MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – Painfully Authentic Depiction of Divorce

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I finally caught up with MARRIAGE STORY (2019) the other night, the only 2019 Best Picture nominee that I had not seen before the Oscars aired last week.

I had heard that its depiction of divorce was depressingly realistic, and after finally having seen it,  I have to agree. MARRIAGE STORY gets the emotions right.

MARRIAGE STORY opens with a voice-over by Charlie (Adam Driver) describing all the reasons why he fell in love with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and these reasons play out in little vignettes shown on-screen. Then it’s Nicole’s turn as she describes why she fell in love with Charlie, again in a voice-over narration with the accompanying vignettes. It turns out these were written by Charlie and Nicole as part of their mediation process, and when Nicole refuses to read out loud what she wrote, she walks out of the mediation meeting, and thus MARRIAGE STORY begins.

Charlie runs a very successful theater group in New York City, he as the director, and Nicole as the lead actress, but Nicole has always longed to return to Los Angeles where her family lives, but Charlie has never been interested in that idea, which has caused Nicole stress over the years. When Nicole accepts a role in a TV pilot, she moves to LA with their eight year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertston), a move that Charlie believes is temporary.

But once there, Nicole hires divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who reminds Nicole that this process is about her getting what she wants and that there is no reason why she has to settle for things she doesn’t want, a la things that Charlie wants. When Charlie arrives in LA, he’s served the divorce papers, and he feels blindsided and betrayed by Nicole as he was under the impression that they were not going to hire lawyers, but Nicole makes it clear that she is unhappy and this is the only way she is going to get what she wants.

Charlie hires a more sensitive attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), but after losing continually to Nora’s hardball tactics, he hires a tougher attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) because as he tells Nicole, “I needed my own assh*le.”

As things get uglier and nastier, Nicole and Charlie have to deal with all their emotions even as they realize they don’t really want to hurt each other, in spite of the fact that their marriage is over and their divorce is imminent.

I really liked MARRIAGE STORY, even though watching it was a very uncomfortable experience.  As I said, it gets the emotions right. Through Nicole and Charlie, we witness the pain of watching one’s family and way of life disintegrate before one’s eyes, the frustration of suddenly being adversaries with the very person they’d been in love with, having to keep it together in front of their child, having to deal with their child’s emotions, but as a parent working alone. It makes them say things they simply don’t mean, as the whole ordeal gets inside their heads and changes them, scars them.

All of this is depicted very accurately in MARRIAGE STORY, as well as the sense that even while the divorce is happening, there’s the feeling that Nicole and Charlie don’t really want it to happen. That they love each other and don’t really want to hurt each other, but yet the marriage is over, and so there’s this weird mix of fighting for what you want and need vs. wanting on some level to keep that sense of family together even as the actual family is now separate.

So, kudos to writer/director Noah Baumbach for creating such a genuine portrait of divorce. The screenplay is outstanding.

As is the acting, especially by the two leads. Adam Driver continues to impress me as an actor. Sure, he plays Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS movies, and he’s very good in the role, but he’s been better in other movies, in films like LOGAN LUCKY (2017) and BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018). His work here in MARRIAGE STORY is best of all.

Driver makes Charlie a self-absorbed character who is totally at home directing for the stage and perfectly content in that world, but it blinds him to the needs of his wife. He enjoys some powerful scenes, especially with Johansson, as their arguments are fiery and agonizing. Driver’s best moment comes when Charlie unleashes upon Nicole wishing her deader than dead, and then he just collapses, overcome with emotion, before apologizing for what he said.

Scarlett Johansson is just as good. As Nicole, she’s the one who seeks the divorce, but she’s also the one who needs the change, as Charlie is so stuck in his own world nothing she has said or done so far had been able to reach him. When she files for divorce, and Charlie tries to reconcile, in her eyes, it’s already too late. She believes if she goes back it’ll be the same, and she wants more for her life.

Johansson was equally as good as another mother Rosie in JOJO RABBIT (2019), which means 2019 was a pretty darn good year for Johansson.

