Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Film review: "Creed"

“Creed” is a self-conscious attempt to bring closure to the Rocky Balboa saga, by depicting the aged boxer passing on the torch to another underdog. It’s a classic story of beginnings and endings, fathers and sons, starting a new chapter and closing an old one.

It’s well-made, stirring, and would make for a fitting summation to a 40-year journey.

(Though as long as Sylvester Stallone, who’ll be 70 next year, is capable of shambling in front of the camera and mouthing that iconic stumblebum patois, don’t bet on this being the last “Rocky” movie.)

Just how important is Rocky to us? He’s probably the most famous sports figure who isn’t actually real. Check that; in many ways, you could argue he is real. Certainly his influence is – on movies, the sport of boxing and the city of Philadelphia.

There’s a scene in “Creed” where people are shown having their pictures taken in front of a statue of Rocky Balboa at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – the place where he famously ascended those steps in the first movie. It’s supposed to demonstrate how Rocky, now long out of the boxing game and quietly running a little restaurant named Adrian’s, became a legend.

But that’s an actual statue in front of the actual museum, put there as part of a scene from “Rocky III” -- demonstrating that myths can turn into reality, and vice-versa.

The film stars Michael B. Jordan, one of the finest young actors working in film today. Director Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington, also directed Jordan in the powerful “Fruitvale Station.” Tonally the two films are somewhat similar, in that Jordan’s character is a wayward soul trying to improve himself, only to be pushed down by an uncaring and capricious system.

Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent from the first two movies who eventually became his closest friend. He died in the ring before Adonis was born, who grew up angry in the child welfare system before being taken in my Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad.)

“Donny” was raised in comfort and security – unlike Rocky, the Creeds kept their boxing dough – but has a Drago-sized chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t feel like he belongs to anyone, is both proud and ashamed of his heritage. He fights low-end professional bouts in Mexico while working a day job in the financial sector.

After running his mouth and being humiliated in the ring by a legitimate boxer, Adonis decides to strive for his dream and make it on his own as a fighter, without using dad’s name as a stepping stone. He moves to a cruddy apartment in Philly, and enlists Rocky to train him. Donny calls him “Unc” and regards Balboa as family, though Rocky is reluctant to reenter the world where he’s lost so much.

Stallone is regretful and poignant, playing a man who doesn’t really have much to live for, but presses on because he doesn’t know how to quit. In Adonis he sees a chance to nurture, to hone and to protect – i.e., to be a father again.

Of course, because this is a Rocky movie it ends with a fight for the championship. How exactly one goes from novice to contender is left deliberately murky. A romance with the cool downstairs girl (Tessa Thompson) has an obligatory feel – why must there always be a love interest?

The bad guy is Ricky “Pretty Boy” Conlan, played by real-life fighter Tony Bellew. He’s a Cockney brawler looking for a quick payday owing to pressing circumstances, and he and his manager (Graham McTavish) see using the Creed name as a way to drum up exposure. Rocky sees what’s happening, doesn’t like it, but gives Donny the space to make his own decisions – while having to make some hard choices of his own.

“Creed” isn’t up there with the first four Rocky movies. But it summons their spirit, and adds a few grace notes of its own. “Rocky” was the story of a guy who fought because he had nothing else; this is the tale of a man with choices who traces in his father’s footsteps in order to become his own man.

Just as it was in 1976, there are different forms of victory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: "The Good Dinosaur"

"The Good Dinosaur" contains many notes and musical phrases from other animated films, but it's still a strong song all on its own.

It mostly feels like elements of "The Lion King" and "Finding Nemo," with a little bit of "The Croods" thrown in. Reportedly this movie from Disney/Pixar ran into all sorts of problems during production and they essentially had to start over from scratch, with a new cast and director.

It certainly was worth it, as "The Good Dinosaur" is easily the best animated film I've seen this year. (Albeit in a weak year for cartoon movies.)

Raymond Ochoa voices Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who gets separated from his family and must make an uneasy alliance with Spot, a feral human boy (Jack Bright). The twist here is that this is an alternate reality where that big asteroid didn't hit the Earth and wipe out the mammoth land reptiles. Given a few million years to evolve further, they've become the planet's dominant species, capable of speech, agriculture, tools and more.

The humans, meanwhile, can do little more than grunt and bark. Spot is essentially part wolf, a fierce warrior (for his size) and hunter with a terrific sense of smell. Spot and Arlo are enemies, then thrown-together castoffs, then circumstantial allies, then something more.

Director Peter Sohn and his team of animators made an interesting choice visually. Except for the dinosaurs and people, everything is rendered in hyper-realistic animation. The mountains, the dirt, the vegetation and even smaller animals -- collectively described by the dinos as "critters" -- almost look like they've sprung to life out of National Geographic gallery.

Arlo, Spot and their fellows, however, have a deliberately cartoony look to them, with exaggerated features and shapes. Arlo's eyeballs are so big that if they were actually spherical, they would have to extend out past the sides of his head.

But it all works. The contrast between the stylized protagonists and their often-dangerous environment makes for an oddly intuitive sort of balance, a yin and yang effect.

Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand are soothing and wise as Poppa and Momma, corn farmers who till and protect their own land and impart to their young ones the importance of "making your mark." To them this means pushing past your limits and fears and finding your place in the world.

That's easy for brash, bruising brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and headstrong sister Libby (Maleah Padilla,) but Arlo is a smallish (for his kind) and timid sort who gets rattled just by feeding the family "chickens." When a storm comes and a tragedy visits the family, Arlo finds himself washed far away into a strange land. Only Spot, who's caused them some trouble earlier with his foraging, is on hand for companionship.

The screenplay by Meg LeFauvre, who also helped pen this summer's "Inside Out" -- the first time Pixar has released two features in one calendar year, by the way -- keeps things simple, and inspired. Arlo and Spot encounter a variety of natural challenges and other dinosaurs, including a soaring band of pterodactyls and a fearsome family of tyrannosaurs (Sam Elliot voices the dad), but things often don't shape out as they first appear.

"The Good Dinosaur" isn't the top of the animation pyramid for Pixar, which has been in something of a trough lately after 15 years of one triumph after another. But being a step down from "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" et al isn't a bad place to be.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)

There is a purity to "Two-Lane Blacktop" that grabs you like fat tires gripping a hot asphalt road.

On the surface it is seemingly the barest of trifles, a drag-racing movie in which the two main characters literally have no existential identity beyond their roles as Driver and Mechanic -- the only names ever given them, and only then in the end credits.

Like slavering wolves with but one or two primordial imperatives constituting their entire behavioral makeup, they tool from town to town in a souped-up 1955 Chevy 150, searching for chumps to fleece in wagered side-by-side sprints. That's the whole movie.

Yet the film, a cult classic that barely made a ripple in the box office or pop culture of its day, often gets spoken about in tones bordering on reverential. Back in 1971 Esquire magazine named it the "film of the year" -- without even bothering to wait for the bloom of spring, at that.

Many people consider the movie the unsung triad of great counter-culture road pictures of the time, along with "Easy Rider" and "Vanishing Point." It is talked about frequently, and has received a handsome Criterion Collection restoration and video release.

(Though I'm aware such treatment from Criterion is not considered as ostentatious as it once was.)

Directed by B-movie denizen and Roger Corman mentee Monte Hellman, "Two-Lane Blacktop" was written by Rudy Wulitzer over a frenetic four-week period. He was an underground nobody at the time, but went on to pen notable films like "Pat Garrett and & Billy the Kid"  and "Little Buddha," and even contributed to the Oscar-winning script for "Coming Home," though he did not get a screen credit or a statuette.

Wurlitzer, who admitted he knew little about cars, threw out almost everything from a first draft by Will Corry, diving into motoring magazines and hanging out with gearheads to soak up the culture. He kept the simplicity of Corry's three main characters: Driver, Mechanic and The Girl (Laurie Bird) and added to them G.T.O., an older man played by Warren Oates who starts out as an adversary and becomes their companion.

There is very little dialogue, and most of what is spoken is by G.T.O., a born liar cruising cross-country in a brand-new flaming yellow Pontiac GTO, who constantly picks up hitchhikers, supplying each one with a different backstory about who he is and how he got the car. In different fables he is a test pilot, television producer, etc., but always a braggart and back-slapper.

G.T.O. wears an extravagant outfit, complete with cravat and slip-on loafers, that looks like a precursor to the disco-era leisure suit. He keeps a full martini travel kit in the trunk.

(A note on nomenclature: the iconic Pontiac muscle cars are GTOs, sometimes cheekily expanded to "Gas, Tires & Oil" -- the three things they prodigiously consumed -- or simply "Goats." But the film's credits include periods, most likely an error on Wurlitzer's part, and have become an established part of movie lore. So I'll use them here.)

G.T.O. doesn't actually know very much about cars. He proudly enumerates for a hitchhiker all the particulars of the model, including acceleration times and such, then admits he got all the information out of the owner's manual. He's a poser who views other hot-rodders with disdainful confidence, a self-proclaimed king of the road who's never actually shut anyone down.

"Performance and image, that's what it's all about," he drawls, innocent of embarrassment for these words. 

Driver and Mechanic are his polar opposite. They are young, stoic, long-haired, T-shirted, terse. They don't imbibe or toke up. They talk about nothing but the condition of their vehicle and racing strategy. They travel along Route 66, generally eastward, finding people to race and bet against. It's strongly implied they have never lost.

Their car is the antithesis of flashy, all business: primer gray paint that blurs into the road, a functional but boxy hood scoop for ramming air into the carb, sheet metal shaved and bumper stripped to cut down weight. It has no radio or heater, only rollbars in the back, and the heavy glass windows have been replaced with sliding plastic barriers.

With a mammoth big-block 454 cubic inch plant -- that's about 7.4 liters in today's parlance, or four times the engine displacement of a new Honda Civic -- paired to a 4-speed gearbox and heavily modified, their '55 Chevy is a stealth warrior, a professional machine disguised to look like a local boy's plaything. To access the engine, Driver and Mechanic have to flick a release near each door corner and together tilt the front end up, fenders and all.

Interestingly, this is the only way in which the two men collaborate on the car itself. Driver will help Mechanic take off the hood, then he studiously strolls away and sits somewhere nearby while the work is performed. Similarly, Mechanic offers no words of advice before a race, and never rides along. Each understands their clearly defined roles, and obeys the self-imposed demarcation as if a biblical directive.

They do talk shop while scouting out opponents, however. Mechanic can tell what another driver has under the hood with a glance and a listen to their exhaust note. Driver is in charge of baiting their prey, sidling up at the local car aficionados' gathering spot, offering praise for another's wheels, then derision, returning a challenge of a $50 race with a demand for $300, knowing the man can't back down in front of his hometown crew.

Driver and Mechanic are both played by famous musicians in their only feature film role. James Taylor (Driver) was just breaking out as a solo act, while Dennis Wilson (Mechanic) was sliding down from the Beach Boys' heyday, on the threshold of a dark decade and early death.

Neither has a scintilla of acting talent. Taylor actually stumbles badly during his character's only notable piece of dialogue, seeming unsure if he should keep going or wait for someone to yell "cut." Yet their blank glances, unmodulated speech and nervy unease in front of the camera actually work to the film's advantage. They're single-minded beasts, unconcerned with social niceties or anything that could distract them from speed, and victory.

The one thing that tries is The Girl. She's a hippie and a roamer who rides along with anyone who will have her. She literally waltzes up and throws her stuff and herself into the back of the '55 while the two men are inside a diner, and upon returning they acquiesce to her presence -- without comment.

Despite her reliance on the kindness of strangers, Girl takes pains to aim her verbal barbs and astringent energy at whoever's currently providing the lift. In the case of a twosome of benefactors, she tries to set them against each other. Since Driver seems to express the barest of interest in her, she bestows her affections instead on Mechanic.

It is tacitly understood by all that she will provide sex in exchange for transportation, food and shelter. In many ways she is the pair's true spiritual companion. They are devoted only to racing, and their car is the tool to that end. She is only committed to her own freedom and whims, and offering her virtue is the most obvious and replenishable currency. The Chevy and The Girl's body are merely forms of conveyance.

The trio encounters G.T.O. at a gas station, and the boys use the older man's pride to lure him into the ultimate wager: an overland race for "pinks" -- aka pink slips, or ownership of the loser's car. They mail their titles to a post office in Washington D.C., and the first one who gets there, wins all.

The race gradually devolves into a comradely jaunt. They agree on truces for repairs, eating stops and spontaneous races with third parties. G.T.O. pretends to be their manager, The Girl switches between cars as her mood strikes, and eventually it becomes unclear if they're even going to bother finishing the race.

At some point G.T.O. realizes he's clearly out of his class with Driver and Mechanic, and starts to envy and emulate them. Just as Driver drives and Mechanic maintains and The Girl chases her zephyr, G.T.O. is a chameleon who lives for deception and change. We're not sure what he really was before, but self-invention is now his single-minded vocation. He is on a quest to forget himself.

When your goal is ephemeral and ever receding, all you have left is the race itself.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Video review: "Ricki and the Flash"

If there’s nothing more exhilarating in a movie theater than finding a wonderful film where you didn’t expect, then little is more depressing than walking out let down by a movie you had awaited with enthusiasm. Such was the case for me and “Ricki and the Flash.”

I think Meryl Streep is the finest actor working in film today, and operate under the general assumption that having her in the cast makes anything worth the price of admission. And while “Ricki” certainly isn’t a bad flick, it’s got too many obvious problems in its structure and execution to ever had a chance at being good.

Streep plays a woman who ran out on her family decades ago to pursue her rock ‘n’ roll dreams on the West Coast. She never made it big, but continues to entertain at night while working days as a checkout clerk. Then Ricki gets the call that her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life kid), is in a bad way after a terrible breakup.

You can’t go home again, at least not without stirring up old heartbreak, as Ricki discovers in a by-the-numbers trip through resentment and buried longing. The screenplay by Diablo Cody takes a “kitchen sink” approach, lobbing in all sorts of distracting sub-characters and side plots.

The main dynamic between mother and daughter gets lost, and Julie actually disappears for most of the second half. Kevin Kline is poorly used as Ricki’s ex-husband, a diffident but decent fellow who’s moved on from a shattered love life but still feels some warmth toward her.

Throw in the gay son’s coming out, the other son’s wedding, Ricki’s scratchy romance with her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield) and a face-off with her children’s stepmother, and there’s just too many notes in this cacophonous arrangement. And director Jonathan Demme can’t find a consistent tone amidst the chaos.

Streep’s great as always, but “Ricki and the Flash” gets the primary chords wrong.

Video extras are middling. The DVD comes with a making-through documentary, and that’s it. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery and a featurette on Springfield’s reemergence as a rock icon and actor.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2"

The "Hunger Games" saga ends not with a bang but a yawn. I haven't been a fan of this overstuffed film franchise based on the popular YA novels, but the final entry is easily the most tedious and least entertaining of the bunch.

Like other recent sci-fi/fantasy series, it takes the now-familiar and thoroughly discredited route of dividing the last novel into two movies. It's a transparent attempt to sell twice as many tickets for the same amount of story. With the Harry Potter books and the Hobbit, there was at least enough narrative to give the final movie momentum.

Suzanne Collins' engaging but thinly plotted book simply doesn't.

If you'll remember where we left off, the rebellious uprising against the Capitol District was starting to stick it to the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland, in full twinkly smirk mode) with the help of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) acting as the Mockingjay, the face of the insurgents.

But really, she has been more or less in thrall to the District 13 chief, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), head creator of the nefarious Hunger Games, in which children killed each other for sport. Meanwhile, former ersatz lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) -- a relationship concocted for the benefit of the Games audience -- has been brainwashed by Snow into a maniacal urge to kill Katniss. And Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' stoic and grim actual love interest, labors hard at becoming grimmer and even more stoic.

Have I got all those names and faces straight? Good. A few other formerly important figures are in the mix, such as mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Katniss' kid sister, but they only show up to service the plot and then leave.

(Harrelson seems to have been given most of the expositive lines left over from Hoffman, who died during production.)

Basically, it's end times for Snow and the other leaders of Panem. Katniss and an ever-shrinking team of soldiers is infiltrating the Capitol on a quest (unauthorized) to take him out and end the war. But the outlying portion of the city has been evacuated and filled with pod snares, mutant mutts and other nasty challenges, essentially making it another giant booby-trapped iteration of the Hunger Games.

