Review: Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy


This review was originally published on

 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 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.


Review: A Little Chaos (2014)

Director: Alan Rickman


This review was originally published on

At one point in A Little Chaos, garden designer Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) has a chance encounter with no less than King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman), for whom De Barra has been commissioned to design a part of the gardens for his new palace at Versailles. As the conversation comes to their mutual love of gardening, the king declares, “It is the ease of it I like. The ease.” A Little Chaos is a film of ease, a simple and gentle period piece. However, like claiming to have an interest in gardening just from watching Gardener’s World, there’s no real grit, drama or effort involved.

The extensive history of the French court at Versailles is a fascinating tale, but Rickman’s sophomore turn behind the camera has little interest in anything beyond being a frothy little bodice show. De Barra is a fictional creation, hired by the garden’s true architect Andre Le Nôtre (Matthias Schœnaerts) to craft one section of greenery into an ‘outdoor ballroom.’ She’s keen, but her relative free-thinking approach ruffles many a powdered wig. Le Nôtre is sufficiently convinced, however, and he visits De Barra at her home in a scene to offer her the job in a scene so over-produced and shot that we half-expect Meryl Streep to barrel in for a musical number. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography is undeniably cheery but, much like the gardens of Versailles, the design and look of the film draws attention to its own artifice. Every bodice is too perfectly stitched, every candle shines too bright and every conflict feels too well-constructed. It’s all too handsome to be taken seriously.

Take Schœnaerts, for example. He’s normally an intense and brooding presence, and his build can’t help but stand out amongst the delicateness of his onscreen surroundings. As Le Nôtre, he’s given very little to work with. As is the way of these things, or rom-coms for that matter, he finds himself enamoured with the young woman he’s just hired. He and Winslet exchange mild flirtations amidst handsome woodlands and crushed velvet, but it all moves with that accursed ease so beloved of Rickman’s king (and indeed, Rickman the writer-director) that it threatens to grind to a halt. That it manages not to do so is down to the cast. De Barra is a typical Winslet role: standoffish yet charming all the same. The screenplay doesn’t give Winslet to work with beyond those traits and a sob backstory, but its the most any cast member gets here. Helen McCrory adds another snobby bint to her repertoire as Mme. Le Nôtre, and Stanley Tucci crops up in an extended cameo as the Duc d’Orleans. With wig and purple pantaloons in tow, he ramps up the camp for his handful of scenes, allowing him to overcome weak characterisation to steal these scenes, or at least what there is of worth to steal.

Construction starts on the garden as De Barra feels frustrations on all sides. Divisions of class ensure her competition seek to scupper her efforts, while Le Nôtre gives her dreamy looks of yearning. We might have cared more if there wasn’t such an air of artifice around proceedings. The gardens of Versailles were all about manipulating nature into submission, but A Little Chaos will not force anyone under its power. It’s simply too safe and lethargic; indeed, a little chaos of its own might have gone a long way.

Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

Director: Gary Ross


Early on in The Hunger Games, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is told by her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) “You’re stronger than they are. They just want a good show, that’s all they want […] Show them how good you are.” He may as well be talking about the film he’s in. The Hunger Games has been pitched as the next big teen franchise after Harry Potter and Twilight. Compared to most of the movies in either franchise, The Hunger Games is stronger. It delivers the good show the audience demands, and it isn’t afraid to show off its superior credentials.

As heroines go, they don’t come much more aspirational than Katniss. A born survivor, Katniss resides in the 12th district of Panem, a futuristic North American terrain that exists after the collapse of the USA. Living in poor conditions and forced to hunt, Katniss’ skills with a bow and arrow, coupled with a grit borne out of desperation, make her a formidable presence. One could imagine this capable and gutsy young woman being descended from Lawrence’s character Ree in Winter’s Bone; in a role that plays to her strengths, Lawrence is perfect casting. The first hour sees the districts select their teenage nominees to travel to the Capitol for the death match tournament called the Hunger Games, an eerie blend of reality TV show and method of subjugation for the rebellious districts. Katniss volunteers to represent district 12 to save her sister (Willow Shields) from being chosen. Along with her goes Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and they venture to their likely deaths. Of twenty-four selected competitors, only one can survive. It’s a grim idea, and The Hunger Games doesn’t shy away from the darkness. We’re essentially watching teens kill each other for glory and our entertainment, which is exactly the point. The Hunger Games is an intelligent little flick, touching on ideas of racism, poverty, exploitation of young people and violence in the media. With all those ideas and the strong heroine at its heart, The Hunger Games blows other teen fantasy franchises out of the water on smarts alone.

The Hunger Games is a thrilling and brutal affair, and director Gary Ross embraces the brutality with handheld cameras and sudden bursts of violence. The future world is well-realized but it’s the forest setting of the actual ‘Games’ where most of the action takes place and where our focus lies. The second and third acts up the pace and the ante and Ross, with co-writers Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (adapting her novel), rarely lets us relax. When we’re not on edge or on the run, there’s a lot of compelling character-work here; the young competitors are fleshed out enough for them to be distinct, mostly thanks to some good young actors. Much of the supporting roles allow some big names to enjoy themselves in ridiculous costumes. Of note are Stanley Tucci’s blue-rinsed TV host Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as camp-as-Christmas escort Effie Trinkett and Woody Harrelson as former Hunger Games champ and trainer Abernathy. If nothing else, The Hunger Games reminds us that Donald Sutherland (as the President of Panem) is awesome and that Wes Bentley (as TV producer Crane) still exists.

Niggles about the so-so CGI or chopped plots from the book are minimal. In an age where teen heroes are either whiny and needy or have magic powers at their disposal, The Hunger Games is admirably down and dirty, with an ability to appeal to all demographics (John Carter, take note). Before the neurologial vacuum of summer season threatens our theatres, it might be a good idea to feast on the Hunger.

Review: Margin Call (2011)

Director: J.C. Chandor


The greatest and most catastrophic of events can start from the smallest and slightest of errors and miscalculations. When trying to get a grasp on the current economic crisis, a little perspective is required. Blowing up a balloon of debt and overpriced product is going to result in a horrific kaboom. In Margin Call, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) realizes it, but gets fired from MBS Investments before getting a chance to reveal it. Passing on his incomplete data to his junior Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) before leaving, Dale warns, “Be careful”. By the time Margin Call is over, it’s clear that it’s far too late to start being careful.

J.C. Chandor’s feature debut as both director and writer is a startlingly intelligent, complex and confident calling card. Most of its audience may have next to no knowledge about how investment or risk management works (this critic included), but Margin Call refuses to tone down the jargon, and is all the better for it. As Sullivan calls in his colleagues Bregman (Penn Badgely), Emerson (Paul Bettany, accent indeterminate) and his boss Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to analyze the data, one can cut through the jargon to the panic and exasperation on their faces. Quinto’s eyebrows arch, Spacey’s jowls drop and it’s not long before the bigwigs are coming in. Senior executives Cohen (Simon Baker) and Robertson (Demi Moore) begin a bitchfight to the bottom, whilst MBS head Tuld (Jeremy Irons) looks on in bafflement at the hell that is about to befall them all. Despite the fact that all these characters earn millions and enjoy the trappings of their gains, their sudden loss of employment and reputation reduces them to an identifiable human level. By reducing the start of the crisis to a 24-hour one-company microcosm, it make the recession more understandable and more unbelievable simultaneously. These multi-millionaires were supposed to be in charge! Who fell asleep at the wheel?! All take some blame, but the game ultimately becomes about who takes more than their share of it. The dialogue is replete with soliloquies and monologues, which gives the actors room to show off and flourish, and they seize it with both hands. Tucci, Quinto and Irons particularly impress amongst a generally engaging ensemble.

Given the grounded nature of the material, it’s not surprising to find that Margin Call is not a particularly cinematic experience. The cinematography and score are fine (though the sound mix sometimes overwhelms dialogue with music), but lack a Fincher-esque punch. Margin Call lives or dies on its cast, and may feel more at home on the small screen, but its message and clarity of thought deserve to be seen with a crowd, and its intricacies should be dissected over wine and good company afterwards. Margin Call offers much to chew on in a modest but distinct way.