JACKIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for brief Strong Violence and some Language

Directed by: Pablo Larrain

Written by: Noah Oppenheim

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Beth Grant, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson & John Carroll Lynch

JACKIE was built up as a potential awards contender during last year’s Oscar season and wound up being nominated for three awards (Best Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). Those three categories seem appropriate for a film that has a great performance and looks good, but boils down to being nothing more than style over substance. Those looking for a straightforward biopic of Jackie Kennedy had best look elsewhere, because director Pablo Larrain treats this film as his own personal art project. Loud classical music and overbearing camera work frequently work against a narrative that weaves together events in Jackie’s life through a non-linear fashion.

JACKIE mostly takes place in the days following JFK’s assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to battle her grief, break the news to her children, and plan a funeral ceremony that will go down in history. The film frequently cuts to an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) who was loosely based on a LIFE magazine reporter. There are also flashbacks before that terrible day, involving Jackie’s time with her husband and her historic televised tour of the White House.

JACKIE’s best quality is easily Natalie Portman’s performance. If you watch footage and interviews with the real-life Jackie Kennedy, you realize how much Portman nailed the most famous First Lady through her acting. From the shy, yet determined attitude to the soft-spoken, uniquely accented way of talking. Jackie Kennedy had a strange voice and Portman’s voice sounds equally as strange in the same ways. Portman also captures the melancholy sadness of the assassination aftermath that ranges from sobbing as she cleans blood off her face in a mirror to small lines of dialogue as she slowly begins to cope with her loss.

The supporting performances drastically range in quality. Billy Crudup is amusing as the journalist, while Greta Gerwig (as secretary Nancy Tuckerman) and Richard E. Grant (as family friend William Walton) have a few stand-out moments. John Hurt resides over some of the best moments as a priest who consoles Jackie and gives her advice. His last scene with Portman is incredibly powerful, if only of the rest of the film was up to this level of emotional insight. Disappointingly, the usually great Peter Sarsgaard is bland as Bobby Kennedy and his accent frequently fades in and out. Equally as much of a letdown is a well-cast John Carroll Lynch being underused as the newly presidential LBJ.

My initial good will towards this movie started to fade with its messy script. This screenplay is less a biopic and more a collage of moments in Jackie Kennedy’s life. That sounds like it could make for an interesting viewing experience, but it’s frequently botched by jumbled storytelling. This might be a case where showing the events in chronological order would have greatly benefited the narrative. At the very least, JACKIE could have given the viewer complete events out-of-order, instead of frequently editing these events together. This narrative jumps around far too much for its own good and becomes downright tedious at points.

My boredom wasn’t purely the result of a so-so script, because JACKIE is a definite example of style over substance. The score is overbearing to the point where it almost drowns out dialogue and becomes an annoyance. This music seems like a blatant attempt to tell the viewer how to feel because the movie itself couldn’t be bothered to. The cinematography is all over the place as the camera style frequently shifts from scene-to-scene. Some of these moments are more visually interesting than others and a few echoed the close-up effect from haunting Holocaust drama SON OF SAUL. This beautiful camera work becomes overbearing to the point of distracting the viewer from the content of the scenes.

JACKIE has a great performance from Natalie Portman and a handful of great moments, but comes off like a messy piece of experimental filmmaking. A scene in which Jackie verbally destroys pompous Jack Valenti over her funeral plans is more than a little satisfying to watch. Another great scene has Jackie breaking the emotional news of her husband’s death to their children. Scenes like this and a stellar performance of the titular First Lady both make JACKIE worth watching for those who might interested. However, brace yourself for lots of overbearingly pretentious filmmaking techniques and an unfocused screenplay. JACKIE is shameless Oscar bait that has great positives and a draining amount of negatives.

Grade: C+

EXPERIMENTER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Michael Almereyda

Written by: Michael Almereyda

Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Edoardo Ballerini, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, John Palladino, Ned Eisenberg, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo & Kellan Lutz

If you’ve ever taken a Psychology class, then you’ve likely heard or read something about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Uncovering a dark side of human nature and generating a massive amount of controversy, Milgram’s findings still bring strong emotions and ponder unanswerable questions to this day. Some people claim that the experiments were skewed and Milgram “forced” people into a potentially traumatizing situation, while others believe that the man was a genius searching to uncover and fix some of humanity’s inherent flaws. I’m very much on the latter side of the fence and have been anticipating this biopic since it first premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Currently available on VOD outlets and in select theaters, EXPERIMENTER doesn’t disappoint in being a thoroughly fascinating and odd approach to one of the most important figures of modern psychology.

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Stanley Milgram is a social psychologist who has undertaken an ambitious experiment. Over the course of one year, Milgram brings randomly selected volunteers into a teacher-student scenario in which they are instructed to give electric shocks to another person. What the participants don’t know is that the shocks aren’t really occurring and this whole scenario is an experiment on obedience to authority. Though Milgram expected some shocking results (no pun intended), he wasn’t prepared to find that a startling majority of volunteers willingly kept “shocking” the other participant (an actor in disguise). His research makes big waves in the intellectual community and Milgram becomes the subject of a whole lot of hatred. This movie moves through Milgram’s life including before, during, and after his controversial obedience experiments.

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EXPERIMENTER is told in a non-linear fashion. Though we technically move through points of Milgram’s life in a somewhat chronological order, the script frequently inserts the good doctor himself addressing the viewer. The frequent fourth-wall-breaking Milgram is played wonderfully by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard breathes life into a person who might appear to have sociopathic tendencies to some viewers and deeply humanizes him. Milgram’s understanding of societal norms both place him as an intellectual figure to be admired and a tragic professor for whom some form of unwanted ignorance might be welcomed bliss. Other characters (real people in Milgram’s life) enter and exit the film without much warning, but there is one constant counterpart to Sarsgaard’s Milgram. This comes in the form of Winona Ryder as his wife, Sasha Milgram. Though the Sarsgaard’s psychologist receives far more screen time than her character, Ryder makes the most of her role as someone who deeply cares for Milgram in spite of his flaws.

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Going back to the non-linear narrative, this was a fantastic approach to this story. Not only is a solid chunk of the film dedicated to Milgram performing the obedience experiments and the messy consequences that followed, but we also see other social experiments that he performed throughout his career. Unlike the notorious study he’s become well-known for, these other experiments are much more light-hearted and have a certain humorous feel to them. I was both being entertained and educated by this film to a point where I will now try to pick up on little social queues and body language of strangers around me on a daily basis. A simple study about a “familiar stranger” on a train is pretty fascinating stuff.

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As informative and brilliant as most of this film is, EXPERIMENTER does get a bit too pretentious for its own good (sort of like Milgram himself). We see Sarsgaard walking down a hallway with an elephant following behind him, probably signifying the weight that all of these experiments are taking on him. We also see an introduction to some friends filmed in black-and-white to signify obvious banality of this trip. These artsy scenes were done with good intentions, but border on becoming a tad over-the-top. Still, there are distinct moments where Milgram unwittingly demonstrates the authority that he’s fighting so hard to analyze. These bits are pretty funny, especially seeing as they reveal Milgram is very much the same sort of animal as the rest of us.

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All in all, EXPERIMENTER is a highly fascinating biopic that goes through the life of a man who became known for one hugely controversial study. This film remains true to the life of the renowned psychologist and is aided by a stellar performance from Peter Sarsgaard. Though it can get a little bogged down in its own funk during a couple of brief artsy scenes, EXPERIMENTER is simultaneously entertaining and educational. If you’re remotely interested in the subject matter, then you’re likely to be very happy with this film. I imagine that many future high school and college Psychology classes will be implementing EXPERIMENTER as required viewing.

Grade: A-

BLACK MASS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Brutal Violence, Language throughout, some Sexual References and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Scott Cooper

Written by: Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk

(based on the book BLACK MASS by Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott & Juno Temple

Going into this year, there have been a handful of films that I’ve been ecstatically excited to watch. BLACK MASS is one of these films. This biopic crime-drama about Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger certainly had an interesting real-life story to adapt. Of all the gangsters in U.S. history, Whitey Bulger is among the most notorious. Having now seen the film, I feel that it’s almost perfect and might have benefitted from a longer running time. BLACK MASS sports stellar performances from an ensemble cast, a sense of rising tension and should satisfy most fans of crime cinema.

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Kicking off in the 1970’s, Whitey Bulger is a violent gangster running a small-time operation in Boston. FBI agent John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend, has returned to his hometown. Connolly is interested in cleaning up the city, particularly the mob, and turns a reluctant Whitey into an informant. However, this plan backfires in a horrifying way as Whitey uses his newfound status to take down rival gangs and rise to the top as a vicious crime lord. While fellow agents are breathing down Connolly’s neck, Bulger is running rampant with crimes that range from drugs to extortion to murder. This movie jumps throughout notable years in Bulger and Connolly’s dark relationship.

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BLACK MASS is told in a faux docudrama style, which intersperses clips of various interviews from Whitey’s former associates. Though this style could potentially wreck suspense in lesser hands, I felt it worked extremely well here as Bulger’s crimes span across 30 years. Obviously, not every little detail could be included, but screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk knew which points to hit. I really liked how this film didn’t glorify gangster lifestyle too. Whereas GOODFELLAS sets up its true story in a way where you might become enamored by the benefits in a life of crime, BLACK MASS revels in the dark, ugly underbelly hiding underneath that skin-deep glitz. The violence here is particularly disturbing and grisly, even for a gangster film, as I felt myself wincing during some of the execution scenes. Seeing as this movie focuses on a mob boss who happened to be an informant for a couple of shady FBI agents, we also see the gripping storyline of corruption progressing in the FBI offices.

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Johnny Depp is absolutely amazing as Whitey Bulger. Make-up transformation aside, he disappears into the role of this psychopathic gangster. People who knew the real Whitey Bulger apparently made trips to the set and said that Depp captured how the man walked, talked, and carried himself with frightening accuracy. I don’t doubt it. He’s terrifying in that he seems like a rabid dog who’s always waiting to pounce on whoever might rub him the wrong way. Joel Edgerton (who was fantastic in THE GIFT) also disappears into the slimy scumbag that is John Connolly. You get the sense that Connolly came to the city with a sense of purpose and then all of his morals and ethics were wiped away when he reunited with Bulger. The supporting cast is fantastic as well and each performer stands out for various reasons. Benedict Cumberbatch adopts a convincing Boston accent as Bulger’s senator brother. Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll star as FBI agents looking to bring down Bulger, while David Harbour stars as a too-far-gone agent. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons are Bulger’s intimidating associates. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson (as Bulger’s wife), Peter Sarsgaard (as a cokehead hitman) and Juno Temple (as a prostitute) don’t receive a ton of screen time, but all receive memorable scenes. Every performance is stellar.

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Director Scott Cooper (OUT OF THE FURNACE) constructs a rising sense of tension as the story goes from bad to worse over the course of each passing year. This movie jumps between Bulger’s crimes and Connolly’s deceptions in a way that feels slightly procedural, but engrossing nonetheless. Interactions between the characters (including a dinner scene that’s so tense that you could hear a pin drop in the theater) feel genuine. With all this praise, my only problem with BLACK MASS comes in a somewhat rushed ending. I felt that the final minutes (complete with title cards revealing the fates of each character) were somewhat anti-climactic. I wonder if part of that comes from squeezing what might have been a 2 hour 30 minute potential masterpiece into a mere 2 hours (counting credits). It’s a slightly underwhelming spot in an overall great film.

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If you’re a fan of crime cinema (especially films based on real cases), then BLACK MASS should more than satisfy. The movie moves between Bulger’s and Connolly’s storylines nicely, while jumping through the former’s most notorious crimes and the latter’s downward spiral into corruption. This movie has a ton of scenes that I simply cannot get out of my head and doesn’t shy away from grisly details (all for the better). Depp’s performance is possibly a career best as he disappears into Bulger’s skin. Though the last minutes might feel rushed, I pretty much loved BLACK MASS for 95% of the movie. Highly recommended!

Grade: A

SHATTERED GLASS (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Language, Sexual References and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Billy Ray

Written by: Billy Ray

(based on an article by Buzz Bissinger)

Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Melanie Lynskey, Hank Azaria & Rosario Dawson

How much trust do you place in the news? A lot of Americans have found themselves evaluating that question after the recent incidents with Brian Williams (surprising) and Bill O’Reilly (not surprising in the slightest). Stephen Glass outdid those two reporters during the late 90’s. Glass worked for The New Republic (a much respected and honored magazine) and became a sensation during his three-year stint there. Unfortunately for the New Republic, Glass had completely fabricated more than half of his stories that were being printed as fact. SHATTERED GLASS is the directorial debut from Billy Ray (director of BREACH and writer of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) and retells the Stephen Glass incident.

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The film is structured in a somewhat non-linear fashion as Glass lectures a high school journalism class about the pressures of reporting and keys to being a successful writer. Between these pieces of narration we see Stephen’s popularity among staff at New Republic and the chaos of an article that tore his falsely built career apart, titled “Hack Heaven.” When a writer at Forbes online branch discovers that Glass’s article seems to be a complete work of fiction and throws allegations at New Republic, editor Charles “Chuck” Lane becomes highly suspicious of Stephen. As the investigation furthers, tensions rise between Chuck, Stephen and the rest of the staff that may destroy The New Republic in the process.

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SHATTERED GLASS is based on an interesting true story. Therefore, the script doesn’t need to try too hard to be entertaining. This is a compelling story to begin with and director/writer Billy Ray seems to realize that he didn’t need to tweak too many details or plot points to win the viewer over. There’s a clear sense of frustration that rises to a fever-pitch as Stephen Glass grasps at straws to maintain his lies and finds himself digging a deeper hole for himself as he goes along, much to the dismay of Chuck Lane. There are a handful of recognizable faces throughout (including Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, and Hank Azaria), but Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard are the real stars of the show. Sarsgaard is completely believable as an editor who’s being placed in a comprising “damned he does, damned if he doesn’t” position. Meanwhile, Hayden Christensen is usually a so-so actor at best, but delivers a stellar performance as Stephen Glass that’s probably going to wind up as the best role of his career. You can’t believe a word that Stephen says and that’s the whole point.

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This film isn’t perfect thanks to a couple of script decisions that detract from what could have been a perfect film. Sections of Glass narrating the events to a class of high school students become downright distracting and unneeded at points. Not to mention that the way in which this narrative concludes is clichéd and disappointing. The Forbes reporters investigating the validity of “Hack Heaven” is just as interesting as everything else in this true story, but is completely neglected about halfway through the film. It seemed as if these scenes, with Steve Zahn as reporter Adam Penenberg, were building up to their own conclusion that never came to satisfying fruition. It’s not as if the script decisions derail a good movie, but they do keep it from perfection.

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SHATTERED GLASS is probably one of the most important movies about journalism and writing that I’ve seen. It will make you question how much faith you put in supposedly fact-based articles or news stories that you read/hear on a daily basis. Peter Sarsgaard and Hayden Christensen deliver phenomenal performances and the story is gripping the whole way through. Billy Ray seems to have a knack for turning real-life stories into good movies and I wish he’d make more of them. Over a decade later, SHATTERED GLASS is still relevant and highly recommended.

Grade: B

NIGHT MOVES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language and Nudity

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Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Written by: Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning & Peter Sarsgaard

Upon reading a brief description of NIGHT MOVES, I was instantly reminded of an impressive eco-thriller from last year. My thinking was sort of in the right direction for the first half of the movie. It’s in the second half that the plot ultimately goes into more familiar (therefore more predictable) material. Consequently, it loses steam, interest, and the sense of purpose that had built the audience up. NIGHT MOVES betrays the viewer in a total anti-climactic conclusion that neglects everything that was working so well in the first place. I didn’t need to be surprised by NIGHT MOVES. My expectations were at a reasonable level walking in. This film is completely forgettable. I found myself caring less about NIGHT MOVES in the hours that passed after viewing the dull downward spiral that encompasses the second half and drags the entire film down.

NIGHT MOVES, Jesse Eisenberg, 2013. ©Cinedigm/courtesy Everett Collection

Josh, Dena, and Harmon are three activists following through on a plot to blow up a damn. It could be said that this radical move of eco-terrorism is making a statement about the decline of a healthy environment. The act is carefully planned, but certain mistakes can easily be made. Not everything might go according to plan and it doesn’t. Complications ensue that have dire consequences for the three in their individual lives on different levels of severity. That’s all I can really say without giving away some major spoilers, because I found the first half of this film to be a tense-as-hell thriller. I was glued to the screen and that makes the lackluster decline that much more disappointing in the second half.

NIGHT MOVES, Jesse Eisenberg, 2013. ©Cinedigm/courtesy Everett Collection

The cast of NIGHT MOVES is exquisite. Jesse Eisenberg takes center stage and little details are slowly revealed about him that I appreciated. He’s a capable actor. It also helps that his character constantly kept me on my toes on what kind of person he really is. Dakota Fanning is Dena and though I felt her character was a tad underdeveloped, she does a great job with the material given. Finally, Peter Sarsgaard plays the best character in the film and steals every scene he’s in. Sarsgaard’s on-screen appearance turns into a mere voice on the phone for the lackluster latter portion.

NIGHT MOVES, from left: Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, 2013. ©Cinedigm/courtesy Everett Collection

In its initial set-up, NIGHT MOVES shows a lot of promise. We aren’t given a lot of specifics about each character and it leaves them as a bit of a mystery. I found myself debating on who I cared for the most, if I cared for any of them at all. As the film goes forward, little details surface. It becomes apparent that even if the trio share a common interest (the destruction of the dam), this is a mismatched group. This element should have led to the most exciting part of the film and it winds up going into a been-there done-that scenario that doesn’t pay off. It’s especially disappointing given the superb suspense on display in the first half. I was holding my breath multiple times as the trio encountered some unexpected difficulties among themselves and outside forces. Then the movie just sort of loses everything that was working so well.

NIGHT MOVES, Dakota Fanning, 2013. ©Cinedigm/courtesy Everett Collection

After a crafty little reveal that opened up the door for countless directions to go in, director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt sticks to a dull path and slows the movement down to a snail’s pace. It’s not as if the film was extremely fast-paced to begin with, but there was some sustainable tension to keep the viewer wondering what might happen next. If you haven’t guessed where things might be heading after the reveal is made, then you probably haven’t seen many thrillers in your life. To make matters even worse, the ending just kind of gives up. It’s as if the script was building towards one last interesting direction in order to possibly save face for the dull patch of movie and the director said “We’re already at nearly two hours, so let’s just end it here.” This conclusion is as jarring as it sounds.

NIGHT MOVES, from left: Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard, 2013. ©Cinedigm/courtesy E

NIGHT MOVES is beautifully shot and has atmospheric locations. The script tries to make some points about industrialism and the darker side of human nature. The first half is just damn near masterful in bringing a high level of tension and a mysterious layer to everything. In the second half, everything falls apart. It’s not as if the movie is an outright failure, but I really didn’t care about it when it was over. It’s totally middle of the road. NIGHT MOVES is the kind of film that I’ll only think about in the frame of mind that says “That movie exists and I’m moving on to something else now.” Disappointing (especially given how incredible the build-up was) and completely forgettable are descriptions that suit this film just fine. Kind of like the movie itself. I’m just going to shrug and just sort of end this review on an anti-climactic note.

Grade: C

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