Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend: Jmunney Log #1

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CREDIT: Netflix

I’m a little skeptical about choose-your-own adventure stories, but I’m not skeptical about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, so I happily watched the UKS choose-your-own-adventure special Kimmy vs. the Reverend. I am planning on watching it some more times in the future and choosing different story branches. I will then log my selections after each viewing. Here is Log #1

-LK-9
-Fun dress
-Go to the gym
-Plan wedding
-Donna Maria
-Gretchen
-Call Cyndee
-Take Titus
-Get down to beeswax
-Lillian sings
-Walk to town
-The script
-He knows it
-Karate
-Go with Lillian
-Lose it
-Babysit
-Read to the baby
-Woodland banquet
-‘Splode him
-Spare him

‘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

‘The Report’ Details the Long Slog Towards Exposing Torture

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CREDIT: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Jake Silberman, Matthew Rhys, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Dominic Fumusa, Corey Stoll

Director: Scott Z. Burns

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Depictions of Torture

Release Date: November 15, 2019 (Limited)

There’s a moment in The Report that might be what most viewers remember it for, in which the 2012 hunt-for-Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty is called out and basically scoffed at for implying that torture led to valuable intel in the war on terrorism. Despite this apparent antagonism, The Report and Zero Dark Thirty work well as companion pieces, offering somewhat parallel stories in the defining geopolitical conflict of the twenty-first century. I believe that the message of Zero Dark regarding the efficacy of torture is more complicated than any binary interpretation, and I actually think that the people behind The Report would agree, at least in terms of the existence of complications in the world. When a narrative is about a real-life group of people poring over thousands of government documents for months on end, you tend to find that the answers aren’t always quite so straightforward. But two things remain clear: torture is bad, and the people deserve to know that it happened.

The primary document sifter is Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who was working as a Senate staffer for California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) while he investigated the CIA’s systematic use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The job is thuddingly labor-intensive, but Daniel is fully devoted to the task, and besides, the real challenge for him is getting this information out to the public over the protests of the forces who would prefer it be as redacted as possible or just completely hidden. The Report serves the entertainment value of presenting someone doing his job supremely competently, but it is also a bit of a slog. It is not exactly fun to spend so much time in windowless basements with Daniel, and his co-workers let him know that it’s not so great for him either. But for the good of mankind, this information needed to get out one way or the other. And if this story needed to be jazzed up into a big-screen adventure for people to become more aware of this miscarriage of decency, then The Report ought to be considered a succcess at least on that score.

The Report is Recommended If You Like: The truth being made public

Grade: 3000 of 5000 Documents

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Fits As Many Crazy Characters And Genre Twists as Possible Into a Quirky Hotel

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence of Lawmen, Career Criminals, and Desperate People

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Drew Goddard has a thing for surveillance. His directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, was all about the pleasure and ritual of watching young people being ripped apart by monsters. That thematic concern was to be expected with Cabin, which deconstructed in one fell swoop all of horror cinema, a genre that more than any other grapples with voyeurism at its core. Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard’s second film, is by contrast about a group of various strangers converging at one central location. This setup does not by definition invoke surveillance, but it is just as concerned about the watchers and the watched as Cabin is. Thus a series of question is raised: is Goddard watching all of us? Is he sounding the alarm about the nefarious forces that are watching us? Or does he take that nefariousness as a given, and is he then using cinema to process it?

The action becomes quickly pear-shaped at the titular hotel, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada, with their differing liquor and tax laws separated by the two halves of the establishment. It’s a novel premise that keeps you on your toes and alert for other oddities. The El Royale might be off the beaten path and have fallen on hard times, but it seems to serve as a beacon to folks with similarly dual natures. All who are getting ready to spend the night there – a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a rude, mostly silent young woman (Dakota Johnson), and even the concierge (Lewis Pullman) – are much more than they initially appear to be. That is hardly surprising, given how over-the-top or opaque they are when we first meet them. Bad Times does not reinvent the wheel, but it never lets its hands off it.

That maximal level of control is essential to what Goddard is pulling off. Once again, he is in deconstructionist mode. This time he is taking on the subgenre of post-Tarantino, nonlinear crime flicks. Obviously this is much more specific than what Cabin was targeting, but there are still plenty of threads to pull at, and Goddard pulls at all of him. (In a way, this is not so much a deconstruction of Tarantino’s imitators as much as it is a reconstructed better version.) He sets out to examine how each character could have possibly gotten to this point, diving into as much backstory as possible. That formula makes for A WHOLE LOT of movie. What could have been an hour-and-a-half shootout is instead a nearly two-and-a-half-hour dissertation. It is worth consuming it all, but prepared to be exhausted immediately afterwards and to continue to digest it for days, or even weeks, later.

