SHOCK AND AWE (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film begins with a Bill Moyers quote about the importance of a free and open press, has a line about ‘reporting stories for families who send their kids to war’, and is directed by liberal activist Rob Reiner … who labels the film as a true story. So it’s no surprise that the approach is to paint the folks at Knight Ridder News Service as the sole saints on an island of integrity … even as it is blessed with perfect vision in hindsight.

Written by Joey Hartstone, who also collaborated with Mr. Reiner on LBJ (2016), which also starred Woody Harrelson, the film continues the recent cinematic trend of placing the media on a pedestal of righteousness and beacon of truth as it serves the role as a check on political process and power. In this case, the ‘spotlight’ is on the Bush administration and the questionable decisions that led to the war in Iraq. The film begins with a 2006 Veterans’ Affairs Senatorial committee hearing where a wheelchair bound soldier ends his statement by asking the committee members a fair and legitimate question, “What the hell went wrong?”

We then flashback to September 11, 2001 and the aftermath of the bombings. Patriotism, pride, activism, volunteerism, and charitable contributions all increased, as did the Bush administration’s focus on going to war. Was it a war to get those responsible for the bombings or was there another agenda? Knight Ridder reporters Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) are dedicated to finding the truth, and are led down the path of discovery by D.C. Bureau Chief John Walcott (played by director Rob Reiner).

This is presented as a time more extreme than the mainstream media not often questioning the administration, but the film actually labels The New York Times as a shill or puppet of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Powell/Rice regime.  Only these two courageous Knight Ridder reporters (Strobel, Landay) were questioning the administration’s efforts to turn the focus from Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. My how times have changed since the most recent election. Though it could be argued that rather than questioning the current administration’s policies, it might better be described as written and verbal attacks.

The preaching here is relentless, especially by Reiner’s Walcott, who is posed as something of a truth guru. Missteps abound in the presentation, and the film is crushed under the weight of the obvious and necessary comparison to ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (an influential era noted by the characters). The banter between Strobel and Landry often seems forced like what we see in buddy flicks, and the needless and distracting romantic interlude plays like a meager attempt by director Reiner to humanize the message with a grinning Jessica Biel. The same could be said for Tommy Lee Jones’ curmudgeonly portrayal of respected military reporter Joe Galloway.

We really want to commend the filmmakers for bringing light to inexcusable government actions, but the manner in which it does this is so aggravating that kudos can’t be justified. The incessant patronizing wears thin quickly. The story deserves to be told without the sermonizing. Somehow we and the reporters are supposed to be stunned that political corruption, misleading statements from government officials and power struggles even exist. With this discovery, the reporters seem as ‘shocked’ as Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in CASABLANCA when he is told gambling is occurring (even as he pockets his winnings). With a stated emphasis on truth, we should never forget that politicians and the media are both selling something … and it’s still caveat emptor.

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AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

February 23, 2017

american-fable Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut of writer/director Anne Hamilton may cause Aesop to turn over in the grave, but it also supports the adage that desperate times call for desperate measures. Just how desperate is really the point here, and the moral line in the sand is drawn by an 11 year old girl named Gitty (short for Gertrude).

Gitty (an outstanding Peyton Kennedy) lives on a farm with her pregnant mother Sarah (Marci Miller), bullying brother Martin (Gavin MacIntosh), and beloved father Abe (Kip Pardue). Gitty is the kind of kid who loves stories with happy endings, has a pet chicken named Happy, and loves exploring the surrounding countryside with her friends … a dried water well, abandoned house, and lighting bugs are all part of their daily adventures. Only a remote silo is considered off-limits per her father.

It’s the 1980’s and times are tough for family farms. Making ends meet is incredibly challenging and the sagging economy has resulted in many sell-offs of generational farms and the subsequent suicides of farmers who simply can’t face the failure. Gitty blindly trusts her dad when he promises they won’t lose their farm. Doubt only enters her mind when she discovers a battered man (Richard Schiff) in business attire locked in that off-limits silo. The captive man tells her not to tell her dad, and instead asks her to bring food and books. Even an 11 year old cloaked in innocence begins to suspect something isn’t right.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Gitty, and her fantasies, dreams and visions remind us just how the world looks to a kid. Her openness, curiosity and imagination all act as a kind of sixth sense that lead to the judgment of a child … what is right and what is wrong. Knowing Gitty is the source of our insight helps explain the near cartoonish evil perpetrated by Martin – an overanxious kid who sees himself as some type of “warrior” (an image bestowed by the mysterious Vera). Zuleikha Robinson plays Vera in the mold of a fairy tale witch influencing others … in this case, Gitty’s dad … to do her dirty work.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, and at various times recalls Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fall, and the camera work of Terrence Malick. Gitty’s character is easily compared to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, but her “Honest” Abe dad is no Atticus Finch. Richard Schiff is excellent as the captive man, while Peyton Kennedy reminds of a young Elle Fanning (very high praise indeed). Kids have an amazing ability to see the black and white of right and wrong despite all the extraneous noise going on in their young uncorrupted heads. It’s a shame it all turns to gray as we grow older. It’s a nice first film from Ms. Hamilton.

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THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

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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.

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MAN OF STEEL (2013)

June 19, 2013

MOS1 Greetings again from the darkness. 75 years ago, the first Superman comic book was published. It would be quite challenging to find very many kids who have not imagined themselves as Superman at some point during that time. Numerous Superman re-boots have occurred in various media: comics, TV, movies, video games, toys, etc.; and the bigger the fan, the more etched in mind what the Man of Steel should look and act like. Woe to the filmmaker who doesn’t share that fan’s vision.

Enter director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer, and writer/producer Christopher Nolan. This cinematic triumvirate has been responsible for such comic based movie material as The Dark Knight franchise, 300, Watchmen, and Blade. Some of the criticisms of this most recent Superman presentation include a lack of fun, the absence of humor, no love story, too much backstory, an overabundance of action and CGI, and a hero that is much too MOS2serious … and that’s a list ignoring the outcry over the redesigned suit sans red briefs! As with anything, the closer to the heart, the less amenable to change folks become. At least no one is complaining about the lack of phone booths!

This movie has quite the balance of visual effects and backstory. It’s clearly designed to be the first in a series, and because of that, we get the foundation of Superman: the rare natural born baby on the planet Krypton – a planet speeding towards destruction. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) executes his plan to save his newborn son Kal-El by rocketing him off to Earth. While that’s happening, General Zod (a raging, wide-eyed Michael Shannon) stages one of the most ill-timed coups ever … he tries to seize control of the dying planet. This opening sequence is filled with some of the biggest, loudest effects MOS3of the whole movie. It’s a jolting start that I wasn’t particularly fond of, but it’s obviously well done and with purpose.

Kal-El lands on earth and becomes known as Clark Kent, adopted son of Kansas farmers played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. Most of Clark’s childhood is glimpsed through flashbacks of specific events, and serves the purpose of giving us a taste, while not delaying the appearance of Superman … though that name is only heard once (maybe twice). In an attempt to hide his powers, Clark becomes a drifter. However, it’s impossible to keep your superhero powers secret when you rescue a group of oil rig workers by walking through fire and using your super strength.

MOS5 Enter “Daily Planet” super-reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She’s good at her job and easily figures out the big secret. But rather than contact TMZ for a giant pay day, Lois understands that this may be something the world just isn’t ready to learn. Wise lady. The relationship between Lois and Clark is rudely interrupted by the reappearance of General Zod and his right hand lady-warrior (Antje Traue). See, Zod thinks he can takeover Earth and re-establish his Krypton roots … and Superman holds the key to his plan.

If you are a Superman fan, all of this makes perfect sense. If not, I suspect this movie will not hold much interest for you. If you are a fan of the 1978 version with the late, great Christopher Reeve, I would encourage you to keep an open mind. While that version flashed frivolous whimsy, this one is darker and more philosophical … more in line with what you might expect from an alien with super powers. Still, the subtle humor abounds here if you keep your eyes open. LexCorp references appear along with little touches that can bring a smile (12th ranked Kansas Jayhawks football??).

MOS4 The acting is superb throughout. Henry Cavill was the runner-up to Daniel Craig for the James Bond role, but he immediately stakes his claim to the Man of Steel. His overall look and amazing physique leave little doubt that he is Superman, and as a bonus, he is plenty of reason for the ladies to purchase a ticket. Hans Zimmer makes no attempt to one-up John Williams’ iconic score from the 1978 film, yet he makes his mark, especially during the action sequences. Be prepared as this one is heavy on the Sci-Fi angle, and there is also an interesting Jesus comparison that can be made (he is 33 years on Earth).

Doing the right thing has always been the recurring theme for Superman and this movie version helps us understand where the moral fiber was born … the hint is in the Royals shirt Clark wears. In addition to a terrific Smallville set, we get Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, a role which will surely be expanded in the sequel. It’s very interesting to see the Snyder, Goyer, Nolan vision, and if you are still clinging to 1978, you might find yourself asking … Why so serious?

**EDITORIAL NOTE: There has been much movie talk recently about the superhero overload and the over-the-top CGI onslaught.  “Too many explosions“.  “Too many special effects“. “No focus on the story“.  “Enough with the superheroes“.   While I certainly can understand that movie preferences may run 180 degrees from The Avengers, Iron Man, and Man of Steel, my response to these voices is two-fold.  First, movies are considered an art form, but never forget that it’s also a business.  The goal of a business is to turn a profit. When you look at the financial returns of the above mentioned movies, as well as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, one might allow a bit of leeway to Hollywood studios and producers. There are only so many legal ways to earn a half billion dollars, and superhero movies are on the short list.  My second response is to encourage the haters to accept the role of these blockbuster films, while continuing to seek out the more personal and intimate independent films that gain distribution. My personal taste in movies runs the gamut from Iron Man to Mud to Toy Story to the most recent documentaries. I am in awe of the wide variances and multi-talented people involved in movie making.  So while I may avoid the latest Kate Hudson rom-com, I do understand there exists a group of people who are giddy in anticipation.  Rather than expend negative engergy towards the blockbuster explosions, know that the billion dollar box office hit keeps a multitude of artists working.  And that’s a good thing.