And the Winner Is . . .

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Who would ever have thought that a Mad Max film would earn a nomination for Best Picture from the staid and serious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Oh what a day — what a lovely day!” was my reaction when I heard the news (quoting a character from the film).

I wrote in my review last spring: “The characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.” Do I think it will win? Not a chance. But as I wrote in that review, “for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.”

I’ve already reviewed half of the nominees for Best Picture, including The Martian ; The Revenant; The Big Short; and Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks once again heads a Best Picture cast without being nominated for Best Actor. Go figure. Here I round out the category by reviewing Spotlight, Room, andBrooklyn.

In 2002 the Boston Globe presented a story that was shocking not only in its subject but in its scope: over the course of several decades, Catholic priests had molested hundreds of children in the Boston area, and the church’s response had been to cover it up by quietly paying settlements and transferring the priests to other areas, where many of them molested other children. “Spotlight” was the name of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal, and it is the name of the film that has been nominated for Best Picture.

"Spotlight" adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and just as dry.

There’s a risk inherent in focusing on the reporters who told the story rather than on the story itself. While we admire the reporters’ diligence, tenacity, and determination to get it right, writing — even when it entails researching and interviewing — is mostly a static pursuit. The actors do their best to make their scenes dynamic and interesting, and the writers did their best to introduce some action for the reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) jogs to work and attends a baseball game, William Robinson (Michael Keaton) plays golf, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does a walk-and-chat through a park with a molestation survivor (Michael Cyril Creighton), and Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James) runs up the street to look at a neighboring house. But that’s about it in the action department.

To me, the movie is mostly a script for talking heads. To be sure, it is a well-written script filled with the kind of loaded, eloquent dialogue that writers tend to write, and the subject is clearly important. The actors have been praised for mimicking the real reporters so well, and indeed they gesture skillfully, squint concernedly, touch their faces absently, and adopt careful postures and stances that they have observed by studying the actual reporters. But it looks staged, more artifice than art.

Spotlight also adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and strangely (for a film with this topic) just as dry. We learn statistics about the “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” of abusive priests and the cult of secrecy caused by forced celibacy that isn’t really enforced. We hear important opinions about how such heinous crimes could be committed against so many children without anyone stopping it, thoughts such as “if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” and “lawyers turned child abuse into a cottage industry” by quietly brokering secret settlements. We also hear moments of bitter irony, as when one survivor says, “the priests preyed on us instead of praying for us,” and when Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who represented the church in covering up the crimes, says after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “Pray for the victims, pray for the injured, pray for those who survived.” The same could be said, of course, for the children who were molested. But this didacticism is hardly original; it was all in the articles we read when the stories broke.

Even worse, the men who had been molested as children — all of them — are portrayed as broken, stunted, and socially inept, not survivors at all, but victims. Sadly, I know many people who were molested as children, most of them by family members or neighbors. They have scars and sorrows, but they are neither broken nor socially inept. Most of them are strong, active, and successful. You simply would not know what they have endured. It isn’t right to portray all of these survivors in this way.

If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release.

Spotlight tells an important story, but despite the protagonists’ success, it isn’t one of those films that makes you cheer their success. Yes, the reporters broke the story and forced the church to do something about the abusive priests. Yes, the film demonstrates journalism at its best in terms of the diligent digging, insistence on accuracy, and compassion toward the survivors interviewed. Yes, it allows hundreds of victims to tell their stories. But despite all this, it is a tedious film, and all I could feel was relief when it was over.

Room addresses a similarly horrifying topic. It’s every parent’s greatest fear: a child goes off to school and doesn’t return. Simply vanishes. Hours go by, then days. Then weeks. Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? Did she run away? Then years. Life is never the same, because you can’t even grieve — you have to keep hope alive, and that means telling yourself that your child isn’t dead, that someday she will walk back through that door, and everything will be the same again. Anything less is betrayal. To “move on” would be like killing her yourself. So you wait. Or maybe you do move on. Either one is agony.

Room tells the story of such a young woman. Joy (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped at the age of 17 and held hostage for seven years in a small shed, where she is abused by her captor every night and has no hope of escape. But if you are looking for (or have been avoiding) a lurid, prurient tale of sexual abuse, you won’t find it here. Instead, the story is told through the innocent eyes of Joy’s five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, because he has never known any other world than “Room,” is content with his life and the characters who populate it: Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Chair, Bathtub. The world he sees on the screen of a small television set is just a nice fantasy.

