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Dec 15/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Spotlight (Movie); The Night Before (Movie); This Is That (Radio)

Spotlight (Movie) written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer; directed by Tom McCarthy; starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amoroso, Doug Murray, Jamey Sheridan, Neal Huff, Billy Crudup, Robert B. Kennedy, Len Cariou, Jimmy LeBlanc

Illicit sex, especially when it involves religious leaders, makes for great copy. But the point of this movie about the sex abuse perpetrated by the Catholic clergy in the Boston diocese isn’t to dwell on the salacious details. Rather, the movie’s focus is on the system that allowed the abuse to be covered up for so long. That’s the point made by publisher Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber) in his instructions to the Boston Globe reporters who published the results of their year-long investigation in 2002.

At first, it’s hard to get your bearings in a barrage of expository dialogue and a flurry of names and titles: lawyers, priests, reporters, editors, victims, publishers. Even by the end of the movie, it’s difficult to be sure who some of these people are. Along the way, though, it becomes clear that, while the movie doesn’t particularly concern itself with trying to present the hierarchy’s justification of the way it handled the scandals, it does give a fair, balanced view of how the issue looked to the rest of the world and, in particular, to the Globe’s staff. As to why so much abuse occurred, the movie wisely doesn’t delve into that minefield, other than a brief reference to some possible explanations, such as the church’s obsession with celibacy and the sexual immaturity of many clerics.

We’ve seen a lot of movies about how things work in newspapers, All the President’s Men being one of the most illustrious examples. Spotlight shows that there are still good reasons for looking into that fascinating milieu. We get to sit in on the tense discussions among the staff members about what they should or shouldn’t do, how they’re going to approach this or that potential witness, how to get this reluctant victim to talk. (In terms of this behind-the-scenes strategizing, it’s a lot like Page One, the documentary about the New York Times.)

The four reporters working on this story belong to the Globe’s special investigative section known as "Spotlight" and much of their success in this instance comes from the dogged and ballsy insistence of Mike Rezendes, as played here by Mark Ruffalo. He goes where no one but an intrepid, even a reckless, reporter would go. The Catholic culture of Boston went into defence mode, trying to block him at every move. If it wasn’t for his determination, the team would never have turned up the facts needed to publish the story. Another team member who is just as committed, but in a gentler way, is played by Rachel McAdams. When she’s sitting face-to-face with a sex abuse victim and she’s coaxing the necessary information out of him, there’s an honesty and simplicity about her that dissolves any hint of conflict between her identities as an investigative reporter and a genuinely sympathetic human being.

This being a movie about a big issue – i.e. getting the story – it doesn’t dish up the sort of interpersonal drama that you get in a character movie. Relationships don’t matter much here. No affairs or romances. A passing reference to the fact that Mike Rezendes and his wife are separated makes you notice that there are hardly any other domestic details about the characters. Apart from some dynamic tussles among the newspaper’s staff, we mostly get a lot of flinty-eyed men glaring at each other and refusing to answer questions. In that respect, this movie’s a panoply of male stonewalling. No doubt that’s why interviews with some of the abuse victims bring on tears. One victim, a tough-looking, hard-bitten young dad (Jimmy LeBlanc, I think) squirms and fidgets, barely able to spit out the story of what happened to him. The scene should earn him a special award for the most gripping appearance by an actor in a cameo role.

Although it’s not a character movie, there are significant developments in terms of some of the characters. An obnoxious lawyer, played by Stanley Tucci, turns out to be someone quite different from whom we took him to be. And there’s even an unexpected revelation when one of the reporters on the Spotlight team turns out, belatedly, to have a somewhat ambiguous role in the Globe’s reporting on the story. I did find it slightly melodramatic when one reporter, a father, took somewhat extreme measures on finding that some priests who had been sex abusers were living in his neighbourhood. A bit of hysteria or a reasonable parental response? Hard to say.

The only aspect of the movie that struck me as phony, without question, was Howard Shore’s music. It was constantly chugging along, trying to convince us that important doings were underway. Whether it was Mark Ruffalo dashing from taxi to courthouse, or reporters searching through clipping files, or printing presses disgorging newspapers, the score kept trying, unnecessarily, to ratchet up the tension. Is it taken for granted that viewers are conditioned to need this kind of emotional prompting? All that the music was doing for me was making me wonder if the filmmakers didn’t think the proceedings on screen were interesting enough to keep my attention. If the story-telling is good enough, why introduce these sound effects to suggest that maybe it isn’t?

 

The Night Before (Movie) written by Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Aaron Hill, Ilana Glazer, Helne York, Darrie Lawrence.

When I walk into a matinee showing of a movie like this, I expect to find lots of teens who are skipping school. Could the fact that there weren’t any present this time suggest that there’s something wrong with the movie?

If there’s a genre for this kind of goofball comedy, it’s typified by the Hangover series: a group of buddies gets drunk and/or stoned and goes on a wild spree. Anything can happen, but mostly what you get is slapstick and gross-out humour.

Right off the top, this movie warns you that you’re not in for any high class entertainment. We’re shown a book that has the classic look of a beloved fairy tale and an off-screen announcer is intoning: "Twas the night before Christmas in two thousand and one/And this is when Ethan became an orphan." (pronounced "orphun") The message is clear: since we can’t even manage a good rhyme, don’t expect any high art from us.

The premise, as indicated in that opening doggerel, is that Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a car crash at holiday time in 2001. His pals, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), stepped in to cheer him up. That went so well that the three guys have gotten together on every Christmas Eve since. But Isaac is married now and his wife’s about to give birth to their first baby. Chris has become a famous football star with lots of demands on his time. This being their last Christmas Eve together, the guys are determined to make it memorable.

The prospect of that becomes all the more probable when Ethan manages to steal invitations to a legendary extravaganza: the Nutcracker Ball. It’s so special that you can’t know its location until you phone a secret number and then follow instructions as on a treasure hunt. When you get there, you’re gonna find that everybody who’s anybody is enjoying the mind-blowing party of all time.

Our guys, as you might expect, encounter more than a few roadblocks en route to the party. The result is that their chaotic night amounts to a movie that’s a potpourri of good and not-so-good bits.

Early on, there’s the scene where the dejected Ethan is working for a caterer at a posh party and his boss is complaining that Ethan’s not doing a good enough job of portraying a Christmas elf. So we get an amusing spot of face-acting from Mr. Gordon-Levitt as he tries various kooky expressions to catch the elf look. Thanks to a little box of recreational drugs that Isaac’s wife has provided for his night out, he finds himself having a soulful discussion with one of the three statues of the Magi in a life-sized nativity scene outside a Catholic church. And that, of course, leads to Isaac’s being dragged into midnight mass. Which leads to him, in his holiday sweater emblazoned with a huge Star of David, proclaiming to the congregation that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus. Which leads to Isaac riffling through the hymnal racks to try to find a barf bag.

Freaking out in a washroom, Isaac makes a video on his smart phone, expressing thoughts that no man would dare to express with a clear and sober mind: all about how this business of having a baby is a serious mistake, his child is going to turn out to be a monster that goes around killing people. It’s almost too much to sit through but it does have a good payoff later in the movie. When the guys finally arrive at the big party, they find celebs like Miley Cyrus and James Franco on hand, playing themselves. In the carry-on between Mr. Franco and Mr. Rogen, there’s the obligatory gay teasing, along with plenty of dick jokes, just so that the movie can show how hip it is.

The dialogue is sprinkled with some great lines:

  • A guy is fumblingly trying to propose to a woman: "Let’s pretend I’m saying it right."
  • When the three buddies are sneaking into the apartment of the football hero’s mother, they encounter a shrine crowded with his trophies. Isaac: "Did you die and not tell her?"
  • The football hero to a sexy fan who wonders why he wants to spend Christmas Eve with her rather than with family: "Oh, baby, family comes and goes but fans are forever!"
  • When Ethan gets into a knock-down-drag-out fight with two renegade Santa Clauses whom he accuses of disrespecting Christmas, one of the Santas gasps, in the midst of the fray: "I have a feeling this is about something else."

[None of these is an exact quote, as I didn’t have a recorder on hand.]

Another nice thing about the movie – although this may have become standard in these broad comedies – is that many of the "stock" characters turn out to be quite other than what you’re expecting. Isaac’s wife, Betsy (Jillian Bell), has a lot more smarts than her soft, pampered look would suggest. The footballer’s mom combines a sweet religiosity with foul-mouthed cunning. Diana (Lizzy Caplan), Ethan’s ex, comes across as intelligent and mature, instead of the typical bimbo who might have served the purpose.

The character with the most intriguing combination of conflicting traits is Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), the guys’ former English teacher. Looking like a seedy street person now, he sells the guys drugs while telling them how proud he is of them. Mr. Green, admitting that his "quiet intensity" tends to scare people, can, in a poetic vein, cite The Great Gatsby as one of his major influences. When the guys use the footballer’s nickname, "Messiah," Mr. Green protests: "For me, there’s only one Messiah, and that’s Our Lord Jesus Christ."

In spite of these and many other likeable aspects of the movie, it doesn’t, for me, work as a whole. Partly, that’s because the forward thrust of the plot – the push to the big party – doesn’t have the relentless momentum that a comedy like this needs. There are lulls, such as a dinner that the footballer’s mom lays on spontaneously. At another point, the guys are in a subway car arguing about what they’ve done with their lives in terms of things like responsibilities and values. It’s interesting material but it drags things down. (Could that explain the lack of teens in the audience?)

Maybe this movie shows what tends to happen when you have so many scriptwriters: plenty of ideas but some of them not fitting very well with others. There’s the question of the football hero. What’s with this guy? His attempt to come off like a celeb clashes with the believable, ordinary lives of the other two guys. That tends to throw the movie off-key. And there’s the point where he furiously refuses to wear his Christmas sweater. What’s that about? Another question concerns Ethan’s break-up with his ex. Supposedly it was because he refused to meet her parents. Huh? We know he has lost his own parents but that doesn’t explain his aversion to hers.

But the biggest problem with the movie – at least for me – is that, while it keeps taking deft jabs at the whole Christmas thing, it needs you to buy into the sentimentality after all. It’s as if you’re supposed to know that, in spite of the satire and the irreverence, the warm, fuzzy ending’s coming. How could a Hollywood movie hope to succeed if it trashed Christmas for real? At risk of coming off like just another grinch, I’d have to say that the movie’s buying into the cheesy aspects of the popular festival sent me away from the theatre feeling slightly used and abused.

 

This Is That (CBC Radio One) by Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring

Now that the new federal government is making noises about restoring the CBC’s funding, chances are that we lovers of CBC Radio are compiling our wish lists for what we’d like to see happen.

Some possibilities:

  • The elimination of those abominable ads on Radio Two?
  • The return of the third hour on Michael Enright’s "The Sunday Edition"?
  • Fewer repeat programs, more new ones?
  • More researchers, so that programs like "The Current" and "As It Happens" won’t be forced to fall back on fluffy fillers?

While visions of such sugar-plums are dancing in our heads, let’s not lose sight of some bonbons that are already being offered on CBC Radio One.

I don’t often get to hear This Is That, because it’s broadcast time (Thursday and Saturday at 11:30 a.m.) doesn’t fit well with my work schedule, but when I do catch the program, I’m invariably impressed by the ingenuity of the writing and the high calibre of the acting. Many other comedy shows on CBC Radio have tended to sound a bit sophomoric: you hand microphones to a bunch of crazy people and see what they can do. Sometimes the point of the so-called humour seems to be nothing more than to cause amazement at the way that people can clown around. But the material on This Is That has definite bite; it makes good points more often than not.

The best way to describe the tone of the show would be droll satire. Diverse aspects of our society are lampooned in a straight-faced way. But the underlying agenda – what makes the show especially worthwhile – is the implied critique of the way the media focuses on all these issues and, moreover, the way we’re all addicted to the media coverage of them.

In terms of performance, one of the key elements in the show’s success is that the people enacting the sketches – interviews, usually – sound so believable. I remember one item from some years ago, when a guy impersonating a representative the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was justifying the agency’s high budget. You had to have classy motorcycles and expensive leather jackets to be accepted by the criminal gangs you were trying to infiltrate, he said. That premise may not be amazingly funny, but what made the sketch so delicious was that the actor sounded like such a typical Canadian hunk: gung-ho, friendly and reasonable in spite of the nonsense he was spouting.

That authenticity of voice carries almost every item. I’m thinking of the recent one when a lady from Victoria was promoting a plan to banish nighttime fireworks, on the grounds that they cause too much disturbance. She sounded exactly like your neighbour airing her latest grievance, whether it be about dog droppings, or school buses, or pedestrian crossings. Same with the phone-in section, where "listeners" respond to previous show items. The feedback about the plan to introduce kissing lessons in Saskatchewan schools brought "calls" from a variety of very familiar Canadian cranks.

The show’s creators – Peter Oldring and Pat Kelly – handle all this material, whether as hosts or interviewers, in a restrained, courteous manner. Unlike a lot of would-be radio comedians, they don’t make the mistake of sounding like they’re trying to be funny. Instead, their measured tone suggests that they’re not quite sure whether they can believe what they’re hearing, but they’re too polite, i.e. too Canadian, to let their incredulity show.

If this is what constitutes the new wave of Canadian comedy and if restored funding for the CBC can give us more of it, bring it on!

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com