The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun)

Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray; Owen Wilson; Adrien Brody; Benicio del Toro; Léa Seydoux; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Timothée Chalamet; Jeffrey Wright; Mathieu Amalric; Ed Norton; Steve Park; Elizabeth Moss; Willem Dafoe; Saiorse Ronan

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

 

****/*****

Trying not to laugh in a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to suppress a sneeze. All the little absurdities he is synonymous with are those constant tickles that build toward something you can no longer contain. Of course, his movies aren’t pure comedy and so you’re fighting a battle of needing that sweet release and being stifled by the seriousness that sits right beside the silliness.

The French Dispatch (etc, etc) is yet another example of that uniquely entertaining struggle. But it might be a struggle in another way, for this is the most ambitious project Anderson has yet undertaken. As such it isn’t a great starting point for a newcomer (I highly recommend beginning with his début Bottle Rocket — it’s low-key but full of the elements that would later make him an auteur). In some ways, early Anderson might be the best Anderson as you see raw talent more than the money. Post-Royal Tenenbaums, the intensifying style and increasing magnitude of cast represent an elitist form of repetition, with his exacting precision and obsessive-compulsive control over all elements remaining forever the things you remember more than story beats.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m a fan, and if he so chooses to make a movie that somehow tops this level of complexity, consider me there. But I also wonder about the sustainability of the future — can Anderson just keep drilling down into more and more complicated narratives or does something eventually give? His tenth film is a doozy, at one point a post-World War II musical (that’d be something to see!) now turned into a detail-laden love letter to journalists that unfolds as though one is watching a magazine come to life on screen. For Anderson, the way a story is told has always been tantamount to the subjects of those stories and in drawing inspiration from The New Yorker he’s found an ideally idiosyncratic space in which to run wild with his obsessions.

It’s the end of an era for the staff of the titular paper, a foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas publication based in the delightfully made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom-upon-Apathy). The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Usually it’s no news is bad news but this is bad news for his underlings, a tight-knit group often coddled by Howitzer — a character loosely based on The New Yorker founding editor Howard Ross. As per his wishes, Howitzer’s death means the end of the paper. The overarching plot, manifested in a prologue and epilogue, revolves around this bittersweet development as the loyal staff gather themselves, without crying, to reprint a series of stories for the paper’s final issue.

Sporting an insane cast The French Dispatch all but demands a second viewing if you want more than the basic shape. The first segment, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece,’ is relayed to us by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), an art aficionado prone to personal digressions at the lectern. Her presentation describes a strange relationship between incarcerated, tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). Adrien Brody complicates the scene as an art dealer who intends to sell Rosenthaler’s provocative abstracts to the highest bidder. The buyer’s persistence sets off a chain of amusing events that becomes impressively convoluted considering the confinement of the scene.

From a physical altercation we pivot into social unrest in ‘Revisions to a Manifesto,’ which centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a lonely writer who emphasizes professional objectivity yet develops an intimate relationship with a student protestor (Timothée Chalamet) as she helps him formalize his complaints in writing. The righteous cause in this case is getting campus rules rewritten so that boys can visit girls in their dorms. As the movement evolves, the town of Ennui becomes ensconced in greater conflict, in what becomes known as The Chessboard Revolution. The tableau is constructed as farce but finds real-world roots in the May 1968 student-led protests that snowballed into nationwide strikes and even prompted a temporary government shutdown. It’s a tricky area in which Anderson’s unbridled whimsy could easily feel inappropriate, but he avoids unfunny facsimile by keeping the focus almost exclusively on the (intentionally inappropriate) dynamic between writer and subject.

Finally we arrive at ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,’ which, for now at least as my brain tries not to overheat, is at risk for being remembered only for the breathtaking action midway through, an Adventures of Tintin-style animated sequence down narrow French streets that effects a New Yorker comic strip in moving picture form. During a television interview, forlorn foodie Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts the kidnapping of the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric)’s son by members of Ennui’s seedy underbelly, represented by Ed Norton‘s Chauffeur. The kidnapper’s motive (and fate) prove far less significant than the recollection itself, which encompasses his painful backstory of how he, an openly gay writer, came to be hired by the Dispatch.

Each of these stories are works of art unto themselves. Although some are more memorable than others, it’s not crazy to imagine any one of them being stretched into a full-length film of its own. Details matter more here than they ever have. In a story overflowing with minutiae perhaps this is no small thing, but it’s important to note the way Anderson regards journalists — at the very least, his journalists — not as unassailable heroes incapable of doing harm but rather emotional beings who have egos, biases, habits, neuroses. The French Dispatch is not a lamentation of clickbait or a yearning for the days when long-form journalism didn’t need to be qualified as ‘good, old fashioned.’ This is a satire of writerly sensibilities, of insecurities and imperfections, ironically delivered by a veritable perfectionist. 

While the laughs may not come as easily on the first try, the layered narrative approach and copious relationships ensure The French Dispatch will be a piece worth returning to time and time again. 

If you mention block-editor to me one more time . . .

Moral of the Story: The French Dispatch is a movie that finds Wes Anderson pushing his iconic style and atmosphere to extremes, such that style and substance become one and the same. The subject matter is more esoteric than something like the romantic escape of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and more complex even than the history of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but the good news is that you don’t need to be aware of all the homages and references that are made to enjoy what Anderson is doing here. As with so many of his films, what you put into it is probably what you will get out of it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins. 

Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.rogerebert.com 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

Directed by: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman

A Review from the Perspective of a Spider-Newb

A cornucopia of visual delights that rivals the best of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, two of the giants in the world of animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has taken Sony Pictures Animation to a whole new level. The combination of painstakingly hand-drawn and slick computer-generated imagery is something you can’t help but marvel at. All of the little stylistic flares — splitting the screen into panels, the employment of thought bubbles and of lightning bolts indicating a Spidey sense tingling, the minutiae of lighting textures — work in concert to make the viewer feel like they have “walked right into a comic book.” And then of course there’s a sense of timeliness. The recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee adds poignancy to what is already clearly an ode to a legacy. The rich detail and emotional resonance makes Into the Spider-Verse the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s handwoven quilt.

I’ll say it once and I’ll probably say it several more times before we’re done here: I can’t get over how good this movie looks. The visual language contributes so much to the film’s energetic personality and individuality. Yet what’s maybe most surprising about Into the Spider-Verse is how fresh and engaging this yet-again origins story feels. Its self-aware and occasionally self-deprecatory humor, courtesy of Phil Lord — the brilliantly quick-witted writer/producer of high-octane adventures such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — helped me buy back in. This is only like the 167th time we have seen an ordinary kid get bitten by a special spider but only the first in which we have been able to laugh along with those involved at how many big-screen iterations of the web-slinger there have been in recent years. More to the point, this is the first time we have seen someone other than the iconically average Peter Parker become Spider-Man.

Yes, of all those versions that have preceded it Into the Spider-Verse is the most inclusive one yet. The film offers seven Spideys for the price of one and while comics readers will be getting the most value from their dollar as they pluck out all the myriad Easter eggs hidden inside, the story graciously makes room for Spider-Newbs, taking the idea of an ordinary individual gaining unusual abilities and extrapolating that to the general populace. That any one of us holds the potential to become Spider-Man is a conceit juicy with possibility. It also seems a logistical nightmare from a writing standpoint. How will all these characters coexist within one story? Is it even one story? How many and which villains do we go with? How many Mary Janes? (Sorry for the spoiler, but there can only ever be one of those.)

In bringing this ambitious project to life, three different filmmakers are charged with directing, with Peter Ramsey handling the action sequences, Rodney Rothman overseeing the comedic aspects, and Bob Persichetti supplying what Lord describes as the “poetry” of the story. Indeed this is a real team effort, with the writers (Lord, alongside Rothman and a whole host of credited character developers) fixating upon the emotional maturation of a new Spidey-in-the-making, one Miles Morales (Dope‘s very own Shameik Moore), a New York kid of Afro-Puerto Rican descent trying his best to please his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. He attends a private boarding school where his parents hope he will aim for great heights. Oh, the irony. He has a close friend in his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles to keep pursuing his artistic passions, frequently taking him to a subway station where he graffitis beautiful expressions onto the otherwise lifeless walls.

When a ridiculously rotund baddie named Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempts to use a particle accelerator to access alternate dimensions for personal reasons that won’t be revealed here, beings from those other worlds are inadvertently thrust into ours. This opens up a quasi-anthological narrative that brings in different Spider-People to inform the central conflict — Miles’ inability to own his newfound . . . well, abilities. Multiple character arcs are provided along the way, each different Spider-Person explaining how they won the mutated-genetics lottery, all while Miles’ internal struggle — that oft-referenced grappling with power and responsibility — remains front-and-center. More impressive is the way all of it unfolds at a breakneck pace without ever becoming convoluted and difficult to keep up with.

What really perpetuates the flow of the narrative is this revolving door of different characters. There is always something new to latch on to, like swinging through the corridors of Manhattan from building to building. Chris Pine is in as the one-and-only Peter Parker, and while the role is small he does something we haven’t seen Peter do in any of the live-action adaptations. Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, by contrast, is an over-the-hill, jaded crime fighter whose sweatpants-and-protruding-gut look suggests he isn’t overly concerned with image these days. He is perfectly charming in all of his 9-5 day job blasé. Then we have Hailee Steinfeld taking up the mantle of Gwen Stacy and while her trust issues are a cliché the actress/singer makes her reservations not only believable but emotionally satisfying when it comes to the main protagonist’s development.

From there it gets a little more obscure, with SNL’s John Mulaney lending his voice to Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (and here is a perfect example of my ignorance; how dare I limit my imagination of what Spider-Man can be to just human beings) while Nicolas Cage, of all people, becomes Spider-Man Noir. Last and most definitely least interesting (again, to me) is Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker, a Japanese incarnation who apparently made her Marvel Comics début only a few years ago in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (2014). She’s got some weird robot-machine thing named SP//dr with which she telepathically communicates and uses to properly engage with the enemy — a device that also apparently links her to the ominous OsCorp.

There are familiar faces and characters scattered throughout as well. The older, more cynical Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) has a pretty important part to play as the many Spideys set about trying to find a way back to their own worlds while Miles tries ever more desperately to prevent Kingpin from destroying New York and, on a more personal level, help his father overcome his anti-Spidey bias. Secondary villains appear in the form of Doc Ock/Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hann adding a female twist on Alfred Molina’s interpretation from Spider-Man 2), and Prowler, whose unmasked identity is best left masked in writing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is sure to have long legs at the box office, and it deserves them. Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, this is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I have had in 2018 and in a year in which I have had to absorb the blows of Infinity War, endure the cold loneliness of being First Man and try to survive the completely unknown in (my personal favorite) Annihilation, that is some accomplishment.

“I think, therefore I am . . . Spider-Man?”

Recommendation: Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, a heartbreaking plot-twist and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. I don’t know if this is literally “the best Spider-Man movie ever made,” but I am fairly confident it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. Your move, Marvel.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “That’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

 

Isle of Dogs

Release: Friday, April 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

When it comes to Wes Anderson, ‘more of the same’ is absolutely a compliment. I don’t find myself saying that about many other filmmakers. Now nine films deep into a career that has netted him an ever-growing, passionate and devoted fanbase it is clear he isn’t changing tacks. On evidence of his latest effort, a visually dense yet lucidly told saga about a young Japanese boy in search of his lost pup, it is clear he doesn’t need to.

With Isle of Dogs, it is more than just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (It has been four years, apparently, since The Grand Budapest Hotel.) Isle of Dogs has the distinction of being only the second animated feature film on Anderson’s résumé. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is rendered in stop-motion animation, an aesthetic choice that on its own attests to a profound commitment and love for the craft of telling stories in moving pictures. His live action films feel restrictive by comparison in terms of the number of aspects he can control and customize to his completely obsessive liking. This new offering is so meticulously crafted you can easily take its beauty for granted.

Set in the fictitious metropolis of Megasaki City in a near-future Japan, trouble begins when the new, authoritarian, cat-loving mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the exile of all dogs from the city to an off-shore wasteland called Trash Island following an outbreak of “snout fever.” A brief timeline of events is immediately established, tracing the downward trend in the public repute of our canine companions. The relationship has deteriorated from dogs being subjected to harsh verbal treatment from their owners to being flat-out persecuted. So when I say this film is beautiful, I suppose I’m being shallow because if you do a little thematic digging you are sure to find some things that are actually quite ugly. Elements of immigration, of second-class citizenship and racial prejudice, even slavery are touched upon.

In the present/future/future-present/whatever, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who happens to be the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, flees the city in an attempt to reunite with his best buddy. His dog Spots was the very first to get booted to Trash Island. Upon his crash-landing there several months later Atari meets a group of abandoned mutts — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — who prove surprisingly willing to aid in his quest. After mistakenly identifying the remains of another dog as Spots, they seek the advice of wizened old fools Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who point them to the remote reaches of the island where they might have luck finding him amidst the cannibalistic tribes rumored to be living there.

Luckily, a post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston isn’t in his first Wes Anderson movie just to give a whimper of a performance. He has real bite here, playing a tough pooch who must break free from his habit of distrusting others, especially he who walks upright. This is his movie more than anyone else’s, and that of course means sacrifices on the part of Anderson regulars in order to elevate his status. Good for fans of Cranston, but perhaps a disappointing revelation for those wanting more Bill Furr-ay.

Isle of Dogs is a very busy place, a fully realized environment bustling with activity and overloaded with imagery that pays tribute to Japanese culture and iconography. To this viewer, that effort comes across as sincere and respectful but that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your experience was anything like mine you may have spent more time and a frustrating number of scenes trying to figure out which famous actor was voicing which animal rather than all the ways in which this movie appears to reinforce negative stereotypes. My head hurts already from overthinking things.

And then there are those obligatory subplots to contend with as well, which are considerably less interesting this time around. More often than not these asides tend to chop the central conceit up into annoying bits and pieces of doggie chow. One involves the predictable repercussions of Atari’s disappearance as his uncle vows to bring him and his newfound friends to justice. The other, also an attempt to balance perspectives, finds an outspoken animal rights activist (Greta Gerwig with HUGE hair) stumbling upon a potential conspiracy involving the corrupt mayor and a group of scientists featuring Yoko Ono. (Like I said, there’s just a lot going on.)

Much of the ambition pays off. How can it not when you have a filmmaker as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson, and especially here, when he is in complete control? Unfortunately not all of it succeeds and a few bells and whistles feel unnecessarily tacked on. Frances McDormand’s inclusion is a shining example of Anderson trying to do too much. The talented actress fulfills this really weird-bordering-on-condescending role as an English translator in select scenes where Japanese is spoken. She more often than not just gets in the way, neither becoming an interesting character nor a necessary plot device. In fact her function is borderline insulting, not simply to the few Japanese characters who actually do get speaking roles, but to those of us who are even decent at reading body language and facial expressions. Never mind the fact that the movie stops dead in its tracks just to explain such superfluity.

Ultimately though, Isle of Dogs does a lot of good. It is as uplifting in its action sequences as it is saddening in its darkest trials, of which there are quite a few. The whimsical spirit of the adventure and the often comical physical renderings — the scrappy dog fights are true highlights — go a long way in making a somber reality more palatable. The film is perhaps the darkest one yet in his filmography, yet it is perpetually buoyed by its fascination with the simple but unconditional love a dog has for his owner. Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson at his narrative best, but its flaws are not enough to stop me from asking for more of the same. Please, just. More.

Dog day afternoon

Recommendation: Isle of Dogs represents only the second time Wes Anderson has gone the way of stop-motion, but it is a welcome return to a form that I find he actually excels even more in. Barring a few niggling detours here and there, Isle of Dogs is consistently entertaining, surprisingly dramatic and a visually enthralling experience. Four barks out of five.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You’ll meet a bitch named Nutmeg. Tell her Chief says, ‘I’ll see you in Megasaki.'”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

January Blindspot: Defiance (2009)

defiance-movie-posterrr

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

[Netflix]

Written by: Edward Zwick; Clayton Frohman

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Defiance at the very least satisfies a certain curiosity I had about a film that featured Daniel Craig not in a suit and tie, and as of this posting — admittedly a time-sensitive and quite frankly rushed one — I feel more inclined to recommend it more on that basis rather than for its dramatic credentials. I mean, Defiance isn’t a bad film but it’s just not a great one and that’s kind of a shame.

Really, the most damning thing I can say about it is that in hindsight I would replace this film with something else for my January Blindspot — but, well, that wouldn’t make this a very blind Blindspot list, now, would it? Defiance is well-made but pretty forgettable, and while its lead man seems outwardly appropriate for the part of Tuvia Bielsky, a Polish Jew who helped thousands of refugees escape the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe, Craig once again makes it obvious he works best in roles that don’t require him to adopt an accent. Yeesh.

When Edward Zwick’s film premiered in 2009 it apparently caused quite the kerfuffle. Polish columnists in particular brutalized Defiance, accusing it of the sorts of things directors like Peter Berg and Michael Bay are regularly found guilty of today: xenophobic tonality; the glorification of violence; the oversimplification of extraordinarily complex circumstances. I didn’t find Defiance damaging or incompetent as others have, but its issues are obvious. Despite the fertile historical ground in which his material is rooted, Zwick bogs down an urgent tale with direction that largely feels uninspired and repetitive.

As his film notes during the end credits, the Bielski partisans — four brothers who amassed a secret community of some 1,200 homeless Jews in the depths of the sprawling Naliboki Forest, a near impenetrable mass of evergreen and marshland encompassing northwestern Belarus — never sought recognition for their heroic actions during some of the darkest days in human history. Zwick felt it was high time they received a little.

The narrative primarily focuses on the rift that develops between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber) who, when brutal, violent oppression finally hits home differ in opinion over how they should respond. Tuvia, despite an early scene of bloody retaliation, insists on avoiding confrontation and becomes the de facto leader of the camp. Zus on the other hand feels strongly about seeking vengeance and joins a local Communist troupe, vowing to take the fight right to the Nazis.

The events depicted in Defiance occur over the course of a year. We watch as conditions within Tuvia’s faction deteriorate as winter sets in and as impending Nazi forces constantly force them to move around within the forest. They battle against starvation, exposure and the inevitable in-fighting as the need to stay hidden intensifies with each passing day. We cut back and forth between this sad scene and Zus’ predicament as he finds himself surrounded by “comrades” who don’t necessarily share the same sympathies toward the Jewish refugees. They do, however, eventually agree to provide much-needed medicine to Tuvia in exchange for help in knocking out a radio transmitter that is interfering with the Russian’s communications.

The film rides a fairly strong wave of emotion on the back of solid performances most notably from Craig, Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the latter finding a way to come into his own as he finds himself mounting a last-ditch defensive stand when German tanks appear in their neck of the woods. (Sorry.) Mia Wasikowska also leaves an impression as a love interest for Bell’s courageous Asael. Their blossoming romance quickly yields a wedding ceremony in one of the film’s defining moments, a tender act of love nestled at the heart of a narrative shrouded in darkness.

I’d feel better closing this piece on a note of positivity rather than with more complaints about how the film perpetually shirks its responsibility of authenticating events as detailed in the 1993 novel by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, upon which Zwick’s movie is based. Of galvanizing survivors with a story that does history proper justice. Defiance isn’t that film. It’s something more closely associated with typical action fare, with the kinds of movies you expect Daniel Craig to star in. As Tuvia he is more James Bond than Moses.

No, allow me instead to wax poetic about the film’s visuals for an easy out. Even several days after, that wedding ceremony remains burned into my memory. The snow coming down, in all its cheesiness. The intimate gathering. The golden sunlight. Eduardo Serra’s camerawork simply stuns; he seizes the opportunity to capture the forest in all its eerie beauty, offering Defiance this compelling but disturbing dichotomy between the enchanting allure of nature and the ugliness of humanity. Who would have thought we would have ever heard the words ‘Mazel tov’ uttered in this place, in this time?

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

defiance-2

3-0Recommendation: I can’t help but feel disappointed by Defiance but this is far from a bad movie. It just isn’t a very ambitious one. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are the clear stand-outs (even if the former’s accent is horrendous at the best of times). But as a visual display, the film earns a fairly strong recommendation from yours truly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.uk.pinterest.com 

Spotlight

Spotlight movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Thomas McCarthy; Josh Singer

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Every so often a film drops with little or no warning and leaves a lasting impression. 12 Years a Slave did it three years ago via punishing violence and bravura performances; a year later Gravity achieved unparalleled visual grandeur films two years on are still trying to match. Spotlight almost undisputedly fits the bill as this year’s crowning cinematic jewel, though its impact is far less visceral.

Thomas McCarthy has chosen to revisit The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic and enduring sexual abuse of children at the hands of Boston-area Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. What began as an inquisition into the number of isolated incidents quickly evolved into a more encompassing exposé in which it was discovered priests, rather than being dismissed from the church outright, were simply reassigned elsewhere in the country and were being protected by Cardinal Law. The publishing of the first article led to his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002.

‘Spotlight’ refers to The Globe’s investigative journalism team, presently the oldest such unit still in operation in the nation. McCarthy’s methodically-paced and consistently compelling approach brilliantly and subtly pays homage to the work of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) while exposing the underbelly of an institution that traditionally (or ideally) exercises superlative judgment of character and protection of cultural, spiritual and societal values.

Spotlight is information-rich and faced with the prospect of weaving together multiple, fairly complex relationships. McCarthy spares precious little time in getting to work. At the request of editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the foursome are encouraged to suspend their current assignment in light of Baron’s concern over The Globe’s failure to dig deeper into a past case involving child molestation that was put on the back burner as far back as the 1980s. In the wake of the 2002 revelation over 600 follow-up articles would be published by the same paper, though the film elects to depict the researching and ultimate crafting of the very first story, one that, as Schreiber’s pragmatic Baron predicted, would have “an immediate and significant impact upon [the paper’s] readers.”

Drama presents investigative journalism as one of the last bastions of truth-seeking, as well as social and cultural enriching, and its vitality seems particularly quaint set against this day and age in which increasing numbers turn to social media for their ‘news’ — a concept that, in and of itself, could do with some spotlighting as it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. A cherry-picked cast of certifiable A-listers, one that includes John Slattery as projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as Boston lawyers who specialize in sexual abuse cases, collaborate on an inevitably award-winning screenplay, penned by McCarthy along with Josh Singer.

There’s a collective energy amongst the group that affords Spotlight much of its profundity and their natural portrayals effortlessly absorb, a notable lack of melodramatic tension between key players resulting in a kind of harmonious interaction between spectator and creator that’s rarely been seen this or any other year. It’s impossible to single out a role without mentioning another; though if I were compelled to nitpick I’d nominate Keaton and Ruffalo as the performers with ever-so-slightly more screen time. Still though, Spotlight is an example of a true team effort and if the film finds itself in the running for Best Actor in a Leading Role the sextet of performers, in an ideal world, should find themselves on stage accepting the golden statuette.

What nudges McCarthy’s undertaking into the realm of bonafide classic is the delicacy with which he approaches the grim subject matter. We’re talking about — and periodically confronted with the survivors of — child molestation. I doubt I need to repeat the term to send chills down your spine. Yet, if you fear for the worst: depictions of the acts themselves, graphic or otherwise, or even a considerable amount of time dedicated to traipsing through the vileness of the Catholic Church’s most shameful hour, fear not. Spotlight isn’t interested in dwelling on the past. It is interested in and, more importantly, reliant upon history however, and getting hands dirty is a requisite if we are to get to the bottom of an issue that has consequently spread like a cancer across the globe. One that, sickeningly enough, has just as much relevance more than a decade on.

Indeed, what’s most crucial in recreating this wholly unsettling discovery, in acknowledging the effects it had on not only the Catholic faithful but on those asking the tough questions, is the mirroring of several pillars of fundamentally sound journalism. The film, though it may not be quite as timely as it could have been, is as concise as is feasible for a story with this many implications; accurate (despite a few outcries over the depiction of a select few characters) and brutally honest. Dialogue-driven narrative plays out with the tenacity of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, though it’s far less poetic and lends itself more to conversation. Never mind the fact it continues to build in intensity as the statistics and evidence continue piling up to a level few, if any, seasoned reporters at The Globe could have been prepared to embrace.

Rare are the films that understand the importance of shaping events and characters in such a way that they appear the genuine article. Rarer still are those that transcend the form so as to actually become reality. Spotlight qualifies as one such film, blurring the line between dramatic feature and documentary presentation if only in how it confirms that the best films truly manifest as art imitating life. If McCarthy’s restrained focus on the life and times of these writers and this paper and the relationship between the church and the people of Boston has any one, significant impact it’s that reality can be (and indeed is) uglier than anything movies fabricate, convincingly or otherwise, in an effort to entertain or disturb.

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Recommendation: Spotlight is a remarkable production. It manifests as a powerful advocate of journalism as a mechanism for change (an admittedly ever-weakening one at that in today’s gossip-geared papers and online posts) and a noble profession. It simultaneously unearths a disgusting, alarming reality that continues to trouble the Church to this day and it provides audiences spanning multiple age brackets some sense of what it was like to become involved in this story. Mind you, this isn’t a film that means to entertain. It’s 100% informative and revelatory. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive works I have ever seen for these reasons and more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, we gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

I think the real question here is, “Is it pretentious for the director to include his name in the title of the movie?” Or is it just pretentious to think about this being pretentious? Perhaps I’ll address that later Nick addresses this down below in comments, but in the meantime — the answer to the first is a resounding “Heck no.” Daniels’ film, featuring Forest Whitaker in a possible career-defining role, is both a heartwarming and tragic epic that unfolds similarly to Robert Zemeckis’ multiple-Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in that we visit several crucial periods in American history and see how they impact the life of a strong central character who undergoes both external and internal changes throughout.

The resultant timeline is full of emotional highs and lows. As one might imagine, there’s likely to be a lot of lows, since the material incorporates the violence from the civil rights movement along with the Vietnam conflict, just as two major examples. Despite the horrors on display however, there is a substantial amount of pleasantness to the proceedings. A lot of it stems from Cecil Gaines’ family life and the general essence of Whitaker in this role. He is absolutely fantastic — it’s clear he’s fully embraced the importance of what his character meant (his Cecil Gaines is actually based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen). Nominations should be awaiting with this one.

Even despite the movie being a rather loose adaptation, his life story is miraculous, to say the least. Growing up on the Westfall plantation, Cecil bears witness to gut-wrenching violence of the worst (most personal) kind. After it happens, the elderly Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Cecil he is to start working inside the house from now on. Though the job was offered out of pity, his general treatment doesn’t exactly improve much as the notion of being an invisible servant in whatever room was impressed upon him rigorously. As gloomy as his situation initially seems, and Cecil doesn’t know it yet, this is finally a job with transformative powers.

Similarly to Forrest Gump, The Butler is a lengthy journey and takes its time to unfold. Patience may be required, but also it is with great ease that most people should be able to adhere. Daniels’ vision may wander around a bit, but the transitions made from scene to scene are often subtle yet very powerful. From the plantation house Cecil moves on for the city life in search of his next job. The woman he used to work for is nearing her death and he sees no future staying around the plantation anymore. He soon comes across a man named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) under dire circumstances and asks him for a job doing anything at all. Maynard reluctantly agrees to temporarily help out a malnourished Cecil. However, Maynard quickly learns just how good Cecil’s skills are and he suggests the boy move on to still bigger things. He informs him of a job opening at a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C. and that he should consider applying. From the hotel, Cecil’s gainful employment continues as he moves up to the White House after discovering an open position for a butler there.

Daniels allows each scene to speak for themselves. As each one unfolds, Gaines’ worldview widens steadily and our respect for him grows accordingly. There’s a wonderful flow to the way small villages give way to the rush of the bigger city. The audio narration, read by Mr. Gaines, explains circumstances to us so even though we don’t have many “images” of these places, the time and places are anchored efficiently with what he has to say about them. Eventually we will meet a fantastic crew of other butlers who staff the busy American landmark: some who stand out the most are Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s upbeat Carter and Lenny Kravitz’ more reserved, but respectable James.

And of course, once we’re inside the White House we also will be getting to see the current leaders of the nation at the time. One of the most effective elements in Daniels’ film is his rotating door of great actors filling in significant roles, specifically the eight different presidents under which Cecil serves throughout his 34-year career. When Cecil first enters the Oval Office, we see a very thinly-haired Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s discussing something with members of his Cabinet while Cecil politely serves tea. The moment is just enough to give us the impression that a significant wind of change is about to start blowing  given the discussions ongoing. All those who fill in the presidential roles are terrific and similarly contribute to the scale of this story. Other famous personalities in the White House that we get to revisit include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber); Richard Nixon (John Cusack); and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Each actor really makes their mark on each of their respective presidential roles and it’s quite a bit of fun seeing how the attitudes and atmospheres change with each new leader.

While these sweeping changes are being examined at the top tier of the political ladder, Cecil must always mind his business and be sure to strictly stick to his job. . . . . . that old nasty adage of being seen, but not heard really applies here. By doing just that, the mild-mannered Cecil becomes one of the most entrusted employees within the building which is by no means an accidental occurrence. As he has attempted to be all his life, Cecil is simply a patient and humbled man who retains every ounce of his dignity even though things at home aren’t exactly perfect. His eldest son, Louis, isn’t particularly proud of his father and often overlooks the fact that he’s had to work extremely hard to get to where he’s at now. Louis leaves for college in Tennessee, where Cecil knows trouble is likely to find him, but Louis isn’t listening. His wife, Gloria (a beautiful and heartwarming performance from Oprah Winfrey was a terrific surprise for me) is more supportive of her husband but also more supportive of her son making up his own mind. A nail is driven between Louis and Cecil’s point of view on the issue of segregation that’s currently ravaging the nation and this becomes a major focal point of the latter half of the film.

With that said, it becomes increasingly obvious as the years pass and the story amasses more and more historical significance that Daniels’ has essentially created two movies in one. One is the story of Cecil and his evolution from the terrible cotton fields to the dignified role he plays in serving the many presidents. This is arguably the overriding narrative. The second is clearly the idealogical struggle between Cecil and his eldest son, who both obviously want policies and social status to change for blacks. Whereas Cecil is content to fight the good fight that he always has by maintaining his calm and working hard, Louis feels drawn more to the revolutionary points of view shared by the Black Panthers — and I needn’t say much more about that. We can see where that story may or may not go.

Because of the heavy emphasis on the struggle between father and son, the movie seems to take on a bit too much, perhaps more than it rightfully should have to handle in this limited run time. Had the movie lasted in excess of three hours the cumulative effect might have been more profound. Instead, the story moves back and forth between Cecil and Louis for about an hour and it can get a little confusing. Who should we have to care about more? There are definite answers to that question, but Lee Daniels doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not the worst complaint you can have for a movie with this much history tied into it, but it’s difficult to ignore the obvious transitions between the three major acts.

These moments are marked by Cecil’s entrance into the White House for the first time (thus identifying Act Two), and the start of the Vietnam War (Act Three). Although the fact that the two stories — that of Cecil and that of the relationship between him and his oldest son — don’t mesh as smoothly as they could have, this seems to be a relatively small issue with a movie carrying this much weight. Not to mention, every member in the Gaines household are represented with brilliant performances by young actors David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) and Isaac White (who plays the younger sibling, Charlie). It may be obvious when we’ve shifted gears a little, but their screen times are both equally captivating and White is absolutely hilarious as Charlie.

I really can’t say enough about the cast. Everyone involved turns in stellar performances and considering that, this movie is far better than it maybe should have been. It’s hardly a groundbreaking story that we learn of here, even despite the incredible truth behind it and when one considers the horrible political culture in America at the time. One man comes from behind to get ahead of most everyone else and of course, things go all but smoothly for him along the way. Gaines suffers terrible personal losses, as well as he experiences the pain of a nation suffering from prejudice, hatred and division. Even though we’ve journeyed through the filth and grime with other public figures in movies before, Whitaker’s performance truly makes Eugene Allen iconic — a label which he perhaps earned himself; but the actor confirms it.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it’s not perfect and at times darts between historical and familial themes of devotion, betrayal, respect and dignity, the direction by Lee Daniels affords the film a beautiful aura, a respectful tone and a richly detailed culture from start to finish. It’s both funny and extremely serious; simultaneously poetic and dispassionate. Juggling these extremes cannot have been an easy task, and if you’re willing to see how it’s handled, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Rated: PG-13 (hard)

Running Time: 126 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.comhttp://www.imdb.com