True Story 2015 ***


Perhaps it’s the banal title, but Rupert Goold’ s adaptation of Mike Finkel’s account of the murder trial of Christian Longo didn’t make many waves when initially released. Popping up on streaming years, later, it’s not immediately apparent what attracted such top talent; Brad Pitt produced, Jonah Hill and James Franco star, and Felicity Jones makes the best of a few scenes in support. But there are hidden strengths and weaknesses that a home-viewing audience might find worth their while; Finkel (Hill) is a New York Times reporter sacked for fabricating details of a story. When Christian Longo is accused or murdering his wife and children, Finkel is taken aback to discover than Longo used Finkel’s name and identity while on the run. Longo says it’s because he admires Finkel’s writing, but is the reporter being manipulated by a criminal, or is Longo hiding something else? The pay-off is something of an anti-climax, but until then, True Story plays engagingly with notions of identity and the weight of uncovering and expressing truth. Both Hill and Franco have what it takes, with Hill channelling some of his trademark exasperation and Franco artfully suggesting a darkness within. Jones has the best, most confrontational scene here, and one which gives True Story a late jump-start. Despite a few improbabilities in the way that Goold heightens the narrative, this is a slow-burn courtroom thriller that’s worth catching.


Frances Ha 2012 ****


Greta Gerwig’s collaborations with Noah Baumbach include Mistress America and Frances Ha; returning to these films after her Oscar-nominated turn in Lady Bird, it’s obvious that Gerwig brought as much, if not more, to the table as her writing partner. Frances Ha is a slight but satisfying character study of a talented young woman struggling to make her way in NYC, lovingly caught in black and white. She’s not quite a dancer, not quite a friend, and not quite sure of where she’s going; Baumbach’s film is set just at the moment when harsh realities begin to bite on youthful aspirations. There’s some amusing diversions, including a trip to Paris where jet lag scuppers Frances’s aspirations to see the city. The title is explained in a throw-away final scene where Frances attempts to force a slip of paper bearing her name onto her mailbox, obscuring most of it; Frances Ha is a film about fitting into society, and as Gerwig dances down the street to propulsive beat of David Bowie’s Modern Love, resourcefully captures the tremulous feelings of youth.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library 2018 ****


Oscar-winning documentary maker Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris, is a three hour valentine to the New York Public Library system, examining in granular detail how the role of the library reflects the changing demands of the internet era. With only one in three New Yorkers having broadband at home, Ex Libris depicts how the modern library is not only an access point, but a hub of communities, a centre of information and a bastion of truth in the era of fake news. Wiseman is one of the great figures of U.S. documentary history, and it’s notable that he’s chosen this particular moment to reflect on the library system, and why it’s important. Even without a voice-over, the running time doesn’t feel punishing at all; in fact, Ex Libris skips by, with brief appearances from luminaries like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins to light the way. But it’s Wiseman’s intent that makes Ex Libris so compelling; doubling down on the ordinary interactions that illuminate the lives of the New Yorkers seen here, Wiseman’s film is as important as his Titicut Follies and Hospital as portraits of how key American institutions function.

Synedoche, New York 2008 ***


The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman left something of a gap; who else could play the central character of this bizarre Charlie Kaufman comedy drama? Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is a hypochondriac and also is struggling with his family relationships; his wife and daughter leave him to go to Berlin while he works on his latest theatrical opus. The production takes years, and while he’s holed up in a vast warehouse, Cotard begins to experience heath issues which he believes might be fatal. Writing and directing for the first time, Kaufman retains the quirks if not the good humour of his earlier work, aided by a strong female cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams. But ultimately it’s Hoffman’s portrait of a creative man at the end of his teacher that proves the most haunting; art and life are intertwined in this story, and in real life, tragedy caught up with Hoffman’s prodigious talent in the worst possible way.

So Fine 1981 ***

M8DSOFI EC001Ryan O’Neal’s star was fading by the early 80’s, but he was still picking up $2 million checks for out-of-step vehicles that didn’t set the box office alight. Comedy fashion in 1981 meant boobs and car-crashes, and So Fine’s Runyon-esque picture of rivalry in the NYC garment trade wasn’t the right platform for O’Neal’s brand of put-upon clowning. Writer/director Andrew Bergman’s comedy is the fictional story of the invention of arse-less jeans; academic Bobby Fine is sleeping with a gangster’s moll, and gets caught in the act; ejected into the street in a pair of jeans too small for him, they rip, and ergo, the bottomless pants are born. If this sounds like a weak premise for a comedy, then there’s more than a few other outré items to be accounted for; Jack Warden and Fred Gwynne have just the right salty tone for the venture, but Richard Kiel is given a lot to do as a gangster. Kiel was a genial presence in films post his 007 fame, but the role of Mr Eddie doesn’t fit right at all, and throws the whole enterprise into a cartoon realm. So Fine is the definition of a curiosity, with star, support and everyone concerned pulling in different directions; Bergman went on to a successful career with Fletch, The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas, and there’s evidence of the cleverness of his writing here amidst the chaos.

The Super Cops 1974 ****


Edgar Wright saw this on BBC 1 in the Saturday Night slot generally used for the Starsky and Hutch import back in the early 80’s and it became one of the jumping off points for Hot Fuzz; it was a heavily cut version of Gordon Parks film that he saw, and the uncensored version is a much more salty prospect. Ron Liebeman and David Selby are the two NYC cops who annoy their superiors with their high rate of busts; hated by their colleagues, the public love them and the title of Batman and Robin is given to them; the screenplay is by the scribe of the original Batman tv show Lozenzo Semple Jr. There’s certainly some comic-book zest about the brisk action, notably a climax in a mid-demolition building where a wrecking-ball nearly knows the super-cops for six. Post-Shaft, Parks knows how to get the best in local colour out of the Brooklyn setting, and even if there’s a lingering feeling that the truth behind this story isn’t on show, The Super Cops is an arresting experience for crime-movie aficionados.

Find Me Guilty 2006 ****

Films rarely vanish as abruptly as Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, a courtroom thriller made with top talent, but one which somehow failed to connect. Lumet is, of course, the director of classics like 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and his return to court must have been widely anticipated, particularly as his subject was the longest court-case in US history, involving a crowd of men accused of having mob connections. Throw in a hot new star, Vin Diesel, sporting a lustrous head of hair, and rising star Peter Dinklage, and you’ve got the ingredients of a classic. But Lumet is a talent who has no interest in repeating himself, and the true story of Jackie DiNorscio is told in a serio-comic fashion that reviewers and audiences didn’t get. The opening credits are at pains to emphasise that the court scenes are based on the actual transcripts; if true, then DiNorscio (Diesel) made a mockery of proceedings. Either way, Diesel is fantastic here as a wide-boy who deals with being ostracised by friends and family, but triumph through his own sense of himself. If you only know this actor through his Fast and Furious/XXX characters, Find Me Guilty shows there’s much more gas in the tank.