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Monthly Archives: November 2015

This documentary chronicles the rise of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal – two highly esteemed public intellectuals and failed political candidates from distinct ideological poles – culminating in their televised debates during the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968. It was at one of these debates that this happened–

There is so much that is absolutely riveting about this exchange: Buckley’s barely contained fury, Vidal’s delight at having gotten under Buckley’s skin, the erudition of the exchange, and its utter authenticity. The documentarians do an excellent job at placing these debates in the proper contexts, including the rise of Buckley as a conservative founding father and Vidal as a brilliant novelist and libertine, and the effect on these two combatants. Vidal almost fetishized the exchange, having guests view the debates at his villa in Italy in a Norma Desmond-like manner, and saying of Buckley upon his death “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.” Conversely, Buckley was horrified at his loss of control and regretted it for the rest of his life.

The documentary also chronicles how the debate changed television coverage for conventions (no longer would there be gavel-to-gavel coverage) and alludes to the debate’s impact on televised political discussion thenceforth, but, thankfully, doesn’t attempt to press home a full argument.  It is enough to watch the sewer that is political commentary on FOX, MSNBC, CNN juxtaposed with the clips of Buckley and Vidal, even at their worst, to get the point.  Best, the documentary utilizes individuals who were present at the debates as well as authors and commentators like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Tanenhaus and Dick Cavett, all of whom have very interesting rather than obvious observations.

The documentary is, however, a little thin. In particular, it glosses over the post-debate exchange the two men had in Esquire magazine, where Vidal cut as deep as he could, suggesting a calumny about the Buckley family that does not bear repeating here. This more so than the exchange engendered litigation, as Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire. That suit was settled, under the following terms: Esquire would publish a statement in its November issue disavowing “the most vivid statements” of the Vidal article, calling Buckley “racist, anti-black, anti-Semitic and a pro-crypto Nazi”, and the magazine paid $115,000 for Buckley’s legal expenses. Buckley said of Vidal, “Let his own unreimbursed legal expenses, estimated at $75,000, teach him to observe the laws of libel.” Interestingly, in 1995, Esquire re-published Vidal’s essay in an anthology, Buckley again sued for libel, and Esquire again settled for $55,000 in attorney’s fees and $10,000 in personal damages to Buckley.

Great time capsule piece. Available on Netflix streaming.

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This is a gripping but measured film, a reportorial procedural and a meditation on the impact of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church in Boston, as reported on by The Boston Globe in 2002. “Spotlight” refers to an investigative team of the paper (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) who, under the direction of a new editor (Liev Schreiber) takes on the case. As they dig deeper, the breadth of the scandal widens (the number of culpable priests balloons from 13 to 87) and the institutional protections surrounding the church become more evident and intrusive. The story also takes its toll on the team, all some form of Catholic (cultural, lapsed, etc . . . ) at the time of the investigation.

The film is economical and direct and it stubbornly avoids cliche’ and histrionics. It is also a rare “based on true events” movie that feels authentic throughout, not jumped up or glamorized.  It is very similar to A Civil Action, another Boston based movie that tackles a legal case (water contamination in Woburn) by analyzing the city and its institutions. Like that film, Spotlight packs its biggest punch during scenes of interviews with the survivors of abuse, which are nothing short of heartrending.

If you want a gripping movie about the mechanics of taking on a story like this, this is it, and if you want a companion piece that shows exactly how an individual molester operates, I recommend Doubt. Watching this film, as with Doubt, stirred my own memories on the subject, having been educated by the Catholic church for eight years of grade school and by the Jesuits for four years of high school. I saw the picture with my kids and tried to explain how what is now an indelible black mark on the church wasn’t exactly a deep, dark secret by the time I reached high school, yet somehow, was not a full-fledged scandal. I explained that we had a religion teacher who was very charismatic, but who you just kind of knew not to be around. Why? It’s hard to say. It could have been my own sense of it, or the fact that my brother or his friends imparted some decent advice, or the fact that after gym, when you were showering, he could sometimes inexplicably be seen in the locker room.

Whatever the impetus, you learned not be around Father Bradley, but I guess I just assumed that all boys shared the same sense of something being off and were similarly self-protective. That wasn’t the case, and in 2007, I was one of thousands of recipients of a mass email detailing the misdeeds of this priest at our high school, and at other places where he taught afterwards, encouraging us to report if in fact we had any knowledge of his abuse. Without the work of The Boston Globe on the story, that email may never have come to be.  In that manner, this film is a testament to solid, door-knocking, pavement pounding reporting.

If you’re interested in the priest who plagued my school, the story is here.  The original Boston Globe story can be found here.

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Nicely done, but ultimately plagued by some clunkiness and a fair amount of inexplicable behavior by the couple (Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman) who are terrorized by a stranger from Bateman’s past (Joel Edgerton). Otherwise, this is a classier Lakeview Terrace, Unlawful Entry, or Pacific Heights, movies about California rich people haunted by a weirdo, but with a reverse Gone Girl twist. A note on Bateman, normally a light, Ben Stilleresque comedian: he’s really good as a man trying to exorcise his worst instincts while continuing to profit from them.

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Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has been in retirement for decades, forced there by the traumatic events of his last case, a case he has increasing trouble remembering as senility does its damage. With Watson long gone, Holmes relies on the son (Milo Parker) of his caretaker (Laura Linney) to assist him in his daily activities and serve as a bridge to younger, healthier and more lucid days. Holmes is soon entwined in the hostile relationship between the working class mother and her clearly clever yet condescending son, and he confronts the mistakes of his past while engaging, reluctantly, in their very pedestrian domestic drama. This is Holmes adrift, vulnerable and shorn of the cock-sure bravado of his younger years.

It’s hard not to over-praise McKellen’s performance. Too much Gandolf has fixed him as caricature, but here, he deftly injects Holmes’s withering intellect and emotional shortcomings with a plaintive frailty. Director Bill Condon has experience with McKellen – their work in Gods and Monsters was similarly touching, restrained and intelligent and also garnered McKellen a Best Actor nod.  The film is also blessed by a strong turn by Parker. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, as in life, you warm to a child who is genuine as opposed to precocious, natural instead of stagey.  Parker is just right.

Occasionally, the movie is a little dragging, but this is still one of my favorite films this year.

Melissa McCarthy blew the doors off of Bridesmaids, and that was in a very strong ensemble. Since that time, she’s taken several whacks at a lead or co-lead role (Identity Thief, Tammy, The Heat) and the results have been blah. In the first two of those movies, McCarthy played up the grotesque, as if to say, “Yes, I know I’m fat, but wait until you see me fat and disgusting and humiliated.” It was a complete reversal from her character in Bridesmaids, who acted as if her weight was an advantage, an intriguing sexy charm, only to reveal to a self-pitying Kristen Wiig that her arrival at such self-confidence was no easy road. In this, McCarthy was hilarious and touching. In Tammy and Identity Thief, she was gross, charmless and, unsurprisingly, not funny.

McCarthy should thank the stars for writer-director Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids, because he leads her back to her strengths. As CIA office minder for the James Bondian Bradley Fine (Jude Law), her secret agent exploits are limited to getting Fine out of jams while talking in his earpiece.  Of course, she’s in love with him, a love that is unrequited but deep nonetheless. When Fine is killed, McCarthy goes out into the field to avenge him, tangling with a fellow agent who is dismissive of her skills (a very funny Jason Statham), a horny Italian liaison on the ground (Peter Serafinowicz, who damn near steals the movie), and the arch villain Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who may be the hardest working woman in show biz). For each of these characters, Feig writes very clever bits, and McCarthy plays off of their barbs beautifully. The result is a bit of Austin Powers and a bit of Bond at its most campy, consistently interspersed with crisp and amusing banter and a few laugh-out-loud set pieces. It’s all held together because you like McCarthy and instead of reveling in her misfortune, she exhibits wit and pluck and you root for her to rise above each indignity (the worst of which are the increasingly disparaging “undercover” personalities she is assigned).  Great fun.

The documentarian, David Thorpe, opens up at the outset explaining that he’s not in a relationship and then focusing on his lilting voice as somehow responsible. Whether that is the case is hardly proven, but it is clear that Thorpe is not happy with the way he talks. This commences his journey to speech therapists, gay icons (David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Tim Gunn) and his family and friends in a search to discover the genesis of the gay voice and in particular, when he started to sound gay (the title is a bit of a misdirection: he sounds gay; there ain’t no “Do I?” about it). What follows is a mostly interesting if occasionally duplicative meditation on one man’s gay voice.  In the case of Thorpe, he was a quiet closeted kid in South Carolina, perhaps knowing exactly what was in store for him if he was labeled a “fag” in the pitiless halls of high school. But to his credit, he doesn’t leave off there. His old friends affirm that his “gay” voice was a relatively quick change, occurring when he came out, and Thorpe explores the bravado of that act, as well as the influence of gays in pop culture when he was growing (who knew Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and Rip Torn were so influential?) The documentary also shows a certain group speak at play, as anyone can attest when they spend an appreciable time in the South and a drawl develops. What is abundantly clear by the end of this film is that Thorpe’s never getting rid of the voice. When he tries, he just sounds like a baritone gay dude. But in cataloguing his attempt, he’s made a witty, watchable picture. Currently on Netflix streaming.

I was just talking about how professional and polished yet paint-by-numbers and predictable Bridge of Spies was and I juxtaposed it with the other film I watched this weekend – Cop Car. With a fraction of Spielberg’s budget, writer-director John Watts’s second feature is inventive, engaging and darkly comic. Two boys are running away from home when they come across what appears to be an abandoned police cruiser, and, as boys will be boys, they take it for a joyride around the fields and deserted highways of Colorado. Turns out the car belongs to a crooked county sheriff (Kevin Bacon), who lost the car to the boys in the middle of dirty business. He races against time to find them, and what follows is often thrilling and occasionally inspired. But what elevates the material is an intelligent dialogue between two boys, with one foot in the world and the other in the imagination. As they confront real danger, Watts revels in their innocence yet uses it to amp up the tension. A great deal happens to these boys, but there is no scene more gripping than when they handle firearms as if they are as harmless as the ones on Playstation.

The film isn’t without faults. It drags a bit here and there, and ultimately, its charms succumb to a more pedestrian action thriller. But it maintains a sly sensibility, and it trusts its audience to have patience and get the drift. The same can’t be said for Spielberg, who rarely extends such trust, opting for the sledgehammer. A beautifully crafted and polished instrument, but a blunt one nonetheless.