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The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The good news is that Andra Day is a surefire star. In her debut performance, the singer makes a bold impression as Billie Holiday, with her raspy voice, sterling stage presence, and powerful singing. Day was nominated for an Academy Award, just as Dianna Ross was for her own film debut, also playing Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. The highlight of this movie is a tight close-up of Day singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song, written by a Jewish schoolteacher, a song that incensed the U.S. government and essentially began the woe-begotten War on Drugs with a racist task force targeting Holiday as their first victim to make an example of. The moment is filled with rising emotions and barely held restraint and the sheer power of Day’s performance communicates the danger and anger of this politically-charged song that earned such controversy. However, the rest of the movie is a bit of an unholy mess, as director Lee Daniels (Precious) takes his signature campy, over-the-top style and cannot say no to any creative decision in his mind. I don’t know what’s harder to grasp, the clashing tones or timelines, as the movie literally and figuratively jumps all over the place, at one instant having Holiday on top of the world, and another being beaten by a parade of one-dimensional and nearly indistinguishable abusive men, to waltzing through heroin hallucinations, and cuddling close with an FBI informant (Trevante Rhodes) who is definitely a fictional character. Like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, we divest time from the star to the men who betray her, but none of these louts and schemers are worth that precious time. It becomes an uncomfortable misery montage as we watch Holiday get abused, shoot up, cry, get harassed by the police, and repeat endlessly for 130 minutes. I don’t know if maybe Daniels was trying to make me feel like I was on drugs while watching but the antic, unfocused, and careening narrative and energy levels certainly made me feel dizzy and nauseated. An then there are ridiculous moments where I just wanted to laugh, like the backroom of racist government agents saying lines like, “This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman has to be stopped.” This is based on a chapter of a book about the early War on Drugs, not Holiday’s biography, and it feels very much like her own identity and significance is being strung along just to be a martyr for the evils of government persecution. The movie paints her chiefly as a victim and then seems to glorify in victimizing her, and it all feels so garish and ghoulish and misguided. Billie Holiday deserves an amazing movie but she’ll just have to settle for an amazing performance in an otherwise melodramatic mess of a movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Hannibal (2001) [Review Re-View]

Released February 9, 2001:

Trying to sequelize Silence of the Lambs is surely harder than trying to sequelize The Blair Witch Project. The novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris I don’t think will be confused as a necessary burst of creative ambition and more of a chance to cash in on the love of Hannibal Lector. Though I’ve not read a line from the book from what I’m told the movie is faithful until the much hated ending. Starting a film off a so-so book isn’t a good way to begin, especially when you lose four of the components that made it shine Oscar gold.

The element that Silence of the Lambs carried with it was stealthily gripping psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. Lambs excelled at psychological horror, but with Hannibal the horror turns into a slasher film more or less. What Lambs held back and left us terrified, Hannibal joyfully bathes in excess and gore.

Julianne Moore, a competent actress, takes over from the ditching Jodie Foster to fill the shoes of FBI agent Clarice Starling. Throughout the picture you know she’s trying her damndest to get that Foster backwoods drawl she used on the original down. The problem for poor Moore though is that her character spends half of the film in the FBI basement being ogled by higher-up Ray Liotta. She doesn’t even meet Hannibal Lector until 3/4 through. Then again, the title of the film isn’t Starling.

Anthony Hopkins returns back to the devil in the flesh and seems to have a grand old time de-boweling everyone. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls, and you never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your grey matter – not that he doesn’t have a culinary degree in that department in this film. Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature. Lector worked bottled up, staring at you with dead unblinking calm. He doesn’t work saying goofy “goody-goody” lines and popping out of the shadows.

Since the director, screenwriter, and female lead didn’t show up for the Lambs rehash, it feels a tad chilled with Ridley Scott’s fluid and smooth direction. The cinematography is lush and very warm. Gary Oldman steals the show as the horribly disfigured former client of Lector’s seeking out revenge. His make-up is utterly magnificent and the best part of the film; he is made to look like a human peeled grape. Oldman instills a Texan drawl into the character yet making him the Meryl Streep of villainy.

Hannibal is nowhere near the landmark in excellence that Silence of the Lambs was but it’s not too bad. It might even be good if it wasn’t the sequel to a great film. As it is, it stands as it stands.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Serial killer culture dominated the 1990s and oddly enough it’s only gotten more highbrow since. Oh, that’s not to say that you won’t have any shortage of hacky, exploitative movies featuring elaborate murderers with gimmicky calling cards (The Hangman, a killer who literally stages his crime scenes like an ongoing game of hangman). However, the dark obsession with dangerous men (it’s almost always men) has given life to thousands of prestige cable documentaries, true-crime books, and high-profile podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder. We still very much have an unchecked fascination for these real and fictitious serial killers and what that may say about our society. In 1992, a serial killer thriller swept the Oscars, one of only three movies to win Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Director, and Screenplay (the others: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and American Beauty came close if it hadn’t been for Hilary Swank). That’s how good The Silence of the Lambs was as a movie to overcome the genre biases of older Academy membership (it also helped that there were other genre biases at play for the other Best Picture nominees like Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, and JFK). It was special.

All of this is to say that Silence of the Lambs was a near impossible project to follow, and author Thomas Harris proved it with the middling-yet-best-selling sequel novel in 1999. It was obvious that it would be adapted into a major feature film, but the only returning Oscar winner from that first foray was Anthony Hopkins, which is kind of important considering his character is the title. The sequel was directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), adapted by none other than screenwriting titans David Mamet (The Untouchables) and Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), and the movie made over $350 million worldwide at the box-office. By all accounts, it was a hit, but was it any good, or was it simply coasting from the acclaim and good will of its predecessor and the A-list cast and crew?

The first thing that becomes immediately apparent while watching Hannibal is that this is not Silence of the Lambs and not in a sense of its accomplishments but more in its chosen ambitions. This is not a psychological thriller in the slightest. It’s a boogeyman monster movie. Nobody here is given to intense introspection about man’s inhumanity to man and other such Topics of Grand Weight. Scott’s sequel is more a Gothic B-movie content to spill stomachs rather than quicken pulses. The opening botched FBI raid is chaotic, action-packed, and the flimsy excuse for why Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore taking over for Jodie Foster) is shelved for most of the movie. It feels like the filmmakers know they need to delay the reunion of our favorite cannibal therapist and FBI agent as long as possible, so the 130-minute film feels like a protracted setup to tease how far audience anticipation can possibly be sustained.

In the meantime, the plot alternates between Dr. Hannibal Lector living it up in Florence, Italy and Starling slumming it in the FBI basement. Slowly, oh so slowly, she picks up the pieces to track Lector’s whereabouts, but until then we indulge a lot of narrative bloat. Do we need to follow an Italian inspector who suspects “Dr. Fell” is not who he says he is and then enact plans to prove his identity and eventually cash in? This man is literally on screen longer than Clarice Starling. We’re introduced to a rich villain, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), but he’s more plot device than character, an all-expenses bank account to track and apprehend Lector for his bloody violence. I wish there was more to Oldman’s character given the actor and the impressive practical make-up application. He’s a symbol of rot, of vengeance, of obsession. Likewise, Ray Liotta’s lecherous FBI superior to Starling is less a character and more a plot device. He’s the stand-in for the harassment and dismissal Starling receives from her male colleagues, but a little of him goes a long way. His scenes where every other word is some creepy come-on, some sexual entreaty, or some off-color joke (he refers to Lector in homophobic slurs) are excessive. He’s an awful person but every line doesn’t have to be eye-rolling in how obviously terrible he can be. Spending extended time with all of these supporting characters is just a reminder that the movie is looking for excuses to keep its chief participants as far away for as long as possible. It’s frustrating.

The depiction of Hannibal Lector in Silence versus Hannibal is also quite noticeably different. Like most things in this sequel, the character is baser, key characteristics heightened and broadened, and bordering on farce. He’s less a scary intellectual opponent and master manipulator and more a well-read serial killer on vacation. He is profoundly less interesting in Hannibal. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pleasure to be had watching Hopkins slice and dice his way through Italy and elude capture. Hopkins seems to relish the amplification of the campy and grand Guignol tone of the sequel. He looks to be having a blast as an unleashed beast. His performance is fun but teeters over into self-parody at times. Hearing the erudite man spout ironic catchphrases meant for incongruous comedy de-fangs some of his mystique and intensity.

And yet there are things I still starkly remember even twenty years later. Hannibal is no Oscar-winning thriller operating at an ascendant technical level with engrossing multi-dimensional characters. It’s a boogeyman movie with a scary old man. The ambitions are just lower, but that doesn’t mean that Hannibal is subpar by those lowered goals. It’s still entertaining even when it’s getting silly or overly long. Scott’s visual presentation keeps things engaging and the lovely Italian art and locales are a definite benefit to establishing the gory, Gothic atmosphere. The makeup is outstanding and, as I said back in 2001, Verger resembles a human peeled grape. Feeding a man to wild boars is also quite memorable. The conclusion still has its squirm-worthy high-point with serving Liotta’s fresh brains to himself. It’s a gory comeuppance that feels fitting. In the original book, apparently Starling then bares her breast to Lector, and he goes down on one knee, and they run off together as fugitive lovers. Needless to say, this ending was met with controversy. The film smartly nixes this, especially since I never for one second felt a romantic coupling between these two embittered characters. The movie doesn’t kill the allure of the Hannibal character but it also positions him on the same level as Michael Myers instead of, say, John Doe (Seven). It’s like a Halloween mask version of a real serial killer, dulled and magnified in some ways, but still leaving a fair impression of its source.

The Hannibal Lector incarnation had two more big screen ventures, the 2002 prequel Red Dragon and 2007’s even-further prequel, Hannibal Rising. Neither was terrific, neither was awful, though the answers that Rising offered as to what made Lector the man he is would inevitably prove disappointing (hello, childhood trauma). Arguably the best incarnation of the character, more so than Hopkins or Brian Cox (Succession) as the first big-screen Lector in 1986’s Manhunter, was from NBC’s television series from 2013-2015. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, American Gods), and starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) as America’s favorite high-class cannibal, the series found a way to make a weekly crime procedural operatic and hypnotic and disgustingly beautiful. It’s like the artistic sensibilities from Silence and Hannibal were perfectly blended into a strange lovechild that deserved an even longer time to shine. Recently, just the week of this writing, CBS has begun a 2021 Clarice Starling TV series, though because of rights issues they cannot even reference Hannibal Lector. They have the rights to the senator and her daughter who was kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, as if those characters were what the fanbase was really clamoring for more time with. It looks like any other grisly CBS crime procedural just with a different name. I fully expect it to be canceled after one season.

Looking back at my review from 2001, I found myself nodding in agreement with my younger self from the past. I try not to read my earlier reviews before re-watching the films in question and perhaps might surprise myself by coming up with the same critiques independently. I also quite enjoy this line: “Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature.” I would even keep my grade the same. Twenty years later, the Hannibal Lector character still captures our intrigue and fascination even if he’s deposited in a lesser escapade not fully worth his full abilities.

Re-View Grade: B-

The Little Things (2021)

The Little Things wants to be Seven but it’s not even half of Seven (three-point-five?). It’s a meandering movie that doesn’t quite commit to being a prestige character study or a grisly, pulpy serial killer thriller, and so it operates in a middle-ground that achieves little more than prolonged boredom. It’s far too long, far too slow, and with not nearly enough excitement or intrigue or depth.

In 1990, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a LASD deputy and living out his final days on the force in the relative anonymity of the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles. He used to be a big time L.A. cop but got far too involved in series of murders, and his obsession lead him to a heart attack, a divorce, and being removed from his office. Deacon delivers evidence to Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the new chief detective on a series of murders that may be a continuation from Deacon’s days. The two men work together to untangle the details and target their primary suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a bow-legged, greasy-haired creep who maybe confessed eight years ago.

The Little Things was originally written in the 90s by writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) and it’s easy to see why. The 1990s was a heyday of serial killer thrillers; it felt like any studio would greenlight a project as long as the crazed killer had a gimmick to their murders (”This guy only kills people on Friday… because you can’t eat meat on Friday?”). While the preponderance of these kinds of movies has shifted to the ever-flowing world of direct-to-video (look for The Hangman, where Al Pacino chases a killer literally playing the game hangman with victims), there is still a perverse fascination with true crime culture and serial killers to be exploited by a canny writer. We still love these kinds of stories when done well. HBO’s True Detective has also taken the serial killer formula and transformed it into a contemplative, long-form character study that looks just as much at the flawed detectives as it does the killers. Over the course of eight elegiac episodes, True Detective can take the time to immerse you in the sordid and portentous details of these people, their cases, the lingering questions, and their demons and doubts made flesh. The depth of the tortured, flawed characters and the complexities of the cases are what sustain the multiple-episode investment (exception: season two). With a movie, you must be more judicious with your precious two hours of time for storytelling. This preamble was a long way of saying The Little Things doesn’t fit as either. Its cases and characters lack the depth to justify the time dwelt, and the thrills are decidedly dimmer, denying a serial killer audience a compelling case, compelling characters, and a unique killer.

I’m going to summarize the two-hour-plus plot for you now: two cops investigate a series of serial murders. They think they have a culprit. They tail the suspect. A slightly surprising ending that lacks the shock and contemplation I think Hancock is looking for. The end. I’ll keep it vaguer to preserve spoilers but suffice to say that is not enough plot for an investigation. I recently re-watched Seven, one of my favorite films of all time and a masterpiece in its genre, and it has a natural propulsion to it where each clue leads to the next by design from its grandly clever psychopath. You know there are seven deadly sins and each new victim is another step closer to achieving that mad goal. The story engine keeps the plot driving forward. With The Little Things, there are some bodies and a whole lot of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Paired with the placid pacing, it sure makes The Little Things feel like it’s missing a big picture.

There are also some moments that ripped me out of the movie, mostly involving a disconnect between what is intended on the page and what is delivered on the screen. We’re told that these characters are so obsessed, yet they don’t come across that way. Sure, they follow Sparma because he’s so obviously a guilty-looking suspect, but we don’t witness the lengths they’ll go and the people they’ll push away in order to close their case. In the end, Hancock approaches this territory, but it feels like a stab at subversion and relevance the rest of the movie has been missing. It feels like Hancock had two hours of one kind of thriller and then in the final five minutes said, “Eh, who cares?” This climax also involves a professional detective making so many bad decisions about his own personal safety that I felt my eyes rolling out of my head. It’s like Hancock is using the character’s dumb choices to declare how obsessed he is with finding the truth, and yet we didn’t witness this obsession earlier when he was making good decisions. Baxter is supposed to be a family man and a religious man, yet Malek is playing him so devoid of emotion and the script doesn’t present anything meaningful for his domestic life, that he feels more like a robot with a flimsy back-story provided as a default setting. Then there’s Deacon’s monologuing to the corpses of the dead women. He also sees ghosts of the victims. If the movie was presenting this as a sign of his tortured psyche, it should have gone all-in. Have him converse with them all the time, have them reappear and whisper in his ear, have the new crime scenes trigger the appearances of victims from the old crime scenes, take this unique angle and take ownership of it, really separate from the glut of other serial killer thrillers. Alas, it’s just an awkward personality motif that occurs from time to time to provoke an eyebrow raise.

All three central actors have won Oscars for their acting, and while nobody is outright bad, they all seem to be delivering wrongly attuned performances. Washington (Fences) dials down that natural charisma to go full quiet intensity, and there are few actors who can be as intimidating with looks and hushed words as this man. Except he’s supposed to be haunted and the wear and tear of the man’s past lacks weight because of the performance choice. The pain and struggle seem to be suffocated in that steady steely Washington glower. Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) is too detached to convincingly play his young family man coming unglued thanks to the case. He’s playing the role like he’s secretly going to revealed as the real killer in a hasty last-second twist. Leto (Blade Runner 2049) is inherently drawn to off-putting oddballs and his appearance halfway through provides a necessary jolt for the movie. The problem is that he’s so creepy, he’s so weird, he’s so desirous of attention, that it makes the character overwhelmingly obvious. He’s not interesting so much as he’s just a neon sign flashing “Guilty,” and there are only two ways to go with this, neither exactly fulfilling given what has preceded. The best scene in the whole dirge of a movie, by far, is the interrogation with all three actors feeding off one another.

The Little Things feels like a dated copy of 1990s serial killer thrillers without anything new to offer besides the star wattage of its cast. It’s even set in the 90s for no real reason than to deny its characters access to cell phones and the Internet. The look of the movie is awash in the cool, moody style of David Fincher’s signature look, like Hancock and his technical artists were reviewing Seven and Zodiac and aiming for a fawning homage to a modern master of crime cinema. I would advise people to just watch Seven again, or even any of the many junky serial killer thrillers from the 1990s (Copycat, anyone?). The Little Things just isn’t that interesting. The main characters are threadbare, the women are either colleagues, wives, or corpses, the plot meanders for far too long, the pacing is turgid, and it lacks memorable set pieces and reveals that linger. It needed to be better, or worse, but instead it’s just imitation David Fincher visual wallpaper.

Nate’s Grade: C

Traffic (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 27, 2000:

The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.

Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.

Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.

Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.

The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.

Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.

Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

So twenty years later, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the billions of dollars and countless lives that have gone into trying to stop the intricate infrastructure of supply and demand for the drug trade, the United States has little to show for its efforts. If anything, there has been a dawning realization of the futility of playing cartel whack-a-mole, removing one leader just for another to take their place in the supply chain. There have also been movements toward treating addicts rather than incarcerating them. The country has stubbornly become more accommodating and understanding of the ravages of addiction; it only seemed to take the spread of the opioid crisis where affluent families in the suburbs were affected personally. Tragically, it seems too many Americans have to have an “it could happen to me!” moment before their empathy for another person’s struggles kicks in. These relaxing attitudes have translated into recreational marijuana being legal in 15 states as of this review. Many other states have decriminalized marijuana, and Oregon has recently voted to decriminalize all drugs. It seems that in 2020, our concept of the war on drugs has dramatically changed. Some may find these developments an admission of giving up, of retreating from some moral duty, but others have concluded that maybe we’ve been fighting all wrong for 50 years and the only thing we have to show for our blood-soaked efforts is that multiple criminal elements got much richer.

It’s an interesting social and cultural landscape for going back and re-watching 2000’s Traffic, the last film on my re-watch of 2000 cinema. Times have changed and this is felt in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble covering the globe-trotting scope of the war on drugs. Traffic won four Oscars, including for Soderbergh for Director, Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, and for editing and adapted screenplay. The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture, losing to Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. It was an ambitious movie and had over 100 speaking roles. Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer and cameraman, bringing a docu-drama versatility to the movie that added its own sense of realism. 2000 was the year Soderbergh hit his critical peak. He was an indie darling from 1989’s influential sex, lies, and videotape and puttered throughout the 90s with small, personal, weird movies (I loved Schizopolis as a teenager), and then in 1998 he gained a new level of credibility providing sheen and heat to Out of Sight, the movie that cemented George Clooney as a major movie star. The one-two punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 earned Soderbergh two Oscar nominations for director, a feat not accomplished since 1938, and after 2001’s highly successful Ocean’s 11 remake, Soderbergh had jumped to the top of the industry while maintaining his indie artistic credentials. He’s been dabbling and experimenting since (A movie shot on an iPhone!) with mixed results, but the man’s track record is hard to digest into simple categorization. He can jump from an action showcase for an MMA fighter, to a gleeful male stripper romp, to a four-hour epic covering the life of Che Guevera. With Traffic, Soderbergh was working with his biggest budget and cast yet. The decision to use different color tones is smart to easily distinguish the various storyline locations so that an audience can be immediately oriented when jumping around from place to place. It’s also extremely hard on the eyes at times. The Mexican storyline is so washed out in bleached colors that it looks like an atomic bomb just went off in the distance and is filtering the world with an excess of bright light to make you squint. Soderbergh also has a penchant for natural light coming through windows to be seen as giant blocks of white. Again, it achieves its artistic purpose but it also makes you want to avert your gaze.

The 150-minute movie is based on a sprawling 1989 BBC miniseries that totaled six hours. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) adapted the screenplay and he does a fine job of condensing the major plot points of the mini-series into a manageable feature length. He also does a fine job of articulating the many intertwined players and motivations and contradictions of the drug trade. However, I can’t help but feel like some of the nuance and character development is lost by condensing everything into the body of a manageable American feature production. Take for example the character Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) plays, Helena Ayala. She’s a rich southern California housewife who has her life upturned when she discovers her husband, recently arrested by the DEA, is one of the chief distributors for a Mexican cartel. Her character is in disbelief and shock at first, then she tries to make due with legal bills and mortgage payments. Things get considerably worse when the cartel threatens her children if Helena can’t pay her husband’s outstanding debts that have now fallen onto her. Her character arc goes from an ignorant, privileged housewife into a ruthless co-conspirator willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family and maintain the cushy lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Over the course of the BBC miniseries, you watch that version of the character undergo significant changes in six hours. In the 2000 film, the character undergoes significant changes in a matter of scenes. Helena goes from desperate to duplicitous in literally minutes, and the jump feels too unearned. The rushed storytelling caps some naturalism. A character can go from not trusting the DEA to providing damning evidence to the DEA in three scenes. A character can go from bored, privileged teenager to junkie prostitute in three scenes. For a movie about gritty realism, these character leaps can feel overly forced and inauthentic. There are so many characters and storylines and political points to make that the overall narrative can feel crowded, so while it’s always interesting, it can inadvertently fashion its own ceiling for emotional engagement because the many characters feel like impressions hitting their marks rather than as fully developed portrayals of people.

The storyline that has aged the worst is Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) playing Robert Wakefield, a newly installed Drug Czar learning the ropes. For the majority, he’s akin to a 60 Minutes journalist just sitting in rooms and asking various professionals about their experiences and advice from their unique positions. From there, the storyline takes up the “it could happen to me!” trapping with Robert’s private school daughter (Erika Christensen) becoming an addict. It may have been surprising for a high-profile politician to have a child as an addict, but now this kind of irony feels passe. We’re used to politicians having ironic skeletons in their closet. The ongoing plot of her descent doesn’t really humanize her even as she makes some drastic decisions to chase that next high. She’s more an ironic counterpoint to shake her father, and the audience, of their preconceived mental imagery of what an addict might look like. It feels slightly retrograde and pearl-clutching, not simply that she goes through hell but that it’s set up to register that, oh my, WHITE PEOPLE, even RICH WHITE PEOPLE, can also be junkies. In 2000, this story might have been jolting and scared some older adults into wondering if this drug menace could find its way into their hallowed gated homes too. Nowadays, it seems obvious. If the storyline of a father dealing with his addict daughter had reveled more about one another as characters it would be worth the attention, but the daughter is kept as an example, a symbol, and Robert just has to take his lumps before the inevitable conclusion that his job is a lot harder than he would have imagined. His speech at his introduction at the White House has the hallmarks of drama ready and waiting, as he chokes over the political boilerplate he no longer believes in, but he simply walks out rather than sharing what he’s learned.

The best storyline in Traffic is, no surprise, the one closest to the action with Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) playing what feels like the only honest cop left in Mexico. Obviously that’s an over simplification, but the police force and political class are heavily corrupted by the cartels and their money. The character Javier Rodriguez has to navigate this tricky world without making himself as a target for those corrupt officials who think he’s an impediment. He’s trying to do good in a deeply flawed system and maybe even he knows he’s fighting a losing battle but he’s decided to keep his integrity while trying to fight what he considers is a worthy cause. A high-ranking general seeking his services reminds him of his lowly pay as a police officer, yet Javier Rodriguez is unmoved. Del Toro made a career of playing oddballs and sleazes, so it’s interesting to watch him play a fairly noble, straight forward role and in a language he didn’t speak before production (while born in Puerto Rico, he moved early and grew up in the U.S. and knew little Spanish). I don’t know if I would have awarded him the Oscar (my favorite for 2000 was Willem Dafoe as a vampire) but it’s certainly an understated performance with real gravitas. Del Toro is the quiet, churning contemplation of this movie and I would have been happy if the whole enterprise had been devoted to his south of the border exploits. I appreciated that the moves in this storyline would have larger effects on others, like a crackdown on a cartel being a reason why they need more money and the reason they now step up the pressure on Helena to pay up or else. It best encapsulates the knotty, interconnected framework that Gaghan and Soderbergh are going for.

Traffic is one of those movies you know are good. It’s well written, well acted, and has a definite vision it’s going for that it mostly achieves. It’s also a movie that engages more intellectually than emotionally. There are some deaths and downturns but I doubt you’ll feel much regret or catharsis. The movie unfolds like an in depth journalistic article, and the leaps in rushed characterization feel like a result of a looming deadline and a hard cap with its word count. It’s unfair for me to continue comparing the movie to its miniseries when that project had almost three times the length to fill out its tale (about poppy trafficking and heroin manufacturing in tribal Afghanistan) but it’s a clear cut case of crammed plotting. My initial review back in 2000 keeps mostly to the plot and the many actors, though I think I overstated Zeta-Jones being “chilling” and I think my love of Del Toro in Way of the Gun that year transferred some extra praise for his performance here. It’s hard to remember but I was really anticipating this film my freshmen year of college. Traffic is a good movie but it’s not exactly one people get excited over. Every aspect is professional, proficient, but there isn’t exactly a lingering takeaway that changes your perception of the war on drugs. I’ll hold to the same grade and say it’s an admirable accomplishment but one better suited for a mini-series (it was adapted back into a TV miniseries in 2004).

Re-View Grade: B

Project Power (2020)

The appeal of Project Power is immediate with its premise, which stirred a bidding war before finally ending up with Netflix. Take a pill and become a super hero for five minutes. Every person has a unique power and won’t know what that entails until they swallow that pill. However, there is also a risk that your body has a negative reaction of the exploding kind. I can see why studios would be all over that, on top of the fact that it plays into established popular cultural tropes, it still gets to be an original property. The finished film, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and I’m convinced that this hot commodity script went through a gauntlet of rewrites and producer interference, each new obstacle dimming and diminishing what made Project Power an exciting and compelling idea from inception. Well the concept is still interesting, and its relatively grounded sci-fi world has genuine potential, but the movie falls flat and is far too generic to be special.

Drug dealers are flushing New Orleans with a super pill that activates fantastic powers, though only for five-minute integrals. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a local police officer who secretly keeps a stash of the pills for himself, to juice up to take on the escalating criminals. His supplier is Robin (Dominick Fishback), a teenager looking for a better life, who comes into contact with the mysterious and volatile Art (Jamie Foxx). He’s a man on a mission and working his way across the streets to go from supplier to supplier, working his way up the criminal food chain until he can confront the authority behind the super pill creation and distribution.

The premise by debut screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) is tantalizing and makes every pill its own “what if?” scenario. I’m unsure whether or not the risk of bodily explosion occurs for every person or simply those whom the drug doesn’t agree with. I think it would be more interesting if every person stood some chance of risk. I talked about it with my girlfriend, if there was a pill that granted super powers but it also ran the chance of death, would you take it? We both answered, “Of course.” Who wouldn’t want to be a super hero, even if it’s only for five minutes? Naturally, much like within the X-Men universe, not every super power is on the same level of being useful. There’s a guy who grows extra bones, which serve as spikes attached to his body. I guess that’s something. It reminded me of the unfortunate mutant in X-Men 3 who could grow porcupine quills from his face (he even managed to coax someone near him to kill them). With such a momentous shift in human evolution, and through the angle of drug addiction, you would think Project Power would be the early steps of a complete re-examination of a changing society and the forces falling behind to try and catch up. This should be a big deal, and yet it never feels that way in this world. Super-powered criminals aren’t running rampant. One invisible guy robs a bank naked and it’s comedy. Nobody seems too panicked or bothered. It weirdly feels like everyone has already not only accepted this reality but compartmentalized it. If one city has a new super drug, would it not stand that others in neighboring cities and states and countries would also desire it? Should this not be dominating the news?

The characters are remarkably generic. Our heroes include a beat cop who “doesn’t play by all the rules” and goes on a secret mission to root out this drug conspiracy, a young black woman who wants to be an aspiring rapper while she’s slinging drugs, and a military veteran who was subjected to experiments and is desperate to find and save his kidnapped daughter. We’ve seen each of these archetypes in a thousand other action thrillers, and the fact that Project Power doesn’t give us any more than this is stunning. With some minute personal details, I have laid out everything we know about the three main characters in this movie. That’s it. It’s like each character was checking an archetype box and then was forgotten to be fleshed out. The worst is Art, a character that is coasting on Foxx’s attitude and charisma but is otherwise completely vacant. The kidnapped daughter storyline is maybe the most boring motivation that a protagonist could be saddled with. He might as well be a video game character from 90s-era titles, a military man who was betrayed by his government, experimented upon, given dangerous new powers, and now he’s striking out to save his daughter. It’s so bland and generic and boring. None of the major characters exhibit an interesting personality quirk, flaw, desire, or a point to make them more interesting than if a new nameless character had suddenly taken over from the background.

This extends to the villains as well. Their evil schemes are too vague and they’re just as generic and bland. The villains are also far too easily defeated, which drains any threat from their machinations. Without memorable or effective villains, Project Power limps to a finish, lacking the needed payoffs of our heroes triumphing over their foes. Does anyone care when Art defeats a secondary antagonist that is introduced far too late in the final twenty minutes? It’s too late to be introducing a Big Bad in the movie that is meant to be savored when vanquished. It’s not satisfying when the bad guys are dumb or nebulous or too easily beaten. I felt more antipathy with a bearded henchman than I did with any of his superiors. This is such an easy thing to do, establish a worthy opposition with personality and menace, a force that an audience will feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment over their eventual defeat. Make the villains matter. Regrettably, the villains in Project Power are just as generic and underdeveloped as the heroes.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have dabbled in many genres, first documentary (Catfish), then found footage horror (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4), then youthful thrillers with social media satire (Nerve), and now super hero action cinema. The versatility is to be commended, and they certainly infuse plenty of energetic style into Project Power. The special effects are pretty good when the powers are somewhat visually chaotic, like a drug dealer who becomes the Human Torch, running through ignitable room after room, while the camera zips along, lovingly documenting the rippling flames and embers. The camerawork and lighting can definitely provide jolts of excitement and engagement when the storytelling falters. However, there are moments that should have been avoided, like violent acts presented in unclear ways, perhaps trying to avoid a harsher rating that it ultimately got anyway. Another sequence is from the point of view of a dying woman trapped inside a container, and the action from the other side of the glass is almost completely obscured. The woman’s suffering seemed so overboard that it reminded me of that poor assistant lady who had a more gruesome death in Jurassic World than its actual villain. It’s a misplaced stylistic touch. A villain takes the drug and turns into a giant CGI troll, like something from 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and is goofy and misplaced. For a movie that is trying to be gritty and somewhat grounded, a giant CGI troll is a blunder. Joost and Schulman are currently attached to write and direct a Mega Man movie next, and I imagine this was a trial run for super-powered androids blasting one another to dust.

The Project Power playbook is pretty familiar and underwhelming in its creativity and development. The concept is there but the movie too often feels content to settle for less, trading in stereotypical heroes, vague villains, and muddled action sequences goosed with flashes of style to mask their lack of personal stakes and imagination. The scope of the movie is too frustratingly myopic and under-developed, like a nascent pilot for a TV series that provides impressions with a latent promise of getting back to storylines later. Except later will never arrive. Project Power (even the name is generic) is a super hero movie that feels like everything you’ve already seen before. It’s far less than super.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Right to Remain (2020)

The Right to Remain is definitely a message movie with a very pertinent message for our trying times of racial injustice and civil unrest. This Ohio-made indie, filmed in my hometown of Columbus, was made before 2020 but its release seems even more timely with the outrage over police abuses dominating the news (it’s currently available for free on the film’s website as a five-part series). Even the title itself I find very fitting, taking its phrasing from the Miranda Rights that police officers are required to recite upon making an arrest and transforming it into a more exclamatory statement of defiance, one that could apply to the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s execution and the injustices roiling the country. The right to remain; the right to remain alive, the right to remain a citizen, the right to remain a human being deserving of equality. It’s all right there in the title as a starting point, so kudos to screenwriter/producer Javier Sanchez. The Right to Remain is a message movie that mostly succeeds on a patented formula even if it could have been a bit more ambitious or specific with its examination on race relations.

In 1987, Forsyth County Georgia is awash in racial acrimony. The overwhelming white citizens want to drive out black citizens from calling this county home. Master (Anthony West) is detained in the county jail after a botched bank robbery. The presiding officers harass, antagonize, and even torture Master during his extended lockup (where is the man’s lawyer?). Danny (Joe Turner) is an officer who doesn’t want to join in the harassment. He’s fighting against his own environmental upbringing, but he starts to see Master differently, even forming an unexpected friendship. Danny’s change of heart is tested when he learns that several townsfolk, aided by complicit officers, want to lynch Master to send a message.

Given the focus of the movie, it’s going to make liberal use of the N-word, which always carries a burden of justification for the storyteller. The movie is set in 1980s Georgia, and we’re following multiple racist characters, so it seems logical that when it comes to African-Americans, these people have one go-to word. It’s appropriate in that context but the filmmakers need to be careful about how often the word appears, not to dull its hateful power or, worse, to feel enabled by their setting to unleash the word without abandon. I feel like the filmmakers here have their hearts in the right place and trust them more with the N-word than Quentin Tarantino.

Behind-the-scenes picture from film website.

The message of this movie is pretty identifiable but still affecting. Watching two characters from different walks of life find common ground and build an uneasy friendship is a tried-and-true formula for mass appeal uplift. It recently even earned Oscar gold with 2018’s Best Picture-winner Green Book. The core of the movie is using a personal relationship and gradual reawakening from hate to discuss a larger issue, namely the mistreatment of black citizens and rampant police harassment. Through Master, the audience is able to personalize the experiences of a larger community. It’s all there and it still works from a general storytelling standard. However, do we need even more movies where black experiences are being told through the prism of a noble white person’s emerging epiphany? While he didn’t create this trope, I call this the Edward Zwick Model of nudging an audience with social commentary, like showing slavery and racism through a white P.O.V. (Glory), showing the Japanese modernization through a white P.O.V. (The Last Samurai), and showing the horrors of the diamond industry exploiting Africans through a white P.O.V. (Blood Diamond). Do we really need these gatekeepers to better tell the stories of minorities? I would say no, Hollywood execs would argue otherwise, but in 2020, I think using the suffering of a minority character to better educate a concerned white character is even more unnecessary. By no means am I condemning The Right to Remain and its filmmakers, good people with a story they wanted to tell and following a recognizable model to do so. I believe entirely in their good faith. Still, I kept debating whether this should be Danny’s story or Master’s.

Much of the movie is going to hinge on the writing and performances of the two men at the core of this relationship, so it’s a relief that this is where the movie shines. The two men begin to see past their prejudices, though, to be fair, this is far more pronounced with Danny realizing that his captive is not the animal his fellow officers decry. Master explains his reasoning for robbing the bank of the exact amount owed his family from Forsyth’s ancestors stealing his great-grandfather’s holdings in 1912. I enjoyed that he learns a sense of calm through his interactions with a kindly black pastor (Michael Armstrong), but it’s not a larger integration of spirituality, it’s actual pragmatic breathing exercises and meditation. Master even tries yoga. The larger emphasis is on Danny and his personal growth through his interactions with Master. It’s through small actions like a conversation, a shared game, a walk in the fresh air, but it feels earned and appropriately paced. By the end of the film, Danny is willing to put his life on the line to save Master and he has shaken free from the racist group-think that permeates the town. I like that even though the relationship between these two men improves, it’s not like everything can be readily resolved. You can tell Danny still has some lingering prejudices, and Master still has some doubts, but both men want to believe in the goodness of the other. I appreciated that degree of subtlety for a movie that doesn’t exactly trade in subtlety in service of its larger message. Not a complaint, mind you.

Several supporting characters would probably have been better left out of the overall story. I don’t think we needed as many scenes with racists just glowering and being racist. As a movie, The Right to Remain runs around two hours total and could be trimmed down. As a series, if it were to remain so, I can understand the desire to refresh a viewer on the prejudices of the town and the stewing threat these bad men pose on the periphery of the story. The racist rogue’s gallery needed less check-ins. They bring in a white boy who was reportedly the victim of violence from a black man, and I thought we were going to get more examples of how racist brainwashing works through the role of this young boy with some very unfortunate burn make-up. Really, it looks like he has a pizza on his face minus the cheese. Except that’s not what happens, which seems peculiar that the good ole’ boys didn’t want to involve him in their fledgling murder message. Danny has a sickly pregnant wife (Vera Angelina Ignatov) whose narrative purpose seems to be to symbolize what he has lost in service of his job in a racist police force. That description makes it sound like she pushes him to take a stand against the pressures in his force but it’s really simpler than that. She’s the standard Wife to a Cop that reminds him he should be home more often. This also extends into the wife’s sister character (Kira L. Wilson) who also reminds Danny that he should be home more often. It’s redundant, and ending the film’s resolution with the wife’s sister’s personal recollection of when she knew racism was bad is strange.

The acting overall is both pleasant and earnest. West has a righteous defiance but also has a battle-weary resignation about his time as a black man in Georgia. He has an easy charisma that draws the viewer into his orbit. Seeing his responses to the tiny kindnesses offered is heartbreaking. Turner (Broken Mirror) begins as an uncomfortable but compliant officer and much of the movie rests upon his dawning realization of his own wrongs. Turner finds a well of decency to tap into with the character that makes him compelling even with the familiar formula. Turner and West have an amiable chemistry together and the best moments are their conversations. Another actor of note is John French (Confined) who plays what might be the most boisterously racist character I’ve seen in a movie since Alan Tudyk took my breath away in the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. French is our primary villain and face of racism, and the actor seems to come alive with the pettiness and viciousness of his grotesque character. His chief seems to relish his position of authority and how we can abuse his powers. Also, given the Georgia setting, you’ll hear a range of Southern accents, some more understated and some more cartoonish.

I was slightly disappointed that the specific message of Forsyth County gets lost. The larger messages of racial tolerance swallow up the specifics of what happened in Forsyth, to the point that this story could have been told anywhere in the South. I was expecting the movie to come with facts and livid details about the history of Forsyth County and its bloody past of driving out all black residents in 1912 and how that legacy has shaped its descendants. There are brief news clips of Klansman and white supremacists rallying in 1987 to remind you of how prevalent this hateful organization still was in the community. There are even clips from Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, which worries me about copyright use and licensing for this production. The larger picture on racism still comes together with clarity, but I was hoping for something a little more specific about the county that inspired this movie. Imagine watching a movie about the Tulsa riots in 1921 and the decimation of Black Wall Street at the hands of envious white supremacists and that movie doesn’t go into specific details unique to its setting. It would be slightly disappointing because of the dramatic potential to a community opening up about its own past.

Behind-the-scenes picture from film website.

The Right to Remain is a low-budget indie ($10,000) so some technical issues and limitations are expected as long as they don’t fully rip the viewer out of the reality of the movie. The photography can be limited depending upon locations. Since much of the film is set in the whereabouts of Master’s jail cell, I was hoping for a larger variety of camera angles to spice up and differentiate the many sit-downs between bars. The sound design and recording, a notorious calamity of many an indie production, is also noticeably askew at points, with room tone levels clashing between shots. Other shots seem to use sound recorded from on-person mics where actors are rustling those microphones on their persons. An acoustic song seems to come in abruptly and leave just as abruptly, scoring moments awkwardly and then vanishing. It would be less bizarre if it didn’t show up repeatedly as if the sole musical selection for this universe. Any movie on a minuscule budget is going to have to cut some corners. Maybe the lighting isn’t dynamic here, maybe there isn’t as much coverage for certain scenes for the edit here, and maybe a location is lost and a more mundane setting is forced as a solution. There are numerous problems and solutions. I feel like director Hussein Azab (The Thin Blue Line) does a fine job of keeping things rolling without giving into artistic sacrifices. Sure, the sound could be improved, and maybe that pizza-face kid should just have been sidelined, but the big stuff is there on screen and it’s generally successful, which means the director had his priorities straight.

With message firmly pinned to its proverbial sleeve, The Right to Remain is a poignant drama that feels familiar and effective and well-acted and emotionally involving. It’s a low-budget success story of an Ohio indie who has found a timely relevance with its subject matter. Something tells me, sadly, that this movie will not stop being timely in the near future. The film is currently available for online streaming and even has a discussion guide with resources. It may be familiar, it could have been a little more polished, but the movie simply just works, and that’s a credit to the many cast and crew who had a worthy story to show the world.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Les Miserables (2019)

I can’t help but feel that France made a mistake when they selected their official entry for the 2019 Oscars. Les Miserables is a perfectly fine, if not good, cop thriller with a social urgency bubbling under the surface to provide added depth, but it’s no Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which was sumptuous and one of the best films of the year. Regardless, this movie follows a new officer on his first day transferred to his new unit in the ghettos of Paris where his experienced partners have harassed the mostly Muslim immigrants to the point of simmering community resentment. Then, in the middle of a pitched crowd of kids fighting the officers, an accident happens, the incident is recorded via a drone camera, and different factions are racing to get a hold of that footage and its inherent leverage. Les Miserables has a docu-drama cinema verite visual approach and plenty of authenticity in its details of beat cops, a minority community under surveillance and mistrust, and the corrupting influence of power. It’s an efficiently made thriller with some potent drama. However, it takes way too long to get going. That drone incident doesn’t happen until an hour into the running time, beyond the halfway point. Until then it’s setting up the various characters and grievances and starting to test our new transfer with how comfortable he will be accepting the borderline behavior of his fellow officers. I really felt like once the drone incident hit the rest of the movie would be off like a shot, a race to the finish, and it’s just not. It concludes too quickly and then introduces a revenge assault that made me yell loudly, and profanely, at my TV when it faded to black without any legitimate ending. I think writer/director Ladj Ly is going for the ambiguity of whether or not these characters are in their “corrupt” and “lost” boxes that society has forced them into, whether they will have their humanity stripped away to become another statistic in an ongoing struggle, but I don’t think a non-ending helps his cause. It makes the movie, already feeling misshapen in structure, feel incomplete. Ending on a quote by Victor Hugo is not the same. Les Miserables is a finely made thriller but at least Hugo’s version had an actual ending.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Queen & Slim (2019)

It’s been a couple weeks since I watched Queen & Slim and I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s billed as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, and while that description is technically apt, it’s more a frighteningly relevant thriller about police brutality, the skewed criminal justice system, and the hairpin-turning horror of daily life as a black person in America. A first date between Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) goes awry when they’re pulled over by a racist trigger-happy cop and, in the ensuring struggle, Slim shoots and kills the officer in self-defense. They go on the run trying to escape one setup after another, all the while during this hellish ordeal the characters are growing closer out of reliance and a budding sense of romance. This is a powerfully intense movie with several supremely suspenseful sequences where I worried deeply whether or not the titular pair would be found out, could escape out of a jam, and all the while the authorities are getting closer and closer. They become folk heroes for a community familiar with the oppressive day-to-day of always being seen as a suspect, as “up to no good,” as presumed guilty and dangerous. There are a couple questionable moments later in the film involving the pair as inspiration where I wish the film had perhaps been a little less ambiguous over what I’m supposed to draw. The screenplay by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang) is cannily crafted with a strong sense of how to develop its premise, deepen it with larger themes, and throw organic obstacles at the characters. I was impressed with how quickly the movie would crank up the tension of a moment, but these thriller aspects never felt cheap or superfluous. The characters do not get lost to the overall plotting machinations and the performances from Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are terrific. Director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure, the soon-to-be release Y comic adaptation) has such an affecting manner with her camera and, in particular, the moody lighting that can express a range of feelings from anxiety or sensuality. The ending of this tale might be expected but that doesn’t take away any of its inordinate power, an ending that has stayed with me and shaken me for days. Queen & Slim is a character-driven chase film that manages to also touch upon powerful social themes, taking a mythic story and making it personal, relevant, and, in a new manner, timeless.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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

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