Laura Dern won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role here as divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw. Dern is excellent, no question, although I thought both Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and Kathy Bates in RICHARD JEWELL (2019) gave better performances. That’s not to take anything away from Dern, who like Johansson, also enjoyed a stellar 2019. Dern was also in LITTLE WOMEN, as matriarch Marmee March, and she’s excellent in both films. In fact, these two performances are among Dern’s best ever. She’s been making movies for a long time, and so I for one was happy she won the Oscar. And I’m old enough to remember one of her earliest movies, SMOOTH TALK (1985), which I saw at the movies. She impressed me then and has continued to do so ever since.

But the main reason to see MARRIAGE STORY is to watch Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson performing at the top of their game. As good as the script is, MARRIAGE STORY ultimately works because of Driver and Johansson. They nail their roles, and the emotions that go along with them.

MARRIAGE STORY is not a fun movie, but it is an accurate one. Its depiction of divorce is painfully spot-on.

As such, it’s one of the finest dramas of 2019.

—END—

 

 

 

PARASITE (2019) – Gripping Tale of Haves and Have-Nots Comedic One Moment, Horrific The Next

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So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi in PARASITE (2019).

Usually when a movie can’t be pigeonholed into one genre, the common refrain is that it can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be.

Not so with PARASITE (2019), a drama that hails from South Korea that is frequently comedic even as it flirts with undertones of a harsh reality, before it explodes into a full-blown horrific nightmare.

PARASITE has been quietly gaining momentum as a dark horse Best Picture contender, and while I certainly really liked this one, I’m not sure it would have made it into my Top Ten list for Best Movies of 2019.

That being said, I still really liked it.

PARASITE is the story of a destitute family, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), their 20-something daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi). They are all unemployed and live in a decrepit basement dwelling.

But when Ki-woo’s college friend recommends him to take over his private tutoring position while he studies abroad, Ki-woo suddenly finds himself hired to tutor the high school daughter of a very wealthy family and as a result he’s handsomely paid. He then comes up with a scheme to have his sister impersonate an art therapy tutor to help the family’s youngest son, and once she’s hired, now there are two members of Ki-woo’s family working and getting paid amazingly well.

So, why stop there? The comedic plot thickens as the family schemes to get Ki-taek and Chung-sook hired there as well, and so they all find themselves pretending to be people they are not working for the family led by Dong-ik Park (Sun-kyun Lee) and his wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). And while life is good for a while, as the two families interact, it becomes increasingly clear how much of a divide exists between the likes of Ki-taek’s family and Dong-ik’s, who hold the poor in contempt. And so there is this undercurrent of a painful divide which is there and seemingly on the verge of exploding yet never does.

Until something completely unexpected happens which turns everything that has occurred thus far on its head.

THE PARASITE is a gripping, captivating story that is as entertaining as it is disturbing. You’ll find yourself smiling and laughing along for one moment and then grimacing in horror the next. And the best part is these seemingly opposite emotions really work here, and they work because they are both based on truth. The truth of the matter is in the here and now, we are seeing a greater and greater divide between the haves and the have-nots, and while here the antics of the have-nots to make do can be light and humorous, when push comes to shove, and the realization hits that the have-nots are never going to be the haves, the pleasant comedic balance ends. Things get dark real fast.

THE PARASITE was written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, who has made a couple of other highly regarded movies, films like SNOWPIERCER (2013) and THE HOST (2006). The script captures the class differences perfectly, as does the camera, as we see entirely different worlds, the elegant and opulent home of Dong-ik and the shanty poverty-stricken dwelling of Ki-taek, which when there is a flood, not only has to contend with the flood waters, but all the back-up sewage water which erupts through their plumbing.

The cast is excellent, especially Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park as the four members of the Kim family.

The best part of THE PARASITE is that it mixes its emotions perfectly, and while at times it can be jarring to go from light laughter to brutal horror, in terms of the story it’s telling, it makes perfect sense and it works.

Sadly, the divisions between classes continues to grow. The rich seem to grow richer while the poor grow poorer.

The emotions in THE PARASITE capture and reflect this sad reality. In short, in these present conditions, you can only laugh for so long. Eventually you’ll be crying.

—-END—

 

THE GENTLEMEN (2019) – Latest Guy Ritchie Movie A Good One

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Guy Ritchie doesn’t get shown much love.

But I like his movies.

I enjoyed his two Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr., and while they were neither critical nor box office successes, I liked THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017).

Ritchie’s latest, THE GENTLEMEN (2019), filmed in 2019 but released here in 2020, is a gritty hard-hitting comedy-drama about an American drug dealer working to maintain his British drug empire amid attempts by his competitors to take him down.  It gets off to a somewhat slow start but then gets better as it gains steam and laughs, and by the time all is said and done, it’s another Guy Ritchie movie that is worth a look, in spite of what some critics are saying about it.

THE GENTLEMEN also has a terrific cast, led by Matthew McConaughey, who plays champion marijuana grower and self-described king of the jungle, Mickey Pearson. It’s another signature McConaughey performance, and for the most part he plays it straight, making Pearson a man who in spite of his principles, especially when it comes to his business, is not a man to be trifled with. He’s had a violent past, and he makes sure his enemies don’t forget that. While others in the cast get the laughs, McConaughey stays serious.

The story unfolds in a somewhat confusing way at first, as a private detective named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) confronts Pearson’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) with a demand for money because he knows things about their organization which he will make public unless they pay up. Fletcher explains that he was hired by the grimy newspaper editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) to dig up dirt on Pearson, which he did, but for a price, he won’t hand it over to the editor. Fletcher says he’s also written a screenplay, and he sits down to read it to Ray, as proof of what he knows.

So, the narrative continues as Fletcher reads his script, which begs the question, is this what really happened or just how Fletcher saw things? Hence, the confusion, but this is by design, and things do become more fun as the film goes along, as at times Ray chimes in to correct the story, and things we have seen change, as we re-watch sequences from different perspectives.

The result is a tale filled with unsavory characters that grows more complicated and outlandish as it goes along, building to some genuine big laughs. It’s also filled with some fast-paced dialogue and an energetic creative storytelling style that doesn’t allow the audience to relax.

Guy Ritchie’s style here is reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino movie, only not as dark and violent, but the quirkiness of the script is there, the playful banter, and the deadly mix of comedy and bloodshed as well.

The mostly male cast is excellent. Matthew McConaughey does his thing, at which he is very good. Probably his signature scene is when he says that his product, marijuana, doesn’t kill his customers, unlike his competitors who deal in drugs that do exactly that. In that moment, McConaughey nails the character, defines Pearson’s persona, and pretty much makes him a sympathetic protagonist.

But as good as McConaughey is, the two best performances in the movie are by Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell in supporting roles. Grant’s weasel private eye Fletcher is probably the best character in the movie, thanks to Grant’s flamboyant performance. Fletcher is a fast-talking storyteller who when he’s not telling jokes or moving the narrative along, is flirting with Ray, albeit not very successfully.

Colin Farrell plays a quirky character named Coach, who runs a fight club, a group where he’s trying to do something positive for the young men in the neighborhood, but his young men run afoul of Pearson’s empire, which pulls him into the fray. It’s a lively spirited performance by Farrell, and he gets the best laughs in the movie.

Charlie Hunnam does his thing as Ray, which is look to solid and act competently.  Jeremy Strong is sufficiently slimy as Matthew, the man who’s trying to buy out Pearson’s empire. But Henry Golding is largely wasted as Dry Eye, an Asian drug dealer who is also out for Pearson’s blood. His scenes are brief and the character pretty one-dimensional.

And character actor Eddie Marsan stands out as newspaper editor Big Dave. Marsan’s always good, as he’s delivered notable performances in such films as VICE (2018), WHITE BOY RICK (2018) and THEIR FINEST (2016).

And pretty much as the lone female character, Michelle Dockery is coolly efficient as Pearson’s no-nonsense wife Rosalind.

Ritchie wrote the screenplay, and it’s a good one. As I said, it starts off slow but then gains steam and never looks back. It’s a very funny script.

