generation of German filmmakers and the people related to this industry, have decided to make this movie the 2015 entry from Germany to the Oscars for best foreign film. Doing this also reflects the monumental theme of this movie, which is the responsibility of the German people for Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
The story is based on actual events and follows a young German prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) in Frankfurt, Germany in the early 1960s as he becomes aware that identifiable people now living in Germany were responsible for murder in the Auschwitz Camp during World War II. Although the Nuremberg trials, which occurred shortly after World War II nearly 20 years previously, were monumental in the prosecution of members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes, those trials were carried out by the victorious allies. In the film, which depicts a true story, we see, probably for the first time ever, a government trying to prosecute its own former soldiers. The question of who was guilty and was there any family spared having a war criminal among them is raised. As one of the characters states, the only innocent people were those who weren’t born yet or who were small children when all these events happened.
It matters very little that the main focus is on Johann Radmann who is the prosecutor played magnificently by Alexander Fehling, who was in reality a composite of three prosecutors in real life. All the characters in the movie are true to life and very believable. One of them, Fritz Bauer, played by the famous German actor, Gert Voss, has a famous legal institute now named in his honor. One of the buildings where the archival records were being searched in the film is the actual location of where the well kept records of the Nazi regime are now stored for historical examination.
Director/writer Giulio Ricciarelli has been very thoughtful in his choices, so as not to make the movie a recapitulation or a reenactment of the horrors of the Holocaust. Rather, he puts the focus on the impact on the people living in post-war Germany. One interesting point that was made very clear was that most of the German people at the time, depicted in the film, did not know about Auschwitz nor did they want to know about it.
We were reminded that our recent personal observations have shown that most contemporary Germans no longer deny their history. This was very clear to us in our recent visit to Berlin, where we saw the names of displaced Jews embedded in plaques on the sidewalks in front of their former houses. We also visited the very complete and well-done Holocaust museum as well as many other points of remembrance. This film clearly created an honest reflection of German history, which was not known to most of us. It was a powerful and beautifully done work of fact, emotion and importance. (2015)
Comment » | 5 Stars, Drama, Foreign, History, Uncategorized
September 5th, 2015 — 11:53pm
Woman in Gold – nf
This is a movie about the Holocaust and it stars Helen Mirren and therefore it will get many people’s attention, which it l deserves. In our opinion, it doesn’t quite rank with Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, or The Pianist but it does deal with a fascinating historical story. It begins begins in 1907 with a painting of an Austrian woman by the famed artist Gustav Klimt. It ends about 100 years later in 2006 when the niece of the subject of that painting was able to win the legal battle to wrest this painting from an Austrian museum and brings it to the United States where she now lives.
We follow this journey through the life of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) who grew up in a wealthy Austrian family and lived very comfortably surrounded by fine things including great works of art. She and her family were Jewish and the film dramatically shows scenes which depict the anti-semitism and the demoralizing treatment of the Austrian Jews by the Nazis in the 1940s. We see this one family, previously quite happy, torn apart overnight as a few members escape and the remainder perish in the holocaust.
Fast forward to the United States in the 1990s and an older Maria Altmann, living in Los Angeles, finds family letters which document some of the valuable works of art including the Woman in Gold now in an Austrian museum which she recalls being in her home as a child.. She connects with a young lawyer by the name of Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of the famous Austrian composer, who joins her on this great odyssey. It involves them returning to modern day Austria and battling the government there with the help of an idealistic Austrian reporter played by Daniel Bruhl. This adventure eventually takes them all the way to the United States Supreme Court and successfully ends in a contested arbitration in Austria.
Director Curtis Simon deserves credit for an outstanding job and Helen Mirren, as usual, performs what could be an award winning role. The story is predictable and uncomplicated. Occasionally, the film is in German with subtitles but the characters speak mostly in English, including times in Austria when you expect them to be speaking their native language. Most important however, this movie allows another generation to experience the tragic story of the Holocaust so it will not be forgotten. (2015)
1 comment » | 4 Stars, Drama, History
August 16th, 2015 — 11:18pm
Aviva Kempner is the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a documentary filmmaker who is interested in showing the contributions of Jews to society. Among other films that she has made were The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which told the story about the life and career of the first Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. She also made a film titled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of the actress, writer and television star Gertrude Berg. This time she has taken on the story of Julius Rosenwald who died in 1932. He was the son of an immigrant peddler who never graduated from high school but became a successful businessman and ultimately the president of Sears Roebuck. He was a major philanthropist and focused his energy and his wealth on the African-American communities in the South. He was the moving force in building over 5000 schools in the early 20th Century for young black students in Jim Crow states. This film also showed the support he gave to Tuskegee University in Alabama and his relationship with one of its founders Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald was a truly remarkable man who had the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).
