REVIEW: Kill the Messenger

20 03 2015

Michael Cuesta’s “Kill the Messenger” plays like an “All the President’s Men” for an era of the lone eagle rather than the journalistic tag team.  Jeremy Renner stars as muckraking journalist Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovers a 1980s CIA conspiracy that use the smuggling of crack cocaine into the U.S. as a front to launder weapons into Central America.  In essence, poor American communities are collateral damage to freedom fighting operations.

The first half features him uncovering the story, and the second half follows the fallout after publication.  Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, who had the backing of the Washington Post, Webb just wrote for a small outlet out of San Jose that lacked the resources or the confidence to stand with the controversial piece.  The CIA, of course, sought to discredit the story, and archival footage shows how the mainstream media ran with their smear campaign.

Renner is potent and forceful as the leading man of the film, clinging to his ethics and pride when all else around him seems to fail.  “Kill the Messenger” thrives because of his righteous anger.  His work also receives bolstering from a tremendous supporting cast with solid turns from character actors like Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

I can scarcely think of a critique for “Kill the Messenger,” except maybe the fact that it lacks an X-factor to take it from very good to great.  Still, Cuesta turns Peter Landesman’s tightly wound script into an entertaining, enthralling watch.  I can’t complain about that at all.  B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 19, 2015)

19 03 2015

The Jarecki family features two prominent documentarians; recently, Eugene has been the more active of the brothers.  His acclaimed 2012 film “The House I Live In” sparked some debate around the topic of mass incarceration in America.  But, all of a sudden, Andrew Jarecki has arrived with his HBO series “The Jinx” that left the entertainment page and flew onto the front page.

Andrew flew under the radar for the past decade or so, although he is the only brother with an Oscar nomination.  He achieved that feat for his 2003 feature “Capturing the Friedmans,” another documentary centered around a monstrous criminal spawned by a well-off but unusual family.  Unlike “The Jinx,” where Jarecki consciously sought to make a judgment about his subject, he stays hands-off here.

“Capturing the Friedmans” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because of this observational, judgment-free style.  Though Arnold Friedman and his son, Jesse, were charged and convicted of possessing child pornography and sexually abusing minors, Jarecki never treats them as subhuman.  In fact, he even extends them the benefit of the doubt as to whether they committed these acts in the first place.  No physical evidence was ever uncovered, so the case came down to the word of the children against the word of the Friedmans.

Jarecki manages to get some of the most personal, frank testimony from the participants in the story, especially those in the Friedman family themselves.  When the state brings charges against Arnold and Jesse, the matriarch and her other two sons hardly react in a conventionally supportive matter.  Home video recorded from the time of the legal action shows their bitter disintegration as a family unit, and the interviews shed light on why it all unraveled so easily.

As it turns out, the abuse goes farther back than just the assaults Arnold and Jesse reportedly committed in their basement to children signed up for a computer class.  (Horrifying and sickening, if it’s true.)  But by highlighting the legacy of sexual dysfunction that led up to deeds which resulted in two prison sentences, Jarecki never seems like he is attempting to excuse or apologize for the Friedman men.  In “Capturing the Friedmans,” he achieves just what his title indicates: nailing them down in their very essence to allow a greater understanding of how they could have done what they did.

REVIEW: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

18 03 2015

kumiko_the_treasure_hunter_ver2A shy, young office worker in Japan mysteriously stumbles upon a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” and begins to interpret it as a factual document pointing her to buried treasure in the snows of North Dakota.

That constitutes the basic premise of the odd, eccentric film “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” by the Zellner Brothers.  The duo certainly concocted a unique caper, one that allows a bunny and a tawdry motel duvet cover to dwarf the acting prowess of their Academy Award-nominated star Rinko Kikuchi.  She plays Kumiko as the introvert that her character is, although her timidity and ambivalence at times makes for a frustrating watch.  (For a while, I wondered if she was playing another mute character like she did in “Babel.”)

Kumiko makes for a particularly tough read because the Zellners, quite admirably, provide very little context with which to make sense of her.  Is she a naive, childlike protagonist on a quixotic quest like Thomas Schell from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” or is she driven by sinister demons like the two assassins who claimed that J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” told them to kill people?  The question does not get answered until the very end of “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” and it provides a precious sense of tension to hold flagging interest.

The curiosity generated by the Zellners’ novel concept gradually dissipates as their tedious pacing and unrelenting ambiguity steers the film.  “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” is worth watching through to the end, if for no other reason than to find out what on earth will happen with this strange character.  The rewards for enduring such a slog, however, hardly amount to bountiful treasure.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Deli Man

17 03 2015

Deli ManErik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “Deli Man” surveys the history and recent decline of the Jewish delicatessen in America from a very familiar vantage point to me: Kenny & Ziggy’s, a dining establishment located just blocks away from my childhood home in Houston.  I have made countless memories there … and probably consumed about as many calories of owner Ziggy Gruber’s food.

But the location alone can hardly account for how voraciously I devoured the film.  Anjou’s doc went down like a good pastrami sandwich – satisfying and extremely filling.  He weaves Ziggy’s personal narrative with the larger cultural and ethnic story with an ease that escapes many non-fiction filmmakers.  Furthermore, he manages to inform without ever boring the viewer.

I, for one, learned plenty from “Deli Man.”  The number of authentic Jewish delis in America has shrunk to about 150 from multiple thousands in their 1930s heyday; I would have thought the latter total was the accurate count (probably because my Jewish relatives always manage to find one in every town).  Most attribute the decline to ethnic assimilation, although there still exists a rare breed, like Ziggy, that persists in maintaining a connection to the ancestors who immigrated from Europe.

Ziggy takes the lion’s share of attention in “Deli Man,” though Anjou still provides a panoramic view of the delicatessen scene from Los Angeles to New York.  Each owner profiled has an interesting take on the business as well as a fascinating story as to how they managed to stay afloat.  If their dishes taste half as good as Anjou makes them look in the film, though, I cannot fathom any of them ever going out of business.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: What We Do in the Shadows

16 03 2015

what_we_do_in_the_shadowsAfter the vampire boom of the late 2000s (all thanks to the “Twilight” saga), it makes sense that we now get a reactionary boom of revisionist bloodsuckers.  From action flick “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to hipster indies like “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” it feels like culture has begun to reclaim the terrifying creature from the Cullens.

Now, add Kiwi mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” to the pile. The film comes from the team behind cult hit TV series “Flight of the Concords,” Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, and their latest effort seems destined to dwell in a similar realm of fandom.  The movie is undeniably clever and funny on a number of occasions, yet those moments come inconsistently (and a little too infrequently).

When Clement and Waititi realize their vision for three centuries-old vampires who are hopelessly out of place courting fresh blood in the modern world, “What We Do in the Shadows” recalls “This is Spinal Tap” in the hilarity of its pathetic mundanity.  But when they miss, the film feels like an improv sketch that cannot achieve liftoff from the very beginning and then crawls its way towards a far-off conclusion.  Even at under an hour and a half, the uneven mix of these two extremes makes the whole thing drag.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Seymour: An Introduction

15 03 2015

Look no further, all those who wander aimlessly and wonder what the true meaning of life is, for Ethan Hawke seems pretty sure he has found it.  In “Seymour: An Introduction,” his first effort as a documentarian, Hawke profiles a former pianist and current piano instructor, octogenarian Seymour Bernstein.  But this is hardly a movie about music; the real subject is how to lead a wholesome life in the pursuit of art.

Hawke, after apparently hitting a wall of frustration in his acting, found renewed purpose from hearing the work and teachings of Seymour.  He mostly removes himself from the film, though Hawke does appear from time to time to gush ecstatic praises at his subject.  “Seymour: An Introduction” possesses the same amount of reverence that might be expected in a documentary about the Dalai Lama or Deepak Chopra.  I kept waiting for Gwyneth Paltrow to jump out at some point and endorse Seymour’s lifestyle brand.

None of this is meant to imply that Hawke is off-base in declaring Seymour a true savant at playing the keys of the piano as well as life, nor do I wish to ridicule the director for some kind of ridiculous insincerity.  I have personally witnessed Ethan Hawke speaking in person, both in private and public settings, and I truly believe that he cares deeply about meaningful art.  To someone without that context, though, “Seymour” might seem to drown under the weight of its hyperbole.

Plenty of Seymour’s wisdom is relevant, applicable, and deeply felt from a lifetime of lived experience.  Sometimes, though, his morsels of insight amount to little more than a well-phrased fortune cookie aphorism.  Hawke treats both like they are holy texts, unassailable because of their almost spiritual nature.  In fact, he passes off the only serious interrogation of his subject to a reporter writing a story on Seymour (convenient way to show undying loyalty to a deity).

“Seymour: An Introduction” works best when consumed like a self-help chicken soup as opposed to a practically religious message.  There is likely a great documentary lurking under the surface of this pretty good one, probably hiding behind the unceasing praise lavished on the film’s sage.  But if Seymour played any part in helping Hawke find the poignancy he lent to those final scenes in “Boyhood,” then this film’s existence is completely justified.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Short Term 12

14 03 2015

Short Term 12“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” raps Keith Stanfield as Marcus in “Short Term 12.”  The musical moment occurs early on in the film, so the mood of momentarily subdued hopelessness is well established.  But his vulnerable profession of pain still feels like it comes out of nowhere, blindsiding us and leaving an aching bruise on our heart.

Writer/director Destin Cretton derived the film from his own experiences working in a home for troubled teens, so the scenes portraying the residents of the short term living facility are the most vividly realized.  They possess a potent, palpable authenticity that is rare to encounter outside of documentary film.  The kids do not come across as characters wandering around inside a story – they feel like people who happened to step in front of the lens.

“Short Term 12″ would be a compelling enough film had it just focused on the backstories of the teenagers and what led them to the home, but that does not exactly lend itself handily to the narrative form.  Thus, to tie all the elements together, Cretton introduces Brie Larson as the home’s supervisor, Grace, into the script.

Larson is phenomenal in the role, bringing equal parts heart and grit to the table.  But the problem is, the rest of “Short Term 12″ just lies on an entirely different level as her.  Everyone else appears to be inhabiting and living; Larson, unavoidably, always has to act.  They are authentic, while she is honest – two modes that are closely related but not quite synonymous.

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