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Recent Movies: Spotlight; Trumbo; Bridge of Spies; Books: A Bigger Prize

December 21, 2015

Recent Movies:


Based on a true story: In the early 2000s, a team of reporters at the Boston Globe investigate several incidents of Catholic priests sexually abusing children.

“Spotlight” works well on many levels and not just for its main story of finding the shocking facts. It also reveals that universal and timeless evil known as the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that occurs within establishments. In this particular story, the conspiracy is not only within the Catholic Church but also within the upper echelons of Boston society.  Another fact of human nature is also revealed: in any closed society, it often takes outsiders to make necessary changes.

The film also sheds light on a group of people rarely exposed in movies: lapsed Catholics i.e. those raised in the religion but who became discouraged by grave misconduct at higher levels of the church hierarchy. It turns out that all of the reporters are in this situation and there is a fascinating scene in which they discuss their backgrounds and how this might affect their approach to their investigation.

The first half is filled with energy with much inter-cutting among scenes. The highlight is a cross-cut of two scenes involving interviews with abuse survivors – one straight, one gay. In these scenes, the language is refreshingly blunt and revealing. A later scene involving an interview with a priest is even more shocking. The actors playing the survivors and the priest are also powerful in their brief roles.

The second half is still good but it tends to lag a bit. It seems like time to wrap up but more issues keep getting piled on. One is a scene involving a conflict on the newspaper team. The benefit of this scene is that it shows the best of Mark Ruffalo who gives the most passionate performance among a very fine cast. The downside is that the scene feels like an unnecessary extension to the movie.

This movie is rightly being compared to “All the President’s Men” as a great journalist story. It can also be compared to the superb Canadian film ”The Boys of St. Vincent” (1992) for exposing clergy child abuse. “Spotlight” is a fine film that may not meet all expectations; but it must be given credit for its courage and boldness.

RATING (out of four stars): * * *



Based on a true story: Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) was a successful Hollywood screenwriter who was persecuted and blacklisted in 1947 due to his ties with the American Communist party.

There are numerous movies that have a lot of style but not enough substance. “Trumbo” is a rare exception in that it goes in the opposite direction. The well-known situation is always rich material. Sadly, the script and directing are relatively bland, making the film seem more like a made-for-TV movie.

The performances range from great to underused to miscast.

Cranston takes on the main role (and the weight of the film) beautifully. It is worth noting that Trumbo, like his colleagues, supported Communist ideals (like treating workers fairly) but were not allied with the Soviet Union . Cranston easily conveys the deep character of someone who cantankerously sticks to his good ideals despite harsh odds.

As Trumbo’s wife, the talents of Diane Lane seem underused in a rather ordinary role. Helen Mirren brings her usual magic as the contemptible Hedda Hooper but the character is one-dimensional (yes, I know that is to be expected of a nasty gossip columnist). Rather than a full-fledged performance, it seems to be more a series of occasional cameos. As Edward G. Robinson, Michael Stuhlbarg is good but seems too laid-back for someone who was feisty and energetic on-screen. Luckily, John Goodman is fiery and hilarious as cheap-budget producer with energy to burn.

While the movie is mixed in its delivery, the material makes it worth seeing.

RATING: * * *


Bridge of Spies

Yet another film based on a true story: In 1957, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) is a partner in a Brooklyn law firm who deals mostly in insurance claims. After he is assigned to defend a convicted Soviet spy, his life and mission are changed entirely.

Director Steven Spielberg succeeds in evoking earlier periods: Brooklyn in 1957 and Berlin in 1962. The physical atmosphere has a mood of its own in each city. These evocations are well aided by the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski.

The beginning is rather good but is occasionally predictable even to those of us not aware of the historical events. Donovan also seems too earnest and we don’t fully get why he would be this way considering the danger his convictions place upon him and his family.

The middle of the film successfully portrays the bleakness of Berlin as the infamous wall is being built; but it tends to sag and seem overlong.

The final scene, which takes place in the titular location, lifts everything to make the film worthwhile. The bleak winter night is made even harsher as the tension and suspense reach their heights. Here, Spielberg shows once again what makes him great.

There may be an overall message: that countries with good laws must maintain those good laws to stay great, even when such countries are being threatened. If this is the case, the message is a great addition to today’s discussions about international and ethnic tensions.

RATING: * * *



“A Bigger Prize” by Margaret Heffernan

The purpose of “A Bigger Prize” is to show that many forms of competition, many of which are systemic, have caused excessive harm in individuals and in many societies.  There are also many good counter-examples of how collaboration has been a successful alternative to competitive environments.

Many examples of competitiveness are examined in the book: sibling rivalry, school grades, taking sports competition to extremes, the science community, the arts, and of course, many employers.

Many chapters begin with some hard and nasty facts but they finish with positive counter-examples.  At first, it feels like  “here we go again: the world is going to hell in a handbasket”; but fortunately, there are some very encouraging examples of families, schools, communities, and employers who have found peaceful, collaborative ways of working and which are quite successful in many ways.

The book seems too long at times and it could have been condensed.  But for anyone interested in a better planet, it is a good read.  Even at the individual level, its positive message can give one peace of mind.  Its message is that there really are good alternatives to hyper-competition in every area of life no matter how much we’ve all been brainwashed.  It’s not just a fantasy.

RATING:   * * *



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