Richard Jewell

Let’s get the film’s big criticism right up front. The screenwriter and director are accused of slandering the name of the dead journalist who first publicly pointed a finger at Richard Jewell as the Olympic Bomber. Kathy Scruggs as portrayed by Olivia Wilde in the film, was a hard charging, not very bashful crime reporter who was looking for a “scoop” so to speak in the case that took place in the town she worked in. The irony of a journalist being besmirched by innuendo in a piece of  dramatic entertainment, when in a newspaper she did the same thing to an innocent man is not lost on most of us. The inference that she offered sex for a tip to an FBI agent is a fictional speculation of how she obtained this inside information. She never revealed her source, and in fact was nearly jailed for refusing to do so by a judge.  It is reported that she was a somewhat wild figure in the confluence of police and journalists on her beat. The screenwriter put two and two together and came up with a dramatic tool to show us how she might have done it. Miss Scruggs has been dead for 18 years so it is legally not possible to slander her. Richard Jewell was publicly accused by her stories, without anything more than a piece of gossip, and he was alive to be roasted by the ensuing firestorm. Let’s suppose for a moment that the come on from Miss Scruggs was left out of the film, would what happened to Richard Jewell be any less tragic? No, but the character of the reporter would have no way of claiming to have an informant. That is a plot hole that should not exist in a well told story. It is a two minute scene in a film that more than two hours in length. People judging the movie based on this is disproportionate.

Having set that aside for the moment, the film itself is very effective at recalling the time and place of the events depicted. There is a substantial opening act that shows us who Richard Jewell was. He seems to have been overly enthusiastic in his pursuit of doing right. The campus security job he has is lost because he does what is asked of him but it conflicts with what is within his scope. You don’t get the impression that he is motivated by power or the notion that he is in control, in other words he is not the “asshole” that he is warned not to become. He just wants to follow procedure and have people be protected. He continues to believe in what he sees as being right.

Anyone in a position of authority is likely to ruffle some feathers. It is easy to make an inference that a police officer is getting off on their power, especially when you are the one on the other end. I know I have felt that way a couple of times in casual contact with police. It goes the other way as well, people instinctively react to the perceived power of the police. The idea that there is a profile and you are being judged by that is a reality. The accuracy of such a profile still needs to be verified, and this film shows the FBI struggling to fulfill their own prophesy. The trailer lays out the problem here immediately, the two most powerful forces in the world are basically trying to nail Jewell for something he did not do.

Anyone watching the political scene these days will get flashes of deja vu because this stuff goes on constantly today. The FBI seems to have a number of troublesome issues that have been disclosed over the last fifty years, and the political element has been one that continues to be prevalent. The media is a little sensitive about being called out when they are indulging in speculation about the facts. The righteousness of journalists can’t change the truth, sometimes they get it wrong. This was certainly one of those places.

Clint Eastwood continues to be one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. This story builds very effectively and we don’t even get to the bombing until the second act. The section where all of the attack plays out is effectively staged and there is real tension as the bomb is discovered and the authorities, including Jewell try to deal with it. This sequence shows how Richard Jewell’s strong desire to be a law enforcement officer is a good thing. His insistence on following the protocols probably saved dozens of lives, which makes his subsequent vilification all the more unjust. Sure the FBI needs to follow every lead, but to ignore exculpatory information, in pursuit of a profile that is thin to begin with is preposterous.  The fact that the journalist is shown to believe this well before the bureau is an attempt to rehabilitate her character as well.

Sam Rockwell continues to show that he is a leading actor in a character actors clothes. He plays the attorney defending Jewell as the professional skeptic he needed to be. He brings the rage that the deferential suspect seems incapable of displaying. At times that disgust has to be directed at his client who seems programmed to sabotage himself at every turn. Paul Walter Hauser deserves accolades for not only resembling Jewell but for showing us the hopes, and frustrations of the title character. We can see that he is flawed, but Hauser makes him sympathetic at every turn, even when he does the stupid things his attorney advises against. Kathy Bates has one scene that presents some histrionics but she still undersells the moment so her character remains real and completely sympathetic. Jewell’s Mother is collateral damage in this process, another example of how the great forces of the law and press can grind someone down indirectly.

Much is being made about the lack of success for this film at the moment. If you are skipping it because it seems too political, you are making a mistake. It simply points out the real danger that anyone, regardless of their politics could fall into. If the controversy about the presentation of the journalist discourages you, remember that it is a film, and with dramatization some narrative tools work, whether we believe they are fair or not. There are some great performances and a compelling story here, don’t skip it because of misdirected desire for purity. Story telling is what movies are about, and this one tells a hell of a story, and does so well.

