REVIEW: “Spotlight”

SPOTLIGHT POSTER

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.

Spotlight1

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.

spotlight2

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 clichĂ©s. 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.

spotlight3

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.

spotlight4

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

REVIEW: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

BUTLER POSTER

Lee Daniels’ 2013 drama “The Butler” is very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a White House butler for 34 years before retiring in 1986. During those years Allen served under 7 different presidents and became a beloved member of the White House staff. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is built on these handful of facts but goes on to invent its own story which is sometimes too overt and preachy but at other times intensely powerful.

In the film Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the main character. His life is quite different from the real life of Eugene Allen. Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation and endures plenty of horrors. But a series of fortunate events sees him eventually being hired as a butler to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. During his years at the White House huge nation-changing events occur which not only effect the presidents he serves but his family at home.

Butler2

Speaking of his family, Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong go heavy on the dramatic family dynamics. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is a boozing shrill whose attitude can change in a second. His oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is a disgruntled young man who would rather be proactive in the fight for equality. His youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the fun-loving baby of the family who enlists to go to Vietnam. They are all built for high drama and we get plenty of it. Some of it really works on an emotional level. Other times it feels contrived and utterly predictable.

The film seeks to create a historical profile chronicling race relations in the United States. Much of this is done surrounding the Louis character. He ends up going to a college down south where he partakes in various action groups. This leads to protests, arrests, and even encounters with the Klu Klux Klan. There are moments where the tension is incredibly well developed and the discomfort of what you’re watching is powerful. But there are also a few things that I couldn’t quite shake. For example Louis happens to be present at so many of the events that made headlines from the Alabama bus firebombing to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His presence certainly helps out the story but feels more or less like plot devices.

THE BUTLER

But it’s Cecil who is the real attraction and Whitaker is amazing. He is the real heart of this picture and watching him age as the film moves forward makes you feel as if you’ve been on a journey with him. It is hard to gauge at times what Daniels thinks of the character but I thought he was compelling. I also loved the work of David Oyelowo. The 37-year old actor actually first appears as a teenager and is very convincing. But he’s even better as his character springboards into some of the film’s more powerful scenes. The supporting cast is strong and features Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave just to name a few. Then there is the unusual assortment of actors who play the presidents. The strongest performances come James Marsden who plays Kennedy and Alan Rickman who plays Reagan. Perhaps the weakest is Robin Williams who is oddly cast as Eisenhower.

Even with the film’s ambition and deeply moving moments, “The Butler” still comes across as a big Hollywood piece. That’s not always bad. There are several big moments that work very, very well. But the further I got into the movie the more it felt scripted. Unlike the more raw and organic “12 Years a Slave”, this film seems to be more dependent on plot gimmicks and melodrama. It also can’t help but get a tad political specifically in the final third of the film. Still, I can’t downplay the great work by the cast led by Forest Whitaker. He’s simply brilliant. I also really enjoyed the smarter and more focused scenes which can be both inspirational and challenging. I just wish we had been given a few more of them.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“DEFIANCE” – 4 STARS

Edward Zwick’s 2008 World War 2 movie “Defiance” is an intriguing look at the Nazi’s invasion and ultimate occupation of Belarus. As with every other German occupation, the brutality was rampant and the death tolls were high. The Nazi’s stormed through the countryside, destroying villages, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and shipping hundreds of thousands more to forced labor camps. As expected the Jewish population was hit particularly hard. This is the harsh and troubled setting for Zwick’s film.

“Defiance” is based on the true story of the four Bielski brothers. After their parents are murdered by Nazi sympathizers, the brothers flee to the forest to avoid the German atrocities which are spreading from village to village. While there, they come across fellow Jews who are also seeking refuge. While hesitant at first, the brothers agree to help protect them. In order to survive, they begin making trips into occupied villages where they swipe food and supplies and are assisted by a few sympathetic farmers. The Bielskis also see their numbers grow as more and more Jews came to be under their protection. In a span of over two difficult years, it’s said that over 1,200 Jews were saved by the Bielski’s efforts.

Daniel Craig plays Tuvia, the oldest brother who finds himself the leader of their forest community. At first his perspective is controlled by his desire for revenge. But over time as he connects more with the people under his care, he begins to see things differently. His tough, burly brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) has a different approach which at times causes friction between the two. Craig is an excellent actor and he is very good here. I’ve always liked Liev Schreiber and have felt that due to some of his past roles he is often time underappreciated. He’s also really good here and shares some fantastic scenes with Craig. I also enjoyed Jaime Bell as their younger brother Asael and Mia Wasikowska as young Jewish girl he becomes involved with. The movie also features strong supporting work from Alexa Davalos, Mark Feuerstein, and Allan Corduner.

“Defiance” is a pretty by-the-books production that plays it pretty safe. But that’s not to say its a bad film. In fact, I really liked the movie despite it’s formulaic approach. At it’s core it’s a truly extraordinary and inspiring story with roots in reality that gives it even more punch. Zwick makes it easy to care about his characters and their plight but he also shows some of the Bielski’s more questionable actions. The complexity of their situation goes beyond mere survival in the forest. For example we see the impact of the Soviet Partisans on everything from the Bielski’s forest camp to the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. As the camp population grows, internal fighting and power struggles pop up as supplies begin to run short. There are several other interesting dynamics that Zwick explores well.

Some have argued that the movie’s desire for a broader audience resulted in the inclusion of content that just didn’t belong. In some countries, people took issue with the film’s portrayal of the brothers. They felt they were made to look more heroic than they were and their shady dealings were underplayed. Some accused it of rewriting history while others griped about its use of other languages instead of Belarusian. It’s hard for me take issue with the movie for any of these issues. As with many historical movies, things were added for dramatic effect. Also, I never felt that it was dealing with the material in an irresponsible or half-hearted way. There may be some issues with the overall narrative, but as a whole the movie really worked for me.

“Defiance” is an underappreciated and often times overlooked World War 2 picture. It doesn’t take many risks and it never strays too far from the more conventional survival movie path. But it’s a very well made film that captures the look and tone of the period. It tells a story that many may be unfamiliar with and even with the historical objections of some, I found it to be a testament to the will to live possessed by this group of Jewish refugees. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber are fantastic and their performances drive the film. “Defiance” is an underrated film that may not be the best World War 2 movie but it’s certainly worth a watch.