Two brand-new releases, a nearly-a-century old Joan Crawford flick, and seven others get added to Quill’s epic, ongoing ranked list of journalism movies. Alas, none here rank very high.
To see where our critics panel placed them, you can find the entire list here.
Freelance (2023). It seems rude to have released “Freelance” to theaters before the scent of sage burned to blast bad juju from auditoriums showing “Expand4bles” had cleared. But at least this one has better visual effects … and a journalism angle! John Cena plays a former Special Forces soldier tasked to protect disgraced reporter Claire Wellington (Alison Brie) on a trip to interview a notoriously tight-lipped and iron-fisted South American leader. A one-time winner of the International Journalists and Editors Award — tough statue to get, that very real-sounding award! — Claire has now resorted to celebrity man-cave interviews on a website called Infamous Daily. (Come to think of it, Infamous Daily might be kind of a fun reporter name.) Anyway, Claire thinks the interview will be a ticket back to the big time. Instead, it puts her in the middle of a coup from which only Cena can save her. “Freelance” plays out like a fake movie within a movie that manifested into reality as a tax-shelter scheme for a bunch of fat-cat dolts with no better plan to pay their pipers less. It’s awful, but at least Cena and Brie film their “bold moments of guerrilla journalism” in landscape, which will give those editors at Infamous Daily more options. (NR)
The Good Mother (2023). With an Oscar-winning actress, a murder plot and working-class ennui in a blue-collar town, “The Good Mother” is clearly courting those consumed by HBO’s acclaimed “Mare of Easttown.” (Just don’t confuse this with the 1988 Diane Keaton film.) Marissa Bennings (Hilary Swank) is a fictional journalist at the real-world Albany Times Union whose youngest son, estranged and drug-addicted, is found murdered. Marissa then applies her skills more toward interrogation than investigation of who did it, and trains them on herself as a manner in which to process her grief: “Maybe if I write it,” she says, “I’ll know.” Swank delivers assured and authentic notes of anxiety, the cinematography is appropriately atmospheric, and there is enough winking state-of-the-newsroom humor from Marissa’s editor (the eternally reliable Norm Lewis) about the pursuit of clickable content; “you barely know what the internet does,” he tells Marissa. “The Good Mother” also considers the hidden opportunity costs of chasing that goal of digital journalism, creating a connection between a crumbling infrastructure of information gathering and the well-being of a city’s people. Ultimately, though, the film must sell itself on whodunnitry — collapsing those complexities into the sort of resolution you’ve seen quite often and with an ambiguous final moment that suits neither the story nor Swank’s solid performance. (NR)
Perfect (1985). The team behind “Urban Cowboy” (including co-writer and journalist Aaron Latham) attempts a similar feat of cultural anthropology with John Travolta in tow. Here, he plays Adam Lawrence, a Rolling Stone reporter who finds love with a fitness instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) and journalistic disillusionment while (rather interminably) researching and reporting the 1980s health club craze. It’s surprising that Stone founder Jann Wenner loaned his publication’s name to a film that paints their practices so poorly, doubly so that Wenner essentially plays himself, and triply so for how padded “Perfect” is by extraneous exercise footage (including, yes, an end-credits shot of Wenner in the gym). This DOA romantic drama also delivered the kill shot to Travolta’s flagging career momentum, which didn’t recover until nearly a decade later with “Pulp Fiction.” So drippy here that he can’t even meet Curtis a quarter of the way on chemistry, Travolta fares no better after Adam becomes a First Amendment poster child in a haphazardly handled final act. Turns out “Perfect’s” lone cultural legacy is that well-memed GIF of Travolta thrusting his pelvis in a precariously perched pair of junk-hugging jockeys. (NR)
Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). Rich kids lose their family fortune (and their father) when the stock market crashes in 1929. The sister, Bonnie (Joan Crawford), gets a real job in the predominantly male world of news reporting. Meanwhile, her brother, Rodney (William Bakewell) immediately latches onto a mobster played by Clark Gable, which leads to a litany of crimes and murders … that Bonnie must investigate. This pre-Code tale features such scandalous material as coed parties and clothed night-swimming. Crawford is the best part of the story, with plenty of close-ups that give her the full frame and allow her to tell the increasingly anguished story solely through her expressions. An enjoyable Great Depression-era tale. (ED)
Alien Seed (1989). Move over, “Spotlight:” Here’s an even more incendiary tale of investigative journalism and institutional corruption. When Mary (Shellie Block) is inexplicably impregnated by an alien lifeform, no one will believe her … except for daring and roguish newspaper reporter Dr. Stone (Erik Estrada). In this world, reporters have the same level of combat training and espionage skills as James Bond, albeit without even a fraction of the budget. For a movie called “Alien Seed,” there’s very little alien action but plenty of no-budget car chases, clumsy shootouts, blood squibs, government spooks and a bizarre amount of erotic dancers. It’s a low-rent curio that often feels like you’re watching a pornographic parody of “The X-Files” on a scrambled channel. (MR)
He Said, She Said (1991). There’s a moment on this film’s titular man-versus-woman TV debate show in which Lorie Bryer (Elizabeth Perkins) throws a coffee cup at co-host Dan Hanson (Kevin Bacon). But by now we’ve seen far worse. Just three years after the film’s release, NFL quarterback Jim Everett flipped a table on sports host Jim Rome’s talk show. And then there’s that slap during the Academy Awards. While it’s charming to watch this film foreshadow TV’s deep dive into sensationalism, it’s tiresome to see it offer the same shopworn take on the differences between men and women, especially given its novel directorial approach toward shifting perspectives. (Creative and romantic couple Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver respectively directed the separate male and female sides of the film’s story.) In Dan’s retelling of his romance with Lorie, he is at once sleazy and smooth, selfish and supportive. She plays it cool but ultimately falls for him. In Lorie’s version, though, she is oddly desperate and jealous, and she puts up with Dan’s selfishness and stupidity over and over again. So, sadly, in both accounts, the archetypal piggish newsman comes out on top. That might have been fun to watch in 1991, but now it’s depressing. (SW)
College Confidential (1960). In the midst of a trial about his student sex survey, college sociology professor Steve McInter asks scribbling reporters why they are “so determined to find dirt.” Of course, his question is targeted more toward the townspeople who attracted the media’s attention. This moment from a 1960 film wouldn’t be out of place today, especially in light of recent international news about an Indiana library censoring material concerning teen sex. However, most of “College Confidential” is hilariously dated, with characters clutching their pearls like the comically sheltered citizens of “Pleasantville.” The screenplay struggles to balance satire and sincerity, and the third act feels far too heavy given the breezy tone of earlier portions. But as Professor McInter, Steve Allen keeps “College Confidential” grounded and engaging. And as the New York Times reporter hot on his trail, Jayne Meadows stirs up suspense about whether he will be “executed in print.” (SW)
Ratatouille (2007). The secondary antagonist of “Ratatouille,” Pixar’s tale of a culinarily inclined rat named Remy, is Anton Ego (voiced by the late Peter O’Toole). Ego is a well-respected restaurant critic who knows his profession well enough to call out bad establishments and poor work. His negative marks indirectly cause the death of Remy’s icon (based on a real-life incident of French chef Bernard Loiseau apparently dying by suicide after the toll of bad reviews). Despite his curmudgeonly, critical view, Ego takes his job as a journalist seriously; a journalist, however, cannot control the world’s response to their work. This may seem like a contrarian take on one of Pixar’s most iconic films. But viewing the film from a journalist’s perspective makes it hard to be sympathetic to the rat sullying everyone’s food … even if Ego himself loves it in the end. (ED)
Stars at Noon (2022). Director Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” — adapted from a novel of the same name by Denis Johnson — is a moody, sensual and deeply cynical portrait of young reporter Trish (Margaret Qualley), who’s stranded in Nicaragua. The country’s upcoming election continues to get delayed, and judging by the ominous presence of state police walking around with machine guns, the nation seems to be on the verge of a fascist takeover. Trish has spent the past several months covering political killings to little interest from her United States employers, and now she’s resorting to sex work to kill time and make some extra cash. Denis’ movie isn’t interested in saying much about journalism, politics or even sex (which Trish has a lot of when she meets a shady British businessman played by Joe Alwyn). Instead, it revels in the moodiness and hopelessness that runs through these characters. For those willing to get on its wavelength, “Stars at Noon” is an intoxicating trip to nowhere. (MR)
While the City Sleeps (1958). When a librarian is killed and a lipstick message left behind, the head of Kyne News Service calls it “just another murder.” The wire service is one of three spears in a New York media empire alongside a local paper and a TV station. “I suggest the life of a human being is not beneath your consideration,” the empire’s bedridden namesake snaps back … before excitedly shouting “I want every woman scared silly every time she puts (lipstick) on. Call this baby the Lipstick Killer! Smack across the front page!” A race to identify the killer becomes the impetus of a power struggle among respective editors after the old man croaks and the torch passes to his oafish son (Vincent Price), who loves watching the men who find him foolish still vie for the title of hand of the king. Austrian “Master of Darkness” Fritz Lang leaves behind the expressionistic expanse of earlier work and the pitilessness noir of “The Big Heat” for a film that, in its best moments, finds competitors revealing intimate and innermost fears and secrets a la “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Lang’s framing of people in places of power also emphasizes the dizzying speed with which they rise, fall or simply burrow deeper into the building’s basement bar. Too bad that pulsing, personal urgency leeches as the narrative loses itself in two separate love triangles and a murderer hunt that feels like “Zodiac” with a few chases and dime-store psychoanalysis tossed in. What starts as jolt-awake cynicism akin to the era’s “Ace in the Hole, A Face in the Crowd” and “Sweet Smell of Success” ends with a yawn. (NR)