What Unc has been watching lately. Focus on big name/big noter movies of recent times, oddities that might bear a little more attention, and hopelessly lost old creakers you really ought to see if you love movies, as opposed to just letting the latest megaplex fodder steamroller over your face.
KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)
Fact-based story about US journo Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner – i.e. Hawkeye from the Marvel “Avengers” movies), who, owing to an accidental over-disclosure by a prosecutor to a defence attorney in a relatively minor drug case, stumbles on to the kind of huge gorilla of a story an investigative journalist would dream of.
Back when US Prez Ron Reagan wanted to shore up insurrectionists in Central America (to fight/unseat leftist governments and thus disable the “threat of communism” – boy does this already seem a long time ago – and Congress flatly refused to pony up the money and resources for the fight, the CIA conspired with major drug smugglers to raise funds for backing the contras, resulting in a tidal wave of cocaine pounding into the urban United States.
Even though working for a relatively small paper in San Jose, Webb sinks tooth and claw into the fragment of the story he has and holds on, following it through to the sources and breaking it wide open.
Then establishment media and the plain old establishment move hill, dale, and mountain to discredit both Webb’s sources and Webb personally.
Screenwriter Peter Landesman, who worked from Webb’s book, and director Michael Cuesta keep the wire taut, and this one is chopped and honed to keep you right in there the whole way.
Renner is real good, but the acting is uniformly rock solid – there’s just nothing in here to knock you out of the picture. I’d never heard a thing about it until stumbling on to it on pay TV. A Hollywood movie about grown-ups table subject matter and issues that plays like a thriller – much like gold on the streets, there’s not a lot of it about. Plays more like one of those government-fear conspiracy centred movies from the 1970s, when there was a little more of it about.
If I was starsing it, 4 to 4.5 out of 5.
SIGN OF THE CITY (2007)
Ok, this is one of those multi-strand stories spread over a whole city where we’re introduced to a range of characters, a number of whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Think “Crash” with Matt Dillon, and that’s basically the flavour of milk shake on offer, except this movie is from Brazil and the city is Sao Paulo.
The main, linking character is Teca (Bruna Lombardi) who is an astrologer with her own radio show which helps the city’s poor, endangered and hopeless – basically think Frasier Crane’s psychology talkback show in “Frasier” but with tarot cards and star charts instead. One vaguely gathers that you’re expected to accept that all this modern day soothsaying and crystal ballery is interchangeable with expert medical help, but ok, it’s movies, and we got over the hump of a talking lion and a sentient tin lumberjack in the past, so let’s see what shakes.
What shakes is half of a downbeat compelling movie through which director Paul “Just Try A Small Portion” Haggis stitches and weaves themes, stories and characters with persuasive and compelling elan for fully half its length. That half is well on its way to having a compelling reek of movie greatness.
Then it starts jogging on the spot, repeating itself absent-mindedly, devolving into soap opera, before carting in an ungodly amount of antique Hollywood old rope by way of resolution, in a manner that only has visuals and actors’ faces in common with the first half of the picture. It’s what they call in cricket a comprehensive late-order collapse.
Bruna Lombardi actually wrote the pic. She did half a great job at that, and shines on screen in the lead role, in an understated, non-showy way that can still burn out the odd retina. The rest of the acting varies, probably with the tone of the writing. Some of it hits the notes and some is florid like a big salami being waved around.
If “Sign of the City” it comes up on a channel you can get, it’s actually worth watching the first half of it. Then when you think it’s just starting to turn a bit like inadequately iced seafood, go with your instinct and bail like a European ferry passenger.
Starsing – probably around 2-2.5 out of 5, but the first half is more like 4.5
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)
Ok, landed it on the second try.
The advantages this one has over the first Marvel “all the franchise superheroes on the one pizza” – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Supporting Players – Avengers movie are coherence and concentration. It provides a compelling and sustained major story arc and villain (you know the web-wired super computer robot villain du jour, Ultron, is going to work out just fine from the first time he opens his mouth and James Spader’s voice pops out), back-stories all the featured characters effectively in a way the 1st one couldn’t or didn’t.
It also expertly adapts (and faithfully follows) the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby storytelling template from the comics in terms of dovetailing in and out of the main storyline with minor arcs that neatly advance the action or expand on the characters without knocking the viewer out of the main flow of the picture.
(It says, unambiguously on the credits, “Based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Which may leave out a bushel o’ folks who contributed characters, plots and concepts to other Marvel comics touched on along the way, but it’s a lot better than nothing.)
The first Avengers movie was a giant constantly exploding birthday cake fandango that no doubt entertained several continents full of popcorn buyers, but to get most of what was going on, you either had to have watched the lead-in movies or have read the comics back in the day if you’re a gramps-type like your current typist. If you’d come in without a program, a few days solid briefing or a clue, you would probably have seen a bunch of red, blue, yellow and green exploding and concluded that a fireworks display would have been (a) shorter, (b) no less entertaining, and (c) quieter.
This is a sly, slick, retooling of the Avengers movie concept. The seam of humour that Joss Whedon lines his script with, and the freehanded play-around-itude with which director Joss Whedon allows his cast to punch up that humour, will no doubt be a welcome bonus for the general audience members.
What it does do is hold you in place very comfortably for 141 mins, as opposed to a predecessor that deep into a tiebreaker-free fifth set, had your mind wandering to movie-extraneous factors like seat-hardness, bladder awareness and underpant-bunching.
What it doesn’t do is – as opposed to too many of the modern Marvel movies – is try to cram in 100 comics’ worth of extraneous material owing to an apparent lack of faith in both the plot and the sub-genre to hold the audience’s attention, resulting in wasted characters and general incoherence.
The main cast knows the biz and does the gig. James Spader steals the pic effortlessly without even turning up on camera. I don’t know what Samuel L. Jackson is doing in this picture. Not him so much, but the character didn’t need to be there. He might as well have walked on in the middle of a major battle scene and said, “No matter where I am in the world, I’m betting on some sporting event somewhere.”
PS I still reckon that if you’re a late-starter to the modern exploding fandango superhero movies, the one to start with is “Guardians of the Galaxy”. It did exactly what it was there to do and you didn’t need to catch up 50 years of back-story on the characters – it’s all in the picture. But Avengers II goes all right.
Starsing – About 4 out of 5.