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.

watch the trailer:


THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Setting one’s film up to be compared to a long time classic can be quite challenging for a filmmaker, but that’s precisely the situation director John Lee Hancock finds himself. Known for crowd-pleasers like THE FOUNDER, SAVING MR BANKS, and THE BLIND SIDE, Mr. Hancock delivers a Netflix film destined to face off against Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. Where the earlier film focused on the anti-hero celebrity (and beautiful faces) of the young outlaws, this latest film flips the lens and puts law enforcement (particularly grizzled veterans) front and center (Bonnie and Clyde are barely glimpsed until near the end).

The film begins with a well-planned and deadly prison break in 1934 and then moves into a meeting where Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) of the Department of Corrections is pitching Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) on his idea of reactivating the defunct Texas Rangers, and bringing legendary lawman Frank Hamer out of retirement. It’s pretty simple – the FBI and its new-fangled forensics is failing miserably in tracking down Bonnie and Clyde, and the hope is that Hamer and his old-fashioned detective work will succeed.

Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer, and we first see him and his well-trained pet pig trying to enjoy a peaceful retirement at home with his wife Gladys (Kim Dickens). Not long after, he’s joined by his old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who is down on his luck, drinks too much, and is in desperate need of a purpose. Thus begins the buddy road trip featuring the no-nonsense Hamer and the quipster Gault. Not many play self-importance better than Costner, and few deliver wisecracks better than Woody.

The screenplay comes from John Fusco, whose previous western projects include HIDALGO and YOUNG GUNS. Though this isn’t a traditional western, it has most of the expected elements. Aging lawmen chasing colorful outlaws. Good versus evil. Right versus Wrong. While it’s a relief the film doesn’t romanticize the Barrow gang and their violent ways, it’s a bit frustrating to see that the movie tries to make Hamer and Gault as famous and iconic as the outlaws they were chasing. Sure Bonnie’s fashion influenced many women of the era, but that had to be nauseating for those lawmen in pursuit who were putting their lives on the line. In the 1967 film, Denver Pyle played Frank Hamer in a shamefully written role, and here Costner strikes so many hero poses and seems to invoke mystical ESP abilities in his police work, that we half expect Hamer to walk on water at some point.

The best part of the film is watching Costner and Harrelson work together, with the latter really making this work on whatever level it does. Additionally, there is a scene with Hamer and Clyde’s dad that features William Sadler in a cameo. I don’t know if this meeting actually took place in real life, but it teases what the film could have been. As a fantasy for cinema aficionados, the project was originally intended to be a vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but just never progressed. Combine that with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, and you’d have an unmatched triumvirate of buddy greatness. Hancock’s film certainly pales in comparison to the 1967 film, but it’s a worthy story that deserves to be told.

available on Netlix March 29, 2019

a few years ago, I posted one of my revisited articles on BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). You can check that out here: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/?s=bonnie+and+clyde

watch the trailer:


ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018)

December 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, the documentary RBG (co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) was a film festival and box office hit, helping turn 85 year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a celebrity and cult icon, complete with best-selling “Notorious RBG” t-shirts and her own action figure. That documentary allowed us the rare opportunity to hear directly from a currently sitting Justice, and just about every viewer came away in awe – regardless of one’s political affiliations. Now, a few months later, we get the story of her younger years in a (loving) script written by Ms. Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Steipleman.

The film opens with a lone woman in a dress engulfed by a sea of young men in conservative business suits marching up the steps on day one of Harvard Law School in 1956. Inside the oak paneled hall, the school’s dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) discusses what it means to be a ‘Harvard man’ and how this is only the sixth year women have been admitted. As he speaks, young Ruth (Felicity Jones) glances around the room at the (only) 8 other female students. At a later reception for the females, Dean Griswold asks each to stand and explain why they are worthy of taking a man’s spot in the class. It’s our first (not last) example of the sexism obstacles of the time – much different than those of today, where women procure more higher education slots than men.

By this time, Ruth and Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) are both Columbia graduates, have been married for a couple of years, and are raising their first child, Jane. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth covers his classes and hers, is mother to young Jane, and also caregiver to a recovering Marty. Of course, her husband recovers and goes on to be a highly successful tax attorney on Wall Street, and their marriage continues until his death in 2010.

But this is Ruth’s story, and her strength is on display. As uplifting as it is to see that Marty was an immensely supportive husband, it’s deflating to see how a brilliant woman – number one in her class – is so disrespected during this era that she can’t even find a job at a law firm. For one committed to doing, Ruth accepts a job teaching instead. Her time as a professor at Columbia is spent encouraging students to explore the inequities of the law when it comes to men and women. In fact, it’s 1970 when Ruth and Marty work their only case together. A Colorado man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), is denied a tax deduction for the caregiver expenses in caring for his sick mother. By law, the deduction is only allowed for female caregivers, and this gives Ruth her first taste of ‘doing’.

It’s at this point, where Kathy Bates appears as civil liberties lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the ACLU Legal Director. Adding spice to Ruth’s and Marty’s life is their teenage daughter Jane (a very good Cailee Spaeny) who is quite headstrong in her own beliefs. The scenes in the Appellate Court are the film’s best, as is the Moot Court sequence – though we do wish more time had been devoted to the prep work and details for the court arguments.

Director Mimi Leder is known mostly for her TV work, and she delivers the story of an amazing woman in an easily accessible manner for mass audiences. It’s an approach that will hopefully allow many young people (yes, especially women) to gain a better understanding of what this woman went through and fought for during the decades before she became the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.  Two takeaways here are that Ruth Ginsburg is a superhero and pioneer of social change, and also that a marriage of equal partners carries great power. Her cameo as the film’s final shot, leaves no doubt that RBG is no longer concerned about which dress will make her look like a “Harvard man”.

watch the trailer:


THE BOSS (2016)

April 7, 2016

the boss Greetings again from the darkness. Movie profanity and crude humor are best used selectively, and certainly not as a comedy crutch. Melissa McCarthy has not built her career on subtlety, but even for her standards, this latest comes across as a lazy effort with missed opportunities for both laughs and a message.

Ms. McCarthy re-teams with those responsible for Tammy (2014), including her husband writer/director Ben Falcone and co-writer Steve Mallory. Here she plays Michelle Darnell, an egotistical hyped-up business tycoon with no sense of integrity or humanity … constantly wearing an odd turtleneck. Somehow the filmmakers thought it a good idea to explain this lack of soul showing a young Michelle being continually “returned” to her orphanage (run by a nun played by Margo Martindale).

When Michelle’s business rival (and former business associate and former lover) Renault/Ron (Peter Dinklage) turns her into the SEC for insider trading, the correlations with Martha Stewart become impossible to ignore. There is even an acknowledgment of this by McCarthy’s character. Once released from white collar prison, Michelle hits rock bottom and ends up sleeping on her former assistant’s sofa. Kristen Bell is Claire, the assistant that Michelle once dumped on and now crashes with. Ms. Bell is mostly relegated to “straight man” to McCarthy’s string of lame punchlines.

In the spirit of exaggeration in lieu of creativity, three scenes in particular stand out: the street fight between rival scout troops, a ridiculous breast grope-off with McCarthy and Bell, and a clumsily staged sword fight between McCarthy and Dinklage. The missed opportunity to have a point about girls in business, and stooping to schmaltz with the Michelle family story are every bit as disappointing as the mostly unfunny and constant use of profanity-laced insults. Saying “suck his d***”over and over in one scene does not make it funny … in fact, it’s a bit sad.

Exacerbating the frustration is the misuse and underuse of such talents as Cecily Strong, Kristen Schaal, Tyler Labine, and Kathy Bates. Ella Anderson as Claire’s daughter does come across as a real kid, and she’s part of the best scenes in the movie. Somehow a movie that (finally) calls out the Girl Scouts on their unfair-to-girls business model, manages to disappoint on every other front.

watch the trailer:

 

 


TITANIC (1997, 3D-2012)

April 8, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Of course I saw this one a couple of times when it was first released in 1997. Having only watched it once since, I was happy to hear it would get a re-release on its 15th anniversary … even if the marketing hook was the post-production 3D. My thought was with James Cameron working his technical magic, the 3D would be fine, and maybe even add to the spectacle of the sinking ship. After all, he was the mastermind behind Avatar, which with Hugo, are the only two films (in my opinion) that haven’t been weakened with 3D technology.

Unfortunately, I can’t overstate my disappointment in the 3D for Titanic. The colors and lighting are destroyed. When we first see young Rose (Kate Winslet) arrive to board the majestic ocean liner, her lavender hat appears almost gray through the 3D glasses. And later, the stunning crimson Renault, where Rose and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) get to “know” each other, appears dull and darkened. Additionally, so many face shots are darkened, rather than illuminated by the beautiful fixtures that adorn Titanic. I was so saddened to see such dullness on top of such greatness. Sure, there were a couple of times where the 3D gave a boost to a special effect, but the film is so beautifully made and such a technical marvel, that the impact is minimal to the positive.

What I will say is that despite my frustration with the technology, I do hope a new generation is introduced to the film. Personally, I am no fan of the love story between Jack and Rose. However, it is such a delight to see the young, eager versions of Little Leo and Kate as they go about their antics. They were 22 and 21 respectively during filming, and we now know them as mature actors and major movie stars. That wasn’t the case when Titanic first premiered.

The real genius of this film is two fold: the story-telling and the technical achievement. Gloria Stuart stars as 101 yr old Rose and she is used to perfection in telling the personal story of Titanic. Her love story with Jack allows director Cameron to show off the amazing ship from all angles … first class, third class, dining rooms and engine rooms. She also allows the viewer to connect with the characters on a personal level. The technical aspect is even more astounding. Sets, models, CGI, and documentary footage are all blended to form a cohesive presentation of one of the most dramatic events of the past 100 years.

Here are a few notes of interest regarding the movie and those involved. The movie was number one at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks and grossed more than $1.8 billion … a record that stood until Cameron’s Avatar eclipsed it. Cameron was already an established sci-fi director with Terminator I & II and Aliens, but he almost had the plug pulled by the production company due to cost overruns. Matthew McConaughey was the producer’s first choice for Jack, but (fortunately) Cameron held firm for DiCaprio. The elderly couple hugging each other in bed as the ship sinks were based on the Strauss’ who owned the Macy’s department store chain. And yes, there were Astor’s and Guggenheim’s onboard when it went down.  Kate Winslet (Best Actress) and Gloria Stuart (Best Supporting Actress) received nominations for playing the same character (Rose). If you have seen the movie before, pay particular attention to the secondary characters … the wardrobes and acting are tremendous: Frances Fisher as Rose’s mother, Kathy Bates as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Billy Zane as the fiancé, David Warner as his henchman, Bernard Hill as the Captain, Victor Garber as the architect, and Jonathan Hyde as the sleazy ship owner. Also catch Suzy Amis in one of her last acting jobs before becoming Mrs. James Cameron … she plays the granddaughter to “old” Rose.

This is an historic film version of an historic event and should be seen by all movie lovers. Some of it is a bit hokey, but if you doubt the technical achievement, compare it to A Night to Remember, the 1958 version of the Titanic story.  And depending on your taste, crank up the closing credits and listen to Celine Dion belt out the Oscar winning Best Song.  She is, after all, “the greatest singer in the world” (an SNL gag).

watch the trailer for “the ship of dreams”:

 


MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

June 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not so many years ago, Woody Allen was thought of (along with Martin Scorcese) as the quintessential New York City filmmaker. He understood that and even poked fun at himself in his most popular film Annie Hall. At age 75, Mr. Allen remains an incredibly prolific filmmaker cranking out an original script and film every year. With his recent work, he has ventured outside of NYC and into England, Spain and now France. Clearly these new locales have re-ignited his creativity.

The script for Midnight in Paris is some of his best writing in years, and he explores our (and his) love of nostalgia without sacrificing the customary relationship struggles. While I hold steadfast to my rule of providing no spoilers, a quick glance at the character names gives you all the clues you need to put the basic idea in place.

 Owen Wilson plays Gil, a financially successful Hollywood hack screenwriter who longs to be a serious novelist in the vein of his literary heroes from 1920’s Paris. Gil goes on vacation to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Of course the parents don’t like Gil and it doesn’t take long (maybe one scene) for us to figure out that Gil and Inez are misfits as a couple.

In an attempt to escape the disrespect from Inez and the yammering of her know-it-all friend played by Michael Sheen, Gil goes wandering the nighttime streets of Paris. What happens next is either science-fiction or the culmination of Gil’s dreams. The bell tolls midnight and Gil is whisked away via a classic Peugeot to the world of literary giants he so worships.

As a viewer, half the fun in this one is staying alert to pick up the clues to the references: Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Juan Belmonte, Alice B Toklas, Djuna Barnes, TS Eliot, Matisse, Leo Stein, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Degas, Cole Porter and Picasso. Kathy Bates spikes the film with her lively turn as Gertrude Stein. Corey Stoll makes a ferociously direct Ernest Hemingway. Adrien Brody offers up a slightly off-center Salvador Dali – good for a laugh.  Marion Cotillard brings elegance and beauty to her role of the ultimate art groupie.  Of course, suspension of reality must occur if we are to buy off on her character choosing Gil (Wilson) over the bombastic Hemingway and fiery Picasso!

 This movie plays kind of like an all-star game. A chance to see all the names and players that you have heard about … all under one roof. For film lovers, there is a great little exchange between Owen Wilson’s character and Luis Bunuel. Woody has created a 90 minute tribute to all of us (like Gil) who have yearned to work with and live among the artistic giants. I would love to see Mr. Allen’s notes as he put this idea together. We can only imagine what didn’t make the film! Despite all the fun of inside jokes, the romantic idea of nostalgia and wishing for a better time is discussed and analyzed. Mr. Allen tells us that EVERYONE, no matter their era, has a romantic vision of some previous time which they believe would better suit their style and creative force. The story is balanced by having Gil’s novel based in a nostalgia store, and he ends up meeting an intriguing young lady (Lea Seydoux) at a Paris store that sells old records and books.

 Owen Wilson in the lead role is probably the only mistake Mr. Allen made.  Though his puppy dog excitement and innocence is played full tilt in the classic world he discovers, he just can’t hold up his end in scenes with Cotillard or Bates.  Despite this, I found the ideas and excitement of the setting to outweigh the distraction of Wilson.

As always, Mr. Allen has beautiful music accompanying his words and scenes. This time we are also treated to some breathtaking images of Paris, the Seine, and wonderful works of art (Rodin, Picasso, etc). Of course casting Carla Bruni, wife to the President of France (Nicolas Sarkozy) might have entitled him to film in Paris settings we don’t often see in movies. One gets the impression that this one was quite a bit of fun for Woody to assemble. If you enjoy art or literary history, you too will find this to be one jolly easter egg hunt!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would enjoy a dreamlike trip to the artistic wonderland of Paris in the 20’s OR you thrive on discovering the hidden gems in Woody Allen films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you still call them “freedom fries” OR you and your therapist are still working to overcome your anger at Owen Wilson for letting Marley die