SPOTLIGHT (2015) Shines Light on Dark Story

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spotlight 2015 poster

 

Movie Review:  SPOTLIGHT (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) has an ugly story to tell.

 

And it doesn’t shy away from telling it.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) takes a hard and honest look at the scandal in the Catholic Church involving abusive priests and shows how reporters at The Boston Globe broke the story in 2001.  And the most disturbing aspect of it all which is clearly expressed in the movie isn’t believe it or not the staggering number of priests in the Catholic Church who sexually abused children in Boston, and as we find out during the Globe’s investigation, around the world— this alone is horrifying, absolutely horrifying, but what’s even worse, is that the higher-ups in the Church knew about it and let it happen.

 

And the movie doesn’t stop here.  It widens its lens and examines blame in the legal system and with the journalists themselves, as the reporters realize how many times the story had been brought to their attention and yet no one did anything about it.

 

“Spotlight” refers to the investigative Boston Globe column written by a team of four reporters- Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James).  When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives from Florida to overhaul the newspaper and increase readership, he turns Spotlight onto a story about a Catholic priest accused of molesting a young boy.

 

The Spotlight team isn’t keen on the story since they feel it’s been covered before.  But Marty feels there’s more to the story and advises the Spotlight team to dig into it further.  What they find is nothing short of earth-shattering.  They soon discover evidence of two more priests in the Boston area accused of abusing children, and when they uncover evidence totaling 13 priests, they feel they have the makings of a real story.

 

They have no idea.

 

One of their sources, a psychiatrist who had been studying these cases for 30 years, tells them their number is very low.  He suspects the number should be about 90 priests in the Boston area alone.  The reporters don’t believe this estimate, but when they continue to follow the evidence and discover as many as 87 priests, they begin to fully understand the horror and the scope of the issue. They also realize that it’s not just a Boston problem.  It’s nationwide and then some.

 

Marty tells his team that their work is still not finished, that the real story here isn’t just the number of cases, but that he suspects the Catholic Church knew about these priests and did not remove them.  That’s the real story, he tells his reporters, and that’s the story that will ultimately lead to change.

 

The screenplay by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer tells a mind-boggling and horrifying story, and it tells it well.  In spite of the fact that the villain in this movie is no doubt the Catholic Church, the film really doesn’t partake in religion bashing.  It simply reveals a very sad truth- that atrocious crimes were allowed to happen by people who should have known better.  These crimes were hidden in a veil of secrecy.  The Spotlight investigation obliterated this veil, and the movie illustrates with great detail and care just how they did it.

 

SPOTLIGHT also sheds some insight into how so many people allowed this to happen.  On more than one occasion, people in the film say that the Catholic Church does a lot of good for the world and that it doesn’t need this kind of scandal.  After the events of September 11, we see news coverage of Cardinal Law speaking words of hope to the nation.  It’s easy to see why people were quick to defend the Church and give them the benefit of the doubt, and how when push came to shove, lawyers and journalists would simply turn a blind eye on the situation, never guessing just how severe the problem was.

 

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who’s instrumental in supplying key evidence to the Spotlight reporters, goes even further and blames the entire city of Boston, which he views as a closed society, that if you’re not Irish Catholic, you’re an outsider.

 

Others point out that editor Marty Baron is Jewish, and that he has an anti-Catholic agenda.  Yet, in scenes where we see Marty in action, his agenda is clear:  to keep the Boston Globe afloat.  The story of the Catholic Church scandal is just that, a story that needs to be told.

 

In terms of generating emotion, SPOTLIGHT doesn’t skimp.  There are numerous painful and sad scenes where the victims tell their stories to the reporters.

 

SPOTLIGHT boasts a brilliant ensemble cast.  Michael Keaton, while not as sensational as he was in BIRDMAN (2014) still shines as reporter “Robby” Robinson.  His cool professionalism allows him to lead his team along the dark path of the investigation, even as he learns that years ago he too had once passed up a story on the scandal, a story he barely remembers writing because it just didn’t register as important to him at the time.

 

Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the up-tempo workaholic reporter Mike Rezendes who becomes more and more emotionally charged the more he learns about the case.  Likewise, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also turn in strong performances as reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll.  They too become emotionally enraged, Matt because he has young children, and Sacha because she’s Catholic and goes to church with her very religious Nana.

