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TIFF 2015: SPOTLIGHT Review

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Spotlight

Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Thomas McCarthy

Stars: Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Len Cariou, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Cyril Creighton, Michael Keaton, Neal Huff, Paul Guilfoyle, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci

Released: January 29th, 2016 (UK)

Spotlight is a fine example of what perfect execution looks like. From the outset we are given the broad scope of the issue the film looks to tackle and from there we dive right into Boston, 2001 to meet the key players in the game the film will be playing. There are no hiccups, no time for second guesses and nothing narratively to take away from the main objective. Spotlight is a prime piece of meat with all of the fat trimmed and only the juiciest parts left so as to make the whole experience one of pure, concentrated excellence. That said, it is certainly an interesting case in a couple of areas. The first being that director Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, Win Win), who is generally regarded as both a solid writer and filmmaker, was coming off the worst reviewed film of his career a year ago with The Cobbler and so to bounce back so ferociously with this effortlessly intelligent thriller makes it clear there is something more to be said for the process of filmmaking. The other, is that this reviewer in particular is a Catholic. This is an influential piece of information considering Spotlight is about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into the Church’s sexual abuse scandal that gave cause for people everywhere (Catholic or not) to take a second look at one of our most respected and trusted institutions. Because the film plays it straight down the middle, with no time for subplots or unnecessary qualms no one party is ever viewed unfairly, but rather the irrefutable facts presented allow the audience to make up their own minds.

Based around the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into the cover-up of the child molestation scandal by the local Archdiocese in Boston, the film specifically shines light on the newspaper’s “Spotlight” team. The reporters chosen for this four-man operation are investigative journalists, they delve deep into stories, most of the time for a year or more before anything goes to publication. In the summer of 2001, after new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) took over The Globe, the team soon began work on a story that seemed beyond impossible. Baron wanted to know why the outlet hadn’t run any major stories on the church abuse scandals and the court hearings surrounding those allegations. “Spotlight” editor Walter V. Robinson (Michael Keaton) jumps at the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the situation and so he and his team, including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), begin to dig. Uncovering a decades-long facade at the highest levels of not only Boston’s Catholic establishment, but their influence on the government as well as the newspaper itself (53% of their readership is Catholic) come to reveal not only the lack of attention from the police and media on the subject, but the fact lawyers have essentially been profiting from keeping these secrets under wraps for the Archdiocese. With more than enough evidence and truly fascinating insights into the reasonings behind these abuse cases Robinson and his team go after the system, intent on shaking loose the bad apples from the top down.

What is both the most encouraging and fascinating aspects of Spotlight though are the way in which it handles this massive story. This is both in the sense of the story the film is telling and the one the newspaper is tackling. Never does the audience feel out of the loop and never does the story feel too big to manage. Instead, McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) boil the main points of their compelling story into sharp exchanges between multiple characters, all of which we come to immediately understand what their function is as well as learn enough about them to know who they are. There is no time for deep dives into the personal lives of each of these reporters or how they might personally be affected through this investigation and so McCarthy and Singer allow the investigation itself to serve a dual role of being the puzzle we watch being put together and the details that fill in the holes of who our characters are beyond it. We learn that Rezendes is separated from his wife most likely because of his workaholic ways, that Pfeiffer is having something of a personal crisis given her grandmother goes to mass three or four times a week and that Carroll has the most typical family situation with this investigation even leaking into his Presbyterian life. There is little backstory to Keaton’s Robinson besides his strictly-business attitude, but his approach and willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this story show us the type of man this guy is.

Concerning the aforementioned conversations that expertly convey the necessary points of the story in order for it to remain coherent, the writing not only puts the necessary pieces of information into motion, but it brings up layers upon layers of interesting ideas and captivating insights that make this a film that is better than it even had to be. Robinson and his team are at first interested in uncovering the truth of how many priests have been accused of acting out sexually with children, tracking both them and a number of their victims down, but as the story continues to grow to reveal that lawyers have essentially been turning these child abuse cases into a business of their own and that the clergy have been keeping these cases secret for as long as they have the mission takes on a much broader focus. Baron, Robinson’s editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Robinson himself change their approach and shift the emphasis to the institution as a whole, recognizing that even the top officials were aware of such going-ons and did little more than move a priest from parish to parish when they acted out or were accused of anything inappropriate.

Beyond the factors that would come to provide the basis of this breaking news story it is the smaller, more nuanced aspects of the film that really make this deep dive into what causes these occurrences insanely interesting. Growing up Catholic, but never coming face to face with any of the issues that became the subject of this worldwide news and speculation I was forced to wonder why this seemed to be so common with something I was so familiar with and yet couldn’t have felt further from home. While there are many victims that are presented in the film to great effect, Michael Cyril Creighton and Neal Huff are most notable, it is the facets they bring to the surface about their circumstances that prove to be all the more engrossing. The way Huff’s character, Phil Saviano, tells of his encounter with a priest when he was young is one of not just physical abuse, but spiritual. That these predators not only steal your innocence, but your ability to believe or have faith is heartbreaking on a completely different level. Not one that is greater necessarily, but one that is intangible and unlikely to ever be regained. That the priests intentionally seek out these fractured kids from low-income and broken homes so that they might find greater favor and therefore a more willing mentality is disgusting. Pair this with the fact most of these priests went after young boys not because they were gay, but because boys are less likely to talk (especially in Boston) make it all the more diabolical. The film slyly shows the effects on these victims as they grow older, many of them turning to the drink, needles or jumping off bridges as a way to escape the memories. No matter the converging interests of parent companies or the possibility of alienating a large portion of their readership these investigators follow every lead to get the story right for these victims.

Furthermore, concerning the vow of celibacy that priests are required to take and how this largely doesn’t work in the church’s favor Spotlight also shines it’s light on the fact these occurrences could be categorized as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon. Are priests emotionally stunted? The film asks, but per it’s style doesn’t provide an answer. It wants you to consider these things and not just dismiss them. That the church knows and understands the fact 50% of their clergy are not celibate (though most are having sex with other adults) and instead of doing something about it create a culture of secrecy is beyond telling. That a piece of information such as 6% of all priests molest children (from a metric standpoint) is presented only as a way to propel the film’s story forward rather than as a way of commending itself for making this fact more known makes it feel all the more substantial and important without ever being exploitative. This is the special power that Spotlightpossesses. It is a quiet film about a very loud topic. It is a hectic and weighty story that is delivered in an efficiently paced and supremely organized package. It understands there is no one side to a story and allows different perspectives even from within the “Spotlight” team to be recognized giving the story a balanced and equal tone rather than a vindictive one. “Why do you want to do this story? Because you’re another lapsed Catholic mad at the church?” Slattery’s Bradlee asks Ruffalo’s Rezendes at one point. “No,” he replies, “it’s a good story.”

Speaking to the character moments in the film, Ruffalo is the only one who ever comes close to getting what is traditionally referred to as a “grand-standing” moment. Even still, it is a rather subdued moment that is by all means necessary to let the impact of what this team is uncovering really hit you. Ruffalo is spectacular in this role, getting what are no doubt the ticks and details of Rezendes’ personality down while displaying a persona equal to that of a seasoned reporter. McAdams is also rather superb as Pfeiffer as she is the link that allows The Globe to convey a policy of sympathy, honesty and openness with the victims that is necessary to get the story it’s necessary sources. While Pfeiffer takes care of this side of things Rezendes is assigned the task of getting inside Mitchell Garabedian’s (Stanley Tucci) head. Garabedian is a lawyer who consistently takes on these church victims cases, while repeatedly being shut down by the likes of attorney’s like Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) who continue to make out of court settlements for the church (though MacLeish would eventually come to sue the archdiocese for the release of thousands of pages of secret files on abusive priests, breaking the story wide open). As Garabedian, Tucci steals nearly every scene he appears in. Garabedian is our voice of the governing body that presides over how the church was able to do things such as remove legal documents from the courthouse. With his assistance and Tucci’s inescapable charisma McCarthy and Singer are able to break down the complexities of the case and the legal system and deliver a film that makes an outcome we’re all familiar with all the more impactful.

This may be the single greatest achievement of the film from a storytelling point. That the script is able to take a story so familiar, so hotly debated, one that has been in the news for well over a decade now and make it feel as fresh and as revelatory as it does is beyond impressive. Considering this is one of those stories where it is easy to see the big picture and not think about the small details, the individual incidents and the dynamics of what each allegation includes though, there is really no surprise that Spotlight turns out to be as fascinating and as sharp as it is. Coupled with it’s breathless script are the fine performances all-around. Despite many of the actors having little more to do than read lines of information upon information they do it with a striking ease that always carries more weight than whatever the actual words being spoken might be. Despite the film covering uncomfortable territory and hitting on several hot-button issues, Spotlight is a movie I could watch again and again simply due to the endlessly engaging way it presents it’s facts, the understated aspects that come along with them and the cunning way in which it all comes together. Spotlight is the best film I’ve seen this year.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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