Thursday, April 23, 2015

Black Souls, True Story

                            Quiet Storms
                                                          Review by Ken Burke
                                       Black Souls (Francesco Munzi, 2014)
In southern Italy a local Mafia family run by 2 brothers confronts local rivals when their nephewson of a goat farmer with no interest in his siblings’ activities—creates an offense leading to tensions, then physical confrontations between the 2 clans, as each struggles to enforce their control of the region; for a gangster story this is low-key but simmeringly-impactful.
                                      True Story (Rupert Goold)
Yet another fictionalized-from-fact-film, this one about former New York Times journalist Mike Finkel, disgraced for fabricating aspects of a major story, and Chris Longo, charged with murdering his family but claiming to be Finkel, which brings them together in an investigative-relationship where we wonder if Mike just wants his career back and if Chris is lying.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
 While the films under consideration are very different in terms of settings and details, they link up by involving heinous crimes and moral considerations, with both also being based on true activities (although in the case of Black Souls the factual situations that inform it are taken from Gioacchino Criaco’s 2008 novel of the same name [with this author a native of the town where most of the action occurs], thus making the film twice-removed from its “actual events,” to cite a phrase from the opening statement of True Story) so I decided to stir them together into 1 consolidated review.

What Happens: In Black Souls (Amine Nere), an Italian film set in rural Calabria, the southern-most “toe” region of Italy’s boot-shaped-peninsula, there are 2 rival crime families—part of the larger, very successful ‘Ndrangheta organization—pushing for power in the town of Africo, located at the toe’s tip within the province of Reggio Calabria.  The folks we’re most concerned with are the Carbone family, headed by brothers Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) and Luigi (Marco Leonardi), although their operations are normally run from Milan in the far north of the country where they have quicker access to other European cities to make large drug deals with suppliers from Latin America, as we witness in the opening scenes.  However, chief hood Rocco, a no-nonsense-businessman-type, is appalled that Luigi still shows aspects of a country thug, as we see with a diversionary stop where the more gregarious sibling and 2 of his henchmen steal a couple of goats for a dinner (tossing their furry skins into the local river).  Luigi also serves as an inspiration for their nephew, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), who’s much more attracted to his uncles' somewhat-high-roller-lifestyle than to his father’s, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), preference for goat farming, as the elder brother has nothing but distain for the activities of his criminal relatives.  To prove himself as an aspiring “family” soldier, Leo shoots up a local bar owned by the rival Barreca clan which requires the mobster Carbones to travel south in order to clear things up, although all that happens is sudden escalation when Barreca gunmen gun down Luigi one night, which brings no sympathy from the local police, likely disgusted from the inter-familial-warfare (or on the take from Barreca).  Despite Rocco’s edicts not to escalate the situation, Leo plans to kill the elder Barreca but is shot himself, probably because he was ratted out to bodyguards by a guy he though to be his coke-snorting-close-friend, likely trying to ingratiate himself with whom he perceives to be the stronger of the feuding factions.  That’s all that Luciano can take (especially with the memory of his father being a victim of the mob's violent actions) so he suddenly whips out a pistol, killing Rocco and a couple of his bodyguards before the film’s abrupt ending, although we have a strong sense that suicide is his next act.

 While we don’t see a lot of death or destruction in Black Souls compared to many gangster movies, the sudden demise of Luigi, Leo, and Rocco—especially with the last murder being done by non-combatant Luciano—are powerful mini-explosions in what is a most-successfully-underplayed-narrative where tensions about what might occur create a very powerful atmosphere of dread, as well as fear that there’ll never be an end to this endless-internecine-warfare (except by the sort of foundational-cleansing that results from Luciano’s unexpected actions).  By comparison, in True Story we also have horrendous murders forming the basis of the story but we never see them taking place (only described, with veracity of these events a chief concern of the film) so the tension built up over what happened and why is the focus of the experience yet lacking the sort of gut-wrenching-yet-emotional-release featured in the other film.  We do get answers at the end, although they seem rather predetermined—as they are—given that True Story is much more directly based on specific events so that even the payoff-drama that comes from the wife, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones), of the protagonist, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), chastising killer (I wasn’t kidding with the spoiler alerts) Christian Longo (James Franco) just before the jury verdict is undercut not only by Longo’s later admission to Finkel that he did instigate the deaths of his wife and 3 children but also the unsettling note in the pre-end-credits-graphics that the real Mike and Chris continue to be in telephone contact every first Sunday of a month, despite Chris’ attempt to use Mike as a strategy to build confusion and sympathy with the public.  To backtrack to the actual on-screen-chronology, we start with Mike in 2002 as a successful reporter for the New York Times who’s suddenly fired because he fabricated some of his facts in a powerful 2001 story about ongoing slave trading involving young men in Africa, creating a composite character rather than the presented-singular-one that gave the story its impact.  Back home in disgrace, he can find no writing work; suddenly, he’s informed that accused-killer Chris was arrested in Cancun, Mexico, using Finkel’s name.

 Intrigued, Mike travels from Montana to Oregon to interview Chris (turns out he’s a long-time-fan of Finkel’s work) who promises him an exclusive story which Mike pumps up into a book, netting him a $250,000 advance from HarperCollins (somewhat undercutting Mike’s noble contentions that “The truth always matters” and “Everybody deserves to have their story heard”).  However, Chris’ testimony that his wife killed 2 of the kids, tried to smother the 3rd before he accidently killed her in a rage (she was apparently distraught over his desperate inability to provide for them) becomes increasingly suspicious, so much so that Mike tries to turn over evidence to the police who refuse it because of his ongoing credibility gap, although justice is served when the jury returns guilty verdicts along with a death sentence.  The book goes on to be a success prior to Chris privately admitting to Mike that he instigated all of the murders, so Mike’s career is revived even as we’re left with the ethical question of what he may have lost in this process (we also learn that while Mike never wrote for the NY Times, Chris has had several of his Death Row writings published by them).

So What? Black Souls is by far the more powerful of the films being reviewed in this posting (winner of 4 awards at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival, including the Pasinetti prize for Best Film and Akai Award for Best Direction), with its impact heightened by the pervasive background silence in most scenes, not enhanced by the powerful use of appropriate music (as with The Godfather trilogy’s [Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974, 1990] Nino Rota [first 2] and Carmine Coppola [last 1] stirring scores), an observation by my insightful wife, Nina.  Furthermore, you can see some parallels (no matter where Munzi and Criaco got them) between Black Souls characters and those from the much-more-famous Coppola films: obsessively-determined-family-protector Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and stern, calculating Rocco Carbone; hot-headed-trigger-happy-playboy Sonny Corleone (James Caan) and powerful-but-untamed Luigi Carbone, shown in the photo just above (further, both are executed in their cars by multiple assassins—they also both display their generosity: Luigi by bringing gifts for all of the family when he comes back to Africo, Sonny by sharing himself around with many women not his wife, including the mother of his illegitimate son, Vincent); ready-to-take-over-the-family-business-nephews, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) and Leo Carbone (they each focus on eliminating a threat to their respective operations, with Vincent killing Joey Zasa [Joe Mantegna] and Leo attempting to ambush Don Barreca); the similar situations of most of the women in all of these films being in the background while the men determine the flow of their lives, with the frustration of such arrangements more notable in Black Souls (although in The Godfather: Part III, Michael’s sister, Connie [Talia Shire], takes her own revenge on the traitorous Don Altobello [Eli Wallach]); as well as the conceptual similarity between Luciano Carbone wanting nothing to do with the violent “family” vendettas that have decimated so many in his biological family, although his final violent outburst takes us in a different direction from Michael’s decision to turn over his mafia family to Vincent but then a similarity emerges after all when his daughter, Mary (Sophia Coppola), is killed during an attempted hit on her grief-stricken-father—you could even say that Luciano’s rejection of his heritage brings him in line with Michael’s wife Kay’s (Diane Keaton) attempt to take their children out of the realm of “this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years,” although Michael maintains command of Mary and Anthony while Luciano’s actions speak to his lifetime of accumulated anger but likely won’t prevent Carbone capos from building on the remains of the departed brothers’ criminal-structure to further battle the Barrecas (unless the syndicate overlords just have them all wiped out).  It’s a grim world after all in this new Mafia exposé but with little of the glamour that characterized the Corleones‘ empire.

 As for True Story’s explorations of jailhouse-based-manipulations and the difficulty of finding a proper moral direction when there are so many seductive opportunities awaiting those who’ve lost their way on society’s many crisscrossing paths of possibilities, I can’t help but see some cinematic similarities here as well, just not as obvious as with the more-recognizable tales of corruption in the provinces of southern Italy.  With True Story I’m reminded of another film about blatant lies by a soulless criminal intended to throw the forces of the justice system into confusion, The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995) where seeming-small-time-hood Roger “Verbal” Klint (Kevin Spacey, picking up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) leads his interrogator on a conceptual-wild-goose-chase about how so many of his colleagues ended up dead on a burning ship while he was supposedly incapacitated, when in fact he orchestrated everything about the job-gone-wrong in order to take revenge on his “associates,” leading the bamboozled cops to release him without realizing that this mousey, “crippled” character is actually the legendary, deadly (verging on the supernatural) mob boss, Keyser Söze.  Chris Longo’s probably not as evil as Söze (although we get no satisfactory explanation as to why he butchered his family, throwing both his youngest, Meredith [Stella Rae Payne], and wife, MaryJane [Maria Dizzia], into deep cold water trapped in suitcases where Meredith surely was still alive upon being flung into that bay [the other 2 kids were also thrown into local waters but drowned in rock-filled-sacks]) but I do find a parallel with the conniving construction of his innocence (he even claimed that he was essentially out of his mind when he accidently killed MaryJane, then put Meredith out of the hopeless misery she was suffering as a result of the wife’s botched attempt at suffocating her) and the shameless exploitation of needy, naïve Mike in attempting to sway the jury into a sympathetic stance by conning Finkel into believing that his only desire was to support his family, even to the point of major theft to keep their lives stable, but—just as U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is taken in by Verbal/Keyser’s fabricated-on-the-spot-account of mayhem in a revenge-plot-gone-wrong—Mike Finkel is initially taken in by the manufactured sincerity of Chris Longo (the real guy apparently with enough charisma to entice the actual Finkel to stay regularly in touch, even to this day), earning him the disgust of MaryJane’s family along with police detective Greg Ganley (Robert John Burke—no relation to me that I know of) who’s concerned that Mike’s journalistic skills might build not-guilty-sympathy for this sociopath.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I’m quite impressed with the subtle power of the unnerving story presented in Black Souls, although I’m even more taken with the understanding of how well this film speaks to the reality of mob power in Calabria.  As director Munzi recounts:  “When I said I wanted to make the film there, everyone tried to discourage me: it’s too difficult, it’s inaccessible, it’s too dangerous. It was an impossible film. I sought help from Gioacchino Criaco, author of Anime Nere, the book on which the film is loosely based. I arrived in Calabria full of prejudice and fear. I discovered a very complex and diverse reality. I saw mistrust turn into curiosity, and people opened their doors to us. I mixed my actors with the residents of Africo, who acted and worked with the cast. Without them, this film would not have been as rich. Africo has a very tough history of criminality, but it can help us understand many things about our country. From Africo, we have a better view of Italy.”  By comparison, though, with True Story, while I was able to maintain the necessary “suspension of foreknowledge” (rather than “disbelief” in this case because the “Actual Events” that underlie this film are too easy to find) until the proper revelation in the plot and agree that a reasonable level of suspense is built up concerning Longo’s long-delayed “revelation” as to what happened on that fateful night, I just was never able to get as involved as I did during the mysterious opening shots when a teddy bear shot from above slowly falls into a suitcase where a little girl appears to be sleeping, after which we see in a quick series of images of the bag being zipped up, surrounded by water, then opened to reveal its ghastly contents.  Nothing after that engaging beginning truly captivated me as much (although the scene of Longo in a lavish traditional Catholic church in Cancun lighting “candles” by flipping a switch rather than striking a match is ironically intriguing, even if true to its location), especially the low-key-revelation very late that Longo was simply a devious killer, given that we’d been offered plenty of evidence of his untrustworthiness, including a call he makes from prison to the Finkel home where he talks to Jill in Mike’s absence, giving us a clear indication of how creepy he actually is.

 I certainly don’t find True Story as “boring” as do many of my critical contemporaries, nor would I rate it as poorly as they have (48% positive from Rotten Tomatoes, 50% from Metacritic; more details in the links far below), but it just doesn’t fully allow me to root for Mike (even he’s clear that he needs this unique story with its supposedly-unique-heartbreaking-“truth” to redeem his crashed career) just as it too soon gives me reason to distrust the line of bull that Chris is pitching, along with being visually limited by having to use so many confined-space-jailhouse-interviews where we can expect Chris to always be in the same orange prison coveralls (although he does sport a nice grey suit at the trial) but with Mike so frequently in his own “uniform” of dark blue sweater, light blue shirt, and dark blue jeans it appears that the whole plot is taking place in a few days rather than the many months actually involved.  Unlike Black Souls, this narrative is too constrained by the required limitations of its facts to make it as intriguing, compelling, or revelatory as it would like to be.

Jonah Hill and James Franco help me "phone it in" with
my recycled Musical Metaphor
 In considering my usual use of a Musical Metaphor to address the contents of these choices I kept coming back to 2 songs, each that I’ve used once before (I’d rather not repeat myself, but it’s happening occasionally lately as various opportunities keep presenting themselves—or, maybe, to borrow a line from “My Little Town” [a 1975 post-Simon & Garfunkel collaboration, appearing on both Paul’s Still Crazy After All These Years and Art’s Breakaway albums], “It’s not that the colors [songs] aren’t there, It’s just imagination they [I] lack”; you know, given the misery associated with the Italian town of Africo and the personal “towns” represented by the troubled minds of Mike and Chris, this tune wouldn’t be a bad Musical Metaphor here itself, so just for your extra consideration you might want to give a listen to it at [with some obvious illustrations], or if you’d prefer a live performance here’s one at [somewhat compromised quality but the best one I could find]), Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which deals—metaphorically at least—with dismissal (by Luciano and Mike) of the sort of no-questions-asked- (or, at least, no-useful-answers-given-) attitude that other characters (Luigi, Rocco, Leo; Chris) in each of these stories wanted to impose upon the more-honorable-protagonists, and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” the lyrics of which would seem to epitomize how Luciano and Mike come to feel about their respective antagonists (made physical in the former with the shooting of Rocco by his bitter brother; shown emotionally by both Mike and Jill at the end of Chris’ trial in their film).  So, in that both of these songs are retreads for me, I'll offer both with
Leo and Luciano (foreground) hope to learn
something about crime from reruns of Miami Vice
It Ain’t Me, Babe” at com/watch?v=oXg6kNs 0NUo (from the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, although if you spent some time Web surfing for this song you could find covers of it by everyone from Joan Baez and Johnny Cash to Nancy Sinatra and Miley Cyrus; if you’re interested in an alternative, I’ll suggest this oddball version at com/watch?v=-RPW-zV18mA [with just a few still images to accompany it, though; sorry], sung by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon from the biopic, Walk the Line [James Mangold, 2005], where the singers portray Big John and wife June Carter Cash, with Witherspoon winning an Oscar for Best Actress for her role) and a live performance of “In the Air Tonight” at (from the 1981 Face Value album), as part of Phil’s 2004 “Finally … The First Farewell Tour” (of course he came back).  This one’s been covered almost to death as well, allowing you to search throughout the Web for alternatives but a famous use of Collin’s actual recording was from the pilot episode of the TV series Miami Vice aired on September 16, 1984, a use of popular music that characterized this program, influenced by the early years of the MTV network and its groundbreaking (for the time) format of music videos, so here it is for your edification at, providing me a nice opportunity to just drive on out of here until we meet again soon.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s some more information about Black Souls: (I try to put in at least 2 video links for each review but this trailer is all I can find for Black Souls)

Here’s some more information about True Story: (although this seems to be the official site there’s a link on this page for “Visit the Official Site” which never responded to my clicks on 2 different Web browsers; however, I did find this one which has considerably more so maybe it’s the “missing link”: (3:32 featurette with director Rupert Goold, actors Jonah Hill, James Franco, and Felicity Jones, plus the actual ex-reporter Mike Finkel interspersed with the same footage from the above trailer; then some short clips from the film: [Chris Longo on the lam in Mexico], [Mike Finkel is informed that Longo is using his identity], [Mike arrives at the Oregon prison where Chris is incarcerated], [further prison conversation between the 2 men])

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.