Posted in Movie Reviews


Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett: “Carol”

There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” that could serve as a master class on film acting. Cate Blanchett, as the title character, and Sarah Paulson as Abby, her best friend and former lover, are sitting in a booth at a bar. They’re talking as friends do when they catch up, in this case discussing Carol’s infatuation with the younger Therese and her problems with her estranged husband Harge, and Abby’s crush on a Rita Hayworth-type redhead. But what’s so arresting about their conversation is not what they say, it’s how they relate to each other. With minimal effort, Blanchett and Paulson manage to convey the depth and length of their friendship and not just the love but the regard each has for the other. After the movie’s exceptionally slow beginning, this scene is so welcoming it’s ridiculous. It jumps right off the screen.

Too bad the rest of “Carol” isn’t as consistently engaging or as expertly done.

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt,” “Carol,” with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, is centered on the relationship of a soon-to-be-divorced woman (Blanchett) and the younger Therese (Rooney Mara), a budding photographer working in a department store to pay the bills. Set in 1952, it’s definitely “the love that dare not speak its name” territory. The crowded room across which the ladies first lock eyes is the toy department during Christmas shopping season. Therese sells Carol an expensive train set as a present for the latter’s four year-old daughter, Carol (accidentally?) leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her, Carol invites her to lunch and….we’re off.

But not really, because this is the slowest film I’ve seen in a very long time. As in “Far From Heaven,” his earlier foray into the 1950’s, director Todd Haynes is obsessed with details of setting, props and decor. Unfortunately they’re not substitutes for pacing and story details (Though I will say I loved Carol’s tank of a car—I knew immediately it was a Packard—and recognized its ’50’s New Jersey license plate as the type my family’s Chevy once sported).

While I don’t think the film is the masterpiece some critics claim it to be, the framing of the story is beautifully realized. The movie begins as we follow a man from a train station to the dining room of a nearby hotel; he turns out to be a friend of Therese, who’s having tea with Carol. He invites her to a party and they depart; the film flashes back to the day Carol and Therese met and the story is then told chronologically until we’re once again at the hotel. Only this time the perspective is entirely different—we’re witness to Carol and Therese’s conversation and the nature of what’s at stake between them. Your realization that we’re back to where we were at the beginning is a mild shock, but an oddly enjoyable one.

What “Carol” does have going for it is some great acting. This is Rooney Mara’s film, hands down; it would not surprise me in the least if she takes the Oscar as Best Actress. The camera just loves her, and rightly so—there’s more than a suggestion of the young Audrey Hepburn and, if you know your ’50’s movies, Maggie McNamara (“Three Coins in the Fountain” is one of my guilty pleasures). Ms. Mara shows us there’s more to this young woman than what’s visible at first glance. She has enough strength to withstand her fiancé’s constant push that they marry and sail for France; she gives us the sense that she’s beginning to know what she wants out of life. Whatever Therese lacks she certainly acquires along the way. Her growth into a woman with some steel is readily apparent by the end of the film—that meeting of Therese and Carol over tea, post-breakup, is a wonderfully nuanced scene of emotional push/pull. It’s at that point you realize that these two could really be a worthy match for each other.

Maybe it’s the roles she’s been playing lately, but Cate Blanchett seems to be on the verge of becoming a Grand Lady, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She’s more than a bit predatory at the beginning of “Carol,” and she’s not flattered by the ’50’s makeup which tended to make a woman look older than her years back in the day. While the character has a great many issues, there seems to be an awful lot of heavy lifting on Ms. Blanchett’s part, especially involving Carol’s relationship with her soon-to-be ex, Harge (Kyle Chandler is a wonderful actor, but he can’t seem to escape the stereotype of WASP-who-drinks here). Despite her love for Therese (and yes, the bedroom scene is hot), I really didn’t like the character all that much until she grew a backbone in the confrontation at the lawyer’s office. When she dictates her own custody terms as a “take it or leave it,” that’s when “Carol” finally blooms.

