Narc (2002, directed by Joe Carnahan)


Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is an undercover narcotics agent who has spent the last year under investigation for a shooting that went wrong.  Nick was firing his gun at a fleeing drug dealer but he hit a pregnant woman instead.  After 18 months of being caught in administrative limbo, Nick is made an offer.  It’s thought that, with his knowledge of Detroit’s crime and drug scene, that he might be uniquely suited to investigate the murder of another undercover agent, Michael Calvess.  Nick agrees but, in return, he wants a desk job.  He’s got a wife and a baby and he’s tired of putting his life on the line for nothing.  Nick also wants to work with Detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta).  Oak was one of the original investigators of Calvess’s murder.  Nick is warned that Oak has a reputation for being unstable and out-of-control.  Nick isn’t fazed because he has the same reputation.

Oak turns out to be more than just out of control.  He is the epitome of a bad cop, beating suspects and thinking nothing of threatening to kill a man unless he confesses.  However, Oak gets results.  Oak suggests that you can’t fight crime in Detroit if you play by the rules and Narc is the type of grim and gritty film that doesn’t give you any reason to think that Oak is incorrect.  Oak and Nick investigate Calvess’s death and both of them discover that the department would rather just sweep the case under the rug than actually discover what really happened.  The department just wants someone that they can pin the crime on, not the truth.  Even after the case is officially declared as being closed, Nick and Oak continue their investigation.  Nick, however, starts to suspect that Oak knows more about Calvess’s death than he’s willing to admit.

Narc opens with an amazingly shot chase scene that will leave you breathless and then it just keeps going without once letting up on the intensity.  Narc is a grim and violent film about two damaged men trying to solve a case that no one else cares about.  Jason Patric has never been better than he was in Narc and, while Ray Liotta has played his share of unstable cops, he takes things to whole other level with Narc.  Director Joe Carnahan does such a good job of capturing the decay and desperation of life in Detroit that, even while you’re worried that both Nick and Oak are going to end up going too far in their pursuit of what they consider to be justice, you still can’t help but feel that they’ve both got a point.  Who plays by the rules when the world’s on fire?

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Marriage Story (dir by Noah Baumbach)


The Oscar nominations were announced earlier today and, as happens every year, some of the nominations were met with acclaim while others left observers scratching their heads.  Right now, on twitter, there’s a fierce debate going on between those who think Joker deserved all of its nominations and those who believe that the Academy has once again deliberately snubbed women and people of color.

As for me, I’m just shaking my head at all the nominations for Marriage Story.  I get the feeling that, out of all of the recently unveiled best picture nominees, Marriage Story is the one that we will have forgotten about within the next year.  It’s an acclaimed film and I’m happy that Scarlett Johansson finally got a nominations (two nominations, as a matter of fact, as she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit) but, in the end, Marriage Story feels rather hollow.

Marriage Story is about the end of a marriage.  Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a New York-based theatrical director.  Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is his wife.  Nicole is an actress who, before she married Charlie, was best known for appearing topless in a teen comedy.  Charlie is often credited with having resurrected her career.  On the surface, they’re the perfect New York couple.  However, when we first meet them, their marriage is coming to an end.  Charlie, we learn, cheated on Nicole with a production assistant.  Nicole wants to go to Los Angeles so that she can star in a television series and have a career that’s not dependent upon her husband.  Caught in the middle of all this is their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).

At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to an amicable split, one with no lawyers and no accusations.  That doesn’t last.  Nicole hires the cheerfully ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern).  Charlie, after moving out to Los Angeles, finds himself torn between hiring either the the kindly (but ineffectual) Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, in a role he was born to play) or the somewhat sinister (but definitely effective) Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, also in a role that he was born to play).  While both Charlie and Nicole try (and often) fail to maintain a civil relationship for Henry’s sake, their attorneys go to war.

There’s a lot of good things to be said about Marriage Story.  Though I think that his truly award-worthy work for 2019 was not in this film but instead in The Report, Adam Driver does a good job with role of Charlie.  Scarlett Johansson, who has so often been unfairly overlooked at awards time, again proves herself to be one of the best actresses around.  Dern, Alda, and Liotta are well-cast as three very different (but very recognizable) attorneys.  Noah Baumbach’s script has several good lines.  The scene where Nicole’s sister is awkwardly recruited to serve Charlie with the divorce papers is both funny and cringey.  The much-acclaimed scene where Charlie and Nicole go from having a polite (if awkward) conversation to yelling at each other is definitely effective even if it’s power has been diluted by it’s subsequent reinvention as a twitter meme.

That said, Marriage Story ultimately left me feeling dissatisfied.  It’s pretty much an open secret that the film is based on Noah Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and, watching the film, you can’t help but feel that you’re only getting one side of a very complex story.  My first warning sign came when Nicole left for Los Angeles and the film cut to her on the set for her new television series.  Marriage Story goes so overboard in portraying Nicole’s show as being vapid and silly that you can’t help but feel that we’re meant to look down on Nicole for abandoning Charlie’s avant-garde theater productions to star in it.  We’re meant to say, “She gave up Broadway so she could star in some second-rate Marvel show!?”  From the claim that no one took Nicole seriously until Charlie married her to it’s portrayal of her being easily manipulated by her attorney, there’s a pettiness to the film’s portrayal of Nicole.

As for Charlie, he’s presented as being flawed but, as the film progresses, it’s hard not to notice that almost all of his flaws can also serve as a humble brag.  He’s a little dorky,  He’s too intense.  He works too hard.  Sometimes, he has a hard time not being the director.  Almost all of Charlie’s flaws are the type of stuff that people mention in job interviews whenever they’re asked to name their biggest weakness.  “Well, I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes….” It’s hard not to feel that, despite a few scenes where Nicole gets to open up, the film is really only interested in Charlie’s perspective.  By the end of the film, Marriage Story reduces Nicole to merely being an obstacle standing in the way of Charlie and his son and it’s hard not to feel that both the character and the actress who plays her deserves better than that.  The film goes from being Marriage Story to simply being Charlie’s Story.

While you’re watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in Driver and Johansson’s performances.  It’s only afterwards, when you really think about it, that you come to realize that Marriage Story doesn’t really add up to much.  It’s a good acting exercise and I’m sure that it will be popular among community theater actors who have been asked to prepare a monologue for their next audition.  But the whole is ultimately far less than the sum of its parts.

Here Are The 2019 Independent Spirit Award Nominees!


Here are the 2019 Indie Spirit Award nominations!  These nominations are meant to honor the best independent films of 2019 and their announcement marks the official beginning of awards season (at least as far as this sight is concerned!)  I hate to say it but I still need to see quite a few of the films nominated below so, for now, I’ll hold off on any editorial commentary.

For those looking for some sort of evidence of how the Oscar nominations can go, the Independent Spirit Awards can be an iffy precursor, just because several of the expensive, major studio contenders aren’t eligible to nominated.  (For instance, neither The Irishman nor Once Upon A Time In Hollywood were eligible.)  That said, for the record, the two biggest Spirit nominees are The Lighthouse and Uncut Gems.  Waves and The Farewell, which have been the center of considerable Oscar speculation, did not do as strongly in the nominations as many people apparently expected.  Make of that what you will!

Here are the nominees!

Best Supporting Female

  • Jennifer Lopez – HUSTLERS
  • Taylor Russell – WAVES
  • Zhao Shuzhen – THE FAREWELL
  • Lauren “Lolo” Spencer – GIVE ME LIBERTY
  • Octavia Spencer – LUCE
  • Best Supporting Male
  • Willem Dafoe – THE LIGHTHOUSE
  • Noah Jupe – HONEY BOY
  • Shia Labeouf – HONEY BOY
  • Jonathan Majors – THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
  • Wendell Pierce – BURNING CANE

Best Screenplay

  • Noah Baumbach – MARRIAGE STORY
  • Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder – TO DUST
  • Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie – UNCUT GEMS
  • Chinonye Chukwu – CLEMENCY
  • Tarell Alvin Mccraney – HIGH FLYING BIRD

Best First Screenplay

  • Fredrica Bailey, Stefon Bristol – SEE YOU YESTERDAY
  • Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen – DRIVEWAYS
  • Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy – BLOW THE MAN DOWN
  • Jocelyn Deboer, Dawn Luebbe – GREENER GRASS
  • James Montague, Craig W. Sanger – THE VAST OF NIGHT

Best Cinematography

  • Todd Banhazl – HUSTLERS
  • Jarin Blaschke – THE LIGHTHOUSE
  • Natasha Braier – HONEY BOY
  • Chananun Chotrungroj – THE THIRD WIFE
  • Pawel Pogorzelski – MIDSOMMAR

Best Editing

  • Julie Béziau – THE THIRD WIFE
  • Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie – UNCUT GEMS
  • Tyler L. Cook – SWORD OF TRUST
  • Louise Ford – THE LIGHTHOUSE
  • Kirill Mikhanovsky – GIVE ME LIBERTY

Best International Film

  • INVISIBLE LIFE, Brazil
  • LES MISERABLES, France
  • PARASITE, South Korea
  • PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, France
  • RETABLO, Peru
  • THE SOUVENIR, United Kingdom

Best Documentary (Award given to the director and producer)

  • AMERICAN FACTORY
  • APOLLO 11
  • FOR SAMA
  • HONEYLAND
  • ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

The John Cassavetes Award is presented to the best feature made for under $500,000 and is given to the writer, director, and producer. 2020 #SpiritAwards Nominees are:

  • BURNING CANE
  • COLEWELL
  • GIVE ME LIBERTY
  • PREMATURE
  • WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY

Best Female Lead

  • Karen Allen – COLEWELL
  • Hong Chau – DRIVEWAYS
  • Elisabeth Moss – HER SMELL
  • Mary Kay Place – DIANE
  • Alfre Woodard – CLEMENCY
  • Renée Zellweger – JUDY

Best Male Lead 

  • Chris Galust – GIVE ME LIBERTY
  • Kelvin Harrison  Jr., – LUCE
  • Robert Pattinson – THE LIGHTHOUSE
  • Adam Sandler – UNCUT GEMS
  • Matthias Schoenaerts – THE MUSTANG

Best First Feature (Award given to the director and producer)

  • BOOKSMART
  • THE CLIMB
  • DIANE
  • THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
  • THE MUSTANG
  • SEE YOU YESTERDAY

Best Feature [award given to the producer(s)]

  • A HIDDEN LIFE
  • CLEMENCY
  • THE FAREWELL
  • MARRIAGE STORY
  • UNCUT GEMS

Best Director

  • Robert Eggers – THE LIGHTHOUSE
  • Alma Har’el – HONEY BOY
  • Julius Onah – LUCE
  • Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie – UNCUT GEMS
  • Lorene Scafaria – HUSTLERS

The Robert Altman Award is given to the ensemble cast, director & casting director of one film: MARRIAGE STORY – Noah Baumbach, Douglas Aibel, Francine Maisler, Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Adam Driver, Julie Hagerty, Scarlett Johansson, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Merritt Wever

The Truer Than Fiction Award, in its 25th year, is for emerging directors of non-fiction features and includes an unrestricted grant. Finalists:
Khalik Allah – BLACK MOTHER
Davy Rothbart – 17 BLOCKS
Nadia Shihab – JADDOLAND
Erick Stoll & Chase Whiteside – AMÉRICA

The Producers Award, now in its 23rd year, honors emerging producers who demonstrate creativity, tenacity and vision, despite highly limited resources. The award includes an unrestricted grant. These are the finalists:
Mollye Asher
Krista Parris
Ryan Zacarias

The Someone To Watch Award, in its 26th year, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision and includes an unrestricted grant. The finalists are:
Rashaad Ernesto Green – PREMATURE
Ash Mayfair – THE THIRD WIFE
Joe Talbot – THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

The Bonnie Award will recognize a mid-career female director with a $50,000 unrestricted grant. The 2020 Film Independent #SpiritAwards Bonnie Award finalists are:
MarielleHeller
KellyReichardt
LuluWang

Who Watches The Watchmen: Unlawful Entry (1992, directed by Jonathan Kaplan)


The upscale and complacent life of Michael and Karen Carr (Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe) is interrupted one night when a burglar breaks into their home via their skylight.  The intruder briefly holds a knife to Karen’s throat before taking off.  Shaken by the encounter, the Carrs are very happy when a seemingly friendly cop, Officer Pete Davis (Ray Liotta). offers to help them cut through all the red tape and get a security system installed in their house.

At first glance, Pete seems like the perfect cop but actually, he’s a mentally unstable fascist who quickly becomes obsessed with Karen.  When Pete offers Michael his nightstick so that Michael can use it on the man who earlier broke into his house, Michael refuses.  That’s all that Pete needs to see to decide that Michael’s not a real man and that Karen would be better off with him.  Even after Michael orders Pete to stay away from his home, Pete continues to drop by so that he can spy on the couple.  When Michael complains, Pete frames him by planting cocaine at his house.  When Michael says that he’s innocent, no one believes him.  Why would they?  Pete’s a decorated cop who is keeping the streets safe.  Michael is just a homeowner.  While Michael sits in jail, the increasingly violent and unhinged Pete makes plans to make Karen his own.

“Who watches the watchmen?” as the old saying goes.  Unlawful Entry is an efficient and no-nonsense thriller that was ahead of its time as far as its portrayal of a policeman abusing his authority is concerned.  Jonathan Kaplan was trained in the Roger Corman school of filmmaking so he doesn’t waste any time getting to the story and he even finds a role for Dick Miller.  Ray Liotta, fresh off of his performance in Goodfellas, is perfectly cast as the manipulative and misogynistic Pete while Kurt Russell is once again the ideal everyman.  Madeleine Stowe, who was one of the best actresses of the 90s, does not get to do much beyond be menaced but she does it well.  Whatever happened to Madeleine Stowe?  Kurt Russell’s career is still going strong and Ray Liotta still appears regularly in gangster movies and Chantix commercials.  Isn’t it about time for a Madeleine Stowe comeback?

Stallone Acts: Cop Land (1997, directed by James Mangold)


Garrison, New Jersey is a middle class suburb that is known as Cop Land.  Under the direction of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), several NYPD cops have made their home in Garrison, financing their homes with bribes that they received from mob boss Tony Torillo (Tony Sirico).  The corrupt cops of Garrison, New Jersey live, work, and play together, secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want because Donlan has handpicked the sheriff.

Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) always dreamed of being a New York cop but, as the result of diving into icy waters to save a drowning girl, Freddy is now deaf in one ear.  Even though he knows that they are all corrupt, Freddy still idolizes cops like Donlan, especially when Donlan dangles the possibility of pulling a few strings and getting Freddy an NYPD job in front of him.  The overweight and quiet Freddy spends most of his time at the local bar, where he’s the subject of constant ribbing from the “real” cops.  Among the cops, Freddy’s only real friend appears to be disgraced narcotics detective, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta).

After Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), kills two African-American teenagers and then fakes his own death to escape prosecution, Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Freddy and asks for his help in investigating the corrupt cops of Garrison.  At first, Freddy refuses but he is soon forced to reconsider.

After he became a star, the idea that Sylvester Stallone was a bad actor because so universally accepted that people forgot that, before he played Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was a busy and respectable character actor.  Though his range may have been limited and Stallone went through a period where he seemed to always pick the worst scripts available, Stallone was never as terrible as the critics often claimed.  In the 90s, when it became clear that both the Rocky and the Rambo films had temporarily run their course, Stallone attempted to reinvent his image.  Demolition Man showed that Stallone could laugh at himself and Cop Land was meant to show that Stallone could act.

For the most part, Stallone succeeded.  Though there are a few scenes where the movie does seem to be trying too hard to remind us that Freddy is not a typical action hero, this is still one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances.  Stallone plays Freddy as a tired and beaten-down man who knows that he’s getting one final chance to prove himself.  It helps that Stallone’s surrounded by some of the best tough guy actors of the 90s.  Freddy’s awkwardness around the “real” cops is mirrored by how strange it initially is to see Stallone acting opposite actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta.  Cop Land becomes not only about Freddy proving himself as a cop but Stallone proving himself as an actor.

The film itself is sometimes overstuffed.  Along with the corruption investigation and the search for Murray Babitch, there’s also a subplot about Freddy’s unrequited love for Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and her husband’s (Peter Berg) affair with Donlan’s wife (Cathy Moriarty).  There’s enough plot here for a Scorsese epic and it’s more than Cop Land‘s 108-minute run time can handle.  Cop Land is at its best when it concentrates on Freddy and his attempt to prove to himself that he’s something more than everyone else believes.  The most effective scenes are the ones where Freddy quietly drinks at the local tavern, listening to Gary shoot his mouth off and stoically dealing with the taunts of the people that he’s supposed to police.  By the time that Freddy finally stands up for himself, both you and he have had enough of everyone talking down to him.  The film’s climax, in which a deafened Freddy battles the corrupt cops of Garrison, is an action classic.

Though the story centers on Stallone, Cop Land has got a huge ensemble cast.  While it’s hard to buy Janeane Garofalo as a rookie deputy, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick almost steal the film as two very different cops.  Interestingly, many members of the cast would go on to appear on The Sopranos.  Along with Sirico, Sciorra, Patrick, and Garofalo, keep an eye out for Frank Vincent, Arthur Nascarella, Frank Pelligrino, John Ventimiglia, Garry Pastore,  and Edie Falco in small roles.

Cop Land was considered to be a box office disappointment when it was released and Stallone has said that the film’s failure convinced people that he was just an over-the-hill action star and that, for eight years after it was released, he couldn’t get anyone to take his phone calls.  At the time, Cop Land‘s mixed critical and box office reception was due to the high expectations for both the film and Stallone’s performance.  In hindsight, it’s clear that Cop Land was a flawed but worthy film and that Stallone’s performance remains one of his best.

 

Film Review: Unforgettable (dir by John Dahl)


You have to give the makers of the 1996 film, Unforgettable, some credit.  It takes a certain amount of courage to give your movie a title like Unforgettable.  You’re practically asking some snarky critic to comment on the fact that she can’t remember your movie.

Well, I’ll resist the temptation because I can remember enough about this movie to review it.  I saw it a few days ago on This TV and, at first, I was excited because it was a Ray Liotta movie.  Ray Liotta is an entertaining and likable actor who, nowadays, only seems to get cast in small, tough guy roles.  Nowadays, a typical Liotta role seems to be something like the character he played in Killing Me Softly.  He showed up.  He was tough.  He got killed for no good reason.  So, whenever you come across a film in which Liotta gets to do something more than just get shot, you kind of have an obligation to watch.

In Unforgettable, Liotta plays Dr. David Krane, who is haunted by the unsolved murder of his wife.  Fortunately (or perhaps, unfortunately), Dr. Martha Briggs (Linda Fiorentino) has developed a formula that can be used to transfer memories from one person to another.  All you have to do is extract some spinal fluid!  Or something like that.  It doesn’t make any sense to me and I have to admit that I kinda suspect that the science might not actually check out.

Anyway, Dr. Krane is all like, “I want to inject myself with my dead wife’s spinal fluid so I can experience her final moments!”

And Dr. Briggs is all like, “But this could kill you because there’s all these vaguely defined side effects!”

But Dr. Krane does it anyway and he discovers that his wife was murdered by a lowlife criminal named Eddie Dutton (Kim Coates)!  So, Dr. Krane chases Eddie all ocer the city and it’s interesting to see that a doctor can apparently keep up with a career criminal.  I mean, you would think that Eddie’s experience with being chased and Krane’s inexperience with chasing would give Eddie an advantage.  Anyway, regardless, it doesn’t matter because Eddie is eventually gunned down by the police and Dr. Krane is fired from his job.

Hmmm … well, that was quick.  I guess the movie’s over…

No, not quite!  It turns out that someone hired Eddie to kill Dr. Krane’s wife!  And it turns out that person was a cop!  But which cop!?  Well, there’s only two cops in the film who actually have any lines so it has to be one of them.  And one of the cops is so unlikable that it’s obvious from the start that he’s a red herring.  So, I guess that means the actual murderer is the one that you’ll suspect from the first moment he shows up.

(For the record, the two cops are played by Christopher McDonald and Peter Coyote.  I won’t reveal which one is unlikable and which one is a murderer but seriously, you’ve already guessed, haven’t you?)

Anyway, it’s all pretty stupid and a waste of everyone involved.  Ray Liotta is likable and sympathetic but the film gets bogged down with trying to convince us that crimes can be solved through spinal fluid.  It’s a dumb premise that the movie takes way too seriously and it never quite works.

Still, I hope that someone will give Ray Liotta another good role at some point in the future.  He deserves better than supporting roles and Chantix commercials.

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

Here Are The Very Confusing SAG Nominations!


Spotlight

The nominees for the SAG Awards were announced earlier today!  The SAG Awards are usually one of the more accurate of the various Oscar precursors.  Because so many members of the Academy are also members of the Screen Actors Guild, the SAG Awards are usually a pretty good indication of what films are on the Academy’s radar and which ones aren’t.  Occasionally, an actor will be nominated by SAG and then snubbed by the Academy.  Last year, for instance, SAG nominated Jake Gyllenhall for Nightcrawler, Jennifer Aniston for Cake, and Naomi Watts for St. Vincent.  None of those three received any love from the Academy.  But, for the most part, SAG is one of the most reliable precursors out there.

And that’s why so many of us are in shock today!  The SAG Awards in no way resembled what many of us were expecting.  Other than Spotlight, none of the film’s that many of us expected to be nominated for best ensemble (the SAG’s equivalent of the Academy’s best picture) were nominated (and even Spotlight only received one other nomination, for Rachel McAdams who, up to this point, hasn’t really figured into the Oscar discussion).  The Martian was not nominated for best ensemble or anything else for that matter.  Creed was totally snubbed.  Brooklyn was nominated for actress but not ensemble.  Mad Mad: Fury Road was nominated for its stunt work and nothing else.  Helen Mirren received two nominations, for films that hardly anyone (outside of the SAG, obviously) was really paying any attention to.  Sarah Silverman received a best actress nomination for I Smile Back, which I hadn’t even heard of until about a week ago.  It’s an unexpected and strange group of nominees.

Keep in mind, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the nominees are unexpected.  Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton will both receive deserved boosts in their hunt for Oscar gold.  At the same time, I have to admit that I wasn’t happy to see either The Big Short or Trumbo nominated for best ensemble because I know I’m going to feel obligated to see them and they both look so freaking tedious and blandly political!  But consider this: if The Big Short and Trumbo are both huge Oscar contenders, we may face a situation where both Jay Roach and Adam McKay are nominated for best director in the same year.  I think that’s one of the signs of the apocalypse and, at this point, I’m kind of ready to welcome the end of the world.

Anyway, here are the SAG nominations!  Look them over and, after the Golden Globe nominations are announced tomorrow, update your Oscar predictions accordingly.

Best Performance by a Cast Ensemble in a Motion Picture

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role

Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role

  • Cate Blanchett – Carol
  • Brie Larson – Room
  • Helen Mirren – Woman in Gold
  • Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
  • Sarah Silverman – I Smile Back

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Rooney Mara – Carol
  • Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
  • Helen Mirren – Trumbo
  • Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
  • Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Best Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture

Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series

  • Downton Abbey
  • Game of Thrones
  • Homeland
  • House of Cards
  • Mad Men

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series

  • Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
  • Jon Hamm – Mad Men
  • Rami Malek – Mr. Robot
  • Bob Odenkirk – Better Call Saul
  • Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series

  • Claire Danes – Homeland
  • Viola Davis – How to Get Away with Murder
  • Julianna Marguilles – The Good Wife
  • Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey
  • Robin Wright – House of Cards

Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series

  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Key and Peele
  • Modern Family
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Transparent
  • Veep

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series

  • Ty Burrell – Modern Family
  • Louis CK – Louie
  • William H. Macy – Shameless
  • Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory
  • Jeffrey Tambor – Transparent

Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series

  • Uzo Aduba – Orange is the New Black
  • Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
  • Ellie Kemper – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep
  • Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a TV Movie or Mini-Series

  • Idris Elba – Luther
  • Ben Kingsley – Tut
  • Ray Liotta — Texas Rising
  • Bill Murray – A Very Murray Christmas
  • Mark Rylance – Wolf Hall

Best Performance by a Female Actor in a TV Movie or Mini-Series

Best Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Comedy or Drama Series

  • Blacklist
  • Game of Thrones
  • Homeland
  • Marvel’s Daredevil
  • The Walking Dead

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #57: Saturday Night Fever (dir by John Badham)


Saturday_night_fever_movie_posterHere’s a little bit of trivia about the iconic 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.

First off, according to the imdb, Saturday Night Fever was the first mainstream Hollywood film to ever use the term “blow job.”  That actually took me by surprise.  I mean, with all of the risks that the major studios took in the 70s, it still took them until 1977 to have someone say “blow job” in a movie?  But somehow, it seems appropriate that it would turn up in Saturday Night Fever.  We tend to think of Saturday Night Fever as being a movie where the soundtrack is nonstop disco and John Travolta dances in that iconic white suit.  But actually, Saturday Night Fever is a film about four guys who neither understand nor respect women.

When Tony (John Travolta), Joey (Joseph Cali), Double J (Paul Pape), and Bobby (Barry Miller) go down to that disco, it’s because they want to get laid.   Joey and Double J take turns having sex with insecure Annette (Donna Pescow) and, afterwards, Tony scornfully ask her if she‘s proud of herself.  When Bobby discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant, he is so terrified of having to be a father that he becomes suicidal.  As for Tony, he looks down on the women who are so eager to dance with him.  When he enters a dance contest with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), he can’t handle the fact that she wants more out of her life than just being his latest partner.

So, it makes sense that this would be the first mainstream movie to feature someone talking about a blow job because that’s what these boys are obsessed with.  Sexually primitive, hypocritically puritanical, and emotionally repressed, a blow job is all the intimacy that these boys can handle.

Another piece of trivia: while John Travolta was always the first choice for Tony Manero, several actors were seen for the roles of Joey and Double J.  At one point, both Ray Liotta and David Caruso were nearly cast in the role of Tony’s friends.  Imagine this: in some alternative universe, while white-suited John Travolta rules over the dance floor, Ray Liotta and David Caruso are standing in the background and cheering him on.

Of course, if Liotta and Caruso had been cast, it would be a totally different movie.  Whenever you watch Saturday Night Fever, you’re surprised by how much John Travolta totally dominates the film.  Even though the film devotes a good deal of time to Annette, Stephanie, Bobby and to Tony’s brother who has recently left the priesthood, Tony Manero is the only character that you remember.  That’s largely because Travolta is the only one of them who gives a truly memorable performance.

In theory, it’s easy to laugh at the thought of Travolta in that white suit, striking a dramatic pose on that cheap-looking dance floor.  But then you watch the film and you realize that Travolta truly did give a great performance.  And, to your surprise, you don’t laugh at Tony with his white suit because you know that the only time Tony has any control over his life is when he’s dancing.  He may work in a paint store.  He may regularly get slapped around by his family.  He may not be very smart or sensitive.  But when Tony’s dancing, he’s a king and you’re happy that he at least has one thing in his life that he can feel good about.

Even if he is kind of a jerk.

Of course, it helps that Tony is a really good dancer.  There’s actually a lot more going on in Saturday Night Fever than you might think but ultimately, it’s a dance movie and it’s one of the best.

Embracing the Melodrama #58: The Place Beyond The Pines (dir by Derek Cianfrance)


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First released in 2013, the underrated (and, as far as end-of-the-year awards ago, underappreciated) The Place Beyond The Pines is actually three cinematic melodramas in one.  Much like a great novel, this movie is split into multiple pieces with each part telling a different part of a larger story.  It’s an interesting and ambitious concept, the type that we sometimes fear that audiences are no longer capable of appreciating.

The first third of the story centers on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who performs at state fairs.  During one such fair in upstate New York, he meets and has a brief affair with Romina (Eva Mendes, giving an excellent performance).  When he returns to New York a year later, Luke discovers that he is now a father.  Luke quits the fair and decides that he wants to be a part of his son’s life but Romina, who is now in a stable relationship with a good man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali), asks him to stay away.  Determined to be part of his son’s life and also looking to win back Romina, Luke stays in town and gets a job working with Robin (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn).  Robin owns an auto garage and, as he explains to Luke, he also used to be a bank robber.  Soon, with Robin’s help, Luke is robbing banks and sending the money to Romina.

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Luke’s story is probably the strongest in the film.  Ryan Gosling is charismatic as the dangerous yet likable Luke and he and Eva Mendes have a lot of on-screen chemistry.  Ben Mendelsohn brings yet another one of his trademark burned out characters to life and Mahershala Ali is sympathetic as Kofi, a man, who despite being good and responsible, is simply no Ryan Gosling.

The second part of the story deals with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the cop who chases Luke after one of his bank robberies.  Avery is the politically ambitious son of a former judge (Harris Yulin) and, much like Luke, he also has newborn son.  When Avery is originally hailed as hero for his pursuit of Luke, Avery’s feelings are far more ambivalent.  It gets even more difficult for him when he catches some of his fellow cops (led, of course, by Ray Liotta) stealing the money that Luke sent to Romina.  When Romina rejects Avery’s attempt to return the money to her, Avery is left with little choice but to try to take down the crooked cops himself.  It’s the only way for him to clear his conscience.

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And, finally, in the third part of the story, teenager Jason Cankham (Dane DeHaan) meets and befriends Avery’s son, AJ (Emory Cohen).  What neither one of them realizes is that Jason is Luke’s son.  The interesting thing here is that the two sons have, on the surface at least, turned out to be the exact opposites of their father.  Jason is the good kid while AJ is probably one of the most despicable movie teenagers of all time.  When Jason learns the truth about both of their fathers, he has to decide whether he’s his father’s son or if he is his own human being.

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As you might be able to guess from the above plot description, The Place Beyond the Pines is a big epic of a film and, perhaps not surprisingly, the end results are intriguing if occasionally uneven.  The film starts out so strongly with Ryan Gosling roaring down empty roads on his motorcycle that it’s hard for the rest of the movie to live up to that opening’s promise.  And yet somehow, the film manages to do just that.  Even the parts of the film that didn’t particularly intrigue me — like the whole subplot with the corrupt cops — were saved by the efforts of a perfectly chosen cast.  The third and final part of the film provides the perfect climax, helping us to both understand the legacy of Luke Glanton and Avery Cross but also to understand why both of their stories are important, both as individual tales and as parts of a greater whole.

The Place Beyond The Pines may not be perfect, not in the way that a film like Winter’s Bone is perfect.  However, we should still be glad that films like it are being made.

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