Spotlight an intelligent film about institutions and responsibility

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

The first thing you notice about Spotlight is all the greys and blues. Decidedly dreary, the lighting and colour scheme is a fitting choice since there is absolutely nothing cheerful about the subject matter. Focused on the story of the widespread sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church, the film focuses on the investigative reporters of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that broke the story in 2003.

Prior to the start of their investigation, the team is anxious about their future in the midst of a changing media landscape. From the beginning of Spotlight it’s clear that this is a movie that highlights the self-preservation of institutions not only by the Church, but by the newspaper industry as well – the Church when it comes to a monopoly on morality, and print media when it comes to relevance. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is brought in as the new editor of the Globe and quickly questions why the smattering of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has not been more thoroughly investigated. It is the sort of long-term investigative work that the Spotlight team specializes in, and it’s clear that tackling this story is one way to prove the team’s relevance to a changing audience beginning to prioritize quick news stories over in-depth reporting. The script allows room to incorporate factors like timing and proper coverage of a story, effectively demonstrating how complicated it is to do something as simple as tell the truth.

Consequently, the audience is able to feel the same frustration as Spotlight’s journalists. Victims are understandably hesitant to talk, there is resistance from high profile figures and profiteering lawyers, and maddening legalities that stand in the way of giving the team access to damning documents. Incidentally, using the challenging nature of accessing sealed documents as a key plot device effectively maintained an appropriate degree of suspense during the movie.

I say appropriately because injecting this film with high drama would have been ludicrous, and mildly inappropriate. It’s a biographical drama; a thriller it is not. Spotlight is an exploration of individual responsibility in the context of institutions. It’s exceptionally easy to condemn horrific acts after the fact, but it is desperately hard to point it out while it remains protected by the institutions whose credibility could be undermined by such exposure. These institutions, which are not just limited to churches, but schools and even the family, provide a convenient framework for dismissing unacceptable behaviour through constant reminders of the chaos that would ensue should they no longer exist to provide structure. That lack of structure is portrayed as infinitely worse than the institution’s flaws. Instead it’s seen as better to suffer in silence for the greater good, even if a great number of people are suffering.

Spotlight is not a movie that condemns religion. In fact it spends a fair amount of time examining the prominent role religion plays in the lives of the Spotlight team, all of whom were admittedly raised Catholic though they’ve largely lapsed. Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is unable to take her grandmother to church anymore once she learns more about the widespread abuse. As an audience, we witness her concern over shaking her grandmother’s faith, but beyond that we watch the Spotlight team losing a religion they didn’t know they still had. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) admits to Pfieffer that while he did stop going to church, he enjoyed it as a kid, and always thought that someday he’d want to go back – a feeling that is broken now. Instead of being a film that condemns religion it examines the difference between faith and organized religion. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer advocating for abuse victims, admits that he is Christian; he just doesn’t go to church. For him, the Church is an institution made up of men and is fleeting, but faith itself is eternal.

Garabedian’s words are one of many references to the fact that institutions are simply a collection of ideas and individuals. Throughout the movie we hear stories of families who cooperated by keeping the abuse quiet in an effort to honour the directives of the Church. At one point a cop, whose ideology, if any, should be to serve and protect, tells one of the Spotlight reporters, “Nobody wants to cuff a priest.” Finally, a system’s vulnerability to change is made clear by Garabedian who explains that it takes an outsider to come in and change things – in his case he is an Armenian while Baron is Jewish. Makes sense considering an outsider will experience more difficulty and confusion about the flimsy logic of “how things have always been”. They are less accepting of people’s reasoning that they are just doing their job, keeping their heads down, or protecting themselves. Garabedian says at one point, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

The film – if not entertaining due to its subject matter – is engaging. The script is smart, it doesn’t waste time on long-winded dialogue about guilt and shame, and it effectively conveys what we need to know about Boston’s people and culture. In one great scene, Baron is given a copy of the Catechism and told to consider it his guide to Boston. Spotlight is made up of an all-star cast that is enjoyable to watch no matter how hard the hair, makeup, and costume teams worked to make them look like burned out journalists. Spotlight is a great film, and easily worthy of its Oscar nods.

Laugh while learning about the country’s politics in My Internship in Canada

Photo credit: Eye on Canada

Odds are that if a Torontonian tells you they love politics and you try to engage them in a discussion on Canadian politics they’ll reply that they were talking about international affairs.

Funny, eh? That national and local politics is considered boring even though they’re the most relevant to our everyday lives. It’s not that nothing happens here, but with the reality TV style politics south of the border it can be difficult to appreciate the subtle dramas and idiosyncrasies of our truth North strong and free.

