Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: AMERICAN HONEY (2016) and THE WHOLE TRUTH (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold comes from the Mike Leigh and Ken Loach school of kitchen sink cinema, with films like 2006's RED ROAD and 2009's FISH TANK capturing the harsh and gritty world of lower-income and disenfranchised UK residents. Even her 2011 period adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS was able to fuse Arnold's gritty vision to the Bronte classic. AMERICAN HONEY finds Arnold focusing on America, its impoverished, its socioeconomic inequalities, and like many foreign-born directors, she manages to vividly depict the look and feel of the "heartland" of middle America in ways that sometimes only outsiders can. Shot in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, AMERICAN HONEY, like FISH TANK before it, has a non-professional Arnold discovery in the lead role. Houston native Sasha Lane was on spring break with friends when Arnold spotted her on a beach. Lane has moments where she shines, but fails to make the impact that Katie Jarvis did in FISH TANK. Part of the reason is that Jarvis' character was aggressive and in-your-face and that the debuting actress was a force of nature (Arnold approached Jarvis on a street where she saw the enraged young woman tearing her boyfriend a new asshole and knew she had the actress FISH TANK needed). Lane's Star is more of a passive observer throughout AMERICAN HONEY, taking in the sights and sounds of America, and while she finds herself on this journey, it's just not a very interesting one. 18-year-old Star leaves her dysfunctional home where she's sexually abused by a man we assume is her stepfather (it's never made clear) to join a free-spirited, vagabond magazine sales crew run by the stern, money-driven Krystal (Riley Keough). It's a rambunctious group of misfits prone to bacchanalian partying after hours but they take their jobs seriously as they travel by van from city to city, especially Jake (Shia LaBeouf), Krystal's top seller and master bullshit artist. Star falls for the charismatic--at least in the context of this film--Jake despite warnings from Krystal to stay focused on her work.

Shot almost completely handheld for maximum immediacy in Arnold's preferred aspect ratio of 1.33:1, AMERICAN HONEY finds hypnotic imagery in the utterly normal, with scenes in a K-Mart, non-descript convenience stores, skeezy motels, on desolate highways, and other locations providing a document of the sameness of the American landscape like Terrence Malick's otherwise forgettable TO THE WONDER. There's some effective scenes scattered throughout but with long sequences on the road and about ten too many mag crew sing-alongs, the meandering-by-design AMERICAN HONEY muddles its message and overstays its welcome by a good 45 minutes. While neophyte Lane acquits herself as best she can, Star simply isn't an interesting enough character to justify such a bloated and self-indulgent running time. (R, 163 mins)

(US - 2016)

A throwback to the kind of John Grisham courtroom dramas that were opening every other week in the 1990s, THE WHOLE TRUTH is one of the dullest films of its kind, a sleepy shrug of a thriller that can't even be bothered to embrace some of its more tawdry elements. Lionsgate knew they had a dud on their hands, sitting on this for two years before giving it a stealth VOD burial, even with a cast headlined by Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger, in her first screen appearance in six years. Set and shot in the usual Lionsgate stomping grounds of Louisiana, THE WHOLE TRUTH has Reeves (a last-minute replacement for Daniel Craig, who wisely bailed) as Richard Ramsay, a cynical defense lawyer representing Mike Lassiter (Gabriel Basso), a 17-year-old on trial for the murder of his wealthy father Boone (Jim Belushi), who happened to be Ramsay's best friend. The film opens in the courtroom, the trial already in progress, with flashbacks filling in the backstory as witnesses testify. A picture is painted of Boone as a bullying, physically abusive, philandering drunk and all-around asshole who deserved the knife Mike confessed to plunging in the middle of his chest in a fit of blind rage. Friends and acquaintances tell of Boone's cruel and humiliating treatment of his wife Loretta (Zellweger), and even darker details are revealed when Mike eventually takes the stand, but is the whole truth being withheld? And could a major character be hiding a deep, dark secret that will be revealed in a thoroughly ludicrous twist ending? SPOILER: Yes.

I have to admit, when I woke up the day I watched THE WHOLE TRUTH, it's safe to say that one of the things I least expected to see before my head hit the pillow that night was a nude Jim Belushi violently restraining Renee Zellweger's arms and anally raping her against a marble banister. Mike's best buddy next door also spies on Loretta in the shower (a game Zellweger going all in after her extended sabbatical), and we discover that Ramsay's co-counsel Janelle Brady (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) lost her job at her last firm after having a torrid affair with a married lawyer and went off the deep end as a crazy, obsessed psycho stalking him and his family. These are unabashedly sleazy elements that should be accentuated to a point but get thrown on the backburner by director Courtney Hunt, making her first film since 2008's acclaimed FROZEN RIVER, which earned her a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination as well as a Best Actress nod for Melissa Leo. The FROZEN RIVER Courtney Hunt isn't who showed up for this uninspired yawner. Hunt's also kept busy by directing a few episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU, and even those have more flair and style than the static, sleep-inducing THE WHOLE TRUTH. The script is credited to one "Rafael Jackson," who's really Nicholas Kazan, the son of the legendary Elia Kazan and the writer of such revered films as 1982's FRANCES, 1986's AT CLOSE RANGE, and 1991's REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Kazan hasn't scripted a film since the 2002 Jennifer Lopez thriller ENOUGH, and it should speak volumes that he had his name removed from THE WHOLE TRUTH but left it on ENOUGH (odd trivia bit: after the abysmal EXPOSED, this is the second 2016 Keanu Reeves thriller dumped on VOD by Lionsgate where he was an eleventh-hour replacement for another actor--Philip Seymour Hoffman was supposed to star in EXPOSED but died shortly before production began--and one of the key creative personnel had their names removed from the finished product). You don't generally see things like THE WHOLE TRUTH much anymore. Reeves (who's terrible), Zellweger, and Belushi (who's quite convincing as a total shitbag) could've headlined this in 1998 and it would've been exactly the same movie--age doesn't make Reeves any more believable as an attorney--only back then it would've cleaned up at the box office for a week until the bad word of mouth got around. Courtroom dramas are a tried-and-true formula that's tough to screw up. It's too bad THE WHOLE TRUTH bungles it from the start, never finding its way and lacking the courage to embrace its inherent pulpy Southern trashiness. (R, 93 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment