The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (Sidney Hall)


The Hollywood version of a writer hard at work.

(2017) Drama (A24) Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Drayer, Christine Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo, Danny Cullen, Richard Beal, Ryan Willard, Cris Williams, Stephanie Purpuri. Directed by Shawn Christensen

 

From time to time, people who are at the top of their field, wrapped in success and fame, who simply walk away. It’s an irresistible story for the rest of us who wonder why those folks give up what the rest of us dream of. It is a sign of the prurient side of ourselves.

Sidney Hall (Lerman) is a gifted writer. Ask him; he’ll tell you so. We meet him in a high school writing class in which he has been tasked with writing an essay on the meaning of life. What he delivers is a treatise on his willingness to masturbate over a popular cheerleader and his feeling that he’s wasting his efforts on it. Needless to say, this doesn’t impress the tightly wound English teacher much.

Duane (Abdul-Mateen) knows that Sidney is just breaking the balls of the teacher who doesn’t understand him. He acts as kind of a mentor (and later a literary agent) to Sidney, delivering him to a prestigious publishing house and it’s acerbic editor (Lane). Sidney’s first novel, about the suicide of a high school student, becomes not only a bestseller but a cultural phenomenon and makes him wealthy and a bit of a rock star.

But Sidney’s personal life is a shambles. He left home, getting away from his shrill and controlling mother (Monaghan) and with his high school sweetheart Melody (Fanning) who later becomes his wife. But success breeds some not so pleasant side effects and Sidney’s marriage is crumbling as he becomes more and more self-absorbed. After losing the Pulitzer to another writer and devastated at the end of his marriage, Sidney abruptly disappears from public view.

A series of arsons in bookstores and libraries in which Sidney’s books alone are targeted for burning puts a detective (Chandler) on the trail of Sidney, who has at this point become something of a hobo, riding the rails with his dog Homer. But what motivated Sidney to walk away from everything? What is inside the mysterious box he dug up with his jock friend Brett Newport (Jenner)? Who is the mysterious detective chasing him and why is he so keen to find him? There are ghosts haunting Sidney Hall and perhaps that is why he wants to become one himself.

Director Shawn Christensen has enormous talent; it was clearly on display in his last movie Before I Disappear and there are moments where you can see it in this film. Unfortunately, this is much more of a mess than his last movie was. Christensen has three separate timelines interweaving with one another; Sidney’s last weeks in high school as his relationship with Melody begins and his relationship with Brett is explained. There’s also the apex of his career as a successful writer in his 20s in which his nascent ego has reached full flower, alienating him from just about everyone including his wife. Finally we see him as a lonely and just about psychotic wanderer, cloaked in self-loathing and with only a dog for company.

There are a lot of revelations in the film and to be honest some of them work, others are more on the ludicrous side. Lerman is a fine actor but he’s unconvincing here particularly in some crucial scenes which quite frankly undermines the whole she-bang. He also has almost no chemistry with Fanning whose character is so massively cliché that we’re banging our heads against the wall in frustration.

There are a lot of clichés on display here; the writer in his study, a glass of whiskey beside him, cigarette smoke curling up from his keyboard as he ponders the weight of his next few words. There is in fact a great deal of pretentiousness here, from the condescending dialogue to the portrait of the writer as a young snot. Although we find out near the end of the film that Sidney has suffered greatly at the hands of life, by that time it’s really too late to rescue the character from being someone we can’t stand to be around for very long – and we’re forced to hang out with him for nearly two hours.

Yes, the movie is much too long and feels padded out with gratuitous misery. We get it, Sidney’s life sucks and success isn’t all it’s cut out to be yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t help that the leaping back and forth from timeline to timeline is done with leaden hands, leaving the audience frustrated yet again.

The sad thing is that there really is a good film somewhere in here. The cast is strong top to bottom and the performances are for the most part compelling; Nathan Lane brings some well-needed levity to the movie and Blake Jenner is surprisingly strong in his role as well. This just feels like a director trying to spread his wings but for whatever reason he plummets from his perch to make a great big ker-splat on the ground. I’m hoping this is just a misstep for Christensen and that we can still expect better things from him in the future. This isn’t going to be one of the highlights on his resume though.

The film is just hitting theaters after a month-long run on DirecTV. It is also still available there for subscribers to that satellite service. Expect it on a larger array of streaming services in the near future if you’re of a mind to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Nathan Lane is always a hoot. There are some really nice cinematic moments. The cast does pretty well in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The storytelling is disjointed and frustrating. The movie goes on way too long. The dialogue and plot are way too pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lerman plays Sidney as a high school student, in his 20s and lastly in his 30s; Lerman is actually 25 years old.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listen Up, Philip
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Submission

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Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta

In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.

Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.

With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.

It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post – attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.

The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).

As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.

As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.

Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.

What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.

It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

Life Itself


Two big thumbs up,

Two big thumbs up,

(2014) Documentary (Magnolia) Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, William Nack, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton (voice), Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rick Kogan, Marlene Siskel, Thea Flaum, Bruce Elliot, Steve James. Directed by Steve James

It has to be said that for most film critics, it is difficult to be completely impartial when reviewing a documentary about Roger Ebert. His influence on modern film criticism is enormous both directly and indirectly and while he may not have the intellectual cachet of a Pauline Kael (a critic Ebert himself admired tremendously) he certainly was the most populist film critic of his day.

Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed early on by Ebert and his Sneak Previews/At the Movies partner Gene Siskel, originally was tasked with filming a documentary about the film critic’s battle against cancer as a means of telling his story as laid out in his memoirs Life Itself, a book given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012. As it turned out, we would see Ebert facing the final days of his life and we are given almost intimate access – the suctioning out of his throat, the painful physical therapy recovering from a broken hip, seeing how he managed to keep his sense of humor despite losing most of his lower jaw and his voice to thyroid cancer.

James, at Ebert’s insistence, leaves no wart unseen. We hear about Ebert’s womanizing as a younger man, his alcoholism and his occasional control freak-ness. Marlene Siskel, wife of his close friend and rival, recounts how he once stole a cab from her on a rainy night while she was very pregnant.

But we also get a glimpse at his love affair with his wife Chaz, her amazing strength and support even when he is petulant and mulish, and how he adored her family. I do have a bit of a quibble here – James identifies her granddaughter as Roger’s “step-granddaughter” and while the term may be essentially accurate, I get the sense that neither Roger nor any child of Chaz’s previous marriage thinks of their relationship as step-anything. My own son is not my biological child but a product of my wife’s first marriage which ended before he was born. He has never known another father and neither one of us thinks of each other as anything but father and son. I suppose these times may require a redefinition of the term, but I digress.

We get a sense of Ebert’s importance to the art of film criticism through testimony by Richard Corliss (who once wrote that the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism of Siskel and Ebert “dumbed down” film criticism overall), Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and New York Times critic A. O. Scott. We also get a sense of his importance within Chicago through the recollections of his friends writer William Nack, columnist Rick Kogan and tavern owner Bruce Elliot.

It can be said (as RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz did) that he had two main loves of his life – Chaz and Gene Siskel. His relationship with Gene was complex. At first, Gene was the enemy – the film critic of the Chicago Tribune whose hoity toity attitude contrasted with the blue collar vigor of the Sun-Times where Ebert worked. The two barely acknowledged each other at first. They grew competitive, each attempting to sway the other through the virtue of their well-thought out opinions. While Ebert was the populist who understood that entertainment value was at least as important as artistic quality, Siskel had more of a cosmopolitan attitude towards cinema. Together the two introduced America to movies they might never have seen otherwise and as home video became popular and movies that rarely played outside of art houses found their way into video stores and eventually, streaming services, people who might not have become movie buffs got the opportunity to explore independent, foreign and alternative films in addition to the studio films they had previously been limited to.

Overall the film is very moving. We see Ebert deal with his illness with a firm sense of humor and great courage. He was in great pain but rarely seemed disposed to complaining about it. Excerpts from Ebert’s books are read by actor Stephen Stanton whose warm timbre is similar to Roger’s and captures his Midwestern cadence nearly perfectly. I must admit that I do miss Ebert’s physical voice much more than I thought I did, hearing him in clips from talk shows, interviews and of course with Siskel and listening to the two bicker and one-up each other is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

There are plenty of talking head interviews and archival footage that make up what documentaries are these days, but the access we have to Roger’s rehabilitation gives us more of an emotional bond with the man.

I cannot say I wouldn’t have become a film critic without Roger Ebert – I had already started down that road before I knew who he was. However, it is accurate to say that he inspired me to be a better film critic. He set standards that while i have no illusions that I meet I can at least aspire to them. He could excoriate a filmmaker and rip a film a new one with the best of them but it was never with malice or viciousness. He didn’t do so with any joy. The joy in his writing came in finding movies that inspired him or provoked empathy. He lived for movies that he could relate to in some way, and his writing in spelling out that relation allowed us to see a bit of his soul. For all his faults he was also a compassionate man whose progressive politics rarely entered his film reviews but whose wisdom and kindness did. His criticisms were usually valid (although he did have difficulty with horror films that he felt denigrated women as well as videogames as an art form) and while I didn’t always agree with his assessments, I usually did. As Scott remarks, he “didn’t condescend, didn’t pander” while his friend Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the movie and who credits Siskel and Ebert with giving him the self-confidence to continue directing during a particularly low point in his career) accurately added “He didn’t get caught up in certain ideologies” that film critics are prone to getting caught up in. The landscape of film criticism is a far bleaker place without him.

This is a movie that leaves me wishing I had known the man personally (the closest I came was sharing a cruise ship with him during one of his Floating Film Festivals several years back). While this movie may resonate more fully with film critics and film buffs than with general audiences, even those who don’t particularly care much about movies may well be moved at the heartfelt admiration the filmmaker has for the man. The title of the movie may sound a bit arrogant at first; movies aren’t life itself, are they? There’s life and then the movies are fantasy. But in a real sense, movies are a reflection of life itself and a good movie and sometimes even a bad movie can give us the opportunity to reflect on life and that’s never a bad thing. Roger Ebert understood that, perhaps better than any critic before or since.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting and moving. Great to hear Ebert’s voice, even artificially. Illustrates his place in popular culture.

REASONS TO STAY: Glosses over some elements of the book.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild foul language, brief sexual images and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the autobiography of the same name that the film is based on, Ebert states that he met his wife Chaz at a restaurant introduced by Ann Landers. In the movie, Chaz reveals that it was at an AA meeting, a fact that she had preferred to keep private which her husband honored.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Obvious Child

The Bang Bang Club


The Bang Bang Club

Ryan Phillippe: late for work again!

(2010) Historical Drama (Tribeca) Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Patrick Lyster, Russel Savadier. Directed by Steven Silver

It takes a certain kind of person to become a combat photojournalist. You have to have the courage to put yourself in harm’s way to get the perfect shot. You have to be able to distance yourself from the subject, because becoming emotionally attached will compromise your journalistic objectivity. However, when these things begin to blur the line between your career and your humanity, what then?

Greg Marinovich (Philippe) is a young freelance photojournalist trying to make a name for himself in the early 90s in South Africa. Apartheid is dying; Nelson Mandela has been released from prison and his African National Congress is demanding changes in the white-run nation. Meanwhile, minority black tribal workers are fighting with the ANC over wages, believing if they join the strike, they will lose their jobs and their families will starve.

It becomes the kind of war that we have since seen in Rwanda and Darfur – horrific murders and mob mentality. The police, who have no reason to love the ANC, are believed to be complicit. Greg is taken under the wing of Kevin Carter (Kitsch), a hard-living photojournalist who works at the Johannesburg Star along with Brazilian national Joao Silva (Van Jaarsveld) and South African native Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach). Carter advises young Marinovich to ditch the telephoto and get up close shots; those are what publishers are buying, and making money is the name of the game.

Greg decides to get waaay close and goes into a Soweto enclave controlled by the Inkatha Freedom Party, mostly composed of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Chased through the narrow streets, he is brought before a leader of the IFP and explains he wants to tell their side of things. While with these leaders, he witnesses a brutal murder and captures it on film. His pictures are purchased and Greg is given a job by the comely photo editor of the Star, Robin Comley (Akerman).

The four photojournalists quickly develop a reputation for taking risks and getting incredible shots of the upheaval that is rippling through South Africa. The photographs the group is getting are taking the world by storm, appearing on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Marinovich wins a Pulitzer for witnessing another brutal murder of a suspected Inkatha spy being set ablaze and then killed with a machete blow to the neck. However, he is forced to take an extended vacation when the South African police want to bring in Marinovich for questioning about what he witnessed; he knows if he identifies any of the killers he will have a great big target on his back and his usefulness as a photojournalist in South Africa will be finished.

By now Marinovich is in a romantic relationship with Comley and the four members of what has been termed the Bang Bang Club have become nothing short of rock stars – partying hard, receiving the adulation of women and barflies all over South Africa and kicking ass and taking names.

Particularly living the life of a rock star is Carter, who is constantly broke because of his prodigious drug use. Despite the pleas to keep him on, Comley is forced to fire Carter because he’s become unreliable and dangerous. Returning to the freelance ranks from whence he sprang, Carter wins a Pulitzer for a controversial photo of a vulture stalking a half-starved little girl. Carter is forced to defend his status of an observer, and not making sure the little girl made it to where food, water and medical care was available (the fate of the little girl, who had gotten up and walked away according to the real Kevin Carter, is unknown to this day).

As the end of apartheid nears, the friendship of the four men will be tested and their flair for entering dangerous areas and risking their lives will lead to tragedy. The Bang Bang Club will literally have their own bang bang turn on them, viciously.

This was largely filmed in South Africa and whenever possible in the actual locations that the pictures were taken. Many of the pictures taken by the photographers are recreated here, and you get the sense that like any great piece of art, the genius is as much accidental as it is a product of preparation.

The debate here is at what point does a photographer lose their own humanity in becoming an observer of humanity. Was the shot of the little girl compelling and heartbreaking? Absolutely. Should Carter have intervened? I believe he should have. There comes a point where you have to set aside your objectivity and become a human being. I would imagine there are a great number of hardcore journalists who would disagree, perhaps even vehemently. I’m sure the argument is that a journalist cannot do their job properly without objectivity. I grant you that – but any job that requires you to give up your humanity in order to do it properly is not a job worth doing – period.

Soapbox ranting aside, this is well acted. Phillippe, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career, achieves it here. This is by far the best work of his career. Marinovich is not just a thrill-seeker, but I think if you had asked him at the time Phillippe was playing him why he was doing what he did, he probably couldn’t have articulated it and Phillippe doesn’t attempt to. He simply sinks deeper into the morass of ethical and moral conflict.

Kitsch is also compelling as Carter, a man haunted by demons most of his life. Kitsch takes Carter from a self-confident, balls-to-the-wall combat photojournalist and deconstructs him through drug use and of course the nightmares of the horrible images he’s witnessed – and recorded – into a man lost and broken. It’s truly stellar work.

Now, I know that there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the gonzo war correspondent, hanging out in bars and discos, swapping war stories, engaging in stupid macho behavior and drinking themselves into cirrhosis and I think that does the profession a disservice. Sure some of them are that way – type “A” thrillseekers who don’t think they’ve done their job right unless they’ve been shot at. Most combat photojournalists are professionals who don’t behave like frat guys at a kegger; they’re focused and generally, pretty low-key. They aren’t as effective in their work when they’re treated like rock stars; they are far better able to do what they do when they can blend in more.

There are a lot of questions asked here about the lines between observing humanity and being human. Personally, I think this should be required viewing at every journalism school in the country. Not because they should emulate the behavior of the Bang Bang Club – but because they shouldn’t.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific look at not only the final days of Apartheid but also what makes a combat photographer tick. Phillippe gives one of the best performances of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: A little overloaded with journalist testosterone disease – photojournalists as rock stars.

FAMILY VALUES: Although unrated, there were scenes of war violence, torture and drug use. There’s plenty of bad language and some sexual situations as well. .

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bang Bang in the name of the group’s title refers to the automatic weapon fire that accompanied their assignments.

HOME OR THEATER: This is available on Video on Demand until the end of the month; it might be harder to find at your local art house, but if it’s playing at a theater near you, by all means see it there.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans