AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) – Action Tale Not Really Believable

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable.

The trouble starts within the first few minutes of the movie.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on a picture perfect beach, but moments later, terrorists shoot up the shoreline, wiping out countless people, including Katrina.  Devastated, Mitch decides to seek vengeance, and in a Rocky-like montage, Mitch trains himself to become— an assassin!  He’s actually training to be a terrorist, so he can infiltrate the secret terrorist cell responsible for murdering his fiance.

And he does all of this with relative ease.  So, before you can say “Jason Bourne,” he infiltrates the terrorist cell responsible for killing his girlfriend and even finds himself in the same room with the man responsible for giving the order.  How convenient!

But before Mitch can finish the job, the CIA intervenes, kills the terrorists, and whisks Mitch away.  Why?  To turn him into a CIA agent of course!  He’s sent to train under the rough and tough Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) who sets out to break Mitch, but of course, you know how that turns out.  Mitch passes all the macho tests with flying colors.

The next thing you know Mitch is on Stan’s team and they’re in hot pursuit of some deadly terrorists who are intent on detonating a rather nasty bomb.  The man behind all the dastardly stuff is a shadowy figure known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who it turns out, was trained by— you got it, Stan Hurley.  Ghost is the one who got away, the one who felt Stan betrayed him, and so now it’s up to Stan’s latest protegé, Mitch, to take on the old protege, Ghost.  Ten cents says you can figure out how that confrontation will turn out.

As I said, very little of this one is believable.

For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp.  O’Brien, who stars in the MAZE RUNNER movies, was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, and there are plans to turn this movie into a film series since Mitch Rapp is a recurring character in a series of best-selling novels by Vince Flynn.

But I thought he was too young here.  The idea that he could stand up to Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley was never believable.  O’Brien just was never convincing as a tough assassin.

On the other hand, Michael Keaton was very convincing as the rock solid Stan Hurley, but Hurley is not the main character here, and there’s only so much Keaton could do here to help this movie along.

Taylor Kitsch was sufficient at Ghost, but Shiva Negar delivered a more memorable performance as fellow agent Annika.  I liked the chemistry she shared with Dylan O’Brien.  This part of the movie was believable.

Likewise, Sanaa Lathan was also very good as CIA agent Irene Kennedy, the woman who recruits Mitch and then struggles to control him.

This one was written by four screenwriters.  Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz all worked on this screenplay adaptation of the novel by Vince Flynn, and they all have a decent number of writing credits, too.  It didn’t really seem to help all that much here, though.

Michael Cuesta directed with mixed results.  I liked the opening terrorist attack scene on the beach, which I thought was a jarring way to open the movie, but subsequent action scenes didn’t pack the same punch.

There’s a torture scene which isn’t as effective as it should have been.  When Ghost captures his former boss Stan Hurley, he tortures him for information, but the trouble is, Stan is just too tough for this sort of thing.  Michael Keaton has a field day in this scene which if it wasn’t so violent would have been comical.  Keaton follows each brutal method of torture with a wisecrack and a grunt.  Things get so bad for the villain Ghost that he nearly throws a hissy fit.

I went to see AMERICAN ASSASSIN specifically because I wanted to see Michael Keaton.  I knew going in that he wasn’t playing the lead, and he does a fine job in a supporting role. But truth be told, this one would have been much better had Keaton been playing a lead role.

I see lots of action movies.  The really good ones make you forget they’re telling an impossible story.  They’re convincing in their execution.  The lesser ones simply go through the motions.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN clearly falls into the latter category.  It expends little or no effort in convincing its audience that any of it could be true.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) Is Light Comic Fun

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Right off the bat, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) wins accolades for not being another origin story.

We know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.  We don’t need to see it happen again.   The film skips this back story and as such plays like a breath of fresh air. And that’s just for starters.  SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING has a lot more going for it, making it yet another Marvel superhero hit.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING actually doesn’t open with Spider-Man at all, but with construction worker Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).  Toomes and his crew are working clean-up after the massive battle between The Avengers and alien invaders, but he’s pulled off the job by secret government higher-ups, which to Toomes, means money lost, something he needs to support his family.  Bitter, when Toomes realizes his crew still has some of the alien technology in their scrap heap, he decides to keep it, to help even the odds with the elites.

The story jumps eight years ahead where we meet high school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland), ecstatic about his fighting alongside Iron Man and the other Avengers in events seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  In fact, Parker’s mentor is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) himself, who serves as the voice of reason and caution for the young superhero, reminding him to keep out of trouble and help out with the local little jobs; in short, to be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Stark leaves his best buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to keep tabs on Parker, which he does with a tracking device that informs him of Parker’s every move.

Parker finds himself terribly distracted at school, as he’s constantly waiting for that call from Tony Stark to join the Avengers.  He’d like to date Liz (Laura Harrier) but he’s always running away as Spider-Man for one reason or other.  Things grow more complicated when his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, in a scene-stealing performance) discovers that Peter is Spider-Man, and can hardly contain his excitement.  He wants to tell everyone they know, but Peter reminds him that that is not a good idea.

Eventually, Spider-Man crosses paths with Adrian Toomes, who’s been stealing alien weaponry and selling it on the black market.  Toomes has built himself a flying bird suit from the alien technology and flies through the skies as the Vulture.  And when Peter can’t convince Happy or Tony Stark that the danger from Toomes is very real, he suits up as Spider-Man and takes on the villain on his own.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is basically the Spider-Man story re-told from the perspective of The Avengers.  Ever since Marvel released THE AVENGERS (2012), the superhero films which have followed have pretty much all been tie-ins with that massive Marvel hit.  As someone who loved THE AVENGERS, I like all these tie-ins, as the universe that Marvel has built around these characters is a good one, and the story that continues to evolve remains compelling.

So, pretty much every move that Peter Parker makes in this movie is dominated by his obsession with wanting to join The Avengers.  It’s a far cry from the story told in the Tobe Maguire film, SPIDER-MAN (2002).  But SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING still works because in spite of the AVENGERS connection it keeps to the original spirit of the character in the comics.

As such, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is an extremely light film.  The humor is on target throughout, and a bulk of this movie spends its time with Peter Parker and his high school friends, and these scenes work because both the writing and the acting are superb.

And in a strange juxtaposition, you have this light comical tale intertwined with another darker story featuring one of the better villains we’ve seen in a Marvel movie in a long time, Adrian Toomes/the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton.  It’s an odd combination, but it works.

One of the reasons it works is Toomes’ heavy-handedness makes for a superior foe for young Spider-Man.  You have all these high school scenes, and so you’re half expecting a high school student for a villain, but instead you have Toomes, a guy who is one of the more serious villains we’ve seen in a superhero movie in a long while.

Toomes is also the perfect antithesis to Tony Stark.  In Stark, you have the rich playboy running around playing superhero, while Toomes is the working class man who worked all his life but couldn’t make good for his family, and so he takes an opportunity, albeit an illegal one, to provide tons of money for his family.  It’s thinking that reminded me of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in TV’s classic BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is blessed with a solid cast.  Tom Holland actually debuted as Spider-Man in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), and it was an awesome debut. Holland continues his success here.  His Peter Parker is young, very young, which is perfect because he comes off as a genuine high school student.  His scenes with his friends are among the best in the movie.  And his wise-cracking Spider-Man is still a hoot to watch, although truth be told, I don’t think he has any moments in this movie as out-of-this-world amazing as the fight sequence in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.

As Peter’s best friend Ned, Jacob Batalon really stands out.  He enjoys a bunch of scene stealing moments, the high school geek whose dream comes true when he finds himself actually working with Spider-Man, someone who knows the Avengers.

Laura Harrier is fine as Peter’s eventual girlfriend Liz, but it’s Zendaya who really stands out here as one of their quirky friends, Michelle.  She’s not in the movie much, but when she is, you can’t help but notice her.  She enjoys many fine little moments.

Robert Downey Jr. has a decent amount of scenes here as Tony Stark, but ultimately, even though he’s always fun to watch, he doesn’t get to do a whole lot.  Don’t look for Iron Man to rush in to save the day.  This is Spider-Man’s movie.

Jon Favreau has plenty of screen time as Happy Hogan, as he’s left in charge of keeping an eye on Peter.  Favreau is always fun in this recurring role, which goes all the way back to IRON MAN (2008), and he’s enjoyable yet again here.  Favreau is a talented guy.  He also directed IRON MAN (2008) as well as a lot of other movies, including THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) and CHEF (2014), in which he also starred.

Chris Evans also shows up as Captain America, in a very humorous bit featuring promotional videos shown at the high school.  Want to teach the merits of physical education?  Pop in a promotional video featuring Captain America!  These videos provide some funny moments.

And Gwyneth Paltrow even makes a brief appearance as Pepper Pots.

But it’s Michael Keaton who really stands out here as Adrian Toomes/the Vulture. First of all, Keaton is a phenomenal actor who keeps getting better with age.  What I liked most about his performance as Toomes is that he makes the guy real.  Toomes is not out to take over the world or the universe. He’s not a shadowy villain without a clear-cut agenda.  He’s a real person with a real goal: after years of playing by the rules and not getting anywhere, he’s broken the rules to better support his family.

And Keaton is more than up to the task of making this guy believable. He also provides a real hardness to the character.  When he says he’s going to kill Spider-Man, you believe him.  In a way, it’s a performance that almost seems out-of-place here, because the rest of the film is so light and comical, while Keaton is dead serious in his scenes.  But it does work and works well, because ultimately it gives young Spider-Man a true test of his mettle.

Keaton gets one of the best sequences in the movie, when Toomey confronts Spider-Man near the end, and he speaks about what they have in common, that they’re both common folks who need to change the rules in order to succeed in life.  At one point, Toomey says, “I know you know what I mean.” It’s a line that resonates, both from Keaton’s delivery and from the knowledge we have of Peter’s life with his Aunt May, as they struggle to make ends meet, making Toomey’s line true.

And speaking of Aunt May, Marisa Tomei is quite effective as the younger sexier aunt of young Peter Parker. So much so that Tony Stark even quips about how hot she is.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was directed by Jon Watts, who comes off as an old pro here.  The film fits in with the rest of the Marvel movies seamlessly, in spite of the fact that this is the first superhero flick that Watts directed.

The pacing is good, the special effects decent, and the battle scenes are entertaining.  The sequence at the Washington Monument is probably the best action sequence in the film, and the scenes where Peter Parker has to scale the monument and realizes it’s higher than anything he’s climbed before is so effective it’s nearly vertigo-inducing.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was written by six screenwriters, some of whom have extensive comedic credits, which comes as no surprise, since humor is a strength here.

There’s also an upbeat music score by Michael Giacchino, who’s written a ton of scores over the years, including the superior score to last year’s stand-alone STAR WARS movie, ROGUE ONE (2016).

While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is available in 3D, I saw a 2D print and liked it just fine.

And yes, there are after credits scenes, two to be exact.  The one at the very end after all the credits does provide a laugh-out-loud moment, so it’s probably worth waiting for.

All in all, I really liked SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  Is it as good as Marvel’s best?  No.  Is it as good as this year’s earlier superhero hit from DC, WONDER WOMAN (2017)?  Not quite.  But I liked it better than the previous two Marvel entries, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), and DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).

It’s light, it’s fun, and it features a gritty hard performance by Michael Keaton as one of the better Marvel movie villains yet, the Vulture, whose plans to better his family life are destroying a neighborhood, making him the perfect foe for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

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BATMAN (1966) – Adam West’s Portrayal of the Caped Crusader Defined a Generation

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To honor Adam West, who passed away on June 9, 2017, here’s a review of the movie BATMAN (1966).

I started watching the BATMAN TV show (1966-68)  in earnest during its syndication run in the early 1970s and would watch the show nearly every day.  I spent many a summer day as a kid coming home from the beach and then watching BATMAN followed by LOST IN SPACE.

I would also look forward to the movie BATMAN, and back in the day, it was on TV quite a bit, nearly once a month, it seemed, usually on Saturday afternoons.

BATMAN pits Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) not only against one of their supervillains, but four!  That’s right, in this film, Batman fans got to see the Joker (Caesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether).  Their evil plot?  Why, to control the world, of course!

Holy Fantastic Foursome, Batman!

Indeed, Robin.

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The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and the Joker (Caesar Romero) work at taking over the world in BATMAN (1966).

BATMAN, now called BATMAN:  THE MOVIE, was originally planned to be released before the TV show aired, but when the show went into production ahead of schedule, plans for the movie changed.  The show aired first, and then to capitalize upon the enormous success of the first season, the movie was released in theaters that summer.

BATMAN: THE MOVIE is every bit as fun and as campy as the TV show. It shares the same strengths as the TV series:  the hilariously campy script, and the superior acting  by the players involved, especially Adam West as Batman.

The script here was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who co-created the TV show with William Dozier.  Semple would go on to write some other campy screenplays as well, including KING KONG (1976), FLASH GORDON (1980), and the final Sean Connery Bond flick NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983).  Semple, Jr. also wrote more serious stuff, screenplays for movies like PAPILLON (1973) and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975).

Here in BATMAN Semple, Jr. captures the camp perfectly, and the film contains many memorable lines.  Some of the best are when Batman and Robin are trying to decipher the Riddler’s riddles.   Like this exchange, for example:

BATMAN (reading a message written in the sky by one of Riddler’s missiles):  What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?

ROBIN:  An egg!

BATMAN (reading another skywritten message):  How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?

ROBIN:  Make applesauce!

BATMAN:  Apples into applesauce.  A unification into one smooth mixture. An egg—nature’s perfect container. The container of all our hopes for the future.

ROBIN:  A unification and a container of hope? United World Organization!

BATMAN (Excitedly):  Precisely, Robin!

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Solving the Riddler’s riddles.

And one of my favorite lines, when Batman tries in vain to dispose of an ignited bomb, but can’t, says exasperatedly into the camera:  “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”

Of course, the humor works here because the actors play it straight.  The running joke of the series is that Batman doesn’t realize he’s funny.  He says all these lines with a straight face.  And while the villains ham things up and then some, they’re not joking around or acting silly.  They really are trying to take over the world.

For a generation, Adam West defined Batman, and when you watch him in this movie, you’ll understand why.  His comedic timing is impeccable.  Granted, this interpretation of Batman isn’t the traditional one, but in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, it worked.

I also think it helped propel Michael Keaton’s darker interpretation of the Caped Crusader in BATMAN (1989) to higher levels of success because for so many, it was the first time they were seeing a darker interpretation on-screen.  Not to take away anything from Keaton’s performance, because he is excellent in the role, but the fact that before Keaton we had West made audiences all the more eager to accept a more serious version. And likewise, becoming a fan of Keaton didn’t take away from being a fan of West.  It wasn’t like “Oh, now the 1960s Batman is outdated.”  Not at all.  It was simply a matter of going forward.

Burt Ward, who before BATMAN had no acting experience, is pretty darn good as Robin as well. His high energy alone is enough to win over legions of fans.  And he really is the Boy Wonder.  His youthful exuberance is infectious, and he always defers to his elder mentor, Batman, with lines like, “Gee, Batman, I didn’t think of it that way,” and “Golly, Batman, when you put it that way.”

And the villains here are out of this world.

Lee Meriwether is terribly sexy as Catwoman/aka Ms. Kitka.  Yes, she poses as a Russian journalist Ms. Kitka to strike up a relationship with Bruce Wayne in order to kidnap him, which sets up one of the more memorable moments in the film for Adam West when at the end of the movie Batman discovers that Catwoman and Ms. Kitka are one in the same.  See, Bruce Wayne had developed quite the crush on Ms. Kitka, and when he sees that she is really the Catwoman, we witness Wayne’s expression from underneath the Batman cowl as the lights go out of his eyes for a moment, only to be replaced by the calm, logic of Batman who sees to it that he’s above this sort of thing.  It’s a great moment for Adam West, the type of thing which made him stand out in both this movie and the series.

Now, Meriwether did not play Catwoman in the series.  She took over the role in the movie from Julie Newmar, who had played Catwoman during Season 1, but was unavailable to do the movie because of a conflict with another project.

Caesar Romero is hilarious as the Joker— a far cry from the later and superior interpretations of the character by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger— even with his painted over mustache, which he refused to shave for the role. Seriously!

Frank Gorshin remains the definitive Riddler with his high octane giggling and skipping. While Gorshin played the Riddler in Season 1 of the series, he skipped Season 2, but would return in Season 3.

Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is the glue which holds the other three villains together in this film.  The Penguin is the one who seems to be pulling the strings and more often than not takes the lead in the villainous proceedings.  Meredith is quite good in the role, and I prefer his interpretation of the Penguin over Danny De Vito’s in BATMAN RETURNS (1992).

Other cast members from the show also appear in the movie.  Alan Napier returns as Alfred, Neil Hamilton is back as Commissioner Gordon, and Stafford Repp once more plays Chief O’Hara.  Madge Blake also returns as Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet Cooper, although she doesn’t have any lines in the movie.  Aunt Harriet is an interesting character.  Reportedly, she was featured prominently on the TV show because TV executives feared that two men living together (Bruce and Dick) would give audiences the wrong idea about their relationship, and so Aunt Harriet was written in to live in the same house with them.  Bizarre.

BATMAN was directed Leslie H. Martinson., a director with mostly TV show credits.  He does a nice job with this move.  It’s colorful, full of the signature Batman fight sequences complete with the superimposed “POW!” and “THWACK!” signs, and is well-paced.

There are also plenty of Bat gadgets in this one.  In addition to the Batmobile, there’s the Bat Boat, the Bat Helicopter, the Bat Cycle, the Bat Bazooka, and of course the infamous Bat Shark Repellant in the very famous shark scene, where Batman is attacked by a very fake looking rubber shark.  And there’s also the Penguin Submarine which wreaks havoc under the seas.

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Batman meets Jaws?  A famously silly scene from BATMAN (1966).

Martinson himself passed away only last year, on September 2, 2016, at the age of 101.

There’s also a high-octane music score by Nelson Riddle, although noticeably absent is Neal Hefti’s signature Batman opening theme song.

But the main reason to watch BATMAN is the same reason to watch the TV show, and that is Adam West’s performance as Batman.

I was fortunate to have met Adam West a couple of times at some comics and collectibles shows back in the early 2000s, and his humor in person was very apparent. It seemed to ooze out of him with ease.

Adam West is to Batman as Sean Connery is to James Bond.  Other actors have played the role, and some have put their definitive stamps on the character, but West and Connery took their characters and made them embodiments of a decade.  Like the Beatles, Bond and Batman helped define a generation.

I’ll leave you with Batman’s final line from the movie, as Batman and Robin, after a job well done, prepare to leave the United World building, a line delivered with impeccable timing by Adam West.

Let’s go, but inconspicuously, through the window. We’ll use our Bat Ropes.  Our job is finished.

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Preparing to leave, inconspicuously, through the window.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

Persistence Pays Off in THE FOUNDER (2017)

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It’s all about persistence.

That’s the central theme of THE FOUNDER (2017), the new bio pic starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc.

It’s 1954, and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman in Chicago who is shocked when a restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders eight of his milkshake machines.  Nobody ever orders that many machines, and so, curious and perhaps a bit inspired, Kroc drives across the country to California to see the restaurant for himself.

What he finds is McDonalds, an eatery that he at first mistakes for the typical drive-in restaurant of its day.  However, he observes that rather than wait in his car for his order to be taken, he has to walk up to a window in the front of the restaurant.  He is then amazed to have his food given to him before he even leaves the order window.

Kroc introduces himself to the two brothers who run McDonalds, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch).  The brothers give him a tour of the restaurant, including their custom-made kitchen which enables them to cook their burgers uniformly and quickly.

Impressed by the concept, Kroc approaches the brothers with a proposition:  he wants to franchise the restaurant across the nation.  He thinks their model is so superior to what everyone else is doing, it’s bound to be a success.  The brothers hesitate to agree at first, explaining that they already tried to expand but failed, as they couldn’t keep the quality of the other restaurants up to the level of their original eatery.

Bur Kroc persists, explaining that the brothers should leave everything to him, that he will be in charge of the expansion and he will be successful.  Eventually, the brothers agree.  What follows is the story of how Kroc relentlessly worked to build a McDonalds empire, which eventually put him at odds with the McDonalds brothers who were never as interested as he was in going national, and of course, eventually global.

THE FOUNDER is a fascinating story, a movie that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model, because he worked for it and the McDonald brothers did not.  It’s certainly a take which is more sympathetic towards Kroc than the McDonald brothers.  I’d wager to guess that in real life Kroc was a bit nastier than he was portrayed in this movie, and the McDonald brothers a bit more victimized.

I’ve always been a Michael Keaton fan, and it’s been great seeing him back in major movie roles once again.  I loved him in BIRDMAN (2014) and in SPOTLIGHT (2015).  He’s equally as good here as Ray Kroc. He makes Kroc a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  And that’s why he works so hard.  That’s why he puts everything into the franchise, because he knows this is his one big shot.  He has to take it.

The film’s theme of persistence is a good one.  Regardless of what the real life Ray Kroc may have been like, in this movie, he’s portrayed as a man who is so focused on his goal, it’s difficult not to like him, even when later he does take a darker turn.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it.

In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had  the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Nearly as good as Keaton are Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald  and John Carroll Lynch as his brother Mac McDonald. Offerman and Carroll Lynch portray the quirky brothers as two rather innocent men who were more than happy just to have their one restaurant.  When Kroc begins to take over, they are slow to react, and eventually they lose nearly everything because they were not prepared to stand their ground against Kroc’s ambition.

Nick Offerman recently starred in the TV series FARGO (2015), while John Carroll Lynch seems to show up everywhere these days.  He just played Lyndon Johnson in JACKIE (2016).  Among other things, he’s been in AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD, and he was memorable in the small release horror movie THE INVITATION (2015).

Laura Dern looks worn and weathered as Kroc’s longtime suffering wife, alone most of her life as he is off building a fast food empire.  Even when she attempts to lend a helping hand and offer her support, it does her little good, as eventually Kroc leaves her for another woman.  The other woman is Joan Smith, the wife of one of his McDonalds managers, played effectively by Linda Cardellini.

Smith’s husband, Rollie Smith, is played by Patrick Wilson from THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS movies.  B.J. Novak is memorable in a small role as Kroc’s business partner Harry J. Sonneborn, the man who advised Kroc to buy the land on which the McDonalds restaurants would be built, as a way to break free of the control of the McDonald brothers.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).  It’s just not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants.

The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics.

Ray Kroc is portrayed in a positive light, and the message of success from persistence resonates because it is true.  Most people succeed because they do not give up.  The Ray Kroc in this movie is an admirable character, while the McDonald brothers, while certainly portrayed as two decent gentlemen, are shown to be passive and unimaginative when it comes to seeing how far their business could go.  Kroc doesn’t so much as steal their business as he grows their business, and in this movie, they aren’t interested in going along for the ride, and so he takes the journey without them.

I really enjoyed THE FOUNDER.  Michael Keaton is excellent, and both the script by Robert D. Siegel and direction by John Lee Hancock are equally as good.

The end result is an entertaining bio pic that tells a rather fascinating story behind the origins of the McDonalds empire.

I’ll have a cheeseburger and medium fries, please. 

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) No Victory For Storytelling

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batman_v_superman

 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), the latest DC comics movie pits their two most famous superheroes against each other, Batman vs. Superman, and from the outset, this seemed like a silly premise to me.

Seriously, is there any doubt about the outcome?  Does anyone seriously believe that when all is said and done, and the dust has settled, that one of these two will emerge the victor, or that they will remain enemies?  Don’t we all know that at some point there will be a big fat superhero kumbaya moment?  Of course we do!

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE gets off to a very good start as we witness Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) watching the horrifying destruction of Metropolis at the hands of Superman and General Zod in the battle they waged at the end of MAN OF STEEL (2013) and the terrible toll it takes on human life.  So we see from the outset why Wayne aka Batman is so down on Superman.  He’s outraged and a little bit afraid of the destruction Superman caused.

And he’s not alone.  The rest of the nation is also questioning Superman’s loyalties, including Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) who is holding hearings and being very vocal in the press about the need to hold Superman accountable for his actions and to put a lid on his acting unilaterally, although the last time I checked Superman didn’t work for the U.S. government.

As a result, Superman (Henry Cavill) is having an identity crisis and is going through some serious soul searching. Just who is he and what is his role here on earth, he’s asking?  He’s also asking if he can be Superman and still enjoy his beautiful girlfriend, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

Superman is not having an easy time of it in this movie.  Perhaps a better title to this one should have been GET SUPERMAN!  because everyone in this film seems to have it out for the Man of Steel.  The government’s trying to control him, public opinion has turned against him, Batman wants to kill him, and oh yeah that new young villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has gotten his hands on both kryptonite and General Zod’s ship and the technology that goes along with it.  And just what do you think Luthor will do with all this stuff?  Why, take down Superman of course!

Well, sort of.  Luthor actually has bigger plans.  I mean, why take down one superhero when you can take down two?  Which is why he sets his sights on playing Don King and arranging the bout of the century, Batman vs. Superman.

Of course, when you think about it, you realize it’s rather a dumb plot point, because Batman and Superman hate each other and they’re on a collision course on their own.  They don’t need Luthor’s help.

Which brings me to the number one reason why I absolutely did not like BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE one bit:  it’s the storytelling, stupid.

While I have little problem with the performers here, I can’t say the same for the story and the way director Zach Snyder goes about telling it.

Remember how I said the film began with Bruce Wayne watching the brutal battle in the sky?  That’s not quite accurate.  Before this scene, we get to see yet again another variation of the scene where Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed.  Why?  How many times do we have to see this part of the story told?  Right off the bat, I’m thinking, what a weak way to begin what is supposed to be an epic superhero tale.

Then we get to the battle, and this scene does work.  It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that I did enjoy, and it sets up perfectly Bruce Wayne’s feelings towards Superman. But then the movie progresses in a series of scenes that do not flow together well at all.  I’m not exactly sure what the problem was, but the first 30 minutes or so contains scenes that just do not seem to flow seamlessly into the next.  Part of the problem is there is so little dialogue at the beginning.  The movie is begging for dialogue early on.

Then there’s the odd choice of scenes.  There are two in particular that I thought were poor ways to introduce out superheroes.  The first has Lois Lane held hostage by terrorists in the middle east.  There’s suddenly a firefight, and Superman arrives and rescues her in a scene that lasts about 30 seconds, and the next thing you know Superman is being blamed because a lot of innocent people were killed.  Huh?  This is a key plot point because it further sets up the public’s mistrust of Superman, but it’s muddled in its execution.  All I saw was Superman rescue Lois Lane.  Where’s the controversy in that?

For Batman’s first appearance, we see this really bizarre scene where two cops enter a dark building, find a group of terrified people who are babbling about some being who you can figure out is Batman, and one of the cops sees Batman lurking in the corner and opens fire at him before Batman flees without a word— there’s that lack of dialogue, again—.  His partner chastises him, telling him that he shouldn’t shoot at the good guys.  They also discover the criminal which Batman had left for them, and they see that Batman—now even darker than ever—oooh!!!—branded the Batman insignia into the bad guy’s flesh.  Holy cow poker, Batman!  Again, just a bizarre, confusing scene.  It seems to be implying that Batman is bad, but then again, it shows he’s good, but really I think the filmmakers hadn’t a clue, and it shows.

The entire movie is muddled in its storytelling, a combination of weird filming choices by director Snyder and a less than remarkable script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer.  Terrio wrote the script for ARGO (2012).  This is no ARGO. Meanwhile, Goyer wrote the screenplay for BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and MAN OF STEEL (2013).  The screenplay for BATMAN V SUPERMAN should have been better than it is.  It tries to do dark and foreboding, but without strong characterizations, it gives us dull and dreary.

The superheroes here do not fare well at all.

I’m a fan of Ben Affleck, especially in recent years, and while I don’t think he does a bad job here as Batman/Bruce Wayne, there are simply too many factors working against him here.  The script doesn’t provide him with anything worthwhile to say. In fact, it’s the opposite.  He says some pretty ridiculous things in this movie, chief amongst them his forced speech at the end of the movie, and his quick change of heart regarding a certain flying superhero.

His Bruce Wayne is dreary beyond belief, a man with zero charisma.  As much as I loved the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, I was never a huge fan of Christian Bale’s Batman, but I found myself missing Bale here.  Of course, my favorite film Batman/Bruce Wayne remains Michael Keaton, which always blows my mind, because Keaton is such a terrific comic actor that it’s amazing to think that he made such a cool Bruce Wayne.

I also did not like Batman’s robotic suit in this movie.  Can someone say, “Iron Man wannabe?”  It didn’t work for me at all.

Superman doesn’t fare any better.  For a lot of the movie, Superman really isn’t Henry Cavill but a special effect zipping here and zooming there.  In the scenes where he has dialogue, he’s actually pretty good, and I found myself enjoying his performance a bit more here than in MAN OF STEEL.  But he still lacks that special something to make Superman work. There’s just something not-larger-than-life about his interpretation of the role.  He’s sort of superman with a lower case “s.”

Now, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) who makes her debut here is another story.  I liked Wonder Woman.  A lot.  But she’s in this movie for all of five minutes.  So much for Wonder Woman!  Again, bizarre choices by the filmmakers.

I also did not like Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of Lex Luthor at all.  In fact, he’s probably my least favorite Lex Luthor ever.  I think I even prefer Kevin Spacey’s over-the-top performance as Lex in SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006) more.  Eisenberg’s Lex is sort of going for the chaotic insanity of the Joker, but he’s not even close.  So here we have yet another disappointing superhero movie villain to add to our ever-growing list of weak superhero movie villains.

As much as I love Amy Adams as Lois Lane here, and make no mistake I enjoyed her in this movie, she really doesn’t have much to do in this movie other than be rescued by Superman.  Jeremy Irons actually made for a pretty interesting Alfred, and I have no complaints about Irons at all, but you know things are bad when you’re talking about Alfred instead of the superheroes!

Likewise, Laurence Fishburne turns in a respectable performance as Perry White, reprising the role from MAN OF STEEL.  I also really enjoyed Holly Hunter as Senator Finch, and some of her scenes were some of the better written scenes in the film.  I liked the plot point of the public’s mistrust of Superman, and Superman’s own questioning about his role in the world, but again, the filmmakers didn’t really roll with this.  It dies midway through the film.

It’s also a very long movie, clocking in at 151 minutes which for me was way too long.  I was longing for it to end.  I also saw it in 3D, and it was about as unspectacular as a 3D movie could be.

BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE is a dreary muddled movie that doesn’t seem to know how to tell a story to save its life.

Batman and Superman definitely deserve better.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) Shines Light on Dark Story

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spotlight 2015 poster

 

Movie Review:  SPOTLIGHT (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) has an ugly story to tell.

 

And it doesn’t shy away from telling it.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) takes a hard and honest look at the scandal in the Catholic Church involving abusive priests and shows how reporters at The Boston Globe broke the story in 2001.  And the most disturbing aspect of it all which is clearly expressed in the movie isn’t believe it or not the staggering number of priests in the Catholic Church who sexually abused children in Boston, and as we find out during the Globe’s investigation, around the world— this alone is horrifying, absolutely horrifying, but what’s even worse, is that the higher-ups in the Church knew about it and let it happen.

 

And the movie doesn’t stop here.  It widens its lens and examines blame in the legal system and with the journalists themselves, as the reporters realize how many times the story had been brought to their attention and yet no one did anything about it.

 

“Spotlight” refers to the investigative Boston Globe column written by a team of four reporters- Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James).  When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives from Florida to overhaul the newspaper and increase readership, he turns Spotlight onto a story about a Catholic priest accused of molesting a young boy.

 

The Spotlight team isn’t keen on the story since they feel it’s been covered before.  But Marty feels there’s more to the story and advises the Spotlight team to dig into it further.  What they find is nothing short of earth-shattering.  They soon discover evidence of two more priests in the Boston area accused of abusing children, and when they uncover evidence totaling 13 priests, they feel they have the makings of a real story.

 

They have no idea.

 

One of their sources, a psychiatrist who had been studying these cases for 30 years, tells them their number is very low.  He suspects the number should be about 90 priests in the Boston area alone.  The reporters don’t believe this estimate, but when they continue to follow the evidence and discover as many as 87 priests, they begin to fully understand the horror and the scope of the issue. They also realize that it’s not just a Boston problem.  It’s nationwide and then some.

 

Marty tells his team that their work is still not finished, that the real story here isn’t just the number of cases, but that he suspects the Catholic Church knew about these priests and did not remove them.  That’s the real story, he tells his reporters, and that’s the story that will ultimately lead to change.

 

The screenplay by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer tells a mind-boggling and horrifying story, and it tells it well.  In spite of the fact that the villain in this movie is no doubt the Catholic Church, the film really doesn’t partake in religion bashing.  It simply reveals a very sad truth- that atrocious crimes were allowed to happen by people who should have known better.  These crimes were hidden in a veil of secrecy.  The Spotlight investigation obliterated this veil, and the movie illustrates with great detail and care just how they did it.

 

SPOTLIGHT also sheds some insight into how so many people allowed this to happen.  On more than one occasion, people in the film say that the Catholic Church does a lot of good for the world and that it doesn’t need this kind of scandal.  After the events of September 11, we see news coverage of Cardinal Law speaking words of hope to the nation.  It’s easy to see why people were quick to defend the Church and give them the benefit of the doubt, and how when push came to shove, lawyers and journalists would simply turn a blind eye on the situation, never guessing just how severe the problem was.

 

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who’s instrumental in supplying key evidence to the Spotlight reporters, goes even further and blames the entire city of Boston, which he views as a closed society, that if you’re not Irish Catholic, you’re an outsider.

 

Others point out that editor Marty Baron is Jewish, and that he has an anti-Catholic agenda.  Yet, in scenes where we see Marty in action, his agenda is clear:  to keep the Boston Globe afloat.  The story of the Catholic Church scandal is just that, a story that needs to be told.

 

In terms of generating emotion, SPOTLIGHT doesn’t skimp.  There are numerous painful and sad scenes where the victims tell their stories to the reporters.

 

SPOTLIGHT boasts a brilliant ensemble cast.  Michael Keaton, while not as sensational as he was in BIRDMAN (2014) still shines as reporter “Robby” Robinson.  His cool professionalism allows him to lead his team along the dark path of the investigation, even as he learns that years ago he too had once passed up a story on the scandal, a story he barely remembers writing because it just didn’t register as important to him at the time.

 

Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the up-tempo workaholic reporter Mike Rezendes who becomes more and more emotionally charged the more he learns about the case.  Likewise, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also turn in strong performances as reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll.  They too become emotionally enraged, Matt because he has young children, and Sacha because she’s Catholic and goes to church with her very religious Nana.

 

And Liev Schreiber is near perfect as the calm, cool and efficient editor Marty Baron.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has a superior slate of supporting players.  Stanley Tucci is outstanding as attorney Mitchell Garabedian.  His take on the quirky angry embittered attorney is probably my favorite performance in the movie.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucci receives a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.

 

John Slattery from TV’s MADMEN plays Ben Bradlee Jr., one of the Globe’s editors, and he’s fabulous as well.  Other notable performances include Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, Robby’s source inside the Catholic Church who resists Robby’s efforts to get him to talk for nearly the entire movie; Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, the sketchy leader of a victim’s group who seems to have an agenda to bring down the Church yet his evidence surprisingly turns out to be accurate; and Billy Crudup as Attorney Eric Macleash who by not filing cases and agreeing to private back room deals with Church leaders helped keep the scandal under wraps for years.

 

Crudup enjoys one of the best moments in the film when he’s finally cornered by Robby and Sacha.  Robby tells him that if he doesn’t talk, the story Robby writes will be about how Eric helped keep these child molesters out of jail, at which time Eric drops the bombshell that when he first received evidence about these crimes he went to the press, delivered the materials to the Globe, and he was ignored.

 

Director Tom McCarthy’s crisp editing keeps the story in SPOTLIGHT moving quickly, and even though its subject is grim and tragic, the pace never deadens under the weight of the subject matter.  The story unfolds at a near perfect pace.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has an emotionally effective music score by Howard Shore.

 

SPOTLIGHT tells an extremely disturbing story, and it’s one that everyone needs to hear.  Yes, it tells the ugly tale of abuse inside the Catholic Church.  It also tells the inspiring story how in the face of adversity a small group of reporters stuck to their guns and broke what many thought wasn’t even a story.  But most importantly the message in SPOTLIGHT is that people need to remain vigilant, and they need to speak out against the wrongs of society.  The victims here for the most part were children in underprivileged families.  They had no one to stand up and defend them from these predator priests.  Those who should have protected them, the Church leaders, did not.  And no one else bothered to pay attention.

 

That’s the story SPOTLIGHT tells, and it tells it well.

 

It joins SICARIO (2015) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) on my short list of best movies of the year.

 

—END