Kicking the Tweets

The Gift (2015)

Wrapped Attention

The Gift emerged as one of last summer's modest box office surprises, fueled largely by a twist ending so shocking it apparently couldn't wait for home video. I just caught up with the film, unspoiled, and am confident that the "shocking finale" can, in fact, be seen from space. Don't let that deter you: there's so much more going on in this movie than the trailers or the hype would have you believe.

Writer/star Joel Edgerton's feature directorial debut isn't the millionth riff on Fatal Attraction, though it bears all the hallmarks: A (mostly) happily married couple must contend with an unstable loner who shares a dark secret with the husband. Studious viewers can check mysterious gifts, animal endangerment, and gunplay off their lists, as well as a bleak finale guaranteed to make some fictitious movie therapist very wealthy in the decades to come.

Subtlety sets The Gift apart. Edgerton botches many of the mini-reveals leading up to, and including, the climactic "Gotcha!" moment, but he excels in capturing the unspoken tensions that can splinter a marriage. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) are a couple on the brink when we meet them. Simon's new high-paying sales position has forced them to relocate to a big city near his hometown. Robyn is a designer who works from home and tries to make the most of putting their house together, while also lamenting their inability to have children. When an old classmate of Simon's, Gordo (Edgerton), enters their lives with his creepy, awkward neediness, he uncaps resentments and secrets in the Callums that are more damaging than any outside threat could incur.

I love that Edgerton, as the creative force behind this production, doesn't fall back on the sub-genre's cheap trappings. Revealing the grisly fate of the nosy neighbor in these kinds of movies is often a spoiler. Well, here's a different kind of spoiler: the neighbor Robyn befriends isn't nosy, and she doesn't die. Allison Tolman's Lucy is a compassionate stay-at-home mom whose presence in the story is always judicious and welcome. Edgerton achieves a similar tone with all his characters, in ways that subvert the "pulse-pounding" impulses that often turn allegedly adult-targeted thrillers into little more than body-count pictures with nicer cars in the driveway.

As the story we think we're supposed to watch unravels, characters' true natures pop and slither out of discarded skins. Simon's upstanding, concerned spouse becomes something else, and Gordo's deranged, obsessed liar turns out to be less (and then more) than we suspected. Only Robyn manages to escape with her core personality intact, but I'd wager Edgerton could put together a nasty little short film centering on a very important conversation she's bound to have with Simon (The Re-Gift?). Like The Usual Suspects (which Edgerton pays figurative and literal homage to, especially in his closing shot), this film demands a re-watch--not just for clues to the ending, but for further signs that Simon and Robyn were combating their troubled past back when we assumed they were a relatively strong couple.

The film's greatest weapon, besides the guts of its screenplay, is the casting of Hall, Bateman, and Edgerton. These are three terrific actors who rarely get to headline big movies. Bateman's beleaguered, powder-blue-collar persona has served him well in Arrested Development and films like Horrible Bosses, but he shows a frightening capacity for duplicity here, turning that affable control-freak facade into a mask and a weapon.

Hall takes a part that may have been conceived with run-of-the-mill vulnerability in mind and makes it into a more complicated, satisfying role. Robyn could have fallen into the long line of lonely, freaked-out homemakers like the ones we've seen in Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, or Se7en, but she has her act together. In an odd way, the conflict with Gordo pushes her out of her child-free funk and reveals (revives?) a kind of Sarah Connor resilience that makes both the men in her life superfluous.

Which brings us to Edgerton. I'm not sure what to make of Gordo, as a character or as a performance. On one hand, he is a deceiver and an actual threat to the Callums. On the other, it's entirely possible that he's simply the manifestation of the couple's unresolved issues. I'm not suggesting there's an Sixth Sense-style trickery at play here--though I can't recall any scenes in which Gordo interacts with characters other than the Callums.*

I appreciate Edgerton's laid-back approach to menace, in front of and behind the camera. The Gift reminds us of the nuance that made him a star (Warrior, for example), and helps put his blockbuster bluster (Black Mass, Exodus: Gods and Kings) into perspective. By substituting vérité for flash, and giving us characters we can hook into regardless of the soapy, climactic twist, Edgerton proves that he's a storyteller and a performer worth paying attention to, the total package.

*Another reason to give this film a second spin.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

Famine Fortune

Many people contend that the last two Hunger Games movies, Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, could have been condensed into one film--just as the novel on which they were based was a single work. I'll go further and suggest that the entire four-film series should have been reduced to two films. The final chapter in Katniss Everdeen's (Jennifer Lawrence) quest to defeat the cruel, opulent empire of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reaches its predictable end long after the people behind it had anything interesting to say. Just like Harry Potter, The Matrix, Twilight, The Fast and the Furious, and half a dozen other big-studio cash cows, The Hunger Games persisted because it was too big a brand not to--not because it was a story that needed four two-plus-hour installments to tell.

Here's a fan-edit challenge for any time-having techie types out there: Create a direct follow-up to 2012's The Hunger Games, using only footage from Catching Fire and the two Mockingjay chapters, and keep it under two hours and fifteen minutes. My guess is you'll axe about seventy percent of the characters introduced after the first film and still have a breezy, tension filled narrative that makes a decent amount of sense.

Onto the film at hand: Katniss and her band of rebels march on the Capitol, under the watchful eye of both President Snow and resistance leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore). Snow has ordered a phased evacuation of the city and laid an extensive network of cruel booby traps designed for maximum carnage. It's an unofficial Hunger Games whose stakes break from the shackles of reality TV to the very fate of mankind.

Threats come from without and within, as Coin saddles Katniss with the brainwashed, emotionally imbalanced Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). After being "rescued" from Capitol captivity, he nearly strangled his would-be girlfriend to death. Coin's aim is to use the Capitol's former prop as her own inspirational tool, ensuring that he's at Katniss' side when the old regime collapses. It would be a great idea, were it not for the fact that Peeta alternates between confused lovesick puppy and drooling, blood-hungry maniac--oh, and if Coin were not a moustache-twirling, plain-sight villain from the get-go.

Though author Suzanne Collins and her legions of ardent readers deny that The Hunger Games drew any inspiration from Battle Royale, overlooking significant similarities between the two works takes a gargantuan act of will. I've addressed this concern before, and won't get back into it now, except to say that Mockingjay Part 2 suffers from ripple effects of the first film/book's original sin. For every semi-new idea the filmmakers put forth, there are half a dozen others that clearly come from other places. The trap that floods an entire city block with crude oil (and nasty strangulating wires beneath) is a terrific visual and presents our heroes with a genuine geographical dilemma. A few scenes later, Katniss and company find themselves in a network of sewers, fighting mutant creatures that look like a hybrid of Resident Evil zombies and the xenomorphs from Alien. Worse yet, the entire scene is a (poor) retread of a one from the worst of the Alien sequels, Resurrection.

Instead of wasting time on these diversions, the film would have been much better served by actually showing us the big battle that we'd been waiting nearly six hours to see. That's right, at the precise moment of catharsis, Katniss is knocked unconscious--only to be revived sometime later and filled in on the gruesome details of a major conflict. It happened at the end of Catching Fire, and it happens again here. Seriously, I wondered if a reel had gone missing.*

What follows is more boring political treachery than the Star Wars prequels and just about as many fake-out endings as The Return of the King. There's a glimmer of hope in a five-minute sequence wherein Snow meets his fate, but that's all down to Sutherland's wicked yet somehow resigned performance. For her part, Lawrence is once again the reluctant, monotone savior whose inability to think things through would have spelled certain death for any other character in the series. A screaming meltdown directed at her sister's pet cat towards the end of the film offers some left-field hilarity, as Lawrence seems desperate to remind viewers that she has a legit career outside the realm of glossy tween actioners.

The Hunger Games sequels lack focus, and Mockingjay Part 2 is the most scattershot of them all. What began as a well-intentioned satire of American media and its shielding of government insidiousness has morphed into a metaphor-quagmire that's now broad enough to encompass the Tea Party, ISIS, and probably the PTA. I'm all for films that wade into ambiguity, but the good ones have a sense of what they actually want to say--instead of simply tossing out ideas and asking the audience, "What do you think it's all about?" Sorry, but I didn't pay twelve bucks for a Rorschach test. What's say you lay a solid foundation and we'll build this house together?

Katniss and the rebels began as government subjects forced to kill one another for the amusement of a fat, comfortable, and secluded middle class. By the time Mockingjay draws to an end, they are an outside invading force masquerading as refugees to attack the, um, white house that represents the center of world power. Granted the filmmakers couldn't have known just how topical their YA movie would prove to be on its release, but the revolution's unsure footing makes for a conflicted viewing experience--and not in a good way. Maybe if Katniss had been smart enough or brave enough to work out just how severely she was being played from all sides, the film might have pursued a route that wasn't so outright distasteful (and, in the end, cowardly, thanks to the aforementioned trimming of the Climactic Battle). Instead, we're left to wonder if The Hunger Games is actually a metaphor for anything, or if it's just half-baked entertainment aimed at teens who haven't yet discovered real books.

Maybe I just expect too much from movies that claim to be about things. The web of global politics is too confusing, bloody, and subjective to relegate to even a hundred-part miniseries, but that just means those looking to tackle such lofty ideas in a mainstream context need to have their ducks in a row. By introducing too many zero-hour characters and contrivances; by focusing on a three-way relationship that ultimately goes nowhere (story-wise or emotionally); and by pumping more money and hot air into something that was never really designed to grow past a certain point, the people behind this series have done a real disservice to the ideas that sparked the sensation in the first place. In the end, we're left with a disposable juggernaut that will fuel endless disposable juggernauts for the fat, comfortable, secluded, and increasingly scarce middle class to consume. We are all Snow's passive, monotone subjects now, for whom "revolution" is just a buzzword.

*I quickly realized that reels don't exist anymore in the first-run realm.


Cool Apocalypse (2015)

Windy City Microbrew

Allow me, for a moment, to lament the first-world problems of being a professional film critic in late November. On top of the new releases that keep multiplexes humming every weekend, I am beset by screener links and sign-to-accept UPS packages for films that studios want me to vote for during Awards Season.* For those of us who balance this profession with day jobs and families, the onslaught of content, and the expectation that we think deeply and write consistently about everything we see, is maddening. I often can't keep up, and for the sake of protecting my time, I must be selective.

Sad but true, this kind of editing often leads to following shiny objects: the movies that A) look interesting to me, personally, B) have been highly recommended by peers who were fortunate enough to catch them at festivals or screenings, or C) get the most attractive pitch from a filmmaker/studio. I'm not talking about bribes or tchotchkes, of course, but films that arrive with an impassioned letter and at least a decked-out cardboard case tend to be more effective than a plain disc envelope--or, worse, an ultra-slick copy of Furious 7 that has "For Your Consideration: Best Picture" ballsily printed on the interior sleeve.

I miss a lot of films each year, and I would have missed Cool Apocalypse were it not for Facebook. No, social media isn't all complaints and cat memes; I answered an open call from writer/director Michael Glover Smith to watch and write about his debut feature.** As a teacher and film critic himself, Smith acknowledged reviewers' tendency to overlook indies whose bullhorns don't make a peep in the marketplace. There's so much content coming at us from every angle, every day, that it's difficult to grab our attention.

