Category Archives: Now Showing

TRUE STORY

Producer: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Anthony Katagas 
Director:  Rupert Goold
Writer:  Rupert Goold and David Kajganich
Stars:  Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol and Ethan Suplee
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

B-

Two damaged men forge an unlikely—and for at least one clearly unhealthy—relationship in “True Story,” a fact-based but slow-paced legal thriller notable more for its cast than its narrative momentum. This first feature film from noted British theatre director Rupert Goold develops a somberly creepy mood while showcasing performances from James Franco and Jonah Hill that are remarkable for their restraint, but the tale of a disgraced journalist and an accused murderer carries little of the emotional wallop of the similar tale told by Bennett Miller in “Capote.” It’s intriguing rather than shattering.

Hill plays Mike Finkel, an ambitious young writer for the New York Times who’s fired in 2001 after his bosses discover that he’d created a composite character for a Sunday magazine article on the African slave trade. Professionally disgraced, he retreats to the remote Montana home he shares with wife Jill (Felicity Jones), a rare book librarian. Unable to interest anyone in his story ideas, he becomes depressed until a caller asks for his reaction to the fact that Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of killing his wife and three children, had been using his name while on the lam in Mexico.

Smelling a possible irresistible story as well as a way to redeem himself, Mike approaches the incarcerated Longo for a talk that quickly morphs into a deal: Longo will give him an exclusive if he’ll agree to withhold publication until after the trial—and help him improve his own writing. Before long Finkel’s made a deal for a book that, he expects, will prove the innocence of a man universally reviled for killing his family.

Although the outcome of Longo’s trial is a matter of public record, the movie—adapted by Goold and David Kajganich from Finkel’s memoir—teases viewers with doubts about his guilt, putting them into the same position Finkel was in as he was talking to the man. Much of the running-time is devoted to one-on-one dialogues between the two, which might have had a deadening effect were the choices that he, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editors Christopher Tellefsen and Nicolas de Toth not so canny and the performances by Franco and Hill not so quietly telling. To be sure, the periodic insertion of flashbacks to Longo’s family life and the killings is merely intrusive rather than unsettling, and the concentration on Finkel and Longo throws all other characters into the shadow. (Jones, for example, is given a few thankless scenes earlier on and one confrontation with Longo toward the close, but Jill is a fairly thin role for a recent Oscar nominee.)

The other major problem with “True Story” is, of course, that while it’s the story of two damaged men, the level of their alleged wrongdoing is vastly different. A journalistic crime like fudging the facts in a story for narrative effect is a significant lapse, but it’s hardly on a par with murdering four people. And while his memoir was a blatant attempt to reclaim some of his professional status—in effect, an apologia—the film needn’t have gone quite so far in that same direction. Finkel suffers so much here—and not just from the asthmatic attacks that crop up with predictable regularity—that his struggles take on an almost operatic air. You have to wonder whether Finkel is worthy of such treatment.

Happily, Hill’s understatement in the role lessens the heavy-handedness, and Franco’s equal degree of restraint keeps Longo from degenerating into a smarmy manipulator until the story demands it. (He could have played to the rafters in the scene in which he testifies on his own behalf, but wisely holds back, even though the “tells” in what he says are a mite obvious as written.) It’s refreshing to learn that both men, whose turns in comedies have throw the slightest hint of subtlety to the winds, still retain the facility to act.

“True Story” also benefits from the locations—the wind-swept Oregon coasts, the snow-packed Montana wilderness—that Takayanagi lingers on lovingly—and from Jeremy Hindle’s elegantly-appointed production design, Deborah Jensen’s attractive art direction, and David Schlesinger’s spot-on set decoration. Marco Beltrami’s atmospheric score—a far cry from the bombast he’s served up so often in the past—is another plus.

One of the truths about “True Story” is that, on screen as well as the page, it can come across as too much special pleading on behalf of Finkel, a man who will still strike many as a man sorrier for getting caught than for what he did. Just as it doesn’t match “Capote” in terms of the relationship that develops between accused and reporter, it fails to equal “Shattered Glass” in terms of its treatment of journalistic malfeasance. But on a less exalted level, it remains a two-hander that raises interesting questions about truth, guilt and redemption, even if it doesn’t handle them as incisively as it might have done.

THE SISTERHOOD OF NIGHT

Producer:  Lydia Dean Pilcher and Elizabeth Cuthrell
Director: Caryn Waechter 
Writer:  Marilyn Fu
Stars:  Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Willa Cuthrell, Olivia DeJonge, Kal Penn, Laura Fraser, Gary Wilmes, Neal Huff, Morgan Turner, Evan Kuzma and Deema Aitken
Studio: Freestyle Releasing 

C+

Caryn Waechter’s debut feature has a distinguished pedigree: it was adapted by Marilyn Fu from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Millhauser. But while “The Sisterhood of Night” certainly has the ambition to be a poetic treatment of the angst that fills the lives of many teen girls (and its sometimes uncomfortable ramifications), in the end the film, while very nicely fashioned, winds up as an oddly prosaic cautionary tale dressed up in quasi-literary duds. The inspiration might be the Salem Witch Trials, but bringing the message they carry into the age of cyberbullying in the blogosphere gives things the air of an upscale afterschool special.

The setting is the small New York town of Kingston, where Mary Warren (Georgie Henley), a rebellious semi-goth high-schooler, undermines the drama audition of Emily Parris (Kara Hayward), a nervous sort who retaliates by stealing Mary’s phone and printing all her texts on the blog she’s anxious to expand. Mary responds not by retaliating via social media, but instead by going offline entirely—and recruiting select girls for a secret sisterhood that meets periodically in the woods at night. Her initial choices are Lavinia Hall (Olivia DeJonge) and Catherine Huang (Willa Cuthrell)—the one distraught over her parents’ recent divorce, the other worried about her ill mother—and in time she’ll add others to the roster; but she pointedly excludes Emily, who’s desperate for acceptance at all costs.

The slight leads Emily to follow the girls into the woods and then claim that the sisterhood is a sinister cult, given to strange nocturnal rituals with a distinctly sexual edge. The scandalous revelations cause widespread concern among parents, and will eventually have unfortunate professional ramifications for Gordy Gambhir (Kal Penn), the campus guidance counselor who tries to get at the truth (and serves as a narrator for us). But they have a positive effect on Emily’s blog, which becomes a magnet for young girls who claim to have been sexually abused and want to share their stories. They also win her support from some classmates, who falsely attest that they too were objects of the cult’s malevolent practices. Sarah (Morgan Turner), one of Emily’s more obnoxious followers, induces Travis (Deema Aitken), a cute guy fragile Lavinia is infatuated with, to induce her into the woods on Halloween night, where they humiliate her and post video of the altercation on the web. A tragic aftermath induces Emily to confess her lie, Mary to reveal what the sisterhood is all about, and the two to join in an expression of sisterly comradeship.

For the most part Fu and Waechter take this scenario very seriously, with only Penn on hand to add some mild levity to the proceedings with his wry delivery and engaging air. But while the young cast—especially Henley, who’s able to express an almost scarily intense attitude while maintaining an undercurrent of vulnerability—are almost uniformly excellent (the exceptions being Hayward and Turner, who can’t shake an amateurish feel), the plot often comes across as scattered. There’s a subplot involving Mary’s relationship to Jeff (Evan Kuzma), a pleasant classmate with a bent for photography; but nothing comes of it. And Emily’s entire turnaround comes across as a literary conceit rather than a plausible outcome. (Her mother Sue, played as a religious zealot by Jessica Hecht, is also drawn rather broadly, as is Lavinia’s hysterical mother Rose, played by Laura Fraser.)

In portraying the sisterhood’s activities, moreover, Waechter strives for a level of strange beauty she never achieves. Watching Mary and her cohorts gamboling about in flowing robes has about the same effect that the springtime activities of the residents of Sommerisle did in “The Wicker Man”—less enthralling than slightly absurd.

Still, in comparison to other films about teens trying to cope with the pressures of school and home, “The Sisterhood of Night” is notable for its ambition and refusal to resort to easy tropes. If it doesn’t quite surmount all the obstacles inherent in the genre, at least it tries.