A subtle masterpiece of an exposé cinema

This film is proof, were it truly needed, that to invoke emotion from a viewer you do not needed to forcibly bulldoze them emotionally. You do not need people screaming at each other about how they really care about something and think it’s important; you do not need violence to prove someone’s inner rage; you don’t need monologues that reflect on social injustice. This film will grab you and drain you entirely. You will experience burning anger for those who used their positions for powers for unimaginable crimes; hopelessness at how dire at how things have and continue to still be; and cheeks so sodden with tears even when you hadn’t realised you were crying. All of these responses were generated without needless melodrama. Instead the absence of overwrought sentimentality  puts the events of the movie and the subsequent emotional response in bold, underlined and italics. A truly crucial and powerful movie. The fact that these are true events is the ultimate sucker punch.

In 2001 Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) joined the Boston Globe as its new editor. The fact he is Jewish was viewed as something of a notable scandal, considering the influence of the Catholic church. In his early introductory meetings with his new staff he meets Walter ‘Roddy’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) who is head of  the Spotlight team, a small group of journalists who undertake investigative projects that take months to research and publish.  The rest of the team is made up of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams).  In his new editorial role Baron urges the Spotlight team to follow a lead, a lead which suggests that the Archbishop of Boston knew of a priest who was sexually abusing children and doing nothing about it. A small-time lawyer called Micheal Garabedian (Stanley Tucciis seemingly the only person doing something about it. However Garabedian is on his own against the entire Catholic church, so after his initial reluctance and a lot of persuading he agrees to work along with Spotlight. A terrifying prospect soon becomes clear, this is not just about one priest but is instead about a huge cover-up of far more and dating back longer than can be imagined. But these secrets have been hidden for so long,  and with so many desperate to keep them,  it will be far from an easy journey.

Within all of that, and the remaining 3/4 of the movie, there is only one scene of loud, embittered shouting. Only one scene where one character, haunted by the true horror of what has gone on, lets rip at the hoops he will have to continue to jump and dive through. That one scene is made all the more climatic and devastating as a consequence, packing more potency than the entirety of Joy. The storytelling here is superb, the way each revelation unfolds is shown not told. The information is not forcible spoon-fed, instead delivered with little fanfare or fabrication, and is all the more absorbing for it. The suspense created is unlike much of recent cinema, with an awful sense of inevitability and foreboding that doesn’t take away any viscerality from watching the character’s gradual comprehension of their story’s terrible breadth.

However, the emotional impact of the script would be nowhere near as traumatising were it not for the performances of the cast. ‘Ensemble cast’ is a phrase too easily banded-about, but the cast of Spotlight is a true ensemble. Every actor gives the role their all. ‘All’ does not mean flapping your arms about and saying how angry you are. ‘All’ is, and perhaps should be, a simple look at another person that reveals unobjectionable horror. A gaze into the distance with eyes that expose a haunting that will never be forgotten. The ‘heroes’ of this story are not embellished, nor martyred or hero-worshipped. They are real human beings, forced to comprehend and expose systematic abuse from an institution that had such an intrinsic role in all of their lives.

Though it may have only been released in the first month of the year, this will be one of the greatest films of 2016. A fact-based thriller with a beating heart.

Something-To-Watch Saturday #

Welcome back for another edition of STW-S. Here’s this week’s 7 movie recommendations of unseen gems. Not enough for you? Check out the past editions here: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6.

The Farewell (2019 – 100 mins – Amazon Prime)

To start with, a joyful happy-sad story about Chinese family discovering their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies. The fact it’s based on writer-director Lulu Wang‘s real life experiences only adds the poignancy.

Crazy Stupid Love (2011 – 118 mins – Amazon Prime)

This week’s underrated romcom slot goes to a film I find myself rewatching regularly for two reasons. The first is the cast Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei. The second is just how well the story is told, with every plot point weaved in and playing out so perfectly. A middle-aged husband’s (Carell) life changes dramatically when his wife (Moore) asks him for a divorce. He seeks to rediscover his manhood with the help of a newfound friend, Jacob (Gosling), learning to pick up girls at bars.

Only You (2018 – 119 mins – Netflix)

Elena (Laia Costa) and Jake (Josh O’Connor) meet by chance on New Years Eve, arguing for the same taxi. However, instead of going their separate ways after sharing a taxi ,they start a passionate relationship. The end result is a film that is quietly profound and full of intimacy, just beautiful.

