Andrew Garfield plays a different kind of superhero in Hacksaw Ridge


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Mel Gibson returns to the directing chair after a gap of 10 years with Hacksaw Ridge, which has been nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor. The commercial and critical success of this film is also a sort of redemption for Gibson after being a Hollywood pariah for several years following his various domestic and personal issues which were acted out very publicly.

Gibson’s film is about real-life American Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious objector’ who was a medic in World War 2 and performed such feats of heroism in the Pacific theatre that he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945. Interestingly, although this is a film about an American Infantry division, most of the key actors are not American. Doss is played by Englishman Andrew Garfield and in order to qualify for tax incentives while shooting in Australia, the film features a predominantly Australia/ NZ cast with the likes of Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffith, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracy and even Gibson’s own son Milo. The most significant American actor in the film is Vince Vaughn in a welcome departure from his usual low brow roles; he plays the Army sergeant Howell, the proverbial tough guy with a heart of gold who is part of some genuinely entertaining moments in the early part of the film while Doss is in Army training camp. In some real-life footage at the end of the film, we see the real Desmond Doss and if anything he is even skinnier and lankier than Andrew Garfield. When Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) first sees Doss at the training camp he says, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques!” and then turns to his assistant saying, “Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.”

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As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield plays a bigger superhero than he ever could have in any number of Spider-Man films. In a squirm-inducing and almost unwatchable battle scene in the final act, Doss keeps going and going, like the Eveready bunny; powered by prayer and determination, he rescues more than 75 wounded soldiers from the top of ‘Hacksaw ridge’ on Okinawa island while under constant fire and bombardment. Like a marathoner who thinks “just one more stride”, Doss says “O Lord, help me get one more, just one more” and then goes back into the battlefield to find another wounded man. Garfield is perfectly cast and I can’t think of any other A-list actor who can play a character who is so pure and uncomplicated in his beliefs.

Hugo Weaving, who film fans will know as Agent Smith from the Matrix films or Elrond from Lord of the Rings does an outstanding job playing Doss’ alcoholic father, a WW1 solider whose self-hatred and violent nature was one of the key factors that fuelled Doss’ determination to follow a non-violent path as an adult.

Gibson as director brings several different moods and tones into this film. There is a lovely romantic interlude in the first act as Doss courts his wife-to-be, a nurse at the nearby hospital. Then there are the very entertaining training scenes in the 2nd act featuring Vince Vaughn’s Sgt Howell familiarising himself with the company of new recruits. This quickly morphs into intense drama as Doss stands his ground while the Army tries to get him discharged and court-martialled for failing to pick up a weapon. The battle scene in the 3rd act plays like something out of Starship Troopers or Aliens, with Doss’ company virtually overrun by hundreds of Japanese troops who keep coming and coming and coming. I felt it was even more brutal than the opening Normandy beach scenes in Saving Pvt. Ryan (and I know that film kept me awake the whole night). And then at the tail end of the movie, in the final assault on Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson injects a sort of spiritual mysticism into the scenes of the troops going into battle seemingly protected by the aura of Doss’ presence and his prayers.

At a time when the world is polarized into opposing camps with rigid beliefs and unyielding positions, this film throws a light on the power of a person’s convictions and how far he will go to safeguard them. It asks the question of what is right and what is wrong. Is right and wrong determined by the number of people who believe in that position? Can a man be right about something even if he is in the minority or perhaps, the only person who believes in it? History has shown us that indeed this can be the case, with philosophers, scientists, religious and social reformers all having had to wade against the tide of public opinion to put forward a new idea or be given the freedom to live by their beliefs.

With the stiff competition at the Oscars this year, I suspect it will be Moonlight or La La Land taking away best picture and best directing Oscars and I think Casey Affleck should pick up the statuette for Best Actor. So it’s possible that Hacksaw Ridge will come away empty handed although it could be a front runner for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing, given all the sound engineering required for the battle scenes. Irrespective of the outcome of the Oscars, this film is a must-watch, both for its story, for Mel Gibson’s mature directing and for the fact that it forms part of the increasingly impressive body of work that Andrew Garfield has built up in the past few years, starting with The Social Network in 2010, the 2 Spider-Man movies (in which he was the saving grace), 99 Homes and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. All this by the age of 33. Next is another possible ‘award-magnet’ role as a paralyzed polio survivor in Breathe directed by ‘Gollum’ actor Andy Serkis. As for Mel Gibson, I am so thrilled to see him return to the mainstream and that too with such success. I’ve loved all the movies he has directed (except Passion of the Christ which I haven’t seen), his visceral style and look forward to what comes next.

