REVIEW: “Spotlight”

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I’ve always been a sucker for movies with journalism at their center. I like all kinds of them – the character-driven dramas and especially the more focused procedurals. For years Hollywood has enjoyed using journalism as a means of telling numerous kinds of stories. Many have been fantastic films while others…not so much.

The latest journalism picture sets us down in the world of investigative reporting. It is Thomas McCarthy’s “Spotlight” – an absorbing newsroom drama about a Boston Globe investigative team’s discovery of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The story goes even further by following the team’s uncovering of an elaborate and disgusting cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese.

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The film is inspired by the true story of the Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ unit who in 2001 exposed the abuse and cover-up eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for their work. McCarthy also co-wrote the script which notably doesn’t feature a true lead performance. This serves the story well. “Spotlight” is a full-on ensemble picture built around several key characters and represented by some of the best performances of the year.

The ever-entertaining Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson who heads the Globe’s four person Spotlight team. His team consists of the fervent, high-strung Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), the tireless Ohio transplant Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and the seasoned Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). It’s a tight-knit and semi-autonomous group who determine their own investigations and are given all the time and resources needed.

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That appears to change when, amid potential company cuts, the Globe brings in a Boston outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Feeling there is an important story to be told, the new boss immediately pulls Spotlight off their current project and has them investigate alleged child abuse among local priests. Their trail winds back several years implicating more priests and revealing more victims.

“Spotlight” is a painstaking procedural more focused on credible detail than big, showy moments. There is no pomp or pageantry. McCarthy is far more interested in examining the journalistic process than standard issue newsroom clichés. Everything he presents is done so with the utmost realism. You truly get a sense that you are watching an investigative process in motion. It may be the energy of the newsroom (much of which was shot in the Boston Globe offices) or something as simple as digging through old news clippings, making phone calls,  or examining old records.

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But there is an incredible balance within the film. It is a journalism procedural but there is also the serious and unsettling story we witness being uncovered. “Spotlight” handles this prickly subject deftly and earnestly. It pulls no punches while at the same time respectfully representing the victims. Even in these moments the movie avoids the temptation to go big. It maintains a consistent level of restraint both from the actors and the director.

And not enough can be said about the performances. Keaton and Ruffalo are flawlessly in tune with their characters. Liev Schreiber may be the biggest surprise delivering a clever minimalist performance. John Slattery even dials it back as the paper’s deputy editor. And Stanley Tucci is fabulous as an attorney on the wrong side of the church due to his unsuccessful crusade against clerical molesters. Tucci is an actor known to go big, but even he is more concerned about serving the story than his character. It’s something the entire cast shares.

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Ironically the film is titled “Spotlight” yet a spotlight is something no one involved seeks. Whether you’re talking about the director or a cast member, everyone seems more interested in the story being told. That chemistry allows for the film to center its focus on smart, meticulous storytelling. McCarthy’s film is subtly thrilling and it flows at such an invigorating pace. Better yet it doesn’t hold our hand or insinuate we need every narrative beat explained for us. And in the end there is no chest pounding or lofty hero statuses. Just a stinging indictment that reaches beyond the church. As one character says “There is enough blame to go around”.

The Spotlight team ran a series of revealing articles that had a profound impact throughout Boston and beyond. It was true journalism at its purest during what could be called the last great age of the newspapers. “Spotlight” the movie is a worthy tribute to the important work done by that team. It also happens to be one of the best films of 2015 and easily one of the best films about journalism itself.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

“FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS” – 3 1/2 STARS

If you looked at a list of movies made about World War 2 it would probably stun you. Hundreds of films have been made worldwide that have examined and portrayed the global conflict from a variety of different perspectives. Many have focused on the combat, particular battles, or even well-known officers. Others have looked at different aspects of the war including the horrors of the Holocaust and the resistance movements that rose against the Nazi aggression. In 2006 director Clint Eastwood released “Flags of our Fathers” and it’s sequel/companion piece “Letters from Iwo Jima”. It was an ambitious undertaking as both films attempted to look at the brutal and bloody battle of Iwo Jima, one through the eyes of the Americans and the other through the eyes of the Japanese.

“Flags of Our Fathers” was adapted from the James Bradley and Ron Powers book of the same name. It’s story centers around the six soldiers who raised the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. The flag raising was captured on camera on February 23, 1945 by Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Rosenthal and is considered by many to be one of recognized photographs from the war. The story is told through a series of flashbacks that are at first tough to navigate though. Eastwood sets up the battle of Iwo Jima and introduces us to the main characters early on. We see the landing, scenes involving the intense and rugged fighting, and the eventual flag raising.

But it’s all being told through the flashbacks of three of the soldiers who raised the flag, Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), Private Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Private Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).  After the photograph is released in the states, the three are called back to participate in a war bond tour to raise much-needed money for the war effort. But what’s being promoted isn’t exactly how things happened and the soldiers have a hard time reconciling the importance of the war bond campaign with their painful memories of the bloody battle they took part in.