Like the whimsical father (Roberto Benigni) in Life is Beautiful (1997), who shields his little boy from the truth of their captivity in a concentration camp by making a game of it, Joy has determined to create the semblance of a normal life in an abnormal world by acting as though Room is the entire world. If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release. Jack is content, and his presence makes her life endurable.

Nevertheless, when Joy thinks of a way for Jack to escape, she forces him to take it, no matter what the consequences might be for her. Jack’s terror as he tries to get away from a world that seemed normal to him creates the most harrowing scenes in the film. My heart was racing the whole time.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance.

One would expect that escape from the shed would mark the climax, but it’s really just the middle. Room is told in two solid acts, and in the second we learn that there is more than one way to be imprisoned. Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have also been held hostage by Joy’s kidnapping, unable to move forward, unable even to change the room where Joy grew up. They are trapped by their expectations, trapped by their imaginations, trapped by their blaming and their guilt. Jack becomes trapped as well, in a world so gigantic he doesn’t know how to process it. Even more poignantly, Joy has to escape the confining expectations she has nurtured about what it would be like to leave Room and go home. The film asks us to consider what makes a woman a mother, what makes a man a father, and what makes a place a home.

Brooklyn is another Best Picture nominee that asks us to consider what “home” means. Beautifully filmed in Ireland and Brooklyn, as they were in 1951, the sweeping landscapes and nostalgic cityscapes are full of soft blues and greens that highlight the blue-green eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis loves Ireland and her family, but like so many Irish citizens of the period, she is a bright young woman with a drab future as a part-time shopkeeper. When a family friend arranges for an invitation and a job in America, she takes it.

There she lives in a modest boardinghouse run by a motherly woman who watches over the morals of the girls who live with her, even as she pushes them into social situations where they can find a nice Irish immigrant to marry. Eilis finds Tony (Emery Cohen), a nice Italian immigrant, instead. Tony eases Eilis’ homesickness, and they fall sweetly in love. However, when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, the familiarity of home wraps itself comfortingly around her. Eventually she must choose between two men who love her: the comfortable Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) and the New World Italian.

Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance. Not your usual Best Picture fare. But the production values lift it to award-winning possibilities. The cinematography is lovely, as are the costumes and set pieces. The music is evocative, and the acting is superb, especially Eilis’ controlled, reserved passion and Tony’s Brandoesque tender exuberance.

Moreover, Brooklyn is more than a romance; it’s a classic journey tale. Eilis journeys not just from Ireland to Brooklyn but from childhood to adulthood. Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man. At one point Eilis says, “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.” She learns in the end that “Home is where your life is.” And when she chooses the life, she embraces the man.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spotlight," directed by Tom McCarthy. Open Road Films, 2015, 128 minutes; "Room," directed by Lenny Abrahamson. A24, 2015, 118 minutes; and "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley. Wildgaze Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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Broadway Is Back!

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Once in a decade a show comes to Broadway that redefines what we mean by "Broadway musical." Once is the show of this decade. It has choreography without dance, show-stopping music without belting, laughter without jokes, central figures without names, and a love story without a single kiss. Once you've seen Once, you will have a completely different idea of what a Broadway musical can be.

Once upon a time in Dublin, a guy met a girl. The guy was a busker, the girl was a Czech immigrant. Once upon a time his music soared, but as this show begins, he has given up on music, and given up on life as well. He is headed for the bridge over troubled waters when the girl stops him and tells him that his music has value. What she means is that his life has value. Once she comes into his life, his life changes. For once, and always.

Onceis based on an independent film of the same name whose central song, "Falling Slowly," won the Academy Award for Best Song in 2007. Those who saw the award show will remember the humble, unbridled joy of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the music and directed and starred in the film, as they accepted the Oscar. They were so overjoyed that host Jon Stewart brought Marketa back out after the commercial break to finish her speech, which had been cut off by a thoughtless timekeeper. Class act, Jon.

As good as Hansard and Irglova were in the film, however, they can't hold a candle to the performances of Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the guy and girl onstage in the Broadway production of Once. Milioti is particularly earnest and charming as the girl, who elicits gales of laughter from the audience even when she is simply reminding the guy, "I am serious. I'm Czech." Tiny but powerful, she seems to personify the word "hope."

The score by Hansard and Irglova is pure Irish folk, but this is no "Riverdance." The songs convey a deep, plaintive resonance that matches the plaintive, unrequited longing of the guy and the girl. Unlike typical Broadway shows in which people suddenly break into song in the middle of a conversation, the music here is an integral part of the story. Characters sing because that's what they are doing — on a street corner, in a recording studio, at a pub or a family gathering. Music is as natural to them as speaking or breathing, and as essential. In this show, music doesn't interrupt the flow of the story; it is the story.

The music is played onstage by a crew of talented "buskers" who weave seamlessly into roles as minor characters in the story and back out again as street musicians performing at a pub or on a sidewalk. The effect is mesmerizing. It's intensified by the fact that the set is an active onstage pub where audience members can buy drinks and mill around with the musicians before the show and during intermission. Everything else is created through imagination — a chair becomes a living room; two tables create a bedroom; several tables become an apartment. All of this occurs in the blink of an eye and the whirl of a table as the busker-musicians act in carefully choreographed unison to move the furnishings and props on and off stage. There is no dancing in this show, but there is some stunning choreography.

The dialogue is modern Irish too, and by that I mean it is peppered with the f-word. But the way they use it, as an adjective and an interjection, is somehow gentle and not at all offensive. It is just part of the Irish accent, as anyone knows who has spent much time in Ireland recently. They use it almost caressingly, with a soft vowel to match their soft personalities.

Once a Broadway musical had to end with a wedding. In fact, it would often end with two or three weddings, as the oft-mismatched couples in the story finally sorted themselves out into appropriate pairings. Audiences sighed with cathartic relief and left the theater smiling. But life isn't a fairy tale, and relationships more often end in the reality of unrequited love; the mismatched couples are already matched with someone else, and those previous entanglements simply won't be sorted out. What resonates in Once is that the relationship between the guy and the girl celebrates a true love that transcends romance. It is deep, whole, and pure. Like the music.

Eleven Tony nominations. Every one of them richly deserved. If you are in New York this year, even once, don't miss the chance to see Once.

Once,directed by John Tiffany. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, New York City. Discount tickets usually available through broadwaybox.com.

/em




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Who are the Real PIGS?

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As Europe continues to flounder, and as people continue to wonder whether (or more likely, when) Greece is going to default on its sovereign debt, various commentators have bandied the epithet “PIGS” (or “PIIGS”, depending on which nations a commentator wants to include).

By this acronym they refer to a group of countries — Portugal, Ireland, (Italy), Greece, and Spain — that have borrowed profligately, unlike such disciplined places as France, Germany, and the United States. What the miserable PIIGS need to do is start getting their snouts out of the troughlearn to manage their economies efficiently, as their betters do.

It’s obvious that the PIIGS need to liberalize their economies and better manage their fiscal houses. But the morally supercilious tone of the commentary annoys me. I don’t think the US or the major European states are in any position to be giving lectures. Their own levels of debt are outrageous, too.

A recent report brings the point home. If you don’t look at sovereign debt by sheer amount, but look instead at per capita debt — that is, take the aggregate national debt and divide it by the number of citizens in a country — you will see that the PIIGS aren’t as piggish as we are.

Spain’s per capita debt is $18,395. Portugal’s is slightly more, at $19,989. But France’s per capita debt exceeds these two by a wide margin. It’s $33,491.

Again, Greece is outrageous at $38,937, Italy at an amazing $40,475, and Ireland — Erin go Bragh!—at a staggering $43,887.

But the US, the paragon of fiscal rectitude, already stands at $44,215 per capita — more porcine than any of the PIIGS. And under Obama’s latest budget plan, that debt will reach $75,000 per capita (in current dollars) within a decade.

Americans can truly join the PIIGS as they squeal “Oink! Oink!”




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Is Europe Liberal?

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The EC became the EU in 1992. I lived there at the time, and I wondered if, in socialist Europe, the EU would have a liberal or an illiberal influence. Trade liberalization was an important part of the EC from the beginning, and its successor is still mostly liberal on trade. But then there's everything else, mostly illiberal. And as the EU's powers expand, so does its illiberalism. Although on trade the EU is more liberal than its members, its many new powers are exercised in the interest of the state and its dependents, not in the interest of individual freedoms.

So where does the EU stand on balance? For a long time I wasn't sure. Now I am.

The March 19, 2011 issue of The Economist says that the Euro-zone countries are increasing their bailout of the Euro-basketcase countries, including Ireland and Greece. They lowered the interest rate that they charge to Greece, the country that is most deeply sunk in the basket. But Ireland "received no such concession because it insisted on keeping its low corporate-tax rate." That's right. We are not just a trade union, we are a monetary union; so raise your taxes or suffer the consequences.

On balance, the EU now has an illiberal, anti-libertarian, statist influence on its member states. Taxation and monetary policy are only two examples. There are many more. That little squib in The Economist tipped the scales for me.




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