Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight_(film)_poster“They say it’s just physical abuse but it’s more than that, this was spiritual abuse.”

I wrote a piece tracing the obvious parallels between All the President’s Men and Spotlight, two films that I could easily see both shaking the very framework of American society through their very candid portrayal of journalism. When actually getting to see Spotlight the connections became even more prominent. Our narrative begins, not in Washington D.C., but in Boston Mass, 1976. It even goes so far as having a Ben Bradlee connection. Bradlee Sr. worked with Woodward and Bernstein while the Big Throat story was breaking. Of course, numerous years later Bradlee Jr., continuing the family profession, was working at the Boston Globe and becoming an integral part of what was going on there.

But enough with similarities, this film, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, deserves its own personal set of commentary. Spotlight is the investigative unit of the Globe and as such their work is not for the quick news flash, but grinding out long, detailed stories, although at times it takes a while to latch onto a juicy tidbit.

However, a new, rather stiff editor named Marty Baron points the team towards a story where a lawyer is accusing a local Cardinal about doing nothing after he found out a local priest was sexually abusing children. It’s a problematic scenario that deserves a little more time, but at this point, it’s an isolated event. It’s one man’s evil. One man doing nothing to remedy an outlier in the Catholic Church.

What follows is as troubling as it is imperative storytelling. The members behind the Spotlight team are not arrogant, self-righteous people, or figure pointers, only truth seekers. That’s their job, after all. The cast is well rounded and credible while no one figure steals the spotlight, literally. Michael Keaton is their leader “Robby” who has close ties with the community even going to high school across the street. Mark Ruffalo is the integral member Michael Rezendes who not only writes the story but has the important task of trying to needle a local attorney for information and documents that can blow the story wide open. Meanwhile, Sascha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams) carries out numerous interviews of her own in this multiple-pronged assault for the truth.

Their investigation looks to victim organizations, lawyers, priests, and a psychotherapy specialist. If it’s not obvious already, Spotlight makes it painfully clear that this is not a story of a few isolated incidents but an entire epidemic. This is the whole country — the whole world. It makes you positively squeamish and it’s perturbing in its brutal honesty. There’s no way for it to be sanitized and that’s indubitably frightening. We should be angry, we should be grieved, it should be abrasive to our senses.

It’s bringing to light an entire conspiracy of corruption. There are no paper trails, evidence is swept under the rug, and person upon person remain tight-lipped either due to guilt or shame. Humanity is drawn to darkness, but we want things to be brought to light. It’s the dissonance of what it is to be a person — the constant battle going on in our own human hearts. This isn’t meant to be about individual finger pointing, but an indictment of a system. An indictment of what we all are capable of. If it’s not being able to maintain the celibacy requirement, then it’s a pastor addicted to pornography, or a man sleeping with someone else’s wife. They’re different scenarios, but the people behind them are all similarly broken.

With the narrative of Spotlight cataclysmic events such as 9/11 shift focus, but they cannot fully distract from the bleeding that is still going on behind the scenes. There’s still a need to get to the root of the problem and they do. Mark Ruffalo’s character talks about having some deep down inclination that he will one day go back to the church and then came the day that all that came crashing down as they prepared to break the story. All his hopes went unrealized. It has to be an abysmal feeling. These are folks living in a secular world and a Church that falters so greatly is of little comfort. God is a distant deity, not a personal one, so it seems.

When the story hits the pavements you know that all hell is going to break loose, but what really happens is that all the pain, suffering, and shame has finally received the spotlight it deserves. The major realization is not that one person is the problem or even that another person is the problem. But the most frightening revelation Spotlight offers up is that we’re part of that problem. That’s tough news to swallow and this is a film that does it with immense credence and poise. Perhaps the toughest moments of the film come when the lights have died down and we see the staggering numbers of just how many cities were rocked by similar scandals. If you’re like me you see cities that are all too familiar. A film of this magnitude begs for some kind of response from its audience. It’s up to the viewer to decide what that will be — whether social, spiritual or something else entirely.

This is a potent film of the highest nature that lifts up journalism as a noble profession, while simultaneously rocking its audience with a real-life narrative of substantial magnitude. I’m not one prone to bloated statements, but this just might be the best picture of the year. Its impact has been duly noted.

4.5/5 Stars

A Most Wanted Man (2013)

mostwantedman1A Most Wanted Man gained some notability as one of the last works of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it must be acknowledged that he gives a truly worthwhile performance. No surprise there.

He’s Gunther Bachmann, the German head of a covert team that is looking to undermine potential threats from Islamic terrorist organizations in a post-9/11 society. The film features cinematography that can be best described as sullen and pale, fitting the mood of a, at times, dismal Hamburg, Germany. It looks to be everything a spy thriller is supposed to be, boasting an international cast including the likes of Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, and Robin Wright, who are all intriguing to see in action.

But it is Hoffman with his team that commands the most attention, as they try and monitor an escaped political prisoner from Chechnya, who is seeking refuge but is also suspected of terrorist affiliations. He is contacted by a compassionate lawyer  (McAdams) who wishes to help him, but they get caught up in Gunther’s plan and try and flee from his prying eyes. It doesn’t exactly work. But really they are both part of a bigger ploy to pin down a wealthy Muslim philanthropist who could be in it even deeper with terrorist organizations. They just have to catch him with the help of some insiders and a banker (Dafoe), so Dr. Abdullah can be put away unequivocally. But Gunther also has his superiors and the American diplomat (Robin Wright) continually questioning his plans and mistrusting his motives. After all, he works for a, technically, unconstitutional organization that’s supposed to be off the radar.

mostwantedman2What A Most Wanted Man becomes is a brooding game of watching and waiting interspersed with a few moments that get the heartbeat up. But honestly, it’s mostly waiting, and it does serve to build the tension. There is one final turn that we could probably expect, and overall this is not a film of high volumes of action. In fact, there is barely any. Except by the time it ends, we are left with the same hopelessness and moroseness that seems to float over these characters in a haze. We are constantly wondering, “Where do their allegiances lie?” or “Why are they doing this?” and in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter. This is by no means Chinatown in its intricacy or otherwise, but you do get that same sense of futility.

I must admit I was a little surprised to see Rachel McAdams playing a German, but ultimately I was able to accept it. And although my knowledge of German film is limited, it was exciting to see two talented actors like Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl be featured, but they regrettably were relegated to smaller, hardly interesting turns. We might have to simply content ourselves with their other roles. Because this is most certainly Philip Seymour Hoffman’s show first and last. And it would, unfortunately, end up being his last. However, he left us as jaded and distraught as ever, and that’s a compliment to the actor he was.

3.5/5 Stars

Midnight in Paris (2011): Lessons in Nostalgia

midnightin1Midnight in Paris begins with scene after scene of the Parisian landscape. It gives off the feel of a lazy vacation, strolls in the park, sidewalk cafes aplenty, and even romantically rainy afternoons. For those who have never been to Paris, it makes you fall in love with the city in only a matter of minutes. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is such a person who would easily be content with the Left Banke, Baguettes, and a chance to write his latest novel.  There is an air of wonderment that pervades his very being. He’s often naive and unassuming — hardly someone you would peg for a big Hollywood success story.

He’s about to be hitched to Inez (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who epitomizes the affluent American girl who was used to getting everything she wanted from dear old dad. Now she’s going to marry rich and maintain her lifestyle. Her life is a continual conveyor belt of first world problems. Such as buying a pair of 20,000 euro chairs in an antique shop. Meanwhile, she is easily impressed by puffed up pontification.

When she runs into an old school friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, all Inez wants to do is listen to him talk. After all, he knows about painting, philosophy, wine, and about anything else a stuffy intellectual should know. To coin a phrase he’s a contemptuous, conceited bag of hot air,  or as the museum guide (Carla Bruni) so aptly puts it, “a pedantic gentleman.”

midnightin4For obvious reasons, Gil cannot stand spending time with his wife’s friends. Instead, those breezy, absent-minded walks down the lanes are more his taste. Inez can’t begin to understand why he does it, but one night he’s in for a big surprise. One minute he’s  out for a stroll and then the clock chimes twelve. All of the sudden something a la Cinderella happens. A coach pulls up, Gil tentatively gets in not knowing what he has just stumbled upon, incognizant of the adventure ahead of him.

What follows are the most whimsically joyous moments of the film. Gil has wandered into 1920s Paris, and it’s beyond his wildest dreams. It’s practically paradise with the music of Cole Porter, dancing, pretty girls, and the biggest names you could ever hope to meet. In fact, you can tell Woody Allen has great pleasure in bringing to life such visionaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Piccaso, Salvidor Dali, Luis Bunuel, and so on.

It’s too much fun to be critical of historical accuracy. After all the Fitzgeralds throw wonderful parties, Hemingway gives Gil romantic advice, and he gets his fledgling novel read by none other than Stein. All the while Gil returns to the present giddy with excitement about what he has experienced, but Inez has none of his appreciation for nostalgia. She’d rather go dancing with Paul because he’s so refined.

midnightin2The linchpin of the whole story is really the ravishing French beauty Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), the muse of Picasso, the desire of Hemingway, and a new-found friend of Gil. He cannot help but be enraptured by her grace and the time they spend together is wonderful, that is until he tells her that he is pledged to be married. Although, it looks like he and Inez will not be together much longer as they continue to drift further and further apart.

It’s in one of his last visits to the past that Gil makes the startling discovering that Midnight Paris hinges on. He realizes Adrianna dreams of the turn of the century as he dreams for the roaring twenties. Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas dream about the majesty of the Renaissance. In such a revelation lies a valuable lesson (“I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age”).

In doing so Gil comes to appreciate his present, because life may be unsatisfying at times, but perhaps maybe that’s the way it should be. Otherwise, we would never know what true joy or excitement or love is. There would be no change, no threshold to truly experience life as it is. Gil can go back to his nostalgia shops and Cole Porter hit parades and that’s alright. But now he’s found a Parisian girl (Lea Seydoux) who shares his affinity for long walks in the rain. This is certainly a fairy tale ending, but then again this whole story is a fantasy. In getting a little bit sentimental Woody Allen really gifted his audience something unmistakably special. Owen Wilson was fantastic as was Marion Cotillard.

4/5 Stars

Midnight in Paris (2011)

8d293-midnight_in_paris_posterDirected and written by Woody Allen and starring Owen Wilson, this film is a nostalgic piece of romantic fantasy. 

Gil is a successful screenwriter, who is attempting to finish his first novel, and he is in Paris with his wife (Rachel McAdams). She dismisses his work on a nostalgia shop because she feels it is not as worthwhile as his screenwriting career. Gil is infatuated with everything about Paris, while his wife is content with fine dining and shopping with her parents and wine tasting with stuffy friends. 

Then one evening Gil wanders the streets of Paris, and at Midnight a 1920s style car pulls up and he is invited in. Over the course of the evening, he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and even Ernest Hemingway, who agrees to read his manuscript. The following night he brings his wife but she leaves and he is picked up once again at midnight. This time he talks with Hemingway, meets Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and the beautiful Adriana (Mario Cotillard). Gil continues to return at night much to his wife’s annoyance and his father-in-law’s disapproval. He meets legendary surrealists such as Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Luis Bunuel, who he inspires with his conversation. 

He finds Adriana’s diary in the present and meets a fellow aficionado (Lea Seydoux) of the olden days. Gil returns to the 1920s and Adriana convinces him to go back to the 1890s where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. This is where Adriana is happy and despite their love, Gil realizes that even though nostalgia is good it is best to live in the present. Gil gets some final feedback on his manuscript and then breaks up with Inez, realizing it was not meant to be. However, Gil finally does find someone who shares his love of Paris in the rain. 

Allen made this film really enjoyable for me because he brought to life many people such as Hemingway, Dali, Bunuel, and others. This type of history fascinates me much like Gil, and it was fun to see these figures represented in the flesh by the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, and Adrien Brody. That being said, this film carries a good lesson about living your life in the present. I would have initially said that Owen Wilson seemed wrong for this film, but I think he did a wonderful portraying Gil as a man mesmerized by the golden days of Paris.

4/5 Stars