 

And Liev Schreiber is near perfect as the calm, cool and efficient editor Marty Baron.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has a superior slate of supporting players.  Stanley Tucci is outstanding as attorney Mitchell Garabedian.  His take on the quirky angry embittered attorney is probably my favorite performance in the movie.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucci receives a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.

 

John Slattery from TV’s MADMEN plays Ben Bradlee Jr., one of the Globe’s editors, and he’s fabulous as well.  Other notable performances include Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, Robby’s source inside the Catholic Church who resists Robby’s efforts to get him to talk for nearly the entire movie; Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, the sketchy leader of a victim’s group who seems to have an agenda to bring down the Church yet his evidence surprisingly turns out to be accurate; and Billy Crudup as Attorney Eric Macleash who by not filing cases and agreeing to private back room deals with Church leaders helped keep the scandal under wraps for years.

 

Crudup enjoys one of the best moments in the film when he’s finally cornered by Robby and Sacha.  Robby tells him that if he doesn’t talk, the story Robby writes will be about how Eric helped keep these child molesters out of jail, at which time Eric drops the bombshell that when he first received evidence about these crimes he went to the press, delivered the materials to the Globe, and he was ignored.

 

Director Tom McCarthy’s crisp editing keeps the story in SPOTLIGHT moving quickly, and even though its subject is grim and tragic, the pace never deadens under the weight of the subject matter.  The story unfolds at a near perfect pace.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has an emotionally effective music score by Howard Shore.

 

SPOTLIGHT tells an extremely disturbing story, and it’s one that everyone needs to hear.  Yes, it tells the ugly tale of abuse inside the Catholic Church.  It also tells the inspiring story how in the face of adversity a small group of reporters stuck to their guns and broke what many thought wasn’t even a story.  But most importantly the message in SPOTLIGHT is that people need to remain vigilant, and they need to speak out against the wrongs of society.  The victims here for the most part were children in underprivileged families.  They had no one to stand up and defend them from these predator priests.  Those who should have protected them, the Church leaders, did not.  And no one else bothered to pay attention.

 

That’s the story SPOTLIGHT tells, and it tells it well.

 

It joins SICARIO (2015) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) on my short list of best movies of the year.

 

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BIRDMAN (2014) Soars

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birdman posterMovie Review:  BIRDMAN (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

The majority of movies I see are pretty straightforward.  They don’t require much thinking to figure out what’s going on.  So, when I see a movie that does require some thought, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

BIRDMAN is a thought-provoking movie that, like a masterful painting, doesn’t always give you its full meaning right away.  You have to look at it for a while, think about it, digest it.

BIRDMAN tells the story of a has-been actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) who’s trying to resurrect his career by financing and starring in a play on Broadway.  He’s also doing this to reinvent himself.  He achieved superstardom decades earlier for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of Hollywood blockbusters, and this history makes the casting of Michael Keaton in this central role all the more intriguing, as it’s a case of art imitating life, as Keaton starred in the highly successful BATMAN movies directed by Tim Burton, and over the past two decades, he’s been largely invisible from the big screen.

Riggan is haunted by visions of Birdman, as the character constantly speaks to him, telling him to forget the play and return to playing Birdman in the movies again.  It would resurrect his career, Birdman says.  But Riggan refuses to listen, and as he says more than once in the movie, he wants to be remembered for doing something important in his life, for appearing in a work of art that actually means something, not just some mindless Hollywood blockbuster.

The best part of BIRDMAN is the first two thirds of the movie, where we follow Riggan’s efforts to get his play off the ground.  He’s helped by his agent/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who does his best to keep Riggan focused on the play.  When they lose the other male actor due to an injury, they replace him with the well-respected method actor Mike (Edward Norton) who drives Riggan and the rest of the cast nuts with his quirky and antisocial behavior.  However, Riggan can’t get rid of him because he’s a name who sells tickets, and there’s no denying that he’s a helluva an actor.

Riggan is also involved in a relationship with his lead actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), while Mike is involved with the other actress in the cast, Lesley (Naomi Watts).  As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Riggan also has to deal with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who possesses a volatile personality and is trying to recover from substance abuse.

The interactions between all these characters bring this movie to life.  By far, my favorite part of BIRDMAN was watching these actors interact with one another.  The film is full of so much energy during these stage scenes, and it does a tremendous job capturing the back stage life of an actor, the fears, the toil, all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes of a Broadway play.

For me, this was the most satisfying part of BIRDMAN.  I enjoyed all the performances and loved watching Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts.

But the main character here is Riggan, and the main performer in BIRDMAN is Michael Keaton, and it’s here where the film takes its strange twists and turns, as it enters into the mind of the disturbed Riggan. See, Riggan is going through a crisis.  He wants his life to mean something.  He wants to be remembered for doing something important, but he also realizes that his life isn’t what he wants it to be.  He’s reminded of this every time he sees his daughter, because he feels like a failure as a father.  He has similar feelings about his acting career.  Has it all been for nothing?  He doesn’t want the answer to this question to be “no.”

Under incredible amounts of stress, he looks like he could have a nervous breakdown or heart attack at any moment.  As such, he’s on the verge of losing his mind throughout the story, which might explain why he has conversations with Birdman, the fictional character he played in the movies.  And, oh yeah, he also believes he possesses telekinetic powers and can move objects just by using his mind.  Oka—aay.

So, at some point when watching these things happen on screen, you have to ask yourself, are these things really happening or are they just playing themselves out in Riggan’s mind?  Reality dictates that these things aren’t true, that they can’t possibly be happening.  For example, when Riggan finds himself flying, you realize, this can’t possibly be happening, but this line of thought opens up the question, if not reality, then just what exactly is happening?

Is he dreaming?  If so, how much of the story is a dream?  Riggan is also obsessed with death and tries to commit suicide several times in the story.  Does he succeed?  Could these conversations and images be the final thoughts of a dying man?

This is what I meant when I said there’s a lot to think about in BIRDMAN.  It’s as quirky and as satisfying a movie as I’ve seen in a long while.  While I didn’t always find myself enjoying it— -it gets so bizarre near the end it was difficult to gage what was truly going on— I never stopped appreciating it.

In addition to the excellent acting by Michael Keaton and the entire cast, there’s wonderful direction by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  The film works on two levels.  The first is as a portrait of stage life for actors in a Broadway play, and Inarritu’s camerawork captures this part of the film masterfully.  The way his camera follows his characters around, the way it leads the audience through dark hallways through first person perspective, and the way he holds the camera on Emma Stone’s face in several key scenes all work towards lifting the material to even higher heights.  There is a gritty realism here that possesses the feel of a reality TV show.

What makes Inarritu’s work here even more impressive is he juxtaposes these scenes with scenes that take us into Riggan’s subconscious, and these scenes play like anything but reality.

For this second level, the story of Riggan’s struggles with his own mind and soul, Inarritu chooses to take us into the realm of fantasy, as we have scenes of Riggan flying and moving objects without touching them.  What are we actually seeing?  Riggan’s thoughts?  Dreams?  Death images?  Or could reality really be this strange?

 

While Michael Keaton and his fellow cast members might drive this one along, and while Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s direction puts it all together, it’s the script by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, and Armando Bo which provides the framework for BIRDMAN.  It’s a brilliantly realized story that intersperses its main character Riggan’s idiosyncrasies, hopes, fears, and dreams with an often hilarious and brutally honest tale of actors working on a Broadway play.  It’s Woody Allen meets Guillermo del Toro.

There’s also some insight on the power and value or lack thereof of criticism, as one of the liveliest and best scenes in the movie is a conversation between Riggan and theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who tells Riggan she’s going to destroy his theater career by writing a negative review of his play, even though she hasn’t seen it yet.  She refuses to call him an actor, speaking down to him, calling him a Hollywood celebrity who has no business being on stage. To his credit, Riggan fights back, telling Tabitha that this is his livelihood, that he has put his entire life savings into this play, and that she’s a bitter talentless person for writing a negative review before she’s even seen the play.

There’s also a scathing scene where Sam sails into her father about how he wants to be relevant but how he never will be, how he’s a “dinosaur” in an age of rapid fire modern technology that he refuses to accept.  It’s a painfully poignant father/daughter moment that probably has been shared by many parents and their children in this day and age of rapidly evolving technology that has changed the world entirely for people over the age of 40 and has made it a vastly different place from the one they remember.

On top of all this, the film also boasts a superb music score by Antonio Sanchez.  This amazing drum score will get inside your head.  It grows incredibly loud and cacophonous whenever Riggan is stressing out, and becomes an embodiment of his pain and angst.

BIRDMAN is not your typical Hollywood drama.  It’s a quirky frenetic tale of one actor’s fight to remain relevant, all the while happening during a time that for all we know he lays dying, with the events of the story simply playing out in his head.

Regardless of how you interpret it, it remains a highly satisfying film, because like the main character in its story, BIRDMAN is a movie that soars.

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