Spotlight (2015): The Process of an Investigative Story and Giving Voice to the Survivors

Spotlight

     “Spotlight” is a powerful story that shows the process of creating a great investigative story and the in the process showing how structures that prop up people in power, especially those in regards to religion are prone to abuse and cover-up as saving face and ideology can end up becoming more important than people. As an agnostic who left religion it was wonderful seeing the media do what it is supposed to do, and reveal systematic corruption and in revealing it make possible finally putting a stop to it.

    The film was directed by Tom McCarthy who also wrote it with Josh Singer and produced by Blye Faust, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin and Michael Sugar.

     The story involves the Spotilght team of the Boston Globe, being lead by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), investigating the Catholic Sex Abuse cover-up when the new Editor in Chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) believes there is a story there which comes to shake up the community of Boston.

The Pros: Boston – Boston feels alive as you see the many different levels of the city. From the poor areas where many of the events of sexual abuse and rape took place as the folks there had no advocates and the Church was the only power, from the rich fundraisers, to individual homes in Boston and the Boston Globe itself. This is a city that is shown to be alive.

The Boston Globe – The Boston Globe is shown to be a pretty great organization as we see a diversity of characters, motivation and conflict as the paper is trying to define itself in relation to Boston with the sex abuse scandal it’s uncovering and having an outsider Editor-in-Chief at the helm. I really liked how the film handled this.

The Characters – The characters and how they are portrayed is what makes this story great. It is fully fleshed out characters that lend truth to the real life events that took place and allow us to see into the choices our characters make and made.

Ben Bradlee Jr. – John Slattery is awesome as Ben Bradlee Jr. In this we see a very old style journalist who is leading the paper and because of it is comfortable with those in power, but even he wakes up when he realizes the extent of the abuse and corruption and from there gives his full backing to the Spotlight team. He is the questioner and makes the team better in the process.

Mitchell Garabedian – Stanley Tucci plays one of my favorite characters in this. In this he is the advocate for the victims who the Church keeps trying to silence and disbar. For this reason Rezendes has to slowly win him over as he shows the Globe won’t bow to Church pressure. I really liked the character and Tucci’s performance is amazing. He is the one who never stops fighting and who lives for work and advocacy.

Walter “Robby” Robinson – Michael Keaton plays Robinson and does a fantastic job! He was the one who reported on the sex abuse scandal ages ago and didn’t follow up. This is guilt he lives with until Baron calls him back to the present. Robby is also the one most in with the community as we see him get together with a former classmate to hear his story about the Priest who molested him, and from the guy who defended all the priests and played it like everything was okay. Robby sees all of it and it lends depth to Boston and the characters around him.

Sacha Pfeiffer – Rachel McAdams is a fantastic actress and in this we see her conflict being with her mother who is a hardcore Catholic and her hiding the story from her as she stops attending Church when Sacha stops going to Church after the extent of the cover-up is revealed and her and Rezendes discuss the problem of evil and faith. She could have got more development but her lending a voice to the victims while being professional and doing her job was extremely well done.

Michael Rezendes –  Mark Ruffalo played by favorite character. Rezendes is a passionate guy who is a little off in some ways and is always working a bit detached from things like Baron but also extremely passionate. When he finds the letters that Law was trying to keep from the public he wants Spotlight to run the story then, and waiting is hard for him as we learn he was an ex-Catholic who part of him wanted to go back but after the Scandal he could never see it happen given the institution covered up the rapes and protected the rapists. His genuineness and stubbornness were things I could relate to.

Marty Baron – Liev Schreiber is wonderful as the detached Editor from Miami. At first you think he’s going to start doing cuts but instead he refocuses the paper and has them follow up on the rumor of sex abuse. It’s powerful and we see he is there to fight for them even as he makes tough choices. Suffice to say I really appreciated the character and found his outsider perspective in Boston refreshing as I think it something that can lend strength to seeing things in a different light and helping reveal truths about a perspective, religion, community or organization.

Making the Story and the role of Journalism – A huge part of the plot is how Spotlight works as we see the Team following up on leads, interviewing people, analyzing sources, following paper trails, going to the courthouse,

Voice for the Victims – In this film we see the role of journalism as giving voice the the victims as the truth is revealed. It is powerful receiving their stories as kids who were vulnerable, poor and outcasts were raped by priests and had held it in for years. It is only when Spotlight shines a light on what happened that they are able to find their voice and in doing so help bring about justice in regards to what was done to them.

Power and Corruption – One of the big things is that of power and corruption. All of those connected to the Church covering up events are shown to be very well off and clearly profited from the atrocities they helped cover up. Cardinal Law himself is shown to be detached and uncaring about knowing the point that he’d attack those who were fighting for the victims. This is the price of power that believes it finds itself derived from God and is accountable to only itself. The church hides documents that are public record just because it would show how corrupt they were and the fact that Law ignored the warnings and punished those who spoke from within the church about the abuse.

Okay: Matt Carroll – This character was alright as he shows us the concerned father in everything, but he didn’t feel as fleshed out as Rezendes, Robinson, Pfeiffer and Garabedian. I still liked the character but thought that he wasn’t really needed in regards to the script.

Cardinal Law – This guy is detached from everything (which may have been purposeful on the films part) but after hearing how he called the wrath of God on one of the investigations that had been done earlier…I wanted to see that side of the character…a man who looked past atrocities and saw the Church as above them and was invited back to a cushy position of power, even after all the atrocities he covered up and monsters he protected.

Church Pressure – We don’t see as much pressure from the Church to silence the story, which is a shame. Mostly it is Law trying to get Baron in with the Church at the beginning and Robby’s lawyer friend who works for the Church who keeps telling him to drop the story. It is mostly from the community that the silence comes from, not the Church lawyers.

  This was a powerful film and easily in the Top 10 of the Year. I don’t think it will make the Top 5 due to some of the characters not getting as much development as I would have liked but it doesn’t change how great it is in themes and execution. This is a story that had to be told ande here is where you can read about it for yourselves too.:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/specials/clergy

   Events like this must not be forgotten as chances are it is still going on today and many of the people who committed the crimes were never brought to justice or have never been brought to justice as the Vatican moved them out of the United States. The only way an institution can change is when light is shined upon it and even then there is going to be fighting from those who profit from the status quo. This is why stories like this matter, it lends voice to the voiceless and gives the chance for them to get justice for the wrongs done against them. This beautiful film, is one way the light has been shown on this scandal.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

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“Narcos” Season 1 Retrospect – Colombia, Politics, Drugs and a Powerful Story

Narcos Poster

     Netflix just keeps making gold…”House of Cards,” and “Daredevil” are already two of my favorite shows and now I must add “Narcos” to the list…though the fact that it didn’t end after this season is troubling. We are caught up to the year that historically Palbo Escobar died…where does the series go from here if it is going to take the 10 episode format? Do Murphy’s and Pena’s story really have that much steam left? Their arcs felt complete at the end of the story. Suffice to say though, season 1 is great with one of my few criticisms only being the ending.

     The series was created by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro and directed by Jose Padilha.

SPOILERS ahead

     The story involves the Rise and Fall of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the drama within the Medellin Cartel and the DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) and what they and the Colombian Government do to bring him and the Cartel down.

The Pros: The History – The history that takes place through the 80’s of the politics and drama between the political groups and gangs in Colombia is fascinating, especially in relation to United States involvement as it is the United States backing of Pinochet which lead to the drug trade being exterminated in Chile but spreading over to Colombia when “Cockroach” escapes to the Escobar’s and sells them his trade helping them start their Empire. We also have the war between the Colombian Government and the Cartels and the United States and the different Communist movements in South America…it is fascinating and awesome and made me want to read and study more.

The Cinematography – The cinematography captures the beauty of Colombia and the dark underbelly of the gangs and the corruption in the government as well as the grey line our characters are always walking.

The Soundtrack – Pedro Bromfman did a wonderful job incorporating traditional and modern Colombian music to make this show truly about Colombia. We get personal moments and the gritty reality of all our characters through his amazing art.

The Characters  and Organizations – The characters are all flawed and have to make hard choices and the organizations have clear goals as well and all are a mixture of fear and idealism in order to meet their ends.

The CIA  and U.S. Government – The CIA is great as we have a military guy who is all about catching the communists but another agent played by Richard Jones who is always helping our guys go after Escobar and the Cartel. It shows how complicated it is especially as they walk a grey line of looking after their own interests but not losing the goodwill of the people. Ambassador Noonan is the one who has the most difficulty with that given the United States’s legacy in Chile next store.

The Communist Rebel Groups – The rebels are all based in idealism but are presented as being cut off from the reality of the people as they are willing to kill innocents to meet their end and still claim the high ground. This eventually leads to one of the leaders surrendering to Escobar to protect his men that the Cartel are killing off. M-19 is the one that gets the most airtime as their kidnappings bring the Cartel against them though Pablo Escobar eventually defeats and uses them to his own ends.

The Colombian Government – The government is in the Cartel’s pocket for a long time until the option of extradition comes up where the caught drug deals will be sent to a U.S. prison rather than the vacation and influence they’d have in a Colombian prison.

President Cesar Gaviria – Cesar is given a lot of tough choices and we see him eventually make peace with Escobar letting him make his own prison so that the bloodshed will stop. He isn’t a coward though and we see him avoid an assassination attempt and always walk among the people, calling the Cartel out for their crimes. He is definitely flawed but you see a man faced wit the dilemma of losing sovereignty and granting the U.S. more power or letting the Cartels have more power but have sovereignty respected.

Colonel Herrera – Herrera deals with the Escobar at first but becomes a mortal enemy after this rise as he becomes obsessed with him after an assassination on his wife and himself at a cafe. This eventually leads to him setting his men on Pablo’s cousin, ending in his death.

The Medillen Cartel – The Cartel is fascinating and the gangsters are complicated monsters as we see them humanized and love and lose and make hard choices in order to survive and to grow their business.

Gacha – Gacha is unhinged and is fun to watch as Pablo Escobar is able to keep him in line even as his killings of the politicians and prostitutes is slowly getting the government to act. He is the one who is all about taking what he wants, though he has a son (who is a monster like him) who he loves. He is eventually taken out by Pena.

The Ochoas – The Ochoas make a deal with the government and Cali Cartel to leave Pablo isolated which eventually leads to Pablo’s cousins death and makes it so the sister is no longer connected to the Escobars. They win in a way as they get the prison deal they wanted and stay under the radar.

Pablo Escobar – Escobar drives the story as we see he and his cousin but the Medellin Cartel making them some of the richest people in the world. Their bond is  core connection and it is after Pablo’s cousin is killed that he loses it and eventually kills the men he put in charge of the Cartel leading to an eventual assault on the Prison he made for himself in order to keep the government off his back. He rises and in the end his love of Colombia and desire for power and respect lead to his downfall as his escape from his prison cannot prevent him from the death that is already in the history books.

The DEA – The DEA like Escobar are the main drivers of the story as we see Murphy and Pena have to make difficult choices and sometimes act on their own and for or against one another in order to stop the Cartels.

Javier Pena – It is great seeing the Red Viper again! Pedro Pascal is one of my favorite actors and I’ve missed him since the only season he was in “Game of Thrones.” He plays a womanizer in this but he has a good heart as he looks after all of those he has a relationship with, even if it means his job and life. It is this love of the people that a lot of them reject as they see him as a DEA Gringo who only cares about American interests and not those of Colombia. He proves that assumption wrong on multiple occasions. He was my favorite character in this.

Steve Murphy – Holbrook does a good job as the mustached 80’s cop who gets hardened by Colombia and addicted to the chase and war. In the end it is his home as he is driven at taking down the Cartels as he no longer cares about his life and we see his detachment from his wife as she wants to return to the States while for him, this War is all he has as home and he has nothing in the States to go back too (his partner having been killed by the Medellin Cartel prior).

The Cons: Women Sidelined – Women are very much on the sidelines in this with a reporter being the few women with power. I get that this reflects the society, but even Pablo’s mother’s influence isn’t really shown. The exception I can think of is Connie Murphy but even she feels like a side quest to the main narrative and is only really in the story because of her marriage to Steve and she isn’t needed to drive the story.

Leaving the Story Open – Escobar should have died at the end and the point about violence always being there could have been. In the end Escobar wasn’t the point of the story, the point was Colombia and how it had shaped our characters are Murphy sees it as home even after his partner sold him out to the Cali Cartel to catch Escobar. This theme is powerful but is undercut by Pablo’s escape and not death in the final from the Search Bloc.

I recommend this story, it is overwhelmingly good and the few cons don’t take away from that. It is gives Colombia respect and also goes into quite a bit of depth with all the different players in the game that the Governments and Cartels played. I’d highly recommend checking it out, even as I’m worried about what Season 2 might bring.

Final Score: 9.3 ./ 10

Black Death (2010): A Bleak Adventure of the Loss of Innocence

black_death

“Black Death” was an interesting movie to review. I’ll get into the reasons for that, beyond the subject matter in the assessment, suffice to say there will be a decent amount to cover. This is a movie that could have been great though, sadly it does not reach that.

First the issues of historical inaccuracies. I’ll let this review that didn’t enjoy the film go into them: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/mar/22/black-death-burned-at-stake.

“Black Death” was directed and uncredited co-written by Christopher Smith. The main writer was Dario Paloni and the producers were Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein, Jens Meurer and Phil Robertson.

The story involves Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk with a secret lover who is sent with a group of men lead by Ulric (Sean Bean) to investigate why a village has been unaffected by the Black Plague. From here the story unfolds as the village is not all it appears to be.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Tone – The tone is dark and bleak and it works for this film, sadly there isn’t much else that is a pro.

Okay/Good: Ulric – Sean Bean’s character is interesting, but there isn’t much there. It is one of his more anti-hero/villain roles as he is killing people he thinks are guilty but does have a sense of loyalty to his men and the people he believes he is serving. This is contrasted with Langiva who is the leader of the village that in untouched by the plague. Sean Bean’s charisma is one of the few things driving this film.

Langiva – She is the antagonist, but like Ulric they are both are antagonists and protagonists in different ways. She saves Osmund’s girlfriend Averill, but pretends that she is raising her from the dead because she wants Osmund on her side. She is also merciless as she executes one of the men who renounce their faith and kills Ulric by dismembering him with two horses. We also don’t really get her motivation as she isn’t pagan and is more anti-christian than anything, her like Ulric deserved better development. Her performance here and as Melisandra did make me want to see Carice Van Houten in more things though.

Okay: Osmund – Sorry Redmayne, you were better as Marius in “Les Mis.” You do a lot of feeling but we are mostly told about your transformations into a witch hunter after you kill your girlfriend Averill and you are nothing more than a tool for Langiva and Ulric…His character arc doesn’t feel real and he spends most of the film crying. He does okay with what he is given, which isn’t much.

Cons: Averill – She’s a plot device to make Osmund go dark and become Ulric, nothing more.

Failure of Idea – The idea was to show how easily religion can be used to destroy heretics and those you see as a threat (Ulric and Langiva as the main folks doing this), but it didn’t feel that well executed because the world felt almost like a fantasy at times. Also the writing was at best okay and Redmayne cannot carry a movie…when he was the main protagonist of the film (though it’s presented as Sean Bean as the main protagonist via the cover). The idea of that and people can do crazy things when fearful and traumatized just felt hollow. We weren’t given any reason to care about these characters, which is a shame since the idea was interesting.

Writing – Why did Osmund become a monk? Why did he betray his vows to Averilla? How did he meet Averilla? When did the village go anti-Christian? What was Langiva’s motivation? Etc. So many questions and plot holes that become very apparent because the film is trying.

Would I recommend this film? No, I thought it was okay but it has so much wasted potential and no one really carries the film that it was in the end, below average. I wonder if the fact that 4 people produced it lead to the trouble with finding the purpose behind the films creation…and the changes the director made when he was a writer for the film.

Final Score 4.5/ 10

 

Spartacus (1960): What it Means to be Free

Spartacus

“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” -Spartacus

“Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick is the Academy Award winning film about the slave who lead one of the largest rebellions against Rome, Spartacus.” The story goes into the politics of the senate and the life of the slaves while tying it into the current events going on at the time.

The current events I speak of are the Red Scare and the Blacklisting of supposed communist sympathizers. The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted as was the author of the novel “Spartacus,” Howard Fast. These themes were worked into the novel as well as the screenplay (http://comptalk.fiu.edu/blacklist.htm).

Here is my assessment of the film:

The Pros: The cinematography – Is beautiful. Kubrick is able to capture the large scale movements of troops and also the small scale conversations between individuals or groups while keeping the scene active.

The Music – Is epic and reminded me very much of John Williams. Everything is big and though there are some off music moments (some strange violin pieces during love scenes) the rest achieves the scale and tone it needs.

The actors – Laurence Olivier is fantastic as Crassus and Kirk Douglas nails it as Spartacus. The rest of the supporting cast is good too and adds depth to their characters…from Gavin as Ceaser to Laughton as Gracchus. The actors are able to keep weaker scenes interesting.

The Theme – The theme of freedom as something worth dying for and what is worth living is the point of the story. Spartacus goes against enslaving the masters and so much of the problems and and corruption we see in the film is from ignoring this fact. Those in power wishing to dominate others and how it is an ongoing struggle. It is masterfully executed through the eyes of “Spartacus” and the corruption in Rome.

The story – It is fiction based off historical events but emphasis on fiction. The story of how Spartacus leads the slave rebellion begins when an African Slave in the arena attacks the masters present…which later leads to Sparatacus leading his own revolt in the arena and uniting the slaves and stopping their enslavement of the masters. It goes on to his love story with one of the slaves and their having a child as politics unfold in Rome and his slave rebellion is used as a tool for Gracchus versus Crassus for control of Rome and the senate with Ceaser as the deciding man.

The politics – There are lots of politics at play…from the pirates working with Crassus after getting paid off to turn against Sparatacus, from Gracchus getting Crassus’s man out of Rome to take on Spartacus, and Ceaser turning against Gracchus in order to unite Rome and joining forces with Crassus (and Crassus becoming Consul) and in the end to Gracchus freeing Sparatacus’s wife.

The characters – Are intriguing and three dimensional. Completely wrong morally in many cases (all the slave holders), but all are complicated and human. You see why Ceaser joins with Crassus, you get why Gracchus wants to take Crassus’s power and you get what drives Spartacus and why he doesn’t want to become like the masters. It is brilliantly written and the characters are all three dimensional…when they could have easily just become ideals and caricatures.

The time period: I find Roman History fascinating and love when artists (Directors, Studios, etc.) try to capture it on film. The characters and politics are such rich stories that are still relevant today and can teach us about ourselves.

Okay: The length – It doesn’t feel like it all the time but sometimes it does (I can see why they had an intermission in the film). “Spartacus” is over 3 hours long. In some ways this helps since the characters have time to be explored, but other times it feels like it takes too long to get the action started (the beginning is 5 minutes long at least of music, this before the movie even begins). I think shortening up in some areas like the battles and the introduction would have served the story better.

This is a film I would highly recommend. It isn’t Kubrick’s best film and I do think, “The Shining,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “The Killing” are better films, but this film is still great and worth a watch. It being considered one of the great classics is a well deserved title for this historical fiction that takes inspiration from the present  it was created in and can still be relevant today.

I give this film a 9 / 10.