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It’s Gonna Be Bay: The Rock

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

They say that no man is an island but Michael Bay seems to stand alone in the realm of action movies. Not only is he one of the most well-known directors of the genre but his explosion-heavy style of filmmaking is so recognizable, it’s colloquially known as “Bayhem”, as to convey the controlled chaos exhibited in his films. Even before his Transformers pentalogy, the one-two punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor codified Bay’s penchant for star-spangled pyrotechnics and chest-puffed melodramatics in indiscreet fashion. If these two films sum up Bayhem, then 1996’s The Rock could fittingly be seen as “proto-Bayhem”, where the director was still figuring out how he wanted to commit action to celluloid without having the same tricks on which to fall back. Most consider it his finest achievement and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.

After a title card with emblazoned letters shooting towards the screen, the movie opens on Ed Harris’s Brigadier General Francis Hummel as he suits up in full military garb to set flowers on his wife’s headstone. As he walks among the tombstones, an American flag is being carefully folded in slow-motion as the rain beats down on a soldier’s casket. The color grading is so blue in this opening sequence, it makes both Ozark and Tobias Fünke envious. It turns out Hummel has a dangerous plan in place: to steal a cadre of missiles loaded with a deadly nerve gas known as “VX” and threaten to launch them on American soil unless the US government pays reparations to the families of fallen Marines with whom he served. Along with a band of new recruits, he plans to set up shop on Alcatraz Island (whose nickname gives the film its title) and take tourists hostage as a contingency.

Amid a $100 million demand and tight timeframe to complete the deal, the Department of Defense calls forth an unlikely pair of foils for Hummel. The first is Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), a self-described “chemical superfreak” who helps the FBI defuse “care packages” loaded with goodies like C4 explosives and sarin gas. The second is John Mason (Sean Connery), an off-the-books inmate who is allegedly the only person to ever escape The Rock during its days as a prison. Their combined knowledge of how to neutralize the VX-loaded missiles and how to move about the island undetected by Hummel’s men, backed by a Navy SEAL team, represents the US government’s best shot at stopping Hummel before time runs out.

The Rock succeeds where other Bay endeavors fail because he properly sets up the characters, the scenario and the stakes before the inevitable action setpieces kick into gear. The fundamentals of an action classic are set up beautifully in the first act: an empathetic villain, a credible threat, a ticking clock, a pair of underdogs and men desperate to one-up each other in the machismo department whenever possible. Pushing the urgency is an iconic musical score from Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer, which has moments of reverence with snare taps and mournful trumpet but also pulsates with intense strings and crashing cymbals. It’s the kind of soundtrack that’s difficult to listen to and not feel like whatever mundane activity you’re doing is the most important task the American people have ever asked you to carry out.

There are plenty of stock military characters in The Rock, from the no-nonsense commander of the Navy SEAL team to the no-nonsense Major who plays sidekick to Hummel on the island. What allows the movie to distinguish itself among scores of actioners is in the unique characters that it sets up outside the standard tough guys. Cage’s Goodspeed is such a wimp, he chooses “friggin'” and “a-hole” over traditional curse words, even in situations when it makes no sense to censor oneself. He’s a Beatlemaniac who we first see wasting time on a mildly incendiary Rube Goldberg contraption before being called to investigate a suspicious package. Bay even throws in a pregnant fiancee who has literally no agency in the movie but makes Goodspeed’s survival to the very end even more of a priority than it would have been already.

Then we have Mason, a charming and ruthlessly intelligent codger whose agreement with the FBI feels tenuous and secondary to his desire to become reacquainted with his estranged daughter. We get the sense early on that he’s been a pawn between governments for decades and would probably be a free man if he wasn’t so important for political gamesmanship. Since he’s played by Sean Connery, it’s also fun to hear him say things like “successfully” and “San Francisco” in his quintessential Scottish accent. At one point, Mason requests “a suite, a shower, a shave and a suit” and I can only assume uncredited screenwriter Quentin Tarantino won a bet against the three credited screenwriters about how long an alliteration he could sneak into the script.

Of course it comes down to Goodspeed and Mason defeating these highly-trained Marines on their own and Goodspeed would be thrilled with the chemistry that Cage and Connery have together. It’s a classic pairing of opposites: an eccentric wuss who revels in a life of beige-tinted boredom and a hardened Army man who’s looking for action after toiling away in prison for most of his life. Goodspeed schools Mason in exactly how VX can waste any living organism in 90 seconds while Mason shows Goodspeed how to prep scuba gear without fumbling around with it. Cage gets the talkier role and we’re all the better for it: at one point, he invokes “Zeus’s butthole” while lamenting their imprisoned state as Mason quietly works to spring them from their jail cells. Nevertheless, Connery ends up with the film’s most memorable line about the difference between winners and losers. If you don’t know it, that’s reason enough to see the movie right away.

But at the end of the day, this is an action movie and it delivers the goods time and time again with brutally effective setpieces that make excellent use of their geography. A lengthy car chase through the hills of San Francisco is the most recognizable as a Michael Bay speciality, with rapid-pace editing, demolished cars and explosions whenever even remotely possible. There’s more than a little Indiana Jones influence on two specific sequences on the island, one in which Mason deftly navigates a barrage of timed flame bursts and another that involves a cart chase through a mine shaft. It’s odd to think of this movie as modest in any regard but the excesses of Bay’s mega-blockbuster output after it almost make this seem like an indie by comparison. If Bay on a budget means that we get more gems like The Rock, then I say tighten up the purse strings and let it rip.

Nun of our Business: The Little Hours

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

It’s an idea so rife with comedic possibilities, it’s a wonder Mel Brooks hadn’t thought of it years ago: what if 14th century nuns acted and spoke like 21st century women? Thus is the anachronistic guiding light of The Little Hours, a sex-fueled comedy based on a selection of stories from The Decameron by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. Despite the obvious differences in how the characters speak to one another, writer/director Jeff Baena sticks to the main plot points and even some of the subtext from the centuries old source material. I’m not extremely well-versed in nun-based cinema but I would imagine this is the only one that opens with a scene where a nun yells “hey, don’t fucking talk to us!” and then shows up to Mass in the following scene.

Nominally set in 1347 Garfagnana, the film is centered around a trio of nuns: Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Their peaceful countryside convent is shaken by the new presence of Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile servant on the run from his master Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) for sleeping with Bruno’s wife. Since nuns have berated the help routinely in the past, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) takes Massetto in as a gardener for the grounds, on the condition that poses as a deaf-mute. It turns out Alessandra is so desperate for a potential suitor that she throws herself at Massetto without even being able to argue that he’s a “really good listener”. Meanwhile, Fernanda and Ginevra manifest their own plans for the new resident himbo while Lord Bruno searches furiously for his lost property.

The Little Hours is the rare comedy that not only doesn’t wear out its welcome but actually gets better as it picks up momentum. Baena makes the mistake of dedicating a bit too much of the paltry 87-minute runtime to setting up Massetto and his agreement with Father Tommasso, which swallows up the entire first act. I would have preferred more time to have been dedicated to setting up the trio of nuns, whose personalities have overlaps that it would have been nice to distinguish before Massetto hits the scene. Marta, a lascivious friend of Fernanda’s played by Jemima Kirke, also shows up in the second act around the same time as Massetto and pushes things where they need to go comedically. Fernanda unleashes some serious nihilistic leanings while Ginevra reveals deeper secrets about her sexual and religious preferences and Alessandra pursues her affair with the duplicitous Massetto.

As with his 2014 zom-com Life After Beth, Baena brings John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon back as romantic partners, although the stakes are higher for their partnership in The Little Hours. Since the latter is Mother Superior of the convent, Father Tommasso faces excommunication if his relationship with Shannon’s Mother Marea was to be discovered. The hushed exchanges and guarded flirtations between Tommasso and Marea give a sweet counterbalance to the more abrasive and bawdy interactions between the other nuns. Speaking of familiar faces from the comedy world, the always funny Fred Armisen shines in the third act as a visiting bishop who’s arrived just in time to see the convent devolve into a den of iniquity. When allegations of witchcraft and sexual impropriety spread around the community, the bishop naturally calls a tribunal and Armisen is perfect as the flummoxed arbiter of proper conduct, who claims “this is the longest list I’ve ever had for sins!”

By the time things started to wind down in The Little Hours, I confess I had urges to watch several more hours of these sinful characters in this most pious of settings. Given that the film did less than $2 million at the box office, the possibility of a sequel or spin-off was slim to none, which is a shame given the amount of comedy gold that could still be mined from this premise. Had it performed a bit better in theaters, I could see it having a similar trajectory to What We Do in the Shadows, the hilarious vampire mockumentary that only did a few million domestically but was greenlit as an FX series in 2018. 4 years later, it’s on its way to a fourth season and has remained remarkably consistent in terms of comedic quality across the 3 seasons that have aired already. Given how much Paramount Plus is investing in original content to compete with the other streamers these days, I’ll keep the hopes for a The Little Hours spin-off series in my prayers.

Bats on the Brain: The Lego Batman Movie

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”

– Batman, The Lego Movie

When Phil Lord and Christopher Miller unveiled their “Legoized” version of Batman in their surprise smash The Lego Movie, it was two years after Christopher Nolan’s trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises and two years before the Caped Crusader debuted in the DCEU with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Voiced by Will Arnett with his signature brand of haughtiness in full effect, their iteration is a send-up of the moody mythology that’s inextricably linked with the iconic superhero. His theme song is just him shouting things like “darkness!” and “no parents!” over a crushing industrial beat. He’s a lush, a braggart and terrible at concealing his secret identity of Bruce Wayne. His character was such a hit, the spin-off The Lego Batman Movie arrived two years prior to the proper sequel for The Lego Movie itself.

Batman doesn’t even wait until after the production logos finish before starting his voiceover. Hell, he doesn’t even wait until the first of the “really long and dramatic logos” comes up to hype up his own movie. “Black. All important movies start with a black screen,” he declares as the urgent music starts to bubble up. After describing DC as “the house that Batman built” and stealing lyric credit from Michael Jackson, the film commences with a riff on the opening plane heist from The Dark Knight Rises. Lego henchmen traverse and hijack the Macguffin Airlines aircraft, led by Joker (Zach Galifianakis) this time around instead of Bane. The pilot is more bemused than intimidated by the Clown Prince of Gotham’s presence in the cockpit, since Batman has batted 1000 when it comes to foiling Joker’s plans in the past. Another Dark Knight trilogy reference drops when Joker hotly defends his new plan: “this is better than the two boats!”

We soon find out why the pilot was right to be unconcerned. After unleashing an impressively deep roster of supervillains, including hilariously obscure DC Comics foes from Gentleman Ghost to Condiment King, Joker watches them all go down one by one once Batman hits the scene. But Batman saves his most devastating violence for last, when he refutes Joker’s claim that he’s Batman’s “greatest enemy” and says there’s “nothing special” about their relationship. While the broken-hearted Joker goes back to the drawing board yet again, Batman switches into Bruce Wayne mode for a ritzy gala where he meets cherubic orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and incoming police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) as she announces new policies for the police force. As a graduate of Harvard For Police, she’s clearly qualified to make such decisions.

The Lego Batman Movie came at a time when the character desperately needed laughter and levity to be attached to his name, one way or another. The Dark Knight trilogy was a sorely needed realization of a comic book character that the movies hadn’t quite gotten quite right up to that point but like most of Nolan’s films, the jokes were dry and brief. Even more humorless was the DCEU version, portrayed by dead-serious conviction and no Bat nipples by Ben Affleck. 1997’s Batman & Robin was so poorly received for trying to add camp and humor to the mix that it would take a filmmaker 20 years to even attempt it again. The director ultimately brave enough to do so was Robot Chicken alum Chris McKay, the perfect choice for a rapid-pace, reference-heavy parody of a pop culture icon using facsimiles of plastic toys. He and his five screenwriters pack an overwhelming amount of clever in-jokes and laugh-out-loud lines into their script but also pack some pathos that hits deeper than some of Batman’s live-action counterparts.

This isn’t the first film to bring attention to Batman and Joker’s symbiotic nature — The Dark Knight still evokes this concept the best of any Bat Tale to date — but in pushing their relationship into the realm of romance, McKay and crew illuminate new depths of meaning within these characters. Instead of making jokes, this Joker is constantly the butt of jokes due to everyone’s complete lack of fear and respect for him. It’s actually pretty easy to empathize with him and his plan, while still diabolical, points to a void in Joker’s heart that will likely never be filled. Batman’s arc from selfishness to selflessness may be a bit more obvious from the outset, given how arrogant he is from minute one, but his transformation from unwitting adoptive parent to devoted father is powerful and sweet. Robin has appeared in live-action Batman films before but the connection between the two characters as orphans trying to find their path has never been made more clear in the cinematic realm.

But let’s not bury the lede: this movie is very, very, very funny. I laughed so hard when Gotham’s cavalcade of villains were introduced. Doug Benson spoofs Tom Hardy’s portrayal of coat-donning Bane with dopey deliveries of lines like “Bane is feeling warm and fuzzy!” Zoë Kravitz will be appearing as Catwoman in The Batman but she actually played the character here first, bookending all of her lines with a spirited “meow meow!” Lord Voldemort shows up later but since Ralph Fiennes, who voiced the Harry Potter foe in the film series, was busy elsewhere in the film voicing loyal butler Alfred, Eddie Izzard takes over the vocal duties of the noseless You-Know-Who. When Joker lists a new brood of supervillains and ends on the more obscure Daleks of Doctor Who, he appeals to the uninitiated in the audience: “ask your nerd friends.”

The Lego version of Batman appeared again in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part but that may be the last time we see him for a while, since the franchise is now in the hands of Universal instead of Warner Bros. Perhaps it’s for the best. As outstanding as The Lego Batman Movie is, maybe this sort of send-up is a lighting in a bottle effort that would have been tougher to generate laughs from in future chapters. It’s comforting to know that no matter how dark (thematically or visually) future Batman films may go, we’ll always have this goofy gem as a beacon of light piercing through the night sky.

My Top 10 Films of 2021

It was another difficult year for the film industry but theaters around the country slowly opened up as the year went on, which allowed Spider-Man: No Way Home to bring home over $500 million domestically last month alone. The future of theatrical releases remains unclear going into 2022 but there were plenty of worthwhile titles to see and stream through various avenues. I watched over 200 new releases in 2021. These are my 10 favorites:

  1. Riders of Justice (streaming on Hulu and available to rent/buy)
    Mads Mikkelsen stars in this Danish oddity that subverts the traditional vigilante revenge tale while exploring the nature of coincidence and trauma with a bitingly humorous touch. Like Another Round, the Mikkelsen-starring dramedy that won Best International Feature Film last April, it explores middle-age men coping with their issues in unconventional ways but packs even more of an emotional payoff.
  2. The Velvet Underground (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
    In the first documentary of his 30-year career, Todd Haynes brings an auteur’s touch to his look at the seminal rock and roll band which gives the film its title. Through archival footage and voiceover from members of the group, the doc also peels back the avant-garde art scene in 1960s New York City for added context. A must-see for VU fans but newcomers should also find it intoxicating and vital.
  3. The Mitchells vs. the Machines (streaming on Netflix and available to rent/buy)
    This animated family comedy about a family staving off a robot apocalypse while on a college-bound road trip provided the most laugh-out-loud moments of any movie I saw last year. The voice cast, led by Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride, lends plenty of heart and humor to the rapid-paced adventure but Olivia Colman steals the show as a vindictive, HAL 9000-like virtual assistant.
  4. Judas and the Black Messiah (streaming on HBO Max and available to buy)
    Unfairly written off by many critics late last year due to its inclusion in the 2021 Oscars, this nervy and urgent look at Fred Hampton’s rise and fall in Chicago’s Black Panther Party has the scope and spirit of early Scorsese. Get Out co-stars Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield square off with a pair of electrifying and unforgettable performances. Writer/director Shaka King is a talent to watch.
  5. C’mon C’mon (available to rent)
    Writer/director Mike Mills, one of the most empathetic filmmakers around right now, packs wit and wisdom to spare into this tale of a radio journalist looking after his nephew while also traveling across the country. Following up his incendiary Joker performance, Joaquin Phoenix taps into his contemplative and compassionate side with magnetic results. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Robbie Ryan, this is a salve for a wounded world.
  6. The Humans (streaming exclusively on Showtime)
    Adapting his Tony Award-winning play, Stephen Karam depicts a fraught Thanksgiving meal between a dysfunctional family with some of the year’s most bruising yet illuminating dialogue. The top-tier ensemble cast, including Richard Jenkins and Beanie Feldstein, puts on a masterclass that probes the human condition with unflinching honesty. A singular and haunting work from a talent that I hope continues to bring his stories to the screen for years to come.
  7. Licorice Pizza (now playing only in theaters)
    Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the 1970s California setting of his early masterpiece Boogie Nights for this charming and carefree coming-of-age comedy with two breakout performers in front of the camera. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim (of the rock trio Haim) have a palpable chemistry upon which the film’s myriad vignettes bloom. A killer soundtrack with a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood fills out the sublime experience.
  8. Dune (available to rent/buy)
    This may only be half of Frank Herbert’s landmark novel but Denis Villeneuve’s vision of this story so far is nothing short of magnificent and truly awe-inspiring. The fusion of state-of-the-art special effects and intricate production design make this world feel rich and vast, one I’m sad I’ll need to wait two years to revisit when Part Two arrives. This is intelligent sci-fi that proves not every blockbuster is braindead.
  9. CODA (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
    Winner of the Grand Jury Prize out of Sundance early last year, this touching story of a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her otherwise deaf family is a heartwarming triumph. Newcomer Emilia Jones is extraordinary in the lead role and the trio of deaf actors that portray the rest of the family are just as strong with exceedingly well-rendered and soulful characters. Bring tissues. Seriously.
  10. Pig (streaming on Hulu and available to rent/buy)
    A midsummer surprise, this Nicolas Cage movie about a bearded loner on the search for his kidnapped truffle-finding pig has the logline of one of the thespian’s numerous straight-to-DVD misfires. Against all odds, Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut expands beautifully from this jumping-off point and features Cage’s best performance this century. An existential drama about seeking passion and purpose in an increasingly hostile and indifferent world, this is a treasure waiting to be found.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bond Voyage: Live and Let Die

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Diamonds may be forever but after Sean Connery’s sixth outing as James Bond was released, it was clear that his time as the dashing and deadly Brit was coming to an end. Connery reportedly turned down a then-unheard-of $5.5 million payday to return for one more Bond film, causing United Artists to approach American actors like Adam West and Burt Reynolds as replacements. But it was producer Albert Broccoli who was insistent that the role be portrayed by a British actor and pushed for TV star Roger Moore, whose spy series The Saint bore certain resemblances to the Bond film franchise. Moore would go on to reprise the role six more times following his 1973 debut: the strange but satisfying Live and Let Die.

We meet 007 at the tail end of an Italian rendezvous, of sorts, as he’s briefed by M (Bernard Lee) about three MI6 agents who were killed in action within a day’s time. Though they don’t understand the connection just yet, the murders seem to be tied to one Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the secretive prime minister of the Caribbean country San Monique. He has also drawn the attention of CIA agent and Bond confidant Felix Leiter (David Hedison), due to Kananga’s connection to a Harlem-based drug kingpin known as Mr. Big. Bond’s pursuit of Kananga and Big leads him first to the seedy streets of New York, then the sweaty swamplands of New Orleans and finally, the treacherous jungles of the Caribbean Islands.

The outline is standard-issue Bond but it’s all the peculiar wrinkles that make Live and Let Die an intriguing entry in the franchise. Its cold open is the only one in Bond movie history that doesn’t feature Bond himself, instead depicting three bizarre deaths of characters with whom we’re unacquainted and will never meet again. First, a UK diplomat receiving in-ear translation at a United Nations hearing gets blasted with an apparently fatal high-frequency noise in his earpiece. Then, in a bit that would kill on Corncob TV, a man is stabbed while watching a solemn New Orleans processional and the music turns joyous once his body is sucked up into the coffin. Finally, a death ritual is carried out against a man tied to a stake as he receives a deadly snake bite surrounded by celebrant voodoo worshippers. It’s an odd and ominous trifecta of death that sets up each of the film’s primary locations while keeping the audience on their toes like any good cold open should do.

Sandwiched in between blaxploitation classics like Super Fly and Three The Hard Way, Live and Let Die is also notable for its implementation of racial politics present both in film and real life during the early 1970s. Bond’s first lead sends him to the heart of Harlem, tracking a pimpmobile to the Oh Cult Voodoo Shop while being tracked himself as a “cue ball” in the predominantly black community. It’s a funny juxtaposition of how we’ve come to expect James Bond and most on-screen secret agents to conduct an investigation, seemingly unaware of how little discretion is being utilized. Watching the newly-minted Moore snoop around in a tailored suit like the out-of-touch “honky” that the Harlemites literally call him to his face is a bold showing of uncoolness for a character who is meant to epitomize cool.

Being a crime movie, the roles filled by African-American actors don’t have the most sophisticated range of characterizations — most are either villains or henchmen — but the diversity is still laudable for a franchise that was previously dominated by whiteness. The criminals each have their own idiosyncrasies that makes them just memorable enough: Julius W. Harris plays a metal-armed merc named Tee Hee, Earl Jolly Brown is a softly-spoken lackey known as Whisper and Geoffrey Holder portrays the tophat-wearing witch doctor Baron Samedi. Though his height made him an unpopular pick in the N64 game Goldeneye, his striking makeup and chilling cackle make him an unforgettable presence. As Kananga, Kotto puts forth a combination of intelligence and intimidation that all the best Bond villains possess.

Kananga’s final devious act, to slowly lower Bond and his love interest Solitaire (Jane Seymour) into a shark tank while revealing every detail of his evil plan, was immortalized by its inclusion in 007 send-up Austin Powers. While the sharks in Live and Let Die also don’t have frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads, Kananga does use an unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism and doesn’t pay attention to Bond as he utilizes not one but two functions of his Q-issued gadget watch. Speaking of dangerous water creatures, the film also features a stunt where Bond jumps on a series of backwoods-dwelling crocodile heads to get to safety, attempted over 6 takes by stuntman Ross Kananga (seemingly so impressive, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz named the film’s villain after him).

Even by today’s standards, the stunt work involved in the bayou-based boat chases is quite remarkable. Shot across a series of Louisiana lakes, the lengthy action setpieces feature speedboats zipping through land, air and sea at top speeds. They’re also marked by the inclusion J.W. Pepper, a hilariously sweaty Southern sheriff played by Clifton James in a very tongue-forward performance. It’s a complete caricature and one that director Guy Hamilton seems to fully embrace. I’ll admit to tugging at my collar during his introductory scene where he calls a black character “boy” but then he proceeds to call everyone else he meets, including white characters, by the same name. Oh, I’m sure he’s racist but the fact that he’s a bumbling moron who no one in the film respects makes his character just ridiculous enough to enjoy.

Moore would go on to do Bond movies that were even more campy than this one and while there aren’t any sights as goofy as 007 clowning around in full carney attire or bumbling around in a space suit, Live and Let Die is a fine foreshadowing of corniness to come. There are awful puns about “sheer magnetism” and Felix Leiter’s name being homophonous with a cigarette lighter (the number of gadget phones in this movie is staggering, I should note). Bond gets duped by two different trap doors but Moore remains calm and coiffed after both embarrassing incidents, cracking wise in the face of a bunch of armed thugs. Baron Samedi may get the last laugh in this entry but Moore’s use of self-deprecating comedy would go on to define his era of Bond pictures, for better or worse. It’s in that same spirit that I would recommend watching his first outing as Bond: don’t take it too seriously.

No Sleep October: Sinister

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

At this point, I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that COVID-19 screwed a lot of things up. Somewhere far down that list is the fact that Host, the screenlife Shudder exclusive that takes place during quarantine, knocked 2012’s Sinister off as the “scariest movie of all time”, according to Science of Scare. The BroadBandChoices project, which measured heart rate changes in 250 audience members during 40 renowned horror movies, previously crowned Sinister above modern favorites like Insidious and The Conjuring for the top spot. While any such study is a bit silly and doesn’t quite measure exactly what makes a movie “scary”, it’s no fluke that such a terrific horror entry would top the list.

Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt, whose pulpy sagas like Kentucky Blood and Cold Diner Morning have scored him national attention. Desperate for another hit, he moves his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and their kids Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael D’Addario) to a Pennsylvania home where a family was murdered nearby. Early in his research for the book, he happens upon a trove of Super 8 reels stashed away in the otherwise vacant attic and fires up his film projector to investigate. What he finds is a series of gruesome “home movies” where a happy family is murdered in different ways during each film. Further sleuthing allows Ellison to conclude that something supernatural (and perhaps…sinister…?) binds the footage of each of these accounts together.

With co-writer C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson sets up a properly compelling foundation around a man who’s willing to put his wife and children at risk just for another round of success. It’s a potentially difficult protagonist to pull off but Hawke, one of the most amiable actors around, makes us believe in Ellison’s drive and struggle to taste the spoils of victory one more time. Tracy throws everything she has into her support of him and his work — “when you’re happy, we’re all happy,” she acknowledges — but makes no secret that she’s at her wit’s end with his selfish determination. We learn that the fallout from his previous book made them pariahs in the town where they previously resided, a fate that Tracy understandably can’t bear to relive.

It’s a believable setup of pressure and expectation that puts Ellison in a compromised position even before the first frames of the formidable films flicker. With seemingly innocuous titles like “Pool Party ‘66” and “Sleepy Time ‘98”, it doesn’t take long for their opening scenes of familial bliss to turn grisly in a hurry. Derrickson adds a nice directorial touch in the form of a progression (or regression, of sorts) of Ellison’s dependency on alcohol to cope with the violence he observes in his line of work. By the time he watches the second movie, he breaks out the whiskey. By the third home movie, gentleman’s on-the-rocks sips have devolved to desperate straight-up guzzles. By the fourth, the rocks glass is out of the equation entirely and it’s just Ellison vs. the bottle.

It’s not hard to see why. The Super 8 segments are masterfully crafted bits of nightmare fuel — “Lawn Work ‘86” is my personal favorite — scored to supremely unsettling music from composer Christopher Norr. None of the home movies have audible dialogue but Norr’s warbly pianos and muted guitars do all the talking that’s necessary. The terrifying sequences, which were shot using real Super 8 cameras and film stock, have a grimy quality to them that chillingly recalls the aesthetic of actual snuff films. The single point light source limits our perspective and forces urgency on the already horrible images, drawing our focus away from who is shooting these awful films and why. The same morbid curiosity that drives audiences to slasher movies time and time again will keep them glued to the screen during these stretches of Sinister.

The other sections of spookiness in the film are a bit more rote but still quite effective, mainly comprised of Ellison chasing after bumps in the night while having too much pride to turn some damn lights on. The sources of noise turn out to be traceable to tangible objects at first before eventually giving way to apparitions that pop up with increased frequency. These ghosts could probably just float around casually but let’s face it: it’s much more fun when their presence is a bit more demonstrative. The film’s finest jump scare, which caused my wife to make a terrified noise so embarrassing that she still remembers it almost 10 years after we first saw the film in theaters, occurs at such a moment.

Grossing $87 million against its budget of $3 million (a proud Blumhouse tradition), Sinister went on to generate an inevitable sequel that doubles down on its ultimate baddie much in the way the Cars franchise went all-in on Larry the Cable Guy for Cars 2. Without giving too much away, the monster in Sinister is frightening in his own right but it’s the atmosphere and build-up that ultimately make his presence menacing. In the sequel, he looks like someone cosplaying as a member of Slipknot. The focus on the backstories of the ghostly children doesn’t give the film extra depth either; it just drags everything down. Sinister II isn’t the first horror sequel to miss the boat when it comes to what made its predecessor work so well but its failings may actually make the original’s successes even more pronounced by comparison.

After directing another horror film with 2014’s Deliver Us from Evil, Derrickson got sucked into the MCU to helm a little indie called Doctor Strange, whose recently-delayed sequel will arrive next Spring. Fellow horror director Sam Raimi taking the reins on that franchise freed Derrickson to team up again with Cargill and Hawke for The Black Phone, another supernatural chiller arriving next February. I’m doing my best to avoid trailers these days but on the strength of their work together on Sinister along with the news that Hawke will be portraying the villain instead of the hero, I’m in line for it already. No matter how that turns out, I’ll always have this 2012 classic to revisit each year when the leaves start trembling and darkness creeps up a little earlier every night.

13 Fridays: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

I don’t know much about the Friday the 13th series. I know the main character is Jason Voorhees, who wears a hockey mask while he hacks horny teens with a machete. I know “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” and that the camp where Jason was “born” is called Crystal Lake. I know that Jason’s mother (not Jason himself) being the killer in the first one has been an old chestnut of movie trivia geeks and the “Well, actually…” crowd alike in the decades since its release. I remember seeing Freddy vs. Jason when I was about 14 or 15 but I couldn’t tell you the outcome of their fight or much else about the movie, other than I thought the lead was pretty when I was a teenager. It’s with this baggage and/or lack of baggage that I proceeded to watch Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

The film opens, fittingly, on a dark and stormy night. Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) has just been released from a mental institution and is headed to the grave of Jason Voorhees (C.J. Graham) with his friend Allen (Ron Palillo). Haunted by paranoid hallucinations centered around Voorhees for years, Jarvis intends to see Jason’s corpse in the hopes of finally putting his nightmares to rest. Things don’t go quite as planned. Trying to “kill” Jason once and for all, Tommy impulsively impales Jason’s lifeless body with a metal fence post. In a tragic twist of irony, a lightning bolt strikes the pole and reanimates Voorhees, not dissimilar from the way Dr. Frankenstein gives birth to his monster in Mary Shelley’s classic tale. Jason makes short work of Allen while Tommy gets away, dons his trusty hockey mask once again, and we’re off to the races.

It’s at this point that Jason Lives reveals its title card and with it, its ace in the hole: a cheeky sense of irreverence and metahumor to presumably shake up the series. Parodying the infamous and often skewered gun barrel sequence from the James Bond franchise, the frame narrows to that iconic circular shape while Jason makes his way to the center of the shot. Instead of shooting a gun at the camera like Bond, Voorhees chucks his signature machete at us instead, with blood running down the screen just as it does in the Bond movies. Taking this with the over-the-top opening, it’s clear that even for a slasher movie, Jason Lives isn’t interested in taking itself particularly seriously and is all the better for it.

Jason’s mission is pretty simple: go back to Camp Crystal Lake (renamed Camp Forest Green since Voorhees attended) and lay waste to the new crop of camp counselors who now work there. He doesn’t even make it to the campgrounds before taking out poor youngsters Darren and Lizabeth as they drive through the woods. “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo in a mask isn’t friendly,” Lizabeth whimpers before Darren unloads a series of seemingly useless bullets into Jason. Darren gets dispatched a bit quicker than Lizabeth, who hilariously tries to bribe the resurrected killer with a pocketful of $20 bills and a shiny AmEx card. It’s made clear that it’s going to be quite difficult, if not impossible, to take Jason out, but it would also be quite dull if no one tried.

Tommy tries to warn the local sheriff of Jason’s monstrous return, only to be thrown in a cell for his efforts. The sheriff’s daughter Megan (Jennifer Cooke) sticks around at the station long enough to hear Tommy’s warning and takes the threat more seriously when Darren and Lizabeth don’t report to camp. It’s not enough to stop a now superhumanly strong Jason from breaking up a game of paintball between 5 counselors, some of whom literally sport headbands that read “DEAD”, with more murder and mayhem. The final victim, whose face is slammed into a tree, leaves a bloody smiley face upon impact with Jason is reunited with his beloved weapon of choice: the machete.

If only this all could’ve been avoided. In a cutaway to a B-plot where the sheriff goes back to Jason’s grave site, a gravedigger laments “why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?” before addressing the audience with “some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment!” Perhaps we do. But writer/director Tom McLoughlin reminds us why we keep coming back with strongly choreographed slayings shot handsomely courtesy of DP Jon Kranhouse. Consider the brilliant shot of Jason standing triumphantly atop an overturned RV with two fresh victims inside, with fire rising up below him and smoke billowing behind him. When Jason finally descends upon the campers, another outstanding shot frames his enormous figure as it enters a cabin against the rustling autumn tree branches.

The 80s was a time of excess and as such, a perfect breeding ground for the often excessive slasher genre. The soundtrack doesn’t let you forget it, pumping out multiple hair metal headbangers from artists like Felony and Alice Cooper, including the film’s theme “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”. Of course, we also get all of the loud 80s fashion trends and weird niche insults like “does he think I’m a farthead?” that could only live inside a movie from the 1980s. Oddly, the only place it doesn’t go overboard is in the nudity department. Sure, there’s sex but I don’t recall any toplessness or bottomlessness or any combination therein. I’m not complaining; just noting.

So, is Jason Lives a good movie? I have no idea. Did I have fun watching it? Absolutely. I’ve seen my fair share of slasher movies but not very many slasher sequels and it’s to this film’s credit that I felt right at home, even though I haven’t seen the first Friday the 13th in at least 15 years. I can’t imagine the movie reinvents the wheel in the context of the franchise but it seems to provide enough of the familiar while introducing some comedic elements that really liven things up. I can imagine it joining Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Fright Night in my lineup of schlocky spookfests to stream around Halloween each year.

Natalie’s Rap Sheet: Jackie

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Can anyone understand how it is to have lived in the White House and then, suddenly, to be living alone as the President’s widow?

– Jacqueline Kennedy

Is there a harder job in the world than President? In his English-language film debut Jackie, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín suggests that the role of The Widow may be even more difficult. When John F. Kennedy’s life was cut short in November of 1963, his wife Jacqueline placed her deceased husband’s head in her lap as the presidential motorcade sped away to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Almost two hours later, the former First Lady stood in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit next to Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One as he was inaugurated as the next President. “I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” she insisted to “Lady Bird” Johnson when it was suggested she change her clothes before the inevitable photographs were taken for the historical swearing-in.

An exploration of both grief and legacy as they play out on the world’s stage, the film gives us an unconventional portrait of Jackie Kennedy’s mindset surrounding that tragic day in November. The events before and after are framed around a hazy Hyannis Port morning the week after, when Life journalist Theodore White (played by Billy Crudup) knocks on the door of Kennedy’s new home. Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) demands editorial control over her interview before inviting him in for their emotional exchange about her late husband’s legacy. It’s a traditional lynchpin for biopics, allowing the director to show flashbacks that line up with the subject’s recollection of events. But Larraín eschews the sign-posting to which we’ve become accustomed, scattering the chronology like a nightmare half-remembered after waking up.

We see her public image being molded before our eyes, as she shoots her Tour of the White House CBS special, with White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (played by Greta Gerwig) instructing her behind the camera on how to smile. We watch her deplane in Texas in that iconic Chanel suit, greeted by Vice President Johnson (played by John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson (played by Beth Grant) amid cheering crowds. After the assassination, she grieves with John’s brother Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard) as they process what happened and try to sort out the details of the highly-anticipated funeral. Most intimately, the film includes conversations Jackie had with an unnamed priest (played by John Hurt) shortly after her husband’s death.

Just like Jackie when she was in office, all eyes are on Portman as she attempts to transform into who is most likely the most well-known First Lady of all-time. The first thing that’s impossible to ignore is Portman’s accent work while recreating Kennedy’s highly unique dialect. She goes for a spot-on recreation of her specific timbre, nailing nearly every inflection and catch-breath that the real Jackie exhibited in her many public appearances. Centering around a fashion icon, the movie’s attention to detail in the costume design is almost as important and Academy Award nominee Madeline Fontaine adorns Portman with stitch-perfect wardrobe in every scene. Though Portman doesn’t exactly look like Jacqueline, her voice and outfits go a long way in terms of weaving together the fictional with reality.

But does her performance transcend a fine-tuned impression? I would argue that it almost always does. It’s tricky because she’s playing a character who is always keenly aware of how she is being perceived, so it’s something of a performance of a performance. Portman shines most in the moments that we haven’t seen play out in public view before, specifically her scenes with Hurt’s priest character. It’s here that she’s most candid and most vulnerable, allowing herself to meld most with her tragic character. There are times that her portrayal can feel a bit too mannered and self-conscious for its own good (typically in the historical recreation sequences) but on the whole, this is some of Portman’s finest work. For it, she scored her third Best Actress nomination but lost to temporary Best Picture winner Emma Stone.

Early on, Jackie tells the journalist, “when something is written down, does that make it true?” The entire film grapples with the notion of who writes our history and how we’re to be remembered but more specifically, how little the actual truth might matter compared to the appearance of things. Through TV and print, the Kennedys came to epitomize American excellence and majestic opulence, even though there were plenty less than wholesome things under the surface. There are allusions to Camelot, a musical said to be JFK’s favorite whose line “don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot” came to eulogize a Kennedy presidency cut short of its full potential. Was John really that big a fan of the musical? Maybe not but to paraphrase Jackie, the American people love their fairy tales.

The strongest elements of the film collide in its most potent scene, which depicts Jackie aimlessly marching through Arlington National Cemetery on a gloomy fall day while cabinet members argue about the location of his grave. The camerawork from Stéphane Fontaine is full of nightmarish conviction, tracking along with the traumatized widow as the snares of Mica Levi’s music score gallop along with her. She doesn’t know where she’s going but she doesn’t want to waste any time getting there. Jackie fumbles in high heels through the mist of the myth that she and her family have worked to create and preserve. It’s a haunting and indelible image, one of many that make this uneven but unflinching look at fame and misfortune a memorable showcase for Portman’s refined talents.

Game On: Super Mario Bros

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

By the early 1990s, Super Mario could seemingly do no wrong. The portly plumber had starred in 5 platform games from 1985-1990, culminating in Super Mario World, whose 20 million+ copies worldwide make it the best-selling SNES game of all-time. After dominating the video game market, it only made sense to spread to other media, resulting in TV shows like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, to coincide with the video game sequel of the same name. But the Mario machine simply wouldn’t stop there and in 1993, he finally had a live-action Hollywood movie to his name: Super Mario Bros.

Being the first feature-length adaptation of a video game, the film obviously wasn’t made with a template in mind or genre restrictions of what a video game movie could be. Lightmotive, the production company behind the project, went through several ideations with multiple Hollywood scribes, including a self-referential take from Harold Ramis and a script pass by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow so similar to his Rain Man that it was dubbed Drain Man. Somehow, the project ended up in the creative control of Max Headroom creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. The duo would never work on another project again after the overwhelming critical and financial failure that was Super Mario Bros.

The movie stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Italian-American brothers Mario and Luigi, respectively. Like their video game counterparts, the pair work as plumbers but instead toil in modern-day Brooklyn as opposed to a fantasy world filled with brick blocks and shiny coins. After a meet-cute with archeology student Daisy (Samantha Mathis), Luigi goes with her to a bone site under the Brooklyn Bridge, only to find it being flooded by faulty water pipes. With Mario’s help, the plumbing pair fix the leaks but, in the process, get knocked into an interdimensional wormhole that spits them into a strange city called Dinohattan.

It turns out the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years actually split the universe into two dimensions, creating a world where the ancient creatures spawned their own civilization. Somehow, Dinohattan is even more congested and overpopulated than its Earthly analog, being run by the ruthlessly tyrannical President Koopa (Dennis Hopper). We find the portal was opened because Daisy, who was kidnapped and also transported to Dinohattan, wears a necklace with a fragment of the meteorite that will allow Koopa to reassemble it and merge the two worlds together. It’s up to the Mario brothers to navigate the strange parallel city and avoid Koopa’s Goomba henchmen to stop Earth from going down the tubes.

Though Super Mario Bros. is based on a hugely popular video game franchise, it’s difficult to categorize the film as a “kids movie”. While the plot lifts the broad objective from the video games — to rescue the princess from the evil overlord and save the day — the road to get there is presented in stark contrast with the bright colors of the preeminent side-scroller. Even before we get to the fungus-covered town of Dinohattan, the inescapable humidity of summertime Manhattan is captured with similar oppressiveness to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. There’s a de-evolution machine that produces nightmarish images when one’s head is placed inside it and a mafia subplot bound to go right over the heads of children.

Speaking of heads, the enemy Goomba creatures are known in the video games for their mushroom-shaped heads and little feet but in this movie, they have comically undersized dino heads atop ridiculously large frames. In the game, a stomp on the head will do them in but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle combat with these cinematic Goombas. The Mario brothers don’t seem to know either, which is why they trick the Goombas into swaying and dancing to polka music whenever they encounter a group of the oversized subordinates. One of the Goombas is supposed to be a de-evolved version of Toad, who sports a harmonica rack and resembles a slightly creepier version of Michael Rooker. The only kid-friendly aspect of the creature design belongs to Yoshi, an amiable dinosaur aimed to give the species a more benevolent reputation two weeks before Speilberg shut all that down with Jurassic Park.

Though the production design of Dinohattan isn’t necessarily meant to impress the younger members of the audience, it remains one of the film’s most memorable artistic statements. Head art director David Snyder, who won an Academy Award for his work on Blade Runner, brings back the rain-drenched neon and murky alleyways of that neo-noir to his conception of a parallel version of downtown New York. He references other dystopian films, from the bureaucratic congestion of Brazil to the timeline-corrupted version of 1985 from Back to the Future Part II. Like that film, Koopa rules over Dinohattan in a similar way the super-wealthy Biff presides over Hill Valley. Both characters play as veiled facsimiles of then-millionaire Donald Trump; incidentally, Koopa’s opening line has the megalomaniac referring to his city as a “pithole”.

The movie doesn’t feature any triceratops but still remains inexplicably horny. Though Mathis isn’t particularly sexualized in an overt manner, nearly every male character besides the Mario brothers objectify Daisy even in brief exchanges with her and Koopa even unrolls his lizard tongue within a minute of meeting her. One sequence takes place in the Boom Boom Bar, a seedy nightclub where Mario retrieves the meteorite necklace with his teeth as it hangs off the buxom Big Bertha. In another scene, Koopa bathes in a tub of mud, commenting that it’s “clean and dirty at the same time” with an overly pleased look on his face.

