Friday, December 27, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Deuxième Souffle (1966)

Le Deuxième Souffle (1966)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by José Giovanni.
Starring: Lino Ventura (Gustave 'Gu' Minda), Paul Meurisse (Commissaire Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (Paul Ricci), Christine Fabréga (Simone - dite 'Manouche'), Marcel Bozzuffi (Jo Ricci), Paul Frankeur (Inspector Fardiano), Denis Manuel (Antoine Ripa), Jean Négroni (L'homme), Michel Constantin (Alban), Pierre Zimmer (Orloff), Pierre Grasset (Pascal), Jacques Léonard (Henri Tourneur), Raymond Loyer (Jacques, le notaire), Albert Michel (Marcel le Stéphanois), Jean-Claude Bercq (Inspecteur Godefroy), Louis Bugette (Théo, le passeur), Albert Dagnant (Jeannot Franchi), Sylvain Levignac (Louis Bartel).
One of the interesting things about watching all of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films in a row is figuring out why some have become the types of films that critics describe as masterworks, and others have fallen by the wayside – still not overly examined or talked about, even if others in his filmography have been rediscovered. To this point in his filmography, Le Deuxième Souffle is the most curious case of this – because it is clearly a transitional film for Melville – part Bob La Flambeur or Le Doulos and part Le Samourai – but not quite either. It’s his final film in black and white, and shows Melville’s absolute mastery of the shadows and light that make it such a wonderful format for movies. It’s also hugely entertaining – and was, at the time, Melville’s most successful film commercially. And yet, Le Deuxième Souffle hardly gets mentioned – not nearly as much as other Melville masterworks, but it clearly deserves to be. Hopefully it’s one that everyone just needs to catch up with.
The film is another of Melville’s looks at a criminal underworld – concerned with loyalty, friendship and betrayal, which perhaps represented what Melville himself was feeling at the time – as he was ostracized from much of the mainstream in French filmmaking, and the New Wave at the same time. It has similarities to Le Doulos, but while that film was fast moving and fleet of foot – with a complex web of a plot nearly impossible to unwind, the plot here is relatively straight forward – and is more drawn out. This is a film that runs two-and-a-half hours, and uses that time wisely.
After some customary title cards – about a man choosing his own death – the film opens with a terrific wordless and music-less scene of three men breaking out of prison that will likely bring to mind the extended climax of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) for some. One of the men don’t make it – and we don’t really care about one of the other two. Who we concentrate on is Gu Minda (Lino Ventura) – a man who has been in prison for 10 years for a robbery, and was never going to get out again if he didn’t escape. No he’s out – but not really free. His escape is a major story – a dogged police detective, Blot (Paul Meurisse) is on his trail, and isn’t likely to give up so easily. Gu has no money with which to build a new life, even if he can get out of France. What he does have are some loyal friends – a sister who is willing to do anything to help get him free, and some connections to the underworld which may have a job for him that would allow the kind of money for which he can live on for the rest of his life. But that opening quote – about a man choosing his own death – hangs over the movie. We know things aren’t going to end so cleanly here.
Gu is an older character than many in Melville’s films – he is 47, but because of the last decade behind bars, he seems even older, wearier than most men his age. In many ways, it kind of feels like Gu has broken out of prison, not to build some big, new exciting life – but rather to end his life on his own terms, not as some sad sack prisoner, but as a man of action. When, late in the film, Gu’s action become the subject of much debate as to whether or not he was a rat, all he really wants to do is set the record straight – to secure his legacy as a standup criminal, not because he’s worried about the consequences. Those have already been set, and there is no going back.
The film has a couple of brilliant action set pieces in it. The first is obviously that wonderful prison break sequence. The other one is the extended robbery sequence at the half way point – where Gu has teamed up with four other criminals, much to his sister’s chagrin, to pull off essentially an armored car robbery. The robbery is violent – people are killed – but it is an example, as in much of Melville, of a job that is planned, and executed, with precision and professionalism. Of course, the fallout from that robbery is the fallout from almost every big screen robbery – as the cops close in, and the various gangsters are brought in by the cops, and start turning on each other. In some ways, it is Le Doulos all over again – with people concerned over who is the finger man, and plotting based on incomplete information, that ends in nothing more death. But this time, it isn’t wrapped in such an entertaining package – it’s a sadder state of affairs here, with a clean getaway impossible no matter what they do.
There is a lot here to unpack. In many ways, I think this is perhaps the most like a Michael Mann film – namely heat – of all of Melville’s work. Melville is often brought up in relation to Mann, because both filmmakers don’t really concern themselves with psychological depth, as much as they allow the character’s action define their morality. They like people are professionals, defined by their work, by their adherence to a code. In the relationship between Gu and Blot, you see some similar dimensions of what you would see between DeNiro and Pacino in Mann’s epic masterwork. They are on opposite sides of the law, but respect each other because they both adhere to their own code – Blot goes as far as to give a reporter a story of what really happened with Gu – retroactively giving him his legacy back, even if he’s not around to enjoy it.
Le Deuxième Souffle is not often mentioned when discussing Melville’s best films – it doesn’t get the attention that Bob La Flambeur, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows or The Red Circle get – not even the attention that Le Doulos gets either. But it deserves that sort of attention. It is a key work in Melville’s career – kicking off what would be one of his greatest stretches of output – and it is every bit the precision masterwork that those other films are as well.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Movie Review: Hagazussa

Hagazussa *** / *****
Directed by: Lukas Feigelfeld.
Written by: Lukas Feigelfeld.
Starring: Aleksandra Cwen (Albrun), Celina Peter (Albrun (jung), Claudia Martini (Mutter), Tanja Petrovsky (Swinda), Haymon Maria Buttinger (Dorfpfarrer), Franz Stadler (Sepp), Killian Abeltshauser (Farmer), Gerdi Marlen Simonn (Baby Martha), Thomas Petruo (Doctor), Judith Geerts (Nun).
There’s a difference between a slow burn horror film and a glacially paced horror film – and Hagzussa is just on the right side of that line. It’s another in a series of films since Robert Eggers’ The Witch that looks back to the past to find horrors – and mixes the true to life horrors of that time, with a more traditional horror movie. This film is set in the 15th Century, and for much of the runtime, you would be forgiven in thinking it was just a movie about how awful it would have been to be a woman in that time period. This is basically a series of four vignettes in the life of Albrun – the first two being that true life horror, before the second two get into more extreme horror than you were probably expecting. The film is slowly paced and ambiguous – and even when it picks up, it hardly becomes less of either. But for viewers who are patient – and like this kind of horror – it eventually pays off.
The first two segments take up more than an hour of the runtime of this 100-minute movie – and writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld is in no hurry to get to the “good stuff” in them. The first takes place when Albrun is a little girl – watching her mother, her sole caretaker, slowly die with no help from anyone – who is convinced that she is a witch. The second segment has Albrun as an adult, still living on her remote goat farm, now with a child of her own (who the father is remains a mystery). Another young woman seemingly wants to be her friend – and the film drags out the reveal of just how untrue that is for a long time. When her true nature is revealed, in horrible ways, Albrun becomes the person the village believes her to be. The third segment is a psychedelic trip as Albrun ventures into the forest with her baby, and eats some mushrooms, before doing something awful. The fourth is the aftermath of that – as the ramifications become clear to Albrun.
This is Feigelfeld’s debut film as a writer/director, and its remarkably assured for a first timer. The pace may be too slow at times, and yet he is an expert at building up the atmosphere, the sense of impending doom, and establishing this horrible time and place, and Albrun’s place in it. He is aided greatly by Aleksandra Cwen as the adult Albrun, who doesn’t shy away from anything, and pushes on through to the most horrible end result imaginable.
I have a feeling that Feigelfeld will make a great horror film at some point in his career – even if Hagzussa isn’t it. It’s too slow, too measured for that. And yet, when he wants to shock you, he can – and the shock hits all the harder because of the patience and care he has taken to set it all up. It isn’t a great film – but it may be the first film of a great filmmaker.

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Magnet of Doom (1963)

Magnet of Doom (1963) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Georges Simenon.
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Maudet), Charles Vanel (Dieudonné Ferchaux), Michèle Mercier (Lou), Malvina Silberberg (Lina), Stefania Sandrelli (Angie, Hitch-Hiker), Barbara Sommers (Lou's friend), E.F. Medard (Suska), Todd Martin (Jeff), André Certes (Émile Ferchaux), Andrex (M. Andrei) 
It’s no real secret that Jean-Pierre Melville didn’t really get the respect he deserved during his career – or that it took longer than it should have for people to recognize his genius. Perhaps it is simply because he was a forerunner to the French New Wave – but never quite a part of it, with some admirers turning away from him when he admitted he made Leon Morin, Priest to make money – because he was tired of making films no one saw. Perhaps it was because he died too young, before people had a chance to revisit his films. But it is true that it’s only been slowly that people have come around to Melville – with more and more of his films finally being recognized as influential as they clearly were. His 1963 film, Magnet of Doom, remains one of his least known films – and there is reason for that, namely that it isn’t anywhere near his best work. And yet watching it, you get the sense that once again, Melville was ahead of the curve on somethings. It’s impossible to know if Wim Wenders saw this film – but it certainly taps into the same ennui that informed his famous road movies – Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and Kings of the Road – and similar films made in America before them, but after this – like Easy Rider or Two Lane Blacktop. The film probably hasn’t really been rediscovered because, again, it’s not particularly good – especially when compared to Melville’s best, and it comes in between his much more famous crime movies. But it’s still an interesting film to watch – as time capsule at least.
This was Melville’s first film in color – and the second shot at least partly in America, a country Melville loved, although there is no real love lost here. Once again, many of the exterior in the film were shot in America, with the interiors on soundstages in Paris – much like Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan. In fact, much of the scenes shot in America take place inside a moving car – with the camera pointing out at the road as it passes by, and we listen to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s narration – almost as if the budget only allowed Melville and a camera to go to America, and the rest was added in later.
The movie has a classic three act structure. In it, Belmondo (in his last role for Melville) plays Michel Maudet, a boxer, who isn’t particularly good as boxing. We see him in his life in Paris – losing his fight, talking to his girlfriend, etc. – before he gets a good as basically a secretary/driver/gopher for a rich man Ferchaux (Charles Vanel) – a crooked banker. Even after Michel as proclaimed his love for his girlfriend, we see him literally sneak behind her back and abandon her with nothing, to go with Ferchaux to America. At first, they go to New York, where Ferchaux gets his ill-gotten gains, before the pair of them head out onto the road t0 New Orleans. The final act has the two men in that great American city – with Michel increasingly annoyed by the much older Ferchaux, whose health is failing him, and wants constant attention – while Michel wants to go about his life without any commitments.
You can certainly see the roots of characters like the aimless Europeans who made up Wenders films in Michel – driven by the same rootlessness, the same desire for freedom, without really knowing what that is. We get a lot of voice over monologues from Michel – the types of monologues that if they were in a film in 2019 would be described as typical, privileged, entitled Millennial navel gazing – a reminder that young people never really change.
But it doesn’t really appear that Melville’s heart in is this film very much. The style here is much more muted then normal – the camera movement doesn’t flow as much as normal. The storytelling isn’t great either – in large part perhaps because there isn’t much story here at all. And Melville, well into his 40s by now, I’m not quite sure gets the angst of Belmondo’s character.
The result is a fascinating movie in many ways, without really being a satisfying one. Melville made some great films in his day – but perhaps what drew him to this one was more the chance to go America, which he loved, again, rather than the story. There is a reason why 9 out of 13 of Melville’s films are available on Criterion DVD – and this isn’t one of them. I doubt it’s just a rights issue.

Movie Review: Bombshell

Directed by: Jay Roach.
Written by: Charles Randolph.
Starring: Charlize Theron (Megyn Kelly), Nicole Kidman (Gretchen Carlson), Margot Robbie (Kayla Pospisil), John Lithgow (Roger Ailes), Allison Janney (Susan Estrich), Malcolm McDowell (Rupert Murdoch), Kate McKinnon (Jess Carr), Connie Britton (Beth Ailes), Liv Hewson (Lily), Brigette Lundy-Paine (Julia Clarke), Rob Delaney (Gil Norman), Mark Duplass (Doug Brunt), Stephen Root (Neil Mullen), Robin Weigert (Nancy Smith), Amy Landecker (Dianne Brandi), Mark Moses (Bill Shine), Nazanin Boniadi (Rudi Bakhtiar), Ben Lawson (Lachlan Murdoch), Josh Lawson (James Murdoch), Alanna Ubach (Judge Jeanine Pirro), Andy Buckley (Gerson Zweifach), Brooke Smith (Irena Briganti), Bree Condon (Kimberly Guilfoyle), D’Arcy Carden (Rebekah), Kevin Dorff (Bill O’Reilly), Richard Kind (Rudy Giuliani), Michael Buie (Bret Baier), Marc Evan Jackson (Chris Wallace), Anna Ramsay (Greta Van Susteren), Jennifer Morrison (Juliet Huddy), Ashley Greene (Abby Huntsman), Ahna O’Reilly (Julie Roginsky), Lisa Canning (Harris Faulkner), Elisbeth Rohm (Martha MacCallum), Alice Eve (Ainsley Earhardt).
Hollywood is still not quite ready to grapple with the #MeToo movement on screen – so it makes sense that so far we’ve gotten two depictions of Roger Ailes’ downfall this year, and we haven’t seen a Harvey Weinstein film yet. First there was the TV show The Loudest Voice, where Russell Crowe’s Ailes was the main character, and had a wide ranging outlook – from him building Fox News, to his downfall. And now there is Bombshell, in which John Lithgow’s Ailes takes a backseat to three female characters – Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie as Kayla – a fictionalized amalgamation of many of the Fox staffers who suffered Ailes’ harassment over the years. The Fox News story is easier to deal with than #MeToo, because it predates it by a year or so, and because it gives liberal Hollywood a chance to poke at one of their most hated targets anyway. Bombshell is a tricky movie – it tries to walk the line between fun and weighty, and it doesn’t always get the balancing act right. Theron and Robbie – and to a lesser extent Kidman – essentially save the movie, while at the same time you realize the film doesn’t quite know how to handle them completely. They did, of course, bring down Ailes. They also contributed to the culture of Fox News, which led to Trump and a host of other sins – but the film just kind of nods that direction, before basically ignoring it.
The film was directed by Jay Roach – who is of course known for his comedies like the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies, but has also been doing some fine political movies for HBO in the past decade like Recount, about the 2000 Presidential election and the legal battle that ensued after, Game Change, about Sarah Palin’s rise to prominence in 2008 and All the Way, about Lyndon Johnson passing the Civil Rights Act. It was written by Charles Randolph – one half of the team who wrote The Big Short. One of the weaker aspects of the film is when the film tries to do Big Short type stuff – with Theron’s character addressing the camera and audience directly at times – a gimmick that it appears Roach realized didn’t work, and only does a couple of times near the beginning, and then abandons.
It’s at its best depicting the women. A lot has already been written about Theron’s physical transformation into Megyn Kelly – and while I’m not going to say one of the most famous actresses in the world in unrecognizable, the makeup work really does a great job at transforming her so that you immediately know who you are supposed to be watching. Theron also completely nails Kelly’s voice and intonation – and also really gets under Kelly’s tough exterior – showing us the principled woman – the only one at Fox who was willing to stand up to Trump, the only one still with a job and power who willing went against Ailes as well. The film would have been stronger had it dealt with some of the contradictions in Kelly a little bit more though – we get the “Santa is white kids” moment only in passing, we get only a brief conversation about how she lets Trump off the hook in an interview. There are contradictions and compromises Kelly made along the way – the type that doomed her when she left Fox – and the film doesn’t seem to really want to address them head-on. It would have been stronger had it done so. Still, it’s another great performance by Theron – who does carry the movie.
The three major supporting roles work as well. Kidman doesn’t quite have the role Theron does – but does what she can with Gretchen Carlson – who cheerfully went along with the sexism and misogyny on-air, while trying to do something about it off air. Once she leaves Fox though – and files the lawsuit that kicks everything off – she’s pretty much sidelined, with only some scenes where she wonders if anyone will support her. John Lithgow is wonderful as Ailes – even if it’s a one note role – and it also requires a physical transformation of him. Lithgow seemingly loves to be the slimy, manipulative Ailes – and he’s great at showing just what he does to get women to do what he wants, and the petty, childlike whining when he’s called on it. Robbie has a difficult role as Kayla – she has no real life person to draw from, and at first you wonder if she’s just going to be playing generic Fox blonde. But she shines in the film’s most uncomfortable sequences – the extended one-on-ones with Ailes where she grows increasingly uncomfortable, but keeps going anyway. And she’s wonderful when dealing with the fallout from that – and the effect it has on this formerly enthusiastic, smiling, ambitious young woman. The talented supporting cast also fills in their roles nicely – from those playing famous Fox personalities, to those playing generic staffers.
The tone of the film is all over the place, and I’m quite sure Roach ever really nails the tricky balancing act that he’s going for here. On one hand, he does want to make this an entertaining, Big Short style expose on Fox News – on the other, he knows how serious the subject matter is. Individual scenes all work fine – but the transitions can be whiplash inducing at times.
Still the film works mostly because the performances anchor it – even when the film itself doesn’t feel confident in what it’s doing, the performances do. Hollywood is still grappling with #MeToo – still figuring out how to tell these stories. Going after Fox News gives them a comfortable distance at which to do so. Sooner or later though, that comfortable distance will need to go away.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Movie Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Peanut Butter Falcon *** / *****
Directed by: Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz.
Written by: Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz.
Starring: Zack Gottsagen (Zak), Dakota Johnson (Eleanor), Bruce Dern (Carl), Shia LaBeouf (Tyler), Thomas Haden Church (Salt Water Redneck), Rob Thomas (Winkie), Jon Bernthal (Mark), Tim Zajaros (Orderly), John Hawkes (Duncan), Yelawolf (Ratboy), Deja Dee (Janice), Lee Spencer (Glen), Mark Helms (Trucker), Michael Berthold (Billy), Bruce Henderson (Convenience Store Clerk).
I avoided The Peanut Butter Falcon when it appeared in theatres this past summer – thinking that I knew precisely the film it would be, and not wanting to subject myself to a series of feel good clichés – about a character with Down Syndrome teaches the rest of the cast what is truly important about life, and inspiring us all in the audience to remember the same. To be fair, there is a lot of that in this film – the film doesn’t attempt to avoid clichés throughout. And yet, the film was charming and funny, and yes, a little inspiring. It isn’t all syrupy clichés, and heart string pulling. It works because the performances by Zack Gottsagen, a newcomer with Down Syndrome, and Shia LeBeouf, in the two leads of this buddy comedy, who together, makes the avoid some of the usual pitfalls of this kind of movie. It’s still clichéd – but they sell those clichés.
Gottsagen plays Zac, who has been stuck in a nursing home for two years – he has no family, and he cannot live by himself, and the state has nowhere else to put him – so he’s stuck with the old folks. All he wants is attend a wrestling school that he has seen on a VHS tape from the 1980s run by his favorite wrestler the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Along with his roommate (Bruce Dern, still doing his Bruce Dern thing) he engineers an escape. It isn’t long before he runs into Tyler (LeBeouf) – on the run himself from a very angry crab fisherman (John Hawkes) – who has good reason to be mad at Tyler. Tyler is on his way to Florida, and decides, because all evidence to the contrary, he’s not an irredeemably bad guy, that he cannot leave Zac by himself, so agrees to walk with him until he finds that wrestling school. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a young widow who works at the nursing home, is apparently the only one from there who is tasked to tracking Zac down – and you can guess where things go.
So this is a road movie, and a buddy movie, and in the climax, a wrestling movie where Zac gets to become the character that gives the movie its odd title. The movie knows what it is – and embraces it. Debut filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz don’t try to reinvent anything here – and they lean heavily on clichés. And yet, the package works. It works because Gottsagen refuses to be the clichéd character we normally see when people with Down Syndrome are in a movie. He is stubborn, he can be annoying. But he’s also smart and driven. He has a goal, and he’s going to accomplish that goal, come hell or high water. His journey is not a pre-packaged one designed to make the “normal” people in the movie – and the audience – feel better about themselves, or teach them anything. And it works because LeBeouf refuses to make Tyler a cliché as well. He is a dirt bag – when we first meet him, he commits several (likely) felonies. But like Tyler, he is alone – with no family to look out for him. Alongside his work in Honey Boy – which he also wrote, and plays his own father – LeBeouf is having a career year – showing that perhaps what he should be is a character actor more than anything else. In doing that, he can be great.
You do have to accept more than a few cloches along the way with The Peanut Butter Falcon. And other than Zac and Tyler, there is not a single character given anything approaching depth – they are all a series of archetypes, some more insulting than others, and some given more personality than others by the cast. But the central two in the cast work – and when that happens, the movie usually works as well, as it does here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Movie Review: The Apollo

The Apollo *** / *****
Directed by: Roger Ross Williams.
Written by: Cassidy Hartmann and Jean Tsien and Roger Ross Williams.
There is so much amazing footage in The Apollo that no matter what, it should be seen. Just to see some amazing performances by multiple generations of black performers – musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, etc. – all of whom made their way through the legendary Apollo theater since it opened its doors in 1934. There is so much great footage that you kind of wish the film had been turned into one of those massive Ken Burns style documentary series – 10 hours long, with multiple different episodes. The film feels choppy – jumping from one fascinating subject to another sometimes so quickly, that it starts to feel like little more than a surface level treatment of one of the most important cultural institutions in America. It wants to tell the story of its past, and its future. For a 98-minute feature, it does an admirable job. I just wanted more – more footage, more depth.
Watching the film, you get a sense of just what this theater has meant to that community. The film really does do an admirable job of spelling that out – telling stories about the original owners – both through the eyes of some of performers, and his son (who would become the owner). It details how much it meant to the audiences that showed up – who finally got to see people who looked like them on stage, and to the performers, who could be themselves. There is a marvelous, haunting rendition of Strange Fruit by Ella Fitzgerald – a brilliant song, that her label of course didn’t want her to record or perform, lest she offend people down South. At The Apollo though, she could do what she wanted. The film has many such great performances in it.
There are a lot of different segments in the film – and it certainly feels like it is segmented, sometimes one segment just stops, and another keeps going. I think I could watch an entire documentary about Amateur night at The Apollo – a tradition that a lot of performers started out, and just how merciless the audience could be. If you weren’t good, you’d get booed – we even see a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill getting booed on amateur night (they also include a later performance – where she is certainly not booed). The sequence on dance at The Apollo feels a little thin – I’m sure there’s a lot of material out there, but it kind of feels like Williams trots out Savion Glover to explain it, and then shoves out the door as he’s just getting warmed out. The same could be said for the comedy segment – in which Jamie Foxx plays the major role, explaining why comedians matter – but not getting much time to show why.
The film has a framing device – Williams showing that the Apollo is still relevant, but showing us the rehearsals and performances of a dramatic version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The film wants to pay respect to the past, but wants to ensure everyone watching know just how important The Apollo still is - and hopefully will remain for years to come.
I do wish that The Apollo was deeper – it basically skims along the surface for its entire runtime, and while what we see is great, there is no doubt that we could have had an even better film. The Apollo is certainly capable of sustaining the deep dive treatment – and hopefully, it will get that someday.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker *** ½ / *****
Directed by: J.J. Abrams.
Written by: Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams and Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow based on characters created by George Lucas.
Starring: Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), John Boyega (Finn), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Keri Russell (Zorii Bliss), Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Lupita Nyong'o (Maz Kanata), Billie Lourd (Lieutenant Connix), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Richard E. Grant (Allegiant General Pryde), Greg Grunberg (Snap Wexley).
The Rise of Skywalker is the final chapter in what is the oddest of the three Star Wars trilogies to date. Odd because in this era of the MCU, where Marvel plans everything multiple movies ahead, it almost feels like with this series, there was no plan film-to-film. The Force Awakens was a pure nostalgia delivery system – basically a remake of A New Hope, with different characters stepping into the roles, and different family backstories and mysteries, etc. – but a movie designed to give fans of the original trilogy precisely what they wanted, after the disappointing prequel trilogy. When Rian Johnson took over for The Last Jedi – the best Star Wars movies since The Empire Strikes Back (no, I don’t want to hear why it sucked from you – I’ve heard it, you’re wrong, and I don’t care), he tried to drag the series, kicking and screaming, into a new era – an era in which you leave the past behind, and move into the future. He seemed to discard many of the mysteries JJ Abrams set up in The Force Awakens – and more than that, tried to tell you that they didn’t matter. It was a risky gambit – a bet that after giving fans precisely what they wanted with The Force Awakens, now he would give the series precisely what it needed – a way forward into a new world. And then JJ Abrams took it back over for The Rise of Skywalker, and essentially decided to undo it all.
Personally, I liked where Johnson was going with this series – away from all the family legacy stuff, where you were defined by who your parents were. He seemed to set Rey (Daisy Ridley) up to be a new kind of hero – something he continued right to the last shot of the movie, with some random kids using the force. Johnson clearly decided not to make your parents Star Wars. Abrams on the other hand, seems to want to do just that. In retrospect, perhaps the smarter play would have been to just let Abrams do all three films. At the very least, it would have meant he wouldn’t have had to spend so much time in the first half of Rise of Skywalker seemingly trying to undo what Johnson did. And perhaps with a different second chapter, the big reveal of Rey’s true lineage in this film wouldn’t have felt like such a betrayal to who she is (or, who we thought she was) and it would have made more sense – not to mention the why Last Jedi’s most divisive character, Rose, is just insultingly tossed aside in this film. We still would have gotten the biggest groaner of this film (“He must have been on a different transport”) – but maybe it wouldn’t stick out quite so much if it was the only clunker in the film.
On the whole though, I have to say I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It isn’t The Last Jedi style ambitious, not quite the nostalgia delivery system of The Force Awakens – but much of it is fun. There are battles galore in the film – that is basically a long chase sequence after a MacGuffin, before the film tosses that aside when it’s no longer needed, but by then, the endgame has been set up. And, as in the past, it plays out on two fronts – Rey and Kylo Ren with light sabers (and whatever else I didn’t like about the way they concluded this story, I did like who their story ended) and big space battle playing out as well. You add in more top notch special effects, John Williams music and moments specifically designed to make you mist up, that still work anyway, and you have an entertaining Star Wars movie. In terms of acting, I’ll single out Daisy Ridley, who does all she can with the material, and is usually very good, and especially Adam Driver – who shows just why he may be the best working actor right now, as no matter what they throw at Kylo Ren, he more than sells it.
The problem with Star Wars at this point is more one of expectation than reality. We really should get used to the idea that a new Star Wars movie isn’t necessarily a massive event as it once was, and we need to hang every expectation on every one. Before 2015, there had been six Star Wars movies – and they’ve now made five more in that time – one every year. It’s just another cinematic universe at this point. If they’re going to continue, fans are going to have to become more flexible – allowing more than one vision in this universe. Otherwise, what precisely is the point of continuing to make these film – other than as a branding and merchandising opportunity for Disney.

Movie Review: Aquarela

Aquarela ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Victor Kosakovskiy.
Written by: Victor Kosakovskiy and Aimara Reques.
Aquarela is a movie that I have to admit that I probably would have liked a lot more had I seen it on the big screen. The film is a documentary about the sheer power of water on earth in all of its forms. There is virtually no dialogue, no voiceover, and very few humans ever on screen. It is an amazing looking film that simply watches giant waves, glaciers, ice and its sheer power. It is meant to be a contemplative film – a film that forces you to consider the importance of water for the earth and its ecosystem. Watching the film on a massive screen, with great sound it probably would have had that impact on me. Watching it on a smaller screen, with more distractions readily available, it is hard to have that same impact.
On a technical level, it really is impossible to find a critique of Aquarela. The film looks amazing – quite simply it gives you a view of water and ice that you have never seen before. Because much of the film doesn’t have music, it also lets you simply hear the moving ice and water. The film occasionally has humans on screen as well – not because they are telling a story with them, but more for scale. The closest thing you get to a human story is in the opening 20 minutes – which is about people who are hauling up cars that have been trapped under the ice – and certainly does show the tragic power of it all. Occasionally, the film does use music – rock music normally – over the massive waves that you see from a point of view you’ve never seen before.
A film like Aquarela depends on immersion to really work – you need to be enveloped in it, unable to look away, unable to concentrate on anything else. In the theater, I really do think Aquarela would have been something to see. Unfortunately, I missed it there. And so, watching it all at home, you can intellectually know what is being done, you can admire the sheer technical brilliance of what you are seeing. And yet, it doesn’t envelope you the way it should, doesn’t immerse you.
In short, I think the chance to fully experience Aquarela is already gone now that its out of theaters, and on home video. It’s a film I admire, but didn’t actually enjoy that much.

Where's My Roy Cohn?

Where’s My Roy Cohn? *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matt Tyrnauer.
Roy Cohn was a malignant force in America for decades. He made a name a for himself while he was still in his early 20s – as the prosecutor of the Rosenbergs for being spies, and used that to become Joseph McCarthy’s right hand man in his communist witch hunt. When that ended, he moved back to New York and entered private practice, where he was the fiercest, most corrupt lawyer around. He would do anything to win, was indicted multiple times, and was finally disbarred late in his life. He would represent any and every one. He plays the press to get the stories he wanted out there. Although a registered Democrat, he worked with the Republican party, helping to get all sorts of people elected. He counts among his protégés Donald Trump and Roger Stone (only the later sits for this doc). He was Jewish and gay, and hated both of those aspects about himself. He would die of AIDS in the later 1980s, insisting the whole time that it wasn’t AIDS, and he wasn’t gay.
Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn (a Trump quote – as he wants someone like his old mentor fighting in his corner) is certainly not the flashiest of docs. It’s fairly dry – a lot of talking heads, and old archival footage, and has no new information about him in it – so if you already know, and revile him, you won’t learn anything new. And if you wanted to get to know the person he really was, you’d probably be better off watching Angels in America – Tony Kushner’s masterpiece of a play (that became an excellent HBO miniseries – Al Pacino plays Cohn in that one) in which Cohn is a main character. The Roy Cohn in that can say things that the real Cohn never would in public.
And yet, I think the documentary does a good job of giving a brief overview of Cohn – and just what made him such wretched force in American life – one whose impact is still felt today. Obviously Tyrnauer knows this – even before he introduces Trump in the documentary, he plays up the ways that Trump’s playbook mirrors what Cohn did – use the press, because they’ll quote you in the headline, and no one reads beyond that, claim victory even when you’ve lost and on and on and on. You can see just what Trump learned from him.
There is a difference though – Cohn was incredibly smart and well-spoken. He hated many aspects of himself, and had some issues with his mother he never resolved, but he was in many ways an evil genius. When you watch the film, and the things he did just keep piling up, you almost have to admire him – for just how horrible and underhanded he was. This isn’t even really a controversial opinion – many of Cohn’s cousins are in the film – and they loved him, even if they disagreed with them, but know exactly who he was. Even Roger Stone seems not to counter the premise that Cohn was an evil genius – he admires him all the more for it.
Cohn is probably alone in the fact that he helped shape American life from the 1950s right up until today – from McCarthy to Trump, and much in between, Cohn’s legacy has been felt even though he’s been dead for decades. This film gives you an insight into why – it has a lot of great footage of Cohn himself, spinning right until the end. The film does, to a certain extent humanize Cohn – in particular when they talk about his closeted homosexuality (almost everyone was in the closet in Cohn’s generation) – including the McCarthy Army hearings – which essentially ended McCarthy’s career, and Cohn’s as his right hand man. The people who attacked back were right – of course – but also said such horrifically homophobic things about Cohn (coded, of course, as they would have been) that you understand why Cohn stayed in that closet. That doesn’t excuse his behavior of course – but it does make Cohn into a human being, rather than a monster. And there is value in that.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Doulos (1962)

Le Doulos (1962) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Pierre Lesou.
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Silien), Serge Reggiani (Maurice Faugel), Jean Desailly (Le commissaire Clain), René Lefèvre (Gilbert Varnove), Marcel Cuvelier (Un inspecteur), Philippe March (Jean), Fabienne Dali (Fabienne), Monique Hennessy (Thérèse), Carl Studer (Kern), Christian Lude (Le docteur), Jacques De Leon (Armand), Paulette Breil (Anita), Philippe Nahon (Remy), Daniel Crohem (L'nspecteur Salignari), Michel Piccoli (Nuttheccio).
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos is one of those crime thrillers so full of double crosses and misdirection’s that even if you had the whole thing mapped out, I’m still not sure it would make all that much sense. That is part of the point in this film about “no honor among thieves” as the film takes great pleasure in deliberately misdirecting the audience in its story where it’s impossible to know who to trust and how to root for – and you just sign up to go along for the ride. It may not be as deep about morality as some of Melville’s later gangster pictures would become – but it’s perhaps even more entertaining.
We are informed from the start the a Doulos is a type of hat worn by police informants – and the film deliberately tries to keep you guess as to which of its characters is really the so-called finger man in question. Melville delights in shooting men with similar builds, wearing similar clothes and hats from behind, all to make things even murkier. When the film opens, we are following Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) who has just been released from serving our years in prison. The long, brilliant opening scene sees Maurice go see an “old friend” about getting a “job”, some money and perhaps a gun. But in what will become part of the storytelling of Le Doulos, the scene ends with Maurice doing something that at first seems explainable – but later, in a dialogue heavy scene, will make sense in retrospect. Melville does this repeatedly throughout the film – providing the reasons for things after the action.
At times in the film, the focus will shift to Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) – an old friend, and crime partner of Maurice’s, who is perhaps looking to get out of the game before he ends up in jail or dead. The film, of course, wants us to believe that Silien is the finger man – and truly, we see a lot that directly points at him. But is the film playing straight with us – or is it doing more of that misdirection? Or is Melville three moves ahead, and knows that by making Silien look guilty, we’ll assume he’s innocent, when really he’s guilty?
The movie will introduce a lot more characters – on both sides of the law – and none of them seem all that trustworthy. Motives are often murky – and there are long dialogue scenes between various characters where they both tell the truth and lie at the same time – so untangling fact and fiction becomes impossible. Melville delights in these long dialogue scenes – and keeping us on edge.
Of course, Melville was a master storyteller, and a master stylist – and he’s in top form through Le Doulos. The film moves quickly and smoothly – moving from one great sequence to the next, but always taking its time getting there. Quentin Tarantino has said the film was an influence on Reservoir Dogs – and you can see that in its story where criminals don’t know who to trust, and everyone is a rat. But you can see a greater influence perhaps in the way Melville takes his time in those dialogue scenes – that can on minute after minute, when most movies would simply want to get what is narratively needed out of a scene and move on. You learn a lot about these characters, even when they are lying to everyone. You can also see the films influence on things the Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movie, or perhaps The Usual Suspects, with Belmondo’s long monologue at the end of the film, which untangles the web that has been weaved throughout the rest of the film (or perhaps just tangles it in a different way).
And it’s also just a delight to see these actors work. Belmondo is in his more classic mode here as the slick taking conman than he was in Leon Morin, Priest. Michel Piccoli is a delight in a smaller role as a gangster who has a great final scene. Everyone else is working at the top of their game as well. I suppose one could call the film misogynistic if they wanted to – the film certainly doesn’t treat its female characters very well – but then again, everyone in the movie is horrible in one way or another. It’s the type of film you simply strap in for an enjoy the ride – enjoy being conned and lied to, and trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not. I bet that’s true even the second, third – or tenth – time you watch this film.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Leon Morin, Priest (1961)

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Béatrice Beck.
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Léon Morin), Emmanuelle Riva (Barny), Irène Tunc (Christine Sangredin), Nicole Mirel (Sabine Levy), Gisèle Grimm (Lucienne), Marco Behar (Edelman), Monique Bertho (Marion), Marc Eyraud (Anton), Monique Hennessy (Arlette), Edith Loria (Danielle Holdenberg).
Leon Morin, Priest is an odd film for the three principals who made it. For director Jean-Pierre Melville, it is a film set during the German occupation of France – which he explored in his first film, Le Silence de la Mar (1949) and would later explore in his masterpiece Army of Shadows (1969) – but it’s only partly about that. For Jean-Paul Belmondo, who plays the title character, it is one of the films he followed up Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless with – that film made him a star and a sex symbol. The real main character though is Barny, played by Emmanuelle Riva, also on the heels of a film that made her a star – Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Yet, when you hear that Melville is making a film about the time of German occupation, you envision a thriller of some sort a film about the resistance. And yet, Leon Morin, Priest is really more of a religious conversation – taking place mainly in a room, where these two characters talk about religion. There is an undercurrent of sexual attraction between the two of them, unspoken mostly, but it’s certainly something both characters realize. He enjoys these sexual and theological games the two of them play – she’s not the only young woman who visits him in his room, although their relationship is different. The only thing that really makes him upset is that if you explicitly reference the sexual tension in the room.
The two of them meet when she storms into confessional one day, not to confess her sins, but to tell the priest that religion is the opiate of the masses. She is a communist and an atheist, a widow with a half Jewish daughter on the father’s side, who has relocated to this small town in the French Alps when the correspondence school she works at relocated there from Paris, when the occupation started. At first, it’s the Italians who are the occupying force, with silly hats with feathers in them. Things get more serious when the Germans arrive, and the Jews start being rounded up. With a couple of other women, she conspires to have their children baptized to try and protect them – and eventually, she will send her daughter away to live with a couple of old women on a farm, to get her out of the way. Perhaps she simply storms into that confessional to confront the priest because she’s bored and frustrated – spoiling for a fight, but unsure of who she can argue with.
For his part, Morin the priest doesn’t rise to the bait. He acknowledges that religion is used by some as an opiate, and responds equally mildly to her other accusations about the church’s obsession with material wealth –all the things churches have in them, and how they respond to wealthy people, while still defending the church – and more importantly, faith – itself. He’ll give her books to read, and then they come back together to discuss them – and everything else. The pair of them are clearly attracted to each other – they flirt in a strange way. We are privy to her thoughts – but not his. She obsessed over some slight movements on his part – the way he “accidentally” allows his cassock to brush against her during mass one day for instance.
With him, she allows herself to say what she could not to others. She is clearly a sexual being – with an attraction to another woman in the office, and perhaps women in general. He isn’t shocked by this. We see him with a few of the other young women who come into his office – one who is determined to sleep with him. He shuts that down very quickly, almost rudely. As long as these conversations remain the abstract – he seems to enjoy the underlining sexual tension in them. We don’t see him talk to any men for example – although to be fair, we don’t see many men anyway (when we do, at the tail end of the baptism sequence, they leave the church to go back to the woods, back to the resistance).
Leon Morin, Priest is a film about a lot of things. Yes, it’s about religion. The religious conversations that Leon and Barny are real. She comes to him with her doubts, and he doesn’t dismiss them – but he does have an argument for all of them, that is rooted in Catholicism. It is about politics and the occupation as well. It’s interesting that she clearly hates the Nazis, and yet doesn’t join the resistance herself, or even distance herself from her friend, who looks far more kindly on the Nazis, and far less charitably on the Jews. The politics and religion are linked – because as an atheist, she thinks separating people on the basis of religion is silly. Her daughter, who could be carted away, isn’t even really a Jew – and baptizing her didn’t really make her Catholic either. And it is about sex. Perhaps she keeps going to him for no other reason than that there are no eligible men around – they’re fighting, somewhere, or in the forest – and if she is a lesbian, or at least bi-sexual, that’s not the type of thing you can be open about. And Morin clearly relishes his role – he likes to get the women turned on, in a way, and then leave them wanting – he enjoys teasing them, then admonishing them if they read the “wrong” thing into it
Through it all, Leon Morin remains kind of an enigma. You get the sense that he is enjoying the sexual tension with these various women – but he very clearly has a line that he draws as well. He is a good priest – a progressive priest for his time who likes to live in the world of ideas. By the end, when he’s being transferred out to the countryside, he kind of adopts the posture of a willful martyr – he knows no one where he’s going will care about his books, that before he can talk about the things that really matter, he’ll also have to talk about livestock – but he will convert the world, one village at a time. But who is he really? What will he become? It is fitting that the film is called Leon Morin, Priest even if Barny is clearly the central character in the film. She is a complex character – rather daringly so for 1961 – and yet, he’s the one everyone is obsessed with.
It’s an odd film for Melville. It’s film with no real action in it, and done in a slightly different style than most of his work. It’s a calmer film – a stiller film (if that’s a term) in that it’s more a collection of moments and scenes, rather than a fluid story, which he so excels at. It is, of course, a film about moral complexity – that doesn’t see anyone either as good or bad, anything as right or wrong – but rather everyone as a mess of contradictions. It was Melville’s attempt at mainstream success – and it worked, perhaps largely because he was able to get Belmondo and Riva in the leads, and knows that at many in the audience are there to see how hot Belmondo is, even dressed as a priest. It’s perhaps a little too long (the version I saw, on the Criterion Channel runs 128 minutes, not the 117 minutes it lists on IMBD) – and eventually, you do tire a little or Morin’s games – Barny deserves more than this. But for this time, and place – Morin is the best she can do. There is a quality in her voiceover narration of someone looking back at her past – and perhaps being a little angry with herself for falling for it, while also maintaining a certain nostalgic longing for Morin. Their relationship is still complex, even viewed in the rearview mirror.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Movie Review: The Two Popes

The Two Popes *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles.
Written by: Anthony McCarten.
Starring: Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis), Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict), Juan Minujín (Pope Francis Young), Sidney Cole (Cardinal Turkson), Federico Torre (Medina Estevez), Pablo Trimarchi (Militar), Juan Miguel Arias (Paolo Gabriele), Lisandro Fiks (Father Jalics), María Ucedo (Esther Ballestrine).
I am not Catholic, but my wife is, and I remember how upset she got when she found out that Pope Benedict was resigning from being Pope. She didn’t particularly like Benedict – she is a progressive Catholic is most ways, but believes, much like the character of Pope Francis does in The Two Popes, that Popes cannot and should not resign. Having two Popes – even if one isn’t technically Pope anymore – was something that made her very upset.
The Two Popes is about that very idea. It takes place the year before Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) resigns when he invites the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) to the Vatican. Francis thinks it is because he has asked to retire – but it’s not that. Benedict knows that the future Francis got a number of votes when Benedict was elected – and could well become Pope when he resigns. The two disagree on pretty much everything – but Benedict, in his wisdom, thinks that perhaps it is he who is wrong – or at least, out of touch. He wants to get to know the man who may take over for him.
What follows is basically a two hander for two terrific veteran actors at the top of their game. You can complain – and perhaps justly – that they cast two Welsh actors to play an Argentinan and a German, but you cannot argue with their performances. Hopkins has often been on cruise control over the past 20 years or so, but there’s little denying that when he wants to be, and is given the chance, he can still deliver a great performance. His Pope Benedict is a stubborn man in many ways – and out of touch. He knows nothing except for the Church and its teachings. He has been so inside its politics for so long that he has lost touch with everything else – which has led to some of the worst things the Catholic Church has ever done in its long, not so great history. He is also a very smart man – someone well taught, and well-spoken. He always wanted to be Pope, but now that he is, he is more isolated than ever. He can see that the Church needs to change, but also that he will never be able to make those changes himself.
Pryce is given the more plum role of the future Pope Francis – a man of principle, a man of the people who has spent so much time with the poor, that he is better able to see precisely what it is that they need. He is horrified by the child molestation scandal, how the church treats the poor from their own opulent houses of worship, and how the church refuses to modernize. He is also ashamed of his own past – which he will eventually tell Pope Benedict is a moving sequence – the mistakes of a young priest, that still haunt him decades later. You will undeniably favor Pope Francis – as the movie does – but come to respect both men.
The film gives these two greats actors a chance to play off each other. It was based on a play by Anthony McCarten – who also wrote the screenplay, but I don’t think the play was ever produced. It feels like a stage piece in many ways – the director, Fernando Meirelles, doesn’t do much except let the pair of actors go, and dive into their lines with all they have. It is enough to make the film very entertaining – even all if it is all talk, for more than two hours.
And yet, for me, the film pulls its punches a little too much. We all know the role Pope Benedict plays in covering up the clergy molestation scandal that has rocked – and continues to rock – the church. The film briefly mentions it near the beginning of their first meeting, but Pope Benedict shuts it down just as quickly. Late in the film, Benedict will ask the future Pope Francis to hear his confession – and we hear enough to know what it will be about, but then the sound cuts out, and we do not hear the rest. Leaving this mostly unsaid – simply alluded to – allows you to still like and respect both men – and yet also, it feels like perhaps the most important thing is left unsaid in the film. The film feels incomplete unless they are going to address the elephant in the room – and it feels like the film does just enough so that you cannot complain they didn’t address it at all, and then immediately cuts it off.
That’s a shame really – because it really does feel like Pryce and Hopkins are going on all cylinders here, digging into their juicy roles, and giving it there all. Hopkins is of course one of the most celebrated actors of his generation - an Oscar winner, and multiple nominee, beloved by many. Pryce has always felt to too overlooked – you look back at his career, and it’s full of great work, and yet he has never even been nominated for an Oscar, let alone won one. He’s always great – and he is certainly equal to the task of going toe-to-toe with Hopkins.
If the movie were as good as the two actor in it, then this would one of the great films of the year. It isn’t – and it’s because it pulls back, when it needs to push forward. It’s too bad – the church needs this type of dialogue, and needs it at the highest levels, and out in the open. Even if it’s in a work of fiction like this.

Movie Review: Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell **** / *****
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Billy Ray based on the magazine article by Marie Brenner.
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell), Sam Rockwell (Watson Bryant), Olivia Wilde (Kathy Scruggs), Jon Hamm (Tom Shaw), Kathy Bates (Bobi Jewell), Nina Arianda (Nadya), Ian Gomez (Agent Dan Bennet), Niko Nicotera (Dave Dutchess), Mike Pniewski (Brandon Hamm), Dylan Kussman (Bruce Hughes), David Shae (Ron Martz), Charles Green (Dr. W. Ray Cleere), Billy Slaughter (Tim Barker), Alex Collins (Max Green), Dani Deetté (APD Officer Kacie Boebel), Matthew Atchley (FBI Agent Doug Wall), Olaolu Winfunke (Eli Gradestone).
It is a shame that almost all the talk around Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell film has centered around one character – Kathy Scruggs – and not just that one character, but one scene involving that character. Scruggs was a real reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution – the newspaper that rushed to publish that Jewell was the suspect in the Centennial Park Bombing during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, which kicked off a process that nearly destroyed his life, despite the fact that he was completely innocent. The FBI and the Media had Jewell in their crosshairs, and wouldn’t let him out – a tragedy considering that Jewell’s action saved lives that night, and whatever else you can say about him, that wasn’t right. The scene in question involves how Scruggs got Jewell’s name in the first place – in the film, it is outright stated that she sleeps with the FBI Agent in Charge, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) – a fictional amalgamation of a character – to get the information. In reality, we don’t know what Scruggs sources were, or how she got the information – like any good reporter, she wouldn’t reveal them, but there is absolutely no evidence, and before the movie no speculation, then Scruggs slept with anyone to get the information. The fact that Eastwood’ film depicts it as such is a slap in the face to Scruggs – who died years ago – and is a continuation of a harmful, and inaccurate, stereotype about female reporters sleeping with sources to get information. It shouldn’t have happened. And not only that, it was wholly, completely unnecessary. There is more than enough real, factual information about the sins of the FBI and the Media involved to paint them as the bad actors they were in this case, without adding this unnecessary smear. Olivia Wilde’s wild eyed performance as Scruggs throughout the film doesn’t help much either. It’s a black mark on the film – and on what had been a great year for Wilde, with her terrific performance in A Vigilante and her directorial debut Booksmart.
It's a shame because of all of that, but it’s also a shame because so much of the rest of Richard Jewell is a stellar movie – one of Eastwood’s best late period films. You can question the politics of it all – why Eastwood has decided to tell this story, where the media and the FBI are the bad guys, in an era where Donald Trump seems to believe that to be true, but Jewell’s case is a real one – and is about the dangers of jumping to conclusions when there are no facts. Of course Richard Jewell, the man who found the bomb needed to be investigated. But they didn’t need to drag him through the mud while doing so. And they did it because he was fat, seemed kind of slow, and lived with his mother. Because he had had a failed law enforcement career, and delusions of grandeur about his power and what he could do. The film is about Jewell’s slow dawning realization that no matter how much he loves these institutions; they will never love him back.
Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser, the standout supporting actor from I, Tonya a few years ago (who was also quite good in BlackKklansman last year). It is perfect casting, and Hauser makes the most of his first lead role in a film. He plays Jewell as a man who really does believe in law and order – believes in the police, in law enforcement, and enforcing the law as written. When he was a college rent-a-cop, he went too far in enforcing the rules, and got fired. It wasn’t the first time he got let go from a police job because he was overly enthusiastic. He is, in short, the kind of guy you don’t want to be a police officer. This is how he ends up working security during the Olympics – which is where he finds the bomb. The opening sequence, with the sequence of events leading up to the explosion is masterfully directed by Eastwood – slowly building the tension to what we know, but the people in the crowd do not know, is coming. All the acts of domestic terrorism (mass shootings included) in the decades since then has just made the sequence all the more terrifying.
From the time Jewell becomes a suspect, he doesn’t seem to fully understand what is happening to him. Luckily, he hires a lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, excellent in ways that aren’t immediately obvious) who protects him as much as he can. The problem is that Jewell is a believer in these institutions and wants to help them. But while Jewell has an inflated sense of his own importance – and seems somewhat delusional – he isn’t stupid. He is angry, but he doesn’t want to show it. His mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates) doesn’t understand what is happening – and her life is being ruined as well, despite how supportive she is. Meanwhile, the FBI and the Media keeps acting as if Jewell is guilty, and they have him dead to rights – despite some very obvious facts that don’t add up, and no evidence of any kind.
Basically, everything that doesn’t involved Kathy Scruggs is top notch Clint Eastwood. His ideas of heroism, of good and evil, have always been more complex than he is given credit for. The film doesn’t quite hit the heights of his best late period film – American Sniper (a prime example of a film that is more complex than many people, on both sides, think it is). It is another complex, moral look at heroism in America – the limits of our institutions, and the danger of believing in them too much. When Donald Trump says Fake News, he is undermining everything that it means to be American – but sometimes, there is fake news, and it isn’t going to go away without looking at it.