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: Birdman (Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

*****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

In numerous ways, Birdman is miraculous. For starters, it’s a miracle it exists. It’s unapologetic in its sarcasm, and makes no bones about the targets it lines up for an almighty mocking. Here’s a superhero film with no delusions about its central hero being super; for all the assistance CGI can offer, Birdman shares more comic-book spirit with American Splendor than The Dark Knight.  At the time of writing, something in the region of forty superhero movies are at some stage of development or production. This phenomenon appears critic-proof, so a film taking a potshot at their increasingly-bloated and convoluted omnipotence proves both an inevitability and a necessity. Birdman will save us!

It’s hard to believe that superhero flicks were once a novelty, with no guarantees of success. Those were the days when Tim Burton still made solid work and Batman was more than a bit of a goth. 25 years after Burton’s first Batman brought the Dark Knight to filmic life, Michael Keaton brings his cape out for an airing. He had to be the only choice for the role of Riggan Thompson; Birdman’s ability to flip expectations on their head begins by making this actor’s baggage a welcome burden. Riggan is a washed-up actor, having had little success since playing the eponymous Birdman in a trio of outings twenty years previously. Despite starring in some higher-profile films in the last couple of years, Birdman is the biggest thing to happen to Keaton since Jackie Brown. We first find his Thompson in a crummy off-Broadway theatre, in a meditative position but apparently floating off the ground. Why this is happening, or why his gruff-voiced alter ego is delivering opinionated voiceover is not immediately clear, but from the off we’re invited to go with the rhythm. Unlike, say, most superhero movie trailers, all will be revealed gradually.

In a last-ditch attempt to jump-start his career, Thompson is directing, producing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Anyone who’s read it knows that this is a fool’s errand. Getting Birdman right could have turned into a similar folly for Alejandro González Iñárritu, with the director/co-writer potentially overreaching to escape the shadow of the worthy, miserabilist dramas that have defined his career up to this point. Amores Perros was the high point, and the films just got more ambitious and more dour. Discovering his funny bone can only be a good thing, but marrying it to his brand of ambition is a gamble. Fear not; ambition is Birdman’s fuel. It aims to do so much that the fact most, if not all, of it works is another of its miracles. As well as the superheroics, it’s a film obsessed by theatricality, and the associated freedoms and limitations. Shot and edited to give the impression of one impossibly continuous take, Iñárritu’s film invokes the same rebelliousness that spurred Hitchcock and Sokurov’s one-take wonders, and is driven by its own brand of kinetic energy. The camera rarely stops moving. Theatrical acting and production is always heightened, pitched a little closer to hysteria than what’s demanded by film or TV. Iñárritu embraces this approach, allowing the actions of both cast and camera to inform the film’s outlook. It’s overly dramatic? So are most superhero films. It’s dripping with sarcasm? So is Robert Downey Jr. Birdman’s medium is crucial to its message.

Thompson’s opening meditations belie his traumas. His play and his private life are coming apart at the seams. His ex-junkie daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) is barely staying on the wagon, while his relationship with actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) seems to be faltering. Meanwhile, the lead actor has just been incapacitated and is threatening to sue, and leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) is doubting her abilities onstage. What drives Thompson on through all this? Ultimately, it’s desperation with a side dose of mental issues. He needs a comeback, but his delusions of telekinetic ability and conversations with ‘Birdman’ threaten to derail his efforts. Keaton brings enough vulnerability and layers to the role to ensure he’s not just stunt casting. He’s necessarily stiff onstage, but comes alive when dealing with the real pressure offstage. The Hollywood system is an unforgiving beast, so it’s great to see his recent return to bigger roles reach such a sarcastic and triumphant apex. Keaton bites the hand that neglected to feed him for a long time, and it tastes delicious. Also taking a bite is Edward Norton, the former Incredible Hulk, playing leading-man replacement Mike Shiner. He’s written as a walking ego, and Norton delivers a hilarious performance, mocking both actorly self-importance and his own intense persona.

Shiner’s preening and the anxieties of Keaton and a uniformly-engaging supporting cast are all housed within the elaborate theatre, a character in and of itself. DoP Emmanuel Lubezki follows his Academy Award win with camerawork of such nimbleness and smoothness that the continuous shot effect, deliberate as it may be, doesn’t jar. Yet Birdman does have the potential to annoy. It demands you go along with its theatrical sensibilities and heightened performances. Occasionally ‘Birdman’ tauntingly manifests himself to Thompson, who in turn imagines taking flight as an escape. Birdman threatens to take off and leave its audience behind in a self-aware fuzz, but the performances keep it grounded. Thompson is brought down to Earth gently on occasion by talking to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, with less-than-enough screentime). Hearing Thompson’s manager Jake’s (Zach Galifaniakis) pronunciation of ‘Scorsese’ or seeing Antonio Sanchez appear on screen performing his own sassy drum score could be grating, but the score and Galifaniakis are more than engaging enough to ensure they stay on the right side of self-aware. At the very least, Birdman is interesting; at its best, it’s dazzling.

The film constantly and consistently draws attention to itself, but what’s the harm? It’s refreshing to see a film not take itself too seriously, even one with as much satirical potential as this one. Many a true word said in jest, and all that. While superheroes get a pummelling from one of the original and best of them, Iñárritu and his script (co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) risks goodwill and takes aim at critics. As represented by Lindsay Duncan’s veteran New York Times theatre writer Tabitha, the critical eye is accused of being unfeeling and pessimistic (As Thompson asks Tabitha, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?”). Watching so much fluff can breed contempt, but that’s why we need “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. That subtitle may seem like another layer of artifice to weed out anyone predestined to hate this thing, but it’s what Birdman is all about. On occasion, something like this comes around to surprise us. When superheroes didn’t dominate our billboards, we didn’t get teaser trailers for teaser trailers and Michael Keaton was Batman, we didn’t know any better; ignorance was bliss. If you go into Birdman knowing little about it, it might just astonish you. Birdman is anything but ignorant. The next umpteen years of umpteen caped crusades could be very long indeed, but Birdman probably has them sussed before they’ve even begun.