Tag Archives: 2014 Reviews

Popsicle toes: Antarctica: a Year on Ice ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2014)

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For decades now, my long-time Alaskan friends and I have speculated as to why no one has ever thought to produce a documentary about the unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience shared by the thousands of men and women who worked on the massive Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project back in the 1970s. From 1975-1977, I worked as a laborer on the project (that’s right…Fairbanks Local #942, baby!), doing 6-to-10 week stints in far-flung locales with exotic handles like Coldfoot, Old Man, Happy Valley, and the ever-popular Pump Station #3 (now that was one cold motherfucker).

These remote work camps, frequently the only bastions of “civilization” for hundreds of square miles in all directions, developed their own unique culture…part moon base, part Dodge City. It’s a vibe that is tough to explain to anyone who wasn’t actually there. Traditionally, I usually cite the sci-fi “western” Outland as the closest approximation. However, going forward I’ll defer to Anthony Powell’s Antarctica: a Year on Ice.

For once, someone has made a documentary about Earth’s southernmost polar region that contains barely a penguin in sight…or any sign of Morgan Freeman, for that matter. OK, there’s a wee bit of penguin footage, but no more than maybe 2 minutes total out of a 90-minute film, tops. And  know that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Freeman, one of America’s finest actors, and his undeniably mellifluous pipes…but enough with the voice overs, already (leave some scraps for Martin Sheen, for god’s sake). The narration is from the filmmaker himself, who toiled 15 years on this labor of love.

While there are breathtaking time-lapse sequences (reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi) capturing the otherworldly beauty of the continent, this is not so much standard-issue nature documentary as it is a kitchen sink social study of Antarctica’s (for wont of a better descriptive) “working class”. These are people with the decidedly less glamorous gigs than the scientists, biologists and geophysicists who usually get to hog the spotlight on the National Geographic Channel.

These are the administrators, store clerks, culinary staff, warehouse workers, electricians, mechanics, drivers, heavy equipment operators, etc. who help keep the infrastructure viable. Powell’s film not only serves to remind us of the universality of human psychology in extreme survival situations, but is imbued with a hopeful utopian undercurrent, best summarized by the very first line of Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty: “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.”

Amen…and please pass the bunny boots.

Let’s get lost again: Low Down ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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I will admit being unfamiliar with jazz pianist Joe Albany prior to watching Jeff Preiss’ fact-based drama Low Down, yet the late musician’s career trajectory seems depressingly familiar. Credited as a be-bop pioneer, he made his bones in the 1940s, accompanying the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, he suffered an early “lost period” due to heroin, and spent most of the 50s and 60s chasing the dragon and collecting ex-wives. He came out of seclusion in the 70s, recording a number of albums through the decade (still battling smack). He died alone, in 1988. Oddly enough, that was the same year trumpeter Chet Baker died. Baker, whose career was beset by similar woes, was profiled in Bruce Weber’s outstanding 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost. One of its most compelling elements was the moody, noirish cinematography…by a Mr. Jeff Preiss.

Preiss’ film (which marks his feature-length directing debut) covers a 3-year period of Albany’s life in the mid-70s, when he was living in a seedy Hollywood flophouse with his teenage daughter Amy (Elle Fanning). Albany (John Hawkes) is struggling to stay focused on the work, jamming with his trumpet-playing buddy Hobbs (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, giving us a taste of his first instrument). Amy is cheer leading for her Dad, doing her best to keep him on track. Speaking of tracks, a surprise visit from his parole officer reveals Dad isn’t quite holding things together, and he’s whisked off to stir. Amy goes to stay with her grandmother (Glenn Close) until Joe is released. Dad still has issues. Amy tries to keep sunny, but it’s tough to be Pollyanna when your social circle is surging with hookers, junkies, drug dealers and, er, porno star dwarves (Peter Dinklage!).

The screenplay (by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien) is based on Albany’s memoir about life with her father. Albany’s recollections about the extended family of eccentrics she encountered inject the film with a Tales of the City vibe. The naturalistic performances and Preiss’ cinema verite approach also recalls Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama, The Panic in Needle Park, an episodic character study about a community of junkies. Some may find the deliberate pacing stupefying, waiting for something to “happen”, but as John Lennon sang, “life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Taken as a slice of life, Low Down just lets it happen…improvising on grace notes while keeping it in perfect time.

