Dec 03

“Spotlight”: Boston Globe Uncovers Rampant Abuse By Priests

“You feel trapped because he has groomed you. How do you say no to God?” victim Phil Savino, played by Neal Huff, tells [reporter] Pfeiffer [Rachel McAdams] in one early scene. About abuse uncovered in Spotlight (Reuters.com)

Although Tom McCarthy’s Spotlightbased on The Boston Globe‘s uncovering (2001-02) of the extensive incidence of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, is more about the press’s process and less about the victims themselves, it’s made clear there’d be no story at all without the courageous testimonies of the men and women “so traumatized they can’t find the words to describe what was taken from them” (Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com).

A Brief Synopsis

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press:

Spotlight refers to the paper’s four person investigative team responsible for exposing the systematic cover-up of the pedophilia of more than 70 local priests — editor Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).

…’Spotlight’ pulls off the tricky feat of detailing the tick-tock of it all, while also giving due respect to the victims, the enablers and the believers.

It takes the arrival of a true outsider to challenge everyone to look a little harder at what’s happening. In this case, it’s the Globe‘s new editor in chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). One character who questions his arrival notes he’s an unmarried Jew who hates baseball. But most damning of all — he’s not a local.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap:

As the Spotlight team begins digging, they find more and more victims willing to speak out against more and more clergy, but Baron eventually realizes that the story is bigger that that: it’s about Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) and a culture of silence wherein parents were pressured to settle while guilty priests were shipped off to new parishes (and new victims) after a few months of therapy.

The Trailer

Praise for Spotlight‘s Realism

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Maybe it’s too early to decide whether ‘Spotlight’ is among the best Boston movies ever made — the accents are fine, the filmmakers seem to have the lay of the land — but in certain awful aspects it’s the most truthful.”

Dave Calhoun, Time Out: “It’s the story behind the story, and it’s the film equivalent of reading an especially thrilling New Yorker article: ruthlessly detailed, precise and gripping but never brash or overemotional.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Where the film proves extraordinarily perceptive is in its sense of how inextricably the Church has woven itself into the very fabric of Boston life, and how it concealed its corruption for so long by exerting pressure and influence on the city’s legal, political and journalistic institutions.”

The Victims

Justin Chang, Variety: “Many of the victims depicted here — like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), who movingly recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Paul Shanley — function in a mostly expository manner, offering up vital but fleeting insights into the psychology of the abusers and the abused, but without taking pride of place in their own story.”

Dave Calhoun, Time Out: “There are just enough testimonies here and encounters with victims to make the human side of the story crystal clear without losing focus on the bigger picture of establishment corruption. It’s that all-too-rare beast: a movie that’s both important and engrossing.”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “Ultimately, ‘Spotlight’ never treats its subject matter as mere fodder for its journalists to cover; the horror of what’s being uncovered remains front and center, and as the closing credits roll, it’s the pain and suffering of the victims that stay with you as much as the bravery of the Globe staff.”

Beyond Spotlight: The Ongoing Story

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘Spotlight’ also shows a deeper truth, the level of psychological trauma brought on by abuse, not just to the victims, but to horrified Catholics everywhere. ‘Spotlight’ takes faith seriously. An ex-priest turned psychiatrist is an important source, and when he’s asked how Catholics reconcile the abuse scandal with their faith, he replies, ‘My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two’.

As reviewer Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter, concludes about the story’s scope beyond the past and well beyond Boston: “In the end, this material can’t help but be interesting, even compelling up to a point, but its prosaic presentation suggests that the story’s full potential, encompassing deep, disturbing and enduring pain on all sides of the issue, has only begun to be touched.”

Jul 03

“Infinitely Polar Bear”: A Dad With Bipolar Disorder

The devastating effect of bipolar disorder on marriage and other personal relationships is not a new subject, but in most movies it is examined from a woman’s perspective. Infinitely Polar Bear, a terrible turn-off title for one of the best films of the year, views the affliction and its psychological repercussions through a different lens. Rex Reed, New York Observer

In the new 1970’s-set dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo‘s Cameron must leave his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and daughters (Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky) to live in a halfway house after suffering a mental breakdown.

Cam has known for a while that he has manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder). “His African-American girlfriend…married him regardless, partly because it was the ’60s and mental health was all relative anyway,” states Justin Chang, Variety.

The main event occurs when Maggie wants to leave the Boston area to attend business school in New York. Cam, working on his recovery, then becomes the primary live-in parent.

Why such a need for Maggie to leave town? Because she needs a better career, she reasons, in order to send her kids to private school. Some critics have wondered why Cam’s wealthy family doesn’t just help out. For that matter, can’t she attend school closer to home?

More understandable in terms of plot development, it turns out Cam neither likes being on his Lithium nor has a strong ability to be a single father. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

Cam fails many tests in the early weeks of the arrangement: He leaves the house while the girls are asleep, going out for hours to get drunk; he abandons housekeeping; he’s so intent on trying to befriend neighbors in the family’s new apartment building that he alienates every resident. His love for the girls is never in doubt, but even after some seeming steps toward responsibility, he’s the kind of dad no child-welfare officer would tolerate.

Although fictional, the script is based on the childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes, whose father had once described his own illness as “infinitely polar bear.”

The trailer’s below:

Ruffalo’s Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…(H)e doesn’t reduce his character to a series of behavioral tics: He’s always a person first — with all the complexity and contradictions that implies — and not just a passive victim of his illness, a blank slate for it to scribble on. We ride his highs and lows with him just by looking into his eyes: We know where he’s at every minute by reading their glittering recklessness or their chamomile calm.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “At its best, Infinitely Polar Bear is about a nice, unbalanced man trying and often failing to do right by his kids, and vice versa. And Ruffalo is the least histrionic of actors even when Cam is, as the social workers put it, ‘disinhibited,’ when he never shuts up and pulls stunts that bemuse or alienate every adult in his orbit. He’s a big kid himself — impulsive, charming, self-involved and mostly ill-attuned to the social signals of others.”

The Daughters

Justin Chang, Variety: “…[Their] natural smarts and strong, argumentative personalities suggest they’ve inherited their dad’s genes in more stable form…”

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “…(T)he home Cam creates is, as his daughters angrily attest, a ‘shithole’ they are ashamed of. The girls see how his pushy gregariousness is making others avoid the family; they beg their mother to return.”

Selected Reviews

Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader: “…delivers an effectively heart-tugging family story without sentimentalizing mental illness.”

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “…Forbes hasn’t made a movie about her father’s illness; she’s made one about her father, who, through hard and weird times, clearly helped give her what she needed so that one day she could tell this story.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “The movie is a small miracle, lifted by Ruffalo and these two remarkable young actresses. Refusing to soften the edges when Cam is off his meds, Ruffalo is a powerhouse. He and Forbes craft an indelibly intimate portrait of what makes a family when the roles of parent and child are reversed.”

Jan 20

“Foxcatcher”: Mental Instability and Personality Issues

Foxcatcher, based on a true story, has been nominated for several Oscars, including original screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, best director (Bennett Miller), and best actor/best supporting actors Steve Carell as John DuPont and Mark Ruffalo as wrestler Dave Schultz.

From the synopsis by J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “A paranoid schizophrenic insulated by obscene wealth, du Pont used his family’s Foxcatcher farm as headquarters for a wrestling camp to groom athletes for the U.S. Olympic team; his tangled relationships with wrestling hopeful Mark Schultz [Channing Tatum] and with Mark’s older brother, gold medalist Dave Schultz, ended tragically in January 1996 when du Pont murdered Dave.”

However, offering what’s true and what’s not in the movie, Aisha Harris of Slate states, “Most notably, perhaps, the movie makes no mention of du Pont’s diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia, which, at his trial, was offered as an explanation for the murder.”

What is acknowledged in the film, states Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, is “a certain, tactful degree of du Pont’s drug use, his personality disorders and bizarre behavior, all documented. Plenty more is elided or left out, especially to do with du Pont’s sexually predatory nature.”

A member of duPont’s actual defense team was forensic psychiatrist Phillip Resnick. In an interview with Michael Heaton, Cleveland.com, Resnick states about duPont’s deterioration: “[He] is an example of a person whose wealth becomes an obstacle to getting needed mental health care. Many of Mr. du Pont’s employees were aware of his paranoia. However, anyone who attempted to force his involuntary hospitalization would be at high risk of losing their job. In that sense, Mr. du Pont’s wealth allowed him to remain untreated and thus set the stage for his personal tragedy.”

DuPont, by the way, was found guilty of murder, but mentally ill. He died in prison in 2010.

More about how the movie portrays the story after this trailer:

FOXCATCHER‘S PORTRAYAL OF DUPONT AND THE BROTHERS

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic: “Mark’s sole apparent point of human contact is his brother Dave, who serves as his coach, sparring partner, and surrogate dad. That is, until he receives a phone call on behalf of ‘John E. du Pont, of the du Pont family,’ who wants Mark to come visit him at his ancestral estate in Pennsylvania, Foxcatcher Farm. ‘I’m a wrestling coach,’ the fiftyish millionaire tells him, earnestly if implausibly. ‘And I wanted to talk to you about your future.'”

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:

Playing a young man who doesn’t have a clue how to articulate his feelings and suffers for it, Tatum is a smoldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat, able to be manipulated this way and that by his benefactor. You feel his pain. As the older and exceptionally capable older brother, Ruffalo bestows his character with a profoundly genial nature that suggests that no one could possibly dislike this guy, much less be provoked to murder him. But he had emotional wealth, instant likeability and physical capacity, things John du Pont could never buy.

OVERALL REVIEWS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “Shrinks could have a field day with all the complicated dynamics running though these relationships, which help make the drama such a rich experience.”

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic: “There’s something inevitably remote about a movie that refuses so ardently to get into the heads of its characters. The result is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one in which to invest emotionally, even when it enters into its final, tragic arc. Foxcatcher is among the best movies of the year, but ultimately it seems one better suited for awards than for audiences.”

David Edelstein, Vulture:  “…(I)t’s basically one long, sick joke played at half speed. It’s a ponderous, sick joke. After that first meeting between Schultz and du Pont, Miller directs the next two crawly hours in exactly the same key.”

Amy Nicholson, Los Angeles Weekly: “The pieces of something important are here – there’s ego and greed and desperation, the essential ingredients of the American tragedy – but none of it fits together.”

Bob Mondello, NPR: “…Miller uses three superb performances to take us deep into a privileged world where the choreographed struggle of wrestling mixes toxically with the psychological struggles of familial disappointment. The film does not — or maybe cannot — explain the inexplicable: the acts of a mentally ill man. But it can make the plight of those in that man’s orbit profoundly anguishing.”

Dec 16

“You Can Count On Me”: Brother and Sister Reconnect

For all the bullying inspirational slogans hurled at us about never giving up on your dream, following your bliss and today being the first day of the rest of your life, the fact remains that most people’s lives run on fairly narrow tracks. And in the real world, as opposed to self-help fantasyland, once you find yourself on a track, it’s awfully hard to get off, even if it’s headed nowhere in particular. Stephen Holden, reviewing You Can Count On MeThe New York Times,  

On the occasion of the underseen film The Skeleton Twins (see previous post) being released on DVD, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight another brother/sister film, the character-driven You Can Count On Me, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Not only was it one of the best movies of 2000 but also one of the best ever about sibling relationships. 

In brief, single-mom Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney), gets an unexpected visit from Terry (Mark Ruffalo), her brother and only sibling. FYI, their parents were killed in a car accident when they were kids.

You can see the You Can Count on Me trailer below:

SAMMY

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Married and divorced at a young age, she’s an overprotective mother to her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy conceals from her son any info about his absentee father, but the curious, susceptible boy stubbornly harbors romantic notions about him. Her emotional involvement with Bob (Jon Tenney), a goodhearted but not terribly exciting man, only partially fulfills her needs as a woman.”

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “…(S)he’s having trouble with her nitpicking boss (perennial manchild Matthew Broderick), who’s unsympathetic toward her child issues and objects to such things as purple-colored text on computer screens.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Ms. Linney’s Samantha may be a responsible mother and churchgoing Catholic, but we learn that she was a wild teenager who has had to choke back her rebellious instincts in order to bring up her son. Even now, her innate rebelliousness still manifests itself in ways both small (she secretly smokes cigarettes) and large (she recklessly initiates an affair with her new boss, a persnickety straight arrow with a pregnant wife).”

TERRY

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “Terry is her easy-come, easy-go brother, one of those charmers who drives you nuts because you love him but you can’t count on them.”

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “He’s depicted as an irresponsible, self-destructive man with a penchant for getting into fights and being arrested. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind, Terry comes home to borrow money.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum, ew.com: “He has pushed away grief by not committing anywhere, to anyone, and strewing mess in his wake.”

TERRY AND HIS NEPHEW RUDY

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “Sammy, who needs someone to watch Rudy, talks her brother into doing the honors. But although Terry connects wonderfully with Rudy, his idea of child care is hardly gleaned from Dr. Spock. He thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette, cursing like a sailor and advising Rudy to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as he’s old enough.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “The culminating event, an excruciating, brilliantly executed scene of emotional chaos as old personal wounds are ripped open, is Terry’s impulsive, ill-advised decision to take Rudy on a surprise visit to meet his roughneck biological father (Josh Lucas) whom Samantha has built up as a hero to the boy.”

SAMMY AND TERRY

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Samantha is furious and disappointed by her brother’s lack of direction and behavioral sloppiness. He in turn is contemptuous of her for remaining stuck in Scottsville, whose small-town atmosphere he finds suffocating.”

Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle:

As adults, the siblings maintain their childhood confidant-adversary relationship. In one scene, they share a joint and a big secret before a casual remark turns into a testy exchange about Sammy’s parenting abilities. Later, when Sammy sends a clergyman to counsel the aimless Terry, he seems receptive, all the while plotting revenge on his sister. Just as any kid brother would.

The safety of their renewed family bond lets each sibling branch out. Sammy, so compulsively organized that she files personal correspondence along with her tax returns, rediscovers a wild side and engages in some surprising acts. Her brother, oblivious at first to Sammy’s need for him, warms to the idea of a family bond and becomes a father figure to Sammy’s son.

OVERALL REVIEWS OF YOU CAN COUNT ON ME

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “‘You Can Count on Me’ is a humanistic gem of a movie, with unforgettable performances from Laura Linney (the movie’s endearingly uptight heroine) and Mark Ruffalo (her free-spirited, pothead brother).”.

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Without ever condescending to its characters, it trusts that the everyday problems of ordinary people, if portrayed with enough knowledge, empathy and insight, can be as compelling as the most bizarre screaming carnival on ‘The Jerry Springer Show.”’

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “This is not a movie about people solving things. This is a movie about people living day to day with their plans, fears and desires. It’s rare to get a good movie about the touchy adult relationship of a sister and brother. Rarer still for the director to be more fascinated by the process than the outcome.”

Jul 16

“Begin Again”: A Music-Themed Relationship Story

Writer/director John Carney had a huge hit with the musical/romance Once (2006). His current offering, dramedy Begin Again, also has music-focused relationships at its core, though in a different way.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley play the leads. Steven Rea, Philly.com, sets up the plot:

[There’s]…Dan Mulligan…a divorced dad with a drinking problem who wakes up late for a big meeting at the record company he cofounded, only to find out, when he finally shows, that he’s been fired.
Drowning his sorrows at a downtown bar, he sees Gretta take the stage, pick up a guitar, and go into a dark, twangy number about contemplating a leap off the subway platform. Sure, Gretta’s ditty matches Dan’s desperate mood, but he hears something in her song. ‘I’m thinking Norah Jones, singer/songwriter thing!’ he tells her later, loonily, over beers. Beers she has to pay for because he’s broke.
So begins the professional courtship of Gretta and Dan. She’s reluctant, ready to go home to London. He sees redemption in her songs, calling in old favors to record a demo that will make Gretta famous, and make him the industry whizbang he once was.

Other characters include the wife (Catherine Keener) from whom Dan is separated, their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan’s rapper friend (Cee Lo Green), and Gretta’s boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine).

Watch the trailer:

What follows are review excerpts that approximate my own opinions after seeing it.

DAN

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Ruffalo plays him as a damaged guy, and though the man might be attractive, the damage is not, and it’s extensive. He’s not beaten up in the way a 30-year-old might be. This is late 40s beat up, like life has been pummeling him with a baseball every day for decades.”

GRETTA

Steven Rea, Philly.com: “The best thing about Begin Again is Knightley, who brings those daunting cheekbones to bear on a screenplay that allows her to cite the artistic integrity of Randy Newman, to insist it’s the music that matters, not the color of your hair, and to tell Adam Levine to bugger off.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Next to Ruffalo, Knightley looks like the essence of freshness, and she has never been more charming onscreen. Her smile is genuine, her poise is winning, and her singing is quite good, even if she sounds like everybody else on the radio. Knightley makes us believe that Dan is right, that Greta is a person of value, who deserves success, whether or not she gets it.”

THE RELATIONSHIP

Peter Debruge, Variety: “What follows is a courtship, but not the kind you might expect. Rather, it’s a professional tango, as Dan tries to convince Gretta to trust him with her music, while she slowly comes to believe in and encourage the qualities in Dan with which he’d lost touch…”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

What I enjoyed, pretty consistently, was the brittle chemistry between Dan and Gretta, who are falling provisionally in love but aren’t sure how real that is and where it’s likely to lead. They have rescued each other in an unfriendly and heartbroken world and maybe that’s more than enough, especially since each of them is conspicuously still in love with someone else. This is a real love story that’s not about consummation or certainty, a variety we’ve all experienced in real life that only occasionally shows up in the movies.

THE MUSIC

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

What I did not particularly enjoy in ‘Begin Again,’ sad to say, were the songs, which are largely written by Gregg Alexander with various collaborators. Oh, they’re OK, in an exhausted folk-pop vein, which might also describe Knightley’s capable but unmemorable singing voice. But put this movie’s intended hits, like ‘Step You Can’t Take Back’ or ‘Lost Stars,’ up against anything sung by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in ‘Once,’ and they sound essentially manufactured. Which is more than a little ironic in a movie that is purportedly about rejecting pop-music artifice and embracing authenticity. There’s a reason that the high point of Dan and Gretta’s ambiguous romance, and their obligatory late-night ramble through Manhattan, is set to ‘As Time Goes By,’ Stevie Wonder singing ‘For Once in My Life’ and Sinatra singing ‘Luck Be a Lady.’ There is no conflict between artifice and authenticity in those songs; both are in abundance. That’s always been the key to great pop.

OVERALL REVIEWS

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…Carney deserves great credit for the movie’s clever, layered structure, and for resisting a few obvious plot turns along the way. Lightning doesn’t strike, but sunshine works, too.”

Steve Pond, TheWrap: “…(T)here are times when the thing you want most is not a big, important movie but a simple, beautiful story told with sensitivity, warmth, humor and a big heart. Times when you don’t need a movie to save your life, you just need a movie to make you feel good.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “‘Begin Again’ may not always swing, but it makes up for that in sincerity and a welcome willingness to ambush expectations.”

Steven Rea, Philly.com:

So, can a song save your life? [former title of Begin Again] And can an impossibly mushy, mawkish movie make you feel good?
The answer to the second question, anyway, is yes.