Fish Tank (2009 – 123 mins – Netflix)

This film, by writer-director Andrea Arnold, is one of the finest British movies of the 21st Century. Everything changes for 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) when her mum brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). With his breakthrough performance here, there was no doubt that Fassbender was going to be a star. But if you come for his performance, you’ll stay for Jarvis. A nonprofessional actor who got the role after being scouted during an argument with her then-boyfriend, she’s extraordinary as an older-than-her-years teen who has little reason to hope for more than she has.

Game Night (2018 – 100 mins – Netflix)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, comedy is the hardest genre for cinema to get right – a fact that was truly clear when this film came out as it truly stood out and continues to stand out. An action-comedy about a group of friends (Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury) who meet regularly for game nights find themselves entangled in a real-life mystery when the shady brother (Kyle Chandler) of one of them is seemingly kidnapped by dangerous gangsters.

20 Feet From Stardom (2013 – 91 mins – Netflix)

The winner of the Oscar for best documentary, this is another total must-watch. Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now. If you’re a fan of any songs from 1950s onwards, you’re going to want to watch this. (My favourite anecdote is the one about The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter, which is one of my all-time favourite songs.)

Apostasy (2017 – 95 mins – BBC iplayer)

Screening as part of the British Film Premiere season from BBC Film and the BFI, Apostasy follows Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), a faithful Jehovah’s Witness who lives with her two grown-up daughters Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson). A religious transgression means that Luisa is shunned by her community and her family. As the separation draws out, Alex starts to question the meaning of God’s love.

Hail, Caesar!

All Hail Hollywood!  And, all Hail the Coen Brothers!

1951 was a bit of strange time for Hollywood. The studio system was starting to shift and the oligarchic owners were starting to lose power. Rather understandably its stars were getting fed up of being owned by the studios. The studios got to decide what they would be starring in, who they would be working with, what they looked like and even who they were dating. The post-world war two boom had begun to grow to a standstill and film-makers weren’t quite sure what the people wanted. Some classic films were made that year (A Street Car Named Desire, Alice In Wonderland and The African Queen, to name but three) as were a lot of terrible movies from every genre and hybrid-genre you could possibly think of. If the people don’t know what they want, adopt a ‘throw-everything-at-them-and-see-what-sticks policy’. It’s these issues that make the era a perfect setting for a movie. It’s also the reason that the Coen brothers are the perfect men for the job.

The life of the head of production at Capitol Pictures is not an easy one. In 27 hours Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must handle one drama after another. First there’s the lead of his series of synchronised swimming epics (Scarlett Johansson) who’s both pregnant and unmarried. Then there’s the all-singing and little-talking cowboy(Alden Ehrenreich) who is forcibly being made to transition from Westerns into thespian drama, much to the bitter frustration of his new luvvie director (Ralph Fiennes) followed up by a check-in on the latest musical starring multi-talented (Channing Tatum), dodging the four preying eyes of gossip columnist twins (both played by Tilda Swinton) and most importantly finding his A-list star (George Clooney) who has disappeared from set. Maybe his job offer from the aviation industry isn’t that unappealing after all…

First I want to state that this is not a perfect movie. Its pacing is off, and the entire film feels like a series of rather delightful misadventures as opposed to one overarching narrative. That fact will put some people off (although that doesn’t really explain/justify the 16 people who walked out of the screening I attended). But for others, including myself, this fundamental flaw is in fact another reason to cherish the movie as surely that rhythm or tone of chaotic mayhem is how life working in the dwindling studio system would have been. What is also allows the Coen brothers to do is duel-handily poke fun at the farce-like-ness of this period of time, and also lovingly embrace it.

Each set-piece is beyond stunning. Every single costume is stunning, with every single character feeling like a tribute to a by-gone era. The synchronised swimming sequence featuring a giant, mechanical whale reinforces the notion that this is THE Dream Factory. The loving pastiche theme continues with Channing Tatum’s ludicrously inventive tap dance and singing number, where he and a dozen sailor lament their going on door as ‘We Ain’t Gonna See No Dames.” However, speaking from personal preference, it’s Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle the Cowboy-turned-actor who totally steals the show. When considering the talent (ahem, Brolin, Johansson, Finnes and Cloonney!) this is truly no mean feat. Doyle is the perfect blend of dim but charming. His attempts at ‘serious’ acting are utterly charming but it’s his date with Carlotta Valdez (cheeky nod to Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ there!) , an up-and-coming Latina actress that will win the hearts of the nation. His accidental wooing of her is pinch-his-cheeks and say ‘nawww’ levels of adorability. He is definitely one to watch.

