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Rating History

Kill the Messenger
1 day ago via Flixster

There was nothing like a Watergate-style scandal to inspire one of my favorite genres, the 70s Paranoid Thriller. An in-over-his head hero uncovers a top level conspiracy and faces certain death around every corner. Sydney Pollack, Alan J. Pakula, John Schlesinger and let's not forget screenwriting genius William Goldman all excelled in this genre. Their techniques for building suspense (who could forget the bouncing ball coming out of the darkness in MARATHON MAN or Robert Redford discovering all of his colleagues are dead in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR?) should be mandatory in Film School classes. It's a rare thing anymore to find a film of their quality, and KILL THE MESSENGER, Michael Cuesta's (L.I.E., HOMELAND) is a respectable yet not-quite-out-of-the-park entry in the genre.

Set in 1996 and based on a true story and book by journalist Gary Webb, MESSENGER traces one journalist's efforts to uncover the C.I.A.'s involvement in trading arms for drugs to Nicaraguan Contra Rebels in the Reagan 80s. It was Webb's claim that these deals led to the American crack cocaine epidemic. Still with me? Good, because things get more complicated from there.

Webb is wonderfully played by Jeremy Renner as a hair-trigger reporter for the mid-level San Jose Mercury News. There's so much energy and passion in his performance. Early on, he's tipped off by an overly flirtatious woman (an amusing Paz Vega) and soon enough he's on his way towards getting the scoop on a story much larger papers couldn't crack. Of course, the C.I.A., with the help of every other journalist out there, will do anything in their power to discredit Webb, and that's when the Paranoid Thriller elements begin. I wish I could report that these are handled brilliantly, but Cuesta doesn't invest himself in the filmmaking techniques of his predecessors. Eshewing a formalized style for the overused handheld methods, and not playing with silences well enough to build suspense, Cuesta keeps you involved but doesn't present indelible moments. Workmanlike isn't the same as masterful. Instead of ratcheting up the tension, he merely operates from a level of tension the entire time. Scary moments such as a scene involving a man behind a car or the sudden appearance of someone in a hotel room could have been that much more frightening had there been some proper buildup or some play between silence and score. The great films in this genre made the audience complicit in our hero's discoveries, drawing us in and holding on tight. Too often, Cuesta resorts to montages of actual news footage, which admittedly is well-edited, tense, and necessary, but I wanted at least one great sequence to go with an otherwise terrific story.

Still, all is not lost. Renner is well-supported by a roster of great character actors, including Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick and Dan Futterman, all of whom provide committed, energetic turns. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fine but a little underutilized as Webb's editor. On the home front, Rosemarie DeWitt is saddled with the thankless task of playing Webb's wife, yet she manages to infuse her role with a little fire and has perfect chemistry with Renner. It's Lucas Hedges as Webb's teenage son, Ian, who nearly walks away with the movie. In a knockout scene in a garage, Hedges bubbles up and crumbles beautifully as a young man realizing his hero may not be perfect. It's in this moment you realize that crusaders like Webb took moralistic stances in order to show their children how to become better human beings. KILL THE MESSENGER earns its power here.

I don't want to be too harsh with this film or "kill the messenger" as it were, because I applaud any effort to reignite the fire in our collective bellies. This is a worthy movie which nimbly connects high level government conspiracies to the frayed fabric of our neighborhoods. Maybe it's the way handheld camera work has been overused. It's often the go-to technique in low-budget filmmaking when you don't have enough time or money to execute a scene with everything you've got. Maybe it's the lack of discipline it takes to only move the camera when there's a reason. Maybe it was the desire to stick to the facts and not want to goose up a scene with every trick in the filmmaker handbook. Who knows? But it wouldn't hurt to look back at the greats and go for that high bar, right?

The Good Lie
The Good Lie (2014)
2 days ago via Flixster


Historically, Hollywood has had the best of intentions when depicting a crisis in Africa, but has often felt the need to add a white Hollywood Star to the mix to be the eyes and ears of the story. Think CRY FREEDOM, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, or BLOOD DIAMOND to name a few. From the poster, one might think THE GOOD LIE, with its beaming close-up of Oscar Winner Reese Witherspoon towering over a trio of Africans trekking across a savannah, is of the same ilk. Fortunately, the ad is a "good lie", one intended to get butts in seats for a film in which Witherspoon's role takes a backseat to the compelling story of Sudanese refugees trying to survive a brutal Civil War.

