Birds of Prey

Suicide Squad was a bad movie.  It tried too hard to be edgy and amoral and wound up being so dark it was off-putting and morally confused.  But it did have one good thing in it:  Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn.  In a promising, if rare, instance of good decision making, Warner Brothers decided to give Harley her own movie.  Hopefully, this will join Wonder Woman to be the tentpole for another great, or at least watchable, DC franchise.

Ever since Harley appeared in the Animated Batman series, she has been a fan favorite.  She was a pert kooky agent of chaos, and the fan boys loved her, although she was never really what you would call a female role model.  Her relationship with the Joker was sick and they, perhaps inappropriately, made that a source of humor.

Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson, try to renovate Harley’s image somewhat without changing the canonical basics of her story.  She was raised in a dysfunctional household, but somehow managed to rise above that and get a PhD in psychiatry.  That led to a job in Arkham Asylum where she treated the Joker and wound up being obsessed with him and eventually helping him escape and becoming his main henchman.  In Birds of Prey, she claims, in Harley’s narration of the film, that she was the brains of the outfit and came up with all the ingenious schemes.

The Joker throws her out before the film’s first scene.  This presents a problem for her because her antics have angered a lot of very dangerous people who didn’t dare touch her before because she was under the Joker’s protection.  So, she’s not been mentioning the breakup as she goes about her life.  Until one night she gets drunk and decides, “the Hell with it,” and blows up a chemical factory that everybody knows was a special place in her romance with the Joker.  For the rest of the movie, random angry victims show up and try to kill her.

Meanwhile…you know, it’s going to take too long to explain the plots and how they interweave with each other.  The script is pretty clever in bouncing between stories and using flashbacks.  Narration helps.  Suffice to say, Black Mask, aka Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor is an up and coming crime lord in Gotham.  He and his henchman Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina are after a diamond that holds the key to a fortune.  Harley, Huntress, aka Helena Bertinelli, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez, and Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, all get in his way and have to team up to survive.

All the lead performances are pretty good.  Margot Robbie stands out once again.  The only choice I have a problem with is Huntress who is usually portrayed as filled with anger, and I really didn’t get that from Winstead.  But then again, of the leads she gets the least screen time, so maybe they didn’t give her enough to get that across effectively.

The movie is very stylized with a lot of presentational elements, the narration for example, and title cards that show up whenever someone comes to kill Harley.  They give the character’s name and his or her reason for wanting to kill her.  The fights are almost cartoonish but they are still somewhat graphic, though without being bloody.  Limbs bend in ways they aren’t meant to.  So, gritty realism was not the watchword here, at least not in that aspect.  I found this distracting.

For that reason, Birds of Prey can probably wait for DVD or streaming, if you really want to see it.

Oscar Picks 2019

It’s Oscar time.  Once again, thanks to the mighty Goldderby.com, I had seen everything I needed to see when the nominations were announced.  I also am glad that I attended Film Fest 919 over in Chapel Hill last October, where I saw many of these films, months before their wide releases.  I would have been scrambling on some weekends if not for that.

On to the usual caveats.  I do not pick the films and actors that I think are going to win.  That is what Gold Derby is for.  Their odds are based on the prognostications of professional entertainment journalists who know and interview actual Academy voters.  They have a much better idea of which way the wind is blowing in Hollywood than I could ever dream of.  There are a few surprise winners every year, of course, but Gold Derby has never led me astray when it comes to nominations.  This is where I tell you the films and actors that I think should win, the best film or performance among those nominated.  I often pick the same film as the favorite, but not always.  And, of course, sometimes the best film or performance isn’t nominated.  If I feel strongly enough about it, I will let you know about that as well.

Gold Derby uses gambling odds to handicap the races.  Since I don’t gamble, my understanding of these odds is tenuous and I’m sure that I am capable of making some howlers.  If I do, feel free to howl.  You used to be able to toggle between odds and percentages on the site and I much preferred that.

It’s actually been a pretty good year for movies.  With a couple of exceptions, I am happy with this year’s crop of nominations.  Some have been important and some entertaining, but most have been enjoyable and well worth seeing.  Hopefully this will continue.

Onward:

 

Supporting Actress

 

Laura Dern in Marriage Story is the favorite with 31/10 odds.  But Scarlett Johansson for Jojo Rabbit is right behind at 4/1 and the other three are close as well at 9/2.  They are all excellent and worthy performances but I would give it to Kathy Bates for Richard Jewell.  She fleshed out a role that could have easily become a parody or a stereotype and made her sympathetic.  If Margot Robbie had been nominated for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood instead of for Bombshell, I’d have favored her.

 

Supporting Actor

 

This is another close category with Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood leading at 31/10.  Joe Pesci and Al Pacino for The Irishman are right behind at 4/1 and Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Anthony Hopkins for The Two Popes aren’t out of it at 9/2.  Once again these are all worthy performances and I would not be outraged if any one of them won.  As much as I enjoyed Brad Pitt’s performance in Once Upon a Time, I have to give my nod to Joe Pesci who delivered a restrained and menacing performance in The Irishman.

 

Actress

 

If you look at the odds, this seems like a close race with Renee Zellweger leading at 16/5 and everyone else hanging around 4/1 but it’s hard to imagine anyone catching Zellweger.  She sings; she dances; she acts and she has had all the momentum for about six months.  I won’t mind when she wins but I’d give it to Cynthia Erivo, who gave a powerful and important performance as Harriet Tubman.

 

Actor

 

Joaquin Phoenix hasn’t had the momentum for as long as Renee Zellweger but he has it and it will carry him over the finish line.  I will be mildly peeved.  His portrayal of the Joker was masterful but it was in service to a right-wing movie.  I would give the statue to Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.  His performance as a B-list actor on the downside of his fame was moving and funny.

 

Director

 

Sam Mendes for 1917 is the favorite at 82/25, which I’m guessing rounds to 3/1?  He made a technically proficient film that is visually stunning and well-acted.   I’d give it Bong Joon Ho for Parasite.  The performances were outstanding and he knit together several different tones seamlessly.   I would eliminate Todd Phillips for Joker from this category and put in Greta Gerwig for Little Women.

 

Picture

 

This is down to three films: 1917 at 11/2, Parasite at 6/1 and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood at 13/2.  In the category, I would eliminate Joker and Jojo Rabbit, two films I had serious problems with.  Then I would add Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, which has been largely overlooked except for Antonio Banderas’ nomination for Best Actor.  The other films that have been nominated are all worthy but the one I enjoyed the most was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and that’s the film I would reward with the big prize.

 

So, that’s it.  You know the drill: popcorn, fun, enjoy.  Until next year.

 

1917

All the centennial anniversaries for the first World War passed by in the last few years pretty much unnoticed.  This is not so much surprising as it is sad.  It was an important and tragic war.  But it is overshadowed by the titanic struggle of the second World War.  Also, it seems to belong to another age, even though it was the first modern war with machine guns, tanks and airplanes.  That’s not even to mention the horrors of gas.  Still the wide brimmed helmets and jodhpurs are alien, even to us baby boomers, like something from the 19th century, not the 20th.

This is reflected in cinema.  There is a multitude of World War II films, of all levels of quality.  But relatively few are set during the earlier struggle.  I will say that the first Best Picture winner, Wings, was set in World War I.  And there are several classics as well, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front come to mind.

1917 also joins the small lists of films that either are or are edited to look like they were made in one long shot.  The most famous of these is Hitchcock’s Rope.  Inaritu’s Birdman from 2014 is a more recent example.  In the case of 1917, the technique adds to the sense of urgency and a compressed timeline.  It also enhances the setting as we follow the main characters through the long lines of the trenches, and through the desolation of no-man’s land, we get an idea of the scale of the battle ground.  It’s like a tour of Dante’s hell.

So, the story is two British Lance Corporals are given the mission to deliver a message to the front lines canceling an offensive that is now known to be a trap, a fake retreat and re-entrenchment by the Germans.  Thousands will be killed, if these two men, Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, and Schofield, played by George McKay, don’t get the direct orders to stand down from General Erinmore, played by Colin Firth to Colonel MacKenzie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Among those potential casualties is Blake’s brother, Joseph, played by Richard Madden.

The performances are good.  McKay in particular, stands out for his portrayal of reluctant heroism.  But because of the structure of the story, there’s little time for characterization or even much dialog.  In that respect 1917 is like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk only a little bit chattier.  Roger Deakins serves as the director of photography and the look of the film is spectacular, beautiful and horrific in turns.  There is a dichotomy in war pictures between glory and horror.  1917 definitely falls into the latter category, but it gives us a glimpse of the former when, at night a town in ruins, is lit up by flares and a giant fire in the town square.  It’s a beautiful image in an otherwise awful setting.

Sam Mendes the director and co-screenwriter with Kysty Wilson-Cairns, based the story on an incident from the life of his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who was in the Battle of Passchendaele, which was fought in Belgium in 1917 from July 31 to November 10.  Alfred too, was given a message to deliver over a great distance in a short amount of time.  So, the film is sort of based on a true story.

1917 is an engaging and emotionally wrenching film.  Because of the visuals you should see it in the theater.

Cats

In the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation, a young con man ingratiates himself to the pretentious couple he’s looking to rip off by telling them that his father, Sidney Poitier, is about to direct a movie adaptation of Cats and he might be able to get them parts.  Being pretentious, the couple is disdainful of the musical, but…hey, who doesn’t want to be in a movie?  So, a Cats movie had been a joke for at least twenty-seven years before they figured out how to adapt it.  Of course, when I say “figured out,” I’m stretching a point.  I don’t think they ever really cracked it.  At some point, they just said, “The hell with it,” and went forward.

Most of this movie’s problems stem from the fact that it’s an adaptation of Cats.  The execution, while not flawless, is competent.  The source material, however, is simply too much to overcome.  I can see why it took so long to come to the screen.  It should have taken longer.

I’ve never seen Cats on stage, nor have I read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the cycle of poems by T.S. Eliot, upon which it is based.  So, I came to the movie with almost no knowledge of the story.  But a little bit of research informs me that Andrew Lloyd Webber encountered the poems and put them in his usual half rock/half show tune settings.  It was originally meant as a song cycle, but after a relative of Eliot’s gave him a few unpublished poems that were written for the cycle, most specifically Grizabella the Glamor Cat, he decided to make the project into a full-blown musical.

To do this, he made up a flimsy story to serve as a sort of matrix, in which to embed the songs, which are basically character studies.  In the first scene, Victoria, played by Francesca Hayward, is a young white cat, who is abandoned on the street by her owners.  She is adopted by a group of street cats, who call themselves the Jellicles.  Victoria serves as our stand in as the various personalities in the group introduce themselves in song.  It also happens to be the night of the Jellicle Ball where several cats put on a kind of feline American Idol, or perhaps the Masked Singer might be a better comparison, to impress the Leader of the Jellicles, Old Deuteronomy, played by Judi Dench, who decides the winner.  That winner gets to go the Heaviside Layer where he or she will receive another life and, in that life, they will be the cat they’ve always wanted to be. Trying to spoil all of this is Macvity, played by Idris Elba, who wants to win this year at any cost, so he is abducting all the contestants so that Old Deuteronomy has to choose him.

Needless to say, such a structure is prone to numbing repetition.  How you feel about it depends on how you feel about the songs.  Which, with the exception of Memory, are pretty forgettable.

That’s what Tom Hooper the director and screenwriter was working with.  Hooper either didn’t feel the need to flesh out the story, or maybe he didn’t dare.  In any case it is a story that needs fleshing out and that’s the biggest flaw in the movie.

Let’s turn to the good, shall we?  They cast real singers and dancers in this!  It’s amazing what a difference that makes from the usual recent Hollywood musical.  Francesca Haywood is a ballet dancer in her day job and her dancing is amazing as is most of the chorus’s.  And those who can’t dance or sing are not put in a position to fail either.  Ian McKellen plays Gus the Theatre Cat and his song is done in that kind of talking/singing style like Rex Harrison did in My Fair Lady.  Perfectly fine.  Judi Dench does not have the best voice, but it’s okay, and it’s what you would expect from an impossibly old cat.

I will say that many of the vocals were too far down in the mix and I couldn’t make out the lyrics.  It was especially a problem with the songs done by the chorus.  And I also had trouble hearing Munkustrap, played by Robbie Fairchild, for the same reason.  His voice sounded underpower.  The biggest disappointment for me was I was expecting Jennifer Hudson, who plays Grizabella, to really own Memory and she doesn’t.  Too much acting; not enough singing.

Most of the criticism of Cats seems to be about the costumes, sets and design, which were mostly generated by computer.  They are bright to the point of garishness and there are some weird things that you don’t see every day.  None of these things bothered me.  I’m a geek and a Busby Berkeley type production number with singing dancing cockroaches doesn’t dismay or alarm me.  Of course, if it were happening on my kitchen floor it might.  This is a fantasy and whimsy is a part of it.  In some of the numbers the scenery just changes.  Suddenly they’re on a train or tapdancing on the tracks.  I thought it was great.  I wish they’d done more of that.  The film is so heavily computer generated, you could argue that it’s an animated film.  Why not use the capabilities of that and really blow people’s minds?

Critics are occasionally guilty of piling on, especially in a case like this where the jokes and the lines practically write themselves.  But frankly Cats doesn’t deserve the savaging it has received.  It’s not a great film, and you can wait for streaming or DVD to see it, but it’s simply not nearly as bad as other critics are saying it is.

Uncut Gems

Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, is an operator.  He runs a jewelry store in New York City that carries expensive but gaudy baubles, and with the help of Demany, played by LaKeith Stanfield, he cultivates a clientele of pro athletes and musicians.  At the beginning of the film, pro basketball star Kevin Garnett, playing himself, comes into the store and Howard, excited by a new acquisition, shows him a rock that has several opals in it.  Howard’s just showing off, but Garnett becomes entranced and wants to buy it.  Unfortunately, the rock has been promised to an auction house to be sold on the following Monday.  Howard figures he will make over a million dollars on it.  When Garnett insists, Howard reluctantly agrees to let him hold it for a day, taking an NBA championship ring as collateral.

This adds to the turmoil that is Howard’s life.  He is already in debt to his gangster brother-in-law, Arno, played by Eric Bogosian, owes some guy a watch or something—that part isn’t really explained—and is keeping a mistress, Julia, played by Julia Fox, in a downtown apartment.  He and his wife, Dinah, played by Idina Menzel, are separating but they are waiting until after Passover to do it.  So, he spends the entire two hours of the film, trying to keep all these situations in hand.

Let’s get one thing straight.  Howard is not a sly rogue.  Sure, he’s charismatic and knows how to ingratiate himself, but he also has a temper and can tear down relationships as quickly as he can build them up.  He is not exceedingly honest, either.  By the time the movie opens, most of the people he deals with know him and are wary of his promises.  He also has an addictive personality.  Gambling is his most immediate problem, but he’s also addicted to crisis.  He’s constantly shouting on the phone while others are trying to get his attention.

I disliked this film but I do have to give Adam Sandler credit, he is amazing in this.  He really captures the character’s charisma, intelligence and compulsiveness.  He usually makes stupid comedies and I haven’t seen many of those, but this seems to be a real change for him.

In the end, however, this film is loud, annoying, and there’s nobody to root for.  The complicated plot is opaque and frankly I didn’t care enough about the main character to put much effort into trying to figure it out.  By the end I just wanted it to be over.

Avoid.

Little Women

The adventures of the four March sisters in the years after the Civil War have been a staple of American culture since Louisa May Alcott first published the novel in 1868.  It is a long rambling tale, really a semi-autobiographical series of events rather than a coherent story.  And yet I would guess that it has inspired more cinema than any other book.  The first adaptation I could find in IMDB was made in 1918, which means we’ve been making Little Women movies for over a century.  June Allyson, Katherine Hepburn, and Winona Ryder have all played Jo.  Hollywood returns to this tale, not just once a generation but seemingly several times.  There are TV and foreign adaptations as well.  This is interesting to me.  In an industry dominated by males, a book for girls has been adapted more times than just about anything else.  It has to mean something; I have no idea what.

I have seen the 1994 Winona Ryder version, but none of the others.  So, I can’t compare and contrast them for you.  Indie film queen Greta Gerwig has written and directed this version.  She is not the first woman to direct the story.  Gillian Armstrong helmed the ’94 version.

For her Jo, Gerwig cast Saoirse Ronan.  They have worked together before in Lady Bird. Little Women is a story about four high-spirited girls trying to find their individual ways into adulthood.  Jo, in particular is adamant about keeping her own identity.  She’s a tomboy and wants to be a writer.  The girls and their friend Laurie, played by Timothee Chalamet, perform her plays for friends and family.  Laurie is Jo’s best friend.  Later she has success selling stories.  So, there has always been a feminist component to the tale.  Gerwig emphasizes this.  Even Amy, played by Florence Pugh, who plans to marry for money, has a speech about how a woman’s wealth, even if accumulated while single, becomes her husband’s property upon marriage, which in her view makes marriage very much an economic arrangement.

Gerwig also solves the problem of the episodic plot by telling most of it in flashbacks revolving around the frame story of Beth’s decline and death from yellow fever.  By the way, the book is 150 years old; I don’t want to hear about spoilers.  As Jo rushes home from New York to be with the family and nurse Beth, memories of her childhood wash over her.  It’s a simple device, one you’ve seen many times and one that is not always welcome, but frankly here it’s brilliant.  It neatly solves the problem of adapting the book.  All the major events are depicted without the necessity of putting pointless filler around them, which would have given the film a hurried feel.  Other versions may very well have taken the same approach.  I don’t believe the ’94 version did, however.  This film is nicely paced with smart dialog and some excellent performances.

Emma Watson plays Meg, the oldest and most sensible sister.  Eliza Scanlen plays the shy Beth, the youngest, who plays the piano beautifully.  Laura Dern is wise and compassionate as Marmee.  And Chris Cooper plays Mr. Laurence, their rich neighbor and Laurie’s grandfather, who gives Beth a piano because she reminds him of his lost daughter.

But the standout performance is Ronan’s Jo.  She is smart, prickly and ambitious, a modern woman constrained by a restrictive society.  Ronan captures all that as well as the nugget of vulnerability at her core.

The film is also beautifully photographed, capturing the splendor of rural New England.  So, you might want to see it in the theater.

Bombshell

There is probably no person more responsible for the state of our country than Roger Ailes, who in Bombshell is played by John Lithgow.  He was a media consultant for Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Trump.  It was during Watergate that he noticed how the country turned on the President when it became obvious that Nixon was guilty.  As politicians do when they get caught, Nixon blamed the press and Ailes gave a lot of thought over the years as to what to do about it.  The answer he came up with was Fox News, a conservative news network that slants, distorts and outright makes stuff up to bolster the conservative message.  It gives people, who are so inclined a safe area where they never have to encounter any viewpoint that conflicts with their own conservatism.  And it’s not traditional conservatism either.  It’s the conservatism of the religious right, the alt right, and the tea party, a hollow, unprincipled, and hypocritical philosophy; the sole aim of which is to acquire political power and keep it.

Ailes was also a monster.  He sexually harassed his female on-air talent, people like Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron, and Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman.  His behavior created an atmosphere where people like Bill O’Reilly could do the same.  Kelly and Carlson were popular enough to refuse Ailes’ advances and have their careers survive, but they never felt like they could say anything.  Other women weren’t so lucky.

In 2016, at the height of the election, Carlson is moved out of prime time into a slot during the middle of the day.  She decides that she’s had enough.  She pulls stunts, like doing a show without make up to emphasize the unfair physical standards that women are subjected to.  Of course, she knows that Ailes will hate it, and she eventually gets herself fired.  Then she sues Ailes personally for sexual harassment.  She and her lawyers hope that other women at Fox News will join in.

There’s no point in worrying about spoilers here.  The events are a matter of public record.  Other women do come forward eventually, including the powerful Kelly.  Ailes is forced to settle and loses his position at the head of the network.  Rupert Murdoch, played by Malcolm McDowell, takes direct control and the political posture of Fox News doesn’t change.

Theron and Kidman do a good job of humanizing their roles.  I felt sorry for them and was glad when they triumphed despite my political differences with them.  Margot Robbie plays a fictional production assistant named Kayla Pospisil who is basically there to show how Ailes approaches his victims.  Despite the obvious purpose of the role, Robbie does a good job of rounding out her sincere, naïve but ambitious character.

Bombshell is a well-made film with good performances and smart dialog.  It was directed by Jay Roach and written by Charles Randolph.  The performances are universally good.  There’s an annoying thing with the camera work where they will zoom in on someone’s face when they are coming to a revelation.  It’s obvious, unnecessary, and over dramatic.  Other than that one caveat, Bombshell is a slick, professionally made film.

You can probably wait for streaming or DVD to see it, though.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I saw the first Star Wars film on opening weekend in 1977.  And I believe I can say the same for every film since.  My excitement for that first film was heightened by a presentation I saw by Alan Dean Foster at a science fiction convention the preceding spring.  He showed us some production art and stills.  And he described Lucas’s struggle to get the film made.  It was a real-life underdog story that paralleled the film’s plot.

So, I’ve felt a connection to Star Wars from the beginning.  And I’ve also spent a great deal of time wondering why it isn’t better than it is.  Because it could be.  George Lucas created a whole universe to play in.  But so much of what’s come out, at least in movie theaters, has failed to live up to those first two films.  As a fanboy, I have the capacity to tolerate a lot of crap.  Star Trek, a franchise even closer to my heart suffers from a similar affliction but I still watch all the movies and TV series—mostly out of blind loyalty.

And so it is with Star Wars.

My forensic analysis on the state of the Star Wars franchise identifies two factors.  First, there’s George Lucas.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  The man is a genius.  He is not, however, a very good director, and he’s an even worse screenwriter.  His strength is in creating worlds that generate stories.  And he’s one of the best there’s ever been at it.  The only other person in his class is Tolkien.

His aesthetic shortcomings became evident with Return of the Jedi.  Those awful Ewoks represented a growing emphasis on merchandising over content.  Businesswise, this makes sense.  Lucasfilm owns the rights to all the Star Wars toys.  That’s where they make most of their money.

Lucas, to his credit, fought against this when he made the prequel trilogy.  From the beginning, he had a nine-film arc planned in his head to depict the history of the Skywalker family’s struggle against the Empire.  The original trilogy was the middle.  The prequel series was the beginning and there was to be a third trilogy set after the fall of the Empire.

Feeling somewhat constrained by his creation, he resisted making the prequels for sixteen years.  When he finally succumbed…well, the results are interesting, but ultimately uninspiring, largely due to Lucas’s scripts and directing.  But I give him credit for trying something different; for not just remaking the first three movies.  He just couldn’t pull it off.

My second finding is that Star Wars is popular.  And when I say popular, I mean it is an institution, a piece of Americana, even, with an immense, diverse and vocal fanbase.  This is good in one way in that all that money and loyalty means they can create movies and TV series ad infinitum.  Star Wars is forever.  Unfortunately, it also means that in feature movies, where budgets are high and expectations equally so, a formula appears, and if you work for a major studio—and no studio is more major than Disney—you do not mess with that formula.  Star Wars will never be the scrappy underdog again.  It will also never be new, fresh or innovative again.

If you can understand and accept that, you will enjoy Star Wars films going forward.

So, given all that, when I tell you that The Rise of Skywalker echoes Return of the Jedi, you will not be surprised.  I won’t go into it much.  Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, is back, broadcasting his return across the galaxy.  He’s built a huge fleet of Imperial destroyers, each equipped with a planet-killing blaster in it’s underbelly.  This and his old throne, he offers to Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, if he’ll kill Rey, played by Daisy Ridley.  But Ren has his own ideas and they don’t include being beholden to the old Emperor, so he tries to recruit Rey to help him kill Palatine and rule the galaxy together, using the dark side of the Force.

In terms of quality, it is up to the standards of this latest trilogy.  The lead actors, although none of them except Ridley and Driver are given much to do, play their parts with the usual amounts of competence.  It is enjoyable melodrama.  You don’t need me to tell you that the visuals and special effects are jaw-dropping.

J.J. Abrams’ direction is, as always, very kinetic.  The camera never stops moving, during the action scenes and he propels you through the two hours and twenty-one minutes of the film without a single dull moment.  I will say the scenes with actors interacting with the previous film’s outtakes of Carrie Fisher are not very well written.  They made me sad all over again that she’s gone.

See this film; see in the theater.  I wouldn’t dream of trying to convince you to do otherwise.

Richard Jewell

My brother and I were at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  We only went for a few days and we camped to save money.  (To this day I don’t know how he talked me into that.  I hate camping.) Anyway, the bombing in Centennial Park, at a concert venue that had been set up for the Olympics, happened while we were down there.  Because we were out of touch with the world, we didn’t know about it until the next day when we visited some friends of my brother’s and they were talking about it.

Most of the events depicted in Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood’s new film, happened in the months afterward.  I didn’t follow them very closely despite my personal connection to it.  I do remember Jewell being investigated and I remember when the real bomber, Eric Rudolph was caught several years later.

Richard Jewell, played by Paul Walter Hauser, is a temp security guard working the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.  On the night of July 27, he discovered a suspicious backpack under a bench next to the sound and light tower in the middle of the audience.  He contacts the authorities, who, at first don’t believe him, but when a bomb expert finds two pipe bombs in the pack, Jewell and the other authorities begin shepherding people away from the tower.  This saves hundreds of lives.  Only one person is killed directly from the blast; another dies of heart failure later.  There are plenty of wounded, however.

I gather in situations like this, law enforcement officers tend to work outward, starting with the people closest to the crime.  That can mean the husband when a wife is murdered, or anyone who discovers a bomb.  Usually, the intent is to eliminate that person and then move on.  Unfortunately, for Richard Jewell, he fit the profile for a bomber.  He was something of a law enforcement geek, reading about it constantly and accumulating a great deal of knowledge about bombs, guns and police procedure.  His dream is to be in the FBI or the Secret Service.  A gun enthusiast, he has a large collection of weapons and is a crack shot.  But he also has a spotty employment record, mostly because of his over-enthusiasm when he did manage to get a law enforcement position.  And he lives with his mother, Bobi Jewell, played by Kathy Bates.  Consequently, the FBI, namely in the form of Tom Shaw, played by John Hamm, a composite of several real agents, takes a good long look at Jewell.

Even worse for Jewell, the fact that he’s an object of the investigation leaks, and he and his mother find themselves besieged by the press, and aggressively surveilled by the FBI, who also take away most of their stuff to test for evidence.  Jewell hires a lawyer, Watson Bryant, played by Sam Rockwell, and eventually overcomes his deference and fanboy awe of law enforcement and fights back.

Like all Eastwood films this is a no-nonsense production with very little in the way of special effects or anything that detracts from telling the story he wants to tell.  It also has terrific performances.  Chief among them is Hauser who plays the lead as, yes, an overzealous police wannabe, but he’s also a conscientious worker who genuinely wants to protect people.  When he goes to his gig in Centennial Park, he carries a cooler of soft-drinks and water bottles, which he disperses to the police officers who have been standing in the heat for hours and to anybody, who he thinks might need it, like a pregnant lady.  Kathy Bates shines as his doting and much put upon mother.  Sam Rockwell turns in a stellar performance as the combative lawyer with his own spotty history.  And Olivia Wilde deserves mention as reporter Kathy Scruggs, who broke the story of the FBI’s suspicions about Jewell.  There is some controversy over the method she used to get the scoop as depicted in the film.  This is an aspect of Eastwood’s films, especially the recent ones, that I don’t care for.  His right-wing politics have been creeping into his last few projects.  In this case, his conservative disdain for the press is evident.

Even with that one caveat, Richard Jewell is a good film about a man who turned out to be a genuine hero.

 

Honey Boy

It seems that Shia LaBeouf had a hard time growing up.  His relationship with his father was difficult.  And he wants you to know exactly what he went through, and how that explains his bad behavior.   So, he wrote the screenplay to Honey Boy, which is based on his childhood.

Names have been changed.

Otis Lort, played at age 12 by Noah Jupe, and at age 22 by Lucas Hedges, is a child actor and a pretty good one.  But he doesn’t seem to benefit financially from his acting gigs.  He lives with his father, James, played by Shia LaBeouf, in a cheap hotel room and they don’t have much.  James is Otis’s biggest problem, a combat vet and recovering alcoholic, the old man is prickly, amoral and downright scary at times.  One minute he is throwing a fit because he thinks the producers of Otis’s current picture are abusing him, and the next he’s letting the boy have a few tokes of weed.  These scenes are interspersed with ones of Hedges playing Otis while in rehab.

LaBeouf’s turn as the father is a tremendous performance and the best thing about this film.  He captures the difficult nature of a man battling multiple demons, namely a long family history of alcohol abuse, PTSD, and intense jealousy of his son for achieving success in show business when James, a former circus clown, could not.  You almost feel sorry for him.  The other performances are good but don’t approach what LaBeouf does.

Unfortunately, LaBeouf can’t overcome the shortcomings of his script.  The problem is the episodic nature of the story.  This is just a bunch of incidents, some good, most bad.  They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax.  He introduces elements that don’t figure into the plot later.  The best example is the pot plants James is cultivating by the side of the freeway.  I was expecting him to be caught at some point but he never was.  They’re just sort of there.  This whole thing is flat.

Unless you have a great deal of sympathy and love for Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy can be easily skipped.


July 2020
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