Sunday, 19 October 2014

Movie Review: Kill The Messenger

Previous Review: The Book of Life
Next Review: Interstellar

"Some stories are just too true to tell." Kill the Messenger tells the tragic true story of a journalist/reporter, Gary Webb who works for the San Jose Mercury News, uncovered a shocking scandal when he wrote a series of articles in 1996 claiming that the government and CIA was partly responsible for bringing crack cocaine to the U.S. in the 1980s to secretly fund an illegal war to stop communism.

The serious implication that the U.S. government had deliberately spread cocaine to African-American neighborhoods to help finance a secret war supporting the contra rebels in Nicaragua evoked outrage among the African-American community and create racial tensions at the time the articles was published. However, all began to fall apart when some of the country's well-known newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times) made personal attacks against him. Gary Webb paid a huge price for writing the articles. Soon, his own life and past mistakes became the focus of the mainstream media and his articles are under heavy scrutiny by various media and the public.

Since the film is actually "based on a true story", the film most likely take a few liberties with the story (there might be some factual inaccuracies) and the events depicted mostly likely are dramatized to make it a far more interesting movie, but it still doesn't eliminate the fact that most of the events occurred in some ways in the past.

Jeremy Renner gives his best lead role performance in portraying Webb as a real, flawed human being. The film takes time to explore the character's life, showing how his obsession to uncover the truth slowly consumes and destroys his life...His decision to reveal the story has created a serious blow not only to himself, but to his family as well, as people who knew him slowly turned against him and drove him into depression. This essentially provides the necessary character development required for the audience to relate with.

Kill the Messenger is not a typical thriller you normally see on screen. Truth to be told, the film is rather slow-paced and it really lags in the mid section. There's barely any action to excite the casual moviegoers. Throughout the film, there are no government officials or CIA agents threatened him with violence. Instead, they choose to let the mainstream media destroy the man by destroying his credibility as an investigative reporter. Soon after, his reputation was tarnished and his career was ruined.

It's a cautionary tale that shows us things are never what it seemed to be. If this film was made 15 years earlier, it could have vindicated Webb and may or may not prevented his suicide in 2004. It's a shame that it took so long for this film to appear in cinemas.

Rating: 7.5/10

The following question is also taken from the site mentioned above.

Is there any truth to Gary Webb's story?
Yes. As for how much, we may never know. A 1988 Senate subcommittee report noted that certain CIA-backed contras did smuggle drugs to make money.

"Earlier, in the 1980s, Robert Parry and Brian Barger reported on the story for AP, which was picked up by then freshman Senator John Kerry, who in 1988 released an extensively documented committee report showing the ways the Contras, backed by Ronald Reagan’s White House, were turning Central America into a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine, using the drug revenue to fund their war on the Sandinistas."

Ten years later in 1998, Frederick P. Hitz, the CIA inspector general, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that following a thorough review of the matter, he believed that the CIA in the least acted as a bystander with regard to the war on drugs.

"I believe our investigation is the most comprehensive and exhaustive ever conducted by the CIA/OIG and that the Report of Investigation reflects accurately what was found by our team. Having said that, one may ask if it is possible there is some relevant document we did not find or some relevant person we did not interview that would alter our conclusions. As for the documents, the answer to that is, "Yes, it is possible, but I do not believe it is likely." As for individuals, the Report explains that six former CIA employees and a former DEA agent refused our request to be interviewed. We had no power to compel them to do So... Given the effort I have described, however, I do not believe it is likely that any significant information that would have substantially altered the conclusions of this Volume has escaped our attention. Now let me turn to the Findings of Volume I. Before i go any further, I want to make clear that we found absolutely no evidence to indicate that CIA as an organization or its employees were involved in any conspiracy to bring drugs into the United States.The first half of volume I discussed CIA knowledge of the activities of Ross, Blandon and Meneses. Ross, Blandon and Meneses are convicted drug dealers. Our investigation found no information to indicate that any past or present employee of CIA, or anyone else acting on behalf of CIA, had any dealings with Ross, Blandon or Meneses, or had any knowledge of their drug trafficking activities. Ross was a drug dealer who, by his own admission, says his sole motivation was to derive personal financial gain from the illegal trafficking of drugs. During the 1980's, Ross was a major cocaine and crack trafficker who..says he made millions in the drug trade. His activities helped to foster the crack epidemic that erupted in South Central Los Angeles. However, Ross told us that he never sold drugs for the Contras or donated any money to the Contras. CIA never had any relationship with Ross. Likewise, Blandon and Meneses also trafficked in drugs to derive personal financial gain. While CIA had no relationship with Blandon and Meneses, our investigation did find that Blandon and Meneses were affiliated with California Contra support organizations and each made financial contributions to those groups."

"AS I said earlier, we have found no evidence in the course of this lengthy investigation of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States. However, during the Contra era, CIA worked with a variety of people to support the Contra program. These included CIA assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others. Let me be frank about what we are finding. There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations."

The media, then consumed by the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, largely ignored the findings.

For those who are interested to know more, here are a list of articles related to the film:

Previous Review: The Book of Life
Next Review: Interstellar

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Movie Review: The Book of Life

Previous Review: The Snow White Murder Case
Next Review: Kill The Messenger

The Book of Life is a refreshing new animated tale about Mexican folk beliefs, especially the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a day where families and friends gather to pray for and remember their loved ones who have died. Aside from its basic themes about love, family and friendship, The Book of Life features some mature, darker ones such as life and death, pursue your dreams, never forget those who have passed on and never stop looking forward to the future at the same time, always be yourself and never lose sight of who you are. The plot is done with enough wit, charm, humour and sincerity that makes it an enjoyable ride.

The story is mainly about three childhood friends, Manolo, Joaquin and Maria who got caught in a wager going on between the Mexican lords of the underworld, La Muerte (ruler of The Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (ruler of The Land of the Forgotten). These deities each pick a champion between these two boys and bet on who can win Maria's heart and marry her. So best friends become bitter love rivals for a woman's heart. Aside from that, Manolo is torn between following his heart to become a musician or satisfy his dad's expectation to continue the family's legacy.

The film is beautiful, stylish and visually stunning. Despite its darker tone, the film doesn't feel terrifying at all. It shows us a world filled with wonder and spectacle, especially The Land of the Remembered, which is full of vibrant, lively colours despite the fact that it's actually the land of the undead. It provides us unique, captivating character designs and set pieces with close attention to detail about Mexican culture and traditions. The characters are strong, charming and lovable. The film did a fine job addressing the importance of remembering our loved ones who have died. The love triangle between Manolo, Maria and Joaquin is well developed as well.

The songs chosen for the film were great, breathes life into the scenes and provide the necessary emotional impact to keep the audience engaged throughout the film. I do admit there are a few plot contrivances here and there, but remember, this is still a kids/family film, so just cut it some slack and give it a chance. Some of the voice actors did a good job imitating the Mexican accent to make it feel like an authentic Mexican animation. Overall, it's a charming, sweet romantic film with surprising depth and plenty of heart that's good enough for both kids and adults to enjoy at the same time. A recommended watch.

Rating: 8/10

Previous Review: The Snow White Murder Case
Next Review: Kill The Messenger

Monday, 6 October 2014

Movie Review: The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件)

Previous Review: Dracula Untold
Next Review: The Book of Life

The film starts with Noriko, a tall, young and attractive office lady of a cosmetics company that specializes in making 'Snow White' soap who was brutally stabbed several times and then burned in a national park. When a temporary news director, Akahoshi, who works at a news company hears some insider information from a friend, who works the same company as the victim, he decided to seize the opportunity to find the suspected killer and reveal these details to the public before the police. Akahoshi reveals his investigation online and soon, news spreads across the social media like wildfire.

Adapted from a best-selling Japanese novel by Kanae Minato, The Snow White Murder Case is a well-written, nicely executed and well-acted crime drama thriller that tells a gripping story with enough twists and turns to sustain viewer's interest along the way. First and foremost, the film pays not much attention to the actual police investigation for the crime, but choose to focus on the public and the people who are connected to the victim or prime suspect instead. It's a modern cautionary tale about the destructive power of social media and how it can easily twist the fabric of truth. It examines closely how misunderstandings or misinterpretation of a person's character can potentially ruin a person’s life.

The film also exposes the judgmental nature of the public in the wake of accessible information online. Throughout the film, you get to see different versions of the same events, as told from different points of view and perspectives from many people, as each person perceives and remembers things differently. However, there are also a few who chose to tell their own version of the events that happened just to get some media attention, effectively blinding the public from the truth. It's actually quite interesting to watch the details of events shift as the film progresses. The film tries to show the audience that things aren't always what they seem to be on the outside. There are so many intricacies of human actions, emotions and intentions that we always fail to perceive, no matter how smart, intelligent or clever we are. 

Moreover, the film also tries to show that first impressions can be misleading and appearances can be deceiving. Beautiful women are often invisible to the naked eye. We're always so bedazzled by the outside that we tend to fail to look on the inside. The film slowly takes us deeper into the goings-on in the workplace of the soap company and gives us a brief general look at the fierce competition between women in the workplace and in society. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that the viewer's perspective of a certain character changes as the film progresses and we start to empathize her once the truth is slowly revealed through flashbacks which provide an emotional backstory for the main lead. Mao Inoue and Nanao both provide convincing performances in their respective roles, successfully display the multiple facets of their characters well.

The Snow White Murder Case impresses me a lot. It’s actually quite rare for a crime drama thriller that has a carefully structured premise with so many ideas to convey. It's one of the most compelling, thought-provoking crime drama thrillers this year. Highly recommended.

Rating: 8.5/10

Previous Review: Dracula Untold
Next Review: The Book of Life

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Movie Review: Dracula Untold

Previous Review: The Boxtrolls

There's nothing new about Dracula Untold. Unfortunately, it's just another film that favours spectacle and style over substance. With a film clocked in at a mere 85 minutes (excluding credits), the story is just not compelling enough for the audience to invest emotionally in what happens next. There's simply not enough time and everything felt rushed without proper character development.

In the beginning of the film, we're swiftly introduced to our main character, Vlad the Impaler with a series of montage about his background, what he did for the Turkish empire and why he was renowned for his brutality in warfare. Basically, he's a 15-century Transylvanian prince infamous for his practice of impaling his enemies to induce fear and ensure the safety of his people and kingdom. Unfortunately, the Sultan of the Turkish Empire demands 1000 of the young boys in his kingdom to join his army to conquer Europe. Unable to comply, outnumbered and face an imminent threat from the Turkish army, he decides to make a deal with an arch vampire demon, Caligula, at a price, to grant him power to destroy his enemies.

The action scenes are stylish, cool and surprisingly not too violent, scary or gory, which fits the intention of establishing Dracula as an anti-hero instead of a frightening monster villain. The best action scene is where we get to see Vlad summons a colony of bats to defeat the 10,000-strong Turkish army during the climactic battle. It is truly a sight to behold but ultimately it fails to impress as everything just happens too fast.

There are some fine performances from its actors, especially Luke Evans as Vlad. He did the best he could in a film with a bad script. Many of the supporting characters are severely underdeveloped and completely forgettable. We don't know much about them aside from watching them appear on screen talking a few lines here and there before getting killed. None of them have enough screen time for their characters to make a memorable, lasting impression on screen, including the main antagonist, Sultan Mehmed II. We've being told that the Sultan and Vlad were close like brothers and yet we never get to see this relationship on screen at all. We don't know much about him. Not to mention, even the origins of Caligula, the vampire demon who sired Vlad is quickly briefed through without slowing down.

The film never bothered to fully explore its premise...the ultimate price Vlad had to 'pay' (his humanity) for becoming a vampire to save his people, family and kingdom. It doesn't truly show what a 'monster' he had become in order to win the war against the Turks. Furthermore, the film doesn't take time to establish the other characters well. Because of that, the film has lost its potential. Overall, Dracula Untold is just not worth the price of admission. A forgettable film.

Rating: 5/10

Previous Review: The Boxtrolls