Thanks to a special double feature of fun next week (not to mention some strict review embargoes currently in place), I start off the first full week of 2014 with an early review of REASONABLE DOUBT, a riveting legal thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson and Dominic Cooper that is available now on VOD and in theatres next week, plus, THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL, the sophomore directorial efforts of a keenly executed psychological coming-of-age thriller compliments of writer/director Francesca Gregorini. Notable is that while this is Gregorini’s follow-up to “Tanner Hall” which she co-directed with Tatiana von Furstenberg, THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL marks her solo feature debut.
Assistant District Attorney Mitch Brockden is the star of the D.A.’s office. With a winning conviction record, he has been on a hot streak for quite some time. But he sees bigger and better things for himself within the department; things that his superiors also see; things that can be lost as quickly as a jury says “Guilty” with just one misstep. Mitch is also a new father living the upper middle class dream with a beautiful young wife and adorable newborn daughter.
With success, prosperity, birthdays and holidays come obligatory celebrations, particularly when one is a young upstart attorney and part of a tight knit group of guys of the same ilk. And as we all know, with those celebrations comes the inevitable knocking back of a few shots and beers, quite often too many. And that’s what puts the wheels in motion for what may forever change Mitch Brockden’s life.
Out partying on a snowy holiday night with fellow attorneys, Mitch has promised his wife to take a cab home if he’s had one too many. But, cabs are hard to come by on a night like this and Mitch opts to tempt Fate and drive himself home. Besides the impaired driving skills and potential for accident, with a lawyer, getting stopped for a DUI can stop a career dead in its tracks. So when Mitch strikes a pedestrian with his car and leaves him bleeding in the middle of a frozen street, what does any bright young attorney do? Disguise his voice, call 911 and flee the scene and then when the body is found with another man, beg to handle the “slam dunk case” in an attempt to manipulate the law and free a man who Mitch knows to be innocent, but can’t reveal that lest he seal his own fate.
As comes as no surprise, however, the man found with the body, Clinton Davis, is not the reformed man he makes himself out to be to the police and the Court. And despite his acquittal for the fatal hit-and-run, something doesn’t sit quite right with Mitch about Davis. He may not have committed this accident, but is there something he’s hiding. Questions and suspicions loom large as a citywide body count starts piling up.
What ensues is an intriguing and entangling cat and mouse game between Mitch and Davis that has more twists and turns than a game of Mousetrap.
When it comes to performances, Dominic Cooper and Samuel L. Jackson deliver the goods. As for Cooper, he brings great nuance to Mitch, particularly as the pieces of Mitch's backstory unfold the ex con stepbrother, Mitch's own prior indiscretions as a warehouse worker as a kid. Important is that Peter Dowling’s script handily weaves in the legal ramifications for an attorney to get a DUI, commit a felony hit and run, have criminal relations or infractions in his background, etc., (all of which is accurately written and represented from a legal standpoint), all of which fuels Cooper's performance as he tries to mask his character’s accent, tries to hide his face from witnesses and from everyone in the courtroom, makes no eye contact part shame and part fear of identification. It’s a textured and layered work that not only captures the true essence and demeanor of criminal attorneys and DA’s, but Cooper then goes a step further, infusing Mitch with a nervous edginess that bodes well for propelling the character and the story particularly when dealing with Gloria Ruben's Detective Kanon.
No stranger to roles in legal/crime thrillers playing characters on both sides of the law, Samuel L. Jackson reels us in to the psyche of Clinton Davis thanks to this great slow, methodical, calculated demeanor that simmers just below the surface. As we begin to see who and what Davis is, you start chomping at the bit to see Jackson crack and explode. Marvelous emotional dance of unspoken tension.
Familiar typecasting with Gloria Ruben thrust into command as Detective Kanon. While obviously trying to play Kanon like Penny Johnson plays Captain Gates in "Castle", Ruben does an admirable job with quiet confidence but overall, it feels like she's missing the mark. Impressive is Ryan Robbins who solidly plays Jimmy Logan with heart and emotional redemption.
I am beyond impressed not only with what director Peter Croudins has done directing REASONABLE DOUBT but how he has visually embraced the tension and legal case structure set forth by Peter Dowling's script. Working off a well-crafted legal/police procedural script by Peter Dowling, Croudins crafts REASONABLE DOUBT like a criminal investigation and trial, with the story taking twists and turns, creating reasonable doubt for EVERY potential suspect while still keeping us focused on the idea of trusting one’s gut instinct. From Mitch’s step brother Jimmy's surprise testimony about making the "911" call to the identification of a red car racing away from the hit and run, Cooper's Mitch Brockden gets cleared of any suspicion and wrong doing but for the audience, subsequent scenes of the crime scene vehicle and its owner as well as some sidebar investigations, lead us down an evidentiary path of intrigue.
Notable is that through scene and dialogue, Dowling develops a wonderful journey between Mitch and his step-brother Jimmy. Instead of the usual bromance with colleagues, we see a real brotherly love develop under adverse circumstances; blind faith and redemption. There are however, some holes within the investigative story construct that involve the aspects of criminal evidence like no mention of paint transfer from the vehicle that hit the man in the street. No forensics really explored. Given the savviness of today's audience thanks to police procedurals like "Castle", Bones" and the "CSI" franchise, audience expects procedure in addition to the character driven story.
As always, Brian Pearson does an excellent job with the cinematography, establishing a nice visual tone and balance of stark contrast with the injection of rich panoramic colorful night vista at the 67 minute mark after a key structural story moment. That metaphoric punch of calm and color is as welcome a breath of fresh crisp night air. Beautifully executed.
Disappointing is James Jandrisch's score; too canned and techno with heavy single piano notes trying to punctuate and set mood, none of which fits the tonal bandwidth of the story and visuals. Jandrisch does much better with his lighter cheerier Hallmark movie fare like "Window Wonderland" and "Hitched for the Holidays." Craig Sandells’ production design works well particularly with the use of hallways, framing, blinds which metaphorically serve as reminders of jail cell bars all of which Pearson uses to best advantage with his cinematography and framing. But the design of the Brockden house that is so NOT kid friendly! Open fireplace, exposed sharp edges and WHITE interiors... Hope they plan a remodel as the kid gets older.
Great subtle touchstone is the presence and importance of an old-school Calibri lighter. Somewhat a trademark for Jackson’s characters in many of his films (In “Twisted”, it was the clicking of the lighter that eventually connected for Ashley Judd’s character that Jackson was the killer. In “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, that fluid lighter came in handy for Mitch Hennessey to fight off bad guys and save the day), we again see that the lighter is perhaps the most significant piece of the puzzle at hand.
But bottom line there is no doubt about REASONABLE DOUBT it grabs your attention and holds on until the final verdict is in.
THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL
Being a fan of director Francesca Gregorini’s freshman directorial effort with co-director Tatiana von Furstenberg, “Tanner Hall”, I was more than anxious to see what she could and would do on her own with THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL. I am far from disappointed as not only does Gregorini, who also wrote the script, have a knack for casting, but her visual eye is stunning. A film built with strong, confident and lyrical visuals, Gregorini delivers a psychological study framed within a coming of age story that walks a tightrope of dark humor, drama and designed ambiguity that captivates. She is a gifted storyteller indeed.
Emanuel is a 17 year old girl living with her father and his new, much younger, wife. Melodramatic in her own right, Emanuel has a pathos that stems from the death of her mother during childbirth, something that leads her to believe and continually avow “I killed my mother.” Living an at times zombie-like existence of numbness, Emanuel’s interactions with others are few and far between, but when they are, sarcasm is the watchword of the day.
In an effort to placate her father and “join society”, as well as satisfying her own yearning curiosity to belong, Emanuel gets herself hired by her new neighbor, Linda, a single mother who bears more than a striking resemblance to Emanuel’s mother. Quickly forgoing a deep bond, Linda is warm and maternal to Emanuel, strengthening their connection and Emanuel’s desire to spend time with her. But something is amiss. Disturbing situations and events come to light. Hallucinations take hold for more than one person. And Emanuel must face her ultimate foe - herself. Is she living life, or a fantasy?
Kaya Scodelario dazzles as she exquisitely maneuvers and manipulates Emanuel’s emotional dance of surrealistic dream and sorrow. She nails the deadpan sarcastic beats with as much perfection a she creates a numbed daze and ghostly specter of someone living but merely passing through life. Superb performance. Equally impressive is Jessica Biel who, as Linda, delivers one of the most impressive performances in her career. Calculated, methodical, balanced on an emotional precipice, this is a genuine surprise and treat from Biel.
Alfred Molina is solid and secure as Emanuel’s father while two other supporting players often steal the thunder of scenes. Aneurin Barnard as Emanuel’s boyfriend Claude, adds a stalkerish edge that fuels the ambiguity of the film as a whole while Jimmi Simpson is a delicious haunting delight as Arthur, making one continually think of James Spader both in look and performance.
Written and directed by Gregorini, THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL is spellbinding. Finding that perfect blend of surrealism and realism, Gregorini allows visuals and production design to speak volumes as together with cinematographer Polly Morgan creates a hyperstylized palette of beauty that celebrates literally and figuratively the essences and meanings of water, light and color. Framing is core to the production and is metaphorically telling. An underwater sequence is breathtakingly eerie and melodic. Tackling a multiplicity of themes, Gregorini is respectful and truthful in her approach, never under valuing the importance of any.
Completing the picture is a score by Nathan Larson that is as equally haunting as the characters and story themselves. It is a perfect tonal match to the bandwidth of the film as a whole.
Although some of the dialogue feels forced and repetitive at times with some reactions trope and stilted, THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL casts a rich and lingering specter on one’s own thoughts long after the curtain falls.