A nobleman, a commoner and a soldier walk into a bar. There sits a property-owning, curly mopped brunette beauty. Which man does she choose to marry? Such is the premise of Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 romance novel; a 512-page amorous yarn, turned into a dramaturgical 107-page script, turned into a 119-minute film. In simplifying the story, good sense is tangled in expedited character arcs and though less plodding than many coattail and gown costume dramas, Far From the Madding Crowd is at best a handsomely photographed venture back in time and at worst a perfunctory, sloppily told bore.

As hot as an exposed ankle in 1870, Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) is a feminist champion amongst old-fashion cods. Her free-wheeling ways are as accented as Beast’s Belle, which we see manifested in her willingness to hop in the slop and give lambs a good spanking to get a move on. “My lord, but what about your dress?” When she shoots down marriage proposal numero dos, you can almost hear the townswomen tittering, “Can you believe she didn’t marry that man?” Titter, titter.


But let’s back up in time. Before Bathsheba becomes a certified landowner and town-wide hot topic, she was naught but a lowly farm girl, her only holdings being her education and her sharp wit. Neighbor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), upon retrieving her red scarf from the woods – Oh! Red! In June! How scandalous! – wastes little time in trying to secure a marriage. It’s your average “boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, boy’s dog chase his sheep off cliff, boy loses farm, girl inherits farm, boy works at farm” saga.

English costume romances such as these thrive on their performances and none here disappoint. Mulligan offers up some of her finest work – a nuanced and lively portrait of a woman ahead of her time. Her inner workings are like a skeleton watch; her eyebrows flock hither and thither with each dutifully charged enunciation; her faint smile is a beguiling jewel. And magical though her work may be, it doesn’t prove enough to camouflage the bigger issues at play.


Take for instance Bathsheba’s romance with Mr. Oak – who might I say looks confusingly like a hot Charlie Kelly. Schoenaerts displays fierce subtly in his quiet, complacent role as Mr. Oak and in his own right is excellent as well but his chemistry with Mulligan is cursory at best. Considering that the weight of the film rests squarely on our investment in Mr. Oak and  Bathsheba’s brewing romance, the fact that their entanglement is barely lukewarm makes everything else feel a touch soggy, soiled and businesslike. They have kind of a Luke ‘n’ Leia thing going on where you dread having to watch them kiss. For a romance, that’s a pretty huge problem.

Furthermore, they’re both kind of boring characters who like each other because the other one is equally boring. Everyone’s drinkin’ and dancin’ at the wedding? Best tend to heaps of hay!

No matter how fancifully dressed up it is – and believe me, from costumes to sets to cinematography, Far From the Madding Crowd is an appropriately distinguished visual feast – it cannot escape the Hollywood romance formula wherein we’re supposed to root for the centerpiece love story because they’re the sexy stars of the film and the sexy stars of the film are supposed to do it by the end. There’s certainly consolidation points earned for its free-spirited feminist lead – in addition to Mulligan’s apt performance – but that’s not enough of a cover job to disguise its disappointingly flat – and sometimes seriously head-scratching – narrative turns.


The most pronounced of which comes in the form of the character Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and his perplexing motivations. They prove particularly problematic in that his arc only makes sense if we regard him as a madman. His steadfast abandonment of former love Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) works in and of itself but not in the context of his later developments with Bathsheba. Relationships like this may thrive on the page with much more time and care dedicated to them but on the screen, they just don’t make much sense at all old boy. 

Vinterburg delivered a picture of staggering depth with The Hunt and unfortunately his vibrantly nuanced tendencies have all but disappeared here, like a children hiding beneath his mother’s dress. Though there’s much to like in Far From the Madding Crowd – especially Michael Sheen, props to Michael Sheen – there’s little to love.


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Kill the Messenger is a magic bullet meant to assassinate – or at least tarnish – the reputation of the CIA for their uber illegal association with Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Their anti-communist war effort was funded in part by *gulp* distributing crack cocaine to Central LA ghettos, a network Webb contends the CIA was complicit – or at least complacent – in facilitating.  And like the projectile from any effective firearm, the path it travels is straight and narrow. Lead Jeremy Renner is monstrous good as big-in-his-britches San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, an ambitious journalist who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong and ends up getting stung by the barbs of a well executed smear campaign, but director Michael Cuesta never lets the work truly take off. It’s a competent, A-to-Z biographical picture that misses the moments to really get in the head of a man pushed to the brink or elevate his tale into a thing of true artistry.

Cuestra spends the first half of the movie setting up Webb’s pending investigation and eventual damning story “Dark Alliance” that would win him the Bay Area Journalist of the Year Award, a celebration that lacked the fanfare he had once envisioned. Stumbling upon the trail without meaning to, Webb (Renner) is tipped off about a local drug kingpin with ties of the CIA. Upon digging into the shadowy association, Webb begins to connect dots that go deeper than he could have ever imagined and proposes that in order to wage an anti-Communist war that Congress had already voted against, Reagan and his inner circle conspired to fund the Nicaraguan Contras by knowingly allowing cocaine to be smuggled into the US and sold without penalty in underprivileged neighborhoods. According to Webb, this significantly worsened the crack cocaine problem that had become pandemic in African American communities in the 1980s.


Racing to find proof of this heinous allegations, Webb leaves behind wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and children to solidify sources in the thick of Central America. Not surprisingly, few officials are wont to rush forward and those that do aren’t necessarily in great standing (being drug dealers, slimy bankers or others involved in the black market lifestyle.) Upon publication of Webb’s record-setting article, outrage explodes across African American communities and general populations equally, until the spotlight is turned on Webb by a CIA scurrying to discredit everything about the man.

With a background in political slowburners like Homeland and Elementary and bloodlusters like Dexter and True Blood, Cuesta understands storytelling but has not adapted his style from the small screen to the big one perfectly. To get the bulk of the narrative onscreen, he’s simplified events done to the meat and potatoes version. We hit on each major point like SparkNotes, never really getting the time to dive into the intricacies that make everything so compelling. At just under two hours, it either feels too short or two long. An HBO miniseries would likely have been a better avenue. Without Renner’s captivating turn as Webb, the story would feel too much like a moving document; the cold hard facts of a national outrage turned media circus.


But in a time where the US has seemed as internally adversarial as ever (look at the recent outcry at Ferguson and prevailing Us vs. Them mindset of nationwide citizens and police forces), Cuesta’s telling of Webb’s story is worth remembering for the cold hard facts alone. Since his death – two gunshots to the head, deemed a suicide – Webb’s allegedly falsified charges against the CIA had been vindicated. While his controversial point ended up proven to be true, he wasn’t there to see his day of salvation. And this is the most important story of all: truth being met with brutality and the ease of which such can be covered up with the wave of a wand. Cuesta goes to show how the mere mention of conspiracy can sometimes be enough to transform an expert newsman into a theorist crackpot. That’s the tale here: man finds conspiracy, man validates conspiracy and man goes down in flames for it. It’s the equivalent of Loose Change confirmed ten years from now. Definitive proof that the moon landing was a hoax.

And yet for all the controversy Webb’s story whipped up, the end result is a man lying penniless in a hotel room with two bullets in his skull. Years later, official validation of Webb’s controversial story came and went like a summer breeze. The hive mind of Americana had moved onto a new scandal. Oval office blow jobs triumphed over one of the most damning government cover ups of all time. This is the story that Cuestra should have been telling, not something to leave until an end credits stinger.

A living reminder of our government’s readiness to desecrate an individual in order to escape ownership of past crimes, Kill the Messenger is a wake up call for a slacktivism-obsessed generation of American citizens. It’s a film about caged justice, about evil actually prevailing and the lengths to which our once great nation will go to validate each and every transgression of their past.


The picture this paints is not a pretty one. It’s one of deception distributed wholesale, of a blindly lead populace, of a mastermind behind the curtain pulling levers and blowing smoke to scare people into submission. Were the meek to inherit the Earth, we’d have a nation owed many inheritances. And the most frightening aspect of all is that the one behind the curtain is seemingly calling the shots unchecked. America the Great is as desperate, deranged and unpredictable as Oz. The fungus of corruption has infected her immune system. Nothing is left untarnished.

If she were a best friend, you’d send her kicking and screaming to a mental institution for delusions of granduer. If they were your employee, you’d fire them for flagrant misconduct. As a governing body that represents the will of 300 plus million people, truth, integrity and basic human values – the pillars upon which a nation should stand – have been relegated to the lowest wrung of the totem pole. The right to life, liberty and happiness comes with a big, blaring asterisk. The sad truth, when one man’s honest zeal is pitted against the reputation of one of the secret-coveting countries in the world, you better believe he’s going down in flames. This is the ugly picture that Kill the Messenger paints and the million discussions it will warrant afterwards. Though deceptively straightforward in its telling, it’s the aftermath of Michael Cuestra‘s film that should matter most.


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