And behind the camera, Ritchie does a lot of things, from sequences viewed from different perspectives, to words superimposed over the screen at opportune times, to some quick and nifty editing. At the end of the day, you won’t be bored watching this movie. There’s a lot going on here.

I really liked THE GENTLEMEN. The characters were fleshed out and intriguing, the humor sharp and lively, and the story good enough to hold my interest throughout.

I definitely recommend this one.

—END—

 

1917 (2019) – World War I Drama Cinematic But Rarely Moving

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1917 (2019), the new World War I drama by director Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is at times cinematic and suspenseful, and at others brutal and shocking, but strangely it’s rarely moving.

In short, it’s not going to do for World War I trench warfare what SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) did for the World War II D-Day invasion at Normandy.

1917 wastes no time getting started. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) learn that they’ve been selected for a very dangerous mission. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs them that the battalion of soldiers on their way to engage the Germans are about to enter a trap. With phone lines cut, they have no way of warning them, so Blake and Schofield have been charged with racing across the front lines into no man’s land to cross into enemy territory in order to give the troops orders to stop their advance, since they mistakenly believe the Germans are on the run.

Blake has been chosen because he’s an expert with maps and will be able to navigate through the tricky enemy territory.  And only two men are being sent to avoid detection. To make matters more complicated, Blake’s older brother is in the battalion that’s about to fall into the trap.

The movie then follows Blake and Schofield on their nearly impossible task of making their way through the trenches to warn their fellow soldiers in time.

Director Mendes filmed 1917 to appear as if it was filmed in one long shot, and for a while, especially early on, it heightens the effect of the movie. Honestly, later in the movie, I simply didn’t notice as much.

Like Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK (2016) at times there’s not a lot of dialogue, as there’s mostly running and trudging through mud, and what little dialogue there is doesn’t always resonate.

The cinematography is impressive, and there are certainly some major cinematic moments, especially approaching the film’s climax. There are also some shocking scenes, although nothing as brutal as what was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

The best part of 1917 is the way it depicts trench warfare. You can almost smell the mud and the decomposing bodies. Mud is everywhere, as are corpses. One scene involves some particularly nasty looking bloated bodies floating in a river. It really captures the sense of how draining and how worn down the soldiers were from the unending horrors of it all.

The screenplay by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is decent enough, although the writing is nowhere near as sharp as the cinematography. The dialogue just isn’t all that moving, nor are the characters. In fact, I didn’t really feel an emotional connection to the proceedings until the final reel.

Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are very good in the lead roles. They have to be. They’re in most of the movie. Everyone else is secondary. And heavy hitters like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong appear in nothing more than cameos.

While I definitely enjoyed 1917, it didn’t wow me completely. Visually, it’s striking, as the images throughout the film are potent and sometimes haunting. But the dialogue and the characters weren’t quite up to snuff.

1917 is an above average World War I drama. It gives you a thorough understanding and appreciation for what trench warfare was like.

It also has some things to say for present day audiences. In today’s world, where we seem to be at war nonstop, its message of soldiers wondering what they’re fighting for, and wishing just to get back home, says something of the importance of war as a last resort, as opposed to war as the first choice of world leaders.

—END—

 

Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) – Clint Eastwood’s Take on Atlanta Bombing Hero-Then-Suspect A Good One

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Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, and Paul Walter Hauser in Clint Eastwood’s RICHARD JEWELL (2019).

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) has a story to tell.

A story about how a man’s life was nearly ruined by an aggressive press and FBI investigation that both got it wrong when they accused him of being a terrorist bomber, releasing the story to the national media before the facts had been ascertained, in effect convicting him before he was ever charged.

This of course is based on the true story of what actually happened to Richard Jewell, a security guard who was falsely accused of the terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

RICHARD JEWELL tells this story well, and it does this with its talented cast and with Clint Eastwood at the helm. Eastwood, who is 89 – let that sink in for a moment—, continues to amaze, making films at an age long after most people have retired. Sure, his last couple of movies were misfires, THE MULE (2018) and THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), but his three movies before that were all exceptional, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014). Of course, Eastwood’s entire body of work is nothing short of astonishing, as he will be remembered as both one of the screen’s finest actors and directors, and I think he’ll be remembered more for his work behind the camera than in front of it.

