Spotlight (2015)

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Impeccably cast and consummately directed, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight well deserves the Best Picture statuette it earned at the 88th Academy Awards (and fair’s fair: The Revenant‘s Alejandro Gonzalez Inniaritu won a bunch of Oscars the year before so shouldn’t feel too bad). And speaking of Birdman, that film’s leading man, Michael Keaton, appears in Spotlight as Boston Globe editor Walter “Robby” Robinson. Robby’s crack investigative reporting team—dubbed Spotlight—delves into allegations of pedophilia and child abuse among Boston’s Catholic clergy leading, as we all know by now, to evidence of a decades-long cover-up at the Cardinal-and-possibly-even-higher level. Robby’s eager subordinates are nicely fleshed out by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James, while higher up the journalistic chain are Robinson’s boss, played by John Slattery, and newly-appointed publisher Marty Baron (a bullish Liev Schreiber). Also in the mix are a pair of lawyers with very different agendas, played by Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. The reason all these names are named is that this smart and satisfying film, enthralling and unnerving by turns, is a true ensemble piece, with each and every performer turning in a vast and passionate performance (kudos, especially, to McAdams, who more than holds her own in the face of all that raging testosterone). But she and her co-stars couldn’t have pulled this true, Pulitzer Prize-winning story off without someone as gifted as McCarthy at the reins. An actor himself, McCarthy clearly understands the dramatic arcs, twists, and emotions of a volatile dramatization such as this and, with co-writer Josh Singer, crafts a compelling tale of power, corruption, and shattered lives. With the film’s critical success securing McCarthy another notable notch in his directorial belt, only one question remains: what in God’s name happened with The Cobbler!?


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Mark of the Witch (2014)

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Jason Bognacki’s Mark of the Witch would have worked beautifully as a silent movie. But he added sound and dialogue and music in an attempt to tell some semblance of a story. And by expanding his treatment for his short film Another to feature length he ruined everything.
     Ruined is a bit strong; diluted perhaps, because there’s a lot of lovely imagery to behold here. Cowled, unfocused figures move on the periphery; our heroine, Jordyn (Paulie Rojas), paces deliberately in slo-mo or curls, fetal-like, on a bed, shot from above; an escalator purrs with perfect symmetry—Bognacki’s unorthodox cutting, creative framing, and otherworldly visioning provide a strong sense of style.
     Not to be confused with Tom Moore’s cheesy 1970 film of the same name (although both films share some similarities, especially in the plot department—a young girl thinks she’s possessed by a malevolent sorceress), Bognacki’s ‘Witch is evocatively and creatively shot. But when anyone opens his or her mouth, especially the leading lady, it’s dumb-down time.
     Bognacki specifically thanks giallo auteur Dario Argento (the colorful ‘Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, etc.) in his closing credits, and Mark of the Witch pays homage to the veteran Italian filmmaker’s sense of surreal style throughout. It clearly references the witch-themed Suspiria (which, by contrast, worked because it was loud; watch for a redo next year with Tilda Swinton and Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Dakota Johnson!). The women in Mark of the Witch are appropriately creepsville, including Nancy Wolfe as Jordyn’s deranged Aunt Ruth, who loses it during her niece’s 18th birthday party, causing Jordyn to experience a series of trippy hallucinations, and Maria Olsen, solid as the demonic mother figure replete with bloody dental work.
     Mark of the Witch is a rare case where its director should have bypassed substance altogether and gone all style.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Pontypool (2009)

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A zombie movie with virtual zombies? Interesting…
     Well, Pontypool isn’t exactly devoid of the lumbering, flesh-and-blood type of living dead, but those we do actually witness are few and far between (and certainly not central to any intelligent zombie debate). Instead, Bruce McDonald’s single-set shocker settles, with surprising success, on the threat of zombies, with the set in question a two-bit radio station that’s seen better days—”CLSY 660 radio nowhere”—while the zombie apocalypse happens off screen and on air.
     Our host, shock jock Grant Mazzy in a fey Stetson (Stephen McHattie, plainly enjoying his day in the Canadian sun, i.e., blizzard), goes now to reporter Ken Loney broadcasting live (at least for the time being) from the Sunshine chopper, as Ken’s disembodied (sic) voice describes unspeakable horror—”They’re pulling two people out of a van… Oh my God… They’re biting them!”
     Next, a sound byte from the BBC: “In other news, French-Canadian riot police have successfully contained the violent uprising in the small town in Ontario, Canada—Pontypool. Ponty. Pool.” That’s something of an over-embellishment, since very little information is coming out of the town itself, and there’s nothing on the wire, just Grant Mazzy winging it while all hell breaks loose before his ears. Mazzy is tolerated—to a point—by his by-the-books station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and fueled by breaking updates from just-back-from-a-war-zone-herself station intern Laurel Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly), who catches something Mazzy says.
     It’s gimmicky, but the gimmick works, mostly due to McDonald’s take-no-prisoners direction, McHattie’s in-our-face performance, and Tony Burgess’ sly script (based on his novel) which keeps the hapless dj there, forever ad-libbing over the unsettling airwaves. Of course, Mazzy should just do the polite thing and “shut up or die,” the film’s clever tagline, no doubt inspired by ‘Naked Lunch scribe William S. Burroughs’ frequent assertion that “language is a virus from outer space.”


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Almost Holy (2015)

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Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Ukraine found itself with a problem, that of its growing number of neglected street kids. The “transition process” left the fledgling republic’s child protection, welfare, and health systems underfunded. Enter, stage right, Pastor Gennadiy Mohknenko, a fit and charismatic white knight whose controversial tactics of dragging abused and drug-addicted homeless children off the streets of Mariupol are chronicled in Almost Holy, an engaging and emotionally-rich documentary feature from director Steve Hoover (Blood Brother). The film’s original—and less contentious—title is Crocodile Gennadiy, a reference to both the do-gooder reptile of a beloved Russian cartoon that seems to serve as Mohknenko’s inspiration, and to “krokodil,” an inexpensive yet deadly codeine-laced cocktail that turns a junkie’s flesh dark and scaly. “Crocodile” Gennadiy happily accepts the moniker as he does the responsibility of superhero, confronting the pharmacies that sell prescription opiates under the counter and leveraging the media to support his cause. “It is the duty of the state to stop [the wrongdoer]. And if the powers don’t do it, then the responsibility falls on society. If society is silent and buries its youth, then the vigilantes come out. Even if that’s not the best option.” Almost Holy is a powerful, lovingly filmed, and life-affirming call for reform, with Hoover in complete control of his medium (which includes a resonant score from The Social Network‘s Atticus Ross). Whether or not you agree with his subject’s unorthodox methods—a Wikipedia article cited in the film, for example, quotes a local diocesan criticism of the collared crusader’s motives as “…a search of fame and the desire for power,” there’s no doubt this Crocodile saves lives.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Sing Street (2016)

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Fancy a fun, family-friendly flick about “teens crushing on each other with big hair and too much eyeliner, playing music in the 1980s in Dublin” (according to the wife), written and directed by the guy who made Once and Begin Again? If so, you’ll likely fancy Sing Street, John Carney’s latest musical number, a throwback to The Commitments, Alan (Fame) Parker’s infectious 1991 hit about a motley crew of working-class R&B performers struggling to become Dublin’s next big thing in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland. This time around the performers are pint-sized and the music is new wave.
     Cute as all get out, Sing Street features younger and less well-known faces than Begin Again‘s Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo (an East Village singer-songwriter’s raw talent captivates a disgraced—and tousled—record producer!), or even Once‘s Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (an Irish busker and a Czech immigrant pair up… and win an Oscar!), but is no less appealing as a result. In fact, it’s a calculated crowd pleaser; the crowd with whom I saw it was pleased enough to offer a round of applause when the house lights came up.
     Carney’s coming of age tale is told through the widening eyes of 15-year-old Conor, engagingly played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Early in the film, Conor finds himself downgraded to a rough Christian Brothers school to help his embattled parents make ends meet. In order to impress the older girl who loiters across the street from his new school, Conor is forced to pull a band together at short notice. Since it’s the ’80s, the music video is all the rage, and Conor’s courtship of aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) involves self-penned love songs on cassette tape and VHS shoots involving the aforementioned big hair and eyeliner, not to mention garishly ill-advised costumes. Conor’s older-and-wiser stoner brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) provides the group’s grounding, vinyl-wise.
     It’s not all silly and syrupy though. There are Conor’s warring parents, constantly yelling at each other behind closed doors, your typical criminally over-attentive headmaster and, all in all, just another prick in the hall (a burly bully in bovver boots). Despite these believable downers, the tone is mostly charming and Carney—former bassist of Dublin’s The Frames so he knows a thing or two about basic chord progressions—rounds out the soundtrack of period pop synth hits (Duran Duran’s “Rio,” The Cure’s “In Between Days,” M’s “Pop Muzik,” etc.) with some authentic-sounding songs of his own, convincing as the outpourings of Conor and his titular band—pop wonders like “The Riddle of the Model” and “Drive It Like You Stole It.”
     My only complaint is one of production. Crank those ’80s gems higher in the mix!
     Sing Street is, by turns, joyous and uplifting, awkward and formulaic, kind of like life I suppose (especially if you’re a 15-year-old Irish lad with not very big problems). Think about it though: chips, snoggin’, and A Flock of Seagulls. What more could one possibly need?


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Amy (2015)

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Jimi Hendrix. Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison. Janice Joplin. Ordinarily, a young London lass whose stated goal in life was to be a singer would have given her front—and adorably gapped—teeth to be associated with such iconic musicians. Soulful British jazz chanteuse Amy Winehouse does indeed bear comparison, both for her talent and her tragic end. These musical legends, along with ‘Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, influential blues guitarist Robert Johnson, and eerily many others, are all members of the so-called 27 Club, a doomed group of performers who lost their lives, either by their own hand or otherwise, at the age of 27. The absorbing documentary Amy doesn’t touch on the club’s membership, but focuses on Amy, her family, and the demons that haunted her. The film features clips from home movies, interviews, and concert performances of the controversial, smoky-throated diva who couldn’t handle the price of fame—candid times in Camden Town with a heavy dose of portent. Despite Winehouse’s protestations in her multiple Grammy-winning, million dollar-selling hit “Rehab,” she did wind up seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, but it wasn’t enough. “I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…”  Vibrant. Thought-provoking. Heartwarming. Heartbreaking. Asif Kapadia’s film paints a compelling portrait of true artistry undone by a surfeit of poor role models and the incalculable pressures of instant celebrity.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com