True Story (2015)
Dir. Rupert Goold
True-crime stories have long fascinated the general public, reaching back decades on film and television and probably centuries in print. Sometimes the how, but more often, the why becomes an obsessive subject of inquiry. The roots of crime, specifically murder where true-crime stories in print and on film are concerned, can be traced back to sociological, cultural, and psychological causes. Biology might play a role, but reducing or attempting to reduce a murderer’s motivation to a single cause or even a constellation of causes might bring comfort to victims and their supporters, but only present a partial objective truth (if at all). That fascination lies at the center of Rupert Goold’s adaptation of Michael Finkel’s book, True Story. Finkel (played by Jonah Hill in the film) lost a high-prestige, high-paying gig with The New York Times when factual inaccuracies were found in a long-form article about modern-day human trafficking and slavery in Africa. Disgraced and jobless, Finkel learned that accused murderer Christian Longo (an impressively sociopathic James Franco) assumed his identity when he fled Oregon, where Longo was accused of killing his wife and three children, for Mexico. Longo’s super-fan status gives Finkel the in he needs to gain access to Longo and through a series of prison meetings, his trust. True Story starts then abandons the assumed identity issue. More importantly, it never adequately explores, let alone answers, how an experienced journalist like Finkel would be so easily seduced by an accused murderer. Self-interest (i.e., repairing his reputation, writing a best-selling book) accounts for Finkel’s decision to correspond and develop a relationship, but not why he so easily (and with little prompting) begins to doubt Longo’s all too obvious guilt. True Story’s greatest sin, however, isn’t what it left unexplored, but an over familiar narrative that flatlines long before the obligatory “Where are they now?” title cards.
Misery Loves Comedy (2014)
Dir. Kevin Pollak
Less a documentary about comedy as an art form than an opportunity for comedian/comic actor Kevin Pollack (who also directed) to interview an impressive cross-section of A-, B-, and C-list comedians, Misery Loves Comedy offers few insights into what makes a comedian/comic actor tick (as in “Why comedy as a profession?”) or the underlying art form of making people laugh (much harder than it seems). Still, for all the superficial talk about comedy as a chosen profession (comedians like to make people laugh, tell jokes, be or become the center of attention) or the effort needed to become a professional comedian (Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours rule” to gaining expertise in a chosen field or profession makes a not-unwelcome appearance), it’s still a joy, albeit a transitory joy, to see the likes of Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Short, Judd Aptatow, Janeane Garofalo, Jim Gaffigan, Jason Alexander, Marc Maron, Amy Schumer, Maria Bamford, David Koechner, and many, many others take a few moments from their obviously busy schedules to share a few passing thoughts on their careers or comedy in general. As for the question implied by the title, the answer shouldn’t come as a surprise: Some comedians agreed that misery and being miserable are central to becoming and remaining successful, while others argue otherwise or suggest a more qualified, reserved answer.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015)
Dir. Douglas Tirola
A cradle-to-grave biopic not of a celebrity, movie star, or other (far more) important (pop) culture luminary or icon, but a biopic of the monthly humor/satire magazine that simultaneously reflected and shaped cultural, social, and political attitudes among intellectually advanced readers. Essentially a potted history, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon opens with the founding of the National Lampoon by Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman in 1969 as a spin-off of the Harvard Lampoon with an invaluable assist from financier and publisher Matty Simmons. With its take-no-prisoners approach to parody and satire (sometimes, it should be noted, as borderline racist and/or sexist), the National Lampoon grew into an empire, with a highly successful radio program, books, and a revue stocked with performers like John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner who would go on to success on Saturday Night Live. Belushi also starred in the National Lampoon’s first foray into commercial filmmaking, Animal House. The National Lampoon ran short- and long-form text pieces alongside cartoons and comic strips (the raunchier the better). After almost four decades, the National Lampoon closed its doors, less a victim of its success than the changing times. Co-writer and director Douglas Tirola covers this material with all the technical tools at his disposal, but takes an overly myopic view, opting for talking head interviews with key players (minus anyone who might have passed on in the interim) over a more reflective, more expansive take on how National Lampoon influenced and shaped popular culture or on any real criticism of its privileged white male take on race and gender.
Dir. Sean Baker
All – or rather most of the – talk related to writer-director Sean Baker’s (Starlet) Tangerine has and will most likely focus on how it was shot (3 iPhone cameras, low-cost camera lens, and an inexpensive app, in effect taking DIY/guerilla filmmaking to an entirely new level) and less about the subject of Tangerine, transgender prostitutes and their seemingly insurmountable struggle for acceptance and love in all the wrong places. Shot in the marginal, non-glamorous sections of Los Angeles (Santa Monica Blvd.), Tangerine focuses on two transgender prostitutes, Sin Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Released after a 28-day stint in jail, Sin Dee hopes to reunite with her boyfriend/pimp, Chester (James Ransone), but he’s nowhere to be found. Unhappy with his disappearance, not to mention the reason why she ended up in jail (holding Chester’s drugs), Sin Dee convinces Alexandra to accompany her on a search through LA for Chester on Christmas Eve. Alexandra doesn’t have love on her mind, but she does have a career as a singer, passing out flyers to anyone who’ll take them for a performance the same night. A third major character, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a closeted Armenian taxi driver, also makes repeat appearances, initially in a separate subplot involving random drunk, stoned, and otherwise medicated or eccentric customers. Later, his subplot feeds into the central plot in a not entirely unexpected way. Throughout, however, the focus remains or returns to Sin Dee and her near maniacal search for Chester and Chester’s supposedly new girlfriend, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Baker and his two actresses aren’t afraid of showing Sin Dee at her worst, often at the expense of everyone around her. Baker has a larger point, however, in mind: Sin Dee and Alexandra are authentic, true-to-themselves characters. It’s a point worth remembering in connection to Razmik’s choices (he has a family, forcing him to hide his sexual preferences/orientation from them). At times abrasive, crude, and explicit, but at other times, compassionate, empathetic, and sympathetic toward its cast of characters, Tangerine may not be for everyone, but semi-adventurous moviegoers will be amply rewarded.