Spotlight – Tom McCarthy (2015)

I only recently saw Spotlight, despite it having been out for a few months now, after it was named best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. I must admit I had ignored it because its genre – let’s call it the “institutional procedural” – is not my favorite, and there were other films that, in the end of the year goodie glut, were more pressing. And I will admit I’m glad I saw it; it is assuredly not the best film of the year, but it is a very solid, engrossing film that revitalizes a genre that has languished recently. What is an institutional procedural, you may (or may not) ask? Like a police procedural, which follows the particulars of a crime investigation, being more attentive to the process of discovery and prosecution than the drama of the crime itself (which often is accomplished either before the movie begins or happens in the opening minutes), an institutional procedural is concerned with the inner workings of an organization, usually set to a particular task, revealing (hopefully) some concealed truth about how the organization functions, successfully or not, and perhaps how in touch it is with the reality that it serves. In the past several years, the focus of this genre has been the national security apparatus, an exemplar being Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. That film, while nominally following Jessica Chastain’s character, is less concerned with her story than with the story of how the various intelligence agencies worked to capture Osama bin Laden. Past similar films, though, have focused on the lobbying industry (Thank You for Smoking) or the newspaper industry (All the President’s Men, perhaps setting the standard for the genre). Given such examples, we could claim that the institutional procedural is really about watching how power works, examining it forensically – that is, from multiple points of view. Spotlight, then, at the second level, is not so much about how a newspaper functions, but about how power was wielded by the Catholic Church, and the fact that this power often seemed invisible simply because it was an everyday fact of life in Boston. This is not to say that the populace was willfully blind to the power the Church wielded; they gave the Church the power it had. Rather, they were blind to it because it was a given feature of the cultural landscape, and of their corporate identity as Bostonians. The paradigm they inhabited prevented them from seeing it, because it was a natural feature of the terrain. This fact does not absolve them of responsibility in any way, of course, and one of the prime accomplishments of the film is that it portrays the gnawing realization, across multiple characters, of how they have been complicit in horrible injustice simply by claiming a common identity.

This is all putting the cart before the horse a bit, however. The film, for those unaware, concerns the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting that uncovered the widespread child abuse perpetrated by clergy of the Catholic Church over the course of many years. This initial case is, indeed, what broke the worldwide abuse scandal wide open. The film, and the investigation, begins with the arrival of an outsider – recently hired managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an outsider both in origins (he hails from New York, by way of Miami) and culture (he is a Jewish bachelor in a land of Catholic family men). Baron picks up on a columnist’s recent piece about allegations by a “crank” lawyer (an excellent Stanley Tucci) of abuse against local clergy, and asks why an investigative piece hasn’t been written on the subject. The Globe has such an investigative arm, the “Spotlight” team, headed by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton). Everyone tries to convince Baron he’s wasting his time, but the editor persists, even going so far as to sue the Church to unseal court documents they have fought to keep closed. The Spotlight team starts its work, and the rest of the movie is the step by step account of their work of disclosure, and of the snowballing implications. Baron continues to urge them on, correctly guiding them away from points of easy closure, pressuring them to go further, and dig deeper – the real story, he asserts, is the institutional cover-up, the abuse of power that reaches ever higher, and not the revelations centering on how many “bad apples” are within the Church. I could go into more detail, but in the case of this film, the plot is the meaning of the work, so instead I’d just say see it if you are interested. The film works well, first of all, because the script is incredibly intelligent, deliberate, and well researched. Indeed, it is so “objective” and procedural that we get almost no insight into the lives of the reporters, as we might have in a more typical film, and little to no scenes of outrage or emotionalism. While this is commendable, and lends the film its realism, it works almost too well, as the end denies us the catharsis of a city being shaken to its core; instead, the climax feels like a letdown, an anti-climax. While this is probably quite true to the experience of those reporting the case, who could not help but feel deflated, or wrung out, with no possible response living up to the months of sweat that went into their work, for us viewers, a little more comeuppance would have been nice, and not gratuitous. (It almost feels rushed in the end). Another factor that gives the film its power is the excellent, understated work of all the actors. While Mark Ruffalo, usually a favorite, is a little too gamy in his portrayal of a Boston “character,” the rest of the cast excels, particularly Schreiber, who balances resolve with a gentle, knowing humanity, the humility of an outsider who wants results, but does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings to get them. He really should get a supporting actor Oscar for his work here, it is so modulated and human. Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, in fact pretty much the entire cast, come off as everyday, conflicted citizens. As a portrait of the collective coming to consciousness of guilt and blindness, the film is fascinating. It is not especially technically exciting, but has no particular reason to be. Few movies have done so well to help us understand how the public is served in the workings of a particular institution. At the same time, this is still a fiction, despite the reality of its topic. As the institutional documentaries of Frederick Wiseman (which are, of course, fictions in their own way) show us, institutions, being little but intricate webs of human interaction, produce aberrant, or unexpected, results as a rule. The real story of Spotlight, like most procedurals, takes place before the movie begins – it is the years of willed ignorance and complacency that allowed the abuses of power to remain unchecked for generations.

