Thursday, October 16, 2014

Web Junkie, St. Vincent, Whiplash, Kill the Messenger, The Judge

Web Junkie
St. Vincent


Kill the Messenger
The Judge

Terrific performances by Jeremy Renner, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. highlight a mixed week at the movies:

Hilla Medalia’s and Shosh Shlam’s documentary “Web Junkie” sets us down at a facility outside Beijing – part jail, part boot camp, part infirmary - where Internet-addicted teenagers (most of them tricked or drugged by their parents) are locked down and put through a program of cold turkey withdrawal, group therapy and reorientation toward the path adult society has laid down for them. China has identified Internet addiction as one of its direst ills. There are horror stories of kids dying after marathon sessions at Internet cafes. One of the film’s subjects experiences withdrawal symptoms as acute as a drug addict’s during detox. Another listens while his mother describes the pain of losing her child to the computer: “Do you know how I felt when I heard you at your keyboard all night?” she asks through sobs. The administrators appear well-intentioned – the head teacher and especially a sympathetic nurse who leads cathartic family counseling sessions – but out of touch with a generation for whom “reality is too fake” and RPG's such as World of Warcraft the only place with "friends who really care." The film suffers from sound issues and poorly chosen music but shines a light on a human experience that was totally new to me.

The buzz on two films this week was that beloved veteran actors played misanthropic codgers. It turns out to be true of only one: "St. Vincent," starring Bill Murray as Vincent, an alcoholic Brooklyn lout with a negative bank balance and a rapidly growing gambling debt (to Terrence Howard in a thankless part). I've never been the president of Murray's fan club - he's been coasting for a very long time - but here the material betrays him, going soft and sappy in a vain attempt to tug at our heartstrings. The sentiment comes in the form of Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), the sweet and bullied son of single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), Vincent's new neighbor, who pays him $11 an hour to watch the tyke. To Vincent, babysitting means trips to dive bars and racetracks, to a back alley where he beats up Oliver's tormentors and a club where his lady friend Daka (Naomi Watts, affecting a Boris-and-Natasha accent) tries to remain employed as long as a pregnant stripper can. Murray finds a few grace notes but not enough laughs; young Lieberher, in his debut, gives an actorly performance; and Chris O'Dowd is wasted as Oliver's teacher, who enunciates the film's not terribly interesting "saints among us" theme. McCarthy, as usual, comes off best, riding the edge of comedy and pathos even in a restrained role. The picture ends with Oliver's mawkish and overlong speech about Vincent before a school assembly at which all the key players somehow magically appear, ready to forgive and applaud.

"Whiplash" arrives in town toting the Grand Jury and Audience awards among domestic dramas at Sundance this year. Miles Teller, in his best performance since "Rabbit Hole," plays Andrew Neyman, a jazz drummer whose aspirations to greatness have brought him to New York and the country's premier conservatory. There he draws the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a professor and the conductor of the school's "studio band," a perennial winner of intercollegiate competitions. Fletcher needs to hear improbably little of Andrew's playing before seizing on his potential and putting him through a wringer of extreme public humiliation, physical abuse, and play-till-you-bleed practices. 

Each viewer is likely to call bullshit on "Whiplash" at a different point. Some won't buy the basic set-up, the idea that this predator would be condoned in inflicting his wrath at such a prestigious institution. Others will ask how Andrew, after confidentially reporting Fletcher's abuses (leading to Fletcher's termination shortly after Andrew 's expulsion for acting out before a competition audience packed with music agents), could allow himself to accept an offer Fletcher makes when they meet again months later at a jazz bar. For me, the breaking point comes when Fletcher pulls a last-minute switcheroo, forcing Andrew to play pieces for which he is unprepared and lacks the sheet music. At that point, director Damien Chazelle has sacrificed the integrity of the Fletcher character; this arrogant man would never allow an unready player to bring down the ensemble and make him look bad before his peers.

Simmons is a distinctive screen presence and has made himself, to coin an oxymoron, slightly ubiquitous of late between indie films and television commercials, but has he ever made you feel an honest emotion? (His best work may have come in the Coens' "Burn After Reading"). Here, he rants and raves and, in a deliberate mistelling of an anecdote involving Jo Jones and Charlie Parker, repeatedly throws a cymbal at Teller's head (not his feet). But we've seen variations on the blustery hard-ass umpteen times; a little shading would have enriched the film a lot. Teller, after the pale "say anything…" imitation called "The Spectacular Now" and a couple of fratty comedies (the unspeakably bad "21 and Over" and the merely poor "That Awkward Moment"), will, I hope, use his fine work here as a springboard for more mature choices ahead. Confession: The drums are probably my least favorite musical instrument. Extended drum solos are not my idea of a good time. Still, it must be possible to make a great movie about a drummer. "Whiplash," unfortunately, isn't the one.

Now for the good stuff. Jeremy Renner, so good in a key supporting role in Ben Affleck's "The Town," proves himself capable of carrying a dramatic film in the effective and enraging "Kill the Messenger." He's Gary Webb, an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News who, in 1996, wrote three articles alleging that the CIA knew of, and turned a blind eye to, shipments of rock and crack cocaine into the U.S. by Nicaraguans who funneled the profits to the Contras. The series marked the first time the "Merc" had scooped the L.A. and New York Times and the Washington Post on a major national story, and those papers reacted by subjecting Webb's journalism to such nitpicking analysis not even Woodward and Bernstein would pass muster. More nefariously, the CIA responded with a targeted campaign of disinformation, constant shadowing, and subtle but unmistakable threats to Webb's and his family's safety. 

Renner delivers a compelling portrait of a man driven to the edge (Webb committed suicide in 2004) not by paranoia but by well-grounded fear and dread, a man whose government sets about systematically and remorselessly destroying him. He's supported by a strong cast including Rosemarie DeWitt (swoon) as Webb's wife Sue, Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his editor and managing editor, Paz Vega as the dealer's girlfriend who turns him on to the story, and Ray Liotta as a shadow agent who wakes him up at the nondescript Cupertino apartment to which he'd decamped for his family's protection. You'll leave the theater puffed up with righteous indignation for a good man forsaken by his colleagues and his country.

We used to get movies like "The Judge" much more often than we do now: well-written, well-cast, solid entertainments with actors we like in all the major roles. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a high-priced New York criminal defense attorney who, while representing another crooked 1%er, gets the call that his mother has died and hops the next flight home to Carlinville, Indiana. As I wrote in my review of the under-seen gem "Eban and Charley," every small town is divided into two groups: those who'll make their lives there, and those who want out as quickly as possible. Hank belongs to the latter group and everyone else in the movie to the former. 

This includes Hank's brothers, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and the sweet, touched Dale (Jeremy Strong), and most especially Hank's father Joseph (Robert Duvall), who's been the town judge from time immemorial. Duvall is the second actor I mentioned who was supposed to have played a cantankerous coot this week. Turns out, there's much more to this character, one of several pleasant surprises in a movie I didn't expect to be as good as it is. Duvall's Joseph Palmer is proud, a jealous guardian of his reputation and legacy, with the certitude of a man whose word has always been law, and a father who stopped showing Hank love just as his son became a man.

But the one thing he's not is Hollywood's standard ornery old man. Duvall's too good for that, and even in his angriest exchanges with Hank, the power of Duvall's performance stems from its quietude and restraint. His scenes with Downey - which in a lesser movie would have been an act-off for intergenerational supremacy - are a pleasure to watch and play out in surprising ways. True, the judge hasn't been there for Hank, but he's been there for Glen and Dale, and for his wife. And Hank hasn't been there for any of them.

It's been too long since D'Onofrio has had a substantial role in a good movie, and he delivers. Glen had been a pitching prodigy with a real shot at a major league career, until Hank, driving Glen home one night, got into a car crash, messing up Glen's hand and curtailing his baseball dreams. Here, too, writers Bill Dubuque and Nick Schenk make a character richer than it might have been. Glen's not the cliché brother nursing a lifetime of resentment. He's raised a family and owns the tire store in town. There's a lovely scene in which Hank and the judge are going at it and, near the end, we see Glen leaning against the screen door, watching them silently, processing his feelings for his brother and wondering whether Hank's learned any new tricks on how to deal with Dad (he hasn't).

Vera Farmiga - a longtime favorite of mine - also shines as Samantha Powell, owner of the town's busiest diner and Hank's high school sweetheart. Again, the movie surprises. In a lesser picture, she'd have spent her life waiting for Hank to come back and sweep her away. Not Sam: "I love Carlinville," she tells him, and Farmiga can almost make you believe it. Her scenes with Downey are cute and sexy and funny - sharply written, with the integrity of the characters paramount to standard romantic tropes. 

Director David Dobkin devotes much of the last half of "The Judge" to a murder mystery and trial. Judge Palmer - never known for his leniency - imposed an uncharacteristically short sentence on a young man who had attacked his girlfriend. When the man got out, he finished the job, killing the ex-girlfriend - Palmer's one regret in a lifetime of jurisprudence. Shortly after Hank's arrival, the man, back this time after two decades for murder one, is found dead by the side of the main road, hit by a car. Bloodstains on the judge's Cadillac match the victim, and soon the judge is facing a murder rap himself. This leads to much back-and-forth as to whether the judge will allow Hank to represent him, and a good old-fashioned courtroom drama with a slicked-up and demon-eyed Billy Bob Thornton in fine form as the special prosecutor brought in from Gary (how's that for perspective?). I harkened back to some of the courtroom dramas I'd enjoyed as a kid ("Jagged Edge" and "Nuts" and those afternoon TV series like "Superior Court"). Yet again, the movie is better than it needs to be, never answering the whodunit for us but letting us piece together how it all shook out.

I've talked about everyone besides Robert Downey, Jr. so far, but he's the glue that holds "The Judge" together. The role of Hank Palmer showcases his best qualities: the glib, cocksure smart-ass; the sensitive son who's spent a lot of years overcompensating for the lack of a kind word or a loving touch; the attorney who still respects his father enough to invest himself in clearing his name. In one scene, Downey looks through some old boxes containing items from his childhood. He finds a ratty old Metallica t-shirt with pink sleeves, puts it on, and bikes through town, taking his hands off the handlebars and letting the Indiana air hit his face. It's a moment of freedom Downey hasn't had a chance to experience trapped in all those comic-book iron works. Feels like catching up with a long-lost friend.

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