Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Dir. Alex Gibney
To paraphrase someone or other (who may or may not have been famous), the difference between a cult and a religion can be summed up in one word: time. Give a religious cult a century or more to develop a mass following, build houses of worship, and gain enough political influence to receive state sanction, and a cult soon becomes a religion, sometimes state sanctioned, sometimes not. Scientology, created by pulp sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, primarily as a moneymaking enterprise, has made significant inroads into receiving the status of an established religion, but not without criticism or controversy, criticism at its secretive practices, expensive programs, financial irregularities, celebrity adherents, and mistreatment of current members (up to and including forced seclusion, non-contact with non-members in the outside world, and stalking ex-senior members). One-man documentary factory Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, WikiLeaks: We Steal Secrets) has no hesitation (or interest) in examining the cult/religion question in his latest documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. When it comes to Scientology, he clearly sides on the side of “cult.” Gibney just as clearly sides with Scientology’s detractors who perceive Scientology not just as a dangerous cult, but also as a fraud and a scam, using Scientology’s decades-long fight for tax-exempt status to protect several billions in assets around the world. Gibney also has little love for Scientology’s best-known celebrity spokesmen, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise. Gibney damns Cruise repeatedly with footage of Cruise at multiple Scientology events (e.g., winning medals, giving speeches, photo ops). As a primer on Scientology, Going Clear exhaustively, obsessively covers well-trod ground, offering few insights or new revelations, ultimately making it essential viewing for moviegoers unfamiliar with Scientology’s controversial history, but non-essential for everyone else.
Sleeping with Other People (2015)
Dir. Leslye Headland
Not to be confused with Sleeping with the Enemy, Julia Roberts’ justly forgotten suspense-thriller, Sleeping with Other People teams up rising writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) with two of our finer comic actors, Alison Brie (Community) and Jason Sudeikis (We’re the Millers, Horrible Bosses, Saturday Night Live) for an R-rated romantic comedy that successfully (more or less) tackles the complexities and contradictions of 21st-century dating among thirty-somethings in the upper middle-class confines of New York City . While both Brie and Sudeikis are equally skilled in delivering Headland’s screwball-paced, pop culture-inflected, raunch-filled dialogue, they’re just as skilled in delivering Sleeping with Other People’s emotional beats. Comedians/comic actors tend to get little or no credit for delivering performances that balance comedy and drama, primarily due to the erroneous perception of comic actors/comedians as skilled, but limited performers. Given Sleeping with Other People’s more formulaic, more commercial aspects (rom-com template, rom-com resolution) probably won’t critics and audiences to reconsider Brie and Sudeikis as anything except as second-tier performers (the province of most comic actors/comedians, with exceedingly rare exceptions), but it should.
The D Train (2015)
Dir. Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul
Jack Black’s return from movie exile (after a superlative turn in Richard Linklater’s underseen Bernie two-and-a-half years ago) continues with The D Train, a provocative bromance/comedy (or bromantic comedy if you prefer) that goes where so many bromances before fear to tread and into wholly unfamiliar ground. As Dan Landsman, a perpetually awkward social outcast who never left his hometown of Pittsburgh, Black captures the pathos (and bathos) of a small-town man that, at 38, in premature middle-age crisis mode. For Landsman, that crisis takes the form of his 20-year high-school reunion. Married with two kids and a relatively stable job, Landsman still hungers for the cool kid/insider status that always eluded him. He sees a way into cool guy status when he spots an old high-school classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), a far-from-famous, LA-based actor, in a TV commercial for sun tan lotion. Landsman doesn’t see Lawless as the marginal actor (and marginal talent) that he truly is, but as a super-successful actor who’s lived/living his dream. An initially reluctant Lawless eventually agrees to attend their high-school reunion, but not before a night of debauchery subversively flips the script on their burgeoning bromance and sends The D Train into unexpected, but by no means unwanted, territory.
Mistress America (2015)
Dir. Noah Baumbach
A Frances Ha sequel in all but name (title and character), Mistress America continues Noah Baumbach’s (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale) fruitful professional (and personal) collaboration with Greta Gerwig, the uncrowned, if universally acknowledged, Queen of (Indie) Quirk. Gerwig essays a not-unfamiliar role as Brooke, yet another on-the-cusp-of-thirty dreamer with a penchant for serial exaggeration, self-delusion, and boundless optimism. In Mistress America, however, Gerwig’s Brooke isn’t the central character or the protagonist. She’s the seriocomic foil to Lola Kirke’s Tracy, an idealistic Barnard College freshman with pretensions of becoming a writer and joining an ultra-exclusive, campus-run literary journal. They meet as future stepsisters; Tracy falls under Brooke’s seductive sway and way around the isle of Manhattan, while Brooke finds the perfect receptor, receptacle, and reflector for her self-absorbed, borderline delusional ramblings. Slighter narratively and thematically than Baumbach’s earlier work, Mistress America offers more than a few pleasures, mostly centered on Brooke and Tracy’s non-naturalistic repartee, Gerwig and Kirke’s relaxed onscreen chemistry (Kirke proves herself a natural as Baumbach and Gerwig’s erstwhile heroine), and an altogether welcome, turn toward farce and character-exposing revelations in the last act and the subsequently poignant denouement.