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The Marvel universe gets its most grandiose chapter with Avengers: Endgame, a fitting successor to last year’s Infinity War—and a generous gift to those of us who like our movies with superheroes in them.

When we last saw Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he was a survivor of the dreaded Thanos (Josh Brolin) finger snap, a universe-altering occurrence that took out half its living creatures and provided that tear-jerking moment when Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and many others turned to dust.

Endgame picks up where that action left off, with Stark floating in space and keeping a video journal of his inevitable demise, as he’s run out of food and water. Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) are among the other survivors, dealing with the repercussions of so much death on Earth.

There are tons of questions this movie needs to answer in its three-hour running time. Where’s Thanos? Where’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? Is Tony permanently marooned in space? What’s been going on with Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) during all of this Thanos hullabaloo? Is everybody really dead? Does Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) still have his Walkman in the Great Beyond?

Good news: The movie answers many of these questions and more thanks to another well-balanced screenplay and a crack directorial job from the team of Anthony and Joe Russo. When you leave Endgame, you’ll feel satisfied.

How do I really talk about any of this without becoming the Spoiler King? I can tell you that the movie is the second one this year that borrows a lot from Back to the Future Part II (after Happy Death Day 2U). I can tell you that the Hulk undergoes a fantastic wardrobe change. I can tell you that the New York Mets, my favorite baseball team, has been decimated by the Thanos snap, not unlike when Fred Wilpon took over sole ownership of the franchise in 2002. I could tell you that Rocky Raccoon comes face to face with his creator, Paul McCartney, and eats his foot, but that would be a lie.

I can also tell you, no lie, that it all zips by in a spectacularly entertaining way—and that very little of it misses the mark. There are a few moments when it’s evident that all of the stars weren’t physically together, with their presence pasted together through the power of special effects, just like that lackluster season of Arrested Development during which all of the cast schedules didn’t align. This is a forgivable offense; there’s no chance you are going to get a cast this size all in one room at the same time. Help us, CGI.

In the middle of all the action and plot developments, Downey delivers another soulful, endearing performance, well beyond anything you would’ve expected from a Marvel movie before he started showing up in them. Chris Evans continues to rock, something that truly began with Captain America: Civil War. Hemsworth and Ruffalo continue to explore more-humorous variations of their characters, and both are a total crack-ups.

Are the Marvel movies anywhere near finished with Endgame? Don’t be silly. James Gunn just got his job back as the director/commander of the Guardians of the Galaxy; Captain Marvel is just getting started; and Spider-Man’s next adventure will enter your face before the summer is done.

Have some of the more-popular story arcs within the Universe reached their conclusions? Maybe. I’m not telling. Set aside three hours, and get some answers yourself.

Avengers: Endgame is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

If you are a fan of last year’s excellent modern Western Hell or High Water, get yourself into a theater to see Wind River.

The writer of Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan, writes and directs Wind River. He is a true wordsmith who captures American dilemmas on par with Sam Shepard and Cormac McCarthy. The man knows how to pen a great thriller with depth, and his works (he also wrote Sicario) all have a common, somber tone. This is a guy who knows that many of the people you will pass on the street are dealing with grief and loss—they are surviving, but it’s a bitch, and it’s not going to get easier.

Wind River marks Sheridan’s second directorial effort, after 2011’s low-budget Vile, and it stands as one of the summer’s best films. It’s a solid mystery-thriller, and a showcase for fierce performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. They both offer up career-best work, with Renner searing the screen as Cory, a man with a tragic past who is paid to hunt wolves and mountain lions on a Native American reservation. Olsen commands her screen time as Jane, one of cinema’s gutsiest FBI agents since Clarice Starling.

Sheridan, who directs with style and grace, gives us a haunting image to start his movie: Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a young Native American woman, is running across a freezing nightscape with no shoes on. She’s scared for her life, but we don’t know why. Soon, we will find out.

Cory is patrolling snow-covered grounds, shooting wolves from long distances. He’s stoic and level-headed, a quiet man whose emotions never go to a fever pitch. However, when Cory discovers the body of the woman we saw in the opening sequence, it’s clear that the woman’s identity strikes a chord in his heart.

Cory and his ex-wife (Julia Jones) have lost a child, and they are doing their best to give their living son (Teo Briones) a happy life in the aftermath. Their lost daughter was the best friend of the new victim—understandably setting something off in Cory. When FBI Agent Jane shows up, lost in a snowstorm and looking for answers, he’s more than willing to help with the investigation.

Sheridan’s mystery builds from there, as the identity of the murderer is not immediately apparent. Considering the murder took place on a sparsely populated reservation, there aren’t many suspects, but Sheridan will keep you guessing—and you’ll suspect everybody onscreen. The conclusion doesn’t feel like a narrative cheat, as so many murder mysteries do. The conclusion resonates with horror and bleakness; you aren’t going to have a typical good time at this movie.

You will, however, be witnessing remarkable work by Renner. He’s tasked with some of the most emotionally brutal scenes an actor has had to handle this year. He’s been impressive before (in The Hurt Locker), but this takes his stock to a new level. When he recounts the death of his daughter to Jane, the story almost knocks her on her ass—and you can relate. I mentioned that Cory is stoic, but he’s most certainly not one-dimensional. Renner finds ample nuance and power in this character’s quiet pain.

Olsen matches Renner on all fronts. Her Jane is a by-the-book type who must make some major adjustments in the field while dealing with the grief all around her. Jane is supposed to be setting the table for a bigger investigation, but she finds herself drawing her gun more than once; she’s in it for the long haul. The character goes through many phases during film’s 107-minute running time, and Olsen makes all of them intriguing.

Gil Birmingham (who also starred in Hell or High Water) and Graham Greene round out one of the year’s best ensemble casts.

Wind River will exhaust you by the time credits roll. It’ll bum you out—as it damn well should.

Wind River is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive; 844-462-7342), the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033) and the Century La Quinta and XD (46800 Washington St., La Quinta; 760-771-5682.)

Published in Reviews

About two decades ago, Contact ticked me off when Jodie Foster supposedly traveled to some distant place in the universe—merely to have a chat with her dead dad. It was a trite storytelling letdown.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival also approaches the subjects of aliens, parentage and everlasting love, but it’s a much, much better movie.

Villeneuve is emerging as one of the best visual and pacing directors in the medium today. Arrival follows Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the vastly underrated Enemy (2013) as another movie of definitive vision, style and grace. No doubt about it: This man knows how to make a movie.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics teacher crippled by visions of a daughter who died of a rare illness. She lives a life of seclusion; the only things she really does are teach her class and mope around her lakefront home. (Man, that must be one abnormally high-paying teacher’s gig.) During class, a bunch of phones go off; a student instructs her to turn on the TV; and—bam, that’s how she discovers the planet is seemingly getting visited by an alien force.

Strange giant pods have parked themselves all over the planet, and nobody knows the intent. A solemn military man (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office and informs her that the world needs her. She has a sense of purpose again.

It isn’t long before she’s inside an alien ship trying to talk to the “Heptapods,” large elephant-like aliens with seven legs. She’s joined by a science officer played by a surprisingly low-key Jeremy Renner.

The aliens communicate visually with symbols that look like coffee-ring stains. They seem to say a few words that get parts of the world a little worried—and it looks like Earth might find itself at war. It’s up to Louise to decipher the code-like language and find out if the Heptapods want to harvest us, War of the Worlds-style, or give us a helping hand.

Adams could find herself in the Oscar race for this one. This is one of the year’s best performances thus far. (She’ll appear in another highly touted film, Nocturnal Animals, this month.) Louise doesn’t have many happy moments in this film, and other actresses could’ve made her a drag, but Adams makes her shine, even when she’s in despair. It’s some of Adams’ very best work.

Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is profound in a way similar to Interstellar: This is another science-fiction film taking a theme like universal love and making that aspect just as interesting as the gadgets and alien creatures. The movie, while challenging on a scientific level, definitely scores major emotional points.

The film was budgeted around $50 million, so it’s not a special-effects extravaganza. The scenes with the aliens are engrossing, but there’s nothing whiz-bang about them. Dare I say: The movie is rather laid back. I must give high props to cinematographer Bradford Young for shooting a movie that never seems anything short of very real. Those visuals are assisted by often Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson’s excellent score.

The movie is drawing comparisons to films like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, if you are looking for some sort of action pic, you will not find that with Arrival. It’s a movie that gives itself time to breathe, and while it does have a few action scenes, it is, for the most part, intellectual fare.

Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the Ridley Scott classic and another sci-fi effort. Based on his work with Arrival, I’m really looking forward to the Blade Runner sequel.

Arrival is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I wish I could tell you that Captain America: Civil War is so good that it will make you forget the horror that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Bursting Diseased Cinematic Pustules. Alas, nothing is good enough to clear that out of anyone’s brain anytime soon.

Captain America: Civil War is very good, though, a nice blast of superhero fun that finds a diplomatic way to include many Marvel favorites without feeling crowded or rushed. This is one well-oiled Marvel machine.

Front and center, there’s Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, still having Brooklyn-bro issues when it comes to the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Cap wants to back up his former best friend, but the guy committed some shady, hard-to-defend acts while brainwashed. Captain America has to make some extremely difficult—and potentially cataclysmic—choices.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) thought Age of Ultron sucked for more than the obvious reasons: On top of being boring, it left death and destruction in its wake, as did the far-more-exciting original The Avengers. World leaders want to put the Avengers in check, using them as a sort of alternative to nuclear weapons. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., still owning it), in the midst of a crisis of conscience, agrees to the proposed accord. Rogers thinks it’s bullshit and won’t sign. This all works as a fine setup for an eventual battle between Iron Man and Captain America, during which both sides have compelling reasons to fight. It’s actually hard to pick a side in this movie, making the confrontation all the more fun.

The Avengers get split up between Iron Man and Captain America. Stark has Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Vision (an excellent Paul Bettany), as well as new recruits Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and, yep, Spider-Man (Tom Holland, looking like he could be the best Spidey yet) in his ranks. Rogers goes into battle with the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Bucky and new recruit Ant-Man (a funny Paul Rudd).

It’s no easy task, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo, along with their screenwriters, juggle a lot of characters and spin a lot of plates—successfully and entertainingly. No single character hogs the screen for too long; everybody gets a nice stake in the movie; and the newbies are introduced in satisfying ways. Spider-Man manages to get his setup in a solid scene with Stark and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei … hooray!). It’s a relatively quick scene, but, hey, it’s Spider-Man. He doesn’t need a long setup. Just introduce him, and let him start shooting webs and wisecracks.

The film has good performances throughout, but Downey is the true standout. He’s the anchor of the Avengers universe, and he brings true gravitas where other actors would just make things corny. Holland gets a lot of points for making the most of his screen time and slipping comfortably into the costume most recently worn by Andrew Garfield. He’s perfect for Spidey on the acting front—and, if you take a look at his Spider-Man workouts, you’ll see he doesn’t necessarily need a stuntman.

Conspicuously missing are Hulk and Thor. Something had to be left for the next Thor movie, so those two get a break here. While Age of Ultron felt like nothing but a bunch of scenes setting up the next chapter, Civil War works as a standalone action movie.

There are no clear plans for Captain America and Bucky in The Avengers saga going forward. They are great characters, but there are plenty of great characters now existing in the Marvel Comics Universe. Captain America: Civil War gets things back on track after the weak Age of Ultron, and should make people excited for next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I’ll just keep saying it: You must stay through the damn credits until that blue ratings thing shows at the end. It’s a Marvel movie! There are two extra scenes to see. Stop leaving before the screen goes dark. It’s driving me crazy!

Captain America: Civil War is playing in a variety of formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

As is the case with some of the other sequels coming our way this summer (Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World), Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, the fifth in the series, is a decent piece of summer fluff, but little more than that.

Tom Cruise (whose hair stylist included a little too much red in the mix, resulting in a hue that doesn’t quite fit his complexion) is back as Ethan Hunt. This time around, he’s hanging from airplanes in unnatural and impossible ways, performing overly long tasks underwater, and riding a motorcycle again.

Everything he does is in service of a typically convoluted plot, involving some sort of evil syndicate of international agents who have faked their deaths and are looking to terrorize the planet. All sorts of nations are in on the evil, but the United Kingdom is especially nasty in this one, giving the whole thing a little bit of a James Bond vibe. In addition to London, Ethan goes to Morocco, Paris and Jupiter. (OK, I’m kidding about Jupiter … wouldn’t that be cool?)

If you are running late for the movie, just stay home, because you will miss the incredible airplane stunt in which Cruise clings to a jet while Simon Pegg looks on in horror. Some folks came into my screening a little late and missed the entire sequence. I wanted to walk up to them, point a finger and yell, “Ha, ha, ha … tardy, tardy, oh so farty, you and yours missed the plane stunt party! You suck! Go home!” However, the entire theater would’ve kicked my ass had I done this, so I refrained.

Speaking of Pegg, his Benji the computer analyst guy gets a bigger role this time around, reaching the level of spunky sidekick. He gets to scream and moan during car chases, and in the finale, he has one of the cooler moments in the movie, involving a bomb. It’s a good move having Cruise and Pegg pair up. It leads to a level of humor not present in previous installments.

A newcomer to the series, Alec Baldwin, gets a couple of good scenes as the CIA guy trying to eradicate Hunt’s agency. Rebecca Ferguson is impressive as an English agent who may or may not be a villain; she’s also quite decent-looking in a bikini. Jeremy Renner is around to crack wise as he messes with Baldwin’s character, while Ving Rhames still gets to collect a paycheck. As for Emilio Estevez, sadly, he’s still dead after his elevator accident in the first film.

This movie is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who won a screenwriting Oscar for The Usual Suspects, directed Cruise in Jack Reacher, and wrote the incredible screenplay for Cruise’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow. He’s officially in the Tom Cruise business.

Back to the subject of Cruise’s hair: I’m thinking his stylist should allow a little gray to come through, and should opt for something a little more dark brown. The reddish-orange tint bothers me, especially when the light hits it in a certain way. It makes him look older than he actually is. Come on—we all saw him totally grey in Collateral. He looked sharp, and that was more than years ago. Embrace the gray, Tom! Embrace the gray!

Word is out that Cruise is going to make Mission: Impossible 6, and who knows what crazy stunt he will subject himself to next time out? He’s scaled the tallest building in the world, gone cliff-climbing, and held onto an airplane while it takes off. Perhaps he will eat a whole glob of wasabi in one chomp at a sushi restaurant. That would be insane!

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is my least favorite M:I yet, but it’s still a good film. Things feel a little by-the-numbers this time, but Cruise is a crazy bastard who’s willing to go all-out for his movies, and this installment is no exception. The dude is nuts, and we, the movie-viewing public, are better off because he’s nuts.

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

When Avengers: Age of Ultron wrapped, I realized a terrible thing for a fanboy like me: I had just watched almost 2 1/2 hours of stuff that did almost nothing for me. It was a big blur, intermittently interrupted by half-interesting moments.

In other words: It was boring.

You can’t accuse director Joss Whedon of “second verse, same as the first” with Avengers: Age of Ultron. He and his team definitely went for something different with this sequel to one of the greatest blockbusters ever made. Perhaps it would’ve been OK to retain more of the good humor, campiness and non-cluttered thrills that made The Avengers such a gas.

Ultron is flat. Nothing of any real consequence happens; there are just a bunch of scenes teasing future Marvel movies, and some action sequences that lack clarity. With the exception of an interesting smackdown between Iron Man and the Hulk, the action sequences feel repetitive.

The “Ultron” of the movie’s title is a series of robots with an artificial-intelligence program initiated by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark, thinking he can create a security force that will save the world, gets a little ahead of himself, forgoes the approval of his fellow Avengers—with the exception of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)—and starts the program, only to discover that A.I. can sometimes mean Absolute Insanity. The program goes AWOL and produces the anti-human Ultron.

Voiced by James Spader, Ultron is a one-note villain that lacks personality, unlike Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and other recent comic-book villains. He’s not a formidable bad guy, in part because he’s just a CGI creation voiced by an actor. All of the great Marvel and D.C. villains are usually a little more human, while Ultron comes off as a third-rate Transformers Decepticon. Yes, Spader has a menacing voice, but he’s no James Earl Jones.

On the other hand, the Vision—a good-guy offshoot of the same program that produces Ultron, more or less—is far more interesting. Played by Paul Bettany, the Vision is a welcome addition to the roster. Bettany’s likeness is actually used in the Vision, and he looks cool.

Also new are Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Scarlet Witch does the mind-control thing, which Whedon illustrates with a visual that looks like mist surrounding her victim’s head. This reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy and her red-mist, mind-controlling pheromones in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. When it comes to comic book movies, it is never a good thing when something reminds you of Batman and Robin.

Quicksilver is potentially fun, but Johnson’s incarnation is not as interesting as that of Evan Peters, who played the part in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The film plays with the notion of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk having an affair. We get a couple of scenes with Black Widow managing to get the Hulk to calm down, and a little bit of Ruffalo and Johansson sort-of flirting, but the subplot doesn’t go anywhere. While the original Avengers was a terrific showcase for the Hulk, the latest mostly loses the big green guy in the shuffle. Also, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) now has a wife, in a failed effort to raise his character above least-interesting Avenger.

If you are an Avengers fan, you’ll have to see Age of Ultron, because it sets up a series of other films, and you might find yourself lost when watching future movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok or Black Widow: She Will Never Have Her Own Movie … What Gives?  

As for Whedon, perhaps he was the wrong man for this gig. The sequel goes for a darker tonal shift—a sort of Empire Strikes Back for the Avengers. The result is one of the year’s most crushing cinematic letdowns.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift: Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.

Hold on, though: The above is not fiction.

Kill the Messenger, a film now playing at the Century Theatres at The River, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.

After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at the Sacramento News & Review, for which I worked (and wrote the original version of this story). Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family—and some trenchant questions:

Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?

Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.

But here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb (above right); Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland), the film opened in a “soft launch” across the country October 10.

Members of Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.

“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.

For Renner—who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker—the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he’d played before. During a break in the filming of Mission: Impossible 5, he spoke to me about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.

“The story is important,” said Renner. “It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.

“He was brave, he was flawed. … I fell in love with Gary Webb.”


'THE FIRST BIG INTERNET-AGE JOURNALISM EXPOSÉ

There’s a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider’s grin. It’s the one in which—after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America, to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles—Renner, as Webb, begins to actually write the big story.

In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together—the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights … You have the right to free speech / as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it.

It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.

His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high-school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.

It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé “Dark Alliance.” The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.

When “Dark Alliance” was published on Aug. 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That’s because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper’s then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.

“Gary’s story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nick Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based; the film is also based on Webb’s book version of the series, Dark Alliance. “If the series had happened a year earlier it, ‘Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.

As word of the story spread, black communities across America—especially in South Central—grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles’ urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.

But after a six-week honeymoon period for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.

On Oct. 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb’s story, leading the package from Page 1. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.

The ultimate injury came when the Los Angeles Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the “Get Gary Webb Team”) on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. paper—which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard—was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series “was vague” and overreached.

“Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.

Now, even some of Webb’s supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the “big three” so intent on tearing down Webb’s work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?

Some say it was the long arm of President Ronald Reagan and his team’s ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to “our Founding Fathers” and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)

Others say that editors at the “big three” were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.

One of their big criticisms was that the story didn’t include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb’s story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.

Other issues fueled controversy around Webb’s story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets—and proclaimed by many activists in the black community—that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug-trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.

In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.

After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper’s executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution.

When contacted by me, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn’t familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. “I’m the wrong person to ask about popular culture,” he said.

Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb’s series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous “no.”

“It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. … Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight.

“I’m very proud that we were willing to do that.”

Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the “Dark Alliance” series, he quit the paper altogether.

A year later, he was redeemed when CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press, called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.”

But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.

But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.


'I NEVER REALLY GAVE UP HOPE'

Last month, Webb’s son Eric, 26, opened the door to his Sacramento rental home with a swift grab for the collar of his affable pitbull mix, Thomas. Eric—lanky at 6 feet 4 inches, with his father’s shaggy brown hair and easy expression—attended college at American River College and hopes to become a journalist someday. He was happy to sit down and discuss the upcoming film.

To Eric, the idea that a movie was being made about his dad was nothing new. He’d heard it all at least a dozen times before. Paramount Pictures had owned the rights to Dark Alliance for a while before Universal Studios took it on.

“I stopped expecting it,” said Eric.

Webb’s ex-wife, Stokes, now remarried and still living in Sacramento, had heard it all before, too.

“I’d get discouraged,” she said, “but I never really give up hope.”

Things finally took off almost eight years ago, when screenwriter Peter Landesman called author Schou, now managing editor at the OC Weekly, about his not-yet-published book about Webb. Landesman was hot to write a screenplay about Webb’s story, said Schou.

It was years later when Landesman showed the screenplay to Renner, whose own production company, The Combine, decided to co-produce it. Focus Features, which is owned by Universal, now has worldwide rights to the movie Kill the Messenger.

“When Jeremy Renner got involved,” said Schou, “everything started rolling.”

It was the summer of 2013 when Stokes and Webb’s children—Eric, his older brother Ian and younger sister Christine—flew to Atlanta for three days on the film company’s dime to see a scene being shot.

“The first thing (Renner) did when he saw us was come up and give us hugs and introduce himself,” said Eric. “He called us ‘bud’ and ‘kiddo’ like my dad used to. … He even had the tucked-in shirt with no belt, like my dad used to wear. And I was like, ‘Man, you nailed that.’”

The scene the family watched being filmed, according to Stokes, was the one in which Webb’s Mercury News editors tell him “they were gonna back down from the story.”

“I was sitting there watching and thinking back to the morning before that meeting,” said Stokes. “Gary was getting nervous (that day). He said, ‘I guess I should wear a tie and jacket’ to this one. He was nervous but hopeful that they would let him move forward with the story.”

Of course, they did not.

After a pause, Stokes said: “It was hard watching that scene and remembering the emotions of that day.”

In June, Webb’s family flew to Santa Monica to see the film’s “final cut” at the Focus Features studio. All were thoroughly impressed with the film and the acting. “Jeremy Renner watched our home videos,” said Eric. “He studied. All these little words and gestures that my dad used to do—he did them. I felt like I was watching my dad.”

When asked how playing the role of Gary Webb compared to his usual action-adventure parts (such as in The Bourne Legacy), Renner said it was like “apples and oranges” to compare the two, but then admitted, “I can say this one was more emotionally challenging.”

Renner laughed when asked about the impressive cast he’d managed to round up for a comparatively low-budget movie. He noted he was “going to be washing a whole lot of people’s cars and doing their laundry.”

Stokes has no regrets about the film.

“Seeing a chapter of your life, with its highs and lows, depicted on the big screen is something you never think is going to happen to you,” she said. “It was all very emotional.

“But I loved the movie. And the kids were very happy with how it vindicated their father.”

Said Renner, “If (the family gets) closure or anything like that … that’s amazing.”


'I’VE SHOT THAT GUN SO I KNOW'

It was an otherwise routine Friday morning in December 2004 when Eric Webb was called out of class at Rio Americano High School. The then 16-year-old was put on the phone with his mother, who told him he needed to leave campus immediately and go straight to his grandmother’s house.

“I told her, ‘I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what happened,'” said Eric. So she told him about his dad.

“He killed himself,” she said.

Eric had the family BMW that day, so he floored it over to his father’s Carmichael home—the one his dad had been scheduled to clear out of that very day. Webb had just sold it with the alleged plan of saving money by moving into his mother’s home nearby.

“I needed a visual confirmation for myself,” said Eric. He pulled up to the house and saw a note in his dad’s handwriting on the door. It read, “Do not enter, please call the police.” Eric went inside and saw the blood, “but his body had already been taken,” he said.

For his children and Stokes, nothing was ever the same. And almost 10 years later, questions still reverberate around Gary Webb’s death.

It’s clear from all who knew him well that he suffered from severe depression. Some—like Stokes—believe in retrospect that Webb was also likely ill with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Still, why did he do it? What makes a man feel despair enough to take his own life?

After leaving the Mercury News in ’97, Webb couldn’t get hired at a daily. After writing his book, he eventually found a position working for the California Legislature’s task force on government oversight. When he lost that job in February 2004, a depression he’d fought off for a long while settled in, said Stokes.

Though divorced in 2000, the couple remained friendly. On the day that would have been their 25th anniversary, he turned to her, utterly distraught, after hearing he’d lost the job.

“He was crying. ‘I lost my job. What am I gonna do?’” she said.

He knew the development would make it tough to stay in Sacramento near his children. She urged him to regroup and apply again at daily newspapers. Surely, she thought, the controversy over his series would have waned by now.

But when Webb applied, not even interviews were offered.

“Nobody would hire him,” she said. “He got more and more depressed. He was on antidepressants, but he stopped taking them in the spring,” said Stokes. “They weren’t making him feel any better.”

It was August when Webb finally got work as a reporter at SN&R. Though he hadn’t set out to work in the world of weekly journalism, with its lesser pay and more hit-and-miss prestige, he was a productive member of the staff until near the end. During his short time with SN&R, he wrote a few searing cover stories, including “The Killing Game,” about the U.S. Army using first-person shooter video games as a recruitment tool.

In fact, Eric edited a book in 2011 for Seven Stories Press, The Killing Game, that included 11 stories his father had written for various publications, including SN&R. “I was always happy to see his covers,” said Eric, attending high school at the time. “We got SN&R on our campus, and I would be like, ‘Hey, my dad’s on the front page. That’s awesome.’”

It was the morning of Dec. 10 when SN&R’s then-editorial assistant Kel Munger, entered then-editor Tom Walsh’s office with word that Gary’s son had just called saying, “Somebody needs to tell the boss that my dad killed himself.”

Within a few hours, SN&R was fielding press calls from all around the country, said Munger. A week later, it was she who had the thankless job of cleaning out Webb’s work cubicle to pass his belongings on to his ex-wife and kids. “There was bundled-up research material, a bunch of Detroit hockey paraphernalia, photos of his kids. … I remember he had a 2004 Investigative Reporter’s Handbook with Post-it notes throughout.”

“I was having a hard time keeping it together,” said Munger. “Like everyone else, I’d been looking forward to getting to know him.”

In the days following his death, the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office came out with a preliminary finding that was meant to cease the flood of calls to his office. The report “found no sign of forced entry or struggle” and stated the cause of death as “self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head.”

But it was too late to stop the conspiracy theorists. The CIA wanted Webb dead, they hypothesized, so the agency must have put a “hit” out on him. To this day, the Internet is full of claims that Webb was murdered. The fact that Webb had fired two shots into his own head didn’t dampen the conjectures.

Said Eric, “The funny part is, never once has anybody from the conspiracy side ever contacted us and said, ‘Do you think your dad was murdered?’”

The family knew what Webb had been through; they knew he had been fighting acute depression. They learned he’d purchased cremation services and put his bank account in his ex-wife’s name. They knew that the day before his suicide, he had mailed letters, sent to his brother Kurt in San Jose, that contained personal messages to each family member.

Receiving the letters “was actually a big relief for us,” said Eric. “We knew it was him. They were typed by him and in his voice. It was so apparent. The things he knew, nobody else would know. … He even recommended books for me to read.”

According to Eric, the “two gunshots” issue is “very explainable,” because the revolver Webb had fired into his head, a .38 special police addition his Marine father had owned, has double action that doesn’t require a shooter to re-cock to take a second shot. “I’ve shot that gun, so I know,” said Eric, who said his father taught him to shoot on a camping trip. “Once you cock the trigger, it goes ‘bang’ real easily. … You could just keep on squeezing and it would keep on shooting.”

In Kill the Messenger, Webb’s death goes unmentioned until after the final scene, when closing words roll onto the screen. Renner said he felt it would have been a disservice to the viewer to “weigh in too heavy” with details of the death. Including Webb’s demise would have “raised a lot of questions and taken away from his legacy,” he said.


'STAND UP AND RISK IT ALL'

It was eight days after Webb’s death when a few hundred of us gathered in the Sacramento Doubletree Hotel’s downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was on his prized red, white and blue motorcycle. There he was camping with his children. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues and SN&R staffers packed into the room.

My own distress at Webb’s passing wasn’t fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize, propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.

“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned (on him).”

Praise for the journalist—his smarts, guts and tenacity—flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&R: “Because of (Webb)’s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all.”

And Rep. Waters, who spent two years following up on Webb’s findings, wrote a statement calling him “one of the finest investigative journalists our country has ever seen.”

Thanks to Kill the Messenger, the storm that surrounded him in life may be recycled in the media and rebooted on the Internet, with old and new media journalists, scholars and conspiracy theorists weighing in from all sides.

But the film itself is an utter vindication of Webb’s work.

Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. “I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, “I do believe (the film) might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers.”

And what would the real live protagonist of Kill the Messenger have thought of it all? It’s at least certain he’d have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her: “Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”

The story originally appeared in SN&R. Below: Eric Webb, 26 and living in Sacramento, says he feels Kill the Messenger is a clear vindication of his father Gary Webb’s life and career. “The movie is going to vindicate him,” said Eric, seen here with his father’s old typewriter. “If people see the movie, they’re going to know he was right.” Photo by Lisa Baetz.

Published in Media

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is of the stranger films you will see. Real-life interviews and archival footage are combined with odd yet effective re-enactments to tell the story of modern history’s most-notorious cannibal.

Most notable among the Dahmer witnesses is Pamela Bass, a neighbor who claims to have eaten a sandwich given to her by Jeffrey, a meal she most definitely regrets. It’s totally creepy to hear somebody talk about their relatively normal neighbor—a neighbor who was keeping bodies in tanks and heads in the refrigerator.

Also in the interview mix is Pat Kennedy, the detective who interviewed Dahmer the night they brought him in, and, golly, did he get some disgusting surprises.

Andrew Swant stars as Dahmer in the re-enactment stuff, and he isn’t bad (although he is no Jeremy Renner, who did a decent job playing the killer in the underrated biopic Dahmer). Credit director Chris James Thompson for taking a truly strange idea for a movie and making it interesting.

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is available on demand, and via iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing
Jeremy Renner replaces Matt Damon at the center of the Bourne franchise, and the studio should've just left well enough alone.

The events of The Bourne Legacy take place at the same time as Damon's last Bourne outing, The Bourne Ultimatum. We know this because Matt Damon's character is mentioned on occasion, and his image shows up during TV news telecasts. It's just a reminder of how much more fun the franchise was with Damon starring.

Renner plays Aaron Cross, who, like Damon's Bourne, is part of a superagent experiment. He's a superstrong, supersmart agent thanks to some magic drugs and outlandish writing. Renner is a decent enough actor, but he's no Matt Damon. Consequently, Aaron Cross is no Jason Bourne.

Edward Norton is new to the series as a suspicious retired colonel, and Rachel Weisz is cast as well. Both barely register. Yes, the Bourne movies made a lot of money, but when Damon basically refused to soldier on, it would've been a good idea to let things lie for a while. This one feels rushed and unimportant.

There was some talk of Damon and Renner teaming for a future chapter. I'm doubting that will ever happen, but it's not a bad idea. Damon needs a hit, and Renner needs some help.

SPECIAL FEATURES: You get a director's commentary with Tony Gilroy, deleted scenes and some making-of featurettes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing