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: Avengers Assemble (2012)

Director: Joss Whedon

****

On their first meeting in Avengers Assemble,  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), in his Iron Man guise, looks at Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) costume and asks in his trademark sardonic tones, “What is this, Shakespeare in the Park? Dost thy mother know thou wearest her drapes?” This can either be a neat nod to Kenneth Branagh, director of Thor, or just one of the many examples of one-liners and put-downs that distinguishes Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble as the funniest of all superhero movies, and a gloriously entertaining start to the summer season.

Between them, the movies that set up Avengers Assemble (that is to say, Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) have earned almost $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office. To say expectations are high for Avengers Assemble is an understatement. But is there a risk that all these capes and weapons jostling for screentime could be a case of too many cooks? It would be if we didn’t know them already. Even though the preceding movies were just introductions and setups for these guys, it does help to have all the backstory out of the way (Watching those films is optional, but most of the Avengers’ audience will have seen at least some of them anyway). Writer/director Whedon keeps the narrative relatively lean as to keep the set-pieces and massive KABOOMS coming. Shallow? Not when it’s this much fun!

The basic plot follows on from the ending of Thor. Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seeks revenge on Thor for his banishment from their otherworldly home of Asgard, and decides to bring an extra-terrestrial army to conquer Earth so he may rule the planet. If you’re not braced for how silly that sounds, Avengers Assemble is just not for you. Then again, you probably knew that already. When the scope of Loki’s threat becomes apparent, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is forced to bring together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and master assassins Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). When they are together, the sparks fly. Whedon applies both his sparky wit and in-depth fanboy knowledge to the dialogue, which is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. As our heroes bitch and snipe, they have to remember to compose themselves when vast amounts of inter-dimensional proverbial hits the fan. Indeed, the banter is emphasized by DP Seamus McGarvey, whose work on more dialogue-heavy films (Atonement, We Need To Talk About Kevin) lends itself to capturing Whedon’s ripostes and double-edged barbs.

As for the guys delivering the funnies everyone, from Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson to Johannson’s previously underused Black Widow to Captain America, gets their chance to shine. However, the most memorable performance is Ruffalo’s, as we finally get a definitive take on the less-than-Jolly Green Giant as he smashes through buildings, enemies and even some of his teammates. His appearance is the crowning glory on a MASSIVE third act rout as Loki brings his minions into New York to scare mankind into surrender. The newly-christened Avengers zip through the city chasing and being chased by all manner of otherworldly creatures. The action is cleaner and more memorable than any of Michael Bay’s Transformers, as our heroes are never lost amongst the barrage of CGI monsters and collapsing buildings. Avengers Assemble barely pauses for breath; you’ll either be on the edge of your seat or chuckling away contentedly.

If you’re looking for great emotionality or social commentary from your superheroes, you’re best to wait for The Dark Knight Rises. If you like your superhero movies to be frantic and fun, your flying battleship has come in (Seriously, there’s a flying battleship in this thing!). Marvel’s best film since X2 is simply, supremely, ridiculously entertaining.

SPECIAL REVIEW: Margaret (2011)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

****

When writing about Margaret, it’s probably worth noting at the beginning that there is no actual character named Margaret in the film. The title is a reference to the poem ‘Spring and Fall: To A Young Child’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is a bleak reassurance to a child of the fragility of nature and the omnipotence of death; it comes to us all, a fact that the lead in Margaret has shoved in her face. We’re going on a personal quest here, people; hold your breath as we take the dive.

The journey that 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) undertakes in Margaret is mirrored and eclipsed by that undertaken by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan to get the film released. The film was shot in New York in 2005, but then came the post-production process. It’s a long and complicated tale, but it boils down to Lonergan, his financiers and Fox Searchlight getting litigious over the editing process (Lonergan’s original cut was over three hours). In 2009, Fox Searchlight actually declared the film ‘unreleasable’, and the lawsuits went on. Eventually, a finished cut was declared and released in September 2011. It debuted on one (1!) screen at the London Odeon but was far and away the highest-grossing film on a per-screen basis upon release. Despite this, Margaret has grossed less than $50,000 back from a $14 million budget. Despite a vehement push by some critics (The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls it “mysteriously, mesmerically, operatically compelling”), the post-production wrangles and bungled release has rendered Margaret an cautionary footnote in the annals of Hollywood. After a viewing, it’s clear that Margaret’s ‘also-ran’ status was all but unavoidable, but also undeserved and unreflective of what bubbles ‘neath the cruel surface and all the talk of lawsuits. It’s a combative piece, eschewing easy options such as likeability and clear emotions, and offering stories and people you’d perhaps not like to see or hear.

