“Nightcrawler” Thrills When It’s Not Moralizing


Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

Nightcrawler is the directing debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, co-written with his brother, Tony Gilroy, who also directed), and whatever I may think about the movie (and I am not as big a fan as the rest of the world), it does not feel like a first movie. Gilroy, working with acclaimed cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and his other brother, veteran editor John Gilroy (Michael Clayton, also written and directed by Tony), has crafted an assured action thriller that delivers the goods when it comes to suspenseful storytelling. He also does a fine job directing Rene Russo (The Thomas Crown Affair), who delivers a performance that makes us realize what we’ve been missing since she stopped being as ubiquitous as she was in the 1990s. Russo just happens to also be Gilroy’s wife (this is a family affair), but no matter – she earns her place in the film. Unfortunately, her co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch), though clearly fully committed to his role, is so weird and off-putting that he threatens to derail the movie. True, the whole point is that he is supposed to be odd and creepy, but not to the point where it is unbelievable that anyone could take him seriously. I like Gyllenhaal, but he’s simply too much, here.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou (or Louis, as he prefers to be called, later) Bloom, an extremely lost soul and ne’er-do-well whom we first meet cutting a fence by a train track, then beating the man who confronts him. It turns out he’s a thief, as well, since we next see him peddling items stolen from the train yard. When he talks, he sounds as if he learned to speak by reading a business self-help manual, as if he’s a cousin to the alien Scarlett Johansson played in Under the Skin, freshly minted and not quite at ease in his new body. The first guy he pesters for a job has a very sane reaction: no.

But then Bloom discovers the joys of human suffering. Or rather, as he’s watching a woman in a car accident pulled from the burning wreckage by EMTs, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton from “Big Love“) shows up with a camera, which he shoves into the middle of the rescue. What’s going on? asks Bloom. It’s for the news, says Loder. For sale to the highest bidder, he means. And suddenly our demented protagonist has a calling. Little by little, he figures out the game, and earns more and more money peddling his parasitic video footage to one particular late-night news producer, Nina Romina (Russo). The fact that Bloom is clearly insane does not deter Romina from buying his material – as long as it’s gruesome – though it does put her in an awkward position once it becomes clear that Bloom wants more than just money. This is what seems to be Gilroy main point: that we are a society so benumbed and corrupted by the 24-hour news cycle that we have become ghouls in need of (on-screen) flesh on which to (vicariously) feed. That’s a radical notion . . . for the 1970s, when Sidney Lumet’s Network came out with much the same thesis. Speaking of the 1970s, Gilroy also seems to be cribbing from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, since Gyllenhaal channels Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, right down to the same initial shy politeness.

So as a societal critique, Nightcrawler simply doesn’t work, as we are already way beyond being horrified by its revelations. And too often Gilroy gives the game away by explaining Bloom’s motivations too early (as when he exacts revenge on his now-rival Loder). But where the film does finally get it right is in the second half, after Bloom has crossed one ethical line too many and the film becomes more of a procedural thriller than a polemic. As Bloom and his hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed, from The Reluctant Fundamentalist) barrel down the streets of Los Angeles on the tail of a police cruiser chasing a violent criminal, the adrenaline rush we feel is very real.

So see it for that, and for Russo, if not for its shopworn criticisms of the media.

The Must-See “Citizenfour” Asks Us to Care About Citizenship


Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)

I am unfamiliar with the work of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, but after watching Citizenfour I feel an urgent need to find two of her previous films, My Country, My Country and The Oath, both of which (I understand) similarly tackle issues of liberty and democracy in a post-9/11 world. We learn at the start of her new movie that – together with Citizenfour – they comprise an unofficial trilogy that analyzes the after effects of the terrorist attacks that so shocked (and transformed) the United States and its security apparatus. If they are even remotely as powerful as her new work, I expect to be transfixed.

Citizenfour tells the story of Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee who, as a contractor for the NSA, leaked classified documents to the world through journalist Glenn Greenwald and a few select others, including Ewen McAskill and Jeremy Scahill. Both Greenwald and McAskill appear in the movie – the former much more than the latter – and what makes the film so fascinating is the realization that we are watching a behind-the-scenes making-of document of very recent (and turbulent) history. Unless you were asleep in 2013, you surely remember seeing Snowden’s interview with Greenwald in real time. Now imagine seeing the events leading up to that disclosure. It’s pretty exciting. Even if one believes that Snowden is a traitor who should face justice for his actions, the film is worth seeing, since we’re right there with him.

When the film begins, those of us with no prior knowledge of Poitras discover that she has been under U.S. Government surveillance ever since making My Country, My Country. When she receives an encrypted email, signed “citizenfour,” from an unknown source, asking her to journey to Hong Kong for a meeting (along with Glenn Greenwald), she accepts. She is, after all, an investigative filmmaker, and what the mysterious writer promises to reveal is intriguing. Once she and Greenwald arrive, they meet a nervous and thoughtful young man, holed up in a hotel room, who, over the course of a week, tells them who he is, what he has discovered, and why he thinks the world should know. Intriguing, indeed. And frightening, too.

For what Snowden has to say is that the United States, in the name of domestic security – is spying, illegally, on not only foreigners but its own citizens, amassing an ever-growing database with the intent of identifying potential terrorists and subversives (sounds a bit like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, doesn’t it?). Given his feelings about the nature of democracy and liberty, and the importance of privacy, Snowden finally decided that he could not keep this information to himself. And so he acted. He chose to go through journalists rather than just publish the data online, as Julian Assange and WikiLeaks had previously done, because he wanted others – ideally, responsible journalists – to make the decision of what information was important for the world to know, and what would put legitimate secret operatives and their informants at undue risk.

Snowden’s concern for doing the right thing – for acting on principle, and responsibly, rather than out of pure anger or indignation – is a quality that emerges time and again over the course of this two-hour movie, as is Snowden’s desire to not allow those who oppose his actions to make him the center of the narrative. “I am not the story here,” he says, over and over. “This is about state power and people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power.” It’s not about a data dump – it’s about opposing governmental overreach. “We are now the ruling and the ruled vs. the elected and the electorate.” As someone who would rather live in a world where “people shouldn’t be afraid of their government; governments should be afraid of their people” (thank you, Alan Moore and V for Vendetta) – though, ideally, fear never enters into the equation at all – I cannot help but respect Snowden’s intentions and be grateful for the conversation he started. Even if you feel differently, you will be unable to see the man on screen as a monster.

Greenwald and Poitras are also part of the narrative (though we only hear, rather than see, the latter). Their struggles to tell the story and disseminate the information are frequently hampered by U.S. interference (Poitras had previously moved to Berlin to escape surveillance, and Greenwald now lives in Brazil), yet they soldier on. William Binney, a former NSA data collector who is now a major critic of NSA, is also a player in the film, and it’s his lawyer who probably utters the single most depressing line of the movie. When confronted with Snowden’s action in an interview, she replies, “This will prompt an investigation into who leaked, rather than into who authorized these policies.” We do love to kill the messenger, do we not, rather than see if their message is worth hearing.

This is one of the must-see movies not only of the year, but of the past decade.

In Masterful “Birdman,” Michael Keaton Goes Mad. Much Fun Is Had.


Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been making feature films since the year 2000, when his masterful triptych Amores Perros was released. Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (who turned director, himself, in 2008, with the depressingly mediocre The Burning Plain), that movie followed three separate stories in Mexico City – all involving, in some way, dogs – as they intersected and diverged over the course of many months. Before turning to full-length films, González Iñárritu had for year, like David Fincher before him, honed his craft on commercials, and his cinematic confidence as he juggled the many different threads of Amores Perros was a marvel to behold. What especially impressed was the fact that he wasn’t all flash – con brio, e non con braggadocio – and that the stories had narrative weight and consequence.

What followed were films equally as confident and similarly masterful – at least in terms of their mise-en-scène – but much less meaningful. Both 21 Grams and Babel – written by Arriaga, as well – allowed González Iñárritu to continue to explore his love of multiple overlapping stories and fluid chronology, but when they reached their respective conclusions they revealed not much more than a naked emperor, fascinating as their cinematic trappings may have been. Biutiful, his next film, was made after he and Arriaga had a falling out, and it eschewed the focus on multiple protagonists to give us a hard look at one man (Javier Bardem) dying of cancer. An even bleaker movie than González Iñárritu’s earlier films, it featured a powerful central performance and much more straightforward camera and editing work than we had grown accustomed to. It was nice to see the director trying something new. Still, dark despair does not always equal profundity, and the film, though effective in certain scenes, managed to leave me cold in the face of death.

And now we have something new: a comedy (though a bleak one). Fresh as that might sound to aficionados of González Iñárritu’s work, what’s even more innovative is how he has transformed his earlier technique of layering multiple narratives and shifting chronologies into a seemingly linear story that looks like a single unbroken camera take (that is, without edits). From the time we first meet our hero, Riggan Thompson – played by Michael Keaton (in top form and much better served here than by RoboCop) – the camera, though extremely restless, never cuts. Or so it seems. González Iñárritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar-winner for Gravity and heretofore the main cinematographer for another Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón) have carefully crafted the film to look that way, though in actuality it was not shot as a single take. And if that were all this movie were – an example of bravura filmmaking and choreography – then it would fascinate, for sure, but remain a meaningless magic trick. Instead, this technique is an integral part of the story, since it brings us into the visceral feverish madness of the lead character by bending time and perspective (González Iñárritu’s usual obsessions).

Riggan Thompson is a washed-up former action star, best known for his work in a series of superhero films (the Birdman of the title, which somewhat resemble the Batman films that Keaton, himself, once starred in). In an effort to rehabilitate his reputation, he has written (and is now directing and starring in), a Broadway play based on the writer Raymond Carver’s short story anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Rehearsals are not going well. After a stage light falls on his male co-star, he is forced to bring on board an obnoxious New York thespian, Mike Shiner (a very funny Edward Norton, seen earlier this year in The Grand Budapest Hotel), whose volatility proves a dangerous addition to the production. Along for the ride is a cast of very fine actors, all at the top of their game: Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) as Riggan’s daughter; Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as his nervous lawyer and friend; Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) as his female co-star; Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) as his girlfriend (and other co-star); Amy Ryan (Win Win) as his ex-wife; and Lindsay Duncan (Le Weekend) as a nasty theater critic. All serve as both obstacles and opportunities in the way of Riggan’s success, and companions on his slide towards insanity.

The film is a wonderful meditation on the nature of art, its intersection with commerce, and how the search for validation – for admiration – through the creative process is no substitute for real human connections. As Riggan’s mind slowly disintegrates and the boundary between his alter ego and real self becomes indistinct, we see how the desperate need for love can destroy us if we can only take and not give. As the movie’s opening title card – a Carver poem, “Late Fragment,” from  A New Path to the Waterfall – proclaims:

  • “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
  • I did.
  • And what did you want?
  • To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

Did I mention that the film is also extremely funny? Never has madness been this entertaining.

The Anti-Hero Makes Good: “St. Vincent” & “John Wick”

Vincent Wick

Today, in Baltimore, two new movies open that each celebrate a different kind of anti-hero. Like their protagonists, the films are flawed, but not fatally, and certainly not without a certain appeal. And they each star actors who have achieved iconic status in their own inimitable ways. Since the inception of his career, Bill Murray – first on “Saturday Night Live” and then in films like CaddyshackStripes, GhostbustersGroundhog DayRushmore (and all other subsequent Wes Anderson works), Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, to name but some – has carefully cultivated the persona of the lovably sardonic and sinful grouch, tinged with increasing cynicism and melancholia as he has aged, and in St. Vincent that character is on full display. As always, it’s a delight to watch Murray perform, even if we’ve seen him do this many times before. Keanu Reeves, though younger by 14 years, has an equally defined (if very different) star persona, thanks to films like Speed and The Matrix (and its sequels), though in many ways his body of work is more diverse than Murray’s: compare Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to My Own Private Idaho to The Gift to Thumbsucker to Henry’s Crime and you’ll be impressed (I hope) by his range. Still, it’s the indestructible action-hero image that sticks (box-office success trumps all), and in John Wick he delivers a pitch-perfect performance as a near-omnipotent hitman that pays homage to his past roles while bringing a humor and emotional depth to the part that we haven’t always seen from him (think last year’s dismal 47 Ronin).

St Vincent

St. Vincent (Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Longtime Brooklyn resident Vincent is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking misanthrope, almost penniless and with racing debts that may soon come due. Soon after we first meet him, we see him in bed with Daka, a pregnant (not by Vincent) Russian prostitute. Yeah, he’s that guy. Still, there’s something surprisingly touching about his interactions with Daka, which hints at character dimensions as yet to be revealed. And as played by a delightfully sharp Naomi Watts (who was equally as good with a Russian accent – though far more serious – in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises), Daka may also be more than she seems.

Soon, Vincent has new neighbors: Maggie, a struggling single mother – played by a wonderfully restrained Melissa McCarthy (Tammy) – and her young son Oliver (terrific newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Though Maggie and Oliver do not meet cute with Vincent – the opposite, in fact – soon Maggie’s brutal work schedule forces her to rely on Vincent as a babysitter. Yes, it’s a terribly misguided decision, but without it we would not have this often funny – if also frequently predictable  – movie.

It’s easy to see why Murray would have signed on for the role, even though this is writer/director Theodore Melfi’s first feature film. It’s a juicy part, and allows him to strut his stuff with great panache. Of course, that’s both the appeal and the weakness of the movie: though hilarious at times, it also falls occasional victim to the showboating of its star. It’s a good thing McCarthy has dialed it down, or we’d be in real trouble. Still, for my money, the performances of Lieberher and Watts, and the manic loopiness of Murray, make it all somehow worthwhile, despite the pedestrian nature of the story. We know, more or less, how it will all end, but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying much of the journey.

John Wick

John Wick (David Leitch/Chad Stahelski, 2014)

Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, the mention of whose name causes the other characters in the movie to utter a shuddered, “Oh,” filled with the dread of mayhem to come. What’s particularly interesting about their reaction is that when we first meet Wick – after an opening that shows us what is presumably the end of the movie, with Wick collapsing, bleeding, on the street – he is a grieving widower, quiet and still. He may drive a mean-looking 1969 Mustang at high speeds, but the way he interacts with the beagle puppy that arrives on his doorstep as a posthumous gift from his just-deceased wife reveals a gentle giant, rather than a killer. He is all sweetness, and the only hint at his true nature comes from that opening (and the movie’s poster). In the tradition of great Westerns like Shane and Unforgiven, though, he is a man who has fled a violent past that is about to catch up with him. Unfortunately, the clarion call to action comes at the expense of that adorable pup, though the violence is (there, at least) treated with discretion. Once that nasty business is over, the movie then leaves any semblance of harsh real-world consequences behind as it takes off into high cartoonish action-genre mode, with Wick hunting down the men who have wronged him.

John Wick is essentially two films: a) a very smart, perfectly realized alternate-reality universe where hitmen have their own secret society, and woe betide anyone who goes against the rules of the group; and b) a typical high-body-count action shoot-’em-up which may have some interestingly choreographed scenes, but with nothing we haven’t seen before. I prefer the first movie, and wish there more of it. The great Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) delivers a terrifically over-the-top performance, as the lead baddie, that is magnificently served by that first premise, but wasted in the second. Reeves is equally perfect – though far more restrained – as the titular character, playing him mostly straight but with hints of humor below the surface that emerge at just the right moments. It’s too bad that he is too often required to merely run around with a gun.

Still, there are delights aplenty, in spite (or, depending on your preference, because) of the plethora of nasty spurting headshots. Willem Dafoe (so recently nasty in The Fault in Our Stars), Ian McShane (with some of his trademark “Deadwood” menace), and Baltmore-native Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels on “The Wire“) are all along for the ride and add to the air of professional competence with which the film is made. It’s good, dumb fun. I just wish it were as smart as its better half.

Take Great “Pride” in the Name of Solidarity


Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

If, like me, you grew up with the songs of Pete Seeger played loudly, and proudly, in your home, then the opening credits of Pride will immediately strike a welcome chord. My song of choice, as a child, was “Little Boxes” – which I listened to gleefully without understanding a word of the lyrics – but as I aged I gained a greater appreciation of the humanism and progressive ideology of the man, of which his great workers’ anthem, “Solidarity Forever” – the title music of theater director Matthew Warchus‘s new film – is a powerful example. In the spirit of the late champion of labor rights (among other causes) and promoter of rousing feel-good folk songs, Pride is a movie which – though contrived and overly sentimental at times – will leave you profoundly moved and hopeful. It’s a film that promotes the (radical!) notion that there are other ideas worth rallying around than patriotism and fear. In a midterm election year, that’s not a bad thing to keep in mind.

The film – based on true events, as a title card informs us – takes place in the 1980s United Kingdom of the Margaret Thatcher era, beginning with one London Gay Pride March – on June 30, 1984 – and ending with another, one year later. One day, 20-something activist Mark (a charming Ben Schnetzer, from The Book Thief) notices a diminution in the numbers of police harassing young gays like himself, and figures out where they’ve all gone: to harass the country’s miners, all of whom are out on strike. Not content to work only on behalf of his own constituency – and understanding full well how workers and oppressed minorities are all connected (and how his community is directly benefiting from police distraction) – Mark gathers a small coterie of fellow gay men (and one lesbian) to raise money in support of the miners. It’s a hard sell – many gays and lesbians have long suffered severe bullying and discrimination at the hands of their working-class brethren – but Mark is a charismatic leader, and soon his group – LGSM (“Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners“) has raised enough cash to be worth donating. The problem is … to whom? For while gays and lesbians may be able to unite in support of the miners, it proves a bit harder to find miners willing to accept help from gays and lesbians. This is the 1980s, after all.

Fortunately, for the eventual betterment of all concerned, an older Welsh union worker misunderstands the name of the group over the phone, and soon a strike leader, Dai – played by an excellent Paddy Considine (Submarine) – is on his way to London for a meet & greet. The awkward (yet very funny) first sit-down sets the tone for the rest of the film, as Dai, Mark and the rest of LGSM conclude that what binds them is greater than what separates them. Convincing the rest of the world of the same is what drives the plot of the film. With laughter and tears – most of it earned – the movie takes us on a satisfying journey that – even with its almost too-perfect conclusion – refuses to gloss over the harsh realities of the world. With great performances from all involved – including Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Dominic West (McNulty from “The Wire“), Andrew Scott (Moriarty on “Sherlock“), and especially Jessica Dunning (whom I had never seen before), among others – Pride is a wonderful treat, and just what you need to see this weekend. It opens today at the Charles. Go!

The Cosmic Inconsequence of “Men, Women & Children”

Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, 2014)

What to say, what to say? This is a movie that takes itself so seriously, yet has so little of consequence to say. Couple that with the choice of writer/director Jason Reitman (JunoUp in the Air) to use Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech as an awkward framing device – combined with shots of the Voyager spacecraft leaving our galaxy – and you get much hysterical ado about not much at all. It’s too bad, since a lot of good people are acting up a cosmic storm here, including Judy Greer (Kitty Sanchez on “Arrested Development“), Dean Norris (Hank on “Breaking Bad“), Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars), Rosemarie DeWitt (Kill the Messenger) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) (less so Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner, in one-note roles). But that’s what happens when you dress up platitudes in fancy duds: they’re still hackneyed.

What’s it about? Life! Sex! Depression! Loneliness! How we live in an interconnected world yet are so unconnected! Imagine a mall full of people looking at their smartphones, and you’ll have the essence of the film’s message. Since the whole affair is narrated by Emma Thompson, much of it ends up feeling like Crash – multiple stories and all – with a British-accented voiceover (though that might be unfair to Crash, as superficial as that film was). If that sounds appealing, then Men, Women & Children might just be for you (OK, I’ll admit I laughed at some scenes, particularly early on, and loved all interactions between Judy Greer and Dean Norris, but that’s it). I recommend seeing Pride, instead (both open today at the Charles), however, which does a far better job selling the importance of the need for human attachment.

The “Fury” of War: Ideals Are Peaceful; History Is Violent


Fury (David Ayer, 2014)

The opening shot of Fury – the new film from writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) – is at first hard to decipher. Are we looking at treetops, over which a rising sun peeks? The shapes are fuzzy and colorless, but as a solitary figure – a horseman – slowly rises on the horizon, we realize we are looking at a battlefield; a field of clumps of dirt, in fact, rutted and pitted by tanks and dying men. It’s an apt image, for this will be a movie about dirty warfare. Dirt and grime are everywhere, and nowhere more present than on the soldiers who fight the battles, both on their faces and in their souls. It is April, 1945, and World War II is about to come to a close, though some of the fiercest fighting lies ahead, particularly for the crewmen of the “Fury,” so dubbed by the tight-knit band under “Wardaddy” Sergeant Collier’s command.

Wardaddy is played with an amazing combination of brio and reserve by Brad Pitt, who just last summer battled an equally deadly – if fantastical – enemy in World War Z. Here, he is just as resourceful, and a hell of a lot tougher, his body and face covered with burns and scars. Right after that horseman enters frame, the camera following and panning over to what looks to be a disabled tank, Wardaddy leaps from out of nowhere, knife in hand, stabs the rider (a dreaded German SS officer, as it turns out), and then jabs his knife into the man’s eye socket. It is the first of many gruesome close-ups of carnage: the film does not stint on the horrors of combat; soon, we will see a melted human face on a tank seat. Again, an apt image, for our own faces are literally shoved into the blood of the wounded and killed, time and again. This is one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying the brutality of war.

Wardaddy’s men – a motley crew made up of Michael Peña (Cesar Chavez), Shia LaBeouf (Lawless) and Jon Bernthal (Shane Walsh on “The Walking Dead“), all excellent – all with war monikers of their own, are devoted to their leader, who has kept them alive since their first battles in Africa three years ago. As the film opens, they have just lost one of their gunners (that melted face), and HQ has decided to give them a green army novice, Norman (a terrific Logan Lerman, so good as the lead in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well), who becomes our surrogate in the nasty classroom of tank warfare. When he, early on, hesitates to fire on the enemy, Wardaddy forces him to shoot a German prisoner of war, in cold blood. This is also one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying morally compromised main characters that demand our sympathies, or at least our full attention.

The problems for the men of the Fury are many. The Germans just won’t give up, and their tanks – designed by Porsche – are superior. It will take everything these guys have got to fulfill their mission and survive the war. The movie – to its credit – is less interested in potential happy outcomes than in exploring the moral and physical toll that prolonged combat inflicts on its participants. There is a marvelous scene halfway through the film where the Americans have successfully captured a German town – after immense casualties – and Wardaddy and Norman treat themselves to an interlude with two female (German) cousins hiding in their apartment. Is it rape? As Wardaddy tells Norman: “Ideals are peaceful; history is violent.” There’s certainly coercion at play, yet these two men turn out to be far more civilized than their fellow soldiers. The way Ayer plays with our expectations (and our need to like the protagonists) is brilliant, and sets up the greater violence to follow.

And that violence is magnetic: the battle scenes are intense, like nothing I have seen since the opening of Saving Private Ryan (though I did also find much to admire in Lone Survivor, released in January of this year). During each and every one, I was on the edge of my seat.

Where the film is less successful is in its occasional post-battle montages, filled with the overly sentimental strains of the score by composer Steven Price (Gravity). The ending, in particular, overuses Price’s music as the camera cranes high above the final battlefield (a nice visual echo of the opening). Still, that misstep notwithstanding, this is a powerful movie that deserves its place in the canon of great war (and/or antiwar) films of yore.

3 (reviews) x 3 (movies) on 10/17/14 Midday Show: “Fury,” “Men, Women & Children” and “Pride”

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast – I’m on in final 7 minutes.]

3x3 Rodricks

Join me on Midday with Dan Rodricks (WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station) during the final 10-15 minutes of the first hour (12-1pm) on Friday, October 17, as I review three films opening that day.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

The three films are:

Fury (David Ayer, 2014)

Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, 2014)

Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

“Kill the Messenger” Speaks (Cinematic) Truth to Power

Kill the Messenger

Kill the Messenger (Michael Cuesta, 2014)

Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 when he came across evidence linking the CIA to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Investigating further, he uncovered a vast drugs-for-money network where U.S. intelligence operatives collaborated directly – if covertly – with Nicaraguan Contras and drug dealers (often the same people) to sell crack in American cities to raise money for the fight against the leftist regime in Nicaragua. Disgusted by what he saw as the more-than-lingering after effects of the previous decade’s urban drug scourge, Webb – despite warnings of reprisals by the CIA – wrote a series of articles under the heading “Dark Alliance,” which embarrassed the CIA and incited the anger of African-American communities nationwide, many of whom had felt the brunt of the crack epidemic. At first hailed as a hero, Webb very quickly found himself in the crosshairs not only of the CIA, but of rival newspapers – humiliated that a journalist at a small paper had gotten the big scoop – and soon his halo metamorphosed into a pitchfork. Tawdry facts from his past were unearthed, and he – rather than the Contra/crack connection – became the story. It didn’t help that he had been sloppy and sensationalistic in his reporting. Before long, he was completely discredited and no longer able to work in his profession. He took his own life in 2004. David Carr of The New York Times wrote a recent article about Webb that fills in any missing details in the above narrative.

Webb’s tragic and quixotic struggles make for a great movie, and Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.), the director, has fashioned a gripping conspiracy procedural out of the known facts. Or rather, to be fair, out of the facts known to Gary Webb, since the movie is based, in part, on the book he published in 1998, entitled Dark Alliance (like the articles). It’s an extremely well made thriller that, like Oliver Stone’s JFK, mixes archival footage, reenactments and narrative elements to tell its tale of a man destroyed. Also like JFK, the film leaves you reflecting that if even a few of the theories presented are correct, then something bad must have happened. As one audience member muttered at the end of the screening I attended, “That’s why I never trust the government.” Right on!

Now, I am the last person to think my government – or any government – incapable of the most despicable evils (human history is filled with too many examples of executive malfeasance), but I am also by nature a healthy skeptic, so when I watch any one-sided story where the forces arrayed against our hero are all evil – and he is all good – I immediately begin to question the integrity of the narrative. The advantage of a movie like this is that it doesn’t have to actually prove anything; it can just insinuate. What’s ironic is that this is exactly the approach that the CIA – and the rival newspapers – took with Webb. They destroyed him through implication. What goes around comes around, I guess, and since there does appear to have been some truth to Webb’s story – sloppy reporting notwithstanding – this turnaround is not undeserved.

Where the movie is especially strong, however, regardless of its truthiness, is in its portrayal of institutional behavior. When systems are threatened, the consequences for the hapless neophyte attacker can be devastating. In the case of Webb, the publisher and editor of his paper refused to stand by his story and threw him under the proverbial bus. As played by Oliver Platt (“The Big C“) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed), these two superiors who should have had Webb’s back are particularly chilling since they are so likable. We get why they must do what they do, even though they are as responsible for the mess as Webb. Would we behave any differently? Ah! There’s the question.

Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Webb with ebbing vitality and a vanishing confidence made all the more poignant by the actor’s natural vibrancy. With his brilliant and committed performance, he helps us overlook the flaws in the script. Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister’s Sister) is a bit wasted as Webb’s wife, but brings her usual sincerity to her underdeveloped role. Of special note are Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia), as the (ridiculously flirtatious) girlfriend of a drug dealer who first draws Webb’s attention to the CIA connection, Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as a defense lawyer for another drug dealer, and Andy Garcia (At Middleton) as yet another (imprisoned) drug dealer down in Nicaragua.

It’s a film well worth watching, imperfections and all, just like Webb’s articles were well worth reading.

Going Gillian: The Compelling Repellant Oddness of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”

Gone Girl

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

David Fincher releases his 10th feature film today, adding to a vastly entertaining and compelling body of work that includes music videos, commercials and 9 previous films that, love them or hate them, have proven him both a great visual stylist and powerful storyteller. Gone Girl is an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same title by Gillian Flynn (Gillian pronounced with a hard G), and the script was written by Flynn, herself (as a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, she perhaps feels she knows a thing or two about movie structure). I was not a fan of the book, although I recognized that it was a strong page-turner and fairly well-written (in terms of narrative structure). No matter – it was a huge success, and now Fincher – a director I admire, and whose last film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while not a strictly necessary work (since the original had been so fine), was still a more-than-worthy adaptation of a potboiler – has turned his considerable talents to its cinematic translation. I wish he had chosen a different source text, but what’s on the screen is nevertheless fascinating to watch, if also odd and repellent. There’s nothing wrong with unlikeable characters – indeed, the late great Patricia Highsmith specialized in loathsome and/or morally opaque protagonists – but one has to be in the right mood for it, and the characterizations had better be masterful. Flynn is no Highsmith, that’s for sure, but Fincher is, himself, a master filmmaker, so what we get mesmerizes even as it repulses. And it’s also pretty funny in spots.

Gone Girl starts on the 5th wedding anniversary of Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple that has recently relocated from New York (Amy’s hometown) to North Carthage, Missouri (Nick’s hometown), after both of them lost their jobs. The marriage, once deliriously romantic, has now turned sour, and when Amy disappears, Nick becomes the prime suspect in her assumed murder. An affable sort, Nick does himself no favors by trying a little too hard to be friendly to the army of well-wishers who descend upon the town. When the police discover Amy’s diary (along with other incriminating evidence that includes Amy’s financial support of the marriage and a bumped-up life insurance premium), which starts positive and is then increasingly filled with frightened entries, Nick appears done for. The media – including a character very loosely based on Nancy Grace – crucifies him, then North Carthage’s citizens follow, and it’s only a matter of time before the police will arrest Nick.

Except that all may not be as it seems. Suddenly, midway through the story, we discover new details about Amy that radically change the dynamic of the narrative. No plot spoilers to follow. Suffice it to say that this twist is by far the most interesting aspect of the novel, after which we are left with unappealing characters who behave in predictable ways while reinforcing stereotypes of male and female behavior (with a surprisingly healthy does of misogyny) that are just fundamentally not that interesting.

Thank God for Fincher. Even more than his trademark brilliance with the visual language of cinema, he brings to Gone Girl a delightful strangeness in the sound design. This is a story about people whose behavioral mannerisms are completely faux constructs (Flynn’s seeming point being that all relationships are about performance), and from the opening off-balance close-up of Amy’s head, accompanied by the odd synth chords of composers Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross, we enter a world of artifice that feels almost dream-like in its presentation of the facts (such as they are) of the story. In a way that words, alone, cannot convey, Fincher uses image and sound to plunge us into, first, a dream, and then, as the story gets darker, a nightmare. Only the director of such masterpieces as Se7en and Fight Club could pull this off. I did not enjoy the movie, but I was inexorably drawn to it (though it could have been about 20 minutes shorter).

Ben Affleck (bulked up for his upcoming Batman v Superman film) and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher) star as Nick and Amy. They’re good together, and the fact that neither has great acting range is probably appropriate for such shallow characters. The supporting cast is excellent, including Kim Dickens (good in everything she does, including “Deadwood“), Neil Patrick Harris (so fine, as always, in “How I Met Your Mother“) and Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry). There are a lot of reasons to see the film – especially if, unlike me, you’re a fan of book – including the many darkly comic moments sprinkled throughout (I laughed quite a bit, actually), even if the writing is not among them. Steel yourself for the nasty misery of Nick and Amy’s marriage, and hop to it. Fincher is always worth watching.