The dreary truth, a high-school horror, and a dictator on the run
Both James Franco and Jonah Hill are members of Judd Apatow's informal comic troupe, the 'Frat Pack', a self-satisfied group of youngish Hollywood actors whose smugness tends to overpower their charm. Mr Franco has always mixed comedy with serious roles, and since Mr Hill was given an Oscar nomination for his unremarkable work on Moneyball, he now considers himself an actor of heft also. They're both taking themselves very seriously indeed in True Story, a crime thriller based on real events.
Mr Hill is Michael Finkel, a high-flying New York Times journalist who's just landed another scoop when he's accused of playing fast and loose with the facts. Fired forthwith, he returns deflated to his pretty wife (Felicity Jones) and spacious Montana home, and is gloomily contemplating a future in provincial newspapers when he hears some interesting news. A man called Christian Longo (Franco) has been charged with murdering his wife and three children. And while on the run in Mexico, he posed as Finkel.
Finkel is intrigued, and requests a meeting. Instead of a monster, the journalist is confronted by a bright, articulate, sensitive-seeming man. Over frequent visits their friendship intensifies, and Longo hints that he's protecting someone, and might not be guilty after all.
All of this sounds a lot more interesting than it actually is, and the film's potential is botched by poor direction and inadequate acting.
Jonah Hill's Finkel is a one-note performance, a character without dimensions, while Franco is all wrong as Longo. Felicity Jones is a better actor than both of them put together, but this dreary film gives her little to do.
For film critics, the phrase 'found footage' has been a term of abuse for years, but that doesn't stop film-makers from knocking out hand-held horror nasties like this one. Cheap as chips and just as lazy, The Gallows is set in a mid-American high school with a dark past. In 1993, a student production of a play called 'The Gallows' ended regrettably when a cast member was accidentally killed on a prop gallows.
Twenty years on, the school's drama teacher has decided to honour the tragedy by staging the play once again, a truly daft idea that goes as swimmingly as you might have supposed. The Gallows is so lazily schlepped together that it doesn't even obey the tedious conventions of found footage: at one point two cameras are clearly in use, though there's only supposed to be one. If only there were none, and we didn't have to sit through this dire and witless production.
In The President's wonderfully chilling opening scene, an old man sits by a window with a small boy admiring the city below. He is the merciless dictator of a central European state, and to demonstrate his power to his grandson, he picks up a phone and orders all the lights turned off. They do it again, as the boy laughs, then gunshots emanate from the shadows as a bold coup gets underway.
Abandoned by his acolytes, the President disguises himself and the boy as peasants and escapes to the interior, where he witnesses the devastation his rule has caused. Though competently directed by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhamalbaf, The President is annoyingly didactic, unsubtle in its intentions, and intellectually banal.
Nothing banal about The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher's slow-moving, beguilingly eccentric drama. Her sister Alba Rohrwacher stars as the matriarch of a mildly dysfunctional German-Italian family who live in hippy squalor in a crumbling Tuscan farmhouse.
It's a slight but enthralling film, and the murky, dream-like sequences during a surreal TV contest in which the family takes part reminded me at times of Antonioni's l'Avventura, which cannot be a bad thing.
True Story (15A, 99mins)
The Gallows (15A, 81mins)
The President (No Cert, 105mins)
The Wonders (No Cert, IFI, 101mins)