Archive for the ‘drama’ category

The Witch

May 15, 2016

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In The Witch, out this week on DVD, writer/director Robert Eggers drops us into the 17th century and leaves us there. We spend our time with one family, whose patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) has been banished from a New England town for “prideful conceit.” William, whose sharp features and bushy beard recall Chester Brown’s visualization of a dour and angry Christ, brings his wife and four children (with a fifth on the way) to a bleak, arid-looking patch of land, surrounded by looming, frightful trees. This place is kin to the unfriendly, uninhabitable woods found in The Blair Witch Project and Antichrist. Nature itself conspires against William, killing his crops, rotting his corn.

Is there an actual witch in The Witch? For a long time, Eggers operates in darkness and ambiguity. These people fear God and also fear women (the women do, too, having internalized the gynophobia). Fear of witches is essentially fear of female wrath — and fear that one might have done something to incur that wrath, such as fearing a male god. The religious folk in The Witch trap themselves in misery, shame, terror. Everything can be blamed on Satan, but would Satan have been summoned if not for your impurity, your impiety? William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) look agonized and spiritually crushed, especially after their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes her baby brother to the outskirts of the woods and he disappears. Who did it? A witch? Satan, in the form of the family’s black goat, named Black Phillip?

What’s refreshing, and frightening, about The Witch is that Eggers allows no modern consciousness (scarcely any comic relief either) to intrude upon the anguish. We are not encouraged to feel superior to these antiquated people and their beliefs. We’re there with them. At times the movie is unnervingly intense and severe. I give it the highest marks as a cinematic inquiry into faith and fear, but even I have to admit breathing a sigh of relief when it was done with me. The filmmaking itself is harsh, Puritanical — we almost feel guilty for sitting there idle, when we could be milking a goat or doing something useful.

Eggers did years of research into folk tales and witchcraft, and the family’s house was built using the methods of 1630. Big whoop, you may say, but the verisimilitude pays off, and not in the showoffy manner of something like The Revenant. We believe in the people and, more to the point, in the ghastly space they occupy. Eggers was a production designer before turning to directing — The Witch is his feature debut after a couple of shorts based on “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The atmosphere of dread and despair is immaculate. I’d say this is the strongest American debut expressing an utterly and stubbornly personal perspective almost entirely through image, sound and mood since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

That aside, is the movie “scary”? Not in the sense in which moviegoers usually mean “scary” — there’s little blood, no jump shocks. It is, however, disturbing and disquieting and many other words with the prefix “dis,” including “disgusting” at certain points, as when an apple makes an unexpected appearance, or when a witch smears herself with infant blood. Does she really, though? We return to the earlier question, is there a witch here? The literal horrors we see may not be quite so literal. As Anthony Lane suggested in The New Yorker, people who believe so devoutly — and so literally — in a god may be subject to a kind of collective hysteria or hallucination; thus the Salem terrors. Their imagination manifests as clearly-seen demons, phantasms, debaucheries. (In interviews, Eggers has also advised us not to ignore the detail of the rotting corn — i.e., ergot poisoning, to which some modern scholars have attributed the madness in Salem.) The intriguing suspicion also arises that the horrors are real, and that the family’s fear, not its sins, is what summons the blood and sulfur (as per Jaime Hernandez’s masterwork “Flies on the Ceiling”: “It’s not your sins but your guilt that allows me to come to you”). What The Witch does best of all is to whisk us back to a completely alien-to-us sensibility and the world that it interprets. The daylight is gray and chill, like the withheld love of a disappointed god, and the nights are as dark as the absence of their god.