Anna Paquin has played her share of precocious young madams, but Lisa Cohen outdoes them all. Lisa is confident, opinionated and very intelligent, but still lacking in maturity and emotional restraint. In other words, she’s a teenager. A product of a good private school and an Upper East Side upbringing, Lisa dabbles in sex and drugs and is distant from her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), whilst her father (director Kenneth Lonergan) is literally distant from them both, having separated and moved to California. At the apex of immaturity, this hot house flower has her world turned upside-down when she witnesses a bus running over a pedestrian, Monica (Allison Janney), an accident Lisa may have caused. Monica dies in Lisa’s arms, and from this point Margaret becomes less a portrait of spoilt little rich kids and more of a search for definition.

Lisa has all she wants, but Monica brings a sense of moral upstanding to Lisa’s otherwise self-interested world. The bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), is getting away scot free, and Lisa aims to have him punished for his actions. It’s a challenging dichotomy for an audience whose emotions are usually clearly signposted in post-9/11 New York film; Lisa wants justice for Monica, but it stems from the fact that she feels guilty and wants Maretti to feel the same guilt as she does. This is moral relativity at its most biased, but then Lisa is just one of a rogues’ gallery worth of shitty characters. Maretti appears to have no guilt, Joan can be as emotionally immature as her daughter and Monica’s best friend and executor Emily (Jeannie Berlin) is an honest-but-bitter pill. All are surrounded by smooth talkers (Joan starts dating a smooth Columbian businessman, played by Jean Reno) and lawyers. Sartre’s analysis of other people springs to mind. Ironically, probably the only character that can’t be judged in some way is Monica, and that’s mostly by virtue of the fact she dies shortly after appearing onscreen! Lisa’s frequent use of the c-word may stem from the fact many of the people here are plain c**ts.

Margaret is populated by horrible people, and yet is so interestingly empathetic that it manages to paper over most of the problems that plague it. Like its teenage protagonist, Margaret is immensely self-confident, wittily intelligent and frequently over-dramatic. This latter comment is not intended as a criticism; in fact, considering the sordid and contemptuous actions of so many characters, a little drama helps introduce emotion and offer a little perspective. Should Lisa report what she knows about Maretti to the bus company’s investigators? She’ll do Monica justice, but get Maretti fired and leave his family with no income. Lisa’s decisions have the potential to split an audience, and that’s what seemed to have scared the distributors and marketers. Heaven forbid the matinée crowd might not be sure what to think about someone onscreen! As we see Lisa have her rather impersonal first sexual encounter with stoner Paul (Kieran Culkin), we feel voyeuristic but have to remind ourselves this is our heroine. Had we not seen that scene, would we think any less of her?

Lonergan offers us something special indeed: a lesson in context. Margaret is an acknowledgement of the narrow scope of cinematic diegesis. As the preparations for the bus company’s trial continue to frustrate, Lisa over-reacts and Emily is forced to remind her that she (Emily) is not a side player in the drama of Lisa’s life. Margaret is not an ensemble piece in the vein of Magnolia, but many supporting characters feel more fleshed out than most other dramas might allow them to. It helps that some characters are played by big names such as Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick (as Lisa’s English teacher) and Matt Damon (as Lisa’s Geometry teacher). Others are just fleshed out through great writing and performances (Joan benefits especially here, and Smith-Cameron is excellent). We care more than we otherwise would about Lisa because we are interested in those around her and they care about her.

Having pointed out the refreshment offered by Margaret, it seems a pity to point out some problems, but they are there. At 150 minutes, it could test patience. This cut may have been edited by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (and approved by Lonergan), but Margaret may be a true rarity: a film with too many ideas to juggle at once! This may explain why some characters, for all their development, get dropped at random points and picked up in others. Come the final reel, some of the hard work done by Lonergan starts to fall apart, and some of the side roles do begin to feel like cyphers, despite their protestations. This cut may have Lonergan’s blessing, but should the director’s cut of Margaret ever see the light of day, it may well be miraculous. As it is, Margaret is a testament to a hobbled directorial ambition, and a stylish challenge to a mindset that has been spoon-fed emotionality and comforted by bland convention.

Review: The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Director: Rian Johnson

***

Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play The Brothers Bloom, a successful set of swindler siblings who had parted ways, but now the elder Stephen (Ruffalo) tries to convince the younger Bloom (Brody) to help him in one last con. Before the estate of George Roy Hill can call their lawyers, Bloom is conning his way into the life of wealthy eccentric (are their any other kinds of eccentric?) Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Through a complicated series of journeys by sea and rail, the boys and their munitions expert Bang-Bang (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) set up an elaborate plan to con Penelope out of her cash However, there’s one problem: Bloom thinks he’s falling for her…

Writer/director Rian Johnson established himself with the intriguing-if-aloof teen noir homage Brick. Here, he lets the grittiness go and swaps it for a Sting-lite tale of cons and double-crossing. It’s far more fantastical than The Sting but, like every heist movie since 1973, The Brothers Bloom owes Hill’s caper a huge debt. The same feeling of fun is present throughout large parts of the movie. Ruffalo and Brody bounce off each other nicely, and Kikuchi has fun with a demented little role that requires only three words of English (One is Campari. Guess what the other two are). Weisz, meanwhile, is simply adorable, her kooky heiress seducing Bloom and viewer alike simply through her naiveté and childish enthusiasm. It’s an enthusiasm that infects the rest of the film, as this disparate crew zip all over the world. It’s full of energy, and a quick, clean wit that produces many a Cheshire grin.

If The Brothers Bloom is indebted to The Sting, it also owes a great deal to ‘Ulysses’, James Joyce’s sprawling Dublin epic. The leads are named after the main characters (Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom), and Penelope is the informal name for the final chapter of the book. More than names, however, the film also shares ‘Ulysses’’ episodic structure in which recurring elements and characters come and go between chapters that have little otherwise to do with each other. However, that structure is not altogether a good thing; each cut to a different location feels abrupt and jumpy. Furthermore, as the film goes on, and the Russian mob comes after our heroes, the tone shifts noticeably from light and frothy to uncertain and tense. As the first sign of gunfire become apparent, the mélange of tones threatens to derail the film on the home stretch. However, Johnson’s confident direction sees the film through potentially choppy seas to bring it home in one piece.

The Brothers Bloom is a lot of fun, energetic and intelligent, though it threatens to flit from the consciousness not long after seeing it. It’s no Sting, but it is still an enjoyable romp. George Roy Hill can sleep on: his tomb has been pillaged, but they didn’t quite get the treasure…

Review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

***

imageThe Kids Are All Right is another of those “dramedys” that attempts to balance drama with wry humour whilst offering a message. Often the balance is tipped in favour of either the drama (American Beauty) or comedy (Knocked Up), and usually the message of the film is lost somewhere along the way. The Kids Are All Right admirably decides to keep the balance stable, giving time for both drama and comedy. But does it work?

Director/co-screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko draws from her own life for this story of lesbian parents (Annette Bening’s Nic and Julianne Moore’s Jules) whose children Joni and Laser (Mia Waskiowska and Josh Hutcherson) become curious about their biological father. A call to the sperm clinic later, and they get in contact with Paul (Mark Ruffalo). After their initial meeting behind their mother’s backs, the kids warm to him and attempt to make their mothers like him too. Nic is frosty, whilst Jules is a little too seduced by Paul’s easygoing ways. The lesbian parents aside, this set-up seems rather formulaic, but that problem is overcome with some terrifically funny scenes and great performances. Bening is getting a lot of awards buzz for her brittle-yet-emotional turn, but she’s matched by Moore’s dippy hippy and Ruffalo’s macho cad. However, all three are eclipsed by Wasikowska and Hutcherson, who bring nuance and immense likeability to their roles. What could have been a pair of typical angst-ridden teens are developed with humour and warmth. Both actors should enjoy long careers. All five actors flex their comedic muscles here, with some brilliant exchanges and (surprisingly frequent and frank) sex scenes troubling the funny bone.

With all that said, The Kids Are All Right has other problems. Cholodenko is clearly an open-minded and liberal individual, but that’s no excuse for her and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s characterization. This family are so open and monied that they border on (and occassionally cross into) self-importance. Nic is a doctor supporting Jules’ landscape gardening business, Paul owns an organic restaurant and Joni drives a Prius. And who names a kid Laser?! These characters are likeable, but not particularly identifiable. Indeed, the whole film comes across as smug; its vision of middle-class life lacks either Sam Mendes’ introspection or Wes Anderson’s dry irony. Thus, The Kids Are All Right appears to think it’s smarter than its audience, and if there’s one thing audiences hate, it’s being talked down to. Luckily, TKAAR also remembers to keep us engaged and entertained, mitigating the damage. It boasts an interesting premise and solid execution, but beware you might get choked in a cloud of smug.