Four stars out of five

Black Mass – Scott Cooper (2015)

Black Mass should have been titled Grey Slab – the movie descends like a winter migraine and sits on you until, final credits rolling, you escape from the theater into (hopefully) a brighter reality. Nominally the story of how Whitey Bulger made use of FBI chumps to further his criminal career, the film is, aside from the Boston accents, about as generic and bland a mobster film as you could imagine. Yes, we are in sub, sub, sub Goodfellas territory here (I am not stuttering, unlike our dearly departed Spider). There are plenty of slow motion wiseguys walking sequences. There’s the requisite attempt, also anemic as can be, to marry period pop to the scenes of wiseguys walking. There are the wiseguys themselves, so bloated and misshapen they look like beefsteaks shot full of Botox, their cheeks stuffed so full of cotton balls that even Don Corleone would, embarrassed, shoo them away, refusing to extend his hand in friendship. And the proceedings themselves are rote, predictable, and downright tedious. Like the Brutalist architecture of lovely downtown ’70s Boston that plays such a large part in the scenery of the film, this script was not written, I do believe, but simply marked up on a page in large chunks of brown, gunmetal, and worn, pockmarked slate. “Honor,” “loyalty,” and other such terms are dropped almost as frequently, and meaninglessly, as the f-bombs, and the more coherent exchanges reach high points like “Remember the old neighborhood Jimmy?” “Yeah.” “Those were the days when loyalty meant something.” “Fucking right.” How such a deeply dull derivative attracted the talents of Misters Depp, Cumberbatch, et al. remains a mystery. For Depp, I can see the appeal, I suppose, in that it allows him to play against type, or, at least, to try out big screen psychopathy for the first time. Looking like Gollum who has been sampling too much Spice (not the bodega variety, but the finer Arrakeen stuff), but unfortunately unable to fold time, he contents himself with folding his hands around the throats of hookers and housewives, all while enfolding pathetic FBI dupe John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) into his tasteless souffle of prurience. Overall, he does a credible job of disappearing into the part, such as it is. Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s younger brother, the “most powerful politician in the state” (eat that, Gov), does a good job with the accent, and with acting smug and powerful, although why we care is a mystery. Really, though, the best acting resides with the supporting players, often strutting their moment on the stage simply so we can revel in the snuffing out. Peter Sarsgaard, as pitiful jai-alai hanger on and sometime psycho Brian Halloran, and Juno Temple, as a young prostie done in by her association with step-dad meatwad Steve (Rory Cochrane – yuck), all but steal the show. (Which is, admittedly, not hard given the competition). And Kevin Bacon, looking, unlike the rest of the cast, lean and free of lumps, at least seems to have eaten his Wheaties and has some energy about him. What else? Well, there is the cinematography, again derivative and dull. Autumn and winter in Boston, awash in hideous ’70s fashions (that is, drapes and flares of brown, black, and, you guessed it, grey non-breathable fibers) and more Chevy Novas than you can shake a pimp cane at need not be uninterestingly shot, need it? Sadly, though, Black Mass follows many similar generic crap-outs in using very shallow depth of field for all but the widest shots, meaning that we are often looking at close-ups of hideous men with a thousand (or, rather, three or four) points of light floating behind them. Perhaps the cinematographer is in hiding, if not from the Mob, then from his guild, and so shot everything with a telephoto from across the street? The score, by the recently ubiquitous Junkie XL, who did a fine job for Mad Max: Fury Road, in keeping with the aesthetic, delivers more lead, the music a lulling, lugubrious nonentity. Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. Is there not any point of light here, you ask (aside from the unfocused floating variety already discussed)? Well, not really. What little interest exists in the film lies in the relationship of Whitey to the FBI, and the desire to see Connolly, who is very weaselly indeed, get his (which he does). Otherwise, this is one of those movies that, within five minutes of the (also lackluster) opening credits, you wish were already over. Take two Excedrin, spend the rest of the day lying in curtained, twilight repose, and sleep off the hangover.

One star out of five

Dope – Rick Famuyiwa (2015)

Dope has garnered many comparisons to 1983’s Risky Business. The comparison is apt insofar as both films revolve around college-bound teens who, generally being straight shooters, want to live it up and taste some of the wilds of adulthood before heading off to school, and who get caught up in more excitement than they bargained for. Dope also has elements that throw back to Kid ‘n Play’s features from the early 1990s, as well as the Friday series of drug comedies. The film concerns Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a trio of nerds who are obsessed with the hip hop culture of the 1990s. They watch old tapes of Yo! MTV Raps, are ardent collectors and defenders of the era’s music, and they dress in homage to the decade (Malcolm sports a hi-top fade too). They are intelligent, good students, and misfits, as besides their obsession with the past and geeky ways, Diggy is a lesbian, and Jib is of indeterminate ethnicity in this largely African-American neighborhood. The three live in the Bottoms, a tough section of Inglewood, where they have to continually dodge thugs at school who want to steal their stuff (mostly shoes) and drug dealers on the street, who want to take their bikes. One day, Malcolm happens to talk to and somewhat befriend one of the dealers, who asks him to be a romantic courier to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) the neighborhood hottie who is studying for her GED so she can go to college. Malcolm of course develops a crush on Nakia, and offers to help her study for her GED, in the hopes that she’ll go with him to the prom. The drug dealer, Dom (A$ap Rocky), invites Malcolm and his crew to a party, and the three go, despite being under-aged and drug free, mostly to further Malcolm’s romantic designs on Nakia. The party, of course, is where the plot really picks up, as everything goes haywire – Dom is in the middle of a drug deal when gun-wielding robbers try to boost his weight, and in the midst of the mayhem, he secrets the large quantity of ecstasy into Malcolm’s backpack (unbeknownst to him). Discovering the drugs, and a handgun, the next day at school, Malcolm at first panics, then tries his best to get the drugs back to their intended source without getting killed, or arrested, in the meantime. After much hustling around and avoiding various rival drug dealers who also want to get their hands on the stash, Malcolm is directed to pay a visit to the big boss, who also happens to be the local magnate of a chain of payday loan storefronts and the man Malcolm is supposed to have his Harvard application interview with. This man, Councilman Blackmon (Rick Fox), is a pillar of the community, but runs a boys club that is a front for his drug dealing activities. Blackmon has no desire for the drugs, he simply wants the cash that Dom would have generated from them, so he tasks Malcolm with converting the drugs into money himself, as the best possible credential for his placement within the Ivy League. Being a nerd, Malcolm decides to make use of technology to aid him, rather than deal on the streets, and enlists the help of his “friend” Will (Blake Anderson), who helps them establish a listing on a dark web drug site and sell the drugs for Bitcoins. To cut to the chase, he gets it all done, avoids being killed or arrested, and, to an extent, wins the heart of the girl, all while various more and less serious hi-jinks ensue.

The film doesn’t have quite the atmosphere or “walk on the wild side” tension that Risky Business does, for a couple of reasons. One is that Risky Business is about a fish out of water, a preppie white kid entering a world of sex and larceny that is quite foreign to his everyday experience. Dope is about a black kid from a tough neighborhood who, although a straight arrow, is quite familiar with the world he is entering into – in a way, it is more about his ingenuity and ability to play a variety of roles, rather than about adapting to various shocking yet arousing situations. Formal elements make the stakes feel lower too. Malcolm’s drug dealing, thanks to the magic of technology, feels distant and light weight, far from the street or danger, and is accorded a quite small parcel of screen time. The website goes live, the drugs move, the end. There are one or two shots of the crew using the chemistry lab to cut the stuff up, but that’s about it in terms of the hands-on portrayal of dirty deed doings. There are also simply fewer moments of threat than in Risky Business. In that film, the adults are absent because of a vacation – in Dope, the adults are usually absent, due to economic necessity or social contingencies. Which gets us to the main difference between the two films: race (duh). The differences between Risky Business and Dope provide a portrait of the differences between white and black America. For Tom Cruise, one wrong move would bring down a carefully constructed edifice of expectation and responsibility, destroying a life that would have no reason, except for perverse inclination, to fail. For Malcolm, the stakes are lower – not for his own care for his future, but for society’s. His father is absent, his mother is working and barely present, and, given his neighborhood and skin color, nobody expects that much from him, so his dilemma takes on the form of a fork in the road of existence. One way leads to Harvard, the other to prison, but oftentimes the roads overlap and cross, and how Malcolm navigates this split matters for him personally more than it does for anyone else. The film does a good job of playing up this doubleness (also reflected in the multiple meanings of the title), and making it clear that life for Malcolm, a bright, charming kid with promise, matters much less to society than it should. There are times it lays bare this hypocrisy in a way that is almost didactic, as at the end, when Malcolm, his problems solved, writes (and performs for the camera) an admissions essay that explicitly addresses the double nature of expectation that America places on its youth, depending on the color of their skin. The end of the film also smartly leaves us in suspense as to Malcolm’s success – we see a large envelope arrive from Harvard, we see an ambivalent reaction shot from Malcolm, and the film ends. Did he get in or not? Malcolm’s essay makes the point that, if he were white, we wouldn’t have to ask this question. By not answering the question and satisfying the audience, Famuyiwa reinforces the point – nothing in Malcolm’s world is ever a given in the way it would be for a white man and, yes, even in our supposedly post-racial society, we all know that Malcolm can do all the right things and still lose out big time. What complicates this view is that he doesn’t do all the “right” things, because he can’t – he does what he has to, in a world where there are no right answers, and where doing the “right” thing will potentially penalize him as much as doing the “wrong” one. The portrayal of Councilman Blackmon is thus not cynical, but plays up how the mindless praise we as a society heap upon the “entrepreneurial spirit” is a lie; both the Councilman and Malcolm are doing what America has told them to do (that is, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps), but because they have done it within the world they have access to, and with the materials of that world, they have to, at the least, live a double existence that denies part of their identity. The true denial comes from a society that has attempted to put success out of reach for them a priori, by making the world they live in, and the paths out of it, all illegal. The film does a great job of showing this reality without being overtly political, and we feel for Malcolm and the way his life is twisted and confined by the lies we, who live in another world, tell ourselves about who we are. The proceedings, especially in the second half of the film, have the rushed, sketchy quality that much exposition has these days. The cast is fresh-faced and very appealing, though, and there is much that is funny and enjoyable about the movie, especially for anyone who remembers, and is perhaps nostalgic for, the 1990s. All the same, the second half plays out as expected, and by the end, is a bit rote and boring. We do need more films like this being made; films which do not play into the lies we like to tell ourselves, or which pretend that magical, shiny technology has somehow solved the problems of racial and economic justice that exist within our society. We need more films about what it is like to be black, or outside of any social guarantee. It is sad that such films are rare, and Dope serves as a reminder of how many films cravenly congratulate and coddle their audiences on having a politically correct attitude which amounts to having “solved” problems simply by refusing to acknowledge them.

Three stars out of five

Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik (2012)

I happened across this one on Netflix, and decided to take a chance – mostly because I’m a Jim Thompson obsessive, and have not yet had the time to dip into the work of George V. Higgins, who is often mentioned in the same breath. Perhaps this would be a shortcut to figuring out if his stuff was worth reading. Well, the film started out very promisingly, with a great title sequence and strong audio/visual interplay. The two main characters (for the first half hour or so) are also appealing – scruffy, real, very scummy, but somehow charismatic. The plot is nothing special, the usual crime film boilerplate. Our two seeming protagonists, Frankie and Russell, are contracted by Johnny Amato (who might as well be Johnny Sack in the witness protection program) to knock over an illegitimate poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie has already robbed his own game once, and barely got away with it, so Johnny figures if it happens again, suspicion will fall on Markie. That’s pretty much it. The robbery goes down, and then some unknown conglomerate of semi-legit higher-ups, fronted by Richard Jenkins, brings in hit men to take out our low-life friends. Well, it would be hit-men, but one of them, Dylan, played in a super-fleeting appearance by Sam Shepard, is too sick to handle the work, so it falls to Brad Pitt. He’s the real protagonist of the film, if we can say there is one, as after the initial robbery, our friendly scumbags fall by the wayside and the movie becomes a roundelay of criminals speaking bland dialogue, punctuated by over the top digital bloodshed.

There’s a lot wrong with this film. It’s like a retirement home for fake gangsters. There’s Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, the aforementioned Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), and I swear I saw a fat, nonspeaking Anthony LaPaglia in the robbery sequence (IMDB did not bear this out, however). It’s also a home for gangster movie cliches that should have been retired long ago. There’s the requisite slow motion violence. There’s the linking of action and violence to pop music. There’s the worn out theme of the gangster as the more honest reflection of American values, especially in comparison to legitimate businessmen. It feels like sub-par Goodfellas, especially in the slow motion sequences of violence, executed herein with the help of much digital augmentation, which sadly works to drop the impact to near zero. (Poor Ray Liotta’s death has him put through the grinder to the point that a crash test dummy would blush – or laugh, as I did). The musical pairings are all over the place temporally, from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the choices are so obvious they cause one to wince. Furthermore, the director decided to highlight the overarching theme of “gangsterism reflecting the realities of life in America” by setting the film during the 2008 election, and using long sections of political rhetoric as ambiance for the soundtrack. Yes, every hood in this universe listens to NPR and frequents bars with Hank Paulson on CNN. The last sequence even has Mr. Pitt spouting direct commentary on an Obama speech. Puhleeze. We got the point by the end of the title sequence, in which it was done best (formally speaking). The acting in the smaller roles is good, and Brad Pitt is pretty good too, but the rest of the cast is tired. Richard Jenkins, representing a weak sauce crime conglomerate, is annoying (although I suppose his character is supposed to be), as is James Gandolfini, who is retreading Tony Soprano and made me wish, as I did with Tony, that somebody would just shoot him already. Yes, it’s a rogues gallery of the weaselly, the whiny, and the lame. Perhaps worth viewing for the gritty setting, and for a little dark humor, but after the first half hour it gets dull fast.

One and a half stars out of five

A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (2014)

I’ll admit it: I dislike Jessica Chastain. Like most prejudices, there is no very good reason behind this one. She’s not a terribly versatile actress – and she never struck me as a sincere one either. (The tabloids have made some small fodder about her actual age, which she’s been coy about; this bothers me not a whit, as actresses need to be cagey given the crap they have to deal with to find work. All the same, playing a teenage orphan at age 31, as she did in Jolene, which “introduced” her to a wider viewing public, is pushing it, given that she looks close to her age). Her role in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life summed up her range: attractive in a porcelain kind of way, competent enough, but not much there there. No heat or depth, and “warm” and “caring” in that aloof way that fails to charm or convince. Her subsequent work in Zero Dark Thirty and, to a lesser extent, Interstellar, ostensibly gritty roles, did nothing to modify my view. A lot of strident striding around, being “tough” in a cardboard kind of way which also somehow verged on chewing the scenery. It is with some relief that I can thus report that her turn in A Most Violent Year, in the role of a Brooklyn mafioso’s streetwise daughter (scary to contemplate, I know) actually comes off with some subtlety. The accent is a bit dodgy, but her performance is, dare I say it, convincing, and even a little bit sexy. Her part, while well written, is somewhat underwritten too – or, at least, not the narrative driver that we expect. Many things about the film are unexpected, though.

What’s this movie about? I had no idea. It looked like a gangster movie, and the little I’d read didn’t dissuade me from that evaluation, except to add that the film was slow and had no plot. Okay, so what? (I like it better already, probably). In reality, this is a drama about the dog eat dog world of the heating oil business circa 1981 New York. Yes, this probably accounts for the mystique surrounding the promotion of the film. We keep expecting it to be a gangster movie, or at least, for heating oil to meet up with Chastain’s Dad in a back alley to seal the deal. No dice. Oscar Isaac, looking like the love child of Al Pacino and Armand Assante, plays Abel Morales, one of the larger players in said industry, on the verge of making it to the big leagues – he’s just put down his life savings on an oil import terminal, and now has thirty days to clear the money to own it outright, or lose his deposit and the property. The film is basically a portrait of those thirty days, and of his quest to secure the funds against the machinations of his competition (and the District Attorney). Chandor does not play this out the way you might think, however – little overt “suspense” or action, just time passing and bad news piling up. This is not a flaw, though, for the low-key portrait is plenty compelling and fits with the larger purpose of this tale. Morales, in some ways a false echo of Pacino in Godfather III, is set on playing it straight, doing things in an above-board way, and not solving violence with violence. The backstories to all the characters are alluded to, but never fully fleshed out (again, all to the good, at least in my mind). We get the feeling that he owes his business opportunity to his father-in-law, and that, since then, he has worked to differentiate himself from that path. Working against him, in smallish ways, are his wife, who instinctually reverts to the family way of solving problems, and his lawyer, played by an excellent Albert Brooks, who we come to understand is also Dad-in-law vestigial. The film keys us to expect that, given the continual road blocks thrown up to Abel’s plans, eventually he will turn to bad Daddy for help, and this will be his downfall. If not that, we think perhaps he will reveal his true colors, and the film does develop some tension along the lines of “how far can a good man be pushed?” And also: “is this a good man in a bad position, or a bad man trying to go good who, unable to change his ways, will pay for denying his true nature?” Without giving anything away, I will say that the film answers those questions without satisfying any expectations. More than anything, this is a film about how little distance there often is between being a businessman and being a thug; or rather, that being in business often means doing things the wrong way, grinding people down, and acting like a mafioso, because that’s the nature of making money, and that the firewalls society sets up to supposedly prevent this from happening are indeed disingenuous, obfuscations that allow us to pretend “civilized” behavior and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. As a portrait of life in (an admittedly shadier than average) business, and of New York in the early 1980s, it is extremely well done, always compelling and interesting without ever feeling trite or falling into generic expectations (as it is not a genre film after all). The ending, while a bit contrived and expected, is symbolic of the whole enterprise, and of Morales’s untenable position. On the whole a very satisfying, unexpected pleasure.

Three and a half stars out of five