Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Oscars 2016: Spotlight

Spotlight (U.S., 2015) directed by Tom McCarthy, 2 hours, 8minutes
Nominated for Five Oscars:
Best Directing
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Film Editing
Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

As a recovering Catholic, I am still very much interested in the workings of the Church. And … the ways in which it does not work. This is one of those stories – a faithful retelling of recent true events.

As the film opens, the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), meets with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) who is the head of the "Spotlight" team - investigative journalists given a long leash and lead times in preparing challenging stories at the Globe. The team includes Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). [Side note: the actors met with the real journalist and trailed them for months capturing accents, walks, mannerisms, etc ...]

Baron requests that the team look into allegations that the Archbishop of Boston knew that a reputed pedophile Roman Catholic priest, named John Geoghan*, was sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop prevent him from having access to his congregation or removing him from the Church.

The team uncovers a pattern of sexual abuse of numerous children and the workings of Boston Archdiocese to bury this information. Connecting with a victim's rights advocate leads to a list of a possible thirteen priests and additional investigation then yields an ever-widening circle of eighty-seven possible abusers. The team searches for the victims to verify the story. This is the most difficult part of the film – witnessing grown men break down and weep in light of their revelations to the reporters. It uncovers the trail of substance abuse, shame, turmoil and self destruction that the secrets fostered in the men for decades. Some do not survive the shame of the abuse. 

The film handles the issue of sexual abuse discreetly, sensitively – no explicit re-enactments of the abuse just the powerfully wrought effects on the men. It also demonstrates the tremendous power of the church where even those victimized by the abuse sometimes turn with anger towards the reporters for allegedly maligning the Church.

The story also skilfully navigates the underlying distrust of the journalistic motives of the new editor Marty Baron because he is Jewish in the largely Irish American, primarily Catholic, milieu of Boston and Massachusetts.

The events of 9/11 force the reporters to set aside their investigation for a time. Soon after, Michael Rezendes confirms the existence of public documents that confirm Cardinal Law was aware of the issue and ignored it. (Regretfully I admit that although, I love Ruffalo but I am always, always aware that he is "acting". Here, he mimics some irritating tics that the real Rezendes possesses.) With these documents, the team plans to publish their findings in early 2002.

Sacha Pfeiffer also uncovers an early clipping published by the Boston Globe in 1993 that briefly mentions the possibility of the depth of the abuse. Robinson (Keaton), the Spotlight team leader, realizes that he was the reporter who wrote the story having been given, at that time, a list of twenty alleged pedophile priests  - a story he never investigated fully.

Once the story of abuse is printed the team is flooded with messages from witnesses stepping forward with their own stories. The team won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. 

For me, the implicit message is … who is to blame? We, all of us, believers and adherents of the faith, are all to blame for our blind acceptance of the authority and moral infallibility of the church’s leaders.

The film also resurrects our faith in journalism – one much battered by reduced financial resources of the news media which limits the scope of investigative journalism, a recent parade of unethical and/or plagiarizing journalists and the constant bashing of reporters by political opportunists like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz who play hard and fast with the truth and malign a free press. 

This film gives me a thrill ... in an All the President's Men kind of way.  

* In a "maybe there's a God" sort of news flash - this defrocked priest, accused of molesting 150 other children, was strangled by a fellow inmate in prison in 2006. The priest's killer was enraged after Mr. Geoghan arrogantly brushed off criticism that he had "destroyed all kinds of lives."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Oscars 2016: The Martian

Here we go … the first of a series of mini-reviews of the Oscar nominated films. One every day or so.

The Martian (U.S., 2015) directed by Ridley Scott, 141 minutes
Nominated for Six Oscars:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Matt Damon)
Sound Editing
Production Design
Visual Effects
Adapted Screenplay

Matt Damon, in explaining the appeal of this film, has said that audiences often enjoy watching super smart people solve problems. If so, this is the film for you.

Set two decades from now, in 2035 ... the Ares III manned mission to Mars gets caught in a dust storm forcing the crew to abandon the surface of the planet. Astronaut Mark Watney (the ever likeable Matt Damon) gets lost in the storm and is knocked unconscious. Fearing that he is dead, the crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leaves him behind.

When Watney awakens, he returns to the crew’s living quarters and begins a video diary. By his calculations, the crew would only be able to return in four years at the earliest. Watney, a botanist, calculates that he may be able to survive in the meantime by creating a farm with Martian soil utilizing toilet waste, hydrogen extracted from rocket fuel (which has been oxidized by burning), and leftover potatoes that had been saved for a Thanksgiving meal for the astronauts. I think you will be surprised how interesting it is to watch a sexy astronaut grow potatoes on Mars to a series of rousing disco tunes - these were favoured by his commanding officer Melissa Lewis.

Back on earth … in reviewing satellite photos of Mars, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Mars mission director, discovers that Watney has survived. A decision is made not to inform the Ares III crew which is on its way back to Earth on the Hermes spacecraft.

Watney establishes communication with NASA on earth (don’t ask me how but it was elaborate and ingenious). A space probe is prepared for Mars to give Watney additional supplies until Ares IV returns. A series of mishaps ensure the audience’s suspense – the tenuous potato crop is destroyed, the supply probe explodes after lift-off. Have no fear, the Chinese government, ever sympathetic to the West, is on the horizon with a solution to help retrieve the American astronaut.

Several plot factors are at work here that are particular to American cinema – the concept of international cooperation to save one lone, lonely but plucky American; a feisty crew defying the orders of NASA not to return to Mars despite the possibility of death, the ingenuity of said astronauts. The crew on the Hermes vote unanimously to return to Mars’ orbit to try and retrieve their comrade. They do, of course they do.

That’s what I love about the American spirit – effortlessly optimistic, narrowly focused, always successful in whatever hare-brained scheme they devise. And that’s what I dislike about it too. As if everything should work out merely because there exists this burning American desire to triumph against all odds.

I did enjoy the film - the effects were spectacular, the acting consistently good (although I think Kristen Wigg is wasted here – any “basic white girl” would do in this role). But what was the point of the film, the larger goal? That Americans can do anything? That the human spirit is indomitable? That even mere earthlings with good old American gumption can vanquish space? Yeah, I’ve seen that movie too. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Cultural Roundup

Ingrid Bergman: In her Own Words
Wolf Hall (U.K., 2015)
The Big Short (U.S., 2015)
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (Sweden, 2015)
Straight Outta Compton (U.S., 2015)
The Danish Girl (UK/Belgium/USA, 2015)
Trumbo (U.S., 2015)
Carol (U.S., 2015)
Spectre (U.K., 2015)
Sicario (U.S., 2015)
A Ballerina's Tale (U.S., 2015)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Western Light by Susan Swan
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Riad Sattouf

The Concert I Never Gave ... Eric McCormack, Winter Garden, January 23, 2016

Thursday, December 31, 2015

At Years End ...

I have not read half as much as I had hoped to read this year ... it was a challenging year and there was much to read and absorb. But here is the list ... and here's to another year of reading that engages, alarms and entrances!

Requiem and Poem Without a Hero by Anna Akhmatova
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
Liza's England by Pat Barker
Undone by John Colapinto (Please see review here)
Where did you sleep last night by Lynn Crosbie
The Year of Magical Thing - a play based on the memoir by Joan Didion
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
The Sicilian Wife by Caterina Edwards (Please see review here)
The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Trans by Juliet Jacques
Her by Harriet Lane
Go set a Watchman by Harper Lee
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald 
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
Republic of the Imagination by Azar Nafisi
Based on a True Story by Elizabeth Renzetti
Sleep by Nino Ricci (Please see review here)
Sister Crazy by Emma Richler
Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto
Coriolanus by Shakespeare
Julia Child by Laura Shapiro
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor
All my puny sorrows by Miriam Toews
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
The Day of the Locust by Nathanel West

December Cultural Roundup

Jennifer Lawrence as Joy

The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot
The Day of the Locust by Nathanel West
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (U.S., 2015)
White Christmas (U.S., 1954)
A Christmas Carol (U.K., 1951)
Sense and Sensibility (U.K., 1995)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (U.S., 1965)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (U.K., 1994)
The Martian (U.S., 2015)
Steve Jobs (U.S., 2015)
The Wrecking Crew (U.S., 2015)
Joy (U.S., 2015)

Riverdale Share Concert, Danforth Music Hall, December 6th

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Skirmish on Christmas

This is a reprint from a blog posted a few years ago but I think it's still relevant...

Let me say up front that I have a healthy skepticism about the purported "war on Christmas" that is allegedly, and perennially, being waged by atheists, non-Christians and general purveyors of the destruction of Christian culture in the Western world. The biggest (and loudest) proponents of this view are, of course, Fox News and Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, ad nauseum, every Christmas season.

This war is, at best, perhaps a skirmish rather than a war - its militants are armed not with nuclear armaments but some lesser weapon ... say, machetes or, possibly, bayonets. 

What Fox News fails to acknowledge is that the Christmas spirit, such as it is, is omnipresent, pervasive, sometimes annoyingly so, in a society so obsessed with materialism and ostentatious public displays of wealth. It not so surreptitiously follows you into the drugstore, on to street corners, into the workplace, into every retail outlet and coffee shop with merchandise to peddle. It is virtually inescapable for those who do not celebrate it.

One minister recently offered an astute observation as to the biggest threat to the true meaning of Christmas: the rampant consumerism and monetization of everything having to do with Christmas, and not the godless heathens (like me) who don't believe in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, the crusaders against Christmas are tragically repulsed by, and rail against, the appearance of a lone Christmas tree at city hall, artfully designed nativity scenes in malls and the singing of Christmas carols by children in schools. 

I completely understand the unease of those who feel religious prayers should not be conducted in public schools and imposed on all, regardless of their religious belief. I, unconditionally, support the removal of religious symbols in almost all public spaces - the judiciary, municipal, provincial and federal offices, etc ...

Here is the secularist Annie Laurie Gaylor's triumphant crowing when she and fellow believers (or is that non-believers?) managed to have a nativity scene banned from Palisades Park in Santa Monica:
They [the secularists] showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone.
I agree somewhat and yet ... I can't help thinking what [fill in the indefinite article and  expletive of your choice].

Christmas has taken a distinctly non-religious character for many Canadians, newly arrived immigrant or long established citizen. In an on-line poll conducted by Abacus Data in December, 2011 of 1,004 respondents who were asked if they celebrate Christmas - no fewer than 86% in any given demographic category (and as high as 97% in one category) said that they did celebrate it - regardless of gender, age, province/region, religious affiliation, status as an immigrant or education.

I suspect that many of us do not necessarily celebrate the birth of Jesus - we celebrate something else, a tradition of being with family, gift sharing and charity. As one smart ass noted recently on facebook: "Just 'cause I say 'Merry Christmas' doesn't mean I worship Jesus." Indeed not.

But say we do try and eliminate all vestiges of Christmas from public life ... why stop there? Why not remove all religious paintings from publicly funded art galleries, forbid the singing of Christmas carols on the street and public spaces, halt all St. Valentine's, Easter and St. Patrick's Day celebrations in public schools, all holidays that clearly have a historical, religious Christian origin? No Valentines shared between schoolmates. No Easter egg hunts at school. No images of floppy Easter bunnies bearing chocolate eggs. No images of shamrocks or leprechauns.

But wait ... why not abolish Family Day in Ontario too? Doesn't that discriminate against some people? "What if you don't have a family?" one hapless female whined to me when it was announced that we would have a civic holiday in February named Family Day. Why ... were you raised by wolves? I wanted to ask. She was miffed by the name of the day. Okay, let's call it "Do whatever the heck you want day." Feel better now, girlie?

What a soulless, boring, fastidiously politically correct existence that would be ... to wipe out all the charming little rituals and customs that have a religious origin because some of us are alienated by Christianity (or any other religion or concept). Why eliminate that which is beautiful, charming, fun and artful - the sacred music and Christmas songs, the iconic visual art of the season, the nativity scenes, the Christmas fables for children, the sharing of wonderful treats particular to the Christmas season - because it may offend or is not in accordance with our own particular religious views?

This draconian perspective that requires that we eliminate all that potentially offends or alienates from public life will have a much larger, deleterious effect - it will destroy the goodwill and intentions of those who do not wish to offend, who are not bigoted, but merely wish to celebrate a Canadian tradition - because, yes, Christmas has become for many a Canadian tradition not a religious one, irrespective of one's faith. It's embedded in our culture and history. It's a part of our culture. Canadian culture.

Please, remove that which is racist, ugly and distasteful in society ... oppose intolerance everywhere, in every instance, but does Christmas really fall into that category?

Monday, November 30, 2015

November Cultural Roundup

Alnwick Castle ~ J.MW. Turner 
Republic of the Imagination by Azar Nafisi
The Year of Magical Thing - a play based on the memoir by Joan Didion
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free at AGO

Spotlight (U.S., 2015)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

October Cultural Roundup

AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize Exhibit, AGO

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Sleep by Nino Ricci (Please see review here)
Requiem and Poem Without a Hero by Anna Akhmatova
Where did you sleep last night by Lynn Crosbie

The (Not So) Nice Italian Girls Reading Series presents a Roman style Bacchanalia, October 4, 2015 at the Black Swan Tavern

Black Mass (U.S., 2015)
Rosemary's Baby (U.S., 1968)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Very Masculine History

Sleep by Nino Ricci (Doubleday, 2015) 235 pages
                    **SPOILER ALERT ***

Secrets are poisonous - especially those kept from one's spouse and closest relations. The secret that our protagonist David Pace withholds from his wife Julia is enormous and eventually undoes the marriage. David has a serious sleep disorder - unnamed specifically but clearly a form of narcolepsy - that almost endangers the life of their son Marcus in a near car accident on the highway at the beginning of Sleep. But as the book progresses we realize that the problem is much deeper than a medical ailment.

What troubles David is what ails many men - an obsession with violence and power and an overwhelming sense of shame when one loses face or control. The diminishing of power engenders rage and violence. This is not a book for the faint of heart - it's a stunning example of "dirty realism", a form of realism that depicts the "seamier" aspects of life in simple and unadorned language.

David Pace is a cauldron of anger and insecurity, alternately fearsome in his rages and self-castigating in light of his list of moral and professional failures. An academic, specializing in Roman history and achieving a sort of minor academic celebrity for his book Masculine History, the main character is ironically named Pace (pace means peace in Italian). Mr. Pace's troubles are many: a failed marriage, accusations of plagiarism and stealing from a student in his academic work, a hostile relationship with his twin Danny and his mother and memories of an acrimonious relationship with his dead father - a successful but bullying totem in David's past.

David is petulant, unhappy and somehow, interestingly, sympathetic to the reader in many instances.

The anger runs through every page like an electrical current - anger at Julia's smothering attentions to their only child; jealousy of his twin Danny's material success and ostentatious home in the suburbs (the homes in Danny's suburbs are said to resemble Rome before the fall); envy of his department head's past relationship with Julia, a fellow academic; the list is endless.

Julia's post-partum depression seems to makes scant impression on David, aside from being a tool to bludgeon her with when they fight over Marcus. In David's mind, he has become: "... the enemy, the threat, the bad parent she needs him to be in order to assure herself she is the good one."

Post-divorce, a trip to the cemetery to see his father's grave with his mother and brother, elicits only this from David: a fantasy that somehow his teenaged father had forged some sort of relationship with the fascist leader Mussolini during WWII when he lived in his small southern Italian village. As a boy, David searched through his father's papers for proof of such an unsavoury alliance to no avail.

When David comes upon his nephews and son furtively playing with their grandfather's gun at Danny's house, David squirrels away the gun under the pretext of removing it from the grasp of the children. He secretly begins to practice shooting at a range - alternately enthralled and repelled by his new fascination. This begets a new obsession.

David is a dangerous creature - not because of his medical condition or his efforts to hide it - but because its discovery seems to unleash the unpleasant, unsavoury, misogynistic wreck hidden beneath the veneer of the mild-mannered, semi-successful academic. David has neither patience nor respect for the women in his life - his ex-wife Julia, his mother or Jennifer, the hapless grad student whom he lures into his home for a night of illicit drugs and, allegedly, non-consensual sex. Afterwards David can remember virtually nothing of their sexual encounter.

When Jennifer lodges a complaint against David suggesting that she was a victim of date rape, David fears the worst  - that he has transgressed in a manner that he can't recall or guess at during his sleep. He thinks of other incidents that he has read about in which narcoleptics have murdered their loved ones in their sleep. He fears:

If intent is there, doesn't blame follow? Maybe all sleep has done is provide the permission the waking mind has withheld.

When David is driven from the college and banished to a lesser position in a school south of the border - driven away by his illness, mismanagement of his meds, near bankruptcy, poor relations with Julia and Marcus and his disastrous encounter with Jennifer - he lands in an equally precarious position. It's as if he is descending into a further ring of hell.

He finds himself falling for Kateri, the wife of Greg, the academic and friend who invited him to the U.S. college to teach. Sensing vulnerability and unhappiness, he is inexorably drawn to her. His relationship with her is brutal and reciprocal. Among his many addictions is his addiction to danger and risk - from relationships that will inevitably implode and will damage his chances of success to his fascination with guns and violence.

 ... for the first time he thinks he gets what the real thrall of a gun is beyond the blood lust and compensations, this feeling of being alone on the road without judges or gods, beholden to no authority but your own. The terrible freedom of that, of making the hard choice. Anything less, it seems is only for sleepwalkers.

David can neither control his more destructive impulses nor does he appear to want to. When he is removed from the college, yet again, for a grievous transgression he ends up in a foreign country on the business end of karma. The end result is spectacular and somehow appropriate.

At one point, David is confronted by a very young band of thugs, all with weapons and poor impulse control, David hallucinates that the leader of the boys is named Marcus, a clever Oedipal detail. For in this tale, the sons will destroy their fathers with the weapons that they have received from their fathers.