That said, Canada is experiencing a surge in starpower with the global recognition of our performers, a freshly branded Toronto, and our new Prime Minister who has managed to send the international media into a frenzy over his looks. But on a more humble level, we have uniquely Canadian issues that are not only important and challenging, but interesting too. The intersection of local, national, and yes, even world politics was cleverly portrayed by Canadian writer and director Philippe Falardeau in his satirical film, My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre).

Screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this past week, My Internship in Canada was one of several films featured in Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. The festival celebrates some of the best movies to come out of the country, with people all over the city coming out to the theatre on King and John to appreciate Canadian filmmaking. The movie centres on Steve Guibord (Patrick Huard) a hockey player turned Member of Parliament in Quebec with a very large riding and a chronic fear of flying. He hires an intern, a Haitian national named Souverain Pascal (Irdens Exantus), with a stunningly comprehensive knowledge of Canadian politics and history, a penchant for quoting political philosophers, and a fierce belief in the power of democratic institutions. As Souverain says during his interview, Canadian politics is all about geography and this is emphasized in the movie as Guibord drives around his riding to fulfil his obligations to constituents.

The driving force of the film is an upcoming vote in Parliament regarding whether or not Canada should go to war. Guibord, an Independent MP, unexpectedly finds himself with the tie-breaking vote. In between his wife’s insistence that he vote yes and his pacifist daughter’s reminders that he would effectively be sending her generation to war, he takes the advice of Souverain to hold consultative meetings with his constituents in order to reflect their voice in his vote. This is further complicated by land disputes between the Algonquin population protesting the logging on their land and the truckers and miners who are concerned about the availability of jobs.

It’s a story that manages to fit a lot about Canadian politics into less than two hours. Everything from Canadian geography to uproar over jobs to First Nations land rights to the international francophone community is touched upon in this film. Overall, the film leaves you eager to brush up on your French and wishing you’d paid a little more attention in high school Civics.

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival highlights Canadian films and was held at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at King Street and John Street. It was held from January 8 – 17.

Life imitates art in Gemma Bovery

“I’d rather you do drugs than talk crap.”

This is a line from a father to his son very early in Gemma Bovery. There’s nothing dysfunctional about their relationship – in fact, the family appears entirely happy. It’s an indication of the tone this movie will take: wry and unapologetic.

Our protagonist, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), delivers that hilarious line. After working in publishing in Paris, Martin moves to Normandy to pursue a better life by taking over his father’s bakery. His love for literature is taken to an extreme when an English couple by the name of Bovery moves in next door. The wife’s name is Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), an eerie similarity to Gustave Flaubert’s tragic heroine Emma Bovary from his 1856 novel Madame Bovary.

This instance of life imitating art proves to be too much for poor Martin who becomes smitten with Gemma and begins stage-directing her life from afar through mumbled asides to his dog. He becomes convinced that she is bored and in need of guidance and when Gemma begins an affair, terrified that she is headed towards the same heartbreak Madame Bovary faced. As a result, he begins the kind of ill-advised meddling that everyone who’s ever watched a movie knows is bound to end with trouble.

Martin is an endearing narrator. He has a big heart as evidenced by his genuine care for the other characters’ lives, but he veers dangerously close to “crazy old man” territory. Gemma Arterton gives a great performance as Mrs. Bovery, but is mostly presented to us the way Martin sees her which is as a bored housewife hurtling towards a tragic end and in need of saving. But as she says to Martin near the end of the film, “You don’t know me. I’m not that woman. I’m not Madame Bovary…I’m free. I’m capable of being happy”. And it’s true. We don’t really know her. Our perception of her is coloured by what Martin thinks and by extension, whatever knowledge we have of Flaubert’s Bovary. Some might say Martin takes “mansplaining” so far he essentially tells this poor woman how her life will play out based on his minimal acquaintance with her and his love of an old book.

One of the more interesting, albeit minor, characters is Martin’s wife, Valérie (Isabelle Candelier). Martin’s obsession with Gemma might have left us with a tired storyline about a jealous, bitter wife, but Valérie is self-confident and mostly embarrassed by his antics, particularly his attempts to speak with Gemma in English. Then again, it’s also clear that he has enough respect for his wife that even if the opportunity presented itself his infatuation with Gemma would never go anywhere beyond fantasy.

Gemma Bovery was screened at the Spadina Theatre this past Thursday night and the free movie event was hosted by Alliance Française de Toronto. About a minute walk from Spadina Station, Alliance Française is a place for Torontonians to participate in French learning classes and programs, not to mention watch free movies every Thursday. Admission is free and the event is first come, first serve. For those who attended last night in an effort to improve their French, Gemma Bovery was a fitting movie. A joint British-French production, the predominantly French script was punctuated by English dialogue in scenes where the English-speaking characters talked to each other. And just like Gemma who jots down new vocabulary in a notebook she carries everywhere, audience members like myself were absorbing new words and expressions all in an effort to improve our French. Life imitating art, indeed.

6 Movies About Starting Fresh

Bridget Jones’s Diary

This movie has everything you want in a story about starting over: an embarrassing moment that precipitates ambitious goal setting, a love triangle, and a ridiculous exercise montage. It also has the requisite dry humour that make British comedies such a treat. When I was younger, I thought Renee Zellweger was English. Turns out she’s from Texas.

Coming To America

After deciding it will be too difficult to find a woman who will marry him for love at home, Prince Hakim of the fictional African country Zamunda makes a dramatic move to the United States in an effort to find his future bride. As heir to the throne of Zamunda he is exceptionally wealthy but decides to work for a living in – wait for it – Queens, New York. He takes a job at McDowell’s, an obvious rip-off of McDonald’s, and falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Lisa, who is the kind of smart, independent woman he desires. It’s a hilarious chronicling of the clashing of two cultures, albeit one fictional culture.

Sunshine Cleaning

Two sisters, Rose and Norah, open a crime scene clean-up business. Norah is a bit of a bum and Rose is her older sister raising a son on her own. She opens the business in order to earn enough money to send her troubled son to private school, and own something of her own. There is a particularly gross moment where Norah falls on a bloody mattress, but all in a day’s work, right?

Eat Pray Love

People will never stop rolling their eyes at this story, but if you’d like something easy to watch this is the film for you. Elizabeth Gilbert divorces her husband, and then embarks on a year-long journey of self-discovery with stops in Italy, India, and Indonesia, countries that all conveniently start with “I”. If you’re gonna watch it for anything watch it for the gorge fest that is her stop off in Italy. I’m not evolved enough to get much out of the meditation stuff later in the film, but I’ve watched the first third of the movie with all the pizza and the pasta half a dozen times. On the other hand, Javier Bardem shows up in the last third of the movie so just make an evening out of it and watch the entire flick.

Sleeping With The Enemy

This is another Julia Roberts movie. Granted, it’s quite different. Laura lives a seemingly perfect and privileged life with her husband Martin. Little do outsiders know, the big house and the fancy lifestyle are distractions from Martin’s abuse. After learning how to swim, Laura fakes her own drowning and moves to a new town where she gets a job, meets someone new, and starts over. But things take a terrifying turn when Martin begins to suspect that Laura may still be alive after all.

The Bourne Identity

I’m cheating a little bit with this film. Technically, Jason Bourne didn’t start fresh in order to change his life but rather lost his memory during a mission gone wrong. After escaping an attempt on his life, he wakes up unsure of his name or story but in possession of remarkable fighting skills and the ability to speak multiple languages. Over the course of the film he attempts to regain his memory and piece together his life.

An Unhelpful Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Up until yesterday, I thought Hayden Christensen played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films. Most people’s reactions have suggested that this is embarrassing, and I should keep it to myself.

I know next to nothing about Star Wars, and if a friend hadn’t invited me to tag along, I would have gone another twenty years without the franchise entering my orbit (no pun intended). But watch it I did.

First of all let me say thank God Oscar Isaac was in the movie, especially from the start. If he hadn’t been around, I would not have paid attention to what was going on, and I would have left only with confirmation that Natalie Portman is NOT in this movie. (While I don’t know much about Star Wars, I do remember reading somewhere that Portman skipped her Star Wars premiere to study for a final while at Harvard, so there’s that). God, I love me some Oscar Isaac, and that reminds me: I have to get around to watching that movie he did with Jessica Chastain. Did you know they went to Juilliard together? Chastain is such a lucky woman, but she’s so sweet and lovely you can’t resent her for any of her success and happiness. But I digress. What were we talking about? Yes: Star Wars.

The movie made over $200 million at the box office this past weekend, and that number is only expected to grow. From what I can tell the fandom hasn’t burned the cyber house to the ground, so I’m assuming that means the film has pleased fans overall. The Force Awakens is the start of the third trilogy in the chronologically tipsy Star Wars franchise. Star Wars premiered in 1977 and was the first in a trilogy chronicling the adventures of Luke Skywalker and some other relevant people. The trilogy released between 1999 and 2005 was a prequel trilogy, if you will, explaining how Luke Skywalker and those other relevant people became, you know, relevant. This latest trilogy (with sequels two and three set to come out in 2017 and 2019, respectively) is a continuation of the first three films, detailing what happens after the events of Return of the Jedi. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

Throughout the movie I had a lot of questions. I was especially curious about how they decided which characters would have British accents and which characters would have American accents, but maybe the fact that I’m curious about such things is a sign of my boring, earthly ways.

If you don’t care about Star Wars, but you’re willing to try something new, this movie is fine so long as you have snacks. If you have an appreciation of fight sequences and music that swells whenever the camera zooms out to show you the dangerous cliff the characters are on, you’ll have a grand time. It’s a nice chance to string together some meaning from all the Star Wars references you didn’t know you knew (Han Solo? Obi-Wan Kenobi? Chewbacca aka bae?) If you’re a Star Wars fan, well you’re going to watch it anyway in order to form an opinion on it – hell, you’ve probably already seen it – so you don’t need me to tell you what to do.

 Suggested search queries (if you actually care):

“george lucas”

“harrison ford young”

“carrie fisher young”

“james earl jones darth vader”

“I am your father”

 

Staying in on Sunday with a Denzel double feature

Sundays are a toss-up. For some it’s the day of rest. For others it’s a day to get things done. And then there is that fickle group of people who fluctuate between the two. Whether you deliberately planned to relax today, or all your friends flopped on brunch plans at the last minute, we’ve got you covered with a Denzel double feature to keep you comfortably occupied until you decide to face the world.

One of my greatest regrets as a millennial is that I wasn’t an adult when Denzel Washington was in his prime. Though the Academy Award winner is by no means in decline, he is certainly taking filmmaking pretty easy these days having firmly established himself as one of the most formidable and versatile actors of the last few decades. For this Sunday’s Denzel double feature, we have two great movies from different points in the actor’s career – fifteen years to be exact – which just goes to show how consistently awesome Denzel has been.

Malcolm X (1992)

One of the most conflicting and inspiring individuals of the American Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X’s life story is still a source of fascination and debate for Americans and the world. Born Malcolm Little in the 1920s, he was placed into foster care as a child after his father was killed and his mother was institutionalized. His life is undoubtedly famous for his activism and his involvement with the Nation of Islam. But what makes his story compelling is the number of dramatic changes his direction took and the transformation of his world views, most notably his reassessment of the role whites played in the advancement of black people.

Washington does a spectacular job portraying this divisive figure in the film based on the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Many believe his work in Malcolm X should have won him the 1992 Oscar for Best Actor – he was simply nominated. In any case, it is lauded as one of his best performances and definitely worth a watch (or re-watch!)

NOTABLE MOMENT: The hospital scene. After a police chief witnesses Malcolm’s influence dispersing an angry crowd, he remarks, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

American Gangster (2007)

American Gangster is based on a true story, detailing the parallel lives of two very different people: Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a drug kingpin, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the detective determined to take down his operation. Both characters, contrary to their respective roles, are seeming anomalies in their environments. Lucas is a drug kingpin who refuses to use any substances and insists on owning his own business by not being beholden to any other gang. Roberts is a detective determined to stay honest in a cop culture where corruption runs rampant and the number one rule is don’t be a rat. It’s a terrific film that lets us into the minds and lives of two interesting and complex characters played brilliantly by both Washington and Crowe.

While it’s difficult to dislike any character played by the charismatic Washington, it is hard for the audience to decide what to make of Lucas. He cares about and looks after his family and community, but the drug that makes him a multi-millionaire, Blue Magic, is effectively ruining the lives of many. He is both protector and destroyer of his community and this has been the case with many famous drug lords (see: Pablo Escobar).

NOTABLE MOMENT: When a fight breaks out during a party at Lucas’ house and his alpaca rug gets stained with blood. “Don’t rub on that. You blot that,” he angrily instructs the person cleaning the rug. “You understand? That’s alpaca. That’s $25,000 alpaca. You blot that shit. You don’t rub on it. Put the club soda on there.”

 

Subjects become revolutionaries in The Hunger Games finale

In recent years, production companies have opted to divide the final instalment of blockbuster franchises into two parts. To hit extra plot points from the source material, sure, but most likely to get additional bang for their buck. The benefits of this is the ability to hit the ground running in the second half, and this was certainly a good choice for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. After the spoiled hunger games of the last few movies, the increased oppression and fear tactics from the Capitol, and the regular acts of defiance from the people of Panem, revolution is definitely in the air. For Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the long thought dead members of District 13 led by Julianne Moore’s President Alma Coin, it is simply a matter of harnessing that energy into a rebellion that can overtake the Capitol.

In the midst of all this action is the love triangle that refuses to go away. Katniss is stuck between two loves: the kind forged by knowing someone your entire life, and the kind that only develops after surviving repeated episodes of extreme danger in another’s company. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that while Katniss feels guilty for her interrupted relationship with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) – something that would have certainly blossomed into a future together had it not been for her participation in the Hunger Games – she is in love with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). His imprisonment and torture in the Capitol over the course of Mockingjay Part 1 was torment for Katniss who was willing to jeopardize opportunities to overthrow President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his tyrannical government in exchange for saving Peeta’s life. By the end of the last film, Peeta is rescued, but he is sadly the victim of specialized torture techniques that have reduced him to a ghost of his former self, programmed to feel mortally threatened by one person: Katniss.

Katniss & Gale
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) with love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Source: YouTube courtesy of Lionsgate

By the beginning of Part 2, Peeta has started to show progress due to the rehabilitative efforts of the doctors in District 13. But he retains the false memories planted in his mind by the Capitol and poses a continuous threat to Katniss’ safety. While he is unquestionably terrified of the tricks his mind is playing on him, he still manages to recall his genuine feelings for Katniss. It is hard to condemn Peeta for his neediness particularly when he is in such a vulnerable mental state, but is difficult not to be reminded of how annoying he is in his interactions with Katniss, interactions that carry a whiff of artificial self-sacrifice. In the background is Gale, much too proud to wheedle his way into Katniss’ heart, but plainly hurting. Trying to figure out which boy Katniss really loves and ultimately chooses turns into a tiresome subplot. To be fair, it is only natural to explore feelings about life and love in the face of possible death – not to mention the marketing value of the Team Peeta/Team Gale rivalry for the franchise – but the love triangle comes across as trivial in comparison to everything else that’s going on. As an audience, you can’t help but think: let’s get to the action. Viva la revolución!

Then again, if we were going to spend any time on relationships, it would have been nice to see more of Primrose and Katniss together. Theirs is one of the more moving storylines in the series. Primrose Everdeen’s development as a character over the course of the movies is lovely to watch and would have been even lovelier to explore if only there’d been more of it. No one needs reminding that it was Katniss’ love for Primose that set in motion the events leading to this revolution, and it is clear that they have both benefited the other by bringing out their best qualities and nurturing their hidden ones. Closed and distant Katniss is capable of displaying warmth towards the sister she is fiercely protective of, and Primrose grows up into a strong, capable, and independent woman thanks to her role model Katniss who bravely took her place as tribute in the first film. Their interactions in this final film are reduced to hugs and a quick dance during Finnick and Annie’s touching wedding scene. In previous movies, we only saw her when she was providing quick words of advice or encouragement for Katniss. Not having read the books, I can’t speak to whether this relationship was better written in the series, but the adaptation’s portrayal was left wanting.

Haymitch
Mentor and past Games victor Haymitch Abernathy played by Woody Harrelson. Source: YouTube courtesy of Lionsgate

As far as finales go, we largely got what we expected. There was much bloodshed and some difficult losses as we said goodbye to a few Hunger Games darlings that will send fans reeling back into the dark place they retreated to after the deaths of Rue and Cinna. As expected, Jennifer Lawrence carried the film tremendously with her performance as Katniss Everdeen, but it was also the performances of the actors in key supporting roles that ensured the film didn’t become a two hour hopscotch from one fight scene to the next. Jena Malone was intriguing to watch as Johanna Mason who manages to retain her spark even after all her suffering in the Capitol. Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair is also a treat to watch. And of course, who can forget Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch? From the start, he has been the worn down but good at heart mentor to Katniss. He manages to make both Katniss and the audience feel safe in his company.

Mockingjay 2 is also notable for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unfinished portrayal of Plutarch Heavensbee, Head Gamemaker and revolutionary. Hoffman died in February 2014 before he could finish filming his scenes. In lieu of using CGI to complete his part – the method employed by the makers of Furious 7 after the death of one of its stars, Paul Walker – one of his important scenes with Katniss was replaced by a conversation with Haymitch who reads a letter sent by Plutarch. Jennifer Lawrence described this as a fitting alternative saying that “to try to fake a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance would have been catastrophic” and that “this was the best way to get around such a horrible thing.”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 took in over 46 million dollars at the box office on its opening day.