Review: Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

 In the good old days of print journalism (and assuming this writer would ever get a job for a magazine or newspaper), a review of an awards hoover like Spotlight would be anticipated, without previews, hints on Twitter or hot takes. Tom McCarthy’s film is a throwback to such a time, but it’s not as far away as we might like to think. Spotlight digs into the archaic facades of two slowly-crumbling monuments, the Catholic Church and investigative print journalism, and discovers greater truths underneath. It goes about its task in a matter-of-fact way, but its story is too fascinating to be impeded by filmmaking flourishes. Or is it?

The Boston Globe’s monumental story on the extent of sexual abuse committed by clergy in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston broke in January 2002. Spotlight opens on a scene long before that, as a bishop and lawyer visit a police precinct in suburban Boston in 1976 to deal with an accusation against a priest. This prologue sets in place what future generations will be up against: a shadowy organisation trying to keep a dirty secret, aided and abetted by having friends in high places. The Church’s effective omerta on child abuse is now common knowledge, and the phenomenon has been covered on film already (The most notable examples are documentaries such as Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa and Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil). Telling this story through the prism of feature filmmaking requires a deft hand. McCarthy’s approach is to shift the focus from the abuse story to the investigation and those undertaking it, and to let that story speak for itself. The direction towards the abuse cases is given by new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who reads a competitor’s article on an out-of-court settlement and asks about a follow-up. The unsung hero of Spotlight is Schreiber’s calm dignity as Baron, a Jewish blow-in in a Catholic town; the outsider looking in seeks the truth.

We’re quickly introduced to the Globe’s Spotlight investigation team. Led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are given a task that sees them digging into an organization that defines their city. An early meeting between Baron and Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) sees the latter lay down his namesake by presenting Baron with a Catholic catechism, declaring that all one needs to know about Boston is contained therein. Moments like this only increase the resolve of both Spotlight and the audience to get to the truth. Law is the closest we get to a central bad guy, as the Church’s power allows the blame to get spread around with a horrifying efficiency. The law firms that mediated for the victims come under scrutiny (enter Billy Crudup with a neat, not-quite-boo-hiss role as leading lawyer Eric MacLeish), and the paper finds a reluctant ally in a lawyer for the victims, Mitch Garabedian. In this role, Stanley Tucci continues his wonderful habit of beefing up side roles with his trademark mix of determination and gravitas.

All of the Spotlight team are self-described lapsed Catholics, so to watch them investigate this institution should prove fascinating on a personal level. However, McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script is more interested in how the story was broken than the ones breaking it. Spouses and personal lives are mentioned but hardly glimpsed, which means the actors have to fill in the blanks. Ruffalo’s energetic boy scout is counterbalanced by McAdams’ compassionate focus, but the supports are the standouts. Keaton and d’Arcy James invest their professional old schoolers with an everyday identifiability, and John Slattery snaffles scenes from everybody as the Globe’s deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr. His role is the active link to Spotlight’s greatest influence. All The President’s Men may have had Bradlee Sr.as editor and the benefit of Deep Throat’s intelligence, but it also had a greater sense of the historical import of its story (not to mention Gordon Willis’ peerless mood lighting). Spotlight tells its story efficiently, and celebrates the good work behind it. It doesn’t dress up the facts; McCarthy’s direction is largely observant, occasionally finding a frame to use or a moment for a West Wing-style walk-and-talk. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is defined largely by varying shades of grey, and the piano strikes on Howard Shore’s score hit somewhere between a clock tick and a church bell. It’s all perfectly valid, but a lack of imagination might be to its detriment in the memorability stakes. Spotlight might be too late to its own story to carry influence, but it’s a story worth telling and the film does it justice with respect and a sharp focus, no less and not much more.

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Review: Lost In Translation (2003)

Director: Sofia Coppola

***

Lost In Translation has an unfortunate love-hate relationship with its setting, Tokyo. It all looks so bright and bustling and technological, yet it causes little else but grief to two strangers who aren’t necessarily there willingly. When the director thinks one thing and the characters think another, there’s gonna be problems.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star going through that apparent right of passage for so many famous actors: advertising for the Japanese market (for examples, see this and this). This is a character Murray fits perfectly; he’s had the highs and lows of a full career, and thus knows the frustrations and angsts of Bob. Bob’s in Tokyo for a photo shoot and promos for Santori whiskey; he appreciates the product but the language barrier, his own messy lot and the overall culture clash leaves him exhausted and bitter. Murray’s lived-in features and droll wit are put to full use here, but Murray also hints at the lonliness birthing the frustration. Indeed, he keeps the rest of Sofia Coppola’s film grounded when it threatens to float away on an air of self-importance. Bob has a kindred spirit in Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), another guest at the same hotel as Bob and the young wife of a professional photographer (Giovanni Ribisi); she finds herself bored in her hotel room whilst he shoots on a job in Tokyo. Maybe it’s the construction of the character (she’s a recent philosophy graduate trying to decide on a career), or maybe it’s Johannson’s obvious beauty clouding whatever acting talent she possesses, but there’s little impetus to empathize with Charlotte. When she and Bob meet, they find a bond in their isolation. Charlotte clearly enjoys the wisdom and humour of the older man, whilst Bob… well, she’s sexy. The lack of empathy for one character impacts on our feelings towards this relationship, and it isn’t helped by the age difference. In writing these characters, Coppola seems obsessed by their lonliness, but not by much else, thus leaving Murray and Johannson to do the rest. After The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s gift for interesting female characters has abandoned her.

Despite this, Lost In Translation does offer up some treats. Murray is the main draw, as he is constantly and consistently perplexed by Japanese living. Whether grappling with an exercise machine or forcing a grin on a camp-as-Christmas talk show, Murray supplies laughs and heart. Tokyo, for all the confusion it causes, is an exciting metropolis and Coppola makes sure to show it off. Garish neon glows brightly as Bob and Charlotte explore and dodge traffic. There’s enough in LIT to keep you interested, but it amuses when it should engage. A fun little Tokyo story, then, but Tokyo Story it ain’t.

Review: United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass

*****

United 93 is an expectedly sobering viewing experience. Whilst we all recoiled in horror at the events of September 11th 2001, few could imagine the terror experienced by those on board those ill-fated aeroplanes. Writer-director Paul Greengrass captures the fear in a shockingly accurate way that refuses to pander to the crowd. Then again, it’d be impossible to sugar-coat these events, so he might as well go for the all-out horror of the whole situation. Your seat will be drenched in sweat by the end.

United 93 opens on clips of the four men who hijacked UA Flight 93 preparing for their final journey, routinely washing and praying. One of the most frightening aspects of United 93 is that sense of routine; Greengrass captures the feeling that this day should have been like any other, making the inevitable outcome all the more devastating. The passengers and crew, though some became well known after the fact, just pass by fleetingly without mention of their names. There are no conversations between passengers to establish character; refreshingly, there is little to no pandering to narrative convention here. Whereas World Trade Center used the events of 9/11 as a springboard into a personal story, United 93 simply presents events in an almost documentary fashion. Greengrass’ penchant for shaky-cam is used to full effect here, as the cast and DP Barry Ackroyd are flung about the airplane as it turns and plummets. The cast don’t do anything flashy; the banality of the everyday informs their performances, and makes their eventual act of bloodshed all the more shocking. They are helped by the depictions of the various agencies struggling to cope with the hijackings on the ground. The then-head of the Federal Aviation Authority, Ben Sliney plays himself in the film, as do several members of the US Air Force stationed at Rome, NY, as they furiously struggle to contact Air Force One for rules of engagement. Greengrass’ script is based on the phone calls of the passengers and the official 9/11 Commission Report. Whatever details are present or excluded, one thing we can be sure of is the passengers, the crew and even the terrorists were full of fear, and all found a motivation within themselves to do what they felt was necessary. One weakling German passenger aside (one of the few sacrifices to convention), the passengers receive a quick but rounded depiction onscreen. The key is remembering that those who were held up as heroes never intended to be heroic; they wanted to survive, and to see those whom they cared about once more. As Greengrass reminds us, sometimes our most basic needs see us at our best.

From the opening shots to the moment the aeroplane is hijacked lies an unbearable wait for the inevitable. Yet, once it arrives, and once the passengers decide to act there is a sense of catharsis, as we yearn for an outcome that we know can’t come and yet seems possible.  Between his script and direction, all kudos must go to Paul Greengrass for creating a depiction of that sunny September day that is cinematically satisfying, yet never cheapens the memory of the passengers and crew of UA 93. Like so many great films, it challenges and even troubles, but also stirs the senses and reaffirms us. It’s about the best of us. Not of the US, but of us.

Review: World Trade Center (2006)

Director: Oliver Stone

***

Five years after the horrors of 9/11, Oliver Stone made a film about it. “How dare he?!”, they said. One of the most provocative of mainstream American directors attempting to make a film about the US’ darkest hour when the effects were still being felt (mostly by Iraqis and Afghans) should have been a powder keg. It was inevitable that films would be made, but by the man who made JFK and Nixon? Hit the dirt!

No, wait! It’s alright. You can come back. Anyone expecting a probing and critical dissection of the events of that September day will be in for quite a shock. World Trade Center is a personal story; Stone retracts his claws in favour of a story of survival and hope. If this sounds a bit sappy to you, you’re mostly right, but it still packs a punch.

World Trade Center focuses on John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority officers on duty when the Twin Towers are struck by two hijacked aeroplanes. A group of officers volunteers to enter the towers on a search and rescue mission, but only get into the lobby when the tower collapses on top of them. The opening half-hour of World Trade Center sees Stone at his most upfront, as we witness the towers burning and people falling to their deaths. The grim realities of that day are captured so effectively that what follows can’t help but pale in comparison. Once the towers fall, McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble, and with little else they can do, they talk in order to kill time and take their minds off the pain they are in. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) are forced to wait to hear about what has become of their men. The four leads are uniformly excellent; Cage and Peña evoke a lot of emotion despite being rendered immobile in the debris. Tales of children’s achievements and life plans are exchanged as they try to maintain consciousness; when they do sleep, they dream of happier times. It’s hard to be cynical about such potentially mawkish material when it is based directly on the men’s experiences in the wreckage (the real McLoughlin, Jimeno and their wives served as consultants on the film).

Stone is committed to retelling the story of these men not as a direct 9/11 story, but a personal journey and a testament to hope. Andrea Berloff’s script may be inspired by McLoughlin and Jimeno’s ordeal, but her reverence leads to some bizarre scenes (at one point, Jimeno hallucinates about Jesus offering him a bottle of water). Some would also argue that a storyline involving a volunteer rescuer, Sergeant Karnes (Michael Shannon), is too gung-ho and oozes bleeding-heart patriotism, which is just not Oliver Stone material.  It flirts with sentimentality, but that was always going to happen. World Trade Center is a finely constructed film, committed to courage over carnage. Anyone expecting a probing dissection of the events of the day in the vein of vintage Oliver Stone, however, will be sorely disappointed.

Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Director: Werner Herzog

****

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a strange beast. It takes its name from Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and both feature a police lieutenant (Harvey Keitel in the original, Nicolas Cage now) whose behaviour on-and-off-duty is morally and legally questionable. However, that is where the comparisons have to end; Keitel and Cage aren’t even playing the same character. This is not a sequel, nor a remake (or a ‘reimagining’ as the studios like to say. Idiots.). The only thing the two films have in common is the name; BL:POCNO director Werner Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s film, and Ferrara denounced Herzog’s film before it even began shooting. This can’t end well, surely?

The plot centres on Cage’s Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, working in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s good at his job, despite suffering from severe back pain and addictions to cocaine and gambling. His beat is a city ravaged by Mother Nature and crime (Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography and Toby Corbett’s design and sets create a city that is struggling to rebuild, bereft of the traditional picturesque nature of the South). Against this colourful gallery of ailments, McDonagh is investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants whilst trying to hold his life and his relationship with his drug-dealer girlfriend (Eva Mendes) together.

BL:POCNO sounds like insanity. Strike that; it is insanity! It shouldn’t work. This is the kind of schlocky material that leads to the likes of Showgirls and 8MM. Yet, it does work. Somehow, through all the chaos, the drugs and the violence, a surprisingly entertaining romp emerges. Of course, it helps to have two experts in capturing insanity onscreen. Firstly, Cage is mesmerising; he goes from endearing hero to cackling hophead in the blink of an eye/sniff of a line. No-one does this kind of controlled mania like Cage, and it’s his best performance since Lord of War (not difficult when your CV since then includes Knowing and [shudder] The Wicker Man.) Herzog, meanwhile, brings his uncanny knack for the brilliantly absurd to the fore. As far as this critic knows, this is the only film to shoot a scene from the point of view of an iguana that is actually the figment of a character’s drug-addled imagination (That sentence will make a lot more sense once you see the film). Any man who could simultaneously get a ship hauled over a mountain and control Klaus Kinski could extricate some sense from this mess, and Herzog does. He keeps just enough of the barmy brilliance of William M. Finkelstein’s script intact to allow the plot to come through, and then craziness ensues. When you go to the box office and are about to enter the theatre, just take a deep breath and then let yourself go. It’s often easier to go with the flow than resist the mania.

Review: Blood Diamond (2006)

Director: Edward Zwick

****

As Shirley Bassey once intoned, diamonds are forever (Naomi Campbell could not be contacted to confirm this). As such, the price of diamonds is very high; not just monetarily, but also in human terms. Hundreds of people die each year in the illicit trading of so-called ‘blood diamonds’ in West Africa. This is the basis for Blood Diamond, Edward Zwick’s exciting and relevant exploration of an oft-neglected problem.

You have to love the way awards season brings about a raft of ‘issue films’. The film opens on a meeting of diamond-importing nations as a major diamond importing firm agree to cease the import of blood diamonds. As this meeting is intercut with an attack on a village in Sierra Leone by a revolutionary group, it’s fair to say that these suits ain’t gonna keep their promise. Ooh, eeeevil men in suits! People dying in poor countries! Oscar, please? Zwick, calm down! You have one already, alright?

Anyway, the rebels capture one of the villagers, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who is then forced to work as a diamond miner. He discovers an exceptionally rare diamond and, having escaped his captors, hides the diamond and tries to find his family. However, word gets around about this diamond, attracting the attention of  a diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio), a journalist (Jennifer Connelly) and various military and rebel factions.

For all its heavy-handed polemical aspects, Blood Diamond manages a difficult balancing act between sincere depiction of horrific atrocities and action-centred thriller, mostly due to Charles Leavitt’s script, and its refusal to shoehorn action scenes in except where necessary. Indeed, the scenes of combat are exciting, but also necessarily horrific as numerous innocent victims get caught in the crossfire. In between, there is plenty of meaty dialogue, and the cast chew it with aplomb. DiCaprio’s Danny Archer is brash and cocksure, and DiCaprio deserves a lot of credit for never making him completely likeable, as well as for sticking with the South African accent. The character of Maddy Bowen is pretty much Female Token No. 37, but Connelly gives her a definite presence. Hounsou gives the best performance of the three leads, with anguish and anger written all over his face as Vandy tries to track down his family while having to lead Archer to the diamond.

For all the excitement and good acting, there are still problems. Zwick is right to believe in the story’s strength, but it’s no excuse to descend into unremarkable filmmaking in the second half of the film, especially when the material is the kind of awards fodder that he is so often drawn to. Edward, Best Director Oscars (usually) go to directors who take risks. Try it sometime! It could also be argued that bloody reality is being exploited for the sake of entertainment, but if it draws attention to a cause, it may not be altogether a bad thing. It’s no stone cold classic, but Blood Diamond is still an urgent, visceral and worthwhile film.

Review: Star Trek (2009)

Director: JJ Abrams

****

Realistically, there should be something embarrassing about any studio’s attempt to relaunch a tired franchise. In recent years, they’ve had a chequered history; for every Batman Begins, there’s a Superman Returns. Star Trek should really fall into the latter category; based on a campy ‘60s TV show, which was followed by films of ever diminishing quality. Insurrection? Nemesis? No, thought not. However, director JJ Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci do a tremendous job of reducing the various stories and history of the Star Trek franchise down to an exciting and heartfelt origin story, accessible to both die-hard Trekkies and complete newcomers.

When a Federation starship is attacked by a vengeful Romulan warrior (Eric Bana), the captain’s pregnant wife is evacuated at the cost of her husband. 25 years later, the child grows up to be James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, cocky), who is a rebel in his rural Iowan home. Federation Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood, dignified) then comes to persuade Kirk to train to become a member of the Federation. If this doesn’t reek of standard origin story by now, it will by the time Kirk meets the classmates who will eventually become his crew on board the Starship Enterprise, such as Uhura (Zoe Saldana, short shorts), Bones (Karl Urban, goofy) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), the Vulcan who bases all decisions on logic and seems to lack emotion.

As you can probably guess, the first hour or so of the film is setup for the rest of the film and the prospective franchise. However, that’s not altogether a bad thing. There are clichés, there are obvious character arcs and relationships and build-up to an inevitable mano-a-mano between hero and villain. However, there is also a tremendous amount of energy and verve here. Indeed, there is one element that is alack in many origin tales, and sets this film apart from the likes of Batman Begins: fun. Star Trek is fully aware of its campy origins and nonsensical premise, and embraces them. The characters are drawn quickly, but Pine and co. give them enough depth to make them distinct and likeable. In particular, Quinto is eerily reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy, capturing the essential dignity of Spock. Even smaller roles, such as John Cho’s Zulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov and Nimoy himself as a future representation of Spock (it makes more sense when you watch it) are excellently handled; only Simon Pegg disappoints as a loud (that is to say, annoying) Scotty. Beam him up, indeed.

Humour comes thick and fast, with one-liners bandied back and forth, and the action is on the grandest scale CG can provide. It’s a zippy two hours, and should leave any action hound sated. It’s clearly got an eye on starting a franchise, and is unrepentant in the sheer silliness of the whole endeavour. However, if the next Star Trek is as purely entertaining as this one, we should be willing to embrace our sillier side.