Movie Review: Spotlight


Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.

Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.

Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”

Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.

Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).

Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.

Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.

Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.

Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”

In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.

This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.

Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.

Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?

This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?

With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.

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Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

TheGoodDinosaurPosterI’ll probably have to see Disney Pixar’s family-themed The Good Dinosaur again to fully appreciate its artistry. After the manic, disjointed Inside Out earlier this year, and the middling Frozen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But unlike those fragmented movies, neither of which I think are very good pictures, The Good Dinosaur is slow, steady and restrained.

Staying with one character, like Remy in Ratatouille, which Dinosaur director Peter Sohn had a hand in, the action in this coming of age tale unfolds in shifting, occasionally surprising plot points. Evoking classic Disney films such as Bambi and, especially in its focus on the maladjusted character, Dumbo, this is an outdoor prehistoric adventure with strange sojourns, tracing the maturation of an awkward, jittery brontosaurus named Arlo. Arlo’s literally afraid to come out of his shell when he’s born and, being the youngest in a family of hyper achievers, he’s not fast to adapt to the world. It doesn’t help that his brother Buck and sister Libby don’t show much interest in him. His parents aren’t helpful, either. But they’re a farming family in this incarnation of Disney dinosaurs, so everyone’s too consumed by working the land to teach the lad any lessons.

Arlo wants to grow, learn and earn his pride. It just takes him a long time to realize it and the only one willing to make up for the family deficiency in bringing up the rear is the father, voiced by Jeffrey Wright (Catching Fire), one of two actors besides Raymond Ochoa and Jack McGraw as Arlo—the other is Sam Elliott voicing a tyannosaurus rex named Butch—to make a lasting impression as a character, unless you count a grunting prehistoric human boy who bonds with Arlo when the young dinosaur gets lost.

The kid is crucial to the character and plot development.

Apparently written by committee going by story credits, the plot is strange, from dino-farming and herding to bizarre country and western regionalism among the dinosaurs, who variously come off with earsplitting twangs from Texas and clipped talk from Wyoming to Deep South accents in a trio best described as rednecks. Weird subplots and touches can be clever, too, such as a flock of vultures that represent pure religionism (and the religion, subversively, is the weather; hmmm). But these distinct animation and story junctures do not detract from plot and character progression; they generally add to the momentum, leading to a critical character test for Arlo that has less to do with blood, family and trying too hard and for the wrong reasons but everything to do with the supremacy of going by one’s own, consciously chosen values.

With flourishes and simple visuals, including the jagged, curving and severe landscape and meteorology of Arlo’s home near Clawfoot Mountain and its lesser twin peaks, Sohn’s imaginative movie is a boy’s story of earning self-esteem through self-reliance in nature and learning to inhabit and command the world around him, whatever dangers may come. It’s not a bad theme, really, and The Good Dinosaur is not a bad movie for kids, and not the same old frenzy of noise, jokes and ecology or sharing sermons. Though the script sometimes belabors a point, and dinosaurs are depicted as anthropomorphized as you’ve never seen them, it’s as odd a movie as its leading character, which makes The Good Dinosaur sort of endearing and, I suspect, rather enduring, too.

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Movie Review: Carol

CarolPosterA new movie about two women in love depicts with effortlessness the veiled, secret desire of lesbians in the 1950s. Carol (The Weinstein Company, directed by Todd Haynes) is interestingly, obsessively nostalgic about its period and its dramatic purpose—to show a forbidden couple in conflict—though it is also nearly plotless.

This imbues Carol, based on an erotic novel by the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, with a dreamlike quality that permits the female version of same-sex romanticism found in Ang Lee’s haunting Brokeback Mountain from ten years ago. In fact, Carol has a lot in common with that picture. Lead characters are left alone and apart for stretches, stressing the distance. They come together in rare, passionate silences amid winter landscapes. They look, long and grope for one another.

They are also both true to life, so in Carol the characters, unlike the unlucky, tortured and persecuted men of Brokeback Mountain, are more easily masked and concealed and the lesbians are able to hide their sexuality in plain sight. The ending wordlessly hits with impact. After Friday’s Islamic terrorist attack on Paris, Carol‘s timing is perfect. Every infidel and, more broadly, every joy-seeking individual, now must learn to brace or conceal his pursuit of happiness—dining out, attending a concert or sport—unless, by some miracle, our civilization chooses to defend itself from the siege of barbarism.

Carol provides an elegant lesson in the success of secrecy, beginning with an emblem of forbidden love’s long, unpredictable plight. The first sound is the rhythmic roll of a train, steady, punctuated and purposeful, and the first image is that of an interlacing pattern of design. This is the introductory sensory material to the story of these two unusual women, played by Cate Blanchett (Cinderella, Truth) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who become an interlocking part of each other’s lives as they go barreling toward some common outcome.

Whether they end up like Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise is up to others, because it’s the 1950s, until and unless they make the matter up to them. Mara’s gamine shopgirl Terese only looks like Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the style is similar but her substance is straighter, clearer and stronger. She knows what she likes and wants and is easygoing about paying the price of her ambition. She wears a uniform Christmas hat only after a stern spinster-type remands her to do so. She goes along with working in the doll department though she’d rather be working with train sets. Her boyishness is matter of fact.

Terese eyes Blanchett’s feline Carol one day over by the trains. She lets the glance across the space linger. She signals that she wants to play.

Carol’s been catting around enough to know when to pounce, so she stalks and makes her move. Terese is instantly drawn to the sensuality and, really in the most fundamental sense, she’s enchanted by Carol’s refusal to back down from getting what she wants. Terese is young and, with Mara’s doe-like eyes of innocence, she’s insatiable for a guide to getting what she wants in life. She has a boyfriend, she has a hobby—taking pictures—and she’s greedy. But Terese is also intelligent and she knows that she’s a work in progress. She knows that she does not know it all.

Enter the husky-voiced, lipsticked stranger who, when the two finally meet in semi-private, overenunciates her name with more drama than a Joan Crawford movie. All of this unfolds slowly, with bleak, hushed, moody colors, tones and details awash in Fifties sameness with the train as a gentle, clicking symbol that the furtive shadow dancing is coming to a climax. Their glances do the work of the homosexual flirtation toward sexual liberation. Their whispers do the work of what the words cannot say. Everything they suggest, mean and become to each other is in code.

Carol has a husband (Kyle Chandler) and a child and this complicates everything, too. The child is deeply loved by Carol, though the husband is not. That he knows this fact is the wispy plot’s central conflict. Sex stereotypes are reversed and the needy male— underrepresented in Hollywood movies—emerges as an ominous threat to Carol and her newfound union. Aiding and abetting Carol in the crime of lesbianism is her former lover, played by Sarah Paulson (Mud, 12 Years a Slave) in another knockout performance.

But Carol is not anti-male and, as she puts Terese in the Packard’s passenger seat and heads off on a frosty road trip, the wise, seasoned vamp must face and reconcile the consequences of making herself, a wife and mother, a forbidden object of desire for another woman. The secret gay union forges shortly after a stay in Chicago’s Drake Hotel, where Terese really starts to discover the world and the prospect of her place in it. Not surprisingly, reflecting today’s sexism against men, romantic same sex scenes are more revealing in Carol than those in Brokeback Mountain, allowing Terese and Carol fuller character development, which adds to the movie’s powerful conclusion.

You’ll probably hear a lot about this film’s perfect period detail—in record albums, dish patterns, make-up and costumes—and compliments are well deserved. But the nostalgia is not an end in itself; Carol‘s trains, designs and artifacts serve a subtle point in timelessness and director Haynes, with an adaptive screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, weaves it into the picture with intricacy and skill. The middle of the 20th century was an imprisoning time for the woman, straight or gay, as Carol demonstrates. But it also pegs a midpoint convergence of two types of women—the temptress using her feminine wiles and the working girl using her mind—and the emergence of courage and, really, fearlessness, required of the modern, liberated woman of the mind.

Add to that that these two happen to be gay and Carol pointedly if delicately dramatizes that gays have always been embedded among society. Given cultural mores, gay men were relegated to back rooms and dark corners and, to a large extent, they still are. Gay women have the play of the field. Witness the acceptance of DeGeneres, Foster and O’Donnell, a status that celebrity male homosexuals are rarely afforded without reduction. Women may couple up to dance and play at being lesbians at their discretion. Accordingly, and in sharp contrast to today’s near-total fetishization of the heterosexual woman as a macho archetype, Carol is a warm and evocative depiction of the discreet woman.

Its dreamy sense of timelessness underscores how changeable are the times in which we live. There’s an intriguing example of this in Carol, which places three American presidents in the picture in reverse chronological order: Dwight Eisenhower appears at first in a televised address about progress, hinting at the movie’s theme, then William McKinley makes an appearance in a room where the lovers first share an intimacy, and, finally, I think it’s Andrew Jackson who appears in a climactic scene in which one of the women chooses to break from society, at great cost to herself, in order to live an honest life.

The theme, newly relevant this week—I do not think this is the filmmakers’ intention—is that it is possible to pursue one’s happiness whether society is in regress or progress. In other words, accept the state of the world (in Carol’s case, certain conventions) and go after what makes you happy. Though there’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you want and there may be every reason to believe that the culture is very much against you, as Carol depicts with masterful detail, it is crucial to know that you must go after what you want—even in defiance of the entire world.

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Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Spending my youth in the suburbs north of Chicago often made me curious about its origins. There were exotic American Indian names, mysterious trails, woods and tales of corruption, scandal and murder amid the lush, green bluffs and flat, fertile soil, not to mention the lakefront, the railroad and the industry. I know I’m scratching the surface, but I’m enjoying writing about the towns, villages and enclaves north of Chicago in a newspaper history series I conceived and developed with my editor, David Sweet, earlier this year.

The theme is capitalism—the entrepreneurial spirit—on Chicagoland’s North Shore.

Glencoe, Illinois waiting station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Talking with local and regional historians, curators and scholars, my research yields new takes on local myths and legends, facts about iconic names, dates and places and, above all, clarity about the men who forged new paths, pioneered Northern Illinois, fought for the Union during the Civil War and settled some of the nation’s most creative, productive and wealthiest towns. These men were largely men of vision and reason and they were farmers, frontiersmen, traders, industrialists and, mostly, individualists. Telling their stories, including notorious facts in the history of these towns, is more rewarding than I had thought possible when I first offered to write the articles.

These front page and cover story articles, which include bits on America’s first recorded serial killer, the only bridge ever designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the invention of Christmas bubble lights, Girl Scout cookies and Frenchmens’, Indians’ and religionists’ plans for the area near and along Lake Michigan north of Chicago, are currently available online for free. Read about Glenview, Wilmette and Glencoe. Know that there are more stories to come.


Murder in Kenilworth

Feature: Teen Depression and Suicide on Chicago’s North Shore

Sheridan Road: My First Intellectual Activism

Sheridan Road: Former State Senator Roger Keats

Sheridan Road: Interview with Kathryn Cameron Porter

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Movie Review: Steve Jobs

SteveJobsPosterAnother contender for best movie in this year of fine movies is Universal’s version of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs. As a dramatic portrait of the creator who radically changed the world, it is magnificent. At last, writer Aaron Sorkin’s (Moneyball, The West Wing, The Social Network) breathless dialogue style is filtered and tethered by director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), or by Sorkin. The outcome is a poetic depiction of a true American fountainhead. (Read my thoughts on Steve Jobs and my thoughts on Apple).

With an electronic score to match the time frame, which runs from the mid-1980s to the final months of the 20th century, Steve Jobs moves in talking pictures, marking the creative life of a genius in three acts of grand halls filled with crowds, featuring singularly distinctive machines made possible by Apple, the Silicon Valley, California company Steve Jobs founded with Steve Wozniak—arguably the world’s greatest, richest company—and the people in Jobs’s life.

A brilliantly visionary producer talking with people about making products starts the movie. The opening scene displays his insistence upon perfection in a new product, the Mac, at Apple’s Flint Center introduction of the Macintosh personal computer following the revolutionary Super Bowl advertisement based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The film’s conflict pits Steve Jobs against the world. But it also purports to put Steve Jobs against the audience because it is apparent that the audience is supposed to detest, rather than try to understand, what Jobs says and does. In fact, modern society pushes the audience away from what Jobs wanted, sought and achieved: perfection in integrating form and function in each aspect of life through fostering man’s autonomy. Apple’s ethos is individualism.

Steve Jobs is the individualist.

However, Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs wants, gets and trades more, as Apple does, with a measured achievement in addition to perfection in one’s work—a meaningful, happy life as one’s proper purpose. The ethics of egoism is embedded here if you know how to look for it, though I don’t know if today’s audiences will expend the effort. The tale this simple and magical movie shows and tells, and it’s extremely verbal though not in that irritatingly smug Sorkin tone, is an elegantly rendered tale of a life lived large yet always in the moment. Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs is sharp and arrogant, not flip and smug, and he strives to be balanced and whole.

“Artists lead,” Jobs tells a colleague with whom he’s at odds, and one of the things I like about this movie is how skillfully it dramatizes that the greatest minds are usually in conflict with the whole world, “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

Jobs is not a martyr, as depicted here, and it’s worth noting that this is based on a book by the author chosen by Jobs after he read the writer’s biography of Albert Einstein. Jobs is not portrayed as tortured or monstrous. In dealings with people in his company and life—Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, The Martian), confidante Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, Little Children), an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston)—he is, like Walt Disney, driven, difficult and daring. Steve Jobs covers the essentials, in thinly drawn, clean and meaningful lines, winks, nods and links to the logo, the machines, the designs, and how Jobs lived; how he ate, listened, relaxed, celebrated, controlled and conducted—mostly, how he thought.

This is not a documentary of Jobs’s business history. There’s no Cube, eWorld or Pixar. Instead, it portrays life in certain, selective products and those moments which align with the launch of those products. So, the impending failure of NeXT at an opera house is placed in its proper context in the second act as lead-in to the iMac in the third and final act at Symphony Hall. Mac fans, Apple employees and evangelists and the press are never far from view, as is Lisa, his daughter, who represents the evidence of progression for a rebel who was adopted, defied laws and rules and dropped out of college. “It would be criminal not to enjoy this moment,” says a character who becomes a friend.

This is the theme of Steve Jobs.

His technology, accounted for and credited to proper sources, including the Apple II, exists merely to serve the moment, not the other way around. Think different, a screen with Apple’s motto says, in one of at least two crucial, dissolving transitions. Steve Jobs does, honoring truth even when it’s inappropriate, improper or hurtful. Among those affected include Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Guilt Trip), who is as right as Jobs in a climactic encounter, Sculley and a longtime Apple principal (Michael Stuhlbarg) who demonstrates that those who most deserve to get close to the man of the mind are often driven the farthest away.

As Jobs, Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), who looks more like Sting from The Police than Steve Jobs, is as intense and engaging as ever. The actresses playing Lisa also shine and so do others in the cast, with Winslet getting the laugh lines. The audience is likely to be split, not between Mac faithful and those with contempt for Apple, but between those who revere both the perfect union of controlling one’s own life and work and the requisite for achieving it—absolute freedom—and those who seek to manage life and work or have it managed and controlled by others.

Steve Jobs is a passionate movie and not in a Hollywood way. The passion here comes from the art of thinking, the contemplation, the stretching, the using and the experimenting. Technology is not depicted as an end in itself to Steve Jobs—it is not his religion—it is a means of activating his best within and doing it here on earth. With inspiration from singer-songwriters, taking the audience and Jobs from imagination to full awareness of reality, the two-hour Steve Jobs—a rare Hollywood hymn to one Ayn Rand called the most persecuted minority, the individual, specifically the individual who creates to make money—zips by like childhood.

Like the life of Steve Jobs, it ends too soon and with genuine wonder at the world.

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