Spotlight

Director: Tom McCarthy (2016)

Stop the press for this Oscar nominated drama of award winning journalism.

Based on real events, a US newspaper team fight to reveal the industrial scale cover up of child abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church in Boston.

It’s gripping tale which allows for the redemption of an individual, the validation of journalism and the recovery of civic pride.

So exactly the sort of worthy subject matter which allows Hollywood to feel good about itself and self-righteously pat itself on the back for making.

Consequently it’s garnered 6 Oscar nominations including best picture and director ,as well as for individual nods for performers Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in the supporting acting categories.

It’s set in the early 2000’s in the basement office of the close knit Spotlight newspaper investigations team of The Boston Globe. The real Spotlight Team earned the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Michael Keaton is weathered and wary as ‘Robby’ Robinson, veteran leader of the four strong department.

Sporting a supportive if volatile chemistry, they’re played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James.

They face the double threat of the burgeoning new media world and a new editor, played with softly spoken steel by Liev Schreiber.

Marty requests the team investigate complaints made against the church.

Being from out of town Marty is immediately considered someone not to be trusted. A situation compounded by being Jewish in a Catholic dominated city.

It is strongly in part to this insular attitude which allows members of the Catholic clergy to spend years abusing their flock, and for the hierarchy to systematically cover it up.

The powerful and wealthy institution has long put the fear of god into legal profession, justice system, police and even parts of the press.

We follow the team undertaking journalistic procedure of voluminous research, copious coffee consumption, door knocking, meetings with lawyers, prodigious note taking and telephone calls.

As files of evidence go missing from the courthouse, the team realise they can’t trust their colleagues, the police or the courts.

This is all familiar procedural stuff and it’s the high stakes and charisma of the actors which brings it alive.

We are drawn in by the performances, intrigued by their work and disgusted by the subject matter.

Covering a difficult subject in a dignified and sensitive manner, a strong narrative framework provides essential information in a clear manner.

But the film struggles to open out from a series of meetings into something more grand and cinematic.

More than one scene has the team gather around a telephone speaker to receive vital information from a Deep Throat type whistleblower.

As efficient as Spotlight is, it‘s the grim truth which keeps us watching, not the drama.

 

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Director: Michael Bay (2014)

Hardcore fans may enjoy this fourth episode of the fighting robot franchise – but for everyone else it’s a long dull road to cinematic oblivion.

If you strip this film down to its component parts: alien robots, metal dinosaurs, spaceships and good performances by Marky Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci, it should be a lot of fun.

But it’s mangled construction means that no amount of flashy explosions – and there’s an awful lot of them – can jump start the story into life.

Since the Battle of Chicago the surviving autobots (the good transformers) and the decepticons (the baddies) have been hiding from the authorities, particularly sinister CIA boss Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer).

He’s teamed up with corrupt millionaire designer Joshua Joyce (Tucci) and they’ve hired mercenary transformer Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan) to hunt down the robot cars.

They plan to use the alien technology to build their own indestructible army.

Meanwhile struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) rescues a broken-down truck which turns out to be autobot leader Optimus Prime.

Along with Yeager’s useless daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her idiot boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) they’re soon on the run from Lockdown.

Beneath the special effects sheen there’s a clapped-out engine of mechanical dialogue, shoddy plotting and a repetitive structure of chases and fights.

Devoid of excitement, logic or wit, it lasts a brain melting and bum-numbing two hours and forty five minutes – but seems at least twice as long.

It screams along in second gear at a hundred miles an hour, culminating in another huge battle which includes three dinobots.

As far as autobots go, I’ve watched far more entertaining episodes of The Octonauts.

A Little Chaos

Director: Alan Rickman (2015)

When love is planted in Versailles, it takes blooming forever to flower in this wilting period drama.

As a pair of lovelorn gardeners work together to build the King an outdoor ballroom, the intrigues of the royal court and professional rivalries threaten their budding romance.

A far more serious impediment to happiness is his adherence to classicism in contrast to her embrace of modernism – but surely love will overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

It’s Paris in 1682 and King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) has announced he will build a palace at Versailles. Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the gloomy landscape gardener commissioned to realise the King’s grandiose vision.

Despite being the son of France’s most famous gardener, Andre needs assistance to complete an outdoor ballroom before the King arrives for an inspection – so he tenders out the work.

Widowed gardener Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) applies but is brusquely dismissed for incorporating chaos in her designs. But after one fleeting glimpse at Sabine’s private garden, Andre’s creative sap rises and he is inspired to offer her a job.

As well as being knowledgeable in horticulture and engineering, Sabine is well up for getting down and filthy. But the weather is against her and before anyone can say ‘Titanic‘, she’s up to he knees in mud and up to her neck in water.

Sabine’s immersed in her work to compensate for a childless life. Andre has lank hair and is trapped in a Byron-esque baggy shirt and an unhappy marriage to his rampant pest of a spouse, Francoise (Helen McCrory).

Tasteful sincerity, a talented cast and handsome costumes get bogged down in mannered and misjudged direction, forcing an unsmiling cast go about their work with grim conviction and making it unnecessarily hard work for us to like or sympathise with the characters.

There’s a carriage-coach crash, some jealousy, a bit of plotting, off-hand affairs and plenty of digging. The orchestra is on over-time, ushering emotions on and off stage.

As French labourers saunter off-site for croissants and coffee, it’s difficult to distinguish between pre-arranged professional sabotage and the natural French proclivity against hard work.

When women gather they compete with tales of child-rearing woe like a female version of Monty Python’s four Yorkshireman sketch.

The script assumes some knowledge of France geography – such as the distance between Paris and Versailles – then abandons it’s use allowing characters pop up at a moments notice with news and plots from afar. Or maybe a-near. Who knows?

Steven Waddington appears as a rough-voiced groundsman called Duras. He offers moral and practical support like a chaste Mellors from Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

McCory is full of anger, jealousy and brittle self-loathing but her character seems to have wandered in from Dangerous Liaisons by mistake. Stanley Tucci prances in on turbo-camp for a couple of scenes bringing much needed humour but little drama.

Schoenaerts performance is extraordinarily dull and Winslet – amazingly – isn’t much better. The fleeting moments of quality are in the rare scenes where she and Rickman appear together.

It is in these stagey moments Rickman the director is on confident ground, allowing Rickman the actor to demonstrate his consummate ability and stagecraft. Though it’s reflects poorly on Rickman that he makes Winslet play straight-man to his sad clown of a King.

Rickman unashamedly crowbars his character into proceedings. The King hears confession, absolves guilt and hands out directives for future behaviour, creating an environment where love can blossom.

It’s similar to the role played by Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) in Shakespeare in Love – though I doubt Rickman will win an Oscar for his work here.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence once again suffers the slings, swords and arrows of outrageous fortune in this excellent sequel to 2011’s sci-fi blockbuster.

This is a handsome, exciting and intelligent adventure that throws in plenty of humour among the thrilling combat scenes.

Lawrence is as brilliant as ever as the heroine Katniss Everdeen and carries this huge movie on her slender frame. She’s skilled, brave and loyal yet also unsure and vulnerable. It’s another terrific performance from an actress who’s yet to deliver a poor one.

Having survived gladitorial combat in the first movie, expert archer Katniss (Lawrence) is back living in borderline poverty with her sister Prim (Willow Shields).

She’s enjoying the company of the handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth) while lovestruck fellow survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) sulks.

As masked soldiers are cracking down on the skulls of the starving population, ruthless  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are having great fun plotting the demise of a growing rebellion.

Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket dress with camp flamboyance as vain and vacuous media darlings who provide much needed background info and no little levity.

Even though Katniss and Peeta are forced into a media friendly sham marriage to protect their families, they still find themselves back in the combat arena.

The set design is epic, the soundtrack is haunting and the story rattles along like the express train that shuttles Katniss to the Capitol to do battle.

This time they’re fighting former champions – each one a fully trained killer – and doing it  on a tropical island filled with angry baboons, poison fog and rains of blood.

Although it ends strongly it is also anti-climactic being the middle film of a trilogy, sorry, tetralogy.

Plus it takes its time getting to the Games themselves and Peeta is such a dull person you wonder why such efforts are made to protect him. But what he lacks in charisma, Lawrence is always there to more than compensate.