“Spotlight” –Illuminating Corruption and Cover-up

SpotlightIn this Academy Award-nominated film, Spotlight (on my Top Ten Films for 2015) reveals the 2002 exposé into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation and rape by priests taking place over two decades.

Unflinching in its focus, “Spotlight” underscores a subtle outrage and sense of resignation about the power of institutions. We watch as the “Spotlight “ team—named for undercover exposés of difficult-to-prove cases– chases down leads; goes through archives with missing documents; and interviews priests, judges, and victims. The investigative Spotlight team at the Boston Globe is defined by their tenacity as they overcome powerful political interests committed to crushing their investigation.

Investigative journalism seems so “old-school” in our sound-bite, entertainment culture, but Spotlight deftly recognizes the heroism of the Boston Globe’s team, in a similar fashion to “All The President’s Men”. Igniting an almost unbelievable, worldwide scandal, the Boston Globe clearly demonstrates a conspiracy on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to protect priests while silencing the victims and their families. The impact on a predominantly Catholic city, the guilt of those who chose to ignore its victims and the adversarial response of the Catholic Church are not the major themes of “Spotlight”.

“Spotlight” excels at building up the sense of injustice and outrage over the young victims who have no voice. Only the Catholic archdiocese and the legal system that is entwined with it have the powerful voice of defense and obfuscation. Despite the fact that we all know the repercussions of this narrative, seeing it through the eyes of these reporters has its own power.

The ensemble cast–John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo as the main reporters, and Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton as their editors—keeps the focus on the true story of institutional corruption and cowardice that fails the young victims of sexual abuse. Perhaps one of the most unforgettable and stunning scenes is between Rachel McAdams (playing a reporter) and a priest who tries to explain his motivation for child rape. McAdams’s quiet, perfectly calibrated and understated response is truly an award-worthy performance in and of itself.

Like its predecessor “All The President’s Men”, “Spotlight” is a paen to the courage of journalists who feel compelled to tell a story full of ugliness that few want to see.

[As a postscript I would have also liked to see the voice of a young victim in flashback, and the toll incurred on him as a young adult when he finally comes forth to tell his story. The victims all had unhealed wounds, based on secrets and lies they had to endure for decades.]

“Southpaw”—Left-handed Compliment

SouthpawThe boxing movie genre—Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter (see July 11, 2011 review)—is commonly tackled in movies because of its inherent drama and overt conflict between the protagonist, a down-and-out boxer and a champion. “Southpaw” neatly fits into this mold, but the story has some interesting surprises, not just a re-tread of previous boxing blockbusters.

Of course, it is a story about how life knocks you down—literally—only to force the protagonist back onto his or her feet. Through Antoine Fuqua’s sensitive direction, excellent dialogue and performances, “Southpaw” transcends the stereotypes and clichés. The roles of the wife (a stellar supporting role by Rachel McAdams) and his young daughter, Leila (newcomer Oona Laurence) add heft and connection to the protagonist’s humanity that is pivotal and essential for the plot’s emotional stakes.

Billy Hope (a physically transformed and bulked up Jake Gyllenhaal), the reigning junior middleweight boxing champion, has an impressive career, a loving wife and daughter, and a lavish lifestyle. However, when tragedy strikes, Billy hits rock bottom, losing his family, his house and his manager. He soon finds an unlikely savior in Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a former fighter who trains the city’s toughest amateur boxers, who alone can teach Billy how to temper the almost blinding rage that both drives and traps him. Tick’s backstory is never revealed, but hints at similar rage in his heyday.

The grippingly raw and honest acting of Jake Gyllenhaal definitely sets this film apart, making his performance Academy-Award worthy.The actors in supporting roles also share in the quality of “Southpaw”. Rachel McAdams’s role as the strong wife, Maureen, clearly impacts the trajectory her husband must take for the remaining portion of the film. Bespectacled little Oona Laurence shares some intensely emotional scenes with Gyllenhaal and holds her own.

Beyond the great acting, there are a few loose ends:

  • Who was responsible for what happened to the wife?
  • What is the former manager’s malfeasance?
  • What is the backstory of the trainer?
  • Is there more to Billy’s absence as a father, and his past relationship with his little girl?
  • How does the title “Southpaw” add to the narrative?

Nonetheless , Jake Gyllenhaal owns this film and made it an extraordinary boxing film to watch.

Note: As in most of Fuqua’s films, the fight scenes are extremely brutal and bloody, adding to the tension.

 

“Midnight in Paris” – That Was Then, This is Now

Written and directed by Woody Allen, this romantic comedy is vintage Woody Allen. I love Woody Allen, but I don’t really, really, really love Woody Allen to the point that I think everything he does is brilliant and witty. He has had some real dogs. How many people have suffered through “Cassandra’s Dream”, for example, as I have? Nonetheless, there is a lot to like about “Midnight in Paris”.

The story opens with a young couple, Gil Pender (brilliantly played by Owen Wilson), and his fiancée Inez (believably played by Rachel McAdams in an unsympathetic role), traveling to Paris with her parents on a business trip. It is obvious from the outset that the couple is not suited for each other. Gil, a successful but dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter, hopes to give up his Hollywood gig to write his first novel. Inez does not understand why.

At midnight Gil leaves his fiancée and her family to walk alone on a starry, rainy moonlit night saturated with golden hued tones the camera lovingly lingers onto the City of Light. Gil gets into a vintage 1920s roadster when some friendly partygoers beckon to him and is transported to the golden of cultural icons: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray to name only a few.

“Midnight in Paris” is, most of all, a comic walk down memory lane, for those viewers who can catch literary and artistic allusions to the period. A few examples: Hemingway speaks in sentence structures characteristic of his prose. Dali and Man Ray are called “not normal” surrealists. Gertrude Stein is the matriarch of a cultural elites’ salon with her lover Alice. Adriana, mistress of Picasso, played by the radiant Marion Cotillard, thrusts the pivotal lunge into the heart of this film when she asks Gil why he loves the 1920s. Gil utters the mantra embedded in all of Woody Allen’s movies–“Maybe the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”

Gil wakes up from his longing for a “golden age” through a series of overdone flashbacks. Like his mediocre movies over the past three decades, Woody Allen doesn’t seem to know when to stop the repetition. Unlike “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, which I loved, this movie is the old Woody Allen genre, overwrought and lecturing like some old academic who has lost his audience. But this film is much better than most in the last ten years or so, perhaps on a par with “Match Point”–that is to say, good but not great. Owen Wilson, who actually channels Woody Allen’s famously high-pitched whiny voice (if you close your eyes,) should star as Woody Allen’s alter ego in all his future work. Who knew Owen Wilson’s delightful voice in rom-coms is an echo of Allen’s?

What, for me, saves this film is that “Midnight in Paris” is a palpable love letter to Paris, not only cinematic clichés of the Eiffel Tower, the River Seine, and the Louvre, but shots filled with so much affection for narrow street cafes and even the bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. This nostalgic tour of Paris together with some of the literary scene of the 1920s is worth the price of the movie ticket!