Movie Review: “True Story”

Starring
Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Robert John Burke
Director
Rupert Goold

Jonah Hill and James Franco have shown off their dramatic chops in a variety of projects over the past five years, earning Oscar nominations along the way (Hill for “Moneyball” and Franco for “127 Hours”), but for some reason, it’s still difficult to imagine the pair starring together in a movie that isn’t a comedy. Perhaps it’s their association to Seth Rogen’s all-star group of friends, yet no matter how weird it might be to see them sharing the screen in a starkly serious drama like “True Story,” they do a commendable job with the material. The film is pretty standard fare that, considering the crazy-but-true nature of the story, deserved something a little more memorable than this, but it’s to no fault of the actors involved.

In late 2001, journalist Mike Finkel (Hill) was fired from his job at the New York Times when it was revealed that he fudged some of the facts in his latest feature about child slavery in West Africa. Around that same time, Oregon resident Chris Longo (Franco) was arrested for the murder of his wife and three kids after briefly hiding out in Mexico where he had been posing as Finkel. The reason? He was a fan of his work. When Mike learns about these strange events, he contacts Chris requesting to speak with him, who agrees to tell Mike his side of the story in exchange for writing lessons and the promise that nothing will be published until after the trial. For Mike, it’s a chance to redeem his career, but as he spends more time with Chris and becomes convinced that he may actually be innocent, he’s unwittingly pulled into Chris’ game.

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Movie Review: “Ex Machina”

Starring
Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Director
Alex Garland

Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre (from “Sunshine,” to “Never Let Me Go,” to “Dredd”), so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland has a really good track record when it comes to putting a fresh spin on familiar material (see: “28 Days Later”), and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina.” A smart and chilling piece of sci-fi that packs a punch, the movie is so self-assuredly efficient in the way that it utilizes its various parts that it doesn’t feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker at all.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a young programmer at Internet search engine Blue Book who’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. Although Caleb is excited just to have the opportunity to meet and hang out with the tech genius, Nathan has other plans: namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human. But when Caleb begins to develop feelings for Ava during the course of their conversations, he begins to question whether her sexuality has been programmed by Nathan or if her mutual attraction is real. As he digs deeper into Nathan’s research, Caleb discovers that there’s more to his work than he’s letting on.

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Blu Tuesday: Big Eyes, Batman vs. Robin and Odd Man Out

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Big Eyes”

WHAT: In 1958, aspiring artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaves her husband for a fresh start in San Francisco, and before long, she marries smooth-talking artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). But when Walter starts taking credit for Margaret’s kitschy paintings (after all, they both sign their art “Keane,” and Walter insists they’re a team), the lie grows so big that Margaret is unable to stop it in fear that the whole Keane empire, and her life’s work, will be tarnished in the process.

WHY: Tim Burton’s first live-action feature to not star Johnny Depp in over a decade may be a bit of a departure for the oddball director, but “Big Eyes” is his best film in years, even if that comes off like a backhanded compliment considering some of the recent garbage he’s released. Amy Adams delivers an outstanding performance as Margaret Keane, whose façade of female empowerment is stripped away by Walter’s passive-aggressive bullying, leaving behind an emotionally defeated shell of a woman that Adams plays with such honesty that you feel her heartbreak with every betrayal. And though Christoph Waltz’s bombastic fraud isn’t afforded the same level of complexity, he still takes what could have been a one-dimensional character and turns him into somewhat of a tragic figure, so desperate for recognition that it’s sad to watch as he becomes consumed by his own lie. Unfortunately, “Big Eyes” doesn’t feel like a Burton movie at all, to the point that it makes you wonder what drew such a creative and visual filmmaker to what’s pretty standard biopic material. Kudos to the director for taking a break from his usual genre leanings in order to make a more straightforward drama, but while “Big Eyes” features some strong lead performances and a fascinating story, just like Margaret Keane’s paintings, it never amounts to more than a pleasant distraction.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some Q&A highlights.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Batman vs. Robin”

WHAT: After being trained as a killer by Ra’s al Ghul, young Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan) is having difficulty adjusting to Batman’s moral code and his new role as Robin. So when a secret society known as the Court of Owls tries to recruit Damian to their cause, he’s forced to decide what kind of hero he wants to be: one that seeks justice or vengeance.

WHY: “Batman vs. Robin” is just the latest in a line of mediocre animated films from DC Comics. The biggest problem with the movie is its horribly misleading title, because the dynamic duo only faces off against each other once, and even then, it’s a relatively brief skirmish that ranks as the weakest of the included action scenes. A direct sequel to last year’s “Son of Batman,” the movie integrates elements from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s popular “The Court of Owls” story arc into the continuing narrative of Damian’s transformation into Robin. Unfortunately, Damian is such an incredibly annoying character (made even worse by Stuart Allan’s irritating voice work) that you don’t care what happens to the pint-sized brat, and the story suffers as a result. The rest of the characters don’t fare any better, particularly Batman, who resorts to fighting inside a lame robot suit for the climactic battle in what the filmmakers probably thought would be the film’s crowd-pleasing moment. Instead, it’s when Alfred enters the fray seconds later armed with a shotgun, and for as great as that moment may be, it’s a rare highlight in an otherwise forgettable movie.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with the filmmakers, a pair of featurettes on the Court of Owls and the Talons of the Owls, a sneak peek at “Justice League: Gods & Monsters” and four bonus cartoons from the DC Comics vault.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Odd Man Out”

WHAT: When IRA gunman Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is shot during a failed robbery in Northern Ireland, he’s forced to go on the run, seeking refuge throughout the city while being hunted by the police. As Johnny’s fellow conspirators are captured one by one, his lover (Kathleen Ryan) enlists the help of the local priest to track him down.

WHY: Carol Reed is probably best known as the director of “The Third Man,” and for good reason, because it’s one of the greatest films of the 1940s. Just two years before making that movie, however, Reed directed an adaptation of F.L. Green’s novel, “Odd Man Out,” and though it shares many of the same visual cues as “The Third Man,” it doesn’t hold up as well. That’s partly because it’s very much a product of its time, and as such, there are a lot of silly things that transpire over the course of the film that simply don’t make sense. (The fact that all of the characters refer to McQueen’s criminal group as “the organization” and not the IRA, which it very clearly is, smacks of political censorship.) Additionally, the setup is weak and the ensuing story isn’t particularly interesting, losing focus in the latter half as it devolves into a bunch of metaphysical psychobabble. James Mason delivers some good work as the speechless, almost zombified protagonist, and Kathleen Ryan is the unsung hero of the piece, but it doesn’t have the “wow” factor of “The Third Man” to make up for its lesser qualities.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of new interviews with British cinema scholar John Hill and music scholar Jeff Smith, there’s a new featurette about the film’s production, the 1972 documentary “Home, James,” the 1952 radio adaptation of the movie, and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Drink of the Week: The Proud Rebel (TCM Fest Salute #2)

The Proud Rebel.I know from all too personal experience that creating a new cocktail is a lot easier than crafting a compelling film story. Yet, they’re not entirely dissimilar in that sometimes you need one final ingredient to bring everything together…even if that final ingredient is a bit of a cliche. Yes, just as the too-little known 1958 western/family drama “The Proud Rebel” kind of needed the slightly contrived gunfight that ends it to bring everything together for a satisfying conclusion, the cocktail it inspired in me never really became something to be proud of until I came up with the idea of topping the thing off with soda water. 0 points for originality, but I’d rather win ugly than not win at all.

I like my drink quite a bit but I like the recently restored and sincerely entertaining film I was lucky to see at this year’s TCM Fest even more. As a pretty obvious follow-up to 1953’s “Shane,” also starring Alan Ladd, “The Proud Rebel” doesn’t get a huge number of points as groundbreaking cinema but it’s big traditionalist heart more than makes for up for it.No disrespect to the great George Stevens, who I actually think is a better director than “Proud Rebel” helmer Michael Curtiz in many respects, but in this case I prefer the quasi-knock-off to the original.

The kicker here is that, instead of chatty Brandon de Wilde as the surrogate son of ex-gunfighter Shane, we have Mr. Ladd’s real-life son, David, forced to act almost entirely without words as the progeny of a former confederate soldier struck mute by the wartime death of his mother. The 10 year-old, who would eventually become a major Hollywood player as an executive and producer, performs brilliantly not only with his legendary dad, but the film’s equally formidable leading lady, Olivia de Haviland (“The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Gone with the Wind,” just for starters).

Oh, and there’s also a dog, played by two very convincing and charismatic canine performers (billed collectively as “King.”) And, yeah, I got choked up a couple of times. What’s it’s to you?

Sure, the movie has a somewhat disturbing undercurrent, as did many postbellum westerns, given that we’re told Alan Ladd character was once wealthy prior to the war and we all know what wealthy Southerners routinely did that, er, kinda sorta started the Civil War. Still, the drive of a father to help his son live a full life and the love of a boy for his dog pretty much transcends everything in a movie like this.

As for the drink, and yeah, there really is a drink buried in here, it’s kind of an Old Fashioned striking out out its own. This beverage lives up to it’s name. It does not back down and it takes care of what’s important.

The Proud Rebel

1 1/2 ounces Laird’s Applejack
1/2 ounce Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
1 teaspoon Southern Comfort
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1-2 ounces soda water
2 apple slices
1 dash aromatic bitters

Muddle an apple slice in a shaker, it might take a little bit of effort, but the more juice you get out of it, the better. Next, add all of the liquid ingredients, except for the carbonated water, together with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously, and strain — just once, no need for any highfalutin’ double straining — into a rocks glass with ice. Then, add your second apple slice as a garnish and top off with soda water, stirring gently. Toast the basic yet crucial ties that can, in a really good story, make themes as potentially bland as family ties and simple human decency enormously compelling.

****

I decided that applejack should make a return after being prominently featured in last week’s selection because, as I said last week, this might just be the most American of all base spirits…though many would certainly argue that rye or bourbon whiskey should have that honor. Splitting the difference, I’ve once again combined the two, this time spicing up my relatively mild blended 80 proof Laird’s with the 120 proof Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, which I happened to have on hand because of the kindly gods of PR who send me free stuff.

As I said above, adding the maple syrup, Southern Comfort, and crushed apple slice, made for an okay modification of an Old Fashioned…but just okay. It really needed an ounce or so of carbonated water to push the thing over the top. And it fits the movie, too. Because Alan Ladd’s character really is a proud guy, too proud at times. And fizzy water is proud, too? Right? Well, it’s fizzy.

  

Movie Review: “Kill Me Three Times”

Starring
Simon Pegg, Teresa Palmer, Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Callan Mulvey, Luke Hemsworth, Bryan Brown
Director
Kriv Stenders

“Kill Me Three Times” is the sort of Quentin Tarantino poser film that peaked in the early ‘00s, when Blockbuster was still the king of home video. That’s how dated director Kriv Stenders’ latest movie feels, and unlike Tarantino’s oeuvre (as well as the really good imitators, like Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock” and “Snatch”), it lacks the colorful dialogue or characters to make up for its derivative story. Though Stenders deserves some credit for assembling such a game cast, the film never quite comes together. “Kill Me Three Times” wants to be both a dark comedy and a stylish crime thriller, but the contrasting tones only end up stifling one another, underlining just how few genuine laughs and thrills that it has to offer.

Set in a sun-drenched coastal town of Australia, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Charlie Wolfe, a professional hitman who’s been hired to follow a woman named Alice (Alice Braga) when her abusive husband (Callan Mulvey) suspects her of having an affair with the local mechanic (Luke Hemsworth). After Charlie delivers proof of Alice’s adultery and is asked to finish the job by killing her, Charlie learns that he may not have to get his hands dirty at all when he stumbles upon a plot by his client’s sister (Teresa Palmer) and her meek dentist husband (Sullivan Stapleton) to settle a large gambling debt by killing Alice as part of an elaborate insurance scam. Charlie’s biggest problem is believing he can trust a couple of amateurs to do a professional’s job, setting into motion a cycle of murder, blackmail and revenge that reaches as far as the town’s crooked police officer (Bryan Brown).

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