Just a Quick Thought: Thank you, Craig

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Craig Sager, the long-time sideline reporter for the Turner broadcasting network, passed away today, December 15, 2016 at the age of 65 after a long and courageous battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He leaves behind a wife and five children, as well as a spot on the sidelines and a place in front of the TNT cameras that will likely never be filled again.

Perhaps the only thing that ever rivaled Sager’s enthusiasm for the events he covered or the number of iconic events with which he will forever be associated — Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1972 (which broke Babe Ruth’s record); the 2000 Sydney Olympics; the 2015 NBA Finals . . . while battling his illness — is his wardrobe. Over a 40+ year-long career Sager had shaped a public image as only he could; his colorful, outrageous suits have raised as many eyebrows as any NBA player sporting the latest en vogue fashion item. Or any Hollywood starlet trying to make a statement on the Red Carpet.

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The inimitability of Craig Sager runs far deeper than his outward flamboyance, a flamboyance that stood in a strange contrast to his direct, matter-of-fact line of questioning. If anyone needs evidence of the kind of influence he had around the league, they need look no further than the rapport he shared with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

The way he continued to hone his craft even during the darkest periods of his life is a miracle. It, in all likelihood, will come to define the journalist as a figure we should all look up to. His stoicism (and his suits) were gems of the National Basketball Association. Two days before he passed he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He will be dearly missed. Rest in paradise, Craig.


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Special Correspondents

'Special Correspondents' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Ricky Gervais

Directed by: Ricky Gervais 

I’m suspicious of any movie that literally ends with the line “This is like the end of a movie.” While exemplary of the meta flavor of comedy that’s been en vogue since at least the mid-2000s, that line is also symptomatic of a bigger issue: the movie it’s stuck in is atrocious.

Sure, that’s pretty brutal. But what’s more brutal is the thought that, should I hold my tongue, I might just bite it off and swallow. How is Ricky Gervais’ most recent palavering, the media-jabbing comedy Special Correspondents, this unfunny? Disregard the pedigree of pure comedy behind the camera and the script, how can a movie be this devoid of logic, coherence, entertainment value and, oh yeah did I mention logic? One of the ways you can get there I suppose is by concocting the following nonsense:

A radio journalist (Eric Bana) and his technician (Gervais) fake their coverage of a war erupting in Ecuador by hiding in the loft of a restaurant adjacent to the very station they work at in Manhattan. They can see through concealed windows they’re even on the same floor as their offices. This is as opposed to actually traveling abroad to do their jobs. Are they just feckless, ethically challenged professionals looking for a fancy way to get fired? Gervais doesn’t think that big. No, his character just accidentally throws their passports away. Proving at the very least they are unburdened by the weight of journalistic integrity and basic human morality, the pair feign a serious news report that ultimately culminates in a nationwide fundraising effort in the name of the two radio guys who went suddenly missing behind borders.

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross claims — and bear with me here for a second — that most people, as they go through the grieving process, deny first and will eventually come to accept later. But in trying to process the immense pile of fuckery that has been put before me, I think the mission is far more do-able if we work backwards through the Five Stages. First, let’s address how inane a concept Special Correspondents is working with. The absurdity and lack of forethought, the sheer number of loopholes and contrivances that are needed to make the story work is difficult to accept, even by Gervaisian standards. So difficult, in fact, it’s impossible. The constant provocation of the suspension of disbelief is alarmingly thin cover for a director who doesn’t know how to tell a story.

Moving on past acceptance — which likely won’t be reached but let’s go with this anyway — we arrive at depression. This is actually dually appropriate given Gervais’ character is somewhat of a depressed mope whose marriage to the pretty awful Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) is a sham, and it’s depressing how bad Bana is in his role. Overacting as though his first day on the job, Bana’s Frank is either yelling incoherently at Gervais’ bumbling, nervous Ian or he’s generally being an ass just to be an ass. There’s a modicum of refreshment in watching the roles reverse, as Gervais goes nice and his co-star hams it up like John Ratzenberger in Toy Story. Most depressing of all, the movie turns Farmiga, a highly likable actress, into a gold-digging shrew of a woman absolutely devoid of redeeming qualities.

Bargaining. What can we bargain with here, then? I’ll concede that Special Correspondents strikes the right tone for what Gervais is going for: it’s as silly as the plot is ridiculous. Supporting turns from America Ferrara and Raúl Castillo as a pair of hospitable Latino immigrants help perpetuate the willy-nilly, carefree zippity-doo-dah. How do these two exactly expect this all to work out — like it did for Orson Welles? Will they become the heroes of their own fiction? I’m also willing to bargain with folks who think I’m dwelling too much on logical cohesion. Fair enough, I probably am. After all, it’s just comedy.

The talent that’s theoretically on display is enough to make a reasonable person who doesn’t throw away passports by mistake assume Special Correspondents delivers the laughs in spades. Barring some amusing exchanges between the two — basically whenever Ian does something Frank doesn’t like — the film is a poor effort on that front as well.  If you’re seeking Gervais’ raging Britishness (or that signature laugh) you’ll be left out in the cold. That’s enough to make me angry, and one step closer to fully cycling through this very difficult, very unusual grieving process. Someone help, because I know what comes next.

There’s some sort of socio-political commentary pasted in here about how we, the blind sheep of the American populace, form these relationships with the media and hang on their every word. Overreaction is an epidemic in a plugged-in society and David Fincher was brilliantly attuned to that in his recent Gone Girl adaptation. Of course it wasn’t really funny then, nor is it in other cinematic treatments of these curious societal habits of ours. But Gervais is simply not making any accurate statement about society, about the way media deals with hot button topics like securing American troops and journalists in peril. His is not a movie made to wake you up but rather to dumb you down. To not be aware of its massively underachieving status is to be in a true state of denial.

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Recommendation: Painfully inadequate on all fronts, the only real laughs inspired by the misguided, nonsensical plot and awkward direction, Special Correspondents suggests that perhaps the mouthy Brit should apply his talents to other areas — like in resurrecting David Brent. Why not stick with acting? I’m hoping there’s more to him that I can discover beyond his Office personality, because I like the guy and want to get the taste of this one out of my mouth as soon as possible.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “It’s quiet. Too quiet. In the sky, combat helicopters stop. An explosion rings out. My own technician has another near-miss. A bullet flies *inches* above his head. Lucky for him he’s so short, or he’d most certainly be dead by now. This is Frank Bonneville, Q63.5 News.”

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Carlock

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).

The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.

The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.

The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)

Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.

However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.

All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.

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Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”

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Spotlight

Spotlight movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Thomas McCarthy; Josh Singer

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Every so often a film drops with little or no warning and leaves a lasting impression. 12 Years a Slave did it three years ago via punishing violence and bravura performances; a year later Gravity achieved unparalleled visual grandeur films two years on are still trying to match. Spotlight almost undisputedly fits the bill as this year’s crowning cinematic jewel, though its impact is far less visceral.

Thomas McCarthy has chosen to revisit The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic and enduring sexual abuse of children at the hands of Boston-area Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. What began as an inquisition into the number of isolated incidents quickly evolved into a more encompassing exposé in which it was discovered priests, rather than being dismissed from the church outright, were simply reassigned elsewhere in the country and were being protected by Cardinal Law. The publishing of the first article led to his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002.

‘Spotlight’ refers to The Globe’s investigative journalism team, presently the oldest such unit still in operation in the nation. McCarthy’s methodically-paced and consistently compelling approach brilliantly and subtly pays homage to the work of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) while exposing the underbelly of an institution that traditionally (or ideally) exercises superlative judgment of character and protection of cultural, spiritual and societal values.

Spotlight is information-rich and faced with the prospect of weaving together multiple, fairly complex relationships. McCarthy spares precious little time in getting to work. At the request of editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the foursome are encouraged to suspend their current assignment in light of Baron’s concern over The Globe’s failure to dig deeper into a past case involving child molestation that was put on the back burner as far back as the 1980s. In the wake of the 2002 revelation over 600 follow-up articles would be published by the same paper, though the film elects to depict the researching and ultimate crafting of the very first story, one that, as Schreiber’s pragmatic Baron predicted, would have “an immediate and significant impact upon [the paper’s] readers.”

Drama presents investigative journalism as one of the last bastions of truth-seeking, as well as social and cultural enriching, and its vitality seems particularly quaint set against this day and age in which increasing numbers turn to social media for their ‘news’ — a concept that, in and of itself, could do with some spotlighting as it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. A cherry-picked cast of certifiable A-listers, one that includes John Slattery as projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as Boston lawyers who specialize in sexual abuse cases, collaborate on an inevitably award-winning screenplay, penned by McCarthy along with Josh Singer.

There’s a collective energy amongst the group that affords Spotlight much of its profundity and their natural portrayals effortlessly absorb, a notable lack of melodramatic tension between key players resulting in a kind of harmonious interaction between spectator and creator that’s rarely been seen this or any other year. It’s impossible to single out a role without mentioning another; though if I were compelled to nitpick I’d nominate Keaton and Ruffalo as the performers with ever-so-slightly more screen time. Still though, Spotlight is an example of a true team effort and if the film finds itself in the running for Best Actor in a Leading Role the sextet of performers, in an ideal world, should find themselves on stage accepting the golden statuette.

What nudges McCarthy’s undertaking into the realm of bonafide classic is the delicacy with which he approaches the grim subject matter. We’re talking about — and periodically confronted with the survivors of — child molestation. I doubt I need to repeat the term to send chills down your spine. Yet, if you fear for the worst: depictions of the acts themselves, graphic or otherwise, or even a considerable amount of time dedicated to traipsing through the vileness of the Catholic Church’s most shameful hour, fear not. Spotlight isn’t interested in dwelling on the past. It is interested in and, more importantly, reliant upon history however, and getting hands dirty is a requisite if we are to get to the bottom of an issue that has consequently spread like a cancer across the globe. One that, sickeningly enough, has just as much relevance more than a decade on.

Indeed, what’s most crucial in recreating this wholly unsettling discovery, in acknowledging the effects it had on not only the Catholic faithful but on those asking the tough questions, is the mirroring of several pillars of fundamentally sound journalism. The film, though it may not be quite as timely as it could have been, is as concise as is feasible for a story with this many implications; accurate (despite a few outcries over the depiction of a select few characters) and brutally honest. Dialogue-driven narrative plays out with the tenacity of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, though it’s far less poetic and lends itself more to conversation. Never mind the fact it continues to build in intensity as the statistics and evidence continue piling up to a level few, if any, seasoned reporters at The Globe could have been prepared to embrace.

Rare are the films that understand the importance of shaping events and characters in such a way that they appear the genuine article. Rarer still are those that transcend the form so as to actually become reality. Spotlight qualifies as one such film, blurring the line between dramatic feature and documentary presentation if only in how it confirms that the best films truly manifest as art imitating life. If McCarthy’s restrained focus on the life and times of these writers and this paper and the relationship between the church and the people of Boston has any one, significant impact it’s that reality can be (and indeed is) uglier than anything movies fabricate, convincingly or otherwise, in an effort to entertain or disturb.

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Recommendation: Spotlight is a remarkable production. It manifests as a powerful advocate of journalism as a mechanism for change (an admittedly ever-weakening one at that in today’s gossip-geared papers and online posts) and a noble profession. It simultaneously unearths a disgusting, alarming reality that continues to trouble the Church to this day and it provides audiences spanning multiple age brackets some sense of what it was like to become involved in this story. Mind you, this isn’t a film that means to entertain. It’s 100% informative and revelatory. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive works I have ever seen for these reasons and more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, we gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.”

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Truth

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: James Vanderbilt

Directed by: James Vanderbilt

Truth be told, a movie featuring household names like Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, one propped up on real-world events of this magnitude shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through. Yet, here we are.

To clear the air first: don’t think of this as the definitive Dan Rather biopic; think of it as a drama that calls upon his iconic red suspenders and larger-than-life personality when convenient. If anything, this is the story of Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who believed she had unearthed some new documents alleging then-President George W. Bush had not met the minimal standards required of fighter pilots at the time of the Vietnam War (thus affording him a loophole from joining in the fight) and had been protected politically, rendering his hypothetical AWOL status one of the most well-kept secrets in recent American history.

Okay, so we’ve been misled a little bit. Of course, that might be on us since it’s easier to associate this shameful chapter in broadcast journalism with a certain face. And it’s easier to recall Rather’s final farewell with teary-eyed reverence than anything Mapes may have said or done as she watched her career collapse like the Hindenburg.

With that in mind, Blanchett is far from a bad alternative as she impetuously fights a losing battle in an effort to exonerate herself and her good friend from this now infamous ethical debacle. The argument she presents? The authenticity of said documents — which turned out to be forgeries created in Microsoft Word and which she gained after a brief meeting with Stacy Keach’s Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett — isn’t the big picture. Finding out precisely what happened with Bush’s involvement in the armed forces in the early ’70s is.

This is almost verbatim what she tells a panel of hard-nosed, ultra-conservative lawyers — some of whom fought on behalf of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove prior to his 2007 resignation — in the film’s spectacularly unspectacular final scenes. The big, bad showdown, as it were. This, after being cautioned by her own lawyer to simply keep her head down and try hard not to fight back. Old habits die hard I guess.

Truth is, of course, very well-acted. Blanchett settles in to yet another tough female lead who’s difficult to get along with, introduced as someone whose chip-on-their-shoulder couldn’t be any more apparent. In her lowest moments we see her popping Xanex and chasing it down with white wine, behavior reminiscent of her troubled Jasmine. Her performance is reason enough to see the picture. Redford, inhabiting the undoubtedly challenging role as the iconic CBS anchor, delivers a subtler and more emotionally reserved performance and is thoroughly likable, despite minimal screen time. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss round out the team working under Mapes but they don’t register at all, in terms of performance or their contributions to the drama.

Truth is, writer/director James Vanderbilt, who penned the screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, forces empathy for Rather and his pseudo-surrogate daughter — I can’t think of a better way to describe the pair’s relationship, at least as it’s presented here — as they journey down the gauntlet of shame and humiliation. The feeling hardly eventuates naturally. This is the Salem Witch Trial sans witches and torches. The American people feel it’s well within their right to take down these journalists as hard as they damn well can, their argument being these people make a living out of digging into other people’s lives. Those not in the business are painted as villainous and bloodthirsty.

Truth is, no matter how you slice it, the innate complexities of the matter make the drama a tough sell to anyone who is unable to look past the political motivations of Hollywood interpreting these events. The liberal slant is far from subtle. The package is too neatly contained to be real life. Despite several sizzling moments of dialogue (mostly spat by a righteously indignant Blanchett) was there any good reason this didn’t materialize in the form of a thoroughly revealing documentary . . . . maybe on 60 Minutes?

That’s the kind of irony that will never be, seeing as this film’s trailers were blacklisted from CBS. It’s an even harder sell when the events depicted in Vanderbilt’s feature film debut are laced with such contriteness you have but one option come the film’s end: feel bad for the people who failed to uphold one of the major pillars of good journalism.

Recommendation: Truth is a strange experience. On one hand it’s well-performed and suitably emotional as we experience the catalytic events that ended Mary Mapes’ and Dan Rather’s careers in shame. On the other, there’s no denying this has an agenda all its own, which is a little frustrating as there is a better movie in here somewhere underneath the moral indignation (for both the American people and the ones getting done in). I don’t want to get into the politics of what constitutes good journalism, I’d rather get into the politics of good acting and Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford indeed make a good team. They’re very strong cogs in a relatively weak engine.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Our story is about whether the President fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that, they want to talk about fonts and forgeries and they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum.”

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True Story

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Release: Friday, April 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rupert Goold; David Kajganich

Directed by: Rupert Goold

True story: Rupert Goold’s cinematic adaptation of the memoir penned by disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel elicits more yawns than being forced to sit through days’ worth of testimony in an actual courtroom would.

It ought to be a compliment that this would-be crime thriller plays out with the fastidiousness of a trial hearing, but obsession with detail and determination to present evidence in a nonlinear fashion don’t translate into a compelling narrative. Ironically the slow-burn nature of this event is what ends up turning viewers off circa the halfway point. If you are really determined, you might give the last half the courtesy of staying awake long enough to see what the judge’s ruling is.

James Franco is Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of murdering his wife and three children and who’s apprehended while laying low in Cancún for a time. Jonah Hill portrays Finkel, whose fabrication of certain details regarding his cover story on the African slave trade leads to his dismissal from the paper and a long period of unemployment. The two become entangled when Longo claims to be Finkel upon his arrest. Finkel — and by extension, we — demand an explanation as to why he chose his name. He wants exclusive access to Longo, but he’s limited to the sessions the prison will provide. In exchange for giving the journalist the inside scoop, he wants to learn to write, as he’s been a longtime admirer of Finkel’s work. Longo also wants Finkel’s word that he won’t divulge any information to outsiders.

These discussions constitute the bulk of True Story‘s narrative, and while they offer the pair of leads a chance to bite into their most somber material thus far in their careers, they also offer viewers many an opportunity to tune out and wonder if they’ve left the sprinklers in the yard running. (It’s alright, when I get back I’ll have a nice patch of overly-watered grass to enjoy watching grow.)

When Goold isn’t spending time highlighting Hill and Franco’s remarkably restrained performances — and if there’s any real reason to go and see this film it is for them rather than the shocking case — he’s weaving back and forth between cuts of Longo’s past and shots of a superfluously cast Felicity Jones as Finkel’s wife, Jill. As little as her dramatic prowess is utilized here Goold could have cast anyone. Why he opted for an undoubtedly expensive bit of casting is almost as much of a head-scratcher as how Longo, by all accounts a seemingly normal man, could be capable of such a heinous crime. Not to mention, Hill and Jones don’t particularly make for a convincing on-screen couple. Romance doesn’t necessarily have to be depicted (don’t worry, it’s not) but chemistry never hurt a film.

If I’ve given the impression True Story is a terrible movie, I should probably rephrase my major complaint. The odd relationship between Christian Longo and Michael Finkel attracts, though ultimately this story, this investigation into what is true and what isn’t has the feel of a compelling A&E True Crime segment. That Goold never does anything outrageous, like drastically alter facts in order to derive a denouement more befitting of cinematic spectacle is a strength. But again, the irony is a killer.

We should be impressed by how much True Story disturbs us. We should feel offended by the crime. We shouldn’t feel indifferent.

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2-5Recommendation: The film completely subverts previous conceptions of James Franco and Jonah Hill. The pair give incredible performances (this might be Franco’s best work since becoming Aron Ralston) but they’re unfortunately wasted in a sluggishly paced film that doesn’t add up to much in the end. I’d recommend a rental for the performances but not the drive out to the theater.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com  

Kill the Messenger

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman 

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Stories like this make me feel better about writing about less hardcore things than politics  . . . . like movies. Because even as a much-loathed film critic your work may come home with you, but it’s not likely to ever actually follow you home. (Unless, of course, your name is Armond White.) I don’t want to become Armond White.

Jeremy Renner puts down that fancy bow and arrow of his — at least for the moment, until Tony Stark screws up again — to pick up notepad and digital audio recorder in this grounded, tense drama about American investigative journalist Gary Webb, an ambitious man who ended up exposing one of the most controversial and disturbing sociopolitical developments of the mid-1990s and later would go on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the effort.

The American ‘crack epidemic’ of the 1990s, when compared to catastrophically violent and global paranoia-inducing developments such as 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism, might now seem something dangerously close to irrelevant; merely an irregularity in the rhythm of the cultural heartbeat. To dismiss as forgettable the moment in which the public became aware of certain facts involving the United States government and the sudden discovery of a massive influx of crack-cocaine on American streets would be to crush one particular journalist’s life work under the rubble of indifference. And in this case indifference might very well be worse than the reception that was awaiting him when he first broke the news.

That, in case you were wondering, was a tidal wave of overwhelming doubt, hissing criticism and public shunning. It would all culminate in Webb’s questionable suicide ten Decembers ago.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News, the modest city paper Webb reported for, published his most ambitious work, a three-part, 20,000-word exposé generously detailing the corruption within the CIA as it related to Nicaraguan rebels (or Contras). It asserted the profits made off of the black market distribution to susceptible Los Angelinos (and one can only imagine how far beyond) went to funding, and perhaps even arming and supplying, the rebels. Though, Webb doesn’t quite point the finger directly. His work suggests members within the CIA were aware of the situation, and that President Reagan shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to allow for the transactions to occur. Beyond the ego this publication, now infamously known as The Dark Alliance, is where trouble would begin in earnest for Webb.

As the titular ‘messenger,’ Renner amps up his intensity. Sufficiently a leading man — an oddly amiable one at that — he’s distinctly human but there exists beneath the surface a machine set on overdrive. Clearly something compels this character that surpasses familial duty, a persistence that doesn’t allow a father and husband to sleep well at night. Why can’t he stop digging deep into extremely treacherous affairs? Or perhaps the better question: what, if anything, would motivate him to cease and desist? If nothing else, Kill the Messenger goes to prove the lengths required to secure that most coveted of career affirmations.

Cuesta manages to set the performance against a satisfactorily researched background. We travel to dangerous prisons, hold casual (and not so casual) conversations with incredibly dangerous and idealistic extremists, and we flirt with the opposition as much as we shun our friends. Even if we pass through many security checkpoints with a little too much ease and conveniently skip through certain plot details, the development is sufficient enough to leave minimal questions about the actual investigating part. His supporting cast — Rosemarie Dewitt (who plays Webb’s dutiful wife Sue), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor Anna Simons), and Oliver Platt (who takes on the role as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos) — all contribute thoroughly. Unfortunately Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen are wasted in cameos.

Considering the big picture, Renner’s staunch determination conflicted with more than his readers and the general public. When personal relations and friendships become involved, this is where Michael Cuesta’s directorial limitations are exposed as the slump into depression and the subsequent loss of virtually all personal and financial value are hardly unexpected. Not that these things aren’t difficult to experience. This is what really happened (an approximation, anyway). It’s just as incredible to watch how one story, a single idea can consume a person.

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3-5Recommendation: Kill the Messenger offers a strong lead performance for an often overlooked and steadily rising talent (original casting choices favored the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — yawn). A not-so-subtle indictment of an American society (and of news outlets most damningly) that doubted a single journalist could dig up this much dirt on this many people possessing this much power. For aspiring journalists, this movie might be a must. Not necessarily for the reminding about ethical boundaries and how not to cross them (Webb’s whistleblowing strategy is certainly not a good example) but more so for a clear illustration of the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I thought my job was to tell the public the truth, the facts; pretty or not, and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, and what they stand for. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Nightcrawler

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Release: Friday, October 31, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

For anyone reeling in nostalgia for the days of Donnie Darko, boy do I have some good news for you.

Jake Gyllenhaal is back and at least for the moment seems untouchable once more, playing the consummate weirdo very few of us are likely to be jealous of being incapable of mimicking. We are, however, gobsmacked by his talents again; in awe of a star’s willingness to go so far in the opposite direction of who they likely really are for the sake of seeking the truth in performance art.

Or, perhaps it’s not that big of a stretch. Maybe the male Gyllenhaal is naturally drawn to the darkness, as a fly to a light. This time he’s called upon by first-time director Dan Gilroy to don a façade whose ability to identify with humanity is often overridden by a need to separate from it. Self-sufficiency is the name of the game.

Meet Louis Bloom. He calls himself Lou, along with a number of other more professional and less personal adjectives. He’s first seen scouting a deserted construction site for some materials he will later try to sell back to the construction company for a small profit. The act functions as both microcosm — first he’ll try to take over a scrap yard and soon it will be the city — as well as a crucial first step towards chasing after much loftier ambitions. Audaciously he would go on to ask the man behind the desk about any available positions within the company, but the guy won’t hire a thief and so it is back to the drawing board for Lou.

It was probably for the better, anyway, as he soon encounters a television crew on the highway covering what appears to be a fatal car accident. It’s still early on in the film’s impossibly fluid two-hour runtime and we are getting to a place where we understand already subtlety is not a word in Lou’s vocabulary. He quickly makes his presence known at the scene and brushes up against Bill Paxton’s accomplished camera man to see if there’s any work for him with them. No, there’s not. But there is money in this racket, he’s told.

Lou quickly gets his hands on a cheap camera and he even hires a staff. . . .of one. He comes into contact with a slightly scruffy-looking man from the streets, a young fellow named Rick (Riz Ahmed) whose wide-eyed naivety and desperation for work makes Lou’s goal-setting seem an impossible quest for wealth and popularity rather than an act manifested out of necessity. Make no mistake, one certainly seems more desperate than the other.

They may seem an odd-couple like any other you’ve seen before, though the tandem quickly come to epitomize the term ‘nightcrawlers’ — workers looking for the good money by filming the stuff that makes early morning news — bloody and if possible, fatal vehicular accidents, home invasions, shootings, things like that — using any means necessary. Stalking the night. Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing work as a man who blurs the line between bystander and active participant in a crime scene is the butter to Gilroy’s toast. And his toast, of course, is a truly original and compelling screenplay that conjures up characters who live and breathe death and destruction for another paycheck.

Paired with focused and intense direction that often thrusts us into the middle of the street without any hope of knowing what’s to come next — this is a brilliantly unpredictable adventure even if the opening shots are more than foreboding — the story allows us to never entirely hate this character even if we know we are morally bankrupting ourselves by doing so. We are actually capable of something even sicker: understanding his motives. Even if we can’t rectify what gets sacrificed. Come the film’s bullet-riddled conclusion, we’ll see the genius in Gilroy’s creation in a new light.

Speaking of which, Nightcrawler is bathed in all kinds of beautiful lighting, despite its ostensibly exclusive nighttime setting. It has the feel of a noir but on a much grander, almost blockbuster scale. It’s a rare kind of film performance-wise as this is a role that may supersede the psychological perturbation of Donnie Darko. If I’m gushing over him, I should probably apologize, for there are others who turn in strong work as well. One of those is Rene Russo, playing the morning news director Nina, who strongly encourages Lou to pursue freelance journalism.

Nina’s a force to be reckoned with and operates within a very difficult realm, a gray area in which station ratings are directly related to how good the material is. (But be careful to not show viewers anything too graphic, they’ll be watching this stuff with their breakfast.) Never before has the media mantra “if it bleeds, it leads” been twisted to fulfill such a haunting cinematic vision. Also compelling is Riz Ahmed, Lou’s assistant, who is eager to get to work and earn some kind of wage for himself. He deftly conveys a nervous apprehension to the job being asked of him, while avoiding falling into the ‘sidekick’ trope. Paxton isn’t in it for very long but exists in the frame long enough to leave an impression.

Nightcrawler is, thanks to its performances and solid narrative pulse, one of the best movies of the year and another solid reminder that Oscars season is upon us. After experiencing one of the year’s most unforgettable characters, and if I am speaking honestly I am glad I made the money to buy this ticket.

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4-5Recommendation: It is hard to imagine anyone not getting sucked in by the curious trailers heralding a return to weirdness for Jake Gyllenhaal. How can anyone resist that soul-burning stare of his, sitting perched before a backdrop of the L.A. area bathed in sunset (or rise)? He is positively chilling in the role and 100% the reason you should see this film. And if the trailer isn’t quite enough to sell you, maybe the fact he was Donnie Darko will. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “My motto is, if you wanna win the lottery, you’ve gotta make the money to buy a ticket.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: The Legend of Jimmy the Greek

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Release: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Fritz Mitchell

I’m wondering who in this room would recognize the name Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos. I’d be willing to bet many more might if I then revealed this was merely the less-glamorous birth name given to the one and only Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder.

And if you’re still finding yourself asking, “Who?” — that’s perfectly okay. The controversial sportscaster was a fixture for those tuning in to CBS’s popular pre-game show, The NFL Today, during the mid-1970s and through the ’80s before he was (some say deservedly) fired for making off-the-cuff remarks about black athletes being superior to whites. Frankly, anyone not of the thinking that off-track betting and professional football go hand-in-hand probably don’t much care for The Greek’s bold approach to sports journalism.

Snyder should be considered as something of a man before his time, though to call him a visionary would be a little sensational. He was, in a sense, a niched journalist before the advent of social media gave rise to the bona fide niched market. If The Greek were alive today he’d easily have his own show, based solely on his curious, roughshod mannerisms and enthusiastic way of presenting information.

Not to mention the fact the man had trouble disenfranchising himself with the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, where he learned how to build himself as an effective and respected gambler. He took the skills he acquired there and applied them to betting the odds of things happening (or not happening) during football season. As evidenced in seven-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian Fritz Mitchell’s contribution to 30-for-30, its a strategy that paid off for The Greek in more areas than just sports.

One of his more impressive gambles — the one used as a catalyst for the film’s dramatic unraveling — was a bet Jimmy made on the odds of incumbent President Harry Truman (very unpopular circa 1948) surviving against incoming presidential hopeful Tom Dewey. He based his hunches on the fact that of the many women he had polled that year, mustaches like the one worn by Dewey weren’t exactly a popular style. In one of the greatest presidential election upsets in history, The Greek seemingly validated his quirky intuition and market research.

The Greek went on to make several impressive bets that are elucidated throughout this hour-long documentary. Mitchell captures the man’s interesting life (and lifestyle) using a combination of interviews ranging in tone and objectivity — featuring the likes of Jimmy’s former colleagues, and some bigger names many are likely to recognize (Dan Rather) — and an overlaid narration created by someone who sounds quite like the deep booming voice Jimmy possessed. The film also includes several amusing clips taken exclusively from CBS and their affiliates.

The most rewarding aspect to this particular installment in the series is witnessing the varied reactions of those who knew him with appropriately varying degrees of intimacy, and hearing what it is they have to say now. Jimmy passed away in 1996, and many have coldly dismissed the event as a matter of inevitability. Death by broken heart. After his racist comments were made public, the great Greek never worked a job in news again. His spirit crushed, he would return to Vegas, tail between his legs and become lost to the machine of ill-advised gambling and scheming.

The heartbreaking documentary harps on the inevitable downfall of a once-proud journalist, in the process making a particular comment about the state of his funeral that left this reviewer cold but moreover sympathetic to a man who may not have made the best decisions in public, but one who knew what he loved and tried to die defending it. We of course all make mistakes, and for Jimmy it seemed the timing could not have been worse. This is the ultimate impact of Mitchell’s film.

Click here to read more 30-for-30 reviews.

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3-5Recommendation: Those who grew up watching CBS’s The NFL Today will get more of a kick out of this particular entry than those who did not. Fritz Mitchell makes the discussion lively and open to general interest viewers, as well, of course. This may be a pretty obscure docu but the entertainment/intrigue factor here have long-ranging implications in the world of sports. General sports fans surely will find something to be surprised by here, and if this is the first time meeting Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, what a welcoming it will be for you.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

[No trailer available. Sorry everyone.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.espn.com