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Richard Jewell (2019)

As I was watching Richard Jewell, a shocking realization began to form in my mind, something I had not anticipated from an awards-friendly venture from the likes of director Clint Eastwood – I was watching a strange secular version of a Kirk Cameron movie. Suddenly it all made sense where I had experienced this exact feeling before while watching a movie I knew wasn’t working. For those who have never watched the low-budget Christian indie dramas starring Cameron, such as Fireproof or the hilariously titled Kirk Cameron Saves Christmas (spoiler: he encourages materialism), they aren’t so much movies as they are filmed sermons, morals that have been given lackluster attention to turn into actual stories with actual characters. They don’t quite exist in a recognizably human reality, so they are often heavy-handed, tone deaf, and very very clunky, and sadly I can ascribe those very same qualities to the movie Richard Jewell.

Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is an eager, kind, awkward man who desperately wants to become a police officer and serve the public. His experience with law enforcement hasn’t quite worked out, so he’s currently serving as a security guard during the time of the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics. He spots a suspicious bag during a concert in Centennial Park, follows protocol alerting others, and in doing so saves lives as it turns out to be a homemade bomb. At first Jewell is a national hero, and the everyman is on talk shows, thanked by strangers, and has a potential book deal in the works. Then the FBI, led by Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the media, represented by Atlanta journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), turn the scrutiny onto Jewell himself. Suddenly the narrative twists and Jewell is believed to have planted the bomb to become the hero. Jewell is harassed by law enforcement, media speculation, and the pressure of trying to clear his name. He reaches out to an old colleague, rascally lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), to launch a defense and fight back against the Powers That Be.

This is the passion play of Richard Jewell but nobody actually feels like a human being, let alone the person at the center of attention. There isn’t a single person onscreen that feels like a person, though the closest is the lawyer, Bryant. Jewell’s mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), serves no other purpose but to act as her son’s cheerleader through good times and bad. When she has her teary media speech late in the film, I was relatively unmoved, because she was a figurehead. Everyone in the movie represents an idea or an organization, thus serving them up for double duty. Much like a passion play, we’re just here to watch the suffering and scold the abusers. It’s a movie meant to get our blood boiling, but other movies have been made to provoke outrage, especially highlighting past injustices under-reported through history. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that is made with the direct purpose of provoking anger at the mistreatment of others. The key is to make that central story relatable, otherwise the main figure is simply a one-dimensional martyr who only has the emotion of suffering. Without careful plotting and characterization, it can become an empty spectacle. With Richard Jewell, the main character is simply too boring as presented to be the lead. He’s an ordinary guy, but rarely do we see him in moments that provide layers or depth to him. And maybe that’s who he was, a transparent, average man who was too trusting of authority figures and a fair system of justice. Still, it’s the filmmakers’ responsibilities to make Richard Jewell feel like a compelling and multi-dimensional character in a movie literally called Richard Jewell. Even if the character arc is this poor sap starts to stand up for himself, this is severely underplayed. I sympathized with him but he felt more like a Saturday morning children’s mascot. He doesn’t feel like a person, let alone an interesting person, and that’s a big problem when he’s the closest thing the movie offers as a character and not a figurehead.

By far the worst character is Wilde’s media stand-in, a character so abrasively tone deaf and odious that when the bombing happens, she prays that she will be the one to get a scoop. The Evil Media Lady, which is what I’m renaming her because that’s all she serves in the story, is an awful amalgamation of the worst critiques people have with the media: rushing to judgment, callous indifference, and naked self-serving greed. The fact that she’s an invented character means she’s meant to represent the whole of the media, and yes, the media is one of the bad guys in the Richard Jewell story. They deserve ample criticism and condemnation, but when you serve them up in this careless, over-the-top manner, the vilification becomes more apparent than their culpability. Evil Media Lady literally sleeps with an FBI agent to get her scoops, scoops that end up being wrong, because she’s so devious and doesn’t care about The Truth. There is literally a dialogue exchange where she says, “I print the facts,” and another character retorts, “What about the truth, huh?” And wouldn’t you know, by the end, when Jewell’s mother gives her speech, who is listening and having a completely out-of-character turnaround but Evil Media Lady. I texted my friend Joe Marino as this was happening: “The power of her old white lady sad is making EVIL MEDIA LADY sad too, which means old white lady sad is the most powerful sad on Earth.”

The FBI are also portrayed as a group of conniving snakes who must have thought Jewell was the dumbest human being on the planet the way they interacted with him. When the FBI sets its sights on Jewell as the prime suspect, they bring him in under the guise that they’re filming a training video and he needs help them with some role-playing scenarios. It’s so obvious that it feels fake, and yet my pal Joe Marino replied that this was a real moment, that the FBI had such a low opinion of Jewell that they could get him to sign away his confession through trickery: “We’re going to… pretend… see, that we brought you in as a suspect… and pretend we read you your rights… and you’re going to… pretend… you’re the bomber. Now please actually sign this… pretend form and do not ask for a real lawyer.” I almost need a Big Short-style fourth-wall break where somebody turns to the camera and says, “This really happened.” In fact, a Big Short mixture of documentary, drama, and education would have served this movie well. Here’s the problem with serving up the media and FBI in this manner. They deserve scorn and scrutiny, but when you turn them into exaggerated cartoons of villainy, then it colors the moments onscreen when they’re actually doing the things that they did in real life. This is mitigating the movie’s level of realism as well as the emotional impact. It’s not a person versus a system but rather a martyr versus a series of cartoonish cretins all trying to punish this good Christian man.

The shame of the matter is that Jewell was done great harm for acting courageously, and there is definitely a movie in his tale, but I think the way to go would have been making his lawyer the main focal point. That way there’s more of a dynamic character arc of a man putting it all on the line to defend a media pariah, it could open up to the doubts the lawyer has early on, especially as Jewell is aloof or cagey about certain damaging info (he didn’t pay taxes for years?), eventually coming to realize the quality of man he was defending. Jewell, as a character, is static and stays the same throughout despite his great emotional upheaval. A story benefits from its protagonist changing through the story’s circumstances, and that’s where Rockwell’s character could come into view. He’s also by far the most engaging person and he has enough savvy to be able to fight back in the courts and court of public opinion, becoming an effective ally for a desperate man. That way it’s a story of trust and friendship and righting a wrong rather than a good-if-misunderstood man being martyred.

Throughout the two hours, Richard Jewell kept adding more and more examples of being a clunky and heavy-handed exercise. It would have been better for the bombing to be the inciting incident rather than the Act One break, sparing us so many scenes that do little and could be referenced rather than witnessed. Do we need to actually see Jewell getting fired from jobs to feel for him? There’s a reoccurring motif of Jewell bringing Snickers candy bars to Bryant as a friendly gift, and it’s so clumsy and weird. I started wondering if maybe Mars, Incorporated had paid for the bizarre product placement (“When you definitely did not plant a bomb in Centennial Park, break into a Snickers!”). There’s a dramatic beat where Jewell is trying to coax his distraught mother on the other side of a closed door. He just keeps repeatedly saying, “Momma please,” over and over while the music builds, and I guess the magic number was 17, and after that iteration she opens the door and they hug. It’s such an amazingly awkward scene. The dialogue has that same unreality as the rest of the movie, trying too hard to be declarative or leading, giving us lines like, “I’d rather be crazy than wrong,” and, “A little power can make a man into a monster.” It’s the kind of portentous, inauthentic dialogue exchanges I see in those Kirk Cameron movies. I wouldn’t have been that shocked if, by the end, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty showed up, running over the Evil Media Lady, and then they held a benefit concert for the persecution of white Christian males. I’m being a bit facetious here but Richard Jewell shouldn’t remind me of the derelict storytelling and characterization in hammy message-driven religious panoplies.

I was honestly shocked by Richard Jewell. I was expecting far more given the caliber of talent involved in the project as well as the inherent injustice in Jewell’s plight. Eastwood’s modern passion play feels too insufficient in passion. It’s an awkward movie that doesn’t give us a real character at its center, and it plays like every other human being in the universe is a representative of some storytelling function to service that empty center. There were lines of dialogue I just had to scoff over. There were moments that made me roll my eyes. I just couldn’t believe something this clunky could be designed for a late run for awards. The acting is all suitable, and Hauser does fine work as a mild-mannered everyman in a crucible, though I think he showed more adept skill in the enormously compelling I, Tonya. In fact, that 2017 movie could have been a lesson in how to tackle the filmic story of Richard Jewell, mixing in non-fiction elements to retell a story from multiple, fractured, contentious points of view that leapt off the pages. It feels there are many steps that should have been taken instead. Richard Jewell isn’t an awful or irredeemable movie, even though Eastwood’s typically plain shooting style feels even more strained and bland. It’s a movie I could see a contingent of the public genuinely enjoying, especially those already with a healthy mistrust of the FBI and media (you know who you are). But for me, it felt like I was watching the awards-friendly version of Kirk Cameron’s Christians are People Too. And again, Jewell deserves a major expose to chronicle his real injustices. He also deserves better than this.

Nate’s Grade: C

21 Bridges (2019)

21 Bridges would have been a more interesting movie if it had simply been a conversation between the police detective, Andre David (Chadwick Boseman), and the mayor of New York City as he proposes shuttling all twenty-one bridges leading out of Manhattan to catch a pair of cop killers. My pal Ben Bailey surmised it should go with the mayor flatly refusing and telling them they should use actual police investigative work to catch the criminals, like all casework, instead. It’s not like Manhattan houses millions of people with deep subway networks and somebody could remain unseen for some time, or the fact that there are more ways off an island than bridges. This concept doesn’t even factor into the story in a meaningful way; the police could have just as easily used the bridges as checkpoints for the difference it makes. This eliminates the ticking clock factor. Another miscalculation was splitting so much of the narrative between the two sides, Andre and the cops doing the hunting, and the criminals trying to run away. I’m not emotionally invested in these guys escaping, and it doesn’t ratchet tension as the cops get closer. If anything it alleviates tension as I know we’re closer to them being captured. The shootouts, foot chases, car chases, and machismo barking are all serviceable from director Brian Kirk, a veteran of television. It’s fine if this is a genre you enjoy but there isn’t anything new in 21 Bridges, or anything new that works, to open up that entertainment for anyone else. It’s entirely predictable every step of the way, enough that I was correctly guessing the real villains before the movie even started. The actors all do respectable work. It’s all competent from top to bottom, but it’s in service for a forgettable by-the-numbers cop thriller. I have to believe the original script for this was something more daring, perhaps opening up Andre’s character and his reputation as a “cop killer killer” and what effects that has had on him. He really shouldn’t be the hero. He should be the guy who comes to learn his culpability in being part of a corrupt system of justice, pushing him toward an anti-hero reclamation arc. What we get isn’t even close to that level of character exploration, so I must believe 21 Bridges was noted to death by studio exec mismanagement. Otherwise what did the star of Black Panther and the directors of Avengers: Endgame see in this story that urgently had to be told on the big screen? It feels like some relic from the 90s that would have starred Wesley Snipes and absent any modern commentary on the role of a police state in urban communities. Alas, you get what you get with 21 Bridges, which could have been 18 Bridges, but some exec must have said, “No, that’s not enough bridges. But 30 is too many. Gentlemen, were gonna stay up all night if we have to in order to solve this number-of-bridges conundrum.” If you have a soft spot for this kind of thriller, you might find some fleeting moments of entertainment. Everyone else can look away.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Don’t Let Go (2019)

It’s a time-displaced mystery where two people, a police detective (David Oyelowo) and his teenage niece (Strom Reid), are trying to communicate across space and time to prevent a personal tragedy, namely the niece’s eventual murder. He’s two weeks ahead time-wise and making use of his advanced knowledge and her insider info to better understand what went wrong that fateful night. If it sounds a bit like 2000’s Frequency, featuring a father and son across the decades with a ham radio, that’s because it’s pretty much Frequency. No matter, this is the high-concept stuff of fun, clever structural gamesmanship, tapping into the past and future to solve a crime. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) has a good first draft but the script needed more work. It starts off rather slow, takes more time than needed to establish its rules, and even after those rules are somewhat hazy, like when Oyelowo gets a download of new memories from his future self. To say the story gets a bit convoluted is an understatement, and the ending feels more like a rush to a finish rather than a carefully planned conclusion. The best asset the movie has is the relationship and performances from its stars. Oyelowo is a man rushed against an impossible task, and his fevered and harried performance does much to communicate the burden placed upon him. Reid (A Wrinkle in Time) is very good as an inquisitive teenager who has to process the looming danger that hangs over her head, plus just being a teen girl in L.A. Both of these actors are at their best when they’re together (via magic phone calls; are texts not magic?) and pushing each other to succeed. There’s great potential in the unlikely partner dynamic with them as well as a resonating personal motivation to drive the movie. I just wish Estes and the filmmakers had slowed things down and given their setup more thought and experimentation. It kind of goes in rather predictable and mundane directions, including having a super killer that seems anything but. Don’t Let Go (a painfully generic title destined to be forgotten) feels like it could have worked a limited run miniseries, or, barring that, a better paced and developed film.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.

One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.

What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.

Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.

Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.

I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.

I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Mule (2018)

Clint Eastwood plays a real-life 90-year-old drug mule, though I must inform you dear reader that at no point does he hide his cargo in a very uncomfortable place. The Mule is an interesting story about the most unexpected mule. Eastwood plays a man broke and on the outs with the family he’s neglected their entire lives. He takes up an offer to simply drive albeit for a Mexican drug cartel. As with most life-of-crime movies, what starts off uneasily becomes second nature as our characters get in over their heads. Except that doesn’t really happen in The Mule. I would estimate twenty percent of the movie is watching Eastwood drive and sing along to the radio. There are some tense near misses where he’s almost caught, but these are confined to the first half. In the second half the cartel becomes the chief source of danger, all because he doesn’t go by their routes. If he’s their most successful mule, having never had a ticket in his life, then why micromanage? There are some other nitpicks that nagged at me, like the cartel knows the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are pulling over a very specific color and kind of car, but at no point do they change out Eastwood’s car. Also, Eastwood is spending vast sums of money in public for a man who was losing his house, and yet no red flags there. Eventually Eastwood has to make a choice of family over angering the cartel and risking his life, and I think you’ll know where his character arc is destined. The dramatic shape of the movie feels a little too inert for the stakes involved, leading to an all too tidy conclusion. Eastwood delivers a fine performance, as does every other actor involved. The movie kind of coasts along, much like Eastwood in his truck, on the inherent interest of its premise and the star power of its lead/director. The Mule might have worked better as a documentary.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Show Dogs (2018)

I was expecting something much worse but ultimately it’s hard to get too upset with Show Dogs, a lowest common denominator slice of entertainment for the youngest of children. There are two separate Lego Movie references in relation to star Will Arnett, a cop who partners with a dog for an undercover operation. The weird part is that the movie seems to exist in a world where animals talk to one another but humans cannot hear them. Fine, except then why does Arnett treat a stray dog like an equal? Occasionally human beings will interact with the animals like they can hear them. World building inconsistency aside, it’s simply a very unfunny comedy. The lazy puns and slapstick are somewhat excusable in smaller doses but the movie is nothing but. The only reason to watch Show Dogs is to look for the former material relating to a storyline that literally involved the hero dog having to learn to go to a happy mental place while adult judges fondle his genitals. Shockingly, the filmmakers did not see any problem with this storyline aimed at children until weeks after its initial release, and then it was re-cut with the offending and abuse-grooming material wisely removed. How does something like this happen? How does it pass through so many editorial approvals? It wasn’t a simple joke but an ongoing character arc for the protagonist. Show Dogs is for the dogs.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Bright (2017)

Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.

In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.

For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.

Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.

The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.

Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.

Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).

Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.

Nate’s Grade: C

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced single mother working in the small town gift shop of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. It’s also been seven months since her teenage daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire. She rents out three billboards on a rarely used side road to advertise her frustrations with the slow pace of law enforcement. The billboards say, “Raped while dying,” “Seven months and no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief (Woody Harrelson) tries to pacify the grieving mother while keeping his loyal officers in check from retaliation. Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is trying to apply pressure to get the billboards removed by any means. The small town loves their sheriff and turns on Mildred, which suits her just fine. The more people that disagree with her the more it helps fuel her sense of righteous indignation. Mildred engages in an escalating series of battles with the police and town that might just make justice impossible.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a Coen brothers’ movie played straight, and it’s borderline brilliant in its depiction of homespun characters allowed tremendous emotional latitude. These are people with complex depth who are allowed the power to be contradictory. They can be vicious one moment and kind the next, wise one moment and impulsive and self-destructive the next, capable of great acts of mercy and cruelty. This achieves two things: 1) making the characters feel far more convincingly drawn, and 2) making the characters consistently surprising. This is a messy movie but I don’t mean that as any intended insult. It’s messy in scope, messy in tone, and yet it thrums with the messy feelings and messy complications of human tragedy. What happened to Mildred’s daughter is utterly horrifying and her rage is righteous; however, that doesn’t sanctify her. She makes mistakes, pushes people away, and can be cruel even to her own family. I was expecting Harrelson’s police chief to be a sort of villain, either incompetent or conniving, willfully ignoring the murder investigation. This is not the case at all and he is full of integrity and rightfully beloved in his community. As happens in many criminal cases, the trail of evidence just ran cold, but Mildred would prefer every male in the city, state, and even the country be blood tested to find a culprit. Her demands are fundamentally unreasonable and Willoughby points out the many civil rights protections in possible violation. Just because Mildred has been wronged does not make her the hero, and just because Willoughby is the face of local law enforcement does not make him the enemy. They are people with much more in common than they would ever admit. The awful circumstances of the plot have pit them against one another in an escalating tit-for-tat that serves as projection for Mildred’s blinding fury against a world that would rob her of her daughter.

The dichotomy of sweetness and terror is best exemplified in the transformation of Mildred and Dixon, one of the most satisfying and engrossing film experiences of the year. Thanks to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s deft handling, these two characters start at opposite ends and grow before our eyes. Mildred tests the limits of her resolve and anger and makes costly mistakes. Dixon begins as the screw-up with a badge (hat he literally misplaces) rumored to have tortured a black prisoner in jail. He seems like the dim-witted poster boy for unchecked masculine privilege. He feels like an enforcer of the corruption we (wrongfully) assume is at work in this small town. As Mildred descends into darker decisions, Dixon ascends and chases a redemptive arc, which is amazing considering the damning behavior he engages in at the halfway mark. These two characters start as adversaries and develop into begrudging allies in a completely organic way that doesn’t blunt either character. That transformation is thrilling to watch and terrifically satisfying on its own terms. By the very end of the movie, I was ready and willing to watch its hypothetical sequel setup, especially if it meant I got to spend more time with these carefully crafted people.

McDonagh’s film juggles many tones, effortlessly switching from laugh-out-loud comedy to crushing drama and back again. I was genuinely surprised how many times I laughed and how hard I was laughing. During my second theatrical viewing, there was an old woman in the back who was quite vocal in her bafflement about how anyone could be laughing. And if you were told the specifics of the plot and its heavy subject matter, I would tend to agree. McDonagh has a preternatural feel for how to find humor in the most unlikely of places. The humor dissipates as the film marches into its second half, a natural byproduct of having to raise the dramatic stakes and make things feel serious. This is the first grounded drama in McDonagh’s filmography (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). He doesn’t shortchange the impact of his drama by weaving in more heightened comedic moments. The characters feel realistically developed and portrayed and are allowed to exist in moral grey areas. There’s a minor character played by Peter Dinklage who is positioned as a romantic option and a bit of a fool, but by the end you feel degrees of sympathy even for him. Even this most minor of supporting characters (not a comment on Dinklage’s stature) has earned your emotions. That’s great storytelling but it’s also tremendous execution from the director. Another sure sign of McDonagh’s command for tone is that he undercuts his story’s moment of triumph. I’ll dance around spoilers but Three Billboards looks to end in a way where several characters would claim a hard-won victory, and McDonagh casually strips that away. Even though this is a movie, and even though there are moments of broad, irony-laced comedy, the complexities and disappointments of real life emerge. Even to the very end, Three Billboards doesn’t follow the expected rules of How These Things Go.

The excellent acting gives further life to these tremendous characters. McDormand (Fargo) is radiating with ferocious resentment and indignation. Her character is a walking missile that just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Her stares alone could cause you to shrivel. McDormand hasn’t been given a character this good in years. She opens up the full reserve of her deep acting reservoir, able to flit from great vulnerability to intense repulsion. She has plenty of big moments where she gets to tell off the disapproving townspeople and media members. It’s ready made for easy laughs, but McDormand is so good that she shades those moments with subtler emotional nuance. You get the laugh and you also get further character insight. It’s a performance of such assured strength that I imagine you’ll be hearing her name often during the awards season. Rockwell (The Way, Way Back) has also never been better. He has to play a similarly deep array of emotions, from idiot comedy to heroic dramatics, and at every point Rockwell is stunning. He makes every joke twice as funny. When Dixon becomes a larger focus of the story is when he undergoes more intensive introspection. He goes from buffoon to three-dimensional character. Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) also delivers a worthy performance as a proud yet wounded man who is trying to do right against a world of pressures and self-doubt.

Three Billboards is an impressive, absorbing, searing film gifted with some of the best-developed characters in 2017. The portrayal of the characters is so complex and given startling life from such amazingly talented actors. You’ll watch three of the best performances of the year right here. You get a really strong sense of just how life has been irrevocably altered from this heinous crime, not just with Mildred but also for the town as a whole. Things cannot go back to being the way they were. The characters you like can make you wince. The characters you don’t like you might find yourself pulling for. Thanks to the complexity and nuance, the film delivers a raft of surprises, both pleasant and painful. These people feel closer to real human beings. McDonagh’s brilliant handling of tone and theme is a remarkable work of vision, cohesion, and execution. This is a darkly comic movie that can make you bust out laughing and an affecting human drama that can make you cry. It takes you on a journey that feels authentic and wildly entertaining. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which should have simply been called Three Billboards) subverts typical Hollywood clichés by making sure, even during its wilder flights of comic fancy, that everything is grounded with the characters first and foremost.

Nate’s Grade: A

Detroit (2017)

Something akin to an art house exploitation film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a pressure cooker about the horror of institutional racism, but it’s also a limited drama that lacks any sense of catharsis for an audience. Set among a hellish series of days in 1967, the film follows the events at the Algiers Motel, where Detroit police officers killed three innocent black men in their pursuit of what they believed to be a sniper. An all-white jury then acquitted the officers. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays the lead racist cop and instigator, the man who tries using every effort to get a confession. His bad decisions lead to further bad decisions and miscommunication and then cold-blooded murder. It takes a solid 45 minutes to establish the various supporting characters, the fragile tinderbox that is Detroit during a series of riots, and getting everyone to the fateful motel. Afterwards, it’s like a real-time thriller that’s extremely harrowing to watch. It’s very intense and very well made by Bigelow and her go-to screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty). Like Get Out, it turns the day-to-day  black American experience into a grueling horror film. I was squirming in my seat and felt nauseated throughout much of the movie. I wanted to scream at the screen and tell people to stop or run away. However, it’s a movie with a lower ceiling, whose chief goal is to provoke primal outrage, which it easily achieves, but it feels like there’s little else on the artistic agenda. The characterization can be fairly one-note, especially with the racist cops who stew over white women hanging around virile black males. It’s victims and victimizers and we get precious little else. Your blood will boil, as it should, but will you remember the characters and their lives, their personalities, or mostly the cruel injustices they endured? It’s an intense, arty, exploitation film, and I can perfectly understand if certain audience members have no desire to ever watch this movie. It’s not so much escapism as a scorching reminder about how far race relations have come and have yet to go in this country. Detroit is a movie with plenty of merits but I think it’s the least of the three major Bigelow-Boal collaborations.

Nate’s Grade: B

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