Friday, September 4, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: BOULEVARD (2015); THE D TRAIN (2015); and TRUE STORY (2015)

(US - 2015)

The third of four films Robin Williams had in the can at the time of his death in August 2014 and the last to feature him onscreen (he voices a dog in Terry Jones' long-delayed sci-fi comedy ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, tentatively due in the US in early 2016), BOULEVARD finds the actor on the controlled, dramatic side of things for one of the better projects from his mediocrity-plagued final couple of years. A character study of a lifetime of repression and walled-off emotions, BOULEVARD was directed by the wildly inconsistent Dito Montiel, who garnered some indie acclaim with 2006's A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, but other than 2009's underrated FIGHTING, has fizzled in the years since. Montiel's specialty is shooting his films in the parts of NYC that still look like the NYC of the 1980s, but BOULEVARD finds him venturing outside his comfort zone. A low-budget indie shot in Nashville in the summer of 2013, the film didn't even secure a distributor until several months after Williams' death (Starz Media, who opened it on 11 screens in July 2015), which probably had to do with the subject matter as much as it's just a depressing downer without a lot of mass appeal. Williams stars as Nolan Mack, a milquetoast, 60-year-old loan officer who's worked at the same bank branch for 25 years. The comfort and familiarity of his job extends to his home life with wife Joy (Kathy Baker). While they enjoy one another's company, share an affinity for fine wine, the literary works of John Updike and Salman Rushdie, and movies like Godard's MASCULIN FEMININ, the childless couple are more like old friends than spouses. They sleep in separate rooms and there's no indication of any physical intimacy between them in quite some time. While returning from a visit to his father (Gary Gardner, who also died prior to the film's release) at a nursing home, Nolan impulsively detours through a sketchy part of town and picks up Leo (Roberto Aguire), a male prostitute who suggests they go to a motel. Asexual Nolan declines any offers of sex and just wants to talk or, at most, gently caress or hold Leo. Nolan becomes a sugar daddy of sorts, buying Leo a phone, clothes for a job interview, and giving him money. He grows possessive of Leo, who comes to like Nolan but is still drawn to the streets and hustling. Nolan's fixation on Leo becomes a major life distraction that eventually gets him a black eye after a physical altercation with Leo's pimp (Giles Matheny) that spills over into his workplace, and forces him to spin a web of lies that Joy constantly catches him in but says nothing.

It's always strange seeing an actor who's since passed on in a new project months or years after their death. Of course, the fact that Williams is no longer here and that his life ended the way it did casts a dark cloud over the already melancholy BOULEVARD. Nolan is a meek man who loves his wife, but whose life has passed him by and at 60, he's only now coming to terms with the fact that he's gay but too emotionally withdrawn to know how to act on it. After years (decades?) of a loving but platonic, convenient marriage, that part of Nolan has shut down but Leo stirs something inside of him and while he can't act on it in a sexual way, it's making him re-evaluate everything, much to the dismay of Joy, who loves her husband but knows their marriage is a security blanket of sorts. She even demonstrates just how well she knows her husband when he finally admits he's been lying and her first question is "What's his name?" Williams and Baker are very good here, and after some truly abysmal films in recent years (THE BIG WEDDING, THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN, A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS) and the failed TV series THE CRAZY ONES, it's nice to see one last excellent performance from him--he's always been at his best when a director can rein him in, and Montiel succeeds on that front, even as the story seems ready to clandestinely veer into ONE HOUR PHOTO territory at any moment. Williams also works well with Aguire and with Bob Odenkirk, as Nolan's best friend, a cynical English prof with a propensity for younger women. BOULEVARD manages to accomplish the rare feat of being a downbeat film that doesn't force its characters to wallow in misery, but at the same time, it offers no real surprises in its outcome and it's prone to clunky exposition drops. It's not a great film (unless you're grading on the Montiel curve), but it's an occasionally effective and heartfelt one, and fans of Williams and the always-excellent Baker (who gets a fine Beatrice Straight-from-NETWORK tirade near the end) will definitely want to seek it out. (R, 88 mins)

(US/UK - 2015)

IFC opened THE D TRAIN on over 1000 screens in the second week of the summer movie season and watched it promptly tank, landing in 19th place with $450,000 and plummeting an apocalyptic 97% in its second weekend. It's a mixed bag, but commercially speaking, it's the kind of offbeat project--think of Adam Sandler fans going to see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE--that produces vitriolic reactions from an audience that's not getting the movie they thought they'd be getting. Of course, THE D TRAIN didn't really get much of a push in the first place, starting with a vague trailer that sort-of looked like a wacky reunion comedy but seemed a little off. IFC was probably betting on Black's presence alone netting them a commercial hit, while Black was probably thinking this would be another BERNIE to beef up his indie cred. Black is Dan Landsman, a nice-guy sad sack with a nice family--wife Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), teenage son Zach (Russell Posner), and an infant daughter--and a dull job at an outdated Pittsburgh consulting firm whose technophobe owner Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) doesn't buy into the idea the computers are essential. Dan also chairs his 20th high school reunion committee, even though the other volunteers don't like him and don't invite him out for drinks after their meetings (Dan sees their bar pics on Facebook the next day). After spotting their high school god Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) in a sunblock commercial on TV, Dan has a plan to make the reunion epic and make himself the hero in the process: get Lawless, a star athlete and all-around stud who went to L.A. after high school to become an actor, to commit to the reunion. Dan grows a soul patch and fakes a business trip to L.A. in order to meet up with Oliver, and after a drug and alcohol-fueled weekend where something quite unexpected happens, Oliver agrees to come to the reunion, which up-ends Dan's life in ways that soon spiral out of control.

Given that the sexually adventurous Oliver talks openly of no preference for women or men, just "whatever feels right," what happens in L.A. between him and Dan probably won't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen 2000's CHUCK & BUCK, the indie hit whose star/writer Mike White--looking alarmingly like the late, great Norman Fell as he gets older--has a supporting role and co-produces here. THE D TRAIN explores this plot turn with little concern for commercial viability, but the biggest issue is that Dan never seems like a real person. He's a man who desperately wants to rewrite his high school experience, even inventing ridiculous nicknames for himself (like "The D Man," "D-Fresh," and "D-Money") that everyone calls out as complete bullshit. At first, Dan seems sad and a little pathetic, not unlike Ricky Gervais' David Brent on THE OFFICE, but the more the film goes on, especially after the L.A. section, the more unsympathetic you'll feel to the point of possible repulsion. Cringe comedy has to be funny while making you uncomfortable, but Dan becomes such an unlikable asshole that the cringe factor never gets to take hold and you start feeling sorry for Oliver, who's the far more interesting character and didn't ask for any of this. Marsden is terrific as Oliver, who also has his own insecurities ("I peaked in the 11th grade," he says regarding his failed pursuit of Hollywood fame, and he also haplessly tries to impress Dan by pretending to know Dermot Mulroney when they spot him in a bar) and vulnerabilities that he tries to mask by doing things like dispensing sage advice to Zach about how to maneuver his way through a three-way. But Black's performance becomes so over-the-top and off-putting that you keep rooting for Dan's life to completely collapse, and I'm not sure that was the intent of the writing/directing team of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel. As Dan grows increasingly desperate and more hostile, I kept thinking of the nuances that an actor like, say, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman could've brought to the character (he would've been perfect for this). Black isn't able--at least not in his performance here--to explore the dark places that THE D TRAIN wants to go, and the film never finds the right tone, trying to go in one direction but being pulled in another by Black doing his "Jack Black" thing. It also doesn't seem to make much sense that 45-year-old Black and and 41-year-old Marsden would be high school seniors in 1994. Why not make it a 25-year reunion?  And maybe this is being pedantic, but why is Quarterflash's 1981 hit "Harden My Heart" being played at a Class of 1994 reunion?  What 18-year-old in 1994 was listening to Quarterflash? And the morning after the reunion, Stacey tells Dan that he needs to take Zach to school. What class reunion takes place on a weeknight or a Sunday? (R, 101 mins)

(US - 2015)

There's a fascinating film to be made of the facts behind TRUE STORY, but the result here is a lifeless and formulaic psychological thriller-turned-forgettable courtroom drama.  In 2002, New York Times journalist Michael Finkel was fired after fudging some facts and creating composite characters for an investigative piece. At the same time, American fugitive Christian Longo was in Mexico, evading murder charges for the deaths of his wife and three children. When Longo was apprehended, he had been using the name "Mike Finkel," and passing himself off as a reporter. Finkel and Longo had no connection and had never met, and when word got back to Finkel that someone on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list was using his name as an alias, he reached out to a jailed Longo, who was in Oregon awaiting trial. So began a relationship that's somewhere between man-crush and co-dependency of sorts that carries on to this day (the film says the men still talk on the first Sunday of every month), one that saw Longo manipulating Finkel and the disgraced Finkel using the case to nab a book deal and revitalize his career. There's a lot of talk in the prison visitation scenes between Finkel (two-time Academy Award-nominee Jonah Hill) and Longo (Academy Award-nominee James Franco) but none of it really goes anywhere. Longo keeps insisting he's innocent, which secures Finkel's book deal, but then pleads guilty to two of the murders, and not guilty to the other two in what's perceived as a blatant attempt to confuse the jury and cause a mistrial. Longo has been diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, but TRUE STORY doesn't really explore that. In fact, once director Rupert Goold keeps the focus on their one-on-one discussions, the film isn't really about much of anything. There's no suspense in the courtroom sequences, which are anchored by Franco giving a long and rambling Longo monologue, and Finkel comes off as too sloppy in his ambition and too gullible to be taken seriously. Because they have a nice natural rapport and have been friends for years, Hill and Franco--a dramatic pairing that, thanks to their extensive comedy history, still feels like stunt casting even though they have three (yes, three) Oscar nods between them (and a single wink from Franco as Longo smiles at Finkel after the verdict is read almost salvages things)--do good work with what they're given, but the Brad Pitt-produced TRUE STORY just never catches fire. (R, 99 mins)

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