Working from a screenplay by Margaret Nagle, French Canadian director Phillippe Falardeau tells the somewhat fictionalized story of "The Lost Boys", children orphaned by a religious war between the largely Muslim Northern Sudanese and the Christian Southerners. Depicted as less of a war and more of a full-scale attack, the lucky who would survive would walk on foot for as much as 1000 miles to refugee camps, such as one in Kenya.

The first act of THE GOOD LIE shows this terrifying struggle through the eyes of Mamere (Arnold Oceng), his sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel), brother Theo (Femi Oguns), and friends Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Jeremiah (Ger Duany). At the screening I attended, screenwriter Nagle confessed that through her 10 year effort to get this film made, she had to pull a few punches in this section. I'm sure the realities of this situation were way harsher than depicted, but enough is on the screen to stay with you when things shift dramatically to Kansas City. It is here we meet Carrie (Witherspoon), a job counselor charged with helping most of the above find work. Brought to the states by a Catholic charity, Mamere and company don't know what to make of this strange new world. By the same token, Carrie is addled by these immigrants and tries to keep her distance. Although her part is somewhat small, it's refreshing to see a woman who initially can't be bothered, grow to care. She's frosty and just too caught up in a life that needs a rude awakening. It's the journey many moviegoers will take.

The results are sometimes mawkish, but it's difficult to criticize something so well-intentioned. Nagle has the smarts to inject much humor into this story and gives our trio of guys distinct personalities and quirks. These are not perfect, noble men, but victims of post-traumatic stress who struggle to find their place in a world that seemingly doesn't have much use for them. The film is all about perception and shifting points of view. We, the audience, are way ahead of Witherspoon in our understanding of what pre-American life was like for these men, yet we're also ahead of the men in our understanding of things we take for granted here. One moment you're thinking how awful we are as a culture to waste food the way we do, and yet the next you're moved by our ability to be generous.

Each character is distinct, flawed, and highly believable. I rooted for them to succeed, and was heartbroken during their lows. Oceng anchors the film solidly, but Jal and Duany kept me emotionally engaged with their wildly different reactions to their new surroundings. This film is a gentle reminder that every person has a story.

This brings me to my struggle with it. There's no doubt that this is an important story that needed to be told. It's well-acted and has infinite twists and turns. It's smart enough to bring you in close and experience a life, a culture, and a struggle so different from the average westerner. I walked away with a renewed appreciation for sacrifice and acts of kindness. Yet...yet...yet...I wasn't crazy about the film itself. It took me a while to figure out why. It finally dawned on me that while this is a great story, it's not great filmmaking. Falardeau wisely stays out of the way and presents things very matter-of-factly, but it's at the expense of truly memorable or striking juxtapositions of sight and sound. Instead of allowing natural sounds to create a visceral impact, big moments in the film are given big score. In a scene where bodies float down a river, I thought about what a master Steven Spielberg was at showing this in his WAR OF THE WORLDS remake and couldn't help but compare it to the hyped up way it's done in this film. Masters such as Costa-Gavras or Roland Joffe (both of whom also used a white point of view in their films MISSING and THE KILLING FIELDS) would have put a more distinct directorial stamp on THE GOOD LIE. Falardeau, on the other hand, keeps things humming along, but with a somewhat bland, Lifetime movie quality. It's not bad. It's actually quite good. But in a welcome return to social filmmaking, which we hardly see in theaters overcrowded with superheroes and CGI cartoons, I was hoping for a stronger point of view.and CGI cartoons, I was hoping for a stronger point of view.

Gone Girl
Gone Girl (2014)
13 days ago via Flixster

"Wow, that was cruel" - first words out of my mouth at the end of GONE GIRL.

David Fincher, directing from a screenplay by Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own bestselling novel, works a healthy dose of social commentary within the framework of a page-turning thriller with his latest film, GONE GIRL. Despite a nearly 2 1/2 hour running time, he succeeds due to some truly entertaining performances and a delicious plot twist clocking in nearly every five minutes. It may not be the Oscar bait many predicted, but it's one of the year's most fun and diabolical rides.

Ostensibly the story of a husband suffering through the loss (and apparent death) of his wife, GONE GIRL hooks you in and makes you wonder about its underlying themes in its very first shot. Looking at the back of his wife Amy's (Rosamund Pike) head as he gently strokes her blonde hair, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) speaks in voiceover about how you never really know the ones you love. Amy looks back at Nick, and therefore the audience, with an icy stare that never reveals her true intentions.

When Amy goes missing, leaving behind a scary crime scene, Nick is immediately a suspect. Two cops (assured turns by Patrick Fugit and an especially strong and vivid Kim Dickens) work the case, turning over new clues which shift the audience's and their loyalties with alarming frequency. I won't spoil anymore, except to say that very little is what it seems.

Affleck is beautifully effective with the tricky role of a complicated man thrust into a pressure cooker situation. While I found much of his actions to be complicated by a hair-trigger temper, he's relatable in how he reacts to an ever-evolving information dump. As his acerbic twin sister, Carrie Coon nearly walks away with the film. Her acid tongue is well-balanced by a palpable care for her sibling. She seems to be channeling Janeane Garofalo in the best possible way. Tyler Perry, well cast as the slick defense attorney, gives a commanding turn. I imagined his years running his empire informed such a dynamic performance. Also getting their moments are Casey Wilson, as a blindsided neighbor, Neil Patrick Harris as a stalker-esque ex-boyfriend, Sela Ward as an intimidating journalist, and especially Lola Kirke and Boyd Holbrook, who etch out highly memorable characters with very little screen time.

As great as this cast is, this is really Rosamund's Pikes calling card. As the upper crust trust fund baby who seems to die a slow death in the suburbs, layer upon layer is revealed as the movie chugs along. Her cool, icy demeanor felt like a throwback to such Hitchcock heroines as Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, but with a much quicker, sharper wit. In lesser hands, this role would have strained credibility, but Pike has wonderfully bravura moments when her character is silent. Witnessing her wheels spinning as she watches a news program is one delightful example. While lending fine supporting turns in such films as AN EDUCATION and MADE IN DAGENHAM, Pike breaks out here and easily rises to the ranks of one of our top actors. There's a rush watching her that's akin to what Sharon Stone did in BASIC INSTINCT. It's the joy of watching a sharp mind at work.

While the many revelations are entertaining in and of themselves, it's the social commentary that gives GONE GIRL its bite. An indictment (perhaps too obvious) of the endless cycle of 24-hour-Twitter-sourced media and how it's helping to foster sociopathic behavior, the film forces you to question everyone's motives. Many may quibble with the ending, which can easily leave a sour taste in one's mouth, but that's the point of this stinging anatomy of a marriage. It wants to say something quite harsh about human relationships, but wants to thrill you along the way. Pulpy or meaty, this is a film that has it both ways, and it's all the better for it.

Whiplash (2014)
17 days ago via Flixster

The winner of both the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Awards, WHIPLASH is a small, contained film about big ideas. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle, basing the film in part on his past experiences as a High School drummer, works in tight close-ups to push an intimate tale right into our collective faces. Your enjoyment of this depends on your tolerance for getting screamed at for nearly two solid hours. I was mostly won over, but I can't say I didn't feel pummeled at times.

Miles Teller (RABBIT HOLE, DIVERGENT) is Andrew, an aspiring drummer enrolled at a prestigious music academy. When we first meet him, in a glorious, long tracking shot down a rehearsal hall, his passion for playing is palpable. The shot, which turns out to be a clever POV of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons of OZ and JUNO fame), the insanely controlling instructor who will stop at nothing to achieve musical perfection. Without spelling anything out for the audience, which is the film's strong suit for most of it, we can tell he spots talent in this young man.

The remainder of the film is predominantly laser-focused on this teacher/student dynamic. Think THE KARATE KID if Mr. Miyagi were played by FULL METAL JACKET'S R. Lee Ermey, then mix in deep brown and amber tones, a jazz score even jazz-haters like me can appreciate, and more edge and swearing than you can shake a (drum) stick at, and WHIPLASH is born.

Teller does a fantastic job of mining his character's bottomless ambition and quiet sweetness. He's endearing when hitting on a girl at the local cinema, played nicely by GLEE's Melissa Benoist, but he's truly striking in a terrific scene in which he lays out their entire relationship for her. It reminded me of the opening scene from THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but here we see exactly where his growing calculation is coming from --- Fletcher.

As Andrew works his way up the ladder at his school and finds himself auditioning for Fletcher's Studio Band, we feel every inch of his struggle, we truly experience the physical struggle and focus it takes to be the best. There's nothing cornball about it. Lazier films would cook up musical montages to get us from Point A to Point B. Chazelle, who with this film, has created a dialogue with his audience (more on that in a sec), dares to immerse us in every single detail of what it takes to be great. Here it's to be a great drummer, but the conversation of this film is about the difference between good and great. It could be anything - a painter, writer, teacher. It doesn't matter. Fletcher and ultimately Andrew stand for those who want and demand better.

Chazelle, with this, his first feature, wants to show the world that he won't settle for a good movie. He clearly is going for broke. There are many bravura sequences here, including a phenomenal final scene. Watching Fletcher suck people in with kindness one second only to tear them apart the next is thrilling but through the intentional repetition, it becomes exhausting. Still, Andrew goes on quite a fascinating, completely involving journey. One sequence, in which he has mere minutes to retrieve a pair of drumsticks lest he lose his position in a concert is the perfect realization of stop-at-nothing drive. A family dinner turns into a revenge pissing contest when Andrew squares off against his decidedly more-accomplished brothers. You feel every step of Andrew's growth, and for that, this is a great role and performance.

Simmons brings as much shading as he can to Fletcher, and he's given many terrific monologues, but I could have done without maybe 20% of his hostile outbreaks, especially when he hurls homophobic invectives at anyone and everyone. I get that it's part of his character, but it feels more 1980s than modern day. In this current climate, I doubt GLAAD is going to give Simmons any recognition this year.

It's a minor quibble for such an accomplished piece of filmmaking. The unsteady rhythms of jazz are perfectly realized by editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir has clearly studied from the "Prince of Darkness", the late, great, Gordon Willis, with his moody, burnished lighting.

With literal blood, sweat, and tears, WHIPLASH arrives as a primal scream in the face of mediocrity. Had there been just a little less of the screaming, this visceral, nervous, highly focused film would have achieved greatness, but we'll have to settle for very, very good.

Pride (2014)
21 days ago via Flixster

THE FULL MONTY spawned an entire category of films I like to call the QUAINT ENGLISH VILLAGE MOVIE. It started out great, but then one after the other just kept coming - WAKING NED DEVINE, THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, CALENDAR GIRLS, BILLY ELLIOT - and while individually good, enough already! So I came to PRIDE with crossed arms and a bitter attitude. Man was I being a dick. This is just a terrific movie, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Based on the remarkable 1984 true story of the infamous Miner's strike in Thatcher England which found unlikely bedfellows in the form of support from a London-based LGBT group, PRIDE is better than its terrible title. Initially I thought it was a documentary about gay pride parades. The actual story is far more compelling than my assumptions. Identifying with the bullying tactics inflicted on the strikers, a small group of gay men and one lesbian take to the streets with buckets to collect spare change.

They are led by Mark (Ben Schnetzer), a very strong-willed, politically astute young man who makes the connection between the two oppressed groups. Although the miners were notorious homophobes, he pushes forward and enlists the aid of his community. They encounter initial resistance from the Union, so instead they engage a small Welsh mining village directly and work hard to bond with the locals.

This is a very large, unwieldy cast and the screenplay by Stephen Beresford is overstuffed with incident, but director Matthew Warchus masterfully juggles all of the balls in the air and creates an emotionally overpowering and lovely cinematic experience. Along with Mark, there's George MacKay as Joe, the closeted newbie who goes on an inspiring hero's journey throughout. Andrew Scott is a true find as Gethin, a gay bookstore owner who must face his Welsh heritage. Closely resembling Mark Ruffalo, Scott gives a fantastic performance as a man who has lived in fear and shame for too long. Dominic West, best known for THE WIRE, shines in a small but crucial role as Gethin's partner.

On the village side, there is none other than the legends, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy, who are all very strong, but the heart and soul of this film belongs to Jessica Gunning as Sian, a fierce advocate for her new friends and a force of nature whether she's stomping into police stations or reprimanding her husband for showing any hint of homophobia. I have the feeling, much as I did when I saw TRAINSPOTTING, that PRIDE has the potential to launch major careers with Schnetzer, MacKay and Gunning. These are immensely appealing actors whom you can't help but cheer.

It's not perfect. Not every storyline is resolved. In fact a major one concerning a bitter matriarch and her two gay-bashing sons doesn't even come close. Also, I found it a bit odd that some characters were given WHERE ARE THEY NOW cards at the end, while others didn't get a mention. No matter, as this is a rousing, spirited call to action. There's a non-profit group in existence right now called GAY4GOOD, where its volunteers reach out to other communities to help bag groceries, clean parks, etc. This organization stands on the shoulders of these brave, colorful, vivid activists from 30 years ago. They risked their lives and reputations to stand beside others in need. PRIDE is a crowd-pleasing rallying call. It won't change cinema, but in this troubled world we find ourselves in, changing hearts and minds is more important.