Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kill the Messenger

The new drama Kill the Messenger is a jolt, it’s a welcome example of the movies reminding us of something we should have known all along. Director Michael Cuesta has filmed the story of the late journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) with a large dose of paranoia and an urgency about the need for a vigorous and independent American press. Kill the Messenger takes place in the 1990‘s, a time when media outlets (even that phrase) weren’t as conglomerated or as interested in playing to an ideological base as they are today, and one of the most surprising things about the film is just how long ago that time feels. Webb was an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News when the girlfriend (Paz Vega) of a drug dealer on trial shows him documents proving a key player in the California drug scene was a government informant. Pursuit of the story leads to the publication of Webb’s “Dark Alliance” stories, which reported that in the 1980’s  the C.I.A was aware of drug trafficking into the United States and that the profits were used to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. (U.S. funding of the Contras had been outlawed under the Boland Amendment.) The script by Peter Landesman (based in part on Webb’s book Dark Alliance) is equally detailed about the steps Webb took in reporting the story (trips to Central America, confrontations with government agents) and about the slowly unfolding nightmare of its aftermath.

Gary Webb isn’t portrayed here as a man motivated by a desire for attention. Landesman writes him and Renner plays him as a man who when he wasn’t working was focused on his wife (strong Rosemarie DeWitt) and children. Jeremy Renner is very good here, he doesn’t make Webb a white knight but rather a flawed man tasked with extraordinary work. Indeed the energy and specificity of the film is served by a very deep cast. Andy Garcia and Michael Kenneth Williams turn up as drug dealers, and there are also Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen and a superb cameo from Ray Liotta. After publishing his story Webb was unprepared for just how thin the support from his own paper (represented by Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) would be, not to mention the attacks from larger rivals. Kill the Messenger speaks to how invested the mainstream media was and is in not offending the power structure, and it’s at its most shocking in scenes where editors at  The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times are shown working to push back against Webb’s reporting. A key moment is actually one of the film’s briefest scenes; it’s a too-chummy conversation between a C.I.A. public affairs officer and a Post editor (Richard Schiff). It’s almost a throwaway moment in a busy film, but it’s “Inside the Beltway” illustrated if anything ever was.  As the government’s interest in him mounts Webb is eventually forced off the investigative beat even as confirmation of his reporting arrives too late. The saddest truth of Kill the Messenger arrives just before the closing credits. Gary Webb, who never worked on a daily newspaper again after resigning from the Mercury News, committed suicide in 2004.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ferrara on Pasolini

This interview with Abel Ferrara is mostly about his new Pasolini, but anyone working as an independent filmmaker in 2014 might also do well to learn from Ferrara's pragmatic can-do spirit.
Q: There’s an incredible parade of logos at the beginning of the movie. It seems like you got a little bit of money from a lot of places.

A: Well, that’s film financing in 2014, you gotta get money from—from the government, actually. Not corporate, but government—something that doesn’t exist in the United States. For me to go to my government and think that I’m gonna get money to make a film is absolutely the most avant-garde, outrageous concept. I wouldn’t dream of it in a million years. Call up Obama and say we’re making a movie? But in Europe they do, they support the arts. The city itself, the country, the campagna, the county, the state, the whatever. And we did it with three countries. France was a big supporter of the film, Belgium, and Italy is his home. I know, it looks a little funky at the beginning, but hey, whatever it is. Sometimes you get one guy to put up all the money, you got one name, sometimes you got 10 different people put up one-tenth of the money, you got ten names. But, hey, we got a movie, I ain’t bitchin’.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins is a closely observed family drama for adults that feels like it must have fallen through a time warp from the 1990's, a time when such things could still be found at movie theaters with some regularity. The film, directed by Craig Johnson, probably wouldn't have been made at all without the post-Bridesmaids influence of its star Kristen Wiig. Wiig plays Maggie, an unhappy wife in upstate New York whose is contemplating suicide just at the moment she learns her estranged brother (Bill Hader) has tried to take his own life in Los Angeles. Maggie brings Milo, a gay actor without an agent, back home to New York and the guest bedroom of the house she shares with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson). Maggie and Lance are still living in the town where Maggie and Milo grew up, and as the siblings return to old patterns The Skeleton Twins winds up being a well-done story of reconnection and acceptance.

Kristen Wiig's performance as Maggie is a continuation of Wiig's exploration of unhappiness. Even in Bridesmaids Wiig's character behaved out of a half-understood disappointment, and in other other film roles (including this) Wiig seems drawn to women whose lives are incomplete or unsuccessful. In The Skeleton Twins Wiig turns mannerisms that could be comic into expressions of her own frustration at her inability to understand herself. Why does Maggie not share Lance's desire for children, to the point that she covertly takes birth control? Why does she sleep with her scuba diving teacher (Boyd Holbrook)? There's an explanation in the script, which Craig Johnson wrote with Mark Heyman, but pleasure of the film is watching Wiig's carefully worked out journey to Maggie's bottom and the beginning of her climb back. Bill Hader is good in a less complicated part, the reasons for Milo's depression are much clearer and there's a plot about an older ex-lover (Ty Burrell) that goes in circles. There's some humor in Hader's awkwardness in their small town's gay bar and a lip-sync sequence that might have been made just to fill out the film's trailer, but the rawness of the final, secret-spilling argument is the place The Skeleton Twins is trying to get to and it does so very well. The Skeleton Twins offers a simple recipe for how a small-budget drama can get attention: address adult concerns through the lives of well-written, unfamiliar characters, and hope that someone from Bridesmaids likes the script. I'll settle for more movies that get even part of that list right.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Gone Girl

How do we talk about Gone Girl? The new David Fincher film arrives with bestseller pedigree and it fulfills our need to find cultural relevance in our big-ticket movies. The novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, is popular enough that online outrage erupted when rumors emerged that Fincher might change the book’s ending for the film. Though the story has the framework of a mystery it’s Flynn’s portrait of a marriage in recession-fueled crisis that’s the real engine of the story, and it’s what allows an audience to feel they’re watching something more substantial than a well-shot potboiler. That’s the parlor trick that Gone Girl almost pulls off; the film is a grabber (two and a half hours go quickly) that for a while makes you think it should be taken seriously.

