KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

watch the trailer:

 


SNITCH (2013)

February 24, 2013

snitch1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has carved out a terrific career alternating between major action movies (Fast Five) and comedy flicks (The Other Guys) … both which take advantage of his real life Hulk-like physique and presence. Apparently two film genres is not enough. This time out he attempts to transition to a serious dramatic role as the Construction Company owner-divorced/remarried-suburban father who will do anything for his quasi-estranged teenage son. This would have been a Harrison Ford role back in the 1990’s and probably better suited to Matt Damon today.

Jason (Rafi Gavron) makes a dumb mistake by accepting delivery of a shoebox full of Ecstacy from his best friend. Next thing you know, Jason has fallen victim to the exceptionally strict minimum sentence federal drug laws for first time offenders. Enter Jason’s earnest, hard-working dad who pushes the politically ambitious federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) to allow him to infiltrate the drug world in an effort to reduce his son’s sentence.

snitch2 John (The Rock) has a nice suburban home, with a nice second wife (Nadine Velazquez from Flight), a nice young daughter, and a stressed-out ex-wife (Melina Kanakardes from “CSI:NY”) whom he kinda blames for Jason’s mess. John has loads of family drama plus financial issues at work as he is trying to expand his business. Now he has to figure out how to get into the dirty drug distribution world. His first attempt leaves him face down in the dirt after getting his ass kicked – not a sight we are accustomed to with this giant of a man. Finally, he gets help from one of his ex-con employees (Jon Bernthal) who is trying to stay clean, but really needs the money John is offering.

A meeting with scary Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky from “Boardwalk Empire”) leads to a meeting with a Mexican drug lord known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt). John’s access to 18-wheelers is just what this drug cartel needed. For some reason, snitch3these brilliant drug dealers would rather trust some unknown trucker dude than spend part of their $83 million on buying their own rig. All logic aside, John works closely with a DEA Agent played by Barry Pepper, who is sporting the worst facial hair this side of Gandalf.

The director and co-writer is Ric Roman Waugh, who made his name as a super Hollywood stunt performer (and also directed Felon). His co-writer is Justin Haythe also wrote Revolutionary Road and the upcoming The Lone Ranger. The story is based on a true to life “PBS: Frontline” about a family who went through a similar ordeal. In spite of the overuse of the “shaky cam” there is some confusion on whether this is a political statement concerning the stringent drug laws, the abuse of power by political officials, or an insight into the moral dilemmas faced by “normal” types in this day and age. snitch4The script seems to exploit the issues in the same manner those with power exploit the first time offenders (often high school and college age kids).

The trailer is a bit misleading as the film only features two real action sequences and both are sampled in the trailer. This is more of a family drama with some moral dilemmas sprinkled in. Pepper and Bernthal are especially effective in their roles, while The Rock is just too distracting to play the typical suburban dad. He is a giant and you can’t ignore that he still looks like a world class wrestler and not a guy you would see at a PTA meeting. Still, if you don’t think too much, this one is entertaining enough for a February release.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see The Rock’s attempt to transition to serious drama

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are expecting the next big time action flick from The Rock

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rieI5g9fgRc


BROKEN CITY (2013)

January 20, 2013

broken Greetings again from the darkness. The best Political crime dramas are complex films with multiple intersecting sub-plots, filled with stylish mis-direction and intense wordplay and back-stabbing between good guys and bad. What doesn’t work is “obvious”. Especially obvious to the point where the audience is way ahead of the earnest, but clumsy protagonist. Luckily for director Allen Hughes (working solo without his twin brother Albert for the first time), he has stacked the film with a wonderful cast which makes it somewhat entertaining despite its major flaws.

Mark Wahlberg plays (what else?) a streetwise guy/cop/detective who tries to do the right thing but always seems to end up with the short straw. Russell Crowe is in fine form (though a bit too tan) as the megalomaniac NYC mayor who plays dirty, but knows how to sell his stuff to the people … even as he schemes to do great wrong. Their paths cross twice and broken3neither time turns out so great for Wahlberg.

As for the rest of the cast, Barry Pepper is miscast as Crowe’s mayoral opponent; Jeffrey Wright is intriguing as the Police Commissioner seemingly playing both sides against the middle; Catherine Zeta-Jones is Crowe’s most unhappy and disloyal wife; Kyle Chandler plays Pepper’s campaign manager (and evidently more); and Griffin Dunne is a rich Crowe supporter and knee deep in the evil scheme. Also interesting is Alona Tai as Wahlberg’s wise-cracking and bright-eyed assistant.

broken2 While no details will be spilled here, there is a fun exchange during the debate between Crowe and Pepper, and well, the movie is just at its best when Crowe is on screen. Wahlberg’s character is pretty much the same he has played a dozen times prior, but it seems the real issue is with first time screenwriter Brian Tucker. He is just overrun with ideas and because of that, most go undeveloped. A script clean-up from a screen veteran could have turned this one around. Still, if you have seen all the Oscar nominated films and are looking for a watchable January release, you could do worse. Just try not to think too much!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are caught up on the December rush on late 2012 releases OR you want to see another fine Russell Crowe performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a “smart” thriller isn’t so smart

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3HgYu1atOo

 


TRUE GRIT (2010)

December 17, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Just back from a Dallas screening of the Coen Brothers latest, and once again I am in awe of their filmmaking proficiency. For those concerned about a remake of the John Wayne classic, fear not! Joel and Ethan instead remain true to the Charles Portis novel. In fact, the Portis prose is what adds the uniqueness to this story of revenge.

One may assume that Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn would dominate the movie, but I suggest to you that relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (as Mattie Ross) more than holds her own, and in fact, often carries the story. We never once doubt her commitment to the cause … hunting down the man who shot her father. That man, Tom Chaney, is played in a most peculiar manner by Josh Brolin. Brolin’s dim-witted Chaney borders on a cartoon character, except he has a real mean streak.

There are so many wonderful touches in this film that I am not sure where to start. Obviously, the Portis dialogue jumps out immediately. Watching the grizzled, grungy cowpokes and this 14 year-old farm girl spout off such beautiful prose forces a smile to your face. It is an enjoyable challenge just to keep up with the banter between Cogburn, Mattie and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who also happens to be hunting Chaney. There are also hilarious exchanges between Mattie and a local horse trader, and later Barry Pepper (as Ned Pepper) joins in with some top notch verbal sparring.

 DP Roger Deakins does his thing with the camera and landscape. We feel we are right there on the dusty trail or on a snowy ride. The wardrobe, guns and town all come across as totally authentic and add to the richness of the film. There are no hokey vista shots without purpose. Everything in the film has a reason and contributes to the cause of presenting a terrific western story of revenge and retribution. Watching the bond develop between the main characters is quite moving, and though I wasn’t ready for it to end, I found the ending quite satisfying.

The trailer for this film is one of my favorites of the year. Johnny Cash singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is not in the film, but it certainly set the mood. So, no real surprise here, but another fantastic film from the Coen Brothers. You don’t have to be a lover of westerns to enjoy this one and, please, no worries about Jeff Bridges facing off against John Wayne. There is room for both!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the blend of sparse landscape, gruff cowboys and beautifully written dialogue OR you just want to see Matt Damon uphold the Coen Brothers tradition of one atrocious haircut per film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe no one can top John Wayne, by golly OR you prefer your westerns to be only dark and bleak in the vein of Unforgiven.