No one exactly looks “in their element” in Super Mario Bros. but Hopper looks especially out of place in his villainous role. Not that he’s a stranger to antagonistic roles but this was the same year he delivered a world-class monologue in True Romance and a year before he directed his seventh movie. Dozens and dozens of credits to his name and yet, here he is with blonde cornrows and spiked leather. According to a 2010 interview with Conan O’Brien, Hopper confessed that he did the movie to impress his six-year-old son but that it wasn’t even worth it to fulfill that goal. Upon rewatch, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t yell “I’ll flame anything that moves!” when yielding a flamethrower during the film’s finale.

Despite the persistent mention of “de-evolution”, Mark Mothersbaugh doesn’t serve as the film’s composer, even though he’s responsible for the theme song for the Super Mario World TV series. Instead, the task fell to industry veteran Alan Silvestri, whose wacky and zany score feels ripped from a Hulk Hogan family comedy. It doesn’t implement any of Koji Kondo’s iconic video game music, except for the original 8-bit theme that plays over the opening credits. Understandably, a cover of the Was (Not Was) funk classic “Walk the Dinosaur”, credited to The Goombas feat. George Clinton, plays twice in the film.

While the genre-spawning Super Mario Bros. had a rough go of it at the box office and in the press, the vast majority of video game movies have fallen victim to a similar fate. It wasn’t until 2019, which saw the release of Detective Pikachu, that such a film would receive a positive Rotten Tomatoes score, despite dozens of entries in the genre. Currently, Universal Pictures and Illumination are allegedly hard at work on a more faithful animated reboot of the Mario property with a tentative 2022 release. Like a frustrated gamer, Hollywood seems bent on finding a measure of success, even if it means playing the same game over and over again.

C’mon, Mann: The Insider

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

“In ‘The Insider,’ I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people.”

– Michael Mann

It’s easy to think of Michael Mann as an action filmmaker. When I hear the director’s name, my mind immediately goes to the all-timer of a street shootout from Heat, with Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer raining hellfire on outmatched police squads. From iconic shots like Kilmer flawlessly reloading his Colt 733 rifle in that film or Tom Cruise quick-drawing on two alleyway thugs with lightning speed in Collateral, Mann has earned a reputation for training his actors to represent tactical precision in their weapons handling. As exciting and visceral as his action movies can be, his most engrossing work for my money is The Insider, a docudrama where no guns are fired or even shown in its 158 minute runtime.

Based on a true story, the film begins with a shroud over the camera and the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. The face covering belongs to CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who’s being harshly transported to the founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, in the back of a Middle Eastern van. He hopes to convince the Sheikh to sit down with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) for a 60 Minutes interview that may change the way American minds view the burgeoning Islamist movement. It’s not an easy task but it’s obvious from the outset that Bergman doesn’t mind the challenge of a potential new story, as long as he feels the work is meaningful and can change the world around him.

It’s this tenacity that draws Bergman closer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a tobacco executive who staunchly refuses to consult with Bergman on scientific documents from cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris. After pressing Wigand, Bergman discovers that he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement that seems immensely restrictive in its scope and vicious in its potential repercussions. Bergman spends a large portion of the film working through numerous loopholes that allow Wigand to break through the robust non-disclosure and eventually gets him to sit down for the 60 Minutes interview. It’s only after taping it that Bergman learns the higher-ups at CBS plan on airing a highly abridged version of the segment for fear of litigation from Big Tobacco.

Around the halfway mark, The Insider slyly expands from a film about the intense lobbying power of the tobacco industry specifically to a movie about the sweeping influence of media conglomeration on how information is distributed. Adapting from the incendiary Variety Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Mann and legendary screenwriter Eric Roth poured an incredible amount of detail and journalistic rigor into their Oscar-nominated script. Beyond just being well-researched and steeped in hard-hitting truth, it’s a screenplay packed with loaded dialogue and quotable lines that read well but play even better when coming out of the mouths of high-caliber actors.

Mann’s previous film Heat famously paired De Niro with Pacino as the crime and justice sides of the same coin, so much so that it’s difficult to determine who between the two is the protagonist. The Insider similarly brings Pacino back for a character who certainly isn’t the antagonist but also goes about things very differently from Wigand, the film’s underdog hero. We’re used to seeing Crowe as an imposing figure — he would star in Gladiator 7 months after The Insider‘s release — but before his days of schooling strangers on the value of the courtesy tap, Crowe shined in smoldering roles like this that kept his rage simmering under the surface. At the beginning of a tense meeting, Wigand’s ex-employer faux-dotes on him in front of higher-ups by remarking “it’s spooky how much he can concentrate” and Crowe does an incredible job of capturing Wigand’s fiery intellect.

Conversely, Pacino externalizes all of Crowe’s fear and paranoia by lashing out on executives over pay phones and new-fangled mobile phones but really, is there an actor in the 90s that we collectively trusted to do bigger better than Pacino? Equally at home in an authoritative role is Plummer as revered journalist Mike Wallace, who steals nearly every scene that he’s in with his impossibly smooth confidence. After a confrontational meeting with a member of CBS’ legal team, Wallace reassures Bergman with a quick tap on hand and cooly reminds him, “don’t worry; we call the shots around here.” The presence of character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Stephen Tobolowsky further drives home the notion that indeed, we’re in good hands here.

Watching the movie 20 years after its release, the most “dated” aspect of the film is how much concern is given towards a 60 Minutes report but really, that says more about how poor the state of investigative journalism is now rather than the actual narrative seeming antiquated. It’s a time capsule of a quaint era when journalists worked hard to present matters of public interest in the most objective terms possible and the American people trusted the news to keep them informed. Now, hard-hitting exposes are typically buried under mountains of infotainment (a term this film may have actually coined) and knee-jerk headlines, while the rise of social media has made getting to the truth seemingly impossible at times.

And those are just the stories we see. What makes The Insider so powerful is that for once, we get to sit in those boardrooms and high-rise offices and hear the conversations that the rich and powerful work hard to withhold. Technology, and big data specifically, has allowed for the news to be curated for individuals more finely than ever but without the right people above the keyboard fighting to publish the unvarnished truth, for-profit reporting will gladly take its place. It’s unlikely that many of us will get in a post-robbery gunfight with the cops or confront a duo of armed bandits but as long as you have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re almost guaranteed to be an unwitting victim of behind-the-scenes corporate control on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s what makes The Insider the most unexpectedly bruising film of Michael Mann’s career.