In 2001 the problem of pedophile priests was something that cropped up occasionally but it was assumed that it was rare. Mostly this was because people didn’t want to believe it. But in cities like Boston there was also a certain amount of collusion among the police, the judiciary and even the press to keep these incidents under wraps. And of course the Catholic Church had a large interest in suppressing it. They also had the power to bury the issue, being a large well-entrenched institution in the city. When an incident occurred, the church would move the priest into another parish and perhaps into a rehabilitation facility, most of which were placed in neighborhoods around the city. They could also convince the victims and their families to keep quiet, since most of them were working class people who regarded the church as a powerful authority. A couple of the victims interviewed in this film said that they felt they had to cooperate in both the original crime and the cover-up because getting attention from these priests to them was like getting attention from God.
Consequently, nobody had any idea of how big the problem was.
Spotlight is based on a true story. The title comes from The Boston Globe’s, investigative journalism section. It is a team of reporters, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, who look into various local scandals and corruption around the city. When new editor Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, takes over he directs Robby to have his team look into the pedophile scandal. What they uncover resonates throughout the city, the country and even the world.
This is an odd film in that there’s really no lead role. It is a true ensemble cast. Which is unusual because an actor like Michael Keaton, who won the best Actor Oscar just last year could easily have gone to the producers and demanded that his part be expanded into a starring role. The same goes for Mark Ruffalo who plays Mike Rezendes, one of the reporters. To their credit they didn’t do that. Uncovering all this information took a great amount of teamwork and this terrific cast portrayed that nicely.
The script by Tom McCarthy, who also directed, and Josh Singer is amazing. It’s all dialog of course but it’s not flashily perfect and articulate like Aaron Sorkin’s. And it is suspenseful. The film takes us through the process of building this story. The issues they faced were complicated. But the importance of getting sources on the record, of obtaining evidence legally, and verification of that evidence is explained clearly and without any awkward exposition. The plot to the film is remarkably linear with all the scenes leading up to a great climax.
And all throughout the film they have a sense of the importance of this story. At one point they have enough to expose a handful of priests and resulting cover-ups. There is dissention but they eventually decide to hold back because they know there are a lot more and that the reason for the cover-ups is the Church’s leadership. That’s what needs to change.
The acting is first rate as you would expect with this cast. Keaton does deliver some of his favorite mannerisms at times—that forward shrug—but for the most part he immerses himself in the role which is not quirky or eccentric at all. Ruffalo is also terrific as a driven “let’s go get the bastards” reporter. He’s always been an immersive actor and in this one you can see the depths he’s given this character.
Predators of children have been getting away with their crimes for decades, centuries, possibly even millennia because most people find the subject distasteful. In this particular case the victims were almost all working class children, about as powerless as you can get. And I think many people thought that this was the way the world was and there was nothing that could be done about it. Fortunately the Spotlight reporters didn’t feel that way.


One of the things that has always bothered me about Disney’s Mary Poppins is its depiction of the women’s suffrage movement. Mrs. Banks’ involvement is implied to be a pastime for an idle middle class housewife, something her husband indulges her in and frankly a running gag, not a struggle for a basic human right. Even worse, it was probably, at least in part, a dig at the feminist movement going on when the film was released. From the beginnings of the suffrage movement through the sixties to now it has always been part of the strategy of the male establishment to trivialize and infantilize the struggles of women to obtain equal rights.
Imagine the frustration those early women activists must have felt, knowing they were every bit as smart as the men, but being denied a say in the direction of the country. And worse, having to convince a majority of men to bestow what should have been a right all along. They begin with consciousness-raising, speeches and pamphlets, but when the message falls on deaf ears, they move to civil disobedience and finally to destructive protests, being careful only to destroy property and not people, although they come close to that line.
Suffragette is based on true events. It stars Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a working class woman who falls in with the suffrage movement in 1914 when she befriends a member of a local cell at work. Maud and her husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, both work at a laundry and live in a drab tenement building with their young son. The film ably demonstrates how perilous their position is, especially hers. She’s worked at the laundry since she was seven, but one slip up could put her out on the street. She is the victim of a system that she has no right to try and amend with her vote.
Most of the women in the cell are not pampered middle class housewives like Mrs. Banks. They are working class people, living on subsistence wages. They may not seem to have much to lose but to them it is everything they have. And they take serious physical risks. The police are brutal in breaking up their protests and meetings.
The script by Abi Morgan takes what is a composite of historical figures and events and pieces them together into a tight narrative. The director, Sarah Gavron puts the project together nicely, getting terrific performances from her cast. They make their point but the film doesn’t come across as excessively preachy. You really care about Maud and her troubles.
Carey Mulligan is a fine young actress and she does a tremendous job here. She conveys Maud’s journey from not wanting anything to do with the movement to ardent supporter and participant brilliantly. There’s a scene where she’s listening to a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffrage movement, played by Meryl Streep. The look of inspiration on Maud’s face reminds me of my mother when she would talk about meeting Grace Hopper at a workshop. It really got across the fact that these women are starved for leadership and role models.
Other performances stand out as well. Helena Bonham Carter shows intelligence and determination as Mrs. Ellyn, wife to the owner of an apothecary shop but who is really the one who mixes the medicines and serves as a doctor to the poor people in the neighborhood. She is the fiery one in the cell who wants to push the envelope as far as possible. Brenden Gleeson plays police inspector Arthur Steed and he portrays a complicated man. He sees the world as it is with all its injustices. If you catch him in the right moment, he might even admit to a little sympathy for the women. But he doesn’t imagine for a moment that anything can change. Plus he’s a policeman and he is going to do his job preserving the peace these women are intent on disturbing.
Suffragette is a dark film, depicting a world lit mostly by candlelight. The camera moves and shakes especially during the violent scenes. The sets are gritty and realistic looking. I’m not sure how much of that was done digitally but there must have been a lot and it looks seamless. The costumes and props all look great. The only quibble I have is that Carey Mulligan looks too pretty to have led the life she describes and be twenty four with a life expectancy of only a few more years.
This is a powerful film, as well as entertaining, informative and inspirational. And shame on Walt Disney for making fun of these women.


Spectre is Daniel Craig’s fourth go round as 007. In the nine years that he has been overseeing the role, he’s brought a fresh influx of danger, humanity and even vulnerability to the character. After Casino Royale, I was hoping that they would show him growing into the sophisticated, slick operative we all think of as Bond. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, largely because Quantum of Solace, the second outing was such a serious misstep. And then in Skyfall they went directly to washed up and emotionally damaged Bond. But that film was still a triumphant return to form for the rebooted franchise. It adhered to the classic Bond formula—pre-title action sequence, two women—but it also gave us a peek into Bond’s past.
This continues in Spectre as Bond gets wind of a super-secret criminal organization called Spectre. He infiltrates a meeting of the evil cabal, led by Oberhauser, played by Christoph Waltz who was born to play a Bond villain if anybody was. Bond has a personal link to Spectre, something in his past that I won’t spoil, and goes rogue with the help of Moneypenny, played by Naomie Harris and Q, played by Ben Whishaw, to pursue the information.
Meanwhile back in London, the new M, played by Ralph Fiennes is battling to save the 00 program. This is ironic because he was the one trying to defund the program in the last movie. The new head of the British Intelligence agencies, Max Denbigh or C, played by Andrew Scott, who also plays Moriarty in the Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes series, has been pushing for all the spy agencies in an eight member coalition to pool their information in one technologically advanced data gathering entity. Instead of spies they would use drones and phone taps.
This theme of technology vs. old fashioned leg work and infiltration skills caught my attention. I have no idea if it’s an issue in the real world of espionage but in the context of Bond films I think it represents a kind of hardening of the arteries, a nostalgia for the early days of the series. As I’ve said before, my iPhone can do more things than any gadget in the early Bond films. But computers just aren’t as cinematic as those old mechanical gadgets. Whether the filmmakers realize it or not, this is an issue going forward. Gadgets have always been a large part of these films.
Spectre seems a little flat to me. Daniel Craig has expressed a desire to move on and frankly he looks a little bored in this. Certainly the project didn’t have the full attention of the director Sam Mendes who is skilled at bringing out terrific performances and bringing originality to his plots. Christoph Waltz acts like he was told to tone down his natural charisma, which is a mistake. He and Bond have a connection from the past but you really don’t feel it. There are pacing issues. The movie is over two hours long and there are long sequences where the plot just lies there, not moving and not giving you any characterization worth caring about.
At the end of Skyfall, they indicated that they would be returning to a more traditional Bond film feel and they’ve done this. I’m not sure it was a good decision though.
Still, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Spectre is better than a lot of the Bond films over the years. And it’s not like I’m going to stop seeing them. As long as the cars are fast, the gadgets are cool and women are beautiful, Bond always gets a pass.

Steve Jobs

I have come to the conclusion that all biopics have the same theme: The quality that makes someone great is also the thing that makes him or her unhappy. You see it in very biopic, even ones of fictional characters like Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood. Drive, ambition and single minded devotion to achievement is what pushes other people away. Is this true in reality? Who knows? There are undoubtedly sacrifices to be made in order to accomplish something great or make history. I have no idea if they inevitably lead to misery. I do know that they don’t make biopics about librarians or accountants.
The movie, Steve Jobs is about the titular character as played by Michael Fassbender. It has three acts, taking us through three product launches. Backstage, people confront Jobs about the sins he has committed against them. He had a daughter out of wedlock that he refused to acknowledge. He didn’t credit Steve Wozniak and his team for the work they did on the Apple II. All of this is done in Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent and fast-paced dialog.
Working within this three act structure, director Danny Boyle, differentiates each era with different film stocks, staring on 16mm film in 1984 for the launch of the Mackintosh. Next comes wide screen 35mm for the 1988 launch of the NeXT Cube, a flop during Jobs’ exile from Apple. And finally the 1998 launch of the iMac is done in high definition digital video.
Obviously Sorkin and Boyle see these periods as turning points in Jobs’ life, not necessarily the most important moments in Apple’s corporate history, or even in the history of personal computers. The iPod, iPhone, iPad and other game changing innovations are all in the future.
Reading that description, you would think that the film is not very cinematic and you’d right. What saves it is that the dialog is so sharp, funny and clear that it moves the—well, you can’t really call it a story—narrative along. Also Sorkin and Boyle use the old Sorkin trick of people walking and talking. Jobs meanders back stage at the various venues, having his arguments and hissy fits with various underlings and trying to deal with his daughter Lisa and her mother Chrisann Brennan played by Katherine Waterston. But he’s always doing something else at the same time as if his mind is just too big and powerful to only do one thing.
Michael Fassbender, by the way is riveting as Jobs, even though he looks nothing like the man. He plays Jobs as an impossibly opaque thinker, always several steps ahead of everybody else. But every once in a while he lets a little vulnerability show through. There’s a scene on top of a parking garage with his daughter Lisa, played at that point by Perla Haney-Jardine, where he admits that he named an operating system, L.I.S.A. after her. When she asks him why he denied it when she was a kid, he says, “I don’t know.” His motivations are so complex, even he can’t puzzle them out.
There are three sort of murky plot threads that run through the film. The most compelling is his relationship with his daughter. At first he tries to keep her at a distance, but as she grows up and becomes an obviously smart and increasingly more articulate young lady, he begins to melt. There are three actresses who play Lisa over the years. I already mentioned Perla Haney-Jardine who plays her at nineteen. Ripley Sobo plays her at nine and Mackenzie Moss plays her at five. All of them do a great job.
Kate Winslet plays Joanna Hoffman, his long-suffering aide and conscience. She’s the only person who can nag Jobs and get away with it. Her performance is so good and immersive, I didn’t realize it was her until well into the film and I am a big Kate Winslet fan. Seth Rogan plays Steve Wozniak and doesn’t really make you forget that he’s Seth Rogan but it’s still a pretty good performance. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld and delivers another immersive performance. I didn’t realize it was him, and Jeff Daniels plays Apple CEO John Sculley. At no point in the film did I doubt that it was Jeff Daniels but the role was perfect for Jeff Daniels so it worked out. All of these characters have problems with the difficult Jobs and the common thread is that they love him in spite of the horrible things he says and does. At one point Jobs tells Wozniak, “You always get a pass.” In fact it’s Jobs who always gets the pass. Talent and charisma lets him get away with almost everything.
Does it make him happy? Well that’s another story.

Bridge of Spies

In 1957 the FBI caught a Soviet spy in Brooklyn by the name of Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance. This was the height of the cold war and communist paranoia was rampant, so there was a great deal of publicity about the capture. Consequently, when it came time to find a lawyer to represent the spy during his trial, very few people stepped up. Such a lawyer would be almost as unpopular as Abel himself.
James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, is volunteered for the task even though he is an insurance lawyer—hands up if you knew there were such things as insurance lawyers. He turns out to be perfect for the job. He has a strong belief that everyone, no matter what their crime, has a right to an energetic defense. And he is not intimidated by threats to himself or his family.
He’s also a pretty good lawyer, but he loses the case when the judge denies his motion to suppress evidence that was retrieved without a proper warrant. With a last minute personal appeal, he does convince the judge not to give Abel the death penalty, reasoning that someday the Soviets may catch one of our spies and we’ll need to exchange Abel.
This proves fortuitous in 1960 when U2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and captured by the Russians. Now Donovan must travel to Berlin to negotiate with both the Soviets and the East Germans to exchange the prisoners.
Considered as a Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies is something of an odd film. There are no obvious special effects, although I assume many of the background shots of 50’s and 60’s buildings were added digitally. There are also no emotional fireworks, none of the usual manipulation that many, although not me, find annoying about Spielberg’s films. This is perhaps because the Coen brothers co-wrote the script with Matt Charman. Those guys are definitely not into heartstring tugging.
Whatever the reason for the restraint, Spielberg should remember it and use it again. This is a terrific script. It expertly advances the plot through dialog, all the while ratcheting up the tension until it is almost unbearable by the end. And despite the lack of big emotional moments, it still winds up being a paean to human decency.
Tom Hanks’ performance ties the film together. Of course in the end it is a portrayal of a decent man fighting for what’s right and such roles are well within Hanks’ comfort zone. But if Tom Hanks doesn’t want to stretch himself at this point in his career, I’m not going to deduct any points for it. He’s really good at playing decent men fighting to do what’s right.
The real revelation is Mark Rylance. His Rudolf Abel is a stoic man, almost cold, but you can see the emotions bubbling just below the surface on his deceptively expressive face. And what’s more, you end up respecting and liking him. I’d never really known anything about him so I looked up his IMDB page. He’s done a couple of films and a handful of British TV shows but most of his career has been spent on stage in the West End. I hope to see more of him.
Bridge of Spies moves to the upper echelon of Spielberg’s “serious” films, right there with Lincoln and Schindler’s List. The amazing thing about him is that he is still learning and evolving as a director even at the age of sixty eight. In many ways this is the most exciting era of his career.

Beasts of No Nation

We probably wouldn’t be able to fight wars without eighteen year olds. At that age we are entering our physical peak while still retaining a certain amount of mental malleability that makes us open to indoctrination. We are anxious to be a part of something, and of course utterly convinced of our own invincibility. Basic training doesn’t really work on someone in their twenties.
Now imagine lowering that age of indoctrination to eleven or twelve. Actually you don’t have to imagine it. It happens all the time, most notably in insurrections in sub-Saharan Africa. There are countless magazine and newspaper articles and memoirs published that describe the experience. There are even novels. One of them, by Uzodinma Iweala has been made into this movie.
Beasts of no Nation is about a young boy from an unnamed village in an unnamed country in West Africa. There is a civil war raging in the country and everyone in the village knows that the fighting is coming. Agu, played by Abraham Attah in his first role, is a good if somewhat mischievous boy. Even at his tender age he is showing signs of being a leader. The family is poor but getting by with some of Agu’s schemes.
The war comes, however, and Agu’s mother is sent away and his father and older brother are killed. On the run, Agu encounters a troop of rebels led by a man only referred to as Commandant, played by the incomparable Idris Elba. The Commandant takes Agu in and trains him as a soldier, teaching him the art of atrocity and dragging him across lines that can never be uncrossed.
The acting here is pretty incredible, starting with Abraham Attah. Even as his innocence and humanity are being stripped from him, you never stop believing that this is a kid. He has a very open face and a winning smile, which you don’t see much beyond the first third of the film. For a first time actor it is an impressive performance. In fact all the actors playing boy soldiers do a terrific job.
But the best performance is Idris Elba’s. He struts around in front of his charges like a demented scoutmaster, inspiring trust, loyalty and even love. Elba uses every ounce of his considerable charisma to make this monster of a character likeable. It is one of the best performances of the year.
Other aspects of the film are lacking, however. The script is somewhat unfocused. It was written by Cary Fukunaga, who also directed and served as director of photography. Tonally, he seems to have been going for a combination of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, it falls apart at the end and not in a good way like in the end of Apocalypse Now. At over two hours the film is too long.
On the plus side the script is not preachy. I don’t think he really needed to convince anyone that the practice of making children into soldiers is evil.
The photography is pretty good overall. Fukunaga went with a largely desaturated look, almost all the color is drained from the images. This flattens the picture. There are moments, however, when Agu’s life is about to change where the color comes back in and the ambient, droning music by Dan Romer swells and the rest of the soundtrack becomes distorted. That actually is an effective technique.
Beasts of No Nation is currently in limited release in theaters. But it is also available on Netflix, which financed the production. This is a growing model for distribution of independent films, but Beasts of No Nation is by far the most high profile example.

The Martian

I’m not sure if it is evident from these reviews but I tend to like stories about smart people figuring stuff out. There’s a lot of that in science fiction. The Martian is about an astronaut, Mark Whatney, played by Matt Damon, who is stranded on Mars and has to use his knowledge, experience and intelligence to survive long enough to get rescued. The book, which I listened to earlier this week on a car trip to DC, goes deep into the science. Botany, chemistry, physics and orbital mechanics are all covered in great detail.
Obviously if a movie tried to do that it would very quickly lose the interest of the audience and Ridley Scott, the director and screenwriter Drew Goddard, left out a lot of that stuff as well as several plot points. That’s not unexpected and is fine. The book is actually pretty poorly paced as an adventure story because it pauses to explain the science in detail. Even so, I found it to be a compelling read. While the film clocks in at over two hours, the pace never really slackens and you hardly notice the time. But I think I made a mistake in reading the book so close to seeing the movie. The film felt rushed to me and I was constantly comparing the plots.
Anyway onto the good stuff. This is a Ridley Scott film which means it is absolutely beautiful with sprawling landscapes and stuff floating in the air. The designs of the space habitats and ships look a little too finished and slick to entirely convincing but that’s a small thing.
His recent comments about female and minority filmmakers aside, it is hard not to like Matt Damon. He plays an engaging blend of smart alec astronaut, nerd, and every man hero, equally conversant with Cubs baseball and Iron Man comics. Not all of his jokes are particularly clever or funny but that’s realistic. You still want to have a beer with him. The role is not really a stretch for Damon, but he’s fun to watch.
There is a large supporting cast, all of them excellent but probably underused since the focus of the plot is Mark Whatney. Chiwetel Ejiofor is calm and authoritative as Vincent Kapoor, the administrator who leads the effort to rescue Mark. Jessica Chastain is severely underused as Melissa Lewis, commander of the mission but in her small of screen time she convinces us that she is the right person in charge on the flight.
As time goes by I suspect that I will like this movie more. I find myself thinking about it and that’s usually a sign that it affected me. In my mind I place it with other realistic space movies like Gravity and Apollo 13. My only real beef is that the book placed more emphasis on problem solving and well…a smart person figuring stuff out.

November 2015
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