Spotlight

Undoubtedly the best movie about newspaper journalism since All the President’s Men, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a powerful reminder of the importance of the fourth estate in the investigation and disclosure of malfeasance and misconduct within our social, political and religious institutions on a local, national and international level. In the investigation at the centre of this film, the scale of the impropriety and the number of people impacted by the child sexual abuse of Catholic priests in Boston goes way beyond anything the reporters from The Boston Globe could have imagined. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the leader of a small investigative unit known as Spotlight, a group who have the freedom to choose their own stories and spend a year or more researching before submitting anything for publication; that is until new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives and realises that, with the impending threat of the internet, the unit might soon be unsustainable. When Baron suggests that they delve into the case of a paedophile priest, the Spotlight team’s initial reluctance soon dissipates when the story moves beyond a single perpetrator to rampant sexual abuse amongst the clergy that has been covered up by the most senior members of the church hierarchy.

Spotlight poster

The film never tries to romanticise the work of the journalists, played here by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. The work is a hard slog; knocking on doors, camping out in lawyers’ offices, perusing endless archival documents, sitting around waiting for the chance to speak to a potential source of information and spending countless hours trying to get others to confirm what you already know, but can’t yet prove. The fact that the investigation is taking place in Boston is all the more problematic due to the influence of the Catholic Church in the city. Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo) taps lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) for access to the victims he is representing, Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) talks to a representative of a victims support group while Robinson draws upon his friendship with lawyer Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) in a bid to understand the true extent of the problem. Senior editor Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) is nervous about what the investigation might find and how the newspapers predominantly Catholic readership will respond to such an attack on their church. However, when he learns of the scale of the abuse and the role of senior church officials in covering it up, his misgivings disappear.

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It is not surprising that the film has featured prominently in awards season as this is a serious film that not only lifts the lid on a scandal of worldwide reach, but also offers considerable insight into the nature of reporting. Ruffalo and McAdams have been hailed for their performances, but Keaton, d’Arcy James and Tucci are equally good, while Schreiber also impresses as the quiet, contemplative new boss who sets the whole thing into motion. McCarthy never paints the journalists as heroes or the profession as something more glamorous than it really is. Although, he does make it clear just how important an independent news media is in exposing those whose sins might otherwise escape any kind of serious scrutiny. Spotlight is also, to a certain extent, about the city in which it is set; the Boston accents, the neighbourhoods and the considerable influence of the Catholic Church on all aspects of political and social life. Of course, the fact that this is based on true events only serves to increase your level of fury at both the perpetrators and those who abetted in protecting them.

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This is not a film about child abuse, it’s a about a small group of people who dared to raise the ire of the Catholic Church by exposing the cover-ups implemented by the organisation to protect paedophile priests. In many cases, the only action the church took was to relocate the offender to another parish. McCarthy was lured to the project by producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, who had already researched extensively. Co-writing with Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing), McCarthy and his cast engaged with the various people involved, from reporters to lawyers to the victims and it shows in the authenticity of the performances. It will probably make you angry, but Spotlight is a beautifully executed examination of the power of the press. If only such a commitment to investigative journalism remained in Australia’s print media landscape. It is scary to think what we might find if our newspapers ever decided to delve a bit deeper.

 

The Peanuts Movie

Reactions to The Peanuts Movie will no doubt fluctuate enormously depending on one’s relationship with the comic strip created by Charles M Schultz some 65 years ago. There will be those who see this update of the iconic comic as sacrilegious and an affront to everything that is great about Peanuts, namely its simplistic yet utterly charming vignettes featuring a group of primary schoolers who are the epitome of a diverse community. In an age in which digital animation has proven a box office boon, a Peanuts movie was perhaps inevitable given the ongoing cultural capital these characters continue to enjoy. For many, this update will be seen as a much deserved honour for a comic that has stood the test of time. As a long-time fan of the Peanuts gang, it was with some trepidation that I approached this big screen rendering of a world that has stood the test of time. Pleasingly, the film makers have been meticulous in capturing the looks and personalities of Schultz’s beloved characters.

Peanuts Movie poster

To understand why The Peanuts Movie exists perhaps requires an understanding of how big Peanuts once was and, no doubt in the minds of studio executives, will be again. The comic strip first appeared in 1950 and at its peak was syndicated to more than 2500 newspapers across 75 countries. Incredibly, Schulz drew every strip himself and the last was published the day after his death from bowel cancer in 2000. Peanuts paved the way for shows such as The Simpsons in that Charlie Brown is a lovable loser, somebody who, like Homer Simpson, fails at almost everything he does. This is certainly not the first screen version of the series as there have been four previous feature films and numerous made-for-TV specials. However, this is the first time that the crew have been brought to life in glorious CG animation. Co-written by Schulz’s son Craig, his grandson Bryan and Cornelius Uliano – who also produced the film with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, The Peanuts Movie draws heavily from stories and events that appeared in the original comic strips.

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Obviously, a feature length film has far greater narrative scope than a four-column comic strip and there are moments where the narrative momentum lags a little, but overall this is a delightful story (like all Peanuts stories are) about a group of kids – Charlie, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Marcie, Peppermint Patty, Sally, Pig-Pen and Franklin – who drive each other crazy but remain the best of friends through thick and thin. When a red-haired girl moves in across the street, Charlie is smitten and the story from this point is simple enough; Charlie tries to work up the courage to talk to her amid mix-ups over test results that see Charlie, momentarily at least, revered by one and all. Snoopy, meanwhile, constructs his own story in which he is a flying ace who engages in all manner of derring-do in a battle with the Red Baron. Charlie is lonely, timid and prone to depression and often the brunt of jokes and pranks form the others, but there is a genuine friendship between them all. All of Schultz’s characters are terrific and Lucy is perhaps the most fun; her delusional sense of self-importance rivalling that of Miss Piggy. Heck, she even dishes out psychiatric advice to the others, such is her sense of superiority.

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As expected these days, the animation is superb and both the appearance and personalities of the characters have been captured accurately; everybody looks just as we remember them. The fact that director Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who) has opted for a cast of unknown voice actors – with the exception of Kristen Chenoweth – lends a sense of authenticity that is often lost when high profile performers take on such roles. Whilst this is an update of a most venerable institution, much care has been taken to respect the legacy of Schultz’s work. Less boisterous than many children’s animations, The Peanuts Movie is a pleasant stroll down memory lane for those who grew up with these characters and, who knows, it might just spawn a new generation of fans for what is perhaps the most popular comic strip of all time.

The Big Short

Making a comedy about an event that caused enormous heartache and hardship for many thousands of people is a tough task. Yet, that is exactly what Adam McKay has set out to do with The Big Short, an exploration of the collapse of the American mortgage market in 2008. To his great credit, McKay, who has produced numerous comedies of varying quality as part of his production partnership with Will Ferrell, including the likes of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, has delivered a film that is very funny, but never makes fun of those who fell victim to the corporate maleficence that played such a significant role in the global financial crisis. With a stellar cast at his disposal, this is easily McKay’s best work yet, tracking the advent of the mortgage market collapse from the perspective of those who saw it coming and subsequently benefitted financially when it all turned to shit.

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The film intertwines three distinct storylines, all of which focus on individuals or groups who can see the crash coming but can’t convince anybody that matters. The first narrative arc focuses on Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a physician who has foregone his medical career to run a very successful hedge fund. A solitary savant with limited social skills, Burry is a genius at data analysis who finds some terrifying data within the structures of a large number of mortgage bonds. He implements a radical idea to “short,” – or bet against – a housing bond market that has been over-inflated and is primed to burst with the banks completely clueless and so cocky that they issue Burry with an insurance policy of sorts that, should the market remain stable, will cost Burry’s company millions.  However, if the market collapses, he stands to make many fortunes while so many others will be left with nothing. Ryan Gosling is Jared Vennett, a cocky banker who becomes privy to the deal, sees an opportunity to get on board and convinces a small investment brokerage led by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a perpetually angry guy whose desire to expose and punish the sins of the finance industry is driven by a family tragedy that he refuses to discuss, to get involved. The third narrative strand revolves around Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, a former broker who abandoned the industry in disgust who finds himself helping a couple of upstarts who have also cottoned on to the inherent and inevitable collapse that is to come and want of piece of the action.

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The film is filled with jargon and industry terminology that is gobbledygook to the average punter and the machinations of it all are very convoluted. McKay uses a range of stylistic approaches to communicate the ideas to viewers, from Ryan Gosling breaking the fourth wall to cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain delivering explanations of various concepts. As gimmicky as these sound, they are actually quite amusing and they work more effectively than other scenes that attempt to illuminate the instability of the system, such as a stripper explaining to Baum how her dodgy mortgage works, all the while gyrating on stage. Overall though, the film is a witty expose of an industry filled with smug, supercilious types who were never held accountable for their actions.

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Adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from a book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is scathing in its attack on a housing mortgage market so fundamentally flawed. The humour isn’t directed at the victims of the crash, instead targeting the ludicrousness of a system that ultimately failed so many. Of course, most infuriating of all is the fact that the government bailed out the banks despite their collapse being the result of fraudulent, negligent, criminal behaviours and a blatant disregard for their customers. With solid performances all round from an almost entirely male cast – the under-utilised Marisa Tomei as Baum’s wife Cynthia the only notable exception – The Big Short is an entertaining examination of the very worst excesses of a capitalist system. It is a challenge to craft something that can make you laugh and loathe simultaneously, but McKay has succeeded in doing just that.

Carol

With Carol, we have yet another film for which the title is just the name of the lead character. Is something a bit more imaginative too much to ask?  Putting that irritation to one side, this is everything we have come to expect from Todd Haynes. It looks ravishing, with exquisite costume design from three-time Academy Award winner Sandy Powell, while the desaturated colour only serves to enhance the old-time aesthetic of this 1952-set romantic drama. Similar to Haynes’ 2002 effort Far from Heaven, Carol explores a relationship that, in the social context of the time, is far from conventional, very much a taboo and must be conducted in a most clandestine manner. The thought of two women falling in love is simply preposterous within the upper-class world inhabited by our titular wife and mother. Therefore, when Carol (Cate Blanchett) falls for much younger Therese (Rooney Mara), an emotional melodrama ensues as Carol tries desperately to free herself from the shackles of marriage whilst clinging to the lifestyle it provides. Therese is a comely shop assistant in a Manhattan department store with an interest in photography, while Carol possesses a forthright, and somewhat fake, persona that makes her hard to like, and therein lies the fundamental problem with a film that is otherwise top notch.

Carol poster

You see, Carol has a husband (Kyle Chandler) who still loves her, a wonderful young daughter and a lifestyle that would be the envy of so many at the time, but she just isn’t a very nice person. She treats everybody, including Therese, poorly, utterly consumed by her sense of self-importance. It is her stylish self-confidence that lures Therese into her orbit, lured by a glamorous persona that provides relief from her own dreary existence. Yes, this relationship develops at a time when homosexuality was illegal in many places, but it feels as though committing such an act of rebellion is just as much a motivation for Carol as any feelings she may have for Therese. There are long, longing stares and body language that often says much more than any words ever could as Carol and Therese communicate their mutual attraction with nary an utterance. It is a fascinating study of seduction and superficiality, Carol’s surface beauty contrasting sharply with the ugliness that lurks beneath. Even though the viewer learns more about the real Carol than Therese ever does, there are still a lot of questions that go unanswered with regard to the motivations for the things she does. However, when Carol does let her guard down, it is shocking because her surface is performed with such confidence and charisma.

CAROL

Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy have taken some liberties in their adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel (titled The Price of Salt), such as the elimination of Therese’s backstory, making her even more of a mystery than Carol. However, Mara does a lot with a little, conveying the intimidation Therese feels in the presence of a complex older woman.  When the two women set off on a road trip, ostensibly to consummate their relationship, the build-up to the moment proves far more sexually-charged than the moment itself.

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Carol is gorgeous, filled with stunning sequences; many of which are staged inside cars. The action proceeds at a languid pace, but Haynes makes this tale of unhappiness so beautiful that you don’t mind at all. I mean, it’s not an action movie, so there is no need for everything to happen at a million miles an hour. The performances from both Blanchett and Mara are great, the former relishing the opportunity to play a ‘performer’ such as Carol. Every gesture – from lighting a cigarette to tossing her hair back – is deliberate and orchestrated for maximum allure. Anybody familiar with Far from Heaven should have some idea of what to expect with Carol. In its most successful moments, the film shows the loneliness of people not allowed to be who they are or simply not sure who they really are and it is these moments that resonate the most.

Movies in the BUFF

Whilst claims that the Brisbane Underground Film Festival is “the most fun you can have in a dark room with strangers” might be overstating things just a tad, there is no doubt that this showcase provides Brisbane film lovers with a chance to check out some of the more obscure, overlooked and otherwise inaccessible films from around the world.

BUFF

To be staged over three nights at New Farm Cinemas, BUFF 2016 will again feature an eclectic collection of features and short films, including the critically acclaimed Nasty Baby starring Kristen Wiig.

The festival kicks off on Friday, February 5 with Uncle Kent 2, the sequel to a film nobody knows about in the first place, followed by the documentary feature Giuseppe Makes a Movie.

Saturday night’s program comprises Nasty Baby and Applesauce, while the final screenings on Sunday afternoon (February 7) will feature A Feast of Man and the Mexican drama 600 Miles. Each feature screening will be preceded by a short film.

Nasty Baby

This may well be the only opportunity for Brisbane filmgoers to see these films on the big screen, so why not broaden your horizons and watch something in the BUFF?

For more information about the Brisbane Underground Film Festival, head to the event website.

 

The Revenant

Brutal, barbaric, bonkers, beautiful and brilliant, Alejandro Iñárritu’s latest effort is all of this and more. With The Revenant, Iñárritu has crafted an elegantly yet violent tale of revenge set in America’s rugged north in the winter of 1823.  In development for more than 10 years with various other directors attached before Iñárritu signed on – including Australia’s John Hillcoat – The Revenant is drawn in part from Michael Punke’s book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, a tome apparently inspired by the experiences of frontier fur trapper Hugh Glass. Regardless of whether or not Glass did, in fact, endure the physical and psychological punishment endured by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant and lived to tell the tale, it is certainly one of the most hellish stories of survival ever to make its way to the big screen. I mean, Aron Ralston slicing off his own arm pales in comparison to what Glass endures in his determination to exact revenge on those who left him for dead. Whilst Iñárritu and co-writer Mark Smith have taken some artistic licence in their adaptation (although we have no way of knowing how accurate Punke’s book or Glass’s own versions of events are anyway), they have delivered a story that, whilst seemingly beyond the realms of reality at times, is riveting and richly redolent of a time and place in which conflict and violence was a way of life for those eking out a livelihood in an unforgiving wilderness.

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The film opens with a battle scene every bit as evocative and visually confronting as the beach scene that launches Saving Private Ryan when Glass’s hunting party is ambushed by a tribe a Native Americans – the Arikara – who are searching for the kidnapped daughter of the tribal chief. A significant number of the trappers are killed and the remainder flee on a boat, which is subsequently abandoned downriver when the group – led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) – decides to continue their journey on foot. The much-talked-about bear attack comes quite early in the piece and, with Glass severely injured as a result, their progress is compromised. When Henry offers a cash incentive for anybody willing to stay and tend to Glass, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) remain behind. It is when Fitzgerald, as much a cliché as any villain before him, leaves Glass to die that an epic journey of courage, determination and revenge is set in motion. Amid breathtaking scenery captured in all its magnificence by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Glass battles every conceivable hardship, both human and environmental, in his bid to survive.

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Even though for much of the film Glass is alone in the wilderness, it is a powerful, primal performance from DiCaprio, who captivates despite the absence of any dialogue for long stretches. Glass’s survival amid all manner of degradations does come with its share of ‘as if’ moments as our protagonist endures a physical battering that is relentless. The film juxtaposes the splendor and serenity of the pristine natural environment with the barbarity and bloodshed of the human interactions that take place within it. Fitzgerald is a particularly loathsome character and Hardy offers us no inkling of anything remotely redemptive in his actions and attitude. As the captain of the group, Gleeson is much better here than his unintentionally comic performance as a much more nefarious leader in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Henry is a righteous man whose authority is very much on tenterhooks in a world where loyalty and trust mean little if there is a better offer on the table.

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Iñárritu has the rare distinction of having never made a bad film and with this epic period drama, the Spanish director continues his remarkable record. Shot sequentially in remote wilderness in Canada and Argentina using only natural light – a decision that limited the amount of time available to film each day – and minimal special effects, The Revenant is a powerful study of human endurance, desperation and isolation. Some may find the robust, overwhelming physicality of Glass’s journey difficult to endure as there are many acts of savagery that he must overcome on his single-minded quest for vengeance, but this is a truly cinematic piece of film making from one our finest contemporary directors.

Suffragette

It is perhaps ironic that this story of women fighting for their inalienable rights is being told on the big screen given that the film industry remains one of the most discriminatory and misogynistic industries in the western world. This is an important story that is only rendered all the more relevant by the fact that the female cast members who populate the production are invariably paid far less than their male counterparts. It seems incredible that, despite the struggles and sacrifices of the women portrayed in Suffragette, women continue to suffer financial and social disadvantage at the hands of a patriarchal political system. Certainly, Jennifer Lawrence complaining about being paid less than her male co-stars is well and good, but the women of this story did more than merely complain, they sacrificed their jobs, their families, their freedom and their health in pursuit of a fundamental right to participation in the political process. No doubt most people have a rudimentary knowledge of the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century led by Emily Pankhurst (played here by Meryl Streep) and the incident at Epsom that saw Emily Davison lose her life in a bid to bring their cause to the attention of King George V. In Suffragette, Pankhurst only appears briefly as the story focuses on the women who carried out a campaign of civil disobedience at her behest.

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One of these women is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young wife and mother whose involvement in the movement comes almost by accident. Having worked in the same laundry since she was 12 years of age, Watts observes the inequalities of the world around her as a neutral bystander, looking the other way when her boss harasses his female employees. It is the arrival of the outspoken Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) that leads Maud to become emboldened and challenge the inequities that women endure; the indignity and exploitation inherent in a society controlled by the men who roam the corridors of power. Maud transforms from somebody with little interest in the movement to being one of its key activists and director Sarah Gavon shows considerable restraint in her rendering of Maud’s transformation from trusting employee and dutiful wife to political activist. As Maud becomes more active within the group, she draws the attention of the authorities, most notably Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a vile piece of work whose task it is to stop the Suffragettes from committing acts of wilful destruction in an effort to draw attention to their cause.

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There is a luminous presence about Carey Mulligan that lights up the screen whenever she is on it and that is the case once again here. Like others before her (such as Thomas Vinterberg with Far from the Madding Crowd) Gavon utilises close-ups to catch the subtlest of facial movements and emotional tics that Mulligan is so adept at articulating. It is easy to get caught up in Mulligan’s allure and lose sight of the plight of her character, who ultimately sacrifices everything in the pursuit of equality at the ballot box. Helena Bonham-Carter produces one her least manic performances in a long time as fellow activist Edith Ellyn, with Natalie Press as Davison and Romola Garai as Alice Houghton, an upper-class suffragette who advocates for women’s rights but is not subject to the consequences of protesting due to the influence and power of her politician husband.

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With the exception of Edith’s loyal and supportive husband Hugh (Finbar Lynch), the men don’t fare well here. Maud’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) casts her aside, her boss preys on the women at the laundry with impunity and the politicians who invite her to address them are disingenuous in their efforts to facilitate change. This is a film about women, by women (written by Abi Morgan) and that in itself is worth celebrating. With a strong central performance and a production design that evokes the hardships endured by the working class in London at the turn of the century, this is a solid rendering of an important period in history. It’s just a shame that, despite the sacrifices made, we are still a long way from achieving any real sense of gender equality some 100 years later.