The ending is a wonderful pay-off. It reminds me a great deal of the scene in “Howards End” when Emma Thompson, after asking Anthony Hopkins for some time to consider his surprise marriage proposal, runs back up the stairs to kiss him. When I saw it at the local multiplex, the woman sitting behind me semi-whined “But we don’t know what she’ll answer.” To which her husband drily replied “She already did.”

At the end of “Carol,” Therese certainly does.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Too True

“Spotlight”: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery

Two new films based on true events are figuring prominently this holiday season though both are far removed from Christmas cheer. One is something of a disappointment; the other, however, may well win the Oscar.

Let’s start with the good news first. “Spotlight,” a wonderfully double-edged title referring to the name of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that threw a harsh light on the Catholic Church’s handling of its pedophile priests, is a taut story of investigative reporting. Given the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly quiet film–only Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes yells and bangs the table (in contrast, Stanley Tucci, as victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who should be among the noisiest, remains ruefully contained). While the acting ensemble is superb, what makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the manner in which the story is told (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wrote the screenplay; Mr. McCarthy also directed).

Without being didactic the film carefully limns the how of the abuse and the Church’s cover-up. The film is rich in the details of corruption, from the priests who groomed their child victims, to their superiors who pressured the parents to keep things quiet “for the good of the church,” to the attorneys on both sides who profited from the tragedy, to the higher-ups in the diocese who moved child molester priests like chess pieces from parish to parish or put them on “sick leave.” We see the reporters interviewing several victims, now adults, and learn how the predatory priests used classic techniques of victim selection–targeting boys from broken homes, those with alcoholic or abusive parents and boys with effeminate traits scorned by their peers. In essence these priests traded attention and acceptance for sex. As one victim explains to a “Spotlight” reporter, it starts with a priest telling a dirty joke to a boy, then showing him a porno magazine; it’s only then, with rapport established, that the touching begins, culminating in sexual contact. Although “Spotlight” refers to the fact that girls were victims, too, we don’t see them. But we do see the resulting wreckage in the adult survivors—Patrick, now a heroin addict; Joe, a recovering alcoholic; Phil Saviano, now a victim’s advocate but at first glance a seemingly unhinged nut job.

Yet, as new Boston Globe Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) correctly insists, the real story is not just priestly pedophilia or Cardinal Law’s knowledge of it, but the Church as an institution that chose protection of these priests over the well-being of children and their families. In a city of such Catholic prominence, the Church almost callously played on the ties that bind community and family to ensure silence despite the enormity of this tragedy (The Globe’s “Spotlight” confirmed the Church’s reassignment of 78 abusive priests within the diocese). The film pulls no punches when it comes to how easily the status of clergy gave these men the authority to do what they did. As Attorney Garabedian notes, “You don’t question God.” So the excuses pile up: in Editor Baron’s introductory meeting with Cardinal Law and his attendance at a Catholic charities dinner, he’s continually reminded that the good the Church does should not be thrown away because of “a few bad apples” (“Spotlight” makes it clear that the Church’s apologists raised those damn apples so many times they practically had an orchard). But “Spotlight” also acknowledges that the Globe itself was at best a tarnished hero. It seems that at least five years before the magazine’s investigation got underway, two separate sources had approached Globe personnel who had either failed to grasp the extent of the abuse and the corruption that institutionalized its continuance, or perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the story.

The performances in “Spotlight” are first-rate; you never catch anyone acting. Michael Keaton as the magazine’s editor is astonishing; if you thought he was great in “Birdman,” wait until you see this. Liev Schreiber is memorably quiet in his character’s insistence; Rachel McAdams as the reporter who serves as conduit to the victims comes to mirror their pain as she begins to question her own faith. Stand-outs among the fine supporting cast include Paul Guilfoyle, the Church’s attorney who leans on Keaton to kill the story; Neal Huff as victims’ advocate Phil Saviano, Jamey Sheridan as another “It was my job!” Church attorney, and especially Billy Crudup as the smarmy victims’ attorney who in essence sold his clients out in favor of going along to get along.

This is one film I can’t wait to buy the DVD of.

Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)

As someone who’s long been interested in the Blacklist Era, I’d been waiting for the release of “Trumbo,” the story of a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1948. Ultimately I found the film somewhat disappointing; perhaps its biggest fault is that given the ground it covers, it should have been a short dramatic series on HBO or Showtime instead of a movie.

“Trumbo” spans about 16 years in the life of Dalton Trumbo, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1940’s and an unapologetic Communist. Along with many others, he had found the appeal of the Party to his liking during the Great Depression of the Thirties; while his political beliefs remained unchanged, the national climate didn’t. In post-War America, with Eastern Europe coming under Communist sway, membership in the Communist Party, aka being a “Red,” though legal, was thought to be the hallmark of a Soviet agent. So HUAC, ostensibly investigating “Communist influence in Hollywood,” in essence conducted show trials over several years, ruining lives and careers. The Committee’s techniques and goals were of course later used by Senator Joseph McCarthy and various organizations that cleared politically “clean” talent to work on television. For a fee of course.

As you can see, this is a weighty subject spanning Trumbo’s long journey from success to jail (for contempt of Congress) to working under assumed names to reclaiming the fame and career that were rightfully his. Unfortunately “Trumbo” doesn’t rise to the occasion. While I realize this is a dramatic film and not a documentary, the filmmakers made some very strange choices. John Wayne and Hedda Hopper are singled out as Hollywood’s anti-Communist movers and shakers, though in reality most of the damage was done by the studio executives who joined together to fire and blacklist suspected Communists and fellow travelers, and numerous actors and other talent, including Ronald Reagan, Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, who became friendly witnesses for HUAC. It’s one big clinker for the film to suggest that Trumbo’s career came to a halt because Hedda Hopper threatened Louis B. Mayer with the public unmasking of his Russian-Jewish roots (not a secret anyway), though I’m glad we see the anti-Semitism that underscored the Red-baiting years. And though the film suggests otherwise, Trumbo wasn’t the entire Hollywood Ten. I have to confess I miss Ring Lardner, Jr.’s famous response to HUAC’s demand that he name names: “I would, but I’d hate myself in the morning.”

“Trumbo” does much better after the screenwriter gets out of jail. The scenes with his family, and especially his fanatically working seven days a week under a host of pseudonyms for the cut-rate King Brothers while writing two Oscar-winning screenplays (one fronted by another writer who was himself later blacklisted; the other under a pseudonym), are among the best in the film.

While “Trumbo” has its failings, the performances do not. Helen Mirren gives nastiness much style as the Woman You Love to Hate—Hedda Hopper, failed actress turned gossip columnist and arch conservative (By the way, Hedda’s Navy son who’s so frequently referred to was Bill Hopper, later famous as Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” TV series). David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman are amusingly accurate as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, respectively. Louis C.K. is quite sympathetic as screenwriter Arlen Hird (an invented character), who despite lung cancer seems to hang in there for an incredible length of time, and as you would expect, John Goodman is refreshingly pure id as schlock producer Frank King. Bryan Cranston manages to use the constant exposure to his advantage as Dalton Trumbo, and Diane Lane miraculously avoids cliché as his wife.

But the best performance in the film belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, liberal Democrat and supporter of the Hollywood Ten. This is where we get some nuance after all the posturing. His sense of self-disgust after disowning his political position and naming names in front of HUAC is palpable as he sits awaiting clearance from John Wayne to be able to work again. I wish “Trumbo” had included more of this, for as the man himself acknowledged much later in life, to the fury of some members of the Hollywood Ten:

The blacklist was a time of evil…no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil…[Looking] back on this time…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.