Spotlight – A Review

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If you have listened to any stand-up comics in the last few years, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard some sort of joke about priests and pedophilia. It’s become an easy terrain to mine for laughs; even Catholic comics have no problems telling jokes about this subject. Making jokes about something horrific is nothing new; for a lot of people it’s a way to cope with some truly terrible things in the world. You laugh so you don’t cry.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the sex abuse allegations against members of the clergy wasn’t a punchline, but something that was whispered about behind closed doors. It wasn’t discussed openly and many of the victims suffered in silence. There was perhaps an informal network that warned kids about certain priests and their proclivities, but mostly it was an issue that was ignored and there was no substantial effort to hold anyone accountable. Most people probably assumed that there were a few isolated incidents, but had no idea of the actual scope of the abuse. It was too much of a shake to their faith to consider otherwise – that this was a widespread problem that not only did the church know about, but were actively covering up.

That all changed in 2001, when a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe Set out to shine a light on the dirty little secret of not only Boston, but of cities across the nation. Spotlight is the compelling story of their methodical quest for the truth and is easily one of the best movies of 2015. Since the viewers already know the outcome of their investigation, Spotlight is really something of a detective story where we witness how the Globe team was finally able to put all the pieces together to make a case so compelling that people could no longer ignore the facts. The ultimate outcome of Spotlight may not be a surprise, but the painstaking process of investigating the story in and of itself is fodder for a fascinating (and slightly heartbreaking) movie.

It doesn’t hurt matters that Spotlight is gifted with a murderer’s row of actors; when you have Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup at your disposal, you have to try pretty hard to create a lackluster movie. The performances across the board are truly outstanding; this may be the best work of Rachel McAdams career and Michael Keaton continues to prove that his performance in last year’s Birdman was not a fluke. Ruffalo and Schrieber are also mesmerizing in their quietly understated performances.

Restraint is really the key word for this movie; Spotlight resists the urge to create false drama and the plotting is deliberate. Thought the subject matter that they are covering is sensational, the film is more about the process of uncovering the story than the story itself. That is not to say that the victims are irrelevant in this film – there are some heartbreaking scenes where the Spotlight team hears the stories of those who have been abused – but the main narrative of Spotlight is reporters doing their jobs and the difference that can make. Unlike another great film about the newspaper business (All The President’s Men), there are no key informant meetings ins shadowy parking garages. There are no menacing characters waiting for the investigators to convince them that it is in their best interest to walk away. Instead, there are a team of dedicated reporters who do a lot of old fashioned shoe leather investigating to slowly peel back all the layers of this story. I don’t know how they made the creation of spreadsheets so damn fascinating, but you can’t turn away from Spotlight.

It’s also worth noting that the film also goes out of its way to not make these journalists heroes. Unlike a lot of issue movies, they are not depicted as the lone wolves that ride in and save the day or people that struggle with their personal demons as they investigate. They are just people that are good at their jobs and though while they are created as fully realized three-dimensional characters, their personal lives are rarely mentioned. Ruffalo’s character is going through trouble in his marriage, but that is more of an aside than a pivotal plot point. In fact, Spotlight makes sure to take the time to ask why the Globe didn’t tell this story sooner. The answer is not the result of subterfuge or conspiracy, but the very believable consequence of human error. The writers of Spotlight recognized that this is not a plot that needs any additional juicing or ramping up of the drama. Because of that, I think the film rings all the more true and is all the more fascinating to watch.

Some other thoughts:

  • Like just about every movie that is set in Boston, there is the obligatory scene at Fenway Park. That’s probably the only flaw of this film 😉
  • Perhaps the most sobering part of the whole film is the end, where they list all the cities where there have been sex abuse scandals involving the Church; because they are listed alphabetically, my hometown of Albany, NY has the dishonor of being first.
  • There is nothing worse in a film than a terrible Boston accent, so I give them credit for sidestepping that landmine altogether.
  • I think the film does a very nice job of setting the scene in Boston – not just the physical depiction of the city and its landmarks, but the mood of the city as well and how this case was a real crisis of faith for a lot of residents. The Catholic Church is important in a lot of cities, but perhaps none as much as Boston.
  • Newspapers are a dying business, but Spotlight is an excellent reminder of the power that they can have. In this 24 hour news world where having the story first is often more important than getting the story right, this film makes a compelling case for the need of deliberate and thorough investigative journalism. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen at newspapers – the popularity and influence of the podcast Serial has proven that – but they are the outlet that has the strongest tradition of this kind of research.

Spotlight is about an upsetting subject and is a reminder of what happens when institutions become too powerful and beyond reproach, but it ultimately isn’t as an emotionally punishing movie as you might anticipate. A film about the systematic cover-up of the rape of small children may not seem like the most relaxing way to spend a night at the theater – especially around the holidays – but the story is told in such a no-nonsense and straightforward manner that despite its subject matter you are left with the hope that truth will eventually be found if people are willing to put the work in to find it. My heart hurt for all the victims across the globe, but Spotlight is also a reminder that even the most sacred and powerful of institutions can be held accountable for their actions. The stellar cast and trust in telling this important story in an unembellished or unnecessarily dramatized way results in an extremely powerful movie. As soon as I walked out of the theater after seeing Spotlight, I was compelled to call my family and tell them that they had to see it to. Spotlight will deservedly be in the Oscar conversation this year.

Comics Come Home – TD Garden (Boston, MA), 11/8/14

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Using stand-up comedy to raise money for charity has a long and proud tradition. While the Comic Relief events are perhaps the most famous on the national level, comedians make a habit of donating their time to fundraisers of all sizes all across the country. While stand-ups are often generalized to be damaged and unhappy people, it seems to me that they have the biggest hearts and freely give of their talents to help others. As a fan of comedy, it’s always nice when I can laugh for a good cause. Somehow, Comics Come Home had flown under my radar up until this year; I may have vaguely heard about it over the years after it happened, but now that I have started going to more events in Boston regularly, I am more keyed into what’s going on in Beantown. And once I heard Jimmy Fallon was involved, it was a no-brainer that I’d have to check the event out; I think I am contractually obligated to attend anything that Fallon is a part of.

Comics Come Home, celebrating its twentieth year, is a fundraiser for the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care that is organized by actor/comic Denis Leary. Neely is a retired hockey player who played for the Boston Bruins and now serves as the team’s President; he has also apparently appeared in Dumb and Dumber according to my guy friends, who are horrified that I have never seen that movie. Many, but not all, of the comedians that participate in Comics Come Home have a connection to the Boston area; they either grew up there or started their careers there. Some of the comics on the bill have a personal connection to the foundation; others just think it is a worthy cause. Over the years, many great comedians have donated their time to the fundraiser and this year was no different – in addition to Leary and Fallon, the 2014 lineup included Bill Burr, Marc Maron, Jim Gaffigan, Lenny Clarke and others. While I’ve seen many of the gentlemen perform before, I was particularly excited to finally get the chance to see Gaffigan, who I’ve been looking forward to seeing but always seem to miss when he’s out on tour. As cancer has recently affected me in a personal way, I was more than happy to help this worthwhile cause while selfishly getting a great night of comedy out of it. I was a little skeptical of the location of the event, as I generally think that comedy is better in a more intimate setting, but if hosting it in the TD Garden meant more money was raised, it would be worth it.

The night kicked off with numerous video messages from comics that were not able to participate this year but that wanted to send their well-wishes. Conan O’Brien wondered why, as a guy that grew up in Boston, they only asked him to send a video every year instead of inviting him to perform. Larry David, in typical Larry David fashion, commended the altruism of the participants and said that he probably wouldn’t participate next year either because “nice thoughts occur to be but I generally don’t act on them.” Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and David Letterman all sent video messages as well.

Denis Leary served as the master of ceremonies and host for the event and he got the live show going with a Boston-centric parody of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I can’t say that I got all the references, but the crowd loved it; my “outside” status as a New Yorker would be reinforced a few times during the evening. Leary then warmed the crowd up with some rants about how at his age he just doesn’t care anymore (that’s a cleaned up version) and how he hates anyone under 30. Leary would pop in and out for the duration of the show to do a little stand-up and then introduce the next comic.

 

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Denis Leary

Comedians Tony V and Joe Yannetty got things going and while they may have been among the lesser well known comics on the bill, they both brought their A game to their sets. Yannetty’s set was perhaps the most appropriate to the theme of the night as he had just received a clean bill of health after his battle with cancer. You wouldn’t think cancer in and of itself is funny, but Yannetty was able to mine his experiences for comedy gold. On being dismayed at the number of people who shared sad stories with him of people who had cancer after his diagnosis, he joked that he only wanted to hear triumphant stories from here on out. “Tell me about a woman who had ovarian cancer that is now f*cking her way across Europe!” That punchline got a huge laugh and particularly tickled Leary, who kept coming back to it the rest of the night. Both Tony V and Joe Yannetty were solid and the night was already off to a strong start.

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Marc Maron

Marc Maron then came out to do a set about his anger issues, kale and the Ebola scare. I always enjoy Maron – I watch his IFC show and listen to his podcast – and appreciate his point of view. I thought his bit about the Ebola scare being a boon time for self-involved people was particularly funny, as well as his observation that kale seemingly came out of nowhere to suddenly be the most important food ever. Maron isn’t necessarily a guy where there are big punchlines or belly laughs in his delivery – he’s more a conversational story-teller than a joke machine – but he was consistently funny throughout his set.

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Lenny Bruce

 

 

He was followed by Lenny Clarke, who is probably best known from his role on Leary’s FX show Rescue Me. A sizeable portion of his set was about the Hilltop Steakhouse, a former Boston institution. Despite the fact that I had no reference point for his jokes, he was still very funny – while his early observations were about the Hilltop specifically, his later jokes were more relatable to even a Yankee like me. And his Boston-specific humor went over very big with the audience.

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Jimmy Fallon

Next, it was finally time for my pal and yours, Jimmy Fallon, to finally take the stage. I was curious what exactly he was going to do; Jimmy may do monologues on his show, but even before he was on Saturday Night Live I don’t know that he was really known for his stand-up. So I wasn’t sure how he was going to entertain the masses. Leary made a point of introducing Fallon as a Yankee and Knicks fan, which earned jeers from the audience – though I bravely cheered – and Fallon rebutted by kicking off his set by pointing out that Leary hadn’t lived in Boston for nearly 25 years and that while Fallon starred in a film about the Red Sox, Leary started in a TV show set in New York City. Fallon then did a bit that he does on the Tonight Show where he awards superlatives to athletes, with the focus on Boston area players. Leary came out to do equal time with New York area athletes; my favorite was the one about Derek Jeter:

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It’s funny because it’s true.

 

Fallon and Leary then did a rendition of “Dirty Water” and Fallon came out into the audience to do his best James Brown impression. His set was capped with an audience sing-a-long of “Sweet Caroline,” which was especially delightful to me since that was my sorority song in college. So the song has special significance to me and the chance to sing it with Fallon and one of my sorority sisters was icing on the cake. The crowd loved Fallon and he gave the event a nice jolt of energy.

Bobby Kelly followed that spectacle and joked that he was in a tough position of being “the fat, bald, nobody comic.” Kelly looked very familiar to me but I couldn’t place where I knew him from; after the fact I realized that he’s appeared on Louie numerous times. When he came out, I turned to my friend Laura and said “hey – it’s THAT guy!” Well, “That guy” wound up stealing the whole entire show from his better known counterparts. Kelly had the audience laughing so hard that I could hear the people around me gasping for a breath. He came out of the gates fast and furious with some hilarious observations about how men in the past could open jars and men of today have “Facebook fingers” that are only adept at using a smart phone. It was then non-stop laughs as he discussed become a father for the first time and the creation and birth of his child. I can’t even begin to do his jokes justice, but his quip that seeing his wife give birth was like seeing someone sneaking a peek out of speakeasy pretty much brought the entire Garden down. He was no longer “That guy” – he was now “Bobby Kelly – the best comic at Comics Come Home.” He was fantastic and I’m still laughing at his set two days later. He was a most pleasant surprise and I’d see him again in a heartbeat.

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Bobby Kelly

Jim Gaffigan and Bill Burr took the stage last and Gaffigan was as fun as I hoped he would be. He did some funny material on bringing doughnuts through airport security and Jesus’ ability to create bread being key to his ability to recruit followers. He was affable and made me chuckle quite a bit. I’ll definitely want to see him perform his full set and I may get around to finally reading his books while I’m traveling the next few weekends. Burr is a much angrier comedian and he seemed even crankier after following Gaffigan. His more misogynist jokes didn’t work for everyone – the women behind me certainly weren’t fans – and he was probably my least favorite of the comedians. He was still pretty funny, but something about his vibe and material just didn’t connect with me this time around; I saw him a few months ago and enjoyed him more then.

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Jim Gaffigan

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Bill Burr

None of the comedians were on stage more than 15-20 minutes and all of them left us wanting more. Leary came out again to close out the evening with a rendition of his song “Asshole,” which was unfortunately hard to hear over the band. The big finale was all the comedians coming out on stage and being joined by the Boston Bruins. I unfortunately don’t follow hockey, so I was less impressed by this than most people in attendance. Regardless, my friend Laura and I had a great time and have decided to make this an annual tradition; we may have missed the first 19 years of Comics Come Home, but we’re on board for the next 19. It was a great evening with great comics for a great cause. It doesn’t get much better than that.

All the comics joined by the Boston Bruins

All the comics joined by the Boston Bruins

 

Boston – A Pop Culture Tribute

Given the tragic bombings in Boston yesterday, I can’t help but have the city on my mind. I have always loved the city of Boston; though it is one of America’s oldest cities, it also has a distinctively young vibe to it because of all the colleges and young professionals that settle in the area. After I graduated from college a large number of my friends moved to Boston, so I have been a frequent visitor to the city over the years (listen when people tell you to skip the climb to the Bunker Hill monument – it really isn’t worth it). I saw my first professional baseball and hockey games in Boston and it was the first major city I ever wandered around alone and unsupervised at the age of 11 (thanks inadequately chaperoned field trip!). As a Yankees and Bills fan, my sporting life in inevitable intertwined with the city.  I have so many fond memories in Boston that while I would weep for whatever city this happened to, this attack had special resonance to me.
To send a little love Boston’s way, today’s blog will feature some of my favorite Beantown inspired pop culture. The city has been the setting for many movies, books and TV shows and has given the world many actors and musicians, so it didn’t take long to come up with a short list of all the ways that Boston has influenced the world of pop culture.

  • New Kids on the Block – I may have retired from my boy band ways, but there is no getting around the fact that for a few select years of my life, NKOTB was pretty much the center of my universe. All the guys are from the Boston area and often paid tribute to their city in their choice of attire. It is because of my childhood crush on Joey McIntyre that I find the Boston accent so charming. My infatuation with the group helped spark my interest in Boston and is probably why I know so much about the city today.

 

  • Fenway Park – I have my issues with the team that plays there, but I’ve always enjoyed my trips to Fenway. Next to Yankee Stadium(s), it is the ballpark that I’ve spent the most time in and I love the old time feel of the place. I always have a good time wandering around Yawkey Way before a game and I’ve had one of the best sausage and peppers sandwiches of my life from one of the stands outside the stadium. Fenway is a great part of the history of not only Boston, but of baseball, and I’m glad that it exists.
From my most recent trip to Fenway

From my most recent trip to Fenway

 

  • Dennis Lehane books – I am a big fan of the author Dennis Lehane, who wrote Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island, and the majority of his books take place in the city of Boston. His novels have a noir feel and tend to portray the working class neighborhoods of the city (“Southie” is a particular favorite local of his); Lehane is from Dorchester, so he knows that of which he writes and his novels have an authentic local feel to them. He may focus on the seedy underbelly of many of the neighborhoods, but he does so with respect and love. His books have been successfully adapted into movies and I think the ease of that transition is due to the fact that he creates such a clear picture of the world that his stories are occurring in that it makes it harder for a director or screenwriter to screw it up.

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  • Cheers – Who wouldn’t want to go to a bar where everybody knows your name? The Bull and Finch bar in Boston was the loose model for the bar in Cheers and is used for the exterior shot of the bar during the credits (though the actual bar is much smaller). While Cheers felt like a lot of neighborhood bars, there is no denying that the show had a Boston flair to it – references were often made to the city and the sports teams and many Boston figures found their way into Cheers for a pint.

 

  • Dropkick Murphys – They are technically from Quincy, but I feel like that is close enough to count. Boston has historically Irish roots and the Dropkick Murphys’ brand of Celtic punk adequately pays homage to that ancestry. Their cover of the song “Tessie” became the unofficial anthem of the 2004 Red Sox team and their quest to finally win a World Series after an 86 year drought. I used to listen to Dropkick Murphys to get myself pumped up on the elliptical and before fantasy baseball drafts (when you are the only girl in the league, you need to bring your game face to be taken seriously).

 

  • The Departed – Lots of movies have been set in Boston, but I think The Departed is among my favorites. A great cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson) and fantastic director (Martin Scorsese would win an Oscar) helped make this adaption of the Korean film Infernal Affairs (which I also have seen) so successful and memorable. And yes, that is a Dropkick Murphys song playing in the background.

 

  • Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – Both these actors have been ambassadors for the city of Boston during their careers. The two actors grew up together in Cambridge and have always been loyal to their Boston area roots. Their first collaboration, Good Will Hunting, was set in Boston and Affleck cut his teeth as a director with two movies that were both located in Boston (Gone Baby Gone and The Town). The city means a lot to them; in the wake of the bombing, Affleck posted the Facebook message “Such a senseless and tragic day. My family and I send our love to our beloved and resilient Boston.”

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  • Sully and Denise on Saturday Night Live – I always got a kick out of these characters played by Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch.  These sketches never failed to make me laugh, even if they were exaggerated caricatures of how people see Boston residents. Besides, it is well established that I love just about anything associated with Fallon (though even I didn’t like the movie Taxi – that was terrible). This sketch features an appearance by another one of my favorite things from the Boston area – Conon O’Brien!

 

  • Aerosmith – My love for the “bad boys of Boston” is well documented and no list of my favorite things would be complete without them, even without the Boston specific focus of this list. After more than 40 years together, they still know how to rock; when I saw them live last year, they seemed just an energized as a band half their age.

 

I’m sure the list could go on and on; the Boston area has given us so much and now it is our time to give something back to them. All of my friends in the area were fortunately safe and sound yesterday, but many people weren’t so lucky. Boston is a resilient city and I have no doubt that they will come out of this terrible experience only stronger. The entire nation is thinking of them during this dark time. This message last night on the Brooklyn Academy says it all:

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Stay strong Boston – we’re with you!