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Moonlight shines with soul-stirring performances


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Barry Jenkins is a 37-year-old African-American filmmaker from Florida. His debut film Medicine for Melancholy was produced on a budget of USD 15,000 and did the rounds of a few North American film festivals. Not many people had heard of the movie or the director. Now with his second film Moonlight, Jenkins has rocketed to stratospheric levels of fame. With a Metacritic score of 99, the Golden Globe for best drama film and 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Actress, Moonlight has moved to the head of the pack along with La La Land in the final lap of the 2017 awards season.

Moonlight is a ‘coming-of-age’ story set in a seemingly normal middle-class urban community, but one in which drugs and violence are always around the corner. More importantly, it’s a film that portrays the challenges of growing up ‘different’, not just in the US but in any modern society around the world.

The main character Chiron, is played by 3 different actors who cover three stages of his life – as a shy young boy, a conflicted high schooler and finally as a self-confident adult. Perhaps because each is on screen for only a third of the movie, none have received any acting nominations (all the accolades have gone deservedly to the two supporting actors, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris). But in fact, the 3 Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are the ones who make this movie work, with former track athlete Rhodes as the tough young drug dealer ironically delivering the most heart-breaking performance of all.

I want to talk a bit about the ‘dinner table scene’ at the end of the first act. Young Chiron is at the home of kind-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) who has become a father figure to him over the previous few months. The normally uncommunicative Chiron suddenly asks Juan: “What’s a faggot?”. Juan takes a few seconds to think (I was wondering what he would say) and answers: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”. Touché! The boy then asks: “Am I a faggot?” and Juan immediately replies “No”; at this split second, I thought to myself that Juan had no right to make that judgement, but then immediately afterwards, he adds: “You may be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot”. It’s this sort of nuanced dialogue that shines through in Jenkins’ script (adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney). As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one scene, the boy then asks Juan if he deals in drugs and now realizes that the man who has been like a father to him is also responsible for his mother’s crack addiction; at that moment Chiron gets up and walks away without a word and you can feel the crushing weight of his disappointment, while Juan realizes the far-reaching impact of his chosen profession and we see him sinking into the depths of remorse.

The film is a meditation on love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I was fascinated by the arc of Chiron’s relationship with his emotionally abusive mother (Naomie Harris – the new Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), going from dependence to hatred to resentment to reconciliation over a span of about 15 years.

At the end of the final act, Chiron drives to another town to meet his childhood friend Kevin, with whom he had a brief moment of sexual intimacy as a teenager. They have not seen each other in 10 years, their last encounter in high school having ended in betrayal and violence. This touching reunion which starts out at Kevin’s diner and ends at his home, challenges our stereotypes of African-American men (much in the same way that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain challenged the macho image of cowboys). Kevin plays a song (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis) on the jukebox which reminds him of their friendship and the two men tentatively start to express their old feelings for each other, with Chiron finally dissolving the hard shell he has built around himself over the years.

This fan-film made of clips from the movie synced with the Hello Stranger song is the perfect audio-visual synopsis for this amazing movie.

Moonlight is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment and financed by fast-rising indie film distributor A24. I have become a big fan of A24; they take chances on edgy material, which the larger studios typically are not interested in. Virtually every critically acclaimed indie movie since 2013 has been distributed by A24 – Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Locke, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, The End of the Tour, Room, The Witch, The Lobster

I hope that Moonlight will launch successful and fulfilling careers for its talented and passionate cast and crew. Definitely an important movie to watch in the run up to Oscars 2017.

Feeling good about second chances: Begin Again, Music and Lyrics, The Rewrite


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Yesterday I watched two very similar dramedies, both set in the entertainment industry. Combined with a third that I had seen a few years earlier, they could form a loose triple-header strung together on the common theme of feel-good films about second chances.