With RICHARD JEWELL, Eastwood has made another quality movie, well worth your time.

When we first meet Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) he’s a supply room clerk who’s rather odd and even a bit creepy in the way he lingers around people when he talks to them. He strikes up a friendship with one of the attorneys at the office, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) when he stocks his desk with Snickers bars. When Bryant asks him how he knew he liked Snickers, Jewell tells him he saw Snickers wrappers in his trash. Jewell also tells Bryant of his dreams to have a career in law enforcement.

The movie jumps ahead ten years, and Richard is working as a security guard at a local college, but because of his aggressive take on the position, he is fired. He next takes up a temporary security guard position at the Atlanta Olympics. Richard so wants to succeed in law enforcement, that he takes everything he does extremely seriously, and so while covering the Olympics, he’s always on the lookout for suspicious people and bags, and when he finds one lying on the ground, he alerts the police, and they tell him it’s probably harmless, but he insists they call for the bomb experts. They do, and it turns out he was right: the backpack contained a bomb, and before it can be defused, it goes off.

But because the evacuation had already started, the casualties were much lower than they would have been. When news breaks that Richard was the man who first found the bomb, he becomes an instant celebrity, and he’s hailed as a hero. But the FBI receives a call from Richard’s former college employer who had fired him, and he tells the FBI that based on his experience with Richard at the college, he fears Richard may be the type of person seeking attention, and it’s possible he may have planted the bomb just so he could play the hero.

The FBI agrees, feeling Richard fits the profile of someone who would go to extreme lengths to become a hero, and they quickly name Richard as their top suspect. Meanwhile, aggressive reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) in search of an angle, seduces information out of FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) who tells her they suspect Richard Jewell. Scruggs writes and publishes the article in the newspaper naming Jewell as the prime suspect, and the story goes national, enraging the FBI because they hadn’t even started their investigation. It also causes a media sensation, and the next thing Richard knows he’s being labeled a terrorist, the press surrounds his home and follows his every move, and the FBI brings him in for questioning.

Richard then turns to the only attorney he knows, Watson Bryant, a man he hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, but Bryant remembers Richard, and he agrees to take his case. The rest of the movie follows Bryant’s efforts to clear Richard’s name and attempt to undo the guilty verdict which the media had already delivered.

The strength of RICHARD JEWELL is that it does a terrific job telling its story while not politicizing it. Both the press and the FBI do not come out of this smelling like roses, and yet the film doesn’t espouse any of the delusional “enemy of the people” or “deep state ” fears which exist today. That’s because director Eastwood and the screenplay by Billy Ray, based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner, both show how easy and normal it would be to mistake Richard’s odd enthusiasm for law enforcement for something more sinister. Heck, just listening to him speak, he sounds weird enough to be guilty. Then again, what does a guilty person sound like? And that’s the point the film makes. In spite of appearances, you still can’t charge a guy without any evidence.

Which is one of the more amazing things about this story. The news about Jewell erupted in the news cycle without a shred of evidence behind it. Jewell was never charged because except for his “profile” there was nothing that was found that implicated him in the crime.

The acting is superb.

Paul Walter Hauser is captivating as Richard Jewell, an odd duck who is so dedicated and sincere in his quest to become a law enforcement officer that he sounds ridiculous to those who don’t know him well, hence fueling the fire and the notion that he has something to hide. However, both the movie and Hauser make Jewell’s portrayal clear: he may be an oddball, but he’s not guilty. In this regard, the film works well. The audience knows full well that Richard is innocent. Yet, suspicions about him are certainly understandable based on his personality. The problem was the press leaked the story before it had any corroborating facts. The only fact they had was the FBI had named Jewell as their prime suspect, which was true, but what followed was a trial in the media that all but confirmed Jewell’s guilt even as he remained uncharged by the FBI.

Hauser played a similar role in I, TONYA (2017), as Tonya Harding’s one-time body-guard, except in that movie he was an oddball who did carry out sinister intentions, hiring the guys who attacked Nancy Kerrigan.

As attorney Watson Bryant, Sam Rockwell is excellent as he always is. He’s one of my favorite actors working today, and I often see movies just because he’s in them. In fact, the main reason I saw RICHARD JEWELL was because Rockwell was in it.  Just look at his last three performances, for example. He stood out as Nazi Captain Klenzendorf in JO JO RABBIT (2019), as KKK member C.P. Ellis in THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019), and as George W. Bush in VICE (2018). And oh yeah, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as racist cop Dixon in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). And all of these roles were very different. Rockwell is as versatile as he is captivating on-screen.

Here, as Watson Bryant, he takes Richard’s case not only because he needs the business, but because he likes Richard and believes in him. In one of the better scenes in the film, after a bitter argument, Watson asks Richard why he chose him as his attorney, and Richard says he chose him because all those years ago he was the only person there who didn’t make fun of Richard, slur his intelligence, and fat shame him. He was the only person there who took time to talk to him.

Kathy Bates is fantastic as Richard’s dedicated mother. Bates knocks it out of the park when things spiral out of control ,and she laments she doesn’t know how to protect her son any longer. The pain she experiences is palpable. Her speech to the media towards the end of the film where she pleads for President Clinton to clear her son’s name is one of the more emotional scenes in the film.

Olivia Wilde as newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs and Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw add solid support, and Nina Arianda stands out as Watson’s loyal assistant Nadya Light, and she gets some of the better lines in the movie.

While the sequence featuring the bombing at the Olympics is suspenseful, RICHARD JEWELL is not a suspense thriller but a drama documenting what happens when there is a rush to judgement in the media. It nonetheless make for some compelling storytelling.

I liked RICHARD JEWELL a lot.  With his 41st film in the director’s chair, Clint Eastwood continues to cement his legacy as one of film’s greatest directors. He frames this story in clear understandable fashion, and he gets the most out of his actors. The result is a movie that both makes its point that facts matter, that media leaks and FBI bias are problematic, and that portrays Richard Jewell in sympathetic fashion so that his plight is understood and believed.

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LITTLE WOMEN (2019) – Innovative Adaptation by Greta Gerwig One of Best Films of 2019

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little women

Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019).

Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.

Her directorial debut was just two years ago with LADY BIRD (2017), a biting yet sensitive story of a high school girl’s turbulent relationship with her mother as she prepares to go off to college.  And before LADY BIRD Gerwig had already been enjoying a career as an accomplished actress and writer.

Now comes LITTLE WOMEN (2019), an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel that I liked even more than LADY BIRD. Simply put, LITTLE WOMEN is so good it’s one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.

And I’m not really a fan of Alcott’s novel or the previous movie versions of this tale.

But I am an instant fan of this movie, and there are two major reasons why. The first is the way writer/director Gerwig frames the story, and the second is the film’s cast.

To keep a classic story fresh, sometimes it helps to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what Greta Gerwig has done with this interpretation of LITTLE WOMEN. Gerwig made the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence.  The film begins with events that occur late in the story, and then rather than use simple flashback, Gerwig takes the movie viewer on a journey through events that make perfect sense even though they are not in chronological order.

To do this successfully, one has to have a command of the story or else the audience will be flat-out confused. Gerwig demonstrates full command of this tale. Events are linked through emotional connections rather than time, and so when a character is thinking or feeling a certain thought or emotion, the story goes there in time and those events play out. The result is an innovative take on a classic tale that in spite of not following a chronological order makes complete and perfect sense.

LITTLE WOMEN is the story of four sisters living in Concord, Massachusetts in the years during and following the Civil War. There’s Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the free-spirited writer who values her writing above all else, oldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) who is more traditional and down to earth than Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), the artist who’s also the loudest and often most troubled of the sisters, and the youngest, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the quiet musician who is the least healthy sister.

They are being raised by their mother Marmee March (Laura Dern) since their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the war. Their young wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is infatuated with Jo, and as such becomes friends with all four sisters. He eventually proposes to Jo but she turns him down. Now, the film opens after this major event in the story has already happened, with Amy in Paris with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) where she meets a forlorn Laurie traveling Europe on his own.

The story follows the plight of these four sisters, and in doing so remains remarkably timely as the film has a lot to say to modern audiences about the state of women in the 1860s, and it makes some interesting parallels to today. For example, there’s Jo’s conversation with her mother where she pushes back against the notion that a woman’s purpose is only to fall in love and get married. Jo argues that she wants to make something of her life, not just get married, but yet admits she his horribly lonely. And there’s Amy’s speech about marriage which outlines just how powerless women were in those years, that there was no way for her to make money unless she married into it, and even if she were wealthy, if she married, her wealth would immediately go to her husband, who also would have complete custody over any children they had. The details of what a woman’s life was like without rights resonates today when some of those rights are again being threatened.

It’s a superior script by Greta Gerwig that works on every level.

And what a cast!

The four leads are superb. Saoirse Ronan who also played Lady Bird in LADY BIRD is wonderfully captivating as Jo here. She captures the character’s fiery spirit and brings her to life in a way that seems far removed from the pages of a literary classic. She makes Jo a living breathing character. Ronan is one of the most intriguing actresses working today.

Likewise Florence Pugh is commanding as Amy March. She runs the full gamut from a young immature girl to a wise and worldly woman. Like Ronan, Pugh is another actress to watch. She made this movie right after filming the disturbing horror movie MIDSOMMAR (2019), and in interviews Pugh has said making LITTLE WOMEN served as therapy for her after such a traumatic experience making MIDSOMMAR.

I also really enjoyed Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Emma Watson, who I feel is underrated as an actress, also does a fine job as the down to earth Meg.

Laura Dern delivers her best performance in years as Marmee March, and that’s saying something because Dern is an excellent actress who has delivered a lot of phenomenal performances. She makes Marmee the glue that keeps her family together, even when she’s gone off to tend to her ailing husband.

Timothee Chalamet shines as Laurie. Chalamet and Ronan also starred together in LADY BIRD, and their familiarity with each other shows here in LITTLE WOMEN as they really have a strong on-screen chemistry together.

Tracy Letts, who was memorable as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD, is memorable here again as Mr. Dashwood, the editor who buys Jo’s stories but is very particular about the kinds of stories he wants. Bob Odenkirk only adds to the acting depth with his portrayal of the patriarch of the March family.

And then if all this isn’t enough, the film has heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in the supporting cast.  Streep knocks it out of the park and has several scene stealing moments, albeit subtle ones, as Aunt March, and Chris Cooper, as he always does, delivers the goods as Laurie’s father Mr. Laurence. While Cooper here is playing an admirable father, we just saw him play a much less admirable daddy in A BEAUTFIUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019).

The entire cast is flawless.

Greta Gerwig is every bit as successful behind the camera as she is writing the screenplay. The film is wonderfully shot and visually attractive. It especially captures the feel of a cold and snowy New England winter. There are also some neatly framed shots, like the scene where Jo rejects Laurie and then finds herself sitting alone in a field with a picturesque New England scene in the background complete with a church steeple in the distance which enhances Jo’s loneliness since she is so far removed from the symbol of marriage.

The dance scenes are lively, the script sharp, full of both poignant and humorous moments, and the pacing perfect. The film’s two-hour and fifteen minute running time never drags.

This version of LITTLE WOMEN is driven by its storytelling, by Greta Gerwig’s innovative script and her on-target directing, as well as by its superb ensemble acting. The result is a completely engrossing tale of four New England sisters who have hopes and dreams and like any family of modest means struggle to achieve them. Through it all, they stand by each other.

And while the main character of the story is Jo—it’s her story arc that frames the entire movie—the film also spends considerable time on Amy. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are both up to the task of putting this movie on their shoulders and with the help of a strong supporting cast they make it one of the best movies of the year.

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