The pitch intrigued me (guilted me a bit, too, which is a good thing), and I checked out Smith's lovely Chicago-set dramedy about two couples working through their issues on one long summer day. Tess (Chelsea David) is a successful, young fashion vlogger whose street-interview series has propelled her to an overseas internship. Her ex-boyfriend, Claudio (Adam Overberg), is also an ex-co-worker who believes Tess stole his heart and career. Claudio's roommate, Paul (Kevin Wehby), is an amateur novelist who works at a used book store. Julie (Nina Ganet), a feminist blogger who works at the women's health clinic next door, pops into the shop during her break to ask Paul out on a lunch date.

Lunch goes well for the two budding lovebirds. Smith's dialogue perfectly captures the tentative but giddy eagerness of newfound chemistry, and Wehby and Ganet couldn't possibly be more natural in their roles. They're attractive actors, sure (Smith has a real eye for populating his gorgeous city with gorgeous people, while toning both down to seem real--or real enough), but they come across as sincere. Their eyes dance as they hang on each other's every word, as if Smith had blind-cast his film with two people who happened to actually fall in love while making a movie.

Contrast this with a lunch between Tess and Claudio, who've spent the day running last-minute errands. They sit across from each other, heads down, mumbling. She flick-scrolls through her phone. He peruses The Chicago Reader. They engage briefly when Paul calls to ask if he can bring a date to Tess' going-away dinner that evening. Claudio doesn't mind adding a human tension-breaker. Tess balks at having to meet someone new, someone she can't swipe past if the guest is uninteresting.

It would be unfair to describe what happens once the wine and vegetarian beef stew start flowing. Smith and his actors did an uncanny job of transporting me back to my mid-twenties, living on the North Side, and talking nonsense with dear friends deep into the night. I've had those faux-deep back-porch conversations; I've averted my eyes at the inevitable awkward moment between couples; I've taken those swimmy, pre-dawn strolls down the block with love in my heart and hope in my soul. It's hard to tell if Chicago is the film's hero, or if it's Smith and his characters.

Those who've never lived here may balk and say, "It's just a porch", or, "Who hasn't taken a late-night walk in their twenties? What the hell are you even talking about?"

Fair enough. Let's talk about the other reason you should see and support Cool Apocalypse. Smith's plea for critical eyes mentioned that his film was a "micro-budget" production. As a supporter of indie cinema (time permitting), I can atest that this movie does not look cheap. Whether it's all in the camera, and/or hiring talented, team-spirited people to work in front of and behind it, Cool Apocalypse has a crisp, intimate feel that places you in line at the bookstore; seats you at the table across from our young lovers on their lunch dates; and sets a place for you in Paul and Claudio's cramped apartment dining room.

This film feels very personal, and reminds me of another filmmaker named Smith who, twenty years ago, emerged on the scene with a black-and-white day-in-the-life indie (complete with title cards, surly customers, and coffee-making montages). Cool Apocalypse has different priorities than Clerks, but both films share a stolen-snapshot quality that its audience will likely recognize and respond to--if they can find it.

Which brings me full-circle back to film criticism. The Internet makes it hard to stand out among the billion bloggers whose thoughts on film range from insightful commentary to tweets to "Super Reviewer" word barf on Rotten Tomatoes. Building an online audience is about as tough a nut to crack, I imagine, as getting eyeballs on an independent film; everyone's a critic, as they say, and everyone has a portable movie studio in their pocket (as Doc Brown once said). But we soldier on, don't we? Not for some dangling carrot of fame or riches, but because our passions won't let us do anything else.

So here's my screaming-into-the-wind plea:

If you're reading this now, and if you live in or near Chicago, I implore you to visit The Gene Siskel Film Center either Saturday night or Monday night to see Cool Apocalypse and engage and encourage the filmmakers (who will be in attendance). If you're reading this in the future, hopefully you'll be able to rent or own Smith's first feature somehow. Either way, watch this breakout film and help it break through.

*"Awards Season" means different things to different people. For the general public, it's the Jan/Feb one-two punch of Golden Globes and Oscars broadcasts. For critics, it's the last two months of the year, when we vote on the works that studios will build statue campaigns around. You'll soon see ads touting how many critics groups agree that Such and Such Film is the "Best of the Year".

