Dark Places. Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. I originally intended to see Dark Places last summer, right after reading the Gillian Flynn novel on which it is based, but that didn’t pan out so I’ve just seen the film as a DVD rental from Netflix instead. The film is a fairly faithful adaptation, based on what I recall from the book: it tells the story of Libby Day (Charlize Theron), the now-adult survivor of a 1985 massacre at her family home during which her mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters were murdered. Libby’s testimony during the criminal trial resulted in her older brother Ben (Tye Sheridan in flashbacks, Corey Stoll in present day) being convicted of the attacks, but now, thirty years later, Libby confronts the possibility that she may not know the truth of what happened that night, and there is a chance that Ben is innocent. The film benefits from the casting of Theron, Hendricks, Sheridan and Stoll, as well as Nicholas Hoult (playing a young man whose interest in the Day case spurs Libby to investigate the real story), Chloë Grace Moretz (as rich bad-girl Diondra, Ben’s girlfriend in 1985) and Drea DeMatteo (her character meets with Libby to tell her a key part of Ben’s backstory from the time of the murders), so all of that goes a good way toward holding the viewer’s interest. Unfortunately the film has a strange flaw that fans of Gillian Flynn’s novel will notice immediately: Charlize Theron stands approximately 5′ 10″, a height which is markedly different from how the character Libby is portrayed in the book, a woman who is not even five feet tall (not to mention being a redhead, as opposed to blonde Theron). Viewers who have not read the novel will not realize that the character has been changed so much, but it matters in terms of how Flynn told her story – Libby sometimes gets into dangerous situations where she cannot fight back as effectively as she wants to because she is so diminutive. Theron, on the other hand, has an imposing presence that almost never allows the character to seem physically inferior to anyone else. Even so, Theron conveys a sense of Libby’s abrasive personality and defensiveness in a manner that stays true to the source material, and I do wonder if on some level the actress was able to connect with her character particularly well because she has experiences of violence within her family, but my foreknowledge of the original Dark Places narrative made it harder to appreciate Theron’s performance than it should have been. In the end, the novel remains far more worth your time than the film version.
I’ll See You in My Dreams. Directed by Brett Haley. A sweet, sad movie that reflects on the passage of time and what it means to lose loved ones, I’ll See You in My Dreams grants Blythe Danner a terrific lead role as Carol, a widow (probably close in age to Danner, her early 70s) who embarks on new friendships with her pool cleaner, a thirtysomething would-be poet named Lloyd (Martin Starr), and a man her own age, a charming, white-haired gent named Bill (Sam Elliott) who lives at a nearby retirement home. The film does a good job of portraying the tenderness of both of these new bonds for Carol, whether platonic or romantic; among the film’s highlights is a scene in which Lloyd brings Carol to a karaoke bar and she surprises him and everyone else in the room by going onstage and singing a beautiful rendition of “Cry Me a River.” (Lloyd has his own shining moment near the end of the film, serenading Carol with an original song that he has penned, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which is later repeated in the end credits, sung by Keegan DeWitt.) The film succeeds in many of its scenes concerning Carol’s worries over growing older and losing more of her loved ones (her beloved dog, Hazel, dies at the beginning of the film), but it falters a little in some of the goofier set-ups, like a series of comical experiences she has with her friends (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, June Squibb – all fine actresses) and a bit of medical marijuana. I suppose the occasional lightness is supposed to balance out the heavier, more emotional crises in Carol’s life, but I cared far less about those instances than I did about the scenes that really allowed Danner to anchor the film with intensity and gravitas. I’ll take a soulful performance of “Cry Me a River” over a silly scene of older women getting the munchies any day.
The Longest Ride. Directed by George Tillman, Jr. A typical Nicholas Sparks cheese-fest, The Longest Ride stars Britt Robertson (I remember her from a creepy episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and Scott Eastwood (who looks exactly like dear old dad) as a Northern gal and a Southern guy who, in typical Sparks fashion, must overcome their differences and make their relationship work. Because a Nicholas Sparks story wouldn’t be complete without flashbacks to the past, the film seesaws between the present-day love story and the romance between a Jewish American man (Jack Huston in the flashbacks, Alan Alda in the present) and a Jewish woman from Vienna who has escaped Europe because of World War II (Oona Chaplin). (This film wins at all the acting-family connections: Eastwood! Huston! Chaplin! Alda too, even though most people know more about Alan than about his father, Robert.) The usual schmaltzy Nicholas Sparks traumas and triumphs ensue; the only bright spots are the acting by Jack Huston and the eye candy provided by Scott Eastwood. Frankly I’m shocked that there was no Dramatic Kiss in the Rain™, which I feel certain Sparks must have trademarked by now.
Meadowland. Directed by Reed Morano. Named for the area of New Jersey where the protagonists’ young son goes missing during a family trip, Meadowland is a harrowing portrait of the pain that the husband and wife endure while dealing with the possibility that they may never seen their abducted son again. The film takes place a year after the husband and wife (Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson) have lost their son, focusing most of the story on Wilde’s character, Sarah, whose life has slowly deteriorated into a fever dream of delusions regarding her son still being alive. Wilde’s performance is excellent, the kind of part she never used to be given (studios liked her better for pretty-but-bland love interests in big-budget fare of various genres) but is now excelling in (see also: her role as Bobby Cannavale’s wife in the show “Vinyl”). Wilde’s wandering mind brings her to several serious junctures, including self-harm, taking drugs given to her from her brother-in-law (Giovanni Ribisi, very good as usual), sleeping with another man and becoming obsessed with a bright but lonely boy with Asperger’s syndrome (Ty Simpkins) who attends the school where she teaches. Where the film falters is in its underdeveloped plot points – Wilde’s troubled state is supposed to allow for weirdness and for flaws in the screenplay, I suppose – but the showcase for Olivia Wilde is encouraging in terms of filmmaking by and for women, and the film has some terrific cinematography by the director, Reed Morano (a well-known DP making her directorial debut here). By the way: Wilde and Morano have continued to work together since Morano has photographed some episodes of “Vinyl,” the HBO series on which Wilde stars.
Spotlight. Directed by Tom McCarthy. A Best Picture Oscar winner ought to do two things: to tell a story that is interesting to the viewers and to re-energize viewers’ beliefs in the power of cinema. I don’t think that Spotlight sufficiently fulfills those requirements. That doesn’t mean that the subject covered in the film isn’t important – the Catholic Church’s cover-up of widespread sexual abuse/assault of children by priests in Boston parishes (not to mention all the other cities across the US and around the world), and how the Boston Globe broke the story, certainly needs to be heard – but the filmmaking is only “good enough,” which is not the standard by which we should be giving out awards of the highest honor. As tired as this explanation may sound, All the President’s Men really did set the standard for modern films about investigative journalism, and there’s not much about Spotlight that portrays its topic any differently. (I suppose All the President’s Men provided a template that filmmakers now use as a formula: just plug in your setting, news organization, story, characters and then add the major movie stars.) The performances given by the actors are uniformly good, hanging together well as an ensemble: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Neal Huff. Nobody really stands out as having gone above and beyond the call of duty, though; no one stretches his or her acting muscles. No way in the world should Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have been nominated for Oscars for their performances, but I will say that I wish someone would give an award to Brian d’Arcy James for Best Mustache, and one to Stanley Tucci (a consistently excellent actor, by the way) for Best Wearer of Glasses on the Lower End of His Nose (a retrospective career honor; a number of his roles have called for it). I would also argue that the two most effective performances in the film are given by supporting actors whose names are probably not known at all to the public, yet whose roles are both powerfully portrayed, both actors playing victims giving testimony to McAdams and Ruffalo, painfully recalling their childhood traumas decades later: Michael Cyril Creighton as Joe Crowley and Jimmy LeBlanc as Patrick McSorley. Those two men provided some of the most powerful moments in the film; they felt more real people than actors, a sure sign of success for their work.