Runs Fri., April 17–Thurs., April 23 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 92 minutes.
See, this is why I don’t go camping. In its opening half-hour (the film saves its explicit violence, including quite a bit of gore, for its final 30 minutes), Backcountry conjures a series of terrors about being in the middle of nowhere—in this case, a Canadian forest. Is the aggressive stranger with the survivalist knife following you? Are those sounds at night really acorns falling from trees? Has that deer carcass been slaughtered by an animal with large claws? And what exactly lurks outside the circle of light afforded by your campfire at night? These wilderness anxieties are enhanced by the transparently empty bravado of Alex (Jeff Roop), who is dragging girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) in the direction of a remote lake, a place fondly (but not too exactly) remembered from his childhood. When the script establishes that Alex is a struggling gardener while Jenn is a lawyer, it explains his tendency to overcompensate and his reluctance to be outmachoed by the rugged park ranger (Eric Balfour) who stops by their camp during their first night out.
Even though this movie struck me as a mostly hollow exercise, I will testify to the effectiveness of director Adam MacDonald’s tricks. (One comes at the beginning, with a claim that the film is based on a true story—evidently the film has a casual similarity to a real case of people attacked in a forest, but that’s about it.) The ability to maintain a vague sense of unease is no small achievement, although MacDonald can’t avoid the letdown when the terror is made physical. The film also benefits from the determined presence of Peregrym, a Hilary Swank-alike who seemed a cinch for Hollywood stardom after Stick It (2006) but who’s labored in Canadian TV ever since. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This performance should put her on the map.
A map would’ve been useful for the characters in Backcountry; but then again, the film’s plot is dependent on bad decision-making. That may be lazy screenwriting, yet part of the movie’s point is 21st-century cluelessness about nature—Alex’s overconfidence, Jenn’s reliance on her smart phone—so of course these two would do dumb things. Backcountry doesn’t reach the giddy heights of the masculine competition games of the David Mamet-scripted The Edge, but at least it isn’t as pretentious as Wild. Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you, as the philosopher Sam Elliott said. Backcountry succeeds by not straying far from that core belief. Robert Horton
Beyond the Reach
Opens Fri., April 17 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 95 minutes.
Gordon Gekko in the desert Southwest. There’s really no other way to describe this sparse but ultimately rather silly B-movie thriller. Michael Douglas rolls into town in a monstrous Mercedes-Benz SUV equipped with a stove, a wet bar, and an espresso maker. It’s the only one in the U.S. and it cost a half-million bucks, brags his financier John Madec. The locals are more impressed with the smaller denominations of cash Madec hands out as bribes. He’s here in Navajo country, without a permit, to shoot a bighorn sheep. This arrogant trophy hunter also totes an Austrian rifle worth more than the mobile home and pickup truck of his orphaned young guide, Ben (Jeremy Irvine, the farmboy turned soldier in War Horse). Yet class resentment isn’t really explored in Beyond the Reach.
Madec is the flashy, enjoyably evil role here, and producer Douglas certainly relishes the part, wearing yellow ’70s aviator shades and barking Mandarin business instructions into his sat-phone. (Madec is in the process of outsourcing . . . ahem, I mean selling a company to China for $120 million.) There are no cracks in his confident, leathery facade—a lean 70-year-old cancer survivor, Douglas now strikingly resembles his father Kirk—until a hunting mishap turns client against guide.
It’s not a fair contest: Douglas can act, while Irvine just furrows his brow in consternation. (Special-effects makeup soon has Ben blistered and red while he’s pursued barefoot and shirtless through the Mojave.) Moreover, despite the Gekko shadings, this is not an Oliver Stone-level script. Once the cat-and-mouse stuff begins, Madec doesn’t have anything interesting or funny to say in this dire situation. All Douglas can do is shout at the kid to stop hiding—so he can follow him some more. This is one of those movies where the villain won’t simply shoot the good guy because the plot demands still more delay. (Fun fact: Andy Griffith played the malign hunter in the 1974 television adaptation of Robb White’s 1972 YA novel Deathwatch, itself essentially a Four Corners rehash of The Most Dangerous Game.)
And it gets worse. French director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti keeps interrupting what ought to be a taut two-hander with flabby flashbacks. (Ben has a girlfriend, yawn, away in college.) The two-part surprise ending doubles down on stupidity to such an extent that even Douglas-Gekko-Madec seems incredulous. Like him, we’d rather be doing deals in China. Brian Miller
5 to 7
Opens Fri., April 17 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 97 minutes.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl label has become a tired, overused trope in a tired, overused genre in which a one-dimensional female character exists solely to help a lost young man shake up his life and reach full potential. (What about her happiness? Who cares?) Think Elizabethtown, Garden State, or 500 Days of Summer. In 5 to 7, our Lost Boy is Brian (Anton Yelchin), an unpublished 24-year-old writer who papers the walls of his nice Manhattan apartment with rejection letters, completely unaware of his privilege. (Brooklyn we could maybe believe.) He soon meets Arielle (Berenice Marlohe), a beautiful 33-year-old Parisian, and is instantly infatuated with this Manic Pixie Dream Woman. The two begin a flirtation intended to be cute and charming, but which comes off as flat and contrived.
Arielle tells Brian that she’s got a husband and two children, but maintains an open marriage between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m. every weekday. And of course she’s the one who initiates the affair, after Brian hesitates for just one honorable nanosecond. 5 to 7 is pure male fantasy, predicated on familiar types. Arielle is one of those effortlessly beautiful Frenchwomen, and Brian will be inspired by her muse. Sample voiceover: “She made me a writer. She made me a man.” Excuse me while I go vomit.
Director Victor Levin, a producer on Mad Men and a veteran TV writer, doesn’t seem to agree with film’s “Show, don’t tell” rule. 5 to 7 ’s dialogue is clunky and copious. Coupled with static camera work, the film is trying to be Gilmore Girls trying to be a Woody Allen movie. I had high hopes for Yelchin after his stellar performance in the indie romance Like Crazy. Unfortunately, he and Marlohe—while both very attractive—have no chemistry. But, as Brian says, “Progress is not linear.” Diana M. Le
PThe Hunting Ground
Runs Fri., April 17–Thurs., April 23 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.
Ah, yes, the campus rape movie that none of us wants to see. Credit the excellent muckracking documentarian Kirby Dick for pursuing such difficult topics. In 2012’s The Invisible War, he and producer Amy Ziering addressed sexual assault in the military; now their attention turns to the academic institution, which operates by its own inflexible set of rules (many of them unwritten). Will you be surprised to learn that fundraising and sports teams count for more than young women’s safety?
Despite the relatively mild rating (CNN has the broadcast rights), this is not an easy sit. The Hunting Ground walks us through a variety of campus crimes—none at the UW or state colleges, I’ll tell you now—as described by their candid victims. All are named, as are a very few suspects and perpetrators, the most prominent being Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston of Florida State. A few collegiate men also describe their assaults, but the pattern here is overwhelmingly male on female, and it works like this: 1) Ask a freshman girl to a party and get her drunk; 2) isolate her from friends; 3) rape or sodomize her; 4) act like nothing happened; 5) repeat.
This would all be too terribly depressing if Dick and Ziering didn’t structure their movie around two brave young women, North Carolina’s Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, who after being raped founded EROC, or End Rape on Campus. (It uses the federal Title IX law, originally intended to equally fund women’s sports teams on campus, to sue for inadequate and unequal protection of female students from sexual assault.) And though their troubling yet inspiring stories are part of a larger chorus of victims, The Hunting Ground is well and widely sourced and reported. Damning statistics abound, with footnotes: 16–20 percent of women on campus experience sexual assault; 88 percent of such assaults go unreported; of those 12 percent reported, only 25 percent result in arrests; of those arrested, 20 percent go to trial.
Why are the stats so stacked against women? Universities don’t want to alienate donors by expelling their sons or passing complaints to the cops. “It’s a deeply powerful industry,” says The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan. Another source adds,“Universities are protecting their brand. They’re selling a product.” And finally, says an ex-UNC administrator, the school’s goal is to “keep your numbers low.”
Even so, The Hunting Ground manages to summon some hope for change (cue the Lady Gaga ballad). To date, the EROC has helped students file 24 Title IX complaints, while 95 schools are under current federal investigation. It??s not the numbers here you’ll remember, of course, but the stories. A montage of students relating how they called their parents, post-rape, is the saddest thing you’ll see on screen this year. Brian Miller
Runs Fri., April 17–Thurs., April 23 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 108 minutes.
Back in 2009, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso came to Seattle for a retrospective of his still-young career, including his new film Liverpool, which NWFF subsequently distributed in the U.S. Jauja is his first feature since that critical breakout, and his most commercial to date—though still with plenty of space for Alonso-ian mysteries.
The title, pronounced “How-ha,” refers to a legendary city of riches and happiness, but this is no treasure hunt. Set in the late 19th century, Jauja is a period piece that ostensibly takes on the genocide of Argentina’s colonial past, when soldiers were sent to exterminate the primitive “coconut heads.” Yet Alonso’s films are as much about men moving through the landscape, leaving behind the rules of civilization to become lost in the wilderness.
“We don’t belong here,” says the rueful Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), a Danish engineer working for the Argentine army. He’s not just talking about the wilds of Patagonia. More civilian than soldier, Dinesen is accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who becomes the object of unwanted attention from an insistent lieutenant. When she runs off with a young soldier into “enemy territory”—the vast, barren inland country where a guerrilla leader has become as much myth as adversary—Dinesen follows without waiting for a military escort. He’s awkward and out of place in this terrain, no less uncomfortable in the company of crude soldiers, showing the weariness of age in his graying beard and unhurried pace. It’s a physical vulnerability we don’t often see in Mortensen (now 56), and it is powerful.
Alonso isn’t one for exposition. Jauja leaves the coast for a grassy pampas where rocky nubs and spiky mountains punch through the earth like the skeleton of ages past. The spare dialogue gives way to a symphony of insects and lonely wind. Alonso often holds his long, leisurely shots after characters have left the frame—as if contemplating the transience of life. Some may find the device pretentious; I find it beautiful and haunting. Alonso grounds his film in the physical experiences of his characters and the texture of the moment, but in the final minutes the physical gives way to the metaphysical. Dinesen’s odyssey transforms into something closer to a dream or legend dredged up from the subconscious. For Alonso, it’s all part of the same story—more poem than frontier thriller, one that lingers long after the credits end. Sean Axmaker
Runs Fri., April 17–Thurs., April 23 at GRand Illusion. Not rated. 79 minutes.
Even if you have an allergic reaction to dramatic re-enactments in documentary films—and I confess I get itchy during them—1971 provides an exciting, non-hokey account of a remarkable true story. The March ’71 break-in at an FBI office in Media, Penn., has not enjoyed the lingering prominence of the Pentagon Papers or other high-profile leaks. Maybe that’s because the culprits were never found. Most of the participants were recently outed in onetime Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger’s book about the case, The Burglary. Medsger is an interviewee in the documentary, as are the former burglars willing to go on camera.
The portraits that emerge are familiar but vivid. The burglars (who dubbed themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI) included professors, parents, and protest-minded college students. Under the leadership of the late Haverford College physics teacher Bill Davidon, they targeted the FBI because they sensed J. Edgar Hoover’s organization was spying on the protest movement and installing its agents as undercover agitators. At the time, Hoover was also gathering documentation on participants in the women’s liberation movement and checking up on subversive cabals such as the Boy Scouts of America. All this, and quite a bit more, was contained in the documents stolen from the FBI office.
Johanna Hamilton’s film has plenty of angles. There’s the suspense of the break-in itself, which was meticulously planned: Innocent-looking mom Bonnie Raines pretended to be a Swarthmore student to get inside the FBI office and case the joint, and the break-in took place on the night of the epic Ali/Frazier prizefight, in the hope that security guards would be otherwise occupied. Even the re-enactments can’t blunt that stuff. Then there’s the content of the files themselves, which revealed the FBI’s blatant overreach. One stray reference, the acronym COINTELPRO, would eventually expose Hoover’s shockingly nasty domestic counter-intelligence program. Its hijinks included the anonymous blackmail letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., implying that King should kill himself before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Then there are the contemporary parallels, which the movie doesn’t overdo. (Laura Poitras, Oscar winner for the Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour, is an executive producer here.) The film doesn’t need to hit those parallels hard, because no contemporary viewer will see this as a period piece—not with Snowden and Julian Assange being debated as heroes or scoundrels. 1971 is firmly on the side of disobedience. Robert Horton
The Salt of the Earth
Opens Fri., April 17 at Cinerama, Seven Gables, & Lincoln Square. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.
Much as you and I will want to admire the great Brazilian humanist photographer Sebastiao Salgado, such creatures have a way of remaining elusive, using their lens as a shield. Compounding matters more, this is an unwieldy documentary portrait with two authors: Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, etc.), a professed fan who provides voiceover praise; and Juliano Salgado, the artist’s elder son, who’s part of the family enterprise. As he’s done since transitioning from Paris-based economist to globetrotting photographer in the early ’70s, Salgado Sr. is calling the shots here. Stacked with stunning images (almost like a pedestal), this overlong doc can feel like a promo reel for his ongoing Genesis photo series. No outside voices or critics dare interrupt the master or his tribute.
While alternating between its two sources (Wenders’ mostly being black-and-white, like Salgado’s images), Salt of the Earth lays out a life in chronological fashion: early days on the family farm, education in the city, marriage, and further study in Europe. Acclaim came in the ’70s and ’80s, as Salgado began haunting war zones, sites of famine and displacement, and scenes of brutal, back-breaking labor in the Third World. I have to say now that such stoic scenes of human misery and endurance have become commonplace, but that’s the legacy of Salgado’s success. He’s perhaps the most recognizable name-brand photographer in the world today, though lately transitioned from human suffering to environmental splendor. (Has he gone soft? He’s earned that privilege.)
Salgado Jr.’s footage doesn’t provide anything we haven’t seen in National Geographic specials. Family matriarch Lelia serves as her husband’s editor and book packager, but learning of the family’s reforestation efforts back in Brazil—her pet project—is routine green. Salt of the Earth is a self-serving and very family-sanctioned project, though not quite a chore to watch. (Be prepared, however, for many emaciated corpses and miserable refugee camps, which lead Salgado into a predictable pattern of aesthetic response.) Salgado himself speaks in contented aphorisms—sometimes sounding like Bono, so secure in his compassion for the world’s poor and downtrodden, all of whom remain voiceless within his expensive, expressive frames. Brian Miller
Opens Fri., April 17 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.
No one is harder on the press, and less forgiving of ethical transgressions, than the press itself. Fabricating journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were swiftly booted from their profession in disgrace, and it takes little time in this somber, fact-based account for Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) to experience the same fate. His recent New York Times Magazine cover story about African plantation workers relied on composite characters (though he’ll barely admit it), and jobless Mike is soon back in snowy Montana with his girlfriend (Felicity Jones, from The Theory of Everything). No editor will take Mike’s calls. His career is seemingly over.
Then, deliverance. News comes that a Newport, Oregon, man named Christian Longo (James Franco) has been arrested for killing his wife and three kids. Mike doesn’t care about that; domestic murders are a dime a dozen. But here’s the hook: Chris was arrested in Mexico while impersonating Mike—he’s a fan! Now that’s a story—and, Mike hopes, a chance to redeem himself. Finkel’s book True Story was published in 2005; Longo is still on death row; and the facts of the 2001 crime were well-reported at the time. What further shock or surprise can be wrung from the matter? True Story mostly situates itself within Mike’s troubled conscience—which is certainly more accessible than Chris’ (if he has any), yet dramas of journalistic practice are seldom compelling. (All the President’s Men is the exception that proves the rule.)
Regardless of novelty or viewer interest, what really matters here—to Franco and Hill, at least—is the commitment to Serious Cinema. The stars and British director Rupert Goold are sure that Mike’s ingratiating himself with Chris, who has an agenda of his own, must mean something. Their character flaws and parallels will pay off, right? Hill has a knack for portraying earnest, sweaty, awkward characters lacking self-awareness (common to both The Wolf of Wall Street and the Jump Street movies). Even as Mike lectures Chris (who’s granting exclusive access in return for writing lessons), “I lost my obligation to the truth; don’t make the same mistake I did,” the phrase feels empty. Again and again, Mike falls back on the secondhand tropes and templates of a desperate journalist on deadline. The language feels right, but it isn’t original to him. “We’re not so different,” Mike tells Chris during one of their many (too many) intimate jailhouse interviews—but wait, is that just something he remembers from The Silence of the Lambs? (Meanwhile Franco gives the superior, quieter performance—free of his recent tics and mannerisms.)
As this rather pat and schematic movie drags toward Chris’ trial and inevitable betrayal of Mike, it does remind you of Bennett Miller’s far superior Capote—only Truman Capote used In Cold Blood to build his journalistic reputation, not to restore it. While Mike keeps insisting on his “second chance,” you wish the movie weren’t so aligned with that goal. Finkel recently wrote in Esquire of Longo, “The one thing he could never do was admit to his wife that he was anything less than a success.” But as usual, he’s really talking about himself. Brian Miller