Saturday, November 28, 2015


 5 / 5 

Ireland, 1951.  Rose Lacey sees a only dead-end future for her younger sister Eilis.  She enlists the help of a priest in America to bring a better life to the timid, soft-spoken girl.  With little expectation and even less enthusiasm, Eilis boards a ship and makes the rocky journey across the Atlantic.

Brooklyn begins modestly, offering no hint of the sweeping arch of the story to come, or of the luminous, complex woman Eilis is. Her story is absorbing and moving, and while Brooklyn sometimes veers a bit toward some soap opera tendencies, it never feels contrived, due both to the screenplay by Nick Hornby (based on a novel by Colm Tóibín) and to the intricate, intense central performance by Saoirse Ronan, who quietly creates one of the screen's great characters in Eilis.

She is plain and simple in Ireland, where her circumscribed life is defined not by her own desires but by her mother, her boss and her sister -- only the latter of whom seems to want Eilis to break away.

On the boat, Eilis is so timid that when she gets furiously seasick she would rather use a bucket than cause a fuss.  It seems the most likely outcome of her trip to America is that she will stay on board and go right back -- she is in no way equipped to fend for herself.  Then again, she has to.

Brooklyn follows this remarkably resilient, determined woman through her first hesitant months in New York, where she lives in a boarding house ruled by the stern, Irish Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), seeks counsel from the Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) who funded her emigration, and attends Irish community dances with her Irish housemates.

Eilis has left Ireland physically, but her heart resides there, and she struggles.  She cannot help feeling she has left part of her life, part of herself, behind.  The priest explains to her, "Homesickness is like most sickness. It will make you feel wretched for a while, then it will move on to someone else."  But her sense of displacement is so great that when she finally receives her first letter from home, she realizes the permanence of her choice.

Brooklyn follows Eilis through her first impossible year, as she adjusts to her new world, and into the next, when Eilis's life peeks through the blanket of sadness, unbidden and unexpected.  At a dance, she meets an Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen), who confesses a secret: He doesn't like Italian girls; he likes Irish girls.

Little by little, Eilis wakes up to her new life, which sweeps her along with a bittersweet joy, until she has almost allowed herself to forget about Ireland, which is when the unexpected happens, not just once but twice, and Brooklyn shows us a genuine struggle so deep and so serious that one of the film's greatest surprises is how little we can anticipate what Eilis will do given the choice she faces.

The decision she has to make should be an easy one, and it's to Ronan's enormous credit that Eilis's actions are never impossible to understand. So committed is Brooklyn to its theme of what defines a home that the emotional pull Eilis feels from both sides of the Atlantic are strong and sincere.

Through its specific story, Brooklyn reveals general truths about the ways we change, and how that change affects the way we respond to the places we call home.  It's about a woman from Ireland in the 1950s, but the emotional truths are not bound by gender, time or place.

Nor is the movie constrained by the specificity of its story.  Brooklyn's most obvious strength comes from its plot and its acting, but it's also a glorious movie to look at.  Every scene, every shot, is stuffed with period details that make its era come vividly to life.

Ronan is clearly Brooklyn's star, and she shines, but she's surrounded by a remarkable cast, especially Cohen as her doggedly optimistic suitor; Walters as her attentive guardian, who takes no guff from any of the girls in the house; and Jane Brennan as her grim and resigned mother, whose desire to pull Ellis back into her orbit is both understandable and unforgivable.

At a brisk 111 minutes, Brooklyn is a marvel of compact storytelling, a welcome relief from the bloated excess of most films.  Director John Crowley tells Eilis's story with style and simplicity, through the remarkable warmth of its lead character (and actress), Brooklyn illuminates why America, with all its flaws, remains the destination for so many whose lives seem so hopeless.

Viewed Nov. 27, 2015


"The Peanuts Movie"

 2.5 / 5 

The title of The Peanuts Movie reveals just about everything you might need to know about The Peanuts Movie.  It's a movie with the Peanuts.  That about sums it up.

If you don't think you'd enjoy seeing a movie with the Peanuts, you won't much care for The Peanuts Movie.  If you think it's high time that Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally, Snoopy, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Marci and the gang had their own film, then you'll probably get a kick out of it.  And if you don't care much either way, you won't really care much either way about The Peanuts Movie.

Truth be told, I fall more toward the "doesn't-really-care-much" side of the scale, but that doesn't mean I didn't think parts of The Peanuts Movie were absolutely adorable and sweet-natured.  The movie, though, isn't as wistful or melancholy as the Peanuts TV specials.  In fact, it's a little depressing.

The TV specials endure at least in part because of their brevity.  They tell small, sweet stories, but they do so by taking a little bit of glee at the way they place poor ol' Charlie Brown in terribly embarrassing and frankly unhappy situations.  The Peanuts may only be kids, but they act more like adults in the way they have a pretty hierarchical pecking order, with Lucy at the very top, her germ-filled nemesis Snoopy not far behind, and so on down the line until the very end, where you have Charlie Brown, who is the butt of everyone's jokes and the target of their scorn.

Charles M. Schulz established the tone of the Peanuts right from the start with his very first Peanuts comic strip: Two little kids sit on the sidewalk as Charlie Brown approaches.  "Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown!" says one of them. "Good ol' Charlie Brown ... yes, sir!" Smiling, oblivious, round-headed Charlie Brown walks by. The boy repeats, "Good ol' Charlie Brown!"  Then comes the kicker:

"How I hate him!"

And such is the way it's always been for Charlie Brown.  It's more or less the same way in The Peanuts Movie, but when it plays out over four line-drawn panels or a half-hour with commercials, it's one thing, but over 75 minutes it's a little wearying.  Poor Charlie Brown.  How could anyone hate him?

After more than six decades, the animosity may have tempered a bit, and it's true the kids aren't quite as mean-spirited, but Charlie Brown just can't catch a break.  The kid's self-esteem isn't in the gutter, it's way down in the sewer at this point, and heading out toward the ocean.  No one seems to notice except Lucy, and she just wants to exploit it to make herself feel superior.

Knowing that there aren't a lot of people who want to sit through a full-length animated film about a kid who's chronically depressed and needs some serious intervention, the filmmakers behind The Peanuts Movie have fleshed things out a bit to add a long and kind of boring story about Snoopy imagining himself fighting the Red Baron and meeting a little poodle named Fifi, and a lot of cute little side moments featuring some of the other characters.

In typical Peanuts fashion, it all plays out with a jazzy mellowness, and on one hand it's kind of nice to see a movie that's in little rush to get to its slight story, that doesn't feel a need to barrel ahead into a story that obsessively tries to square away the "canon" of the Peanuts with its current plot.  On the other hand, that means The Peanuts Movie just kind of meanders along from scene to scene until it stumbles into a story.

It's really about putting the Peanuts kids back onto the big screen for the first time since 1980, getting the tone and feel of the TV specials just right, updating the look into the 21st century with nicely done CG animation that strikes a perfect balance between the simple lines of the earlier versions with the expectations of animation that today's kids have.

But whether The Peanuts Movie is any good probably depends on how old you are or what kind of mood you're in.  That is, kids will probably like it, even though it's quite gentle and slowly paced by the standards of other animated movies; and if you're feeling a little nostalgic for the Peanuts and would finally like to see them do something other than have Thanksgiving or buy a Christmas tree, you'll probably like it, too.

When I saw it, the nostalgic part of me was satisfied after about 10 minutes, and for the rest of the movie I just kept marveling at how miserable Charlie Brown must be in life.  It's a good thing he never gets any older than 8 or 9, the age I've always assumed he is.  I kept thinking that he's going to have an even more miserable life in high school, and hoping that by the time he graduates from college he comes to terms with his place in the world.  I hope he does.  I like Charlie Brown.  I want to see him have a good day every once in a while.  I don't want to see him end up miserable and regretting life.  I fear that's the direction he's heading, and nothing in The Peanuts Movie really changed my mind.

Viewed Nov. 27, 2015


Friday, November 27, 2015

Catching Up: "Mr. Holmes"

 3.5 / 5 

It's widely accepted that Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on film more than any other fictional character, though modern depictions were sparse until a few years ago.  Until then, modern movie audiences had only seen him on screen in the spirited, rambunctious would-be blockbuster Young Sherlock Holmes, which tanked with audiences.

Young Sherlock Holmes is a terrific movie that captures some of the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character, even as it veers into effects-heavy Spielbergian territory, and is about as far from the quiet, contemplative mood of director Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes as you could possibly imagine.

However, it's worth mentioning in part because the actor who played Holmes as a teenager, Nicholas Rowe, makes a clever cameo in the latest movie -- and because both movies try to imagine less what Holmes might be thinking as he tries to solve a mystery, but the more difficult puzzle of what he might be feeling.

The 1985 lark made up a story that Doyle never did, about the very first case Holmes took on; Mr. Holmes also ventures beyond Doyle's territory and imagines Holmes's very last case.  The film is structured as a cinematic memoir, as Holmes -- embodied here by Ian McKellen -- tries to write his own story about himself.  The public knows him well, but only through the stories penned by his partner, John Watson; he wants to tell his own version of that final case.

It's been 35 years since he took on the case. Clarifying the particulars of the mystery is important to him because the outcome drove him to leave London altogether and retire to a cottage by the shore, where he spends his days gently tending to bees.  Now, his brilliant mind is fading, and Holmes feels the pressure of time weighing on him -- he knows that soon his memories will be gone, and it is of utmost importance for him to create a more accurate version of the case than the public has known from Watson's "penny-dreadful" novels.

Why does Holmes feel such urgency?  What could have happened in the case to drive him into exile? These are the central mysteries in Mr. Holmes, which is not a whodunit as much as a whyitmatters.

Holmes relays the story to the young son of his housekeeper.  The boy, Roger (played by the precocious Milo Parker), idolizes the old man.  His widowed mother (played by Laura Linney) is much more suspicious.  She wants to move on in life, away from the memories of what she lost in the war, and her son's friendship with Holmes will only make getting away from this life more difficult.

Young Roger becomes the first reader of Holmes's first self-penned manuscript, and he encourages the great detective to continue, but remembering the case gets harder and harder with every passing day.  Holmes recalls how a young man came to visit him in Baker Street, how the man's wife seemed to have been losing her sanity after the death of two unborn children.  Holmes begins to shadow the woman in post-World War I-era London, and eventually comes face-to-face with her.

It's that brief meeting that not only concludes the case but seals Holmes's fate.  The problem is, he can remember too little about it.  He knows only that what happened in that one short meeting set his own life moving in a different course, and left him isolated, lonely, filled with deep and painful regret.  But why?  Holmes feels an ever-growing need to know.

The movie also chronicles a trip Holmes took to Japan much later, after the next war, the one that ended with unimaginable death and destruction from the sky.  During a visit to Hiroshima, Holmes finds a rare plant he believes may help slow the inexorable decline of his mind.  He also learns that in Japan, grieving and mourning are not shameful acts; they are an important step in healing a life filled with regret.

And Holmes, it becomes clear as he reveals more and more of his final case, has much to regret.

He has stripped himself of all of his former responsibilities, has cut off the life he knew from the life he has, and as the boy reads more of the story, Roger wants to know what could have happened.  Ultimately, there is a revelation, but the conclusion itself is less important than what it means to Holmes, and how he ties it together with his Japanese journey -- and comes to learn the value of a conclusion that is less grounded in facts than it is in emotion.

That is what Mr. Holmes discovers is the conundrum behind the creation, and helps shed some light on why Holmes has been such a popular character for so long.  He understands all of the facts, but has never understood the feelings.  It's presented with lyric beauty, accompanied by impeccably gorgeous scenery and photography and a luminous central performance by McKellen (who meets his equal, at times, in the young Parker) and the kind of wistful air of lost possibility that also infused Condon's fine 1998 film Gods and Monsters.