The films are Begin Again from award-winning Irish director John Carney and two Hugh Grant films –Music and Lyrics and The Rewrite – directed by his long-time collaborator Marc Lawrence.

All three have a formulaic storyline of an entertainment industry whiz kid fallen on hard times. He has hit a creative roadblock and is no longer in demand. His personal relationships are as troubled as his art and he must now go back to the basics to get his life back on track. A chance meeting with a bright but unsettled younger talent helps him rediscover his passion and connect with himself as a person.

The best of the three is Begin Again (2013). This is because the two leads – Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – are top class actors who bring their A-game to every film they act in, be it epic or intimate, dramatic or comedic. The supporting cast of James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener act like real people and are relatable and engaging. There’s the additional joy of seeing music industry icons Adam Levine, Mos Def and Cee Lo Green in various significant roles. John Carney is clearly a director who can bring the best out of actors and non-actors alike. Mr. Carney made waves in 2007 with the musically-themed drama Once, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Song. So, it comes as no surprise that the songs in this film (performed by Adam Levine and Keira Knightley) are also genuinely good. One of the songs, Lost Stars received an Oscar nomination for Best Song. I also loved Ruffalo’s 1963 Jaguar Mark X; I’d love to drive around town in one of those!

The two Hugh Grant-Marc Lawrence films are not in the same league, but sail along on the strength of Grant’s charm, his chemistry with his female leads and some interesting/ eccentric characters providing comic relief.

In Music and Lyrics (2007), Hugh Grant plays one-half of a successful 1980’s pop duo called PoP! (yes, it’s a send up of Wham!), now bereft of work. He takes on a song-writing job for an up-and-coming teenage pop singer Cora Corman (played by Haley Bennett in her acting and singing debut). Afflicted by writer’s block and running out of time, Grant discovers that his temporary housekeeper (Drew Barrymore) has studied creative writing and seems to have a knack for writing pop lyrics. As is normal with romantic comedies, the two fall in love, then come into conflict and eventually reconcile to a happy ending. As in the case of Begin Again, the film had some unexpectedly catchy songs, including Way Back Into Love, performed in the film by Grant and Barrymore and then again by Bennett in concert. All credit to Hugh Grant for singing those songs in spite of his limited vocal range (though not as painful as listening to Pierce Brosnan singing in Mamma Mia!); Hollywood actors have yet to discover the Indian film industry’s solution of playback singing.

Seven years later, Grant reunited with director Marc Lawrence for The Rewrite, which repeats the same formula, this time with Grant playing a washed up Hollywood script writer who takes up a teaching job at a university to pay the bills. Marisa Tomei is the accidental love interest who helps him rediscover both the joys of writing and some much-needed humility. Ironically, for a movie about script writing, this movie’s screenplay is rather shallow and I almost switched off after 20 minutes. Eventually, the actors themselves save the film, Besides Grant and Tomei, seasoned character actors J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney liven things up as senior faculty members and former Australian soap star Bella Heathcote has an interesting role as a student who competes with Tomei for Grant’s attention.

Of course, all these films pander to the male fantasy of having an attractive young woman who looks up to the middle-aged man and cares enough to both inspire and challenge him; a change from his existing relationships where the give-and-take seems to have fossilized. From that perspective, Begin Again avoided the cliché of a romantic hook-up; there is a brief moment towards the end when this seems possible, but better sense prevails and the characters stay good friends. Several years ago, Mr. Holland’s Opus explored a similar relationship between Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) and his charismatic, talented music student.

Regardless, these movies do give us some insights into the entertainment industry and the creative process. And more importantly, these guilty pleasures with their charming leads, catchy tunes and light comedy provide enjoyable escapist entertainment (Hugh Grant’s character from The Rewrite would tell you that last bit’s an alliteration).

And the alternative awards go to…


Since it’s awards season, I thought I would come up with a few of my own.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts Award

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A familiar script and conventional special effects would not be a recipe for success these days, but combined with some earnest acting we had the most satisfying movie of the year. Full credit to director JJ Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy for figuring out the pulse of the audience.

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Best opening scene

Bridge of Spies

The wordless opening sequence shows Russian spy Rudolf Abel start the day by putting the finishing touches on a self-portrait in his cramped apartment, then step out and walk through the streets of 1950s Brooklyn on his way to a rendezvous. The lighting and composition in those few minutes in the apartment can be a visual textbook for any student of filmmaking. And you already see why actor Mark Rylance deserves that Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Best ending scene

Youth 

Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) conducts a performance of his Simple Songs, sung by Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

Phoenix

Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings Speak Low and her husband slowly realizes who she is; the phoenix has risen from its ashes.

Danny Collins

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) and his son (Bobby Cannavale) wait for the doctor’s verdict.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Cam Stuart’s (Mark Ruffalo) playful emotional blackmail almost works as his two daughters choose a play date over his offer to go boating on a beautiful day

Most disturbing/ unresolved ending

Z for Zachariah

John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ann (Margot Robbie) lose their innocence in the garden of Eden

Best post-credits scene

Dope

Shameik Moore shows us his moves to The Humpty Dance by the Digital Underground. Pharrel Williams and Sean Combs were executive producers for this delightful coming-of-age dramedy.

Most horrifying scene

Agu’s (Abraham Attah) first kill (Beasts of No Nation)

Most emotional moment

Rocky confronts his own mortality in Creed

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldanha break down as they try to figure out their lives towards the end of Infinitely Polar Bear

Best dance sequence

Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno boogie to Get Down Saturday Night in Ex Machina.

Best action sequence

Everything in Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything in Sicario

Everything in The Revenant

Best single shot

Adonis Creed and his team enter the ring for his title fight against Ricky Conlan; the camera follows them from the back room through the corridor into the packed stadium. Goosebumps.

Most disappointing character

Captain Phasma from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best (wordless) introduction to a character

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge of Spies

Most over-the-top characters

Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Coma-Doof Warrior played by Australian musician iOTA (Mad Max: Fury Road); check out the montage of scenes below

Best dialogue

Far From the Madding Crowd

“I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without getting a husband!”

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Best songs

Straight Outta Compton (songs by NWA)

Best color palette

The Danish Girl 

DP Danny Cohen captures the beauty of the Dutch skies and architecture while set decorator Michael Standish, production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Paco Delgado skillfully coordinate the interior look (all 3 have been Oscar-nominated)

The Man from UNCLE

Costume designer Joanne Johnston and set decorator Elli Griff bring to life a glorious Italian summer by clothing their glamorous stars in 60s’ high fashion

Youth

DP Luca Bigazzi juxtaposes the cool beauty of the Swiss Alps and the opulence of a luxury resort against the barren lives of its residents

Most ubiquitous male actor

32-year-old Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson seemed to be everywhere this year. He played the naïve programmer who stumbles onto a dark secret in Ex Machina, the evil but needy General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the well-meaning commander of an ill-fated hunting party in The Revenant and the attractive Rugby player who steals Saoirse Ronan’s heart in Brooklyn. He is the son of veteran character actor Brendan Gleeson. Harry Potter fans may remember him as the oldest Weasley son Bill from the last 2 films.

Most ubiquitous female actress

27-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is one of the most talented young actresses around today. She was an eerily sentient robot in Ex Machina, portrayed British pacifist Vera Brittan in Testament of Youth and played sassy East German auto mechanic turned spy Gaby Teller in the big-budget revival of The Man from UNCLE. She ended the year with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, the Dutch painter who stood by her husband during his tragic transgender journey. She also had a supporting role in the little seen Bradley Cooper flop Burnt.

Important films

Irrespective of the level of critical acclaim, entertainment value or filmmaking quality (all of which are very good), I consider these 3 films to be essential viewing for their subject matter

Spotlight 

The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered widespread cases of child abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area and the efforts by the Church to protect the offenders. This documentary-style, no frills movie features pitch-perfect acting. The lack of melodrama makes the story even more hard-hitting.

Beasts of No Nation

Set in a West African country torn by civil war, this is a fictitious account of a how a young boy is separated from his family and forced to become a child soldier. Loss of innocence on every level. This movie features mainly non-actors (plus a brilliant Idris Elba) and at times is unwatchable for the real-life horror it puts on screen.

Suffragette

Set in the middle years of the suffragette movement, this is the story of a laundry shop worker (Carey Mulligan) who is drawn to the cause by sheer chance. As her involvement grows, her husband throws her out and she undergoes many physical and mental trials; all of which further strengthen her resolve. Although a work of fiction, it showcases the ridiculous attitudes that existed towards women’s rights in the early 1900s.

QT’s The Hateful Eight: Not perfect but fun for fans and creditable for its ambition


The opening credits for The Hateful Eight inform the viewer that this is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film; a bit of self-aggrandizement, I thought. But then, he is after all one of the great ‘young’ (born after 1960) American auteurs, along with Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. OK, so maybe not Kevin Smith anymore, as he’s spent the last few years just being a fanboy without actually doing anything critically acclaimed.

The Hateful Eight is technically a Western, set in Wyoming in the late 1800s, some years after the Civil War. But it is also a locked-room mystery, like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And although it was shot on 65mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses to give an ultra-widescreen cinematic experience, it could just as easily have been made into a small play…in fact, Tarantino conducted a public live reading of an earlier draft of the script at a theater in LA.

When you think about a QT film, it’s ultimately all about the ensemble of characters, about their interaction and dialogue. About the “art of the protracted scene”, as one film critic puts it. And blood. Lots of it.

There are 4 actors that really stood out for me in this movie.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue is easily the most hateful of the eight people stranded in an isolated cabin in the midst of a blizzard. In fact, she could be right up there with the most hated female screen characters of all time along with Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Baby Jane (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?).

Kurt Russell started his career playing squeaky clean teenagers in Disney movies and TV shows (check out The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes from 1969). For me, his most memorable performances have come after the 1980s playing rough-hewn, morally ambiguous characters in Westerns and quasi-westerns like Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone, Stargate and more recently in QT’s own Death Proof. His bounty hunter John Ruth (aka “The Hangman”) in The Hateful Eight falls into the same mould.

Samuel L. Jackson has the most screen time in the film. I think back to the first time I saw him, as the chain-smoking chief engineer who “can’t get Jurassic Park back online!”. He was so earnest, serious and straightforward (I hadn’t seen his earlier Spike Lee films yet at that point). He then hit the big time in QT’s Pulp Fiction and since then, has become well-known for his angry, outspoken, over-the-top characters (except for the forgettable Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels). He continues in the same vein here as an ex-Army Major turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, a man who has spent a lifetime facing racist hatred and has plenty of hatred to give back.

Tim Roth’s plays Englishman Oswald Mobray. His almost-fruity mincing accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s over-cultivated manner in Inglourious Basterds. I would’ve enjoyed having more screen time from him.

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The music is composed by 87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone who has partnered with QT for many of his other films as well. In fact, he has a Golden Globe nomination for this film and I would love to see him get an Oscar nom as well for this minimalist composition that almost feels like a horror movie score at times.

I loved many little touches in the film, all of which have been carefully planned and are not there by chance:

  • The credits appear during a single shot of the carriage approaching through the snow, with a wooden Jesus in the foreground.
  • Out of the six horses pulling the carriage, the front right horse is white.
  • While the characters are talking inside the carriage, you can hear the constant yelling of the driver whipping the horses through the snow.
  • The passing scenery seen through the carriage window looks ‘flat’, like it’s been projected on a screen (as it would have been in a cheap 1970s film, which all QT films are homages to).
  • The inside of Minnie’s Haberdashery appears too large in comparison with its appearance from the outside.
  • There’s a jelly bean (yes, they’ve been around since the 1860s) fallen in the gap between the floorboards near the coffee pot; the significance becomes clear later.
  • Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters while eating their stew behave like a long-married couple, which is hilarious considering their actual relationship in the movie
  • Bob plays Silent Night on the piano while Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) describes what he did to General Smither’s (Bruce Dern) son; the simple and pious tune makes what Major Warren is saying even more horrifying.
  • The many, many times the front door of the cabin has to be hammered shut.

In the end, all the people who deserve a comeuppance get their comeuppance. Since this movie is called The Hateful Eight, you can kinda guess how the movie ends! Here’s a clue: there’s lots of blood. I’ve discovered through trial-and-error, that I can handle gunshot wound blood better than knife/ sword wound blood. Hence my discomfort watching Kill Bill Vols. I and II.

After the movie ended, a cliché paraphrased into my mind: “QT could film paint drying and I would watch it”. I’m pretty sure he would be able to infuse something interesting into such a mundane event.

This is not going to rank as my favorite QT film (that continues to be Basterds). But full credit to the man for attempting something different and challenging. His attention to detail – both dialogue and sets – is astonishing. Metacritic gives it a score of 69, well below Django Unchained (81), Grindhouse (77), Kill Bill Vol. II (83), Reservoir Dogs (78) and Pulp Fiction (the highest at 94). I believe that as the years go by, the film will rise in the estimation of critics and film historians.

Spotlight – an important film sure to win many awards


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I started reading about Spotlight a few months ago. The film had already made waves on the festival circuit prior to its wide release in November. While reading up on the film, I ‘discovered’ its director Tom McCarthy. I hadn’t realized that I had actually seen a couple of films in which he was a supporting actor. He is completely unmemorable on-screen as an actor. But he is the real deal as a writer and director. He wrote the story for the Pixar classic Up. He has also directed 3 amazing feature films (and one dud featuring Adam Sandler). It turned out I had already seen one of them from 2008 called The Visitor, for which Richard Jenkins received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. It’s not often that senior citizen actors get those sorts of meaty roles. So in the last few weeks, I watched the other two movies – his debut effort The Station Agent (2003) and the high school wresting dramedy (not often you read those 4 words in a single string!) Win Win from 2011. The lead character in The Station Agent is played by Peter Dinklage, who is now very well known as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. The lead character in Win Win is a high school wrestling coach played by the irrepressible Paul Giamatti.

I started to see a pattern; all McCarthy’s films are about ordinary people living low profile lives, who come across an unusual disruption in their mundane lives. The films focus on how the characters deal with change, overcoming their own fears or helping others overcome theirs. There is always a hint of melancholy in his films, but they are ultimately all feel-good movies with endearing characters and sequences that are eminently re-watchable!

Spotlight however, is a very different type of film. Instead of working with low key character actors, McCarthy goes for some big names this time – Michael Keaton (fresh off his Oscar for Birdman last year), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk from The Avengers), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes), Stanley Tucci, Liev Schrieber, etc.

McCarthy’s other films have been highly acclaimed because they were whimsical, featuring quirky characters in unusual situations. Spotlight is highly acclaimed for other reasons; it is an important film. The subject matter is weighty, based on the true story of how a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered a systemic cover-up of pedophilia by the Catholic Church in Boston for decades. I was initially quite unprepared for this change of pace. The film runs like a documentary; there are no fancy cinematic tricks; the story follows a linear narrative, there is no fast editing or fancy camera angles or dramatic music. This is a story of some ordinary people just doing their jobs. The full weight of what they achieved comes right at the end – the day after the story runs, the phones in the department are ringing non-stop as other victims call to tell their stories.

Mark Ruffalo brings his characteristic intensity to the role, reminding me of a similar role he played as a police inspector in the serial killer mystery Zodiac (2007). Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber and Rachel McAdams are effective because their portrayals are so subtle. Special mention of Bryan D’Arcy James, an actor whose work I have not seen before; he plays one of the journalists in the team.

Spotlight will pick up a bunch of awards this season; not because it has broken any new ground in the art of filmmaking, but because it tells an important story in a compelling, believable manner. Be sure to watch McCarthy’s other films as well – The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win.

SPECTRE lacks the freshness of Casino Royale or Skyfall, but pretty good for the fourth entry in the Craig series


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SPECTRE’s opening set-piece instantly reminded me of Orson Welles’ brilliant 3 ½ minute single-take achievement in Touch of Evil. Unlike that 1958 classic, this 4 minute sequence is only appears to be a continuous tracking shot but in fact has a couple of carefully hidden transitions. Nevertheless, it is a richly mounted, incredibly detailed and meticulously choreographed sequence, consisting of 2000+ extras, all of whom stay in character even in wide and long shots.

Sam Smith’s new theme song Writing’s on the Wall is reasonably good when paired with the title sequence, but will not challenge my Top 3 favourites – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and A-ha’s The Living Daylights; of course, Paul McCartney’s iconic Live and Let Die now probably transcends these mundane lists.

The overall story arc is simple enough to describe – Bond follows up on a tip to kill a man and then investigate the secret organization he works for. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a personal connection with the man who has been pulling the strings of globally organized crime over the years. The execution of this simple story is quite complex though and sometimes it’s tough to keep track of why exactly Bond is in a particular part of the world – Mexico, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco – except in order to set up a spectacular sequence in an exotic location!

And spectacular they are. Everything looks fabulous in this movie, including Bond in his perfectly fitting Tom Ford O’Connor suit (only about USD 4000 at Harrod’s). If indeed this is going to be his last Bond, then certainly Mr. Craig will be going out on a high, as he hardly seeming to have aged since Casino Royale nine years ago. Equally eye-catching are his co-star Léa Seydoux and his car, the Aston Martin DB10 prototype.

Product placement has been toned down, but just enough to allow the featured brands to run their own Bond-related promotions off-screen. Aston Martin and Omega are the two brands explicitly visible on-screen, but brands like Tom Ford, Sony phones and Belvedere Vodka are certainly riding on the association.

Throughout the film, there are echoes of the past for Bond loyalists to pick up on. The mountaintop Hoffler Klinik where Seydoux’ character Dr. Madeleine Swann works looked like Blofeld’s similarly placed allergy research institute in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond and Dr. Swann’s dinner date on the Oriental Desert Express is a nod to his and Vesper Lynd’s first meeting in Casino Royale.

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Later on, the fight sequence between Bond and Hinx (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy) is reminiscent of the one between Sean Connery’s Bond and strongman Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love.

I get a bit worried with this new trend of referencing old events in franchise movies. JJ Abrams did it in Star Trek Into Darkness and it came off poorly in Terminator: Genisys. It’s a bit of a gimmick and seems like lazy writing to me. Or maybe it was just coincidence and I am looking too hard for such connections!

There is no femme fatale this time around unless you count Monica Belucci in a use-and-throw role who does not even have the good grace to get killed. I missed having a character like Famke Janssen’s unhinged Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye or Bérénice Marlohe’s stunning and tragic Séverine in Skyfall or even Caroline Munro’s irritating helicopter pilot Naomi from The Spy Who Loved Me (whose destruction I thoroughly enjoyed at the tender age of 9).

I should be writing more about Christoph Waltz’ performance; not only is he one of my top character actors, he is also a two-time Oscar winner and plays an iconic Bond villain – history was waiting to be made. However, he is strangely tame in the film; I actually thought he was more menacing with his shadowy presence in the trailers than he was when actually seen in the movie. I can understand that director Sam Mendes would not have wanted him to ham it up like previous Bond villains nor do a repeat of Waltz’ own tongue-in-cheek performance as SS Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Whatever the case, I felt that Javier Bardem’s Silva was far more menacing and disturbing in Skyfall.

I also missed Judi Dench. At the end of Skyfall, I very much welcomed Ralph Fiennes as the new M. His character Gareth Mallory had shown a certain spiritedness throughout the film which I thought would serve him well as the new boss of MI6. But in SPECTRE, Fiennes’ M is an emasculated leader, tagging along behind his new boss ‘C’ (played by Andrew Scott, last seen as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) and mouthing pedantic phrases about democracy. Likewise, Naomie Harris, who made such an impression as field agent turned executive assistant in Skyfall, seemed to be missing her spark. I thought about this and realized that this is the truth of life in large corporations (even MI6), which is that even omni-powerful bosses have their own boss to be afraid of and the brightest of talent can eventually get ground down by the pressures of the job! Perhaps their seeming fatigue is a reflection of director Sam Mendes’ own state of mind, considering that he has been working on 2 consecutive Bond films for the better part of the last five years.

Looking back at all my comments, it may seem like I have a lot to quibble about, but it really is only quibbling. And that’s because Skyfall set up such high expectations, which were even further enhanced with that brilliant opening sequence. Thereafter, the film suffers a bit due to the long running time and a bit due to some lazy script writing and editing. But overall, it is a great-looking movie, featuring a lead actor absolutely in his element that ends with on a surprisingly noble and conventionally happy (but welcome) ending. Go see it! It may be the last time we’ll see Daniel Craig on screen as the iconic 007.