Saturday, August 19, 2017

Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy                                     Writers: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Film Score: Howard Shore                                Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Leiv Schreiber

Spotlight takes its title from the team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe doing something almost unheard of today, spending months or even years on writing in-depth stories of substance and relevance to the community. In the case of the film, the thrust of the stories by The Globe was the Catholic Church’s complicity in covering up the molestation of young children that had been happening for decades. The priesthood had always been a source of controversy concerning inappropriate behavior, and for years various charges and court cases had been pursued against specific priests. What was unique was the way in which the church would simply transfer priests to another, unsuspecting, parish and the behavior would begin again. And so when the stories in 2001 finally exposed the whole, sordid affair, there was more of an understanding nod of the head than anything outright shocking. The film Sleepers, from 1996 had even dealt knowingly about the subject. What this film does, however, is put a human face on the crime. The initial contact that the team makes with a former victim, Neal Huff, is extraordinary in the way that he paints the priests as predators, grooming their victims and inflicting what he calls “spiritual abuse.”

The film begins with an episode from the 1960s; a parish priest has been brought in by the local police on charges of molestation. A young cop tells his desk sergeant that it’s going to be difficult to keep the media away from the arraignment, and the sergeant responds by saying, “What arraignment?” The scene then shifts to 2001, John Slattery as the managing editor of The Boston Globe, Michael Keaton heading up Spotlight, and a new senior editor of the paper, Leiv Schreiber, due in any time. Keaton’s team, which includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James works out of the basement, and when Schreiber arrives there’s concern that he will simply cut the department. But he’s read a column in the paper about a priest who was alleged to have molested kids in six different parishes over thirty years and a lawyer for some of the victims claims that the cardinal of Boston knew about it all that time and did nothing. The lawyer, Stanley Tucci, has absolutely no faith that the paper--or anyone else--is going to do anything that the community will interpret as an attack on the church. It’s not until Ruffalo, followed by the rest of the Spotlight team, shows their determination in exposing the abuse that he gets onboard to really help them. But there’s also another twist involving Michael Keaton and what he knew about the crimes while he was a new editor.

It’s a tremendously well-done film. Director Tom McCarthy, who had been acting since the late eighties and directing for the previous ten years, teamed up with Josh Singer, who had written for The West Wing, and attempted to focus on the journalistic side of the story rather than the crime. The duo won an Academy Award for their screenplay, as did the film for the best picture of 2015. For Michael Keaton, it was his second appearance in a row in an Oscar winning film after starring in Birdman the year before. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams both received nominations, as did McCarthy for his direction and Tom McArdle for editing. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, though for most of the actors trying to do a Boston accent, it was somewhat less than convincing. It certainly wasn’t as on the nose as Good Will Hunting attempted to be--and was the better for it--but it was still odd. Keaton really anchors the movie as a veteran editor who not only has to strong-arm his friends to get verification, but also has his own sins to atone for. Ruffalo goes out on a limb here by playing a character who is not himself, and that feels odd as well. McAdams is probably the weakest of the bunch. The other standout is Stanley Tucci, who has been delivering stellar performances ever since he turned forty-five.

It’s not a flashy film, and doesn’t sport cutting edge cinematography like Birdman, or The Revenant from the same year--though the cinematographer for both those films, Emmanuel Lubezki, won the Oscar for the later. It plays more like All the President’s Men from 1976. The color palate on the film is also quite nice, with muted tones and an overcast feel to the exterior shots even though much of the story takes place during the summertime. The pacing is also quite nice, and McCarthy isn’t in a hurry to get his characters from one place to the next in the breathless way the Redford-Hoffman film unfolds. The reporters are diligent and willing to do the unglamorous job of research and writing in order to make a positive impact on the community. With the demise of the print media in recent years, however, it’s difficult to know if there will every be stories like that again that can have a major impact on society by rooting out institutionalized corruption. Newspapers can’t afford to keep reporters on staff who don’t earn their keep on a daily basis, and so the days of long-form investigative reporting may be over. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a sensationalized story and is rewarding even on repeated viewings. Spotlight may not be the most exciting film of the year, but then that’s never been what makes a great movie. And this is an exceptional one.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch                                         Writer: David Lynch
Film Score: Angelo Badalamenti                        Cinematography: Peter Deming
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theoroux and Melissa George

This film started as a television pilot from 1999 and it shows. Twin Peaks may have been a huge cult favorite in the early nineties but studio execs passed on this, and for good reason. The film, which David Lynch converted from a pilot to a feature, is essentially Blue Velvet in Hollywood, though not nearly as interesting and certainly not as unique as the idea was a decade and a half earlier. Mulholland Drive is still a prime example of Lynch’s aesthetic, which is no aesthetic at all really. Much of the pseudo-intellectual writing about his film feels a lot like the cult of Miles Davis in jazz, where writers go to great lengths to manufacture artistic genius where none exists. Ultimately Lynch is a mediocre independent filmmaker who has been pushed to the margins of the Hollywood mainstream. Leger Grindon once wrote that Blue Velvet was no more original than a Hardy Boys mystery. Given that, Mulholland Drive is no more original than a Nancy Drew Girls mystery. Probably the one area where Lynch’s films impress the most is in the area of sound design. There’s an emotional manipulation that goes on there that is far beyond simply film scoring. While some of the sound cues are musical, there’s a powerful sense that they stand alone on the soundtrack and enhance to a major degree the disturbing elements on the screen. But that’s about it.

