American Animals


These aren’t your father’s Reservoir Dogs although they may look it.

(2018) True Crime (The Orchard) Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson, Drew Starkey, Lara Grice, Jane McNeill, Wayne Duvall, Gary Basaraba, Kevin L. Johnson, Whitney Goin, Jason Caceres, Gretchen Koerner, Elijah Everett, Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, Betty Jean Gooch. Directed by Bart Layton

Everything looks easier in the movies. Real life is significantly harder. In real life, the hero doesn’t get the girl let alone ride off into the sunset with her, luck doesn’t side with the virtuous and crime never ever pays.

In 2004, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky was rocked by the violent robbery that took place in their rare books section. It was further rocked when it turned out that the perpetrators were students attending the university (and the neighboring University of Kentucky). All of the criminals came from well-to-do or at least comfortably middle class families. None of them had a history of criminal behavior. So what happened?

Layton, a veteran British TV documentarian with one previous feature film (The Imposter) to his credit, fuses comedy and drama along with the documentary in this his first narrative feature film in a startling mash-up that moves at a frenetic pace like the best of Steven Soderbergh’s heist movies. He casts a quartet of talented young actors to play the leads and then utilizes the actual subjects themselves to insert commentary that is often contradictory as human recollection often is, and at times even interact with their fictional selves.

The mastermind is Warren Lipka (Peters), a young man who suspects that he will lead an unremarkable life, a fate worse than death in his opinion. If he doesn’t have the temperament or the skills to do something for the betterment of all, well it’s better to be infamous than un-famous. His childhood best friend is Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), who while touring his university is shown the John James Audubon first edition Birds of America, one of the most valuable books in the world and one that happens to be housed at Transylvania University. When he remarks upon it to his friend, the wheels begin turning in Lipka’s mind as he sees it as the way to make his mark. He’s seen enough heist movies to know what is needed to make the robbery work.

At first the discussions are all very theoretical but gradually over time these discussions cross the line into planning an actual robbery. The two know they could never pull this off on their own so they rope in fellow students Eric Borsuk (Abrahamson), a mega-organized math whiz, and entitled jock Chas Allen (Jenner) who will drive the getaway car. Their only obstacle; the kindly middle-aged librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Dowd) who is physically present in the library at all times. The boys are confident they can overcome the security measures protecting the book.

While the movie doesn’t have the pizzazz, the flair or the star power of the Oceans franchise, it does have a tone all its own and a unique viewpoint. While the gimmick of conflicting testimony has been used in other movies before (notably and most recently I, Tonya) it is utilized brilliantly here and doesn’t seem gimmicky at all.

This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival; it was also at Sundance where it made a notable splash. There is good reason for both of those facts; this is a wildly entertaining and occasionally poignant film with enough teen hubris to choke a horse. It’s just now completing its theatrical run at the Enzian and will shortly be available on VOD although I would highly recommend that readers in Orlando check it out at the Enzian. While there is one brutal and shocking scene of violence that might be difficult for the sensitive, this is essential viewing and all efforts should be made to see this movie one way or another. The real crime is if you fail to do so.

REASONS TO GO: This is a refreshingly original take on the heist film. Layton mashes up drama, comedy and documentary into a new genre all its own. The pacing is perfect. Fine performances by Keoghan and Jenner.
REASONS TO STAY: There is one scene that may be a little bit too much for those sensitive to violence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and a scene of brutal violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set at Transylvania University in Kentucky where the events actually happened, the movie was filmed in North Carolina at Davidson College.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
A Quiet Place

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Texas Killing Fields


Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

(2011) True Crime (Anchor Bay) Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Stephen Graham, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee, Corie Berkemeyer, Becky Fly, James Hebert, Joe Chrest, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann

Some places are just bad. You can feel the malevolence when you walk into them. They seem to attract tragedy and trouble. The fields outside Texas City are like that. Half-swamp, they have periodically been a dumping place for bodies, particularly those of young females, over the years. The place has attracted a myriad of serial killers – and yes, this isn’t the movie. This is real.

In the movie however, we’re focusing on one killer but more to the point, to the cops chasing him. Det. Brian Heigh (Morgan) is a transplant from New York City. He’s a tough guy sure, but he has a tender side and the sight of a murdered girl on the pavement near the killing fields is enough to make him pray for her soul over her body.

His partner Mike Souder (Worthington) is a bit more cynical. A native of the Texas City area, he’s a fine detective but his personal life is all messed up. His ex-wife Pam (Chastain) works for a different law enforcement agency; it is in her purview that the fields fall whereas Mike and Brian are Texas City policemen. Mike is somewhat bitter about the break-up and wants nothing to do with Pam, even when it becomes clear that their investigation would benefit from working together.

Into this mix comes Little Ann Sliger (Moretz) – and yes, that’s her name, Little Ann. She’s a teen whose mother Lucie (Lee) is a drug addict whose parenting skills could use some work. Little Ann is the poster child for “at-risk.” Lucie is more interested in getting laid and getting high than getting Little Ann seen to, and consequently she’s getting into some increasingly serious trouble. Naturally Brian becomes protective of the young girl who is tough on the outside but tender on the inside – just like him. Brian’s wife Gwen (Gish) is less enchanted with the idea but keeps her peace.

As bodies begin to mount up, the suspicion begins to point to a local pimp, a malevolent thug and a kind of simple moron who can’t get away from trouble. All three are moving towards different conclusions but the one at the center of the murders is not one to let a cop get too close – and the collision course between pursued and pursuer is drawing near.

While this is said to be based on fact, there really is little more true here than that the killing fields near Texas City have become a notorious dumping ground for bodies of people from all over the I-45 corridor between Houston and Galveston. The script was written by a former DEA agent and has the kind of authenticity that can only come from someone who has lived the life and not just written about it.

If the directorial style looks familiar, it should. Mann is the daughter of Michael Mann who has made a career of some really good police procedurals including the Miami Vice series and movie as well as Collateral and Thief among others. She emulates her father’s style quite nicely, carrying a nice visual sense with a penchant for darkness and neon. Danny Boyle was once attached to this project but turned it down, saying that the script was so dark it would never get made. He went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire instead so I guess he made the right call seeing as he won the Oscar for it and all.

Morgan pulls out all the stops and delivers an impressive performance. His character is contradictory but not outside the realm of reason. He actually makes a pretty satisfactory partner for Worthington who does his best work here since The Debt. Mike’s got some issues of his own and certainly his scenes with his ex are some of the most incendiary of the movie.

What doesn’t work here is that the movie is so damn predictable. It starts out with the police procedural thing going on and any veteran watchers of Law and Order: SVU and CSI are going to have no trouble predicting what’s going to happen next. The last third is more or less a TV mystery movie with slightly rougher language and just as predictable.

There is a good movie here, although disappointingly enough, it’s not this one. In fact, this one’s just decent, memorable for Morgan and Worthington but little else. Chastain, who went on to greater heights, is also worth admiring here and Moretz acquits herself honorably as well (and ten points to anyone who can recognize Lee by face as the most famous corpse on TV nearly 20 years ago). However, you’ve seen this movie before unless of course you don’t watch a lot of these sorts of movies. Then and only then will it all seem new to you.

WHY RENT THIS: Morgan and Worthington make a good team, with Morgan particularly effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little anti-climactic. Relies too much on police procedural cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would imagine there’s some violence, some sexual innuendo and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Worthington and Chastain previously teamed up in The Debt.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $957,240 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this was not a money maker.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Onion Field

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Holy Motors

Changeling


Changeling

Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a mother taking on a corrupt system to find her missing son.

(Universal) Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Michael Kelly, Jason Butler Harner, Gatatlin Griffith, Devon Conti, Frank Harris. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As parents, our job is to protect our children. We can’t be with them 24-7 and bad things can happen even when we’re around. The worst thing that can happen to a parent is said to be the death of a child; however, worse still might be not knowing.

Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single mother, something of a rarity in the Los Angeles of 1928. Her husband was incarcerated, but she and her son Walter (Griffith) were getting along just fine. Christine worked as a telephone operator and was sure to be promoted shortly. They lived in a small bungalow on a quiet little street. They went to the movies and had ice cream afterwards. Life was good.

Unfortunately, Christine got called into work one Saturday, forcing her to disappoint her son Walter as they had plans to attend the movies. She kissed him on the head, promised him they would go to Santa Monica Pier the next day and nagged him to stay inside until she got back.

When she got back that evening, Walter was gone. Nobody on the quiet street had seen him go. Frantic, she called the police who assured her he was probably somewhere in the neighborhood and he would surely be back before morning. All that long night she waited, but he never returned. Finally, she went to the police station where Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly) took her statement and promised to look for the boy. Days turned into weeks and still there was no sign of him.

The case was becoming an embarrassment for the Los Angeles Police Department. Already under fire for corruption and incompetence, pressure was coming from Chief Davis (Feore) on down to Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) to resolve the case. Finally, several months later, they finally caught a break; a boy in DeKalb, Illinois claimed to be Walter Collins. He was put on a train for Los Angeles, with the press invited to witness the happy reunion.

Except that when Christine Collins laid eyes on the boy claiming to be her son, she knew it wasn’t him. For one thing, he was three inches shorter than Walter was. When she took him to the dentist, his records didn’t match. When she took him to school, none of the classmates or teachers knew him, nor did he know who they were.

When she expressed her misgivings to the Police, they called her insane. The case was closed and the Police wished no further embarrassment. They tried to sweep it under the rug, but Christine Collins wasn’t the sort of woman to go into the night quietly. She railed publically and vocally, with the aid of crusading radio preacher Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) who had been calling attention to corruption within the LAPD for years and saw this case as the crystallization of everything he had been warning his listeners about.

The lengths Christine Collins would have to go to, the tribulations she would undergo and the facts of the case of Walter Collins became this extraordinary story, all the more remarkable because the events were true. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, best known for creating the science fiction universe of “Babylon 5,” meticulously crafts a story so richly detailed and gripping that you are on the edge of your seat for the two hours plus running time of the movie.

Eastwood also meticulously recreates the Los Angeles of 1928, and wisely allows the story to unfold simply, without calling attention to technique. He allows the story to be presented organically; you’re barely aware that he’s directing at all, which is to my mind the mark of a great director. Even so, it’s a great looking movie.

Jolie delivers perhaps the best performance of her career. Although she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, she carries this movie on her back. Her desperation and despair show through her civil façade, which cracks the longer the story goes on. At no time do you not believe the emotional strain the character is under. She got nominated for Best Actress for this role, and although she would lose to Kate Winslet, there is certainly an argument that this was the superior performance.

There are some grisly scenes that are going to be disturbing to people who are sensitive to such things. The last portion of the movie does a complete turn, and you would be well-advised to be aware of it. There is a scene where Detective Ybarra questions a young boy who lived at the Wineville Chicken Ranch of Gordon Northcott (Harner) that is as terrifying a scene as you will ever witness. These are the kind of images that induce nightmares.

Eastwood is approaching 80 years old but he seems to be hitting his creative stride, producing one amazing movie after another. It is hard to watch in places, granted, but that is due to the subject matter more than the director. Those who love quality movies should seek this out if they haven’t already seen it and even then, it bears repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: A gripping true-life crime story that has twists and turns so bizarre and so terrible that nobody could possibly make it up. Great performances from Jolie and Malkovich lead a very solid cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes depicting violence to children are very disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of children in jeopardy as well as the discovery of their remains; as good as this is, it is definitely NOT for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer J. Michael Straczynski heard about the case of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders from a source at Los Angeles City Hall where the records for the case were about to be destroyed. Instead, Straczynski took the records himself and became so engrossed in the story that he exhaustively researched the case; each event in the film occurs as cited in legal documents referring to the case and dialogue is often verbatim from court transcripts. He wrote the first draft in only eleven days and Eastwood agreed to direct within hours of reading it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which overlays the photographs of the actual people being portrayed, as well as newspaper events of the actual events and period photographs of the locations utilized in the film. It’s really impressive stuff, especially for a history buff like me.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Town

Hollywoodland


Hollywoodland

Adrien Brody gets ready to punch out this photographer in preparing for his next role as Sean Penn.

(Focus) Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Molly Parker, Robin Tunney, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano, Dash Mihok, Lois Smith, Zach Mills, Larry Cedar, Seamus Dever, Daisy Fuentes. Directed by Allen Coulter

Fame is a glittering object, dazzling and seductive. Many are seduced by the incandescent glow that promises immortality, adoration and wealth. Fame is also vain, fickle and cruel and it can turn on you, eat you alive from the inside and spit you out, a desiccated husk. It has happened in Hollywood too many times to count and the names of those who fell victim to the allure of Tinseltown is long. One name on it is George Reeves.

Reeves (Affleck) is an actor who once had a small role in Gone With the Wind. He came to Hollywood looking for fame and glory and finding it a political entity in which the major studios had absolute autocratic control. Trying to break in, despite his matinee idol looks and acting chops, is near-impossible. However, he does manage to land a role in a TV series that doesn’t have much of a chance for survival – in fact, it has no sponsor whatsoever, usually the kiss of death in the television landscape of the 1950s.

Still, Reeves needs the money and although he has doubts about the quality of the show and his role in it, he takes the paycheck and dons the grey and brown tights of – Superman. The show becomes a hit to everyone’s surprise and Kellogg’s Cereal takes the sponsorship of the show, allowing them to film in color (and allowing Reeves to don the more familiar blue and red tights seen in the comic books).

Reeves becomes a hero to million of kids and his life is forever changed. He chafes under the restrictions of the role and fears that typecasting as Superman will effectively end his aspirations for a serious acting career, fears that are realized after Superman is canceled. Despondent over what is apparently a dead-end dream, he says good night to some guests (which included his fiancee, Lenore Lemmon (Tunney) whom he was due to marry in three days) at a small dinner party in his home the evening of June 16, 1959, calmly walked upstairs and shot himself in the head.

The police called it a suicide and closed the case with unseemly haste. The victim’s mother, Helen Bessolo (Smith) contracts a private investigator to look into a case that the police have already written off. Louis Cimo (Brody) is a bottom feeder, reduced to accepting money from a delusional paranoid (Cedar) who believes with absolute certainty that his wife is cheating on him, despite the lack of any evidence to support his claim. Cimo, a headstrong headline-hunting investigator who prefers to do much of his work through the press, is divorced and living a squalid existence. When a police buddy (Mihok) steers Cimo towards Bessolo, he takes on what he hopes will be a high-profile case that might get him noticed, and in turn generate more business.

As he investigates further, he begins to find out more about the man George Reeves. He discovers early on that Reeves is having an affair with Toni Mannix (Lane), the aging wife of powerhouse mogul Eddie Mogul (Hoskins), a bigwig at MGM. She buys him a house and supports him in getting the part that he will forever become identified with, much to the delight of his agent (DeMunn). Still, George chafes at his situation; he doesn’t necessarily want to be a kept man.

As Cimo delves into the case, things turn ugly. He is given a terrible beating and warned to back off. He becomes disillusioned when one of his previous cases turns to tragedy, and he descends further into alcoholism, imperiling his relationship with his son (Mills) and his estranged wife (Parker). As he gets closer to the truth, he realizes that the truth is a dangerous commodity in a town built on creating illusion.

This is a film noir thriller at heart, one which relies on shadows and grit to create a mood. There is a certain degree of fatalism in the movie; the more we get to know Reeves, the more likable he becomes and the more tragic his death is. Director Coulter, whose background is in some of HBO’s most critically acclaimed series including The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Six Feet Under, recreates Hollywood in the late ‘50s nicely. Although the studios remain all-powerful, their grip is slowly slipping as the aging moguls rail against the TV monster that is evaporating their audience before their eyes. It is a town built on the dreams and the desperations of the young, and both qualities are captured nicely.

It doesn’t hurt that Coulter has a terrific cast to draw on. Lane, Brody and Hoskins are all Oscar winners or nominees, and they all do exceptional work here. Brody, in particular, has the most expressive eyes I think in Hollywood; often the expression in his eyes is far more telling than the dialogue.

Better still is Affleck, whose career has been on the downswing ever since his disastrous hook-up with J-Lo. He is charismatic, vulnerable and flawed and he makes George Reeves a real, breathing human being which is a difficult task given that most of us that remember him at all remember the smiling man in the horrible Superman suit. This is the kind of performance that can really turn things around for him and get him some roles that better suit his talents than the ones he has been reduced to lately.

The movie presents several of the theories of what really happened to Reeves to this day. Although suicide continues to be the official verdict, there are many who believe that Reeves was murdered, a belief that persists to this day. Eddie Mannix, who had mob ties, may have been responsible as well as his fiancee, whom it was rumored that George was going to break up with. Most who knew him couldn’t believe that he was suicidal; he had just started filming a new Alfred Hitchcock movie (which turned out to be Psycho – his scenes were refilmed with Martin Balsam in the role) and he was optimistic that he had a future as a director or producer.

The movie does seem to take a position at the very end (although the filmmakers are coy even with this) and you won’t walk out of the theater with a feeling like you know what happened. At this point, it is unlikely that the questions surrounding the case will ever be answered. Still, this is an extremely entertaining movie, well-acted and nicely put together. The language is a little raw, and the movie is a little short on lightness to balance the darkness, but all in all this is something I can confidently recommend to just about anyone. Note the “R” rating, however.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck nails his role, making Reeves feel both human and vulnerable as well as egotistical and frustrated. Director Coulter captures the period and the place nicely. Supporting cast is superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly grim. Anyone looking for insight into the death of George Reeve may walk away disappointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic violence, particularly in the depiction of Reeves’ death, as well as some sexuality and a great deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Alvis automobile that Reeves is shown washing is an extremely rare vehicle which the producers had a difficult time finding but eventually had one of the few remaining models shipped to the set for filming. Reeves actually drove an Alvis, although not the same model shown here.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bourne Ultimatum