Shooting Stars

Supernova

by George Wolf

Sometimes, just watching two master actors at work is worth the price of admission. And though Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are not all that Supernova has in the win column, they are what keeps the film engaging throughout a fairly familiar narrative.

Firth is Sam and Tucci is Tusker, two longtime partners who have hit the road with their beloved dog, traveling across England in an old RV.

The two men have been in a committed, loving relationship for over twenty years. Now, after Tusker’s diagnosis of early onset dementia, they’re taking the time to catch up with cherished family and friends while they revisit some favorite spots from their past.

For his second feature, writer/director Harry Macqueen is on familiar ground as well, returning to some of the themes that drove Hinterland, his 2014 debut.

Like that film, Supernova becomes a road trip through wonderfully picturesque landscapes, as two souls appreciate the chance to share the beauty – and the heartbreak – that life brings.

But here, with older characters connected by more than just friendship, Macqueen adds a layer that is made beautifully resonant by the warm chemistry and fully formed characterizations of Tucci and Firth.

Every glance and subtle movement between them reflects the preciousness of the time that Sam and Tusker have left. And though its predictability has you wishing Supernova had something a bit more luminous to say, the two shooting stars in the lead are not to be missed.

Grist for the Emotional Mill

Submission

by Cat McAlpine

Submission opens with the sardonic narration of an exhausted novelist/professor. His internal monologue sounds a lot like the opening to a novel but his book, we discover, isn’t being written. Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is uncomfortable, unhappy, and uninspired. Then, in waltzes the first conscious student he’s had in years, Angela Argo (an incredible Addison Timlin).

Writer/director Richard Levine adapts Francie Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel (based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel, which is in turn based on Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat). Clearly, the story is not a new one. Fortunately, while the plot feels overwhelmingly predictable, the building tension is immense, largely pulled taught by the strong turns of Tucci and Timlin.

The performances, across the board, carry the film. Kyra Sedgewick is so natural on screen it’s breathtaking. She is also the only likable character, as Ted’s content and then suffering wife. Colby Minifie is delightfully nasty in her short scene as the Swensons’ daughter.

Levine does the good work of leaving breadcrumbs without pointing to them with a neon arrow. It’s hard to trust your audience (mother! being a timely example) but like a good novel, this film works because of its layers. And also because Stanley Tucci can do anything.

Surely a teacher/student affair between two narcissistic artists can’t end well, but I’ll leave the how and why to your viewing.

Honestly, I wanted a little more from Submission. I wanted to know more about the tragic death of Swenson’s father. I wanted to know why Swenson’s daughter hated him. I was desperate to know which of Angela’s somber backstories were real and which were contrived. I wanted more cause to care about the destruction of a man’s family. And shockingly, I wanted more voiceovers ripped from the pages of the resulting novels.

But I guess I’ll just have to read the book.

Submission’s inevitable resolution suggests that no matter the terrible things we do, we’re all just potential fodder for America’s next great novel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kL1ftT3ANYM





Exposed in the Light

Spotlight

by Hope Madden

The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal – phenomenon, really – is a difficult cinematic subject to handle with integrity. It is so overwhelming in scope, in horror, in tragedy, in sociological impact and culpability that a clear eye and an even hand in storytelling can be almost impossible. Luckily, filmmaker Tom McCarthy chose to tackle the topic with his magnificent film Spotlight.

His inroad is the 2002 Boston Globe story that exposed systemic, generations-long abuses in Boston and the surrounding areas. With understated grace and attention to the minutia of journalism, Spotlight sidesteps melodrama at every turn, never glorifying its reporters or wallowing in the lurid.

A superb ensemble – Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, and Stanley Tucci – draw you into a film with more insight than could reasonably be expected from its two hour running time.

An outsider (Schrieber) takes the helm of the Globe and wonders why the paper hasn’t spent more time on an allegation of priest pedophilia. As he learns how tough it can be to be an interloper in Boston, his native reporting team faces similar problems. But they take on the story, uncovering something so widespread and so high level it’s hard to fathom.

How did it happen? Why would these children allow it and why would they and their families keep quiet? How did the church keep it quiet? How widespread is it? Why are there so many predators in the priesthood? How exactly did such an epidemic go unreported and unaddressed for so very long?

McCarthy, writing with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), offers thoughtful consideration to the suffering, the cover-up, and the general societal culpability. “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”

Spotlight also poignantly grieves the loss of faith – the inability to separate faith from institution – that haunts not only the victims, but those confronted with the systemic cover-up and enabling of the abuse.

After a couple of questionable turns (The Cobbler, for instance), it’s great to see this excellent filmmaker back at the top of his game. This is as observant a film as you will find, delicately crafted and brimming with sincere, multi-dimensional performances. It is required viewing.

Verdict-4-5-Stars





An Intimate Battle

 

by George Wolf

 

Rarely has the Battle of the Sexes been more confined than in Neil LaBute‘s Some Velvet Morning.

In fact. in writer/director LaBute’s latest look at the subject, all of the drama occurs at the tastefully decorated residence of one young woman.

Velvet (Alice Eve) is surprised one morning when Fred (Stanley Tucci) appears at her door, with several pieces of luggage in tow.  After four years, Fred has finally left his wife, he says, and he wants to again explore the chance of a life with Velvet.

Over the next 83 minutes, we learn about all the dark corners of their relationship. History is relived and ugly acusations are unfurled as Fred and Velvet take turns wielding the power in their exchanges.

That Tucci is wonderful should comes as no surprise, but it is Eve’s performance that should open some eyes to the depth of her dramatic talent.  Velvet is a young woman with secrets, and Eve strings us along deliciously in the emotional dance with her old flame.

At its core, the film is a return to LaBute’s early roots as a playwright, as his favorite theme of the dark, cynical nature of relationships is explored using just two characters, but from rotating perspectives that constantly surprise.

As the meeting escalates toward the ending you think you know, LaBute throws the ace he’s been holding back since Fred rang the doorbell, but it doesn’t result in quite the jackpot he may have been seeking.

Often absorbing and sporting two fine performances, the final reveal in Some Velvet Morning ultimately leaves you wondering if LaBute’s destination was worth the journey.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 





State of the Art Gaming

 

by George Wolf

 

When a movie runs two and a half hours, yet the ending arrives as an unwelcome surprise, you know that film has done something right.

The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire is that film, one that manages to do just about everything right.

From the start, it raises the stakes from last year’s franchise debut. While The Hunger Games was certainly a competent adventure, it was content (perhaps understandably) to work within the “young adult” parameters of Suzanne Collins’s source novel.

Catching Fire deals in more mature themes and sophisticated ideas, weaving an intelligent script, impressive direction and superlative performances into a massively entertaining blockbuster that leaves you anxious for the next chapter.

The story picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on their victory tour, accompanied by their ever-present handlers Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). While the group is away, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new chief game maker Plutarch (these names!) Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) worry that Katniss has become a symbol of hope for the common people, a symbol which could spur another uprising.

Planning to eliminating that threat, Snow declares the next Hunger Games will be played only by former victors,  which means Katniss and Peeta will again be fighting for their lives.

While this sounds like just another empty rehashing of a successful formula, Catching Fire‘s scriptwriters, following Collins’s lead, have more on their minds.

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire/127 Hours) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine/Toy Story 3), both Oscar winners, fill their script with the emotional heft needed to create a sequel which immediately creates potential for a truly memorable trilogy.

We connect with the characters on a deeper level, the sociopolitical undertones carry greater nuance, and there are even some sly parallels offered between the superstar status of Katniss and the actress playing her.

Speaking of Lawrence, well, if you’re sick of hearing she’s great, call a doctor. She grounds Katniss in vulnerability while never relinquishing the character’s heroic status. Perhaps more impressively, she sells the love triangle, making Katniss’s conflicted feelings for both Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) totally believable. And not a shirtless wolf-boy in sight..who knew it was possible?

The strong supporting cast is peppered with new faces, such as Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone , who plays against her former child star type as the edgy Johanna. Keep an eye out for her elevator scene, one of the film’s lighter moments. It’s a scream.

All the separate elements are wrapped in a nice holiday bow by director Francis Lawrence (no relation). He smoothly guides the film from spectacle to solitude and back again, providing some arresting visuals in the process (see the IMAX version if you can). Despite director Lawrence’s heretofore lackluster resume (Constantine/ Water for Elephants), the choice to keep him at the helm for the Mockingjay finale (to be split into two films) now seems totally justified.

Okay, Catching Fire does stumble here and there. The scenes of Haymitch introducing Katniss and Peeta to their new opponents seems more fitting for an American Gladiators reunion and…well, that’s about it.

Fans of the book should expect a fantastic realization of the world they imagined, while those who haven’t read the novels (like myself) get to fully enjoy the delicious twist at film’s end, one that may invoke memories of a certain empire striking back.

Either way, The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire is rousing, epic entertainment.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keT5CRhhy84