Peeta is unwisely inserted into the group as a PR move, and is distrusted by all, particularly Katniss. But his kind nature slowly reasserts itself over the mental "hijacking" he underwent, and she begins to remember the altruistic boy who has sacrificed so much for her.

There are surprisingly few action scenes. It's mostly running and hiding as the group makes its way toward Snow, are picked off by pods, share a few standoffs, etc. Only an attack in the sewers by mutated human "mutts" contains anything like a genuine thrill.

You wouldn't think that what is essentially one long chase would add up to a 2¼-hour movie... and it doesn't. "Mockingjay Part 2" is filled with pregnant pauses and dead spots. Despite some talented actors, the material is too goofy to ever take seriously. Snow dismisses Katniss as an easily manipulated puppet who's only good at shooting a bow, and for once the bad guy has it right.

Review: "By the Sea"

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “By the Sea” will not be everyone’s slice of pie. Set in the 1970s, it’s a throwback to a style of filmmaking from that same era we don’t see much anymore: contemplative, personal, forthrightly erotic, at times wandering and hazy, at times mesmerizing.

I’ve long made it a point not to read other reviews or articles about a movie before I’ve written my own, but couldn’t avoid a growing and nasty wave of commentary about this film. Much of this seems to owe to it starring Hollywood supercouple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and that it was written and directed by the latter (who is credited, perhaps tellingly, as Angelina Jolie Pitt).

They haven’t made a movie together since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” when of course Pitt was married to somebody else. It seems eons ago, but it was just 10 years. Since then they’ve wed, had a gaggle of children (adopted and natural), gone through a major medical scare for her, seen their careers bounce high and low.

Now in his 50s, he’s become choosier about his film projects, and she’s starred in fewer and fewer, preferring the space behind the camera. “By the Sea” is Jolie Pitt’s third film as a director, the first in which she also acted, and her best.

There’s not much to the story. The Bertrands, husband and wife, are motoring along the French coastline. They find a nice place with a gorgeous view of a rocky bay, and stop for a while. Their linger becomes a wallow, as he tries to use the setting as inspiration for his writing, and she seems to have little reason to exist beyond embodying resentment.

The Bertrands are not happy people. Married 14 years, they’re engaged in a wary pas de deux through the “second stage of life.” Roland mostly drinks and takes notes at the local café, but the sheet of paper in his typewriter remains obstinately unchanged. Vanessa (Ness) hangs around the hotel balcony, spying on sunbathers, occasionally going shopping in town while wearing an enormous hat and sunglasses, Audrey Hepburn-like.

They act like celebrities hiding out, and indeed he was once a noted novelist and she was a famous performer (the venue is vague). Money does not seem to be a problem, as they wear expensive clothes, buy their suppers, smoke cigarettes and drink, drink, drink.

A colleague commented after the screening that this is the sort of movie “Liz & Dick” -- meaning Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- might’ve made a half-century ago, and the comparison is apt. Like their earlier counterparts, Brad and Angelina are world-famous figures who seem bored and bothered by their status, and are looking to use this movie to comment upon and distance themselves from their public personas. Ness is an object of curiosity to most everyone she encounters, but she prefers to remain remote and aloof.

Things happen, slowly. Roland befriends the older bartender (Niels Arestrup) and tries to squeeze every considerable ounce of wisdom out of him -- both for his book and the sake of his marriage.

A younger couple on their honeymoon (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) moves into the suite next door, and Ness begins spying on them through a forgotten pipe. Meanwhile, she and Roland are virtually asexual. He soon joins her in voyeurism, simply to have something they can share.

“By the Sea” is an amazingly beautiful movie; Pitt and Jolie Pitt have never looked more gorgeous. It’s a very observational film, keying on little details like the way Ness always tosses her sunglasses onto the table, and he always rights them so the glass doesn’t get scratched. We watch a red-shirted fisherman row his tiny boat out of the mouth of the bay and back every day, but never meet him. There are fleshy flashes of thoughts that bound around inside Ness’ head, but it’s torment rather than desire that makes her vibrate.

This is the sort of movie that isn’t really “about” anything, other than the question of whether Roland and Ness make it as a married couple, or not. At times their situation seems dire, later hopeful, then less so. Their disillusion, carefully staked out in their days spent apart, is challenged in ways unexpected. This movie is less about the what than the how.

Some people are ready to dismiss “By the Sea” as an old-school vanity project, but I think that’s missing the point. People -- especially those who’ve spent their lives pretending to be somebody else -- often understand others better than they do themselves. Here are a pair of stars behaving like nobodies, and having a swell time acting miserable.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: "Spotlight"

“Spotlight” is the truest depiction of journalism since… well, ever.

Even “All the President’s Men,” “Network” and “Broadcast News” -- great movies though they are -- contained a certain quotient of Hollywood BS. Here is the new standard in cinematic depictions of the journalists, along with one of the best films of the year.

This new drama depicting the Boston Globe’s discovery of a massive cover-up of sexually abusive priests never skimps on the facts, or sexes up the individual reporters and editors, or creates composite characters to skirt over the unsavory aspects of some of the real ones.

Why? Because it never has to. The real thing is compelling enough and needs no sprinkling of fictional fairy dust.

Directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Up”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, “Spotlight” is a great story about the making of a great and tragic story.

McCarthy knows a little about newspapering, since he played an ethically untethered reporter in the last season of the great HBO television series, “The Wire.” Having portrayed the worst of the profession, he now shows us the best.

Unless you’ve had your head in a hole, you know where the long tail of the priest molestation story eventually went: widespread sexual abuse by clergy and a coordinated effort by the Catholic Church, nationally and internationally, to cover it up rather than end it. Even the Pope personally apologized.

Here is how the shroud first began to fall.

The most realistic thing about the movie is that it shows how big stories are rarely uncovered by a single person who has the information fall into their lap. It’s almost always a group effort, it takes weeks and months and years of arduous work, and at some point in the investigative process someone will realize they already had the information they needed all along, right under their noses. But it either got swept under the rug or ignored in the rush of daily publishing.

The heroes here are the four-member team of Spotlight, the investigative project unit at the Globe. As the story opens in 2001 a new editor is arriving at the paper, an out-of-towner named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who knows nothing of predominantly Catholic Boston and is an unmarried Jew, to boot. He’s given warm handshakes and cockeyed glances, both outside the newsroom and within.

Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the editor of the Spotlight, a self-described “player/coach” who doesn’t just sit in his office and circle misspellings. He’s a man of the town, went to the high school across the street from the Globe. He acts as the glad-hander and bridge to the city’s bastions of respectability -- who are hiding vile secrets.

Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, the quintessential dogged reporter who seems to have little in his life beyond his phone and notebook. Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, who has a knack for getting people to talk, especially victims of sexual abuse. John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the skeptical metro editor, and Brian d’Arcy James is Matt Carroll, the “glue guy” who eventually discovers that some of the accused priests have been living down the street from his family.

Stanley Tucci shines as Mitchel Garabedian, a cantankerous attorney suing the Church on behalf of dozens of victims, who is slow to be recruited to help the intrepid reporters. He’s fought many battles and lost. “I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced,” he intones. Also solid are Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup as conflicted lawyers and go-betweens.

The film nails, absolutely nails, the rhythms and culture inside a metro newspaper -- the petty rivalries, the built-in curiosity about everything, the caustic humor, the deep-seated belief that whatever you’re working on is the most important story in the world. All the little background details are there, from the men’s cheap short-sleeved shirts and ties to the hurried junk food, constant scribbling of notes and long nights away from family. (And how the librarians are the unsung heroes of every newsroom.)

It shows how journalists get reluctant people to talk, through appeals to better nature and sheer persistence, since they have no real power other than the threat of telling the truth. “You want to be on the right side of this,” they say, more than once.

The story of mass abuse of children by priests is one of immense importance, but even it is fleeting in comparison to the story of journalism itself. It’s been called the first draft of history, but what reporting most essentially represents is the intrinsic need to ask questions -- to inquire of our communities, our wielders of power, of ourselves.

“Spotlight” is the triumphant depiction of one of mankind’s noblest instincts.