Bad Times at the El Royale is Recommended If You Like: The Hateful Eight, Agatha Christie Mysteries, The Cabin in the Woods, Classic Rock and R&B

Grade: 4 out of 5 Room Keys

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Nostalgia’ Makes Some Obvious, Occasionally Affecting Points About Nostalgia

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CREDIT: Bleecker Street

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener, John Ortiz, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, James LeGros, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Patton Oswalt, Annalise Basso, Mikey Madison

Director: Mark Pellington

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Language Apparently, But It Should Otherwise Be Rated PG

Release Date: February 16, 2018 (Limited)

Nostalgia, the 2018 film directed by Mark Pellington, would like you to know that nostalgia, the sentimality for the past, is a feeling that exists and that people experience. It does not treat this as some big revelation, as this is a common human emotion and the film does not pretend otherwise. But it is so simplistic and obvious, but also matter-of-factly profound, in its explication of the definition that there is this weird mix of pretension and lack of ambition. Mostly, Nostalgia glides along in a quiet, unfussy groove that is occasionally enlivened by tragedy and committed performances.

This is one of those anthology-style, “we’re all connected” movies with multiple discrete-but-actually-closely-connected(-at-least-thematically) storylines. Instead of cross-cutting between each vignette and having them dance around each other, they take their turns and then hand the ball (one time quite literally) off to the next one, with at least one shared character per section. At first it looks like Nostalgia will follow the travails of an insurance agent (John Ortiz) and the people he encounters. That’s a justifiable enough premise, but the execution is strikingly mundane.

The film eventually shakes out instead to more broadly be a series of sketches of people dealing with loss and holding on to and/or letting go of sentimental objects, which is even more nondescript than the insurance agent setup, but there are some dynamic moments. In particular, there is the scene with Ellen Burstyn as a widow selling her late husband’s autographed baseball to a professional collector (Jon Hamm). His appraisal delivers exactly the sort of human touch you want when parting with an item with such high monetary and emotional value. Hamm’s entire section, in which he and his sister (Catherine Keener) are hit with a great loss in the midst of cleaning out their father’s old stuff, is filled with understated power. Its setup is just as lightweight as the other storylines, but it delivers enough poignancy to make Nostalgia just worthwhile enough.

Nostalgia is Recommended If You Like: Jon Hamm swooping in to save the day, Emotional gut punches

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Verified Ted Williams Signatures

This is a Movie Review: Baby Driver

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González

Director: Edgar Wright

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for Everything Spinning Out of Control

Release Date: June 28, 2017

I am not sure if the one nagging thing preventing me from fully embracing Baby Driver is a moral one or a storytelling one. I am also not sure if that thing matters and I should just embrace the film unabashedly. But either way, let me let you in on my thought process: am I bothered by not just all the bloody mayhem, but also that we are seemingly meant to cheer on all this violence? Or am I more flummoxed by the lack of context regarding Doc the crime boss (Kevin Spacey)? Part of the issue is that I was prepared for just a fun stylized thrill ride but what I got did not skimp on the consequences. In fairness, I should have been prepared, as writer/director Edgar Wright’s films always grapple with the practical and emotional fallout of even the most outrageous circumstances. While that is alarming, Baby Driver is frankly better for it.

But back to that highly stylized premise for a moment. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver with a drum in his hum (i.e., tinnitus sustained from a car accident that killed his parents) and thus always has earbuds in to keep himself centered and rhythmic. Accordingly, the soundtrack never lets up. It is a toe-tapping mix of classic rock, funk, and R&B that is never too familiar to be too tiresome. It would be impractical to list every track, but I will pick out a few favorites (Bob & Earl’s breezy “Harlem Shuffle,” Golden Radar’s ominous-but-in-a-fun-way “Radar Love,” Focus’ face-melting yodeler “Hocus Pocus”) and note that all of them have everyone’s heart ticking at just the right click.

This could all be a setup for a nearly dialogue-free sensory experience, but instead it has an honest-to-goodness narrative, and the result is more challenging than the alternative. It traffics in clichés, but it spins gold out of them. Baby never meant to get mixed up in this world of thieves, and he is going to get out of the game after ONE LAST JOB. Naturally, Doc threatens to break his legs and destroy his loved ones, but the two also seem to somehow have a genuine friendship. The contradictions are striking but lived-in and convincing. The love story is just as basic and formulaic, with Baby dead-set on driving out of town with diner waitress Debora (Lily James). But their attraction is sparkling and immediately filled with mutual respect. The only improbable thing is how they lucky they are to have met their perfect match by sheer happenstance.

Ultimately Baby chooses to resort to some extreme means to escape his lot in life, and the fate that then meets him somehow feels simultaneously black-and-white and filled with shades of gray. Herein Baby Driver reveals itself as an illustration of the tension between a decent man and an indecent world. We all need to something to keep us centered to get by. For Baby, that is not just his music. Even more so, it is a penchant for mutual acts of kindness and pleasantness. A valuable message absolutely, and one that makes the few moments when Baby slips into darkness so difficult to bear.

Baby Driver is Recommended If You Like: Its Trailers – this is a well-advertised movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 iPods