Rix Flix: “Kill the Messenger”

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He fought the law – and the law won. That’s basically the film in a nutshell. According to director Michael Cuesta (TV’s Homeland), Gary Webb, a real-life reporter for  San Jose Mercury News was the first journalist to see the link between a US backed war being waged in Nicaragua and the flood of cocaine inundating the poorer sections of Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, the film depicts Mr. Webb as a crusading reporter stymied at every turn by the CIA . (Peter Landesman’s screenplay is based on Mr. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” and a book  by Nick Schou). 

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Not everyone is impressed. In an article headlined “Gary Webb was no journalistic hero – despite what Kill the Messenger says” Washington Post’s Jeff Leen writes “Webb’s story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America. What he lacked was the extraordinary proof ….  at first, the claim was enough ….Then it all began to come apart. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times … wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.”  (In the film the major papers are depicted as jealous. In one scene, an editor berates his staff for getting scooped by a much smaller paper.)

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Michael Kenneth Williams as drug dealer Ricky Ross in “Kill the Messenger” (Yes, he played Omar in “The Wire”

Judging from the casting, the producers may have been hoping for another All the President’s Men. No one in current Hollywood is better at coiled intensity than Jeremy Renner who plays Gary Webb in this film. 

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Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger”

On the other hand, Robert Patrick, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen  and Ray Liotta (to name a few) are wasted in small parts and even the blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos are filled with familiar faces. I saw the film on Netflix so I don’t know how much of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor. But surely estimable character actors like, for example, Richard Schiff (TV’s West Wing) and Gil Bellows (you’ll recognize him when you see him) deserve more screen time. About the only performer who left an impression was the chameleonic Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mr. Webb’s long-suffering editor and friend.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead as San Jose Mercury News editor Anne Simons in “Kill the Messenger”

Since the film sank at the box office, the subject of the film has sank with it. It’s  entertaining enough, boosted by Mr. Renner’s galvanizing performance. Just don’t get swept away. As Kris Kristofferson once said (in a somewhat different context) “He’s a walking contradiction … partly truth and partly fiction.”

 

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BUSHWICK And Bombs

BUSHWICK

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Ex wrestler turned action here Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and actress Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect): An Unlkely Pairing But, Trust Me, It Works!

The premise sounds a little far-fetched (screenplay is credited to Nick Damici and Graham Reznick)  – certain Southern states secede from the Union and invade the lowly Brooklyn suburb of Bushwick in hopes of establishing a beachhead in Manhattan.

However, the filmmakers (Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott are listed as directors) get a lot of bang for their buck, considering their overall budget would barely cover Johnny Depp’s coffee break.

But that premise? I mean, North vs. South? A second American Civil War? That couldn’t happen again, could it? Well, could it? Um …. could it?

FASTER

 

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This must have looked good on  paper. But, seriously, guys, don’t you have something better to do with your time?

ASSASSIN’S CREED

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What the …….. oh, never mind!

TV or not TV: Is That a Question? (WOLF HALL)

Think Westeros has intrigue (and a high body count)?

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Try the court of Henry VIII in 15th century England (and, unlike the Lannisters, this is based on real facts.(Kudos to screenwriter Peter Straughan for boiling down Hilary Mantel’s two door-stopping historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in this six-part BBC/PBS miniseries now on DVD.)

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Damian Lewis (left), Mark Rylance (middle) and Claire Foy (right) in “Wolf Hall”

Award-winning actor Mark Rylance (he has won or been nominated for every major award except the Grammy) stars in a thoroughly immersive performance as Thomas Cromwell, a wily manipulator trying to survive and prosper in the court of Henry VIII (played with mercurial elan by Damian Lewis).

PS Claire Foy, so good as a young Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown, portrays the doomed Anne Boleyn (although her character doesn’t know she is doomed in the early stages of this drama. Far from it!)

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Stuff I Watched (And Maybe You Will) 2

WIENER-DOG

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Despite a terrific cast  this is a step down for filmmaker Todd Solondz’ usual dyspeptic wit.

“Hilarious!” says one blurb on the back of the DVD. Funny. I wasn’t laughing. I mean, I can handle pitch-black humor as well as anyone but there’s gotta be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Oh well, at least it’s a Todd Solondz movie you can take yer mom to (if yer ma is a so-called “zoomer”, chances are she is fairly liberal.)

Stuff I Watched (And Maybe You Will, Too): LATE SPRING

 

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I’ve read a lot of articles namechecking Yasujiro Ozu over the years but I personally have never had the opportunity to access his films until recently. (When it comes to Japanese cinema, I’m more of a Kurosawa man myself.)

Perhaps  Akira Kurosawa’s best-known films with their emphasis on action and/or suspense have proved to be more accessible to western audiences. (Hollywood has adapted several Kurosawa films, the most successful being The Magnificent Seven, an Americanized version of Seven Samurai ( which featured the mighty Toshiro Mifune – one of my all-time favorite screen performers.)

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Mr.  Ozu specializes in understated family dramas like Tokyo Story (recently voted No. 1 in a poll of 358 directors conducted by Sight and Sound magazine) and Late Spring, part of a series of “seasonal” works which also includes Early Summer and  Autumn Afternoon.

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Yasujiro Ozu directing Late Spring

Ozu films were not widely available globally until the 1970s, according to film prof Louis Giametti. They were considered by distributors to be “too Japanese” to appeal to foreign audiences.  Mr. Ozu was, Prof. Giametti writes, “a champion of traditional values, particularly that quintessential Japanese institution, the family.”  For that reason, things may appear to many Western viewers to be moving too slowly as Mr. Ozu meticulously records details of everyday Japanese family life. He is not interested in heavy drama. The characters move at their own speed: they will not be rushed.

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Recently I spotted a Criterion Collection reissue of 1949’s Late Spring at the local library.  Lovingly remastered by the Criterion folks, the package also includes scholarly yet accessible essays plus some words from the master himself. The package also includes a second disc, Tokyo-Ga, a documentary by the great German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club), recording his 1983 odyssey to Japan in search of the Tokyo which inspired Mr. Ozu’s films. Along the way he meets and interviews Chishu Ryu, a regular in Ozu films and Mr. Ozu’s longtime assistant, Yuharu Atsuta, who comments on the master’s unique style (he always liked to film with the camera several feet above the floor and using 50 mm lenses). On Mr. Ozu’s preferred method of shooting, Prof. Giametti writes “Ozu treated his characters as equals …for the most part, they are ordinary people, neither very virtuous or very corrupt … kept his camera neutral and dispassionate. Eye -level shots permit us to make up our own minds …”

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Chishu Ryu in “Late Spring”

Thanks to Mr. Ozu’s film I felt I really knew this family and thanks to Criterion’s thoughtful packaging and the accompanying Wenders documentary I felt I knew a little more about Yasujiro Ozu and his art.

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The one and only Setsuko Hara in Late Spring

Notably missing from Mr. Wenders’ doc is frequent Ozu leading lady Setsuko Hara. Ms. Hara, with her luminous eyes and expressive features, plays a devoted daughter to her elderly professor father (Ryu) in Late Spring. She will learn to her sorrow that she must leave her father and start her own life. Despite the appearance (to some) that little is happening the film is quite poignant and the ending can be ineffably sad.  After the passing of Mr. Ozu in 1963 Ms. Hara retired from acting, resumed her real name (Setsuko Hara was a stage name), went into seclusion, refusing all requests for interviews and died in 2015. But we can still view her haunting femininity and screen presence on film.

Some things need no translation.

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Stuff I Watched #5 – JOHN WICK 2

Like most American thrillers. there is enough fetishistic depiction of weaponry to make a gun collector drool.  (There is even a style of fighting in the movie which is referred to boastfully in the Extras as “gun fu”.)

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Gotta give Keanu credit, though. Now in his early Fifties.the former teen heartthrob still manages to keep his name above the title.