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

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REVIEW: The Place Beyond the Pines

25 07 2013

If ever you wanted to see the film as novel, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is there to satisfy your cinematic-cum-literary hunger.  Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the searing “Blue Valentine” moves from close-up to long shot, taking in multiple generations over the course of its two hour and 20 minute runtime.  It could even be argued that the film has not one, not two, but a whopping three protagonists.

Cianfrance’s story is peerless in terms of sheer ambition, and I give him great credit on those grounds.  I did feel, however, that he often sacrificed depth for breadth.  Rather than go fully into each of the three leading men of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” he cuts out a level too early in their development to squeeze each story into a film of bearable length.  While each have full and completely developed arcs, I could never totally get on board with the film because I didn’t feel that I knew the characters.

Even in spite of the sometimes slippery connection, something tells me I will forever be haunted by the eerie calm of the paralleled hovering shots of Ryan Gosling’s Luke Lanton, and then his son, Dane DeHaan’s Jason, riding their motorcycle down a twisting rural road.  Even from such a height, there’s a great deal of proximity and intimacy that Cianfrance manages to communicate in those brief interludes.

His film has the technical craftsmanship to match the epic scope of the story, particularly the eerie and somber photography of Sean Bobbitt (responsible for Steve McQueen’s immaculately shot “Hunger” and “Shame”).  Editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane take the chilling imagery and splice it poetically until it feels like cinematic Homeric verse.

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REVIEW: The Iceman

20 04 2013

RiverRun International Film Festival

The Iceman” is everything you would expect from a period gangster film like  “GoodFellas,” only with none of the rush of excitement and energy you get from Scorsese’s classic.  Director Ariel Vromen’s color-by-numbers genre pic is the epitome of middling, average entertainment.  Its full-fledged adoption of tropes led me to think less about “The Iceman” itself and more about where I might have seen that scene play out before.

Usually gangster movies are propelled by strong characterization, particularly the protagonist.  “The Iceman” settles for lazy caricaturization where everyone just plays out the stereotypes, including Michael Shannon as the titular assassin Richard Kuklinski.  Over three decades in organized crime, he takes over 100 lives … all while his beautiful wife Deborah, played by Winona Ryder, doesn’t age a day!

Shannon is a magnetic performer, particularly playing troubled and unstable characters like John Givings in “Revolutionary Road” or Curtis LaForche in “Take Shelter.”  His work in “The Iceman” can’t hold a candle to these prior tour de forces, largely because Kuklinski is so poorly written that I doubt Jack Nicholson could make it work.

And Kuklinski is the best written character of the bunch, I might add.  It could also be bad casting, but cameo appearances by James Franco as a pornographer and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s brother were truly bizarre and out of place.  Roy Demeo, Ray Liotta’s character, proves the actor is more than willing to become his own worst imitator.  And I can’t even go there with Chris Evans, Captain America himself, as Robert Pronge, the shaggy-haired and cold-blooded ice cream man, or David Schwimmer as moustache-laden hitman Josh Rosenthal.

Without a compelling character at its center, why even bother watching a movie?  Particularly one that is so largely based around relationships?  I’d recommend not watching “The Iceman” and instead popping in “GoodFellas” or “Pulp Fiction” again.  Moreover, the film’s ability to delude itself into believing its own importance made me yearn for another gangster movie, “Analyze This,” where the same types of characters mix and mingle.  Only instead of being played for drama as in “The Iceman,” it’s played for laughs.  C2stars





REVIEW: Killing Them Softly

1 06 2012

Cannes Film Festival

A year after “Drive” took the Croisette by storm with what I saw to be an empty promise of genre revitalization, Andrew Dominik arrives with “Killing Them Softly,” a movie is the real deal for action fans. A whip-smart heist flick, Dominik seems to be channeling Stanley Kubrick with his aestheticized violence, hauntingly ironic music usage, and an emotional detachment. His film politicizes and stylizes the mob and the heist film, delivering a deliriously gory kick in the head.

The more I think about the film, the more I realize how it shouldn’t work. The character development, save James Gandolfini as a sleazy aging and boozing hitman, is minimal. The plot is familiar. The plot unfolds with relative predictability. Come on, it’s a mob movie – if you don’t know that almost everyone is gong to wind up dead, then you have some serious Scorsese to watch before you are allowed to come anywhere near “Killing Them Softly.”

But perhaps Nanni Moretti, president of the Cannes jury this year, holds the key to understanding why the movie transcends so many of its obvious shortcomings. He made an off-the-cuff observation that among the competition directors this year, many “seemed more in love with their style than their character[s].” While this could have applied to any number of directors I saw at Cannes (Wes Anderson, Carlos Reygadas, David Cronenberg), it seems particularly directed at Andrew Dominik. But while Moretti meant his remark to be construed as a negative, the style of “Killing Them Softly” is so abundant that it becomes a character in and of itself, taking the place of traditional “substance.”

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