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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1931-2014

Mike Nichols passed away earlier this week. Perhaps more than any other film director I can think of, his catalog (stretching from 1966 to 2007) encapsulates the crucial paradigm shifts in America’s social mores (and to some extent, changes in the political landscape) over the past 50 years. I would also consider him one of the progenitors of the modern film “dramedy”, which stemmed from his background in improvisational comedy (he was one of the key players in an early 60s troupe that would later morph into Second City) and in later years, his experience as a theater director. He was, in all senses of the term, an “actor’s director”, clearly evident from the iconic performances that he coaxed from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I don’t think he ever made  a “bad” film, which makes it difficult to narrow down favorites…but I’ll highlight my top three:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by  Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple (which is more than enough, thank you very much). After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. It turns out to be quite an eye-opener for the young ‘uns; as the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece. Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. It’s easy to forget that the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Nichols classic that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21 year-old character. Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (and the original cougar!). Things get more complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross). This is one of those “perfect storm” artistic collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s droll screenplay, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained its sharp teeth.

Silkwood– The tagline for this 1983 film was intriguing: “On November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there.” One might expect a riveting conspiracy thriller to ensue; however what director Nichols and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arden do deliver is an absorbing character study of an ordinary working-class woman who performed an act of extraordinary courage which may (or may not) have led to her untimely demise. Meryl Streep gives a typically immersive portrayal of Silkwood, who worked as a chemical tech at an Oklahoma facility that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. On behalf of her union (and based on her own observations) Silkwood testified before the AEC in 1974 about ongoing health and safety concerns at her plant. Shortly afterwards, she tested positive for an unusually high level of plutonium contamination. Silkwood alleged malicious payback from her employers, while they countered that she had engineered the scenario herself. Later that year, on the last night of her life, she was in fact on her way to meeting with a Times reporter, armed with documentation to back her claims, when she was killed after her car ran off the road. Nichols stays neutral on the conspiratorial whispers; but still delivers the goods, thanks in no small part to his exemplary cast, including Kurt Russell (as Silkwood’s husband), and Cher (who garnered critical raves and a Golden Globe) as their housemate.

Also recommended: Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, The Day of the Dolphin, Working Girl, Primary Colors, Angels in America, Charlie Wilson’s War (my review).

Hawking tall: The Theory of Everything ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2014)

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“There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”

Dr. Stephen W. Hawking

 There’s a truly jaw-dropping moment in James Marsh’s new biopic about theoretical physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in which lead actor Eddie Redmayne (without the benefit of camera trickery or CGI) literally “unfolds” his paralyzed, crumpled body from the confines of his wheelchair, and walks offstage into the audience to gracefully kneel down and pick up a pencil. A lump formed in my throat, and I began to cry like I haven’t cried at a film since…I don’t know when (maybe Old Yeller, when I was 6?). I know what you’re thinking. I might as well write: “I saw this film today. There was this one incredible scene, where this guy gets up off the couch, and flips on a light switch. I wept.” But it’s all about context. In context of all the events leading up to that scene, it makes for an extraordinarily moving moment (as ‘they’ say…”You weren’t there, man!”).

Hawking’s back-story is fairly well-known; that he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 21, and given 2 years to live. At the time, he was studying cosmology at Cambridge, and already formulating the patented type of eloquent equations that deign to explain Life, the Universe, and Everything…which would one day become his stock in trade, elevating him to rock star status within the realm of theoretical physics. Of course, being a young man in his 20s, he also had a healthy interest in, erm, “biology” whilst at university. He became smitten with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who stood by him through thick and thin as his physical condition deteriorated, and eventually became his wife. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay mostly focuses on this personal aspect of Hawking’s life; not surprising when you consider he adapted from Jane Hawking’s 2007 autobiographical account, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.

Depending on your expectations going in, this could be perceived as either the curse or the blessing of Marsh’s approach to Hawking’s story. If you have a geeky interest in getting a handle on exactly how Dr. Hawking derived his most lauded theories over the years, you’ll be disappointed at the notable lack of hard science in the film. However, if you’re not in the mood for a physics lecture, and instead looking for (yes, I’m going to say it) another inspirational biopic about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, this one is right in your wheelhouse. In that respect, the movie is somewhat formulaic, but so well executed and skillfully acted that only the clinically dead would fail to be moved. Marsh is an elegant filmmaker; he directed one of the most beautifully constructed documentaries of recent years, Man on Wire (my review).

That being said, there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that, by all accounts, the “real” Stephen Hawking couldn’t care a whit as to whether the story of his physical travails inspires you, me, or the fence post; he famously balks at any empathetic interest in that part of his life. For him, it’s all about the work, and the seemingly boundless inquisitiveness and capabilities of his mind which (thankfully) has remained largely unaffected by his hellish maladies. On the other hand, you get a sense from the film that Hawking would still not have been able to achieve everything that he has with that great mind without the stalwart devotion, encouragement and assistance of people in his life like Jane, or Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a personal nurse who became his second wife. Consequently, Marsh’s film is just as much their story as it Hawking’s (as should be).

I suspect I will not be the only reviewer who feels compelled to draw parallels between Redmayne’s performance and Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation in My Left Foot, Jim Sheridan’s 1989 biopic about cerebral palsy-afflicted artist and writer Christy Brown. And it’s not just about the obvious similarities in how both actors appear willing to (literally) suffer for their art, contorting their bodies into gruelingly uncomfortable positions for periods of time. It’s more about how each was able to express his character’s humanity, in a manner transcending gimmickry of performance. At least that’s my theory.

Draw this pirate: Art and Craft ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)

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It’s an age-old question: Who gets to call it “art”? Andy Warhol paints a replica of a Campbell soup can, signs his name to it (with no credit to the designer who originally created it), and it’s “art”, as opposed to “plagiarism”? Eye of the beholder, and all that, I’d reckon. Art and Craft, a documentary from directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, adds a new spin to the question: Does someone talented enough to reproduce classic works of art that are so indistinguishable from originals that even professional registrars are duped deserve to be called an “artist”? And if that said individual is donating the work, is it still “forgery”? After all…as Jonathan Richman once sang, “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.”

Such is the strange case of mild-mannered savant Mark Landis, who has the dubious distinction of being considered the most prolific forger in art history. Amazingly, Landis was able to keep his secret safe for 30 years, during which time he took on the role of a “philanthropist”, crisscrossing the country to donate his uncanny reproductions to unsuspecting galleries and museums. The breadth of the works is genuinely astonishing; covering the full spectrum from Charles Shultz to Picasso. His streak ended when Matthew Leininger, one of the registrars he had initially duped, caught on to Landis’ con.

The film is ultimately a fascinating portrait of two obsessive individuals; each one operating within a gray area. While there are certainly ethical issues that can be raised regarding what Landis does, there is nothing technically illegal about donating objects d’art. Besides, as one art expert conjectures in the film, who is to say that what Landis does isn’t a kind of “performance art” in and of itself?

In that respect, one could argue he is free to go about his business, as long as he isn’t hurting anybody (save the wounded pride of a few museum curators). Likewise, while it could be argued that Leininger (at least as observed in the film) is exhibiting classic characteristics of stalking behavior, there’s no law against him going on his one-man crusade across the country to alert any museums and galleries that he suspects may have Landis’ work in their collections.

Anyone already aware of the art world’s inherently schizoid nature will probably not be too surprised by the film’s most enlightening segment, which takes place at a gallery that has offered Landis his own show. The only original in the installation is a portrait Landis painted of his late mother; the rest are his reproductions. Several attendees ask Landis the obvious question, “You’re so talented…why don’t you do your own work?” The soft-spoken (and heavily medicated) Landis responds to such queries with enigmatic shrugs.

Someone else has shown up as well…Leininger (luckily, with his wife, who can be seen pulling him back several times when he looks for all intents and purposes like he’s seriously considering grabbing Landis and killing him with his bare hands). Inevitably, there is a brief (and obviously awkward) conversation between the two. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been reading any of your emails, because I figured they would just be bad news,” Landis tells Leininger, “but if you want to send me any new emails, I’ll read them, because we’re all friends now,” and offers Leininger his hand. Leininger shakes, but still looks like he wants to strangle Landis. Everybody’s a critic, I suppose…

Floating weeds: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)

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One of my favorite movies is the 1957 “show-biz noir”, The Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick’s portrait of an influential  New York newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break the careers of actors, musicians, and comics with the mere flick of his pen. One of my favorite lines from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s infinitely quotable screenplay is uttered by Lancaster, as he sharpens his claws and fixes his predatory gaze down on the streets of Manhattan from his lofty penthouse perch: “I love this dirty town.” Now, I don’t know if writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu intended this as homage, but there is a scene in his new film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where a character looks down at the streets of Manhattan from a lofty rooftop perch (after accepting a “dare” to spit on a random pedestrian below) and gleefully proclaims, “I love this town!”

Inarritu’s protagonist, on the other hand, would seem to have more of a love/hate relationship with “this” particular town; to get more neighborhood specific, with the Great White Way. His name is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), and he’s doing all he can to keep mind and soul together as he prepares for the opening of his Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. There’s a lot riding on this project; Riggan is a movie star who has gone a little stale with the public in recent years. His main claim to fame is his starring role in a superhero franchise centering on a character named “Birdman” (I know…rhymes with “Batman”, but I won’t belabor the obvious).

In the meantime, the Broadway locals are sharpening their knives and getting ready to pounce on yet another one of these hack Hollywood “movie stars” who thinks he can just come traipsing into their sacred cathedral, make a pathetic grab at street cred, then go gallivanting back to his Beverly Hills mansion. Locals like Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a powerful New York Times theater critic (with strong echoes of Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker) who tells him (in so many words) that she is going to “kill” his play… before she has even seen it.

Adding to Riggan’s stress is his strained relationship with his acerbic, fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), who he has hired on as his P.A., and his girlfriend/fellow cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is less than pleased with his ambivalent reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant. An eleventh-hour replacement of one of his key players by a mercurial method hotshot (Edward Norton) exacerbates Riggan’s anxiety; especially after he deliberately derails the first preview performance by going off script and upstaging the star with manic improvisations. As Riggan cracks under the strain, he begins to receive advice and admonishments from Birdman (not unlike Anthony Hopkins and his dummy in Magic).

If you love tracking shots, you’ll have a dollygasm watching this film, as Inarritu and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki have seemingly conspired to concoct an extended 2-hour 12 inch dance mix version of Orson Welles’ audacious opening sequence in Touch of Evil. While this gimmick neither detracts nor adds anything to the story (aside from quite literally “moving things along” in the event you should encounter any lulls in the narrative), I felt it worth mentioning for anyone prone to motion sickness. The vacillating tonal shifts from Noises Off-style backstage farce to dark satire, with a light seasoning of magical realism and occasional forays into mind-blowing fantasy sequences, could be jarring to some; yet cozily familiar to fans of Terry Gilliam, or Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

While the central tropes of the film are somewhat dog-eared (Which holds more “truth”-stage or screen? If “acting” is, by definition, pretending, does a performance have to be “real” to be valid, or considered artful? And who gets to call it “art”…the critics? What the fuck do critics know, anyway? Did I just invalidate my entire review with that last rhetorical? Was that a wise move on my part? How do I now make a graceful egress out of this endless parenthetical? Why am I asking you?) Inarritu has framed them in an original fashion.

Most impressively, he has coaxed consistently top-flight performances from a sizable cast, which also includes Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. Keaton has never been better (and the concept of such a great comeback performance by an actor playing a character who is an actor hoping for a great comeback performance is a veritable Matryoshka doll of super-meta). Oh, and you will believe a man can fly. Or not.

Songs in the key of grief: Rudderless ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2014)

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Sad fact #3,476: Mass shootings have become as American as apple pie; so much so that they have spurred their own unique (post-Columbine) film sub-genre (Bang Bang You’re Dead, Zero Day, Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Beautiful Boy, etc.). Not that its progenitor, the Grieving Parent Drama, hasn’t been a Hollywood staple over previous decades; films like Don’t Look Now, Ordinary People, The Sweet Hereafter, and The Accidental Tourist deal with the soul-crushing survivor’s guilt that results from the loss of a child. The child’s demise in those dramas was usually attributed to an accident, or a terminal illness. But it’s a different world now. And so it is we sadly add William H. Macy’s Rudderless to the former list.

There is only brief exposition in the film’s opening scene that alludes to the tragedy which lies at the heart of the story. A college student named Josh (Miles Heizer) sits alone in his dorm room with guitar in hand, playing and singing with fiery intensity as he records a demo of an original song into his laptop. He is visibly perturbed when he is interrupted; first by a fellow student who ducks his head in the door to say hey, then by a phone call from his father, an ad exec named Sam (Billy Crudup), who tries to talk his son into ditching his next class so he can join him to help celebrate that he’s just landed a big account. When we next see Sam, he’s alone at the bar, glancing at his watch…indicating Josh was a no-show. As he prepares to leave, the bar’s TV blares that there’s been a mass shooting at Josh’s college.

Josh, we hardly knew ye. But we will get to know him…through his songs, which Sam discovers after his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) drops off a car load of their late son’s musical equipment and cassette demos. It’s now two years after the incident, and a Jimmy Buffetized Sam is living on his docked boat, working odd jobs and wasting away every night in Margaritaville. He eventually steels himself to sift though Josh’s demos, and discovers that his son not only had a gift for soulful lyrics, but for coming up with hooks. He learns to play and sing Josh’s tunes. At first, he does it as personal grief therapy, then one night he performs one at an open-mic performance. A young musician (Anton Yelchin) is so taken that he hounds Sam until he forms a band with him (or are they “forming” a father and son bond?)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Macy’s directorial debut is very much an “actor’s movie”, beautifully played by the entire cast (which also includes Laurence Fishburne, Selena Gomez, Ben Kweller, and Macy as a club manager). Crudup is a particular standout; this is his most nuanced turn since his breakout performance in the 1999 character study Jesus’ Son. The script (co-written by the director along with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison) could have used tightening (by the time the Big Reveal arrives in the third act, it lacks the intended dramatic import due to all of  the telegraphing that precedes it).

Certain elements of the narrative reminded me of Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark 2009 sleeper, World’s Greatest Dad (recommended, especially for Robin Williams fans). Still, despite some hiccups and predictable plot points, Macy has fashioned an absorbing, moving drama, with a great soundtrack (composed by Eef Barzelay, Charlton Pettus, and Simon Steadman). The songs performed by the band are catchy…in a mid90s, Chapel Hill alt-rock kind of way. Macy’s film is a sad song, but you can dance to it.

My life in ruins: The Two Faces of January **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2014)

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There’s something that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common (aside from being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, The Two Faces of January, is the latest Highsmith adaptation…but that may be all it has in common with the aforementioned. Then again, perhaps only time will tell us that for sure (and it wouldn’t be the first time that History has proven me an ass; but I digress).

While Highsmith’s pet recurring character Tom Ripley is absent in this outing, we do have our requisite Young American Abroad Who Becomes Ensnared In Intrigue (bet you’re glad I didn’t say that he “gets caught in a web of deceit”). His name is Rydal (played by Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac), an Athens-based tour guide/con man who scams tourists. He may have more than met his match when he runs into Chester (Viggo Mortensen), an apparently well-to-do American who is traveling through Europe with his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). The three become quick friends. Too quickly. From the outset, Rydal and Chester circle each other warily, in such a way that telegraphs to the viewer that Someone’s Gonna End Up Dead. But who is conning who?

Don’t worry, I harbor no spoilers. If you’re an old-school mystery fan, and you’ve already read enough to be intrigued, I won’t stop you from buying a ticket. Just be forewarned: while this all sounds very Hitchcockian…don’t expect another Strangers on a Train here. The performances are good (Mortensen in particular) and the location filming is lovely, but there is something curiously static about the production. Maybe it’s because feels like something you might stumble across on PBS while channel-surfing on a Sunday night? I can’t put my finger on why it didn’t work for me. That’s the mystery…

Capitol offense: Kill the Messenger ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2014)

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‘Member back in the ’80s, when the CIA was in league with the crack cocaine trade, and they were all like, funneling the drug profit to the Nicaraguan Contras?

(*sigh*) Ah, the Reagan era. Morning in America…mourning in Central America.

Good times.

All you have to do is tell the truth, and nobody will believe you. That’s what happened to San Jose Mercury investigative journalist Gary Webb, who published a series of articles in 1996 that blew the lid off of this “dark alliance”. I’m ashamed to admit that while I remember hearing something about it, I somehow got the impression (at the time) that it was an urban legend; the kind of thing that the SNL sketch character “Drunk Uncle” might blurt out at the dinner table while everyone snickers or hides their head in embarrassment. “Hey everybody…I heard that the CIA was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in the African-American community!”  Right, uncle.

Here’s the thing. The CIA actually did (sort of) cop to it, a few years after Webb’s newspaper expose. Normally, that would (should) have become a fairly major news story in and of itself. Unfortunately, the MSM was a little preoccupied at the time with a shinier object…the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Also by this time, Webb had lost his credibility, thanks to a concerted campaign by same aforementioned MSM to make Webb look like some nut yelling at traffic. Tragically, it “worked” too well; he became a pariah and ended up killing himself.

This largely forgotten debacle has been dramatized in a new film from Michael Cuesta called Kill the Messenger. Jeremy Renner delivers a terrific performance as the tenacious and impassioned Webb. We follow him on a journey that begins with a relatively innocuous tip from a player in the local drug trade, which leads to a perilous face-to-face meet with an imprisoned kingpin in Nicaragua (a great cameo from Andy Garcia) and eventually to the belly of the beast in D.C., where he’s implicitly advised by government spooks to cool his heels…or else. Naturally, this only makes him want to dig deeper. He hits pay dirt, and the exclusive story is published. His editors appear to have his back; that is, until the backlash begins.

The story about how Webb got “the story” is relegated to the first act; this was a wise choice by screenwriter Peter Landesman (who adapted from Nick Shou’s eponymous book and Webb’s Dark Alliance). While most of this political thriller’s “thrills” (and the snippets in the trailers) are derived from this first third of the film, that’s not the most crucial takeaway from Webb’s story. Granted, the actions of the CIA were bilious enough, but even more distressing is how eager the MSM was to sink their talons into a fellow journalist.

In this respect, Kill the Messenger parallels Oliver Stone’s JFK, in that both center on idealistic truth seekers (Jim Garrison and Gary Webb) who got crucified for their troubles…by the very parties who should be championing and joining them on their quest (now that I think about it, that’s human history in a nutshell). It’s interesting, I was listening to Democracy Now the other day while driving in to work, and Amy Goodman did a segment about Webb and his legacy. She was talking to investigative journalist Robert Parry, who observed:

“…there’s no question that this was one of the most important stories of the 1980s and really the 1990s, when you get to the end of this and the CIA confessing. But it’s also a story about the failure of the mainstream press that extends to the present, goes through the Iraq War, the failure to be skeptical there, and goes right on to the present day. So it’s not an old story; it’s very much a current story.”

All I can say is thank the gods for the likes of Amy Goodman, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Vice News and others following in Webb’s footsteps. And for this movie, which is one of the first fall season releases that have any true substance.

Start the revolution without me: The Liberator **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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The stats on democratic revolutionary Simon Bolivar are pretty impressive. By the time he died at age 47 in 1830, he had waged over 100 battles against the Spanish throughout Central and South America, liberating and establishing the united territory of Gran Columbia (an area stretching south from the modern nations of Panama at one end and Peru at the other). He’s highly revered in Latin America to this day (hell, they even named Bolivia after him).

I wish I could say the same about Alberto Arvelo’s slickly produced yet cloyingly idealized biopic, The Liberator. It’s too bad, because charismatic leading man Edgar Ramirez gives it his best shot (and looks convincingly dashing wearing a waistcoat and wielding a saber), but Timothy J. Sexton’s script takes a Cliff’s Notes approach that skimps on Bolivar’s motivations.

What made him decide to give up his life as a wealthy country gentleman (who grew up on a family plantation maintained by slave labor, no less) and transform into “El Libertador“, freeing South America from the Spanish Empire? The epiphany is implied, but never fully explained; from watching the film, he may as well be Bruce Wayne donning a cape and transforming into Batman every night…and that’s all we need to know. Rousing battle scenes and lush period details are fine and dandy, but an historical epic ultimately requires some innate sense of history.