True Story 2015 ***

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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.

The Entity 1982 ***

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Quite a sensation in the early 80’s, Sidney J Furie’s The Entity is a brutal account of a woman being regularly assaulted by paranormal forces, and makes a virtue of being based on true events, the well documented case of Doris Bither. Renamed Carla Moran, this woman is played with remarkable candour by Barbara Hershey in this adaptation of Frank De Felitta’s novel, with Ron Silver as the doctor she turns to for help. Furie doesn’t play the gothic card at all, with drab LA settings adding a strange verisimilitude and building to a truly weird climax where a duplicate of Moran’s house is built on a sound-stage, with the intention of freezing the demon when it appears. The special effects of the demonic attacks are still impressive, even if the whole entertainment value of the film is problematic. Of course, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were front-row fans of the film, and it’s become a cult item since. Hershey locates a sympathetic core in Moran, and the gradual feeling that all the men in her life are in some way exploiting her is persuasive. The vestiges of an incest subplot only serve to confuse issues, but The Entity is worth a look for genre fans because of the high-seriousness and the mistrust of the male scientific figures involved. If nothing else, now almost certainly is a better time to consider The Entity’s merits than when Scottish television somehow selected this as their festive Christmas Day movie in the mid 1980’s.

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-entity-1982

The Mule 2018 ***

Clint Eastwood’s illustrious career deserves several swan-songs; both Gran Torino and Trouble With The Curve purported to be goodbyes, but The Mule, which sees Eastwood produce, direct and star at the age of 88, gets the job done. It’s astonishing to think that the actor seen in 1955’s Revenge of the Creature is till going strong enough in 2019 to pull a project like this together, and make $100 million Stateside to boot. The Mule cannily plays off the Eastwood legend; there is violence here, but not instigated by Eastwood’s character Leo Sharp, a widower with a penchant for gardening and flowers, and need of a few bucks for his family. Nick Shrenk (Gran Torino) turns in a spry script that plays down the morality of a WWII vet running drugs, and plays up the ‘can-you-believe-this?’ angle, with Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena ideal as the incredulous lawmen on Sharp’s trail.  Throw in a couple of threesomes into the mix, plus having his camera ogle some of the female characters feel unnecessary, but at his age, it’s hard not to indulge Eastwood such grace notes; The Mule is quite a way to go.

American Made 2017 ****

Is Tom Cruise still considered bankable in 2019 outside the Mission Impossible films? The relative box office failure of The Mummy and American Made in 2017 made it seem like Cruise had lost his touch, but while the Monsterverse entry was clearly a misfire, American Made sees the star at his best. Capably directed by Doug Liman, American Made casts Cruise as Barry Seal, an airline pilot who gets involved with drug smuggling. Liman’s film is in the vein of Goodfellas or Ted Demme’s Blow, a cautionary tale that’s brimming with enthusiasm for the details, true or false. Sequences such as Seal trying to navigate a too-short runway in a too heavy plane or a stomach-churning crash landing over a residential area are dynamically brought to life, and Cruise absolutely nails it as a cocky showman who realises he’s well out of his depth. American Made is a terrific film about crime and punishment, and never stops entertaining even as Seale’s life spirals out of control. And the politics, implicating several big names, are more direct than might be expected.

A United Kingdom 2016 ***

United Kingdom.jpegAmma Asante’s true-life drama might sound dull and preachy, but after a soft opening, this account of the 1950’s romance between Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) and typist Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) develops quite a head of steam. Once the Prince brings Ruth back to his home country, he falls foul of political intrigue, not least because the British government stand in the way of a high-profile mixed-race marriage. What makes A United Kingdom work is the details of the chicanery that went on, with Winston Churchill revealed as somewhat duplicitous and Tony Benn (Jack Lowden) riding to the rescue to crowd-pleasing effect. A United Kingdom gets points for finding an original, untold story and telling it well, praising the worthy and punishing the guilty alike with no-holds-barred.

Loving 2016 ***

lovingJeff Nichols has been a consistent force of nature in the world of B movies; from Mud to Midnight Special, he’s specialized in small, intense dramas, and as such, it was inevitable that his considerable skills would be co-opted for a ‘prestige’ picture. Tackling the real-life story of the Loving family, a mixed-race couple whose only crime was to love each other, Nichols manages to keep the focus on the relationship at the centre of the drama and not get bogged down in courtroom shenanigans. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are both excellent, and the period detail is kept to a minimalist background. There’s a lack of humour, and a deft-downplaying of drama and sometimes makes the story seem drab, but Loving is to be admired for its refusal to function as awards bait or to recast a personal drama in a contrived Hollywood way.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose 2005 ***

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The found footage genre seems to have denigrated the horror genre somewhat; rather than shaky-cam aesthetics and no-star casting, 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose benefits from a genuine sense of gravity in presenting a supposedly true story, but also from the casting of Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney in central roles. Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) dies after an exorcism, and lawyer Erin (Linney) is charged with defending the priest (Wilkinson) involved. There’s still plenty of scope for creepy flashbacks in the structure, and the first couple of briefly glimpsed intimations of supernatural activity are extremely disturbing. But Scott Derrickson’s film is a cut well above most horror films, with a genuine feeling for the real world and for its characters, establishing a human drama that takes place sometime after most horror films have long since boxed their bangs, crashes and shock effects.