True-crime movies that Oscar forgot

Plus podcast news, and Edwardian police bungling treads the boards

It’s that time again…time to choose what I review for paid subscribers next month! My review of Generation Hustle is coming soon; let’s think about what’s next!

We’ve got a podcast with a sense of irony about its own medium; a Spanish docuseries about abuses in the church; a doc about a school shooting inspiring a youth gun-reform movement; a docudrama about a 2018 “national emergency” in Britain, starring the lady from Ripper Street; and a doc about a corrupt Brooklyn cop.

You’re allowed multiple votes in this poll, so check everything you like (or wouldn’t hate) and whatever wins is what I review! — SDB

Vote now!


Speaking of reviews, here’s a look back from Margaret at 2016’s overlooked genre docudramae: “The True-Crime Movies That Oscars Forgot: Gold, The Infiltrator, and War Dogs.

Not many true crime stories get a shot at a Best Picture Oscar — All the President’s Men, Mississippi Burning, and Goodfellas are some of the exceptions. Then Argo won in 2012 followed by Spotlight in 2015, and every movie exec turned to their Longreads.com bookmarks to find the next prestige picture. By 2016, three major releases had A-list leading men starring in ripped-from-the-headlines stories, and presumably three sets of robust Oscar hopes. But all three failed to get nominated, make much money, or leave any kind of cultural impact.

How did the filmmakers take fascinating real-life events, big budgets, and some of the most celebrated actors of the decade, and still make less of an impression than a fart in a thunderstorm? Let the patented Best Evidence I Can’t Believe It’s Not Scorsese™ analysis reveal how these titles went MIA.

Coulda Been A Contender #1: Gold, based on the Bre-X mining scandal

Gold shifts around a lot of the details of what happened with the Bre-X mining company, like changing founder David Walsh’s name to Kenny Wells and shifting him from Canada to Nevada. But like Walsh, Wells’s passion for the shiny stuff ignites a Wall Street boom, then bust, bankrupting many investors. There’s also a cameo from Indonesian dictator President Suharto, and many nameless miners who don’t get any dialogue.

How much mustard does the leading actor put on it?
So much. All of the mustard. If it was to be remembered at all, Gold pinpoints the moment the McConaissance turned into the McConexhaustion. Matthew McConaughey’s Kenny Wells is a Trump-hued grotesque. It’s hard to believe anyone would trust him with their coffee change, let alone be convinced to sink their savings into his alleged gold mine.

Thankless Role of a Long-Suffering Supportive Woman (TRLSSW) Factor
Bryce Dallas Howard plays Wells’s girlfriend Kay, who deserves better than a man who steals her jewelry to pay for his flight of fancy.

Does it overly depend on pop songs to set the tone?
Yes, it’s packed with (admittedly awesome) new-wave tracks.

Character actor who will make you squeal with delight
I’m not saying he’s a gold digger, but I am saying he is Stacy Keach.

Why did it disappear without a trace?
Because gold miners aren’t the most sympathetic of subjects to start with, let alone gold miners with the imperialist audacity to go to foreign countries and exploit local labor. Gold wants to tell a story about an antihero going up against the odds, but it shrugs its shoulders at any lives apart from Kenny’s that get broken in the process. It doesn’t even have much juicy scam material, as that part is rushed through in the third act. [“And not for nothing, but naming your Oscar hopeful Gold — like the TV show Hack — is just asking for trouble IMO.” — SDB]

Where to watch
Don’t, but it’s streaming on Tubi and can be rented on iTunes and Amazon.

Coulda Been A Contender #2: The Infiltrator, based on the memoir by U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur

Man becomes very successful undercover agent. Man becomes jerkass. Man is vindicated because the work was Very Important. That’s The Infiltrator, the story of how 1980s family man Robert Mazur set up an operation to target the banks helping Escobar’s drug cartel.

How much mustard does the leading actor put on it?
Barely a smidge. Despite an opening scene with Bryan Cranston dressed like he’s a roadie for Whitesnake, he keeps the pot on a low simmer for most of the movie. You can’t entirely blame him when he’s got dialogue like “I don’t want a beer, I want the truth!”

TRLSSW Factor
Two: Juliet Aubrey playing actual wife Evelyn Mazur, and Diane Kruger as fake undercover fiancee Kathy Ertz.

Does it overly depend on pop songs to set the tone?
How would you know it was about drugs if they didn’t include Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”? The soundtrack is the most ’80s aspect of it, while the hair and shoulder pads are way too small for the era.

Character actor who will make you squeal with delight
Olympia Dukakis! Flirting with Benjamin Bratt!

Why did it disappear without a trace?
There are a lot of stories about the Medellín Cartel that are better made, don’t have a sleepwalking lead, and take a firmer position on the War on Drugs than “maybe not so good, maybe not so bad.”

Where to watch
Get your Dukakis/Bratt ’ship on from Google Play, iTunes, or Amazon.

Coulda Been A Contender #3: War Dogs, based on the Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson

Two stoner twentysomethings become arms dealers who end up landing a $300 million contract from the US Army to supply weapons to Afghanistan. As one of them moves his affections from pot to cocaine, he gets increasingly paranoid, putting the deal and his partner’s life at risk. Albanian gangsters enter stage left.

How much mustard does the leading actor put on it?
War Dogs has two leads: Miles Teller as the hapless David Packouz, who stumbles into military weapon sales through his friend Efraim Diveroli, played by Jonah Hill with mustard, relish, and extra onions. Compared to McConaughey’s affected charmlessness, Hill plays Efraim with a lightness, making him more joyfully vile.

TRLSSW Factor
Ana de Armas as David’s girlfriend Iz, given nothing to do.

Does it overly depend on pop songs to set the tone?
Like me, director Todd Phillips used to own the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. Unlike me, he had a huge licensing budget to replicate it.

Character actor who will make you squeal with delight
Move over Bradley Cooper, hello to Kevin Pollak only.

Why did it disappear without a trace?
It was 2016 and the Smarmy White Bro Dramedy fell sharply out of fashion. While it made more money than Gold or The Infiltrator did, its “scamming the government is really fun!” vibes have aged like a bag of spinach. But it did leave us with this priceless GIF:

Where to watch
Streaming and swearing up a storm on Netflix. — Margaret Howie


A Little Falls, MN theater company is taking on a 1905 murder. The Brainerd Dispatch has a write-up on the creation and production of “Darling,” which “retells the story of Annie Kintop, a 24-year-old Morrison County woman and her murder in 1905, as well as the investigation that followed” — an investigation that evidently was bungled. Playwright Taryn Verley grew up in the area, which is how she first heard about the story, and the Dispatch piece talks about the project’s beginnings as an MFA thesis. The production will also feature heritage music from the era, and the whole thing sounds, yes, like it could be an amateurish fiasco, but I really like the way a small-city theater company will take a big chance on different narrative modes for true crime. And I don’t want to speak for Verley, but it seems like the final work is trying to plug into the folktale aspect of “heritage” true crime, which is thought-provoking in a way the narrative structures we think of as “standard” have sort of stopped being.

“Darling” will be accompanied by a historical exhibit; you can read more about both here (or get your tickets, if you’re local — and if you go, please please report back!). — SDB


And finally, a quick podcast-news roundup to send you into the weekend…

  • Stillwater gets companion podcast hosted by Marcia Clark [Deadline] // “In ‘Stillwater,’ Damon plays an Oklahoman construction worker whose daughter (Abigail Breslin) is convicted of murder in France. Reflecting the plot of the film, ‘Convicted: Across Borders’ will delve into the subject matter of crimes allegedly committed by citizens of the United States while traveling internationally.” Marcia Clark is smart and acid-tongued, and over the years I’ve found myself wishing the various projects she teams up on were better fits with her presentation; I have to say, I don’t think this is the best pairing of cross-branding and host either.

  • Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared returns in pod form [ID] // Disappeared isn’t great television, but I always found its hokey muzzy-focus re-enactments and swooshy sound effects…not “soothing,” exactly, but competently unchallenging? Anyway, ID’s gone the Frontline/adapted audio track route, and now you can listen to the same stories instead…if you’re a Discovery+ member.

  • Baseball fans insufficiently agitated by the trade deadline can listen to Reveal’s take on the steroids “scandal” [Reveal] // Reveal teamed up with “Joan Niesen, a sportswriter and host of the podcast Crushed,” for “a deep dive into an era that dethroned a generation of superstars, left fans disillusioned and turned baseball’s record book on its head. The story takes us from ballparks and clubhouses to the halls of Congress to explain how baseball was finally forced to reckon with its drug problem.” I mean…but was it? The reckoning wasn’t permanent, that’s for sure…and in any event baseball’s current reckoning failures — intimate-partner violence and vaccine-truther nonsense — are probably more front of mind, but the congressional testimony of various cartoonishly-muscled perjurers does have its amusements. — SDB


Next week on Best Evidence: Nasty Klan plots, incomprehensible German experiments, and the weird-Bundy-casting firmament adds a very bright star.


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