Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Lobster

It's a jungle out there, lonelyhearts.  Or at least a forest.  Which seems better than the hotel.  But is it?  And the city - it's a cold, cold place.  But we all knew that, right?  The options are daunting for the lonely in search of real connection, those who don't necessarily want to go it alone and for whom couplehood, as it so often presented, seems the least appealing choice of all.  So goes the old story, rendered almost unrecognizably new by director Yorgos Lanthimos in The Lobster.

The Lobster is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos' first film in English, the first produced outside of his native Greece.  Like his earlier Dogtooth and Alps (as well as Attenberg, by his colleague Athina Rachel Tsangari, a film in which Lanthimos deadpans his way through a secondary role), The Lobster sees human relationships stripped down to their basic truths and conflicts and given absurd projection, a kind of psychological caricature.  The Lobster is what you could call a European production, co-produced by principals from five nations.  Given that the United Kingdom is one of those contributors, one is reminded of another recent, absurd exercise in coupling and uncoupling.  Oppressively careworn as it has become, Brexit sounds a bit like a Yorgos Lanthimos film.  Alas, reality proves rather less entertaining and edifying.  And beyond the control of rewind.

Mr. Lanthimos' fiction has lost nothing in its translation to English and its move to more liberally-funded international production.  You'll read in some capsule reviews that The Lobster is a dystopian comedy.  Given the generally impassive trudge of characters through the early stages of The Lobster, the muted mood and look of the film, the labels are understandable enough, if a bit facile.  But really, there is a genre into which The Lobster more neatly fits.  It happens to be a genre called The Films of Yorgos Lanthimos.  The themes are relatively timeless, the dilemmas all too universal.  And yet they find expression in a paled, parallel world that the Greek filmmaker continues to build for himself. 

Our main character, our unhero, trudging through The Lobster is David (Colin Farrell).  The somber David is escorted (through a generic urban landscape that is slightly reminiscent of Jacques Tati; only Playtime has now become Depressedtime) to a seaside hotel where color has apparently also retired to die a slow death.  This while the body of his former relationship is still warm. In tow is a genial shepherd by the name of Bob (father and son pooches Jaro and Ryac, for the record), whom we find out is David's brother and a former visitor at the very unusual hotel.  Meet your mate during your stay at this hotel and back to the city you go, into the connubial sunset. Fail to do so within 45 days and you are transformed into the animal of your choosing.  Bob had made the obvious choice, as the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) informs David.  His designated animal , on the other hand, a lobster - which he selects for lifespan, blue blood and unending fertility - meets with the approval of the manager:  "I must congratulate you, the first thing most people think is a dog...which is why the world is so full of dogs."  Thus begins, among numerous other accomplishments, The Lobster's disregard for all cute little human companions, canine and child alike.  

Like those inducted into the military or getting serious attention in a hospital, new guests are stripped of their individual garments and left to slouch in relative undress after checkin.  So sits David amongst a batch of new arrivals, including "Biscuit Woman" (Ashley Jensen, even more affecting and downtrodden than she was as Ricky Gervais' pal in Extras) and "Man With Limp" (Ben Whishaw).  Mr. Farrell looks a kind of Groucho Marx negative with his glasses and jet, questioning eyebrows.  David's slouch only exaggerates his paunch.  One imagines Mr. Farrell having a very good time acquiring the extra weight.  

With us from the start of the film is narration provided by a character later to appear in the film (she intimates that David will eventually join her group), "Short Sighted Woman."  This Rachel Weisz,  speaking in kind of third-person flat.  It's a tribute to Mr Lanthimos' rigor and Weisz's commitment to character that even this narration is consistent with the film's sometimes droll, generally saturnine tone.  

The Lobster's international cast, its matter-of-fact narrator and other characters, don't necessarily speak as if English is a second language.  Consistent with the earlier work of Mr. Lanthimos, characters utter uncertain words and abortive sentences as if human communication itself were a foreign tongue.  A particular scintillating dance floor exchange between David and Nosebleed Woman after the latter has realized that she has bled on his white shirt "
I'm sorry, I got the blood on your shirtBut don't worry, there are many ways to remove blood stain from clothing.  One way is to wring the clothes to cold water, then rub in sea saltAnother way is to scrape the stain with cotton ball dip in ammonia...."  More such verbal foreplay ensues.  There are amusing if very dry exchanges in Lanthimos' Dogtooth in which the nearly adult children speciously name objects like the most hapless of language students, their ignorance reinforced by a father who keeps his wife and children confined to the well-appointed suburban compound.       

Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou grant the directors of the hotel no more grace with words, much as they demonstrate - completely oblivious to themselves  - sarcasm.  When two of the young hotel guests, Man With Limp and "Nosebleed Woman" (Jessica Barden) unite (Man With Limp pretends to be Man With Nosebleed), they are recognized at a hotel gathering prior to graduating to yachts moored in nearby water, the honeymoon quarters for those who successfully couple.  Their benediction from the hotel manager seems a valentine to the consciously (and sometimes contemptuously) childless in the audience:  "The course of your relationship will be monitored closely...by our staffs and me personally.  If you encounter any problems, any tensions, any arguing that you can't resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children.  That usually helps a lot."   

Amplifying the irony which Mr. Lanthimos allows certain of his characters to render with admirable deadpan consistency is a soundtrack whose greatest feat of irony, much like the film itself, is a mix of audacity and precision which at key moments coalesces to actual, deeply-felt sincerity.  There is an abundance of fraught string quartet music (Shnitke, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Shostakovich) usually accompanying the most mundane of acts:  the putting on of clothes, plying the aisle of a supermarket.  When we see the hotel guests go on their first "hunt," stalking the renegade loners in the nearby forest, the darkly-clad hunters emerge from the bottom of the frame in slow motion to the opening glissandos of  "Apo Mesa Pethamnos" (sung by Danai).  To this graceful, swaying old Greek lament we see the slowed, awkward flight and pursuit, faces juddering ghastly as bodies stumble and careen, silent screams and mouths agape at falls.  We see "Heartless Woman" (Angeliki Papoulia) exultant he she rifle-butts a loner to the forest floor and then deliver a right cross to her already bloodied face.   

Blunt as the violence is as delivered by Heartless Woman, this is certainly not Brett Easton Ellis (nor May Haron in the film version), serving us a course of sociopathic homicide to a pairing of Huey Lewis and the News, as is the case in American Psycho.  No, Mr. Lanthimos speaks (and sings) irony with the delicacy and fluency of a native.  

Occasionally, the director does indeed allow concord between image and sound,  those insistent strings slowing from ironic adagio to sincere lento or moderato pastorale.  Such is the case during the unconventional, sub rosa courtship of David and Short Sighted Woman, one that takes place in a kind of beautifully absurd semaphore amongst the other loners, fingers, hands and swiveling heads serving as flags:  "When we turn our heads to the left, it means 'I love you more than anything in the world.' When we turn our heads to the right, it means 'Watch out, we're in danger.' We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up 'I love you more than anything in the world' with 'Watch out, we're danger.'" 

Even during the moments of obvious irony in The Lobster -  image to sound, sound to image -  there is something clutchingly universal in the absurd or mundane acts  which resonate beneath the obvious incongruity of the music that accompanies the action.  So it is with the flight of loners from those desperate to couple (each bagged loner wins the hunter an extra day at the hotel to stave off transformation to an animal).  Who among us who has spent any significant portion of their adult life single has not felt oneself a threat to and occasional target of the nervous herd of the paired-off?  Who has not felt anxiety amidst the plenty of the super market?   

Prior to his sylvan romance with Short Sighted Woman, David manages to woo the seemingly unwooable Heartless Woman at the hotel with skillful indifference.  The first salvo of cold disregard occurs at the expense of poor Biscuit Woman, sprawled on the bricks beneath the hotel, her second floor suicide leap having resulted not in instant death but unbearable pain (and presumably later death).  This a promised jump after her attempts to attract David fail, blood and a telltale, forlorn atoll of biscuits about the woman's head to confirm what her screams indicate to everyone in earshot.  David's commentary to Heartless Woman?  A veritable love poem:  "I just hope her pathetic screams can't be heard from my room.  Because I was thinking about have a lie down and I need peace and quiet.  I was playing golf and I'm quite tired.  The last thing I need is some woman dying slowly and loudly."  The canny David then seals the dubious deal by refusing to act when Heartless Woman later seems to be choking to death in a hot tub next to him.  The Heimlich maneuver being for saps. 

But they don't call her Heartless Woman for nothing.  After a brief, heady romance consisting of alienating sex and frigid arm and arm walks (during which David further endears himself to his bride-to-be by kicking the shin of Mrs. & Mr. Nosebleed's little cherub of a conversation starter), David awakens one morning to find that the heartless one has dispatched his furry brother Bob from their lives with a brutality surprising even for her.  When he finally betrays sadness, Heartless Woman not only calls off the relationship but takes him by the ear to the Hotel Director's office, causing him to flee and seek asylum among the loners.   

Lanthimos has his share of fun with directors and would-be couples at the hotel.  Guests are edified with a pantomime of a woman menaced by man when walking alone and then moving in triumphant safety in the arm of a partner - "Woman walks alone; woman walks with man."  There is the matter of the ridiculous focus on the "defining characteristic," thus desperate Man With Limp occasionally having to bash his face against a hard surface so he and his paramour can bleed, nose by nose.  And, of course, there is the use of those rifles mounted to each hotel room wall, with the allotment of 20 tranquilizer darts, which is detailed though not initially explained as Short Sighted Woman runs down contents of David's room.

Yes, there's a kind of dour hilarity in the simple-minded direction offered up to the hapless hotel guests.  But Lanthimos really has fun with the loners, drilled with military rigor by Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux).  In his initial briefing, David is told that he is welcome to take a place among the loners, but there are rules to follow.  Talking is allowed, but no flirting. Dancing is okay, but..."We only dance by ourselves.  That's why we only electronic music."  That might be the joke of the year.   All the more so when we later get the visual echo, the loners, together alone,  thrusting their pale limbs into the night after a successful raid on the complacency of the hotel.  Here,  judicious silence to accompany the solo dancers, each moving in a solo dance club sanctioned by individual ear buds.  More wit and pathos in this joke and reiteration than is be found in the whole of the ostensibly comedic and vastly overrated Don't Think Twice, currently improvising its way through the art house circuit.  

Lanthimos drollery extends to other bits of visual deadpan, as when incongruous animals wander into the frame -  here a  Shetland pony, there a pink flamingo.  The transformed and released former hotel guests enjoy arguably the most pleasant fate in The Lobster.  

Better a drifting llama or peacock in the forest where human beings are the most sought after game.  The hunting parties from the hotel are no bargain.  Neither the emotional winter of the loners.  When Loner Leader begins to perceive the burgeoning romance in her midst, she chastens David by reminding him that he needs to find a suitable spot for his grave.  "Don't expect anyone else to dig your grave for you or to carry your corpse."  One's fellow loners might toss some dirt over you, but that' about it.  Ah, the single life.   
Don't get too nostalgic for your single days.  Colin Farrell practices burying
himself in The Lobster.  
Mr. Lanthimos is pretty rigorous himself, if ultimately more forgiving and - in his way - more fun.  The Lobster could have contented itself with its fish in a barrel shooting party that is life at the hotel.  But the writer and director illuminates and lampoons most every dark corner of our attempts to couple, be alone, simply be.  
Short Sighted Woman  suffers the wrath of the Loner Leader.  Ultimately David and his rather more than Short Sighted Woman flee the forest for the city.  Will David make a kind of leap, a desperate act and join the trusting woman, expectant at a restaurant table?  Traffic slides in the background almost hypnotically.  Two dump trucks would seem to move toward a kind of embrace as the screen goes dark.

We moviegoers are not so unlike Short Sighted Woman.  Sitting in the dark, hoping for the best.  Likely prepared for worse.  This world, of course, is so full of dogs.  But occasionally, we get a Lobster.  


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Son of Saul

There are no establishing shots.  No trains arriving at the gates of Auschwitz with their infernal box cars.  No dates.  No body counts.  Instead, first-time director Lazlo Nemes places us right in the midst of the wretched business of the Holocaust.  What we see and what we don't see is a product of the perspective of Hungarian-Jewish prisoner, Saul (Geza Rohrig).

The only bit of overview we are given in Son of Saul is a title card explaining the Sonderkommandos, work outfits at death camps composed of Jewish prisoners, often pressed quickly into service upon their arrival at the extermination centers.  Saul is one such Sondercommando, very likely at the end of his tenure in the special unit (the translation of the term in German) in 1944.  The end of that grim tenure means the end of his life.  The Sondercommandos, the "bearers of secrets," were conducted to their own demise, usually within months, by their successors.

Son of Saul does begin in the midst of the ruthless cycle of the Sonderkommandos and the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.  It's not so much that the film commences as if the camera is just turned on at some random point during Saul's time as a Sonderckommando.  The camera is a kind of doppelganger to the Hungarian prisoner, often peering over his shoulder, just as often staring him in the face.  That face is not quite impassive, not quite numb.  But it is like an instrument asked to measure some powerful phenomenon one too many times, frozen in its last flash of activity.  Thus, the brown eyes ever dilated, an unceasing aperture.  The brow - Mr. Rohrig's imposing brow and piercing dark eyes are reminiscent of a young Peter Boyle - hunched in repeated questioning.  The full lips just open, or just closed, having just arrived, just left some expression of incredulity.

The first long, masterful sequence is all the more harrowing for the lack of exposition.  It's one of many unrelenting scenes of controlled chaos in Son of Saul.  New arrivals are essentially herded into a changing room, directed toward pegs where they are instructed to hang their clothes after stripping.  Saul, a red X on his jacket signifying his special status, wordlessly hustles the newcomers to the changing area and then toward what they believe to be a shower room.   All the while, announcements can be heard urging the arrivals toward the shower, reminding them to remember the hook number where they've left their clothes, telling them to make haste lest the bowls of soup that await them get cold.  Of course, the irony of those latter statements cuts horribly, invisibly through the air.

As soon as the chamber door closes on the victims, Saul and his coworkers go through the pockets of the left clothing for any paperwork or valuables.  As we'll find out, the Sonderkommandos sometime take the dangerous step of pocketing (or placing in their shoes) pilfered items of jewelry, each "shiny" a piece of currency in the camp.  Much as Saul and those in his unit have prescribed duties, it's not unusual for them to be be pulled away to some other morbid task.  So it happens while Saul and the other Sonderkommandos about him are quickly removing evidence of the latest group of arrivals.  He's called to press against the metal door of the gas chamber with others while those inside pound and cry out with rising desperation.  There is eventually a nightmare cacophony, a crescendo, then silence.  With virtually no hesitation, the Sonderkommandos must remove the bodies, the "pieces" as they are called by the presiding Nazis, pile them for delivery to the ovens and then scrub the gas chamber clear of excrement and whatever else remains.

By this most perverse stream of consciousness, Mr. Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer reveal bits of information about the camp.  There is the nearly constant, dreadful flow of humanity and all the tasks attendant to getting the victims in place and their subsequent disposal.  Much as the movement of Saul and the story are nearly constant, we do observe the Sonderkommandos in stolen bits of respite, moments of conversation and conspiracy.  We see their barracks, completely separate from other death camp inmates.  As compensation for their dire labors, the Sonderkommandos enjoyed some measure of privacy, a more sustaining diet and even things like cigarettes, plucked from the clothing of those who would not need them any longer.

There is also a sense of the politics of the place, the give and take between units and an awareness that the often brutal Kapos must be given their deference or avoided altogether.  Implicit in all of this is the cryptic nature of those politics to an outsider or newcomer.  How quickly choices would have to be grasped which basically involve some previously unimagined compromise of humanity or almost immediate death.  Obviously, it was a momentum that served the camps and the Nazis all too well.  

Saul's particular momentum is diverted by a kind of miracle.  After the first group of victims we see is cleared out of the gas chamber, a young man is found to be clinging to life.  The work of murdering him is quickly and  quietly finished.  But something about the boy, perhaps his stubborn life force, awakens in Saul a last flare of rebellion.  He decides that he must find a rabbi and give the boy a proper burial.  His quest to find a rabbi will repeatedly imperil himself and others.  It also threatens to compromise an uprising planned by the Sonderkommandos and Oberkapos of which Saul is expected to play a part.  The closest thing Saul has to a friend in the camp, another Sonderkommando named Yankl (Attila Fritz), tells him late in the proceedings, "You have failed the living for the dead."  Saul had earlier supplied his answer, "We're all dead."

To stop one of the camp doctors, Miklos (Sandor Zsoter), from performing an autopsy, Saul claims that the boy is his son.  The doctor tells him that the boy's body is bound for the same place as the other accumulating dead, but acknowledges that Saul may return later and have a few minutes with the boy.  Co-writers Nemes and Royer ground their story in concrete particulars:  in force, brutality and desperation; in flesh and in ash.  Matters of plot and motivations of its main character are like questions asked and left open-ended.  Saul claims that dead boy is his son, although that doesn't seem terribly likely (Yankl in particular seems unconvinced).  Even more ambiguous is Saul's determination to give the boy a burial consistent with the tenets Judaism.  Is this an act of insistent integrity in the face of muderous repression?  Does the sight of the boy, however he appeals to Saul, finally snap the Sonderkommando's wavering sanity?  Is Saul's determination to give him a proper burial an act of madness.?

The close, fluid point camera work is provided by cinematographer Matyas Erdely.  Wonderful though the Steadicam may be, it doesn't quite explain how well the photography is executed in Son of Saul.   The demands of the shooting style dictated by Lazlo Nemes would seem to be as varied as they are constant.  The camera work manages to convey the film and its main character's chaos, urgent sense of movement...the almost (or quite) necessary swiveling, visual paranoia.  All of this accomplished without excessive movement,  a "here I am" jerking of the camera merely for effect.  While Mr. Erdely is receiving justified acclaim for his work, the seamless point of view that carries us through the film is also due in part to the equally fluid editing of Mattieu Taponier.  Altogether, the technical accomplishment of Son of Saul, arguably greatest of its strengths, demonstrates a focused, accomplished collaboration.

Of course, the other major part of the equation, Son of Saul's impressive feat of collaboration, is Geza Rohrig's doggedly restrained work as our guide through the film's hell on earth.  As a preparation for production, Mr. Rohrig was apparently filmed for extended periods of time at very close range.  A New York-based Hungarian poet whom Lazlo Nemes apparently met while attending film classes at NYU, Rohrig is a performer with very limited acting experience.  His previous credit was about 25 years prior to the production of Son of Saul.  Like all with speaking parts in his film, Nemes cast someone who is a native speaker of his main character's language (there is a whispery babel of Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian and Polish in the film).  Thanks to the familiarity with language, the preparation that brought about such an immersive, disciplined performance, Geza Rohrig is the dark beam, the summoning shadow leading us through Son of Saul's pell-mell.  

Accomplished, unblinking and even diligent though it might be with regard to details and the inevitable truths of its story, Son of Saul has not gone forth entirely without controversy. 

Perhaps most prominent of those offended by the perspective of Son of Saul was Manohla Dargis of the NewYork Times.  Writing from Cannes, where Son of Saul won the Grand Prix, she reported that the film is "radically dehistoricized" and "intellectually repellant," that the reliance on close-ups "“transform[s] all the screaming, weeping condemned men, women and children into anonymous background blurs.”  

Many of the death camp victims are in the background in Son of Saul, if feet to very inches away from camera and main character can be construed as "background."  The body parts of the dead intrude into the frame, as do plenty of entire lifeless, naked bodies between gas chamber and crematorium.  I don't believe anyone at the screening I attended misheard the screams of Jewish victims pounding on the doors of gas chambers as crowd noise from a football match.

Lazlo Nemes shot Son of Saul in 35-millimeter with a kind of classic, narrow aspect ratio.  This shallow focus heightens the sense of the subjective, the close up on the desperate, peripatetic Saul.  It's expertly done and certainly has a breathless quality about it.  However, to be carried along the 107 minutes of Mr. Nemes' film without realizing that one is right in the dark heart of the Holocaust would seem to require some adjustment on the part of the viewer, not the film.  

Son of Saul hardly deals in intellectual or moral certainty.  The physical reality is concrete and ever-present:  the flattening brutality, the murderous accumulation, flesh divested of life, dumped into pits or rendered to ash.  Otherwise, Nemes relies upon  his audience to consider if the members of the Sonderkommandos were only victims of the worst dehumanization, facilitators of it, or perhaps some combination thereof.  We're left to consider if Saul's single-minded pursuit of a rabbi - consistent with the film's ambiguity, it's not even clear if the man who ultimately agrees to perform the rites is really who he claims to be - and insistence on a burial for the boy is indeed a betrayal of the living for his own satisfaction. 

To read reviews of Son of Saul and any consideration of the Holocaust in general is to see the lexicon of tragedy dusted off  and utilized anew.  Words like unspeakable, incomprehensible, even ungraspable bob to the surface.  For the sake of our actual understanding of the Shoah, genocide that preceded it and genocide that has all-too-predictably followed, perhaps it is time we start comprehending, start grasping.  Set aside the "un" prefix and excise from the conversation that most obfuscating of words, evil.  Go forth with words like fear, recurrence, all-too-human.      

Time perhaps to regard the Holocaust not as an unapproachable monolith, but a darkness that must be penetrated and plumbed.  Perhaps find one story, one strand and follow it.  Determine the patterns, the bloody weave of history.  Look clearly and bravely into it and ourselves.  Toward that end, works like Lazlo Nemes' Son of Saul seem not only valuable at this point, but perhaps even necessary. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Goodnight Mommy

We have Austrians.  Handsome and blonde Austrians!  And they sing!  Goodnight Mommy begins in such a fashion, a large family (noticeably without father) singing Brahms' Lullaby, the lovely children in black velvet dresses and lederhosen.  At the conclusion of this doctored bit of graininess, a television show that probably never was, the mother bids us a tender, "Gute nacht."  At the conclusion of Goodnight Mommy, the film's main characters, a woman and her twin boys serenade us, arm in arm, with the German hymm, "Weisst Du wieviel Sternlein stehen."  Before you consider Goodnight Mommy for your next holiday film sing-along, know that there's actually very little song between those Austrian idylls that open and close the film.  And what transpires between is much closer in spirit to the Brothers Grimm than the family Von Trapp.  

In counterpoint to the fair-haired wholesomeness on display in Goodnight Mommy, there is quickly established an air of dread.  The twin boys, Elias and Lukas, disport around the countryside in their matching little sleeveless undershirts.  They play tag through a corn field, first seen from ground level.  When the perspective changes to overhead, the stalks look irate at their displacement and snap back into place as if intent on swallowing the children.  The brothers step across the alien, shifting clots of a bog as the browned earth moans and burps in response.  First one of the lads, then the other steps into an unlit tunnel.  One of them glides almost magically across the dark glass of a lake.  Significantly, as we await some awful occurrence in all of these situations where misfortune would seem to await the boys, the only name we hear called out is "Lukas."  

What's also evident through these first scenes of Goodnight Mommy is how effectively co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala capture and precisely utilize sound to enhance the building tension of their story.  

To our surprise, Elias and Lukas do return home unscathed.  Like the nearly unpeopled village into which they will later roam, their house seems to have been plopped down from another place, right on the verge of farm fields and forest.  It also looks like something out of an Austrian version of Dwell.  As we come to see the decidedly mod furnishings of this rural retreat, including clear acrylic hanging bubble chairs and artfully out-of-focus pictures bedecking the cold walls, it also looks like the sort of joint with which the people at Unhappy Hipsters could have a field day.  


Hipster or not, the woman presiding amidst this cool elegance is clearly not very happy herself.  When the boys arrive at her bedroom, somewhat dirtier for their endeavors, they find their mother standing in shadow so consistent with the first half or so of Goodnight Mommy, a semi-permanent twilight of drawn blinds.  When the robed figure turns to face them, the chilling image of a head wrapped in bandages atop that body emerges from the darkness and walks toward her sons with arms extended.  Not surprisingly, Elias and Lukas do not leap for the embrace of this forbidding figure, their yeux sans visage.  Instead, they regard her - not with fear, but with an almost malevolent skepticism.  "That's a fine hello," says their mother before admonishing them to get out of their dirty clothes. 

 What ensues in Goodnight Mommy is what co-director Veronika Franz has referred to in interview as "power games within families."  It is a power game or struggle in which the stern, slightly mummified mother would seem to hold the advantage, to be the heavy.

Given that the mother's face is wrapped through the early portion of Goodnight Mommy, obvious comparisons have been made to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face.   Numerous comparisons to countryman Michael Haneke, particularly the director's Funny Games, have also been made.  Veronika Franz and her co-director Severin Fiala, don't cite any specific influence in the making of Goodnight Mommy.  They don't really see the connection to Haneke at all.  In its power struggle between an apparently single mother dealing with a fractious young son and its ultimate ambiguity as to whom is the most destructive member of the relationship, Goodnight Mommy actually has much in common with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014).      

There has been no more encouraging evidence in the past two years for the artistic viability of horror films - not to mention evidence that horror films can actually still be scary - than The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy.  It's no accident that both films have come from abroad, outside the conservative machine that is Hollywood.  And given that both films till the dark loam in which lies the more morbid aspects parenthood, it makes sense that each has been partially, if not totally informed by women.  Who, after all, has to deal with the obvious burden of child-bearing?  Who, more often than not, has to cope with most of the challenges to sleep and sanity those early years?  The sometime isolation and challenges to identity?  Even in youth or well into adulthood of the demanding offspring, the blame for frustrated expectations?  Sorry, mom.  

Both The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy visit that fevered part of the psyche where parenthood can seem like a life and death struggle, where everyday reversals can be distorted to the realm of dark opera.  In the The Babadook, it looks as though young Samuel Vanek (Noah Wiseman) is the problem, haunted by a monster (Mr. Babadook) and generally ruining his mother's life.  With Goodnight Mommy, the mother (Susanne Wuest) both looks and acts the part of villain, apparently cold and stern, her bearing and clothing (not to mention her headdress) as lacking in warmth as her manner.  In each case, the directors build and impressively maintain a sense of ambiguity through their films as to whom the real threat, the real monster is.  The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy just happen to see their young male characters wielding self-adapted weapons - a crossbow here, a kiddie rocket launcher there - as they mount their defense against foes supernatural or domestic.  What's unclear well into the proceedings of both films is who should be protected against whom.

Could you come back and freak out later, honey?
 Mommy needs some sleep.  Essie Davis in The Babadook.  
The ambiguity present in Goodnight Mommy involves a major twist that will fool most on first viewing.  To watch the film a second or third time is to appreciate how precisely Ms. Franz and Mr. Fiala have constructed their story.  The films plays a good deal and quite skillfully with matters if identity and absence. 

Elias and Lucas simply don't believe the woman behind the bandages is their mother.  For some reason, the mother will hardly acknowledge Lukas at all.  We don't know how the family has arrived at this particular state.  We don't know if the father is absent, divorced from the mother, or no longer living.  It is revealed late in the going that there was an accident at some point (another bit of common ground with The Babadook).  This, perhaps, why the mother is recovering from what would appear to have been plastic surgery.  Of course, we also discover she's something of a television presenter in Austria, so perhaps the surgery is part of the ubiquitous industry pressure to stay young, whatever the means.  

The mother's occupation is divulged during a moment of relative detente with the boys, as they all play a game of "I Spy."  This explains the German title of the film, which early flashes on the screen: "Ich Seh Ich Seh."  The game's first line apparently, "Ich seh, ich seh, was du siehst nicht" - "I see, I see, what you don't see."  A sticky note is affixed to one's forehead with an identity that is to be guessed by clues given by those who can see it.  The boys put the mother's own identity on her forehead, but even as they give more specific clues, she struggles to guess it is her.  Yet more damning evidence it would seem that the woman is not really the mother of Elias and Lucas.  

The truth lurks in Goodnight Mommy.  Unlike the would-be scary films regularly produced by Hollywood, it doesn't come springing out of some dark closet accompanied by a thundering sound effect in Dolby Surround, creating a fright that evaporates about as quickly as one's launched ass returns to the comfort of the theater seat.  It lurks.  This is a matter of patience, discipline and skill.  It's a crucial quality that was also demonstrated by another encouraging horror film of the past couple of years, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows. 

 The darkness, the truth, lurks close by Lukas and Elias, lost in their seemingly innocent games:  a very boyish burp-off in those bubble chairs; holding their breath underwater; bouncing on a trampoline.  It's something decidedly unholy lurking behind all the trappings and representatives of piety.  We see many such tokens in Goodnight Mommy:  the boys praying at an outdoor cross; a crucifix swinging from the rear-view mirror of the priest who returns them home after they have run away; votive candles standing a kind of sentry for the sleeping boys and later surrounding the mother at the film's climax.  The truth lurks beneath the bond of the mother and son, a bond that becomes unforgettably literal as it festers through Goodnight Mommy.  All of this like a lullaby much more likely to induce a nightmare than peaceful slumber.  

We see some vivid nightmares in Goodnight Mommy.  Franz and Fiala deal very effectively in images that have seemingly little to do with plot, but everything to do with mood, waking and sleeping.  As the relationship between the mother and sons grow more openly hostile, Elias dreams of walking into her room, cutting open her stomach and seeing large, ghastly beetles emerge.  We had earlier seen the twins place one of the bugs on her face while she slept, the insect eventually slipping into the sleeping woman's mouth.  The boys collect beetles, keeping them pullulating in an aquarium.  In a strong bit of foreshadowing, Elias burns one of the insects on a cement porch with a magnifying glass.   

Images of fire recur and the distinction between reality and nightmare blurs.  When the boys run away, we seem them in a field undergoing a controlled burn.  They step dangerously close to the section aflame while the man doing the work gestures furiously for them to get away.  Elias and Lukas step literally from another field right into an apparently nearby village whose streets are abandoned, save for a lone accordion player wailing like an infernal Tom Waits.  The line between the real and the imagined is typically diaphanous when the boys watch their frustrated mother leave the house one evening and stalk into the nearby forest.  Over the verdant bed, among the black trunks she winds, ultimately stripping.  When the camera comes round for a frontal view , we see the face whipping horribly fast, a screaming blur.  

The apparent nightmares, the fanciful images, help to further the sense of dread in Goodnight Mommy.  Ultimately, the film finds its horror in very real things.  Elemental expressions predominate, start to finish.  There is fire, there is water.  The latter in the boys sport, floating and submerging to hold their breath.  They later remove the beetles from the aquarium, fill it with water and leave a dead cat submerged in the tank.  This a message to their mother, whom they believed killed the cat they earlier found in some sort of ossuary (the traipse across the piled bones yet another opportunity for Franz and Fiala to exploit sound in the crunch of those bones under foot).  When the boys won't come out and face her, the mother dumps a jar of the beloved beetles into the water to drown.  Did that accident that is mentioned in the film's closing moments involve drowning?  Did it involve fire?  Perhaps.  Does a horrible, elemental expression occur at the climax of Goodnight Mommy?  Well, yes.  

Franz and Fiala maintain the sense of ambiguity because we ultimately see the bad behavior of the boys and their mother from the other's perspective.  Like any power struggle, any war, the combatants are sometimes at their worst, regardless of who might ultimately be the greater victim.  

Beyond her severe appearance, we see several examples of less than ideal motherhood early on.  There is little warmth for the twins, none at all for poor Lukas.  When the mother pours some orange drink for Elias, he says, "Lukas wants some too."  "The he can ask me himself," is the cold response.  Lukas is ignored while the mother tears apart the boys room, searching for some sort contraband.  She is upset to find a lighter, much as she doesn't discover the cat whose box has been pushed under the bunk beds.  Finally, Elias defiantly claps his hands in his mother's face and she pins him smotheringly to the bed.

When the bandages finally come off, both the mother's dress and manner are transformed.  Gone is the almost masculine togs that had accompanied the facial bandages.  She appears in a blue dress, hair done up, makeup applied.  "Are we friends again," she asks, smiling.  

Sorry, mom.  By the time the mother emerges from her bandages and personal darkness, she has lost her sons.  None of the evidence seems to jibe.  The face isn't quite the same as before.  When the boys consult a photo album, they see the picture of their mother's friend who looks more like the woman claiming to be their mother than the one they've always known.  Elias and Lukas play a recording of their mother singing "Weisst Du wieviel Sternlein stehen." as they go to sleep one night.  But when they ask their mother at a crucial juncture what is Lukas favorite song, she can't come up with the right one.  "We want our mom back," they demand.  "You're not our mom....Show us your birthmark."  Bad news indeed when the birthmark is found to be impermanent.  

Like lesser-known versions of the folklore gathered and told by the Brothers Grimm, the simple story of Goodnight Mommy does not shy from dark themes and darker action when the time comes.  There is more bad behavior.   There is blood.  And there is worse.  Without revealing too much of the mayhem, suffice it to say that super glue is found to have even greater utility than previously imagined.  Ah, the ties that bind.  And bind.  

So maybe having kids wasn't such a good idea after all.  Elias
and Lukas Schwarz in Goodnight Mommy.

But not to worry.  The principles gather in a field at film's end, the boys having emerged from the corn a last time.  The moon is full.  They sing.  The mother knows which song to sing this time.  All are smiling.  Even as silence prevails at hymn's end, the ideal Austrian family smiles into the camera.  

There's a great upward whoosh of sparks, a last breath of fire, when the frame finally darkens.  A Lynchian coda if there ever was one.  As David Lynch has done with such chilling effectiveness in several of his films, peeling back a sense American wholesomeness like a concealing skin, first time directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala do with their own cultural heritage, which includes, by their own reckoning, an unwillingness to face difficult truths, political or personal.  Let the diseased family stand for any larger metaphors in Goodnight Mommy.  Let the fire burn.  So long, farewell....to you and you and you!  


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Hateful Eight

It's admirable, Quentin Tarantino's continued advocacy of film.  The actual stuff.   As opposed to the digital format which the film industry has pretty well crammed down the throats of moviegoers and any theater hoping to get by.   It's slightly less admirable, the amount of celluloid that Tarantino is expending these days, his stories that are being pressed into that precious film stock.   The director's laudable resuscitation of careers given up for dead by Hollywood also continues to his credit.  Such is the case, to varying degrees, with Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen (the old charisma nearly extinguished) and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the writer/director's latest, Hateful Eight.   Alas, most of Hateful Eight transpires with Ms. Jason Leigh getting more punches (or bowls of stew) to the face than sentences to utter, made to lay about black-eyed and bloodied while the boys in the cast trade the auteur's curiously lifeless dialog, a lot of gas that only rarely finds a spark to ignite it.  And really, it's an extraordinary accomplishment, the director's eighth feature, all 187 minutes (the "Roadshow" version)  of it, complete with overture and score by Ennio Morricone and an intermission.   It's not everyone that could stake out such a vast range of filmic territory and so successfully protect it from most any incursion of style, wit, insight, or originality.  That achievement brought about with a staggering display of cheap provocation, pretension, self-parody and phosphorescent self-indulgence.  Tarantino's brilliant device of placing an African American man front and center, a badass character who enjoys the somewhat limited satisfaction of being among the last to die (having been earlier castrated by shotgun) so he can provoke the n-word about 100 times in Hateful Eight, will no doubt do for the status of African Americans and cause of race relations in this country what Inglourious Basterds heroically accomplished in decreasing the scourge of anti-Semitism and saving lives that would have otherwise been lost in the Holocaust.  The cynical among us might suggest you do something more worthwhile with those 187 minutes...like watching two whole films that aren't the product of a mind clearly operating in a state of arrested adolescence...perhaps watching six episodes of your favorite sitcom, taking a walk, reading a book, etc.  The most hopeless of these cynics might suggest your time would be better spent indulging in a long, satisfying wank.  But savvy moviegoers know that such things are better left to professionals.  It's not everyone that can pleasure himself for three hours, elicit $10, $12, even $18 per person (the cost of the Roadshow version at Chicago's Music Box Theater) to watch the performance and then be applauded in the end.  Genius.  Fucking genius.


A postscript.   Having seen S. Crag Zahler's Bone Tomahawk on DVD (it enjoyed almost no distribution in theaters; the Music Box Theater in Chicago, on the other hand, built a special expanded screen to better flog the 70mm "Roadshow" version of Hateful Eight), I can recommend another alternative for those in the mood for a well-crafted, stylized and even violent western.  Zahler's Bone Tomahawk is all of those things and also something of a horror movie to boot.  And it just happens to feature, like Hateful Eight, Kurt Russell as its star.  Russell is one of our most underrated actors, but frankly, he's not very good in Hateful Eight.  That, apparently, what happens when you take a professional actor and give him a one-dimensional role and crap direction.  Russell actually gets to do some acting in Bone Tomahawk, as does the always-excellent Richard Jenkins.  Perhaps most impressively, almost miraculously, Zahler has drawn from Matthew Fox a performance which is actually more than glib.  Fox is quite good as a gunslinger and former killer of Indians who meets his appropriate fate (and is downright moving doing so).  By all means, seek out Bone Tomahawk.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


Only late in the proceedings of  writer/director Tom McCarthy's masterful Spotlight, not long before the two-hour mark of the 129-minute film, does a character really raise their voice.  Only shortly thereafter does the director make what could be construed as his first rhetorical flourish.  Given the drama inherent in Spotlight, that restraint is particularly admirable.  The sexual abuse of children on the part of Roman Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese as revealed and conveyed by reporters of the Boston Globe could hardly have been more damning, more outrageous.  The material could hardly be more dramatic.  And yet, a story that would seem to require the dimensions of opera is handled like a precise, heartbreaking piece of chamber music by McCarthy and his uniformly excellent cast.

Sounding beneath Spotlight's slowly-building theme genuine tragedy - we're reminded prior to the closing credits that this was and is a global phenomenon - is an unadorned refrain, lightly cloaked in the colors of elegy, for the love of print journalism in general and the work of the Boston Globe in particular.  The film takes its name from the Spotlight team of The Globe, the longest continuously-operating investigative unit among American newspapers.

Spotlight grounds itself not only in the process of print journalism, but the particular place where its writers work, hover, to which they seem to drift more naturally than their actual homes.  We see not only the warrens of cubicles and other blandly-paletted work spaces, but stairwells, a garage area shortcut between offices, a staff lounge the size of a modest walk-in closet.  When Spotlight reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) is joined by his chief, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and the paper's assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) in a poorly-lit, dungeon of a basement storage room (which does somewhat miraculously offer cell phone reception) where they examine Catholic Church directories, Bradlee asks, "What's that smell?"  "There's a dead rat in the corner," Caroll notes matter-of-factly.  Given the foul nature of the developing story, the rodent would also seem to be redolent of metaphor or threat from the powerful organization that is being confronted.  But no, it's just a dead rat in corner.  Not a lot of glamour in this newspaper business.  All of this might look eerily familiar to those who labored in the Globe offices some 15 years ago, but the vast majority of Spotlight's shooting was done on set in a former Sears department store in Toronto, the ace work of set designer William Cheng and his team impressively recreating the Boston offices circa 2001.

There's also a sense of surrogate family, occurring sometimes to the detriment reporters non-work relationships.  After that one confrontation late in Spotlight that involves reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) screaming "This is bullshit!" at boss "Robby" Robinson when he won't run story as is, the upset Rezendes later rings the doorbell of fellow Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams).  "Tough day at work, Mike?" asks Pfeiffer's husband as he opens the door with obvious chagrin, the man clearly accustomed to his wife's work following her home, if not always in corporeal form.

It's a kind of family gathering that occurs in the film's second scene, as Bradlee and Robinson speak in honor of a departing colleague in their typically understated fashion.  There is also a joke about the paper's incoming editor and whether the retiring writer knows something that everyone else doesn't.

It is the the arrival of the new editor, Marty Baron that sets the Boston Globe in pursuit of the story of abusive priests and ultimately on a collision course with perhaps that most revered - at least in the top two or three; depending on how the locals are feeling about the Red Sox -  of Boston institutions, the Catholic Church.  As the outsider Baron, it is the voice himself, Liev Schreiber.  If you've watched many documentaries on HBO or PBS in the past decade, you have no doubt heard Mr. Schreiber's voice a good deal.  That carefully-modulated baritone goes some way toward exemplifying the tone of performances in Spotlight, just as Baron pilots the Globe calmly, but doggedly into what will be a much bigger story than anyone imagines.

Tom McCarthy was an actor for some years before he became a writer and director of films.  In all of his films (I've not seen the almost inexplicable Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler, which McCarthy might prefer to leave off his CV), that acting experience shows.  He writes rich roles for his actors and obviously creates an environment in which they are at ease to their best, most unencumbered work.  Throughout Spotlight's redoubtable cast there is plenty of that intelligent, understated, good work, particularly Schreiber as Baron and Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney bringing suits against the church.  There is also the ongoing and welcome resurgence of Michael Keaton as the Spotlight chief.

Perhaps the best measure of the writing (the screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer) and the director's way with actors is the quality of the minor roles in Spotlight.  These include relatively brief but memorable performances by Paul Guilfoyle as church representative Pete Conley and Jamey Sheridan as a lawyer friend of Robby Robinson's, hired by the church to consult on abuse cases.  Irishmen both, of course, Guilfoyle and Sheridan both evince the weight and privilege of the status quo in Boston.  Whether speaking in friendly or more aggressive tones - much as Guilfoyle's Conley is one of those powerful men who is more likely to flatten an adversary with a smile than threat - both actors sound right.  Even better, they bespeak an insider's intelligence and code of conduct without uttering a word.

The same goes for the characters on whom all of that power descends, the victims of the abuse.  Much as the larger story, as Marty Baron insists to his reporters, is the systemic abuse and cover-up, the fact that Cardinal Law and those even higher up in the church were aware of the problem, McCarthy, as ever, lets any larger themes be ground in personal stories.  Appearing only once or twice on screen we see full, memorable turns from Joe Crowley and Patrick McSorely (the first client Garabedian allows to be interviewed) as men just emerging or still struggling with substance abuse decades after their violation by priests.  Victims certainly, but in just a few minutes we get some sense of the fuller person.

The victim who serves as the most vocal catalyst for making the story public is Phil Saviano (Neal Huff).  Dismissed by Bradlee as a crackpot they had interviewed years earlier, Saviano is a man that has told his story so often that it's like a book with dog-eared pages and underlined passages. He arrives with a banker's box of information and begins by pulling out a picture that bears his name and age (9) at the time of his initial abuse.  Saviano's obvious exasperation at year's of indifference on the part of the press nearly renders him the unreliable fringe dweller that Bradlee is inclined to label him, a sobering reminder that if you abuse a person or people thoroughly enough, they come to be considered, even by themselves in some cases, unworthy of consideration or compassion.  The writing of McCarthy and Singer and the barely-bottled intensity of Huff manage to convey this exasperation almost telegraphically while avoiding the obvious pitfall of too much, too much.  So, wisely, goes the film.

The story on which the Spotlight teams sets out is the alleged abuse of numerous children by John Geoghan, a Boston-area priest.  The film begins with a scene set in 1976 with the priest and his young victim (and family) in a Boston police station.  The younger officer on duty at the desk wonders how the press will be kept away from the arraignment.  "What arraignment?" asks the older and clearly wiser officer at the precinct's main desk.  The priest is ultimately whisked away in a waiting black sedan like an untouchable mafioso.  By 2001, the number of complaints against the priest have mounted.  Thanks to the information from Saviano and others the reporters come to believe that as many as 13 priests have been involved in the abuse, which seems an extraordinary number.  When the reporters ask Richard Sipe (an uncredited Richard Jenkins) who has been studying the problem for decades if that seems right, he says no.  The number should be higher, it's usually about six percent.  One of the reporters does some faulty math and says that would be 90 priests.  It's actually 80 based on Sipe's estimate, which proves to be relatively uncanny when 77 priests are eventually identified.  

The use of Richard Jenkins own distinct and authoritative baritone it typical of McCarthy's quietly skillful direction.  The scenes in which Rezendes speaks to Sipe while alone in his apartment carry a tension and gravity that wouldn't quite be the case with a more standard interview scene.  During their first conversation, Sipe explains that sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is so widespread and long-established that it's a "a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon." 

McCarthy and Singer do employ one obvious touch of storycraft in their otherwise seamless narrative.  This something of a red herring in the form a Globe staffer having known about more widespread abuse years before the 2001 Spotlight work.  Phil Saviano explains to the Spotlight team that he had sent in an entire box of evidence to the newspaper back in the 90's.  Given that Ben Bradlee seems intent on dimissing Saviano and tries to discourage the story's development, he certainly seems like the best candidate for the person who quashed the story.

Ultimately, the point isn't who at the Globe sat on the damning information.  More a matter of the "How could you?" getting turned on all parties.  The villainy might be clear enough in the overall story, but the tacit assistance of many, including the press, allowed the tragedy to find a greater breadth and duration.  Or as Garabedian says to Rezendes during a dinner conversation,  "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."

Garabedian's play on the Hilary Clinton book title speaks to both Spotlight's moral complexity and its deft shading of character.  The quip perfectly expresses the attorney's righteousness as well as his sense of self-importance.  Earlier in the conversation with Rezendes as the two men discussed relationships, Garabedian had said that his decision to stay single was a conscious one.  "My work is too important," he says, drawing a slight smile from the Globe reporter.

As the Spotlight teams purses the story and applies increasing pressure - "You want to be on the right side of this" is uttered more than once -  to its sources, they find the moral indignation turned back on them several times.  This is the case with attorney Eric Macleigh (Billy Crudup).  When Robinson rightfully points out that Macleish has made a cottage industry out of representing the families of abused children - getting them a nominal settlement and an acknowledgement of guilt in exchange for their silence - the lawyer ultimately tells him (and Sacha Pfeiffer) that he sent a list of 20 abusive priests to the Globe in the 90s.  "Check your clips, Walter," are Macleish's final words.   Similarly, Robinson's old friend, Jim Sullivan (Sheridan) asks him where the Globe had been all the intervening years while the abuse was going on and attempts were made to make the story public.  Sheridan is the one church insider the paper needs to confirm the scope of the abuse in Boston before they can run the story.  After kicking him out of his house and then following him out to the street to confront Robinson (and his paper) on his hypocrisy, Sullivan asks to see the list that Robinson practically brandished after being invited into his old friend's house prior to Christmas 2001.  Sheridan quickly scans the two pages listing the names of 77 priests, asks for a pen and then makes large circles on each page - he implicates every one of the listed priests; all of the names. 

So go the confrontations in Spotlight.  If they're fights, no one walks away unbloodied.  But really, there is mainly a sobering, encompassing truth that leaves no one in the mood to feel too good about themselves.  Even before the Spotlight reporters (along with Bradlee and Barron) realize their culpability in not telling the story sooner, there is virtually nothing in the way of chest thumping as they ready themselves to investigate the story, to basically take on the Catholic Church.  Instead of bravado, we see a kind of kind of wary determination, a  resigned gulp.  Robinson and Rezendes find themselves in the Spotlight office one Sunday morning.  Rezendes asks his boss if their new editor knows what he's up against.  No, Robinson says, but he doesn't think Barron is likely to be deterred.  Rezendes says he thinks that's refreshing.  "Unless he's wrong," says Robinson and both men have one of those quiet moments, considering everything that's at stake, including their careers.     

Those moments between the staffers at the Globe, particularly the Spotlight  unit, do bespeak a kind of familial intimacy, for the good and the sometimes irritating.  When Robinson urges Rezendes to keep after the elusive Garagedian, Rezendes says, "He's a pain in the ass."  "You can be a pain the ass," rejoins his boss.  Sacha Pfeffer, sitting nearby, offers a confirming "Mmm" without looking up from her work. 

That intimacy of performance and exchange is captured and mirrored by McCarthy's direction and the work of his cinematographer, Masanobu Takayangi.  The photography is close and steady, usually an unobtrusive observer in one room or another.  One of the few intervals of conscious movement occurs when Matt Carroll realizes that one of the sites used by the church to house priests that have been pulled from parishes where they have violated children is just around the corner from his home and children.  The camera follows him as he bursts out the door of his house and stalks to the inconspicuous church-owned building nearby, staring at the house in the midst of a neighborhood full of children.   Otherwise, Takayangi keeps the perspective limited, only occasionally pulling back to appropriately reveal a church looming over a playground or court building.   

The scope of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is obvious enough in its tragic breadth.  So too the reprehensible conduct of priests who became sex offenders and the church officials who protected and even enabled them.   In his version of the story we see in Spotlight, written with Josh Singer, with the restraint of his direction, Tom McCarthy avoids the very obvious pitfall of trundling out the rusty scapegoat mechanism.  The focus, when not personal, is admirably reflexive.  Only at film's end, when those aforementioned flare-ups of shouting and rhetoric finally occur, they seem earned.  Sometime after Rezendes blows up at Robinson in the Spotlight office, we hear a children's choir singing "Silent Night."  Eventually we see the choir of young singers at a holiday service.  Rezendes stands at the back of the church, an apt symbol of a man who will probably never get back to his faith.  As the camera scans the children in the choir, the story is returned to its rightful place.

On the morning when expose is finally published early in 2002, the director gives us the first broad perspective on the city where all of this sad business has taken place.  It's a shot of Boston from the harbor as if a bomb was about to fall.  Which, of course, it was.  

One of the shots of the actual Boston Globe offices in Spotlight is a seemingly insignificant view of a a parking lot with an AOL (remember them?) billboard looming just beyond its periphery.  Here perhaps that undercurrent of elegy for actual journalism overrun the by the fucked-up democracy of unmediated digital information.  The shots of those clips - old news clippings in form of yellowing paper issues and cut-out stories, microfilm, digital archives, etc. - being pulled and photocopied, of a cart of files rumbling inexorably down a hallway, of presses running, seem more than mere nostalgia, more than the conventions of newspaper films.  There's a kind of celebration of process here.  Of working to get to some greater truth or understanding, difficult as it might be to face for all involved.  With Spotlight, McCarthy also provides a celebration of the process and collaboration of filmmaking - methodical, focused, no less deeply-felt, no less compelling in its art and story for its restraint.