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In the original Poltergeist, a dude eating a drumstick tore off his face while looking in a mirror, and threw chunks of his bloody flesh in a sink. Somehow, that movie managed to get a PG rating.

In this remake, Sam Rockwell cries, and that somehow leads to a PG-13 rating. I love Sam Rockwell, but it’s hard to watch him work up tears for this crap. Actually, this movie is hard to watch from start to finish, even if you haven’t seen the original.

In 1982, director Tobe Hooper (teaming with writer-producer Steven Spielberg) made a horrific treat spiked with humor. This paltry remake from director Gil Kenan has none of the spark of the original, and is merely a routine haunting movie with cheap “scares” involving clown dolls (that don’t actually scare) and kid actors who fail to register. (I won’t single them out, because they are kids … but they do suck.) Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt squirm through the roles originated by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams.

There was no good reason for this undertaking. The movie shouldn’t have been remade. If somebody tries to remake Jaws, I will be truly pissed off. Leave the Spielberg properties alone!

Poltergeist is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Jason Reitman delivers a boring, lethargic and woefully predictable look at humans and the way in which interact with the Internet: Men, Women and Children winds up being nothing more than an ugly commercial for the Ashley Madison dating services.

Adam Sandler plays a sex-addicted married man who jerks off to Internet porn and eventually begins using an escort service. Meanwhile, the wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) has started having sex with men she meets on Ashley Madison. Oooh … the Internet is bad.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Garner plays a mother who obsessively stalks the Internet activity of her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), while Judy Greer plays a mom who has no problem creating a provocative website for her daughter (Olivia Crocicchia). That darned Internet!

Everybody in this movie is either maddeningly morose or completely deranged. Reitman may think he’s delivering some sort of time-capsule movie showing how technology is the destroyer of relationships and real human communication, but there is absolutely nothing provocative or probing about what he’s saying in this movie. It’s a total drag, squandering a talented cast and offering nothing new.

Men, Women and Children is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

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

Promised Land wants to be a message movie, but it's too messy to deliver that message coherently.

Originally slated to be Matt Damon's directorial debut, it was instead directed by his pal Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), who, with this and last year's mawkish Restless, finds himself in a bit of a slump. Although Damon relinquished the director's chair, he shared screenwriting duties with John Krasinski, and both have big roles in the film.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a likable corporate pawn for a natural-gas company who is sent to a farming town with a mandate to sell the community on allowing its presence. That presence would mean a lot of "fracking," a natural-gas extraction process that involves deep drilling—and some possible environmental side effects.

Steve is presented as a virtuous fellow who looks to do well and get ahead. He's just about to get a big promotion, and with a wisecracking co-worker at his side (Frances McDormand), he's set to sell fracking to a town filled with differing opinions on what to do with the land. Some, like Paul (Lucas Black), are looking for a big payday, while others, like Frank (a well-placed Hal Holbrook), look to get in Steve's way.

Also looking to get in Steve's way is Dustin (Krasinski), an environmentalist who claims that fracking wrecks farms and kills livestock. He posts pictures of dead cows around town and playfully intimidates Steve at local bars. He even makes a move on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the small-town girl Steve has his eyes on.

Is Promised Land trying to preach that fracking and natural gas are bad choices? I really couldn't tell you. The film is more preoccupied with giving us a nice, happy, pleasant outcome for Steve. Van Sant wants you to leave this movie thinking Damon's Steve is just swell—even if he did put people's livelihoods and land in jeopardy.

There's also a big twist that is nothing but a screenwriting stunt to throw viewers off-course. It completely undermines any "message" the film is trying to deliver, and comes off as something that would never, ever happen.

It's too bad. I liked the idea of Van Sant tackling a simple farm-town story—but the Damon/Krasinski screenplay betrays him in the end. Damn your pen, Matt Damon!

Damon's acting is OK. He's playing somebody similar in mannerisms to the character he played in We Bought a Zoo. (He wrote Promised Land with Krasinski while taking breaks from making Zoo.) His acting is better than his writing. The same can't be said for Krasinski, who both writes and acts badly here. Love the dude on The Office, but I'm lukewarm on him at the movies thus far.

As for McDormand, she rises above the material and makes her moments worth watching. The same can be said for DeWitt, who made a habit this year of showing her face in movies unworthy of her. She also starred in the mediocre Nobody Walks, the lousy The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Watch. (I am one of the few critics who actually liked that one.)

Promised Land left me feeling weird, and I don't think that was its intention. Sure, it made me curious about fracking, but the film chickened out and failed to deliver a meaningful statement on anything. Van Sant has made an awkward movie that will be fracking forgotten by this time next year.

Promised Land is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A Los Angeles family lets a really pretty girl into their house for an elongated visit, and—surprise surprise—infidelity and other sorts of trouble ensue.

Nobody Walks is the latest from co-writer Lena Dunham, who penned and directed the very-good Tiny Furniture. While the movie has some tasty visuals and a dreamy soundtrack, the story doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, it’s quite predictable and boring.

The really pretty girl is Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a supposed artist looking to finish her art film with the help of a freelance sound engineer, Peter (John Krasinski). This is one of those films that present an “artist” who is supposed to be very talented—but the film she’s working on is stupid. It’s just black-and-white footage of bugs that is meant to be “deep.” Well, it’s not. It’s just a bunch of bugs running around.

Nothing Martine says is all that enlightening or profound, especially when she’s directing her movie. Peter instantly finds her talented, which I suppose is a direct sign that he wants to cheat on his wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Julie has her own potential infidelity storm brewing. She’s a therapist with a sleazy screenwriter client (Justin Kirk) who tells her about the sex dreams he’s having. Of course, she’s in them. This is all well-worn, run-of-the-mill territory.

The movie lights up a bit in the story of young Kolt (India Ennenga), a budding writer with a crush on Peter’s assistant (Rhys Wakefield). Ennenga delivers the film’s best performance as a teenager with the biggest brain in the house. Had the film been more about her, it might’ve been interesting. Ennenga is a featured actress on HBO’s Treme, if you are looking for her beyond this movie. I think she has a future.

Director Ry Russo-Young is trying to show us a quiet Southern California in her film. While the family does attend a party at one point, most of this film takes place in a Silver Lake home hidden quietly in the hills. This part of the country is always portrayed as a little insane, so it’s refreshing to see a film that acknowledges that all parts of Los Angeles aren’t out of hand.

Thirlby is one of those actresses who I want to like so much, but I just haven’t been given a good enough reason. I liked her just fine in Juno; and she was OK in Dredd, but she’s failed to knock me out so far. Unfortunately, her Martine is not a well-written, engaging character. She’s basically an insecure person who can’t help but make out with any decent-looking man within mouth range. If there was a way to make this stereotypical character someone worth rooting for, Thirlby, the director and her crew did not find it. She’s actually diabolical, yet remarkably dull at the same time.

Krasinski does much of the film’s heavy lifting as the cheating hubby. While the film doesn’t necessarily offer a reason for why Peter would cheat (he seems happy in his marriage), these sort of things just happen sometimes. But Peter’s eventual downward spiral into jealous rage seems a little forced and out of place. Krasinski does these scenes well enough, but they feel silly.

Dylan McDermott has an unmemorable, small part as Leroy, Julie’s famous musician ex-husband and Kolt’s father. His presence is another attempt by the movie to show this family as forward=thinking and “free.” They are so cool to let the ex come over and sit at the dinner table! Too bad that ex is Dylan McDermott in autopilot mode.

Nobody Walks isn’t a total loss. I liked the soundtrack music by Will Bates and Fall on Your Sword, along with the excellent cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt. As dopey and mundane as the film can get, it looks and sounds good.

But good music and nice visuals aside, this feels like a movie that has been done before—and done better.

Now playing at Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert, 779-0430).

 

Published in Reviews