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Three for Your Consideration

Three for your consideration

Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor



Much has been written about director Todd Haynes’ affinity for films of the 1950s—and particularly about his affinity for that decade’s most emblematic filmmaker of florid melodramas, Douglas Sirk (Magnificent ObsessionAll That Heaven AllowsWritten On The WindImitation of Life). Haynes himself, in frequent interviews, has discussed at length his passionate regard for Sirk, and in 2002 he directed Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven, which was a loose adaptation of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson).

Haynes is not alone in his admiration of these lush, gutsy soaps: most knowledgeable film buffs and a solid majority of critics relish their cinematic energy and prescient probings of the era’s social hypocrisies. He also demonstrated his rapt tropism toward period pieces with his take on the world of 1970s glam-rock (The Velvet Goldmine, 1998) and in his fine direction of HBO’s five-part miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet, in 2011. With Carol, his new ‘50s homage featuring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Haynes may have gone about as far as he can go with his Sirkian obsession.

Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film is set in 1952-53 and tells the story of two women who fall in love with one another against a scrupulously evoked backdrop of pop hits by Eddie Fisher, Billie Holiday, and Jo Stafford, ladies having tea at The Ritz in hats and gloves, svelte Packards nosing through midtown Manhattan traffic, and news of Ike’s first election airing on small television screens. Judy Becker’s production design and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction give Carol an appropriate glossiness, and Edward Lachman—who was Haynes’ cinematographer on both Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce—once again serves with deliberate adoration as acolyte to Haynes’ vision. The team’s entire mise-en-scene—the use of proscenium-like framing, faces seen through rain-dropped windows, the saturated color palette of aquas, coral, olive, and rich browns shading into chiaroscuro—is so expert in its meta-evocation of the era’s cinema that some viewers may actually feel that they are watching a 1950s film within a 1950s film.

The film’s greatest attribute is its seamless pictorial authenticity. Its problem is that it has a curiously sluggish and airless quality and only infrequently comes to full-bodied life.

Blanchett plays the title character, a well-to-do Connecticut woman who is divorcing her husband of 10 years and grappling with him over the custody of their young daughter. She meets Terese (Mara) a department store clerk and budding photographer and—tentatively at first and in the face of fiercely prevailing social mores—they embark on a relationship. (With early awards-season buzz, and the film-opening clout of the great Blanchett, the cast and creative team are wisely adhering to the social-issue line in interviews but, sadly, even on that front Carol fails to satisfy. The love story-against-societal-odds that should propel the narrative and draw the viewer into the women’s sense of discovery is lost in the self-conscious period correctness.) Ironically, Carol suffers from Haynes’ and his team’s hyper-attentiveness to visual detail. Every peripheral action, physical setting, costume design (perfect, by Sandy Powell), every appliance, canned good, radio dial, cigarette lighter, and watch face receives the same lingering, reverential gaze, and is given equal value to the dramatic development—and too often that creates a sense of narrative inertia and, even for such fine actors, a diminution of opportunities for characterization. As usual Blanchett is glamorous and more than capable of holding our attention with her watchful, inward stillness, and Mara countervails with an alert earnestness. Carol’s and Terese’s exploration, however, feels rather stifled—and it has less to do  with our being able to feel the social strictures that confound them and more to do with the director’s heavy indications and prescriptive style. A certain muted delicacy might be argued as appropriate for both the era and the material, but when the care and mastery in evoking a period outweighs the drama, our appreciation is left too frequently to dwell on contextual detail rather than the human focus.

Haynes has an acute sense of texture and tone, but since he has so frequently drawn  comparisons with his and Sirk’s films it’s difficult for us not to do the same. The dire trials of the female protagonists in Sirk's melodramas may be nearly over-the-top, but they are full-blooded sagas that viewers can sink their teeth into. Even more, their narrative insistence and Technicolor vibrancy sink their teeth into the viewer—and don't let go. His movies have a subversive power, seething up like lava beneath the suppressive order of ‘50s society and bursting from the screen. Even with their sometimes overripe high-voltage garishness (which consigned them largely to the camp category for 20-30 years) Sirk’s melodramas are undeniably watchable. Carol lacks this emotional immediacy: though Blanchett and Mara have a few subtly moving scenes, much of the film remains flat, static, and distant. A few ravishing images may resonate, but the viewer too often is stranded at a remove.

Haynes is an intelligent filmmaker. His passionate regard for film history as well as for source material and craft are more worthy than much of the sophomoric slapdash that unmemorably fills cineplex screens. We can have every reason to hope that, now fifty-five, he may yet make  a more robust and invigorating film, one proving that even his Mannerist art can give us more than a pastiche of painstakingly curated images and take on—as Douglas Sirk himself might have titled a piece—a life of its own.



Trumbo is an important film because it succeeds in both educating and entertaining. It throws into sharp relief and lends urgent voice to issues in our socio-political landscape today. Set primarily between 1947 and 1960 the film focuses on the Hollywood blacklist and its ramifications for one of filmdom’s most adroit screenwriters. It examines, through a film industry lens, the toxic Red Menace hysteria brewed during the dark and disgraceful days of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In 21st-Century politics, increasingly degraded by right-wing politicians and media outlets using fear and bullying in their strategy to divide and conquer at any cost, the cautionary tale of Trumbo has a reeking freshness.

Bryan Cranston, multiple Emmy Award winner for “Breaking Bad”, is superb as Dalton Trumbo, whose scripts for box-office hits like A Guy Named Joe and Kitty Foyle—and later works as diverse as Spartacus, The Fixer, and Papillon—placed him in the upper ranks of Hollywood wordsmiths. Like many American artists, intellectuals, and labor leaders, Trumbo became a Communist during the days of Fascism’s ascendancy between the World Wars. Once World War II ended and the Cold War began in earnest, Trumbo and other “sympathizers” were soon targeted by the HUAC. In the perversion of constitutional rights and our body politic that ensued—and which most heinously came to be personified by Sen. Joe McCarthy—even some liberal Democrats like Edward G. Robinson (played convincingly here by Michael Stuhlbarg) are thrown to the zealous demagogues. Some, including Trumbo, are jailed, others crack and willingly give names, and many lose their careers, their families, and a few even their lives. But Trumbo fights to survive, writing scripts pseudonymously. The necessary deception ironically garners him two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One), neither of which he could claim.

Jay Roach’s direction, though lacking in verve and cinematic imagination, is respectfully thoughtful. Its deliberateness succeeds in making the story’s most salient points clear, and for an important story that is an asset that needs no apology. Occasional lapses of energy seem more attributable to John McNamara’s workmanlike adaptation of Bruce Cook’s 1977 book Dalton Trumbo. That said, Trumbo never succumbs to the belabored pomposity of some bio-pics. It has an integrity and inner logic of construction and pace—and some vivid supporting performances—that keep it both watchable and engrossing.

Helen Mirren as Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper is wonderful. It’s another of the film’s assets that many viewers will learn for the first time that Hopper was not merely the sometimes cleverly bitchy troublemaker with the signature hats or, more latterly, a talk-show guest regular who sought to disarm with a feigned scattiness. She held a very influential bully pulpit and, most treacherously in this era, was a vicious red-baiter who wrecked careers and lives. Rather than go for broke, Mirren uses her scenes judiciously to limn this harridan’s bitter, hard-won, calculating knowledge of Hollywood values, her steely, monomaniacal determination for revenge, and the cold, rather exhausted amorality from which to distract she employed the colorful chapeaux, fluty grande-dame voice, and straight-razor smiles. It is a brilliantly considered performance and Mirren executes it with surgical incisiveness.

Cranston’s performance is quietly riveting: his portrayal of Trumbo’s tenacity in adhering to principles never grandstands—it’s pragmatic and worldly-wise—and he evinces the writer’s felicity of language and dry wit more as survival techniques than as a flaunting of epigrams. Diane Lane, as his strong and steadfast wife Cleo, has an almost impassive solidity that works well here. The role gives her little to do but she manages to evoke an essence of bemused patience and common sense that, by all historical accounts, were essential to her own survival as well as that of her husband and family. And the careful progress of the film is enlivened by the hijinks of John Goodman as a low-rent producer for whom Trumbo grinds out schlock during the direst days of his blacklisting, and the canny cameos of Stuhlbarg as Robinson and Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas.



Spotlight is a solid piece of good old-fashioned moviemaking, and it proves that there can be some aspects of old-fashioned moviemaking that need no apology. Almost austere in its refusal to wow audiences with cinematic bells, whistles, and flourishes, it earns its suspense through the carefully calibrated teamwork of a fine ensemble of actors and an uncluttered focus, and is a potent reminder that investigative journalism can be capable of eschewing the self-regard and sensationalism it is often heir to and can even at times attain a significant level of moral gravity.

Early in the film, which is set in Boston largely in 2001, the central conflict is established in a conversation between Cardinal Bernard Law and the new editor at The Boston Globe, Martin Baron (recently arrived from Miami). “The city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” says the cardinal to the newspaper editor during a get-acquainted chat in the rectory. Len Cariou plays the Cardinal with the expansive bonhomie of a man used to having his way, and we detect that he must artfully conceal his surprise when the editor—Liev Schreiber in an elegantly restrained performance—demurs from this cozy vision of civic harmony and politely but firmly posits that the paper must stand alone.

A small group of reporters at The Globe then spends several months digging into the Boston archdiocese’s role in covering up the sexual abuse of dozens of children by priests. It’s a somber but engaging investigation, and it is testament to the success of the film’s tone and pace that director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer are able to infuse office work such as keyboarding, examining old files and records, and answering telephones, with emotion, suspense, and narrative verve. Based closely on actual events, Spotlight—which takes its name from the Globe’s investigative team, headed by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton in an intelligently lean, crisply delineated performance)—becomes a riveting detective story, a realistic newsroom drama, and a finely detailed procedural focusing on both the human particulars of institutional immorality and the seismic socio-political ramifications of the scandal and its uncovering.

Raised in the largely Roman Catholic establishment of Boston, Robby is an old acquaintance of an unctuous p-r man for the church (Paul Guilfoyle) and plays golf with an attorney who handled some of the archdiocese’s unsavory business (James Sheridan). The reporters working with Robby—Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—also come from Catholic backgrounds, and have their own conflicted feelings about the investigation. The actors’ self-effacement and delicate sense of partnering  lend a sense of lived-in dailiness and believability to their work as the Spotlight team. There’s never the least hint of grandstanding in any of the performances, yet each character is distinct, subtly evinced, true—and the cast is further enhanced by expert work from Stanley Tucci (as the pragmatically worldly-wise but deeply humane attorney for some of the abuse survivors), Billy Crudup, and John Slattery.

Critic Richard Brody, writing in newyorker.com (November 10, 2015) voices what seems the most legitimate potential dissent from the general acclamation Spotlight has received. Brody insists that by adhering solely to the newsroom team and its exacting procedures for breaking an accurate and complete story the film misses the opportunity to look more deeply into the personal stories of the survivors of abuse, the psychology of priests who perpetrated it, and the deep-rooted systemic corruption of the hierarchy that refused to deal with it—including not only the higher church officials who covered it up but their complicit attorneys as well as other civic leaders who turned blind eyes. There is one brief scene in which one of the team questions a former priest at the door of his house about his fondling of children. With wide-eyed ingenuousness the man declares that, yes, he did that, but that he “derived no pleasure from it himself”. It’s stunningly clear that in his mind, ergo, no real crime occurred. The kind of long-bred institutional sophistry, self-protection, and arrogance that can breed this degree of delusion would certainly make for an interesting film, but in two hours even an intelligently ambitious film cannot do everything. One can understand precisely what Brody means when he says that Spotlight left him wanting more—but that is because there is so much more to examine, not because McCarthy and Singer did not handle well the manageable focus they chose.

Indeed, Spotlight is defined and succeeds as much by what it chooses to leave out as by what it includes. Journalists in film are often portrayed as crusading idealists or amoral, egocentric leeches. Here we see them as human beings who, without succumbing to either a sense of self-aggrandizement or wary cynicism, do the job of trying to confront evil—as a team of conscientious professionals who take on the dangerous hydra of an entrenched system of power operating without accountability.

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