Sold

March 27, 2016

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The India-set melodrama Sold, which inveighs against the cruelty of trafficking young girls for sex slavery, was completed in 2012, when its charismatic star, Niyar Saikia, had just turned thirteen. (It has been knocking around festivals since 2014 and is set for a slow platform release in America starting in April.) I mention the lead actress’ age during filming because in several scenes her character Lakshmi is raped, and even though it’s not shown explicitly — the movie is rated PG-13 and so the sexual violence is suggested rather obliquely, such as being reflected onto the metal of a door padlock — we still sit with the knowledge that Saikia had to simulate these scenes, even one in which she must fake sex with an American rescuer (David Arquette) so as not to raise suspicion. It’s possible that Saikia, like the similarly uncomfortably underage Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, had a body double and that she was well-protected physically and psychologically, but we know what’s supposed to be happening in the scene, and wondering about the on-set circumstances of its simulation just takes us out of the movie.

There were ways to accomplish this more tastefully, or, conversely, to throw away the chance of a PG-13 rating and jump right into the lost-innocence heart of darkness, as in Pixote or Kids. But director/cowriter Jeffrey Brown, adapting a novel by Patricia McCormick, has made his choice: the movie will pluck at liberal heartstrings, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Kite Runner, two other films that turn misery into inspirational tales designed to make us leave the theater, visit the website, and donate to charities such as executive producer Emma Thompson’s foundation to help survivors of sex trafficking. A side effect is that it inflames American indignation about the terrible things done to women and girls in countries like India — you know, those swarthy, godless people with no respect for human life — when in fact, according to one figure, there are at least 100,000 child victims of sex trafficking in the United States. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get angry about atrocities that happen elsewhere. I’m saying you shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t also happen here.

How is Sold as a movie? Mostly dreary, because once Lakshmi is separated from her parents in Nepal and delivered to a brothel in India, we’re pretty much confined to her quarters — a locked cell and then a tiny excuse for a bedroom — along with her. On occasion we go outside, accompanying a little boy Lakshmi befriends as he plays with a ball or a kite. But this is very much the slummy, ugly side of India — filmed largely in a red-light district, I understand — in contrast to the idyllic though poor mountain climate of Nepal. I would’ve welcomed a few side trips back to Lakshmi’s home, because that great and powerful actress Seema Biswas, from the ferocious Bandit Queen, is wasted in a nothing role as Lakshmi’s mother.

One aspect of Sold does make me happy: the Americans who try to intervene, including Gillian Anderson in a glorified cameo as a photographer, don’t save Lakshmi — she saves herself. The Americans do find out where she’s being kept, they get the local police to stage a raid on the brothel, and Arquette’s character slips her a business card with the location of a shelter, but ultimately Lakshmi’s fate is in her own hands. This is good (as is the planted detail of chili powder, which is used to torture the girls, and which Lakshmi uses as a means of defense). What isn’t good is how simplistically Dickensian movies like this and Slumdog are.

The slimy men who frequent the brothel almost all have facial hair, the better to twirl their mustaches, and the women who capture and enslave the girls aren’t much better. Sushmita Mukherjee is all set to give a large-scale performance as the brothel’s matron, but the script consistently lets her down, robs her character of any complexity. Hector Babenco, who made an indelible icon of annihilated femaleness out of a cruel prostitute in his Pixote, would have known how to help Mukherjee get to where she was headed. And what’s the deal with everyone — including the people in that impoverished Nepal village — speaking English? How convenient for the American would-be rescuers and their counterparts in the audience.

Anomalisa

February 21, 2016

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As if to show that the Oscars can still gesture towards meritocracy, the emotionally wild and tangled stop-motion effort Anomalisa is actually, amazingly, one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning — not against a Pixar film — but I’ll be rooting for it just the same. Anomalisa is the first film in seven years by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), who shares his directorial credit with stop-motion artist Duke Johnson (the Christmas episode of Community, among other things). Kaufman’s screenplay began life as a “sound play”; that it has become something often ravishingly visual, wrought in perhaps the most tactile of animated media, is one of the film’s many ironies.

The movie follows the slumping figure of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis and sculpted to look a bit like Edward Woodward), a motivational author specializing in advice for customer service reps. Michael checks into a fancy Cincinnati hotel before a scheduled lecture, and as he interacts with various people we can perceive his problem: Everyone other than Michael, male and female, young and old, is voiced by Tom Noonan, who doesn’t do much to differentiate each person vocally. That isn’t Noonan’s fault, it’s a major theme in the movie: To Michael, everyone has begun to sound the same, as though the entire world spoke with the same vaguely creepy voice. (There’s a paranoid delusion that everyone you meet is the same person, and the film’s hotel, La Fregoli, is named after it.)

Michael wades numbly in a sea of Noonans until he meets Lisa, voiced shyly and affectingly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa can’t stop putting herself down, and she has rather banal things to say, but Michael can’t get enough of her voice; it’s been so long since he’s heard anything but Tom Noonan. (No offense meant to Noonan, who does have a nice way with speech — and who has directed some underseen films that could have inspired Kaufman himself — but listening to him all the time might be like being stuck inside the “Malkovich Malkovich” scene in Being John Malkovich.) Since Lisa doesn’t sound like anyone else, she is an anomaly — hence, Anomalisa. Michael invites Lisa back to his room, they talk, she sings, he weeps, they make love. If you think Kaufman will leave well enough alone, though, you don’t know Kaufman.

Why is it Lisa, and not, say, her friend Emily, or Michael’s ex Bella, or a sullen waitress, who speaks with the voice that unlocks Michael’s soul? We’re not meant to know. She distinguishes herself by her lack of sameness — aside from her voice, she has a slight disfigurement near her right eye, hidden by a sheet of streaked hair — but though she sounds appealing, an aural oasis for Michael and for us, she doesn’t really stand apart in terms of personality or intellect. This is, if anything, an even more damning detail and nail in Michael’s coffin. Is it possible to objectify a woman by her voice the way one would with her physical attributes? If so, Michael manages it.

Anomalisa fits perfectly with Kaufman’s other oddball, theatre-of-the-absurd efforts that devote a large number of moving parts to tell small stories that are really the biggest stories. In Kaufman’s only other directorial outing, the astounding Synecdoche, New York, he focused on art as life and vice versa. Here he meditates on love and how rare it is to find the real deal, and how common it is for the lonely person to lunge at anything that seems like love. Michael sits across from Lisa at breakfast and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that it isn’t her, it isn’t any of the people who cause him pain; it’s him. This is all done — beautifully — in stop-motion because Michael is manipulated by forces beyond his control. Anomalisa is a great film. Charlie Kaufman isn’t getting any younger, though, and we’ve spent seven years without any movies from him. Here’s hoping the next one gets financed more easily.

The Danish Girl

February 14, 2016

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Once upon a time, perhaps back in 2000 when David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl hit stores, a movie based on that book about a trailblazing transwoman might have felt fresher. Now, though, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have been in the news, and we’ve seen more challenging and advanced narratives about transfolks. Besides that, we’ve seen actual trans performers play trans characters, both well-known (Cox on Orange Is the New Black) and not (Michelle Hendley in the underseen Boy Meets Girl), so a well-meaning Oscar-bait biopic with a cisgendered male (Eddie Redmayne) as trans legend Lili Elbe smells a little fishy. Shouldn’t an actor be free to play any reality?, some may ask. Let’s reframe the question: shouldn’t an actor of an often persecuted part of humanity be able to tell the stories of his or her own experience?

The Danish Girl recounts the early struggle of Lili (née Einar Wegener) to deal with her male-to-female transition while fighting the blinkered intolerance of her milieu (1926 Copenhagen) and trying not to hurt her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who supports Lili up to an understandable point, past which Gerda genuinely can’t go with her. Vikander actually owns the movie — she effortlessly conveys the pain of a woman too enlightened to be horrified by her once-husband’s transformation, but too human not to mourn the passing of the man she fell in love with. It’s the clearest inner conflict in the movie, but it’s been done before. So has Lili’s arc, despite the Right Stuff gendernaut angle of Lili’s (allegedly) being the first to have The Surgery.

Redmayne’s frail, hairless frame does much of his work for him; how odd that he should have headlined two elite biopics in a row, the Stephen Hawking movie being the first, both detailing body’s misalignment with mind. (He’s about ready to go make a film for David Cronenberg, whose work is built upon the Cartesian mind-body split.) But he never made me feel Lili’s vertiginous fright and relief at finally presenting as her own gender. That’s because he doesn’t have the material. The movie is too genteel and antiseptic, and eventually it resolves into a dull fable of Being True to Oneself. Someday a transgender writer/director will tell her/his community’s stories on film, and it will be felt from the inside, not observed from the outside, however compassionately. We will learn more from such a film than we could from movies like The Danish Girl made by people who haven’t actually endured Lili’s pain — who don’t have skin in the game.

In my Les Miserables review I hypothesized that the film’s director, Tom Hooper, might be the worst director ever to own an Oscar for directing. After seeing what he’s done with The Danish Girl, I’m no longer sure the qualification is necessary. You can certainly tell a Tom Hooper film at ten paces. That’s the film that’ll be composed with artsy whimsy, generally with people seated way off to the side of the frame and near the bottom, or scrutinized in punishing close-up, and the shots don’t cut together with any kind of grace because of the fancy compositions (sometimes the shots don’t match each other or the camera blatantly crosses the axis), and scenes just kind of start, go on a bit, and end. That’s the Oscar-winning Tom Hooper touch. If you care at all about movies as constructions of time and rhythm as well as image and sound, the aesthetically ugly cinema of Tom Hooper may cause physical revulsion.

Pompous yet banal, Hooper’s style fits this prestigious bore of a movie. For whom has it been made? Trans audiences will yawn — Lili’s story as presented here isn’t good fodder for inspiration. Transphobic bigots won’t see it in the first place, so they wouldn’t be swayed even if the movie were persuasive. So it’s for nice cisgendered viewers (i.e., those whose gender identities align with their bodies) who enjoy watching other people’s pain if it’s done tastefully enough. No blood is shown during Lili’s two dangerous surgeries, so it won’t spoil your dinner; neither will the scene in which two louts descend on Lili in boy mode, leading to the most ineptly-staged beating I’ve seen in years. Being cisgendered doesn’t disqualify you from making a movie about transgender subjects, but maybe being incompetent should.

Carol

February 7, 2016

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Todd Haynes has spent the majority of his career directing films that call back to the golden age of actresses — his muses have included Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and a Barbie version of Karen Carpenter. Haynes provides primo roles for women at a time when few other filmmakers do. But does he really care all that much about the women he puts onscreen? I value Haynes as an artist, but his art isn’t revelatory or emotional; it signifies feelings rather than sharing them.

The multiple-Oscar-nominated Carol is yet another Haynes meditation on homosexuality in an era (the ’50s) that didn’t tolerate it. (He treated the topic literally in Far from Heaven, metaphorically in several other movies.) Carol (Blanchett) is a well-to-do woman in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Their differences are extremely irreconcilable: despite having a daughter with him, she’s just not that into him, or into his entire gender, for that matter. Carol has previously detained herself with “best friend” Abby (Sarah Paulson), and of late her gaze has fallen upon young Therese (Rooney Mara), toy-store shopgirl and aspiring photographer.

Therese’s artistic proclivities (including tickling the ivories with a bit of Billie Holiday) and dark, severe bangs may remind viewers of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose novel The Price of Salt served as the script’s basis, and who admitted that Therese was more or less her avatar. Too bad, then, that Therese’s portrayer isn’t up to the level on which Highsmith operated. Rooney Mara, I fear, is her generation’s Jennifer Connolly, a gothy but inexpressive actress deeply overrated by critics perhaps enamored of her bone structure. Therese is supposed to be a nervous neophyte, but casting this mild, emotionally null presence opposite Blanchett, who emotes ripely in the manner of classic Hollywood divas, is almost cruel. (Blanchett’s peak moment of golden-age noir efflorescence comes when she gets to point a gun and snarl “Where’s the tape, you son of a bitch?”)

Haynes hit his own peak of erotica in his feature debut, Poison, during its Genet-inspired prison sequence, and it’s been down a cold hill ever since. When Carol finally takes Therese to bed, we get oblique fragments of their lovemaking, and it’s as dry and po-faced as anything else in their relationship. Their love involves, as far as I can determine, being somber in close proximity; there are no shared jokes, no mutual interests. Therese is a proto-bohemian without the sullen attitude of one, and Blanchett nicely conveys Carol’s tickled attraction to her, but Mara doesn’t have the tools to do likewise. Therese’s big emotional moments amount to her staring off and sobbing while Mara is obviously thinking of something really sad. (By contrast, consider Kyle Chandler’s empathetic turn as a husband who could come off as a monster, but instead presents as a pained man sunk in incomprehension and insecurity.)

Yet maybe that makes Mara the ideal new muse for Todd Haynes: she signifies rather than feels, and so does he. Carol looks terrific, as all Haynes films do; working in Super 16mm, cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a master class in the seethe and texture of grain. (In a late moment when Therese and a co-worker are painting her apartment walls blue, the surface looks like the screen of a staticky TV.) But the score, by the usually superb Carter Burwell, sounds like unused music for a Godfrey Reggio travelogue — the tone is a bit too tastefully lachrymose. I’m all for Haynes making throwback dramas that great actresses like Blanchett or Julianne Moore can tear into, but I’d like to think the deluxe emoting they do is in service to anything besides Haynes’ deadpan appropriation of ancient styles and tropes. Tarantino, for instance, works this way but giggles in appreciation; Haynes rubs his chin and says “Interesting.”

Room

January 31, 2016

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If you’ve got a hankering for Oscar-bait misery porn but your stomach rebels against the grue in The Revenant, you might want to know about Room. Those who haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s source novel (she’s also credited with the screenplay) may sit through the first few minutes in a state of alarm as the premise is set up: A young woman, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), resides in a one-room shed along with her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay); she has been held captive there for seven years, he since birth. So the viewer might exclaim, “Holy crap, are we going to be trapped in this room with Joy and Jack for the entire movie?” No; thankfully, we escape (along with them) slightly less than halfway through. In a further mercy, the film is chaste about showing us the nature of Joy’s relationship to her shaggy captor, known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She is his sex slave, and he is Jack’s bio-dad, but we don’t have to look at the rapes or even hear much of it.

Is that a badge of honor, though? Room dabbles in tough stuff, but holds a lot of its details at a remove. It’s not really about the literal imprisonment anyway; it’s more about the mental incarceration Joy and Jack suffer once they have escaped Room. (Joy has built a whole world out of the tiny, shabby surroundings, and the shed is called Room, because to Jack it is Room, the only one.) The second half of the film, wherein mother and son try to adjust to life outside Room, verges on being interesting. But — perverse as it may seem to say so — it suffers in comparison to Tina Fey’s Netflix comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which finds dark humor as well as genuine, hard-won insight in the similar premise of a recently freed captive woman. Room is too busy milking its situation for tears and tension to lower itself to anything so crass as levity. It’s serious, so very serious.

Larson is considered the favorite to take home Best Actress later this month, and I can’t begrudge her that. She takes a juicy part and squeezes it till it’s dry; the real protagonist, though, is Jack (the book was told through his eyes), and Tremblay makes him credibly damaged until the script calls for him to be a tribute to human resilience. There’s an unavoidable strain of snobbishness in the set-up: Old Nick is jobless and has trouble buying supplies for his prisoners, but once Joy and Jack get away from him and into the warm house of her well-to-do mom (Joan Allen) and her boyfriend, the moneyed milieu assures us that all will be well. Joy just needs a little more time to adjust, that’s all. But she’s also understandably lost a large chunk of her humanity during her seven-year captivity, something the movie doesn’t really have the resources to explore. All she needs, it turns out, is some of Jack’s hair.

The film sort of handwaves the fate of Old Nick; we don’t even see him arrested, though we assume he has been. This reticence to show revenge against aggressors (a trait it shares with The Revenant and Spotlight this Oscar season) establishes Room, I guess, as a drama that aspires to be deeper than the usual weepie. Meanwhile, we’re left with such questions as why Jack doesn’t react more strongly to a doctor who, like Old Nick, has a bushy dark beard, or why Jack goes in the yard to play with a boy we’ve never met, or what kind of nightmarishly overprotective parenting Jack can expect from Joy from now on. In Kimmy Schmidt, the bubbliness of Ellie Kemper’s brilliant performance always has a bleak, scary undertone that tells us her experience has made her different from everyone else. Kimmy’s chipper demeanor seems millimeters away from hysteria, and that’s the tension of the comedy. Joy and Jack, realistically, would not ever be okay again. Jack’s bidding farewell to the only world he knew for most of his short life should move us more, dig into our soft spots harder. Room isn’t a flatulent botch like Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, but they coexist in the small subgenre of stories about a child’s suffering that probably should have stayed on the page.

Spotlight

January 24, 2016

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Various representatives of the Catholic Church have given a thumbs-up to Spotlight, a docudrama about Boston Globe reporters breaking the story of the Church’s cover-up of scores of abuses by Boston priests. Well, how else is the Church going to react to it? Condemning the film would be fantastic free publicity; praising it is brilliant tactical aikido against possible new detractors of the Church. Anyway, I happen to agree with the fine film critics at the Vatican and the Boston Archdiocese. Spotlight is an undemonstrative journalistic almost-thriller with an even but urgent heartbeat, driven as much by reporters’ need for their paper to be first to crack the story as by actual concern for truth, justice, and the American way. We are, for example, asked to be horrified at the idea of the Herald getting its sulfurous, tabloidy claws into this once-in-a-generation scoop.

The movie takes its name from the Globe’s elite investigative team, instituted in 1970, known for its devotion to going deep on afflicting-the-powerful stories and taking its sweet time getting there. Here, they don’t have much sweet time. The new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), makes a pitch to Spotlight commander Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton): why not look into this business about Father John Geoghan abusing children and Cardinal Law dealing with it by reassigning Geoghan and keeping silent? The team — rounded out by passionate Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), compassionate Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and dogged Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) — swings into action, soon finding that the story extends far more broadly than only one priest playing Musical Parishes.

A welcoming round of applause for the return of director/cowriter Tom McCarthy, who emerges unbloodied from his prior experience on the Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler. This is indeed the kind of “small” (well, $20 million is small these days) mid-budget drama for adults that seems so endangered now; technically, it’s an indie production, distributed by Open Road, owned by theatrical giants AMC and Regal. McCarthy, who has roots in indie comedy-drama, gives us a film that looks like television without really feeling like it; the conflicts feel major even as McCarthy and writing partner Josh Singer mostly avoid melodrama. The few encounters with victims, now grown, of pedophile priests are handled with tact but with a steady eye for relevant detail; one man shows us, almost too quickly to catch, needle tracks on his arm. The men look haunted, mutilated in their souls; they stare inward into hell.

It was a hell that few knew or cared to know about. The Spotlight team has an unwilling ally in abrupt, irascible lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has zero patience for adults but, we discover in a late scene, all the affectionate patience in the world for his young clients who have suffered abuse. Muddying the moral waters a bit is a meeting with a molesting priest who cheerfully admits to his crimes, because he doesn’t consider what he did to be rape; rape is what happened to him. The movie doesn’t clarify whether he, too, was a boyhood victim of a priest, and whether some victims of abuse become tireless advocates for justice while others, their souls incinerated, continue the cycle of abuse themselves. A psychologist and ex-priest, played as a phone-voice of authority by an unbilled Richard Jenkins, suggests that the problem with the Church stems from psychosexual deformity caused by celibacy — or does the priesthood, and other positions of trust like school coaches, attract the psychosexually deformed? Spotlight gets us thinking about that, but ultimately leaves the answer to other movies (I recommend, for starters, the two-part powerhouse The Boys of St. Vincent). Decently, it focuses on the victims, and why there continued to be victims for so long.


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