Tag Archives: Based On Real Life

Changeling (2008)

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Not to be confused with the 1980 George C. Scott haunted house thriller The Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s wrenching drama belongs in the category of ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Christine Collins (wonderfully portrayed by Angelina Jolie) is a fairly ordinary woman and devoted single mother bringing up a little boy named Walter (Gattlin Griffith) in the roaring 20’s. Of course, in that era single motherhood  wasn’t exactly looked up to, so Christine suffers some adversity from people who think she’s an unfit mom and that little Walter needs a father, but she pretty much keeps on keeping on until her son vanishes from their Los Angeles home.

Hours turn to days turnmonths, and Christine’s fear that she’ll never see her son again turns to abject terror and finally, despair. Then, a miracle (?), a boy matching Walter’s description turns up in another state and is handed over to Christine. But this boy is not her son. The LAPD desperately try to convince her that yes, this doppelganger is Walter, and she will adjust to his somewhat changed manner and appearance; but Christine knows better. And she finds an in fiery minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is convinced that the Los Angeles Police Department is a corrupt organisation with a multitude of dirty secrets, But what are they hiding from Christine?

You can pretty much count on a film directed by Clint Eastwood to be good, and this movie is no exception. Changeling explores the extent of familial love between mother and son, in the midst of an epic instance of gaslighting of a confused but strong-willed woman. Christine becomes a stronger and stronger character throughout the film, but to the price of her innocence. Angelina Jolie does a great  job here, but I was also surprised by Jason Butler Harner’s inspired performance. I won’t tell you what Harner’s role in this story is for fear of spoiling it, but I will say he has a David Tennant-like flair for eccentricity and villainy (think Jessica Jones,) and proves that incorporating a spark of madness while flirting with being over-the-top is not necessarily a bad thing.

For most of it’s duration, Changeling is as immersive as a good page-turner. It only falters and seems a bit overlong in the last thirty minutes, when it wanders into standard courtroom drama territory. Regardless, it is surprisingly emotionally arresting and tragic, especially considering the lukewarm reviews it received.

    Changeling plays on the human fear of not being believed, of being thought crazy and incompetent. When the corrupt cops lock Christine in a mental institution for not heeding their words and keeping her mouth shut, a hospitalized prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold (Amy Ryan) tells Christine that women are naturally assumed to be a bit insane, irrational and unstable, and what’s to keep them from taking anything you say as a sign of unreliability and keeping you there forever? That’s the catch-22 Christine finds herself in- if she plays it safe and insists she’s well, the doctors will try to draw tell-tale signs of insanity out of her. If she stands by her story, she’s fucked. If she goes either way, she’s fucked. Unless she can be stronger than she’s ever been in her life and find a way to fight the corruption ensnaring her.

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Monster (2003)

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) always knew she’d be famous for something. Who knew that her claim to fame would be as America’s first female serial killer? Life pisses all over Aileen, she’s a sexual abuse victim from a crappy home and a crappy family who turns tricks as a cheap roadside whore for a living. About as white trash as it is possible to get, Wuornos is played by Theron with prosthetic teeth and excess flab in a Academy Award-winning performance born of pure grit.

Monster is a rather eerie and disturbing movie that forces you to sympathize to some extent with a beastly human being with little to no compassion for her victims. Monsters are made, not born. I really believe that 99.9% percent of the time, that’s the case. A woman of limited resources, low intelligence, and poor self-control, Aileen’s first murder is self-defense; shooting a sexually abusive john who tries to rape her. When she gets a taste of that power, though, she embraces the life of a killer.

Aileen has a girlfriend named Selby (Christina Ricci,) a pixyish young lesbian with a crooked smile and an easy way about her. Maybe Aileen is gay. Or maybe she’s just sick of men treating her like shit. Aileen’s only friend is Thomas (Bruce Dern,) a homeless war vet who offers her half a sandwich and doesn’t ask anything in return. This is Aileen’s life. It’s not pretty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a side of America that doesn’t exist. Selby wants to be treated like a princess, and Aileen offers that in the form of murdered johns’ money. Selby doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, about Aileen’s murderous nighttime habits. Aileen wants to quit the life, but every opportunity seems to lead to a dead end for this dim, volatile nut bag of a woman.

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The first thirty minutes or so are oddly touching, a mix of hopeful and even unexpectedly sweet emotions that make the film’s plunge into the abyss of murder and misery all the more jarring. We get to see the halting baby steps in a love affair, one that is skewed but still real and heartwrenching.Theron looks like shit but this lends her some credibility as an ‘ordinary,’ ‘blue-collar’ person. She looks like one of those dodgy types lurking outside of Wal-Mart with a cigarette and a tattoo, and she sells it, too. Christina Ricci also impresses with a deft mix of vulnerability and manipulation. In the end, we don’t know which one is a more fucked-up or unlikable person; and yet we can’t dismiss them entirely. We go on a trip into utter desolation and horror with them, and we cannot hate them as much as we want to; and probably should, their descent into hell seems all too plausible.

As Aileen wreaks destruction on those around her, I admired the film’s refusal to justify or condemn, Aileen’s such a sad little creature that her descent into psychopathy doesn’t shock us as much as it probably should. This is the kind of woman we ignore. This is the kind of woman we avert her eyes from. This is the kind of woman we don’t notice until she turns up on headlines all over the country and we shake our heads in disgust and say, there are some crazy people in this world. We can’t understand Aileen unless we’ve been in her situation, but at the same time, we can’t justify her actions, especially her murder of the particularly unfortunate final victim (Scott Wilson.) This is the kind of movie you view as an outsider, and then you thank God you’re just that.

This movie doesn’t paint a pretty picture of men, women, or society in general, it attempts less to draw a social or moral conclusion and more just to paint a character portrait of some very screwed up people; a woman ugly inside and out, and her manipulative enabler/lover. When Aileen tries to get a job, we see a woman of low morality and intelligence getting by the best way she can. You can’t spin crap into gold, but at the same time, you see a little of the girl who couldn’t do anything right in this broken woman. She wanted to be a star. She got her name out to the press in the end, but not in the way she expected. As Aileen herself says, Life’s funny. Basically, if you like dark psychological character studies starring characters with severe mental illnesses/ personality disorders, this is the movie for you. If you don’t like the idea of a disturbing movie about a sexually abused hooker waxing her johns, you’ve been warned. There’s plenty of crazy to go around here though, for fans of intense character-driven storytelling and abnormal psychology.

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King of Devil’s Island (2010)

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‘Scum’ in early 20th-Century Norway. You look into the faces of the boys in ‘King of Devils’ Island’‘s brutal borstal and you see a lack of warmth and hope that approaches a living death. Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of this grim correctional program and hard disciplinarian, fancies himself gentler than some. That may be so, but still, none of his actions make you think he cares in the least for his charges. His self-proclaimed righteousness and stern kindness is the method he uses to get himself to sleep at night.

Erling (Benjamin Helstad) is the new kid. He is a burly young tough who immediately tries to buck the system, and who is especially considered a risk to the collective because he is not a thief or a vandal, like most of the boys, but a murderer. He arrives with a split lip from a scrap with the police and a bad attitude, and the staff is determined to break him.

After some deliberation, Erling befriends Olav (Trond Nilssen,) who has been at the center since he was eleven and is determined to be released for good behavior. But how can one maintain poise and dignity when the system is beating free will and individuality out of you? Problems spring up in the form of Bråthen (Kirstoffer Joner) an aide with a predilection for young boys.

Erling and Olav know  Bråthen is molesting Ivar (Magnus Langlete,) thought to be a bit simple by the students and the staff, in the laundry room. But they can’t prove it. When life as the borstal becomes unbearable, and their extended days of hard labor and abuse interminable, Erling decides to fight back. Things can only get so bad before there’s a breaking point, and Erilng rallies the boys and raises a whole lotta hell in a outburst of enraged rebellion that no one will soon forget.

The King of Devil’s Island is a bit standard in layout for prison-slash-social injustice movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. All the actors give outstanding performances, incuding Stellan Skarsgard, who chills you as a man who is thoroughly convinced of his own moral superiority. He’ll fix the boys’ bad attitude yet, he insists, but you can’t fix where you destroy.

He also covers up Bråthen’s pedophilic behavior, misuses school funds, and accepts payoffs. On the surface he can seem like a stern father figure, even reasonable, but underneath his guise of a concerned righteous man lies a man who doesn’t give a damn about any of the kids under his care. To him they’re already hoods who have ruined their lives and others’, why should he give a shit?

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The tension escalates and the characters are decently developed to the point where you are actually invested in what happens next, an important facet of any film. The film’s color palate is all bleak blues and greys and dusty off-whites,reinforcing the grim, and more importantly cold, feeling of the visuals and sets. We are in the midst of a savage Norwegian winter, after all, and the boy’s ongoing pain and discomfort is put nakedly on display.

Racism and rampant unfairness is portrayed here, in a very similar way to Alan Clarke’s British Borstal film Scum (one member of staff insists that a young teen can’t wash the ‘Gypsy smell’ from his flesh,) and we really get the oppressive atmosphere here, the sense of being pushed to the edge by terrible  living conditions and sadistic authority figures. You can taste the rancid fish carcasses the boys shove into their mouths out of pure desperate hunger, feel the cruel Norwegian winter on your blue-grey skin. As much as you’d want to, anyway.

The film tells a timeless story (although it’s been told many times before,) and it tells it with powerful performances and visual verve. The lead’s jaw is set in a firm line of pain and hatred within the first few minutes, what have they made him by the ending? What kind of rehabilitation is this, where you beat and deprive someone to the point of starvation? It’s like squashing a flower and denying it sunshine while insisting it will grow.

Don’t let the subtitles frighten you off and deny you the chance to view a thoroughly well-acted,w ell-written, and well-shot foreign film. I hope Stellan Skarsgard’s name will attract more people to this interesting little project, and I hope it will jump start some deserving young actors’ careers. It’s not a pretty story (though how many Borstal films are a sunny affair?) but it’s worthy of the film lover’s time

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The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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What happens at Stanford, stays at Stanford. Just when you were starting to feel good-ish about humankind, a movie like this comes out and reminds you what dicks we can be. It’s an important lesson, if not a pretty one, that for some people, the adrenaline rush of power for the sake of power is enough to make them do pretty much anything.

In 1971, real life psychologist and sociologist Philip Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup) put out an ad in the paper offering $15.00 a day for male college students to be participants in a social experiment. On paper, it seemed like an easy way to make money. The boys were screened for any psychological and health problems and instructed to play ‘guards’ and ‘convicts’ in a faux prison environment- the basement of Stanford university.

The experiment would serve as a commentary on the dynamics of a environment where guards were given some degree of power over prisoners, and question whether the penal system is more detrimental than it is beneficiary. The ‘guards’ were not allowed to hit the ‘prisoners.’ he ‘prisoners’ were safe in a controlled, essentially benign (if creepy and weird) environment. At least that’s what they were told. If you know anything about the real-life scenario that inspired this movie, you may be aware of how fast the shit hit the fan.

Most people who assume that the reason prisons get so out of control with riots and mishaps and guards and convicts kicking the crap out of each other is (a, we aren’t exactly dealing with regular people in these criminals, and criminals, as we know, can have propensity for violence and (b guards are less likely to view men or women who have committed illegal acts as human and deserving of good treatment. It’s the same psyche as conservatives who complain that prisons are ‘too good’ for convicts. They screwed up, right? The should be paying the price. One bread-and-water meal a day and hard labor all the way, baby!

But these were regular college students. They had no criminal record, no prior psychological challenges, no reason to hate or despise each other. That’s why it came as such a surprise to Zimbardo when one of the youths Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano,) took charge in the worst possible way. Adopting a persona he learned from “Cool Hand Luke,” Archer coerced his fake prisoners and twirled his nightstick (why did they give them nightsticks anyway?) occasionally stopping his twirling long enough to beat someone senseless.

Zimbardo, fascinated with the monster he had created, allowed the experiment to go on far longer than it should have, even after two ‘prisoners’ (Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller) suffered nervous breakdowns. Like the omnipresent Big Brother, Zimbardo watched the youths operate with a hidden camera, and later wrote a book about how ‘regular’ people can be convinced to commit unconscionable acts though mob mentality, ‘The Lucifer Effect,’  which later became this movie.

I watched this movie convinced of two things, 1., that Christopher was an undiagnosed sociopath (he smiles glibly and rattles off his stupid “Cool Hand Luke” accent even when the ‘experiment’ becomes a hostage situation) and that 2. Zimbardo was probably a latently homosexual sadomasochist, achieving a hard-on at the mere mention of defrocked boys being slammed against walls. There is an often-seen look on his face as he watches events unfold that goes beyond the realm of scientific curiosity and into flat-out arousal.

It is only when actual sexual degradation is achieved that he has a change of heart and cancels the experiment. But before that: boys forcing other boys to defecate in buckets and being locked in the dark, claustrophobic ‘Hole’ (kind of the real life version of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Chokey’)- all okay.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a stimulating watch that should be viewed by sociology students and people interested in the human mind. The whole cast is good (with the possible exception of Olivia Thirlby as Zimbardo’s much-younger girlfriend, who didn’t impress me) and it achieves a kind of slow-burn as the situation gradually becomes a swirling shit-storm of unintended consequences.

I do think the film was a little long at just over two hours (perhaps it could have been cut down by ten minutes or so.) If ‘Lord of the Flies’ interested you on a psychological as well as a literary level, and you are interested in apparently normal people acting in group mentality and doing awful things that wouldn’t otherwise be carried out with a clear conscience, this is the movie for you. It’s not a horror movie. It’s barely even a thriller. Just a crazy real-life story about impressionable college kids going absolutely apeshit in a secluded environment. In Stanford, where no one can hear you scream… It’s a movie best left for a certain audience, but a worthy watch all the same.

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The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

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Never wanted to kick a nun in the face? Think again.

Now I am sure there are many decent, loving, and compassionate nuns in the Catholic Church who live by Christ’s example, but they’re nowhere to be found in actor/director Peter Mullan’s unrelentingly bleak drama, The Magdalene Sisters. Three young Irish women are sent to a brutal convent where they are subject to myriad humiliations and made to work night and day in the laundries for no pay.

These are the heroines’ crimes. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) got raped. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) got pregnant. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) flirted with some boys over the fence of the orphanage where she has been placed indefinitely. For these ‘crimes’ the trio are considered fallen women, but you’d think fallen women would at least get to have more fun then these girls do. Degraded, bullied, and beaten into submission, the womens’ ultimate crime was being born in the wrong time, at the wrong place, to the wrong people.

That’s right. Heartbreakingly, the girls at the convents’ have been shamed by their families and pretty much given off to a life of virtual slavery. When one girl, Una (Mary Murray,) makes a successful escape attempt from the convent, her dad (writer/director Mullan) drags her back, beating her hysterically all the while, and shrieks “You’ve got no home. You got no mother. You got no father. You killed us, you slut. you killed us both.” Remember in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when Billy Bibbit, played by Brad Dourif, kills himself because he is so shamed by the idea of his mama finding out he ain’t a virgin no more? This is that reality.

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I think this is why Kevin (Sean McDonagh,) Margaret’s first cousin and rapist, just stands impassively as Margaret tells her family what he did to her. This is the really disgusting thing. He knows he can get away with it. He knows that among many people in his society (1963 Catholic Ireland) that the men aren’t considered culpable for anything they do. While boys are casually told to keep it in their pants, women suffer the real brunt of it. And that’s not the most reprehensible thing on display in this movie.

 The Magdalene Sisters would seem totally out there if it weren’t reportedly based on a true story. How accurately based, I don’t know, and it’s easy to see why the Catholic church went nuts when this came out. What’s really interesting, though, is not the claimed attack on Christianity (which is a dime a dozen in movies and TV) but the performances (outstanding across the board) and the dynamics between the characters. Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is one of the most bone-chillingly evil villainesses in film history.

And there’s nothing worse than an evil person thoroughly convinced by their own moral superiority, who believes without a shadow of a doubt that they are going straight to heaven. Mostly Sister Bridget is someone you just want to punch, self-satisfied and heartless, who gets through her day with the loose-fitting mask of a urgently pedantic aunt or grandmother who knows what’s best for you, damn it. Occasionally (more often than occasionally) the mask slips and you see the complete hypocritical soullessness underneath.

Remove this as well and what do you get? Probably a woman who really hates herself. Because she is a woman and women, by definition, must be cleansed. She’s probably got a sad story beneath all the wickedness and bile (the movie at several instances, through the characters of Katy (Britta Smith) and Una, shows us that victimization is a cycle, only broken when someone has the strength to throw the towel in and choose not to hurt people,) but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

It reminds me of what someone (don’t remember who,) once said, “Any true villain is a hero in their own eyes.” I have no idea how Sister Bridget and the other nuns could think they’re living in the example of Christ, but hey, you can convince yourself of anything if you believe it hard enough, Don’t make it so, I’m afraid.

If this movie has an overreaching flaw, it is that it sometimes seems a bit heavy-handed in it’s themes. But the drama will keep you glued to your seat and, as agonizing it is, you must watch to the end, just to see if the protagonists escape their circumstances. Ultimately, the free-spirited Bernadette is the most complex character, and her final act of defiance (simple and seemingly insignificant as it was) will give you goose pimples.

   The Magdalene Sisters will make you wonder what it would be like to have these girls’ strength, their resilience. And it will make you thankful you never had to come against these circumstances. Give me my comfortable life and my cowardice over their personal hell anytime, thanks. But still it will force you to think what you’d be made of under these conditions. And glad you’ll probably never have to know.

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Philomena (2013)

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I know I’m probably a little late getting onto the bandwagon, but Judi Dench is an amazing actress! Her eyes are like twin oceans that reflect her character’s feelings, whether stormy or sunny, to an absolute tee. And although some people might find Stephen Frears’ biopic drama Philomena trite or predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed and it’s touching tribute to motherhood. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a simple woman- kind, a little eccentric, and privy to the simple joys that life provides. What she lacks in worldliness she makes up for in good cheer and her big heart.

But something in Philomena’s past haunts her well into her twilight years. As a girl, Philomena had a little boy named Anthony who was taken from her and given to an American couple by the nuns that kept her as an indentured servant to work off her sins as an unwed mother. Not exactly living out the example of Christ, these nuns have refused to tell her over a span of dozens of years what became of Anthony, and despite being the mother of another grown child, a daughter, Philomena’s heart aches to discover Anthony’s whereabouts and to involve him in her life.

That’s where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan,) a disgraced journalist, comes in. Against his own better judgement, the cynical Martin is recruited by Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) to locate Anthony and reunite him with his aged mother. Thus, begins a funny, sad, and bittersweet journey to Ireland, Philomena’s birthplace, the U.S., and finally, home again (hopefully with son in tow.) On the way Philomena challenges Martin’s atheism and grim viewpoint on life in general, and Martin is gradually buoyed by Philomena’s infectious attitude.

If you enjoy well-acted, gently quirky and sweetly predictable British dramedies that showcase the best humanity has to offer and heart-tugging plots, this movie is for you. I know what I like, and I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of movies, which seem soft and cozy enough to lull you to a peasant catharsis but real enough (compared to their U.S. counterparts) to take seriously. They’re the movie equivalent of comfort food, with laughs and tears along the way.

“Philomena” is sad, but not in the nihilistic soul-crushing way a Von Trier movie is sad. It is funny, but not in the way a crude teen comedy is funny. It has just enough reality to make you think and just enough fantasy (like the prerequisite and entirely fabricated scene where Coogan gives his speech about decency and basic human rights to the geriatric, cold-hearted nun (Barbara Jefford) that sent Philomena’s son away in the first place and not an eye is dry in the house) to be warm and familiar, like a well-worn blanket.

Yet, despite the familiar territory and the paper-thin supporting characters (Including Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley as Martin’s implausibly soulless editor, and Martin’s wife (Simone Lahbib), who appears at the beginning to complain about his emotional unavailability and scarcely seen or heard from again), the movie works, and contains a handful of genuinely touching moments that will move you to tears.

If “Philomena”‘s intent was to move me, it has duly succeeded. If it’s intent was, also, to make me curious about the real Martin Sixsmith’s book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,’ it has succeeded in this regard too. “Philomena” won’t rock anyone’s world with particularly innovative filmmaking and storytelling, but can’t us softies have our comfort food to watch as well as to eat and drink? For a taste of bittersweet, heartwarming, and maybe a little formulaic British cinema, look no further.

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Out of the Blue (2006)

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When a character in a mainstream film wields a gun, there is usually a method to his madness. Sometimes he’s a hero, protecting innocent civilians and upholding American values (not sure what that says about us, but whatever) against a villain. A baddie, on the other hand, uses the weapon as the means to an end. He has a plan for revenge, or world domination, or seeks to simply send a message to the good guy that yes, evil will triumph against the benign forces who seek to battle crime. Everything makes sense, at least on the level of indisputable action-movie logic. Everything is simple.

This assumption made by the mass media- that every act of violence has a reason, which can be dissected and fought by an opposing force, is what makes “Out of the Blue” so jarring. Because in the popcorn flick, kids don’t die. Victims are props to be used within the context of a bigger picture. It doesn’t seem so personal. “Out of the Blue” is a movie about a man who goes on a mass killing spree.

He plasters a number of residents in the seaside community of Aramoana, New Zealand; men, women, children, old people, for no fucking reason. He just goes off. That’s it. Now I’m sure in the true story this movie is based on, the shooter, David Gray, had more motivation than what what was initially evident. Family problems, money problems, relationship problems; all that crap. But “Out of the Blue” refuses to focus on the ‘why’ of what makes David Gray tick. Instead, it concentrates on the victims.

Aramoana’s police force’s biggest problem at the beginning of the film is rounding up errant dogs and investigating the apparent theft of ladies panties from David Gray (Matthew Sunderland,) the local weirdo. Kids go to school. Grown-ups go to work. Vacationers go fishing on the pier. Dogs and cats do whatever the hell pets do when their people aren’t home. It seems like a boring, regular day. But this is also the day where something inside small-town outcast David Gray’s brain snaps for the final time. He goes and buys a gun from a local shop, arbitrarily ranting and raving as he goes about his day. No longer will be remembered as David Gray, pervert and pantie raider. Things are going to go down in a big way.

It’s obvious that director Robert Sarkies has developed more of a sense of technical verve since his feature film debut, “Scarfies.” “Out of the Blue” is a taut, studied meditation on human nature, the good and the bad of it. Police officer Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) goes about an ordinary day, dealing with ho-hem pedestrian problems . Sweet old lady Helen Dickson (Lois Lawn) sees her grown son Jimmy (Timothy Barlett) off to work, completely ignorant of the fact that she will show uncommon bravery and soon be considered a hero by the media. Garry Holden (Simon Ferry) prepares to tell he and his girlfriend’s kids that they’ve gotten engaged.

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It would be easy to go for nihilism in a story like this, but to take a ‘fuck humanity, we’re gross’ approach would be a disservice to the people who had their lives taken from them or altered forever in the carnage. Instead, we see the mad contrast between human ugliness and the redemptive power of the spirit. As David shoots up the town, a woman risks her life to pull her pet goat into the house. Now that’s the fucking human condition there. One person shoots indiscriminately at unarmed civilians, one person goes out of her way to rescue a farm animal. We’re cut from the same cloth, but we’re by no means the same. Some of us might as well be a different species all together.

Meanwhile, elderly Helen, who recently had hip replacement surgery, proves herself to be a bigger badass than anyone could have imagined. And while I usually feel weirdly sorry for mentally ill murderers, David Gray was making me involuntarily yell at the screen “Kill him, kill him, kill him!” in futile exasperation. And the end? What he got was too good for him. The acting is suitably outstanding from all, even the nonprofessionals (are we sure this was Lois Lawn’s first and only film role?) Karl Urban talks with his eyes in what is probably one of the most heart-wrenching performances of recent years.

Among the bloodshed, we do get to see some beautiful footage of New Zealand and we are offered beautiful shots of the mundane serenity of daily life. The steady, unblinking look into everyday existence contrasted with unthinkable violence is kind of like Haneke, if Haneke didn’t hate the fuck out his characters. I did think the movie was a little too long and tended to meander a bit too much (with lots of unnecessary shots of Garry’s burning house) but that is pretty much the only complaint. The other is that as desensitized as I am, this movie made my stomach flutter with anxiety and my heart hurt.

People who constantly bitch about even the most reasonable gun control laws need to watch this movie. It could just as well be called “Why Crazy People Shouldn’t Have Guns.” Background checks? Unfathomable! Then this happens, and this country says it’s going to change, but it doesn’t. The problem is, people who push the right for every man to have a gun his his hand and his other hand down his pants to wank at his power trip probably don’t want to watch a movie about the actual consequences of violence.

“Out of the Blue” is super realistic, even agonizingly so. But it’s an important watch, and a achingly well-made movie on it’s own terms. The actors are portraying the victims stories like it’s their last role on earth, and breaking our hearts in the process. It takes it’s place for me as my second favorite New Zealand film (nothing beats “What We Do in the Shadows,” guys!) and one of the only films that truly disturbed and shocked me in recent times. But there is a meaning behind the violence, one that unfortunately will fail to reach those who need it most. I recommend this for everyone who likes movies as art as well as entertainment, and even more to those who like social commentary in their filmmaking. This s what Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” tried and failed to be, a truly profound statement on human nature and gun violence.

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Big Eyes (2014)

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It seemed like a match made in heaven. Outwardly charming and charismatic realtor Walter (Christoph Waltz) wedded the wide-eyed artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams,) making it possible for her to keep the sexist mid-20th century authorities from deeming her an unfit mother based on her unmarried status and taking her daughter away.

But Walter proved to be an untrustworthy , possessive pig, constantly berating and manipulating the terrified Margaret and taking credit for her work, a series of  slightly unnerving paintings of waifish children with enormous doe eyes. Caught between fear of her husband’s socioeconomic influence and her own happiness, Margaret stayed trapped for years in a loveless  marriage to a egomaniac monster of a husband.

The story of artist Margaret Keane and her fraught relationship with her conniving husband, Walter, seems like it could make a fascinating film, but what can one do with a script as shoddy as this? In “Big Eyes,” Amy Adams is as lovable as ever as the innocent Margaret, initially lulling the viewer into believing that the movie will be much, much better than it actually is.

Christoph Waltz, however, gives an unexpectedly atrocious turn as Walter, rendering all Amy Adams’ efforts to make a good movie out of a mediocre one obsolete. For people such as myself, who adored Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” his performance is a devastating betrayal.

We know he can do better, but with his fiendishly cartoonish portrayal of Adams’ abusive husband, we half expect him to spirit a stack of Acme products out of thin air and futilely attempt to blow Margaret and her frightened daughter to Kingdom come. His performance is what transforms a average movie into something much less.

“Big Eyes” is an improvement over “Alice in Wonderland,” filmmaker Tim Burton’s earlier film of recent years? Ha! “Alice in Wonderland” was solid, gaudy entertainment, harmless to take the kids to and relax your brain with. “Big Eyes” tries to take on serious subject matter, and fails miserably.

I was initially really excited to see it because it sounded a lot different from Burton’s other work, but how disappointed I was when it turned out to be a shallow biopic with one-dimensional characterizations and… yes, a mortifying performance by an actor I used to like and respect.

Meanwhile, a supporting characterization by Danny Huston as an interested reporter seems perfunctory and uninteresting, placed haphazardly in the film simply so he can supply some backstory in the form of a voiceover. As “Big Eyes” veers into shameless, albeit star-studded ridiculousness, all I can think of is what a missed opportunity this was. Hopefully Burton will take his next project more seriously and not deteriorate into kitsch like he did in this sloppy and misfortunate misfire.

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The Imitation Game (2014)

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Being a genius ain’t easy. However, being a latently homosexual genius with undiagnosed Asperger’s in a time where being different was not just detrimental to your social status, but dangerous is damn near impossible. “The Imitation Game” is a (sorta) true story of Alan Turing, who saved thousands of lives by cracking the Germans’ enigma code during World War II and may have cut the war short more than two years.

Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, your go-to guy for Brit quirkiness without going too off the radar. Just look at the guy. He looks like he was born to play an eccentric-slash-asocial genius. And while many found “The Imitation Game” to be generic Oscar Bait, I was thoroughly engrossed by the troubled life of Alan Turing. Tragic, yes. But also fascinating.

My interest was largely based on Benedict Cumberbatch’s amazing acting job (it should also be mentioned that Alex Lawther, who played young Alan, also gave an outstanding performance) and the fact that I had reasonably low expectations. A drama about codes and mathematics? Bor-ing! Everybody who knows me knows perfectly well that math is not my strong suite. But a fascinating lead and an arresting storyline? That I can get behind.

If this movie is true at all to the real man, Turing had a brilliant mathematical mind, but he was not someone you’d invite to a squash game. In fact, he most likely isn’t the kind of man you’d associate with at all. He’s a genius, yes, but he knows he’s a genius, and that makes him all but insufferable. He’s actually a bit of an arsehole, but you still can’t help falling a little in love with him, as some (not me) were endeared to Sheldon in “Big Bang Theory.” Turing is a much better written character, but he possesses the same offhand arrogance, somewhat effeminate softness, and distaste for the common man. Not to mention his lackluster (to say the least) social skills.

When Alan Turing is hired to break a German code under almost unbeatable obstacles, he is convinced he can do it himself, aided by nothing but his big old brain (not to mention one hundred-thousand pounds government funds.) But he finds an unlikely ally in Joan Clarke (the lovely, if worryingly thin, Keira Knightley,) a girl who seems rather ordinary on the outside, but who possesses a keen mathematical mind.

Flash-forward to Turing being interviewed by a skeptical officer (Rory Kinnear) afted he is arrested for sexual indecency (i.e. homosexual acts.) Turing recounts to the policeman his efforts working for the military cracking codes as well as his childhood bullying at the hands of the other students and hopeless crush on his schoolmate Christopher (Jack Bannon.)

The film itself  is apparently fairly historically inaccurate. This has bothered some purists, but I say, so what? Sometimes biographical honesty is the best policy, and sometimes the story just turns out better when you take it in a different direction altogether. And yes, sometimes the story does feel conventional, with characters having dime-store epiphanies when the plot requires them to, but any occasional  lack of depth the script is overtaken by the fantastic acting. If  nothing else, this movie will make you think about the liberties we take for granted today concerning our sexual practices.

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Gypsy (1993)

The first part of this film, led by a manic Bette Midler, plays like “Toddlers & Tiaras” for the Great Depression era. Mama Rose (Midler) spends so much time immersing her daughters in showbiz and sick infantilism, insisting on making them wear little girl’s clothes well into puberty, that she forgets what is best for her girls altogether.

Though not as dark a musical as Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” or Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” “Gypsy” emanates a diseased kind of wistfulness, marked by broken dreams and shattered egos. Meanwhile Bette Midler plays Mama Rose as if it was her last performance on earth, but backed up by the stagy sets and old-timey attitude, her performance is actually a strength, not a deterrent.

Rose’s daughters, Louise and June (Cynthia Gibb and Jennifer Rae Beck), are as different as different can be, but remain close, their bonds strengthened by having survived their mother. Louise, gawky and shy, is innocent and soft spoken, while June, the “‘star” of mama’s show, is more political and assertive.

Mama Rose is both outrageously self-centered and ridiculously narcissistic, guided not so much by dreams as delusions. She ruins her daughters’ lives and later expects them to thank her for it. But it’s hard not to pity her as she struggles to find success in a world that doesn’t hand out fame easily.

Into this disastrous dynamic strolls Herbie (Peter Riegert), an agent who attempts to help Mama Rose on her way to success in exchange for her hand in marriage. But it seems that Mama can not be held down, and even Herbie may soon grow sick of her games.

There are some overtones in this film which could be considered an allegory for loss of innocence in the entertainment industry. The acting is good but not amazing, but the story and the music are the real reasons to watch this. The plot itself is based on a memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee (AKA Louise) who found fame at long last at the price of her innocence. Overall the movie is worth watching as a very good musical, with Bette Midler running the show as crazy Mama Rose. Recommended.