Mr. Holmes is a lovely, quiet movie, small in size and ambition, though filled with impressive performances. Nonetheless, its final revelation is as fulfilling as any from one of Doyle's stories:

The brain works quickly and logically, but the head is slow and confusing.  Perhaps that is as it should be, because what the head sometimes fails to perceive, the heart understands all too well.

Viewed Nov. 26, 2015


Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Secret in Their Eyes"

 2 / 5 

The corpse should be the only lifeless part of a murder-mystery, but that's not the case with Secret in Their Eyes, which is dramatically inert, with listless performances by its three high-profile leads, none of whom can inject a single spark of vitality into the draggy, slow-moving drama.

Granted, there are a couple of moments where Secret in Their Eyes almost resuscitates itself, but before it can get on its feet, it collapses again under the weight of its attempts to take a melodramatic potboiler and turn it into an Oscar-season contender.

It's based on a 2009 Argentinean movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  That film was made with vigor and urgency, not to mention bold and stylish filmmaking choices that included its deservedly famous single-take foot chase through a packed soccer stadium.

The Americanized version lacks any real cinematic ambition.  (The stadium scene is there, but is shot in a traditional, straightforward style.  Perhaps director Billy Ray is being smart by avoiding direct comparisons to the first; but like many of the changes, it leaves little left to exploit.)  Instead, Secret in Their Eyes tries to focus more on the human aspect of its central story.  In this update, the crime that launches the plot is the brutal murder of a young woman -- who turns out to be the daughter of an FBI terrorism task force investigator.  The investigator is played by Julia Roberts, a normally captivating actress who unfortunately mistakes a lack of makeup with dramatic intensity.  She's fine, but nowhere near as emotionally vulnerable or ferocious as her wan cheeks and sunken eyes might indicate.

Her co-worker (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who seems oddly indifferent to the role), is the first to see the corpse, which is found near a Los Angeles mosque that's under investigation in the months after 9/11.  (The movie was shot long before mosques and Muslims became the hottest, angriest, ugliest topic in American politics.)  They both work with a deputy District Attorney (Nicole Kidman), who helps them track down the terrorism suspect who may also have been the murderer.

Secret in Their Eyes moves back and forth through time, from 2002 to 2015, as the suspect is first released from custody, then becomes the subject of an obsessive sort of quest to bring him to justice.  Mixed in is an ill-fitting, unrequited romance between Ejiofor and Kidman, which never quite gels -- their years-long flirtation doesn't take the story in any new direction, either in terms of plot or theme.

Worse, the political underpinnings of the story don't go anywhere at all.  The original used the backdrop of Argentina's own political history, in which its government turned against its own citizens with deadly results, as a way to give structure and meaning to the drama -- it was a political thriller in the most literal sense.  In this version, there's no payoff; the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are mentioned over and over, but there's no critical eye cast on government or policy, not much more than some oblique references to the preening self-absorption of those who run for elected office.

With the exception of an effectively nasty interrogation scene to which Kidman brings some unexpected energy and fire, Secret in Their Eyes mostly meanders through territory that will seem awfully familiar to anyone who occasionally watches Lifetime or Dateline.  It's mostly presented with the same sort of detached recitation of facts as it moves from what happened in 2002 to the same characters in 2015 as they continue attempting to bring the killer to justice.

Ultimately, it leads to a third-act plot twist that feels less inspired than contrived.  Worse, the movie doesn't give the audience even a moment to feel surprised or comprehend what it all means because the big revelation is accompanied by countless flashbacks to lines of dialogue or portentous looks from a character that are the equivalent of the filmmakers screaming out, "You see? We told you what was going to happen and you didn't notice!  Aren't you shocked?"

They have to do this cinematic equivalent of screaming, because they realize it's more likely that no one noticed because the story just isn't really worth paying a lot of attention.  The revelations seem less surprising than a desperate final attempt to add some interest to an otherwise bland, dull story.

With such talented stars and a director whose previous films include the compelling and underrated gems Shattered Glass and Breach, it's all a bit of a letdown.  Ray has taken terrific source material and leeched the life from it, leaving behind something that bears a few tantalizing indications that it could have been a good idea, might have been interesting, but instead has refused to cooperate in the transformation process.  Instead it's become uncooperative, and stubbornly resists becoming the bold and essential American political thriller it could have been.  It just sits there, unmoving, lifeless and, most of all, unconvincing.

Viewed Nov. 20, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Favorite Films: "The China Syndrome"

The China Syndrome was made by people steadfastly opposed to nuclear energy, and might have come and gone from theaters back in 1979 as nothing more than a liberal fever dream if, 12 days after it opened, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history hadn't taken place.

The movie began playing on March 16, 1979, and late in the afternoon of March 28, the radioactive core of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island began its unprecedented melt down.

During The China Syndrome, a character explains that if the core of a nuclear power plant were to experience a total meltdown, the radioactive material would burn through its containment structure, not to mention the earth below it, theoretically not stopping until it got all the way to China.  (You know, the way kids used to think that if you never stopped digging a hole, China's where you'd end up.)  An accident like that, the academic protestor in the movie says, "could render the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable."

Oh, by the way, the Three Mile Island plant was in Pennsylvania.

Suddenly, everyone in the country wanted to know what it was that almost killed them, and their curiosity drove them to The China Syndrome in droves.  Maybe they were expecting an angry activism-style film, or a dry and dull lecture about the dangers of nuclear power.  Very likely, though, they weren't expecting the smart, tense, ludicrously entertaining thriller they got.

The China Syndrome meshes the cinema-verité-influenced work of 1970s realist auteurs and blends its no-nonsense approach with the style and polish of a studio film, resulting in a movie that feels both stylish and real.  It's urgent and serious, but never forgets its greater mission to be a hell of a good movie.

It's anchored by two stars who were at the pinnacle of their popularity and ability, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon.  At 42 and 54, respectively, they're practically senior citizens from the perspective of today's youth-obsessed Hollywood, but The China Syndrome shows the power of (relative) maturity: They're both alarmingly good in their roles, joined by comparative youngster Michael Douglas, then coming into his own as a movie star after starring in the TV cop drama "The Streets of San Francisco."

Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a Los Angeles TV reporter who's sick of the lightweight human-interest stories she's relegated to covering.  She jumps at the chance to do a piece about the newly opened (and fictional) Ventana nuclear power plant.  It's a puff piece, but at least lets her talk about a hot-button subject.  During the visit, something happens.  Kimberly's cameraman (Douglas) captures the frantic actions of the control room on film -- including the anguish and relief of the plant manager, Jack Godell (Lemmon).

The news crew races back to the station, insisting that they have a bombshell news story -- but they don't know what it is.  The power plant's PR guy insists it wasn't an accident, just an "unexpected transient," and that the news crew didn't understand what they were seeing, and despite the alarms and warning lights, nothing actually happened.

But Kimberly and Richard, the camera guy, aren't so sure.  They take the film to a nuclear expert.  He tells them that what they experienced bordered on catastrophic -- that not just L.A. but all of California was put at risk.  Kimberly becomes determined to uncover the real story.  She tracks down Jack Godell, who finally agrees to tell her what he knows.  Not surprisingly, none of this makes the power company very happy.

The China Syndrome deftly weaves a classic story of an amateur sleuth with political commentary -- but it's the expertly handled suspense that makes the movie a standout, even 36 years after its release.  The exterior trappings may seem anchored in the 1970s, but they're easy limitations to get beyond.  As the story ramps up, so does the tension, leading to a remarkable climax inside the control room, as Kimberly and Jack Godell, who has barricaded himself inside, prepare to go live on the air to warn the public of exactly what's happening at Ventana -- while an invading police SWAT team tries to get in.

Director James Bridges, who would go on to Urban Cowboy the following year but never quite hit the highs of The China Syndrome, wrote the screenplay with Mike Gray and T.S. Cook, and among the film's many remarkable accomplishments is the absence of a musical score.  It doesn't need the addition of external cues to tell its viewers what to feel or how to react -- it's intense enough as it is.

Nearly four decades later, the movie has lost little of its ability to enthrall.  Meanwhile, nuclear power never did quite gain the traction its proponents had envisioned.  Three Mile Island certainly didn't help their cause.  Neither did The China Syndrome.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Favorite Films: "Magnolia"

"And, it is in the humble opinion of this narrator
that strange things happen all the time.
And so it goes and so it goes and the book says,
We may be through with the past,
but the past ain't through with us."

Magnolia is a crazed film, a movie like no other, a genius work that refuses to explain itself -- but needs no explanation.  It is like a human-scaled version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, equally as epic and exploratory, and filled with grand ambition to look at the way we are, the way we behave, the way we love and hate and fear and worry, and to marvel at what it sees.

Its director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has said, "Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make," and he's right, because Magnolia is one of the best American movies ever made.  Magnolia revels in the pure joy of being a movie, of making impossible shots and impossible things happen, of layering story and sound and music and happenstance in such extraordinary ways that even though it is a film about a very specific time and place, it feels timeless and universal.

The time and place is just before the turn of the century in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.  The Valley is a concrete jigsaw puzzle of strip malls and apartment buildings, dotted here and there by movie and TV studios; it is not a glamorous place, but it is the place where glamour is made by working-class people who are less concerned with appearances than their tonier neighbors "over the hill."

It's Anderson's cinematic Yoknapatawpha County, a microcosm of all humanity, which in Magnolia is overcome by a certain wary anxiousness, maybe about the coming 21st century, maybe about the seemingly never-ending rain that won't stop falling in L.A., maybe just because their lives are falling apart -- which, Magnolia observes, is what happens to lives.

Magnolia begins with a fast and ferocious opening that explores the seeming impossibility of chance in life.  Its vignettes aren't connected to the rest of the movie except in the message: Nothing happens by chance, except, perhaps, everything.  As Magnolia continues, its seemingly random characters also seem disconnected, until they begin to overlap, connect, intersect and collide, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.  Though few of them are alone, they are all lonely, and most of them are consumed by their pasts.

There's a prodigious little boy (Jeremy Blackman), a contestant on a popular quiz show, who doesn't want to play the game anymore.  There's the host of the quiz show (Philip Baker Hall), who finds out he's dying of cancer and tries to make amends to the daughter (Melora Walters) and wife (Melinda Dillon), whose lives he has harmed.  There's the producer of the quiz show (Jason Robards), much further along in the process of dying, his caretaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who is being driven to a nervous breakdown because she's surrounded by death and regret.  And there's the producer's son, a sleaze-bucket sexual self-help guru (Tom Cruise), whose rage at the way he has been treated by life is channeled into a crazed public persona.

All of them find ways to sideswipe, and sometimes collide head-on with, each other, joined by a sweet-hearted police officer (John C. Reilly) who isn't very good at his job, and a has-been quiz-show contestant (William H. Macy).

Magnolia is a sprawling film, but Anderson brings it all together masterfully, with camera work and editing that are dizzying and dazzling.  Anderson is fearless behind the camera, and his daring extends to his actors, who are unapologetically emotional and uniformly astonishing.

Its concerns for traditional story cower in comparison to its concerns for extreme emotion, Magnolia bears less resemblance to a standard film than to an opera -- virtually every moment is filled with music (the propulsive score by Jon Brion adds tremendously to the jittery anxiousness and luxuriant emotion).  Magnolia is driven more by visual style and thematic cohesiveness than by a linear plot.  When it needs to pause to emphasize an emotion or a specific story beat, the camera turns to a particular character and lets the moment happen; it's like a cinematic aria, spoken rather than sung, indulging in its splendid actors.

It's not always simply spoken, though.  In one astonishing scene that makes even jaded movie viewers sit up and take notice, all of the major characters break into the same song as they listen in on the radio, underscoring the ways in which everyone is connected -- practically and emotionally -- in ways that might surprise even them.

The opera comparison persists throughout Magnolia, because the final act of this long, absorbing movie heads into richly theatrical, emotionally tricky territory.  Just as every one of the characters reaches an existential tipping point, just as each of these fragile people is about to shatter, something extraordinary happens.

This being L.A., Magnolia could have easily and believably brought in a fire, a mudslide or (like its cinematic cousin) a grand earthquake.  But Anderson refuses to do anything easily -- and this cataclysm is so entirely unexpected that it's not surprising to know that many first-time viewers react to it with something less than appreciation.  It is a bizarre occurrence, one that has never been seen on film before and one that's unlikely ever to be put on film again.

It is so wildly weird that it's perfect.  It's a reminder of the kind of coincidence and impossibility chronicled in the film's opening moments, the extreme unpredictability of life.  It is as nonsensical yet plausible as, say, a gunman walking into a theater and shooting people, or as two jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center.  Of course, when Magnolia was made, none of those things had yet happened -- but in the wake of those real-life insanities, Magnolia has become a film I've turned to time and again to bring some sense of order to a chaotic world.

I've watched all 3 hours, 8 minutes of it tonight, the night after Paris was attacked.

In the past 24 hours, I've heard the word "senseless" used over and over to describe those attacks.  But what in life is sensible?

How is it we can so regularly fail to see the way our lives can fall apart at any moment, how one word from another person, one look, one act of kindness or cruelty, can change everything?  How can we believe we have control when things that defy plausibility happen with astonishing regularity?

One one hand, they may not be as grotesquely extreme as the incident that closes out Magnolia -- but, on the other, in their own devastating ways, they are even more unbelievable.

Yes, strange things happen all the time.  And, yes, as the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us. So maybe the best anyone can do is just to find someone else, someone equally as imperfect and difficult and scared, who will experience those things with us.   Magnolia discovers that deep in the San Fernando Valley, during rain-soaked days and anxious nights, that, in the end, that's all anyone really wants, or even needs: To get through the impossible randomness of life, to hope it doesn't overwhelm is, and to wait for the rain to clear.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


 4.5 / 5 

Movies and newspaper journalism don't typically mix well.  Being a newspaper reporter -- a job I was fortunate to have for a time many years back -- is not a glamorous job, and the careful and methodical work of an investigative journalist is even less movie-ready.  More than that, despite the romantic insistence of some of the best movies about newspapering, journalists with the looks and charm of Robert Redford, Sally Field and Cary Grant rarely populate newsrooms.

Director Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight is, then, an impressive accomplishment.  OK,  yes, it has some pretty darned good-looking people in its cast, but they're not given the polish of Hollywood; Spotlight is a determinedly straightforward, no-frills look at how journalism worked just before the whole industry imploded, and McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer capture the confusing, confounding messiness of reporting with intense authenticity.

Spotlight throws its audience into the newsroom of The Boston Globe without commentary.  There are no pat introductions, no basic primers into the way things work.  But the movie also wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story: The newspaper has a new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber, looking as grown-up and tired as most everyone else in the film), a Jewish outsider from The Miami Herald who thinks the paper has been a little soft on a potentially interesting story about alleged child abuse by Catholic priests.

Less sure about the approach is Ben Bradlee Jr. (played by John Slattery).  It's never mentioned in the movie, but Bradlee's father was the executive editor of the Washington Post during that paper's Watergate investigations, so he knows a little something about the way a newspaper has to be absolutely sure of the stories it prints.

Spotlight is led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who oversees a small team of reporters, including Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James).  Now, let's be clear, Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Broadway musical actor James aren't exactly un-beautiful people, but Spotlight makes them entirely believable as low-paid, high-intensity print journalists.

The Spotlight team isn't quite sure what they're working on or how deep it goes -- but as Baron insists that they take it further, sometimes over Bradlee's objections, the story begins taking on a life of its own.  They meet victims, broken and pained men who can't get past what happened to them, and in some of the most raw and surprising scenes in the movie, the men share their stories in explicit detail.

Still, it's not enough.  Baron wants them to go further, to get to the core of the story -- how Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law not only knew that priests were abusing children, but that the scope of the crimes was larger and more pervasive than anyone imagined, and that the church actively covered up the allegations.

Spotlight, with little embellishment or excess flair, grapples with some of the toughest questions, not just of the scandal, but of the ethics of journalism: Does the newspaper have its own motives?  Does it have culpability, given evidence that emerges that the newspaper's staff knew of the allegations and did nothing about them?  What of the newspaper's role as champion and supporter of its city?  What responsibility does it have to protect the identities and integrity of its sources?

Yet Spotlight isn't a movie about the ethics of journalism, exactly, and it doesn't make a particularly significant effort to be irate about the abuse scandal itself -- not, at least, until its final title cards, which describe the genuinely disquieting global scope of priestly abuse.

 Spotlight is instead aiming its sights higher than being an issues film: It wants to be a good story well-told, and in that it succeeds admirably.  It captures both the intent and the spirit of "old-fashioned" journalism as well as any movie ever has, and by doing so it underscores what's missing from today's ubiquitous online media -- the hard, tenacious work of reporting, the process of checks and balances within the system of professional journalism, and the impressive dedication of traditional reporters.

Throughout Spotlight, there's a persistent undercurrent of the threat from online journalism. The story takes place in 2001 and 2002, just as the Internet was becoming ubiquitous, and when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, become a key plot point, the threat from the terrorists is not quite as overwhelming to The Boston Globe as the threat from the huge billboard for "AOL Anywhere" that sits right next to its office building.

Journalism was one of the many elements of life that changed that day, but Spotlight captures one of the last epic stories about newspapering, a story that was taking place just as the world was being forever altered.  Though the movie is made with a certain emotional reserve, Spotlight offers an unexpectedly compelling reminder for what we have lost with the decline of print journalism. In its final scenes, huge presses run ink across paper, the newspaper is cut and packaged into bundles, loaded on to trucks, and delivered around the city.  At the same time, on the same day, everyone will learn the story in the same way -- by reading it in the newspaper.

As those trucks fly by, "Robby" Robinson watches them from his car.  There's a little gleam in his eye, he might cry.  And he might well have reason to do exactly that.  Yes, he has put to bed a great story, one that's going to have ramifications on an entirely religion for decades to come.  But that's not why the tears are in his eyes; he's watching the end of American newspapering.  Spurred by 9/11's need to tell us everything we needed to know and to do it now, newspapers couldn't compete.  In those trucks, Robby is watching his future roll away.

Spotlight may be about the way the Catholic Church was brought down by a team of doggedly persistent, fiercely intelligent and dedicated reporters -- but it's also about the way the newspaper industry brought itself down, how it never found a way to adapt, and instead ceded its power to the news flashy high-tech thing.

In one of his previous films, The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy brought a similar clear-eyed melancholy to his subject; he refused to be wistful, insisted on letting scenes play out the way they should.  With The Station Agent, he created one of the most lovely eulogies to the sort of life adults aren't really allowed to live anymore, independent and free and solitary.  In Spotlight he does the same -- Spotlight isn't an epitaph for newspapers, it's just a reminder that newspapers have an important role to play, that they are staffed by trained professionals who believe strongly in what they do, and perhaps its a hopeful movie in a way, a reminder that trained and educated journalists can affect change in a major way.  The good ol' fashioned newspaper(wo-)man still has a vital role in today's society.

This is what Sarah Palin dubbed the "lame-stream media": Professionals who watch out for misdeeds, who examine the dark sides of the world -- religious figures, politicians, law enforcement officers are all fair game -- and turn a spotlight on them.  This is the kind of journalism that scares unprepared, ill-advised public figures because, as the movie shows, its practitioners are trained to be thorough and methodical, to be objective in their writing even when they can't be objective in their personal views.

No wonder they're being pushed aside.  Spotlight is a sobering reminder that their work remains vital, that it's necessary, even in the post-AOL Anywhere age.

Viewed Nov. 7, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood