I already know the idea of watching a Romanian documentary is going to be a challenge for many, and that’s before I mention its core subject of government reforms, but this really is one of the best films of the year and worth your valuable time. Collective begins with a heavy metal band’s pyrotechnics catching fire at a club in 2015 (the title of the film), and from there the aftermath leads to journalists uncovering mismanaged hospitals, corrupt government officials, cozy relationships between big business and the mob, and preventable calamities. Collective is at turns fascinating, horrifying, dispiriting, aggravating, and always passionately compelling as a document of real-world journalism at the highest stages of moral righteousness.
I’m surprised that the filmmakers managed to get such extraordinary access during such a tumultuous time. This is not a documentary where the experts talk to the camera with the distance of time, where the leading players recount their perspectives and contributions. You’re side-by-side with them in the moment as the news is being broken and challenged. It’s am amazing example of being at the right place and the right time, and then midway through the filmmakers get even more critical access. The health minister is forced to resign and a new, younger one is appointed in his stead. Vlad Voiculescu is determined to learn why mistakes have happened and to correct them. He’s uncovering just how deep the rot goes in the layers of Romanian governmental bureaucracy, and he’s invited the Collective cameras to follow him and his staff. He really seemed determined to make lasting change, and their conversations have a deep-sigh quality of realizing how normalized corruption has become. Going back and forth between the journalists uncovering the broadening extent of the corruption, and the government health officials trying to enact meaningful reforms and regulations, it’s like a good movie just reached greatness and you have the privilege to watch different sides of the crusade.
I thought the movie was initially going to be about the fire at the Collective club but it keeps transforming and metastasizing into something bigger and more damning. Early on, there is footage from within the club that terrible night and it is horrifying. We already know the fire and ensuing panic to escape lead to 27 people dying. The initial stunned reactions build and build as the fire spreads, covering the ceiling like a glowing blanket of death. It’s one of the scariest moments of footage I’ve ever seen. People died because the fire exits didn’t exist, because there was no system of safety inspections. The fire, very metaphorically, starts small but will become something far more widespread. The survivors of the fire should have been protected by the nation’s hospitals and medical care, and yet so many more died because of the consequences of corruption. The journalist team uncovers dilution of disinfectants, meaning the hospitals are awash in powerfully resistant bacteria. The hospital managers claimed otherwise and the initial minister of health pushes back, saying these same managers tested their disinfectants and they were up to code. From there it just grows and grows, as more people in the nation’s hospital system come forward to confess abuses and coverups and kickbacks to a thriving mob presence. There are suicides that sure look like murders later in this movie and I was not expecting that from its opening.
The filmmaking is very forceful without being strident, very political without being preachy, and it’s always moving forward even when it’s constantly looking at the faults of the past. Director Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters, The Prince of Nothingwood) lets the story and events do the talking, and we never break from the verité approach. A person is never directly talking to the camera, there are never any info-graphics or visual inserts. The editing is precise, and every scene gives you exactly what you need, though sometimes it might take a little while to understand the full context of the scene and the leap in time from the prior scene. The movie is 110 minutes and it feels like it’s sprinting because there is so much to cover. It doesn’t make the movie feel like it’s spread too thin, or we’re missing important deliberation and context, but it does require a viewer to stay more active to jump from moment to moment. Those 110 minutes are a clear indictment and examination on corruption and government negligence, but it lets the totality of the details and the horrors convey its message rather than overt appeals.
It’s in the concluding ten minutes that perhaps Collective reaches its most depressing and most damning point (there will be spoilers going forward with this paragraph). For the second half of the film, we’ve been following our crusading new health minister try and shake up a corrupt system and install real reforms that will improve the lives of the Romanian citizens. It’s inspiring and makes you go, “Ah, at least there are still good men in the world capable of enacting good when they are summoned to a level of power and authority.” It looks like he’s actually making real changes because there are many forces pushing against his dismantling of the status quo. Those that benefit from the graft and corruption of the old system, including criminal elements deeply entwined in the country’s infrastructure, push back through their media allies, and broadcasting personalities start questioning whether the health minister is being controlled by foreign influence. It’s familiar to those who have watched the outer reaches of conservative media over the past few decades (Romania’s own Fox News?), and it’s the same kind of slimy, nationalistic, and xenophobic rhetoric meant to alarm and distract. An election is looming in the coming weeks and our new health minister says the regulations can only be implemented if his party, the Socialist Democrats, retain power. Then they don’t. They lose by a lot. Like a historical loss. It was 2016, where nationalistic, anti-immigration forces swept into government across the world, and Collective ends on the depressing note without any silver lining of resolution. The hospital appoints a manager who is “legally unable to manage a hospital.” Just like that, all the hard work to break free from the intransigence has ended in a historical rebuke of the party literally trying to preserve life (“Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown”).
Collective is an inspiring, crushing, and compelling document of corruption, incompetence, and the difficulty of trying to turn around a system too content on not doing more. The journalistic access is stunning and the movie is quietly powerful as we follow diligent politicians and reporters putting in the hard work of trying to make a difference and expose rampant maleficence. By the end, the good guys have taken some significant lumps, though I’ve since read that Vlad is back in the Romanian government again as the minister of health. What does this say about the crusaders for reform? To me, it says it’s a lot easier to go backwards once any reform is met with opposition from those who stand to benefit from a broken system continuing to remain broken. It’s all too easy to fall back on the status quo even when it’s deeply problematic because it’s “what the people know,” but that doesn’t make it good. Change is a powerful force, but it’s still worth fighting for, even if powerful forces of the world manage to unfairly delay that change. Collective is a movie everyone should watch if they want to become a journalist or work in government, and it should be on a shortlist of 2020 films to see for everyone else too.
Nate’s Grade: A-
More an expose on toxic work environments than anything overtly political, Bombshell is an effective true-life drama about the many pitfalls, humiliations, traps, harassment, and compromises that women face in the workforce. We follow the downfall of news magnate Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the imposing man who built the Fox News empire and who also bullied his employees and solicited sexual favors from the many women who were on his payroll. Margot Robbie plays an invented character meant to provide that entry point into Ailes the creep in creepy action. She’ll be harassed and pressured for sex by a man described as “Jabba the Hut,” and Robbie is terrific in her big dramatic moments portraying what the pressure and shame does for her ambitious anchor. The other two main characters wrestle with how far to go in a corporate culture of keeping secrets from very powerful, very dirty old men. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is consulting lawyers for a personal harassment lawsuit against Ailes the person, not Fox News, but she needs other women to come forward. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is struggling with the scrutiny she has endured after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turns his small Twitter thumbs against her. The Fox bigwigs won’t go on record to defend her, and their journalists, because they need Trump to drive ratings. The movie uses several Big Short-style narrative tricks to help tell its sordid tale, including swapping narration and fourth-wall breaks; a run through of hearing from Ailes’ past victims in their own words is striking, especially a woman who says she was only 16 at the time. Part of the fun are the many many cameos and just watching actors portray different Fox News personalities (Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani!). The makeup is also phenomenal and Theron looks unrecognizable as Kelly. The film itself doesn’t feel like it’s telling you anything you already don’t know about the subject; people will compromise their morals for personal gain, power leads to exploitation, women are unfairly treated, and it’s easier to fall in line than stand up to power. There’s still a thrill of watching the downfall of a serial abuser, and the acting is strong throughout, but Bombshell can’t shake the feeling of being a slicker, more star-studded TV movie version of recent history. Even with the urgency of the topic, it feels light, and not because of its use of incredulous humor. I could have used more behind-the-scenes details, and maybe that’s where Showtime’s miniseries The Loudest Voice comes in, retelling the same story with Russell Crowe as Ailes. It’s a solid movie on a very pertinent subject and worth seeing but it also makes me wish for a harder-hitting, more widely sourced expose on this very bad man who felt forever protected by the status quo of power.
Nate’s Grade: B
As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
Some of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.
The same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.
Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This is a solidly engaging mystery with some twists and turns that don’t come out of left field. Russell Crowe is a journalist investigating the murder of a Congressional aide, who just happened to be having an affair with Ben Affleck, his old friend. There are strong performances all around by the cast, though Rachel McAdams seems superfluous as a blogger-turned-sidekick except for allowing the movie to barely touch upon the idea of print journalism dying. The biggest issue is the pacing. The movie stays at a constant simmer, which works for grabbing your interest but then the final plot blows feel lacking because the narrative has not risen in tension. In fact, I’d say the conclusion to one of the two main mysteries is downright disappointing the way it fails to dovetail with the other, larger mystery. There is a lot more that could be said over the state of modern newspapers and the inherent biases that need be kept at bay. State of Play is an intelligent thriller but ultimately too limited by the condensed framework of its script. This movie feels like it has more ideas to share, ethics to chew over, questions to tease out, characters to ripen, and that’s probably because State of Play is based upon a 2003 BBC miniseries that gave sufficient time for these elements to flourish. Still, I can’t knock this relevant, political, old-fashioned conspiracy thriller. It’s too rare these days that Hollywood churns out smart movies like this for adults.
Nate’s Grade: B
The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Zodiac is something altogether different from a genre best known for cannibalism, skin suits, and express shipping of human heads. It has more in common with All the President’s Men than director David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, Seven. This is a serial killer thriller steeped in police procedural, closed door deliberations, and the slow drip of a decades long investigation into the Zodiac killings that terrorized California from the 1960s and 70s. Watching close to 3 hours of procedure with nary a car chase or a shoot-out may not sit right for fans of the genre, but I enjoyed the film for the same reasons people will decry it — the details. I loved how methodical this film is, how dogged and stubborn it is, and I found myself being enveloped into the minutia of the case.
It all began with a young couple looking for a bit of privacy in 1968. They park at a lover’s lane and nervously engage in a bit of the old “neckin.” A passing car interrupts them, and then that car returns with its headlights blasting into the couple’s faces. This man then takes out a gun and starts firing, killing the woman and badly injuring the young man. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when a curious letter has stirred up a lot of discussion. It’s a cryptic message with a puzzle attached made up of symbols and codes. The author demands his puzzle run in the newspaper, and if not, more will suffer at his hands. There are further attacks along the California coast and the mysterious figure finally gives himself a name at the end of one of his letters: Zodiac.
San Francisco detectives David Toschi (a great, raspy Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are called in after Zodiac executes a cab driver in the city. The Chronicle‘s star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), pesters the police for details and eventually gets under Zodiac?s skin. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case through a life-long love of puzzles and the case eventually consumes him, dooming his marriage to a pretty girl (Chloe Sevigny). Thanks to the tutelage of Avery, Graymsith becomes an amateur detective of his own, and his zeal to solve the case outlasts the actual police.
The Zodiac killer was really the first mass media serial killer. As the news of brutal attacks spreads, the media ate it all up and enlarged the figure of Zodiac to grand heights. And he was eager to help inflate his image, taking credit for crimes and slayings that were not his doing. The killer used the media age to terrorize the populace and increase his notoriety, similar tactics used by today’s stream of terrorists. The detectives didn’t just have to navigate all the shifting evidence but the formation of an urban legend.
This is before the day of DNA and super computers, so all progress comes from good old-fashioned police work. Long hours are spent pouring over mounting evidence while coordinating around bureaucracy; because Zodiac has struck in several different small communities it can take a saint’s patience to figure out the correct jurisdiction and compile the various parts in various offices. The film packs a lot in its running time introducing scores of information, suspects, witnesses, and varying theories, but the film cannot be faulted for pace; nearly every scene takes place weeks, months, even years after the last.
Zodiac is Fincher’s most restrained work even at a gargantuan running length. Fincher is a master tactician with slick visuals but has a penchant for getting too dazzled by needless visual flourishes (did the camera really need to zoom through the handle of a coffee pot in Panic Room?). He tones down the excess but still maintains a refined visual palate that makes the film feel fluid. The period detail is incredibly reconstructed, giving an authentic feel for a very serious story. But Fincher knows that with Zodiac the impetus lies with the story, and he devotes his considerable style to the service of the story. The mood balances nicely with intrigue, humor (after Zodiac singles out Avery fellow journalists start wearing “I’m Not Avery” buttons), and some truly terrifying moments involving the Zodiac attacks. The violence is sparse but when it does occur it is shocking, particularly watching a knife plunge repeatedly into the writhing body of a woman at a lake. One key element of sustaining such an ominous mood is fabulous song selection. Very often pop songs can be counter-productive to a movie, coming across as a lazy attempt to cobble together a soundtrack to shill. With Zodiac, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” becomes a powerfully haunting medley for the killer and the sonic linchpin for the film.
Fincher does an excellent job of transporting us back in time and recreating the sense of paranoia that grappled many. There is a great scene late in the film where Graysmith comes to the sudden realization that he may have walked right into the spider’s parlor. The scene plays out to an agonizingly uncomfortable length, and you too feel like running out the door as fast as your legs can take you. By not knowing definitively who the Zodiac may be, the film gets a boost of suspense from a multitude of creepy suspects. In an interesting decision, Fincher uses different actors of different shape during the Zodiac attacks, playing against the varying reports from witnesses and survivors.
There?s a sizeable danger trying to find a climax to a case that remains open to this day and where no one has been officially charged. Zodiac does as good a job as possible to present a fitting, mostly satisfying conclusion. The movie presents the best theory and points a convincing finger at who Zodiac perhaps really was.
Zodiac is expertly crafted but has a handful of minor flaws that hold it back. The overall script is rather nimble with how it dishes new information to digest, however the intricacies can amass and become too great, and some scenes congest too much without needed forward momentum which causes the flow to get caught up in an expository pile-up. Still, the film is demanding but not overwhelming and not without reward. The film follows the ups and downs of the Zodiac investigation, and that means characterization runs short and simple. I fear the only false note amongst a vastly talented cast is Gyllenhaal, an actor I adore. He works fine in the portrayal of a young kid in the newsroom trying his hand at crime solving, but it’s the film’s second half where the actor falters. He fails to sell the obsession and desperation that dominates his life, instead looking wiped out but no worse for wear, like the temporary results of an all-nighter before a big test.
It was five years since Fincher’s last film, and he wasn’t sitting on his laurels when he crafted Zodiac, an exceptionally intelligent and demanding movie. Decades pass, suspects weave in and out, evidence and testimony contradict one another, it’s all a lot to keep track of but I found myself absorbed in the case just like Graysmith. This is a serial killer movie that could bring the smarts back and redefine the genre, that is, if fans are willing to sit through 3 hours of police work. If not, well they might get their kicks out of the more genre loyal The Zodiac, released in 2006. And that movie’s only 97 minutes long.
Nate’s Grade: A-