 

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary

The producers of this film included a quote from Pulitzer Prize winning Playwright and Screenwriter David Mamet. The comment basically says there are only 4 perfect movies: The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth and Galaxy Quest. On that last one, I am certainly inclined to agree. This throw away movie that was sold as a kids film for the Christmas holidays is so much better than it has any right to be. For the twenty years since it was initially released, “Galaxy Quest” has grown in stature and seems to be beloved by millions who may have missed it on it’s first release.

This documentary traces the development of the movie and the twists and turns it took to become a cultural touchstone. This comes from a fan driven group and that makes perfect sense because “Galaxy Quest” is a love letter to fandom and it may well have cleared the path to widespread acceptance of geek culture in the broader population. “The Big Bang Theory” and the “MCU” would not have nearly the resonance they do if Galaxy Quest had not blazed the trail for them.

Like many documentaries, the movie is loaded with talking heads who recall the events and personalities that are part of the story. Every major surviving cast member is included in the conversations. Sigourney Weaver is effusive in he love for the project and how it allowed her to play a comedic role that she sees as a lot closer to her true persona than the iconic character of Ripley really is. Sam Rockwell was almost unknown when he took the part, after having turned it down several times. He reasoned that it might be a good piece of counter-programming to show his range as “The Green Mile” was coming out around the same time. Tim Allen  probably had his finest role as an actor playing the William Shatner inspired lead character.

The Producer, screenwriter, director, casting director, production designer, editor and composer all have stories to share about the film and many of them are hysterical. The movie is generously supplied with clips from Galaxy Quest itself, along with Star Trek moments and a variety of other material. There is also an elaborate thread about the fans of Galaxy Quest, and the documentary trails a couple of fans who cosplay their way across the universe in salute to this pitch perfect film. We get a chance to see how fans become part of the story and how they were the original inspiration for the film in the first place.

The climax of the film brings the fans and the makers of the movie together at a celebratory screening of the film. It just so happens that I was at that screening along with my wife, daughter and my Southern California blogging colleague Michael, who brought his daughter the the screening as well. I covered the showing two years ago with some more details. Last night when we saw the documentary, we were delighted to note that we make a guest star appearance in the film. Amanda’s Jaws shirt and my Hawaiian style blue shirt are clearly visible in the crowd scenes as the Thermains arrived for the screening of the film. I have been a long time fan of Galaxy Quest, I took the whole family as our Christmas day movie in 1999. One of the things I remember speaking to them all about was that the aspect ration of the film changed three times in the movie. It was nice to hear that confirmed by the director, since the DVD presentation does not always allow you to notice that change.

I’m not one to disagree with David Mamet. I think he is certainly right when he includes this movie on a list of perfect films. In fact I did the same thing six years ago on a post I entitled “Three Perfect Movies“. If you check it out you will see I was with Mamet on this one early on. The documentary was accompanied by a long introduction from the Fandom group that put it together. If it is ever available to people on line or in physical form, I hope they will include the interactions of the writers for the site and the “Honest Trailer” they put together for the film. They were quite entertaining as well.

Jo Jo Rabbit

This may be on two distinct sets of lists at the end of the year. Some folks are going to find that it is a misfire that fails to manage the complex shift in tone that occurs on a regular basis in the story. Others will be beguiled by the delicate balancing act between the sweet and the bitter. It took me to the last couple of shots to decide which group I am going to fall into. Count me enchanted.

The lead character, Jo Jo is a ten year old boy who is a microcosm of Germany under Hitler. He seems to be hypnotized by the promise of the Fuhrer and the propaganda machine that engulfs the whole country. Little boys and nations can become obsessed with symbolism, and the swastika, uniforms and military pomp all sucker the crowds in. Taika Waititi has punctured these concepts with obvious asides about the stupidity of some of the things the boy and the country are buying into. That humor is often outlandish and it does provoke a big laugh on numerous occasions.  The dangerous high wire act he is performing exists because that humor is often juxtaposed with a horrifying reality. Even though those moments of tragedy are presented in non-graphic ways, it is a sudden jolt to the left that might upset the balance of the story at any time.

By making the lead a ten year old, the whole metaphor can be looked at as a loss of innocence on the one hand, but it is also a rude awakening at the same time. Since Jo Jo gets a Rabbit to interact with and he is designated as a rabbit by some of the other characters, I guess it is fair to classify this story as a fable. In many ways it has the same sort of fairy tale essence to it that “Life is Beautiful” had. The harsh realities of the world are being covered up by a childish view of the events surrounding our lead. That his imaginary friend is Hitler himself makes the story feel completely absurd. Sure we laugh at the amusing image of Hitler jumping out a window or sitting down to a meal of unicorn, but each moment is building toward the shakeup that will be so heartbreaking at the climax of the film. Sam Rockwell acquits himself with the usual high caliber comic performance he has been noted for, but he gets to pay off some actual sentiment in the end. Rebel Wilson is merely a cartoon in the movie, but it is a funny cartoon that we will never have to take seriously.

Straddling the gap between sweet fantasy and morbid reality is Scarlett Johansson as Jo Jo’s mother.  She is an indulgent mother who vaguely disapproves of her son’s embrace of Nazism, but she is also an enigma, one that presents us with a reality far from the domestic bliss she is trying to project. Waititi himself plays Hitler, and at times he is cloyingly obtuse and at other moments we here the rhetorical weapons he used to seduce a whole nation being wielded against a child. If you hold your neck to straight in the curves, you may break it. The trick is to lean into the humor but try to ease back from it before the next breakneck switch in tone. I was able to do this more effectively as the film went on and I got used to the sort of whiplash inducing moments writer/director/star Waititi had in store for us. I can easily imagine though that some people will find it annoying.

Roman Griffin Davis makes his debut as the title character and the performance is essential for the movie to work. He has to be a kid who is both incredibly sure of his grounds while simultaneously doubting the foundation he is standing on. He hits those notes especially well with his interactions with costar Thomasin McKenzie. She plays a belligerent and sarcastic version of an Anne Frank character, and she must be stern but frightened at the same time. That the director got these performances from his cast is what allows us to go along with the story. Ultimately, it is a hopeful interpretation of the minds of the German population under the Nazis. If would be easy to dismiss it as a tasteless concoction that never quite gels, but I think in the last few minutes, it firms up into one of the best films of the year.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.

Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.

This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.

Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara WeavingAbbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities. 

 

Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013,  “The Way, Way Back“.  That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all. 

 

 

Poltergeist

On the way to the Theater this morning, we made every light between our house and the movie theater. It’s almost three miles on a very busy commercial mainline, and there are at least a dozen intersections with traffic lights. We made every one of them. I thought maybe we should go to Vegas, but then it occurred to me that maybe it was a good omen for the film we were about to see. Nope. Not gonna happen. This remake of Poltergeist is as mundane and unnecessary as you thought it would be. Having the names of Sam Rami and Sam Rockwell associated with the film was enough to take a flyer on it, but it all just lays there.

The story is somewhat the same as the original, but instead of an upwardly mobile yuppie couple buying into the American dream, we have a downsized family making due with leftovers. There is no contentious but friendly next door neighbor in this movie. In fact the only other people not directly related to the story sort of look down on folks living in this neighborhood. The dearth of nearby residents is supposed to be explained by the fact that there are so many foreclosures in the neighborhood. That is the only way this film might compare favorably to the original, it at least has an explanation as to how these events could take place without anyone else in the area being aware.

Other interesting points about the movie, well Rosemarie DeWitt who plays the Mother in this film is married to Ron Livingston who played the Father in “The Conjuring“.  He definitely got the better end of that deal. It’s not an improvement but it is an interesting twist, the spiritualist they bring in to help the family, instead of being a diminutive female Rambo with a Kewpie doll voice, we get a grizzled reality TV Ghosthunter who has an Irish brogue and a gruff disposition. My daughter had a good insight on this film. It would have played better if this was a case the TV guy was doing for an episode of his series as opposed to his agreeing to work this case in spite of the fact that the family did not want to be on TV. It would have played off the two genres against each other and left room for more surprises than we finally get with this fairly standard haunted house story.

Like the remake of “Carrie” from two years ago, “Poltergeist” does nothing to hurt the legacy of the other film. If audiences are unwilling to go back three decades to see the original, there might as well be a version that they can get themselves to. It’s just sad to think that people believe the visual effects from then are inferior to the CGI of today. I’d disagree and the incident at the sink in both films would be a good way to make the comparison. The 1982 film was a lot more frightening with the practical make-up effects.

Sam Rockwell is playing a character who is less interesting and less heroic than the oddball salesman of Craig T. Nelson. There is one brief sequence, which has nothing to do with the story, that allows him to use his Rockwellisms and charisma. It is short and unfortunately, there was no dancing involved. The two young actors playing the youngest children in the family were very good. It was maybe a bit more interesting to give the son more to do but it is at the expense of the rest of the characters. The build up in the first film was intriguing with some moments of levity. This version crashes headlong into the action, and there is never a sense of wonder. It is all about fear. In the original, the clown doll sits like a ticking bomb in the scenes set in the son’s bedroom. In this version, it is a ringing alarm from the very first moment it appears. The controversy over Spielberg’s taking over direction from Tobe Hooper continues to today. It is safe to say he had nothing to do with directing this film.