Insomnia File #22: Insomnia (dir by Christopher Nolan)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were up at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the atmospheric 2002 mystery, Insomnia.

I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit by including Insomnia in a series about obscure films that you might find on cable late at night.  While Insomnia does seem to often turn up during the early morning hours, it’s hardly an obscure film.  A remake of an acclaimed Norwegian film, it not only stars three Oscar winners (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) but it was directed by Christopher Nolan.  Insomnia got a lot of attention when it was first released in 2002.  But, doing an insomnia file about a movie that’s actually about insomnia was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

I should also mention that I didn’t have insomnia last night.  I was up because I currently have a cold and I watched Insomnia in a feverish and congested haze.  And yet I couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, that was actually the ideal way to watch Insomnia.  With its ominous atmosphere and Nolan’s eye for the surreal, Insomnia plays out like a semi-lucid fever dream.

A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village.  The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation.  Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska.  He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumors that, in the past, he was a crooked cop.  He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer.  While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun.  When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart.  Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot  his partner?  Not even Dormer seems to know for sure.  He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.

Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted.  Because of the midnight sun, night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep.  Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart.  And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.

Who is the murderer?  His name is Walter Finch.  He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams.  To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction.  Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience.  When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was.  In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals an inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after.  Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.

Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia.  (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.)  As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception.  For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer score to make a great movie.  With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.

Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.

insomnia2002poster

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth

Insomnia File #21: Truth (dir by James Vanderbilt)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you found yourself awake at three in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 2015 film, Truth.

I can’t say for sure whether or not Truth would have put you to sleep.  It kept me awake, largely because I was in a state of shock that any movie could be as bad as what I was watching.  Without running the risk of hyperbole, I can say that Truth is one of the worst fucking movies that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  It’s not just that the film is poorly scripted, inconsistently acted, and directed in the most heavy-handed way possible.  No, the problems with Truth went far beyond mere execution.  Truth is a film with an agenda, one that I kind of agree with, but it’s such a total misfire that it ends up doing more damage to its cause than good.  Truth is meant to be a defense of the much maligned mainstream media but it’s so poorly put together that it’s easy to imagine it being one of Donald Trump’s guilty pleasures.  Remember how all of us musical theater nerds used to hatewatch Smash?  I imagine that the White House staff does the same thing with Truth.

Truth is ostensibly based on a true story.  In 2004, veteran anchorman Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford) reported a story that then-President George W. Bush got preferential treatment while he was serving in the Air National Guard.  This story was considered to be especially big because 1) the Iraq War was deeply unpopular, 2) Bush was in a tight race for reelection, 3) his opponent, John F. Kerry, didn’t have much to offer beyond having served in Vietnam, and 4) questions were being raised about what Kerry actually did in Vietnam.

One of the most important pieces of evidence in Rather’s story were four memos that had been provided by a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Air National Guard, a veteran Bush-hater named Bill Burkett (played, in the film, by Stacy Keach).  Shortly after the story aired, conservative bloggers claimed that the memos were obvious forgeries.  After spending weeks defending the story and haughtily dismissing anyone who didn’t collect an eight-figure paycheck from CBS, Rather admitted on air that the authenticity of the memos could not be verified.  In the wake of the scandal, Rather’s longtime producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), was fired.  Rather retired a year earlier than expected and went on to become one of those reliably dull commentators who occasionally emerges to complain about how the world hasn’t been the same since Adlai Stevenson died.  Mapes later wrote a book, which argued that 1) the memos were authentic and 2) it didn’t actually matter whether they were authentic, even though they like so totally were.

With all the current talk about fake news and whether both the media and Hollywood exist in a bubble, Truth is a film that should be especially relevant but, as previously stated, it’s so clumsy and heavy-handed that it actually does more harm than good.  About halfway through the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which literally the entire country is shown watching 60 Minutes with awe-struck expression on their face.  Children are watching.  Customers in a bar are watching.  The cooking staff in the kitchen pauses in their work to watch the report.  Heroic music rises on the soundtrack.  This scene, with all of its self-important grandeur, pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with Truth.  It’s one thing to argue that the news media does, should, and must play an important role in American life.  It’s another thing to make your argument by constructing a fantasy world where the entire country plots their lives around watching 60 Minutes.  But that’s the way Vanderbilt directs the entire film.  He’s so high on the fumes of his good intentions that he doesn’t realize his film basically comes across like a parody of those intentions.

Especially in the second half of the film, there’s a lot of speeches about why journalism is important.  And those speeches may actually make a great point but the problem is that none of them convince us that Mary Mapes and Dan Rather didn’t get fooled by some painfully obvious forgeries.  In its laudable effort to defend journalism, Truth makes the mistake of excusing shoddy journalism. When, towards the end of the film, Mapes exclaims that the memos were only a minor part of the overall story and not necessary to prove that Bush got preferential treatment, you want someone to ask her, “If you could prove the story without them, then why did you include these unverifiable documents in the first place, especially considering that they were received from a questionable source?”  But nobody does because none of the film’s saintly characters have been written or portrayed with the nuance necessary to be able to survive a question like that.   Truth‘s problem is that it wants to have it both ways.  “It doesn’t matter that this story was based on obviously fake documents,” Truth says, “And, because Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were sent by God to tell the truth, the obviously fake documents were completely real.”

And then there’s the film’s performers.  Stacy Keach is great as Burkitt and his eccentric performance suggests the film that Truth could have been if it wasn’t so concerned with trying to portray its lead characters as saints.  But then there’s Robert Redford, whose portrayal of Dan Rather has all the nuance and personality of a wax figure.  (Redford wears suspenders.  That’s the extent of his performance.)  As Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett is totally wasted.  She doesn’t really have a character to play, beyond her male director’s conception of what a professional woman is supposed to be like.  (She also has a traumatic back story of abuse, which the film trots out in such a klutzy manner that it’s actually incredibly insulting to real-life abuse victims.)  Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Elisabeth Moss all show up as members of Mapes’s team.  Quaid is playing a military man so he gets to salute in slow motion.  Grace is playing a hipster with a beard so he gets this embarrassing scene where he rants about how he’s being targeted not because of sloppy reporting but because of a corporate conspiracy.  (This was obviously meant to be a huge applause moment but, like a lot of the movie, it doesn’t explain how the progressive cause is helped by shoddy journalism.)  Moss doesn’t get to do anything, other than sit in the background.  To waste a cast of this quality is a crime.

So why did this mostly terrible film get respectful reviews?  Why did Sasha Stone and Jeff Wells insist that Truth was destined to be an Oscar contender?  Call it confirmation bias.  Truth plays to mainstream liberals (which includes the majority of film reviewers) in much the same way that God’s Not Dead 2 plays to Christians.  But just because you agree with a film’s ideology, that doesn’t make it an example of good filmmaking.  While artistic films are often political, it’s rare that political films are ever art.  If every anti-Bush film was an artistic masterpiece, we would be living in a cinematic golden age.

Here’s the thing.  We live in a time when the media is under attack and being used a convenient scapegoat for every bad thing in America. Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by portraying the media as being biased and that’s a charge that will undoubtedly be repeated many times over the next four years.  A heavy-handed mess like Truth doesn’t help anything.

truth_2015_poster

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?

Insomnia File No. 20: Casual Sex? (dir by Geneviève Robert)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you had insomnia at one in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz Comedy and watched the 1988 comedy, Casual Sex?  That’s what I just did!

I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that this is the first insomnia file that I’ve written since last July.  It’s not like I haven’t had insomnia between then and now.  However, I guess I’ve been busy either going on vacation, writing about horror movies, writing about the Oscars, or, of course, writing about reality TV over at the Big Brother Blog and Reality TV Chat Blog.  That said, I’ve always enjoyed writing these insomnia files and I’m happy to finally have the chance to do a new one.

I’m also happy to have the chance to write about a film called Casual Sex?, if just because I know that it will lead to the site getting a lot of hits from people doing google searches.  They probably won’t actually be looking for a movie review but a hit is a hit!

Anyway, Casual Sex? is an 80s film.  In fact, it’s such an 80s film that it probably spent the 90s recovering from an expensive coke habit.  It’s a film about two best friends who have decided that they’re tired of being single.  Stacy (Lea Thompson) is the promiscuous one, the one who has had many partners, has gotten involved in way too many needy relationships, and who is now freaking out over the spread of AIDS.  Melissa (Victoria Jackson) is the sweet but ditzy one.  Melissa has had boyfriends but she’s never had an orgasm.  When Stacy tells her about an article she read about AIDS, Melissa replies that at least now she’s “not the only one who is afraid of sex.”  Hoping to each find a permanent mate, Stacy and Melissa go to a health spa.  Stacy immediately falls madly in love with Nick (Stephen Shellen), an aspiring musician.  Melissa, meanwhile, meets the sensitive and sweet-natured Jamie (Jerry Levine), who works at the spa and gives a killer massage.  Meanwhile, an annoying guy named Vinny (Andrew Dice Clay) pursues both of them and everyone else as well.

(Vinny leers at every woman that he sees and prefers to be known as the Vin Man.  I know, I know.  It’s hard to believe that he’s still single.)

Casual Sex? actually get off to a really good start.  It opened with both Stacy and Melissa standing on an empty stage and discussing their sexual histories.  Usually, I cringe whenever a movie opens with a character standing on a blank stage and talking directly to the audience.  It usually feels like a lazy storytelling technique to me.  (Can’t figure out a natural way to let the audience know a character’s backstory?  Have them talk to directly to the audience!  It’s easy and lazy!)  But in Casual Sex?, this technique actually works.  Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson both give very natural and believable performances and the flashbacks to their previous experiences are all well-done and sometimes painfully relatable.  Despite the fact that the film was made 30 years ago, their experiences and emotions felt timeless.

After that strong opening, the rest of the film was much more uneven.  I have to admit that I had trouble telling how much of the film was meant to be satirical and how much of it was just a reflection of the time in which it was made.  For instance, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be rolling my eyes at Nick, with his feathered hair and his overdramatic style of singing, or if that was just what was considered to be hot in the 80s.  It was very confusing but, regardless of whether it was intentional or not, it was hard to take Nick seriously as anything more than a plot device.  As a result, it was difficult to care about his relationship with Stacy.  Melissa’s relationship with Jamie was far more interesting, largely because Jerry Levine was so likable in the role.

(Just in case anyone was wondering, Casual Sex? does feature a lot of sex but very little of it feels casual.  Perhaps that’s why the title ends with a question mark.  “Casual sex?” the film asks before answering, “No.”)

The film was ultimately too uneven to really be considered to be a success but I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would.  That was largely because of the performances of Lea Thompson, Victoria Jackson, and Jerry Levine.  There’s a few scenes where Vinny drops his bluster and reveals a sensitive side and Andrew Dice Clay does well with these scenes but, ultimately, it’s hard to like anyone known as The Vin Man.  I mean, he even has “Vin Man” written on the back of his jacket.  Strangely, Clay’s performance here felt like an early version of his performance in Blue Jasmine, almost as if the Vin Man eventually changed his name to Augie and ended up marrying the sister-in-law of a Ponzi scheme manager.

Casual Sex? may not be great but it’s good enough for when you’re awake at one in the morning.

casual_sex_poster

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations

Insomnia File No. 19: Great Expectations (dir by Alfonso Cuaron)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were awake at 2 in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1998 film, Great Expectations.

Great Expectations is an adaptation of the famous novel by Charles Dickens, the one about the orphan who helps a fugitive, is mentored by a bitter rich woman who lives in a decaying mansion, falls in love with the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella, and then later is helped out by a mysterious benefactor.  The thing that sets this adaptation apart from other version of the novel is that the 1998 Great Expectations is set in modern-day America, as opposed to Victorian-era Great Britain.

Actually, beyond retaining certain aspects of the plot, it’s interesting how little this version of Great Expectations has to do with the original novel.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While Charles Dickens deserves to be remembered as one of the fathers of modern literature, he could also be a terribly pedantic writer.  This adaptation only touches on the novel’s overriding concerns about class and wealth in the most simplistic of ways.  It also abandons most of the novel’s subplots and instead concentrates on the love story between Estella (Gwynneth Paltrow) and Finn (Ethan Hawke).

Oh yeah, did I mention that?  The hero of this version of Great Expectations is not named Phillip Pirrip and we never have to listen to him explain that, as a child, he was nicknamed Pip because he apparently could not speak.  Instead, Pip has been renamed Finn, short for Finnegan.  If you believe the trivia section of the imdb, Finn was apparently the name of Ethan Hawke’s dog.  And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  One of the main reasons why so many readers automatically dislike the narrator of Great Expectations is that he is named Pip.

Anyway, in this version, Pip Finn grows up in Florida, an orphan who is raised by his blue-collar brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Chris Cooper, giving a very Chris Cooperish performance).  The escaped convict is played by Robert De Niro and, towards the end of the film, there’s a hilarious scene where Finn and the convict meet for a second time and Finn somehow does not recognize him, despite the fact that he still pretty much looks the same and still acts exactly like Robert De Niro.  The eccentric woman who mentors the young Finn, Mrs. Havisham Dinsmoor, is played by Anne Bancroft and Bancroft, made up to look like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, gives a performance of almost transcendent weirdness.  And, of course, Estella — who has been raised to seduce and then destroy men — is played by Gwynneth Paltrow and, as usual, Paltrow is a lot more believable when Estella is remote and self-centered than when she has to soften up towards the end of the film.

It’s an odd film, to be honest.  This is one of those films that you watch and you try to be cynical but it’s all so lushly shot and deliriously (and manipulatively) romantic that you can’t help but occasionally get wrapped up in its spell.  Hawke and Paltrow, both of whom are incredibly young in this movie, may not have much chemistry but they’re both so achingly beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter.

Great Expectations was the second film to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron and it’s just as visually stylish as his later films.  It’s a frequently shallow and somewhat silly film but oh my God, is it ever pretty to look at.

Great_expectations_poster

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong

Insomnia File No. 18: Only The Strong (dir by Sheldon Lettich)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were suffering from insomnia at one in the morning and you turned over to one of the Cinemax stations, you could have watched the 1993 film, Only The Strong.

Only The Strong is an example of a film genre that is a personal favorite of mine.  This is one of those films where a dedicated but unorthodox teacher returns to his old high school and saves a bunch of troubled teenagers by teaching them how to beat the crap out of each other.  (For another example, check out The Principal.)  It’s hard for me to explain why I always enjoy these films.  I’m always tempted to say it’s because there’s a part of me that would love to be a teacher but, honestly, that answer is way too easy.  Add to that, if I was a teacher, I doubt I’d be one of the “I’m going to teach you how to beat the crap out of each other” teachers that tend to show up in these films.  It seems like that would be a lot of effort.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever met a “I’m going to teach you how to beat the crap out of each other” type of teacher.  I get the feeling that these teachers might not actually exist.  Maybe that’s why I like these films. For someone, like me, who went to a very nice but somewhat boring high school in the suburbs, a film like Only The Strong is the ultimate fantasy of what high school was like.

Anyway, in Only The Strong, Mark Dacascos plays Louis Stevens.  Louis was a troubled teenager but, luckily, he took a sociology class taught by Mr. Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis).  Kerrigan taught Louis that there was something more to life than just selling drugs and getting into fights.  After he graduated, Louis joined the Green Berets and spent four years living in the jungles Brazil.  In Brazil, he learned capoeira, a type of martial art that combines dance, acrobatics, and kick boxing.  In fact, Louis got so good at capoeira that, when he is recalled to the states, a village wiseman gives him a special instrument, a musical bow called a berimbau.

Louis returns to his old high school and visits Mr. Kerrigan.  He discovers that Kerrigan has been beaten down by life and is no longer the inspiring teacher that he once was.  He also discovers that his ex-girlfriend, Dianna (Stacey Travis), is now a teacher and she’s dating another teacher, Hector Cervantes (John Fionte).  Hector assumes that Louis worked for the CIA in Brazil and accuses him of organizing death squads.

Annoyed by what has happened to his old high school, Louis starts to leave.  However, before walking out, he uses capoeira to beat up a Jamaican drug dealer.  Everyone is so impressed that Louis is soon working for the high school, teaching 12 of the school’s worst students both capoeira and self-discipline…

(To be honest, as I watched the movie last night, none of the 12 students really seemed to be that dangerous to me.  It was difficult to imagine the majority of them ever committing a felony, though I could visualize more than a few of them waiting in line at Starbucks.  Then I remembered that this movie was made in 1993 and perhaps it was easier to scare audiences back then.)

It doesn’t take long for Louis to start to make a difference.  In fact, it only takes a four-minute training montage.  Soon, those 12 students are being respectful and thinking about the future.  Donavon (Ryan Bollman) is even remixing capoeira music and acting so worshipful towards Louis that you just know that he’s going to end up getting killed towards the end of the film, in order to provide Louis with the proper motivation to go out and kick some ass.  Unfortunately, the local Brazilian drug lord is not happy about Louis’s influence (especially after Louis encourages the drug lord’s cousin to spend his weekend camping instead of stripping cars).  Needless to say, it all leads to a violent showdown.  It also all leads to one of those inspiring graduation ceremonies that always tend to pop up in movies like this.

Anyway, Only The Strong is one of those films that currently has a 0% rating at the Rotten Tomatoes but I thought it was kind of fun in its own stupid way. (It probably helps to be half-asleep when you watch it.)  Even if you don’t buy into the film’s argument that it could be used to save an inner city high school, capoeira is a lot of fun to watch and Mark Dacascos has an appealing smile, which serves to set him apart from a lot of the other actors that starred in actions films in the 1990s.  Only The Strong is silly but fun, making it a good film to watch at one in the morning.

Only_the_Strong

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans

Insomnia File No. 17: The Suburbans (dir by Donal Lardner Ward)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

sub

Last night, if you were still awake at 3:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1999 comedy, The Suburbans!

And, in all probability, you would have fallen asleep before it was over.

This film tells the story of four guys who used to be in a band.  The name of the band was The Suburbans and, in 1980, they had a hit with a song called … wait … what the Hell was that song called?  See, this is an example of how slapdash The Suburbans was.  The whole point of the film is that they had a hit song but the movie goes off in some many different and random tangents that I can’t even remember what the name of this very important song was.  All I remember is that the song didn’t really sound like it would ever be a hit (no, not even in the 80s) and that the four guys really didn’t seem like they would ever be rock stars.

Anyway, The Suburbans only had that one hit and now, nearly twenty years later, all the band members are leading conventional lives in the suburbs.  Oddly, they all appear to live in the same suburb and they’re all still best friends.  Craig Bierko is the former lead guitarist, who is now a doctor of some sort.  Will Ferrell (yes, that Will Ferrell) is the former bass player who now works with computers.  Tony Guma is the overweight drummer who is at the center of a lot of scenes, presumably because Guma co-wrote the script.  Donal Lardner Ward is the former lead singer.  Along with starring in the film, Ward also directed it.  That might explain why, despite not being a very interesting character, everyone in the film is portrayed as being in love with him.

The Suburbans briefly reunite to play at Ferrell’s wedding.  A music executive (Jennifer Love Hewitt) happens to be at the wedding.  It turns out that she used to love The Suburbans and their one hit!  (The problem is that Jennifer Love Hewitt was only 20 when this film was made, which means that, when the Suburbans were famous, she would have only been a year old.)  She arranges for The Suburbans to reunite for a pay-per-view special and…

…and then a lot of stuff happens.  And I do mean a lot of stuff.  But what’s odd is none of that stuff adds up to anything.  Ward’s girlfriend (played by Amy Brenneman) is briefly threatened by Hewitt but, fear not — Donal Lardner Ward is the world’s greatest guy!  Occasionally, one member of the Suburbans might argue with another member of the Suburbans but fear not — they’re all great guys!

What’s funny is that, after spending 81 minutes with these characters and listening to their oppressively relentless quippy dialogue, you still don’t feel like you know a damn thing about any of them.  You never even find out how The Suburbans first got together or what inspired them to write their one hit in the first place.  Nor do you find out why they broke up.  They’re just sort of there and we’re supposed to care.

I guess I should mention that Ben and Jerry Stiller are both in the film.  They play Hewitt’s bosses and it’s painful to watch both of them.  Apparently, the director just said, “Ben, say something funny!” and the result was an endless scene of Ben Stiller saying whatever popped into his head.

(I should also probably mention that J.J. Abrams produced this movie.  Yes, that J.J. Abrams…)

If you track down the Suburbans on DVD, you’ll notice that the cover art is pretty much centered around Jennifer Love Hewitt and Will Ferrell.  What’s funny is that neither Hewitt nor Ferrel really get to do much in the movie.  (That said, Ferrell’s performance is enjoyably odd, even if it does feel totally out of the place.)  The entire movie is centered around Tony Guma and Donal Lardner Ward.  After all, they wrote and directed the damn thing.  So, I guess if you’re a Tony Guma fan, The Suburbans is the movie for you!

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger

Insomina File No. 16: Kill The Messenger (dir by Michael Cuesta)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Kill_the_Messenger_poster

Last night, if you were awake and unable to get any sleep at 1:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Cinemax and watched the 2014 conspiracy thriller, Kill The Messenger.

Kill The Messenger opens with one of those title cards that assures us that the movie we’re about to see is based on a true story.  We are then introduced to Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a California-based reporter who we know is a rebel because he has a precisely trimmed goatee.  Gary is interviewing a suspected drug smuggler (Robert Patrick) at the smuggler’s luxurious mansion.  Suddenly, the DEA storms the house, shouting insults and roughly throwing everyone to the ground, including Gary.  It’s actually exciting and promising opening, one that perfectly establishes both Gary as a truth seeker and the U.S. government as an invading army that’s fighting a war that’s full of collateral damage.

Gary, of course, has nothing to do with smuggling drugs.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If he was treated unfairly by the DEA, it’s just because the government is serious about winning the war on drugs!

Or is it?

Following up on a tip, Gary comes across evidence that, in order to raise money for pro-Amercian rebels in Central America, the CIA not only helped to smuggle drugs into the U.S. but also arranged for the drugs to largely be sold in poor, minority neighbors where, in theory, no one would notice or care.

When the story is finally published, Gary is briefly a celebrity.  Not surprisingly, the government denies his accusations and start tying to discredit him.  However, Gary also finds himself being targeted by his fellow journalists.  Angry over being outscooped by a relatively unknown reporter, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both launch their own investigations.  Instead of investigating Gary’s allegations, they jealously and viciously investigate Gary himself.

Soon, both Gary’s career and his family are falling apart and Gary finds himself growing more and more paranoid…

Remember when everyone was expecting Kill The Messenger to be a really big deal?  It was due to come out towards the end of 2014, right in the middle of Oscar season.  Jeremy Renner was being talked up as a contender for best actor.  Then the film came out, it played in a handful of theaters for a week or two, and then it sunk into obscurity.  Some commentators even complained that Focus Features buried the release of Kill The Messenger and that the film was ignored because of its leftist politics…

Of course, it’s just as probable that Focus Features realized that The Theory of Everything was more likely to charm audiences than a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic.

Or it could have just been that, despite telling a potentially intriguing story, Kill The Messenger was an oddly bland film.  Other than one scene in which he admits to cheating on his wife, Gary Webb is portrayed as being such a saint that it actually causes the film to lose credibility.  (Don’t get me wrong.  For all I know, he was a saint.  But, from a cinematic point of view, sainthood is never compelling.)  This is one of those earnest films that gets so heavy-handed that, even if you agree with what the movie is saying, you still resent being manipulated.  (Of course, some of us have grown so cynical about the media that we automatically doubt the veracity any movie that opens with those dreaded words: “Based on a true story.”)  Watching Kill The Messenger, one gets the feeling that a documentary about Gary Webb would probably be more compelling (and convincing) than a fictionalized dramatization.

(Unfortunately, if you think it’s difficult to get an audience to watch a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic, just try to get them to watch a documentary about … well, anything.  I know most of our readers would probably happily watch a documentary but that’s because y’all are the best and a thousand times better than the average person.  Love you!)

Here’s what did work about Kill The Messenger: the performances.  Jeremy Renner, who also produced this film, gives an excellent performance as Gary, especially in the scenes where he realizes that both the government and the press are now conspiring about him.  Rosemarie DeWitt has the traditionally thankless role of being the supportive wife but she still does a good job.  And finally, Ray Liotta shows up for one scene and is absolutely chilling in that way that only Ray Liotta can be.

Kill The Messenger doesn’t quite work but, thanks to the cast, it is, at the very least, a watchable misfire.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace