Shine a Light

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Spotlight was a movie I was relatively late to the party on. Not that I was completely late to it, but by the time it was even on my radar, it was the most locked Best Picture nominee.

And upon reading the synopsis for the film, explaining itself as retelling the 2001 story of the titular investigative team for the Boston Globe as it digs into a story of conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual abuse of minors as perpetrated by several priests within the Church. If that sort of historical biopic backdrop for social issues heavily moral doesn’t sound like Oscarbait, you don’t know Oscarbait.

And upon seeing it’s directed by Thomas McCarthy, I had a lump in my throat, for my very first exposure to his work was earlier in the year with the appalling Adam Sandler dramedy mess The Cobbler. A reprehensible enough movie to make me wary to see anything else done by anybody involved with that film in the slightest – as a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I’m not even sure I want to listen to Method Man anymore. So, since THAT had to be my first Tom McCarthy picture, I was afraid that Spotlight would be similarly incompetent with the worst possible material to screw up.

Now, on the one hand, Spotlight indeed turned out to be the Oscarbait we were expecting. But, it is phenomenally well-crafted Oscarbait, sophisticated enough that I don’t hesitate in calling it my second favorite of the Best Picture nominees, even if Mad Max: Fury Road is the only one that I think belongs there. Much of the praise on the film is rightly given to how McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer dedicate their focus on the painstaking meticulous manner of digging through as many sources and asking as many questions as possible to slowly bring together a full picture on how far and deep does this conspiracy run, with editor Tom McArdle being the film’s biggest weapon taking time to show how messy the pile of information that the Spotlight team has to work with is before letting them making their tedious cracking at it run right on without any slowdowns nor making it seem like this work was easy.

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The other main source of praise, the one that actively has my head scratching, is where I’ve seen people claim Spotlight is entirely unbiased to the events the team is reporting. Which isn’t true at all. Spotlight could have been an objective recollection of the events (though, without going into the morality, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective about child rape), but it’s not, for the other shocking strength of Spotlight is how it achieves being an ensemble character study.

Well, ideally, the CHARACTER central to this is Spotlight, but that Spotlight team is made up of head Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). All of whom are humans whose reactions we have to witness as they’re digging up more and more information, most of whom are lapsed Catholics themselves who now have to witness the Church in a different light. It doesn’t override the movie’s intentions to be a story about how the system of journalism works, but it’s there and it’s sneakily snuck into the places where we think the investigation is at the front-and-center of the movie, only to see McArdle cut many times to the faces listening to the victims rather than the faces talking to them (Spotlight is not at all dismissive of the victims either, the moments where we listen to their accounts are sobering without manipulating the audience the gravitas of the recollections). There are few visual noted visual flourishes, for Spotlight is a very muted film (my first reaction was almost to add on to the “this would be a better film as a documentary” brigade only to figure that to miss the point), but its most obvious one is how it portrays that act of listening as taking its mental and emotional toll on each of the characters as they realize what grim reality this paints and what repercussions their story will have.

Spotlight is of course not the only one affected by this – new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is trying to get a good feel for this new position of his, and section editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) begin at ends in regards to this story (Baron being the one who prods Spotlight into taking it and taking brunt for it as well as being an outsider), while Rezendes constantly compels exhausted attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to pull out a lot of old skeletons out of the legal closet to help Spotlight get decisive information on the case while attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) regrettably maintains his representation for the church.

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The machinations of the journalistic and legal process becomes a smokescreen for a picture of all the people affected by this case from the outside and later, a portrait of Boston as a city with this as a dark shadow behind it (there is at least one shot to my memory of a church overlooking our characters, though I can’t say I buy that as the movie not dipping its hand). And this wouldn’t work half as much if the cast were not as successful as they were in making characters whose sole function is to move us closer and closer to unveiling the truth we already know, with Tucci being the standout best. Ruffalo is the only one who actually gets caught acting. Like, really caught acting. He is the movie’s biggest weakness as he stares as goes out of his way to broadcast ticks of Rezendes and overshoots his Big Acting Moment in the movie (everybody gets one). That he’s the one actor with an Oscar nomination for this film makes me slightly bitter, but he’s outnumbered by so many restrained performances under McCarthy that turn humanity into drama instantly assuages that bemusement of mine.

It’s not All the President’s Men and it’s not going to be. Nor is Spotlight trying to be, since All the President’s Men asphyxiates itself on tension and paranoia while Spotlight is not much more than a well-crafted social piece by a director who knows where his strengths are. It doesn’t break the mold of journalism pictures and I wouldn’t make it a Best Picture nominee and yes, it is at times semi-anonymous for those reasons, but it’s satisfying and intelligent and that’s all it needed to be to go and redeem the name of a director I was barely familiar with.

On the nicest note to possibly end on, I have since seen all the other Thomas McCarthy films – The Station AgentThe Visitor, and Win Win – and can safely say McCarthy is a really good director. A very strong director of character and acting, in case Spotlight didn’t already display that. Maybe I can pull a retrospective soon…

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No, it’s a Bird.

Ok, so I’m going to be upfront.

This weekend the most notable wide release is Dumb and Dumber To, which I can’t think of anyone wanting to see beyond sheer nostalgia. The rest of the possible remaining movies on the marquee are the simplistic Gone Girl (which you probably saw already), the not-for-everyone John Wick, the boisterous Interstellar and some others I won’t list because I’m lazy and want to get to my review.

But last night, from what I understand, Birdman opened in 800 theaters finally. And if I am correct, it will only be in that many theaters for ONE week.

Go see Birdman.

And now I back it up. I honestly did not expect to like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a title that is such an afterthought and too long that I’m only typing it once. In fact, I didn’t even expect myself to go watch it. It’s been a long while since I ended up actually liking the stuff director Alejandro González Iñárritu, I still want my time wasted for Babel back.

I also don’t very much care for one-shot scenes most of the time. They usually call too much attention to themselves, a catch-22 when the original idea is to reel you into the scenario a lot more. I think that idea is largely lost though by the fact that most filmmakers don’t use it as an involvement technique of cinematography, but just to show off “Oh look how much we can get done in one shot.”

Emmanuel Lubezki is in fact one of the few cinematographers I think can actually not call attention to himself. His career is made up of tastefully composed and spread-out one-shot sequences that leave you realizing what they are only after the fact (and he’s usually helped by a fantastic editor who knows when and where to use them – In this particular case, Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrone, though they are less there as a source of pacing for Lubezki’s beautiful eye and more to very astoundingly work at making the cuts near unrecognizable unless you really look for them; the pace for these moments seems to be granted by the throbbing drumroll of a score by world-class drum legend Antonio Sánchez).

But Birdman’s special form of presenting itself as a one-shot film (not including some semi-avant garde montages, the grand total of “shots” in Birdman is three) for most of its duration is special in not being cinematic. It’s extremely literary. It’s a visual translation to the stream-of-consciousness writing style. It’s why some things in the film don’t make sense, timewise or locationwise, in its presentation. We’re thinking with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he just gathers himself in different places at different times. The movie makes this clear from the very first second it begins… the man is floating in midair, attempting to act serene as he sits on his invisible hand staring at a window, wondering “how did we get here?”

Who is Riggan Thomson, though? An actor once thrust into the limelight for his appearances in the blockbuster Birdman series, before inadvertently making a mess of his career by refusing to do a fourth movie. Now, a significant amount of decades after the fact, he is trying to clean his career back up in a revival at the St. James Theater. The play in question is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Riggan is involved creatively at all points, directing, writing, and having his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifinakis) produce the production while Riggan himself finances it. He’s put everything on the line for this play, even things unrelated to the play whatsoever like his relationship to his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and has a very strained attitude to her dad, threatening to tear them apart.

Also threatening to ruin Riggan’s career and life with it are his actors, such as the last-minute addition actor of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton with a hairstyle that while probably serving as one of many subtle bird images in the film, just reminds me of James Dean. A lot.) who quickly proves himself to be just as much an asshat and a control freak to severe levels as he is an amazing actor, Shiner’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is looking forward to making it as a actress, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who Riggan is apparently sleeping with. The upcoming previews and opening performances are the final time-setter in this bomb Riggan finds himself inside of and he’s hoping to make it out alive.

See, now it’s especially funny that the movie is based on making itself as literary as possible simply through visuals and especially at focusing on a Raymond Carver tale because the movie itself feels like a Raymond Carver tale. Of course, one set in New York rather than the Southwest US and one that has a focus more on the upper class than the middle class, but its thematic appeals, its structure, its emotional focuses, they’re Carver in nature and maybe it’s because we happen to be in the mind of Riggan for most of the film and Riggan quickly proclaims himself a fan of Carver, but there it is – The script by Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, & Nicolás Giacobo certainly pits a bunch of minds together to try to make the film seem like a singular thought following all the fears and anxieties of a man at the edge, and despite it being an actor on the stage who has the world staring at him, it is surprisingly easy to relate to for any layman, whether at midlife crisis or in the middle of a life crisis. If there is one problem with the writing, it sometimes tangles over itself – for one, constantly we see Riggan as he perceives himself – capable of psychic powers and superhuman displays of strength and flight. It very much cements the fact that we are watching from the mind of Riggan, but the movie constantly parades an ambiguity into these moments that suggests possibly Riggan’s powers are real and it grasps onto this presentation especially to its final shot. I’m sure it’s fun for audiences to ask themselves those kinds of questions, but the problem is that this attempt at ambiguity is weighted towards one side; if the powers are real, the movie loses most of its theme.

In addition, for a movie that is supposed to have a centralized point of view, there are more than a few scenes that Riggan just doesn’t even appear in at all, with only one of them seeming to be essential to the storytelling while the rest are really great, entertaining scenes that still are pretty disposable in regards to the rest of the film. This is Riggan’s world, these are his own shadows he is trying to escape, let’s try to keep it Riggan’s world and let’s keep focusing on those shadows instead. But that’s just me.

Of course, this is the sort of script that is tailored for a certain lead actor to shine in. The kind of movie made for acting. And that actor blessed with this opportunity is Michael Keaton. Ignoring the obvious parallels in career (ironically, Keaton claims Riggan is the furthest character he has ever played from his own personality), Keaton still is at his best form, not only since his obscurity post-Batman, but in his whole career yet. He channels his frenzied stage persona to a tune that the audience can keep up with without feeling alienated (unlike his performance in RoboCop which… ugh), he has an underlaying melancholy that gives so much to the movie’s atmosphere, and especially a constant danger with every twitch of the finger and whisper to himself. Keaton as Riggan is just the cherry on-top of one of the better casts I have witnessed in 2014, even including some surprisingly revelatory performances from actors I was starting to get tired of, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis, and Edward Norton all are actors with as much to prove as Riggan and they damn well prove it against me earlier bias. Just Innaritu proves he can still be a fantastic source of comedy and that all his precise work can be used to actually say something than be a pointless display of technique. I have a lot of re-thinking to do about him.

Listen, Birdman is a really funny movie. A surprisingly psychological movie. An unrelentingly dramatic movie. If you’re going to watch any movie this week, watch Birdman. You can catch Nightcrawler, Interstellar or Whiplash next week, you’re not missing much with the others, and if you took forever to see The Boxtrolls, you deserve to miss it.

Treat yourself with Birdman.