Spotlight: A Powerful and Moving Truth

Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, The Visitor) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Fringe) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, and is about six Boston Globe reporters who uncover a decades long cover up of priests who assaulted children all over the city

The Boston Globe & Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, The Visitor) who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Fringe) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, and is about six Boston Globe reporters who uncover a massive cover up of priests who assaulted children all over the city. As docudrama, Spotlight delivers a powerful and moving truth, that the church, and to a huge degree the city of Boston, swept facts under a rug to allowed pedophiles to continue to prey on their young victims.

The story follows the  journalists who discover that the Catholic Church, via Cardinal Law and the clergy’s  system itself,  actively sanctioned the cover-ups and repeatedly moved priests who were pedophiles and sexual predators. As the team of investigative reporters work to find answers and question new sources, the world carries on and a city’s officials continue to look the other way.

In many ways this is an old fashioned sort of film, harking back to the days of All the President’s Men, Erin Brockovich or even, with a bit of a stretch, Silkwood.  Granted, only the Woodward, Bernstein film is about reporters uncovering a very inconvenient truth, but all of the films deal with coverups by people who should have known better.  Out of the lot, Spotlight deals with something that both offends and dismays; an institution whose figureheads are the Pope and St Mary that condoned the molestation of children.

The title of the film refers to an investigative branch of The Boston Globe who work tirelessly to learn the truth behind allegations that priests were sexually abusing children throughout Boston and that the church, rather than punish those who transgressed, were just moving them on to another diocese. The list ultimately contained 87 names of priests who were sexual predators that the church, and the city, protected.

As a result of their investigative efforts the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage. Just as the film is evocative of other “whistle blower” films, or films about coverups, political and otherwise, the story also feels like a “throw-back” to proper journalism and those investigative reporters who worked so tirelessly to learn the truth. It could, in fact, serve as a training template for new journalists.

Spotlight is not shot in a manner to cause excitement, the hues of color in each scene feel like a blend of Boston coffee house and harsh office lighting.  The ambiance of the sets, which feel as real as any reporters cubicle desk back in the old days, lends a sense of reality to the journey these investigative journalists underwent to finally put all the pieces together.

The acting is grim, real and underplayed.  There are scenes of raw emotion, I defy anyone watching not to become emotional during Michael Rezendes’ outburst later in the film. Mark Ruffalo, as Rezendes, brings a deep seated intensity to his depiction of the “head” reporter on the case.  The Hulk actor has proven more often than not that he is destined to play more than a great green “Avenger” with anger management problems.

Michael Keaton now seems to have returned to the screen in earnest.  After his prolonged absence and brilliant return in the Oscar winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014, Keaton proves with his depiction of Spotlight head Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson that his chops have not dulled in his absence.

Powerful, and moving performances were given by all. Even Liev Schreiber, who played the  smaller, but relatively important role of The Boston Globe’s “new boss” gives an impressively nuanced picture of the Jewish executive editor who tasks his investigative branch to take on the city of Boston and the Catholic Church.

There are a number of familiar faces in this “biopic” docudrama. All are beyond excellent, from Rachel McAdams’s role of the reporter whose Nan took her to church every Sunday to family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) who becomes upset when he realizes that two of these pedophile priests live in his neighborhood.

Spotlight works on a few levels, initially it shows, via the mundane nature  of  fact finding and “door knocking” by the team,  just how sources should be found, vetted and questioned.  “Old fashioned newspaper work” feet on the ground, research, and solid investigation are the order of the day.  The editors, all the ones “in the loop,” continually question their reporters on their status and waver between dropping the case and continuing.

Another factor, not mentioned in the film, but one that anyone in the journalistic field will be aware of is that this all took place not long after the “crucification” of investigative journalist Gary Webb. (The film Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner tells about this travesty which took place in the mid 1990s.)

This story has long reaching ramifications for the church.  The story of sexual predators as priests and their victims coming forward could have been buried when 9/11 occurred. (The twin towers were attacked during the investigation.)  In all likelihood the entire sickening episode would have received more attention had 9/11 not taken place.

Spotlight is a re-creation of events that took place in the early 2000s. While in some instances it feels a little like a newspaper version of Dragnet, it lacks the harsh delivery of the hit television show about Joe Friday. Instead it gives us a sober look at the less pleasant side of reporting and shows how investigative work should be done.

McCarthy allows us to see the pain, doubt and indecision behind the actions taken by the investigative team and all the people they interact with.  There may be elements of the “coverup” genre (which arguably should be a genre all its own) but the message is simple:

Any organization, despite its intent, is capable of protecting its own.  

Just like the police force closes ranks when a brother (or sister) in blue commits an offense, so too the Catholic Church closed ranks to protect its pedophiles.

Spotlight is easily one of the top ten films of 2015  that should be seen by all. Not just a message film, or even biopic per se, it is powerful indictment of the old fashioned virtues of the press that is missing in this day and age of Internet news and citizen journalists.

A 4 out of 5 star film that you will feel compelled to watch at least twice, if not more.

Need for Speed (2014): Aaron Paul’s Video Game Film

Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall in Need for Speed
The 2014 film Need for Speed could be seen as a film made to cash in on Aaron Paul’s Breaking Bad popularity or an effort to capitalize on the video game of the same name. While the movie did make a decent profit, production costs were $66 million and the worldwide box office came to $203 million, critics panned the movie almost universally. The film’s biggest crime seems to have been, apart from starring television actor Paul, not being 2 Fast 2 Furious or part of that long running franchise.

Directed by Scott Waugh, stunt coordinator extraordinaire turned director, and starring Aaron Paul, Brit actors Imogen Poots and Dominic Cooper (Cooper is currently working steadily as Tony Stark’s daddy in Agent Carter on ABC) along with Mr Robot‘s Rami Malik and pre – 50 Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson, the movie is an action film based, very loosely on the video game and features fast cars, a little humor, and some thrills and spills along the way. Michael Keaton has a splendid cameo as Monarch, the former Formula 1 racer with a dickey heart who sponsors the De Leon race.

Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a racer who yearns to win the De Leon and whose small cadre of friends stick by him and help out in his late father’s business. Cooper is Dino Brewster, professional race car driver, rich guy and all around heel. The two do not get on, mainly because Dino stole Tobey’s girl, Anita (Johnson) whose little brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) is Marshall’s best friend. After taking a contract to modify a car for Brewster, a Mustang that is later sold to Julia Maddon’s boss for a cool $2.7 million, Dino challenges Tobey and Pete to a race and the heel kills Pete with a pit maneuver during the race.

Tobey is framed for the crime and put away for manslaughter. When he gets out, Marshall vies to get Monarch’s attention and get an invite to the De Leon where he wants to beat Brewster once and for all. Maddon joins Tobey as they drive across country with a bounty placed on their heads by Dino who wants to stop Marshall from entering the race.

That Aaron Paul has got some enormous acting chops goes without question. Just the fact that he held his own against master craftsman Bryan Cranston for the whole of Breaking Bad is proof positive that the man can act. Critics who had their long knives poised to sink into Aaron’s performance in this video game action racer were doing so because he dared to leave the small box. Had they paid attention, these “experts” would have noticed that Paul gave his usual meticulous performance.

Granted the storyline itself had some pretty glaring plot holes and Poots manages to look younger each time she is on screen, and there is not nearly enough Michael Keaton, but…

Malik shows just how he got the part of Elliot in Mr Robot, Poots showed just why she should be in more films and Cooper made a impressively nasty villain. The Brit actor showed just how to make the bad guy a truly nasty bit of stuff and that, in turn, helped to make Paul’s hero look even better.

Waugh did a good job in his second feature length film as director and the film looks great. Everything felt right and while not as glossy or OTT as the 2F2F franchise films, the stunts delivered the requisite amount of oohs and ahhs and made all the scenes crackle with excitement.

Certainly Need for Speed feels a little like a red headed step child to the “Furious” saga but overall, the film delivers. This is a 4 out of 5 star film, earning an extra star for the casting of Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper. It is Streaming on Showtime at the moment and worth watching despite its rather long runtime of over two hours.

RoboCop (2014) Decent Remake Sans the Quirky Humor

Poster for RoboCop
Perhaps the most noticeable thing missing in the RoboCop 2014 remake, directed by José Padilha (Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within) are the quirky commercials, “I’d buy that for a dollar,” and the sunscreen that gives the user skin cancer are just a few of the adverts that made the first 1987 version, the Peter Weller starring Paul Verhoeven directed tongue in cheek thriller so beloved by its fans, that little bit special.

RoboCop the remake had a good amount of big names attached to it. Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, who would go on to give a brilliant performance in the oscar winning film Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in the same year. The original did not rely so much on names to sell the film and Weller was shot to prominence as a result of his portrayal of Alex P. Murphy.

In RoboCop, Keaton plays the Ronnie Cox character and Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman is the Peter Weller in this updating of the cult classic film. In this telling of the man/robot crime fighter the female partner, played by Nancy Allen in the original, has been replaced by Michael Kenneth Williams and Murphy’s wife and child play a huge part in the film, too much so.

Added to the mix are Patrick Garrow as Kurtwood Smith’s replacement, and what a shallow replacement he turned out to be, and Jackie Earle Haley as a new, and totally arsehole-ish character not in the 1987 film. While the film entertains, it lack the humor and the pathos of the first one. Murphy feels different and does not have the same impact that Weller’s RoboCop had.

Having said that, the film is good. One still feels sorry for Kinnaman’s Murphy but from the very beginning when he wakes up as the “tin-man” this Alex is much more aware. In the first film, Murphy is in shock for a long time and it is only his former partner’s persistence that enables him to regain his humanity.

I personally missed the over-the-top villainy of Kurtwood Smith’s character. Clarence J. Boddicker is an icon as perhaps the most despicable bad guy in cinema history. Smith, who later went on to become the beloved Red in That ’70s Show, would most assuredly been a hard act to follow so it makes a certain amount of sense that the filmmakers did not even bother to try.

Gone too is the outright hostility and mistrust by the other Detroit police officers. Still, despite the differences, I enjoyed the film and found Samuel L. Jackson’s Pat Novak amusing. The overall storyline was satisfying enough and the only real complaint, apart from the missing “I’d buy that for a dollar,” was the arcade feel to the shoot outs.

RoboCop 2014 is available on US Netflix right now and definitely worth a look. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Points lost for lack of quirky humor and no Nancy Allen or Peter Weller cameos…

‘Birdman’ Michael Keaton: Selling Raymond Carver and Seedy Surrealism

‘Birdman’ Michael Keaton: Selling Raymond Carver and Seedy Surrealism

In Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton gives a performance that simultaneously works as a selling vehicle for the late short-story author Raymond Carver and conveys a certain surrealism against a backdrop of seedy reality. The film, directed as well as co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who turned his back on a lucrative career in a film franchise about a feathered superhero. The underlying theme in the film deals with Riggan’s self obsession and his mental state is shown by the Birdman character talking to the actor when they are alone.