Richard Jewell Movie Review

Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell continues his late career spate of no-frills dramas focused on recent events. This is a mostly successful and effective one which recounts the title character’s accusations of being responsible for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park Bombing in Atlanta. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray spare no anger (sometimes subtle, sometimes above the surface) at the U.S. Government and the media for their contribution to his suffering. That is where Jewell has generated some controversy due its depiction of one reporter played by Olivia Wilde. Some of that material is indeed problematic, but the film overall is buoyed by a trio of terrific performances.

One of them is Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell. Working as a low-level security guard with deep reverence for law enforcement (he longs to be in that club), Jewell works the event that results in pipe bombs being detonated and he saves lives by discovering the knapsack that the devices are kept in. However, he also becomes the tragedy’s prime suspect. His two biggest investigators depicted here are Jon Hamm’s FBI agent and Wilde’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. Richard’s support system include his lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and his beloved mama Bobi (Kathy Bates).

Jewell’s credit as a hero is short-lived as the government and media hone in on him as the potential bomber. Hauser’s performance (he’s been memorable in smaller roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman) is first-rate as he captures Jewell’s vulnerability and unwillingness to fight the system until it’s almost too late. Credit also goes to Rockwell and Bates. The scenes between this trio give the picture its greatest dramatic heft.

As mentioned, the treatment of Wilde and the FBI as a whole is a bit more complicated. Their story here has been called more fictionalized than the reality. I can only say that Wilde’s reporter in particular is written as more of a caricature. Yet the unfair treatment of Jewell is one that resonates with Hauser’s superb work assisting in a major way.

*** (out of four)

Uncut Gems Movie Review

When the brothers Safdie (Ben and Josh) made Good Time in 2017, the thriller centering on low-life crime figures contained segments that showed the duo was capable of creating something special. Clearly influenced by similar grimy pics in the 1970s, that film gave Robert Pattinson a role that drew him far away from a sullen romantic vampire and is primarily responsible for his current career trajectory. However, I found Good Time better in spots than as a cohesive whole. Their follow-up is Uncut Gems and it’s the “something special” that was hinted at in their predecessor.

In many ways, it stays in the Good Time lane. The setting is again the Big Apple. The characters are again a level of bottom dwelling criminals who aren’t exactly top level at their professions. And like Pattinson, Gems allows a very famous actor to try something different. Here it’s Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, who owns a diamond store and is a degenerate gambler. In Howard’s universe, there’s not a problem that he can’t seem to make worse.

His family life is in a constant state of chaos as his wife (Idina Menzel) is ready to freeze him out and his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark that Howard owes money to. Then there’s his girlfriend Julie (Julia Fox, in her feature debut) who works for him and is a consistent source of stress. Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is his business associate charged with bringing in celebrities and high rollers to the store. He finds one in Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays himself and does so memorably.

When Howard gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal, it sets off a series of frenzied events. Garnett is obsessed with purchasing the rarity while Howard looks to cash in with it at auction. The hoped for financial windfall means he can pay his off his considerable debts. Yet Howard just cannot help himself as one scheme simply leads to the next one, including betting on his NBA client for large sums of money.

Like Good Time, the pacing here is relentless. For over two hours, the screenplay and direction immerse us in Howard’s out of control daily existence. It’s exhilarating and Sandler deserves a lot of the credit. These days, it’s rare to see the performer in anything other than middling to less than middling Netflix comedies. Seeing him rise to the challenge in more dramatic material shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as we saw it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love nearly two decades ago. It’s just been a while. Howard is onscreen nearly the entire running time and for good reason. You can’t take your eyes off him.

The lead’s remarkable work is accentuated by his supporting cast. This especially applies to the women in his life as both Menzel and Fox are given notable scenes reacting to Howard’s never-ending foibles. By the time the credits roll, one could argue Uncut Gems has the happiest ending it could have if you really ponder it. This is a tale of addiction in a highly stylized setting where Howard just can’t become the winner he pines to be. His turmoil is interrupted by brief glimpses of happiness and we witness a couple of great ones. In the era that the Safdies are paying homage, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro might have played Howard. Sandler gets the job here and knocks it out the park. It’s something special.

**** (out of four)

Bombshell Movie Review

Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly and dozens of other women deal with their own monster in Jay Roach’s Bombshell, a retelling of the Fox News harassment scandal that ended the reign of founder Roger Ailes. The ripped from the headlines tale features outstanding performances, incredible makeup work, and at least a handful of scenes that strike the right chord.

The film focuses primarily on three women in different stages of dealing with Ailes, as played by John Lithgow. Kelly is the star with her own highly successful primetime hour and loads of ambition. Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is seeing her career on the downslide. She’s been moved from a top rated morning show to the desert of afternoon programming. Much of this has to do with her rebuffing the advances of Ailes. Carlson is already making moves to hold Ailes accountable while Kelly is conflicted. The fictional and composite character of Kayla (Margot Robbie) is just starting her journey at the network. In many ways, her role is the most fascinating. They say don’t meet your heroes and as a young conservative landing her dream gig, she (and her family) worship at the altar of the Fox logo. When Kayla maneuvers an introduction to Roger, her nightmare begins and a scene where the head honcho “auditions” her is horrific.

Charles Randolph’s screenplay peppers in many characters involved in the sordid saga. This allows for plenty of recognizable faces playing very or semi recognizable figures, including Allison Janney as Ailes attorney Susan Estrich, Malcolm McDowell as Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch, and Richard Kind as loyal defender Rudy Giuliani. There’s also Kate McKinnon as Kayla’s confidante in the bullpen. Yet it’s the quartet of leads that eat up most screen time. Theron’s transformation to Kelly is pretty remarkable. Much of that is due to her performance and capturing her mannerisms, but the makeup work of Kazu Hiro and team must be mentioned. The writing of Ailes is well handled as the script doesn’t shy away from his creepiness. It also doesn’t shy away from his connection to people and that he got to the top of the mountain with his abilities. After all, it’s those traits that sadly allowed many to stay silent for so long. Robbie’s character is the most conflicted. Her eventual face to face with Kelly regarding Roger’s behavior takes an unexpected turn worthy of conversation afterwards.

Perhaps the best scene occurs in 2006 and it involves Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi). Her harassment comes not from Ailes, but as a direct result of the culture he created. When her incident occurs, we hear her inner monologue while she attempts to navigate her way out of it. We know that so many others heard that voice and Bombshell holds our interest in showing us where those voices led them.

*** (out of four)

The Good Liar Movie Review

Bill Condon’s The Good Liar gathers British acting royalty, but is not a crowning achievement compared to the career highlights of the principals involved. We have Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren in a twisty con artist tale based on a Nicholas Searle novel.

The film tests the limits of whether having these two leads is good enough. For a decent portion of the running time, the answer is yes. McKellen is Roy Courtnay, who successfully bilks investors out of millions along with partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His latest conquest is The Rich Widow Con and that’s Mirren’s Betty McLeish. Roy’s got patience when it comes to lifting her bank account. He attempts to ingratiate himself to her only grandson (Russell Tovey). Roy soon moves into Betty’s drab home. Past victims of his grifts are on his trail. And there’s a bit of mystery whether their partnership will move beyond platonic.

In its first half, The Good Liar is a concoction as bubbly as the wine Betty enjoys during their first date after meeting online. It is a humorous opening credits touch as they chat on the computer. Roy checks the box for non-smoker as he puffs away on a cigarette. Betty claims not to be a drinker with glass in hand. With these two master thespians bouncing dialogue off one another, it’s often a treat. On the other hand, we aren’t seeing anything unseen in the genre before with the exception of the age of the performers involved.

When flashbacks to Roy and Betty’s pasts come into play later, the pic loses its frothy charms and becomes far more serious and considerably more absurd at the same time. I am not confident that the plot mechanisms that rocket into overdrive in the latter portion hold up on close inspection. It’s telling that some of the reveals aren’t worth racking the brain about. There’s no doubt that McKellen and Mirren’s interplay is fun for awhile. When their story ventures into more weighty subjects, it doesn’t feel earned delving into them.

**1/2 (out of four)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Movie Review

While not all the right notes are consistently played in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it’s the performance of one beloved actor playing one beloved children’s show host that makes it worthwhile. The film isn’t as much about Mister Rogers as it is the feelings he gives people through his demeanor and work. Portrayed by Tom Hanks, it’s an impeccable casting choice to witness.

Neighborhood is set in 1998, as Mister Rogers is introduced to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), Esquire. Not an attorney, but he’s a prolific writer for Esquire magazine. Lloyd, who lives in New York City with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and infant son, typically deals with weighty issues in his journalistic articles and in his family life. He’s got a strained relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), who left Lloyd’s now deceased mother when he was a boy. When Lloyd attends his sister’s third wedding, the toxic father/son dynamic is on full display. The last thing the writer wants is a puff piece assignment and he believes he’s got one with a profile of the iconic Rogers.

Lloyd flies to Pittsburgh where the public access program is taped and thus begins a dialogue with Rogers that will far exceed his 400 word assignment. Esquire wants a short piece dealing with heroes while Lloyd wants to dig deeper. When Mister Rogers sees his profiler suffering, he chooses to dig deeper as well.

Inspired by a true story, there’s still a feeling that Lloyd’s daddy issues are far from new territory. Rhys’s performance is adequate, but a bit diminished next to an icon playing an icon. Those looking for an examination of the life of Rogers may come away disappointed. Luckily the solid documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? covers that ground. We do see the puppets, the sweater change, and most importantly, the warmth that the host effortlessly exuded. The script deserves some credit for not falling too far down a sentimental rabbit hole. In this story, Mister Rogers isn’t perfect, but he’s darn close.

That goes for Hanks. Sometimes the obvious casting decision is the correct one and here’s an example. We attribute some of the same qualities with the two-time Oscar winner. This is why sarcastic Twitter posts about Hanks being a nightmare in real life are met with immediate eye rolls or chuckles. Mister Rogers was a comfort to millions and watching Hanks play him feels the same.

*** (out of four)

Doctor Sleep Movie Review

Doctor Sleep often shines the most when it isn’t burdened with following up on its classic cinematic source material. Director/writer Mike Flanagan has one tough assignment here. Not only is he adapting Stephen King’s 2013 novel which served as the sequel to his beloved novel, but he must incorporate Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 vision of that original work. That adaptation, in case you didn’t know, did not count King among its ardent admirers due to many deviations from the book. Yet the iconic filmmaker’s take on The Shining is ardently admired by legions. This delicate balancing act isn’t always completely successful, but Flanagan sure makes it work most of the time. And that’s no small feat.

The opening takes place shortly after the events at the Overlook Hotel as Wendy Torrance (Alex Essoe) and young son Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) attempt to move on from their trauma and cold loss of their husband and father. Living in Florida, Danny is still blessed and cursed with the ability to “shine”, which encompasses numerous psychic powers. He’s able to put his visions and bad memories in a box (literally and figuratively) for years. We flash forward over 20 years and Danny now takes the form of Ewan McGregor and he’s not in a good place. He’s a raging alcoholic much like his dad was.

After hitting rock bottom, grown Danny enters a different kind of light in recovery. Through the kindness of his AA sponsor (Cliff Curtis), he’s given a small apartment and gets a job as an orderly in a hospice wing. He soon becomes known as Doctor Sleep with the ability to comfort patients in their last moments. Outside forces soon bring him back to past events. A group of vampires known as the True Knot are led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). In order to survive, they feed on small children with psychic abilities similar to Danny’s. One brutal scene depicts their practices with a famous young actor who cameos. It’s pretty terrifying. The new mission of the True Knot is tracking down teenage Abra (Kyliegh Curran), whose shining game is quite bright. When Danny and Abra team up, their fight eventually takes them to the well-known production design of that Colorado hotel.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Doctor Sleep is the introduction of its new characters courtesy of King’s novel. Ferguson’s performance as the cult leader is terrific. She appears like a roadie for an alt rock band, but she excels at making her character a demonic force to be reckoned with. Her supporting band of devotees are also memorable. I suspect a picture focused solely on the True Knot could have been fascinating. Curran gives a winning performance as Danny’s partner in shine.

Flanagan must pay homage to King and Kubrick. There’s a Spielberg connection here too. Henry Thomas (yep, little Elliot from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) fills in as Jack Nicholson’s boozy and demented father figure from the 1980 original. That’s in addition to previously mentioned actors playing young Danny and Wendy. Carl Lumbly fills in for Scatman Crothers as the telepathic Dick Halloran. It’s unavoidably jarring to see these roles inhabited by others if, like me, you’ve seen The Shining multiple times. I did admire the way they decided to bring Nicholson’s iconic ax wielder back.

There’s probably no way to avoid the Overlook set third act and it is a pleasure to see those sets recreated. That also constitutes another Spielberg link as that director brought back the haunted hotel for scenes in 2018’s Ready Player One. It is also the weakest segment of the bunch, though not without its nostalgia inducing pleasures. Flanagan is able to engross the audience with the grown Danny and especially the new players around him prior to check in. In that sense, there’s certainly no legacies darkened in Doctor Sleep.

*** (out of four)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Movie Review

We talk about the Star Wars franchise the same way we speak of politics or sports. With passion and fervent opinions and disagreements. Perhaps we are giving it too much credit, but it’s become an American cinematic pastime. No group of films has inspired as much thought and re-thought. So we arrive at the ninth episode, The Rise of Skywalker, with all that baggage and more. After all, this one is tasked with closing out the saga that began at a time far, far away in 1977. Returning to direct with that weight on his shoulders is J.J. Abrams, who kickstarted the series for new owner Disney four years ago with The Force Awakens.

He does so two years following The Last Jedi from Rian Johnson, which sharply divided fans and critics by going in unexpected directions. Even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, didn’t jive with the choices Johnson made with his character shuddered on an island and not wishing to utilize his Jedi skills. That was one compliant from some diehard fans, among others. You could say they had their knives out for it, so to speak.

I found The Last Jedi to be flawed and disjointed, but also filled with great moments. There aren’t many of them here in Skywalker. As I ponder it, episodes VII-IX do follow a similar arc as the iconic I-III. The Force Awakens was tasked with introducing new and exciting characters from these galaxies. It also had to mix in Luke and Leia and Han Solo and Chewie. I felt, for the most part, that it did so successfully. That especially applies to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In fact, their little therapy sessions from The Last Jedi were highlights of the whole trilogy. The common critique of Awakens is that it was a rehash of the first Star Wars. While this is with some merit, it didn’t take away my immense enjoyment of it.

As mentioned, The Last Jedi was more of a mixed bag. Yet with Johnson’s sometimes confounding but often daring choices, it was also the boldest. This is where a comparison with 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back seems fair. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nowhere in its league, but it did take what happened in the predecessor and take it in unexpected directions.

And now The Last Skywalker. Like 1983’s Return of the Jedi, this trilogy finale has to wrap it all up. Allow me to throw in this disclaimer – I don’t hold Return of the Jedi anywhere near the regards of what came before it. While I feel there are terrific moments, there’s a lot that didn’t work me and not just the Ewoks. It often felt a little tired and unsure of what to do with itself for a chunk of the running time. That applies to Skywalker and there’s aren’t as many terrific moments.

The similarities don’t end on just a quality level. Ultimately, the main plot here finds Rey facing a choice of whether to stay a Jedi or follow her lineage to the dark side… just as Luke did in Jedi. By the way, those lineage inquiries are addressed. Another complaint in Rian Johnson’s script was how he handled that aspect. Rey’s supporting cast is around with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) marshaling support to take on Kylo. And as the trailer suggested, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back in the mix, too. So is Billy Dee Williams as cocky fighter pilot Lando. His return isn’t exactly as pined for as what we got with Luke, Leia, and Han. As for Leia, Carrie Fisher does return utilizing unused footage from Awakens and Last Jedi. It’s handled delicately.

There are new players with Richard E. Grant joining Domhnall Gleeson as one of Kylo’s top lieutenants. Abrams throws some small parts to Keri Russell and Dominic Monaghan (who both starred in his TV shows). The short shrift is given to Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who had more of a presence in Last Jedi, but is basically ignored. That’s not exactly a problem as this is the Rey and Kylo show. Once again, both Ridley and Driver’s performances are first rate. Truth be told, though, Johnson wrote their dynamic better the last time around.

For the major detractors of The Last Jedi, perhaps this episode will feel like a return to Star Wars normalcy. I’m happy to listen to an argument that Johnson’s effort pairs well with the return of Abrams, but it would take lots of convincing. Skywalker often reeks of a course correction. This is becoming more common with franchises. We just saw Terminator: Dark Fate ignore the three pictures ahead of it. The X-Men series had to get creative with their timeline and do away with it under specific circumstances.

Those franchises aren’t Star Wars. The meeting between Han Solo and his son Kylo in The Force Awakens was a memorable, emotional, and surprising one. Whatever Mark Hamill and others might think about his treatment in The Last Jedi, a brief reunion with his sister in it was marvelous. In Skywalker, Abrams goes for a lot of those moments. And it felt, well, forced. The visual splendor and incredible production design (and the rousing John Williams score) is intact. A few scenes with Rey and Kylo work. Ultimately, I suspect my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker will be somewhat similar to Return of the Jedi – as an inferior product to its two predecessors.

**1/2 (out of four)