Rosenwald was a living example of the historical bond which has existed between Jewish and black cultures in the United States. Much of this story is told with interviews with such people as Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, Gordon Parks, Cokie Roberts , various descendants of his family and many others. The fascinating subject of this film and his actions will resonant with many people and should provide an example for future generations.
The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the implications of Rosenwald’s contributions may have led her to lose focus at times. For example, the visit of Eleanor Roosevelt to Tuskegee University to pay attribute to be Tuskegee Airmen and the ride she took in a small plane was quite interesting but moved the film further from its main theme Similarly, telling the story of Marian Anderson, the great black singer and one of the recipients of Rosenwald’s many scholarships, led the filmmaker to deviate into a long exposition about Anderson’s achievements. Some of these interesting but somewhat extraneous segments would have been better left to the bonus DVD which will accompany the film when it is purchased for personal use (although we understand that that bonus DVD in the making, is already three hours long). While not a great film, it was a unique look at a very special and not well-known person who made many contributions that changed countless lives. (2015)
Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History
July 30th, 2015 — 2:05am
Best of Enemies
The 1968 democratic political convention was held in Chicago in a year filled with violence, political turmoil, and civil unrest. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president because of the controversy over the Vietnam for war. His Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination beating anti-war spokesperson Eugene McCarthy. In the Republican Convention in Miami, Florida, former Vice President Richard Nixon beat Ronald Reagan for the nomination and went on to win the election. One of the memorable aspects of this political year was a series of 10 debates between William F. Buckley Jr., conservative spokesperson and Gore Vidal, liberal spokesperson that was aired on the ABC television network during the political convention. It is these debates that are the subject of this thought provoking and revealing documentary film produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. It is ironic that when ABC made the decision to inject the debates into its TV coverage of the conventions, they were number three in the ratings and were a poor number three at that. Yet, their use of these debates propelled them to the highest ratings over the other two networks who were doing gavel-to-gavel convention coverage. This is probably the beginning of the type of news coverage which we see today which is filled with pundits discussing and debating the news on many different networks.
In 1968, there was no more well known spokesperson of the conservative points of view than William F. Buckley Jr. For many years he had a popular television program “Firing Line” where he took on people with opposing views and demonstrated his brilliance. He also was a columnist for well-known conservative magazines. Gore Vidal was an equally brilliant, articulate liberal spokesperson who not only spoke “the talk” but wrote many very successful books about American history and also penned successful novels including one well-known fiction work titled Myra Breckinridge.
As we see in this 87-minute documentary film edited by Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, these 10 debates were very fascinating to watch and were watched more than for the discussion about the conflicts of ideological viewpoints. Certainly, Buckley expressed his view that people should be more self-sufficient and shouldn’t depend on government handouts. Vidal made the point that the government has responsibility to support people in need. However, the essence of this historic debate was how these brilliant men try to take apart not only each other’s arguments but each other.
We didn’t see all the raw footage of the debate, but in a post-film discussion with Mr. Neville, one, of the director producers, he shared his analysis which counted that more than three quarters of the time, these men were trying to dissect each other, rather than carrying on a rational discussion of the complicated issues of their time. One can’t help reflect how this film reminds us that this may be how we are approaching our modern day political debates as the right and left trash each other.
It of course makes great television and there have been very few more exciting moments in live widely watched television than the culminating mutual attacks on each other that occurred in the Buckley-Vidal debates. There needs to be no “spoiler alert” here since the following moments which we will describe are well-explored in this documentary. Mr. Buckley compared the anti-war protesters (who were probably demonstrating at that very moment outside the convention hall) “to be bullying fascists.” Vidal then says, “The only pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley then uncharacteristically loses his temper and says, “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” (The fact that Vidal turned out to be “gay” was completely irrelevant especially since he was not out at that time and Buckley had used a very disparaging word in reference to him.) Another irony is that at the very moment that Buckley threatened to punch Vidal, the police outside were probably punching the protesters. In any case this documentary film gives an inside view of the meaning of this debate using commentary of people who knew the two men at that time and later in life. We learned that Vidal’s feelings and comments about Buckley, even at the time of Buckley’s death were as angry and as bitter as ever. Similarly, Buckley’s people who knew him suggest that Buckley never got over his feelings about Vidal.
A good documentary film not only presents the facts but also tries to put them in some kind of perspective. To a certain degree, the filmmakers here may have succeeded. You may need to be a student of television and politics to fully appreciate how the debate may have been a turning point in how such debates are handled in the modern media. However, if you step back you can perhaps see that our current political discourse in 2015 over ideological differences, may be getting very personal. This film presents a worthwhile lesson in these situations of what can go wrong between “The Best of Enemies.”
Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History