Out in Theaters: DIGGING FOR FIRE

*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.

Displaying the kind of laid back candor that sums up the mumblecore founding member, Joe Swanberg revealed that once you have kids, “life is a clusterfuck.” And so is Digging For Fire. Kinda. A lesser effort in the aftermath of two eruptively sweet victories (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas), Digging for Fire takes on the humps and bumps of marriage and the battle of young parenthood with an enviable cast for any director. Read More


Out in Theaters: POLTERGEIST

When a film foregoes the press screening circuit, only to play for a slim number of us amidst a general public promo screening just two hours before it opens its doors to the rest of the movie-going community, you enter with an expectation of a product hauntingly bad. Take Hercules for example, which screened under similar circumstances last year before landing at number five on my worst movies of the year segment. Just one month later, As Above/So Below (which was also largely critically derided) proved this model wrong by delivering an edgy horror throwback that I simply adored. Again at the Thursday night 6 o’clock showing. So going into Poltergeist, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and with low critical ratings – as of writing this, it stands at a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes and 48 on Metacritic – the writing was on the wall, thusly establishing the low expectations that allowed me to sit back and let this somewhat cruise-controlled remake take me on an enjoyable – if not great – horror thrill ride. Read More


Joe Swanberg, Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt Talk DIGGING FOR FIRE


Joe Swanberg‘s got a Joe Swanberg way of making movies. Working with a cast of hot shot, big name, creme da la creme names though means Swanberg being, well, a little less Swanberg-y. Instead of just “going for it” with Digging for Fire, Swanberg penned his most complete script yet. About ten pages worth of it. But such is the Swanberg way. Have I said Swanberg enough yet?

Although we had some minor issues with Digging for Fire at its Sundance premiere, the mumblecore maestro nonetheless managed to sink his independent teeth into some interesting territory with a stunning barrage of talent, including Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Sam Elliot, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina and a glorified cameo from Jenny Slate. Swanberg, Johnson and DeWitt took to the stage to explore the meaning of Digging for Fire and to illuminate the process of Swanberg filmmaking, from making kids cry to spontaneously hanging dong. Read More


Sundance Review: DIGGING FOR FIRE


Displaying the kind of laid back candor that sums up the mumblecore founding member, Joe Swanberg revealed that once you have kids, “life is a clusterfuck.” And so is Digging For Fire. Kinda. A lesser effort in the aftermath of two eruptively sweet victories (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas), Digging for Fire takes on the humps and bumps of marriage and the battle of young parenthood with an enviable cast for any director.


Swanberg has never really made anything bad (though mediocre wouldn’t be a huge stretch with this one) but with all the talent gathered, Swanberg’s narrative wanderlust  oses focus, leaving Digging for Fire feeling the strain of Swanberg’s scriptless tendencies. According to the director, Digging for Fire had a more complete, “bigger” script than any of his other projects – mostly because he had so much talent involved and needed to schedule like a really Hollywood dog. In true Swanberg fashion, his final treatment was about ten pages. Famous for crafting just the barebones of a story before shooting, the mumblecore man demands his actors to make choices once the camera are rolling to get from an established Point A to an established Point B. All that middle ground is fair game for improvisation.

At times, his distinctive make of cinematic vagrancy allows for some great unscripted scenes – Jake Johnson‘s hindmost digging moment, Chris Messina‘s unscripted pool nudity, Sam Rockwell doing any and every thing, Swanberg’s adorable baby boy doing any and every thing – but also opens the door for some less compelling episodes – Rosemarie DeWitt‘s beachside interlude with Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson‘s casual disppearance from the action, unsatisfying relationship arcs.


Digging For Fire opens with a familiar Swanberg platitude; stressed out adults talk about stressed out adult problems; strong women trying to gain the reins on their less-than-model husband; secret undertones of dreaming about the highlife of the young freewheeler. Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) have just arrived at a client of Lee’s to housesit their upper-decker mansion and get a vacation from their less-than-model home. In between bouts of nagging about preschools and taxes, Tim discovers a rusty gun and a human bone buried in the backyard (a story idea culled straight from an odd incident in Johnson’s life.)

When the couple soon after separate for a weekend, each decide to pursue a side of themselves that has seemed to snuff out in the face of marriage. After dumping their kid with Grandma and PopPop (Sam Elliot), Lee meets up with an old friend (Melanie Lynskey) to air out their marital snafus. Obsessed with the mystery of the gun and the rusty bone, Tim calls together a posse of friends old and new to put shovels to dirt over beers and a few lines of cocaine.

Each half of the couple contents with the ghost of their old selves, opening doors that uncover new demons. Problem is, those doors sometimes seem as random as briefcases on Let’s Make a Deal. Many of Swanberg’s characters work in their own right but don’t add enough to the makeup of the final product to legitimize all their erratic appearances. Although Swanberg seems to be dipping his toes in more mature, less jejune waters, he’s able to maintain his very distinctive voice and worldview. If only he could have equally inserted the tangy sharpness and sweet comedy of his last films in this creation by man at crossroads.


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Sorry Jason Reitman, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We had a good run but, I think it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Though Men, Women and Children is a marked improvement over Reitman’s nearly horrendous Labor Day, it still misses the mark by a long shot, offering a muddled, obvious, sentimental mess trying to pass as smartphone generation gospel. The film’s central thesis is as convoluted as a Reddit comments section, as insincere as an emoticon apology. Reitman’s throughline that “technology bites…or does it?” is set up with the cold precision of a Mac Store. The section on why video games are bad is over here, in the front we have scummy chatrooms, the dangers of technophobia is jammed back there and right this way is the destructive power of internet speed-dating. It’s a Tinder of hot topic issues; a mosaic of D.A.R.E. videos from middle school health class. Through a girth of over-sharing, Reitman steeps the film too deep in melodramatic strife and winds up imparting a cold, stiff, impotent feeling. Like grandpa when he’s taken far too much Viagra.

The film introduces us to not just one, two, or four main protagonists but a heaping ten of them. But before we even get to any of these men, women and children struggling within their mortal coils, Reitman introduces us to a character that will have a significantly larger role than you’d ever expect. That character is a satellite voiced by the wonderfully British Emma Thompson. I guess she isn’t technically speaking actually the satellite – nor is the satellite necessarily anthropomorphized – but every time we see the thing rocketing to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – something we’re supposed to believe is significant but never is – we hear her voice and vice versa. Thompson has a few zingers and crude observations that cull early laughs but the intermittent returns to said satellite is a consummate representation of the film at large. It’s odd, ill-fitting and just doesn’t work.
Ansel Egort
is one of Reitman’s many targets. He’s coping with the fact that his mom abandoned him. He just quit the football team because he’s a teenager and life is pointless because a YouTube video called “Tiny Blue Dot” says so. Because all teenagers prescribe to YouTube philosophy. Now he spends his days playing League or Legends or World of Warcraft or whatever MMO was currently popular when Reitman was filming this. Not to imply that Reitman is actually tapped into what teenagers do and don’t think is cool. I wouldn’t dare suggest that. At school, Ansel’s friends have not only abandoned him but have turned to harassing and outright bullying him. All for tapping out of the varsity pigskin squad. As milk cartoons strike him down, he’s a statue, taking it on the chin like some self-imilkating monk. With him alone, Reitman deals with abandonment issues, bullying, teenage dating and even suicide. Had the princely-named Ansel and his trials and tribulations been the sole subject matter of Men, Women and Children, we could actually be convinced to care. As is, he’s just another brick in a wall of “woe is me”.

Spontaneous abortion is yet another. Anorexia another. Cheating on your spouse just one more. BDSM porn addictions? Check. Teenage impotence? Check. Underage maybe-pornography? Double check. Overbearing, technophobe mothers are an obvious shoe in for Reitman’s catalog of problems. But I know what you’re thinking. What about a woman pimping out her own teenage daughter to online yucksters? Yup, that’s in the mix too. It’s like Reitman fingered through the DSM and earmarked every other page. Then he went Urban Dictionary and yanked some of the most common entries. Finally he made a Facebook poll of what the biggest issues facing people in 2014 were and shoehorned the top ten responses into one bloated, junky, blood-and-thunder diatribe. The product resembles spending two hours on Chat Roulette. The statement, little more than a bunch of obscured dicks in your face.

The trouble is, there really is a lot of really good acting going on within its midst. It’s a frustratingly similar case to Labor Day. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin weren’t bad so much as they were just trapped in an awful script, working for a director than had never been anything but competent. Men, Women and Children suffers an identical blow. The actors have shown up ready to put in the work but the script lets them down at every turn. Save for (miraculously) Adam Sandler, the sole survivor of Reitman’s mushy hand and the only character whose arc feels genuine and unsentimental. The only explanation for the fierce dichotomy of talent and production is that those Hollywood folk still haven’t gotten the memo to jump ship on Reitman. Accordingly, he’s still got a designer cast to work with and they give it their all.


Even though I took issue with the trumped up dramatics of his character, Egort’s performance is airtight; frothing with pathos and interspersed with moments of true joy. Jennifer Garner excels as a dictatorial mother who safeguards each and every internet interaction for daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s easy to hate, though a bit hack-i-ly written, but Garner helps flesh her into an actual person rather than the one-dimensional character she’s sculpted as. As a villain, she works but only ironically and that’s still only because of the depth of Garner’s skill.

Another cast stand out is Dean Norris, father to Ansel and new boyfriend to the washed-up but nonetheless fashionable Judy Greer (the mom pimper). Norris was always a dark horse on Breaking Bad (side note: his garage confrontation with Walt alone should have earned him an Emmy nomination. COME ON!) and he unleashes much of the same macho man with a mushy inside energy here. That guys eyes vibrate when he’s worked up like no one else’s. And those jowls. Whoa mama.


Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are as divided in their marriage as anal beads and bounce off each other just as much. Their romance is as snuffed out by the forces of the world as a dog queefing in the wind. Whenever sex needs to be scheduled (or, ugh, rescheduled) you should probably just buy matching his and hers FleshLights. As DeWitt and Sandlers sexual absentia mounts, they each turn to online lovers. Her via Ashley Madison – the go-to cheat on your hubby website (side note: I wonder if they paid a sponsorship for their inclusion)- him with a high class escort. And when I say high class, I mean $800 an hour high class. The only real bit of emotional honesty comes from Sandler’s awkward interaction with said hooker and how he ultimately decides to deal with his and his wife’s infidelity. But, as has come to be expected of a Reitman film, that emotional honesty is few and far between.

At its heart, Men, Women and Children is rochambeau. Not the French general, the nut kicking contest. With so many potentially nerve-striking issues on display, Reitman has money on the fact that at least one will get ya where it hurts. And he does. A few scenes legitimately sting. The duteously great acting makes this feat possible. This doesn’t however make Men, Women and Children “good” by any means. It’s just a statistical fact that if you’re blasting a shotgun blindfolded, you’re bound to hit something eventually. Can we have the old Jason Reitman back now?


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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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