Although the ‘star of the show’ may not actually steal the spotlight (as hopefully outlined and justified above) it’s Clooney’s storyline that solidifies the fact that this film is not throughway fluff. His ‘journey’ whilst held hostage provides much reflection on the nature of Hollywood ideology, a subliminal critique of the industry by reflecting on the very nature of entertainment, the ugly work that goes into creating what we view as such beauty…but that’s a discussion for another day, (ideally in a pub, with a drink in hand!)

For now, I’ll leave you with this. For those of us who are nostalgic for a time we never lived (I’m including myself in this category) there’s escapism and incredible tributes to the past. For cinephilles there’s subtle reflection on the ugly/beautiful process of cinema-making. There’s also romance, lots of humour and Channing Tatum signing (who knew he had the voice of an angel!?!)

If you’ve got a spare hour and forty minutes this is a film well-worth your money. Enjoy!






The Revenant

12 Oscar nominations – but just how good is it?

Leading the pack with 12 nominations from the 88th Academy Awards  is ‘The Revenant’. Often that information is not necessarily an indicator on how much the general public will like it, but how much a small committee (who may not have actually watched all the films) liked it or think it deserves mention. Happily, in this case, ‘The Revenant’ is worthy of most of the acclaim it is receiving. The film is starkly beautiful yet bitterly bleak. It’s uncompromising and devastating, leaving the audience in a state of emotional destruction. However, it’s not perfect. It’s overlong, losing much of the audience about two thirds in, more of an endurance test than entertainment and certain aspects are not as good as the film (or the awards committee) seem to think it is. To break this down further, whilst remaining spoiler free, I will divide this review into 5 sections- each guided by one of the nomination categories.

Performance by an actor in a leading role: Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant”

Poor Leo. It is a truth universally acknowledged,  then laughed at, that DiCaprio is the bridesmaid of the wedding ceremony that is the Oscar’s. Always the bridesmaid, nominated six times, yet never the bride. It’s fair to say, after watching ‘The Revenant’, that he really deserves this one. There’s not only what he clearly must have gone through behind the scenes, the below freezing weather conditions, and what was required from him, a man on the edge of death crawling back in the name of vengeance, but what he manages to achieve with the performance that surely must put his name inside that envelope.  His rage at what has been done to him and his family pours out through every pore, exposing it with every look, gesture and expression. He truly makes everything that happens to him, not matter how seemingly unbelievable it is, seem real and dragging us along with him for the bitter journey.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role: Tom Hardy in “The Revenant”

Now this is a bit of a strange one. Having known that he had been nominated I spent all of Hardy’s screen time analyzing his performance – looking for that moment or reason  that explained it. But neither moment nor reason came. He’s good, yes, but it’s Hardy in weird, strange and rambling mode. The performance is pretty one-dimensional and rather one-note, supplying little reason for the audience to care for what happens to him. Also at times his speech enters into Bane-levels of incomprehensibility. Compared to the other four candidates in this category (Christian Bale in “The Big Short”, Mark Ruffalo in “Spotlight”, Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies”, Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”) Hardy seems almost shoe-horned in. If the academy really wanted to acknowledge supporting performances in “The Revenant” it would be far better acknowledging either Domhnall Gleeson or Will Poulter, both of whom provide performances far deeper than Hardy’s.

Achievement in cinematography: “The Revenant,” Emmanuel Lubezki

Yes. What makes this film so successful, every event so brutal, is that all occurs in a manner that is oxymoronic. The camera dances across the landscape, panning, tracking and weaving across the wondrous yet terrifying unknown that is capable of much beauty and brutality. You’re lulled into a false sense, admiring the scenery, then you’re shocked back to realising just how dangerous this world is. Without this, the film would be far less memorable or emotive.

Achievement in costume design:  “The Revenant,” Jacqueline West

Whilst costume is great in this film, this award needs to go to “Carol,” Sandy Powell, for which the costume really captured the era and the mood.Through costume alone it made every character, from speaking roles to walk-ons,  feel real with an enriched back not matter how seemingly unnecessary they were . With “The Revenant”it was the cinematography over costume that created the overarching tone.

Achievement in directing: “The Revenant,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu

To bring such emotion out of a cast, as with this film, a director must be extraordinary. The power Iñárritu’s cast generate tells just how magnificent he is. My only criticism would be that the implied power and complexity of the final act is not as powerful or complex as he may have intended.

 All in all, “The Revenant” is more than worth watching. It’s an experience that needs to be experienced on the big screen. However, it’s not light-hearted entertainment or those who are easily shaken.  An impassive musing on man’s plight which does not shy away from harsh realities.