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Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Spotlight

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and MArk Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.

The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.

Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.

This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’

In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.

I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.

I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?

On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all.  Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.

Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.

The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.

I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.

As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.

Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.

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Oscars 2012 Best Picture Nominee: Les Miserables

Les Miserables

How many of you are familiar with the Broadway musical Les Miserables? Lots of you, I’m sure. Yes, Les Miserables was the one Broadway musical phenomenon from the 1980’s that could even have Andrew Lloyd Webber looking over his shoulder. When you heard that the musical finally would have a film adaptation, how many of you looked forward to seeing it? I’m sure a lot of you have including me, but does it deliver to movie crowds and especially to fans of the musical?

One thing I’ve learned about hit musicals being adapted to the big screen is that it’s a very tricky job. The whole filmmaking crew has the job of dealing with the fact the fans of the musicals want something that won’t disappoint them. The scriptwriter has the duty to make a script that includes the musical’s most popular songs mixed with the emotions of the characters in each scene. The director has the duty of making the songs, the emotions, the setting and the theme fit into a 2 1/2 hour long movie. The actors have the duty of delivering a performance that’s both believable and entertaining in both their acting and their singing, especially when a camera is filming them up close and it will be seen by all.

For the record, I saw the stage musical when it came to Canada in 1995. Most of the numbers possessed the same energy, spirit and emotion that was present in the stage musical. The only number I thought was lacking the same spirit was “Master Of The House”. That was the one number that had the least spirit and flavor that was present in the musical. Also Gavroche didn’t make that grand of an introduction. I know he does so in the stage musical but he just didn’t seem to grab you attention at the beginning the way he does on stage.

One thing I have to say about the film version is that it gave me a better understanding of what the musical is all about. Back when I first saw it on stage, I didn’t fully understand it. Now that I’m older and my attention span is better, I can understand it’s about redemption and the triumph and trials of justice in a world devoid of morals and justice. It was entertaining to watch on stage but it was through seeing it on film that it’s like a story from a Dickens novel where a man makes a promise to a dying woman and keeps his promise despite his trials and rivals until the end.

We should remember that there are many loyalists of the musical Les Miserables who hold the stage production dearly to themselves. The musical version of the Victor Hugo novel began in Paris in 1980 by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boulbil and became a musical on Broadway in 1985 thanks to the translations of Herbert Kretzmer. If you remember Broadway back in 1985 there were two types of musicals: those of Andrew Lloyd Webber that go on to charm the word and every other musical. Ever since it’s been released it’s become a huge Broadway phenomenon that could even rival some of Webber’s most legendary musicals. Every city it touched, it drew huge crowds. So you can imagine that when the film version of the musical came out, there would be a lot of pressure placed by fans of the musicals. It’s like that with any musical where loyal fans expect it done excellently if not perfect. There have been many musical adaptations that have been hits and misses in terms of comparing it with the stage play. Chicago and Hairspray are two examples where the film version hit. Rent and Nine are two examples of the film version missing. I myself have seen the stage production. I personally was impressed by it and I don’t see anything that would let anyone loyal to the stage musical down. I feel Tom Hooper and the producers did a very good job with it. I talked earlier about the energy of most of the songs still there. That had to be the best quality in terms of keeping it true.

There has been some flack from Tweeters and some fans of the musical about the use of actors in the movie. You’ve heard the disses: “Actors trying to sing.” I do give them partial credit because many actors had to learn singing for the sake of getting acting jobs in musicals. In fact John Travolta even made it clear after Saturday Night Fever that if you wanted to get acting work in New York, you had to sing, dance and act. Don’t forget that if there were singers in the film, there would be disses like: ‘singers trying to act.’

Anyways getting to the nitty gritty, one can notice those that are able to sing their roles gracefully from the actors just trying to sing. Russell Crowe gave his best effort as Javert but often came across as too forced and sometimes uncomfortable at what he was doing. Eddie Redmayne also didn’t look too comfortable performing as Marius. That’s the risk when you take when you insist on singing your parts instead of ADR. Hugh Jackman did an excellent job not just in singing and acting as Jean Valjean but also for being consistent in having the biggest role in the musical. Anne Hathaway as Fantine was however the best at combining both singing and acting in their role and coming across the most gracefully. In fact it was her performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” that stood out above all others. It’s no surprise to me if she wins the Oscar. The lead actors were not the only ones who impressed. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen did a good job in their supporting roles. Daniel Huttlestone was a good scene stealer as Gavroche is supposed to be. If there’s any fresh face that could rival the veterans, it’s Samantha Barks that was excellent in her supporting performance as Eponine.

Tom Hooper was given the difficult task of taking the musical and putting it on screen and he succeeded very well in doing it. William Nicholson also had the challenge of turning the script and songs of the musical and turning it into something for the big screen. He did a very good job of it retaining the spirit of the musical and of the songs. Also noticeable is that there are some scenes of dialogue. The stage musical doesn’t have that. Good to see he added those small parts of dialogue without dulling or upsetting the musical. As I said before, the music was great with Schonberg, Boulbil and Kretzmer even composing a new song ‘Suddenly’. The technical aspects like the sets, costuming, cinematography and sound mixing were also top notch.

Les Miserables finally has its chance to hit the big screen and faced a huge whack of pressures expected on any adaptation of a legendary Broadway musical before opening. The end result is an accomplishment, if not a triumph.

2011 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: Hugo

Hugo is a delightful movie based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It’s a unique story about how a chance stealing by a young boy changed everything forever.

It all starts in a train station in Paris in 1930. Hugo Cabret has a life no child would want. He lives in the train station completely orphaned and with nothing but a bed and an automaton from his late father whom he hopes to repair. He ended up there after his widowed father was killed in a fire and taken by his alcoholic uncle who would look after the station clock. After his uncle died, Hugo steals food and runs the clock himself from revealing the death of his uncle. If the truth is found out, he will be sent to an orphanage.

One steal by Hugo of a toy part from the station’s toy store owner would change everything. Hugo was able to escape the station policeman thanks to his leg brace being caught in a train. Hugo however loses a book of animated drawings to the toy store owner. For Hugo to get it back, the toy store owner punishes Hugo by making fix his broken toys. The toy store owner is surprised to see that Hugo is very skilled at fixing toys thanks to his father’s teachings.

Soon Hugo catches the attention of Isabelle, the girl who frequently visits the train station. She is an orphan too who is being looked after by the toy store owner, whom she refers to as Papa Jacques. He notices the key she wears: it is heart-shaped. His automaton has a heart-shaped lock. Another link to the mystery. The two spend time together. She sees the clock area Hugo lives and the view of Paris. The two sneak into a movie theatre and see a movie, something Papa Jacques forbids her to see. Later Hugo uses Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the automaton. The automaton draws a picture of the moon with a spaceship in his eye and the name Jacques Melies.

The two try and search further to see if Papa Jacques really is Jacques Melies. Upon a return visit to the house, they try to uncover the top drawer in his bedroom. Out comes a wide variety of imaginative artist images. Nevertheless Jacques is distraught to learn the children have learned of his secret. It’s only until the children bring a young film student to Jacques that Jacques finally reveals that he really is Jacques Melies, director extraordinaire of the early 20th Century. He explains to all why he became a recluse, because of his films failing as the First World War was taking place. He even burned most of the master copies of his films in a fit of rage during his downtime.  It is through Hugo and the film student that he’s able to receive an acclaim from a new generation of film enthusiasts. It is also where Hugo finally finds a family.

The movie is more than just a salute to Jacques Melies and his contribution to film in general. This movie is also a salute to moviemaking and movie watching. Movies achieved their greatness by making people’s fantasies come to life. They took them to worlds never before imagined. They took them to adventures and thrills they wouldn’t experience in their own lives. And to think it all started when a film of a train approaching the station made the audience duck for their lives. Nowadays movies face a lot of rivalry from many entertainment sources. Its biggest rival is now video games which allow the viewer to live the fantasy via an avatar, but movies still capture people’s attention and take them to worlds they never dreamed of.

Even though the movie is very much a salute to movies, it’s also a reminder that even then, great directors like Melies faced downtimes too. Jacques created hundreds of movies in his lifetime but as soon as most of the French public lost their liking for movies his fortune disappeared, his studio became useless, burned his films in anger and lived in obscurity for years. Nowadays we hear countless stories of people, especially greats, who had their moment but fade fast and die in obscurity without a penny. It happens to greats as often as it happens to ‘one-hit wonders’. Showbiz is cruel. Fortunately there does come a time long after their downfall when their achievements are recognized once again. It may be while they’re still alive or it may be post mortem but their greatness does become remembered and honored again.

Overall the movie was top-notch quality. That’s something you rarely see in most live-action family movies. There was no one acting performance that stood out or was spectacular but the performances of all worked excellently with the movie. Ben Kingsley was very good as Jacques. Sacha Baron Cohen who’s known for his comedic characters was great as the comic relief of the movie. The child actors of Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz did an excellent job in their lead roles. The story was very well-adapted and well-edited as it’s able to keep the audience excited, thrilled and interested from start to finish. Martin Scorsese did another excellent directing job. He’s tackled a lot of genres of film excellently and now he achieves another triumph in directing family movies. The score by Howard Shore fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also amongst the best of the year. The movie being shown in 3D worked. This was one of the rare times in which the 3D viewing appeared to be less in vain or for extra money and more for the delight of the crowd. It looked like Scorsese knew that if he was to have a movie in 3D, he should have the effects that make it work.

One thing that’s been unique in the film world of recent years is that a lot of well-renowned directors have started to make family movies. Seven years ago, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) released Millions: a story about a boy who encounters a bag of stolen money and consults patron saints for advice. Many years ago, Roman Polanski did his version of Oliver Twist to make a movie for his children who were twelve and under at the time. Two years ago, Spike Jonze directed the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. Even Quentin Tarantino says he’s interested in doing a family film if the right idea comes around.

Now we have Martin Scorsese with a family movie out. It may come as a surprise since he has been renowned for his filmmaking of some of the grittiest legendary dramas. Nevertheless if Martin was to make a family movie, Hugo would be the perfect fit. The celebration of film in Hugo is something Martin would do well because Martin is known to have a love for film itself. Martin even did a documentary series for the BBC years ago where he narrated the history of film and its genres. In Hugo we see Martin’s love for film as much as we see the reasons why movies have become so beloved. Even Roger Ebert described the move as “in some ways, a mirror of his own life.” And the love of film started with Jacques Melies. Martin Scorsese does more than just make a family movie. He also makes a masterpiece that even adults can appreciate, especially those who love film. The film has been nominated for Best Picture and ten other categories at this year’s Oscars. It is the first live-action family movie since Babe to be nominated for Best Picture.

Hugo is a pleasant film not just in terms of family movies but all films. Very rarely is a family movie able to be referred to as a masterpiece. Very rarely does a family movie deserve to be referred to as a masterpiece. Hugo is that rare.

NOTE:  Usually around this time, I start my reviews of the Best Picture nominees. I have five more reviews coming. Best Picture nominees already reviewed are: Midnight In Paris, The Help and Moneyball.