The particulars are well known: Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne fall in love and marry in New York but are forced to return to Nick’s Missouri hometown after losing their jobs to the recession. Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary, with signs of a struggle left behind at the Dunne home. The initial wave of sympathy for Nick doesn’t last long. When the cops and media get involved Nick’s private foibles are exposed to the world and he becomes this week’s cable news object of derision. Neither Fincher nor Flynn can do much with the too familiar media subplot; there’s a Nancy Grace-like host (Missi Pyle) who fuels the outrage on her show and Sela Ward (who fares better but isn’t onscreen enough) as the interviewer who snags Nick’s I-didn’t-do-it TV appearance. The police procedural scenes are livened up thanks to an excellent Kim Dickens as the lead detective. Dickens gives her Detective Boney a wit and native intelligence that energize scenes that could otherwise have been formulaic. Two other supporting performances stand out: Carrie Coon is bracing as Nick’s twin sister, who gets to speak most of what the audience will think about her brother. Tyler Perry has a ball as Nick’s high-priced lawyer Tanner Bolt. Perry seems to understand exactly what kind of film he’s in, and  every time Tanner comes onscreen there’s a welcome burst of urgency.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay toggles between the aftermath of Amy’s disappearance and the couple’s early days in New York. Nick, whom Affleck plays with some repressed anger and just the right swagger, is immediately taken with Amy after a chance meeting at a party . If Gone Girl is a hit then Rosamund Pike will be a star; Pike is asked to play an astonishing range of emotions. Amy’s parents (David Clennon and Lisa Baines) have cannibalized her life for a series of children’s books, and Amy is looking to be swept away by someone who doesn’t already know her history. She falls for Nick’s confidence but (as we hear in the diary that is used as narration) becomes afraid of his disappointment and anger after the couple’s fortunes take a turn. There is a central idea at work in Gone Girl that the film keeps working, which is that changes wrought by time and circumstance can be irreparable fault lines in a marriage. That isn’t an uninteresting subject, but Fincher gets stuck having to service Flynn’s plot and after a while hearing the theme stated again becomes too absurd to bear. If we’re meant to find the final revelation (involving a well-used Neil Patrick Harris as a creepy ex of Amy’s) and the film’s last act darkly humorous then that’s fine, but Gone Girl has chosen sides in the marriage and we’re left with a half-baked ending. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn are in their way as shaky a couple as Nick and Amy. By committing to Flynn’s baroque plotting Fincher has undone any chance of Gone Girl cutting as deep as he would like it to. Enjoy your popcorn.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson almost certainly didn’t have to make A Walk Among the Tombstones, but he did and it’s to Neeson’s credit that he could tell the difference between this lean and mean detective story and the recent spate of movies in which all he’s asked to do is be tough. A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on a Lawrence Block novel, one of a long-running series about a P.I. named Matthew Scudder. Neeson is very well cast as Scudder, besides the obvious physical menace he always looks like he either wants a drink or just had one and he seems perfectly at home on the streets of New York. Writer/director Scott Frank puts us in a New York we don’t usually see at the movies, an outer borough, late-’90s streetscape (it’s 1999 and Y2K is in the air) that’s as blasted out and deserted as a European war zone. This setting is home to a cast of characters living on the city’s margins. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop, is an unlicensed P.I. and his client Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Kenny wants Scudder to find the two men who kidnapped and murdered his wife so that he can take his revenge, and soon enough Scudder discovers a pattern of killings involving the family members of others in the drug life. No fuss is made about the identities of the killers or about making them funny; they’re two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who appear to enjoy the terror in their victims’ eyes more than the money they collect. After another kidnapping Scudder lures the two into a confrontation and the last act of the movie is a piece of superbly sustained tension.

Describing the plot reduces A Walk Among the Tombstones to a set of genre conventions. The drama lies in watching Neeson uncover new levels in Scudder, not just at the climax but in his relationship with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). TJ is a homeless teen and would-be detective, and it’s the kind of role that could have been a cliché but is turned into something real by not overdoing it. There is also a terrific supporting performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as the man who gives Scudder his first real lead. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a very satisfying film that’s also a fine vehicle for its star, and I would be up for seeing Neeson return to this role.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Polley + Gerwig

This conversation between Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig is taken from the Criterion disc of Frances Ha. Polley has a future as a chat show host.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You, directed by Shawn Levy from a novel by Jonathan Tropper, is the story of what happens when four grown children return home for their father's funeral. We never meet Mort Altman (except briefly in flashback), and we don't really find out that much about him over the course of almost two hours. It seems Mort was a bad businessman who didn't kiss his kids, preferring instead a sort of gentle head-butt, but it doesn't matter because Mort's widow Hillary (Jane Fonda) supported the family as therapist and author. So if Mort's death is just the opening move then what exactly do we have here?

Jason Bateman is ideal for the role of Judd, the successful middle son whom we meet on the day he discovers his wife (Abigail Spencer) and boss (Dax Shepard) in bed together. Judd is in a funk when he returns home for Mort's funeral, not ready to tell anyone except his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) about his impending divorce. The other two Altman children are Paul (Corey Stoll), who's taking over the family business and trying to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant, and family screw-up Phillip (Adam Driver). We don't get too many specifics about Phillip's life, but he arrives late for Mort's funeral in a Porsche and has brought an older woman (Connie Britton) home with him. At Mort's request Hillary and the kids are to sit shiva together at home, with guidance from a rabbi (Ben Schwartz) who's in the movie just so the Altmans can call him by a childhood nickname. I enjoyed Bateman's usual dry understatement and the way Tina Fey makes Wendy warm and rueful instead of bitter towards her mostly absent husband. Adam Driver and Kathryn Hahn have their moments too, but by this point the movie can't resist piling on contrivances. Fey actually gets the worst of it; she's stuck with a howler of a subplot about an old love (Timothy Olyphant) who lives across the street and has suffered a brain injury. Olyphant is terrible - he's miscast, undirected, and probably too good looking for the role - but it's hard to blame him since he's playing a character who's only purpose is to shine light on someone else. Jason Bateman at least gets to play a few scenes with Rose Byrne as a local woman who never left, but there is no time for Byrne to show the anarchic comic spirit she brought to Neighbors. It all ends with another revelation, broadly played and predictably progressive in spirit.

This Is Where I Leave You strives for seriousness and asserts the right of well-off adults to be sad and confused about their lives. I haven't read the novel, but if the movie had had the courage of its convictions (and maybe had fewer characters) it might have been something. Levy and Tropper can't settle on a tone though, and what we've got is a rushed and busy affair with well-acted dramatic scenes butting up against broad comic ones. Put This Is Where I Leave You down as a missed opportunity for one of the fall's best ensemble casts.


Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is, for its anger and sheer inventiveness, an essential film of 2014. Better known to date perhaps for the controversy over how and in what form it would be released, Snowpiercer is a film that had to be made by someone outside the Hollywood system because anyone with a foothold at the studios would have been afraid to touch it. It is a film we need very much.

The tail section of the Snowpiercer - a train that carries the remains of humanity around the world after an environmental disaster - is a place of Dickensian squalor, with passengers crammed into bunks and forced to survive on "protein blocks" served at the discretion of Wilford (Ed Harris). The engine that powers the always-running train is Wilford's creation, and he guards it at the head of a train that on which the class structure is rigidly enforced. The spiritual leader of the tail is Gilliam (John Hurt), but the drive for revolution comes from Curtis (Chris Evans) and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). One thing that Snowpiercer gets right is the way it raises the question that so many revolutions don't answer: "What's next?" Curtis is motivated by anger at the treatment his people receive, and the way that children from the tail are forcibly removed to the front without explanation. The anger only grows as the revolutionaries discover the absurd luxuries of the front cars, which include a fish farm for sushi and a dance club that looks like it was hauled in from a Matrix sequel. Yet it's not clear that Curtis knows what he'd replace the current system with, and when he reaches the front he's tempted by Wilford's offer to oversee what's really a rolling experiment in social engineering. I don't know to what degree Bong Joon-ho was inspired by current American political rhetoric (the script is based on a graphic novel), but the crux of the movie is Curtis's attempt to fight against what's really the stretching of some conservative talking points to a ridiculous extreme. In Wilford's world the poor will always be with us, and to maintain balance on the train they must stay in their place. The alternative of course is the messiness of a free, open society. That's what Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) wants; he's the security specialist working with the revolutionaries who thinks that life outside the train may be possible.

Curtis makes his choice, as we all must, and the last shot of Snowpiercer is as simple and hopeful as anything I can remember. I don't want to suggest that ideas are all that is at work here. The close-quarter battle scenes are quick and bloody, the various train cars we see are impeccably designed, and the large cast is unexpected and excellent. Chris Evans gets to show a good deal more range than in his Captain America< roles, while Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer (as a single mother) make fine revolutionaries. I loved Alison Pill as a teacher indoctrinating children in the power of 'the engine" and best of all is Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays the bureaucrat charged with overseeing the tail, and she's unrecognizable in false teeth and oversized glasses. The phrase "world-building" has become a cliche, but it's done to near-perfection here in a film that asks important questions and offers no easy answers.