Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Welcome To New York": A Fascinating Look Inside The Mind Of A Rapist

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sometimes a film comes along that is intriguing precisely because of the controversy that surrounds it.  Welcome To New York is a work of fiction, but it skews very close to real life events, with obvious representation of a notable French politician as a rapist and potential sociopath.  Though the character of Devereaux is not ever claimed to be a fictional equivalent of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the supposed similarities to a scandal involving the rape of a hotel maid were close enough to prompt Straus-Kahn to threaten a lawsuit for slander, all but halting the film’s theatrical distribution.  And now here we have the home video release, cut down by producers to an R rating from the original NC-17 cut, a move that has prompted a lawsuit all its own.

But the real world controversy surrounding a film’s content should not be the judge of the film’s intrinsic quality.  What Welcome To New York succeeds at is providing an intense character study, whether that character is representative of a real figure or not.  Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu) is a disgusting human being who seems to only find solace in his ever-continuous pursuit of sex.  The monogamously married politician cannot seem to keep his hands off women, and sex is obviously always at the forefront of his thoughts.  However, when Devereaux sexually assaults a hotel maid, he is arrested and held for trial, though Devereaux can’t for the life of him figure out what it was he did wrong.

For a film that focuses so heavily on sex, it is quite astounding that the director so strongly resisted the urge to portray any intercourse as arousing.  Devereaux’s lust is not one of hedonism, but of pure compulsion, as he grunts and moans his way to a brief and inconsequential climax every time he seduces (or hires) a woman to his bed.  And yet, he can never seem to grasp the fact that the women he has sex with are people, with thoughts and feelings beyond being a repository for his semen.  This is why he has such a hard time grasping how he could be arrested for forcing a woman to give him a blow job; he was only feeding his compulsion, and that excuses him of any wrongdoing even when the focus of his sexual attentions was unwilling.  It’s a fascinating look into the mind of a rapist and how I’m sure many other sexual predators feel about their actions.

However, the film is not perfect, and I must wonder how much of that is based on the re-edits made to bring the film down to an R rating.  The sex scenes are blatantly shortened, using a lazy fade effect that seems designed for efficiency rather than artistic integrity.  Furthermore, as interesting as it is to watch Devereaux bewilderedly go through the booking process for a crime he doesn’t understand, the time spent in police custody drags on to the point of becoming dull, a move that might have been due to a need to extend the film after the deletion of the sex scenes.  The film ultimately feels unbalanced, and I truly don’t know where to allocate the blame for that.

Yet, despite that issue, Welcome To New York is a fascinating film that provides insight into the kind of mind that many don’t understand.  Rapists are often demonized as just being depraved individuals, but rarely do we delve into their psyche to try and understand why they behave as they do.  Devereaux’s actions are not excused by his compulsion, but understanding his compulsion leads us to understand him better, and understanding is how we as a society can combat rape as a chronic issue.  This is a work of fiction that, whether based on reality or not, is one that reflects real world issues, and that alone makes it worth a look.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

"Citizenfour": The Documentary That Changed The World

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

You should disabuse any notion that Citizenfour is just a film.  It is more than that.  It is impossible to divorce the global sociopolitical impact of the events this documentary depicts and the impact of the film itself, because in many respects they are one and the same.  Ten months ago, when this film was first screened, journalists reported on the film’s final moments as shocking information was revealed that had not been divulged prior to that film’s release.  This mere “movie” is a big fucking deal.

If you are unaware of the controversy surrounding the leaks provided by NSA agent Edward Snowden, you have either been living under a rock and off the grid, or you have been willfully and blissfully ignorant of world events in the past two years.  Snowden is responsible for exposing NSA programs that tracked the communications activities of millions of people worldwide, including American citizens on American soil.  Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was among the first that Snowden (at the time using the alias “Citizenfour”) contacted with leads as to the immensity of the government’s activities, and so Poitras found herself an integral part of a massive historical event.

Such access is any documentarian’s wet dream, and yet, much like Snowden himself, Poitras does a commendable job of keeping herself out of the limelight as much as possible.  As Snowden himself says many times across multiple interviews, the focus should not be upon him or his personality, but should be on the programs he has exposed.  Poitras only portrays her communications with Snowden as are necessary to tell his story, and that level of restraint in light of such world-changing circumstances is entirely commendable.

Despite that, though, Poitras missteps in her insistence on focusing on Snowden as a person, rather than just as a vehicle to expose government injustice.  For sure, she spends plenty of time on the information that Snowden leaked to the world and on the justified paranoias that Snowden feels in his insistence on disconnecting phones and hiding computer monitors from potential prying eyes.  However, despite Snowden’s insistence to the contrary, she spends time on the man behind the information, showing the mundanities of his existence in a Hong Kong hotel room and providing information on his personal life.  It is minimal to be sure, and it does admittedly add a human element to what is otherwise a macroscale story, but it also feels disingenuous to the intent Snowden had in minimizing his celebrity to the greatest degree possible.

That said, Citizenfour should be on everyone’s required viewing list.  If you haven’t been following the news in the past two years, this film simultaneously acts as a primer and a foreshadowing of things to come.  It is almost a year old now, but it is still relevant at the time of its home video release and likely will be for many years to come as the true extent of the NSA’s invasions into our private lives come more into focus.  Watch this film.  You will never look at how you communicate the same way ever again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Two Days, One Night": The Little-Seen Oscar Nominee

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It’s rather unfortunate that it took me this long to see Two Days, One Night.  Marion Cotillard was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars last year for her role in this film, but the extremely limited American theatrical release and the obviously delayed home video release means that many people will not likely see this film, especially because Cotillard did not end up taking home the prize.  And yet, this film deserves to be seen, as it is one of the most heartbreaking films to come out of yesteryear, and it is very effective at pulling at those ever important heartstrings.

Sandra Bya (Cotillard) is a factory worker as a solar panel plant who had a nervous breakdown and was forced to take time off of work.  Just as she is about to return to the job, the management decides that they don’t want her anymore, seeing as the plant has run just fine without her.  But rather than dismiss her outright, the management gives her co-workers a choice: vote to keep their year-end bonuses, or let their bonuses go toward paying Sandra’s salary.  The vote to keep Sandra fails by a wide margin, but due to apparent pressure from a vindictive foreman, Sandra convinces the management to conduct a new, secret ballot after the weekend.  Now it is Sandra’s task to visit each of her co-workers and ask them to stand beside her and help her keep her job.

The set-up for this film is, in a word, genius.  Watching Sandra go from co-worker to co-worker, figurative hat in hand, and ask for them to help her keep her job is difficult to watch.  Her family will seriously struggle to make ends meet without her job, but so many of her co-workers are also relying on their bonuses.  Each of them has their own struggles that become apparent in the snapshots of their lives we see through Sandra’s visits, and to give up their bonus would be a hardship that only some seem to be able to realistically do.  None of these blue collar workers are at fault for the circumstance; it is the management that is the real villain, and none of them are empowered enough to fight back against it.

What really brings the film to greatness, though, is Cotillard’s stellar performance.  Sandra is a woman who has just come out of a period of extreme mental instability, and just as she is feeling recovered enough to start being a productive human being again, this tragedy befalls her.  Cotillard gives this role her all, as she pops Xanax before every encounter, is demure and embarrassed to ask for what she perceives as pity and charity, and feels guilty for putting her co-workers in such a strained and tenuous position.  The perpetual brink of relapse into depressive catatonia is ever present, and Cotillard truly demonstrates her skills as one of the best actresses working today.

Two Days, One Night is a film that many casual award season spectators have likely already forgotten about, and they may never bother to see it as a result.  But a film does not stop being excellent once the Oscar buzz dies down.  This is a fantastic piece of incredibly human and relatable filmmaking, and it would be a shame to miss out on it.

Do you think that Marion Cotillard is one of the best actresses working today?  It’s clear that I do.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"God Help The Girl": Musical Style Over Textual Substance

Now Available on DVD

If you are at all familiar with the musical works of Belle and Sebastian, then you likely realize that frontman Stuart Murdoch is a hipster’s hipster.  And now, based on his solo album of the same name, he has written and directed God Help The Girl, a deliberate homage to the experimental films of the 1960s and the pop musicals of the era.  The result is equal parts amateur and inspired, uneven and energetic, inherently flawed yet enjoyable all the same.

This is the story of Eve, the eponymous girl who loves music so much that she lets her life fall into disrepair and ruin, letting depression overtake her as she neglects her body and self-care.  Against the advice of her therapist, she leaves her care facility to shack up with James, a wannabe musician who gives music lessons on the side.  Along with Cassie, one of his students, the trio decide to form a band, with Eve as the frontwoman and lead songwriter.  Meanwhile, though, Eve’s mental health issues are ever lurking in the background.

Now, what’s really intriguing about this film is that it is very unapologetically about the music first, and the plot second.  Characters will burst into song and play instruments for seemingly no reason at all other than to provide a few minutes of music video, simply shot with minimal effects of the variety that one would have expected in Hard Day’s Night, this film’s obvious chief inspiration.  Eve often looks directly into the camera as her haunting melodies pour from her lips, intentionally breaking the illusion of characters in a story in order to communicate directly to the viewer.  This is very reminiscent of French New Wave techniques that pushed the boundaries of cinema in the 1960s, and it’s kinda neat to see them used here.

However, the main problem is that Murdoch’s fascination with technique and music leaves his story and characters in a bit of a creative rut.  To draw another Beatles-inspired parallel, God Help The Girl has a lot of the same problems as Across The Universe, letting the music dictate how the mood and plot should go with little regard for story arc or tonal consistency.  It’s often easy to be confused about what is happening in a particular scene, why it is happening, or how it fits into the greater narrative, often because there is no point other than to see the song come to life.  It’s a film that pretends to be deeper than it actually is, with visual gags juxtaposed with deadly serious moments, and no natural build-up in between.

Still, I feel that looking for anything more than an audio-visual experience is asking a bit much from God Help The Girl.  This is, after all, a film adaptation of a musical album, so of course the above-mentioned flaws were going to be pervasive if the integrity of the music was going to be kept intact.  For what it is, I enjoyed this film, and I’ll likely pick up the album that was its source material.  Give this film a shot and see if you feel the same.

Has there ever been a happy medium between adapting music to the screen and having solid story and characters?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)": A Woefully Dull Anachronism

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It feels a little bit strange to have an adaptation of classic romance novel Far From The Madding Crowd be made for modern audiences considering how far gender politics have come since the Victorian era.  Ostensibly a film about a woman trying to decide between three potential suitors and ultimately choosing the one who has acted as a companion to her for many years, through a modern progressive lens this seems to be the tale of a man who got rejected by a woman but chose to stick around as she moved from relationship to relationship, chilling in the friend zone while he waits for her to make the “right” choice.  Sure, there’s something to be said about this story being from a certain era and one must take it as such, but a film adaptation of such a work is made for a modern audience, and those thematic issues have only become more obvious in the intervening 140 years.

However, that being said, this is the type of film that will draw fans of the book regardless of my criticisms of the story itself.  No, this is the type of film where people go to see good acting and pretty costumes, and, like any good BBC production (which co-produced with Fox Searchlight), Madding Crowd delivers.  Carrey Mulligan steals the show as Bathsheba Everdeen, as she certainly knows how to handle a close-up whether she’s teary-eyed, determined, or attempting to keep her emotions in check.  The rest of the cast fares well too, with the notable exception of Tom Sturridge as suitor Frank Troy.  Sturridge gives Frank such a flat affect that it’s hard to tell whether this was an attempt at making the abusing character more menacing or just laziness on Sturridge’s part.  Either way, it doesn’t work.

Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t work for one main reason: it doesn’t really try to.  Like I said, the acting is good and the costuming is elegant, but the whole film feels like it was shot with the efficiency of a weekly television show or a low-budget miniseries.  There’s rarely anything interesting to look at except for the close-ups of the characters’ faces, but that begins to wear thin as one begins to lose interest in even the historical setting.  Director Thomas Vinterberg seems to have directed this thing on auto-pilot, or at least didn’t seem to care whether his cinematographer was even awake.

Fans of the book will probably like this film regardless of anything I may say for the simple reason that it brings the novel to life.  I haven’t read the book, so I can’t really speak to comparison, though I did find that the third act felt rushed and cluttered with a number of plot twists that seem to come out of nowhere.  But if you aren’t a fan of the Thomas Hardy novel, I don’t think I can really recommend the adaptation, as it is a dull, by-the-numbers affair that doesn’t seem to be interested in being much more than a faithful retelling.

I suppose this same analysis could also be used with modern problematic works such as Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.  Do you think that’s a fair observation?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"5 to 7": Polyamory (Im)Perfectly Put To Film

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

As I started to watch 5 to 7, I was filled with a bated mixture of cynicism and hope.  The film’s synopsis was intriguing because it seemed to be romance that flirted with a subject that films either don’t address at all or handle very poorly: open relationships.  As a polyamorous person myself, I rarely see the types of relationships I engage in adequately represented, so a film that purported to be a romance precisely in that vein was something that hooked me harder than it otherwise should have.  And, in all honesty, I’m only mildly disappointed.  This is, hands down, the best representation of polyamory that I have ever seen put to film.

The title derives from the rules of the main relationship at play.  Arielle and Brian meet while smoking outdoors one day, and he asks her when she would be available.  She says she is only available between the hours of five and seven p.m., which she eventually discloses to him is a condition of the open arrangement she has with her husband.  The film tends to portray this as an eccentricity of Arielle’s French origin, which is unfortunate but forgivable.  Brian agrees to the arrangement somewhat hesitantly, but soon finds that love can blossom in many forms.

The things I love about this film are that, even when portrayed through the lens of Brian’s outside perspective, polyamory seems like a valid and realistic prospect for developing multiple loving relationships.  He meets her husband, her kids, her husband’s girlfriend (a metamour for those unfamiliar with the terminology), and the only awkwardness seems to come from Brian’s unfamiliarity with this sort of family structure.  He introduces Arielle to his parents (played by a wickedly hilarious Glenn Close and Frank Langella in archetypically Jewish fashion) and, despite some obvious misunderstanding and necessary explanations, they come around to realize that this relationship is no less meaningful just because Arielle is married.  And that right there is what makes this film so astounding: the polyamorous nature of Arielle and Brian’s relationship (as well as Arielle’s husband and metamour) is almost never played for its oddity or its novelty.  It is a realistic and perfectly workable way to approach relationships, and seeing how that reflects my own life gave me such warm feelings.

Alas, despite how well the film does for the majority of its runtime, the climactic conflict certainly left me with some uneasy feelings.  Without spoiling the issue, Brian makes a decision that might have seemed romantic in a monogamous relationship, but consequently puts Arielle in an uncomfortable position.  The events that follow are open enough to interpretation that the film doesn’t entirely sink the good will that it had fostered up until that point, but it never fully recovers either.  The film would have likely seemed entirely devoid of conflict without some late-game twist, which would have been unfortunate; I only wish that the twist was so poorly transplanted from other, more monogamy-centric films.

That said, though, 5 to 7 is easily the best version of a polyamorous relationship I have seen portrayed on the screen.  It is at times funny and heartbreaking, and the connection between its leads feels real and rarely forced.  Its third act has problematic aspects, but I will certainly take this over nothing.  Whether you’re new to the concept of polyamory or would just like to see your relationship ethics portrayed in a movie, 5 to 7 is a good way to get that need met.

I can only think of one other film to at least neutrally portray polyamory: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Can you think of others?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Child 44": Half-Formed And Only Pretending To Be Whole

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Films adopt self-serious tones all the time, as that is the very nature of drama.  However, drama is meant to convey ideas, themes, stories, and characters, and whereas a lighter-hearted film can get away with skimping on those details, an intense dramatic piece cannot afford to sacrifice that intellectual meat, as there would be nothing left to make the film enjoyable.  Alas, it seems nobody told this to the makers of Child 44, a garbled mess of a film that left me confused and underwhelmed.

To be fair, there is the bone structure of a pretty interesting tale in Child 44.  Set in Stalinist Soviet Russia, a murderer of small boys has been running amok, and the Russian government has done nothing to stop it because to do so would be to acknowledge that Russia is not the paradise their propaganda says it is.  Enter Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a Ministry of State Security agent who discovers the cover-up and becomes determined to put a stop to the killer, even at the expense of his own political advancement.

Sounds decently interesting, right?  Well, the film decides to spend its first hour piling on subplot after subplot to the point where the film’s true storyline isn’t even apparent until halfway through.  Instead, we’re treated to half-baked woeful tales of the oppressive Russian regime as seen through the eyes of various popular and unpopular groups.  None of these distractions add anything to the overarching story, and they only serve to overpopulate the film with minor characters who muddy the script so as to obscure the real story and even the protagonist.

This might have been forgivable if the film were intent on making a statement in its portrayal of Stalinist Russia, but even as a layperson I can tell that historical inaccuracies abound.  The secret police is a bit less than secret as they wave their rifles through the streets of Moscow, and the government seems so focused on oppressing its own people that it doesn’t seem to have a clear goal other than just doing that.  This isn’t an accurate representation of a dark time in Russian history; this is a caricature, designed to serve the purposes of the formula plot buried underneath all the self-serious posturing.  This would have been fine in a standard action thriller, where the point would not be political statement but shallow entertainment.  But when a serious film is made with only the illusion of depth, it makes that film dull, unnecessarily complicated, and confusing.

Child 44 could have been a good film.  My understanding is that the novel that acts as its source material is quite good, and screenwriter Richard Price has proved his worth by writing for HBO’s The Wire.  However, the script needed tighter revisions and more historical research in order to make it work, or otherwise the film needed to be self-aware of the farce that it was.  Instead, Child 44 is like a child wearing their parents’ clothes: half-formed and only pretending to be more.

Does it bother you when accents in films don’t feel accurate?  This film had plenty such issues, and it brought me out of the experience.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Hot Pursuit": Not That Bad, But Not That Good Either

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Formula isn’t always a bad thing in films.  Formulas have been established in certain genres in order to provide a framework so that more interesting script elements can be emphasized, but this does have the consequence of making some films predictable.  The buddy cop comedy genre has practically written itself into staplehood, where any hack screenwriter can write one and it will still function as a serviceable film.  That’s what seems to have happened with Hot Pursuit.  Critically panned across the board, I don’t actually think the film is all that bad.  It just isn’t especially good and relies heavily upon its formula.

Stop me if you’ve heard something similar before.  Reese Witherspoon plays an incompetent cop with a reputation for messing up on the job.  Sofia Vegara is the trophy wife to a drug cartel boss who wants to enter witness protection.  When Witherspoon is assigned to act as Vegara’s police escort (presumably because she’s San Antonio’s only female officer?), things get rough quickly as the two are attacked by masked men, forcing the two to get into wild shenanigans while they evade their pursuers.

Now, I normally wouldn’t give much credence to the film where one of the first jokes is a transwoman trap gag, but the film mostly stays away from such crass forms of “comedy.”  Unlike Paul Blart, Hot Pursuit actually has jokes written into its script, and while not all of them are funny, there at least is some effort put into the process.  There are jokes about Witherspoon’s height and Vagara’s age that are played up for some cute chuckles, and while the film never caused me to laugh outright, I can see how someone might find some of the antics funny.  There are moments of unfortunate writing, like a scene where the oft-repeated punchline is that “periods are gross,” but overall, the film is pretty harmless.

What I think will really sell this for some people is the comedic chemistry between Witherspoon and Vagara.  They aren’t the next big thing in comedy, but they have a good feel for one other and can project larger than life personalities onto their admittedly stock characters.  Many scenes as written wouldn’t have been as amusing without their performances.  Witherspoon in particular has proved herself to be above this kind of generic production, but she seems like she’s having fun in the role so it makes it easy to have fun with her.

All in all, Hot Pursuit is not a film that will cause anyone to sit up and take notice.  It’s a film to watch once and immediately forget about, a most inoffensive eighty minutes without any pretense to being anything more than a momentary diversion.  Is it as horrible as the critical press has said?  No, not really, as the performances are the most redeeming quality that I feel was vastly overlooked.  But will this film be remembered even a month after its home video release?  Probably not.

What otherwise bad films were made better by the inclusion of skilled performers?  Share your favorites in the comments below.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Unfriended": Barely Fresh Found Footage

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

There isn’t a whole lot left to do with the found footage horror genre.  The shaky cams have become a clichéd pastiche, and they have never quite again found the footing to keep themselves relevant after The Blair Witch Project’s shocking and popularizing use of it.  Paranormal Activity breathed a little bit of nuance into the genre, but even that has overstayed its welcome.  Hopefully Unfriended doesn’t end up getting the same sort of emulation, because its take on the genre is not only the last leg that found footage has left to stand on, but its novelty is unlikely to remain fresh beyond just one film.  It barely manages to stay fresh for this one film.

The set-up is simple, shot as a cybercast of the laptop screen of teenage girl, Blaire.  We see her browse Facebook, view YouTube, use Instant Messenger, and Skype with her friends.  Through her browsing and chatting, we as the audience begin to piece together the story of Laura, a teenager who was the victim of cyberbullying when a video of her drunk, passed out, and covered in her own shit got posted to YouTube.  This terrorism pushed her to kill herself.  In the present, Blaire and her friends find a mysterious blank caller among their company, and are unable to hang up on them.  Messages start popping up on all their social media outlets, and it quickly becomes clear that this is Laura, bent on forcing them to expose their own innermost secrets and making them pay for their role in driving her to suicide.

As far as the topical nature of its cyberbullying message is concerned, Unfriended does quite an effective job of making its statement, particularly considering the teenage demographic that the film is shooting for.  As a slasher film, the point is to watch a group of unlikeable people suffer for a period of time before they are served their comeuppance, and again, the film is quite effective.  The use of buffering times, frozen screens, and pixelated glitches add a unique spin to the suspense the film has to offer, and supernatural elements aside it is a pretty accurate representation of the horror that someone can wreak on the Internet with just a bit of private information.

Alas, if you couldn’t tell already though, I’m not generally a fan of found footage films, particularly because I think there isn’t a whole lot left that can be creatively done with the medium.  Yes, the Skype angle is a clever twist, particularly given the subject matter, but the camera tricks of obviously and selectively limiting what remains in frame are largely still the same.  This is still a film with shallow characters who are generally unlikeable so we don’t feel bad when they die, but it’s simultaneously hard to care about the unseen protagonist of Laura’s spirit.  Furthermore, much of the film’s communication takes the form of text messaging, which just isn’t engaging to watch.  For every decently executed moment, there’s another that just drags, pretending to build suspense, but really just filling out the runtime until it crosses the feature length mark.

Unfriended has some good ideas, and I’m on board for it bringing awareness to the life-ruining effects of cyberterrorism.  However, found footage films are fraught with the same issues that perpetually keep them from achieving greatness, and for every nuance that Unfriended adds, it falls into another trap to keep me from becoming entirely invested.  I give this film a very tentative recommendation, given my prejudice against the subgenre, but I think this horse has been beaten a few dozen too many times.

Someone want to argue against me that found footage films are remaining fresh?  Leave your rebuttal in the comments below.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"True Story": Good Despite Its Falsity

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I think I have to start this review with an obligatory proclamation of how utterly surreal it is to see Jonah Hill and James Franco playing opposite one another, both in non-comedic roles.  Oh, neither actor is a stranger to dramatic acting, but the juxtaposition of the two in a film that never once tries to make its audience crack a smile is rather bizarre, which is probably why the film didn’t do so well at the box office.  But once that initial shock wears off, True Story ends up being a satisfying experience, even if it does take some liberties with the supposed truth of its tale.

Jonah Hill plays Mike Finkel, a recently disgraced journalist who was fired from the New York Times for falsifying information in an article.  While struggling to find employment, he hears of a man who was arrested in Mexico after fleeing the jurisdiction where he allegedly murdered his wife and three children.  What peaks Mike’s interest is that this man used Mike’s name and occupation as his identity while on the run.  Mike meets with the man, Christian Longo (Franco), and Mike tries to unravel the truth behind Christian’s secretive version of what really happened to his family.

True Story owes a lot to the film Capote in terms of structure and basic storytelling gimmicks, from the manipulation of flashbacks to offer selective information to the audience to the double-talking face-to-face conversations between journalist and prisoner.  This isn’t a bad thing; if one plans to emulate, why not emulate greatness?  And Hill and Franco are actually quite compelling and believable in their roles, with Hill’s willing naiveté and Franco’s droopy-eyed lethargy fitting perfectly to these characters.  And yet, due to the film’s fairly derivative nature from its decade-old masterful muse, it never quite feels like a unique experience.  Again, that doesn’t make it a bad film, just one that is a bit predictable and trite.

The biggest criticism I’ve been reading about this film is that the “true story” elements of the actual events at play have been manipulated in order to conveniently play out its traditional narrative.  And, yes, it is perhaps a bit disingenuous to manipulate the truth in a story where journalistic ethics are a main theme.  However, this is a piece of narrative fiction.  The reason that True Story succeeds as a film where, say, American Sniper does not is that it’s telling its story with characters that have arcs in order to communicate themes and a plot to its audience.  If I wanted to have an accurate representation of the events that transpired, I would read the memoir that the film was based on or watch a documentary about the same.  With narrative fiction, though, one has to go in understanding a certain degree of creative license is at play, and while that should never so completely manipulate a story as to make it unrecognizable, based on a true story should never be taken to mean more than just that.

On the whole, True Story is not a great film, but it is a serviceable one.  If you’ve watched any sort of true crime film before, you’ll likely be able to deduce the major plot twists well before they happen, but the formula is well-served by the two primary performers, offering a serious turn in tandem that I honestly would have never expected otherwise.  Check it out if seeing that spectacle intrigues you.

What other primarily comedic actors have made great turns in dramatic acting?  Share your favorites in the comments below.

Friday, August 7, 2015

"The Gift (2015)": Kept On Giving Until It Gave Too Much

Now In Theaters
Suspense films are notoriously difficult to review.  Often their appeal relies upon the execution of their plot twists, and as a critic I find it all too tempting to reveal those twists at the expense of ruining the film for you.  So let’s start here: is The Gift a good movie?  Yes… mostly.  But also not really in one major respect that I cannot tell you about.  Is The Gift worth seeing?  Yes!  …Mostly.  Except for the last five minutes or so.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to a quiet suburban town, away from their established life in Chicago.  While out buying home furnishings, they run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film), a former high school classmate of Simon’s.  After an awkward first encounter, Gordo begins to leave gifts at Simon’s home, and as the couple begin to interact with Gordo, it starts to become clear that Simon and Gordo have more history than first appearances would suggest.  Simon begins calling Gordo a weirdo behind his back, and as the relationship deteriorates, Robyn begins to feel haunted by the apparent specter of Gordo around every corner.

Edgerton makes an astounding first turn as a director, really nailing the sense of Hitchcockian dread that has become emblematic of the suspense thriller genre.  Information is sparingly and tantalizingly provided to the audience, with always another mystery just out of reach, and while some jump scares are present, they are used sparingly for maximum effect.  Edgerton's Gordo walks a fine line between sympathetic and potentially sinister that is uncomfortable in the best possible way, and Bateman plays the same sort of egocentric ass that he usually plays in comedic roles, but marvelously strips away any sort of potential for a laugh track.  The real star, though, is Hall as Robyn, who plays with paranoia and fear in a way that is equal parts audience surrogate and believable anxiety, and she portrays a realistic female character that lesser writing would have reduced to a perpetually terrified housewife.

Alas, I also have to tell you what this film does wrong, and it unfortunately all takes place in the twist climax.  The thematic underpinnings of the film reach their conclusion with about five minutes still left in the runtime, and yet those five minutes completely destroy all the good will that had been building until that point.  Robyn’s character is effectively sidelined and the climactic exchange between Simon and Gordo, while superficially satisfying, feels more and more idiotic the more one thinks about it.

Until that point, though, it is an excellently crafted film; I would go so far as to say it is a stronger film without that last five minute scene added on.  The film already has a climax built into its narrative, and I can picture the perfect moment to walk out of the theater to preserve the film as excellent so that one need not be exposed to the stupidity of the actual climax.  However, a film must be judged as a whole, and an otherwise excellent film is tainted by its twist ending.  Go and see it (especially considering it deserves your money more than a certain other film out this weekend), but don’t be surprised if the ending leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

What other films have been ruined by their final moments?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"The Divergent Series: Insurgent": A Pointless Passionless Franchise

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

My distaste for Divergent should be no secret to anyone who reads my reviews with any regularity.  When the first film wasn’t making my eyes roll with its trite and nonsensical plotting, it was boring me with its dull and uninspired execution.  And, in all honesty, not much of that has changed with the sequel, exasperatingly named The Divergent Series: Insurgent as if not reminding us of the film’s franchise nature would cause us to forget the first film exists.  But maybe they were right in that assumption, because this series is becoming bland and forgettable enough that it’s difficult to even justify its existence to its fans.

I should probably start by pointing out what I liked about the film, as there are aspects that are redeeming.  Shailene Woodley, reprising her role as the quaintly dystopian-ly named Tris, demonstrates a lot of potential as an actress.  The obvious comparison is to Jennifer Lawrence in that other young adult dystopian franchise, but whereas Lawrence seems clearly bored with the lack of dynamic challenge franchise roles offer her, Woodley embraces the teenage angst of her role wholeheartedly and still appears to be giving the appropriate amount of spunk to the girls of a particular age she portrays.  Also to this film’s benefit are the visuals, which still are set in concrete gray urban landscapes, but at least have the decency to explode in fractal patterns during the film’s many CG simulations.

But that’s about it.  The plot, as in the first film, is a painful combination of idiotic and derivative, telling yet another story of a resistance movement against a vaguely oppressive regime, led by a female protagonist who is even more vaguely defined as special than most in this genre.  The class system of Divergent’s world doesn’t even make sense as any sort of broad social allegory by this point, and only seems to serve as an excuse to paint its characters as one-dimensionally and archetypally as possible.  The introduction of the Factionless only further spurs that confusion, as Tris’s special property is that she is transcendent of factions, yet here is a whole underclass of folks who do not conform.  It is writing without consistency, or at the very least any worthwhile explanations.

And the acting, with the exception of Woodley, can be described as lazy at best.  Kate Winslet seems to really be phoning it in as the Erudite villain Jeanine, portraying nothing but stern determinism where a film this dumb really could have used more scenery chewing to keep things interesting.  Co-stars Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller seem to be trying somewhat to make their characters believable as more than plot vehicles, but their hearts seem only half in the game.  The real dud of the production, though, is Theo James as love interest Four (another unnecessarily contrived apocalyptic nomenclature).  He and Woodley have next to no on-screen chemistry, which makes what should be the most human element of Tris’s struggle for freedom a simple genre necessity, struggling in the meager hope that the teenage girls in the audience care more about a chiseled jaw than a believable performance.

By virtue of its willingness to be slightly more visually creative than its predecessor, I do find that I like Insurgent more than its predecessor.  However, that still doesn’t make it a good film.  This is a boring and sloppily written franchise that only exists to cash in on that sweet teenage expendable income by faithfully adapting their derivative reading material to the big screen.  And hey, I won’t say that I think that kids reading is a bad thing, and making adaptations of young adult fiction will encourage more young adults to read.  But those adaptations need to come from good source material and be made with a passion for that source material, and the Divergent series fits neither of those criteria.

What young adult series would you like to see brought to the big screen?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2": What Am I Doing With My Life?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Paul Blart is a bit of an oddity as far as Happy Madison productions go.  The first film came and went with the standard negative press that accompanies films produced by Adam Sandler, but on the whole, it was mostly inoffensive, which is almost praiseworthy coming from that infamous studio.  Its biggest problem is that it seemed as if the writers had gotten as far as coming up with a funny name and a funny scenario in a mall security guard acting as a Die Hard-esque savior, but they never got around to writing any actual jokes.  What resulted was a bland ninety minutes with Kevin James playing the saddest comedic lead in recent memory, whose pathetic nature was less endearing than it was… well, pathetic.

And so, that film fell away into the annals of obscurity, until six years later a sequel was made and the world gave a resounding “Why?”  Keeping with the tradition of Happy Madison films acting as an excuse to send Adam Sandler's friends on vacation, Kevin James returns as Paul Blart with the character attending a security guard convention in Las Vegas.  Blart’s heroics haven’t improved his life after the events of the first film, and now he’s just as much of a sad-sack as he was before, perhaps even more so considering his love interest from the first film has abandoned him and his mother has been run over by a milk truck.  While in Vegas, a group of art thieves are dismantling a Vegas casino’s prized collection, and Blart is inexplicably the only one who can stop it.

If the first film was a lazy attempt at parodying Die Hard, the sequel is an equally lazy attempt to parody Die Hard 2, exploiting the same basic formula in a larger, more grandiose location.  But again, the film runs into the same major problems as the first iteration: no one bothered to write any jokes.  Oh sure, some of the situations are more absurd, encouraging some “WTF” reactions, but none of these are framed in a way that’s actually funny, just bizarre.  This is only further exacerbated by the fact that, like the first film, Blart’s character is established and over-established for the film’s first half; the film oozes desperation as it tries desperately to get you to like this sickeningly boring everyman.

But Blart is even less likeable in this film than in the previous one, as classic Happy Madison misogyny works its way into this script, even though the first film thankfully found that relatively lacking.  There’s a running gag about a hotel manager whom Blart keeps rejecting advances from, but it turns out that she was only ever trying to be courteous.  However, as Blart continues “rejecting” her throughout the film, she finds herself irresistibly attracted to him, without ever getting to know him beyond his rude assumptions.  This is the sort of self-aggrandizing fantasy that we’ve come to expect from Happy Madison, and the misogyny is only made worse when Blart attempts to convince a drunk woman that a fellow officer’s unrelenting attempts to seduce her are actually in her best interests, even when she has already said no.  This takes a dull but inoffensive protagonist and makes him into a dull creep who sinks any hope he had at being likeable.

In the end, I’m not even sure why I bothered to review this movie.  I knew it was going to be bad.  You knew it was going to be bad.  Is it the worst film of the year, as many are saying?  No, I’ve seen worse this year, but that doesn’t mean the film is at all worth recommending.  It was a dull, lifeless cash grab for everyone involved, and the writing and direction are so sloppy that they don’t even bother to hide it.  Not even funny in an absurdist way, the film will likely leave you feeling slightly disgusted or entirely disinterested.  Probably both.

Should I continue watching known cinematic trainwrecks so you may read my vitriol?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.