Film review: Spotlight | Youth | Dirty Grandpa

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Spotlight’s gripping celebration of investigative journalism at the Boston Globe reveals and revels in the slog of getting a story to press

Spotlight (15) | Rating: ***** | Directed by Tom McCarthy | Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci

Hollywood loves journalism as subject matter, but more often than not, filmmakers love the heroic idea of the profession more than the nose-to-the-grindstone work required to break big stories properly. Great films like All the President’s Men, The Insider and Zodiac, however, have a healthy respect for process, and to those examples can now be added Spotlight, which dramatises with engrossing exactitude the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church cover-up of paedophile priests in the Boston area.

A strong contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, the film zeroes in on the Globe’s titular investigative unit as they delve into the case of Father John Geoghan, a serial abuser of children who has been moved from parish to parish and is suspected of molesting up to 130 kids over the course of 30 years. Headed up by section editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team consists of three other reporters – Mike Rezendez (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) – whose tenacity and individual styles make them ideally suited for burrowing away for months at a time, chasing down every lead and witness. All are lapsed Catholics, though Robinson’s connections to the establishment run a little deeper, as he is friends with one of the lawyers involved in defending the church during some of the private mediations the team soon discover have been taking place between the accused and their victims.

In the first instance, the film really addresses the culture of silence that exists in Boston. A closed-off city not particularly welcoming to outsiders (the Ohio-born Pfeiffer makes a point of telling a source her grandmother still lives in “Southie” in order to gain his trust), it’s a place very much defined by the close integration of church and state. Nobody, it seems, wants to look too hard at a systemic problem that goes far beyond the “few bad apples” theory routinely trotted out whenever stories do emerge about priests interfering with children. Payoffs are low and because the victims are often from working class families with few resources, the church has historically found it easy to sweep scandal under the rug.

Part of the film’s power, though, is that it doesn’t allow its protagonists to revel in righteous indignation. As they start to dig a little deeper, accusations flung at a lawyer (played by Billy Crudup) for compromising the victims’ chances of justice are flung back at the Globe for not following up on stories written years earlier. Everybody is complicit to some degree and the film is good at stripping sensationalism and melodrama from the story to give a clear-eyed account of how it was pulled together and the implications it had for everyone involved.

Co-writer and director Tom McCarthy – who played the sloppily unethical journalist in the final season of The Wire – has a real respect for the value of this kind of work and the film is in part a story about journalism entering the digital age and the possible ramifications of that. It begins, for instance, with the appointment of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber). There’s a pervasive fear among staff that expensive, time-consuming investigative reporting is going to fall victim to budget cuts. Instead Baron – a transplant from Florida whose Jewish heritage immediately sets him apart – assigns the normally independently run Spotlight team the Catholic Church sex abuse story and, in the process of localising the paper’s focus, ends up breaking a homegrown story with global reach.

But McCarthy also manages to make Spotlight a gripping and exciting thriller – no mean feat considering the action mostly revolves around an elaborate paper chase in locales as exotic as newspaper archives, libraries and legal offices teaming with stacks of documents. We may know the outcome, but the shape of the story is unpredictable, its procedural tropes complicated by even bigger stories (9/11 happens in the midst of their investigation) and bizarre details, like Pfeiffer door-stopping a priest who cheerfully admits to molesting children, or Carroll discovering that a reconditioning centre for abusive priests is located a few doors from his own home (he promptly tapes a message to fridge warning his kids not to go near it – a nice touch that also elegantly symbolises the demands of his own job: he’s not around enough to keep a protective eye on his own family).

The film is also beautifully acted. Save for a brief detail here or there, barely any information is divulged about the characters’ personal lives, and yet Ruffalo, McAdams and Keaton – and the cast as a whole – give us a real sense of who these people are simply by looking at them through the prism of their professions. Doing the job well is all that matters here. False heroics aren’t required.

Dirty Grandpa (15) | Rating: * | Director: Dan Mazer | Starring: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Aubrey Plaza

Every time Robert De Niro seems to hit rock bottom, the once-great acting legend finds new ways to tarnish his legacy a little more. That’s certainly the case with Dirty Grandpa. Cast as a vile, horny, newly-bereaved widower, he’s like the acting equivalent of fracking, his performance so toxically unpleasant that exposure to it feels culturally carcinogenic.

Kicking off by tricking his about-to-be-married grandson (Zac Efron) into taking him on a hedonistic road trip so he can liberate his long-suppressed libido, his character – groaningly named Dick – openly masturbates to porn, peppers conversations with repeated anal sex references, is unashamedly racist and homophobic, and spends large chunks of the running time doggedly pursuing Aubrey Plaza’s over-sexed college graduate with retch-inducing leeriness. It’s as repugnant as it sounds and De Niro’s willingness to debase himself with such gusto – at one point he shakes his penis in another character’s face – is made worse by the incompetence with which the film has been put together. British director Dan Mazer – a former collaborator of Sacha Baron Cohen – seems to believe raunch comedies can get by on gross-out scenes with no punchlines and characters with no consistency. Dick, for instance, switches from being a pervy pensioner with old-man attitudes towards gender, sexuality and race, to being a staunch defender of human rights, ready to deliver empty Follow Your Dreams platitudes to people with whom he’s been openly hostile. It makes little sense and often seems as if entire chunks of the film have been lopped off in the editing room.

Not that you’d want this to be any longer: at a shade over 100 minutes it already feels punishing and adding to the misery is the rest of the cast’s willingness to defile themselves for the sake of working with De Niro. Efron, in particular, is on career-killing form as Dick’s grandson, Jason, a corporate lawyer who has given up his dream of being a photographer. After running into a pretty former classmate, he finds his interest reawakened, but in an effort to get him to loosen up, his grandfather, for some reason, spikes his drink with a date-rape drug, which results in Jason embarking on a crack-smoking, memory-blanking bender that culminates in him waking up naked on a beach with a penis Swastika drawn on his face and a cuddly toy strapped to his nether regions. The latter is the catalyst for what is clearly supposed to be the film’s gross-out money shot: a visual gag in which it looks as if a naked Zac Efron is being fellated by a child. That’s the level they’re operating on. There’s nothing transgressive or edgy about it. It’s just horrible.

Youth (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by Paolo Sorrentino | Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda, Paul Dano

Paolo Sorrentino’s last English-language movie, This Must Be the Place, featured Sean Penn as a Goth rock star turned Nazi hunter. He’s no stranger, then, to whimsical stories about confronting the past. Following his Oscar for Italian masterwork The Great Beauty, his new film certainly finds him back in that offbeat mode with a story of ageing and friendship and lost youth, all set in the beautiful and sometimes surreal environs of a luxury Swiss sanatorium.

There we find Michael Caine as retired British composer Fred Ballinger, who is doing his best to avoid being a public figure by fending off requests from Buckingham Palace to conduct one of his early masterworks for the Queen. He’s joined there by his best friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), an ageing movie director trying to finalise the script of what he hopes will be his magnum opus. Surrounding them are more oddballs, among them Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter and PA. She’s married to Mick’s son, but has recently been dumped for the pop star Paloma Faith, who pops up as herself and good naturedly submits to being denounced by Keitel as the “most insignificant woman on the face of the planet”.

Paul Dano also appears as a self-absorbed actor preparing to play a controversial historical figure; he scores the most unsettling laugh of the film when he dresses in full regalia to have breakfast among the patrons.

It’s all pretty enjoyable stuff: Caine and Keitel are great together and Sorrentino delivers some typically gasp-inducing visual flourishes. But it’s also unmistakably indulgent and, save for a few scenes, doesn’t quite deliver the insightful meditation on ageing it promises.

READ MORE: Harvey Keitel talks about Youth to Scotland on Sunday

Capture the Flag (PG) | Rating: ** | Directed by Enrique Gato | Voices Dani Rovira, Michelle Jenner, Carme Calvell, Camilo García

It’s depressing enough when Hollywood studios make dumbed down animated movies for children, but when European studios try to replicate them with a fraction of the resources the results are somehow worse. This Spanish production – the movie is in English – has a very Americanised story, but the team behind it hasn’t absorbed the core lessons of Pixar and Disney when it comes to making high concept stories emotionally believable.

This one revolves around a young boy called Mike who travels to the moon, which is not a completely terrible idea. The execution, however, is too brash and nonsensical to be in any way charming. The plot’s driving force is a billionaire megalomaniac who announces his own privately funded mission to the moon. He wants to claim it for himself for nefarious purposes and has already convinced the world via social media that Nasa faked the 1969 moon landing. Yes, that hoary old chestnut really is the best the makers of Capture the Flag can come-up with (in a nod to the one of the silliest conspiracy theories out there, the director of the faked footage bears an uncanny resemblance to Stanley Kubrick). To combat him, the US President decides to relaunch the Apollo space programme and brings some of the original astronauts – Mike’s curmudgeonly and estranged grandpa among them – out of retirement to help.

Really, then, this is a story of family reconciliation, but as Mike and his Grandpa (along with Mike’s friend Amy) are accidentally launched into space, what follows is so mind-numbingly stupid that any investment in the characters is next to impossible.