The film opens with a limousine driving along Mulholland Drive at night. In the backseat is Lara Harring looking nervous. When the two men stop the car before they’re supposed to, one of them gets out to kill her. But just then a couple of cars full of joyriding teens come barreling around the corner, with one smashing into the limo and killing everyone . . . except Harring who walks off down the hill and sleeps in front of a house on Sunset Boulevard. Detective Robert Forster and his partner figure someone left the scene, but they don’t know who. Meanwhile Patrick Fischler goes to breakfast at a Denny’s knockoff with Michael Cook. He’s had a couple of nightmares about the place featuring Cook, but when he tries to confront his fear he’s literally frightened to death. It’s then that the innocent Naomi Watts comes to Hollywood to become a movie star, but when she goes inside to housesit at her aunt’s apartment, she finds the traumatized Harring who can’t remember who she is. When they look inside her purse all they find is a pile of money and a blue key. Somewhere else in town film director Justin Theroux has his film taken away from him by Dan Hedaya and friends, then finds his wife cheating on him with Billy Ray Cyrus and his bank accounts cleaned out. Elsewhere, Mark Pelligrino kills his friend for a valuable black book of phone numbers, then winds up having to kill two other people who discover his attempt to make it look like suicide. But things are just getting started.

Of course Lynch isn’t content to allow something as prosaic as narrative to inform his film and so much of the film’s idea of story is thrown out the window at the end when the viewer is taken down the rabbit hole--in this case inside a blue box. Does that make it artistic? Not really. Lynch has been silent about the “meaning” of the film, but that’s probably because there isn’t one. It’s the hallmark of an artist who has an eye for scenes and details but no genuine sense of narrative. David Bowie said once in an interview that he used to take the lines to songs and cut them into individual strips, throw them in the air, and assemble them in the order that he picked them up. That may work for a pop song, but not for a feature film. Though to be fair, the film isn’t quite that random. But in some ways it’s almost worse, promising something it can’t deliver. It’s as though Lynch made eighty percent of a film, then couldn’t think of how to end it, so he shot twenty percent of a different film and tacked it on the end. Naomi Watts does an impressive job in the lead role, with able support from Laura Harring. Justin Theroux doesn’t have much to do in the film, as is wasted at the end. Lots of recognizable faces appear in small roles, including Ann Miller, Lee Grant, James Karen, Robert Forster, Chad Everett and Michael Fairman, but again, to little effect. In the end, Mulholland Drive is an interesting four fifths of a film, but little else.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Executive Action (1973)

Director: David Miller                                         Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Film Score: Randy Edelman                              Cinematography: Robert Steadman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer and Walter Brooke

Executive Action is a speculative film about one possible scenario of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The screenplay, written by Donald Trumbo, is based on the work of noted JFK researchers and authors Mark Lane and Donald Freed. The film begins with narration of text on the screen, to the effect that in one of President Johnson’s final interviews he felt the conclusions of the Warren Commission were incorrect, and that a conspiracy was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Sixty years later, the specter looms that Johnson himself may, at the very least had knowledge of, and at worst, was complicit in the murder. There are two major aspects to the film as a whole that can be looked at independently. The first is the conspiracy itself, the people responsible and what their motives are. The second is the team that carries out the actual execution in Dallas. The conspiracy component is not entirely convincing, primarily because the associations of those involved are anonymous. They don’t even appear to be working at the behest of government agencies, which was probably because their wasn’t enough information at the time to risk accusing the CIA of murder. The assassination itself is the far more convincing part, triangulated fire that could have been carried out by any number of groups, ex-CIA, hired assassins working for the agency, or even mob hit men.

As the opening credits roll, black and white photos of the actors are shown amid other stills in order to give the film a documentary feel, as if they were a part of that specific past. The story begins at a large, suburban home. Inside, the problems with a potential Kennedy dynasty are being discussed for the benefit of Will Geer by Walter Brooke, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. The suggestion is assassination by CIA and ex-clandestine forces operatives, setting up a fall guy and thus removing suspicion from the conspiracy. In the end Geer is unconvinced, but Lancaster seems very sure of himself. Meanwhile, rehearsals are underway in the Texas desert, while documentary footage of the real President Kennedy moves the timeline along, from June through November, 1963. Next, they choose Oswald as their patsy. Where the plan takes a turn for the unbelievable is when Ryan starts spouting to Lancaster about a Nazi-type program to reduce the population of Asians and Blacks in the world, as well as the U.S., in order to make room for whites. It’s easily the weakest part of the film. Geer keeps watching Kennedy’s televised speeches as the film goes along and Dallas, Texas is chosen as the site. It’s not until Will Geer sees that Kennedy is going to pull troops out of Vietnam that he calls Ryan and gives his blessing for the assassination.

Interestingly, the Zapruder film was not available yet to use in the production, as it had only been shown once on air, on a local Chicago television station in 1970. The film didn’t appear on network TV until 1975, two years after the film was produced. The footage of Kennedy and Connally being shot was thus recreated, and there are significant deviations from what actually happened. Nevertheless, with the exception of the bullet that hit Kennedy in the throat and the one that missed, the rest of the shots seem fairly accurate, especially having a separate shot hit Connally. Robert Ryan is clearly the leader of the conspiracy, the moneyman and controlling force. Burt Lancaster works for him and is the operations manager, organizing the teams and giving them their instructions. But Will Geer is ultimately the man in charge, and it’s not until he gives the go ahead that the team proceeds with the assassination. Other recognizable faces are Ed Lauter and Dick Miller as part of the primary execution team, and John Anderson, the car dealer from Hitchcock’s Psycho, as one of the conspirators. The film really has no suspense, or no drama. It’s a detached, clinical study of an assassination and, as such, it depends on what the viewer brings to the film as to how it will be received. Those looking for intrigue or suspense will be resoundingly disappointed. For those of a more historically minded bent, interested in how the film fits as a rejection of the Warren Commission only a decade after the assassination, Executive Action is worth taking a look.