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

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New Releases for the Week of October 10, 2014


Dracula UntoldDRACULA UNTOLD

(Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Diarmaid Murtagh, Samantha Barks, Charles Dance, Noah Huntley. Directed by Gary Shore

The historical figure of Vlad Tsepes, also known as Dracula, is mixed with fantasy as his origin story is given a re-imagining. A Transylvanian warlord attempts to protect his family and his people from an Ottoman sultan who threatens them. He is willing to go to any lengths to save them, including making the ultimate sacrifice – his soul. This has been announced to be the first movie in the shared Movie Monster cinematic universe that Universal is undertaking.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images and some sensuality)

Addicted

(Lionsgate/CODEBLACK) Sharon Leal, Boris Kodjoe, Tyson Beckford, William Levy. Zoe seems to have the perfect life; a handsome and loving husband, great kids and a business that she has built into a big success. However, Zoe hides a dark secret – a compulsion for sex that threatens to destroy everything she’s built. Based on the novel by Zane.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and brief drug use)

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

(Disney) Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Dylan Minnette, Megan Mullally. 11-year-old Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair and things go downhill from there. Getting little sympathy from the rest of the family, he begins to wonder if terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen only to him until they begin to experience their own terrible, horrible…oh, you get the idea.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family Comedy

Rating: PG (for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language)

The Devil’s Hand

(Roadside Attractions) Jennifer Carpenter, Rufus Sewell, Alycia Debnam Carey, Adelaide Kane. Six girls are born to six different mothers on June 6th in a small, devout Amish-like town thereby setting in motion an ancient prophecy that on their 18th birthday, one of these girls will become the Devil’s Hand. As the day approaches and the girls begin to disappear, the town lives in terror that the prophecy might just be coming true.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing and violent material, some partial nudity and thematic content)

The Guest

(Picturehouse) Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley. The grieving family of a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan welcome one of his friends from his unit into their home. The teenage sister of the dead soldier starts to get suspicious when people in town start turning up dead and she believes that their seemingly polite and perfect guest might be responsible.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality) 

The Judge

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga. Returning home for his mother’s funeral, a high-priced defense lawyer discovers his estranged father, in the early stages of dementia, has been accused of murder. He decides to represent him even though the two don’t get along at all in a last ditch effort to repair the breach that separates them both.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama (opens Thursday)

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Kill the Messenger

(Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia. San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb digs into a story that links the epidemic of crack cocaine, the CIA and arm sales to Contra rebels. He would ultimately win a Pulitzer Prize for the story but would also put his own reputation, his career, his family and his safety on the line to do it.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R  (for language and drug content)

The Man on Her Mind

(Paladin) Amy McAllister, Georgia Mackenzie, Shane Attwooll, Samuel James. A girl dreams about the perfect man. A boy dreams about the perfect woman. But when those dreams begin to become reality, what will it really mean for the two of them?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

Meet the Mormons

(Purdie) Jeffrey R. Holland, Gail Halvorsen, Bishnu Adhikari, David Archuleta. A look at the people and the tenets of the Mormon faith, which some believe has been given a raw deal by the mainstream media.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

Pride

(CBS) Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine. In the era of Margaret Thatcher, the National Union of Mineworkers goes on strike, prompting a showdown in the corridors of power between the working class and the upper class. In London, a group of gay and lesbian advocates, seeing the struggle of the mineworkers, decides to support the strike. At first the mineworkers don’t want their aid but eventually come to see that together they are far stronger and can accomplish far more.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexual content)

Tracks

(Weinstein) Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Jessica Tovey, Emma Booth. An Australian city girl decides to make a 2,000 mile trek across the Australian desert accompanied only by her dog and four somewhat unpredictable camels. Along the way she meets a National Geographic photographer who decides to document her epic journey.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language)

New Releases for the Week of September 5, 2014


The IdenticalTHE IDENTICAL

(Freestyle Releasing) Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green, Brian Geraghty, Joe Pantoliano, Blake Rayne, Amanda Crew, Erin Cottrell, Chris Mulkey. Directed by Dustin Marcellino

 

Identical twins born during the Depression are separated at birth for economic reasons. One stays with his birth parents in poverty and becomes a rock and roll legend; the other is given to an evangelical pastor and his wife who are unable to have kids. He lives a more stable upbringing but is torn between trying to please his adoptive father and following his own muse.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG (for thematic material and smoking)

Alive Inside

(Projector) Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Doug Thompson, Yvonne Russell. The founder of a non-profit organization that uses music to help patients with severe memory loss must fight against the medical establishment and a broken health care system to combat the affliction and restore the sense of self that is lost along with the memories.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Innocence

(JSC) Kelly Reilly, Sophie Curtis, Linus Roache, Graham Phillips. A young teenage girl whose mother’s death in a surfing accident haunts her moves to Manhattan with her novelist father and tries to start over at an exclusive prep school. However, her hopes for normalcy are shattered when she discovers that the women who run the academy may be witches who retain their youth and vitality by drinking the blood of virgins – and guess who’s been saving herself for marriage?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (self-applied)

The Last of Robin Hood

(Goldwyn) Kevin Kline, Elle Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Max Casella. The great Errol Flynn in the twilight of his career has become enamored of a young actress named Beverly Aadland. Her fame-obsessed mother enables the affair but when it goes public, it puts the young girl in a spotlight of intense pressure and only fuels her mother’s obsession further.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some sexuality and language)

Mary Kom

(Viacom 18) Priyanka Chopra, Darshaan Kumar, Sunil Thapa, Zachary Coffin. The true story of Kom, a female boxer in India whose dream was very nearly an impossible one. In a country where the perception of women doesn’t include strength and power, she took on the sports establishment to make her way into the boxing world – and defied the odds.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Biography

Rating: NR

The Remaining

(Sony Worldwide) Johnny Pacar, Shaun Sipos, Bryan Dechart, Alexa Vega. Don’t you just hate it when you go to a wedding and the Rapture occurs instead? That’s what happens to a group of friends who discover that salvation and damnation ride on the decisions they make – but that they might not necessarily be so easy to determine which is which.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror, violence and destruction throughout, and thematic elements)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Born to be wild.

Born to be wild.

(2014) Action (Dimension) Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, Jamie King, Bruce Willis, Alexa Vega, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacey Keach, Martin Csokas, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner, Kimberly Cox. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

The world is a rough place and nowhere is it rougher than Sin City. A place where the corrupt wield absolute power with ruthless brutality, where tough guys hook up with even tougher dames, where anything can be had – for a price. That price might just be your soul.

Like the original Sin City, the story here is told in vignettes. In one, the ultra-lucky Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) finds a poker game which is run by Senator Roark (Boothe), the spider at the center of all the corruption of Sin City – and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s bad for business.

In the next, Dwight (Brolin), a former newspaper photographer turned private eye is looked up by his ex-girlfriend Ava (Green) who dumped him for a rich man (Csokas). He never could turn down a damsel in distress, and the brutish Manute (Haysbert) who watches Ava for her husband, isn’t about to let Dwight get in the way of the plan.

 

Nancy (Alba) still mourns the death of her love, Detective John Hartigan (Willis) who watches over Nancy from the other side. Nancy longs to take her revenge on Senator Roark who was responsible for Hartigan’s early exit, but she doesn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger. However, when Roark comes after her she knows that she has no choice but to take on the powerful senator. She can’t do it alone and so she enlists the aid of Marv (Rourke), the iron mountain of a man who protects her as best he can in a city that has no mercy.

It has been nine years since the first Sin City has been released and times as well as movie-going audiences have changed. However, the look of the sequel/prequel is pretty much the same as the first, shot in black and white with bursts of color – a headful of red hair, a bright blue coat, burning green eyes – with highly stylized backgrounds. I would imagine nearly the entire film was shot on green screen.

Still, if you like your noir hard-bitten with sexy dames more dangerous than the big guns of the guys, you’re in for a treat. The all-star cast all are down with the vision of Rodriguez and Miller, the latter of whom penned the graphic novels that the movie is based on; for the record, two of the vignettes are from the graphic novels, two were written by Miller especially for the movie.

 

Rourke, as Marv, is a force of nature. He’s grim, not too bright and damn near unstoppable, the kind of jamoke you’d want to have your back in a fight. Rourke gives him dignity and a love of violence in equal measures. He don’t remember things too good but he can be counted on when the chips are down.

Brolin takes over for Clive Owen who played Dwight in the first movie – his work on The Knick precluded his involvement here. Brolin is less suave than Owen but captures the inner demons of Dwight far more viscerally than Owen did. They do explain why Dwight’s face changed (and near the end Brolin is wearing prosthetics to look more like Owen) but they can’t explain away the English accent that Dwight affects in the first movie. Oops.

In fact, several roles have been recast. Michael Clarke Duncan passed away between films and Haysbert takes over the role of Manute nicely. Brittany Murphy, who also passed away between movies, had played Shellie in the first movie. Rather than recast her, Miller and Rodriguez instead wrote a new character to take over her part. Finally, Devon Aoki who played Miho in the first film was pregnant at the time of shooting, so Jamie Chung took over. Miho in either actress’ hands is one of my favorite roles in the series.

What is also missing from the first movie is attitude. There’s some of it here but the movie is a little more grim than the first, takes itself a little more seriously than the first one did. Whereas there is a ton of violence and gore here, it is missing the same kind of energy that the first film had. It feels more cynical and less fun.

There is enough going on here to make it worth your while and fans of Mickey Rourke are going to enjoy him cutting loose here as he does – he’s in nearly all of the vignettes. There are also some fun cameos, like Christopher Meloni as a besotted cop, Christopher Lloyd as a medico who doesn’t ask too many questions and Ray Liotta as an amoral husband having an affair who plans to end it the hard way.

I did enjoy parts of it enough to give it a very mild recommendation, but it simply doesn’t hold up next to the first film which was over the top, and balls to the wall. This one tries to be but ends up trying too hard.

REASONS TO GO: Still a visual treat. Some hard-bitten performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks panache. Grimmer than the first.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, bloodshed and foul language as well as a surfeit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film Eva Green and Martin Csokas play a married couple. In real life, they had a romantic relationship for four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold in July

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Carriers

Yellow (2012)


Beware of yellow in the pool.

Beware of yellow in the pool.

(2012) Dramedy (Medient) Heather Wahlquist, Melanie Griffith, Sienna Miller, Gena Rowlands, Lucy Punch, Ray Liotta, David Morse, Max Thieriot, Daviegh Chase, Riley Keough, Brendan Sexton, Ethan Suplee, Elizabeth Daily, Cassandra Jean, Onata Aprile, Gary Stretch, Nancy De Mayo, Malea Richardson, Bella Dayne, Tonya Cornelisse. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Florida Film Festival 2014

There are those of us who live mainly in our heads. What must that be like if they are constantly bombed out of their skulls on drugs and alcohol?

Mary Holmes (Wahlquist) is a substitute teacher who fits that description. She brings her yellow painkillers and bottles of alcohol to school with her. Some of the teachers at the school think of her as the school bicycle – everybody’s had a ride. When one of the parents partake of her pleasures, she loses her job.

Mary copes with an often harsh reality by escaping into fantasy. School meetings turn into opera; a bike ride in the neighborhood becomes a psychedelic animation. She talks with her non-existent children, all of whom were aborted. When she goes home to Oklahoma to lick her wounds, her family is perhaps more eccentric than she – a hyper-religious grandmother (Rowlands), a sister (Punch) who is mentally ill and a mother (Griffith) who is as far away from reality as Mary herself.

Nick Cassavetes is a talented and promising director. His father John was known as one of the founders of independent cinema and was a tremendous actor and director in his own right. In many ways, this film hearkens back to the freak-out cinema of his father’s era.

I’ve been deliberately vague about the plot. I think the movie works best when you don’t know so much about what’s coming. Some of the movie’s best moments come out of left field so I’ve left the plot description short and, hopefully, sweet.

David Morse, who plays Holmes’ therapist, is always a welcome addition to any cast. You will quickly realize the truth about his character if you’re reasonably observant and maybe have seen a movie or two. Melanie Griffith looks as good as she has in years, and this is one of her best roles ever. She is manic when she needs to be, nurturing at least on the surface and carries the wounds of a sordid past deep in her eyes. It’s a terrific role, particularly as the movie begins to divulge details about Mary’s past.

There are times that it is difficult to distinguish between Mary’s active fantasy life and reality. There is one point where the film violates its own internal logic and that has to do with Mary’s bitchy older sister Xanne and Mary’s illusory children. That’s a big no-no, but it only happens once thankfully.

The effects are pretty nifty (considering the minuscule budget the movie surely had) and the cast is impressive as well, again considering the budget. The movie looks awfully good. My issue with it is that the characters are just so damned unlikable. Nearly everyone in the movie has some sort of mental or emotional instability to varying degrees, enough so that I felt like I needed a shower after the screening was done.

Yellow was actually made in 2012 and is only getting to the festival circuit now. There hasn’t been a great deal of press on the movie thus far, at least that I could find, but nearly all of it has been highly laudatory. That should tell you something. Critics have a tendency to like films that are different. For most audiences, this is going to be a bit of a stretch. The movie didn’t connect with me personally and I found most of the characters to be repellant. There wasn’t anyone I could really latch onto and identify with which makes it difficult to engage with the film. Some of you out there won’t have that issue and will find this imaginative and innovative. I have no argument with that. However, I don’t believe that most audiences will feel the same. If you like things out there, a bit different and a bit edgy, you’ll be in heaven. Most audiences will find this bleak, confusing and too cerebral. Me, I found it to be a movie whose aims I respected but the execution for which I found unsatisfying.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative. Some of the sequences are funnier than frack.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too out there for most.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s drug use – lots and lots of drug use – and plenty of foul language with some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlquist, who co-wrote the screenplay, is Cassavetes’ wife and of course Rowlands is the director’s mother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Blue Ruin

The Son of No One


Acting 101 is now in session with Professor Pacino.

Acting 101 is now in session with Professor Pacino.

(2011) Thriller (Anchor Bay) Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Tracy Morgan, Katie Holmes, Ray Liotta, Juliette Binoche, James Ransone, Jake Cherry, Ursula Parker, Brian Gilbert, Peter Tambakis, Simone Jones, Lemon Anderson, Ralph Rodriguez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Sean Cregan, Karen Christie-Ward, Pat Klernan, Gisella Marengo. Directed by Dito Montiel

New York City is a place of dreams. It is also a place of nightmares, of unrelenting grime and corruption. At least, that is how the movies have portrayed it – on the one hand the center of the universe, a place where romance magically happens. On the other, a hopeless cesspool of brutality, corrupt cops and junkies.

Jonathan White (Tatum) grew up in the projects of Long Island City. Like his departed dad, he has chosen to be a cop and lives with his wife Kerry (Holmes) and his epileptic daughter Charlie (Parker) on Staten Island, where he plies his trade.

He is less than thrilled to be re-assigned to his old neighborhood. Soon after he arrives, anonymous letters are being sent to Loren Bridges (Binoche), the crusading editor of a storefront newspaper resurrecting a decades-old pair of murders and alleging that the police have covered up that the crimes were committed by a cop. This is particularly distressing to Jonathan since it was he that was responsible for those killings, although he wasn’t a cop at the time. In fact, he was just a kid (Cherry) who was defending his own life from a pair of violent junkies. His best friend Vinnie (Gilbert) witnessed the crimes and Jonathan thinks that he is likely the source of those letters. Vinnie has grown up (Morgan) into a mentally unstable man who can’t escape his own demons, many of them conjured up when the very same junkies molested him as a child.

These letters are making Captain Mathers (Liotta) who happens to be Jonathan’s boss more than a little nervous. In post-9/11 New York the cops need all the good will they can get and this is the kind of scandal that might set the public against the force. Mathers – who knows about the cover-up since he and Detective Stanford (Pacino) who was the partner of Jonathan’s late father helped cover up the evidence and made the case go away – wants Jonathan to kill Vinnie and Jonathan is considering it.

Things start to get much tenser for Jonathan when the reporter is murdered after meeting with Jonathan. Jonathan’s psychotic partner Prudenti (Ransone) lets Jonathan know that if he doesn’t take care of the situation, Jonathan will be framed for the murder of the reporter as well as the original murders years ago. With his situation deteriorating and Jonathan beginning to fall apart, the likelihood of an explosive confrontation becomes more and more likely.

Montiel directed the autobiographical A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints which was actually a very good film. He has shown great promise, particularly in regards to his obvious love-hate relationship with New York. One might say that these are honest warts-and-all depictions but while it is clear he bears a deep affection for the Big Apple, he seems to have a feeling of revulsion towards its less glamorous side.

He has assembled an amazing cast but unfortunately they don’t really rise above the material which you might expect. Pacino almost phones it in and you get the sense that he was interested more in the paycheck than the performance. Binoche, one of the world’s most marvelous actresses, is an odd casting choice. She gamely soldiers on as you might expect she would but one gets the sense she really doesn’t know what to do with the part. Morgan on the other hand is best known as a comic actor; he is surprisingly adept at this dramatic role and has some of the best moments in the film.

Tatum, who has finally shown some signs that he is more than just a pretty face (like Montiel, he is an ex-model) although this was filmed during the period when his acting style might best be summed up as wooden. We don’t get a sense of Jonathan’s wracking guilt or his inner turmoil although the commentary track by Montiel alludes to it. Sadly, he doesn’t show much more tension than a high school honors student approaching a mid-term algebra quiz.

There is a good deal of ugliness here although there are some moments that are surprisingly powerful (the final scene between Jonathan and Vinnie for example) they are outnumbered by those which don’t make sense. For example, the murders were clearly a matter of self-defense committed by a minor. Jonathan committed no crime; there was therefore no need to cover anything up. If anything, the only crime that was committed was the act of covering up.

Montiel is a terrific director and writer but this is certainly a misstep. I’d recommend his previous two films ahead of this. I hope this is just a one-time setback and not an indication that his creative well has run dry.

WHY RENT THIS: A chance to watch a fine cast slumming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit confusing. Lacks logical sense.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence and bad language and some brief sexuality of the disturbing kind.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert De Niro was originally cast as Detective Stanford but he had to drop out of the production and Pacino was cast instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30,680 on a $15M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Copland

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Don Jon

The Iceman


Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

(2012) True Crime Drama (Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi James Franco, Stephen Dorff, Danny Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, Hector Hank, Zoran Radanovich, Shira Vilensky, Kelly Lind, Erin Cumings, Ashlynn Ross, Weronika Rosati, Christa Campbell. Directed by Ariel Vromen

It’s always the quiet ones, the ones who lose it and go on a killing spree. Contract killers are another case altogether. These are men with ice in their veins, able to kill without remorse or emotion. It’s a job for them, no less upsetting than someone who sells cars for a living.

Richie Kuklinski (Shannon) is a family man, married to the beautiful but volatile Deborah (Ryder). He works dubbing films – cartoons he tells his wife but porn films in reality. The mobster who runs the porn operation Richie is working for – Roy DeMeo (Liotta) – is impressed by Richie’s coolness under fire, so he decides to take Richie on as a contract killer. Roy and his buddy Josh Rosenthal (Schwimmer) take Richie out and order him to kill some random homeless guy which he does.

This is the start for a whole new career for Richie as he ices guys on Roy’s say-so. When a coke deal is botched by Josh who kills the dealers involved, Roy is forced to lay low for awhile, leaving Richie unemployed. As money gets tighter and Richie’s temper gets more volatile, Richie hooks up with Mr. Freezy (Evans), a freelance contract killer who works out of an ice cream truck. He teaches Richie the proper use of cyanide and the trick of freezing bodies and then thawing them before dumping them, throwing police off on the correct time of death. It is for the latter practice that Richie is given the nickname “The Iceman.”

When DeMeo finds out about Richie’s new freelancing scheme, he goes ballistic which doesn’t bode well for Richie’s future state of health. When Roy brings in Leonard Marks (Davi) from one of the big crime families in New York, it looks like Richie’s days are numbered but Roy and Marks have forgotten one prime directive – never ever piss off a contract killer.

This is pretty standard stuff for the true mob killer movie. Yes, Richie Kuklinski was a real person who claims to have killed between 100-250 people during his heyday from 1948 to 1986. He was also a family man who’s arrest stunned his neighborhood.

While the story remains pretty typical, the acting here is superb. Shannon, an Oscar nominee, shows that there are many more of those on the way (and likely a statuette somewhere down the line) with a powerful performance here which is doubly commendable because he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The real Richie was by all accounts a strong, silent type who wasn’t much of a communicator. He was more or less a psychopath who was paid for crimes he probably would have committed eventually in any case. Shannon gives Richie at least some personality, with cold eyes that erupt into volcanic fury when pushed. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition that gives the character depth that the real Richie probably didn’t have.

Ryder, who has been an infrequent screen presence of late, is absolutely amazing as the willfully oblivious Deborah. She knows that her husband is hiding something horrible, but chooses to ignore it. There’s nothing wrong if she doesn’t know there’s anything wrong, so she chooses to ignore it until it’s right in her face.

Schwimmer is the anti-Ross here, stocky with a hippie ponytail, a 70s porn star moustache and a mean streak, although there is a bit of Ross-like nebbishness as he begins to realize he is in far over his head. Liotta gets a standard Ray Liotta crime figure and does with it what he usually does, which also adds to the overall quality of the picture.

In fact the performances are what makes the movie. This is strongly acted throughout, from the barely-recognizable Evans to Franco in a brief cameo. It’s Shannon however who carries the movie and he does so with ease. He may well be this generation’s De Niro – not a traditional leading man sort but who elevates every movie he’s in. While Vromen is no Scorsese and this no Goodfellas it nonetheless doesn’t disgrace the genre created by that film. In fact, it’s a solid follower in it’s footsteps.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Michael Shannon.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add much to the true life mob movie genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of violence and a bit of gore, lots and lots of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Franco was originally cast as Kuklinski but had to take the smaller role as Marty Freeman instead; Maggie Gyllenhaal was likewise cast as Deborah Pellicotti but had to drop out due to her pregnancy and Winona Ryder got the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; solid good reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill the Irishman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The History of Future Folk