DA 5 BLOODS (2020) – Spike Lee’s Latest A Moving Discourse on Black Lives Matter Told Through A Story About Vietnam

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020), Spike Lee’s latest movie, and his first for Netflix, is must-see viewing, especially in light of current events.

It offers a history and an understanding of Black Lives Matter that argues that the plight of the African American male in the United States has been an issue since the country was first formed, and in spite of various movements to make changes, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, things here in 2020 remain largely the same. And it does it with a story about Vietnam that is straightforward without being preachy. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them.

DA 5 BLOODS is the story of four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who return to Vietnam in 2020 to both locate the remains of their fallen Squad Leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to recover a stash of gold which they had found and buried in the jungle there.

The bulk of the movie is this present-day story, but the film also incorporates flashbacks to show us these five friends—da 5 Bloods— in action in Vietnam. Spike Lee does a couple of creative things with these flashbacks. He didn’t use younger actors or CGI affects to make the four main characters look younger. They appear in these scenes looking as old as they do now. Only Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, appears young, which serves to accentuate that Norman’s life was cut short and he never got to grow old. I thought this was a bold decision on Lee’s part, as this is hardly ever done, especially with the available CGI technology. It’s a decision that really worked.

The other creative decision Lee made with the flashback sequences is he changes the screen format for them. The movie is in widescreen format, but when the flashbacks occur, the ratio changes and the picture is reduced in size. It’s another neat effect that works.

The screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee is full of intricacies and works on multiple levels. It hammers its point home that the plight of African Americans in the U.S. has been going on since day one— with references to George Washington owning slaves— and that it continues to this day.

And the main story of the four men returning to Vietnam is a good one, and would have worked well as a straightforward war drama. It’s a really good screenplay. It was originally written by Danny Wilson and Paul De Meo as a story about four white Vietnam veterans, and for a while Oliver Stone was attached to the project. It eventually made its way to Spike Lee, and he and writer Kevin Willmott rewrote the script and changed the story to be about black soldiers instead.

The other subplot is that these four friends have changed over the years, and throughout their journey back into Vietnam they struggle to get along because they have changed so much. Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, is the most interesting character of the four. He suffers from PTSD and is haunted by dreams of Norman, who he idolized. To make matters more complicated, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) also joins the group, against his father’s wishes, but David is worried about his dad and wants to be there to keep an eye on him. Paul also feels guilty because he has never been able to love his son the way he wanted.

To the shock of his friends, Paul is also a Trump supporter, and even wears a MAGA hat! As he explains it, he is sick and tired of the system constantly walking over him and taking from him, and so he wants to blow it all up and vote for someone who hates the system like he does. Delroy Lindo is excellent in the role, and he delivers the best performance in the movie.

Clark Peters as Otis, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin are also very good, and each of their characters also have their own back stories. And Chadwick Boseman, who of course plays Black Panther in the Marvel movies, and also played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) is really good here in a limited role as Norman. He’s only in the flashback scenes, but he makes his presence known, and it’s clear why his friends admired him so much. The scene when they finally find his remains is one of the most emotional scenes in the movie.

Jean Reno also shows up as a shadowy French businessman Desroche who is also interested in the gold the men are searching for. Van Veronica Ngo enjoys some chilling scenes as Hanoi Hannah. And Melanie Thierry is very good as Hedy, a French expert on land mine diffusion who David meets in a bar and who later becomes an integral part of the storyline.

DA 5 BLOODS doesn’t skimp on the war violence either. There are some gruesome scenes, especially toward the end.

There are also plenty of emotional scenes and poignant ones, including the sequence where Otis visits an old girlfriend, and Paul and David’s father/son interactions.

There are all kinds of memorable exchanges, like when Paul calls his friends the N-word, and they take offense. There’s conversatons about drug abuse, alcohol, guns, and other hot button topics. The script even throws in an Easter Egg to one of Lee’s favorite movies, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), as one of the characters utters the film’s most famous line.

All in all, DA 5 BLOODS is one of Spike Lee’s best movies. I actually enjoyed it a bit more than his previous film, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), which was also an excellent movie and was a Best Picture Nominee. I thought DA 5 BLOODS was a more ambitious movie and a bit grander in scope. That being said, it’s a bit long, clocking in at two hours and thirty four minutes, and I thought it dragged somewhat during its second half.

But it’s still one of Lee’s best.

It convincingly defends Black Lives Matter and explains why this movement is so important, because nothing has changed for over two hundred years. And while the film offers a conclusion of hope borne from tragedy and violent bloodshed, it does so with one eye on the future that perhaps at long last this is indeed the moment of change people have been waiting for, but also with another eye firmly set on the past as a reminder that we’ve had these moments before and they haven’t changed a thing.

DA 5 BLOODS is a movie about friendship, bloodshed, and sacrifice. It travels between the 1960s and 2020 effortlessly, offering looks at two key volatile periods in the history of race relations, offering a vision that perhaps this time the change is permanent and real.

—END—

 

SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

—END—

 

 

 

MUDBOUND (2017) – Story of Two Farm Families & Racism in 1940s Mississippi Builds To Compelling Final Act

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MUDBOUND (2017) is a Netflix original movie from 2017 that tells the story of two families, one white and one black, who live and work on the same farm in the days following World War II. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige, and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it didn’t win any.

In MUDBOUND, stoic and often cold Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their young children to Mississippi to fulfill his dream of owning and operating a farm. Included in the move is his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) who makes no secret of his hatred of blacks. When Henry realizes his deal to rent a farmhouse off the property of the farm was phony, and that he was swindled, he’s forced to move his family onto a much less attractive home on the actual farm, within walking distance of the black family who live there and work on the property.

This family belongs to Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), who along with their children, all work on the farm. The stories and interactions of these two families are told through a variety of perspectives, as each character spends time in the movie as a first person narrator.

Two of the characters, Henry’s playboy brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both serve in World War II and see combat, bloody scarring combat, and when they return after the war they form a friendship which crosses the racial divides of the time.

I liked MUDBOUND well enough, but for most of the movie’s two-hour and fourteen minute running time I found it watchable but seldom compelling, until the film’s final act, when the story focuses on the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel, and leads to the film’s brutal climax, the one moment in the movie that lifts it to a higher level. It’s a moment that is exceedingly disturbing yet equally powerful and captures the racial hatred of the time in a way that the rest of the movie only hints at.

One of the reasons I didn’t love MUDBOUND is the screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, utilized the method of having multiple characters narrate the movie from their individual perspectives. While this seems very creative, it prevented the film from having a main narrative voice, that one character who as a viewer you could latch onto, buy into their story, and go along with them for the ride. This doesn’t really happen until the film’s final act, with the story of Jamie’s and Ronsel’s friendship, and the tragedy which ensues because of it.

Neither family, the McAllans or the Jacksons, really come to life. They each have their moments, and the film chronicles the often uncomfortable ways they have to deal with each other, because of the McAllan’s racist attitudes, but there are few moments that really stand out.

The film looks good, and with a title like MUDBOUND is sufficiently muddy. Director Dee Rees successfully captures the climate of rural Mississippi, with hard long rains, and thick soggy farmland. And while the story of the two families works, it never gets as emotional as I expected it to, except towards the end. The biggest reason for this lack of emotion was the lack of a main character to latch onto.

The acting in MUDBOUND is all very good. The two best performances were by Garret Hedlund as Jamie and Jason Mitchell as Rondell, and the story of their friendship is the best part of the movie. I especially thought Jason Mitchell knocked it out of the park.

As I said, Mary J. Blige was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the Jackson matriarch Florence, and Blige does give a noteworthy performance. She especially enjoys some key moments where she reflects on her role as a mother, like when she is called to care for the McAllan children who have developed whooping-cough, and she realizes what it would mean for her entire family if she were to fail and these children were to get worse or die.

I also really enjoyed Carey Mulligan as Henry’s long-suffering wife Laura. She too has some notable scenes, and she’s often the character who can see past her family’s racist views but knows she’s in no position to do anything about it. I hadn’t seen Mulligan in a while. She has delivered some very memorable performances in such films as THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Daisy Buchanan, and DRIVE (2011). Here, Mulligan is plain and down to earth, a farmer’s wife, which is a far cry from some of the more glamorous roles she’s played in the past.

Interestingly enough, her co-star here Jason Clarke, who plays her husband Henry, also starred in THE GREAT GATSBY as George Wilson. Clarke is fine here as hubby Henry, a man most in the audience will ultimately not like.

Rob Morgan does a commendable job as Hap Jackson, and Jonathan Banks is at his vile best as the extremely racist Pappy. If there’s one character who draws out an emotional reaction throughout, it’s Pappy, and Banks is excellent in the role. He’ll turn your stomach.

MUDBOUND was the first of the non-documentary Netflix movies to be nominated for an Academy Award, and all four of its nominations were for female nominees.

MUDBOUND tells a noteworthy and often disturbing story of racism in Mississippi in the days following World War II, and it tells this story through the lens of two families living on the same farm, one white and one black.

And while it’s not always as evocative and emotional as one would expect, it does build to a very disturbing conclusion that sears into its audience’s memory some rather horrific images, in a climax that lifts this film from historical narrative to tear-inducing drama.

It takes a while for this to happen, but overall, it’s worth the wait, as before the end credits role, the ugliness of racism rears its putrid head and reminds us why ultimately stories like this need to be told.

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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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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.

