Monday, February 29, 2016

February Cultural Roundup

Inside Out (U.S., 2015)
Twenty Feet from Stardom (U.S., 2014)

The Paper Men by William Golding
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

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

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.