Staying with Eastwood’s film can be a bit challenging and I found it at times be a little clunky in its transitions from the stateside scenes to the battlefield flashbacks. But that’s not saying the story is bad. It packs a lot of emotion and sincerity and Eastwood clearly wants to tell the stories of not just the soldiers at war but the people back home as well. He nicely portrays the battlefield camaraderie that goes well beyond the trenches and he also puts great effort and detail into presenting the United States and it’s mood during that pressing time. Everything looks and feels just right. The problem is that the attempt at clever storytelling does more to hurt the flow of the movie than to help it.

I was also a little mixed on Eastwood’s battle scenes. The visuals are at their best during the wide shots of the battlefield or the Naval fleet around the island. There are also a few really cool scenes involving airplanes attacking Japanese hillside fortifications. But the ground combat seemed to be missing something. There certainly are moments of intensity but as a whole things looked plain and with the exception of a few standout scenes, the combat feels a bit repetitive. I’ve thought that maybe I’ve seen too many war films and maybe the combat in movies doesn’t pack the same punch that it used to. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Eastwood is trying to create the same atmosphere that those soldiers faced back in 1945 but it’s the actors that relay that more than the visuals.

The performances are strong and the big cast of quality actors add a lot to the film. Phillippe is really good both on the battlefield and during that stateside scenes. I also enjoyed Beach’s performance as the Native American soldier who fighting more than just one war. There are several other good performances from the likes of John Slattery, Barry Pepper, and Neal McDonough.

“Flags of Our Fathers” ends with a poignant reminder of just how much this war effected our country and our people. In many ways it’s the final 15 or 20 minutes that helped bring everything together for me. I was really mixed during several parts of the film but after seeing it through, I get a better idea of what Eastwood is conveying. It’s a story of patriotism, sacrifice, and brotherhood. But it’s also a film about desperation, vulnerability, and exploitation. It does become a little melodramatic but never to the point of drowning the film. Instead the bigger problems centered around the movie’s structure and it’s so-so combat scenes. But I still find “Flags of Our Fathers” as an easy movie to recommend and it certainly looks at the war with sincerity and care.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) – 2 STARS

I think it would be fair to say that “The Adjustment Bureau” was a fairly big disappointment for me. The trailers and TV spots for the movie really sold it as something it’s not so I found myself expecting a little more than I actually got. I also felt the movie was going for an almost Hitchcockian feel. I mean look at the above movie poster that was released for it. Even it looks fresh out of Alfred Hitchcock’s creative mind. Unfortunately nothing in the film feels as creative as the poster and ultimately it’s a letdown.

In “The Adjustment Bureau” Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young hotshot Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, who loses his bid for office due to his questionable maturity and impulsive behavior. While rehearsing his concession speech he bumps into and immediately is attracted to the mysterious but beautiful Elise (Emily Blunt). The problem is they aren’t meant to be together, at least according to “the plan”. Enter The Adjustment Bureau, a group of stiff, ominous men in hats who intervene to make sure this sprouting relationship never takes place and that “The Chairman’s” plan stays on course.

“The Adjustment Bureau” could be called a romantic sci-fi thriller. Sadly the film’s romance has no believable foundation. While Damon and Blunt have good on-screen chemistry, it was hard for me to believe in their romance. Director George Nolfi never allows the relationship to grow, instead choosing to springboard their undying love out of a few short hours together. I also felt the sci-fi element was pretty underwhelming.  There’s nothing that stands out about it. Instead we get doors that transport you from one part of the city to another (which is cool the first 10 times they are used) and magical hats that serve as keys (yes, I just actually said magical hats that serve as keys). The film also lacks any real sense of urgency that’s found in better thrillers. I never felt any intensity nor did I ever feel that there was a steady or consistent buildup.

Most of these problems are the results of a slow, lumbering script. The film spends too much time in the first act examining David’s political ambitions instead of developing the romance which is the supposed centerpiece of the entire picture. Then we get numerous scenes of tedious dialogue between David and Bureau members, meant to inform the audience but instead ends up deflating any momentum the film may gain. As more is revealed the sillier things get and by the time we get to the rather flat and uneventful ending, I wasn’t that interested.

As I mentioned, Damon and Blunt have good chemistry and both give earnest performances and could have pulled this film off with better material. I enjoyed seeing Anthony Mackie in a bigger role but he seems out-of-place in this picture. “Mad Men’s” John Slattery and  the great Terence Stamp also appear but neither are given the chance to do much that’s memorable, again a result of the sub-par material.

If you watched the trailer for “The Adjustment Bureau” you would be expecting an action-packed, intellectual thriller. Instead you get nothing close to that. This is supposed to be a film that promotes thoughts of free will versus fate but honestly, I was never engaged enough to be moved intellectually. The film is well made, uses some great Brooklyn locations, and has some nice performances especially from it’s two leads. But the inconsistent script, lackluster ending, and flat-out silliness brings down what could have been a fun movie.