—END—

 

 

DARK WATERS (2019) – Somber Story of Dupont’s Negligence Revealing and Grim

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DARK WATERS (2019) starring Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who goes after the Dupont chemical company for knowingly dumping poisonous chemicals into the water supply of a West Virginia town is one somber movie.

It’s grim because one, it’s based on a true story, and two, Dupont’s negligence as described in this movie goes well beyond contaminating the water supply of one small town. With their Teflon marketing for cookware, they knowingly put the entire nation at risk and beyond. Indeed, Dupont’s callousness reached a global scale.

Enjoy your popcorn!

So, yes, DARK WATERS deals with some very heavy subject matter, and it does it in a way that is unassuming and direct. Its style reminded me a lot of another somber movie which starred Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT (2015), which chronicled the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church in Boston. Like SPOTLIGHT, DARK WATERS simply allows its story to unfold. It doesn’t get overdramatic or fill its screen time with forced bells and whistles. Its story is damaging enough on its own.

In the mid 1990s attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just made partner at his firm which specializes in representing large companies like Dupont. So, when he is approached by a farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) asking him to represent him in a case against Dupont, Robert tells him he needs to find another attorney.  But Tennant tells Robert he’s a friend of his grandmother’s, and so, out of respect for his grandmother, he pays Tennant a visit.

Robert sees firsthand the damage done at Tennant’s farm. Nearly all his cattle have died, and Tennant wants Dupont investigated because he believes they have been spilling chemicals into his land via a neighboring landfill. Robert agrees to take the case, and as he explains it to his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) he believes it will just be a matter of opening Dupont’s eyes to a mistake made by some of their local workers. They’ll fix the mistake, and that will be the end of that.

Hardly.

What Robert uncovers is that Dupont knew exactly what they were doing, and that their disregard for the dangers uncovered by their own research went back decades. Of course, once he discovers this, he is met by fierce resistance both by Dupont and his own firm who see it as bad business to take on a giant like Dupont. But Robert is undeterred, and he continues to wage his battle against the chemical giant, even as it takes its toll on his family and his own health.

I really liked DARK WATERS, even though watching it was certainly not a pleasurable experience. Quite the contrary, it was as disturbing a cinematic experience as I’ve had in a while. The ramifications of its story reach deep into the heart of its audience as it sheds light on an issue that is still with us today. In short, the “forever chemicals” carelessly dumped into the environment by Dupont are already in all of our bloodstreams. Forever chemicals are those which the human body cannot break down. The damage is already done.

Director Todd Haynes, as I said, does not get in the way of this story, nor does he try to sensationalize it. Even though Dupont is viewed as an “evil company,” the focus throughout remains on main character Robert Bilott and the toll the case takes on him. The emphasis is on the human element, how these chemicals harmed the folks in that West Virginia town, and beyond.

Haynes heightens the direness of the story by filming it in dreary drab grays. The countryside is depicted under cloudy skies. The sun is hardly seen. There’s a cloud hanging over West Virginia, and its name is Dupont.

Likewise, the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on a magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, is simple and to the point. And while it doesn’t go out of its way to overemphasize things, it does enjoy some rousing moments, like Tim Robbins’ speech as Tom Terp, where he’s listening to his fellow attorneys at the firm cautioning against taking on Dupont, and then he explodes in anger, saying what Robert has uncovered is a travesty, and that the folks at Dupont need to be called out for their recklessness, that American business is better than that, and that how everyone at that table should be chomping at the bit to take on Dupont.

Mark Ruffalo is excellent at Robert Bilott. He delivers a powerful performance and he does it in a way which goes against what you might expect. He doesn’t deliver fiery emotional speeches or become more energized the deeper he gets into his investigation. No, it’s the opposite. The investigation nearly kills him. Instead of rousing speeches, he speaks less and less, as if the horrors of his findings are overwhelming him into silence. He grows more and more unhealthy, and Ruffalo does a remarkable job capturing the descent that Robert takes, all the while never backing down..

Anne Hathaway spends the first half of the movie in the thankless role of the stay-at-home housewife, but she turns it on during the film’s second half. Whereas Robert is beaten down, Hathway’s Sarah Bilott steps up for her husband, and she enjoys one of the movie’s better moments as she gives Tim Robbins’ Tom Terp a piece of her mind.

Tim Robbins is very good as Tom Terp, the attorney who sincerely wants to support Robert, and says as much several times during the movie, but as the senior partner at the firm, he has to look out for its best interests, which puts him at odds with Robert the longer this case drags on, and it does drag on. In fact, the end of the movie states that Robert Bilott continues his fight even today.

Bill Pullman shows up for a couple of brief scenes as the lively attorney Harry Dietzler, and he enjoys some fine moments helping Robert take on Dupont’s attorneys. And Victor Garber is sufficiently icy as Dupont head Phil Donnelly.

But my favorite performance in the film belongs to Bill Camp. His portrayal of farmer Wilbur Tennant is as authentic as you can get. Plus the character is integral to the story. He’s the man who first contacted Robert, and he’s also the man who speaks the truth throughout. It takes Robert a while to catch on to this, but when he does, he becomes all the more dedicated to helping Camp and his family, who like his animals, have also been diagnosed with cancer.

DARK WATERS is not a fun movie, and it’s not supposed to be. It tells a story that should be viewed and considered by as many people as possible.  And it serves as a reminder of what happens when large companies are allowed to operate unchecked, and more importantly, what can happen when even one dedicated person decides enough is enough and it’s time to fight back.

—END—

 

FORD v FERRARI (2019) -Thrilling Race Car Sequences Makes This One a Winner

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FORD v FERRARI (2019) is a fun movie to see in IMAX.

With its thrilling race scenes and camera angles that are low to the ground which put you in the driver’s seat, FORD v FERRARI watched in IMAX is a special treat. The thunderous roar of the engines literally shakes your insides, and the larger screen makes sure you don’t miss a single turn. It’s one very exciting movie experience.

FORD v FERRARI is based on the true story of how car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) were recruited by Ford Motor Company to build and race a car that could beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966.

With sales slipping, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) challenges his corporate team to start thinking outside the box to shake things up. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests they need a younger sportier image and that they could learn a thing or two from the ultra popular Ferrari. When Iacocca reveals that Ferrari is bankrupt, Ford offers a merger deal in which the two companies would work together, but Ferrari rejects the offer, instead inking a deal with Fiat. Insulted, Henry Ford II sets his sights on building a race car that will defeat Ferrari, and he says money is no object.

As a result, Iacocca turns to former race car driver and current car designer Carroll Shelby, who against his better judgment agrees to work for Ford. He handpicks Ken Miles as his driver, a decision that irks Ford Corporate, because Miles is viewed as a loose cannon and someone who does not live up to Ford’s conservative image. Complicating matters is Ford’s Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) cannot stand Miles and does everything in his power to remove him from the team, but Shelby is undeterred and fights for his driver all the way to racing day.

As I said, FORD v FERRARI in IMAX was a lot of fun since the larger screen and louder sound really heightened the race car effects.  And yes, the race scenes are definitely one of the reasons to see this one. They’re done really well, as director James Mangold keeps the camera in tight and captures the essence of race car driving from inside the front seat of the car.

I like Mangold as a director, as he’s directed a bunch of movies I’ve really enjoyed over the years, including LOGAN (2017). the superior R-rated Wolverine conclusion starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, the western 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) which starred Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, and way back when COP LAND (1997), which features one of Sylvester Stallone’s better acting performances.

The other reason to see FORD v FERRARI is its two leads, two actors I enjoy a lot, Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

Damon is well-cast as Carroll Shelby, the man who not only uses his talents to build the car that beats Ferrari, but also to keep his team together which is under constant attack by Ford Corporate. This one is called FORD v FERRARI but it could easily have been called FORD v CARROLL SHELBY since more often than not he’s fighting the very company that hired him to get the job done. This is probably Damon’s most satisfying role since THE MARTIAN (2015).

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor who impresses in nearly every movie he makes. Last time we saw Bale he was unrecognizable as Vice President Dick Cheney in VICE (2018), in a role that required him to gain a considerable amount of weight. Here, he had to lose weight again to play the lean and mean race car driver Ken Miles, and as you would expect, Bale is superb in the role. He easily delivers the best performance in the movie.

Jon Bernthal, another of my favorite actors, does a nice job as Lee Iacocca, and he more than holds his own alongside Damon and Bale. Even though Bernthal is known for his TV work, on shows like THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2018), he has a lot of film credits as well in some pretty impressive supporting roles, in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017) and WIND RIVER (2017). Incidentally, the real Lee Iacocca just passed away earlier this year.

Josh Lucas is also very good as the very annoying Leo Beebe, while Ray McKinnon is effective as lead mechanic Phil Remington. Rounding out the cast is young Noah Jupe who plays Ken’s son Peter, and Caitriona Balfe who plays Ken’s wife Mollie. Both are very good.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, as it tells a less straightforward story than one might expect. The real “villain” here isn’t Ferrari, but Ford, the company and Henry Ford II. The only Ford member shown in a positive light is Lee Iacocca. The rest are portrayed as unimaginative bullies who Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles have to circumvent in order to win. In fact, there are times in this one where I found myself rooting for Ferrari.

FORD v FERRARI is not an incredible or astounding movie, as its story simply isn’t thought-provoking or emotional enough to reach that level, but it does feature top-notch car racing scenes and two actors, Matt Damon and Christian Bale, performing at the top of their games, and they’re supported by a talented cast of actors.

The result is a thrilling movie experience that’s the closest thing to being behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans short of actually being there.

Start your engines!

—END—

 

 

THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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