RICHARD JEWELL (2019)

December 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine you are being falsely accused of a terrorist act that killed and injured people. You are the FBI’s primary suspect. Your name and face are spread across every possible media outlet. Your belongings have been searched and seized as evidence – right down to your mom’s Tupperware. Cameras follow your every step of every day. Now imagine all of this occurs mere days after your actions actually saved lives and you were hailed as a hero across all of those same media outlets. Richard Jewell didn’t have to imagine this, as he lived this nightmare in 1996.

We first see Richard (played by Paul Walter Hauser in one of the year’s best performances) as a supply clerk at a law firm in 1986. His awkward ways and surprising efficiency catches the eye of attorney Watson Bryant (Oscar winner Sam Rockwell), a quasi-connection that comes into play a decade later. We then jump ahead those 10 years to find Richard being fired from his campus security job at a college due to his over-zealous focus on protocol. Fortunately for Richard, the Olympics are coming to Atlanta, so finding work as a security guard is pretty easy.

Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park is shown with crowds of people cheering at a Kenny Rogers and later dancing the Macarena. As one of the on-site security guards, Richard spots a suspicious backpack that turns out to be holding the bomb that detonates, creating tragedy for many. As the viewing audience, we know that Richard’s actions saved lives and he most definitely was not responsible for planting the bomb. And it’s that knowing that places us as close as possible to the Richard Jewell experience.

Four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood directs yet another story of a working-class hero. Only this time, he blatantly calls out what he sees as two evil forces: the U.S. Government (the FBI) and the media. Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, SHATTERED GLASS) based his script on the 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner (who also wrote the article that was the source for THE INSIDER, 1999). It can be argued that Eastwood comes down hard on the FBI and the media, but you might consider putting yourself in Richard Jewell’s shoes before crying foul.

Jon Hamm has perfected the role of cocksure FBI agent and here he plays Tom Shaw as the man totally focused on proving Richard Jewell was the perpetrator. Much has been made of Eastwood’s depiction of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde, who directed this year’s surprise hit BOOKSMART). It’s a bit curious that the uproar is over what some interpret as a reporter trading intimate relations for a scoop, yet Eastwood’s contempt seems focused more on the idea of trying a citizen’s case in public … while lacking any real evidence outside of a profile. The reporter (Ms. Scruggs passed away in 2001) is certainly portrayed as an ultra-aggressive reporter desperate for a headline story, but the implied consensual affair occurred after the inside information was provided – and the FBI agent was actually surprised… “Is this really going to happen?” Perhaps the viewer reaction to this is a sign of the times, but I’m guessing if any one of Eastwood’s critics were similarly falsely accused (as Jewell), the fictionalized version of the reporter would be less important than having the truth discovered. Of course, this could have been easily avoided had the name of the reporter been changed for the film.

Two key supporting roles come courtesy of Oscar winner Kathy Bates as Richard’s mother Bobi, and Nina Arianda as Watson Bryant’s paralegal. Ms. Bates starts out as a loving and simple mother to Richard, but her press conference captures the character in a new light. It’s a strong and heartfelt performance. Ms. Arianda brings some warmth sprinkled with welcome sarcasm to her role. Mr. Hauser is spot-on in every scene, and when these four are all together, it’s a pleasure to watch. Hauser and Rockwell are especially good in their scenes together as the ‘wronged man’ contrasted with the take-no-guff attorney.

Every time Richard says “I’m law enforcement too”, it’s heart-breaking to us and an opening for the FBI to manipulate him. The profile of a single white male living at home with his mom, carrying gung-ho dreams of a career in law enforcement, while collecting guns and knowledge on bombs and police procedure, made Richard Jewell seem like the kind of guy who would do something for attention. However, the film and the true story both emphasize the danger of prematurely persecuting individuals – especially in public. These days the race is always about who is first with a story, rather than who is right. A rush to judgment can be seen as an abuse of power, whether it’s by the media, a law enforcement agency, or folks on social media. At this stage of his career, director Eastwood seems more interested in telling stories than showing one. He offers up little visual artistry outside of the terrific performances, but this story … it’s a doozy.

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THE REPORT (2019)

November 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does the end justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are questions of ethics and morality, and when it comes to the government, they can also be questions of legal and illegal, or even life and death. Scott Z Burns offers up his feature film directorial debut, and he has been best known as a screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh films such as THE LAUNDROMAT, SIDE EFFECTS, and THE INFORMANT! Mr. Burns certainly didn’t choose an easy route for his first time in the director chair, as this is a heavy, thought-provoking, stomach-churner.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer under Senator Dianne Feinstein. She charges him with leading the Senate investigation into the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program after the 9/11 attack. It’s easy to see why so many viewed this as a bad gig, but Jones became obsessed with uncovering the truth about what happened, who did what, and who knew what and when they knew it. This government procedural offers us an education on red tape, political boundaries, and the expertise in protecting fiefdoms in D.C. In other words, everything that we fear and despise about our own government officials is on display here.

That said, it is refreshing to see someone so focused on getting to the truth as Jones is/was … despite the systematic obstacles (destruction of tapes, party divisions). Annette Bening shines as Senator Feinstein and is quite effective in portraying just how difficult it can be for politicians to juggle all sides and pressures when a topic is so “hot”. The film covers a period between 2003 and 2012, and most of the run time is spent on Jones’ research for the report.

The supporting cast is deep and talented, and includes Jon Hamm as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Michael C Hall, Maura Tierney, Victor Slezak, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, and Ted Levine (as CIA Director John Brennan). One of the more interesting aspects of the film involves the contractors behind the EIT program. Basically, they are academics with no real world case studies or experience – just two guys looking to cash in on a lucrative government deal at a time when a country was desperate for answers.

Watching the battle over the final release (or not) of “The Torture Report” (the word torture was redacted here for the title) injects quite a bit of tension, and the inclusion of archival footage from the period is very effective. What’s less effective is the overuse of shaky-cam in the first portion of the film, and the score is downright annoying at times as it attempts to ensure we are frustrated with the political wranglings. On the other hand, the dialogue is crisp and there are some well-written and well-acted quietly-tense exchanges between folks. Adam Driver carries the bulk of the film and he is perfectly cast.

The obvious comparisons are to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and SPOTLIGHT, though this one never quite reaches that level. Still, it’s thought-provoking to watch as Jones considers a New York Times reporter to be the most ethical character he can turn to in his efforts to get the truth out. The film doesn’t really choose sides … everyone who participated in a cover-up or illegal activities takes a shot, as does Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY. This was a dark time in U.S. history, and it reminds us how difficult it seems to be to do the right thing while in government. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway.

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LUCY IN THE SKY (2019)

October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ‘Space – the final frontier.’ Well, that wasn’t the case for real life astronaut Lisa Nowak. In 2007, Nowak made the national news for her cross-country, diaper-wearing road trip that ended with her being arrested in Orlando for attempted kidnapping. Nowak had been a Navy pilot and conducted spacewalks as an astronaut. She had been married and divorced from a NASA contractor, and the purpose of her long drive to Orlando was to kidnap the astronaut she had an affair with and the astronaut that she had been dumped for by that astronaut (the other one she was kidnapping). Noah Hawley’s feature film directorial debut is “inspired by true events”, and about the only thing missing is those diapers.

OK, that’s not the only thing. Also missing are a coherent story, believable dialogue, a realistic Texas accent, a competent psychologist, and an inspiring story of girl power. Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, and the film opens with her being filled with awe during a spacewalk that will forever make life on Earth seem small … even while her dreadful accent (with San Angelo gun joke) tortures the ears of every viewer. Jon Hamm co-stars as astronaut Mark Goodwin, the “action-figure” prize in the eyes of Lucy. This despite Lucy’s cheery, stable and very grounded husband Drew (Dan Stevens), who works in NASA Public Relations. Playing the 4th wheel in what should have been two separate two-wheelers is astronaut Erin Eccles (an underutilized Zazie Beetz). Thankfully, Ellen Burstyn is around to inject some raunchy old woman humor and life lessons as Lucy’s Nana. For no apparent reason, other than possibly in hopes of attracting a younger audience, Pearl Amanda Dixon plays Iris, Lucy’s teenage niece. Iris spends most of the movie casting confused looks at her famous aunt, wondering why Nana told her to take any advice from Lucy.

Noah Hawley is best known for his excellent TV work with “Fargo”, and here is credited as co-writer with Brian C Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi. It’s the first feature film for all three and it shows. There are some interesting ideas and approaches, but most of the stylistic attempts are just too much: the non-stop shifting of aspect ratios, the by design blurring (out of focus) images, and the Malick-type edits early on, are all more distracting than artistic.

There are some intriguing bits to Lucy’s character. She’s a woman in a field dominated by Type A men, and she matches or exceeds all in determination, grit and expertise. It’s only after she is “star struck” that she begins her descent into mental and emotional instability. As she loses herself, there is a scene where Hamm’s Goodwin is watching the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy over and over. That scene probably offers more insight into being an astronaut than most anything we see from Lucy. As for the finale, it’s a rain-soaked mess, and perhaps drives home the point that the filmmakers were handcuffed by a true life story that was simply too bizarre to work as a movie … especially since they left out the diapers.

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AARDVARK (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut from writer/director Brian Shoaf benefits from the talented cast he has assembled. I do wonder about his initial “pitch”. The film opens with barely-there lighting as we watch a zoo-based aardvark borough through his tunnels. We can only assume prospective producers were not clued into such an oddball opening scene. Of course as the film progresses, the tie-in becomes obvious – maybe too much so.

Zachary Quinto stars as Josh, a young man who tries to take ownership of his issues by scheduling sessions with Emily, a therapist played by Jenny Slade. See, Josh has a bad haircut, some type of undiagnosed psychosis, and to top it off, his very successful older brother is back in town – an event causing much consternation for Josh (and soon for Emily as well).

We are never really sure of Josh’s mental illness or affliction, but we do know he has visions and hallucinations. The most serious of these are when he imagines his brother has morphed into other beings/characters just to mess with him. Much of our time is spent trying to discern who is real and who Josh is imagining. When Craig, his polar opposite brother, actually appears, it turns out to be Jon Hamm. Emily then proves herself to be the world’s worst therapist as she begins sleeping with her patient’s brother – the source of his anxiety.

Emily admits to a history of man trouble and poor judgment in this area. It turns out she and Josh are both lonely souls, and charming actor-brother Craig may be the key for both of them. Along the way, Josh befriends Hannah (Sheila Vand from the terrific A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) and they seem to bond (in spite of Josh being Josh). Of course, we are left to ponder if Hannah is real or not – at least until the film’s final scene.

There is a running gag here that Emily is not a doctor, but rather a licensed practitioner. It appears to be the only real attempt at humor outside of having one of the Sonic commercial guys bump into Emily on her morning jog. Mental illness and loneliness are subjects that require a deft touch, and though director Shoaf seems to be striving for quirky, his film desperately needed to push the envelope much further. This one comes off just a bit too simple and clean. The best line in the movie, “I miss the things that weren’t there”, also sums up the feeling most of us will have after watching this one.

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

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THE CONGRESS (Le Congres, France, 2014)

April 13, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

congress Greetings again from the darkness. As a fan of director Ari Folman’s Oscar nominated Waiting for Bashir (2008), I was excited to see this one on the line-up at Dallas International Film Festival. While some will find The Congress a bit messy and difficult to follow, it certainly reinforces Folman’s innovative and creative approach to story telling and filmmaking.

The first half of the movie is live action and the second half is animated. The best description I can offer is as a social commentary, not just on Hollywood, but society as a whole. While Her makes the case for virtual relationships, this movie makes the case for virtual everything else! Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an aging movie star who is offered a chance to stay young and be popular forever. Just sign this contract, and Miramount Studios owns your complete public image. No more acting, just kick back and enjoy your money … and watch what we do with your image and career.

The cast is very strong, but the movie has a feeling of having been rushed through production … at least from the live action side. In addition to Ms. Wright, Danny Huston chews some scenery as a cut throat studio head. His blunt description of Ms. Wright’s “bad choices” since The Princess Bride speak to not only many actors, but for many in the audience as well. Harvey Keitel plays the agent, Jon Hamm appears through voice only in the animated sequence, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) plays Wright’s son and central plot figure, and Sami Gayle plays his sister. Paul Giamatti appears in both live action and animated form as the family doctor.

Some will be reminded of A Scanner Darkly, and others of Cool World. The best this movie has to offer is not in its (creative) presentation, but rather in its ability to provoke thought about the look of future society and the impact of technology … as well as the whole issue of identity and what makes us who we are. It’s a brain-scrambler if you stick with it.

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FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

March 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Evidently this is a movie for thirty-somethings who need more ammunition to defend their decisions to avoid marriage and parenthood. At least that’s the best case I can come up with … otherwise it’s just a bitter, caustic view of those two topics. It’s pretty obvious from the opening scene where the relationship story is headed, but it’s not an easy road for us viewers.

This movie belongs to Jennifer Westfeldt. She wrote the script, directed the movie and stars as the woman who decides to have a baby with her platonic friend (Adam Scott). These two are part of a group of six close knit friends in Manhattan who start out doing everything together and telling each other everything. One of the couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) announce “We’re pregnant” and promptly move to Brooklyn. The other married couple (Jon Hamm, Krisen Wiig) start out by attempting to break all Guiness records for sex, and end up evolving into something a bit less exciting.

 The two platonic friends decide to “beat the system” by sharing parenting responsibilities while pursuing separate dating lives until they find “the right person”. Westfeldt has a Lisa Kudrow quality about her that doesn’t play well with me. She was the star and writer of Kissing Jessica Stein, and has been in a relationship with Jon Hamm since 1998.  Here she comes across as insecure and awkward, and not nearly as smart as she would like to believe. Adam Scott (brilliant on “Parks and Recreation“) is quite the ladies man and also views himself as smarter than the masses. Westfeldt finds a “perfect” guy in Edward Burns, and Scott finds happiness with Megan Fox. Of course, you still know where all of this is headed.

 What struck me throughout the film was how every scene and every character was just a bit off. Nothing really worked. Jon Hamm has one really nice scene where he is intoxicated and really stirs the pot at a group dinner. Kristen Wiig has very few lines and spends the movie sulking. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd have a couple of decent scenes, but mostly the film has little insight to offer and no characters with whom you would like to connect. 

*note: Some critics think more highly of this movie than I, and have even compared it to Woody Allen‘s best work.  As always, the opinions expressed above are my own, and your actual mileage may vary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to watch a group of friends who don’t get along so well OR you seek further justification for you decision to avoid marriage and/or parenthood

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already discovered that, contrary to the movie’s poster tag, that maturity dissolves the need to pick two from: Love, Happiness, Kids

Watch the trailer: