Archive for September, 2015

The Water Diviner (2015)

Starring- Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney, Dylan Georgiades, Steve Bastoni, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole

Director- Russell Crowe

R- war violence including some disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CkLC4Zr2Mw

It seems to me, thus far, that 2015 has been the year of the Unterrible Film* — those movies that are really borderline, that are composed of enough good qualities and enough bad ones to leave me unsure whether to color the review positive or negative. As of The Water Diviner, it’s really starting to look like a trend.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Water Diviner. I suppose I don’t have significant feelings in either direction. It isn’t terrible, and I also can’t think of too many reasons to recommend it. I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t enjoy myself. There are lots of good scenes and lots of not-so-good scenes. The Water Diviner just is.

Set a few years after the events of World War I, The Water Diviner follows the story of an Australian farmer, Connor (Russell Crowe), who lost all three of his sons at Gallipoli. His family has never been the same since. When he loses all he has left in this world, he travels to occupied Turkey to find the remains of his children and, hopefully, a little closure along the way.

I found that The Water Diviner mostly lived up to my preconceived mental picture of a movie directed by Russell Crowe — sometimes in a good way, but usually not. As an actor, I’ve always put him in the same category as guys like Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson — “sensitive masculinity,” their characters tough, rugged guys who work the land or fight in wars but carry themselves with a certain softspokenness and aren’t averse to Manly Tears in the face of particularly great injustice, usually the death of a loved one. I don’t mean that to sound as condescending as it might; it works when done well, as does anything. I think Crowe’s work in last year’s Noah is 2014’s most underrated great performance (and, of course, L.A. Confidential is L.A. Confidential). Still, I find that, with only a few exceptions, their countenance tends to translate into the director’s chair in a very specific way, and frankly, it’s not one I like, with the rare outlier here and there. Simply put, they usually strike me as austere, broad, overly straightforward, and boring.

And were I to summarize the flaws in The Water Diviner, it would be those things exactly. There’s barely any real emotional complexity to it. Really, the film, just in general, casts its net as widely as possible. The characters are flat with simple, non-specific, easy-to-understand personalities; only one or two of them ever even hint at greater depth. The story is presented as obviously as possible and rarely goes anywhere you wouldn’t expect it to — it’s a more dramatic, slow-moving, and weighty take on the “dad tries to find children” subgenre, but it still adheres to most of the same beats. Character development happens mainly in the form of softly-lit montages. The whole thing is thematically straightforward. I’m not sure it ever makes a clear statement on any subject. It has the flavor of an anti-war film, but even there, I’m not sure it develops a point more interesting than “war is bad because people die in it,” which, well, duh. There are ways to take simple points and imbue them with so much feeling and humanity that they work anyway — look no further than Steven Spielberg to find the master of this technique — but The Water Diviner loses what good ideas it has in its stoicism and clumsy storytelling.

On the other hand, such actor-to-director debuts do have their good qualities, and those are mostly present in The Water Diviner as well. Like Gibson and Costner before him, Crowe finds a basic effectiveness at the heart of this story, awkwardly conveyed though it may be. After all, who can’t sympathize with a lonely father with no one left in this world trying to find closure for his late children? When the movie properly focuses on this one, simple throughline, and finds richer, subtler means of communicating it, it starts patching up the holes a bit. It finds scenes here and there that work quite well independently, especially in those rare moments where real complexity sneaks into the characters’ appraisal of one another — there’s a great early scene between Connor and a pastor that taps into cultural attitudes toward the suffering and the mentally ill in an interesting and nuanced way, in addition to expanding Connor beyond the broad motivations that otherwise define him.

I also find that movies like this have a stellar eye. Perhaps that’s an outgrowth of their fixation on rustic individualism — farmers and hunters and builders. These films — and their directors — seem to appreciate the wilderness and the frontier, and maybe that compels them to find good cinematographers or to develop strong visual sensibilities of their own. There are a lot of great visual moments in The Water Diviner — a few shots that are unique, plenty that are beautifully framed, lots that emphasize natural and manmade wonders. I have mixed feelings about Crowe’s treatment of color — despite all the desert, he breathes real life into the Australia scenes, finding deep, rich colors nearly everywhere; but he filters most of the scenes in Turkey through this hot, upsetting yellow-green that gives them a low-budget feeling. I would still say that, on balance, his instincts are good more often than not.

Really, I think most of the problems with The Water Diviner exist on the script level — it simply doesn’t budget time for character, bungles it with obviousness and flat dialogue when it does, and struggles to imbue much humanity into the story development. And, in all fairness, Crowe isn’t blameless either; I suspect most of the character development montages were his idea, and he could’ve helped the actors find a little more nuance in their roles — especially those like Yilmaz Erdogan, who are already doing so and need a little more space to see it through to fruition.

Like I said, there’s a lot here that’s good and a lot that needs work. I don’t think The Water Diviner  is flawed enough that I’d write off Crowe as a director just yet. With a little refinement and a better script (he didn’t write this one), he absolutely has a good movie in him. Maybe even a great one, albeit farther down the road. I worry this review read like I don’t care for his work more generally, and that’s not true at all; like any actor, he’s got his good roles, his bad roles, and his middle-of-the-road roles, but on balance, I like him more often than not. There just remains a question as to whether or not he’s meant for the director’s chair. As of The Water Diviner, I can only answer…maybe?

Again, it’s not bad. Some people will like it; some won’t. I guess that’s true of anything, but I suspect the split here will pretty well be 50/50. I don’t really care one way or the other: The Water Diviner has plenty of potential and plenty of problems.

-Matt T.

* In fairness, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, Crimson Peak, The Hateful Eight, Creed, Spotlight, Room, The Revenant, Steve Jobs, Carol, Anomalisa, and The Good Dinosaur, to name a few, still waiting in the wings (plus, I haven’t seen Sicario yet), there’s a better than average chance 2015 morphs into a great year real soon. 

Black_Mass_(film)_posterBlack Mass (2015)

Starring- Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple

Director- Scott Cooper

R- brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE3e3hGF2jc

I’m evaluating the quality Black Mass in terms of the talkative old guy who sat behind me in the theater. I always catch matinee showings if I can help it, so that might be why I don’t have problems with obnoxious teenagers or people on their cell phones. My stereotype is chatty old people — clearly having decided to see the movie at random, constantly explaining things to each other, laughing at anything that has so much as a hint or irony or sarcasm underneath it. That was this guy. For the first half hour of this movie, there was constant, muttered chatter coming from back there, and anytime anyone did anything even distantly funny if you squint at it long enough, there was a burst of very disproportionate laughter.

But as the story developed — as the film got darker and darker, as its characters’ little compromises metastasized into violence and mayhem — he got quieter and quieter, and an hour in, he was absolutely silent. I didn’t hear from him again until the credits were rolling — I stood up to leave, and I heard him whisper to his wife, “That was a really good movie.”

I think — mostly — that I agree with him.

Black Mass is the story of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), who ran the streets in the 1970s and was finally arrested just a few short years ago after decades as a fugitive. It focuses specifically on his status as an FBI informant — through an alliance with agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the FBI was convinced to use him as a tool to catch bigger fish. Meanwhile, Bulger used his status as an immunity of sorts as his own business expanded and became progressively more dangerous.

Maybe it’s because I run in the wrong circles, but Black Mass seems to have suffered a surprisingly quick backlash to its relatively warm critical reception as it was opening. It’s to the point where I already feel like I’m defending it rather than joining what is, for now, a fair majority. I think that may be because the movie isn’t really what you’d expect it to be. In all fairness to its detractors, some evidence suggests it may not even be what the filmmakers expected it to be. In any case, I think that Black Mass, on the way to missing the target at which it was actually aiming, inadvertently struck another one and managed to come out largely unscathed.

You’d expect it to be some sort of character study, and there are moments where I think Black Mass wants to be one, too. It’s been all but billed as the “Whitey” Bulger story, so it’s surprising how insignificant he seems in the grand scheme — not secondary, exactly, but no more important than anyone else in the movie. And Black Mass doesn’t seem as though it’s trying to psychologize him — or any of the other characters, for that matter — all that much, to get under his skin and find out what makes him tick. The movie holds you somewhat at arm’s length from its characters — they aren’t flat, boring, or without humanity, but it never anchors you in any of their perspectives. You watch the film as an observer — you get to know its characters, but you get to know them the way you get to know anyone else in your life. You assess them by what they do and what you see on the surface, but you can only speculate and infer what inner processes inform those things. And the movie ends up feeling like a story about crime and corruption and not Bulger specifically — your position relative to him is the same as the other characters, and he really doesn’t even have substantially more screen-time than they do. You see him and everyone else secondhand; they’re players in a larger story, the scope of which doesn’t have very much to do with them personally.

I suspect that’s why we’re seeing such dramatically mixed reports on Johnny Depp’s performance. There’s a real “love it or hate it” divide forming around it. The way the movie was sold to us — and, to some extent, the way it presents itself in the moment — suggested a character study, that Depp would be the unambiguous lead in the story, that he would really be diving beneath the surface and finding some sort of human being behind Bulger, that he would allow us to understand him in some sense. We didn’t get that. Instead, Depp brings us “Whitey” Bulger as a pure villain, reminiscent of the Joker more than other famous movie criminals. It’s the sort of thing that only works in the context of a story that’s not specifically about that character, where the character is one of many roughly equivalent players in a larger situation. Fortunately, that’s exactly what I think Black Mass is.

So, yeah, I’m on the “love it” end of the spectrum. And strangely, this is another thing about Black Mass that might be good by accident. For all I know, he treated this like a character study and failed to find the actual character. That’s a legitimate reading of what we see here. Or maybe he saw the direction the movie was going, intentional or otherwise, and adjusted accordingly. As portrayed here, Bulger isn’t a guy you understand — he’s not so one-note in his villainy that he appears cartoonish, but we have limited access to his private life and only see so many layers. But Depp brings a cold, unhinged menace to the guy, a quiet sociopathy that doesn’t so much develop as gradually reveal itself. He’s a character who has, in his life, people and things he cares about but is fundamentally incapable of feeling guilty about anything he does. You cross him, he kills you, that’s the last he’ll ever think of it. It’s not the first time Depp’s tackled a more villainous role, but it’s the first time I can remember ever being genuinely afraid of him — Bulger is an unsettling presence within the film, someone who puts you on edge the moment he enters the scene.

(The makeup is, admittedly, terrible, but that’s not Depp’s fault.)

That’s true of most of the characters — you don’t get to see the inner workings of their minds, but they have presence. It helps that the film has such a broad cast, filled with actors’ actors and old movie stars and new movie stars and people with comedy backgrounds. Joel Edgerton, especially, continues to have one heck of a year. He’s better in The Gift, but his character here is the one you come closest to understanding beneath the surface. It’s never quite clear the extent to which he’s motivated by a pursuit of justice, albeit with questionable means, and by old loyalties to Bulger, but you can see Edgerton wrestling with that line and bringing his character to a point where even he doesn’t know the answer to that question anymore. I’ve heard mixed reviews on the Boston accents; I can’t really comment on that because I have a lousy ear for dialects (the only one I noticed is the usually reliable Benedict Cumberbatch, whose attempt at Bostonian is littered with so much of his native voice that he ends up creating this entirely new accent that has never existed anywhere). Other than that, I thought most of the cast was strong. That fills out the edges enough for the film to get down to its actual purpose — it’s not a story about characters but a story about an event. It’s the event that changes and develops. It’s a film about evolving circumstances, developing its ideas through the objective facts of the matter rather than through character.

Honestly, I prefer character-driven storytelling as a matter of personal taste, but I nevertheless think Black Mass is good at what it’s doing, whether it means to or not. It manages to cross that divide for me because there is character in it, and even if certain plot points aren’t properly motivated, there’s generally a strong sense of cause and effect throughout. Even without a particularly strong character grounding, I enjoyed watching this situation unfold — I think the story is mainly about the developing relationship between Bulger and the FBI, how it starts out a necessary but mostly harmless evil and spirals into a still-necessary but incredibly dangerous evil over which the feds no longer have any control whatsoever. There’s an interesting moral question there that I wished the film explored in greater depth, but I nevertheless enjoyed what the film had to offer. I like movies about complex plans, whether they’re successful or go horribly awry. Black Mass has its missteps throughout, but for the most part, it’s a good one.

It’s obviously going to bother a lot of people that the film is so skin-deep in approaching its characters and that its themes stay broad and somewhat unfocused. I won’t lie; it bothers me a little, too. But I think there’s a solid, if unusual, story being told here somewhere underneath the script flaws and occasionally haphazard direction. And so, I must agree with my elderly friend — I still think it’s a really good movie.

-Matt T.

Run All Night (2015)

Starring- Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lois Smith, Common

Director- Jaume Collet-Serra

R- strong violence, language including sexual references and some drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uDuFh-nC-c

I guess the only thing anyone really needs to know about Run All Night is that it won’t surprise you. The Liam Neeson Action Movie has become its own subgenre, and Run All Night definitely qualifies. You know how you’ll react to it by how you reacted to all the others.

For my part, it’s definitely not bad, but it’s definitely not good either. It exists in this apathetic middle ground; I was always exactly arm’s length away, just…watching it. Not bored, not entertained, just watching. It’s not fresh or unique, and it’s not terrible.

Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) spent his life as an enforcer for mob boss — and childhood friend — Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). They called Jimmy “the Gravedigger,” and despite his fame in both the underworld and the media, the mob’s hold on the police always preserved his freedom. These days, Jimmy is a drunk, awash in regret, just trying to get out. Shawn’s cleaned up his act, too, and is trying to keep his business legitimate. Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook), however, didn’t get the message and is trying to negotiate a drug deal when it goes bad and he kills two men. There’s one witness — a limo driver, Michael Conlon (Joel Kinnaman). Jimmy’s son. When Danny tries to tie up that loose end, Jimmy kills him in order to save his son’s life.

In the aftermath, Shawn makes it clear: He’s going to kill Michael, and after Jimmy has felt the same loss he has, he’s going to kill him, too. Now, Michael and Jimmy are stranded with no safe haven in the middle of the city, pursued by mobsters, hitmen and corrupt cops.

If I can appreciate one thing about Run All Night, it’s that it’s the first of these movies where the fact that the Liam Neeson character is a bad person is intentional, acknowledged in universe, and factors into the story and themes. There’s nuance in this film that I appreciate. There’s no moral difference between Jimmy and Shawn; they have the exact same blood on their hands. The fact that they’re friends plays into the drama; their turn weighs heavily on both. Ultimately, a lot of this is Jimmy’s fault — most of the plot wouldn’t happen had he never joined the mob in the first place. He’s not really the typical “good guy former bad guy trying to get out” either — he wrecked his family, and they hate him, and the conscience he’s developed has ruined rather than rejuvenated him. Honestly, there’s a good setup here.

The movie does nothing with it. In practice, the fact that Jimmy isn’t a hero ultimately comes off more like something the movie’s doing to be “edgy” than something it’s interested in meaningfully exploring. It allows him, as the protagonist, to engage in all the violence of the Taken movies without the same level of cognitive dissonance. Once the action begins, Jimmy turns into any other Liam Neeson character — his stumbling drunkenness and empty sadness vanish, and he’s the Terminator again. He is, in theory, killing his old friends, but that almost never factors into what we see on-screen — there’s no noticeable tension, no grief. He even finds room for the occasional one-liner. Thematically, the movie turns into another bland, A Good Day to Die Hard-style Action Hero and His Estranged Son Get Shot At, Reconnect for Loosely Established Reasons movie. It keeps teasing questions about Jimmy’s violent nature — the thrust of his relationship with Michael is that he stops him from drawing any blood on their adventure so his conscience won’t be as stained as his father’s. But that just raises further questions about whether the person who profits off of violence is any better than the person who commits it. To an extent, you could almost argue the message of Run All Night is that the world needs men like Jimmy Conlon, who will do terrible things the rest of us are too weak to do. Probably not intentional, but something that comes across more and more as the film retreats from nuance and into guns-blazing simplicity (the addition of Common’s character, a precise, robotic, menacing hitman, doesn’t help).

I’m not going to say that none of it works; some of it does, on that visceral level at which most action movies are targeted. Most of it works through naked manipulation, which will bother some people more than others. At any rate, it never works well; at its best, it’s achieving competence.

I never developed particularly strong feelings about it one way or the other. It’s fine, I guess; it’s just utterly unsurprising and a waste of a premise that actually has a lot of potential and isn’t as far from being realized as it might be.

-Matt T.

Love_&_Mercy_(poster)Love & Mercy (2015)

Starring- Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Joanna Going, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Graham Rogers, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Bill Camp, Diana Maria Riva

Director- Bill Pohlad

PG-13- thematic elements, drug content and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lioWzrpCtGQ

The biggest hurdle any music biopic has to overcome is people who don’t like the musician — the musician, here, being the Beach Boys and the people who don’t like the musician being, well, me. But I really, really liked Love & Mercy, so maybe this review is the most sterling recommendation you’ll find. You see, Jersey Boys? I totally wasn’t irrationally biased against you!

Love & Mercy focuses on Beach Boys frontman (and primary songwriter) Brian Wilson in two different time periods — the 60s, during the recording of “Pet Sounds,” where he’s played by Paul Dano, and the 80s, where he’s played by John Cusack and is severely mentally ill, reclusive and under the constant watch of his opportunistic, abusive psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). That starts to unravel when he begins dating a car salesperson, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who sees through Landy’s façade and becomes determined to rescue the former pop sensation.

When I say that Love & Mercy focuses on Brian Wilson, I really do mean that — the movie is, in no sense of the word, a Beach Boys biopic. His bandmates are such a non-presence in this film that if you are, like me, mostly unfamiliar with their work, you’re likely to leave not even knowing their names. They’re in the film, obviously, but they appear mainly as a group and get little if any individual attention. Love & Mercy is Brian Wilson’s story, through and through.

And that’s a big part of the reason it works as well as it does. You’ll find none of the usual biopic problem here — trying to squeeze in a person’s entire life and, in so doing, failing to find the worth in the story or breezing through everything so quickly that it doesn’t really land as anything grander than a highlights reel. Love & Mercy is laser-focused, narratively and thematically. It holds to two relatively restricted time periods — a few months, maybe as long as a year or so, in the 1960s, and maybe the same period in the 1980s. And it’s careful in having chosen those two — they aren’t separate entities but very much a part of the story being told. The simplest way to describe it is that the 1960s bits are providing context and reason for the 1980s bits.

I think the filmmakers were very smart in deciding to show these two stages of Wilson’s life simultaneously rather than proceeding in chronological order. With a few notable exceptions, I’m generally not a fan of non-linear storytelling, but Love & Mercy represents what it looks like when that approach is done very well. A scene can be separated 20 years from the scene that preceded it, but they always feel very natural together — the 1980s show us something, the 1960s clarify it then introduce something else, and the 1980s drive that point home. The 1980s show us the hollow, frightened, unstable, almost childlike person Wilson became, and the 1960s show us not only the person he was but suggest what drove him to change into the person we see in the future.

The film never suggests a pat, simplistic answer to that question, and that’s one of the things I like about it. Too many films about mental illness imply — or outright state — a basic root cause that can be dealt with forever as soon as the sufferer becomes aware of his or her incredibly obvious problem. In reality, it’s usually a combination of things so complex that getting down to the psychology behind it is a process of unraveling a thousand threads, essentially examining your entire core being and trying to determine which of your thousands of circumstances and experiences provoked what and why. We wouldn’t have entire medical fields centered around these problems if resolving them were as easy as identifying a singular childhood trauma.

With Wilson, as presented in the film, it’s a combination of things, none of which are shown to be the one reason he’s fallen ill. Partly, it’s the pressures of stardom and creativity; partly, it’s a tense relationship with his father; partly, it’s something he just has, something that’s always been with him to one degree or another. The film is never about Wilson magically curing himself but recognizing what he can do to take a step toward healing.

Primarily, it’s in working through the external pressures he’s experiencing — the desire to please his father, the desire to remain in lockstep with his bandmates, the desire to stay relevant in a changing culture, the desire to create something new and meaningful. Love & Mercy does a really good job tapping into that ever-present conflict at the heart of the professional artist — what you want to express and what the people want to hear aren’t always the same thing. There are record labels, film studios, and publishers to impress; you need them if you’re going to sell your product. There are audiences, who have demands of their own. And then, there’s you. And you’ve got this idea you love, and it’s all you can think about, and you’re excited to record it/write it/film it. But it’s different and complicated and comes from a stranger part of your soul, and everyone else is tepid. So, people try to get you to “play the hits,” essentially, as though creating something is a matter of throwing a switch in your brain and just plugging along rather than inspiration. It becomes a question of how you bridge that divide, how you meet those expectations without forcing your creativity to the point that you hate the thing you used to love most in the world. That, more than anything, weighs upon and ultimately breaks Brian Wilson. He lives in a chaotic world, and music is how he controls that — quite literally, as the early symptoms of his illness involve panicked reactions to repeated sounds he can’t control (one scene involves him running from a dinner table when he can no longer stand the sound of the silverware). It’s easy to imagine how that controlling person could eventually collapse, surrender, and become the childishly dependent, totally out-of-control person we see in the 1980s.

I have my minor issues with Love & Mercy here and there, but the only problem I’d call significant is that it really tests one’s suspension of disbelief with its framing device. The fact is that Paul Dano and John Cusack simply do not resemble one another at all. That’s not really a comment on the performances themselves; as someone who doesn’t have much of a mental picture to go with Brian Wilson, I’m only equipped to say that, as a matter of the acting alone, Dano is definitely the stronger of the two, but both work well enough independently. Beach Boys fans tell me that Dano is spot-on but that John Cusack, while fine, never really stops being John Cusack. Take that for what it’s worth. At any rate, it’s impossible to imagine Dano starting to look like John Cusack in 20 years, and the transition can be jarring, especially since even the performances are subtly different in ways that can’t be explained solely by the fact that our personalities change over time. In fairness, you’re taking a risk no matter who you cast; I’m even impressed when a movie manages to cast actors who resemble one another as family members, much more when they’re playing time-divergent versions of the same person. For that reason, I think I’d prefer that Love & Mercy — since 20 years isn’t really that long, in the grand scheme of things — had found a 30-ish actor who, with a couple dabs of makeup here and there, could convincingly pass for 10 years younger or 10 years older to play the part the entire way through. (Yes, Paul Dano is 30-ish, but he looks much younger.)

Regardless, once you accept the movie on its own terms and muscle your way past the weirdness of its presentation, Love & Mercy is a very intelligent music biopic — not even that, really, as it’s more an exploration of mental illness and loneliness. It does what any biopic ought to for its real-life subject — it makes him detailed, interesting, and thoroughly human. It has a deft, balanced touch and is emotional without sentimentality or manipulation. It is truly, surprisingly good — even if you’re utterly at your wit’s end with songs about surfing.

-Matt T.

True Story (2015)

Starring- Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Robert John Burke

Director- Rupert Goold

R- language and some disturbing material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_NiP_bqlns

Looks like I’ve got to put on my Defender Hat again. It’s my least favorite hat. True Story is pretty good, and I’m not sure why everyone’s been so down on it.

Based on, well, a true story, Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is fired from his position at the New York Times after it’s revealed that he falsified elements of a cover story about slave labor in the cocoa industry. He tries to find work elsewhere, but no serious publications will touch him. He’s getting desperate when he’s suddenly dragged into a particularly nasty murder case. Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of killing his wife and three small children, was just apprehended in Mexico…living under the name Mike Finkel, reporter for the New York Times. Mike smells a story — one that could get him back into the journalism world’s good graces. So, he decides to meet with Christian and hear his side of the story. At first glance, Christian seems charming, sincere, and maybe even innocent. But is Mike using him, or the other way around?

I’ve been rifling through reviews from critics and audiences, and I’m starting to think True Story’s largely negative reception may be the result of the film not being what everyone expected. Usual disclaimer: I’m not presumptuous enough to say that because I liked this movie, it’s objectively good and everyone ought to. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to disagree with my opinion here. It’s just my observation that a lot of reviews seem to be calling it out for failing to do things that I don’t think it’s actually trying to do. They approached it as a true crime story, a seedy thriller, heavy on mystery, driven by plot twists, a real mind screw. So, they’re disappointed that the resolution is fairly predictable. They’re disappointed that the plot twists are limited. They’re disappointed that there isn’t much courtroom drama. They’re disappointed that it isn’t very thrilling. My issue is that I don’t think True Story wants to be any of those things. It’s not a true crime story — it’s about the making of a true crime story.

It’s less an adaptation of the memoir on which it was based — written by Finkel himself — and more an adaptation of the process by which it was written in the first place. It’s not a true crime story, it’s not a thriller, it’s not a courtroom drama. It’s a conversation piece and discourse on the art of writing. It’s a movie where two guys sit in a room and talk to each other — it just so happens that one is a journalist and one is possibly a murderer. And it’s not perfect, but I think True Story is, for the most part, pretty good at that.

It’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that my minority positive opinion here stems from my interest in the material. True Story just plain presses a lot of my buttons. It touches on subjects I’m inherently very interested in. I majored in journalism; I currently work for a small-town newspaper; the question of ethics in reporting is something I wrestle with constantly.

Ultimately, I think True Story gets to the heart of something very interesting. It’s a story about emotional truths — the things people feel to be true, apart from the facts, that are, therefore, very difficult to ever unseat. It’s about the negative relationship emotional truths have with journalism — not just on the part of the public but on that of the journalists themselves. We’re more likely to believe the story that feels best, the one that’s presented the most eloquently, the one that seems most convincing in the moment, regardless of whether it holds up under scrutiny. And it’s hard for a reporter to keep that basic, human flaw at bay — a journalist goes everywhere and sees and hears a lot and has to separate fact from fiction as best he or she can. Like I said, I work for a newspaper in a small town; the most controversial thing I’ve covered in the last few months was a borough’s proposed rental ordinance. But I’ve experienced this, again and again. I’ve seen it in other people, and I’ve seen it in myself. You approach a controversial situation, and at first, maybe you only see it through a certain lens. You see things, you pick up some of the local gossip, it all meshes together in your mind until you have this narrative you subconsciously believe but can’t back up factually. It’s something you have to remain very conscious of if you’re going to report responsibly.

In this movie, Mike is a major victim of this. Some of that comes from his personality; his ego and his desire to tell the truth get mixed up until it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Is he actually motivated to get to the bottom of this case, to help either Christian or his victims, or is he using this as a means to an end for his own career? It’s probable that even he doesn’t know the answer to that question. In any case, he gets swept up in Christian’s story, in Christian’s personality, and at a certain point, he forgets that whether or not the man is guilty actually does matter — as does the fact that he’s the public’s exclusive window into the man’s mind.

The movie works because it gets you on the same page as Mike. It portrays Christian as a shifty guy you never quite trust but who is charismatic and seemingly sincere enough to plant that seed of doubt and make you want the more interesting story to be true. It’s easy enough to understand why Mike is endeared to him, despite the suspicion that surrounds him. The film also does an excellent job of getting the viewer invested in the story Christian tells — it pulls your attention to the pure feeling of it and takes you along for the ride. Eventually, you also forget that it matters whether or not Christian is guilty. True Story puts you in the hot seat with Mike; it doesn’t hold you at a distance, as a passive, superior observer to his own flaws. It identifies them in you as well.

Of course, the biggest problem facing True Story in this endeavor is that it’s not the first movie to draw from this wellspring — almost exactly the same story, as well as the same themes and execution thereof, can be found in Bennett Miller’s Capote. That’s a great film, and True Story doesn’t have a thing on it. Still, it stands fairly well on its own. The direction is just fine; I loved the chilly, wintery atmosphere, enough to set the mood without just plain shouting it at you. The performances are pretty solid, too. Felicity Jones, of course, will have to do a lot to leave my good graces after her work in The Theory of Everything. As our two leads, Jonah Hill and James Franco continue to show they’re more than just funnymen. Christian plays to Franco’s strengths; he’s good at straddling that line between shiftiness and likability, charisma and artificiality. Hill continues to show surprising hidden depths; this role isn’t quite his best, but it asks a lot more emotional heavy lifting than usual. He says a lot purely with his presence — facial expressions, mannerisms, vocal inflections. This is the first time I can recall really seeing beneath the surface of a character he’s played, into the inner workings of the mind, the things that drive what we see him saying and doing. The only reason I wouldn’t call it his best performance is that there are elements of the character he’s not quite tapped into. Hill layers too much decency and self-inquiry into the character; he never comes across as the sort of person who would be capable of falsifying a news story or following the dictates of his own narcissism. Ultimately, the character is just a little too likable, and it robs the relationship between Mike and Christian of the interesting nuance that it needs.

Still, the only problem True Story has that I’d go so far as to call “crippling” is that it tends toward being very obvious. Plot points are broadcast to the heavens; setups for later events are screamed at you; payoffs are cheesy and heavy-handed; character and plot information are handed to us in the form of silly, inorganic asides; characters speak their minds just a little too often. There’s a lot about the film that’s intelligent and well done, but the execution tends to be a little clumsy all around.

Either way, I still think True Story is a pretty decent drama, especially if have an interest in journalism. You’d probably be better off watching Capote if you want the best version of this story, but it’s nevertheless compelling enough as presented here.

-Matt T.

Unfriended (2015)

Starring- Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman

Director- Leo Gabriadze

R- violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug and alcohol use — all involving teens

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRhUId3gtoE

Well.

………………………..

…Good for them for trying something different?

One year to the day after a classmate committed suicide over cyberbullying, a group of friends, each of them in some small way complicit in said cyberbullying, starts up a late-night Skype chat. From the get-go, a mysterious profile is logged into the chat and can’t be kicked off. Then, each of them receives a message from their deceased classmate’s Facebook account. Then, the mysterious profile begins communicating with them. At first, they write it off as a particularly morbid prankster. Then, it starts revealing their darkest secrets. Then, it starts killing them.

Unfriended has a 60 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s not exactly a wholehearted affirmation, but it still means more critics liked it than not. I don’t have any problem with that; I’m just having trouble putting myself in their shoes. Cloverfield was the last time a warm-ish critical response to a horror movie left me this confused. And at least, in that case, I went into it unaware of the consensus. I saw Unfriended because of its generally favorable disposition; I thought there might be something interesting happening here.

But, no. Instead, I saw what I strongly suspect is going to be my least-favorite movie of 2015.

I can understand why the premise might have looked interesting on paper. After all, horror movies love themselves a good gimmick. This one’s is that it takes place entirely on one teenage girl’s computer screen. We see her and her friends as a series of six individual images on that screen as they chat. We see her moving the cursor around and accessing other tabs, usually to send written messages to other parties. Even though the movie probably wasn’t shot that way, it plays out, essentially, as one long, unbroken take. It’s the sort of idea that’s intriguing enough to get a filmmaker thinking about the possibilities…but not the limitations.

All Unfriended really accomplishes is to prove that this concept could probably never work. I suppose I could see some experimental filmmaker doing a short, Before Sunrise-style conversation piece in this format, but that’s about all the leeway I’m able to allow at this point. In practice, the effect of the film’s style is to make it flat and confusing.

I don’t like to speak in generalities, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that cinematography and editing are fairly important to the effectiveness of a film. Unfriended intentionally deprives itself of the former and uses the latter only to make it look like it wasn’t used at all. As such, it doesn’t really have many tools at its disposal to convey information visually. So, when the haunting begins in earnest and things start getting chaotic, the movie gets impossible to follow. There was one scene where the characters suddenly started freaking out, seemingly apropos of nothing, and it took me a bit to figure out that a text message from the ghost had appeared elsewhere on the screen — because of the gimmick, the film had no way of letting me know to direct my eye toward the necessary piece of information, and I caught up with the movie much too late for the scare to be effective. A similar problem appears whenever the characters start messaging each other — it’s sometimes hard to separate the new responses from the old and figure out what you’re supposed to be reading.

It’s chaotic even when the movie isn’t going for tension. With six different people on one computer screen talking to one another, and no way for the camera to tell us who to look at, all you can do is scan the screen until you find someone whose mouth is moving. And more often than not, they’re talking over each other, so every scene becomes a flurry of motion as six loud, terrified voices, filtered through indecipherable laptop distortion, shout into the ether. There’s a writer credited to this movie, but his is a pretty thankless job once the haunting starts (assuming, of course, that the script isn’t just 95 pages of “everybody flips out”).

It doesn’t help that our protagonist has a billion tabs open throughout the entire film. One second, you’re trying to find a focal point amidst six mini-screens; then, there’s a text chat open; then, she’s cruising through Facebook. She operates her computer at teenage speed, too, so it’s definitely a task to keep up.

The “realism” is a problem, too. The film wants to look like an ordinary, unembellished Skype chat, so it incorporates plenty of pauses, frame-rate jumps, visual distortion, and the like. And it is enraging to watch. It’s like when a movie won’t stream properly. Every time I even got on the verge of being involved in what was happening on-screen, something paused or fell out of sync or changed colors and went fuzzy, and I was back to square one. This movie is going to be a confusing experience for people who try to watch it on a streaming service.

I suppose I ought to give the movie credit for at least trying to arrive at its scares atmospherically, through a creepy, well-placed message or gap in the action; it just overestimates exactly how scary a load screen can be. Generally, I don’t think its timing is all that great; every pause, every break in the action, every tense moment of waiting for a computer to complete a life-saving action, goes on exactly long enough to become boring.

So, the movie eventually starts relying on jump scares. And it just doesn’t have a prayer. Jump scares pretty much need that cinematography and editing we talked about earlier. Here, all the movie can do is try to make something burst into one of six mini-screens scattered across the larger frame. The jump scares either didn’t work or cut to something too inherently ridiculous to be anything other than funny (good grief, the blender scene).

Other than that, it’s a typical horror movie. The characters are alternately stupid and obnoxious — I can’t overstate how unwatchable the movie is prior to the scary stuff happening; you’re basically sitting in on a Skype session with the dumbest teenagers you know — and there isn’t really a plot beyond a ratcheting body count. The gimmick was never going to save it, so it says something that it only made things worse.

-Matt T.

White_God_posterWhite God (2015)

Starring- Zsofia Psotta, Sandor Zsoter, Lili Horvath, Szabolcs Thuroczy, Lili Monori, Karoly Ascher, Vanda Verle, Kornel Mundruczo

Director- Kornel Mundruczo

R- violent content including bloody images, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIGz2kyo26U

I feel safe saying that regardless of what happens between now and the end of the year, White God is 2015’s most…singular film. I’ve never seen anything like it — it takes an eclectic ensemble of highly specific and generally contradictory subgenres from throughout cinematic history and blends them into something fairly well unprecedented. For that reason alone, I don’t think I could possibly hate it. For the fact that it’s also quite good in its odd little way, I actually like it quite a bit.

Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is sent to live with her father (Sandor Zsoter), a cold, distant, easily angered man, for three months. He tries to get along with her but can’t be bothered with her guest — her beloved dog, Hagen. When the dog causes trouble — and it becomes clear that, since it’s a mixed breed, he’ll have to pay a tax for his trouble — he drives it out into the middle of the city and abandons it.

Now, Lili is on her own searching for her only real friend…and Hagen is doing everything he can to return to his beloved master.

White God would be a weird enough movie based on its premise alone. Structurally, most of its beats align with that long-gone subgenre of family films from the 1990s — beloved pet gets lost and tries to journey back to its picture-perfect owners. It just so happens that, in this case, the movie is shot through with R-rated brutality that sucks the “heartwarming” right out of it. In those old family films, the pet would experience a variety of funny but heartfelt adventures and return home none the worse for the wear. In this one, the pet gets abducted by dog fighters and tossed into a ring to get beaten and ripped apart. I don’t know that I want to call White God a manipulative film — yes, “endanger the dog” is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but this movie is specifically about animal abuse, so… Either way, you should know in advance that this is a tough sell for dog people. I am one, and there were definitely plenty of scenes that had to do no work whatsoever in order to get the proper feelings out of me. I had to keep taking breaks from this movie to let my own dogs know how much I love them and would absolutely never let this happen to them. I haven’t been this distressed by a dog-related movie since Amores Perros (which, in fairness, is probably worse than this film as far as dog abuse goes).

The film is strange enough for that juxtaposition, but from there, it only gets more unusual. Shortly after Hagen becomes the star of a dog-movie-as-horror-show, Lili’s subplot spirals off into an artsy coming-of-age story — with dashes of a relationship drama as her father’s human side starts to come out. And after that… I don’t know whether or not I should spoil it; the trailers already have, and the opening scene hints at it pretty strongly. Suffice to say that by the time the credits roll, White God becomes an absurd, violent B-movie wearing the skin of a somber art film. I really can’t overstate how weird it is.

So I think what impresses me most about White God is how cohesive it is. It branches off in so many directions, into so many different tones and styles, that it ought to be outright crumbling at the seams, but everything that happens feels somehow natural. There are never any dramatic tonal shifts; the film is only jarring when it means to be. It starts out as a stern, realistic art film and ends as a bombastic, silly, almost exploitative genre flick, and neither of those feel out of place positioned next to one another. Director Kornel Mundruczo is in total control of his film; he has no ideas its structure cannot accommodate. No matter where the film goes stylistically, it motivates everything so specifically and so clearly that the effect of it is completely believable, even at its most ludicrous. The art film works, the coming-of-age drama works, the R-rated dog movie works, the silly genre flourishes work. White God had me from the beginning and never lost me. Throw in some strong performances and some outright spectacular management of the canine co-stars — the trainers are the real stars of this film, in some scenes wrangling (according to what I’ve read) upward of 120 dogs — and you’ve got yourself a unique and well-made movie.

My only issue is that I don’t really know what any of it means. Of course, the obvious answer to that question is that it’s a condemnation of animal abuse, but that’s such a boilerplate viewpoint for a movie like this. It’s the absolute most obvious thing you could do, and it doesn’t, in its most simplistic format, warrant exploration at feature length — or at this level of brutality. I like some of what the film does here, contrasting overt animal cruelty with the behind-the-scenes, out-of-sight-out-of-mind animal cruelty that we’ve come to accept in some parts of the modern world (it’s no coincidence that one of the first scenes in the movie shows, in close-up, the unembellished skinning and gutting of a cow carcass at a meat plant). I also like the way the film’s style interacts with that premise — it shows the veneer of dignity we place over things like the meat industry using a low art story and a high art aesthetic. It’s still a simplistic take, though, and something that doesn’t fit into every decision the film makes.

Mundruczo has sort of been giving the game away on the interview circuit, saying he intended the film as a metaphor both for class interactions and a rising white supremacist/nationalist movement in parts of Europe. Saying as much actually cost me some of my estimation for White God because I think it sends that message really, really badly. The problems are widespread, but they could be summarized thusly: White God does nothing whatsoever to signal this metaphorical undercurrent. I’m not sure how you’d detect it without having read the interview. Even so, it’s another case where the metaphor isn’t an exact enough match to play on those emotions and ideas properly. It’s the one sense in which, to me, the film seems to be utterly inept. It’s so completely in control of its story and tone that it’s almost surprising how clumsy it is on the thematic level.

Regardless: White God is extremely unique and very well done.

-Matt T.