Strong ‘Messenger,’ Tedious ‘Men,’ Dreary ‘Dracula’




Contributing Writer





Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.” -Photo courtesy of
Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.”
-Photo courtesy of

“Kill the Messenger”

Jeremy Renner gives one of his most vivid and compelling performances as Gary Webb, a journalist whose career was ruined after he fell afoul of the CIA, in Michael Cuesta’s exciting, thought-provoking “Kill the Messenger” (wide release).

Webb was an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 when he broke a story about how the agency had conspired with Nicaraguan drug lords to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. during the 1980s so that the profits could be used to support the anti-Sandinista contras. As a result, he implied, the government had unwittingly encouraged the crack cocaine epidemic that devastated the nation’s inner cities.

At first Webb was hailed for his work, but soon rival newspapers, in some cases using information provided by the CIA, began calling his articles into question, alleging that they were filled with inaccuracies and exaggerations. After his own paper failed to support him, Webb’s career was ruined, and his personal life suffered as well. Yet recent studies argue that his conclusions were basically correct.

Cuesta tells this story with some of the same intensity that characterized films of the 1970s about governmental malfeasance, like “All the President’s Men.” And he surrounds Renner with a supporting cast of actors who can make a striking impression in a single scene.

“Kill the Messenger” is a throwback, but it is the sort of old-fashioned David-versus-Goliath tale that still has the power to fascinate — and to enrage.


“The Judge”

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall go head to head in “The Judge” (wide release), a slick but superficial film that is part sappy family reconciliation story and part mediocre courtroom melodrama.

Downey is a snarky Chicago defense attorney who finds himself forced to defend his estranged father, a long-time Indiana judge played by Duvall, when the old man is charged with murder. The case is difficult not only because the judge claims not to remember what happened, but also because the prosecutor — a sneering Billy Bob Thornton — is determined to get a conviction.

Not content with that central plot thread, the script adds a barrelful of secondary ones involving a precocious daughter, a mentally-challenged brother, a rekindled romance and various long-buried secrets and animosities. They slow the picture down to a crawl.

For the most part the two actors go predictable routes, with Downey coming across as Tony Stark with a law degree and Duvall doing the crotchety act he has honed over the years. But at moments when the judge shows his physical frailty, Duvall elevates the pulp material into something more moving.

“The Judge” is entertaining enough over the course of its two-and-a-half hour running time, but it never cuts very deep.


“Men, Women & Children”

Jason Reitman, who has made such excellent films as “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air,” stumbles badly with “Men, Women & Children” (Angelika), a ponderous ensemble piece that warns of the alienation caused by overdependence on the Internet and texting. Modern society, it argues, is increasingly made up of people who cannot connect with each other in person.

That may well be true, but here the message is presented in such a heavy-handed way — through the interlocking stories of individuals, both adults and teens, who are so caught up in their electronic devices that they forgo human contact — that one can almost sympathize with those in the audience who are moved to check their cell phones during a movie that is admonishing them not to. (Almost, but not quite.)

“Men, Women & Children” is banality posing as profundity, and a crushing bore.


Luke Evans as Vlad Tepes in “Dracula Untold.” -Photo courtesy of
Luke Evans as Vlad Tepes in “Dracula Untold.”
-Photo courtesy of

“Dracula Untold”

As a doubtful Halloween present, Hollywood is offering “Dracula Untold” (wide release), a dark and gloomy action flick that conflates a comic-book version of the career of Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Wallachian ruler who had the habit of impaling his enemies, with the origin story of Bram Stoker’s famous Transylvanian vampire.

The combination is defensible to a point, since Stoker used Vlad’s patronymic as the name of his undead count. But in joining the two, “Dracula” morphs into what is essentially a period superhero movie. The goofy plot endows the newly-minted vampire Tepes with super-speed and the strength of hundreds, powers that he uses — along with an ability to rouse swarms of vicious bats to battle — to defeat the Turks invading his realm.

As seasonal movies go, “Dracula Untold” is not much of a trick but even less of a treat.


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