**Not for awards consideration, but because it's opening this weekend at the Siskel Center--more on that later.


The Peanuts Movie (2015)

I'd Like to Buy the World Some Peanuts

"Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box. Religion is the smile on a dog."

--Edie Brickell & New Bohemians

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that shook Paris on Friday, a symbol appeared on-line that I'd like to think would have made Charles Schulz proud: a white peace sign painted against a black background, with a well-placed horizontal line just below the three-way vertical split forming a makeshift Eiffel Tower. This hasty, haunting reverse-silhouette carried the urgency of a street-art SOS, calling out to the world, "We're hurt. We're scared. But we're going to get through this together."

I caught up with The Peanuts Movie a week late, at precisely the moment, it turns out, that several groups of lunatics were shooting, bombing, and hostage-taking their way into history. Steve Martino's adaptation of Schulz's comic strip so enraptured me that I thought nothing would (or could) kill my vibe of optimism and unbound joy. Then I checked Facebook. And CNN. And the myriad other stops on the digital rabbit hole that clutter our already sketchy info landscape after Earth-shattering events.

There's no room for despondency. That's the lesson of The Peanuts Movie. Like Minions, it's an eighty-five minute gag montage propelled by adorable silliness that supports a napkin-simple story: perpetual third-grader Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) wants to ask out the new girl in school, known only as The Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Capaldi). Innate clumsiness has created such low self-esteem in our hero that he not only can't work up the nerve to say "hi", he also seeks 5-cent psychiatric counseling from neighborhood bully, Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller). Despite teasing from his friends, pranks by his mischievous dog, Snoopy (Bill Melendez), and a self-image that borders on masochism, Charlie persists in learning ways to boost his confidence while sticking to a code of honesty and community.

I imagine the temptation for re-introducing a sixty-five-year-old brand to modern audiences involves re-shaping the characters to be more like the people buying tickets (perhaps described more accurately: those for whom the tickets are being bought). The Peanuts Movie is admirably adamant in its reverence for Schulz's vision, and it helps that Cornelius Uliano co-wrote the screenplay with Schulz's son, Craig, and grandson, Bryan. The filmmakers dress their stage in the comparatively timeless trappings of courtesy and corded phones, of notepads and typewriters--eschewing LOLs and iPads.

The Peanuts kids are still recognizable as kids, and they're also recognizable as Schulz's creations--even with their lush, 3D-model makeovers. Martino's team exercises restraint in their use of technology, hewing closely to the side-scrolling animation aesthetic of the 1960s prime-time specials, while occasionally breaking form with some truly breathtaking fantasy sequences. Characters' memories and inner monologues appear as animated black-and-white ink drawings encapsulated in 2D thought balloons, and I'm happy to report that the side-by-side comparison is harmonious, not jarring.

The film's only crime (and this may just be generational bias) is the under-use of Vince Guaraldi's iconic score (composed here by Christophe Beck). Included briefly as a branding item, it's quickly tossed aside in favor of contemporary pop songs that will likely be forgotten by the time The Peanuts Movie hits home video. There's nothing wrong with the songs, per se, but they feel utterly out of place in a film that otherwise doesn't bother pandering to an audience for whom Charlie Brown and his gang might not even register on the pop-relevance meter.

Running parallel to Charlie Brown's struggles is Snoopy's fantasy rescue mission involving the legendary World War I flying ace The Red Baron, and an eye-batting Parisian poodle named Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth, whose puzzling star-power-to-screen-time ratio rivals George Clooney's appearance in the South Park movie). As Snoopy, perched atop his little red dog house, pursues the Baron's fighter plane above the City of Light and circles the Eiffel Tower, Martino and company blow out the contrast between the Peanuts gang's comparatively flat real world and the high-flying, tactile, ultra-vibrant dreamscapes of imagination. Here, everything is epic stakes and grandeur, and no problem exists that can't be overcome with determination, brains, and love.

The Peanuts Movie is just about perfect, a big-hearted, technically flawless movie that caps off a year marked by a new breed of powerful family film. It's not cynical, it's not flashy, and it calls upon those who watch it to harken back to the innocence and earnestness that made childhood such a golden place in our hearts. Sadly, not everyone in the world has the opportunity to grow up with friends, teachers, and lazy-day snowball fights. Our planet is lousy with poverty, war, disease, and too many other daily struggles that keep millions of people from even conceiving of a better life. Unknowingly, Martino, Uliano, and the Schulzes have given us a road map to help heal the world--if we're ready and willing to follow it.

This film is a template for understanding, a call for those who aren't hurting to extend compassion to those who are, and for those who are hurting to never quit on themselves (or others). That's only a corny, Kumbaya notion for people who've already succumbed to cynicism and despair. Charlie Brown learned that believing in his own ability to give and receive love was the first step in making great things happen for himself and the imperfect gang of squabbling kids with whom he shares his little neighborhood. Is ours really that much bigger?


Spotlight (2015)

Duck and Cover-up 

Finally, a Boston I can believe in! As I wrote in my Black Mass review, most cinematic depictions of Beantown that I've seen are cartoons packed with cursing, macho blowhards; tread-upon women; and an anti-intellectualism that would give the broadest of Southern redneck satires a run for its money. Here comes Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, a brilliant beacon of hope in the muck, and one of the year's very best films.

Yes, yes, it's mid-November, so I am, as a film critic, morally and contractually obligated to heap awards hyperbole on every studio picture with a brand-name cast and a hard-hitting topic at its core. Don't let Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Stanley Tucci (the Ghosts of Contenders Past) or the Catholic Church cover-up storyline scare you away. Spotlight isn't a gooey and predictable drama of scandal, twists, and redemption--though those elements creep along its edges. This is a period piece about a world on the brink of an information revolution, and the centuries-old cover-up that would herald a shift in how we reckon with the institutions that govern us.

In 2001, The Boston Globe's four-person investigative team cracked a story about pedophile priests working in the city. What began as an unusual case of a man of the cloth molesting several young boys ballooned into accusations against thirteen priests. Looking deeper into the trail of abuse, the Globe's "Spotlight" team discovered that nearly eighty priests had been shuffled from church to church since at least the 1960s--all with the knowledge of local politicians, lawyers, and, of course, the Catholic higher-ups.

Because Boston is a famously (almost cartoonishly) Catholic town, editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Keaton) has his work cut out for him. His staff consists of an unhealthily dedicated reporter whose marriage is on the rocks (Ruffalo), a twitchy family man (Brian D'Arcy James) who discovers that a Catholic "reprogramming" house is just down the block from his home, and an empathetic journalist (Rachel McAdams) who lives with her devout mother. On top of that, Robby's new boss (Liev Schreiber) is a Miami transplant who's been hired by the publisher to make the paper run as efficiently as possible--a dicey prospect for a team that operates outside the standard conduct and deadline parameters. Oh, and there's the matter of the Church, whose influence extends from the highest offices of power to the lowliest of clerkships.

Spotlight's thrills come from watching a close-knit family of professionals do the hard work of digging for the truth. They knock on doors; cope with nasty comments and threats from victims and victims' families; and work their way through reams of documents that need to be transcribed and cross-referenced in fledgling Internet software. It's odd to think that a film set fifteen years ago could play like a Dark Ages period piece, but there's the AOL billboard; there's the avalanche of folders, reference books, and beat-up inter-office envelopes. Just as we no longer bat an eye at the notion of priests being discretely transplanted between parishes (thanks largely to the Globe's reporting), it's hard to imagine sifting through volumes of dusty, old books rather than simply scrolling, copying, and pasting on our pocket-sized Trees of Knowledge.

This is a superhero-team movie in which not one person flies, and whose buildings are left standing at the end.* Robinson and his reporters expose a shadowy criminal organization, rescue families from certain doom, and put a dent in a network of evil that spreads from town to town. They do it without capes or glory, though, and often at the expense of respect in their communities. There's a more obvious metaphor about how Spotlight consists, in a way, of actual cinematic/comic-book characters (Howard Stark, Batman, The Incredible Hulk, and whomever McAdams will play in Marvel's Dr. Strange next year), but I won't go there--any more than I already have.

Speaking of the characters, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer give us just enough information to be intrigued, get invested, and want to see them succeed. We get snippets of their personal lives outside the paper, but there are no big blow-ups about spending too much time at the office, no teary reconciliations for the couple-on-the-brink. There is only The Boston Globe, and the total commitment it requires. We get the feeling that the pedophilia story is eerie for the team of recovering-Catholic journalists, but that their obsession with details and exposing lies would be just as overwhelming had the story been about unpaid parking tickets at the mayor's office.

I have some not-small problems with parts of the film, a few dim spots on Spotlight's otherwise brilliant beam. First, I don't know what the hell is up with Mark Ruffalo's performance. I love the actor, but he's just plain "off" in this movie. He plays someone based in real life, sure, but his portrayal is goofy, an obnoxious assemblage of ticks made to give his Mike Rezendes an awkward, lumbering-mouse feel. He speaks in marble-mouthed clips and skulks about like a featured SNL player trying to get attention from the back of the set. His co-stars are models of subtlety, grace, and believability (even Tucci, who plays the victims' put-upon legal crusader and Billy Crudup as the Church's oh-so-lawyerly defense attorney).

Speaking of subtlety, McCarthy and Singer could have used a lot more in the soapboxing department. Spotlight's glaring flaw is its lack of balance in portraying people's real-world relationship to faith, to Catholicism in particular. The victims' testimonies are all heartbreaking, but the delivery ranges from Movie of the Week to After School Special. We meet the junky, the damaged gay guy, the successful businessman who never told his wife and kids. No doubt these things happened, and still happen, but the delivery is so overwrought that I felt the movie was holding me personally responsible for this network of silent abuse.

Spotlight makes an interesting case in that regard, about how everyone who suspected something was amiss--but who didn't speak up--are at least spiritually culpable for the continued sex crimes (there are shades of this today in Bill Cosby's predation scandal). But not all Catholics are directly responsible for what went on,** and not all Catholics who still attend church are sleeper-thugs just waiting for a phone call from the Cardinal. The film's depiction of the faithful is ghastly, with our intrepid reporters constantly encountering overgrown children who can't understand why anyone would want to arrest Jesus--or wannabe mob enforcers who abuse their power by, for example, stalling the release of freshly unsealed court documents.

There are no decent priests in this film, no stand-up churchgoers, either. Speaking as someone who served an utterly uncontroversial yet mostly rewarding two years as an altar boy a quarter-century ago, I can say that there are good Catholics out there, and that a large chunk of Spotlight rang false for me. Maybe things really are different in Southie, but I left the church for reasons that had nothing to do with a guy in a robe offering me cheap wine (sorry, "blessed") and a look down his pants. For all its beautiful dedication to making truth-finding sexy, Spotlight curiously ignores the fact that faith plays a very real part in the lives of millions of people--decent people who, when the Globe story broke, likely faced a deep existential crisis regarding the schism between their spirituality and the institutions that heavily informed their identities. The shoe-leather portions of the is film are pure Woodward and Bernstein. Sadly, it looks like the parishioner profiles were written by Bill Maher.

*With the notable exception of a brief 9/11 interlude, but I hope you take my meaning.

**If you want to make the argument that they are indirectly responsible, that's fair--as long as you hold voters to the same standard when their (party-agnostic) President bombs weddings and hospitals abroad while also working to expand rights and create jobs at home.