Movie Review: “The Skyjacker’s Tale”

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You don’t hear about or see the ramifications of the “Fountain Valley massacre” when you visit St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But there are ghosts there, if you recognize what you’re seeing.

One of the less developed islands, blacker, more segregated and “colonial” in feel, with the influx of the super rich only around the margins, disused cruise ships docks and the like, you have to know some history to get why this “paradise” feels like the Virgin Island that time forgot, or got left behind.

And that history is a bloody, almost Jamaican moment in St. Croix history. In 1972, armed bandits broke into an all-white country club, grabbed a little cash, and shot a lot of white people. The “Fountain Valley massacre,” it was called. And being an island and not a very big one, it wasn’t long before five suspects were rounded up, interrogated and convicted — sentenced to life-and-then-some prison terms.

The Canadian documentary “The Skyjacker’s Tale” tells the story of one of them, Ronald “Ronnie” LaBeet, a radicalized Vietnam War vet who, as Ishmael Muslim Ali, took over an American Airlines flight in 1984 and hijacked it to Cuba, where he lives to this day.

Perhaps only a Canadian could tell this story, or would have attempted it. It’s not just a question of travel and access to Ali/LaBeet. But the whole idea of questioning a mass murder conviction and turning out a compelling movie designed to do little more than cast doubt seems somewhat out of step with the United States these days.

Writer-director Jamie Kastner (“The Secret Disco Revolution”) tracks down those who hunted and prosecuted Ali, a survivor of the massacre and stewardesses, passengers and the pilot of the 1984 New York to Christianstad, St. Croix flight that wound up in Havana.

Kastner sets the stage for the massacre itself, recalling the exploitive, racist culture in the islands of that era. And he lets Ali have his say.

“I am a revolutionary! I am not a criminal!”

Kastner maps the journey of Ronnie LaBeet, from St. Croix boy serving in Vietnam, radicalized by the atrocities he witnessed there,.

“I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t no American,” he recalls.

He came home, became a New York Black Panther, before making his way back to St. Croix, where he was a home island hoodlum, given to robbing tourists and hiding in the rainforest hills afterward.

Naturally, he’s on any short list local authorities whip up when they’re looking for suspects.

He denies having any role in the massacre, but when authorities — Federal marshals and FBI agents among them, drag him and other men accused of the massacre back to the crime scene for “intensive” interrogation, all bets are off.

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And after a circus of a trial, with leftist gadfly William Kunstler flying down to mount a “political crime” defense, he and the others were convicted. A dozen years in brutal Federal prisons, with no hope of hearing his voice heard or his claims of a sham trial and police misconduct heard, and Ali was ready to try anything. Being transported to a prison back home was, he says, his chance.

The movie creates a lovely arc for how we think of Ali, from monster to, “Well, maybe not.” But you’re allowed to think the filmmaker is naive, tilting his story toward those on Ali’s side, buttressing a case for his humanity and justifiable skyjacking.

Still, in editing the picture, he captures Ali in a whopper of a contradiction. He says if he’d been allowed to do his time in St. Croix, he never would have tried to hijack a plane, when he was on a plane, to St. Croix, to serve his remaining time when he took this action.

There are a couple of startling revelations in this 75 minute movie, but nothing on the order of “The Thin Blue Line” and “Making a Murderer,” where we get the suggestion that others might have done the crime.

That’s the Achilles heel of this still-compelling, eye-opening film, a determination to exonerate via coerced confessions without, as Ali himself dismisses, any notion that anybody else committed the murders.

“I’m supposed to be ‘The Fugitive’? Richard Kimble or some s—, looking for the real killers?” Quite right, that’s the state’s job.

But lacking anything like the suggestion of alternative perpetrators, “The Skyjacker’s Tale” is just a lot of self-serving talk from a disarmingly charming man who says he wasn’t given justice, and who escaped the justice he was given.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with photographs of graphic violence, profanity

Cast: Ishmael Muslim Ali, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Michael Ratner

Credits:Written and directed by Jamie Kastner. A Strand release.

Running time: 1:15

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Box Office: “Transformers 5,” a $65 million opening week bust?

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Nobody was gung-ho about digging into the Transformers toybox again. Not Michael Bay, not Mark Wahlberg or the few other folks who could be called recurring characters.

So let’s assume everybody got paid, and HOW, to concoct the worst movie of the summer of 2017.

Like “Cars 3,” the picture, “Transformers: The Last Night,” is opening a big, seemingly robust number one — $40 million for the weekend, $65 since Tuesday evening.

Of course, that’s far and away the worst opening for a Transformers movie. So Paramount gets one last bump to the bottom line from the Autobots and actors. They spent $217 to make it, as opposed to the $210 or so that went into “Transformers 4.”

And yet “The Last Knight” has been running in the $50 million range behind the performance of “Transformers 4,” which cleared $100 million on its opening weekend.

Terrible/Awful reviews aren’t helping. But even those review-proof folks showing up seem to know what to expect. I sat next to a kid, his earbuds in, more interested in his phone opening night, part of a whole family of pay-their-money/ignore the movie types.

So Paramount is still able to collect donations from idiots. That goes for the rest of the planet, too. It’s earned over $50 million in China alone,with over $100 million in the international BO kitty by Sunday. So maybe it isn’t “The Last” anything. Got to appease the Chinese.

“Wonder Woman” is still in second place, pushing “Cars 3” down the ladder. Disney/Pixar and Paramount took their shot at wringing more money out of past-peak franchises, but aren’t getting rich off the idea.

The latest and hopefully last “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie has earned $161 million, domestically.

International box office could keep that one alive, possibly even “Transformers,” but that’s not a sure thing. Thankfully.

eyez2“All Eyez on Me,” the long-planned Tupac Shakur bio pic, fell off the table its second weekend, an 80% plunge. It will not earn $50 million, when all is said and done.

“Mummy” won’t hit $100 million, domestically. “47 Meters Down” is holding audience, but won’t hit $40. Still a win, for a movie that came out on video first.

“Cars 3” succeeded in killing “Captain Underpants,” which was all it was designed to do — seemingly. “Captain” won’t hit $80, all in.

“The Big Sick,” in just a couple of theaters, is owning the per-screen average, besting “The Beguiled,” which opens wider next weekend, with “Beatriz at Dinner” not quite up to “Book of Henry” limited release numbers.

 

 

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Movie Review: “The Ornithologist” is tested by 40 Days in the Wilderness

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The symbolic becomes the literal in João Pedro Rodrigues’s “The Ornithologist,” a Biblical allegory set in the wilds of Portugal.

The title character (Paul Hamy) is a man of science, trained to study birds and their behavior.  He has an accident on a remote river, and is “saved” by two dotty Chinese pilgrims (Han Wen, Chan Suan). They’re lost, a long ways from the famed ancient pilgrimage trail that Saint James took to Spain’s Santiago de Compestela.

“Saint James has abandoned us!”

They communicate with the man they’ve pulled from the river and revived in English, the only language they all share in common. And the more they talk, the more irked, or at least alarmed, Fernando (Hamy) becomes.

“We’re cursed! We are surrounded by forest spirits! The Devil is here!”

He’s ungrateful enough to decline to help them find their way back to Spain, and dismissive of their superstitions — Christian and otherwise.

“There’s no such THING as the Devil!”

He shouldn’t be shocked when he wakes up, trussed up in a Chinese web of ropes, their prisoner. Because, apparently, they didn’t bring anything to nail him to a tree with.

Fernando makes his escape, only to start hearing the weird noises the women were complaining of, and then see the primitive pagan rituals of some oddball dress-up cult, or boys’ club.

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Rodrigues tests Fernando for what seem like 40 days and 40 nights, just like Jesus.

And then our hero meets Jesus himself — literally, a deaf-mute shepherd leading his flock with a dog and a whistle.

The writer-director of “O Fantasma” and “Two Drifters” tosses in a homosexual make-out session and an encounter with topless female stag hunters, a knife fight and every symbolic bird in the book. Like Terence Malick, he lets the camera share reveries in nature, and the film delights in showing us cranes, eagles and the Great Crested Grebe of Portugal, as well as scenes of its star, Hamy, naked.

Owls float into Fernando’s odyssey, harbingers of death in many cultures. And if the whole Christian allegory isn’t plain enough, an injured white dove makes its way to our pilgrim.

“The Ornithologist” is so stunningly strange and out of its time that this slow and deliberate film holds your attention, making you wonder what wonder or calamity will befall Fernando next, if he will “find his way” to Jesus, as the Chinese hikers speculate, or,  being a man of science, will simply kill God.

But no wagering on that outcome. Just pay attention and make the connections and marvel that decades removed from the allegorical Euro-cinema of the ’60s, Rodrigues has crafted a throwback movie, and found a way to challenge viewers with a superstitious tale over two thousand years old.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, with violence, nudity, profanity
Cast: Paul Hamy, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Xelo Cagiao
Credits: Written and directed by João Pedro Rodrigues. A Strand release.
Running time: 1:55

 

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“Han Solo” gets a dose of Opie

soloThere’s trouble on the stand-alone “Han Solo” prequel at Lucasfilms.

As in, cartoon directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “The LEGO Movie”) delivered a film that Lucasfilm isn’t happy with it. The all-important “tone” wasn’t right. Hell, where was that realization when “The Force Awakens” stayed in snooze mode.

Anyway, “Star Wars” veteran and “Big Chill/French Kiss” legend Lawrence Kasdan scripted “Han Solo” and he was having creative differences with the two. Were they going for something lighter? If so, bummer. A little levity would have awakened “Awakens.” I like Lord and Miller.

“Rogue One” is what every “Star Wars” movie should be shooting for, in terms of tone and approach to the universe. Gravitas, doom, with moments of wit and levity.

More Donnie Yen! More Forest Whitaker!

Anyway, Lord and Miller are out, and Ron Howard — pretty far removed from “Rush,” decades past “Apollo 13,” is stepping in. The “safe” choice, sure. And why not?

Among the Big Name directors still showing up on set, Howard’s a solid B+. And we were never going to see a Spielberg, Scorsese et al on board. Favreau would have been a good, safe choice, too.

But Howard and Lucas go waaaaaaaay back, to “American Graffiti,” to “Willow.”  They’re contemporaries, like Kasdan and Lucas. And Howard’s had an ongoing relationship with Lucasfilm, one of those extra sets of eyes George has relied on, over the decades, to get the “Star Wars” jobs done.

Howard will supervise FIVE WEEKS of reshoots and re-editing, “toning” up, as it were. He’ll get the credit if it clicks, and little of the blame if it fails. Win win!

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Movie Review: “Baby Driver” runs circles around other summer popcorn pictures

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You don’t see the “Baby Driver” practicing his craft, rehearsing for the getaways he’ll have to race through from bank jobs and armored car heists. He doesn’t have a hands-on interest in automobiles, which he can steer the wheels off of — instantly calculating drifts, handbrake-turns and relative rates of acceleration.

So let’s just call him a “driving savant.”

He can remember lengthy, detailed instructions about each caper despite listening to a vast range of music through his omni-present earbuds. Let’s just say he has Eidetic memory, or total recall. And really good focus.

“Baby Driver” doesn’t invite over-thinking. But as visceral, swaggering summer popcorn picture fun, it’s hard to beat. Impossible, as a matter of fact. Forget your comic books and sci-fi sequels. THIS is the movie of the summer.

Writer/director Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”) has cooked up a jaunty, jolting getaway driver movie, perfectly-cast, dazzling in its speed and fraught with violence. It doesn’t greatly alter or improve on other movies of this mini-genre — “Drive,” “The Transporter” and the granddaddy of them all, “The Driver” with Ryan O’Neal (Netlfix it).

But Wright throws three tasty hooks onto that main idea.

The driver, in this case, is a “kid.” Not young, like Ryan Gosling’s “Driver.” He’s called “Baby” by the hood (Kevin Spacey) who summons him for his various jobs.

Baby is a music nut. He collects iPods and loads them with everything from The Bellbottoms to Barry White, Lionel Richie to Queen, T-Rex and Simon & Garfunkel’s title tune — “Baby Driver.” The music isn’t just to put him in the mood and deliver a soundtrack for bone-rattling car chases through Atlanta. Baby has tinnitus and needs the music to drown out the ringing in his ears.

The reason Baby has tinnitus is a childhood trauma, one that left a few scars on his face, one that — logically — should make him fear cars and reckless driving. And how can hear anything — instructions, what have you, with those earbuds in? Oh. Right. He secretly tape records conversations, but not as “notes,” just to play around with clips of sound in creating beats and jams.

Sure, that’s insane, in that it can get him killed. But again, no over-thinking.

Ansel Elgort, the lanky/gawky and intensely likable kid from “The Fault in Our Stars,” makes an unsurprisingly passive Baby. There’s not a hint of macho about the guy, not a whit of Ryan Gosling testosterone. Baby pulls the car forward to avoid seeing what the robbers he’s chauffeuring around do to that armored car guard, head-bobbing to whatever jam he’s listening to, intentionally oblivious.

It takes all the Buckhead-via-Britain charms of Debora (Lily James of “Cinderella”) and her spot-on Southern waitress drawl to give Elgort’s Baby something no Elgort character has ever enjoyed on the screen — sex appeal.

baby3Master of menace Spacey is a no-brainer casting decision as Doc, the omnipotent employer of hoodlums to pull “jobs” and Baby to help those hoodlums escape.

Jamie Foxx brings an amusing psychosis to Bats, a pathological thief and amoral killer who gives pep talks in the car before leading his team into the bank or whatever.

“They got what’s rightly ours.”

baby1Jon Hamm is more of a surprise, giving a tightly-coiled mania to “Buddy,” drug-loving triggerman who only has eyes for the sexpot gun moll half his age (Eiza Gonzalez) who goes by the moniker “Darling.”

Wright adds Lanny Joon as a dopey Asian robber who confuses “Michael Myers” masks with “Mike Myers” masks, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers as another tattooed punk-for-hire, and singer-songwriter Paul Williams as an underground gun dealer to the mob.

All of them just seasoning for a lean, mean story about a kid wanting to escape the “blood money” business he’s trapped in, the girl who might join him in that dreamed-of dash west on I-20, and the murderous mob who don’t want to let him go.

The car stunts are almost entirely real, with little of the incessant digital manipulation one gets in such movies post-“Fast and Furious.” Elgort is a shockingly effective lead, and Wright renders the budding romance, his camera swirling around two would-be love-birds, invading their space and pushing them closer together, with disarming charm.

And if the picture turns darker and darker and the finale feels like an overdrawn cop-out, that’s small potatoes. “Baby Driver” delivers its genre story beats with verve, delivering a bracing thrill-ride of popcorn picture and a most-entertaining return-to-form for its writer-director, who scores tons of points for style, if not originality.

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MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and violence.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez

Credits: Written and directed by Edgar Wright. A Sony/Tristar release.

Running time: 1:53

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Today’s screening: “Hey Hey, we’re the Planet of the Apes!”

I haven’t kept the fact that this summer of sequels is just a-wearing me out. People asking, “What movie are you looking FORWARD to?” And I answer with any title that springs to mind that doesn’t have a number after it, or a colon.

I could tolerate “Pirates of the Caribbean,” because it got back to enough of what the first film had going for it, and promised — briefly — an end to this. But Johnny Depp’s broke, so, well…hell.

“Covenant” and “Transformers” and “Cars” and on and on. Ugh.

So I will be sitting, in all fairness to the film, expecting, nay DEMANDING, that “War for the Planet of the Apes” do something that distinguishes it from its CGI predecessors, AND its 1970s antecedents.

Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, here’s some fun that an Internet wit (Interwag) has cooked up.

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Daniel Day-Lewis “retires”

'Maggie's Plan' film premiere, New York, America - 05 May 2016I guess, in acting terms, 60 is the new 85.

Because Daniel Day-Lewis, just a couple of months past that milestone birthday, has announced he’s giving up a profession he seemingly mastered.

Acting will join a long list of many other professions, such as butchering (which he learned for “Gangs of New York,” for instance) that DDL took on, mastered and moved on from over the course of an Oscar winning/theater icon career that started when he was but a child of Britain’s academic/intellectual nobility (Dad Cecil DL was poet laureate).

His spokesperson announced the news to Variety.

Another Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will be Blood”) film will be his last, “Phantom Thread” — a period piece/drama set in the 1950s world of Euro-high fashion. It’s due out at Christmas. So, one more scene in a vintage Italian sports car (“Nine”), one more shot at one more Oscar, and that’s it?

Some people are mocking the decision, or at least paying tribute to his famously thorough reputation for preparation and staying in character all during a shoot, by suggesting that oh, he’s prepping to play an actor who announces his retirement from acting.

The wags.

I’ve interviewed him a few times, and he comes off as a serious man who delightfully refuses to take himself that seriously.

But what else has the man to prove? Like Streep, he commands Oscar-bait roles every time one in the appropriate age-range comes up. He gives, if we are to believe his myth, his all to each and every performance.

So unless the guy wants to Olivier/Hopkins/Kingsley himself with one great bit superhero movie paycheck, or more, why work for work’s sake?

I love Sir Ben, and to a lesser extent Sir Tony. But I can’t see them giving up greasepaint. They just work and work and work.

A lot of people do that, and it’s basically cultural brain-washing. If you’re not bored away from work, drained by the work itself and not really in need of the cash, why pile up more?

So he’s not Hopkins, Jimmy Buffett, Cher, KISS, et al. That’s worth admiring, not ridiculing. Living your life as if the acclaim, the distraction, the attention and the money is “never enough” is nothing to be proud of.

 

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Movie Review — “Transformers: The Last Night…er KNIGHT”

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

The summer of “ENOUGH already” continues at the cinema with the arrival of the fifth “Transformers” movie. The  cars are upgraded to AMGs, Astons and Lambos, and all those kids you’re tempted to take to it learn how funny using “shi-” is, in pretty much any situation.

“The Last Knight” is easily the worst installment in this endlessly awful series, probably the worst movie of the summer (“Cars 3,” you’re OFF the hook), a garbled action-and-edit-packed mess that bastardizes history and legend, defies coherence and proves that Anthony Hopkins will do anything for one last big, bad check.

The “satisfaction” of packing a mini “Big Lebowski” reunion — John Turturro, joined by the robot voices of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi — only makes you remember that Jeff Bridges has too much sense for this, and that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s the lucky one. He died before the temptation to take a payday picture could be floated his way.

Because this is Michael Bay’s “Inferno,” an action hack sentenced to the hell that these enterprises have become, addicted to the money when he might have, one day, redeemed himself with some violent, foul-mouthed buddy picture (“Pain & Gain” was as good as he will ever get).

The prologue makes the Knights of the Round Table a literal fact, embattled Britons “saved” when Arthur’s magician pal Merlin (an unrecognizable, but half-funny Stanley Tucci) summons a metallic dragon to fend off Saxon hordes.

The Transformers, with their XXXXL size, alien tech and willingness to “help,” have always been with us — crashing their ships, fiddling in Earth’s little affairs — like World War I.

Having Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager quote sci-fi icon Arthur C. Clarke — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — may be the funniest thing any of these movies have demanded of him.

Cade is a fugitive, wanted by the Decepticons, hunted by the TRF (Transformer Reaction Fo—oh never mind). He hides out in “alien contamination zones,” defending the Autobots from TRF’s “Kill’em all, let God sort’em out” ethos. That throws him in with the Transformer-loving potty-mouthed 14 year old-gadget guru Izabella (Isabel Moner).

And being hunted by Josh Duhamel and a bunch of actors whose names nobody can remember eventually runs them from the devastation of New Jersey to the vast junkyard of South Dakota, and on to Jolly Olde Brexitland, where Hopkins plays the last member of an order of knights sworn to keep the Secret History of the Transformers on Earth a secret.

Say what now? I mean, I get the Mongol Hordes reference, but since when were these transforming gadget-bots “secret?”

Laura Haddock inherits the push-up bra role, this time a historian and blood relative of the Order who must help a “chosen one” (Guess who that is?) use a talisman to track down the Staff of Merlin, actually an ancient Autobot weapon.

Optimus Prime goes home (to Cybertron, his planet) and goes rogue, thanks to indoctrination by a villain named Quintessa, as in “The Quintessence of Evil.”

And all the cute robots, including a C3PO knock-off butler-bot voiced by Jim Carter, no longer a butler at “Downton Abbey,” show up, fight and cuss each other out in robot trash talk, as Duhamel and his drone-and-Osprey-equipped TRF team shout “Come ON, let’s GO, ”  hurtling us from Namibia to China, South Dakota to the White Cliffs of Dover.

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Three credited screenwriters came up with graceful exposition — “You got my message — You brought everyone here.” — and zippy one-liners.

“It’s OK to be a kid, Lil’ J. Lo.” “A big gun makes a big man.

Hopkins vamps it up, and utters “Has my life been wasted?”

We’d never thought so, before now.

In all seriousness, this is barely-coherent, not-worth-a-brain-cell-of-analysis garbage. And if there’s a sixth movie in this toys-to-theaters fiasco of a franchise, it’s on your heads.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, Isabella Monerp
Credits: Directed by Michael Bay, written by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan. A Paramount.
Running time: 2:25

 

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Movie Review: Netflix’s “Nobody Speak” captures the super-rich’s war on a free press

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In the months since filmmaker Brian Knappenberger wrapped his documentary, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” a goon of a Montana millionaire tackled and assaulted a reporter for having the effrontery to ask him a question he didn’t like.

A West Virginia reporter was arrested for trying to question Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services director at a public event.

Both, to the universal derision and smirks of right wing talk show hosts, politicians and their thoughtless fans.

The Netflix documentary records the Gawker Media trial, a joke of a court case financed by an authoritarian, malevolent Pay Pal billionaire with a grudge, and the secret purchase of a critical newspaper by a Vegas  gambling mogul and GOP bankroller determined to silence his critics. It’s damning enough without adding on each latest right wing outrage against America’s watchdogs — the free and supposedly independent press.

But America is operating under new rules. The message, one participant in Knappenberg’s film suggests, is that a fact-averse class of oligarchs has decided “We are more powerful than the truth,” and the rabid lemmings who believe them. The oligarchs fear facts will upset the worldview they’ve been pushing, and their fans in the right wing media and those who only get their “news” that way buy into that fear.

Gawker Media was a rude and seemingly ruthless gossip, snark and  ridicule website group that mostly aggregated other reporters’ work, and did just enough reporting of their own to enrage silicon valley folks and others as the company earned a fortune “exposing hypocrites.” The late media critic David Carr of the New York Times described them as “the mean girls” of modern journalism.

British journalist Nick Denton and his minions gained their fame, and got into trouble, for pursuing vendettas.

You could see it all over their various platforms — Gawker, Jezebel, Valley Wag and Deadspin, among others. They hounded crackhead Toronto mayor Rob Ford, offering to pay for video of him breaking the law, sucking on a pipe. To this day, they never loose an opportunity to mock Gwyneth Paltrow, and various sites in the group developed odd fixations for low-level ESPN employees or former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s wife. Their Internet artillery often seemed — and seems — aimed at not just the powerful, but gnats.

When they got their hands on video of Hulk Hogan having sex with bottom-feeding Tampa radio broadcaster Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife — with Bubba apparently taping it and getting his jollies — they posted it.

And threats from Hogan’s lawyer couldn’t make them take it down. When a Federal court tossed out Hogan’s laughable lawsuit — the wrestler Hogan, aka Terry Bollea, has bragged about his sexual prowess and adventurism in the media, and the right-wing-friendly TMZ website had first reported on the sex tapes — they moved it to state court, where an agenda-pushing judge got the kangaroos hopping mad enough to ensure Gawker’s ultimate destruction.

Knappenberger’s film uses media critics (David Folkenflik of NPR among them), academics and fellow journalists, as well as some of the principals, to paint a portrait of the shifting and shifty nature of that trial. There was accidental blowback — Hogan’s real fear was of tape of him exchanging racist and homophobic slurs with his dirtbag buddy Bubba would get out. That got him fired from World Wrestling Entertainment. The judge prejudiced the jury in rather naked fashion. And Gawker screwed up, its editors coming off as smug, amoral punks, something the film soft-peddles.

But odd twists in the case made one and all wonder just what Hogan REALLY wanted, and who was paying the bills and calling the shots on his suit, which dropped one accusation in its pursuit of a $100 million judgment solely to ensure that Denton, A.J. Daulerio (the editor/reporter who posed the video) and Gawker were not covered by insurance in that judgment. They’d be bankrupted by it.

Enter the Silicon Valley billionaire and political pal of Donald Trump, Peter Thiel, the puppetmaster who paid the bills, pulled the strings and got his revenge. Thiel’s extreme politics — he’d make Ayn Rand blush — and deep-seeded grudge are discussed and exposed, as is his connection to the whole Trumpian anti-press zeitgeist.

Anybody who follows the media has formed an opinion of Denton (the bearded bloke pictured above), and it’s not generally a nice one. Petty, vindictive, something of a hypocrite himself when it came to his own company and employees, the nicest one could say of him was you wouldn’t want to cross him. The film scrubs his image in the effort to make this Brit a crusader for American journalism.

But Knappenberger, of “We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” and “Truth and Power,” sensed that wasn’t going to fly. So he adds on a much more cut-and-dried David assaulted by a rich Goliath case to the film’s final third. The sudden 2015 sale of the only newspaper of note in the gambling and arch-conservative political mecca Nevada was secretive, and quite disturbing to the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

speak4And being reporters who have covered the seedy world of Vegas deal brokering and backroom political payoffs, they found out who was actually their new owner. Sheldon Adelson, an aged, uber-rich casino mogul and big-time moneybags for GOP causes, now owned the newspaper that published a columnist, John L. Smith, Adelson had sued for a book that offhandedly mentioned Adelson as one of the “sharks” who now run Vegas.

You can guess the rest.

“Nobody Speak” is a little unbalanced, and top-heavy, thanks to the overwhelming focus on the more murky Gawker trial.

And its overall thesis of power-punishing-the-press, gets lost in a lot of other ideas. One of which posited by Leslie Savan of The Nation magazine, who argues that Hogan and Trump and their ilk are muddying the difference between truth — with real people like Terry Bollea and Donald Trump who can be held accountable for their lies — and “characters” they’re playing, whose “puffery” gives them a legal defense for being unaccountable.

It’s a lot to take in, and all of it distressing and depressing. Unless, of course, you aren’t fact-averse, and take no umbrage at being lied to — repeatedly — by people who think themselves above the law, beyond any nation’s reach, “traitors” only if you get mad enough to do something about them.

 

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, sexual subject matter

Cast: Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Spiers, John L. Smith, David Folkenflik

Credits:Written and directed by Brian Kndappenberger. A Netflix/First Look release.

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Writer/director Brett Haley on why Sam Elliott is “The Hero”

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Filmmaker Brett Haley was born and lived half his life in Key West and Pensacola, sleepy tourist/retirement towns in Florida.

So it’s natural that he has found a connection with a film audience that much of Hollywood ignores — filmgoers over 60. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was a post-retirement romance starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. And his latest, “The Hero,” is another showcase for Elliott aimed at an audience that, like the film’s titular character, grew up on Westerns.

“I don’t write for any specific demographic, because you’re not doing what’s coming natural to you,” he says. “I shoot from the gut, and the heart. But I sometimes get an idea of wanting to do something with a particular actor, and write with them in mind. I wanted to give Blythe and Sam a vehicle in the first film, and I wanted to create a showcase for Sam to show everyone what’s in him.”

All audiences want the same thing, and “people of a certain age,” he says, are no different. “They want a movie they connect with, with characters who they can identify with.”

And one thing Haley, 33, figured out with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is that the gravelly-voiced Texan with the “aw shucks” twinkle and epic mustache, has a huge following.

“We’d see it at screenings at festivals,” Haley says. “I’m just shocked nobody else figured that out.”

Well, maybe the Coen brothers, who had the good sense to park Elliott as the Old Cowpoke/Voice and Face of the West in “The Big Lebowski.” Whatever else he does, the actor really “ties” the film together, and that’s almost certain to lead his obituaries when he rides off into the sunset. Haley builds on that iconography, casting Elliott as a Western star reduced (like Elliott) to voice-over work in commercials, but proud of his past and the Hollywood that used to make Westerns as the ultimate expression of Americana.

Elliott, like Lee Hayden, his under-employed, on-his-last-legs-physically character in “The Hero,” seems like a man out of his time.

“He’s not exactly the character he plays — he just has a few things in common with him,” Haley says. “He does voice-over work, like Lee. He’s known for Westerns, like Lee. But Lee Hayden is a relic. He’s not cast any more. Sam? He’s got ‘The Ranch’ on Netflix,” and a recurring part on “Frank and Gracie” on the same streaming service. “It’s just that the sort of real man he’s played and represents doesn’t show up on screen. ‘Logan’ may be a comic book movie, but that’s a Western. It’s just that Hollywood doesn’t see that.”

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Attaching Elliott to the film made the rest of the casting easy. Haley made actress Katharine Ross, Elliott’s wife in real life, his ex-wife here.

“Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) is friends with Sam in real-life. Ask him to play Sam’s one-time co-star and pot dealer, and he was there. Laura Prepon (as an odd daddy-issues love interest) and Krysten (Ritter, who plays Lee’s estranged daughter) didn’t know Sam, but loved his screen image, his work, and jumped at the chance.”

“The Hero” has earned warmed reviews, with Ty Burr at the Boston Globe calling it “a welcome tribute to a lanky, taciturn presence” and Sara Stewart of The New York Post labeling Haley’s Elliott showcase “true cinematic Zen.”

Haley hopes the movie can re-start the cinematic argument about “what constitutes a real man, in the movies.” Elliott is, naturally, Haley’s paragon of this real man.

“Available emotionally, able to admit mistakes, tough, responsible and sensitive.”

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