‘Richard Jewell’ Fits the Profile of a Classic Clint Eastwood Biopic

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CREDIT: Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez

Director: Clint Eastwood

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Language (Including Innuendo) and a Bloody Crime Scene

Release Date: December 13, 2019

The real life stories that Clint Eastwood chooses for his films make me think he wants to say something grand about society at large. But then he tells them in such a way that makes it clear that he is just talking about this one particular story, especially in the case of Richard Jewell. (That statement comes with the caveat that there are several moments that viewers can extrapolate to draw their own broader conclusions.) During the 1996 Summer Olympics, the title fellow discovered a backpack packed with a bomb while working security at a concert at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. After alerting authorities and helping spectators clear the area, he was initially hailed as a hero in the media. But then the FBI leaked information to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicating that Jewell was considered a suspect, leading to him being constantly hounded by an invasive investigation and a phalanx of relentless reporters outside his home.

Jewell fits the profile of a particular type of lone bomber terrorist: white, male, former military or law enforcement, or wannabe law enforcement, and presumably with a hero complex fantasy wherein he plants a deadly weapon so that he can save people by “discovering” it. Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell with a confidence and sureness of himself that keeps underlining how much he fits that profile. He has a cache of hunting weapons, a hollowed-out grenade from a military surplus store that he uses as a paperweight, and a deep knowledge of terrorism and anti-terrorism techniques that he is perfectly happy to regale his friends and family with. He’s a bit naive, but not so naive that he doesn’t recognize when public opinion has wildly swung against him. He may not be the culprit, but that by no means absolves all people like him. The message of this one movie is that in this one case, this one guy who fits the profile isn’t guilty.

So when considered as just one particular story that doesn’t deign to have broader implications, Richard Jewell is a riveting tale of someone who was forced to stand up for himself in a way he never thought he would need to. The most crucial scene happens when his lawyer (a nimble and righteously angry Sam Rockwell) exhorts him to stop being so meek and get upset. Hauser lets down his armor and reveals that he could hardly be any angrier, but that doesn’t mean he can change who he fundamentally is as a person. And that is someone who has always believed in the virtue of respecting authority and is now coming to grips with how that authority can be weaponized against the wrong person. Richard Jewell is just one guy, and this one big thing just happened to happen to him. Somehow he survived, and Clint Eastwood was happy to let us know how.

Richard Jewell is Recommended If You Like: The Mule, Classic Olympics highlights, Vintage news clips

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Suspicious Backpacks

‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is Worth It Mostly for the Actor-Persona Swapping

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Starring: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Marin Hinkle

Director: Jake Kadan

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense CGI Animal Attacks

Release Date: December 13, 2019

Let’s be real: the biggest joy of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t the game itself, but how it was played. I’m talking about the actors who played the video game avatars and how the conceit demanded that they depart so far from their typical personas. Dwayne Johnson had to act like a scrawny kid with allergies, Kevin Hart got to wonder why he wasn’t a foot taller, Karen Gillan was allowed to question the wisdom of midriff-baring in action scenarios, and Jack Black fulfilled his destiny by getting to play a superficial teenage girl. So if The Next Level, the third movie in this series (although let’s be real: this feels like the second movie, since the actual first movie is so far removed from these latter two, though I’ll do my best to call it the third. Also, side note: there’s a cameo of someone from the original film, but I didn’t even remember that she was in the original, so take from that what you will) wants to succeed, it ought to double down on that performance-with-a-performance framework, right? Definitely, although there’s also a hullabaloo about a plot and some frenetic action set pieces.

The Next Level, naturally enough, is about the next level in the video game, so it’s a little harder now for the gamers to successfully complete their mission of saving Jumanji. For us, that means a lot of the film is like watching someone else playing a video game, which can be enjoyable, but it usually doesn’t deliver the transcendence that cinema is designed to achieve. Maybe some viewers will really dig all this flying through the air and slamming into the scenery, but for me, it feels like an exhausting visual onslaught. Although, I must admit that the CGI-rendered ostriches and mandrills do look genuinely scary.

But back to the main attraction, as it behooves me to mention that Dannys DeVito and Glover have joined the Jumanji gang, and they have major parts, even when we don’t get to see their familiar faces. Glover plays Milo, former business partner to DeVito’s Eddie, grandfather to Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose lingering insecurity about life in general has led him to venture back into the game. His friends follow behind to rescue him, but since everything is a little haywire, Milo and Eddie are dragged in as well, and nobody gets to choose their avatars, though they also get some opportunities to switch around who’s playing whom. In Welcome to the Jungle, the young actors were not too well-known, so the actors playing the video game characters were playing types more than they were doing impressions. But now with the presence of some more familiar names, the routine gets to lean more toward impressions, which Hart, Johnson, and newcomer Awkwafina take full advantage of. Honestly, in this day and age of strife and division, the world would be a lot better if we all spent some time pretending to be Danny DeVito. So, in that sense, The Next Level is a net good.

Jumanji: The Next Level is Recommended If You Like: Watching other people play video games, Danny DeVito impressions, Danny Glover impressions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Life Bars

The Fascinatingly Conflicted ‘Bombshell’ Documents the Downfall of Roger Ailes

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CREDIT: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP

Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Rob Delaney, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Liv Hewson, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell

Director: Jay Roach

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Powerful Men Behaving Badly

Release Date: December 13, 2019 (Limited)/Expands December 20, 2019

Most of the audience who will see Bombshell are probably not regular Fox News viewers. Although I don’t want to assume anything too definitively. Maybe there are actually some people who have the mental capacity to watch both a notoriously conservative news network and a movie that is fundamentally critical about it. Bombshell makes a similar argument against rushing to judgment when being critical seems like the most obvious correct approach to take, especially in one key scene when a woman confronts Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) in a grocery store, and Carlson shoots back about the virtue of treating with respect the people you disagree with. That could easily be a shallow bromide, but when you consider what Carlson is going through, it has unexpected resonance.

What Carlson is going through is a fight against the systematic misogyny at Fox News, a workplace whose initiation for its female employees apparently includes a signature piece of harassment from founder Roger Ailes (a gluttonously made-up John Lithgow). After Carlson is let go from the network in 2016, she files a lawsuit alleging harassment against Ailes, prompting the other women at Fox News to consider if they will support her. Many of them are reflexively Team Roger, but a few of them actually have a crisis of conscience, especially Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and a fictional character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).

The filmmaking trick here is generating empathy, which is generally pretty easy to do for people who have clearly been harassed and abused. But matters are complicated by the fact that these women so resolutely insist that they’re not feminists as they come to terms with speaking out against the misogyny they’ve endured. I certainly believe it is possible to extend humanity to someone you deeply disagree with, but the struggle is even deeper than that. Even if these women leave and renounce their employer, they can’t ever escape the mark of having once worked at Fox News, so far removed is the network from the rest of the media landscape. It’s a sort of original sin that traps them in an infinite labyrinth. For a film that could have so easily been straightforward in many ways, I appreciate the complexity at its heart.

Bombshell is Recommended If You Like: Feeling disgusted and empathetic at the same time

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lawsuits

Bring the Extinguishers When You See ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

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CREDIT: Lilies Film

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Director: Céline Sciamma

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for The Nudity That Emerges When Two Young Women Discover Their Passion for Each Other

Release Date: December 6, 2019 (Limited)/Expands February 14, 2020

When I saw the title Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I had a feeling this was going to be a passionate love story. That sense was certainly bolstered by a poster that showed exactly what was being advertised, as the embers whipped at the bottom of Adèle Haenel’s luscious green dress. Then as I finally began to watch the actual movie, I was introduced to the painting entitled “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” To which I thought, “Oh, is this the literal story behind the creation of the portrait?” And indeed it is, but that doesn’t mean the metaphorical meaning doesn’t also apply, and oh my, this movie is so very ravishingly inflammatory.

Héloïse (Haenel) is the titular lady on fire, but honestly, a more accurate title would have mentioned the second lady who is equally engulfed by a burning desire: Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the woman who has been commissioned to paint Héloïse. Taking place in the eighteenth century, this film is almost a two-hander, with Haenel and Merlant sharing the vast bulk of the screen time and just a couple other characters popping in occasionally. The settings are equally tight, as most of the running time takes place in a few locations that are not very far from each other on a remote island: the painting room, the bedroom, and the beach. These circumstances of close quarters make it feel almost inevitable that Héloïse and Marianne will develop a deep passion for each other. They also warp any sense of temporality. You might find yourself wondering how much time passes while they’re together. Days? Months? Hours? Weeks? Or maybe even decades, and they only appear to remain the same age because they are slipping through various dimensions.

Writer-director Céline Sciamma references and draws heavily upon the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story of two lovers separated by death and fleetingly working their way back to each other through the whims of the underworld. Héloïse and Marianne are fully aware of the impernance of their entanglement, but they still enter into with the entirety of their souls. They take an almost Buddhist approach to their situation, existing both fully within and outside of time. It’s a fitting achievement for a film taking place within a painted portrait.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Recommended If You Like: Persona, Cold War, Carol, Orpheus and Eurydice

Grade: 4 out of 5 Sitting Sessions

Ford v Ferrari = Friendship!

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

I’m not sure what the message of Ford v Ferrari is, and I’m not sure if that’s a mostly good or mostly bad thing. (We could be doing a lot worse in this world!) Is it about how you can’t ever stop American individualism from being as individual as possible? Or is it about how the United States won’t ever stay an underdog for long, even in pursuits usually dominated by the Europeans? If it’s either of those, then why is the main character an Englishman? Maybe it’s about how teammates stick with each other no matter what, and the whole American-ness of it all just be how it be. Certainly what stuck with me the most is the friendship between Christian Bale’s vroom-vroom-goer Ken Miles and Matt Damon’s vroom-vroom-guider Carroll Shelby. It’s an oft-contentious relationship, which only makes sense when you’re gearing up for a race that lasts a full day. Such competition, such support, such politics behind the whole affair – I saw it all!

I give Ford v Ferrari 240 out of 360 Laps.

‘The Irishman’ Is What an Irishman Does

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CREDIT: Netflix

I would venture to say that the most essential moment of The Irishman is when Frank Sheeran is trying to tell Jimmy Hoffa that it has been decided it’s high time for his ambitions to come to an end, and their conversation consists almost entirely of tautologies like “It is what it is.” If you don’t know the context, this discussion is essentially meaningless. If you do know the context, the implications are clear, but it is still striking how much these guys are slaves to a thick, suffocating tangle of codes. That point is made abundantly clear in those few minutes. In just a few seconds, even. So does The Irishman, then, really need to be three and a half hours long? Well, other points are made throughout, but that length also underscores this major point. The guys who paint houses and their associates are imprisoned in a ceaselessly brutish life that can feel mightily oppressive, and we start to feel that, too. So I enjoyed The Irishman in much the same contemplative way I enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’m not so excited that I’m screaming about it, but I can imagine that it’ll stick with me in the ceaseless time to come.

I give The Irishman My Radical Empathy.

‘Queen & Slim’ is an All-Too-Conceivable Vision of 21st Century Outlaws

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CREDIT: Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures

Starring: Danielle Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Flea, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Sturgill Simpson

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence, Profanity, and Sexuality of Highly Stressful Situations

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Viral moments of people of color being fatally wounded by police officers are a depressingly common occurrence in America, and they have become fodder for similarly discomfiting moments in fiction. So when Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is able to fire back at Officer Reed (Sturgill Simpson) during a simple traffic stop, it feels like a moment a triumph as a sort of wake-up call to the audience that things can be done differently. But that sense of triumph quickly gives way to a feeling of queasiness, both because no loss of life is preferable to some loss of life (even when it’s in self-defense), and because that moment feels much more like the prelude to a greater tragedy rather than the end of one.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim are bound by circumstance moreso than passion or really any sort of mutual attraction. Their encounter with Officer Reed occurs on the way home from their initial meeting with each other, and while it may not be the absolute worst first date of all time, it is pretty damn tense. Slim is generally go-with-the-flow, while Queen is all coiled, hardened intensity. That fire and ice combination is not often ideal for romance, and it is even worse when two black people are pulled over by a trigger-happy officer of the law. Slim is so casual nearly to the point of carelessness, while Queen cites legal rights as she aggressively demands to know why the situation is being escalated. But no matter how they react to the officer, you get the sense that they were in a trap the moment he pulled them over.

After they leave Reed on the side of the road, they ditch their phones and attempt to flee to some semblance of safety. Meanwhile, their story becomes headline news and they begin to be embraced by a not-insignificant portion of the population as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. Accordingly, you then get the sense that most of Queen & Slim is just a series of delays until an inevitable tragic end. In that sense, it plays like a fit of existentialism, sort of a more viscerally terrifying riff on No Exit. I cannot argue for the possibility of a happier ending, because that would have been something more fantastical than director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe are aiming for. As it is, this is not the most cohesive sort of cinema, but it has a fractured feel of intimate moments contrasting with wide-open spaces that captures a broken, but occasionally beautiful slice of Americana.

Queen & Slim is Recommended If You Like: Melina Matsoukas’ music videography

Grade: 3 out of 5 Escapes

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